“Nature heals” is one of the oldest therapeutic dicta. Ecopsychologists are finding new ways to apply that ancient insight. Over a century ago, Emerson lamented that “few adult persons can see nature.” If they could, they would know that “in the woods, we return to reason and faith. There ! feel that nothing can befall me in life, no disgrace or calamity . . . which nature cannot repair.”
Why have life coaches like Anthony Robbins and others made so little of this obvious resource? When highly stressed people are asked to visualise a soothing scene, nobody imagines a freeway or a shopping mall. Rather, images of wilderness, forest, seascape, and starry skies invariably emerge. In taking such experiences seriously, ecopsychologists are broadening the context of mental health to include the natural environment. They are hastening the day when instead of calling our bad environmental habits “acts against nature” they will be called bad manners. We are nature and we treat ourselves as we treat nature.
This, in turn, could be of enormous value in opening people to our spiritual, as well as physical, dependence upon nature. The time may not be far off when environmental policy-makers will have something more emotionally engaging to work with than the Endangered Species Act. They will be able to defend the beauties and biodiversity of nature by invoking an environmentally based definition of mental health. We might then see an assault upon endangered species or old-growth forest as an assault upon the sanity of a community, upon children, or upon our species as a whole.
In devastating the natural environment, we may be undermining a basic requirements of sanity: our sense of moral reciprocity with the non-human environment. Yet ecopsychology also offers hope. Our bond with the planet endures; something within us voices a warning.
Ecopsychologists have begun to detect in people evidence of an unspoken grieving for the great environmental losses the world is suffering. Sometimes, indeed, clients themselves demand to have that sense of loss taken seriously in their coaching. In a letter to Ecopsychology Newsletter, one reader reports how she confessed her anxiety for our environmental condition to her life coach. “I felt depressed that things had gotten so bad I could no longer drink tap water safely”‘ Her coach, all too typically, dismissed her feelings as an “obsession with the environment” and suggested she drink bottled water. That judgment eventually drove the client to seek help elsewhere and finally toward a commitment to help others reconnect to nature.
Denying the relevance of nature to our deepest emotional needs is still the rule in mainstream coaching, as in the culture generally. It is apt to remain so until coaches expand our paradigm of the self to include the natural habitat—as was always the case in indigenous cultures, whose methods of healing troubled souls included the trees and rivers, the sun and stars.
At a conference titled “Psychology As If the Whole Earth Mattered,” at Harvard’s Center for Psychology and Social Change, psychologists concluded that “if the self is expanded to include the natural world, behaviour leading to destruction of this world will be experienced as self-destruction.”
Such an intimate connection with the earth means taking our evolutionary heritage seriously and putting it in an ecological framework. Ecopsychology reinforces insights from naturalists like E. O. Wilson, who suggests that we possess “an innately emotional affiliation with all living organisms”—biophilia—that inclines us toward fostering biodiversity.
If our thoughts are out of balance with nature, everything about our lives is affected; family,workplace, school, community—all take on a crazy shape. For this reason, ecopsychology does not seek to create new categories of pathology, but to show how our ecological disconnection plays into all existing ones. For example, the DSM defines “separation anxiety disorder” as “excessive anxiety concerning separation from home and from those to whom the individual is attached.” But no separation is more pervasive in this Age of Anxiety than our disconnection from the natural world.
Freud coined the term “reality principle” to designate that objective order of things to which the healthy psyche must adapt if it is to qualify as “sane.” Writing in a pre-ecological era, he failed to include the biosphere. Ecopsychology is seeking to rectify that failure by expanding the definition of sanity to embrace the love for the living planet that is reborn in every child. .