Confer: 31 Aug – 2nd Sept 2018, Glendalough, Co Wicklow
Reviewed by Therese O’Driscoll
Hosted in the beautiful surroundings of Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, this conference was organised by Confer and brought together a wide variety of practitioners from Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, Holland, Finland and wider afield.
It began on the Friday night with an open mic in the outdoors. This was a suitable entry into the weekend, beautifully facilitated by Robbie Breadon of Common Ground, Fermanagh and a throwback to the rich tradition of storytelling, rambling houses, music and song of Ireland. This simple gathering generated an atmosphere of the deep listening found in oral traditions and allowed for immediate connection with the land and space around us, while also building a sense of community among the human participants. I was immediately hopeful for this conference. Hopeful that it would not only be a talking ‘about’ psychotherapy and the natural world but that it would also offer opportunities for immersion in that world and a felt experience of all that dialogue with nature can provide.
The challenge which a conference poses when matched with a subject such as psychotherapy and the natural world was immediately apparent on Saturday morning. We entered a hotel room, beautifully open to the natural world with a wide panoramic window offering views out to the land; yet the chairs all faced in the opposite direction looking at a screen and podium. The demands of technology, the explicit emphasis on the expertise of the verbalising self as distinct from the experiencing self, created conditions which meant, in my view, that we missed taking full advantage of the opportunities, witness and influence granted by the natural world so beautifully present yet, even in this context, kept to the background.
Sharon Blackie, to her credit, requested the chairs be placed in a semi-circular position and opened her presentation with a story. ‘The Rape of the Well Maidens’, told among the participants. This story was, in my view, a wonderful opening to the weekend. Irish mythology is very place-centred; women were seen as embodying the moral and spiritual authority of the natural world and could grant sovereignty when the rites of kingship, including ceremonial marriage, existed between the King and the land. The story speaks of how these rights were violated, how balance with the natural world was lost and how women became hidden in their role as guardians and protectors of the natural world. Her subsequent presentation (by now returned to the podium and PowerPoint!) was an excellent outline of Celtic mythology – an ecofeminist approach. She outlined the oral tradition of Celtic mythology, the emphasis on the imaginal world – the mundus imaginalis – and the belief that the stories held there have an independent existence in place. She suggested that we humans, if we are open to them, can be met by these stories and myths in the land itself. Her presentation led to rich discussions on gender and on how psychotherapy can now be in service of the land.
Mary Jayne Rust, a leading practitioner in this field, had travelled from England and followed with On being in relationship with the Earth – a spiritual path. Her presentation centred on the core questions of what happens when therapy happens outdoors and when we bring the natural world into the narrative of self and other. After many years practising in this way she is in accord with Jung who spoke of the belief that we live inside a sacred matrix. As therapists, she suggested we listen for the earth story of our clients, that we ask what was the relationship with the land of parents and ancestors, and what, if any, was the earth trauma of parents and ancestors. Her experience concurs with my own that many clients present with their concerns about the earth and that there is a need for us to give them permission to explore this further. Not to do so may well perpetuate a cultural narrative that we are separate from the earth rather than part of it. She suggested that to withdraw from the earth is also to withdraw from the body.
That afternoon participants were invited to work outdoors to explore some of the themes spoken about in the presentations. Interestingly, all of the workshops were body-based. Robbie Breadon offered an Ecotherapy walk, Dearbhail Conlon from Cork offered Going down into the Earth, an experience
of environmental arts therapy, while I offered a movement-based workshop exploring the soft animal of our bodies – Embodied and embedded emergence in psychotherapy and supervision. These workshops offered a very real experience of all that had been presented earlier. I subsequently received the following feedback from one of the participants at my workshop: “The highlight of the conference for me was the experiential aspects of your workshop, moving and resting into, on and with extra thick layers of moss alive with all kinds of nature. Unforgettable. Life enhancing. Tender. Bold…” (Anonymous workshop participant, 2018). This feedback, and what I heard in relation to the other workshops, all affirmed what David Abram describes as the “somatic affinity that entangles our body with the bodies of other creatures, binding our sentience with that of the local earth” (Abram, 2018).
On the Sunday morning, Matthew Henson, based in Cork, spoke of Holding it together while falling apart – psychotherapeutic wisdom and ecological wisdom. He posed the question “How can psychotherapy benefit the earth?” and rich discussion followed among participants. He outlined his own views in this regard on the importance of empathy, building the I-thou relationship with the more-than-human world, and recognising parallel process. In working with the natural world, he suggested the importance of recognising the enrichment of the therapist in the process. Finally, he addressed the difficult fact of climate change and the recognition that we are “in the field of a terminal illness”. This view has been recently affirmed by David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg (a 15 year old Swedish student) at the Climate Change COP24 Conference. Thunberg (2018) says “You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes”. Henson concurs; he believes listening to the natural world is grief work and posed the following questions to each of us present: “What support do you need to do this work? What support do you offer? What does earth offer to this?” His presentation was heartfelt and his spoken and embodied articulation was fluid, full of uncertainty, full of knowing and congruence.
Subsequently, Joanne Hanrahan generously shared the results of her research on psychotherapy and the natural world and the integration of such research into her practice in her home of Clare. She offered a list of the resources, both books and websites, available for those working in this area. This was in addition to what Matthew and Mary Jayne had previously offered. It is interesting to note that much of what was quoted, while very valuable in itself, was not written in or from the land in Ireland. Coming to this work as I do from the practice of movement and somatics, I was struck by this. Much has been written into and from the land in Ireland by those involved in other disciplines alongside psychotherapy, such as dance/movement, art, creativity, gardening etc. Here I wish to speak of the women and men who are open to listen to their land and place and who, from there, write/shape/articulate their word into the land, the air, the space, the place, the sky, in a way that evolves, changes, and is always emerging. Not a permanent statement printed in ink, but an evolving, fluid body word of beauty and pain, grief and joy, in dialogue with a living world. How can this embodied dialogue be included as a valuable resource, validated as research, particularly in Ireland where so much is passed on through the oral, the music, the singing, the dancing, and the storytelling? It is heartening to know that after many, many years of practice, practitioners such as Joan Davis, psychotherapist and pioneer of contemporary dance in Ireland, and Marian Dunlea, Jungian Analyst and Somatic Experiencing trauma therapist, will shortly publish their work in words (details below). I hope others will follow. Yet it is important in the meantime to be aware of this fleeting, be-coming, emergent articulation to the research available to this work in Ireland.
Finally, Andy Hardie and Katarina Horrox outlined, in both presentation and movement- based workshop format, their practice of Wilderness Therapy as a way to explore change for young people experiencing emotional difficulty in the Venture Mor project in Scotland. Their input was inspiring and full of the challenge and potential of this work. In addition, Patricia Fitzsimons offered a workshop on mandala painting on the Sunday.
This was a very worthwhile conference, well organised by Confer. I hope it will be but the first of many such sharings of experience and mutual learning between practitioners engaged in working in dialogue with the natural world, both here in Ireland and further afield.
Therese O’Driscoll (SIAHIP) is a humanistic and integrative psychotherapist and supervisor working with embodiment and the natural world. She practices largely from her garden/cabin studio in Sligo. See www.thereseodriscoll.ie for further details.
Abram, D. (2018). Myth and magic. Emergence Magazine. Retrieved 26 November 2018 from https://emergencemagazine.org/story/magic-and-the-machine
Attenborough, D. (2018). The peoples’ seat address at COP24. Retrieved December 2018 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifpA25kzBD0
Davis, J. (2018). Origins. See http://www.gorsehill.net/books/origins
Dunlea, M. BodyDreaming. London: Routledge (to be published 2019).