Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ecopsychological Spirit

The Brisbane River is undergoing tremendous changes along its banks. According to criticism from Associate Professor Peter Skinner of The University of Queensland, the state government has been ''suckered into' allowing developers ... to treat the Brisbane River as if it were a 'vacant lot'' (Robinson, 2008).

What I'm reminded of here are the lyrics of the poignant Joni Mitchell song, revived recently by Counting Crows, Big Yellow Taxi:

'Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got till it's gone?
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.'

These types of changes to the urban river environment not only alter ecosystem flows, reduce tree canopy, and destroy bird, insect and animal havens, they also create an inner disturbance which the practical and academic field of ecopsychology seeks to assist. Irrevocable changes to the natural environment, especially to places where we may have grown up, can cause psychological trauma, grief and deep deep concern (Bohm, 2003; Windle, 1995).

In recognition of the personal, emotional and even spiritual impacts of environmental devastation, and in contrast, to promote the role of nature in human health and wellbeing, the Australian Psychological Association has developed a position statement, Psychology and the Natural Environment.

Authored by Joseph Reser and others, the document recommends that in light of 'the urgency and magnitude of the environmental issues and problems' ... intervention by 'psychologists requires much greater attention, visibility, strategic cross-disciplinary collaborations, and concerted effort.'

There are a range of practical eco-psychological approaches towards combatting the depressing impacts of environmental despair as well as enhancing human health and wellbeing. The pioneer ecopsychologist Sarah Conn makes a strong connection between personal psychological issues and broader ecosocial concerns. She works with individuals to enhance mental health and wellbeing together with an awareness and action program towards sustainability (of earth and self). This involves an immersion in the natural world.

In David Suzuki's wondrous television program The Sacred Balance, Sarah Conn takes Suzuki into the forest and explains to him the process of connecting simultaneously with forest with self with forest. Conn says: 'The key to motivating environmentally sound behavior, from an ecopsychological standpoint, is to enhance the human experience of connection with the non-human world - creating opportunities for experiencing an expanded sense of identity.'

To unearth this expanded sense of identity, or eco-identity, linked within The Sacred Balance website is a practical exercise called Soul Tracking. First there's a very short questionnaire about place which then leads to some suggestions about how to connect with one's place in order to develop or deepen a relationship with that place.

Initially there is an awakening of the senses, the sounds, sights, smells of the area mixed with deep purposeful breathing. Authors of Soul Tracking, Walter Christie and Cynthia Krum, say that their process is simple. It 'involves paying attention and noticing where you are drawn. It is like following an animal's tracks in mud or snow.' What you follow is what they call a 'fascination', something in nature that you feel drawn to.

'A fascination may be a place of resonance, a feeling of familiarity. There may also be a sense of mystery, a feeling of importance of this encounter. ... Once you are drawn to an image of fascination, observe it carefully. ... While tracking, you may use questions such as: how does what I have been drawn to relate to something going on inside of me? How does my experience relate to a specific theme or issue in my life?'

Following a fascination, or in process-oriented earth-based psychology, following a flirt, and contemplating its significance lacks the notion of reciprocity which an integral dimension of ecopsychological theory and practice. What emerges in this interconnected process of reciprocity is what Sarah Conn terms 'ecological consciousness', which occurs through 'an approach to phenomena [which] is about opening to their manifestation and resonating with them, opening to the intuitive awareness that we share consciousness with plants, animals, and even rocks.'

Conn was speaking at the 2007 Psychology-Ecology-Sustainability conference where she asked the insightful question: 'As we head towards breakdown, what possibilities are emerging for breakthrough? How can each of us open to those possibilities and find our part in the breakthrough?' Part of her answer can be found in the practice of ecopsychology whose task ' is restore the experience of interconnectedness and interdependence among psychological, cultural and ecological systems.'

During her talk, Conn cited the experience of the deep ecology and Buddhist Pullitzer Prize winning poet Gary Snyder whose nature encounter with an Oak tree had a profound effect:

'After years of walking right past it on my way to chores in the meadow, I actually paid attention to a certain gnarly canyon live oak one day. Or maybe it was ready to show itself to me. I felt its oldness, suchness, inwardness, oakness, as if it were my own. Such intimacy makes you totally at home in life and in yourself.'

Opening to another, whether Tree, River, Flower or Bird, can affect us signficantly. Conn says that in the process we slow down, become silent and are more open to and aware of local surroundings. As a result there can be unexpected consequences. One of Conn's students remarked that: 'Presented with unseen complexity, a need for empathy, and the feeling of a greater energy at work, I felt a connection to the grass that encouraged me to give back.' Another commented: 'Being with the water allowed me to hear about movement, change, and constancy.'

The Brisbane River offers opportunities for soul tracking, an inner journey that can effect change in ourselves, and subsequently, in the environment.

Becoming aware of the intricacies of the river's aqua-system, the movement of the tides, the seasonal changes of water flow, the changing colours of plant and water, the sights and sounds of different creatures, and becoming attuned to the constancy of its flow, mesh together in a sense of curiosity and intent where responsiveness to nature leads to responsibility for nature.

Slow down, notice, feel the fascination, connect, reflect, give back. Conn comments that what emerges through an eco-connection with places in nature is an 'ecological identity, a consciousness of one's place in the ecological community' that leads to an active engagement of care.

Bohm G, 2003, Emotional reactions to environmental risks: Consequentialist versus ethical evaluation. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23, 199 - 212.
Conn S, 2007, Psychology in a New Key: Ecopsychology and Ecological Consciousness, Paper presented to the Psychology-Ecology-Sustainability Conference, Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon, June 8, 2007.
Robinson G, 2008, Flood concerns over Brisbane River, Sydney Morning Herald, Jan. 24, 2008,
Windle P, 1995, The Ecology of Grief, in T Roszak, ME Gomes and AD Kanner, Eds., Ecopsychology. Restoring the Earth. Healing the Mind, San Francisco, Sierra Club.