Minds and mountains

Early ecopsychology considered the mental health benefits of what we call ‘green space’ – natural areas covered by vegetation, such as parks, forests and gardens. Later, we started to think about ‘blue space’ – oceans, lakes, rivers, ponds and streams. The research shows that both can have a positive effect on our mental health. But what about mountains?

I spent my Summer holiday hiking and climbing in the Dolomites, a beautiful mountain range in Northern Italy. Being in the mountains – typically well over 2000 meters above sea level – felt very different from being in the woods or by a river. First, there’s very little in the way of flora or fauna: There are birds of course, plus patches of lichen and the occasional hardy alpine plant. But we were well above the tree line, and most of the water there remained frozen even in late September.

Instead of gentle green or the soothing gurgle of a stream, there are wide open vistas, stunning views, precipitous drops, and mountains high enough to dwarf a skyscraper. At times I’d be at the highest point for miles, looking out across lower peaks with the cloud layer far below. Spaces like that seem to open your mind: The far horizon proclaims a pure vastness that invites a crisp clarity to thought.

A high mountain Refugio seen from afar with distant mountain tops on the horizon.

At other times mountains towered above, revealing just how tiny I am! Psychologists researching the feeling of awe talk about the ‘small self’, and that certainly fits my experience. Awe puts life into a new perspective: Our everyday concerns feel less significant, and we feel more connected with everything beyond the narrow confines of self.

Looking up at a high mountain towering above.

It’s somewhat dangerous being on the side of a mountain that’s 3000 meters high. Common sense and proper equipment reduce the risk, of course, but the perception of danger sharpens one’s awareness. Daydreaming on a woodland walk or a stroll along the beach is fine, but don’t try it on a narrow ledge with a steep vertical drop! Existing research shows that being in nature can create a more mindful state, but that’s in ‘green’ or ‘blue’ space. The same thing happens in the mountains, but there’s an edge – literally. Mountains don’t simply invite presence; they demand it.

I think ecopsychology needs to consider a third kind of natural space: ‘mountain’ or ‘M space’. I don’t think there’s a colour that fits, and ‘M’ looks a bit like two peaks and a deep valley. ‘M space’ is significantly different from ‘green’ or ‘blue’ space. It’s more likely to provoke feelings of awe, seems to encourage more open, exploratory thinking, and often demands a focused, mindful awareness.

Is all this a clue to why Nietzsche valued the mountains so much?

“We do not belong to those who only get their thought from books, or at the prompting of books – it is our custom to think in the open air, walking, leaping, climbing, or dancing on lonesome mountains by preference, or close to the sea, where even the paths become thoughtful”

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

Psychedelics and nature connectedness

Can psychedelic experiences enhance our connection to nature? So far, the evidence is a resounding ‘yes’, and some philosophers suggest that careful administration of psychedelics could be a valuable way to catalyse the development of environmental virtues (Kirkham & Letheby. 2022).

‘Nature connectedness’ is much more than simply spending time in the park: It measures how strongly a person identifies with nature and can be defined as a sense of ‘oneness with the natural world’ (Mayer and Frantz, 2004). Nature connectedness is very beneficial for humans; it helps give our lives a deeper sense of meaning and supports personal growth. People who deeply appreciate our connection to the wider natural world are more likely to protect it. So nature connectedness isn’t just good for us; it’s good for the planet.

Earth seen from space in a psychedelic style.

I often saw evidence of a deeper nature connection in my work on psilocybin retreats, and that’s been backed up by the research (Gandy et al., 2020). There’s some evidence that psilocybin is especially powerful in this regard and can elicit robust and sustained increases in nature connectedness (Forstmann et al., 2003). Psychedelic experiences and nature connection are woven together like threads in a tapestry. The weave is tight, but I’ll tease out a few of those threads.

Both psychedelic experience and nature connection can catalyse feelings of awe and increase our capacity for mindfulness. Many Indigenous peoples use psychedelics as a sacrament. In most cases, they are animists with a profound respect for the more-than-human world. Robert Greenway is a pioneer ecopsychologist who used to take people on ‘wilderness’ treks. After many years of leading these adventures, Greenway concluded that extended time in nature could engender an altered state that closely parallels the psychedelic experience. There are several aspects to this altered state, but fundamentally it involves “feelings of expansion or reconnection”, which Greenway unhesitatingly describes as “spiritual” (Greenway, 1995). (See The Wilderness Effect).

A pattern is emerging in this tapestry; connectedness. In my recent interview with Sam Gandy, he suggested that we can see “connectedness itself being a fundamentally interconnected or interwoven construct” and that cultivating nature connectedness can deepen connectedness to self, others and the wider world (Embodied Pathways).

It’s quite common for people to have mystical experiences while using psychedelics, and nature mysticism is ancient and global. Are they the same? It seems so: Feelings of interconnectedness, unity, sacredness, and a transcendence of time and space characterise mystical experiences emerging from both psychedelics and nature connection.

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”.

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

I would quote Blake’s words in the introduction to the nature connection exercise I used to lead at psychedelic retreats. They are a perfect example of nature mysticism and could also speak of aspects of the psychedelic experience.

The conversation about psychedelics and nature connectedness is ongoing and may be crucial in these times of climate crisis. If you’d like an accessible deep dive into this fascinating subject, listen to my interview with Sam Gandy on Embodied Pathways.

Smashing windows or inner transformation?

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.”

“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:

“A radical inner transformation and rise to a new level of consciousness might be the only real hope we have in the current global crisis.”

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.