to Return: Reflections on group-based nature retreats
by Mark Boulet & Anna Clabburn
Painting by Anna Clabburn
wildness is the preservation of the world
some extent the personal spiritual journey is a contradiction since the
great spiritual truths are collective, transpersonal anything but
personal: They are
It is conversation
and dialogue for which our heart longs and this realization draws us back
into community again. David Tacey (2000: 209)
about retreats is part of a paper we wrote for the Monash University course,
Social and Sacred Ecology. This unit is premised on the belief that environmentally
destructive patterns of behaviour and social organisation can only be
altered by changing the mindset from which ideas emerge ie by changing
consciousness (Bohm & Edwards, 1991) The idea that the entire
developed world needs a mental paradigm shift is not new and a growing
number of contemporary writers are stating the need for reenchantment
of humanitys psyche (Seed et al 1988; Rozak 1992; Rozak, Gomes &
Kanner 1995; Tacey 1995; Abram 1996; Gottlieb 1996; Suzuki & McConnell
1997). These voices are part a global movement calling for fundamental
change within the living and working systems of the worlds dominant
economic cultures, largely motivated by a perceived state of dislocation
between mainstream capitalist lifestyles and the ecological world (Hawken
et al. 1999; Theobald 1999; Tacey 2000).
Although there is evidence that global business communities and governments
are finally paying heed to the imperative of environmental duty of care,
there is a sense that this paradigm shift is still largely motivated by
economic drivers rather than social and or spiritual vision (Bennett &
James 1999). Mainstream society has yet to make an embodied response to
the intellectual idea of environmental sustainability. Creating opportunities
for physical immersion in nature, such as those offered by Social and
Sacred Ecology, is one step towards awakening a sensory, lived commitment
to honoring environmental connection and guardianship (Abram 1996).
The Process Of Retreat - Precedents And Parallels
How can meaningful concern for environmental and social sustainability
be embodied? How can the importance, and indeed sacredness, of social
and ecological connections be made manifest? This report argues that group
wilderness retreats are one medium through which these issues can be explored
and experienced. What follows below is an overview of historical and traditional
precedents for retreating to nature as a means of healing humanitys
rift with the natural world. This research is a prelude to a deeper analysis
of certain aspects and processes of retreats and forms the theoretical
foundation a wilderness retreat outlined at the end of the report.
The process of retreat is, by nature, a social experience as it usually
presupposes reintegration into society at the conclusion of the retreat
period (Housden 1995). As writer Peter Timms observes; "solitude
is a preparation for social interaction. Retreat is not an escape from
society, but a way of dealing more effectively with it. It is
of making ordinary life strange"(Timms 2000:203-04).
The section below explores four different types of retreats; those which
were historically part of a monastic, contemplative life, those which
underpinned the age of the Romantics, indigenous traditions of retreat
and contemporary versions of wilderness therapy and experiential education.
Historically and today, religious or ascetic retreat is commonly
regarded as a path to awakening the retreatant to the true nature of human
existence at a transcendent level - beyond the temporal experience of
everyday life. Author James Cowan offers an apt summary of asceticism
over the ages, the ultimate objective of all ascetics, whether they
are Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or Moslem
is associated with the desire
to transcend contingent reality in the expectation of experiencing another
order of reality altogether (Cowan 1992:121). As Elizabeth Roberts
notes, this urge frequently took the seeker out into the natural world
to find objectivity: Buddha reached enlightenment under the bo tree
on the floodplains of the Ganges
Mohammed first heard the voice of
the angel Gabriel in the lonely cave on Mount Hira outside of Mecca
In a Judeao-Christian context, the tradition of retreat dates back several
centuries prior to Christs birth, to the practices of early Greek
Desert Fathersæhermits who dedicated themselves to interior
prayer and sparse personal trappings in pursuit of direct contact
with the deity. Later anchorites and monastics who spent time in solitude,
such as the various Saints from the 4th 6th century AD (John the
Baptist, Anthony, Paul, Augustine etc), continued seeking retreat as a
form of spiritual discipline, in pursuit of metaphysical insight (Housden
1995). Later monastic centres, emergent throughout Medieval Europe in
the 13th century, were often founded on the original sites occupied by
these early solitariesæa significant indicator of the sacred relationship
built over time between place and spiritual practice (Besse 1996).
Religious retreat can be regarded as metaphor or rehearsal for human death.
The isolation, deprivation and physical pain often associated with, for
instance, ascetic or zealous Buddhist retreat practices are envisaged
as necessary lessons, leading to transcendence and a heightened awareness
of the interconnection between the impermanence of all living beings (Mackenzie
1998). In this light, solitary retreat is very much a prelude to broader
social and ecological connection, ideally framed through an awakening
to the sacred significance of these links. As Timms suggested above, it
is a journey out into nature that involves keeping the mind on the return.
Interestingly, contemporary permutations of these early religious practices,
such as the United States Creation Spiritualists of today, tend to emphasise
the more corporeal aspects of Medieval Christian tradition, such as the
nature-based work of Hildegard of Bingen. This proclivity indicates a
desire to move away from the physical remoteness of historical asceticism
and return instead to an earth-oriented, embodied sense of sacred connection
(Fox 1991). In this context retreat is envisaged as a path to realising
closer communion with the natural and social worldæas well as a
path to sacred meaning in itself.
Romanticism and the creative tradition
It may indeed be phantasy, when I
Essay to draw from all created things
Deep, heartfelt, inward joy that closely clings;
And trace in leaves and flowers that round me lie
Lessons of love and earnest piety.
So let it be; and if the wide world rings
In mock of this belief, it brings
Nor fear, nor grief, nor vain perplexity.
So will I build my altar in the fields,
And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be,
And the sweet fragrance that the wild flower yields
Shall be the incense I will yield to Thee,
Thee only God! And thou shalt not despise
Even me, the priest of this poor sacrifice
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1836
a long tradition of artists turning to nature for solace and inspiration
(Gablik 1991) . Among the most salient periods of nature worship was the
Romantic age of 18th - 19th century Europe. Artists and poets of this
time became renowned for their heady love affair with wild or sublime
nature: wilderness that literally dwarfed mankind yet evoked an ardent
spiritual sense of connection, often blending fear with elation (Burke
This vision is well captured by a painter of the time, Carl Gustav Carus
(a disciple of the great sublime painter Casper David Freidrich) in a
letter about landscape: "When man, sensing the immense magnificence
of nature feels his own insignificance, and, feeling himself to be in
God, enters into this infinity and abandons his individual existence,
then his surrender is gain rather than loss. What otherwise only the minds
eye sees, here becomes almost literally visible: the oneness in the infinity
of the universe" (Rosenblum 1975: 22).
During the Romantic period it became common for writers to sojourn into
nature in search of personal and universal enlightenment. Jean Jacques
Rousseaus Reveries of a Solitary is perhaps one of the most well
known examples of literary nature retreat, in which the writer walks out
among trees and animals to ruminate on his society and himself in relation
to it (Rousseau 1927). This form of retreat, by contrast with the experience
of a religious recluse, was oriented towards social and individual enlightenment
and, as such, conceived nature as a backdrop to human activity rather
than as a source of organic relation. Although the Romantics often anthropomorphised
nature, their musings and images also evidenced underlying expectation
that communion with nature might result in a more intimate understanding,
or sacred sense, of self in the world (Housden 1995: 141).
Housden observes that all creative workwhether painting, dance,
poetry or making musicæmay indeed be regarded as a form of retreat
in that it usually demands suspension of normal activity for the purpose
of translating personal observation into forms that can be shared with
others (Housden 1995). The creative mind is accustomed to retreating into
itself as a means of gaining subtle insight into the natural world. The
results of this engagement are then returned to society, often in forms
capable of eliciting equally ardent personal response in the observer/audience.
Indigenous creativity and ceremony are perhaps one of the most pertinent
examples of how retreat into nature enhances sacred links with living
ecology beyond the self. Many traditional cultures around the world use
time apart from the habits of communal life to mark significant rites
of passage or ritual moments such as death or birth. In the majority of
cases there is an intimate link between what occurs during the retreat
process and how this informs social and spiritual behaviour back amid
Australian Aboriginal custom involves nature retreat as an important stage
in the initiation of adolescents. James Cowan writes about the significance
of the dream journey undertaken by young men, both on the cusp of maturity
and later in life as a reinforcement of their traditional bond with their
home country (Cowan 1992). As in traditional ascetic and Buddhist retreat
practice, physical pain in this context is viewed as a tool for enhancing
the individuals sense of place in the broader living world.
In their survey of tribal Aboriginal custom, Anna Voigt and Nevill Drury
describe how indigenous initiation is informed by a powerful legacy of
environmental duty-of-care, via emphasis on guardianship over tribal country:
once a man has been initiated he has clear obligations, as a custodian
of specific sacred lands and totemic spaces, to safeguard his country
and help propagate the natural species which are within his sacred domain
(Voigt & Drury 1997: 154). Such formal retreat into nature re-enforces
social and sacred links with place in a way that nurtures both tribal
society and local ecology over generations.
Although Aboriginal dream journey retreat involves private psychological
ordeal, the fact that it takes place in nature reinforces its role as
a communally oriented experience, linking the individual to relatives
(human and non-human) and place. Cowan notes how the notion of solitude,
in the sense that it was conceived within European spiritual tradition,
is completely alien to Aborigines: (where) the anchorite deliberately
attempts to deprive himself of the significance of his physical reality
Aborigine sets out to consort with his
.He does not want to attain
spiritual knowledge outside the tribal forum
even when he is physically
alone (he) lives in and is sustained by a metaphysical community
Aborigine is conscious that wherever he walks he confronts the remnants
of mythic drama and its concomitant prohibitions
A man does not
walk free into a desert landscape
instead he is forever living within
mythic territory created by ancestral heroes. (Cowan 1992: 117-128).
This sense of profound mythical connection between individual and collective
spirituality echoes through many tribal cultures today, in spite of the
mass desecration of traditional wilderness homelands. As David Abram writes,
a vital key to the health of such ancient social and sacred connection
lies in the hands of elders or shamans who ritually retreat from their
community to sustain primal links with "the earthly web of relations
in which that community is embedded." (Abram 1996: 8) In this way
indigenous cultures regard ecological and spiritual knowledge as a living
narrative inheritance, vital to the survival of their own society.
Wilderness therapy and experiential education today
To go on a wilderness retreat is to return to our instincts and
begin to open the sluice-gates through which the authentic feelings for
life awe, dread, wonder, marvel, joy can pour.
(Housden 1995: 167-169)
Historical and indigenous forms of nature retreat provide the basis for
a growing number of organisations offering intensive outdoor programs
as a means of healing contemporary social problems. (Tiggelen, 2002) The
adventure therapy course is premised on the notion that human beings are
limited to habitual patterns of behaviour by the way they envisage their
own life stories. It is believed that these paradigms can be shifted by
the natural challenges arising from living in wild nature. As Michael
Gass of the Association of Experiential Education suggests, Experiential
learning is predicated on the belief that change occurs when people are
placed outside positions of comfort (ie homeostasis)
and into states
of dissonance. In these states, participants are challenged by the adaptations
necessary to reach equilibrium. Reaching these self-directed states necessitates
resultant growth and learning (Gass 1993: 4).
Widely recognised international programs such as Outward Bound and contemporary
versions of native American Vision Quests regard nature as an outdoor
classroom, capable of awakening people to their higher integrated
self (Foster & Little 1989). Course participants retreat to wilderness
to face physical and psychological challenges that act as metaphors for
real-life ordeals. In this context the natural realm becomes a mirror
reflecting the participants reactions, strengths and weaknessesæenabling
a shift in habitual mindset and the potential for positive life change
Although these courses tend to emphasis goals such as personal growth,
learning outdoor and camping skills, and improved social dynamics, there
is often an implicit intention to increase participants environmental
consciousness. One website advertising an Oregon-based Vision Quest program
claims to, deepen the sense of connection and belonging to the natural
environment, helping heal the separation from the earth that is the condition
of modern times(Tilt 2002). Similarly, Outward Bound claims aptitudes
commonly acquired by course participants include skills that are also
valuable real-life tools for environmental activism and advocacy, such
as emotional control, hardiness, leadership ability, open thinking,
social cooperation (Neill 1998).
The act of placing oneself in the wild and of tuning into the intricate
texture and dynamism of the natural environment is a vital step towards
awakening a sense ecological self. In wilderness solitude
we are challenged to affirm and confirm our creatureness in relation to
the whole of realityæchaos. From this perspective, our being is
severely tested, and that which remains is respectfulæin the sense
that it is derived from regard for the infinite.(Vest 1987: 329).
By taking groups of individuals into wilderness, the nature retreat is
perhaps one of the most effective ways of alerting human beings to their
intimate relationship with (and co-dependence on) the rest of the organic
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