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.