Michael Apáthy explores the connections between environmental and psychological health, and offers ecotherapy as a sustaining practise for activists.
How deep does your connection to nature go?
This is a question I often ask myself. Do we have any conception or experience of how deeply it is possible to connect with nature? Like an old growth tree, the roots of this question spread far and wide, down towards the bedrock of our lives.
Looking out at the world around me at this very moment, do I feel a deep sense of belonging and intimacy, or is there a sense of alienation and distance? Do the people, animals, objects, and places with which I fill my life actually feel alive? Do I?
Of course to be alive, to let ourselves and others live is a risk. All lives will be hurt, sooner or later. What we think of as the natural world shows us this in plenty. Weather and the elements can be harsh – from our human point of view we impute mercilessness. Animals exist in relationships of predator and prey, in which morality seems to play no part. Plants flourish abundantly, but are harvested or destroyed just as abundantly, seemingly without protest. No wonder humans have constructed sterile and protected environments for ourselves, where decay, disease, risk, and aggression are banished or tightly controlled in an attempt to obliterate fear completely.
But, if you already experience some connection with nature, then you probably understand on some level that the price of complete control is our sense of aliveness, and that that price is not worth paying. Connecting with the natural processes of our world evokes our personal vulnerability, but human consciousness can adapt to tolerate this. After all, we are animals, inescapably, and the job of an animal is to live as much as it is to die.
The more deeply we are conscious of and connected to nature, however, the more deeply we are confronted with vulnerability. In the context of connection, our collective vulnerability in the face of climate change, and other so-called environmental issues breaks through into consciousness. We allow ourselves to digest information about these events that we have previously avoided. We allow ourselves to feel the emotions appropriate to the scale of the existential threat to our civilisations, cultures, and communities.
These feelings may include dread, fear, anger, numbness, and grief. If we don’t shut down in the face of these raw emotions, but instead allow our minds and hearts to remain open, we will also be able to feel hope. Acting on that hope, and connecting with others who are doing the same, we can feel joy and a deep sense of purpose.
If all of this sounds like a lot to deal with, then I can only say that I’d have to agree. That’s one of the reasons why ecotherapy exists, to guide, help and provoke those who want to meet the individual and collective challenges of being awake and alive in the 21st century.
How ecotherapy works
You might be wondering how it actually works, or what does it look like when a clinician and a client are actually engaged together in doing ecotherapy to address the big themes that I’ve already mentioned?
As in any therapy the most fundamental starting point is trust. Being clear about the nature of the profesional relationship, issues of confidentiality and other boundaries are important for establishing trust. Even more fundamentally in my experience clients want to know does this therapist have the skills to help me, and can they emotionally connect with me enough for me to dare to be vulnerable?
Other important initial questions to address in ecotherapy are the client’s goals. Some examples of goals include someone wanting to understand what is really going on behind their burnout, wanting to address personal or relationship issues that interfere with environmental work, wanting to address overwhelming feelings of meaningless, disconnection, despair, grief or anger in relation to environmental issues, or wanting to address other personal issues that may not appear directly connected to environmental issues, but may benefit from being explored with a therapist who has similar values or life-purpose regarding the environment.
Once goals and basic trust is established, the actual therapy of ecotherapy can begin. This can be as varied as any other psychotherapeutic work. For instance the work may involve delving deep into the unconscious processes, working with spirituality, or working on practical skills for dealing with every day issues of stress, communication difficulties, etc. In addition, due to their specialised interest in this area, ecotherapists will work with the complex interrelatedness between individual, communal and environmental health in a way that conventional psychotherapists or psychologists may not be able to do.
Ecotherapists may conduct sessions outdoors, helping clients to deepen their relationship with their internal and external world at the same time. Ecotherapists are not neutral on environmental issues, they are deeply committed, but they should also be able to work with clients on the shadow sides of environmental engagement that may take forms such as aggressive self righteousness, absolutist or apocalyptic thinking, or developing a generalised negative attitude towards humans beings or human civilisation.
Hopefully this article has given you a taste of the possibilities when the two artificially segregated territories of environmental and psychological health are creatively brought together. I’d love to hear your responses and questions, so please post them, or contact me directly.
Michael Apáthy is a psychotherapist and ecotherapist practising in Sydney. He has written, presented about, and trained others in ecotherapeutic practice in New Zealand, Australia, and the USA. He is passionate about working therapeutically to support those engaged with environmental issues, and will do so at significantly reduced rates. Contact Michael at Lucid Psychotherapy.