Inner Places and The Wild: The Quest for Emptiness in the World

There is something about matter being incompressible. It is impossible to cut the volume of one liter of water just by clenching it. There is no way you will make a rock fit in a box that is smaller than the rock itself. Things have a given volume. If you amputate that volume, or try to squeeze it, you will change the nature of the thing.

What if the human mind had the same limitations? What if our minds occupied a given volume in the world? I’m not talking about the volume your brain occupies in your skull. I mean the volume a human mind needs to feel comfortable, alive, happy. It probably implies  a certain amount of cubic inches of space (What space? Forest? Sea? One street? One city? A room?), but it’s really more about offering the mind ways of escaping  daily confines.

o-images-EarthThose free spaces do not have to be real. There are plenty of ways in the contemporary world to escape from the daily environment: virtual worlds are all around us, in books, the internet, movies, video games. It is today possible to live entirely in those other realities.

We know our planet so well. We’ve documented so many places that you can easily imagine the wildest Brazilian jungle in your cosy living room and sort of feel carried away. The age of high-definition cameras makes it even easier. How many Facebook pages, magazines and TV channels are only about showing spectacular pictures of “the most awesome place on earth”? How many pictures of grandiose landscapes and scenic beauties are shared every day on social media?

There is a real, deep and widespread need for what will evoke “the wild”, open spaces, “emptiness”, even sometimes “original purity” of a “people-free” world.

Why is it so?

1. The Quest for the Self

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We live at the age of individuality. The Self is the main purpose, way and achievement of our life journey. As everything  in our globalized world is possible (choosing with who to live, where, what job to take, what to own, who to become), finding out exactly who you are and who you want to be requires a lot of work. It takes time, energy, faith, self-trust and lots of testing (going to several places, trying several occupations, living with various people).

A large part of the hiking/trekking industry, as well as yoga retreats, desert walks, pilgrimages and wilderness exploration adventures developed in  recent years to fill that strong demand for the quest of the Self.Constantly having to adapt to new environments and to make life-changing decisions is very demanding. When things move too fast, we need to isolate ourselves to pacify the mind. Introspection requires being alone. It  requires a peaceful, remote environment that will return a serenity impression to the Self. A simple picture of sand dunes stretching as far as the eye can see will cut the feeling of messiness in our minds.

2. The Urban Ubiquity

Cities sprawl. Everywhere. Not only are they consuming what used to be “rural” and “natural” spaces, but they are also eating away at traditional customs and cultural habits from the (less urban) past. Cities are becoming a way of life that affects everyone, even people who don’t live in them. Even if cities have local and national specificities, they tend to standardize the way we consume things, what styles and ideas we tend to value, the rhythm we live by around the world.

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Living in a city means living with others, and more likely others you don’t know personally. Living with others in those conditions implies having to behave in a certain way, both in public and private spaces. It means having to run at the same speed other people do. It is a natural reaction to feel the need to escape social standards, other people’s judgements, the pressure of having to speed up, perform and behave in the same way.

The general trend that more than half of the human population will be urban by 2025 plays a big role in our societal need for “the wild” and “emptiness”. The very function of “nature” shifted with the development of cities, from raw stock material  to a romantic and rural cliché, to “a place to rest from cities” that should remain “empty” for that purpose.

Urban people do not care about escaping their polluted, noisy, crowded environment for some agricultural region full of smelly livestock, dust and trucks. They want “nature” to be what they need it to be: a “wild” and “empty” clean space where they can relieve the pressure of being themselves and open up to the world again. Many current issues are due to that conflicting conception of what “non-urban” space should be.

3. The Failure of the Suburban Dream

The founding principle of suburbs was initially to provide every family with its own well-deserved piece of “the wild” and “emptiness”, coupled with the right to own a house and to live in a safe and friendly community. Based on post-war beliefs about “the greenery  being healthy for children”, giving every one the right to have a backyard, to literally own a piece of “nature”, was kind of a noble intention.

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Today we know too well that it is not healthier to live in the suburbs. where everybody is alike and where social judgement and pressure to conform to the dominant ideal is sometimes harder than in cities. “Nature” has been reduced to a patch of lawn to put a barbecue and play badminton on, which makes the need for “the wild” and “emptiness” even stronger than for city residents in many cases.

The suburban dream has affected the way we design cities and live on a daily basis since the sixties (working, driving, shopping, meeting people, etc.). Today we know that this model is alienating. It isolates people from each other, as well as depriving them of an essential way out: the possibility of escaping the pressures of their daily confines.

Does that mean you should jump on a plane to the Mongolian steppe each time your daily pressures feel unbearable?

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That would certainly work for a moment, but there are much simpler options to find “emptiness”. It is easy to feel free in a little space that we have total control over (like a room), while you can feel totally trapped in the middle of the Sahara (ask an agoraphobic person). Emptiness certainly feels more “tangible” in “the wild”, standing in front of a huge blue lake and staring at a mountain, than in your bedroom.

The key to escaping the pressure of “being ourselves” has probably more to do with proper personal choices, good time and stress management, inspiring hobbies and great friends than with satisfying every urge to run away to the bush.

It is, however, a very strong feeling that plays a big role in the way we behave and treat “nature”, as well as ourselves.

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