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When being in nature is a 'mystical' experience

Mindful Nature

I wrote a post a couple of months ago called I am Nature that resonated strongly with many readers judging by the wonderfully engaged and insightful comments you shared. In it I described what’s labelled the “biophilia effect” – that sense of connection we have to all living things - a connection that, for many of us, seems to deepen the older we get.

On the subject of getting older, I received my first email this week from someone asking if David Michie was alive or had passed on. “Am I dead yet?” I joked to my wife. After some chuckling, I was tempted to step outside into the sunshine to see if I cast a shadow. This advice is given by Tibetan lamas to older people who may find themselves in the bardo and, through force of habit, mentally return to favourite haunts, only to find themselves completely ignored. “Go outside and see if you still cast a shadow,” is the advice given, to confirm if you are, in fact, still alive!

The Dalai Lama's Cat & Other Intrigues by David Michie is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

I digress! As a follow-on to my I am Nature piece, I’d like to share some insights connecting nature to those qualities identified by the great American philosopher and psychologist William James, when describing a “mystical” experience. It seems to me that spending time in nature is about a lot more than simply enjoying the fresh air, and William James helps move us towards a more meaningful understanding of what’s actually happening.


The first hallmark of a mystical experience, according to James, is ineffability - which is to say that the experience can’t be adequately described in words. We can try using language to point to what we perceive or feel, but nothing we can communicate really does it justice.

I can tell you that the impact of having that family of elephants choose to walk by our vehicles (above) left many of us feeling awe-struck, humbled, moved, grateful and, for a moment, a sense of extraordinary connection. I can tell you that there wasn’t a dry eye on board after it happened. But I can’t, unfortunately, communicate the experience in words. If I could, the hair would be standing up on the back of your necks and your eyes would be glistening with emotion too!

The same ineffability goes for the impact of seeing our first, spring flowers of the season. Hearing hatchlings in their nest. A fragrance that instantly takes us back in time and space to an earlier experience or person we knew. We can’t transfer the significance of any of these intimations of nature because they go beyond concept and are simply inexpressible.


Noetic means relating to the mind or intellect. In particular, a sense of knowing, revelation or insight that has an impact that goes beyond the event. What we experience, in other words, is more than a sensory experience. It goes deeper.

Sitting outside on a warm summer’s night, far from the city, for example, I can’t look up at a star-studded sky without being powerfully reminded of the infinity of space, the ephemerality of time and the preciousness of this moment, here and now. It’s a sensation that helps lift me out of myself and reminds me of a much more expansive, panoramic perspective.

I know I’m not the only one affected this way. Landscapes of all kinds may have this impact. Increasingly, nature walks and trails are included in treatment plans for people suffering from PTSD.  Equine Assisted Therapy, also on the rise, goes back to the time of Ancient Greece, when battle-hardened warriors, unable to express their feelings, found a non-verbal way to work through their trauma when they were given a horse to look after.

Nature can powerfully shift our mental state. Without the need for a word to be spoken, simply being outside, engaging with other living beings, delivers its own form of transformative eco-therapy.


Mystical states seldom last more than a few minutes. An hour or two at the most. Something happens that touches us. Then life moves on.

Our memory of what happened is imperfect and in time will fade. But as and when the same experience recurs, we recognise what’s happening and have a sense of significance, continuity and inner wealth.

I wonder about the wellbeing of all those who, during Covid, moved out of the city for more space and greater freedom. City-dwellers who, banned from the gym, began jogging through parks and gardens instead – as I did. While it’s a relief to be coming out of Covid, do some people have a sense of experiencing a nature deficit? Of missing out on that subtle and transient experience of re-connection?

I am fortunate to have near me the Norfolk Island pine trees of Mueller Park. I much prefer walking under them to jogging – and sometimes I don’t even walk, I just lie on the ground under them, looking up through the towering green spires towards the sky. They were here long before I was born and will - I hope - continue long after I die. Peace is always to be found under the protective canopy of their low, swaying branches.

Increasing numbers of people have also been able to find their own cathedrals in nature, their own opportunities for precious but ephemeral reconnection, in otherwise busy lives.


When we are having a mystical experience, it feels as if we, ourselves are not doing anything, but rather that the experience is happening because of factors outside ourselves. William James gives examples such as automatic writing or the trance of a medium where a person feels they are being guided by a superior power. The automatic writer or medium may have done certain things to trigger the experience, but once it is underway, they are essentially passive participants.

Sitting on the bank of a river, or on a vehicle as a family of elephants ambles past may involve less drama than channelling an unseen muse to write page after page, but we are passive recipients, nevertheless. We have to get ourselves into nature for the possibility to occur. But once there, no further agency on our part is needed.

Meditating on the banks of the Zambezi River from our Mindful Safaris.

It would be interesting to know what William James might have made of the suggestion that encounters with nature fit his definition of a ‘mystical’ experience. Empirical and therapeutic approaches are only beginning to catch up with the intuitive understanding that many of us have about the centrality of nature to our wellbeing. But at least that catch-up is now happening. And if any of you are interested in exploring this further, I’d recommend The Nature Fix by Florence Williams for an excellent overview.

Is it any coincidence that the Judaeo-Christian creation story sees God placing his most precious creations, not in a beautiful home with a soaring hallway, a lavish master suite and stylish entertainment areas, but in a garden? That the Arabic word for paradise – Jannah, the final abode of the righteous - means ‘garden’? That Buddhist descriptions of pure lands similarly bypass all references to palaces or temples, and are Edenic places with lush flower beds, gushing streams and trilling birds?

Nature, in all its beauty, is an archetype which transcends all spiritual traditions. In nature we come home to ourselves and find peace.

My kind and precious lama, Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, once gave the class some advice on the best way to begin a meditation session – a suggestion I’d like to pass onto you. Whatever room we happen to be sitting in, and whether we prefer to meditate with our eyes open or closed, for a few moments before we do anything, imagine that we are in the most beautiful garden. We can recollect a much-loved landscape, nature spot or botanical place. Or we can make one up. If we find visualisation difficult, it’s enough to imagine that we are there – the sights, sounds scents and sensations. As we settle into this imagined place, we may well notice our shoulders begin to relax, our muscles soften, and a peaceful feeling come over us, as our bodies reflect our state of mind - as they usually do. We are now in an optimal state to begin meditating. And, who knows, perhaps, even to have a mystical experience!

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more”

George Gordon Byron

You can find the I am Nature post here.

If you’re fairly new to my Substack page and would like to explore further, you can read my previous posts under the Archive button here.

The Dalai Lama's Cat & Other Intrigues by David Michie is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

About half the money from Substack subscriptions goes to the following four charities. Feel free to click on the underlined links to read more about them:

Wild is Life - home to endangered wildlife and the Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery; Twala Trust Animal Sanctuary - supporting indigenous animals as well as pets in extremely disadvantaged communities; Dongyu Gyatsal Ling Nunnery - supporting Buddhist nuns from the Himalaya regions; Gaden Relief - supporting Buddhist communities in Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal and India.

The Dalai Lama's Cat: Buddhist compassion in action
The Dalai Lama's Cat: Buddhist compassion in action
David Michie