Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind

This essay appeared originally on The Marsh Online, an online journal founded by Billy Weiland of the Assateague Coastal Trust with emphasis on “Bringing people back to Nature through literature, adventure, and the arts.”

Close your eyes for a minute, I mean after you finish reading these first three sentences. With your eyes closed, find the part of you that is “aware” that your eyes are closed. When you have that “awareness” use “it”—what some folks might call the Wise Mind—to watch yourself having a thought. 

How did it go? Were you able to do it, to identify a part of you that knew your eyes were closed, then use that part to watch you having a thought? 

This exercise is an oversimplified example of what 17th century philosopher DeCartes meant by his famous words Cogito, ergo sum; or, I think, therefor I am. It was his idea that because we can be aware of ourselves as thinking beings, we are able to prove with certainty that our existence extends beyond our mind.

Wild if you ponder it, right? And even more wild is that for centuries deep, devoted processes of thought and questioning like this were valued, so much more than we appear to value these sorts of necessary reflections now. It brings me to concepts I’ve been pondering in response to Billy Weiland’s desire to re-open discourse as a means to reconnect people, soulfulness, and nature, using The Marsh as a platform.

Ecopsychology is a combination of the word ecology, which is knowledge of the natural environment, and psychology, which has the word psyche at its root. According to vocabulary.com, the word psyche comes from the Greek psykhe, which means “the soul, mind, spirit, or invisible animating entity which occupies the physical body.” As far back as the ancient Greeks, we humans have debated the idea that self or psyche is separate from the body. And with DeCartes came the emphasis of valuing this split, applying with his philosophy the idea that the mind has dominionover the body. 

In my work, psychotherapy and teaching, the emphasis is on helping people reconnect to themselves, body, mind, heart, spirit, soul. I like to use two words to describe reconnection: qualitative, and meaningful. Meaningful is easy to understand: reconnection to your sense of self and to life in ways that add personal meaning. This other word, qualitative, has the word quality in it, and basically means helping people reconnect to themselves in a way that they can feel—as an individual’s mental health is ultimately based on the quality of not just what but how they feel. When people feel they are disconnected, they are almost always discontented

Yet, we continue to exist in modern culture according to a philosophic code of dualism, or that idea of Descartes, which goes all the way back to Plato, that the mind and body are split. Self versus other is another name for this. The mind body split places value on what is known through thought or logic, and devalues what can’t be known or proven, as in the subjective realm of the body.  In our modern culture, fundamental “othering” translates both as “what I think I therefore am”, making it commonplace to identify with your beliefs as your identity, as we see all around us on the world stage. And because othering is about devaluing, or making something less than, it also shows up as “who I am (based on what I think) is best and because you are different you are other”, which we see in the ways individuals and groups place values about their own beliefs as “better than” or the only “right” way.

“I call this consciousness estrangement,” wrote Starhawk, an activist and teacher of mine, “because its essence is that we do not see ourselves as part of the world. We are strangers to nature, to other human beings, to parts of ourselves.”  Because dualism (and its shadow aspect: hubris, meaning excessive pride or self-confidence) has long been our accepted code without our even realizing it, and mostly because human beings are powerful and resilient beyond understanding—most humans enact this split on themselves! We know how to separate off parts of ourselves that cause us stress or pain or fear or bad feelings in general, and pride ourselves on our ability to keep on keeping on. In other words, we fall back to self versus other (mind over body) right in our own minds, bodies, hearts, souls, and spirits by shutting away what makes us feel uncomfortable about our own selves. 

It’s true, this is such a powerful skill to have in the short term. However it is not sustainable in the long term, because dualism isn’t actually the truth of our existence. What we don’t work out, we act out~ Emotions are just chemicals called neuropeptides, and they flow through the entirety of the body. The trauma response, known as fight or flight, is hardwired in every one of us in a way that empowers the body for survival. The mind-body when functioning as one is intuitive, instinctual, and full of its own limbic wiring and knowledge.

If only people felt safe enough to connect to it, in all its processes. When it comes to nature, this is where we have so much to embrace by studying its processes—the ways in which multiple species thrive because how they are connected is based on the system’s ability to self-regulate for survival. In a healthy, diverse ecosystem, the word we use is thrive.

When I read the thoughtful reflections on the Marsh for the first time, I thought, now here’s someone who’s on to it. “The current generation has lost much of their ability to understand the language of our natural world,” wrote Billy Weiland. Right, I thought. To me, healing our ability to understand begins within. It means not just healing the disconnect within ourselves, but to do so by connecting to one another, and by finding reconnection to the world, especially our natural world, through this lens. To be present and heal our connection with nature, we are called upon to learn to be present and able to connect first to our whole selves, and to each other.

“A chance to better the world is our love affair with nature,” continues Weiland, and I couldn’t agree more. The old adage is real, though, we cannot give what we do not have, and love and connection must begin from right within ourselves. In this way, our advocacy for our communities and surrounding natural environments happens because it is what makes us feel connected and alive. Thriving.

I am thrilled to engage this work in a hands on way with our upcoming Sacred Gathering Series. Join us on Assateague Island on Saturday, June 15, and Saturday, August 17, from 7-9 pm. We will explore the safety of the therapeutic circle to learn to connect to ourselves within, and practice how to use this connection to better connect to each other and to our natural world. All are welcome! See ActForBays.org for more information and to register!

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