Nature Has No “Outside:” Navigating the Ecological Self
“Spirit is the inside of things and matter is their visible outer aspect” (Jung, in Sabini, 2005, p. 2).
“I can only gaze with wonder and awe at the depths of and heights of our psychic nature. Its non-spatial universe conceals an untold abundance of images which have accumulated over millions of years of living development and become fixed in the organism….Beside this picture I would like to place the spectacle of the starry heavens at night, for the only equivalent of the universe within is the universe without; and just as I reach this world through the medium of the body, so I reach that world through the medium of the psyche” (Jung, in Ryan, 2002, p. 18).
In nature, it is concretely evident how everything is interrelated. We can look at any aspect of the environment and see and name hundreds or even thousands of relationships with other facets of the environment. No man is a silo, yet the individual of Descartes’ vision required a strong, self-directing ego as the optimum situation for success and well-being. Rather than continuing to propagate and strengthen the illusion of the “individual,” it is critical to reconceptualize it, embracing instead an image of an ecology of the psyche, a system that encompasses all, traversing human-conceived boundaries of time, culture, and species. In truth, we each carry various elements of “other” within us: spirits of ancestors long since gone, traditions and ritual from distant peoples we know nothing about, and energetic archetypes from the natural world. In this post, I focus on the nature of the psyche, the landscape that engulfs the Cartesian divide, the reciprocal, indivisible ecological universe that unites the “individual” and the “other” in one vast relational world.
Western culture developed as a union of equal individuals who can successfully out-think other species. Dualism, a separation of spirit from matter, subject from object, and mind from body became the hallmark of western culture, placing humans in top position of a hierarchical order where “he who thinks, wins.” The feminine way of being that circled around mythic imagination, cyclical time, participatory knowing, ritual, or magic was relegated to the realm of suspicion, resulting in devastating loss. We distanced ourselves from other species that could act as guides and allies and increasingly availed ourselves of the earth’s “resources” because we found them devoid of life and spirit. In western culture and consequently, in psychoanalysis, the concept of a “self-contained individual” was an obvious foundation for reducing drives, motivations, and behaviors to “inside” and “outside” (Foster, Moskowitz, & Javier, 1996).
Culture consists of what an individual needs to know or believe in order to operate in an appropriate or acceptable manner to members of that society. It is significant, then, that since psychology was founded by a handful of men who were members of a rather singular and similar European culture that the main roots of psychoanalysis would reflect their specific lenses. Indeed, Freud’s early theory that repressed or cut-off memories were at the root of pathology and needed to be unearthed in order to find a state of relief focused entirely on the inner world of the individual and paid little attention to social surround or context (Foster, et al., 1996).
Language as a Navigator
Over time, as attention to social context increased and relational theories picked up speed it became clear that language was the obvious vehicle that traversed the established structure of the psyche, even in its illusory dualistic structure of “inner and outer”, “self and other” (Elliott, 2002). Language, then, as Lacan put forward, is a strong determinant of relationship, not only to fellow members of our own culture as we know it, but also to other elements that are not immediately evident and which have not traditionally been included or integrated into psychoanalytic environment. These elements, located both within us and without, exist across time, between cultures, and even between species. All of these features combine to make up an ecological system, the “home” in which our ego participates as a small, equal part to a much bigger organism, the ecology of the self. In the psychoanalytic process, when looking at a narrow definition of self that contains only dualistic pairings like “inside and outside,” “self and other,” or “subject and object,” analysts and patients can easily get entangled in trying to identify where a particular issue lies (Stolorow, Atwood, & Orange, 2002). In an ecological sphere that encompasses the whole of nature and every element in it, language can easily traverse perceived borders, moving freely about.
In the developmental process, British linguist Michael Halliday (1975) determined that children are motivated to learn language because it satisfies physical, emotional and social needs. His work went further, however, in helping to pioneer Ecolinguistics, a field that addresses both social context in which language is embedded, as well as the ecological context in which societies are embedded, inviting new consideration, then, of the ecological context and consequences of language. One particular area of interest was how to make linguistics relevant to the increasing and widespread destruction of ecosystems (Fill & Mühlhäusler, 2001).
It is impossible to perceive or define an “inside” and an “outside” of nature. “Ecology” comes from the Greek oikos meaning "house, dwelling place, or habitation” ("ecology," n.d.) is a place where we locate ourselves, the system in which we existundefinednot as silos but as coherent, complex participants related to all things, containing all while at the same time existing as a part of a much bigger whole. Ecological science studies how the distribution and abundance of living organisms is affected by interactions between those organisms and their environment. An environment comprises both physical properties like climate and geology, as well as other organisms. The first principle of ecology holds that every living organism sustains an ongoing and continual relationship with every other element that makes up its environment. Within any ecosystem, species are connected and dependent upon one another, and exchange energy and matter between themselves and with their environment (New World Encyclopedia, n.d.). The concept of an ecosystem includes units of variable size: perhaps it may also be called a “culture.”
The Ecology of the Psyche
Psychotherapist Martin Jordan (2009) asserts that Freud failed to acknowledge the significance of the nonhuman environment in the development of human psychological life. Theodore Roszak, a pioneer of ecopsychology, later elaborated on Freud’s theory by asserting at the center of the unconscious is the ecological unconscious, the repression of man’s evolutionary relationship to nature, which ultimately resulted in the industrialized society. For Theodore Roszak, an early ecopsychologist, the therapeutic goal of ecopsychology is to allow the emergence of the environmental reciprocity that is currently repressed in the ecological unconscious, thereby allowing healing of both individuals and earth (Jordan, 2009). Nature, filled with metaphor and image and a cosmos of elements constantly held in relation to each other, offers us as a part of it the same opportunities when relating to the “other,” whether it is other people, other cultures, or other species.
The work of John Bowlby led to specific definitions of attachment theory in what he determined is ongoing psychological connectedness between human beings (Mitchell & Black, 1995). In contemporary culture, neurotic issues in the form of narcissism, existential crises, ambivalence, fear and the like are projected out onto the environment leaving us an infantile sense of control. The attachment relationship helps the infant cope with stress and thus early positive experience of the self in union with another is crucial to the infant’s capacity to mitigate emotions. The three variants of attachment include securely-attached individuals who feel intimacy and trust fairly easily without significant fears of abandonment or invasion, those with avoidant attachmentpatterns who cannot seem to trust others enough to ever allow themselves to become very dependent, and anxious/ambivalent individuals, those who experience fear that they cannot get intimate enough or that others will reject them.
Jordan (2009) insists object relations theory misses the boat by not including relationship to nature. While acknowledging instances of indigenous peoples who formed healthy reciprocal attachment relationships with nature, he cites our fear as a culture of dependency on the planet, which fulfils the role of nurturing provider. In failing to express our need and repressing the anxiety we cannot process, we retreat to a position that gives us the illusion of being invulnerable, a position of ambivalent attachment. Unlike the aborigines who viewed the natural world as a metaphysical landscape which could express deep spiritual yearnings, western culture views land and self as separate entities, unconnected by interdependent relationship. For earth-based cultures, the “more-than-human” world was also part of an ecological self. Concurrently, Jordan cautions against idealizing indigenous relations to natures, reminding us our ongoing conflict and regard of the current ecological crisis must integrate Klein’s “depressive position” to integrate the fact that nature can be destructive as well as rewarding as evidenced in recent natural disasters.
Jordan (2009) believes acknowledging our ambivalence can perhaps lead to emotional maturation, allowing us to live with it and not to act out in a narcissistic or controlling manner. He insists that just as Winnicott thought we related with the true self through the vitality of our physical bodies, by celebrating the complexity of human emotions--including those of love and the capacity for empathy and reparation--alongside the diversity of the natural world, we come into right relation. This amounts not to a balance between “inner” and “outer,” but of the complete ecology of being. Paul Shepard (1998) agrees that our relationships with each other and with nature stem from primal fears and fantasies that reside in our unconscious. While concurring that our capacity to differentiate an “other” stems from the maternal relationship, he posits it is formed in conjunction with the environment that encompasses mother and child. In the evolutionary development of the physical world, that environment consisted of natural elements including wind, rain, earth, animals, plants, and insects among others. All these were internalized and integrated as the self.
Therapist Mary-Jayne Rust (2005) concurs we are human in good part because of the way we relate to other organisms and goes further to claim that humans hunger for connection not only to other humans, but also to place and to nature. The field of evolutionary psychology takes into consideration how the individual psyche integrates the ultimate move from our evolutionary homelands in the natural world to the urban environments we dwell in today. As Diamond (1997) points out, within the past 50 years, almost 50% of the world population has come to dwell in cities. It is impossible not to think that the changes in the physical landscape in which we now locate ourselves has a drastic impact on our wellbeing and that of the planet (Milton, 2009). Because the inner and outer all form one ecological system, we carry a piece of what Laurens van der Post called the “Bushman mind” which includes memories of place, nature, traditions, and ways of being that we are no longer connected to in our modern way of life (Barnard, 1989).
Our psyche originated in nature, and it is also there where we can find freedom. Displacement, colonization, and urbanization have led to exploitation of so-called natural “resources” in a new and amplified way. In turn, this emerges as trauma of the individual and collective psyche, as Jerome Bernstein (2005) argues in Living in the Borderland. Borderlanders, those who are especially sensitive to the split with nature and nature’s own attempt to reconnect, don’t feel “about” the planet’s suffering, the actually feel the suffering and pain, manifesting trauma in bodily or psychic symptoms of their own. Ecopsychology argues that we as a species are inseparable from our relationships with the physical world, and that environmental questions are deeply rooted in the psyche, coinciding with our image of self. Denial of a reciprocal bond on the part of humans creates suffering for both humans and the environment, whereas seeking reconnection and working through issues of grief and despair can be healing for both. Increasing interest in bringing ecological issues into the therapy process has resulted in a growing branch of the psychoanalytic domain termed Ecotherapy (Davis, 1998).
In the world of psyche, I cannot be separate from any other element in my environment. The concept of “individual” in the literal Cartesian sense is null. The outer physical landscape of the earth is a reflection of our inner, psychical terrain, a mirror image that echoes both peaks and valleys over the history of our lives. Landmarks dot the topography of my mind so that I recognize certain events and history that have made me who I am today, standing where I do in relation to it all. I can use language to navigate within that ecological sphere, aided by the images abundant in nature of the dynamic relationships of each element with every other element. A therapist/patient dyad choosing to adopt this view can strongly benefit from acknowledging and locating themselves in relation to the totality of it at any given time. Rust (2005) validates that language helps reconnect self with body and land. Reminding us that the root word “natus” also means to be born, she relates her own endeavors to practice psychotherapy with “ecology in mind,” attempting to articulate explicitly her own interconnections between self and the earth and encouraging those issues to emerge for her clients in sessions as well. Recounting her own experience at a women’s therapy center of developing a language connecting psyche and soma, she muses on the potential of creating a language incorporating self and earth as do many languages in indigenous cultures that weave together body and land, community, and universe.
The concept of an ecosystem of the self offers the possibility of dynamic movement that considers all possibilities in the same moment, and any movement therein affects all the others, not simply juxtaposing our old, outdated dualistic thinking of simply inner and outer, us and them, subject and object, but demolishing them completely. Ecophilosopher Sigmund Kvaloy, for example, articulates how a shift in conventional thinking can allow us to envision a place where we move inside when leaving a building or city, and stay outside by remaining indoors (in Rust, 2005). In the end, as Rust reminds us, “If we are able to re-conceive the self as interconnected with body, soul and land, we might just be giving ourselves and clients the tools to recreate a life where self, nature and culture are reconnected” (p. 7).
Bonnie Bright is the founder of Depth Psychology Alliance, the world's first comprehensive online community for depth psychology, and hosts a podcast, Depth Insights, as well as editing the semi-annual scholarly e-zine of the same name. She recently founded www.DepthPsychologyList.com, a free online database to find or list depth psychology oriented therapists and practitioners. She holds Masters degrees in Psychology and Depth Psychology, and is a Ph.D. candidate at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, CA. Follow her on Twitter @bonniebright5 or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/BonnieBright.DepthPsych
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