Merging Art Therapy and Applied Ecopsychology
for Enhanced Therapeutic Benefit

By Dr Theresa Sweeney, PhD, EdD, Applied Ecopsychology

At the center of Earth is ‘art.’

'Earth' without 'art' is just 'eh'

Reflecting on written research and personal experience in the fields of Art Therapy and Applied/Integrated Ecopsychology, I came to this proposal during my doctoral studies in Applied Ecopsychology: that both disciplines could be further enhanced by combining their techniques in therapeutic practice. Overcoming the obstacles that often arise in traditional 'talk' therapies where patients sometimes have trouble reaching deep feelings through verbal language, is the foundation upon which both art therapy and Ecopsychology are built. Integrating the healing benefits of both modalities in order to strengthen the beneficial effects of each made sense. I pioneered a new blended discipline, Eco-Art Therapy, and developed a handbook of fun, original art and nature activities that anyone, anyplace can use for self-discovery and wellness. I work and now offer online accredited certification in Eco-Art Therapy.

Many folks find that words are often inadequate to express their inner most thoughts and feelings so they are turning to alternative forms of self-understanding and analysis. Art Therapy and Applied Ecopsychology are two methods used in psychological counseling which seek the same outcome as conventional 'talk therapy'--personal insight, conflict resolution, inner healing and self-discovery--but which go beyond a purely rational discussion of the issues troubling clients. Both therapies attempt to address the gaps in more conventional verbal counseling through a mediated exchange, via art or nature, of information between the repressed areas of one's personal psyche and his conscious thoughts.

A deeply felt wordless connection in Nature, or with an image can facilitate the surfacing of a chain of subconscious emotions and memories. It is often easier for people to contact underlying hidden beliefs through an art or nature experience than it is through analysis with their rational mind. This is not surprising to researchers and psychologists who are discovering that stories built from the sensory-disconnected use of words are what cause a patient pain, leading him or her to seek therapy in the first place. Simply talking about the problem can further intellectualize and distance one from their emotions.

The Root Of Psycological Dysfunction – the Old Brain/New Brain Split

Researchers have discovered that verbal memories are stored in the left side of the brain (what ecopsychology refers to as the "new brain") and imagistic associations of all the emotions we've experienced are stored in the right side of the brain (our primitive "old brain"). According to Ecopsychologists, the psychological split between the old brain and the new brain has its origin in modern man's unacknowledged, mental disconnection from nature, his broken bond with the earth. Ecopsychology is based upon the belief that a culturally induced, unconscious, mental separation of people from the health sustaining, nonverbal wisdom of the natural world within and around them underlies the environmental problems and many of the emotional disorders from which we suffer. In the aftermath of the industrial, technical and communication revolutions, we have lost touch with much of nature's ancient wordless wisdom inherent within ourselves, but we don't know we miss it because our innovations convince us that we can live without it. Despite the conviction of many wedded to the story that humans were created to subdue and dominate nature, man is only one thread in the connected web of life. As we destroy other threads, we destroy ourselves. If we can recover a sense of oneness with our world, Ecopsychologists, explain, we become better environmental stewards of our home and of ourselves.

The psychological split between the old brain and the new brain (between conscious thought and felt reality) which an Art Therapist seeks to bridge, according to Ecopsychologists, has its origin in modern man’s unacknowledged, mental disconnection from nature, his broken bond with the earth. Ecopsychology is based upon this belief--that a culturally induced, unconscious, mental separation of people from the health sustaining, nonverbal wisdom of the natural world within and around ourselves underlies the environmental problems we face and many of the emotional disorders from which we suffer. In the aftermath of the industrial, technical and communication revolutions, we have lost touch with much of nature’s ancient wordless wisdom inherent within ourselves, but we don’t know we miss it because our innovations convince us that we can live without it. Despite the conviction of many wedded to the story that humans were created to subdue and dominate nature, man is only one thread in the connected web of life. As we destroy other threads, we destroy ourselves. If we can recover a sense of oneness with our world, Ecopsychologists, explain, we become better environmental stewards of our home and of ourselves.

"We believe in the principles of applied ecopsychology, and that personal wellness is achievable through building holistic connections and awareness between self and environment" (from the Mission Statement of CRROBS - The Costa Rica Rainforest Outward Bound School)

Dr. Michael Cohen, Ed.D., is a prominent thinker in the field of Ecopsychology. Cohen is founder and Executive Director of Project NatureConnect, an environmentally-centered education program. He has been living, learning, and teaching a nature-centered lifestyle for over 35 years. Cohen states that while the new brain makes up only about 13% of the total human brain, Western culture trains us to know our world mainly through it alone. We are taught to ignore the non-verbal signals received by 87% of our brain's total capacity for interpreting our environment (Cohen 1997, p.94) and as a result, people today, spend about 95% of their lives out of sensory contact with nature.

Our indoor society teaches us to process life through its nature-disconnected stories, symbols and labels--we call this thinking. Man, however, part of nature, was born thinking holistically, like nature thinks--with input from an expansive variety of felt senses, not just the rational mind.

Art Therapy arose in an attempt to bridge this split-brain dichotomy. Scientists postulate that imagery is the body-mind's internal form of communication. The body responds to an image of a thought or an idea first, before it responds to the words that describe that thought or idea. If emotions are held in the body-mind as images, then imagery rather than words would be the most direct route for establishing connection with the old brain and the emotions stored there (Gelb 1998, p. 5).

How Words Distance People From Sensual Reality
In his book, The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram argues that the modern day ecologically insensitive, emotionally painful culture in which we find ourselves is a direct result of man's learning how to write. As Larry Parks Daloz writes in a review of Abram's book, "We began to lose the vital connection, the sense of participatory, when we invented writing. And things got steadily worse as we increasingly shifted the focus of 'truth' from our direct experience to sacred texts." (Daloz 1998) Abram argues that all real knowledge comes to us through our body and our direct, personal sensory participation with the world. "To the body, the world is not 'object'. There is no 'me' apart from an 'other'. Everything is animate for the sensing body. Touch a tree and the tree is touching you back. That we no longer know this is part of the tragedy." (Daloz 1998)

"Through thousands of years of conditioning absorbed by osmosis since the day we were born, we have succeeded in creating this incredibly pervasive illusion of separation from nature." (Seed 1994).

Language, according to Abram, developed as a form of participation with the world, not merely a symbolic observation of it. But soon, letters and words became destructive to the connected way people were living and humans developed a sense of self that was isolated from their immediate experience. "When the Greeks appropriated the Semantic alphabet--a system still reflecting the local terrain--they inadvertently created a framework of knowing (the ‘text’) that was wholly independent of its geographical context. The result was the birth of the ‘reflective self’ and the flowering of the Platonic vision in which ‘truth’ was purely abstract, forever set off from the ‘merely material’. In any case, we all know the rest. Life no longer resides in the landscape, the rocks, the air. Magic is dead. And we are free to savage the earth" (Daloz 1998) After many centuries of Judeo-Christian conditioning, we now inhabit what ecopsychologist, John Seed calls ‘artificial, socially conditioned personalities’. (Seed 1994)

Another author, David Jardine, who wrote the Ecopedagogical Essay, "Under the Tough Old Stars", expresses similar argument. "[His writing challenges] Rene Descartes' dictum that reality is made up of ‘substances’, things that require nothing outside themselves to exist. This Cartesian understanding, which underlies modern science, technology, and education, is "an ecological nightmare," says Jardine, because it forces us to approach any subject of knowledge by "severing its relations and forcing it to stand alone under the colonizing gaze of objectivism." Humans have grown accustomed to seeing themselves as separate life forms apart from the council of natural beings from which they get their very existence.

Dallas art therapist Ms. Linda L. McCarley, founder and director of the Art Therapy Institute and currently serving on the Educational Program Approval Board of the American Art Therapy Association, says that society usually expects us to deal with its reality even when we are not internally convinced of what that is. She says that often when we describe our dreams and emotions we use verbal expression to conform to what we think we should be saying and feeling. Society wrangles a person into feeling conflicted between wanting and needing to express his natural, authentic self and donning the false mask he must wear to conform to cultural pressures. His true being gets buried under nature-disconnected words and labels to the point where he is no longer consciously functioning with natural integrity. To argue her point, McCarley paraphrases "Picasso [who] said every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain one after growing up."

In the same vein, Ecopsychologists argue that every child is born sensually whole and bonded to the Earth. The problem as they see it, is how to remain nature-connected in cultures which thwart and break inherent sensory bonds before the child has any idea he ever had them. In both art therapy and ecopsychology, the underlying question is the same--How to help one recover an integrated sense of themselves in an indoor verbal playground--in an artificial cultural reality lacking natural integrity and threatening self-esteem because it doesn’t match one’s own internal authentic knowingness.

Therapies Rooted in History
Both Ecopsychology and Art Therapy are relatively new forms of therapy. Lay people tend to think of art therapy as simply arts and crafts, however, today it is formally recognized as a licensable, therapeutic discipline and includes the use of all forms of art from drama, music, and dancing, to painting and sculpture. The development of art therapy as a profession dates back to the recent 1940’s, the decade in which Margaret Naumburg began publishing her work. Applied Ecopsychology is even more recent and still not yet a licensable form of counseling. Despite their modern day appeal, some may argue their newness, since many indigenous peoples have been living their concepts throughout history.

The roots of both art therapy and ecopsychology extend as far back as prehistory and into primitive human cultures. Art is man’s most primary means of human communication--from ancient times until today, people have used pictures, symbols, dance, music, drama and other art forms to convey thoughts of the world around them. The Bible is full of references that show people using both the arts and nature for healing purposes long before either were formally describable. The book of Samuel shows an early example of using the arts for therapy by discussing David’s attempt to cure King Saul’s depression by playing the harp for him. Similarly, the Bible contains many stories about Jesus retreating to nature presumably to gather strength and insight. A quote from the book of Job 12:8 states, "Speak to the Earth and it will teach thee."

Ancient peoples lived close to the land out of pure physical necessity and they therefore recognized their connection with all forms of life, from spiders to birds to trees to mountains. They enjoyed the integrity, love and spirit of the nature within and around themselves. Spoken stories, when used, matched the natural truths that people experienced firsthand from their direct observations of how nature works. The truths these indigenous people communicated with each other were symbolized in their pictures and drawings that retained the essence of their observations. Pictures did not, do not lie.

Psychological Re-integration
Are we then to turn our backs on the last 10,000 years of cultural conditioning and burn our books- including The Spell of the Sensuous? Of course not, says Abram. The genie is long gone. But we need to move towards a "way of thinking that strives for rigor without forfeiting our animal kinship with the world...a style that associates truth not with static fact, but with a quality of relationship." (264). "There can be no question of simply abandoning literacy," he adds later, "...Our task, rather, is that of taking up the written word, with all of its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land." (273) (Daloz 1998)

Abram says that the abstract, disconnected way that modern man thinks need not be the way it is. He says that there are ways of speaking which can restore some of what we have lost. Quoting poet Randall Jarrell he believes that we must induce people to "fall in love outwards" with the land through personal identification with stories which identify with sensed reality. It follows then, that before the writing of these new stories is possible, one must first find ways of getting in touch with his/her authentic, nonverbal inner voice. Using one’s own internal feedback as reality, he or she can then begin to wrap new words around it and create new verbal truths. While traditional ‘talk therapies’ use words in an attempt to uncover feelings, the primary goal in both art therapy and ecopsychology is to use felt truths to uncover appropriate words. They work with tangible products which symbolize one’s inner world. Whether it be through facilitating one’s own creative process or personally felt connection to nature, both therapies seek to help individuals find truths outside themselves that are actually truths inside themselves and then to reintegrate these truths into their own personal verbal stories. The lasting benefits of these forms of therapy come when the clients are able to have their insights and feelings witnessed and supported by others. This enables them to trust their own experiences and validates their new, more life-sustaining stories which then can replace the old ones which brought them into therapy.

Patients are often surprised to discover the depth of ecopsychology and art therapy and how simple, yet effective, these techniques are for self-discovery and healing.

The client need not have any prior experience or skills to benefit from either of these two therapies. In art therapy, the emphasis is placed on empowering the individual to heal him/herself through exploration of their own artwork and self-interpretation of it. Similarly, Ecopsychologists, such as Dr. Michael Cohen, empower people by giving them the tools for direct personal communication with nature via their own sensory signals and self-interpretation of them. Cohen developed and teaches a nature reconnection process called the Natural Systems Thinking Process (NSTP). It addresses the question: "How does nature work to achieve its equilibrium and perfection, and how can people integrate those ways into our thinking and into our lives?" He has identified 50 nonverbal old brain senses which people share to some degree with all other living organisms. Through fun activities done in conjunction with Nature, people can get back in touch with these ancient, inherited senses, most of which through our word-biased education system have become buried inside us.

Benefits of Merging The Two Therapeutic Techniques

"Art, nature, the human body, and the human psyche are so intimately related that it is impossible to think of one without being reminded of the other." (McLuhan 1994, p.33)

The need for creative self-expression and a love for nature are two of man’s inherent drives. A therapy which incorporates both can provide the motivation and enthusiasm for healing often lacking in other therapeutic situations.

Safety and trust are big obstacles, which must be overcome for any client/therapist relationship to be successful. Creativity does not happen unless a person feels safe from outside interpretation and judgment. Unlike Applied Ecopsychology, traditional uses of art therapy take places indoors. It is currently offered in a variety of facilities--public and private schools, correctional institutions, residential centers for elderly and addicts, medical and rehabilitative hospitals, and independent practices. Since it seeks the same goals as ecopsychology, one may argue that art therapy, when done outdoors, where the patient is surrounded and nurtured by nature’s integrity and unconditional love, would be more effective. Often it takes some time to build up enough trust with a therapist in order for a patient to feel safe expressing his or her deep emotions. By holding an art therapy session outdoors, this issue can be ameliorated. With the unconditional love that is often missing in personal human relationships, Nature provides a safe place for catharsis. Being outdoors in nature’s world where degrees don’t matter, puts the patient/therapist hierarchy on more even ground, thus the possibly that the patient would feel less judged.

Another aspect of art therapy is that it affords the opportunity for private rituals to evolve around the art. Healing is powerful when these rituals involve nature. For example, a clay sculpture made in response to the death of a loved one can be placed by the sea to dissolve with the tide. An angry image can be burned or smashed against the rocks. Such actions can provide enormous freeing emotional relief when they involve nature.

Reciprocally, Ecopsychology could be enhanced by the principles of art therapy. A goal of Ecopsychologists is to help awaken one’s dormant senses. Making art can help with that. Creativity and aesthetic appreciation is one of the 53 inherited natural sense groups which Cohen identifies in his work (Cohen 1997, p.49). Nurturing our creative expression can assist the awakening and sharpening all of the senses and can help to make one feel more fully alive and passionate about life. In art making, many different senses become actively involved in the process, helping the person to feel more whole and connected to his world. Peggy Jenkins, Ph.D., author and founder of the nonprofit educational service organization called Joyful Child, whose purpose is to honor and awaken the essence of natural joy in children and adults, writes; "As (people) become more sensitive to the things they draw and the materials they use, their senses are sharpened and they become more aesthetically sensitive to their environment." (Jenkins 1980, p. 18). For Leonardo Da Vinci, "drawing was much more than illustration, it was the key to understanding creation and creativity." (Gelb 1998. p. 263)

In an email response to a student taking one of Cohen’s nature reconnecting courses, Cohen stated, "Over half our senses register through the sense of sight as part or all of their expression." To Da Vinci, the eye was truly the window of the soul, and as he emphasized repeatedly, "the chief means whereby the understanding may most fully and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of nature." (Gelb 1998, p.96) Experiences in art, according to Jenkins, help to increase this visual power. She states, "We never see the shape of anything--a shell, a dish, a rock, a pet, more than when we are drawing it." (Jenkins 1980, p. 19)

Strengthening visual awareness not only awakens other senses and enriches a person’s own life, it connects him on a deeper level to the entire life web, also a goal of Ecopsychologists. "Vivid imagery can offset the emphasis on verbal thinking that is found in the traditional educational curriculum." (Jenkins 1980, p. 19) In her book, Freeing the Creative Spirit, Adriana Diaz, a holistic art teacher writes:
"This type of seeing is an intentional personal engagement. It is an act of spiritual intimacy, a more profound interaction with the world than most of us have ever known. Learning to see and to know communion with creatures, things, and other people can liberate us from the imprisonment of alienation on a personal and global level. When we see ourselves as separate creatures fighting for survival, we devour animals, trees, water, even space, without concern or awareness of our effect. The experience of drawing ... suddenly awakens the eye and the mind to the sacred vitality of the Earth and our connection to all life forms." (Diaz 1992, p. x)

Jenkins agrees, stating, "This sharper visual awareness can carry over into an expanded awareness of the world in general," which, according to Jenkins, "makes the aesthetically trained person a better judge of the environmental needs of the world." (Jenkins 1980, p.19)

People of diverse ages, faiths and cultures are brought together through the shared language of art and nature which holds true to our ancestral traditions; respects and honors our differences and highlights our common bonds. The sacred connection of all creation, felt by us through our artwork and personal experiences in nature, will help us bring ancient natural wisdom to the new cultural story, bettering ourselves and the world in which we live. Combining both art and nature in therapeutic practice is recommended.

About the author: Dr. Theresa Sweeney is an experienced Eco-Art therapist, consultant, artist, and author of Owl Winks and Forest Songs - Finding Wellness in Nature's Wisdom. Her interest is on infusing traditional psychology with nature-based practical spirituality and art. She works with individuals and groups to promote self-knowledge through a unique set of experiential art and nature activities, which she developed and continues to refine. She writes a column about the art of nature-connecting in the periodical, Stone Voices and is the Dean of the Applied Ecopsychology Department at Akamai University, Hilo, Hawaii.

Dr. Sweeney offers online accredited certification and CE training in Eco-Art Therapy

She can be reached at:
Dr. Theresa Sweeney
2500 East Ave, Suite 6Z
Rochester, NY 14610

For more information on Dr. Michael Cohen’s Natural Systems Thinking Process (NSTP), designed for reconnection with Nature, please visit

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