Nature as co-therapist

Following on from my last blog post – What do we mean by “Nature”? – I wanted to explore the relatedness of nature and my therapeutic approach.

I describe my counselling approach as “nature-inspired”. I draw inspiration from the cycles and systems and ways of being that I observe in nature, and integrate this with counselling and psychological theory. What can be seen and experienced in nature enables me to comprehend sometimes complex processes and experiences, and convey them, without always needing to explain them further. I am of nature, and nature is within me. As an integrative counsellor, I craft and facilitate a therapeutic space, and so nature is inherently a co-therapist.

What I experience of nature fits well with both the “here and now” acceptance and empathy of a person-centred approach. It also sits within the duality and paradox, the recognition of our interrelatedness with other beings and the physical world around us, and with the idea of life and death / existence and non-existence that existential therapy recognises. Thread in bio-centric (multi-species) perspectives from Ecopsychology and the growth, risk and boundlessness ideas from Wild Therapy, add focusing techniques from a Gestalt approach and voila!

Complex?!

Yes, it can feel like that at times. The complexities of life are tricky for us to comprehend and hold. We are so often trying to simplify and make situations “safe” and “certain”, which can then throw another aspect of our being off centre and anxiety, stress or tension can arise. Paradoxically, when we can hold space for that uncertainty and complexity, sometimes something clicks and makes sense. Just like the complexities in nature, when we are open to existence as more than a black and white (right or wrong, good or bad) experience, we find ourselves in a vast and rich place with many perspectives and infinite possibilities for experiencing life….. and ….. this freedom from knowing what is “right” or “safe” can bring about its own anxiety and fear, and we find ourselves drawn back to ordering life again.

“Complexity theory describes open systems, systems ‘on the edge of chaos’ as it is sometimes put (e.g. Kaufman, 1995), balancing stability with constant flux, order with unpredictability, as all living organisms do”

Nick Totton, Wild Therapy, 2011

When we approach our existence and experience from a biocentric position of acknowledging that we do not exist in isolation, we not only hold the possibility of our own inner complexity, but of the complexities of the wider systems we are part of. The physical environment and space we exist in – not only how we interrelate with our immediate surroundings, but how our existence interrelates with a global physical environment. And we are part of a social world, too – experiencing life in relation to others; our family, friends, co-workers, local community, culture, media representation, global community of humans and other-than-human animals.

I am facilitating a series of 2 therapeutic small group workshops with Nick Langley of Long Valley Therapy, “Knowing Where We Are”, at the end of June 2021. The workshops will facilitate exploration into these themes through a series of nature-based exercises – booking is now open if you want to find out more.

“Knowing Where We Are” is a series of workshops that offers a nature based exploration into being, connection and purpose.
Knowing Where We Are

Acceptance and empathy in nature

My experience of being in the woods, or at the beach, or wandering the moors, is often that of belonging. This reflects the conditions that, in a person-centred counselling approach, are key for psychological growth: empathy, non-judgement/acceptance, and authenticity.

Though this may be my experience of my relatedness with nature, everyone’s relationship/relatedness with nature is different. When we are outside we may feel held, accepted, able to be and belong as we are. Or we may feel scared, intimidated, lost. We may feel empowered, dominant, protective and so on.

While a counsellor aims to create a space in which the person having counselling feels safe, accepted and can be their authentic self, we don’t always interpret or experience the process in that way when we are having counselling. Just as we can explore those relational experiences with our human therapist to better understand our inner world and wider life experience, we can explore our relational experience with nature as a co-therapist.

Growth / life and death cycles

I recently wrote a blog post on spirals; a symbol that, for me, captures the essence of life and death and the cycles we exist within, and that exist within us. As we develop and grow, we go through hundreds and thousands of cycles of loss and gain. Some of these losses and gains are barely within our awareness – perhaps we gradually drift apart from an old friend, or forget some of the mathematical equations we once knew in school. Some occur in life transitions and can feel momentus in their significance; losing the need to be carried everywhere as we learn to walk, moving house, or being diagnosed with a terminal condition. We lose what we had and knew, and we gain new experience and opportunity to grow. These could all be considered deaths and births of sorts in many shapes and sizes.

Sometimes, we have control and choice in deciding what we let go of and the direction we want to grow in. Maybe we end a relationship that was not fulfilling, or we choose to relocate and change job. And sometimes the control of the situation we are in is external to us, our choice moves elsewhere. Perhaps we are made redundant, or a partner ends a relationship, or someone we care for dies. Wherever the decision making and control lies in these life changing events, in these moments of existential crisis, we can experience grief for what is lost, anxiety about what is to come and growth and freedom in how we find meaning in the possibility. In therapy, we hold space for that anxiety. I walk alongside you (metaphorically and/or physically), supporting you on your journey through decision making, or navigating a change in life that has been taken out of your hands.

In other-than-human nature, perhaps the experience of decision making, of loss, is different. And yet there are similarities in the process. Trees shedding their leaves in autumn, the tree’s loss, the forest floor’s gain. New buds emerge in their place and the leaf litter nourishes the soil. When a tree dies and falls, the dead wood provides a rich habitat and food source for other life. The space left in the tree canopy allows in more light which the younger trees need to grow… and the cycle continues.

What natural imagery symbolises life (and death) for you?

Therapeutically, in counselling sessions, we explore where you are growing and your experience of that. The words we use may not always be linked to other-than-human nature, yet we are working with your growth, your loss, your experience of living your life cycles and being connected with the life cycles of others.

I see counselling as a sort of psychological massage of our experience: thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, beliefs. The “massage” comes from approaching your experience with curiosity and attempting to create a space for that experience to be held and explored so we can understand what is. Sometimes, being seen and accepted as we truly are allows growth and change in itself.

Sometimes, when you see and accept where you are, you still want to change the direction you are headed. In therapy, we can explore your options. Depending on where you are at and where you want to go with this exploration, we may consider experimenting with new ways of being, changing the external and internal conditions you exist in – how do you grow then? Are you growing in the direction you want, in the way you want? Do you/we need to “clear some rubble” in your path for you to get there, or find a way to accept a different route? Again, we are often working with cycles of loss and growth.

Holding on, nearly letting go.
New growth emerging.

and we keep growing…

I hold open the possibility that my counselling approach will change over time. In fact, I can be fairly certain that it will. An evolution both from within me, and in response to others and the conditions and experiences around me on my journey.

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