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.