Saturday, October 27, 2012

What Do We Mean by "Self"? (Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch)

Over the past several days or more, I have been musing on where my current thinking is on the nature of the self. The public portion of this thinking (it's important for me to discuss ideas with others to get different points of view) began with a somewhat inflammatory comment on Facebook that generated a nice conversation, then was followed up with a post collecting podcasts by neuroscientists and philosophers on their conceptions of mind and self.

One of the podcasts (Brain Science Podcast #89) featured Evan Thompson (son of William Irwin Thompson) speaking about his recent book, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. He was also co-author with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch of The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1991), one of the seminal books in the move toward enactive and embodied views of mind and consciousness.

After listening to the podcast, I went back to The Embodied Mind, which I had read a decade ago. Their presentation of the experiential nature of the self matches my own (which means the book had a profound influence on my thinking, as did Varela's later books: Tree of Knowledge, 1992, written with Humberto R. Maturana, and The View from Within: First-person Approaches to the Study of Consciousness, 1999, written with Jonathan Shear).

Here are a few passages from The Embodied Mind that are relevant to the ideas about and experience of a self.

What Do We Mean by "Self"?

At every moment of our lives there is something going on, some experience. We see, hear, smell, taste, touch, think. We can be pleased, angry, afraid, tired, perplexed, interested, agonizingly selfconscious, or absorbed in a pursuit. I can feel that I am being overwhelmed by my own emotions, that I have greater worth when praised by another, that I am destroyed by a loss. What is this self, this ego-center, that appears and disappears, that seems so constant yet so fragile, so familiar and yet so elusive?

We are caught in a contradiction. On the one hand, even a cursory attention to experience shows us that our experience is always changing and, furthermore, is always dependent on a particular situation. To be human, indeed to be living, is always to be in a situation, a context, a world. We have no experience of anything that is permanent and independent of these situations. Yet most of us are convinced of our identities: we have a personality, memories and recollections, and plans and anticipations, which seem to come together in a coherent point of view, a center from which we survey the world, the ground on which we stand. How could such a point of view be possible if it were not rooted in a single, independent, truly existing self or ego?

This question is the meeting ground of everything in this book: cognitive science, philosophy, and the meditative tradition of mindfulness/awareness. We wish to make a sweeping claim: all of the reflective traditions in human history-philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, religion, meditation-have challenged the naive sense of self. No tradition has ever claimed to discover an independent, fixed, or unitary self within the world of experience. Let us give the voice for this to David Hume's famous passage: "For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception."[l] Such an insight directly contradicts our ongoing sense of self.

It is this contradiction, the incommensurability of the outcome of reflection and experience, that has provoked us on the journey in this book. We believe that many non-Western (even contemplative) traditions, and all Western traditions, deal with this contradiction simply by turning away from it, refusing to confront it, a withdrawal that can take one of two forms. The usual way is simply to ignore it. Hume, for example, unable to find the self as he reflected in his study, chose to withdraw and immerse himself in a game of backgammon; he resigned himself to the separation of life and reflection. Jean-Paul Sartre expresses this by saying that we are "condemned" to a belief in the self. The second tactic is to postulate a transcendental self that can never be known to experience, such as the atman of the Upanishads or the transcendental ego of Kant.[2] (Noncontemplative traditions, of course, can just not notice the contradiction-for example, self-concept theory in psychology.)[3] The major-and perhaps onlytradition that we know that directly confronts this contradiction and that has spoken to it for a long time arose from the practice of mindfulness/awareness meditation.

We have already described mindfulness/awareness practice as a gradual development of the ability to be present with one's mind and body not only in formal meditation but in the experiences of everyday life. Beginning meditators are usually amazed at the tumultuous activity of their mind as perceptions, thoughts, feelings, desires, fears, and every other kind of mental content pursue each other endlessly like a cat chasing its tail. As the meditators develop some stability of mindfulness/awareness so that they have periods when they are not constantly (to use traditional images) sucked into the whirlpool or thrown from a horse, they begin to have insight into what the mind, as it is experienced, is really like. Experiences, they notice, are impermanent. This is not just the leaves-fall, maidens-wither, and kings-are-forgotten type of impermanence (traditionally called gross impermanence) with which all people are hauntingly familiar but a personal penetrating impermanence of the activity of the mind itself. Moment by moment new experiences happen and are gone. It is a rapidly shifting stream of momentary mental occurrences. Furthermore, the shiftiness includes the perceiver as much as the perceptions. There is no experiencer, just as Hume noticed, who remains constant to receive experiences, no landing platform for experience. This actual experiential sense of no one home is called selflessness or egolessness. Moment by moment the meditator also sees the mind pulling away from its sense of impermanence and lack of self, sees it grasping experiences as though they were permanent, commenting on experiences as though there were a constant perceiver to comment, seeking any mental entertainment that will disrupt mindfulness, and restlessly fleeing to the next preoccupation, all with a sense of constant struggle. This undercurrent of restlessness, grasping, anxiety, and unsatisfactoriness that pervades experience is called Dukkha, usually translated as suffering. Suffering arises quite naturally and then grows as the mind seeks to avoid its natural grounding in impermanence and lack of self.

The tension between the ongoing sense of self in ordinary experience and the failure to find that self in reflection is of central importance in Buddhism-the origin of human suffering is just this tendency to grasp onto and build a sense of self, an ego, where there is none. As meditators catch glimpses of impermanence, selflessness, and suffering (known as the three marks of existence) and some inkling that the pervasiveness of suffering (known as the First Noble Truth) may have its origin in their own self-grasping (known as the Second Noble Truth), they may develop some real motivation and urgency to persevere in their investigation of mind. They try to develop a strong and stable insight and inquisitiveness into the moment to moment arising of mind. They are encouraged to investigate: How does this moment arise? What are its conditions? What is the nature of "my" reactivity to it? Where does the experience of "I" occur?

The search for how the self arises is thus a way of asking, "What and where is mind?" in a direct and personal way. The initial spirit of inquisitiveness in these questions is actually not unlike Descartes's Meditations, though this statement might surprise some people since Descartes has received such bad press these days. Descartes's initial decision to rely not on the word of the Church fathers but rather on what his own mind could discern in reflection obviously partakes of the spirit of self-reliant investigation, as does phenomenology. Descartes, however, stopped short: His famous"l think, I am" simply leaves untouched the nature of the "1" that thinks. True, Descartes did infer that the "1" is fundamentally a thinking thing, but here he went too far: the only certainty that "1 am" carries is that of being a thought. If Descartes had been fully rigorous, mindful, and attentive, he would not have jumped to the conclusion that I am a thinking thing (res cogitans); rather he would have kept his attention on the very process of mind itself.

In mindfulness/awareness practice, the awareness of thinking, emotions, and bodily sensations becomes quite pronounced in the basic restlessness that we normally experience. To penetrate that experience, to discern what it is and how it arises, some types of mindfulness meditation direct the meditator to attend to experience as precisely and dispassionately as possible. It is only through a pragmatic, open-ended reflection that we can examine systematically and directly this restlessness that we usually ignore. As the contents of experience arise-discursive thoughts, emotional tonalities, bodily sensations-the meditator is attentive not by becoming concerned with the contents of the thoughts or with the sense of I thinking but rather by simply noting "thinking" and directing his attention to the never-ceasing process of that experience.

Just as the mindfulness meditator is amazed to discover how mindless he is in daily life, so the first insights of the meditator who begins to question the self are normally not egolessness but the discovery of total egomania. Constantly one thinks, feels, and acts as though one had a self to protect and preserve. The slightest encroachment on the self's territory (a splinter in the finger, a noisy neighbor) arouses fear and anger. The slightest hope of self-enhancement (gain, praise, fame, pleasure) arouses greed and grasping. Any hint that a situation is irrelevant to the self (waiting for a bus, meditating) arouses boredom. Such impulses are instinctual, automatic, pervasive, and powerful. They are completely taken for granted in daily life. The impulses are certainly there, constantly occurring, yet in the light of the questioning meditator, do they make any sense? What kind of self does he think he has to warrant such attitudes?

The Tibetan teacher Tsultrim Gyatso puts the dilemma this way:
To have any meaning such a self has to be lasting, for if it perished every moment one would not be so concerned about what was going to happen to it the next moment; it would not be one's "self" anymore. Again it has to be single. If one had no separate identity why should one worry about what happened to one's "self" any more than one worried about anyone else's? It has to be independent or there would be no sense in saying "I did this" or "1 have that." If one had no independent existence there would be no-one to claim the actions and experiences as its own . . . We all act as if we had lasting, separate, and independent selves that it is our constant preoccupation to protect and foster. It is an unthinking habit that most of us would normally be most unlikely to question or explain. However, all our suffering is associated with this pre-occupation. All loss and gain, pleasure and pain arise because we identify so closely with this vague feeling of selfness that we have. We are so emotionally involved with and attached to this "self" that we take it for granted .... The meditator does not speculate about this "self." He does not have theories about whether it does or does not exist. Instead he just trains himself to watch . . . how his mind clings to the idea of self and "mine" and how all his sufferings arise from this attachment. At the same time he looks carefully for that self. He tries to isolate it from all his other experiences. Since it is the culprit as far as all his suffering is concerned, he wants to find it and identify it. The irony is that however much he tries, he does not find anything that corresponds to the self.[4]
H there is no experienced self, then how is it that we think there is? What is the origin of our self-serving habits? What is it in experience that we take for a self?
[~ Pages 59-63]

Following this section, the authors went through the five aggregates and revealed that absence of an I or a Self behind or beneath them. Here is an explanation of why we spend time with the five aggregates:
What is the use of this analysis of personal experience in terms of the five aggregates? What is the use of this reduction of the apparent unity of personal experience into the various elements of form, feeling, perception, mental formation or volition, and consciousness? The purpose of this analysis is to create the wisdom of not-self. What we wish to achieve is to arrive at a way of experiencing the world which is not constructed upon and around the idea of a self. We want to see personal experience in terms of processes, in terms of impersonal functions rather than in terms of a self and what affects a self because this will create an attitude of equanimity, an attitude which will help us overcome the emotional disturbances of hope and fear.
The post above begins with an assessment of each of the five aggregates, and concludes with the offered passage on the realization of no-self. Varela, et al, offer a similar argument then offer some neuroscience research to support their assessment of the aggregates.

What made this book unique at the time, and has kept it in print for 20+ years, is that they were approaching questions usually addressed only through a third-person scientific examination from a first-person subjective perspective.

Here is some more.

The Aggregates without a Self

It might appear that in our search for a self in the aggregates we have come out empty handed. Everything that we tried to grasp seemed to slip through our fingers, leaving us with the sense that there is nothing to hold on to. At this point, it is important to pause and again remind ourselves of just what it was that we were unable to find.

We did not fail to find the physical body, though we had to admit that its designation as my body depends very much on how we choose to look at things. Nor did we fail to locate our feelings or sensations, and we also found our various perceptions. We found dispositions, volitions, motivations-in short, all those things that make up our personality and emotional sense of self. We also found all the various forms in which we can be aware-awareness of seeing and hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, even awareness of our own thought processes. So the only thing we didn't find was a truly existing self or ego. But notice that we did find experience. Indeed, we entered the very eye of the storm of experience, we just simply could discern there no self, no "I."

Why then do we feel empty handed? We feel this way because we tried to grasp something that was never there in the first place. This grasping goes on all the time; it is exactly the deep-rooted emotional response that conditions all of our behavior and shapes all of the situations in which we live. It is for this reason that the five aggregates are glossed as the "aggregates of grasping" (upadanaskandha). We - that is, our personality, which is largely dispositional formations - cling to the aggregates as if they were the self when, in fact, they are empty (sunya) of a self. And yet despite this emptiness of ego-self, the aggregates are full of experience. How is this possible?

The progressive development of insight enhances the experience of calm mindfulness and expands the space within which all experiential arisings occur. As this practice develops, one's immediate attitude (not simply one's after-the-fact reflections) becomes more and more focused on the awareness that these experiences--thoughts, dispositions, perceptions, feelings, and sensations - cannot be pinned down. Our habitual clinging to them is itself only another feeling, another dispositon of our mind.

This arising and subsiding, emergence and decay, is just that emptiness of self in the aggregates of experience. In other words, the very fact that the aggregates are full of experience is the same as the fact that they are empty of self. If there were a solid, really existing self hidden in or behind the aggregates, its unchangeableness would prevent any experience from occurring; its static nature would make the constant arising and subsiding of experience come to a screeching halt. (It is not surprising, therefore, that techniques of meditation that presuppose the existence of such a self proceed by closing off the senses and denying the world of experience.) But that circle of arising and decay of experience turns continuously, and it can do so only because it is empty of a self.
[~ Pages 79-80]

This is an exceptional book. Many of the ideas proposed then (written between 1986-1990, published in 1991), are now widely accepted among consciousness researchers and neuroscientists.

For example, here is a passage that highlights this idea:
The recent motivation to take a second look into self-organization was based on two widely acknowledged deficiencies of cognitivism. The first is that symbolic information processing is based on sequential rules, applied one at a time. This "von Neumann bottleneck" is a dramatic limitation when the task at hand requires large numbers of sequential operations (such as image analysis or weather forecasting). A continued search for parallel processing algorithms has met with little success because the entire computational orthodoxy seems to run precisely counter to it.

A second important limitation is that symbolic processing is localized: the loss or malfunction of any part of the symbols or rules of the system results in a serious malfunction. In contrast, a distributed operation is highly desirable, so that there is at least a relative equipotentiality and immunity to mutilations.
[~ Page 86]

It is now a given that the brain operates through parallel processing and that its function are distributed as networks. Most importantly, none of this happens without a body, without an intersubjective and interpersonal context, and without being embedded in a multifaceted environment.

And most interestingly, none of it requires a self.

Selfless Minds; Divided Agents

From a contemporary standpoint, then, Abhidharma appears as the study of the emergent formation of direct experience without the ground of an ego-self. It is remarkable how well the overall logical form of some Abhidharma formulations fits that of contemporary scientific concern with emergent properties and societies of mind. (Or perhaps we should state it the other way round.) These latter contemporary scientific concerns have, however, been pursued independently of any disciplined analysis and direct examination of human experience. Since the reader may still be skeptical that science and human experience are inseparable partners, we will now tum to consider in more detail what happens when this partnership is one-sided. What happens when the insight that mind is free of self is generated from within the very heart of science and yet is not connected to the rest of human experience?

Most working cognitive scientists, and even some cognitivist philosophers, are content to ignore this question. One of the virtues of both Minsky's Society of Mind and Jackendoff' s Consciousness and the Computational Mind is that each recognizes this question quite early on and takes it as a central theme. Minsky in particular distinguishes between the lowercase self, which refers "in a general sense to an entire person," and the uppercase Self, which refers to "that more mysterious sense of personal identity." He then asks, "Is this concept of a Self of any real use at all?" And he answers, "It is indeed-provided that we think of it not as a centralized and all-powerful entity, but as a society of ideas that include both our images of what the mind is and our ideals about what it ought to be."[23]

The distinctions that Minsky draws in these remarks are suggestive, especially in the context of our discussion. They are close to the Buddhist distinction between the coherent pattern of dependently originated habits that we recognize as a person and the ego-self that a person may believe she has and constantly grasps after but which does not actually exist. That is, the word self is a convenient way of referring to a series of mental and bodily events and formations, that have a degree of causal coherence and integrity through time. And the capitalized Self does exemplify our sense that hidden in these transitory formations is a real, unchanging essence that is the source of our identity and that we must protect. But as we have seen, this latter conviction may be unfounded and, as Minsky insightfully notes, can actually be harmful.

But equally interesting are the ways in which Minsky's distinctions - or those of other cognitive scientists concerned with the same issue, such as Jackendoff - do not match those of the Buddhist tradition. We believe that the lack of fit is ultimately rooted in two related issues. First, contemporary cognitive science does not distinguish between the idea or representation of a Self and the actual basis of that representation, which is an individual's grasping after an egoself. Cognitive science has challenged the idea that there is a real thing to which the fomer applies, but it has not even thought to consider the latter. Second, cognitive science does not yet take seriously its own findings of the lack of a Self.

Both of these stem from the lack of a disciplined method for examination and inclusion of human experience in cognitive science. The major result of this lack is the issue that has been with us since the beginning: cognitive science offers us a purely theoretical discovery, which remains remote from actual human experience, of mind without self.

For example Minsky, on the same page from which the previous quotations were taken, writes that "perhaps it's because there are no persons in our heads to make us do the things we want-nor even ones to make us want to want - that we construct the myth that we're inside ourselves." This remark confuses two features of mind without self that we have repeatedly seen to be distinct: one is the lack of an ego-self and the other is grasping for an ego-self. We construct the belief or inner discourse that there is an ego-self not because the mind is ultimately empty of such a self but because the everyday conditioned mind is full of grasping. Or to make the point in the vocabulary of mindfulness/awareness, the belief is rooted in the accumulated tendencies that from moment to moment give rise to the unwholesome mental factors that reinforce grasping and craving. It is not the lack of an ego-self per se that is the source of this ongoing belief and private internal conversation; it is the emotional response to that lack. Since we habitually assume that there is an ego-self, our immediate response is to feel a loss when we cannot inferentially find the object of our convictions. We feel as if we have lost something precious and familiar, and so we immediately try to fill that loss with the belief in a self. But how can we lose something that we (that is, our temporary, emergent "we"s) never had? And if we never had an ego-self in the first place, what is the point of continually trying to maintain one by telling ourselves we're inside ourselves? If it is to ourselves that we are talking in this conversation, why should we need to tell ourselves all of this in the first place?

This feeling of loss, though somewhat natural when one's investigation is still at an inferential stage, is heightened and prolonged when the discovery of the lack of self remains purely theoretical. In the tradition of a mindful, open-ended examination of experience, the initial conceptual realization of mind without self is deepened to the point where it is realized in a direct, personal way. The realization shifts from being merely inferential to being direct experience through a journey where the actual practice of mindfulness/awareness plays a central role. And as a form of direct experience, generations of meditators attest that the lack of an ego-self does not continue to be experienced as a loss that needs to be supplemented by a new belief or inner dialogue. On the contrary, it is the beginning of a feeling of freedom from fixed beliefs, for it makes apparent precisely the openness and space in which a transformation of what the subject itself is, or could be, becomes possible.

Minsky suggests, however, that we embrace the idea of Self because "so much of what our minds do is hidden from the parts of us that are involved with verbal consciousness."[24] Similarly, Jackendoff suggests that "awareness reflects a curious amalgam of the effects on the mind of both thought and the real world, while leaving totally opaque the means by which these effects come about."[25] There are two problems with this position. In the first place, the hypothesized mental processes of which we are unaware are just that-processes hypothesized by the cognitivist information-processing model of the mind. It is this model that requires a host of subpersonal hidden processes and activities, not our experiences of the mind itself. But surely it is not these ever-changing phantoms of cognitive science that we can blame for our belief that we personally have an ego-self; to think so would be a confusion of levels of discourse. In the second place, even if we did have many mental activities at the subpersonal level inherently hidden from awareness, how would that explain our belief in an ego-self? A glance at the complexity of Jackendoff' sand Minsky's models of the mind suggests that were a mind actually to have all of these mechanisms, awareness of them would not necessarily even be desirable. Lack of awareness is not in itself a problem.

What is a problem is the lack of discrimination and mindfulness of the habitual tendency to grasp, of which we can become aware. This type of mindfulness can be developed with great precision due to the fundamentally discontinuous--and hence unsolid-nature of our experience. (We have seen how some of this discontinuity and lack of solidity is quite consonant with modem cognitive science, and we are now even able to observe some of it from a neurophysiological standpoint.) The cultivation of such precision is possible not just in formal periods of practice but in our everyday lives. An entire tradition with numerous cultural variants and accessible methods testifies to the possibility and actuality of this human journey of investigation and experience.

As we can see from our discussion of both Minsky and Jackendoff, cognitive science basically ignores this possibility. This indifferent attitude generates two significant problems. First, by means of this ignoring, cognitive science denies itself the investigation of an entire domain of human experience. Even though the "plasticity" of experience, especially in its perceptual forms, has become something of a topic of debate among philosophers and cognitive scientists,[26] no one is investigating the ways in which conscious awareness can be transformed as a result of practices such as mindfulness/awareness. In the mindfulness/awareness tradition, in contrast, the possibility of such transformation is the cornerstone of the entire study of mind.[27]

The second problem is the one we have evoked from the very beginning of this book: science becomes remote from human experience and, in the case of cognitive science, generates a divided stance in which we are led to affirm consequences that we appear to be constitutionally incapable of accepting. Explicit attempts to heal this gap are broached only by a few, such as Gordon Globus, who asks the question, What is a neural network that it may be capable of supporting a Dasein, an embodied existence?[28] or Sherry Turkle, who has explored a possible bridge between cognitive science and psychoanalysis.[29] And yet, to the extent that research in cognitive science requires more and more that we revise our naive idea of what a cognizing subject is (its lack of solidity, its divided dynamics, and its generation from unconscious processes), the need for a bridge between cognitive science and an open-ended pragmatic approach to human experience will become only more inevitable. Indeed, cognitive science will be able to resist the need for such a bridge only by adopting an attitude that is inconsistent with its own theories and discoveries.

[~ Pages 123-127]

Shrink Rap Radio #323 – Aikido, Empathy, and Neurodiversity with Sensei Nick Walker, M.A.

Very cool discussion.

[NOTE: As of 11 am this morning, Oct. 27, Shrink Rap Radio seems to be offline - hopefully they will resolve whatever issues they are having soon.]

[UPDATE: 6:30 pm and it seems to be working again.]

Nick Walker, the subject of this interview with Dr. Van Nuys, is part of Antero Alli's Paratheatrical Research spiritual exploration and performance group - a medium "that combines techniques of physical theater, voice, and meditation to access and express the internal landscape in non-performance labs and various types of  performance vehicles." I spoke with Alli a few times when he lived in Seattle and was publishing a little poetry and spirituality newspaper called Talking Raven (191-1995) - interesting human being.

The videos mentioned below are available through the Paratheatrical Research site linked to above.

Shrink Rap Radio #323 – Aikido, Empathy, and Neurodiversity with Sensei Nick Walker, M.A.

Dr. David Van Nuys
Posted on October 26, 2012

Nick Walker received his M.A. in Somatic Psychology from California Institute of Integral Studies, where he now teaches in the undergraduate Interdisciplinary Studies program. He holds the rank of 6th Dan (6th degree black belt) in aikido, and has taught the art of aikido to adults, teens, and children for over 30 years. He is founder and senior instructor of the Aikido Shusekai dojo in Berkeley, California. Since 1996, he has been a core member of the experimental physical theatre group Paratheatrical Research. Some of his work with Paratheatrical Research is chronicled in director Antero Alli’s documentary films Crux (1999), Orphans of Delirium (2004), and Dreambody/Earthbody (2012). He is a dedicated autism rights activist, and has been deeply involved with the Neurodiversity Movement for over a decade. He is a teacher, trainer, speaker, and consultant on a wide range of topics, including somatics, embodiment, autism, neurodiversity, conflict transformation, creativity, and transformative learning.

A psychology podcast by David Van Nuys, Ph.D.
copyright 2012: David Van Nuys, Ph.D.

Check out the following Psychology CE Courses based on listening to Shrink Rap Radio interviews:

Stan Grof - Holotropic Breathwork: New Perspectives in 
Psychotherapy and Self-Exploration

From Reality Sandwich, this is an excellent introduction to Stan Grof's holotropic breathwork model, excerpted from his book, Healing Our Deepest Wounds: The Holotropic Paradigm Shift. I've used holotropic breathwork in my own practice, but I would like to learn how to use it safely with clients. I am hoping to do a training in the next year or two.

Holotropic Breathwork: New Perspectives in 
Psychotherapy and Self-Exploration

The Universal Heart. The little individual heart finding its way back to the big Universal Heart, from a Holotropic Breathwork session.  (Anne Høivik)

The following is excerpted from
Healing Our Deepest Wounds: The Holotropic Paradigm Shift, published by Stream of Experience Productions. 

Holotropic Breathwork is an experiential method of self-exploration and psychotherapy that my wife Christina and I developed at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, in the mid -1970s. This approach induces deep holotropic states of consciousness by a combination of very simple means -- accelerated breathing, evocative music, and a technique of bodywork that helps to release residual bioenergetic and emotional blocks. The sessions are usually conducted in groups; participants work in pairs and alternate in the roles of "breathers" and "sitters."

The process is supervised by trained facilitators who assist participants whenever special intervention is necessary. Following the breathing sessions, participants express their experiences by painting mandalas and sharing accounts of their inner journeys in small groups. Follow-up interviews and various complementary methods are used, if necessary, to facilitate the completion and integration of the breathwork experience. 

Mother Kundalini. Identification in a Holotropic Breathwork session with a small child resting in a papoose on the back of a woman with a fiery garment, wrapped in a star mantle.  The artist wrote: “I was both the mother and the child.  I loved this Great Mother deeply, I loved my mother, I loved every creature, every sentient being”  (Katia Solani) 
In its theory and practice, Holotropic Breathwork combines and integrates various elements from modern consciousness research, depth psychology, transpersonal psychology, Eastern spiritual philosophies, and native healing practices. It differs significantly from traditional forms of psychotherapy, which use primarily verbal means, such as psychoanalysis and various other schools of depth psychology derived from it. It shares certain common characteristics with the experiential therapies of humanistic psychology, such as Gestalt practice and the neo-Reichian approaches, which emphasize direct emotional expression and work with the body. However, the unique feature of Holotropic Breathwork is that it utilizes the therapeutic potential of holotropic states of consciousness.

The extraordinary healing power of holotropic states -- which  ancient and native cultures used for centuries or even millennia in their ritual, spiritual, and healing practices -- was confirmed by modern consciousness research conducted in the second half of the twentieth century. This research has also shown that the phenomena occurring during these states and associated with them represent a critical challenge for current conceptual frameworks used by academic psychiatry and psychology and for their basic metaphysical assumptions. The work with Holotropic Breathwork thus requires a new understanding of consciousness and of the human psyche in health and disease. The basic principles of this new psychology were discussed in another context (Grof 2000, 2007). 

Imprisoned Aggression. Suppressed anger trying to find release and expression, and then experienced in identification with an archetypal feline predator in a Holotropic Breathwork session. (Albrecht Mahr)
Essential Components of Holotropic Breathwork
Holotropic Breathwork combines very simple means -- faster breathing, evocative music, and releasing bodywork -- to induce intense holotropic states of consciousness; it uses the remarkable healing and transformative power of these states. This method provides access to biographical, perinatal, and transpersonal domains of the unconscious and thus to deep psychospiritual roots of emotional and psychosomatic disorders. It also makes it possible to utilize the mechanisms of healing and personality transformation that operate on these levels of the psyche. The process of self-exploration and therapy in Holotropic Breathwork is spontaneous and autonomous; it is governed by inner healing intelligence rather than following the instructions and guidelines of a particular school of psychotherapy. 

Engulfment. The onset of the process of psychospiritual death and rebirth experienced as engulfment by a grotesque archetype figure in a Holotropic Breathwork session.  The skull represents the imminence of death, the root system and the snake, the placental circulatory system. (Peg Holms)

Most of the recent revolutionary discoveries concerning consciousness and the human psyche on which Holotropic Breathwork is based are new only for modern psychiatry and psychology. They have a long history as integral parts of the ritual and spiritual life of many ancient and native cultures and their healing practices. Basic principles of Holotropic Breathwork thus represent rediscovery, validation, and modern reformulation of ancient wisdom and procedures, some of which can be traced to the dawn of human history. As we will see, the same is true for the principal constituents used in the practice of Holotropic Breathwork -- breathing, instrumental music and chanting, bodywork, and mandala drawing or other forms of artistic expression. They have been used for millennia in the healing ceremonies and ritual practices of all pre-industrial human groups.

Journey into and Through Mother Fear. Drawings from a Holotropic Breathwork session in which the artist - as a child and also as an older, wiser accompanying adult - relived her birth, from entering the mouth of the Mother Dragon (above) through through fully facing the fear, and then the dissolving of the Dragon’s head allowing safe passage  (below). (Jan Vannatta) 
The Healing Power of Breath
In ancient and pre-industrial societies, breath and breathing have played a very important role in cosmology, mythology, and philosophy, as well as being an important tool in ritual and spiritual practice. Various breathing techniques have been used since time immemorial for religious and healing purposes. Since earliest times, virtually every major psychospiritual system seeking to comprehend human nature has viewed breath as a crucial link between nature, the human body, the psyche, and the spirit. This is clearly reflected in the words many languages use for breath. 

Crucifixion. Vision of crucifixion in the final stage of the birth process in a Holotropic Breathwork session.  The artist said “The experience showed me clearly how many levels of reality can be woven together and that God or The Great Spirit is behind it all.” (Anne Høivik) 
In the ancient Indian literature, the term prana meant not only physical breath and air, but also the sacred essence of life. Similarly, in traditional Chinese medicine, the word chi refers to the cosmic essence and the energy of life, as well as to the natural air we breathe using our lungs. In Japan, the corresponding word is ki. Ki plays an extremely important role in Japanese spiritual practices and martial arts. In ancient Greece, the word pneuma meant both air or breath and spirit or the essence of life. The Greeks also saw breath as being closely related to the psyche. The term phren was used both for the diaphragm, the largest muscle involved in breathing, and mind (as we see in the term schizophrenia = literally split mind). 

In the old Hebrew tradition, the same word, ruach, denoted both breath and creative spirit, which were seen as identical. The following quote from Genesis shows the close relationship between God, breath, and life: "Then the Lord God formed man {Hebrew adam} from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being." In Latin the same name was used for breath and spirit -- spiritus. Similarly, in Slavic languages, spirit and breath have the same linguistic root. 

In the native Hawaiian tradition and medicine (kanaka maoli lapa'au), the word ha means the divine spirit, wind, air, and breath. It is contained in the popular Hawaiian aloha, an expression that is used in many different contexts. It is usually translated as presence (alo) of the Divine Breath (ha). Its opposite, ha'ole, meaning literally without breath or without life, is a term that native Hawaiians have applied to white-skinned foreigners since the arrival of the infamous British sea captain James Cook in 1778. The kahunas, "Keepers of Secret Knowledge," have used breathing exercises to generate spiritual energy (mana). 

Death and Rebirth. Death and rebirth followed by the experience of hieros gamos - sacred union - of the Feminine and Masculine in a Holotropic Breathwork session. (Anne Høivik) 
It has been known for centuries that it is possible to influence consciousness by techniques that involve breathing. The procedures that have been used for this purpose by various ancient and non-Western cultures cover a very wide range from drastic interference with breathing to subtle and sophisticated exercises of various spiritual traditions. Thus the original form of baptism practiced by the Essenes involved forced submersion of the initiate under water for an extended period of time. This resulted in a powerful experience of death and rebirth. In some other groups, the neophytes were half-choked by smoke, by strangulation, or by compression of the carotid arteries. 

Profound changes in consciousness can be induced by both extremes in the breathing rate, hyperventilation and prolonged withholding of breath, as well as by using them in an alternating fashion. Very sophisticated and advanced methods of this kind can be found in the ancient Indian science of breath, or pranayama. William Walker Atkinson, American writer, who was influential in the turn-of-the-century (1890s-1900s) spiritual/philosophical movement wrote under the pseudonym Yogi Ramacharaka a comprehensive treatise on the Hindu science of breath (Ramacharaka 1903). 

Specific techniques involving intense breathing or withholding of breath are also part of various exercises in Kundalini Yoga, Siddha Yoga, the Tibetan Vajrayana, Sufi practice, Burmese Buddhist and Taoist meditation, and many other spiritual systems. Indirectly, the depth and rhythm of breathing is profoundly influenced by ritual artistic performances such as the the Balinese monkey chant or Ketjak, the Inuit Eskimo throat music, the Tibetan and Mongolian multivocal chanting, and the singing of kirtans, bhajans, or Sufi chants. 

More subtle techniques, which emphasize special awareness in relation to breathing rather than changes of the respiratory dynamics, have a prominent place in Buddhism.  Anāpānasati is a basic form of meditation taught by the Buddha; it means literally "mindfulness of breathing" (from the Pali anāpāna = inhalation and exhalation and sati = mindfulness). Buddha's teaching of anāpāna was based on his experience using it as a means of achieving his own enlightenment.  He emphasized the importance of being mindful not only of one's breath, but using the breath to become aware of one's entire body and of all of one's experience. According to the Anāpānasati Sutta (sutra), practicing this form of meditation leads to the removal of all defilements (kilesa). The Buddha taught that systematic practice of anāpānasati would lead to the final release (nirvāna or nibāna). 

Anāpānasati is practiced in connection with Vipassana (insight meditation) and Zen meditation (shikantaza, literally "just sitting"). The essence of anāpānasati as the core meditation practice in Buddhism, especially the Theravada school, is to be a passive observer of the natural involuntary breathing process. This is in sharp contrast with the yogic pranayama practices, which employ breathing techniques that aim for rigorous control of breath. Anāpānasati is not, however, the only Buddhist form of breathing meditation. In the Buddhist spiritual practices used in Tibet, Mongolia, and Japan, the control of breathing plays an important role.  Cultivation of special attention to breathing also represents an essential part of certain Taoist and Christian practices. 

In the development of materialistic science, breathing lost its sacred meaning and was stripped of its connection to the psyche and spirit.  Western medicine reduced it to an important physiological function. The physical and psychological manifestations that accompany various respiratory maneuvers, have all been pathologized. The psychosomatic response to faster breathing, the so-called hyperventilation syndrome, is considered a pathological condition, rather than what it really is, a process that has an enormous healing potential. When hyperventilation occurs spontaneously, it is routinely suppressed by administration of tranquilizers, injections of intravenous calcium, and application of a paper bag over the face to increase the concentration of carbon dioxide and combat the alkalosis caused by faster breathing. 

In the last few decades, Western therapists rediscovered the healing potential of breath and developed techniques that utilize it. We have ourselves experimented with various approaches involving breathing in the context of our month-long seminars at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. These included both breathing exercises from ancient spiritual traditions under the guidance of Indian and Tibetan teachers and techniques developed by Western therapists. Each of these approaches has a specific emphasis and uses breath in a different way. In our own search for an effective method of using the healing potential of breath, we tried to simplify this process as much as possible. 

We came to the conclusion that it is sufficient to breathe faster and more effectively than usual and with full concentration on the inner process. Instead of emphasizing a specific technique of breathing, we follow even in this area the general strategy of holotropic work -- to trust the intrinsic wisdom of the body and follow the inner clues. In Holotropic Breathwork, we encourage people to begin the session with faster and somewhat deeper breathing, tying inhalation and exhalation into a continuous circle of breath. Once in the process, they find their own rhythm and way of breathing. 

We have been able to confirm repeatedly Wilhelm Reich's observation that psychological resistances and defenses are associated with restricted breathing (Reich 1949, 1961). 

Respiration is an autonomous function, but it can also be influenced by volition. Deliberate increase of the pace of breathing typically loosens psychological defenses and leads to a release and emergence of unconscious (and superconscious) material. Unless one has witnessed or experienced this process personally, it is difficult to believe on theoretical grounds alone the power and efficacy of this technique. 

Liberation. Experience of psychospiritual death and rebirth in a Holotropic Breathwork session .  The old personality structure has fallen apart, out of it emerges a new self (or Self), connected to the spiritual domain.  Dismemberment is a frequent motif in the initiatory experiences of novice shamans. (Jaryna Moss)
The Therapeutic Potential of Music
In Holotropic Breathwork, the consciousness-expanding effect of breath is combined with evocative music. Like breathing, music and other forms of sound technology have been used for millennia as powerful tools in ritual and spiritual practice. Monotonous drumming, rattling, chanting, instrumental music, and other forms of sound-producing techniques have always been the principal tools of shamans in many different parts of the world. Many pre-industrial cultures have quite independently developed drumming rhythms that in laboratory experiments have remarkable effects on the electric activity of the brain (Goldman 1952, Jilek 1974, 1982; Neher 1961, 1962). The archives of cultural anthropologists contain countless examples of trance-inducing methods of extraordinary power combining instrumental music, chanting, and dancing. 

In many cultures, sound technology has been used specifically for healing purposes in the context of intricate ceremonies. The Navajo healing rituals conducted by trained singers have astounding complexity that has been compared to that of the scripts of Wagnerian operas. The trance dance and extended drumming of the !Kung Bushmen of the African Kalahari Desert have enormous healing power, as has been documented in many anthropological studies and movies (Lee and DeVore 1976; Katz 1976). The healing potential of the syncretistic religious rituals of the Caribbean and South America, such as the Cuban santeria or Brazilian umbanda is recognized by many professionals in these countries who have traditional Western medical training. Remarkable instances of emotional and psychosomatic healing occur in the meetings of Christian groups using music, singing, and dance, such as the Snake Handlers (Holy Ghost People), and the revivalists or members of the Pentecostal Church. 

Some spiritual traditions have developed sound technologies that do not just induce a general trance state but have a specific effect on consciousness and the human psyche and body. Thus the Indian teachings postulate a specific connection between certain acoustic frequencies and the individual chakras or energy centers of the human body. With systematic use of this knowledge it is possible to influence the state of consciousness in a predictable and desirable way. The ancient Indian tradition called nada yoga or the way to union through sound is known to maintain, improve, and restore emotional, psychosomatic, and physical health and well-being. 

Examples of extraordinary vocal performances used for ritual, spiritual, and healing purposes are the multivocal chanting of the Tibetan Gyotso monks and of the Mongolian and Tuva shamans, the Hindu bhajans and kirtans, the Santo Daime chants (Ikaros) used in the ayahuasca ceremonies, the throat music of the Inuit Eskimo people, and the sacred chants (dhikrs) of various Sufi orders. These are just a few examples of the extensive use of instrumental music and chanting for healing, ritual, and spiritual purposes. 

We used music systematically in the program of psychedelic therapy at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in Baltimore, Maryland, and have learned much about its extraordinary potential for psychotherapy. Carefully selected music seems to be of particular value in holotropic states of consciousness, where it has several important functions. It mobilizes emotions associated with repressed memories, brings them to the surface, and facilitates their expression. It helps to open the door into the unconscious, intensifies and deepens the therapeutic process, and provides a meaningful context for the experience. The continuous flow of music creates a carrier wave that helps the subject move through difficult experiences and impasses, overcome psychological defenses, surrender, and let go. In Holotropic Breathwork sessions, which are usually conducted in groups, music has an additional function: it masks the noises made by the participants and weaves them into a dynamic esthetic gestalt. 

In order to use music as a catalyst for deep self-exploration and experiential work it is necessary to learn a new way of listening to music and relating to it that is alien to our culture. In the West, we employ music frequently as an acoustic background that has little emotional relevance. Typical examples would be use of popular music in cocktail parties or piped music (muzak) in shopping areas and workspaces. A different approach used by sophisticated audiences is the disciplined and attentive listening to music in theaters and concert halls. The dynamic and elemental way of using music characteristic of rock concerts comes closer to the use of music in Holotropic Breathwork. However, the attention of participants in such events is usually extroverted and the experience lacks an element that is essential in holotropic therapy or self-exploration -- sustained focused introspection. 

In holotropic therapy, it is essential to surrender completely to the flow of music, to let it resonate in one's entire body, and to respond to it in a spontaneous and elemental fashion. This includes manifestations that would be unthinkable in a concert hall, where even crying or coughing is seen as a disturbance and causes annoyance and embarrassment. In holotropic work, one should give full expression to whatever the music is bringing out, whether it is loud screaming or laughing, baby talk, animal noises, shamanic chanting, or talking in tongues. It is also important not to control any physical impulses, such as bizarre grimacing, sensual movements of the pelvis, violent shaking, or intense contortions of the entire body. Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule; destructive behavior directed toward oneself, others, and the physical environment is not permissible. 

We also encourage participants to suspend any intellectual activity, such as trying to guess the composer of the music or the culture from which the music comes. Other ways of avoiding the emotional impact of the music involve engaging one's professional expertise -- judging the performance of the orchestra, guessing which instruments are playing, and criticizing the technical quality of the recording or of the music equipment in the room. When we can avoid these pitfalls, music can become a very powerful tool for inducing and supporting holotropic states of consciousness. For this purpose, the music has to be of superior technical quality and played at a sufficient volume to drive the experience. The combination of music with faster breathing has a remarkable mind-manifesting and consciousness-expanding power. 

As far as the specific choice of music is concerned, we will outline here only the general principles and give a few suggestions based on our experience. After a certain time, each therapist or therapeutic team develops a list of their favorite pieces for various stages of the sessions. The basic rule is to respond sensitively to the phase, intensity, and content of the participants' experience, rather than trying to program it. This is in congruence with the general philosophy of holotropic therapy, particularly the deep respect for the wisdom of the inner healer, for the collective unconscious, and for the autonomy and spontaneity of the healing process. 

In general, it is important to use music that is intense, evocative, and conducive to a positive experience. We try to avoid selections that are jarring, dissonant, and anxiety-provoking. Preference should be given to music of high artistic quality that is not well known and has little concrete content. One should avoid playing songs and other vocal pieces in languages known to the participants, which would through their verbal content convey a specific message or suggest a specific theme. When vocal compositions are used, they should be in foreign languages so that the human voice is perceived just as another musical instrument. For the same reason, it is preferable to avoid pieces which evoke specific intellectual associations and tend to program the content of the session, such as Wagner's or Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's wedding marches and overtures to Bizet's Carmen or Verdi's Aida

The session typically begins with activating music that is dynamic, flowing, and emotionally uplifting and reassuring. As the session continues, the music gradually increases in intensity and moves to powerful rhythmic pieces, preferably drawn from ritual and spiritual traditions of various native cultures. Although many of these performances can be esthetically pleasing, the main purpose of the human groups that developed them is not entertainment, but induction of holotropic experiences. An example here could be the dance of the whirling dervishes accompanied by beautiful music and chants. It is not designed to be admired but to take people to the experience of God. 

About an hour and a half into the session of Holotropic Breathwork, when the experience typically culminates, we introduce what we call "breakthrough music." The selections used at this time range from sacred music -- masses, oratoria, requiems, and other strong orchestral pieces -- to excerpts from dramatic movie soundtracks. In the second half of the session, the intensity of the music gradually decreases and we bring in loving and emotionally moving pieces (‘heart music'). Finally, in the termination period of the session, the music has a soothing, flowing, timeless, and meditative quality.

Most practitioners of Holotropic Breathwork collect musical recordings and tend to create their own favorite sequences for the five consecutive phases of the session: (1) opening music, (2) trance-inducing music, (3) breakthrough music, (4) heart music, and (5) meditative music. Some of them use music programs prerecorded for the entire session; this allows the facilitators to be more available for the group, but makes it impossible to flexibly adjust the selection of the music to the energy of the group.
Goldman, D. 1952. “The Effect of Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation on the Human Electroencephalogram.” EEG and Clinical Neurophysiology 4: 370.
Grof, S. and Grof, C. 2010. Holotropic Breathwork - A New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy. Albany, NY: State University of New York (SUNY) Press.
Jilek, W. J. 1974. Salish Indian Mental Health and Culture Change: Psychohygienic and Therapeutic Aspects of the Guardian Spirit Ceremonial. Toronto and Montreal: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston of Canada.
Jilek, W. 1982. “Altered States of Consciousness in North American Indian Ceremonials.” Ethos 10:326-343.
Katz, R. 1976. “The Painful Ecstasy of Healing.” Psychology Today, December.
Lee, R. B. and DeVore, I. (eds) 1976. Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: Studies of the !Kung San and Their Neighbors. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Neher, A, 1961. “Auditory Driving Observed with Scalp Electrodes in Normal Subjects.” Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology 13:449-451.
Neher, A. 1962. “A Physiological Explanation of Unusual Behavior Involving Drums.”  Human Biology 14:151-160.
Ramacharaka (William Walker Atkinson). 1903. The Science of Breath. London: Fowler and Company, Ltd.
Reich, W. 1949. Character Analysis. New York, NY: Noonday Press.
Reich, W. 1961. The Function of the Orgasm: Sex-Economic Problems of Biological Energy. New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Katherine Rowland - Whole Earth Mental Health (Ecopsychology)

Ecopsychology is a relatively new but rapidly growing field of psychology, with its correlate ecotherapy. Here is a little background on ecopsychology from Robert Greenway, which references Ken Wilber's dismissive assault on earlier ecopsych models. Below this is Rowland's article on ecopsychology.

Six Faces of Ecopsychology
(or 'Six Directions in Search of a Center')

by Robert Greenway

I. Ecopsychology as Umbrella/Container for Discussions About Nature

This is the most common use of the term, and its meanings are diverse, to say the least. Somehow, the term 'ecopsychology' frees people to talk very personally about their concerns over environmental issues, or their angers or fears or grief over specific human-caused problems, or just about anything even remotely connected to natural processes (examples recently gleaned from an Internet ecopsychology group: discussions of recycling, burial practices, education, politics, economics, corporate responsibility, endangered species, ebonics, and so on). There are no boundaries in this realm, although it is commonly assumed, more or less, that any human activity means 'psychology', and anything having to do with 'nature' is ecology, which, together, cover just about everything. Most discussions in this realm are covered more rigorously in other fields. Thus, this category has all the characteristics of a popular fad, a bandwagon, although obviously a need is being fulfilled; perhaps a 'mythic container' is being created, a stimulus for much-needed development of personal and social narrative recasting the human nature relationship.

II. Ecopsychology as Basis for Healing, for a 'New' Therapy

This is also a common (and one of the most coherent) uses of the term.

There are at least two (overlapping) camps within this category:

(A) The psychological problems resulting from Western-Industrial Culture's alleged increasing distance from Nature (or 'natural processes'). Paul Shepherd's work (Nature and Madness) is paradigmatic.

(B) The use of nature (some kind of immersion in nature) for healing what is believed to be 'the human-nature disjunction' (the idea that re-immersion in nature will somehow offset the pathogenic effects of a culture increasingly isolated from- or dominant over- natural processes).

The many forms of wild-erness healing are paradigmatic, although psychotherapists discuss the movement of a therapeutic session from inside the office to out on the patio or a walk in the garden or park as 'ecopsychology'.

III. Calls for an Ecopsychology

For many, expressions of the need for an ecopsychology are synonymous with ecopsychology-as-field. Although as pointed out above, ideas about the human-nature relationship have been around for decades, or centuries (whether couched in philosophical speculations or pragmatic need), the 1990's call for an ecopsychology is at once a call for a container, for a field, for a discipline, for principles, most of all, for something to do to 'save the earth' from human-caused destruction to the very processes upon which humans and all life depends. Theodore Roszak's The Voice of the Earth is paradigmatic; some of James Hillman's writings are calling for a revision of psychology that would acknowledge the existence of a natural context for all psychological processes, all life!; and, as mentioned above, Paul Shepherd's Nature and Madness (and all his other writings) have for a long time been calling for psychology to become aware of the disjunctive effects of our culture's accelerating distancing with natural processes.

IV. Ecopsychology as Experiential

For a variety of reasons (such as recent generations' mistrust of philosophy; of 'words that dominate'; of rationality, objectivity, logic; the relief of physical activity as opposed to thinking; the obvious needs for- and benefits of- 'actions'; the increasingly obvious contradictions between what environmental theorists do and what they say ; the conviction that 'experience' (usually meaning experience prior to cultural mediation) is more 'correct' or 'spiritual' or should have primacy over all subsequent psychological processes) - all this and more brings into the burgeoning ecopsychology 'field' calls for 'less talk and more walk'. Thus, for many, 'ecopsychology' means the vision quest, the wilderness excursion, the full-moon ritual, the blockade of a logging road, yoga, or the meditation practice. At a more linguistic level, such actions - and particularly those that involve 'bridges' between culture and nature (such as, say, gardening, sexuality, child-raising, food finding and preparation, shelter, etc.) - are seen not so much as synonymous with ecopsychology, but an essential experiential source of psychological language (i.e., from experience-to-language rather than from philosophy-to-language).

V. Spiritual Practice as Ecopsycyology

This of course overlaps with category IV, above, but warrants separate attention, for the reason that, though 'spiritual' here means primarily experiential, it also includes the theoretical, as for example, Ken Wilber's massive intellectual work (in particular the first book in his huge trilogy: Sex, Evolution, and Spirit). The underlying assumption here, crucial to many in the environmental movement, is that nature is spirit (i.e. 'Source', where a return to 'right relationship' with nature implies a right relationship with Spirit, and that without this depth (or height!) all efforts at healing the human-nature relationship will fall short. Of course the debate rages whether Spirit has fully descended into earth, or whether earth-consciousness is evolving towards a higher 'spirit' (or whether both are true). Whatever, many now working within an ecopsychology umbrella strive for that feeling or 'groove' of oneness with nature, and assume this to be an essential spiritual approach to healing the human-nature relationship. Many others are turning to the works of Ken Wilber as a trans-personal psychology base for the 'psychology' part of ecopsychology; or to Buddhist psychology (or other religions) as a way of including spirit or 'mystery' in the attempts to overcome the dualism currently inherent in western cultural views of the human-nature relationship.

VI. 'Core' Ecopsychology as Language

Without discounting any of the above categories of emergent ecopsychology, this category -- very sparse, and without much attention indeed – attempts to 'ground' an ecopsychology in language (the 'logos' of both psychology and ecology) that is philosophically coherent and consistent. The assumption here is, like other disciplines, without a core language, or at least a core set of questions, something as vast as 'ecopsychology' will fly off in all directions and will become, essentially, meaningless, however stimulating or productive of an occasional insight it may be.

Assumptions tend to be that the human-nature relationship is psychologically based, that psychology (as emergent in culture) is capable of being skewed (and that this is the case in Western culture), that no existing psychology has a complete handle on the situation (and thus a 'new' psychology must emerge), that the human cognitive penchant for extreme dualism is as close as we can presently come to an expression of the cause of the human-nature disjunction; that language needn't be dualistic (though it often engenders dualism), and that, perhaps, 'the question of consciousness' is at the heart of all these core questions. The work of Warwick Fox (Transpersonal Ecology) is an attempt at a core language, using an analysis of 'deep ecology' and 'transpersonal psychology' to formulate a model of a healthy human-nature relationship. Ken Wilber's work attempts the same, although his rather vicious attacks on deep ecology and earlier forms of ecopsychology for not being transpersonal enough (or rather, for not being couched explicitly in Wilber's latest transpersonal models) makes his work somewhat problematical. At present, the only true ecopsychology text is by Deborah Winter (Ecological Psychology: Healing the Split Between Planet and Self), which is an excellent basic text that combs through a variety of psychologies and philosophies in search of an ecopsychological language that would be practical and stimulating for changing behaviors re the human-nature relationship. There are of course many shorter papers coming out dealing with definitions and ecopsychological ideas, and a number of books in the works that will, hopefully, help to focus this 'field' in a coherent language.
And now, here is Katherine Rowland's new article from Guernica.

Katherine Rowland: Whole Earth Mental Health

By Katherine Rowland

September 20, 2012
The evolving field of ecopsychology aims to cure what ails us by bridging the human-nature rift.

Image from Flickr via Poytr
By Katherine Rowland
“The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment,” said Herman Daly in his 1977 treatise Steady State Economics, invoking the notion that global financial systems hang in careful balance dependent on the planet’s environmental health—a rare idea for the time. Economists, environmentalists, and social scientists alike have since carried variations of Daly’s logic to consumers and boardroom members, urging the public and private sectors to recognize that capital can only be as healthy as the resources on which it depends. Even these ambitious ideas, though, don’t question the underlying assumption that the whole wild world exists for man to mine and plunder, and that we humans are separate from the nature rather than a part of it.

The group of specialists now calling bluff on this disconnection is a surprising one, coming not from wildlife biology or atmospheric science but from mental health professions. Many suggest that it’s high time to reframe Daly’s adage to include the human psyche. An evolving field known as “ecopsychology” proposes that the pervasive but fictive gulf between man and nature not only drives ecological decline, but also contributes to modern afflictions such as depression, anxiety, obesity and heart disease. From tenuous roots in Hippie-era urgings that we all be one with mother earth, ecopsychology has in recent years emerged as a legitimate approach to mental health, elaborating on research showing that people benefit from contact with nature—and suffer from its absence.

As If the Whole Earth Mattered

Oregon-based clinical psychologist Thomas Doherty has been at the forefront of efforts to usher the field into the realm of academic credibility. One of the directors of the American Psychological Association’s recently established Climate Change Task Force, Doherty is encouraging his mental health colleagues to address the psychic damage caused by ecological decline and the modern world’s insistent separateness from nature.

“Ecopsychology is not a discipline, so much as it is a social movement, a world view,” he says. Although practitioners have evolved a number of diverse treatment methods, from conducting therapy sessions out of doors to helping clients grieve toxic spills and species loss, Doherty says one of the unifying ideas in ecopsychology is its attempt to integrate a different set of questions into clinical practice. What, for example, does it mean to live as part of the web of life, but to behave as if we didn’t?
Ecopsychology endeavors to explode the nature-culture, mind-body binaries that for centuries have informed how we measure sanity and health. This bifurcating tendency is at the murky core of modern pathologies.
The seeming simplicity of this question obscures its underlying radicalism. “Psychology, as part of the Western tradition, is a Cartesian enterprise,” says Doherty. “It consciously tries to separate humans from the rest of nature.” The widely accepted rift between nature and humanity has supposed roots as broad and deep as the advent of language, of agriculture, the legacy of the Enlightenment. Ecopsychology endeavors to explode the nature-culture, mind-body binaries that for centuries have informed how we measure sanity and health. This bifurcating tendency doesn’t preserve civilization from savagery, but rather is at the murky core of modern pathologies, like anxiety, substance abuse, and compulsive shopping. In other words, it is only because we are at such a remove from nature that we can behave the way we do: using resources with no regard for consequence, consuming goods with no thought as to their production. Doherty asks “what if we were to reinvent psychology so that at its heart it was an ecological discipline?” Could changing our relationship to nature hold the key to mental health?

Shamans and Scientists

While aspects of ecopsychology emerged in the 1960s, congruent with the gathering force of the environmental movement, it was not really until the 1990s that it gained traction. In 1992 social historian Theodore Rozak (who takes credit for the term “counter-culture”) introduced “ecopsychology” into the vernacular, and called on practitioners to pursue “psychology as if the whole earth mattered.” The diversity in the field suggests that there is no general consensus on what this exactly means. Today, adherents hail from ranks as diverse as therapists, clinical researchers, wilderness guides, shamans, activists and anthropologists, whose methods range from conducting therapy sessions in parks, to vision quests, to documenting the healing qualities of green spaces, and probing what motivates someone to “sell their own nest.” But despite its eclecticism, ecopsychology has steadily begun to penetrate mainstream psychological circles. In 2010, Doherty launched the first peer-reviewed journal devoted to the subject, and this year MIT released a dedicated anthology. As a field of advanced study, ecopsychology degrees and courses are now offered by Lewis and Clark, Oberlin, and the University of Wisconsin, among other institutions.
How does depression correspond to a ruined landscape, or anxiety link to global warming or visions of future generations walking round a world eternally diminished?
However, when it comes to hard facts and data, ecopsychology begins to falter. While there is a robust literature supporting the idea that spending time in nature offers a host of health benefits, such as decreased stress, improved ability to focus, and even lowered risk for heart disease, proving cause and effect is far from clear. “There’s a lot of research showing the psychological benefits of nature. But does the loss of the natural world degrade mental health? That’s a difficult conclusion to support,” says experimental psychologist John Davis. How, for example, does depression correspond to a ruined landscape, or anxiety link to global warming or visions of future generations walking round a world eternally diminished? Although more and more research has tried to broach these issues, much of the relationship between mental health and nature remains elusive, falling into chasms described simply as “psyche,” “consciousness,” and “modern life.” But Davis suggests that even if the connections are drawn in wavering lines, they underscore an important shift in psychological practice. Rather than consider anxiety or depression as outcomes of strictly personal history and circumstance, ecopsychology admits the possibility that outside events and circumstance bear on mental health. “Sometimes,” says Davis, “suffering really is about the planet.”

The Connection Cure

After years of psychiatric treatment that did little to resolve his long-standing depression, a patient, whom we’ll call Paul, enlisted the services of an ecopsychologist. Paul had taken a number of drugs to manage his symptoms and weekly laid out on the proverbial couch to reflect on his childhood and past relationships, “but this persistent sense of doom remained,” he says. “If the world is going to hell, I just couldn’t really see the point of carrying on everyday. Raising my family, working my job seemed really futile to the point of absurdity, if we are destroying the earth so quickly that my kids will just be left with a mess.”

As a practitioner, Davis came to ecopsychology with similar preoccupations in mind. Once captivated by the psychological ramifications of living through the Cold War, in the early 1980s, he turned his attention to the environment: “Just as the atomic clock was moving further from midnight, I began to ask what it’s like for young people to grow up with a sense of environmental damage, devastation, and ecological peril.” Widespread environmental destruction, and sobering realities like climate change can impinge on the mental health of youth, he says, taking away from the sense of having options or a positive future.
“It’s a form of insanity that we’re in the process of destroying our own life support systems.”
For Davis, as well as a significant number of ecopsychologists and ecotherapists, the solution is not to take stock of silver linings, but rather to more actively engage with feelings of pain and loss. He describes contemporary attitudes toward the environment as akin to a passerby blithely strolling as a woman is murdered in the street. “There’s a learned helplessness,” he says. “We grow numb rather than face what’s really going on. We need to learn how to be active participants rather than bystanders to a tragedy.”

Your childhood house is now dust buried beneath a strip mall; the apple tree that once gave you shade has been cut, burned, turned to splinter; the rivers where you once fished now run thick with toxic silt. Youth inherit this depletion and everywhere is starving, poisoned, desiccated, stripped and out of balance.

“This environmental destruction can cause a profound sense of loss,” says clinical therapist Linda Buzell, founder of the International Association for Ecotherapy. “And it’s important to reckon with what that means, and really experience that pain in order to move through it.”
We suffer because we’re removed from nature; nature suffers because we are removed from it.
For Paul, therapy involved a serious inquiry into how he valued nature. “I spent a lot of time thinking about this tree that I used to love in a field by my house, and how angry I was when it was cut down so that the field could be turned into one of those McMansion developments.” Paul’s therapist encouraged him to spend more time outdoors. “There was a whole year when I just meditated on leaves. At first I didn’t really think much about them, but it became a gateway to start thinking about how I was connected to this enormous, incredible ecosystem, and I began talking about these issues with my wife and friends, and teaching my kids about ecology.”

But achieving reconciliation is rarely an easy process, offers psychologist and educator Craig Chalquist, who with Buzell recently authored Healing with Nature in Mind. “The ecological crisis is also a crisis of human consciousness,” he says. “Much of modern culture is dedicated to helping us numb ourselves. We become apathetic, paralyzed, to protect ourselves from feeling overwhelmed.”

Part of ecopsychologists’ solution rests in simply opening up a space for people to give voice to ambient worries and free-floating distress. Herein, suggests Chalquist, ecopsychology can assume an advocacy role, helping people to not only identify their concerns, but strategize ways to address environmental damage in their own communities and professional lives.

Eco-Grief and Eco-Action

Buzzell describes the process of becoming conscious of ecological decline as similar to the stages of grief that accompany the death of a loved one: from despair, it’s possible to move toward acceptance. Looking to the widespread apathy in younger generations—“They know they got a raw deal!” – Buzzell maintains that helping youth validate their anger can serve to empower them to make behavioral changes in their own lives; they don’t have to adhere to the wasteful, anti-ecological, consumerist precedents set by their parents, she says.

But here, the field confronts a challenge larger than internalized eco-grief. While the modern world’s diminished landscapes may contribute to malaise, so too does the modern mind, with its heavy bent toward apathy and consumer appetites, facilitate ecological degradation. The current state of the world is in and of itself a symptom of an “insane disconnection between humans and the environment,” says Buzzell. “From top to bottom across modern culture, this rift is evident. It’s a form of insanity that we’re in the process of destroying our own life support systems.”

“It’s possible,” says Chalquist, “to regard climate change as a consequence of mental health. Not in terms of strict cause and effect, but as systemic consequences. You tune out the built environment, you buy more stuff to distract yourself. We’re living and participating in a system that industrializes the destruction of the world.”

“What is the effect of global climate change on the psyche of young people, growing up in full knowledge that the world they’re inheriting is different from the world of their parents?” asks Buzzell. “Scientists are now saying, sorry folks, we’ve crossed the line. So it’s really time to focus on resilience, learning how to live on a new planet—it’s changing so quickly it’s no longer the same planet you were born on.”

Although ecopsychology introduces a provocative philosophical and analytical approach to conventional mental health practices, it rests on a slippery theoretical ground, and in its diversity exists both its greatest assets and weaknesses. Searching for a therapist to whom to bring your environmental woes, you are as likely to find a clinical practitioner as you are a shamanic guide, and the field’s general inclusiveness makes for some strange bedfellows. This inclusiveness, however, is also what gives the field its dynamism: ecopsychology rallies the mainstream and the unorthodox round a central problem, on the unique premise that treating a pervasive malady is more important than maintaining disciplinary divides.

However, adherents of all stripes expound an ideal of ecological connectedness, against which degrees of separation are meted out in mental suffering. We suffer because we’re removed from nature; nature suffers because we are removed from it. Yet this ideal does not exist in modern life, but rather reaches across time and culture to restore mankind to some archetypal form, composed of equal parts history, myth and longing. “All we’re doing is remembering what we’ve lost,” says ecopsychologist Betsy Perluss. “We’re not creating anything new. This is in our DNA.” Even in its most radical interpretations, psychology remains a small-scale enterprise, typically focused on individual minds, rather than entire cultures. Its very person-centered approach, treating one individual at a time, might undermine the larger goal of enjoining humanity and nature. But while ecopsychology may not achieve a culture-wide revolution, let alone halt what Chalquist calls industrialized destruction, it frames the resource-use mentality as sickness, and in so doing may be positioned to address the crises of earth and psyche it generates.

~ Katherine Rowland is a journalist currently based in New York. Her work has appeared in Nature, the Financial Times, the Independent, OnEarth and other publications.