I recall an encounter with a sheep, the end of my meditation career and take an evolutionary psychology perspective to discuss why spending time in nature is such a healing antidote to the alienating effects of rapid cultural change.
Part 1. the touch of the world
The same little sheep family came back each night.
I was living in a bothy on a remote Highland hillside. I had the place all to myself for a whole month. A summer solitary retreat. It was so cold, I kept the coal stove burning the whole time. Days went by without seeing anyone. The brown-washed scrubland spread for miles around, like a moonscape. There were no roads or houses in sight. The gleam of passenger jets was the only evidence of the civilised world. In the grey dark of the first night, I had put a shovel under my bed, just in case.
However, I was not entirely alone. Daubed sparsely across the tops were hundreds of sheep. Guttural baas and bleats were swept up around the thin wooden bothy walls. I warmed to my new neighbours, admiring their stoicism through the day long rains, laughing at the antics of the lambs. And then one night, about a week in to my month, washing-up the pots after dinner, I looked out through the kitchen window. A lamb frolicked in the ash heap, stirring up dust. A small lamb, with black markings around the eyes. Just like the lamb last night. Hang on a minute. Yes, the same lamb.
I looked out for their arrival the next night. They appeared around five. Two milky white lambs with three grey coated sheep chaperones. For about the hour it took me to cook, eat and wash up, my little sheep family kept me company. For some reason, they liked hanging around outside my bothy, at least for a while. And I liked it too, feeling strangely comforted by their daily visits.
Prior to my month in the bothy I had only ever walked or driven past fields of sheep. To the extent I had given it some thought, I assumed sheep were dotted about randomly. How wrong could I have been. As I kept up my daily programme of meditation, study and walks, I noticed further sheep patterning across the hillside. It was not just my one little sheep family. There were other sheep groupings at the same place – down by the bend in the burn or arrayed along the shores of a high lochan – at more or less the same time each day, or so it seemed to me. I became a sheep watcher.
One morning a lamb – small, with a black patch eye – stormed down the hillside adjacent to my track and disappeared over a fold in the land. I climbed onto a boulder, distressed bleating drawing my eye. The lamb, trying to reach her mum, kept head-butting into the wire mesh of the forest plantation fence.
I stood on my rock, aware of an opening in my chest, a resonance flooding through me. The tiny lamb’s distress and plucky resolve fused into my abandonment and isolation. Oh no, little one. Don’t do that. Take it easy.
Mother sheep took her time and strolled towards the open gate. Little lamb soon got the idea. She raced along the fence, ducked through the opening and head-butted into mum’s udders, tail a wag.
I called out across the hill to the lamb, the words whipped away on the wind,
‘We’re the same you and me! We’re the same! The same!’
At the end of my month in the bothy I picked up my rucksack and walked down the track. A pair of circling buzzards led the way. A pristine cloud nestled along the glen floor beneath me. The breeze caressed my face and hands. I felt like I was walking on air. All that simple living and meditation had done the trick. The touch of the world was upon me.
Part 2. park life
Back home in North London, the clatter of bin lorries in the street below replaced the Highland baas and bleats. I joined the community early each morning in the little room in the eaves at the top of the house, the air thick with incense, candles lit on the shrine. In unison we chanted through some Pali verses of dedication, closed our eyes and settled down to meditate. I visualised radiant clear blue skies with hundred feet high bodhisattvas on lotus thrones.
After about an hour, I would make a bow to the shrine and pad downstairs to my bedroom overlooking the allotments. In the corner a pile of clothes on the floor passed for a wardrobe. I searched for my keys amid the old newspapers and spatchcocked novels strewn across the desk. At the far end of the neglected bit of scrub that passed for a garden I disentangled my bicycle from the shed and headed off to work.
In the evenings, I returned to the shrine room for further meditation. With post-retreat meditation muscles built up it was easy to sit for an hour or more. I wanted to hold on to that special sense of post-retreat well-being as best I could, until I managed to get away again. Each year I spent about two months on retreat, not including numerous long weekends and day retreats.
In a Buddhist community, this wasn’t unusual behaviour. It was all about keeping city life simple and distraction free, and getting away on retreat as much as possible. I thought of the community as a spiritual oasis, a respite from a secular world gone mad. I lived this semi-monastic lifestyle for much of my twenties. The Buddha, Jack Kerouac and Luke Skywalker were my inspirations. I was intensely happy and fulfilled, quite convinced that I was on the right Path. If I kept on going, Enlightenment was sure to follow.
Needless to say, things did not quite turn out as I expected. Not only did Enlightenment fail to manifest, Depression came back with a vengeance. The Depression I had thought cured by meditation had merely been hiding, lurking in some dark corner of my mind, and for whatever reason had decided to return and make himself comfortable again in his old bedroom.
However, surrounded by dedicated others and having invested much of my identity in this lifestyle, I did not find it easy to acknowledge there might be a problem with what I was doing. I just needed to keep on going, to have more faith in the process. I redoubled my efforts, spending even more time in the shrine room. And yet the more I meditated, the more lost and morbid I became. I took to hiding away in my room, reading crime novels and watching box sets of the Sopranoes. I burst into tears inexplicably at odd moments. Which did not make any sense. I should have been happy and content, not struggling to get out of bed in the morning.
In the end, I reluctantly gave up on meditation. I could no longer trust it. I needed to step back, to try life without it. To start again from the ground up, a kind of spiritual exclusion diet. Which was how I came to start each day not sitting on a cushion in the shrine room but on a bench in the park.
Each morning, once I heard the community chanting in the shrine room, I now went downstairs and quietly let myself out the front door. At the end of our road, behind iron railings was Clissold Park. I sat on a favourite bench, beside an ornate drinking water fountain. The air was summer fresh, my skin alive to the soothing rustle of tattered leaves. Joggers trotted by. Under the shade of the massive horse chestnut trees people did yoga, sometimes tai-chi. The atmosphere was communal and relaxed. The overgrown lawns, over flowing bins and cheeky little sparrows did not seem to expect much from me. It was all a far cry from the candles, incense and earnest focus of the shrine room. I was free to let my mind wander.
Overlaid against the surface images of the park came a whole stream of memories. I remembered my month in the bothy in the Highlands and the gratitude I felt towards the sheep family who had visited each evening. I recalled the little lamb crashing down the hillside to find her mum. I recalled a trickling stream, tiny waves flirting with sunbeams. And more than just images, these memories took me back to the mood of those times and places, a sort of body memory. A being alive to the world around me. Each day, I got up from my bench that little bit less depressed.
I soon noticed that, while some park time reveries involved memories as far back as early childhood, many of them were more recent, of time spent on retreat. And in particular of time spent outdoors while on retreat: the soothing tones of dove calls after the evening meal; an oily sleek otter emerging from a river; swarms of electric-blue dragon flies; my ice-encased tent one crisp February morning.
None of these memories covered the shrine room programme, the many talks I had listened to, nor the richly decorated buddha statues and wall paintings. The recollections pointed me firmly towards my encounters in nature while on retreat. Which was curious. I had never really given them much attention. I had of course always acknowledged the calming effect of getting out of the city, that was the whole point of a retreat. However, this had only ever been a means, not an end in itself. Nature was a supportive context, a distraction free back-drop. Meditation, as I had been taught it, concerned a focus on my inner landscape of bodily sensations, feelings and thoughts. The withdrawal from the city to the countryside allowed for a deeper withdrawal from the senses to the mind. A cutting down to the bare essentials. And yet, it was my encounters with sheep, dragonflies and trickling streams that had indelibly imprinted themselves into my memory, not the meditation. I began to wonder if the healing effects of retreat life were much more linked to the rural setting than I had realised. After all, here I was mindlessly sitting on a bench in a city park and feeling more human with each passing day. What intrigued me was how this was happening. Why did it feel so good spending time outdoors in a natural environment?
Part 3. a great transition
The healing effects of nature can be explained by a story shrouded in the mystery of the past. It begins around half a million years ago when Homo sapiens emerged as a distinct species from our immediate forebears, Homo erectus(*1). The major adaptations that went on to define our species evolved from this time, as we spread out across the African continent and beyond, living almost entirely outdoors, moving around in small tribes and living off the land as hunter-gatherers. Our senses were shaped for a savannah lifestyle, as too was our early meaning making and psychology.
The study of extant hunter-gatherer cultures over the last one hundred years reveals a world in which human type social relations extend across the species barrier. The natural world a network of intelligence and purpose. Clouds, sunsets and all the animals imbued with a meaning filled presence. All are subjects, not just humans. There is no word for ‘it’. Nor even any generic word for ‘human’ or ‘nature’, nor even for ‘plant’ or ‘animal’. Just as a person has a name and an interiority of feelings and thoughts, so too does each plant, animal and place have a name and interiority. Earth is not a thing, an object to sit upon. Earth is alive, an other to sit alongside.
The psychological inheritance of this ancestral world-view can be seen in the imaginative aliveness of young children, for whom everything has a story path. A tree is lonely, a cloud is cold and a stone wants to join its friends on the opposite side of the stream. Nothing is literal. All is a creative possibility, an imaginative intermingling between child and world. Our ancestors, not seeing this childhood perception as a naïve phase, nourished it to maturity through initiation rites that built upon this early participation with the presences of the natural world. Such a world view offered a distinct evolutionary advantage. The beyond-human social intelligence that allowed hunters to really know a bear or a seal, to sense into not just the physical presence but also the thinking and feeling of the animal allowed for highly accurate prediction of behaviour, a clearly useful skill. Hugh Brody, an anthropologist who spent years living with the Inuit of the Artic, describes this imaginative shapeshifting of the hunter-gatherer as,
“dependent on the most intimate possible connection with the world and with the creatures that live in it. The possibility of transformation is a metaphor for complete knowledge: the hunter and his prey move so close to one another that they cross-over; the one becoming the other.” (*2)
Our ancestors were embedded in an encompassing environment that was alive and aware, filled with signs and intentions. And for hundreds of thousands of years this was how humans lived. Only 12,000 years ago did we begin to give up our nomadic ways and create permanent settlements. We put down our hunting spears and took up the plough, swapping wild plants and animals for the tending of domesticated species. We became farmers. Why we did this remains unclear, but it is thought that a combination of climactic change and population growth played a part.
Agriculture was a cultural revolution. The wild indigenous people, contrary to popular conception, had lived lives of relative ease. To them the natural world was a kind of bountiful parent, openly sharing of her abundance. The switch to farming involved a considerable increase in workload in order to force the land to yield particular crops. The soil had to be turned and tilled. The crops protected from the encroachments of pests and weeds. High fences and grain stores constructed. And this changed our relationship to nature:
“To build a fence around a field or pasture, to tether an animal, to harbour seeds and plant them at just the right time – these activities put humanity into a state of contest with nature. That contest is called work – it takes work to keep a garden going. It is work to keep it free of the weeds and rodents and pests whose populations explode in the open track of the plow.”(*3)
To organise all this industry, hierarchical society and politics emerged. Divisions appeared within the settlements between the workers and the bosses, as well as externally with the neighbouring tribes who now competed for the fertile land, water holes and other scarce resources. All these cultural changes created a new kind of person.
In building their high fences the agriculturalists had literally and psychologically drawn a line around what was and was not deserving of emotional and social relations. Certain plants, animals and places became functional inanimate objects. Even certain human beings became objectified within the new system. The world was no longer whole. The seamless network of social relations experienced by the hunter-gatherer was lost:
“It is learned objectivity that creates alienation – humans are no longer embedded in a world of social relations but become estranged, adrift in a world of indifferent things’ (*4)
In this way, the transition to agriculture marked the beginnings of modern alienation. In developing a culture that took them away from their evolutionary lifeway as intelligent animals living intimately within a natural environment, humans now became estranged. To manipulate and control their man-made environment the farmers developed an insensitivity, withdrawing from much of the world. A disharmony crept into human life.
The early agricultural settlements soon grew into city states and developed ever more complex technologies. An innovation that picked up pace during the industrial revolution three hundred years ago, such that today we moderns are now living through an unprecedented rate of techno-cultural change. Think of the personal computer, the mobile phone, wireless internet, the smartphone, social media, and then extrapolate that change into the next ten or twenty years in which futurologists tout virtual reality as the next inevitable mass roll out. The ubiquity of another software upgrade to get used to, another handset to work out, another mode of shopping, banking or making friends, can make these perpetual adaptations appear entirely normal. And yet, for the vast majority of our time as a species, the only changes in the world from birth to death would have been environmental – a tree falling down or a river bed altering course. Up until very recent times the world entered by a new-born child would have been entirely recognisable to that child’s still living oldest relative: clothes, food, work and shelter, not to mention spiritual and ceremonial life, would have remained unchanged for generations. Cultural change is not the norm. It is a recent aberration for our species.
One of the ways we can understand modern alienation, and other related symptoms such as depression and anxiety, is the mismatch between our modern techno-industrial lifestyle and the ‘environment of evolutionary adaptiveness’ (EEA). The EEA is a concept originated by the psychoanalyst John Bowlby, in his 1969 ‘Attachment and Loss’ (*5). Bowlby famously took an evolutionary perspective on childhood development, hypothesising that the biological need of babies to remain in close contact with their mothers was an evolutionary adaptation, as those babies who did so had best survived to then have children of their own. The denial of such intimacy would interrupt the natural spontaneous development of the child. However, we need not stop with childhood expectations. We can see further and ongoing interruptions to our evolutionary expectations and needs:
“What matters here is that, if man’s behavioural equipment is indeed adapted to the primeval environment in which man once lived, it is only be reference to that environment that its structure can be understood” (*6)
While our cultural change continues to race ahead full pelt into a digital future, our evolutionary adaptiveness has not even got off the starting blocks. Evolution takes time. On an evolutionary scale, the rise of the modern city in the past two hundred years is a highly novel environment, to which we are ill adapted as a species.
The bodies and minds of Homo sapiens evolved in the savannah, adapted to the sensations of earth, water, fire and air. Modern humans are incredibly insulated from this sensual reality. Houses and central heating shield us from the elements. Weather reports remove the need to even look out a window. Electric lighting removes us from diurnal and seasonal rhythms. The internet replaces physical human interaction. Modern food is often highly processed and/or novel to our ancestral diet. And even when we do step outside, the interiors of cars and city blocks further shield us from the natural environment. Almost at every turn there is a distancing layer of technology, a secondary experience replacing primary sense-based knowledge of the world. The modern environment, like the early agriculturalist’s high fences, separates the sensual intelligence of Homo sapiens ever further from the environment of evolutionary adaptiveness. Modern life is inherently alienating.
Part4. as within, so without
In our modern culture, mind as machine metaphors are so pervasive and natural they have become clichés, everyday ways of thinking and talking about ourselves that pass without notice. When we speak of feeling ‘shut down’ or ‘broken down’; or that ‘the wheels are just not turning’ or ‘my mind is not operating today’; or when we think of ourselves as ‘full up’ or ‘overloaded’ or ‘buckling under the pressure’; or of how, ‘we are still trying to grind out the solution to the problem’; or that, ‘his mind snapped under the pressure’ or ‘he is going to pieces’ or ‘the experience shattered him’ – we are within the mind and machine metaphor.
The incredible success of the mechanical laws discovered by Newton, and their application in car and jet engines, telecommunications, modern medicine and more, has resulted in their adoption into non-mechanical areas, such as social systems and the natural world, which nevertheless have come to be treated as if they were machine like. The result is a modern technology-based lifestyle that shapes human lives along the same mechanical basis as the machines that surround us. Technology has captured our imaginations and our very sense of self.
Freud, as the metaphorical father of modern psychology, combined clinical observations with a rich tapestry of metaphors. A man of his time, many of his metaphors were derived from 19th century science, often machine metaphors. He compared the unknown world of the psyche to the known world of mechanical technology. The mind had component parts, which exerted forces upon each other, much like the tension of build-up and release in a steam engine, which was the cutting-edge technology of Freud’s time – hence we have his ‘psychodynamics’, derived in large part from the ‘thermodynamics’ of steam engines – a metaphorof the psyche as a field of equal and opposite forces held in perpetual balance. Freud’s metaphors have stood the test of time, still very much with us today. The machine-based view is enduringly attractive as it promises a sense of order, purpose and control.
Living in this techno-culture, it was perhaps inevitable that I would import a mechanical perspective into my approach to meditation. Just as our technology both separates us from and offers predictable control over our environment, so too had I used meditation. I meditated to distance myself from the troublesome, messy aspects of being human. Anxiety, shame, depression, anger and not least my sexuality (the community was single-sex and I had long practiced celibacy) – all these were actively pushed away in meditation. I sought to control them through the power of concentration on the cushion. I forced them out of my mind and replaced them with serene, calm, confident states of mind. And for a long time, this worked quite well. I did indeed manage to avoid the mess and maintain a baseline of contentment and calm. However, as the Buddha might have said, ‘nothing lasts forever’.
In my machine-like focus on control and my over emphasis on the importance of the spiritual, I had lost sight of the complex whole. The semi-monastic lifestyle had been a way to construct literal and psychological fences around my world. Inside the fence, the so-called spiritual aspects, basically heightened states of consciousness – these were given value, prized above all else. Outside the fence, the wilder people of my psyche, the desire and rage, were viewed with suspicion, left out in the wilderness at the edges of my consciousness, objectified as decidedly ‘not-me’. And in this way, I become alienated from myself, dead on the inside, psychologically numb. As the alchemists would have said, ‘as within, so without’. Modern alienation knows no bounds, turning us against both the world and ourselves.
I came to understand my alienation as the result of a common distortion westerners can bring to eastern spirituality called ‘spiritual bypassing’: the use of meditative practices and religious ideas to sidestep or prematurely rise above unresolved psychological issues (*7). I had confused the spiritual life with the maintaining of a positive feeling-state. I had controlled myself like a machine. To become more human again, I tried to adjust how I meditated. I wanted to let go the control. To let in the unruly, unpredictable and decidedlynon-mechanical life flowing through me.
I learnt to ‘just sit’, to observe the breadth of my experience. I tried to avoid categories of pleasant and unpleasant, positive and negative, good and bad. It was all just phenomena, passing through, nothing to latch on to. And to a degree it worked. I stopped using techniques to bypass around the darker, congested and noisy districts of my psyche. I was slowly getting to know myself in the round. A humbling process. But old habits die hard. Despite my best intentions, I kept seeking out and holding on to whatever crumbs of bliss I could still find. I was an addict. To sit in the shrine room and close my eyes felt like turning a key, locking myself up, taking me ever deeper into an alienated meaninglessness. I needed to just stop, and get out of the shrine room into the park.
Part 5: transhistorical needs
Why did it feel so good, sitting in the park? After all that effort on the cushion, how come staring off into space from a park bench was so healing? What need was being met sitting with the clouds and trees, squirrels and pigeons. Because that’s what it felt like. A need being met. It felt like eating a solid meal after going hungry. It felt like a warm embrace after a long separation, a return to friends. A coming home.
As I mentioned earlier, the requirement of a baby to remain close to its mother was posited by Bowlby as an evolutionary need. In evolutionary psychology this is a ‘transhistorical need’, a requirement that holds throughout human history, regardless of what culture or society the baby is born into(*8). Our transhistorical needs are an in-built evolutionary expectation, a genetic inheritance from our hunter-gatherer ancestors, a constant background against the shifting tapestry of cultural change.
One way to understand modern alienation is via the lack of opportunity we have to meet our transhistorical needs: the need to be outside, pretty much constantly, from morning to night – the very air and sunlight essential nutrients; the need to move around, to squat, reach out, crawl, walk, run, sprint, swim and climb; the need to eat and drink the fresh foods our bodies were designed to digest; the need to spend our whole lives with one small tribe, with people who know us intimately from birth to death; the need to have emotional relations with the more-than-human world of animals, plants and places. How far away are these needs from being met by a modern lifestyle that on average has us sitting down indoors for 11 hours a day ( 3 hours of which are screen time). From an evolutionary standpoint, our bodies and minds are being robbed of the basic nutritional, movement, environmental, social and spiritual transhistorical needs they require to function properly.
Of course, civilisation offers little evolutionary advantage for shapeshifting into the spirit of a bear. If anything, such sensitivity and imagination might be a hindrance to survival in the modern economy. And yet, humans are still hard-wired, to use a modern metaphor, in exactly the same way they were during the Palaeolithic. The 12,000 years since the agricultural dawn have not been long enough for significant evolutionary developments. Which is why every modern child begins life, not as a computer programmer in an office cubicle, but as an animist living in a world where human-type social relations extend beyond the human species.
Children recapitulate the psychological wholeness of our ancestors, at least for a short while, before the acculturation process obscures it from view. Before the rules of permission narrow and it becomes no longer cute to talk to adults of our imaginary friends or the fact that today, ‘I’m not Harry, I’m a goldfish!’. Before education ushers in rationality and doubts our enchantment. Before we are directed away from the voices of the animals and plants to those found in books. Before we are stuck indoors, rammed into desks and our sensing aliveness atrophies and dies. Before the surface images of everyday life lose their vitality, becoming empty and weightless, a deadened world. And before our imagination shrank back inside, no longer a perceptual interaction with the trees, tadpoles and plastic bags blowing in the wind.
On a more hopeful ending note, what intrigues me is the possibility of reversing the alienating effects of this acculturation and rediscovering our ancestral sanity. Of finding, as I discovered on my park bench, how an escape from the insulating layers of technology can let slip the patterns of civilised behaviour and soften the veil of alienation between self and world. How our ancestral self is not lost but very much still there, lurking in the background, looking for opportunities beyond internet shopping and Netflix. Not the forging of an entirely new perception, but a recollection of what we once had: an uncivilised, heathen sensibility that can spontaneously and unselfconsciously shout out across a Scottish hillside to a lamb, ‘We’re the same you and me. We’re the same. The same!’
*1 ‘Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years’ by Jared Diamond
*2 ‘The Other Side of Eden: hunter-gatherers, farmers and the shaping of the world’ by Hugh Brody, Faber and Faber, 2002,
*3 ‘Wisdom of the Mythtellers’ by Sean Kane, Broadview Press, 1998
*4 ‘Alienation, Neo-Shamanism and Recovered Animism’ by Bruce Charlton, 2002, on-line article
*5 ‘Attachment and Loss’ by John Bowlby, 1969
*6 John Bowlby, quoted in ‘The Tribal Imagination: Civilisation and the Savage Mind’ by Robin Fox , p4
*7 Toward a Psychology of Spiritual Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation, by John Welwood, 2002
*8 Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life, by Andy Fisher, 2013
David Abram ‘Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology’, 2002
Paul Kingsnorth ‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist’, 2017
Rob Preece ‘The Wisdom of Imperfection: The Challenge of Individuation in Buddhist Life’, 2006
Theodore Roszak ‘The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology’, 1992
Nick Totton ‘Wild Therapy: Undomesticating Inner and Outer Worlds’, 2011 Daniel Vitalis ‘Rewild Yourself’, podcast, itunes