Awakening The Ecological Unconscious

Ecopsychology: healing our alienation from the rest of Creation

One of the articles in Exploring Our Interconnectedness (IC#34)
Originally published in Winter 1993 on page 48
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

Vice President Al Gore, in his book, Earth in the Balance, is among those who compare our culture’s inability to effectively grapple with our ecological crisis to a dysfunctional family. In both cases one finds symptoms of denial, failure to take responsibility for damage caused, and a sense of inertia that interferes with meaningful change. But where can a dysfunctional culture go for a cure?

Theodore Roszak’s call for a new synthesis of psychology, cosmology, and ecology may be part of the answer. "We need a new discipline that sees the needs of the planet and the person as a continuum and that can help us reconnect with the truth that lies in our communion with the rest of creation," he writes in The Voice of the Earth (Simon and Schuster, soon to be released as a Touchstone paperback).

Theodore Roszak’s book has sparked an interest among many in related fields in the potential for a new discipline based on these principles. He has dubbed this discipline "ecopsychology," and he is asking those interested in integrating the expertise of the environmentalist with the sensibility of the therapist to write to him at the History Department, California State University, Hayward CA 94542.

With the lessening threat of thermonuclear war, the abuse of the planetary environment by industrial society remains as the largest, most obvious form of collective psychosis in the modern world.

Are we to believe that this collusive madness plays no part in shaping the individual psyche? Yet there is not a single diagnostic category in modern psychotherapy that speaks to our need for healthy balance with the natural habitat.

It is, perhaps, the most revealing measure of our spiritual condition that those who would heal the soul have no sense of the soul’s place in nature. And this is, of course, freakish, since all traditional societies take reciprocity between the human and not-human to be the essence of sanity.

The following is an excerpt from The Voice of the Earth, in which I first describe ways that ecopsychology might be able to fill this vacuum.

HEALING OURSELVES;
HEALING THE EARTH

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 the person is anchored within a greater, universal identity.

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.

When we look out into the night sky, the stars we see in the chill, receding distance may seem crushingly vast in size and number. But the swelling emptiness that contains them is, precisely by virtue of its magnitude, the physical matrix that makes living intelligence possible. Those who believed we were cradled in the hands of God have not been so very wrong.

All this belongs to the principles of ecopsychology, but not in any doctrinaire or purely clinical way. Psychiatry is best played by ear. It is after all a matter of listening to the whole person, all that is submerged, unborn, in hiding: the infant, the shadow, the savage.

This list of principles is merely a guide, suggesting how deep that listening must go to hear the Self that speaks through the self.

  1. 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.

  2. 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. Contemporary studies in the ordered complexity of nature tell us that life and mind emerge from this evolutionary tale as culminating natural systems within the unfolding sequence of physical, biological, mental, and cultural systems we know as "the universe."Ecopsychology draws upon these findings of the new cosmology, striving to make them real to experience.
  3. 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. 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 person and the natural environment.
  4. 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. Ecopsychology seeks to recover the child’s innately animistic quality of experience in functionally "sane" adults. To do this, it turns to many sources, among them the traditional healing techniques of primary people, nature mysticism as expressed in religion and art, the experience of wilderness, the insights of Deep Ecology. It adapts these to the goal of creating the ecological ego.
  5. The ecological ego matures toward a sense of ethical responsibility with 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.
  6. 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 drive us to dominate nature as if it were an alien and rightless realm. In this regard, ecopsychology draws significantly on some (not all) of the insights of ecofeminism and feminist spirituality with a view to demystifying the sexual stereotypes.
  7. 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 therefore deeply questions the essential sanity of our gargantuan urban-industrial culture, whether capitalistic or collectivistic in its organization. But it does so without necessarily rejecting the technological genius of our species or some life-enhancing measure of the industrial power we have assembled. Ecopsychology is post-industrial, not anti-industrial, in its social orientation.
  8. 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.

ECOPYSCHOLOGY: A DISCIPLINE FOR THE 21st CENTURY

Since The Voice of the Earth came out, I have been delightfully surprised to receive a steady influx of letters, papers, and lectures from psychotherapists acquainting me with their concern about this very issue – and with what they have been doing to meet the need.

"Ecopsychology" is the name most often used for this growing body of theory and practice, but others have been suggested: psycho-ecology, nature-based psychotherapy, eco-therapy, shamanic counseling, green therapy, earth-centered therapy, re-earthing. Such neologisms never sound euphonious; nor, for that matter, did "psychoanalysis" in its day. But by whatever name, the orientation is the same. It begins with the assumption that the context for defining sanity in our time has reached planetary magnitude. Ecology needs psychology, psychology needs ecology.

There are a number of fascinating issues ecopsychology has brought into strong, personal focus:

  1. CONSUMPTION HABITS. What are the deep psychological roots of our "materialistic disorders" (as the Cambridge therapist Sarah Conn terms it)?

  2. GENDER STEREOTYPING in our relations with the natural environment. Of special interest here: the compulsive masculinity of western science and technology. Why the need to "conquer" Mother Nature in order to feel secure?
  3. CHILD PSYCHOLOGY and development. Kids are probably born closer to the ecological unconscious than they will ever be again. What goes wrong with them (us)?
  4. DESIGN. What would environmentally intelligent homes, workplaces, cities look and feel like? Why don’t we have many such in our world today? How do we manage to put up with the "madness of cities"?
  5. SUPERSTITIONS OF MONEY. "Gold drives the white man crazy," the Indians used to say. Abstract millions continue to do the same in our high-rolling world – and on an ever greater scale. Again: obvious psychosis. But why?
  6. THE PSYCHIC NEED FOR WILDNESS and wilderness. Can we make a case that mental health requires access to authentic wilderness and our untamed fellow species? If so, might that be our best strategy for preserving all the endangered species?

It should be noted that none of this is meant to replace the good hard political analysis and social action the environmental cause needs. It is meant to supplement that effort and deepen our understanding of issues. It is also intended to strengthen the psychology of the movement by giving it a broader emotional and moral range.

Some of us are looking forward to a newsletter and maybe a national conference of some visibility. Its purpose: to launch a new profession that integrates the expertise of the environmentalist with the sensibility of the therapist. I would appreciate hearing from anyone interested in joining the network. (See address in article introduction.)