"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 five decades of living
and teaching as a counselor 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. As a counselor,
Cohen noticed that intimate counseling contact
with nature services put people in touch with an innate wisdom
that produced a deep healing marriage 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
Akamai 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
creer services and training
manuals, The Web of Life Imperative, Reconnecting With Nature
and Well Mind, Well Earth. The manuals provide a syllabus
of "124 nature relationship 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." As a counselor and educator,
Cohen verifies that the distortions in the way humans think have
arisen from our loss of contact with nature. He has discovered
a sensory career and degree training 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 on
our inherent marriage with nature. The consequences of our alienation
from nature manifest as the myriad of lasting personal, social
and environmental problems which beset the modern world.
For counselors or educators
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 organic 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 an educational counselor,
Cohen avows that attraction, love and consciousness are identical.
He says, "The universe and all that it includes are wordlessly
conscious and connected through attraction relationships, 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 relationships
formally and informally train 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
and careers in the setting of nature. That is why this "love"
connection produces good feelings in sentient beings. The feelings
are natural "marrriage with nature" 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 sustainable pastoral and similar counseling
using 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 career 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 to act in congress as a marriage 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 services, careers and 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 sensory
relationship 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 our dysfunctions
of 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
online counseling process of Applied
ecopsychology teaches us how to use nature as a therapy for our
troubles It is organic because
moments of conscious sensory contact with natural systems help
us register nature-congruent information.
Cohen's home study career and
degree 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 relationship techniques presented in the course enable counselors,
educatiors, leaders and other participants "to use a variety
of nature-connecting activities to discover, strengthen and fulfill
their 53 natural sensations and feelings. This marriage energizes
these sensitivities into our consciousness so that we may include
their intelligence in our thinking and relationship building."
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
organically 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 online 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 our consciousness and
thinking with nature's systems 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 these two sources
are each natural systems and therefore identical; sensory contact
with the natural environment nurtures our inherent natural inner
wisdom into our consciousness and thinking. He says the advantage
to reconnecting is that it helps us use nature's grace, balance
and restorative powers to renew and 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 counselors,
leaders and the public a service by drawing attention to the
detrimental effects of our alienation from nature, and by creating
and sustainable counseling 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 organic 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 here
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,