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Choose a plant or tree or animal near your home, or a favorite view, and observe it for five minutes every day. Find out about the soil in your backyard, the native trees in your neighborhood, the formation of bedrock underneath your condo, what watershed you're in. Restore something instead of replacing it. Garden.
This is the kind of homework assignment you'll receive from lecturer in psychology Sarah Conn, Ph.D. '71. As a pioneer in the emerging field of "ecopsychology," Conn says she is working "to develop methods and forms that enable individuals to sense, think, feel, and act as interdependent beings." With her husband, psychologist Lane Conn, she offers a course on "Ecopsychology: New Models of Mental Health and Psychotherapy" at Cambridge Hospital, sponsored by the Center for Psychology and Social Change, a hospital affiliate.
The familiar modes of psychotherapy--psychoanalytic, behavioral, and humanistic--all reflect what Sarah Conn describes as "the radical individualism that has become the cultural pathology in our time." In an essay for the Sierra Club collection Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, she critiques the notion that "the individual is an independent, self-contained, separate self, motivated by purely egoistic needs and drives." In contrast, her model for the "ecological self" is what Arthur Koestler called the "holon," something that is "simultaneously a whole in itself...and a part of a larger whole, whether it be a family, a community, a bioregion, or the living planetary ecosystem," explains Conn. Ecopsychology, she adds, is "part of a more systemic, relational trend in psychotherapy today--yet it is unique in its inclusion of the natural world."
This new synthesis of the science of the inner life with the science of the "eco-life" has far-reaching roots, Conn notes--from Gestalt therapy, which emphasizes the experiential connection between wholes and parts, to Gaia theory, which explains the earth's atmosphere as "an almost miraculous interaction of organic and inorganic elements"; from general-systems theory to the transpersonal, transhuman reality of perennial philosophy; from family-systems theory to "deep ecology," which holds human beings as equals of other life on earth, not their stewards or anthropocentric dominators.
The notion of the dysfunctional family is ubiquitous in the United States today, but an ecopsychologist, says Conn, "expands the notion of family to include not only all the rest of the human world, but the nonhuman world as well." "We need to attend to the larger ecological implications of individual experience," she adds. Then you can hear "the earth speaking through you"--and understand individual symptoms not only as indicators of personal or familial dysfunction, but also as signals of distress in the connection to the environment, or in the environment itself.
One such signal is what Conn calls the "currently sanctioned addiction in this culture"--shopping. She would like to see "materialistic disorder" become an analytic category in the psychologists' Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V, since the "need to consume" is a graphic sign of "our culture's disconnection from the Earth." Conn describes one of her clients as "a microcosm of the culture" in her addictive consumption of everything from electronic equipment to shoes. Eventually the woman stopped buying furniture and started restoring it, sold her sports car, and realized she didn't need 300 pairs of shoes. "For [her]," writes Conn, "self-healing and attention to the Earth go hand in hand."
Conn also cites research on environmental psychology showing that hospital patients whose rooms look out on a natural setting recover more quickly than patients without such a view. Among her own clients, she finds that "those who have a practice of walking and looking at the trees, sky, grass, and leaves--rather than just listening to music on a Walkman--have a resource that really serves them well when they're under stress."
In a video introduction to ecopsychology, Conn asserts that "We know that we're not living in a sustainable way in the world in a physical sense....What we tend not to know is that we are not living in a sustainable way in a psychological sense either--that our psychic resources are being used up by our way of living." The current high incidence of depression is itself an expression of the impoverished emotional "monoculture" that many lives have been reduced to, she suggests. "Ecology teaches us," she writes, "that a diverse, open system, when faced with environmental stress, has more ways to respond to challenge than a uniform, closed one."
~ Harbour Fraser Hodder
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