Archive for the ‘personal environmentalism’ Category

Psychology and Trees: The Missing Role of Place

November 12, 2013

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In California, a young tree looked on as a group of people engineered bark and wood into what would become the first boat. Four thousand years later the same tree, Methuselah, now overlooks a town that hosts a wild, wild west marathon.  Trees have witnessed the worst of human nature – lynching, war, and treason – and the best of human nature – sanctuary, glory, and liberty.

Hangman’s elm in NYC’s Washington Square park has attained over 300 years of age.  While it seems not to have witnessed any actual executions, in its earliest years this English elm observed the decline of the Lenape Indians, the city’s reduction of slave ownership, the control by British soldiers and the state’s eventual annexation to the newly emergent United States.

The oldest tree in central park is the great London plane near the reservoir. That tree grew up amid rocks and swamps.  She lived to see the creation of a park and witnessed the invention of the automobile, the airplane and jogging.

Trees talk to one another.   They work together to create forests and parks, forging ecosystems from the available amounts of earth, air and rain.

Psychologists pay a great deal of attention to relationships between people and less so to those between people and the environment. Yet every relationship occurs in a physical space. Remembrances of loved ones often include the spaces and places where they were known.Every human action that imbues consciousness with meaning takes place in a material environment .  Psychological knowledge usually excludes those landscapes that inhabit almost every memory and importantly shape the neuro-cognitive and relational bases of personality. (more…)

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Limits Sustain People and the Environment

July 15, 2011

Part Five of the series on convergence of environmental and mental health (see part 1 here,  part 2 here, part 3 here and part 4 here ).

image from http://www.20somethingfinance.com

President Obama is correctly observing that budgetary health depends on incisive and strategic limit setting.The same is true for ecological and psychological health. Most people tend to over correct for problems assuming that only massive overhaul constitutes change. Yet we have evidence to the contrary. NYC’s Mayor Bloomberg has created a sustainable urban ecology and economy by taking small yet systemically coherent steps, see here. Likewise, we can produce psychological and environmental balance by exercising limits without cutting off what is best about the expansive possibilities of our minds and our resources.

Is the United States a culture of excess? Some think so, including Jay Slosar.  My take? People have lost the practice of personal and environmental frugality because technological innovation has been exciting and stimulating, and mostly for the good. How amazing to be able to save lives, prevent disease, feed the hungary! How great to be able to enjoy fresh food in the winter, travel to see loved ones, and to know the world! In pursuit of the possibilities of our modern conveniences, we have all lost track of personal and environmental boundaries.  In the end, our landscapes and our minds do have end points. It may be important to tether the open horizon of expansionism and possibility to inherent psychological and environmental, not to mention budgetary, boundaries.  Working within sustainable boundaries doesn’t mean returning to the caves or preparing for life on another plant.  It means integrating a few old-fashioned rules back into the American lifestyle.

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The Arts, Sustainability and Mental Health

July 8, 2011

Part four of the series on convergence of environmental and mental health (see part 1 here,  part 2 here and part 3 here ).

When a person is troubled by symptoms and problems that cause pain to self and others psychotherapy is an invaluable curative process.  Yet, the process of exploration should not be confined only to the therapist’s office. Exposure to and involvement with the arts is also an important strategy for alleviating psychological symptoms.  Further, artistic expression is for the most part a green activity, see here, here, here. The practice of engaging with the creative arts supports psychological well-being as well as sustainability  See more after the jump. (more…)

Going Outside as a Mental Health Strategy

June 27, 2011

Part three of the series on convergence of environmental and mental health (see part 1 here and part 2 here).

Mental health experts (and parents) argue that people of all ages need to spend time outside. Richard Louv has gathered some of the latest research in his two books: Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle. It is also true that being outside promotes better environmental stewardship.  Yet most people assume that going outside can only mean wilderness.  A woman once explained, “I can’t figure out how to get outside because I live in the city so I just give in and stop trying.” That is a mistake. The possibilities for outdoor experience are endless no matter where a person lives. So are the psychological benefits as well as the opportunities for sustainable practices. My top three choices for going outside can be found after the jump. (more…)

Eat Food, With Others

June 24, 2011

(The second in a series about the convergence of psychological and environmental health)

photo from AP

One strategy that any person or family can adopt to promote psychological and environmental health is to pay a good deal of attention to what is happening at the kitchen table. Almost five years ago Michael Pollan advised “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” While Pollan emphasized that rule as good for our bodies, and our planet, he didn’t explicitly link it to psychological health. Yet, eating food, not too much, mostly plants is good for our planet, our bodies and our psychological health especially if we recognize the role of relationships in the maintenance and organization of food resources.

In taking a broader view of food that is “at once more cultural and ecological” he suggests thinking “about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship.” Pollan clearly states that, “our personal health is inextricably bound up with the health of the entire food web.”

While he emphasizes health in the bodily sense of the word, it is important to remember that health also means our psychological well being. In addition to the fact that physical well-being enhances mental health, food  can importantly impact mood states.  And it isn’t only the chemical breakdown of foods that can affect our personalities.  The way in which food is distributed also shapes and forms personality. Home cooked soup may contain chemical compounds, forge connections to important people (the forager for ingredients, the cook, and those who share the meal), and symbolically enact care and attachment.

Pollan notes, “Of course when it comes to food, culture is really just a fancy word for Mom, the figure who typically passes on the food ways of the group — food ways that, although they were never “designed” to optimize health (we have many reasons to eat the way we do), would not have endured if they did not keep eaters alive and well.”

His point is that there needs to be a producer of food who understands both the individual needs of eaters, the range of available foods, and the relational complexity in which food is situated.  Yes, it has often been mom, but it can also be dad, or anyone else in a family or a group of eaters. That person is not only taking into account the person’s body. That person also uses food to alter the so-called “chemical” mood of the family or group by providing foods that heal, celebrate, get someone through a hard bout of work, or nurture someone through a loss.

What follows is my psychological elaboration of Pollan’s nine food rules.

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What Are We Doing?

June 22, 2011

(The first in a series about the convergence of psychological and environmental health)

News from the natural world continues to haunt and this report from ISPO (international program on the state of the ocean) warns of a mass extinction in our lifetime. And Al Gore is assailing the Obama administration for its failure to take stronger leadership on climate change. If you add the almost daily onslaught of devastating environmental news to the list of plastics, fuel and energy that the average family in a developed country can’t help but use, it is tempting to call out in anguish, “What are we doing?”  In the face of such compelling doom, most people disconnect, dissociate and deny. It is hard to change behavior in the midst of despair. Yet, while the government continues to jockey and pander in the race to win an upcoming election, a good deal of positive work is being done by psychologists, business leaders and educational institutions in the area of climate growth: changing behavior to more expansively support our ecosystems. So, “What are we doing?” is actually a good question. And the answer is plenty.  No matter who you are or what you do, there is a growing movement of others to whom you can attach yourself and start figuring out your own personal, familial and professional green strategy.

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A Response to Richard Louv

June 1, 2011

photo by Linda Nylind for the Guardian

Richard Louv’s new book, “The Nature Principle’ has just been published.  Following on “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder”, a book that links many childhood disorders to a disconnection to the natural environment, Louv’s latest book (see this article in Outside) calls for an increased connection to the natural world to compensate for our increasingly technological lifestyles. He writes that the future belongs to those individuals and businesses that can balance the virtual with the real. As a psychologist who works with many adults and children, I would like to attest to the veracity of  Louv’s journalistic discoveries with examples from people’s lives. (more…)

The Changing Climate Changes Me

May 26, 2011

     Do human beings continue to adapt  to their environments? Are some of those changes psychological? Are humans experiencing subtle alterations in their emotional and cognitive organization in response to climate change? While we ponder these questions with regard to humans, we are noticing suh chnages in other mammals. Antarctic Penguins are being driven from their homes, according to the New York Times.  While those on the peninsula have suffered a catastrophic drop in population, those on Ross Island are making use of other environmental changes in order to adapt. The scientific study and tracking of climate change is based on a belief that all species develop specific adaptations to their environment. Are people, therefore, also already changing in small ways?  My tentative answer, based on case studies and field research conducted during 2009 and 2010, is that the human psyche is shifting in subtle ways to adapt to transforming ecosystems whether they be urban, suburban or rural. The same consumerist processes that are causing careless damage to the earth’s ecosystems have also become a part of people’s personalities.I have a chapter coming out in a forthcoming book edited by Nick Totton and Mary-Jayne Rust.  See a preview of some of my findings after the jump.

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Walk Therapy

May 13, 2011

photo by Ellen Mcknight at emcknight.photoshelter.com

Is sitting in a chair always the best way to work out problems?  For some there is nothing more relaxing than taking a seat in the therapeutic chair and sharing. For others it can feel stifling and even hierarchical, almost an enactment of passivity or agency loss.  Sitting in psychotherapy can almost embody the way in which people get stuck in calcified roles that belie a more natural sense of self and relatedness. Further a great deal of new research suggests that sitting is detrimental to one’s health.  For this reason I have been experimenting with walking psychotherapy sessions.

Walking enacts agency by keeping neurological processes active.  This can help metabolize excess energy in the person with an ADD type profile. One young man who typically could maintain only a superficial focus was able to deeply experience sadness about the death of a younger brother.

Walking can also generate energy for the person with a more depressive temperament. A different young man had fallen into a terrible stasis of bad feeling and self-deprecation.  While walking together he interrupted a vicious cycle where inactivity perpetuated self-loathing, which induced inactivity.  Within weeks of walking he was able to more constructively work on dealing with his depression, which then subsided.

Further, the act of walking can convert obsessional mutations into physical action, leaving the mind freer for more expansive conversation.  One woman’s thought patterns were so hindered by haunting and repetitive ruminations that she couldn’t think of anything to say.  Up on her feet and moving forward, she was freed from her habitual self-focus and capable of engaging in a more natural dialogue

Finally, there is much to be said for immersing self-exploration in a landscape with a broad visual horizon. The intake of non-verbal sensory data can soothe and relax a person, creating more spontaneous associations and dialogue. Also a person experiences him or her self as connected to a larger whole.  Their problems, difficulties or struggles aren’t manifestations of their discrete and individual psychopathology. Rather, they are the incarnation of humanity.

Of course, walking outside challenges confidentiality. Therefore, one must choose carefully when walking is appropriate in an ongoing therapeutic dialogue. Yet side by side walking creates a kind of movable frame that contains the dialogue between patient and therapist.  And sometimes it renders that which is shameful into something ordinary, a simple part of the human lexicon.

There is also a fear that walking can lead to a violation of professional boundaries if the relationship slips into something else. I guess this depends on how a therapeutic relationship is defined.  For me, therapy is a kind of friendship organized around a specific role relationship where one person brings to bear all of their knowledge and expertise toward the solving of another’s person’s psychological dilemmas, whether they be physiological, intrapsychic, familial or cultural.

Freud himself was known to walk with his patients through the streets of Vienna. Clay Cockrell is also conducting walk and talk session in New York City.  It is a new direction in my work but ultimately connected to my belief that sustainable behaviors help our ecology and our psychological function. Walking is an ancient practice that promotes physical and environmental health.  Walking together has also always been seen to evoke massive social change: King walked, Ghandi walked, and so too did Moses.  Why should it not be also an intricate component of psychological transformation?

Stand There

March 17, 2011

 

Since Ordinary Earth is a blog about how sustainable living practices can support better mental and environmental health some people have asked me about Japan: what I think about nuclear power, the impact of environmental catastrophes on mental health, and the probable emergence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Japan. Yikes! Those are all the wrong questions at an inappropriate time. Instead, as the buddhist saying goes, “Don’t just do something. Stand there.”  (more…)


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