Conscious Relationship: Holistic Therapy Approach linked to Nature

Contemplations on Ecopsychology from Jan Edl Stein. MFT                             

The following is a transcript from a panel presentation offered at the 2010 Bioneers Conference entitled, “Ecopsychology Emerging”.  Moderated by Mary Gomes PhD, with Thomas Doherty PhD, Craig Chalquist PhD, Lisa Lynch PhD and Jan Edl Stein MFT.

I am primarily a psychotherapist and a facilitator of experiences that deepen connection to authentic self, to place and the surrounding community of beings.  I have been practicing for over 25 years now and find myself  less and less married to theory and more interested what serves to heal and evolve awareness and honesty.  My personal experience has taught me that everything is alive and we are connected to every thing. I have come to understand most of what modern psychology explains as dis-ease is some version of dis-connect or tear in this vast web of life.

My involvement with earth based wisdom traditions about 18 years ago landed my clinical practice in ecopsychology. When I tell people this, it invariably leads to the question of  “What is ecopsychology”  and, ” what does it look like in practice?”   That can be a difficult question to answer.

I was considering how to answer this and what to say today a couple of weeks ago on a Sunday morning  in my typical ritual  – sitting in my backyard with a cup of tea and the NY Times.  I was distracted, caught up in the world of ideas and vaguely aware of my body.  But then a crow flew close by overhead and I was struck by the sound of its wings.  A hummingbird hovered close.  We glanced at each other for a moment.  There was a waft of a fragrant flower.  It touched me and I noticed my breath responding as I received with joy.  At least a dozen nuthatches were then chirping and flitting about in a big elm.  I closed my eyes and let the sounds and smells touch my body like little fingers.  Opening my eyes I saw the ground beneath me more clearly.  The rich soil, the eager vegetables, the stones that were warming up in the sun.  The air was somehow clearer.  There were more sounds and textures than I could imagine! I was here!  The nature around me had re-woven my weary cycling mind back into a sense of belonging and presence.  I noticed my breath deepened, my heart rate slowed, my body felt relaxed.

“This is it!”, I thought.  This world has once more invited me back into BEING. This is the essence of ecopsych!  In finding one’s relationship to the natural world we repair torn connections, re-inhabit this body and place – we re-member.  It is about relationship.  Making our relationships to every part of our environment conscious.

With that we may come into a respect for each and every being, and every object.  Sitting there that morning I was drawn into a relationship with the air, the plants, the earth, the birds.  I was invited to let the wind become my breath, the sunlight become the warmth of my body, the rain and rivers and oceans become my blood and sweat and tear, the mountain, the stones the soil become by bones and flesh.

Ecopsychology is a movement toward repairing a deep wound of separation that has cost us severe damage in the environment and severe damage in the individual and collective psyche.  Our sense of separation from one another and our natural environment festers a wound of mal-attachment and fosters disassociation, apathy, depression, fear, anxiety, and so on. This is an approach toward healing in which the human mind and body are viewed in their relationship to nature and the whole web of life. It follows that there is reciprocity between the natural processes of our world and the balanced psyche. Psychologically healthy people have a respectful and sustainable relationship with the natural world. These are the fundamental tenants of ecopsychology.

So, how does it really look in a psychotherapy practice?

Well, I am proud to be part of an organization founded on principles of ecopsychology.  I am the director of Holos Institute, a  local, non-profit, counseling and education center, where a select group of psychotherapist interns, offer  affordable therapy to the community.  We take up the question of “how do we do eco-psychotherapy” all the time.  We are always refining and exploring this from a number of different theoretical angles

First,  there is what happens in the office, which, honestly, is the practical reality of most therapy practices.  Just because you are inside doesn’t mean that your connection to your environment is severed.  In fact, that is exactly the time to become aware of your relationships, understand what re-connection might mean, contact your yearning for it and recognize how what is outside of us is living inside of us and vice versa.

In the office, we can explore the inner landscape in the metaphorical language of psyche. That becomes the fertile ground upon which the healing process begins.  Images from nature might amplify an emotional experience and the language of the natural world  invites the psyche to expand beyond some personal limit as we mend old wounds and traumas.

There is also a very  important piece of work to be done with noticing how the environment has impacted a psyche. We organize much of our experience around place. Tell me that the gulf oil spill or shrinking forests or species disappearing from the planet doesn’t feed into a burgeoning collective anxiety and depression.  We see more and more people in despair, anger, frustration and with some exploration they discover how much environmental destruction erodes the soul. There is also a big piece to explore about how one’s local environment or home has impacted one’s emotional life.  There’s a grieving process to be had but there is also needs to be empowerment.

As the strength of self is restored, an active awareness of one’s environment becomes a field for pro-action, be it the family system, the local neighborhood, or a wider worldview. As we discover our agency in the world we reverse years of learned helplessness. The healing psyche is more concerned with belonging, community, and careful action.

And then there is what happens we take our clients outside and what can happen in nature based psychotherapy. This can, by the way, be an urban as well as a wilderness experience or something in between.  What may happen is simply magical.

At Holos we have many different kinds of therapies represented.  So there might be an expressive arts therapist taking a group out to explore the emotional response as natural shelters are constructed, art or movement may be used as an interface between inner and outer experience, there might be a walk that invites a deeper awareness of an element or our participation in, say, breath and air, there might be ritual on the land, or there may be  sitting outdoors for a more traditional “talk” session.  But it is not simply going for a walk or sitting in a pretty place.  There is intention, containment, and reflection of experience. It is not formulaic but there are guidelines and indices.  My personal preference is for an extended experience in nature that is typically a residential, immersion experience with guided as well as unstructured time on the land in a place that invites immersion and exploration.  But most commonly there is the “session” that has moved out of the office. I typically might take a client or small group outdoors to a specific destination in a meandering style but definitely with a structure.

There is an active encounter with nature.  The natural world  is a gentle and sometimes not so gentle reminder of who were are and what our relationship is to place and element and other.  Invariably , as we move outdoors with clients the context of our issues widens. There is a sense of placing the “personal” issue into a greater system.

There are often three distinct parts to the experience . The first part is typically filled with discharging story and energy. There is so much need to “let it out” and  vent  the built up residue of our day to day lives.  The earth is a patient witness to all of this. The mere fact that we are walking together brings therapist and client into shared experience. There is not a pressure to engage as we are participating in something much bigger than us.

Part two is a time for settling in and arriving. The body can be the gauge of when to stop and settle and herein lies the elegance of nature therapy.  There is a real time interaction between place and body that informs psyche.  One only needs to listen.

The place invites a settling in and stillness. We take some time to feel into the surroundings and notice what is there. There is a slow accommodation to place and the re-connecting begins.  It as if you can see the web getting re-woven.  The body relaxes, each finds their “place”, and, there follows a spontaneous gentle interaction with place.  There may be a meticulous building of rock pile, a fiddling with a stick, a weaving of grasses. I saw couple in strife collaborate to free up a crowded sapling.  In any case, there is an image or sensory dynamic that has been discovered or created in nature that mirrors the inner dynamic.

There is a reflection in the outer world of the inner experience.  Something very important happens in that moment of mirroring.  The limbic system is at last in resonance.  The place will speak to the soul. I might lead a client who is full of inner turmoil to a dramatic beach with a wild surf.   The crash of waves echo the clash of thought. Or, the gentle lapping at the shore as it smoothes the sand might soothe an anxious person. A client struggling to feel safe and grounded discovers a shift as she leans into an old oak. A depressed person might find solace in a redwood grove, allowing the delicate sounds and details of that place to slowly stir their imagination.  In any case, we are facilitating sensing into the environment – opening all of the senses and modes of expression – voice, breath, sight, sound, movement to relate to the natural setting and in that relating, the habitual body is released.  The natural rhythms of the being are restored.
Nature is a very powerful medicine.

Part 3 of this process is the return to the place where we started. It is also an important time of reflection and integration of experience.  Invariably, when I have brought someone out on an experience like this they report feeling more aware, their senses more attuned, they see and sense things that were previously unnoticed. There is an awakening of sorts. The experience often creates a subtle shift in their inner and outer world.  It is important that they be guided to take note of what shifts.  And…if we are truly successful, the shift will carry into their behavior and attitudes toward the greater world around them.

Basically, this is an orientation that supports a movement from an ego/self centered experience to a world related, eco-connected awareness.  It transmutes an over involvement with the personal to a contextualized experience.  Hopefully, somewhere in this movement we have facilitated a change that effects not only the individual psych but the greater system which sustains it.

And for this I am so grateful to be an ecopsychotherapist.

I’d like to conclude with the following poem that I feel truly captures the essence of ecopsychology.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love
what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
Are moving across the landscapes,
Over the prairies and deep trees,
The mountains and rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air
Are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
Over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.

Mary Oliver