Experiential Facilitation in the Outdoors

Introduction and Background

This chapter addresses some of the history and cultural perspectives of the therapeutic facilitation of outdoor endeavors. We think that modern-day ‘experiential therapies’ are in part an attempt to recover cultural wisdom that has been lost from Western society and more recently also from Indigenous cultures. With the increasing reliance on theories, techniques, and methods, we risk forgetting that learning from one’s own experience is a fundamental human capability, based on the three following competencies: (1) The ability to notice the consequences of one’s actions and inactions in relation to the actual needs of one’s environment; (2) the capacity to take in relevant information from one’s own perception and experience, from other peoples’ opinions and from the other-than-human surroundings that can be used to develop learning; and (3) the capacity to manage one’s own feelings and thoughts well enough to integrate the learning that arises from the above—rather than avoiding acknowledging one’s central role in one’s own experience.

Nonetheless, traumatic events or episodes can endanger or disturb (temporarily) the capacity for self-healing, even if a specific person or a culture has access to a well-developed and attentive experiential noticing and processing system (Ginot, 2015). Even without the effect of trauma, one might block their own awareness and experiencing in a specific situation because of a need for emotional or psychological survival. It is in the circumstances where people have lost their innate capacity of learning from their own experience that facilitation from ‘the other’ might be necessary or needed, in order to restore the self-healing capacity.

The theoretical underpinning and practices of outdoor therapies are influenced by mainly two fields: Experiential and process-oriented therapies and outdoor education (Harper, Peeters, &c Carpenter, 2015). Experiential therapies and process-oriented treatments, such as Gestalt (Peris, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1951), person-centered (Rogers, 1961), focusing (Gendlin, 1978), bioenergetic analysis (Lowen, 1958), andpsychodrama (Moreno, 1946), can be observed in outdoor therapies. These approaches were influenced in their development by existential and phenomenological philosophies, the development of psychoanalytic schools of thought, and Eastern religions. The outdoor (experiential) educational movement had theoretical and philosophical roots in the work of people such as Dewey (1938) for experience and education, Kolb (1984) for experience and learning styles, Hahn (Schwarz, 1968) for outdoor adventure, Piaget (1972) for developmental theory and constructivist theory of knowing, Freire (1968) for emancipatory education, and from Illich’s (1971) criticisms of formal education. However as outdoor therapies evolve, it seems that therapeutic approaches and belief-systems grow with increasing cross-fertilization between disciplines. In our view, this brief, and quite likely incomplete overview of contributors, illustrates the richness of theoretical influences which provide diverse potential and surprising innovation in our work.

Adventure therapy (see Chapter 7) has evolved from a model where it was thought that the activity could speak for itself (Bacon, 1987) through to a model influenced by other humanistic disciplines, and that reflection upon the activity is a necessary therapeutic element (Gass & Priest, 2005). In a further elaboration of theory, the deliberate use of metaphor and frontloading techniques was advocated, which drew attention to the presentation, or the briefing of the activity or encounter that was to follow (Bacon, 1983; Gass, Gillis, & Priest, 2000). More recently, we have arrived at models that transcend earlier linear simplifications of well-known and commonly used learning cycles (Hovelynck, 2000; Kolb, 1984). These ideas emphasize more of a reflection-in-action approach where the meaning-making process of the participants is the focus of our facilitation attention, during every element of the program. That is, it is important to not distinguish between the phases of presentation, briefing, action, reflection, and transfer. Rather, participant learning emerges from a holistic and integrated process of facilitation throughout the entire duration of participants engagements with the therapeutic program.

Concepts and Paradigms

We distinguish between experiential outdoor approaches and other outdoor processes that are not grounded in experiencing. These other approaches, such as narrative-based adventure therapy or cognitive behavioral-based adventure therapy, are an essential part of the whole ecology of outdoor-based learning and therapy (Gass, Gillis, & Russell, 2012). However, the facilitation of depth-based outdoor experiential learning focuses more on the experiencing as a whole, which is a complex interplay of emotion, different kinds of memory, cognition, bodily awareness, action, needs, and motivation (Greenberg, Watson, & Lietaer, 1998). It also calls on us to explore some of the undercurrents in individuals and groups that are often overlooked in other approaches (Ringer, 2002), which usually occur outside the direct awareness of both participants and facilitators (Peelers & Ringer, 2015).

For many years, practitioners, largely from outside the outdoor field, have been refining therapeutic systems that take into account unconscious processes, systems dynamics, and personal and group dynamics (Huckabay, 1992; Taylor, Segal, & Harper, 2010). We draw on these to help inform our practice as outdoor therapeutic practitioners and make some broad generalizations referring to the use of self-as-instrument, of which we will expand on later in this chapter.

Experiential therapeutic approaches view people as experiencing agents who, by symbolizing and reflecting on their experience, construct new meaning and choose courses of action (Greenberg et al., 1998). This belief holds the paradigm that the individual is the specialist of their own situation and that we potentially possess the best possible responses to deal with the questions and challenges that we have to face in our own personal lives. What we are aware of and what we feel, our thoughts and emotions, are herein the best guidelines we have at our disposal.

About Limits, Boundaries, and Blockages to Experiencing Change

A central concept in the change process is awareness. The paradoxical theory of change describes how we must get acquainted with our dysfunctional ways of being through fully engaging with all of our awareness (Beisser, 1970; Philippson, 2012). It is the process of a heightened awareness that will logically, but inevitably, lead to change. Having said that, being immersed in an activity does not necessarily mean that we will experience it. In that sense, we find it confusing and misleading that some literature (e.g., Gass et al., 2012) does not make any differentiation between a proposed activity or program component, and the idiosyncratic experiences that these might evoke in different participants. To us, this is not a mere question of semantics. There is a huge difference between what is offered or what we engage people in (action or activity) and how this is perceived. Participant’s unique and personal experience varies greatly, depending on what sensations, images, metaphors, feelings, and thoughts are provoked and evoked. We want to strongly affirm that in our view we cannot provide experiences. We can only provide occasions, or an environment, or encounters that may generate experiences that can be worked with by engaging with each participant’s experience.

The core of the difficulty is that we often act out of habit, unconscious beliefs, or outdated emotional schema’s (Peeters, 2003). These are developed earlier in life in response to perceived threat or danger in the environment at the time, but repeated later in life, even when they are no longer an appropriate response to the current environment (Greenberg, Rice, & Elliot, 1993). For example, repeated experiences with punitive teachers might have influenced a reaction to back off and shy away in situations where we encounter authority figures, even if, for example, our new boss is positive minded and open to disagreement.

People develop strategies which can block their own awareness, especially in novel or potentially emotional overwhelming situations or when focused on a goal or task completion. For example, if we want to finish a hike it is better not to feel a developing blister. To be able to get up onto the horse’s back, it is not helpful to be aware of the growing fear inside of you. Perhaps too, if there is a social or cultural norm that forbids being emotional, it is better not to feel the upcoming sadness.

Thanks to developments in the fields of neuroscience, neuropsychology, and social neuroscience, we now understand that the brain, mind, and body are an interrelated system and that our sense of ‘self’ as being separate from ‘other’ is largely an illusion (Biran, 2015; Ginot, 2015). This discussion is expanded on in Chapter 11 about sensory integrated occupational therapy in the outdoors. There is also considerable evidence that the majority of our significant emotional and psychological events, and learning, occur outside our conscious awareness (Ginot, 2015; Wilson, 2004). This leads to the notion that it is no longer possible for facilitators to see ourselves as separate from the group we facilitate. We are immersed in a complex manifestation of conscious and unconscious processes that involves our own emotional and psychological worlds at least as much as it does those of our participants.

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