Ecotherapy: When Nature is the Best Therapist
What would happen if we moved the therapist’s office outside?
Even better, what would happen if we invited Earth to be our therapist?
“Ecotherapy” was coined by pastoral counselor and Civil Rights activist Howard Clinebell in 1996 to describe healing through conscious reconnection with the natural world. Since then, ecotherapy has come to include interactions with animals, gardening therapy, recreational therapy, wilderness excursion work, various forms of “green” exercise, and a number of other “healing as though the Earth mattered” practices. Many of these are discussed in the anthology Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind (Sierra Club Books, 2009).
Of course, there have always been purported “nature cures”, with thousands of us visiting forests, beaches and national parks in search of such cures. But most of this activity flows in only one direction: from nature to the recipients of its benefits and beauty. If it is true that creativity is necessary for all true healing, then a one-way process that remains at the level of mere entertainment has more in common with tired old patterns of exploitation than with healing.
Transformation, Not Just Entertainment
Ecotherapy seeks a deeper transformation, changing spectators and exploiters of nature into its friends and advocates. For the ecotherapy practitioner, plants, animals, rivers, and landscapes are never mere tools or backdrops: they are active, creative partners who should benefit from what they give us. Gardens should flourish, soils regenerate, dogs and dolphins should enjoy their work with us and receive our protection and respect in return.
Ecotherapy is not psychotherapy, neither does it replace psychiatry, but it challenges both modalities to reconceptualize their view of human nature. We cannot expect to feel really well while living in ailing cities or toxic lands. For us to be sane and whole, our healing process must support the healing of the planet, and vice versa.
Some implications for a new kind of environmental partnership with the natural world surfaced last year at the Bioneers conference in San Rafael, California. During a panel discussion I was asked what ecotherapy might offer those who work to protect and restore the environment. My reply included the following suggestions:
The End of Shame and Guilt
I suggested that we put to rest the popular practice of shaming and blaming our audiences for not caring enough about the planet. Quite a few of us grew up being told in negative, guilt-inflaming terms that we must be “saved.” Using the same tone to tell others how to save the planet only results in a tuned-out audience.
People cannot handle bad news about global warming or mass extinction without a supportive container for making sense of these grim tidings and for creating and testing new courses of action. Ecotherapists do small-group work with this in mind. Connecting these groups would widen the container of support - and expand the laboratory of cultural transformation.
- People will not protect what they do not love. Ecotherapy shows people how to get back in direct touch with the cycles of nature, the sensibility and feel of growing things, the increasingly obvious intelligence of animals, which has been reinforced by recent interspecies communication research. Our work helps us to see that we are not alone here, that other beings matter, that the landscapes that do so much for us need our attention. We advocate without necessarily being traditionally political, since Earth as an all-creative entity knows no political parties, recognizing only people trying to live happily here.
A Range of Recent Approaches
Here is some recommended reading on a broad range of topics related to ecotherapy and its many uses:
“Equine Therapy Helps Withdrawn Vets Reconnect” - TheDenverChannel.com/news/21591463/detail.html
“71% Report Depression Decrease After Green Walk” - Mind.org.uk/News/1795_Go_Green_To_Beat_The_Blues
“Immersion in Nature Makes Us Nicer” - miller-mccune.com/news/immersion-in-nature-makes-us-nicer-1430.print
“How the City Hurts Your Brain...and What You Can Do About It” - Boston.com/BostonGlobe/Ideas/Articles/2009/01/04/How_The_City_Hurts_Your_Brain/
“Connection to Nature Vital to Our Mental and Physical Health, Scientists Say” - msnbc.msn.com/id/30192793/ns/health-mental_health/
- “Drug Addiction: Environmental Conditions Play Major Role In Effective Treatment And Preventing Relapses, Animal Study Shows” - ScienceDaily.com/Releases/2008/11/081114190439.htm
For me, ecotherapy begins to answer a question I so often ask my graduate students:
“What will it take for us to finally feel at home in our home world?”
The Graduate Institute, located at 171 Amity Road in Bethany, CT, is pleased to announce a new Certificate Program in Ecotherapy and Cultural Sustainability. To learn more, call 203.874.4252 or visit Learn.edu/events to find an upcoming information session.
Craig Chalquist, Ph.D., is a core faculty member of East-West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies and adjunct faculty at John F. Kennedy University, where he designed and launched the world’s first ecotherapy certificate. He also serves as Academic Director for The Graduate Institute’s new Certificate Program in Ecotherapy and Cultural Sustainability. An editorial board member of the journal Ecopsychology, he holds a PhD in depth psychology, an MS in Marriage and Family Therapy, a Master Gardener certificate, and a Permaculture Design certificate. Visit his website at Chalquist.com.
For more about ecotherapy, visit Ecotherapyheals.com.