Meeting the Crises of Our Times
Lead article in the 1999 edition of Conversations in Psychosynthesis, the journal of the Association for the Advancement of Psychosynthesis (AAP)
We live in a world of relationship, entwined and sustained by interconnecting webs of dynamic interactions. And today we are awakening to that world, discovering the enormity of our past human folly along with the creative potentials within and around us. Psychosynthesis has contributed to that awakening through this century, by exploring the intricate world of interrelationships within the human being, within human groups. But now, as the magnitude of the ecological crisis dawns upon so many of us, the psychosynthesis community (at least in North America) seems to be averting its eyes from the challenge, acting as if the life support systems of our planet will go on indefinitely despite human predation and waste.
Today it is not just a forest here and some farmlands and fisheries there; today entire species are dying – and whole cultures, and ecosystems on a global scale, even to the oxygen-producing plankton of our seas. Scientists may try to tell us what is at stake when we burn rain forests and fossil fuels, dump toxic wastes in air, soil, sea, and use chemicals that devour our planet's protective ozone shield. But their warnings are hard to heed. For ours is an Industrial Growth Society. Its economy depends on ever-increasing consumption of resources. To maintain its engines of progress, Earth is both supply-house and sewer. The planet's body is not only dug up and turned into goods to sell, it is also a "sink" for the poisonous byproducts of our industries. If we sense that the tempo is accelerating, we are right – for the logic of the Industrial Growth Society is exponential, demanding not only "growth," but rising rates of growth. Like Alice on the chessboard of the mad queen, we must run ever faster to stay in the same place. What is in store for our children's children? What will be left for those who come after? Too busy running to think about that, we try to close our minds to nightmare scenarios of want and wars in a wasted, contaminated world. (Macy & Brown, 1998, p. 25.)
The psychosynthesis community is not alone in averting its eyes from the crisis. But we do so at our peril. The urgency of the situation we face on the planet today requires every philosophy and psychology to contribute to a Great Turning of consciousness– towards our essential interconnectedness, our imbeddedness within nature. Without such a Turning, we soon won't have a viable life support system within which to carry on any of our cherished human endeavors. Psychosynthesis principles affirm our capacities to address whatever challenges we encounter, individually and collectively, and to act creatively and in harmony with one another and the natural world.
We can choose life. Dire predictions notwithstanding, we can still act to ensure a livable world. It is crucial that we know this: we can meet our needs without destroying our life support system. We have the technical knowledge and the means of communication to do that. We have the savvy and the resources to grow sufficient food, ensure clean air and water, and generate the energy we require through solar power, wind, biomass. If we have the will, we have the means to control human population, to dismantle weapons and deflect wars, and give everyone a voice in democratic self-governance. (Macy & Brown, 1998, p. 26)
Despite the potential contributions psychosynthesis could make to bringing about such a Turning, it appears that few people in the movement have actively involved themselves in ecological concerns. Apart from my own articles on ecology, I know of no others appearing in psychosynthesis literature. At the 1996 conference in San Diego, one of the "dialogue groups" formed at the end of the conference was on "ecology and Earth." Yet for the September 1998 International Conference in Quebec (which I was unable to attend), apparently no one proposed a workshop or presentation addressing ecological issues or exploring ecopsychology . Neither was a co-creative group formed on this theme.
Western psychology in general has largely ignored humanity's relationship to the natural world. The destruction of our life support system is not included in its list of pathologies; it has failed to ask Paul Shepard's rather obvious and haunting question: "Why does society persist in destroying its habitat?" The new discipline of ecopsychology has begun to address this failure and study the human psyche within the larger systems of which it is a part. We are beginning to see how our cultural alienation from nature engenders not only careless and destructive behavior toward our environment, but also many common disorders such as depression and addiction. Psychotherapists are realizing how their profession has blinded itself to the larger context of their clients' lives, and pathologized their pain for the world. They are discovering how to help clients find greater meaning by experiencing interconnectedness with all life, and acting on its behalf.
Ecopsychologist Sarah Conn writes,
Ecopsychology invites psychotherapy practice to expand its focus beyond the inner landscape, to explore and foster the development of community, contact with land and place, and ecological identity… It invites us to hear the Earth speaking through our pain and distress, and listen to ourselves as if we were listening to a message from the universe. (Conn, 1998).
We psychosynthesis practitioners must join this movement if we want to participate meaningfully in the transformation and healing of our world, and if we want psychosynthesis to remain relevant and vital into the new millennium.
Challenges to Psychosynthesis Thought
Psychosynthesis is at its heart "ecological" because it explores interrelationships and encourages inclusion and synthesis. But as we students of psychosynthesis open our hearts and minds to the stark and often unpleasant realities of our times, we need to look beyond some of the crystallized models of our tradition.
The problem of the "Higher" Self
At the heart of psychosynthesis theory lies the concept of Self, that most essential dimension of our being, the union of the individual and the universal, transcending ego, underlying all aspects of our lives. When we move beyond a purely anthropocentric perspective, we recognize that "the universal" most certainly includes the natural world and the consciousness of all the other forms of life within our planet's web. In our most essential being, we are of nature, of wildness, of life. I propose that the "Self" described in psychosynthesis is closely akin to the "Ecological Self" described by deep ecologist Arne Naess and others– a sense of self encompassing all of nature, all of life, and acting from this very inclusive perspective.
Sadly, many psychosynthesis practitioners confine Self to the "higher realms." They tend to go "up" for guidance and inspiration, and avoid touching– both literally and figuratively– the soil beneath their feet. Assagioli himself called Self "the Higher Self" and most of his students carried on this tradition, at least until recently. John Firman and Ann Gila (1997) have described vividly how this perspective can create a split within an individual between the "good" self on high, and the "bad" self below. It also reinforces the unfortunate tendency in our culture to divide Spirit from Nature, mind from body, heaven from earth. Some people even believe the destruction of life on the planet doesn't matter, because we can all float off in a cloud of pure energy and consciousness.
And why should this be otherwise? Psychosynthesis arose from within a centuries-old world view that has increasingly separated "man" from nature, assuming human beings to be the end-all and be-all of evolution, destined to be masters of earth and sky. Even the word "nature" (which I use for lack of a better term) separates the rest of creation from Us. Humans evolved by the same processes and from the same elements as every other living being, but we in "Western civilization" seem to keep forgetting that, especially as our technological prowess has increased.
Psychosynthesis has suffered from the same tendency, even as it has moved to bring together the spiritual and psychological dimensions. The "spiritual" has often been treated as a transcendent aspect removed from the "material" world, rather than immanent within all of creation. Rather than correcting the spiritual relationship between humans and the material world, we have rejected the material world itself, and what I am calling the "natural world" along with it.
But it doesn't have to stay that way. It is not so much a matter of changing any of the essential models and principles of psychosynthesis; it's more a matter of broadening and deepening the context within which we understand ourselves. It's a matter of challenging our unconscious assumptions and releasing ourselves from their strangleholds, just as we have learned to do with the limiting beliefs and choices of subpersonalities.
The most deeply ingrained and most damaging assumption we carry in this culture may be that of anthropocentrism, the belief that human beings are the center of the universe. Even nature lovers can come from this perspective, seeing nature as a beautiful backdrop for human activities. In psychosynthesis and other spiritual psychologies, we may carry this even further, placing the "human spirit" at the center of the universe. We assume that life evolved with the purpose of creating Us, and that all the life forms on Earth exist to support human development and consciousness. If life forms or natural processes don't seem to support humans, we label them as cruel or brutal, and do our best to control or even eliminate them if we can. We suffer from a collective ego-inflation, and lay waste to whatever seems not to immediately and directly serve human needs.
From this perspective, we may even cast nature as the enemy, pointing to natural disasters and fatal human encounters with plants and animals as evidence of nature's opposition or at least indifference. Natural processes occur within the life of an ecosystem which injure and kill human beings (as well as other animals and plants.) Nature does not always seem "nice" to us. On the rare occasion when someone is attacked by a mountain lion, the call goes out to declare open season on all such beasts. Here we seem to apply a double standard. When someone is killed in a car accident, no one declares we should eliminate all cars. Nor do we label technology as cruel (with the exception of critics like Jerry Mander). We accept what has occurred as an unfortunate side-effect of our civilization, while we try to make adjustments to minimize reoccurrence.
Systems thinking provides a helpful perspective, at least for me. Natural disasters, mountain lion attacks, and car accidents all arise in systems which self-correct and self-organize according to feedback. Humans are part of the living system of the planet, and its myriad intersecting subsystems, so we contribute to, suffer from, and are supported by everything else that happens.
Complex interactions within the entire world climate bring about both natural disasters and fair weather, and we suffer or enjoy the results along with all the other creatures. Scientists tell us that human activities are increasingly bringing about global climate change, increasing the frequency and severity of floods, storms, droughts, maybe even earthquakes, as the earth's climate systems respond to myriad perturbations. So when we are tempted to blame "nature," we need to remember we are all in this together.
A more humble perspective regards human beings as one– and only one– of the myriad of life forms populating the planet, all interrelated and interdependent, all arising within, contributing to, and sustained by the web of life of Earth. It may be, as some scientists assert, that humans represent the most complex of those life forms, and the only species in which self-reflective consciousness has occurred. But that does not make us the end-point of evolution. Indeed, we might regard ourselves as just one of evolution's experiments which could disappear like the dinosaurs. Certainly humanity has had a more profound (and mostly negative) effect on planetary ecosystems than any other species, but that doesn't mean things were divinely ordained to be that way. It's just the way things have worked out.
An "ecocentric" perspective may place humans in a more humble position in the scheme of things, but it doesn't lessen our responsibility nor our potential. We have special gifts in our self-reflective consciousness, in our ability to look to the future, plan and strategize, in our creative genius, and in our capacity to act out of conscious choice beyond conditioning and instinct. Although humanity may have used these gifts in careless ways that have injured the living fabric of the planet, we can turn them now to the task of creating a sustainable future for all earthly beings.
We can also move towards an ecocentric spiritual perspective, in which we see Spirit expressing itself through and in all life forms. We can deepen our appreciation of the consciousness of all life, the wisdom of trees, the enlightenment of birds, the grace of dolphins. We humans evolved within this rich tapestry of life and consciousness, and we can contribute to it; finding out precisely how may be our greatest spiritual challenge. I don't believe that we are here to exploit life, nor rise above it (even if we could). I believe we are here to participate in the unfolding of life, and perhaps even serve it.
And we can seek guidance for how to participate from the living systems within and around us. Our books and traditions contain much wisdom, but if we consult only them, we may keep making the same mistakes. So we can open ourselves to the inherent intelligence in all living systems –the wilderness, the rivers and mountains, the trees and plants, the birds and beasts, and the ageless wisdom of our own bodies. I am convinced we can consult the living intelligence of Earth both "outside" ourselves and "within." Because we are each a living system within the larger systems of Earth, we carry that intelligence within us. We need only clear away the debris of conditioning and the "noise" of advertising, television, radio, traffic, etc. The still small voice within may be the voice of the Earth.
Ecological Principles in Psychosynthesis
Through the years, I have applied psychosynthesis to peace psychology and, more recently, to ecopsychology and "deep ecology." I have never felt any conflict between psychosynthesis principles as I understand them and the ecological consciousness I describe here. Certain psychosynthesis principles and models are especially supportive of an ecocentric perspective.
One of the greatest teaching I believe psychosynthesis has brought to the world is the value of presence in healing and transformation. Without presence, all the models and concepts of psychosynthesis are empty and remote. Only when we bring our living, breathing, caring selves to an interaction does it take on life and meaning. This is why psychosynthesis training is always experiential, and always teaches students to apply processes or concepts to their own lives first, before reflecting on how to use the tools in counseling, teaching, business, or whatever. To quote Marshall McLuhan, "The medium is the message," and the medium of psychosynthesis is one's whole self.
The practice of presence goes both ways when we move to heal the split between human and the rest of nature. We need to learn to be present with other living beings, to hear their teachings and their pain. Rather than batting away in annoyance a buzzing bee, I have been able, on occasion, to pay close attention to its activities, even letting it crawl around on my skin. Then I discover that it doesn't harm me, but seems to lick my skin, perhaps to gather some salt from my sweat. I find a new relationship with the bee. There are many practices to develop this kind of attentive presence with living beings, among them the Council of All Beings developed by John Seed and Joanna Macy (Seed et al, 1988). In this process, participants take on the role of a non-human being– plant, animal, element, geological feature– and speak for that being in a formal Council on the state of the Earth.
The other side of presence with non-human beings is the discovery of how present all of nature is with oneself. Standing among the majestic redwoods, I have felt their presence deeply, although it seems to me very different from human presence– totally neutral and enduring. This presence can be deeply healing for anyone who can rest within it with an open heart. The growing popularity of wilderness journeys including solo fasts of three or four days duration (often called "vision quests") attests to the healing power of nature's presence.
Closely related to presence in psychosynthesis is the central role of awareness. We heal ourselves by bringing awareness to bear, by observing ourselves from a non-judgmental perspective (the "Observer"). We describe the Self as a center of awareness and will (which I will discuss later). In ecopsychology and deep ecology, practices abound to sharpen awareness, to teach us once again to pay attention to the world in which we live. When we pay attention, we allow feedback from our actions to sink in; we notice the effects of our behavior and can make intelligent choices which support rather than destroy life. Unfortunately, the Industrial Growth Society seems hell-bent on distracting us from paying attention to the effects of our behavior, individually and collectively. Now even the evening news is basically entertainment, focusing on sexual scandals and celebrity crimes instead of helping us confront the real threats to our well-being. Psychosynthesis practices for developing non-judgmental awareness can help to counter this trend, especially if we learn to pay attention to all the living beings around us, and to the whole ecosystem in which we live.
David Abrams has offered us some potentially transformative insights into our relationship with what he calls "the more-than-human" world (Abrams, 1996). He reminds us that awareness is not limited to humans, that all living beings are aware of both their inner and outer environments, even though that quality of that awareness may be different than ours. And so the trees and plants and animals around us are aware of us. And knowing that changes the nature of our relationship to them. They become sentient, alive, and interactive with us, not merely backdrops, irritants, or consumer items. And no longer alone, we take our place in the natural world, part of a web of awareness and life.
I had a vivid personal experience of this mutuality of awareness recently on a wilderness trip. I had become disoriented while walking by myself, and couldn't find my way back to camp. I started to feel a little panicky until I remembered a poem by David Wagoner called "Lost." I couldn't remember all of the poem, only a few key lines which carried the meaning of the whole poem. I quote the entire poem here because it speaks directly to the idea of awareness in all living things.
Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not Lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two branches are the same to Raven.
No two trees are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
Knowing that the forest knew where I was, that I was Here, helped calm me, and I was able to reorient myself and find my way back to camp. I believe even if I had not been able to find my way back, I would not have felt lost anymore, only somewhere different than where I wanted to be.
Among the most distinct and powerful contributions psychosynthesis has made to modern psychology are the concept of the will, and practices to develop it. Assagioli saw the importance of the will in today's world, how needed it is in a world distracted by advertising and entertainment.
The will is one's power to choose, to bring about changes in oneself, in others, and in our environment. Awareness of our problems, their origins and effects, may not be enough. We must go on to choose wise action, and carry it through. Our will may be held by subpersonalities operating out of fear, greed, and neediness. As we heal and reintegrate these fragments of ourselves, the will of Self re-emerges, acting in relation to the largest reality: the web of life itself.
Today, perhaps more than ever, we need to call upon our collective will for survival. And just as democracy depends on the participation of all its citizens, our collective will depends on the awakening, development, and alignment of each of our personal wills. We have the capacity to overcome conditioning from our childhood, and brainwashing from our schools and institutions, and from advertising and the mass media. We are called to examine our choices in light of the common good, including the whole web of life which sustains us. We can make a difference through our choices of what to buy and from whom, what work to do, how to spend our leisure time, how to dispose of our wastes, how to keep our homes safe and clean, how we travel, how we invest our money, and so on. Assagioli wrote of the new field of ecology bringing "a personal sense of responsibility…to include all of humanity and our whole planet" (Assagioli, 1975, p. 69).
When we develop our will in all its dimensions: strength, skill, and goodness, we begin to feel the call of a larger will, the will of the common good, Transpersonal or Ecological Will. I deeply believe that the Great Turning to a sustainable future demands that we heed this call and align our personal will with this larger intention. Living systems evolve and change through an astonishing process called self-organization; I believe this is Transpersonal Will in action. So even if right now we haven't a clue as to how to proceed, listening for the call of the "wild will" can start us on the path. And we may hear this call more clearly when we attune ourselves to the more-than-human world.
The collective unconscious (pain for the world, instinct, intuition)
In the famous Egg diagram of psychosynthesis, the collective unconscious lies outside the borders of the individual unconscious, separated by a dotted line. This indicates that there are no solid boundaries between the individual's consciousness and that of others. From an ecocentric perspective, we include the consciousness of all living beings in that collective unconscious, even the consciousness of the Earth as a whole. What we experience "inside" always reflects to some extent dynamics that are happening around us. As the individual matures, moves beyond the adolescent ego, and opens him/herself to the promptings of the larger world, those boundaries become even more porous. We begin to know pain for the world. We suffer with the world because we arise within its living web. We suffer by virtue of our interconnectedness. "It's not some private craziness!" (Macy, 1992).
Our often maligned instincts arise out of our interconnectedness, out of the collective unconscious. Joseph Chilton Pearce gives a dramatic account of instinct in action in his description of the amazing biochemical interactions between a newborn baby and its mother (when immediate bonding is not interrupted by medical procedures) (Pearce, 1992, pp. 110-118). He reports, for example, that a mother's instinctive response to place her newborn baby immediately to her left breast "unlocks a cascade of overlapping functions designed to assure… successful adaptation to the new environment." The mother's heartbeat stimulates the baby's heart, activating the limbic system which coordinates integration. The left-breast position also activates a major group of dormant intelligences in the mother, "causing precise shifts of brain function and permanent behavior change." (The details are too complex and many to relate here. I recommend reading his book.)
Many thinkers believe it is through the very frustration of our instincts (which evolved through thousands of years as gatherer/hunters) that we modern humans have gone collectively insane, and despoiled our habitats and communities. The new discipline of evolutionary psychology addresses this dilemma. Assagioli placed instinct on his star diagram representing the various faculties available to the will; now may be the time to reclaim this dimension of human wisdom. We moderns have tended to dismiss it as inferior and not worth our attention, but perhaps it can link us now to an ancestral intelligence.
Another point on the star diagram is given to intuition, that mysterious faculty of knowing which seems to transcend rational, linear thought. In my view, intuition acts through the collective unconscious, as we pay attention and "tune in" to others' feelings and needs. We can also use our intuition to sense what needs to happen in our natural environment, or what the trees or creatures may be telling us. The Council of All Beings mentioned earlier draws upon this faculty, helping each participant experience life from another species' perspective, and tapping into the powers that being can offer to humans.
In most of my training programs or classes in psychosynthesis, I begin with "the four questions": Where am I now in my life? What's emerging for me now? What's getting in my way, or holding me back? What do I need to develop? Usually, I have people respond to these questions with free drawings, to elicit insight from the unconscious. I have also used these questions with groups addressing collective issues: Where are we now in the life of humanity as a whole? What's emerging for us now? and so on. Of them all, it seems to me that the second question is the most powerful, and one of the special contributions of psychosynthesis. Most other psychologies before focused on "What's wrong" without seeking a vision of what might be trying to happen, what healing, growth, or transformation might be already taking place. Psychosynthesis asks that question first, and then examines what is getting in the way of that potential.
This question is closely connected to the psychosynthesis concept of purpose, which sees that will and choice can operate within a larger context of relationship and unfolding. A sense of purpose enables us to work cooperatively with the natural patterns of growth and healing already in action, rather than possibly acting in conflict with them.
So at this time in history, we may well ask, "What's emerging now? What's our potential? What's our next step?" This psychosynthesis question can take us beyond the doom saying and blaming that we so easily fall prey to, in our grief and anger. We can become sensitized to signs of healing and change, and lend our energies to those positive directions, joining thus in the Great Turning. We can begin to see this time as containing enormous potential for humanity, along with its enormous threat. Humanity as a whole may be going through a developmental leap beyond our self-centered adolescence, to live harmoniously within the web of life on Earth.
Psychosynthesis has developed the use of guided imagery, perhaps more than any other psychology (although many other approaches now include it in their methodology). Here, again, is much promise for ecopsychology and deep ecology work. Guided imagery can powerfully attune awareness and will, facilitate insight, and enable people to choose new directions on an inner level, before they must face the practical challenges of taking those choices into their daily lives. Even when we have no ready access to nature, guided imagery can help take us to beloved places which our bodies remember in their very cells. Psychosynthesis guides often help people calm and renew themselves, or face difficult aspects of themselves, by evoking a favorite place in nature–the seashore, a mountain meadow, a large embracing tree. By recreating such a scene in our imagination, I believe we can actually call upon the rhythms and wisdom of the place, because they live in our bodies, our most basic connection to the natural world.
Assagioli began this tradition of using images of nature for healing, centering, and growth. His "Blossoming of the Rose" meditation is designed to help the user experience him/herself as an unfolding, organic being, rooted in the earth, opening to the sky. "Such a dramatic symbol, conveying the idea of development, corresponds to a profound reality, to a fundamental law of life that governs the functions of the human mind as well as the processes of nature" (Assagioli, 1976, p. 214).
From ancient times, Earth-centered cultures have based their teaching stories on nature; their creation stories tell of the adventures of Crow, or Eagle, or Mouse. The patriarchal traditions evicted such pagan imagery from their mythology, and created religions dangerously cut off from nature. We can reclaim these ancestral Earth-links by using imagery from nature, climbing to the mountain tops, diving deep beneath the oceans, and consulting regularly with Wise Beings of a non-human variety.
Nature as Mirror for Soul Development
Ecological psychology and philosophy can expand and deepen psychosynthesis concepts and practices. One major area is human ontological development, which Paul Shepard, one of the greatest early teachers in this field, believes requires the context of nature for optimal health.
The newborn infant needs almost continuous association with one particular mother who sings and talks to it, breast-feeds it, holds and massages it, wants and enjoys it. For the infant as person-to-be, the shape of all otherness grows out of that maternal relationship. Yet the setting of that relationship was, in the evolution of human kind, a surround of living plants, rich in texture, smell, and motion. The unfiltered, unpolluted air, the flicker of wild birds, real sunshine and rain, mud to be tasted and tree bark to grasp, the sounds of wind and water, the calls of animals and insects as well as human voices–all these are not vague and pleasant amenities for the infant, but the stuff out of which its second grounding, even while in its mother's arms, has begun. The outdoors is also in some sense another inside, a kind of enlivement of that fetal landscape which is not so constant as once supposed. The surroundings are also that-which-will-be-swallowed, internalized, incorporated as the self. (Shepard, 1998, p. 7)
As the child grows older, the "natural world" helps develop the emerging rich sense of self. Animals have a magnetic affinity for the child, for each in its way seems to embody some impulse, reaction, or movement that is "like me." In the playful, controlled enactment of them comes a gradual mastery of the personal inner zoology of fears, joys, and relationships…. The play space– trees, shrubs, paths, hidings, climbings– is a visible, structured entity, another prototype of relationships that hold. (p. 7)
And this process of self-discovery through and in the natural continues through adolescence to adulthood.
…Natural things are not only themselves but a speaking. He will not put his delight in the sky and the earth behind him as a childish and irrelevant thing.…He will not graduate from that world but into its significance. So, with the end of childhood, he begins a lifelong study, a reciprocity with the natural world in which its depths are as endless as his own creative thought. He will not study it in order to transform its liveliness into mere objects that represent his ego, but as a poem, numinous and analogical, of human society. (p. 9)
Contemplating this vision of healthy human development in the lap of nature confronts us with the enormity of the loss we have suffered through our removal from the natural world, as children and adults. Yet where in Western psychology is there any mention of this trauma? Our developmental psychologies (except for the new field of evolutionary psychology) seem to forget that our species evolved in forests and savannas, not indoors. And we who have suffered this loss throughout our lives find it very difficult to imagine life any other way. And so we overlook this nearly universal wounding, and posit therefore, a very partial view of human development and potential.
Bill Plotkin, a psychosynthesis-trained psychotherapist and wilderness guide, proposes a remedy to this dilemma. He suggests:
the world in which we live has two aspects: One is wild nature–not nature devoid of humans, but the way that the world is to the extent that all beings (including humans) live and act in accordance with their true natures. This is the world in all its spectacular diversity and dynamic balance. The second is "un-nature"–those aspects of the world that are the result of actions of beings…living out of keeping with their true natures, something that is possible with beings capable of self-deception. (Plotkin, 1998, p. 3-47)
Plotkin suggests that only humans seem capable of self-deception, of living out-of-keeping with their true natures. Often we humans act from "confused or contrary primary-ego" and not from "soul," and in doing so, we are now disrupting the fragile balance of nature in a sustained and irreversible way. I am reminded here of the psychosynthesis concept of aligning one's will with Self; Plotkin calls it Soul. He says "to the extent that we humans act from soul…to that extent our actions are in keeping with wild nature, are a part of wild nature, even contribute to the further evolution of wild nature."
Trying to attune to Self while disconnected from "wild nature" (ecosystems which still function with a minimum of human interference) may be like trying to tune an instrument without a tuning fork. We run the risk of aligning with a pseudo-self, a superconscious subpersonality cleverly disguised as Self. Plotkin suggests that one of the most reliable ways of getting in touch with the deeper self, the soul, is by spending extended periods of time in wild nature, and "allowing it to reflect the soul back to our conscious selves."
Why is it we can always count on wild nature to do this? Because soul is that aspect of the human self that is at one with wild nature. As human beings, we are born into this world as an expression of nature, just like every other being on the planet.…
A second reason we can count on wild nature to reflect the human soul is that wild nature contains within it the widest range of possibilities of being. Every niche of the wild world is filled with some being, some form or force that perfectly fits there because it was evolved and born to do so.… The wilder the environment you are in, the more diverse "reflection-resources" exist there, and thus the more perfect the mirror. (p. 3-48 & 3-49)
Much has been written in developmental psychology about the need for mirroring in the development of the infant and child, but nowhere else have I seen mention of the need for mirroring by nature. How have we managed to ignore this whole encompassing dimension of our world in considering human psychology? I have known numerous clients who speak of their access, as children, to nearby woods or mountains or beaches as the only thing that kept them sane, that allowed them to develop into reasonably functional adults. Perhaps if we were reared in natural environments, with adequate mirroring by nature, we would not be so traumatized by the inadequacies of our human parents and families of origin. As it is now, we have little else on which to base our own sense of self.
Roberto Assagioli seemed to understand the human need for nature intuitively, as I had the good fortune to experience first hand. When my husband Jim and I studied with him in 1973, we asked his advice concerning our oldest son, then seven years old, who was often seized by dark moods. Dr. Assagioli suggested that we send the boy outside to walk whenever this happened, preferably in a natural setting. We were blessed at the time by living immediately adjoining a wild area owned by a nearby Native American pueblo. So when Greg was in a bad mood, we suggested he go "walk on Indian land." Or sometimes we would drive him up to the nearby mountains, and let him stroll around there. As soon as we stopped the car, he would be out of the door, walking away into the woods, his body visibly relaxing with each step. (He majored in Environmental Studies in college and now works as a field biologist, so Assagioli's prescription was particularly apt in his case.)
I want to acknowledge what a huge step I am suggesting that psychosynthesis make. I am suggesting that to grow and heal and reconnect, we humans need to spend more time in nature, the wilder the better. We need to experience first hand how healthy ecosystems function, to instruct us how to live in similar harmony. To do this is difficult for many people, as development eats up our open space, and state and national parks raise the price of admission. So preserving and providing access to "wild nature" becomes a collective responsibility, for the common good. Even with access, many people have to grapple with fears and aversions born of prejudice, to truly open themselves to the rhythms and interactions of living systems.
And within the discipline of psychosynthesis, we are called to examine some of our most precious assumptions and beliefs in the light of insights from ecopsychology, and find ways to incorporate these powerful new perspectives into the body of psychosynthesis thought and practice.
At the 1996 International Conference in San Diego, the action group which briefly formed around the theme of ecology identified seven steps toward an ecological psychosynthesis. These steps remain before us as invitations to change:
1. May our conferences be guided by ecological practices in paper use, food preparation and choice, and natural settings.
2. May we include "Gaia" in our language, models, maps, and symbols.
3. May we share concrete suggestions in our newsletter and journal of how we can educate ourselves about living sustainably, in everything from lawn care, to recreational choices, to "community supported agriculture."
4. May we pay more attention to our bodies, listen to them, take care of their needs.
5. May psychosynthesis centers work with local ecological organizations.
6. May we study Native traditions, moving beyond our Eurocentric assumptions.
7. May we learn from and contribute to the growing field of eco-psychology.
May psychosynthesis expand and become even more relevant to the challenges we face, participating with its full potential in the Great Turning towards a sustainable, harmonious, healing culture.
Assagioli, Roberto. 1976. Psychosynthesis, New York:Penguin.
Assagioli, Roberto. 1975. The Act of Will. New York: Penguin.
Abrams, David. 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in the More than Human World, Pantheon.
Brown, Molly Young, ed. 1994. Lighting a Candle: Quotations on the Spiritual Life. San Francisco: Hazelden-Harper.
Conn, Sarah. 1988. Journal of Humanistic Psychology.
Firman, John, and Gila, Ann. 1997. The Primal Wound. SUNY
Macy, Joanna and Brown, Molly Young. 1998. Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society.
Macy, Joanna. 1992. World As Lover, World As Self, Berkeley: Parallax Press.
Pearce, Joseph Chilton. 1992. Evolution's End: Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Plotkin, William. 1998. Soulcraft: The Art of Growing Whole, unpublished manuscript.
Seed, John, Macy, Joanna, Fleming, Peggy and Naess, Arne. 1988. Thinking Like A Mountain. Philadelphia: New Society.
Shepard, Paul. 1998. Nature and Madness . Atlanta: University of Georgia Press.
The premier issue of Conversations in Psychosynthesis, Spring 1999, (published by the Association for the Advancement of Psychosynthesis) featured this article along with thoughtful responses from several colleagues.
The poem appears in Lighting a Candle: Quotations on the Spiritual Life, edited by Molly Young Brown, Hazelden-Harper, 1994), p. 30.