Ecopsychology and Neopagan Relevance

November 7, 2011 by Categorized: Earthly Rites.

A Brief Note: Ecopsychology is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. It is just one of several toolkits that I use both as a shaman and as a mental health counselor. I would like to spend my first few posts here at NUP discussing these areas of interest and practice, and I welcome any constructive discussion on them during my time here. And now, a definition…

Ecopsychology: the psychology of how we relate to the natural environment, and the therapeutic application of the restorative qualities of nature.

When I enrolled in the counseling psychology Master’s degree program at Lewis and Clark College here in Portland in 2008, the single biggest magnet for me was the series of three ecopsychology courses that were offered. I had read Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World, which explained human psychological development in part through one’s relationship with nature. Additionally, as part of my budding neoshamanic practice, I decided to take on mental health counseling as a profession as I felt it was an analogous role to the shaman in my postindustrial, urban American environment.

Through three straight semesters, I learned the basics of ecopsychology and who some of the key figures were; I also explored how to incorporate a client’s relationship to nature in their therapy, along with family history, spirituality, and other important parts of the client’s experience. I even spent four days out in the woods with other students learning hands-on wilderness therapy techniques. (I also gave a presentation on how Alan Moore’s run of the Swamp Thing comic book could be used in ecotherapy, but that’s a story for another time.)

By Lupa, Drift Creek Falls, Oregon November 2010

Not surprisingly, I discovered much that enhanced my neoshamanism and neopaganism. Furthermore, I saw a wealth of material that could be relevant to neopaganism in general, as well as elements of neopaganism and related paths that could enhance the development and practice of ecopsychology. I wasn’t the first person to make the connection of course; on the contrary, some of the very foundational concept of ecopsychology are quite relevant to nature-based paganisms.
Here are just a few of the salient points:

–Ecopsychology helps to explore and understand the development and maintenance of a nature-friendly mindset.

Why do we enjoy being out in the wilderness? What is it that makes us respond better to a tree than a live plasma-screen movie of the same tree?(1) What are the effects of disconnection of nature, both on an individual and systemic basis? Ecopsychologists seek to not only find answers to these questions, but to utilize the information in helping clients achieve better states of mental health. Many pagans are already familiar with the relaxation that can result from a weekend spent camping, or the difference between an indoor and outdoor ritual; ecopsychology provides additional insight as to why we may feel that way.

–Ecopsychology sets the individual firmly within the context of the ecosystem they are a part of, human and otherwise.

One of the criticisms that ecopsychologists have of much of modern therapy is that while the average therapy intake form asks clients about their family members, significant others, home life past and present, and other human relationships, it doesn’t ask about the client’s relationship to nature. As psychology, particularly applied in counseling, takes an increasingly systemic view of people and their mental health, research and anecdotal evidence alike deny the (particularly American) ideal of the “rugged individualist”. Rather than an island, each person is part of an interconnected greater system, and the natural world is a part of that. Ecopsychology gently reminds us that our very minds and perceptions are inextricably linked to our environment, something that many neopagans have been living consciously for years.

–Ecopsychology meshes well with nature-based religion.

From its inception in the late 20th century, ecopsychology has always been closely entwined with spirituality, especially (though not exclusively) nature-based spiritual and religious paths. Even the anthology Ecopsychology, which came out in 1995 and is considered one of the foundational texts of the subject, included an essay by Leslie Gray entitled “Shamanic Counseling and Ecopsychology”. Whether theistic or not, spirituality is an intrinsic part of the right-brained tendencies of ecopsychology, and paths ranging from neoshamanism to Catholicism(2) have been explored within ecopsychological writings.

–Ecopsychology lends itself well to ritual practices.

By Lupa, Pioneer Woman's Grave, Oregon, September 2011

Joanna Macy and John Seed’s Council of All Beings rite, and Mary Gomes’ Altars of Extinction(3), are just two of many examples of how ecopsychology has delved into ritual as a way of healing and processing the profound level of grief many feel at the destruction of the environment. Ecopsychologists recognize ritual as a structured way for clients to process and work through life experiences past and present; additionally, as many neopagan rituals tend to be focused on the bright, celebratory side, an exploration of the processing of grief may be valuable to our spiritual communities.

As you can see, just in these few examples there are plenty of areas of overlap between ecopsychology and neopagan interests and practices. Our relationship to the world, to include that expressed in spirituality, depends heavily on our perceptions and cognitions; we cannot experience and interpret what is around us without the filters of our senses and our thoughts. Ecopsychology is a formal, though often quite organic, exploration of that relationship between personal microcosm and universal macrocosm.

1. There’s a great study done a few years ago that demonstrated just that; you can read the paper that resulted at http://faculty.washington.edu/pkahn/articles/520_kahn.pdf

2. During my first ecopsych course, one of the co-authors of the excellent text, Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth, spoke at one of the classes. Those readers with a particular interest in interfaith dialogue may be interested in the book, though it’s an enlightening read in general.

3. The Altars of Extinction project was featured in issue #96 of Reclaiming Quarterly: http://www.reclaimingquarterly.org/96/96-altarextinct.html

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20 Responses

  1. Lupa, A very useful article. I live in Portland and attend Marylhurst, going for a BA in Religious Studies. This is a timely and rich article. Thank you!

  2. Eric – Glad you found it useful! If you have any questions on local resources, please feel free to ask.

  3. Lupa-
    Very well written!

  4. Well said. even though I do not have formal training in ecopsychology, I am finding it more and more valuable in my own self-centred practices. It is become particularly useful in ceremony and rituals.

  5. that should have been land-centred not self-centered.

  6. all though, come to think about it, I make little distinction between the land and self in those ceremonies so perhaps the Freudian slip was appropriate.

  7. Have you read Bron Taylor’s ‘Dark Green Religion?’

  8. Glen – The boundaries are fuzzy, no? :)

    Charlton – I have not, but it’s VERY high on the to-read list. I’ve heard very good things about it.

  9. Lupa, this was very interesting and I’m looking forward to reading more. I’d be curious as to your take on the impact that the disconnection from Nature caused by the industrialization and urbanization of the 19th and 20th centuries had on the rise of the movements that have become modern Paganism.

    And I strongly second Charlton Hall’s recommendation of “Dark Green Religion” – it’s very good and would appear to be very relevant to your studies.

    • I can’t speak for other people, but I know for myself that my exploration of paganism over the years was an abstraction of my search for reconnection to nature that was lost in my teen years. It’s a more complex, symbolic way of connection, though it took me years to understand it wasn’t a good enough substitute for what had actually been lost, hence getting back to my roots through direct contact with nature without an overlay of symbols.

  10. Thanks for the Resources Lupa. I would definitely like to know more about Ecopsychological rituals for grief. Am definitely looking forward to reading more of your posts.

  11. Hey Lupa, have you read Chellis Glendinning’s book “My Name is Chellis and I’m In Recovery from Western Civilization”? I found it to be the most important book I’ve ever read on the subject of how we relate to the natural environment, and the differing psychological perspectives of people from nature-based cultures and people from modern civilized cultures. She specifically focuses on the question: what is the natural course of development for human beings, in a healthy environment embedded in the natural world, and how does the psychological development of people in modern society differ from that?

    By drawing parallels between individual trauma and cycles of abuse and social trauma/abuse (she is a psychotherapist and is a sexual abuse survivor herself), she concludes that we have, culturally, experienced an “original trauma” caused by a disconnection from the natural world, that transformed our relationship with the earth from one of reciprocity and love to an adversarial and abusive one. This created a cycle of abuse that has continued down through the centuries, in the same way that abuse often continues down through the generations among individuals.

    Basically, the whole microcosm/macrocosm thing, recognizing that the individual psychological struggles that so many of us go through (experiencing depression, abuse, addiction, etc) represent a cultural malaise. In the field of psychology, this is the same thing as women getting together in the 60′s & 70′s & realizing that their individual problems are not personal, but political, in the sense that they were happening to women all across society, and that they were caused by social factors rather than personal (just manifesting in their personal lives).

    Anyway, I highly recommend her book. It filled in a major piece of the puzzle for me, in thinking about these issues.

    • Wow, that sounds like a must-read! I’m willing to bet it’s foundational to a lot of ecopsych thought, which now makes me want to go check bibliographies–and, of course, read the book–to make connections. Thanks!

  12. Fascinating thoughts, Lupa. I know I needed the “conventional” therapy and anti-anxiety meds I was on when I started dealing with anxiety disorder, but I also know that I saw the most marked improvement when I learned (at a very late stage in the game) how to ride a bicycle and was suddenly spending hour upon hour outside.

    This year, I have snowshoes, so I can still get outside, even after biking season ends.

    • *nods* Taking up running again is one of thebest things I did for my mental health. I haven’t run in about two months, and it;’s shown in my stress levels. We are animals, and it’s not good for us to be so cooped up!

  13. Hi, Lupa,
    Have you written for Sagewoman, or any of its sibling magazines? Your name and writing style are both familiar. In any case, interesting blog! I’ve only read a little in ecopsychology, but what I read was very influential. You might want to check out “Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist,” by Mitch Thomashow. The book is based on a graduate school course the author used to teach, and has a lot of interesting exercises in it.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. [...] wanted y’all to know my first blog post is live at No Unsacred Place: Ecopsychology and Neopagan Relevance. Enjoy Share this:DiggFacebookRedditStumbleUponTwitterEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

  2. [...] Lupa is a new contributor at the “No Unsacred Place” blog.  For her first post, she discusses Ecopyschology, the relationship between the environment and mental health.  http://nature.pagannewswirecollective.com/2011/11/07/ecopsychology-and-neopagan-relevance/ [...]

  3. [...] And that’s my point, Rua’s perspective tries to “suppress our natural, intuitive relationship with our surroundings” in favor of what Rua calls “a better understanding of how the world works”.  Although she does not say so, Rua’s use of the phrase “how the world works” here presumes the possibility of an objective account, one which removes us as participants in the act of perception.  This is ironic because so much of the writing on the No Unsacred Place blog seems geared toward affirming our participation in the world, even in the very act of perceiving it.  See for example Alison Leigh Lily’s post on earth-centered polytheism here and Lupa’s (not Rua Lupa) post on ecopsychology here. [...]