peripatetic precipitates: on nature, healing, and homecoming

A column by Craig Chalquist, PhD

Paradigms of Healing in Conflict

As ongoing research, press exposure, and public receptivity push ecotherapy farther and farther into the limelight (Linda Buzzell was just interviewed by the New York Times, I by SELF Magazine), former colleagues in mainstream psychology and psychotherapy have begun to confess to me that they feel conflicted, even threatened.

Why? Because ecotherapy feels (they have confided) like an encroachment on their territory.

I think this is a pity. It also betrays a lack of historical understanding of the roots of their own field. If you open a standard psychology text, you will read about Gustav Fechner, William James, Wilhelm Wundt, Pierre Janet, Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, and (if the book was published in Europe rather than the U.S.) possibly Carl Jung. But you will not read about the strong nature connection each of these pioneers considered so important to human health.

Freud, for instance, could be considered an early ecotherapist: he actively involved his dog in some of his therapy sessions. In at least a few cases he took his clients outside for a walk and a talk. Fechner is known as a founder of physiological psychology, but he was also a card-carrying animist and nature mystic. Janet, a founder of depth psychology, was a gardener.

The nature connection these men enjoyed was not repressed out of psychiatric memory due to a conspiracy, however, but due to conflicting paradigms.

In his famous study of scientific paradigms (dominant ways of constructing reality), science historian Thomas Kuhn pointed out that for a time, one view becomes the dominant "normal science" explanation for how things work because it solves certain problems and expresses the spirit of the time. Eventually, however, ongoing discoveries tear gaps in the dominant view, and it finally collapses despite the best efforts of its staunchest defenders. Then a new paradigm reigns. We can see an example of this in a shift from the impact physics of Galileo (reality consists of hunks of matter colliding with each other) to the force model of Newton (reality consists of matter influencing itself from a distance).

In psychology and psychiatry, the dominant view has always been the machine view: human beings, the mind, and society are automata that can be understood by taking them to pieces and putting them back together. This is why medication has been so popular an intervention, why the medical model dominates psychiatry, and why we speak of "dysfunctional" families. The logic of the machine view favors certain tools for getting at human nature (measurement, experimental design, numbers, graphs) more than others (anecdote, poetry, art, dream, myth). (At least one psychologist on the editorial board of the journal Ecopsychology does not like the word "psyche" because it is "insufficiently precise.")

Under this paradigm, which I call the Big Machine in my Paradigms of Consciousness course, healing--which is directed primarily at the mind rather than at the total organism or at its relations with the environment--occurs when experts impose a more efficient form of order or repair work on broken mental machinery. Because the machinery cannot repair itself, it must be brought into alignment with programming goals external to itself. Once it functions smoothly again--smoothly in terms of its effects on surrounding machines--it can resume its place in the larger machinery of the society into which it finds itself plugged.

Since 1910, however, the Big Machine paradigm has been under increasing attack on several fronts: field theory, systems theory, quantum mechanics, deep ecology, ecopsychology, cognitive ethology, Gaia theory, and, more recently, chaos theory, which tells us that tiny initial conditions can create huge unpredictable consequences, and complexity theory, which tracks unexpected patterns of order emerging naturally from apparent chaos. Studies of ecological resiliency, which reveal that nature tends to employ multiple, trans-linear information systems, energy flows, and backups to preserve its ecocommunities, have also joined in the action.

As a result of these new approaches, we are forced at last to wonder: Is the human mind really best grasped as a machine? Is it not more like a complex story, an ongoing poem, even an ecosystem? Is healing really about fixing what is broken, or instead about stepping out of the way and letting the total human organism heal itself and rebalance itself, refreshed and revitalized with the organic wisdom it can draw on from the natural world that evolved it? If so, then we need only reconnect mind to nature to begin to see immediate benefits.

As the machine paradigm cracks in the social sciences, new discoveries come to the fore. Ecotherapy, with its field view of self-world interactions and healing, represents one voice in the emerging Deep Web paradigm that emphasizes interconnection, networking, participation, and cocreation. The new paradigm encourages us to form new relationships with the living Earth all around us as well as deep inside us: even in the psyche which mainstream thought has insisted stands above and apart from the natural world.

I empathize with my colleagues. They are losing a paradigm with a great weight of tradition behind it. But they are also gaining knowledge that could help them perform even deeper and more transformative psychotherapy and psychiatry.

As is so often the case, we must put our hope for change in the field's newest members, as I'm discovering as I teach ecotherapy approaches to receptive psychotherapist interns and graduate students. They get it: evidence that the Deep Web way of holding our relations with the world is fully capable of containing, preserving, and extending the best of what the Big Machine worldview has collected for us but cannot carry any farther down the road.




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