I’ve been very involved in work and research on psychedelics over the last year or so. I’ve mentioned psychedelics in a few of my posts here, but I wanted to flag up a couple of presentations. The first is online next week: I’m talking about Sacred Ecology: The Psychedelic Connection at the Embodied Spirituality event.
Back in 1996, I wrote Sacred Ecology. Now, nearly 30 years on, I’ll be exploring that territory through a psychedelic lens. Psychedelic experiences can be profoundly spiritual, often inducing mystical experiences. What does this tell us about the power of awe, nature connection and the future of therapy?
I started working as a Facilitator on psychedelic retreats in The Netherlands last year. This involved spending hours supporting people on their psychedelic journeys as well as helping them to prepare for and integrate the experience. Nature connection is widely recommended for psychedelic preparation and integration and as this is a particular interest of mine, I’ve begun to develop and refine this approach. In this presentation at the University of Exeter, I talk about the work I’ve done on psychedelic retreats and explain how we might apply ecotherapy to integration.
I woke up this morning thinking about my 2008 PhD research (Harris). I spent months living on a road protest site and I recalled how bonding that was. And then it dawned on me; I’d missed a fundamental aspect of the research; the power of community. Living together and working to save the land from a road project united us in a deep and powerful way; it created an embodied connection. That brought to mind an online psychedelic integration meeting I was in last week. Over 50 people came together for ten days of psychedelic training and experiences, and one of the key themes that emerged from our first integration meeting was the power of the community we’d created: There were even suggestions that it was more important than the psychedelic experience itself.
A pattern suddenly appeared, like seeing saltwater suddenly crystalize as it reaches a critical point of saturation: the liminal space of protest camps, communitas and millennia of human experience all highlight the power of community. I’d completely missed that in my PhD thesis – written fifteen years ago – because it’s so obvious. It’s like the imaginary fish who doesn’t notice water because it’s all around. While this is an exciting revelation, it’s a huge subject and will slow down work on the book I’m writing on the embodied pathways of connection. For now, I’ll just highlight a few of the threads I’m following.
Community is fundamental to indigenous healing and “the traditional use of psychoactive plants can help to enhance it” (Ona, Berrada & Bouso, 2021). Despite the importance of community for psychedelic work, it’s frequently lacking in recent approaches. Jules Evans said it well: “At the moment, psychedelics offer a very modern sort of religion – long on ‘experience’, short on community. That risks exacerbating the loneliness and isolation that cause a lot of our suffering in the first place” (Evans, 2021).
However, the ACER model of integration created by Ros Watts has community at its heart: “It is this collective aspect that, although proven to be of great benefit to overall wellbeing, is often missing from the Western model of healing” (https://acerintegration.com/). Ros is ahead of the game: She recognized the central role of community early on and made it the foundation of her work. This is a radical move in the Global North, where the psychedelic substance is typically the star of the show.
Maureen O’Hara and John Wood observed some extraordinary experiences in the person-centered ‘conscious communities’ they studied. They found that individual participants often became “deeply attuned to themselves as individual centers of consciousness” and “interpersonally attuned to each other in an ‘I-Thou’ relationship”. Yet at the same time everyone was “attuned to the group as a whole entity”. People tapped into “deeper levels of empathy and intuition”, accessing “extraordinary” levels of perception “that went beyond ordinary Western ways of knowing”. Members of these communities “frequently attained spiritual trance states usually achieved only after decades of meditative practice”. There seems to be the kind of expansion of individual consciousness “beyond individual ego-boundaries” (2005) that I’ve modelled using the cognitive iceberg.
A 2021 research paper on psychedelic communitas concluded that we may need “to question some of the fundamental cultural assumptions from, and into which psychedelic therapies are emerging – so that psychedelic treatments may not merely remain a “chemical holiday” … but instead, foster meaningful connections within relationships and communities” (Kettner, et. al. 2021)
The profound power of community highlights a tension within psychedelic research. The Western psychological approach typically studies an individual’s psychedelic journey in a clinical setting. This is rooted in a psychology “based on the individual as self-contained, as atomic – a self which fashions itself as separate from the other” (Bhatia, 2020).
But this idea is deeply flawed and psychedelic research is widening the cracks. Sometime soon there may be a crisis, a paradigm shift driven by new scientific evidence. The notion of the autonomous individual, so precious to the ideology of the Global North, will become exposed as nothing more than a hollow ideological myth.
Gautama Buddha spent most of his time in nature. He taught in nature, meditated in nature and, most importantly, became enlightened in nature. So how come most mediation today happens indoors? We’re missing something crucial and in my interview with Claire Thompson – author of Mindfulness and the Natural World and The Art of Mindful Birdwatching – we begin to unpack what’s so special about practising mindfulness in nature.
Research from the University of Derby suggests that simply being in nature is enough to produce a more mindful state (Richardson and Hallam, 2013). Claire’s experience helps explain why that might be:
“there’s something about being outdoors in nature that holds us within our own bodies a little bit more, because it’s stimulating our bodies with natural scents and sounds and sights. It’s almost like that’s what our bodies evolved to experience or to be taking in, in terms of a sensory experience. I guess to be put back into that environment can feel quite holding for people, because it holds us within our own physical experience a little bit more, which actually naturally takes us out of the narratives of our mind and our thinking and into the body”.
Our human minds label and judge in a way that nature doesn’t: Nature just is and makes no assessment or allowances. That provides a space where you can be whoever you are without labels. Claire found that facilitating mindfulness workshops in nature had a significant impact on the participant’s experience:
“It felt like being in nature opened people up and because of the lack of judgement in that space it felt like people were more able to be themselves and more able to trust that whatever experience they were having, it was okay and opened up a curiosity about their experience in a way that perhaps in some of the indoor spaces where I’d practiced mindfulness, for example, I didn’t feel the same thing. It didn’t feel like the same thing happened, or there was just something – maybe an authenticity about it as well, like people feeling allowed to be themselves more when they’re out in the wild or out in touch with the natural world”.
That can be profoundly liberating and can help to free us from our habitual attachment to the ‘self’. Our intuition – that the self is an identifiable thing, a unique and irreducible nugget of selfhood – is simply wrong; neuroscience and mindfulness agree on that. It’s not that you don’t exist! Of course you do, but the self is a process, not an object. Calling myself ‘Adrian’ helps maintain the illusion, but my ‘self’ is more like a verb than a noun: ‘I’ am the process of ‘selfing’ that extends beyond the envelope of skin around my body. John Danvers writes of how “[m]indful mediation enables us to experience the self as a process that extends out into the world”. (2016; 164).
Mindfulness practice facilitates the experience of awe and that powerful emotion has been very significant for Claire.
“It’s an experience of going beyond myself, as in beyond my sense of being a separate self and being taken into something that is greater than that, and connects me to something bigger”.
The experience of awe can reveal that we are, in truth, part of “a dynamic web of interdependence” (Macy, 2007; 32). In the industrial North, it’s very easy to forget that, but the longing for connection doesn’t go away. Claire describes how the feeling of awe can feel:
“… like a longing for a connection that I’ve lost, or, arguably, we’ve lost. And in those moments of awe you get a glimpse of reconnecting with that. And there’s a sense of abundance that comes with that feeling. … a feeling of generosity and more openness to others and more creativity, and kind of takes you out of that kind of fixed separate sense of self, which sometimes can keep us a little bit stuck”.
We tend to think of ‘enlightenment’ as an event that happens to a few special individuals, but it’s not that simple. Perhaps it makes more sense to think of enlightenment as an experience anyone can taste for a moment. Claire suggests that enlightenment comes in “those moments of connection to something greater where our sense of self disappears or it feels like our sense of separate self disappears”. That resonates with me. I’ve certainly had moments like that and even though they quickly pass, you are changed forever. Crucially, these experiences of deep connection happen “in our day to day lives – you don’t have to be in the middle of a beautiful rain forest in Cuba, it could just be with somebody you love, or it could just be on the way to work noticing something that kind of takes you out of yourself or a piece of music that you’re really taken by.”
These sacred moments can come to anyone. At the time – and in our faltering attempts to articulate them – they seem otherworldly: “It feels otherworldly, but it’s also very human”.
The nineteenth century bequeathed two opposing models of how nature works. The most influential version is a certain interpretation of Darwin’s Origin of Species characterized by Herbert Spencer. It emphasizes individual competition and frames nature as like a gladiatorial battle for survival, “whereby the strongest, the swiftest, and the cunningest live to fight another day” (Spencer, 1888). Spencer was influenced by Thomas Malthus, who mistakenly predicted that population growth would lead to global catastrophe. Common to both ideologies is an assumption of scarcity rather than abundance.
Peter Kropotkin offers a very different way of understanding nature. Kropotkin is probably best known for his anarchist ideas, but he was also an influential scientist. He did extensive fieldwork in Siberia and North-east Asia and identified many examples of cooperation between animals. For Kropotkin “survival of the fittest” didn’t refer to the toughest and meanest individual, but to the community that learnt to work together. He called this mutual aid, and he concluded that it was empathy that underpinned this behaviour. Mutual aid sprang up spontaneously across the globe during the Covid-19 pandemic and at the time of writing, there are 2065 groups listed on the UK mutual aid website.
These two very different ways of seeing the world seem to be playing out on the world stage: On one side we see Putin’s imperialist war which implicitly assumes that might is right. Meanwhile, Berlin is preparing beds for 20,000 Ukrainian refugees. Which wins, solidarity or conflict?
Kropotkin didn’t deny that competitive struggle has a role in natural selection but argued that mutual aid was more important. Although there is conflict amidst various species, “there is perhaps even more … mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defence … Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle” (Kropotkin, 1902).
I’m saddened that Kropotkin’s insights aren’t more widely implemented. Instead of emphasizing the value of mutual aid, the prevalent ideology of the Global South prioritises individualism. This doesn’t nurture our well-being or indeed our basic humanity. Moreover, it may ultimately lead to total climate collapse. But we have a choice and mutual aid is both intellectually satisfying and life-enhancing.
Anne Game is an academic – a sociologist – and a keen horse rider. One morning her horse, KP, became inexplicably paralysed and had to relearn how to move. A key part of KP’s healing process was being ridden; the horse wanted to experience the special relationship with Anne that came from that. At first, both KP and Anne found it hard. Anne was fearful of hurting the horse – or herself – and progress was slow. But a dramatic shift happened when Anne let her body move as if she and KP were cantering: “To help her to remember canter, my body had to take up this movement. The between horse and human movement canter had to be generated for KP to entrain with it, to get in the flow” (Game, 2001).
We might say KP learnt to canter again through Anne’s movement. But that’s not quite it; the horse/human, the centaur that is KP/Anne learnt to canter again. As Anne puts it, “I propose that we are always already part horse, and horses, part human: there is no such thing as pure horse or purely human. The human body is not simply human”.
For this healing process to happen, Anne had to let go of her self-consciousness and forget the illusion of separateness. She was able to drop into this altered state through “relaxed concentration, a very focused and meditative state”. I’m reminded of the work of John Danvers, who writes eloquently about how Zen meditation can reveal our fundamental interconnectedness.
From this perspective, it became clear to Anne that her own fear had been holding back KP’s initial efforts. “The protectiveness I felt was more likely to have been self-protection, a consequence of identification. And identification is clearly inappropriate in the circumstances, for it involves being too close, too attached to be able to be with the other and feel what they need. When I identify with you, your situation becomes mine: closed off in separateness, I thus lose the capacity for the other to be called up in my self”.
Becoming horse is not about identification. It requires something more subtle. Anne proposes “a forgetting of human self in a between-human-and-horse way of being” that however retains “a fearless capacity for otherness and difference”. Anne suggests that this models the way that effective therapy needs to offer a “non-attached holding of self and other”. Anne doesn’t say much more about that, but it’s a profound insight that I hope to unpack myself in future posts.
If we take ourselves to be self-contained, autonomous beings in a world of others, then much of what happens in therapy is mysterious. If, however, we understand subjectivity as a phenomenon that emerges from a complex flux where bodies are not discrete, then our therapeutic work – and many other, otherwise inexplicable phenomena – become clearer.
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.
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”. Twenty-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.
Since writing Sacred Ecology I’ve gained a better understanding of ritual. Back in the ’90s, 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 through the wisdom of the body.
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 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!
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?
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 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).
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.