Beyond relationship? The power of therapy outdoors

The relationship between client and therapist is considered by many to be the single most important factor in successful therapy (Loewenthal, 2014). But what happens to that relationship when the therapy takes place outdoors? If you haven’t experienced therapy outdoors, you might wonder why it would make any difference to the therapeutic relationship. Isn’t it just like conventional therapy, but outdoors?

The short answer is, it depends. A few outdoor therapists strive to control the impact of the immediate environment, but most engage with it, often finding that nature becomes a kind of co-therapist. When nature enters into the therapeutic relationship, things get interesting! The client begins to form a relationship with the natural environment as much as with the therapist. The therapist is no longer “the professional with the answers and advice”, but instead becomes an “expert at facilitating therapeutic conversations” (Jordan & Marshall, 2010).

© Adeline O'Keeffe

© Adeline O’Keeffe

Ecotherapist Martin Jordan suggests that when we work outdoors “the myth that the self is somehow separate from nature becomes exposed as the fallacy it is” (Jordan, 2009). This complicates our understanding of the relationship between therapist and client even more. Once again – as so often in this blog – the question arises of where ‘self’ ends and the ‘other’ begins. But if the ‘self’ becomes “entirely entangled with the Other”, we might “risk losing the difference and thus any possibility of relationship” (Harris, 2013b).

David Key, an ecotherapist I interviewed for my MSc research, brings these questions to crisis point. David said:

“What actually happens when people go out into wild places, the thing that’s therapeutic, is something … I don’t know, it feels like it almost isn’t about relationships, it’s almost a Becoming […] that actually goes beyond relationship. […] Relationship is the process, not the product”.

This extract illustrates what I most like about this interview: you can hear David working with complex ideas and trying to force language to express something that refuses to be named. His ideas seemed to evolve as we spoke. David rhetorically asks “How do we as human beings even conceptualise the therapeutic relationship that the land or the sea offer us?” We can’t, but the attempt to do so is hugely illuminating.

The full interview has just been published in Self & Society: An International Journal for Humanistic Psychology. The article is entitled “What impact does working outdoors have on the therapeutic relationship? An interview with ecotherapist David Key“.

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One Response to Beyond relationship? The power of therapy outdoors

  1. I love this interview with Dave. He (just about finds words to) put his finger on the dissolution of self and even relationship, which occurs in natural places. I think this is a large factor in the healing and insight which can arise out there. And he’s right that humans might get a group out there, and hold a container, but then the work unfolds at another level, above human and skinbag completely. Dave’s educated awareness of what he is up to, and your careful questioning, brought great distinctions to the fore for me.

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