Beyond relationship? The power of therapy outdoors

The relationship between client and therapist is considered by many to be the single most important factor in successful therapy (Loewenthal, 2014). But what happens to that relationship when the therapy takes place outdoors? If you haven’t experienced therapy outdoors, you might wonder why it would make any difference to the therapeutic relationship. Isn’t it just like conventional therapy, but outdoors?

The short answer is, it depends. A few outdoor therapists strive to control the impact of the immediate environment, but most engage with it, often finding that nature becomes a kind of co-therapist. When nature enters into the therapeutic relationship, things get interesting! The client begins to form a relationship with the natural environment as much as with the therapist. The therapist is no longer “the professional with the answers and advice”, but instead becomes an “expert at facilitating therapeutic conversations” (Jordan & Marshall, 2010).

Ecotherapist Martin Jordan suggested that when we work outdoors “the myth that the self is somehow separate from nature becomes exposed as the fallacy it is” (Jordan, 2009). This complicates our understanding of the relationship between therapist and client even more. Once again – as so often in this blog – the question arises of where ‘self’ ends and the ‘other’ begins. But if the ‘self’ becomes “entirely entangled with the Other”, we might “risk losing the difference and thus any possibility of relationship” (Harris, 2013b).

David Key, an ecotherapist I interviewed for my MSc research, brings these questions to crisis point. David said:

“What actually happens when people go out into wild places, the thing that’s therapeutic, is something … I don’t know, it feels like it almost isn’t about relationships, it’s almost a Becoming […] that actually goes beyond relationship. […] Relationship is the process, not the product”.

This extract illustrates what I most like about this interview: you can hear David working with complex ideas and trying to force language to express something that refuses to be named. His ideas seemed to evolve as we spoke. David rhetorically asked “How do we as human beings even conceptualise the therapeutic relationship that the land or the sea offer us?” We can’t, but the attempt to do so is hugely illuminating.

The full interview was published in Self & Society: An International Journal for Humanistic Psychology (2015). The article is entitled “What impact does working outdoors have on the therapeutic relationship? An interview with ecotherapist David Key

The moment of now

Many years ago I saw a talk by the American photographer Duane Michals. Michals rarely works with a single image, preferring to create short sequences of pictures that question our conventional understanding of reality. Michals created a characteristically intense moment in his presentation when he repeated one word about seven times in a way that emphasized its essence: Now! Now! Now! Now! Now! Now! Now!

For those few seconds I was entirely in the moment. It was an unforgettable experience. All this was long before Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, but they highlight the same mode of consciousness.

The Illuminated Man, Duane Michals

I work with that moment of now every morning during my meditation practice. Some days I can truly be in the now for a while – really being with my breath – and it’s an extraordinary experience. There is a timeless calm. But the ‘monkey mind’ doesn’t sit still for long and in the next moment there’s some commentary running again.

I’ve found it very helpful to approach watching my breath with the same attitude of attention as I adopt with a psychotherapy client. When I’m with a client I work to be completely present. What is happening right here right now? If I can be with my breath that way, then I become present to myself, to this moment, to now.

“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

But sometimes I get caught up in the striving. After my meditation I’ll judge my practice: How much of the time was I present? How persistent was my monkey mind? I might conclude that ‘Today was better/worse than yesterday.’

John Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness meditation as “the intentional cultivation of nonjudgemental moment-to-moment awareness” (1996). Just such a moment came today, in the midst of an otherwise quite ordinary Wednesday, and it made me realize that meditation isn’t about achieving something – less monkey mind or more ‘timeless calm’. It’s the practice that matters, not the result. Moment-to-moment awareness – being in the now – emerges slowly from practice. The realization that now is all there is comes like a strangers smile, unbidden and unexpected.

Stephanie Gottlob, improvisational movement artist

I’m delighted to host this post from Stephanie. We’ve been corresponding for several months and I love her writing, photography and process.


“Is art an imposition of order on chaotic Nature or is art a matter of discovering the grain of things, of uncovering the measured chaos that structures the natural world? Observation, reflection and practice show artistic process to be the latter” – Gary Snyder

I am an improvisational movement artist.

A year ago I left the life I had been living in Toronto to follow a calling of embodying the various natural biomes of North America. I bought a truck camper and for these past 12 months I have been living and dancing in remote parts of Nature exploring movement improvisation, creative process, and somatic experiences on, and with the landscape. Each biome that I have thus far explored – deciduous forest, freshwater lake, arctic tundra, swamp and grasslands – reveals something new about somatic embodiment and artistic expression.

While in Nature I improvise with various elements of the landscape: water, color, mountains, sounds, rock, mud, grass, heat, roots, wind, empty space. It is a somatic approach to creativity and art.

A few things have emerged from these investigations:

Improvisation is a Somatic Experience

The body is a landscape and the landscape is a body.

For me, improvisation is about merging with the qualities of Nature, rather than the objects of Nature. It’s the flow, movement, density and textures that pass back and forth between us. Through improvisation I try to embody these qualities… her arcing, sparkling, darting, expansive qualities. And it goes the other way too. Sometimes I turn inwards, towards my somatic felt senses and notice how I feel in relation to the smells, the soil, the empty space. This leads to improvisational connections as well. To me, these inner felt senses and nature’s outwardly expressed qualities are the same. We are the same inside and out.

Improvisation Animates

The land is an aware and active canvas on which to create movement art.

During improvisation, Nature animates. She comes to life in the creative moment. This happens when we are in relation, in a creative relationship. The creative choices we make during the improvisation feels like a co-emerging process. During these moments of creativity, the landscape seems to toss, unravel, support and express independently, like an improvisational partner. Landscape and I… always a duet, at least a duet.

Improvisation is a Process of Finding through Imagination

The process of improvisation with the landscape is more about finding aesthetic moments as opposed to creating them. These artistic moments, for me, seem hidden or veiled. It is something Nature and I find together. We uncover them. We wait for them to be revealed.

One of the most important ways these moments are revealed is through the imagination, between I and the landscape. By imagination I mean a creative consciousness that is beyond thinking, doing, using, or even being. Imagination is an innate capacity in all things to transcend and express meaning. This meaning, is more of a non-specific meaning, a meaning such as presence or sacredness, beauty or individuality.

Improvisation Reveals Place

“The only mythology that is valid today is the mythology of the planet – and we don’t have such a mythology… Myths must be kept alive. The people who can keep them alive are artists. The function of the artist is the mythologizing of the environment and the world.” Joseph Campbell

When improvising in wildness, theses aesthetic moments can begin to have a sense of story of place. Or even myth. There is a necessity of expression emerging from place. From this particular place. The expression, to me, does not feel like an ancient indigenous myth or fairy tale. It doesn’t feel narrative. It feels new. More like a process of emerging-myths expressing themselves as movements, as images, as sounds. Between human and wildness. These aesthetic moments in improvisation do offer one way of capturing mythic moments. Human and Earth.

Improvisation and Somatic Meditations

A deepening of meditative experience, is a deepening of aesthetic experience.

The somatic meditative or mindful experiences I encounter in Nature are very important in developing, deepening, and creating nuance in how I improvise with the land. Aesthetic experiences are very much linked to a state of mind. They are an opening into the unknown. They are a layering of the senses. They bring the imagination into the reality of experience.

Some of the somatic meditative experiences encountered in Nature:

the nuance of distance between the extremes of near and far revealing itself in the open tundra

silence experienced not as the absence of sound but as a landscape of feelings

an internal experience of natural objects morphing while drifting in a canoe on the swamp

the subtle differences between ‘walking’ and ‘wandering’, between ‘here’ and ‘place’

how boredom mysteriously leads to insight and freedom

These somatic mindful experiences, to me, are an integral part of the creative process. They reveal the wildness, the vitality, and the mystery of the connection between human and landscape.

Embodied knowledge

‘Dark matter’ is estimated to account for 85% of the matter in the Universe but we can’t see it. Embodied knowledge is a bit like that; although most people have never heard of it and it can’t be put on a page, it’s fundamental to our everyday lives.

Michael Polanyi, a scientist and philosopher, unpacked the difference between what we know explicitly – that Paris is the capital of France, for example – and the ‘know how’ or knack that is tacit knowing. Polanyi pointed out that “we know more than we can tell” (1966) because there’s some things we simply can’t talk about. Riding a bike is a good example, When I ride my bike, I don’t think though every movement. This is especially obvious when I turn a corner: If I were to try to think through each subtle movement as I adjust my balance and turn the handle bars in just the right way, I would fall off! I don’t play golf, but research suggest that when a player ‘chokes’ – fluffs a simple shot because of stress – it’s because they’re thinking too much (Beilock and Carr). At the tacit, embodied level, the pro golfer knows how to make the shot, but if they start trying to think about it, they’ll blow it.

I can give you examples of embodied knowing from fields as diverse as anthropology, business studies, neuroscience, teaching, sport and many more. For now, I’ll offer a few highlights to give you some sense of the power of embodied knowing.

Shoshana Zuboff spoke to workers who’d relied on their embodied knowledge. Until comparatively recently these US paper mill workers would sit alongside the machine, sensing how it behaved as they adjusted the controls. But after computerization they had to work from a remote monitor. Many found this transition really hard. They’d been using a “knowledge that you don’t even know you have” that they called a kind of ‘folk medicine’. They had an embodied understanding of how the machine worked, the sound and feel of it when it was running right. Suddenly they had to learn explicitly how to keep it running properly (Zuboff, 1988).

Hui Niu Wilcox uses her understanding of embodied knowledge in science education and social change (2009). Her approach is explicitly political: “through integrating embodied ways of knowing into our work, we have honed our critique of the Eurocentric and male-dominated system of knowledge production in the Western academy” (2009). The results can be transformative: Students on a Women’s Studies course she taught “spoke passionately about their leap from academic theories of race and white privilege to an embodied understanding of how white Americans unconsciously perform privilege and whiteness”.

Wilcox and her colleagues from the Ananya Dance Theatre also use embodied ways of knowing to help people understand the impact of the climate crisis on marginalised communities.

Embodied knowing plays a vital role in psychotherapy. Daria Halprin, an expressive arts therapist, says the body is “like a treasure chest … full of our life experiences, contained in a deep and accurate way” (2002). Embodied therapy can help us access that treasure and so bring healing to the bodymind.

Embodied ways of knowing are multifaceted, complex and marginalised. Sociologist Ian Burkitt claims that all knowledge is embodied (1999). I’m not sure I’d go that far, but in this short post you’ve read of how embodied ways of knowing can help us tackle racism, understand the climate crisis and nurture our mental health. That’s why I’ve devoted a big chunk of my life to trying to understand the power of embodied ways of knowing.

A graphic map of embodied ways of knowing
Mapping Embodied Ways of Knowing

I recently completed an initial sketch map of different models of embodied knowing. Although I’ve tried to keep it accessible, it isn’t bed time reading! If you’re curious, take a look and do please tell me what you think: Embodied Ways of Knowing: Mapping the Territory.

Embodied peacemaking

It’s VE Day, the 75th anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany. As well as celebration, there’s sad remembrance: World War 2 was deadliest military conflict in history and over 80 million people died.

But war hasn’t gone away and I wonder what we’ve learnt about building a lasting peace? Paul Linden, who’s been practicing Aikido for over 40 years and is something of a genius in bodymind awareness, has developed an approach he describes as ’embodied peace building’.

Amongst other things, Paul is a philosopher, and he presents his peacemaking approach with great precision. He begins with a definition of peace as “the condition in which conflicts are dealt with and resolved in respectful, life-affirming ways” (2007). Conflict resolution typically emphasizes thinking, listening and talking, but this can only succeed if those involved are “in a state of inner and outer peacefulness” (2007). Paul’s techniques teach us how to embody peace and calm. From that foundation, we can begin to explore ways of resolving conflict. Without the sense of safety and empowered love enabled by Paul’s method, conflict all too easily flares up as soon as negotiations get difficult.

Words alone aren’t enough. Morality is not some abstract set of principles or a divine injunction: it is “built into the very structure of the body”. Ethical behaviour emerges with profound inevitability “from an integrated body state of power and love” (2007).

I’ve long been convinced that our embodiment holds the key to positive change, whether that’s in the context of environmental awareness, mental health or spirituality. Paul’s work confirms my belief. More importantly, it saves lives.

Paul Linden will be presenting his work at The Embodiment Conference in October.

Charles Eisenstein

Stories are powerful; we live by them. I recall hearing once that those who control the stories control reality. Charles Eisenstein points out that our current world-view is built on the “Story of Separation”. This story is pretty much the version of reality presented by late 19th Century mainstream thinking:

  • “You are a separate individual among other separate individuals in a universe that is separate from you as well”;
  • “There is no purpose, only cause. The universe is at bottom blind and dead”;
  • human beings must “protect ourselves against this hostile universe of competing individuals and impersonal forces, we must exercise as much control as possible” (Eisenstein 2013).

This old story is looking shaky these days, but is still widely believed. It’s familiar after all, and opening our minds to something radically different feels very uncomfortable.

What we need, Eisenstein suggests, is “the Story of Interbeing”, a new story that understands that “our very existence is relational.” We’re not ready for that new story but for many of us the old story no longer rings true, so “we still must traverse, naked, the space between stories” (Eisenstein 2013).

Back lit tree
Hembury Fort, Devon. © Author.

As activists we sometimes find ourselves using the Story of Separation to make sense of our world. This can be misleading, as we get caught up in a model of reality that’s the fundamental root of the problem. Eisenstein believes that we “need to ground environmentalism on something other than data” and he draws on Deep Ecology to explore an alternative:

“When we as a society learn to see the planet and everything on it as beings deserving of respect – in their own right and not just for their use to us – then we won’t need to appeal to climate change to do all the best things that the climate change warriors would have us do” (Eisenstein, 2015).

The work of Charles Eisenstein, David Abram, Glen Mazis and myself is rooted in single insight: We are relational earthbodies, fundamentally intertwined with the more-then-human-world. This is the truth at the heart of the embodied ecology that’s emerging.

Charles Eisenstein will be joining me for the on-line Embodiment Conference in October

Philip Shepherd

How can we escape from the heady over-analytic thinking that our culture is caught up in? Philip Shepherd proposes a path to “radical wholeness” that’s grounded in the deep wisdom of the body (Shepherd, 2017).

Western culture has long prioritized abstract rational thinking over what we might call embodied knowing or embodied intelligence. The abstract mode of relating to the world sets us apart from everything else: It sets a clear and inviolable boundary between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, between me as ‘subject’ and everything else as ‘object’. I’ve referenced many thinkers in my posts who agree that this is nonsense: Amongst others, Eugene Gendlin, Andy Clark, Merleau-Ponty, David Abram, Glen Mazis and Charles Eisenstein.

Philip adds some valuable insights to this ongoing embodied revolution. He explores our sensory capacity, noting the inadequacy of the Western model of five senses and proposes that our primary sense is our ability to sense wholeness; this is what he calls holosapience. Wholeness is not something we need to strive to achieve; it’s not a destination. Paradoxically perhaps, wholeness is both unknowable and fundamental to our being. We cannot objectivity know wholeness, but we can feel it, hence the importance of holosapience. We need to come to rest in the body so that we can be fully present to wholeness and this is facilitated by the grounded sensitivity which forms our embodied intelligence.

For me, Philip Shepherd’s special contribution is to provide simple and powerful ways for us to actually experience the reality of our embodied intelligence. One practice struck me as being especially pertinent right now. I’m preparing for an online event with Philip so I might be forgiven for wanting to present myself well. But there’s a danger that I might slip into what Philip calls ‘presentation mode’, a carefully monitored way of speaking that’s intended to make me sound impressive! We’re all familiar with presentation mode as we use it a lot of the time. It’s driven by our anxiety about not knowing, about sounding like we’re not in control. Philip describes it as speaking from the sternum and suggests moving our awareness to the back of the chest instead. When I try this I sense a shift in how I relate to what I’m saying: It feels more open, grounded and available.

Philip Shepherd and I have exchanged ideas a few times and he’ll be joining me for the Embodiment Conference, in October. Next up is Charles Eisenstein, a radical new voice – for me at least – that has an urgent freshness.

Glen Mazis

Glen Mazis is a philosopher and poet whose writing frequently merges both skills. I came across his book Earthbodies (2002) during my PhD research on embodied knowing and found it hugely exciting. Mazis explains that ‘bodies’ are much more than we realize. We think of our bodies as bound by the surface of our skin, what Andy Clark calls the ‘skin-bag body’. Mazis, like Clark, believes that’s an illusion, and to explain why he introduces the term ‘earthbody’.

In the West we typically emphasize ownership of objectified bodies. Bodies are beautiful, ugly, fit, sick, strong or weak. And somehow ‘owned’. But “an earthbody isn’t ‘yours,’ it’s the world’s”. For Mazis “you don’t ‘have’ this body. You are part of a dynamic process that we might call ‘earthbodying,’ if we weren’t so used to referring to ourselves with nouns” (Mazis, 2002).

The term earthbodies describes a process more than an object. Earthbodies are “sensual, perceptual and feeling conductors through which richer meaning flows than we can grasp intellectually” (Mazis, 2002). Mazis emphasizes how fluidity and connectedness constitute our embodiment. Countless threads of connection pass though earthbodies, weaving each individual into the wider fabric of the world.

To write of the “fabric of the world” is particularly appropriate because it’s a phrase used by a philosopher that Mazis is profoundly inspired by; Merleau-Ponty. Several strands of thought come together at this point: Mazis, Abram and Gendlin all draw on Merleau-Ponty and all four argue for some notion of the ‘body’ as an open, interactive process.

Conventional notions of the body in Western culture stand in blunt opposition to that radical notion. As Mazis points out, the idea that you might be an open, process in fluid interaction with the world “may sound fantastic to you because we have been taught to close our bodies, lock our knees, and brace ourselves for life and its tasks” (Mazis, 2002). This numbing shut-down means that most people “fail to experience the pull, the tides, of the earth’s motion which stream through us”.

Merleau-Ponty distinguishes between the objective body – the body regarded as an object – and the phenomenal body, which refers to my (or your) body as I (or you) actually experience it. But we typically blur that distinction, experiencing our bodies as enclosed objects that we ‘own’. As a result many people “live much of the time in a state of disconnection and dislocation … and have little sense of where they are, what they feel and what they sense, especially not in the myriad depths and dimensions of the perceptual” (2004).

Mazis points to another way of experiencing our embodied condition that allow us to be more caring, more environmentally aware, more open and more loving. Mazis seeks to “reveal the dance of the planet”, so that we – as earthbodies – can come to experience the earth’s constant motion as more than merely physical: It’s also “emotional, imaginative, spiritual, linguistic, communal, and natural” (Mazis, 2002).

Glen will be joining me for forthcoming on-line Embodiment Conference, which is free to attend. My next post will introduce Philip Shepherd, who will also be Presenting at the Conference.

David Abram

David Abram’s first book, The Spell of the Sensuous, (1996) has influenced pretty much everyone in the world of ecopsychology and environmental philosophy. Its themes are summed up in the subtitle: Perception and Language in a More-than-human world. By way of introduction, I’ll touch on each of those themes.

Perception
Abram is more than just a philosopher; he’s also an ecologist, anthropologist and slight-of-hand magician. That unusual combination gave Abram some unique insights about perception:

“The task of the magician is to startle our senses
and free us from outmoded ways of thinking.”
(Interview with Scott London, 2018).

Abram’s interest in perception led him to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and he develops that into an embodied environmental philosophy. Abram challenges conventional ideas about subject and object, inside and out. He reveals that our perception is always participatory; it involves “an active interplay, or coupling, between the perceiving body and that which it perceives” (Abram, 1996). Thus he comes to understand the body as “a sort of open circuit that completes itself only in things, in others, in the encompassing earth” (Abram, 1996). There are echoes here of Eugene Gendlin who understood the body as extending beyond the skin into “a vastly larger system” (Gendlin, 1997).

Language
It’s not only humans who have a living language. Abram suggests that “various animals and other natural forms today speak in their own unique dialects” (Abram, 1996). Oral cultures fully appreciate this reality; they’re aware that we’re “corporeally embedded” in a “living landscape” (Abram, 1996). But the influence of writing has led us into a “more abstract mode of thinking” that conceals our sensuous, embodied relationship to the more-than-human world (Abram, 1996).

Wentworth Falls. Australia.

A more-than-human world
We are part of a more-than-human community: “the animals, the plants, the trees, even whole forests” (2018). Every member of this wider community has its own wisdom and way of being.

“Each place has its own mind, its own psyche. Oak, madrone, Douglas fir, red-tailed hawk, serpentine in the sandstone, a certain scale to the topography, drenching rains in the winter, fog off-shore in the winter, salmon surging in the streams – all these together make up a particular state of mind, a place-specific intelligence shared by all the humans that dwell therein … ” (Abram, 1996).

Abram was one of the first to recognize the importance of animism for ecological thinking. Animism had long been dismissed as a primitive error, but by the early 1990’s Religious Studies scholar Graham Harvey had identified it as a powerful influence amongst Neo-Pagans. Abram was on a parallel track to Harvey, following the thread through older, indigenous cultures.

Abram continues to explore these themes in Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (2010), another book I highly recommend. It’s important to note that Abram is a practical philosopher and his work with the Alliance for Wild Ethics is perhaps as important as his writing.

I’m delighted to say that David Abram will be joining me on the Ecology and Research channel of The Embodiment Conference. This on-line event takes place from 14 – 25 October and it’s free to join.

In my next post I’ll introduce philosopher and poet Glen Mazis.

How to Save the World: Embodied Ecology

The UN message is clear: “Climate change is running faster than we are – and we are running out of time.” Most of us know climate change is an unfolding disaster, but we still don’t change. Why? It’s not what you know, it’s the way that you know it. We know the facts and figures in our heads, but don’t – or can’t – engage on an embodied, gut level.

I first explored these idea in Sacred Ecology and it’s still my most popular publication even though it’s over 25 years old! I wrote about ‘somatic knowing’:

“Besides the cerebral knowledge we all possess, the words & ideas stored in our heads, there is a deeper knowledge held within the tissue of our bodies. It is a somatic, physical knowing which comes from direct experience. This is the knowledge of faith, of emotion, of the gut feeling”.

Maori sculpture in Aotearoa.
Maori sculpture. Aotearoa.

Fast forward a quarter of a century, and I’m still exploring the same territory. I’ve found many allies in that time, people like David Abram, Glen Mazis, Charles Eisenstein and Philip Shepherd. You may not know them yet, but trust me – these are some of the key thinkers in what we might call embodied ecology. You’ll be able to hear from these four – and many others – as part of the free on-line Embodiment Conference in October. The conference will include over 1000 speakers from disciplines as diverse as yoga, coaching, meditation and therapy.

The Embodiment Conference takes place from 14 – 25 October. It’s free to join, but numbers are limited so sign up now if you don’t want to miss it.

In preparation for the event, my next few blog posts will introduce some of the thinkers featured at the conference. Next up will be David Abram, cultural ecologist, geophilosopher, author of ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ and a source of inspiration for many!