Nature outdoes Freud

Avoid therapy by taking a walk in the woods, says eco-psychologist and author Theodore Roszak

Theodore Roszak | December 2004 issue

From the beginning, Western psychologists looked on mental health strictly in the context of industrialized urban society: marriage, family, work, school, community. All the influences outside this realm apparently have no effect—or are perhaps too challenging to consider. As Freud said: “Nature is endlessly far from us and is destroying us, coolly and ruthlessly.” Many of Freud’s ideas have been called into question, but this tragic viewpoint about nature’s distance from us is still with us. And this makes nature seem hostile and far away indeed.

Eco-psychology works on the assumption that nature can restore our emotional balance. This is why some eco-psychologists use nature or gardens as “outdoor clinics”. Eco-psychologists want to apply the adage “nature heals” quite literally More than a century ago American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson complained that not enough adults “can see nature.” Otherwise, they would know that “the woods can bring us to reason and make us repent. When I’m there I feel that nothing can happen to me that nature cannot undo.”

Why do therapists make so little use of the obvious source of healing that nature offers? If someone is asked to conjure up a peaceful image, it is generally not a highway or shopping center, but a quiet pasture, a forest, ocean or starry sky. By taking such experiences seriously, eco-psychologists involve nature in mental health. Eco-psychology gives us hope because it bonds us to the earth. And when we are bonded, we are naturally called to order by an inner voice. This goes without saying for indigenous peoples, whose emotional ills are often cured by the trees, rivers, sun and stars. When we are not in harmony with nature, this is reflected in all aspects of our lives—family, work, school and community.

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