Sunday, June 8, 2014

Green Psychology: Transforming Our Relationship to the Earth

Book Review: Green Psychology: Transforming Our Relationship to the Earth by Ralph Metzner, Ph.D. (Park Street Press 1999)

This was an interesting book well worth reading. I would rate it better than David Suzuki’s The Sacred Balance, which is on a similar topic. It was a bit of a slow start but once it got going it was quite engaging. Metzner explores various prevailing social metaphors involving our relationship with nature and offers some new ways of seeing based in ecophilosophy and animistic leanings.

The first supposition is that there is an imbalance in the human-nature relationship. Evidence of this is simply the degree of ecological destruction we are facing every day from pollution, climate change, habitat loss, etc. Metzner thinks ecopsychology, or “green psychology” is a natural part of psychology. Ecology favors a ‘systems view’ and such a holistic view can and should be incorporated into our social sciences, he says. Such a view is opposite of traditional science which favors specialization and fragmentation.

Metzner is perhaps better known for his work with hallucinogenic substances. He co-authored The Psychedelic Experience with fellow Harvard psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. He has also participated in hallucinogenic ceremonies with indigenous peoples. A few of the chapters consider the participatory animism of indigenous cultures that utilize ‘plant medicine’ as a model to be rediscovered in an ecological context. Here he describes a journey to Chiapas, Mexico to undertake a balche’ ceremony with the Lacandon Maya, who along with other modern Maya are thought to have retained some of the traditions of the ancient Maya. Balche is a slightly fermented drink of tree bark that is said to promote empathic and pleasant social feelings,  maybe like kava or MDMA. In any case, his insight after the ceremony is that so-called Third World indigenous peoples should be called First World since they are our past and they generally live in harmony with their environment and tend to hold an animistic and ‘systems view’ of reality.

Following the alchemical view of transmutation of matter, Metzner writes about Earth as macrocosm and human as microcosm. Here he points out that ancient and indigenous thinking was analogical – utilizing metaphors. Indeed metaphor is a big part of our quest for understanding and meaning in life. We are made of the same substances that make up the earth. The Earth spins on an “imaginary” axis. In some occult systems such as yoga, there is a central channel (shushumna) in the subtle body that is like such an axis. The Earth has a magnetic field and possibly other energy fields. Humans do as well. The rather intuitive correspondences of soil and rocks, bone and muscles as earth, blood and oceans as water, breath and wind as air, and lightning and nerves/brain and body heat as fire are clear. The notion of elemental beings is prevalent among indigenous peoples and among the alchemical philosophers such as Paracelsus. The earth is a being in traditional cultures as it is also in Lovelock’s modern Gaia theory. Simple notions of an earth mother, a world tree, or seeing the earth as a super-organism as in Gaia theory, can be the basis of an environmental ethic. Metzner asks the question: In such a metaphor, what part of the super-organism are humans? Some think we are the brain and nervous system. We are trying to understand our role in the system and to apprehend the system as a whole. Seeing ourselves as part of the system of a super-organism is quite different than seeing nature as subservient to us, as something we have been given dominion over.

Metzner has worked with the elements in guided imagery rituals as well as in Native American ceremonies. As a psychologist he sees the shadow side of the elements, associated with our fears, as being important. The elements may be accomplice to our deaths as well as to the catastrophes facing the planet. It is the elements that become polluted and that become destructive in floods, wildfires, landslides, earthquakes, storms, droughts, etc. Technology threatens ecocide through climate change. Metzner gives details of his own vision quest experience of fasting alone in the Mojave Desert of California. His particular vision involved the four elements and four directions, the traditional medicine wheel.  

Next is a chapter on the visions of Hildegard von Bingen. She was an 11th century abbess in a monastery in Germany who wrote extensively of visions, natural medicine, physics, and she also wrote some beautiful music and drawings. Her visions revealed a different sort of natural religion than that which the Church was accustomed. She was a Christian mystic, a seeress. I have often wondered if she was a sort of continuation of the seidr mages and spae women of the Germanic heathen traditions which would certainly have still been in the folk memory of the time – although she described her visions as clear and non-trance-like. She was called the Sibyl of the Rhine. She was certainly very creative. Her visions were quite Christianized in purport but also rather psychedelic and animistic in content. She was also a social activist and sought reforms in the Church. Like Black Elk and other seers, communicating her visions became cathartic for her. Her visionary philosophy is replete with vitalism in her concept of viriditas – the “greening” or “green power.” “Jesus is called Greenness Incarnate and Mary is the Viridissima Virga, the greenest of all green branches in God’s orchard. “full of the greening power of springtime.” Greenness derives from the fire of the sun. She used a metaphor of God as the sun empowering the human soul as sap of a tree, Understanding as greenness of leaves, will or desire as flowers, feeling as unripe fruit, intellect as ripe fruit, and sense perception as height and breadth of the tree. In her visions the elements of matter are animated and humans are encouraged to “cultivate the elements in the appropriate manner” and avoid their destruction. Their destruction and subsequent healing seems to have been a part of some of her more apocalyptic visions. Nature as macrocosm and the human body as microcosm are recurrent features of her visions and of pre-17th century medieval thought in general.

The author notes that at first his interest in psychoactive plants was for consciousness transformation. Later he became more interested in the relationship between humans and the plant realm, the ethnobotanical interface. He wondered why in some cultures these substances could be highly regarded as sacraments while in our wider modern culture they were seen as recreational and also as destructive substances. In this sense he sees botanical substances having more established patterns of use than synthesized substances with accompanying “morphogenetic fields” – he utilizes Rupert Sheldrake’s idea that long-time precisely repeated rituals imprint a memory on these fields of nature that can be tapped into. The botanical forms would be better than the synthesized for doing that. There are some who consider that the sacraments used in the rites of Eleusis were ergot derivatives, so similar to LSD. Metzner also examines the role of psychedelic drugs as Gnostic catalysts:

1)      The evolution of consciousness is a transformational process that consists primarily in gaining insight and understanding, or gnosis.
2)      The acceleration of this process by molecular catalysts not only is a consequence of new chemical discoveries but also is an integral component of traditional systems of transformation, including shamanism, alchemy, and yoga.

He explores the difference between a state of consciousness and a psychological trait. William James first made this distinction in his Varieties of Religious Experience when considering spiritual epiphanies and mystical experiences. Having insight through psychoactive drugs is certainly not the same as being able to apply such insight in everyday life. Such drugs are merely tools that can help one tap inner abilities, for good or ill, and as such are dependent on one’s intention and psychological history as well as on ‘set and setting.’ The quest for visions and insight is a main feature among shamans and shamanistic cultures. Altered states of consciousness are readily pursued, but done so according to the traditional methods which utilize specific ceremonial content. Recreation exploration can include such features but often does not. Traditional alchemy also included plants and other substances and the goal of the practice was inner transformation of the human vessel. Taking an Underworld Journey may have been a feature of some Western and Celtic forms as professed by Celtic mystic R.J. Stewart. Yoga is another modality where hallucinogens were used to some extent for inner transformation. The author refers to these three modalities: shamanism, alchemy, and yoga, as the three main traditional forms of transformation but he also points out that these paths were typically only tread by a few even in the ancient societies and not by the multitudes.

Next he returns to the human-nature relationship and gives several possible “metaphors of organic pathology” to describe these imbalances. Such analogies were articulated by James Lovelock in his last book, Healing Gaia. First is: Anthropocentrism and the Human Superiority Complex. This is well described as a flawed attitude among ecological thinkers. Ecologists generally advocate a shift from human-centered thought to biosphere or ecosystem-centered thought. Much of this human-centered view was propagated by Christian dominionism (though some have argued that the term really should mean stewardship) as well as humanistic mechanistic science. Another possible pathology metaphor is: Developmental Fixation. This was described by ecologist Paul Shepard as a sort of arrested development of humans in the Western Judeo-Christian society where we are fixated at a certain child development stage. This is based on the developmental psychology of Erick Erikson and Harold Searles. The basic idea is that we are stuck in a stage as childish adults. Ways to fix such a problem might be better initiation rituals and attention to early bonding among the young. Thomas Berry calls our pathology an Autism that was brought on by Descartes and the purveyors of mechanistic science so that we became detached from nature and less in tune with it. Another metaphor is that of Addiction. Some say that capitalism promotes suicidal and ecocidal behavior in that we become addicted to the products we produce, such as fossil fuels and the technologies and modern conveniences that use them up. Another pathology metaphor is Narcissism. This idea here suggests that our rampant consumerism is fueled by a sense of entitlement based on a grandiose self-image but also on deep-seated feelings of unworthiness. Do we long to be filled and does materialism fill us? Another pathology metaphor is Amnesia, or more specifically, a collective amnesia that has cut us off from the wisdom of our ancestors, particularly the eco-wisdom. Another metaphor is Repression of the Ecological Unconscious. Theodore Roszak wrote in The Voice of the Earth that such repression has allowed the madness of industrial society. He also proposed that Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’ could also be seen as an ‘ecological unconscious’ in the sense that it is “the living record of cosmic evolution.” The last pathology metaphor given is Dissociation. Dissociative disorders like PTSD and MPD (multiple personality disorder) are dysfunctional examples but dissociation is a normal part of some activities like trance, hypnosis, and even attention. The ability to split consciousness and dissociate from the harm we cause collectively through pollution, war, and even climate change is both useful and pathologic. As we have seen in more recent times there is both guilt and pride when one sincerely evaluates one’s own degree of “greenness.” We strive to be “eco-conscious” but we still waste and over-consume. The split between humans and nature may be seen as dissociation. Metzner also notes the split between the spiritual and the natural to be dissociative. The idea is that if we advocate control or conquest of nature then this attitude will project outward in our human-to-human and human-to-animal relationships as well. Metzner suggests that one antidote to this worldview is recognizing and respecting views other than our own.

Metzner’s tale of the historical roots of the human-nature split involves the rise of mechanistic science in the 17th century, perhaps paired with the earlier Protestant Ethic. This gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and growth economy models and all the environmental destruction they have initiated. But much of this is due to population growth and indeed the Industrial Revolution has fueled technologies that save lives, improve the quality of lives, and allow more people to live with less suffering. Metzner mentions humanism, Protestantism, and colonialism as co-products of mechanistic science. He also considers the rise of Transcendental Monotheism as a factor. Here the divine is seen as beyond nature. God is depicted as a transcendent law-giver. He considers polytheistic animism as more in-tune with nature and a worldview we should reconsider. He mentions the animistic leanings of William Blake – quite evident in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell as well as the bargain in Goethe’s Faust as a trade of the simplistic harmony of the indigenous past for the complex and environmentally destructive techno marvels of Industrialism.

The Judeo-Christian assault on paganism is explored from the Hebrew priests and prophets denouncing the worship of goddess Asherah to the crusades against Islamic “infidels” and other heretics. Jews were expelled from Spain in the late 1400’s and the Inquisitions began. Consolidation of power and doctrine through this ethnic and ideological cleansing likely had the effect of cutting people off more from the natural world where animism seems rather intuitive. This preceded the rise of mechanistic science which deepened the split.

Next he delves into what has become known as feminist interpretations of mythology expounded by the likes of Marija Gimbutas, Robert Graves, Mircea Eliade, and others. This branch is a bit different than the one coming from C.J. Jung and Joseph Campbell. Here new myths replacing old ones such as the Olympian pantheon replacing the earlier goddess-centered religion are seen as invasions by more nomadic peoples. These Kurgan (presumably Indo-European) cultures as Gimbutas calls them, made successive waves of invasion and migration and their patriarchal sky god based religions seem to have become foremost in the later combined cultures. This may have happened among Semitic and Sumerian peoples as well where the cult of Inanna was subdued by the cult of the hero Marduk, who slew the primal sea goddess Tiamat. The interplay of the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh and the wild man Enkidu may also be seen as an interplay between civilized man and wild man. He also mentions the evolution of vegetative gods like Osiris and Dionysus into later forms such as the Orphic Dionysus and the medieval Green Man. The Norse-Germanic Aesir gods may be seen as invading sky god culture and the Vanir as pre-existing earth/fertility more goddess-centered culture. Others such as Dumezil think the Aesir-Vanir conflict is more of a class conflict within the same culture but Metzner points out that both ideas may be consistent. Nomadic horse-warriors from the steppes invading agricultural settled Neolithic societies was likely followed by integration of the societies with class conflict as the invaders began as the ruling class and gradually the cultures merged. It was perhaps the first evidence of “colonialism.” 

Metzner explores three “mythic complexes” that may have arose from this ‘invasion and assimilation’ model: 1) Myths that justify invasion and domination – first here are IE myths of veneration of cattle-raiding as the pastime of a proper warrior and economist. The Semitic myth of Cain and Abel may be another where God accepts the offerings of the shepherd Abel but not of the farmer Cain, as it was the Hebrew herders who conquered the Canaanite farmers. Yahweh also cursed the serpent (symbol of earth and underworld) and the woman, perhaps as more justification of dominance – over women and the earth. Even the myth of Adam and Eve partaking of the fruit given by the serpent could be seen as them partaking of the ritual of the agrarian earth goddess cult, for which they were cursed by Yahweh. The treatment of Ishtar by Gilgamesh and her depiction as weak and overly amorous in the Babylonian epic could be another example. Theseus defeating the Minotaur could be seen as a justification for the Athenian Greeks invading Crete. 2) Myths of Resistance and Retaliation – The story of the Aesir-Vanir war and the seemingly indestructible nature of the female Vanir protagonist Gullveig might be an example. The ancient Greek story of the revenge of goddess Gaia against sky god Uranus. Uranus, equated with the Indo-Aryan Varuna, can be seen as an invading god, first son of Gaia then consort of Gaia and father of the nature spirits as Titans and Cyclops. Uranus banished the Cyclops. Gaia got vengeance by having her son Kronos castrate Uranus. This is retaliation, but it could also represent loss of fertility or generative power by not properly propitiating the female and her offspring. Another myth of this type may be the Curse of Macha in the Celtic tradition where this horse goddess was forced by the Irish King of Ulster to run races while she was very close to giving birth. She won the race but cursed the men of Ulster with the pains of childbirth in times of need. 3) Myths of Compromise and Reconciliation – the myth of Demeter and Persephone where Persephone is abducted by Hades is perhaps one of this type. Demeter is enraged when she finds out that Zeus was in on the abduction and retaliated by withdrawing the fertility of the land. Zeus and the gods are forced to compromise so that order could be restored. The Mysteries at Eleusis celebrated this myth and the compromise and reconciliation. The rites were attended regularly by thousands of Greeks for many centuries. In Celtic myth there is the marriage of the warrior-king to the goddess of the land. Such a marriage ensures fertility, prosperity, and well-being. Nordic-Germanic myth has the reconciliation of the Aesir and Vanir in a ritual where the gods of both tribes all spit into a cauldron and from it arises the wise being Kvasir. Kvasir is killed by two dwarves and his blood is mixed with honey to make the Mead of Inspiration. Saliva is an archaic means of inducing fermentation. The author thinks that these three mythic patterns: justification of dominance, resistance and retaliation, and compromise and reconciliation are prevalent throughout Europe and the Near East. The prevailing patriarchy remains destructive in various ways, from the mostly women who were murdered in the Inquisitions to more modern pathologies like rape culture. He thinks that rituals of reconciliation especially, can be relevant today in solving world problems and conflicts.

Next he explores the Black Goddess/Madonna, the Green Man, and the Wild God as archetypes of earth wisdom. The Black Virgin forms of the Virgin Mary are generally associated with the healing power of places and in that sense emerged from an earlier age. Pilgrimage to these places is common and could be seen as venerating place as sacred. There were more ancient black goddesses like Isis, Kali, Inanna, Anat, Lilith, Diana, Neith, and Cybele. The Green Man is a vegetative archetype based on previous vegetative gods like Osiris, Dionysus, Demeter, and Shiva. The Aztecs had the Prince of Flowers, Xochipilli. Among the flowers depicted with him were those of hallucinogenic plants. The hump-backed flute player, Kokopelli, whose name resembles Xochipilli, may have come from the Aztecs through diffusion. Among the Hopi he is identified with the grasshopper who accompanied migrations. He is also said to carry seeds of corn, squash, beans, and flowers. He is invoked for fertility and may have been associated with insect pollination. Many of the numerous cave paintings of Kokopelli show him with erect phallus, indicative of a deity of fertility. Another deity of growing things given is the Afro-Brazilian Orisha, Ossaim. He is the green, one-legged (like a plant stalk) and one-eyed (like a flower) patron of herbalists, botanists, pharmacists, and those who work with plants. Wild God archetypes include Enkidu from the Sumero-Babylonian Gilgamesh epic. In the story the wild Enkidu is more like a hunter-gatherer than the civilized Gilgamesh, and has more prophetic and shamanistic powers. The wild god Pan is another archetype as well as satyrs and all the spirits of the woods. Artemis, as Lady of the Beasts is another. Cernunnos may have been a man-animal hybrid horned-god of the wood from earlier times. Further back there are depictions of horned humans on cave walls painted in the Paleolithic. Human and nature were necessarily ritually integrated in hunter-gatherer times. Survival, and perhaps sanity, depended on it. The author also sees Odin of this type as the shamanic seeker of knowledge and Mimir’s well as a well of evolutionary remembrance where our stories of origins can be accessed, through shamanic techniques such as fasting, exhaustion, and ingesting psychoactive plant medicines.

Next, Metzner examines ritual imbibing of hallucinogens in traditional shamanic forms, including some of his personal experiences. He compares traditional use of psychedelics with hybrid forms in modern societies and use of “empathogens” like MDMA in such hybrid ritual settings which incorporate some shamanic elements and some psychoanalytic elements. The Native American Church has certain formats developed over the past century for the peyote ceremony. The San Pedro cactus ceremonies in the Andes, the mushroom ceremonies of the Mexican Mazatecs, and the ayahuasca ceremonies in the Amazon have similar features where there is singing, chanting, and drumming/rattling accompanies the process. There is ‘set and setting’ to help the experiencer on the journey. Such is also the case in some sacramental psychedelic circles that are not traditional. The ayahuasca cults, Mexican forms, and Native American Church all include Christian elements so that these “traditions” are really more modern syncretisms.

Metzner lists some common insights gathered through psychedelic trips including: a sense of an interconnected continuum of reality, an expanded view where different realms seem more possible, a realization that we are not separate from the continuum that is nature itself, and that nature seems to be animated with accessible intelligences of some sort. He suggests that well designed psychedelic ceremonies could heal the human-nature split but I do not think that will catch on anytime soon as there are some dangers with hallucinogens and much negative publicity, not to mention that most are illegal. He notes that discovery of new synthetic hallucinogens and rediscovery of ancient ones seemed to coincide with greater threats to the world such as nuclear weapons and the possibility of eco-catastrophes and that one might even see this as nature suggesting her own cure. It is an interesting thought but not in any way verifiable. He suggests the arising of other movements such as ecofeminism and deep ecology as being similar manifestations but I am not so sure.

Perhaps the best suggestion in this book is one advocating a - Transition to an Ecological Worldview. This is intuitive to many of us but I think it also needs to be tempered with an acknowledgement that we are collectively responsible for the ecological problems of the world, not just corporations, fuel industries, growth economy models, and consumerism of the affluent. An ecological worldview is a systems view, one where it is acknowledged that all parts of the system are interconnected and what affects one part may affect other parts and probably affects the system as a whole. Metzner makes some lists comparing the transition from the Industrial Age to the new Ecological Age. A few examples are: mechanistic view to organismic view, universe-as-machine to universe-as-story (or process), determinism to probability, linear causality to chaos: non-linear dynamics, dominion to symbiosis, exploitation to stewardship, humanist to biocentric or ecocentric, land use to land ethic, ownership of real estate to bioregional inhabitance, hierarchies of gender/race/class to social ecology/eco-justice/diversity, transcendent divinity to immanent divinity, specialized disciplines to integrated disciplines, split of science and humanities to re-integration of them, nation-state sovereignty to multinational federations, centralized national authority to decentralized bioregions, cultural homogeneity to pluralistic societies, multinational corporations to community-based economies, economic growth and development to sustainability, fossil fuels to renewables, waste overload to reuse/recycling, monoculture farming to poly- and permaculture, and factory farms to family and community farms. One may not agree with his whole list of the changing from an industrial to an ecological paradigm but many of these notions (about 15 years since this book was written) are now fairly obvious and are happening to some extent but many not fast enough.

Our relationships to place and to story are examined. Two models are ecopsychology and bioregionalism. Ecopsychology sees the human as part of the ecosystem. We are creatures affected by our surroundings, the geography and climate in which we live. Bioregionalism sees place in terms of biotic communities, natural boundaries, geographic features, and ecologic vulnerability. Our relationship to story involves our relationship to time. Story is to time as place is to space. We have a linear history, a mythic history, a species history, and even an evolutionary history that extends to precursor species all the way down to the first types of life. Our story may well extend further back than that to the origin of the universe and perhaps beyond that to the timeless awareness that transcends any origins. Places and stories have names. A place has inhabitants as a story has characters. Our relationship to the earth as a species is a collective relationship and to make the relationship symbiotic we probably need to act more in unison, in synch, with shared goals of sustainability and a shared ecological worldview regardless of individual ideological leanings.

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