Ecotherapy: A Cultural Therapeutics for Coming Home

Speech at Bioneers, October 16, 2010

Craig Chalquist, PhD

A question I often put to graduate students examining the intersection of psychology and environment is, “What would it take to truly feel at home on this planet?”

Just as having a body doesn’t make you comfortably embodied, existing on Earth does not make you a dweller here. In his essay “A Native Hill,” Wendell Berry declared that we Americans have never really arrived, in any meaningful sense, in America. A country like America, a city like Jerusalem, a continent, even the planet itself can serve us as an ideology in the abstract, something to fight for and over and under and about; but to feel consciously and contentedly at home requires more: namely, a relationship. And relationships require responsibility, love, and work.

Fifteen years ago, pastoral counselor Howard Clinebell decided to involve aspects of nature in his couples counseling. He suggested that couples take arguments outside, walk on beaches together, let their senses come alive together. By doing this he noticed something not confinable to the psychotherapy office: that the more conscious contact people enjoyed with the natural world, the richer and deeper grew their relationship to the world as well as to each other. He coined the word “ecotherapy” to describe approaches that evolve our relationship to body, nature, senses, and place from one of alienated exploitation to one of loving conversation.

Why don’t we dwell on Earth? The reasons are not far to find. For millennia institutionalized authorities have told us that the world over which they piled up their power is illusory, a mere backdrop to divine dramas and purely human concerns. For the past four hundred years, the Industrial Revolution and reductionist scientism have reinforced this religious imperative by treating the world as a resource to mine, and to examine “objectively” from what seemed to be safe psychological distances. We are now learning that there are no such distances: that–as ongoing research plentifully indicates–what we do to the world we do to our own minds and bodies and perhaps even souls. At John F. Kennedy University I have just launched a hybrid Certificate in Ecotherapy and Sustainable Systems, part online but with well over a hundred hours offline, to study this interdependency in closer detail and to organize tools for ecotherapy practice.

In 2009, Linda Buzzell and I edited and published Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind, an anthology to show the public what doing ecotherapy looks like. The methods are diverse, going by names like horticultural therapy, therapy with animals, time-stress management, wilderness retreat work, even vision questing, environmental advocacy, and culture-dreaming. The research backing these methods gives ecotherapists the right to declare such work “evidence-based.” Going into the garden for some people has proven more of a mood elevator than psychotropic medication. Enhanced nature contact has been found to increase self-esteem, decrease anxiety, improve mood and impulse control, build confidence, create community, foster learning, focus attention, and even lower blood pressure, dementia confusion, and post-operative fatigue. Combat vets doing gardening and petting horses report improvement in post-traumatic stress. A study published last week indicates that just listening to nature sounds like chirping birds and croaking frogs eases spinal pain during bone marrow extractions. Listening to city sounds does not.

All the same, ecotherapy, a form of applied ecopsychology, does not disclose its full benefits if we only mine nature for its healthful effects. At the center of Clinebell’s practice stood what he called the ecological circle. This circle turned on three movements: receptivity to Earth’s healing influences; the direct experience of these influences; and giving something back to Earth by way of heartfelt response. Clinebell emphasized that we aren’t doing real ecotherapy unless we close the circle. The relationship with the natural world must be one of reciprocity (as Lester Brown insisted in the original ecopsychology anthology) for it to remain capable of healing anything or anyone.

Ecotherapy practices do not only sooth or revivify, they build relational bridges to the natural world from which we find ourselves estranged. The desolation of this estrangement when left in unconsciousness shows up as symptoms we tend to diagnose as signs of purely personal distress: psychic numbing, helplessness and overwhelm, inner emptiness, lack of satisfaction, and the impulsive eating, buying, and consuming that seduce us by seeming to offer a level of nature contact we no longer maintain. What if we were to liberate our efforts from symptom suppression and reimagine these symptoms as symbolic mine tailings and toxic runoffs, salinations and desertifications? Instead of “dysfunctions” in operating machinery, wouldn’t they take on the aspect of warnings that inner and outer languish and die together? That the dead zones spreading off our coasts correspond already to inner deadnesses?

It’s an old alchemical idea, and a permaculture idea too, that within the problem awaits its response. Perhaps our symptoms also suggest the need for a different relationship with matter. After all, it’s inaccurate to call Americans and Westerners “materialists”: from an ecotherapy standpoint, we actually suffer from unhappy dematerialism. We plan and purchase and consume and distract ourselves into the grave without pausing to relish the things we accumulate. Little wonder so many of us are easy victims to corporatization and monopolization on so vast a scale that it’s all but impossible to eat, dress, or travel without giving our money to a multinational. The giants and Titans have not stayed in books on mythology: today they run the planet.

Ecopsychology and ecotherapy agree that the heroic and reformist “fix-it” approach in so much discussion of sustainability, cleantech, and urban overhaul will remain superficial and even harmful unless we address the need to change our relationship to where we live and how we live here. I would even argue that fix-it thinking constitutes a defense against feelings of sorrow and responsibility for what is happening to the biosphere. The emotional distancing in fix-it discussions reminds me of couples who, afraid of the power of intimacy, and guilty about how deeply they’ve hurt one another, come to the therapist in search of techniques and cures instead of for more mature ways to relate to each other.

The drive to repair, adjust, and alleviate also disguises what the movement for environmental justice has so accurately documented time and again: that decaying cities, mass extinction, poisoned villages, and toxic factories in communities of color and Third World villages do not arise from technical malfunctions or lack of progress, but from deeply unjust power relations originating in unregulated opportunism, itself a product of what Vandana Shiva refers to as a monoculture of the mind.

By way of response, ecotherapy and ecopsychology push beyond the therapy office, the laboratory, the classroom, and the boardroom to offer a sustainable cultural therapeutics: a deepened analysis and healing of our collective wound of social and psychic uprootedness.

In our work we have found that a conscious and embodied relationship to things, to beings, to locales, and to Earth as a whole diminishes the thirst to consume and conquer. We have learned that putting gentle fingers in soil, sunlight, and fur diminishes the compulsion to hide in mental and virtual worlds as places of escape from the neglected landscapes around us.* We know that firmly grounded people tend to move the faith they might have placed in equivocating politicians, outmoded institutions, and charismatic gurus back into themselves where it belongs. And we see how sensitivity to both the ugliness and the beauty around us can make its own powerful stand on the side of the soul of the world.

What we need to do next is try all this out in communities busy dreaming themselves forward, aspiring to be places where people feel truly at home. For that we need your help.

* Now and them I am asked how knowledge of the humanities and the classics can prove useful. When cyber-addiction came into public awareness as our youngest and brightest spent hours online gaming and chatting, a vision arose within me of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, its imprisoned occupants taking the shadows and flickerings on the wall before them as true reality. So mesmerized were these half-asleep prisoners that the door of escape behind them remained invisible to the majority of them. It would be difficult to match that scene as an allegory of the end of modernity, and perhaps of Homo sapiens too.

© 2010 Craig Chalquist.