It is only logical that the pauperization of our soul and the soul of society coincide with the pauperization of the environment. One is the cause and the reflection of the other.
~ Paolo Soleri
Four years ago the gorgeous 40-year-old apricot tree in my back yard began to show signs of illness. The diagnosis within a year: termites throughout. My wonderful landlord said the tree would have to be taken out. I was truly grief-stricken; and when that dreadful day came I wept profusely.
Had I been in traditional therapy, it’s quite likely the therapist would’ve seen my grief as “really” about some other “actual” loss in my past and would’ve tried to get me to make that link. I’ve experienced many losses in my life—family, friends, animal companions—and this one wasn’t a “lesser” or “symbolic” version of any of those; it was a profound loss unto itself. Fortunately, I have a therapist who understood that my grief was about the loss of that tree. It had provided not only consistent bumper crops of luscious apricots, but was also a true work of natural art that provided abundant shade in hot valley summers as a bonus. I had a relationship with it.
Ecopsychology tells us we have an emotional bond with the earth, that there’s a resonance, a reciprocity between humans and everything around us on the planet and that, when we sever that connection, we compromise our mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. In other words, the degradation of the environment is having an effect on our souls as well as our nervous systems. So there is a slowly-growing number of therapists, myself included, that, in addition to the other work we do, now see ecotherapy as a substantial component of our work. Even though any significant loss can call you to reflect on a previous one, your sadness, depression, or grief about the state of the world is not automatically a symbol of, or substitute for, some prior loss. As a therapist I take that to heart. Our bodies, minds, spirits are unable to ignore the loss of species and the exorbitant stress being put on the life around us in all parts of our ecosystem—the land we depend on to sustain us, the air we breathe, the water without which we can’t survive. As someone has said, we need to redefine “sanity” as if the whole world mattered. Because it does.
In his foreword to Theodore Roszak’s Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, James Hillman wrote: “The ‘bad place’ I am ‘in’ may refer not only to a depressed mood or anxious state of mind; it may refer to a sealed-up office tower where I work, a set-apart suburban subdivision where I sleep, or the jammed freeway on which I commute between the two.”
I recall a spelling lesson in first grade where we were told to use the word “love” in a sentence. I was five years old, and I wrote “I love carrots” (because I did). When I read my sentence out loud, the nun told me and the class that this was incorrect because people can’t love “a thing” that can’t love us back. Right there we have the rudiments of our ecological catastrophe—being taught that the feeling of connection beyond certain borders or boundaries or species or categories is impossible, “incorrect.”
In my Catholic high school we spent part of a semester in history class learning about various heresies, one of which was animism. It was defined then as a belief some people have that everything in the world is alive, has a spirit or soul—not just humans, but animals, rivers, trees, mountains, the wind, etc. We were told this was a heresy because God gave souls only to humans. But of all the heresies we studied, that one spoke to my heart and stayed in my psyche; it made sense somewhere in my bones. So, having integrated that realization with the conclusion that a number of things I’d been taught didn’t make sense, when I graduated from high school, I also left the Church. (By the way, the work “heretic” has a Greek root meaning “able to choose.”)
Decades later in 1994, and well into my professional life as an astrologer and psychotherapist , I received a brochure announcing an ecopsychology conference to be held in Killarney, Ireland. I remember experiencing something along the lines of what the French call a “coup de foudre.” The environmental movement and the concept of ecology had drawn my attention in the 1970s and seemed increasingly important as the years went on. But I hadn’t seen or heard the term “ecopsychology” until the day the brochure for that conference arrived. Once I saw it, though, I had an immediate intuitive understanding of what it meant ; clearly, my astrological background, my family systems training, and my nascent interest in Feng Shui had been pointing me in this direction for some time.
In the most elementary terms, the principles of Feng Shui tell us that, whether or not we know it, our nervous systems (and psyches) are responding to everything going on around us all the time, so what’s around us warrants our care and attention. You will feel differently in a bright red room than in a soft peach-colored one; hearing Bourbon Street jazz or a Beethoven sonata; exploring the depths of the Amazon rainforest or trekking across some part of the Gobi Desert. We’re never separate from any environment. When something is “off,” unbalanced, difficult to look at/hear/feel around us, we either adapt to it, register ongoing levels of frustration, change it, or try to get away from it. This applies to our homes, offices, public spaces, and on out into concentric circles to every place else on earth. In any case, the nervous system and the psyche register the harmony or disharmony regardless of what the conscious mind does with it. That strikes me as the core of ecopsychology as well.
The ecopsychological perspective says there can no longer be a gulf between the psychological and the ecological concerns of human beings, that ultimately human separation from the natural world leads to psychopathology.As Roszak points out in The Voice of the Earth, “the needs of the planet are the needs of the person, the rights of the person are the rights of the planet.” As the months go on, I’ll be saying more about ecotherapy in my blog posts.
About the little guy at the top of this page: I named him “Rupert.” He came to visit me during my meditation every morning while I was on a week-long poetry retreat in 2012. I don’t know where the name Rupert came from. I didn’t choose it; it was somehow simply transmitted to me on the third morning. Months later it dawned on me that Rupert Brooke was a famous World War I poet. His poem “Dust” does have a certain ecopsychological sensibility. But there I am trying to make some connection beyond the sheer delight of having the company of this beautiful creature first thing in the morning. Physician, heal thyself.