Last summer, after reading my book, Ieva Bachtiarova decided to come on one of my open ecotherapy workshops. A couple of months later she contacted me requesting an interview for Ozonas a Lithuanian environmental magazine. I said I was happy to do the interview. I liked the opportunity to spread the word about ecotherapy to people concerned about environmental issues in a country that is rich in wild nature.
The purpose of the interview was to introduce Ozonas readers to ecotherapy and its benefits, and also provide a few tips or insights on how they could potentially use ecotherapy in their lives.
I am providing a link to the magazine piece – the text is in Lithuanian. It will open on the Issuu site, click on Ozonas 53 and go to page 16: https://issuu.com/ozonas/docs/ozonas53
Below is the English version of the interview.
Ieva: Could you please explain what ecotherapy is and what the roots of it are.
Andy: I define ecotherapy as having a deeper connection to nature and feeling better for it. Ecotherapy has many roots in psychology, psychotherapy, nature awareness, and conservation. The term hasn’t settled down yet, other people may have their own definition.
Ieva: Is ecotherapy especially relevant to this modern age and why?
Andy: I believe, and the evidence points to this, that being in nature has always had a positive effect on us humans. For 99% of our existence we lived as hunter gatherers intimately in wild nature. Our ancestors knew what was a good place to live and prosper in. The innate knowledge and affinity is still within us it just hasn’t been developed by urban dwellers. And so when city people are under stress they haven’t learnt how to use time in nature to recover their well-being. Our industrial cultures are also the most stressed of all and so yes ecotherapy is particularly relevant for all of us in this modern age.
Ieva: How did you become interested in ecotherapy?
Andy: I’m not sure I know the full answer to that question! I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a strong connection to the natural world. Memories of my childhood are filled with periods of total fascination with the lives of other living things from ants to sea anemones and garden birds. I grew up thinking I was odd, and in my teens I kept that side of me hidden from most people. About 25 years ago I was involved in some training with Joanna Macy, one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. Check her out if you haven’t heard of her. I realised I wasn’t alone and that there were other people like me. I kind of came out and it felt liberating, a bit as gay people describe coming out. I owned the gift I had if you like. I then felt confident to share it with others. In the beginning when I developed my own ecotherapy work I made most of it up; adapting activities from various experiences. Central to my work is mindfulness and I have been a regular meditator for most of my life. I have felt it important to use my work with those who have experienced mental and emotional distress. There’s is the greatest need but ecotherapy is beneficial to everyone of us.
Ieva: What are the key elements that affect our wellbeing in modern age?
Andy: That is a big question and would require a whole book to properly explain! I think the biggest factors affecting mental health and well-being are sociological. I think it is sad to see many people in the world wanting to become part of global capitalism. In order to do that they have to let go of their rich culture and see their communities destroyed. Almost inevitably they move to the city and lose contact with nature. The greatest mental health issues are found in those societies with the greatest inequalities, the US and UK come top of the list. Maybe ecotherapy began in these societies because they are the most disfunctional and stressed, and the need to find solutions was more pressing. We also need to take care of our diet and physical fitness, learn about ourselves from constructive introspection and become more mindful.
Ieva: Each year 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem and in Lithuania the number is growing every year as well. However mental illness is still a taboo subject. Can ecotherapy be a good tool to open up the conversation about it?
Andy: Yes I think it can. We need to take mental well-being out of the hands of the medical profession. There is a continuum from very aware, self actualised, and loving to psychosis. We are all somewhere along that line and we will move up and down it in life. One effect of separating out those of us who have been diagnosed with mental illness is to blind those of us who haven’t a diagnosis to our own well-being issues. Our culture still sees things like mindfulness as indulgent rather than a way of improving resilience. Very few people live a stress free life in Britain today and yet it is still a taboo subject for many people. Because ecotherapy is for everyone I believe it could be a way for all of us to acknowledge that mental health is relevant to all of us.
Ieva: How can ecotherapy benefit people in everyday life?
Andy: I review the evidence in my book for our positive connection to nature and its specific relevance to well-being for people who are suffering from stress, anxiety and depression. For example research shows that a view of nature from a window makes a difference to students’ study, prisoners behaviour and recovery rates from physical illness as well. Going for regular walks in nature is good, and there is even evidence that driving a car along tree lined streets is less stressful. Town planners please note!
Ieva: What has been the feedback from people who attended ecotherapy sessions or workshops?
Andy: Obviously people who come to ecotherapy are self selected and their responses are a biased sample. But in my experience the response has been universally positive. I’ve not had anyone say ‘that was a waste of time’, even from people going through a psychotic breakdown. What is even more heartening after running a workshop is to hear of transformative changes that people have gone through. There is a strong transpersonal thread running through my work, some would use the word spiritual to describe it. And so it is not surprising that I’ve heard people tell me things like: ‘I now know what to do with my life’ or ‘ I have made a major decision about what is important for me right now’ and ‘I haven’t felt like this since I was a child, I feel so deeply connected to nature’. I can tell from looking at peoples’ faces at the end of the day that they are in a calm and centred place.
Ieva: It seems that ecotherapy is different from other types of therapy because it goes outwards and beyond individualism, beyond only thinking about solving your own personal problems. Do you think it also has the power to make people care more about nature, possibly even make them environmentalists?
Andy: Well yes, the evidence suggests that if children are encouraged to connect to nature they grow up to be more concerned about what is happening to our world. I think part of our problem with trying to live a good life is ‘individualism’. It is central to capitalist thinking along with consumerism, competition and the emphasis on self. Obeying the law will make most people recycle waste but we need a change of heart to really take care of our environment. You have to love something before you are motivated to protect it. Ecotherapy works at an emotional level and so goes beyond just thinking about the environment as if it were separate from us.
Maybe we also need to be compassionate to others who don’t understand how important conservation and environmental sustainability is. One way to begin that process is to acknowledge the part of us all that is angry with the world, is careless about our health and sometimes couldn’t give a damn about saving the planet.
Ieva: Another interesting fact about ecotherapy is that you tend to do it in a group. As well as helping connect to nature, does it help increase our ability to connect with other human beings?
Andy: We are social beings just as baboons and chimpanzees are and so I believe that acknowledging our participation in a group is a stepping stone to recognising that we are a part of wider ecosystems for our livelihood and well-being. In my work I encourage people to see nature in other participants, to affirm our common humanity. Just to gaze into a stranger’s eyes can move someone to tears of appreciation. So I think there is a dynamic between connecting to nature and connecting to people, the distinction is artificial.
I’m not someone who believes the planet would be better off without humans. If we fail to adapt to the laws of nature we will just die out and be another fossil record. Joanna Macy talks about the Great Turning. Can we make it, can we turn things around in the industrial societies? I agree with Naomi Kline that we need to change the politics away from neoliberalism, and people need to see how global warming will destroy us if we don’t. I think that the big environmental challenges we will go through will bring people together and create a culture that is more in harmony with nature’s ways.
Ieva: Finally, a more philosophical question which I loved from your new book ‘With Nature in Mind’: is ecotherapy an escape or a return?
Andy: Do you mean finally? I can see you are about to give me another question! 🙂
Going into nature can be an escape from a busy life. As a young man if I had had a hard week teaching psychology I would have to go out to the forest at the weekend. I was like a dog needing to go for a walk. Nature made no demands, it was tranquil and colourful and I sometimes got distracted by seeing something unusual. But I eventually realised that my time in nature was more than an escape from and more like a return to nature. The wild part of me felt at home in nature and that is how I see ecotherapy working. It takes us back to something fundamental to our existence, it enables us to feel how we are part of something bigger and older and wiser than our single minds. If you open yourself up you can be at home and at rest in nature.
Ieva: Would you be able to give us a selection of simple activities our readers can use to try and start connecting with nature and feel better for it?
Andy: I offer over 100 ecotherapy activities in my new book, with clear instructions on how to do them. But if you can’t get hold of my book or don’t read English I can maybe give you a few guidelines on how to start. Research shows that after only 4 minutes walking in woodland a person’s physiology changes and becomes less stressed. So just being in nature is good for you without doing anything special. However you can increase the experience by slowing down, opening your senses (all of them) and by becoming more mindful. Put all thoughts to one side and give yourself permission to indulge in the pleasures of the natural world. Stop and spend 10 minutes really looking at a flowering plant: its colours, form, details, its smell and taste. Consider how it relates to its surroundings, how it lives and what challenges it might have to survive. Go to a park and spend time watching an individual bird or animal, just sit still and become one with the creature. Imagine how they sense the world. Take a group out to the countryside and agree to walk in silence, no talking, for 10 minutes. Go slowly and share how you feel afterwards. Then walk across a field with your shoes and socks off, how does that feel? Can you do it without looking down, using your feet to tell you about the ground. Connecting to nature has infinite possibilities and is a challenge to your creative mind to experiment. If it feels good do it.