Reading the Mind of Nature


Ecopsychology and Indigenous Wisdom

Leslie Gray

Leslie Gray has for decades been one of the most creative innovators to blend ancient and modern healing practices. She has evolved a form of “shamanic counseling” (a term she coined) that combines the insights of modern psvchology with the time-tested practices of indigenous healing and ceremony.

Of Oneida and Seminole ancestry, she is a psychologist in private practice in San Francisco. She also teaches ecopsychology and Native American studies at several Bay Area universities, including the University of California at Berkeley, the California Institute of Integral Studies, and San Francisco State University. She leads unique travel and study programs to sacred sites in the southwestern United States. A member of the Society of Indian Psychologists and board member of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology, she is founder of the Woodfish Institute, which promotes ecological education grounded in indigenous wisdom.

Leslie knows we will need to draw from the best of the world’s ancient wisdom traditions as well as the leading edges of contemporary creativity to begin to heal a wounded civilization. She shows us that, with exquisite attention and intention. we can blend old and new. passion and intellect, to create the psychological and spiritual wholeness that will help us rediscover our place in the web of life.

A PARTICULAR WORLDVIEW, model of healing, and system of values underlie our current treatment choices in the field of mental health. But how would we be thinking and what would we be doing if we had a genuinely “ecotherapeutic” model of mental health that portrayed human beings as part of the natural world? I believe the emerging field of ecopsychology offers such a model and a framework in which to rediscover and re-create very effective ancient healing practices.

The prevailing Euro-American version isn’t a model of health; it’s a model of illness. That’s why so much of our materia medica is “anti”—- antibacterial, anti-inflammatory , antidepressant, and so on. The Native American model of health emphasizes restoring balance—-aligning body, mind, and heart in balance with the environment—and understands that this is a process: You lose the balance; you regain it. You lose the balance; you regain it. That’s why in Pueblo ceremonies, at the most sacred of moments, they send out the clowns to make fun of all the elders and the medicine people there, and indeed of the entire ritual. They resist a naive notion of “holy.” They do not try to get rid of all problems or all evil: They try instead to find nature’s balance between positive and negative. That’s very different.

The term koyaanisqatsi, which means “life out of balance,” is now well known because of a popular film, but very few people know how that concept is used in healing. In one Navajo healing ceremony, for example, patients sit on a sand painting throughout what is often a four to seven,day process to go back through their lives and review them, trying to get from the place of koyaanisqatsi, where their life went out of balance, to hozho nahasdlii, to harmony restored. The patient is in a hogan with friends and family around, harmonious songs are sung, and the patient sits in an exquisitely balanced sand painting, with beautifully carved fetishes placed on various parts of the body. All the imagery suggests harmony restored, a return to balance or health. In Navajo, the word for balance, the word for harmony, and the word for beauty are the same word: hozho.

The Judeo-Christian worldview tells us we have been kicked out of Paradise due to our sinful ways and that we must rid ourselves of sin to ascend to paradise. That’s a fractured or broken image, and, though science has challenged the church’s dogmas, that altruistic model still unconsciously informs Western psychology.

Asian cultures that see existential phenomena as resulting from the interaction of opposites such as yin and yang, and which focus on energy flows in nature and in the body, are informed by a more dynamic and holistic model than the West’s, but those cultures have still produced some of the most hierarchical and patriarchal of all societies. Both the European and the Asian models have resulted in hierarchical, patriarchal societies. That, in my view, is because both focus on unity or ‘paradise” as an abstraction, whereas the indigenous worldview is that this world is already paradise. It’s an earth-based spirituality, rather than an attempt to transcend the earth with spirituality.

Through Woodfish Institute, we’ve been trying to help introduce indigenous approaches to mental health into the mainstream. We funded a researcher to present a paper at the annual American Psychological Association’s meeting, a paper on how psychologists and psychiatrists have traditionally misperceived shamans and classified them as schizophrenic. I’ve also been doing training for the outpatient psychiatric staff at some Kaiser hospitals, as well as for the Japan Institute of Psychotherapy. At Kaiser I set up a medicine wheel, right there in the windowless rooms of their outpatient psychiatric facility .I established north, south, east, and west and got everybody up on their feet, focused on a question, and started drumming. We walked around the wheel and asked questions of the wheel from different perspectives. It’s astonishing how quickly the participants’ worldviews shifted and how much creativity was released.

A case study from my practice highlights how an indigenous approach to individual therapy can work. I call this case “a dream of a red spider:’ Jane was a psychotherapist I met when she attended several prayer tobacco circles. Recently divorced and new to the San Francisco Bay Area, she still hadn’t found work and was adjusting to living with a new lover. She described herself as depressed. At the prayer smoke, she would cry for most of the two hours. She had a rash on her hands, which a dermatologist had said could not be accounted for medically. The discomfort of the rash only added to her ever-present anxiety. A turning point in my three months of individual work with her occurred after a session in which I restored her guardian spirit. The next night, she had a nightmare in which a red spider attached itself to her vagina. At our next session she asked, “What does it mean?”

She was a psychotherapist. so meaning was important to her. I told her that meaning is only one way of working with dreams. The shamanic way would be for me to remove the spider. She looked baffled but agreed to a ceremony for removing harmful power instrusions. I had her lie down on my office floor. and I sat behind her head with a power object in one hand and a rattle in the other. As I shook my rattle and began to enter a non -ordinary consciousness, I noticed a spider strolling up the pillow on which I was sitting. At first I ignored it. trying to stick to the business at hand, but finally I stopped rattling, picked up the creature, and held it in my open palm. I sat up, Jane sat up, and we looked into my palm. She turned white as a sheet and shrieked. In her dream, she had seen a red spider exactly like the one in my hand, with the same red markings on its back. I picked up the ordinary spider. took it outside, released it, and returned to my original task of removing the non-ordinary spider .After that session, Jane showed dramatic improvement. She reported feeling more energy. and began to go for job interviews and actively pursue new relationships. More important, she no longer described herself as depressed.

I think that to restore our personal and collective sanity we need to get back on track, to rediscover a universe of living beings intimately related: the biosphere as our family. This family has values: respect for life, harmony with nature’s cycles, gratitude, balance, and above all, reciprocity—don’t take anything without giving something back. This is the key. Reciprocity with Being underlies indigenous cures. Another project I’ve begun is the Woodfish Prize. I decided to offer a prize for a Native American and a Euro-American who could work together in a mutually transformative way on a project. At the end of the first year, I had decided not to give the prize. There were about two more days before the dead- line was up, and I’d read all the submissions, and I felt no one had really gotten the idea of “mutual.” But right at the deadline, I got a perfect example of what I’d been looking for. A professor at a university took a sabbatical and went to the only Native American traditional ground in central California and helped dig a ceremonial ground. He had been at a talk I had given and had heard me mention that frequently people asked me how to meet an authentic Native American shaman. I said that rather than wandering around reservations looking for enlightenment, you might try going and seeing what the people say they actually need and rolling up your sleeves and pitching in. He did so. and it changed him profoundly. He devdoped a relationship with the elder who is building the ceremonial space that was mutually transformative.


Ecological Medicine:
Healing The Earth, Healing Ourselves

Edited by Kenny Ausubel,
and J. P. Harpignies
pp. 223-227
Sierra Club Books 2004