Journal of Organic Psychology and Natural Attraction Ecology (OP/NAE)

Project NatureConnect  Akamai University Institute of Applied Ecopsychology
VOLUME 1,  NUMBER 2011-2012                                                      Dr.  Michael J. Cohen, Editor

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Mental Health: Nature Composts Mind Pollution and Psychological Garbage into Balanced Relationships

- Journal of an Anonymous Participant  
Project NatureConnect education, counseling and healing studies. 

"I think living in the now and releasing ourselves from the burden of a judge from the past are two of the most important lessons I gain from nature as a mental health therapist. When I look at all aspects of nature, from birds in song, to their hunt for a nest or food, to blossom falling, to the sun lighting up a gray day, there is no criticism of how, who or where, and there is only now. They react, of course, and prepare, such as for seasonal changes, but their life is present contained. I have heard that cows worry, though, so I do feel that I can even judge and justify my occasionally future focused ways, by thinking I do have a fellow comrade in the wild!

Nevertheless, I think this and last week's nature-connection work recalls our fixation with labels and stories which are grounded in the past and in the future. We nest in and cling to events from the past that we believe define us, and a future which either terrorizes or tempts us, as a means of escape or worry. Mental health therapists must help an individual cope with the toll this places on them.

I'd be curious to know your thoughts on this week's work from your points of view of a physical therapist or occupational therapist. I think it says a lot about our own perception of labels and our definition. Do we always need to let go of our past? I think nature teaches us that there is only now, that we are not perpetually defined by our past, unless we wish to be or wish the definitions of others on us, to persist. However, the past is there also as a teacher, to guide and give us wisdom. We should take the wisdom that we are drawn to, that comfort and nurtures us, but peal off the layers of past-defined discomfort, fear and shame.

You say an occupational therapist might see this as being behavior learned from past parenting to assist the animals occupation as an adult animal, and a physical therapist, might sometimes treat the physical outcomes of past trauma. The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it if we want to sustain good mental health.

At times, I am refreshingly grateful for the past, for I can see its path and how destiny, the nameless force, eventually guides us to mental health, even when at times we believe we are in the most fearful and low of situations. There is a natural survival mechanism in our inner natures, and part of that has brought us all here today. It helps me compost the garbage and pollution excessive nature-disconnection places in our mind.  The sense of renewal, infinitum and continuation is mirrored in nature in the wild. This is helpful energy for a mental health therapist to work with.

I sense that my own nature connections in nature take place to remind me of the joy of the present, of the importance of identifying with life in the here and now. I am also, however a historian, a lover of Earth's physical past, and the physical  achievements of humankind since the dawn of time. Maybe that makes me a physical therapist, too. Perhaps I need to combine my loves and my nature connections and realize that the past also can serve as a positive example, and not only a story of regret and shame. The key perhaps is to recognize its defining moments, but not allow it to rule or betray us.  My nature connection is from this week, but the reactions are mainly those of a few weeks ago. I still feel and breathe those sentiments, especially when it comes to living by a label or story. I find that they do help me address the garbage and pollution in my mind and in some of my clients, too. Here my reactions to this weeks activities:

1 We are what we think and feel, not our names, labels, or “cultural objects”  We  have to learn how to compost the garbage and pollution they place in how we learn to think and feel

2 The connection with and love for nature is more real, more tangible, than theories.

3 Our perceptions change based on stories and lies.

4 The difference in viewing Earth as a dead natural resource, as if it is separate from us, no longer of use, no longer submissive to our conquests, and as a wisely balanced living organism, which elicits feelings of a living, breathing, feeling organism that we bond and connect to, and can regenerate alongside and within it.

5 How often does our psyche contain a chain? How socialized are we not to stray from society's expectations? “The authority that punishes us unless we obey instructions can determine how we know the world”. Exploitation taps into our greed; it disguises it, and then sells it to us as a self-gratifying, profit-making scheme. Do we see a tree as a living breathing, nurturing, blossoming organism or as a future table?

I think I may offend some slightly here and I do apologize- but please read through to see it full circle-. The tree hopefully will be the breathing nurturing blossoming part of life- however if for so reason it dies, gets struck by lightning, killed from insects, whatever its fate- Continue its life by making it into a beautiful table in which a family can sit together and eat dinner. I often find many people upset when I talk about hunting- Please don’t lose faith in me yet- Deer/venison was the protein in many familys freezers where I grew up. Like I said it was a fairly poor farming area. But really I think it was important and can continue to be, and you aren’t going to find a better quality of meat. I however do not believe in poaching for “trophies” and having the animal go to waste- I think of my view more of a Native American type where there is great respect for the animal and it isn’t killed in vain or wasted. I will now also be fair and not think of myself as a “better” being. The winters can be very cold and barren, with the population of deer too high- they will starve to death and suffer, this along with the unfortunate road side accident leaving an animal many times injured beyond healing only to live the rest of their time slowly deteriorating by infection and pain. I honestly will say- if this is my fate- Please someone kill me quickly without prolonged agony- and be able to benefit further from my life by my consumption. whatever I would find this a more desirable fate. Sorry if the imagery is a bit dark – I know it may be hard to understand- but it is truthful and its not ever a “joyful” occasion but seems almost more “right”

My “home” is the place where the people do rotate crops and use natural fertilizer and the animals needs are put before that of their own. My husband's family has dairy cows- they refuse to feed them the hormone filled modified food- regardless of the price or other perceived “benefits” because they know the truth behind what’s in fact important. My husband's family has had bees and my parents just put up a fence to protect the new Bee Boxes that await the arrival of their soon to be occupants. Don’t get me wrong- not everyone is as good as we would all like- heck- I’m not always as good as I would like myself to be- but with the help and guidance with you and our group, there is only improvement ahead.

6 We are repeatedly told stories that brainwash so that the story appears normal and to think differently is almost painful. Our indoor lives are so unchanging that the only stimulation comes from the TV and the internet where there is often the danger of believing we need, should crave, should fear something as the story is repeated so many times.

7 Money focuses, “What’s in it for me?” greed is instilled in us from such an early age. We learn that happiness is only attained by purchasing something or having something better or some level of attainment over someone else. We have this money focused discussion a lot in our house. Is buying a car or the latest gadget as precious as catching a wave?

8 Suppressed memories affect our daily lives and lead to torment, anger and fear. I was educated to believe I should fit into a box, that box sometimes being my nationality which came with expectations of relating to how Italian or English I was. I would think and occupational therapist might want to be aware of this.  In recent years, thinking that perhaps my instinct was wrong and selfish, I unconsciously “trained” myself to be more 5-legged, to ignore the fact that I was trying to calculate 1+1=5, without the 3. Without the number 3 I felt I was trying to climb a tree with my arms tied behind my back.

9 We learn to accept labels and methods as that is what we are brainwashed to believe we have to accept as the norm, even if it feels uncomfortable. The paradox of humanity – we want the pretty garden, because deep down we have so many senses that relate to its presence in our lives, and feel such a strong bond, but then paradoxically we pollute and destroy land in order to have the picket fence and its wonders within.

10 The fulfilling inner senses that are lit up by the simple, gentle bond with nature. These senses and the importance of having these feelings and the ease of gaining them from connecting with nature are so overlooked. We are taught so often that joy comes in plastic or cardboard boxes. We believe to our detriment that we have to own. We forget the joy of mutual bonding.

My destiny is incredibly influenced by brainwashing stories inspired by and accentuating nature-separated greed, envy and fear. And the stories persist because of the monetary and other competitive, selfish values which are fully rewarded by maintaining these negative feelings. As pointed out in the chapter, “It is difficult to get people to understand something when their salary depends upon them not understanding it”. We are taught to save for a rainy day from our earliest days and the matter of having or not having “enough” affects our lives even from childhood. We are given labels that we drown under from such an early age. The labels are very past or future-orientated, and instil regret and/or envy, and greed and/or fear. The 53 or more natural senses that we uncover through reviving our nature connections, provide a clearer sense of the reality of now, of carpe diem which we all search for in our 5-legged lives but find so difficult to realise. By focusing on nature, the connection it gives, the community it offers and the belonging and nurturing it provides, our senses are enlivened to the immediate, the purity and the joy that it brings.

I grew up in a big house but, although I was never aware of it, my parents didn't have much money. My sister and I never had the latest toys. Instead my father made us our Wendy house,  our toy farm (complete with carved animals and trees!), our baby dolls' cots and our Barbie house, with his own hands, hiding himself away in the months and weeks before Christmas, making our presents out of wood he had recycled from his DIY activities!  I used to love writing and was a keen “actress” at school, in love with the theatre and drama. When I was in Australia for the first time, 11 years ago, I wrote so much, finding the natural world there, so magical, so unusual, so awesome and inspirational.

Then my husband started earning “good money”, and I learned greed.

I stopped writing, became embarrassed of my past and wanted to be like the other people who “had”. I could afford things I'd never had, or had never seen my parents with. My life changed, but I never felt happy and I always felt I was trying to keep up. We then moved to Italy and suddenly our life of luxury was taken away from us, and I became angry, regretful and envious. Deep down my integrity kept me strong, and I had always had a strong ecological sense even in the days of greed and money, but I got depressed and felt like I was lost. I hit an all time low in my self-identity but slowly climbed back. Now I am feeling an incredible sense of clarity. I feel more myself than I have done in years. My family seems more real and I am proud of us. I am now reconnecting with nature, writing passionately, and instead of in the theater, would love to “perform” on the stage of healing, helping others to reconnect.

Through the course of studying, sharing and learning from the PNC activities I am realizing, even more profoundly, how deeply I am covered in labels, labels I don't like, that cause anxiety and fear, but which others and, even worse, I myself, identify me with. These labels include my nationality, something which people have judged me by all my life, my career, my being a mother, my financial status (or lack of!), my belongings, my physical appearance, my family, my class status and that of my parents, my education, my current location... the list goes on, and on. Our minds are like sorting machines. We can't process anything without pigeon-holing everything, always reaching an immediate conclusion. We stamp a label on it and then move on. We are becoming more and more like machines – causing our own internal industrial revolt. Learning that I am essentially pure, joyful, flourishing and vital underneath all these labels is a wonderful discovery! I'm slowly giving myself permission to discard the negative labels but also maintain those that help me bond to nature. My mental health, integrity and passion come through with my ability to voice my feelings and communicate with others, with my love of writing and my appreciation of humankind's greatest creation – art.

Nature bonds with us and enters our lives in the most preciously non-conquering ways. From the potted plant bought to “brighten a room” to the family pet “bought for the children... and to catch mice”, we end up forgetting our cold-hearted, initial intentions as we connect so deeply, so effortlessly. Precious moments of growth, caring, feeding and play cancel all 5-legged feelings as we mutually love, nurture and comfort. Nature is, of course, non-verbal but we also sub-consciously introduce it into our verbal lives, describing moments “like a dark cloud”, thinking of people as “down to earth” etc.

I think I had my own sense of the chains of authority's constraints and expectations this weeks. My knowledge of my own world has been greatly clouded by others' opinions of our lifestyle, and I do sense that much of the gloom I experienced during my time in Italy, and even my perception that much of my unhappiness is due to a lack of a permanent home, is actually dictated to me by the habits of society around me. Am I failing to see the differences in lifestyles in nature, and am I judging myself by the expectations of others, failing to question why they even have those expectations, and need to judge, themselves? Humans sometimes exploit their "verbal language, a recently evolved attractive survival tool", and instead of supporting our differing needs, we utilize it to "become argumentative". We not only "attach to people who hold similar attachments", but struggle to accept, respect and nurture those whose attachments and attractions differ from their own.

I find myself drawn to the "all" in nature, the abundance, the diversity, the mix. This dawned on me when I went for a walk with some other mothers from my children's school around the new city of Almere, and how bland and sad nature had felt there, surrounded by the concrete of industry and housing estates, "artificially built surroundings". Once back in Amsterdam I sense that contrast as I breathe into the nature that is vibrant in this established, old city, with its myriad of canals, leafy tree adorned streets, and parks.

My friend the Frankendael park feels alive, flourishing, settled and established. In its own grounding, I feel grounded. There is human interaction and a beauty that is so inspirational that one can't help but want to protect it. The senses are awakened and alive. The waters of the small lake are rich with life, trees and bushes are alive with motion and sound. It is vital, enriching and flowing. Growth and nurture walk hand in hand. Nature is also amusing. The sight of a duck waddling into the lawned area reminds me of the delight in the simplest of nature's gifts. Connection is not serious and dour but fun, nourishing and light. It is not necessary to always be reminded of the doom and gloom, the joy of this scene makes me want to be part of it.The sadness of the industrially impacted new town only feeds into a sense of hopelessness that many of us environmentally loving seekers sense. I realise we need to see beauty, and this is possible in cities.

One doesn't need to go off the beaten track. In fact my beaten track is that walked by humans over centuries. We humans are part of nature. We need to enjoy it together and not insist that to experience it we humans must somehow be out of the picture. Joy is also a shared experience. As the sun shines through the trees, reflecting greens, whites, dark barks and leaves on the rippled water, as two pelicans chatter and click on their disused chimney nest, I see other walking, talking humans, enjoying the beauty of the scene. We all unconsciously bond, we are all unconsciously revitalized, re-spirited within and without. The sun, blue sky, bird chatter, rippling water, abundant vegetation, trees majestically, humbly bowing their boughs over the waters below, an explosion of blossom color in the trees and carpeting the woodland and park floor, and the chime of the church bells and human activity, all blend harmoniously together.

I realize for us to survive we ecologists cannot continuously accuse humanity of evil. There is joy in human and nature interaction. Yes, there is unnecessary destruction, exploitation and greed but there is also beauty in our human nesting grounds, our old cities. This is planet Earth, this mutually dynamic diversity. We can be stung by the nettles but healed by their dock leaf neighbor. We can be healed and can live side by side. That is what I learned by removing labels and stories. That there is hope. We just need to connect to want to protect. We must respect, and learn to love nature and each other. There needs to be balance. If we are unable to joyfully look to one another and connect to each other's inner natures, we will always find it strenuous to love nature outside of us.

Yesterday, after a frustrating morning inside, I was desperate to go outside into the embrace of the sun and the blue sky. It was cooler than I expected with an Easterly wind accompanying the warmth of the sun. Already I could feel Earth was teaching me something. Things are not always as they appear from a single perspective. In my judgment, perhaps for example in my reaction to my friend, I am not seeing the bigger picture that I myself have accused her of lacking.

Once in the calming, gentle Frankendael park I sat down to breathe, calm down, and wait patiently for the comfort of nature to unwind my mind, as my children ran off and played. I was attracted instantly to the landscape of trees on the edge of the large lawn area. There bordering the lawn rises a small forest. A myriad of diverse trees, small and tall, thick and slender, all of nature's greens and two outstanding pillars of red. I have no need to know their names as I know them as well as any botanist. As they wave in the wind, they catch my eye, soothing my soul with their rhythmic dance. They are accepting of their differences and bloom both in their individual selves and together. Earth taught me to accept and to judge not, but to just dance within me. To love me as me. And moreover to love that we are not and cannot be similar even in our thoughts for that would be lifeless, unimpassioned, static and dull. A half-life. Then as a crowning glory to the day, on the walk home, the sun sparkled its magical, soul-refreshing reflection in the ancient, rippling canal by our home, shrouded either side by the wonders of humanity's attempt to construct glory - the gracefully magnificent Tropen museum and the sturdy Napoleonic Muiderpoort Arch opposite our building - and nature's gift of music in the equally sparkling, evening birdsong. An orchestra of praise fabricated by the nameless force of nature and the envious hand of humankind.

From this activity and chapter I've learned that we “often know ourselves better by our names and prejudices than by how and what we think and feel”. That we are brainwashed into thinking that it is not only forgivable but actually actively encouraged to find profit from our exploitation of nature. I remember a feeling quite similar to the one Karen recounted in the chapter when she described the “womb” of the natural area that her school had bulldozed, somewhere she “could find peace at lunchtime”.

When I was at school I used to spend lunch hours in the ancient, centuries old, gardens of Canterbury Cathedral. My friend and I would chat, laugh and relax, surrounded by old English plants and the ancient walls. I was always reminded of the peace that monks and nuns found and still find in spending so much time outside, tending their vegetable gardens for hours on end, in the same centuries-old fashion. Peace and contemplation intertwined with their invisible bond with nature and God. Nature and God became, and still become, one for them. Their work, their lives were as much part of prayer as of nature connection. But my connection to that beautiful historical garden came to an end - the managers of the Cathedral’s “pockets”, decided to close the gates. Now people pay for the pleasure to enter both the Cathedral and its beautiful grounds. Money and profit have taken over and destroyed the most simple connection I had on a daily basis to nature. This is so sad… For centuries people had walked, sat and meditated in those gardens, connecting effortlessly, free to know they could do so whenever they needed to, without dipping into their wallets for the privilege. Once again nature has become a source of profit, a privilege, not a simple, easy, peaceful, and effortless place to bond, feel safe and flourish within. Of course I understand that to maintain 1000 years of history, in the bricks and mortar of the Cathedral, money is needed, but the gardens would surely flourish and survive forever, as long as they were respected, enjoyed and cared for.

This activity further enhanced not only the need to accept myself as I am but what that means in the context of being part of a family, a friend and a member of this beautiful dynamic we call Earth. I realize much of my stress comes from my own unnecessary judgment of myself and my family. I think I somehow wish to head off the critics, and am determined to foresee the criticism of others, as if in some way that may protect me from their scorn, so quickly judge myself and become my worst friend. Instead I should accept that the judgment of others is as ridiculous and pointless as that of myself, and is simply a constraining chain and label that they and I am too scared to undo and remove. "Being in the familiar, as painful as it can be, can override our ability to find freedom".

My tender love for the expanse and wonder of planet earth. Occasionally heart-wrenching love, occasionally peaceful and comforting love…but always love. And a desire to have more, but not in a desperate addictive sense but in a heart-warming, very personal, almost romantic sense. And not the stuff of fancy novels but a real, precious romance.

There is a tree by the side of a skate-park which I pass on most days. The tree has been decorated with pairs of trainers and other shoes, hanging down by their tied laces, as well as some meaningless graffiti on its trunk. Yet it stands strong, roots reaching deeply into the soil beneath, branches stretched out, open wide to the skies. It cares not for its decoration. It does not suffocate as we do under our layers, our “decoration”, of conformity, greed, envy and anxiety. For it knows it is still a tree and it thrives.  By discarding the layers of labels and stepping out of the shadows of expectation, we can breathe, embrace our true selves and start rejuvenating, reconnecting and reattaching ourselves to the gentle webstring bonds within nature.

I can't really think of the dreams I've been having, but I find I wake up worrying less, and testing myself less! I am trying to teach and preach less, and instead be a good example. This is difficult when you first embrace and realize the healing nature to which PNC reconnects us, as there is a natural desire to shout it out loud to the world! However, people need to learn in their own ways as we are all individuals with individual inner natures, that need reconnecting in their individual ways. Lessons cannot be aggressively forced without the risk of inciting views that PNC might be just another scholarly lesson, theory, tree-hugging idea, or even religious alternative!

 I am placing in my mind a calming, non-judgmental acceptance of the true inner me, of my family's unusual needs (!) and the inner natures which shine through others... even when they are unconscious of them themselves!"

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