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Ecopsychology: Working with and within nature

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I take care of my canoe and my body so as to be able to reach the other shore.

An urgent message, a past experience with which to live the present, an existence in which life is not absent.

Have you still not talked to the trees or listened to the mountains?

Have you still not made a pact with our brothers, the animals?

Have you still not learned the language of the clouds?

Come and reconcile yourself to nature.

  • My Canoe, author unknown

By: Caitlin Colson

We often conceptualize the challenges we face as disconnected from the larger world. For example, we might feel and understand our experiences of depression or anxiety as our personal challenges to bear and overcome. This way of thinking makes sense as traditional psychotherapy has worked on the premise that the client has a problem related to their ego structure, which can be fixed through clinical interventions, personal growth and development. Along these lines, the dominant Western paradigm is premised on an egocentric perspective in which it is natural to place our problems and ourselves in the center of our worlds. Alternatively, ecopsychology invites a shift from egocentric identification to an ecocentric perspective, expanding how  we see and make sense of ourselves in the world.

Ecopsychology as a framework for healing:

“Interdependence is the ongoing recognition that we are not separate from other beings or the world around us. Life is a web of infinite relationships.” Djuna Deveraux

Ecopsychology bridges human psychology with ecology, focusing on the interdependence and interconnections among all forms of life on earth. Ecopsychology situates the human psyche and each “individual” psyche as nodes in a vast, interconnected, relational network within and among all beings. With all beings, we include everything in the world around us, sentient and nonsentient, including, for example, entities like mountains, rivers and stars, as well as death, pollution and decay. 

From an ecological point of view, nothing exists on its own or individually or independently; everything exists in an interconnected set of relationships. As humans, we are part of larger ecosystems. Because of our relationships with  the world around us, our surrounding environments affect us positively and negatively. Our health and wholeness depend on the health of our environments. 

So, within an ecopsychological frame, each human and each psyche is not an independent unit apart from others. Rather, humans are all already a part of their environments and surrounding communities. This approach understands psychological wounds, like grief, depression, or anxiety, as symptoms of disconnections from the natural world and others. The painful feelings we carry may be empathic responses to our environments; we may be responding to the destruction of nature on our planet, unhealthy cultures or disconnected communities. So, ecopsychology holds that our wellbeing depends on consciously affirming and strengthening our connectivity to the natural world and those around us. 

Ecopsychology in practice:

Working with nature in mind can change our mindsets and ways of being with ourselves, each other, and the natural world. In our search for health and wholeness, ecopsychology encourages us to remember ourselves as co-existent with our physical and social environments. Answers to our challenges (personal and collective) can often be found and reflected within the natural world. 

Ecopsychology encourages us to see how the renewal and resilience of the natural world are reflected within ourselves. For example, we might feel like our world is on fire or that our love in a relationship is dying. We might then notice how a forest fire is regenerative or how a dead tree becomes home to a vibrant network of fungi. In this way, ecopsychology can involve using metaphors and processes from the natural world to frame and make sense of our experiences. 

We can also bring our experiences of nature into the counselling room to be processed and integrated. For example, if we are drawn to mountains, we might integrate the strength and sturdiness of a mountain into our own sense of ourselves. If we are drawn to rivers, we might look at the flow of life energy within ourselves. We might practice feeling the elements of earth, air, fire and water in our bodies. Or we might connect visually to spaces in nature that help us feel relaxed and rejuvenated. 

Outdoor sessions are another powerful and often fun way to work ecopsychologically. Working in natural settings enables us to draw on the direct and immediate experience of nature as a resource in the healing process. In an outdoor session, you and your counsellor might sit by the ocean, take a stroll in the forest, learn about the medicinal and energetic properties of plants, build an outdoor shelter, or co-create a ritual. Practices like forest bathing and establishing sit spots (places we regularly visit to sit meditatively in nature) are ways of working with nature. 

The possibilities for working with nature are vast, often creative and meaningful. Outdoor sessions can teach us how to connect with nature in an intentional and therapeutic way. These practices and the connection to nature as a resource can be drawn on outside of counselling sessions and integrated into everyday life.

What is Nature-based Counselling and What do Sessions Involve?

For many, the idea of meeting outside of an office and taking therapy into outdoors may be a novel idea, and you may be curious about what exactly this entails.  Just as in all counselling, what a nature-based counselling session will look like is as varied and unique as the individual client, counsellor, and their relationship.

Many clients find it calming to be outdoors in a natural setting and may just prefer to meet outside the confines of an office. Some may find it easier to talk while engaging in movement, walking side by side with their counsellor and sharing a view rather than sitting and facing each other. These sessions may feel rather similar to traditional talk therapy, but outside.

Others may seek a deeper relationship with their natural surroundings as a source of healing. You may find that you just ‘feel better’ when you are in more natural settings, and you want to further explore your relationship with nature. Nature-based counselling can help you find ways to deepen this connection and perhaps reflect on how to integrate your relationship with nature into your daily life.

Our natural world can have the capacity to elicit wonder, awe, curiosity, and playfulness in people of all ages. Drawing on this innate sense can help individuals reignite a forgotten side of themselves or a hidden passion.  Your counsellor can ask questions to inspire curiosity about what may draw your attention to certain plants, places, or views. The counsellor may also use techniques that gently invite awareness to sensory experiences or to explore your sense of self in nature. Through these experiences, you may gain insight into what you are experiencing and develop new avenues of awareness. 

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