The psychology of seasons, a new Ecotherapy course, and more.
The psychology of seasons, a new Ecotherapy course, and more.
Free Ecotherapy Webinar, “Listening”, “The Eagle and the Ant”, resources and more
“What is needed now: Eagle or Ant?”
A core mission of the EcoPsychology Initiative (EPI)is to look to the Earth as a teacher and guide for how best humans can function. This includes addressing problems, designing solutions and realizing our potential. EPI’s 10 Principles, which is at the heart of much of our programming with organizations and individuals, is derived from the principles and processes found in the ecosystems of the planet.
Nature’s wisdom isn’t just from ecosystems however, Many insights and lessons can be derived from individual animals and organisms as well. For example, when I sit among the trees of my forested home, I am reminded to grow towards the light, be rooted and patient, and bend when the winds blow. The list, even for trees, goes on.
Recently, I’ve been particularly drawn to observing eagles and ants. First eagles.
My house is a little walk through the woods to a lake; at Somes Pond, there is a family of eagles that live high in the white pines. Occasionally, I’m lucky enough to be around as they fly overhead looking for food. Their soaring is majestic, and I imagine the feeling I get watching them is likely shared by many others, and the reason it is the bird of the United States. I sometimes like to imagine what they see hundreds of feet in the air. Despite their laser sharpe eyesight, they also reach heights that enable a vast and broad vision. Observing an eagle, I’m reminded of the lesson of keeping the big picture in mind. As I get stuck in the little minutiae of my day-to-day, of my little problems that seem so big, of my struggles that so many less privileged people would love to have, I try to remember keeping a big perspective. In these moments, I try to summon the eagle in me, to a have a larger view.
This is so important for me: it’s very easy to make ‘mountains out of molehills’, to create ‘waves out of ripples’, to focus on “my leaves on the pool problems”. I don’t think I’m the only one who encounters this. All of us can get caught in our little egoic dramas: our partners did something to annoy us, the reception is poor on our iphones, the work presentation didn’t go as well as hoped, etc. It’s at these moments I want remember to keep the big picture in mind. This perspective, like that of the eagle, brings me back to gratitude, to empathize with those less fortunate, and keep working towards improving the lives of other people and the planet. When I have the view of the eagle, I remember that bad days both happen and will end, uncomfortable emotions are like weather and will change, and what seems so stressing and pressing now probably won’t tomorrow.
In a world with media and marketing that says we need to focus on ‘getting ours’, on purchasing the next big, new, and shiny thing, I think we need to remember the eagle. It is this perspective and vision that brings us back to what is really important: simple pleasures, the well-being of loved ones and strangers alike, raising a wise and compassionate future generation, community, and planetary health.
Now for ants.
I admit to ambivalence as I watch the ant mounds expand in my yard. Several places that were once grass are now little expanses of brown. I confess I’ve even thought of being ‘proactive’ to stem their progress. The very qualities that have me contemplating halting their development, are the very ones that I admire about ants. They “get er’ done”.
Unlike eagles, ants are not all worried about the big picture. They work with extraordinary diligence and effort to do their work. Their efforts are inspiring, both for the quality and quantity of their labors. Like the old energizer bunny commercial, they “just keep going and going”. Through sheer effort, will, and commitment they accomplish incredible amounts of work.
Have you ever tried to deter an ant from it’s labors? It can’t really be done. Disrupt their home, block their path….doesn’t matter, they keep going. Their resilient and adaptive to whatever ‘problems’ might arise. They find a way to, in the words of famed American football coach Bill Belichick, “do their job”.
Ants do not get lost, distracted or dismayed by the obstacles in front of them. They don’t give up or fail to begin their work because of difficulty or likelihood of success. Unlike the eagle, ants keep their body to the earth and press on without worrying about all the distractions or reasons for pessimism and dismay.
As I follow the news, contemplate climate change or think about the world my daughter might grow up in, I can easily get distressed. The political acrimony and intolerance, anger and fear that pervades the world can sap my motivation and leaving me feeling hopeless that we, as a planet and society, will ‘make it’. Sometimes the big picture, the eagle viewpoint, is not helpful or productive. A larger perspective is sometimes the last thing we need. We need to have the ant perspective.
Feeling discouraged doesn’t just occur when thinking about systemic political, planetary, economic or social issues. It can also easily apply when we think about the difficulty of big changes in our life. In my personal environment and working with clients, I find that making large personal changes-eating and exercise, anxiety or depression, addictions, etc-can be intimidating. We are all habitual people, and to change deeply ingrained habits that will be uncomfortable is daunting. We might know these changes are helpful, but it doesn’t make them easier to enact. In fact, the more we think about how hard it will be the less motivated we are. At which point, we must draw inspiration from the ant. Get to work.
One of my favorite quotes, is that a journey of a thousand miles happens one step at a time. When talking about change with students or clients, I often compare the process to moving through the dark with a headlamp. We often don’t know what’s around the bend, we can only know this next step. Both of these examples reference the teaching of the ant. They don’t waste their time thinking about what’s ten steps ahead. They act in the moment, this one action at a time.
To be truly adept at life, I find it necessary to go back and forth between the eagle and the ant. Once we have the big picture and perspective of the eagle-what’s important-we then need to get down to being an ant with perseverance and patience. At times, the work and efforts of the ant are exhausting and I start to question if the sacrifice and discomfort are really worth it. At which point, I return to the vision of the eagle. I remember that my efforts towards healing our planet aren’t just about immediate returns: rather, I’m laboring, along with millions of other people globally, to create a world that my daughter and, maybe, grandchildren, will be happy to live in. I find energy and inspiration being an eagle. Fresh with that perspective, I get back down to the earth and become an ant again.
In both my personal life and that with clients, I keep coming back to the question, “what is needed now: eagle or ant”. This question keeps bringing me back to what’s most helpful in the moment. In the process, I find the purpose, passion and productivity that I’m wanting in life. I find that, yet again, nature knows the way.
Check out our newsletter for May and June that includes a new online course offering (Nature-Inspired Spirituality), an article of ours published in Elephant Journal, a guest submission and reflections on the importance of teamwork.
“We a team!”, Gwinna exclaims. My 2-year-old daughter loves when I talk about who is on our ‘team’. It always varies depending on who is around, but today it’s Momma, Dada, Dobo (our dog) and Gwinna. When her grandparents were visiting, the team expanded to include Gamma and Papa. And later when my mother comes over, Nana will be absorbed into our team.
As my daughter embraces the concept of team, I’m reminded of my own love of teams. Especially sports teams. Despite being a sports lover from youth through college, I’ve distanced myself from owning this part of myself in recent years. The more I became a professional and ventured into psychology, ecology, spirituality, and conscious living, I hid my love of sports. Both to myself and others. Amongst other reasons, this might reflect my ambivalence about jock culture or the shadows of sports these days-from children being pushed to participate through the exploitation of college students for billions of dollars to the ways that professional athletes are criticized for commenting on social issues. Nonetheless, I cannot deny my love of sports.
I try to make time to play occasional tennis and rugby and find that I am better able to follow the headlines and my favorite teams this way. There is something about rooting for my favorite teams-Detroit and Michigan teams for those who’re interested-that brings up a very primal and innate part of me. It’s the same part that loved playing any sport I could when I was younger. Yes, I loved competition, winning, challenging myself and the physical engagement of sports. Just as importantly, however, I think I loved being a part of a team.
Team sports enable a shared participation in an activity to achieve a common goal. This is a powerful experience. There is something beautiful in this that speaks to what people need and what our culture is lacking. I love how sports can bring different people together-race, gender, beliefs, etc. Whether you’re playing or cheering on a team, for a moment it doesn’t matter if you like Trump or are a tree hugger. You’re aligned in something that feels bigger and larger.
When playing sports, you’re willing to contribute in whatever ways you can, to sacrifice and struggle, along with your fellow comrades towards a shared purpose. This type of unity seems increasingly rare in the world-from communities to workplaces. There are such competition and divisiveness in our culture that we continue to isolate ourselves. If you specify your community that tightly, you’ll never find the very belonging you seek.
And yet so many people do this. Our society is focused on defining ourselves: us vs them, good vs bad, right vs wrong. In the process of doing this, we are limiting, isolating and disconnecting ourselves from others. Instead of connection, we’re left with the bitter tastes of judgment and upset. Teamwork-bringing people together-is the antidote to this and is the very thing we’re needing more of.
Being on a team, you’re not as worried whether your teammate goes to church or what he eats. You care that they have your back, that they’re willing to give all of themselves with effort and sacrifice. In the name of something bigger than any one person, you’re willing to give of yourself. The purpose is playing and working together; for this cause, you sacrifice your ego and agenda. How many other places does this happen in the world?
It’s for reasons like these and many others that Teamwork is one of the EcoPsychology Initiative’s 10 Principles.
In a time of great division, we need to remember the benefits of being a part of a team, of belonging to something larger than ourselves. What we have in common is so much more significant than what divides us: our humanity and planet are two notable examples, though there are many others. How much then does it really matter what religion you belong to, the color of your skin, or whom you choose to love? It shouldn’t matter that much. We are part of this great ecosystem that is the planet, and that is the most important team to be on and cheer for. It should take precedence over all other things.
I want to remind Gwinna of a few things, as she and I share our love of teams. Yes, she should root for the same teams I like. 🙂 More importantly, I want her to know that though her family is a team that will always love her more than anyone, she belongs to a team that is so much bigger.
If I listen, I can hear it. Though, I’m usually not quiet enough or paying sufficient attention.
But when I get into my senses, put away my technology and just be present I can definitely hear it. I can hear nature talking and communicating. This music is better than anything on my phone: the sound of the ice groaning as it expands, the ancient spruce trees creaking in the wind, the squirrel warning its neighbors that Sutro, my dog, is nearing, or the birds celebrating the arrival of warming temperatures. If we’re listening, we hear that the natural world is always talking. Communication, one of the EcoPsychology Initiative’s 10 Principles, is always happening and isn’t just limited to humans.
Information is power. Communication is the exchange of information; therefore, communication is power.
Considering how important communication is, it is remarkable that we are so poorly educated about how best to communicate. Few of us had classes on how to effectively share our thoughts and feelings in school, let alone learning how to really listen. For the few of you fortunate enough to have had such advanced schooling, I bet most of this was communication was using words. How much training did you get in nonverbal dialogue? And to think that over 50% of communication is nonverbal! We are unprepared. No wonder we are struggling.
You needn’t look around you very far or follow politics, religion and social issues, to realize that our world is deeply struggling with how to communicate. This is also present in families and personal relationships. It is the one of the biggest sources of suffering on all levels. Communication is foundational to all relationships and interactions. It can single-handedly determine whether a relationship is constructive, respectful and warm or distant, cold and unproductive. Often, it is the key difference between success and disappointment.
Communities, movements, and organizations are continually looking at how best to share their message. This is the key to any success you want to have. Success can be directly tied to the culture of communication and relationships. Ineffective communication in any human ecosystem will create endless problems. It may be hard to share our hopes, love and gratitude; but it is especially difficult to share our needs, disagreements or vulnerabilities. Too often the message is ineffective, filled with judgment, shame, confusion or disregard of the other.
People must learn how to share their message of yes or no, yearnings or fears, solutions or goals. Knowing this is essential to improving organizational cultures and the fabric of our world.
The EcoPsychology Initiative is committed to improving the way our culture communicates. This entails helping how communities, institutions and people speak with each other. We want to empower our planet with effective ways to share our experiences, needs and truth. As part of this mission, we offer communication programming for groups, organizations and individuals. Look for some additional public programming on communication, including online opportunities we will be offering in the coming months. We are excited to share with you what we know about effective strategies and techniques for communicating. In the meantime, we encourage you to learn from the natural world.
Most simply, effective communication involves being quiet, focused and present. These are the very things you experience when you go outdoors, put down your phone and feel into your body and heart. You learn to listen. This is probably more important than any speaking ability. Though easier said than done, you can start by going outside and paying attention. Look and listen, feel and be present. Listen to water lapping, wind blowing, and animals communicating. Like a zen koan (find google link), when you understand what trees creaking and ice groaning means, then you will have the foundation for communicating with humans.
I was 16 when two formative experiences happened. The first was during my sophomore year of high school, when I was accepted into my school’s Peer Counseling program. The second was when my father gave me a tape of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh talking about eating an orange. Two bulbs of passion and interest lit up inside of me. Despite their apparent differences, I intuitively knew these two fields had much in common.
My subsequent forays into psychology and spirituality took me on very divergent paths, from starting a daily meditation practice and becoming a yoga teacher, to going to graduate school for counseling psychology and becoming a psychotherapist. These 20 plus years of study and experience confirmed what I knew at 16: psychology and spirituality have a great deal in common. While the traditions might be two different lights, they are both linked by the same current.
At their essence, I believe both spirituality and psychology are about interconnectedness. This is affirmed in the roots of each word. Psyche is Greek, originating from the word ‘psuche’. Spirit derives from Latin. Though separated by language and culture, they each share the same meaning: “breath, life force and consciousness”. Upon learning this in graduate school at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), the same light bulb from high school went off again.
On the deepest level, the etymology of these words speaks to who we are. We are a part of the great circle and ecosystem that is life, whether you call this the ‘big breath’, consciousness, or energy and life force. Despite differences in genetics, experiences, cultures and beliefs, we are all part of the great web that is this planet. We are each our own little ecosystem, comprised of relationships, and part of much larger threads of connections. This is our true nature, and it is likely for these reasons and others that, when asked what it meant to be awake, the Buddha held up a flower.
The avoidable sufferings of life (not the pure and unavoidable heartbreaks of things like loss or grief, but rather the self-inflicted pains of the ego) arise when I forget just how interconnected I am. My struggles are usually directly related to how connected I feel: to my mind, body, heart, and soul, as well as other people and the world around me. This aligns with spiritual traditions’ view of suffering as occurring when we are caught in the illusion of separateness, the I, me and my. Most simply, the more attached I am to my little world, the more I struggle and experience hardship. The solution to this, how best to live, is to remember our interconnectedness, our innate “inter-being” (to use a term from Thich Nhat Hanh, my first spiritual teacher at 16).
Our planet continually offers me mirrorings of these lessons from psychology and spirituality. Nature provides very real examples of our interconnection, offering embodied experiences and reminders of just how inseparate I am from all things. Additionally, in seeing the effects of something such as climate change, I see the undeniable manifestation of our individual and collective suffering. We have treated the planet as though it is apart from us, exploiting and disregarding its wellbeing for our own selfish pursuits. I believe returning back to nature, to treat all on this earth with the respect we would afford a family member, is how we move forward. Nature is invaluable for understanding our struggles as well as who we are and how best to live.
Psychology and spirituality, though grounded in real practices like therapy and meditation, can become very heady and abstract. I believe insight is invaluable but without embodiment and experience, a part of the actualization process is missing. We need something to link the two. Nature does this.
Taking walks in the woods with my family as a child, my father would talk about trees. He shared that to understand a tree you had to understand the whole forest, and vice versa. The same is true for each of us. To know who we really are, we must not only know our genetics, but also the experiences that shaped us. Whether you grew up hunting animals or hunting for green space, staying indoors all the time or staying outside until it was supper, we are a product of our experiences and environments. Positive and negative, they weave together to help comprise the fabric of what makes us… us.
I know the natural world was involved in many of my most pivotal experiences: the sunrise when my daughter was born, an osprey by the ocean when I got married, a long walk outside upon learning of my father’s sudden death, a stormy mountaintop in New Zealand, a kayaking accident, a chance encounter with a deer. Nature has profoundly shaped who I am, and I believe this is true for most people whether we realize it or not. The natural environment is a catalyst and backdrop for transformative life experiences that affect our psyche. Whether it was the chemical processing plant in our community or the open expanse of fields out our door, the climate we lived in, the parents who took us to the park or cautioned against nature’s danger, dirt and mess. We are all a product of these encounters and relationships. They shape not only how we are in relationship with other people and the planet, but the very lens for how we see ourselves and the world.
Tragically, many people think of themselves as separate. In our western world, this is all too prevalent. We are a society of rugged individualists, a culture formed by the mechanized technologies and mentalities of disconnection. This owes roots to many causes, but some I believe are the product of these early experiences with the natural world. Many people learned that nature is a place to fear, a resource to capitalize on, or something to overcome. All of this fosters an attitude of objectification and separation. No wonder then that we have treated the Earth so callously, exploiting and disregarding it for our pursuits of pleasure and material gain. Herein we see the roots of our individual and collective suffering: we have lost sight fundamentally of who we are. We come back to the core lessons of psychology and spirituality: the world is interconnected and we suffer when we forget this. We need an eco-centric view of life, not ego-centered.
When I have my moments of forgetting and losing my way (which I, like everyone, have) the solution is always to get outdoors. It is then that I remember and return to myself, to inter-being and inseparateness with myself and the world around me. I remember that my true nature is both part of the natural world, just as nature is a part of me.
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Bob Dylan produced a song, ‘The Times, They Are a Changing” in 1964. The song and its lyrics spoke to the changing dynamics that were taking place in the 60’s. If you pay attention to the world around us currently, you will similarly notice that times are changing. These indicators are at once subtle and obvious, easy to identify and hard to grasp. Regardless of your beliefs, most would probably agree we’re living in a time of transition. Old norms are falling away, whether it’s Trump’s unconventional presidency, the rise of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, Standing Rock, or cryptocurrencies. In fact, the very systems and norms that have underpinned our society are experiencing tectonic shifts.
When we take a step back from all the upheaval, there is a lot of reason to be hopeful. Yes, the catalysts and results of change can be painful. However, they also point to an underlying yearning to improve how we’re functioning. The rising up on all ends of the continuum is a dissatisfaction with patterns that have been in place for many decades. There is an opportunity here.
People are making their voices known that they want better. They demand new systems that meet the times we live in, that meet the needs people have for respect, equality, and authenticity. Most simply, we require a new story. There is a resistance to the top-down hierarchical models that have been entrenched since the founding of this country.
In this highly decentralized time, there is a lot of floundering. It’s important that we look around for models that speak to the interactive and interdependent nature of the world. We need a more systemic way of seeing things, ways of self-organizing and engaging that are more holistic. This is very different from the mechanized approaches we’ve been using since the Industrial Revolution.
Nature and its principles provide examples of systems that apply to these times. These models have stood the test of time; for all the degradation our planet has encountered, it continues to be resilient, sustainable, efficient and innovative. These are the very things our society needs. The EcoPsychology Initiative has developed 10 Principles that are inspired by natural ecosystems that are powerfully effective when applied to humans. Applying these principles to how we organize and engage will yield the very growth, leadership, healing and impact that we’re wanting for ourselves and the world.
One of these 10 Principles is Adaptation. Psychologically using nature’s principles to solve problems and realize potential-called biomimicry-will enable us as individuals, organizations and communities to adapt to the changing circumstances we face. This will be empowering, and provide the needs that are times are requiring.
Biomimicry is both a science and art. A peacock’s wings, a nautilus shell or the ability of a bird to fly is inspiring. These examples illustrate nature’s ability to very pragmatically evolve to meet its needs while also producing something beautiful. We need both of these in our human world; thriving human societies require art and beauty, and as well as purpose and value. We need systems in the world that enrich and solve problems. We believe that ecopsychology and adopting nature’s principles provides just this model to continually adapt to our changing needs.
“The times they are a changing”. Indeed, they are. A new story is being written as we speak by billions of people around the world rising up. As old systems and stories fall away, we are hopeful for a new narrative. We don’t know how this will look, but we do believe an ecopsychological lens is the greatest opportunity to adapt to these changing times and get what we want, for ourselves and the world.