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The month of April saw the second launch of a follow-up to Natural Mind’s 8-week course with integrative practitioners who teach about nutrients, special diets, hormonal balance, exercise and other lifestyle changes to dismantle depression and anxiety. Both meditation and “nature deficit disorder” are explored in this signature course, in a very basic way. The current and follow-up offering, the Mindful in Nature class, uses both the practice of mindfulness (as in meditation) in conjunction with approaches from ecotherapy, or Applied Ecopsychology. What better season than spring to fall in love with the being outdoors again?
Up front I must remind that I am not a psychologist, I am a mental health coach, and have 22 years experience in leading workshops that explore the practices of earthspiritual communities. Although there are bona fide degree programs to become an Ecopsychologist, one senses the field is not clique-ish, but eager to have many involved in the work. Go ahead: be an ecopsychologist, a student of nature and psyche!
I like to hold a free session so that interested parties may check it out—but it feels like giving to the community too, as a thorough program that moves through lecture, discussion, and an experiential piece is provided. On that night, we focused mostly on reviewing two prominent goals of this work: to speak and transform our grief for the state of our world, and to understand how to reconnect, identify with, and widen the ecological self: our oneness with the natural world.
Regaining this connection with nature has been documented to banish depression, anxiety, and stress.
I told my story about how one suicidal night I found myself talking to the moon out in the Flint Hills of Kansas and it changed everything—the voice of the moon and the natural world spoke back, reassuring and including me in all that is. (This set me on a road to discover what nature had to do with spirituality, in both indigenous thought and elsewhere beyond mainstream religious practice.) Next a survey of ecopsych thinkers was presented and discussed, one of them a former teacher of mine.
Recently I met Lawrence, Kansas area deep ecologist Doug Hitt (author of Night Vision: Owls and Other Voices from Place) who is a student of ecopsychologist Joanna Macy. Doug visited the 8-week course in March, where we learned the technique of open-ended sentences. For the Mindful in Nature night we began with these: “When I think about our world now, I feel….” Followed by, “Ways I avoid these feelings are…” It was enlightening to see that most people answered the latter question by detailing positive approaches they took to transform their despair over the despoiling of our planet.
We then used a Macy exercise called the Milling. Everyone walks alone and briskly through the space at first, not looking at another person—just as we hurry about in real life: things to do, people to see, gotta get there! attitude. Eventually the pace slows and we come to regard each other in revolving pairs. The finale brought us to directly see the stranger we paused before as someone who could become a victim of an eco-catastrophe…then finally, as someone who could be instrumental in saving our Earth from peril. Participants reported a bonding afoot.
During a reprieve from the rain we walked. There was a spacious vacant lot near the Center, nicely grassed and ringed by stately tall trees and wanna-be’s. Participants held a card on which they wrote “I like the (tree, cloud, flower, whatever) because it’s…..(fill in the blank with descriptive language).”
Back at the Center, over the natural item we named, we then wrote “myself”…for a finished product that could read, for example, “I like myself because I am light and dark, reaching out into the night, and my seeds are big and round” (this was my description of a sycamore tree). We then reflected: does the description, of a natural object one felt called to, sound a bit like oneself?
Well…I try to acknowledge my shadow aspects as well as brighter qualities…my work is about reaching out…and my seeds? Hmmm. Literally, as a post-menopausal woman, I have no more! Time to get metaphorical about this one…planting seeds could be educating about mental wellness…in a big way, all around?
The exercise is somewhat like dream interpretation. It’s all YOU. Just so, you and nature are not separate.
Finally, we read Joanna Macy’s invocation to the Beings from the Three Times–past, present and future. We thanked them all for caring about our earth, for having hope, for helping us set our sights on transformation. Good night!
The five-week course will go deeper with these approaches and is organized by the theme of the elements: air, fire, water, and earth (plus the 5th sacred thing, known in various cultures as “ether,” space, or spirit).
Catriona MacGregor, in Partnering with Nature: The Wild Path to Reconnecting with the Earth, has a good summary of what the four Elements are all about. “To the ancients, knowing one’s place in the universe and where one stood with respect to the four directions provided clues to finding the entryway to the center of the world—the doorway to the realm of spirit. They identified places on Earth suited for accessing sacred realms (like caves) and sought to enhance these places by balancing the power of the four primary elements/directions.” She mentions Stonehenge as a well-known example.
The Greeks saw the elements/directions as not only physical but also energetic, or spiritual essences. Plato called them the foundation of the universe, and along with the fifth element (“ether”), he depicted the elements as physical shapes called Platonic solids. MacGregor points out that these bear a striking resemblance to Buddhist gravestone images: a cube for earth, sphere for water, pyramid for fire. There are correlations among Native American symbols—Black Elk, a Sioux elder described the four directions just as they were used by the Chinese and Greeks.
Here is MacGregor’s summary of a legend in psychology whose insights fit nicely with ecotherapy:
“Famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung researched personality characteristics over many years after seeing thousands of patients. During this time, Jung identified and named the trends or types of personality characteristics that existed within all people. Jung determined that there are four main aspects or characteristics of a person’s personality…He also believed that each of these four characteristics had a significant range of manifestation within each person. While each individual had the potential to reach the full range of all four qualities, they had tendencies to utilize just one range of the four. Empedocles [Greek philosopher who believed air, fire, water and earth were the root of all things; wrote Tetrasomia, Doctrine of the Four Elements] also believed that individuals tended to have one or more elements predominate in their personalities. He determined that those individuals who have equal or near equal proportions of the four elements are the most balanced and have the highest clarity of perception.”
My thanks to the warm and healing space known as the Breathe Holistic Life Center in Lawrence, Kansas for hosting Mindful in Nature.
Next blog post to come: the adventures of AIR.