Being in nature, in the wild or even a more tamed green space, can be a transformative experience. Outdoor educators know that something happens to people in natural landscapes. Because of the challenge of natural environments, individuals become more self-reliant and self- reflective. They grow through the social interaction at camp, struggling on an alpine trail, paddling river rapids or contemplating one’s place in the cosmos around the fire under a star filled night sky. This qualitative phenomenon is difficult to measure and explain.
Being away from the trappings of civilization can shift one’s awareness or consciousness, one’s values, one’s ideas of what is essential. The context of nature expands awareness from the culture of materialism to a sense of the sacredness of life. To me, the consumer-based way of living in the world is at odds with my spiritual core values. I feel a sense of proportion, presence, interconnectedness and self-expansion in nature. Nature provides a mirror for me to know who I am and discern how I want to be in the world.
From the perspective of Maslow, nature offers a rich context for self-actualization, finding purpose and meaning, even contentment in life. A purposeful, meaningful life is deeply personal, but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in relationship with self, other people and the environment that surrounds us. I feel this most vitally in natural environments.
Immersed in nature, I am grounded, present, mindful, attuned and more aware of self and surroundings. The boundaries of who I am become blurred and extend beyond my skin. I get out of my head, my little world at home and work, and think in more universal terms. This self-expansion allows me to be more in touch with my better nature. There is a sense of risk and challenge, but also a sense of empowerment and joy in the beauty of it all. I also feel a sense of belonging, as if being in nature is coming home. When in nature, one can experience the kinship or connectedness with life and full expression of the sacredness of life. In wild nature, one can experience the life force that animates the world because nature is spirit manifested. It can be a spiritual experience where the divine is relocated from some unknown mystery to the tangible life force that animates the world and connects all life.
Do not mistake my idea of spirituality with religion. I am not worshiping trees, I am communing with them. The sun is not a god, it is the source of all energy/life on the planet. When I offer gratitude for the bounty and beauty of nature, I do not deify it. I do not believe in a personified higher being, I believe that the life force/energy underlying the material world permeates all of creation. And I can experience that life force most powerfully when I am in natural environments. Nature is a place to experience challenge, grace, transformation and transcendence.