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16 Sep 2014

Mary-Jayne Rust on "reconnecting to the rest of nature"


Mary-Jayne Rust is an art therapist, a Jungian analyst, a feminist psychotherapist and an ecopsychologist. She runs a small private practice seeing individuals in North London, and also gives talks, workshops and courses and seminars in the field of ecopsychology.  She is the editor, with Nick Totton, of the recently published Vital Signs: Psychological Responses to Ecological Crisis.  We spoke recently by Skype, and I started by asking her “what exactly is ecopsychology?”

“The first thing to say is that it’s one of those funny questions because you can’t ever give a proper definition because it’s an incredibly diverse and wide field. But this is where I always start because obviously I often get asked that question so I start with.  It faces in two directions and the first direction is facing outwards. How can we bring a psychological lens to the collective shift that we’re trying to make towards sustainability?

It seems that we have many of the practical solutions to be able to make that shift, and it would also seem, if we listen to the media, that really that arena of politicians and environmentalists, I know that’s got nothing to do with us but actually when you look at the situation it would appear as if we’re really very stuck and it’s very difficult still for people to really face into this very urgent situation and think about it.

So I would say we have a psychological problem. I know that’s not the only reason why we’re stuck, but it’s psychological in part and we need some psychological help in many different ways. So an example of that would be: an organisation called Carbon Conversations set up by a psychotherapist called Rosemary Randal, who has gone into lots of different organisations, NGOs, working in the area of sustainability, helping them to think about how we might communicate climate change. It’s not just about ramming dry facts down people’s throats, it’s actually how do you engage people in this very difficult subject.

There are many other examples I could give, but I said two directions, so the other direction would be facing inwards. How does the bigger picture affect us personally. This is the first hurdle in a way where people get stuck, because it’s so overwhelming when we face into it. We feel a lot of grief, rage, despair and impotence. Particularly impotence I think, because when people look out there, they just don’t know when to start. Many, many people want to make a difference but they go to where they feel they can make a difference.

How can we help people begin to unpack that first of all? Joanna Macy and John Seed were two environmental activists in the 1980s who realised that if you didn’t take account of your feelings in the process of being an activist, you would very likely burn out, because most activists want to stay positive and they are afraid of admitting their sense of, at times “oh my God I’m not making a difference, this is all hopeless”, and so they would keep it to themselves and that would begin to eat away at them; whereas if collectively we can have safe containers to admit how we’re feeling at times, it’s like a natural cycle. We admit it, we go through a process. We come out the other side feeling empowered.


Ecopsychology is also about just generally not to do with the crisis but our human relationship with the non-human world. Psychotherapists concentrate on human to human relationships and our relationship to self. We tend to think if we go to see a therapist we’re going to talk about our personal problems and that’s usually to do with the marriage that’s not working, problems at work etc. Ecopsychology would say that actually we’re all born into a place and into a piece of land. We have very important relationships when we grow up with pets, with trees, with the sea, with the elements. With all manner of things to do with non-human relationships. And this is absolutely essential in terms of making us human.

You can see it all over the place, can’t you, that people long for this relationship, because at the moment we’re pretty cut off from it, I would say. It’s not just about our relationship with the non-human world out there, because that teaches us about ourselves as animals. It’s about our animal self. How I relate to my intuition or my instinct. How do I smell my way through life, rather than just relying on my head and trying to make decisions. This is what happens in this culture, isn’t it?

We’re taught to use our mind and our thinking and our rationality, but there’s all kinds of other parts of ourselves that are very important in terms of making decisions. Actually, we’re very good at knowing things. We have a great deal of knowledge. But I would say that our culture at the moment is lacking in wisdom. Wisdom comes through head, heart and hand, which you know a great deal about, but through being embodied, through using all aspects of ourselves. It’s when we go out and spend time outdoors that we begin to feel more embodied.

In terms of one more piece really about ecopsychology, many people think that it’s really just about reconnecting to nature, and there’s a very important piece about language there because of course we are part of nature. So it’s about reconnecting to the rest of nature. But I’ve begun to talk about how our culture affects us. A crucial part of ecopsychology is how our culture shapes our perception of the world that we live in, and that we can’t possibly think about our relationship with the rest of nature without thinking about that. How our culture organises things and what it teaches us is that apparently we’re on top of a hierarchy of beings.

That human hierarchy puts western values at the top. Race, class, gender is somewhere swimming about in the middle and indigenous peoples are right at the bottom, because they’re seen as closest to the other-than-human world. Sometimes they’re seen as animals in a very derogatory way. And then there’s a thick black line underneath which all of the rest of nature sits. Actually you could see this as capitalism, really. What’s happening at the moment, even though we appal slavery in the human world, actually we are treating the Earth, the whole of the web of life, as our slaves. So there’s a power relationship going on.

So I would say, at the core of ecopsychology is a radical shift in world view. [Here is a recent talk of Mary-Jayne’s]


When we lose a connection with nature, what do we lose?

Many, many things. One is that the motto of our culture is onwards and upwards, as if all we can think of doing is going from down there in those dark caves, making progress up into the light and into reason. This is how progress is somehow visualised.  What we’ve lost in there is that life actually moves in cycles. When we lived outdoors a bit more, like our ancestors did, we would be taught by the seasons and by death as part of life. How much contact do we have with death? I have very rarely seen a dead body, actually. Many children learn about death through their pets, that’s their first experience of death.

It’s really important, also knowing that we are very small in relation to the greater whole, and there is no greater teacher than, say, going out there and spending five days in the wilderness – which we don’t really do any more – as a kind of rite of passage. You come away from that knowing jolly well that you are smaller than this mysterious greater whole. It teaches you a lesson and it puts humans into their place. I think we’ve really lost that sense of place, and actually we’re longing for it. We invent all kinds of fake adventures through movies and scary adventures like I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. We watch it all from our comfortable armchairs on telly, but we long for that adventure.


How do you think that manifests in our culture? What do we see in our culture that is a manifestation of that separation?

From small things like never eating food according to the season. We want the things now. We imagine that we can just have anything now. It makes our culture not just into adolescents, but almost into toddlers. We see these people having tantrums when they can’t get what they want. So we’ve lost a sense of patience.

Mobile phones are the icing on the cake, because every last moment where we could possibly be, like standing at the bus stop or sitting on a train, we’re playing with mobile phones. There’s no sense of being able to tolerate frustration. It’s that frustration actually that leads to creativity and leads to the invention of new ways of being.

There’s a huge longing for something. That longing gets manifested in binge drinking, binge eating, all kinds of addictions. Work addictions. Ultimately, it’s a very destructive force. When we can’t actually get met by something out there, when that longing isn’t met, when that longing for something mysterious isn’t met, then you get self-destructiveness, destructiveness towards each other and destructiveness towards the world, and we are seeing a great destructiveness towards the non-human world.

On your website you write ‘this website is dedicated to NATURE’. Do you think there’s a danger that we over-romanticise nature? Is it only a luxury of a privileged western lifestyle that we can talk about nature in this way? Surely polio, tapeworms and tornados are nature? Isn’t there a danger that we argue that everything natural is better than it isn’t?

Yes, I think we very much do. And this is a result, especially, and I’m sure in other places too, but in the UK we live in a glorified theme park really. It’s very easy, isn’t it, to have a very comfortable view of nature when you go walking in the park? There’s no wilderness left for us to get a sense of the danger. The danger actually comes to us, say recently in the flooding. The danger comes to us in illness, in viruses. There’s all kinds of dangers, aren’t there, in our encounters with the other-than-human world. But western culture would have us believe that we can conquer all of those problems. That western medicine can conquer them. So we’re still living with this illusion that somehow we’re on top of it all, that we’re omnipotent.

And I guess when you’re an indigenous person living in it, you very quickly realise that nature is not a romantic place to live in, that wilderness is dangerous as well as awesome. It’s like any relationship: if you’re in a marriage, the love is amazing, but the difficulties are also there. The same is true of our relationship with the non-human world. There is great love and it’s very important to nurture those attachments to the rest of nature, but we have to pay respect to it as a dangerous and fearful place. Some aspects of it we really don’t like at all.

What would a re-imagined relationship with nature look like?

Arguably, the western world view, the world view of industrial growth culture, if you like, is at the root of our environmental crisis. So if we carry on seeing the Earth as a bunch of dead objects that we can just take as we wish, with no respect for life at all, with no thought of reciprocity, with no thought that this is a relationship, then we will carry on until we have destroyed ourselves and most of the rest of life.

So how do we re-imagine that? It comes back to relationship. But in an indigenous world-view for example, they would say that humans are one of the last species to arrive. So we need to ask permission to take what we need and we need to live with respect for all others. If that’s too extreme for some people, to think about indigeny, then it’s really just quite straightforward. We need to see ourselves as part of the web of life, and not on top of it. It’s a very big project to start to live with respect for other beings. To live in partnership with the rest of nature. Otherwise we’re not going to survive.

As part of this month, we interviewed George Monbiot about his book Feral and the concept of rewilding. If we were to pursue that, and to extend the large areas of wilderness populated with top predators and all manner of wildlife we currently lack, what would we discover about ourselves? What would happen to our personal and cultural level if we really let wilderness back into our landscape and our world?

This is quite a difficult question to answer. I’m familiar with what George Monbiot is proposing. My first response to your question is that it’s a great unknown really. In the unlikely event, it seems to me, that we would populate our world with top predators, I can’t imagine the powers that be really agreeing to that. But let’s just imagine for a moment that they did agree to it and the world radically changed, wouldn’t that be wonderful.

First, we’d be on the menu. That would be the first reason, wouldn’t it, that people wouldn’t allow it to happen. It’s been a very long time since we’ve been on the dinner menu. Not just us, of course, but all the other animals that we use in our farming would also be on the menu. That’s also why, for example, you don’t want to reintroduce wolves to Scotland.


But what we would find is what you get when you listen to George Monbiot speak about this: you get a sense of coming back to life. There’s a sense of deadness in how comfortable we’ve made our world. Of course I understand why we’ve done that, but we’ve lost all sense of adventure. We’ve lost a sense of living on the edge in ourselves. We’ve lost a sense of our wild selves. As I said earlier, we see many humans going in search of that because it’s a huge piece that’s missing.

We create the adventure that we’ve lost. We go into wilderness for adventure holidays and sometimes people die and then health and safety gets very agitated, but introducing top predators would be a very big issue for health and safety people, wouldn’t it?  I suppose we would bring back a sense of that wild part of ourselves which would be a very core part of the meaning of being alive.

How important is connection with nature as a tool for addressing burnout in activists for positive change?

In terms of burnout there’s connection on many levels. There’s a connection with self, for a start, and I’m going to go back to what I said earlier about when we spend time outdoors, we’re reconnected to life as a cycle. Many activists, understandably because of the urgency of the situation, go onwards and upwards as our culture has taught us to do. We don’t allow for fallow periods. When was the last time you heard of an activist going on a pilgrimage for eight months? They don’t take time out. Somehow it just seems as though we’ve got to get on with the cause. So that would be the first thing, to learn how to live in a cycle with oneself, and that would mean on a daily level, on a yearly level, but also that we might do seven years on and take one year off.

But also it would look a bit different if we were living a bit more outdoors and getting that incredible sense of nourishment. That’s another question for activists. Where do you get nourishment? You can’t go on giving out. You have to have some input. Where does that come from? I suppose for everyone there’s going to be a different answer to that question. For me personally, I make a pilgrimage to Hampstead Heath every single day.

I swim in the Women’s Pond and that takes me about an hour and a half if I’m quick and that’s an absolutely essential part of my day. I couldn’t see endless clients without that and I couldn’t do the ecopsychology work that I do without that. Everyone has to have some form of daily practice in my opinion, in order not to get burnt out.  That’s just a few little examples.

My last question was the thing that came out of talking to Caspar Walsh recently that was really interesting. He does work with young men from the cities who’ve been in prison or whatever, and brings them out to a wild place in Devon and they spend time in the woods and all that kind of stuff. He said when you’re in the bus with them, and they come out of London and they drive down the M5, down the A38, down the little lanes and the lanes get smaller and mossier and then you pull into this place in the middle of nowhere, actually their experience is by the time they arrive there they’re terrified because the only time that their key experience of nature is in horror films. People go into the woods and terrible things happen to them. He said the film, the Blair Witch Project, probably did more damage to a whole generation and its interaction with nature than anything else. I thought that was a really fascinating insight and just wondered what your thoughts were on that?

That’s an interesting view and it’s not an insight that I’ve had, so it’s quite new to me making that link with nature and horror films. I would also say that it’s terrifying because it’s so unfamiliar. I heard on the radio the other day about some kids who saw potatoes in the ground for the first time, and said ‘eurgh, I’m not eating that, it’s come out of dirt’. They’re just not familiar with it. Or milk out of cows’ udders. They would probably think it was disgusting. It’s a lot to do with familiarity, I think, as much as associations that our culture has laid onto it.

One of the most important things about trying to make this shift, it’s coming to me more and more strongly about how important it is to understand the resistance in our culture at quite a deep level to making the change. It manifests in all kinds of different ways but let me give you a couple of examples.

One is a ‘green prison’ that I was reading about in Norway, where the prison is on an island and the men grow their own food and they spend a great deal of time outdoors, and lo and behold the violence towards themselves and towards the prison officers and towards each other is drastically reduced, something like 80%. Their reoffending rate is brought down massively after they’re let out of prison. So wouldn’t you think that as soon as all governments in the world would hear about such a project that they would want to convert all prisons to looking like that, because it would save them enormous amounts of time and money?


But couldn’t you imagine what would happen in this country if such a prison were opened? The tabloids would tear it apart immediately, because prisoners must be punished. So there’s a real tension there between what we know would be a very good idea, ultimately and would save us all time and trouble and would protect people, protect the general public, and somehow an idea that people have got about what should happen.

Another example, the Natural Change Project which colleagues of mine, Dave Key and Margaret Kerr have been doing up in Scotland. They were funded by a large green NGO to set up this project where they picked key people, key leaders of the community, to take them through a six month programme which included spending large amounts of time in the wilds as well as really thinking about sustainability at a deeper level. Their own relationship to the non-human world and their own relationship to themselves.

They go through a long process and come out the other end, and it’s had a huge impact on all of those people. And by the way, those people at the start were no greenies. One quote from one of them was that she’d never been off a pavement in her life. So this is quite an amazing feat that they have made such an impact, not only on these individuals, but then these individuals have taken these ideas back into their organisations and made a huge impact. It’s had huge ripples right across the board in terms of policy making, education, all sorts of things.

Now, wouldn’t you think that would be a really great project to be funded across the country and across the world? Here we have a new exciting way by which to enable people to live more sustainably and to communicate that to other people so effectively? But no, their funding has been cut. Why? I’m only left to imagine why, but I imagine because it’s too touchy-feely for quite a traditional green NGO. They didn’t like what was going on, they didn’t like the emotional process that these people were being taken through. It clashed with the image of their organisation.

Now I have to say that Dave and Margaret have taken that organisation on and they’ve developed it in other ways, and they’re about to start a three year training. But it’s been a real struggle without organisational funding. There’s loads of examples like that. I just think it’s really interesting psychologically to think about what stops us doing what makes most sense. 

Images from a walk taken on Dartmoor by the Editor and his son.