It often seems not to occur to the contemporary citizen that the ecological crisis that we now face is, in fact, the symptom of the success of a one sidedness of our vision of the world. Armed as we are with the illusion that our rationality represents, most of all, the path to a better existence, that we are becoming a more just, peaceful, and reasonable people, we miss the fact that incrementally the discrete benefits that we have attained at one level of experience are paid for at another. The late Biologist Brian Goodwin, in a little book called, Nature’s Due, observed the following.
“The process of continuous growth that our politicians and economists offer as a path to happiness and fulfillment is in fact a policy of conflict resolution that continually transfers our debt to nature, whose bounty we are living from and systematically destroying.”(Goodwin, 2007, p.161)
Central to Goodwin’s observation is a level of unconsciousness on the part of humanity of any means through which the fate of individual could actually be felt as intimately tied to that of nature. The core reason for this is that with the arising of scientific thought and its power, all other modes of existing in the world, and relating to it were not simply eclipsed, but actually negated. Problematic, for this perspective, was the lack of any understanding that that the former forms of awareness that seemed suddenly illegitimate were not addressing the same problems of existence as the one that supposedly supplanted them. The mythological mind, as well as the magical and the archaic, served very different functions, and addressed very different aspects of experience. Most problematic of all, the exclusively outward gaze of the rational mind cast into shadow the inner world of humanity, an inner world whose nature was the very thing driving our actions in the physical world. Sayyed Hossein Nasr states this point beautifully.
“For a humanity turned towards outwardness, by the very process of modernization, it is not easy to see that the blight wrought upon the environment is in reality an externalization of the destitution of the inner state of the soul of that humanity whose actions are responsible for the ecological crisis.”(Nasr, 1997, p. 3)
Ralph Waldo Emerson also expressed a very similar view.
“The problem of restoring to the world original and eternal beauty is solved by the redemption of the soul. The ruin, or the blank, that we see when we look at nature is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opaque. The reason why the world lacks unity and lies broken and in heaps is because man is disunited with himself.”(Emerson, “Nature”1941, p.114)
All around us today there is a cry to wake up to the climatological crisis. At issue is the fact that we must act differently from now on. While not wishing, in any way, to speak against such a move, my experiences as an analyst tells me that this will likely not be enough. Our attitudes towards the interior universe, with which we all participate, will, in the long run, likely matter far more than our outward gestures. This is so because in spite of what our society has taught us, the universe of magical consciousness, and of mythic consciousness, forms that still exist within us, served us well. They tethered us meaningfully to the nature around us and rendered visible and relatable the universe within us. Theirs was not a project of domination of nature, but of participation and relatedness with it. It is not a more rational world that we need. It is a more connected one. The problems of our time will likely not be solved by the amassing of information about the material order, but rather through a coming to terms with the one aspect of nature that we understand hardly at all, our own inner nature.
To the modern, the old forms of awareness, those forms which tied human consciousness intimately to the cosmos, represent merely quaint, ill conceived, and unsuccessful, means to manipulate the world. This perspective merely illustrates how trapped within a given perspective we actually are. Rene Guenon wrote;
“Modern civilization appears in history as a veritable anomaly: of all known civilizations, it is the only one to have developed in a purely material direction, and the only one not based on any principle of a higher order. This material development, already underway for several centuries now, and continuing at an ever accelerating pace, has been accompanied by an intellectual regression for which it is unable to compensate.”(Guenon, “Symbols of Sacred Science”.2004, p. 2 )
The irony of all of this is that, drunk on the power to manipulate nature, humanity has, by virtue of dissociation from nature, nearly succeeded in destroying itself. Psychology, for its part, has participated in this process as theologian Jurgen Moltmann pointed out.
“Any therapy is directed towards health. But health is a norm which changes with history and is conditioned by society. If in todays society health means ‘the capability to work and the capability for enjoyment’, as Freud could put it, and this concept of heath even dominates psychotherapy, the Christian interpretation of the human situation must nevertheless also question the compulsive idolatry which the concepts of production and consumption introduce into this definition, and develop another form of humanity. Suffering in a superficial, activist, apathetic and therefor dehumanized society can be a sign of spiritual health.“(Moltmann, “The Crucified God”, 1974, pp. 314-315.)
The irony of much of this is simply that the means to establish our connections back to nature were never really lost. Those forms of awareness, which evolved as meeting places between man and nature, and of which we are the inheritors, never left us. Additionally, the purported superiority of rational thought was itself a myth. To be sure rational thought is indeed, in it’s own way, quite superior. In the realm of manipulating matter for humanities presumed advantage, it is unsurpassed. But the problem lies in its tendency to assume a role of power over all meaning, a role that is logically impossible. Like many other things ascendant, it has became a basis for a societal belief system and has sought to extend its purview infinitely, something it could only achieved through the denial of the existence of anything it could not account for. And like all things that seek dominance and define the world according to a given view, a shift occurs so that they go from being a means to extend humanities relationship with nature, to something that begins to obscure. That is what Emerson told us above.
Poet William Stafford, drawing in part from his Native American roots, offers the following simple poem.
These are some canyons
we might use again
What Stafford points to may be literally come to pass. Humanity, if it survives at all, may find itself once again returning to the shelters that nature once provided for us. But I have in mind another reading of Stafford. That such canyons have always been within us,in the inner landscape of the soul. There to offer shelter from everything we have wanted to see as progress but only served to draw us away from ourseleves.
Mark Dean, MFA, MA, ATR-BC, LPC is a Certified Jungian Analyst and an art psychotherapist with credentials as a Registered, Board Certified Art Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor (PA) with nearly twenty years’ experience. He has been an Adjunct Professor at Arcadia University since 1990. Previous work experience includes providing addiction treatment at the Charter Fairmount Institute, Clinical Case Management for the Adult Day Program, and serving as the Clinical Coordination of the Geriatric Outpatient Programs at Belmont Center for Comprehensive Treatment as well as his private practice. His volunteer work includes providing clinical intervention with violent and displaced youths in the Violence Postvention Program and at The Northern Home for Children in Philadelphia. Mr. Dean has been the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Award for Artistic Excellence and has twice received the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts Award. Prior to his graduate training as an art psychotherapist, Mr. Dean was a professional artist. His work is featured in several prominent private and public, national, and international collections. Mark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.