“We humans are made entirely of non-human elements, such as plants, minerals, earth, clouds, and sunshine. For our life practice to be deep and true, we must include the ecosystem.” -Thich Naht Hanh
When I engage with colleagues, friends, and patients in my clinical practice in conversations about the crisis of our environment, I realize we continuously circle back to the same questions over and over, “How can I help? How can I personally make an impact? Is there anything for me to do? Is it too late?” Anxiety abounds regarding the threat of the impending doom of climate change on our planet. There is a helplessness in hearing the plight of the bees, the global temperature increase, the warming oceans, glacial melting, decrease in snow caps and the acidification of the ocean.
How do we help the earth, our home? And, perhaps more importantly, how do we raise consciousness in ourselves and other people so there’s a greater understanding about what is going on within the self (anxiety) and on the planet? As a clinician, how do I help the people who sit on my couch and attend my circles to decrease anxiety and helplessness that impedes their lives on a daily basis? It is apparent to me that increased agitation in our central nervous system is linked to the deterioration of the planet on which we live.
As I dance with these questions more and more, it is increasingly evident that the crisis on the planet is not an “out there” outside-of-ourselves issue. It is not a foreign experience from which we are separate. We are not separate from this earth, nor from its crisis. “It” is us and we are it. We are intimately entwined with the earth on which we play, work, love and live. We are elements of this earth. We are part of this ecosystem, this nature in which we live, in which we exist, which we are in right now, part of a whole. We are the earth.
As I let these realizations settle in, it becomes more and more evident that empathy may play an integral role in facing climate change. Now this is something I know and work with daily. I work in my personal spiritual practices to deepen my own empathy. In my clinical psychology practice, I work with individuals, couples and groups to help them uncover and unveil their inner empathy they may have disconnected from because of trauma, abuse and neglect. I aid in facilitating them into a deeper state of lived empathy.
By living empathy, we can understand our impact. This impact is our own impact on ourselves. Since we are intrinsically connected with the earth, negative self-talk hurts not only ourselves, but also hurts the planet. This impact is also our impact on each other. Each time we argue and separate from our partners, we hurt our emotional selves and our partners. And when people are hurt, remembering again that people are natural elements, the planet is affected. There are ways of engaging with self inquiry as a means of reflecting on how we are affected by our own thoughts, feelings, emotional expression, and behavioural actions. One of these ways is depth-psychotherapy, a modality wherein one works in a transformational therapeutic relationship with a psychologist to know all aspects of the self and self motivations at a deeper level. Engaging in depth-psychotherapy is a radical act of environmental activism when we view it through the lens of us as intimate elements of this beautiful planet, in combination with nature.
Dr. Annie Sprinkle, ecosexologist and sex educator, launched a campaign a few years ago encouraging people to embrace the earth as a lover. She noted people would refer to “Mother Earth” however, many people have a complex relationship with their mother, which may indicate a complex relationship with Mother Earth. Offering an alternative, she noted that people could consider the earth as a lover (“Lover Earth”), because people tend to treat their lovers better than their mothers. As a clinical psychologist and sexologist, I spend a great deal of time talking about people’s mothers and lovers and I would concur that even infusing the word ‘love’ in relation to the earth is a definite step toward healing the fragmented relationship between us and the planet.
Dr. Ralph Metzner, teacher and mentor of mine and many, created the Green Earth Foundation as a way to raise consciousness around the relationship between people and the planet. Specifically, the foundation’s mission is dedicated “to the healing and harmonizing of the relationships between humanity and the Earth.” I believe the same healing and harmonizing one can do in the practice of depth psychotherapy is akin to the healing and harmonizing Dr. Metzner is speaking out about and advocating for through his foundation. It may start within the self (in therapy, meditation, or other avenues of self-inquiry) and ripple into the relationship with the earth or vice versa. The important part is that the harmonizing and reparation starts.
Adams (2006), the author of ‘The Ivory Billed Woodpecker, Ecopsychology, and the Crisis of Extinction: On Annihilating and Nurturing Other Beings, Relationships and Ourselves’, notes that “currently there is a sense of duality between humans and the rest of nature”. He also notes that “this is a form of narcissistic alienation. This narcissistic alienation is a form of domination wherein humans generally have a sense of superiority over all of nature rather than a sense of coexistence and cohabitation”. This can be seen through the extinction of over 30 species on a daily basis (E. O. Wilson, 2001). In essence, if we experience ourselves as part of nature and our family and friends as part of nature (and even include strangers in the scenario) then we can see this is a form of violence against ourselves, fellow humans, and non-human species as well.
We are not separate from this earth. Helping the environment is helping ourselves. Helping ourselves is helping the environment. You see, when we know ourselves more deeply, it is more challenging to continue engaging in self destructive patterns. It is more challenging to engage in hurtful acts towards other people. But when we do not realize our intimate connections, we can remain in this illusion that we are separate. Robert Michael Pyle (2003) noted that, “the most dangerous idea in the world is that humans are separate from the rest of nature. The greatest enormities against the Earth stem from such delusions, just as ‘us and them’ thinking justifies our inhumanity toward one another.” (p. 69).
Understanding, creating and embodying a sense of non-dual intimacy with the rest of nature may be a great task. This task becomes even greater when we envision asking someone to consider the idea that they are an integral part of nature rather than superior to it. This is a change from the more common conceptualization of nature as external to us: trees, animals, creeks, rivers. This is especially the case because many times humans don’t consider their actions as forms of domination. This domination over the earth is non-consensual. It is a violation in the truest sense. It could even be argues that it is a part of the rape culture. Pillaging the earth is a violation. In the fast paced, money hungry, world that we currently live, I must note that this could be a hard point to make and have comprehended, let alone embraced, by many people.
“We live in a culture ideologically and practically obsessed with dominating, controlling and often annihilating the other-than-human natural world.” (Adams, 2006,p. 113). It is our personal responsibility to raise our awareness, make conscious choices and decide how we want to treat this individual home of our body-mind as well as how we want to treat this collective home, the earth. Deepening our connection with the earth may be a great gift that each of us can give to ourselves and each other. In the words of the visionary scientist Albert Hoffman, let us remember the detriment if we continue separating ourselves from nature. “Alienation from nature and the loss of the experience of being part of the living creation is the greatest tragedy of our materialistic era. It is the causative reason for ecological devastation and climate change.”
This is an issue that requires action. Taking the action to engage in self inquiry, through depth psychotherapy and spiritual practices are steps towards increased empathy. And increased empathy is what this planet needs.
Note: This article is based from a presentation in 2007. Information follows: Renye, D. (November 17 2007). We are the environment: Understanding how when we interpsychically and interpersonally take care and heal ourselves, we aid the evolution of the environment and planet. A presentation at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the California Sociological Association in Berkeley, CA.
Note: Dr. Renye is featured in Podship Earth by Jared Blumenfeld, where I speak at the end about this topic. Listen to it here.
Adams, W. W. (2006). The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, Ecopsychology, and the Crisis of Extinction: On Annihilating and Nurturing Other Beings, Relationships, and Ourselves. The Humanistic Psychologist,34(2), 111-133. doi:10.1207/s15473333thp3402_2
Kahn, P. H., Jr. (2006). Nature and moral development. In M. Killen & J. G. Smetana (Eds.), Handbook of moral development (pp. 461-480). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Pyle, R. M. (n.d.). Common Cause in Common Voice. Search For A Common Language,192-196. doi:10.2307/j.ctt4cgnmg.32
Wilson EO. Nature matters. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 20: 241-2. PMID 11275454 DOI: 10.1016/S0749-3797(00)00318-4