In Sophocles‘ play Oedipus blinds himself once he realises his origins and his participation in incest. Out of this Freud developed his ideas about the unconscious – a repository of our unacceptable sexual and aggressive impulses (Katzenbach, 2002.) Moving away from psychoanalytic orthodoxy, later psychoanalytic theorists developed the idea of the unconscious further, as have eco-psychologists in developing the concept of the ecological unconscious and in reassessing Freud‘s topographical model of the mind. This section, empathic idealism, will consider these adaptations of classical psychoanalytic ideas, as well as the use of later developments such as attachment theory.
The Ecological Unconscious
The ecological unconscious is understood by Roszak (1992) as being that part of us that has evolved in adaptation to the natural environment. Although our ecological unconscious adapts us to the natural environment, many of us find ourselves living in an artificial urban environment to which we have no corresponding unconscious adaption. The reason we are not adapted to this new environment is because in evolutionary timescales urbanisation is too recent a phenomenon (Roszak, 1992).
The functioning of the ecological unconscious is evident in the child‘s enchanted sense of the world, an innately animistic quality of experience (Roszak, 1992.) Kelly (n.d.) suggests that the latency period is particularly important in the developing relationship to nature. This is because in childhood the boundaries between self and other are thought to be plastic, and because during latency the child is available to nature, rather than being either infantile or caught up in the storms of adolescence. The opposite of such a close relationship to nature, is considered by Roszak (1992) to be a repression of the ecological unconscious, a sense of alienation from nature and objectification of nature.
Functioning with a mature ecological ego is compared to functioning with a repressed ecological unconscious. The person functioning with a mature ecological ego is characterised by a sense of reciprocity towards nature, rather than by the sort of exploitation that is associated with the objectification of nature. As in classical psychoanalysis, the goal of working in ecopsychology with the unconscious is that of insight into and access to the unconscious. Because the relationship between the person and environment is reciprocal, awakening a sense of reciprocity with nature is considered healing for both the individual and the natural environment. Indigenous people are often held up as being exemplars of reciprocity and mature ecological egos (Roszak, 1992.)
In Freud‘s topographical model the unconscious is the id, which is characterised as being primitive, needing to be controlled, and dangerous because being unable to distinguish between self and other it is boundary-less. In ecopsychology this same boundary-lessness is valued as a capacity to identify with and connect to the whole of the environment. The childhood basis of Freud‘s oceanic feelings of unity are valued and cultivated not as illusory or narcissistic, but as valid experiences of human inseparability from nature. This joining experience is essentially empathic and healing, being an experience of wholeness. In reciprocal fashion, the healing is not only for the human who has the experience, but leads to healing for the earth as those who identify with the earth will protect it as naturally as they will protect themselves. (Roszak, n.d.)
Gender and Nature
According to Chodorow (1989), boys receive subtle messages that to be properly male they must pull away from the intensity of the first intimate relationship – generally with their mother. Instead they are expected to identify with a father figure who is often distant. As a result men learn to disconnect and deny relationship and particularly their dependency. In intimate relationships this often plays out in men distancing themselves from their partners, or dominating them even to the point of rape or physical violence in order to manage their own fear of dependency. The same dynamics can be seen in the ways that patriarchal cultures relate to the earth. Whilst actual independence from nature is impossible, those in patriarchal cultures may deny their dependency, and are therefore unable to form relationships with the earth that are based in reciprocity and gratitude (Gomes & Kanner, 1995.)
While the application of Chodorow‘s theory may explain an almost universal factor affecting gender and the environment, constructions of gender are still culture specific. According to Culbertson (n.d.), from the beginning of colonisation New Zealand was organised around particularly strict gender roles, rather than organising primarily around race or class as other parts of the British empire did. Separated from women and family, the land, and the protector/provider/procreator masculine roles, Pakeha men developed a ―Man Alone‖ identity that may represent a particularly strong rejection of dependency. This rejection of dependency and definition of masculinity is policed by the threat of visible and invisible, internalised and interpersonal shaming. Culbertson describes another influence on New Zealand masculinity, that of Muscular Christianity which was premised on the physical superiority of males in order to (amongst other purposes) conquer nature. Particular attention to Pakeha men‘s vulnerability to shame, and to power and control issues may be necessary in order to help men develop more intimate and reciprocal relationships in psychotherapy in general, and also with nature.
Attaching to Nature – New Territory for Attachment Theory
Themes of dependence and independence, while important in considering gender are also prominent in attachment theory, which has been taken up by ecopsychologists. In ecopsychological applications the natural environment is seen as being a secure base – a regulator of affect (Jordan, 2009b). Strong evidence does exist that the natural environment can regulate affect, as shown by the sample of studies in the empathic materialistic section of this dissertation. A further question exists, can the different styles with which we attach to secure bases also be seen in human relationships to the natural environment?
Jordan (2009b) argues that the avoidant style‘s reluctance to acknowledge dependency and need (and the avoidant tendency towards exploitativeness) corresponds with common Western attitudes towards the environment. The anxious/ambivalent style could also be seen at play in the consumerist need to acquire and possess the material of the natural environment to soothe anxiety about not getting enough, or anxiety about not getting close enough, or about abandonment (that the resources will run out.)
Attachment occurs in the context of intense emotional experiences. Therapists may be able to facilitate the development of more secure attachments to nature by helping clients to have positive emotional experiences in nature through numerous different approaches including those mentioned in the empathic materialistic section of the dissertation. Sociological studies of attachment to place give further clues about the development of attachment by listing six different ways in which this occurs. These are: genealogical attachment, economic attachment, attachment via loss or destruction of place, cosmological attachment, religious or spiritual attachment, and attachment via narrative or storytelling (Sampson & Goodrich, 2009). While the focus in psychoanalytic attachment theory is often on the dyad, sociological research on place attachment stresses the importance of community in constructing meaning, which is essential for attachment and identification with place. Furthermore, it is likely that the six types of attachment listed above will often take place in community rather than dyadic or solitary contexts (Sampson & Goodrich, 2009.) Hay‘s (1998) research in Aotearoa supports the importance of community for sense of place, which is related though not identical to place attachment.
Part of the strength of attachment theory is the evidence not only for how the different attachment styles manifest in adult relationship, but also for how our internal working models of attachment were developed in the past in the context of the first emotion regulating relationship with the primary care-giver. To understand the origin of our attachment styles with nature Jordan (2009b) proposes that we widen our view to encompass the wider context in which early attachments and attachment experiences may have taken place: the natural environment consisting of living plants, wild birds, bark, rain, etc. He proposes that these surroundings are internalised as self, in the same way that the infant finds its sense of self in relationship with the primary care-giver. These issues of attachment and construction of self may link well with non- attachment related studies of identification with place and role of place in construction of identity. Studies of the effects of migration and territorial dispossession (which may be particularly relevant in the Aotearoa context) may help to clarify and test the concept of attachment to nature and place, in the same way that the strange situation experiment helped to validate attachment theory.
While at this stage there is a scarcity of empirical validation for ecopsychological theory and practice, Bragg‘s (1996) research into the effect on behaviour and attitudes of participants in Joanna Macy‘s Council Of All Beings workshop is supportive of theories of attachment and identification. In this workshop participants imaginatively identify with roles of different species and together process deep rooted emotional responses to environmental destruction and loss. In this process identification and attachment takes place in a group rather than dyadic context. Significantly, Braff found that increases in pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours due to attendence at the workshop were only sustained in the long term by participants who continued to be involved in some sort of proenvironmental group context. This may be explained in part by Prentice‘s (2003) thinking, in which awareness of traumatic ecological destruction is only possible once a societal movement exists to support the exploration of that traumatic material. This is consistent with the history of other traumas being only made accessible in the contexts of social movements such as the women‘s movement or treatment of veterans following the Vietnam war.
Further empirical research supports the assumption of eco-psychological practices such as Macy‘s workshop, that explicit links need to be made to attach to nature. In other words, attachment/identification itself is not enough, it must be attachment to nature. Gifford & Scannell‘s (2010) research found identification with the civic (human created) environment was not predictive of pro-environmental attitudes and behaviour, while attachment/identification with the natural environment was predictive.
Attachment to nature via group or place may seem different from more conventional ideas of an early attachment figure (person.) However, Morgan‘s (2010) research empirically validates the claim that the process of attachment is the same. She proposes the concept of rather than an attachment figure, a more diffuse attachment field.
This chapter reviews literature regarding the ecological unconscious, which is based on and compared to Freud‘s topographical model of the mind. The writers emphasise reciprocity and identification with nature as beneficial adaptations to the natural environment. One of the barriers to forming a reciprocal relationship with nature is discussed in terms of gender (masculine fears of dependency). While these fears are more commonly recognised as playing out in male-female relationships, they can also play out in an abusive and exploitative relationship with nature. Finally, attachment theory is explored in terms of human attachment to the environment. Significant empirical validation is found for this application of attachment theory. Overall, this chapter considers nature as a nurturing feminine environment, aCnd considers our relationship with nature as the site in which our conflicts over our dependency may be played out.
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