“The Earth's cry for rescue from the punishing weight of the industrial system we have created is our own cry for a scale and quality of life that will free each of us to become the complete person we know we were born to be.” -Theodore Roszak
No matter what our race or ethnicity, our species always had a kinship with a greater-than-human world. It is this kinship that allowed us to become and to flourish as humans, but many of us have largely forgotten that we need nature for both our physical and psychological well-being.
We can see this evidenced in the growing ecological and social crises that continue to unfold around the globe. Industrial development has been relentlessly exploiting the environment—the water, seas, soil, atmosphere—all the major life-systems of our planet are suffering a crisis.
Connected to the ecological crisis are racial and class conflict, and economies that don't support people's physical and psychological needs.
Studies show that “ever since the 1930s, young people in America have reported feeling increasingly anxious and depressed," and some researchers have documented that “Nationwide, reports estimate 43.7 million adult Americans (18.5%) have experienced a mental health condition going into 2016. The previous year’s estimate was 42.5 million, meaning 1.2 million more Americans now reportedly experience some form of mental health issue.”
Social scientists and psychologists may use methodical scientific methods to try to find answers to such a concerning social trend, often failing to see that there are other ways of knowing found outside the conventional scientific worldview that may provide a more well-rounded answer. There has been a growing movement to explore values and principles long lost in many places around the world that may offer an explanation and help provide a blueprint towards individual and societal healing.
Ecopsychology: A New Kind of Psychology
“Funny how psychiatrists are absolutely inspired when it comes to mapping [ all kinds of social, interpersonal, and] sexual dysfunction, but fail to chart the strong emotional bond we have with the natural habitat. It's time for an environmentally based definition of mental health. So the next time you're feeling down, take yourself off to the woods for a few days.” -Theodore Roszak
In the early 1990's, psychologist and deep ecology practitioner Theodore Roszak realized that there was a connection between an individual’s emotional problems, the ills of society, and the exploitation of the natural world. This led him to search for a new kind of psychology that addressed the sources of our cultural madness and the psychic harm that occurs from being disconnected from nature.
Roszak coined the phrase ecopsychology to describe this new field of study. Ecopsychology operates under the idea that much of the grief, shame, emptiness, and fear that many people struggle with may actually be a natural reaction to the unnatural demands of the world.
Spending much of one's life working indoors, staring at a computer screen just to make enough money to buy all the things our society says we need to be happy—forgetting that we are human animals that need sunshine, air, healthy food, human connection, and free-time to simply rejoice and have fun. Prioritizing industry and technology has become out-of-balance with prioritizing our relationship to the natural world.
Ecopsychology asks the important question, what does humanity really need to nourish body and soul? According to Roszak, “other therapies seek to heal the alienation between person and person, person and family, person and society. Ecopsychology seeks to heal the more fundamental alienation between the recently created urban psyche and the age-old natural environment.”
Ecopsychology attempts to address the destructive effects of this disconnection from nature not only on the individual, but on society and the Earth as a whole. Many practitioners in the field insist that the current global environmental crisis is rooted in this disconnection. This crisis is not only one of increased pollution and urban and industrial sprawl, but of consciousness itself—basic flaws in how industrialized society understands its place in a world it has historically believed it could dominate and control.
The Ecological Unconscious
Ecopsychologists propose a new clinical approach based on the idea that treating patients for depression and other emotional and mental problems in an age of ecological crisis requires more than what current therapeutic approaches offer. It requires tapping into what Roszak calls our “ecological unconscious.”
As presented by Roszak, “the core of the mind is the ecological unconscious. For ecopsychology, repression of the ecological unconscious is the deepest root of collusive madness in industrial society. Open access to the ecological unconscious is the path to sanity."
Just as it has been the goal of psychotherapy to uncover the repressed emotions hidden in the unconscious mind that may be causing mental illness and destructive behavioral patterns, the goal of ecopsychology is to encourage the patient to become aware of similar feelings regarding the disconnection from nature. These feelings are buried in the “ecological unconscious,” that ancient place in our psyche, based in the very evolution of our species, that knows we are interconnected to all living things, as well as to the Earth. While not exclusive to homo sapiens alone, this compassionate bond with the natural world and to each other is a defining feature of human nature.
Restoring our broken connection to nature does not just benefit the individual, but extends out to the healing of all our relationships, both personal and societal. Theoretically, this new awareness would change people's priorities and actions to take into account the health of the environment and eventually percolate out to whole societies.
“Many therapy clients don't realize that the grief and fear they struggle with may be be natural responses to the death of so many living beings and the ongoing distress of Earth, air, and ocean life all around us. Because we’re not being informed about links between mental health symptoms caused by the way we live and the accelerating inner and outer devastation, we remain mystified about why we feel so much pain.” - Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind
Ecopsychology and Indigenous Knowledge
The field of ecopsychology is promising for both offering a path to healing the individual and creating the possibility for a major shift in values, perception, and lifestyle for Western society. However, it’s important to note that some of the principles of ecopsychology are very similar to the teachings of certain Indigenous cultures.
All My Relations
Traditionally, many Native and Indigenous peoples have been living by the principles of ecopsychology throughout history and these concepts are already an integral part of their science, cosmology, and spirituality.
Many of the pioneering scholars of ecopsychology do not mention the similarities between the philosophies in the field with Indigenous philosophies. For example, the ecopsychological principle of the “ecological unconscious” echoes the Native and Indigenous principle of “all my relations.”
"All my Relations” is a worldview shared by many Indigenous cultures around the world, such as those of the North American continent that maintains “we are all family, bound to humanity as a whole as well as to the Earth, the plants and animals that share it with us, and to the stars and other heavenly bodies in the universe.” Although philosophical values differ from culture to culture, there is a common thread among many Indigenous communities that nature is not owned—animals, rivers, oceans, and mountains are not an endless resource to be pillaged for personal gain. Instead, the Earth is seen as alive, and an entity to be in relationship with that does not exist outside the self.
As illustrated so elegantly by Roszak "salt remnants of ancient oceans flow through our veins, ashes of expired stars rekindle in our genetic chemistry." For millenia, many Indigenous cultures have recognized this. Their reciprocal and respectful relationship with the land reflects a deep-rooted belief that we are part of the cosmic imagination that birthed this planet, and as such, we cannot live a healthy life without nurturing this connection.
Putting Ecopsychology into Practice
Another area where ecopsychology is very similar to certain traditional Indigenous values and principles is in its therapeutic practices. In the process of healing while keeping our connection with the Earth in mind, a number of ecotherapeutic, or Earth-based healing approaches may be implemented. Ecotherapy puts the principles of ecopsychology into practice.
In addition to talk therapy for treatment of depression, anxiety, stress, and isolation, an ecotherapist might suggest a number of nature-reconnection practices. Examples can include actions such as encouraging a client to walk in a park a certain number of hours per week and record their thoughts in a journal; the use of dream therapy; attending wilderness retreats and healing-based spiritual ceremonies and rituals that connect to our deepest selves. Also encouraged is spending time with our plant and animal friends. Any mindful interaction with plants and animals can be considered therapeutic—whether it’s with companion animals, houseplants, and gardens; sitting on the Earth in a city park watching the birds; or leaning against a tree in the wilderness watching elk traversing a mountainous ridge. Other suggestions found within the world of ecotherapy might focus on mindfully detaching from the multitude of social constructs that can contribute to keeping people unbalanced: shifting out of rigidly artificial time schedules, changing home or work environments, and recovery from compulsive consumerism.
While not called “Ecotherapy,” in many Indigenous communities, acknowledgment of the human-nature connection is an integral part of society and informs all aspects of how the community lives in relation to each other and their environment. Rituals and ceremonies are practiced widely in the form of vision quests, sweat lodges, dances, prayer, meditations in nature, the crafting of plant medicines, as well as many others meant to align the participants with the healing power of nature. There is an inherent conviction that there is much to learn from nature, if humanity will only stop to listen.
Ecopsychology and ecotherapy can help those of us who are out-of-touch with practices that connect us to the Earth by reintroducing us to those practices. This healing and rediscovery of our selves is needed by all of us. But since the effects of colonization were and continue to be devastating and wide-ranging for Indigenous people worldwide, we must be respectful of Indigenous peoples in the process and not engage in activities that appropriate Indigenous knowledge and practices.
As author and activist Terry Tempest Williams says in her compelling essay, A Sprig of Sage, in speaking about being influenced by the neighboring Navajo culture near her home in Southern Utah: “…their traditional stories don't work for us. It's like drinking another man’s medicine. Their stories hold meaning for us only as examples. They can teach us what is possible [in the search for, and implementation of, our own traditional knowledge].”
Respecting Indigenous Traditions with a Third Space Mentality
In being mindful of cultural appropriation and respect to Indigenous peoples, how can we restore those Indigenous values and ideals needed to heal ourselves? How do we reconnect with the land and each other, while continuing to reap the best of what conventional science and technology has to offer?
We are a technological species gifted with a natural inquisitiveness and capacity for ingenuity that will always keep us reaching for the next level of evolution and we cannot go back to living in nature as our ancestors did. The future success of our society will require the combined wisdom of Indigenous and non-indigenous cultures.
Gregory Lowan-Trudeau, a Canadian environmental educator of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry, in considering the possibilities for blending Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge, reminds us that we cannot simply adopt the worldview and practices of Indigenous people. That would be cultural appropriation. Trudeau advocates for a “third-space mentality” which “examines the similarities and differences between traditional ecological knowledge and Western science, and whether blending or integration can actually be achieved in a Western framework without misappropriating Indigenous knowledge.”
Trudeau says this third-space mentality “concentrates on common ground and respecting differences to teach both systems side-by-side by bringing together Indigenous and non-Indigenous Elders, educators, and students in classroom and land-based experiential learning environments.” Perhaps if this method of a blended environmental education can be applied to ecopsychology practices as well, weaving back-and-forth between knowledges, centering Indigenous people as teachers and educators, and committing to the support of Indigenous peoples in their struggles for restitution, a true spirit of respectful blending can occur.
The advent of ecopsychology holds much promise for including nature in the consideration of both personal and societal healing, but for ecopsychology to play an integral role in this healing, it must not deny Indigenous peoples the recognition of their knowledge—which has been the legacy of modern state colonialism since the “age of discovery” began in the 15th century.
Ecopsychology is still a new and upcoming field, but there are psychologists around the world who are beginning to incorporate ecotherapy into their practices. As psychologists begin this process, it is important that they acknowledge the transgressions that were committed against Indigenous people since it is their traditional worldviews that we are now beginning to recognize as possible sources of inspiration for personal and social change.
Beginning the Healing Journey
How can we as individuals begin to heal using ecopsychological and therapeutic principles as a guide? Starting entails being mindful of how much we can commit each day to taking a time-out from our hectic lives. For example, taking the time to go for a walk in a park instead of engaging with our smart phone, or getting our hands in the Earth through gardening. Wilderness therapy through partaking in a community-oriented nature retreat or extended camping trip might further deepen our awareness and healing. As the connection with the Earth is slowly restored and our healing deepens, a heightened consciousness may arise regarding our unbalanced lifestyle decisions. We may also feel the desire to prioritize community building and join others who share the same vision and commitment to creating an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, socially just human presence on Earth. This is how social change happens: one step at a time, with each individual committed to healing and change.
Complementary to ecopsychological principles and values is honoring Indigenous wisdom and knowledge, and working in partnership with Indigenous communities in their continued struggles for holding onto their ways of life.