‘Sacred Ecology’ Revisited

Over a quarter of a century ago I presented a paper called ‘Sacred Ecology’ at a Newcastle University conference (1994), and it’s still my most widely read article. Should I be dismayed that I haven’t come up with anything more popular or pleased that it’s remained relevant?

Sacred Ecology was published in 1996 (Harvey and Hardman) and has been republished several times since, both in books and on the internet. When ‘Humanistic Paganism’ re-posted Sacred Ecology in 2015 I added a short introduction to put it into context. I commented that my emphasis on ritual missed something: “While ritual can be very powerful, there are many ways to access the wisdom of the body and some – like Focusing – are arguably more reliable”. Five years on, I’m increasingly curious about a whole range of embodied pathways to the wisdom of the body and what fundamental principles might underpin them. I’ve already discussed several of these pathways in this blog: Focusing, mindfulness and the wilderness effect, but there are many more.

St. Catherine’s Hill
St. Catherine’s Hill

Since writing Sacred Ecology I’ve gained a better understanding of ritual. Back in the ‘90’s I was heavily involved with Paganism. While that gave me a profound personal experience of the power of ritual, it was in a very specific context. I’ve since explored ritual in other contexts, notably ecopsychology and dance therapy.

Ritual is fundamental to the practical ecopsychology of Bill Plotkin and Joanna Macy. While Plotkin has a more Pagan orientation, Macy’s ‘Work that Reconnects’ is grounded in Buddhism. Both are valuable and widely influential.

Psychotherapy can be a kind of ritual: I’ve argued elsewhere that ritual theory can help us understand the healing process in outdoor therapy (Harris, 2014) and that’s probably true of psychotherapy in general. Moreover, ritual is used explicitly in Family Therapy (Hecker & Schindler), dramatherapy and the dance therapy developed by Anna and Daria Halprin.

Does all this shed light on why Sacred Ecology is still relevant? I wrote Sacred Ecology to illustrate the importance of EcoPagan ritual, but if that’s all it was about I doubt that anyone would bother to read it today. Sacred Ecology hints at something more fundamental: A profound re-connection with the other-than-human revealed thorough the wisdom of the body.

Five steps to mental wellbeing

As I was walking home one evening I saw a card lying in the street. I picked it up and realized what it was; the five steps to wellbeing developed by the New Economics Foundation (NEF). This little card is a brilliant reminder of the 5 steps so I now make sure I see it everyday.

The Five Steps to Wellbeing

The five steps are simple and powerful.

Connect – I’ve often written about the importance of connection; in fact I think it may be the most fundamental source of wellbeing. The NEF research concurs: Having less than four close relatives or friends puts you at high risk of future mental health problems. On the other hand, wide social networks “promote a sense of belonging and well-being” (NEF).

Try to connect with the people around you:

  • Talk to someone instead of sending an email or text;
  • speak to someone your don’t know yet;
  • don’t just ask how someone’s weekend was; really listen when they reply.

Be active – In Exeter, there’s no excuse! Walking, cycling, kayaking, climbing, swimming, football or, of course, rugby! You don’t have to take on anything too demanding; just find an activity you enjoy and make it part of your life. I often recommend physical exercise for clients who are experiencing depression: Exercise can boost your endorphins and moderate aerobic exercise can help with emotional regulation (Bernstein & McNally, 2017).

So why not go for a walk, try a sport, take up yoga or maybe tai chi? If you walk to a colleague’s desk instead emailing them, you get a bonus social connection!

Take notice – Research shows that paying attention to your immediate experience and ‘savouring the moment’ enhances wellbeing. It can also deepen self-understanding, thus helping you to assess and reaffirm your priorities. Taking notice is related to mindfulness which has been shown to promote positive mental states and facilitate emotional self-regulation.

  • Cultivate your curiosity; look out for the unusual.
  • Notice the changing seasons.
  • Just pause to notice your sensory experience: Really be with this moment.
  • Remember to check in with your self: How are you feeling right now?

Keep learning – lifelong learning promotes optimism, enhances self-esteem and improves overall life satisfaction. Learning new skills also encourages social connection and is associated with a more active life. Why not join a class, a book club or learn to play an instrument?

Give – Remember the injunction to “practice random kindness”? It seems the Hippies were onto something! Evidence from a range of sources suggest that giving promotes wellbeing. It doesn’t need to be much: Research found that just one act of kindness a week boosts wellbeing. A simple smile or a kind word can count. Start small and maybe you’ll be encouraged to do more, like volunteering for a local community project.

While the NEF research notes the importance of contact with the natural world for wellbeing., they don’t highlight it. I think they’ve missed a crucal step there as these five steps work beautifully in nature. You could easily weave all five steps into a bird watching walk with friends, volunteering for a local conservation group or helping out a neighbour with their gardening!

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).

It’s not what you know …

… it’s the way that you know it. I sometimes have a name ‘on the tip of my tongue’. I’m sure you know that odd feeling; you both know and don’t know at the same time. We make sense of these experiences by talking about an unconscious knowing that we can’t always bring into full awareness.

But there’s a curious flip side to this: You can ‘know’ something consciously without really ‘getting it’ at a deeper level. My therapy clients will sometimes comes to a realization – an ‘Ah ha!’ moment – when they grasp something in a new way. “I knew that already, in my head, but now”, they add with a touch to the heart or stomach, “I know it here”. The difference is profound.

I first wrote about this 25 years ago in Sacred Ecology:

“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”.

I later discovered that I was describing embodied knowing and went on to do a PhD on the subject (Harris, 2008).

Diagram of cognitive iceberg
Conscious knowing is just the tip of the iceberg

Embodied knowing is fundamental to my work as a therapist. In many cases a client knows exactly what’s needed, but doesn’t have conscious access to that knowledge. At other times someone will know something consciously, but lack an embodied grasp of it. The therapist is rarely – if ever – the expert. Our role is facilitating the client’s journey of growth and self discovery, which typically involves integrating their embodied knowing.

There’s another vital aspect to this which takes me back to where I started. In Sacred Ecology I wrote that we need to understand our deep relationship with the other-than-human world at the level of embodied knowing. Unless you’re avoiding the news, you’ll know, in your head at least, that there’s a climate crisis. The facts are clear and have been for years, but nothing much gets done. Action on climate change is characterized by denial and broken promises and time is running out: We may have less than 18 months to avoid catastrophic change. But unless we get that at a gut level, really feel what it means, we’ll remain in what Zion Lights calls ‘passive denial’. You may know the facts about climate crisis but, painful though it is, you have to experience the reality in your body. That wisdom of the body is like taking the red pill; there’s no going back.

When I wrote Sacred Ecology I believed that myth & ritual offered the best route to the wisdom of the body. I’ve since recognized that there are many pathways to embodied connection. These include practices that are already advocated, like mindfulness and nature connection. We need to focus in on these pathways and learn how to use them more effectively. This is embodied ecology and may be our best hope for a future.

The Embodied Pathways of Connection in Therapy

My previous post introduced the EPOC, embodied practices that can reveal our radical interconnectedness. I initially came across the EPOC during my PhD research into spiritual eco-activism: The EPOC both inspired and supported the campaigners I worked with (Harris, 2008). Years later I noticed something curious; the EPOC I’d identified amongst road protesters seemed to underpin much of psychotherapy!

That may initially sound implausible, but the deeper I’ve looked into this apparent link, the more sense it makes. My research with activists identified seven EPOC; nature connection, meditation, Focusing, ritual, dance, trance and psychedelics. These seven all map to psychotherapeutic practices:

  • nature connection is the foundation of ecotherapy;
  • mindfulness meditation is at the heart of third wave CBT;
  • Focusing is a therapeutic practice;
  • psychedelic psychotherapy may be the next big mental health breakthrough;
  • dance therapy has been around since the mid-60s’;
  • ritual is widespread in psychotherapy, while
  • trance is an altered state of consciousness which is common in psychotherapy.

This is a big subject, but there’s two points I can make about how the EPOC function in psychotherapy. First, the EPOC facilitate access to embodied knowing and that process is fundamental to how psychotherapy heals. Second, they can dramatically widen our perspective: If you’re focusing too much on your own mental processes, mental distress is often the result.

John Kabat-Zinn launched the therapeutic mindfulness revolution that’s transformed the lives of millions. He believes that connection is fundamental: “the quality of the connections within us and between us and with the wider world determines our capacity for self-regulation and healing” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).

Many Focusing Oriented Therapists speak of that connection too: “Focusing allows our consciousness to settle into that area in ourselves where there is physical in-binding with the rest of the cosmos” (Campbell and McMahon, 1997).

Research into how psychedelic psychotherapy works has come to the same conclusion: “a sense of connectedness is key” (Carhart-Harris, et al, 2017). The theme of connection also runs through dance therapy: Connecting the mind and body, the conscious with the unconscious, the self with the other (Halprin, 2002).

This leaves ritual and trance, which are both complex and multifaceted. I’d argue that ritual is fundamental to many psychotherapeutic approaches and my experience of psychoanalysis felt deeply ritualistic. But for the moment, I’ll be more specific and reference Family Constellation Therapy (FCT) which explicitly draws on African healing ritual. FCT is based on the notion of the ‘knowing field’ a web that “propagates information and affect through the family and ancestral network” (Adams, 2014). That sounds strange to Western ears, but accords very well with Eugene Gendlin’s claim that “Your physically felt body is in fact part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people. In fact, the whole universe” (1981).

Trance is much more common than many of us suppose: When you’re watching a film or reading a novel, you’re most likely in trance. Hypnotherapy is of course the most obvious use of trance in psychotherapy but it’s arguably more fundamental. Furthermore, nature connection, meditation, Focusing and psychedelics can all induce an altered state of consciousness which we might call trance. On that basis, trance can certainly facilitate a sense of deep connection. There’s also a powerful association between psychotherapy and shamanism which gives trance a central role (Thalhamer, 2015). Boundaries get very blurred at this point because Shamanism is intimately engaged with nature connection and can include aspects of meditation, Focusing, dance, ritual and psychedelics.

We’re now close to the place to which these embodied pathways of connection all lead. For Glen Mazis this place is about ‘earthbodying’; Philip Shepherd names it “radical wholeness” (2017); David Abram might speak of participatory perception (2010), while Susan Greenwood writes of “a heightened awareness of an expanded connected wholeness” (Greenwood, 2005). For me this place is characterized by a particular kind of embodied knowing, the “wisdom of the body; that all things are ultimately one” (Harris, 1996).

The Embodied Pathways of Connection

What links mindfulness, psychedelics, nature connection, ritual and the therapeutic technique of Focusing? They can all help us access to our deepest embodied knowing and awaken us from the illusion of separation. For Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and lifelong peace activist, the purpose of our existence is “to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” But how?

Meditation is one path, and John Danvers wrote that mindfulness is a tool for coming to “fully realise that we are relational beings in a relational universe” (Danvers, 2016). John describes an experience where mindfulness allowed his fixed sense of self to dissolve:

“the egocentric, unitary, ‘I’, wasn’t there. Instead a different state of being was at work (or at play) – as if the edges of myself were dissolved into the surrounding space. It felt like there was no separation between me and the world” (2016).

Gail Bradbrook felt an inner stuckness for years. She was passionate about social change, but none of her campaigning efforts had really taken off. So Gail headed off to Costa Rica to experience the healing power of psychedelics – AKA enthogens – including Ayahuasca. She had heard reports of how “people on psychedelics report a deeply felt sense of peace, oneness and unity with the planet” (Bradbrook, 2019). The experience was transformational and on her return home Gail co-founded Extinction Rebellion.

Throughout the ‘60’s and ‘70’s Robert Greenway led groups on multi-day treks into the wilderness. He found that spending several days in wild nature could have a “profound impact on the psyche”. People typically had “feelings of expansion or reconnection” that he identified as spiritual (Greenway, 1995). I’ve written about this wilderness effect elsewhere, but it’s important to note that spending even a brief time in nature can open our awareness of deep connection. Claire Thompson describes her experience of watching a dramatically beautiful sunrise:

“I didn’t realise until afterwards, but my sense of self was absent. I was simply absorbed by the intrinsic wonder of the view and intimately involved in deep contemplation of the pure grace and delicate beauty of nature. I was an integral part of the scene” (2013).

Loch Voil

Ritual is one of the most ancient, powerful and widespread pathways to connection. In Sacred Ecology I wrote that being “part of a powerful ritual” can enable us to “come to the wisdom of the body; that all things are ultimately one”. A lot depends on the intention of the ritual and the integrity of those who facilitate it, but it’s no accident that members of my local Extinction Rebellion group will lead a Summer Solstice Ceremony this evening to support the movement.

I’ve often written about Focusing and Eugene Gendlin, the philosopher and psychotherapist who developed it. In essence, Focusing is a process of sensing into the body, curiously open to what meaningful sensations might be there. Many people have walked this pathway of connection and Herbert Schroeder is a good example. Herbert was working as an environmental psychologist for the US Department of Agriculture when he began experimenting with Focusing in natural spaces. He experienced “an inward, bodily sense of myself expanding out into space, as though the boundary separating myself from my environment had become relaxed and permeable” (2008).

How can practices as diverse as Focusing, ritual, meditation, taking psychedelics and walking in nature have such dramatic – and similar – effects? Gendlin gave us a key part of the answer when he wrote that the “physically felt body is in fact part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people – in fact, the whole universe” (1981). Gendlin, like many other thinkers, recognized that we are not the isolated individuals of our cultural myth.

The quotes above all speak of connection, relationship, expansion and the dissolution of boundaries. Although they’ve taken different pathways, they seems to be arriving at the same place; the wisdom of the body that revels what Thich Nhat Hanh calls the “illusion of separateness”. Mindfulness, psychedelics, nature connection, ritual and Focusing are all pathways that lead us to deeper connection. Crucially, they are all part of our embodied experience. These then are embodied pathways of connection (EPOC). There are other EPOC, some of which I’ve already identified; trance, dance, sex and sensual experience. Others are still to be recognized, so if you think there’s an EPOC I’m missing, I’d love to hear from you.

In my next post I’ll explore the role of the EPOC in therapy.

Glen Mazis & David Abram discuss embodied ecology

Last year I was invited to host the ecology thread for the 2018 Embodiment Conference. Who would I recommend to speak on the subject of embodied ecology? Two thinkers immediately came to mind who have been a huge influence on my own work: Glen Mazis & David Abram. This podcast brings them together in a fascinating dialogue. After a brief introduction, I sit back to enjoy a journey through embodied ecology guided by these poetic philosophers. The core theme is, I think, participation. Glen points out that “The world is in your body and you’re feeling what it’s telling you”. David develops that idea with his suggestion that “to be a body is to be entangled, enfolded and infused with so many other bodies, most of which are not human”.

Both of them are fascinated with imagination and language. David points out that “our bodies are imagining the world constantly … Imagination is an act of the sensing body itself, all the time. We are creatively adding to to what is immediately given in the world”. Glen develops this idea when he speaks of how poetry is “a way of using language that tells you, no, you can’t stay just in the web of words, you’ve to go back to your fleshly experience”.

Glen and David explore many of the topics I’ve touched on in this blog – Merleau-Ponty, deep ecology, embodied knowing – and then follow the path into sensuality, language, climate change and eco-trauma. David beautifully expresses the pain: “To taste the world with our creaturely senses all open and awake is to feel a world that it is filled with wounds”. Glen identifies the danger here: “There’s the cycle of hurt and violation … that takes you further away from the resources you need”. But this source of pain is also the root of healing. For David “that edge of grief and pain is just a threshold, and if we step thorough that threshold without flinching from it we come into a world of wonders”.

We all agree that nature connection, opening “to the more-than-human world is the path to healing”. This is a very familiar route for some of us, but as Glen points out, it can be a rough walk and many people will need support along the way. However, he adds, “As soon as they open themselves, it’ll be self-affirming because the world is a nourishing place”.

Related resources:

Psychedelic psychotherapy: The next big thing in psychiatry?

The UK Home Secretary has announced a review of cannabis for medicinal use. Does that bring psychedelic psychotherapy a step closer? When LSD was synthesized back in the 1950s psychiatrists were quick to see its potential. Research proliferated over the following decade, producing over 1,000 peer-reviewed clinical papers. The results were overwhelmingly positive and “psychedelic therapy was truly considered the next big thing in psychiatry” (Sessa, 2017).

So what went wrong? Several factors came together to stop what could have been a revolution in psychotherapy. Millions of people were taking LSD recreationally, and perhaps inevitably there were casualties. Psychedelics open us to experiences that the more reactionary elements of society find weird at best and even threatening, so it’s no wonder that the press leapt on any negative news. Psychedelics like LSD are the most powerful mind changing substances that exist and deserve to be treated with respect. There are a few basic principles to using psychedelics: Are you in the right mental state to take them? Is this the best place and time for the trip? Carefully considering these essentials – commonly known as set (mindset) and setting – will very much reduce the risk of a ‘bad trip’. In a psychotherapeutic context set and setting are carefully controlled and the whole process is facilitated by a trained professional.

A second factor was the rise of antipsychotic drugs which led to less emphasis on outpatient psychotherapy sessions. Someone with a more conspiratorial turn of mind might also point out that psychedelic psychotherapy promised a permanent cure for many mental health disorders. People who are cured don’t need a daily dose of expensive drugs to keep them feeling (kind of) OK.

The psilocybin molecule

The good news is that research into psychedelic psychotherapy is undergoing something of a renaissance. Clinical research using psilocybin (the active ingredient of ‘magic mushrooms’), MDMA (ecstasy), ketamine, ayahuasca and LSD is ongoing. Psilocybin looks especially promising. A recent review of seven clinical trials found “large effect sizes related to improved depression and anxiety symptoms” (Thomas et al.) The results overall are encouraging: Psychiatrist Dr. Ben Sessa concludes that psychedelic psychotherapy “is a cost effective way of treating otherwise unremitting mental illness” (Sessa, 2017).

Why is psychedelic psychotherapy so effective? According to one influential paper, one of the key processes is a shift from “disconnection (from self, others, and world) to connection” (Watts et al., 2017). I’m hugely excited by all this, not least because there are some parallels with my PhD research. My research suggests that what inspires and supports many environmental activists is a profound sense of connection. The experience of living close to nature and practices like mindfulness help facilitate this, as does the use of psychedelics like psilocybin. Could it be that a sense of connection – or reconnection – is the underlying mechanism behind our sense of wellbeing?

Has urban life made us crazy?

Carolyn Baker suggests that separation “from the land … appears to correlate with an increase in emotional distress during the industrial revolution and subsequent centuries” Peak Psychotherapy, Abundant Human Connection.

Carolyn claims that psychotherapy evolved to deal with this distress, noting that those whose lives are woven with the natural world have a very different psychology from urban people. Can that be so? Has urban life driven us a bit crazy?

It’s not a new idea – see for example the brilliant and chilling film Koyaanisqatsi. The title is from the Hopi language and translates as “life out of balance”, “a state of life that calls for another way of living” or simply “crazy life”.

Koyaanisqatsi – “crazy life”

The film blew me away when I first saw it back in 1982 and I still get goose bumps and a welling up of sorrow when I hear that haunting chant.

A lot has changed since 1982. We’re even more immersed in our koyaanisqatsi, but there’s a much deeper understanding of our situation and practical progress on getting us back in balance. I’ve no idea if we’ll make it back to another way of living, but I’m certain that understanding the intimate connections between bodymind and place is on the route map.

The Connected Self

“No man is an island”, wrote John Donne and his poetic insight is borne out by research. In the West, we think the self is somehow enclosed with the body, separate from other selves. This sense of independence is sometimes idealised, but also carries a seed of despair. As Orson Welles said, “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone”. It’s not hard to expose this as a Western fantasy.

Emotions are contagious. Most of us have had the experience of catching a friends laughter. You’re with some mates and one of them finds something hilariously funny. Before you know it, you’re all laughing, even though you might have no idea what’s so funny! Something similar happens when we smile or a frown. Try smiling more today and I bet you’ll find other people mirroring you. Some of this is probably due to mirror neurons, which are brain cells that fire in sympathy when we see someone behaving in a certain way (Ferrari and Rizzolatti). That’s part of the process but we’re far from fully understanding emotional contagion. What we do know is that it’s widespread.

Emotional contagion is vital to my work as a therapist as it allows me to get a deep empathic sense of how it is for my client in that moment. It’s a three stage process. First, I’m being sensitive to my clients emotional state. Second, my bodymind is responding to that state via emotional contagion: I’m picking up their emotional state and unconsciously reproducing it myself. Third, I’m sensing into how that feels. It’s as if my bodymind becomes an embodied mirror for my client. The danger here is that I might get too caught up in my client’s emotional world: I need to manage my emotional state so that I can be both fully empathetic and centered. Mirroring my client’s emotional state and staying centered can be deeply therapeutic. By embodying that centered state I reflect to them how that might feel and emotional contagion will help them feel centered too.

Two men walking on a Summer's day
‘Walk and Talk’ ecotherapy

Therapists Elaine Hatfield and Richard Rapson note that anyone can usefully apply this same skill in their everyday relationships:

“By attending to this stream of tiny moment-to-moment reactions, people can and do ‘feel themselves into’ the emotional landscapes inhabited by their partners” (1993).

I’d flag up a couple of take-always from this research. First, it challenges the myth that that we are all self-contained individuals. Second, once we recognise that emotional contagion exits, we can use it to make our everyday interactions more empathic.