Nature and the therapeutic relationship

I completed my Masters dissertation back in 2014, so it was interesting to re-work it into a journal article several years later. My question was whether working in a natural environment had an impact on the therapeutic relationship. It does, of course, but how?

The existing literature noted seven key themes:

  • 3-way relationship;
  • Nature and the therapeutic process;
  • Symbolism, metaphor and synchronicity;
  • Power;
  • Self/other, inside/outside;
  • Nature and the therapeutic process;
  • Boundaries and containers.

I found all of those in my research, as well as two completely new themes; the turning point and transference. The term ‘transference’ comes from Freud and it describes the phenomena of ‘transferring’ our feelings about someone in our past to a different person in the present. The person in the past is someone of deep importance to us, typically our father or mother. I’d guess we’ve all experienced that, even if we didn’t realize what was going on at the time! My research found something rather odd and potentially very significant: It’s possible to transfer strong feelings about some significant person in our past to a natural object or phenomena. A tree, for example, can come to represent someone’s father or stormy wild weather can powerfully evoke emotional echoes of a mother/son relationship. I wonder if this plays into the idea of ‘Mother Nature’?


There’s a key moment in therapy in nature, a turning point where the client and therapist pass a threshold and enter into a liminal space. I draw parallels with anthropological theory about rites of passage, which highlights the importance of that in-between space where the initiate is neither who they were nor who they are to become (Van Gennep). In a rite of passage there’s a midpoint of transition where, for example, the person is no longer a girl, but not yet a women. The anthropologist Victor Turner emphasized the importance of this central liminal phase where the ritual participants are “betwixt and between” (1967).
What has all that to do with therapy? Turner’s notion of liminal space seems to be closely related to what psychotherapist Donald Winnicott calls “transitional space”. Transitional space is “is an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute” (Winnicott, 1971). Is where therapeutic healing happens?

I’m ending this post with some big questions left open. No apologizes for that: I did the same in my dissertation! Sometimes the value of research comes from the questions it asks rather than the answers it claims to offer. I’ll end here with the same quote from Merleau-Ponty that concluded my dissertation:

“[t]he accomplished work is … not the work which exists in itself, like a thing, but the work which reaches the viewer and invites him to take up the gesture which created it” (1993).

The Wilderness Effect

Ecopsychologist Rob Greenway used to guide people on wilderness treks and after years of research concluded that “civilization is only four days deep” (Greenway, 1995). When people go on long treks in the wilderness they start out enthusiastic: They’re feeling excited and looking forward to the coming adventure. But after a couple of days of hard walking, most begin to get uncomfortable. It’s not just aching muscles that are the problem; people start to miss the familiar civilized world that they’re habituated to. “There’s no fricking phone signal out here!” “When do we get to have shower?” “Damn, it’s quiet …”

But something profound happens after about 72 hours of being in the wilderness. Rob found that almost everyone experienced “an increased sense of aliveness” and “feelings of expansion or reconnection”. Rob calls this phenomena “the wilderness effect” and it’s one of the best established theories in ecopsychology.

I was hugely excited when I first read about the wilderness effect. It seemed to offer a powerful way to reconnect people with nature, and maybe transform our relationship to the world. My excitement was short lived however. The effect Rob had observed happened on extended trips into the American wilderness, so there’s no way to bring it to the millions who yearn for it.

But years later I had an experience that opened my eyes to another possibility. I was living on a road protest site and while it was far from being pristine wilderness, life there slowly deepened my connection to nature. Could it be that something like the wilderness effect happens when we spend a lot of quality time in urban nature?

A camp fire in the woods
Life in the woods

The short answer is yes; ecopsychologists generally agree that “simply spending meaningful time communing with nature” is beneficial (Shaw, 2006) and the full-on wilderness effect is a difference of degree rather than a difference in kind. I’ve written about this in detail elsewhere and I’ll be developing these thoughts in later posts, but for now I’ll close with a quote from Jim Hindle. Jim lived amongst the trees at the Newbury protest site and beautifully describes how his awareness was transformed by that experience:

“I became accustomed to the sound of the wind in the trees at all times. It wasn’t a thing I necessarily listened to, but the silence that fell whenever I stepped inside a building was eerie and disquietening. … It was like being connected to a great river, the source of all life … and years of separation between us and the Land were falling away like an old skin”
(Hindle, 2006).

The psychotherapy of place

How we are in the world emerges from the matrix of mindbody and place. Although it seems very obvious that where I live or grew up will influence how I feel or even who I am, that reality is largely neglected by psychotherapy. The traditional Freudian model focuses on individuals caught in Oedipal family relationships and place is all but ignored. Psychotherapy in general seems to have forgotten embodiment, although there are notable exceptions like Focusing, body therapy and some Existential approaches. But even in the more embodied psychotherapies, place is rarely discussed. The term embodiment implies place – we are all embodied somewhere – but it often seems that those working with embodiment treat place as a mere background, an adjunct to the important business of having a body.

Merleau-Ponty suggests that we have “a knowledge of place which is reducible to a sort of co-existence with that place” (2002 [1962]). It’s not that I am sitting in my room – I am in a co-existence with that space. Gendlin is even more radical: the body “is an ongoing interaction with its environment” (Gendlin, 1992). To be clear, there isn’t a typo there: Gendlin isn’t saying that the body is in an interaction, but that the body actually is that interaction.

Ecopsychology engages with the wider world, and ecotherapists might well ask about a client’s relationship to nature. But how often do therapists consider the places that we live in more generally? We typically ask about siblings, parents, intimate partners and the like, but when do we wonder about the everyday landscape of our client’s lives? “How do you feel about your home? What’s your local area like? Do you drive to work, walk or take the bus? Where did you play as a child?” If ecotherapy is about the environment rather than just the ‘natural’ world, (whatever that means), these questions are vital.

Clients sometimes talk about the fields they played in as children, how they feel when they wake up in the familiar space of home or what the corridor outside their flat means for them. I’m increasingly curious about these things, perhaps because I’m aware of the importance of this dimension of our existence. Where do we go with this? Ecopsychology has opened new pathways and my Focusing practice is sensing into this edge. There are also clues in the work of Gaston Bachelard, who proposes a new strand of psychoanalysis he calls topoanalysis. Topoanalysis “would be the systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives” (Bachelard, 1969 (1958]). I haven’t had time to study Bachelard yet, but watch this space.

Focusing in Nature

Put simply, Focusing is a means of opening our awareness to the “bodily sensed knowledge” which Eugene Gendlin calls the “felt sense” (Gendlin, 1981). The term ‘felt sense’ describes those fuzzy feelings that we don’t usually pay much attention to – those vague ‘gut feelings’. As you become more aware of a felt sense it will often open like a bud, revealing an otherwise hidden embodied knowing. I discovered Focusing when I was doing my PhD research and it’s become central to my spiritual practice and personal wellbeing. It subsequently become the foundation for my psychotherapy when I trained as a Focusing Oriented Therapist.

Focusing is usually done indoors, but it occurred to me that it would be interesting to see what happened if I tried it in nature. It’s an obvious step and  it came as no surprise that other people were already doing it. What did surprise me was how powerful it could be. My first experiments were a revelation:  Focusing in nature quickly softened the perceived barrier between ‘me’ and ‘the world’, enabling a much more intimate relationship to place.

A boat sits on a still Loch at dawn

This was amazing! In minutes I could get a deep sense of connection to the natural world. Was it just me? I read about other peoples experiences and did some interviews. Although different people had different experiences, that sense of profound connection came up again and again.

As Deep Ecology has noted, that connection is fundamental to changing our environmental behavior. Herbert Schroeder, an environmental psychologist working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service found that Focusing in nature “was a first step toward articulating the ineffable, experiential value that natural environments have for me” (Schroeder, 2012: 141).

There’s much more to be said and done. If you’d like to know more, see my article, Gendlin and ecopsychology: focusing in nature in the Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies journal.

The power of place: Protest site pagans

Research has established that spending time in the wilderness can have profound effects on people. This “wilderness effect” (Greenway, 1995) usually occurs in truly wild places like the Grand Canyon, but my research shows that it can work its magic in more urban environments.

Home comforts

I describe this process in my article on ‘The power of place: Protest site pagans’, which has been published in the European Journal of Ecopsychology. The article expands on several themes I’ve explored here, notably Eco-Paganism, the spirit of place and the cognitive iceberg. It’s based on my research with protest camps activists and describes how spending extended periods of time in nature can catalyse profound personal change.

The article also explains the model of embodied situated cognition that I’ve described as ‘the cognitive iceberg’ in several posts. In the last section I use the cognitive iceberg model to provide a partial explanation for how the wilderness effect works. I think it works really well as a companion piece to my chapter in The Wanton Green, which was published in 2012.

The Neuroscience of Walk and Talk Therapy

Susan Greenfield is a leading thinker on the neuroscience of consciousness, so I was curious to learn that she believes walking can help us think. Do her ideas help illuminate how ‘walk and talk’ ecotherapy works? Walk and talk therapy is much like conventional counselling but takes place outdoors. Therapist and client walk side by side exploring issues just as they would in the consulting room. Walking and talking in the park feels familiar to most people and being alongside the therapist avoids the potentially uncomfortable feeling of sitting opposite them.

Walk and talk therapy is increasingly popular and Susan Greenfield’s work suggests that it might also be very effective. Walking in natural environments has been shown to boost cognitive capacity, improve working memory and enhance recall. Susan describes other benefits:

“It is you who decides to examine a plant more closely or to focus on the far-flung horizon one moment, then perhaps to lean up against the tree the next: this internally driven sequence of events will then have the additional benefit of restoring a sense of control, of giving you a longer time frame in which to develop and deepen your thoughts”

(Greenfield, 2016)

Although Susan is writing about walking in nature, she has perfectly described a typical ecotherapy session.

Follow the path …

Susan suggests that as thinking is basically a series of steps, it can be seen as “a kind of movement: the longer the journey, the ‘deeper’ the thought”. She adds:

“the actual physical act of walking could amplify and thereby perhaps enhance this inner process: by reflecting in external movement what is happening in the brain, by having a clear causal link between one step and the next, with the mental being enforced by the physical, the repetitive contraction of muscles could help insure against the mind ‘wandering’, going, literally, off-track”

(Greenfield, 2016)

Everything that Susan Greenfield says about walking in nature suggests that walk and talk ecotherapy will enable clients to think more deeply and powerfully. Furthermore, the therapist will benefit in the same way, so we can do our job better. Susan Greenfield may have never heard of walk and talk outdoor therapy, but the fact that her neuroscience research unintentionally supports what we’re doing is exciting news.

Green spaces create healthy communities

The latest research confirms that green spaces are essential for our psychological well-being. Frances “Ming” Kuo (University of Illinois) has studied a wide range of research from the last decade. She concludes that in areas with good access to green spaces “people are more generous and more sociable. We find stronger neighborhood social ties and greater sense of community, more mutual trust and willingness to help others”.

Being in the natural environment provides many other benefits, including:

  • better cognitive functioning
  • more self-discipline
  • improved immune system.

Conversely, people living in areas where there isn’t much natural space suffer in all kinds of ways. There’s

  • more attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • higher rates of anxiety
  • higher rates of clinical depression.

Of course deprived areas with less green space suffer poorer health for lots of reasons. Researchers have accounted for those factors and it’s very clear that access to green space is fundamental to community health.

All this bears out the underlying theme of this blog: Many of our cognitive processes are intimately bound up where we are. Understanding the importance of the bodymind isn’t enough; we must consider the intricate system that is the situated bodymind.

Nature connection: Core routines

The sit spot is one of 13 core routines described in Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature. They are:

  • Sit spot
  • Story of the day
  • Expanding sensory awareness
  • Questioning and tracking
  • Animal forms
  • Wandering
  • Mapping
  • Exploring field guides
  • Journalling
  • Survival living
  • Minds eye imagining
  • Listening for bird language
  • Thanksgiving

Regularly practising just some of these powerful techniques will deepen your connection with nature.

Some of them look familiar: Thanksgiving, for example, is part of every spiritual path and you probably have memories of wandering or telling the story of the day if only from childhood. A few may strike you as odd: What would it mean to practise animal forms or survival living? Your tribal ancestors would be able to tell you.

The Core routines were developed by the Wilderness Awareness School under the guidance of Jon Young. Jon draws his inspiration from his childhood mentoring by tracker Tom Brown Jr., who was in turn taught by Stalking Wolf, an Apache elder.

Although Native American teaching forms the foundation of Jon’s work, he draws from ancient and modern nature connection strategies from around the world: Jon is as likely to tell a story about about the Kalahari Bushman as he is to reference ecopsychology.

I’ve trained with Jon and use the Core routines – and much more – in my nature connection workshops.