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Ecopsychology: Revisioning Ourselves and the World


Revisioning Ourselves and the World

By Len Cruz, MD, ME

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“…our present ego-feeling is only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive, indeed, an all-embracing, feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it.” (Sigmund Freud)

Ecopsychology is more than the conflation of two words, ecology and psychology.   This nascent field expands the horizon of the deep self beyond the frontiers of the individual. James Hillman said, “The deepest self cannot be confined to “in here” because we can’t be sure it is not also or even entirely “out there”![i] The exaggerated emphasis on the personal, interior, individual psychology has contributed to a denial of the world “out there”.  Several trajectories can be subsumed under the broad canopy of ecopsychology and the field is distinguishable from other related subjects[ii]. There is an arc that begins with the personal unconscious, traverses the collective unconscious, and leads to a planetary unconscious.  The near apotheosis of mankind that installed our species with a belief in our dominion over flora and fauna may be coming of age.  The Navi race depicted in the movie AVATAR is a pop culture reflection of an emerging archetype or at least a cultural complex.  As Thomas Singer points out, “Failure to consider cultural complexes as part of the work of individuation puts a tremendous burden on both the personal and archetypal realms of the psyche.”[iii] Depth psychological influences have shaped out language appearing with phrases like Biophilia (Erich Fromm[iv], E.O. Wilson[v]), Ecosophy & Deep Ecology (Arne Naess)[vi], Terrapsychology (Chalquist)[vii] or Ecotherapy (Clineman)[viii].  There is an ecological imperative forcing itself on our consciousness through images environmental catastrophes, species and habitat destruction, and threats of irreversible climate change. Lifton’s concept of psychic numbing regarding the threat of nuclear disaster applies to the ecological crisis upon us.  But this festering wound can no longer be located solely within nor strictly outside of ourselves.[ix] Ecopsychology attempts to restore the intimate connection between the ego and the world.  And with the added the richness of the archetypal strata a more inclusive psychology is emerging.[x]

If a planetary consciousness is developing and we should expect that there will be a planetary unconscious developing alongside.  In the pioneering days of psychoanalysis, Janet, Freud, and others were cartographers of a vast inner landscape.  A centrifugal force developed in the generations following Freud.  Ego psychology pressed beyond the id, social psychiatry and later self psychology expanded into the interpersonal and social milieu, and Jung expanded the personal notion of the unconscious into vast territory of the collective  unconscious.  However, all these trends established human beings at the axis of the psychological world.  Ecopsychology revisions this singular focus upon man.  It is a restorative psychology, where place matters and the distinction between inhabitants of the earth is removed, hierarchical disappears.  Ecopsychology grounds our existence and psychology in a broader context of the ecosphere.

Let us agree that human activity is causing rapid and profound changes to the climate, to the water cycle, to the soil, and to species extinction.



Billions of people watched oil gush into the Gulf of Mexico for months. On a daily basis human beings grew more alarmed by the risks of massive radiation leakage from the Fukushima nuclear reactor.And though the ecological underpinnings of mass migration and starvation in sub-Saharan Africa are poorly understood, the images of starving human beings nevertheless etches itself into our psyches.  Such events remind us that there is an imperative imposing itself with ever-increasing urgency.  But the complexity of these issues exceed our capacities.

Robert Jay Lifton, coined the term psychic numbing to describe “a form of desensitization … an incapacity to feel or confront certain kinds of experience, due to the blocking or absence of inner forms or imagery that can connect with such experience”.[xi] The intricate webs comprising our world are complex.  Ever increasing computing capacity permits us to model extremely complex systems and to detect elegant patterns.  Nonlinear systems (see also complexity, chaos, Madelbrot sets)possess some unique characteristics including inflection points (see also attractors, repellors, bifurcations) where sudden, large changes in behavior result from small changes in conditions of a a stable system.  Catastrophe theory, a branch of bifurcation mathematics, demonstrates that bifurcations are in fact part of a large well defined geometric structure.  Carl Freidrich Guass laid the foundation for these discoveries but the ability to model such complex systems had to wait for the invention of supercomputers.

Our ability to recognize patterns, create accurate models, and decipher complexity on our own has limits.[xii]Rebecca Costa suggests there are five common supermemes that we should understand because of their limiting effects upon our capacity to reason.  These include: irrational opposition, counterfeit correlation, personalization of blame, silo thinking, and extreme economics.[xiii] Time magazine recently suggested that people like Rebecca Costa might be able to solve the world’s biggest problems (  The rest of us may need to acknowledge that the sheer complexity of the ecological crisis combined with our own psychological complexity often exceeds our capacity to understand.

There a practical ecopsychology developing that might equip us to navigate through the treacherous times with greater understanding.  Ultimately it may also preserve us.  First, we will need to acknowledge that the planet and many of its inhabitants are being placed at risk by the impact our species has upon the environment.  There is an ecopsychological unconscious, and like all unconscious material, it resists exposure and yields its fruits reluctantly.  Those of us who live in the technologically advanced first world must make sure that we keep contact with the wilderness.  An earlier blog (May 31, 2010) addressed the diminishing wilderness of childhood and readers may want to read an excerpt from Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs.[xiv] A practical ecopsychology will provide tools for working through the despair and psychic numbing that so easily overwhelms us.  Out of the fertile fields of ecopsychology will emerge ecotherapeutic techniques and understanding that can be expected to equip us to participate in the healing that we all need.[xv] In 1973, Our Bodies, Ourselves[xvi] became a feminist canon through its empowering, educational message.  The time has come for Our Planet, Ourselves that might collect the expanse of ideas that intersect with ecopsychology.

The confluence of many shaping influences unite many archetypal energies forming a bedrock for  further psychological explorations.  A river’s delta provides a good metaphor for region where complexes, archetypes, and outer come together.  In the  delta fresh water and salt water meet and mix.  In the ecopsychological delta, conscious and unconscious, interior and exterior, introject and projection combine and create a limen realm where the participation mystique more easily is detected.  Jung wrote, “PARTICIPATION MYSTIQUE is a term derived from Lévy-Bruhl. It denotes a peculiar kind of psychological connection with objects, and consists in the fact that the subject cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object but is bound to it by a direct relationship which amounts to partial identity.”[xvii] It is tempting to oscillate between extreme impressions of the world.  Between Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road[xviii] and Fox’s recent Fall series Terra Nova with a tagline of “There is no paradise without sacrifice” we encounter repeated apocalyptic scenarios alongside utopian ones.[xix] [xx] [xxi].  KIA Motors produced a Superbowl commercial last year that exploited apocalyptic images of the Mayan Prophecy.  The appearance of such impressions in popular culture points toward the chthonic psychic regions, the places where archetypes reside.  Paul Ricouer observed that utopias function to develop “new, alternative perspectives”.[xxii] And some of our most compelling utopian literature actually present dystopias (Brave New World, Nineteen eighty-four, Fahrenheit 451). These days anyone can turn on a computer and create their own utopia (SimCity).  IMDb, the movie database, has compiled a list of the top 50 Post-Apocalyptic movies (  The images and impressions of a global consciousness, of an ecopsychological dimension are everywhere.

A recent favorite of mine is AVATAR.  James Cameron’s creation of the Navi, a large, lithe, colorful, and powerful race of humanoid creatures with tails.  These tails, symbolizes the Navi’s sustained connection to their world and hints of a noble savage. From the opening minutes of the film the there are rumbles and rhythms of mechanization that contrasts with a perky newscaster announcing the comeback of the nearly extinct Bengal tiger we are presented with competing impressions of soulless exploitation of the planet’s resources by an interplanetary corporation and the soulful natives and their planetary conscious ways.  By the end of the movie our sympathies are powerfully attached to the Navi.  Apart from the symbolism of the Navi’s tail, it is the physical means by which they experience a deep empathic connection to their world, it is the vehicle for their participation mystiqeu. As if these images alone were not enough, Cameron chose for his protagonist a physically disabled man injured in battle.  He seems to be telling us of our woundedness, our disability, and our hope for restoration.  In the final scene of AVATAR, the viewer is left believing that the protagonist has made a final and complete transformation from man to Navi.  The movie’s ability to arouse archetypal energies of both apocalypse and utopia is gripping.  But the promise that WE might experience such a deep connection to the biosphere as the protagonist is even more compelling.  Ecopsychology is unlikely to deliver some well wrapped experiences of connectedness like we get in the movies but perhaps it can provide a guide for the journey.  This is journey that began in an idyllic garden to which it one day hopes to return.


Take a moment to reflect on the impressions that reside in your own psyche of this world, your place in it, and the planetary images and impressions that you have encountered.  Perhaps it is a dream, a piece of art, a moment of communion with nature.  As we share our stories, we may help one another to awaken to something deep within that also is suffused outside.  If we hope to develop a consciousness spacious enough for the biosphere it must include one another.  Share your stories here.

Len Cruz

[i] Roszak, Theodore, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner. Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1995 (page xix).

[ii] Scull, John. “Ecopsychology: Where Does It Fit in Psychology in 2009?.” The Trumpeter Fall 2008: 68-85. The Trumpeter. Web. 8 Oct. 2011.

[iii] Singer, Thomas. “The Cultural Complex and Archetypal Defenses of the Collective Spirit | Psyche-and-culture | Articles.” IAAP. IAAP, 19 June 2005. Web. 08 Oct. 2011. <>.

[iv] Fromm, Erich (1964). The Heart of Man. Harper & Row.,

[v] Wilson, Edward O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-07442-4.

[vi] Næss, Arne (1973) ‘The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement.’ Inquiry 16: 95-100

[vii] Chalquist, Craig (2007) Terrapsychology, New Orleans, Spring  Journal Books.  ISBN-10: 1882670655

[viii] Clinebell, H. 1996. Ecotherapy: Healing ourselves, healing the earth. New York: Haworth Press.

[ix] Chalquist, Craig. “The Environmental Crisis is a Crisis of Consciousness.” – serving the animate presence of place., n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2011. < (also Chalquist, Craig, and Mary E. Gomes. Terrapsychology: Re-engaging the Soul of Place. New Orleans: Spring Journal, 2007.)

[x] Watkins, Mary . “On Returning to the Soul of the World: Archetypal Psychology and Cultural/Ecological Work.” N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2011. <

[xi] Lifton, Robert Jay (March 1968). “America in Vietnam—The circle of deception”. Society 5 (4).

[xii] Costa, Rebecca D. The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way out of Extinction. New York: Vanguard, 2010.

[xiii] Costa, Rebecca D. The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction. New York: Vanguard Press, 2010.

[xiv] Chabon, Michael. “Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood by Michael Chabon | The New York Review of Books.” New York Times Review of Books. New York Times, 16 July 2009. Web. 7 Oct. 2011. <>

[xv] Buzzell, Linda, and Craig Chalquist. Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 2009.

[xvi] Our Bodies, Ourselves. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.

[xvii] Jung, C.G. ([1921] 1971) Paragraph 781. Psychological Types, Collected Works, Volume 6, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[xviii] McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

[xix] Geus, Marius De. Ecological Utopias: Envisioning the Sustainable Society. Utrecht, the Netherlands: International, 1999.

[xx] Thiele, L. P. 2000. Book Review: de Geus, M. 1999. Ecological Utopias: Envisioning the sustainable society. International Books, Utrecht, The Netherlands. Conservation Ecology 4(1): 18. [online] URL:

[xxi] Gues, Marius de. Ectopia, sustainability, and vision. Organization & Environment. Vol: 15:2, 187-201Jun 2002. Web. October 7, 2011.


[xxii] Ricoeur, Paul.  Lectures on Ideology and Utopia.  Ed. George H. Taylor. New York:

Columbia UP, 1986.

Additional Recommended Readings:

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine, 1972.

Buber, Martin, and Ronald Gregor. Smith. I and Thou. New York, NY: Scribner, 2000.

Capra, Fritjof. The Hidden Connections. London: Flamingo, 2003.

Capra, Fritjof. The Web of Life: a New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. New York: Anchor, 1996.

Chivian, Eric, and Aaron Bernstein. Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

Matthiessen, Peter. Courage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists, and Activists Celebrate the Life and Writing of Rachel Carson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

McKibben, Bill. Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. New York: Times, 2003.

Singer, Thomas. Psyche & the City: A Soul’s Guide to the Modern Metropolis. New Orleans: Spring Journal, 2010.

Suzuki, David, and Amanada McConnell. The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature. Vancouver, BC: Greystone, 2007.

Walljasper, Jay. All That We Share: How to save the Economy, the Environment, the Internet, Democracy, Our Communities, and Everything Else That Belongs to All of Us. New York: New, 2010.

Wilson, Edward O. Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge. New York: Knopf, 1998.

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Pathways to the Personal & Collective

Recent discussions about the movie AVATAR conducted in an online forum led me to the following thoughts.  What other films, pieces of literature, poetry, paintings or sculpture, or music that others have encountered that touched a plucked a chord in you while also making a “collective” chord vibrate? For example, the progression in “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber evokes that effect. Another is “Herman Melville” by W H Auden. The first four lines stand alone for me in producing the effect. Towards the end he sailed into an extraordinary mildness, And anchored in his home and reached his wife And rode within the harbour of her hand, And went across each morning to an office As though his occupation were another island. Goodness existed: that was the new knowledge His terror had to blow itself quite out To let him see it; but it was the gale had blown him Past the Cape Horn of sensible success Which cries: ‘This rock is Eden. Shipwreck here.’ But deafened him with thunder and confused with lightning: — The maniac hero hunting like a jewel The rare ambiguous monster that had maimed his sex, Hatred for hatred ending in a scream, The unexplained survivor breaking off the nightmare — All that was intricate and false; the truth was simple. Evil is unspectacular and always human, And shares our bed and eats at our own table, And we are introduced to Goodness every day, Even in drawing-rooms among a crowd of faults; He has a name like Billy and is almost perfect But wears a stammer like a decoration: And every time they meet the same thing has to happen; It is the Evil that is helpless like a lover And has to pick a quarrel and succeeds, And both are openly destroyed before our eyes. For now he was awake and knew No one is ever spared except in dreams; But there was something else the nightmare had distorted — Even the punishment was human and a form of love: The howling storm had been his father’s presence And all the time he had been carried on his father’s breast. Who now had set him gently down and left him. He stood upon the narrow balcony and listened: And all the stars above him sang as in his childhood ‘All, all is vanity,’ but it was not the same; For now the words descended like the calm of mountains — — Nathaniel had been shy because his love was selfish — But now he cried in exultation and surrender ‘The Godhead is broken like bread. We are the pieces.’ And sat down at his desk and wrote a story. _______________________ Are there works that succeed at evoking a strong effect at the personal level while also opening you to the collective realm?  If so, share that with the group (where appropriate include the work or a hypertext link where others might find it.

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