Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind.

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Psyche meets Gaia
Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind.

THEODORE ROSZAK, MARY E. GOMES and ALLEN D. KANNER, eds.Sierra Club Books, 1995

ECOPSYCHOLOGY: Restoring The Earth, Healing The Mind brings together the fields of ecology and psychology to create a whole vision of health, which includes our relationship to the Earth, to our community and to ourselves. Western psychology has tended to focus on individual human growth as if we were separate both from one another and from the Earth. As James Hillman has said, psychotherapy is all about going ” in” , and it is time to look beyond the ” in-dividual” to the structures, political and ecological, within which we live.

In Ecopsychology, several contributors write about how they incorporate an awareness of close connections with the Earth, its natural rhythms and cycles, either within the individual psychotherapeutic relationship, or in wilderness experiences. Psychotherapists are urged not to personalize and therefore discount the expressions of despair and pain which people bring to therapy about the situation of the world.

Those of us who have been brought up in the West will find it hard not to fall into viewing the world as if our own ego were its centre. The Dalai Lama has been shocked at the extent of damage in Western people, at their hatred of themselves, at the degree of their self-grasping. This is the healing that needs to happen. We need to learn to let go, to find compassion for ourselves and the world.

It is the perception of our own identity which allows us to discount the needs of the planet. Laura Sewall writes, ” perception, consciousness and behaviour are as radically interdependent as the rest of our biosphere. Thus, perceptual shifts alter consciousness, consciousness alters behaviour, and even unconscious leanings alter perception. Given our blatant need for ecologically conscious and consistent behaviour, the development of skilful ways of seeing offers a direct path for consciousness intervention and behavioural change.”

Several writers focus on the illusion of separateness and the reality of the relationship of all beings and all experience. Mary Gomes and Allen D. Kanner, feminist psychologists, argue that ” it is impossible not to interact with and depend upon the people, trees, rocks and wildlife around us, the air we breathe, and the patterns of the seasons.” They identify our futile attempt to separate as being the driving force behind our need to control and dominate the world.

” Domination becomes a way to deny dependence, a dependence that has been culturally defined as a failure and a humiliation, rather than as a natural and inevitable part of life….by dominating the biosphere and attempting to control natural processes, we can maintain the illusion of being radically autonomous.”

SO HOW DOES the desensitization process which is creating so much havoc in our world take shape? When we are told repeatedly that we are in danger of losing our world and that of our children, that we are exploiting animals and endangering whole species, why do we not just stop? Why is it not that easy? Chellis Glendenning points to our experience of the traumatic violation of our relationship to the Earth as one which is so deeply shocking that the only way we know how to bear it is to dissociate – to split off our painful experience and become unaware of it. This is how we can understand ourselves acting in ways which would otherwise be incomprehensible. Our loss of the primary source of satisfaction, our relationship to the Earth, leads us to become addicted to secondary sources, like drugs, violence, alcohol and machines.

As we dissociate we repress whole arenas of experience and shut down our full perception of the world.

It is relatively easy to have visions of how things might be better. An enquiry into the nature of our current reality is the first step. Making progress towards a better way of being comes from daring to look honestly at how things are, however painful and shocking that experience might be. Joanna Macey writes about her despair and empowerment work clearly and vividly. She talks of our image of ourselves as separate, powerful beings, which makes us reluctant to see those areas where we do not have ultimate control. Instead we focus only on the narrow band of experience where our perception is echoed by reality, where we do indeed appear to be in charge. This ” anaesthetization” affects all aspects of our lives, dulling our experiences of joy as well as of sorrow and despair.

Joanna sees our ability to register pain at what is happening to the Earth as a measure of our evolution as open systems. Rather than viewing power as ability to push other beings around, she suggests another kind of power which comes from the same source as our pain – in the interconnectedness of all beings. This kind of power requires ” openness, vulnerability and readiness to change” .

However, there is a challenge to ecologists and ecopsychologists from Carl Anthony in an interview with Theodore Roszak. Carl sees the field as limited by its Eurocentric perspectives ” in the same way that the environmental movement as a whole has been blind to environmental racism.” He challenges us to experience ” the beauty of living in a multi-cultural neighbourhood, the beauty of people from different places who have different stories. But the word beauty in the environmental movement is almost entirely reserved for natural, non-human beautiful things.”

The book contains many outstanding essays. It is introduced by Lester Brown and James Hillman and the first chapter is by Theodore Roszak who writes, ” Psychology needs ecology and ecology needs psychology.” The challenges and insights of this book are relevant to us all.

Maxine Linnell is a psychotherapist and a teacher of psychotherapy.

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