Ecodharma and Ecopsychology - some similarities and differences
(from Letters to the Earth, 2019)
I did not mean to kill the last of the eagles.
I just forgot to feel my wings soaring high above the cliffs and crags.
I did not mean to kill the last of the salmon.
I just forgot the thrill of leaping through the surging foam.
I did not mean to kill the last of the buffalo.
I just forgot to feel the fear of galloping with the herd.
I did not mean to kill the last of the spiders.
I just forgot to feel the geometry and sway of weaving a silken web.
I did not mean to kill the last of the foxgloves.
I just forgot how it feels to glisten with mirror orbs of morning dew.
I did not mean to kill the last of the honey bees.
I just forgot the sound of the thrum at the heart of the hive.
I did not mean to kill the last of the oak trees.
I just forgot how it feels to stand for a hundred years.
I did not mean to wreck our home.
I just forgot how to dwell with you.
Even when you told me what would happen, I forgot.
Even when you tell me what is happening, I forget.
Even when you show me what has happened, I forget.
Please remind me.
Please remind me.
Ecodharma and ecopsychology are areas of theory and practice close to my heart and central to my work as a writer, therapist, facilitator, ecopsychologist and in the ongoing shaping of how I practise Buddhism. I'm often asked what the difference is between ecodharma and ecopsychology, so thought I would write more here, bringing out a few of the similarities and differences as I understand them, at this point in time.
Ecodharma is a fairly new term, and in some ways a very new movement in Buddhism. In other ways it's a very ancient part of practice, given that Eihei Dogen, the 13th century founder of Soto Zen, described his own enlightenment as realising: “mind is nothing other than rivers and mountains and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.”
Personally I first came across the term ecodharma in the early millennium, bringing together the words 'dharma' - translating as the teachings of Buddhism and related practices - and 'eco' which refers here to ecology. Ecodharma explores what the dharma has to say in response to crises like the 6th extinction crisis, extreme environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity and climate emergency, and, increasingly, social and political injustice. In turn, our dharma practice can be informed by the knowledge and riches of ecology, particularly in how we respond to the global challenges we are encountering, with Covid-19 being but one recent manifestation. 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 while longer. For others, ecodharma is becoming a new way of reconceiving the dharma as we've understood it, in response to the crises we're encountering.
From my experience of practising ecodharma, raising awareness of ecodharma through teaching and supporting ecodharma practitioners and activists, it can be about a number of things. It can be about 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 and activism. Committing to a regular meditation/sitting practice can help in avoiding and/or emerging from 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 or ecosattva's path or being inspired by and drawn to the Shambhala warrior prophecy as told here by Joanna Macy, as we respond personally and collectively through activism, or eco-activism, or as some might call it, sacred activism.
Another aspect of ecodharma is meeting and working outdoors, recognising and strengthening 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 because it can be nice (for some) to be in wilder places, although, speaking personally, I find that an added bonus, it's about honouring our interconnection, particularly given the habitual disconnection - worst still, systematic destruction of 'nature'.
Moving on to look at ecopsychology, recognising interconnection and re-membering on an embodied level our connection with ourselves, one another, the earth and all the other elements and life forms on earth is something which ecodharma and ecopsychology both have in common. Working outdoors, practising 'nature connection' exercises are shared by both movements, even if the type of exercises might vary a bit. So what is ecopsychology?
Ecopsychology as a term brings together '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 and practice more than psychological thought - I'm a counsellor and psychotherapist rather than a psychologist. 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, some ecotherapy, some ecocounselling, too. During Covid-19, 'walk and talk' therapy has become more popular as therapists have taken to working outdoors in response to the covid restrictions.
Where ecodharma and ecopsychology start to deviate is in their philosophical underpinning and meaning. 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, or a group, for example. Or how the way we've traditionally supported clients going through a grieving process - very common place for many therapists - can be adapted and extended to support those grieving for species loss and the grief for the harm humans have caused non human life. Or how practices to live with anxiety can encompass 'eco-anxiety' - an entirely understandable response to climate emergency and the suffering we witness or experience daily. Philosophically and in terms of its practices, ecopsychology is a pretty broad 'church' (or meditation hall) perhaps because - in recent times, at least - it has been around for a few more decades than ecodharma and has developed in many different directions.
Different ecopsychology practitioners not only draw on psychology and psychotherapy, many also draw on spiritual practices, too: from earth based traditions, to Buddhism, and many others (which is where ecodharma and ecopsychology start to closely converge). Some ecopsychologists draw closely on maps and models taught to them by indigenous teachers, others don't. There is increasing and helpful debate about what constitutes learning from elders, practising with indigenous elders and what can sometimes amount to little more than cultural appropriation - picking teachings from different traditions without a sound understanding of how these practices arose, and running the risk of dishonouring people and practices in the process. These questions, and a slowly growing awareness and critique within therapy circles, for examples the European, male, privileged origins of therapy, and that therapy is expensive and still largely inaccessible to many, is leading to important developments and responses in recent years.
Ecodharma and ecopsychology similarities and differences
In the ecodharma and ecopsychology circles of which I'm a part, an awareness of structural oppression is becoming much more prominent in understanding both fields. Recognising that both sanghas (Buddhist communities) and ecopsychology and wider therapy networks in the UK, and across the Global North are much more accessible to and run by folk who are often white, often middle class, and often middle aged. There's a (slowly) growing recognition of how understanding the intersecting of identitites (class, race, gender, ability, sexuality, age, amongst many other identities) contribute to upholding previously unquestioned oppressive practices have also shaped sanghas and ecopsychology networks. Understanding whiteness and colonial legacies and their aftermath to the beliefs and assumptions in the present day is becoming more talked about and slowly more acted upon.
In terms of the 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, love, eat, travel, trade, militarise and so on. Many would also now acknowledge that the reversal of the destruction of other-than-human and more-than-human life is much more dependent upon calling to account corporations. Whilst individual action is important, and one focus of practice, collaboration and organising to act for structural change is as important, with the recognition that much of the damage has been caused by the consumption of the privileged of the Global North.
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. Many colleagues I work with - particularly in the US and Australasia - open talks they are giving with acknowledging the original inhabitants of the land where they are now living. From what I've seen this has been one small and important way of remembering the first nation people of that particular locality, and also in the saying and the bearing witness, it faces rather than denies the fact of genocide and its tragically normalised aftermath.
The commoditisation of 'nature' is a growing danger as so many things become prefixed with 'eco', and greenwashing happens - including within ecotherapy circles, to some extent. Some ecopsychologists are engaged in eco-activism in various forms - some are not, and also are not all that at ease in engaging with politics, even though they might be sympathetic, not unlike some Buddhist practitioners, who still see politics as 'other' to practice. This is another difference, I think between ecodharma and ecopsychology - my impression is that ecodharma practitioners tend towards being more inclined to be politically and socially engaged. They also tend to be more politically engaged than some Buddhist practitioners who practice with more focus on inner work and personal development and less willingness to engage with the world beyond the meditation cushion or sangha.
I appreciate the breadth 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. At times, this can be a strength, too, its diversity bringing great riches in terms of people coming from a number of different backgrounds: ecology, therapy, gardening and horticulture, outdoor education, the arts and performance. 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 in many other countries of which I'm aware. 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're living with. Let's hope and act so that both ecodharma and ecopsychology support regenerative communities living more in tune with our surroundings and with greater awareness of the structural oppressions, non-violently challenging the forces which threaten the health of our human and other-than-human and more-than-human communities.
Photo below: the valley where the Ecodharma Centre is situated in Catalunya, Spain. See: Ecodharma website.