Diamond Approach, Wilderness, and Primitive Ecopsychology : By John Davis


Many, many people have found awakening, nourishment, intimacy with themselves, and direct contact with essence through experiences in nature. I sure have. For almost as long as I have been doing the DIAMOND APPROACH, I have also pursued wilderness experiences and connection with the natural world. This nature-based part of my path has expanded my understanding and maturation, and I have come to see nature as an arena in which the soul can come to know its true nature, find guidance, and develop its potential more fully. The Diamond Approach continues to provide the foundation for my path, and I have come to see experiences in the natural world as means of deepening my realization of the Diamond Approach’s teachings.

For me, and for those I have guided on wilderness retreats the past 20 years, direct and immediate contact with the natural world has exposed more of the soul’s innate aliveness, tenderness, flow, and eventually, its transparency to being. Being in nature, especially wilder places, tends to dissolve the crusty, uptight, avoidant, asleep, and deadened structures of the ego-self, leading to disidentification from conditioned habits, self-images, representations of others and the world, and object relations – the stuff of the personality. When this disidentification happens, being and its essence are naturally more available. The natural world mirrors the soul’s inherent strength, power, sensitivity, joy, and support. All about us, we see birth, death, and transformation, and the soul relaxes into its ongoing process of transformation. In a word, wild nature is free, and immersed in wild nature, the soul is more free.

There are a number of ways to bring the Diamond Approach into nature experiences, whether they are watching a sunset, strolling in a park, or backpacking in the mountains. They all start, of course, with being there, as awake and open as possible. Recognizing and penetrating the obstacles and resistances to being there is also helpful, if not necessary. The Diamond Approach’s teachings and practices apply directly to this work, deepening our presence. Spending time in nature exposes our instinctual responses, giving us the opportunity to explore, understand, and mature them. Applying the understanding of object relations to our representations of nature reveals our projections onto the natural world and the ways we see nature as a danger, an object to be used, a home and family, or a greater self. Beyond helping us be free of these representations, the Diamond Approach reveals our ultimate nonduality with nature. The Diamond Approach’s understanding of the boundless dimensions is so very descriptive of nature mysticism, from that of indigenous peoples to current transpersonal and ecopsychological research. The characteristics and movement of the soul easily maps onto a pan-cultural, earth-based fourfold model of nature, a model which includes the four cardinal directions and the seasons as well as aspects of human nature, the body’s centers, and ways of being in the world. Though simple on the surface, this model has been remarkably rich for me, helping me contact my soul more deeply in a wide variety of circumstances. Many people have found an initiatory quality to wilderness experiences, whether deliberately on vision fasts and other wilderness rites of passage or not. Such nature-based initiations and rites of passage not only bring deeper meaning to life transitions; I feel they are a means through which the Personal Essence or Pearl matures. And so on... These are a few of the fruitful connections I have found in bringing the Diamond Approach into the natural world. No doubt, there are others yet to be discovered.

I encourage you to discover these connections for yourself. No matter how much contact you have with wild nature, opening to a bit more exposure will help your journey. Bringing a plant into an otherwise sterile room, working a garden, walking in a local open space or sitting by the water, spending time watching clouds or driving out beyond the city lights to discover the Milky Way for yourself, spending a day from sunrise to sundown in nature, or participating in an extended wilderness retreat – these, and countless other practices, are all good ways of increasing your contact with nature, your soul’s inner nature, and ultimately true nature.


Steven Foster and Meredith Little co-founded the School of Lost Borders. Steven was, for a time, a professor of literature and poetry, and his love for words prompted him to experiment often with the best language to describe the School’s work. At times, Steven used the term PRIMITIVE ECOPSYCHOLOGY for the work of the School of Lost Borders, and I love this term. While primitive ecopsychology is often done in wilderness settings, we come to find wildness in any natural setting. The connections between the Diamond Approach and primitive ecopsychology are easier to see in wilderness, they are just as present any time we come into direct contact with the world.

Ecopsychology addresses the deep and seamless interrelationships between humans and the natural world. Humans are part of the natural world, and living fully requires coming to terms with this. When we connect with nature, we are connecting with our larger self. We are more at home and more whole. Similarly, when we care for the natural world, we are caring for the larger self. Ecopsychology has two profound implications for how we live. One is that contact with nature is good for the human soul. Contact with nature, whether viewing nature imagery, bringing a plant into a hospital room, extended wilderness trips, and in between, has benefits for our mental health. The other is that environmental action shifts from a basis in fear, shame, and blame to a basis in devotion and care for places and things we love.

Here, the word primitive suggests two things. It points us to the wild world – the primitive world undeveloped and untamed by humans – and its effect on healing, development, and self-realization. The wild, whether in an extended wilderness retreat, a backyard, or indeed, even in our own bodies in this moment, wakes us up, heals us, and transforms us. (At the same time, we are quick to respect the raw power of the wild and the importance of preparation, support, context, and integration of nature experiences.)

The word primitive also suggests a primary, original, or first connection. It points us to direct and immediate contact with the natural world before emotional reaction or analytic mind. For all the concepts, teachings, and individual stories which have come into our work over the years, primitive ecopsychology urges us to return to our immediate experience in the present moment, for this is where we are most alive. Primitive ecopsychology may be seen as a branch of the larger field of human-nature relationships, one which is firmly oriented to the wild and firmly committed to bringing its gifts back to our people, families, communities, and places.

I see three basic elements in primitive ecopsychology. First and foremost, it calls out the necessity and value of direct, immediate contact with the natural world. No matter what else, turn toward nature. The wilder the better. The paradigm of primitive ecopsychology centers on wilderness experiences, but it is by no means limited to wilderness. Looking closely at the experience of wilderness, we will find it to be more of an attitude than an absolute set of characteristics. Most of the places we go for our vision fasts and nature-based retreats are wilder but not, strictly speaking, wilderness. Signs of human intervention are never far away: planes overhead, power lines or roads in the distance, marks from cattle or motorbikes underfoot. While we prefer a degree of removal from civilization, it is possible to encounter the natural world is less-than-wild settings. How wild does the wilderness need to be for the purposes of primitive ecopsychology? Not very. The key is to encounter the natural world directly and openly. This is easier to do away from town, but nature is all about us.

The second element of primitive ecopsychology is a ceremonial approach to the natural world and our experience of it. This is exemplified most directly by the vision fast, a wilderness rite of passage which the School of Lost Borders has provided to a wide range of people for over 30 years. The vision fast is essentially a threshold-crossing ceremony. After preparation, the initiate enters a time of solo and then returns. While the specific purpose of a rite of passage is generally the confirmation of a change is status or a life transition, Foster and Little designed a wide range of ceremonies with a similar structure (Foster & Little, 1989). Recently Little and her colleague, Scott Eberle, have offered nature-based intensives applying this structure to “the practice of living and dying” (Eberle, 2006).

The third element of primitive ecopsychology, in my view, is the use of a particular four-fold model of nature, including human nature. This Four Shields model is featured as a specific teaching by the School of Lost Border and is included in virtually all of its courses. Its origins appear to be Mayan, but its basic outlines are found in many cultures around the world. This model of human nature stems equally from natural cycles, human life cycles, and a wide variety of dimensions of human action and experience. It presents an earth-centered ontology, epistemology, psychology, and spirituality. It does what we would ask of a psychological model, including the articulation of various developmental stages, cognitive styles, emotional styles, typical forms of psychopathology, healing styles, and expressions of optimal mental health. Most importantly for ecopsychology, the Four Shields model derives from our understanding of natural processes. That is, while mapping human nature and experience, it also maps four seasons, times of day, cardinal directions, and other expressions in the natural world.


Both the Diamond Approach and primitive ecopsychology aim to expand and deepen experience and to bring us more fully into the present moment. Both draw us into direct and immediate contact with the totality of the body, heart, mind, and spirit. They express a genuinely optimistic view of human nature, along with a respectful, compassionate, and unflinching recognition of the obstacles to the full realization of our potential. Each appreciates the maturation of the human being as being an ongoing and open-ended process. Finally, both the Diamond Approach and primitive ecopsychology are deeply committed to living in the world, this world.


We are here to witness the creation
and to abet it. . . 
We are here to bring to consciousness the
beauty and power that are around us and
to praise the people who are here with us.

Annie Dillard