Usually in therapy I see some decapitated flowers, a picture of decapitated flowers, a lamp and a thing that is probably a metal grasshopper but seems to be missing its head. Today I saw two horses, four ponies, a flock of chickens, a pukeko, a gecko, a dead bumblebee and some live ones hovering in place in the norwesterly breeze.
Usually therapy takes place within four walls. Today it took place in the expansive outdoors, the hills to our back, the ocean to the left, roads and homes and paddocks spread out below.
Usually I can see a thin sliver of sky out the window, just a strip visible between the window and the roof of the house next to the office. Today the sky was big and there was an ever-present breeze. Today everything was alive, growing, dying all at once. Nothing was static or contained.
Usually therapy takes place with people all around, playing their version of soothing music which sounds like someone took a violin and viciously undermined its self esteem until all it was capable of was playing whining tunes which are probably supposed to be relaxing, but like many things which are 'supposed' to soothe only serve to irritate. Or engaging in their favorite lunch time game of 'Why aren't these chairs positioned properly? Why are the chairs never positioned properly? The chairs, the chairs! If only the chairs were in the right place then maybe the yawning void in my soul could be filled.' (It's a long winded title, but it's an even longer game to play, because she still hasn't gotten it right as far as I can tell.)
Today there are no chairs to arrange and there are no other therapists there to arrange them. The trail and the hill are largely empty. There is privacy out there exposed to the elements. There is real peace, and sounds which are actually soothing because they arise out of the natural interplay of things and not the tinny strains of a speaker through an all too thin wall.
We meet in a car park, which I do not like. It is too close to a road thundering with heavy vehicles and I am feeling the anxiety which impels one to move. Usually I would be stuck performing various uncomfortable contortions in a chair, but today we get to walk, and as we walk the nerves melt away.
I talk about horses, the angry foster kitten we have at the moment who is like a sulky teenager forced to share a room with her younger siblings, the dog who simultaneously loves and fears her owner. The conversation feels more natural. There is less of the inherent confrontation which arises from sitting opposite a therapist, locked in static seating. We can stand next to one another, we can wander around. On reflection, I can't help but notice that we naturally stood and sat much closer than we do when we're in the therapy room. Sometimes in the therapy room, I can almost imagine a gulf between the two chairs, a yawning chasm which cannot be crossed. But out in nature, that melts away. It is less formal, less pressured and less stressful.
Therapists spend a lot of time trying not to be perceived as authority figures, but nothing about the set up of your average therapy space supports that. You walk into your therapist's office (in an animal sense, their territory) you sit in the space they allocate you, you don't generally move from that spot until you leave. There's a lot of unspoken instinct level posturing going on in that interaction. I found it interesting how my therapist did not seem to see how the horses we were watching were also playing out power dynamics in subtle ways. One with it's head atop another, the other's ears pinned back. One nudging another out of the way. To him they were all having a jolly horsey time. To me, they were settling little scores, which, once settled, allowed them to doze peacefully in the warm sun.
The outdoors is literally neutral territory. There is no your chair or my chair. There are no rules as to where you have to stand, or where you have to sit, or whether you walk or stand. Those things happen fluidly as a genuine, often silent, negotiation. And as a result, the therapy relationship felt immediately more egalitarian to me.
We start to ascend. The incline is quite steep, steep enough that sometimes I can feel myself rock backward and there is that little moment of weightlessness where I could just fall if I let myself. We reach the point of elevation at which I have run out energy, nervous and otherwise, and sit for a while.
Doing therapy outdoors is different and the same and yet also, different. I find it harder to have personal concerns in nature. My eye is drawn to the living things. The scuttling gecko, the distant rust red chickens, the tilt-shift trees, the trucks. Trucks are alive too. It's harder to be self-centered when the world is all around you being the world.
I think it might be harder for the therapist, maybe. He's making a heartfelt point when the cow up the hill begins announcing itself to the world. “So maybe you can feel... MMMMOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.”
Cows don't give a damn about your insights.
Though the conversation seemed often lighter, and contained a fair amount of recitation of horse facts on my part, it covered a lot of ground. From anxiety, to fear of death, to the aging process, to how one relates to a mother who barely sees one as a sentient being, to the possibility of finding a sense of community and more. It felt as though the conversation were free to range much as we were.
And at the end of the session, perhaps because it had not been a static conversation, but a literal journey up and down the hillside, the ending felt entirely natural. A great deal of time, the session ends and I feel bereft, cut off, as if there were more to say, but it was not allowed. But the outdoor session, coupled with a longer session length of an hour and half versus an hour, left me with a sense of natural completion. And because it involved physical activity, there was the physical relaxation which comes with having mildly exerted oneself.
To put my first ecotherapy experience in terms of Trade Me feedback:
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