Sex, sensuality and the natural connection

I can’t help thinking that Valentine’s Day is too early in the year: Sex in the great outdoors is often as good as it gets, but not in mid-February! The Pagan celebration of sex and fertility, Beltane, falls on May Day, and by then there’s a least a chance that couples will want to mark the rising of the sap in the woods.

Assuming that sex in nature is often more exciting than the indoor varieties, why might that be so? Most of us will look and feel better after even a brief time outdoors. OK, that’s a generalization, but walking gets the blood flowing, tones the muscles and fills our lungs with fresh air. There’s also a lot of evidence that being outdoors improves self-confidence and reduces stress (see Ecopsychology research). More importantly perhaps, we get far more sensory input when we’re in nature, and if we’re in the right mood some of that sensory input can promote an erotic affect.

I got chatting with Mark Walsh (Integration Training) about this while we were shooting some video interviews.

Many years ago I wrote a chapter called ‘Sacred Ecology’ for a book on contemporary Paganism. In it I suggested that “good sex is the closest most people get to a truly spiritual experience”, but added that “ours is not an erotic culture … & sex has become a form of consumption” (Harris, 1995: 152). Which brings us back to Valentine’s Day, which is arguably no more than a cynical attempt to make money from the beauty of erotic love.

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Embodied Facilitator Course

Last year was the first time that Integration Training offered their Embodied Facilitator Course – a professional course for people training and coaching in an embodied way. I was honored to be invited to be one of the guest trainers and had a wonderful morning facilitating a nature connection workshop. I stayed on for the rest of the week-end so that I could join a Samurai Game run by Francis Briers and a workshop with Paul Linden. Francis and Paul are at the top of their game, so it was an amazing week-end. The course participants had several week-ends like that plus ongoing coaching in embodied practice.

The EFC is happening again this year, and I’ll be back – along with Francis, Paul, Wendy Palmer, Michael Soth and more! I don’t usually plug trainings here, but this is an exception.

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Cross Bones Graveyard: Honouring the Outcast

Cross Bones – an unconsecrated graveyard in south London – is the final resting place of around 15,000 bodies, mostly paupers and prostitutes. These are the outcast dead, unnamed and largely forgotten until construction workers began to unearth their bones in the early 1990′s.

It’s a remarkable site that in many ways embodies the power of the relationship between bodymind and place. The graveyard is now owned by London Transport and fenced off from the general public by high metal gates. The gates are covered with offerings: ribbons, flowers, dolls, candles in jars, small toys, pieces of wood, beads – myriad objects made sacred by intent.

A wooden wreath with ribbons and a cross attached

A wreath hung on the gates

The area used to be poor and largely undeveloped and no-one was very interested in a pauper’s graveyard. It was just another piece of derelict land – fenced off and almost forgotten. But that all changed when construction began. Workers quickly began to discover bones – lots of bones. Once they realised these weren’t the remains of some gangland killing, the Museum of London was called in.

At around the time that the first bones were unearthed, a local urban Shaman began to hear the voice of one of the spirits of the place. Soon after people began to honour the outcast dead with simple ceremony and offerings. Since then Cross Bones has inspired a collection of poems and plays (Constable, 1999), many Halloween ceremonies and a monthly vigil to honour the Outcast Dead.

I’ve recently published an academic journal article about the site (Cross Bones Graveyard: Honouring the Outcast). My article explores the power of Cross Bones as a physical expression of the spirit of radical acceptance. Cross Bones subverts familiar divisions between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’, ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’. As a result, this special place is profoundly healing.

“That’s the healing, for me, what we’re doing … the break between the physical and the spiritual. ‘This is good, this is not good’. That duality.” … “… bringing those things together, making the pathway open. Yeah. That’s why it’s a healing place for me, because it does that” (Jen, in interview).

I hadn’t intended to write a Christmas blog post, but now realise how appropriate this is. I hope those celebrating the birth of Christ – a physical incarnation of the sacred who frequently honoured the outcast and sought to bring healing to the world – will agree.

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Samhain: Feast of the Dead

Tonight is the Pagan festival of Samhain, more commonly celebrated as Halloween. At Samhain Pagans celebrate our ancestors & beloved dead. It also offers an opportunity to meditate on our mortality, a fundamental aspect of embodiment which arguably makes life worth living. We work hard to keep thoughts of death out of our minds and the care of the dead – once a final act of love – is now professionalized.

But perhaps this is changing. I was pleased to hear about the emergence of Death Cafes, places to drink tea, eat cake and discuss the last taboo – death. Reading about The Ticker ‘death clock’ left me intrigued but unconvinced. The Ticker counts down the seconds to your demise, as predicted by data from a questionnaire. I wonder what Heidegger would make of it? He urged us to acknowledge death to avoid the fall into a meaningless life (Heidegger, 1962). Would owning The Ticker help? Maybe.

With Samhain imminent, thoughts of death were with me yesterday as I wandered along Brighton beach. I remembered some of my own beloved dead and pondered my mortality. As if in reply, I came across a swathe of feathers, strewn like a shroud on the stony beach.

feathers on the beachThis is all that remains of some seabird, probably killed by a predator not long before. I sat on the stones and watched as the feathers blew away in the wind, one by one.

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Focusing and the Cognitive Iceberg

Focusing is a simple technique that helps you to become aware of what’s called a ‘felt sense’ – a feeling in the body that has a meaning. Focusing has myriad applications including personal growth, creativity and psychotherapy. I’m nearly halfway thorough my two-year Focusing Oriented Therapist training and it’s deepening my work in all kinds of ways.

For example, it’s opening new insights into how the cognitive iceberg might be applied to psychotherapy. First, let me outline how the cognitive iceberg can be used to illustrate the Focusing process. Gendlin, who first identified the felt sense, writes that it “comes between the usual conscious person and the deep, universal reaches of human nature, where we are no longer ourselves ” (Gendlin, 1984). On my cognitive iceberg the felt sense is represented by the dotted area just below awareness. Focusing is the process that enables the felt sense to emerge into awareness, as illustrated by the vertical arrows.

Focusing and the cognitive iceberg diagram

Focusing and the cognitive iceberg

Now, what happens when a client and therapist are working together? The therapist is paying careful attention to whole situation; the client/therapist relationship, their own processes and what is going on for the client. A Focusing Oriented Therapist will be ‘listening’ with their whole body and be in touch with their felt sense.

Therapist and client Focusing

Therapist and client Focusing

The arrows on this diagram schematically illustrate something of the process – note that I haven’t included the verbal exchanges which will also be going on. There is an exchange of ‘information’ between the therapist and client below awareness at the level I call the ‘deep body’. Both the client and therapist are also Focusing, becoming aware of material arising from felt senses.

There are many therapeutic processes going on here. The client will often be working through something difficult and the presence of the therapist can facilitate that: It’s as if the feeling is shared between them and the therapist’s embodied engagement processes some of the pain. Sometimes the therapist’s felt sense will alert them to something going on for the client and their embodied empathy can help the client. It’s also possible for the therapist to have a felt sense of something that comes from outside the client’s awareness and, with care, they can help it emerge.

I’ve covered a lot in this short post and I hope it’s reasonably clear. Please do ask me for clarification if not. I’ll add that this is all very speculative, but I hope that’s what makes this blog interesting!

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Activists, burnout and eco-therapy

Environmental action was a key factor in my becoming a therapist so I’m pleased to be part of an event about psychotherapy and activism. The event organizers have come up with a few questions to kick off discussion.

‘Where does a desire for social change come from?

It can grow from all kinds of roots. I’ve met activists who seem to be working through some personal anger or issues with authority that have little to do with positive social change. But they are a minority and most are driven by passion and love. If you’re fully engaged with the world, a desire for social change is inevitable. Arne Naess, the founder of Deep Ecology, wrote:

“… care flows naturally if the self is widened and deepened so that protection of free nature is felt and conceived of as protection of our very selves” (1988).

protest site dwelling

At home on a protest site

How can we be active in the outer world without burning out or hurting our inner worlds and vice versa?

How separate are ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds? I’ve often argued that inner and outer are intimately intertwined. If that’s so, then whatever goes on ‘inside’ must effect the ‘outside’ and visa versa. Gregory Bateson explores the ramifications of this interplay. Lake Erie is part of our “wider eco-metal system”, so if we pollute the Lake, we pollute our own minds (1972). The flip side is that if we live in a comparatively healthy environment – like a wood we’re protecting – the ‘outer’ supports the ‘inner’. I’ve often written about this here and elsewhere.

Can reflecting on this make any difference to the effectiveness of our engagement with the injustices and inequalities of the worlds we inhabit?

Yes, of course, but the real question is how can it make a difference? This topic hasn’t been discussed nearly enough and I hope this event can get the debate moving on. It’s in London on Nov 9th. Full details are on my website.

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Get the venue right …

I’ve been away at two events over the last few weeks, both of which exemplified the power of place. The UK Ecopsychology Gathering took place at Green and Away, an outdoor conference centre. Both the weather and our interactions were unpredictable; mostly sunny but occasionally stormy.

Green and Away entrance gate

Welcome! © Green and Away

In some ways the Gathering was like other conferences; we had the usual presentations, keynote speakers and workshops. But in every other way it was radically different. Although much of that was due to the people and topic, if we’d met at a more conventional venue, it would have been a more conventional event. When canvas instead of brick boundaries the outside world, the enclosed space is transformed.

Ray, an environmental activist I interviewed for my PhD research, lived in a bender – a low-impact dwelling with canvas walls. He explained why he never wanted to live in a house again:

“in a house you’re just sealed off from anything that could possibly connect with outside of it … you don’t realise it until – well I didn’t realise until I had the opportunity to live outside in a bender. … you kind of connect with what’s outside of it, a bit more than you would in a normal home.
(Harris, 2008. Chapter 9).

More recently I took part in a retreat for Embodiment Facilitator trainees. Previous sessions had taken place in the kind of seminar rooms you might expect, but the retreat was held at a Victorian model farmstead in Kent. It’s a beautiful site that’s full of character; lofty indoor spaces and grounds that balance wildness with nurture. Drop in an experienced set of trainers and a juicy group of participants and you get an exceptional event.

Place shapes our experience far more than we like to admit: In both cases, people were the key ingredient but place had a huge impact. The organizers of each event had an awareness of the power of place, so they considered the venues carefully. As a  result, we were rewarded with powerful experiences that will have lasting impact.

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Relationship is the key: dirt and therapy

I’m just home from an event organized by my local Transition Town group that focused on soil, poetically described by Bill Logan as “dirt – the ecstatic skin of the Earth”. We watched the movie and then grounded the experience by learning how to make compost. It was great!

The movie is intelligent and inspirational. As expected, it offers brilliant insights from familiar names like Vandana Shiva (physicist and activist) and Wangari Maathai (Nobel Laureate and founder of the Green Belt Movement). But more significant for me was the input of people like James Jiler, Program Director of The Greenhouse at Rikers Island Prison Systems. James spoke about a program run at New York City’s main jail that enables inmates to work with the soil. This is hugely healing and those who take part are far less likely to re-offend after release.

Book cover of 'Dirt'.

Relationship was a key theme through the film. The main reason we’re in an environmental mess is that as a culture we’ve impoverished our relationship with the rest of Earth’s ecology. We’ve somehow got it into our heads that we’re not related to the rest of the ecosystem and that idea is potentially fatal.

I was struck by how clearly a film about ecological relationship echoed my reading on relational approaches to counselling and psychotherapy. Though I was struck by the similarity, I was far from surprised.  Many previous posts are rooted in this same common ground and I’m delighted to report that at least some therapists recognize that our work is part of an ‘unfolding process’ that is much bigger that the encounter between client and therapist (Neville, 2012). We are working with an organismic psychology which “emphasises the indisssolubility of organism and environment” (Tudor and Worrell, 2006). Relationship is the soil from which healing – whether ecological or therapeutic – grows.

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Forests and minds

I suggested earlier (Brains, bodies and places) that it might be useful to think of the dynamic of bodymind and place as like an ecosystem, and today the image emerged during my personal therapy of the mind as a dark forest. Such metaphors have a rich history, and Inger Birkeland comments that place in general “is a concept that mediates between body and mind, nature and culture” (Birkeland, 2012).

For some indigenous peoples – and in many myths – forests are liminal places that offer the potential for change. These ancient motifs are widespread in our culture: Shakespeare’s As You Like It it came to my mind today, and serves as a rich example. In the play the Forest of Arden becomes a mysterious place away from the civilized city where dramatic transformation take place. The play is a complex exploration of contrasts and conflicts; forest/city, nature/civilization, masculinity/femininity, child/parent, love/hate. Shakespeare doesn’t provide simple resolutions of these confrontations, but leaves us to make of it what we will – as you like it, indeed.


During my session I came to see the dark forest as the mind which the psychotherapist and the client explore together. Several aspects of the process became clear to me. In our wandering we must accept the reality of the unknown without fearing it. There may well be something frightening in the darkness, but finding it could be transformative. We need to feel our way through the trees, not blast at the darkness with the cold analytic beam of an electric torchlight. And as joint explorers of this forest, we must stay close.

Hopefully the significance for the practice of psychotherapy is clear: The therapist needs to feel safe with the unknown and not try to push it away prematurely with the intellectual light of theory. Instead, the therapist stays close to the experience of their client, helping them feel their way towards change.

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Focusing in Nature

Put simply, Focusing is a means of opening our awareness to the “bodily sensed knowledge” which Eugene Gendlin calls the “felt sense” (Gendlin, 1981). The term ‘felt sense’ describes those fuzzy feelings that we don’t usually pay much attention to – those vague ‘gut feelings’. As you become more aware of a felt sense it will often open like a bud, revealing an otherwise hidden embodied knowing. I discovered Focusing when I was doing my PhD research and it’s become central to my spiritual practice and personal wellbeing. I’ll soon begin to integrate it into my psychotherapy, as my training as a Focusing Oriented Therapist starts this month.

Focusing is usually done indoors, but it occurred to me that it would be interesting to see what happened if I tried it in nature. It’s an obvious step and  it came as no surprise that other people were already doing it. What did surprise me was how powerful it could be. My first experiments were a revelation:  Focusing in nature quickly softened the perceived barrier between ‘me’ and ‘the world’, enabling a much more intimate relationship to place.

A boat sits on a still Loch at dawn

This was amazing! In minutes I could get a deep sense of connection to the natural world. Was it just me? I read about other peoples experiences and did some interviews. Although different people had different experiences, that sense of profound connection came up again and again.

As Deep Ecology has noted, that connection is fundamental to changing our environmental behavior. Herbert Schroeder, an environmental psychologist working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service found that Focusing in nature “was a first step toward articulating the ineffable, experiential value that natural environments have for me” (Schroeder, 2012: 141).

There’s much more to be said and done: My article on this subject will be published in the Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies journal this autumn; meanwhile I’ll be facilitating Focusing in Nature sessions from May onwards.

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