Why Wilderness Therapy Works

Why does wilderness therapy work when other therapies don’t work? The word is wilderness. No person is healing another person. No one is the healer, no one the healed. Out in the wilderness, away from everything that makes it necessary to need healing, healing comes naturally. It doesn’t even look like healing, like recovery. In wilderness, recovery is not the final goal. What good is recovering what you have lost if you don’t uncover anything new? The wilderness allows for uncovering in addition to recovery. You begin by recovering the aspects of yourself that were lost to the addiction, compulsion, mental disorder, whatever. Then you begin to uncover aspects of yourself that you had never known about. You uncover aspects of yourself that do not belong to you alone. You uncover aspects of the world that also happen to be aspects you share. You recover the fact that you are capable. You can hike many miles in a day, you can make a fire, make a shelter. You can survive; you are worthy of your existence. You uncover the fact that you are more than capable, more than worthy. You discover a power that has nothing to do with superiority over other people; you discover a love that cannot be expressed, a love that comes into you from nowhere and out of you towards no definite object; you discover a sense of belonging that does not need to be identified and has nothing to do with other people. You discover the stillness at the heart of things, and in your own heart. You wake up the morning after the storm, and all the trees are still standing. You look at them and feel their strength, their robust aliveness.

The wilderness heals when words fail. And don’t words always fail? Ain’t talking, just walking. Let us walk together through the woods, both of us pilgrims, “searching ones on the speechless, seeking trail.” What are we seeking? If we knew, would we be speechless? Perhaps we would. Don’t we seek life, and is it true that life also seeks us? It certainly seems that way. Each person is sought by life, let’s call it, to give what only that person can give. We are sought and called in order that we might call back in answer, ‘I am here, and I will remain. I am here to answer the call of the one who seeks me, the one who I seek.’ And is it one who I seek? It could be one, it could be none, and it could be many. I seek the place where the one are many, and the many are one. I seek the place where there are none but myself and yet I am not the self I thought I was. Not another soul is there, but is that the truth? I seek the place where I become no one. Nemo. Everett Ruess disappearing into the red rock canyons.

What does it mean that wilderness therapy works? Is that the right word for it? Yes. This is Gurdjieff’s Work here, the work of awakening, of becoming one’s authentic self. Do you think you are already yourself? Maybe you are, I couldn’t know that. I know I am not, not completely. I am a fragment of the whole self. There is always further to go, more work to be done. I’m not there yet, but in the wilderness I do not worry about being not there. Where am I not? Where I am not is unimportant. Where I am is what matters. Being where I am is how I move towards who I’m not yet, who I could be.

Of course, there are moments of despair even in the pure clean air. There are moments of despair everywhere. Nothing we can do to escape those, especially when we’re in the wilderness. Where to go? What to say? What to do? Can’t drink, can’t get prescribed anything, can’t drive through the night, can’t rob a bank. Just keep walking, I suppose. Walk straight into it. Will the despair pass through and away like a storm from the east? Who knows? No use in minimizing it, rationalizing it, idealizing it. No use in talking about it at all. Ain’t talking, just walkin’. But even in the wilderness, that strange human desire for verbal utterance is still there. Very well, speak then. But it is important to choose your words carefully. The human words must somehow do justice to the inhuman beauty of the place. This is exceedingly difficult, and oftentimes it is better to melt into the silence. To become a part of the inhuman we become inhuman ourselves. Inhuman not meaning ‘unfeeling’ or ‘cold’ or ‘cruel’, but as defined by the poet Robinson Jeffers in his philosophy of Inhumanism: “A shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence.”

To become part of the inhuman, we must not focus so much on the human. What was your relationship with your parents like? With your romantic partners? What do you remember about the trauma you suffered at age 7 when your parents accidentally packed you tuna for lunch, forgetting that you preferred pb + j? Well, I think I was enmeshed with my parents, or maybe abandoned by them. All my romantic partners left me, or maybe I left them all. The trauma with tuna, I think, is still affecting me in a deep and significant way today, as I instinctively recoil whenever I see anything remotely fish-like. Whatever. These human questions and answers fade into insignificance in the wilderness, as they deserve. They are not integral to The Work.

What is integral to The Work? Jeffers knew it. It is integral that we recognize the beauty of the inhuman world and feel a part of it. Recognize the human and the inhuman within us. Envy and equanimity. Anger and serenity. Vanity and authenticity. Fear and courage. The jealous, prideful, and possessive love, and the detached, humble, object-less love. The desire to fade into the shadows and the desire to be pierced with and surrounded by light. The passion for success and recognition, the continual striving; the sea receding from shore in the night, the vast sky overhead filled with light.

2 thoughts on “Why Wilderness Therapy Works

  1. I like reclaiming the word inhuman to be used for something beyond our limited human capacity, rather than something negative. A real wise and persuasive piece of writing on wilderness therapy.

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