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Experiential Ecopsychology:
by Sylvie Shaw

Ecopsychology is a process of making connection between nature and outselves. It is aimed at developing personal insight and transformation as well as intimacy with the natural world. As we create relationship with the surrounding environment and learn to see ourselves as part of the web of life, we beging to lose the fetters of the western worldview which regards humans as separate and above nature. Losing ourselves in the heady aroma of sun-warmed ferns, in the massage of the ocean waves or delighting in watching small birds chatter and play can loosen the narrow worldview and bring closer to nature and to a more fundamental human nature. At the core of Ecosychology are the spiritual, ethical and moral questions about who we are and how we want to live in the world.In this discussion I review aspects of Experiential Ecopsychology which can assist us in this quest.

Conn (1998:192) advocates that individuals can be helped by connecting with their 'home landscape' as well as by becoming aware of the interactions within the wider ecosystem. She says this process enables individuals to become more responsible for their own journey of growth and healing. The same aim is apparent within the various approaches of experiential ecopsychology such as wilderness and adventure therapy (Leenders & Henderson, 1991; Miles, 1993; Greenway, 1995, 1996; Harper, 1995); landscape restoration work (Shapiro, 1995; Davis, 1998); rites of passage practices in nature such as vision quests (Foster & Little, 1989); or simply spending meaningful time communing with nature (Baetz, 1997; Swanson, 2000). All these practices use some aspect or symbol from nature to stimulate reflection of one's larger life's purpose or to reveal a different way of seeing a particular issue. They are based on the assumption that there are a number of elements which in combination act to help the person find insight and a new direction for their lives. In mainstream psychology healing emerges through the interaction between therapist and client. In ecopsychology, a number of additional players become part of the therapeutic relationship. They include:

1. The kind of naturescape and climatic conditions experienced. Sensual and emotional responses differ whether we are in open country or enclosed forest, desert or tropics, stormy or sunny weather (Gallagher, 1993).

2. The therapist, facilitator or 'guide for the journey' (Henderson, 1999).

3. The participant's own issues and experiences that they bring to the relationship or session.

4. A particular object in nature or a natural phenonomen which can reflect or mirror an aspect of one‚s life (Brelin-Becchio, 1999).

5. The transpersonal or transcendent dimension which, when tapped into, can lead to profound personal transformation (Maslow, 1964; E. Roberts, 1998).

Cock (1996) terms this process of encountering nature and aspects of our own natures as "being and becoming in nature". "Being through nature" can come about by sitting quietly in the outdoors and just 'be-ing'. These quiet reflective moments open up a path of communication to the wider world where we can get in touch with our inner natures and begin to understand who we really are. In this way, being through nature is a time of healing and restoration. "Becoming through nature" assumes that the earth has something to teach us about ourselves and our relationship with it. Cock (ibid.:3) describes the process as one of observing and taking note of how we feel in nature, seeing "attributes of ourselves highlighted in the characteristics of plants, animals and elements, such as the hardness of rocks, the slipperiness of fish, the piercing eye of an eagle, the persistence of a wombat". These metaphors then become messages for personal reflection and self-transformation where the role of the therapist can help "reinforce perceptions of change" and weave the experiences into the stories of people‚s lives (Luckner & Nadler, 1995: 176). However, there is no guarantee that this process will lead directly or indirectly to environmental action, although the person may gain a deeper awareness about themselves and a deeper understanding of the connection that binds them to the natural world. Davis (1998:95) maintains that either outcome is relevant as the experience itself, if practiced "regularly over a long period of time is a potent spiritual practice". For Davis, the process of "being and becoming in nature" takes on the mantle of ritual.

The learning and healing that occurs while communing with nature is also the idea behind the growing number of do-it-yourself manuals and training courses dedicated to unlocking our 'animal senses' or 'wild selves' and developing environmental 'sense and sensibility' (e.g. Swan, 1992; Clinebell, 1996; Devereux, 1996; Cohen, 1998; Swanson, 2000). Their aim is to foster a connection with the earth so that any information or message we receive from nature at an unconscious level is brought to bear more directly on the conscious. Swan (1992:246), for example, suggests we go out into nature, barefoot, dressed in natural fabrics; sit quietly and breathe deeply, becoming aware of how our body feels as it makes contact with the earth. A resonance builds up between us and nature which can be acknowledged intellectually and experienced without words. It is an embodied visceral knowing that transcends the distinction between the inner and outer landscapes. Feelings of bliss, awe and wonder may arise; we may receive visions or connect in some way with elements in the surrounding naturescape such as plants and animals, insects and rocks; we may have vivid dreams that change the way we see the world and ourselves. These experiences can lead to self-transformation, growth and healing.

The potency of ecopsychological practice lies in the connections made and the action taken from the messages, dreams and visions that are received from nature. Baetz (1998:3) believes these kinds of experiences can "bring a spiritual and emotional (even a mystical) component not just to our personal lives, but to the modern environment movement as well". But this kind of self-therapy in nature, however beneficial, does not necessarily address the radical perspective of ecopsychology which critically addresses the assumptions of Western culture and attempts to break through the illusion of separateness. It may help the person to feel better and even help pave the way for an ecological consciousness or ecological self. At least this is the intention of the "sensory ecology" work of Michael Cohen (1999b). Cohen, like the deep ecologists I discussed earlier, believes that connecting with nature "lets the natural world itself teach us to revere nature in ourselves, others and the environment and we naturally refrain from hurting that which we hold sacred". I was to be reminded of this in quite an unusual way.

It was mid-winter. I wanted to do some quiet reflecting and as the ground was wet, I decided to climb into a very tall deciduous tree. The branches looked inviting, bare of leaves but not devoid of life. After I had been sitting for a while leaning up against the trunk, almost sleeping, I heard a voice tell me not to be too hard on European trees. "If you believe in cultural diversity", the voice said, "you should also believe in horticultural diversity". It was a poignant lesson as I have long been an advocate of planting only native species. It seemed as if the tree was teaching me a lesson about tolerance and understanding. But while I was excited about the message from the tree, I was also aware of the danger of using "plant-multiculturalism" as an argument to justify planting exotics which may subsequently escape and go rampant in the bush (Lowry, 1999). A more ecologically-sound solution is to restore native vegetation which encourages the native wildlife to return. In ecopsychological terms, restoring the land also restores the life and soul of the people. Shapiro (1995:237) maintains revegetation projects give people who are pessimistic about the state of the earth "a positive vision of a healthier world" as well as a collective experience "of working together with the immense regenerative powers of the natural world". This assists both individual and community renewal and the experiences of the nature carers affirms the strength of such communal actions.

Touching the Earth

Sensing the land. The textures. The colours. The patterns in the sand. The breath of wind on the skin. The crunch of dry leaves under

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foot. The haunting sound of the raven. Finding meaning in the symbolic terrain. Ecopsychology teaches us to be sensitive to the landscape and responsive to it. To develop a relational way of seeing and being. To remember that the oxygen we breathe in has been breathed out by the trees, and our breaths flow together. We are tied to the natural world. A number of the participants recall that when they realized this direct and simultaneous "breathing relationship" their lives changed irrevocably. Jane, a science teacher and biologist in her 30s, admits that although she "had known about this connection for years and had even taught it in school", she had never fully realized its deeper significance. It was an empowering experience not only spiritually but in terms of her activism as well. Not long after "being breathed by the huge trees in the Exhibition Gardens", Jane travelled to Jabiluka and became heavily involved in the anti-uranium blockade there. She took on the role of one of the 'mothers' of the blockade and spent several months in and around the World Heritage area of Kakadu National Park and loved to observe the way the protesters from the cities down south would fall slowly into the rhythms of the land and be captivated by them.

Jane's sudden recognition of herself as interconnected with all lifeforms is an example of what Conn (1990:164) refers to as the "self-world connection". Conn contends that responsibility to help the world begins with such an experience of awareness.

Practice in directly sensing the world - hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting as well as seeing - enhances the human-Earth connection, thereby increasing the likelihood of involvement in social and environmental issues. Tapping into the emotional connection with the world, feelings of love and joy in its beauty on the one hand and feelings of concern about what's happening in and to it - despair, anger, fear - on the other, can provide an important source of energy as well as motivation for involvement (Conn, 1990:164).

What is especially relevant in Conn's words is that nature is not only a place to heal and be healed, it is also a place of joy and beauty, a quality that might be overlooked when faced with issues of personal and global concern. Her work as a therapist is engaged in raising the client‚s awareness to the relationship between personal healing and earth healing. This has led her to devise a step-by-step approach to shift consciousness from awareness to action, from individual responsiveness to environmental responsibility. Even getting her clients to take their shoes off and touch the bare earth is a simple step along the way. The first step is to get to know one's own neighbourhood and become aware of the impact of environmental damage there. Conn then gently guides her clients to an understanding of the wider issues involved. She helps them deal with any emotional issues such as any pain, grief or anger that might arise by encouraging them "to feel and engage rather than become numb and dulled" (Conn, 1991:73). The final step is taking action ˆ to live a more earth-friendly lifestyle or get involved in actions to protect the earth. Macy (1991:xii) explains how this process works to nurture both the self and the world.

Because the relationship between self and world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us. No need to wait. For in the co-arising nature of things, the world itself, if we are bold enough to love it, acts through us (Macy, 1991:xii).

Nature connecting is love in action. Sensuous love. Active love. Love grown out of intimate knowledge - getting your hands dirty, gutting a fish, planting a forest, going on pilgrimage, walking the dog, praying for earth healing, crying your heart out, blockading the destruction. Why the participants act is out of desire. And what they desire is, in part, a relational way of living in the world. It sounds idealistic and it is, but for the most part nature carers are pragmatists as well as romantics. They recognize that in addition to an intimate relationship with nature that social and economic change are also needed and they work in various ways towards both ends.

Simply Romantic Idealism?

When I first read the ecopsychology book edited by Roszak, Gomes and Kanner (1995), Ecopsychology. Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind I was overwhelmed by the romantic idealism of the project. Walk on the wild side, hike into a canyon, lie on the earth when it rains, respond to the seasons, be part of nature, dance on restoration projects, feel good, take part in ritual, listen to the wind - after a while, although I agree totally with the intention, the main push within ecopsychology began to smack of sentimentalism tinged with "New Age" self-help therapy. Wilson (1992:69) is also critical of feelings-oriented projects saying they are "naïve" and lead to a "depoliticizing effect", as they do not consider the wider social and historical picture. Bookchin (1995) agrees, pointing out that the shadow of romantic idealism can lead to fundamentalism and nationalism. But after interviewing the participants I have come to understand that romantic idealism is part of the project to heal the human-nature relationship. Ecologists, psychologists and ecopsychologists alike use expressions like: "attraction" (Cohen, 1998), "allurement" (Swimme, 1984), "attunement" (E. Gray, 1994), "love, sensitivity and beauty" (Hillman, 1993), "spiritual, ineffable" (Greenway, 1995), "rapture" (Cumes, 1998), "seeing the world with love eyes" (Sewall, 1995). In fact Sewall (1999:272) believes "that nothing less than love will move us enough to meet the challenges of our time".

Statements like these have been criticized as being anti-intellectual, anti-science and apolitical (Wilson, 1992; Haraway, 1990; Soper, 1995). But I believe that this is another dualistic projection. Why not embrace feelings with action, spirituality with ecology, emotions with politics, science with poetry, nature connecting with social critique? They are not mutually exclusive. What are we afraid of in uniting and integrating these perspectives? As I have argued above, ecopsychology is multifaceted - a critical discipline, a clinical practice, an action orientation, a research-based focus, a spiritual project, all facets linked by an engagement with nature. The destruction of nature is the result of a 'culturated' human nature and ecopsychology is directed at transforming both - harmed nature and human nature.

We are part of nature yet we need 'the otherness' of nature to remind us of our humanness. This otherness is the wild, a reflection of our own inner wildness. ... The wild has the power to teach and to delight but it also has the power to destroy. Nature writer Richard Nelson (1993:218) points out that: "We may be elevated by the beauty of nature, cling to it, crave to protect it, but we cleave to the coldness of stone, the storm that carries us away without knowing, the waters that kill without reason". The cycles of life and death through nature's beauty and awesome power are acknowledged by the nature carers. Eric is a retired engineer turned nursery worker who lives on the edge of the Victoria's magnificent alpine region. He sees "destruction as a natural force which has to take place to have a rebirth".

Eric (bushwalker and nursery person):
"I've been in bushfires and floods and I've seen the awesome power of nature. I've seen the awesome destruction and yes, the awesome rebirth. You are totally helpless. You can't do anything but it has to take place. I'm not saying I like destruction but there has to be a balance. It's like the tall trees which are so aloof looking down on you saying, 'What are you doing here? Have you asked permission to come here?' That is the land speaking to me."

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