(This paper was written for a course called, "Ecopsychology: The Psyche in Nature" at Pacifica Graduate Institute, and the author granted the School of Lost Borders permission to publish it on our website)
For what is inside you is what is outside of you and the one who fashions you on the
outside is the one who shpaed the inside you. And what you see outside of you, you
see inside of you, it is visible and it is your garment
(Terry Tempest Williams)
Within the subject of spirit and matter we can see how these elements might be viewed as separate. Culturally we view nature as a resource and a means to an end. Jung (2002) stated “Nature is not matter only, she is also spirit” (p. 80). In the following paper, I will review and discuss the experience at Sedgewick Reserve on my medicine walk. I will discuss how nature mirrored my own internal landscape and how that informed me in a depth psychological way. I will then discuss how I offered the exercise and exploration of the medicine wheel and medicine walk to a group of young women who participate weekly in a group I facilitate called Moon Circle.
I had been excited for the medicine walk for 3 years. There is always a buzz at Pacifica when the third years are taken from campus to go on their medicine walk. No one really spoke about the experience, but there was a growing anticipation as I entered my third and final year at Pacifica and it was now our turn. I had no idea what to expect or even where we would be going. I just knew that it would be a moving experience of how nature mirrors our psyche. Steven Foster and Meredith Little’s The Four Shields: The Initiatory Seasons of Human Nature (1998) states,
The four shields is an ancient paradigm with psychological implications. It posits the circle of human self-thus within the context of nature and shows how the outside of the circle reflects the inside of the circle, and vice versa. It may be that in the earliest times, there is no human sense of differentiation between inside and outside, or as Jung put it, between “subject” and “object.” Nature’s four shields were conceived to be equal to – same as – the four shields of human nature” (Foster & Littler, 1998, p. 16)
This idea resonates deep within as I recall my own experiences in nature and feeling a deep connection between psyche and nature.
We arrived at the reserve and after becoming acquainted with the surroundings we settled in for the lecture of the Four Shields. While I was sitting and listening to the lecture, I kept looking out the window to an area that seemed to be calling me. I knew exactly where I would be heading when I left for my medicine walk, but had no idea what awaited me at the top of the hillside. As we prepared to enter the liminal space, a blessing was given; and an intention was set as I purposefully stepped over a threshold to symbolically represent an altering of space and time. As I headed out toward my destination, I noticed that I was alone. I stopped by a tub of water to watch the guppy swim ferociously out of my shadow. Since I had a dream of a fish impaling itself into the palm of my hand, fish have always represented the numinous for me, so I saw this as a positive sign as I continued on my journey.
I located the area in which I was being called to and decided to go straight up the side of the hill. As I began to trek up the hillside, I noticed that I was in tall grass and although I was high stepping, I suddenly became frightened by the possibility of encountering a snake. I stopped to see if I could locate a stick to assist me, but a voice inside instructed me to turn around and go back down to the path. As I turned around, the same voice thanked me for listening to my instinct. It was at that moment that psyche and matter began to interact with me. I returned to the path and continued along the road. I found an old piece of a wooden fence that had seemed to be placed magically in front of me. I picked up the stick and continued on my way.
Shortly after finding the stick, I came across a set of wooden planks that made a stairway up to the top of the hillside that I was aiming for. I laughed a bit to myself as the voice told me, “You don’t have to try so hard to get to where you are going; the path has been laid out before you”. As I began my ascent up the wooden stairs I began to feel myself drop deeply into the experience. Along the way I encounter my shadow walking right along side me and I greeted its appearance knowingly. As I came to the top of the hill I noticed a big white circular building and realized that I was at the observatory. As I continued up toward it, I saw what at first I thought was a gargoyle and thought how cool is that? And then I came closer only to realize it was another piece of the observatory that was covering in a white cloth. I laughed to myself a bit embarrassed by my eyes playing a trick on me. After I got over my humility I thought maybe it was a gargoyle disguising itself as a piece of metal letting me know that I am safe here.
As I came around the observatory, I saw the grand oak tree before me. I knew this is what called me to come to this particular place. I found a nice grassy spot and laid out my little blanket and set up my compass. I faced the oak tree with the observatory to my back. When I put my backpack down, for some reason my music turned on automatically on my phone. The song that was playing was by the artist Carole King and the song was “It’s too late.” Again, laughing out loud to myself I could not help but wonder why that particular song. I had not listened to Carole King in quite a while, but I decided to use it as an entry to where I might be going. I found it interesting how I was positioned between the oak tree and the observatory. Stuck between the scientific and depth-orientated world is not easy. I did not want to feel as though I was turning my back on science, but for this particular journey I needed to focus on nature and what she wanted to communicate to me.
I felt my positioning between the two worlds and for me it was helpful to distinguish between a more thinking rational mode of science to the more feeling tone of being in nature. In regards to science and nature Jung wrote,
When mankind passed from animated Nature into an examined Nature, it did so in the most discourteous way: animism was held up to ridicule and reviled as superstition. When Christianity drove away the old gods, it replaced them by one God. But when science de-psychized Nature, it gave her no other soul, merely subordinating her to human reason. Under the dominion of Christianity the old gods continued to be feared for a long time, at least as demons. But with science considered Nature’s soul not worth a glance” (2002, p. 134).
It is difficult for me to imagine nature without a soul. I could feel her on the top of the mountain. I felt her lovingly brush my face with the wind and her caress as it whipped through my hair. I felt her in the warmth of her embrace as the sun shown on my face. I considered the observatory behind me and felt a deep appreciation for what science has done for us, for me it is a split that feels painful. I was also conscience that I believe that science has a soul too, so I let the observatory know that I was not turning my back on science, but for the time being I was turning toward nature.
I prepared my compass to see which direction I was facing as I sat before the grand oak tree. The oak tree was directly in the direction of the West, the season of Fall. It made so much sense to me that I had encountered my shadow along the path. I am the adolescent in transition, and at times it is very painful. I lean into depressive moods more so now, as I contemplate my life and work on my relationship to my animus. I felt that I was pulled up the mountain by way of the South: excited to be on my journey, having no clue as to what was coming, and the thought of exploration thrilled me. But according to the grand oak tree, my work was in the West. I needed to explore my wounds and how they might be some of my greatest gifts. I needed to sit in my shit and I knew it. It made sense to me now why Carole King came on my Ipod, “summer must become fall” (Foster & Little, 1996, p.8). An aspect of my adolescent self or shadow needed to be integrated in order for me to move toward the North.
I feel as though I have been in the West for sometime now. It is impossible for me to get anything done. I seemed to be in conflict with my animus most of the time, which then gets projected onto my husband. I can hardly put pen to paper right now and how do you explain that when you at are the end of your Ph.D. and you cannot seem to write a single sentence. I feel as though all I can do most days is show up. I am deeply introverted “The fall represents a time of constriction, a time of inwardness, when the child of summer must symbolically die to the childhood and be reborn as an adult” (Foster & Little, 1996, p. 8). I know depression and in the past I would make a rush for some kind of medical relief. However after years of experience along knowing the seasons of nature, I no longer need to do that. Now I know that it is purposeful and if I can remember that; continue to tolerate its difficulty, I will move through it. I remember that this is not a permanent state. This is a season that I am in and nature is not stagnating, it moves and soon enough I will be in the North.
As I continued to contemplate the West, I was drawn into the canopy of the grand oak tree. She is majestic! I circle around the tuft of grass that lay beneath her veil of branches and asked permission to enter. I was in awe of her greatness and felt held as I stood underneath her branches. I felt the presence of my mother who I lost some years ago. I thought of my own need to be mothered right now especially in the direction that I resided in. I began to cry as I reached my arms around the waist of the tree and gazed up lovingly to the top. I wondered how is it that I can be a mother of 4 and yet feel as though I am the one that’s in need of my mother?
I continued to cried and began to say the Hail Mary which is a prayer that I grew up saying in order to honor the Blessed Mother. I felt like a motherless, teenage girl looking for some support during this transitional time in my life. Transition is difficult and being in the threshold is painful. I know this from my many years of working with transgender individuals. It is the transitional space that feels unbearable. Not knowing who you are or who you are becoming: the betwixt and between. “The practice of the medicine walk invites us to explore your own relationships tour life transitions” (Davis, p.1) it was clear to me that medicine walk was providing me with the experience of nature reflecting back the aspects of the internal transition that I am in. I too feel the tremendous suffering that happens during change, but now I hold solace in knowing the beauty of nature and understanding that movement is inevitable.
As I continued to pray I feel a sense of loss and mourning, I decided to direct my prayers in all four directions of the shield. I stood in the middle of the trees and observatory and began to pray out loud. I pray for our earth, I pray for the cohort and I pray for my patients. I also pray for my shadow and for myself. I pray for the death of aspects of my ego that no longer served, and for my adolescent ways of being in the world right now. And finally for a brief moment I prayed for a sign that my mother could hear me. All of a sudden I was startled by a loud bang and at that very moment a piece of wood fell from the side of the observatory.
I immediately stopped and looked around to see if anyone was up on the mountain with me. I could not see anyone, but decided it was time for me to head back to base camp. I picked up my compass, and blanket, and decided that I would go and check out whatever it was that fell. I gathered my belongings and headed toward the observatory. I looked down at the piece of wood that had fallen from the side of the metal building and it had 2 words written on it, “Morning” and “Mourning”. I felt that this was very synchronistic to what was happening within me, and provided proof of nature mirroring back to me. Although I am mourning the loss of so much right now, it is the new morning that brings us love and light. I continued to look around to see if anyone was witnessing me in my process, and I knew at that moment that everything around me was witnessing my process. I felt in awe and humbled by how much insight I had gained on my walk.
Upon returning from Sedgwick reserve, I felt deeply impacted by my experience. I had my literature from the class but decided to purchase the book The Four Shields: The Initiatory Seasons of Human Nature so that I could further study how I might offer the insight to others. I imagined that the book could offer me ways of giving my patients a different way of understanding depression or other symptoms that communicate seasonal change. I felt that it was incredibly helpful when I realized that as nature changes we do to. I wanted to offer my transgender patients different language for what they were experiencing and remind them that this too shall pass. It was not until I was planning a young women’s retreat that I decided to incorporate the medicine walk and mirroring exercise as part of the curriculum.
For the past five years I have facilitated a young woman’s group called Moon Circle. We get funded from local community partners that fund the non-profit agency that I work for. Moon Circle is a group of young women between the ages 18-23 who meet weekly on Wednesday from 5:00-7:00 p.m. The group was born out of my master’s thesis, which was written about adolescent girls and a psycho-spiritual approach to groups. Most of the girls that attend have been with the group since it began and the new girls that come in usually do so by way of their senior project in high school and end up staying with the group. Most of the group discussion revolves around relationships and other cultural norms. I have always brought a depth-perspective to the group and although it might be a stretch for some, most of the participants gravitate toward the approach.
Every year the group is funded for a retreat. The funding allows for the girls, a co-facilitator and myself to plan a retreat. I contacted La Casa De Maria, which is located in the Montecito Mountains and set up a date for the retreat. I then began to conceptualize the weekend and my intentions for these young women, and through that process I was taken back to my own deep experience of the nature walk and decided to incorporate the Four Shields and medicine walk into my curriculum. I was excited to be able to offer these young women an understanding of where they might be in there life and then to offer them a sense of ritual and initiation by participating in the exercise.
My co-facilitator was open and excited about the ideas I had about using the Four Shields teachings and medicine walk. The area that I live and work is East of Los Angeles and the participants of the group are primarily Mexican and come from low-income families. I view this group as mostly high functioning and in need of social support and mentoring. In the beginning of the group, I slowly introduced different rituals and ideas; I did so with the awareness that there are cultural implications when it comes to practicing certain non-traditional ways of knowing. Since I am from a Catholic tradition, and know the rituals and language, I found that to be helpful in establishing a sense of trust. Many of the girls in the beginning where not sure if I was La Bruja, which means the witch, or La Curandara, which means the healer. After much education and experience, I was finally able to convince them that sage had nothing to do with witchcraft and connected it Native American practices.
We began our trip at the beach and then finally ended up at the retreat house in the mountains. Once we settled in, we gathered in the common room where I had set up the medicine wheel. I had all my stones representing the directions, as well as the children’s fire in the middle. As I began to discuss the four directions I was pleasantly surprised to see all the girls taking notes and acting very interested in learning the symbolism behind the stones. Once I gave them a brief overview and teaching about the four shields I sent them off for their medicine walk. I directed them to remain alone, not to take food and I invited them to take their journals to write down anything that comes up while they are out.
As part of the ritual I felt that crossing the threshold is important. A co-worker of mine painted the piece of wooden fence I found on my own medicine walk. He painted the word Threshold on one side, and the image of moon and stars on the other. I made sure that the girls crossed the threshold on their way out and I blessed them with words of wisdom and sage. I turned the piece of wood over when they return to acknowledge that they are entering back into the circle for process and mirroring. In Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild, he wrote,
One goes out onto the “trail that cannot be followed” which leads everywhere and nowhere, limitless fabric of possibilities, elegant variations a millionfold on the same themes, yet each point unique. Every boulder on a talus slope is different; no two needles on the fir tree are identical (1990, p. 164).
I imagined with excitement how each girl would return with her unique experience of what happened on the walk.
As the girls returned to the retreat house, they curled up silently with their journals and wrote. When all the girls had returned, we gathered once more in a circle around the four shields. All of the girls where excited to share their experience and one of the participants gleefully stated “I totally got it!” When I asked if she’d like to say more she stated, “My nature walk assured me that my parents love me just as much as they do my sister. I was shown through branches and other symbols on my nature walk that although I am different I am equally valued. Nature told me a story about myself, it was magical” (C.P. 2013 retreat) As I listened to her story, and the stories of the other girls, I mirrored back with love, trusted the story as it was, and did not ask questions (Perlus, 2013, lecture). All of the girls reported to having a profound experience. Most of the time I have no idea what they think about some of these rites of passage that I offer them. I may never know. My greatest prayer is that they someday find value in the teachings and the love in which they are offered.
Davis, J. The medicine walk: An exploration of ecopsychology and rites and passage. Naropa University: School of Lost Borders.
Foster, S. & Little, M. (1998). The four shields: The Initiatory seasons of human nature. Big Pine, Ca. Lost Borders Press.
Foster, S. & Little, M. (1996). Wilderness vision questing and the four shields of human nature. Moscow, ID: University of Idaho Research Center.
Perlus, B., (2013) Lecture.
Sabini, M. (2002). The earth has a soul: The nature writings of C. G. Jung. Berkeley,
CA: North Atlantic Books.
Snyder, G. (1990). The practice of the wild. New York: North Point Press.