The Second Esalen Institute Invitational Conference
June 26 - July 1, 1994


For over 25 years, Esalen Institute has been on the leading edge of what Aldous Huxley once called "the non-verbal humanities." In the 1980s the Esalen property in Big Sur underwent an ambitious program of ecological renovation for land, water, and resource use. The grounds now contain one of America's finest organic gardening projects, which produces most of the vegetables served in the dining hall. With this entry into environmentally ethical planning, Esalen became steadily more interested in the relationship between therapy and ecology. In 1992, Michael Murphy, founder and director of Esalen Institute, invited Theodore Roszak to organize a conference that would landmark the arrival of ecopsychology as a new field of inquiry. The result was the first of two conferences (1993, 1994) that sought to explore the environmental dimensions of sanity in our time. The conferences were just a beginning. We hope this report will provide material for further discussion and debate and encourage others to organize similar meetings.


What is the most effective way to encourage healthy environmental behavior?

Is our consumer culture a form of psychopathology?

Has the city become the implacable enemy of nature?

Can modern industrial societies recapture the ecological insights that lay buried in their indigenous past?

What is the role of the churches and of pastoral counseling in the environmental crisis?

Can environmental law protect the sacred in nature?

What is the best way to introduce ecopsychology into the universities?

These are some of the questions that came under discussion at Ecopsychology: Theory and Practice 1994, an invitational conference sponsored by the Ecopsychology Institute and held at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California from June 26 to July 1, 1994. In the following pages we offer a brief summary of the main issues and insights that emerged at this event, where a group of environmental writers, activists, ministers, therapists, poets, media specialists, scholars and teachers met to explore how our individual and collective psyches interact with what David Abram called the "more-than-human world." This report may be more useful in raising questions rather than providing answers. But that is in the spirit of the gathering. Participants came with a commitment to using the unstructured, leaderless format of the meetings primarily as "invitations to dialogue."

No single conference can do the whole job of defining a field of inquiry, but we feel we can recommend these questions as significant items on the ecopsychological agenda. We offer them as an invitation to a still wider dialogue among all those who believe ecopsychology may provide a hopeful new beginning for the environmental movement.


James Hillman opened the conference by focusing on the psychological and ecological demands of the city. He asked, "how does the city fit into the green?" Because we have favored nature as the traditional home of the gods, the city is now often seen as the enemy of nature. We need to re-define "natural" to include the built environment so that we can re-discover the "gods of the city." The scale and population of cities are important, but the health of a city is not just a matter of size. It is a matter of how we live there and not just how many live there.

Jeff Golliher and Rachel Bagby pointed out that urban restoration is beginning to happen from within the city itself often at the initiative of people of color in search of environmental justice. Inner city populations recognize that we cannot abandon the city to urban decay but must transform it into something that is more in touch with the natural cycles.

Theodore Roszak observed that, "suburbs, with their urban sprawl, are often a failed attempt to escape the city." If we don't find ways to honor the gods of the city, then we lose the city as one of the liveliest forms of human habitat. Less than a century ago, people had many more non-urban living options. Today most of us are left with a choice between inner city and suburbs. Along with biodiversity, the diversity of our human habitat is disappearing. By creating healthy cities we may save rural life as well; we will decrease the desire to flee the city that now creates urban sprawl. But how do we create cities that fit into the local ecosystem and revitalize them as places of cultural creativity? Can the city become an extension of organic values rather than a denial of them?


Patricia Cummings and Theodore Roszak raised the question, to be sane is to be integrated. This means being in touch with the whole, which means one must engage in reciprocal relationships with the naturalworld. Can such a definition of sanity be given legal force? Patricia Cummings observed that one of the benefits of resorting to the law is to highlight issues and thereby encourage discussion in the media and general public. If the courts can legitimize and increasepublic awareness about our primary need to connect with the naturalworld, this effort is well worth pursuing. But at this point thesacredness of land is not a legally recognizable entity. Can the legal system recognize the sacred in nature and protect it?

Brian Bates, a scholar of European shamanic traditions reminded us that all cultures were originally "indigenous." He then described the way of wyrd, recommending it as a source of ecopsychological insight for Europeans and Euro-Americans. He explained that the root of the word "weird" comes from the Anglo-Saxon wyrd, the sacred unexplainable force of existence. Within pre-Christian tradition, nature was often illustrated by the image of a web. The web of nature was invisible to ordinary consciousness, but was revealed in altered psychological states. This image presented the universe as a network of fibers, where any movement anywhere affected everything else. The image of the self in turn, was perceived as a life- force in touch with guardian spirits. When one was out of balance with the natural order these spirits became inaccessible. Bates suggested that we can find remnants of an ecologically-based worldview in pre-Christian European traditions. Is it still possible to connect with our indigenous past? Can we create new rituals and meditative practices to re-vitalize the prehistoric sensibility?


Allen Kanner noted that the two most ecologically destructive forces on the planet today are consumerism and overpopulation. Moreover, consumerism is increasing due to highly sophisticated advertising that convinces us that we are inadequate unless we by an endless array of consumer goods and services. Although modern advertising is the largest single psychological project ever undertaken by humankind it is mostly ignored by western psychology. Jerry Mander descried how advertising takes advantage of the fact that inanimate objects such as toasters and fax machines, gain appeal and aliveness in the two-dimensional field of TV and billboards, while animate objects such as plants and people, lose their aliveness. Advertising makes technology seem superior and necessary. Mander observed: "we are co-evolving with the creations of our own minds in a sort of intra-species incest."

Consumer addiction becomes more pervasive in cities, where people do not have undeveloped land with which to interact. As a result they often feel resigned to, or even trapped in, a shopping mall culture.

Consumerism also gives people the illusion that they are participating in the sophisticated technological process that created the product. Technology is a major component of science and has become viewed as the highest achievement of humanity. But because few of us can be engineers or scientists, consuming their products becomes a way to feel involved with this highly valued process. On the other hand, the more in tune people are with their local ecosystem, the less likely they are to fall prey to the blandishments of consumerism.

Kanner asked: "How as therapists, can we address consumerism as a form of psychopathology?"


The trauma of being displaced from the natural world is finally beginning to emerge as an issue in the field of psychology. One of the roles of ecopsychology is to establish the importance of this issue in clinical work. Ralph Metzner reviewed several forms of psychopathology, including autism, post- traumatic stress disorder, amnesia, and addiction, that each captured a distinct component of the modern alienation from nature. Common to many of these disorders is the psychological defense of disassociation, which Metzner believes describes the current relationship of the American psyche to the natural world. He mentioned that exploring ecological consciousness necessitates that we recognize the "numbing process" of industrial society, which manifests in the psychological process of disassociation. We all agreed on the importance of overcoming psychic numbing by recognizing and expressing the pain below the "armor" of society. In this sense depression and grief must be valued as signs of profound human concerns. Can clinical psychology begin to pay attention to the urban habitat and how clients are psychologically affected by the ecological crisis? Which of the standard diagnostic categories used in psychotherapy helps illuminate our cultural condition?


Mary Gomes gathered together a group of undergraduate and graduate teachers, wilderness guides, and therapists to discuss a full ecopsychology curriculum. Everyone mentioned that students are hungry for courses and experiences that include an explicit emphasis on the human relationship to the natural world. However, there are also difficulties encountered in teaching ecopsychology. Instructors need to be prepared to help students deal with the strong feelings that arise when previously held cultural values are questioned or when grief, despair, and anger over the environmental situation come to the fore. Facilitating ecological awareness may require holding classes out of doors or scheduling wilderness trips so that students can experience both the richness of different ecosystems and the damage that industrial development has done to the landscape. Teaching that encourages ecological awareness should be based on experiential and interdisciplinary models of learning. Teachers need to share with students their honest concerns about environmental problems and make space for students to voice theirs.

There was a strong feeling that ecopsychology curricula need to include courses from environmental studies and ecological science. There was also great concern that ecopsychology not lose its political bite, experiential character, or spiritual dimension in order to be integrated into mainstream academia.

While many ecopsychology courses are now being taught, there is as yet no full curriculum in the field. Mary Gomes agreed to oversee a curricular clearinghouse. She will collect materials and answer inquiries through the Psychology Department, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA 94928.


Jeff and Asha Golliher raised the question, "when we set out to change people's environmental habits so that they will become more ecologically sensitive, what are we actually asking them to do?

The Gollihers believe that we are asking people to re-define "home," expanding its meaning both experientially and conceptually. Most people are sincerely concerned about the environment, but the global scale of the issue is too overwhelming to deal with. On the basis of on-going work in small groups in community settings, it appears that the bioregional scale is the appropriate level on which to work. The household is too small the nation is to large. This focus helps familiarize people with their local ecosystem, about which they are often surprisingly ignorant. Jeff Golliher mentioned that "watersheds and mountain ranges are inherently non-anthropocentric; they are larger than any institutional ego." The more communities begin to feel that these natural areas are their "home," the smaller the gap will be between nature and culture. Home should also include the mosaic of cultures one finds in bioregional community; it should be a place for a diversity of viewpoints.

In building an environmental ministry at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Jeff Golliher is asking churches to re-examine how they are addressing the ecological crisis. "How do we negotiate being in the world ourselves, in terms of our relation to institutions? Are institutions currently effective as vehicles for facilitating the emergence of an ecological way of being?"


< Drawing upon his studies in the phenomenology of language, David Abram asked, For them, the visual counterpart to spoken language is the land itself and not the written word. Their cultural histories are stories embedded in the land. Land is text, and meaning is found everywhere, through movement, gesture, sound, rhythm. When you drive traditional people of the land, you drive them out of their mind."

The historical movement from oral speech to the written word has impoverished this soundscape and limited the meanings available to us through the senses. When we perceive meaning only in the written word, the world becomes less magical. James Hillman noted that the moment we start seeing natural things as "dead," "we need to look and look again, which is the root meaning of `re-spect'." Must our deep psychological investment in literacy (the written word) censor our capacity to experience the animate and magical in nature?


In a lively panel discussion that was opened to the whole Esalen community, James Hillman, Patricia Cummings, Mary Gomes, and Theodore Roszak offered sharply contrasting views of our environmental condition. Their assessments were both sobering and hopeful. James Hillman warned that our civilization may well be a "sinking ship" that leaves us with little choice beyond "going down with dignity, a largely forgotten virtue." He felt that the dark side of our situation needs to be frankly faced before we search for easy consolation. Patricia Cummings confessed that her many years of work as an activist left her deeply uncertain that the major environmental organizations have the leadership or moral force to solve the most urgent, global problems. Mary Gomes offered a more optimistic possibility. Environmental sustainability may indeed require this particular ship called "industrial society" to sink, but perhaps, with the help of ecopsychology, we can find better, saner ways "to live in the water." Theodore Roszak pursued another ecopsychological insight. Is it possible that the self-regulating planet itself is now playing a major restorative role in defending life on Earth? Might this be the deeper reading of the controversial "Gaia Hypothesis?" Instead of asking "What are we going to do about the environmental crisis," perhaps we should ask, "What is the environmental crisis already doing about us?" He wondered if the more-than-human world may not be at work now, reshaping the human psyche to the needs of "the ecological unconscious." If so, where do we see signs of an emergent new form of sanity in the everyday lives of people?


David Abram, ecophilosopher, author of forthcoming The Sensuous Mind:
Perception and Language in Ecology
Allan Hunt Badiner, editor Dharma Gaia
Rachel Bagby, performer, director Outta The Box
Anita Barrows, ecopsychologist, Wright Institute, Berkeley, California
Brian Bates, Shamanic Psychology Program, University of Sussex,
Steve Beck, Esalen Lands Manager
Andre Carothers, environmental writer and activist, Greenpeace, E
Catherine Caufield, environmental writer, author of the award winning
In the Rainforest
Patricia J. Cummings, environmental lawyer, activist
Martin Davidson, organizational psychologist, Dartmouth Business
Jeff Golliher, Rene Dubos Consortium for Sacred Ecology, Cathedral of
St. John the Divine, New York
Asha Golliher, yoga instructor, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York
Mary Gomes, Psychology Department, Sonoma State University, co-editor
of Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind
Steven Harper, director Earthways Wilderness Journeys
James Hillman, co-author of We've Had a Hundred Years of
Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse
Allen Kanner, Wright Institute, Berkeley, co-editor of Ecopsychology:
Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind
Jerry Mander, author of In the Absence of the Sacred, director, Public
Media Center
Margot McLean, environmental artist, New York
Ralph Metzner, president, Green Earth Foundation, California Institute
of Integral Studies
Melissa Nelson, director Cultural Conservancy, editor Ecopsychology
Theodore Roszak, author of The Voice of the Earth, director
Ecopsychology Institute, California State University, Hayward
Betty Roszak, ecofeminist, poet, co-editor Masculine/Feminine
Jyotsna Sanzgiri, director Organizational Psychology Program,
California School of Professional Psychology
Laura Sewall, psychologist, Ecopsychology Program, Prescott College,
Brother David Steindl-Rast, co-author of The Ground We Share
Sharon Thom, Chief Executive Officer, Esalen Institute
Philip Williams, founder International Rivers Network, San Francisco

Conference Conveners: Mary Gomes, Allan Kanner, and Theodore Roszak
Conference Report Editor: Melissa Nelson
Conference Report Art: Christopher Castle (hands image based on Esalen Indian picograph)
Assistant: Mara Freeman
Funded by grants from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockwood Fund, Esalen Institute, and private donations.

The conference was organized by the Ecopsychology Institute, California State University, Hayward, Hayward, CA 94542-3045. At this point, the Institute has no instructional function. Its sole purpose is to produce the Ecopsychology Newsletter under a grant from the Goldman Environmental Foundation.

All mail should be addressed to: The Ecopsychology Newsletter, Box 7487, Berkeley, CA 94707. Subscriptions to the newsletter are $12 through 1997. Back numbers are $4 each and are in limited supply. Printed copies of this report are $3. Checks should be made out to The CSUH Ecopsychology Institute.

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