What Is Ecopsychology?

"If we surrendered to eath's intelligence, we could rise up rooted, like tree." - Rainer Maria Rilke

Ecopsychology's Manifest Destiny

The following abridged and paraphrased excerpt from Theodore Roszak's book, The Voice of the Earth (1992), gives some expression to what I regard as ecopsychology's manifest destiny:

Psychology needs ecology; ecology needs psychology. From this partnership a new profession is born: an ecopsychology that combines the sensitivity of the therapist with the expertise of the ecologist. The value of such a new body of professionals reaches well beyond individual healing. Ecopsychology has a greater cultural project: to redefine the relationship of the natural environment to sanity in our time. Ecotherapists wish to heal the soul while engaging the whole. We wish to speak for the planet and its imperiled species. We wish to recall the long forgotten Anima Mundi and honor it in our relations and work. We wish to converse with primary people to foster healing and build common cause. The planetary environment is the context for healing the soul because the two are inextricably bound by bonds that are sacred: life and consciousness. Implicit in this project is the need for a scientific paradigm that gives life and consciousness a new central status in the universe. Based upon such a paradigm, ecopsychology is more than a mere academic exercise; it is part of an ongoing and practical healing mission that recognizes and honors that the health of the individual human psyche depends upon the collective health of all the kingdoms of life on Earth.

For a fuller definition of ecopsychology, read the following statement by John Davis, Ph.D., Naropa University and School of Lost Borders (October 2006).

Ecopsychology Defined

The deep and enduring psychological questions--who we are, how we grow, why we suffer, how we heal--are inseparable from our relationships with the physical world. Similarly, the over-riding environmental questions--the sources of, consequences of, and solutions to environmental problems--are deeply rooted in the psyche, our images of self and nature, and our behaviors. Ecopsychology integrates ecology and psychology in responding to both sets of questions. Among its aims are:

  • shifting environmental action from anxiety, blame, and coercion to invitation, joy, devotion, and love;
  • fostering ecological thinking and direct contact with the natural world in psychotherapy and personal growth;
  • and supporting lifestyles which are both ecologically and psychologically healthy and sustainable.

    Ecopsychology offers three insights.
    1. There is a deeply bonded and reciprocal relationship between humans and nature. Ecopsychology draws on two metaphors for this relationship:
    (a) nature as home and family (e.g., Earth as mother, animals as siblings) and
    (b) nature as Self, in which self-identifications are broadened to include the "greater-than-human" world and Gaia.
    2. The illusion of a separation of humans and nature leads to suffering both for the environment (as ecological devastation) and for humans (as grief, despair, and alienation).

    3. Realizing the connection between humans and nature is healing for both. This reconnection includes the healing potential of contact with nature, work on grief and despair about environmental destruction, ecotherapy, and psychoemotional bonding with the world as a source of environmental action and sustainable lifestyles. A specifically ecopsychological approach would include both the psychological and the enviornmental in such reconnection. It is this inclusion of both the "eco" and the "psyche" which distinguishes ecopsychology from both environmentalism and psychology.

    Roots of Ecopsychology

    I find two impulses, motivations, or insights that bring people into ecopsychology. Usually one is stronger, although both may be present; they are not mutually exclusive.

    I. Environmental Action.

    The recognition of the deep distress of the environment, locally or globally, and the need to improve and refine our current efforts at changing environment is at the core of ecopsychology. A good example is the call by the Deep Ecologists, Theodore Roszak (THE VOICE OF THE EARTH and ECOPSYCHOLOGY with Mary Gomes and Allen Kanner), and others to shift environmental action from shame, fear, and sacrifice to love, joy, and invitation. ... More psychologically-sophisticated strategies will appeal to our positive motivations, and these will be more effective and sustainable over the long-haul. Supporting our innate love for the natural world is part of this. Greater intimacy and broader identification with the natural world leads to more love for place and more engaged environmental action.

    II. Love of nature, healing in nature.

    Many people are drawn to ecopsychology because they have had exceptionally positive experiences in the natural world and they wish to promote these experiences for others. An extraordinary amount of anecdotal experience and research data supports this (see [John Davis'] outline of Psychological Benefits of Nature Experiences). A good example of ecopsychologists coming from this perspective is Steven Foster and Meredith Little (see THE BOOK OF THE VISION QUEST; THE ROARING OF THE SACRED RIVER, THE FOUR SHIELDS, and others--all published by Lost Borders Press), whose work with wilderness rites of passage and "primitive ecopsychology" stems from their observations of the healing power of nature.

    This is not an exhaustive list of the sources of ecopsychology. A complete list would include the work of the following:

  • Paul Shepard, who asked, "Why do we humans continue to destroy our habitat?" and suggested there is a kind of madness in doing so.

  • Robert Greenway, who first used the term "psycho-ecology" to talk about this intersection of psyche and nature and who coined the term "The Wilderness Effect" to refer to the powerfully healthy impacts of deep time in nature.

  • James Hillman, who asked,"How can a person be sane in an insane environment?" and argued that psychology needs to include not only environmental issues, but issues of social, political, and economic justice, as well.

  • Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, activists, writers, and spiritual pilgrims, whose collection, EARTH PRAYERS, is a lovely poetic statement of ecopsychological wisdom.

  • Ralph Metzner, who has connected ecopsychology and earth wisdom to the old ways of Europe and developed "Green Psychology" in other ways.

  • Andy Fisher, whose book, RADICAL ECOPSYCHOLOGY, is a thorough, original, and well-worked-out statement of the philosophical and phenomenological underpinnings of ecopsychology.

  • The views of indigenous and earth-centered cultures, for whom the term "ecopsychology" is redundant since the human psyche has not been split off from the natural world. Leslie Gray is one who has written about this.

    Contributions of Ecopsychology

    1. Including the natural environment in psychology and psychotherapy. Direct encounters with the natural world foster mental health across a full spectrum including healing emotional trauma, working with addictions and recovery, reducing stress, strengthening self-confidence and leadership abilities, and cultivating peak experiences and spiritual growth.

    2. Promoting more effective strategies for environmental action. Ecopsychology draws on positive emotions such as joy, love, and deep bonds with the natural world, rather than anxiety, guilt, and deprivation, to promote environmental action which is ecologically-informed, psychologically-sophisticated, and sustainable over the long haul.

    3. Supporting more sustainable lifestyles through an integration of psychological and environmental perspectives. Recognizing the fundamental connections between humans and the natural world provides a foundation for lifestyles which consider human health and welfare as inseparable from environmental health and welfare. Ecopsychology shows how long-term benefits to humans and the natural world are complementary. At the same time, it calls for critical thinking about the implications of human societies based on exploitation, consumerism, and domination - of other people as well as the environment.

    4. Expanding a nature-based spiritual path. Ecopsychology can contribute both understanding and practices for including the natural world in spiritual paths. Note that this is my addition and not so common in other ecopsychological approaches.

    A Map of Ecopsychology Practices

    This list may help define the territory of ecopsychology. Each of these categories MAY be considered an expression of ecopsychology if it meets certain criteria, i.e., it is inclusive of both environmental and psychological concerns, ecocentric, organic, radical, pluralistic, etc. (I borrow some of these terms from Andy Fisher's RADICAL ECOPSYCHOLOGY, but I have not defined them here.) I have built this list in a deliberately broad way. Others will produce a much narrower list. None of these practices is solely or uniquely ecopsychological. Finally, these categories are loose, overlapping, and cross-fertilizing regions.

    A. Mindfulness and contemplative practices, e.g., meditation
    B. Sensory awareness (of the natural world)
    C. Mapping (as an integrated practice of both physical and psychological spaces)
    D. Animal-human communication
    A. Environmental action
    B. Environmental education
    C. Restoration
    D. Sustainability (developing and promoting lifestyles which environmentally, economically, socially, and psychologically sustainable)
    E. De-commercialization and relocalization; appropriate technology
    F. Bioregionalism
    G. Gardening, horticultural therapy
    A. Opportunities for direct contact with nature
    1. Nearby nature, place-bonding
    2. Wilderness retreats
    B .Wilderness rites of passage and healing, e.g., vision fasts, walkabouts, etc.
    C. Nature-based soul work, e.g., nature as mirror, healing, nature as oracle, dreamwork
    D. Wilderness therapy, adventure counseling
    E. Shamanic journeying, guidance, and healing
    IV. ECOTHERAPY (Bringing the natural world into psychotherapy)
    A. Despair and empowerment work
    B. Working with environmental fear, grief, and rage
    C. Ecocentric assessment (e.g., including a person's environmental history in psychological assessment or using Four Shields model)
    D. Nature as therapist, conscious use of the mental health benefits of nature experiences
    V. RITUAL AND ART as ecopsychology practices
    A. Earth-centered festivals
    B. Seasonal celebrations
    C. Dance, poetry, visual art, music, etc.

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