Alienation, Neo-shamanism and Recovered Animism

By Bruce Charlton

It is one of the distinctive features of Western contemporary life that, while pleasures are widely available (albeit at a price), there is almost universally a sense of alienation. Alienation is the feeling that life is ‘meaningless’, that we do not belong in the world.

But alienation is not an inevitable part of the human condition: some people feel at one with the world. This perspective is a consequence of the animistic way of thinking which is shared by children and hunter-gatherers. Animism considers all significant entities to have ‘minds’, to be ‘alive’, to be sentient agents. The animistic thinker inhabits a unified world populated by personal powers including not just other human beings, but also important animals and plants, and significant aspects of physical landscape. Humans belong in this world because it is a web of social relationships.

We were all animistic children once, and for most of human evolutionary history would have grown into animistic adults. Animism is therefore spontaneous, the ‘natural’ way of thinking for humans, and it requires sustained, prolonged and pervasive socialization to ‘overwrite’ animistic thinking with the rationalistic objectivity typical of the modern world. It is learned objectivity that creates alienation – humans are no longer embedded in a world of social relations but become estranged, adrift in a world of indifferent things.

But objectivity is superficial: animism remains the basic underlying mode of human thinking, and animism can be recovered. When we are removed from the rational systems of civilisation, when learned patterns of socialised behaviour are stripped-away, then animistic thinking can re-emerge and a sense of belonging in the world may return.

Animism defined
Animism is not a religious or philosophical doctrine, neither is it an ‘error’ made by people too young or too primitive to know better – animism is nothing less than the fundamental mode by which human consciousness regards the world. Consciousness just is animistic. And this perspective is a consequence of human evolutionary history.

Humans evolved sophisticated brain mechanisms for dealing with the complex social situations that formed a dominant selection pressure throughout primate evolutionary history; and in animistic thinking these social mechanisms are flexibly applied to interpret complex aspects of the world in general. Information on animals, plants and landscape are fed-into a system that codes them into social entities with social motivations, and models their behaviour in social terms.

[The hunter gatherer child] learns that many animals have to be given water when they are killed to ensure that some of their number will be willing to die again when she and her family need food. She discovers that animals and humans must be at peace with one another. [Her language] has no words for ‘vermin’ or ‘weed’. There is no demarcation between the life of an animal and that of a human – no word for ‘it’… Bit by bit she will come to understand that the world around her is shared both among people themselves and between people and the other creatures that belong here.

Human consciousness is therefore essentially a social intelligence, designed by natural selection for dealing with people, but accidentally highly applicable to understanding, predicting and controlling a wide range of phenomena. Unless suppressed during upbringing, this way of looking at the world is spontaneously generalised beyond the social sphere, so the significant world is seen as composed of ‘agents’, having dispositions, motivations and intentions. Humans see the world through social spectacles.

Because the natural world is seen as sentient, for an animistic thinker significant events don’t ‘just happen’ – like inert billiard balls bouncing-off one another – instead events occur because some entity wants them to occur. For the animist, every significant event is intentional, every significant event has personal implications. So a dog may be ‘kind’, a tree ‘wise’, a sky ‘cheerful’, a landscape ‘threatening’ – and such categorisations are as individual, flexible and variable as categorisations of people would be.

This is an extremely effective way of dealing with the natural world under the conditions of hunter-gatherer societies. For instance, each species of animal has its own nature, each member of a species its own character, knowledge of which enables behaviour to be predicted with considerable precision in real world situations. Even with the advantages of scientific biology, informed anthropomorphism still remains the best system for understanding, predicting and manipulating animal behaviour – especially among the social mammals that are so important to hunters.

Hunter-gatherer knowledge is dependent on the most intimate possible connection with the world and with the creatures that live in it. The possibility of transformation is a metaphor for complete knowledge: the hunter and his prey move so close to one another that they cross-over, the one becoming the other.

Furthermore, because other people were so important in evolutionary history, social information is especially vivid: it grabs and sustains our attention and mobilises our emotions. In an oral culture that depends on human memory, the best way of transmitting important information is by the medium of anthropomorphic stories and songs.

A relationship with the world
Everything about the hunter-gatherer system is founded on the conviction that home is already Eden.

Animistic thinkers are at home in the world. Children and hunter-gatherers are not necessarily happy, of course – but they have a relationship with the world: they are not alienated. Animists are watched over, controlled, protected, and also punished, by the sentient powers that constitute the world.

This land to which [an Inuit baby] belongs is the subject of many kinds of stories…history, geography, personal adventure and mysteries intertwine. There are misadventures, murder and starvation, to be sure, but spiritual powers and every kind of humour mean that even the worst is part of being in the best possible place, in one’s own land…

Although there are hostile powers, the relationship of each individual to the world is that of child and parent. The world is a ‘giving environment’ – fundamentally benign because it keeps us alive. This is a beneficent ‘cosmic economy’ which cannot be controlled, planned or significantly shaped.

The people depend on the animals, and the animals allow themselves to be killed. An animal’s agreement to become food is secured through the respect that hunters and their families show to the land in general and the animals in particular. […] Rather than seeking to change the world, hunter-gatherers know it. They also care for it, showing respect and paying attention to its well-being. […] They do not make any intensive efforts to reshape their environment. They rely, instead, on knowing how to find, use and sustain that which is already there.

By contrast, since the invention of farming, modern life has become a state of siege, a small gang of family and allies against a mass of hostile strangers, an island of order surrounded by overwhelming forces of chaos – planning is essential, yet most plans will fail. The world is not an unconditionally nurturing parent but must be coerced into producing the necessities of life, survival is a hard bargain, failure an ever present threat. For the farmer, the natural world is neither unchangeable nor ‘giving’ – it is raw material for the production of food and other necessities and luxuries. Production entails prolonged, dull, repetitive tasks to force nature into new and different shapes.

The conditions of [the] archetypal farm are harsh. This is not Eden but the curse of exile: only by the sweat of his brow does the man provide food for his family. Not only the man, of course; the woman, too, must work all and every day. The children are the labourers who will ease the burden of the cursed land.

The same forest that is a nurturing parent for the hunter-gatherer, becomes for the farmer a perpetual threat of savage encroachment. The world consist of objects to be manipulated:

The trees are felled, their root are hauled from the ground, stones are picked from the earth, invading wild plants and shrubs are rooted out again and again.. the soil will grow grass and vegetables only if a great deal else is “kept under control”, which means excluded or destroyed. Not only rival plant life, but also wild creatures that harm seeds, seedlings, buds or fruits, or eat the domestic animals… Weeds and vermin. These are the agents of wild nature that have to be walled out, scared off or killed.

And ‘the farmer’ stands for the modern human condition – the life of modern man is ‘farming’ the whole world. The serious business of survival now depends absolutely on a shift to objectification, control, imposed order. Animism must be denigrated, written-over and suppressed.

The distinction between respect and control is of immense importance to an understanding of how agriculturalists approach hunter-gatherers. The skills of farmers are centred not on their inner relationship to the world but their ability to change it. Technical and intellectual systems are developed to achieve and maintain this as completely as possible. Farmers carry with them systems of control as well as crucial seeds and livestock. These systems constitute ways of thinking as well as bodies of information. .. the achievement of abstraction and the project of control are related.

Recovering animism
Mass alienation is no accident but an inevitable consequence of the kind of society we inhabit. Animism is grossly maladaptive for a complex society that depends on objective information and rational planning. Alienation is therefore necessary to the generation and maintenance of our world, and returning to a thoroughgoing, society-wide animism would be impossible without a return to hunter-gatherer lifeways.

The most probable human future entails more complexity, more planning, more control, and more alienation. But if a shared and public animism is ruled-out, the situation for individuals is different. There may be niches for more-or-less wholly animistic individuals even in modern society, and there certainly are niches for animistic thinking within many ordinary people’s lives. The problem is that, for a modern adult, recovery of animistic thinking entails undoing the effects of an exceptionally thorough and prolonged process of socialisation that has buried animism under a vast superstructure of repressions. Modern adults cannot necessarily recover their animistic thoughts at will, even temporarily.

Methods used to help in the recovery of animistic modes of thinking have been known since the Romantic era. They essentially involve detachment from the social systems that tend to maintain objectivity and rationality. For example, solitude (away from people), leisure (away from the economy) and unstructured time (as contrasted with technologically-measured time). Direct contact with nature is another classic strategy. Under such conditions of societal detachment there tends to be a spontaneous resurgence of animistic thinking – and those who can achieve detachment, often strive to do so. But clearly detachment is not possible for everyone, nor is it always effective. Some people find that it takes many clear days of vacation – or even longer – before they can ‘switch off’ their organised minds, and begin to live in the here-and-now.

It has also been noticed that altered states of consciousness due to accidental or deliberate impairment in brain functioning will allow the re-emergence of animistic modes of thinking by a process called ‘disinhibition’. Disinhibition usually involves a relatively selective impairment of the ‘higher’ and more recently evolved brain centres (pre-frontal cerebral cortex). Animistic thinking emerges when drowsy (eg. during hypnagogic states between sleeping and waking), when delirious due to serious illness or brain injury or intoxication – whether accidental or deliberate, and also occurs in severe psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia and mania. People with ‘paranoid’ delusions, which occur in many psychiatric conditions, are characterised by an frightening kind of animism called ‘delusions of self-reference’ – which is the sense of being the focus of a world of hostile sentient powers. Deluded individuals may perceive the radio talking to them personally, and interpret newspaper stories as containing coded allusions to their situation.

The quality of this animistic state – whether self-reference is experienced as benign or hostile – depends on the emotional state. Emotional state colours the experience of a delusion. The delirious animism of severe physical illness is almost always very unpleasant, because the person is sick and suffering negative emotions such as pain. So alcohol withdrawal may involve terrifying delusions of a persecuting and hostile environment. Mania, by contrast, may involve a blissful state of godlike one-ness with an animated world; because the emotional tone of mania lends an euphoric colouring to delusions of self-reference. Something similar applies with hallucinogenic drugs – whether someone has a good or bad ‘trip’ depends substantially on their simultaneous state of mind and body.

Any significant alteration of consciousness may lead to a resurgence of animistic thinking. And this effect may be exploited as a ‘cure’ for modern alienation.

Shamans and Neo-shamanism
Shamans are known as the ‘priests’ of hunter-gatherer animistic ‘religions’ – and shamans learn how to make use of altered states of consciousness induced by sleep, hypnotic trances, drumming, dancing, rattling, disease and intoxication. Shamans ‘dream’, they remember their dreams, and they interpret their dreams.

Dreaming is the mind’s way of combining and using more information than the conscious mind can hold. It allows memory and intuition and facts to intermingle. […] Shamanism prepares the brain to work at its fullest, widest potential.

Even without shamanic practices, hunter-gatherer animistic thinking moves freely across the porous boundaries between humans, animals, plants and landscape. Shamanistic dreaming further loosens the mental associations, making porous the boundaries of space and time – allowing the shaman to go on ‘journeys’ in search of useful knowledge.

The dreamer crosses the boundary between human and animals… and may also move through the boundaries of time… for hunters the dream experience is real. The events of the dream are relied upon as a guide…

Traditional shamanism is therefore essentially a cognitive technique that is employed by animistic thinkers to gain access to otherwise unattainable objective knowledge of value to the tribe.

For many hunter-gatherers, dreams are a form of decision-making… hunters use dreams to help them decide where to hunt, when to go there and what to hunt. .. When should the next step of the seasonal round be taken? Will the fish be running… will the deer be feeding… is it time to go inland or return to the coast?…

To make these decisions, hunters need knowledge. They must bear in mind all the facts that inform the choice… must draw on knowledge that they have accumulated over many years… what others have seen and done over the past few days… In the end there is need for… some leap of the imagination, some way of processing the facts so that they yield a conclusion. This is what dreams can do.

The modern practitioners of revivalist ‘Neo-shamanism’ use similar consciousness-altering techniques to traditional shamans, but the implicit purpose and function is different. Modern people are alienated, they are not animistic thinkers but instead objective-thinkers, and dreams are not a reliable form of decision-making in the modern world. Therefore shamanistic dreaming has a different effect in the modern context.

In the modern cultural context shamanism does not – in general – provide access to objectively-valid, publicly-useful knowledge. When modern people want their sickness healed they typically consult a trained doctor, when they need to predict the weather they consult a meteorologist. An exception is in creative thinking. Animistic states, perhaps in circumstances of altered consciousness, may enable leaps of imagination to otherwise unattainable conclusions. However, these conclusions typically require checking by standard rational, objective methods before they become publicly acceptable and useable.

Neo-shamanic trances are essentially employed with the purpose of enabling modern people to think animistically, and to heal their sense of alienation. Typically, rhythmic techniques such as hypnotic dancing and drumming are used, rather than drugs, because they are safer and more controllable. Indeed, no technique need be used at all, and some people are able spontaneously to self-induce a ‘shamanic’ state of mind. If a person is able to achieve the necessary detachment and/ or self-hypnosis, then they will experience the desired resurgence of animism.

What is sought, is a state of consciousness sometimes termed ‘active imagination’ (CG Jung) or the ‘poetic trance’ (Robert Graves); a state in which the mind is freed, associations are broadened and emotions are enhanced – but in which purposive thinking remains possible and memory systems remain operative. As well as inducing a sense of belonging, this is potentially a creative state in which (as for shamans) mental synthesis and integration may occur, personal problems, and intuitive truths may be reached using otherwise inaccessible mental powers.

The difference between shamanism and Neo-shamanism is that one provides objective knowledge while the other provides a subjective experience.

Cognitive impairment
An important difference between hunter-gatherers and modern people is that moderns may need to experience altered states of consciousness to reach the level of animistic thinking which is only the starting point for traditional shamans. Hunter-gatherers are already animistic thinkers whose minds cross the boundaries between humans, animals, plants and landscapes. The altered states of dreaming consciousness enables hunter-gatherers to cross further boundaries of time and space in pursuit of high-level insights that synthesise and integrate complex knowledge of many kinds. But a similar state of altered consciousness would probably take modern people only to the level of animism. To experience journeys through time and space would require extreme levels of delirium.

And this highlights the problem with altered conscious states: brain impairment is never wholly specific to the goal of recovering animistic thinking. Not only does impairment cause disinhibition and release of animism, but impairment also affects other aspects of general brain function such as concentration, judgement, and reaction times. Extreme states of intoxication or delirium will significantly damage memory processes, so it may not be possible to remember or learn from mystical and spiritual experiences. But even mild states of cognitive impairment may be dangerous in situations where skilled or responsible behaviour is required (driving a car, looking after children, doing most kinds of job).

Nonetheless, modern people may potentially use shamanic techniques to ‘cure’ alienation, to achieve that sense of belonging in the world which is spontaneous for hunter-gatherers. If detachment and self-induced hypnotic trances are unattainable or ineffective, an optimal strategy may be to seek minimally-effective alterations of consciousness by reliable, safe and controllable methods. The aim is reduction of conscious level just sufficient to allow the resurgence of spontaneous animistic thinking, but not so much impairment that the laying-down of new memories will be affected.

Recovered animism and the modern world
Neo-shamanism is therefore an approach to the goal of inducing desirable subjective states that may work as a cure for modern alienation. It is, however, a limited cure; and one that is at odds with the objective, rationalist, systematised nature of the modern world. Furthermore, beneficial effects are constrained by the unstable and temporary nature of altered conscious states, and their unwanted side-effects due to mild, general cognitive impairment. Even self-hypnosis or drowsy reverie are incompatible with optimal mental performance. For most people, most of the time, recovered animism must be a leisure-time pursuit.

The traditional shaman dreamed publicly-useful knowledge, and used this knowledge in healing and advising the tribe. For shamanism the dream is just a means to an end – but for modern Neo-shamanism the ‘dream state’ is an end in itself, and its informational content is less important that the emotional experience. Beyond the immediate dream state, memories of animism may be sustaining, since vivid memory entails re-playing and re-experiencing past emotions.

Despite these constraints and limitations, it is possible that recovered animism may become a major spirituality – indeed exactly this may lie behind the growth of interest in Neo-paganism and New Age ideas. And it seems more than a coincidence that the favourite book of the twentieth century in most surveys was substantially a work of animism: JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, with its non-human sentient beings, and its animate horses, eagles, trees, mountains and landscapes.

There are eruptions of the hunter-gatherer in the [modern] urban setting… arenas in which a rival mind seeks expression and longs for its particular forms of freedom […] The hunter-gatherers in the heartland of the exiles… are opponents of the dominant order. They oppose hierarchy and challenge the need to control other people and the land itself. Consciously or not, they are radicals in their lives.

At the least, they experience the tension in themselves that comes from a longing not to plan and not to acquiesce in plans; at most they use a mixture of knowledge and dreams to express their vision. It is artists, speculative scientists and those whose journeys in life depend on not quite knowing their destination who are close to hunter-gatherers; who rely upon the hunter gatherer-mind.

In an ever more rational and objective public world it would be ironic, although not altogether surprising, if most people privately practised some version of Neo-shamanism in order to induce a sense of belonging. Recovered animism could become the personal religion of the future.

Notes: All quotations are from The other side of Eden: hunter-gatherers, farmers and the shaping of the world by Hugh Brody, Faber, 2002. For further references and background see my papers: The meaning of life, Awareness, consciousness and language, Ceremonial time versus technological time, and Peak experiences, creativity and the Colonel Flastratus phenomenon all available at my home page – Daniel C Noel’s delightful book, The soul of shamanism, is fascinating on animistic spiritualities in contemporary Western society, and particularly insightful in relation to the state of active imagination.

Posted in Animism, Communication with Nature, Consciousness, Deep Ecology, Depth Psychology, Ecopsychology, Ecotherapy, Psychology, Re-Enchantment of Nature, Shamanism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Presence, Power, and the Planet

Presence, Power, and the Planet
By Tom Yeomans

Of all the practices that I have taught in the last twenty-five years to professionals and lay people who were interested in the spiritual dimension, the practice of presence has emerged as the most central and valuable. This has been particularly true in the last ten years as I have conceived it more clearly and made it a centerpiece in my teaching and training, but even in my early work its embryo was there. So in this final paper of this collection of readings in Spiritual Psychology, I want to focus on it particularly and explore its connection to power and the health of the planet as a whole. I do this both because it is clear to me that this practice is central to the development of spiritual strength and maturity and because it is something that each of us, no matter who we are and where we are, can cultivate in ourselves. There is nothing esoteric and remote about the practice of presence, nothing hidden, or special, or complicated, though as a practice, it is at one and the same time very simple and very difficult. The practice and the experience is available to each and every one of us, regardless of age, race, class, culture, gender, nationality, and it helps with contacting, restoring, and strengthening the connection to our deepest selves, to those around us, and to the larger natural world of which we are a part. It addresses spiritual hunger in healing the soul wound and species maturity in developing spiritual strength. And it roots us in an experience of being fully alive and well on earth. So let me first describe the actual practice and then I will comment on its manifold usefulness. I quote from a one page practice description I use in my training programs.

Presence “The experience of presence is a central aspect of human psychological health and maturity. It is the capacity to be fully present to what is happening within, and around, oneself in the present moment and not be drawn into distractions, reactions, projections, or defenses. It enables us to respond rather than react. In common parlance presence is often described as “being centered”, but all religious traditions as well point to this experience of being, and remaining, in the present moment as the doorway to our deeper strengths and wisdom and the means by which we touch the Eternal Now.

From a psychological perspective, the practice of presence cultivates a psychological center within us from which we are able to be aware of the contents of our personal experience without being identified with them and able to see more clearly what is really happening in the world around us. We can, then, from this center, make choices as to the best way to respond in each situation we encounter. The cultivation of this inner center gives us perspective and freedom from our overreactions, defenses, and impulses, so that we are less likely to react unconsciously as conditions change around us, but rather choose, on the basis of our wisdom and calm understanding, the best course to take, given the situation.

This psychological center is sometimes called “the observer”, “the fair witness”, or the “I”. Each person will have his/her own name for it, and we can all learn to contact and strengthen it so that it becomes stronger and more versatile in difficult inner and outer situations. The practice of presence is one way among many that can help build this center within.

The Practice of Presence
Part I- Inside World
1. Sit in a comfortable, alert position and close your eyes.
2. Focus your attention on your breathing and begin to follow its movement without changing it in any way.
3. Become aware, in this movement, of the natural rhythm of your breathing and begin to let yourself rest in that rhythm of inhalation and exhalation.
4. Let this rhythm gradually become a place of rest for you, where you can let go of any preoccupations and simply remain with the movement of your breath in and out of your body.
5. If thoughts, feelings, or sensations arise in your experience, acknowledge them, but then return your attention to your breathing, so that you remain in the center as they come and go.

Part II-Outside World
1. Do the same practice as described above, but now keep your eyes open, so you maintain contact with the outside world as you continue to rest in your center of awareness.
2. As you become aware of particular objects, people, and/or events, acknowledge them silently with your eyes, but keep your attention on the rhythm of your breathing and remain in your center.
3. Practice staying rooted in this center while you are in contact with the outside world and are observing the many changes that happen moment to moment there.
4. Now, add words to your contact with the outside world and see if you can stay connected to your center and be present while talking and interacting in a normal way.
5. Be aware of, and study, the ways in which you do become distracted and lose touch with your center. Make note of these, so you can anticipate them in the future.

Part III-Natural World
1. Do the same practice as described above, again keeping your eyes open, so that you maintain contact with both inside and outside worlds simultaneously as you continue to rest in your center of awareness.
2. Focus your awareness on the natural world– plants, animals, landscape, weather, sun, moon, stars, earth and how all these combine moment to moment in infinite movement and interplay. Be aware of how these diverse elements surround and infuse our lives and how we are a part of this great and complex reality. Continue to rest in the rhythm of your breathing and remain in your center.
3. Become aware of the processes of birth and death that underlie these natural elements and our own lives and which bring movement and change moment to moment and over time. Gently embrace birth and death within the rhythm of your breathing and let your presence expand to include these natural principles as well as the natural world.
4. Continue to practice presence in this way, being aware of what you experience and also of what distracts you.
5. Welcome these distractions into your presence, so that your awareness expands to include them while you return to your breathing and your center.
6. Practice presence to whatever is in your experience in these three dimensions–inside, outside, natural worlds—and be aware of this as one reality in which you are a part and participant. Both rest in your center and practice welcoming the moment to moment changes in your experience in all these dimensions. Enjoy this flow of Life within and around you.

If we practice presence at first for short periods of time, we learn gradually what this experience feels like in our particular experience. As our center becomes stronger, we will find that we can sustain our presence for longer periods of time and in more difficult situations. Eventually it becomes a capacity and habit that contributes to our health, effectiveness, enjoyment, and peace of mind.

The practice itself is deceptively simple. The problems come in sustaining it over time, for we are immediately distracted from this point of presence by the many sensations, feelings, and thoughts that make up our inner personal experience and by the many events that make up the world around us. As we begin to practice, we discover that we are seldom actually present, but rather are distracted in any number of ways. And we discover that this is, in fact, a discipline that we need to develop in ourselves, and that it takes time and concentration. The difficulty is in the execution, not in the idea of presence, but, as we shall see, if we are willing to practice thus, we begin to be more deeply connected to the source of Life within us, to others, and to the world in which we live.1

This practice, and the experience of presence that it fosters, is important for several reasons. First of all, presence is a central aspect of the experience of the soul, and its practice connects and roots us more deeply in the spiritual dimension. The soul is present to all Life, and is rooted in the vast web of inter-being. As personalities, we experience that we are not, and often we are chronically distracted, through identifications, attachments, and preoccupations, from this deeper reality. The practice of presence restores this soul-sense–this experience of being a soul on earth. It connects us to the truth of our own experience in the moment and over time, to those other human beings around us, familiar and strange, and to the larger world in which we live, including to other species with whom we share the earth. In this it nurtures all three aspects of the soul and is a doorway, within our immediate experience, to the soul and the spiritual dimension through which we can pass and through which soul force can pass through us into the world. The more focused and coherent our presence, the more connected we are, the more spiritual force can flow through us.

We all have had these moments of presence when past and future fall away and we experience a fullness of the present moment that brings us great joy and aliveness and often even lifts our fear of death. At those moments, sometimes alone, sometimes with others, often in nature, or with great art, we are sure of our life and its meaning and direction and experience deep gratitude for being alive on earth. The practice of presence seeks deliberately to increase the occurrences of such moments, and over time thus to develop a sustained connection to our soul and to all Life.

To speak about this experience more technically, what happens in us as we practice presence is a shift in our consciousness from polarization and consequent projection, or repression, to holding both sides of the same polarity, or multiple polarities. This shift increases the complexity of our experience, but, paradoxically, the more complex our experience becomes, and the more we are able to hold in our consciousness without reacting, projecting, etc., the more present we become. This leads, then, to an experience of simplicity, and underlying unity, but at no loss of the differentiation of existence. This is obviously quite different from the simplification that comes from reduction of complexity through polarization, repression, and projection. T.S. Eliot describes this state as “a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.”2

Paradoxically, also, as presence intensifies, or coheres, the details of our experience become more vivid, for, as time/space expands to eternity/infinity, we experience more clearly and precisely just where we are, and no details are skipped over, generalized, repressed, etc. We are simply in an incomprehensibly complex Now which is eternal and in which we touch the full truth of our experience. Often in spiritual practice the emphasis is put on touching the one underlying reality, but here we also touch, within that reality, the infinite and beautiful detail of our existence. Note that it makes no difference what the actual experience is– positive or negative, high or low–what is important is that it is true in that moment and that we are present to it. That truth is what is healing–that, and its seamless interrelationship with everything else that is going on at that moment.

Secondly, the practice of presence generates an energy, or force, field which quite literally radiates from us, or through us, and, as this field becomes stronger and more coherent, it affects others. Both in individual and group work, this field has healing properties, which I have described above, for it activates the point of presence in others, which in turn helps to root them in their own souls. We see this in therapeutic work very clearly where in this field there is an exchange of healing energy, the client is empowered and gains access to his/her own wisdom, and the therapist is able to discern more clearly how to be of help. It’s as if the two souls are talking to each other, and guiding the personalities in the best way to work. This is true as well in groups, where the presence of the leader and the generation of the group field empowers members and connects them to their own spiritual authority, so that they in turn can contribute to the field and to the process of group development and maturation. This soul force field, generated by the coherence of presence, is healing and contains within it a flow of love, and, at whatever level it is operating, it brings an experience of dynamic and creative peace, healing, and empowerment.

Thirdly, in this regard the practice of presence generates power that is both personal and spiritual as the soul force is released through the psyche and personality into the world. This power can be of considerable force and will be charismatic in its impact on others. Rightly and benignly used, it can foster constructive action and leadership, as we have seen in the case of “species forerunners”, and can be an agent of development and transformation at all levels of organization. But the phrase “rightly and benignly” is key, for we have seen in all centuries, and particularly in this last one, not only the misuse and abuse of charismatic power in the political and economic domination of others and the perpetration of injustices of many kinds, but also the misuse and abuse of so-called spiritual power toward the same ends. So the question arises “what is the right and benign use of power for the healing and betterment of the human condition?”

Here the lens of the three dimensions of experience is very useful. When power is benign and healing, it is when the soul force flows through the personality and psyche without distortion, i.e. these vehicles are coherent enough that they serve as healthy conduits for that energy and do not impede, or distort, it, but rather channel it in its mature form into the world through conscious and responsible action. If, on the other hand, there are blocks and dysfunctional patterns in these systems, then very often the force is “siphoned off” into the needs that underlie these patterns, and the leader begins to act unconsciously to meet these needs. Many leaders initially will be connected to a political, or spiritual, vision and will have considerable soul force available to carry it out, but as their leadership develops, the patterns in personality and psyche heat up, so to speak, and through such “ego inflation” the leader becomes increasingly disconnected from his/her soul and more identified with abusive power, and in extreme cases, with paranoia, over control, domination, and a host of behaviors that have often given leadership, political and spiritual, a bad name.

This phenomenon is rampant, and yet we need leaders who are connected to their souls and have power and a spiritual vision for the betterment of the species. We need leaders who will use their personal and cultural skills to work to improve the conditions under which we live as a species, will confront injustice and inequity, and will labor for the good of the whole, not the particular part that represents their vested interests. In short, we need leaders who manifest a spiritual maturity and whose power is rooted in the love of the whole, not in the fear and greed. We have had, and have such leaders now, but we need more, and what I am saying here is that the practice of presence is a means to strengthen connection to soul and soul force, and so is useful for a leader in staying connected, particularly as the spiritual force increases and the patterns in personality and psyche are tested to see if they can hold true to the flow of this force through them into the world.

The practice of presence, then, generates power as well as love and, because it is an experience, not only of deep connection to oneself, and to others, but also connection to all creation and every living being within it, it focuses this power in a constructive way, and provides the means for the leader, and others, to be aware of when this power begins to go awry. If, as leaders and co-workers, we experience this connection to all Life, then we are more likely to live and work and lead in ways that nurture Life. If we experience that we are one with all beings, then we will not be able to harm others, nor the world we share with them, but we will try to find those ways of being that sustain rather than destroy our common existence. Clearly, no one can do this completely, for always there are blocks and distortions, in personality and psyche, in culture, and nation. But spiritual practice, and particularly the practice of presence, can increase the likelihood that leadership will be exercised rightly and benignly so that it will be a force for healing and maturation in the world.

Presence also generates benign power because it aligns the intention and consequent action of the leader with his/her soul and reduces the personal reactivity and defensiveness out of which most action arises. A leader rooted in his/her soul through presence becomes creatively responsive to existing challenges rather than reactive, works with more wisdom and perspective, without attachment and identification, and so can wield his/her power in ways that are constructive and which contribute to the betterment of all. Power in itself is not bad, it is only how it is used. Power that is rooted in the soul and expressed in a clear way through the psyche and personality benefits the whole and plays a responsible part in it. Power that is a compensation for soul and psychological woundedness, and rises from a state of spiritual disconnection and starvation, will be abusive and destructive in subtle, or obvious, ways. Most of our experience with power is the latter, but there is no reason why power cannot be used to heal, and, indeed, there are many instances of this kind of leadership. Again, all leaders are capable of exercising both kinds of power. Often initially the leader is connected, as I said above, and then loses this connection in the course of leading. The opposite is also true– a leader can be quite self-serving initially and at some point awaken to a larger sense of his/her leadership and begin to use power in a very different and more soul-connected way. The complexity and struggle of leadership is that both tendencies exist in us, and we need to choose which to give our attention and intention.

There is a story that illustrates this struggle and choice. A visitor to the Sioux Reservation in South Dakota met a elderly woman who had a necklace with a double-headed wolf on it. The visitor noticed about it and asked, “was one good and one evil?” The woman indicated that would be a way to see them, and the visitor then asked, “which one will win?” She looked at him steadily and replied, “the one I feed.” Always we have a choice as to how we act in our power and are responsible for that choice and its consequences.

Presence, then, and the choices that are made from that place of spiritual connection, can generate spiritual strength and power and increase our capacity for care for the planet, whether this is expressed in an overtly planetary way, or in a very local way that is rooted in this larger context. In recent years the adage “Think globally, act locally” has been amended to “Think globally, act very, very locally” and I would again amend it to “Think globally, love and act very, very locally”, for love is at the root of a spiritual power that works in this way. For the most part, fear is what drives our use of power, and, though sometimes effective in the short run, in the long it always has negative side effects. The challenge is to learn to use power, both personal and spiritual, so that it both expresses and increases the love in the world–love not only for ourselves and those we love, but for all beings on the earth and for the earth herself.

Finally, presence is important because it increases our apperception of earthly beauty. When we are fully present, we are aware of how beautiful the earth is, and how precious life is upon it. We are aware of our own beauty and that of those around us, and at those moments we are often staggered by the intensity of what we experience and wonder at how easily we forget this, how easily we do not see and receive this beauty, praise and protect it. Again, if we really saw how beautiful creation is, in its variety and majesty, we would revere and honor it and do everything we could to protect and nurture it. We all have moments when we touch this experience, and they are moments when we are fully present to what is within and around us, but there are many more for most of us, when we do not see, or hear, or taste, or touch, or smell what is right before us and so lose touch with ourselves and with the incredible beauty of all Life.

The principle in this apperception of beauty is particularity, one often overlooked in spiritual work, as I said above, with its usual emphasis on oneness and union. We are, of course, in essence one with each other and all beings, but in actual practice this unity is always expressed through the very particular and unique details of existence and an infinite diversity of form. No two forms of life are exactly the same, each has its own particularity and differences, its own identity. What is important to realize is that, paradoxically, in the experience of presence we become both connected to all Life and remain completely ourselves, but now suffused by this larger context. Many spiritual teachers miss this aspect of the experience by teaching “unity” only, so that others have to conform to the teachings at the expense of their diversity and particularity and, therefore, unique beauty. We have seen this happen again and again in religious and political movements, and always there is a loss of soulconnection in this process. Conversely, if we make sure that the particularity is affirmed and expressed, then the unity will emerge naturally as the context for those details. The practice of presence is not to anything general, or abstract, but to the particularity of existence in every moment, to the details, and this apperception of beauty, in turn, increases the coherence and power we have with which to act in the world. The practice of presence, ultimately, roots us in the beauty of all Life, or, to use a Greek work, in “the cosmos”, which is the word for beauty in the microcosm, and for the divine order in the macrocosm. If we are present in the way I have described, then we are fully alive, both to our own life and to the larger Life of which we are a part and participant.

So connection, love, power, and beauty all arise from the practice of presence. All of us yearn to, and all fall short of, living our lives with presence. Yet all of us are capable of this, and the planet needs us to live closer to these qualities within us. The practice of presence can help, as can the principles of Spiritual Psychology and many other psycho-spiritual approaches that we have available to us. Life itself tends in this direction, given the chance, but we are the ones who are responsible for providing that chance to ourselves and all beings. Will we do it? Will we do it soon enough? These are the questions of our generation and the next.

I would like to end this paper, and this collection, with three quotations, the first from my grandfather, Edward Yeomans Sr., the second a poem by Francisco Albanez, the third a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke.

My grandfather, Edward Yeomans, in some of the last writings of his life, said, “What is good for us is what enhances our life. But, by the very nature of things, what enhances our life can never injure any other life.”3

Francisco Albanez4, in the poem below, speaks to how we become separated, how we yearn, and how we can find our way home to the soul, who we, in deepest truth, are.

The One Who Is At Home Each Day
“I long so much to see
The true teacher. And each time
At dusk when I open the cabin
Door and empty the teapot,
I think I know where he is:
West of us, in the forest.
Or perhaps I am the one
Who is out in the night,
The forest sand wet under
My feet, moonlight shining
On the sides of the birch trees,
The sea far off gleaming.
And he is the one who is
At home. He sits in my chair
Calmly; he reads and prays
All night. He loves to feel
His own body around him;
He does not leave his house.”

And Rilke, in this poem written in 1912/13 speaks to the complexity and beauty of presence to Life.5

“The almond trees in bloom:
the most we can achieve here is to know ourselves unreservedly in our earthly appearance.
Always I marvel at you, you blessed ones,–
at your demeanor, the way you bear transient jewels with eternal ease.
Ah, if we knew how to blossom:
our hearts would be out beyond all lesser dangers, safe in the single great one.”

With these thoughts I conclude for now. Clearly we live in troubled times, and yet they are also times of renewal and rebirth. There is a Chinese blessing that says “May you be born in difficult times”, for it is these times that test and strengthen the soul. So, in this global crisis lies an opportunity for each of us to mature spiritually and to play our particular part in the world. Each of us has this opportunity and the choice. May we be worthy of this blessing!


1 Yeomans, T. “The Practice of Presence”. Concord Institute Publications: Concord, MA, 1998

2 Eliot, T.S., Four Quartets. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1943.

3 Yeomans, Edward, Sr., Occasional Notes lV. Tuttle Press: Putney, VT, 1941

4 Albanez, Francisco, translated by Robert Bly. Source unknown.

5 Rilke, M.R., Uncollected Poems, translated by Edward Snow. New York: North Point Press (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), 1996.

Posted in Deep Ecology, Ecopsychology, Ecotherapy, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Is There an Ecological Unconscious?

(Photo: Mountaintop Removal, West Virginia, USA)

Published: January 27, 2010 in the New York Times

About eight years ago, Glenn Albrecht began receiving frantic calls from residents of the Upper Hunter Valley, a 6,000-square-mile region in southeastern Australia. For generations the Upper Hunter was known as the “Tuscany of the South” — an oasis of alfalfa fields, dairy farms and lush English-style shires on a notoriously hot, parched continent. “The calls were like desperate pleas,” Albrecht, a philosopher and professor of sustainability at Murdoch University in Perth, recalled in June. “They said: ‘Can you help us? We’ve tried everyone else. Is there anything you can do about this?’ ”

Residents were distraught over the spread of coal mining in the Upper Hunter. Coal was discovered in eastern Australia more than 200 years ago, but only in the last two decades did the industry begin its exponential rise. Today, more than 100 million tons of black coal are extracted from the valley each year, primarily by open-pit mining, which uses chemical explosives to blast away soil, sediment and rock. The blasts occur several times a day, sending plumes of gray dust over ridges to settle thickly onto roofs, crops and the hides of livestock. Klieg lights provide a constant illumination. Trucks, draglines and idling coal trains emit a constant low-frequency rumble. Rivers and streams have been polluted.

Albrecht, a dark, ebullient man with a crooked aquiline nose, was known locally for his activism. He participated in blockades of ships entering Newcastle (near the Upper Hunter), the largest coal-exporting port in the world, and published opinion articles excoriating the Australian fossil-fuel industries. But Albrecht didn’t see what he could offer besides a sympathetic ear and some tactical advice. Then, in late 2002, he decided to see the transformation of the Upper Hunter firsthand.

“There’s a scholar who talks about ‘heart’s ease,’ ” Albrecht told me as we sat in his car on a cliff above the Newcastle shore, overlooking the Pacific. In the distance, just before the earth curved out of sight, 40 coal tankers were lined up single file. “People have heart’s ease when they’re on their own country. If you force them off that country, if you take them away from their land, they feel the loss of heart’s ease as a kind of vertigo, a disintegration of their whole life.” Australian aborigines, Navajos and any number of indigenous peoples have reported this sense of mournful disorientation after being displaced from their land. What Albrecht realized during his trip to the Upper Valley was that this “place pathology,” as one philosopher has called it, wasn’t limited to natives. Albrecht’s petitioners were anxious, unsettled, despairing, depressed — just as if they had been forcibly removed from the valley. Only they hadn’t; the valley changed around them.

In Albrecht’s view, the residents of the Upper Hunter were suffering not just from the strain of living in difficult conditions but also from something more fundamental: a hitherto unrecognized psychological condition. In a 2004 essay, he coined a term to describe it: “solastalgia,” a combination of the Latin word solacium (comfort) and the Greek root –algia (pain), which he defined as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’” A neologism wasn’t destined to stop the mines; they continued to spread. But so did Albrecht’s idea. In the past five years, the word “solastalgia” has appeared in media outlets as disparate as Wired, The Daily News in Sri Lanka and Andrew Sullivan’s popular political blog, The Daily Dish. In September, the British trip-hop duo Zero 7 released an instrumental track titled “Solastalgia,” and in 2008 Jukeen, a Slovenian recording artist, used the word as an album title. “Solastalgia” has been used to describe the experiences of Canadian Inuit communities coping with the effects of rising temperatures; Ghanaian subsistence farmers faced with changes in rainfall patterns; and refugees returning to New Orleans after Katrina.

The broad appeal of solastalgia pleases Albrecht; it has helped earn him hundreds of thousands of dollars in research grants as well as his position at Murdoch. But he is not particularly surprised that it has caught on. “Take a look out there,” he said, gesturing to the line of coal ships. “What you’re looking at is climate change queued up. You can’t get away from it. Not in the Upper Hunter, not in Newcastle, not anywhere. And that’s exactly the point of solastalgia.” Just as the loss of “heart’s ease” is not limited to displaced native populations, solastalgia is not limited to those living beside quarries — or oil spills or power plants or Superfund sites. Solastalgia, in Albrecht’s estimation, is a global condition, felt to a greater or lesser degree by different people in different locations but felt increasingly, given the ongoing degradation of the environment. As our environment continues to change around us, the question Albrecht would like answered is, how deeply are our minds suffering in return?

Albrecht’s philosophical attempt to trace a direct line between the health of the natural world and the health of the mind has a growing partner in a subfield of psychology. Last August, the American Psychological Association released a 230-page report titled “Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change.” News-media coverage of the report concentrated on the habits of human behavior and the habits of thought that contribute to global warming. This emphasis reflected the intellectual dispositions of the task-force members who wrote the document — seven out of eight were scientists who specialize in decision research and environmental-risk management — as well as the document’s stated purpose. “We must look at the reasons people are not acting,” Janet Swim, a Penn State psychologist and the chairwoman of the task force, said, “in order to understand how to get people to act.”

Yet all the attention paid to the behavioral and cognitive barriers to safeguarding the environment — topics of acute interest to policy makers and activists — disguised the fact that a significant portion of the document addressed the supposed emotional costs of ecological decline: anxiety, despair, numbness, “a sense of being overwhelmed or powerless,” grief. It also disguised the unusual background of the eighth member of the task force, Thomas Doherty, a clinical psychologist in Portland, Oregon. Doherty runs a private therapeutic practice called, Sustainable Self, and is the most prominent American advocate of a growing discipline known as “ecopsychology.”

There are numerous psychological subfields that, to one degree or another, look at the interplay between human beings and their natural environment. But ecopsychology embraces a more revolutionary paradigm: just as Freud believed that neuroses were the consequences of dismissing our deep-rooted sexual and aggressive instincts, ecopsychologists believe that grief, despair and anxiety are the consequences of dismissing equally deep-rooted ecological instincts.

“If you look at the beginnings of clinical psychology,” Patricia Hasbach, a psychotherapist and prominent ecopsychologist based in Eugene, told me, “the focus was on intrapsychic forces” — the mind-bound interplay of ego, id and superego. “Then the field broadened to take into account interpersonal forces such as relationships and interactions between people. Then it took a huge leap to look at whole families and systems of people. Then it broadened even further to take into account social systems” and the importance of social identities like race, gender and class. “Ecopsychology wants to broaden the field again to look at ecological systems,” she said. “It wants to take the entire planet into account.”

The terms in which ecopsychology pursues this admittedly ambitious goal are steeped in the field’s countercultural beginnings. Ecopsychology emerged in the early 1960s, just as the modern environmental movement was gathering strength, when a group of Boston-area graduate students gathered to discuss what they saw as the isolation and malaise infecting modern life. It had another brief period of efflorescence, particularly on the West Coast and among practitioners of alternative therapies, in the early ’90s, when Theodore Roszak, a professor of history (he coined the word “counterculture”) published a manifesto, “The Voice of the Earth,” in which he criticized modern psychology for neglecting the primal bond between man and nature. “Mainstream Western psychology has limited the definition of mental health to the interpersonal context of an urban-industrial society,” he later wrote. “All that lies beyond the citified psyche has seemed of no human relevance — or perhaps too frightening to think about.” Ecopsychology’s eclectic following, which includes therapists, researchers, ecologists and activists, still reflects these earlier foundations. So does its rhetoric. Practitioners are as apt, if not more apt, to cite Native American folk tales as they are empirical data to make their points.

Yet even as it remains committed to its origins, ecopsychology has begun in recent years to enter mainstream academic circles. Last April, Doherty published the first issue of Ecopsychology, the first peer-reviewed journal dedicated to “the relationship between environmental issues and mental health and well-being.” Next year, M.I.T. Press will publish a book of the same name, edited by Hasbach and Peter Kahn, a developmental psychologist, and Jolina Ruckert, a Ph.D. candidate, both at the University of Washington. The volume brings together scholars from a range of disciplines, among them the award-winning biologist Lynn Margulis and the anthropologist Wade Davis, as it delves into such areas as “technological nature” and how the environment affects human perception. Ecopsychology is taught at Oberlin College, Lewis & Clark College and the University of Wisconsin, among other institutions.

Ecopsychologists are not the first to embrace a vital link between mind and nature. They themselves admit as much, emphasizing the field’s roots in traditions like Buddhism, Romanticism and Transcendentalism. They point to affinities with evolutionary psychology — to the idea that our responses to the environment are hard-wired because of how we evolved as a species. They also point to biophilia, a hypothesis put forward by the eminent Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, in 1984, that human beings have an “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.” Though Wilson’s idea has been criticized as both deterministic and so broad as to be untestable, the notion that evolution endowed humans with a craving for nature struck a lasting chord in many sectors of the scientific community. Over the past quarter-century, Wilson’s hypothesis has inspired a steady flow of articles, books, conferences and, last year, the E. O. Wilson Biophilia Center in northwest Florida.

But unlike Wilson and his followers, ecopsychologists tend to focus on the pathological aspect of the mind-nature relationship: its brokenness. In this respect, their project finds echoes in the culture at large. Recently, a number of psychiatrically inflected coinages have sprung up to represent people’s growing unease over the state of the planet — “nature-deficit disorder,” “ecoanxiety,” “ecoparalysis.” The terms have multiplied so quickly that Albrecht has proposed instituting an entire class of “psycho­terratic syndromes”: mental-health issues attributable to the degraded state of one’s physical surroundings. Ecopsychologists, many of whom are licensed clinicians, remain wary of attributing specific illnesses to environmental decline or of arguing that more-established disorders have exclusively environmental causes. Rather, they propose a new clinical approach based on the idea that treating patients in an age of ecological crisis requires more than current therapeutic approaches offer. It requires tapping into what Roszak called our “ecological unconscious.”

LAST JUNE, I PAID a visit to Doherty, who works in a stone-fronted building in northeast Portland, in an office decorated with a sweeping topographical map of Oregon and a fountain that trickles water onto a pile of stones. He has receding red hair and a red mustache and beard; a small silver hoop dangles from the cartilage of his left ear. Doherty was raised in a working-class neighborhood in Buffalo and then went to Columbia University, where he majored in English. Afterward, he worked in a variety of jobs that reflected his interest in the environment: fisherman, wilderness counselor, river-rafting guide, door-to-door fund-raiser for Greenpeace.

As a therapist with activist credentials in a “green” city on the West Coast, Doherty is fairly representative of ecopsychologists today. He is also typical in that he was inspired to enter the field by Roszak’s “Voice of the Earth.” To some extent Doherty remains under Roszak’s spell. When we met, he talked about “an appropriate distrust of science,” and the “dualistic” character of empiricism — the mind/body split — which gives society “free rein to destroy the world.” But he recognizes that ecopsychology endorses a few dualisms of its own. “A more simplistic, first-generation ecopsychology position simplifies the world,” he said. “Either you’re green or you’re not. Either you’re sane or you’re not. It conflates mental health and/or lack of mental health with values and choices and the culture.” His mission, he said, is to spearhead a “second-generation ecopsychology” that leaves these binaries behind.

The bulk of his work is therapeutic. Like any therapist, Doherty, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology, sees patients and discusses routine concerns like sex and family dynamics. Unlike most therapists, he asks about patients’ relationships with the natural world — how often they get outdoors, their anxieties about the state of the environment. He recently developed a “sustainability inventory,” a questionnaire that measures, among typical therapeutic concerns like mood, attitudes and the health of intimate relationships, “comfort with your level of consumption and ecological footprint.”

The ways in which clinicians perform ecotherapy vary widely. Patricia Hasbach often conducts sessions outdoors; she finds that a natural setting helps to broaden a client’s perspective, has restorative benefits and can serve as a source of powerful metaphors. “Ecotherapy stretches the boundaries of the traditional urban, indoor setting,” she told me. “Nature provides a live and dynamic environment not under the control of the therapist or client.” Often this leads to revelatory sensory experiences, as in the case of one client who struggled with a sense of emotional numbness. The feeling dissipated after he put his feet in an icy mountain stream.

Doherty, who teaches a class on ecotherapy with Hasbach at Lewis & Clark, places less emphasis on the outdoors — not only because his office is located in an especially urban section of Portland but also because he worries about perpetuating a false dichotomy between the wilderness and the city. His Sustainable Self practice attracts a clientele that is typically self-selecting and eager to inject an ecological perspective into their sessions. Usually, his clients don’t come to him with symptoms or complaints that are directly attributable to environmental concerns, but every so often he has to engage in what he calls “grief and despair work.” For example, one client, Richard Brenne, a climate-change activist and an avid outdoorsman, came to Doherty because he was so despondent about the state of the planet and so dedicated to doing something to help that it was damaging his relationship with his family. In an e-mail message to me, Brenne praised Doherty for helping him face the magnitude of the problem without becoming despairing or overwrought. Some would argue that treating Brenne’s anxiety about the environment and the negative effect it had on his family life is no different from treating a patient whose anxieties about work cause problems at home. But for Doherty, treating an obsession with ecological decline requires understanding how the bond between the patient and the natural world may have been disrupted or pathologized. Doherty is currently working on a theoretical model in which a person’s stance toward environmental concerns can be categorized as “complicated or acute,” “inhibited or conflicted” or “healthy and normative.”

Doherty is eager to test his therapeutic ideas in a broader arena by urging the field to back up its claims with empirical data. Many subfields of clinical psychology have had to make this transformation in the past decade as calls have grown louder and louder for therapeutic systems to prove their efficacy in quantifiable ways. This shift is arguably harder on ecopsychology than it is on others: in the past, the field hasn’t just sidestepped science; it has denigrated it as a system of inquiry that objectifies the natural world.

Doherty’s journal, Ecopsychology, sometimes feels like an awkward marriage of Orion Magazine and The American Journal of Psychology, combining personal essays about communing with nature with more theoretical articles. In the first issue, Martin Jordan, a psychologist at the University of Brighton in Britain, evoked Kleinian attachment theory to warn against the “naïve” mind-set that sees the natural world as some “perfect . . . benevolent parent.” Such an outlook, he argues, isn’t just untruthful — nature is as harsh and inhospitable as it is salubrious and inviting — it’s a form of escapism, a sign that someone is less in love with nature than out of love with society.

It is not that Doherty is unfriendly to the spiritual thrust of ecopsychology; the shelves in his office are filled with volumes of nature poetry and mythology. But he hopes to press his colleagues to realize that “tending data sets and tending souls are not mutually exclusive,” as he writes in his inaugural editorial. “The idea that personal health and planetary health are connected, that’s not just an idea,” Doherty told me. It is a proposition, he said, and that proposition can and should be tested.

SUPPORT FOR ecopsychology’s premise that an imperiled environment creates an imperiled mind can be found in more established branches of psychology. In a recent study, Marc Berman, a researcher in cognitive psychology and industrial engineering at the University of Michigan, assigned 38 students to take a nearly three-mile walk — half in the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor and half along a busy street. His purpose was to validate attention-restoration theory (A.R.T.), a 20-year-old idea that posits a stark difference in the ability of natural and urban settings to improve cognition. Nature, A.R.T. holds, increases focus and memory because it is filled with “soft fascinations” (rustling trees, bubbling water) that give those high-level functions the leisure to replenish, whereas urban life is filled with harsh stimuli (car horns, billboards) that can cause a kind of cognitive overload. In Berman’s study, the nature-walkers showed a dramatic improvement while the city-walkers did not, demonstrating nature’s significant restorative effects on cognition.

Peter Kahn, the developmental psychologist and a member of Ecopsychology’s editorial board, has been more explicitly testing some of ecopsychology’s underlying principles. “If you look at psychology today,” Kahn told me recently, “it still often focuses on behavior” — understanding and changing how people act toward their environments. This is an explicit aim of a branch of psychology known as conservation psychology, and it has obvious practical value. Ecopsychology, Kahn said, asks a different question: how does nature optimize the mind?

Recently, Kahn set out to study how we respond to real versus digital representations of nature. In an experiment reported in The Journal of Environmental Psychology, Kahn and his colleagues subjected 90 adults to mild stress and monitored their heart rates while they were exposed to one of three views: a glass window overlooking an expanse of grass and a stand of trees; a 50-inch plasma television screen showing the same scene in real time; and a blank wall. Kahn found that the heart rates of those exposed to the sight of real nature decreased more quickly than those of subjects looking at the TV image. The subjects exposed to a TV screen fared just the same as those facing drywall.

In themselves, these findings may seem merely to support what many already hold to be true: the authentic is better than the artificial. Nature is more healthful than television. But for Kahn, the plasma-screen study speaks to two powerful historical trends: the degradation of large parts of the environment and the increasingly common use of technology (TV, video games, the Internet, etc.) to experience nature secondhand. “More and more,” Kahn writes, “the human experience of nature will be mediated by technological systems.” We will, as a matter of mere survival, adapt to these changes. The question is whether our new, nature-reduced lives will be “impoverished from the standpoint of human functioning and flourishing.”

Like Doherty, Kahn is aware that many scientists in the profession are apt to disapprove of concepts as seemingly unquantifiable as “human flourishing.” Several months ago, I called Alan Kazdin, a former president of the American Psychological Association and a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale, to ask his opinion of ecopsychology. Kazdin mentioned the discipline in a 2008 column, but when we spoke he was hazy and had to look it up. “Modern psychology is about what can be studied scientifically and verified,” he finally said. “There’s a real spiritual looseness to what I’m seeing here.”

Second-generation ecopsychologists would not necessarily disagree with this judgment. But they would dispute that “spiritual looseness” has no place in modern psychology. “Have you ever heard of rewilding?” Kahn asked me. Rewilding is a popular concept in conservation biology that was developed in the mid-1990s by Michael Soulé, an emeritus professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The idea is that the best way to restore and maximize the resilience of ecosystems is from the top down, by reintroducing and nourishing predatory “keystone” species like bears, wolves and otters. “We want to do the same thing,” Kahn said, “but from the psychological side — from the inside out. We want to rewild the psyche.”

As with much of second-generation ecopsychology, Kahn’s research into rewilding the psyche is still in its early stages; he has been exploring the idea on a blog he writes for the Web site of Psychology Today. But it rubs up against a fundamental problem of ecopsychology: even if we can establish that as we move further into an urban, technological future, we move further away from the elemental forces that shaped our minds, how do we get back in touch with them?

That question preoccupied Gregory Bateson, a major influence on eco­psychologists and something of a lost giant of 20th-century intellectual history. Bateson, an anthropologist by training, conducted fieldwork in Bali with Margaret Mead, his wife of 14 years, in the 1930s, but in midcareer he moved away from conventional ethnology and began conducting studies in areas like animal communication, social psychology, comparative anatomy, aesthetics and psychiatry. But what most interested Bateson, as the title of his 1972 book “Steps to an Ecology of Mind” suggests, were complex systems.

It was Bateson’s belief that the tendency to think of mind and nature as separate indicated a flaw at the core of human consciousness. Writing several years after Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” at a time when the budding environmental movement was focused on the practical work of curbing DDT and other chemical pollutants, Bateson argued that the essential environmental crisis of the modern age lay in the realm of ideas. Humankind suffered from an “epistemological fallacy”: we believed, wrongly, that mind and nature operated independently of each other. In fact, nature was a recursive, mindlike system; its unit of exchange wasn’t energy, as most ecologists argued, but information. The way we thought about the world could change that world, and the world could in turn change us.

“When you narrow down your epistemology and act on the premise ‘what interests me is me or my organization or my species,’ you chop off consideration of other loops of the loop structure,” Bateson wrote. “You decide that you want to get rid of the byproducts of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the ecomental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider ecomental system — and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.” Our inability to see this truth, Bateson maintained, was becoming monstrously apparent. Human consciousness evolved to privilege “purposiveness” — to get us what we want, whether what we want is a steak dinner or sex. Expand that tendency on a mass scale, and it is inevitable that you’re going to see some disturbing effects: red tides, vanishing forests, smog, global warming. “There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds,” Bateson wrote, “and it is characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself.”

So what to do? How do you go about rebooting human consciousness? Bateson’s prescription for action was vague. We needed to correct our errors of thought by achieving clarity in ourselves and encouraging it in others — reinforcing “whatever is sane in them.” In other words, to be ecological, we needed to feel ecological. It isn’t hard to see why Bateson’s ideas might appeal to ecopsychologists. His emphasis on the interdependence of the mind and nature is the foundation of ecotherapy. It is also at the root of Kahn’s notion that “rewilding” the mind could have significant psychological benefits. But it also isn’t hard to see how the seeming circularity of Bateson’s solution — in order to be more ecological, feel more ecological — continues to bedevil the field and those who share its interests.

Last year, Glenn Albrecht, the Australian philosopher and an admirer of Bateson, began an investigation into what psychological elements might protect a given environment from degradation. In popularizing “solastalgia,” he drew widespread attention to the mental-health costs of environmental destruction; but like scientists who document the melting of the polar ice caps or mass extinction, Albrecht was studying decline. He wanted to study environmental success.

Albrecht began interviewing residents of the Cape to Cape region, a 60-mile-long stretch of land in southwestern Australia — a wine-country Eden, lush and bucolic and rife with sustainable industries, from organic agriculture to ecotourism. Numerous factors — geographic, political, historical, economic — most likely allowed the Cape to Cape region to remain relatively unsullied. But Albrecht proposes that the main factor is psychological. The people of the region, he told me, display an unusually strong “sense of interconnectedness” — an awareness of the myriad interacting components that make up a healthy environment. True to form, Albrecht has come up with a concept to encapsulate this idea. He has begun describing the Cape to Cape region as a study in “soliphilia”: “the love of and responsibility for a place, bioregion, planet and the unity of interrelated interests within it.” He says he hopes that, like “solastalgia,” this neologism will spread and that it will change how people think about their relationship to the environment.

Will “soliphilia” have the broad appeal of “solastalgia”? It seems unlikely. “Solastalgia” described an emotional response to environmental degradation that, in the age of global climate change — not to mention in the age of such cultural touchstones as “Wall-E,” “The Road” and “Avatar” — feels universal. “Soliphilia” describes a psychological foundation for sustainability that seems to depend on already having the values that make sustainability possible: the residents of the Cape to Cape might have a “sense of interconnectedness,” but how do the rest of us gain, or regain, that sense?

At present, ecopsychology seems to be struggling with this question. Philosophically, the field depends on an ideal of ecological awareness or communion against which deficits can then be measured. And so it often seems to rest on assuming as true what it is trying to prove to be true: being mentally healthy requires being ecologically attuned, but being ecologically attuned requires being mentally healthy. And yet, in its ongoing effort to gain legitimacy, ecopsychology is at least looking for ways to establish standards. Recently, The American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychological Association, invited the members of the organization’s climate-change task force to submit individual papers; Thomas Doherty is taking the opportunity to develop his categorization of responses to environmental problems. His model, which he showed me an early draft of, makes distinctions that are bound to be controversial: at the pathological end of the spectrum, for example, after psychotic delusions, he places “frank denial” of environmental issues. The most telling feature of the model, however, may be how strongly it equates mental health with the impulse to “promote connection with nature” — in other words, with a deeply ingrained ecological outlook. Critics would likely point out that ecopsychologists smuggle a worldview into what should be the value-neutral realm of therapy. Supporters would likely reply that, like Bateson, ecopsychologists are not sneaking in values but correcting a fundamental error in how we conceive of the mind: to understand what it is to be whole, we must first explain what is broken.

Daniel B. Smith holds the Critchlow Chair in English at the College of New Rochelle. His last article for the magazine was on the writer Lewis Hyde.

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By Theodore Roszak

In The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology, Theodore Roszak sought to formulate some general principles that might guide both environmentalists and therapists in their common project of defining a sane relationship to the world around us. The essay that follows has been adapted from the version that appears in the book.

As we approach the end of the twentieth century, there are scientists who believe we may be within sight of a Grand Unified Theory that will embrace all things, all forces, all time and matter. But will such a theory of everything, if we find it, do justice to the very act of seeking for that theory in the first place? Will it explain how a supposedly once dead universe gave rise to this single, burning point of conscious curiosity called the human mind? Certainly no scientific theory we inherit from the past has yet found a place for scientists themselves, let alone for artists, visionaries, clowns, myth-makers — for all those who have built this second nature we call “culture” on at least one planet in the cosmos. Only within the past generation, as we have grasped the historic and evolutionary character of the cosmos, have we begun to give the questing mind a significant status in scientific theory.

What unity ultimately requires is closure. The circle of theory must come round like the alchemical snake to bite its tail. What is must at last be known. Perhaps that is what underlies the eager unfolding of the natural hierarchy from the Big Bang to the human frontier: substance reaching out hungrily toward sentience. That is the simple but mighty insight that the physicist John Wheeler sought to capture in this schematic image of a universe that makes a u-turn in time to study itself through the human eye.

Oddly, this unity of the knower and the known seems to have been better appreciated by pre-scientific humans who worked from myth, image, ritual. If ecopsychology has anything to add to the Socratic-Freudian project of self-knowledge, it is to remind us of what our ancestors took to be common knowledge: there is more to know about the self, or rather more self to know, than our personal history reveals. Making a personality, the task that Jung called “individuation,” may be the adventure of a lifetime. But every person’s lifetime is anchored within a greater, universal lifetime. Each of us shares the whole of life’s time on Earth. Salt remnants of ancient oceans flow through our veins, ashes of expired stars rekindle in our genetic chemistry. The oldest of the atoms, hydrogen whose primacy among the elements should have gained it a more poetically resonant name is a cosmic theme; mysteriously elaborated billions-fold, it has created from Nothing the Everything that includes us.

When we look out into the night sky, the stars we see in the chill, receding distance may seem crushingly vast in size and number. How many times have despairing philosophers and common cynics reminded us of how small we are in comparison to the great void of space? It is the great clich‚ of modern times that we are “lost in the stars,” a minuscule planet wheeling around a minor star at the outer edge of a galaxy that is only one among billions. But in truth there is no principle in science that can logically judge value by size. Neither big nor small any longer have any limit or meaning in the universe. Wonders and amazements come in all sizes. Is the universe “too big” to provide human meaning? Not at all. It is, in fact, exactly the right size. Modern cosmology teaches us that the swelling emptiness that contains us is, precisely by virtue of its magnitude, the physical matrix that makes living intelligence possible. Only a universe of this size and this temperature and this age could have produced life anywhere. Those who once believed we were cradled in the hands of God were not so very wrong after all — at least metaphorically speaking.

All this, the new place of life in the cosmos, belongs to the principles of ecopsychology, but not in any doctrinaire or purely clinical way. Psychotherapy is best played by ear. It is after all a matter of listening to the whole person, all that is submerged, unborn, in hiding: the infant, the shadow, the savage, the outcast. The list of principles we offer here is merely a guide, suggesting how deep that listening must go to hear the Self that speaks through the self.

1. The core of the mind is the ecological unconscious. For ecopsychology, repression of the ecological unconscious is the deepest root of collusive madness in industrial society. Open access to the ecological unconscious is the path to sanity.

2. The contents of the ecological unconscious represent, in some degree, at some level of mentality, the living record of cosmic evolution, tracing back to distant initial conditions in the history of time. Contemporary studies in the ordered complexity of nature tell us that life and mind emerge from this evolutionary tale as culminating natural systems within the unfolding sequence of physical, biological, mental, and cultural systems we know as “the universe.” Ecopsychology draws upon these findings of the new cosmology, striving to make them real to experience.

3. Just as it has been the goal of previous therapies to recover the repressed contents of the unconscious, so the goal of ecopsychology is to awaken the inherent sense of environmental reciprocity that lies within the ecological unconscious. Other therapies seek to heal the alienation between person and person, person and family, person and society. Ecopsychology seeks to heal the more fundamental alienation between the recently created urban psyche and the age-old natural environment.

4. For ecopsychology as for other therapies, the crucial stage of development is the life of the child. The ecological unconscious is regenerated, as if it were a gift, in the newborn’s enchanted sense of the world. Ecopsychology seeks to recover the child’s innately animistic quality of experience in functionally “sane” adults. To do this, it turns to many sources, among them traditional healing techniques of primary people, nature mysticism as expressed in religion and art, the experience of wilderness, the insights of Deep Ecology. Thus, for example, Wordsworth’s hymns to the child’s love of nature are basic texts for developmental ecopsychology, a first step toward creating the ecological ego.

5. The ecological ego matures toward a sense of ethical responsibility to the planet that is as vividly experienced as our ethical responsibility to other people. It seeks to weave that responsibility into the fabric of social relations and political decisions.

6. Among the therapeutic projects most important to ecopsychology is the re-evaluation of certain compulsively “masculine” character traits that permeate our structures of political power and which drive us to dominate nature as if it were an alien and rightless realm. In this regard, ecopsychology draws significantly on the insights of ecofeminism with a view to demystifying the sexual stereotypes.

7. Whatever contributes to small scale social forms and personal empowerment nourishes the ecological ego. Whatever strives for large-scale domination and the suppression of personhood undermines the ecological ego. Ecopsychology therefore deeply questions the essential sanity of our gargantuan urban-industrial culture, whether capitalistic or collectivistic in its organization. But it does so without necessarily rejecting the technological genius of our species or some life-enhancing measure of the industrial power we have assembled. Ecopsychology is postindustrial not anti-industrial in its social orientation.

8. Ecopsychology holds that there is a synergistic interplay between planetary and personal well-being. The term “synergy” is chosen deliberately for its traditional theological connotation, which once taught that the human and divine are cooperatively linked in the quest for salvation. The contemporary ecological translation of the term might be: the needs of the planet are the needs of the person, the rights of the person are the rights of the planet.

Theodore Roszak (November 15, 1933 – July 5, 2011) was Professor Emeritus of History and Director of the Ecopsychology Institute at California State University, Hayward. Among his many well-known works are The Making of a Counter Culture (1969), Where the Wasteland Ends (1972), The Cult of Information (1994) and Ecopsychology (1995). His most recent books are The Voice of the Earth (Touchstone Books) and The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein (Random House and Bantam Books), an ecofeminist parable based on the famous Mary Shelley story. He was the senior editor of Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (Sierra Club Books).

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Encountering the Liminal: A Shamanic Space for Healing Self and Community

The following essay was delivered by me, Carl Golden, as a lecture at the Abundancia Feast at the Grange in Woodinville, WA, on February 22, 2012.



“Who are YOU?” asked the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation.
Alice replied, rather shyly, “I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll)

This deep and enduring psychological question—Who are you?—is inseparable from our absolute dependence upon the natural world. Similarly, the over-riding environmental question—What is our relationship and responsibility to Nature?—is deeply rooted in the psyche—as our images of self and nature—and our behaviors.

Ecopsychology offers three insights into these questions:

1. There is a deeply bonded and reciprocal relationship between humans and nature that can be expressed by two metaphors:

(a) Nature as home and family (e.g., Earth as mother, animals as siblings or cousins);
(b) Nature as Self, in which self-identification is broadened to include the “greater-than-human” world known as Gaia.

2. The illusion of separation of humans from nature leads to suffering both for the biosphere (as ecological devastation) and for humans (as grief, despair, and alienation).

3. Realizing the connection between humans and nature is healing for both. Reconnecting with Nature has great healing potential, such as working with our grief and despair about environmental destruction as well as the restorative work of environmental activism and the cultivation of sustainable lifestyles.

Theodore Roszak, who coined the term–“ecopsychology”–asserted that psychology needs ecology and ecology needs psychology. The value of such a synthesis is that it reaches well beyond individual healing. Ecopsychology has a greater cultural project: to redefine the relationship of the natural environment to sanity in our time.  For me, there is no more important calling.

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.  For us, soul craft is personal, vocational and global.

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 new paradigm that weds spiritual communion, scientific inquiry and environmental justice and that gives life and consciousness a central status in our understanding of 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 our brothers and sisters, whether they walk, trot, fly, swim, dig, slither or sprout.

So, what does all this have to do with shamanism and encountering the liminal?  Everything.  Ecotherapists are attempting to do what shamans have done for individuals, societies and nature since the dawn of human spiritual awareness: the work of atonement or at-one-ment.  If we regard health as the alignment of Self—the inner mystery—with Nature, which is both the outer mystery and the authentic ground of our being, and if illness is regarded as the result of non-alignment between Self and Nature, then healing is the realignment or at-one-ment of the two.  Shamanism, as well as the other great religious traditions throughout history, has always had the intuitive and visionary understanding that atonement is the unceasing soulful work needed to maintain individual and social health by entering into a righteous relationship with the other-than-human world.

Our way of life, which certainly has its perks, is based upon a culture of dominion, exploitation, commercialization, consumption and greed that is deeply out of alignment with Nature, and it has been so for a very long time. We are increasingly besieged by a nightmare of our own making: widespread corruption amongst our economic, political and corporate leadership, fascism, wars for oil, a collapsing global economy, environmental degradation, dwindling global fish populations, and much more.  So, it is time—indeed it is always time—to reflect upon what is truly important in our lives.  It is time to dig deep into our collective souls and discover our true purpose as humane beings.  It is time to remember who we truly are, and dream a new dream of ourselves as one with Nature.

As a shamanic practitioner and ecotherapist, I am committed to this vision of at-one-ment by helping people to heal and to reveal — cooking away the hard shell that masks the brilliance born within each of us.  This sacred work is done in a ritual space, whether in the office or in the wilderness, that defines a liminal rite of passage, known as psychotherapy (psycho = soul; therapy = healing).  The decision to enter therapy is a decision to embark upon a journey whose destination is unknown because when we choose to heal and become authentic persons the topography of our lives will change—often in ways we cannot predict.

This quality of unpredictability is part of the power of the liminal, which is a kind of  dreamtime, betwixt and between knowing and not knowing, neither here nor there—a limbo of uncertainty devoid of social status that is radically open and full of possibility.  As such, liminality is a threshold of time, place and consciousness pregnant with potentials for challenge, insight, transformation and growth.

This rite of passage is not a pleasure trip.  In terms of individual psychological process, what takes place in the dark phase of liminality is a process of breaking down the dysfunctional persona in the interest of “making whole” one’s meaning, purpose and sense of relatedness once more, moving from disorientation to integration.  This can be scary at first, but one can also begin experiencing oneself and life in new and wonderful ways.  One such way is to become a member of a therapy group, which is a liminal community that is status-free, wherein one is able to commune with individuals as equals—regardless of one’s station in society—coming together to recreate the world in a meaningful way.

Of course, getting lost is an integral part of the journey.  One must lose the old self in order to find the new, more integral self.  This is one of the reasons why I like to invite clients to do a Vision Quest, which is a wilderness-based sojourn.  In the wilderness, we can become bewildered, having abandoned for a while all of the familiar people, places and things that bolster our sense of self and status.  In this state of confusion, an empty space can open within us, affording a rich possibility for seeing ourselves and the world with new eyes.  In an instant, we can become realigned with our true ground in nature, and discover our authentic purpose rather than the role prescribed by our consumer culture.

A quest for vision can also result from an extended journey to a foriegn country.  One of the most important journeys of death and rebirth in my life, which is what a rite of passage is, was when I deliberately chose to become a stranger in a strange land at nineteen years of age.  I went to Iceland for a year under the guidance of an international exchange program.  This year remains one of the most challenging and rewarding years of my life.  In the spirit of Alice’s reply to the Caterpillar, I thought I knew who I was when I left America, but I changed several times over the course of the year.  That journey freed me from the shackles of familiarity and challenged me to show up authentically, which enabled me to see in ways I never expected.

My work as an ecotherapist, especially in this culture which provides few ritual spaces in our lives, is to invite people into a time and place outside of one’s usual regimen where you might embrace being a stranger in a strange land and come face to face with your own soul’s purpose like meeting a friendly and unexpected companion on a long journey.  In this rite of passage, we hear the wise elders behind us murmur appreciation, affirming the deep truth of the work that heals us as individuals and binds us to each other, to the land, and to the mystery of life itself.  In this place we can feel ourselves on the threshold of emergence—the birthing of a world in which each of us embodies our visionary essence.  Soulful health is what is called for by a wounded world dreaming of cultural transformation.

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Deep Ecopsychology

Ecopsychology is a profound and necessary intellectual development in Western consciousness.  It is profound because it is a formidable argument against the lamentable Cartesian dualism that has enthralled science, western philosophy and religion for far too long and at too dear a price. It is necessary because another hundred years of Cartesian-based cultural values and socio-economic policies will be disasterous.  We need a synthesis of mind, soul and biosphere that can transform the current human venture of materialistic exploitation and human alienation into embodied wisdom, wherein self-knowledge and knowledge of the biosphere and the Cosmos are one. Given the extraordinary popularity of the movie, Avatar, it is reasonably clear that millions of people from every country want this revolutionary transformation to occur. Ecopsychology provides a radical psychology, but it needs to go deeper. We need a Deep Ecopsychology that provides an epistomology that permanently supplants Cartesian dualism.

I believe that the following essay I wrote years ago points to that epistomology. Gaia – A Cybernetic Emergence was an exploration of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. In it I related Lovelock’s insights to the insights of Gregory Bateson into the phenomenon of consciousness or mind.  In doing so, I believe that I stumbled upon a new way of understanding consciousness and mode of self-knowledge that could be a foundation for human culture based upon sacred wholeness. Here is the essay in full with observations to follow in the Afterword:

Gaia: A Cybernetic Emergence
(original August 11, 1996 by Carl Golden)

In 1979, James Lovelock’s book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, was published.  Through this work, Lovelock introduced a relatively new hypothesis about why Earth is a live planet rather than a dead one and how this state of vitality has been maintained for 3.5 billion years.  He argues that life itself maintains the viable conditions on Earth through a variety of cybernetic processes, known as homeostasis.  His first glimpse of this process occurred while exploring the significance of entropy reduction in the detection of life.

In the 1960’s, Lovelock was employed by NASA to help with the development of the Mars probes of the Viking program.  The probes were being developed to detect life on Mars.  Lovelock was fascinated with the challenge of detecting life on Mars, but he was not in agreement with his colleagues as to how this should be done:

At that time, the planning of experiments was mostly based on the assumption that evidence for life on Mars would be much the same as for life on Earth. Thus one proposed series of experiments involved dispatching what was, in effect, an automated microbiological laboratory to sample the Martian soil and judge its suitability to support bacteria, fungi, or other micro-organisms . . . . After a year or so I found myself asking some rather down-to-earth questions, such as, “How can we be sure that the Martian way of life, if any, will reveal itself to tests based on Earth’s life styles . . . [and] “What is life, and how should it be recognized?” . . . Some . . . colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories mistook my growing skepticism for cynical disillusion and quite properly asked, “Well, what would you do instead?” At that time I could only reply vaguely. “I’d look for an entropy reduction, since this must be a general characteristic of all forms of life.”1 (p.1—2)

Lovelock knew, that designing a universal life-detection experiment based on entropy reduction would be somewhat challenging, because no one had successfully defined what life is.  After some time, though, he surmised that life of any kind would require a medium through which it could derive nutrients and energy and expel waste. The medium would need to be fluid, such as water or atmosphere, in order to act as an agent of exchange (“conveyer-belt region”) for food and waste and as an environment of chemical and energy distribution.  He, then, realized “that some of the activity associated with concentrated entropy reduction within a living system might spill over into the conveyer-belt regions and alter their composition.  The atmosphere of a life-bearing planet would thus become recog­nizably different from that of a dead planet.”2 (p.5-6) With this insight, he returned to the Jet Propulsion Laboratories where he was joined by Dian Hitchcock.  Together, they tested Lovelock’s hunch, using Earth as a model.  The results were convincing:

Our results convinced us that the only feasible explanation of the Earth’s highly improbable atmosphere was that it was being manipulated on a day—to—day basis from the surface, and that the manipulator was life itself. The significant decrease in entropy—or, as a chemist would put it, the persistent state of disequilibrium among the atmospheric gases—was on its own clear proof of life’s activity. Take, for example, the simultaneous presence of methane and oxygen in our atmosphere. In sunlight, these two gasses react chemically to give carbon dioxide and water vapor. The rate of this reaction is such that to sustain the amount of methane always present in the air, at least 1,000 million tons of this gas must be introduced into the atmosphere yearly. In addition, there must be some means of replacing the oxygen used up in oxidizing methane and this requires a production of at least twice as much oxygen as methane. The quantities of both of these gases required to keep the Earth’s extraordinary atmospheric mixture constant was improbable on an abiological basis by at least 100 orders of magnitude.3  (p.6—7)

The results of this early test stood against the prevailing model for the generation of Earth’s atmosphere, which was under­stood to be more an end-product of planetary outgassing.  “Oxygen, for example, was thought to come solely from the breakdown of water vapor and the escape of hydrogen into space, leaving an excess of oxygen behind. Life merely borrowed gases from the atmosphere and returned them unchanged.”4 (p.7)   Lovelock knew this view was no longer viable as a scientific explanation for Earth’s atmosphere; instead, he realized that our particular life-sustaining atmosphere was generated and maintained by the biosphere, which he called Gaia (borrowing from the ancient Greek mythological name for our planetary deity).  Over the ensuing years, and after much more experimentation, observation and reflection, he defined Gaia in cybernetic terms with the help of Dian Hitchcock, Sidney Epton, Peter Simmonds, and especially Lynn Margulis:

We have since defined Gaia as a complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet. The maintenance of relatively constant conditions by active control may be conveniently described by the term “homeostasis”.5 (p.11)

Lovelock’s reasons for making this hypothesis were these:

Life first appeared on the Earth about 3,500 million years ago. From that time until now, the presence of fossils shows that the Earth’s climate has changed very little. Yet, the output of heat from the sun, the surface properties of the Earth, and the composition of the atmosphere have almost certainly varied greatly over the same period.

The chemical composition of the atmosphere bears no relation to the expectations of steady—state chemical equilibrium. The presence of methane, nitrous oxide, and even nitrogen in our present oxidizing atmosphere represents violation of the rules of chemistry to be measured in tens of orders of magnitude. Disequilibria on this scale suggest that the atmosphere is not merely a biological product, but more probably a biological construction: not living, but like cat’s fur, bird’s feathers, or the paper of a wasp’s nest, an extension of a living system designed to maintain a chosen environment. Thus the atmospheric concentration of gases such as oxygen and ammonia is found to be kept at an optimum value from which even small departures could have disastrous consequences of life.

The climate and the chemical properties of the Earth now and throughout history seem always to have been optimal for life. For this to have happened by chance is as unlikely as to survive unscathed a drive blindfold through rush—hour traffic.6 (p.5—10)

Over the years, Lovelock has buttressed his hypothesis of a cybernetic Earth with several informed and tested observations and experiments, such as his prediction of the presence of the compounds—methyl iodide and dimethyl sulphide—in the atmosphere for the transportation of elements essential to all life—iodine and sulfur.  As well as his discovery of the relationship between the growth of marine algae, their emission of dimethyl sulphide (DMS), and the formation of clouds and climate7 (p.215 – “Soil as Model for the Earth’). The role deep-sea radiolaria (diatoms) plays in keeping the oceans from becoming too salty, as well as the roles earthworms, lichens, and mosses play to help keep atmospheric oxygen at 21% by exposing soil and rock which results in oxidation (consequentially, opening more ground in which to sink carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas).  Of course, one of Lovelock’s most famous models of the Earth’s cybernetic character is Daisy World, wherein a hypothetical planet covered by black, white, and gray daisies is able to keep an ambient optimal temperature merely on the reflective/absorptive qualities (albedo) of the daisies.8 (Ages of Gaia)

All of these examples (and many others) certainly make the case (more or less) for cybernetic activity in the biosphere, but does Lovelock go too far in equating the sum of all these acti­vities (known and unknown) to a homeostatic entity, called Gaia? His critics clearly think so. Connie Barlow, an evolu­tionary biologist, raises the following objection:

There is an awareness that everything known to be self-regulating in the universe is either alive or, like a central heating system with a thermostat, built by something that is alive (Wright 1991). Indeed, self-regulation implies a self. By attributing self-regulation to the biosphere, Gaia proponents have made the biosphere an individual within the hierarchy of life . . .

I am somewhat perplexed by Barlow’s reasoning.  If she were arguing that everything that is self-regulating is alive (or built by something alive), then I would suppose the inverse of this statement is true as well.  Everything alive is self-regulating.  If she were to agree with this statement, then surely it is a simple logical progression to admit that the biosphere is alive.  And granted that, then surely the biosphere is self—regulating. So, why is she so loathe to state the obvious? Is it because, according to her line of reasoning (with which I happen to agree), to do so would confer “self” to the biosphere? Her objection appears more a matter of personal and professional bias than scientific observation.

The heart of most scientists’ (mainly biologists) objection to Gaia is their difficulty in ascribing individuality and homeostasis to an aggregate.  According to them, only indivi­duals can be homeostatic. This line of thinking seems to miss the forest for the trees, because every “individual” is comprised of aggregates—cells, organelles and organs–and is an aggregate of a more comprehensive “indi­vidual”—society–as well.

I think Gregory Bateson, an exceptional scientist, recog­nized and understood this blindness of most biologists and life scientists, and be labored hard throughout his life to correct it.  In chapter four of his work, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, Bateson addresses this problem of defining “self” (which he calls “mind”) through establishing a list of cybernetic criteria by which any aggregate could be measured. He says of this list, “[I]f any aggregate of phenomena, any system, satisfies all the criteria listed. I shall unhesitatingly say that the aggregate is a mind . . .”10 (P.91) His list follows in its entirety, and I think it lays a strong epistemological ground for Lovelock’s Gaia:

I shall argue that the phenomena which we call thought, evolution, ecology, life, learning, and the like occur only in systems that satisfy these criteria. . .

  1. A mind is an aggregate of interacting parts or components.
  2. The interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference, and difference is a non-substantial phenomenon not located in space or time; difference is related to negentropy rather than to energy.
  3. Mental process requires collateral energy.
  4. Mental process requires circular (or more complex) chains of determination.
  5. In mental process, the effects of difference are to be regarded as transforms (i.e.- coded version) of events that preceded them. The rules of such transformation must be comparatively stable (i.e.. more stable than the content) but are themselves subject to transformation.
  6. The description and classification of these processes of transformation disclose a hierarchy of logical type immanent in the phenomen.11 (p. 92)

So, does Gaia meet these criteria?  1. Is Gaia an aggregate of interacting parts or components? Yes, the biosphere is comprised of myriad life forms that interact with each other and the abiotic environment. 2. Is the interaction between the parts of Gaia triggered by the difference between negentropy and entropy? Yes, the various life forms comprising the biosphere either compete or collaborate to maintain negentropy (survival).  3. Does Gaia require collateral energy? Yes, the biosphere requires solar radiation. 4. Does Gaia require circular (complex) chains of determination?  Yes.  A vast network of homeostatic processes sustains Gaia. 5. In the Gaian process, are the effects of difference regarded as encoded versions of events that preceded them?  Yes, Gaia evolves, and the path of Gaian evolution is encoded geologically, genetically (and morpho­logically), and psychologically (memory/instinct/ learning). 6. Do the description and classification of Gaian processes of transformation disclose a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena? Yes, natural history itself is a description of ever increasing biological and ecological complexity brought about by specific adaptations at various levels of scale that are embedded in a global context.

Gaia is alive, and this awareness of “her” and our rela­tionship to “her” is going to restructure the way we think of ourselves and of life in general. If we are going to understand “her”, then I expect that we shall need explanations different from those that would suffice to explain the character of her constituent parts.  Lovelock has suggested that a meta-life science be developed that would incorporate geology, chemistry, biology, physiology, and ecology.  He calls this new discipline Geophysiology.  The whole is always more than the sum of the parts—out of the sum of the parts something new emerges.

End Notes:

1   Lovelock, J.E.; Gaia: A New Look At Life on Earth:OxfordUniversity Press,Oxford.England 1979; Pgs.1-2

2   Ibid; pgs.5—6

3  Ibid; pgs.6—7

4  Ibid; pg.7

5   Ibid; pg.11

6   Ibid; pgs.9—10

7   Lovelock, J.E.; “The soil as a model for the Earth”; Geoderma, 57 (1993) pgs.213—215

8   Lovelock, J.E.; The Ages of Gaia; W.W.Norton & Company,New York,N.Y., 1988

9   Barlow, Connie, et al.; “Gaia and evolutionary biology”; BioScience, Vol. 42 (9), October, 1992; P9.688

10 Bateson, Gregory; Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity; E.P.Dutton,New York,N.Y., 1979; pg.91

11 Ibid; pg.92


Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and Bateson’s guide for identifying consciousness lay down the bedrock for an epistomology that recognizes mind at the aggragate level — the biophere. This view is beautiful in that it promotes a sacred wholeness in our self/world conception, and it inspires people to throw off the old Cartesian split.

The Gaian view inspired James Cameron to portray a union of scientist, renegade warriors and the Na’vi in his story, Avatar, that successfully challenged the destructive threat of a corrupt and dying worldview premised upon dualism. Avatar points to a synthesis of the ancient Animistic worldview with the emerging quantum worldview that sees consciousness as a phenomenon of life and the Cosmos itself.  Cameron’s work is only one spectacular example of how a deep ecopsychology is taking root in the hearts and minds of people around the globe.

The Gaian/ecopsychological worldview is already bringing about revolution in the real world as alliances are made between indigenous people, cultural renegades, activists, educators, artists, politicians, business leaders, environmentalists, scientists, journalists, students, and a host of others in service to a way of life that seeks to bless rather than destroy. With the establishment of Earthday and the international growth of the environmental ethic, the shift from Cartesian dualism to a worldview of Nature as embodied mind is underway. The Gaian hypothesis is becoming the new explanatory myth of wholeness, and ecopsychology is becoming the new epistomology the world needs to get us to the promised land of a green and sustainable future, where the voices of all living things are respected as self in the body politic.

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The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, Ecopsychology, and the Crisis of Extinction: On Annihilating and Nurturing Other Beings, Relationships, and Ourselves


By Will W. Adams

Department of Psychology
Duquesne University

THE HUMANISTIC PSYCHOLOGIST, 34(2), 111–133, Copyright © 2006, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Correspondence should be addressed to Will W. Adams, Department of Psychology, Duquesne University, 544 College Hall, Pittsburgh, PA 15282. E-mail:

This study is an exploration of today’s mass extinction of species and mass extinction of relationships: When species become extinct and ecosystems are destroyed, distinctive interrelationships are extinguished. Humans and nature are mutually impoverished. This crisis of consciousness and culture involves our exclusive identification as (supposedly) separate egoic subjects, dissociation of humans and nature, and anthropocentrism. An emerging psychocultural therapy may help us transcend such narcissistic alienation and realize our nondual intimacy with the rest of nature. The primacy of interrelating is explored via Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological ontology and Buddhist psychology. Direct experiences with nature interact in mutually enhancing ways with interpersonal relationships and sociocultural structures/discourses that value nature. We may thereby cultivate mutual intimacy, health, and justice in our intersubjective relationships with the natural world.

In the spring of 1987, Dr. Jerome Jackson was searching a swampy forest inMississippifor a mysterious bird most experts thought extinct: the ivory-billed woodpecker (Jackson, 2004, p. 181; Tremblay, 2002). Museum specimens revealed it to be the third largest woodpecker in the world and the largest in North America, weighing 16–20 ounces, standing 18–20 in. tall, with an enormous wingspan of 30–31 in. (“Rediscovering,” 2005). Its deep black and white feathers, brilliant yellow eyes, intense red crest (on the male), and great ivory-colored bill are strikingly beautiful. Resembling the pileated woodpeckers that still live near many of us, but even bigger, the ivory-bill appears wondrously ancient in the few images existing from old paintings and photographs, vividly conjuring the evolutionary link with flying dinosaurs. So grand and awe-inspiring, it was commonly called the “Lord God Bird” because people would exclaim, “Lord God what a bird!” on encountering one. And as a precious being that evokes peoples’ spiritual sensibilities, it has also been deemed the “Holy Grail Bird.” But sadly, because nearly all its habitat had been destroyed and no authenticated sightings had occurred in theUnited Statessince 1944, ornithologists feared that the ivory-bill was extinct, another grievous loss among countless losses in the tragic, human-generated mass extinction of species currently taking place. Nonetheless, Jackson and his graduate student were hoping a remnant population might have survived. Their extensive search included systematically playing a 1935 recording of an ivory-bill’s call.

One morning, they played the tape and heard a reply in the distance: a nasal-sounding “kent, kent, kent” (suggesting a large nuthatch or a child’s tin trumpet), precisely as in the recording. They were thrilled that an ivory-bill might still be alive, might be nearby. As the tape played, the bird continued to respond, coming closer and closer. But then it stopped. Jackson and his student hurried toward the area of the sound, but never found its source. They never saw an ivory-bill, not that day nor in 2 years of devoted searching. This may have been an ivory-billed woodpecker responding to what it thought was a fellow member of its own species. Indeed, what if this had been the last surviving ivory-bill on earth? Imagine this bird, which naturally exists in close social groups, living alone for years and finally hearing the call of its kin, then drawn powerfully, primordially, to the source of the sound and being terribly stunned to find that it came from a group of humans. Can we develop some sense of what this experience might be? What if you were the last human being on earth? What if all your family and friends had died or been killed, and you were left alone? What if you had gone for years without any contact with your fellow human beings? What if your surrounding world had also been ravaged? And after nearly giving up hope, what if you heard another human voice calling out in the distance? Then, with body, heart, mind, and soul drawn to the call, you discover that the supposed human voice is coming from a parrot, imitating the call of your kin. You are still alone and will be until you die. And with your death, the whole human species dies, forever, never to exist again.

With over 30 of our kindred species being killed off every day (E. O. Wilson, 2001), something like this tragedy recurs hour after hour. It is heartbreaking to realize the magnitude of our ongoing violence against nature, against our natural interrelationships, and against ourselves. Indeed, we perpetuate our ecological crisis partly by repressing this reality that feels unbearable. Yet, it is with these very circumstances that we must begin. Offering a courageous challenge, the anthropologist Ruth Behar (1996) asserts that research “that doesn’t break your heart just isn’t worth doing anymore” (p. 177). In this spirit, this study explores humankind’s growing realization that we are involved in a mass extinction of species, and that the primary responsibility for this catastrophe lies with human psychology, culture, values, and lifestyles. And we focus on a corresponding crisis: the mass extinction of relationship and experience. That is, when entire species are driven extinct and ecosystems destroyed, distinctive interrelationships with those species and ecosystems also go extinct. The varieties of human experience with nature are diminished, as are the varieties of experiences within the nonhuman natural community (see Nabhan & St. Antoine, 1993; Pyle, 1992).We and nature are mutually impoverished.

We live in a culture ideologically and practically obsessed with dominating, controlling, and often annihilating the other-than-human natural world. Originally a key constituent in the modernist paradigm of reality, this project is being enacted with violent vengeance in our technologically powerful and economically driven postmodern world. The discipline of psychology has long been captivated by this misguided project (see Cushman, 1990; Kidner, 2001). (Kidner’s outstanding text, which I discovered too late to incorporate here, resonates deeply with this study.) The vast majority of modern psychology has been and continues to be uncritically anthropocentric. And it is not only natural scientific psychology with its ethos of experimental prediction and control that must be implicated here.

Sigmund Freud’s genius has meant so much to the tradition of psychology as a human (or interpretative) science. Nonetheless, as an heir of Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, and entranced by the industrialist zeitgeist of late modernity, Freud frequently demonized nature. Presuming that the “human community” needs to “defend” against “the dreaded external world,” Freud (1930/1961) advocated an “attack against nature and subjecting her to the human will” (p. 24). In the next sentence, with unreflective confidence in this drive to dominate (ostensibly feminine) nature, Freud asserted that “Then one is working with all for the good of all” (pp. 24–25). When we identify “all of us,” who we exclude and include with “us” is an act that carries profound implications. Likewise, too often and too uncritically, existential, humanistic, and transpersonal psychology have elevated humans over the rest of nature to the detriment of the natural world and humanity.

Fortunately, with the growth of transpersonal psychology, environmental psychology, and ecopsychology, the discipline has begun to reintegrate humans with nonhuman nature after centuries of alienation, dissociation, and antagonism (Roszak, Gomes,& Kanner, 1995). We are thus deepening our understanding of how it may be useful to differentiate humankind from the rest of nature without deeming ourselves separate from or above nature. Appreciating our kinship, identity, and intimacy with nonhuman nature along with our differences, we are beginning to realize that humankind is actually a manifestation of nature, one with quite distinctive ways of being. Faced with a crisis of catastrophic proportions, these are hopeful initiatives. Growing sensitivity to our ecological peril—which most deeply is a crisis of consciousness and culture—may call forth transformations in awareness and social practice, changes that foster healthy, just, and intimate relationships between humankind and the natural world.


You may have heard the news: At least one living ivory-billed woodpecker has been discovered in the swamps ofArkansas! Since first being sighted in February 2004 by an amateur birder, a team of expert ornithologists has verified at least seven encounters with this magnificent bird (Fitzpatrick et al., 2005; Gallagher, 2005; “Ivory-billed woodpecker,” 2005; “Rediscovering,” 2005). The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Nature Conservancy are leading this exciting collaborative endeavor. First reported in April 2005, the ivory-bill’s survival has been greeted with joy and appreciation by the worldwide community.

At the very same time, ecologists warn that we are in the midst of a mass extinction of species. Although there have been other mass extinctions due to natural phenomena such as meteor strikes, the current crisis is unprecedented because it is being caused primarily by a single species (human beings) and culture (Western corporate–consumerist culture). According to E. O. Wilson (2001), Before humans existed, the species extinction rate was (very roughly) one species per million species per year (0.0001 percent). Estimates for current species extinction rates range from 100 to 10,000 times that, but most hover close to 1,000 times prehuman levels (0.1 percent per year), with the rate projected to rise, and very likely sharply. Regarding current biodiversity, “Scientists estimate that the total number of species on Earth could range from about 3.6 million up to 117.7 million, with 13 to 20 million being the most frequently cited range” (Harrison, Laverty, & Sterling, 2004). Bringing these numbers into a lived context, this means that at least 13,000 species are dying every year, 35 every day, more than one every hour. Who are we (and the world) losing while you are reading this article?

Today’s mass extinction is unprecedented in another significant way. Because it is being generated by human values and actions, it can be alleviated by a transformation of consciousness and culture/society. The ivory-billed woodpecker is barely eking out an existence on the edge of extinction. Yet with our assistance, it might flourish again. Thus, the ivory-bill teaches us that the massive annihilation of nature is not inevitable (as many have feared), that we are neither helpless nor hopeless, that we actually can create a healthier human–nature interrelationship, and that this transformation is vitally important but extremely tenuous at this moment. In these perilous times, when it is tempting to lose heart, the ivory-bill’s lessons are immensely important.

Note that some might contest the “anthropomorphism” in my imaginative reversal of Dr. Jackson’s ivory-bill search. There are dangers indeed. To presume that we completely understand another animal, based exclusively our personal perspective, is narcissistic, imperialistic, and often destructive. It is crucial to appreciate the real otherness and difference of nonhuman presences: animals, plants, air, water, land, ecosystems, nature—“all our relations” in the sensitive phrase of the Lakota Sioux. Yet, it is equally narcissistic to (conceptually, illusorily) separate ourselves from the rest of nature and thereby presume our experience is totally different from that of nonhuman beings. We are natural beings, after all, while simultaneously existing as thoroughly cultural beings. Research and personal experience should deepen our appreciation of our similarities with nature—even our transpersonal/transegoic identity with or as nature—along with our distinctive differences (seeDavis, 1998). And most important, they should help us foster wakeful, intimate, vivifying, compassionate, and wise interrelationships with the natural world.

Perhaps you were touched by the brief story of the ivory-bill woodpecker’s demise, Jackson’s tantalizing search, and the heartening news of its rediscovery. (“Rediscovered,” we should note, from a human perspective because we assume the ivory-bills were, in their own way, well aware of their struggle to survive). Even vicariously, experiences with the ivory-bill may resonate deeply. Indeed, I have heard many people (in my local community and in media reports) characterize their response as a kind of spiritual experience, one filled with profound emotion and significance. Such vividly felt experiential relationships, whose significance continues to resound in our lives, are vastly different from mere abstract conceptions about ecological peril or the wonders of nature. These days, most people have a basic cognitive conception of the extinction of species. When asked, they can give a dictionary-like definition of the term extinction. Even further, many would say they know species are going extinct largely due to human lifestyles, and many would express concern. Yet, it seems that we keep ourselves from really understanding and being affected by this phenomenon, from fully realizing that we are annihilating entire lineages of beings, killing them off totally and forever. We know about extinction, but we do not know in a way that really matters or makes a difference. We have the abstract idea of extinction, but miss the meaningful lived experience: embodied, heartfelt, deeply thought, and significant.

We miss the meaning partly because we lack direct contact with nature. Meaning depends on context, and our estrangement from nature has left us with little experiential context within which we can make sense of the abundant information about extinction (and other ecological maladies). The information rarely fosters transformation because it remains unintegrated. Meaning also depends on the perspective we adopt, and with our culture’s devaluation of nature and overvaluation of economic “progress” (narrowly defined), the death of species may appear insignificant. There are also psychodynamic reasons that such perilous evidence remains split off—namely, that it feels unbearable to acknowledge the reality of nature’s suffering and our responsibility for it. This dissociation of mind and body, this desensitized knowing with our heads but without our hearts, is itself a symptom of our larger alienation from nature—here, an alienation from nature in and as our incarnate sensuous self. These cultural and psychodynamic dissociations reinforce one another. Instead, we must cultivate the capacity to embrace the whole range of our experience, from our appreciation of the breathtaking beauty, wonder, power, danger, and mystery of nature to our grief, sadness, fear, despair, and anger over its annihilation. At best, this article will sponsor further experiences with the natural world, and whatever you glean from reading will resound as you return to the woods and to engaged participation in your local community and bioregion.

At least one ivory-billed woodpecker has been found in the last 18 months. We presume that this particular bird is still alive. And we hope others are surviving, breeding, and carrying on a coexistence with their ecosystemic community as their ancestors have done for thousands of years. Yet, we are far from being assured of this species’ well-being, much less that of earth’s collective ecosphere. In fact, just 7 days after the ivory-bill’s continued survival was announced, the administration of President George W. Bush enacted a regulatory change that permits more roads, logging, and mining in national forests (Barringer, 2005). These are the very practices that nearly exterminated the ivory-bill in the first place and that have destroyed countless other beings, species, and ecosystems. These two announcements typify the current contest between divergent social constructions of the human–nature relationship. This is not to say that nature is socially constructed, but that our relationship with the rest of nature is influenced powerfully by the cultural values and social practices that predominate within a particular place and historical era. Contemporary Western culture, preferring domination to diversity, is annihilating the natural world. Yet, cultures are not univocal. Branches of this very culture also created the Endangered Species Act, Earth Day, and radical ecology. And every day, babies are born who are being nurtured by ecologically aware parents and subcultures. We thus have a precious opportunity to construct alternative cultures that care for nature and foster intimacy with the animate earth.


A friend recently expressed dismay that millions of dollars are being spent to preserve the ivory-bill’s habitat. He asked sincerely, “What about all the human needs that could be addressed instead?” Given the immense human suffering throughout the world, this is a question that many concerned citizens ask when ecological issues are raised. Contrary to the central insight of ecopsychology, however, such questions presume that the well-being of the natural world and of humankind are separate from one another. They also presume that ecological, psychological, spiritual, and cultural dimensions of existence are unrelated. These presumptions are quite normal today in Western culture. Normality is not necessarily healthy, however, especially in a world pervaded by ecological annihilation, social injustice, and personal distress. Indeed, as David Loy (personal communication, November 23, 2005) put it powerfully, “The real issue is not whether millions are being spent to preserve [the ivory-bills’] habitat, but that billions are being spent to destroy such habitats.” In fact, “successful adaptation” to such conventions may represent pathology rather than well-being and may be life depleting rather than life enhancing. In this light, the taken-for-granted presumptions mentioned previously can be seen for what they are: symptomatic evidence of our (pathological and pathogenic) alienation from the rest of nature. Such ideological and experiential symptoms need to be addressed from a critical and psychoculturally therapeutic perspective.

Along these lines, in a previous work I explored how the following phenomena are keys to a complex crisis in contemporary life: (a) our exclusive identification as (supposedly) separate, autonomous, individualistic, skin-bounded, egoic subjects; (b) the presumed, dualistic separation (or dissociation) of self and world, humans and nature; and (c) exclusively anthropocentric ideology, values, and practices (Adams, 2005). These interrelated phenomena reveal that we are terribly confused about who we are, what the natural world is, and what really matters. Such ontological confusion is the shadow side of the great emancipatory achievements of modernity. This alienation, the result of a long cultural–historical process, is now taken as “natural,” inevitable, just “the way things are and have to be.” Captivated by these views, values, and ways of being, we exist in a state of impoverishment. Living merely from a habitual egoic identity, self-sense, and way of being, we ignore, dismiss, or pathologize healthy prepersonal and transpersonal/transegoic dimensions of our being. And, correspondingly, we become ignorant of nature in its wholeness and sentience, viewing it only instrumentally as raw material to be exploited for human satisfaction. We thus reduce ourselves and nature together. Having egoically dissociated ourselves from our inherent communion with the natural world, and from nonegoic modes of being, we are partial persons relating with a partial world: exclusively egoic subjects with nature as mere commodity. This is a description of pathology and a prescription for pathogenesis. Such pathology in the psychological, sociocultural, and spiritual realms generates pathology in the ecological realm (diminished biodiversity, habitat destruction, environmental toxicity, global warming, etc.), and this ecopathology generates further individual and sociocultural pathology. As ecologist Robert Michael Pyle (2005) states, “The most dangerous idea in the world is that humans are separate from the rest of nature. The greatest enormities against the Earth stem from such delusions, just as us-and-them thinking justifies our inhumanity toward one another” (p. 69).

To relate more wisely and compassionately with the natural world, we need a psychocultural therapy that helps us transcend our narrow egoic identity and anthropocentrism and vividly realize our nondual intimacy with the rest of nature. Herein, as Andy Fisher (2002) says, we “recognize the natural world as a community of fellow subjects rather than a collection of meaningless objects to be humanly exploited” (p. 52). And we thereby cultivate mutual well-being in our intersubjective relationships with the presences of nature. These are the great aspirations of ecopsychology.


Although generally ignored by the economic, political, military, and technological powers dominating contemporary culture—and by (all of us) ordinary citizens who are being semi-knowingly indoctrinated by the ideology of these powers—it is increasingly clear that our ecological catastrophe is interwoven with a profound crisis of human culture and consciousness. Nature–Psyche–Culture–Spirit: Inherently nondual, these thoroughly inter-permeate one another in our current crisis and its emerging therapeutic transformation. (Whenever I speak of this grave crisis, ecological, psychological, sociocultural, and spiritual dimensions are all implied together.) Therefore, constructing healthy and just human–nature relationships requires a radical questioning of many taken-for-granted presumptions regarding basic aspects of existence. Ontological, epistemological, and ethical questions thus crucially arise. For example, we may ask, “What is it to be a human being?,” “What is nature?,” and “What is the human–nature interrelationship right now in our culture?” And we allow these questions to guide our quest for the mutual well-being of humans and nature.

Engaging in such rigorous inquiry—and developing transformative practices in response—is the guiding commitment of “radical ecology,” an interdisciplinary collaboration that includes ecopsychology, ecofeminism, deep ecology, and social ecology (Zimmerman, 1994). This much-needed approach can be coupled with the valuable efforts of so-called reform environmentalism, efforts designed primarily to reduce environmental threats to human health and to use nature wisely—not just nominally, but truly wisely and compassionately—for human benefit. Although appreciating the urgent need for more radical transformation, I also believe that the ecological movement needs to foster cooperative alliances wherever possible (rather than conjuring us-vs.-them divisiveness). Immense intelligence and power are available, and we certainly need all the help we can muster. In the spirit of radical ecology and endeavoring to cultivate transformation that grows from an appreciation of the roots of our crisis, let us consider the existential primacy of interrelationship and its relevance in our current ecopsychological peril. We are annihilating our health-enhancing relationships with nature through extinction and our lack of direct experiential contact. What do such losses mean for us and for the natural world?

Humans are relational beings. We become who we are—we are who we are— by participating in intersubjective relationships with others. Our sense of meaning, value, purpose, and vitality emerges in and through our relationships. The centrality of relationship is one of the key findings of contemporary psychology and one of the crucial orienting principles of psychotherapy. Significantly, many disciplines join with psychology in stressing the significance of our relational nature. The following are just a few of the various traditions in general agreement here: object relations, intersubjective, and relational theories in psychoanalysis; feminist psychology and self-in-relation theory; social constructionism; systems theory; Buddhist psychology and philosophy; and phenomenological psychology and philosophy. Similarly, the discipline of ecology demonstrates that the natural world is inherently relational. In these diverse traditions, we discover a remarkably consistent focus on the primacy of interrelationship. “All real living is meeting,” as Martin Buber (1923/1958, p. 11) declares.

To fully explicate the relational nature of being, of being human ,and of the natural world—and to explore its ecopsychological significance—requires a study in its own right. Yet, given our rapidly vanishing relationships with species and ecosystems and the vanishing relationships within the nonhuman natural world, an appreciation of inter-relationality is crucially important for ecopsychology. Thus, very briefly, I address the primacy of interrelationship by invoking Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological philosophy together with Buddhist psychology.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s (1945/1962) Phenomenology of Perception is an exquisite articulation of the epistemological thesis of the primacy of perception. Interpreted in light of our exploration, this text simultaneously reveals the primacy of interrelationship. “Man is but a network of relationships, and these alone matter to him” (Saint-Exupery, as quoted in Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962, p. 456). Merleau- Ponty chose to celebrate this insight (from Antoine de Saint-Exupery) by presenting it as the final culminating sentence of his great text. For Merleau-Ponty, perceiving is an embodied, participatory, reciprocal relationship between oneself and the world, between self and nature. As David Abram (1996) says, “Perception, in Merleau-Ponty’s work, is precisely this reciprocity, the ongoing interchange between my body and the entities that surround it” (p. 52). Anticipating contemporary ecopsychology, Merleau-Ponty beautifully affirms our inseparable, nondual, erotic, conversational intimacy with the natural world:

the whole of nature is…our interlocutor in a sort of dialogue.…The thing is inseparable from a person perceiving it, and can never be actually in itself because its articulations are those of our very existence…To this extent, every perception is a communication or a communion … a coition, so to speak, of our body with things.  (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962, p. 320, italics in original)

Similarly affirming the primacy of interrelationship, the contemporary Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (1988) discloses that self and world, self and nature “inter-are” (p. 3): “‘To be’ is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing” (p. 4). Indeed, Buddhist (and other) contemplative practices reveal the experience of no-self (anatta): No separate self can ever be found, nor even any separate thing, because all “things” (including our distinctive self or subjectivity) co-arise dependently with all other things and subjectivities (paticca-samuppada).

In fact, regarding the human–nature relationship, to presume (as we conventionally do) a dualistic separation of self and nature is dangerously misleading, a confused and confusing abstraction from our integrated lived experience. When we attend carefully to our direct experience with nature (via meditative awareness, phenomenological research, or sensitive attunement to ordinary perception), we discover that what our “self” is and what “nature” is (in this context) is their inseparable relational intertwining, interpermeating, interdependent coarising and coconditioning (Adams, 1996, 1999; Merleau-Ponty, 1964/1968). From this perspective, Merleau-Ponty encourages us to appreciate “nature as the other side of man” (p. 274).

Going even further in The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty (1964/1968) explores the ontological primacy of experiential interrelating. With his nondual philosophy of flesh/the intertwining/the chiasm, he shows that “I am a field of experience” (Merleau-Ponty, 1964/1968, p. 110), that “we are experiences” (p. 115). In other words, I am a field of interrelationships. We are interrelationships. In this astonishing text, Merleau-Ponty demonstrates that ordinary perceptual relatedness always involves a “strange adhesion” of seer and visible, toucher and tangible, (so-called) self and world and self and nature, an inherent interrelationship wherein “through their commerce … each is only the rejoinder of the other, and which therefore form a couple, a couple more real than either of them” (p. 139, emphasis added).


Because these relational couplings and interchanges between self and nature (and, beyond humankind, between all the various beings and presences within the natural world) are what is most real—are who we are, are what nature is—and because we are losing these relationships as we annihilate species and ecosystems, then we are losing our very self, losing nature’s very being, and creating a void in lived reality. R. D. Laing (1967) remarks that “Experience used to be called the soul” (p. 12), proposing (like Merleau-Ponty) that relational experience is our primary reality. Pursuing the implications of this insight, Laing asserts that “If our experience is destroyed, our behavior will be destructive. If our experience is destroyed, we have lost our own selves” (p. 12, italics in original). Our ecologically destructive behavior is a violent symptom of a previous (and ongoing) psychocultural destruction of our whole selves. And, correspondingly, our wholeness is destroyed further with further destruction of the natural world.

In suggesting that extinction (of species and relationships) creates a void in lived reality, I am speaking from a phenomenological perspective that emerges from and remains grounded in everyday experience. With extinction, some dimension of us dies with the other species’ death, just as some dimension of the integrated life-world dies. (Although the analogy is inexact, sense the similarity with losing a loved one to death.) The distinctive interrelationships we shared are gone, never to exist again. Neither we nor the world will ever be the same. Concerned with these very issues, Gary Snyder (1990), truly one of our wise elders, warns that Human beings themselves are at risk—not just on some survival-of-civilization level but more basically on the level of heart and soul. We are in danger of losing our souls. We are ignorant of our own nature and confused about what it means to be a human being. (pp. 177–178) Along similar lines, Abram (1996) eloquently emphasizes that “we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human” (p. ix). As our relationships with nature become extinct and convivial contact disappears, we actually become less human.

These wise witnesses are offering dreadfully consistent testimony about our diminishing relationship with nature. In losing relationship/experience, we are in danger of losing “our own selves” or our “soul” (Laing), “losing our soul” (Snyder), becoming less fully “human” (Abram). And, following Merleau-Ponty, lived reality is impoverished. It is no accident, then, that psychotherapists are seeing more and more patients whose distress centers around these same concerns. In Freud’s era, it was common for patients to present with specific symptoms such as strange obsessions or hysterical conversions based on repressed experience. Today, in contrast, our patients (and countless others) tend to be haunted by a vague, overall sense that there is a basic lack in their very being or existence; that something important is missing; that they are not real in some important way; that they are disconnected, alienated, and empty; that their lives are neither meaningful nor authentic (Loy, 1996, 2003; Mitchell, 1993). Although few of our suffering brothers and sisters know the philosophical jargon, these symptoms are manifestations of profound epistemological confusion and ontological insecurity so prevalent in contemporary culture. (Laing, 1959, coined the latter phrase to describe a lack of basic security regarding one’s being, typical in schizophrenic existence. Yet, as Laing showed, so many of us are similarly anguished as we struggle to be “well-adjusted” within sociocultural norms that are themselves often pathological.)

The relational psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell observes that we frequently encounter people “who may be very well adapted to their society, but who are missing something fundamental in their experience of living.…these are patients whose subjectivity itself is understood to be basically awry” (p. 22). Patient and therapist (and indeed each of us) do well to ask How does life come to feel real? significant? valuable? What are the processes through which one develops a sense of self as vital and authentic? How are these processes derailed, resulting in a sense of self as depleted, false, shallow?(Mitchell, 1993, p. 24) Mitchell responds that real, authentic, valuable, vital existence emerges in and through interrelationship. Along with most of modern psychology, Mitchell focuses on relationships between the patient and other people.

Ecopsychology agrees that these are vitally important, yet goes further to encourage a more expansive relatedness that includes our interrelationships with the other-than-human natural world. We have coevolved with the rest of nature for hundreds of thousands of years. Nature is one dimension of our very being and (transpersonal) subjectivity (“Nature as the other side of man,” Merleau-Ponty, 1964/1968, p. 274). Nature is a profoundly significant, intersubjective presence in all of our lives (whether we realize it or not). Yet we live in a culture bent on dominating and controlling nature. And nature and our relationships with it are being annihilated. How then could we not feel that we are lacking, unreal, disconnected, deadened, empty? Such lack makes us vulnerable to false solutions provided (for a monetary and psychospiritual price) by our corporate–consumerist culture, especially the disingenuous promise of acquiring things. But such “solutions” never come close to touching our real needs while actually intensifying our sense of lack and further destroying the natural world. As we increasingly annihilate nature, we feel increasingly empty, but compulsively attempt to fill our emptiness by consuming (ultimately unsatisfying) commodities that require further annihilation of nature for their production. I am not suggesting that our ecological alienation is responsible for all such malaise. Indeed, in a series of profound works deeply consonant with our concerns, David Loy (1996, 2003) articulates a fundamental sense of lack that arises from the intrinsic absence of a separate self. In misunderstanding its nature, we intensify this sense of lack by exclusively (mis)identifying ourselves with an illusory structure: our supposedly separate and autonomous ego. This leaves us haunted by “the quite valid suspicion that ‘I’ [as ego] am not real” (Loy, 1996, p. xi). Given the extent of social oppression and injustice, intercultural conflict, interpersonal trauma, and existential pain in our lives, any single interpretation is much too simplistic. Yet, clearly, healing our dissociation from nature must be one constituent of a larger psychocultural therapeutic.

Of importance, let me emphasize that a merely anthropocentric perspective is much too narrow. This crisis of extinction—the extinction of experiential relationships and of species—is not only one in which human relationships with nature are vanishing and human existence degraded, but, equally tragically, one in which the interrelationships within nature itself are being extinguished. So many species are dying and so many local ecosystems are being extirpated, and with them are dying immensely diverse, subtle, and complex interrelationships. Ecology, as the science of interdependent natural relationships, teaches us that nature is this deep, vast, interdependently co-arising community of relationships. With extinction or extirpation, as relationships disappear, the ecosystem (and larger ecosphere) becomes impoverished, and relational interchanges between animals, plants, water, air, and land become diminished and unbalanced. For example, following the extirpation of large predators such as wolves and mountain lions, deer populations are growing excessively across the country while their food-sources such as acorns and oak saplings are being depleted. Key participatory interactions are now missing. No howl can be heard. Deer and rabbits need not be alert in the same way, and thus their consciousness and behavior are changing. Fewer trees grow to maturity. When species die and relationships within the ecosystem are lost, the ecosystem not only changes, but its very being is diminished. While our relationships with nature vanish in the process, it is equally important to recognize, mourn, and reverse the annihilation of interrelationships within the nonhuman natural world.


The primacy of interrelationships is crucial from an ecopsychological perspective. As psychotherapists and ordinary citizens know, our relationships can foster health or pathology, for our self and for others. Although obvious, it cannot be overemphasized that our well-being is interwoven with the well-being of our family, friends, and community/culture/society. Although it should be equally obvious, we are just beginning to realize that the same is true of our intersubjective relationships with the natural world. Just as a mutually enhancing relationship between people depends on ongoing experiential contact and renegotiation of the relationship based on such experience, so also in our relationships with the rest of nature.

In contrast, a vicious circle is being perpetuated by our egoic/dissociative/anthropocentric annihilation of the natural world and the resulting extinction of relational encounters: Our impoverished self and ways of being and relating create an impoverishment of nature, and impoverished nature leads to further impoverishment of our self, being, and relating. To put it simply: Extinction of intimate relationships with nature contributes to extinction of species and ecosystems, and extinction of species and ecosystems creates further extinction of natural interrelationships. And it is not only specific relationships but ecologically sensitive ways of relating that are being lost (or never developed in the first place). E. O. Wilson (1992) stresses that “Biological diversity…is the key to the maintenance of the world as we know it.…This is the assembly of life that took a billion years to evolve. It…created the world that created us. It holds the world steady. (p. 15)”

This is not an (impossible) wish for a never-changing world. Rather, it is an understanding of the way that biodiversity fosters well-being (just as cultural, racial, gender, ethnic, spiritual, and other such diversity fosters well-being). Significantly, the natural world seems to promote biodiversity. As Aldo Leopold (1949) says, “the trend of evolution is to elaborate and diversify the biota” (p. 216). Ecologists emphasize that biodiversity is necessary for ecosystems to be healthy, and they are gravely concerned about the depletion of the biological gene pool due to the mass extinction of the earth’s species. Likewise, in losing so many of our interrelationships with nature, we are depleting the psychological/relational “gene pool.” Biodiversity and experiential/relational diversity are reciprocally enhancing. With the restoration of biodiversity, ecosystems (from wild ones to those in our largest cities) are nurtured, thereby offering more diverse and accessible experiential opportunities. And as we restore relational diversity, opening ourselves for engaged participatory conversations with nonhuman nature, we deepen our provisional understanding of nature, relate more sensitively, and work to foster greater biodiversity.


Some would argue that experiences, relationships, selves, ecosystems, and worlds are not lost due to extinction, but merely that they change. Nature does continue on in some way regardless of human actions. From an existential phenomenological perspective, however—from the perspective of our lived interrelatedness in daily life—humans and nature go on, but certainly in an impoverished way. Think of the vast difference between encountering the multiplicity of plants, animals, and land in a healthy forest as compared with the monoculture lawns so pervasive today. How many of us have walked through a forest with an elder whose intimate knowledge of local plants opens up an astonishing diversity of edible foods? How many of us have experienced the pleasure of quenching our thirst with a luscious wild plum, much less enjoyed a meal of thrice-boiled milkweed buds? (They are delicious, by the way, tasting like asparagus/artichoke!) As our existence is dominated (often unconsciously) by techno-corporate monoculture fashioned for human convenience and profit; as our lives are structured by things such as chemically controlled lawns, white bread, McDonald’s, and Wal-Mart; and thus as the diversity of our relationships die, then we and the world are diminished together. With more and more of the natural world being replaced by structures built for human beings, we increasingly relate like Narcissus only to our own reflection, to our own kind, to ever more of the same. When we lose the vivid and vivifying intensity of encountering nature as a truly different other—remember seeing that hawk soar overhead or that bear cross the road?—we begin to subsist in a self-enclosed world, relating only to ourselves. This is an extremely narcissistic relationship, terribly narrow and narrowing. Just as a narcissist treats others as an objectified extension of his or her own self—ignoring the real otherness of the other—and uses them instrumentally to fulfill his or her own wishes, today’s dominant culture often converts nature into an extension of humanity—ignoring the authentic being of nature—and uses nature merely to fulfill human wishes. In place of multidimensional human–nature relationships, we increasingly have one-dimensional human–human relationships. In the name of (a narrow type of) “progress” or “economic development,” shopping malls replace forest ecosystems, mountain range removal (coal strip mine) craters replace mountains and rivers ecosystems. Rather than mutually enhancing I–Thou dialogues with nature, we are creating mutually impoverishing monologues with ourselves.


We were so close to losing (and may still lose) our uniquely awe-inspiring relationship with the ivory-billed woodpecker. The “Lord God Bird” is still gracing our world, but this breathtaking experience is hanging in the balance. We almost extinguished the bald eagle, humpback whale,Florida panther, and countless others known and unknown. Long ago, we hunted the wooly mammoth to extinction. And not so long ago, we killed off theCarolinaparakeet. This was North America’s only native parrot, a beautiful bird with intimate social relationships. Alexander Wilson (1853), one of America’s first ornithologists, writes appreciatively that these birds “are extremely sociable, and fond of each other, often scratching each other’s heads and necks, and always, at night, nestling as close as possible to each other” (p. 249). Nonetheless, captivated by the traditional scientific ideal of detached (or here dissociated) “objectivity,” he uncritically recounts an event that sounds dreadful to our ears:

When they alighted on the ground, it appeared at a distance as if covered with a carpet of the richest green, orange, and yellow: they afterwards settled, in one body, on a neighboring tree…Here I had an opportunity of observing some very peculiar traits of their character: Having shot down a number, some of which were only wounded, the whole flock swept repeatedly around their prostrate companions…At each successive discharge, though showers of them fell, yet the affection of the survivors seemed rather to increase; for, after a few circuits around the place, they again alighted near me, looking down on their slaughtered companions with such manifest symptoms of sympathy and concern, as entirely disarmed me. (p. 248)

Regrettably,Wilsonmust have been “disarmed” only rhetorically. Countless incidents like this, with farmers killing parakeets as “pests” and hunters killing them for “sport,” are what drove this glorious bird to extinction. Rather than leave extinction as just an abstract concept, I offer stories of theCarolinaparakeet and ivory-bill woodpecker to cultivate a deeply felt experience and conversation. Furthermore, such individual experiences with nature must be complemented by collective sociocultural structures/discourses and interpersonal relationships that value, validate, and nurture greater intimacy with the earth.

Sharing stories with each other may create such support, whether this exchange occurs across a campfire or café table, in living rooms or classrooms, in therapy offices or corporate offices, in art and literature, or in scholarly papers. Mary Oliver (2005) expresses the same urgent hope in her poem “Lead”:

Here is a story to break your heart.
Are you willing?
This winter the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one, of nothing we could see.
A friend told me of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one just where that is.
The next morning this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this to break your heart,
by which I mean only that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
(p. 54, from New and Selected Poems, Volume Two by Mary Oliver. Copyright © 2005 by Mary Oliver. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston.)

To feel that our hearts are breaking as we witness the annihilation of nature is actually a manifestation of a health and sanity. It is a sign that our hearts are working just as they should, that we are alive, open, caring, and willing to respond to the suffering of the world and to the confusion, ignorance, and injustice that are creating such horrors. And it is evidence that we were only illusorily but never really separated from the natural world in the first place. (And truly, it is not our hearts that are breaking, but the excessive defensiveness by which we keep ourselves overprotected.) When we are openly attentive to nature, we discover immense beauty and pain, and each (in its own way) calls for a loving response. Writing in the same spirit years ago (yet more timely today), Joanna Macy (1991) offered this urgent invocation of loss, grief, and hope:

“InGeneva, the international tally of endangered species, kept up to day in looseleaf volumes, is becoming too heavy to lift…. What funerals or farewells are appropriate?
reed warbler
swallow-tail butterfly
Manx shearwater
Indian python
howler monkey
sperm whale
blue whale …
In the time when his world, like ours, was ending, Noah had a list of the animals, too. We picture him standing by the gangplank, calling their names, checking them off on his scroll. Now we are also checking them off.
ivory-billed woodpecker
brown pelican
FloridaManatee …
We reenact Noah’s ancient drama, but in reverse, like a film running backwards, the animals exiting.
Your tracks are growing fainter. Wait. Wait. This is a hard time. Don’t leave us alone in a world we have wrecked.” (pp. 74–77)

These are hard times, dark times, dangerous times indeed. This is far from the whole story, however. Crises can call forth the worst of ourselves, but also the best—regressive avoidance and violence or awareness, wisdom, compassion, and social engagement. Heeding the lessons of psychotherapy, ecopsychologists may be heartened to remember that breakdown is often a prelude to breakthrough. Macy rightly realized the plight of the ivory-billed woodpecker, and yet this bird now signifies hope. In opening our bodies, hearts, minds, souls, in letting extinction touch us deeply, death may give rise to love and compassion. Authentic love of nature is no sentimental feeling, wishful fantasy, or abstract ideal. It involves conscious dialogical action in response to specific manifestations of the earth’s wondrous beauty and rampant annihilation.

Love and death—extinction does evoke both—are perhaps the most life-altering experiences of all, the most likely to foster real awakening and existential transformation. This was certainly the case with Aldo Leopold, whose realizations were too deep to be appreciated in his (and our?) time. Leopold confessed that, in their youth, he and his companions never even considered bypassing a chance to kill a wolf. One day, therefore, on seeing a mother wolf playing with her pups, they unthinkingly barraged the pack with gunfire. As he tells the story,

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” (Leopold, 1949, pp. 129–130)

Leopold was once a conventional forester and hunter with a typically anthropocentric identity and ethos. Yet, his encounter with this wolf initiated a psychospiritual conversion. Although contrary to the dominant ideology of his (and our) era, Leopold allowed this experience to resonate so deeply as to change his life. Thus, he says,

“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.…In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from a conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” (Leopold, 1949, p. 204)

Seeing the wolf die took him directly to the point:

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (pp. 224–225). Thus, according to Leopold, our ecological crisis requires that we learn “to think like a mountain” (p. 132) and thus be guided by an “ecological conscience” (p. 207).

This story is well known yet worth careful (re)consideration. Leopold (1949) clearly attests to the potentially transformative importance of direct experiential relationships with nature. (Note Leopold’s startling comment that “the mountain” did not agree with his anthropocentric views and actions. I want to support this realization that nature is sentient and intelligent and that we can cultivate an intersubjective relationship with the natural world. Yet, I must defer an exploration of this phenomenon for a future study.) Leopold emerged from his experience with a radically nondualistic, nonanthropocentric, transegoic/ecocentric sense of self, worldview, and ethos. His transformative encounter shows the potential for direct experience to help us overcome the three maladies so characteristic of modern and postmodern society: dissociation, egoism, and anthropocentrism. Moving beyond our dissociative and delusional separation from nature, Leopold urges us to participate intimately as a “plain member and citizen” of the natural “community.” Transcending our excusive identification as supposedly separate egoic subjects (and thus further healing our illusory split from nature), Leopold opens the transpersonal and transrational possibility of “thinking like a mountain.” And surpassing our narrowly anthropocentric/narcissistic ways of being, Leopold’s ecocentric land ethic expands our sphere of care and engaged action.

Although many of us are severely out of touch with nature, it is not necessary to have such an extreme encounter. Although some places are wilder than others, nature is omnipresent. We simply have to begin wherever we are and to be aware of what is happening around us. When German visitors excitedly directed my attention to “that amazing bird!” in a neighbor’s yard, I was initially disappointed to tell them that “it’s just a cardinal.” But their thrill resounded just enough to awaken me from a habitual entrancement. Getting me in touch for a fresh look, my friends helped me realize once again what beautiful beings cardinals are and what a glorious being that particular cardinal was. Yes, what an amazing bird! And there are equally amazing natural phenomena in all our local neighborhoods and bioregions.

As we near the end of this study, many important questions call for further exploration. Do our relational experiences with nature actually have ontological, epistemological, and ethical implications? What does it mean to relate with nature as a real other, an authentic, conscious subject? And given that our experience is influenced unconsciously by the reigning ideology and social structures of our era—especially those of corporate capitalism, technology worship, and consumerist culture—is it even possible to break free and foster new relationships with the natural world?

It is crucial to give ourselves opportunities for direct experiences with nature and to revise our views and responses to nature accordingly. For such experiences to make a real difference, however, they need to be taken up, reflected on, and integrated into our daily existence and our very being. Yet, without networks of inter-personal relationships and cultural/societal/community structures and discourses offering support for intimate engagement with nature, it is difficult to participate in such encounters in the first place, and even harder to incorporate them into our everyday life. There is no easy way to bring about such vital personal, interpersonal, and collective changes. But it is clear that a reciprocally enhancing, dialectical association exists between personal experience and interpersonal and sociocultural structures that value nature.

For example, several years ago when I was teaching at a small liberal arts college in the mountains ofWest Virginia, I introduced my students to the plight of the ivory-bill woodpecker during an ecopsychology section of a course on “The Humanistic Tradition in Psychology.” In this form, for the first time in its history, the college was providing collective support for ecopsychology. I shared the story ofJackson’s ivory-bill search, and my students were interested, but not nearly as impressed as I had hoped. A couple of years later, I offered a whole course on “Psychology and Nature.” This course became one constituent of an interdisciplinary “Green Studies” minor that my colleagues and I created, the college supported, and the students loved. Now, given an entire semester to develop ecopsychological insights, I brought pictures of pileated woodpeckers to our first class meeting and encouraged the students to be alert for this fascinating bird. Knowing a pair was nesting on our wooded campus, I hoped that direct experiences with these woodpeckers would provide contextual ground for our eventual inquiry into the ivory-bill and mass extinction. Soon, student after student came to class excitedly reporting their sightings. When we eventually discussed the ivory-bill, students were much more engaged than in the previous course. Their encounters with the pileateds seemed to foster a vividly heartfelt connection to the ivory-bill and its demise. This was one of many experiential activities that complemented (and was complemented by) theoretical work.

During this course, I saw students developing greater ecological awareness (and for a few, even a nascent transpersonal/ecocentric subjectivity) and bringing this awareness into their daily lives. Some started hiking in the nearby wilderness, some stopped littering, some volunteered to plant trees to prevent river erosion, some began fighting against mountain range removal coal mining, and some decided to undertake a “Green Studies” minor. Socioculturally, the college offered collective structural support. My relationships with the students and their relationships with each other provided interpersonal support. And their openness to their direct experiences—being with nature and being aware of their emerging experience—was essential. I saw clearly that personal transformation and cultural transformation are deeply intertwined and reciprocally influential. Now, working in a different university, I am leading experiential ecopsychology workshops and teaching a PhD course on “Ecopsychology” that integrates theoretical study with experiential practice. Thus, the real work continues.


Aldo Leopold was touched deeply by a mother wolf as she died. My students were delighted by pileated woodpeckers living in the woods beside their dorm. Friends helped me see that ordinary cardinals are truly extraordinary. Sensitive parents and communities are initiating children into a life of intimacy with nature. And at least one ivory-billed woodpecker lives on, deep in those mysterious swamps. How glorious!

It is true that we are in the midst of a complex ecological–psychological–sociocultural–spiritual crisis. It is true that we are desperately alienated from nature. With corporate economics, techno-idolatry, and consumerism as our new religion, it is true that we are confused about who we are, what nature is, and what really matters. And it is heartbreakingly true that species are being killed off, ecosystems vanquished, relationships annihilated. Still, after almost extinguishing the ivory-bill, we are helping this majestic bird survive. The natural world is speaking to us—indeed, calling us—and we are learning to listen. So, alas, we begin wherever we are, open our body–heart–mind–soul, and respond accordingly, collaborating with all our relations, human and otherwise. The great Zen master Dogen brings us to the heart of the matter: “When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point” (Tanahashi, 1985, p. 72). Our place is here. Our time is now. May our hearts break … open … together.


Brief portions of this article were presented at the 2005 American Psychological Association Annual Convention,Washington,DC. The author thanks Drs. Jeff Beyer, Monica Walsh, Russ Walsh, Roger Brooke, David Loy, George Howard, and Daniel Holland for their insightful suggestions on an earlier draft.


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Will W. Adams holds an MA in psychology fromWestGeorgiaCollegeand a PhD in clinical psychology fromDuquesneUniversity. He previously served as a Clinical Fellow in psychology at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School. He works as an Associate Professor of psychology atDuquesneUniversityand as a psychotherapist in independent practice. Dr. Adams’s interdisciplinary interests include ecopsychology, contemplative spirituality, art and literature, and psychotherapy. This paper is dedicated to my newborn daughter, my beloved Lily Claire.

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Ecopsychology: Where does it fit in psychology?

by John Scull

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual psychology conference, Malaspina University College, March 26, 1999.

© copyright 1999, John Scull. Permission is given to reproduce this article, provided the author is both acknowledged and informed.  

Human economic activity is rapidly changing the atmosphere, soil, and water of the earth in ways that are harmful to other species and may be disastrous for us or our descendants (Winter, 1996). Ecopsychology accepts the reality of this ecological crisis and suggests that there is also a spiritual or psychological crisis resulting from our separation from the more-than-human world. Ecopsychology looks for the roots of these problems in human psychology and society. It is an explicitly moral psychology with the goal of discovering how people can connect with the natural world in ways that are healthy and sustainable both for people and for the planet.

What ecopsychology is not

To avoid confusion, it may be important to distinguish between ecopsychology and a number of fields with very similar names.

Ecological psychology. This term usually refers to the perceptual and evolutionary theories of the Gibsons, Reed, and others (Reed, 1996). Sewall (1995) has suggested how perceptual theory might be related to ecopsychology. It is confusing, though, that the phrase “ecological psychology” has been used as the title of a book about ecopsychology (Winter, 1996) and another book about energy conservation and recycling (Howard, 1997).

Environmental psychology. This term refers to the academic study of human-environment relationships. This field has traditionally focused on human-made environments and could probably be characterized as architectural psychology. In recent years, the questions asked by ecopsychologists have become a little more central to environmental psychology (Reser, 1995). Ecopsychology could be seen as a sub-field of environmental psychology, although this would probably be resisted by many people in both fields.

Environmental education. This term refers to teaching/learning about our relationship to the natural world and to outdoor education. Ecopsychology is closely related to this field and environmental education could be informed by work in ecopsychology.

Deep ecology. This refers to both a philosophical position (ecosophy) and a social movement. Ecopsychology shares many features with deep ecology and most ecopsychologists probably feel close to deep ecologists. There are, however, some important differences that will be discussed later. Some deep ecologists, such as John Seed and Joanna Macy (Macy & Brown, 1998), seem to be doing ecopsychology and calling it deep ecology.

The history of ecopsychology

Ecopsychology has many roots: Buddhist philosophy, various mystical traditions within most religions, the romantic movement in Europe, and the transcendentalist movement in theUnited States(Reser, 1995). James, Freud, Jung, Skinner, and many other psychologists along with Muir, Leopold, and other ecologists have considered various aspects of the human-nature relationship. Behaviourists (Dwyer, Leeming, Cobern, Porter, & Jackson, 1993) and social psychologists (Stern, 1992) have made attempts to modify how people behave with respect to the environment. A few teachers and therapists have used wilderness experience as a psychological tool. For example, wilderness settings were used in psychotherapy for more than 30 years under the name of “psychoecology” by Robert Greenway and Art Warmoth (Greenway, 1999) or “Project Nature Connect” by Michael J. Cohen (Cohen, 1997).

Robert Greenway (1999) wrote about the beginnings of ecopsychology: “In 1989…a former student…by the name of Elan Shapiro, got together with some friends of his, Mary Gomes and Alan Kanner and a psychotherapist or two, and invited me to come to Berkeley once every two weeks for a discussion of “psychoecology” …in 1990…Ted Roszak got wind of the group and asked to attend.” The term ecopsychology and a vision of the field of ecopsychology were first publicly defined by social historian Theodore Roszak in his book Voice of the Earth (Roszak, 1992), although many of the central ideas of ecopsychology can be found in his earlier work (Roszak, 1979) and in the work of Paul Shepard (1982).

Ecopsychology can be seen as part of a group of contemporary, post-modernist movements including nature writing (e.g., Dillard, 1975; Lopez, 1979), fantasy (e.g., Quinn, 1992), ecology (Leopold, 1949), deep ecology (e.g., Naess, 1983; Devall & Sessions, 1985), transpersonal psychology (e.g., Hillman & Ventura, 1992; Fox, 1990), economics (e.g., Daly & Cobb, 1989), Gaia theory (Lovelock, 1979), popular education (Freire, 1990), and systems theory (e.g., Bateson, 1972; Capra, 1997).

What is ecopsychology?

Roszak’s version of ecopsychology could probably better be described as “ecopsychiatry” than ecopsychology, because he adopted the medical metaphor of Freud and Jung in his conceptualization of the field. In the epilogue of his book (Roszak, 1992) he gave eight principles of ecopsychology which may be summarized as follows:

1. “The core of the mind is the ecological unconscious.”

2. “The contents of the ecological unconscious represent….the living record of evolution.”

3. “The goal of ecopsychology is to awaken the inherent sense of environmental reciprocity that lies within the ecological unconscious.”

4. “The crucial stage of development is the life of the child.”

5. “The ecological ego matures toward a sense of ethical responsibility with the planet.”

6. Ecopsychology needs to re-evaluate certain “masculine” character traits that lead us to dominate nature.”

7. “Whatever contributes to small scale social forms and personal empowerment nourish the ecological ego.”

8. “There is a synergistic interplay between planetary and personal well-being.”

More recently, the web page of the Ecopsychology Institute, California State University, Hayward (Ecopsychology Online, 1999), founded by Roszak, defines ecopsychology as:

1. The emerging synthesis of ecology and psychology

2. The skillful application of ecological insight to the practice of psychotherapy

3. The study of our emotional bond with the Earth

4. The search for an environmentally-based standard of mental health

5. Re-defining “sanity” as if the whole world mattered.”

The heavy dependence on psychoanalytic concepts is gone, but this description of ecopsychology still leans heavily on the medical mental health metaphor with its emphasis on psychotherapy and its use of the “mental health” and “sanity” metaphors..

A Jungian perspective was provided by Aizenstat (1995) and by Donald Williams (1997), who wrote that “Ecopsychology…attempts to understand the psychodynamics of our relationship to the environment.” In this definition the medical metaphor is gone, but the belief in the unconscious and the psychodynamic model remain.

Other writers have tried to avoid the many assumptions and restrictions created by the medical metaphor and the dependence on psychoanalysis. Instead, they have defined ecopsychology as a field of inquiry rather than as a set of beliefs.

Mary Gomes (1998) wrote that “ecopsychology…seeks to understand and heal our relationship with the Earth. It examines the psychological processes that bond us to the natural world or that alienate us from it.” Deep ecologist John Seed saw no merit in tying ecopsychology to psychotherapy and took the opposite tack, defining ecopsychology as “psychology in the service of the Earth” (Seed, 1994). Keepin (1995) wrote that “ecopsychology refers to a variety of endeavours — theoretical, applied, and clinical — that bring together the methods and understandings of ecology and psychology to address the psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual roots of the ecological crisis. On the same theme, Brendan Hill (1999) wrote that “ecopsychology is a term recently coined to describe the interface between ecology and psychology. It encompasses the human (and arguably, the non human) psychological relationship with nature, in both directions.”

While the field has been slowly developing as an intellectual endeavour, some psychologists have been directly addressing the practicalities of the human-nature relationship. In the 20 years before the appearance of Roszak’s book (Roszak, 1992), behavioural researchers published more than 100 experimental papers on how to change people’s environmental behaviour (Dwyer, et. al., 1993). At the same time, sociologists and social psychologists were exploring the human-nature relationship using the tools of social and behavioural science (Stern, 1992). Rather than develop a theoretical ecopsychology, these researchers applied existing theories to problems of environmentally significant behaviour. More recently, Winter (1997) has systematically explored ways in which psychology might be relevant to ecology.

An overview of ecopsychology

Following Keepin’s or Hill’s open definitions that look at both aspects of the human-nature relationship, and that look at cultural and social dimensions as well as psychological and ecological ones, ecopsychology can be seen as spanning a range of questions from ecology through religion, anthropology, sociology, and political economy, to the psychology of individuals. The concerns of ecopsychology are the role of our actions in the global ecological crisis and the effects of our ecology (including the crisis) on our psychology. Out of this may come answers to the practical questions of how to change our actions in relation to more-than-human nature and how to change our experience of nature.

What do ecopsychologists do?

One focus of ecopsychology has been on experiential learning aimed at helping people form a spiritual and emotional connection to the ecological systems of which they are a part. This has included wilderness experiences (Greenway, 1995; Harper, 1995), internet courses and workshops with experiential exercises on how to reconnect with nature (Cohen, 1997), deep ecology workshops for groups (Macy & Brown, 1998) participation in environmental activist groups (O’Conner, 1995), and habitat restoration work (Shapiro, 1995). There may be agreement among ecopsychologists that direct, non-mediated, non-verbal experiences with nature are both therapeutic for the individual having the experience and essential if the person is to become committed to living in harmony with the earth. There is a perceived need for a language which is non-dualistic (Greenway, 1995) or nature-connected (Cohen, 1997).

A second focus for ecopsychology, which it shares with deep ecology, has been an emphasis on small group, community, and face-to-face contact as a way to change ecologically significant behaviour and establish healthier relationships. Because of this emphasis on individual or local community change, behavioural psychology (Dwyer, et. al., 1993) and popular education (Freire, 1990) seem to be consistent with other ecopsychological approaches even when they do not share a concern for the experience of nature. Some social psychological approaches to environmentalism have also been effective (Stern, 1992), but they may be more problematic due to their prior use by the advertising industry.

A third feature of ecopsychology seems to be a near consensus that healing the relationship between person and planet must take place on several levels. While the individual’s spiritual development is seen as a central aspect of making a connection, family, community, economic, political, and cultural factors are seen as being significant. In its emphasis on ecology and relationship, ecopsychology seems to reject dynamic psychology’s traditional emphasis on the individual self and scientific psychology’s mode of explanation in terms of simple cause-effect relationships.

A fourth feature shared by most ecopsychologists is the belief that the idea of the Self in contemporary psychology and culture is inadequate. There seems to be a consensus among ecopsychologists that we need a concept of the Self which is relational and inclusive. Various similar concepts have been put forward by different writers, for example the ecological self (Roszak, 1992), a psyche the size of the earth (Hillman, 1995), the more-than-human self (Conn, 1995), or the primal matrix (Glendinning, 1994).

Future directions

Having broadly and openly defined the field, it is difficult to know what to make of it. When we look at what ecopsychologists have actually said and written, we can see that the field has psychotherapeutic, behavioural, cultural, spiritual, and social dimensions (Reser, 1995). Following Shepard’s (1982) lead, psycho-prehistory and sociobiology have been influential in the thinking of many ecopsychologists. Is it possible to reconcile these views and create a coherent field, or is ecopsychology destined to divide into mutually exclusive camps the way many other areas of psychology and social science have done? Will ecopsychology continue to have a broad, diverse focus or will it become a narrow academic discipline?

Will mainstream psychology notice the environment? Will behavioural work go beyond recycling and carpooling to some of the core behaviours in the consumer society? Will social marketing address the cultural bases of the ecological crisis? How does ecopsychology relate to the environmental movement, deep ecology, psychotherapy? Is ecopsychology subversive? Is ecopsychology useful? These and other issues seem to be worth exploring.


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Natural Philosophy and Spiritual Praxis Re-envisioned

Written by Carl Golden
August 24, 2011

Over the last 35 years, I sought experiences, insight, knowledge, and wisdom to aid me in my own journey of maturation and discovery. Consequentially, my life became a gestation of religious, spiritual, psychological, ecological, evolutionary, social, political and cultural information. Now, this long gestation is giving birth to a personal synthesis of natural history, philosophy, psychology and spiritual praxis that is aligned with other similar syntheses, known as Ecopsychology (Roszak) and PsychEcology (Egger).  I believe these various syntheses are essential for the future of healthy human culture in harmony with Nature. 

Fundamentally, this synthesis recognizes that Nature and Psyche are correllates — as goes one, so goes the other. Ugly, hostile cultures will reduce Eden to a wasteland, and the ecological poverty of wastelands produce depraved persons and cultures. So, it is important that we align ourselves with truth, beauty, and goodness, which arise as basic functional patterns of ecological, psychological, and social health and wisdom.

Indeed, functional patterns are reiterated throughout the Cosmos with primordial congruency. For instance, the viabilityof an atom is sustained by energetic forces, which constitute boundaries that define appropriate relations with other atoms and space itself. Such is the case for molecules, cells, organelles, organisms, species, societies, ecosystems, biomes, the biosphere, solar systems, galaxies, and our psyches, too. There are numerous correlating patterns, and understanding these patterns and honoring their respective and related functions is important, especially in fostering health and wisdom, because they define the Way to live in balance with our selves, families, society, and Nature.

Furthermore, the scientific worldview is beginning to recognize that these patterns and systems of patterns are forms of consciousness. Atoms are atomic consciousness. Molecules are molecular consciousness. Cells are cellular consciousness. Humans are human consciousness. Everything is aware because everything is an expression of, a participant in, and related through an absolute ground or field of pure being-energy-awareness, which is commonly referred to as God.

This view has enormous implications for natural philosphy and spiritual praxis, especially in regard to evolution, which can no longer be understood only in terms of natural history. Evolution is sacred story, as well. It is the modern myth of creation and of divine incarnation. It is the story of how Spirit is having Cosmic experiences, and how the Cosmos is spiritually awakening.

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The Spiral Progression: Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis

Written by Carl Golden
August 23, 2011

The Elan Vital (or life force) is ancient and evergreen — perennially emerging within the spiraling evolutionary progression of life and culture. Although it is primordial, it was first given cultural expression in ancient Animism.

The Animistic worldview, which is the original thesis of human culture, is profoundly respectful of Nature because Animists worshipped the powerful numinous in Nature. The world was deeply spiritual and personal. All of our distant ancestors walked and talked with the gods, goddesses, and fellow creatures of land, sea, and sky. They revered the Dragon, which symbolized the Elan Vital, and Life was enchanted and beautiful. However, there was much ignorance, superstition, brutality, and fear of our environs, too, that created much suffering.

As human knowledge and technology advanced, most societies around the globe progressively abandoned — more or less — the Animistic paradigm, which had become overly burdened and corrupted by superstitions that were intellecually stifling, and developed or adopted over generations and centuries increasingly rational explanations of reality.

The penultimate rational explanation is the scientific paradigm, which is the antithesis of the animistic view because it has historically viewed reality in merely materialistic terms. The scientific paradigm radically changed the world through scientifically generated knowledge and technology that gave us more control over our environments and vastly enriched our lives in many ways: materially, economically, socially, artistically, intellectually, etc.

Today, however, we have begun to realize that we threw the baby out with the bath water, which is to say we threw out the Sacred with the superstitious. The rational, materialistic worldview seeks to harness the power of the Elan Vital and subjugate it.  This view is too reductionistic to appreciate the Sacred, which is essential to our physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and ecological health. Rational materialism is prone to reducing trees to board feet and people to units of production. This worldview fundamentally alienates us from the roots of our humanity. Indeed, it is sickening our souls and the soil, eroding our political and social discourse, and destroying the Web of Life. Consequentially, more and more people are hungering for a deeper, spiritual way to live — a way that feeds the soul, nurtures the heart, inspires the mind, respects the vital principle of the Elan Vital, and respects the precious communion of the kingdoms of life that comprise the biosphere.

The way forward must be a soulful synthesis of sacred enchantment and rational science. This calls for a renaissance of natural philosophy that reclaims the sacred ground rather than repudiates it because there is no argument between intuition and reason except for in the hearts and minds of men and women who are still held captive by the prison of dualism.

 Ironically, science has recently begun to discover phenomena that reveal fundamental and universal principles of consciousness, interiority, and communion, which are hallmarks of ancient Animism. We are beginning to understand within many scientific fields that the creative genius of the Cosmos is implicated in the self-emerging Cosmic order itself. As the Animists knew intuitively, the Rationalists are discovering empirically: the material is spiritual. Nature is the body of the divine.

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