Love, not fear, will get us thorough

There’s a dangerous contagion on the loose that threatens can make the coronavirus outbreak even worse: Fear. Numerous studies have shown that chronic fear has a very damaging impact on the immune system. The flip side also seems to be true: Positive emotions support the immune system.

A brief experience of fear won’t have any lasting impact. It’s fine to keep watching those zombie movies if you’re self isolating! But long term, ongoing fear, anxiety, stress or loneliness will compromise your immune response. Given that the coronavirus Covid-19 is expected to be a risk for at least the next 18 months, we need to manage our emotional response to the outbreak. Paying attention and acting on the latest advice is rational; contributing to anxiety and fear is not.

Happy smiley face and ill frowning face

Happiness may boost your immune system

This is another reminder that the mind and body are a single integrated system, what Candace Pert called the ‘bodymind’. We know that the brain is directly wired to the immune system and numerous studies suggest that chronic fear can lead to immune system dysfunction.

There’s less evidence for the more controversial idea that happiness can boost immunity, but what we have so far is fascinating. Richard Davidson, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, conducted a ground breaking study back in 2003. The research established “that people with a pattern of brain activity that has been associated with positive [emotions] are also the ones to show the best response to the flu vaccine.” Study Shows Brain Activity Influences Immune Function.

It’s not just fear and coronavirus that are contagious; happiness is too! If you feel happy, there’s a 25% chance that a friend living nearby will become happier as a result. Happiness spreads. It tends to ripple out into the wider social network to reach friends of friends you’ve never met. It works online too; researchers found that reading positive Facebook posts triggered happiness in 64% of people.

The takeaways from all this research are clear and become more important with every new infection:

  1. Chronic fear and anxiety will worsen the impact of the coronavirus outbreak;
  2. loneliness damages the immune response, so take care of people who are socially isolating;
  3. positive emotions like happiness may boost your immune system;
  4. happiness is both healing and contagious.

Stay realistic and stay safe, but try to nurture positive emotions in yourself and your community. It’s love, not fear, that will get us thorough this crisis.

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Looking back: Who read what in 2019?

January is the perfect time to look back on the year that’s gone and forward to what’s planned for the months ahead. It’s looking good as the statistics suggest that the most popular topics of 2019 are exactly the ones I’ll be taking forward this year. Let’s take a look!

The top five posts from 2019 have a common theme: They’re all related to embodied ecology. It’s not what you know … from September was my most popular post from 2019 and offers a clear explanation of why embodied knowing is so fundamental to embodied ecology.

Second is Glen Mazis & David Abram discuss embodied ecology from June. This post is about an interview I did with two of my favorite thinkers for the Embodiment Conference in 2018. We explored the terrain of embodied ecology, touching on animism, deep ecology, sensuality, language and nature connection.

The Embodied Pathways of Connection – third most popular – came immediately after the Mazis & Abram post. It introduced the Embodied Pathways of Connection (EPOC) for the first time and I’m delighted that it’s been so well received. I think the EPOC offer the best route to positive change and they form the foundation of my vision of embodied ecology.

The Embodied Pathways of Connection in Therapy was the fourth most poplar and was posted immediately after the previous two. These three posts work really well together, gradually unpacking some of the core themes of embodied ecology, the EPOC and therapy.

Maori sculpture in Aotearoa

Maori sculpture. Aotearoa.

The fifth most popular post in 2019 was a ‘golden oldie’ from July, 2011: The threshold brook. This is actually one of my most posts popular ever, so there’s something about it. My guess is that many people relate to the idea of a special place that can reveal our “sacred relationship with the world”.

Embodied Ecology: A Relational Vision (December 2018) is another of the five most popular posts ever, with Nature connection: Core routines from April 2011 as overall winner. Given the growing impact of the climate crisis, it’s perhaps unsurprising that nature connection, embodied ecology and the EPOC emerge as the most popular themes of 2019. In 2020 I’m taking all this forward: there’s another Embodiment Conference this year and the embodied ecology thread will be central. I’m now writing regularly on nature connection for The Hourglass newspaper, and working on a book about the Embodied Pathways of Connection. More about all that – my 2020 vision – as the year unfolds.

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Happily Single?

Emma Watson recently shared that she’s “very happy being single”. She call it “being self-partnered”. Her interview inspired the ‘Thought of the Day’ on Radio Four this morning, where Canon Angela Tilby talked about the myth of being ‘left on the shelf’ and asserted that “singleness need not be loneliness, but a rich and enriching way of solitude”. Amen to that!

I’ve been single for most of my life. I’ve had several short-term relationships, but concluded that, on balance, I’m happier single than partnered. This status has occasionally prompted comments from well-meaning friends: “There’s someone out there for you!” They’d comfortingly say. Another response is a mystified ‘Why?”, which sometimes seems to imply “What’s wrong with you, you weirdo!?”

To be honest, I sometimes used to wonder that myself. Maybe I had some deep seated Mother complex, was commitment phobic or fearful of intimacy? I explored my feelings in therapy, went to Tantra workshops and talked to friends and ex-lovers about it. I learnt, eventually, that there wasn’t anything wrong with me at all; this is just how I am.

A single set of footprints on a beach

The final light-bulb moment came a few years ago when I read research by the psychologist Bella DePaulo. DePaulo claimed that some people are ‘single at heart’, which meant that they are quite capable of being happy in the right relationship, but were equally happy staying permanently single. I was curious, so did her online self-test questionnaire. The result suggested that I was pretty much a definitive case of a ‘single at heart’ person. This was a very significant moment for me; at last this huge part of my life made sense. My half-hearted attempts at dating and the way I’d almost always find a good reason why someone just wasn’t for me. As important was the realisation that I could really own this now; this is how I choose to live.

Part of the reason I struggled with this for so long is that our culture places high value on romantic relationships, so inevitably those who aren’t in one stand out. But the times are changing, and I’m grateful to Emma Watson for telling it like it is. Whether we call it self-partnered, single at heart or just intentionally single, this is a heartfelt and healthy choice about how to live a life.

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Wired to survive?

According to evolutionary neuroscience we’re not wired to be happy or content but simply to survive. It’s a new science, so such judgements are subject to review, but it certainly seems that our bodymind system easily becomes dysfunctional in modern industrial societies.

Paul Gilbert is a clinical psychologist and developed a new therapeutic approach called ‘compassion focused therapy’ (CFT). Paul has identified three basic bodymind systems; one is focused on potential threats, another on finding resources, and the third on calm contentment & soothing. When the threat system is active our attention becomes like velcro for danger signs and teflon non-stick for anything positive: If you’re on alert for wolves then the fact that the moon looks fabulous is pretty irrelevant! Short-term that’s fine and once danger has passed we naturally shift to either the search and reward mode or the calm contentment system. As long as there’s a cycle between these three systems, we’re fine.

Adapted from Gilbert, 2010

Adapted from Gilbert, 2019

Because the threat system has survival value it can override the other two and it’s activated whenever there’s a perceived danger. The threat system works on a ‘better safe than sorry’ basis so will trigger whenever we feel that a situation isn’t safe. Many people live in situations which don’t feel safe; low income, precarious or stressful work, discrimination, difficult relationships or just keeping abreast of the news. That means that the threat system is often over-active and many people don’t spend enough time in the regenerative contentment & soothing system.

Compassion focused therapy draws heavily on mindfulness to help people learn to rebalance themselves. By becoming mindful of when we’re stuck in the anxiety provoking threat system, we can learn to shift into calm contentment. Self compassion is hugely helpful in this, and though we all have compassion, we may not practice it much. In our culture it can be seen as a sign of weakness or a distraction from the busyness of our lives. But in fact compassion is a form of courage that inspires us to act. With practice we can develop more compassion for ourselves and others, healing within and making the world a better place in the process.

It’s worth noting that mindfulness is the key strategy in CFT. Mindfulness, like so many of the other approaches to alleviating mental distress, is an embodied pathway of connection. If we really are wired to survive, perhaps early humans developed the embodied pathways of connection as a route to a deeper thriving? Practices like mindfulness, ritual, dance, psychedelics and the deliberate use of trance emerged early in human evolution. These same practices are retained by many indigenous groups and have therapeutic value for them. The same is true for all of us: These ancient healing practices can take us beyond mere survival mode to a vibrant, joyful existence.

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Regenerative culture in Extinction Rebellion

I recently spent a couple of days as part of the Wellbeing Team for the London Extinction Rebellion (XR) and it strengthened my belief that this is an exceptional campaign. Most campaign organizations replicate the system they challenge. I used to work for Friends of the Earth and though the organizational structure had unique aspects, the overall framework was similar to that of the corporations they opposed.

By contrast, the UK road protest movement of the 1990’s were truly radical. But patriarchy, perhaps the most fundamental force of oppression, haunted the camp-fires. In a telling article a female activist wrote that all the women she’d spoken to agreed that “it was without a doubt, a patriarchy dominated environment” (Do or Die #7). That was back in 1998 and in some ways things improved. But the ‘man up and get on with it’ approach to activism was harder to shift and I saw several activist friends burn out. But gradually as the environmental direct action movement matured, we learnt that wellbeing isn’t a luxury – it’s essential. As the poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

XR banner; 'Activism is Hope'.

Extinction Rebellion not only has a deep understanding of the patterns of oppression at the foundations of our society; they – we – are actively dismantling them. This understanding has been hard won and it may never have been reached without the activists that came before. The direct action movement has matured, taking the lessons of the past and weaving them into a new future. Einstein realized that “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. That understanding is in the DNA of XR. This new thinking is about creating a regenerative culture. This is a step beyond sustainability, which is basically a ‘business as usual’ vision. Regeneration isn’t about keeping things as they are, but creating something better. XR is constantly curious, questioning what happened yesterday and exploring that edge where positive change happens. The direct action you’ve seen on the streets this week is like the branches of an old oak. A sturdy trunk holds those activists up and the hidden roots go very deep.

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It’s not what you know …

… it’s the way that you know it. I sometimes have a name ‘on the tip of my tongue’. I’m sure you know that odd feeling; you both know and don’t know at the same time. We make sense of these experiences by talking about an unconscious knowing that we can’t always bring into full awareness.

But there’s a curious flip side to this: You can ‘know’ something consciously without really ‘getting it’ at a deeper level. My therapy clients will sometimes comes to a realization – an ‘Ah ha!’ moment – when they grasp something in a new way. “I knew that already, in my head, but now”, they add with a touch to the heart or stomach, “I know it here”. The difference is profound.

I first wrote about this 25 years ago in Sacred Ecology:

“Besides the cerebral knowledge we all possess, the words & ideas stored in our heads, there is a deeper knowledge held within the tissue of our bodies. It is a somatic, physical knowing which comes from direct experience. This is the knowledge of faith, of emotion, of the gut feeling”.

I later discovered that I was describing embodied knowing and went on to do a PhD on the subject (Harris, 2008).

Diagram of cognitive iceberg

Conscious knowing is just the tip of the iceberg

Embodied knowing is fundamental to my work as a therapist. In many cases a client knows exactly what’s needed, but doesn’t have conscious access to that knowledge. At other times someone will know something consciously, but lack an embodied grasp of it. The therapist is rarely – if ever – the expert. Our role is facilitating the client’s journey of growth and self discovery, which typically involves integrating their embodied knowing.

There’s another vital aspect to this which takes me back to where I started. In Sacred Ecology I wrote that we need to understand our deep relationship with the other-than-human world at the level of embodied knowing. Unless you’re avoiding the news, you’ll know, in your head at least, that there’s a climate crisis. The facts are clear and have been for years, but nothing much gets done. Action on climate change is characterized by denial and broken promises and time is running out: We may have less than 18 months to avoid catastrophic change. But unless we get that at a gut level, really feel what it means, we’ll remain in what Zion Lights calls ‘passive denial’. You may know the facts about climate crisis but, painful though it is, you have to experience the reality in your body. That wisdom of the body is like taking the red pill; there’s no going back.

When I wrote Sacred Ecology I believed that myth & ritual offered the best route to the wisdom of the body. I’ve since recognized that there are many pathways to embodied connection. These include practices that are already advocated, like mindfulness and nature connection. We need to focus in on these pathways and learn how to use them more effectively. This is embodied ecology and may be our best hope for a future.

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CBT: The ‘gold standard’ for therapy?

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is like Marmite for many therapists. Some emphasize the research results which arguably show that it’s the “gold standard of the psychotherapy field” (David, Cristea and Hofmann, 2018). Others, like Richard House, see it as a “therapeutic technology” backed by a research regime that misses vital aspects of therapeutic practice; “subtlety, intuition, discernment and ‘the tacit’ in human relational experience” (2010).

Given that my original therapeutic training was with two of the most vehement critics of CBT – Richard House and Del Loewenthal – it seemed odd to some colleagues that I completed a Professional Certificate in CBT. One jokingly suggested that I’d “gone to the Dark side”!

At first CBT didn’t sit well with my existing approach, which is very much grounded in those qualities Richard extolled; subtlety, intuition and tacit embodied knowing. But I sensed that there was something of value here, notably because I’d unwittingly used CBT techniques to tackle my own anxiety in the past. Several years ago I started getting anxious about whether I’d locked the front door. I’d be about to cycle off to work when the thought would come: ‘Did I lock the door properly?’ My rational mind knew very well that I had: I’d  been successfully locking my front door every day for years! But the doubt nagged at me. The first couple of times I went back to check and it was, of course, fine. But I knew this wasn’t right because I was pandering to my irrational concerns. So I stopped checking. Sometimes it was quite hard. That voice in my head said: ‘It’ll only take a second to check, and then you won’t have to worry any more.’ I countered that with reason: ‘There’s no need to check. I already know it’s fine’. That’s a classic CBT approach and it worked very well: The worry went away instead of growing into full blown OCD!

Cycle of anxiety

But CBT doesn’t work for everyone. I’ve had several clients tell me that they tried CBT and it just didn’t work for them. Typically their CBT was provided on the NHS and the therapist didn’t know any other way of working. Why bother to learn anything else when CBT is the “gold standard”? This is part of the reason why CBT has such a bad name amongst some therapists: CBT is presented as the solution in a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

There’s some evidence that CBT is becoming less effective. A paper from 2015 looked at 70 CBT trials and found that the impact of the treatment for depression was falling (Johnsen and Friborg). The authors suggest several possible reasons for this decline, with the most likely being a reduction in therapist competence. What made CBT so attractive to the NHS was that it can be done by the book. In theory anyone who knows how to follow a step-by-step guide and can demonstrate the exercises to a client can be CBT therapist. But we know from extensive research that technique contributes no more than about 20% to the outcome of therapy. Those vital elements that Richard House highlighted above – subtlety, intuition, discernment and tacit knowing – are much more important.

I’m pleased I persevered with CBT. My trainer – a therapist with many years of experience – emphasized that CBT works best when it’s used creatively by an empathic, open minded therapist. It also opens the door to further training with the ‘third wave’ of CBT that integrates it with mindfulness.

CBT isn’t just one more technique in my ‘tool box’: It’s more like another pattern to weave into the rich tapestry of my therapeutic practice. As Richard House points out, the key to good therapy is how it’s practised, not which techniques are used (ibid.). To put it more crudely, it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it!

References

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The Embodied Pathways of Connection in Therapy

My previous post introduced the EPOC, embodied practices that can reveal our radical interconnectedness. I initially came across the EPOC during my PhD research into spiritual eco-activism: The EPOC both inspired and supported the campaigners I worked with (Harris, 2008). Years later I noticed something curious; the EPOC I’d identified amongst road protesters seemed to underpin much of psychotherapy!

That may initially sound implausible, but the deeper I’ve looked into this apparent link, the more sense it makes. My research with activists identified seven EPOC; nature connection, meditation, Focusing, ritual, dance, trance and psychedelics. These seven all map to psychotherapeutic practices:

  • nature connection is the foundation of ecotherapy;
  • mindfulness meditation is at the heart of third wave CBT;
  • Focusing is a therapeutic practice;
  • psychedelic psychotherapy may be the next big mental health breakthrough;
  • dance therapy has been around since the mid-60s’;
  • ritual is widespread in psychotherapy, while
  • trance is an altered state of consciousness which is common in psychotherapy.

This is a big subject, but there’s two points I can make about how the EPOC function in psychotherapy. First, the EPOC facilitate access to embodied knowing and that process is fundamental to how psychotherapy heals. Second, they can dramatically widen our perspective: If you’re focusing too much on your own mental processes, mental distress is often the result.

People on the beach

© Adrian Harris

John Kabat-Zinn launched the therapeutic mindfulness revolution that’s transformed the lives of millions. He believes that connection is fundamental: “the quality of the connections within us and between us and with the wider world determines our capacity for self-regulation and healing” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).

Many Focusing Oriented Therapists speak of that connection too: “Focusing allows our consciousness to settle into that area in ourselves where there is physical in-binding with the rest of the cosmos” (Campbell and McMahon, 1997).

Research into how psychedelic psychotherapy works has come to the same conclusion: “a sense of connectedness is key” (Carhart-Harris, et al, 2017). The theme of connection also runs through dance therapy: Connecting the mind and body, the conscious with the unconscious, the self with the other (Halprin, 2002).

This leaves ritual and trance, which are both complex and multifaceted. I’d argue that ritual is fundamental to many psychotherapeutic approaches and my experience of psychoanalysis felt deeply ritualistic. But for the moment, I’ll be more specific and reference Family Constellation Therapy (FCT) which explicitly draws on African healing ritual. FCT is based on the notion of the ‘knowing field’ a web that “propagates information and affect through the family and ancestral network” (Adams, 2014). That sounds strange to Western ears, but accords very well with Eugene Gendlin’s claim that “Your physically felt body is in fact part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people. In fact, the whole universe” (1981).

Trance is much more common than many of us suppose: When you’re watching a film or reading a novel, you’re most likely in trance. Hypnotherapy is of course the most obvious use of trance in psychotherapy but it’s arguably more fundamental. Furthermore, nature connection, meditation, Focusing and psychedelics can all induce an altered state of consciousness which we might call trance. On that basis, trance can certainly facilitate a sense of deep connection. There’s also a powerful association between psychotherapy and shamanism which gives trance a central role (Thalhamer, 2015). Boundaries get very blurred at this point because Shamanism is intimately engaged with nature connection and can include aspects of meditation, Focusing, dance, ritual and psychedelics.

We’re now close to the place to which these embodied pathways of connection all lead. For Glen Mazis this place is about ‘earthbodying’; Philip Shepherd names it “radical wholeness” (2017); David Abram might speak of participatory perception (2010), while Susan Greenwood writes of “a heightened awareness of an expanded connected wholeness” (Greenwood, 2005). For me this place is characterized by a particular kind of embodied knowing, the “wisdom of the body; that all things are ultimately one” (Harris, 1996).

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The Embodied Pathways of Connection

What links mindfulness, psychedelics, nature connection, ritual and the therapeutic technique of Focusing? They can all help us access to our deepest embodied knowing and awaken us from the illusion of separation. For Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and lifelong peace activist, the purpose of our existence is “to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” But how?

Meditation is one path, and John Danvers wrote that mindfulness is a tool for coming to “fully realise that we are relational beings in a relational universe” (Danvers, 2016). John describes an experience where mindfulness allowed his fixed sense of self to dissolve:

“the egocentric, unitary, ‘I’, wasn’t there. Instead a different state of being was at work (or at play) – as if the edges of myself were dissolved into the surrounding space. It felt like there was no separation between me and the world” (2016).

Gail Bradbrook felt an inner stuckness for years. She was passionate about social change, but none of her campaigning efforts had really taken off. So Gail headed off to Costa Rica to experience the healing power of psychedelics – AKA enthogens – including Ayahuasca. She had heard reports of how “people on psychedelics report a deeply felt sense of peace, oneness and unity with the planet” (Bradbrook, 2019). The experience was transformational and on her return home Gail co-founded Extinction Rebellion.

Throughout the ‘60’s and ‘70’s Robert Greenway led groups on multi-day treks into the wilderness. He found that spending several days in wild nature could have a “profound impact on the psyche”. People typically had “feelings of expansion or reconnection” that he identified as spiritual (Greenway, 1995). I’ve written about this wilderness effect elsewhere, but it’s important to note that spending even a brief time in nature can open our awareness of deep connection. Claire Thompson describes her experience of watching a dramatically beautiful sunrise:

“I didn’t realise until afterwards, but my sense of self was absent. I was simply absorbed by the intrinsic wonder of the view and intimately involved in deep contemplation of the pure grace and delicate beauty of nature. I was an integral part of the scene” (2013).

Loch with mountains and trees in the distance

Loch Voil

Ritual is one of the most ancient, powerful and widespread pathways to connection. In Sacred Ecology I wrote that being “part of a powerful ritual” can enable us to “come to the wisdom of the body; that all things are ultimately one”. A lot depends on the intention of the ritual and the integrity of those who facilitate it, but it’s no accident that members of my local Extinction Rebellion group will lead a Summer Solstice Ceremony this evening to support the movement.

I’ve often written about Focusing and Eugene Gendlin, the philosopher and psychotherapist who developed it. In essence, Focusing is a process of sensing into the body, curiously open to what meaningful sensations might be there. Many people have walked this pathway of connection and Herbert Schroeder is a good example. Herbert was working as an environmental psychologist for the US Department of Agriculture when he began experimenting with Focusing in natural spaces. He experienced “an inward, bodily sense of myself expanding out into space, as though the boundary separating myself from my environment had become relaxed and permeable” (2008).

How can practices as diverse as Focusing, ritual, meditation, taking psychedelics and walking in nature have such dramatic – and similar – effects? Gendlin gave us a key part of the answer when he wrote that the “physically felt body is in fact part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people – in fact, the whole universe” (1981). Gendlin, like many other thinkers, recognized that we are not the isolated individuals of our cultural myth.

The quotes above all speak of connection, relationship, expansion and the dissolution of boundaries. Although they’ve taken different pathways, they seems to be arriving at the same place; the wisdom of the body that revels what Thich Nhat Hanh calls the “illusion of separateness”. Mindfulness, psychedelics, nature connection, ritual and Focusing are all pathways that lead us to deeper connection. Crucially, they are all part of our embodied experience. These then are embodied pathways of connection (EPOC). There are other EPOC, some of which I’ve already identified; trance, dance, sex and sensual experience. Others are still to be recognized, so if you think there’s an EPOC I’m missing, I’d love to hear from you.

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Glen Mazis & David Abram discuss embodied ecology

Last year I was invited to host the ecology thread for the ‘Embodiment Conference’. Who would I recommend to speak on the subject of embodied ecology? Two thinkers immediately came to mind who have been a huge influence on my own work: Glen Mazis & David Abram. This podcast brings them together in a fascinating dialogue. After a brief introduction, I sit back to enjoy a journey through embodied ecology guided by these poetic philosophers.
The core theme is, I think, participation. Glen points out that “The world is in your body and you’re feeling what it’s telling you”. David develops that idea with his suggestion that “to be a body is to be entangled, enfolded and infused with so many other bodies, most of which are not human”.

Both of them are fascinated with imagination and language. David points out that “our bodies are imagining the world constantly … Imagination is an act of the sensing body itself, all the time. We are creatively adding to to what is immediately given in the world”. Glen develops this idea when he speaks of how poetry is “a way of using language that tells you, no, you can’t stay just in the web of words, you’ve to go back to your fleshly experience”.

Rain drops on a leafless tree

Glen and David explore many of the topics I’ve touched on in this blog – Merleau-Ponty, animism, deep ecology, embodied knowing – and then follow the path into sensuality, language, climate change and eco-trauma. David beautifully expresses the pain: “To taste the world with our creaturely senses all open and awake is to feel a world that it is filled with wounds”. Glen identifies the danger here: “There’s the cycle of hurt and violation … that takes you further away from the resources you need”. But this source of pain is also the root of healing. For David “that edge of grief and pain is just a threshold, and if we step thorough that threshold without flinching from it we come into a world of wonders”.

We all agree that nature connection, opening “to the more-than-human world is the path to healing”. This is a very familiar route for some of us, but as Glen points out, it can be a rough walk and many people will need support along the way. However, he adds, “As soon as they open themselves, it’ll be self-affirming because the world is a nourishing place”.

Related resources:

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