Ecopsychology in Practice; Heart and Soul of the ‘GreatTurning’?

by Hilary Prentice

(Reproduced by permission of GreenSpirit and the author from GreenSPirit Journal, Vol 10.1, 2008, pp 20-21)

I was 13 years old in 1968.Through Sunday papers and eventually television, I learned of student demonstrations and the Vietnam war, countries being invaded, people starving, and amazing hopeful things like acupuncture, ‘flower power’ and civil rights marchers. The world was on fire, it seemed, both with trouble, and with the vision and optimism of upcoming revolution. It seemed inevitable to me that humanity would shortly sort these problems out. My question, as I left home to become a student myself, was how actually that was to be done, and how might I take part.

At University I changed from the school of European Studies, to African and Asian Studies, believing that wisdom would be found by stepping out of the ‘narrow’ world of the continent from which I came. Ironically, in doing so I missed a ‘foundation course’ on the influence of Marx and Freud on European thought.

Looking back, I see myself as having stepped innocently out into a world awash with the influence of these two massively powerful traditions. On the one hand, I learned that human suffering, wars and poverty, are massively shaped by a profit-orientated social and economic system, and that to really address these problems we need to radically change how our society is structured. Only then will human happiness really flower. Religion and psychotherapy were the opium of the masses, a diversion from the real issues, designed to confuse and missing the point.

On the other hand, as my African friends told me to sort out my own country please, and I encountered the women’s movement, I discovered the world of ‘personal politics’. Here, how we relate to each other inside our homes, our private thoughts and repressed pain, our socialisation as children to behave in certain ways, our capacity to take our power or to feel our vulnerability, these things are no longer secondary to the ‘real’ (and more male)world of social and economic structure, but can also be seen as having primacy, as being the ground from which those structures in fact spring. And as personal politics shaded into psychotherapy and counselling, and these in turn into a new spirituality, I found a matching but opposite militancy. Now I was told that all real change comes from within, we create the outer world from the inner, and that efforts to change things by beginning with the outer are doomed to failure, and are in fact a clear avoidance of facing the real issues, which lie inside ourselves.

This division runs very deep in our culture, and there are many who hold to one or other of these opposed views. For me, and I imagine many GreenSpirit readers, new paradigm thinking is more a matter of ‘both/and’ – there is a never-ending yin/yang pattern here, a dialectic, where the outer arises from the inner, and in turn the inner is shaped by the outer. Welcoming both ‘sides’ to their place at the table of transformation seems to me to be hugely healing, echoing the journey of healing between male and female, but also that between science and religion in the west, and that between modern and indigenous, as all of our world can again become ‘animate’, full of inner life, full of spirit, and sacred in its every form.

Ecopsychology, the bringing back together of ecos and psyche, can been seen as also addressing that very wound, that disconnection between the inner worlds of humans and the world all around us, that contrasts so starkly with healthy indigenous societies which both experience the connectedness and know how to live sustainably. I have been passionate about ecopsychology for over a decade, and have found it easy to see its significance at a profound level, and to share that with others to some extent, but much harder to find forms or create practice that really seem able to release the revolutionary potential here, in anyway proportionate to the urgency of the situation in which we find ourselves.

Imagine my excitement then, when less than two years ago I found myself living ten miles from Totnes, as an extraordinary and inspirational process got underway, called ‘Transition Town Totnes’. This turned out to be inspired by Peak Oil, the insight that the entire world ‘civilisation’ is now based on the massive overuse of the energy in oil, laid down billions of years ago over millennia and used up by modern humans in a few decades, the production of which is now peaking and going into decline, whilst world demand for oil continues to increase. Global warming is of course a consequence of our burning of fossil fuels, the other side of the same coin, also warning us to change and change fast. The Transition idea, inspired by Rob Hopkins, is simply that instead of waiting for catastrophic collapse, we plan ahead of time to transform our communities, beginning locally because localisation is key, to a post-oil way of life, sustainable, resilient, and almost certainly happier for humans as well as the earth. This is surely a good idea, and is spontaneously appearing in different forms all over the world. In the form of the Transition Town movement, it has ‘gone viral’; at the time of writing (Jan 2008) over 400 other Transition initiatives in the UK or around the world have either been launched, or are contemplating this.

In Totnes the evolving structure has begun with a number of active working groups and initiatives – a food group, a local government liaison group, a business group and the Totnes pound project, building and housing, transport, arts, education and schools, – and what was originally the ‘Psychology of Change’ group, which we shortly named ‘Heart and Soul’, embracing psychology, spirituality and consciousness aspects of transition.

Here was an opportunity to bring the aspect of inner work, of personal process, to a big project of outer transformation of the very structures by which we live – and we were all welcome, very literally, to sit at the same table. Again that question; how actually do you do that, having arrived at a time and place where it would be possible and welcome? The initial questions we faced, and continue to face about this are several. How do you bring awareness of ‘process’ issues, of our inner worlds to people drawn to other working groups many of whom may not see this as particularly relevant or helpful, and indeed should we? How can we use other skills, such as the capacity to ask deep questions of the overall transition field in eco-constellations work, to help support that field to stay as clear as possible, and informed by as deeper wisdom as possible? How can other skills and insights, such as small group work, or counselling/supervision skills, be brought to support those already active, or to support people to become active, to make profound changes? How might we share the insights of the ‘cognitive and perceptual revolution’ (Macy) in our inner lives, in a way that inspires and supports those who wish to address the practical problems, but believe that it is simply ‘human nature’ to be selfish and greedy? Or the insight that the changes from competition to cooperation, from greed and revenge to compassion, from outer consumption to inner riches of creativity and intimacy – are not just necessary, but are profoundly desirable, a step forward in human evolution? And as Totnes is already awash with therapists and meditation teachers, is it all happening already, or is there a role for focussing on the links between all of that and the external transition process, such that the latter is also transformational in the lives of these very therapists and meditation teachers? In practice, we have taken an open, broad-church approach, hoping to bring people and ideas together towards the goals of synergy and cross-fertilisation in both directions. We began by offering a series ofworkshop type events to whomever might be interested – Joanna Macy based despair and empowerment work, an afternoon of using constellations work to ask questions about our work with healing the earth, a day workshop from someone trained by the Pacha Mama Alliance (Waking the Dreamer) and an outdoor midwinter ritual based on the Dagara tradition – after a formal launch, attended by over 50 people, consisting of a talk, songs, a ‘deep-time’ process, and a spontaneous sharing circle of what we wished to call into being. After this we began to have open meetings, which turned out to be facilitated mixtures of process and business. Next we organised an Open Space day for Heart and Soul – at which a whole mixture of workshops was offered, from exploring the role of anger or meditation, to brief offerings of native American council forms, and pagan rituals. Gradually, more people offered events, including a pagan based ritual around a G8 meeting, an equinox bonfire…

As well as workshop-type events, we were easily able to include Heart and Soul speakers in the big speaker main TTT programme, initially borrowing from the Schumacher teachers. These began with Peter Russell on the planetary evolution of consciousness, followed by a sell-out with Marianne Williamson Each of these attracted people whose first contact with TTT was via these events. As people were turned away from Marianne Williamson, a video of her speech was shown later, followed by a ‘fishbowl’ discussion of some of the themes she raised. This was followed by a poetry event with Drew Dellinger and local poet Matt Harvey. Our next big speaker will be ecopsychologist Mary Jayne Rust.

An idea that has been floating around my world for well over a decade has been the formation of ‘green consciousness raising’ groups, a little like the women’s groups that initially empowered the women’s movement, or the smallish peace groups/affinity groups that were able to take direct action for peace. Small groups in which people become close, share intimately, and also take action for change which arises from this, are a well established and potent form for political and social change. We had an official launch of ‘Home Groups’ last summer. Some seem to have been very successful, and some seem to have fallen at the first hurdle of matching diaries. We feel this project has much potential, but needs more input to be taken up more widely.

A small group of Heart and Soulers organised a celebratory summer picnic for all of TTT. Whilst our job is not, as was once wryly suggested, to make tea for the activists, one of the insights that repeatedly arises in our part of the process is of course that it matters that we get to know each other, that we have fun and that we celebrate, as well as that we make space for our feelings, or stop and enquire, or stop and listen to the silence.

Lastly, my co-focaliser has called for people able to offer supervision/ mentoring support to people very actively involved in TTT, and has begun to match these with requests for such support.

Looking back, we have done a great deal in a short space of time. We are part of a constantly evolving, open, fluid field, which is constantly attracting new people, and of which no-one can have a complete overview. We do tend to attract likeminded people, and do not know how many very different people have also been touched by what we do, or how many people coming from the consciousness end of the spectrum have been moved to also address their carbon footprints, for example. Doing what you may with an open heart and with integrity, and trusting the larger process are strong values in Heart and Soul as well as wider process. Hopefully what we have done ripples out in countless ways, as does the work and play of the many others working on different parts of this giant jigsaw.

To find out about, or initiate, transition initiatives where you live, contact the Transition Network, and of course I hope some of you may wish to start Heart and Soul type groups as part of your own local sustainability initiatives.

 Hilary Prentice is a psychotherapist living and working on Dartmoor. She has been passionately involved with ecopsychology for more than a decade, and has been co-focalising the Heart and Soul group of Transition Town Totnes.

The Ecological Self

by Chris Clarke

(Reproduced by permission of GreenSpirit and the author from GreenSpirit Journal, Vol 10.1, 2008, pp 4-6)

I have twice in a GreenSpirity group sung Ronnie Kahn’s song[1] “Return Again” with the words:

Return again, Return again,
Return to the land of your soul.
Return to who you are;
return to what you are;
return to where you are:
born and reborn again.

On the second occasion we danced as we sung it, on a natural lawn encircled by trees in the New Forest. On “who you are” each brought their hands to their heart, the place of the yearning of love, our individuality. Then on “what you are” the hands moved to the belly, the place of our more visceral emotions that we share with our mammalian cousins. Then we raised our arms wide and expanded our consciousness, to join with the trees, and up into the sky and stars as we turned around on “where you are”. At the end we felt we were indeed reborn, because we had redefined what was our self.

Each enactment of a line of the song is a thought, a mini-story, about the self. I see most human activities of meaning-making, and especially sciences, as telling stories; and psychology as telling stories about the self. Psychotherapists help their client to tell a more meaningful story to themselves about themselves; academic psychologists try to tell a more general story. For both, a good story is one that integrates and makes sense of the many aspects of our experience and behaviour, without ignoring the uncomfortable bits. And for the client in psychotherapy, a good story (like a good novel) needs to be one that they can inhabit, live by, that engages their emotions as well as their intellect. The story we tell depends on the way in which we live and experience the world. Conversely, the way we live and experience can be shaped by the story we tell. Each such story carries with it a particular concept of the self.

Stories about the self in the West, from Plato onwards, portrayed it as essentially individual and self-contained. The real self might have been simply the soul, as with Plato; or a combination of different structures, such as Aristotle’s vegetative, animal and human souls, which are all present in us, or the later Christian division into body, spirit and soul. All these, however, are restricted to a single individual. As far as I know, C G Jung was the first in the West to go beyond a self-contained individuality by depicting a self with a dimension that was extended, continuing into the collective unconscious that joined up our conscious parts like the sea bed uniting an archipelago. This notion leads on to our ecological connections, taking us to the Ecological Self.

The name “Ecological Self” was first introduced by Arne Naess[2] in 1985. Later he defined it as “that with which [a person] identifies”, where by “identifies” he understands “a spontaneous, non-rational . . . process through which the interest or interests of another being are reacted to as our own.” The idea is rooted in his own experience. He describes how

“I looked through an old fashioned microscope at the dramatic meeting of two drops of different chemicals. A flea jumped from a lemming strolling along the table and landed in the middle of the acid chemicals. To save it was impossible. It took many minutes for the flea to die. Its movements were dreadfully expressive. What I felt was, naturally, a painful compassion and empathy. But the empathy was not basic. What was basic was the process of identification, that ‘I see myself in the flea’. If I was alienated from the flea, not seeing anything resembling myself, the death struggle would have left me indifferent.”[3]

A more heroic example is the moment, now famous, when Aldo Leopold witnessed the death of a wolf that he had shot[4] and was so transformed by his experience as to become one of the founders of the environmental movement in the USA. Both these men found their selves extended to a greater world, so that, from their new story of the self, their actions and values were changed.

The Ecological Self is well described by psychological theories that see the self as arising from a dynamic web of relationships. As Isabel Clarke argues in her article here, “our relationship with those other beings with whom we share the earth, the animals, and with the very ecosystem and the earth itself, is knitted into the fabric of our being, The character of that relationship lies at the heart of who we are, but paradoxically, we lose part of our individuality when we really embrace relationship. ” This is a story of the self that goes beyond the individual. Elizabeth Ann Bragg sums up the concept in the following points:

Ecological self is a wide, expansive or field-like sense of self, which ultimately includes all life-forms, ecosystems and the Earth itself.

Experiences of ecological self involve:

an emotional resonance with other life-forms;

a perception of being similar, related to, or identical with other life-forms;

spontaneously behaving towards the ecosphere as one would towards one’s small self (with nurture and defence).

It is possible to expand one’s sense of self from the personal to the ecological.

She roots this idea in psychological theories in which “the ‘self’ is constituted in and through connections and relationships with others” and in particular in the insights of systems theory: the modern scientific approach of analysing things not in terms of the parts that they are made of, but in terms of their “dynamics”, the way in which they respond and change within their context, “with energy and information flowing across fluid boundaries” [3].

The most comprehensive account of the Ecological Self has been set out in two books by Freya Mathews, in which she develops a systems-theoretic view of a living cosmos where the Ecological self finds its place. The first, simply called The Ecological Self[5], is rather theoretical in flavour. To begin with she inquires as to what the ultimate foundation of the universe is, the “substance” (in the specialist terminology of mediaeval metaphysics) which owes nothing to anything else for its existence. Using the physics popular at the time she wrote, she suggests that “substance” is none other than space, thought of as a curved, dynamically changing entity. The physics has changed, with the substance now being like a sort of universal field. But the implication remains: the foundation of the universe is a single undivided whole that contains and constitutes everything. She alludes to Spinoza’s vision that this foundational substance (“God, also known as Nature”) must have two aspects: a material aspect of extension which allows all things to find their own identity, and an aspect of consciousness in which all things connect with each other, with themselves and with the whole.

This is a crucial change of emphasis, turning upside down both the old concept of the individual self and the old physics of individual atoms. Now it is not a matter of trying to join together souls and atoms that are created separate. Instead “what we are” and “who we are” is a unity across all space and all beings. On this view, the uniting nature of the Ecological Self is what we start from, the source of our being in which we are created. Our call is not to struggle to create our Ecological Self, but to allow ourselves to “return again” to it. The message is similar to that of the New Universe Story familiar to GreenSpirit members: that “we are stardust”, united with each other and with the depths of time through the cosmic processes that created the atoms of which we are made. But the message is now stronger. We are not just created by combining separate atoms, but we are differentiated from a single undivided substance.

She too, like Bragg, uses systems theory, and for her the idea of a dynamics, with information flowing across boundaries, enters in two distinct ways. First, the dynamics within a region of space marks off this region as an organism, something whose patterns of change are focused within itself. Second, the dynamics connecting it with its outside context establish the ecological nature of the organism and so constitute what she calls a Self: a subsystem which is both part of the greater whole and also has an individuality through its relations with this greater whole. So, as stressed by Isabel Clarke, we are our relationships. This means that when we “return again” to a recognition that our Self is by its nature Ecological, we are not simply flowing back into the oneness from which we came. Rather, we reconnect with this oneness bringing with us also the particular individuality that we have learnt through life. This is the meaning of being human.

Mathew’s second book, For Love of Matter[6] gives these ideas impact by grounding them in her own experience. She recounts her experience of seeing, with an inner eye, the inner consciousness of all things, all linked in their selfhood whether we ordinarily think of them as alive or not. She then recounts through several personal stories how recognition of her Ecological Self has not only overcome difficulties in her life, but has enabled her own individuality to grow as well. Individual and Ecological are not contrary, but mutually reinforcing.

For me, the story of the Ecological Self, at the heart of Ecopsychology, seems a vital part of GreenSpirit’s contribution to spiritual change in society. Our rituals, such as the dance I have described, encourage awareness of the Ecological Self and makes it real for those who take part in them. At the same time, the concept as developed by Mathews, in conjunction with the New Universe Story which links it with our cosmic context, provides for the first time a story that links psychology, physics and theology; not just by analogies, but by a detailed account that is grounded in our individual experience of life and the collective experience of science. I believe that this story matters to society as never before, and that GreenSpirit is uniquely placed to tell it.


[2] Arne Naess (1985) Identification as a source of deep ecological attitudes. In M. Tobias, Ed., Deep Ecology (Avant Books,1985), pp.256-270 (quoted in Bragg [3])
[3] Elizabeth Ann Bragg. Towards Ecological Self: deep ecology meets constructionist self-theory (Journal of Environmental Psychology 16, 93–108, 1987).
[4] Aldo Leopold, Aldo: (1948 [1987]) A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, Oxford University Press, 1948[1987]),p. 129
[5] Freya Mathews. The Ecological Self (Routledge 1991)
[6] Freya Mathews. For Love of Matter: a contemporary panpsychism (State University of New York Press, 2003) reviewed in GreenSpirit, Summer 2005, pp 19-20

Relative to Earth

By Sandra White
In a land not so very far away from here, there lives  “… a Prince who … is interested only in himself and his clothes and how he looks. So his father has a round tower built for him, and the wall of the top room and the roof are made of alternate panels of mirror and window. The view from the windows shows all the world and the sky.

The Prince loves the room and won’t leave it. All he does is look at himself in the mirrors and at the reflections from every side. He never looks out of a window.

The next day he’s woken by a creaking sound. And the creaking wakes him every morning. He thinks nothing of it; then after several days he notices that the mirrors are becoming wider than the windows. …

Well, the Prince is chuffed with the bigger mirrors, and every morning he wakes at the creaking and goes to see how much more they have widened. This goes on until, one day, he thinks the mirrors are getting dirty, because he can’t see himself clearly, so he sets about polishing the glass. But it makes no difference. Then he sees what’s happening.

The mirrors aren’t dirty. It’s the windows that are getting narrower and letting less and less light in. He tries to force the windows apart, but he can’t. Outside, the sun is shining and he sees all the bright colours. And when he looks in the mirrors all he sees is a dimming reflection.

Each day he presses his face against the mirrors, but he can see no more than his own self fading. Then there is one last creak, and the wall and roof becomes all mirror, and the Prince is alone in the dark.” (1)

Meanwhile, outside and “In the winter time, when deep snow lay on the ground, a poor boy was forced to go out on a sledge to fetch wood. When he had gathered it together, and packed it, he wished, as he was so frozen with cold, not to go home at once, but to light a fire and warm himself a little. So he scraped away the snow, and as he was thus clearing the ground, he found a tiny, golden key. Hereupon he thought that where the key was, the lock must be also, and dug in the ground and found an iron chest. “If the key but does fit it!” thought he; “no doubt there are precious things in that little box.” He searched, but no keyhole was there. At last he discovered one, but so small that it was hardly visible. He tried it, and the key fitted it exactly. Then he turned it once round, and now we must wait until he has quite unlocked it and opened the lid, and then we shall learn what wonderful things were lying in that box.” (2)

These two fairy stories, the first from Alan Garner’s novel “Thursbitch” and the second, “The Golden Key”, the last of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, come together in my mind as a metaphor for our time.

As we know, one usual way of the fairy story is to start with an old King who has no sons … or perhaps he has sons but they are lost … or the youngest son is apparently a simpleton … in any event, the end of an era is nigh and a miracle is needed, an act of transformation to enable the creation of a much needed new order. At the start of the story it is completely unclear where the transformation is to be found, which character(s), which plot turn(s), which juxtaposition of opposites will birth the magic …

As an image of Western culture’s fixation with itself, which it is energetically exporting to the rest of the world, Alan Garner’s story is compelling. It reminds me of eco-philosopher David Abram’s (3) talk to GreenSpirit in April 2004, my first meeting with that organisation. I will never forget how he described the impact of the moment in human history when we changed from pictorial writing to alphabets, using letters expressing only the sounds made by the human mouth: moving his right hand back and forth between an imagined page in his left hand and his own mouth, it was then, he suggested, we first turned away from the natural world that our pictograms evoked and chose a mirror over a window.

The trouble in Alan Garner’s fairy tale is that the King is not old and dying. Rather, he is alive and well, the designer, architect and builder of the Prince’s tower, facilitating without challenge his son’s bedazzlement with himself and his fine clothes. No graceful abdication here, no allegiance to the cycle of life, no making way for the new. Rather, a seeding of more of the same.

Herein lies the deepest danger to humanity and the rest of large life on this planet now. There may be sophisticated story lines in The Archers where ‘true greenies’ splutter and argue that being sustainable is not about technological fixes … but most people do believe that the whole problem will be solved by technology with little noticeable impact on our current lifestyles. Our culture holds technology in such bright light that few recognise that we are, indeed, living in the darkness of the Prince’s tower of mirrors. While we live in such relative material comfort, the proposition that we (4) are harming ourselves profoundly through our cultural norms and that the damage we are doing to the rest of life on Earth is an inevitable extension of our self-harm, seems preposterous.

Yet, in the ways we live, it is as if we no longer know what it means to be fully human.

Autumn 2007 saw me helping a friend sift her two large compost bins, which had been left to their own devices for over two years. Once a week, I walked up the hill and for one or two hours repeatedly thrust my spade into the compost and then spread it out with my hands, looking for unbroken-down matter. Of course, there was hardly any and I marvelled at the fineness of this soil. Each time, my next two days were transformed. Everything I engaged in, work or play, filled the ‘right’ amount of time and I was in an effortless, grounded, calm, light and joyful state! As the week wore on, these qualities gradually faded. I became hungry for those compost bins! Sometimes I went twice. I seemed to understand innately that, on my hands and knees in the compost, I was in the heart of the cycle of life itself. Some days I wanted to burrow deep into that soil, breathe in its smell, feel its fine granules and its clumps, cover myself with it; move myself into the very centre of life. I was home. At home, my body feels secure and my mind can settle in its safety, in its solidity, in its fluid responsiveness. At home, my unified mind and body relate anew to time, space and motion, accurately measuring them while flowing expansively within them. Reconnected with my ‘creatureness’, more is available to me: my whole, instinctual intelligence as well as that of my intellect, working in harmony. Why is this unified, flowing state so elusive in modern life?

In her lecture to the Guild of Psychotherapy in November 2007, Jungian analyst and ecopsychologist Mary-Jayne Rust highlighted how Freud expressed Western humanity’s attitude to Nature: “The principle task of civilisation, its actual raison d’etre, is to defend us against nature. We all know that in many ways civilisation does this fairly well already, and clearly as time goes on it will do it much better. But no one is under the illusion that nature has already been vanquished; and few dare hope that she will ever be entirely subjected to man. There are the elements which seem to mock at all human control; the earth which quakes and is torn apart and buries all human life and its works; water, which deluges and drowns everything in turmoil; storms, which blow everything before them. … With these forces nature rises up against us, majestic, cruel and inexorable; she brings to our mind once more our weakness and helplessness, which we thought to escape through the work of civilisation.” (5) With this, he named our fear, inherited through generations and generations since earliest humanity and still as live today; our fear of being overwhelmed and, ultimately, of death. How accurately he described our project of compensating for our smallness and vulnerability by erecting bigger and bigger towers … for the work of civilisation is twofold: not only does it serve our pragmatic needs and creative aspirations, it also compensates for our collective, cultural inability to be at peace with our individual, small and finite place within the cycle of life.

In September 2007, at the GreenSpirit annual gathering at Scargill House in Yorkshire, I facilitated a workshop ‘Re-Turning to Earth’, during which we found another living being and regarded it with loving attention and then imagined it regarding us in the same way. I was drawn to a beautiful flaming tree, gorgeous in its autumn coat. Up close, inside its branches, I found myself contemplating its trunk, surprised at its firmness and strength. I admired the level of protection its bark gave the tree – and when I imagined it looking at me, for the first time I realised how vulnerable I am under my soft outer layer. I understood in a new way why we humans build defensive walls in our minds.

Freud also addressed this, for his words describe not only our relationship with Nature, but also our relationship with our own minds and, particularly, the unconscious. The powers of the unconscious mind can feel like the tumult of Nature, and therapy rooms and great literature across many lands resonate with vivid accounts of quaking and feeling torn apart, buried, deluged, drowned, in turmoil, and blown before the storms of the deep layers of our minds. Here, in this inner landscape, we must civilise ourselves too or be swept away. When we look at how he described the project of building consciousness, we can see that the thread of conquest continues: “Where id was, there ego shall be.”(6) He explicitly equates the unconscious with Nature when describing the intention of psycho-analysis as “to strengthen the ego, … to widen its field of perception and enlarge its organization, so that it can appropriate fresh portions of the id … it is a work of culture not unlike the draining of the Zuider Zee”. (7) With his verb “appropriate”, the founding father of psycho-analysis draws attention to our plunder, our taking to ourselves what is not ours to take. Out of its fear of the unconscious, the modern ego does that within the ecology of the mind, aspiring to make itself large and dominant and take the credit for creativity, order, value and intelligence. Within this mindset, denying those qualities to the Earth and, indeed, the Cosmos is a tiny, inevitable step.

From inside and out, then, a core aspect of humanity’s experience is one of being threatened and assaulted by powers vastly bigger than us. How welcome, how vital, the idea of a rational self – an island of certainty! And how greatly we feel we need to build up this experience of rationality, of logic, of control, against the forces opposing us. How safe and attractive those towers feel! Perhaps, if we can build them high enough, we will finally feel secure.

Carl Jung built a tower, between 1923 and 1955 and largely with his own hands, right on the edge of the upper lake of Zürich at Bollingen. In Memories, Dreams and Reflections, he wrote: “At Bollingen I am in the midst of my true life, I am most deeply myself. … At times I feel as if I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the splashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons. There is nothing in the Tower that has not grown into its own form over the decades, nothing with which I am not linked. Here everything has its history, and mine; here is space for the spaceless kingdom of the world’s and the psyche’s hinterland.” (8) His whole description of how he built the Tower, in successive sections, each when he “once more had a feeling of incompleteness”, 9 shows how it traced the evolution of his personality, expanding and spiralling as he allowed in and explored different aspects of his own and universal human experiences as they surfaced from the unconscious. What a different project! And how beautiful the paradox that when he is most deeply himself inside his tower, he also is spread out, inside everything in the external landscape … These moments of interconnection allow us access to the truly infinite – here we can experience largesse without having to compensate for our smallness. Here we can find our loving empathy.

For Jung, individuation is achieved through dialogue, allowing in as many facets of our minds as is humanly possible so that each can take its place within the personality and be consciously mediated – not eradicated – by an ego that can also take its rightful place, both strong and humble. This endeavour is counter-intuitive to the modern mind, for it involves turning to meet exactly that which one fears, despises and hates, experiencing time and again our “weakness and helplessness” when grappling with something new, alien and previously rejected, learning to love and respect it and finally making room for it within oneself. Even with the ultimate gains of strengthening and growing, settling within one’s own skin rather than continually running scared, this rich but sometimes arduous, life-long journey seems an unattractive undertaking in our material age, where immediate success, power, and practical effectiveness are so highly prized.

Jung understood too the vital tragedy that the modern mind has cut itself off from earlier times when we valued our live connection with the mythic orders of life. In unexplainable ways, this connection enables us to be with both our smallness and our magnificence, just as tales of the gods the world over expose their foibles as well as acclaim their powers. In this connection, we can acclimatise ourselves to Nature within and without; we can meet the vastness of life and not feel that we have to conquer it. Upon this bedrock, the expansive experience Jung describes is available to us and, in its turn, feeds our inner security, from where we can be at peace inside with the small, finite nature of our individual lives and our relativity to Earth. This, perhaps, is the psychological/spiritual plane of the cycle of life.

Instead, so fixed are we on the dangers evoked by Freud, our modern minds seem hardly able to understand the dangers of the over-specialisation, one-sidedness, and mono-culture we are generating in our hunger for comfort and certainty. Never has “as within, so without” been so visible: As 21st century humanity cultivates our linear, rational, literal, either/or aspects of mind until they flourish and colonise the majority of our inner being, so we impose that inner state on the outer world. As we crush more and more of our imagination in our inner lives, siphoning it off into the realm of artists rather than welcoming it (unless for advertising) into the business of our everyday concerns, so we squeeze out the habitats of other, fantastic species. As we train our children to become commercially useful, so we commodify the natural world. Intoxicated by the apparently limitless capability of the technology we have engineered, as we denigrate and seek to escape the limits of our bodies, so we cannot bear to engage with the finite capacity of Earth. And, as we treat ourselves increasingly like machines, refusing to honour and heed the stress and breakdown of our sensitive bodies and psychologies, so we deny the feedback signals of the sentient, living Earth herself, equally stressed and breaking down under the strain of modern living, of being treated like both a machine and a huge warehouse of resources existing only to service our every unfeasible, material whim.

As we hate and conquer our inner multiplicity, so we hate and destroy the sheer biodiversity of life on the planet. In so doing, we forget that through our evolutionary journey we are her descendants; with our bodies made of the same elements as the Earth, we are expressions of her. In so doing, we dishonour what it means to be a full human being, which is to be a member of the Earth community. In our forgetting and dishonouring, roundly we attack our whole self!

This is where our fear has brought us. Small wonder that we shop and binge in myriad ways, alternately exciting, numbing and comforting ourselves in the face of our ongoing self-assault. And no wonder at all that we do equal violence to our larger body, the Earth, and the other species sharing her with us as home.

On 16th January 2008, Microsoft announced that they have developed sensory pads wired up to computers, to be placed on the skins of the people operating them. The pads’ purpose is to monitor the people’s efficiency, measuring their bodies for signs of stress and, equally, drops in concentration and breaks in work. So this also is where we have come to: human being as battery hen – both abominable! What an image for our age: humanity in service to the machine.

Why are we willing to subject ourselves to this?

Contemplating the conflicting realities of human life, our wrestling with the duality of aspiring to so much while inhabiting small, fragile bodies, I have reconnected with the image of the “iron chest” of “precious things” buried in the ground underneath the snow. The story speaks to one, central quest of human life; the desire in each of us to find the treasure, whatever form it takes. Our commercial culture may have frozen out ancient aspirations to inner wealth and no doubt this fuels our inability to feel sated and rich. Yet Jung’s explorations of the collective unconscious, “the dynamic psychic substratum, common to all humanity, on the basis of which each individual builds his or her private experience of life” (10) show that all of us have access to older, deeper and wider wisdom. However thoroughly modernity denies olden truths, there is a layer of knowing that is ever present, within us and beyond, always available to us if we turn towards it. So, I believe, it is within human nature itself to cherish our individual portions of the soul, even unconsciously. This, too, is why our minds build walls; to protect our inner riches. For their nature is itself paradoxical – resilient and delicate, perhaps like whatever is closed inside the buried iron chest. With its tiny key and almost invisible keyhole, to me that chest represents the very thing that our precious inner selves need in this age of reason, in the conditions we are creating for ourselves, our communities and the rest of life on Earth – a place of safety. Where can that be, now?

In a leap of imagination I instantly feel myself resisting, I suddenly wonder whether today it is within technology. With our physical being under such onslaught, such denigration, it seems the modern mind cannot contemplate humanity itself as a safe harbour. In the unconscious process of projection, what if we have collectively, secretly, unknowingly and imaginatively placed all that is precious of the inner life of the human being inside the hard outer boxes of our exalted computers and our machines … for safe keeping? Of course, then, we would become fascinated with our souls’ new home … of course we would engage animatedly with whatever the machines can do, exhorting them to become greater and greater, achieve more and more, craving sight of our magnificence. I can hardly bear this idea. Yet it makes a macabre sense to me. In this frame, Microsoft’s dream of human beings wired up to computers becomes an image of our linking ourselves to life support machines … More than tolerating it, we would intuit that our lives depend upon it for, unlike Mrs Coulter and her experimenters at Bolvanger, (11) we unconsciously know that we must never sever ourselves from our daemons …

It may be that the machines provide a temporary safe house; I can feel I want to allow it in. But I also shake in the immense danger of tethering ourselves to equipment which operates only in linear, either/or ways and then identifying with the sense of control it fosters. There lies the road to destruction.

“The Golden Key” provides an image of hope for this moment in time. In his need for warmth, the boy allowed himself to be called to the Earth. Herself an expression of the Cosmos and a true home of the soul from which ‘our individual portions’ derive, (12) the Earth endures, waits and calls to us, out of her yearning for reunification and to receive, once more, our adoring gaze. Could we but know it, we too yearn for reunification. And here is an essential paradox: we need to know, experience and express our unity in the Earth, in the Cosmos, and simultaneously we need to know, experience and express our separate individuality. For us, at our current stage of evolution, it is two-ness not one-ness, it is relationship between opposites, not identification, which provides the conditions for creation. In the modern era, Western culture has lost this perspective. Rather than continually endeavouring to hold these two different realities in our consciousness and bear the unbearable tension between them, we have collapsed them together, living as if we believe ourselves to be the sole unity, the only unit of value. This is not an instance of ‘the macrocosm in the microcosm’; our relinquishing of this mighty, core effort and replacing it with the pursuit of happiness and comfort is both effect and cause of an impoverished, increasingly exhausted psychological state, developed over millennia as we have profoundly struggled to find our place in the world, to come to terms with our greatness and our smallness, our very humanity. Our exhaustion can only exacerbate if we continue to seek replenishment through the seductive substitutes, including adrenalin, which we are currently creating for ourselves; in which case we will continue to impose exhaustion on the Earth’s resources.

In my view, one major question for our age lies in the iron chest’s key and in the nature of its keyhole. Rather than being a matter of one more turn in the same direction, surely, just like the circular dial on a safe it requires turning to the opposite: To embodiment! To imagination! To relating to the living Earth herself! For, could we but know it too, whilst safety and certainty of life cannot be guaranteed, there is greater safety in fully occupying and relying on the resources of our whole, human being, embedded in and in relationship with Earth’s ecology. Inside our whole being, we may withdraw our projections from technology and discover how extraordinarily rich and powerful we ordinarily are. In such a place of security, we may become open again to desiring the extraordinary richness of the rest of life also to flourish into its full power. And in that place, we may remember that the health and wellbeing of the whole supports the health and wellbeing of the individual whereas, when an either/or world view dominates a finite system, the converse is not true.

Only relationship – engagement with the other – develops our sensitivity to that other and our capacity to meet their needs as well as our own. Like many, I believe that the redemption of our age lies in our reviving the field of mutual attraction between human creature and Earth, and rooting ourselves here. For me, the iron chest provides a tiny metaphor for the Earth’s own ability to protect her treasure, of course just like ours, keeping it safe and waiting until we are ready to find it … hoping that we will eventually feel the bite of where we are – isolated in the Prince’s dark tower. Inside each of us is the being, here in the Golden Key a boy, who has always known the value of the gold he glimpsed and who holds the hope that a different, fruitful, life-sustaining relationship with ourselves, with our human communities, with the whole Earth community and indeed with technology can be birthed. For, by first listening to his freezing body and then digging with his bare hands in the snow, down into the Earth to find the treasure chest, this boy answers Nature’s call, out of her echo within him, out of his own knowing that he is “spread out over the landscape and inside things, and … living in every tree, in the splashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons.” …

How will we turn the key?

1 Garner, A Thursbitch (The Harvill Press 2003) pp.120-121

2 ‘The Golden Key’, in The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd 1975)

3 Abram, D The Spell of the Sensuous (Vintage Books 1997) pp. 256-257

4 Whilst respecting that many of us choose to live differently from the dominant cultural norms I describe, I use “we” throughout to avoid a false ‘them and us’ dichotomy

5 Freud, S The Future of an Illusion (N.Y. W.W. Norton 1961) as quoted in Dunann Winter, D Ecological Psychology: Healing the Split between Planet and Self (Addison Wesley Longman 1997)

6 Freud, S New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis (N.Y. W.W. Norton 1933)

7 ibid.

8 Jung, C G Memories, Dreams and Reflections (Fontana Press 1993) p.252

9 ibid., p.251

10 Stevens, A A Very Short Introduction to Jung (Oxford University Press 1994) p.22

11 Pullman, P Northern Lights (Scholastic Ltd 1998) pp. 274-275

12 For some discussion of alchemical ideas about the ‘Lumen Naturae’ see Jung, C G Collected Works 8 The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche paras 388-389 (Routledge and Kegan Paul 1969)

Sandra White works as a Jungian counsellor and an ecopsychologist and she is in preparation to become a Jungian analyst. She also offers coaching and, together with others in a range of settings, is co-creating programmes which facilitate enrichment through embodiment, imagination and relating to our living Earth. She walks regularly on Hartham Common near her home, loves to honour and celebrate the sacred in all life and was a member of the GreenSpirit Council when this was first posted.

Cosmos and Psyche

by Jean Hardy

(Reproduced by permission of GreenSpirit and the author from GreenSpirit Journal, Vol 10.1, 2008, pp 6-8)

When writing on ecopsychology one has usually, not surprisingly, started off from the person, the psyche, to try to understand the vast and intricate interconnections of universe and individual. But a different light might be thrown if we started off from some tentative consideration of Cosmos, the Universe, the Earth, and then tried to deduce something of our own nature, our psyche, as creatures in this world?

I am encouraged and stimulated to do this now, because of the vivid presentation of the earth’s story in a television series by lain Stewart called Earth: The Power of the Planet. The story starts with Impact, the violence of the universe’s formation and continuing array of projectiles ‘careering’ constantly and uncontrolled round the cosmic system for billions of years: then, moving to Gaia herself, Fire, the volcanoes and the earth’s centre, as hot as the sun: then the story moves to Air, atmosphere within above and below the earth’s surface and boundaries, then Water – ice and ocean: then the energies and forces and powerful contradictions that act and react between all these elements: and then a story of extraordinary order which underlies it all, and the unique alignment of planets that enabled life to occur on earth – shielded from meteorites by the greater magnetism of Jupiter, held in place by the moon, warmed by the sun, held to a enabling temperature for life. Perhaps we live in the only place that has all these features in the universe: we are ‘a rare earth’, as Stewart puts it.

So what could we deduce about ourselves from this stunning and energetic story about earth’s creatures over the four and a half billion years of her existence? Such an amazing variety of forms- bacteria still predominant: flowers from 65 million years ago: dinosaurs, carnivores and herbivores, worms, mammals including people, fish and whales, trees and vegetables. All grow, change and die: all are forever changing throughout their lives – are ‘temporary arrangements’ from moment to moment – all live with other organisms, so each body is a world in itself. All are related and interconnected – feeding from each other, protecting each other in communities, genetically similar. The embryos of modern humans are almost indistinguishable from those of other mammals and there is evidence that we have the remnants of reptilian as well as mammalian brains, together with human frontal lobes and the neocortex. Physically there is a continuity of being, and communication at many levels in plants and animals.

So what is that the creatures of this earth basically do in their lives? Gerard Manley Hopkins gives the most succinct answer I know in his poem As Kingfishers catch fire.. “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same…. Crying ‘what I do is me: for that I came’.”

It seems reasonable that we, in the same way as every other living being, came in order to live out our potential and our particular form of intelligence and spirit. And maybe we came to do that not only as individuals but as a collective as we are such sociable beings. Here we could find Carl Jung’s concepts of ‘collective consciousness’ and ‘collective unconscious’ as relevant. So for humans, as well as for any other social interacting being, there are always three explicit yet connected levels of being: the individual, the social/group and the cosmic.

What are the characteristics we could see in the nature of the earth, and of the universe itself, that we could take from Stewart’s presentation, or from the Universe Story, and that could be seen in us? This is almost going back to the medieval theory of correspondence – “as above, so below”. Humans have long perceived that the universe is made of patterns and energies that are repeated at different levels. The characteristics which seem to me most obvious are:- i) change and order: creation and destruction: the fundamental opposites ii) the creative, innovative energy within all things, always changing iii) the relationship of all living creatures to each other, so we are all as one, and yet so separate iv) the basic elements of earth, air, fire and water, the humours, long recognised v) the inner consciousness, the outer creative spirit, all one in most of the indigenous religions vi) light and dark vii) so, if we are lucky, a sense of the deep order and transcendent intelligence, beauty and terror of things, truly not fully imaginable to our human brains but expressed in some early religions

Walt Whitman, the poet, wrote a remarkable passage in 1882, summing up a picture of something like this perception from the point of view of the individual:-

“There is, apart from pure intellect, in the makeup of every superior human identity, a wondrous something that realises without argument, frequently without what is called education (though I think it the goal and apex of all education deserving the name), an intuition of absolute balance, in time and space, of the whole of this multifariousness, this revel of fools, and incredible makebelieve and general unsettleness, we call the world; a soul-sight of that divine clue and unseen thread which holds the whole congeries of things, all histories and all time, and all events, however trivial, however momentous, like a leashed dog in the hand of the hunter. (Of) such soul-sight and root center for the mind mere optimism explains only the surface.”

When we find a particularly articulate, fulfilled and insightful person, he or she can express something of this realisation: I am thinking of Simon Rattle, the conductor, who said in a recent radio interview this year, 126 years later than Whitman, that for him, great music is the lava flow… coming from the centre of the earth’: that for him, music is the ‘Vine of life, and words, even poetry, only the bottle, the container’: and that, for him, great joy and great grief come together, as an equal force, in much magnificent music. He added, that in becoming a conductor, he had found early “the right thing to do”: this whole interview seems to fulfil the spirit of the Hopkins poem – “for this I came”.

Our Greenspirit articles all touch upon this primary element of search in the human experience, Don and I in the realisation that the psychology we learned earlier in our educational lives was decidedly lacking in the transcendent realisation that we are one with the spirit of the cosmos, a transliminal sense as Isabel expresses it. David Abram in his introduction to Radical Ecopsychology writes “Intelligence is no longer (to be seen as) ours alone but is a property of the earth: we are in it, immersed in its depths. And indeed each terrain, each ecology, seems to have its own particular intelligence, its own unique version of soil and leaf and sky. Each place its own mind, its own psychology.”

But we then have to remember the three distinct layers of which we are a part, touched on earlier, because to cope with our own sense of meaning, and to learn to live in some human kind of order, we have to tell ourselves stories. Indeed, we could say, we have nothing else but stories – even Western science that, because of the ‘proof of the experimental method we often regard as more true’ than any others. We therefore have political, religious, scientific, spiritual social stories, and these too are deeply contained within our individual psyches, often as profound as those arising from our personal experiences. For instance, in some sense, we all have an experience of war, even if we have never directly experienced it, from the collective consciousness from seeing and reading the daily News – and also from collective unconscious material we may carry from our family and cultural history.

I am a sociologist, and remember from my very first class at University the anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s phrase that “no-one ever looks at the world with pristine eyes”.

This would apply to living beings of any species who all carry, as David Abram writes, their own particular version of biological and psychological reality. The ‘reality’ that we perceive is essentially tied to who and what we are – be we hare or eagle, twenty-first century city dweller or Indian villager, male or female.

And also it is clear that everything is constantly changing, the cells of our bodies, the coves around the coast, the social and cultural worlds humans create. We feel some stability in ourselves and in the earth that seems real because we live such brief lives: and we are all part of the overall creativity where order, beauty and destruction flow. All the new knowledge constantly made available to us brings an open-mouthed astonishment: could it really be true that our planet had a twin which we have named Theia’, which collided with the nascent Earth, and created the Moon 4.5 billion years ago? And how can we relate to the physical change in our bodies through aging, as I know that the child I once was is both a very different person from the adult I am today – and yet there is a consciousness, a memory, an observer, a spirit within that feels somehow deeply connected.

The ambitious scheme of ecopsychology is trying to relate the individual, social and cosmic levels of human experience. A tough job, particularly because for the last four hundred years we have increasingly lived in a contradictory framework. As Tarnas puts it, for the Western world, “our spiritual being, our psychology, is contradicted by our cosmology” (p.31). People alert to the issue of meaning in today’s modern world find themselves against the grain of the twenty-first century main thrust of capitalism, the earth being seen as property, species other than human largely regarded with indifference except as human recourses, and the universe being seen as exploitable and quantified.

The hope is that if we could truly face our twenty-first century situation as a species, as an individual is encouraged to do in personal therapy to name, work through and get rid of some of the rubbish and cherish the growing points. Those points may be synonymous with that ‘wondrous something’ mentioned by Whitman, aligned to the spirit within and without, the identical spirit within each, Atman and Brahman. Then maybe we could understand more of why we are here. Maybe we could understand the hunter’ who holds Whitman’s leash a little more from within ourselves.

D.H.Lawrence has as usual a pointed, if sexist comment on all of this. In Reflections on the Death of the Porcupine, he write: “Man, as yet, is less than half grown. Even his flower-stem has not appeared yet. He is all leaves and roots, without any clue put forth. No sign of a bud anywhere……

Blossoming means the establishment of a pure, new relationship with the cosmos. This is the state of heaven. And it is a state of a flower, a cobra, a jenny-wren in spring, a man who knows himself royal and crowned with the sun, with his feet gripping the core of the earth.”

Maybe nearly 80 years after Lawrence’s death, we might discern the beginnings of a bud and a trace of its colour.


•           Iain Stewart & John Lynch. Earth: the Power of the Planet. (BBC Books 2008). Accompaniment to DVD of the same name.

•           Walt Whitman. Specimen Days (1882): Carlyle from American points of view. ( tml).

•           Interview with Sir Simon Rattle on Desert Island Discs January 2008. BBC Radio 4.

•           Isabel Clarke: The New Human Story (Greenspirit. Spring 2004) Jean Hardy: Who are we? ( Greenspirit. Summer 2004)

•           Don Hills: Getting in to it: the lure of ecopsychology. (Greenspirit: Winter 2005)

•           Andy Fisher. Foreword by David Abram. Radical Ecopsychology (State University of New York 2002).

•           Richard Tarnas. Cosmos and Psyche (Viking, Penguin, 2006).

•           Gerard Manley Hopkins. Poems.

•           D.H.Lawrence. Reflections on the death of a porcupine and other essays (CUP, 1988).


As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is–

Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

~Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844-1889

Cooperative Enquiry

GreenSpirit Co-operative Enquiry into Ecopsychology: A Personal Memoir

by Sandra White


From mid-May until the end of July 2008, seven people conducted an experiment to address the question:

‘How can we help people move from awareness and concern about environmental issues into progressive changes in motivation and behaviour?’

We decided ‘To address the question by researching through our own experience the hypothesis that practices which enhance strong empathic connection with the everyday natural world are highly effective in altering our attitudes and behaviour.’

This paper is one member of the group’s attempt to provide an insight into this endeavour and communicate something of the process we engaged in; its flavour and texture as well as what we discovered. It is by definition partial and subjective, which is entirely resonant with the exercise itself, for at the heart of Co-operative Enquiry is a proposition that we learn best from the subjective experiences of all the participants, shared, witnessed, contrasted and examined together. That said, this piece was circulated among the group, who have contributed amendments and finally endorsed it. Still, I would encourage readers to make contact with other group members and listen to their perspectives.

The participants were:

Chris Clarke, Council Member, GreenSpirit
Don Hills, Council Member, GreenSpirit and ecopsychologist
Jean Campbell, Arts Educator
Nicola Graham, Movement Director
Sandra White, Council Member, GreenSpirit, ecopsychologist, consultant and coach
Tania Dolley, Counselling psychologist and ecopsychologist
Trevor Sharman, Council Member, GreenSpirit
We met four times at Douai Abbey at Woolhampton in Berkshire, (, a small community of Benedictine monks living in resplendent buildings at the top of a hill. Their land includes open spaces, woods, fields where sheep graze and more cultivated and manicured gardens, including a pond where we often visited the resident newts. Near to the Abbey itself, we sometimes sat in a circle on the grass between two apple trees on one side and a maple on the other; the view on their web page shows the apple trees in blossom nearest and provides a glimpse of the maple just beyond. The monks’ hospitality was welcoming and their catering, generous and delicious. The relatively recent residential extensions were beautifully crafted with oak flooring and curving granite walls. In the hall outside our meeting room and in the dining hall, the walls were lined with portraits of previous abbots, many of them exquisitely painted enabling the qualities of these men to shine through despite the general dark palette of the portraiture style.

For about three years, Chris, Don, Tania and I had been meeting regularly in an exploration of how ecopsychology fits with green spirituality and green activism. Through a series of residential weekends at Redmarley d’Abitot in Herefordshire, we examined how we could run a large event which would offer a combination of experiences of connection with Nature, theoretical psychological and spiritual models, and sharing of successful practical initiatives. These meetings at Redmarley had originated in an experimental meeting at Braziers Hall in February 2005, at which a wide range of people shared their dreams of what such a large event could look like. Our underlying intention was to bring together people from the three different constituencies of eco-activism, eco-spirituality and eco-psychology and try to bridge the frequent dissonances between these groups and, thereby, strengthen the green movement. The small group who volunteered to progress things after Braziers were a microcosm of this intention and included ecopsychologist Hilary Prentice and activist Barry Johnson; later, we were joined for one meeting by activist Susan Dye. One cultural feature our group developed was that we paid as much attention to the dynamics between us, and the difficulties that surfaced between us rooted in our inherent differences, as we did to our relationships with Nature and, throughout, we also wrestled with our language which always seemed to separate ‘us’ from ‘Nature’. Eventually, we realised that the large event was not something we could run, for a variety of reasons – including, it may be argued, that we did not achieve that bridging between the constituencies enough to arrive at a fully shared vision – and yet we wanted to build upon what we had created and experienced through this process of regularly meeting. Once we accepted that we were not going to run a large event, Chris proposed that we continue through a more formal structure, that of Co-operative Enquiry, and he secured funding from the Scientific & Medical Network and GreenSpirit. With the funding, we were able to issue an invitation for other people to join us, to which Jean, Nicola and Trevor responded. We also were joined for our first meeting by a member of staff from one of the large environmental organisations.


The Douai meetings were held over a 24 hour period, Thursdays at 4.00 pm until Fridays at 4.00 pm. The first was mid-May, the second at the end of May, the third at the end of June and the fourth at the end of July. When we dreamed overnight, we would bring these into our check-in the following morning.

The Co-operative Enquiry process is an established method of social research in which a number of people are both experimenters and subjects. For us it provided a technique which enabled experiencing the macrocosm through the microcosm in that it addressed a question which Trevor, out of his previous experience of it, expressed as “how do we explore the wider world through us?” Its cyclical structure enables an enquiry to move between hypothesis, experiment, review and posing new hypotheses on the basis of experience. He outlined the process for us in the first meeting and we used it rigorously:


We used it rigorously with one addition: Chris also had prior experience of Co-operative Enquiry and, in one discussion with me while fundraising, he had described a stage of ‘expressing’ the experience through non-verbal means – using art, music, gestures or a combination of these – to delay for as long as possible the moment when linear, rational functions determine how the experience is interpreted and thereby shape the refining that follows. This had caught my imagination and inspired me to invite Jean and Nicola. So, from the start, our process looked like this:


This expressive element took me to places and ideas which I would not have reached purely cognitively and contributed profoundly to the transformations experienced by several of us. The recording was important; several of us took our own process notes, which we shared with each other and Trevor undertook to write the more formal notes that could be shared with those outside the process. We also took lots of photographs, some of which are reproduced here.

This cycle was conducted while we were together and, to my surprise, each meeting enabled us to move through a number of questions and actions. Before parting, we arrived at a new question and action that we all committed to undertake during the period until our next meeting, sometimes accompanied by journaling so that we could each record our progress.


The first Thursday evening, once we had fully introduced ourselves, we didn’t ask a question. We simply went outside into the grounds of Douai to discover where we were, locate ourselves there and make contact with one life form or small ecosystem in the area. We started as we meant to go on, by expressing to each other something of that experience non-verbally through a gesture and, now at the end of the whole process, I can see how those first experiences and gestures provided a foundation for all that followed. I spent a long time with a tall holly tree just outside the building where we were meeting and, during the following day, after I’d initiated a rather challenging discussion, I went back and sought reassurance from that tree, spontaneously pushing my head in among its leaves and discovering that they stroked my face remarkably gently, leaving no scratches! After that, I held a strong sense of the tree, its dark green leaves, its hollows, the low swing of its branches, the texture and colour of its trunk, and where the shape of its leaves changed to being smooth, without needles, high up where it no longer needs to protect itself. I often think of that phenomenon in holly trees and find parallels in how my mind structures itself, where it needs to protect me and where it can be open.

We took great care with how we spent our first evening together, aware that some of us knew each other well while others were complete strangers. Perhaps helped by giving good attention to forming this new group plus the clarity of the structure that we were to follow, we quickly engaged with our task creatively and openly, taking risks and listening to each other closely.

One of the things we acknowledged early on was that, in our task of learning about the wider world through ourselves, we could not regard ourselves as a typical group when considering environmental behaviour, for we are all people with strong connections with Nature and high levels of awareness. Of course, these differed among us and none of us were claiming that our environmental behaviours are always perfect and consistent. Yet we recognised that, for us to spend our time engaging with ‘practices which enhance strong empathic connection with the everyday natural world’ to see if they ‘are highly effective in altering our attitudes and behaviour’ might not enable us to learn how other, less connected people may respond to such practices. Through discussion, we eventually drew a parallel between how some people might react with fear, distrust and even hatred when they think of the natural world and how we ourselves can feel those emotions when we meet or think about certain other people. These people might be very different from us, or we may have past or current difficulties with them, or we could be reacting to them out of pure imagination, not knowing them at all but assigning negative attributes to them out of ignorance. Effectively, we were proposing that the psychological dynamics underlying our culture’s denigration of Nature were the same as those which underpin people’s ill-treatment of each other.

Out of this, we focused on the experience of fear, asking the question “How can we best acknowledge and respond to fear?” We decided to give ourselves an embodied experience of fear and Jean volunteered to sculpt what fear looks like, using each of us to get into specific postures which expressed its different manifestations, as she had experienced and witnessed it in her life. When this was in place, she asked me to react to what I saw – I looked at it and spontaneously ran, leaping up on to a chair at the far end of the room and heading for the window!

As this had been an action that was entirely embodied, we went straight into discussing the experience. We noted feelings of avoidance, desperation, despair, horror, fight and flight. We considered the learning that being with fear rather than reacting to it was important. We realised that we had explored the acknowledgement of fear, but not the response to it and, through further discussion, identified empathy as a key quality in being able to respond helpfully to fear. We had extensive discussion about our views and understanding of empathy. Several times, Jean proposed that we also sculpt empathy but we did not respond to this. Curiously, because we might think that empathy would be easier to engage with than fear, there came a point when we noticed that we had fairly immediately agreed to participate in a fear sculpt and here we were practically ignoring Jean’s repeated suggestion that we sculpt empathy. She wondered aloud, eventually, whether our reluctance and resistance to engaging with empathy may be due, in part, to a fear of intimacy. Finally, we agreed our next hypothesis: ‘We can intuit empathy with the whole through the human’ and decided to sculpt empathy which I volunteered to design. I discovered that I didn’t really know if I was sculpting empathy or love.

I placed the group in interrelated pairs with different forms of connections – one pair, for example, stood with their backs touching each other and linked hands, providing an image of empathic connection with people and other life forms that we don’t know. I asked Jean to stand with one hand on Chris’ chest and her other on Trevor’s back, beaming a quality of empathy to both, one person she could clearly see and one she could not. I finally stepped into the sculpt, and joined hands with Tania and Trevor so that the whole group was interconnected.

Once we had discussed the experience, we agreed that, until our next meeting, we would do daily empathy meditations, following a practice in which we would, in meditation, connect empathically with ever widening circles of people, starting with people close to us and with whom we have strong, loving relationships and progressively including people with whom we were experiencing difficulties or strain and, ultimately, people in the public sphere whose actions we hate. (There are many versions of this meditation exercise available; for an example, see Buddha Mind). Throughout the interim period, outside of meditations, we would observe our feelings when listening to the news and also when thinking about and even meeting people with whom we felt discomfort. Right at the end, Chris expressed some doubts about whether it was valid, within the Enquiry as a whole, to have shifted our focus to the human realm but we stayed with our agreed plan and thought we would keep this under review.

Early the next morning, I went out onto Hartham Common where I regularly walk and sat on a bench under a yew tree next to St Leonards, a tiny Norman church at the top of a small hill, to do my first empathy meditation. There I experienced a remarkable piece of synchronicity, which I excitedly emailed to all my colleagues as soon as I got home and here is an extract:

“It took me a while to focus and I spent some time simply admiring the view and listening to the birdsong.
I was just gathering myself together, deciding to start when I noticed a small squirrel ahead of me in the church yard, bouncing and bounding along the grass and then on to the path. It was coming straight towards me. Then I realised it hadn’t seen me because it stopped short when it did. It turned sideways to me and breathed quickly for a long time. Then it turned towards me again and looked straight at me. I stayed very still. It turned sideways again. It seemed as if it didn’t know what to do. After a while, it bounded across the grass and up a tombstone and stood on top of it. It repeated what it had been doing on the path, alternating between turning to look directly at me and then turning sideways. When it looked directly at me, it stood on its hind legs and brought its front paws together in front of its chest. If its paws had been moving, I would have said it was “wringing its hands”.
It was this gesture, even though it wasn’t wringing its hands, it was protecting its heart, that suddenly put me in touch with its fear. I started consciously to smile gently at it and to radiate love towards it directly from my heart. Not a big blast; a warm, gentle ray. I said to it in my mind, “I understand your fear and I love you for it”. I kept repeating that. Soon it turned into the more simple “I love you for your fear”. My heart started to glow and this glow strengthened and grew. I kept sending a steady, warm, gentle ray to the squirrel. I don’t know if I was still smiling, I think my face was just soft.
Then suddenly the squirrel crawled down the tombstone and bounded slowly across the grass directly towards me, looking at me all the time. When it reached the path, it turned to its left and passed me, so that it effectively continued the journey it had originally been making. It climbed the yew tree just behind me. I then let it go in my mind, so that I didn’t interfere with whatever it wanted to do next.
I then immediately realised that I needed to receive the same as what I had offered the squirrel. So I asked to receive “love for my fear” into my heart, from the Earth and whatever is beyond. I focused on that sentence, “May I receive love for my fear” and imagined receiving a ray of love, similar to that I had been sending to the squirrel. The glow in my heart deepened, I did experience it going inside, and my heart seemed to expand and keep on warming until I was in an experience of quite a solid – or strong – glowing ball in my chest which was radiating outside my body. I felt deeply happy and secure.
I then imagined sending this love to my family members and others, as we discussed yesterday. As I brought my father into my mind’s eye and started this intention, it immediately changed and I spontaneously brought the image of my father towards me and into my heart so that he could bathe in this warm, loving glow I had been given and be part of me. This happened without my conscious decision and seems to fit with the discussion yesterday about identity and identifying.
I then understood what the difference is between empathy and love – they are clearly closely connected but, in the sculpt yesterday, I think that I was asking you to express love. I think that empathy is to do with the wound, whatever it is. A compassionate connection with the flaw and an identification with it, knowing that the same flaw is in me, which helps me to know how difficult the experience is for the other. The squirrel effectively taught me what I didn’t know.”

I experienced this moment as an affirmation from the Earth of our endeavour and, more specifically, a response to Chris’ expressed concern at the end of the previous day’s meeting that we had shifted too far away from our topic into the purely human realm: By providing me with a teaching through the squirrel, the Earth was confirming the underlying unity of life and our place, as humans, within Nature itself.

It is not my intention to go into this kind of detail about our whole journey. At the end of this document is a list of all the questions/hypotheses we addressed throughout the four meetings. Accompanying it are the four accounts written by Trevor of our meetings, which set out these questions with the activities we undertook for each one and the major discussion/learning points generated by them. What I have tried to do here is give a flavour of our endeavour and indicate the range of what we undertook. There was extraordinarily powerful learning through it and I want now to highlight those which for me were key. Then I will describe one more activity towards the end in greater detail before sharing some of the most valuable outcomes we identified in our final meeting.

A theme that emerged for me during June and July, which I think was made available through how open I became during May’s daily empathy meditations, was a far greater awareness of myself as a sentient, sensitive being. I came to realise that others’ negative reactions and behaviours to me could have a very big impact on my equilibrium. This says something about me as an individual, of course, but I offer it here as an observation about all of us. Through personal development work of various kinds, we can all learn not to react to such negative treatment. I think that is widely understood. I am proposing here, though, that such treatment still has an important impact upon us. I have a sudden association as I write with a time in my early 30s when I had a bout of tinnitus – a condition of the ear which made me ultra sensitive to every vibration, whether or not I could hear its source. Walking down the street, I became extraordinarily aware of all the physical impacts upon me, from lorries passing, to music playing, to footfalls on the pavement, to birdsong and even the wind itself. My ear was vibrating to traffic long before it arrived within my hearing. Ordinarily, we may hear the sounds but be oblivious to the physical contact they make with us. I see this as an analogy to what I experienced in the summer: even if I chose not to react to others’ ill treatment of me, the impact had still been made. I think that we all know when we are being ill treated at some level of our being, right in that moment, and our psychological defences will kick in, shaping our response in whatever is our innate or our learned or chosen behaviour pattern. What I connected with much more deeply is that treating another person badly is rooted in contempt and denial of their being. We are denying their intrinsic validity in being just who they are. I think this is some of the most challenging territory in human psychology and spirituality. I drew an image when we came together in our second meeting:


It seemed to me that an instance of ill treatment – which I am equating with a denial of validity – can trigger existential rage which can provoke retaliatory behaviour which also denies the validity of the first person. Vicious circles of repeated ill treatment going back and forth between two individuals or families or communities can ensue. Our rage may or may not be directly or consciously experienced, depending upon our individual psychological makeup and the contexts and cultures in which we have grown up and live. Some people direct their rage out and others direct their rage inside against themselves, both equally destructive. These two types of people coming together can produce an ever intensifying situation of bullying, oppression and victimisation. What I discovered through the empathy meditations is how that existential rage operates within me and the crucial recognition, prompted by the squirrel, that the wound or flaw that is operating in the other person and generating their ill treatment of me is also within me. I found that practising empathy enabled me to secure myself in a place of equality and to treat the other person as equal to me and also myself as equal to them. My sense “we must be equal” gave me the imperative to find the behaviours to match my underlying understanding that we ARE all equal. To many who are practised in spiritual and/or psychological work, this may all seem rather obvious. It is stuff that I thought I knew. Yet, it brought me to a deeper place of appreciating how difficult it is in our culture, which creates or exacerbates inner wounds, to meet “the other” as truly equal and consistently behave out of this reality. The new element for me was thinking about how ill treatment is an act of denying the other person’s intrinsic validity. This was then easily transferable to thinking about how we do or don’t treat the rest of life on the planet as equal with its own intrinsic validity. I have ceased being a vegan through these considerations, something I have been contemplating for a while. While this may be counter-intuitive at this moment in the Earth’s history, given that a vegan diet is being recommended as vital to reducing emissions, I can no longer privilege mammals and fish above all other life forms, for the teaching of a diverse, interconnected system is that each life form contributes vitally to the whole in its own way. I eat sustainably caught fish and organic meat now, only occasionally because of the environmental situation, and the important thing is that this process grounded me enough to take the decision to practice my view of equality in a new, tangible way.

The group’s discussions around these themes brought us to the questions: “In what sense do my inner battles hinder my relationship with Earth? What helps turning towards integration?” for the interim period between Enquiries 2 and 3. Each of us learned much more about what inner psychological and spiritual states enable or undermine our ecologically aware behaviour and Trevor’s phrase, “right psychic diet” became currency throughout the rest of our meetings. In our final meeting, during a wide-ranging review, Trevor elaborated helpfully on this phrase, saying “right psychic diet means feeding our sense of our core validity” and I have understood more deeply the imperative to continue to find the ways of doing this which enable me to behave more consistently in connection with other people and with the Earth.

At our third meeting, this was tested anew: Don had been circulating material published by Natural England and Defra that provided surveys of attitude and behaviour change in the British population towards the environment in the light of climate change. He was emphasising how these reports document that much is changing. Yet, while I travel regularly around London, I witness the vast majority of people around me talking and behaving as if they are completely oblivious to the environmental situation. When I told the group this, he and I found ourselves instantly in a row, our very first during the five years of our close friendship! When I reflected, I realised that, in presenting the dark picture of what I see, I had lost my connection with Don who readily describes himself as an optimist. By saying that what I was seeing was a “truer” picture of the state of the general population’s engagement with our ecological situation, it was not simply that I was trying to win an argument, I had in that moment forgotten who he is inside and how intrinsic it is to him as a person to see the bright side – in effect, I was denying him. I took away from this experience some deep reflecting on what it would take to live and work in ways which could support us in maintaining high levels of connection with each other – high enough to behave more often in ways which uphold others’ being instead of trample on it. All of life, I think, has this capacity for such exquisite, connected sensitivity and yet, through the ways we have constructed our culture over hundreds of years, we are trashing this faculty, with dire consequences. Our culture and the ways most of us live and work these days does the opposite – it fosters fragmentation instead of cohesion. In a way, I can understand it, for high levels of sensitivity can be, at least, challenging and, at best, painful to live with. This is part of my learning from the holly tree – we all need to protect ourselves from the real dangers in the world and the way we do this is to build psychological defences which we absolutely need to keep ourselves safe. Yet these structures also separate us. I have come to think more deeply about the paradoxical condition of being human – how to live my separateness and my connectedness and honour both as intrinsic to me and to every other person and life form I meet?

One of the difficulties, it seems to me, in promoting more ecologically aware behaviour is that our cultural norms deny and denigrate the intrinsic validity of being human – we seem, rather, to have become ‘human doings’: Our contemporary culture tells us we are only worth what we produce or own. So, if there is no intrinsic validity in who we are, the need to find ways of proving our validity increases and we have to identify with what we produce or own in order to feel valid. I think this is a particularly difficult aspect of encouraging people to change behaviours for, without psychological or spiritual work, producing or owning less equates to feeling worth-less. Further, our cultural messages which promote competition create separation and illusions of superiority or inferiority, which also fuel greater productivity and/or ownership. Many, many aspects of our economic and cultural norms are self-attacking and self-defeating and feed more and more separation and illusions of superiority or inferiority. The Co-operative Enquiry has deepened my understanding of these cultural norms and focused my attention on how to create conditions which foster a sense of innate worth and connection with self and other, and counteract the energies of separation and superiority.

The exchange between Don and me focused the group’s attention on hope. Here we created a very beautiful and powerful exercise which anyone can do, once conditions of trust have been created: We each took a few moments to close our eyes and answer the question: “What do I hope for myself in my lifetime?” and then we wrote down how we had answered that question. Next we took three elements of what we had written down and silently enacted them to ourselves. Then, each in turn, we performed our enactment to the group and verbally described it. After that, and in silence for the rest of the time, we stood in a circle and, one by one, we taught each other our enactments, by first showing it again and then the others doing it with us twice. Finally, still standing in the circle, we all enacted together, once, each person’s sequence in turn. This was extraordinarily moving and uplifting! I felt that everyone shared and wished for my hopes and that I shared and wished for theirs. All of our hopes felt strengthened, enlivened, magnified and pushed out further into the world, closer to manifestation. When we came together at the end for a close group hug, the words were spontaneously said: “Who dares, hopes: who hopes, dares”. We made a strong connection with how courageous we had been to explore and share our precious hopes and dreams with each other. Those words seem so vitally relevant to our time: Who dares, hopes: who hopes, dares.

At our final meeting, we discovered that major transformations had happened for four people in the group: feeling more connected with the whole, with the Ecological Self and, thereby, grounded in ‘being’ and therefore more intrinsically valid, calmer and more content; growing vegetables and herbs in all available window-boxes in the absence of a garden; FEELING being inside a living interconnected system, rather than simply intellectually knowing it; and shifting into an embodied sense of powerful light, love and hope, instead of fear and darkness.

We gave as good attention to ending as we did to beginning, going out into the grounds of Douai Abbey again and taking our leave of the place and life forms we had met there. Two photographs from the exercise are significant: the first, a young deer Trevor met on an early morning walk, and the second, an aged, hollow tree showing how branches start forming deep inside the trunk, invisible to the outer world. For me, this image has become a guiding visual metaphor for what we explored in this Co-operative Enquiry: how our inner experiences shape our outer behaviour and what conditions support the kinds of inner experiences that promote connected and sensitive behaviour and sustain life. This experience has surpassed most of our expectations and is still proving to be life-changing. We are considering how to share its benefits most widely and, in preparation for that, we examined and charted the key skills, processes and qualities that we had engaged with to produce such results.The hearts in “Principles and Process” indicate those we considered to be most fundamental.ecopsy4



The ‘Call’ to enquire:

‘How can we help people move from awareness and concern about environmental issues into progressive changes in motivation and behaviour?’


‘To address the question by researching through our own experience the hypothesis that practices which enhance strong empathic connection with the everyday natural world are highly effective in altering our attitudes and behaviour.’

Go outside, see what attracts you, spend time, reflect and share (not an Enquiry question; rather the way we went out on the first evening to find out and root ourselves where we were).

How can we best acknowledge and respond to fear?
We can intuit empathy with the whole through the human.
Engaging in a sharing of our private passions helps us to expand our awareness and connection with our place in the wider world.
Beginning with silence facilitates connection.
In what sense do my inner battles hinder my relationship with Earth? What helps turning towards integration?
Can we create experience of hope for the future of human life on Earth?
How do we feed, nurture and sustain our hope?
Would a review of our original question reveal changes in us due to the impact of the processes we have been through?
What are the key skills, principles and processes we have learned and what do we do with these?