Ecopsychology Medicine Walk ~Susan T. Robertson

This paper serves as a reflection of my experience on the medicine walk at Sedgwick Reserve in the Santa Ynez Valley. According to the syllabus, the primary goal of this course was to tune my awareness to the movements of psyche as she appeared in the internal and external landscapes and clothed herself in the sensual world around me. This concentration on the embodied psyche in nature began with the assigned readings, continued throughout class lectures, and then began to weave itself into my everyday waking life and dreams. It saturated my mind and body, as I intimately engaged with the earth and focused on my interconnection with the natural world. I found myself yearning for stillness and time alone to listen to the teachings of the sky, the birds, the streams, the grass, the flowers, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the trees. Stepping into the liminal threshold of psyche and nature opened my heart into a new way of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and experiencing life. My body’s contact with the natural world culminated in the rich fieldtrip at Sedgwick, and was further enhanced in our last class session of ceremonial storytelling and mirroring.

I remember our gathering together in the environmental friendly meeting room at Sedgwick Reserve. The day was briskly cold, with a sharp wind and dampness in the air. We discussed the rites of passage and initiation journey we would be taking. The three steps of severance or leaving behind the past; crossing the threshold into liminal space, moving through uncertainty into transformation; and the final stage of incorporation or digesting and feeling into the body as it physically and emotionally shifted to a new perspective. We then spent time talking about the Mayan Medicine Wheel and the four directions and their implications. The power of symbolism was noted and the questions asked included:

Who am I?
What is the wound that has called me here?
What are my gifts?
What am I to do next?

I was smudged and asked to consciously and mindfully cross a deliberate threshold into liminal space. Wrapped in my warm ski jacket, I moved southward, determined to walk the medicine wheel with purpose and deliberation in a contrarian counterclockwise fashion. I was first drawn to a tree that had been damaged by lightning and fire. It had been hit from above, and I was strangely attracted to its wound. I heard the sound of horses calling, as the cold whipping of the wind hit my face. I felt the strong earth beneath me and noticed the numerous gopher holes and pitfalls that abounded in the dirt. I delighted in the multiple spider webs with moist dew drops that covered the ground holes, as I wondered who dwelt in the deep tunnels beneath me. I was in awe over the vast, open space and my own sense of freedom. I heard the song in my mind, “Love can build a bridge.”

I was drawn to the cattle on the hill and noticed a large male animal with huge brown eyes. I came close to him, without trespassing over the barbed wire fence, staring into his eyes. We engaged one another as I noticed his female partner and two young calves. The image of family triggered longing within me. I thought about my own desire to belong and feel the support of a family unit. I walked up the hill alongside them, continuing to gaze into the father’s eyes.

I noticed cow shit on the ground and was delighted to see a sole purple flower blossoming in the midst of the excrement. Beauty is inevitable. The muck of the earth is the fertilizer for growth and expansion. I ran up and down the green hills, uncertain of where I wanted to be. I settled on a dead log and reflected on a nearby tree stump with a hole in its center. Another wounded heart called to me. I sat in the silence and softly cried.

While on my medicine walk, I was strongly influenced by the description of the medicine wheel. This circle of life was deeply imprinted on my psyche and began to work its way through my body. I wrote and drew in my journal, outlining steps throughout the seasons of my life that had touched me; and I visualized a dream dance. I heard music playing and felt the energy in my body longing to creatively express itself in a nonverbal fashion. Using the process of active imagination, I orchestrated music and choreographed expressive dance around an imaginal medicine wheel. I re-created the story of my own sexual abuse, and I knew that my body needed to dance its way to transformation and tell its version of the wounding events from my past. I affirmed the words of Gary Snyder (1990), “we must ground ourselves in the dark of our deepest selves” (p. ix).
I have spent much time and energy in examining the role of the body in healing sexual wounds and memories. I am curious and interested in how I might assist other women in sharing their own stories around the impact sexual abuse has had on their sexuality. It occurred to me that dancing the story might open the body in a unique fashion. Somatic therapies typically focus on bodily states of consciousness, including breath, muscle tension, facial expressions, posture, and other nonverbal cues of the body. The goal of therapy is to assist clients in reaching an optimal integration of psyche and soma. The psyche-somatic, mind-body connection involves a complex mystery of various healing modalities, which I have explored extensively. I decided to create and perform a dance presentation and incorporate dream images for another Pacifica class. The dance was initially conceived during my time at Sedgwick.

The dance presentation was performed the month following our trip, and its preparation consumed me for weeks. It included the physical creation of a large medicine wheel made of rope, nearly 12 feet in diameter, with four clearly defined directions of south, west, north, and east. Each point on the medicine wheel was labeled, representing four planes of development: physical, psychological, mental, and spiritual. They also coincided with stages of childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and elderhood. These four shields are described by Steven Foster and Meredith Little (1998) in their book, The Four Shields: The Initiatory Seasons of Human Nature. The south is characterized by the element of water, the season of summer, and the color red. It is the physicality, sexuality, savage instinct, and emotional nature found in life. Moving clockwise, the direction of west emphasizes the element of earth and the color black. It is the season of fall or autumn and focuses on the underworld, the shadow, exhibiting moodiness and confusion. The direction of north is seen in the color white and the season of winter. Hibernation is seen along with the element of air that represents mental thought, reflection, and contemplation. The east is seen through the color gold and the element of fire. It stands for the numinous nature of spirit and represents the inspirational essence of wisdom and maturity.

Using four colored scarves and four carefully chosen music selections to reflect the mood of each shield, I danced in each plane. I reenacted my own journey of healing from sexual abuse and traumatic wounding in the body. I used the dual images of a hard, silver, metal gun and a wind chime, which arose from my own dream work. I had dreamt that I had used the gun to kill a man in a car. This later connected to my first experience with death, when at age seven, I went to the funeral of my father’s best friend who shot himself with a gun in his car. In my dream, I felt the heavy weight of the gun and, in real life, found the perfect tarnished, heavy metal gun to use in my dance. In my dream, the silver metal of the gun told me that it did not want to be part of a destructive weapon so I melted the gun down into a pool of hot molten silver and transformed it into a wind chime. I allowed my body to respond spontaneously to the sounds and stimuli of the music as I centered and grounded my consciousness in a creative, somatic experience. The experience assisted in the integration of learning under the embodied inquiry method. I danced my fears, my tears, my sorrow, my rage, my vulnerability, and my rawness, as I opened to new truths that came poring through my body.

The questions that arose in my journal writing: What are the effects of the psychological and physical wounds experienced by women who have been sexually abused in childhood? What tools can be used to overcome emotions of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and rage? What is the impact of sexual abuse on a woman’s sexuality and sexual relationships? Can women who have been sexually abused move into and experience healthy, satisfying sexual relationships? Is healing possible? Can music, dance, dream work, and therapeutic movement assist the body in its healing journey?

In my personal therapeutic work around my own sexual abuse, I have experienced numerous modalities of healing. I have spent time in individual psychotherapy as well as group work with other victims of sexual abuse and trauma. I have done Gestalt work; psychodrama; dream work; creative art work; vocal therapy, including singing and toning’ expressive dance therapy; and body work to release blocked energy. In my experience, a woman who has experienced sexual abuse has often energetically received the rage, anger, frustration, shame, guilt, and hatred of the abuser. These negative emotions become lodged in the body of the victim and, in many cases, are acted out or frozen in the body. In the words of Les Todres (2011), “sometimes the depth of what one has lived through is more than words can say” (p. x).

One can find meaning when telling their own stories, and narrative inquiry can explore more deeply the issues and history of one who is open to fully explore the past. The storyteller can become part of the story and co-create the resulting inquiry. By focusing on an amalgam of interdisciplinary lenses, both traditional and innovative methods, biographical particulars can arise as narrated by the one who lives them. A life history and life story can provide a compelling autobiographical testimonio that can hopefully yield a certain sense of meaning and healing ground. When we returned to class, I was deeply moved by my own storytelling and the descriptions of my classmates’ experience. It was moving and profoundly impactful. I also found myself agreeing with the words of David Abram (1996) who said, “The power of spoken tales is rooted in the potency of the particular place where their events unfolded” (p. 183).

Arts-based inquiry can be used as an action oriented process to allow the storyteller to feel their story in their own body, moving the energetic blocks, allowing more freedom and greater creative expression. Emotions and feelings can be fully experienced as participants reflect on their own experiences and move into a stronger, more confident bodily state with reduced stress and pain. By tuning into the body, and becoming conscious of the emotions lodged within, the body can physically express its pain and sorrow through active engagement in expressive dance movements. “To achieve deep and enduring change, one has to sink into the body self to discover the most painful, repressed and neglected layers of the psyche” according to psychotherapist and dance movement specialist Katya Bloom (2006) in her book, The Embodied Self. Movement can provide a way of gaining access and giving form to primitive, ambivalent feelings that may exist in the body. Traumatic events change those who suffer and expressive movement can help foster transformative, personal growth.

According to Daria Halprin (2008) of the Tamalpa Institute, the body holds one’s entire life experience. “Movement is seen as the body’s primary language. Movement is personality and soul made visible and dance is imagination in motion” (p. 27). Movement and dance can assist one in living a more embodied and creative life, thus enabling a more authentic expression of the full range of human emotion. There is a relationship and interplay between the physical body, emotions, and imaginal realms. Body sensations, postures, and gestures can reflect one’s history and current way of being. When engaged in expressive movement or dance, ongoing themes and patterns can emerge and be revealed. The images and symbols created can contain valuable healing messages that can assist one in moving toward integration and wholeness.
Dutch Physician and anatomist Andreas Versalius (as cited in Edinger, 1985, p. 2) wrote in the 16th century that the “true Bible is the human body.” The body is, indeed, a great teacher and most faithful container that holds the memories and mysteries of life. When I respect, honor, and love my body’s messages, I utilize my somatic experience to guide my life. By doing this, I activate and understand the myth I am living. Carl Jung (1933/1955), in his work, Modern Man in Search of a Soul stated:
If we can reconcile ourselves with the mysterious truth that spirit is the living body seen from within, and the body the outer manifestation of the living spirit--the two being really one--then we can understand why it is that the attempt to transcend the present level of consciousness must give its due to the body. (p. 220)

As a qualitative, depth researcher, I envision myself as the maker of quilts, assembling images and body responses into a colorful montage. As I host within myself conscious and unconscious thoughts, feelings, images and bodily experiences, I can engage in embodied experience that invites a sense of “flying between the sky and earth on the wings of the angel of the inbetween” (Todres, 2008, p. 111).

Carl Jung was highly intuitive and had a knack for accessing the inner world. He felt that the world of healing and soul recovery led to a strong sense of the true Self, which was rooted in integrity, personal power, courageous self-examination, and trust in the natural and the spiritual world. The cornerstone of depth psychology’s belief includes the reality of the fathomless unconscious. The awareness of psyche is fluid, imaginal, and spontaneous. Poetic images, metaphors, myths, and symbols evoke the creative essence. Psyche shapes and guides the therapeutic process in a mysterious and unfathomable manner. Psyche takes the images, ideas, feelings, and desires of the heart and impacts the work in immeasurable ways.

According to Joseph Coppin and Elizabeth Nelson (2005), “depth psychology draws one beneath the surfaces of thought, word, and action to the inclinations and impulses of the soul they are rooted in” (p. 42). The verb “to root” is used implying a digging to the deepest depth, getting to the source or cause, seeking to discover or bring something to light. The image of the truffle hog comes to mind as his rooting and digging action can be seen as representative of diving into the unconscious. Dance therapy can be an act of inquiring, a grand pursuit that requires skillful tracking and acquisition of a meaningful target. In my mind, embodied inquiry is motivated by a deep and relentless longing and hunger for knowledge and wholeness.

To take root is also to take hold or have effect. It suggests a meaningful connection, an evolutionary growth, or birthing process. Psyche is real and relational. It includes a physical and spiritual dimension as it is actively engaged in the odyssey of psychological growth. This limitless possibility invites a lifetime of questions in the pursuit of self-knowledge leading to individuation.

In my own healing work, I continue to bring the darkness of my shadow material to the light. My sexual abuse and history bring consciousness to the work, in order that I may obtain bits of treasure to learn from. I treat these valuable nuggets with respect and admiration, as I carefully and patiently work with the material at hand. My inner healer guards and protects the alchemical vessel of my body, bearing witness as I access psyche and delve into the depths. The resulting treasure is a living, breathing work of art, which can be seen as my life. As a healer, I am actively engaged in an embodied, sensual relationship with my body and my unconscious imagination.

The unconscious is a powerful medium. Through active imagination I can have a dialog between my own conscious and unconscious. I can access my inner wisdom through writing, drawing, painting, sculpting, dancing, sand play, dreaming, singing, and breathing. I can allow my body to be moved authentically and spontaneously. The arts are the wilderness areas of the imagination. Snyder (1990) discussed that the abandon and delight of sex and art are “part of the delightful wild in us. Self-realization, even enlightenment is another aspect of our wildness; a bonding of the wild in ourselves to the wild of the universe” (p. ix).

Active imagination can become a doorway to divine knowledge within me. My body is truly my home with all of its history, wisdom, and unlimited potential. My body is a sacred instrument that points toward truth. Kinesthetic awareness works in harmony with psyche to co- create my explorative journey. How energy moves, stands still, or is blocked in the body, can provide valuable clues to the unfolding message of my work.

Marion Woodman, noted Jungian therapist and author, was intrigued with the notion that the body must somehow be involved in one’s psychological wisdom, knowledge, and journey because the body holds on to memories and images that are otherwise inaccessible. In an interview with Kullander (2006), Woodman stated, “some people come to God through the body, and I am one of them” (p. 6). She felt that the mystery of God comes through our least developed function, and for her, God spoke to her through physical illness. She felt that the unconscious put stumbling blocks in the way in order that one might grow and become whole. Woodman’s work focuses intensely on the body, its pains, its pleasures, and its profound wisdom as a means of personal growth and spiritual development. She believes that the way to access the treasure buried in the body is through dance, meditation, therapy, and dream imagery. Woodman (as cited in Kullander, p. 13) commented that “surrendering to God, moving from ego desire to soul desire, is a conscious choice and is the biggest choice we will ever make in our lives.”

Ecopsychology is an intentional quest, fueled by Eros, to be firmly placed on terra firma and embody psyche in nature. It is an opportunity to investigate the unknown and shed light on the unconscious. As I dance with the earth, both of us will be transformed. Both of us are impacted by the work and influenced in a dynamic relationship, which is a fully embodied experience. The body provides clues and information about nature. The land provides insight into the body. I am connected and entangled with the earth and experience it through my body. My flesh is a data gathering instrument, and its energetic expression lends insight and awareness to nature itself. The body assists in the discovery process expressing itself and communicating valuable data about the dialog between the two. According to Anita Greene (2001),
the body throws up messages in the way a person moves, gestures, and breathes. In reading the language of the body, information is gathered about the psychic state of an individual. Embodied processing involves becoming aware of what the somatic unconscious is saying with its tensions, blocks, and interruptions in the flow of energy. (p. 573)

The body is to be taken seriously, acknowledged, and attended to in the therapeutic process. Mind and body are one, communally engaged, yet separate and distinct. Much like the truffle hog who successfully roots out its target by being fully aware of its surroundings, almost at one with the earth, it still remains separate and unique, as it listens and attunes itself to the responsive reaction of its own physical body. The unconscious speaks through the body and creates a rich foundation for the creative process, which is both revitalizing and transformative. In the words of Coppin and Nelson (2005), “the art of inquiry is grounded in a fully reciprocal and participatory relationship with the world; a relationship characterized by openness, enthusiasm, curiosity, and wonder. It demands a person’s wholehearted participation at the levels of body, mind, and soul” (p. 145).
My experience at Sedgwick Reserve dramatically and positively influenced my perception of the psyche and nature-body relationship. I realized many truths and insights during my walkabout. I reflected on the wilderness rites of passage for individuation and thought about living more in alignment and right relationship with nature. I concur with Foster and Little’s (1992) words, “From the vision quest, you receive exactly what you put in. You do not get something for nothing. Our ability to transform ourselves is directly proportional to the intensity of our desire to shed our old skins” (p. 22). During my time at Sedgwick, I shed another layer of skin and exposed more of my true self as I danced with nature.



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What will we make of the life before us?

How do we translate the gifts of solitary

beauty into the action required for true

participatory citizenship?

Terry Tempest Williams