What is an Ecotherapy Experience?

Ecotherapy is based on the fundamental understanding that modern man has become eco-alienated: initially we genetically, soulfully and spiritually evolved in adaptation to nature, and thus, we are not best adapted to the stresses and strains of city life, and many aspects of our westernized lifestyles. Howard Clinebell (1996), author of ‘Healing Yourself: Healing the World’ concernedly suggests that:

The most serious, most dangerous health challenge all of us in the human family face is to reverse the planet’s continuing ecological deterioration….For the first time ever, one species – with the questionable label, the ‘wise humans’ – has the awesome power to threaten the health, perhaps even the survival of all species’.

Peter and Hilary Pickford, photographic and journalist, husband and wife team, agree:

‘If we cannot use our reason to hold ourselves in humility and accept with grace our partnership with all the earth (and each other), then we will not be able to perceive that man, like the dinosaur, is expendable. Ultimately in the vastness of time, man is on trial here, not only as a species, but also as a vehicle to determine whether reason was an advance or a tragic evolutionary mistake?

Thus, healing oneself and healing the earth are interdependent, yet most of us are in a state of eco-alienation:

Edward Wilson, world renown biologist confirms:

The human species has had some 3 million years of survival-programming in how to interact constructively with nature…love and connectedness with the natural world is rooted in our genes – as much a part of our history as love and bonding and having children. We know at a deep body-mind level, however dimly, that if we continue to reject this programming and do not establish a respectful interaction with nature, we will lose not only a vital dimension of our humanness, but eventually our planet home as a self-renewing, life-nurturing organism. Wilson, E.O., (1992), ‘The Diversity of Life’, quoted in Howard J. Clinebell, (1996), Healing Ourselves: Healing the Earth, pp. 41,42. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

The ecotherapy experiences Mandy Young facilitates is geared towards healing, restoration and a return to ancient human wisdom by offering people an opportunity return to wilderness spaces and observe animals with social behavior. It is a journey of self-discovery and group interaction, within species and across species. Guests experience an immediate sense of relaxation in this natural space as they rest their fragile psyches from the exhaustion of trying to stay intact within the responsibilities of daily life. There is an opportunity to nurture neglected aspects of our being like compassion, creativity, passion and intuition. According to Linda Hogan, animals help us to reflect on the more authentic aspects of ourselves, the parts we often hide behind the roles we play or the masks we wear:

They reveal to us “…that which is bedrock or cement in us: aggression, fear, insecurity, happiness or opportunity. Because they have the ability to read our involuntary tics and scents, we are transparent to them, and thus exposed – we are finally ourselves.” Hogan, L., Metzger, D. & Peterson, B. (1998). Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals. New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group, Random House Inc.

After spending time observing the animals, guests engage in self-reflective group discussion which are not threateningly intense or heavily psychoanalytic, the experience is like a south African braai or women’s book club, where like-minded people laugh, share and offer valuable insights. The whole process is facilitated and integrated by Mandy who has extensive knowledge in animal and human behavior, so that guests have take-home, life-enriching understandings that can be quite transforming of one’s life processes from that moment onwards!
There is a theory behind the process, however:

Clinebell (1995, Healing Yourself: Healing the Earth), psychologist and theologian, talks about psychological theories, upon which different therapy modalities are based, as being like ripples on a pond, each one emanating and expanding upon ever-increasing insights. To start with the outer-most ripple, he believes, a psychotherapeutic methodology facilitating healing today needs to take into account our global environment crisis.

Thoughts by psychologist, Paul Shephard (1982) confirm this belief. He says:

‘The foundational grounding from the inner and outer connectedness with nature is weak or missing in many people today, especially those whose live most of their lives distanced from nature’s power and nurturance in industrialized, high-tech, polluted mega-cities. Preventing this alienation by enhancing ecobonding through ecotherapy programs is an essential but often neglected goal of holistic education, including parenting. Healing this alienation should be one of the essential goals of whole-person counseling, psychotherapy and other forms of healing practise. Many if not most Western healers still need to become aware of this vital need.’

Ecotherapy integrates 3 important psychological theories and approaches:

1. A self-psychology approach embedded in the extension of Object Relations theory, which includes an understanding of how an individual perceives and experiences his/her world based not only on the early relationship experiences he/she has with primary caregivers (usually the mother and/or father), but also on how his/her parents, society and culture interact with and experience nature.

“The internalized unloving, undependable “bad” mother or loving, dependable “good” mother (as expressed in the formation of the senses of self in object relations perceptions) interacts with the internalized fearful and threatening “bad” earth experiences and the security-giving, nurturing experiences with the “good earth”. (Clinebell, 1996)

Jane Hollister Wheelwright, and her daughter, Lynda Wheelwright Schmidt (1991, The Long Shore: A Psychological Experience of the Wilderness), both Jungian analysts, talk about the abandonment wound so many of us experience because we have been removed too early from the safe place of our mothering person (male or female) and because we no longer engage in the privilege of living in wilderness spaces and being nurtured too, in the balanced, containing and enriching arms of Mother Earth.

Thus, ecotherapy is based on the fundamental understanding that ‘healing oneself and healing the earth’ are interdependent.

Mother and daughter express:

‘… that much of Western psychology today focuses on the pain and anxiety of abandonment caused by children being separated too early from the ‘safe place’ with their mothering person (female or male)…Psychotherapy and other forms of psychic healing have moved into this breach, with their methods of providing a safe place, a re-creation of the original ‘safe place’ with the mother person (male of female). From this safe place clients can explore and find healing for not only the wound particular to their own life, but also the abandonment wound everyone shares… Alone in the wilderness we also experience fear and isolation, but we have a history of millions of years of relating to wilderness literally and bodily….’

To hear Jane and Lynda’s voices again:

Entering the wilderness and its microcosms – (even) gardens and parks – gives us an opportunity to reconnect with this instinct and rests our fragile psyches from the exhaustion of trying to stay intact in the civilized world, which is so alien to many of us…Merger with a therapist can heal our abandonment wound, but merger with nature can reconnect us to the ancient roots of the Self as well.

2. The nurturing of kinship bonds through group therapy, and an application of Systems theory that recognizes not only our interpersonal relationships, but our relationships with the earth and other species we share this planet and universe with (the biosphere); and

3. The context of wilderness therapy together with an acknowledgement of man’s ability to transcend himself and develop a lifestyle that includes value systems and spirituality based on theories from the Psychology of Religion.

Ecotherapy theory and practise also involves the functioning of the whole brain: the integration of both right and left hemispheres of the ‘new’ brain or neocortex, i.e. the computer-like observing, objectifying, symbolic functioning of the left hemisphere and the imaging, patterning, meaning-making, feeling functions of the right hemisphere; as well as an integration of the new brain and limbic system of the old brain, which evolved from our reptilian and mammalian predecessors.

According to James Ashbrook (1995), psychologist and pastoral therapist, whose expertise lies in the fields of both neuro-psychology and psychology of religion:

‘We need to move from the new brain’s prominence and domination back into the old brain’s primacy and purpose.’

Thus, for humans, the old-brain experience of ecobonding is intermingled with and enriched by cognitive processes in the new brain that add unique dimensions (including the spiritual) that probably transcend the experience of other animals.

In Conclusion

Healthy bonding with nature, however is not merging with it, as this is impossible for modern man who has the capacity for species’ self awareness, intelligence and spiritual capacities. Our bodies and deep unconscious minds remind us that we are a part of the natural processes, that we are kindred to other animals. But our intelligence and our souls cause us to transcend the rest of nature. Man experiences the paradox of being in nature, but also set apart from it, to be a creature of both dust and destiny. Instead of merging with nature, what ecotherapy seeks to facilitate is intimate nurturing interaction with nature called, eco-bonding.

It is my hope that as a participant in a Wild Women, Wild Dogs & Wild Men ecotherapy experience, a Wisdom of Elephants ecotherapy experience, a Dancing with Dolphins ecotherapy experience and / or a Mingling with Meerkats ecotherapy experience you will engage in ecobonding that will help you know yourself better. I hope it will be an experience that gives you a sense of rootedness and a specific reason for being, on your own small patch of earth. I hope that this experience will contribute into your life in a way that enables you to care better for yourself, for others and for the earth we all share.

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