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Queerness in Nature: Identity, Meditation and Ecopsychology

“There are no straight lines in nature” — Antoni Gaudi

In 2018, coinciding with my move from Toronto to the west coast of Canada, I began to hold the possibility that I might be queer. Moving to the coast both inspired and necessitated me to reckon with my identity. Who was I and who would I become as I transplanted myself far from home, old friends, family and former communities?

Since that time, the answer has become a clear and prideful “YES!”

I am gender queer, sexually queer, cognitively queer, relationally queer. Queer through and through. And through this recognition I feel liberated. I am proud to share the journey that helped me recognize my true nature.

In addition to moving, my studies in psychology and practices in expanded states of consciousness helped guide my inquiry into my true nature. I began to notice how my own identity had been shaped by my unique upbringing, situated within a collective neoliberal, dualistic Judeo-Christian, hetero-normative culture. Identifying as a straight woman helped me fit in and belong, to an extent. Why would I question that? Fitting in is a primal survival need. It felt good to belong.

But, the more I allowed myself to hold my personal identity as an open question rather than a fixed gender or sexual orientation, the more I recognized that the binary and siloed categories on offer did not resonate with my beingness.

Owning my queerness was initially a process of shedding the default norms that were assigned to me based on my biology and the expectations of others. I’d accepted these norms as core parts of my identity throughout my life without question. In recent years, I’ve come to see that these norms double as structures of oppression. By establishing what’s normal, we also establish what’s “abnormal”. Our human nature tends to fear, ostracise and persecute anything outside the established norm because it threatens a sense of belonging and the ability to neatly categorize and quickly predict (skills we needed in the past to stay safe in the wilds).

If you ask me how I feel, I’d tell you that I feel both feminine and masculine. I also feel wild and animalistic, at times. I’m attracted to both men and women…and beings in between, including plants and animals and words and music. I’m attracted to what I find beautiful. I make a practice of following my bliss. In this culture, some of these attractions and even the radical act of following your bliss are labelled as queer. That is, outside hetero-normative, capitalistic paradigms. To me, these attractions are the most natural movements I have the privilege to make.

These days, embracing my queerness (and this is a different process/definition for everyone) is as much an embracing of my fullest, paradoxical, indeterminate and mysterious self as it is a shedding of labels like straight and woman.

The more I take an honest look within myself, the more I recognize myself as essentially fluid. I am not an image I am trying to create (though I sometimes dabble in social media). Certain identities feed my ego — therapist, guide, community organizer, consciousness explorer. But these are roles. They are not who I am. I change — emotionally, physically, psychically… All the time.

Meditation has helped me on this journey of recognition and acceptance. Each time I sit, I sit within the ever-changing nature of my experience. Practicing pure awareness helps me find ease and equanimity within that. I love to remember that I “don’t know” (a zen practice) much about anything, including myself. I’m slowly and surely replacing judgmental thinking with genuine curiosity. And as I attend to myself through regular meditation where I often planting seeds of loving awareness into my own heart, I am much more able to compassionately attend to others.

The study of ecopsychology and the works of Bill Plotkin have been speaking to me lately. Ecopsychology, the combination of human psychology with ecology, is the study of interdependence and connection among all forms of life on earth. Ecopsychology situates the human psyche and each ‘individual’ psyche as a node in a vast, interconnected network. In this shift from ego-identification to eco-identification, ecopsychology is off-centre (or de-centers the self) and is an ‘abnormal’ — or queer — paradigm. It would have to be, it’s wild.

Within an ecopsychological frame, each human is no longer an independent unit, apart from others. Rather, all humans are all already a part of their environments. From an ecopsychological perspective, our wounds are symptoms of our disconnections from the natural world and others; our health can be recovered by consciously affirming and strengthening our connectivity to the natural world and those around us.

Ecopsychology is much more than a response to an individual’s well-being and self-understanding. Ecopsychology is a response to our climate crisis and a call to action. When we can see how environmental degradation is self-degradation, when we can listen deeply to the earth, the elements, the stars, and each other, we can nourish and be nourished by the abundant connectivity of our beings. Nature, of which we are a part, speaks a language of creative resilience and renewal. The answers to our current predicaments (personal and collective) are within nature and nature is reflected within our selves. It is all right here if we can become still enough and wise enough to listen.

From Quantum theory to the theory of evolution to the current pandemic — the proof of our already existing connectivity to each other, our environments and the unseen has never been more obvious. In our search for health and wholeness, we must re-member ourselves as co-extensive of and co-existent with our physical and social environments. Meditative practices like forest bathing and establishing sit spots are tools of this trade.

As I deepen into questions of identity and ecopsychology, I am coming to experience the nature and the wilderness that appear beyond or outside of me as extensions of the nature and the wilds within me. Meditation offers us the opportunity to sit within ourselves and to clarify our true natures. And what many of us find in this experience is that we each contain a wholeness of being that is nondual. Not this-Not that. As we see in ecopsychology, the ego is not separate from ecology but contained within it. To paraphrase Rumi, we are not the drop within the ocean but the ocean within the drop. And just like the ocean, our tides shift, waves form and crash, storms brew, waters calm. As in nature, our experiences of self, “other” and the world are ever-changing. The path of meditation gifts us with teachings and practice in the arts of grace, fluidity and acceptance.

Somatics

Somatics is the practice of bringing the body into the counselling room. As Besel Van Der Kolk’s famous book is titled, “The Body Keeps the Score.” What he means by this is that the body holds all the trauma we experience, past and present. Traumatic events (big and small) become stored in the nervous system and the body’s way of holding itself. So, the theory goes, to release trauma, we must work at the level of the body.

Traditional talk therapy works with the mind; the left hemisphere of the brain does the processing, logically connecting dots, reframing, understanding things in context, working with forgiveness of self and others, perhaps. The challenge with this approach is that it works at the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t get to the driving force underneath – imagine disembodied talking heads. Trauma lives below the surface and often beyond memory, usually because trauma is something that happens “too much and too soon” for the psyche to process. And below the surface, trauma is often replayed in the nervous system as if it were happening in present time. As Van Der Kolk explains, trauma has no time stamp. Trauma stored in the body is trauma stored in the body – it is as though the trauma is happening now, running on a loop – not an isolated event that happened and was completed years ago. While talking can sometimes help us make sense of things in a coherent narrative, it doesn’t help us fully process the impacts of trauma or undo the bracing or patterning that trauma creates when it manifests physically in our bodies.

Somatics also works with nonverbal, often unconscious material. Imagine a client is sharing about the pain of a breakup while smiling. This shows a cognitive dissonance – the expression on the face does not match the emotion of loss and grief. By watching the body’s expressions, we can start to notice some deeper truths about what is happening for us. The smile may be a socially conditioned way of signaling that everything will be ok, no one needs to worry about my well-being, “I’m fine.” Or perhaps the smiling means that the relationship was really not serving the client and it is a relief to be out of it. Only by inquiring and looking into small details like facial expressions, gestures, postures and breath can we catch such nuances.

Once we are aware of how our body is expressing or holding our unconscious and our traumas, we can work at a deeper level to unpack, repattern and honor the wisdom of the body and the unconscious. Both provide strong signals as to what our psyche and nervous system need to heal. Working somatically and with the unconscious in counselling can help a client tune into the subtle language of these two facets of our experience and bring this awareness into their everyday lives to be more consonant with their deeper selves.

Interconnection and Ecopsychology

Ecopsychology connects human psychology to ecology, focusing in on the interdependence and interconnections among all forms of life on earth. Ecopsychology situates the human psyche and each “individual” psyche as a node in a vast, interconnected network. I place quotations around the word individual because from an ecological point of view, nothing exists on it own; everything exists in relationship.

It’s not uncommon to understand the challenges we face as solely our own, disconnected from the larger world around us. From an egoic perspective, it is natural to place ourselves and our problems at the centre of our own worlds. In this shift from ego-centric identification to eco-centric identification, ecopsychology extends the way we see and make sense of ourselves.

Within an ecopsychological frame, each human is no longer an independent unit, apart from others. Rather, humans are all already a part of their environments and surrounding communities. From an ecopsychological perspective, our wounds are often symptoms of our disconnections from the natural world and others. The feelings of grief, depression and anxiety we carry may be empathic responses to the destruction of nature on our planet and unhealthy culture. So, ecopsychology holds that our wellbeing depends on consciously affirming and strengthening our connectivity to the natural world and to those around us.

When we pay attention, we find that nature offers qualities of resilience and renewal. In our search for health and wholeness, we have the opportunity to re-member ourselves as co-existent with our physical and social environments. Practices like forest bathing and establishing sit spots (places we regularly visit to sit meditatively in nature) are tools of this trade. Answers to our challenges (personal and collective) can often be found within nature. Ecopsychology also teaches us to listen in and see how nature is reflected within ourselves.

While we don’t do outdoor work at Your Path, working with ecopsychology in clinical practice can involve using metaphors and processes from the natural world to frame our experiences, feeling the elements in our bodies, connecting imaginally to spaces in nature that help us feel relaxed and rejuvenated. Clients can also bring their experiences of nature into the counselling room to be processed and integrated.

Working with nature in mind has the power to change our mindsets and our ways of being with ourselves, each other, and the natural world.  

Mindfulness, Meditation and Counselling/Psychotherapy

Mindfulness meditation has come to be an important part of my practice as a counsellor. With its origins in Eastern philosophy and specifically some branches of Buddhism, mindfulness became popularized in the West in the 70s by a number of teachers and psychologists. Famously, Jon Kabbat Zin, a student of Zen Buddhism created an eight-week evidenced-based course for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). An early adopter, Kabbat Zin’s work from 1979 remains a widely successful, secular program that blended science with Buddhist principles in a course of study founded “moment to moment awareness” for a Western audience. A number of (white) people are credited with “having brought Buddhism to the West,” including Ram Dass, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, Mark Epstein. Each are therapists, writers and teachers themselves.

Mindfulness or meditation (which I use interchangeably) is the practice of moment to moment awareness, as referenced above. When we are aware of each moment, fully present to it, we cannot be stuck in the past or projecting into the future. We are simply here, now. And in this moment is a silence, a presence, a peace, a breath. Another moment follows. And on and on. Anxiety is premised on thoughts ruminations about the past and projections onto the future. When we practice mindfulness, the cultivation of presence takes the space of anxiety. When we do heart opening and acceptance practices in the moment, it is hard for depression to keep its grip.

There are a multitude of ways to practice mindfulness from eyes open to eyes closed, from practices called “do nothing” of the Zen tradition, to practices where we actively cultivate heart energy (Metta) to visualizations to mantras. The list goes on. Many counsellors, myself included, look to Buddhism to inform their therapeutic practices – whether through the adoption of Buddhist principles like non-attachment, suffering, impermanence, groundlessness, radical uncertainty, compassion (again the list goes on) or through the direct application of meditative practices as a resource in session and beyond.

I often teach mindfulness meditation to clients as a resource for our work in the room and for home practice, and as a tool for facing the everyday world. Sometimes the work we do in session requires a very fine-tuned, grounded attention that is hard to access in our default ways of being conscious and how we usually “pay attention.”


If you’re interested in learning more, some resources that I love on meditation include The Consciousness Explorers Podcast and The Consciousness Explorers Club (a welcoming community with weekly online meditation events and occasional with great teachers). A friend and teacher Jude Star has also developed an incredible course on Mindfulness for ADHD. Authors and teachers like Ram Dass, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg and Mark Epstein also have an abundance of material to dive into.