About Wild Therapy
Since 2010 I've been practising 'Wild therapy', having trained with Nick Totton, and having been shaped by my relationship with nature and other-than-human life for as long as I can remember. My practice of Wild therapy takes many forms: working one to one with therapy clients outside, before returning to the therapy room; facilitating Wild therapy weekends and evening courses, and my own practice of the wild in wildernesses and in not-quite-so-obviously-wild places in green corners of Bristol. Here I share some thoughts about working with the elements from a few years ago....
Working in the elements - or with the elements in mind - is a central part of my practice as a therapist and a human being living life. Working in or with the elements happens when we're working indoors and outdoors. Our connection with the elements is, of course there (here!) all the time, given that we're all composed of earth, water, fire, air, space and consciousness. Speaking of 'nature' as something outside ourselves, as an experience or something 'other' overlooks the fact that we share these vital ingredients with all that lives.
Working outdoors take all sorts of forms in a therapeutic sense, including: guided walks, taking time to notice and to come into communication with other-than-human and more-than-human life forms, working with horses through to encounters with other animals, movement work, or simply communicating whilst being outside and moving rather than indoors and more stationary. It might range from being in a city park to playing with being lost (or actually being lost!) in a faraway wilderness. During the Covid-19 pandemic 'walk and talk' therapy has gained popularity as we've been advised to make space for one another.
Being outside has the advantage of reminding us more visually and potentially more experientially of 'our' nature through the nature which is reflected back to us in the form of trees, sky, earth, roads, fellow humans, animals and the myriad forms of life we may come across. Having those visual reflections of our inner nature - to use the limited but provisionally useful notions of 'inner' and 'outer' - in the form of earth, air, or whatever, can offer a broad canvass as we witness our process and the arising and falling of different thoughts, feelings and sensations. We might feel a greater sense of perspective, clarity, or a 'breathing space' from everyday life. For some the physical expansion of space offers greater inner spaciousness which can be either welcome or daunting. Sometimes we long to take up more space - imaginatively merging with the vast blue sky - other times we long to run and hide or cuddle up next to the warmth of the hearth.
When we work outdoors therapeutically the 'container' for the work changes. For some that change in container can feel safer, for others, more dangerous. Some like the 'safety' of being held by the earth and sky, as well as the therapist, rather than being faced with the sometimes intensity of being with one other person in a room and a very particular relational space. What arises for others is their fear of what will happen as they move into the public domain and away from the private 'safe' space and relative knownness of the therapy room.
Working indoors with elements in mind can be differently powerful. We have the 'container' of the room, the chair and, all being well, the holding of the therapeutic relationship. The truth is that we are still part of the elements and composed of those elements as we encounter one and whatever themes arise in the room. We still embody - consciously or unconsciously - our safe/dangerous, wild/tame, inner/outer, happy/sad, hopeful/fearful, lost/found, expanding/contracting, hot/cold, light/dark, love/hate, on/off poles as we sit in the room. In the main we perhaps just feel a little bit safer in the relative comfort of a square, heated room.
Perhaps that's why working outdoors therapeutically is becoming increasingly popular. Perhaps heated, Ikea-chaired therapy rooms have become too comfortable, belying the fact that therapy, or for that matter, any form of transformation brings us up against the unknown and unexpected when we open to a sense of receptivity and interconnectedness. Perhaps the attraction of going outside is that seeing the sky and treading on the grass is a timely wake up call to see with fresh eyes the shape life takes in all its forms. Perhaps it's a tussle or dance to redress the balance of letting the outer world into the therapy room and the inner world of the therapy room out to play. The therapy room is, after all, a microcosm of the wider political, economic, social, cultural world - but it can be easy to forget that - client wanting a safe space, therapist wanting to offer that, even when we can only really offer a relative sense of safety in the form of a warm, congruent, ethical relationship.
As a species - particularly the wealthy segment of the human species living in the 'developed, civilised' world - we have perhaps, metaphorically got a bit comfortable in our heated homes, insulated from the world, with the erroneous views that we have tamed the elements for our own ends in our quest to live ordered, well-managed, efficient, successful, comfortable lives. So much is lost as we build walls and fences between ourselves and the rest of live. A sense of reality, perspective and connection with other life forms.
So I welcome this play of working with a recognition of the elements and nature inner and outer. And I sense a cautionary note in my enthusiasm. It can be easy to work in nature and expect a certain outcome or want something to happen, rather than happening upon experiences as and when they cross our path. That wanting can be very subtle and feel quite refined, disguising thinly the spiritual materialism it can conceal. This craving for a particular experience, so habitual in human experience, is very different - though in its subtle forms, can feel similar - to a heartfelt, sacred longing to resolve our manmade splits with nature. It can be easy to want nature, 'out there' to provide a lovely experience 'in here'; making us whole, sending a message, showing a sign or an indication of the way forward. At those moments the crows seem to cackle at our (my) misguided appropriation.
It can be easy to either deify or romanticise nature and to pathologise us as terrible human beings. This misses the point, placing a terrible projected burden onto nature and casting an even darker cloud of shame over us as humans. The truth is that life in all its forms, left to its own devices, is pretty miraculous. In the current climate seeing this ordinary miracle is pretty rare. We live in a world which is largely colonised, fought over and for many we live with the tragedy that for a long time now we have, paradoxically, complicated things, thereby compromising our wellbeing and that of the planet in the pursuit of happier, healthier lives shaped by the myth of progress.
It can be easy to want to colonise and conquer nature, overtly or covertly. The centuries-long story of man has had a strong conquering narrative - conquering each other, foreign lands, mineral resources, wild beasts, and the weather. Perhaps this isn't surprising given the wild unruliness of the power of nature expressed in a tornado, tsunami or a sudden temper tantrum.
Nature is both precious and nothing special - it's just what it is and it's in us and all around us. It's precious because it tells us its story of life and death, ever-changing cycles, transitions, and can be beautiful and terrifying, amongst other things. It's nothing special to the extent that we're all part of it and it's part of us. If we make it something special in the sense of separate and 'other' we run the risk of turning it into a commodity to buy or sell, something to fence off, or to seek profound experiences within, rather than seeing our own reflection within it, and in us, its elements; the cosmic mirror of reality.
(Thanks to the mighty beech trees woods on the Tyntesfield Estate in Somerset for their shelter from the rain as I wrote these words).