A walk in the park?
Updated: Jun 2, 2020
In the therapy networks I’m part of discussions have popped up recently about moving to working outdoors in the context of working safely during the covid-19 pandemic, as a possible alternative to working on online platforms: zoom, skype, etc.
I’ve been practising as an ecopsychologist, working outdoors one to one with clients, training others in ‘Wild therapy’ and offering ecopsychology supervision, talks and workshops for a while now. Practising Wild therapy and ecopsychology have given me some of the most memorable moments in working therapeutically, and in doing my own work.
I thought I would pen a few introductory thoughts about outdoor work in case it is useful for those of you contemplating it, perhaps for the first time. This is far from an exhaustive list – in fact, I’m likely to revisit it and add more. It’s also ‘bullet point-y’ compared to how I would facilitate this work in person, which would be much more experiential, unfurling gradually at its own pace - fern-like! - taking time, in person, in a place, in relationship.
Outdoor work needs re-thinking and re-imagining – it’s not as simple as doing everything you do in a therapy room, outdoors. I’ve learned things offering ecopsychology and Wild Therapy outdoors which I would never have learned staying inside – practical through to surprising things about the nature of therapy.
I hesitate, on one hand, in not wanting to draw too strong a distinction between working indoors and outdoors. The reason I say that is that Wild Therapy can be impactful practised both indoors and out. The emphasis isn’t simply about working outdoors, it’s about acknowledging and embodying the wildness we find, inner and outer, and the fact we’re a part of nature, not separate from it. It can be an exploration of our part in nature, as well as, for example, be about exploring the polarities of wild/tame, inner/outer and so on, in the context of the work we’re doing. And having said that you can do Wild Therapy indoors or out, as you venture outside there are considerations you need to consider – more of which later.
Not all ecopsychology and/or ecotherapy schools would share the point of view that work can be as impactful indoors and out – there are a range of theories and practice viewpoints, as you’d imagine, as with most therapy approaches. For example, to give a flavour of Wild Therapy in particular, personally I don’t offer outdoor work with the primary aim of people having a nice time in nature - although that is obviously a good thing if it happens. I offer it because there is a mutual benefit in re-membering - an embodying experience - that we are part of nature.
Nine times out of ten, once we start to reconnect with this re-membering through working outdoors, we start to actively respect more the other-than-human and more-than-human life all around us, all the time, in every breath. Coming alive a bit. In the reconnecting, there is a mutual benefit to all concerned – human and other-than-human. Of course, nature isn’t always as ‘nice’ and as romantically portrayed as it is some of the time by some ecotherapists. Bees sting, the weather turns suddenly, through to obviously much more dramatic and life-threatening ‘natural’ events. In wilder and more elemental places I’ve taught – the Catalunyan Pyrenees come to mind, this wildness becomes yet more pronounced, challenging and exhilarating. I’ve known clients drawn to this work expressly to work with a fear of nature, either because they’ve been caught in a life or death ‘natural event’ or they have grown up in the city and want to connect with ‘nature’ but aren’t sure how, for example.
Some of you might be reading primarily with a view to moving outdoors so you can continue to see clients, with safety measures, like social distancing, in place, and presumably because either you or your client don’t want to work online. Maybe it’s more of a practical decision rather than a particular desire to do outdoor work or ecotherapy (and there can be a difference) per se. Even if the move outdoors is a practical decision, I would urge you to be curious and reflective from the get-go about how your practice is both the same and different outdoors. I would urge you to read about ecopsychology and ecotherapy – there are some books suggested below. I would urge you to do some online training if you can find some - again, some trainings below. Online isn’t as good as in person and place, but it’s hopefully a useful start. If you are drawn to training to lead people outdoors and work towards running outdoor learning events in much wilder, more elemental, less managed and domesticated places see, for example, the Institute for Outdoor Learning. and learn more about his specialist area of work.
You might want to:
· Brainstorm as broadly as possible your responses to the thought of working outside. Be particularly honest with yourself about your comfort zones and their edges; everything from concerns about the therapeutic container changing to your fear of the dogs you might meet, if you are planning on working outdoors in a public place. It is useful, as with all learning, to know what your growing edge is likely to be and how to meet and support that.
· You might want to listen to the parts of you that are drawn to working outdoors (if you do not find any, maybe re-consider). Listen to the parts of you that are less sure about this work. To ease possibly more irrational fears, you might assess, even rate, how likely these things are to happen and their severity.
· Do a bit or reconnaissance in figuring out where you would do outdoor work. It is great, potentially, if you have got your own private garden which is large enough to offer privacy, sound-wise and visibility-wise, and the possibility of social distancing, which obviously considerably minimises the risks compared to working outdoors in a more public place.
· If you don’t have a big enough private garden, would you work in your local park? Or common? If so, go there at different times of day to see whether working there is feasible – I’ve actually stopped working outdoors during lock down, because it has become too busy in the available outdoor spaces near me. If it is feasible for you, maybe spend some time there yourself. Take an hour or two to soften your gaze, slow your breath and take in the place. Ask yourself, ask the place, ask the other beings around - feathered, flying, worming through the earth beneath your feet, two-legged - what needs to happen for you to work there? What questions, thoughts, images, memories arise? Better still, find a therapy friend who is also embarking on working outdoors and offer each other a practice session outside. What do you each discover?
· Timings. On the way back from the outdoor space time how long it takes you, walking slowly, and maybe try it again walking faster. Holding the time boundary is one if the things I can personally find hardest - which is rarely an issue for me working indoors – because I can become so engrossed in the client’s story that I need to make a mental note to time check – there are no clocks to easily glance at across the room! If you live a little way away from a green space, consider re-contracting to offer slightly longer sessions and think through the fee implications.
· Assessing risks. Maybe take another trip to your chosen outdoor space, or spaces, and make notes of possible risks. This might be a busy-ish road you will need to cross, for example, you’ll need to be the eyes and ears for clients, at times, absorbed in their process so they’re not actively paying attention to road safety. It might be a steep bank. I may be the presence of beehives. Some therapy colleagues have pulled my leg for my written risk assessments for working in the local park/downs. I have learned to ignore them, cos I find it so useful and important, working in the service of the client, the environment, and other beings, to think through and document potential risks. Having risk assessed I'm freer to be more present in doing the work when we are actually in a session. A practical plus point is your insurance company may well require you to do them.
· Insurance. Check with your insurance company whether you will be insured outdoors before you step outside – even if it is in your back garden. My insurance company are fine with me doing outdoor work, so long as I undertake and review risk assessments.
It’s obviously important to revisit your contract in moving outdoors with clients, giving due time and space to the process. Some therapists meet outdoors from session one and do their contracting as they go. That wouldn’t work for me, as I appreciate having a sound working alliance before heading outdoors. When I am contracting with someone to work outdoors, they are generally already strongly drawn to it, or have expressed a particular interest in Wild therapy and/or ecopsychology, and I still contract with care.
This prior client interest in ecopsychology may not be the case for therapists primarily offering outdoor work as an option during lockdown. In this case I’d take extra care in contracting and double check whether the desire to work outdoors is largely driven by you, cos you’re not overly keen on zoom, for example, and make sure the client is definitely happy with this.
In contracting with clients, I would start by saying a little bit about how working outdoors can be different to working indoors. I would ask clients what they were looking forward to and concerned about in practising outdoors. In particular I would check out with them about confidentiality and how it changes as we step outside. What happens, for example, if they bump into one of their friends? Or you bump into one of yours? How are they about being seen with you, particularly if they have not told anyone they are in therapy? These sorts of scenarios happen and potentially have far-reaching ethical implications.
Health-wise, I tend to ask clients if they have specific allergies which might be triggered outside. I ask them whether they are happy to work in the pouring rain – some assume work stops when there is a faint possibility of rain, others are ready and gortex-clad. I would check clients are okay without access to the toilet for whatever time span we’ve chosen, as it simply mightn’t occur to them. I would ask clients to think of anything we have not covered – what matters to them might not occur to me, so the spirit of open enquiry in contracting is as important as ever.
If you’ve currently working online and contracting to work outside, it is important to review how it will be to be together, but to be socially distanced. If you already work with touch with a particular client it would be worth reviewing how it will be to not touch, particularly but not only if the client becomes distressed. The way we are together spatially has changed beyond measure in a very short space of time. I’ve found social distancing can consist of anything from a playful dance around one another with friendly eye contact, to the head down avoidance of contact and detectable fear as someone crosses the road so as not to even encounter me from afar. The experience of social distancing in itself may be useful to explore for some clients, or the losses felt in the lack of everyday touch if they’re living alone.
The therapeutic container changes in working outdoors. When I’ve given talks or lead workshops about Wild Therapy and ecopsychology the question I’m most asked is ‘what happens to the container?’ There is, understandably, without training, peer-support and supervision, some fear in no longer being physically ‘contained’ in four walls, and inevitably, this changes the therapeutic relationship. Influences on the therapy working in a more public place can be much more unpredictable – which is part of the beauty of the work - that is, if you are ready to expect the unexpected and are able to welcome it in, to embrace how it is part of the work, rather than being wrong footed. Wrong footed can be a useful part of the learning, so long as you are still able to do the work - spontaneous and unexpected are one thing, unsafe is another.
In the therapeutic container I find my role as therapist changes – subtly and markedly. Like I said above, I follow the client’s lead in the work. I do that when we are in a room, too, but this time client-led can have more practical considerations. I can find holding some of the practical boundaries hardest work – keeping time, crossing roads, in current times, it might be checking that we are socially distanced etc. I also tangibly feel the therapeutic container expand, the work is witnessed by other humans – even if they are simply passing by – through to animals and plants taking an unexpected and important role in the work, which I find immensely supportive.
An aspect of this work I value greatly is that it can become literally client-led and more fluid. I might suggest a walk in the park, and it then becomes clear that the client’s feet are heading along a footpath instead, or we’ve stopped in a grove of trees. This immediacy and possibility, and literal movement, can be unsettling, partly, I think, because it has an equalising effect on the role of the therapist and it can call for us to think on our feet much more, as the client literally leads the way.
I find that I am more likely to get out of my own way in working outdoors. I mean this in the best, most relational, perhaps transpersonal sense. I don’t get out of the way in that I’m neglecting holding an attentive space for the client, it’s more like I find I am freer to hold a space because I’m not doing it alone. We have the earth beneath our feet, we have trees to shelter under, to admire, sometimes to climb. When and where it’s relevant to a particular piece of work I’ll ask a client how it is for them being witnessed by the other-than-humans present, a robin, for example – although the robin often sings it for themselves before I speak! ‘Nature’ often fluidly becomes part of the work, guiding it, even, in a way which is not so easily accessible to most clients whilst working in a room.
The beauty of the work…
…for me is that the unexpected can and does happen. Fabulous ‘coincidences’ have happened when I’ve been practising Wild Therapy and ecopsychology. We have encountered animals and particular flower species appearing at uncanny moments. People from the past have popped up at just the right moment – sometimes soothingly, sometimes jarringly, showing the need for more work in a less immediately obvious area. Sometimes the work has been dull and boring for the client, which has provided an important ‘aha’ moment in their expectations and longing to control the universe.
In my experience there can be more fluidity and possibility in working outdoors. I have had a few clients who have disclosed things they say they never would have said indoors. I have loved how some sessions became wordless, as the client has simply enjoyed the experience of being accompanied on a walk in which they choose the direction and pace and I follow, as they process. Some clients feel much safer working outdoors, because of the fears of being in a confined space with a relative stranger sharing intimately thoughts and feelings about their life.
I hope the points I have made here are useful in helping to decide how/whether/when to work outdoors. Personally, it’s slightly odd to be writing this at a time when I’m choosing not to work outdoors, because of the busy-ness of city parks and travel at the moment, especially as lock down restrictions ease. I hope to have named some of the key considerations and points for reflection. I’m acutely aware this is a short piece which only sketches out a few pointers, when huge tomes and two year-long, post-qualifying courses are available on this subject - so I’m walking a tightrope! As with many things, we’re re-learning in lockdown and this is true in this area of work. If you’re keen to go further, consider whether you would benefit from supervision and/or peer support with others who work outdoors or who practices ecotherapy or ecopsychology.
If you’ve realised in the course of reading this that working outdoors isn’t for you, or for a particular client – and it really isn’t for everyone - you can still bring the outdoors in. You can still embrace ecopsychological thinking whilst working on online platforms. If you know a client is a lover of ‘nature’ you might ask them to remember a place which is significant to them, and why. You might pay more attention to client’s significant relationships with pets and other non-human beings, taking those relationships as seriously as human relationships, even if you are not an animal lover yourself. Or their dreaming – day and night dreams – about animals and non-human life. You might encourage them to find out more about the flora and fauna of their local area, actively notice the phases of the moon, find out the history of their locality, particularly if it helps to feel more at home, more rooted, during the many and varied challenges of lock down and covid-19.
Personally, I think one of the best ways to work outdoors, or to prepare to work outdoors, is to do some of your own work in the same way, engaging ourselves with what we are offering our clients. And beyond that, ‘working outdoors’ is such a bland, vanilla expression for some of the magic that happens when the therapeutic container also becomes the earth beneath our feet, the sky above us, each of the beings in the vicinity, the history of the place, alongside our rich seam of skills and experiences as therapists and who we are as humans. So, I’m mainly encouraging practising outdoors for ourselves to offer that possibility. And I hope, as you move back indoors – whenever that will be – or when you work online, you’re able to bring some of the wildness and the spaciousness and spirit of the ‘outdoor container’ onto skype or zoom.
References and resources:
Brazier, C. (2017) Ecotherapy in Practice. Routledge.
Kamalamani (2017) Bodywise: weaving somatic psychotherapy, ecodharma and the Buddha in everyday life. Somatic Psychotherapy Today.
Rust, M.J. (2020) Towards an ecopsychotherapy. CONFER Books.
Totton. N. (2010). Wild Therapy: undomesticating inner and outer worlds. PCCS Books.
CONFER offer an online module of on ecopsychotherapy.
Ecopsychology.org.uk website for UK trainings, practitioners and events.
For those who are interested in training to lead groups in wilder and more remote places, see, for example, the Institute for Outdoor Learning.