Ecopsychology - Nature as Therapist

In 1992, Theodore Roszak wrote a book called The Voice of the Earth. In it, he laid the groundwork for a new field within psychology called Ecopsychology. Ecopsychology recognizes that the healing of ourselves and the healing of our world are interrelated. It deepens the relationship between the self, nature and the cosmos, recognizing the spiritual dimension of the human-nature relationship. The theory and practice of ecopsychology is oriented toward blurring the experiential boundaries between the human and non-human world in order to know the self as “ecological”, i.e., deeply interconnected with all of life.
Most therapists have experienced how clients come up with images from nature as metaphors in their therapeutic process. Many therapies use imaginative techniques to help clients envision a place where they can feel a sense of safety, calm, peace, etc. It is often a scene from nature that is used, i.e., the beach, a mountaintop, a cabin in the woods, a forest trail, a garden.

Nature as a reflection of wholeness resonates with the “nature” of our inherent human capacity for healing and wholeness. Humanistic and body-oriented psychology is grounded in the paradigmatic view that we are already whole and that we carry within ourselves all the resources needed to heal the splits in our psyches that believe we are not. We are nature and not separate from it. Connecting with nature in a conscious and experiential way through our bodies, minds and souls has an immediate therapeutic effect.

Ecotherapy, the application of the principals of Ecopsychology, includes direct encounters with nature as a therapeutic process. What is it about nature that is healing for humans? Nature is whole and complete in itself. Nature is creative and restorative; for many people, time spent in nature helps them feel connected spiritually to life. Nature confronts them with the profound mysteries of life, with the awe and wonder that takes us beyond the limited confines of our own individual existence. Nature teaches us that we are not alone and cannot survive alone; it teaches us about relationship and inter-relatedness. It brings us into direct contact with the knowledge that we are part of a larger world community. Nature brings us into contact with deep time, i.e., with the eternal, with our connection to the ongoing relationship with the past and future, with the cycles of life, with death and re-birth, with the ebbs, flows and ongoing evolution of life itself. Healing is a function of connection. Direct encounters with nature helps people deepen their connection to their own bodies, because direct experience with nature begins with the body and with the senses. Ecotherapy exercises and rituals use conscious intention to create a container, within which healing and transformation can take place.

Ecopsychology includes the perspective that the symptoms our clients are presenting with in our therapy offices are not separate from the ”dis-ease” we see in our societies and in the dis-eases of the natural processes of our planet. Mother Earth is suffering and her children are symptom carriers. Ecopsychology is systems-based and thus our clients’ symptoms are not separate from the whole system of the world we live in. Ecopsychology begins, through this awareness, to heal the dualistic split within the human psyche that has seen itself as separate from the natural world. It is this split that has allowed the human to develop and create the unsustainable ways of thinking, feeling and behaving that is leading our planet’s life-sustaining processes toward destruction. It is only through healing that split in the human consciousness, within a high enough critical mass of the population, that we can begin to turn our behaviours around toward developing life-sustaining relationship with the Earth.

Ecopsychology is a form of psychology that moves beyond a focus just on the healing of the individual, to the healing of the whole of life. Of course, psychology has inherently held that as an individual heals, it has a healing effect on the relationships in this person’s life. Ecopsychology consciously and intentionally links the healing of the individual to the healing of the whole by bringing the condition of the planet into conscious awareness. The healing process includes participation in the world and sees health as a function of participation. James Hillman’s critique of psychotherapy speaks to this in his book “100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse”. The systems orientation of Ecopsychology actively addresses this issue. Ecopsychology recognizes the uniqueness of the individual and the gift of that uniqueness to the benefit of the whole. Each of us has our own particular way of seeing and interacting with the world. We are creative in our uniqueness – just as every expression of creation itself is unique, i.e, no two snowflakes are alike. These individual differences are what create the diversity and complexity needed for the life-sustaining processes of life. Ecopsychology assists individuals to accept and appreciate their own and other’s uniqueness as essential to the whole – thus imbuing an individual’s life with a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. When you know that who you are, by your very particular nature, makes a difference to the benefit of the whole, an individual’s life becomes empowered and activated. Fulfilling one’s potential is not a self-indulgent activity of the “me” generation, but viewed as an essential, conscious responsibility necessary for the ongoing evolution of life itself. Nelson Mandela’s quote of Marianne Williamson’s words in his Inaugural speech in 1994 speaks to this: “. . . Your playing small does not serve the world . . . we were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. And not just in some of us, it is in everyone . . . “

Ecopsychology draws wisdom from the teachings of nature itself. It teaches that the fruit of one’s actions has its own time-frame, sometimes not seen in one lifetime. For example, a date tree does not produce fruit for 80 years. A person planting a date tree today will not likely see the fruit of her labours, but she knows, if she does not plant the seed, there will be no fruit. Ecopsychology helps our ego let go of needing to see outcomes for our actions and helps us be focused on the joy and fulfillment of acting with good and right intention now. It connects us to the “deep time” of having faith and trust in life itself.

Ecopsychology shifts the identification of the person beyond the skin-encapsulated ego to an expanded sense of self, whose identity is grounded in the whole of life. It liberates the psyche from the fear-based concerns of the ego, which is the goal of most spiritual traditions. Thus, Ecopsychology is inherently self-transcendent. It naturally connects people to their spiritual source, not by transcending life on earth, but by becoming more deeply connected with it. It is where many people in our secular society find God/Spirit/Source.

Nature, by its nature is therapeutic. We are nature, not separate from it. The more deeply the human experiences that reality, the more healed and whole she is. Ecosychology offers a model and therapy that is wholistic – benefiting every part of the system of our interconnected world.