For the past few years it has been my very great privilege and joy to lead groups of people on Mindful Safaris to Africa. On these trips we combine daily meditation sessions in nature, along with game viewing. None of us has any idea what will happen from one day to the next, but the overall response of the group to what happens during our visit is always the same. Phrases like ‘trip of a lifetime,’ ‘amazing adventure,’ ‘sense of connection,’ and ‘no words to describe it,’ are regularly used.
Why is it that our time in Africa touches people so deeply? How is it that some of those who come will even use words like ‘magical’ or ‘spiritual’ to describe what they have experienced?
I’ve had a lot of time to ponder on this. And while each one of us joins Mindful Safari with our own perspectives and background, there are a few themes which may begin to account for why we come away feeling so touched.
Reconnection with nature
It is worth stopping to reflect, from time to time, just how utterly different our lives are now, compared with the vast majority of human experience. For the 200,000 years we have been on earth, humans have been completely dependent on nature. Whether as hunter gatherers or farmers, our ancestors lived or died according to their deep understanding of the natural world. Compare this to what passes for a completely normal day today: 8 hours in an office, shop or industrial park, an hour or two commuting by car or train, more hours spent on TV/social media/gaming. In a matter of just a few hundred years – or for less than 2 minutes of the proverbial 24 hour clock that our species has lived on earth – most of us have moved from creatures engrained in the very fabric of nature, to beings so profoundly disengaged that we have no idea where the food we eat comes from, much less the clothes we wear or homes we live in.
Is it any wonder that when we are back, immersed in nature, we feel such a sense of relief? Of belonging? Of reconnection? Back in nature, surrounded by beings who have no concept, much less concern, about the schedules, deadlines and imperatives of our 8 – 6 lives, we are reminded of an earlier way of being.
Just as we are reminded that we, too, are natural beings. Contemporary culture, with all its technological sophistication, distractions, and entertaining diversions may have lulled us into certain assumptions about who and what we are. But returned to nature, especially when supported by some guided meditations, we come to recognise the reality that we are products of the earth, water and air, as entirely dependent on nature as we ever were. In this sense, we are not so much visiting nature, as reminding ourselves that we emerge from it. We are nature. Nature is us.
The power of symbols
We live in a world of symbols, from the eagle of the Presidential seal to the McDonald’s Golden Arches. The purpose of a symbol is to provide a material representation of an abstract concept. Without consciously setting out to do so, most of us are fluent in the language of symbols, at communicating and receiving their meaning.
Given how long humans have spent in nature, it’s hardly surprising how many of our most powerful and iconic symbols are derived from the natural world. Lions, elephants, eagles, buffalo, gazelle, hyenas are not only animals. They are also beings of enormous, emblematic power. You may say that we are more familiar with the symbolism or the mythology of these animals, than with the animals themselves, given the amount of time we have spent consuming images of them, compared with time spent in their natural presence. In fact, many humans never have the privilege of such encounters.
Which is why, when we do, the experience is very special. It is a bit like meeting a famous performer, sporting hero or other celebrity – but on a level that’s more elemental. Researchers are, only now, beginning to understand the ways in which we are affected by being in the presence of others. How verbal communication is only the tip of the iceberg – there is so much more going on at a non-verbal, energetic level.
When we are in the presence of beings whose qualities have been recognised and acknowledged by our forebears for millennia, something extraordinary takes place. Direct, real-time encounters with the living embodiments of courage, wisdom, omniscience and grace, move us profoundly.
The impact of gratitude
From our very first game drive, we notice things about our fellow sentient beings. How, for most beings on earth, life is a daily struggle for survival. The food and water needed to survive is one aspect. Of equal urgency is the ever-present threat of becoming another being’s next meal. These imperatives shape the lives of most animals. And when we experience this as a reality, rather than just a documentary on TV, we also recognise just how amazingly, breath-takingly, spectacularly fortunate we are. Gratitude wells up within us without any need to consciously cultivate it. As does a sense of heartfelt compassion for the living beings around us.
We may not be able to put all of this into words. Not the gratitude, nor the effect of being in the presence of iconic wildlife, nor the recognition that we, too, are nature. America’s famous psychologist, William James, once defined a mystical experience as comprising four aspects. And it seems to me that our experiences on Mindful Safari fit very neatly into his definition. According to James, a mystical experience is one which is:
Ineffable – no words are adequate to describe it;
Noetic – a state of illumination or revelation which is not a product of the intellect, but which has a significance for us which remains long afterwards;
Transient – it passes;
Passive – although we may create the best context for it to happen, whether or not it does happen is out of our control.
If you join me on Mindful Safari, I can’t guarantee you a mystical experience, according to the Jamesian definition. But it’s possible! With a settling mind, and far removed from everyday life, as one day follows another and you come to know that you, too, are part of the extraordinary natural world, one thing I am certain of is that you will experience a sense of coming home to yourself. And that self may take a delightfully different and more expansive form than the one you currently imagine it to be!
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And please click the link below for a two and a half minute video montage from our most recent Mindful Safari: