Feelings of alienation are rampant in the West. We lack a vital interconnectedness and, perhaps ironically, fear a deeper connection to nature and ourselves. In a frenzied effort to feel something – anything – we compulsively shop, obsessively overwork, binge on television, love affairs, facelifts and breast implants, and celebrate our overconsumption of alcohol, substances, and food. However, new cars, promotions, serial relationships, television marathons, Botox parties, and binge eating and drinking provide little comfort. Each diversion becomes a Sisyphean task alienating us further from ourselves and from nature. In this essay, I will explore how mystical and depth psychological perspectives on psyche and nature may guide the Westerner toward a deeper connection to self, others and the divine. What remedies may the Western depth psychotherapy practitioner or psychotherapist provide by embracing and inviting nature, both literally and metaphorically, into his or her practice?
Alienation from Self and Nature
Alienation from nature and self is a uniquely modern malady. “Progressively, over the course of the centuries, Western humankind indulged in a mental separation from the totality of all physical phenomena, building up the wall of civilization against Being, elevating ourselves above all other living organisms” (Francois & McGaa, 2007, p. 36).
We have inflated our own significance and lost our sense of connection with nature and the unconscious (Jung & Sabini, 2002). Many, if not most of us possess the profound fear that “no matter what we do or say or accomplish, our life will be meaningless, an insignificant blip on the screen” (Hedges, 2005, p. 51). Perhaps we are riddled with this anxiety because our autonomous sense of self is merely an illusion. Many depth psychologists, Eastern philosophers, mystic teachers, and naturalists propose that it is precisely our dualistic fantasies that limit our direct experience with matter and the numinous. That is, our separation from nature is a reinforcing myth, a self-fulfilling prophecy that itself keeps us from connecting to everything around us and from wholeness.
The modern world is slowly realizing that our disconnection from nature has become self-destructive. Profound and bewildering damage, however, has already been done. “As Americans, we have always left when the land became degraded, moved on to the next best place. Walked west. Now, our continent is inhabited. There is no place left to go” (Williams, 1994, p. 135). At stake are not only our physical environment but our inner lives and relational connections as well. “Our immediate business, and our quarrel, is with ourselves…Human beings themselves are at risk—not just on some survival-of-civilization level but more basically on the level of heart and soul. We are in danger of losing our souls” (Snyder, 1990, p. 177). Freud attempted to normalize the “danger of losing our souls” by defending the classically dualistic Cartesian point of view. He explained that all humans are born with the biological instinct to return to an inorganic state, insisting that while we crave survival, we also possess an unconscious, biological drive to self-destruct. In his essay, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud states, “the aim of all life is death” (Freud & Gay, 1989, p. 613). Essentially, Freud posited that when we die, and return to nature, all connection is severed. He was an avid atheist and described unhappiness as a “common” human condition (Breuer & Freud, 1893-1895/1955, p. 305). Freud’s pessimistic hypothesis appears to pervade the societal attitudes in the Western world; an individual is autonomous and fears his return to nature, as it will result in his eventual nothingness.
We are Nature
Jungian psychologists and mystic scholars turn Western individualism—and isolation from nature—upside down. Jung diverged from Freud’s hypothesis and envisioned sympathetic bonds between the human psyche and its physical, extrasensory universe. “In Jung’s unus mundus, the ‘potential world outside of time,’ everything is interconnected, and there is no difference between psychological and physical facts, nor between past, present or future” (Salman, 2008, p. 59). That is, you, I, we, nature, energy, intelligence, time, light, dark, and the divine are all connected. In our physical life, each time we are able to let go of our omnipotent fantasies (i.e. let our inflated egos die), we are united with this great connection. We discover that the Divine and the experience of wholeness are accessible from within. Psyche is all around us and within us. In his hymn to matter, Pierre Teilhard De Chardin (1999) mystic and scholar, illuminates the concept of unus mundus when he states,
Blessed by you, harsh matter, barren soil, stubborn rock: you who yield only to violence, you who force us to work if we would eat…Blessed be you, universal matter, immeasurable time, boundless ether, triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations: you who by overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards of measurement reveal to us the dimensions of God…Blessed be you, mortal matter: you who one day will undergo the process of dissolution within us and will thereby take us forcibly into the very heart of that which exists. (p. 45)
In other words, we are nature. The Sufi mystic Rumi similarly and eloquently laments, “Every one who is left far from his source wishes back the time when he was united with it” (Jalāl & Nicholson, 1926, p.5). Gary Snyder (1990) and other ecologists may accuse mystics of “a modern variety of hierarchical spirituality” wherein “the efforts entailed in such a spiritual practice are sometimes a sort of war against nature—placing the human over the animal and the spiritual over the human” (p. 91). However, many academics posit that it is the ego that obstructs our ability to see our interconnection with all things. One of depth psychology’s basic tenets is that the inflated ego must symbolically die so that we may gain the experience of wholeness. In Dancing with Flames (1996), Marion Woodman asserts that metaphorical death is our path toward liberation and connection with our true Self. When we figuratively allow an aspect of ourselves to die, we create a space in our psyche for something new to be born. Jungian analyst, David Rosen (2002) coined the term “egocide” to describe when the inflated ego symbolically dies. In the Black Sun, psychoanalyst Stanton Marlan (2005) stresses that our authentic self cannot be found without killing the inflated ego:
Ego identity dies or is symbolically killed along with one’s former perspectives of oneself and of life . . . however,] what Jung calls the Self is not destroyed. What is killed or analyzed to death is the negative (destructive) ego or false (inauthentic) Self. The primary Self as an archetypal image of the Supreme Being remains connected to the secondary, reconstituted ego and the (true) authentic self which can be renewed and live its personal myth with joy. (p. 73-74)
Going Back into the Wilderness
How do we allow ego identity to die and get to this blessed state? I believe one of the most direct routes is by re-connecting with nature and going back into what Snyder (1990) terms, the “wilderness.” Snyder suggests, “Wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and non-living beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order. . . . To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came out of that wholeness” (p. 12). Nature offers a reunion with wild matter, energy, intelligence and the numinous.
Going into the “wilderness” becomes both literal and metaphorical in the psychotherapeutic setting. On a figurative level, psychotherapy offers a setting where we can metaphorically allow our old myths to die and claim new ways of being as we transform and grow. Joseph Campbell (2004) illustrates how the hero in every sacred story goes into the “wilderness” and experiences a process of death and re-birth. In fairytales and myths, when the hero confronts his nature and inevitable death, mortality and wholeness are discovered. Essentially, the hero’s journey tells and retells our collective story of entering the wilderness and coming back to tell the tale. Campbell relates:
The hero has died as a modern man; but as eternal man—perfected unspecific, universal man—he has been reborn. His second solemn task and deed therefore… is to return then to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed. (p. 18)
In the universal myth, it is the psychic walk into the “wilderness” that allows for wholeness. This material is alive in my own work with dreams and my therapeutic work with my patients. For example, for years I had a recurring nightmare wherein I discovered that I had lost either my arms or my legs. My dream of my lost limbs invariably involved my somber consideration of how I intended to carry on without the use of my body parts. At times, I was confined to a wheelchair—dreading my new limitations at work or in everyday activities. I also dreamed about struggling to effectively use a prosthetic device or about simply expressing grief over all that I had lost. The story of the “bed of Procrustes,” from Greek mythology was an oddly comforting metaphor for me during this time. Procrustes offered weary travelers a bed to sleep in for the night. If the person was too short for the bed, Procrustes would stretch the traveler’s body by racking it to make it fit. If the guest were taller than the bed, Procrustes would lop off his legs. This myth seemed to articulate a nagging message from deep below: “You are not enough,” or “Parts of you need to be cut off and killed.”
I entered psychotherapy with this dream and within a few months my dream imagery shifted. Instead of losing my limbs, I began visiting wild places. The environment of my dreams also became increasingly complex and labyrinthine. In one nightmare I encountered a maze that was covered with rats; whenever I touched one of the rats, it would electrocute me causing me tremendous pain. At least unconsciously, I was beginning to look at the wild, dangerous aspects of myself and to become more aware of the precarious balancing act I had been desperately attempting to live out. That is, if I accidentally revealed a perceivably weak or shadow aspect of myself to another, the shame and self-flagellation were unbearable. In fact, the humiliation was shocking.
These dreams mirrored my own psychological journey. I had begun to enter my own psychic “wilderness.” The hero within me had prompted the journey and was ready to explore the unknown. My need for approval from others had repressed and killed parts of myself that longed for rebirth and connection. I believe my therapy work confirms the clinical potential of going into the wilderness on a metaphorical level.
On a more concrete level, nature as a therapy in itself can be utilized in psychotherapy practice. Nature walking, equine therapy and animal-assisted therapy are all gaining popularity. In fact, over the past decade, ecotherapy has become legitimized in mainstream psychotherapy practices. In The Nature Principle, Richard Louv (2011) coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the negative mental health problems (i.e. obesity, depression, attention-deficit disorders) associated with children who isolate indoors and lack connection with nature. Louv shows that there is “a mass of new and growing evidence” in which experts are calling “for ecotherapy to be recognized as a clinically valid frontline treatment for mental health problems” (p. 65). Clinical psychologist George W. Burns (1998) has introduced a brief ecotherapeutic model outlining nature-guided strategies to use with psychotherapeutic patients. His techniques include offering guided imagery exercises, taking a nature walk with a patient, assigning homework in nature, and prescribing sunlight and gardening.
Ecotherapy and Mindfulness
However, to be effective, ecotherapy requires intention and care on the part of both the patient and therapist. According to Instructor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Eva Selhub (2012) and Naturopathic physician, Alan Logan (2012) ecotherapy requires intuitive counseling abilities and a deep respect for nature:
Ecotherapy requires mindfulness, not simply a contrived get-back-to-nature effort without conscious thought. Although contact with nature may have antidepressant and antianxiety effects akin to some psychotropic medications, it is essential to recognize that nature cannot be abused or taken for granted, and that humans can benefit from it only so long as they truly care for it. (p. 202)
Though Selhub and Logan are not as poetic or romantic about our connection to nature as are the mystics, they make the point that ecotherapy cannot be prescribed on a treatment plan in a cold and clinical manner. However, this is the very danger of integrating ecotherapy into Western medical psychotherapy models. Attitudes of alienation, fear and avoidance are habitual and deeply rooted in the Western collective psyche. Thus, when finding ways to connect with nature, we must continuously be conscious of our illusions. Entering into the “wilderness” and using nature-guided approaches must be viewed as a way of finding connection, as communication or translation rather than a technique to extinguish symptoms. Entering the wilderness emerges simultaneously as a literal and figurative undertaking. The ocean roars about our shared nature: like it we can be both calm and violent. The figurative and literal aspects of nature are not divided. Likewise, we are both. In Fear of the Feminine, Jungian analyst and scholar, Erich Neumann (1994) makes this point well:
This total world, which transcends us at both ends of our being, as psyche and as external world, is neither inside nor outside but everywhere. We are so completely embedded in it that we can only grasp it at all as the determining reality in unusual situations. Generally, however, humanity experiences it on the one hand as archetypal world, that is, the imaginal world of the gods, demons, and archetypes, but also, on the other hands, as ‘concrete thing’, as external, material world. (p. 212)
When integrating nature into depth psychotherapy practice it is important not to regress into dualistic delusions. Mystics can help us stay mindful. Poignant and romantic expression can guide the Western mind toward understanding ineffable unconscious experience and remind us that nature is “neither inside nor outside but everywhere.” De Chardin (1999) elegizes our potential to join soul and matter:
Purity does not lie in separation from, but in deeper penetration into the universe… The man saw himself standing in the center of an immense cup, the rim of which was closing over him.
And then the frenzy of battle gave place in his heart to an irresistible longing to submit: and in a flash he discovered, everywhere present around him, the one thing necessary.
Once and for all he understood that, like the atom, man has no value save for that part of himself which passes into the universe. (pp. 42-43) (Emphasis in original.)
Marrying the individual with the universal is being in the “wilderness.” In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Clarissa Pinkola Estes (2004) introduces Joseph Campbell’s work by drawing on the Sufi mystic story, The Conference of the Birds, by Farid ad-Din Attar. Estes likens the journey of Attar’s thousand birds to the travails of the human psyche. In the ancient poems, a thousand birds momentarily preview the concept of wholeness in a luminous feather. In awe, the birds join together and search for the bird that possesses such a miraculous feather believing that the owner of the feather may transform their bleak existence. In the end of the tale, applying Estes’ interpretation, the birds who remain devoted to the journey realize that their “faithfulness to the path – is the lighted feather, that this same illumined feather lives in each one’s determination, each one’s fitful activity toward the divine. The one who will light the world again – is deep inside each creature” (Estes, 2004, p. xxix). Attar poetically captures the concept of entering the “wilderness” in depth psychotherapy—that is, the Divine and the experience of wholeness are accessible from within.
Grads and Childers (2005) offer an introduction to ecotherapy that appears to capture both the practice and the spirit of connecting to nature. In their book, The Energy Prescription, they state, “Eco-therapy is about tapping into the inexhaustible, ubiquitous, spirit of nature and life itself, to energize and to heal—the shaman’s medicine” (p. 243). This is my aim as I work with patients as a depth psychotherapist. I would like to help individuals enter the wilderness, both physical and psychically, while keeping a poetic sensibility and meditating on our interrelatedness. Western psychotherapy can renew its models by adopting a similar ethos.
The more we relinquish our omnipotent delusions, the more a deep respect for nature emerges; we once again become connected to soul. Author and Jungian analyst, James Hollis (1993) stresses that our culture is numb to the needs of the soul:
Conditioned to shun feeling, avoid instinctual wisdom and override his inner truth, the average male is a stranger to himself and others, a slave to money, power and status…Many women, similarly, are unempowered, their natural strengths eroded by inner voices of negativity (p. 54-55).
Western psychotherapy desperately needs to embrace the adventure of entering into the literal and metaphorical wilderness. The wilderness exists outside of us and is accessible within us. “One goes out into the ‘trail that cannot be followed’ which leads everywhere and nowhere, a limitless fabric of possibilities, elegant variations a millionfold on the same themes, yet each point unique” (Snyder, 1990, p. 153). In other words, those brave individuals who choose to confront and enter the wild aspects of themselves are promised healing, restoration and freedom. As we allow for greater connection with ourselves, nature and others, our clinical work will be enlivened and soul can be found.
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Brenda D. Gesell is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who served as a core faculty member at Vanguard University teaching clinical classes and supervising psychotherapists in training for over a decade. She has thirteen years experience as a clinical practitioner and recently completed her doctoral coursework in Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California. Her research interests include mythology, alchemy, ecopsychology as well as dream work and active imagination work.