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.