"An Inquiry into the Experience of Being Alone with Nature"

Sean O'Carroll's MA thesis research was conducted between 2014 and 2017.

Sean O'Carroll's MA thesis research was conducted between 2014 and 2017.

The question at the heart of this inquiry is: What happens when a person spends time alone with nature? The inquiry was born out of a longstanding personal interest in the experience of being alone with nature, and a sense that a deeper experiential understanding of the human-nature connection might contribute to a healthier relationship between humanity and its home planet. The inquiry was conducted over three years between 2014 and 2017.

If you would like a PDF copy of this thesis (free), or a hard copy ($60), please email me.

Thesis Introduction

What is reality? What is mind? What is good? Who am I? Why do I exist? What is knowledge and how is it possible? Engaging with these questions has felt as natural and obvious as breathing to me for most of my adult life. At the same time, I realised long ago that neither academic philosophy nor science—as we now know them—were up to the task of tackling these questions in a way that felt satisfying. Uncovering the meaning of life is possibly too much to ask of any academic discipline.

For as long as I can remember I have felt that being alone with nature is a special experience, and one that has called me to the wilderness again and again. When it comes to feeling well, connected, finding peace, gaining insight, and becoming a better person, the experience of being alone with nature is powerful medicine.  

The term “nature” is very difficult to define in any exact sense, and to try to define it exactly is to quickly become entangled in—oftentimes very interesting—philosophical quandaries.  At the same time, when someone says, “I really want to go and spend some time in nature”, we generally know what they mean. For the purpose of this inquiry I was content to work with this loose colloquial definition that encompasses landscapes significantly devoid of human interference or human presence. Experiences such as walking alone on an empty beach, hiking a trail in the bush, or sitting by a flowing creek in urban parkland, all satisfy what I mean by being with nature.

This project was born out of an intuitive sense that an inquiry into the simple experience of being alone with nature might actually take us deeper into the heart of some important philosophical questions. In simple terms, I felt that I knew this was a powerful and important experience, and I was curious to know more. 

It is interesting for me to note that the experience of being alone in nature is one that lies at the heart of most of the world’s religions, and is a practice central to most indigenous cultures. This is not something I gave a lot of thought to when embarking on the project, but looking back at the experiences I had and insights gained, I feel it makes complete sense to me.

A cursory review of religious texts reveals that most of the Judeo-Christian prophets are depicted as spending a great deal of time in the wilderness alone. We encounter Jesus spending forty days and nights in the Judaean desert, Moses communing with God on Mount Sinai, and Mohammed praying in the cave Hi’ra on Jabal al-Nour. In the East, Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment after sitting alone under the Bodhi tree. In all cases these figures are portrayed as having encountered deep and important—although often uncomfortable and difficult to communicate—truths about life, after spending time alone with nature.

Going further back in human history, the practice of being alone with nature was just as commonplace. In many indigenous Australian cultures, adolescents historically underwent a rite of passage once known as going “walkabout” (Hipp, 2013)—now more sensitively called “temporary mobility practices” (Prout, 2008)—involving living alone in the wilderness for up to six months, while in many Native American traditions individuals would regularly undertake a “vision quest”—going alone without food or sleep within a sacred circle in the wilderness (Foster & Little, 1992, p. xv).

By contrast, since 2008 more people live in cities than elsewhere (Williams, 2017, p. 172, p. 241), and are rarely alone. Even in the privacy of our own bedrooms we are in company through our various digital devices. And yet, perhaps paradoxically, all of this “connectedness” is accompanied by epidemic levels of depression, anxiety, loneliness and suicide.

One of the roles that a religious or mythological cosmology has in a society is to hold the story of the culture, to shape it and reflect it. And one of the key concerns of any cosmology is, what is our place in the cosmos? And more immediately, what is the relationship between humankind and the earth? It would not be an exaggeration to say that the relationship between humankind and its home planet—while no longer framed in exclusively religious or mythological terms—is one of the most pressing issues facing us at this time.

It is apparent that our culture—Western culture—is finally waking up to the fact that we live in intimate relationship with the planet, and that our survival and well-being depends on its health. But despite the fact that we might recognise this relationship, it also seems to be the case that the barriers to reimagining our relationship to the natural world are deeply ingrained, not only in our culture, but in our very minds. It is very hard for us not to think of—and experience—ourselves in the Cartesian manner as separate individuals in an inanimate universe. I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that this sense of ourselves as fundamentally separate and existentially isolated lies at the heart of the ill-health of many individuals, society and the planet.

I suspect that the way we think about our relationship to the planet lies at the heart of many of the problems we now face. As the ecologist Gregory Bateson says, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between the way people think and the way nature works” (Plotkin, 2013, p. 235). When we go in search of solutions, or for ideas about how to better live in harmony with the planet, one rich resource we encounter is the example of numerous indigenous cultures past and present; cultures that could be said to have lived in harmony with their surroundings for millennia.

At the heart of these cultures we find a common thread, and one that is not reflected in our own. Almost without fail, indigenous cultures experience the landscape and natural world as sentient, alive, and something to be respected. The natural world is something they live in intimate relationship with, and this relationship is as real to them as are our relationships with each other. To a mind raised in a Western culture this can seem foreign and quaint, if not superstitious and foolish. And even for those of us for whom such an idea is appealing, it largely remains just that, an appealing idea.

In this research I feel I have come face to face with some of the experiences that inform—the aforementioned—indigenous ways of being with landscape. I have also encountered the way in which our usual methods of philosophical inquiry serve to filter out or shrivel the very experiences that lie at the heart of that belonging, making it impossible for the philosopher or scientist to prove, justify or defend, the ontology that such a relationship entails.

Over the course of three years conducting this research project I have necessarily spent a lot of time conducting inquiries on my own. I have also worked with four participants and my supervisor. This research has changed me in profound ways. It has changed the way I experience the world and my place in it.  It has helped me to understand the extent to which it is our values—consciously held or otherwisethat ultimately inform our understanding of life, and our experience of being in the world. I hope the reader can find his or her way into this material and perhaps gain some insight into the difficulties that lie ahead of us in re-imagining our relationship with the natural world.

Three of the central questions that arose during this research were:

  • What happens when an individual spends time alone in nature?

  • What might this tell us about the relationship between humans and nature?

  • What are some of the limitations to communicating experiential truths in an academic context, and how might we best deal with this challenge?

This introductory discussion is very grand in scope. This research project represents one small effort on my part to engage meaningfully and rigorously in this conversation.