“The ancient rhythms of the earth have insinuated themselves into the rhythms of the human heart. The earth is not outside us; it is within: the clay from where the tree of the body grow” ~ (O’Donohue, 2005, p. 238).
The Earth and her creatures are potent expressions of the sacred (Buzzel & Chalquist, 2009; O’Donohue, 2005, 2011; Johnson, 2014). Carl Jung (1989) noted the interdependence of the human experience and the earth stating that we are not “upon the world but it is within us” (cited in Jordan, 2015, p.16).
Yet, modern living has insulated us from the positive ionic exchange between grass, trees, river and sky and resulted in a detachment from physical, psychological and often spiritual connection to the earth and her creatures (Ober, Sinatra & Zucker, 2014).
This detachment is associated with a variety of disease (Buzzel & Chalquist, 2009; Jordan, 2015). Research suggests that reconnecting to nature can result in the experience of reduced stress, increased energy, improved sleep, reduction of chronic pain and accelerated healing from injuries and surgery (Ober, Sinatra & Zucker, 2014).
As sensual- spiritual beings our interconnection with nature provides a platform for awe, wonder, healing and growth (O’Donohue, 2011, Johnson, 2014; Jordan, 2015).
Eco spirituality is the fundamental belief in the sacredness found in nature. It has been a foundational experience for most cultures since time began.
John Davis, professor at Naropa University and guide with the School of Lost Borders proposed that nature–
…includes and transcends nature-as-family and nature-as-self metaphor and recognizes
a fundamentally nondual, seamless unity in which both nature and psyche flow as
expressions of the same source…beyond the individual self as separate entity to
identification with being, with spirit, or the mystery , which gives rise to all manifestations, human and nature ( cited in Buzzell & Chalquist, 2014, p 87).
This inter-relationship of nature and spirituality can be found throughout history and cross culturally.
Creation stories and rituals provide insight to the relationships observed by communities.
Celebrations surrounding the changing of the seasons as in the Summer or Winter Solstices or the Spring and Fall Equinox, honor the changes of the earth in relation to the sun and moon.
The calendar (regardless of place of conception) not only holds the space for a linear observation of time, it does so around the rhythm of the sun and moon and the seasonal changes.
Many cultures cultivate a reciprocal relationship with nature. For example, according to the Okanagan tribe of British Columbia:
“…our flesh, blood, and bones are Earth-body, in all cycles in which the earth moves,
so does our body… emotion or feeling is the capacity whereby community and
Land intersect in our beings and become part of us. This bond or link is
A priority for our individual wholeness or well-being”. (Rust, M. J., 2014 p.44).
African communities, such as the Korekore of Zimbabwe, are spiritually informed by sacred sites (e.g. rivers , mountains, and forests), trees (e.g. baobab, tamarind), and animals (Ruffin, 2010).
Further, the African American experience of agriculture is that of beauty-burden as many were enslaved into farming crops. Dependent on the land for sustenance and medicine, Africans viewed the body as ‘bioregion’ or that bodies were nature and not separate from it (Ruffin, 2010).
Pagan and Earth-Centered traditions have long identified with a symbiotic nature-informed relationship. The Celtic communities turned to the earth and the elements for guidance and wisdom. The Celtic Eight Great Holidays are guided by the cycle of the moon and sun.
“From nature, we can better understand our own existence and help heal the wounds of Mother Goddess , the Earth. When we heal her, we heal humankind. If we destroy her, we destroy ourselves” (Owen, 2005).
Wiccan communities connect to the feminine sacred through the inter-relatedness in the five elements of Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Spirit.”
When we learn to connect with Mother Earth and show respect for nature; we draw closer to the Divine and open our lives to many blessings” (Zoe, 2015).
The Abrahamic traditions speak to the inter-connectedness of humans and other-than-human nature, as well. The Teaching of the Elect and the Essene Peace Gospel speak to being one with the Earth and experiencing a reciprocal relationship whereby each takes care of the other.
The Book of Job instructs us to consult the creatures of the air, land and sea, “Ask the beasts and they will teach you” (12.7) Eco-relationships can be sensual, spiritual, and political and offer a context to our whole human story.
“At times I feel like I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself
living in every tree, in the splashing of the waves, into the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons” ~ C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections
Nature has historically been essential to a sense of overall well-being of the human experience. According to Henry David Thoreau, “We need the tonic of wilderness” where we can connect with our natural self.
Further, Richard Louv coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder in his book “Last Child in the Woods” to address a generation of children who no longer spend time outdoors and experience the inter-relatedness afforded by hiking, camping, and interacting with the natural world.
Louv discusses the disease resulting from this detachment which includes epidemic rates of obesity and depression in children.
Nature-informed therapy refers to a vast array of scientifically-based psychological therapies that employ nature in clinical practice.
Foundational assumptions include that we are not machines, we are human-beings, sensual, curious and creative (Robinson, 2014).
We are interdependent on the full eco-system with which we reside.
Further, eco-therapy is informed not by managed care outcome-based criterion, but by an organic model of care that tends to the whole relationship between person and non-person context.
Eco-psychology, a branch of nature-informed therapy, was coined by Theodore Roszak in his 1992 book titled, “The Voice of the Earth.” It translates in Greek as home (eco), soul (psyche), and story (logos). Therefore, Eco-psychology is the story of the soul of the home (Robinson, 2014).
Eco-psychology has experienced an evolution. According to Bill O’Hanlon, author and psychotherapist, there have been three waves of psychotherapeutic perspectives.
The first ‘wave’ of psychotherapy was pathology-focused. Informed by Freud, nature was viewed as “eternally remote…she destroys us-coldly, cruelly, and relentlessly” (Buzzel & Chalquist, 2014 p. 95).
The ‘second wave’ shifted to problem-centered and began examining family and environment.
The ‘third wave’ of eco-psychology is more solution-based and relational. Tenets of eco-psychology include:
1. Creation of enduring and sustaining community
2. Engagement of the body and all the sense
3. Therapist must be sensually, energetically present with the client
4. The Earth is our home
5. There exists a profound interconnected story between humans and other-than humans.
Eco-psychology and nature-informed therapies are varied. The most common forms of practice include Eco-therapy, Horticulture Therapy, and Wilderness Therapy.
Eco-therapy, coined by Howard Clinebell (1996) in his book, “Eco- therapy: Healing Ourselves, Healing the Earth,” has been described as the process of healing the human-nature-relationship through connecting and reconnecting with natural processes (Buzzell, 2014, Jordan, 2015).
Clinebell suggested that the relationship between nature and humanity is reciprocal, holistic and spiritual. Therefore, eco- therapy focuses on the total mind-body-spirit-relationship organism (Jordan, 2015, p.38)
An example of the cross-cultural appeal of eco-therapy is noted in the observation of Japan’s Forest Bathing. Forest bathing or Shinrin-Yoko (a Japanese term meaning “taking in the forest atmosphere”) has been practiced for decades in Japan.
According to Qing Li, associate professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, forest bathing has been found to reduce stress, lower blood pressure and increase anti-cancer proteins.
Li attributed some of the benefits to inhaling the phytocides released by trees that appear to enhance the immune system.
Horticulture therapy is the use of plants as a modality through which clinically defined goals may be met.
It is the process by which individuals may develop well-being using plants. This is achieved by active or passive involvement (Growth Point, 1994 p.4 as cited by Jordan, 2015).
The use of gardens for therapeutic healing has been observed by many researchers. In the 1990’s , Swedish companies witnessed stress-related exhaustion of their employees. Specially designed gardens were developed and staffed with interdisciplinary team members that included psychotherapists, as well as gardeners, to help people in their recovery.
The gardens were designed to meet the moods of the employees during rehabilitation (Jordan, 2015).
Further, Denmark has initiated “The Healing Forest Garden Nacadia” project which aims to study long-term effects of nature-based therapy while incorporating mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
Wilderness Therapy focuses on the interaction between and within humans and the outdoors (Jordan, 2015).
A more structured program may be employed consisting of activities such as kayaking, canoeing, hiking, rope climbing, or mountain climbing. Such activities emphasize the natural and delicate dance orchestrated in human and other-than-human natural encounters.
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Forest image available from Shutterstock