A Rationale For Adventure Therapy
There are numerous factors that support a rationale for therapeutic adventures such as mountain climbing, rock climbing, sea kayaking, snow shoeing, and backpacking in wilderness settings. Many have been identified in the research, others await discovery, and some may remain intangible. Sociobiologists have declared that people have an inherent biological need to be in contact with nature. They say nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual well-being.
A competency (strength) based approach set within a natural context is rich with possibilities for adolescents to learn and develop. This combined with physical activities that are naturally exciting vis a vis talk therapy in an office make wilderness therapy an attractive option for adolescents. There is also an air of mystery surrounding the wilderness excursion that holds great possibilities for the adolescent imagination including a rite of passage into a new way of being. At minimum, many “unmotivated adolescents” are motivated by the chance to go on an adventure as opposed to spending time in school. When this motivation is nurtured by a skilled leader, it can build on itself and spill over into the student’s everyday life.
There is also a Zen like quality to many wilderness activities. The repetitious physical movement inherent in most of these activities (i.e. walking, paddling, climbing, etc.) combined with the wilderness aesthetic can produce the experience of being in "flow". Being in the wilderness frees the mind from the clutter of modern existence i.e. TV, videogames, chat rooms, etc. Without these distractions, the mind is stripped of layers of everyday consciousness down to a core level of consciousness known as “Zen mind”. In this state of mind, one is more able to focus on the salient aspects of mental health and the mind can be freed from the constant drain of energy put into maintenance of “social masks”. The wilderness also has a humbling effect on adolescents as they eventually realize they can’t beat Mother Nature, and carrying on a facade only wastes energy, so eventually they give into being who they are. Adapting a William Blake quote helps to illustrate this point: the wilderness experience helps to cleanse the doors of perception allowing us to see ourselves for who we truly are - a person with infinite possibilities. This insight gives rise to several mental health possibilities including self-discovery, self-acceptance, and an ability to bring desirable aspects of self to the foreground and to move less desirable aspects to the background. When the mind is freed from the “clutter” of mundane existence, it’s able to move fluidly through various features of consciousness i.e. humor, intuition, compassion, creativity, resiliency, empathy, logic, etc. This, in my view, increases the potentiality of adolescents.
Zen mind can also give rise to an integration of self thereby creating possibilities for a spiritual experience of communion with nature. This can do wonders for eliminating an adolescent’s state of alienation from self and others. An alienated adolescent experiences little remorse from malicious acts against society; but an adolescent who feels a connection to self and others is less likely to exhibit anti-social behaviors.
Although a therapeutic adventure has inherent curative power, integration and transfer of this healing into the student’s everyday life is critical. John Dewey believed the challenge of any form of education is to recognize present experiences that will live fruitfully and creatively in future experience. He characterized learning not as the experience itself, but as thinking about experience. So an Adventure-Based Counselor not only facilitates intense experiences, but also provides tools for thinking about those experiences in order to connect what has happened on a therapeutic adventure with the experiential continuum of those who have passed through it. For example, an Adventure-Based Counselor may point out a student’s success on a mountain climbing adventure, identify the process he/she went through, and make this successful experience available to the student during a difficult day in the classroom which may help curb negative behavior. Additionally, the process of vivifying and documenting pro-social behavior on a therapeutic adventure makes the experience more available to the student and thereby enhances the possibility of improving self-esteem which has been shown to be a curative factor in diminishing substance abuse and delinquent behaviors.
Many students need help drawing inferences from their therapeutic adventures, so another way an Adventure-Based Counselor might help students “bring their growth home” is to facilitate the recognition of metaphors and analogies in the wild. Since chaos, storm, and stress are usually the norm for adolescents on wilderness excursions, the following analogy can be drawn from the wilderness experience to the everyday lives of participants:
Adolescents typically begin therapeutic adventures in turmoil. The weather can’t be predicted or controlled and there are many unknowns. Each day as layers of everyday stressors and worries fade away, those things that are important for survival manifest. Eventually a predictable pattern emerges as each day one’s primary concern is to eat, stay warm, find shelter, and make progress toward the end of the trail. It becomes a daily rhythm within the context of the unpredictable and unexpected. This “pattern within chaos” offers learning possibilities for adolescents to create order within the chaotic, storm and stress of their ordinary lives.