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The Greening of Psychotherapy

Posted: 06/24/09 12:20 PM ET

Have you ever wondered why therapists ask you about your sex life, your toilet training, your drinking habits, your job and your relatives... but seldom question the most vital relationship in your life: your connection with Mother Earth?

Almost all therapists are trained to focus pretty exclusively on human-human relationships (yes, that's called anthropocentrism). In the world of conventional therapy, people are somehow magically separate from the rest of nature. The health and well-being (or lack of it) of nature isn't considered relevant to the health and well-being (or lack of it) of people.

This delusion that humans are somehow independent of nature underlies all of our crazy environmental behavior, of course. In fact, if therapists really considered what humans are doing to themselves and the rest of nature they'd have to admit that our behavior is pretty homicidal, fratricidal, suicidal and even ecocidal -- and they'd be required by law to report us to the authorities!

So what happens when therapists begin to wake up to green issues? How do their practices change?

Sierra Club Books has published Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind to answer just that question. For the last three years my colleague Craig Chalquist and I have been editing this anthology, collecting essays from a wide variety of therapists, activists and green thinkers including ecopsychology pioneer and wilderness guide Robert Greenway, British Jungian analyst Mary-Jayne Rust, ecophilosopher Joanna Macy, peak oil guru Richard Heinberg, "natural deficit disorder" maven Richard Louv, climate change activist Bill McKibben, farm therapy expert Shepherd Bliss and West African shaman Malidoma Some and many others. The book's foreword is by environmentalist David Orr.

Here's the short version of what we discovered: our relationship with the rest of nature is the underlying context for our lives. When we become alienated from our animal siblings, our plant healers and the sacred cosmos, we lose the connection to our deepest selves.

The good news is that ecopsychological research is proving that reconnecting with the rest of nature yields astonishing results, both at the individual and collective levels.

Let me give just one tiny example: a study by the University of Essex in the UK revealed that walks in nature are as powerful an antidepressant for cases of mild to moderate depression as antidepressant medication -- at a fraction of the cost and with no unwanted sexual side effects.

So if you'd like to lower your anxiety, raise your mood and improve your sense of well being, increase the number of hours a day when you're connecting with the rest of nature. Hug an animal friend, plant a few seeds, take a green walk, connect with the wild nature in your own body (just following the rhythm of your breath is a good start), listen to the birds or watch the moon rise...

If you'd like to learn more about ecotherapy, this week both "Living on Earth" (NPR) and Sierra Club Radio (www.sierraclubradio.org) are featuring reports. The LOE interview is at http://www.loe.org/shows/shows.htm?programID=09-P13-00025#feature5