Ecopsychotherapy: Person/Nature Relationship
A change in human consciousness where humankind believed itself to be superior and distinct from nature may have begun in during the neolithic domestication, ten thousand to twelve thousand years ago (Metzner, 1993). This “controlling, altering attitude toward nature” (Metzner, 1993) may have begun when herding and farming economies overtook the hunting-gathering way of life where humanity was in synch with the seasons.
Metzner (1993) describes how, over time, the Western world grew more and more distant from nature and formed a culture of an arrogant society characterized by having a superiority complex over plants, animals and all of nature’s creations. Metzner describes how this “speciesism” has led to a form of collective psychic pathology, along the lines of racism or sexism. Because of this superiority complex, humankind has felt itself privileged enough to exploit the earth’s resources and control nature with the growth of a technological and capitalistic society.
Several factors are seen to be responsible for today’s “ecologically disastrous split, the pathological alienation, between human consciousness and the rest of the biosphere” (Metzner, 1993). The first is that society has become “autistic” in relationship with the living earth and does not feel a connection to it.
The second is that humankind has become arrested in its development and is focused on profits, driven by a consumerist fixation. This seems to be the only value of society, leaving those that are economically disadvantaged to fend for themselves, along with ignoring other problems of society. Like self-absorbed juveniles, humankind runs a race after material possessions and short-term profits.
Thirdly, humanity has become addicted to a self-absorbed lifestyle, even in the face of destroying ourselves and the world. We forge ahead destroying nature and overpopulating the planet when we know this will be to our destruction as a species.
Another explanation is that our species suffers from amnesia in our ability to relate to nature. We lack humility in the face of the mysteries of the universe. In our pursuit of technology, profits and controlling nature, we have forgotten our connection to and dependence on the ecology of the earth.
The fifth reason is humanity’s anthropocentrism “that seems to condone and encourage a reckless, exploitative attitude” (Metzner, 1993). Humanity seems to lack the ability to relate emphatically to non-human species of life forms. Metzner (1993) points out that this lack relates to “war, aggression, colonialism, and neglect in inter-human relationships”.
HIERARCHIES OF NATURE
Our European humanist superiority complex separates nature from spirituality and has lost reverence for the web of all life-forms as being interconnected by creative spiritual forces. The Western view that nature is expendable conflicts with indigenous peoples’ consciousness of animism, “which sees all life-forms, including animals, plants, rocks, forests, rivers, mountains, fields, seas, winds, as well as sun, moon, stars, and the total cosmos as imbued with living spiritual intelligences with which it is possible to communicate” (Metzner, 1993).
Slowing down to appreciate a sunset, a plant or a tree is generally not a daily activity of many in our society. Our society seems to put ourselves above such natural phenomena rather than see ourselves as part of nature. We seem to have forgotten the beauty and feelings of appreciation and connectedness with the natural habitat around us. Our lives are built around our jobs, family and often fast-paced lifestyle that comes with traffic and congestion resulting from overpopulation. We shop in crowded malls, pursuing our consumerist habits. Our societal conditioning has enculturated out of us the wonder of the universe and the consciousness of communing with nature. We seem to not value the life that is around us, but have put blinders on, valuing material possessions in our addictive drive to have more. Our mentality has become narrow, shutting off our senses. We do not often sit with ourselves in quietness, nor are we clear-minded. We often forget that there must be a creative power behind all life, and we seem to believe that we can conquer and control nature and our world. Our minds race with what we want in the next moment, unable to delay gratification, as with young children.
The need to have comfort and beauty around us has been translated to store-bought fulfillment rather than appreciation of the wisdom and goodness of some spirituality. Old practices such as respecting and revering nature, as with the Native Americans, are not a part of most American’s lifestyle. Beauty is seen as the latest clothing fashions, or car, or slender fashion model. Beauty has become shallow and superficial, and disconnected from the earth’s natural environment. Our urban landscape has replaced the living, breathing earth.
As our industrial society turned to a technological one, has continued to alienate us from nature. Roszak (1992) explains that “The industrial city might be seen as the collective ‘body armor’ of our culture, a pathological effort to distance us from close contact with the natural continuum from which we evolve” (p. 220). Roszak refers to our culture’s psychotic habits in urban society. He cites Wilhelm Reich’s phrase of “ ‘body armor’ for the neurotic defense mechanism that cuts us off from spontaneous vitality and sensuous intimacy”. These statements lead to a picture of living beings attempting to thrive and flourish amid concrete structures and cities, in rooms with re-circulated air and fluorescent lighting. Our society lives and breathes in various structures for most of the day, going from our vehicles to stores, to libraries, to schools, to offices but spending “vacation time” in hotels overlooking some view of nature in the distance. There might be an occasional tree planted along sidewalks in our cities. This is an unnatural habitat for humans to live in.
Our culture also perpetuates the mentality of not knowing our neighbors, not helping people who may be attacked on the street for not wanting to get involved; rubber-necking accidents on the freeway as we drive by in our cars that give us the illusion that we are living in our own worlds, separate from other human beings. The separateness from other life-forms has also separated us from caring about our environment, and seems to lessen humanity’s ability for empathy. Roszak (1992) describes patients sitting in a psychiatrist’s waiting room with a variety of symptoms that the psychiatrist is helpless to treat under such urban living conditions.
Emotional aspects of environmental damage is said to cause stress and symptoms that may inappropriately be diagnosed as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The symptoms of PTSD include anxiety, depression, disturbed sleep patterns, psychosomatic illness, aggression, suicide or attempted suicide, apathy, and family discord. Such a diagnosis would not accurately describe persons suffering from environmental threats or accidents.
Lee (1996) discussed the effects of the Chernobyl accident on Russian citizens. He and others have brought attention to the psychosocial effects of such an environmental accident that do not fit the diagnostic category of PTSD. Persons who witnessed the initial Chernobyl accident might have accurately been diagnosed with PTSD, but the continuing fear and widespread anxiety of radiation by the public caused symptoms of apathy, listlessness, feelings of detachment and diminished interest. These symptoms would be found in persons concerned about chemical pollution of the soil, contamination of water supplies, seepage from a landfill site, the threat of flooding, radon gas, the belief that electromagnetic fields due to power lines are damaging to health, resulting in stress. Physical reactions could manifest themselves as headaches or nausea. Attitudinal changes might be feelings of demoralization, upset, declining quality of life and distrust of authorities associated with environmental problems such as toxic waste disposal sites.
Lee (1996) and others have proposed a new category associated with environmental threats or accidents called “Chronic Environmental Stress Disorder” that would be a better category than PTSD. This diagnosis would be more helpful because it would change the person’s perception of the problem, enhancing their feeling’s of control over it. Changing the communication about the problem could be more effective than medication in helping the person work through their resultant stress, leading to improved psychosocial well-being.
Swanson ( 1997) suggests that nature can supplement therapy to support the process. “Nature can be a non-threatening source of nurturance for those whose interpersonal trust issues or isolation make adequate human nurturance problematic. Many have experienced the soothing effects of listening to the rippling water of a stream or watching clouds drift overhead”.
Segal (1997) concurs with the therapeutic value of wilderness that can be used to seek meaning in people’s lives. People may go on fasts in the wilderness to seek wisdom or a “vision” to share with society. “When we begin to see wilderness as a life partner who mirrors our own depth and richness, supports our growth, and at the transpersonal level is a part of us, then we begin to see how the earth is involved in an ongoing organic process of its own, having inherent value in and of itself” (Segal, 1997).
As humanity uses up the earth’s resources and becomes more separate from nature, possibly our ecological crisis may become severe enough to call our attention to the possibility of annihilation of the earth. Such impending annihilation may cause a reawakening of our connectedness to nature and it’s needed therapeutic and life-supporting value.
Lee, T. (1996) “Environmental Stress One Decade After Chernobyl: An Excercise in Applied Ecopsychology” http://isis.csuhayward.edu/ALSS/ECO/Final/research.htm. EcoPsychology Institute.
Metzner, R. (1993) “The Split between Spirit and Nature in European Consciousness”. ReVision, 15, 4. pp. 177-184.
Roszak, T. (1992) The Voice of the Earth. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Segal, F. (1997) “Ecopsychology and the Uses of Wilderness”
http://isis.csuhayward.edu/ALSS/ECO/0398/segal.htm. EcoPsychology Institute.
Swanson, J. (1997) “Prescribing Nature: Exploring the Subjective Frontiers of Nature”
http://isis.csuhayward.edu/ALSS/ECO/0398/swanson.htm. EcoPsychology Institute.