|"Nick Ray, adventure therapist and psychotherapist, works as a transactional analyst both inside the therapy room and out in the natural environment" |
|"There is a growing interest in adventure and wilderness therapy. For over a decade, Kaye Richards and Jenny Peel have developed practice, training and research in this area. Here, they report on the innovative and compelling ways of working offered by adventure and the outdoors" |
|"I have never needed research to convince me of the psychological benefits of being active in natural environments. I hesitate to use the word ‘exercise’ because it sounds like something else we are supposed to do" |
|"Physical activity is good for your mood; physical activity in green spaces is even better, according to a steadily increasing body of robust, scientific research. Catherine Jackson talks to leading researchers and practitioners about ‘green exercise’ and learns that it isn’t just any physical activity anywhere. Housework makes women more depressed; low level physical activity can make no difference at all; walk-and-talk meetings in the outdoors can produce a surge of creative thinking and productivity; troubled youth learn self-regulation in wild spaces, and people with dementia blossom when they are let out to play in the park"|
Wild at heart: another side of ecopsychology. The wild mind is spontaneous, co-creative, self-balancing and wise. We need to access it and make friends with it if we are radically to change our behaviour towards the rest of the world, argues Nick Totton
From the archive
This article was originally published in December 2005 Therapy Today
Something inside me has reached to the place
Where the world is breathing.
(Robert Bly: The Kabir Book1)
In earlier CPJ pieces, I have discussed ecopsychology mainly as an effective way to raise environmental consciousness. In this article I want to approach ecopsychology from the other side, so to speak – to look at how an understanding of ecological ideas, a connection with the wild, can affect our approach to psychotherapy and counselling (which will, of course, also indirectly influence environmental attitudes). I will consider ecopsychology as what Gregory Bateson2 called ‘an ecology of mind’. To show how this connects with therapy, I will have to take the scenic route.
The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote an influential book which appeared in English as The Savage Mind.3 This drastically alters the sense of the original title, La Pensée Sauvage, or ‘wild thought’. (To underline the point, the French edition had a cover illustration of the wild pansy, or ‘pensée sauvage’, which is pronounced identically.) While earlier Western anthropologists thought of tribal cultures as ‘savages’, Levi-Strauss helped us recognise what we might call ‘wild’ or ‘undomesticated’ cultures – participating human members of wild ecosystems.
We now have some sense of the deep and rich understanding with which wild cultures approach their host ecosystems – and of how profoundly mainstream culture has misperceived such societies as ignorant and incompetent. For example, ‘slash-and-burn’ has been the Western name given to shifting cultivation or ‘swidden’, the most common form of agriculture in the world’s rain forests. As carried out by Western or westernised farmers, it destroys the soil and permanently eliminates rain forest from the areas where it is used. However, as practised by indigenous peoples, these methods can be deft, subtle and sustainable.
Eisenberg,4 drawing on Posey,5,6 describes how the semi-nomadic Kayapo in the Amazon basin clear a forest plot by felling the largest central trees outwards, bringing smaller trees and brush down with them and creating a wheel-like pattern. While all this is baking in the sun, they plant some of their root crops before the trees and brush are burnt, so their root systems are ready to draw up the nutrients released as ash by a slow burn. Once the ashes have cooled, the rest of the root crops are planted; a week or so later, remaining twigs and branches are burnt in piles, and nutrient-hungry crops like beans and squashes are planted in these ashes. Crops are arranged in concentric rings, with the heaviest feeders in the outer ring, richest in nutrients because most of the foliage fell here.
After a few seasons, the garden is left to revert to forest, but will be used for decades as a permaculture plot, with some crops bearing for thirty or forty years, together with self-seeding successional plants including fruit trees, palms and medicinal herbs, as well as berries that attract birds and wildlife for hunting. These elegant gardens need no attention for periods of months or, later in the cycle, of years. They give high yields for very little work – far more than most Western agriculture – and they actually improve the rainforest soil, in stark contrast to agribusiness.
On the savannah and grasslands where the Kayapo site their villages are islands of forest known as apete, long assumed to be natural. These are far more common near villages than elsewhere; and anthropologists have recently realised that most of them are deliberately created, by building compost piles of branches and leaves, ‘inoculating’ them with bits of ant and termite nests, planting especially useful trees – and then leaving the whole thing alone. ‘Besides serving as supermarkets, the islands are used as shelter in time of war or epidemic, as refuges from the midday sun, as studios for bodypainting, as playgrounds, and as motels for trysting lovers.’
A precise understanding
The Kayapo clearly don’t plan how to farm in harmony with the local ecosystem – or not as we would plan. On the other hand this is not instinctual behaviour! The point is that it would never occur to them, or to many other indigenous peoples, to farm or live out of harmony; because they experience themselves as part of the ecosystem, a thinking part of it. From this wild mind flows a detailed and precise understanding of how things work in that place – which they describe in terms of ‘plant energies’ needing precise mixing and balancing through complex patterns of cultivation.
This local, indigenous knowledge is completely specific to the ecosystem in which it arises. It is creative and experimental, constantly incorporating outside influences and inside innovations to meet new conditions. The times when it goes wrong – when tribal peoples live in ways that mirror, on a far smaller scale, the destructiveness of mainstream culture – seem to occur when their environment has changed faster than they can adapt, and they go on trying to apply traditional strategies.7
Wadley and Martin8 have suggested that what we call ‘the rise of civilisation’ is actually a process of human domestication, facilitated by addiction to opiate-like substances found in grains and milks. ‘Civilisation arose because reliable, on-demand availability of dietary opioids to individuals changed their behaviour, reducing aggression, and allowed them to become tolerant of sedentary life in crowded groups, to perform regular work, and to be more easily subjugated by rulers.’ This domestication of human culture wrenches it out of communion with wild ecosystems, which are then in turn reshaped to satisfy the needs of domesticated humans. This process has continued with the sequential use of further opioids and opiates, including symbolic ‘opiates of the people’ like religion and TV.
The wild mind
Interesting as this is, I don’t mean to set up a dualistic opposition between ‘wild’ and ‘domesticated’, where ‘wildness’ is idealised; nor to beat the drum for a return to hunter-gatherer culture (incidentally wiping out 99 per cent of the human race). But I want to point out an aspect of human psychology which operates in all cultures and societies, and which I call ‘wild mind’, as ecologists speak of ‘wild ecosystems’: undamaged, complex systems of interaction where each part supports and is supported by the whole. I will list four properties of wild mind, each of which has powerful implications for therapy and counselling, and try to justify each in turn (with frequent links and loops between them).
• Wild mind is spontaneous.
• Wild mind is co-creative.
• Wild mind is self-balancing.
• Wild mind is inherent wisdom.
Wild mind is spontaneous
Wild mind is the whole of our bodymind self, not just the fraction isolated by consciousness. Like an ecosystem, like our physiological functions, wild mind happens of its own accord, as the sum product of local reality: we do not have to bring purpose or intention to bear on the situation, as if from the outside – they arise as spontaneous expressions of the situational gestalt. Like the body, wild mind opens up no gap between impulse and execution: as Gary Snyder9 says:
‘Our bodies are wild. The involuntary quick turn of the head at a shout, the vertigo of looking off a precipice, the heart-in-throat in a moment of danger, the catch of the breath, the quiet moments relaxing, staring, reflecting – all universal responses of this mammal body… The body does not require the intercession of some conscious intellect to make it breathe, to keep the heart beating.’
Nor does the mind require conscious intervention to function! ‘To neither come nor go, but to remain as you innately are, without allowing the mind to become obscured – this is what’s meant by Buddha,’ said the Zen master Bankei.10 The perceptual psychologist James J Gibson11 puts it like this: ‘Ask yourself what it is you see hiding the surroundings as you look out upon the world – not darkness, surely, not air, nothing but the ego.’
Wild mind is co-creative
Gibson developed the concept of ‘ecological perception’, countering mainstream, dualistic theories of perception as a transaction between two separate entities, perceiver and perceived. He suggested that we and our bodies ‘exist along with the environment, they are co-perceived’:12 the perceiving ‘subject’ at any particular moment is also the perceived ‘object’, defining and defined by the whole network within which each perception is held. Similarly, another of Gregory Bateson’s crucial insights13 was that mind is not bounded by our skin: it is necessarily an interrelationship of brain, body and environment. And part of mind’s environment consists of other minds, all mutually co-arising with and co-influencing each other.
In his wonderful book The Lost Language of Plants,14 Stephen Buhner describes how plant communities exist within and communicate through huge networks of coevolved, symbiotic fungi around their roots, mycorrhizal systems sometimes extending for hundreds of acres below ground, forming sophisticated biofeedback loops which exchange information with and between plants – so much so that, in a sense, the plants are no more separate individuals than mushrooms sprouting from the same mycelium. Mycorrhiza are a vivid example of how ecosystems work – how the universe works. It has been described as ‘Indra’s Net’: a network of threads holding an infinity of jewels, each jewel reflecting all the other jewels in its depths, and these reflections being in turn reflected. All beings, all minds, mutually condition and create each other, forming larger unities through these interconnections. Wild mind is one.
Interestingly, Freud used this imagery of networks in his first great work, The Interpretation of Dreams,15 to describe the working of the unconscious. He even used the specific analogy of fungal systems: the unconscious, he suggests, forms endless associative chains, ‘branch[ing] out in every direction into the intricate network of our world of thought,’ so that a dream represents a particularly condensed area of that network erupting into awareness ‘at some point where this meshwork is particularly close …like a mushroom out of the mycelium’.
The mycelium shares many properties with the unconscious: it is enormous, ancient, hidden, and composed of a network of branching and interwoven threads. Individual honey mushroom mycelia have been found which are1,500 years old and up to 15 hectares in size, weighing as much as a blue whale.16 A modern mushroom writer17 echoes Freud’s language in the Interpretation, apparently spontaneously: ‘What we call toadstools are ... the tip of an immense and intricate network of threads.’
In drawing this analogy, Freud was thinking of the structure of the human brain, which people in 1900 were just starting to understand. We know more about this today – largely, unfortunately, from a dualistic ‘outside observer’ view; but some of what has been discovered is very suggestive in terms of the ideas outlined here. For example, when I experience myself making decisions, neural imaging shows that we have already ‘made’ that decision fractions of a second earlier – or rather, the decision has already made itself, since ‘I’ was not involved!18,19
Wild mind is self-balancing
Gregory Bateson13 shows that mind, like all complex systems (including mycorrhiza), operates through homeostatic loops, mechanisms for rebalancing the system whenever it goes out of equilibrium. For him, the processes which produce healing in organs, growth in organisms, development in societies, or balance in large ecosystems are all minds – aspects of ‘that wider knowing which is the glue holding together the starfishes and sea anemones and redwood forests and human committees’.
Humans, however, have developed a further level of abstraction from this homeostatic mentality: consciousness, which seems to privilege purpose, intention and separateness. ‘Purposive consciousness pulls out, from the total mind, sequences which do not have the loop structure which is characteristic of the whole systemic structure.’2 However, ‘the part can never control the whole’:2 the conscious mind’s impression that it is in control of the bodymind is simply an illusion, and maintaining that illusion creates tremendous stress and anxiety.
Actually, nothing controls the bodymind: everything just happens of its own accord. Wild mind seeks constantly to communicate this reality to consciousness, as a rebalancing – through dreams, visions, slips, symptoms, psychoses and sudden enlightenment. It also expresses itself through ‘ideomotor movement’, the spontaneous and unconscious body expressions which accompany us through life. Barrett Dorko (www.barrettdorko.com; see also Spitz20) argues that the constant disciplining and discouraging of these movements in children – ‘Stop fidgeting!’ – is responsible for a large proportion of bodily problems in adults: wild mind prevented from natural homeostatic re-balancing.
Wild mind is inherent wisdom
In her novel The Telling,21 Ursula LeGuin describes a human ‘wild culture’ on another planet, where a teacher says: ‘Animals have no language. They have their nature. You see? They know the way, they know where to go and how to go, following their nature. But we’re animals with no nature. Eh? Animals with no nature! That’s strange! We’re so strange! We have to talk about how to go and what to do, think about it, study it, learn it. Eh? We’re born to be reasonable, so we’re born ignorant.’
Wild mind, however, is not ignorant – although it doesn’t ‘know’ anything (we project knowledge onto its unknowing wisdom). Rather, it is the summation and direct expression of all our experience, of the entire local situation; and, through our co-creation with the rest of the universe, it mirrors and expresses everything the universe is. ‘The depths of mind, the unconscious, are our inner wilderness areas … The conscious, agenda-planning ego occupies a very tiny territory, a little cubicle somewhere near the gate.’9
Again, wild mind’s response to events is a rebalancing one: it seeks to restore peace, to re-establish harmony. This doesn’t come about through eliminating our conscious, domesticated, ‘no nature’ mind, but through reuniting it with its source in wild mind – re-minding us that we are in fact animals, and that we control nothing. Arnold Mindell’s program for therapeutic conflict work sums this up nicely: ‘Value trouble. Accept nature. Make peace with war.’
Wild mind and therapy
All this has implications for the practice of therapy. From the point of view of the ecology of mind, our work as therapists is to interrupt purpose-obsessed consciousness and relax into wild mind, so as to facilitate the same process in our clients. Insofar as therapy then has a ‘goal’, it is to let go of goals and settle down to what is (Freud called it ‘free association’, roaming the networks of wild mind). If consciousness can abandon its mad, quixotic quest to control reality, a radical lessening of anxiety follows, through a reappraisal of our situation as human beings. We become aware that we experience ourselves as subject to impossible demands; and that these demands are, indeed, impossible – in other words, they do not really exist. Something which previously seemed hugely important and hugely difficult is now quite unimportant. Our domestication becomes rebalanced with our wildness. This is an enormous and life-changing relief.
The Sufi poet Kabir says:1
‘We are all struggling; none of us has gone far.
Let your arrogance go, and look around inside.
The blue sky opens out farther and farther,
The daily sense of failure goes away,
The damage I have done to myself fades,
A million suns come forward with light,
When I sit firmly in that world.’
What I have described is, naturally, nothing new: many people, including therapists, have talked about a similar process. What I hope may be useful is to connect up several different approaches: ecopsychology, ecosystem studies, psychology, neuroscience, enlightenment practices, and various psychotherapies. We need to access wild mind, both for our own sakes and for the sake of the whole: any radical change in our behaviour towards the rest of the wild world depends upon making friends with our own wilderness inside. Until then we are Toad of Toad Hall – egos posturing in the mirror and trying to ignore the Wild Wood.
1. Bly R. The Kabir book: forty-four of the ecstatic poems of Kabir. Boston: Beacon Press; 1977.
2. Bateson G. Steps to an ecology of mind. London: Paladin; 1973.
3. Levi-Strauss C. The savage mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1966.
4. Eisenberg E. The ecology of Eden: humans, nature and human nature. London: Picador; 1998.
5. Posey D. Keepers of the forest. Garden. 1982; Jan/Feb:18-24.
6. Posey D. Keepers of the campo. Garden. 1984; Nov/Dec:8-32. (See also www.agroforestry.net/overstory/overstory34.html and www.resurgence.org/resurgence/issues/posey203.htm)
7. Johnson M. Lore: capturing traditional environmental knowledge. IDRC. Ottawa, Canada; 1992.
8. Wadley G, Martin A. The origins of agriculture: a biological perspective and a new hypothesis. Journal of the Australasian College of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine. 2000; 19(1):3-12.
9. Snyder G. The practice of the wild. Washington, DC: Shoemaker and Hoard; 2004.
10. Besserman P, Steger M. Crazy clouds: Zen radicals, rebels and reformers. Boston: Shambhala; 1991.
11. Gibson JJ. The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin; 1979.
12. Gibson JJ. A note on what exists at the ecological level of reality. In: Reed E, Jones R. (eds) Reasons for realism: selected essays of James J Gibson. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlsbaum; 1987.
13. Bateson G. Mind and nature: a necessary unity. New York: Ballantine Books; 1979.
14. Buhner SH. The lost language of plants. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing; 2002.
15. Freud S. The interpretation of dreams (Penguin Freud Library Vol 1). London: Penguin Books; 1991.
16. Smith M, Bruhn J, Anderson J. The fungus Armillaria bulbosa is among the largest and oldest living organisms. Nature. 1992; 356:428-431.
17. Mabey R. Close to the earth. Independent on Sunday. 14.11.93.
18. Libet BJ. Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 1985; 8:529-39.
19. Wegner D. The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press; 2002.
20. Spitz H. Nonconscious movements: from mystical messages to facilitated communication. Manwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum; 1997.
21. LeGuin UK. The telling. London: Gollancz; 2000.