The Body, Mind and Spirit in Ecopsychology

Robert Worcester, Instructor, Langara College, Vancouver, B.C

The history of psychology in the twentieth century follows something of the wry observation made by Bertrand Russell that,.“first psychology lost its soul (psyche), then it lost its“mind” and finally it lost “consciousness” altogether.” His joke referred to the early naturalistic approach to psychology that avoided “religious” issues except as pathologies, then the behavioristic approach that focused on “externals” (behavior) rather than “internals” (mental states) and, most recently, the biological approach which sees “consciousness” as merely a side effect of marvelous neurological machinery. The attempt to reduce the complexity of human experience to comprehensible components is understandable and well intentioned; it is a method that has worked elsewhere and there is little reason to believe that human psychology should be excluded from such analysis. There is, however, a long history of concern about attempts to subject the things we value deeply to the “cold eye” of such analysis. Romantic poets warned of studying the dead body of nature instead of her living spirit. Theologians and philosophers warn of the ethical implications of “mechanistic” theories. In the late 20th century even environmentalists found that science was a two-edged sword that could provide detailed information about the ecological relationships in carbon cycles and weather patterns but could also happily rearrange atomic structures or genetic codes and sell the information to the highest bidder from governments or corporations. Since before the explosion of the first atomic bomb the “innocence” of scientific research programs has been suspect.

Ecopsychology is in the middle of such issues. “Nature” has always been a loaded term defining how things “are” with subtle implications that perhaps it is also how things “ought to be.” “Human nature” is a doubly loaded term particularly when it is used to prescribe or excuse human behavior ( a “guy” thing but only “natural”.) The terms “body, mind and spirit” have a long history in human language and literature but have suffered from attempts to clarify specifically what they refer to in “psychological explanations.” The dualism of mind and body is a handy metaphor to refer to things which stand behind appearances but when one attempts to locate a “home” in the brain for its mental activity one finds a knot of philosophical and scientific problems. Like all metaphors, mind/brain distinctions break down pretty quickly under analysis. Even more difficult is the concept of “spirit” that carries with it the “spooky” associations of religion and “vitalism” that have not fit comfortably in scientific discussions for over a century. Yet human experience has a dimension of depth or “soul” that cannot easily be ignored. Spirituality is a resurgent interest in the 21st century and the “re-enchantment” of nature is coming from both refurbished religious and new scientific world views.

Ecopsychology focuses its attention on human relationships to “other-than-human" nature where the language of “body, mind, and spirit” is often used. There is a parallel here to the relationship between our physiology, psychology, and culture. Clearly human “nature” emerges out of our thousands of years interacting with constantly changing natural environments. Our "bodies” embody that history in obvious and subtle ways as physiology and history are deeply intertwined. No computer can understand the delicious flavor of fresh apples or the odor of old eggs. Our “psychology”, however, is largely the produce of our own unique experience filtered as it is through the special sensitivities of our developing nervous system. Thoughts are mediated by language and words are a link between minds. We speak to "others" and they speak to us from near by or from the distances of space and time. We may speak into the silence of unspoken possibilities now and in the future, human and "Other". Language is the gift of culture to the mind. It is where the "spirits" speak for "meaning" is discovered not created and the spark of discover moves us on.. Ideas have a life of their own and play among hospitable minds. Our “headspace” may be our own but the individualism of mere “self-understanding” can neglect the profound influence of culture on our experience. Like fish in water we are largely “unconscious” of the flow of images, associations and artifacts that limit which experiences are “accessible” to us. This may be the true source of our "unconscious" life. Like our natural history, our “social” history shapes us in obvious and subtle ways. Culture creates the very categories of “scientific”, “religious” or “poetic” that filter our view of what is “natural.” Without culture our knowledge of microbes, galaxies, force fields, history and “societies” would be purely intuitive. So what does this imply for ecopsychology?

An insightful ecopsychology will understand the “human” and the “natural” from the perspective of our long history with environments that shaped our upright stance and opposing thumbs, our sensitivities to reds, blues and greens and our sensitivities to anger, sorrow and joy. Ecopsychology will also understand the role of human reason and imagination that fashions thoughts and images out of our memory and experience with the magic of words. It will understand both the unity of human experience based on our common heritage and the diversity of ways each culture finds its way through the perplexities of collective life. Ecopsychology will understand how embedded human nature is in the residue of times past and in the current diversity of the world’s approaches to our common problems. Most importantly it must understand visions of the future where our children, and their children must forge communities with each other and the myriad organic forms that share our celebration of life. I can imagine that ecopsychology will be looking for the emergence of new forms out of chaos as the process of creation continues through the physical, mental and spiritual. Whether “possibilities” for new forms come embedded in the very substance of things or from the “Void” itself may not be known or even knowable. Past and future are present in the whirling dance of possibility. Where we see and understand, we may also act with courage to help bring forth what is good. Ecopsychology cannot maintain the detached stance of classic science for there is too much at stake on this suffering planet. Knowledge leads to action and action leads to even deeper knowledge. Perhaps ecopsychology itself is one of those very forms now emerging from the ancient interplay of body, mind and spirit.

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