What happens when we combine mindfulness in nature with somatic therapy? That’s the theme of my conversation with Rochelle Calvert for The Embodiment Podcast. It’s very timely too, as one of the topics we discuss is “living an ethical, embodied life” in a time of ecological crisis. Rochelle is passionate about her work and deeply committed to environmental healing. No wonder we got on!
I’ve often talked about why mindfulness works so well in a natural environment, and we explore that together. Rochelle then provides a very clear introduction to Peter Levine’s somatic experiencing and explains how she combines it with mindfulness in nature.
Rochelle recognises the powerful way that nature “calls us into presence”. By helping us to awaken to our senses, nature can enhance our embodied awareness. This allows us to access the wisdom of the body, awakening our inner sense of safety, well-being, and connection. Western approaches tend to exaggerate the importance of the thinking mind and forget the wisdom of the body, but it’s “the innate intuitive healing of this body” that brings healing from trauma.
Rochelle then shares her version of a classic somatic experiencing practice, pendulation: It’s one of her favourite practices and is both simple and very powerful. There are full details in her book, but you’ll get a good sense of it in the podcast.
Reciprocity is a word Rochelle uses a lot, and the question of how we can give back to nature is key for her. One of the most important topics we discuss is living an embodied ethical life. How can I be an ally to nature? How can we live in integrity with our planet? This is a recurring theme of this blog, and Rochelle’s work beautifully deepens the field of embodied ecology.
One of the key ideas in my PhD (2008) was that we think with place; different places enable us to think in particular ways. Based on the research of people like Andy Clark and Christopher Preston, I explored how spending time in nature can profoundly change how we make sense of the world. I spent weeks trawling through books and papers on embodied knowing and situated cognition, but there was always more. I now know just how much research I missed, because science writer Annie Murphy Paul has written a fascinating exploration of the extended mind – how our thinking extends beyond the brain (2021). I’m keen to see what Paul has found that I missed and to find out what emerges when I revisit my work with all this new information.
Many thinkers have suggested that we think with place. Gregory Peterson surveyed the field in 2003 and concluded that trying to understand “the mind/brain in isolation from biological and environmental contexts is to understand nothing” (Peterson, 2003). David Abram rather more poetically suggests that a heavy boulder might lend our “thoughts a certain gravity, and a kind of stony wisdom” (Abram, 2004).
The bottom line is that there are thoughts you’ll have in a forest that would be literally unthinkable in a shopping mall.
My research was focused on environmental campaigners, many of whom were living on protest sites in natural spaces. I found that spending months living close to nature often changed how people made sense of the world. Rob Greenway used the term “the wilderness effect” to describe what happens to people on a multi-day trek in the wild. People would talk about how their minds feel ‘open’ and ‘airy’ in the wilderness, in contrast with ‘turgid,’ ‘tight,’ and ‘crowded’ in urban culture (Greenway, 1995). Those who live on road protest sites often feel something similar. Jon Anderson wrote: “I get a slowed down, rhythmic feeling in the woods and on the meadow, relaxed” (2004).
Once you’ve experienced that feeling, it’s easier to notice how different our thinking is in an urban environment. Barry Patterson is concerned that the city can easily become “a space built from symbols, a virtual reality, rather than physical structures & patterns of relationship” (Patterson, n.d.). Barry told me that such places can feel like a “sensory desert”. Rob, another activist I spoke to, explained how he finds it difficult to cope in cities partly because “in an urban environment everything is constructed, everything is based on ideas”. In a more natural environment, Rob’s thinking is very different, and he can “feel the energy flowing through me and I have that connection”.
Living on a protest site – or wilderness trekking – can free “energies bound up in habitual deformations of posture or movement” (Jackson, 2006).
Annie Murphy Paul explores a different and wider range of topics, but similar themes emerge. She explains that although “our sense of self may feel stable and solid, it is in fact quite fluid, dependent on external structure for its shape”. That makes perfect sense given what I learnt from living on a protest site for several months.
Paul draws on the latest research to illustrates how “physical places influence our thinking and behaviour far more than personality or other factors” (2021). She tells us about the work of the psychologist Roger Barker. Barker and his team carefully observed the behaviour of a group of children from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. A clear pattern emerged, but it had more to do with place than personality. Barker concluded that the “behaviour of a child often changed dramatically when he moved from one region to another, e.g. from classroom, to hall, to playground, from drugstore to street, from basketball game to shower room.”
There’s much richness in Annie Murphy Paul’s book and it’s very useful for the kind of embodied, nature-based work that I do with my clients. This is the book on the extended mind that I’ve wanted to read for the last couple of decades and it’s well worth the wait!
Blackator Copse is a patch of ancient oak woodland on Dartmoor. Although it’s small – only 21 acres – this rare habitat is nationally important because of the exceptional variety of lichens and mosses. It’s a magical place and I was very grateful to be there again over the Bank Holiday weekend. I conversed for a while with the spirits of place that afternoon, and the idea came that Western civilization is in thrall to an evil spell. Perhaps it’s what the sociologist Max Weber called “the disenchantment of the world” (1962 ). Weber described how animistic beliefs become replaced by purposive-rational action. We gained scientific understanding and control from this Faustian pact with reason but lost something precious in the process.
I’d planned to camp at Blackator Copse and was sitting quietly enjoying the peace when the throbbing beats of banging techno came drifting across the green. I’m well up for some dance music in the right setting, but Blackator Copse most certainly isn’t one of them. Half a dozen lads wandered into the Copse, clearly delighted to have found this little piece of paradise. ‘It’s Bank Holiday weekend’, I thought with a shrug and headed up the hill to a quieter spot.
I came down again the next morning just as they headed off. I sat by the river enjoying the silence for a while and then wandered along the bank. There were a few scraps of rubbish lying about, which is pretty much what I’d expected, but also the remains of a fire. At this point, some context might be useful. Open fires are banned on Dartmoor. First, they aren’t safe as parts of the Moor get very dry. Second, people who light fires on Dartmoor don’t bring in a supply of supermarket bought wood. They collect whatever they see lying around, which will be covered in the lichens and mosses that are part of a unique ecology. Some of the species found here are threatened with extinction in Europe and people burn them. While this is partly ignorance, but it’s mainly due to a consumerist attitude to nature. For some people Blackator Copse – and every other natural place – is simply a resource to be consumed: Get there as fast as possible, use it and leave without paying.
I’m reminded of an occasion many years ago when a friend and I stood in front of a Renoir. I was lost in rapture, but he broke my reverie when he asked “How much do you reckon that’s worth?’ (Framing perception). It’s as if the guys who enjoyed that bonfire of ancient wood and rare lichens were in a different place from me: I wandered amidst magic and they sat in a disenchanted theme park.
How does a young man test his strength? Like a young stag, he locks horns with his father in a challenge. One of three things can happen next, depending on what kind of man that father is. An aggressive, arrogant father will push back hard and the youngster will be defeated, humiliated and possibly injured. A weak father won’t have the strength to do anything but fall back, leaving his son feeling mild contempt and perhaps confusion. But a strong and grounded father will steadily hold his ground, not pushing against his son but not yielding either. In this ideal case the youngster feels his father’s strength and his love. He can push against his father, testing his own emerging manhood. In this way he comes to learn something crucial about what it is to be a mature male.
My own father wasn’t ideal in many ways but somehow he was good enough at holding his ground against my adolescent challenges without defeating me. When a young man challenges his father, he’s effectively asking a question; “What is it to be a man?” If he gets the wrong answer – arrogant aggression or weakness – he may end up living the rest of his life in response to it.
In my work as a psychotherapist I sometimes see what happens when that adolescent encounter is mishandled. There are weak men, lacking self esteem and often searching for someone to replace their mother. Maybe their father’s answer to their challenge was capitulation, which told them that a man is a weak creature, born to servitude. Or perhaps his father was punishing, telling him that he has no right to challenge authority. The flip side of this weak soul is equally damaged. This is the son whose father taught him that being a man means beating the other guy, even if the contest is unfair. In an attempt to make sense of the way his father crushed him, he builds a strong defense and comes to fear vulnerability more than death itself.
I don’t meet the men whose fathers had the wisdom to stand with firm gentleness, offering strength to push against. They they are the lucky ones who know their place in the world, who feel comfortable in their own skin and know what real strength entails.
I’ve been doing much more outdoor therapy over the last few months. I think that’s partly because it’s been easier to meet face to face outdoors during lockdown, but maybe people have come to appreciate it more? I’ve been engaged with ecotherapy for years and it was part of my life before I knew it had a name! It was central to my PhD (2008), which is how I met up with some of the UK pioneers of ecotherapy. The many discussions we had inspired me to run nature connection workshops in London. Later I wrote my 2014 MSc dissertation on outdoor therapy and then I trained in the practicalities with Beth Collier. It’s been a rich journey!
Although the core principles are the same, outdoor therapy is very different from indoor sessions. The first thing that struck me when I was training with Beth was how much more fluid working outdoors is. Whatever action feels right for the client is open to them: They are free to stand, walk, stop, sit down or even lie on the ground. If a space feels too open, we can go somewhere more enclosed. If where we are feels claustrophobic, there’s the option to move. Of course wondering why a space feels uncomfortable gives us something to explore, but we have the option of how and where we work with that. Working outdoors can be much more playful than indoor practice, and I’m reminded of Winnicott’s belief that psychotherapy is ultimately about two people playing together (1971).
Saying that outdoor therapy is more playful and fluid suggests it might be less intense, but in fact the natural environment has a way of highlighting issues and pulling away our familiar masks. It’s a much more embodied way of doing therapy and that in itself tends to reveal ourselves to ourselves. Nature has a knack of holding up a mirror to us. What we think of as internal psychic processes somehow get symbolised in the space around us. Ecotherapist’s often refer to this kind of synchronicity: Somehow inner reality and external life get blurred.
I find myself back with Winnicott again. He thought of the consulting room as a transitional space that emerged between the therapist and the client. Transitional space is “is an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute” (Winnicott, 1971). I can’t help fantasizing that Winnicott would have very much enjoyed doing outdoor therapy!
I wrote a Tweet today criticizing Extinction Rebellion (XR). It was an honest response but felt odd as I’ve been a supporter for ages and was a regular contributor to the XR newspaper, The Hourglass. So why the change of heart? When XR first came to my attention I was somewhat dismissive. ‘Here we go again!’, I thought. ‘Yet another climate change campaign using the same old strategies we’ve used for decades’. I’ve been involved in environmental activism for over 40 years so my cynicism was not unfounded.
My mood changed as I saw what XR were doing. Regenerative culture was at the foundation of this new movement and it was characterized by imaginative, original and powerful actions. The aim, I thought, was to build a mass movement, raise awareness of the climate crisis and build a truly regenerative culture. I believed XR were engaged in what used to be called consciousness raising, fundamentally changing how people thought about climate change. This was exemplified for me by the Red Brigade, white face-painted activists dressed in red, walking in slow procession. The Red Brigade are silent and they don’t carry banners; the power of their presence flows from a deeper place.
In 1970 the Anti-Apartheid Movement launched a campaign against Barclays Bank. The Bank had a huge presence in South Africa and local branches were regularly targeted by activists. 16 years later Barclays withdrew from South Africa. Fast forward to 2021 and XR activists smash windows at Barclays Bank. It’s hard to gauge the public response but this doesn’t look to me like consciousness raising or regenerative culture. We don’t have 16 years to deal with climate change and frankly that’s simply a symptom of the much deeper malaise. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.”
The articles I wrote for The Hourglass were often about nature connectedness, which we now know encourages people to protect the environment (Mackay & Schmitt). Related research suggests that mindfulness can also lead to pro-environmental behavior (Barbaro & Pickett). It’s no surprise perhaps that psychedelic experience can have a profound impact on our sense of nature connectedness and can increase positive environmental action (Forstmann & Sagioglou, 2017; Kettner et al. 2019). All three are examples of what I call the embodied pathways of connection (EPoC) and provide a clear escape route from our “illusion of separateness”.
I’m a pragmatist, not an ideologue. Direct action certainly has a place in environmental activism but don’t be misled into thinking it’s the only game in town. Stanislav Grof, the Czech psychiatrist who helped found found transpersonal psychology sums it up beautifully:
To engage with climate change we need consciousness change. Nature connectedness, mindfulness, psychedelics and the rest of the EPoC are far more powerful tools for that than smashing windows.
It’s too late for anything less than the extraordinary.
The media is full of news about psychedelic therapy this week. There’s the opening of the new Awakn clinic in Bristol, which uses Ketamine to support psychotherapy for depression, anxiety and addiction. Another organization – Small Pharma – are trialing DMT in the UK as a treatment for people with depression. In the USA, Oregon has decriminalized all drugs and Washington D.C. now permits the cultivation and possession of “entheogenic plants and fungi.” It’s perhaps no exaggeration to say that we are at the start of a revolution and things have moved fast since I wondered if psychedelic psychotherapy might be the next big thing in psychiatry a mere 18 months ago.
You’d be forgiven if you have a deja vu feeling about all this; back in the 60’s Timothy Leary and others were proclaiming a psychedelic revolution. Sadly it all went badly wrong, as revolutions so often do. What happened back then and can we learn from the mistakes of those excited pioneers? The main problem was that there was no context for psychedelic experience. Many indigenous cultures have been drawing on the healing power of psychedelics for generations and they provide a supportive context to hold the experience. It’s not simply ‘Tune on, tune in and drop out’!
Context is vital at several levels. Stan Grof, a leading thinker in the field, suggested that psychedelics are “non-specific mental amplifiers of the psyche” (2000), which means that the location and your mindset are key. The psychedelic experience needs to take place in a carefully managed setting and ideally with someone who is there to support you. Most people who work with psychedelics know about set and setting, but there’s a larger context that’s sometimes neglected. Preparation for the experience can make a huge difference and integration afterwards can unpack the deeper significance of the journey. Without integration it’s too easy to miss the potentially life changing lessons of your psychedelic experience. Then there’s the wider social context. You’ve had this extraordinary experience that may well have been mystical in it’s profundity. How do you take that into the rest of your life? Do you have friends or a mentor who understands and supports you? Does your culture affirm or dismiss your experience? While many indigenous peoples have all of these levels of support integrated into the culture, Western Postmodernism most certainly doesn’t!
The good news is that there are organizations and individuals working to create these supportive contexts. There’s a lot to learn but we’re drawing on cutting edge scientific research and, with deep respect, indigenous wisdom. I’ve recently started working as the Director of Ecopsychology at the Synthesis Institute. Synthesis have been running psychedelic retreats in The Netherlands for several years and are now exploring a new approach to help manage depression. My role is to bring the powerful holding and healing of the natural world to this work. Ecopsychology has a lot of offer, especially with preparation and integration but this potential has been largely untapped. Although a special issue of the European Journal of Ecopsychology on the psychedelic experience came out in 2013, it was before the current renaissance in psychedelic therapy.
Psychedelic therapy is complex and requires an interdisciplinary approach that’s very unfamiliar for Western medicine. We need new frameworks, and it’s notable that the psychedelic experience and nature connectedness are two of the embodied pathways of connection; perhaps the EPoC model can help inform the way forward?
So it’s exciting and challenging times! We have a wealth of wisdom and research to draw on as we negotiate this journey. With the revolution well underway, I believe our community can rise to the challenge of creating a holding context for what may be the most powerful experience someone will ever have.
John Danvers is an artist, writer and poet whose work emerges from over fifty years of Zen meditation practice. John gave a wonderful presentation at The Embodiment Conference last October called “Interwoven Nature: relatedness and identity in a changeful world”. There’s a link to a recording below, but before you listen I’d like to highlight and contextualize what I see as a few key points.
I came across John’s work though the Exeter Meditation Circle, a group I’ve been attending regularly for several years and which he facilitates. I was intrigued by John’s ideas so read his book, Interwoven Nature: relatedness and identity in a changeful world (Danvers, 2016). The book Is excellent and it’s enriched my ideas, notably about the embodied pathways of connection (EPoC). John was an obvious person to invite to speak at The Embodiment Conference and his talk is located at the intersection of embodiment and ecology that I’ve rather dramatically claimed is the best way to save the world!
John’s talk ranges across topics that include Covid, ecology, narcissism and politics, but I take his core message to be that mindfulness meditation can enable us to realize how interconnected everything is: there is a “kinship and fellowship between all beings”. This is an ecological and relational understanding of the self.
For those with little or no experience of meditation, it might seem extraordinary that zazan can be so powerful. It’s deceptively simple, requiring nothing more that just “sitting quietly, paying attention to whatever arises in our embodied minds and in the world immediately around us”. But this practice can reveal that the self – that oh so precious center of the Universe that Western culture has deified – isn’t a thing at all, but a process.
“we are mistaken if we believe and act as if each ego/self is a fixed and essential centre of the universe; we become wise when we act on the belief that the self has no fixed essence and is woven into the universe and inseparable from it” (Danvers, 2016).
John eloquently describes what happens when we slip back into habitual thinking. He can feel fragmented, “divided within myself”. He can fall into the Illusion that “my mind is divided from my body”. This sense of fragmentation can lead to him feeling disconnected from the world and alienated from everything: “I’m so locked into my divided self that I feel separated from what’s around me”.
Our minds seem to habitually fall into this state, even after decades of zazen practice. I think there may be good evolutionary reasons for why this divided self seems to be our default mode of being and I’ll say more about that another time.
This isolated self tends to see the world as threatening and too easily finds danger where none exists. In this habitual state of separation “we can be too easily swayed by popular rhetoric”. Recent events in the USA are just the most recent example of what happens when people feel alienated and threatened, but every page of history tells the same story.
We habitually identify with what we’re feeling – “I’m angry!” – and with our opinions – “They’re wrong!” Mindfulness allows us to loosen these attachments and “can help us distinguish between habitual reactions and how things actually are”. We can learn how to open a space between our emotions, thoughts and opinions and our awareness of them. We gain the freedom to distance ourselves from habitual reactions and respond in ways that lessen rather then feed conflict.
The illusion of separation doesn’t only feed political unrest; it forms the foundation of consumerism. Consumerism depends on our tendency to “chase after novelties in the hope that our desires and wants will be fulfilled”, but these can no more satisfy us than a mirage can quench the traveler’s thirst.
Before closing, I want to touch on John’s art, which is informed by his mindfulness. Any art practice is “a form of relationship to the world around us and to the world within us … and those two things are very interpenetrating”. Art can be an act of “self revelation” and “opening up to the world”. Looking at art can reveal how other people see the world, allowing us to “look afresh” in a way that can be similar to zazen. John’s thoughts on art and mediation remind me of the work of Stephanie Gottlob, who comments that her mindful experiences in nature “are an integral part of the creative process”.
The most popular post on my blog this year is from a guest, Stephanie Gottlob, an improvisational movement artist. Although it’s not something I wrote, I’m delighted that this post has done so well as I’m keen to promote Stephanie’s work. I’d guess that part of its popularity is the interview I did with Stephanie for The Embodiment Conference in October, but all that really did was to inform a wider range of people about her fascinating work. I like to think that it’s only when you promote something of quality that you get attention. Stephanie and I are in regular correspondence and rest reassured she’ll be featured here again in 2021. Meanwhile, check out Stephanie Gottlob’s post.
In second place is my post on Embodied knowledge, which is gratifying as this is something I’ve been working on for decades. I finally managed to put together a sketch map of different models of embodied knowing. To be honest I wondered if anyone would pay any attention to it, but I’ve had some academic interest and this post has been read by a lot of you. Thanks! A related and perhaps more accessible post on the same subject was the fourth most popular post: “We know more than we can tell”: Why embodied knowledge matters. I’m pursuing this research in 2021 and I’m planning to organize an online conference on embodied ways of knowing. More on this as it develops.
Love it or loath it, Christmas is a stressful time for many people. Money worries, anxiety about ‘getting it right’ and spending extra time with the family can all crank up the pressure. Perhaps part of the solution is to bring some mindful presence into your Christmas.
Mindfulness practice is an excellent way to reduce stress. John Kabat-Zinn, who developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness meditation as “the intentional cultivation of nonjudgemental moment-to-moment awareness” (1996). In essence, mindfulness is about being present to the moment. Typically mindfulness mediation will focus on the breath, but you can use any aspect of your immediate experience. If you find yourself starting to get stressed about what to buy someone for Christmas, just pause for moment. What is happening for you right now? Be with the experience, however unpleasant it feels, and try not to make a judgement about it. You may find all kinds of narratives going on in your head: ‘They’ll hate that’, ‘I’m running out of time!’, ‘She/he is so hard to buy a present for’. Can you hear yourself for a moment? Can you just listen to that narrative without getting caught up in it? The key here is to be with the feelings and thoughts but not be in them. It’s as if you’re sitting next to those feelings and worries with compassionate awareness.
If that seems impossible, then just try to become more aware of your physical sensations. Feel the ground beneath your feet. Notice your breathing; there’s no need to try to change it, just watch it for a few breaths. Listen to the sounds around you. More than likely it’s Christmas music, but don’t judge it as good or bad. Can you just listen to the way the sounds come and go around you? By simply paying attention to what is going on for you right now you are becoming more present. Even 30 seconds of mindful presence can help reduce your stress.
Often the most tricky part is noticing that you’re getting stressed in the first place and that’s where a regular mediation practice really helps. If you spend 10 or 15 minutes a day practising watching your breath, you begin to notice what’s going on for you during the rest of the time.
By calling presence ‘the perfect gift’ I risk making it sound like a commodity and it’s true that ‘mindfulness’ is now a business for some. But presence is not something you can buy and it can be transformational. Being more present will help you manage Christmas stress, but mindfulness practice also nurtures compassion, calmness and wisdom. So although the immediate benefits are mostly for you, your mindfulness practice will benefit all beings. That’s why I call it the perfect gift.