Ecopsychology in Practice
Graduate School of Environmental Science, Monash University, Clayton,
There are several ways the naturescape works with a person to aid in their developmental processes and, at the same time, facilitate deepening their nature connection. Such techniques begin with simply observing how you feel when in the bush or desert and taking note. We can see attributes of ourselves highlighted in the characteristics of plants, animals and elements, such as the hardness of rocks, the slipperiness of fish, the piercing eyes of an eagle, the persistence of a wombat. Nature heals and teaches through encounter with its varied attributes and capacities. A sunset offers an experience of transcendence, a desert storm or pounding seas offer humility in the face of nature’s power or peace in nature’s quiet. Awareness of our regeneration through such nature experiences is often vague or simply taken for granted. This can be enhanced through an ecopsychologist who focuses one’s encounter and facilitates understanding.
In the discipline of psychology too much responsibility lies in the hands of the professional carer who is expected to hold the client’s projections as they go through their therapeutic journey. While this is important, there are ways to reduce its extent and to mediate the relationship so that participants are more responsible for their journey. This can happen through allowing nature and the group process to do some of the holding. This makes the learning and therapeutic process a 4-way dialogue between the above players. This takes time to evolve. It involves a design that trusts the process through making provision for unfilled niches, with responsiveness to the weather and the evolution of the group. With a wider array of resources it is more likely the person will be enriched in ways that joins them with each of the parties without excessive reliance on either one. A difficulty is how to do this in a way that honours ecopsychology’s roots with first peoples and be authentic to where we are now. Now to a course that works with this dialogue.
The design of the course involves a variety of approaches. Some are developmental and others operate in parallel. Assessment tasks are designed to formalise experience while providing focus points along the way. This is not a one-on-one approach that puts the focus on the teacher/learner therapist/client. The role is rather one of the facilitator of explorations of nature connections in partnership with other players; a role dependent on having been there oneself with a guide.
Nature attractions for learning/healing/transcending
Each season and naturescape provides a different opportunity for personal exploration of being in nature. The core of the course is built around two weekend retreats in powerful naturescapes, one by the sea in autumn, the other in the mountains in winter. Participants organise some of the workshops which have included 'art expression through nature','creating songlines,'our body in nature','nature wounds and our shadow side'. At night there may be ritual dancing, drumming, story telling, a night walk.
My major intervention is the direct exploration of each person’s left field/right brain dialogue with nature. This is in order to explore how that can enrich the power and fullness of who they are and deepen their appreciation of their beingness in nature and the beingness of nature. Initially this involves participants spending time in a chosen place for at least an hour while being mindful of their attractions and resistances. They may keep a journal and write poetry. Initially they often find the prospect of an hour alone in one place, consciously in nature, daunting. They are asked to bring back to share with the group a sample of what particularly caught their attention. What is it that attracts and repels them? What does it mean?
Maybe there is something in the nature/human dynamic that picks up their under-expressed aspects? Whether the resulting image comes from direct channelling or a dialogue between right brain and the cosmos stimulated by the nature attraction is not central. It works and I can see that it works. The following provides a beginning description and my perception of what actions help or hinder. I have used left/right brain language; as clumsy and dualistic as it is, it does have a biological basis.
Developing a way of working as an ecopsychologist
This involves for me:
- Openness and trusting nature to provide what is needed and that the person is ready to work with what they are attracted to ‘out of left field’.Using attunement to my mix of left field/ right brain as the key source for my intervention, whether that be to facilitate their exploration or to offer my perception.
- Compassion and listening for the participants’ need.
- Monitoring my own work. I prefer to work with at least one other colleague if possible and to draw on others in the group to assist in creating a climate that invites different inputs and some uncertainty as to anyone’s rightness. I am working with the art of listening for the collective wisdom without being driven by the crowd.
- Listening to the story of what the participant was attracted/ drawn to in nature. Is it out of their right brain, left field? How do we know? Some indicators are that it was unexpected, something they kept coming back to, maybe in spite of their thinking or intentions.
- Using my ‘objective’ left brain to stick with clarifying the nature of what they have bought back or seen. The task here is to describe the nature expression as it is, in itself, such as a leaf or ant. After the participant has described as clearly as they can, the group is then asked to fill out the character and function of the aspect of nature being addressed. While the left side of the brain is busy, the right brain/left field is able to do its work. This can be aided by a phenomenological reduction of one’s own projections, such as noting one’s fear of snakes if an old skin is brought back to the group.
- What does the participant think is the nature message for them?
- Then I listen to my left field/right brain, while being ever watchful of my intellect wanting to get into the picture. What comes to me? I work to catch the picture. What do I see, staying with the data of nature and of the person? Hold them together and listen with openness to what comes from left field for an answer. Part of being able to trust what comes is when it rings bells for the participant. I am watchful of my intellect being smart and going for the shallow, obvious answer. When I don't know, if nothing comes, I say so and leave the void open. I have to keep saying to myself, you don’t have to intervene!
- Consider when something does come, what is it? Hold it there, work to make it clearer. I use my left brain to make sense of it. I try to sit with it for a moment before sharing it.
- Then I invite any group member to share possible meanings that suggest themselves before I share what has come to me. This may help to clarify the meaning further. Don’t overdo the processing. Be watchful of projections, since group input can add to confusion. By waiting I leave the others free of my picture of meaning while still having the opportunity to counter perceived projections.
- Ask the person to identify what rings true? Offer what I picked up out of my left field/right brain, but I don't insist on its rightness. I may well not have got it. Left field/right brain is often initially unclear, a surprise. It often takes a while for the full meaning to emerge. For example, Susan Bechio, one of my ecopsychology mentors, strongly suggested to me “to look below your knees” Processing this continues to claim my attention.
Because the experience comes out of their left field/ right brain and through nature it is harder to argue with. It can be powerful and take the form of a revelation. It can be quite upsetting, generating confusion, anxiety even hostility, requiring considerable processing and assistance. The following illustrates one participant’s experience while showing how the ecopsychology work can lead into other ways of working, such as with dreams or active imagination.
Ecopsychological practice is exploring our human nature through the diversity of what nature offers. It involves being open to oneself, the other while keeping in mind what the nature attraction is and what is one's response. Working with nature directly keeps participants in touch with their roots while they explore difficult and new dimensions of their being. While the burden on the psychologist through drawing on the eco is lessened, the struggle remains to develop a process that holds the individual sufficiently while not taking away from their response-ability. The dynamic between the nature that attracts and the meaning we give can only be subjective. The uncertainty principle needs to be held in the present or else we risk commitment to a false certainty.
It is not that dreams, free association, body analysis or clay expression and the stars do not work, for there are many pathways to the psyche. This is one other. An essential difference is the constraint on projections by the character of the nature-encountered. The eco comes before the psychology. There is a dialogue between the participant’s need and their nature encounter. This is affirming of being in nature in all senses of our being and an experience of ‘out there’ as ‘in here’. I do love the magic that can occur.
Ecopsychological practice is a way to be in nature as an eco-carer living sustainably (psychologically and spiritually) from Gaia. There is the little picture of what you gain for yourself and the larger one of being more conscious through this kind of experience that psychologically and spiritually we are in nature. Ecopsychological practice can be a building block to ecospirituality. Spirituality needs expression through experience of the truth of the Gaia theory or else spirituality becomes part of the paradigm that takes us away from being within the earth. This has left us vulnerable to our techno/virtual culture creating a false sense of our power as the earth’s god and, as such, no longer capable of listening and learning other than from ourselves.
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