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Mary-Jayne Rust is an Ecopsychologist
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Conversations
18 October 2018

Mary-Jayne Rust is an Ecopsychologist

Interview by Liz Evans

Mary-Jayne Rust is a British art therapist, Jungian analyst and ecopsychologist based in north London. During the early 1990s, she became interested in deep ecology and environmental issues, and soon began to see links between her work at Susie Orbach’s Women’s Therapy Centre with eating disorders, and the wider issue of collective consumerism. Meetings with John Seed and Joanna Macy led to Mary-Jayne becoming interested in the emerging field of ecopsychology, which weaves together ecological, political, philosophical, spiritual and psychological ideas, and she soon found herself gravitating towards other like-minded therapists with a view to practising, facilitating and supervising—with Earth literally in mind. Before long, a movement began to flourish.

Since then, Mary-Jayne has been instrumental in developing the UK Ecopsychology network, running workshops, creating ecotherapy courses and organising conferences and festivals designed to help people become more conscious of their connection with what she calls, “The more-than-human world.” A gentle, wise and extraordinarily creative thinker, she draws heavily on her Jungian training for her ecopsychology practice, finding inspiration in analytical psychology’s model of change and transformation, and indulging her passions for wild swimming and visual art for personal sustenance.

In these critical times, ecopsychology’s perspective offers a vital and considered response to a seemingly insurmountable crisis, and Mary-Jayne’s warm intelligence radiates much-needed hope in a world where many people who love nature are increasingly worried and prone to despair. Her peaceful call to arms is one of pragmatism and purpose, asking each of us to contemplate our place within the wider web of life, requesting no more than our realisation of the depth and wonder of the journey we are all on together, human or otherwise!

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

LIZ EVANS: So let’s dive in with a big question. As one of the founders of the UK Ecopsychology movement, how do you see the role of the field within the current political climate?

MARY-JAYNE RUST: Relatively speaking, ecopsychology is a tiny movement, so the real question is how do you start taking these ideas to policy makers, and scientists, because there’s always this huge block around the kind of principles ecopsychology upholds. They represent a total revolution in relation to the commonly accepted world-view. And at the core of those values, as far as I’m concerned, lies the fact that we live inside a conscious, or an aware, web of life. I prefer to say “aware” because the word “conscious” can be quite difficult and provocative. Once you’ve stated that, capitalism is completely dismantled because capitalism depends on using others, particularly the rest of nature, as objects. So where do we go from there?

Do you think it’s helpful for us to think practically? For example, I’ve been very careful where I buy food and clothes for more than a decade now, and that’s definitely required a shift in consciousness, as well as habits, and it feels like a contribution worth making. It’s a form of ecopsychology in action, if you like.

Well, I’m quite a hands-on person, and I like the practical stuff, so I like to think about the practical first and then move into the theory. That’s always how I’ve worked. So when you talk about traceability regarding clothes and food, then yes, we can do quite a lot, but how is that really going to change anything unless we change policy as well? There’s a whole movement of people here in England who don’t fly, but even if the whole of the UK didn’t fly, it wouldn’t make enough impact in the grand scheme of things. There’s so much that’s got to change and it’s really overwhelming, and that’s the first psychological hurdle actually. Where do you start?

So how do you deal with that pain and that grief, and that sense of overwhelm?

I suppose everything that I’ve learned from ecopsychology has helped me with all of that, because I’ve now got a conceptual model in my head about the process of change. In turn, ecopsychology is based on a psychotherapy perspective, so it draws on all my work within that field too.

Basically, within mainstream systems, we’re taught to think of change as an onwards and upwards process, but psychotherapy says it’s more than that.

“Onwards and upwards” leaves out “backwards and downwards,” but if we include “backwards and downwards” then we have a circle. Progress is, in a sense, about a spiral movement,

so this psychotherapy model of change involves having to loosen our defence structures and let things fall apart. That’s when it all becomes very hairy of course, because then you’re in liminal space and you’re skinless, and you could go in any direction if you don’t find a good holding structure with help and guidance. So this is when we need to turn around and ask: where are our cultural containers? Where are the places where we can feel held and safe? And of course, the work of Joanna Macy and Australia’s John Seed, and lots of others now, is all about this.

When you see the likes of Trump coming into power, and when you look at what’s happening in Europe and the movements towards fundamentalism and fascism, then I think that you could have foretold that because that’s what happens when things break down. It’s kind of inevitable that things fall apart and then go very black and white for a while before something new comes into play. But when the new begins to emerge, the old order will do its very best to cling on. So just when you think you’re making a move, with Barack Obama in power, and people like Jeremy Corbyn and Caroline Lucas gaining power in politics, then you see the big backlash.

It reminds me of working with individual clients in therapy. Just when you think you’re coming to a place of recovery, the old symptoms return. If something hasn’t been properly worked through, it will return because it still needs to be heard and to be given attention.

So how we think about change can help. But one of the dangers with ecopsychology is that it can easily become glossy and corporatised. When we think all we have to do is go out into nature and we’ll be healed, and that everything will be fine in nature because it makes us feel good, and we don’t make any connection to ecopsychology as a political movement, then it’s just the same onwards and upwards thing.

You’re talking about the commodification of ecopsychology really, and I agree that without the psychological depth, which takes work, and can be painful, ecopsychology, like anything, risks becoming superficial.

Yes, when it’s all about making “me” feel better, it becomes problematic. So how do we take ecopsychology into mainstream culture? Not by saying “Hey guys, there’s an apocalypse going on? Come on over here and let’s do a workshop on it!” But equally I think it’s very difficult to invite people in by starting with the darkness. So the best you can do is to hold both open, and I think that’s what worked so well with the ecotherapy and ecopsychology courses I ran with eco-educationalist Dave Key in Scotland a few years ago. Initially people came along and fell into the lap of nature, because they were in a state, and they wanted to be nourished, so they needed that holding before they fell apart. And equally, there were people who’d tried everything and eventually came to the realisation that they needed to go into psychotherapy, even though they knew it was going to hurt.

Now, many people are bursting to come and talk about how terrible things are in the world and how scared they are for their children, and I certainly hear a lot of that in my work, from individual clients as well as within the wider culture. People are terrified and they know what’s going on. There’s been an enormous cultural shift in terms of people’s awareness in the last 20 years or so. When I first became involved with all this in the mid-1990s, people weren’t even aware that there was an ecological crisis, and they thought we were completely mad for saying that there was. Whereas now everyone’s aware of it, and on some level, they’re terrified. So there’s a both/and isn’t there? Catching people on the basis of yes, we’re going into nature to have a good time, but also then we make a space for the difficult stuff, and that’s where people can begin to explore falling apart a little.

It has to be a balance, especially now there is so much that’s unbalanced driving the crisis. So what’s happening within the ecopsychology field itself now?

I would say the movement is growing, albeit in quite a small way. We started our online ecopsychology community www.ecopsychologyuk.ning.com in 2008, and I thought it would have tailed off by now, but we have exactly the same numbers of people wanting to join every month. I think there are more and more papers and books coming out on the subject too.

To be honest though, from my point of view, I also think things have got a little stuck because, as a movement, there has to be a way in which we feel that we’re making a difference, and I’m not sure that’s really happening yet. So yes, we’re developing the work, as individual therapists and group therapists, and by running courses, but I think unless ecopsychology can actually make a difference to mainstream culture, I’d feel a bit disappointed. And it’s a gap that needs to be addressed.

I don’t want to sound like it’s all hopeless, because I don’t think it is, but I do think it’s extremely challenging. And we hit this line all the time, about how challenging the ideas are to mainstream culture, and it’s hard to see how things can move forward.  It can’t be integrated into the mainstream, because it’s the mainstream that’s got to fall apart and change.

The good news is that it’s not just about ecopsychology. In many ways I really don’t like that word anymore. I think there are millions of people coming to these ideas and they all call it something different. There are many ideas coming through within NGOs and from academics, and all over the place there’s a general swell of people who are wanting a different relationship to the other-than-human world, who are talking about consciousness. There are movements within science and there’s a fantastic amount of interest within new physics, and ideas are changing. And I know this is slightly off topic, but the shift in awareness around plastic is phenomenal and a lot of that’s to do with David Attenborough!

And there are things like forest kindergartens, and people wanting allotments. In some areas of the UK the waiting list for an allotment is up to four years. People are dying to get their hands into the soil. So, I think there is a movement happening, of which ecopsychology is a small part, and it can do its bit in terms of consciousness raising.  But it’s happening anyway, in terms of the collective psyche. Balance is being restored.

Does this make you more hopeful?

I’m often asked this question, and actually I feel it’s very important, in a sense, to not cling onto hope. But yes, there are many hopeful things happening out there, and I often think I’d like to have a website dedicated to this, because all people see are the terrible things. There’s a wonderful video I watch sometimes in which the social entrepreneur, Paul Hawken, lists all the organisations around the world who are working towards change. He says if you start listing them on a Friday morning, you could keep going until Monday morning and you still wouldn’t have gotten to the end of the list. His book, Blessed Unrest, is all about these grass roots movements that are happening under the radar.

When you turn to the negative predictions, it’s so incredibly depressing. Of course, it’s always much easier to go into one extreme or the other, so for me, that’s another challenge—to avoid getting polarised.

And working into the split is what psychotherapy, particularly Jungian psychotherapy, addresses isn’t it? Jung says we need to hold the tensions between these kinds of opposites because that’s where the creativity emerges. It’s quite a radical concept, and a great model for change.

Yes and you need that model of change so that you don’t lose heart, but you also need to tap into something much bigger, in terms of what I’d call spiritual support

because we’re not in control of what’s happening right now, on our planet. We might have caused it, but to think we can turn around and change it all is ludicrous, because we’re not really in charge. I find that a sort of relief, actually, because it means we don’t have to carry it all.

Connecting with that sense of the wider collective, psychically and spiritually, as well as organically, is another very Jungian perspective, and as you say, it engenders a sort of liberation through heightening awareness of our profound interconnection with other forms and systems of life. It’s not all about us, yet we are very much a part of something. Ecopsychology shows how conscious outdoor experiences can teach us this more effectively than anything.

Exactly. When you ask people if they have a special place in nature, it’s amazing how many of them, and not just the white male middle classes, but everyone, will have one. But it’s often a secret.

The Melbourne Urban Forest Project is a really good example of how things can go viral, and also a great example of ecopsychology in action, even though they would never have called it that. The city had this idea that they wanted to take care of their trees because they saw how important it was in the grand scheme of things, especially in regard to drought. I think the guy who set it up had done some training with Al Gore so he was very inspired. So they made a map of all the trees in the city and they put it online and they gave each tree a number, and they asked the public to get involved and to let them know when they thought a tree was suffering, or a branch had come off or it looked like it was dying. It was a way of involving the population. And then, what spontaneously happened, was that people started writing emails to the trees, and they were love letters. The city had to employ people to deal with all the mail they were getting.

It’s amazing because it shows how when you scratch the surface, everyone has that, what you might call, indigenous relationship to the other-than-human world. It’s lying there in everyone and it just needs a little trigger.

So how do we harness that? That’s the question.

Community seems to play a very important part.

Yes, that’s terribly important. We cannot do this as isolated individuals, we have to do it together. Transition Towns is another movement that’s been tremendously successful, and that’s all about community. It’s amazing how it has developed from Totnes, a small alternative town in Devon, where you can now go and pick your own vegetables in the community garden at the station when you get off the train. Even London, which I see as a collection of villages, is beginning to take on the Transition Town thing now, and you can go to cob house workshops and similar things in North London’s Crouch End for instance. In fact, London has recently been named a national park. I think it’s incredible to think about cities as national parks, to think about green spaces in cities, and how they can all be connected. There are so many ways in which attitudes and practices are changing.

So things are pretty polarised really aren’t they? On the one hand you’ve got the move back to nature, and on the other hand, vast movements away from nature, and towards the intensification of climate change.

Yes, it’s all about these two movements. One is all about fighting nature and trying to defend ourselves against nature, and the other is about realising that we need to work with nature, and that we are nature, of course. You can see those two movements going on everywhere. Hospitals install windows that don’t open, and frantically banish germs, but on the other hand, they’re realising that patients are much more likely to get better if they have a green view. And that’s all it takes, just a green view.

I think one of the most inspiring projects within ecopsychology came out of the work that I did with Dave Key. We ran a few ecotherapy courses in Scotland, and one of the people that wanted to do the wilderness course in Knoydart was a woman who worked for the World Wildlife Foundation. She had a very bad back, so we decided that we would slow the group down to make it possible for her to join us. So she came and did her solo, but she couldn’t go very far because of her condition.

Towards the end of the day, this woman happened to turn around where she was, and right behind her, lying on the ground, was the complete spine of a sheep. In that moment, she really got it, and she was completely mind blown. She went back to WWF and decided to see if they would run a similar course for community leaders in the field, to see what a difference it might make. Sadly I couldn’t be involved because it was based in Scotland, so another psychotherapist, Margaret Kerr, stepped in, and together with Dave, designed a six month course which was funded by WWF. They hand-picked community leaders, such as the head of the Christian Youth Movement, and lots of others who had little or no experience of getting out into nature. One person who went on the course said the only experience she’d had of nature was traversing the gap between the taxi and the doorway of London department store Harvey Nichols! There were 15-20 people in the group, and they all had lots of experiential engagement, including solos in the city, and did lots of thinking around their work within their respective organisations. But it was the personal, transformative experience that meant it really worked.

In all, it was fantastically successful, and all of those leaders went back into their organisations and initiated all kinds of changes. The head of WWF in Scotland said it was one of their most successful projects ever, in terms of change of consciousness. So they ran it for several years, and then the funding got cut internally. This happened during a time of economic austerity when lots of cuts were happening across the UK, but I think it’s very interesting that WWF was a very traditional NGO, so it was surprising when they took this project under their wing in the first place, and I have wondered about the more conservative factions within that organisation, and how they dealt with this rather touchy feely course, because you have to be very careful with anything even vaguely hippy.

That makes me think of the dangers involved in veering down the ethno-romantic path of things like shamanic workshops and vision quests because it can lead you into some very delicate political waters. Among other issues, I always wonder about the apparent lack of reciprocity and support for the traditional cultures where these types of practices exist.

Yes, and that’s why Dave and I have always been very strict about not using terms like “vision quest.”

We can be inspired by that kind of experience, but we must come back to our own traditions.

Vision quests and other indigenous practices from the USA are not part of our culture in the UK now so we have to find it through our bodies and through our psychic memories, and this is what we try to show through our work. It’s very challenging though, because it’s completely wide open for everyone to interpret. The truth is that shamanic moments happen all the time within this experiential work, if you put them in the right context. So do we want to put theoretical frames around these experiences? No.

The last time Dave and I taught at the Schumacher College in Dartington we simply told stories without any theoretical frames at all. It was very weird, and it felt very naked within that context but it was very powerful, and the audience started sharing their stories with us. But having said all of that, I do feel a frustration with ecopsychology because I do want to try and deepen it in terms of thinking, so now I’m hoping to link up with some key people to try and do that, so we can effectively communicate these ideas.

Can you share any of your own stories from working with nature?

Well, as a psychotherapist I’ve had several amazing experiences in the woods with clients. When you take therapy outside, the world joins in with the session. Even working indoors things can come in through the window. The other day a queen hornet came into my room, and it was very very potent, in terms of matching the client’s dreams and penetrating defence structures, and of course you get a huge amount of that when you work in the woods.

Once I had a client, and she decided to start working outdoors. So she chose a spot to sit in, in the woods, and we would meet there for our sessions. At first nothing really changed, and we just carried on dialoguing for a while, until one day we were sitting in the grove of trees and she fell into a state of fear, and then retreated from me, which was something that had happened before. It was hard to sit with her in this silence, knowing how frightened she was, and so I used to reach out to her with my words, but sometimes I felt like I was chasing her. I was feeling this way in the woods, when in that moment we both noticed a pair of squirrels chasing each other through the trees. It felt like a mirror. So I verbally acknowledged it, and something softened between us. I then began wondering how to build a bridge between us, and we both looked down and a tiny spider had built a web between our shoulders. So, we’d been connected by another being. And she said to me how are we going to leave now? And the thought of breaking this web that had taken so long to build was hard, so we waited for a few minutes, and the next time we looked down everything had gone. The web and the spider, it was all gone. So I didn’t have to say anything.

Synchronicity is a major piece in this other world-view. The other-than-human world speaks to us, if we can listen and be receptive. We’re no longer trained in that way of relating with the world, so we miss it when it happens. Or we put those kinds of experiences down to random coincidence and they lose their meaning. So all of that reciprocal focus has lost its significance, and many of us live in a relatively meaningless world, where we all desperately rush towards each other, as if humans are the only beings who can nourish us. I mean,

I know it’s important to have human relationships, but I think if we can find that deeper relationship with the rest of life, then we no longer feel alone.

And when that floods back into your being, that is the nourishment. Without it we have depression and addiction and overwork, because the modern world-view is so random and empty and meaningless.

Another story is one I heard from a man at the Wild of Heart conference in Aviemore back in 2004. This guy was given the task of showing a developer around a very beautiful area he wanted to develop. So they walked up a mountain together, and at the start the developer was talking about all the amazing things his development would bring, but as they started to climb the mountain, the chatter got less. When they got to the top, they both sat down for a snack, and they noticed an eagle sitting nearby. They carried on walking but the presence of the eagle made them even quieter, and as they went, the eagle went with them, accompanying them and landing on nearby trees, and this developer was obviously awestruck. When they got back down from the mountain, the developer turned around and said to the man, don’t ever let anyone develop this area.

Having such profound experiences in nature can completely change people’s views. So the question is, how can you take the Trumps out into nature!

During the 1980s you treated eating disorders at Susie Orbach’s Women’s Therapy Centre in London. How much has feminism, or ecofeminism informed your ecopsychology work?

Ecofeminism has been terribly important, because if you think of the hierarchy of peoples, there’s a strict dividing line with the more-than-human world underneath, and the male middle-class values at the top. It’s a whole mountain of power and oppression. A huge amount of work has been going on around sexism and racism and classism, and a lot is being challenged within human relations, so that gives us a lot to work with in trying to understand how to challenge imbalance.

We know it’s incredibly hard for the oppressor to take back their shadow projections onto the other, and it’s equally difficult for the oppressed, who have internalised those shadow projections. As women, we know how incredibly hard it is to get rid of all those bloody negative beliefs about ourselves. It’s lifelong for all of us, which shows how hard and how painful it all is. And even when the prison door opens up, we know how hard it is to walk out, because the bars are on the inside. So there’s a parallel with anthropocentrism, or human-centredness, as I prefer to call it, and how white western humans project their stuff onto the other-than-human world, and how animals, and plants carry all the stuff that we don’t want to own. And all of that is even less conscious than the sexism and racism that has taken centuries to even begin to shift. So that’s the challenge, and that’s what feminism has helped me to understand—that we do the same to the land as we have done to women and people of colour.

It links up with Jungian thinking around the four functions of intellect, feeling sensation and intuition. Our culture values the intellect above the others. So I find that a helpful, simple map of seeing what needs to be brought back into balance, and what needs to be valued and strengthened. Also, when we think archetypally, and about the archetypes that have a grip on modern culture, we can see that we’re caught up in hero culture, which takes us back to the onwards and upwards, the fight against nature, and the narcissist. And that, in turn, implies consumerism, social media, and the current political climate.

Where is your work headed right now?

My personal passions are related to animal and plant communication, and recovering our relationship with the land, and it’s such way-out stuff according to modern culture, so the challenge is how to bring it all in. But I’m sure I’ll find a way!

This article is part of our wilding campaign at Dumbo Feather. For more stories, inspiration and ideas for re-connecting with the wild and protecting what you love, purchase Issue 56 — “Embracing the Wild” or subscribe.

Liz Evans

Liz Evans is a Jungian psychotherapist and writer based in Hobart.

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