Guest contribution by Jeffrey Noethe, Ph.D., this piece was first printed in the EarthMatters print newsletter, Winter 2010

The idea of an “ecological self” may sound confusing and even contradictory, but to me, it is simple shorthand for the aspect of self that is completely interconnected and interdependent with everything and everyone that surrounds us. We humans often feel small, separate, and powerless; but that is never the ultimate truth of our existence. The truth, if we can learn to see it, is that we are part of everything, never separate, and directly “plugged-in” to all the power of life and the universe. This doesn’t mean we have super powers, but it does mean that we always have access to a wonderful resource for nurturing health and wellness.

As a Psychologist in private practice, my work frequently involves helping people reconnect with their ecological selves, even if I do not always use that language. More often, I simply talk about the value of connecting with self, others, and surroundings. Whenever I do an intake with a new client, in addition to asking about symptoms and presenting concerns, I always ask about self-care, which I see as the foundation of a person’s sense of connectedness. If this foundation is strong, then one may be better able to create and maintain a happy, healthy existence. On the other hand, if this foundation is weak in some way, then no amount of determination, personal reflection, or therapy may ever be enough to create real and lasting change.

When addressing self-care with clients, I ask questions about obvious behaviors such as nutrition, hydration, substance use, sleep, and exercise. However, I also ask questions like, “Do you make time for fun or meaningful activities? Who are your supports, and do you use them? Do you have any creative outlets? Do you place any value on getting out into nature? Do you grow anything? Do you have any pets?” Taken together, these self-care questions help me understand where a client’s foundation is strong and where it may be weak. These questions also provide an opportunity to encourage small changes that might have a significant impact on the progress of therapy. For example, in addition to attending therapy on a weekly basis, a client may agree to work on eating better, exercising, utilizing supports, or getting outside more regularly. These changes not only help the client feel better physically, but they also tend to enhance the client’s sense of self-efficacy and confidence.

It rarely surprises anyone when I suggest that getting out into nature is an important aspect of self-care. In the same way that sleep and exercise are important to our well-being, so too is having a sense of connectedness with the real world around us. After all, we are born of the earth (like all creatures) and live in a constant state of interconnectedness and interdependence, whether we realize it or not. When we are aware of that connectedness, we tend to feel more solid, stable, and secure. We tend to feel more real ourselves, just as we do when we connect more deeply with ourselves and others. With these feelings comes the possibility of symptom relief, especially in the areas of anxiety and depression. Improving a client’s sense of connectedness will not necessarily cure or even reduce symptoms, but I believe that ignoring connectedness will always make such changes more challenging than they need to be. Time and again, I have seen the healing effects of improved self-care, and on several occasions, I have seen symptom relief so profound that professional help was no longer needed.

Clients don’t always understand that connecting with nature does not require moving to the country, hiking through the wilderness, or sleeping in a tent. It can happen at any time and in any place. Our homes may have yards, trees, gardens, houseplants, or pets. The busiest city street has plants, wildlife, terrain, an ecosystem, a watershed, and weather. We only have to learn to slow down, be present, and notice them. Even nurturing our human relationships and communities can enhance our sense of connectedness to nature. Despite modern trends toward individualism and isolation, we are essentially social creatures, and our deepest capacities for empathy, compassion, communication, and love allow us to resonate more deeply with the natural world. This is every bit as true in urban settings as it is in rural settings.

As an aside, I must acknowledge the conflicting roles of technology in fostering both isolation and new forms of social connectedness. The overall impact of technology on connectedness is not yet fully understood, but I personally doubt that electronic interactions will ever provide healthy or effective alternatives to face-to-face contact. The quality of connection is simply not the same, and people end up settling for poor substitutes, no matter how intriguing they may be.

The next time you catch yourself getting wound up in the hustle and bustle of modern life, try the following exercise, which I often assign as homework for clients. It creates an opportunity to slow down and reconnect with yourself and everything around you. It also draws you into the present moment and encourages non-judgmental awareness.

Scan-Scan-Breathe Exercise.

  1. Stop for a moment and notice your surroundings using all of your senses. Ask yourself, “What’s going on around me right now?” Notice the colors, textures, sounds, and odors; and try to do so with calm, non-judgmental curiosity. Try to tune into the deeper world behind what you are seeing. Notice the terrain, the weather, and any evidence of life, no matter how small or subtle. (Don’t forget that noticing life means noticing people, too!) Notice the ecosystem and the watershed, both as they are now and how they might once have been.
  2. Once you’ve scanned the external world, try to notice the world within by paying attention to the messages of your body. Ask yourself, “What’s going inside me right now?” Notice if you are hungry, full, hot, cold, tired, sore, tense, or relaxed. Notice any body sensations, pleasant or unpleasant, and treat them all with that same calm, non-judgmental curiosity. Notice the activity of your thoughts and feelings.
  3. Finally, turn your attention to your breath. Notice what it feels like to breathe. After you’ve watched a few breaths, try to slow and deepen your breathing. As you do so, notice any changes in your mental or physical state.

The secret to getting the most out of this exercise is finding a frequent and effective reminder to practice at seemingly random moments throughout the day. (The hourly chime of a digital watch is ideal.) With a little practice, this exercise can be done quickly and at any moment, even when you are driving, working, or engaged in a conversation. It is a way of “tuning in” to the vivid world of which you are a part.

Eventually, my hope is that you will find the exercise largely unnecessary, because you will start to live in a state of greater connectedness. For me, this is what it means to reconnect with your ecological self.

To contact Jeffrey Noethe, Ph.D., visit his website at www.DrNoethe.com or call him at (503) 730-1594

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