Friday, May 11, 2007

ECOPSYCHOLOGY: Unity and spirit

What unity ultimately requires is closure. The circle of theory must come round like the alchemical snake to bite its tail. What is must at last be known. Perhaps that is what underlies the eager unfolding of the natural hierarchy from the Big Bang to the human frontier: substance reaching out hungrily toward sentience. That is the simple but mighty insight that the physicist John Wheeler sought to capture in this schematic image of a universe that makes a u-turn in time to study itself through the human eye.

Oddly, this unity of the knower and the known seems to have been better appreciated by pre-scientific humans who worked from myth, image, ritual. If ecopsychology has anything to add to the Socratic-Freudian project of self-knowledge, it is to remind us of what our ancestors took to be common knowledge: there is more to know about the self, or rather more self to know, than our personal history reveals. Making a personality, the task that Jung called "individuation," may be the adventure of a lifetime. But every person's lifetime is anchored within a greater, universal lifetime. Each of us shares the whole of life's time on Earth. Salt remnants of ancient oceans flow through our veins, ashes of expired stars rekindle in our genetic chemistry. The oldest of the atoms, hydrogen whose primacy among the elements should have gained it a more poetically resonant name is a cosmic theme; mysteriously elaborated billions-fold, it has created from Nothing the Everything that includes us. -Theodore Roszak

About Reproducing Cultural Hubris

Out of what is this homo-centric hubris, this schizophrenic disconnect and self absorption of modern techno-industrial production/consumption emerging, each and every day, on the surface of the planet, intermixing with a delicate and thin shell of life we now call our biosphere? What institutes and perpetuates a bio destructive cancer on the planet like neoliberal polyarchic pseudo democratic globalism that itself relentlessly destroys and displaces the indigenous cultural forms that once did, in fact, interact directly with the forces and forms of nature?

I'm suggesting we might benefit from looking at the forms our very lives take and how we work our minds in relation to those, thereby creating our daily process of life, which imbeds the memories and the very sense of who and what we are as a daily, ongoing reality.

Ecopsychologists are suggesting that to understand that process, and ourselves, we need to do something to actually change our daily forms of life. That connecting with the natural world in a different way can begin to imbed different forms within us that become not just conscious, intellectual rationalizations, but that will go deep into our minds to be experienced throughout our bodies, and become subconscious as well, with a deeper sense of ourselves and who we are in relationship with the forms of our environment. They are suggesting that as a "therapy," it can't be done intellectually, rationally, any more than truly understanding what the "extent of anthropocentrism" actually is can be done through a rational, intellectual process. Intellectualism is easily recognized as a backward-looking, analytical process that actually occurs after direct experience and direct mind/body response in a situation. With that awareness of what we do with that process, we can see that we are fragmenting our awareness of now with our memories, with the beliefs those memories intertwine through accumulated processes of memory and thought, and we create illusions of reality that we than place, like a template over the immediate experience, thus potentially distorting what we can see, and in that distorting our response to what is.

If you've ever been in one of those life threatening emergency moments where everything goes into slow motion, perhaps you've directly been able to see your body seeming to do everything while the rational mind calmly observes it doing it, actions the body seems to know to do with with a direct intelligence you are somewhat mildly amused to discover, and without any guidance from this anthropocentric awareness one assumes is in charge until this moment of emergency. If you've grown up around animals and dealt with some energetic creatures of 1000 lbs or more, you recognize how your body is tuned to this, especially in close quarters, or that herding is something you do recognizing the charateristics in the animals and influencing them with your own form, as a dog learns to do when it learns to herd. Those are just some suggestions from my own experience.

This Jungian Analyst, Dennis L. Merritt, talks about his experiences growing up and how they have influenced him throughout his life. His experience on the dairy farm in Wisconsin mirrors my own in nearby Michigan:

Spirit in the Land, Spirit in Animals, Spirit in People

I grew up on a small dairy farm in Wisconsin where I spent many hours of my free time wandering the hills and marshes with my dog. A deep connection was forged between the land and my psyche, much deeper than I realized. After spending many years away from the Midwest, working on a doctorate at Berkeley in the late 60’s in Insect Pathology (microbial control of insects), then a Masters Degree in Humanistic Psychology from Sonoma State College, California, and finally training to become a Jungian Analyst in Zurich, Switzerland, I was led by a series of powerful dreams to return to the land I have felt so connected to. I also became involved in sweat-lodge, vision quest and Sundance ceremonies of the Lakota Sioux of the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota that added a depth of relationship to the environment I could not have imagined otherwise.


Near the end of my training at the Jung Institute in Zurich, I had one of the most powerful and simple dreams I have ever had. It was a single-image dream of a typical upper Midwestern landscape. There was a meadow with very green grass, flowers and possibly alfalfa. The topography was gently rolling with trees on the horizon. Insects flew above the meadow. It was a beautiful sunny day with puffy white clouds in a blue sky. What was most remarkable about this simple scene was that it shown with an inner light. Every atom in the dream was alive. Despite having seen some of the most beautiful scenery in the world—California, the Grand Canyon, the Canadian Rockies, Switzerland, etc., I have never seen anything as beautiful as this simple meadow scene.

This is an example of what the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung called a numinous dream—a dream with an inner light and a sacred sense. I contend that no indigenous person has had a more sacred dream of the land. Every human is capable of experiencing this sense of the sacredness about the land. Long ago Jung recognized this archetypal need of a connection to, and love of, the land. E. O. Wilson calls this “biophilia”.

When one has such a dream, the challenge is to let it lead one’s life and direct one’s conscious orientation. To follow such a dream’s inspiration is to walk a path with heart. Having grown up in Wisconsin, I knew the state affected me deeply, but I had no sense of just how deeply until this dream. I began to look at all elements of the Upper Midwest more closely—its soils, topography, flora and fauna, seasons, etc. To deepen this process and help convey this sense of the land to others, my wife and I set up a week long summer institute in 1991 called Spirit in the Land, Spirit in Animals, Spirit in People. The Institute was so well received we ran a second one in 1992, followed by a reduced version for the University of Wisconsin Extension in 1994. The talks I gave at the Institutes became the genesis of the book I’m finishing, The Dairy Farmer’s Guide to the Universe--Jung, Hermes and Ecopsychology. To convey my sense of an interdisciplinary environmental education program, I am reproducing the contents of three brochures announcing the Institutes.

Seeing a Spiritual Connection Through Form

The possibility that we can be directed in this way by dreams and their metaphorical implications for our entire being is something that hardly makes it, it would seem, to the mainstream levels of popular culture. In a very basic way, it may be antithetical to the fundamental paradigm of a rationally derived, techno-industrial based society -- with a rational view that the world is its resource and not a living whole in its own right, of which humans are only a systemic part, not the top predator in a food chain meant to feed their, and only their self derived hubris -- that itself may have gone off track from the organic roots of being with its very liberal foundations of a rational, philosophic approach to its undestanding of a tautological determination of its social guiding principles of life. That is, unless the notion that violence and the many damaging implications that are considered "inappropriate" for young children to be exposed to are also taken seriously enough to be considered a questionable exposure to our adult population's psyche as well -- not that I am suggesting control measures, but just a recognition of what it implies. Is it true that a constant exposure to images of violence only effect young children?

Just to be clear, I'm not asking about social control issues, I'm asking about awakening a sensitivity to a seeing of how we are immersed in forms and how those forms are part of our consciousness, and in the process, invoke a wondering about just how separate we really are as assumed independent individuals from all this. What are the sources of our consciousness? Can we really be conscious and separate from our environment, like the mind is contained in some sort of bottle?

But myth and mythical thought was an important connecting force to the subconscious and our immersion in forms that our ancestors employed, by all accounts. For me, I've always had a strong response to literature and poetry, and the inspiring sense of imaginary power it can infuse. So in talking about this topic, I'd like to point to this dimension as a source of imaginative context and a way of seeing how the dynamics of ecopsychology can work for us, reconnect us to elements of our world, whether we want to save the planet or just want to have rich imagination related to it.

Also, in terms of language, this might in some ways relate to Edward De Bono's Water Logic and "ideas to flow" which speaks to the "voice" of the mind speaking out of these forms in a relational process rather than the static logic that retains a fundamentalist, or positivist nature. Lakoff, of course, as a neuro scientist, talks about cognitive categories and framing. Those are metaphors of form as well. Pointing to dreams and the subconscious metaphors of the mind may offer a view of language as a connection to the inspirational within us to that which connects our minds and our psychic health to the earth and its living forms as they are embedded in the subconscious to then become those connective metaphors. I suggest this to give a sense different where language is used to abstract and analyze, creating in that process a fragmentation and alienation from the actual ongoing process of life. This of course is done through a different process, perhaps, so that's worth keeping in mind. In other words, there is no need to binarily oppose them, for they may both be present at once as a conscious process.

These embedded forms may be the sources for those moments of epiphany, and the quality and form of those epiphanies may depend on the stimulation, whether a natural environment or human built one. Not judging one or the other, just noting how our mind is complex and may respond depending on the stimulus, can perhaps open our mental doors to see how the forms we live with daily confine our spiritual connection with our natural life forces and the planet.

Thursday, May 3, 2007



The basic idea of ecopsychology is that while the human mind is shaped by the modern social world, it can be readily inspired and comforted by the wider natural world, because that is the arena in which it originally evolved. Mental health or unhealth cannot be understood simply in the narrow context of only intrapsychic phenomena or social relations. One also has to include the relationship of humans to other species and ecosystems. These relations have a deep evolutionary history; reach a natural affinity within the structure of their brains and they have deep psychic significance in the present time, in spite of urbanization. Humans are dependent on healthy nature not only for their physical sustenance, but for mental health, too. The destruction of ecosystems means that something in humans also dies.


  • 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.

  • The contents of the ecological unconscious represent, in some degree, at some level of mentality, the living record of cosmic evolution, tracing back to distant initial conditions in the history of time.

  • Just as it has been the goal of previous therapies to recover the repressed contents of the unconscious, so the goal of ecopsychology is to awaken the inherent sense of environmental reciprocity that lies within the ecological unconscious.

  • For ecopsychology as for other therapies, the crucial stage of development is the life of the child. The ecological unconscious is regenerated, as if it were a gift, in the newborn's enchanted sense of the world.

  • The ecological ego matures toward a sense of ethical responsibility to the planet that is as vividly experienced as our ethical responsibility to other people. It seeks to weave that responsibility into the fabric of social relations and political decisions.

  • Among the therapeutic projects most important to ecopsychology is the re-evaluation of certain compulsively "masculine" character traits that permeate our structures of political power and which drive us to dominate nature as if it were an alien and rightless realm. In this regard, ecopsychology draws significantly on the insights of ecofeminism with a view to demystifying the sexual stereotypes.

  • Whatever contributes to small scale social forms and personal empowerment nourishes the ecological ego. Whatever strives for large-scale domination and the suppression of personhood undermines the ecological ego.

  • Ecopsychology holds that there is a synergistic interplay between planetary and personal well-being. The term "synergy" is chosen deliberately for its traditional theological connotation, which once taught that the human and divine are cooperatively linked in the quest for salvation. The contemporary ecological translation of the term might be: the needs of the planet are the needs of the person, the rights of the person are the rights of the planet.

This proposition was posed to me by a person who does not see any need to be concerned about environmental degradation caused by human activity so long as humans are free do make individual choices, because it's his belief, like Adam Smith's, that as long as the rights of the sovereignty of the individual are maintained, the individual choices will guide the whole towards an equitible and sane relationship with the environment:

Without freedoms destruction of the ecosystem seems inevitable.

The following was my response:

From my own phenomenological perceptions, I see that freedom of the individual is inevitable until one is rendered incapacitated in some way or dies. The real question I am interested in, is about the form that freedom takes. I personally recognize that I have the innate, volitional freedom to agree to do what is being required even under the most extreme forms of coercion where I am being given choice, because I am the one that chooses to do it, even if I would prefer to do something else. The choice may also include the choice to go on living, or keep a finger, or one can imagine many other scenarios of of coercive pressure, but the choice is made until it's completely taken away. If that were not true the body hangs like a puppet waiting for strings to move it in some external way. It requires self initiation, self volition, hence "freedom," to act in any way, even to act in concert with others, or follow orders in a hierarchy. It requires personal freedom to agree not to bother someone if requested, and personal freedom to ignore that request. It requires freedom to drive down the highway on the established "correct" side of the road to minimize danger to self and others.

This sort of freedom hardly needs to be made into an issue. If we didn't understand it we wouldn't even bother with rules. At least one effort of any intellectual exploration is to seek to discover the abstract structural elements of mind from which actions freely emerge. Freedom of action is assumed as long as action is possible, as long as the brain is functional. So it's an entirely trivial point to say that the destruction of an ecosystem seems inevitable without freedoms. With freedom the destruction of the ecosystem may also be inevitable if people don't excersize it to question the very form and structure of their complex society. What you end up with by introducing such a concept is a non sequitur into the exploration of the meaning of freedom, in the context it is brought up, and the recognition that the meaning "imagined" in this vague way involves a whole series of beliefs and values, very often directly related to the very institutions themselves that are taking everyone "freely" in the direction of their own demise -- if indeed that's where things are headed.

We have seen that what is identified as "binary opposition," as the structuralists like Claude Levi Strauss have pointed out, can possibly be the very basis of human consciousness. We have also seen how it has inherent attributes that lead to hierarchical thinking, where one of two concepts in an opposition are favored over the other. It's, of course, an act of freedom to favor one over the other, which is essentially how values and institutions of all sorts are created. A transnational corporation is essentially an institution created out of a complex matrix of binary oppositions, one favored over another, creating the hierarchical structures of the institution and the form in which decisionmaking is made and the purpose of the collective efforts achieved, efforts from the providers of capital to the "work" -- whatever that might be.

But as the post structuralists and the post modernist era philosophers have also shown, those binary oppositions may not be as set as the earlier structuralists proposed them to be in societies, and thus may not offer such a good explanation for why a given society seems formed the way it is, in fact may not even explain that a society is formed the way it is; and then, it's recognized that the cognitive structures of binary opposition are constantly degrading, so a constant reiffication effort is required if a social form is to be maintained or allowed to change.

This in fact may be a more accurate description of the many "other" societies that anthropologists rushed to study as the institutions of globalization over the past five hundred years or so wiped them out through colonialization, and later something called "modernization" and "development." Many of those societies may have been much more flexible and interactive with their environments than the structuralists, who were operating themselves out of a paradigm of societietal mode bent on maintaining its own complex institutional forms intact, imagined them to be with their projecting of an analytical stasis by coding and analysizing through their entirely rational screen of the binary opposition tool, an analytical device they'd discovered through the very nature of their own philosophical traditions. Post structualist anthropologist have gone back and reexamined the precepts of Anthropology itself, and from that have emerged different efforts at understanding the nature of society, efforts that attempt to see how abstact forces are moving dynamically and in a flux relationship, both within the institutions and between the interface of cultural devices that are the very adaptation to the environment. Ecopsychology is something that has emerged out of the awareness that some sort of complex adaptational process is taking place, and that the consciousness of the whole of a society is involved. The hypothesis is that an increased awareness of the forces of nature can be a positive element in that process.

The binary oppositions then can be recognized to be in constant degradation against the forces of the whole of society which are made up of institutions, and what minimizes degradation is often the adherence to form itself that people participate in, almost like a daily ritual, and those forms reiffy the validity of the the institutions and the need for them, which can give a sense of stability and thus with stability "safety." This safety and stability of institutions may be a good and a valid strategy for all to take part in, as society is a group effort no matter how many notions of disintegration are introduced -- notions like favoring the concept that individual "freedom" is favored over the values of a whole of a group, a particularly familiar binary opposition one often hears as a rational explanation to promote certain societal institutions as necessarily performing for the good of all in a somewhat vague, and usually poorly defined atmosphere that holds together yet another concept called "free enterprise" and Reagan's famous "magic market," and so forth. This is how at least some of us go about looking at the rational forms that make up the glue of society, that hold together the institutional forms that we all, with some degree of conscious intent, freely agree to maintain.

If, perhaps, the social forms do not comply with the natural ontology of the inherent elements of a planetary biosphere seeking balance and sustainability of energy flows and species interactions that are the very nature of that energy interaction in a complexity we think of as life. In fact, past efforts to create complex societies based on an adherence to the institutions that are that that very hierarchical complexity has nearly always led to the collapse of complexity, from our understanding of history. That history is itself worth paying attention to, and holding in mind as we question the nature of our own complex institutions and where they may implicitly lead the human participants. So that itself, once understood, should bring a note of caution to those who follow the forms of their society, and one might then want to understand those forms and their ontological implications.

Thus to make an effort to stand aside from the forms which are the "conformity" the forces of society seek to maintain in order that the forms continue, to look at them and attempt to see them and their very nature, is an act of freedom; in fact an act of radical freedom because of the very inherent nature of institutions, and one which is generally frowned upon, and one for which those who dare do it are often eliminated from the public discourse in one way or another. There are many ways the status quo of cultural forms can be used to "eliminate" seekers and questioners.