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From Leaves: Transformational Ecopsychology
author took the Project NatureConnect/Akamai University and Portland
State University accredited nature medicine course “Organic Psychology
Global Citizenship” with an online cohort from three different
continents. This paper answers the question, does this course for whole life sanity
to its promise to increase personal, social and environmental
well-being by offering healing school educating, counseling and healing
activities that help us create moments that let Earth teach?
nature, an open-minded skeptic, trained in the scientific method, this
author is apt to question assertions that cannot be backed up by
empirical evidence. In reviewing cohort healing training
participation, their initial
motivations were examined to determine if in view of the stated course
description, those motivational needs were positively
course content, the literature and especially comments made by cohort
members in their weekly assignments all provide hope that together we
can give rise to a revitalizing, more conscious relationship with
nature, ourselves and others.
From Leaves: Transformational Ecopsychology
madness is ours that moves us to destroy the world we live in, other
species, one another and ourselves? What fury is it that
provokes such violent and unmotivated destruction of nature?
Has human-generated violence irreparably damaged the reciprocal
cause-effect informational loop between our genetic system and the
environment? Can the damage be halted or better yet,
reversed? It all seems so inexplicable from any rational
point of view and gives pause to consider why it is happening and if
and how can it be prevented? These are provocative questions
requiring a new awareness and above all, practical solutions if we are
to avoid an apocalyptic environmental nightmare largely of our own
making. There is an alternative, one that teaches a simple
method of consciously reconnecting with nature, called Natural Systems
Thinking Process (NTSP) developed by the distinguished Ecopsychologist,
Dr. Michael J. Cohen.
following excerpt from the book Peace
Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life,
speaks to the heart and mind of anyone familiar with NTSP:
I asked the leaf whether it
was frightened because it was autumn and the other leaves were
falling. The leaf told me, “No. During the whole spring and
summer I was completely alive. I worked hard to help nourish
the tree, and now much of me is in the tree. I am not limited
by this form. I am also the whole tree, and when I go back to
the soil, I will continue to nourish the tree. So I don't
worry at all. As I leave this branch and float to the ground,
I will wave to the tree and tell her, 'I will see you again very
soon.'” That day there was a wind blowing and, after a while,
I saw the leaf leave the branch and float down to the soil, dancing
joyfully, because as it floated it saw itself already there in the
tree. It was so happy. I bowed my head, knowing
that I have a lot to learn from the leaf (Hanh, 1992, p. 17).
to Dossey and Muller, Cohen has provided an environmentally sound,
hands-on educational process that consciously reconnects us to the
often ignored source of spirit and wellness found in nature (as cited
in Cohen, 2003, pg. i). The course description promises to
educate participants in mastering the therapeutic science of Applied
Ecopsychology. By learning to create moments that let the
Earth teach, the course assures increased personal, social and
environmental well-being. This restorative thinking skill
claims to strengthen more than 50 natural senses to reasonably embrace
their nurturing origins in the balanced, self-correcting and renewing
ways of natural systems within and around us.
contrast with NSTP, most academic scholarship in ecology is rife with
intellectual politics far-removed from the field. Nature and
ecology occupy yet another battleground to be fought over by those with
political, philosophical and religious axes to grind (Soper, 1995;
Biro, 2005). Even a word as simple as nature, is accorded
sixty-six different meanings (Lovejoy, 1948) not one, deriving from
nature proper. Defining nature evokes impulsive and contrary
stances based on one's academic, political or religious point of view.
Intellectual and geographical historian David N. Livingstone provides
an outline defining just three of the ways of representing nature, “so
that we can begin to cut a path through this forbidding terrain
(italics mine, 1995).”
language itself is now subjected to literary analysis in efforts to
analyze the ways in which literature effects and reflects the
relationship between humanity and the biosphere (Bennett &
Royle, 2009). It may be that such approaches will serve to
identify and characterize our descent to such a state but one might
question the value of illuminating our madness without resolving
it. This is exactly why Cohen's provocative approach and
proven methodology offer a practical solution to all who have ever
seriously entertained the idea that nature has a voice and wisdom to
share with all who care to hear it. NSTP teaches us to pause while
listening carefully, to understand the leaves are indeed teaching, and
eventually, to register their message.
author took the course with an online cohort from three different
continents and is prepared to answer the question, does it live up to
its hype? By nature, an open-minded skeptic, trained in the
scientific method, he is apt to question assertions that cannot be
backed up by empirical evidence. In reviewing cohort
participation, their initial motivations were examined to determine if
in view of the stated course description, those motivational needs were
positively addressed. The course content, the literature and
especially comments made by cohort members in their weekly assignments
all provided hope that together we can give rise to a revitalizing,
more conscious relationship with nature, ourselves and others.
motivates one to learn from leaves by adopting the Natural Systems
Thinking Process? Several motivations come to mind, the need
for change, alienation from nature, a need for healing and social
problems. Sustainable development, for example, now attracts
increasing attention worldwide, due much in thanks, to Al Gore, the
Nobel Prize and Emmy Award winning, American environmental activist and
former vice-president. Gore narrated the Academy
Award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which served as a
wake-up call to many of us, for whom environmental issues and
sustainable development were the nerdy fodder for futurist scientists,
think-tank technocrats and Greenpeace activists. However,
this is no longer the case; fueled by the growing concern over the
accelerating impact of global warming, sustainable development has
become a fashionable topic, one which though multi-dimensional in
nature, attracts an ever-increasing amount of rhetoric and
commentary. This need for global change mirrors the need for
personal change echoed in the following comments of cohort members in
their first assignment:
I had resigned from 35 years
in the corporate world. I resigned because I had decided that
I would rather starve than continue working there.
decided that I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole and
decided that it was time to find more fulfilling work.
young boy, now a young man living in a big city had made his
acquaintance with fear, pain and the stressful sense of feeling alone
each decade that passes it is clear that we have become more and more
disconnected from our source. From the foods we eat to the
video games assimilating outdoor activities our children play there has
never been a stronger need to give humans a tool to open up to the
beautiful intelligence that surrounds us in nature.
of alienation from nature, our own selves and others, ranks high in
motivating participants seeking a resolution to their growing sense of
estrangement from the natural world. The notion of alienation
is unusual because it requires an attempt to explain a widespread,
subjective and somewhat indefinable feeling, while critiquing any
society that regularly produces it. What is indisputable is
the connection between feeling alienated and modern man's
depersonalizing experience of living in an increasingly urbanized,
impersonal, industrial-technological world. The destructive
social effects are also undeniable: depression, anxiety, hopelessness,
substance abuse, dysfunctional relationships, co-dependency,
consumerism, violence and suicide. Again, we find a
correlation between the macro and micro, reflected in the following
Although I am “successful” by
societal standards, I feel disconnected, of little value, alone, and
spiritless in a corporate environment. Lies are truths.
Truths are lies. Depression results.
off from my roots I felt dead to myself, dead to others and numb to
There were shadows of random violence and substance abuse in our home,
leftovers from the generational trauma and displacement of my mother's
too, have suffered the feelings of alienation you mention and like you,
I realize that to save other's, we must first save ourselves.
by making a genuine reconnect to nature, will such materially
motivated, consumer oriented addicts have the opportunity to regain
their mental and emotional health.
Our culture's nature
conquering stories cut us off from our source.
most children are beaten by their parents when they are very young to
make them obedient.
abusive parent had such rage, and for a child to sense this rage, they
assume the abusive parent wants them gone yes and the child also feels
is another element of ecopsychology and one that we all need for at one
time or another. In assessing their ability to help persons,
healers of any modality, must understand their client's situation, the
terrain within which they live and above all, they must remember their
ethical obligation to do no harm. Interestingly, in the
native-American Okanagan language, each syllable of the four syllable
word for insanity communicates a significantly ecopsychological
element, the lack of which, indicates a disconnection from the web of
life (Rozak, 1995; Conn, 2005; Cohen, 2005). According to
Conn, the syllables have the following meanings:
syllable - “talk, talk inside your head”
syllable - “scattered and having no community”
syllable - “having no relationship to the land”
syllable - “being disconnected from the whole-earth part”
undertaken by the Canadian government pointed to the effect of rapid
social change on the mental and physical health of its citizens
(LaLonde 1981). According to the study, some of the social
change was attributed to technological innovation, but significant
disorientation and alienation were attributed to changing social values
emphasizing private pleasure over obligations to the common good,
inducing stresses with serious health consequences. If this
is not a telling indictment of the disturbing status quo in which the
Earth and its people now suffer, let us once again, have feedback from
Nature is forever true to its
purpose and always confirms the way. When the mind becomes
still, the heart speaks and nature confirms.
that people can speak and listen to words endlessly without it having
as much influence on them as a single experience.
doubt words offer an enigma when removed from the heart; they support
the materially conditioned mind's ability to divide us from the vital
aspects of our being.
greatest comforted moments have all been non verbal…It took me years of
telling the story of some of these experiences to integrate them
fully. But the experiences themselves, those moments when
life stops, and then goes on again in a totally different way, were all
test the limits of my powers of description to the point where I am
left outside of language and feel my five-legged ego dissolving into
are in dire need for contact with each other and with other living
is not something to be taken lightly. It is built and maintained by
deeply and profoundly respecting its right to exist along with the
human and nonhuman entities that make it up.
L, M & R, Today, you guys made me weep but the
weeping was not from brokenness, it was from wholeness. Thank
you and I commit to all of you again and again and again....
appreciate that you expressed to D. your sadness in her
leaving. And that you are able to express to M. a webstring
of attachment for him to be here in the group with us.
let me thank you for your continued support...it buttresses my resolve
and draws me ever more closely into the bosom of our fledgling
community, consciously binding me to the beauty of all who voluntarily
you for being present and redeeming my sense of hope that we, as human
beings, will look into the mirror to know who is responsible for the
current state of things.
gratitude reminded me of when I first stepped on the land of my farm as
a visitor… I felt such happiness; I felt that the land welcomed me.
we moved here the land had been brutalized and stripped of all topsoil;
it was so sterile that not even a lizard was left alive.
I am lying on the ground, looking at the sky, I am part of an amazing
part of a part of a part…
the right of all nature, animate or inanimate to be accorded the
respect I would like to receive, threatens webstrings, individual and
heartbreaking reality is that modern society has desensitized these
natural attractions to the point that most of the people I meet are so
out of touch with this wisdom within them that they have become
addicted to destructive habits.
are expressions beginning and ending with me incorporating all that is.
our planet is deteriorating ecologically and is inhabited by people who
are psychologically troubled (Brown, 1995). Comments from the
cohort seem to mirror Brown's statement:
Last year I was asked to go to
another city to assume the role of manager of a facility as the manager
was being let go. When I arrived I saw a group of wounded broken people.
pain was intense, his mind bothersome and that former connection with
nature had almost died. Cut off from his root he felt dead to himself,
dead to others and numb to the world.
people live in fear of the future, of the state of the environment etc.
I know some activists that are so scared that they are not doing
other words I was defining myself by what I had accomplished. I really
didn't have a clue who I was. When I got right down to it I
discovered that I was miserable, had been struggling with a lot of
depression and fatigue but compensated by doing “things' well.
The contradiction of living like that was exhausting.
are forced to accept very early that these cruel acts were normal,
harmless, and even good for us. No other species inflicts such cruelty
on its offspring. It's no wonder that our individual and collective
relationships are so fraught with violence and abuse.
the irrational forces that attract people to their personal and
environmental bad habits? Is the self really the Self and is
our psyche really the Psyche? Does healing require a
conscious reconnection with nature that transports us beyond the
narcissistic fascination we have developed with the notion of I, me and
mine? These are fascinating questions that NSTP seems quite
capable of resolving based on cohort comments:
This metamorphosis of human
arrogance and greed into nature's impartial benevolence requires much
more than anything we have in our philosophy; it requires a direct
injection of new knowledge and understanding.
I go out into nature, I go with an open mind, admitting that I know
nothing. In my humility, I can surrender and accept the teachings that
are offered. I return home knowing something that I did not previously.
part of the group impacts my physiology of relationship, when I read
your process, and join my own to your learning - I feel soothed, and
companioned in the same way I do in nature.
my friend's early experiments affirmed the value of NSTP's potential,
reminding him of his direct participation in the flow of life.
Nature will attract my consciousness to verbalize webstrings in a way
that others will know the value of Natural Systems Thinking Process.
grew a layer in trust of nature to meet both my physical and emotional
needs. I grew a layer of belief in my life purpose.
realized that my self-worth can either be enhanced or diminished by my
trustfulness or distrust of nature, the more authentic my degree of
trustfulness, the greater my sense of self- worth.
one flash of nature catalyzed insight, I immediately sense nature's
beckoning call like the prodigal son too long separated from his
social toll due to violence and neglect is highlighted in recent
research in neurology and cardio neurology which shows that emotional
deprivation in the early formative period of childhood results in
specific and apparently immutable compromises in neural structure and
function (Pearce, 2005). This tragedy is compounded by
further research on grown men indicating those from a neglected
childhood were unresponsive to close positive relationships, implying
possibly a lifetime of social isolation and emotional poverty (Pearce,
2004). Research with mammals establishes a link between any
mammal's emotional state during conception and gestation and the
quality and characteristics of the offspring to which she gives birth.
Biochemical and molecular research have shown that all biological
organisms, including humans share the will to survive. This
fundamental survival drive is built into every organism and is referred
to as a biological imperative (Lipton, 1998).
fundamental drive to survive can be subdivided into two functional
categories: behaviors supporting growth and those supporting protection
(Lipton, Bensch and Karasek, 1991). Growth-related behaviors
include activities associated with seeking nutrients and supportive
environments for personal survival and the seeking of mates for species
survival. Protection behaviors are those activities employed
by organisms to avoid harm. Interestingly, studies on
molecular control systems indicate that when an organism is forced to
protect itself, growth pathways are shunted. In human beings,
this behavior occurs as the organism perceives the negative, flight or
fight extreme of the two polarities appropriately described as love and
fear (Lipton, 1998). Lipton is correct in pointing to a new
vision which requires “turning away from the Darwinian notion of the
"survival of the fittest" and adopting a new credo, the "survival of
the most loving!” Cohort comments seem to indicate that
nature nurtures when parents cannot:
I share a painful childhood
history that drove me outdoors early in my life, vestiges of the
difficulties my own parents faced growing up in their own birth
I found in the natural world greater comfort, warmth and solace than
was available at home.The woods, the ocean, the sky
and the earth itself were therefore more of a family to me than my own
is undeniable, the experience of reconnecting with nature, soothes the
hurt child within, now an angry adult, who disassociated from the
original cause, expresses their feelings of anger, helplessness,
despair, longing, anxiety, and pain in destructive acts against, the
natural world or against themselves.
life was stable and solid, and had random, deep violence as part of a
'discipline' structure. So I felt safer outside.
we have taken a survey of what motivates one to seek wellness through
restoring their connection with nature as taught in NSTP, it would be
interesting to assess outcomes. Conn (2005) defines the
theoretical base underpinning ecopsychology as one which recognizes the
earth as a living system in which human beings, their psyches and
cultures are an integral part. The author, in defining the
practice of applied ecopsychology further recognizes that the needs of
the earth and the needs of the human individual are interdependent and
interconnected. Any consideration of the effect of nature on
health must take into account E.O. Wilson's 'biophilia hypothesis' that
human beings are innately attracted to other living organisms (St
Leger, 2003). This concept has expanded to suggest human
health and well-being may depend on our relationship with nature
(Robinson, 2009; Frumkin, 2001; Cohen, 2003; Jordan, 2009).
Multiple studies indicate the human need for nature is positively
impacted by the favorable influence the natural world has on our
emotional, psychological and spiritual development (Maller, Townsend,
Pryor, Brown, St Leger, 2005).
teaches how to reestablish our relationship with the natural world by
engaging our fifty-three senses in consciously reconnecting with
natural systems. According to Cohen (2007) these natural
systems “compost and transform industrial society's pollution of our
mind and body into personal, environmental and spiritual
well-being.” Cohort comments reflected this process in
Although I experienced the
connection with nature I never realized that nature was within me and
part of me.
encounters with nature have always left me recharged, reintegrated and
once again able to deal with the unnatural world that gave impetus to
my nature-seeking ways.
realise fully that we are all connected by and to the same webstrings
will vastly improve our understanding and acceptance of each other.
nature, true to its nature, embraces all of us, and for me, its
intervention in my life was crucial in my taking more responsibility
for my choices. It allowed me to acknowledge that my wishes could be
transformed into reality, in the form of a reconstructed home and
the exercise of taking time to connect to nature when I am outdoors is
training me to note webstrings to sounds, colors, smells, textures,
shapes, motion, warmth, cold, touch…I am filled with the attractions
and become more aware, still, calm, connected, safe, inspired,
change will be necessary to undo the damage done by a lifetime of
nature-disconnected activity. You are correct in realizing that by
reconnecting to nature in a natural way, all that is necessary to heal,
will in due time, be revealed.
concluding, the author, a naturopath and educator, who has practiced
yoga for more than 30 years, was struck by the following:
Nature has a powerful role to play in transformative healing work.
Nature offers a superior therapeutic setting to work conducted indoors.
Ritual is an important and vital element when working with nature.
An intrinsic respect for nature is a prerequisite for healing to occur.
The Natural Systems Thinking Process includes all of the above and
promotes intrapersonal, interpersonal and environmental well-being.
feature of Cohen's Natural Systems Thinking Process is that it can be
practiced as part of a global network, linked by the modern
world-wide-web. Cohen's greening of technology, offers a
growing ecological community, diverse opportunities including hands-on,
Biophilia-in-action, classes, activities, research, scholarships,
earth-friendly, jobs, careers, internships and teaching
certifications. For those of more academic bent, there are
courses, undergraduate and graduate degree programs. All are
available online and scholarships are available for those who need
them. The global outreach of Cohen's initiative clearly
distinguishes his work and resolves the major challenge of integrating
what one has learned in nature on returning to society.
vision has extended to the planting of green virtual communities,
linking individuals studying on courses offered by Project
NatureConnect at the Institute of Global Education, a special NGO
consultant to UNESCO. Finally, it would be remiss to not give
the esteemed colleagues comprising my cohort the last say; this work is
dedicated to them:
There is power in the process,
great healing and as we remediate damaged webstrings, we, others and
the world at-large are all benefited.
feeling of coming home into nature is one that I definitely want more
for revealing the webstrings binding us in mutual attraction. Your
ability to mirror my experiences from a distance creates harmonic
resonance and provides a palpable therapeutic effect evidenced in the
way I feel.
attraction to nature's beauty, poised between the sense world and the
world of feeling and thinking, I find myself at rest.
grateful in nature is creating change from the bottom up.
am learning how to consciously participate in natural systems,
including relationships with other people, in life enhancing ways.
opening up to and sensing the greater world of web-stringed
intelligence, we harness the wisdom of the whole, while mirroring it in
our intra-personal and inter-personal relationships.
reconnecting with nature, restores vitality, improves disposition and
makes life worth living.
participation is possible through feedback from webstring intelligence;
the intelligence of natural senses. These senses are delicate
and can be desensitized to the extent that they no longer
work. Natural senses can be enhanced by learning to listen
and obey them.
suddenly see that Nature actually communicated with me through my
various senses and told me what she needed in a way that was as real as
any worded language.
were grasses on a hill that were swaying in the breeze. I would watch
them and rock slowly back and forth to their rhythm. The different
colours and lengths reminded me that we are all different but can all
be rocked by mother earth if we have awareness.
constantly working on myself using the views from this window to
receive the gifts of peace and comfort and then I would turn away from
the window and pass these gifts on to my (dying) cousin and a couple of
the people who were there a lot as well.
consciously connect through Nature with the world at-large, peace,
harmony and unity result.
this pond because it vibrates with life. I love myself
because I vibrate with life.
love this place because it exudes a beautiful calm that seeps into
every pore of my skin until it takes over my whole being. I love myself
because I exude a beautiful calm that seeps into every pore of my skin
until it takes over my whole being.
love these trees because they are tall, overcome challenging placement
and still thrive, share, create community and remain whole. I love
myself because I am tall, overcome challenging placement and still
thrive, create community and remain whole.
am attracted to Ivy because of its teaching ability. I like myself
because of my teaching ability.
Little drops of water wear away
the stone and, collectively, introducing this practice into our lives
and into the lives of others we can and will change the tide of history.
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You may read or distribute a press release about this webpage
information: contact Michael J. Cohen, Ph.D.
Ecopsychology Journal interview with Dr. Cohen: <http://www.ecopsych.com/ecopsychologyjournal.html>
of the 1994 Distinguished
World Citizen Award, Ecopsychologist Michael J. Cohen,
a Program Director of the Institute of Global Education, where he
coordinates its Integrated Ecology Department and Project
NatureConnect. He also serves on the faculty of Portland State
University and Akamai University. Dr. Cohen has founded sensory
environmental education outdoor programs independently and for the
National Audubon Society and Lesley University (AEI), conceived the
1985 National Audubon Conference "Is the Earth a Living Organism," and
is an award winning author of "The Web of Life Imperative,"
"Reconnecting With Nature," and "Educating
Healing With Nature." A video about his lifework may be
Pacific Time Zone
you to visit www.ecopsych.com
from empowering your livelihood and prior experience to be more
validated, green, holistic, environmental, sustainable, natural,
nature-connected, healthy, alternative, spiritual, organic and
a degree or certification that strengthens your contributions as a
counselor, healer, teacher, environmentalist, coach, therapist,
spiritualist, leader or health and wellness mentor.
You may obtain a
nature-connected Applied Ecopsychology degree or certificate in