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The spiritual dimension of wilderness

Key Message

The manifestation of spirituality in the wilderness concept both reflects the unmet needs of our urban, utilitarian, commodity-driven culture, and reveals some archetypal part of us that this culture obscures.


Kaye, R. (2006). The spiritual dimension of wilderness. International Journal of Wilderness, 12(3), 4-7.


The association between wilderness and spirituality reaches back thousands of years. In Western traditions, leaders and prophets such as Jesus, Moses, Elijah, and Muhammad left their society to find their vision and inspiration in the wilds. The Buddha’s remote sojourn provided spiritual insights that were influential in the East and in the formation of Thoreau’s transcendentalist ideas—a foundation of the American wilderness movement. For Thoreau, wilderness was a medium for transcending the effects of socialization and conformity (figure 2), and coming to the humbling recognition that we are “an inhabitant, or part and parcel of nature”(Thoreau 1906).

Aldo Leopold (1987) further incorporated the spiritual implications of ecological and evolutionary thinking into the emerging wilderness ethic. The wilderness movement, he wrote, was “one of the focal points of a new attitude—an intelligent humility towards man’s place in nature.” Even the gung-ho Bob Marshall, late in his life, came to the realization that the dominant value of wilderness was “being part of an immensity so great that the human being that looks upon it vanishes into utter insignificance” (as cited in Zahniser 1957). This diminishment of the self, the ego, and the sense of connection with something timeless and universal was the central motivation, the spiritual motivation, of Wilderness Act author Howard Zahniser, who was compelled by the belief that “we deeply need the humility to know ourselves as the dependent members of a great community of life”

Whether religions are based on a God, animistic spirits, an Eastern philosophy of harmony and unity, or belief in one’s embeddedness in the natural world, they share a core function:
They replace the self as the “ultimate,” with a sense that the self is part of a larger, more enduring reality. In the words of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, they all provide a sense “that one belongs to something greater and more permanent than oneself” (1997). Historically, this has been expressed as a core wilderness precept. Its psychological universality suggests an innate underpinning—that there is likely an evolutionary human predisposition for this impulse for connection to some larger, greater, encompassing ultimacy.


Piedmont (2001) documented the positive correlation between such benefits and individuals whose orientation fits within this summary definition of spiritual:
The capacity of individuals to stand outside of their immediate sense of time and place and to view life from a larger, more objective perspective. This transcendent perspective is one in which a person sees a fundamental unity.

“wilderness experience contributes to personal growth, and enhanced self-identity, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. Yet although meaningful and beneficial, these self-constructs are not, in themselves, spiritual as many psychologists define spirituality. The work of Marilyn Riley and John Hendee (2001) suggests that these “self” aspects comprise an initial, or prerequisite stage through which one must pass in the process toward transcendence—described by psychologists Steven Kaplan and Janet Talbot (1987) as their subjects’ emergent feeling of “a sense of union with something that is lasting, that is of enormous importance, and they perceive as larger than they are” (p. 195). In examining the “wilderness effect,” psychologist Robert Greenway (1995) found that for many of his subjects, a primary value of their trip was the “perceptual shift” they experienced. He found an expansion of the self, and a lessening of the ego and culturally reinforced individualistic thinking patterns. His term perceptual shift is worthy of attention because it lends insight into the actual nature, onset, intensity, and duration of transcendent experiences in wilderness.

They are seldom sudden, intense, ecstatic, or comparable to reported religious conversion experiences. In fact, the word experience may be misleading if taken to mean a discrete event or episode. As Barbra McDonald et al. (1989) have noted, the term spiritual growth better describes the gradual change in awareness more characteristic of the phenomenon.”

Wilderness is also a symbolic environment, a socially constructed behavioral setting. Like a church, cathedral, or monument to which it is so often compared, wilderness has become invested with meanings that make it prone to support spiritual interpretation and experience.

The manifestation of spirituality in the wilderness concept both reflects the unmet needs of our urban, utilitarian, commodity-driven culture, and reveals some archetypal part of us that this culture obscures. Wilderness is both a place and a system of belief and feeling about our role in the larger scheme of things. Geographically, wilderness is a remnant of our world that is still natural, wild, and free. Spiritually, it is a refuge for that part of ourselves that seeks connection, belonging, and rootedness within that world.

Additional Information

| Journal of Wildnerness

Benefit Statements / Outcomes

Leadership Provided By:

  • Leisure Information Network (LIN)
  • Alberta Recreation and Parks Association

On Behalf Of:

  • Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRAA)

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