MF 46 – Reconnecting with Nature through Eco-Therapy with Laurel Vogel

Laurel Vogel, M.A. received her degree in contemplative ecopsychology (A Psychology of Writing) in 2006, and is an ecotherapist, writer, Zen practitioner, and Nature Immersion group facilitator. She founded and runs the Holding Earth Sangha on Whidbey Island, and conducts Nature Immersion camps on the West Coast. Her writing is anthologized in Rebearths: Conversations with a World Ensouled (ed. C. Chalquist), and her articles have appeared in Ecotherapy News, and Restoration Earth Journal.

Interview with Laurel Vogel

(What follows is a summary transcript of the interview. Listen to the episode for the full conversation)

What brought you to a contemplative practice?

I’ve been a spiritual seeker for a long time, from a young age. Vacation bible school busses would haul us off to church, and this opened up my seeking personality. I had a seeking personality, but couldn’t find a home in the traditional traditions. I couldn’t reconcile myself in those traditions. There was this God father that would punish people into eternal damnation. So I left that kind of church, and continued seeking. As a young adult, I went through many things.

In my 30’s I started Yoga, and had a strong Yoga practice for a long time. And in my 40’s I started meditating with Vipassana. Eventually came to Zen practice 11 years ago. I found that Zen was the one place where I could have all my doubts, and be exactly who I am, but still have a really strong containing kind of a practice.

Even though I came with all of my questions, and my sometimes contentious relationship with spirituality, it can hold that, and it can stand up to that. I find the non-exclusive nature of that, to be as close to a home in a practice as I could find.

Interesting that you mention the judgement of the old testament religion, and then the non-judgement and inclusivity of Zen.

Yeah, I don’t really belief anymore that all Christian religions are like that, but I’ve come to find that, maybe even not all Buddhist sects aren’t as inclusive as I would like. But for the most part, the one that I found seems to really embrace… it doesn’t tell me what to think, what to feel, and how to be.

So I had to go away from practices that were too prescriptive..

And the preconceived notions, and conditioning that they come with..

And of course there are precepts which we follow, but nothing like you have to believe, and have to think this way.

But there’s also a faith element in Zen as well. How do you relate to that as opposed to accepting something on blind faith?

The faith is to keep practicing. To keep going, to keep sitting, to keep doing the meditation practice I think. That’s really where the faith comes in. The process will take us toward wherever it is that we’re going. I see that as different than being told what I need to have faith in.

Through the culture, certain churches, not all of them, have really come to try to tell people a lot on how to live, and what to do. The particular church I was in for a while, they got into your life, from telling what length the sleeves of your shirt should be, to whether or not you should go bowling or swimming. It’s that kind of a context that I was reacting to when I was looking for a spirituality that was more open and inclusive.

Would you say you’re still seeking, or is some of that now dropping away, now that you’re feeling more at home in your practice?

In a way I think I feel at home seeking. I do feel like, no matter what I do, I’ll find a way to be seeking. Not sure if that’s a good/bad thing. I think it’s just part of my nature, and i’m finally coming to a place where I’m accepting that more. That I just maybe one of those people who needs to question everything. Maybe that’s just part of my path.

..You’re accepting it, whatever state of mind you are, you’re accepting that. That’s a very liberating feeling right?

Yes, it is, it’s very liberating to realize that no matter where i’m at, i’m accepted in this practice..As I am with all my questions and doubts. It doesn’t mean that I’m not practicing right, or doing the right thing.

Yeah, I think it was Shunryu Suzuki who said (Correction: Suzuki was actually quoting Dogen), life’s one big mistake…that meditation and the whole process of finding your own true nature are one continuous mistake. 

..One continuous mistake, that’s right (laughing). That would describe my experience of practice.

How does this practice affected your relationship with the world. We’re going into Eco-therapy, which seems very similar to changing your view or relationship with everything.

Yes, the more I go into Zen practice, and the more I go into Eco-therapy, the more they seem to dovetail with each other. Especially with the ways I practice Eco-therapy. I actually defined what I was doing during my degree, as contemplative Eco-therapy. Which was very much about bringing people in a contemplative open state in their practices out in nature.

Has the sense of self/other changed over your practice?

Definitely..explain more what you mean by solid self and other?

I guess our culture and conditioning is about believing in a separate identity, I’m here, and that person is out there. I end at the ends of my skin..or skin bag.

Yes, that’s a good point to bring up. Both Zen and Eco-therapy are really congruent in a way. They give me a sense that I am interconnected and not separate from the natural world. There really is a mutuality, and inter-relatedness. The more that i practice contemplative practice, the more that I dissolve in my sense of nature and the natural world. And that happens when I walk in the woods. If I’m engaging my senses, pretty soon it feels like…I am my senses. And I’m not only sensing the world, the world is also sensing me. So there’s an inter-being.

When you started your Zen meditation practice, was there a moment that you can remember that you realize that you wanted to deepen your practice?

Probably…It’s been a sort of slow dissolving into practice, that I’ve gotten into. I’m doing a combination of Soto and now started studying the Aitken tradition, the Diamond Sangha. And I was doing Vipassana meditation, with a group sangha, but there was no teacher, no guidance. But I needed someone who i could ask questions of, and explore things more deeply with in terms of my practice.  I just needed help basically to understand some things.

I happen to see a flyer at the local Dharma hall, in Bellingham, and Norman Fisher was coming to town. I remember attending my first Zen weekend retreat with him. I got a very strong sense that, here’s this person who didn’t have big charisma, which would scare me away. I felt like I could connect with him. And I pretty much jumped in at that point, became his student, and have practiced with him almost 11 years now.

How do you practice with him?

He’s in Marin County, Ca, but at the time he was coming up to Bellingham and Vancouver, BC about 6 times a year, so I would catch those retreats. I would go to those retreats, and sometimes I would go down to Ca as well. He has decreased the retreats up here, so that was part of the reason I started looking around for other Zen practice places.

Could you elaborate on what retreats do or give you, that you wouldn’t get from just joining a group and/or sitting on your own?

The experience of Sesshin, the extended 6-8 day retreats, are really immersions in the practice where you come together with different members of the Sangha/community. You live with them, cook with them, you do everything together, as one body. For me, it increases my sense of belonging, and the sense of being supported. And supporting others, because there are always many, many opportunities for service in those practices.

Some of those people I’ve barely spoken a sentence to, but I feel very close to them. So that’s part of it, why it’s important. But it’s also the structure of the schedule. Having all of the constraints of your life removed for a time. Or all of the things that are calling you, or pulling you out of yourself, and really just getting a chance to not have to make decisions and not have to have to do the usual life that you do. You just get to be contemplative. That in itself is a real possibility for opening.

Do you recall getting an example of getting an insight that you would likely not have gotten if you hadn’t gone to an immersive retreat?

I would say almost every retreat i have something like that. There’s just something about being away from my life, that is just really conducive towards that kind of thing. At one point I went to a practice period at Green Gulch down in Marin County, and that was really conducive to some openings, because not only are you relating to yourself in a practice place, but a lot of other people, a lot of different personalities. So there’s a lot of opportunity to look at your habits and patterns.

For me one of my biggest patterns is resistance. And so I almost always get a chance I can look at the ways that I’m resisting, like following a schedule, or whether I like people wearing robes, and things like that.

Do you have a funny example of that?

I don’t know if it’s funny…It’s just part of my contentious nature.

There’s times when it’s really serious and annoying, like you say, and then there are other times when it almost becomes comical. 

Yeah, I guess that is pretty much it. It became funny to me, that I do spend so much time resisting and not just allowing myself to just follow the schedule. Obviously I’m there for a reason, and I’m putting myself in that position for a reason. Putting myself in that pressure cooker of a Sesshin for a reason. So it’s funny that I come up against this part of my personality…I have authoritarian issues, so I’m going to map authority onto everybody. So it could be funny sometimes, if we know how to laugh at ourselves.

Robert Aitken, who is our teacher’s teacher, has a story where his entire Sesshin retreats revolved around as he called it, “his damn mother”. Some issues that he had with his mother in the past was just brewing and dominating during his retreat. It can happen like that, a whole retreat where you have one issue that is taking the dominant form. 

Yeah, I’ve had many Sesshin like that. It can happen even as you walk into a retreat. That I decide I need to obsess about something for a while. Now after 11 years of doing these, I’ve just started to get much better about dropping these stories. Where I can go, “OK there’s another one, I can let that go now.”

I think most of us, have some habits that are easy to let go, slide of, and some that are much harder to let go of. And we may look at another and see us struggle with a habit that for us would be very easy to let go of, but then they might look at us and see something we struggle with that they could let go off very easily. 

All depending on our inheritance from our particular upbringing or culture that we were brought up in.

Then when you come back into the busyness of life, how does a retreat then affect the way you attend to your regular life? How does that affect your regular life?

At first I used to be bothered, because regardless of how many perceived openings I may have had, I was disappointed in myself. Because I was “supposed to be all peace and love now right?” years ago I would think that. Eventually that wore off, and I stopped trying to be something…once I left retreat.

Particularly work practice, and certain moving mindfulness practices, are helpful with this. All of a sudden, you find yourself becoming mindful, coming back to your mindfulness when washing dishes, getting to your car and driving to work, or walking through the woods, etc. It’s not something that I was able to bring consciously from Sesshin, into my daily life. It’s just something that happened as a result from consistently going.

We keep doing the practice, and at some point the practice does us. And carries you wherever you go.  

That sounds right yeah..

Do you have an example where you notice that in your daily life, maybe in traffic, or cooking, or.. How do you become aware of that?

I’m not sure how it happens, maybe it was Jack (her teacher) who said using those experiences as mindfulness bells. Like when something difficult or alarming happens, like my neighbor’s leaf blower. That’s one of my favorite ones. I can use that experience as a mindfulness bell, and bring myself back, when I remember. And I do think as a result of pretty intense practice, I’ve come to where I can do that more often, and remember to do that more often.

And when you come back, that changes your relationship to the leaf blower?

Sometimes (laughing), sometimes I can drop the story that I have about that. I guess it does, because if I don’t do that, I can be agitated for a long time. And if I do that, I go can go somewhere else and focus on something different.

That’s nice, I bet a lot of people want to understand how that works better (laughing). 

I wish I understood it better, but i really do think practice makes that happen. I don’t know how else to explain that, I don’t think we can try. It’s like you said, the practice practices us eventually.

That’s great, something de-escalates, becomes less tight, constricted, it sounds like from what you’re saying. 

Yeah, and the heart opens up a little more to the other person. This happens all the time in human relationships. You get this email with a tone that you’re uncertain about, and at first you feel like, oh, that person is saying such and such. And instead of reacting, you take a break, there’s another mindfulness bell. And then come back to it, you can kind of let go of the story that you have about that person. Maybe it’s someone you’ve had conflict in the past. And maybe you, or I can see it as my trigger. That was my own personal psychology at work there, I can now let go of that. And deal with this person who has their own particular way of seeing the world also.

That’s great, and that then has the ability to create a new opening in that relationship too. And the de-escalation, and then maybe a new appreciation.

Yeah, so often we encounter others except through the lens of our own stories. The more we can discern between what is my story, and what is your story, the more potential there is for an authentic meeting. 

How did you come about to explore Eco-Therapy?

I grew up as a barefoot kid, running around, and climbing trees. At some point that got closed of, and shut down, probably age 13-14-15. Whenever that happens. And I kind of moved indoors, probably a lot of stuff going on in my personal, and family life. Then when I was about 24/25, and married at that time, and he decided we needed to go to the Grand Canyon. And I didn’t want to go. I had pulled away from nature in a way that I was unaware of. But we went..

So we went down into this canyon, and I’d been afraid of everything in nature. Like some young women are. I was fragile around it. I was taken into the Grand Canyon, and it was this process of stripping away culture for me.

We entered in at Lees Ferry (part of Glen Canyon), as most people do..and we had these oarsmen who were wild men. It was cold and rainy, I hated it, and thought it was the worst thing in the world. We had to hike out of Bright Angel, due to half of a trip pass. And by the time we hiked out, I was begging to stay and go on with the rest of the guides. Something happened to me in that canyon.

I think it was just the awakening of the senses. I was touching rock, seeing wildlife, feeling the river, the sky, the sun. We were open and in nature. I had not seen or felt what I had been missing. And so that experience stayed with me. I started camping much more. We continued to go back to the canyon. I became much more the person I was supposed to be.

Eventually that relationship ended, I went back to school, where I got a degree in Eco-Psychology. I was interested in the field of psychology, but not so much interested in working in a confined room/office. Which I tried to do for 3 years, but eventually taking my practice back to eco-therapy and eco-psychology. Practicing in context with the world.

So what is the main difference between eco-therapy and eco-psychology?

Eco-psychology is the academic field that i’m in, and Eco-therapy is the way that it’s practiced. Applied eco-psychology. There are some other nuanced difference, but I like the term Eco-therapy because it’s readily understandable and gets away from the world psychology.

(Below a short video from the Eco Belonging web site)

How does that work in practice, do people have some eco or nature deficiency, and then get referred to you, how does that work?

I do have some referrals with therapists in the area, who think it would be beneficial for their clients. A lot of work is coming out in hospitals now, that this is a good adjunct to certain illnesses that people have. You know that is one of the biggest challenges in this field is, how to help people see the difference between doing eco-therapy, or going to a therapists office.

We have found that working with other groups, or with other types of things is the best way to go. One of the things I do, is write a lot about the topic. I used to write to eco-therapy news and I’ve written for restoration earth journal and an anthology for the topic. And so that’s one area where it’s a big educational piece, to try to join it to other things.

The other thing i started doing is when I started our Zen practice group here, we are moving it towards becoming a green Sangha. Introducing a little bit of Thich Naht Hahn’s materials, he has the “holding earth” idea.

We’re also taking people camping. My husband is a psychotherapist, he works with couples. So one of the things we’ll do is taking couples out. This is a great way to work with couples, combining his marriage counseling with the eco-therapy. It gives it a context, and gives them something to hang what they know about therapy, and yet we can do it outside in nature. And so they like that piece of that. They’re getting something that they know about, and they also get to go kayaking, or whatever it is that we’ve concocted to help them experience nature.

You mentioned taking folks outside. What else do you do with your clients to change their relationship with themselves, those around them, and nature?

Sure, I have a 6 part series that I do with people. So there are 6 sessions. I’ve extracted some Buddhist ideas, which has to do with the senses. And I’ve also combined it with Shinrin-Yoku. A Japanese forest immersion practice or forest bathing”. It is a way of using the sense roots, in Buddhism, which is part of the Abhidharma. So the sense roots would be the eye and sight, ear and sound, nose and smell, taste, touch, and mind.

I’ve taken each of these senses, and made a practice that they can do out while we’re outside, partly when we’re together, and part at home on their own. So they can do their own micro quest with that particular practice. And really help themselves open that particular sense up.

And then these build on each other. And eventually we get to the 6th, which is the mind. It’s domain is thinking. So mind and thinking. That would culminate this initial series with.

The mind in the west is pretty much the primary organ that is paid attention to. Which is why it’s so dominant, so how do you treat that in your eco-therapy session?

First of all we distract from the mind, by taking people out. One good way is getting people out of their shoes. Just getting them sensing, touching, and feeling. And in that process dropping stories. Just coming to direct visceral contact.

And eventually when you get to seeing the mind as yet another sense-root, you can also see thinking as something that is like a sense, you can drop it.

What are seeing people reaction to that, do you see people have reactions to that? Do they resist?

Some people are resistant to that, just like me. And very often..can’t talk about individuals, but I can talk about folks I’ve paid attention to outside my practice. I find that they experience a sense of joy in the connection. When they have a contact with something wild, or something that’s not in their normal domain. And when they feel their mutuality/relationship with that other being, that more than human being. And this really sparks in us both what’s missing from our lives, and our need to reconnect.

It instills a desire hopefully to continue these re-connection practices.

Do you give them assignments to go out every day to reconnect with those senses? 

Ideally that’s how it works. One person I can talk about, she passed up her porch swing everyday for the last 3 years. They put in this beautiful porch swing. And after this retreat she was adamant, she was no longer going to do that. She was going to enjoy her porch swing.

Other people have different experiences. We had a couple kayaking, and it brought up their relationship difficulties. And they were able to sort through some of those things. One person needs to steer on the rudder in the back, and another needs to paddle. They need to paddle in unison with each other for it to work! They’re metaphors that can happen in the process of taking people out on adventures.

So it gives them insight where they’re stuck in their relationship…

Yes, it did. Actually my own husband and I we got some insight into our relationship on that trip too (laughing).

What kinds of mental illnesses are particularly benefited by taking part in eco-therapy?

There is a lot of research coming out, for those who are inclined to the western way of thinking. Mostly from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Finland. And they are showing actual quantifiable effects. Decreases in anxiety and depression, increased immune function. They’re finding that people who exercise outdoors, what they call Green Exercise. It helps people to have better stamina, when they’re outside, working out. they found a reduction in ADD symptoms, that focus is improved from increased contact with nature. And even improvements in self-esteem.

That’s great, you can’t go wrong with that. I saw one (2007 study from the University of Essex in the U.K), which found that a walk in the country reduces depression in 71% of participants. (The researchers found that as little as five minutes in a natural setting, whether walking in a park or gardening in the backyard, improves mood, self-esteem, and motivation.)

So the challenge is that not everyone is aware that this is solution they can use right now, they can go outside…

Yeah, it’s a challenge because I think people can get kind of bored after a while, if they don’t really understand how to connect outside..Because we’re of of practice, and we’ve also been conditioned by a culture that needs us to be dependent on what it gives us. A constant stream of entertainment, media, maybe sugar…. (laughing)..I struggle with that…things like that.

So I think this dependence on this culture detracts from our ability to go out and fully experience the subtleties that nature has to offer. Also I don’t think we understand how much reciprocity there is in nature. That it’s actually giving to us, as well as us giving to it, her/him…There’s so much to this.

Like you said, I don’t see Facebook anytime soon asking people to go outdoors. They do not want people to leave their platform, and their sugar, and whatever else..

Right, and that is where I think mindfulness helps. And having a little bit of stamina to sit and stay with something..You know there’s a good story by Eve Ensler. She wrote the vagina monologues, and in her more recent book, In the Body of the World, she talks about her experience with cancer.

The only salvation is kindness.

Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler ended up in a hospital being treated for her cancer. And after treatment was so debilitated. She didn’t have the strength to watch TV, or check her text messages, or do any of the things that we’d ordinarily do to distract ourselves from the pain that we’re in. And in her hospital room out her window, she could see a tree. And this is a person who left a rural area for New York City, and said she hated trees. She wasn’t going back. So here she is, stuck in her own situation with no other outlet, and here is this tree.

There’s a beautiful distillation of this story on brainpickings about what happens to her as she interacts from her hospital room with this tree. Staring at the bark day after day, and getting to know the bark. Then staring at the shiny leaves. Then near the end of her stay the tree blooms. It had a profound impact on her. She found a lot of healing both emotionally and metaphorically she was able to understand her relationship to the tree and all that had happened. And also as she was fighting cancer to her own body. So it’s a great story and example.

You see these stories in the literature. Like Derrick Jensen’s book,  A Language Older than Words. His own story of childhood sexual abuse by his father. And the ways that his relationship to his father, and a mirror of what we’re doing to the culture plays out in the book and his own personal healing.

And a more recent book, H is for Hawk, by Helen McDonald, about grieving, the death of her father. Beautiful stories about the ways people interact with nature, and find the deep spiritual, emotional, and physical healing.

Ideally we’d teach this ability to recognize this at an earlier age then when someone gets cancer right? How do you think that’s going to happen in the future?

Little kids already have this, and humans in general already have this knowledge. To me it seems that what we’re doing is we’re training them out of it. And so it’s a good question. I do believe that we’re seeing more, my ears are attuned to hearing stories about nature. And I was at a writing retreat last weekend. And many of the stories that people were compelled to tell each other, had to do with like, “well there was a squirrel dragging a giant mushroom around.” This is at a retreat center in the woods, so there was a lot of nature around there. They were able to go around and walk.

Another story i heard was, “Well a deer chasing a coyote!” And you know one story after another about their interactions with nature. So it gave me some hope that people are interested in nature. When you hear people tell stories like that, and you’re listen to them, you’re hearing something about their longing for what is wild. And what is not so domesticated.

So I think if somehow we can speak to this longing that they have, we can help turn people toward…yes.. this is our desire to be back in relationship with the natural world. I’m trying to do this on all the fronts that I can think of to do. I think people know it, they don’t really know how to do it. If I can get someone in the door, then we can work from there. But we have to write, blog, and talk about it. I love taking people out, and immersing them in it. And that’s what happened for me, and I think that is a really good way to support somebody to sort of peel off those layers that they’ve gathered from the culture.

And the wall that’s build up between them and nature. To take down that wall. 

Yeah, take it down or play with it. There are many things we can do to interact with it,  in a way to help it come down.

Do you have any remaining thoughts on how someone can benefit from nature. Maybe some remaining ideas they can explore to reconnect…

Pay attention to those moments when you encounter wildness and pay attention to what that feels like.

I was walking around the arboretum in Seattle the other day, and encountered a young couple who had just got really close to a great blue heron. They didn’t even know what it was. They came out of it, and had this delight on their faces. And I questioned them a little bit about this. It was clear that they didn’t have a lot of contact with nature, but they were sooo happy! That they got to see this bird up close.

I would say, really attend to and pay attention to those moments. It’s really important that we all recover and bring rich non-human environments into our lives. To learn as much as we can about it. Whether this is gardening, or photography…This is an activity, that gets you to put your shoes on, and get out the door. And we need something like that in our lives. That not only gets us out into the woods and enjoying it, but go out and do something that will really motivate you, whether it’s gardening or kayaking, something that makes you want to do it.

Because that is going to give you the long sustained contact with nature that will get you thinking in a different way. And to experience your own wild nature, and to also experience the domesticity. How domesticity is affecting your life. Because if you do that, you won’t tolerate animals that are caged or in factory farms. It’s going to wake up the heart. Because there’s a lot in the natural world, that wants to speak to us. If we can develop these ears to hear. 

Thanks so much!