Updated: Sep 9, 2020
The Art of Spiritual Stretching: Outdoors with God
“Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of the regrettable things I'd done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I'd been skeptical about, I didn't feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.” Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Patty could not believe how her life had turned out. She just turned 48 and was utterly alone. Both children in college out-of-state, her husband newly in-love with his young girlfriend. It’s been almost a year since he’d left. It was all so unexpected. Sure, there were a few signs of marital disconnect but nothing out of the ordinary, so she thought. At times the pain of loneliness and despair were so intense that Patty could barely breath. Her role as mother, wife and homemaker had given her meaning and filled her day with purpose. One day Patty someone sent her an article called “Walking off Heartbreak on America’s Newest Trail”. The story highlighted a woman’s epic backcountry hike as a way of working through her broken marriage. Patty felt a called to hike. She attended a few classes at her local REI on backcountry hiking, invested in the gear and set off on a 4-week trek on the Appalachian trail. Her experience on that trail was transformative. The hardship of trudging along the rocky path, day in and day out, in rain, in cold and hot weather was welcomed pain. At least this pain was expected, manageable. Patty speaks of an unseen force that accompanied her throughout the trek. “Perhaps it was God, perhaps Nature itself, I don’t know. I just know that it was comforting.” The hike didn’t solve all of Patty’s problems, yet it helped her reorganize her life. “When I was out there, my problems didn’t seem as huge as they did when I was sitting in my empty house.” Patty gained confidence in herself, she surprised herself. Her new-found stamina and determination was a long-awaited positive strength necessary to help her continue the healing process. Patty’s life-changing hike illustrates the intricate relationship between nature, mental health and spirituality.
Nature and its Relationship with Spirituality
Every year millions of people flock to national parks, seeking wonder and awe, rest and tranquility. The possibility exists that people’s desire to engage with nature is linked to a spiritual impulse. People frequently mention nature when referring to their personal spirituality; Encountering the transcendent in nature is a sentiment shared by many people. Most religious faiths share strong attachments to elements in nature such as the Judeo-Christian faith and the mountain of Zion, the Hindu faith and the attachment to the Ganges River, as well as the Buddhist faith and the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha meditated.
Stringer and McAvoy, two researchers at the University of Minnesota, examined spiritual experiences in nature. In one experiment, two wilderness adventure programs were offered to participants. The adventure included an 8-day canoeing trip or a 10-day backpacking trip. After the participants returned they shared common feelings such as excitement, happiness, joy, and self-confidence and reported feeling cleansed and renewed in spirit. More specifically, most participants acknowledged that their awareness of spirituality increased while in the wilderness. Interestingly, at the end of the nature experiences, people shared profound insights such as the recognition of the unconquerable power of nature that elicits a sense of aliveness, inner peace, and closeness to God. Long-standing research suggests that people like the ones that took part in this experiment, often encounter intense spiritual experience when immersed in the natural world.
Beauty & Awe
Albert Einstein once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”
Awe can be understood as a feeling of wonder when experiencing something greater than oneself. According to Van Cappellen and Saroglou, two Belgium researchers, awe, love, and admiration are self-transcendent emotions because the emphasis is outside the self. Nature (e.g., mountains, vistas, oceans) is the most common cause of the experience of awe. People frequently described a mindset in which the out-of-doors inspired connection to a higher purpose or power. Or, as a research participant more formally put it, “it is hard trying to explain the religious sense in nature. And you can use all the words like wonderful or awe but it is hard to really find the poetics that I think describe nature in words. It is more like communing with the land and this sense of awe that you get …it is kind of spiritual.” (Loeffler, 2004).
Dachner Kelter, a psychologist at UC Berkeley, insist that human benefit from experiences that feel truly “awesome”. His research has highlighted the various mental health paybacks when experiencing awe such as increase in kindness, pro-social behavior, personal growth and re-orientation of values. Bearing witness to something filled with awe, has the potential to take us outside of our habitual way of thinking, the novelty of such a moment transports us into the present moment. Generally speaking, when our attention rests in the here and now, our mental health blossoms.
A person needs not travel vast distances in order to have an experience similar to mine; perceptively witnessing the miracle of a minuscule seed maturing into a palatable herb on your window sill is no less astounding. It is quite intriguing to find that the clear majority of people, regardless of race or culture, consider the world filled with beauty. Does the possibility exist that our hardwired affection for the beauty of nature is ultimately intrinsic? E.O. Wilson speaks of biophilia – a fundamental human need to connect with the natural world.
How do you feel when all your senses are engaged? Alife? Nature provides a treat for our senses, attracting us with extraordinary sounds and smells. Once all senses are activated, one is overcome with the feeling of acute aliveness. Furthermore, nature engages all our senses in an exceptional way and brings us in touch with the here-and-now. Resting our attention with the present moment seems effortless among the tangible sounds and smells of the woods. In recent years the emerging field of Adventure Therapy (AT) has shown a solid record of successful therapeutic outcome. Adventure therapy helps clients through exposure of precarious outdoor situations in which they overcome perceived risks and consequently can employ positive behavior changes. Natural places have an infinite reservoir of discoveries, supplying us with adventures and thrills. Through the exclusion of nature, human beings are omitting a huge potential of valuable therapeutic elements.
Adventure – Spiritual Stretching
“In the comfort of our everyday lives, with familiarity and endless monotony there lies a tendency to refuse a spiritual sense of stretching. Journeying into the wild, stretching oneself in a physical and spiritual way can lead to extraordinary personal rewards” Heidi Schreiber-Pan
It was my husband and my first weekend get-a-way since the baby’s arrival. Due to limited budget and our desire to re-awaking the dormant adventurous spirit, we decided on a two-day backcountry camping trip. About two hours into the hike we noticed an increase in cloud covering and a light rain. Not too soon afterwards, the mist turned into a downpour of flood-like proportions.
We had almost reached our three-hour bench mark and therefore started searching out a suitable site to pitch our tent. Clinging to optimism we told ourselves the rain will subside shortly, not knowing that hurricane Floyd had returned inland, bringing destruction to the East Coast anew. Impossible to cook on our propane stove, we settled for energy bars and water comforting ourselves with the thought of bacon for breakfast. Morning came, and the dreaded sound of rain drops banging on our tent filled the silence. As we poked our heads out of the tent we noticed a rushing river less than 10 yards from us, its threatening roar growing closer every minute. Had that little tranquil stream turned into this monster overnight?
We packed up our drenched belongings, threw them over our shoulders and continued hiking the trail. At this point the trail started climbing up steep mountain sides, soon thereafter I reached my physical limit. My wet pack weighed more than my own body. Of course, this tale ends happily with us finding our way back into the comfortable life we had left behind just two days ago. That weekend I experienced, in a very real sense, spiritual stretching. Nature had stripped me of all attachments, and even to some degree of my dignity. The rawness of the wild brought me in touch with a long-forgotten part of myself. The wilderness can provide serenity when rest is needed and stretching when awakening is needed.