Wilderness: Embracing Change and Stillness

Posted by Sara Malas on June 29, 2022

SaraMalasA little less than two years ago, I had just completed my master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling. It was the midst of the pandemic: I was seeing more than 20 clients on zoom for hours at a time, constantly staring at a screen, and wondering when life would allow me to hold in-person sessions again. I thought to myself, “How could I have just started my journey as a therapist and already feel this burnt out?” I was exhausted and in need of a change.

I daydreamed about what it would be like to practice therapy in an outdoor setting in order to safely socially distance, while being able to share meaningful face-to-face interactions with clients. I felt discouraged, yet still hopeful as I searched for “outdoor therapy jobs.” The first job listing that appeared on my screen was for Evoke Therapy. I glowed with my whole body as I read the job description. Though I wouldn’t take a role as a therapist, I’d be a Field Instructor, and with that I’d get to spend time outside, work with people on a team, use my therapy skills, and learn how to live primitively in the wilderness.

IMG 6108

Everyone who I initially told thought I was crazy—I was just a therapist, not a wilderness professional. I am a Middle Eastern woman, who at the time, had only lived in major cities, had no background with working in wilderness settings and had only camped in tents for maximum two nights at a time. I had never worn a backpack bigger than a daypack on a hike. I’d never even used a headlamp. I knew this opportunity would be challenging and completely out of my comfort zone. I also recognized that discomfort is home to growth, and I was ready to grow.

And so, a number of months later, I left everything familiar and moved to the Utah desert to spend half my life working in the wilderness, living with and facilitating the healing journeys of teenagers who aren’t there by choice. Little did I realize how my time at Evoke would accelerate my own healing journey. The impact of wilderness was unparalleled by any therapy and self-development work I had done previously.

And guess what? The desert brought me to my knees. The dry climate cracked the skin on my lips and fingers. I got cut up by pokey cacti and yucca. I spent nights under the stars and others through storms, heat, and heavy winds. I’ve now hiked for miles carrying my life in a backpack, spending eight days in a row wearing the same clothes, without a full shower.

IMG 1619

Living outside, I’ve met myself more deeply. I’ve also met some remarkable humans, both young people and coworkers. They’ve inspired me and held space for my tears and fears, hopes and dreams. We’ve shared countless deep belly laughs and screamed into the void. We’ve danced to no music and created our own rhythm using instruments. We’ve taken deep breaths and processed both in words and in silence. We’ve normalized talking about poop and farts and crafted our own spoons from scratch. We’ve made fires and embraced the everlasting flame of the present moment.

What I appreciate most about the wilderness therapy modality is the space that being outside provides us to fully embrace stillness—an experience that is very hard to replicate in any other setting. Having been on the therapist side, I’ve seen how difficult it can be to see clients once a week and only have an hour of insight into their lives. Sessions can be performative and therapist-pleasing. In wilderness, one simply can’t fake it (their process), as this intervention paints the whole picture of behavior patterns and allows us to fully understand the multidimensionality of how each human interacts with the world, experiences emotions, applies their learnings to simple daily tasks, and builds connections with others.

Many of the students that I’ve worked with have little to no experience with an outdoor-oriented lifestyle. I often share my own journey in order to build rapport and empower them to embrace the novelty. When in nature, all societal conditioning is removed: the noise of the world, the expectations, labels, and pressures. We are left with our most authentic, dirty, messy, raw, ugly, beautiful, vibrant, and ever-grieving selves. That’s what being human is about. And owning these parts of ourselves is the magic of wilderness.

Comments

Sara, it is no surprise to me that in addition to being a gifted healer and photographer, that you are also a gifted writer. Thank you for sharing your unique perspective with us. I love life the best when I'm outdoors, too.

Posted by Andrea Goodwin

Sara you rock. I LOVED reading about your amazing courage to be so vulnerable, and how you shared it with us through your evocative writing. Wow!

Posted by Mohini Malhotra

I love your courage. I love your kindness. I love your strength. I love that you love nature. I love your ability to connect with so many. I love your passion to make a difference in the world. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to continue to learn from you.

Love, Mom

Posted by Lina Malas

Post your comment