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Nature and Spirit

written by Cordele Glass March 26, 2019

Cordele Glass, M.A. 2018 holds a graduate degree in Positive Developmental Psychology and Evaluation from Claremont Graduate University. He works as an outdoor adventure guide, teambuilding facilitator, and positive psychology coach in Southern California. You can read more on his website, Upward Acts. Full bio. Cordele's articles are here..



Positive psychology can bridge ecopsychology and transpersonal psychology.

Bridging nature

Development within natural ecosystems and a strong sense of identification with something larger and more expansive than the self have gained enough research and attention to lead to the fields of ecopsychology and transpersonal psychology respectively. Each of these fields is currently on the periphery of mainstream psychology, but each focuses on aspects of development that are crucial to well-being and a life of peace, contentment, and connection. This article helps to outline their overlap with each other and their relationship to positive psychology in the hopes of promoting further psychological research, application, and interest in the under-represented realms of nature and spirit. It concludes with several practices that people can use to benefit from the convergence of these three aspects of psychology.

Transpersonal Psychology

Transpersonal psychology is a western scientific attempt to explore the cross-cultural and cross-generational phenomenology of self transcendence, altered states of consciousness, and mystical experiences. It is not a set of beliefs, a dogma, or a religion. It is an attempt to bring a full range of human experience into the discourse of psychology.

Time lapsed photo of stars

Just like other subfields of psychology (cognitive, social, psychotherapy), the sense of separate self is seen as a product of one’s personal history and is characterized by a sense of autonomy and separation from surroundings. The transpersonal approach explores the psychological realm beyond these awareness constraints by researching and describing states in which the self transcends the narrow identifications of the body, one’s roles, and one’s personal history or social groups.

Self-transcendence refers to states of consciousness in which the sense of self is expanded beyond the ordinary boundaries, identifications, and self-images of the individual personality and reflects a fundamental harmonious unity with others and the world. This is a phenomenon that has occurred for thousands of people from every culture on the planet and throughout all recorded history.

Transpersonal psychology is concerned with the study of humanity’s highest conscious potential, a goal perfectly aligned with the field of positive psychology.

Ecopsychology

Ecopsychology operates under the notion that human experience, development, and well-being are inextricably linked with the natural environment. Human development takes place within the processes and systems of our natural ecosystems in a deeply bonded and reciprocal communion. The denial of this bond is a source of suffering both for the physical environment and for the human psyche. The realization of the connection between humans and nature is healing for both.

Girl in nature

Proponents of this field are bringing the contributions of ecological thinking, the values of the natural world, and responses to environmental destruction to psychotherapy and personal growth by fostering lifestyles that are both ecologically and psychologically healthy. Recognizing the systems in which humans are embedded is currently the cutting edge of theoretical approaches in positive and developmental psychology, but typically the emphasis is on social, cultural, or economic systems rather than ecological or natural systems.

Nature, Transcendence, and Flow

Ecopsychology is based on the recognition of a fundamental nonduality between humans and nature, and on the insight that the failure to experience and act from this nonduality creates suffering for both humans and the environment.

Nonduality is equally at the foundation of transpersonal psychology in the sense that the duality between self and world can be transcended through altered states of consciousness. Transpersonal psychologists and ecopsychologists (and even Buddhist psychologists and many other Eastern philosophies) argue that our ordinary experience of ourselves as separate autonomous beings is incomplete and inaccurate.

Admittedly, many of these claims and concepts run dangerously close to the domain of religion. According to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, one of the founders of the field of positive psychology, “…there is a distinction between religiosity and spirituality. The latter is a non-denominational way of speaking about what religions sometimes do. So for instance, meditation, mindfulness, gratitude, respect and love of nature – all of these things are very much part of Positive Psychology.” All of these things are clearly vital aspects of ecopsychology and transpersonal psychology as well.

When Dr. Csikszentmihalyi started studying altered states of consciousness and optimal experiences in artists and musicians, the literature on ecstasy (from Greek ekstasis, literally ‘standing outside oneself’) resonated with his findings, specifically the feeling of losing oneself in something larger and the way one’s sense of time disappears. He suggests that peak altered states of ecstasy can be achieved through very long periods of training like in Hindu mystical practices, yogic techniques, or deep flow experiences. He says if you achieve the ecstatic experience, through meditation for example, you are actively connected to a larger experience.

“Nonduality encompasses those states of being and consciousness in which the sense of separate individuality and autonomy has been metabolized or dissolved into the flow of experience. Self-identity becomes integrated into a qualitatively higher (or deeper) perspective in which personal identity and the world are not separate. The world does not melt into non-differentiation, perception continues, and actions flow.” – Davis, J. (1998)

So far, the studies that have been done on flow and the brain are few, but they suggest that what is happening is transient hypo-frontality: the frontal part of the brain (executive functioning and conceptualization) is not interfering with the rest of the brain. This pattern is consistent with brain scans done on master meditators that enter deep transpersonal states of trance. In yet another convergence, ecopsychologists Kaplan and Kaplan contrast the concept of flow with the concept of compatibility, i.e., a fit between one’s needs and capacities and what the environment offers. Compatibility is a necessary part of any flourishing natural ecosystem, and it maps almost directly onto a central aspect of flow often conceptualized as a balance between challenge and skill. These are but a few examples of the overlapping and corroborative results found in the fields of transpersonal, eco, and positive psychology.

Applications of Positive, Eco, and Transpersonal Psychologies

There are a number of practices to elicit ecopsychological awareness and insights. They can also be used as part of a transpersonal or spiritual practice. They all lead to enhanced well-being, connection, and flourishing as espoused by the field of positive psychology.

    Clouds, trees, mountains

  • Awareness and mindfulness practices: Sensory awareness exercises which include awareness of the natural world are useful for both being aware of ecological systems themselves, and for revealing your connection to them. For example, spend an hour in a quiet green space and treat your awareness as if you are the eyes of nature perceiving itself. This has been shown to create a significant shift in how we relate to our environment. 
  • Place-bonding: Relate to a particular place over a period of time (e.g., a semester or a year). Preferably alone in nearby nature that is easily accessible from home. During this time get to know it in as many ways as possible. Listen for ways to take care of it, and let it listen to you. Enter the place in deep silence and observe your concepts, idealizations, and judgments about it. Most discover how their “use” of the place and the filtering of their perceptions of it are tied to a sense of their own separate selves and their projections, fears, and hopes. 
  • Environmental Action Projects: Work on a specific environmental project. For the purposes of this exercise, some kind of direct action, such as cleaning up a section of a stream or a vacant city lot or digging a hole to plant a tree, works better than a more abstract or intellectual project. In addition to improving the physical environment, attempt to reflect on your perspective and motivations. You may even use it as a mindfulness exercise or meditation-in-action. 
  • Wilderness Expedition: Spend several days deep in a wild natural area with a small group, possibly with a wilderness guide, with the goal of connecting to the natural environment at large. You can use the surroundings as a tool to interpret your current life situation for deeper understanding of yourself in a naturalistic and more ecologically aware state of mind.

I invite you to apply these practices with your clients or try them for yourself.
 


 
References

Bynum, E. (1997). A brief overview of Transpersonal Psychology. The Humanistic Psychologist, 20 (2 and 3), 301-306. Abstract.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow, ecstasy and the spirituality of Positive Psychology. Interview on Philosopy for Life Web site.

Davis, J. (1998). The transpersonal dimensions of ecopsychology: Nature, nonduality, and spiritual practice. The Humanistic Psychologist, 26(1-3), 69-100. Abstract.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Image Credits
Waterfall Photo by Blake Richard Verdoorn on Unsplash
TIme lapsed photograph of stars by Christian Nielsen on Unsplash
Girl in forest photo by Andraz Lazic on Unsplash
Clouds over the mountains photo by Sasha • Stories on Unsplash

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