Jen Morgan blogs:
I recently attended the Ecopsychology workshop hosted by Allan Frater – a trainer at the Psychosynthesis Trust. It was a wonderfully rich weekend full of openings and new insights. Here I share some of my personal reflections and nuggets of experiential learning.
Reframing the Story of Self
I am sitting in Room 23, Tooley Street, London, SE1 2TH - the place that The Psychosynthesis Trust convenes its community and its work. Allan Frater is leading a two-day ecopsychology workshop. I am here to continue to deepen my understanding of my inner and outer nature. And I am also here to learn more about the emerging practice of ecopsychology and how it can help people and society relate in new ways that brings about a more kind, compassionate and connected world.
We began the workshop by sitting in a circle, as our ancestors had done many years ago, telling stories around the fire. There were pieces of nature in the centre of our circle– stones, pine branches, fossils, an iron spike, feathers and bark. We all chose a piece and reflected back upon a story of our relationship to nature. I recounted the forest of my childhood - the place I used to go for exploration and escape. I felt a great sense of ‘transhistorical’ connection as Allan reminded us that for 100,000 generations, humans evolved in relationship with fire, trees, food, place and community. ‘We all have a primal need to sit under a tree’. For most of humanity’s existence, we grew accustomed to experiencing ourselves and the world around us as ‘one living system’. And if you take that connection away, as we have done in the short space of the 300 years of the industrial age, something inside of us dies. Not only that, but a sense of suffering and anxiety grows as we repress the ecological self.
As a group that morning, we started to contemplate upon an even broader context– tuning into our inherent ecological selves. And as we did, an awareness of my relationship to the wider story of the cosmos grew. We reflected on the fact that our bodies are made of the same basic elements of ‘The Great Flaring Forth’ and that the elements that are within us now existed in an age many billions of years ago. These deep time stories helped me to reframe a new relationship to my true nature. A relationship that is based on interconnectivity, fluidity and communion.
However, how often do I tell myself other stories? Stories about ‘who I am’. Stories about ‘what is meaningful.’ Stories of ‘what success looks like.’ These are stories that are dominated by extrinsic values of control, utility and individuality. And these are stories that entice us with meaning and fulfillment through consuming material goods, technology and peak experiences.
It is through ecopsychology, we can learn to change the perceptions and senses that shape our stories. And as Allan explained ‘ecopsychology is about an approach that helps us to perceive the psyche in relation to its natural home’.
Feeling the Animate Field Around Us
It was time to go outside, to continue to reimagine our relationship to nature. But before we did Alan explained how there are two primary ways of looking at the world.
World as Object – self as separate
Our modern worldview sees the world as inanimate. ‘The self is separate from the world and the world is purposeless. Nature is something we look at. It is not something we are ‘in and of’.
World as Subject – self as embedded
The indigenous mind sees the world as animate and alive. ‘The self only exists in relationship to the world and that relationship is porous, embedded, reciprocal and participatory. Beneath the surface of things there is life and in that there is consciousness’.
This was a stark reminder that as we kill nature we are fundamentally killing ourselves. As species become extinct, the richness of our experience dies. And by taking care of nature, we are taking care of ourselves.
So it was time to go outside. Allan asked us to find a place that we energetically felt drawn to. ‘Everything has a feeling field to it’ and part of this work is to tune into the sense of place and its feeling. I made my way to the river, the sun’s rays falling on my face. Walking closer to City Hall I was drawn to a cluster of birch trees. I was called closer. I listened. And the smallest tree in the cluster spoke the loudest. I walked up to the tree and asked permission to connect. I touched its silky smooth silver skin and said ‘hello’. As I spent time with the tree, I started to notice dozens of other creatures who made their home on its body – little lady birds, tiny insects and a spider. I then put my arms around the branches of the tree and looked up. The wind blew. The branches swayed. I moved with the tree. For a moment we shared a dance. And in this moment, I felt a great sense of intimacy, flow and lightness. I looked at my watch, and it was time to leave this enchanted place….
We came back to the room and people shared their stories of their animate conversations. There were connections with the river, granite boulders, the grass and the birds. Common experiential themes that were emerging included an extending out of the senses, a broadened imagination and a desire to work together with our animate being. We also reflected on how our conversations helped to notice what personal inquiries were alive and present within us.
Tuning into the Transpersonal
Although we spent just a short time together, the revelations that came through for us as individuals and as a group were very powerful. One of the moving experiences was with a participant who had spent much time travelling in the expanses of Ethiopia, Egypt and Ecuador. He is fascinated by indigenous stories, culture and human evolution. During the ‘communing with nature’ session of the weekend, he was eagerly seeking a special tree. Whilst he was looking he passed by the Shard and took a photo. Running out of time, he started to make his way back the Trust. He went down a small street and then bumped into a stone tower. This local totem pole was made of ancient rocks from London Bridge and old local churches. It was constructed by the local community and had images of nature, world cultures and ancient wisdom. He came back and shared his moving story and these photos of his experience.
Allan noted the depth and frequency of transpersonal experiences over our weekend as perhaps higher than normal. He reflected on a couple of reasons for this. In turning psyche ‘inside out’, ecopsychology returns psyche to the physical world. As we walk within the biosphere so too we walk within psyche. This is an explicit and immediate transpersonal emphasis, turning simple everyday encounters with the weather, buildings and plants into meaning filled experience. Also, while it can feel safer to open up to a tree or a seagull than to a person who may judge us, there is also perhaps a buried longing to do so. Our ecological self yearns for a restoration of our connection to the more-than-human world.
Why Ecopsychology Matters to Our Work
Allan explained why he feels exploring ecopsychology is important for our work. And in this explanation I was left with some inquiry questions to ponder.
Tapping into the Transpersonal
As we experienced in the group, intentionally focusing on the transpersonal through ecopsychology framing and processes helps the transpersonal tune into us more easily. What are the ways we can make ecopsychology more explicit in our work?
A New Lens for understanding others
Ecopsychology offers a new lense for understanding that symptoms such anxiety might be stemming from a wider sense of disconnection from our primal ecological self. And it helps us to also see the interplay between psyche, nature and society – and how our separation from nature has resulted in a culture of consumption, individualism and transactions. How can we share our understanding of the political interplay of psyche, nature and society – in order not just to evolve ourselves but also to evolve society too?
Nourishing our ecological self to help others
In tuning into our ecological selves, one develops a greater capacity for sensing, imagination and communing which expands our ability to help others. How can I continue to practice communing deeply with nature as a means to develop my own spiritual leadership?
The new frontier for psychology
Psychology has evolved from an initial focus on intrapsychic processes, our personal unconscious, which then widened to include interpersonal relationships and sociological factors. Ecopsychology has arisen in part as a response to understanding the eco-crisis, and also as a next step in the broadening of psychology to include our relationship with the nonhuman environment. How can The Psychosynthesis Trust play a role in shining a light on this new emerging field of psychology?
And a note of appreciation for Allan Frater
I really enjoyed Allan’s teaching – a lovely blend of intellectual rigor, playfulness and a sense of giving. I also appreciate how he is seeking to develop this work – with a spirit of inquiry, experimentation and collaboration. Allan intends to create ‘an ecopsychology community of practice’ to explore this work further. So if this resonates do get in touch with Allan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jen Morgan is the Trust's Executive Director