WHAT ON EARTH HAS THIS GOT TO DO WITH PSYCHOTHERAPY?

“Until the late 20th century, every generation throughout history lived with the tacit certainty that there would be generations to follow. Each assumed, without questioning, that its children and children’s children would walk the same earth, under the same sky. Hardships, failures, and personal death were encompassed in that vaster assurance of continuity. That certainty is now lost to us, whatever our politics. That loss, unmeasured and unmeasurable, is the pivotal psychological reality of our time" (my stress)

Joanna Macey, in Roszak et al eds, 1995

“We have cut ourselves off from our connection to the earth so thoroughly that even though we are ‘bleeding at the roots’, we neither understand the problem nor know what we can do about it”

Sarah Conn, op.cit.

Last year I found myself running a seminar, introducing Ecopsychology to a room full of psychotherapy students. I had shared the above quotations, both of which I find deeply moving, shocking, and provocative. People had gone into pairs to share their responses, and, as these were fed back into the larger group, I had written some of them up on the board; guilt, helplessness, fear, anger, frustration and impotence. And at that point, a student said that she didn’t see what any of this had to do with psychotherapy.

I did, of course, attempt to answer her and continue with the seminar the best way I was able at the time, but the moment has stayed with me, as one, perhaps, of quite staggering mutual incomprehension.

This mutual incomprehension, this feeling of shouting across a deep canyon, words which I hope to be strong and clear, but which somehow seem to become almost inaudible whispers as they arrive at the person on the other side, is for me a powerful symbol for one aspect of my involvement in Ecopsychology over the past four years. The other, the converse, has been the repeated and delightful experience of making contact with a complete stranger, and discovering that what seems supremely important and poignant, connections that seem self-evidently pregnant with meaning and which demand to be explored – seems that way equally to the both of us.

In this article I should like to try again to communicate from my side of the canyon, and to respond to the student’s comment both personally, and (briefly) in terms of psychotherapy and counselling theory.

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We live, it seems, in ‘interesting times’. For me (and I am far from alone in this), scarcely a day goes by without my holding in my awareness the perception that life on this planet – after three thousand million years of the extraordinary creativity of its (our) evolutionary history – is currently, and increasingly irrevocably, being transformed (by ‘transformed’, I mean ransacked, vandalised and destroyed) - by a last minute arrival on the scene, my own species. Whether or not I was a psychotherapist, I would find this both distressing and important, and would be moved to try to understand what is going on, and to want to help reverse the destruction, through whatever avenues were most available to me. As it happens I am a psychotherapist, - one of a group of people who are drawn to the attempt to heal the troubled or wounded human psyche, to support people to become less destructive to self and other, to recover, to grow, to change, to transform, to fulfill potential, to adjust, to mature - depending on your theoretical perspective. Why we are drawn to do this is of course always an interesting question, but drawn we are, and respond we do – to people as individuals, or in small groupings. And for me and for many people who share my side of the metaphorical canyon, our responses to the planetary crisis of destruction and greed, unawareness and complacency, are as immediate as to the distress of any human individual.

I am, I suppose, a ‘wounded healer’. The place in me from which my affinity for counselling and psychotherapy arises – whatever potent mix of benign and shadowy motivations and energies – responds as passionately and compassionately to the destruction of the rainforests, the lungs of the planet, as to an individual client fighting for breath in illness or in panic. I read of ‘…the human assault on the life of the sea, practised with the help of sonar and factory ships, miles of undiscriminating driftnets, explosives, and the poisoning of reefs. Apart from fishing many species into near extinction, there is the death we deliver through “the…cocktail of pesticides, fertilisers and …. chemical effluents that is sluiced and dumped” from industrial coastlines around the world.’(Resurgence No 199 p58). I already know that our oceans are polluted all the way through. Insofar as I allow myself to feel my response, there is a level of deep visceral horror, outrage and sadness, that is very close to my soreness of heart as I listen to the stories of assault, abuse and violation in the lives of my (human) clients. I am aware, in other words, of a continuity between my responses to the wounded human other, the wounding of the ‘greater than human’ world, and to my own woundedness.

There are, however, some differences. Significantly, my clients are usually not undergoing worsening abuse in the present. Secondly, their individual stories, whilst woven into the global picture, are still partially contained within the larger fabric of life – I am not directly confronted with the ripping up of the very fabric in which I myself, tiny dot of life, am suspended. And thirdly, my clients can to a greater or lesser extent speak for themselves if I am prepared to listen – through their words but also their tears and rage, dreams, symptoms and flashbacks. Not so the cranes and turtles, the whales and bears and mice, the pikes and pythons and butterflies…the whole huge list of species gradually exiting from the ark. To listen to their stories, to hear what is going on on our planet, we have to allow these species to speak through us. We have to ‘listen in’, to be aware of the whole gamut of our responses as we allow ourselves to be open to information and emotion. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist, calls on us to ‘hear within ourselves the sound of the earth crying’. This is perhaps a more naked and intense form of the ‘bearing of witness’ that is such an important part of the work of psychotherapist and counsellor.

As I write I see that I am talking about our being open, or relatively undefended, in mind and in heart, to an ongoing devastation and violation of literally global proportions. This is a global crisis that threatens the future of human life as well as that of most other species, in which we ourselves are inevitably implicated through our lifestyles, and which we can in a sense only be aware of if we are prepared to risk feeling deep distress about it. It is a lot to ask.

Yet we counsellors and psychotherapists are meant to be experts in the workings of such great defences as denial and displacement. We know something about ongoing destructive behaviour, and abusive and dysfunctional relationships between humans. We know about behaving without regard for future negative consequences, in order to feel better right now, because that is all that can be born, and the cognitive distortions and refusal to notice what is going on, that arise in the service of dysfunctional systems and in the avoidance of unprocessed pain. We know something about how trauma continues to circulate inwardly and to isolate externally, and about how ‘deficits’ tend to leave us ever seeking what we never had, and thus easily enthralled by the spell of escalating consumerism, whatever the cost. We know of the dangers of failing to face the fact that you have a problem, and the rewards of gradually facing and solving what has been avoided.

There would be no point, I believe, in our improbable profession, were there not some rewards in this – some degrees of success, some progress. We also know something about the depths of grieving and despair and the re-birth of hope; about the owning of hard hatred and the softening into lovingness; about the acknowledgement of shame and the re-emergence of dignity; about the contacting of anger and the energising to act; and about the hollowness of arrogance and the relief of appropriate humility. I believe, in other words, that we have a lot to offer in this time of crisis if we ourselves are prepared to face what’s going on, and that we are well placed to hold out hope and encouragement for the kind and degree of transformation that is required. When we do open ourselves to facing the planetary situation, and feel despair or anger or grief, we only feel these things because we are at that instant re-connecting with the wider web of life; we are already and immediately beginning to heal this most dangerous of disconnections. What comes with this reconnection is also great joy and delight and wonder – and the possibilities both of growing beyond what we were, and of finding our place again in the family of things.

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My vision is of my tribe, my constituency, the listeners, healers of the human psyche, rising to meet the challenge. I think we can only begin to imagine what we might achieve if we were fully to take our place amidst the diversity of movements for change - the huge change in human consciousness, values and ways of life that this time calls for.

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I wonder who hears me, calling across the canyon.

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Hilary Prentice
April 2000

(Published in ‘Transformations’, Journal of P.C.S.R., Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsability, No 10. Summer 2000)