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.

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 practice 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.

Mindfulness in Nature

Mindfulness and ecotherapy are two of the most ancient and powerful approaches to healing mental distress. What happens when you bring them together? Last week-end I spoke about practicing mindfulness in nature at a conference on ‘Psychotherapy and the Natural World’ at the Eden Project.

The original invitation to deliver a presentation had been open ended; I could have chosen any theme related to therapy and the natural world. Mindfulness in nature came to me almost immediately, but I wondered if I could say anything about it that was worthwhile.

Once I sat with the notion it opened like a flower, revealing a pattern of connections with other core aspects of my thinking: Ecotherapy of course, (Mindful weeding), spirituality, (Aboriginal deep listening), Focusing (Focusing in Nature), Barry Patterson’s“ listening to the threshold brook”, and on and on.

Sunlight through pine trees

My PhD research identified meditation as one of the pathways of connection with nature that inspired and supported environmental activism. One participant explained that his “connection with the earth” had become “a major part” of who he is. Mindfulness in nature had become a core practice for him:

“just spending time out in nature, just listening. Just looking. Not really thinking too much. It’s good to kind of not think, just become, just let it flow through you I guess” (Harris, 2008).

I’ve realized that the nature connection workshops I’ve been running for years are really mindfulness in nature sessions. Participants do experience a deeper connection with nature, but framing the practice as mindfulness really captures the essence of the work. It also shifts our perception of it: instead of focusing on some outcome – getting a deeper nature connection – it emphasises the process itself. That’s fundamental because mindfulness isn’t about making something happen; it’s simply about being.