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Nature Meets Psyche in the Ecological Self


One day last winter my 2 year old daughter and I were driving along a beautiful river in Southern Oregon. We stopped at one of my favorite hiking trails that crossed through two large, split boulders and in a little over a mile ended at a beautiful double waterfall. As we hiked along the slippery trail she stumbled over the tree roots and was compelled to stop and explore all the trail side attractions. After much coaxing, carrying and inspecting we finally reached the falls. She saw the falls for the first time and without hesitating headed right toward them, her light blond hair blown back by the mist. It was like she was being drawn into them, called by them. It was so sudden I was startled and had to grab her off the slippery rocks. She was beaming the most amazed, beautiful smile and I could see that she was in awe of them. We sat down together on a fallen wet log and let the wild spray blow all around us. We made it slowly back to the car, wet muddy and hungry. As she toddled ahead I wondered - what happened to that wide open connection in my own experience that so often happens with children in nature? My own mind was so preoccupied the whole time with weather conditions, time constraints, and the like, that I didn't see the falls in the same way she did - beckoning and irresistible.

What happened to our innocent "wide open" connection with the natural world -- that unedited desire to plunge into the falls? Many people are beginning to ask this question, and the answers, that some are arriving at, point to an exciting new understanding of psychological healing. The psychological pain experienced by many may be due to a perceived, and profoundly felt, alienation from the natural world. If so, healing may come about from a reunion of psyche and nature.


In 1992 two books came out that began to unsettle the community of modern psychotherapy practitioners and their clients: James Hillman and Michael Ventura's We've Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse and Theodore Roszak's The Voice of the Earth. Both of these books called into question the modern practice of psychotherapy in the face of the continued decline of the natural world. Both authors assert that the suffering an individual experiences is linked to more than their personal story, it is connected to the suffering of the earth and the nurturing systems that sustain us. This extends the realm of human experience to include the world around us and brings the possibilities for psychology and the practice of psychotherapy into the dimension of nature, of ecology, of our home. Theodore Roszak states "In our time, the private psyche in its search for sanity needs a context that embraces all that science has to tell us about the evolution of life on Earth, about the stars and galaxies that are the distant origin of our existence."

In his latest best-selling book The Soul's Code In Search of Character and Calling James Hillman offers some answers to the assertions made in 100 Years of Psychotherapy. He writes "To what does the soul turn to that has no therapists to visit? It takes its trouble to the trees, to the riverbank, to an animal companion, on an aimless walk through the city streets, a long watch of the night sky." Whether on a wilderness trip or a walk into a suburban backyard, the accessibility and ever-present quality of the natural world is easily attainable and experienced. The cycles of nature such as weather, lunar cycles, and seasonal changes, marked by winter solstice, spring equinox and Samhain (or Halloween) can also be sources of connection between psyche and nature. These natural occurrences are happening all the time, wherever we are -- in a skyscraper apartment or on the top of Mt. Olympus. Theodore Roszak, who helped initiate the emerging field of ecopsychology, asks us to consider that "the quiet contemplation of the night sky before one turns to sleep and dreams might do more to touch the mind with a healing grandeur than weeks, months, years of obsessive autobiographical excavation." A simple encounter like this can become a source of psychological healing and understanding.

Another interesting concept Hillman introduces in The Soul’s Code is that the world is "made less of nouns than verbs. It doesn't consist merely in objects and things; it is filled with useful, playful and intriguing opportunities." Looked at in this way the natural world becomes imbued with movement, with meaning beyond the everyday names in biology books. For instance, a tree, which is perhaps by name an alder, becomes a shade giver to the small pond, a place for perching, hiding and leaf eating. A stream becomes a leaf bearer and land carver. The soil itself becomes grounding, giving, supporting and nurturing. Often in native cultures, where existence depended on interaction with the natural world, they had names for things that reflected their uses or sounds they make. The rivers in the Northwest often have names that end in ish, from the sound of running water, like the Duwamish, and Skokomish.

With the perception of meaningful relationships, nature becomes playful and alive again. Then the perceiver begins to see that they are no longer "outside" of this world, but an embedded member within it. In ecopsychology this altered self perception is identified with the emergence of the "ecological self." In her contributing essay to the anthology Ecopsychology, Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, perceptual psychologist Laura Sewall illustrates the point. "In contradiction to an identity in which the mature self is culturally defined as fully individuated and possessing intact, absolute, decisive, and divisive boundaries, the ecological self experiences a permeability and fluidity of boundaries." Poet and feminist scholar Susan Griffin says "By this shift in perception one is no longer placed in an alien environment. Instead, in and through existence one enters community." The realization that one is part of a community fosters a sense of responsibility. And the possibility of psychological healing and connection can begin to involve more than an individual encounter in a counseling office.

James Hillman, in a recent interview in the Utne Reader says that "we wouldn't need therapy as much if individuals had more of their own practice, whatever that practice is. It can be practice with nature, practice with art, practice with music, practice with spiritual discipline. And particularly practice as service." Once there has been a reconnection with the "ecological self" and the psyche begins to open further to this sense of interdependence, healing the self, or psyche, or soul, involves activity that includes the community as well as the individual. Psychological exploration becomes an outward expression as well as an inward one. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Ecopsychology: the premise of ecopsychology is to reconnect or reestablish a relationship between psyche (psychology) and nature (ecology). There are courses being taught in Universities across the country, degrees now given and books written about the possibility of connecting ecology with psychology. Such a connection is a way of broadening both fields into interaction with one another. In the spirit of the high tech 90's The Ecopsychology Institute even has a web site at which contains articles, resources, and educational information. One of the basic assertions of ecopsychology is that ecology needs psychology and psychology needs ecology.


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