eco/therapy: theory & practice
Updated: Nov 21, 2022
Since I’ve entered this field and have been studying/exploring ecopsychology and ecotherapy, I’ve had trouble conceptualizing how theory gets translated into practice. This seems to be something that many thinkers and practitioners in the field have struggled with. Even after extensive reading, working in the field, and participating in an ecotherapy training, I still have a disquieting feeling around ecotherapy being reduced to grounding exercises and guided visualizations. All of these interventions are necessary and effective, and I use them in my own practice, but it has become important for me to re-conceptualize (or rather, allow to rise to the surface) what ecotherapy actually is, and what it means to turn theory into practice.
Queer Nature co-founder Pinar Ates Sinopoulos-Lloyd says there is no need for the distinction between eco/ grief and grief itself; “rather, the distinction “eco-grief” being different than “grief” is rooted in colonial binary thought (nature/human)”. The grief of one is the grief of all, and to compartmentalize “eco” grief severs it from the rest of grieving. This way of thinking can be applied to eco/therapy. It seems that disquieting feeling I had around putting theory into practice was my own innate knowing of the colonial origin of this division. My psyche could not reckon with it, or else experience yet another “split” within myself.
Our profession was born from the earliest iterations of guides - shaman, curanderas, witches, etc. - who were innately channeling and engaging with the living world. They didn’t have to create interventions specifically curating connection to the land. Everything they did was infused with this relationship, because they knew they are it. [I acknowledge the present existence of these folks in the world, too, and do not intend to erase them. Here I am talking about the history of mental health.]
In order to "re-member" (to bring our bodies/minds/spirits into alignment with the rest of the natural world) this fundamental aspect of "mental health", it seems that ecopsychology has attempted to point at the “thing” in order for the “thing” to be seen. The deep knowing of connection is part of our foundation as human animals. Our literal bodies are built of the same stuff as the soil and the stars. The way our neurons weave and synapses spark mimic the mycelium of our mushroom kin. Our very breath is dependent on those that photosynthesize, and we insure our breath through returning essential elements back to these beings.
Sometimes I think the Earth (or rather, our own psyche) is laughing at us as we create these boxed schools of thought: “ecopsychology”, “spiritual ecology”, etc. As if all that you do is not organic. As if soil is not spirit without us saying so.
When we connect, we are taking part in a basic life process. We see how the living world utilizes connective processes in each moment. Joanna Macy’s “Work That Reconnects” captures this expansive view of connective processes. Born from systems theory and Buddhist spirituality, the Work holds the complexity and sacredness of all that is. Nature is not "out there", nature is not just what we call trees and animals. In the Work, nothing is romanticized. We are called to sit with the most uncharismatic experiences, to be wholly present and accepting of our grief, our numbness, our turning away from life.
I think of the unwilling/uninterested client, who doesn’t like to do mindfulness activities, who doesn’t have a relationship with nature, and who is disconnected. How do we engage them in connecting to life? How do we meet them where they’re at, being mindful not to insert our own beliefs about what it looks like to “connect”?
I’m learning that in order for ecotherapy to be effective, we must see it as an orientation, not only a modality. If we, as therapists, are holding good space, calling in the world around us, and making connection, we are practicing ecotherapy through the very dyadic relationship between client and practitioner. If we are holding the intention of being guided by and connected to the Earth and ourselves, our clients are receiving the benefit of this work. As animal beings, even sitting 1-1 in an office is ecotherapy, for we are not isolated organisms. What matters here is intention and presence. This is a relational worldview.
The difference between “ecotherapy” as a modality and eco/therapy as an orientation is an explicit vs. implicit relationship. Explicit ecotherapy looks like a guided visualization. Implicit eco/therapy looks like tapping into our animal bodies and being rooted in the sensation of being part of a connected, living system, not just being “in” or “with” nature, but being of it.
So let’s make an attempt to integrate the explicit and implicit.
Yes, it’s happening - find yourself in a comfortable seat. Or lay down, or stand, or move. Let your body choose for you. If it feels good to close down your eyes, you can do that. If you’d like to hold a low gaze instead, honor that too.
Now notice what your breath is doing, and try to do so without judgement. Maybe you notice it as deep or shallow, easeful or labored. Perhaps as you sit here noticing your breath it naturally begins to deepen and slow. If it hasn’t already, allow it to deepen and slow over your next few breaths.
From here, bring your attention to your head and your actual brain, where your prefrontal cortex is supporting you in making decisions, your brainstem is allowing you to breathe, and your amygdala is attempting to relax into meditation. Let your mind wander. Go all the places it wants to - how uncomfortable the position you chose is, tomorrow’s plans, the latest thing you’re obsessing over. Let’s allow this for a moment.
Now pull your awareness back and reconsider your brain. Can you draw your awareness from here down into your lower body? Maybe it’s traveling through your brainstem down your spine. Land somewhere in your torso - solar plexus, heart, stomach. Maybe this kind of somatic exercise just doesn’t work for you. If you can’t feel anything, wiggle your fingers and squeeze your hands to bring some awareness to something below your brain. Do this as much as you need.
As you sit here with your focus on some part of your body that isn’t your brain, bring attention to the way it is moving living energy. Perhaps you can feel your heartbeat or the blood rushing to different parts of your body. Maybe you sense digestion in your gut. Perhaps you can feel a gentle tingling or pulsing in your palms and fingers.
Any time your attention is pulled away back to your brain and all of the things, take a deep breath, and see if you can return to where you left off.
From here, take that awareness of sensation and see if you can draw it out to hover just outside of your skin. You can visualize this or just try to get a felt sense of the space around your corporeal body, or if it’s really difficult, hold your hand in this hovering space to create a sense of an expansive boundary.
Allow this expansive boundary to keep extending into the space you're in. Can you sense the presence of other objects or features of the space without opening your eyes? Are there plants or animals or sacred objects in the space that emit their own potent energy? See if you can, with every inhale, extend your awareness outward, and with every inhale draw it back into your own body. This dance is happening all the time. Part of returning to connection is awakening to the dance from moment to moment.
Your pulsing, breathing awareness is but one of many connective processes that move in this cyclical way. Water flows from cloud to ground to river to ocean to air, capillary action draws water and sugar into the limbs of the trees who rain their leaves back to the Earth, mother deer gives birth to their fawn who grows and swells with new life one later Spring.
Each of these actions is of equal importance to the flow of Life. The condensation of your breath is the water cycle. The blood in your veins draws nutrients from food and in the end, food you will become. A fawn lays on the flat grass of the deer bed in your heart.
What does it feel like to allow this sense of connection and tenderness in your heart? And if you're unable to feel it, what does that sensation feel like? We only know cohesion because we've had experiences of separateness, we only know what it feels like to be divided because we've felt connection.
Quietly draw your attention back from wherever it's dwelling right now and begin to reconnect to your breath. In your own time, take three deep breaths, focusing on drawing your awareness back into yourself. When you're ready, very slowly flutter open your eyelids and first take a look at your own body, the shape that it's in, the colors, the textures. Draw your attention now to the rest of the space - what is most pleasing to you? What helps you to feel most present and grounded as you return?
Honor yourself for allowing space to exercise this muscle of awareness, and also honor all the ways in which you were withdrawn from it. Honor the immense amount of magic and power you hold to establish and play with connection to all life, and to your own heart. Honor all of the other hearts who engage with this practice, that we may all feel more alive. And so it is.