"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
is Dr. Michael Cohen's response to an interviewer's question
as to how connecting with nature can heal and uplift the human
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 and
Greenwich University, 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 Pullitizer 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 energies, 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 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 we
know full well it is reasonable to stop.
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 that encourage 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" that
he has identified. 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 systems that run through and about
us. Cohen's work validates sensation itself, not just the words
Through the use of a long established
web-of-life string model, Cohen shows that our natural senses
are designed to act in congress to 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 beings function 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. 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 and wisdom. 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 they produce toxic garbage,
cravings, mass conflict, stress, depression, abusiveness 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."
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
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 inexpensive because they incorporate
a person's prior experiences and operate through cooperative
distant learning. Through them, educators, counselors, families
and students reduce their estrangement from nature 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
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; 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 non-governmental 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
For references to topics in
this article select
Since the publication of this
1995 article by Ron Logan, Dr. Cohen has written two books:
With Nature: finding
wellness through restoring your bond with the Earth"
its companion volume
Web of Life Imperative: regenerative ecopsychology activities that
help people think in balance with natural systems."
In a review of Dr. Cohen's
work by Richard Fuller, Senior Editor of Metaphysical Reviews,
"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 years,
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 the 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 Cohens'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
|After you obtain
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web site by using the Navigation guide (left column), a free,
helpful 15 minute discussion by phone with a faculty
member is the most efficient way to customize the program
to your goals.