Over the past several years the field of psychotherapy, already fragmented, has become even more deeply divided. The mainstream (defined by the direction chosen by the majority of practitioners) seems to offer certainty and security—a system that will, when the glitches are worked out, deliver mental health like a well-oiled machine.
The values of the mainstream are revealed in its language: treatment goals, standardized protocols, measurable outcomes, cost-benefit analysis. This is the language of the machine, and from the perspective of a machine, these concepts make sense. The prevailing metaphor for our culture is the computer. We speak of human beings in terms of hardware and software, of programming, of being “online.” In such a linear system, speed and efficiency are the highest values.
The first problem with this perspective is that we tend to mistake our metaphors for reality. The second problem is with the language itself, which tends to de-animate the world, reducing it (and us) to a collection of objects being acted upon by other objects. It leads us to experience ourselves as more or less poorly functioning machines.
Treatment becomes a matter of fixing the broken machine or reprogramming it. Therapists become service technicians whose job it is to get clients back online as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible.
But what of the basic question of why human machines keep breaking down; why they continue to develop symptoms such as substance abuse, antisocial behavior, anxiety, phobias, and depression? I contend that symptoms occur because human beings are not machines. We are sensual, curious, and creative. Most of all, we are soft, protean, organic beings, not mechanical components.
Most people in our culture have been treated like objects all their lives. This is the source of the wound underlying most of the human misery that therapists encounter. Because people have come to experience themselves as objects, they in turn objectify other people and commodify the world. They feel alienated, isolated, and empty.
Managed care says, “Diagnose the disorder, apply the proper course of treatment for the minimum number of sessions, and get the patient back online.” When we treat people this way, we may relieve symptoms temporarily or teach them to disguise their distress better, but on a deeper level we re-wound their sense of self. Furthermore, when we treat only the “presenting problem” and fail to address deeper existential concerns, our silence on these issues communicates that we find them insignificant.
There is an alternative: a stream of psychotherapy informed by an organic metaphor, a model that interprets psychotherapy in its original sense—tending to the soul, not fixing or changing it or reprogramming it, but paying attention to it. One thrilling branch of this smaller stream is the emerging field of ecopsychology. Ecopsychology places psyche in the context of the more-than-human world, meaning the complex, interconnected web of humans, animals, plants, rocks, oceans, and stars.
In the absence of soul and of connection we experience profound loneliness and emptiness. This emptiness in turn leads to cultural distress. This distress is transmitted through social and economic inequities, war, and other forms of violence, manifesting itself in a host of social and psychological disorders.
The most disturbing expression of this distress could be our accelerated war against the earth itself. This war’s most poignant symbol was the 1994 agreement in which the United States and the Russian Federation pledged to detarget one another’s cities and instead aim their nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles at the fertile and biologically diverse Sargasso Sea.
It could be argued that our entire culture suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder, as evidenced by our distant and entitled relationship to the more-than-human world. Our economic system requires that this narcissistic wound continually be re-inflicted; we are bombarded by the message that we are not good enough and that if we buy this product or that experience we might become good enough. Of course, once we have the new car or dress or mate, we will still feel empty, further convincing us of our inadequacy and perpetuating the cycle.
Ecopsychology seeks to address the sources of our cultural madness and to reestablish the lost connection with the more-than-human world. Its intention is to reanimate the world, to restore its soul. To do this we must remember that we are not simply imperfect machines but beings in a world that is alive with mystery.
Ecopsychological therapy—instead of dwelling on the questions What do I need? and How can I get it?—asks What is my place in the world? Rather than deriving machinelike standards for optimal functioning, it asks: What human qualities does a healthy ecosystem require? Sustainability is a key concept, in the sense of both how we, as a species, can live sustainably on the earth, and how we, as individuals, can create sustainable lives and relationships.
As human beings we have a need for place—where we can be connected to a community of people, plants, animals, and the land. Without this, we feel lost, alone, and alienated. The world also needs us to belong to it, since it is only when we inhabit a place that we care for it and assume responsibility for it. If we regard the world only as a place we are visiting, we have little interest in protecting it.
We have allowed ourselves to be defined as consumers rather than citizens too long. (In ancient Greece, the opposite of the citizen was the “idiot,” literally the private person who was not engaged in the life of the community.) The managed care industry refers to patients as “health care consumers,” a designation that encourages passivity and helplessness. But what we need is the opposite of passivity: The work that embeds us in community and empowers us as citizens also has the power to heal.
We humans have a fundamental need for nature. Instead of trying to tame or eliminate or ignore it, it is time we learned to grow with nature. We need to take an active role, celebrating it and caring for it, nurturing our own needs in the process. Only by taking responsibility for the earth can we truly reconnect with it—and with ourselves.
Larry Robinson is a psychotherapist, ecopsychologist, and former mayor of Sebastopol, California. This article is excerpted from the anthology Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind, edited by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist, published by Sierra Club Books; www.sierraclub.org/books.