Ecopsychology

 

[Ecopsychology is] a language drawn from the field of ecology, various psychologies, anthropology, and philosophy that expresses the human/nature relationship in enough depth to reveal the dynamics of why we are destroying our habitat.  — Robert Greenway

Psychology, so dedicated to awakening human consciousness, needs to wake itself up to one of the most ancient human truths: we cannot be studied or cured apart from the planet. — James Hillman

Wilderness Trail, North Carolina © Lori Kincaid

We have become painfully disconnected from the conscious knowing and perception of our participation mystique in the living processes of Earth. Our animistic, shamanistic ancestors had this awareness of symbiotic relatedness with the natural world. Through listening and reflecting on their ancient stories, we may be able to awaken the nature goddesses and gods slumbering in the inner recesses of the collective unconscious. 
– Ralph Metzner

When we grasp fully that the best expressions of our humanity were not invented by civilization but by cultures that preceded it, that the natural world is not only a set of constraints but of contexts within which we can more fully realize our dreams, we will be on the way to a long overdue reconciliation between opposites which are of our own making.  — Paul Shepard

 

What is Ecopsychology?

Theodore Roszak proposed the term "ecopsychology" in his 1992 book The Voice of the Earth: an Exploration of Ecopsychology.  He saw the need to both penetrate traditional psychotherapy with ecological consciousness, as well as to bring more psychological awareness to the environmental movement.  In Ecopsychology On-Line, edited by Roszak, this is the definition offered: 

ec-o-psy-chol-o-gy n.
1. The emerging synthesis of ecology and psychology
 2. The skillful application of ecological insight to the practice of psychotherapy
 3. The study of our emotional bond with the Earth
 4. The search for an environmentally-based standard of mental health
 5. Redefining "sanity" as if the whole world mattered

Ecopsychology attempts to answer questions such as: What is the effect of the destruction of the natural world on human sanity?  Is the epidemic of mental illness, especially in the United States, a consequence as well as a cause of ecocide?  What will heal the madness, the split in the soul, that results in the destruction of the natural world?  What will it take to reawaken in individuals and communities the desire to pursue a life-honoring, ecologically sustainable relationship with nature?

In The Voice of the Earth, Roszak proposes that traditional Western psychotherapy is too limited by anthropocentrism and that we need a new form for healing the soul, one that will engage our natural animistic sensibility.  In his chapter on "Stone Age Psychiatry" he points to the healing practices of animistic cultures:

[Q]uite often, bodily functions and natural objects enter into the healing of the soul.  Nature at large as well as the body is viewed as alive, possibly divine. 

Cave Art

The supernatural resides in the natural, a constant, intentional presence.  Stone-age psychiatry draws on a pre-scientific psychology; body as well as mind participates in an animistic worldview. . . . The human must establish a transactional bond with the natural; there must be give and take, courtesy and respect. . . .  Sanity is ... a matter of balance and reciprocity between the human and not-human. 

Roszak says that all children are born with animistic perception.  Ecopsychology seeks to reawaken in adults this animistic sensibility, which all of us possess before we are alienated from the Earth and the rest of creation by our churches and schools, families and cultural institutions.  Martin Prechtel, a Mayan shaman, calls this animistic sensibility "the natural indigenousity of the human spirit."  Roszak asks:  “Is it possible that the loss of this sensibility accounts not only for our ecological crisis, but for our crazy-making discontent?" His answer is Yes, and he calls this part of ourselves, which has been repressed in our culture, the "ecological unconscious."

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Yanomami Indian Children

Now cutting-edge science is validating animistic perceptions, showing us that there appears to be mind and intention throughout the workings of the universe.  Roszak says,

[T]he deeper modern science delves into the nature of things, the more it finds hints and traces of the primordial animist world: mind in the cosmos. . . .  [S]cientists are fashioning a picture of the world as alive, intentional, creative. . . .  And I think something more comes into play: an ecological unconscious, the 'savage' remnant within us, that rises up subjectively to meet the environmental need of the time.

Since 1992 ecopsychology has evolved into a new movement and a new discipline.  This is how Joanna Macy sees it:

Western psychology has virtually ignored our relationship to the natural world. Our connection to the source of life does not figure in its definition of mental health, nor is our destruction of our life-support system included in its list of pathologies. It has failed to ask Paul Shepard's rather obvious and haunting question: "Why does society persist in destroying its habitat?" Now the new discipline of ecopsychology addresses this failure and studies the human psyche within the larger systems of which it is a part. It explores how our cultural alienation from nature engenders not only careless and destructive behavior toward our environment, but also many common disorders such as depression and addiction. Psychotherapists within the movement recognize how their profession has blinded itself to the larger context of their clients' lives and pathologized their pain for the world. These pioneers break new ground as they help clients find strength and meaning through experiencing their interconnectedness with all life, and acting on its behalf.

Among a few other schools of higher learning, Naropa University offers courses in ecopsychology.  It also offers a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology with an Ecopsychology concentration.  (I don’t know of any PhD programs in ecopsychology.) Jed Swift, former Director of that program, defines Ecopsychology in this way: 

Ecopsychology is an emerging field that bridges ecology and psychology in an attempt to understand and heal our relationship with the natural world. It explores the psychological and emotional processes that either bond us to the Earth or alienate us from it. A central assumption of ecopsychology is that our inner worlds and outer worlds are intimately connected. Most ecopsychologists believe that the ecological crisis and the cultural and political processes that contribute to it have a deep and lasting impact on the human psyche and soul. In turn, our states of mind are then expressed in the way we relate, or not, to the natural world. Ultimately, ecopsychology is concerned with the transformation of hearts and minds essential to reawakening our sacred connection with other living beings and our planetary home. Perhaps ecopsychology's greatest gift is the revitalization of hope through the articulation of theoretical principles and experiential practices that promote healing for both humans and the rest of the natural world.

Goddess of Canyons © Suzanne Duarte

With or without degrees and credentials, there are many people who are leading and participating in wilderness rites-of-passage, Councils of All Beings, Practices that Reconnect, and other ”re-Earthing” rituals, as well as shamanic healing.  The great interest shown in these processes and practices at the grassroots level can be interpreted as a spontaneous expression of the ecological unconscious—the primal, animistic soul—rising up to give voice to the inseparability of the human soul and the soul of the Earth, the anima mundi.

From my own perspective, deep ecological consciousness is the soil in which ecopsychology grew; and the promise of ecopsychology is that it will contribute to the realization and manifestation of the future era of harmonious, reciprocal, and sustainable Earth-human relationships, which Thomas Berry called the Ecozoic Era. (See New Cosmology.)   Both deep ecological consciousness and the ecozoic vision are grounded in an embodied identification with the larger ecological Self of the Earth’s community of beings. The ecological unconscious that has been split off in Western civilization can be re-integrated through the process of embodied Self-realization, and this is one of the gifts of current ecopsychological practices.

There are great challenges ahead that ecopsychologists will be called upon to help people through, and those challenges have to do with the transition from the destructive industrial/consumer economy to the life-affirming, life-sustaining culture of the Ecozoic Era. Before humans collectively take their proper place as responsible Earth citizens, it seems increasingly likely that we will first go through the wrenching traumas of the collapse of our current civilization, which is explored in detail in the Great Turning section of this website. 

As oil depletion, economic meltdown, climate chaos, ecosystem collapses, and social and political upheaval unravel our current way of life, humans who are unprepared—the majority—may go through a collective dark night of the soul.  Ecopsychologists who have already faced these prospects and are psychologically prepared for them will be sorely needed to help others cope.  Trauma and post-traumatic-stress disorders may be widespread, as well as suffering of all kinds—mental, physical, and metaphysical.

As James Howard Kunstler put it in “The Long Emergency,” regarding the consequences of the end of oil:

These are daunting and even dreadful prospects. The Long Emergency is going to be a tremendous trauma for the human race. We will not believe that this is happening to us, that 200 years of modernity can be brought to its knees by a world-wide power shortage. The survivors will have to cultivate a religion of hope—that is, a deep and comprehensive belief that humanity is worth carrying on. If there is any positive side to stark changes coming our way, it may be in the benefits of close communal relations, of having to really work intimately (and physically) with our neighbors, to be part of an enterprise that really matters and to be fully engaged in meaningful social enactments instead of being merely entertained to avoid boredom. Years from now, when we hear singing at all, we will hear ourselves, and we will sing with our whole hearts.

Thus, I foresee that Ecopsychologists have an essential role to play in helping individuals and communities to understand and deal with the realities of the 21st century.  They will be important healers and leaders throughout the Great Turning, showing the way towards a viable, meaningful, soulful alternative to the alienation and fragmentation that the global economy/consumer society has created.  Providing a vision of this alternative is the objective of Deep Ecology, the New Cosmology, and Ecopsychology. Ecopsychologists, indigenous healers and shamans, Dharmagaians of all kinds—all who are engaged in the Great Turning and the Great Work—are going to be “on call” for centuries to come.     

See Ecopsychology Links for resources on Ecopsychology. See Indigenous Wisdom for more on the gifts indigenous people offer.  See the Great Turning section of this website for the realities humans face in this century, and how to navigate through them. See The Animistic Soul Re-Emerges and its links for more on ecopsychology and its relationship with sustainability.

Mud Maid, Heligan Gardens, Cornwall, Uk

 

© 2009 Suzanne Duarte