Towards an Imaginal Ecology

This essay, originally written in May 2013, has now been published in the inaugural issue of ReImagining Magazine, a publication created by the Chicago Wisdom Project.

“To speak, to ask to have audience today in the world, requires that we speak to the world, for the world is in the audience; it too is listening to what we say.”[1] With these words James Hillman opens his essay “Anima Mundi” in which he speaks of the return of soul to the world. Such is the task we face as a species, as human beings, as we learn to cultivate a different kind of relationship with our planet, the Earth which supports our very existence. But what eyes can we use to see the soul of the world? What languages can we speak to call out to the anima mundi? With what ears shall we listen to hear the Earth’s voices in reply?

To read the rest of this article please see: “Towards An Imaginal Ecology

Imaginal Ecology

[1] James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc., 2007), 91.

Towards An Imaginal Ecology: Presentation for PCC Integrative Seminar

As the final part of the Integrative Seminar, the capstone course of the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness master’s program, I gave this presentation as part of a day-long seminar with twelve of my fellow graduates in May 2013. The accompanying paper can be found here, and a shorter introduction is available here.

Integrative Seminar Symposium Flyer

Reinhabiting Death

“Death is certain; the time of death is uncertain.”
– Second reflection of Buddhist practice[1] 

“When did we become human? One second to midnight.”
– Joanna Macy[2]

I am walking through a world of accelerating decay. I am walking through a world of exquisite beauty. I am living a life of sorrow and suffering. I am living a life of boundless joy. Somewhere, and at some time, I know my death is out there. We wander along life’s twisting roads, our paths occasionally coming breathlessly close. We almost know that we have met, but not quite. Sometimes I feel as though I am stalking my death, sometimes my death seems to almost deliberately be avoiding me. But then, one day, after walking around an inevitable bend, we encounter one another. Time halts.

I look deeply into my death’s eyes, seeing the beauty present in this moment, embodied in her. My death. And for her too I am death, the bringer of this life’s closing. We lock eyes. A smile plays across my lips, and a light giggle escapes on my breath. What is this? A sense of utmost relief. A release from the hold of incarnation. We reach up to touch each other’s hands and then, as if this was always meant to happen, we fall into a deep embrace, sinking into the comfort and warmth of each other’s presence.

Quietly we take each other’s hands and walk slowly together to a place where we can gaze out over the world, to take in all that we are leaving behind. I feel calm, at peace. Then, just as quietly, we sit down together, still hand in hand, our knees touching. She puts my hand on her heart and as we breathe together it feels as if every good deed, every kind gesture, each moment of grace in her life passes out through me and into the cosmos. As her life continues to flow through me our positions change, and her hand is upon my heart: now I too feel the release of letting all that I did and all that I was pour forth into the universe. And then there we sit, just two beings, outside of time.

As a culture, the West seems to have a disengaged relationship with death. We are often raised with little confrontation of the knowledge that this life someday will end. Somehow we see death as a possibility, rather than a certainty. Death is the greatest certainty we have in life, and yet it remains the greatest of mysteries as well. It is an ever-present reality to us, whether we acknowledge it or not. As Sean Kelly writes,

The natural and cultural dimensions of the human experience, however, cannot of themselves circumvent the fact that this Earth and all of its life forms, as indeed our sun and the entire physical cosmos within which they are embedded, are finite beings, with beginnings in time, and bound to inevitable death.[3]

For much of human history, when we contemplated the inevitability of our individual deaths, we had the comfort of a sense of continuity, remembering our ancestors behind us and our descendents whose lives await in the future. Continuity, perhaps, was as much an inevitability as our own death. Yet now humanity has entered a new period in which that continuity is no longer certain. The devastation of the ecological crises endangering every region of our home planet has made that continuity questionable. As Joanna Macy writes, the deleterious effects of the industrial growth society—from species extinction, to mass deforestation, to ocean acidification and climate change—“are warning signals that we live in a world that can end, at least as a home for conscious life. This is not to say that it will end, but it can end. That very possibility changes everything for us.”[4] As Kelly remarked, all finite entities of our physical reality will have an eventual, inevitable end, but the time scale on which Macy is speaking is one that could be experienced in a single lifetime: a reality so terrifying it has the ability to either stop us in our tracks in fear and apathy—or to give rise to the greatest creativity humanity has ever expended in service not of preserving our own personal lives, but of offering some hope to the very existence of future generations.

When we allow the realization of our potential collective death—as individuals, as a species, and as a planet—“to become conscious,” as Macy explains, “it is painful, but it also jolts us awake to life’s vividness, its miraculous quality, heightening our awareness of the beauty and uniqueness of each object and each being.”[5] Awareness of death not only awakens the possibility for our highest creative potential within life, but also brings up questions of what exists after the threshold of death: questions of personal and collective continuity not only on Earth but beyond this lifetime as well. It is in this context that Macy’s exercise, the Meditation on Death with which I opened this essay, was conducted.

The sense of peace, release, and well-being I experienced during the meditation with my death echoes many of the stories told by religions and spiritual traditions, and by individuals who have survived near death experiences. Contemplating one’s own personal death can lead to a beautiful acceptance of the inevitable, a realization that it may not be a doom but rather a gift. But shifting the contemplation of death to a collective level presents us with a great paradox: for while one’s own death may come to seem acceptable, or eventually even welcome, the idea of our entire human species, or the entirety of life on Earth, coming to an end is beyond the scope of tragedy. It feels impossible to transfer the sense of post-mortem peace to the loss of billions of individuals or whole species.

The severance of our continuity as a species, the “future canceled” as Macy writes, has only been realized as a global possibility since the atomic bomb was first exploded 1945.[6] As Robert J. Lifton explains, the possibility of species annihilation seems to have sliced the currently living generations off from any sense of connection to future descendents, but also from our ancestors who likely lived with a collective sense of species survival. Lifton argues, “We are thus among the first to live with a recurrent sense of biological severance.”[7] Interestingly, the remembrance of individual death under natural circumstances provides the opposite sense: not a severance, but a thread tying the generations together, as the elderly pass away and leave the world to their grandchildren, who will one day do the same for their own grandchildren.

Besides the biological continuity of familial generations, many cultural and religious traditions contain an understanding of spiritual continuity as well, in the form of the ideas of reincarnation and karma. From the perspective of reincarnation, as Christopher Bache puts it, “Death is but a pause that punctuates the seasons of our life, nothing more.”[8] Being able to see that some part of us carries on through multiple lifetimes releases us from the constraint imposed by the limited time of a single life. It makes death less of something to fear and more of a milestone upon a long, evolutionary journey. Yet death is much more than mere punctuation because, from Bache’s perspective, “the concept of reincarnation actually challenges the notion of personal survival because it ruptures the category of personal identity itself.[9] Bache and Kelly both write of the need to understand reincarnation without retaining the image of an individual, atomistic soul being reborn in life after life.[10] Bache continues, “We must eventually move beyond the atomistic vision of separate souls reincarnating for their individual evolution and begin to grasp the larger intentional fabric that our lives collectively express.”[11] Such a perspective shifts the focus away from the individual human being and broadens the horizon to include the collective: at the community, species, and possibly even planetary levels.

A major component of Macy’s “Work That Reconnects” is engagement through practices and exercises with the future generations whose potential existence we strive to bring to reality. Including the concept of rebirth in the practice of visualizing our future descendents can draw us even more personally into working for their well-being; not only might we be paving a smoother way for our great great grandchildren to walk, we ourselves in some form may be walking that path. Drawing from his research on reincarnation and the bardo, Bache suggests that rebirth may not be affected by linear time in the way we perceive it while incarnated. The possibility may exist for one to be born into any historical period, or even perhaps to be living multiple lives simultaneously.[12] “Each life,” as Kelly writes, “. . . however seemingly distant in our past or future—is always and already ensouled, is inalienably associated with its own soul, whose personal and singular drama is ever unfolding in the Eternal Now.”[13] The future is already present within us: biologically—in our ovaries, gonads, and dna, as Macy points out,—but also possibly spiritually—in our souls. Our present personality, along with our past and future personalities may coexist or participate in soul, an entity greater than anything with which our present personality can identify.

The other side to the equation of rebirth, the yin to reincarnation’s yang, is the concept of karma. Kelly writes,

The series of lives is said to be bound together by the law of Karma or its analogue, which, whether or not one believes in a transmigrating soul, provides continuity both before and beyond an individual life, and therefore also gives a ground for its value and meaning.[14]

The karma of our actions ripples forward into the future, affecting not only ourselves but all those who may come after. Nuclear waste and ecological devastation, Macy argues, may be the clearest physical example of how karma, in this case negative karma, ties together thousands of generations. Yet karma is not a fate engraved in stone, and how we choose to meet our karma will positively emanate into the future as well: as the Buddha said, if we cannot alter our karma, “all effort is fruitless.”[15] The fruit born by our effort is a selfless gift given to those who will inhabit our future world; yet it is also a gift to ourselves for the future we will inhabit. Bache describes a vision he had of that future with the following words: “I could see that the future we were creating was a future that we ourselves would participate in through future incarnations. We were doing this for God, for others, and also for ourselves.”[16]

The others:

Gray Wolf

Swallowtail Butterfly

Polar Bear

African Elephant

Blue Whale

“The Bestiary:” Macy’s poetic eulogy of those species leaving, or on the brink of departing, our planet forever—each name spoken, punctuated by the harsh beat of the drum.[17] Boom. A species erased. Boom. Yet another lost. The punctuating drum marks their permanent death. The accelerating drumbeat of extinction does not feel like a simple pause punctuating the seasons of life. Extinction is an irreversible loss, a diminishment of the wholeness and the creativity of our living planet.

The only sane response seems to be despair. Yet somehow despair is not the collective human response, at least at a conscious level. Macy observes, “Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear warfare, none is so great as the deadening of our response.”[18] Our cultural inability to confront death has extended to the numbness we feel in place of mourning, as the presence of thousands of our ecological companions is erased forever. Macy continues, “The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more creative uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies.”[19] By turning our empathy into apathy we seal ourselves off from the collective suffering of our planet: we either become numb or experience the world’s pain as solely our own, expressed in our personal pathologies, depressions, and diseases. Releasing the experience of one’s isolated suffering, while simultaneously living into and owning the despair that is such a real presence upon the Earth, unleashes the energy suppressing one’s grief and also may help release some of the suffering of the collective. Bache writes on this latter point saying, “Instead of seeing ‘my’ pain as existing separately from the suffering of ‘others,’ it becomes more natural to see it as a distinct nodal point within a collective field of suffering that runs throughout the species”—and, I would argue, throughout planet Earth as a whole.[20]

We are learning to confront grief and despair and to make it part of who we are. We are facing our mortality, learning to reinhabit death as a part of life and maturation. Macy writes, “We are confronting and integrating into our awareness our mortality as a species. We must do that so that we can wake up and assume the rights and responsibilities of planetary adulthood.”[21] Much of Western civilization has lost the ritualized initiation rites that serve to guide young people into the responsibilities of adulthood. Such rites of passage usually involve immense pain, a real confrontation with one’s mortality that helps forge the adolescent into the adult they will become. As Macy, Bache, and many others have suggested, the human species as a whole may be confronting such an initiatory rite in the imminent potential of our collective demise. “The specter of global death,” Bache writes, “that hangs over the postmodern era may be fueling a profound psychic transformation of our species.”[22] Bache goes on to describe what the container for that profound transformation seems to be:

The crisis of ecological sustainability is even more lethal than the nuclear crisis because it is not being generated by an overzealous military minority but by the very fabric of modern civilization. . . If there is a species ego-death in our immediate future, I think it will be triggered by the impending ecological crisis of sustainability.[23]

The ecological crisis forces us to face not only the mortality of our species and our planet, but also the deep shame that comes with the realization that we have done this to ourselves, shame that is more difficult to accept and perhaps even more repressed than our grief and despair.

I would argue that the rite of passage presented by the ecological crisis is not only an initiation for the human species, but for every species on this planet and perhaps even for the Earth itself. There may be an ego death of industrial civilization, but much of the suffering and confrontation with mortality of this rite of passage is being borne by the thousands of species going extinct at far too rapid a pace. They have borne the pain of this initiation far longer than we humans. To fully understand the depth of this rite of passage I believe humanity has to recognize that it is an initiation for the planet as a whole.

In a meditation to “re-story our identity as Gaia”[24] Macy offers the experience of imagining the entire existence of the Earth taking place within twenty-four hours, beginning at midnight. For much of the day the Earth is undergoing large-scale geologic processes, and not until five o’clock does organic life emerge. The evening is dedicated to the evolution of all living beings, and not until the last half hour of the day do mammals even evolve. “When did we become human?” Macy asks. “One second to midnight.”[25] In that one second before the clock strikes midnight all that we know of human existence takes place: every tribe is formed and reformed, every civilization rises and falls, every religion flourishes, every human to ever be born lives and eventually dies. The expansion of time felt by embracing a belief in reincarnation is suddenly compressed into that one second before midnight. Could that really be the time human souls have reincarnated within? If a spiritual continuity does exist between human lives, would not this continuity carry back throughout more of the twenty-four hours of our earthly evolution? Were we present with the beginning of life? The beginning of Earth? Might we have some spiritual continuity beyond even that beginning? And if so, what happens moving into the future, when the clock does eventually toll midnight?

A rite of passage is often related to the notion of the dark night of the soul. Perhaps it is only fitting that humanity would emerge during that dark night, in that one second before the midnight hour. Bache writes of his own personal understanding of our significance as a species, in connection with the greater whole of the cosmos:

How blind a species we are. How noble. How deep and profound the evolutionary currents that carry us. Sometimes the darkness stands out for me, sometimes the dawn. Increasingly it is the dawn.[26]

The midnight hour is the hour of mortality, death, the crossing of a threshold. It is the hour of transformation. Humanity may be undergoing a rite of passage but I believe it is an initiation in which we are one of many participating members. If we learn to support our fellow initiates, our fellow species, ecosystems, and biomes, then some of us may pass midnight. Eventually we, in an expanded sense of the term, may see the dawn.

Works Cited

Bache, Christopher M. Dark Night, Early Dawn: Steps to a Deep Ecology of Mind. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.

Kelly, Sean “Integral Time and the Varieties of Post-Mortem Survival.” Integral Review. 4. No. 2 (2008): 5-30.

Lifton, Robert J. The Broken Connection. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1979.

Macy, Joanna. World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007.

[1] Joanna Macy, World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007), 76.

[2] Macy, World As Lover, 183.

[3] Sean Kelly, “Integral Time and the Varieties of Post-Mortem Survival,” Integral Review, 4, No. 2 (2008): 6.

[4] Macy, World As Lover, 17.

[5] Ibid, 124.

[6] Macy, World As Lover, 174-5.

[7] Robert J. Lifton, The Broken Connection (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 338.

[8] Christopher M. Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn: Steps to a Deep Ecology of Mind (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000), 41.

[9] Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 42.

[10] Kelly, “Integral Time,” 24.

[11] Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 34.

[12] Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 133.

[13] Kelly, “Integral Time,” 23.

[14] Ibid, 6.

[15] Macy, World As Lover, 57.

[16] Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 223.

[17] Macy, World As Lover, 87-90.

[18] Macy, World As Lover, 92.

[19] Ibid, 93.

[20] Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 169.

[21] Macy, World As Lover, 184.

[22] Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 215.

[23] Ibid, 232-3.

[24] Macy, World As Lover, 181.

[25] Ibid, 183.

[26] Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 249.

Towards an Imaginal Ecology: A First Glance

“The imagination is a tree. It has the integrative virtues of a tree. It is root and boughs. It lives between earth and sky. It lives in the earth and in the wind. The imagined tree becomes imperceptibly the cosmological tree, the tree which epitomizes the universe, which makes a universe…”
– Gaston Bachelard[1] 

California Sunset

Imagine a stream, choked, murky gray, oiled surface, sunken deep below the watermark-stained banks. Feel deep within your soul the hopelessness of this place, the deadening of your senses to the despair of the river. Allow your imagination to fill with the river’s pain. Now, slowly, begin to imagine those waters rising, gradually at first, then more and more quickly, flowing first as a muddy trickle, widening into an onrushing stream. Bulbous plants begin to flourish along the banks, setting roots into the silted bottom. Filth becomes food, the waters begin to run clear. Light, once again, sparkles on the rippling surface. Fish return. What has allowed such a transition to occur? A re-imagining of purpose.

The imagination plays many roles in our practice of ecology upon this exquisite, blue and green celestial gem we have named Earth. As our planet suffers the ravaging destruction of industrialization and the consumptive growth of human greed, humanity is beginning to re-imagine its purpose in relationship to the Earth. The imagination is a multifaceted gift to ecology, one that can connect us to both our past and future, that can connect us with spiritual strength and moral empathy, that allows us to see our human role in an enchanted cosmos. The imagination is the eye of the soul, a bridge between the rational mind and the physical world, the opening of a realm in which the true beauty of the anima mundi can be revealed. Aspects of what could be called “imaginal ecology” can be glimpsed throughout the work of Joanna Macy, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Christopher Bache, James Hillman, Theodore Roszak, David Abram, and many other thinkers; it resounds in the poetry and philosophy of the Romantics, Transcendentalists and German Idealists. Imaginal ecology flourishes in the articulations of the enchanted realm of Faërie penned by J.R.R. Tolkien, and other fiction writers whose work reveals the enchantment of the realm in which we live.

The moral imagination of which Macy speaks can allow us to situate ourselves in the experience of other beings, whether ancestors of our past, or plants and animals, ecosystems of our current Earth, even beings of the future. Through imaginal practice we can hear the needs of others and recognize them as our own. Macy writes, “The imagination needs to be schooled in order to experience our inter-existence with all beings in the web of life.”[2] We can gain spiritual and psychic courage by seeing with the imagination’s eye into our potentially dire future. The work of Bache allows one to envision such a future while learning to cultivate the spiritual center needed to stay grounded in such an unstable time. The grief and despair work of both Macy and Bache lay a solid foundation in reality that can act as the fertile ground from which creative solutions can sprout and flourish.

Imagination can carry us back through time to the flaring forth of our cosmos, and as we experience the unfolding of our universe our own role as human beings becomes clearer. As Swimme and Tucker write, “Every time we are drawn to look up into the night sky and reflect on the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting upon itself.”[3] Such a realization can reorient our actions into a more harmonious relationship to the Earth as we recognize that we also are the Earth in relationship to ourselves.

Because we are the cosmos in human form, the pain of the world is expressing itself through our human pains, through our pathologies and diseases. The work of ecopsychology practiced by Hillman, Roszak and others, which itself could be seen as a form of imaginal ecology, seeks to engage in the healing of the soul of the world, the anima mundi.

Abram suggests that the imagination exists not only in the human but in the Earth and the cosmos itself. The imagination of the Earth is diverse, and varies from region to region like the landscape, affording various insights and ideas that differ by location. Abram writes,

There are insights we come upon only at the edge of the sea, and others we glimpse only in the craggy heights. Some prickly notions are endemic to deserts, while other thoughts, too slippery to grasp, are met mostly in swamps. Many nomad thoughts migrate between different realms, shifting their habits to fit the terrain, orienting themselves by the wind and the stars.[4]

Our ability to create and sustain our existence, to imagine the future, is wholly dependent on this creativity gifted by the Earth.

The creative works of many authors and artists can serve ecology by offering a “recovery,” as Tolkien writes, giving us the opportunity of “regaining a clear view”[5] of the enchantment inherent to the world in which we live. They offer a view of a fantasy realm, which Tolkien calls Faërie, crafted out of the materials of our everyday world, just as the painter’s or sculptor’s materials are drawn also from nature.[6] Yet fantasy allows us to see these primary ingredients in a new way, once again marveling at the wonders of our own world.[7] Tolkien shows the overlap between our world and Faërie when he writes,

Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.[8] (Emphasis added.)

Faërie could then be seen as the real cosmos but without the human, or rather, without the disenchanted human. Fantasy—expressed through any art form, from literature, to painting, to sculpture—allows us to look again at our own world with new eyes, for as Hillman writes, “We pay respect to it simply by looking again, re-specting, that second look with the eye of the heart.”[9] The role the imagination can play in ecology is to unlock the doorway to this realm, our own cosmos, and re-enter as re-enchanted human beings, reflecting on themselves in the form of the universe.


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

Bache, Christopher M. Dark Night, Early Dawn: Steps to a Deep Ecology of Mind. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 2000.

Bachelard, Gaston. On Poetic Imagination and Reverie. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc. 2005.

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

–––––. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 1988.

–––––. 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.

Macy, Joanna. World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007.

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

Swimme, Brian and Mary Evelyn Tucker. Journey of the Universe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry. The Universe Story. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. 1994.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group. 1966.

[1] Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc, 2005), 85.

[2] Joanna Macy, World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007), 112.

[3] Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 2.

[4] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010), 118.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 77.

[6] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 78.

[7] Ibid, 77.

[8] Ibid, 38.

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

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.