I wrote an article in this journal about three years ago,1 based on my book Wild Therapy,2 which had just been published. The book, and hence the article, is a largely theoretical discussion of issues around wildness and domestication in human affairs. It ranges over a wide territory and calls for, among other things, a less tame approach to psychotherapy and counselling. Since then I have developed Wild Therapy as a practice – a way of doing training, personal development and one-to-one psychotherapy in the outdoors. It is this practical and experiential aspect that I want to describe now.
At the most concrete level, the practice consists of moving into the outdoors from a ‘base camp’, which might be the therapy room or a literal camp in a relatively wild area; spending some time there, and then returning and integrating what has happened. The journey can be accompanied or unaccompanied; the time may be spent moving around or finding and staying in one spot; the process may take half an hour, or a whole day. There are many possible variations on this straightforward structure – which of course gives no impression of what the experience is actually like!
Working outdoors seems to offer a direct route into authenticity. It’s enormously simple, but has subtle and profound effects. In my view some trainers and therapists complicate and blunt its effects by attempting to apply the standard therapeutic frame. This seems to me equivalent to ‘glamping’ – trying to reproduce one’s living room (or someone else’s living room) in a tent in a field. The point about being in a tent in a field, after all, is that it is different to being at home. And, in the same way, the point of working outdoors is that it is different to being in the therapy room: a difference that can be hard to negotiate at first, but one that offers much of value.
Some of the significant and beneficial differences I experience are:
- encountering the other-than-human and more-than-human
- shaking up the client/therapist roles
- enlarging the context
- lessening stress and tension so as to allow new learning.
I will explain and discuss these one by one.
Encountering the other-than-human
The ‘other-than-human and more-than-human’ could, of course, more succinctly be changed to ‘nature’. However, there are strong reasons for avoiding this familiar use of ‘nature’: it implies that there are aspects of life – for example, urban hi-tech environments – that are somehow not natural. Everything that exists is natural, though it may well be problematic. Part of what is problematic about modern urban life is the way it increasingly excludes and degrades the other-than-human – the multitude of plants, animals, birds, insects, invertebrates and other creatures with whom we share our planet.
Working outdoors, we become aware of just how constantly we are surrounded by the other-than-human: an awareness that we can then take back into the city, experiencing it in a new way. Just spending five minutes sitting in the grass, feeling the wind on our skin, listening to the birds and exploring the crowded micro-environment around our feet can be transformative if we bring our whole selves to the experience. What people often report when they have immersed themselves in relatively wild environments is a sense of being met at a profound level of calm acceptance. If they have been trained in the person-centred approach, they will talk about experiencing a new level of unconditional positive regard. One woman told me: ‘No one has ever accepted me as deeply as that oak tree.’
As well as the other-than-human, we encounter the more-than-human – aspects of reality that are much bigger than we are. These include, for example, rivers and lakes, the sea, mountains, winds, sun, sky and stars. To approach these entities with therapeutic awareness – which is what I am talking about – is to remember the true seriousness and depth of existence, and just how small we are in the vastness of the universe. Many people break into tears as their heart opens to the world. And the other-than-human and more-than-human help us access mythic and visionary levels of experience – the world of dreams, spirits, ghosts, fairies and devas. On one group camping residential, different participants kept glimpsing another person out of the corner of their eye – then realising that there was no one there. As we allowed and accepted the experience, this being became more and more real to us and started to take on an identity and a name, and occupy roles within the group. We didn’t concern ourselves much about the ‘reality’ of the person.
Shaking up the roles
Working with clients or trainees outdoors changes the dyadic nature of the work, because there is now a third party involved, or many third parties. As with animal-assisted therapy, the other-than-human occupies the third apex of a triangular relationship that also includes client and therapist. Sometimes it facilitates the relationship between the two humans: for example, by ‘commenting’ on something that has been said with birdsong, a crack of timber, a quick shower or a gust of wind. Sometimes the therapist will facilitate the relationship between client and the other-than-human by bringing some phenomenon to the client’s attention, commenting on what it might signify, making a connection with a dream, or directly supporting the client in opening up and being present. And sometimes all three – client, therapist and other-than-human – come together in a place beyond speech. Equivalent phenomena of course occur in room-bound therapy but, in my experience, they are both more common and – so to speak – larger in outdoor work.
The client-therapist dyad itself tends to change quality because the two people are also engaged in a task outside therapy: they are needing to negotiate the practical, physical processes involved in getting and staying outdoors. This is seen by some practitioners as a problematic aspect of Wild Therapy – as something that interferes with the work. My own experience is quite different: the practical task grounds therapy, keeps it embodied, and tends to make the relationship more egalitarian. The therapist is away from home, less in their comfort zone, and other skills beside the therapeutic are called for, with the client sometimes more skilled than the therapist. I have frequently puffed my way up a hillside behind a more agile client, and more than once been helped out of a bog or a bramble bush. This is anything but damaging to the relational work, and has made me more aware of a poseur element in the traditional therapeutic role.
This poseur element, the defence of our self-image that runs so deep in humans, may be what makes it hard for therapists to offer the same depth of acceptance as the oak tree I mentioned earlier. What would it be like to meet our clients as the oak tree met that woman? What would it be like – and these two questions are profoundly interconnected – to experience our clients as she experienced the oak tree?
Enlarging the context
As we have seen, working outdoors brings up issues about boundaries. This leads us to ask, ‘What are appropriate boundaries for therapy outdoors?’ It stimulates us to think afresh about appropriate boundaries indoors, and to question our existing habits and assumptions. In another article I wrote for Therapy Today,3 I discussed balancing the need for appropriate boundaries with the equally important need for what I called ‘boundlessness’ (not at all the same thing as boundarylessness). In Wild Therapy we use exposure to the ‘wide open spaces’ of the outdoors as a way of cultivating an inner spaciousness that in turn allows us to offer a spacious experience to our clients.
To put it concretely, it is hard to maintain your full therapeutic self-importance while flat on your bottom in a bog. It is not hard, however – with a little practice – to maintain your therapeutic awareness, your ability to notice and comment on the relational and symbolic aspects of whatever is happening. For example, is the client laughing at me or with me? Are they loving their superiority or desperately wanting to smooth things over or to make me feel better? Is this moment the expression of their hate and aggression towards me, their wish to cut me down to size and drag me through the dirt? Or, as Freud might have put it, is a muddy bottom sometimes just a muddy bottom?
It often seems to me that the central function of therapy is to support the client in relaxing – as simple as that. When we can relax, the change that needs to happen occurs of its own accord. When we are in a state of tension, it doesn’t matter how much we understand our stuckness – we still stay stuck. And being out of doors, relating to the other-than-human environment, can be profoundly relaxing. The most useful theory that I know of to explain this effect is Kaplan and Kaplan’s concept of ‘soft fascination’.4,5
As Russell and Farnum put it:6 ‘Soft fascination occurs when involuntary attention – the opposite of stressful, directed attention – is engaged. Clouds, sunsets, and moving river water capture attention but do not require directed attention, allowing room for cognitive reflection. Because demands upon directed attention are diminished, psychological restoration becomes possible. Kaplan and Kaplan argue that these types of natural phenomenon – clouds, sunsets etc – are prime types of stimuli to induce cognitive rest. Attention is captured by an interesting and aesthetically pleasing environment that does not necessitate a high degree of cognitive processing. Thus, soft fascination allows for release from stressors that cause mental fatigue, easing away from cognitive strain and relaxing.’
This seems to me a very good account of how being outdoors relaxes us, as most people know it does. A part of what may relax is the rigid boundary between self and environment. Margaret Kerr and David Key suggest that this offers ‘a deeper understanding of how experiences of wild and green spaces can heal the self as part of our larger ecology’.7 They propose that wilderness activates ‘our capacity to open up both ecologically, as we become aware of our biological interdependence with the rest of nature and metaphysically, as we go beyond our narrow egoic sense of self’.
Whatever theoretical context we prefer, the experience of letting go to the outdoors environment is unarguable. But to see therapy as solely about relaxation is too simple. We can better think of the therapeutic field as created by the charge between pairs of opposite polarities. Some polarities that seem especially important to me are shown in the diagram below, where the blue circle represents the therapeutic field of awareness.
Figure: The charge between pairs of opposite polarities create the therapeutic field
These poles are not opposite, but complementary: safety and risk, excitement and relaxation balance each other in a creative tension that charges the therapeutic field. If therapy becomes too risky and not safe enough, the field collapses; if it becomes too safe and not risky enough, the field also collapses – and the same for excitement and relaxation. (Many other polarities are also worth thinking about – add your own.)
Moving into a new outdoor context means a shift in the nature and intensity of the field polarities – in particular, safety and risk. The familiarity, insulation and predictability of the therapy room offer a high degree of built-in safety, and the new environment needs to compensate for the loss of this. At first this will take deliberate attention and care on the part of the therapist. They need to find ways to negotiate movement, and possible interaction with passers-by, while still maintaining contact between themselves and the client, and the level of awareness that is essential for therapy to happen at all. At first being outdoors may in itself offer quite as much risk and excitement as the therapy can handle. It will probably be a while before things settle and relax enough for the therapist to think about introducing new themes and challenges, relational or otherwise.
Of course, it is quite possible to maintain safety by decreasing awareness – by making the experience and interaction more ‘ordinary’, more like any two people out for a ramble. Several factors will be pulling in that direction anyway. For example, the sense of vulnerability to being seen by others encourages us to ‘look normal’, especially if we have to make a journey together to the venue for the session. But decreasing awareness always dilutes the therapeutic field and, beyond a certain level, destroys the whole point of going outside.
Bringing wildness back inside
So there needs to be a good deal of juggling of the various factors and it will take time to make things work – both for a therapist starting to work outdoors and for each new client doing the same thing. It may often make sense to agree an experimental session or two, just to get used to how it works and find out what new agreements may be needed, and this process may itself uncover important issues.
Working outside has two kinds of value. First, it helps us explore specific issues around relationship with the other-than-human. For most people this relationship was much stronger in childhood, and has been lost or damaged through acute or chronic trauma. To recover it is to recover magic, a different centring of the self.
Second, working outside brings a wildness into the therapeutic relationship. This can happen just sitting in the therapy room, but going outside shakes things up in all sorts of ways and raises immediate questions about what is essential and what is accidental in the way that therapy is ordinarily constructed. In some ways this is paralleled by the use of touch, which breaks the conventional frame of what is supposed to happen.
So, after we have negotiated taking the therapy outside, there is a second challenge: to bring the outside back into the therapy room, to explore what it is like to work indoors using only the essential frame for therapy, without the accidental, conventional elements to which we are so habituated. Like going outside itself, returning to the therapy room challenges us to reinvent what we are doing together. This is what makes outdoor work such a valuable training tool: it tends strongly to lead therapists to re-evaluate their usual ways of working and to develop a style that is fully their own rather than ‘received’ from the mainstream tradition.
Nick Totton is a therapist and counsellor in private practice in Cornwall. He is the author of Wild Therapy: undomesticating inner and outer worlds (PCCS Books, 2011).
For details about Wild Therapy courses, see www.wildtherapy.org.uk
1. Totton N. Wild Therapy. Therapy Today 2011; 22(2): 10–14.
2. Totton N. Wild Therapy. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books; 2011.
3. Totton N. Boundaries and boundlessness. Therapy Today 2010; 21(8): 10–15.
4. Kaplan R, Kaplan S. Experience of nature. New York: Cambridge University Press; 1989.
5. Kaplan S. The restorative benefits of nature: towards an integrative framework. Journal of Ennvironmental Psychology 1995; 16: 169–182.
6. Russell KC, Farnum J. A concurrent model of the wilderness therapy process. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning 2004; 4(1): 39–55.
7. Kerr M, Key D. The ecology of the unconscious. In: Rust M-J, Totton N (eds). Vital signs: psychological responses to ecological crises. London: Karnac; 2012 (pp63–78).