EcoPsychology, EcoSpirituality, Deep Ecology and Health
[a letter from 1997, translated into english]
Ecospirituality, a spiritual view on our relationship with the Universe and Earth, is connected with approaches such as systems theories, deep ecology and ecopsychology.
Health – for individuals, society and the Earth as a whole – is here seen as dependent on maintaining and become aware of the myriad of connections between oneself, the larger wholes we are a part of, and the parts in our minds and bodies.
Ecospirituality is a spiritual perspective on our relationship to the Earth and the Universe as a whole.
Spirituality has an experience and an action aspect. The experience aspect refers to a numinous experience of the Earth and the Universe. This can occur through something as simple and everyday as an experience of awe for the richness, beauty and complexity of the Earth – expressed through cloud formations, a flower or an evening by the ocean, or for the immensity of the Universe expressed through a clear night sky. The action aspect refers to bringing this experience into life, to let it unfold through daily life and daily life actions.
Ecopsychology is related to and complements deep ecology. Both fields study how human health and well-being is intimately connected with the health and well-being of the Earth as a whole. Ecopsychology focuses on how the individual can experience a deep healing and sense of meaning through intimately experience itself as a part of the Earth and live from this experience. Deep ecology sees the same as a prerequisite for healing of the Earth: Only when we bring the myriad connections between ourselves and the Earth into our awareness will we open for spontaneously and effortlessly (but not without intention) living in a way more beneficial for the Earth.
An important aspect of Ecospirituality is to study how modern cosmology and science can place the history of the Earth and one’s own life into a deeply meaningful context. This is connected with especially the following aspects of modern cosmology: The astonishing history of the Universe, which includes the history of this solar system, the Earth, the history of humanity and the history of every living being. That all phenomenon – all aspects of the Universe – is a part of one seamless system. And – more generally – that the Universe expresses itself through both what individual beings experience as “outer” (a mountain, the stars, another individual) and “inner” (experiences, thoughts, happiness, frustrations).
The Universe has, through billions of years, unfolded its potentials in always new, more complex and always astonishing new ways. The Universe has reorganized itself from non-existence to existence, from energy to simple particles, from galaxies to solar systems and stars, from simple to more complex particles, from matter to life, from life to consciousness, and from consciousness to culture and science. Everything are parts of one whole. Galaxies, experiences, a fugue of Bach, the suffering of a child in Iraq, a city, are all a part of and an expression of this universe.
We are the Universe becoming aware of itself. We – and the living Earth – are the local sensory and awareness organs of the Universe. As we experience the world through our senses, the Universe experiences and explores itself through us.
Again, there is no separation between what humans experience as “inner” (experiences, thoughts, emotions) and “outer” (the milky way, the night sky, a mountain, a city). Everything is born from and is a part of the unfolded potentials of the Universe. Humans are the local sensory and awareness organ of the Universe, and culture, religion and science are the ways the Universe organizes its exploration of itself. Through technology, the Universe goes beyond its biological limitations and can peer deeper into itself, explore itself in a way that goes far beyond what was possible through only the biological senses.
Another important inspiration for this perspective is systems theories. Through systems theories, we can explore the dynamic processes found in every type of system – from the large to the small: The Universe as a whole, galaxies, solar systems, the Earth as a whole, society, ecosystems, families, individuals, body, mind, organs, experiences, cells, particles and energy. All these systems are embedded in one single larger system, and all phenomena are in a very concrete and direct way mutually dependent.
A central term in systems theories is holons and holarchies. Any phenomenon – a blade of grass, an ecosystem, a family, an organ – is a holon. All holons are embedded in larger holons, and consist of smaller holons. All holons are part of a holarchy, a system of larger and smaller holons. An organ is part of the human body, the individual is part of society and the Earth, the Earth is part of the galaxy and the Universe as a whole. The organ also contains smaller units, as blood vessels, tissue, cells, DNA, molecules, atoms and sub-atomic particles. All these are considered holons in a holarchy.
From a systems view, any holon is embedded in the processes and patterns of the larger holons it is a part of. At the same time, it is a partly autonomous and self-regulation whole. There is thus a polarity, with integration or unity as the one pole, and differentiation or autonomy as the other. These are complimentary and mutually dependent tendencies within one polarity.
Self-organization is another important phenomenon explored through systems theories. Self-organization is a characteristic of all systems, from the Universe as a whole down to molecules and atoms. All systems are self-organizing and are embedded in the processes of the larger systems and incorporate the processes of smaller systems through their own self-organization. Self-organization occurs both in living and non-living systems, is dynamic and can be seen through processes unfolding over time.
In living systems (and some non-living), self-organization is expressed through self-maintenance, self-renewal, self-transcendence, and self-healing. The specific form these take is dependent on the evolution of the system itself and the larger systems.
Self-maintenance is expressed in for instance homeostasis – the tendency to maintain specific internal conditions that helps the system to function optimally. For instance, both the Earth and a cat “know” how to maintain a relatively stable internal temperature and chemical balance in spite of changing external conditions (the sun has increased its temperature 30% since the Earth became alive, but the Earth’s temperature has only changed a few degrees).
Self-renewal is expressed in the Earth as a whole, where the living parts are changed through the birth and death of individual living organisms. The same occurs in an individual where cells in most organs and tissue are exchanged daily.
Self-transcendence is expressed through development and evolution. Systems develop new patterns and ways of organizing which simultaneously are different than and incorporates earlier ways of organization. The process usually goes from simple to complex and means both increased differentiation and integration. A human being develops from one cell, to two, to four, and organizes itself into organs, limbs, awareness. The Universe has evolved (or unfolded) itself from energy, through simple particles, to galaxies, solar systems, a living planet, symphonies, Michelangelo’s statue of David, a child in wonder of the immensity of the Universe. In this way, the Universe as a whole expresses a development similar to its sub-systems.
Self-healing is also expressed in living systems, from the largest to the smallest. Living systems knows how to restore balance after a perturbation, as long as the required conditions are present. I will return to this later.
Some Consequences of a Systems View
Systems theories focus on both the whole and parts, macrocosm and microcosm, life and non-life, culture and nature, matter and mind. It focuses on the polarities as well as the poles.
Let’s take a look at one of these polarities: the one embracing wholes and parts. A consequence of a systems view is that each phenomenon must be understood both through its parts and through its role in a larger whole. Both poles must be explored. We cannot explore and understand a leaf without exploring its structure and parts, and also explore the tree as a whole and the ecosystem the tree is a part of. A consequence of this, as implied above, is that humanity as well as human individuals must be understood from its role as part of the Earth and the Universe as a whole.
Integration of Views
A consequence of this is use and integration of insights, models and techniques from a wide range of different scientific traditions and also spiritual traditions – as long as they are mutually consistent. Cosmology, physics, chemistry, biology, history, sociology, psychology, religion – all these are necessary to understand the evolution of this Universe – and also the evolution of Earth and humanity as part of the patterns and processes of the Universe.
As we see, a consequence of a systems view is an understanding of mutual dependence. All systems are embedded in a larger system, and – although each system is partly autonomous, there is no absolute separation among these sub-systems. The structures and processes of each system is dependent on the structures and processes of the larger systems they are embedded in, each sub-system in this larger system, and its own sub-systems.
The Universe as a whole could not exists as it does without all its galaxies, solar systems, stars, supernovas, black holes and planets. In the same way is any part of the Universe dependent on the evolution and processes of the Universe as a whole. Everything is mutually dependent and tied in a million ways.
If we apply this view on the evolution of the Universe as a whole and the Earth as a whole, we – again – see that wholes and parts evolve in mutual dependence. The processes of the Earth as a whole evolve in partnership with the evolution of all its sub-systems. In human beings today is embedded the history of the Earth as a whole – reflecting the conditions human ancestors and humans evolved in. Whole and part unfold in mutual dependence and influence.
A Closer Look at Mutual Dependence
Let’s take a closer look at mutual dependence. Mutual dependence among all phenomena, all systems and sub-systems, reach out in time and space. All aspects of this Universe are dependent – for their own existence – on the history and evolution of the Universe and on the Universe as a whole and its structures and processes.
Let’s take the Earth and its sub-systems as an example:
The Earth is a product of the evolution of the Universe, created from star matter, warmed by the sun, nourished by comets, dependent on the processes between super groups of galaxies, and processes within the milky way galaxy and this solar system. In the same way, each part of the Earth is dependent on the history of the Earth and also on the structures and processes of the Earth as a whole. An earthworm’s existence is dependent on the conditions on the Earth billions of years ago, which allowed the formation of the first one-celled organisms, of the first collectives of one-celled organisms which functions as a whole, on all the astonishing changes which all its ancestors have gone through, on ecosystems which has supported all its ancestors, on ecosystems which support the millions of organisms which make up the soil it lives in, on the Earth as a whole today which produce the air it is dependent on to exist. It is also dependent on all its own sub-systems, its digestion and movement systems, its organs and cells, and all the complex molecules which make up these – in turn formed in stars billions of years ago, from elementary particles and energy patterns formed in the early history of the Universe.
In each systems is reflected the history of the Universe, as well its the structures and processes as they are expressed today.
From this insight into mutual dependence, we see that the health of each living system is dependent on the larger system, the sub-systems of this larger system, and its own sub-systems. If the larger systems do not function optimally, the sub-systems cannot function optimally. If a sub-system does not function optimally, the larger systems cannot function optimally.
Health, then, is dependent on the maintenance of a myriad of relationships between oneself, the larger systems, and one’s sub-systems. Simplified, we can say that living systems function more stably and optimally the more and stronger connections it maintains both up and down in the holarchy.
A Systems View on Humans
Autonomy and Unity
I mentioned above that each holon is both a whole and part. It is integrated and one with a larger whole. At the same time, it is a partly autonomous whole in itself. This dual role is dynamically expressed in every system.
For humans, this process is unfolded on the conscious level. We begin our lives with a biological and unaware integration into a larger whole, as well as an unaware differentiation and autonomy. During our lives, this polarity is actively explored and brought into awareness.
We explore this process through, among other things, exploring what is “self” and “not self”, how we are integrated in a family and society, and how to balance ones own needs with that of others. Our lives are, for a large part, a dynamic, continuous and active exploration and deepening of both poles of this polarity.
Ultimately, these two poles – an healthy autonomy and an experience of being embedded in and one with the larger whole – mutually dependent. One cannot unfold without the other. An healthy and strong personality is necessary for us to realize that we do not exist as an independent and isolated unit, and an experience of being part of a larger whole is necessary for unfolding an healthy and strong personality.
In this text, I’ll focus on the unfolding of an experience of being part of a larger whole as this is in the blind spot for humans in contemporary western/global culture.
From systems theories, we know that illness and problems within each system mainly arises when connections between larger and smaller systems is severed or weakened. When this connection is restored and maintained, the self-healing processes in every living system can again unfold. Any living being is dependent on a myriad of connections to a well functioning larger system (social and ecological) as well as to its sub-systems (as organs and cells) to itself function well. The more of these connections broken, the more difficult it is for a living being to maintain its function.
For us humans, this is expressed on both a biological and psychological level. We are – as any other being – dependent on maintaining a rich and well-functioning relationship with a larger ecosystem and our own biological sub-systems. We are also – as some other living beings – dependent on a rich and well-functioning relationship on an experiential level to a larger social and ecological whole and our inner world. I will later describe this more in detail.
EcoPsychology and Deep Ecology
This is all related to a field within psychology called ecopsychology. Within ecopsychology, human health and well-being is seen as dependent upon a direct and naked experience of intimately belong to and being part of the Earth and Universe as a whole. We are a part of the Earth and Universe, and our role is to deeply experience and live from that view. If this is overlooked, it opens for an experience of emptiness, meaninglessness, frustration and hopelessness. If we live up to this role, it opens for an experience of deep meaning and of belonging to and being at home in the Universe. To live an authentic life is to live from an insight and experience of being an organic part of a larger whole.
Since we literally are one with the Earth – there are no absolute separation between any parts of the Earth – a psychotherapy that only focuses on the individual and the history of the individual, have a limited effect and use.
The old worldview was mechanistic and reductionistic, and influenced also the early forms of psychotherapy. We focused on the parts of the individual – thoughts, emotions, complexes etc. and overlooked the larger whole the individual was embedded in – sometimes with the exception of the smallest social unit, the family. The larger whole – society, the Earth as a whole and the Universe – was overlooked. Exceptions to this include Jung and some existentialistic and humanistic approaches that focused on both poles in the polarity: both the parts and the larger spiritual/existential view.
Deep ecology is closely tied to ecopsychology. Both see health as dependent on a conscious experience of these myriads of connections. Ecopsychology focus on the health of the individual, and deep ecology on the health of the Earth. An important principle in deep ecology is that a life lived to the benefit of the larger whole cannot come through a purely intellectual understanding, laws, regulations or ethical guidelines, but can only come – and come spontaneously and effortlessly – through a direct and naked experience of the Earth as one seamless whole. That there is only one body.
I mentioned that a myriad of connections with larger and smaller wholes is necessary for the health and well-being for an individual. On a physical and biological level, it is necessary for our existence and health. On an experiential and existential/spiritual level, it is necessary for our well-being, our optimal functioning and for unfolding of the potentials in every individual. These connections are – as mentioned – on a biological/physical level and an experiential/existential level, and directed outward and inward.
Let’s take a closer look at these connections.
Biological/Physical and Outward
We are dependent on information, matter and certain conditions from our surroundings to survive. We are dependent on sensing our surrounding, right temperature and chemical conditions, air, food, water. And all these are in turn dependent on a local and global social and ecological system, in turn dependent on the Universe as a whole: its history and processes.
Biological/Physical and Inward
We are similarly dependent on all our biological and physical subsystems. On a collective of organs and cells functioning as a whole, and on the conditions of each part of this immensely complex system. We are here as a result of billions of years development of the Universe and Earth, and as a direct descendant of numerous generations of beings going back millions of years in time and including the first one celled organisms, the first collectives, amphibians, land creatures, mammals and the first humanoids. In our cells is embedded the history of the Universe, the Earth and millions of beings from one celled organisms to humans.
As mentioned earlier – there is no absolute separation among any phenomena or systems, everything is part of one whole, one seamless system. I ourselves is embedded the history of the Universe. Our existence is dependent on the Universe as a whole.
Let’s take a look at the experiential or existential level. It is clear that a certain sensing of both the inner and outer whole is necessary for our survival. It may be less obvious that our own health and well-being, and the future of humanity and the Earth, is intimately dependent on our experience of the inner and outer whole. How can that be the case?
Experiences and Health
Bringing these myriads of connections into awareness is a continuous process, and may have several consequences: On the individual level, it opens for an experience of deep meaning and connection. We are at home in the Universe, in all its forms. We are intimate with ecosystems, the social system, our mind and ourselves as biological organisms. All phenomena are met – not with fear or as something “other” – but with curiosity and as an old friend, as something part of the same as oneself. This regards all phenomena, whether they are experienced as comfortable or not. There is also a recognition – in an intimate way – of one’s own health and condition being mutually dependent on the health and condition of the larger whole and all its parts, including one’s own. This opens up for a concern for the larger whole, and an awareness of the long term and far reaching consequences of one’s own actions for the larger whole. One’s concern for self and the for the larger whole are aligned. We go beyond the artificial division between “altruism and “egotism”.
When these connections are not experienced directly, when there is a break on the experiential level of these connections, then it opens for an experience of meaninglessness, hopelessness, isolation and apathy. Of not belonging to the universe, ecosystem, society, mind and/or body. For the individual, this will often lead to weakened health – which in turn will express itself through body and mind. This experience of isolation can further lead to a weakened health for the larger social and ecological whole. Socially, it can be expressed through indifference to other’s suffering, or lack of meaningful interactions and relations with others. Ecologically, it can be expressed through indifference to the long term and far reaching consequences of one’s actions for the local and global ecosystem. We have an illusion of separation, and thus of being isolated from the condition of the larger whole and the consequences of ones actions [for this larger whole].
A lack of conscious and intimate experience of the myriad connections between oneself and the larger whole, and oneself and one’s subsystems, opens for a weakened health on all levels – from subsystems, to the individual as a whole, and to the society and earth as a whole. A conscious experience and awareness of all these connections similarly opens for a more optimal functioning on all these levels.
Examples – Experience and Health
A more intimate relationship to oneself as a biological being (through for example dance, yoga, tai chi, Feldenkrais) leads to an experience of deep well being, a more conscious relationship to ones biological potentials and limitations (in for instance movement and capacity), to tasting and choosing food with the whole body and not just the tongue, and to a deep experience of not only “being at home in the body” but being body. All this can lead to increased physical health and well being.
A more intimate relationship to oneself as an experiencing being leads to a more wise and healthy relationship to the patterns and movements of the mind. We can open for experiencing and accepting all the qualities of the mind – as natural phenomena, as expressions of the local processes of the universe – just as the clouds moving through the sky, water streaming through a creek, a hurricane which tears up trees and buildings, rain that gives nourishment and freshens the air. A more intimate and conscious relationship with the processes of the mind also opens for a more healthy and wise interaction with other humans.
A more intimate relationship to the local and global ecosystems leads to awareness of the long term and far reaching consequences on these of one’s daily activities. We are driven by a spontaneous need to organize and live our life in a way that is not harmful to the larger ecological whole.
A more intimate relationship with the local and global social systems opens for a spontaneous care for all beings, for a whish to contribute to their well being and health in a way that respects their integrity.
All this comes from an intimate experience of that the function and health of all these aspects – oneself as body and mind and the largerglobal ecological and social systems – are directly and mutually dependent. There is only one system – only one body: the Earth as a whole.
To live an authentic life we must live from a realization that everything really is intimately connection and mutually dependent. This includes social engagement, a lived ecological awareness in daily life, an awareness of oneself as body, and an explorations of the mind and its processes.
To open for an intimate experience of being an integrated part of society, Earth and the Universe opens for a deeper healing than what can occur when we mainly focus on the individual and its personal story. This is the insight expressed in many Asian philosophies and Western traditions, such as humanistic, Jungian and transpersonal psychology. This is supported by the experiences of thousands and possibly millions of people through the history of humanity, and is the basis of healing rituals in many cultures. Powerful and effective tools and methods have been developed in the traditions mentioned above – and many other – to help us as individuals and society to regain and maintain these connections to the larger and smaller whole. Here are some examples:
To allow for a more intimate experience of the myriad connections to ourselves as a biological being, there is: Yoga, Tai Chi Chuan, Feldenkrais, walking meditation, and awareness of the senses and of ourselves as a biological being through our everyday activities.
To find intimacy with ourselves as an experiencing being, there is: Meditation, yoga, Jungian therapy, process oriented psychology (Arnold Mindell), and to a certain extent western psychotherapy – although conventional psychotherapy has a tendency to view the processes of the mind from a quite limited perspective.
To experience ourselves as a whole – including and beyond body and mind, we have all of the approaches above. Through finding intimacy with ourselves as body, mind and a whole, we also open for finding intimacy with the larger whole we are a part of – and for seeing that we and the larger systems are one whole.
To experience the myriad of connections with the local and global social system, we find: Sociology, social psychology, political science, contemplation of mutual dependency, and maybe most importantly – social engagement.
To experience the myriad of connections with the local and global ecological system, we have: Ecology, eco-spirituality, deep ecology, contemplation of mutual dependency, and ecological engagement.
To work in an intimate way with realizing that there are no absolute separation between oneself and the larger whole, we have prayer and meditation. Prayer, which is an active opening up for a connection with the larger whole, a transcendence of the separation between oneself and the larger whole. And meditation, which through an exploration of the processes of the mind leads to a realization of not existing as a separate part, but as a aspect of a larger whole – and also here to a transcendence of the separation between oneself and the larger whole.
Our self-interest is aligned with the interest of the Earth as a whole, going beyond the artificial separation of altruism and egotism.
To live an authentic life means to live up to our role as an awareness-organ for the universe. To explore and bring into awareness the universe in all its myriad of manifestations – in a creative and playful way.
We are – literally – one with this planet, and our health and well-being is intimately connected with the condition of the earth and all its aspects. Working to improve health means to work to improve health at all levels, including individual, social and the planet as a whole. This opens for a deepening experience of belonging to and being an active participant in the unfolding and evolution of this wonderful and rich planet. It also opens for a deepening experience of meaning, which is an important part of any deeper healing for us as individuals and society, and which can play an important role in the healing of this planet as a whole.