Ecopsychology: Finding Our Home in the Earth

The human species has only one home in the cosmos, one place that has intimately nourished us into existence, has made us the powerful, independent beings we are. Our home is day by day falling further into illness, a body and soul sickness descending toward death that can be felt by each person with the sensitivity or openness to perceive it. The planet Earth is suffering and, often without awareness of the connection, her inhabitants suffer with her. Humanity needs to awaken to the intimate interconnection and dependence of the collective psyche of the Earth, or the anima mundi, of which each of our psyches are an integral part. Together the Earth and humanity need to heal, and simultaneously move towards a wholeness in which we each have the sense of security of truly being home in our world.

The healing that must take place begins on the individual level, but can only be true healing when placed within the context of the whole. An approach to this healing that has been emerging over the last few decades is the field of ecopsychology, a psychology of the human soul taken within the context of the anima mundi, the larger ensouled world. The term “ecopsychology” was coined by the cultural historian Theodore Roszak to broaden the context of psychology and marry it to the study of ecology. The root eco is derived from the Greek oikos, meaning “home,” and psyche comes from the Greek for “soul” or “animating spirit”; thus ecopsychology could be seen as a study of the ensouled home, or the study of the soul at home.

The modern West, inheriting the Cartesian dualism of a split between spirit and matter, has come to see the human being as an isolated island of subjectivity experiencing a soulless, inanimate world. As humanity has become increasingly individualistic during the modern era, our sense of alienation from the Earth, and ultimately the cosmos, has increased as well.[1] “An existential uncertainty haunts the modern psyche,”[2] as the ecofeminist Charlene Spretnak writes, as a result of this alienation and sense of homelessness. For the modern human, the environment is considered to be “out there,”[3] the “background for economic purposes”[4] from which we are almost completely dissociated.[5] At most, the world may cause profound suffering for the human, but it does not suffer itself, for it has no inherent subjectivity.[6]

For the millions of humans who spend the majority of their lives within the concrete confines of cities, this dissociation from the natural world deprives the soul of an essential contact that makes the human being whole and healthy.[7] Yet merely leaving the urban setting to visit a protected wilderness is not enough to heal the afflicted soul, for the Earth itself carries the sickness of the disconnection and, as the “geologian” Thomas Berry writes, “… the health of the planet is primary while human health is derivative. We cannot have well people on a sick planet.”[8] The disease, as the archetypal psychologist James Hillman observes, is in both the person and the world.[9] The suffering Earth is speaking her pain through us, and as Sarah Conn has perceived, she “speaks the loudest through the most sensitive of us.”[10]

In most contemporary psychology, an individual experiencing “pain for the world” is considered to be projecting their inner turmoil onto the inanimate environment outside.[11] Any desire to connect in a more meaningful way with the Earth, such as speaking in conversation with the voices of nature, could indicate a certain instability of sanity in the individual. Roszak points out that little has furthered the agenda of industrial civilization more than the repression of the ensouled animation of the cosmos .[12]

The human relationship to the Earth in the West has become deeply riddled with pathologies as we almost blindly continue the unchecked destruction of our only home. The psychotherapist Ralph Metzner identifies some of humanity’s collective psychological disorders in his book Green Psychology, ranging from autism, to addiction, narcissism, amnesia, developmental fixation, repression, dissociation, and anthropocentrism. We have lost our ability for empathy and humility, our perception, and our sense of mystery.[13] Hillman extends the vision of collective pathologies beyond the human sphere entirely, recognizing our psychological diseases manifesting in the world itself, in our food, our politics, our medicine, and even our language.[14] He writes of “addictive” agriculture, “paranoid” businesses, “anorexic” or “catatonic” buildings, and “manic” consumption.[15] Because, in some form or other, all people in industrial society participate in this pathological system, we become prone to these same diseases for the very reason these pathologies try to repress: we are intimately interconnected with every part of the world we inhabit. Conn, a practicing ecopsychologist, sees the symptoms of her patients “as ‘signals’ of distress in our connection with the larger context or as a defect in the larger context itself.”[16] Whether we can identify the source or not, as the environmental activist Joanna Macy expresses, no one is exempt from this pain.[17] For those who can understand the source of their pain, of their pathology, the ability to fully act on behalf of the Earth has often been so long denied it must be aroused by deep healing work, a profound therapy of the psyche.[18]

In a personal correspondence to Roszak, the Australian rainforest activist John Seed speaks of the role therapy can play in the environmental movement: “Psychologists in service to the Earth helping ecologists to gain deeper understanding of how to facilitate profound change in the human heart and mind seems to be the key at this point.”[19] Until quite recently, the scope of psychotherapy “stopped at the city limits,”[20] but with the advent of ecopsychology, and other forms of reconnection between humanity and the Earth, as put forward by Roszak, Hillman, Berry, Macy, Conn, Metzner, and many others, that scope is at last broadening.[21] Ecopsychology addresses the alienation felt by the modern human, and seeks to repair the sense of homelessness in the cosmos.[22]

In assessing the pathological relationship modern humanity has with nature, Metzner questions whether some collective trauma, sustained from the terrors faced by early humans in the natural world, may have led to a form of shared amnesia and repression that severed our perception of the interconnection and harmony of the cosmos.[23] If so, our healing process will have to address this trauma and begin to rebuild a new trust in the Earth. Like early humans we are still fully dependent on the Earth, but we hold far more power than primal peoples once did; with this power comes equal responsibility, for now not only is our survival dependent on the Earth, but the Earth’s survival has also become dependent upon us. One will not continue without the other, and as Berry describes, this “…is a community project. Only the community survives; nothing survives as an individual.”[24]

A prevalent belief in Western civilization is that to address the needs beyond our individual selves we must first have our own lives together.[25] Yet, because of the deep, though often veiled, interconnection of the human to the Earth, healing of the human and the planet must take place simultaneously.[26] There cannot be a divorce between the two, for they are really one. Healing, as Conn writes, is “an exploration of ways to remember our wholeness, to reconnect with other humans and with the natural world.”[27] We are not separate entities living on the Earth, but as the ecophilosopher David Abram observes, we are actually living in the Earth, walking hundreds of miles below the outer layers of the atmosphere.[28] Our bodies our composed of the same elements as the Earth, the same as the entire cosmos. “We were mothered out of the substance of this planet,” Roszak writes, “Her elements, her periodicities, her gravitational embrace, her subtle vibrations still mingle in our nature, worked a billion years down into the textures of life and mind.”[29]

If we are composed of the substance of the Earth, then not only our bodies but our psyches as well must be one with the Earth’s; we are differentiated souls forming and participating in one larger soul, the anima mundi.[30] Our minds, rather than being solely our own, are rather facets of the consciousness of the planet, “…a power,” as Abram writes, “in which we are carnally immersed.”[31] Conn discusses Arthur Koestler’s term “holon,” which indicates a self which is simultaneously a real individual but also an integral part of a larger whole.[32] Each human psyche is a holon within the greater context of the anima mundi.

Hillman, the champion of soul and the anima mundi, sees the world soul as pervading all things, not only the natural world but each human-made object as well, animating trees, rivers, mountains, lions, and butterflies, but also the concrete roads, street lamps, bridges, buildings, and books and pencils too.[33] We are forever caught in a dance of animating each other, human projecting upon the world, the world projecting upon the human, and also the world projecting upon all other facets of itself.[34] Because of this living interplay we are able to perceive the Earth’s suffering within ourselves, feeling it as our own, because it is our own. Hillman recognizes that “the soul of the individual can never advance beyond the soul of the world, because they are inseparable, the one always implicating the other.”[35]

As humanity broadens its sense of self to encompass the Earth, our care for self will extend to the planet as well.[36] If we approach Carl Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the noosphere, as a part of the larger anima mundi, we can begin to uncover what Roszak calls the “ecological unconscious.”[37] The ecological unconscious can “be drawn upon as a resource for restoring us to environmental harmony.”[38] This can lead to the development of what Arne Naess has named the “ecological self,” a conception of the individual self always identified with and embedded in the larger context of the Earth environment.[39]

One way to develop the ecological self and tap into the ecological unconscious is through the ecopsychological practice of bioregionalism.[40] A bioregion is an area of land defined not by human boundaries but by the contours and features of the land itself, often a watershed, land enclosed by bodies of water, or changes in climate or elevation. By coming to intimately know the features of the bioregion in which we each make our home, we can develop a sense of place and belonging, a connection to the spirit of the land which is the spirit in us as well.[41] If we acquaint ourselves with the soul of the land, we can come to know the anima mundi and thus come to know ourselves.[42] Hillman writes, “We pay respect to it simply by looking again, re-specting, that second look with the eye of the heart.”[43]

Part of the process of ecopsychology is actively engaging with the land, engaging with respect, or looking again to see what we could not previously. Conn describes some of the ways in which we can engage, from gardening and restoration work, to participating with environmental groups, to conducting rituals in nature.[44] Each of these practices connects us to our bioregion, rebuilding a sense of home and harmony. Conn concludes her essay “When the Earth Hurts, Who Responds?” by saying:

The goals of therapy then include not only the ability to find joy in the world, but also to hear the Earth speaking in one’s own suffering, to participate in and contribute to the healing of the planet by finding one’s niche in the Earth’s living system and occupying it actively.[45]

The entire universe is connected as one in the beginning of time, to the moment the cosmos flared forth. Those ties still remain, often hidden, waiting to be uncovered through patient healing work. As they are uncovered, humanity can see that to heal ourselves is to heal the Earth and to heal the Earth is to heal ourselves.[46] Thus, together the planet and the human species will both be able to move toward wholeness, to see ourselves as integral holons in a larger sphere. We can once again come to realize we were always at home, in ourselves, in the Earth, in the cosmos.

Works Cited

Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010.

Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006.

–––––. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999.

–––––. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Hillman, James. The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc., 2007.

Metzner. Ralph. Green Psychology: Transforming Our Relationship to the Earth. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1999.

Roszak, Theodore, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner, ed. Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1995.

Roszak, Theodore. Person/Planet. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, Doubleday, 1979.

Spretnak, Charlene. The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature, and Place in a Hypermodern World. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999.


[1] Charlene Spretnak, The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature, and Place in a Hypermodern World (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), 222.

[2] Ibid, 221.

[3] Sarah A. Conn, “When the Earth Hurts, Who Responds?” in Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind ed. Theodore Roszak et al. (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1995), 157.

[4] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 22.

[5] Ralph Metzner, Green Psychology: Transforming Our Relationship to the Earth (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1999), 95.

[6] James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc, 2007), 94.

[7] Berry, The Great Work, 82.

[8] Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 35.

[9] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 93.

[10] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 171.

[11] Ibid, 161.

[12] Theodore Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” in Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind ed. Theodore Roszak et al. (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1995), 7.

[13] Metzner, Green Psychology, 91.

[14] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 96.

[15] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 104.

[16] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 162.

[17] Joanna Macy, “Working Through Environmental Despair” in Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind ed. Theodore Roszak et al. (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1995), 241.

[18] Ibid, 243.

[19] John Seed, qtd. in Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” 3.

[20] Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” 2.

[21] Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” 3-4.

[22] Spretnak, The Resurgence of the Real, 76.

[23] Metzner, Green Psychology, 92.

[24] Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009), 47.

[25] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 161.

[26] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 118.

[27] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 160-161.

[28] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010), 99.

[29] Theodore Roszak, Person/Planet (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, Doubleday, 1979), 54.

[30] Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” 5, 16.

Spretnak, The Resurgence of the Real, 76.

[31] Abram, Becoming Animal, 123.

[32] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 164.

[33] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 101.

[34] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 103.

[35] Ibid, 105.

[36] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 164.

[37] Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” 11-12.

[38] Ibid, 14.

[39] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 163.

[40] Metzner, Green Psychology, 185.

[41] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 166.

[42] Metzner, Green Psychology, 189.

[43] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 129.

[44] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 170.

[45] Ibid, 171.

[46] Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” 8.

The Unmanifest Realm: Potentials in Myths, Dreams, and Past Lives

Visions and dreams reside in a realm beyond our waking conscious mind, and pour forth into our lives at key moments through the portals of sleep and non-ordinary states of consciousness. This realm could be referred to as the unconscious, a domain greater than us, in which our egos participate to create our fuller Self.[1] It could also be the Underdream, a current of the cosmos and the earth, in which we swim each night once we fall asleep.[2] This realm might be compared to the unmanifest realm of physics, the realm in and out of which all material particles vibrate constantly as they exist in time and space.[3] It is the archetypal realm that speaks to us through myth and symbol; as Joseph Campbell wrote, “…myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation.”[4]

During our five-day course Nature and Eros, I was given the opportunity to work deeply with my own dreams and visions in a natural setting; it was an atmosphere where we were able to sink into the silence, a silence so pregnant that at last we could hear the full chorus of our dreams sing forth. The pivotal vision with which I worked during this time was a past life memory, which had been surfacing over the last few months leading up to this retreat. The memory was brought to the forefront of my consciousness by one of the dreams I experienced during the course. Working with our facilitator, Kerry Brady, I was able to reconnect with, and fill in more of, this past life experience to help incorporate my understanding of it into my waking life.

I have had a hazy awareness of my past life traumas since a young age, when I experienced severe night terrors that would leave me screaming and unable to recognize anyone around me. Bill Plotkin writes that “The earliest remembered dreams of our lives, the ones from early childhood, say age three to five, represent especially clear and portentous glimpses of the Underdream.”[5] Stanislav Grof describes past life memories as

…sequences that take place in other historical periods and other countries and are usually associated with powerful emotions and physical sensations…. Their most remarkable aspect is a convincing sense of remembering and reliving something that one has already seen (déjá vu) or experienced (déjá vecu) at some time in the past.[6]

Knowing that I carried these memories, I began to explore them recently to reach a better understanding of the experiences that have informed my psyche this lifetime.

In the memory, I am a woman in Mexico several centuries ago. The central moment of the memory is the sensation of my body dropping from a scaffold and hanging by the neck from a rope. For the last few years I have had intense pain in just that area of my neck. Grof points out that, as past life memories surface, “…incomprehensible emotional and psychosomatic symptoms now seem to make sense as karmic carry-overs from a previous lifetime.”[7] It is dark and raining in the memory, and the rain and my tears drench my long hair, which is hanging in my face. I understood that my execution was a martyrdom in relation to Christianity, but whether I was a Christian or was executed at the hands of Christians I do not know. Among the dark figures surrounding me one is especially clear, a man kneeling in the forefront who I could strongly sense was the same soul as my beloved partner this lifetime, with whom I only recently became connected. Such recognition of others is a frequent aspect of past life recollections. Grof writes that

…it might suddenly seem that a certain person in one’s present life played an important role in a previous incarnation, the memory of which is emerging into consciousness. When this happens, one may seek emotional contact with a person who now appears to be a “soul-mate” from one’s karmic past.[8]

During the Nature and Eros course my past life vision was dominating my mind one morning following a series of intense, vivid dreams. Many of the dreams took place in a harem, or whore house, in Mexico or Polynesia that was ruled by a tyrannical white man. The native women were treated horribly, and were abused and mutilated. One woman hung herself, although she took on the form of a pink crab when she did so. I witnessed this hanging from the same visual angle as in my past life experience. The emotional quality of this dream triggered a need to process my past life memory while I had the support and knowledge offered in this retreat.

I recounted my experience with Kerry while she asked me where in my body I felt it. I seem to carry the physical pain of the event in my neck and throat, but the emotional pain I carry in my jaw, which is the hardest to release. I came to recognize that the knowledge of my execution must have come suddenly, with little time to assimilate my approaching death. I felt the panic of those last moments, but the hardest part was after my body had dropped, knowing the action of my death had been completed, but my soul and life force had not yet departed my body. I felt the helplessness and sadness of those moments, and I kept repeating, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know this would happen.” I could see my partner kneeling before me, possibly my beloved in that lifetime also, and felt such pain at leaving him behind.

With Kerry’s assistance I moved to lying flat on my back, which finally allowed the tension in my neck and jaw to relax. An image came to me of looking at my body lying in a field of wildflowers, my body melting into the Earth. There was deep comfort in that scene. The manner of my death was unnatural, but my body was laid to rest like all others and was able to dissolve back into the Earth.

I honored the suffering of my former self, and also felt gratitude: her sacrifice allowed my soul to incarnate into my present life and body, to enter into such a good, nourishing womb and family. After lying for some time on the ground, I decided to go to the flower garden on the property where our retreat took place. I wanted to feel held in a womblike space, safe once again amongst the flowers of my final vision. Carl Jung’s archetypal interpretation of this image is that “The flower is in fact like a friendly sign, a numinous emanation from the unconscious.”[9] Coming into this blossoming garden gave me a sense of healing and wholeness, a unity with my surrounding earth environment.

My sense of being embedded in a womblike unity transcended that of the physical womb in which I was nourished this lifetime for nine months. It had a feeling of cosmic wholeness without any physical boundaries, perhaps a realm between incarnations. Could this place be the same realm from which dreams come? If so, it is a realm of infinite potential, comparable to the unmanifest realm, or quantum vacuum, of physics. According to Brian Swimme, this vacuum is not a place in the physical world, but rather pure, underlying, generative creativity. The unmanifest realm contains all that exists and all that could potentially exist. Elementary particles manifest from this place, then vanish back into it. The whole of the physical world constantly vibrates in and out of the unmanifest realm.[10]

Our waking conscious, for the most part, takes place in the physical, manifest world; however, in sleep our consciousness transcends our bodies and enters this realm of pure potential. Like physical particles, our consciousness may vibrate between realms as well, pulling narratives from our waking lives into the unfolding stories of our dreams. Our dreams tend to carry a thread of our own personality throughout, but in ways unexpected or contrary to our waking selves. Jung describes the dream realm as the unconscious, which “…remains beyond reach of subjective arbitrary control, in a realm where nature and her secrets can neither be improvised upon nor perverted, where we can listen but may not meddle.”[11]

Dreams are one form of communication between this realm and our waking conscious. According to Plotkin, “every dream is an opportunity to develop our relationship to soul, to who we are beneath our surface personalities and routine agendas.”[12] Because we lose the control that we have while awake as we dream, we remain open to the truths that dreams can reveal. By accessing this realm I was able to recover my final memories of a life that ended violently; but this death also allowed my soul to completely enter the timeless place between lifetimes.

Painting by Becca Tarnas

On the final night of Nature and Eros I slept with the plant mugwort under my pillow, which is said to stimulate dreams. When I awoke the next morning I felt positive energy coursing through me in a way I have never felt after a dream. Much of the dream took place in rich, green gardens, echoing my experience the day before in the flower garden. A symbol also emerged from the dream, shaped like the glyph for the planet Venus, but with two long leaves on each side. The symbol represented the “Metaphysics of Mythology.” This was not a term with which I was familiar, and I could find no definition in my research, so I began to create my own definition.

A metaphysics of mythology would be an understanding and knowledge of the fundamental nature of cultural stories and beliefs pouring in from the archetypal realm of potential. Myths and dreams are two different storytellers sharing the same life-forging narratives with our souls. Joseph Campbell, whose work with mythology implies a metaphysics of the subject, compared these two languages of the unconscious: “Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream; both myth and dream are symbolic in the same general way of the dynamics of the psyche.”[13]

Myths are the translators of dreams, and the symbols of dreams are the messengers from our unconscious, from the unmanifest realm, the realm between lifetimes. Dreams are the mediators on behalf of our souls between the personalities of our current and previous lifetimes. They carry our soul narratives between the waking realms, whether it is between day to day in our present life, or between this lifetime and our past lives. As Plotkin writes, “Each dream provides a snapshot of the unfolding story and desires of the soul, and a chance for the ego to be further initiated into that underworld story and those underworld desires.”[14] In this case, Plotkin refers to the underworld as the place of soul, to which we descend to uncover our true purpose in this lifetime.

My integration of my past life memories is the first leg of a journey that I imagine will take me a lifetime. The initial step was learning to bear witness to the suffering of someone who is both myself and an other. Part of my soul journey this lifetime is to connect with the previous journeys of my same soul, and to assimilate those lessons left by past experience. These experiences come to us in the language of dreams and myth, which we can slowly learn to read by understanding the role they play in our development as individuals. Ultimately these languages connect us, during sleep and between lifetimes, to the same place: a realm of infinite creative potential teeming with the possibilities of all that we are, have been, will never be, and someday will eventually become.

Bibliography

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008.

Grof, Stanislav. Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.

Jung, Carl Gustav. The Portable Jung. Edited by Joseph Campbell. Translated by R.F.C. Hull. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1976.

Plotkin, Bill. Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003.

Swimme, Brian. Nature and Eros lecture. Tunitas Creek Ranch, CA: September 9, 2011.


[1] Carl Gustav Jung, The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell, trans. R.F.C. Hull (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1976), 329.

[2] Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003), 134-135.

[3] Brian Swimme, Nature and Eros lecture (Tunitas Creek Ranch, CA: September 9, 2011).

[4] Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008), 1.

[5] Plotkin, Soulcraft, 135.

[6] Stanislav Grof, Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000), 162.

[7] Grof, Psychology of the Future, 162.

[8] Ibid, 162.

[9] Jung, The Portable Jung, 349.

[10] Swimme, lecture.

[11] Jung, The Portable Jung, 329.

[12] Plotkin, Soulcraft, 129.

[13] Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 14.

[14] Plotkin, Soulcraft, 129.