Holos intern Caroline Lewis, MA, has written the following summary of a presentation she offered at the Holos 2017 Ecopsychology Conference in Petaluma, California.  Caroline presented on the value of nature based experiences to cultivate compassion and resiliency during adolescent development. 

Ecopsychology Retreat in San Francisco area


A Loss of Meaning

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”

~Viktor E. Frankl

Can you remember a time when you were a child or a teenager when you were completely in your body and connected to nature?  If so, were you encouraged by others to cherish this experience and allow it to shift the way you understand yourself and the world around you?

Frequently and Unfortunately, I am reminded of a serious epidemic that exists in United States culture.  Many teens transitioning into adulthood are completely out of touch with who they are.  This does not mean a disconnection with extracurricular activities and academic talents, but out of touch with beauty, joy, and the part of the self that values meaning and feels inspired.  Recently there has been more research and literature written on this topic.  For example, an Atlantic article was published called “The Silicon Valley Suicides” covering how the most economically privileged adolescents in our culture are now just as “at risk” as those coming from the economically poorest backgrounds.   

Statistically, suicide is the second leading cause of death for the ages 10- 24.  According to the Department of Health and Human Services, “More than three million adolescents aged 12-17 reported at least one major depressive episode in the past year, and more than two million reported severe depression that impeded their daily functioning.” Also, the rise of suicide and mental health issues are not the only areas of concern with American adolescent culture.  As a result of our society prioritizing academic excellence, consumption, and technology, many of the next generation’s most powerful leaders will not possess environmental ideals but instead place higher value on economic interests.

Speaking from Experience…

When I was a teenager, I had my own set of cultural and family struggles and began acting out in different ways.  My Southern community did not encourage processing my challenges but instead to keep pushing forward and to be resilient in the way that our society often teaches us to be resilient, which is not to feel.  I understood myself to have many friends, but no one knew who I really was.  I also felt terrified to be physically alone.  I anticipated that if I sat by myself without any external distractions for a few minutes I would fall apart, and this could mean that I was emotionally unstable and not normal.  I think many people in modern culture can understand what I am speaking to, a common fear that exists in many of us and with so many young people.

However, during my summers in high school I had the privilege of going to an outdoor adventure camp, Deer Hill Expeditions.  During these times I felt as though I could actually be myself without any expectations or pressures to excel, look conventionally perfect, or to always be positive.  I spent three weeks in a summer floating down rivers in the American Southwest, hiking through towering red rock canyons, and doing service work with Native Americans with peers from various cultural and economic backgrounds.  This time spent in nature reconnected me to part of myself that had been disavowed; a part of our culture that has been disavowed. 

On my first solo experience, a time that was allotted to us to be alone in nature, I spent the day crying and grieving, an emotional release that had been long overdue.  Call these experiences a connection to my soul or to my inherent true being, but this extended time spent in nature felt like a reconnection to something incredibly important that I was not learning in church, at home, or in my textbooks. 

Meaningful experiences spent in nature can cultivate a depth and a purpose that can be carried through life.  I developed an inner compass and a courage to listen to my intuition.  All I knew was that I wanted to continue following what made me feel the most alive and full, the same feeling I felt so strongly in nature.  To this day when I feel disconnected or off-center, I go to wild places in order to not only reconnect to the Earth, but to reconnect to myself. 

And also a Witness…

After college I hoped to impact adolescents in a similar way that I had been impacted so I became a wilderness instructor and counselor.  When I worked as a wilderness counselor, I began to really understand that my experience was not unique; I witnessed teenagers plant seeds for their own awakenings to what it truly means to be alive and connected.  It has been incredibly meaningful for me to facilitate young people building confidence, and becoming more courageous, resilient, and compassionate.

During this time I was an outdoor instructor and facilitator for several outdoor adventure and wilderness programs including Second Nature, a wilderness therapy company that worked with young men and women with a wide array of mental health issues. These included eating disorders, suicidality, drug addiction, depression, and anxiety to name a few. Many of the kids I worked with had very low self-esteem. 

For example, a particular young woman was sent to Second Nature when she was thirteen due to depression, impulsive outbursts of anger, and daily self harm. Describing her experience at Second Nature she says:

“During my two-month wilderness experience, I built the foundation upon which I live my life now.  I learned how to make fire from a stick, a rock, and some string.  I learned how to navigate in the dark and how to build a shelter each night. I learned how to sleep alone with my thoughts, and how to guide them towards positive intentions.  Being immersed in a wilderness program stirred in me both resiliency and self-reliance; I never expected the strength I discovered.  I had always been petrified to be alone in my head; my greatest fear was being abandoned. At age thirteen I realized that despite all of life’s struggles and tragedies I was the one thing that would never leave.  I started to push past the heaviness in my heart, and I let go of the wild anger I harbored for the world.  I learned best of all to trust myself.”

True Resiliency

Wilderness experiences challenge us to make sense and meaning out of our environments by using intuitive knowing.  This meaning and depth can then lead to compassion and resiliency.  For example, they not only teach us to be outwardly courageous, such as learning how to paddle a canoe, sleep outside, make a shelter, or cook over a fire, but they also cultivate courage to sit alone and perhaps cry, sing in joy, or pull another group member aside when there has been conflict in order to watch the evening sunset together. 

Nature has an amazing capacity to foster a true resiliency, an ability to literally turn towards the darkness outside of ourselves which can then directly translate to turning towards the darkness inside of ourselves. 

Sometimes I have thought of wilderness experiences as a kind of parenting.  She is the good enough mother who is the warm wind in our faces as she teaches us compassion for each other in community, the natural world, and for ourselves during quiet moments.  He is also the good enough father who is the storm that reminds us that so much of life is outside of our control.  He teaches us frustration tolerance so we have to prepare and be flexible when we wake up extra early to hike a peak before the afternoon thunderstorm arrives.  After a long day of hiking, our mother reminds us again of gratitude as we sit together and eat the best dinner of beans and rice that we have ever had in our lives.

Our Responsibility

I view it as so important for adults to influence young people in our communities to seek out nature based experiences.  It is now more important than ever to encourage children and teenagers to spend extended time unplugged and outside.  Creativity and meaning are cultivated before natural beauty and in spaciousness.  Meaning and depth provide the scaffolding for compassion and resiliency.  In order for a person to desire to fight for the Earth, one first has to learn how to love and appreciate it.

Technology and materialism will continue to develop and are unavoidable.  I think what is now necessary is an equal emphasis on time spent in nature.  Presently working in the East Bay, I am able to take my adolescent clients outside while working therapeutically with them.  Through this work my young clients and nature keep reminding me that sometimes I do not have to do much at all except for witness and reflect each person’s experience and to be with her as she begins to be quiet and sit still with herself and the Earth.

The Adolescent in All of Us

The Healing Path can take a lifetime.  However, nature based experiences during adolescence can prime young people to continue following their own hero’s journey inward.  Moving out of adolescence with an inner resiliency and with compassion for others and the natural world is what has existed in many native cultures for centuries.  If people can have the tools to have a healthy development, they can become the wise elders and mentors that our culture desperately needs to teach human and Earth values.  I often consider what path would I have taken if I had not had a personal connection with nature?  I am positive that my life would be very different.  The young girl who is now a young woman that I referenced earlier in this post describes the powerful woman she has become.  She writes:

“Nine life-filled years later and I am a healthy 22 year old college student.  I’ve taken so many falls since leaving Second Nature that it’s a miracle I’m still here, but I am proud of the human I’ve grown into.  I am an art student in San Diego, but first and foremost I am a rock climber; my love for the outdoors grew into a passion so great that I postponed school to pursue a climbing lifestyle.  I have a deep understanding of myself and my unhealthy tendencies, which allows me to guide my choices with logic and confidence.  I am a social activist; in the current political climate every human has the responsibility to defend all rights.  I’m at every march I can participate in, rain or shine. I welcome constructive conversations because the root of injustice is ignorance, and it’s a gift to lift that fog in another’s mind. I am happy, fulfilled, and still learning.  I’ll always fall, but the wilderness taught me how to get back up on my own.”

Even if you do not work or engage with adolescents, maybe you can recognize the adolescent in yourself and seek beauty, silence, and connection to our natural world in order to heal and grow. 

“All we have, it seems to me, is the beauty of art and nature and life, and the love which that beauty inspires.”

~Edward Abbey

Caroline Lewis, MA, Holos intern