This time is challenging. Even for an introvert. Even for a therapist. For a human.
At times, the world seems to be spinning. The ground seems to resemble quick sand.
What will life be like in the future? What will life be like tomorrow?
Before I continue, let me say that there are different types of grief, though all grief comes from some form of loss. Individually, people are experiencing the loss of loved ones, the loss of a job, the loss of connecting with friends. For this piece, I’m going to focus specifically on societal grief, which incorporates individual griefs coming together as well as the loss of life as we knew it, also known as change. However, many will find this applicable for various types of grief.
When we talk about grief, many people will most widely know the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her description of the 5 Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Can you look back at your own process since the beginning of March when life started to change because of COVID-19? Where are you now? AND, if you can’t identify with one or any of the stages, that’s okay too. We’re humans, not machines, and the stages were created as helpful sources of information, not sticky labels.
Okay, so we have all these uncomfortable feelings like sadness and anger. But here’s the question: WHY are we feeling them?
Since this article is a monologue, I’ll just have to tell you: on the other side of grief is joy, love, happiness, and gratitude. Grief, sadness, and anger over a loss only comes when we’ve had something, or someone, that also brought us joy and love.
Martin Pretchel describes this best in his speech “Grief and Praise” which I highly suggest you go find on YouTube after you’re done reading this.
In our case of the COVID-19 era , a lot of us are missing simple things. Hugging our loved ones. Hugging strangers. Going out to eat and sitting inside a restaurant. Traveling. Not just to another country but to the city over. The crying baby sitting a seat over from us on the plane. Not thinking about and analyzing everything we touch and who might have touched it before us. Some of these things listed were always great. Some of them we only realize were great now. Ahhh, the gift of hindsight.
The second idea I’m going to ask you to consider is a bit tougher: the possibility that grief and beauty can exist side by side. I remember in early September of last year when I got the call from my mom telling me she had cancer, less than 2 years after we found out my older sister had cancer. I kept it together on the phone (partially because I was still in shock/denial) and then about a minute after I hung up collapsed to the floor in a pile of tears, snot, and slobber (my dog always licks my face when I cry). For the next few minutes, I just let myself be consumed in the darkness of grief. Then, somewhere still in a dark grey haze, I got up and moved. The next day, I decided to carry on with my plans of running in the Wild Basin area inside of Rocky Mountain National Park. Suddenly, I was consumed in the beauty of Mother Earth, the Aspen trees just starting to turn gold, the low hanging clouds around the mountains. I smiled. It was then that I realized that I had the capability of holding both sadness and joy, the darkness and the light, simultaneously. It was like discovering a new super power. (Both my mom and sister are still fighting.)
My guess is that others too have found joy and reasons to be grateful during the past 2 months, in spite of Stay at Home and Safer at Home orders. Some of us have been able to spend more time with our kids, found time for hobbies from not needing to commute to work, discovered what it feels like to get enough sleep, or even found ways to deeper connect with others by virtual means. We may have cried and laughed in the same day, in the same hour, even in the same 5 minute span. That is beautiful. That is being human.
Now we’re entering into this phase of what people are calling the “New Normal”. Still, no one actually knows what that looks like. It feels really unsteady. But guess what? You’ve already gone through this stage. Probably several times. And if you’re reading this, you’ve made it through. Every. Single. Time.
When we look at it more closely, life is actually a series of transitions, essentially leaving behind the old and stepping into the new. More notable transitions are from adolescence to adulthood, single to married, childless to parenthood. While I myself am not married or have kids (besides the fur baby), I’ve gone through several transitions in the past year, some unconsciously and some consciously. The basis for any transition is letting go of the old, or parts of ourselves that no longer serve us, and into the new, be it a time period or more developed part of ourselves. In Rites of Passage work, there are three stages: severance (letting go), liminal (not who we once were and not yet who we will become), and the incorporation phase (bring our new selves and gifts into the world).
As you’ve probably guessed, as a society we are somewhere in the liminal stage. The liminal stage is usually the most uncomfortable phase, and it often feels like we are wandering around in a dark forest without a headlamp. However, we don’t have to stay lost forever. As soon as we add intention to the liminal stage, it’s like the moon suddenly comes out from behind the clouds. We may still not know exactly where we are going, but we’ve got a light to guide us. I call this the “wanderlust phase” (hence the name of my counseling practice, Wanderlust Counseling).
We’ve lost pieces of the life we once had and mourned (and may be still mourning) that loss. Most of us are still somewhere in the 5 stages of grief, but getting closer to acceptance, sometimes still fluctuating back and forth between acceptance and denial (which is totally okay). With acceptance, we allow an opening for the new to come in. The questions then become: “What do we want to invite in?” “What is our intention?” “What can we and do we want to create, especially with the gift of hindsight?”
And I have to wonder, is it just a coincidence that this all occurring in the year 2020?
These are questions that I suggest we all consider individually, but as a society, we can consider them together too. In the past few weeks, I’ve heard the terms “The Coronation” and “The Great Realisation” where the writers contemplate things like waste, pollution, consumption (of goods and animals), technology, communication and what is truly meaningful. What do we want for our Earth? What do we want for future generations? How do we want to live our lives going forward?
I know most of us reading this don’t have nationwide political influence. But many of us may have influence in our communities, or workplaces, our families, and in our own choices. And so, when you are ready, I ask you to consider the main question in the last stage of transition, incorporation: What gifts do you have to bring to the world? Because we come together with our gifts, we open up to the possibility of something more, maybe something better. .
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
First of all, no one can actually be OCD, although someone can have OCD.
But let’s backtrack a bit. What actually is OCD? OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is “a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.”
We tend to throw around the acronym OCD a lot. Sometimes, we’re partially accurate in describing the low-end of the spectrum, such as when someone needs his books in perfect order on the shelf or uses hand sanitizer everytime she shakes a few hands. Other times, we’re much less accurate, like when we say it to describe someone who always goes back to check to make sure their car door is locked. That actually has to do more with conscious memory. A lot of times when we go to lock our door, or put down our keys, we’re thinking about 10 other things and don’t consciously think about the action we’re doing. We’re so distracted that we don’t even remember doing it, so we go back and check. Really, this is more of a lesson in staying present.
I could go into a bit more of what qualifies as diagnosable OCD according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders-5 (DSM-V), but honestly, I don’t love using the DSM-V and I don’t want to bore you. The main thing you need to know is that what constitutes for clinical concern is when the behavior or habit negatively impacts a person’s everyday life. For example, if someone’s habit to keep his bookshelf in perfect order makes him feel better, even if it seems over-the-top to others, I’d consider it a positive or neutral coping mechanism. On the other hand, if someone needs to switch a light on and off 7x, or clean their house all day to make sure there is not a speck of dust on any surface, even if no one is coming over, and their thoughts are telling them they have to do this even though they’d rather go spend time with a friend, then I’d probably want to work with them figure out the better coping tools and see what’s at root of their habits.
Now that we have a little bit better understanding of OCD, let’s apply this to COVID-19. Right now, most of us are on high alert in fear we’ll come into contact with the virus. We’re washing our hands more, carefully dis-infecting our packages, keeping physical distance, covering our faces with masks, etc. This is all important, and taking action to prevent ourselves from getting sick may actually help reduce anxiety. But what happens when this is all done? (It will be, eventually.*)
*There may be a “new normal”, but we have the opportunity to make it a better normal. A bit more on that topic below.
We can acknowledge the good take-a-ways. Most of us, including myself, can afford to wash their hands a bit more and for a bit longer. Some of us can learn to be a bit more diligent about coughing or sneezing into a tissue or their elbow rather than into open air.
Also, a lot of us may remember from school that there’s a lot of good germs (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa) out there. Actually, as a nature-based therapist, I recommend digging your hand into the soil (some studies say that soil can act as an antidepressant).
So what’s going to keep us from compulsively washing and sanitizing our hands or obsessively thinking that everytime we go out we may contract a deadly virus?
Knowledge. Choice. Courage. Love.
Let me clarify, for someone who has a clinical form of OCD, it’s hardly a choice. It is, however, a fear-based coping mechanism that has roots, often in some traumatic experience. We also know that the symptoms of OCD can be greatly reduced with exposure and talk therapy.
* While many people do find our current pandemic traumatic, by working with our emotions and thoughts in the now, we can limit it’s impact on our mental health.
What irks me the most when I hear others say that “we’re all going to be OCD after this…” (besides the “be” vs. “have” part) is that it ignores human resilience. By saying everyone is destined to be OCD removes our ability to choose our paths forward. Sure, there are some things beyond our control, but whether it is by our actions, attitudes, or responses, we always have a choice. As Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankle said “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
For us, if we can step away from our fear for a moment, we have the ability to look at our options for the future. To step back from our fear, we must first realize what it is: a natural and primal response to a threat. It activates our flight, fight, freeze response, which is a great response if we’re being attacked by a large predator, not so much if for an invisible-to-the-human-eye virus. In the brain, intense reactions to fear stem from the amygdala, while our prefrontal cortex, the thinking, rational part of our brain, goes offline. In order to get back into a prefrontal cortex, we often need to do an activity that helps us relax. There’s a ton of options, but physical exercise, deep breathing, going outside, and journaling are the tools I most often share with clients.
When we give ourselves this space, we can then start asking ourselves questions like: What does the science say about the spread of germs? How do we want to live our life and what is important to us? What behaviors are helpful, and what behaviors keep us from truly living? Collectively, are there any actions we can take to mitigate another pandemic or similar event? (Ex: Vote!)
That fear may still be there. It may not leave for a while. But remember, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt).
If the fear and anxiety seem like too much right now, it also takes courage to ask for help. Actually, asking for help may be the most courageous act of all, so I encourage you to talk to a friend or seek out a therapist.
To end, my friends, wash your hands (20-30 seconds is just fine!), but remember to take the courage with you that lives deep inside your hearts.
Do you ever feel like the world is too much to bear? Like the darkness is going to consume you? That you can’t bear to look at it or think about it because it hurts too much?
This “it’s too much” feeling has happened to me frequently over the past year. It’s different from my depression years ago, which was more focused on my internal self-loathing. This is more of an external depression felt internally. It’s like the pain of the world is an arrow shot straight into my heart. Hope, the fire in my belly, is nearly extinguished. My body shakes and my tears water the Earth, or my dog’s coat. In reflection, I realize my tears are my hope. My shakes mean I am still moving, and moving means I still have influence. As long as I don’t freeze (my go-to panic response), there is possibility.
My examples of my “it’s too much” scenarios are plentiful, though they may seem insignificant to a bystander:
I am sitting in a dark theater of a film festival. The movie is portraying a man, a runner, a hunter, who is seemingly connected to the Earth. He climbs a remote mountain, hunts a mountain goat. He kills it. I silently cry in my seat and the tears are pouring, my body trembling. The boy doesn’t know what to do with me. I can tell he wants to comfort me but is keeping his fingers crossed that I can continue to muffle my sobs. You see, mountain goats are beings I am blessed to see perhaps once a year, on sacred days. The magnificent creatures offer me blessings on my travels.
A week later, I am on the bathroom floor crying into a towel. On the news, I am constantly hearing about immigrant children being torn away from their parents. Then I look at my computer. I can’t remember exactly what it was this time, possibly a picture of a mama bear shot in her den with her cubs, or a story of a momma cow chasing after her calves who were put in a truck to go to slaughter. The tears came instantly.
In the spring, I learn my sister’s cancer spread, just when we were getting ready to celebrate the end of her breast cancer treatment. I hold back my tears at internship, but put them all into Pacer’s fur when I get home.
Quietly, I listen to war stories from the boy. How can people be so cruel? Another immigrant child died in camp. A picture of a starving polar bear, then dead whales on a beach with plastic in their bellies. There’s a school shooting, then another. Trophy hunters killed an elephant. A line of dog’s were euthanized because their owners didn’t want them. The Earth may only have another 12 years until climate change takes over, until the pain is too much for Mother Earth to bear.
Even if it is a doggy paddle.
Eventually I come out of the bathroom. Pacer licks away my tears. I don’t get rid of the pain, but I keep moving.
I run up the hill, or Pacer pulls me up, and I stare at the snow-capped mountains. As long as love, like the love between a girl and her dog exists, and as long as the beauty of a sunlit mountain range exists, there’s reason to keep moving. My tears have only watered the Earth allowing for the summer wildflowers to grow.
Martin Prechtel speaks of grief and praise. The grief is movement. As long as we allow it to move through us, our praise and love will be our fuel to fight on.
The problem, the dis-ease, as I see it, is that we have numbed ourselves to the pain. Society appears to be wallowing in a state of depression, with anxiety as its sidekick. It seems like no once can figure out why, so pills have become our pesticide-ridden fertilizer.
What if we all cried?
I know it hurts, but you must be brave.
Eckhart Tolle speaks of the universal pain body. I first read about this while on my Rites of Passage trip last year. He said that women feel more intensely during menstruation, feeling the pain of women around the world. It’s no wonder that a sensitive soul like me prevented her river from flowing for so long, without any guidance on how to deal with my emotions. I read about the pain body while naked in a canyon, the womb of Mother Nature. Finally, deep in the canyon, I felt a truth and a sense of purpose with my pain. Mixed with it was a call to heal.
But what can a little privileged white girl from Colorado (born in Cleveland, Ohio) do? (First, I should probably stop talking to myself like that.) I have a degree in wilderness therapy—does that even mean anything?
To be honest, I’ve always known the answer is “yes.” Yes, there is hope. Yes to life. Yes, I have a part in the healing. Sometimes, it’s just seems safer to feel small.
And I have some idea of the how. Besides having loved ones close to me, getting outside has not just been fun for me, but a necessary part of my life to rejuvenate and heal my own wounds. It reminds me that even in the darkest of times, there is beauty in the world. It’s like adding kindle to my fire, making my energy grow brighter so I can share it with others.
Still, I really wanted specifics. Yes, I knew I could take clients out in nature. I knew more and more research is coming out about health benefits of nature. It was enough and not enough at the same time.
Then came a cold summer day of 50 degrees and constant rain where I had signed up for Wilderness Therapy Un-Conference, dragging myself there only because I had already paid. By bedtime that night, I was already so cold and wet that I was ready to hike back to my car and leave. AND my tent was leaking. This was not the beautiful nature I liked to bask in. Of course, I survived, like every other person there who was cold and wet. There’s something to facing adversity in nature too, but I won’t get into that here. With a break in the rain that morning, I sat down with my group for our first session. What topic had we decided on? Of course, the stars aligned for me. Our topic was: As wilderness helpers/healers, what was our role in healing the planet? I could go on and on about the insight of my group members, but for now I’ll just list the four steps I came up with during our conversation in how to create healing:
Create love and connection to the Earth. (PLAY*)
Awareness: Education on the state of the Earth
Allow and help people to grieve
Action: Give tools on how to make change (volunteer, recycle, vote, etc.)
*Many people have not grown up in a way that connects them to nature, or their attachment has been severed over the years. The biggest piece in step one is cultivating joy in nature.
Big but simple, difficult yet doable.
Another flicker of hope.
As I said before, our tears are a necessary part of healing. Before this year, I thought rain when the sun was shining was a dichotomy. Now I know they are both necessary parts of a bountiful life. It is only with the rain and the sun that a rainbow can exist, creating a bridge from what we call the real world to the world of our dreams.
As a first year graduate student at Naropa, in my first semester, I was taking a class taught by Diane Israel. We were learning about Erikson’s stages of development and Bowlbly’s and Ainswoth’s theory on attachment. It was late September. I was getting into the flow of school as Colorado’s Aspen trees were turning gold. Diane had originally given us the assignment to observe a child and write about it, but with the class’s excitement about the trees, Diane decided to change the assignment to “go observe a tree.”
And so I did. With my pup in tow, I drove up the canyon to 10,000 feet at the Fourth July Trailhead outside Eldora. In my journal I wrote:
I don’t feel young, like I do at times in the summer when I am running down a trail. Nor do I feel old. I just am. I wonder if this is how the trees feel. Not tired, but just ready for a slow down. Along with the trees, I am fully here for this change in season.
Driving back along the bumpy, Aspen and pine strewn trail towards Eldora, I wonder: what if there was a nature attachment theory? A theory that stated all living things are connected, from the dirt to the sky, from trees to humans. And if one was to let herself slow down, to remove the superficial thought and material things and just be, that she would be able to re-connect with nature, to be held by Mother Nature. In this re-connection, healing from the trauma of the “created” human world, harmony would be found. The attachment to Mother Nature has all
the love and safety one needs to be securely attached. In this oneness with nature, humans could become whole within themselves and with the world.”
That day, I began to create Mother Nature Attachment Theory.
Now before I dig into the presentation, I’ll very briefly describe attachment theory. The theory states that in our earliest years, a safe and secure attachment to a primary caregiver is critical to development. If a young child does not have her needs met, then the child will insecurely attach not only to their caregivers, but this attachment will carry on through life and later relationships.
From my own definition, Mother Nature Attachment Theory states that growing up and living with a secure attachment to nature is essential for humans to find harmony within themselves, as well for society to find harmony in itself. An insecure attachment to nature leads to dis-ease among humans and destruction in society.
With this in mind, I came up with two principal questions:
Can Mother Nature help heal our attachment wounds in relationship with humans? And what happens when we, Mother Nature’s children, separate ourselves from the Earth? Can we re-attach?
I also have to note the main limits of my research, the first being that I am personifying Mother Nature. However, my hope is that this view helps me explain my theory a little better. Second, I did not have time to include adverse experiences with nature, such as those people who have survived natural disaster. And finally, while many of my ideas are backed in research, much is also backed in passion of the teachings I have learned from spending countless hours wandering in the valleys of Ohio and the mountains of the Rockies.
While I did grow up with loving parents, I developed an insecure attachment in childhood. In my teens and early 20s, my insecure attachment showed itself as anxiety and depression. Then I found service and trail running. A shift happened. My perspective on life got brighter. In 2015 when my dog and I moved to Colorado, we hiked the nearly 500 mile Colorado Trail which runs through the state. Despite our misadventures, I had never felt more at home. Despite the elements, I felt held, unjudged, like I belonged.
Several years later, I found myself interning at Harmony Foundation, a substance abuse rehabilitation treatment center located just outside Rocky Mountain National Park. A majority, if not all, of the clients come their with attachment wounds and score highly on the Adverse Childhood Experience test. In addition to being surrounded by nature at the treatment center, we also go on weekly outings. In these moments, gratitude is often present for clients and we discusses it on an individual basis and as a group. Studies show that nature reduces rumination by lessening the activity of the subgenual prefrontal cortex, often linked with depression and mental illness. In place of rumination, the mind opens to allow a sense of wonder and awe, a change in perspective. Something as simple as laying in the grass and watching the clouds, or the guided imagery meditation of tree firmly rooted into the ground, can help people feel stable and secure, also regulating the nervous system.
In addition, another recent study found that in laboratory mice, a friendly bacteria often found in soil activated brain cells and produced the chemical serotonin, which affected the mice’s brain in a way similar to anti-depressants. Of course, as someone who believes we, humans, animals, and plants, are all our connected, I would say leave the mice a lone and just go outside and seep the benefits in that we already know our there, with the intuition Mother Nature bestowed us with at birth.
And so, while I still feel it is necessary for humans with insecure attachments to find security in attaching with other humans, I believe nature can supplement and enhance the process.
My second question, can humans on a societal level re-attach with Mother Nature, is a bit more complicated. It is quite obvious that humans, especially in the United States, have separated ourselves from Nature. Even more obvious are the effects this has had on our world, and I’m not only speaking about climate change. Ecopsychologist Chellis Glendinnings calls our separation form the Earth the “original trauma” and that this trauma has been passed down and interwoven with other trauma’s such as abuse. Is it a coincidence that as we rape our women, we rape the Earth? Or that we’re seeing high rates of infertility as we spray farms with chemicals, and that we numb our own pain with substances and medication? Furthermore, statistics show that the majority of people have barely anyone to lean on for help and that we also spend more time indoors than ever before in our history. Is it any wonder that in this separateness, we have mass shootings and are facing extreme changes in weather?
In this insecure attachment, a sense of “dis-ease” has swept through our society. We see it in the consumption of material goods, drugs and alcohol, and what we call mental illness. Psychologist James Hillman writes “to grasp the disorders in any subject we must study carefully the environment of the disorder: the kind of water, the winds, the humidity, temperatures, the food, the plants; the times of day; the seasons. Treatment of the inner requires attention to the outer; or, as another early healer wrote, “The greater part of the soul lies outside the body.” End quote.
It’s hard to say when this separation began. Some trace it back to Descartes’ great chain of being, where he presented a hierarchy of humans and animals, later adapted to humans and skin color. Others trace it even farther back to early writings of the bible. In America, we can most pointedly find it as we murdered and uprooted the Native Americans, the people who had the most to teach us about Mother Earth and Her wisdom.
OR [So where does our story of disconnection begin? Our story that we are not acceptable, that Nature is not acceptable as it? Perhaps with the story of Adam and Eve, where the serpent told Eve she was not good enough as she was and to be like God she should take a bite? And Adam in his jealousy of Eve knowing more than he, took a bite as well. And the story of separateness of death began? In America, the picture is a little easier to see, as explorers and settlers came to our country for freedom, escaping dictatorship. Unfortunately, some of the settlers brought their fear of not being accepted, the need to be better than with them, and they separated by themselves by killing of the very people who knew the land the most, who could have helped us re-connect to the Earth. And we continued that pattern of saying “Mother Nature, you are not good enough as you are. We must make you better.” And so we poised her land with chemicals thinking we could grow plants better. We took her animals, our siblings capable of great emotion and knowledge, and put them on industrial farms for slaughter, feeding them with the chemical plants. We cut down Her trees, drilled holes in her body, always wanting more. And now we see this separation is our own disease. We eat the food lined with pesticides and GMOs, and end up in the hospital with diseases like cancer. We’re beginning to see the Earth self-destruct, saying “no more” as we see the effects of climate change. ]
Renowned author and doctor Gabor Mate says in his book In the Realm of the Hungry Ghost“The pressures of urbanization are cutting millions of people adrift from their connections with land, tradition, and community” and later in the book goes on to say “We have seen that addiction arises out of dislocation. The absence of meaning is yet another type of dislocation that we human beings, spiritual creatures that we are, cannot well endure.” End quote. As we’ve separated from the Earth, we have lost one of our primary roles as humans: caretakers of the Earth, the body that we are all part of.
How I look at things is that humans are the microcosm and Earth is the macrocosm. What we do to one we do to the other and vice versa. Or, as Chief Seattle stated “Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
Speaking of webs…Did you know that trees are intricately connected and talk to each other? There can be hundreds of trees in one grove, sharing nutrients, giving out distress signals, and holding each other upright in bad weather. Even bigger is the web of mycelia, a fungus, fondly referred to as Earth’s Natural Internet by mycologist Paul Stamets, with one organism expanding to 2.4 miles in Oregon. These plants show us that when we stand together, connected, we are stronger. The Earth’s natural internet is not unlike our world wide web of the internet, though ours is a superficial example of what it means to attach to one another. Trees and plants are willing talk to us too, if we are willing to listen.
Right now our trees are dying. And as they die, our world has less filters to give us clean oxygen. Our natural landscapes are changing in scary ways, almost as if Mother Nature is telling us “enough is enough.” So my question is, “is there hope?”
At times I have been tempted to say no.
“As I see pictures of animals being brutally slaughtered, pipelines being built through sacred land, forest being destroyed, and mass shootings on the rise , my heart wants to bury itself in despair, but I scream to myself: be the light, be the light!
One of my favorite speakers on the subject of hope is Zach Busch, a doctor who advocates for natural farming practices and againsts fertilizers like RoundUp.After giving a speech that sounds like doomsday is right around the corner, he gives a profound message of hope. He reminds us of Mother Nature’s amazing ability to renew and heal. Farms that were once depleted of nutrients can regenerate to full capacity with a little love and time. In a podcast with Rich Roll, Busch reminded listeners that sometimes we have to reach our death before being reborn. I see this with my clients too. Many of them come to Harmony Foundation having hit their rock bottom. Truly, if they would not have come to Harmony, they’d may be dead. So in the shadow of the mountains, we offer them a new hope, a rebirth. We remind their souls that life is worth living, and something greater is out there.
And then, there is the great Joanna Macy, the environmental activist who wrote a book entitled Active Hope. Joanna Macy says:
“Active Hope is not wishful thinking.
Active Hope is not waiting to be rescued . . . .
by some savior.
Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life
on whose behalf we can act.
We belong to this world.
The web of life is calling us forth at this time.
We’ve come a long way and are here to play our part.
With Active Hope we realize that there are adventures in store,
strengths to discover, and comrades to link arms with.
Active Hope is a readiness to discover the strengths
in ourselves and in others;
a readiness to discover the reasons for hope
and the occasions for love.
A readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts,
our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose,
our own authority, our love for life,
the liveliness of our curiosity,
the unsuspected deep well of patience and diligence,
the keenness of our senses, and our capacity to lead.
None of these can be discovered in an armchair or without risk.”
And the truth is, hope is all around us, which is shown in the hearts of humans and from scientific studies. We know that the brain, at any age, can create new neurons. Research now shows that heart disease can be reversed by following a diet rooted in plants. We have evidence of forests regrowing and regenerating when native species are planted and then left alone to heal, with the animals who once lived there returning. There are farm sanctuary’s opening up around the country because they know animals are loving, sentient beings. We know that attachment wounds can be healed.
Furthermore, kids across the world are marching in their cities to demand action is taken on climate change. People in my midwestern hometown of Parma Heights, OH are recycling, something I didn’t even know existed as a kid. Even more astonishing is that their local grocery store has a vegan section! Psychologist in Scotland are now permitted by their government to prescribe nature rather than pills. And in Boulder, CO there are graduate students getting their degrees in Transpersonal Wilderness Therapy.
As Suzanne Simard said in her 2016 Ted Talk, “Give Mother Nature the tools she needs to use her intelligence to self-heal.”
If Mother Nature can heal herself, and if more humans realize that we are part of Nature, we can heal too.
So how do we re-attach?
In the Spell of the Sensuous, writer David Abram states that “When a Navajo person wishes to renew or reestablish, in the world, the harmonious condition of well-being and beauty expressed by the Navajo word hozho he must first strive, through ritual, to create this harmony and peacefulness within his own being. Having established such hozho within himself, he can then actively impart this state of well-being to the enveloping cosmos, through transforming the power of song or prayer.”
With clients, our job as therapist is to help them begin to create harmony within themselves, to love themselves. At the same time, we can help them create a life of harmony with nature, with therapists remembering that healing client wounds is the same as healing nature and vice versa. Simple practices that can be done with clients are:
-going outside and walking rather than staying in an office, then highlighting the experience as my supervisor Gretchen Leezer reminded me.
-Using a nature basket to help clients describe how they are feeling.
-Using guided imagery that lets one feel grounded like a deeply rooted tree or one that allows them to escape to their “happy place” in nature
-giving homework to go outside
-creating metaphors with plants and the landscape with clients, which I often consider to really be parallels. Examples include comparing the curves of Mother Nature to the curves of a woman with a client challenged by body-image, or looking at a tree on a windy day and comparing that to staying grounded in ourselves in the midst of life challenges.
-Have clients share their nature story from childhood to adulthood. (Most people can report having a secret spot outside that they went to as a child, or have fond memories of summer vacations outside with their family..)
-Create ceremonies and rituals using Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water.
Finally, there is service. We can encourage clients to volunteer for their local parks, cleaning up trash, planting native species, or building new trails. We can suggest volunteering at animal shelters or farm sanctuaries that care for and give a new life to animals like sheep, goats, and pigs that were once neglected and abused.
O, did I mention all of this isn’t just for our clients, but all of us?
Throughout the day, my classmates will be sharing more brilliant ways to strengthen our connection with the Earth.
In summary, by healing our own wounds and client wounds we are also healing nature’s wounds, and by healing nature’s wounds we are healing our own. When we live a life in harmony with Mother Nature, with plants, trees, animals, insects, fungus, and all, we can live in harmony with ourselves, bringing out the best and beauty in all of us.
“There will be times when standing alone feels too hard, too scary, and we’ll doubt our ability to make our way through the uncertainty. Someone, somewhere, will say, ‘Don’t do it. You don’t have what it takes to survive the wilderness.’ This is when you reach deep into your wild heart and remind yourself, ‘I am the wilderness.”
While the government closure goes on into it’s 4th week, the once protected National Parks are left vulnerable without rangers, volunteers, and respectful citizens to protect them. Like many of my Facebook friends, I’ve been both angrily and sadly watching my feed with updates on more news of parks getting trashed, human waste building up, and even trees being cut down. Why, why is this happening? What would make a human so lazy as not pack out their trash, or be so motivated to take a saw into the park and cut down it’s historic trees?
Over the past few years, I’ve been observing and studying what I have dubbed “Mother Nature Attachment Theory.” This is based on human attachment theory that, in short, states our earliest relationships to our caregivers affects how we attach, securely or insecurely, in our other relationships throughout life. In other words, if you have a negative relationship with your mother, or maybe she was never there, or sometimes there, or was always there looking at you for comfort rather than vice versa, then as adult you might either embody these same characteristics or go overboard in the opposite direction. The underlying feeling left is often one of fear or distrust. (That’s just a brief summary of attachment theory).
(Cuyahoga Valley National Park)
In my own Mother Nature Attachment Theory, I see this in a similar way. If a child doesn’t grow up spending time outside, climbing trees, building forts with sticks, then the child didn’t grow up with an attachment to Nature. Or, maybe the child was told “don’t get dirty”, “it’s not safe out there”, and handed an iPad to keep busy, then the child grew up without trusting Nature, and an insecurity to it. Then, there might be the child who was given a dirt bike before ever taking a hike in the woods, never recycled, or grew up with the perspective from parents that we must dominate Nature. Again, this kind of relationship creates another form of insecurity. These types of attachment to Mother Nature create not only a fear but both a disconnection to the land and to the self, for all of us who have grown up with a secure attachment to Nature knows that we are all connected.
If you didn’t grow up with the view that nature is an abstract object, then leaving a wrapper behind is no big deal. If you grew up fearing nature or with the a privileged view of separate equals better than, than the damage of cutting down a tree might not be worth a second thought. Actually, those acts might be your way of trying to cope from that missing connection with the Earth. Temporarily, it might make you feel better.
The sad thing is for the people who grew up with an insecure attachment to Mother Nature is that their outward destruction usually reflects their own inward pain. While I’ve only been interning as a therapist at a substance abuse center for 6 months now, I’ve clearly witnessed the turmoil many of our clients face from growing up with an insecure attachment to their early caregivers. Most of them self-destruct with drugs and alcohol, don’t trust others, and don’t trust the world. It’s a tough, unbearable way to live. While I’m still angry at the people trashing our National Parks, I can find a little sympathy and sadness for them because I have a sense of what they’re lacking. Having lived several year’s by Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park and now next to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Parks, I have re-gained a sense of wonder and awe, felt at home, found my Higher Power, and cried in the beauty mountain shadows. Just thinking of my life without Nature leaves me feeling like I have void centered in my chest.
Rocky Mountain National Park
If your feeling sad or angry about the state of our National Parks, that is actually a positive feeling. It shows your love and secure attachment to Mother Nature, and a justifiable angst that She is not being respected or taken care of. These feelings can either eat at us, or motivate us to do something. What can we do? For those of us who don’t live by National Parks* and can’t inform visitors or trail or park etiquette at this time (which may be dangerous and I don’t necessarily suggest) or clean up like this little boy, we can support our National Parks with donations, visit them the next time we are on vacation, and speak with our actions by recycling and trying to reduce of consumption of heavily packed products. We can also get to the heart of the matter by encouraging others to have a secure attachment with Mother Nature. If we have or work with children it’s a bit easier. We can encourage kids to get dirty, to sit outside when they need to calm down or had a bad day, or make comparisons like “wow, that flower needs food and water just like I do!”. It’s a bit trickier with adults, and we already know preaching usually doesn’t work, but we can sneak in comments, maybe at work, such as “Whew! I had a really tough day. I need to make sure I get outside for a run today.” or “I had a great weekend hiking with my family. I feel so much more energized now.” We can also use our actions like recycling or bringing in re-usable silverware to eat lunch with. If you have time, I suggest volunteering for your local or National Park a few times a year too.
I’m also going to keep praying to my Higher Power, Mother Nature, that the parks re-open ASAP. And when they do, profusely thank the rangers for all that they do. I’m going to count my lucky stars (which, by the way, are amazing living right next to a National Park) that I”m blessed enough to live in the mountains and that I grew up with parents who allowed me to play in the mud and build tree forts. Last, I’n going to try to send a little love to those who haven’t been as blessed, as angry as I am by their actions, because I know what they are doing on the outside is a mirror of what is going on inside.
*While I live right next to Rocky Mountain National Park, I’m very fortunate to not have witnessed any damage from my outings, which may speak to the community of Estes Park whose residents see themselves as the parks caregivers.
**I have to add this Rich Roll podcast with Zach Bush, MD of Food Independence & Planetary Revolution because it is relevant, both from a scientific and spiritual standpoint.
In childhood, there were the 20 mile bike rides my sister and my dad. 20 miles along your towpath, following the once burning river, now home to turtles and river otters.
Providing me with the adventure my young heart yearned for and the memories my wizened heart now cherishes.
As an adult, I discovered your winding trails, like veins pumping bloods to the heart state.
You were the escape from what others told me was the “real word” and taught me that actually, I got create my own trails, shape my own journey, and decide what my “real world” would be.
I had forgotten what it was it was like to be held.
You reminded me.
You reminded me what it was like to be lost…and then found.
To feel alive.
In your valleys, I found home.
You were a reminder that there was always sun behind those seemingly encompassing grey clouds.
I still visit you at least once a year for Christmas, and more many more times in my dreams. I picture myself entering the Portal Tree, blue jays perched on Her branches, to a place of safety, wonder, and answers.
Truly, I know you are always here with me.
While I now live in the land of high summits and alpine lakes, you’re here too.
Different, but the same.
And in me, you’ve created both a valley and a mountain girl.
This blog started with a Facebook post, written shortly after returning from a (1-day) trip the mountains (Leadville/Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert):
Every time I come back from the mountains, I ask myself “Why the F did I come back?” (In reality, I know the answer. Society asks that I have a job and a physical place to live). I’m tied between wanting to contribute to society, to make a difference, and the want to escape the complicated and busy structure of our world (of course, it isn’t all bad). Does anyone else face this dilemma?
I have my own further thoughts on this topic (perhaps a future blog post), but I’d love to hear the insight, questions, and wisdom (not necessarily advice) of others who also question this dichotomy.
*I added in the not necessarily advice part later.
I got quite a few replies, some advice, some various perspectives, and mainly a “I feel that way too”. Which upon reflection, was really what I was looking for. A sense of universality, that others both felt and questioned (society/life) the way I do. When I realized the post had gathered some heat/interest and that I personally had more exploring to do as well, I decided to write a bit more.
Living in the world, being part of the world, making a difference in the world does not mean, at least for me, living in the confines of society. That, for myself, is the answer that I have come to, but my conclusion is not so easy to put in words, though I can not say it is complicated either. It’s just what is.
The dilemma I mention in my Facebook post is not so black and white as it seems. It is not between being a hermit in the mountains and praying for a better world or living in the city and working in an office for 9 hours.
And, while I do believe energy, prayer, and intention does have an impact on the world, I am not so ethereal to believe that is all that is needed…that I could just live in a cabin and meditate and play outside all day. I am a big believer in action too.
My work as a (wilderness) therapist will involve both, the energetic and the physical manifesting.
So if I choose to live in the mountains, can I be a giver of both as strongly as if I lived in the city (or in a small city like Boulder)? Really, that is the heart of my question.
While I believe that the answer is very individual to anyone who asks the question, I’m starting to figure out my own truth. Admittedly, part of my answer might go against the simplicity I crave (I’m reminded of a particularly sarcastic blog by Dakota Jones on car camping), but modern technology and transportation might help solve some of my conflict, or help me find harmony in the dichotomy.
Then there’s the bigger question. Despite the fact that humans are living closer than ever before, that wifi and cell phones let us connect to hundreds of people, even across the world, are we becoming more lost, more disconnected? (For more on the topic, read Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections) And not just from other humans, but from the land that bore us too, to our Mother Earth? Are we supposed to live in apartments, or with the land? I could go on and on…and on with questions like this. But I’ll save you my words and ask that you have this conversation with yourself. And if you don’t find an answer, that is okay. Just keep questioning, stay curious. Because while it is the mountains that make my soul sing, and often the cities that make me cringe, I’ve also found profound beauty in the mass humanity of the city street as well.
[The Boy just got done finishing the Kodiak 100, a 100 miles race in the San Bernardino mountains, and we were reflecting on his journey on the drive back to the airport. He said is favorite part was nearly 80 miles in, when he was running down Sugarloaf Mountain and the 50k runners, who had just started, were coming up. People were smiling, hi-fiving, and struggling, all together. That, I thought, might be the best of both worlds, the crowds and mountains. People connecting and encouraging each other while journeying through the wilderness.]
And maybe all this girl really needs is her dog.
Tips for returning from the mountains/wilderness:
Before you depart from your adventure, ask yourself “What am I bringing back with me?” Are there any reminders from being in the wilderness that you can bring back with you into everyday life?
Create extra awareness on the drive back. Don’t speed out as fast as you can. Choose your pace/speed wisely.
Use your phone with awareness. If possible, give yourself sometime before checking your inbox and text messages.
Practice self-care. Take extra time (space) to do things. Get enough sleep. In other words, don’t just jump back into the hustle and bustle of life.
For long trips, and trying to communicate your experience with family and friends, consciously choose what you share and who you share with. It is often difficult to communicate the sacred. (It also often helps to ask what others have been up to first, before diving into your experience.)
Remember, continuing change takes time and practice. If there is something you want to bring back with you, like journaling or slowing down before dinner, create action steps to make them a habit.
Be kind to yourself. Your going to forget. It will seem like the mountains have left you. But they never leave you. They are in you.
Already, the day is nothing but a nostalgic moment. A beautiful memory. I want to cling to the moment, but as soon as I grasp, it is like a cloud escaping my clenched fist.
I want to go back to the moment, standing on alpine ground with the wildflowers all around. The marmots hiding behind rocks. The avalanche in the distance with its powerful sound cracking through the sky. Witnessing all this with my sister by my side.
Or that moment where we stood inside the glacier, surrounded by icy blue, magical walls.
But those moments, the ones I want to last forever, like when I am in the “land of in-between”*, or on Christmas Eve when I’m surrounded by love ones and joy, that go by so fast.
I try to stay on the mountain top, but the sun moves, the clouds come in, and I grow cold.
It is all impermanent.
I realize all I can do is be present, accept the present that I am in. To soak it in, and move on with the precious moment now inside of me, part of me.
And I let myself be sad. When I let the sadness come in, I realize I am also rejoicing. Rejoicing the blessed and beautiful life I am living.
Each inspires me and grants me glimpses wonders and wisdom.
But, dare I say, your beauty impresses and stuns me the most when you lie asleep.
With a blanket of white covering your curves, snow dancing down like sleep dust on all of your children. Hibernating, resting in preparation for our own blossoming.
As you exhale and the wind sweeps snowflakes over your frozen lakes and napping trees, it’s as if I can see all dreams. Past, present, and future. They sparkle and shine as they reflect the light from the sun and moon. Magic. Living and breaking in your dreams.
Sometimes I walk through your reveries, the wind kicking up and snow fluttering around me, gently kissing my cheeks.
Am I part of your dream? Or am I living your dream?
Mother Nature, I bid you a goodnight and the sweetest of dreams.