The United States is one of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations in the world. Yet, we experience incredible instability, racial tensions, political chaos, and severe inequality across races, genders, and economic status levels. We have an unprecedented suicide epidemic among veterans, everyday citizens, and our youth. We are prescribed more psychotropic medications and antidepressants than any other population on Earth. Despite our high standard of living, we are seeing droves of people seek treatment for anxiety and depression, and therapists who specialize in child psychotherapy report an increasing number of children coming in for treatment for anxiety disorders. At the same time, we are witnessing increased environmental destruction in the name of further development and the pursuit of capital - as if the GDP, material consumption, or wealth seem to be solving the problems I mentioned above. The abundance of such symptoms serve as evidence to the support the fact that there is something extremely unhealthy about the society we have created - but even the field of psychology as a whole seems somewhat unconscious of this reality.
It is well known to professionals within the field of psychology that many people are completely unconscious of their suffering, or its causes. Our culture, with its busy pace of life, makes it easy to numb or ignore our symptoms - as do the pills we take to numb discomfort and pain. Freud discussed the principle of Thanatos - what is characterized by some to be an unconscious "death drive," or an unhealthy unconscious tendency towards disconnection and activities which bring destruction to oneself and the world. Of course, even the layman knows people who suffer from trauma seem to unconsciously repeat scenarios that injure them, such as a person who has been abused entering into other abusive relationships. Many psychotherapists believe this pattern presents itself because the psyche ("Soul" in Greek), is looking for an opportunity to deal with the original trauma. Therefore, the traumatized person unconsciously puts his/herself into a position of being injured again to repeat the wound - and in repeating the wound they find a fresh opportunity to therapeutically address the root wound. Thanks to the work of Carl Jung, we know that these psychic conditions do not only afflict individuals, but they are also apparent at the collective level.
Given these psychic realities, we have to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Is our society caught up in Thanatos, an unconscious tendency towards destruction or suicide (or ecocide)? What is the unusual level of materialism and narcissism that we see today really about? What is it that we are compensating for? For one perspective on these topics, check out The Voice of the Earth, by Theodore Roszak.
We live in a society that seems to display collective tendencies towards self-injury, and we have had no shortage of trauma from which this tendency originates. We've been at war almost constantly since our inception, and each generation has seen stressful events unfold upon the stage to which all Americans bear witness. None of us are immune from the constant bantering of negative news stories, negative social media, and rumination, which literally change our brains in a negative way. We self-injure ourselves by engaging in these things. We self-injure ourselves when we spend money we do not have. We self-injure ourselves as we deprive ourselves of political and economic policies that research suggests would have positive outcomes for us. At the same time, we consume endless amounts of materials in irrational attempts to fill the void in our souls as we unconsciously destroy the environment... our natural habitat, the world on which we depend for survival.
If we are to understand how we solve these problems, we must stop focusing on treating the symptoms. We, with our Western heroic ego's biased tendency to want to conquer every problem we face, are obsessed with trying to make our symptoms go away. Instead, we need to listen to the symptoms and trace them back to their source - we need to understand what void we're trying to fill.
For nearly three years now, I have been working with fellow combat veterans (I served in Iraq, founded Warriors' Ascent, and am studying Depth Psychology) who suffer from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The veteran population is among the most severely traumatized in our society, committing suicide at several times the national average rate. Those employing typical treatment methods of talk-therapy and medications seem to have abysmal results, while our program at Warriors' Ascent (which employs the Ecopsychological and Depth Psychological perspectives) and others like it seem to be having profound and unusual success. Many participants graduate from our program and report life-altering symptomatic reductions that they say exceeds any benefit they experienced with typical treatment methods. If the methods we employ at Warriors' Ascent can make such a profound difference for combat veterans with severe trauma, imagine what they could do for the rest of society.
So, what are we doing that differs from our cultural treatment norms?
We look to nature as a model of health, whereas much of modern psychotherapy and psychiatry exists within a cultural bubble that is not consistent with the biological reality of humanity. You cannot expect to heal humanity or cure its many symptoms while continuing to pretend humans are machines.
Humans are a part of nature, and if we expect to be healthy and symptom free - individually and collectively - we have to consider our biological reality as a species. Unfortunately, the society we have created has severed us from the natural life we require as a species.
Anatomically modern humans have been on the planet for at least 200,000 years, whereas others debate that we may have been around long before that. For an amazing look into early human history and to better understand the debates about the lives of early humans, watch this documentary series. Whether modern humans were here 200,000 years ago or before that is of little concern here, as either way early humans didn't miraculously pop into existence. Homo Sapiens arrived at this point as a result of millions of years of evolution. Therefore, we are the way we are today because millions of years of experience has shaped us for our natural environment. We are animals with ancient roots who developed as a part of nature. We, like the bear or a squirrel, are a part of the forest and depend on its trees like they do. We, like the fish or the beaver, require clean water. Yet, we continue to live as if we are completely separate from nature and as if there are no consequences for the increasing pace of modernization and development. Many researchers are pointing out the psychological implications of being separated from nature, and point out that just being around trees can improve your mental and physical health. A few studies (same link as above) even found that cancer and surgery patients recover more quickly and with greater success if they have a view of nature, as opposed to a view of a built environment. Indeed, man does not live on bread alone.
The Human Timeline
Of course, when you have always lived separate from nature, never seeing where your food or water comes from, why would you ever be concerned about the particulars of our treatment of the Earth? If you have never immersed yourself in nature, how would you know what you are missing and how it's absence is affecting you? How would you know you are living in a cage if you had never known life outside of it?
If an Orca is born into captivity, how would it know how good life could be with its pod in the open seas? It is worth noting that an Orca has never been documented hurting a human in the wild. But, in the wild they have been reported to help humans in need of rescue. The only known instances of Orcas attacking humans are those that have taken place in captivity, when these brilliant, powerful, social animals are forced to live isolated lives in tiny tanks. It is widely known that when you remove creatures from their biological needs and natural lives, they become sick - physically, psychologically, emotionally, and dare I suggest, spiritually.
We should not think that we are any different from any other creature in nature. When our biological needs are not met because we are too far removed from our natural environment, we, like the Orca, become sick. Over millions of years, our species evolved to live in community with one another and in connection with the Earth that sustains us. We spent hundreds of thousands of years living in close-knit tribes, hunting and gathering, spending time around fires, telling stories, making music, dancing, performing rituals, getting in plenty of exercise, eating simple diets, and getting lots of rest. This is not to pitch some paleo ideal, because after watching this documentary on indigenous tribes of the Amazon, it is obvious that life would be very difficult in these circumstances. Still, we must realize that it was only over the last 150 years or so that our species has been catapulted into a way of being that is not consistent with our biological needs. We have thrown ourselves too far in the opposite direction. The forty-hour work week, busy schedules, constant barrages of advertisements and negative news stories, political bantering, poor diets, sedentary lifestyle, conflict inducing environments at work or in society in general, threat of violence, threat of environmental degradation, and all of our other concerns are taxing to our minds, bodies, and souls.
Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, "It is no measure of health to be well adapted to a profoundly sick society." To be without symptoms - or to be too numb to notice them - is not an advantage. Nor is it advantageous to completely fall apart and violently assault others in an infantile, misguided expression of one's pain. Instead, we must therapeutically address our wounds and our deeply human needs. Also, we must confront reality, which is that our way of life is not sustainable - not for the planet, and not for humanity.
If we wish to improve our condition, we must consider the ways in which we can alleviate the unrealistic pressures that are placed upon us today; and consider how we can place ourselves into environments that meet our psychospiritual and biological needs as human beings. Only by accomplishing this can we hope to create an environment where human beings can do the deep psychological work needed to heal the more pervasive wounds that afflict individuals and society as a whole.
As a final note in regards to our condition, it is worth noting that our culture seems particularly caught up in materialism - and our tendency to consume goods seems little more than an irrational attempt to compensate for the void in our souls. Materialism is what drives our society, our economy, and much of our lives. We work very hard, to our undoing, just so we can buy stuff that we really do not need and that will not make us much happier. However, I must point out here that the root word of the word materialism is mater, which in Latin means mother. Perhaps it is no mere coincidence that archetypally we refer to nature as Mother Nature, as she provides us with the sustenance and comfort that we need to be happy and healthy. Materialism is not a sufficient substitute for what it is that we really need, but since we have cut the archetypal mother out of our lives, she has found her way in through the back door. This is a common tendency of matters within psyche.
So, what are some concrete ways to improve our condition? Here are few things you can do to reconnect with a way of being that is altogether more biologically human and will help you to heal, develop, and grow as a human being:
- Community: Surround yourself with loving people who provide an abundance of love and emotional support. Relationships, empathy, and love heal our wounds, and this isn't just an old adage. This is a scientific fact, and it is a well known fact that the therapeutic relationship is the predominant factor that contributes to healing during therapy. We must have a preponderance of good, emotionally supportive relationships to heal, and we must be emotionally vulnerable if we hope to build these relationships. Spiritual or religious communities can be a good place to find and build emotionally supportive and mature relationships. As far as the negative or injurious relationships, weed them out or minimize the impact they have by setting firm boundaries.
- Therapy: One way of thinking of therapy is that you're going to spend an hour each week sitting with a Wise Man or a Wise Woman. I'm a bit biased here, and will confess that my dreams have played a central role in my healing process. If you have dreams and value them, consider seeing a Depth Psychotherapist or Jungian Analyst, who have done extra work to understand these deeper elements of the psyche. The therapeutic process is one of coming to deeply know yourself. The myths of antiquity, such as that of Narcissus or Oedipus heed warnings of the failure to know yourself deeply, and our society's pervasive illnesses and denial are evidence that their warnings need to be acknowledged. To understand how Depth-oriented psychotherapy and dreams can play a role in healing from trauma, please see Donald Kalsched's book, Trauma and the Soul. Finding a therapist who will appreciates the Ecopsychological perspective is a bonus, though this is a rare trait given that it is an emerging field of study.
- Mindfulness: Meditate, practice yoga, and pray! These practices literally change your brain for the better. Remember, we evolved from other humans who spent a vast majority of their time doing meditative activities, or very basic tasks. They had a lot of down time, whereas most of us do not. When we do have down time, we need to give our brains the opportunity to witness what is happening inside of us.
- Exercise: Our ancestors moved around, a lot. Researchers say sitting is the new smoking. Get off the couch and walk, run, dance, practice yoga, exercise, or just move. Don't sit for long periods of time. Stand while you work if you can.
- Diet: Our ancient ancestors didn't eat processed and unnatural foods, so our bodies have not evolved to know how to handle them. Our bodies fight the chemical and unnatural junk we put into our bodies, and the result is inflammation and disease. Keep your diet natural and balanced. Our guts produce vital neurotransmitters that we need to feel emotionally healthy, so take care of your gut!
- Play: All mammals play. Humans are mammals. Play games. Be silly. Do something for the child within you every single day. Play with your dog. Stop being so mature and rigid all of the time. Watch The Little Prince on Netflix if you need some inspiration.
- NATURE!!!!! Try to spend an ample amount of time outdoors each day, appreciating nature and taking note of how nature works. The principles that apply in nature apply to you, and it helps us to remember that we are not machines. Walk or meditate in nature daily, or just sit and witness it. Watch birds. Plant a garden and tend it each day. Walk a watershed in your area and pick up trash. Go camping every chance you get. Go fishing. Go hunting and sustainably harvest your own food. Bring nature indoors and keep lots of plants inside your home and at work. Learn about local endangered, threatened, or invasive species, and see what you can do to make a difference. Find a tree that speaks to you and sit with it as often as possible. Take a journal into the forest and draw what you see. Plant native trees and herbs wherever you can. Just get outside and out of the built environment. If its hard for you to get outside, just find an indoor place where you can sit and observe nature. Here's a cool summary of research on Ecotherapy and how nature can help us heal.
- Be an Animal. You're not a machine. Remember that, and do what you can to make room for a more natural pace of life. Say no when you need to, and turn off your phone, tablets, and computers when it is time to rest instead of work.
In order to usher in a new era of ecopsychological awareness and to bring these practices into the world, our team at Exploring Roots has developed a number of programs. I think of our team as Orcas who have been both in captivity and in the wild. Now, we're doing what we can to help others restore their connection with the natural world.
Our organization provides:
- Ecotherapy, which is not so different from traditional therapy except that it carries both a depth perspective and one that considers the deeper biological needs of humanity;
- Nature-Based Therapeutic Programs, such as men's groups, women's groups, youth groups, or marriage immersions that incorporate therapeutic elements, nature, and/or adventure programming. These programs are all intended to help repair the broken link between participants and nature, through psychoeducation and exploration. These activities are led by industry experts and guides who have been trained through a therapeutic lens, and guided activities range from climbing and kayaking, to backpacking or camping trips, or nature-based meditation groups. Each program has a unique focus. Whereas some aim to support inner-city youth, others will support the elderly or other populations. We're excited to deliver a wide-range of beneficial programs.
- Environmental Education and Restoration Projects: Once individuals discover the healing power of nature and their love of their natural environment, it becomes important to have avenues to make a difference. When nature helps heal your wounds, it becomes very important to reciprocate, and then a mutual healing process occurs. We work with environmental professionals to educate the public about local environmental concerns, and provide opportunities to join together to make a difference. This might include reforestation efforts, planting Milkweed to help Monarch Butterfly populations, or cleaning up the local watershed. Playing an active role in making a difference helps folks to feel empowered and know that they're doing their part, while research suggests just doing these types of activities can be healing in themselves.
This world has its challenges, and each one of us has some responsibility in ensuring that we leave it better for future generations. The questions we have to ask ourselves are: will we shift the paradigm and treat the roots of our illnesses by addressing the biological needs of our species? Or, are we going to rely on the same old broken myths and way of thinking that got us here?
Now, get off your space device and do something that would make the caveman/cavewoman and child inside of you smile.
For deeper exploration into the realm of Ecopsychology, consider reading: