"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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
For references to topics in
this article select
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
"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