Beneath Our Feet:
A Dissertation on Ecotherapy in the New Zealand Context
By Michael Apathy
Chapter Five: Empathic Materialism
The prior chapter covering the analytic materialistic focus confronted many aspects of our relationship to with nature that we might wish to avoid acknowledging. This chapter on the Empathic Materialistic perspective considers how humans might get their needs met through positive and sustainable relationships with the material of our natural environments, and also considers an empathic approach to humans living in environmentally stressful conditions.
Using Nature to Help People
A number of studies have measured the beneficial effect that involvement with nature has on humans. According to Buzzel and Chalquist‘s (2009) summary of the relavant research, even bringing nature indoors in the form of potted plants provides tangible benefits, including enhanced work productivity, improved mood, decreased boredom, and increased interest in learning. Hospital patients who can view natural scenery from their beds experience less anxiety pre-surgery, and faster healing post-surgery (Urlich, 1984). Various forms of horticultural therapy have been shown to be effective in curtailing stress and obesity, treating alcohol addiction and substance abuse, decreasing vulnerability to drug abuse in violent offenders, enhancing self esteem in those suffering various disabilities, easing the shock of displacement for refugees, and dealing with burnout in healthcare providers (Mind, 2007). Moving patients into natural environments (tent therapy) has been shown to reduce some chronic illnesses (Caplan, 1967). Kaplan (1995) found that nature is a soft (rather than hard) form of sensory stimulus. This means that nature restores our capacity for attention and engagement, rather than fatiguing these capacities as hard stimulus can.
While this small sample of the available research shows that immersion in nature is of itself therapeutic, there are also a variety of approaches that involve nature to enhance the effectiveness of therapy. For instance, many eco-psychologists make the considered and deliberate choice to expand the frame and boundaries of therapy by doing therapy in an outdoor setting during warmer seasons. This can influence the therapy in many ways. For instance, it can increase the sense of safety for some clients, for whom nature was a place of retreat from destructive family dynamics that were enacted inside the family home. For other clients being outdoors may enhance a sense of playfulness in the therapy, due to associations of indoors being a place for work, while outdoors is for recreation (Rust in Buzzel & Chalquist, 2009).
Doing therapy in nature can also allow us to use nature as a mirror, to reflect back aspects of the client‘s self and relationships often through symbolism and metaphor. Thoughts and feelings evoked in this way can in turn aid the process of inner reflection. For instance, the seasons of life particularly evoke themes of change: death, birth, growth and renewal (Jordan, 2009a). These themes, important in any therapy, are not only evoked but also implicitly normalised and universalised by their appearance in the natural context rather than appearing in isolation inside the individual self.
While environmental restoration projects are far from traditional psychotherapy, they are an example of humans engaging with nature in a way that reflects Roszak‘s (n.d.) ecopsychological principle of reciprocity between humans and nature. The benefits for the natural environment are obvious, for instance the way in which tree planting can enrich a barren eco-system. Less obviously, environmental restoration work can also spontaneously engender deep and lasting changes in people, including a sense of dignity and belonging, a tolerance for diversity, and a sustainable ecological sensibility. Helping the web of life in a particular place to heal and renew itself can serve as a mirror and an impetus for individual and community renewal (Shapiro, 1995.)
Being Empathic to the Loss of the Natural Having considered the multiple benefits for humans of relating to nature more closely, we will now consider the impact of the loss of such a relationship. According to Hillman (1995) the "bad place I‘m in‘ may refer not only to a depressed mood or anxious state of mind; it may refer to a sealed-up office tower where I work, a set-apart suburban subdivision where I sleep, the jammed freeway where I commute between the two..." (p. xvii).
When the client‘s subjectivity is not arbitrarily defined by therapists as being encapsulated by their physical skin or primary interpersonal relationships, then therapists will enlarge the scope with which they can empathise with clients who are affected by "bad places."
Hillman (1995) gives this example to clarify: According to him some cancers are hypothesised to begin in people suffering losses of personal relationships. Therapists are attuned to empathising with such a loss because it involves the client‘s personal subjectivity as they are used to defining it in dyadic relationship and manifesting within the self as bound by the skin. Empathy regarding ―the less conscious but overwhelming loss – the slow disappearance of the natural world, a loss endemic to our entire civilisation‖ (Hillman, 1995, p. xxi) requires that therapists open up to a sense of self that is wider than that which is immediately obvious.
Awareness (conscious or unconscious) of overwhelming loss of the natural environment can also require the working through of environmental despair. This parallels the process by which bereaved persons unblock their numbed energies by acknowledging and grieving the loss of a loved one (Macy, 2005.)
According to Macy, there are three widespread psychological strategies for dealing with loss of the natural environment. The first strategy, that of disbelief, makes it difficult to believe the gravity and immediacy of environmental crises. This is bolstered by the fact that many of the dangers are either concealed or invisible, for instance invisible or untasteable toxins in the air or food, or landfills and clear-cuts that are screened from public view. The second strategy of denial tends to make the environmental crisis a matter of conjecture or debate, which then leads to downplaying environmental reports or impugning the motives of ―special interest‖ environmental groups. The third strategy is that of leading a double life. In this case individuals separate out the anguish and distress attached to their knowledge of environmental destruction, and maintain an upbeat capacity to carry on with life as normal (Macy, 2005).
Working empathically with these responses to environmental loss first of all requires that the therapist is willing to acknowledge environmental loss, instead of interpreting environment related distress as being merely symbolic of individual personal issues. Secondly, it requires that the therapist empathically respond to issues such as fears of pain, of guilt, powerlessness, of causing distress to others, of appearing morbid, too emotional, or stupid (Macy, 2005).
This chapter has reviewed literature about using nature to help people, as well as literature on working empathically with the loss of the natural. A substantial amount of research confirms that natural environments are beneficial to humans‘ physical and psychological wellbeing. A number of therapists take this beneficial effect further by using natural settings to enhance the psychotherapeutic process. In both these cases the relationship between humans and nature can be conceptualised as being beneficially harmonious.
The flip side of the close relationship between humans and nature can be thought of in terms of the impact on humans of the destruction of natural environments. Writers such as Macy attend to pathological strategies to manage this impact, as well as the healing potential of empathic responses from therapists.
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