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, (www.douaiabbey.org.uk), 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.
ALL THE QUESTIONS AND HYPOTHESES
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?