An excerpt from the Passionate Earth: The Evolution of Our Relationship with the Natural World by John Del Signore
Perspectives Related to the Human Psyche and Consciousness
Indigenous cultures appeared to understand the roots of their existence and were in touch with the fact that human evolution was an integrated process with that of creation. Despite the fact that their understanding of these concepts was limited, they still felt a sense of wonder for their environment, the universe and of their place within it. Given the ecological crisis we are experiencing today, we look back in time and even to prehistoric history to search for the roots of our disconnection from the natural world.
In the study of psychology throughout history, there has been a lot of investigation and speculation regarding the workings and purpose of our psyche, the thinking and motivations that determine our behaviors and how our essence might be linked to the natural world. Early psychology focused on the id, ego, and superego and unconscious to explain the nature of desires, motivations and behavior. The focus was on the human entity perceived as separate from the natural world. It did not include the notion that our essence was integrally tied to our habitat, to the process of evolution, and to the universe at large. Human philosophy, psychology and sociology were largely aimed at understanding the intra-psychic processes of human and interpersonal relationships but did not equate them to the roots of our existence.
Remember our first psychology courses and all the discussion about the underpinnings of our motivations, desires and behaviors that were more or less described as being gratification oriented. The reductionistic philosophies of science promoted the idea that humans were basically selfish and had desires that needed to be controlled and managed for their own good, especially the sexual drives. This psychology encouraged the use of normative values to control the populous. It stated that our instinctual drives are dysfunctional, antisocial and detrimental to healthy functioning and would impact negatively on the positive functioning of others as well. Thus, sin, guilt and shame were concocted to control those instinctual drives and resultant behaviors to keep behavior in check in most societies.
Psychology and theology must now come to terms with the concept of sin and free humanity from its pathological clutches. The idea that madness and original sin exist naturally points to a previous state in which humans were ethical and lived in harmony with Gaia. Since we have evidence that primary cultures did live harmoniously with nature, how is it that modern cultures have become so detached from it?
We have created a psychological framework that represents humanity as innately competitive and primarily invested in its own self-interests. We certainly have practical evidence throughout history that people have acted in this manner, but we cannot say unilaterally that the majority of people on the planet have acted dysfunctional, selfishly, or competitively. If so, then it is doubtful that societies would ever have succeeded in the first place. Totally chaotic human behavior would not have supported the growth and continuance of societies and in fact would have led to the extinction of humanity. No bureaucratic system or police force, no matter how large or powerful could possibly have controlled all negative human behavior successfully. We must ask where this generalization of human behavior came from? Is it a misunderstanding of the psychology of behavior itself or does it have other motivations such as the need for behavior control and management conjured up to promote a fear of how humans might behave if not managed or controlled by others?
From systems theory, we know that evolution is a non-linear process. Nothing remains in any one state for long and never will. That is so with the human species as well. We have developed into creatures of great intellect and consciousness, probably our greatest gift being consciousness and these attributes are responsible for the fact that we have now created a global culture for the first time in history. Our development and sophistication have gone far beyond the survival that the evolutionary process requires. We delve into the highest abstractions of thought, ideas of unlimited creativity, art, music, religion, philosophy, science, technology, information and most recently, our technological age.
These fanciful endeavors however have a potentially dark side as well. We now have a greater probability to become unbalanced as an organism as well. We have choice and free will and we can do whatever we like even if we are aware that our choices may not result in positive outcomes. Our present urban-industrial lifestyles have removed us from the intimate contact with nature we once knew and our desire to be physically comfortable through materialism has changed our disposition to one of an exploitive species. Changing our worldview to one that is harmonious with that of Gaia will have to start at the level of the individual and will likely fail if left up to the needs and goals of our social and political institutions.
Our habitat, the Earth, is the manifestation of the history and evolution of cosmic forces that have shaped our universe and our special place within it. The Earth is our home, our place of origin and it has given us everything we have needed to develop and prosper. Nature has stirred in us a sense of wonder and appreciation. It is beyond anything we could conjure up in our imagination. It represents that which we can worship and adore. Instead of attempting to manage and control it, could we not seek to establish a relationship that is respectful and reverent and allows us to flow and grow within it as we continue our evolutionary journey into the future?
Our physical bodies are the bond by which we are connected between nature and human nature. Instead of resisting our covenant with the natural world, we could embrace our biological roots and employ all of their attributes as we progress towards a human ecology. And in doing so, we would arrive at a human-nature relationship that is harmonious and encourages a sense of interconnectedness and belonging.
The collective unconscious is responsible for the development and maturation of our ecological intelligence. It is the source from which culture is articulated and manifest as a reflection of nature’s ontology. Nature’s self-adjusting and intelligently guided system has been responsible for the development and survival of all life on this planet including its propensity to promote increasing sophistication in its evolutionary processes. Our amazing journey started with the Big Bang, the primal force that created the elements, and the evolutionary processes that would allow our lives to unfold into the natural world. We must fully engage our whole psychology and covenant with the biosphere if we wish to continue this voyage and embrace the reality we are meant to discover and come to understand.
Ken Wilber believes that humanity is evolving through eight evolutionary stages of which we are currently in the fourth. He defines the first stage as archaic-uruboric that occurred tens of thousands of years ago. Humans at that time were primarily instinctual in nature and could be described as animal-like and totally connected and harmonious with the natural world.
The second stage that he calls the magical-typhonic spawned when humanity drew a distinction between itself and wild nature. This stage initiated emotional instability and gave rise to the death anxiety that has increasingly plagued humanity throughout history.
Stage three is called mythic-membership, an important stage brought forth by the advent of agriculture and the development of settlement in cities and the gradual departure from hunting and gathering. The defining event in stage three was the development of articulate language. Language allowed for a sense of time that included the past, present and future, thus expanding what was possible for humans to perceive as their life and what accomplishments could be realized. This was not possible in the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as only the present was a reality. In stage three, humans became increasingly individualized and more aware of their mortality as a fact of life. In order to cope with this fear of mortality, humans employed language to procure the future (a sense of ongoing time) such that they could project themselves into it and prolong their perceived future psychologically, feeling this would ensure their survival as a species.
Stage three also birthed the cult of the Great Mother, the benevolent and also devouring Mother who represented fertility. It was perceived that she had to be appeased by blood sacrifice to gain favorable treatment. Blood was viewed in relation to birth and death and the female menstrual flow ceasing at conception was thought to be the source or matter from which babies were created. Thus, the practice of sacrificing humans and spreading their blood on their farmlands was believed to appease the Great Mother, ensuring the blessing of fertile soil and a fruitful harvest.
The Great Mother to some degree was also viewed to be synonymous with the forces of nature as well as a powerful mother figure. Detachment from her in the maturation process was also understood as a natural process but also fostered a sense of guilt. As separateness increased with maturation, it also enhanced individuation and the death anxiety became much more pronounced as well. The disposition of growing separateness from the world resulted in a psychology of vulnerability that in turn fostered a fear of eradication. Early civilizations sacrificed their leaders to appease the Great Mother just as they sacrificed the commoners but eventually, this practice was resisted and terminated by the leading classes. They reasoned that their important leadership role was a consequence of their favored position by the Great Mother and thus their sacrifice was unnecessary. This change in consciousness (Wilber refers to it as solar consciousness) marks the transition from stage three to stage four: the unfolding into the mental-egoic consciousness (his terminology for the fourth stage) viewed as our current modern paradigm.
Wilber concludes that the death anxiety of the Western World is far more pronounced than that of Eastern cultures and that the mental-egoic consciousness is oriented towards differentiation between ego-consciousness and the body and also dissociation from the body. Thus, the human body becomes a reminder of dependence, mortality and death. To cope with this unresolvable dilemma, humans dominate and hold on to the body as well as that of Mother Earth attempting to gain a grip on immortality even though this is ultimately impossible to achieve.
The result of this mental-egoic consciousness was an assertion of independence that included a transcendence of the Great Mother at one level that was healthy but also a repression of her that was highly dysfunctional. Thus, humanity set out to conquer the universe and exploit nature to obtain fulfillment and a sense of solidarity but instead destroyed the previous inherent disposition of interconnectedness and harmony.
“For Wilber, then, human consciousness is a dimension in the process through which the Divine regains the self-consciousness that It lost, when billions of years ago, it underwent the process of “involution,” the emptying of Itself into matter-energy.” (Michael E. Zimmerman, Deep Ecology, Ecoactivism, and Human Evolution). Wilber also asserts that humanity is capable of evolving to the last stages of consciousness and at that time, separation will be transcended and a state of unity will be achieved.
The Self-In-Relation Model
In opposition to the formerly held position of man as a dominator and controller is the alternative theory of the “self-in-relation” model proposed by psychologists at the Stone Center at Wellesley College. The model suggests that as we mature, we progress toward greater complexity in relationships as opposed to defining healthy relationships with increased autonomy. It thus points to interconnection as a primary developmental strategy.
An important factor that determines the success of interconnection includes connections that are empowering and foster growth and creativity. Relationships founded on competition and hierarchy, erode vitality and reduce power to everyone, even to those who appear to be succeeding in the struggle to become fully independent. Given that complete autonomy is impossible to attain, hyper-individuality results in a relationship that denies and frequently destroys the larger context, be this a friendship, a work partner, a family or an ecosystem. The destruction of these systems ultimately affects everyone, even the instigator of the collapse.
This process is becoming increasingly evident today in that humans are obsessed with trying to conquer the planet. Physical evidence of this is notable in the increase in illnesses, such as cancer, immune system and mental health disorders to name a few. The breakdown of ecosystems is the obvious cause. This, in turn, results in more human suffering, increased need for medical and long-term care, the added expense of funding health care facilities, insurance payments and other related expenditures. From a psychological perspective, many serious mental illnesses, especially depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorders and substance abuse are on the rise as a consequence of our dysfunctional lifestyles and the inability of our environment to sustain us given the damage we have inflicted upon it.
The “self in relation model” is primarily focused on human relationships but could be expanded to include an eco-psychological perspective that would include the Earth’s ecosystems as a human-nature relationship of supportive interconnections.
Wilderness as a Cure for the Ailing Psyche
Psychology is usually practiced in an office setting that is accessed via traveling on roads, through cities and towns and is conducted in a fifty-minute session. The client is defined as having a psychological disorder and will be receiving advice from an expert who has an extensive knowledge of human nature and the necessary skills to create behavior change. Therapy is also defined with a definite beginning and end at which time the client should be considered cured.
In stark contrast to this notion is the fact that the early healers of humanity practiced in the natural environment and many indigenous cultures still operate in this fashion today. Spending time traveling and conversing in natural surroundings with the inclusion of rituals was a powerful dynamic in the healing process. Attending to nature and its mysteries was a primary means of instilling sanity to the troubled mind. Wilderness programs have more recently emerged in modern society to address a variety of problems inherent in profit and non-profit institutions and many positive outcomes have prevailed from these experiential endeavors.
Humans came from wilderness as an evolutionary process and have wildness as an intrinsic part of their nature. The denial of this wildness and the covenant that goes with it are the chief causes of great emotional distress and mental illness throughout the world but more so in Western societies.
The Longing for Wilderness
It is much harder to access wilderness today than it was before humanity sprawled its population over the entire planet. When the world’s population was sparsely distributed, wilderness areas were abundant and within easy reach and people spent more time enjoying the wonders of nature. But today it is quite different; wilderness is decidedly limited and not easily accessed unless one lives in close proximity or has access to it via modern transportation. Much of our population today lives in urban areas far from the solitude of the mountains, water bodies and forests. Most of our time is spent indoors working or seeking pleasurable social pursuits. We leave ourselves little time to engage in the abundant pleasures of the natural world.
Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth Healing the Mind, Sierra Club Books,1995, edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes, Allen D. Kanner. The Rape of the Well-Maidens: Feminist Psychology and the Environmental Crisis by Mary E. Gomes and Allen D. Kanner, pp. 117-121.
Zimmerman, Michael E. “Deep Ecology, Ecoactivism, and Human Evolution,” Publication: ReVision[13 (3): 122–28 Winter, 1991,xxpt.ynjgy.com/resource/data/0703/U/05192/OcwWeb/Urban-Studies-and-Planning/11-601Fall-2005/pdf/zimmerman.pdf. Accessed 24 May 2020.
Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth Healing the Mind, Sierra Club Books,1995, edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes, Allen D. Kanner. The Way of Wilderness by Steven Harper, pp. 183-185.