One of the main goals of personal development, whether characterised in a religious or spiritual context, or a secular one, is to effect changes in awareness. In psychological language one might talk about seeking ‘peak experiences’, in spiritual language ‘enlightenment’, or any number of other terms to denote the desired state of increased wellbeing. Just as doctors and scientists expend great effort in exploring ways to relieve us of care, those drawn to these fields of endeavour work very hard in trying to gain altered states of consciousness. While the first effort is trying to help us move away from negative states (of anxiety and unhappiness) the second is trying to help us move towards positive states: of bliss and ecstasy. Think of the efforts of the mystics across the centuries: fasting, meditating, ingesting psychoactive substances, engaging in rituals and austerities.
What does this have to do with nakedness? Removing our clothes in the right context can also provoke an altered state of consciousness, and this deserves a consideration that up until now has been denied for cultural reasons. Even so, some spiritual practitioners have already discovered the power in this technique, such as certain Jain and Hindu monks, Wiccans and Pagans, and some radical Christians. From a psychological perspective, the ability of nakedness to create ASCs, as they are called, was also discovered by psychotherapists in California in the 1960s.
The kinds of thoughts, feelings and sensations that occur in an ASC vary, and a range of experiences can fall within the category of an ASC triggered by divesting oneself of clothes. At least three distinct experiences can occur singly or in combination: a sense of being ‘unmasked’, heightened sensory perception, and feelings of child-like innocence.
Naturists commonly say that social nudism is a leveller and a means through which one can meet, freed of the ‘mask’ of clothing. Clothes dissemble, so the theory goes, and we dress to impress and to cover up any sense of deficiency. Those with an experience of naturist resorts report that while the lack of clothing does lead to a certain sense of authenticity and empathy with others, the power of nakedness to open us to a deeper level of authenticity, by stripping away some of our defences, can only be accessed in a more ritualised setting. The masks we wear are too well glued on to our psyches: we are still trapped in the prisons of our class, our gender, our personal histories and culture, even when nude. But as the psychotherapists in California who experimented with shedding clothes to encourage the shedding of defences discovered, the removal of clothes can offer a valuable initial step in the unmasking process.
But you also need to have a rationale, and a methodology or practice. The skyclad Jain and Hindu monks have this – the lack of clothes reinforcing in everyday experience the desire to have no desires, the belief in the value of non-attachment. From this viewpoint, clothes are props of the ego – mirrors that deflect our own and others’ perception away from our true nature. The way that nudity can be used to strip the ego so that we ‘stand naked before God or the gods’ is a process that has also been understood in Judaism, Christianity, the Classical Mysteries and Wicca. Each have used, or use, the power of nakedness to signal rebirth into a life of greater authenticity and deeper commitment. For centuries Jewish immersion rituals and Christian baptism occurred naked. In certain of the Mysteries a candidate entered the temple naked. In Gardnerian Wicca the candidate is initiated into, and then practises the Craft naked.
As well as feeling unmasked, no longer hiding the light of your true nature under the bushel of clothes, a common experience of those who use nudity for spiritual reasons is to feel a sense of heightened sensory perception. Suddenly you are feeling the sun, the breeze, water, everywhere, all over your body. You notice that all of your skin breathes – it’s not just happening via your mouth and nose. By attending to this, even using these altered perceptions in meditation, the spiritual nudist gains an increased sense of oneness with Nature, with all of life. And this is why those approaches which do not reject the pleasures of the body – the sensual spiritualities of Paganism, Druidry, Wicca and Nature mysticism – tend to attract people who are more open to the idea that the shedding of clothes can offer a valid means to altering consciousness and working towards spiritual goals.
So you’re feeling closer to Nature, the masks of your personality stripped back – perhaps to the naked awareness sought by Dzogchen Buddhists – what else? A certain sense of child-like innocence is often reported by those who go naked in nature: whether in Naturist resorts, skinny-dipping or in the new enthusiasm for ‘wild swimming’. This experience is quite different from the one you might expect of a sense of sleaziness and consequent guilt, rather than innocence. A psychologist might explain this as a result of memories of bathing naked as a small child before issues of self-consciousness or even shame appeared. Christian nudists say that we return to a Prelapsarian state – our natural state before the Fall.
When people discover Naturism for the first time they can sometimes have a sort of conversion experience – they feel ‘reborn’ with a new sense of freedom, and a falling away of their old self, with all its hang-ups and cares. Walking around a Naturist resort in beautiful countryside, stopping to swim or chat with anyone one wishes, can feel as if one has stumbled into Utopia.
The video clip below left, produced by Young Naturists America, shows how a love of Nature and a sense of Soul – as well as celebration free of body shame – is being expressed in the Naturist movement today.
The video clip below right, shows the work of photographer Jack Gescheidt and his Tree Spirit Project, which unites political, environmental and artistic objectives with spiritual awareness.
For more on the relationship between nakedness and spirituality, see A Brief History of Nakedness by Philip Carr-Gomm, Reaktion 2010