Jungian analyst Karen Hodges explores the importance of nature to our psyche at our November lecture and workshop, which will be held at the Best Western Plus Village Park Inn. Read our Q & A to prepare for a lively discussion.
Why did Jung believe it was vitally important for everyone to have a relationship with nature? What separation or split did he see during his time?
Jung believed that our psyches are rooted in nature. Conscious life may be the fruits and flowers, but the root lies more or less hidden in the unconscious and, if that root is cut, the psyche becomes sterile, if not actually incapable of sustaining life. When Jung wrote about “nature”, we often read “human nature.” (The unconscious is nature in us.) But Jung saw the unconscious at its deepest level, the collective unconscious, as merging with the same natural world that we see outside ourselves. That natural world is not just matter as we observe and understand it but has its own depths and, if we are split off from that, again, the psyche’s root is severed.
Jung did see and describe a split between psyche and nature – not occurring during his lifetime, but going all the way back to the origins of what we call “civilization”, then coming to a head with the rise of modern science. That was already an old story by the time Jung was born, but he may have felt it especially acutely because he knew he had a special role to play in the emergence of modern psychology. He felt that his psychology had to meet the standards of science, but at the same time it had to address the pathology caused by the psyche/nature split. In that sense, he straddled the divide throughout his career. When he was dismissed as a mystic – or when his anima accused him of making art, not science – this became a source of suffering for him personally.
Jung once said “Sometimes a tree tells you more than can be read in books.” What value did he find in speaking with a tree, a river or a stone?
Jung made this comment in a letter to a correspondent who was suffering an emotional crisis. Jung knew that this man had been engaged in serious study of Sanskrit and Indian philosophy for about five years, and that he needed to get out of his head and grounded in his own individual reality again. In this letter, Jung wrote, “You will find yourself again only in the simple and forgotten things.” Jung’s correspondent had dreamed of a forest in the distance, and Jung was advising him to enter such a forest.
Here’s how I understand Jung’s idea of going to a tree for wisdom or healing: In general, to be in nature puts us in the company of simple, instinctual life solidly grounded in physical being. To be in the company of trees is especially powerful because they are our mirrors in the plant world. They stand vertically with out-reaching arms just as we do, they are long-lived, and their respiration perfectly pairs our own: They breathe the carbon dioxide that we exhale, and we breathe the oxygen that they exhale. Rivers, stones, and other elements of the natural world similarly mirror aspects of our own experience that are often forgotten when we concentrate too much of our energy in sophisticated cognitive pursuits. I interpret Jung’s word “speaking” (“speaking with a tree,” etc.) as a way of characterizing the empathy that arises when we are able to enter into life other than our own. A resonance is set up that alters our self-experience and can (as in this case) be deeply therapeutic.
The Judaeo-Christian myth and modern science both created a split from nature. What were Jung’s views on their effect on our relationship with nature?
These are two areas that I will address at length in my lecture. Jung believed that science in particular has alienated humanity from nature (especially those of us educated in a Western context), because it insists upon the strictest possibility objectivity. In other words, we’re required to withdraw all projections from natural phenomena, insofar as this is possible. Jung especially lamented the withdrawal of anthropomorphic projections, because he felt that this renders the world entirely soulless and alien to us. If nature is entirely Other, then there is no point at which genuine emotional connection can be made.
Jung could not abandon science. He took comfort in the fact that there’s a primitive impulse still alive in our psyches that can go on “humanizing” nature in the old ways – an intrapsychic surrogate, so to speak. But his real hope lay in further developments in science that would validate emotional connection with nature in a new way. He eventually came to believe that working out a new understanding of the phenomenon of projection was key to this development. But he had to leave that task to future generations. That’s why it’s so important that we, in 2017, keep reflecting psychologically on the issues that he raised.
How did our story about being human start to change in the early 1970s?
It depends upon how deep one wants to go into that process of change. One answer might be that the biology of the 19th century, particularly that of Darwin, insisted that we acknowledge our kinship with the rest of life on this planet. That battle is still being fought by fundamentalist Christians who feel that it contradicts the Biblical understanding of who and what we humans are. Another answer might go back a bit farther, to the 18th century reaction against science’s picture of the world, which the Romantics experienced as intolerably grim and sterile. That battle, too, is still being fought: Must we be inexorably practical and concrete in our thinking, or does imagination have an important role to play in the conduct of life? By the early 1970’s, a new story about humanity’s relationship with nature started to gain real momentum with the environmental movement and related insights in the field of biology (developments I’ll address in my lecture). You might say that the immense inflation of Western culture began to crumble as we noticed that we’re in danger of destroying the very environment that sustains us. The new story had been developing for decades but, with this alarming prospect, resistance to that new story began to give way.
In Memories Dreams and Reflections Jung says “…for nature is not only harmonious, she is also dreadfully contradictory and chaotic.” Do you feel we’re seeing the contradictory and chaotic side of Nature in all the effects of climate change, such as increased wildfires and tropical storms? How can we best hold this contradiction?
I personally don’t feel this as a contradiction. Western culture has always been impatient with aspects of nature that are inconvenient or threatening to us: We want the ideal, the Garden of Eden, Paradise. Any dynamic system can be experienced in a positive or negative way, depending upon where one sits. We human beings have certainly been “dreadfully contradictory and chaotic” in our effects upon the natural world as a whole. We’ve treated nature as our adversary and that’s part of what has caused climate change.
Even within the human sphere, we have to learn openness to contacts that aren’t, from our personal perspective, completely ideal. Healthy childhood development involves learning to hold together the positive and negative aspects, say, of the mother we love and upon whom we absolutely depend. That “depressive position” enables us to accept the mother as, not perfect, but simply human. We can approach nature in the same way. This is easier if we don’t project vengeful motives onto nature, imagining that natural disasters are somehow intended to hurt us. It’s not all about us. To take it personally only keeps alive that adversarial position that has been part of the problem all along.
What does it mean to imagine a “home place” in nature? Why is it helpful?
One of the great functions of the imagination is to give things a reality within our psyches. Many things we observe and experience in our world only have a fleeting and/or two-dimensional reality in our psyches, but imagination wakes us up to them so that they can be felt and lived with in a sustained way. The natural world, planet earth, is in fact where we reside. But our culture has become so disconnected from the reality of that that, for all our book learning, we lack common sense about how to be present to our world and at home in it.
We can look back and see how humans developed an instinctual feeling for how “to make a house a home,” including how to adapt to their various places in nature – not only at the material level, but in terms of finding nourishment for their psyches. And we can take that as a model for getting ourselves better grounded again. Indigenous peoples paid attention to nature, because they knew they had to in order to survive. But there’s another aspect to that that is equally important – what Jung called “emotional participation” in nature – and that requires imagination. One of my teachers, a poet, used to say, “Love is paying attention.” If you can love the place where you reside, your psyche can feel at rest there: You can feel at home.
For me, imagining a home place in nature means connecting with the landscape, the plants and animals, the weather – all that – in a very individual way. It’s not really different from the way I connect with the humans I share my life with. They become real to me; I’m paying attention. I believe, as did Jung, that this satisfies a basic human need. One practical result can be the lessened anxiety that comes with feeling that one has a secure base.
How has your relationship with nature changed through your exploration of Jung’s work?
I don’t know that my relationship with nature has itself changed a great deal through my exploration of Jung’s work. What has changed is the way I think about it. For one thing, as I read of Jung’s own deep appreciation of nature, I recognize a kindred spirit; I feel validated. And that’s important when one is coming from what’s, in effect, a counter-cultural position.
It is so easy, when coming from such a position, to isolate one’s self from the mainstream, particularly when you would just as soon go off to live in the woods and not deal with the way that urban life constantly challenges our sensibilities. Jung didn’t do that (for all that he loved spending time at his Bollingen retreat). He worked his whole life to understand the broad trajectory of our culture and to articulate his own precarious position within it. I find that inspiring. And I’ve grown because of Jung’s insistence that we not simply blame our culture’s pathology on those with whom we disagree. I’m trying to understand ways in which I’m part of this culture too, part of the problem. Jung insisted that each individual take a good look at his or her own participation in the problem and work with that intrapsychically. He believed that that’s the kind of work it takes to effect real cultural change, and I want to be part of that…. even though I’d feel more contented off the grid in the woods somewhere!
Please Note: New Location!
Friday, November 17, 7:30-9:30 pm
Best Western Plus Village Park Inn*, Room: Foothills 1
Saturday, November 18, 10-4 pm
Best Western Plus Village Park Inn*, Room: Brentwood 1
*Free underground parking is available at the hotel. Park, then register your vehicle at the hotel’s registration desk.