The sun’s warm glow begins to fade as it sets behind Stony Cove’s Pike in the Lake District. I’m bivvy bagging in Priest’s Hole, a cave which is located up a treacherous cliff face, three quarter’s of the way up Fairfield Peak. An enormous sense of peace and serenity flows through me as I sit quietly outside the cave meditating well into the darkness of the night. The gentle sounds of the evening that surround me coax my mind into a deeply relaxing state where the frenetic energy of city life quietens to distant memory.
One of the oldest traditions of spiritual practice is solitary meditation and appreciation of nature, deep in the wilderness, away from any of the activities of other humans. The Taoist hermits, who still live isolated existences high up Chinese mountains in caves, were first recorded to be living in this way more than 5,000 years ago. From pagan ceremonies, Christian pilgrimages, and Moses on the Mount, to Buddha’s enlightenment under the Boddhi tree, humans have continued to return to remote areas of wilderness for introspection, self-enquiry and deep contemplation.
The tradition of Vision Quests, where boys or young men would leave the protection of their village to spend between 4-30 nights in the wilderness, before returning with a ‘vision’ or a sense of their purpose within their community, is once again growing in popularity in the western world. This renewed interest in a millennia-old tradition stems from discovering that modern life is fuelling further disconnection from nature as our need to go outside diminishes. Scientific evidence suggests that spending significant amounts of time in nature is deeply therapeutic and healing, without even having to set a conscious intention. How we react to the challenges out in the wild supports our learning of who we really are and helps us identify where our limitations lie. Time spent outdoors alone has long been known to be a potent muse for creativity, finding solutions to our ‘real world’ problems, and replenishing our vitality which can often be in short supply in our busy, stress-filled lifestyles. Often when returning from such trips, we are charged with the gifts of inspiration and ease, which are often appreciated and passed on to those around us.
My own experience of spending prolonged solitary time in nature has helped redress my internal balance. It normally takes me at least a few days in the wilderness to acclimatise, whereby my inner constant narrator begins to stop his incessant chatter and in its place an enormous sense of calm and relaxation prevails. A more grounded perspective in tune with one’s body and the surroundings is a common feeling that arises. Being completely infused by fresh air, clean energised mountain drinking water, and the elements can have a wonderful positive uplift for even the most hardened city dwellers.
When investing some time in yourself by taking a multi-day trip in nature on your own, the element of meeting your basic needs and living a simple existence without all the excesses of our modern lifestyles is deeply nourishing. The realisation of what is really important in our lives, and the time and space created to ruminate and let the mind wander, brings with it a whole host of subtle mental benefits which are often only made possible by consciously slowing down in the great outdoors. “When there is too much choice, no depth can develop” is an apt Buddhist saying, which points to how our ‘civilised’ way of being can often distance us from the very essence of our being.
The reason why meditating in the wilderness can be so powerful is because we are surrounded by external natural stimulation for all our senses. Whether it’s the wind blowing gently on your face, warbling bird-song in the distance, the sway of trees and the dappled green light playing through leaves on the forest floor, we begin to refine our senses once again and as a result re-sensitize ourselves. A profound feeling of being present with the experience in that moment is often easily enjoyed, especially without artificial sounds, gadgets and other city stimulation to distract the mind.
Spending solitary time in nature, whether it’s for an hour or a month, in your nearby forest or on a remote mountain top, is an extraordinary investment in ourselves. Being surrounded by the raw essence of the natural world can leave us feeling revitalised, inspired, peaceful, and relaxed. Regular time spent in the wilderness allows us to slow down to the pace of the natural world and helps us reawaken our curiosity and child-like joy of exploration.
Adrian Kowal is the co-founder of evolve – a centre of evolution (www.evolvewellnesscentre.com) in South Kensington, London. He is a wilderness and Vision Quest guide, and enjoys as much of his time outside as possible.