Remembering Our Essential Goodness: Ecopsychology and the Work that Reconnects

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by Emily Swanson

“You don’t appeal to the conscience of an audience, you introduce them to their own goodness.”  ~ Father Gregory Boyle

“Oh wow! Guys, look at this!”

I had just ended a 10 minute silent sit on the side of a local trail with a group of residents at the drug and alcohol rehab center where I run a weekly ecotherapy program. One of the women in the group called out as she sat up from where she lay. The group crowded around as she pulled off the burs and seeds that had gathered on her sweatshirt.

One seed in particular held her in fascination. It was a perfect spiraling shape, a long slender screw, as delicate as the filament of a light bulb. The seed of Erodium Cicutarium, Common Storksbill. The tiny, elegant spiral captivated the group and in moments we were scouring the ground looking for our own.

As we walked down the hill, each carefully cupping our collection of the magical looking seeds, a conversation spiraled forth. One person shared about their love of the Fibonacci sequence which prompted a discussion of the spiral pattern throughout all nature, another mentioned a memory of a spiral seashell. We talked about how recovery is like a spiral, that we never go backwards, but are always spiraling deeper. One member excitedly called out that she was going to keep the seed on her bedside to remind her that there was beauty in the world, another planned to bring them home to her girls.

The group, which had been sullen and skeptical as we set out, was lively, laughing, connected with themselves, one another, and the land. I thought of the Spiral of the Work That Reconnects and it’s starting point in gratitude. Here we were at that place, opened to the goodness of the world and the goodness within one another and ourselves. Connected. Re-woven into the vast web of life.

One of the group members was mesmerized by the fact that if he spiraled the seed in one direction it appeared to open. If he spiraled it the other, it appeared to get smaller.

And there it is: if we open to gratitude, to our goodness and the goodness of all beings, the spiral of our lives unwinds “towards connection, health and aliveness” (Heller & LaPierre, 2012).  If we stay closed, the feedback loops stay blocked, we spiral in the other direction — ever smaller and more constrained.

As I was saying goodbye, one member, a heavily tattooed man in his early twenties, leaned close to me and whispered, twirling his seed between his fingers, “I almost didn’t come, I saw ecotherapy and I thought: nature, lame.”

That’s the thing. Many of us living in the Industrial Growth Society almost don’t come. We almost don’t come because we have forgotten there is anything more than the story we’ve been sold about ourselves, about our culture, about our world.

In that story – the myth of separateness intrinsic to the Industrial Growth Society – the spiral spins backwards; smaller, more isolating, more confining.

As a psychotherapist and ecotherapist, grounding my work in the Work That Reconnects gives me a different story to share — a story where the spiral has the potential to spin outwards towards openness, healing and life. It is a story where we are interconnected, and have always been. It is a story where our pain is an indication of that very interconnection. It is a story where we are introduced to our own goodness.

In my practice I witness on a daily basis the impacts of the Industrial Growth Society on our psyches and souls. I work with people whose bodies have been strip-mined and fracked by addiction, prescription medication, and the mainstream psychological system.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

  • Approximately 1 in 5 adults in America experience mental illness in a given year.
  • Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%.
  • Almost 7% of adults in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.
  • 18% of adults in the U.S. experienced an anxiety disorder such as PTSD, OCD, and specific phobias.
  • Among the 20.2 million adults in the U.S. who experienced a substance use disorder, more than 50% had a co-occurring mental illness.
  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., the 3rd leading cause of death for people aged 10–14 and the 2nd leading cause of death for people aged 15–24.
  • More than 90% of children who die by suicide have a mental health condition.
  • Approximately 20% of state and local jail prisoners have “a recent history” of a mental health condition.
  • 70% of youth in juvenile justice systems have at least one mental health condition and at least 20% live with a serious mental illness.

Mainstream mental health supports Business As Usual. Experiences such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, PTSD, suicidality, are defined as pathological, a “disorder,” something wrong that needs to be fixed. This hierarchical approach, as articulated by psychotherapist, author, and interpersonal neurobiology and attachment expert Bonnie Badenoch PhD, is “inherently splitting…even for our internal systems” (Badenoch, 2017).

When we see ourselves within this story the spiral tightens. We are separated from others and from ourselves. We cannot heal. We can only hope to deaden or escape the pain.  

In order to heal, people who have been diagnosed, discounted and dismissed desperately need a new story.

The Work That Reconnects offers such a story. But like any good story, there needs to be a beginning, an entry point. Ecotherapy and nature connection is such an entry point, one that is easily experienced by a majority of people, no matter how deeply immersed in the Industrial Growth Society.

At the recovery center we open each group with a five senses meditation. In an outdoor location I guide participants to be present with each of the senses over the course of several minutes. Then we each share one thing we noticed during the meditation. Without fail this simple exercise drops the group immediately into a more open, intimate space. People share of feeling the breeze on their skin, or the discomfort of a pain, or seeing the colors of the leaves against the sky. Body language shifts, people are more at ease, more engaged.

Connecting with nature brings us back to our senses.  

Science supports what our bodies already know. Study after study has shown that exposure to nature not only makes one feel better emotionally, it reduces blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones. Research done in hospitals, offices, schools and prisons has found that a single plant in a room can significantly decrease stress and anxiety.

When we are able to, as Mary Oliver encourages in her poem Wild Geese, “let the soft animal of [our] body love what it loves” a different wisdom takes over. Our nervous system calms down. We come out of our fight/flight response and into a more receptive state. A new story is possible.

From there it is not hard to see one’s own life as the psychospiritual equivalent of a stripmined mountainside or a monocultured and pesticided field. We do to one another and to ourselves what we do to the earth.

Badenoch asserts that the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) – the diagnostic Bible of the mental health field – should be renamed to the Supportive Manual of Brilliant Adaptations. She goes on to explain “an adaptation is the response of a system or system of systems that is wise at every level (body, feelings, thoughts, behaviours, relational strategies) that is always doing the best it can to help the individual survive” (Badenoch, 2017). Her viewpoint is based on a systems view of the human organism and is synergistic with the foundations of the Work That Reconnects.

It is profoundly empowering to see even our most painful patterns as the creative adaptations of a wise system to a toxic environment.

If we have been told that we are deficient, a screw up, doomed to live in the shadow of a diagnosis, it is profoundly empowering to see even our most painful patterns as the creative adaptations of a wise system to a toxic environment. Symptoms are no longer something to be ashamed of, to be hidden.

As the Work That Reconnects illustrates, they are the cries of our soul when ripped from it’s rootedness within the more-than-human world and forced into service of a psychopathic culture. Our pain points to our connection with all things. Our pain marks the wounds that need our tending, our love. 

Working within the process of the spiral, it is here that we turn to honoring our pain for  ourselves.

This is a challenging process as feedback loops are unblocked and old beliefs about ourselves, our families, and our relationships begin to disintegrate. It is chaotic and scary as the system reorganizes itself around the new story.

Again, connection with nature provides support for this point in the spiral.  Nature provides many maps for transformation and change to help guide us through this process.

In my office I have a small sculpture of a butterfly emerging from the bowed body of a woman.  Clients who are in the midst of a transformative process often instinctively reach for it. The sculpture represents the metamorphosis process of one state of being to another, in which there is always a disintegration of the old – positive disintegration in systems terms. In the case of the butterfly, it is the caterpillar that dissolves  before the new being can emerge. The example of the butterfly is a touchstone for many clients as they move through their own lengthy and uncertain periods of dissolution when old beliefs and ways of being are falling away and the new structures have yet to be built.

A client came in one day, exasperated, and sat down, saying, “It would be so much easier if I didn’t keep trying to stay a caterpillar!” We both had a laugh and the session progressed with an enlivening exploration of how he could let go into the natural process of transformation that had taken hold.

In nature we are surrounded by evidence that “the spontaneous movement in all of us is towards connection, health and aliveness”(Heller & LaPierre, 2012). Witnessing this in the natural world gives us faith that, “no matter how withdrawn and isolated we have become, or how serious the trauma we have experienced, on the deepest level, just as a plant spontaneously moves toward sunlight, there is in each of us an impulse moving toward connection and healing.”

Within the story of the Work That Reconnects, we are introduced to our goodness. Ecotherapy offers us an embodied experience of that goodness, and of the goodness of the world around us. When connected with this inner resource, instead of silencing our symptoms, we are empowered to listen to their wisdom, hear their histories, honor their pain, and free up the creativity and tenacity of our system for connection, creativity, compassion and joy.  

References

Laurence Heller and Aline LaPierre. “Working with the Capacity for Connection in Healing Developmental Trauma,” Hakomi Forum, Issue 25, 2012, pp. 7-22.

Bonnie Badenoch, PhD. PowerPoint presentation during the first weekend of a yearlong Interpersonal Neurobiology training, April 15,  2017.

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