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Project NatureConnect



"In contemporary society, a readily available process for building environmentally responsible inner peace, social relationships and global unity has been absent. Now, research shows that an organic psychology, the Natural Systems Thinking Process (NSTP) meets this need."




FROM - Common Future Magazine
MAY 1995




"Have you ever sat near a roaring brook and felt refreshed, been cheered by the vibrant song of a thrush or renewed by a sea breeze? Does a wildflower's fragrance bring you joy, a whale or snow-capped peak charge your senses?"

This is Dr. Michael Cohen's response to an interviewer's question as to how connecting with nature can heal and uplift the human psyche.

From his four decades of living and teaching in natural areas throughout the seasons, Cohen has pioneered "applied ecopsychology," a synthesis of ecology and psychology. Applied ecopsychology was experientially derived from the observed effects of people connecting with sea breezes, roaring brooks, and wildflower fragrances. Cohen noticed that intimate contact with nature puts people in touch with an innate wisdom that affects a deep healing of self and planet.

To make the benefits of applied ecopsychology available, Cohen founded Project NatureConnect, a home study program of the Institute of Global Education in conjunction with several universities, where he is chair of the Department of Integrated Ecology. His students--most connecting with their instructor and each other through e-mail or telephone--make use of his self-guiding training manuals, Reconnecting With Nature and Well Mind, Well Earth. The manuals provide a syllabus of "124 environmentally sensitive activities for stress management, spirit and self-esteem."

Bound by Attraction

The great systems theorist, Gregory Bateson, once noted: "The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between the way nature works and the way man thinks." Cohen verifies that the distortions in the way humans think have arisen from our loss of contact with nature. He has discovered a sensory process that helps us regain that loss and thereby more powerfully resolve problems.

The Pulitizer Prize, Harvard biologist, Edward O. Wilson, observes that "Only in the last moment of human history has the delusion arisen that people can flourish apart from the rest of the living world. Preliterate peoples were in intimate contact with a bewildering array of life forms." By contrast, as citizens of Western civilization we spend, according to Cohen, "an average of over 95 percent of our lives indoors, cloistered from nature. We live over 99 percent of our adult lives knowing nature through detached words, stories and pictures." This detachment of our psyche from its biological and psychological origins stressfully and hurtfully estranges us from creation, from nature's supportive, non-verbal wisdom, spirit and love within and about us." This loss creates the insatiable wants and greed that underlie our disorders. We become psychologically addicted to rewarding technologies and relationships that often have destructive side effects. The consequences of our alienation from nature manifest as the myriad of lasting personal, social and environmental problems which beset the modern world.

To understand Cohen's scientific analysis of why estrangement from nature disturbs our existence so profoundly, we must start with his outdoor observation that the cosmos/nature is bound by attractions. This principle of applied ecopsychology is in agreement with the experience of mystics. "From atoms and molecules to human beings with developed consciousness, all entities relate through attraction for one another. . . . attraction is the law of nature," affirms spiritual philosopher, P.R.Sarkar. The cosmos is united as an integral entity by what we functionally describe as connecting attraction forces, but feelingly experience as love.

Cohen avows that attraction, love and consciousness are identical. He says, "The universe and all that it includes are wordlessly conscious and connected through attractions, the same "intelligent binding and pulling together" found in atoms and weather systems. We disconnect from that natural way of knowing by mostly thinking and communicating verbally with words, with abstractions, meaning "to pull apart." Verbal abstracts are never the real thing for nature is non-verbal. Almost 100 percent of contemporary thinking consists of abstractions."

Our indoor education formally and informally trains our intelligence to omit more than 45 of our 53 natural attraction senses. We lose conscious contact with our inherent sensory wisdom and its nurturing connection to its origins in nature. Our nature-disconnected thinking omits nature's intelligence. This results in the deteriorating state of ecosystems and people and our inability to stop being destructive when it is reasonable to do so.

"Disconnecting natural senses from their origins in nature is like pulling out the plugs of light bulbs in our consciousness," says Cohen. He notes that we are aware if we pinch ourselves too hard because the pain signals this to us. We are also aware that a walk in a natural area refreshingly clears our head and unstresses our body. He argues that our extreme disconnection from Nature erases something vital from our thinking. It removes the fact that both these phenomena are Nature at work. Both are eons of natural attractions balancing themselves to harmoniously create the next life-supporting moment. Cohen suggests, "On a walk, we think we feel better because we leave our problems behind. We have lost sight of the truth that in both examples we connect with the intelligence of paradise at work. That work, since the beginning of time, has created and sustained the natural systems within and around us." No doubt the loss of this truth places us in the conflicts we face today. We learn to take natural systems for granted. Many of us learn to think we can manage the world better than Nature while knowing full well that with respect to Nature there is no known substitute for the real thing. For this reason, Cohen claims there is no substitute for conscious sensory contact with authentic Nature.

Cohen observes that it is natural and sustaining for humans to seek and experience attractions in the setting of nature. That is why this "love" connection produces good feelings in sentient beings. The feelings are natural rewards of, by and from Nature that urge us to keep making contact with nature. To biologist Wilson, this human tendency seems so fundamental that he coined the term "biophilia" to signify the "connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life." Our expression of biophilia is manifested, according to Cohen, by some 53 "natural senses." It is through these sensory loves--from the perceptual senses like smell and touch, to primary drives like thirst and hunger, to subtle feelings like trust and nurturing, to mental expressions like reason and discrimination--that we link our being to the natural system that runs through and about us. Cohen's work validates sensation itself, not just the words describing it.

Through the use of a long established web-of-life string model, Cohen shows that our natural senses are designed, similar to string theory, to act in congress and bring our being into harmony, fulfillment and community with the world. Cohen calls the resultant functioning of the senses "self evidence" and "natural wisdom." He finds that it arises when we are able to freely follow nature's callings and learn how to genuinely connect our complex array of felt senses with the authentic natural world. In this state, our being, like all beings, functions in a manner that desires, mirrors, or receives, "earth wisdom." "Through its natural attraction intelligence," says Cohen, "Earth's global life community cooperatively self-organizes to cooperatively produce an optimum of life and diversity without producing our garbage, war, insanity or excessive abusiveness and dependencies. Nature reconnecting activities help us become conscious of and think with that wisdom. The documented health, psychological and environmental benefits speak for themselves."

Disconnect humans from rich, immediate sensory contact with nature, and we lose our profound natural fulfillments, wisdom and healing. This loss causes us to want, and when we want there is never enough. Our need for fulfillment overcomes our sense of reason. We can't stop obtaining satisfactions from materials and relationships even when we know they are environmentally and personally destructive. Too often their side effects produce toxic garbage, cravings, mass conflict, stress, depression and dependency that deteriorates people and natural systems. Cohen says, "Knowledgeably seeking destructive rewards symptomizes addiction and madness. It is insane for us to knowingly destroy our life support system. We are in denial that we are psychologically bonded to doing this and our denial prevents us from effectively addressing this psychological problem with psychological solutions. Instead we rely on using the same nature disconnected thinking that causes the problem"

Nature as Therapy

Applied Ecopsychology teaches us how to use nature as a therapy for our troubles. Cohen's home study internet course at www.ecopsych.com gets people to reconnect with nature, whether in their backyards or in remote wilderness, for the purpose of nurturing "their ability to make sense of their lives as global citizens." The techniques presented in the course enable participants "to use a variety of nature-connecting activities to discover, strengthen and fulfill their 53 natural sensations and feelings. This energizes these sensitivities into our consciousness so that we may include their intelligence in our thinking."

In an article in the American Psychological Association Division Journal, "The Humanistic Psychologist," on the effects of Project NatureConnect, Cohen reports subsidence in personality disorders, increase in cognitive skills, dissipation of violence and prejudice, and a reduction of dependencies and stress. Cohen himself has effortlessly broken a 58 year habit of biting his fingernails--a habit which resisted repeated attempts to overcome--through contact with nature.

If, as Gregory Bateson asserts, the problems of society and environment ultimately stem from our ignorance of how nature works, and if applied ecopsychology effectively puts people in touch with "earth wisdom," then its healing potential could be more than personal in scope. Cohen would like to see "people who are trained to connect with this wisdom inject nature-connected learning into every facet of society." To this end he offers accredited, online courses and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. They are readily available because they incorporate a person's prior experiences and operate through cooperative distant learning and scholarships. Through them, educators, counselors, families and students responsibly reduce their estrangement from nature, fulfill their deeper ideals, and increase their marketability, credibility and effectiveness.

Recently a psychologist who took this program said: "This is the course that every civilized person will be required to take if we are to reverse our runaway disorders."

Dramatic claims are made for applied ecopsychology. Can reconnecting with nature really provide a panacea to human problems? Such an assertion seems overreaching. Wisdom is not accessible only through sensory engagement with creation. Many have achieved great depth of wisdom by going within themselves, rather than into wilderness. (Cohen insists the two sources of wisdom are identical; they are both the same natural system in action. That's why sensory contact with the natural environment nurtures our inherent inner wisdom into our consciousness and thinking. He says the advantage to reconnecting is that it helps us purify our inner nature; the latter is too often contaminated by long term contact with our society's disorders.) But it is certainly true, as Edward O. Wilson reminds us, that "Wilderness settles peace on the soul." And peace of soul is certainly prerequisite to peace in the world.

Cohen has certainly done a service by drawing attention to the detrimental effects of our alienation from nature, and by creating tools for healing this alienation. In recognition of his 35 years developing and promoting nature-connected learning, the World Peace University, a United Nations consultation organization, honored Cohen as recipient of its 1994 Distinguished World Citizen Award. If Cohen's ecopsychology process gets enough people reestablished in natural wisdom, the earth may honor him with a proliferation of butterflies, purification of streams, and peace among nations.

--Ron Logan with Mike Cohen


For a reviewed scientific article about Dr. Cohen's work select here

For references to topics in this article select here


Since the publication of this article, Dr. Cohen has written a new version of his applied ecopsychology book for Ecopress entitled "Reconnecting With Nature: finding wellness through restoring your bond with the Earth"

In a review of the book by Richard Fuller, the Senior Editor of Metaphysical Reviews observes:

"If the higher purpose of literature is to provoke thought...then Dr. Michael J. Cohen has written a masterpiece! "Reconnecting With Nature" is as provocative a book as this reviewer has seen. One of its purposes is to show how to let nature place its wisdom and spirit into our thinking and overcome our separation from its intelligence.

Dr. Cohen presents the case that we have separated from nature's nurture and that is the root cause of our maladies and discomforts. Worse...our natural abilities have been significantly reduced by our society. We live our lives in cement and steel structures that have greatly reduced our appreciation and respect for nature and all that nature offers and teaches.

Thus, "Reconnecting With Nature" is about awareness...and enlightenment and enablement. Dr. Cohen makes us aware of the situation in a bold, forthright yet compassionate fashion. He then shows us that the circumstance is not only solvable...it is do-able. You see, Dr. Cohen has lived, researched and taught in nature for over thirty-six year, now. Not cement and steel...nature, and so he knows of what he writes. He then gives us simple, practical solutions to enable us to find our way back to the loves, truths and integrity that some of our Native American forebears lived, daily.

Reconnecting With Nature is a waker-upper! Michael J. Cohen has sounded the alarm, defined the problem and given us the tools to put out the fire. This eye-opener is a brilliant self-help book for all seeking renewal in our relationships with our environment, and our selves!"


In March 1996 edition of Infozine, psychiatric worker, Becky Kaiser says:

"In Reconnecting With Nature Cohen describes numerous nature-connecting activities to help us reach moments of peace and connectedness. The activities are simple and effective. Most involve spending time in a natural setting, although some can be done with "nature" as accessible as a house plant. He encourages doing the activities with a group or partner, but they can be performed alone.

I did not do all of the activities as I read the text of the book, however, I felt a great sense of connectedness and inner peace even as I applied Cohen's ideas to my "indoor life." The validation of my senses (feelings) and the principal of seeking pleasure or affiliation in each moment have already given me periods of contentment and joy. This seemed very similar to therapy techniques involving listening to one's "inner voice" or getting in touch with feelings, except that this feeling of wholeness seemed quite easily attained using Cohen's approach. From reading the interview at the end of the book, I know Cohen sees nature contact as an essential component of his approach. I believe this is true; that we need contact with the natural world to be sane, both as individuals and as a society."


For additional reviews of Dr. Cohen's work select here





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