The ecological as psyche
Rhonda Brandrick explores an ecological approach to therapy
N.B. This article first appeared in the April 2020 issue of Thresholds, published by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy © BACP 2020.
I am nature, not separated and alone, but interwoven in a deeply mysterious and evolving relationship with the unfolding 13.8-billion-year-old universe story. In my everyday living, this can seem like a radical shift of awareness and one that has been working within me for some years. However, in truth, I have come full circle, having started out in a deep connectedness with nature, as a child, immersed in wonder and discovery. I grew up living in cities, escaping into all sorts of human-centric and self-centred experiences and trying to bury my head and escape. This truth – that I am nature – has been guiding me back into something my mind, body, heart and soul always knew: the fundamental relationship between psyche (soul) and ego is a continuous and ongoing dance in becoming fully human, which cannot be and is not separate from the natural world.
I grew up in London, surrounded by both high-rise flats and wild common ground. It was the vast stretches of brooks and grasses of Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park that literally saved my life and began to call me even further into the deep mystery of earth’s psyche. These grasslands and brooks were my haven. I didn’t know it then, back in my teen years, but this connection was only the beginning of a journey that has brought me home, into the deep mysteries of life and into the beauty of wild places, the wild seas of Gower, the soft Somerset Valleys, the awe-inspiring Scottish mountains.
I wanted to write something of this journey, my development as a therapist and my spiritual practice. How this has changed from a relationship with more transcendent, rising-above-ego practice, to the practices of the inscendent. Thomas Berry spoke clearly of the need for a time of ‘inscendence’ – going deeply into our earthly roots – rather than more ‘transcendence’ into ideas that rise above the ground we stand on. This transformational time for myself, communities and the earth itself, which calls me to this deep inner journey of transformation.
This year of 2020 is clearly a threshold, for our species, other life on earth, many nations across the world and perhaps even the earth itself. At this threshold, I can feel my life and work in an alchemy of terror, dread, excitement and possibility. I have been strengthening
my own wellness and spiritual practice this past year in a way that I have not felt the need to do before. I believe that this is in response to what Joanna Macy, the ecophilosopher, has named ‘The Great Turning’ (2) or Thomas Berry called the ‘Great Work’ (1) of this time, this epoch in human history. It is clear that with the ways in which we are in relationship to the world and our self are not sustainable, and a shift of consciousness is being called for, a shift away from the idea that I am an island and isolated, not just from the human world, but from the natural world.
The great turning explores the idea that one response to this time is to remember that not only is each of us an individual human, living in a human-centric world, but that we are ecological beings, interwoven, interconnected with and interdependent upon the fabric of the universe and earth. Given this, I have been making space in my practice as a therapist, ecopsychologist, healer and tutor and actively engaging with clients and groups, with this in mind. I have been listening deeply for the ways in which this Natural Self might be being expressed, implicitly or explicitly, in the people I work with. I have seen and experienced a deep healing, inspiring growth and transformation when holding a place in the therapeutic relationship for the traumatic split from our ecological sense of identity, being and living.
Author, social-change activist, Chellis Glendenning, helps us explore a question: ‘What if this deep, chronic, and traumatic, disconnect from our Natural Self and its place in the web of things is at the heart of our current crisis?’(3). This traumatic disconnect, deeply somatised
and unconscious, is surely driving some of our part in this potential human-led catastrophic extinction. This trauma of not belonging to our home, our place (the prefix eco – is Greek for ‘home’) results in a capacity to destroy this beautiful planet. Woven into the many thousands of years of war trauma, it leaves us with a distorted perception – and brings about a way of being that makes decisions in an attempt to create safety and certainty in a world that feels so filled with danger and threat.
These deep enquiries have brought about a whole new approach to my work and how I navigate the complexity of ‘becoming’ with another. As this shift of awareness has become more profound, I have begun to make sense and find ways of working that help create an understanding of what is happening for people in recovery and in a journey of integrating a greater sense of their natural self. When I began to work consciously with this disconnect from our Natural Self (4), and found ways to integrate an ecological identity, it brought a radical rethink and profound shift from the developmental approaches that many theories and models of counselling and psychotherapy offer. This shift moved me away from an egocentric, anthropocentric developmental understanding and into a holistic nature developmental model.
There are three realms that I have been exploring in my work for a number of years: nature, health and wellbeing; healing, growth and wholeness; and deeper nature/transpersonal. Through these realms, I have been engaging in conversations with both clients and students about the impact and depths of what this model offers to us and how we can re-engage with the living world with a deeper sense of belonging and authenticity. Students and clients have reported a greater sense of relief, and of homecoming, and an immediacy to healing, growth and maturation that can be unveiled in the presence of nature. The realms that we use in our Natural Academy trainings offer a container and place of enquiry for students who are keen to make sense of the processes that happen when working with people in nature (5). This model of realms also offers a container for them personally in their own recovery, growth, flourishing and maturation; moving perhaps from a sense of dis-ease in their own skin and disconnect from nature to a sense of belonging and homecoming in themselves, interwoven with the natural world.
One of the things to notice about this model is that the realms are all interconnected and interwoven. When we intentionally focus, or contract, within one of the realms with a participant, it doesn’t mean that the other facets of the person are not being affected. We stay curious about this. If I am wanting to elicit a wellbeing experience for the person I’m working with, then my focus, questions and interventions will be aimed at encouraging this. There may be, as a by-product, a release of tears, some healing, for instance, or a deeper
nature experience, reflecting their transpersonal connection to the natural world. I am focusing on the wellbeing experience, at this point, as this is what we are wanting to cultivate, but the interplay of the realms is an inevitable outcome. I always feel I have an ethical responsibility to stay within the agreed container, the agreement that I have made with the person I am working with.
When I began offering nature-based facilitated sessions and groups, there was very little evidence to support the positive and transformational effects that being in nature has on a person’s wellbeing and development. Now it seems that we are swimming in evidence, which is a huge shift in the past 15 years. We know now of the numerous ways in which being in nature supports us physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. In the recent UK 25 Year Environment Plan, from the Department of the Environment, the multiple benefits of nature connection are described as:
• Spending time in the natural environment – as a resident or a visitor – improves our mental health and feelings of wellbeing.
• It can reduce stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression.
• It can help boost immune systems, lead to reduction of inflammatory based diseases encourage physical activity and may reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as asthma.
• It can combat loneliness and bind communities together (6).
There are particular practices and interventions that we use to help support a person/group come into a deeper sense of wellbeing and create a stronger sense of resilience. We have developed a nature-based mindfulness programme, with practices such as grounding or earthing, feeling a deep contact with the ground and ‘sense awareness’ in natural spaces. These practices incorporate the evidenced benefits of mindfulness with practices for nature connectedness. We have seen people find deep transformation through these simple yet powerful techniques. As one participant stated, ‘I could never have imagined the transformational journey I went on in only six weeks.’
The realm of wholing, healing and growth (second realm) is deeply profound and radical within some psychological models. The term ‘wholing’ was first attributed to author, Jean Houston, who was involved in the Human Potential Movement. I was introduced to it more
fully through the works of Bill Plotkin, such as Wild Mind (7). Therapy, which is from the Greek ‘to heal’, sometimes does not engage with the process of wholing. We explore this through an ecological lens and see that the cultivation of wholeness encourages healing and growth. When nature is actively engaged through tasks and experiences that intentionally evoke our wholeness, we can find the resources we need to engage with our healing. Wholeness is mirrored by the natural world, by ecosystems and the sky, sun and stars, which can help us find deep resources that support us in our healing and growth journey.
We may be accompanied by a therapist, but it might be that nature encourages an ecotherapeutic process, without other people there. This then opens the possibility of ongoing healing journeys in nature that weekly sessions in a human environment cannot provide. This has been the feedback from people, that somehow their sense of healing is much more immediate, and surprisingly potent. I believe this is because nature is non-judgmental, alive, real and present to who and what we bring into the relationship, and offers powerful symbolic ways to mirror this back to us. Therefore, we are able to engage at a depth, or with a quality, that may not be possible to generate in the human-human relationship.
The third realm is what I call deeper nature, the realm that includes nature, soul and spiritual ecology. Here, the metaphors, symbols and guidance that we can access in our deepest conversations with the natural world help us find our deepest self, biggest self, the self that isn’t only ego orientated but ‘soulfully’ orientated. Jung was one of the first analysts to acknowledge that we live in the soul of the world, the Anima Mundi, and that it is suffused with soul and spirit (8), and Thomas Berry spoke of earth as a community of subjects, rather than objects (1). Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, in their writings and film, talk of the bigger journey of human beings and our evolution, of a universe that is alive, forever expanding, and of living on an intelligent planet that is constantly evolving (9). This story is founded in existential truths and so deeply mysterious that we know there are far more questions than answers about this cosmos that we live in.
People have been deeply curious about this existential and mystical enquiry since the beginning of time. Why are we here? What are we here to do? What are the stars to us and us to them? How do we navigate our lives and make sense and meaning in this vast story, universe and evolving, emergent thing called life? How do death, the cycles of the moon and the seasons serve us, and are we here in service to this? If so, how? I’m aware that I am just beginning to speak to this enormous journey for us as a people, and I am able to bring
something of this to this writing and to wonder: how did we get here, to the possible near-extinction of our own species, to the death of so many others? As I type, the climate is changing. Fires are raging. Amazing plants and animals are disappearing, and I cannot afford
not to ask how I can best support people at this time in our current unfolding. Maybe, the split from our natural selves, from the loss of initiation and rites of passages, and the pull away from the inscendent psychospiritual journey into the upper transcendent journey, has
meant that we have lost our roots, our sense of place and belonging to an earth community. Perhaps due to this and other traumas, we have become so confused and disorientated that returning home, both to self and to the living world, is deeply and urgently needed. In fact, it is the only way forward for our health, our healing, our growth and our resilience.
I feel that we have had years of this current story of disconnect and domination of the natural world. Through it, we seem to have become, even more anxious, depressed, addicted, ashamed and self-loathing. I’m not naïve enough to say that this disconnect from our nature and the natural world is the reason for all of our problems, but I do know that when we get displaced, spend a life in urban and concrete-only environments, in isolation etc, we are not a people getting well but a people getting deeper into self-diagnosis, pathology, antidepressants, self-harm, emotional disease and mental ill health. It appears we are gasping for breath in a world of scarcity and mistrust, at times; and when I sit in the natural world, or in the depths of my own nature, I do not feel that. Of course, there have been wise humans who have also mirrored, acknowledged and honoured me. To them, I am always grateful; but being on the wild beaches of the Gower peninsula shows me something of myself that they never can.
Rhonda Brandrick is a senior accredited counsellor, a founder of Natural Academy Ecopsychology Training, a nature-based practitioner, supervisor, teacher and author, who brings a wealth of experience and deep curiosity to our human-nature relationship. Over many years, she has studied with Animas Valley Institute and has worked with individuals, couples and groups.
1. Berry T. The great work, our way into the future. New York, NY: Bell Tower; 2000.
2. Macy J, Young Brown M. Coming back to life. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers; 2014.
3. Glendinning C. My name is Chellis and I’m in recovery from Western civilization. Boston, MA: Shambhala; 1994.
4. Brandrick R., Connors M. The natural self: a handbook and journal. Bristol: Arkbound; 2017.
5. www.naturalacademy.org (accessed 5 February 2020).
6. www.gov.uk/government/publications/25- year-environment-plan (accessed 5 February 2020).
7. Plotkin W. Wild mind: a field guide to the human psyche. Novato, CA: New World Library; 2013.
8. Sabini M. (ed). The earth has a soul: CG Jung’s writings on nature, technology and modern life. North Atlantic Books; 2002.
9. Swimme BT., Tucker ME. Journey of the universe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; 2014.