Reclaiming naturebased practice for the modern world – From green care to soulcentric rites of passage

Roger Duncan, Systemic family therapist

Published in JHH16.1 – Nature connections

I work in the NHS and in private practice with individuals, families and organisations. I was one of the pioneer tutors of Ruskin Mill Education Trust and had a leadership role in its senior management. I have been involved in the development of outdoor, therapeutic education programmes for adolescents in both woodland and wilderness settings. My intention is to find ways to bring experiential encounters with the imaginal into mainstream education and therapeutic practice.

In Michael Pollan’s new book How to change your mind; the new science of Psychedelics (2018) Pollan tracks the history of psychedelics and their use in three stages. The first wave he identifies as the indigenous cultural use of psychedelic plant medicines such as peyote cactus in shamanic rituals and initiatory rites of passage. His second wave begins when in the 1950s, LSD and other psychedelics were synthesised and used in clinically effective treatments, by some psychiatrists. Once discovered by the ‘counter-culture’, their media notoriety grew, culminating with the 1967 ‘summer of love’ and the subsequent ban in the United States and else[1]where that halted psychedelics research internationally. Pollan’s third wave is the current resurgence in research and the application of psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin and MDMA, in effective treatment programmes for resistant forms of PTSD, substance addictions and depression. Pollan describes the potential of these plant medicines to facilitate rites of passage out of our current ego-driven, environmentally destructive, cultural trajectory. He concludes, after his own psychedelic experiences and close study of the research, that these substances can act as powerful agents for bringing about necessary social and cultural change in what Jaded Diamond (2012) calls western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic (WEIRD) cultures .

Reconnecting with our own indigenous nature-based rites of passage

Rites of passage of various forms have been used by indigenous cultures for millennia to expand and alter perception, and they appeared to ground indigenous culture within the deep ecology of the land. In many of these cultures these traditional nature-based practices have been lost, actively suppressed by the church as ‘witchcraft’, or latterly dismissed as superstition by WEIRD scientific modernists. Britain, like almost every European country, no longer has an intact lineage to the indigenous wisdom whose rites of passage were Rites of passage of various kinds have been used by indigenous cultures for millennia to expand and alter perception and ground indigenous culture within the deep ecology of the land. This article is a call for action in our time of profound social and ecological disturbance, for practitioners to create nature-based interventions appropriate to mainstream educational and therapeutic settings. It is an invitation for nature-based practitioners to come together and work towards a common language linking the ideas of deep ecology and systemic psychotherapy. EDUCATION 12 © Journal of holistic healthcare ● Volume 16 Issue 1 Spring 2019 once an essential part of adolescents’ psychosocial integration.

WEIRD culture’s relationship with indigenous non[1]drug induced rites of passage mirrors Michael Pollen’s interpretation of the psychedelic drug experience. During the first wave, intact rites of passage that flourished within European, Native American and African indigenous cultures gave access to a deep eco-systemic awareness of nature, that provided cultural integrity.

The second wave was the renewed interest in the rites of passage work within WEIRD culture during the 1970s initiated by, among others, Louis Mahdi and founders of The School of Lost Borders Steven Foster and Meredith Little (Mahdi et al, 1987). A third wave of interest is now growing, in parallel with declining adolescent mental health, in the field of ecotherapy and research into the therapeutic benefits of time spent in nature. This wave is concerned with creating contemporary nature-based rites of passage as a source of social and psycho-spiritual inspiration: a process that Bill Plotkin calls ‘soulcentric initiation’ (Plotkin, 2008).

Two ways of seeing the world

A common theme running through old myths and fairytales is the idea that there is a different and mysterious magical fairy world into which the bold who venture seldom return. These worlds are usually depicted as running parallel to the world of men and women, but the passage between the worlds is guarded by a gatekeeper or secret initiation. In one such English story, an old woman is able to see into the fairy world after inadvertently rubbing a magic ointment in one eye; she is able to see into the world of mortals with one eye and into the fairy world through the other.

Just as in the magic ointment story, systemic family therapy makes a distinction between first order linear thinking and second order systemic thinking. This implies two different, but connected, ways of encountering the world. We are all familiar with the kind of linear cause and effect style of thinking that underpins the Newtonian world of mechanical causality, the WEIRD worldview and western education. This way of thinking has enabled technologies that can land astronauts on the moon and identify, order and categorise the plants and animals that make up the complex natural world. Nevertheless, it seems something subtle and important gets left out if we approach the world only through linear thinking. According to depth psychologists such as Carl Jung and James Hillman, first order thinking or directed thinking is the root of the western world’s alienation from both the natural world, and from the deeper and instinctual presence of our own soul.

Systemic thinking and systemic psychotherapy grew out of a growing recognition of the limitations of linear thinking in biology and the medical model of psychiatry. Systemic thinking has helped describe a more complex picture of nature and mental health. It has encouraged curiosity about different ways of knowing and, together with reflective practice, it can open up a creative liminal space of uncertainly and not knowing. Systemic thinking is especially valuable in psychotherapy when a complex problem gets stuck or trapped by unhelpful and self[1]limiting worldviews. It can also be helpful to distinguish two kinds of nature-based work: a more first order type of practice, ‘green care’, can bring about a direct calming and containing experience of nature; another, which we might describe as ‘nature-based rites of passage work’ is more a second order type of work with potential to bring about a more systemic change.

Green care

There is now clear evidence for the beneficial effects of exposure to nature and green environments, and the resulting feeling of wellbeing this can produce. In nature the autonomic nervous system responds by calming down, reducing psychophysiological stress in a number of ways (Bird, 2007). In previous generations access to nature and its benefits were common experiences for children. However, in WEIRD cultures this has become increasingly rare. Too often, both at home and work, we are kept apart from nature, and exposed to high levels of psychological stress with consequent autonomic nervous system over stimulation (Van der Kolk, 2015).

The social and psychological benefits of spending time in nature are now widely recognised, and some recent policy developments aim to make effective use of green care to improve mental health. Highlighting the rapid decline in young people’s psychological wellbeing and deteriorating adolescent mental health in schools, a 2018 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Report (2018, DEFRA) proposed a 25-year government plan for how they might be improved, which included social prescribing of green care interventions such a running, walking and cycling. Communal activities in forest schools, environmental conservation work, commu[1]nity gardening projects, and care farming provide effective opportunities for people to work together in a meaningful ways (Natural England, 2016).

Recently, there has been criticism of a mindset within ecopsychology practice that treats the natural world as though it were just a commodity to be objectified and exploited for the sole benefit of human healthcare. For despite the benefits of green care activities for individual and social wellbeing, first order green care fails to challenge fundamental western beliefs that drive environmental degradation, and western industrial lifestyles whose potentially catastrophic impact on natural ecosystems was the focus of dire warnings in the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. For many ecopsychologists, these unchallenged narratives – inherent in WEIRD culture – are at the root of both environmental degradation and the present decline in mental health and wellbeing (Glendenning, 1994). Jones and Seagal (2018) note the consequences of Reclaiming nature-based practice for the modern world EDUCATION © Journal of holistic healthcare ● Volume 16 Issue 1 Spring 2019 13 suppressing ancient indigenous ways of experiencing the other-than human world. The oncoming eco-cidal crisis is the dark, hidden legacy of having lost the precious felt-sense of nature as alive and intelligent. Viewed from a first order perspective, changing this deeply embedded objectifying worldview of nature will be difficult indeed. But perhaps a second order, systemic perspective can help us recognise the complex entangled dynamics that play out between mental health and the natural ecosystems on which all life and wellbeing ultimately depend.

Soulcentric rites of passage

In many traditional non-WEIRD cultures, where rites of passage were crucial for achieving maturity, uninitiated adults would have been seen as under-developed humans, potentially destructive to themselves and everything around them, including nature. In these cultures, because children and adolescents would already have experienced prolonged and direct contact with nature, rites of passage could bring about second order systemic changes of the kind that Bill Plotkin calls soul initiation. These experiences supported adolescents in leaving behind their feelings of uncertain identity, and moving towards cultural well[1]springs of young adult inspiration (see Figure 1).

What are we to make of these practices in our time? From a mental health perspective we could see them as ecopsychological interventions; perhaps even as screening tools for determining what kind of support each adoles[1]cent might need for transitioning into adulthood. Through the lens of systemic thinking, a rite of passage becomes a facilitated phase change process, bringing about a funda[1]mental shift in a person’s sense of self and world. To a neuroscientist, a change in the ‘default mode mechanism’ of our neocortex (a mechanism Pollan identified in his study of mind-changing drug experiences) might explain how rites of passage disrupt old assumptions and enable new ways of thinking and doing.

Perhaps most importantly, rites of passage can reveal a richer and more relationally complex inter-weaving of nature and human psychology, through a process of deep and long-lasting systemic phase change: a change of heart rather than just a change of mind.

Catching the third wave and reclaiming our nature connection

Having spent more than 30 years working with adolescents and nature-based therapeutic education, I have distilled my experience into my book Nature in Mind, Systemic Thinking and Imagination in Ecopsychology and Mental Health (2018). I intended this unique practical and philosophical handbook to be useful for general readers as well as health and social care workers. The essential message of my book, can be summarised as five different stages for reclaiming the indigenous nature connection that WEIRD cultures have lost.

  1. The recognition of our current alienation from nature within the context of our indigenous ancestors’ separation from the land and traditional nature-based practice. My book describes how this legacy may have resulted in cross-generational trauma and disrupted patterns of attachment within WEIRD culture. It explores how this loss of connection influences our modern thinking about nature, which is now so radically different from the perspective of indigenous people. This has left WEIRD culture trapped in a worldview that believes nature and the human mind to be separate, and implicit belief that continues to perpetuate environmen[1]tal and socially destructive behaviour with no apparent way to change it.
  2. Once we recognise this implicit separation within WEIRD culture is something Gregory Bateson called an ‘epistemological error’ (Bateson, 1979), we can begin to create a more systemic, ‘imaginal’, intersubjective relationship with nature.
  3. Some imaginal and systemic nature-based developmental languages are described in my book. The circle of courage, the four shields, and Bill Plotkin’s soulcentric developmental wheel are examples of human development wheels whose origins in non-WEIRD indigenous cultures provide a completely different narrative of human development. These maps can help us rethink our understanding of both nature and the human psyche in ways that go beyond the current limitations of our reductionist and post-colonial paradigms.
  4. Bill Plotkin’s soulcentric/ecocentric eight-stage wheel, which describes imaginal or systemic rather than chronological stages of human development, can be used to devise nature-based programmes for addressing different stages of developmental need. For example: first order programmes to promote a sense of belonging and connection; and second order programmes, such as soulcentric rites of passage, during the later stages of adolescence or early adulthood.
  5. If nature-based practitioners are to respond effectively to the 2017 Government Green Paper and 2018 DEFRA report it will be essential for us to come together as a network for sharing good practice. It is also important that we recognise the support of indigenous teachers, who are bringing their deep understanding of this work back to the WEIRD cultures whose own traditional lineage has been broken or lost. It is also vital that we begin to build a strong research evidence base to show where and how this work can be most effective.

This article is a call to action for practitioners to come together and create developmentally appropriate nature-based interventions for mainstream educational and therapeutic settings. It is an invitation to work towards a common language that can link the ideas of deep ecology with systemic psychotherapy and so give shape to nature-based practices for addressing the profound social and ecological issues of our time.


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