Towards an Imaginal Ecology

This essay, originally written in May 2013, has now been published in the inaugural issue of Re-Imagining 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: 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.

Bibliography

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.