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Beyond the "Big Lie": How One Therapist Began to Wake Up

Sara Harris
Sara Harris is a marriage and family therapist in private practice in Sebastopol,
California. A hospice volunteer and co-founder of EarthWays, a wilderness rites of
passage program, and a board member of the pioneering School of Lost Borders, she
recounts her own transforming experience of a wilderness vision quest and discusses the
speccs of how an Earth-centered focus crept into her therapy practice, informing and
enriching it.

Once upon a time as a psychotherapist, I would have passed right over some vital elements
in my client's story.
Margaret was in her late fifties, impeccably dressed and normally quite poised, but recent
events had shaken her deeply. She had been coming to therapy because her husband had been
having an affair for several years. Her world had shattered and her severe anxiety was almost
unmanageable. Although they were working hard to repair their relationship, her sense of self
had collapsed.
They lived on rural land inherited from her parents, and now they owned it in partnership
with their grown children. Recently, her son had used a tractor to make a recreational area, but
ended up scraping the ground completely bare right near a beautifully shaded year-round creek.
She felt disturbed, yet apologetic about her feelings. A few days later, some men hired by her
husband aggressively pruned a majestic valley oak without her knowledge or approval. Limbs
that had hung down to the ground for eons, creating a magical green sanctuary underneath, had
been severely chopped back. In the process, their machines had savagely ripped up the natural
garden under the oak.
When Margaret saw that tee, she discovered feelings she didn't know she was even
capable of. This normally composed woman raged, screamed, wailed, and cried. She sat with her
Grandmother tree, stroking and talking aloud to it. Her heart broke open in response to that land,
the beings, the tree, and to her own nature. Margaret discussed this experience with me,
chagrined at her wild feelings and very cautious about telling me her story. No one knew that for
years she had secretly been going to that tree to talk; she thought it was a "weird" thing about
her, best kept hidden. But as she described her connection to the tree, and through the reflecting
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and listening I was able to give, she began to claim her authority within the family, first on
behalf of her beloved tree and land, then for her own life.
So what would I have missed in the years before I woke up to the world of
ecopsychology? I would have heard the feelings, to be sure, but I would have paid more attention
to the "family" dynamics. I might have focused more on the catharsis and related the grief only
to her difficulties with her marriage. My notion of family would have not included the beautiful
valley oak, the rushing stream, and the ravaged ground. I would have missed the lifeblood and
the very heart of this story. Margaret would not have been empowered by my bearing witness to
her story. She would not have come away from our time together with an understanding of her
need to protect and speak for life. Narrowly interpreting her experience through a traditional
psychological approach would have ultimately been a loss for Margaret, her family and
community, and for me as well. We would not have shed tears together.
For many years, my world was split. I "worked" as a therapist during most of the year,
and then I went on "vacation" to the "wilderness." Driving back from the mountains or desert, I
often felt an upwelling of grief and sorrow. I loved my work, but within about four days of
returning, my time on the land had receded into the distance. I would begin dreaming about the
next trip, and the longing would intensify over time until I had to "get away" again.
When I could not get away, I read. M y heart was blown open by the words of those with
a clear understanding of the significance of the natural world in their lives. Terry Tempest
Williams, Barry Lopez, Susan Griffin, Mary Oliver, Wallace Stegner, and so many others gave
voice to the agonizing alienation I felt, as well as the joy I experienced when I reconnected with
the earth. Their articulation of the passion and pain I was struggling to understand helped me
enormously.
But the split I felt began to really heal only after I found ways to experience the earth
through simple and ancient ways. At age fifty, I went on my first vision quest. Little did I know
that my life, my therapy work, and my connection with the earth would be transformed forever.
My fellow (pesters were of all ages and came seeking purpose and clarity. Some, ravaged by
life, were despairing and grieving. Like me, some came to mark life changes. Some arrived
shaking in their boots, with little or no experience in the outdoors, while others were raring to go.
I went out alone into the high desert of California's Illy° Mountains for four days,
without shelter or food, after receiving expert preparation from Anne Stine of Wilderness Rites.
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Never before had I gone so long without seeing, hearing, or speaking to another human. Resting
in the shade of a pilion pine, I began to notice intimate signs of the life cycle of trees that I
usually went too fast to observe. I cried deeply and laughed out loud; I made up songs and poems
and wrote in my journal. The birds and dragonflies became my companions. I faced my fears
about changes in weather, about sleeping out in the dark without a tent, about critters I feared
might be unwelcome visitors, about being alone with my own mind. But most profoundly, I
began to know that I was safe, that I belonged to this earth, and that I could face death and
therefore claim my precious life more fully.
When I returned, thrilled to see my fellow humans as well as the hearty breakfast that
awaited us, the time eventually came to tell my story. Anne, our guide and passionate elder,
reflected back to me the journey I had undertaken, pointing out key elements in my story that
showed my gifts and strengths. Telling my story, and having it heard so deeply, brought forth
enormous clarity, joy, and commitment. I listened as my fellow questers told the stories of their
time on the land. As a therapist, I was amazed and humbled by what I witnessed. Recurring
themes included death and rebirth, a profound sense of belonging, courage to step forth into our
unique gifts, and grief transformed into depth and beauty. There was an emphasis on true
maturity and joyous responsiveness to the earth.
Immediately upon my return home, I was galvanized to learn how to bring this
unmediated experience of being in nature into my therapy work. I devoured the writings of
Steven Foster and Meredith Little, founders of the School of Lost Borders in the Owens Valley,
on California's eastern slope of the Sierra. Steven coined the phrase "the Big Lie" to express the
dominant worldview that we are separate from nature.' For years, Steven and Meredith had
written, taught, and guided countless numbers of people in wilderness rites of self-initiation. In
this work they used a circular map derived from the indigenous peoples of many lands,
combining this wheel image with aspects of archetypal and depth psychology. The wheel
expresses the four seasons/faces/personas of human life, which correspond to the seasons of the
earth. It also maps human stages of development, assisting us to create balance, navigate
transitions, and prepare for death, enabling us to live more fully.
I then did my training to become a guide in this rites of passage work at the School of
Lost Borders. Andy Fisher also influenced me at this time with his ideas about how
ecopsychology is inextricably bound up with social change. As fate would have it, Andy was in
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my vision quest guide–training group at Lost Borders. We discussed how we respond as


practitioners when clients come to therapy with the agendas that mainstream psychology has
trained them to seek—agendas that often encourage victimhood, promote a false sense of
independence, and teach them to think they need "fixing" in some mechanical way.
I was also influenced by John Davis, who teaches at Naropa University and the Ridhwan
School and is an experienced guide with the School of Lost Borders as well. Writing about how
ecology, psychology, and spiritual understanding inform one another, he proposes that
ecopsychology should encompass "a view that both includes and transcends nature-as-family and
nature-as-self metaphors, recognizing a fundamentally nondual, seamless unity in which both
nature and psyche flow as expressions of the same ground or source. I t calls for levels of
development beyond the individual self as a separate entity to identification with being, with
spirit, or the mystery, which gives rise to all manifestations, human and nature."
2 We as therapists know that contemplation, mindfulness, and ceremony can help awaken
this shift from ego to identification with being and mystery. How do we bring this larger
experience to our clients? How do we challenge their worldviews, and our own, while respecting
where they are? How do we support them in order to help them become mindful and
contemplative? How do we help them discover their gifts and take their place in their family and
community in ways that are true to their deepest nature?
As I became more open to the importance of the role of nature in my work, my clients
began to respond. One woman always brought a basket of rocks to session. They were beautiful
and oiled, each one collected at the ocean beach she visited to try to sort out her troubled life. As
she spoke, she sorted rocks.
I also heard of the ecstatic insights that came with unexpectedly being caught outdoors
during a huge storm. One client was so grieved by "road kill" that she placed white crosses to
mark where the animals died. Another woman made love outdoors for the first time in mid-life,
and was astonished at the eroticism. An angry man remembered the serenity of a boyhood lake at
sunrise and was able to draw on this memory to calm himself.
I had not fully heard these kinds of stories before. It wasn't that the clients were different,
but my own unconscious filters had kept me from understanding their importance. These were
passionate, embodied stories, full of feeling and simple ceremony that sprang up from the union
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of human and earth. They arose from deep within the bones, the heart, and the viscera when the
opening and the witnessing were there. These stories gave life.
Inspired by these stories and the ancient ways I was learning, I created a simple wheel of
life by placing four different colored rocks representing the south, west, north, and east on the
small round table next to my chair in my office. The directional rocks hold elemental aspects of
the seasons and of stages of human development. In the center are always fresh, seasonal flowers
or a candle. Sometimes I refer to where someone is "on the wheel" and teach about his or her
experience through this holistic way of perceiving reality. Immediately, people seem relieved,
curious, engaged. Whatever they may be going through is linked to the earth's ways, and to
others making their way around the wheel. It helps clients become less linear, less self-
pathologizing. They often report remembering this map and beginning to apply it in their lives.
My office reflects the natural world, so that even stepping inside serves as a reminder of
the earth as much as possible a fountain, the sound of water, plants and greenery, flowers,
photos. "Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the
ground," encourages the thirteenth-century Sufi poet Rumi. The words of the Earth poets and
authors that helped me so much in the past have found their way into the therapy room. Why
does a client sometimes cry when hearing a Mary Oliver poem I have chosen for that person?
Perhaps her words echo his own longing and understanding and remind him that he belongs to
the earth as well.

I also began prescribing homework in nature for clients, corresponding to what they need
to develop, support, or release. I might ask someone to get up for the dawn, or to go out and sit
under the stars at midnight. Or I might ask them to go looking for something in nature that
speaks to them of their father. With another therapist and vision quester, Susan Kistin, I
developed a rites of passage program that involves taking clients and others into nearby
wilderness areas for a day. We prepare them and help them formulate an intention, then meet at
dawn on the morning of the "DayQuest." They spend a whole day alone on the land, after which
their stories are heard and reflected. To do this kind of work with a client has deepened the
therapy in almost every case.
I teach clients about the universal aspects of rites of passage: severance from your usual
world, crossing the threshold into sacred time, releasing your old self and opening to something
larger, and returning to your life with the new gifts you have been given. There is enactment and
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engagement with life's dilemmas, rather than just analysis. Feeling opens up. These ways are so
simple, but through giving a client a clear way to turn a regular walk into a ceremony, reverence
and wonder can emerge. The senses, soul, and heart open, and a more fully awake human can
grow.
And sometimes, when the heart fully opens, it breaks with grief first. A client in her
forties, a mother for the first time, went back to the Midwest with her infant son. She was eager
to pass on to him the heritage of the land she grew up on, still relatively unchanged through
several generations. The old family farm had been sold years before, but she was always free to
wander in those beloved woods whenever she went home.
When she returned from the trip, she called me immediately and asked to come in soon.
As she told the story, her tears flowed, and so did mine. The woods had been clear-cut. What she
found was ravaged stubble and bare hills. Her parents were not able to drive by the land anymore
and would not talk about it. She was amazed at her grief and did not understand the depths of it.
It was my witnessing and acknowledgment of her story that brought it into a fuller experience. I
suggested that when she returned, the next spring, she might go to the land and do a ceremony.
She could give thanks and express her grief, rage, and love for that land, both for herself and for
her family who had inhabited and worked it. She would know how to do that in her own way.
Her son will benefit from the fact that she did not turn away.
Another client is obese and in pain constantly, yet as she struggles with this embodied
reality, I learn that one of her greatest joys is to drive to the nearby ocean with her husband and
watch the waves and listen to the surf. The natural world offers her healing and respite. How can
I assist her to bring this love to bear in healing the split with her own body?
When the nervous system is in protracted flight or fight mode, the intelligence of the
heart is not available. What practices support the cultivation of an awakened perception and an
alive body? We must listen to each client closely and ask where her or his joy lies.
If we can help clients listen and be guided by their own wild, deep, and knowing hearts
—if we can help them access their heart intelligence and react less from anxiety, stress, rage, or
fear
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some love, a memory of a time in nature or with a pet, a favorite place, an appreciation or a
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cause that lights up their spirit. Calling this forth will create more passionate and informed
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citizens moved to care for and defend what they love.
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"There is no defense against an open heart i n dialogue with wildness," writes Terry
Tempest Williams. "Internal strength is absorption of the external landscape. We are informed
by beauty, raw and sensual. Through an erotics of place our sensitivity becomes our sensibility."
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When it no longer seemed possible to find answers in my therapy books, I felt disconnected from
a psychological world that has not yet "remembered" the natural world that calls us home. These
days, I sometimes feel more comfortable thinking of myself as a guide who is moving into
elderhood than as a psychotherapist. Yet I also feel a responsibility to speak about this split
within the profession and to inquire into what ecopsychology asks of us as therapists. How will
we initiate our profession into the next level of maturity that includes all living things? Will we
embody a therapy that truly tends the soul of the earth?
As ecoptherapists, we hold the elders' responsibility and privilege to help midwife the old
paradigms of therapy into a broader, life-sustaining, deeply relational, and intimate earth-based
way that is accessible to all people. Our clients' grief about the earth is real, and their
experiences in nature are not simply metaphor.
As an ordinary, rnidlife therapist who is waking up, I offer these reflections as
encouragement to other therapists who long to bring more of their earth-bound, loving selves
into a psychology that truly serves all of life. Just as importantly, we must get outside. and often.
This is where we will hear how to best serve our people.