Aug 1st, 2014
Wilderness & Nature Based Therapy
Since the dawn of mankind, humans have lived in relationship with the natural world, the earth on which we all walk, albeit that the relationship cannot be assumed to a happy one.
Wilderness has been a constant source of retreat, refuge, guidance and inspiration for iconic religious figures, prophets, mystics, poets and scientists alike.
“He loved the earth and all things of the earth. He knew that man’s heart away from nature becomes hard, he knew the lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to the lack of respect for humans too.”
Chief Luther Standing Bear
“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.”
Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)
“Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882)
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest–a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)
The background and context to Wilderness Therapy
Modern life and urban development have far removed us from Nature’s Elemental balancing forces of Fire, Water, Earth, Air and Space and there is a tendency to relate to Nature’s cycles and seasons only in terms of turning the central heating and air conditioning up or down! Along with this physical distancing from the earth is an increasing emotional disconnection and this is often found to be the cause of much of the psychological difficulties we may experience at times in our lives.
When people think of Wilderness Therapy there are automatic responses along the lines of it being something allied to school outward bound programmes, boot camps, adventure therapy, bush craft or survival skills courses and this is an understandable misnomer where providers promote the concept of a ‘therapeutic experience’, where anything might happen, rather than an agreed ‘Therapy Contract’ with agreed issues to explore within an agreed context.
The confusion can continue and contaminate the Therapy or, indeed, the therapeutic experience, if the Wilderness Therapist is not suitably experienced in the outdoors environment, ending up fearful for their own safety and survival, let alone the physical and emotional well-being of their clients. For this reason therapists who are not experienced outdoor practitioners will often enlist the support of wilderness guides, to ensure safety of the clients. For my part, I have 40 year’s experience of relating to wilderness and remote environments, from the UK hills, to the Alps and the greater ranges of the Himalaya and the Andes. Armed with this experience, my preference is to keep any group work limitied in numbers, up to six, where I know that I can properly manage all aspects of the work and avoid the slippage in confidientality that can come with the recruitment of non-therapists. When working with larger groups, I usually arrange co-facilitation with a qualified therapist, using an outside guide merely to help organise and move people around but in a way that they are not exposed to the sensitivities of the deep work with clients.
People often ask me “Where is true and absolute wilderness to be found in the world?” and this is a very pertinent question since true wilderness is hard to find and is under pressure and constant threat. To be able to spend time in complete wilderness requires the availability of plenty of spare cash or generous funders and this is hard to sustain, beyond the short term, and can be environmentally costly. This situation leads many people who experience Wilderness Therapy to actually only experience a seductive but brief affair with nature, which is not integrated over the long term.
For these reasons my approach, ecologically, pragmatically and philosophically, is to view this medium as being ‘Wilderness and Nature- Based Therapy’ and my aim is to encourage clients to form a relationship with wilderness in a way that they can readily and sustainably interpret and relate to it. I’ve worked with a variety of clients in their local open spaces, woodland and even rocky beaches in a way that has proved transformational and life affirming for them. Please view my testimonials page for typical client reflections.
I hold a formal qualification in this medium, in a format that has been exhaustively tested, challenged and affirmed by colleagues and the accrediting body – It is very rare for therapists claiming the title of Wilderness Therapist to actually have this level of qualification.
In addition to my formal therapy qualifications, I hold a formal professional qualification as a Mountain Leader with an award from The Mountain Leader Training Board, having passed their rigourous qualification and assesment criteria. I believe that it is an ethical imperative for anyone who works therapeutically in the outdoors to be formally recognised as being a ‘safe practitioner’ in the full context of addressing the duty of care we are required to have for our clients.
Apart from working in environments local to my clients, I am resourced to work from the Snowdonia National Park from a settled fixed base but am also able to work, camping based, for groups of up to 12 people, anywhere in the UK at short notice.
The process of Wilderness Therapy
“After a number of traditionally orientated counselling sessions, Geoff introduced me to the concept of Wilderness Therapy as close as we get to the concept in the local woodland. I found this experience to be of huge importance in my life. I found it an incredibly powerful way to address issues which had haunted all of my adult life. I was able to process feelings about my childhood in a way which I had never been able to before. The symbolism of “leaving” feelings in the woods for the trees to look after for me is something I still practice today. Issues such as anger, confusion, blame and abandonment have left me. I am able to live peacefully in the day without carrying around the baggage of my past thanks to this amazing form of therapy.”(Client comments)
The above client comments brilliantly illustrate the process of Wilderness Therapy where metaphorical dialogue comes to life once a human being stops living and thinking on auto-pilot and leaves ‘clock-time’ behind to engage with Nature on Nature’s terms, more mindfully and with greater awareness of our ‘inner wilderness’ and how it can be reflected in the ‘outer wilderness’. Nature has always provided for those who inhabit it and is there to teach us if we are prepared to engage with it.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)
In the outdoors, we become more physically and emotionally aware of the internal environment of our bodies and sensations, our hopes, fears and frailties, our dreams and our personal power, as well as our external environment. Our internal and external worlds connect in an authentic meeting between our senses and nature. With societal niceties stripped away, or as much removed as the client feels safe to strip away, deep reparative work can be done quite quickly and very effectively. As one client reported to me recently – “Out here in the woods, I can hide from everyone, but I can’t hide from myself!”
I have found that the process works very effectively on a sessional basis against a background of existing and on-going Therapy with individuals, where traditional therapy sessions intersperse with the outdoors work.
It is also very valuable to work over the longer term, a 5-day programme for instance, where I usually work in North Wales, using a comfortable property which is set beside a waterfall. Some Wilderness ‘purists’ would contest this as not being ‘wilderness enough’ but my own extensive experience based view is that many camping based wilderness experiences have the capacity to create at best a miss-adventure and at worst a traumatic experience for some people. My clients find that one or two nights out camping give them more than sufficient solo experience and personal reflection time and the sense of community that is formed within the base is valued as part of the overall experience.
Working effectively in the outdoors will take the client out of their traditional comfort zones, raise their personal awareness and insight – they don’t need to tough it up by not having a hot shower for week! In my experience, people who are comfortable to actually survive in such environments are likely to be running the programmes, not attending them!
Coaching in Nature
“Spring is nature taking up its option on the world” (Anon.)
I’ve also found the natural environment to be a great medium for life and business coaching, where to get away into nature, away from daily hurly burly can be a great way to clear the head and think about what’s really important. Again nature can teach us much from its ability to adapt to circumstances and adapt to whatever challenges it meets.
I have a lasting memory of a team building event I facilitated where a group of legal professionals built cairns on a rocky beach where each stone was chalked with a word that represented a quality that each person brought to the team. As they talked about themselves and their individual qualities the energy was terrific and the cairn just got bigger and stronger, as the interpersonal connections deepened. Powerful too, was the exploration of the coastline to locate items that were appropriate and those not appropriate, where washed up bottles etc. represented junk that shouldn’t be there; a metaphor for inappropriate attitudes and archaic thinking.
“A truly life changing experience. An opportunity to experience nature in a deep personal way. There are so many different layers to this journey…..sharing, exploring, crying, laughing and bonding. Amazing facilitation…..” (Client comments)
“The wilderness experience tested me on so many levels. I left this morning feeling incredibly proud of my achievements on a physical, spiritual, emotional and mental level” (Client comments)