Lesson From Nature Wealth and Health
by Allison Weeks
At a Project NatureConnect
gathering on San Juan Island in the spring of 2000, our group was interviewed by
resident island author Janet Thomas. She was in the process of writing
her well- researched and thought-provoking book "Battle in Seattle,"
and wanted to know how we thought the then-recent WTO protests might
impact the future. Mid-way through the interview someone suggested that
Janet actually do a nature-connecting activity with us, so PNC founder
and director Dr. Michael Cohen suggaested we go to Nature with a
question that captured the essence of the WTO protests: "What is
Reconnecting with Nature
activities begin with sensing an attraction
in nature. Usually something claims my attention right away, but this
time was different. As I walked alone along a forest path asking
permission from nature to learn from it about wealth, I waited for
something to attract me. Everything looked beautiful, but nothing in
particular caught my attention. As time went by I began to realize that
this time my attraction was not the vibrant color of a flower, the
beautiful song of a bird, the strength of a massive tree, or the
softness of the moss on a rock. It was the forest in its entirety. My
attraction held, so I sat on a small boulder to listen, as the wordless
How does one express a
non-verbal, purely sensory experience in words? Something is always
lost in the translation, but I will try. As I watched, the attraction
energies giving rise to the diverse and teeming life before me became
apparent: The insect attracted by the flower, gaining sustenance from
it as it helped it in kind by assisting pollination. The plants
reaching for the life-giving energy of the sun and sharing it with the
caterpillar. Roots attracted to the damp, moist earth while holding the
earth in place. The dead, leaves and trees transforming before my very
eyes into new earth for new life. As I began to become aware of the
exquisite interconnectness of it all, my consciousness shifted and I
stopped seeing separate entities. Instead, the physical reality before
me became a beautiful, continuous flow of energy attractions that gave
rise to Life. Everything received just enough energy to sustain itself
in health, returning energy in like kind back to the web. Even death of
the individual gave rise to the health of the whole. I began to sense
myself as part of this whole--and I, too, experienced the seamless flow
of energy, the joyous fulfillment of mutual support
"Ah, said my rational brain,
never too happy to be wordless for long, and determined to translate my
nonverbal awareness. "This is
the lesson about wealth you were seeking. True wealth is the seamless
flow of energy attractions in mutual support and reciprocity. When a
sense of separation, resulting in fear, blocks this flow, the result is
greed. Blocking the flow disrupts the intricate
and exquisite balance of the web of life, and soon many problems
arise"poverty, crime, degradation of the environment which sustains our
very lives The list of negative consequences is
almost endless. Even those who take and hoard more than they need
without giving back equally to the web, thinking this makes them
"wealthy, are really impoverished of spirit and bereft of true joy and
fulfillment. Energy flow, besides being the basis of wealth, is also
necessary for health"individual, social, and environmental. When energy
is blocked"again, because of fear, which is the major symptom of
disconnection, and trauma"the result is illness. Health and wealth are
really identical, the result of seamless energy flow"mutual support and
I returned to the group at
the appointed time. As we shared the wisdom of global consciousness
that we had experienced through our attractions in nature, our personal
values shifted closer yet to those of the Web of Life of which we are a
part. And we felt wealthy beyond measure.
The Nature of Life-In Which Wealth Has Nothing To Do With Money
(From The Battle In
Seattle, Chapter 18, Fulcrum)
is doing her best each moment to make us well."
-Henry David Thoreau
..........Over the holidays of the new millennium, Dr.
Michael Cohen wrote a book about the vital missing link in the WTO. He
wrote it because he was unable to be there in person on N30; and
because his partner, Serena, went to her family home for Christmas
without him. He had time on his holiday hands so he put them to work.
The result was Einstein's World-Educating and Counseling with
Nature. A Scientific Integration of Economics, Nature and Psychology,
Peace, Wellness and Spirit. Cohen is an applied
ecopsychologist. His work is rooted in the belief that nature's
intelligence is missing from the way we have been taught to think. That
we have essentially bitten the hand that feeds us and if we don't wake
up and smell the seaweed, we're done for as a human species.
..........There's lots of growing scientific evidence to
support the dire effects of our distorted thinking: global warming and
its devastating consequences has already started. The relentless
connectedness of everything and everyone on the planet is evident in
just the few degrees of climate change that it will take to forever
change life as we have come to know it. Species are dropping like
flies. Our great rain forests, a big source of oxygen on the planet,
are losing their lives, and therefore putting our own in jeopardy, let
alone all those of the indigenous people throughout the world to whom
the forests are truly home. We're screwing up. We're messing with the
web of life, with the way things work naturally-which has only taken a
few billion years to perfect.
of people are telling us these things. Why aren't we listening?
says Cohen, we have learned not to feel and think with all our senses.
And not just our five well-worn senses, but the unlimited experiences
offered by our 53 (at last count) natural senses, from our sense of
time to our sense of play. From our sense of gravity to a sense of our
emotional life. From our senses of reason, language and consciousness
to our senses of humility, humidity and humor. We are awash in sensory
experience-most of which we've managed to nip in the bud, so to speak.
Cohen, who's somewhere in his seventies and still sleeps outside at
night, has a pretty little plant growing out of his car door hinge. And
he didn't plant it. Life will find it's way, indeed. But will human
life? That is the question.
..........I first met Mike Cohen on the dance floor. Every
Tuesday evening on our island, Bob and Barbara Dann, who are both
somewhere very gracefully occupying their seventy-somethings, have folk
dancing at their house, which was built for the occasion. Their living
room is 15 feet by 40 feet and ever since they retired here, the world
has been welcomed at their door to dance-as long as you don't track
crap in on your shoes. Every Tuesday, we go to the corner table where
Bob has listed dances from all over the world on cards and arranged
them according to country. We each pick a few for the evening, or not,
don't feel like it, and for a few hours we enter into the dancing
spirits that come as gifts from around the world. It's fun. And it's a
great way to get touched if you're not getting enough..........
..........Mike Cohen knows all the dances and is very light
on his feet. He also sings folk songs, too many to count. So I knew him
as a playful spirit, a man who seemed to land lightly wherever he went.
His 35 years of teaching the psychology of the natural world and our
place in it, is something I learned about only when I told him at the
Danns one night that I was working on this book. "Oh," he said. "I just
wrote a book about the WTO," and within a few days I had a copy of
Einstein's World, and one of his earlier books, Reconnecting
with Nature-Finding wellness through restoring your bond with the Earth.
The WTO synchronicity strikes again.
..........Einstein's World is an obsessed little book,
quickly written, self-published, spiral-bound, passed out free to all
takers, an act of love in a time of desperation. Cohen's earlier book, Reconnecting
with Nature, is the one with blurbs on the back by
best-selling author Dr. Larry Dossey, and Dr. Robert Muller, the winner
of the Albert Schweitzer Peace Prize, who was the Assistant Secretary
General of the United Nations. It's through a distinct, practical
process in this book that Cohen brings us to our expanded senses and to
the natural law of attraction that is at the very foundation of our
..........Cohen is a renegade. Although he has founded
environmental psychology degree programs with the Lesley College
Graduate School, Greenwich University, and the Institute of Global
Education (a nongovernmental organization that does consulting to the
United Nations Economic and Social Council), he unteaches. Sitting
outside in one of his nature-reconnecting classes (called Project
NatureConnect) is a study in forgetting what we've learned and getting
intimate with what we know. This, he documents, is the way home to
sanity on this planet, where we are going completely and
self-destructively crazy. And the key is not so simple as stopping to
sniff the nearest flower, it's also in learning how to ask permission
of the flower to sniff it in the first place. It's in acknowledging the
astonishing force of life in all its glory on this planet, and our
partnership with it. Which in turn heals the spirit, restores the
senses and brings meaning back to the natural world-where we always
belong. So go tell that to the World Bank.
..........One of Cohen's doctoral students is doing
precisely that. Gerry Eitner is introducing Cohen's Natural System
Thinking Process (NSTP) into the training programs offered by the World
Bank. The goal is to raise awareness of the need for responsible
relationships with Earth's people and ecosystems, right in the place
where the buck both starts and stops.
..........On the other side of the WTO coin, another
doctoral student, Allison Weeks, is bringing Cohen's natural systems
thinking to WTO protest organizers and organizations in the northwest.
They, too, get tired and forget to smell the seaweed, forget to get
nourished back as they go about the business of encouraging global fair
trade and freedom in the human marketplace.
..........Cohen's other students are doing likewise in a
variety of environments: James Rowe with Outward Bound, Dr. Kevin
Bethel with the American Medical Association, Kurtland Davies with
counseling programs, Peggy Garrigues-Cortelyou with pastoral ministry,
Larry Gray with environmental education, Mardi Jones and JaneAnne
Jeffries with teacher education, Chuck McClintock with holistic
medicine, Theresa Sweeney with mental health, the list grows daily.
..........Cohen started his first official outdoor program
for youngsters in 1959 in Killington, Vermont because he wanted to live
the outdoor life; it eventually became the National Audubon Society
Expedition Institute. Before that he was the Director of American Youth
Hostels in New York. Before that he was a camp leader in the
progressive camping movement under the tutelage of Josh Lieberman. His
exposure to folk dancing and singing
happened through his parents participation in the Settlement Houses
established by Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1920s and 30s where people
coming to the United States for the first time could go to keep alive
"the old time ways."
mother and both his father's parents, who were born in Russia, came to
the U.S. to escape the pogroms. For the most part, Cohen was left alone
to decide how to grow-up, which to him meant growing up outside. For
fifty years he has taught people how to connect to the natural world,
and feel naturally connected. His theory, in an acorn shell, is that if
we feel connected to nature, and our intimate partnership with it, we
will not need a garage full of stuff to feel connected to our lives.
Power will prevail, but it will be the power of natural attraction. A
state of inherent grace, where we fit in to the web of life and keep
our inherent sensory awareness well-tuned for the occasion.
..........It's this awareness of attraction that Cohen tries
to get us to recognize. The very first thing he teaches is "Go out and
find something in nature that attracts you, obtain permission to be
there and find out what it has to tell you." Pretty weird stuff. Even
the Ph.D. students who have worked with his concepts for years, have to
struggle through their addiction to the intellect before they can allow
a more sensory receptivity to take over. "No matter how often I've done
it before, it's always a challenge," said Larry Gray who comes from
northern Canada to take Cohen's workshops. "And it always
Einstein's World, which-surprise, surprise-quotes copiously from
Einstein, we are led down the path of science and economics at play,
where if we could just get the WTO to put "webstrings" on its agenda,
we could all get back to work on the real stuff of our lives-enjoying
the ride. The being here. Together.
.........."Webstrings" is the word Cohen has coined to
describe the far reaching effect of our connections to one another, to
place, to planet, to planetary possibilities, and on out there forever.
"To see the world in a grain of sand." (William Blake) To think with
Nature: "The unseen intelligence that loved us into being." (Elbert
Hubbard). This does not endear him to the scientific community, most of
whom are working to isolate, not integrate. Most of whom are suspect of
such off-the-grid goals as recognizing our attraction to the motion of
the grasses in the wind, seeking permission to be there and then
sitting quietly to receive the wisdom waving around in the breeze. The
mind, of course, goes quickly
to metaphor, the vulnerability, strength and flexibility of the
grasses; the power of being rooted to the earth but open to the
brilliant changes of each moment; the wonder of wind-where does it come
from? The sky wide, the wide mind, the moment that it's all in this
together. That we're all in this together. Tell that to the scientists
fighting with each other about mapping the human genome.
Cohen is making headway. The United Nations recognizes his work, and
his courses are officially and unofficially on traditional campuses via
the Internet or trained instructors. In 1985, when he founded the Gaia
Conference, "Is the Earth a Living Organism?" he was called a maverick
genius. In 1996, he was awarded the U.N.'s Distinguished World Citizen
..........I was invited to sit in on one of Cohen's graduate
seminars. He does lots of his teaching via the Internet but a couple of
times a year his students come to-unbelievably, my own backyard yet
again-San Juan Island for five days of deep nature study. This
particular session was held in a big log cabin at Lakedale, a middle of
the island rustic retreat and lakeside resort. He introduced me around,
told them about the WTO book, and asked me if I was willing to
participate in a nature activity. "Sure," I said, not really wanting to
..........Throughout my life I have cultivated a profound
sense of nature snobbery. I like my nature to myself. I've considered
it a private matter, a non-verbal experience that cannot be shared. A
sacred place where I feel better. An oasis of purity in a defiled
world. I have gone to great lengths to preserve my solitary experiences
in nature. Now I was being asked to get communal about it all and I
felt a huge resistance. But Cohen had yet another question. "What are
you here for? What do you want from us?"
..........I had been thinking about David Korten's talk at
St. Mark's Cathedral, about the difference between being rich and being
ideas were familiar yet the two positions seemed so incompatible as to
be irreconcilable. "What is wealth?" I blurted out. Cohen shrugged,
"Okay, what is wealth?" he asked everybody. And sent us off with an
activity in the natural surroundings to find out.
..........About twenty minutes later we all gathered back
together to share our findings. There were twelve people in the room,
from all parts of the U.S. and Canada, all with professional
backgrounds, all linked together through their work with Project
NatureConnect. Wealth, it turned out, was a lot of things: the feeling
of a cedar branch against the face; a small tree planted by hand that
needs attention to survive; the flow of connection, when we stop it
with greed, all our addictions come back; knowing the right to exist in
the network of sentient beings; waking up to my own experience and
knowing that "no-one can tell me I didn't have it; when I come to this
place I feet wealth supporting me; the courage to stand alone; getting
into deep water; the berry that is ripe enough to just drop by itself
into my waiting hand, then I know it is meant just for me; a large,
mossy, mother rock; forgetting myself.
..........One woman was quiet, and spoke last. "I've been
sitting here for twenty minutes mulling over what I got," she said, in
tears. "I went to the water, to a tree, to a slug, to the earth, and
I'm not getting it right now." What she got was grief from being
disconnected. "The wealth," she said, "is the answers you get from
nature. Even when they hurt."
..........Somebody also had a realization about being rich.
"I followed the sound of a bird as it went from place to place in the
woods, but I couldn't quite catch up. It was like going after money.
Pretty soon I didn't even watch where I was going."
..........The reductive challenge we face everyday in
contemporary life to describe, weigh and measure the secrets of our
lives means that they lose their power, their numinous nature, their
stature. "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.
It is the source of all true
art and science," says Albert Einstein. There is nothing mysterious
about money, but try sitting with a cedar tree for ten minutes and
listening to what it has to tell you.
..........The truth is that nature is always restoring.
Always attracting, recovering, healing. It is our biological and
psychological ability to regenerate. And when we connect to the natural
world with our reasoning, consciousness and language, together with all
our other senses, we are opened up to real power. A power far beyond
the almighty dollar, a power that we can both take with us and leave
behind, the power of peace and the legacy of peace.
.........."The more alive we are," said Michael Cohen, "the
more rewarded we are by the wisdom of earth and nature, the less
dependent we are on the power of money and prestige, and the less
damage we do to one another and to the planet. When are we going to
learn this in contemporary society?"
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