Retreat into wilderness in search of a spiritual vision is an old practice. It is familiar from the vision quest practiced by many Native Americans, from the Buddha's years in the wilderness, from Jesus' confrontation with temptation in the wilderness of Sinai, and from the 40-year wanderings of Moses and the Israelites. In this tradition wilderness has been thought of as a place where humans can encounter divinity directly, uncluttered by the distracting overlay of civilization. It represents a place for spiritual challenge and growth, a place where the soul can be found wanting or worthy, a place to find inner peace and communion with the divine. As such, the wilderness can be considered a trigger and/or context of both spiritual and religious development.
The tradition of seeking spiritual experience in wilderness remains alive in the modern world both for individuals and groups. Some groups promoting wilderness experience explicitly offer vision quests. Others offer only adventure or self-exploration, yet it seems certain that much of their success depends on the same characteristics of wilderness experience that have long been sought for their spiritual value.
It is possible to analyze at least some of the spiritual benefits that a person may garner from a sojourn in wild nature. These benefits are available, but not inevitable, since favorable conditions and a receptive state of mind are required. There are at least six interrelated spiritual benefits to be found in wilderness experience: enduring, sublime, beauty, competence, inner peace, and self-forgetting.
The great spiritual traditions all come to terms with the transience of all things human. No moment of happiness lasts, and decay and death await every earthly object of our love and concern. In Buddhism this transience is an element of duhkha, or the unsatisfactory nature of human existence to which the Buddha offered a remedy. Islam and Christianity also promise a very different remedy in the form of an eternal, changeless God and eternal afterlife, of reunification with those we have known and loved.
Wilderness, too, offers experience of the enduring, if not the eternal. Though modern science tells us that in time all species will become extinct and mountains will erode to the sea, by comparison with human things, stones and hills are nearly eternal, and the cycle of seasons seemingly endless in their repetition. In this life we never experience God in his eternity, so ancient landscapes and the starry skies are as close as we may ever come to earthly experience of eternity. In wilderness one may encounter the enduring, coming face to face with ancient things and timeless cycles, and this direct encounter is part of what makes sojourn in wilderness a moving spiritual experience.
In wilderness one often experiences the sublime, that is, things and processes that are immense, powerful, even threatening and intimidating. Towering mountains, vast landscapes, the power of a raging river are all reminders of one's insignificance and vulnerability. This effect is much stronger when, as is typical in wilderness travel, one has been stripped of modern comforts and technology and must confront these features unaided. A mountain is immense even when seen from the comfort of an automobile, but the experience of its immensity is multiplied when one must climb it or go around it on foot.
The sublime is godlike in its power and capacity to awe. It is no accident that mountain tops have so frequently been thought of as the abode of the gods, that volcanoes have been worshipped, that the sea has been a god, for people have always associated the sublime and the divine.
A person need not think that the mountain is a god in order be humbled by it, reminded of one's insignificance, and struck with wonder about the meaning of life and one's own importance. What is puzzling is not that this can be a powerful experience, readily available through experience of wilderness, but that we find comfort in it, that experience of the sublime face of wild nature provides a spiritual benefit. The explanation may be that wild nature humbles not only individuals, but humankind and all of its ambitions. To be insignificant in a human crowd is often painful, for it reminds us that we have not achieved the fame and fortune that others have. To be insignificant in wild nature, by contrast, can be comforting, for wilderness dwarfs not only ourselves, but fame and fortune too.
The beauty of wilderness is a cliche, apparent in countless calendars and coffee table books. Since humankind originated in wild nature, its beauty seems apt to be the prototype for all beauty not derived from the human form. The beauty of calendars and books is exclusively visual beauty, but this is only a small part of the beauty experienced by a person living in the wilderness. That person experiences beauty with all of the senses. She smells the fragrances on the air; feels the wind, sun, and rain on her skin; hears the birdsong, the wind song, the chatter of insects; feels her own bodily response to the contours of the land.