Earth and Psyche

Many people I work with have expressed great anxiety relating to climate change and feeling helpless in the face of environmental degradation. The effects of diminishing biodiversity, loss of wild places, and uncertainty regarding the earth’s capacity to sustain life, creates immeasurable psychological stress. As I write this, California is experiencing the deadliest wildfires in their state’s history - wildfires that are being fueled by climate change. I confront these realities, both within myself and the people I work with, on a daily basis. The deep concern for our planet and the wellbeing of emerging generations is very real and does not necessarily have easy remedies or fixes. These are massive existential uncertainties that require courageous attention to prevent fear-induced dissociative inaction.

It is worth stating bluntly that our current ecological crisis is also a mental health crisis. This is certainly true for people who have been directly affected by natural disasters exacerbated by climate change, and also for people who are forced to live in polluted areas due to systemic oppression and racism. Even for individuals privileged to live away from significantly polluted/toxic areas and also people who have not yet experienced any direct impacts of climate change, environmental degradation poses an increasing threat to mental health. To adequately address this emotional and psychic pain, it is important to recognize that the human psyche is indelibly linked to the earth.

The connection between the earth and the psyche is demonstrable in the increasing frequency of dreams that consist of barren landscapes, dead animals, and other imagery reflecting a sick planet. This is true in my own practice with dreams, with colleagues who report similar findings, and also in a growing body of professional literature documenting this phenomena. It is clear that a correspondence exists between the environmental challenges facing our planet and species and the structures within the psyche discernible in the language and images of dreams. On a collective level, the abundance of motifs involving post-apocalyptic plots and inter-stellar habitation reflects our collective ecological anxiety, as well as our deep awareness of a planet in great need of restoration and healing.

When we consider the health of our planet’s ecosystems, and the relationship of the human psyche and the earth, what story are we telling ourselves? In addition, what story is being told to us and by who? In many ways the foundational motif informing the current story between psyche and earth is disconnection. This story has roots in the industrial revolution, which allowed rapid development of technology and consumerism, enhancing the alienation between earth and psyche. However, this disconnection stretches farther back, to the decline of earth based religions and spiritual practices and the rise of religious systems that removed the divine from the earth, creating a new cosmology that insisted the divine is somewhere else. With this development, a physical/psychological/spiritual split began to form between earth and psyche. This story certainly continues today as we are conditioned to believe we are separate from and greater than nature and the earth. It is an ego-centered posture, entirely consistent with an ego-centered culture preoccupied with material gain and consumption.

The thing about this story is that it is false. We are so deeply interconnected with this planet that the very pH level of the human body is the same pH level as the world’s oceans. When we take into account this level of interconnection it is obvious that the environmental damage we’ve afflicted on the earth will have an analogous effect on the human psyche. From a psychological perspective, the despair and helplessness associated with the ecological crisis may also point to a challenging and uncomfortable shift out of an ego-centric worldview. In other words, we are coming to recognize the limitations of our ego. When confronted with forces so immensely greater than our own, whether fire, flood, drought, or polar vortex, there is a relativization of what we see as our own power. This is humbling, and terrifying, and painful. It is a check on what has been a predominant mythos of our time - that we are separate from and greater than the earth.

Remembering is a necessary part of healing and resolving traumatic experiences and through this remembering, a re-memberment occurs. A piecing together of fractured parts to shape a new whole. Looked at symbolically, the ever-increasing and ever-strengthening natural disasters occurring around the planet are tantamount to a re-emergence of raw archetypal energy, of basic alchemical elements, like fire and water, calling us to remember our primordial connection to earth. And to remember this connection is to experience a necessary, and often anxiety producing, reorientation within ourselves and with the earth that decentralizes the human ego. This re-orientation opens the way for a more balanced relationship with the planet - a reunion of sorts, between earth and psyche.