by Sophia Reinders, PhD, REAT / Laura Mitchell, PhD
Sitting at my breakfast table in the early morning and looking out into the garden, a motion in a camellia bush outside my window catches my eye. My gaze, curious now, searches out the motion.
And I see a hummingbird bathe in a gently upward curving leaf of the young plant.
With a vivid nodding of its head and a quick swirling of its wings it gathers some moisture left over from the morning mists and splashes droplets of dew over its whole body, again and again.
My eyes, delighted, follow the hummingbird’s sensuous ritual. I am immersed in its unfolding, with a feeling of wonder and joy.
As I continue to gaze, my experience of observing almost imperceptibly transforms. I begin to sense in my own body the bird’s skillful movements, the lightly cradling, quivering motion of the leaf, the freshness of the moisture, the pleasure of feeling it on my whole body, the well-being it evokes.
With my senses fully awake to the hummingbird’s presence, my awareness is gently guided to a felt-sense of our shared dance of aliveness. Perception becomes participation. And this deep sensory-imaginal participation opens me to the ancient embodied knowing of the interwoven strands of earth’s living fabric that includes me.
Our experience of nature is a participatory act. For our earth soul, ancient and planetary, is imbued with a deep knowing of the resonant affinity between our sentience and the sentience of the wild earth.
Guided by our senses with their capacity for empathic resonance and by our symbolic imagination, our embodied being deeply recognizes and answers the call of nature’s allurement.
This understanding of the intimate intertwinement of the human and the living earth lies at the heart of Ecopsychology, melding psychology – the study of the human psyche - and ecology - the study of nature’s communities of life and their manifold
relationships - into a single perspective on the earth and its abundance of life’s expressions.
As the very term Eco-psychology and it’s Greek root signify, the oikos, the home, of the human is the earth and its community of other-than-human life forms with whom the human is inextricably linked in deep kinship.
Theodore Roszak’s words are a passionate reminder of this interbeing of human and earth:
“The person is anchored within a greater, universal identity.
Salt remnants of ancient oceans flow through our veins,
ashes of expired stars rekindle in our genetic chemistry.”
This wider horizon of aliveness is the matrix in which Ecopsychology and its clinical application, Ecotherapy, conceive of human health and healing. Human thriving and fulfillment, as individuals and in community, cannot be understood within a purely human frame of reference which leaves out nature as its ground of being. Human health and healing, Ecotherapy proposes, can only flourish within a deep felt-sense of our kinship
with all earth communities to which we belong.
This ancient kinship is inscribed in the very way in which our senses, psyche, mind and body have developed in rhythm with the natural world with which they engage in a moment-bymoment unbroken exchange of mutual aliveness. It is inscribed as well in the multifaceted intimacies in which our breathing and sensing, our moving and feeling living body encounters the earth.
The essence of psyche and the essence of nature come into being in the living body, its sensory presence to inner and outer aliveness, and in its lived meanings. The living kinship of earth’s community equally speaks to us from the depth of our symbolic imagination. Our inner landscapes are patterned from the body’s contact with the rhythms and textures, the sounds, colors and shapes of the natural world.
Drawing on our symbolic imagination and on direct sensory experience, Ecopsychology and Ecotherapy invite awareness of this living fabric of soul and world. They encourage and foster an embodied emotional-imaginal attunement to the intertwinement of all life forms in the earth’s body.
It is through this attunement that we can enliven again an ancient sense of belonging, find our way back to a meaningful relationship with the living ensouled world, and strengthen
healthful attitudes of trust, respect, wonder and love for all life. The capacity for symbolic attunement and its expression is a facet of our creativity, deeply rooted in the body. For thousands of years humans have given it voice through ritual art, in a spirit of conscious symbolic communion with earth’s mystery.
The expressive arts insert themselves into the lineage of symbolic creative expression. Especially in their articulation as Eco-Art or Eco-Art Therapy, they offer a creative methodology for evoking and strengthening an earth-cherishing consciousness as
the matrix in which human-human and human-earth relationships can flourish.
What then would an expressive eco-arts practice look like—a path that re-weaves us back into the earth? How might we proceed to re-embed ourselves into an earth-cherishing
attunement and an embodied rootedness in the earth matrix?
How might we align with a symbolic communion with earth’s mysteries and processes?
Let us follow an expressive eco-arts practice into nature’s aliveness that offers portals into the living fabric of soul and world; one that trains our senses and attunes us to the dynamic processes of animate earth, weaving us back into her own sentient modes of being.
A small group of participants gathers at the edge of a wooded stream bed in the foothills of southern California. They each bring a small journal in which they have jotted down a query or intention regarding a life issue they wish to know more about.
They will also use their journals to capture impressions of the experience in nature: word fragments, poetry, quick sketches - whatever impressions come as they move about in the woods.
They are given the suggestion to: “fully awaken and fine tune your senses as you wander meditatively in the woods, noticing what attracts or calls to you and becoming present to a mutual interbeingness with the denizens of the woods.” At sound of the bell, they will reconvene at Council Circle in the heart of the woods. We follow now the eco-process of one of the participants:
As I enter the woods in the creek bed there is a perceptible and definite change from the heated air of the meadow to the cool intimacy of the riparian ecosystem. I silently breath in and acknowledge both these mutual streams of aliveness.
Now, the soft mulched earth below my feet signals the teaming life of root networks, fungal webs, and micro-organisms that live below our vision’s ken. To my right, sunlight splashes upon a sycamore leaf’s curled hands … and a faint humming vibrates through the spacious soundscape. I touch my journal and remember the scrap of paper on which I have written something like “What holds me back from living more fully?” — a lightlyheld puzzlement. I let that go to seek its own way.
Entering the woods I am aware of the giant stand of sycamores that act as sentinel to this border-crossing into a new ecorange.
This cluster of maybe ten trees is called Daddy Sycamore for short. This pause of recognition and honoring allows me to shift gears: to become a humble visitor rather than a modern day dominant species. I engage his animated being with respect: this is ‘his’ ancient lineage of riparian wetlands and the three million year presence of a highly evolved supra-intelligent community of chaparral habitat rising above the valley.
As I enter, I sense the shift of coolness and mystery that signals the domain of the keepers of the woods. I drop into a different mode of experiencing and sense the vibration of the soft mulched soil rising up to meet the coolness of my bare feet. Faint scratch marks and footprints of beetle, lizard and squirrel etch the trail.
Sensorial communion opens into the flow of the rich permeation of life forms of which I am now also a mutual participant. I find myself magnetically moving toward a nearby eucalyptus tree where the wet dew of the morning has moistened its trunk.
Sensorially, I am riveted into the subtle tones and patterns of its slick wet skin: a tapestry of multi-hued grays, mossy ochres, and subtle shades of greens. A symphony of sensation begins to organize into more coherence … a living perception....following
the flow...drawn inward into the perceptual dance of shared presence.
Now more fully embedded and kin to the denizens of the woods, I enter a clearing. Overhead the spacious laced canopy of sycamores, oaks, and native black walnut trees form a filigreed cathedral of patterned foliage now pulling my attention upward into its spaciousness. As I look up, the laced pattern of the canopy is gently moving against the blueness of sky: slightly expanding and contracting and rearranging itself in its dance with the air currents and the breathing woods. Yet the filigreed pattern remains fundamentally the same. This fractal repetition of difference in sameness now stirs an emerging glimmering
In a sudden flash a message jumps into my awareness: “Let movement and change happen without loosing connection to the seamlessness of the whole.” This living perception now comes together as a spontaneously arising insight answering the loose
ended query in my pocket about aliveness.
Nature’s aliveness is a perfect mirror for reflection. I think about the plains Indians and their concept of the smoky and clear mirror. When you look into the smoky mirror you see a distorted version of your reflection and a magnification of your fears, while in the clear mirror there is insight. Nature is the perfect clear mirror.
The bell rings and we slowly gather at Council Circle taking time to write and reflect in our journals noticing what other parts of our journey want to be scribed and heard. Our group leader now invites us to share with a partner. We are then guided to find a movement that captures the felt sense of our experience of this moment, now that our journey into nature, our journals, and our sharing has gathered more layers. We share our movement with our partner and he or she mirrors it back. We then check to see if our own movement has changed. These interactions create new layers of dynamic meaning and move us forward.
A large scroll of paper, water color paints (along with the natural brushes we had made earlier from sticks and fibers found in the woods) is stretched out in the middle of the circle. We are invited to bring our movement into another medium of expression on the communal paper with water colors. We first brush the paper with water so that the paints can flow easily and now carry the felt sense of our movement onto the paper. Painting together creates other currents of meaning and a communal intelligence emerges that informs and deepens our experience.
We next divide into two groups and decide which portion of the painting we want to move or dance to, while the other group witnesses. We switch roles as the witnesses become the dancers.
Again we add another layer of meaning and richness to our explorations.
To conclude, we go back to our circle and each person reads a phrase from his or her journal while our guide scribes the communal poem. As it is read back to us, the beautiful and poignant metaphors and images instill a sense of wonderment around the human-nature relationship. With a sense of completeness for now, we honor the woods—definitely a clear mirror! As we leave, we pause to send gratitude to the woods and Daddy Sycamore as its sentinel.
The practices of the expressive eco-arts, then, are rich and evocative, as they invite a transformation of experience at multiple levels:
Creating a symbolic gesture in response to a palette of sensoryimaginal perceptions encourages a slowing down, which in turn deepens the ability for presence. A deepened presence further refines perception. Each sense modality – sight and sound, smell, taste and touch - opens into richer and richer nuances of experience. Responding creatively to the deeply sensate allure of nature, furthermore invites and strengthens the ability to focus
attention and let it linger as sensory-emotional-imaginal presence. Body sensations, emotions, intuitive insights and images, prompted by the deep sensory immersion, may well up into awareness. Empathic resonances and sensory-symbolic attunement meld in experience, and guide the creative imagination beyond the membrane of inner and outer nature.
Any medium may be chosen to give creative expression to the sensory-symbolic call-and-response between the non-verbal body, the non-verbal languages of nature and the non-verbal or poetic languages of the expressive arts.
The creative gesture makes this flow of embodied experiencing aesthetically visible and tangible in movement or image; in voice, color, poem or symbolic enactment; in dance, clay, or found natural forms.
As we engage the living earth creatively, we weave ourselves back into the web of life.
Roszak, T. (2001). The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology. Grand Rapids, MI: Phanes Press.
About the authors
Sophia Reinders PhD, MFT, REAT is the founding director of the
WisdomBody Institute for Creative Psychotherapy and Expressive Arts.
She teaches locally and internationally and offers workshops and
Continuing Education for MFT & LCSW license holders. She maintains a
private practice in San Francisco and Corte Madera.
Laura Mitchell, PhD, is the Director of the Sky Mountain Institute for
Ecopsychology and Expressive Arts, offering Workshops and Training in
Expressive Arts and Ecopsychology. She maintains a
private practice in Escondido, California.