What I Did on my Summer Vacation, Part One

I just spent the past four days in the woods out at Beacon Rock State Park for a wilderness therapy intensive for grad school. It was incredibly rejuvenating in some ways, and very challenging in others. However, I have a much clearer view of what wilderness therapy is, why it isn’t just “wilderness boot camps” like the media portrays (even though many of the teenage participants are there under duress, mainly because it’s a last resort to keep them out of jail/alive–which is a tough controversy we discussed), and how I as a therapist-to-be can incorporate elements of it into my practice as well as help clients figure out whether it may be a viable option for them or their children.

Where a boot camp mentality deals with strictly regimenting teenagers to challenge them through tough hierarchies, rigid scheduling, and pressure to conform to authority, what we learned about are ways to use the challenges that naturally come up during long-term hiking and camping as parallels to challenges the kids face in everyday life. It’s a matter of waiting until the individual participant hits a point where they need support, offering that support, and helping them to learn a better solution of how to deal with challenging situations than what they’ve been doing. They also learn the value of working with others, not through being ordered to do so, but because cooperation helps everyone involved.

We actually incorporated a few of the more common teambuilding techniques in our intensive experience. One of the most important ones for me was meal preparation. We were divided up into three teams of four (twelve students) and each team cooked one of the three meals each day. In order to get it done efficiently and with the limited gear we had, we had to work together–not as one leader telling the rest what to do, but as a quartet working together, adopting or delegating tasks as needed to get things done. There was no competition between the groups (well, other than a round of rock, paper, scissors to determine who did what meal), just shared appreciation for the work that went into the meals. There were other exercises, but this seemingly simple daily ritual really helped to demonstrate to me the difference between being ordered to do something, and doing it for mutual shared benefit and the pleasure that comes from it.

Anyway, there was a lot more to the formal educational portion of the experience, but I wanted to explore a few things that happened that are relevant to the spiritual aspects of what happened. This is one of two posts that will cover that.

This one deals with a drawing that I did as a bit of art therapy in one of our exercises. We were asked to draw the various influences–media, cultural, spiritual, experiential, etc.–that contributed to our understanding of the word “wilderness”. I ended up drawing an open book near the bottom of the page. Above it there were pictures of lots of wild animals, wolves, elk, foxes, etc., and lots of trees and ferns. Below the book, in a very small space, were the small animals I had encountered a lot in my childhood and beyond–songbirds, snakes, rodents, etc.

What this spoke to was my actual experiences with wilderness, which aren’t very many. I grew up in a family that didn’t hike or camp. And since I didn’t have much in the way of friends growing up, I didn’t really have anyone to take me out to the woods with their families. As for Girl Scouts? Forget it. My troop leaders’ idea of “camping” was having us all sleep in sleeping bags on the floor of an old commercial bakery, where the only wildlife was the cockroaches. So this led to a life completely devoid of camping until my twenties. Seriously.

Living in the Pacific Northwest has made me really self-conscious of this fact. A lot of people here are avid hikers and campers, and not just the kind that park a camper somewhere and walk down the paved road in the middle of the campground. We’re talking through-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, and those who can take a single backpack into the woods and stay for a few days, no problem. I really envy them, though people have been really awesome about helping me get up to speed.

Anyway, one thing that I realized as I was making this drawing was that I got my early conception of the wilderness primarily from books. As a child, I must have read Jack London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild countless times. London, of course, described the Arctic regions in very stark, manly-man, eat or be eaten terms. So that informed a lot of my understanding of wilderness growing up–which just made me even more attracted to it, especially since I mainly had yards and open lots as my substitute for wilderness (and which I still found endlessly fascinating).

And as I got older, and I continued to have really limited access to anything but generic suburbs, I found more and more that I formulated my understanding through books. In a lot of ways being a nerdy little bookworm helped me out a lot. However, I often substituted the map for the territory to the point that I often didn’t realize the difference. I ended up with a lot of abstracts based on not a lot of actual experience.

In some ways I wonder how much my spirituality is based more on the abstracts I’ve constructed. As I’ve finally been able to start fleshing out my experiences, it’s been sobering to see just how much I haven’t been in contact with the natural world. My increased exposure has changed my spirituality quite a bit. I’m finding more ways to ground my beliefs in my experiences, a good example of this is more work with local totems like Scrub Jay. And admittedly I’m pretty embarrassed about the fact that I’ve never seen my primary totem, Gray Wolf, in the wild, even if it’s mainly because I haven’t been in places where I’ve had that opportunity open to me.

I don’t think it’s a matter, though, of scrapping everything I’ve created. Even the abstract bits have helped give me a personal mythological structure to work with. Like my current Elk work. I haven’t met an elk in the wild, either, other than the two that nearly ran me over in a field back in June. But it’s helped immensely, as my next post (when I’ve time to write about it) will explain.

But I do think that I’m going to be spending more time grounding my spirituality in the Nature that it’s supposed to be based in. Neopaganism is full of abstractions, which just helped me to further distance myself from the source of my spirituality. (When you have people who worship deities of natural phenomena who claim they aren’t practicing a Nature-based religion, that should say something to someone, somewhere.) I think, perhaps, that therioshamanism has been in part a way for me to get that groundedness, even if I didn’t consciously realize it until recently. I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors, and I’ve observed principles of my spirituality at work in it (and vice versa) but I think now I’m trying to make the distinction between the spiritual and the physical less…well…distinct.

More tomorrow.

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