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Sanctuaries in the wilderness – mountains, beaches, forests and rivers – can inspire, soothe and restore. By Adrian Cooper

Walking on the beach, Orkney

Sacred Nature

Wilderness environments have fed the human imagination since the dawn of history. Today, mountains, forests, mangroves and other challenging natural landscapes are the focus for pilgrimage journeys among people seeking a more satisfying experience from this planet's abundant riches and inspiration.

For increasing numbers of people from all over the world, traditional pilgrimage destinations such as Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela may not always satisfy their search for solitude and sanctuary. However, the wilderness often does so in glorious abundance – but with many surprises along the way.

Traditionally, sanctuaries have been thought of as simply places of reflection, meditation and prayer, but in the wilderness, that is only part of the story. The discovery of sanctuary in wilderness places can inspire an enthralling richness of therapeutic experience and activity.

Sunset in the forest

On a mountain slope, or deep in a forest, pilgrims learn that rational knowledge of their new sanctuary is never enough. As Carl Jung once wrote: “Knowledge does not enrich us. It removes us more and more from the mythic world in which we were once at home by right of birth.”

By drawing from the wisdom of Asian philosophies, the Indian social reformer Mahatma Gandhi saw this need to re-claim wilderness places as sanctuaries to be one of humankind's greatest priorities. To neglect that reclamation of wilderness was, for Gandhi, one of the greatest of all sins.

One of Gandhi's most insightful biographers, Raghavan Iyer, put it like this: “Gandhi held to the Buddhist and Jain view that all sins are modifications of himsa, that the basic sin, the only sin in the ultimate analysis, is the sin of separateness, or attavada. According to the Jain maxim, he who conquers this sin conquers all others.”

Fjord and mountains, Norway

In discussing that need for reconciliation with wilderness, pilgrims have told me how they find their own sanctuaries to be places where these lessons become most clearly learned. For Harriot, a teacher from Seattle, Washington, her wilderness sanctuaries are most frequently discovered on Mount McKinley, often known by its Native American name of Denali. It is the highest peak in North America, and one of the most isolated mountains on Earth.

“I love to go hiking out on Denali... and I can tell you that Denali is my one and only true sanctuary,” says Harriet. “It's where I go to find my deepest meditations. I can pray there like no other place. And it's where I feel I can grow in the most natural and organic way.”

Another pilgrim shared a very similar memory. George is a software designer from London, UK.

“Walking, for me, in the Scottish Highlands, is my true sanctuary. It distances me physically and emotionally from all the hassle and hypocrisy of modern living. And out there, I can breathe, and feel restored. It's a sanctuary that I crave for, and which I need in my deepest soul.”

Forest path, Cowal, Scotland

Although it is essential to recognise wilderness environments as sanctuaries where deep personal reflections can be developed, it is also often found that those same sanctuaries can offer lessons that transcend the mystical realms. Particularly, for the more experienced pilgrims to wilderness, they recognise that therapeutic personal lessons often blossom into other forms of longing, including the need to reconcile their spiritual search with a personal scientific quest to understand local ecosystems, and to align them with their pilgrimage.

This type of reconciliation between the spiritual and scientific aspects of wilderness sanctuaries was clearly described for me when I met Lucille, an artist from Rouen, France.

“For me, and a lot of my family and friends, there can never be a limit put on spiritual growth,” says Lucille. “We must always grow in any way we can. And I love to learn about wildlife. I keep my own journal – which combines my mystical experiences with my notes about counting birds, or sketching the grasses and other plants.”

Lucille told me that she developed this natural fusion between scientific and spiritual lessons in the Mont Blanc mountain range of France, as well as in the forests of South East Asia. Many other pilgrims echoed Lucille's experiences.

Beyond this alignment of spiritual and scientific learning, other pilgrims have told me how their sense of place in wilderness sanctuaries has released an appetite to paint, draw and create collages in ways they had never previously encountered. Some have felt compelled to compose their own music; while others described how they felt overwhelmed by the need to develop different forms of social activism when they returned home, in an attempt to share these lessons from the wilderness in their own communities.

Durnoch beach
Walking barefoot in the sand

In all these ways, wilderness environments offered pilgrims life-changing lessons in the sanctuaries they discovered. Consequently, these extraordinary individuals have learned to become more than who they were before their journeys began.

As humankind finds its way through this bewildering new millennium, the greatest challenge facing each individual is to find ways of becoming spiritually reconciled to the sacred inspirations within this planet's last remaining wilderness environments. It is a challenge that seeks to reconcile the human quest for spiritual growth with an enhanced perspective on the full meaning of holistic ecology.

Green Adventures September 2018

Dr Adrian Cooper is the founder of Felixstowe Community Nature Reserve. He is also author of Sacred Mountains: Ancient Wisdom and Modern Meanings, and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Top: walking on the beach, Orkney; above: sunset in the forest

Fjords and mountains, Norway

Dornoch beach, Highlands, Scotland

Forest path, Cowal, Scotland

Walking barefoot on the beach, Scotland