Ecodharma and Ecopsychology
Ecodharma and ecopsychology are areas of theory and practice which are increasingly close to my heart and increasingly central to my work as a therapist (particularly in my work as an ecopsychologist and a Wild therapist) and in my practice of Buddhism. Here I'll attempt to define ecodharma and ecopsychology in turn and to bring out a few of the similarities and differences. I'm writing this because I use the terms ecopsychology and ecodharma fairly often in my writing, as well as in talks and teaching. I'm sometimes asked what they mean, and what the difference is between them, so I thought it made sense to put pen to paper and include a few first thoughts here. These are work in progress, not definite answers, so they are likely to change as my understanding changes!
Ecodharma is a fairly new term, a term I first heard about 10 or so years ago, bringing together the words 'dharma' - which translates as the teachings of Buddhism and related practices - and 'eco' which refers here to ecology. It explores what the dharma has to say in response to crises like the 6th extinction event, extreme environmental degradation and the climate emergency. In turn, our dharma practice can be informed by the riches of ecology, particularly in how we respond to the global challenges we face - thinking globally, acting locally, as the old adage goes. Ecodharma is also the term for a new phase in contemporary Buddhist thought and practice in response to the ecological crisis and the other, afore-mentioned, interrelated crises. For some ecodharma is an aspect, or maybe an extension of 'engaged Buddhism', a term which has been around for a little while longer.
From my experience of practising ecodharma, and supporting ecodharma practitioners and activists, it can be about a number of things. It can be about continuing with and deepening into the age-old practice of meditation, in refining the art of being present with what is, as well as meditation being a skilful way of balancing being with more outward doing. Committing to a regular meditation/sitting practice can also help in avoiding burnout. Ecodharma practice is likely to include an active enquiry into the ecological implications of the dharma/Buddhism. One example is the relevance of the compassionate aspects of practice; the bodhisattva's path and how that looks, applied to our response to the interrelated crises, in terms of our personal responses and our collective eco-activism. Another aspect is meeting and working outdoors, recognising our connection with the other-than-human and more-than-human world, recognising that we, too, are part of what we so broadly call 'nature'. Some form of 'nature connection', wilderness, or ecotherapy work often happens in ecodharma circles. This isn't just cos it's nice to be in wilder places, although that's an added bonus (!) It is about honouring our interconnection, particularly given the habitual disconnection - worst still, systematic destruction of 'nature' in consensus reality.
Recognising interconnection and re-membering on an embodied level our connection with each other, the earth and all the other elements and life forms on earth is something which ecodharma and ecopsychology have in common. Working outdoors, practising 'nature connection' exercises along and together are also shared by both, even if the nature of those might vary a bit. So what is ecopsychology? Ecopsychology as a word brings together the 'psychology' with 'eco', again, referring to ecology. The sort of ecopsychology I practise would be better and more accurately described as 'ecopsychotherapy', because the way I work draws on psychotherapeutic thought more than psychological thought - I'm not a psychologist, rather a counsellor and psychotherapist. However, the word ecopsychology (originating in this usage from the US) has come to denote the work of counsellors and psychotherapists working with ecological principles in mind - and ecopsychotherapy is even more of a mouthful than ecopsychology! (Having said, that some colleagues and organisations prefer to use the phrase ecopsychotherapy.)
Where ecodharma and ecopsychology start to deviate is in their philosophical underpinning. Ecodharma, as we saw above, explores the dharma in relation to ecology, and ecology in relation to the dharma. Ecopsychology draws on relevant psychotherapy applied to ecology, and vice versa, with new questions being raised in therapy, for example, how the 'therapeutic container' radically changes when we work outside with a client, for example. Philosophically and in terms of its practices, ecopsychology is a pretty broad 'church', perhaps because it has been around for a few more decades than ecodharma, which is maybe only a decade old.
Different ecopsychology practitioners not only draw on psychology and psychotherapy, many also draw on spiritual practices, too: from earth based traditions, to Buddhism, like myself, and many others. Some draw closely on maps and models taught to the them by indigenous teachers, other don't. So there are a range of different approaches and practices informing the work. One thing which all ecopsychologists have in common - or, at least the ones I've met and worked with - is the central importance of humans recognising their connection with nature, or as I would say, other-than-human and more-than-human life and seeking to heal the disconnection which leads to the destructiveness embedded in how late stage capitalist societies are organised, with the yawningly unsustainable ways we live, work, eat, travel, trade, militarise and so on.
Most ecopsychologists would also honour the land on which they work and the elements they work with, in other words, the reciprocity between human and other-than-human life, rather than using nature as a commodity; a pleasant backdrop for therapy work. The commoditisation of 'nature' is a growing danger as so many things become prefixed with 'eco' and greenwashing happens. Some ecopsychologists are engaged in eco-activism in various forms - some aren't, and aren't all that at ease in engaging with politics, even though they might be sympathetic. This is another difference, I think between ecodharma and ecopsychology - my impression is that ecodharma practitioners seem to be more inclined to be politically engaged. They also tend to be more politically engaged than fellow Buddhist practitioners who practice with more focus on inner work and personal development and less willingness to engage with the world beyond the medition cushion or sangha (translated as spiritual community).
I really like the breadth and richness of the ecopsychology field - and I can see that it's not easy to become part of it, as there is not a particular established route in, but rather many different routes. Personally I see that as a strength, too, its diversity bringing great riches. In times of increasing regulation, including attempts to regulate counselling and psychotherapy, ecopsychology also remains unregulated as a trade, which, again, may be a strength or weakness, depending upon your point of view.
Ecodharma, meanwhile, is in a slightly different position, as faiths aren't regulated, or at least not here in the UK and many other countries. Over time it'll be fascinating to see how ecodharma evolves and develops in response to reflection and action, and in response to the crises we face. Let's hope and act so that both ecodharma and ecopsychology support regenerative communities living more in tune with their surroundings and non-violently challenging the forces which threaten the health of our human and other-than-human and more-than-human communities.
Visit the Ecodharma links page (photo below: the valley where the Ecodharma Centre is situated in Catalunya, Spain.