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!

Reflections: Social Perm

Looking back on the year I have to honestly address that of everything I fed to grow, the  Creative Advisory Social Permaculture project got the most passive amount of my energy.

Which, while one of the intentions when I first took time to tend and visualize was passive action, I certainly had wanted to stay steady with actions that included at least social media posts with educational info about permaculture.  So it is important to me to post here a recap of how and where that fell off.

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I found this image here

First, as someone who identifies as being in recovery, and teaches and sits with people who do, too: what we call the eff-its happened for me for sure.  Where you screw up once and let that justify quitting on yourself and screwing up more.

But if you sit with me, you know I like us to expand our understanding of what caused the eff-its, and to trust our larger lived experience to inform us, too.  This is a very permaculture perspective, to look at the big picture, to observe and interact in order to accept feedback without judgement or shame.

From a more long term perspective, I was really amped on permaculture in the beginning of the year!  I spent my downtime reading books and web pages for creative ideas to implement in my plot at the community garden here in good ol Ocean Pines.

After suffering some powerful, painful losses, I made the commitment to produce no waste emotionally: grief was here, upon me.  I’d work to tend it by making sure I went to my garden bed every other day, because it soothes me, and brought me peace and sweetness and quiet outside.  It was a commitment of small, slow solutions, and a way I could practice catching and storing my energy in my body, and in my garden.  Self-care and earth care!  So here’s the rest of what happened.

Zucchini bugs ate my enthusiasm, or How I got the eff-its but how they saved me, too.  A permaculture micro-story.

Last year my biggest time consumption, and where I really needed improvement in my garden, was with weeding.  So as that was my pattern, I considered the details of where I went wrong.  By doing that, and as a means of producing no waste, catching and storing energy, and using the renewable resources already in my garden, I designed a plan for green mulching.  In February I tilled to turn up the soil but rather then get rid of weeds I then laid down newspapers and black garden cloth to kill them all off at their new starts, and give their nutrition back to the soil.  I layered my compost (I do vermiculture which means use worms, it’s the best!)  from last year in there, as well.

Let all that sit and cook as the spring energy comes on was my thinking, and sure enough at the end of April I scored free hay to lay down on top of all of it. I really thought the hay was a killer idea, a capstone of ensuring green manure and a weed management system all at once.  Slow solutions, letting time and small moves work in favor of creating a lush, fertile soil environment.

So I realized this week by reflecting on my patterns this year that I got up to August and principle 8, Integrate Rather Than Segregate, Asset Compassion on the FB page.  I asked myself what actually happened?

So, it’s suhhmmer, ok, like peak July–hot as hell, dirty, fabulous.  Boy am I getting at it in my garden every other, sometimes every third day.  We’re getting a lot of rain, too.  Water tables saturated, I don’t even water my herbs because the soil slopes into the center and the rain holds there under all that matting of hay and paper.  Also the herbs that are really reedy and like dry and full sun, they’re along the edges mostly, a little sloped up because they’re connected to the land between the beds that’s not been cultivated you dig?  –We value what happens there, along the edges, where diversity flourishes, and it’s the second time in the garden I took note of how mama earth put off natural imitation weeds where I was cultivating wild edibles that grew naturally!  Chickweed, she has an imitator!  And arugula, which I seeded several times, she does too!  FASCINATING! I am in heaven in my garden anyway, loving every minute of it, trying to keep up and learn from her.

Small, slow and natural solutions: I visit the plants, weed, sing to them, speak to them, and feed them an epsom salt and tums solution I mix, and like once a week fish emollient.  They L O V E this, and I love seeing the green growing world do its miracle work before my eyes.

Oh, and in case you think I am this motivated of my own accord?  To keep showing up?  Let’s be clear, I have plants I am tending, and I am D E T E R M I N E D to grow zucchinis because they are so versatile and also because last year those rotten stinker zucchini bugs decimated my plants literally overnight and this year I WILL PREVAIL YOU HEAR ME?  So, my primary motivation to stay near my garden was hand squashing those little dudes.  This small, slow, yes aggressive solution kept me connected to showing up, day after day.  I was grieving you know and hurt people hurt people.   Or in this case, try not to hurt people by hurting little insects, instead.

Little did I know at the time that hay is a primary and perfect breeding and nesting ground for those guys: Which if I was thinking about integrating rather than segregating maybe I’d have learned that in advance? (I was trying to create solution by segregating out weed management and fertile soil creation, and didn’t think about it more integrated as in what could hay harbor, what pests, you know?) But by the time I did learn, I was up for the challenge~  A N N N D

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I was so elated you cannot imagine!  It actually poured off me like the guy at the donut shop gave me free donuts just because “my energy was so great.”  Yea yea donuts and fresh veggies I am who I am ~ enjoy what you eat and also enjoy growing and~
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Ok.  So.  I harvest three big mamas, and I cook this rad baked zucchini dish and it’s my lunch for almost a week.  I’m feeling great… more rains come.  So I let it slide, my every other day bug squashing visit.  What’s the harm, right?  Just gonna go straight to the beach before work today, it’ll rain later need to get in the sea right now, etc etc

The rains and letting it slide went on for 8 days. 😦

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I wish I had a picture to show you what actual DECIMATION looks like.  Like I mean the plant flattens, it turns to dust almost bc those little bugs burrow into the her stalks and eat her from within.  KINDA LIKE THE EFF-ITS, you dig?  So.

Knowing my herbs–what I primarily grow–could sustain, and in that it was past leafy green season, I went full on F-IT to my tomatoes.  This was the first week of August, right around the time I did my last post on FB.  I stopped going to the garden all together.

Around about this time I was also offered a chance to retreat away for as long as I wanted on a big wild, edible farm in the country.  It was almost like mama Nature saying to me: take rest from your hyper-vigilance (and violence? RIP little bugs and zucchini plant!) and remember the kind of true gardening you most love.  Wild-crafting.

And so it was that the growing season, right around First Harvest in August, delivered me to my own medicine.  Begin, again.  Begin, within. On that farm my focus intuitively shifted.  It was month 8, compassion.  I really, really needed to obtain a yield of that for myself and my grieving process. And so that is what I did.

And, when I did return to the community garden to harvest my herbs, almost as if she said to me you are indeed responding creatively to change my love (this month’s principle) a massive, wild patch of purslane had popped up in the the heart of the sloshy parts of my still saturated beds.  Purslane, powerful wild medicinal, after living on a wild edible farm?  You can imagine my delight.

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I really did want to get back to social media and share more thoughts on Permaculture. But fall was here, and the harvest season accompanying came fast, and other areas I was growing, and working to sustain, took my energy.

My sincere apologies.  Please accept this recap, below.  And remember that as with recovery and beginning again a day at a time, Permaculture, a design system based on nature’s natural rhythms, calls us to this, too.

Happy Holiday tide, dear friends.

12 Permaculture Principles & 12 Character Assets

  1. Observe & Interact. Honesty.
  2. Catch and Store Energy. Open-mindedness
  3. Obtain a Yield. Willingness.
  4. Apply Self-regulation & Accept Feedback. Courage.
  5. Use & Value Renewable Resources & Services. Integrity.
  6. Produce No Waste. Acceptance.
  7. Design from Patterns to Details. Humility.
  8. Integrate Rather than Segregate. Compassion.
  9. Use Small & Slow Solutions. Forgiveness.
  10. Use & Value Diversity. Perseverance.
  11. Use Edges & Value the Marginal. Spirituality.
  12. Creatively Use & Respond to Change. Service.

 

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A baby mermaid (who doubles as garden fairy,) and me, in the community garden, with mama Thyme who reminds us: Patience; and mama Basil, who Protects, and reminds us All power to the Imagination, and ma Rosemary, if you look for her, who Blesses All xoxox