The Unfolding of Eco-Psychology

By Chellis Glendinning

My name is Chellis and I am, as my book title says, in recovery from Western Civilization.

One of my greatest strides toward understanding a process of whole-making was launched at the finale of a two-day conference that brought native scholars and activists together with non-native "new paradigm" thinkers. Our purpose was to discover the commo nalities in our philosophies, ethics and politics, and at the end of our discussions we presented a public event to report our findings.

The presentation went well. Then during the question-and-answer period, a woman rose from the audience. "What about white people's pagan roots?" she demanded. "What about Stonehenge? The Goddess?"

One of the native participants in the conference, a Dineh (Navajo) educator named Larry Emerson, jumped down from his perch in the bleachers at the back of the small stadium. "You can learn a lot from studying your European ancestral roots," he called out , his raspy voice echoing inside his throat. "You can learn about ceremony, you can explore community, you can learn to feel good about yourself as a woman. But there's a limitation to this approach. You see, the cultures you are talking about were create d by those people, back then, over there." He was pointing east and following the direction of his finger, we could almost see Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and the Fertile Crescent from our seats. "To create an authentic Earth-based consciousness and cultu re, we must communicate with and learn from the rocks and trees and birds here, now."

I was startled by the insight. And so illuminated that I was determined that despite the myriad contradictions involved, I would embark upon a lifetime commitment: I would begin to relate the land I call home as if I were responsible for building the cult ure that the rocks, and trees and birds of this place expect of human beings.

This is how I entered a "new" field of knowledge called eco-psychology that is blossoming in the midst of our advanced technological society. The realm of this field is the relationship between nature and human consciousness. The focus of eco-psychology is the dis-ease that is catalyzed when this relationship is ruptured and the health that arises when it is fully nourished. For those of us who have come to know life encased in a world of concrete, Astroturf, te levision images and urban alienation, the terrain of this field remains largely unknown and uncharted.

What I know of it comes to me primarily from three sources: the first, research on the nature and evolution of the human community (anthropological and psychohistorical insight); the second, conversations with native peoples (essentially, teachings arisi ng in the normal course of friendship); and the third, my own unfolding back into intimacy with the natural world (intuitive knowing, observation, feeling). As an eco-psychological perspective has revealed itself to me, I have come to see its potential fo r healing the modern psyche, so torn and battered in a centuries-old history-repeats-itself cycle of dysfunction. I have also seen its potential for healing the terrible cultural and social ruptures that separate us from authentic human community and from our home, the Earth.

Commitment to vital communion with the natural world is shared by every indigenous culture in history and it forms the foundation for a viable eco-psychology. Anyone can embark upon such a renewal. Certainly you can begin your renewal on the North Shore. But you can also start in the parks and streets of your own community. As the wise women of the Traditional Circle of Elders and Youth of the Onondaga Nation remind us, "Mother Earth is where you are; she hasn't gone anywhere."

The first task in this kind of renewal is to move beyond the mechanistic/materialistic perception so thoroughly inculcated into us and toward a view that reflects instead the fluid, organic and mysterious nature of the Earth. My first encounter with this dichotomy was starkly metaphoric. I was living at the edge of Tesuque Pueblo lands in northern New Mexico. Would I don my spandex and tune in the daily aerobics class on TV or would I walk from my door through the pinon grove and into the long arroyo snak ing its way down the Sangre de Cristo mountains? Each of my alternatives conjured a distinct state of mind the first, well-ordered and marked by efficiency and product-orientation; the second, as open as the expanse of the Rio Grande bio-region. The choic e I made on any day reflected which mind I was in touch with. At first I consistently chose the TV program. Then it was half and half, a little of each. Finally I found I preferred being in the natural world to watching television.

After hiking through a mile of juniper one day, I stood in an open field, my body quaking to the flapping of wings and squeal of the blackbirds gathering there as if I were one of them. When June came, I foraged my entire dinner from the landscape. Upon hearing the caws of migrating birds in the August sky, I surprised myself by saying "They're early this year." My lips formed the words just as I wondered how in God's name I knew that "Winter will come in October ." Autumn brought a blossoming progression in yellowness. In September, sunflowers bloomed along every roadside in the valley. The moment they faded, the glorious yellow chamisa bush crescendoed into fruition. When the chamisa withered, the aspen burst in to explosions of yellow. When they dropped their leaves, the sky turned crystal grey and it snowed. It was not November when the first snow typically falls it was mid-October.

You and I might identify the perceptions that emerge from such a change as fantastic; to native people, they are ordinary. They present a direct challenge to the dissociative psychology that has developed in a culture that separates us from the creatures, seasons and power of the Earth. We humans came into being, after all, in unmediated participation with the natural world. Over the course of 99% of our existence, we grew and thrived within this all-encompassing relationship. The endless parade of trauma s, abuses and distortions we have come to consider "normal" from child abuse and cancer epidemics to institutional domination emanates from the original trauma of our alienation from a primal relationship with the Earth.

For each of us, the unfolding of an eco-psychological perspective begins with a very personal encounter no matter where we are with the rocks and trees and birds with whom we share this planet. The lessons we learn from such an encounter then ripple irres istibly out to challenge and expand our every notion of culture, community, education, medicine, psychotherapy, politics and spirituality. From my stance only a few steps into this journey, I sense the possibility of a sense of wholeness, sacredness and h umility that both heals us as individuals and prepares us to make the critical collective decisions we must make to survive.

Chellis Glendinning, Ph.D., is a psychologist, a pioneer in the field of eco-psychology, and author of When Technology Wounds: The Human Consequences of Progress and My Name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization (Shambhala).