Here’s an idea: burn every self-help book you’ve ever read, ignore every piece of guru advice you’ve ever been given and just get into nature instead. I mean really get into it. Climb a mountain, swim a river, run a rocky shore. The spirit is not nourished by self-reflection, it’s nourished by the world itself. Immerse yourself in it.
In the Kumano Mountains of Japan, Shugendo monks have long known this truth. For thousands of years they have trekked their region’s arduous slopes, believing that enlightenment is found through active involvement in the natural world. For these mountain monks the wild spaces around them are full of magic and the path to enlightenment is a process of journeying to these sacred wildernesses to absorb its power.
Like so many good eastern ideas, western science seems to be finally catching up. Contemporary psychological research has shown that connection with nature is vital for our well being – increasing self-confidence, happiness and reducing stress among many other benefits. Indeed there are now a number of wilderness and adventure based therapy programmes designed specifically to exploit natures prolific healing properties. But it may be even more fundamental then that. 99% of the genetic history of human beings has been spent actively and intimately connected with nature. It’s part of who we are. Only in the last 10,000 years have we turned to settlements and farming, and only in the last few hundred years have those settlements spiraled out of control into metropolises utterly disconnected from the natural world. If enlightenment is to be found inside us, it makes sense to start looking out there.
There is a profound common sense to this idea. Whatever you believe there is nothing more self-evidently true then the beauty of a sunset, the magnificence of a mountain, the humility of a starry-night. In combining the ideals of Buddhist enlightenment with traditional forms of nature worship, Shugendo offers an intriguing blend of ecology and psychology. Perhaps in order to save the planet – and ourselves – all we need to do is immerse ourselves in the beauty, and adventure, of the natural world. The rest will follow.