The soft pattering of rain is rhythmic on the hood of my jacket as I stand underneath the canopy of trees — with the grey steel waters of Daisy Lake and the elusive Coast Mountains covered in ghostly veils of cloud serving as the solemn background. I lean against the expansive trunk of a fir tree, as instructed; feeling its moist, hard bark while the accompanying scent of moss and earth fills my nostrils. Closing my eyes, I feel completely and utterly alone, despite the fact there are eight bodies sharing this space with me in the grove.
"Notice how stable, how strong the tree is and allow the energy to flow into you," a low voice emerges from the left side of me.
It is Adrian Juric, our intrepid leader for this retreat on which we are embarking, entitled Understanding Transition in Life: Lessons from nature. Based at the Sea to Sky Retreat Centre (SSRC), a quiet, reclusive Buddhist sanctuary tucked in the folds of the rocks and moss at the edge of Garibaldi Provincial Park; this is quite simply one of the most perfect places to "get away from it all."
Juric reads a poem aloud to us as we continue to lean on our selected tree:
Think Like a TreeBy Karen L. Shr
Soak up the sun
Affirm life's magic
Be graceful in the wind
Stand tall after a storm
Feel refreshed after it rains
Grow strong without notice
Be prepared for each season
Provide shelter to strangers
Hang tough through a cold spell
Emerge renewed at the first signs of spring
Stay deeply rooted while reaching for the sky
Be still long enough to
Hear your own leaves rustling.
Afterwards we stand in the hushed quietness, allowing the poem’s melodic words to sink in and its metaphors to play in our minds. For stillness and contemplation are exactly why we are here on this wet and wild winter weekend, as we each grasp in our own way, the incredible healing powers of nature. This emerging field of psychology is also referred to as ecotherapy.
Ecotherapy, what is it?
According to American pastoral counsellor Howard Clinebell — a pioneer of the ecotherapy movement who penned the book, Ecotherapy: Healing Ourselves, Healing the Earth — this therapy, in a nutshell, refers to a diversity of nature-based methods of healing.
According to the website, ecotherapyheals.com, it takes into account the latest scientific understandings of the world and the deepest indigenous wisdom.
"This perspective reveals the critical fact that people are intimately connected with, embedded in, and inseparable from the rest of nature. Grasping this fact deeply shifts our understanding of how to heal the human psyche and the currently dysfunctional and even lethal human-nature relationship. It becomes clear that what happens to nature for good or ill impacts people and vice versa, leading to the development of new methods of individual and community psychotherapeutic diagnosis and treatment."
Dr. Michael Cohen is another such pioneer. A distinguished eco-psychologist and environmental scientist residing in Washington State, he has dedicated his sixty-year career to researching and teaching natural attraction ecology.
The webstring natural attraction model he has developed recognizes humans as being part of the eons-old dance of the web of life — each member of the web, whether it be a bacteria or a human, has its own unique relationship to the whole.
"Industrialized society socializes us from childhood into a nature-disconnected story that excessively exploits nature's balanced essence, even as that ancient energy dances in, through and around us," Cohen explains. "The root of the problem is that we deny we have been indoctrinated into this story — this keeps us tied to exploitative patterns of thought and behaviour that perpetuates the industrial myth."
The end result of living the industrial myth is obvious — we are out of touch with our natural way of knowing and with our inherent sensitivity to the natural world. And it's not just the environment that is deteriorating; our personal and social well-being degrades alongside it.
Solvitur ambulando – it is solved by walking (St. Augustine)
Having recently morphed into a city slicker myself — following a blissful year of living in a cabin in the woods near Squamish — I could immediately detect the healing power of nature once I stepped from my car, straight from the traffic of the city, into the early morning light, and I inadvertently breathed a deep sigh of relief. Immediately immersing myself into a group meditation session led by the demure and serene facilitator, Sandra Waddle, I discovered as I wound my way through the vivid visualisation exercises, a discernible shift in my body as my city-related stress exited and peaceful thoughts returned.
When we donned on our rain gear and embarked on our first sojourn into the temperate rainforest, Juric encouraged us to search for symmetry.
"What we are looking for is the landscape in transition," he explained to the group as we gathered around, the moss soft under our feet and the constant rain oddly comforting. It's occurring all around us, at different rates, he noted, and we're looking for symmetry with what's happening here in the landscape and what's happening inside us in our own lives.
This is an incredibly personal way to explore the forest, as we take the time to really see the landscape — the boulders covered in a delicate blanket of moss, lichens and tiny seedlings, the swift, unified flight of a flock of twittering birds overhead, and the interesting composition of colours on the leaf of a salal bush. We stop frequently to contemplate aspects of nature — one particularly poignant moment came when we paused to peer into the depths of a deep, still pool in a mossy vale. It was a scene right out of a fairy tale.
Several times during our trek we pause as Juric reads us a nature poem.
I ask Juric, why poetry?
His response was forthcoming: "I use poetry on retreats because of poetry's ability to do what Roger Housden says, 'call forth our own inarticulate knowings, and offer a mirror into the truth.' These truths may be uncomfortable, but facing them is the first step towards waking up to who we really are and what it is we have been doing with our lives."
And his advice when struggling with understanding a poem is apt. "Listen to poetry — soften your analytical mind, don't torture or beat it to submission, let it wash over you. Let it soak in slowly."
As for the hiking aspect of the retreats, walking helps people notice the deep symmetry between our outer and inner worlds, explains Juric.
"Mary Ann Brussat captures this nicely: 'Nature often holds up a mirror so we can see more clearly the ongoing processes of growth, renewal, and transformation in our lives.'"
Being out on the trail has a catalytic effect and helps us to process our emotions, he added.
"In walking out into it, we literally walk through and process experiences we are trying to understand. This is powerfully evident if you look at the personal journeys of the key figures from the world's main wisdom traditions."
The results of this theory on nature-based healing are tangible, as is evident in the feedback from my fellow participants in this retreat weekend in the wilderness.
One participant writes, "The voices of poets reflecting on life transitions, the evocative wilderness, the space to reflect, and Adrian's gentle and respectful guidance all contribute to an experience that touches your soul and stays with you once you return to your busy home routines."
Angela Scouten agrees, wholeheartedly.
She speaks with me by phone from West Vancouver a handful of days after the retreat and candidly shares her personal journey of healing. For her, this year has been a particularly painful time, triggered by splitting up with her husband.
Then, as her marriage was unravelling, her son, who was diagnosed with depression at a young age, experienced a mental breakdown and was admitted to the psych ward at the hospital. This all coincided with her healthy and active 83-year-old mother suffering a massive stroke and dying.
Scouten describes this traumatic time period as a "horrendous rollercoaster" and went on to say that the weekend retreat ended up being a huge blessing in her life.
Firstly, she confesses that she hasn't allowed herself time to grieve for her mother with all the other drama taking place in her life, yet when she walked through the mossy vale, it transported her back to her childhood, to being playful and curious. And having this special place, which she can visualize, will be instrumental in her grieving process, she says.
Secondly, she became aware that because her husband's life was so chaotic, her own life was chaotic due to association.
This, she knows now, can be resolved by being like a tree.
"It really was transformative for me in that I have come back and seeing the swirl that has gone on and seeing that I really thought I was the cause of it," she said. "I didn't get that until I was in the forest. The tree is standing there, the storms are happening around it, the leaves are swirling, the puddles are filling up ... and I can just stand still and just let it all swirl and happen around me, I don't have to be engaged."
This became very evident upon her return to the city, she revealed, noting that a sticking point with her husband on their separation agreement gave her the opportunity to step back and not get caught up in anger and instead search for a mutually pleasing solution.
Scouten says a final revelation from the retreat was that she felt she was able to accept herself and like herself again.
"Just like these trees have gnarls on them, they've lost their leaves so they're bare and exposed and not beautiful, all their glitter and gold has dropped off," she explained. "Mine has too but anything that is taken away is given back in another form, and I know that when my glitter and gold, my new leaves come back, it will be in a better form, I will be better."
Laura (who requested not to use her last name) was another member of our group, and eager to share her perspective on the experience. On the brink of her 50th birthday, she decided to devote five weeks to healing herself at the Sea to Sky Retreat Centre, which encompassed the weekend with us as well.
"Being at SSRC for five weeks cultivated that stillness that I needed," she wrote in an email. "I had a cosy, beautiful space to sit and meditate. I set my own schedule, allowing plenty of time for those activities, as well as resting, something that helped me recharge my physical, mental, and spiritual batteries. I also deepened my meditation practice and realized the importance of a daily spiritual practice, as well as walks in nature.
"I reflected a lot on how change is so natural, yet so difficult for most people, including myself," she wrote. "I reflected on how I would let go of old patterns that are not serving my life's aspirations."
As for integrating back into: "normal" society, Laura admits that at first it was a bit of a culture shock.
"Everything felt so speedy and noisy when I got back, but I've been able to maintain that inner stillness and peace that I cultivated on my retreat. I'm noticing when I need to slow down. I see now the real value of cultivating a calm and peaceful perspective and lifestyle."
Global perspectives on ecotherapy
Juric, who has studied psychology and philosophy and also works as a school counsellor, says his journey into ecotherapy was spurred by a walking tour he did in 2011 with a poet, David Whyte, through the Lake District in England.
"Poets are more eloquent and effective than many psychologists and deliver material in a far richer and deeper way," he said. "They possess the unique ability to take you places as a listener in a way that's lyrical and rich and frankly, hypnotizing."
This experience created an incarnation within him, he recalls, leading to his inspiration to run ecotherapy retreats.
He says he is constantly amazed at the many healing qualities of nature.
"Intuitively we go to nature, we return there to the natural world, to be reminded of what it's like to live in a state of rested simplicity."
In addition to this, it is a sober reminder of our place in the universe.
Our human ego can get away on itself, he notes, with our ambitions and grand plans for the world and ourselves.
"There's a sense in which that is noble and important, but there's a sense in which hubris can set in — we can lose sight of our place in the world and going back into nature restores perspective, it puts us back in our rightful place in the context of a larger organism, of which we are just one small part. We don't even merit a blink of an eye in the geological life span of the Earth, it's humbling, and we need humbling."
So how exactly does ecotherapy differ from traditional models?
"In the traditional model you are in a room and it's you and a therapist, in a controlled setting," says Juric. "I'm not interested in providing counselling but having said that, the effect is therapeutic, pennies do drop, and people see things in a different way that they had not before. I am inviting them to consider a line from a poem in light of their own life, how the poet's question might be answered by them. It's open-ended for them — it's where they want to go. It's their personal journey and I don't know the depth of their journey."
Juric says he believes that, as a result of being exposed to ecotherapy, people ultimately live a more compassionate, more awake life.
John Scull knows all about the difference between traditional psychology and ecotherapy. As a registered psychologist for 35 years and an avid outdoorsman, he practiced ecotherapy for the last four years of his career, he tells me during a phone interview from his home in Duncan on Vancouver Island.
Scull studied under Cohen, who spoke about the powerful sensory and nature reconnecting processes that enables us to restore wellness to our nature-disconnected psyches.
"It's more than just walking in nature," Scull said. "Anybody can go outdoors, but that's not therapy. You've got to be outdoors and mindful of your connection to nature and that's what ecotherapy is all about. Going out and really processing the lessons that nature has to teach us about how to live our lives and how to be in the world."
This is a three-stage process, he explains.
Part one is to give yourself an intention before you go out in nature, part two is to be quiet when you're there, and part three is to process the experience and bring it back into your life, done with a therapist and also with journaling.
One of the exercises, out of the hundreds used, involves going out and breathing in a plant. Yes, it sounds odd, he says, but what it means is to go out and find a plant, and hold the image in your mind of how the plant is producing oxygen and how you're producing carbon dioxide and meditate on that connection while you're breathing and then hold your breath too.
"It's a really good way to get people into the notion of inter-connectedness," Scull said, "that they're not alone, that they have a reciprocal, interactive relationship with the natural world, that without plants we wouldn't be able to breathe and without carbon dioxide, plants wouldn't be able to breathe.
"There's a lot we learn from interacting with the natural world. We learn about things that are permanent, we learn about things that are interconnected — the idea is to learn to live our life in more harmony with the way nature works. The only way you get that is by experiencing it mindfully."
He points to a growing body of scientific literature about the positive effects of ecotherapy. And although a tad sceptical about its popularity — "It's critical to the future of humans on earth, if we don't learn to live in harmony, we're cooked, literally," he chuckles — Scull concedes that ecotherapy is part of a larger movement which is marching forward.
Martin Jones agrees.
The UK-based counselling psychologist says he believes the practice is becoming more and more widespread.
"I think given the increasing complexity of urban living, species extinction, extreme weather, etc. people are seeing both the value of nature and getting distressed about its destruction," Jones wrote in an email. "Alongside this I think there is lots of anecdotal and scientific evidence to articulate the healing and psychological benefits of nature and people want to explore this more.
"At times of personal crisis and struggle I have used nature as a co-therapist. Spending time in nature has helped to centre and ground me, giving me the space and support to deal with my issues. I believe that deep within us there is a stored memory of our ancestors' intimacy with nature."
While ecotherapy itself is based on specific nature-based exercises to promote well-being, there is a growing body of evidence extolling the benefits of simply relishing time in nature. This cry of the wild comes from scholars and locals alike. Whistler resident Michel Beaudry writes wise words on the value of nature and the growing need for resort towns such as Whistler to avoid getting ensnared in attempts to create the "Disney" experience for visitors. Instead, he says, let nature do the entertaining.
"Getting outside in the winter isn't just about skiing or snowboarding. It's about getting a little mountain air in your lungs. A lick of sun on your face. A bit of exercise in your legs. You see, urban lifestyles — being what they are — offer the city denizen little in the form of outdoors activities from November 'till April. And that leads directly to depression and anxiety. Just think about it. This could lead to a whole new promotion: 'Forget Prozac, my friends. Try Whistler Mountain instead ... The planet's natural anti-depressant.'"
Back in the rain-laden forest in the Sea to Sky corridor, we traipse back to the pavilion; a small squat wooden building perched under the canopy of trees and our gathering point at the retreat centre. Once inside its round and warm interior, we sit on cushions in a circle, still nurturing a closeness to nature due to its expansive windows and we converse about the outing. Laughs are uttered as light-hearted moments are recalled, smiles and nods of understanding and agreement pass between us. I take off my journalist hat and allow myself to feel a part of the group's synergy, as soft meditative music plays in the background. A few more compelling poems are read and then there is quiet time to write in our journals on our revelations from the day. The room feels pregnant with possibilities as we intently focus on our writing.
"Muriel Rukeyser tells us that the universe is not made up of atoms, but of stories," explains Juric later on. "What she means is that we literally speak ourselves into the world by the stories we tell about ourselves. People often spend years in the self-created cages of stories that have long ago become too small for them. Asking participants to write about their experience of a poem or walk is an invitation to step out of this cage. It is an invitation to see and retell their story in a different, more expansive, more up-to-date way. In so doing, people get to reshape their sense of who they are in the world. New possibilities for the future emerge."
Speaking of the future, seeing as we evidently survived the end of the world predicted by the Mayans on December 21, what lies ahead for our society of self-created eco-zombies?
American author and journalist Richard Louv makes a convincing case that through a nature-balanced existence — driven by sound economic, social, and environmental solutions — the human race can and will thrive.
"The future will belong to the nature-smart — those individuals, families, businesses and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need," he says.
Our society, Louv states, has developed such an over-sized faith in technology that we have yet to fully realize or even adequately study how human capacities are enhanced through the power of nature. Tapping into the restorative powers of the natural world can boost mental acuity and creativity; promote health and wellness; build smarter and more sustainable communities, and economies; and ultimately strengthen human bonds. As he says in his book, The Nature Principle, it is "about the power of living in nature — not with it, but in it.
"We are entering the most creative period in history," he states. "The twenty-first century will be the century of human restoration in the natural world."
For more on Adrian Juric's retreats, go to innerlandscapes.org and a plethora of websites on ecotherapy exist. A few notables ones are: ecopsych.com/ecopsychologyjournal.html, ecotherapy.org.uk, and ecotherapyheals.com.
FinisterreBy David Whyte The road in the end taking the path the sun had taken,
into the western sea, and the moon rising behind you
as you stood where ground turned to ocean: no way
to your future now but the way your shadow could take,
walking before you across water, going where shadows go,
no way to make sense of a world that wouldn't let you pass
except to call an end to the way you had come,
to take out each frayed letter you brought
and light their illumined corners, and to read
them as they drifted through the western light;
to empty your bags; to sort this and to leave that;
to promise what you needed to promise all along,
and to abandon the shoes that had brought you here
right at the water's edge, not because you had given up
but because now, you would find a different way to tread,
and because, through it all, part of you could still walk on,
no matter how, over the waves.
Excerpt from Nothing Gold Can StayBy Robert Frost Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.