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

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There is something about the matter being incompressible. It is impossible to reduce the volume of one liter of water just by clenching it. There is no way you will make one 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 alterate the nature of the thing.

What if the human mind had the same limitations? What if our minds occupy a given volume in the world? I am not talking about the volume your brain occupies in your skull. I mean the volume a human mind needs on the planet to feel confortable, 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 to the the mind ways of escaping  daily confines.

Those free spaces do not have to be real. There are plenty of ways in the contemporary world to escape from daily environment: virtual worlds are all around 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 summon the picture of  the wildest brazilian jungle in your cosy living room and sort of feel carried away. The age of high definition camera 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.


Chile (The Earth From Above – Yann Arthus Bertrand)

Why is it so?

1. The Quest for the Self

We live at the age of individualities. 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 do, 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 (go to several places, try several occupations, live with various people).

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 eyes can see will reduce the feeling of messiness in our minds.

A large part of the hiking/trekking industry, as well as yoga retreats, desert walks, pilgrimage, wilderness exploration adventures developped in the recent years to fill that strong demand for quest of the Self.


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 up traditional customs and cultural habits from the (less urban) past. Cities are becoming a way of life that affects everyone, even people not living in cities. Even if of course cities have local and national specificities, they tend to uniformise the way we consume, what style and ideas we tend to value, the rhythm we live at around the world.


Damascus – Syria (The Earth From Above – Yann Arthus Bertrand)

Living in the 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 in the streets do. It is a natural reaction to feel the need for escaping social standards, people judgement, the pressure of having to speed up, perform and behave in the same time.

As a general trend on our planet, the fact that more than half of the human population will be urban by 2025 plays a big role in our societal need for “wild” and “emptiness”. The very function of “nature” shifted with the development of cities, from raw material stock to 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 release the pressure of being themselves and open up to the world again. Many current issues are due to that conflictual conception of what “non urban” space should be.

3. The Fail of the Suburban Dream

The founding principle of suburbs was initially to provide every family with it’s well deserved piece of “wild” and “emptiness”, associated with the right to possess a house and to access a safe and friendly community. Based on post-war beliefs about “the green 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.


Today we know too well that it is not healthier to live in 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 badmington on, which makes the need for “wild” and “emptiness” even stronger than for cities inhabitants in many cases.

The suburban dream has impacted 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 deprive them from an essential way out: the possibility to escape the pressure of their daily confines.

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Does that mean you should jump on a plane to mongolian steppe each time your daily life pressure feels too strong?


That would certainly work, but there are a lot of simpler options to find “emptiness”. It is easy to feel free in a tiny little space 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”, sitting in front on a huge blue lake and staring at a mountain than in your bedroom.

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