Miki Fire: Discovering the Self Through Transpersonal Wilderness Therapy

The newest episode of our university podcast, ‘Mindful U at Naropa University,’ is out on iTunesStitcher, Fireside, and Spotify now! We are excited to announce this week’s episode features special guest Miki Fire, a professional wilderness guide, teaches in the Wilderness Therapy concentration of Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and educator in the Himalayas and the United States, on the topic of ‘Discovering Self Through Transpersonal Wilderness Therapy.’

play-iconMiki Fire: Discovering the Self Through Transpersonal Wilderness Therapy

“I do think here at Naropa specifically we do have a transpersonal orientation, a transpersonal lens that we then incorporate into all of our classes. So, the contemplative education piece is very much interwoven in what we do in the field. And so, we incorporate contemplative practices, we talk about how nature-based experiences themselves can be forms of contemplative practice and inquiry. We also do introduce the transpersonal model. So how do we work with those kinds of experiences that the transpersonal orientation has really taken in and not pathologized. And being in the outdoors for many people, depending on the context, also can be quite evocative of experiences that do not fit cleanly into our usual psychological frameworks or when they are they’re often pathologized.”

About Miki

Michal (Miki) Fire, Psy.D. Fire received her Doctor of Psychology degree from the California Institute of Integral Studies and BA from McGill University. She brings over 15 years of experience as a professional wilderness guide, instructor for therapeutic wilderness programs, and educator in the Himalayas and United States. She maintains a private practice as a Clinical Psychologist as well as consults to outdoor/experiential organizations on mental health issues. She has published and presented at the Science and Nonduality Conference, to the Board of Trustees at CIIS, as well as The Evolutionary Epic conference on topics including ecopsychology, spiritual emergence/y, and the felt experience of nondual consciousness. She teaches in Naropa’s Mindfulness-Based Transpersonal Counseling Psychology and Transpersonal Wilderness Therapy programs.

Full transcript
Miki Fire
Wilderness Therapy

[MUSIC]

Hello. And welcome to Mindful U at Naropa. A podcast presented by Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

I’m your host, David Devine. And itÕs a pleasure to welcome you. Joining the best of Eastern and Western educational traditions – Naropa is the birth place of the modern mindfulness movement.

[MUSIC]

DAVID:
Hello. Today I’d like to welcome a very special guest to the podcast Miki Fire. Miki is an assistant professor and serves as a chair in the Transpersonal Wilderness therapy program.

How are you doing today?

Miki Fire:
I’m good.

DAVID:
So, tell me a little bit about yourself — like where did you go to school? How did you find yourself to Naropa? What was that journey like for you?

Miki Fire:
Well I’m trying to figure out how far back to go.

DAVID:
Okay.

Miki Fire:
Because it feels like what brought me to Naropa and what brought me to Wilderness Therapy is itself — like a long journey. But, in summary I would say — different streams of experience ultimately brought me here. The first was really a connection and what then became professional work in the outdoor industry and in the world of experiential education — both as a professional wilderness guide and then eventually weaving that into working experientially with folks nationally and also internationally.

And at some point, for different reasons actually, going back to school and becoming a clinical psychologist and getting my training in that realm. And on some level always knowing that there was a desire to bring these two parts together for me in a lot of ways the wilderness piece was really very, very personal. It’s where I always found my place of transformation and growth.

So, I’ve always known that that was something I wanted to you know in some way integrate into my work. And so, I went to school at the California Institute of Integral Studies. That’s where I got my doctorate.

DAVID:
That’s CIIS, right?

Miki Fire:
Yeah in the Bay Area. And yeah it was just a series of circumstances that eventually brought me to basically a faculty opening in the wilderness therapy program and having had the privilege of all my experiences were just you know a good fit. I wasn’t actually practicing as a wilderness therapist. I was practicing as a psychologist, but who had had about 15 years of work prior in the outdoor industry — in the outdoor field.

DAVID:
So, you were just doing the outdoor industry as fun wilderness. It wasn’t an actual career trajectory for you?

Miki Fire:
It was a career trajectory for me for over a decade. And interestingly enough I always found that that for me — the way in which I was working is where I saw the most profound transformation in myself and in people.

So, when I actually went back to school to become — in clinical psychology. I was actually a little bit skeptical about whether or not this thing that we call therapy and my idea of what it was — which is this thing we do in an office for a limited period of time once a week I was very skeptical that that actually had transformative potential.

DAVID:
Where did that come from — why?

Miki Fire:
The skepticism?

DAVID:
Yeah, I’m curious about that.

Miki Fire:
I think the skepticism came first of all because I had actually never been in therapy myself — that kind of therapy.

DAVID:
OK.

Miki Fire:
So, I had not gotten to see on a very personal level what happens in those kinds of spaces. But what I had gotten to see from a pretty young age and really, I think about — really around 15 years old is where I really began seeing this for me personally. Is that something very profound would happen for me in connection to the outdoor world. And because of the professional sort of path that I followed, which was eventually to be working with folks outside, to be working with folks in very kind of dynamic environments, working with folks not for 50 minutes at a time, but actually 13 weeks at a time. You know in my sort of na•ve place, you know my — my more sort of narcissistic — you know way — all I had known is when I had known I just couldn’t imagine that that level of transformation could be possible without those surroundings — that container.

DAVID:
Okay. Before you started doing the clinical psychology direction were you working in therapy as wilderness therapy already? So, it wasn’t just like you were a rock climber teaching people how to rock climb — you were actually working in wilderness therapy and then became a clinical psychologist?

Miki Fire:
So, I did a little bit of both. I did work for some time just purely in the outdoors — backpacking, rock climbing — all those kinds of things for people who just were on the surface coming because they just wanted an outdoor experience. I also did work for almost two years as a field instructor in a therapeutic wilderness program. I also ran study abroad programs in the Himalayas for four years.

DAVID:
What?!

Miki Fire:
And we did a lot of wilderness pieces, a lot of physical pieces — we did a lot of you know really educational and immersive kind of cultural pieces.

DAVID:
Unique direction.

Miki Fire:
Uh uh.

DAVID:
I like it and it seems cool too because you’re following a passion and then from while following your passion then you discover these really deep meaningful things that you like and then you’re like oh look at that — I’m going to go this direction now.

Miki Fire:
Yeah.

DAVID:
It’s really cool.

So, tell me what was the first inspiration you had that made you link those two together? What kind of made you inspired to follow like a wilderness industry direction and then what also inspired you to follow clinical psychologist direction?

Miki Fire:
Well in connection to something you just said David about I think following — I don’t remember the words you used but —

DAVID:
Following your passion.

Miki Fire:
I think there is a way in which there’s always been something deeper and bigger operating, I would say. And I’ve been very, very privileged in my life because of the places I’ve lived, the family I was born into, the circumstances I was born into to be very well supported actually — to always be listening to — to that part — to that deeper inner knowing.

So that even I remember when I graduated from college and I had friends who were immediately applying to go to graduate school or you know there was sort of this path that felt like maybe that’s what you were supposed to do.

I remember having a conversation with my mom on the phone feeling conflicted about what to do. And she said you know, why don’t you think about the thing that scares you most. And that’s what you do.

And I feel really — I feel really lucky.

DAVID:
Okay.

Miki Fire:
Right, that I had — that that’s part of what I grew up with. So I guess in answer to your question the piece that took me on the path — the professional path of working in the outdoors came from some way that like I said, starting when I was a teenager I began to feel a very profound connection to the unseen world, to the outdoor world, and there was just a conviction — a pretty arrogant one actually when I think about it when I was graduating from college that I was going to get a job working outside and someone would pay me. I just want to be outside. And I just knew that and I followed that path until it felt clear that something else wanted to happen. I knew I wanted to go back to the Himalayas where I had spent some time as a college student. And you know just those serendipitous things kind of show up and I followed them and I was lucky enough to — to land in some really neat places and at some point, that plateaued and decided to go back to grad school in a completely different field. And as I was applying for that direction — which was not clinical psychology. I started getting feedback — thank goodness from people that said wow, we’re surprised you’re not going in this other direction — now I should mention I always had a lot of resistance to going to school for clinical psych. It was the one thing I was not going to do because it’s what my mom did. So, you know that kind of classic —

DAVID:
But you did though.

Miki Fire:
Well exactly. So, it took me a while to get there. But I also want to say when I was 18 years old, I remember being a junior or senior in high school — I think it was 1994, maybe. I picked up a book at the Boulder Bookstore actually and it had just came out and it was called Eco Psychology. It’s a very well-known book now. And I opened that book — for some reason I was drawn to it — I bought it. And I do remember reading those chapters in that book and having this thought, which was, wow, this is what I want to do.

DAVID:
OK. So, you mentioned something about following what you’re scared of most. What was that? Was it being a clinical psychologist because your mom was — because your mom said follow the thing you’re scared of?

Miki Fire:
Yeah, I don’t think I would have known that at the time. Not at all. I think at the time that felt like it helped support the part of me that wasn’t listening to maybe all of the more dominant voices saying you know this is what you should do you should. You should — this is the right thing to do. You should think about, you know, be responsible. Think about how you might make money — think about your education. I mean I think at the time it’s what I needed to support the part of me that — yeah, that conviction of, you know, I want to be outside and I’m not sure why and maybe I can make that work.

DAVID:
Yeah. I feel like there’s this feeling of just because you’re afraid of something doesn’t mean you should stay away from it. You actually want to pursue something, but you’re afraid of doing this — applying for that or asserting yourself into this. And by hearing your mom say don’t be afraid that — you can step into it and just be like well I ultimately want the thing that it’s going to create, but I’m scared to do the steps along the way.

Miki Fire:
Right. Yeah. I think the message was something like don’t — actually it was something like don’t let your fear be the thing that holds you back from doing what you really want to do.

DAVID:
That’s awesome.

Miki Fire:
Right.

DAVID:
All right.

Miki Fire:
I think it was less about like go and get scared.

DAVID:
Run towards being scared.

Miki Fire:
Right no, I think respect fear. Yeah.

DAVID:
So, at Naropa you are the chair of the Transpersonal Wilderness Therapy. So, I was actually curious when was like the relationship of wilderness and therapy adopted together? When did therapy decide that the wilderness was going to be a form of healing for that sort of field?

Miki Fire:
That’s a really good question.

DAVID:
They’re like hey you know what – let’s stop talking in a room and let’s go outside and play in some trees or let’s go see what the Earth is saying to us and like look at the rivers and lakes and take a hike.

Miki Fire:
I mean I’m pausing because I think the response to the question can go in a few different directions. I mean you’re talking on some level about a kind of perennial wisdom that we could ask, right, in so many fields today — like when did this field decide this was a good idea and a part of me wants to say when did it forget that it was a part of healing? When did it forget our interconnected nature?

DAVID:
I like that.

Miki Fire:
So, the remembering, right, the sort of oh, let’s do this feels a little —

DAVID:
It’s almost like let’s get back to it.

Miki Fire:
Yeah like, wow, this has been here all along. And I should say as a side note and maybe we can get there that this idea of nature as being healing I think is complex. Just the assumption of oh, nature is therapeutic and let’s bring it in is I think complex and I just want to come back to that.

DAVID:
Oh, we will. I want to know about that.

Miki Fire:
Ok, but in a way there’s so many different ways the therapy has incorporated elements of the natural world and vice versa. It’s hard to answer because there’s so many different ways that wilderness therapy can look. I think it’s one of the things I really love about our program is many of our students and folks who look at our program have usually just one idea — if they’ve heard of wilderness therapy what they know about is they often know about programs that work primarily with adolescents who have almost always not by their choice been taken into an outdoor environment for 8 to 13 weeks to do you know these very intensive programs that are often fairly behavior modification oriented and etc, etc and these programs have been around for some time. They have their own lineage and history that is quite specific and even root back to — you know, and there’s a couple of books that have been written actually that look specifically at the history of those programs, but that to me is only one way that wilderness therapy looks. What I love about our program actually is — I think part of what we really try to do is to expand our idea and our understanding and therefore our clinical capacity to go way beyond just one model of what wilderness therapy is so that we may be talking about really what you said — taking somebody out just to a river bed.

And in fact, in that space doing something that may not even be so different from what we might do inside, but that just by virtue of being at the river bed something different might become available or might be experienced. We may be bringing nature elements into the office. Working with plants. Working with objects. You know we may be working with activities, right, you mentioned rock climbing or rafting or —

DAVID:
Ropes course?

Miki Fire:
Ropes course — and each one of these things I think holds different possibilities and different intentions. So, just even the question of where did this begin? Where did this all start? It almost feels like it came through different threads. Right because that notion of us as human — that our species is part of interconnected one of all the many on this planet — well that preceded us — big time.

And so again back to where we started it’s more like when did we forget?

DAVID:
I loved it.

Miki Fire:
And so, when did we — I mean I say we — like the species. You know when was there a conscious remembering that actually we never were separate. Right, to me on one of the deepest levels for myself in my own wilderness therapy practice, which I encourage my students to do — same way we go to therapy as we become trained to be therapists. I think as wilderness therapists I always encourage like what’s the wilderness therapy you’re doing, which isn’t just I go out for a hike to blow off steam or something — which in and of itself might be good. But what’s the deeper work you’re doing? For me it’s —

DAVID:
Creating a relationship with the wilderness to enhance the therapeutic applications that you’re receiving.

Miki Fire:
Exactly. And to me it’s a lot about on that much more subtle level being able to understand something much deeper about my inner landscape in relationship and reference to outer landscape. And so, to that like when I think about just my own personal experience of well, what is my wilderness therapy that I engage in? When did that begin?

DAVID:
Interesting.

Miki Fire:
But if we want to talk about adventure therapy and when did we start seeing organizations actually incorporating therapeutic programs into their already existing adventure based models? Or the wilderness therapy programs I just mentioned, for example, you know those I think we can look back to the Boy Scouts. We can look back to the things that were already happening in the 60s and 70s — or ways then that in the transpersonal movement, humanistic movement, the eco psychology environmental movement — I think areas there. You know these days it’s not uncommon — you know Outside magazine just a couple weeks ago had front page article about the new medicine — nature, right.

DAVID:
Is it new?

Miki Fire:
Exactly — but just that now — right, that just now there’s this emergence of physicians, psychiatrists prescribing the outdoors to patients. So, it’s emerging in different ways.

DAVID:
You’re making me think of something interesting where the fact that at Naropa we have a lot of awesome psychology programs that you can move forward in — like transpersonal psychology, somatic psychology, Jungian psychology, wilderness therapy psychology. But what’s interesting is like when I take somatic or transpersonal it’s this — in an office talking with them using the techniques that I learned from this psychology application. But in wilderness therapy there’s so many different routes you can take. You’re learning how to do group work, you’re learning how to do teen emotional behavioral work, you’re learning how to do individual connecting with self-addiction work. So, there’s a lot of different applications in which the wilderness therapy shows up and it’s not just sit down in an office let’s work through the thing that we’re trying to work through.

Miki Fire:
Right, and I think what I would say is that there are specific tools that we might use in this field if we’re doing wilderness therapy and nature inspired therapy and —

DAVID:
Oh, I like that.

Miki Fire:
And it’s a particular lens or framework that we can hold and bring into any therapy and that the tools themselves may be very overlapping with the tools that another clinician might use who is doing — you know using a different modality.

DAVID:
Awesome. Okay. So, one of the questions I was thinking of is when I was introducing you, I said transpersonal wilderness therapy program. What is the difference between transpersonal wilderness therapy program and just wilderness therapy? How does transpersonal apply to the idea of this therapy?

Miki Fire:
Well this is one of the places this program is really unique because we are the only transpersonal wilderness therapy program that I am aware of in existence. You know we’re one of the very few that trains in wilderness therapy itself.

DAVID:
That’s cool.

Miki Fire:
Well in some ways — and other people might disagree with me, but in some ways there’s almost a kind of redundancy because if I think about what transpersonal means or the transpersonal movement in the field of psychology I think one of the things I so deeply appreciate is that it already historically was about an acknowledgement of those experiences that were beyond trans — the psychologies that were existing at the time.

So those were — were really just about sort of — the ego — myself within this encapsulated form. So, the whole transpersonal movement any way was about wait a minute — we have experiences that go way beyond just this physical body. In the transpersonal field we’re often talking — you know I think a lot of what got incorporated were spiritual experiences, for example, but I would say even more than that. So, on some level just to incorporate the wilderness piece already feels to me like it’s taking the traditional model of therapy and psychology, right, beyond what — how we normally see it yet.

DAVID:
Wilderness is inherently transpersonal.

Miki Fire:
Well and that’s the other piece so — but I do think here at Naropa specifically we do have a transpersonal orientation — a transpersonal lens that we then incorporate into all of our classes. So, the contemplative education piece is very much interwoven in what we do in the field. And I would say in theory we could do it without that, but we don’t. And so, we incorporate contemplative practices, we talk about how nature based experiences themselves can be forms of contemplative practice and inquiry. We also do introduce the transpersonal model. So how do we work with those kinds of experiences that the transpersonal orientation has really taken in and not pathologized. And being in the outdoors for many people — depending on the context also can be quite evocative of experiences that do not fit cleanly into our usual psychological frameworks or when they are — they’re often pathologized.

DAVID:
Interesting, yeah in the wilderness there’s less control and more witnessing and I feel like that might be happening internally as well with your psyche and your emotional states and your ego is sometimes you can’t control it, but you are subjected to it. So therefore, the wilderness kind of helps us understand that everything is in conjunction with each other, but it’s flowing correctly. It’s just we need to be careful with the labels on which we put on it.

Miki Fire:
Yeah.

DAVID:
It’s almost like a reflection of our inside — is how nature is reflecting to us on the outside.

Miki Fire:
Well I think that’s right. And for that same reason this is one of the reasons I just want to say as well, that being outside is not necessarily comfortable for everybody or for any of us at various times depending on what we’re working with. It’s the amount of projection that can happen, right, in the outside world — just like you said we’re in a relationship. We are being witnessed by and witnessing all that is around us — that is us. It’s no different than being in relationship with people, but there’s so much opportunity I would say to come to come contact with shadow material, to come into the places that feel so dark and scary in inside. And how we experience that outside and that’s not just in our own psyche, but I also do think about what are the histories that we’ve come from. And so all of the — all of the conditioning and layers of also what our relationship with the outdoors has been. So, what are the places that have been scary internally for me, but also for my people whoever they might be. How has that come about in relationship with the natural environment and there’s this kind of very profound interactive dialogue I think that happens when we spend time outside. And that happens for people.

DAVID:
Yeah sounded like it could be scary. I’m one of those people who are overly aware of whatever is happening around — like I’m in a restaurant I can feel everyone’s like emotional — it’s — it’s weird — it’s sticky, it’s gooey, you know, and when I’m outside in the wilderness I can like feel that as well.

Miki Fire:
Yeah, I was gonna — I wanted to ask you, yeah, and so when you take the people away and you are just do with the natural environment, yeah, like what is that — what comes back to you?

DAVID:
I’ve been gardening for a couple years now and the garden is such a beautiful place to relearn — to know it’s an infinite teacher is how I see it. And one thing I started realizing a couple of years ago is plants are like — they’re so loud. They like whoa shut up. They talk — it’s not like you talk to plants — plants are talking to you.

Miki Fire:
That’s right.

DAVID:
And whether you’re open to listen to them or not. I don’t know — that’s —

Miki Fire:
I love that. I love that. You know we — I mean one of our classes is a horticulture therapy class. You’re not saying anything that isn’t a true.

DAVID:
I’m not like the weird guy over here?

Miki Fire:
Not at all.

DAVID:
Yeah, my orchids they tell me a lot of things. So —

Miki Fire:
I love it.

DAVID:
All right. So, when it comes to this sort of wilderness therapy healing and process of discovering a deeper self — what type of people are looking for this type of therapy? When you’re working with clients what are some of the similarities that they show up with? Is there like a continuous narrative of someone looking for healing or is it very different every time they show up or is — like a little bit of groups here in there. What are people trying to heal when they approach this type of therapy?

Miki Fire:
You know I think my own experience and just in thinking about, you know, just talking to other clinicians who work in wilderness therapy — all different kinds. If we’re talking, let’s say about environments where clients can really choose to come — I think it runs the — the full spectrum of folks who are looking for a therapist who notice, wow, this therapist does this thing called wilderness therapy — well that sounds interesting. I love the outdoors. Let me check that out. Right, so often I think there’s just a curiosity there. You know I think sometimes people are really — the way the modality looks can be so varied. It might literally be a person — a therapist who’s in private practice who is taking people outdoors during those sessions. It might be someone who facilitates multi-day programs outside. So, depending on those things I think it’s going to draw a different person. I think what I have seen and heard more than anything is that whatever it is that’s drawing someone and oftentimes people — that’s not necessarily a thing they’re drawn to, but they find themselves with a therapist who does wilderness work — who might say you know are you open to spending some time outside and seeing how this is? So, people don’t always find themselves —

DAVID:
Ok, that’s interesting. Yeah yeah yeah.

Miki Fire:
I would say more than anything though I think what people expect when they’re saying hey, I want to come because you work outside also and I love being outside — it may not be what they get. You know I think that there is —

DAVID:
So, itÕs like a therapist deciding what may work best for the client, but even though they may show up like, hey I really like rock climbing. Let’s go have some therapy while we’re — you’re like eh…

Miki Fire:
Exactly.

DAVID:
Let’s go sit under a tree and have like a really deep conversation about what your demons are saying — instead.

Miki Fire:
Or even let’s go rock climbing, but not necessarily because we’re gonna go have this good time rock climbing while we do therapy as if they’re two separate things. I think that might be the part that clients don’t always expect or know how it might be is the rock climbing itself — it is the therapy. So, as you are moving up the rock even before you are — how is this climb? How is this rock a metaphor for the thing that you are trying to navigate in your life? How is this moment that you’re halfway up the wall and starting to get really, really scared similar to the other moments or to the moment in your life right now where something is really frightening. How is the way in which you’re moving through this challenging moment — how can we understand something about that in relation to how you move through challenges in your life. And is there a way to do it different this time? Can we — so that — and that even is just on the metaphoric level how we might use an activity like rock climbing in a therapeutic way, which is gonna be pretty different than if you and I just went out and said let’s go climbing and have a good conversation.

DAVID:
Yeah, it’s like hanging out with a therapist you can just be doing your normal activity. And they would just go how does that make you feel? Why did you do it that way? You know they’re — they just have like such a different way of looking at how reality is being displayed in front of them and how people show up with the decisions they make and —

Miki Fire:
That’s right.

DAVID:
You know the emotional baggage that they’re carrying, the person they actually are, the person they’re becoming — all these decisions in the moment of like why — why do you do that? Why that? Why that? It’s very interesting.

Miki Fire:
Yeah, and how is it experienced in your full body — right in your full mind, body. I think that’s something we haven’t mentioned. I think by virtue of being outside we often do awaken to our senses. Right, our — all of our senses have an opportunity to be more stimulated. And so being able to ask those questions and actually experience a level of integration and connection that is below the neck. I think is particularly valuable in the outdoors.

DAVID:
A lot of people I’ve been talking to lately about psychology and the different forms of psychology and how there’s a lot of healing in the body, there’s a lot of healing in movement — understanding the body. It’s not all in the brain and these metaphysical constructs in which we create. Some of them are stored in the body — like I got pain in my shoulder. Oh well you’re holding something. You know it’s very interesting to kind of explore how the body can be a direction for healing.

Miki Fire:
Well and I think what we’re learning more and more although I don’t — this is another one of those that I don’t think it was ever not known is that in order for change to really happen it can’t just happen on the conceptual level — it has to happen in the full system. It has to happen in all the places. I mean think about when you have an epiphany, right. Yeah, it’s an epiphany? It’s not like — epiphanies are usually so silly. They’re so simple. Right, the moment that we get to deliver something. It’s never something —

DAVID:
I’ve known this the whole time, but for some reason right now it makes way more sense.

Miki Fire:
And you can feel it in your gut.

DAVID:
Yeah!

Miki Fire:
It’s like the moment of the epiphany is like somehow, they integrate right — we feel it in our gut. And it’s a conceptual knowing. So —

DAVID:
Well maybe what a knowing and an epiphany is — a knowing is mentally knowing something and then epiphany could be a somatic response in simultaneously mentally knowing something — colliding together. They’re just like slam. And your body’s like oh and your mind’s just like whoa all at once and we’re just like aha hey.

Miki Fire:
And then it’s there.

DAVID:
Very cool. So, I feel like you’re kind of unique and special because you have this like clinical psychologist background, then you have this wilderness therapy sort of engagement. How do those show up in relationship to each other? How has your clinical psychologist studies enhanced your wilderness therapy teachings?

Miki Fire:
Well I think the training as a clinical psychologist has given me a deeper understanding and a language. It’s given me words for being able to talk about some of the things that happen in our psyches, in our deeper beings. How that connects to the world around us and our histories. I think my background as a clinical psychologist has given me a way to really symbolize something that happens on a level that otherwise is pretty ineffable.

DAVID:
I love that word.

Miki Fire:
Me too. And I think that is so much of what can happen and sometimes does happen out in the wilderness. I think also my clinical psychologist background it often gives me an ability to frame things or offer a way of understanding something to my students that is a shared language because I am training clinicians who I want to be able to go out into the world and to speak with other mental health professionals who may not know anything about wilderness therapy and to be able to articulate something that happened outside in a way that someone who goes well, wait a minute didn’t you just go rock climbing or what — you just went and sat under a tree? I think it helps me support them in finding the language — the clinical language to be able to say no that’s not just what happened and to explain it in terminology that might be shared among professionals.

DAVID:
That’s kind of exactly what I was thinking too was it gives you a language — it allows you to verbalize some of the things that are happening within the mind. And then you also get to use the natural settings to be able to guide the healing, guide the therapy — but then you’re also very well read into understanding like oh, this person has you know multiple personalities or this person has — you know some trauma back in the day you — you are actually able to clinically look at the psychological issues as someone’s coming into therapy for — but also using the apparatus of the wilderness as a healing modality.

Miki Fire:
Right. I think the other piece it has given me is — and I notice this a lot with students you know all the students who come into our program are drawn to it because they do have some very strong connection to the outdoor world. Absolutely. And I think my background also allows me to help them start to see you know what we’re doing outside is not necessarily just the things that you’ve done that have allowed you to feel connected — that there’s actually a skill in this. That again it’s not just oh, you love hiking and so let’s just start taking people out hiking and I will say as a side note for many people in and of itself absolutely that is therapeutic.

DAVID:
Yeah definitely.

Miki Fire:
But I think to be able to sometimes understand the deeper layers of things, for example, we did talk about the fear before — for some of our students it comes as a surprise to imagine that for some clients taking them outside is not going to feel inherently healing. It’s not going to feel safe. You talk about trauma. There’s going to be some — du to trauma, due to trauma in one’s own life, due to experiences in one’s own life — not even traumatic — just where someone who’s grown up. What the stories have been or the connection or disconnection or actually getting pulled away from natural environment both in one’s own individual life, but also the trans generational inheritances there deeply impact what the layered meaning is for someone going outside. So, I think my languaging whether I’m talking about trauma or something else is also very useful to be able to work with folks who have sort of an unquestionable connection to the outdoor world and who might simply assume while everyone else has this as well — to say well not necessarily. We all have — right, we all have our different stories and for what it’s worth that actually deep healing probably can come through some of these environments because these were environments in which this person may have been hurt or this may have been taken away from them in their family history or whatever it might be. But that it’s just more complex than simply hey, let’s just go make a campfire in the woods. So, I think that’s the part that I appreciate just in my training that is helpful to make it a little more nuanced. And I think it goes without saying, but I would like to say that I also was trained in a particular way — so the language I use, the framework that I hold, the position that I might stand in and also see is really specific to how I was trained — you know what my life has been. And so, it’s limited in and of itself.

DAVID:
So the wilderness always sort of has like a therapeutic lens, but when you go out and just take a hike it’s more of an activity with a little bit of therapy involved, but when you’re actually approaching wilderness with a therapy lens there’s like a different mindset you are stepping into and relationship and you know because like I guess there’s a difference between activity and therapy.

Miki Fire:
I think you’re right. Even though there is therapy that very intentionally uses the activity, right. We often call it Adventure therapy, but I think you’re absolutely right and I should say there’s been more and more for me critique in my mind also about just referencing the term wilderness as opposed to outdoors or nature. Because it has a loaded meaning actually in the United States — the term wilderness has meaning — it has designation, but I think that idea of the outdoors itself — the natural world itself — it always seems also a little paradoxical to me that we’re talking about this thing as if it’s separate. So, I think I have my own internal bias. Is that there is no separation here. And so, what does it mean to simply bring into awareness and reconnection and remembering this thing?

DAVID:
The thing and then which that is needing therapy comes from the wilderness essentially. So, it’s like — yeah, itÕs like we’re you even separate you know? Our society has a feeling of pulling ourselves away from the thing in which we are essentially connected to. So, I think that’s interesting.

When it comes to wilderness therapy what are some things that we can do on a daily basis to help us while we are living our lives and trying to heal and working with our traumas? Is there — is there like a daily practice of like taking a new walk or not listening to music and listening to the birds or maybe intentionally sitting under a tree is there like a practice that we can use?

Miki Fire:
Yeah. So first of all, I’m a little bit of like an anti-technique person. So —

DAVID:
I get with that.

Miki Fire:
Which isn’t that helpful because I know people often really want a what — what — what are the three things I can do today?

DAVID:
Tell me what to do.

Miki Fire:
So, I’ll play along. I’ll play along. I can offer some of those, but I think in general I also want to say there’s something about that — just for me in general that again I think it sometimes separates us a little bit, but practices can be helpful. Structure can be helpful — having some riverbanks to support the deeper movement of whatever’s inside can be helpful. So, I just heard your podcast with Joanna Macy and I think she said something —

DAVID:
Oh, you did, hey.

Miki Fire:
It was great. And I think she —

DAVID:
You helped set that up.

Miki Fire:
And I think she said something like — something about what do you love? I feel like she asked that question.

DAVID:
I asked her what you would ask other people because she’s always being interviewed. I’m like what would you want to ask people?

Miki Fire:
Right, and she said, what do you love?

DAVID:
Bodhisattva.

Miki Fire:
She’s amazing. And for some reason that’s sticking with me because I think like with any practice there’s some way that I think it needs to feel connected. It needs to feel like you talked about gardening for yourself. Right? I wouldn’t prescribe gardening for everybody because some people don’t want to garden, but some people do.

DAVID:
Yes.

Miki Fire:
So yeah, we know there are benefits to getting our hands in the dirt to being out there. To relating and communing with those plants. Some people live in really concrete environments. And they may not even have an interest in going and doing something that’s gonna feel like wow this is hard work to get out there. So little practices might be relating to plants that are inside. I lived in the Bay Area for some time and what really struck me — and I’ve lived in Montreal as well for a number of years and I really saw this there is I began to notice the life — the natural life, the plants that were growing between the cracks. Right, or the sky that you could see in between the buildings. So, I think there is a way that we can come into relationship, right, and why is that? And why is that tree that grows between the cracks any different? Yeah, then the one that grows in the middle of a forest. You know I think — start developing a relationship with the outdoor world and the unseen world no matter where we are. So, I think that’s a piece of the practice — it’s almost a mindfulness practice what happens if when I walk out my door, I just start noticing the natural elements that are around me. I just start feeling what the air feels like and what the earth feels like — concrete things also. It is really good to take your shoes off and put them in the earth, on the grass, in the dirt. Yes, being outside going for walks, but I don’t think it’s limited to what our physical capacities are or even what our environments are. Although I think some environments might make it easier, but even sometimes connecting with a natural object and relating to it every day and bringing it with us and asking questions as we go out and beyond the land.

DAVID:
OK. I love that you voice that. The fact that like, oh, there isn’t these three steps you take because I feel a little hesitant when someone’s like this is how it works because it’s like well arenÕt, we all extremely individually different?

Miki Fire:
Well and what I would say, right, if this is a practice of remembering something — right, something about connecting inner and outer landscape — like you might be this awesome Amazonian — you — right, like rain forest and I might be this high desert — like we’re not gonna, right, I don’t believe it’s random that people feel an inherent connection with different places. So, what I connect to may be radically different or what I don’t connect to I might want to become in relationship with both — you know what calls me, what draws me? You know where I feel the allurement in my life to what is outside is — will be really different.

DAVID:
So even the style of landscape in which we can use wilderness therapy from — because the wilderness is anything. It could be a desert. It can be a rainforest. It can be — the — like the woods. It can be mountains as long as you’re outside.

Miki Fire:
Or it can also be inside.

DAVID:
Oh yeah.

Miki Fire:
And a connection too, right, to that life that we bring indoors, absolutely.

DAVID:
In the internal doors of the soul landscape in which we look into.

Miki Fire:
Yeah well and also just the — the plants, the rocks, the wood, the — the natural elements that we can connect to even inside.

DAVID:
Yes. That’s so good. All right.

So that was such a great conversation — you made me think about wilderness therapy in a different way. And I’m really enjoying it. I’m going to like for now on when I take my walks and kind of just do my thing outdoors because I’m a concrete person I guess — I stay indoors and I make loud noises, but I do get my outdoor activities every now and again. And I’m going to have like a deeper lens in which I look through and I’m going to notice the nature looking at me and I’m going to notice me looking at nature. So —

Miki Fire:
Yeah, I like that. And listen to the music. You’re a music guy. So, there is a lot of music outside.

DAVID:
Lots of music. There is. Like sometimes I just really enjoy not listening to music — that’s how much I love music because I need the space just as much as I need the like actual sound as well.

Miki Fire:
Yeah.

DAVID:
All right, so thank you so much for speaking with me. It was just such a beautiful talk. I love — I love hearing like the different versions of how we can show up in therapy. There’s not just one way to heal — there’s multiple ways to heal. And it’s all out there for us to just figure out. And I love that Naropa just has this like a unique program in which we get to like teach people how to use.

Miki Fire:
Yeah. We are so fortunate in that way.

DAVID:
Oh yes.

Miki Fire:
And thank you David.

DAVID:
You’re welcome.

So, I’d like to thank my guest Miki Fire. She is the assistant professor and serves as the chair in the Transpersonal Wilderness therapy program here at Naropa University.

So, thanks again.

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On behalf of the Naropa community thank you for listening to Mindful U. The official podcast of Naropa University. Check us out at http://www.naropa.edu or follow us on social media for more updates.

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