peripatetic precipitates: on nature, healing, and homecoming

A column by Craig Chalquist, PhD

Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist Discuss "No-Till" Therapy

CRAIG: In our demonstration garden in Walnut Creek we've been double-digging our beds--spading and forking down two feet to loosen the soil for planting--but we've also been sheet mulching: spreading layers of cardboard and organic matter to build up the soil. I'm intrigued by the idea of how these two methods parallel two kinds of psychological healing: working away at our inner conflicts (especially the long-standing ones) in an effort to clear, cleanse, work through, reprogram, rescript, etc. them versus letting the natural powers of mind and body deal with them in the depths without interference from the busy conscious mind.

As I think back on the years of psychotherapy, teaching, and good mentoring I've been lucky enough to receive from wise elders, I realize that at least some deep transformation in me came about when I took their advice to stop meddling in what ailed me. In fact, much of what they said came to me as encouragement to quit making a problem into a worse problem. And some problems aren't even problems. When I lost a family member a year and a half ago, I went into a long period of mourning that I allowed to run its course. I didn't seek therapy or fixes or solutions; I didn't need "help." Instead, the entire network of mourning began to move below the surface, gradually composting into energy and passion of the type that inform my work. What do you make of this?

LINDA: I agree that wild psyche has its own ways of helping us recover from our traumas, far from the control of the conscious ego. The ancient wisdom of our bodies, dreams and psyche can heal body, mind and spirit if we let it. What we can do is consciously create the conditions that encourage this natural healing – perhaps slow, leisurely time spent outdoors in nature, for example, or uninterrupted conversation with a wise listener. The critical thing is to be patient and allow deeper psyche to do its work at its own pace. “Brief therapy” is the invention of modern insurance corporations, not the natural mind.

We modern western people are great meddlers, and we create a lot of destruction with our “efficient” interventions. Tilling the soil, for example, destroys multiple ecosystems below ground, killing worms and other beneficial creatures, breaking apart delicate mycellelial networks and removing existing above-ground plants we call “weeds.” We have no respect for what already exists, sure that we know a better way.

Meddling in our psyches has become a national obsession in Oprah-ized America. And as James Hillman has pointed out, all this fiddling around "underground" has effectively prevented us from dealing with critical aboveground political, social and environmental crises that desperately need our conscious mind’s attention.

As a psychotherapist for many years, I do have a certain amount of respect for exploring the unconscious, however. As Carl Jung put it: "Man's task is to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious." Jung has got it right: rather than encouraging endless invasive digging to unearth the psyche’s secrets before it is ready to share them, Jung advises us to be like the permaculture designer observing a new piece of land, waiting patiently to see what bulbs and other plants will pop up naturally from the ground over time before we change a thing. The image that comes to mind is bubbles coming to the surface from deep, uncharted regions below the surface of the ground or the ocean.

I wonder: is this what “no-till” therapy look like?

CRAIG: “No-till therapy”: nice coinage. One form of it might be letting our conflicts and “issues” out for fresh air, getting out rather than acting out. In fact I wonder at times whether acting out represents an unconscious protest against too much interiority. Getting out could begin with asking oneself, “Where is this source of anguish that feels so personal located in the world? Where is it outside of me, and is there a connection?” With this the wound already begins to transform itself from my own difficulty (with all the potential “I am a victim” thinking that can imply) into a doorway leading me out into wider concerns. Right now one of my graduate students is moving beyond her “food issues” to find out which toxins that she digests also show up in the biosphere, especially the ocean. Imagine an ocean-sized stomach ache. We probably all have one and don't know it. You mentioned Jung, who wrote that “unconscious” eventually merges with “world.”

Another practice (NOT technique, NOT method!) might be to work this interdependency between self and world in reverse by learning about how the natural world deals with “issues.” You're aware of the work of Paul Stamets with mycoremediation: allowing beneficial fungi to rid soil of toxins from agricultural runoff and other pollution sources. Fungi are smart. They have joined together in continent-sized chemical networks that manage entire ecosystems. They also provide us with penicillin and other medicines. If I thought like a fungus, I could allow those messy inner states to be cleansed by the wisdom of my body-mind instead of the ego barging in with its treatments and cleansings and cures.

LINDA: I like the idea of learning from the wise fungus! Perhaps a model for healthy connectivity in the internet age?

But I wonder if we moderns have the patience for “no-till therapy”? I’m so struck by how many of our modern ills stem directly from our collective impatience and the constantly accelerating and unnatural speed of living. We’ve “advanced” from industrial time to cybertime in just a few decades. We’re in love with “instant” and “efficient” and “quick.” The delusion is that faster and more invasive are always better. Thus, double digging. Or “brief” therapy. Or splitting the atom. Or colonizing other countries or planets. Or genetic modification and nanotechnology. In our ignorance of and lack of respect for the previously-unknown worlds we barge into, we are sure that only a positive result will emerge from our meddling.

We moderns badly need a sense of humility and respect for the universes and continents we unthinkingly and naively invade, whether they be the depths of our own psyche, the bottom of the ocean, the soilweb or distant planets.

CRAIG: Yes we do, and we need elders and mentors to show us what this patience looks like and what good results it can bring. The inner hunger for learning is like the hunger to reconnect with the natural world: buried beneath iPads and e-waste but ineradicable. Kimmy Johnson is a graduate instructor at JFK University where I teach, and her classes are always full because students both young and old can't wait to listen to her. I'm sure her teaching technique plays a part, but I've also witnessed the draw and magnetism of a true elder relating wisdom stories that serve as vehicles for initiation.

LINDA: Right now it seems as if our society’s elders are being dismissed by many younger people as hopelessly clueless about the “real” world of constant internet connectivity and shallow but speedy multitasking. What’s sad is that we don’t seem to recognize the preciousness of the slower skills and wisdom from earlier times that will once again become critical as we move into the changed post-fossil-fuel era of dramatic climate change and resource shortages.

An encouraging point is that the burgeoning transition movement around the world is making an effort to interview local elders in each town or neighborhood to harvest their wisdom before these elders are gone, and to involve them in desperately needed, practical “reskilling” efforts. The further we get into sustainability, the more we realize that speed and virtual reality won’t be the only critical factors in our future survival: depth and direct contact with nature in all its forms will spell the difference between life and death for our children and grandchildren.

Perhaps ecotherapists should also seek out the wisdom still kept alive by some of our elder therapists who for many years patiently and gently practiced the kinds of “no till therapy” we’re talking about -- until insurance companies refused to pay for it, putting many of these slower, gentler methods of exploring and healing psyche beyond the reach of most people.

CRAIG: Psychotherapy too was constructed within the Big Machine, as were today’s alternative therapies, so many of which focus on doing something to people: an intervention, a new this or that, a fix, solution, or regimen. Recently I’ve seen numerous Internet ads for colon cleansing; while wondering what Freud would make of them, I looked up the etymology of “colon” and learned that its ancient root is “bend.” Going around the bend with cures can make us crazy in a hurry.

We’ve been talking in my classes lately about widespread breakdown: of trust in government, of institutions, of finance, education, religion, medicine, all in crisis and fragmentation nearly as dire as ecosystems shattering all over the world. But instead of being curable or reformable, maybe these Big Machine-era mechanisms of modernity need to run down and come to a stop so that deeper styles of being can grow like new soil, from the ground up.

Postscript (CRAIG):
As I finished my part of this conversation I received some family-related news from long ago that brought up powerful feelings and reopened old wounds. Had I felt I needed to consult a therapist, or take medication, I would have, but I did neither, nor have I tried to clear, work through, or meditate anything away.

Instead, I took how I felt outside for a walk in the cold spring breeze, fully present to myself, altering nothing, fixing nothing, simply tending the deep currents as they arose and flowed on, cycled cleanly away into passion by the mysterious wisdom of psyche-in-nature left to its own subtle work.



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