“Nature” is a central thread to my therapeutic work, and my therapeutic work aims to tend to the health of our psyche, our way of being, our mental world, our emotional experience and how we navigate life. So, approaching Mental Health Awareness Week (10th – 16th May) with this year’s theme being ‘Nature’, rustled my thoughts and got me thinking on what I want to share and bring to the rich eco-system of stories, tips, research, campaigns and experiences already being shared as we approach the week.
To begin this post, I would like to hold space for the idea that “nature” is not a fixed and mutually agreed upon entity. The word also suggests something changeable and can mean different things to us at different times. So let’s think about what we mean by “nature”.
I invite you to ask yourself “what does nature mean to me?”
The image above from artist, Rob Bidder, resonates with my understanding of our relationship with nature. Primarily, that it is a very individual thing. We each perceive nature as something different, and therefore our relatedness with and within the natural world is personal to us. Our past experiences and our values and beliefs influence how we relate to and experience all parts of life, whether that be other people, the living and built environment around us, non-human animals, our hopes and dreams and our thoughts and feelings.
As suggested in the image, we can be in the same physical space and relate to it very differently. Perhaps we are standing in a forest, all looking towards the same tree. You may see a tree to climb, experience excitement and a physical urge to move towards and up into the branches and play. You may feel a sense of belonging, experiencing the presence of the tree as accepting in its co-existence alongside you with your human “trunk” and limbs. You may see sweet chestnuts growing in the tree, an edible resource to be harvested, with wood to manage and cut back to use for fuel. You may want to find a bench to sit on to observe the birds in the tree. You may think of the potential hazards, remembering stories or experiences of traumatic events happening in the woods, and feel anxious and cautious.
In counselling, when we bring nature explicitly into our sessions, it is important to me that I get to understand what nature means to you.
What nature means to me
The word “nature” is generally used in the culture I exist in to mean plants, weather and non-human animals “over there”. It is generally recognised as meaning green spaces and as something that is not us as humans: natural or synthetic/man-made. And yet it is also generally accepted on some level that “nature” is us and we are nature, either seen as a hierarchy or complex web of beings. I have grown up with these associations and language, and so they form part of my understanding and experiencing of nature.
And, now when I think of human relationships within nature, I also see a tendency towards controlling and managing the natural world, defending ourselves as a species and as individuals by attempting to remove some of the uncertainty and unpredictability in life. We build houses to protect us from the elements and from the real and perceived threat from other people and animals. We develop creams and medicines to prolong our life and heal us from physical pain and harm (cause by human and non-human animals, viruses, the sun etc). We create food systems and processes to enable (some) of us to live without worrying about whether there will be enough to eat to sustain us over the year. And so on.
As our individual psychological defensiveness develops as a functional and important response to threat and our safety, this collective defensiveness as a species undoubtedly has a valuable function and impact – longer life expectancy, more choice for some of us in the lifestyles we lead and activities we pursue, less dependence on daylight hours and the seasons so we can do what we want throughout the year. And, as with every individual choice we make, we not only gain something, we lose what we did not choose. I also see a collective loss that has occurred through that defensiveness of humans in nature. A loss of interdependence and reciprocity with other-than-human beings, losses of habitat and freedom for many other animal and plant species. We have created a tension where we attempt to have more, resulting in other humans and other-than-humans having less. We want more food, more land, more choice, more control, more power… resulting in less food, less land, less choice, less control and less power for others. Unsurprisingly, this is having an impact on our internal world, too, on our mental health.
We have intentionally changed our relationship with the rest of nature and disconnected ourselves from many of the reciprocal cycles and systems which are inherent and have valuable functions we also need to be healthy. And yet, I also see that those cycles continuing psychologically and experientially within us and between us regardless (additional blog post in development on this topic!)
To me, nature is both physical in the trees, rocks, human and non-human animals, the sun, water etc … and dynamic in the way these beings (including us as humans) interact and journey through life.