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Overcoming Separation

Dave Ewoldt, April 2005

   Do you think deliberately destroying one's life support system is a good definition of insanity?

   It is not much of a stretch to say that traditional psychotherapies try to make us feel sane about living in an insane world.

   Fortunately, there's a new discipline in the healing arts which seeks to redefine sanity as if the whole Earth mattered. Known as ecopsychology, or organic psychology, it is an holistic integration of ecology with psychology.

   Ecology is the study of connection, of the interrelationships among all forms of life and the physical environment they exist within and depend upon.

   Psychology is the study of the human psyche as it perceives, feels, thinks, imagines, and acts.

   Ecopsychology builds on one of the core principles of general systems science: the interconnected nature and structure of reality. It is a foundational precept that the human psyche can be neither healthy nor understood in isolation from its environment. Ecopsychology examines the psychological roots of the environmental and social crises and presents a way of living and loving that promotes harmony between the environment and the individual, as well as all other relationships the individual is part of.

   In fact, it can be easily shown that any individual organism is best defined and understood by its relationships--its internal relationships, relationships with other creatures, and its relationships to the environment and the very elements it is comprised of. Ecopsychology begins the healing process with the realization that the relationship between humans and all other things is an essential part of the self, and healthy relationships are necessary for individual health. As Sarah A. Conn, from the Ecopsychology Institute at the Center for Psychological & Social Change at Harvard Medical School points out, the very concept of health care itself changes when symptoms are seen not only as signals from the larger world but also as signs of our disconnection from it.

   Ecopsychology recognizes that every individual is biologically, psychologically and spiritually part of Nature's nonpolluting, intelligent ways. The Earth itself is a living system, and the psyche and body exists within this larger system.

   Leading thinkers say that humanity's attraction to nature is a deep, biological need rooted in over two million years of evolution. This need for the natural world is known as biophilia, a genetic urge encoded in human nature to maintain the balance and harmony needed to preserve our psychic and physical health. The form of applied ecopsychology I practice, known as the Natural Systems Thinking Process (NSTP) posits that excessive indoor living and a lack of conscious, heartfelt bonding with the Earth actually causes a disconnection or atrophies many of the senses we have inherited from nature to keep us naturally fulfilled and in balance with the rest of the web of life. This disconnection causes psychological pain we obsessively try to tranquilize, and a void we never seem able to fill. Society's 'fixes' are often temporary and destructive. Even as we indulge our addictions, we experience a deep, pervasive longing for something that we sense is missing from our lives.

   Our very life-styles are making us ill! Our efforts to succeed in our nature-disconnected world are taking a toll on our psychic, physical, and spiritual well-being. And we think this is normal--until we experience the wholeness of Nature. The Natural Systems Thinking Process provides a way to psychologically reconnect strands of the web of life--both within and without--using the multitude of natural senses our species has repressed for the past ten thousand years. This sensory reconnection helps bring nature's integrity--and a sense of deep, natural fulfillment--into conscious thought and our daily lives. The result is improved physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. This, ultimately, improves relationships at all levels, including with the planet.

   Ecopsychology is based on applying the model nature uses to create and sustain healthy, thriving ecosystems, because this model provides the metaphors we need to create lifestyles and social systems that also exhibit the same intelligence and harmony. Ecopsychology facilitates helping people remember how to think and act the way that nature works. Using nature's model also helps us understand and appreciate the strength and resiliency that comes from increasing diversity. This diversity helps us realize that just as no two snowflakes are identical, no two people will relate to life in exactly the same way, so when I use the term nature, feel free to substitute Gaia, The Creator, Great Goddess, or whatever term resonates most deeply with you.

   Some of the other basic assumptions of ecopsychology are that we come from the Earth, and we depend upon the Earth for our sustenance. Due to the interconnected nature of reality, what we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves. The Earth does not belong to humans, humans belong to the Earth. We're currently destroying and depleting natural resources faster than they can be renewed which is leading to ecocide, which is an indirect form of suicide. Since our physical bodies are gifts from Nature, so that we may live within her home, I implore you to ask yourself if this is the proper way for guests to treat their host?

   So, how does ecopsychology in general, and the NSTP in particular, work?

   Do you know how great you feel when you're in one of your favorite natural settings? The NSTP presents ways for people to feel like that every day, no matter where they are, by reconnecting with aspects of the nature that brought them to life in the first place.

   Do you realize that a sustainable natural ecosystem stays healthy by everything working together to support the whole so the system can remain healthy and grow? NSTP activities also help groups do the same thing by modeling natural processes that facilitate communications, honor diversity, see each individual's efforts and contributions as being equally important and valuable, and help groups reach decisions that support the group, which is a microcosm of the web of life.

   Part of ecopsychology's basic philosophy is that since we, as a species, come from Nature, we can look to Nature through the examples provided by healthy and thriving ecosystems that use the natural systems processes of mutual support, reciprocity, and increasing diversity so that we may create lifestyles and social systems that model this same healthy integration. Just as the individual cell contains the wisdom and knowledge to repair and heal itself, so does the psyche and spirit. It's all based on the same natural processes that have created the physical world and life itself.

   Think of a previous enjoyable experience that you've had in Nature.

   What senses or sensations do you remember using or experiencing? What was rewarding or worth remembering about the experience?

   Do you trust that this experience was real? That you are a person worthy of having enjoyable or pleasant experiences with Nature? Do you recognize the fact that you didn't have to learn how to have this experience in a school classroom, from a book, or from a parent or other authority figure?

   Become aware that this experience and the feelings and sensations associated with it are a natural part of who you are. Would you like to repeat this experience? Would you like to have other experiences that produce good feelings or sensations? Would you like to use all of your senses to give you the ability to repeat these good feelings and make them a part of your daily life?

   The NSTP presents a nature-connected, psychological science with a distinct rational and methodology. It's to help us enjoy life, find fulfillment, empower us to reach our potential, and provide the meaning and purpose all humans seek by reconnecting with Nature, either in the backcountry or in your backyard.

   This leads into my third point, which is why ecopsychology is so important today.

   Our separation from the very system that sustains us makes no sense.

   It is becoming more widely accepted that environmental problems and social injustices are really a problem in attitude, or perception. The majority perception in the Western world is that we are apart from, and not a part of, the natural systems that give us life and sustain us. We are taught to see ourselves as outside, and in control, of nature itself. This disconnection then spreads to all of the other relationships--interpersonal and social--that define who we are as well as how we define reality. Reconnecting with nature and building responsible, mutually supportive and empowering relationships lays the foundation for much ecopsychology work, which strives to holistically improve personal well-being in order to improve ecological integrity.

   People won't fight to save what they don't love. If we see the Earth as an endless supply of resources and a bottomless pit for waste; if the wilderness and other species are merely something to be conquered and tamed, we will continue to dominate, exploit and destroy. However, since we come from nature, are a part of nature, and actually require nature to even exist, we feel this destruction through stress, depression, feelings of isolation, and a rash of social ills as we subconsciously try to deny our connection to nature. We deny the pain we are actually inflicting upon ourselves, future generations, other species, and the supportive web of all life.

   This separation tends to cause people to see other cultures and value systems as inferior to their own. As with the other-than-human in Nature, people tend to see other races and cultures as inferior. We exploit the "other" in Nature, in cultures, and even in our own inner-nature. We throw out the "other"--our waste, discarded materials, and even other people. The garbage, waste, and other races are put out of sight, out of mind. If the Earth can be seen as dead, if our refuse is carted off to landfills by someone else, if the Native Americans are cordoned off within their reservations, if the African-Americans are cordoned off within the urban ghettos, if the wilderness can be said to be empty, our domination won't then be seen as a transgression. If we can overcome this sense of otherness, we can then accept and rejoice in our sense of unity.

   In conclusion, I'd like to state that I firmly believe that humans can overcome their feeling of separation from nature. Because, we are nature.

   My personal goal in using ecopsychology is quite simple: I want to help people save the world, and help make them feel better about themselves while doing so. One of the assumptions I make is that only by making people not only feel better, but feel better about themselves will we be able to both save and fully savor our world. The process I use to reach this goal is also quite simple, as well as very effective. It is a way to reconnect all of our multiplicity of senses to their roots in Nature. These senses are the attraction relationships that have evolved in us to keep us connected to the joy and beauty of being alive.

   When we understand, as well as sensuously experience, that Nature is the source of wisdom and health, we will not willingly be a party to its exploitation and destruction. Through this holistic reconnection we then realize that each time we harm Nature, we cut out a piece of our own flesh. When we are complicit in the destruction of our life support system, we decrease our human potential to increase both our wisdom and our creativity--we stunt or even reverse our very evolution.

   The wisdom of many nature-centered peoples revolves around the interconnectedness of all things. Many Native American elders, for example, talk about the relationship humans have with the creative life force. If we don't respect the Earth, or her many abundant resources, we won't respect each other, or even ourselves. This is not an outdated primitive philosophy. Calling for a return to this way of thinking and knowing is not a call to chop our own wood, to carry water from the stream, or to dance around with feathers stuck in our butts (and my apologies to those of you who do gain meaning as well as receive very real benefits from these rituals). But it is a call to return to who we really are. Because, only in this way is it truly possible to evolve into who we really should be.

   In our very human quest for answers, meaning, and certainty, we ignore the one certainty that we can grab ahold of in the here and now--that based on 14 billion years of evidence, the universe is friendly to life and its evolution.

   If you would like to schedule an introductory consultation session or arrange a presentation or workshop for your group, please contact or give Dave or Allison, co-founders of Attraction Retreat, a call at (360) 756-7998.


"You didn't come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here."
Alan Watts


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