A sojourn in wilderness is not a distant contemplation of beauty by sight alone, but an immersion in multisensory beauty. The spiritual effect is likely to be a profound feeling of peace and joy and of gratitude for one's existence.
The beauty one can experience in wilderness is not, of course, guaranteed. One can also experience hardship, discomfort, and danger. In fact some degree of this is practically guaranteed, since to live in wilderness is necessarily to give up most of the comforts of civilization and to rely upon one's own powers in unaccustomed ways. Oddly, though, this is often felt to be an intensely empowering experience. The exertions needed to travel in wilderness may engender feelings of peace and well-being in purely biochemical ways by stimulating the release of endorphins in the brain. But they also give one a feeling of competence and of self-worth.
Wilderness experience is especially suited to do this because the challenges it provides typically involve self-overcoming rather than competition against others. Where competition is against other people, there must be winners and losers; but where one strives only to overcome one's own fears and limits, no one need lose. This is especially true because failure of one kind can be a success from another point of view. Failure to climb the mountain, for instance, can reveal one's wisdom in knowing to turn back and one's stamina in making it back safely despite exhaustion.
All of the elements described thus far contribute to the sense of inner peace that wilderness experience provides, but at least one more aspect of wilderness experience does so as well. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described the characteristics of experiences that people find so enjoyable that they seek them for their own sake and not for external reward. The pleasurable, restorative state of mind these experiences provide he calls flow. The experience of flow is promoted by activities that involve risk and challenge near the limit, but within the participant's ability, that provide relatively swift and unambiguous information about success or failure, that provide opportunities for improvement of performance, and that thus focus the participant's attention, driving ordinary cares and anxieties from one's awareness.
The challenges encountered in wilderness frequently have these characteristics. Living and traveling under one's own power in wilderness provides obvious challenges to one's skill and stamina; success and failure are immediately obvious; opportunities for improvement are ample. As a result, the cares and worries of everyday life in civilization are driven out of mind by one's physical removal from them, by the urgency of the immediate concerns of life in the wild, and by one's focus on the tasks at hand. This leads in turn to relief from one's usual nagging concerns, a feeling of inner peace and greater openness to the spiritual feelings already described, each of which makes its own contribution to the feeling of inner peace.
Every spiritual tradition extols the loss of excessive self-concern as among its major goals. All the elements described so far contribute to this self-forgetting for the wilderness traveler. The wilderness traveler is removed from the scene of everyday social and economic anxieties. She is in direct contact with the enduring and sublime, both of which diminish the importance of those everyday concerns. Her attention is almost certainly focused on the immediate demands of her challenging life and not on the concerns of her life in civilization. The intense beauty of her environment is comforting. She is apt to feel competent, secure, and at peace with herself. As a result, she is likely to give less attention to her insecure ego and to lose herself in her surroundings and in the demands of her immediate life.
The spiritual dimension of wild nature has been felt in many diverse spiritual traditions. No doubt it is felt somewhat differently in each. A monotheist, for instance, would see the wilderness landscape as God's creation, might feel God's helping presence when facing challenges, and might think of her peace and joy as gifts from God and signs of his near presence. How our distant forbearers felt the spiritual dimensions of wilderness is less certain than how the spiritual power of wilderness remains for us today It is therefore of little surprise that people of all ages seek out nature and wilderness experiences for opportunities for spiritual and/or religious reflection and growth.