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The Wisdom of Wilderness: Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature Paperback – May 1, 2007
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About the Author
Gerald G. May, M.D. (1940-2005), practiced medicine and psychiatry for twenty-five years before becoming a senior fellow in contemplative theology and psychology at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Bethesda, Maryland. He was the author of many books and articles blending spirituality and psychology, including Addiction and Grace, Care of Mind/Care of Spirit, Will and Spirit, and The Dark Night of the Soul.
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Beautifully written, thought-provoking, and even more, emotion-provoking. I am also reading Becoming Animal, and it is fascinating but more diffifult, more technical, less personal, more intellectual...it will be hard going back to it, after May's book, which is very real but also very spiritual in the most intimate and immediate way.
The Wisdom of Wilderness is one of those books that you can't wait to get back to but don't want to finish. One of those books that you want to buy a copy of for half the people you love--or all of them. One of those books that you want to start reading all over again with a fresh mind, a fresh heart--and perhaps I will.
May was always searching to experience things as they really are, the "suchness" of things, the unity where duality drops away, a communion, "to bridge the gap, to bring all separations together. In his first book, Simply Sane, Jerry rebelled against psychiatry as practiced decades ago, introducing the spiritual but, more exactly, trying to free us from mind-talk, theorizing, manipulating ourselves and coping, a word he hated. He wanted us, his students, to get over ourselves and relax into things as they really are. He could be hilarious, a clown, a comic. At one retreat he taught us aikido moves and how to throw ourselves on the ground and, using our shoulder, spring back to our feet. Anything to break our captured thinking and calculating mind.
In "The Wisdom of Wilderness" we are with May as he sketched a single ancient tree, the Matriarch, awakening into spring, as he spends a night listening to cicadas or watches the sun rise. In doing so we see him lose his separateness and go inside the experience, as one part of Presence. He exits this state and like a good psychiatrist knows the several states he has been in. But his delight, the bliss, his experience of Love is palpable coming off the page. Everything is unified in Being Now. "That life can be lived with such Presence is a wellspring of endless hope for me," he writes.
A chapter called Night Fear is worth the price of admission. In one incident a bear brushes his tent and growls around his summer campground. In another, strangers tramp around his tent in the dead of winter. "I have never been so terrified, not in Vietnam, not anywhere," he writes. Fear grips him so completely there is nothing else. He is completely given over to it yet being fully present he suddenly becomes thankful, grateful given over to love. "What is this? Terror-life-thanksgiving-love-power....Nothing inside but the clear radiance of living. God, I am so grateful, so overcome with thanksgiving for sheer being....I could die now, for I know what life is."
Writing this ecstatic is unfamiliar to us. May long ago left psychiatry behind. He is in the realm of the great mystics or the Sufi poets. His best known and most influential book is Addiction and Grace which, as its title tells us, offers another response to the addictions with which we are all familiar. The Wisdom of Wilderness is less well known that it deserves to be. The title says too little, the alliteration too cute. In time I have to think it will become a modern spiritual classic.
A dozen years after I left the warm embrace of the Shalem Institute and moved to Idaho, Jerry agreed to lead a week-long Shalem retreat in the most beautiful part of Idaho, the rugged Sawtooth Mountains which are part of the national wilderness system. I wanted to show off high lakes and Jerry went along with it, smiling the whole way, although he would have preferred we remain more contemplative. But his body was beginning it's slow decline and, in fact, he had largely given up venturing into the physical wilderness for the richer journey into Presence, the wild within him. Only now, 19 years later, do I glimpse how far this interior journey was taking him. I will be going on the journey with him as best I can for the rest of my life by reading--as Parker Palmer says in his introduction--"this gentle, wild, bright and beautiful man."
Though "The Wisdom of Wilderness" reads more like a vivid Steinbeck novel than a step-by-step self-help book, each chapter helps us gently illuminate our own deeper nature. In acknowledging our own forms of "control of the unexpected", "fear of bears" and "disdain for mutilated turtles", we inevitably come closer to also recognizing our own humanness. Dr. May centers us both in our present time and in our self as a unique person.
I highly encourage "The Wisdom of Wilderness: Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature" for every adventurous reader. Like every true adventure, you will return a different person after reading Dr. May's inspiringly provocative stories.