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Ecopsychology: nature’s healing powers

Do you remember your childhood experiences in nature, in the backyard, on family holidays at the beach? More than likely, they were happy memories of a time of innocence, a time of play, of curiosity and wild imaginings. I fondly remember my childhood home: a big old house situated in the suburban outskirts of Sydney on several hectares of land covered with an orchard, vegie gardens, a chook yard, lawns, greenhouses and native bushland. I would play alone, for the most part, in each of these areas, climbing trees, eating mulberries, battling the baddies and digging the earth.

It’s not so much that I am nostalgic for childhood experiences but more that there is much to learn from childhood approaches to experiencing nature. Indeed, it has been my life experience, like many other nature lovers, that my sense of connection has changed over time: I was naturally connected in my playful curious childhood, became less so during the trials and tribulations of adolescence and early adulthood, to now in middle age desiring, feeling and experiencing a deep nature connection. Connection now is not the same experience of connection as in childhood; it is a more purposeful, affective and meaning-oriented experience.

Whether it be urban or rural, other-than-human nature has become an abstract backdrop to our lives.

This article introduces the field of ecopsychology and discusses the idea that the changing human-nature relationship over the past half century particularly has decreased our sense of connection from and relationship with nature. It describes one ecotherapy approach that helps deepen the experience of nature connection in a way that can help alleviate our suffering and increase awareness. The overall message behind this article is that our awareness, our wellbeing and that of the Earth are intimately intertwined and that our own personal resilience and health can be nourished and sustained by experiencing intimate relationships with natural places.

A framework for development

Ecopsychology is a relatively recent sub-discipline of psychology that seeks to deepen and understand the human-nature relationship as a way to deal with emotional and spiritual suffering. It places primary importance on the deep and reciprocal relationship between humans and nature. It recognises that deep questions regarding who we are, why we suffer, how we are to live, and how to heal our inner wounds are closely related to our relationship to nature.

Ecopsychology recognises that the denial of the importance of nature to our psychological and spiritual wellbeing is a source of suffering for both humans and nature and that recognizing the importance of healthy connections is an avenue for healing. One modality of ecopsychology, ecotherapy, attempts to deal with suffering and trauma by enhancing the experience of connection with other-than-human nature.

Most of us no longer live our lives within natural areas but rather dwell within urban and/or domesticated environments. In Australia, around 90 per cent of the population live in urban areas and spend the vast majority of each day inside buildings, cars and transport systems. Whether it be urban or rural, other-than-human nature has become an abstract backdrop to our lives. We may understand that it provides for many of our needs and recreational wants, but many people do not view it as part of their lives and sense of self. We are, as American environmental pioneer John Muir observed in 1901, disconnected; we are not psychologically integrated with this world despite being dependent on it. Muir said, “Most people are on the world, not in it, having no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them — undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone touching but separate.”

Heightening perspective & perception

This loss of opportunities to engage with natural areas in a respectful, empathic way doesn’t just contribute to reduced environmental behaviour and actions but also restricts our sense of who we are (beyond our social roles). It also diminishes our perspective and capacity to stand back and reflect on our lives, our issues and global challenges. This often unconscious isolation or disconnect can help to create or reinforce our psychological suffering. Suffering of any form undermines our sense of happiness and meaning in life. The causes of unhappiness, according to Buddhist teachings, tend to relate to the fleeting and superficial nature of perception and thinking; the illusory notions of who you are; and how you deal with suffering in your life. Simply, perhaps too simply, put, you suffer as a result of dysfunctional perspectives about your identity, reality and “the good life”.

Suffering, and many forms of emotional trauma, can be viewed as a trigger to provoke us into dealing with issues or inner disharmony that we have tended to ignore. Triggers are for the most part of a personal orientation, such as relationship dissatisfaction and breakdown, ill health, job insecurity, financial stress, illness, negative body image, destructive (mostly unconscious) beliefs and social alienation. Sometimes, triggers can arise from a societal or global direction, such as urban violence, pressures to conform, loss of community, pollution, fear of terrorism and increasing bad news stories about climate change and environmental degradation. Often, as I have increasingly found, suffering can be multi-layered experiences arising from the intersecting worlds of threatening personal and collective landscapes.

Suffering is a natural but unnecessary learning process in the journey through life. It is as much an opportunity as it is a burden, but to view it as the former needs a certain degree of perspective towards not just the issues and/or mental states afflicting us but our underlying conceptions of identity and what it is to be human in this world at this time in our history. To lift our perspective requires that we learn to re-perceive our inner and outer worlds so we can attend with fresh senses to the fundamental causes of our suffering.

Taking a higher or broader perspective can help us to honestly re-perceive not just our world but how our sense of self, our ways of thinking and perceiving and responses to suffering trap us into the cycle of suffering. Ecopsychology, in attempting to reduce suffering and improve wellbeing, points us in the direction of nature. It specifically encourages contemplative, reflective and affective engagements with natural spaces that can facilitate a broader perspective, ease our suffering and improve our perceptions of reality.

The MAPIN Strategy

David Abram, an American cultural anthropologist, has written about the need for many people to experience sensual engagement with non-human other. In his book, Spell of the Sensuous, he writes, “Only by remembering ourselves to the sensuous earth, and rediscovering this place afresh, [do] we have a chance of integrating the multiple and divergent worlds that currently vie for our participation. There are many, many other worlds, yes, but they are all hidden within this one. And so to neglect this humble, imperfect, and infinitely mysterious world is to recklessly endanger all the others.”

We need to experience “the sensuous earth” to open up the worlds that lie hidden from our perceptions. In becoming more intimate, more empathically engaged with our surrounds, the recognised and hidden worlds, we can begin to experience the depth of immersion and connection that can lead us towards wellbeing. It is not just in the experience of connection but in the expression and release of troubling emotions such as grief, fear, anger, despair and depression, too, that heals. Yet how do we go about getting connected in a way that can lead to healing and a heightened perspective? One effective way is to use the MAPIN Strategy, an approach based on mindful perception.

MAPIN is based on several premises. First, we are only partially aware of what is happening around and within us most of the time because our minds are elsewhere, our senses are hazy and lazy and perceptions limiting and distracted. We tend towards habit, routine and busyness of mind and body in most aspects of our lives and therefore find it difficult to be fully present in the here and now. If we are not effectively present to what is there to be perceived and experienced, we will continue to remain disconnected and unaware of our roots. We will suffer from “eco-myopia”, an incapacity to see the trees for the proverbial woods of our little world, and remain locked in our headsets, our limiting world views.

Second, we need to become more active, involved and direct in the way we engage with and perceive our world. We tend to take a passive approach to the use of our senses in that we are led by them rather than taking a more active or conscious approach to perceiving our world. Have you ever questioned how your see rather than what you see? Passivity, while it has its place, keeps us locked up within the boundaries of surface distractions, which tend to limit our perceptual experience.

The key to enhancing perception is to create an open and curious attitude and the inner spaces of stillness, within which we can cultivate more relational perceptual experiences. As well as attitude and mindfulness, we need, especially when coping with stress, anxiety and other mental conditions, to immerse our total being within stable environments and master simple relationships with landscapes, plants and animals before tackling more complex issues.

The MAPIN approach helps to cultivate a sensitised perspective towards nature and reality within natural areas. It helps to create sensual, immersive experiences within a stable environment that can provide connection, perspective and wellbeing. MAPIN sessions are conducted in quiet, natural areas where there are minimal human distractions. It comprises the following techniques:

M After a brief meditation, one enters into a mindful state of awareness while walking, standing and/or sitting. Mindfulness arises as you apply your mental focus, non-judgmentally and openly, on your breathing rhythm and begin to observe, with detachment, your inner states, such as your feelings, emotions, thoughts and bodily sensations and the world around you. In being attentive to the flow of experience, without being “captured”  by any one object, thought or experience, your awareness becomes more fully in the present, in the here and now.

A While you are being mindful, your attitude needs to be positive, respectful and especially affectionate towards your surrounds. Affection can be evoked by being empathic and appreciative of the uniqueness and creativity of life. Encounter things as you walk or sit with love, empathy and respect. In this way, powerful and transformative emotions or feelings such as wonder and awe can arise to help shift perspective. Affection can also begin the process of more deeply expressing any suppressed feelings relating to personal and global issues.

P The quality of your awareness is largely influenced by the quality of your perceptions. To shift awareness and consciousness, you need to become more active, selective and purposeful in the way you use your senses. We need to cultivate an observational perspective towards our world by becoming enamoured or overwhelmed or dulled by what we sense.

I While being more attentive and active towards how you perceive your world is critical, using your inner senses to broaden the experience of engagement adds another tool to your arsenal. Your inner senses are activated when you use tools such as imagination, fantasy, visualisation and daydreaming to help move beyond the literal, physical restraints of perception. These provide a wonderful, creative quality during children’s play and we need to remember to use them in a way that also broadens our perception and perspective when in nature. You might, when in a natural area, for example, like to visualise auras around trees and intuit yourself within them.

N There is a significant body of psychological research indicating that any positive experience of nature, even just observing nature images, has varying degrees of positive effect on our wellbeing, especially our psychological and immunological states. A body of research since the 1980s has demonstrated the restorative and invigorating effects of nature on cognitive functioning and emotional wellbeing.

A new connection

More and more people are finding it difficult to navigate the precipitous edge between hope and despair in their private lives. Confronted by global and personal dilemmas and issues, it is easy to stray away from hope and succumb to a range of negative pacifying or unstable chronic states such as despair, grief, fear and depression. Either way, your negative responses tend to undermine your psychological wellbeing and your capacity to cope, and further alienate you from nature and deeper aspects of your being.

Ecopsychology suggests that you need to begin to reconnect with the other-than-human world to understand your place in the world and broaden aspects of your being. What I have simply suggested in this article is that if we can humbly and mindfully reach out to the simpler, stable world of nature, nature will in return provide the stillness, wonder and healing to facilitate renewal. So when you go for your next walk in your local reserve, perhaps try doing it the MAPIN way. You may find your inner child out there in the woods.

Peter White

Peter White

Peter White’s book In the Presence of Nature: A Guide for Connecting and Healing in a Climate of Change is available at your local bookstore and online bookstores. W: natureconnect.com.au

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