Ecotherapy and The Work That Reconnects

Ecotherapy and The Work That Reconnects
Ariana Candell, MFT, arianaca@sbcglobal.net, 510-255-1141
(This article was written as part of a commemorative book for Joanna Macy)

 “What if the leaves, stirred to singing by the breeze,
sing with even more joy when they notice you are listening?…

What if the trees feel the depth of your pain, and are quietly reaching toward you,
offering solace with everything they have to give?”1  

In our modern world, many people feel isolated and disconnected from nature and their true selves. Ecotherapists help people feel less alone and more supported by linking their personal pain and healing with the larger healing of the earth.  They weave people’s hearts, bodies and spirits back into the interconnected web of life with the leaves and the trees. 

The field of Ecotherapy and The Work that Reconnects (WTR) make a beautiful braid of mutual enhancement that are easily integrated with each other. Ecotherapy’s numerous practices for cultivating intimate and reciprocal relationships with the natural world are a gift to the WTR. At the same time, WTR’s acknowledging our pain for the world and using that loving connectedness for positive action is a beacon for Ecotherapists. The structure of the WTR spiral offers a natural framework for ecotherapists to follow as it models how healing takes place beyond the personal, to community and global levels. This chapter includes numerous examples of how the WTR spiral is adapted into ecotherapy practices with both groups and individuals, demonstrating how this combination offers a potent and timely approach for individual and collective healing.

A major goal of Ecotherapists is to guide people to develop a positive, reciprocal relationship with the natural world. But since Western culture discourages people from feeling their natural, animal, sensate bodies, many live disconnected from their bodies. “In order to feel into the truth of our interdependence in the world, we need to have EXPERIENCE of the natural world. When we slow down and pay attention to the sensate experience of the world around us, we begin to feel into ourselves as PART of Earth instead of separate from it “ writes Kristin Masters, Ecotherapist and Nonviolent communication teacher.  

The branch of ecotherapy that guides people to engage their bodies to connect to the natural world is called Somatic Ecotherapy. It facilitates nature-connected body presence through practices such as conscious breathing, grounding and movement. For example, we can invite people to become aware that they are connected to all beings through breath. They are literally receiving “the breath/ of towering pines/ growing on rugged mountain slopes/ and tiny green plankton/ floating in distant seas.”2 To support grounding, I invite people to imagine a circle of redwoods (or a beloved regional tree); to direct their sensations to their feet (barefoot is best); and to imagine roots growing deep into the ground and intertwining with other roots for strength. Many ecotherapists also facilitate opening the body by feeling into the elements of air, water, fire and earth and expressing them through movement, as these are primal and accessible forms. Bringing somatic awareness to the connection of the physical body with trees, rivers, creatures and the elements can support the development of a more embodied relationship with the earth.

 The WTR Spiral of Coming from Gratitude, Honoring our Pain for the World, Seeing with New Eyes and Going Forth offers a structure that is conceptually and practically aligned with ecotherapy. Of the ten ecotherapists interviewed for this article, most used specific WTR exercises in work with groups and WTR concepts for sessions with individuals. Group settings spanned the range of workshops, retreats, rituals, ongoing groups, yoga classes, university courses and ecotherapy trainings. The major content in this article details how ecotherapists work with each stage of the spiral starting with groups settings and following with individual clients. 

 WTR and Ecotherapy with Groups

Coming from Gratitude is incorporated into many ecotherapy group settings and is an essential principle at the heart of creating reciprocal relationships with the natural world. One of the most common and accessible ways that ecotherapists help people feel their initial connection and appreciation of nature is through sensory experiences, bringing attention to sounds, smells, sights, sensations and flavors. These offer an immediate visceral presence and an experiential mode of being, and enhance people’s comfort with and connection to in their surroundings. When we begin a group by offering gratitude for the land, its creatures and the ancestors, it frames our time together as being in relationship with all that is around us and acknowledges our interdependence with all of life. For example, we can invite people to cross over a threshold circle made of natural materials (such as a branches, flowers or stones) and share what they are grateful for. Another example is an adapted “Open Sentence on Gratitude” that guides participants through calling to mind a place in nature that they love and describing it to a partner with present-tense sensory words, excluding the dominant sense of sight. This evokes an embodied sensory experience of deep appreciation for their beloved place that they can return to on their own as a powerful source of respite or strength.

 A major aspect of ecotherapy is to validate and process people’s eco-grief, eco-anxiety, anger and despair, and to link personal pain to the larger issues of the planet. The practices from Honoring our Pain for the World are the part of the WTR spiral used most often in ecotherapy groups. They are a welcome structure to hold the sometimes intense and immense feelings evoked at this stage. As in the previous stage, combining somatic awareness with nature connection “strengthens the capacity to overcome denial, recognize the urgent threat of ecological catastrophe and feel the attendant sorrow and rage” says Shanti Mayberry, Ph.D., Ecotherapist. A somatic ecotherapy addition to “Open Sentences” can be to hold a nature piece (shell, stone, pinecone, etc.) for a physical resource and connection to the natural world, if one is feeling overwhelmed.

In the face of mounting and sometimes catastrophic climate change losses, ecotherapists are more frequently offering community grief rituals, often using the “Truth Mandala”. “The Cairn of Mourning,” another favorite exercise, invites people to choose something from the natural world to represent what they’re grieving and share about it. Ecotherapist Ryan Van Lenning adds the creative element of his poetry to express what was lost in the Oakland hills.  “…All but one redwood/ Took only 15 years/ an entire forest of giants vanished/ in a single breath. /Hills scraped clean/ like a quick shave…”3

Ecotherapists also strive to facilitate the development an “ecological self” that goes beyond one’s personal identity to include the land, its creatures and all beings on the planet. Several practices in Seeing with New Eyes offer ways to enhance this, most commonly “The Council of All Beings.”  Inviting people to physically embody another being through movement is a powerful way to help them feel and express the essence of that being. A Dance/Movement Therapy addition I add is to encourage movement across the space with shifting speeds and levels, repeating potent movements and interacting with other life forms. This has led to the sunset wildness of ecstatic eagles and owls careening across a meadow as coyotes and wolves howl playfully. Evoking Seeing with New Eyes and an ecological self are important skills not only for ecotherapists, but for the wider mental health field. They can reduce isolation and personal blame for one’s suffering, and offer the powerful resource of connecting to a larger collective Self.

The last stage of the spiral, Going Forth has similarities to the common therapeutic practice of supporting clients to practice their new insights and behaviors . Many ecotherapists offer integration time at the end of groups to clarify intentions for how to bring wisdom from the natural world into one’s daily life. This may take the form of creating nature mandalas, journaling, drawing or claiming of intention rituals (similar to the WTR “Circle of Blessing”). A favorite somatic ecotherapy practice for this stage is improvisational moving and voicing of one’s power, similar to the WTR “Imaging Our Power.” I’ll never forget the breathtaking experience of one student blowing on the small embers of power in her hands and watching them grow into a vibrant fire. Ecotherapists also strongly encourage networking and ongoing contact amongst earth-honoring group members and colleagues to counter opposing cultural messages and uphold an earth-connected, life-sustaining paradigm.

In line with the concepts of Going Forth, Linda Buzzell, Ecotherapist and Professor at Pacifica Graduate Institute, offers a simple, practical “Three-part sanity recipe” as a key to mental health in this time of overwhelming challenges. She invites her clients and students to pick one action from each of the three aspects of The Great Turning such as cleaning up beaches for a “holding action;” initiating “simplicity circles” for “creating the world you want to live in,” and doing yoga or meditation outdoors for “shifting consciousness.” Buzzell encourages people to stretch themselves to participate in all three categories to establish personal balance and to keep in touch with the wider world’s issues.

WTR and Ecotherapy with Individual Clients

Many ecotherapists incorporate the WTR spiral with individuals in the office and outdoors, sometimes naming the components directly and sometimes not. They may facilitate the whole WTR spiral within the course of an individual session or over a more extended period of time.  

 The first part of the WTR spiral, Coming from Gratitude is often naturally present at the beginning of outdoor sessions as the client opens their senses to the natural world and often voices joy to be in such a beautiful place. Many ecotherapists start their sessions by expressing gratitude to the land and the ancestors, perhaps in words of thanks, a song, an offering of water, an invitation to touch the ground in thanks, or whatever feels authentic to them and their client. Offering gratitude is particularly potent for those directly affected by climate change. Ecotherapists can invite clients to give thanks for the fresh air that is present and the trees and life that survived. In my practice, we always close sessions by expressing gratitude for the land and all the beings that supported us that day.

 Honoring our Pain for the World is often the most substantial part of the spiral in an ecotherapy session. Ecotherapists working outside greatly appreciate the therapeutic role of the beauty and power of the natural world and its ability to help hold some of their clients’ pain. Jan Edl, Ecotherapist and Director of Holos Institute, validates her client’s suffering “with accurate empathy so the client doesn’t feel alone in the world.” Yet, she helps her clients see that their suffering is not just personal, but mirrored in the natural world. If someone is “grieving the loss of a loved one, they can look at the clear-cut forest and see how it mirrors their pain. Their pain is also reflected back to the forest, so we grieve for both.”

 On a macro level, Miki Fire, PsyD, and Core Faculty at the Joanna Macy Center, helps people realize how they are dramatically impacted by the “cultural, social, political, ecological, spiritual and cosmological” realms. She also helps them bring awareness to the parallel processes going on intrapsychically and with the planet. Ecotherapists directly validate their client’s despair and overwhelm about environmental and political concerns, as opposed to traditional psychotherapy which often directs these feelings back to personal or family patterns or issues. Guiding clients
to experience and express their feelings within the larger perspective of connection to the world can help them feel more freely and relieve a great deal of internally held suffering, as they are no longer feeling it in isolation.  

 In individual sessions, Honoring Our Pain for the World and Seeing with New Eyes are often closely intertwined, but the following examples illustrate how the latter phase may evolve separately. Mayberry incorporated an aspect of “The Council of All Beings” with a client who was struggling with a decision about moving to a home in a swampy, wildlife area. She encouraged her to “become that area and speak from that place.” From this mind and heart-opening perspective, her client came to a new feeling of treasuring the area and decided to move there.

In outdoor sessions, a shift may occur in a moment of awe—one that helps a client feel “woven into the fabric of that particular place…and feel a personal part of the greater whole and life there,” reports Edl.  An inner-city client of mine recently experienced a profoundly nourishing connection to the forest, which gave her a larger sense of herself and a more balanced
perspective on her personal problems. Supporting clients to realize and honor their interconnection with the world is a major aspect of ecotherapy and a crucial paradigm shift that helps them make more broadly-oriented, life-honoring choices.

 The last stage of the WTR spiral, Going Forth, is similar to the close of many therapeutic
sessions, as it offers tools and practices for integration into one’s daily life. In her work with clients affected by climate change fires, ecotherapist Lezlie Scaliatine Psy.D, encourages them to go forth by practicing being in tune with the natural world (post-fire) and not fearing it. She encourages them to play with their children outside and to share positive feelings about nature with others in their community. Similarly, ecotherapists who have helped clients process political anxiety encourage them to get involved with direct activism such as joining local activist groups or posting articles about what is happening to our climate. The ecotherapy process of Going Forth can also involve a trajectory of helping clients reconnect to nature after an outdoor trauma, develop safety outside, and then eventually sharing their positive experience of nature with their communities. In all of these ways, ecotherapists support clients in developing new behaviors that are in alignment with their authentic selves and the larger world.

Future trends:

In the face of escalating climate chaos and ecological devastation, ecotherapists and those utilizing WTR are increasingly helping individuals and communities cope with upheaval and develop creative solutions. Ecotherapists are engaging with governmental, educational and social institutions to help translate these immense environmental challenges in ways that motivate rather than alienate. This includes “Cultural Ecotherapy” initiatives like community gardens and neighborhood exchanges, environmental justice work and reparations to indigenous tribes. Both ecotherapy and WTR practitioners are increasing inclusivity and respect through discussions about decolonization, and by cultivating awareness of the vast cultural differences and sensitivities that need to be addressed in offering the work. 

Meanwhile, recognition of the healing powers of nature is growing rapidly among scientists, health care providers and the broader public, as evidenced by hundreds of scientific studies, the boom in “Nature Rx” (doctors prescribing nature time instead of medications) and articles about ecotherapy efficacy in mainstream publications such as The Atlantic Monthly and Psychology Today. At the same time, the number of ecotherapy training programs and practitioners are both rapidly expanding in the UK and the United States, with new ecotherapists coming from professions beyond mental health, such as nurses, doctors, doulas, coaches, landscapers, park rangers, and indoor and outdoor educators. These trends create exciting opportunities to help more people connect with nature not just to reduce stress or enhance their personal health, but also to find more balanced and earth-honoring ways of living

There is a momentum building to reconnect people with the wisdom and healing of the natural world and to harness that energy for making the significant cultural changes that are needed. Weaving the WTR into ecotherapy work is a powerful and proven way to create the life-enhancing world we want to live in. The trees and the leaves and waters are calling and we can answer and join them.

1.Poems of Earth and Spirit, Siedenburg, K. p.41
2 Ibid, p.69
3 Re-Membering: Poems of Earth and Soul, Van Lenning,R. p.115