I haven’t been posting much here lately; I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact that graduate school is going to eat my life as long as I’m here, and I’m going to have to do most of my ritual work on breaks and during the lighter summer semester. I could handle it better when I was working forty hours a week, come to think of it. My once consolation is that the grad work, and the internal psychological development I’ve been doing as one result of it, are also an important part of my development of therioshamanism, so it’s not as though I’m not getting anything done. I miss regular journeying, and I’ll be glad when the semester’s done at the end of the month.
One of the valuable things I have been getting out of grad school has been the ecopsychology classes. This semester I’ve been taking the ecotherapy course; this is the second of two weekend-long intensives for it. Ecotherapy, in very brief, is utilizing the natural environment in therapeutic practice. This can include anything from having natural objects in one’s office, to wilderness therapy outings that last days or even a couple of weeks. Like ecopsychology, it’s not a linear, strictly defined set of techniques, but rather an integrative approach that can be applied to any formal school of psychological thought and practice.
One of the concepts we touched on today was that of bioregionalism. Normally Americans describe their location in terms of human phenomena–streets, addresses, buildings, and other such landmarks. I would describe my location as Portland, in the state of Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. Bioregionalism, however, orients a person according to natural phenomena, both very local and larger ecosystems. So I would therefore describe myself as living in the Johnson Creek watershed, which is a part of the Lower Columbia River Estuary, which is part of the larger Cascadia bioregion composed of the temperate rainforests of the west coast.
This is a very different way of approaching one’s location, but it’s also exceptionally telling when thinking about the way we perceive the world around us and place our priorities. We are exceptionally anthropocentric in every portion of our cognition, emotions, and descriptions thereof; using the metaphorical imagery of other animals, for example, is usually about as far from that as most people get.
And yet ecopsychology calls us to not only consider the environment we are in (human and otherwise)–but it also calls us to identify and embrace our ecological self. According to Winter and Koger:
“We experience our ecological self when we feel the connection between our self and other people, other life forms, ecosystems, or the planet. We experience it when we sense a deep resonance with other species and a quality of belonging and connection to the larger ecological whole…the ecological self leads to environmentally appropriate behaviors, not out of a sense of self-sacrifice or self-denial, but out of a sense of love and common identity”. (1)
What does this sound very much like? Animism. Even if we don’t look at spirits as literal entities, a more metaphorical animism still provides a great deal of meaning to an ecosystem that we too often just see as the backdrop for the grand plans of humanity. It could be argued, of course, that this sort of modern storytelling and mythmaking isn’t even necessary to be able to appreciate the beauties and amazing phenomena of the natural sciences–and I would agree. Yet there is also value in this meaning-making process.
Bioregionalism gives more meaning to the natural phenomena that surround us. It takes the focus off manmade objects, where it has been almost exclusively for quite some time, and causes us to stop and think about that where that focus has been–and what we’ve been missing out on. We need that so much in this culture; we are so disconnected as a people from the cycles that we rely on. Not everything postindustrial is evil and wrong, mind you–but we do so much completely out of touch with what we’re affecting by our actions. Bioregionalism is just one of many ways to find reconnection, and as Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”. Finding one connection invariably leads to another, and another, and we only cease finding connections when we stop looking–or caring. The bioregion is a series of connections that reminds us that streets and addresses are only one of many forms of connection.
This, the bioregion, is the genius locii, the Spirit of Place. This is the Land that I refer to. Not a singular spirit, of course, but one for each place, many overlapping and enfolding and not as linear as some might like. Like my home range, for example. There is the spirit of my garden, and all the individual beings in it. Then there are the wetlands that my yard drains into. And then, from the wetlands, we go right into Johnson Creek itself. These are all their own entities, and yet part of larger watersheds and waterways–and that’s not even looking at geology, or air currents, or, for that matter, the spirit of the city and neighborhood.
This approach to bioregionalism, in which psychology and ecology and spirituality all combine in varying manners, is just one of the reasons why I am incorporating a career in therapy in general, and ecopsychology/ecotherapy in specific, into my shamanic practice. As I have mentioned before, I see therioshamanism as an attempt–albeit still in its relative infancy–to create a shamanism for the culture I am a part of. In order to effectively incorporate the role and functions of “shamanism” as a broad, general concept into this culture, it is necessary to work within the parameters and language (not just English, mind you) of this culture. Psychology is something that, although it is not fully understood by everyone in my community and culture, is still recognized as a way of healing and of discourse and of creating connections and meaning. Granted, these are more abstract concepts than, say, journeying to speak to the spirits–but most people in my culture wouldn’t fully accept animism in its raw form.
So I choose to not only work with literal animism, but also with metaphorical animism, in part through ecopsychology and related disciplines. One thing I am learning as a future therapist who will be incorporating several styles of therapy in my practice is that a diverse toolkit is a great benefit. Along with such things as client-centered, Gestalt and narrative therapies, I can also have ecopsychology and ecotherapy, and I can even have some elements of my shamanic practice on the occasion I get a client open to such things. But despite the means, the end goal is still the same–to promote better connections between humans and community, humans and spirits/nature, and humans and the self.
1. Winter, Deborah Du Nann and Koger, Susan M. (2004). The Psychology of Environmental Problems, p. 193