Working with Nature in Mind

Reclaiming our mental health and well-being through systemic thinking and ecopsychology practice.

Guest blog by Roger Duncan

We are currently living in strange and unsettling times, where it seems that contemporary culture is sleepwalking into a spiralling series of human and ecological disasters. Despite an endless succession of intellectual debates and technological fixes, the future does not look hopeful.  It is becoming increasingly clear that the western lifestyle not only has a negative impact on the ecosystems of the earth but also a detrimental effect on human health and psychological well-being.

This perspective has been highlighted in the 2018 Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) report that warns of the impending catastrophic danger of this unchecked environmental degradation.  This parallels the concern for the decline in young people’s psychological well-being highlighted in the 2017 UK Government Green Paper and subsequent 2018 Department of Education report on deteriorating adolescent mental health in schools.  These concerns are also raised in the 2018 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) report ‘A Green Future’, a 25-year plan to improve the environment.

My concern about the impact of environmental destruction was awoken more than 40 years ago when I joined the Ecology Society at school. This was the beginning of my recognition of a kind of madness at the core of the developed world that has split the growth of human cultural systems from the destruction of the earth’s ecosystems on which they depended. Now, after more than 30 years of work with adolescents, nature-based education and therapy, I have distilled my experience into my book Nature in Mind, Systemic Thinking and Imagination in Ecopsychology and Mental Health which I believe is a unique practical and philosophical handbook for both professionals and general readers.

This book frames our current alienation from nature within the context of our indigenous ancestors separation from the land and traditional nature-based practice and how this legacy may have resulted in cross-generational trauma and disrupted patterns of attachment and belonging.  It explores how this loss of connection has influenced our modern thinking about nature, which is now so radically different from the perspective of indigenous people’s. This loss of perspective is then explored from an epistemological viewpoint; how we learnt to think about things, by combining systems thinking and Gnostic ideas from the work of Henry Corbin, Carl Jung, James Hillman and Rudolf Steiner.

I go on to explore what a different perspective might look like in practice and how these ideas can be used to provide design criteria when setting up; wilderness experience, outdoor therapeutic and educational experiences and vision fast, rites of passage programs.  The book explores three nature-based developmental mapping tools, The Circle of Courage, The Four Shields, and Bill Plotkin’s Soulcentric Developmental Wheel and how these can be combined with clinical perspectives to help us to think about human development in a completely different way.  

My book concludes with suggestions on how we might rethink our understanding of both nature and the human psyche in ways that go beyond the current limitations of our reductionist and post-colonial, Cartesian and Darwinian paradigm.  Nature in Mind is a call to action for practitioners a call to bring together different threads of ecotherapy work and to find a common language linking ecological ideas and systemic psychotherapy to create ecosystemic, nature-based practices.

What I think makes this book unique in the field of ecotherapy and psychotherapy writing is that it brings together thinking from both deep ecology and systemic psychotherapy within the context of a carefully articulated non-materialistic or neo-indigenous paradigm.  This is both a new and ancient view of nature that is grounded in years of personal experience and which has been academically referenced.

However, this book is also a deeply practical guide for any one wanting to find their way into ecotherapy and or ecopsychology with clear examples of how to start the work.

The book brings together some of the best examples of outdoor therapy practice and presents this in the context of the most recent research and evidence.

This book also addresses the hidden and powerful destructive issue of  ‘epistemicide’the loss of non-western worldviews or epistemologies concerning our relationship with nature.  These non-western worldviews, illuminating the intersubjective qualities of our connection with nature were described clearly by indigenous people before their cultures where destroyed and continue to be destroyed by people unable to hear or see nature other than through the lens of modernist Cartesian dualism. By bringing together the siloed disciplines and practices of systems thinking, a non-reductionist view of biology, neuro-psychotherapy and soulcentric nature-based work, a new picture of how nature and our human psyches can emerge. Through this process of consilience the modernist views of biology and psychology collapse in on themselves with radical implications for how we currently see our relationship with nature and the practice of education, psychotherapy and social care within a post-modern world.

This book also steps beyond the usual alternative narratives of how to ‘green’ western culture by describing how to work directly with the imaginal world.’ The imaginal world is a subjugated perspective, implicit in systemic practice, describing the non-languaged relational space between people, between nature and the human psyche, and between the conscious and unconscious parts of the human mind. This approach takes the conversation about ecopsychology and nature-based practice to a whole new level, which is rarely discussed in the current literature.

This book has been written for therapists, teachers, social workers, outdoor educators, naturalists, farmers and landowners, managers and leaders and commissioners, in fact anyone who wants to address our current social and environmental issues. There is now a growing interest in how to find ways of reconnecting with nature that include; bushcraft, wilderness work and nature-based rites of passage work such as vision fast.  

My personal experience of vision fast, psychotherapy, systemic practice and the study of nature has been a journey of rediscovering the broken fragments of an ancient, experiential, therapeutic education system.  This way of working was once understood to be essential to contain children and adolescents on their journey towards adult maturity and the stewardship of the earth. I have written this book to address the question of how we might best use these fragments of wisdom to create educational, therapeutic experiences to empower future generations to deal with the ecological and social needs of our time. This book is an invitation to radically reimagine our relationship between humans and nature and makes a powerful case for bringing nature-based work into mainstream education and psychotherapy.

Roger Duncan is a registered Systemic Family Therapist working in the NHS and in private practice with individuals, families and organisations. He was one of the pioneer tutors of Ruskin Mill Education Trust and had a leadership role in senior management. He was involved in the development of outdoor, therapeutic education programs for adolescents in both woodland and wilderness settings.  His intention is to find ways to bring experiential encounters with the imaginal into mainstream education and therapeutic practice. His book, Nature in Mind, Systemic Thinking and Imagination in Ecopsychology and Mental Health, is published by Routledge.