What was your relationship with the natural world like when you were a child?
I have begun to incorporate this question into the early sessions with my counseling clients, and what I have been surprised to find is that it has consistently led to identifying something beautiful, something sacred. The client's eyes will light up and the energy in the room will shift, bringing a comfort, a warmth, and an excitement. There is a special, and often secret place identified, a pet, a tree, a moment, a memory. When I ask a related question later, the difference is stark:
How is your relationship with the natural world now?
"I would love to get outside and go hiking, I just don't have the time."
"I don't have one anymore"
A figure that looms large in our sense of place and of ourselves as children, the natural world is now neglected, divorced, or even abused as adults.
In addition to facilitating ARC retreats, I offer individual counseling in Asheville, NC. Although many sessions are held in an office setting, the approaches used fall under the category of experiential rather than traditional. Because I believe in the importance of our connection with the natural world as vital to our capacity to be holistically well, I create opportunities for clients to experience their bodies as part of the natural world, even within the confines of four walls. The two modalities used most often are ecotherapy* and Somatic Experiencing.**
Although I would love to conduct most of my sessions outdoors, the fact is that this can be logistically challenging (until I am able to find and purchase my dream property... on the edge of the forest with a babbling brook running through...), and not everyone is interested in a romp in the woods as a part of their therapy, understandably. I continue to find, however, that involving the relationship with the natural world into indoor sessions is beneficial... and the question above has consistently provided my clients with a resource that we come back to again and again while working through the trauma, anxiety, depression, and transitions that life deals us.
In an effort to share this resource with the larger community, I invite you to take five-ten minutes to slowly read and experience the guided meditation below, and to allow your inner child to get curious about what your body feels:
Think of your own childhood and the ways in which you interacted with the natural world. Was there a place you went in the woods, by the water, on the edge of the playground, or just a nook in the backyard? Was there a pet or a tree or a particular view that stands out in your memory?
As you think about this memory, what do you see?
What do you smell?
What do you hear?
What do you feel?
As you allow yourself to fully experience this image, what do you notice happening in your body here and now?
Is there a change?
In your muscles?
In your sense of constriction versus expansion?
In your temperature or any sensations in any part of your body?
If you name an emotion, what is happening in your body that tells you you are feeling that emotion?
And if that feeling in your body could say something to you... what would it say?
I hope that you can take some time to sit with this experience, to listen to the animal that is your body, to hear the call of the world around you.
Perhaps this experience is just a break in your day... or perhaps it is something to which you will return. It may be a reminder, an insight, an invitation.
Whatever it is, I encourage you not to judge it, not to label it good or bad.... to do the very difficult work of just letting it be what it is, and letting your curiosity follow it into the future.
"As a child, one has that magical capacity to move among the many eras of the earth; to see the land as an animal does; to experience the sky from the perspective of a flower or a bee; to feel the earth quiver and breathe beneath us; to know a hundred different smells of mud and listen unself-consciously to the soughing of the trees." - Valerie Andrews, A Passion for this Earth
The explanations provided below are in my own words and should not be mistaken for hard and fast definitions. If you are interested in learning more about either of these concepts, please get in touch and I am happy to provide recommended reading lists, trainings, and experiences.
*Ecotherapy incorporates the natural world into the process of healing, not just as a pleasant environment, but as a part of the ecology of our wellness. Just as an individual is not separate from their chaotic family system and cannot be fully healed without involving the family, ecopsyhology acknowledges that on an earth afflicted with illness, we too are a part of the larger ogranism and must consider the wellness of the earth along with our own. The practice of ecotherapy uses the relationship with the natural world as a resource for personal growth and the power of the individual as a resource for the earth.
**Somatic Experiencing is a type of experienctial therapy in which we focus much more on the body than our thoughts. It is a body-based approach to rewiring the brain and inviting our autonomic nervous system to remember how to regulate itself, resulting in more time spent in our resiliency zone and less time outside of it. It involves a reconceptualization of symptoms like anxiety, anger, depression, addiction, etc. as our body's natural attempt to respond to a perceived threat that is outside of our capacity to tolerate, and works with the body and brain to resolve the response to the threat.