Finding the Inner Wild

Ron Unger, LCSW
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Modern “civilized” cultures do not have a good relationship with the wild.  It seems we are always doing everything possible to shut it out of our lives, or to kill or tame it to the point where it is unrecognizable.  Yet that which is wild is always still lurking, somewhere over the edge of our boundaries and frontiers, and also inside people, both inside the “others” we might approach warily on the street, and even inside our family members and ourselves.

Another name for the Wild is Mystery, or the Unknown.  We like to pretend that the Unknown is just a small affair of no great importance, but we are shadowed by a sense that the Unknown or Mystery totally dwarfs and makes a mockery of everything we think we know.  So we commonly act as quickly as we can to suppress that sense, to find whatever allows us to go back to thinking we know what we are doing.

And yet, as much as we try to suppress the Wild, we totally need it.  Sometimes we need it just as a location where we might find some missing ingredient that our tame world needs to function, and sometimes we need it when the contradictions in our “normal” world become too oppressive and we need to immerse ourselves, at least for a while, in something much vaster.

into the thicket

I am intrigued by the relationship between the experiences we call psychosis and wildness in general.  That’s why I especially enjoyed recently reading a book titled “Into the Thicket” by William Brundage, which tells his story of getting lost simultaneously in the wilder areas that existed near his home in Eugene Oregon, and getting lost in the wilds of his own mind.

“Madness” is often associated with one’s mind falling apart, but Will’s story is unique in that he recalls a specific time and place where he had an experience of his mind shattering.  It might be best to let him tell the story himself:

“At this point, gasping, I realized that something was going horribly wrong.  Futilely I attempted to rein in my mind, but I had no way of doing so.  How does one grasp a thought and force it to return, especially when it is flying high and away?  Then, there was a moment that I would never wish on anyone – I felt the cracks appear.  First one, then hundreds, of small shards broke free from my consciousness.  Within a minute, life had spun out of control.  Alone with the beating of my heart, I was fighting for survival.  The finale came only a minute later.  With a thunderous crack, my mind blew into dust and spread over the city like snow.  I could feel the reverberations in my ears, but the world was silent.

“As the cataclysm subsided, I looked around myself as if for the first time.  Every tree sparkled with dew.  The grass shown green like the hills of heaven.  The wood smoke smelled like myrrh.  Reaching out, I touched the trees around me, and felt my hand touch bark for the first time.  There was no thought or feeling, just a realization that I was watching myself be born again.  When I looked onto the city, I saw with new eyes the world that I thought I had known.  I was no longer myself:  my mind was scattered to the wind like chaff.  It was sunset when I set my feet along the downward path to Eugene.  I had been transfixed for an entire day, staring in mindless rapture at the city I had grown up in.”

For Will, this “wild” experience was just a beginning, a sense that if he could only turn himself over fully to something that waited for him in the wild areas near his home, everything would become right or better in some very important way.  This journey required courage, and he found himself increasingly able to face the dangers he encountered without regard to his personal welfare.  (Unfortunately, he lacked an adviser such as the friend I had in my late teens who was fond of repeating the quote “discretion is the better part of valor.”)  His adventures became increasingly chaotic, till he found himself facing a frosty evening, naked, alone, and deeply cut up by brambles.  He had made such a point of not giving in to any fears, but now he found himself abandoning his quest to humbly seek help at the home of a family that ever so symbolically happened to be named “Craven.”

Will speculates in the book on how different the rest of his experience may have been had a mental health system existed that understood the relationship between his personal quest and things like shamanic traditions, a health system that knew how to assist him in continuing his explorations using more sustainable methods.  Instead he ended up in a hospital, labeled and drugged.

The rest of the story is about his battle to regain control of his life from that point on, trying to find a balance between the excesses of the mystical wild “Faerie” world that still called to him and the sometimes helpful but often overly repressive world of “modern” mental health treatment.     He worked on his own to draw from diverse spiritual traditions to assist his recovery, and from them became inspired to try speaking in a friendly way with his voices, which he describes at first as being like “talking to a drunken man with a gun.”

Eventually though the practice of being friendly toward disturbing parts of his mind paid off, and Will was able to find enough mental calm that he was able to substantially reduce his medication, and to do things like attend school, go to work, including doing some peer support work, and start a family.  While he has at least not yet fully left behind the mental health system definition of his experience as “schizophrenia” and he still takes some medication, he has definitely found a valued and enjoyable life for himself at this point.

In a way, such success itself leads to a dilemma for people like Will.  Should he try getting off medication completely, even though that might lead to some “wild” mental states that could possibly threaten everything he has managed to achieve in his life?  And, to what extent should he allow himself to follow the wild impulses that got him into trouble in the first place?

Toward the end of his book he tells a story about doing some exploring in Scotland, accompanied by his wife Jessica, and encountering a wild area that seemed to be seducing him into once again wandering away from the world, from other people, and from anything coherent in his mind.  He reported that Jessica sensed something was amiss, and called him back, and he left the area happy he had resisted its call.  I found myself wishing he had been able to heed its call, but in a limited way, that he had been able to perhaps wander with Jessica into that strange wild realm but without total abandon, instead bringing just enough discretion, just enough wariness, that the two of them would likely not have come to harm, but might have had some rich experiences a bit beyond the limits of the “normal.”

In the end, the wild is essential to us, but remains threatening as well.  I think we do best when we can acknowledge both sides of this complex truth, and see what emerges from that.  This means not denying any role for fear (as Will did in his early explorations) but also not giving fear too prominent a role, not letting it be stifling.  With work on finding the right balance and dialogue, I hope our society can come into a much healthier relationship with madness, with mystery, and with all forms of wild things.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I remembered Thoreau’s statement in one of his books “Leave the pines and unnerve yourself”. I believed it and during an especially bad time when I needed to think clear and was losing it.I went on a 6 month backpacking trip .A friend stopped by as I packed and wanted to go with .We spent 7 to 14 days in various national parks around the country over a 6 month period. The wilderness has a way of drawing you in.You must wake up and think of your safety sometimes.That long in the wilderness you learn your real body clock and time expands outward and your days become long.Back in civilization again and time again compresses to days that just fly by.Thoreau was right. I like your post.

  2. This sounds very much like the writings of Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” He spent a lot of time in the high country in or around Yellowstone and analogized it with the “high country of the mind” that he explored there. He did eventually have a psychotic break, and received massive electric shock treatments and one day came to consciousness with no recollection of who he had been. The book is partly a story of his recovery of himself. If folks have never read it, I’d recommend it. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, and has great applicability to this theme of the safe and bland vs. the wild and mysterious.

    —- Steve