Leslie Gray: Shamanism & Eco-psychology

Excerpts of “Shamanism and Eco-Psychology: Ancient Answers for Contemporary Concerns,” Leslie Gray’s CUUPS Keynote Address given at the 1995 General Assembly in Spokane, Washington. Of Oneida and Seminole heritage, Leslie Gray practices as a clinical psychologist and shamanic counselor.

My purpose tonight in speaking is to suggest that the re-inclusion of the ancient world view expressed in the American Indian statement “all my relations” is precisely our greatest hope for the future, ecologically and psychologically. I’ll say a little bit about the situation we are in. I would describe it as nothing less than imminent global catastrophe. Ecocide if you will. As a species we are destroying our life support systems. The air is becoming increasingly unbreathable. The hole in the ozone grows larger. Water becomes undrinkable, the oceans are dying, the soil is eroded and turning non-arable. Toxic nuclear waste is leaking into all three elements just mentioned from unthinking, short sighted attempts to harness the fourth element, fire.

No one escapes the daily recitation of the facts of planetary destruction in the media. They are voluminous. But whether it is the loss of a hundred species to our ecosystem a day or the destruction of old growth forests equal to the area of Pennsylvania each year or even the information that due to pesticides sperm counts of American males today are 50% that of their grandfathers, we seem to respond to these facts with denial, repression or despair rather than conscious action. Although planetary restoration is still possible, no one expects modern science or conventional state religions to turn this situation around. Indeed, many leading edge thinkers are coming to the conclusion that it is only through the formation of an empathic relationship with the Earth that we will survive. This is what eco-psychologists are saying.

This points to the main problem of the ecology movement. Ecologists don’t know much about changing human behavior. They have been relying primarily on fear and guilt tactics for almost thirty years now. And they don’t work. We’re all scared to death. But the tactics haven’t worked. I actually saw in a recent advertisement that I think was meant to encourage you to join the Sierra Club a large black and white picture of the face of an owl with piercing yellow eyes and underneath it said in bold letters, “Make my day.” I found myself saying what’s the image here? The natural world as Clint Eastwood? Intimidation doesn’t work either.

Psychologists know that reality is dependent on our perception of it. Therefore we must appeal to people compassionately and positively or they won’t change. But the field of psychology has its own tragic flaw. It has remained exclusively focused on human beings and their relations with one another. Regardless of theoretical orientation—psychoanalytic, behaviorist, humanist, or transpersonal the focus has been on human beings. The consequences of this anthropomorphism for psychology have been at the very least that it seems to have made itself irrelevant to the central question of our time, whether life itself will remain sustainable. Another consequence is that there is no model of mental health which includes the natural world.

If visitors from another planet came here and were to read the DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Four, the one that has the diagnostic categories required, where you pick the particular flavor of disturbance that you diagnose someone with if you are a psychologist (and which is required by all insurance companies, even if you are going for just a couple of visits), they would possibly conclude that you could raise a human being in a broom closet as long as there was a mother and a father inside there. The DSM-IV has exactly two references to the natural world—seasonal-affective disorder and the other is bestiality.

I really see both these problems of ecology and of psychology as world-view problems. Both fields are acting as if they are not related to each other. Indeed the slogan of the eco-psychology movement has become ecology needs psychology and psychology needs ecology. I think at its best, eco-psychology says that you can’t have sanity without a sane relationship with the natural world. Eco-psychology proposes a shift of consciousness from the atomistic to the synergistic. For example, Theodore Roszak says in his book, Voices of the Earth, “Eco-psychology holds that there is a synergistic interplay between planetary and personal well-being. The term synergy is chosen deliberately. The contemporary ecological translation of the term might be that the needs of the planet are the needs of the person, the rights of the person are the rights of the planet.” And I say that’s a good start, Doctor Roszak, but what’s missing from this picture? Spirituality. And that I should say right away is my greatest fear about the eco-psychology movement, that it will become merely the combination of environmentalism with academic psychology. Right now the field is so nascent that whether or not that happens hasn’t been determined. There are many people introducing ideas of Earth-based spirituality into eco-psychology and there are many who say there is no place for spirituality in eco-psychology.

Eco-psychology can be described as an attempt to bring the rest of the social sciences into line with the insights of modern physics about interconnectedness. These insights are often described as a new paradigm. A new paradigm? It seems to me that this paradigm is the paradigm of the oldest psycho-spiritual cosmological system there is—shamanism. The shamanic world view is perennial. It has been acknowledged continuously for forty thousand years and continues to be so by the more than three hundred million indigenous peoples in the world today. This perennial indigenous world view is powerfully stated in the Chuckchee saying, “Everything that is, is alive.” In a universe of living things intimately related the biosphere is our family. In this family are ourselves, the two-legged, the four-legged, the creepers, crawlers, rock people, the plant people, the tall-straight people, the rolling hills, the grasses, the cloud people, planets, starry nation, galaxies, all my relations. And this family has values, family values. Let’s just look at the traditional family values of this land, Turtle Island. The traditional family values of America have been held for thousands of years. They are respect for life, harmony with nature’s cycles, gratitude, balance, and above all, reciprocity. Don’t take anything without giving something back. The spiritual tradition of Native America is one of reciprocal relations with the Earth. I have no doubt that the failure to honor this American tradition will result in our destruction. Just as the re-inclusion of our Earth-based spiritual tradition is the key to restoring our land and our sanity. So I would say dominate the Earth or treat the Earth as sacred. This is the central spiritual question of our time.