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Ecological Self:
An Invitation on a Shamanic Journey
by Eshana (Elizabeth Ann Bragg, Ph.D.)
Selected writings by Eshana
Illustrations by Stewart Edmondson

Paper presented at the cameo session of the
Environment Stream - 'Thinking Like a Mountain'
World Futures Studies Federation XV World Conference
University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, 28 September - 3 October 1997
Global Conversations - What you and I can do for future generations.


"Thinking like a mountain" means expanding our individualistic sense of self to embrace human communities, the rest of the natural world, our evolutionary past and the distant unknowable future. By nurturing an 'ecological self', an 'ecological identity', we move beyond egoistic and anthropocentric motivation and find ourselves empowered and guided by the larger forces of nature which promote the continuation of life on Earth. Eshana's cameo will describe various processes and strategies which encourage such a perspective on life, including 'The Council of All Beings', and present findings of her research into the connection between 'ecological self' and environmentally responsible behaviour. She will also invite your participation in a brief experiential exercise to assist your journey into 'deep time' and expand your sense of self.



First, I'd like to draw your attention to a distinction which John Seed (deep ecologist and rainforest activist) has made - between 'woo woo' and 'true woo woo'. 'Woo woo' refers to the commercialised, self-focussed transformational workshopping craze which has become associated with the 'new age'. 'True woo woo', on the other hand, is the use of similar depth/spiritual techniques for the development of psychological and ecological wholeness - health and community.

This paper spans the realms of the spiritual and the scientific, and argues that the most fundamental thing we can do for future generations is to develop strong emotional bonds with all life on Earth, and with the beings of the past and of the future. I will first introduce the notion of 'ecological self' (in terms of lived experience and feelings), and then address the four theme questions, inter-weaving my prayer to the Earth.

I have chosen to give primacy to the spiritual in this talk because I firmly believe that it is only through the reclaiming of emotion, of sensual/sensory experience, of the sacred, which contemporary environmentalism can move beyond from its present achievements. As a social psychologist, I do not deny that fundamental structural, political and practical changes must accompany such a psychological shift. I argue, however, that those changes without a profound shift in our emotional relationship with nature would be futile. It is from this perspective that I share with you some 'true woo woo'.

In our society, there is a kind of cultural embarrassment at anything 'spiritual' or 'dark' or 'unknown' (whether it be the future, or the psychological unconscious). We are afraid of the Mystery, the Void. Afraid of the Sacred. Afraid of the Dark. Afraid to admit that we "don't know". It is, however, through the admission of our ignorance, our innocence, our emptiness, that we open up the space to receive the knowledge, the 'vision' we need for the future of the world
1. By admitting that we "don't know", we open ourselves to guidance from 'more than ourselves'.

In our culture, the words 'dark', 'void', and 'sacrifice' (originally meaning 'making sacred') have all taken on negative or fearful connotations. In the 'serious' worlds of academia and even of social and environmental activism (where the 'real work' of saving the world takes place), spiritual concerns are not considered relevant. From a personal perspective, investigating 'spiritual' connections with nature in academic psychology was definitely regarded as 'fringey'. My research, however, showed me that many people in Australian society, from different walks of life, do have powerful emotional and transpersonal relationships with nature (which they may or may not call 'spiritual') and that these are strongly associated with environmentally responsible behaviour.

Ecological self, ecological identity

Our understanding of 'self' can expand so that we identify way beyond our particular personalities, beyond our present-day human-beingness, into the very fabric from which we are woven. "Thinking like a mountain" means expanding our individualistic sense of self to embrace human communities, the rest of the natural world, our evolutionary past and the distant unknowable future. We all know, intellectually, that we are connected to the ecological and universal matrix (space-time). Until, however, this knowing is experienced in our hearts and souls, in the very cells of our body, it will not have much effect (either internally/psychologically or externally/behaviourally-culturally).

To express the feeling of ecological self, of thinking like a mountain, I'd like to read you a poem by Peter Cuming called 'I Strike the Ground'.

Grey blue streaked sky
tinged in passion
deepens to distant
dusk ochre red
where I am
the mountain
stretched across
this wind blown time
rustling through me
chattering a plovers call
echoing my thundering mind
smokey storm asunder
etched I am
the sunset
in memory
for all time
moment in my history
kissing this Earth

Sustenance, security and happiness
without digging up the Earth

As psychologists Sarah Conn (1995) and Peter Cushman (1990) suggest, the rampant consumerism (or 'materialistic disorder') which characterises Western culture is because, collectively, we have an 'empty self'. Our cultural project is to 'fill ourselves up' with material goods in order to satisfy an emotional and spiritual emptiness. As we all know, this doesn't work. And precisely because it doesn't work, we keep trying to fill ourselves up with more and more 'stuff'! Just like any other addiction.

Nurturing our ecological self is a way of filling this emotional and spiritual void. It is a way of finding sustenance, security and happiness without digging up the Earth and transforming it into consumer goods. Allowing ourselves to fully experience our connection with nature (in the form of wilderness, a thunderstorm in the city streets, or even the sensations in our own bodies) can fill us with a sense of wonder, of belonging and being 'at home'. It can build our self-esteem, and empower us to greater action on behalf of the planet, giving our lives an even greater sense of meaning. Emotional and spiritual joy can be received from simple pleasures like growing our own food, living in community ... sharing music, dancing and stories around a fire. Our psyches and our culture could be re-animated by the appreciation of these very basic human activities, as well as through embracing the magical experiences of ritual. Earth-based ritual can create a strong sense of community. It can open us to mystery, ecstasy and guidance from the larger forces of nature which promote the continuation of life on Earth.

True security can only come from community, where the relationships are strong and vital. This means the development of healthy relationships between humans and the ecological systems of which we are a part, and between people in society (e.g., the creation of 'family' and 'tribe' amongst so-called 'unrelated' people). At a psychological or spiritual level, this means nurturing feelings of caring and compassion for all beings. It means letting go of fear, for fear breeds greed and 'holding on', which obstructs the flow of energy in the system. It means learning to trust, which allows giving and receiving, the free flow of energy in the system.

All of this requires a degree of slowing down our culturally frantic pace of activity (whether it be manifesting in our environmental activism or our quest for the dollar). Only by having times of stillness and reducing our sensory overload will we be able to increase our sensitivity and our ability to enjoy simple pleasures. Only by slowing down our worldly activities will we be able to create the time for the reflection needed to overcome the deeply wounded cultural patterns we have inherited. As social ecologist and forest activist John Revington (1995) says, "Don't just do something, sit there!".

Ecological shadow

It is important, when dealing with visions of the future, not to neglect the fundamental psychological shifts which are required to bring them about. Fundamental in their ability to shake us, individually and collectively, to our very roots. They are, I believe, very possible but dramatic changes, which we need to grasp realistically if we are to facilitate the process.

During my PhD research, I asked particpants in deep ecology workshops to answer the question 'Who am I?'. Rada, a 23-year-old woman, an enviornmental activist wrote:

I am brown, spotty, organic
I am water, fire, earth, air, more ...
I am verbal but silent, confused yet determined
I am frustrated, sad, annoyed at the state of self-righteous humanity
I am earth, trees, a river, air, the ocean, energy, volcanic
I am stressed but searching
I am the daughter of a union between this planet and the sun
I am a child of the planets and the stars
I am loving, and need the nourishment of care and love
I am part of the planetary ecosystem
I am persecuted because of my cultures, both past and present
I am yellow, purple, green and brown
I am sister to womanity trying to understand the spiritual beauty of men
I am determined to reach peace and happiness
I am in love with the planet and mourning deeply its demise
I am writing, painting, playing music to express my complicating mind
I am fighting, struggling, angry, angry, angry
I am mortal, empowered
I am not afraid of my own depth and death
I am terrified of the fate of the planet

To me, this illustrates how the experience of ecological self - as well as being a source of sustenance, security and happiness - can also be traumatic. As the boundaries of self expand, there is more and more to care about, more distress to feel as we open our full emotional awareness to the current destruction of the life-support systems of planet Earth.

As this piece so eloquently illustrates, the fundamental shift in consciousness from a self-encapsulated ego to to that of 'ecological identity' (on either an individual or societal level) might not necessarily be an easy transition. Psychologically speaking, the connection between the individual consciousness and the energies of the Earth (our unconscious desire for life to continue, our instincts, our will to survive) is akin to the Jungian notion of 'individuation' (the unification of the conscious and unconscious realms of the psyche). Though both of these processes are ultimately life-giving and healthy, processes of attaining wholeness, they are likely to be traumatic without adequate understanding and guidance. As J.V. Downton (1989) suggested in the Journal of Analytical Psychology, "guiding metaphors of ... transformation need to be found which provide a clearer idea of what to expect when the forces of the collective unconscious break through into consciousness and the individual is transported across a barrier - like death - into a new reality." He suggests, as I do, that shamanism provides such a metaphor for understanding. Shamanism, as Downton defines it, is "a transformational ordeal of dismemberment and rebirth recorded for centuries among tribal peoples of the world." A 'shamanic journey' is a healing experience, which is both nurturing and empowering.

Visionary environmental activities

It is in this context that I wish to answer the theme question about visionary activities which are taking place. There are a heartening multitude of visionary environmental activities happening right now - from forest blockades complete with tripods, platforms and festivals, to permaculture villages; from the co-management of forests by environmental groups and forestry, to national initiatives like Landcare and Cleanup. I would venture to say that all of these inspiring activities were initiated by a strong sense of emotional connection with the natural world. They are motivated by ecological self, so any activities which foster an experience of ecological self (including the enviornmental activities themselves) are vitally important for the future.

With this sense of ecological self, however, often comes a sense of urgency, of despair and anguish, and of righteous anger, all of which can lead to 'burnout' (Shields, 1991). This is where the 'shamanic' nature of the journey into ecological self becomes relevant and where I consider the most visionary activities are taking place right now. For the environmental movement to remain strong and vibrant, attractive for people to join, these emotions (which are usually repressed) need to be processed and become the source of new energy and inspiration. If they are not transformed, these emotions can fester and become sources of personal depression, intra-movement conflict or the inability to cooperate with people 'outside the movement'.

In the 1980's, Joanna Macy and the Interhelp network in the United States developed a series of experiential processes to help people psychologically deal with the nuclear threat, and empower them into action. In her book 'Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age' (1983), Joanna says that in this work "we embark on a journey: it is a voyage through our pain for the world and into our powers to heal the world."

These workshops create an emotionally supportive environment, a 'safe space', for people to explore the depths of their despair about what is currently happening to the world. Together, we face the extinction of thousands of species of plants and animals, we face the threat of our own extinction. We turn and look deeply into the abyss of the poisons which now infect every element of the Earth's body: poisoned air, poisoned water, poisoned earth, even poisoned fire - nuclear waste. We sustain the gaze.

Contrary to what our culture suggests, by diving this deeply into the unknown, into the fathomless depths (of repressed feelings, the knowings that we that we don't usually let ourselves have), we ensure that we emerge out the other side inspired, refreshed, renewed. We land on ground much more solid than before. Actions for the environment we have taken before, even our visions for the future, become much much stronger because they are based on solid ground. We have explored the depths. We are no longer afraid of what we had not let ourselves see, no longer afraid of our shadow. Our fears have less hold over us. We have access to new information for survival, to assist us and motivate us in our efforts to create a bright future.


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