Portrait of a girl looking through the window and pressing her hands against the window glass

Disconnection from Nature: A Collective Developmental Trauma

Remember When....

Do you remember a time when we were children, playing outside? We had the feeling that we were one with everything: the sand, the wind, the trees. There was no doubt that we belonged. We played in the snow unselfconsciously until our noses were snotty and our cheeks were magenta pink. We swam until we were pruned, made clover necklaces, picked cherries, and hunted earthworms in the rain— we were simply, happily, part of it all.

Then, at some point, the message came into our consciousness: This natural belonging wasn’t enough. There were more important things to do. Some performative thing, perhaps, such as behaving well or getting good grades or excelling at sports. For some of us, the message was that the acquisition of material items was more important than just being in the connected field. Yet. when we look back, we often find that our best memories are of those more simple times—being with our friends, or the animals, and the trees.

As the message comes in that we have to be something more, a dissonance begins to arise in us:  We want to be in the garden, but we are at a desk, because we are told it matters more. We want to move our bodies freely and expansively, to climb and jump and run, but we are sitting in a uniform waiting for our turn. We comply because we want to belong. We want our parents to love us. Perhaps we want accolades. We learn to color our lives inside the lines. We adapt to the world of separation. It is a kind of intelligence, but it comes at a cost.

Gradually, we disconnect from nature. We become disenchanted, entrained by the demands of a culture that wants us on the school bus by 7 am, or—later in life—at our office desks by 8, with two weeks of vacation a year.

This disconnection from nature is a fundamental developmental trauma. We experience it as individuals, and we experience it as a collective.

When our natural belonging in the world is replaced with separation, we are immediately lost. We no longer trust that the earth provides for us, or that there is enough. When we forget we are nature, we no longer believe that we are enough, either. We cease to know ourselves as the body of “god”, a one-syllable way of saying as part of “the sacred interdependent collective whole”.

As individuals, this objectification of nature “out there,” along with the abstraction culture of data and imagery and a lack of contact with the growing world, instills anxiety and fear. Disconnection from nature also alienates us from natural processes—especially dying and death. Without a deep connection to and acceptance of “death” in nature, we live in fear of dying ourselves—which creates additional adaptations to avoid death.

As a collective, our cumulative adaptations to this disconnection from experiencing ourselves as nature lead to false beliefs of not having enough or being enough, and to the seemingly constant striving to be overlords of the planet. This, in turn, has led to cultures of consumerism and militarism—along with accompanying planet-wide ecological disasters, which are all driven by this fundamental alienation.

My teacher Thomas Huebl says, to paraphrase: we aren’t separate from our planet: what happens to our planet, happens to us. What we do to ourselves, we do to our planet. 

We see that humans are perfectly designed to live as part of Earth’s ecosystems- breathing the air and transmuting it, drinking the water and peeing it out, eating the fruits and defecating. Nothing is wasted. Even our neurobiology is designed for belonging: Visuals of balanced landscapes light up our brain with abundance, while the sounds of the dawn chorus or a lapping ocean bring us peace.

Our species is not a happy (or unhappy) accident, but rather a needed element in nature. We belong as part of a system. We are supposed to be here. We have a positive role to play in the ecosystems of Earth.  For example, in 2019, two scientists from the Santa Fe Institute shared their research on humanity’s roles in natural food webs, as stabilizing forces. “In some systems,” they wrote, “humans as super-generalist predators fit into ecosystems without causing extinctions or major environmental degradation.” How? Humans feed on more elements in an ecosystem and can keep what is abundant in check and stop it from overtaking other species; small human-tended fires preclude big fires; and human herbaceous manipulation is beneficial. It is only with the separation from ourselves and nature that we accelerate to a hyper-degradation of ecological systems, even to the point of destroying our own habitat.

Applying the Principles of Collective Healing to Spiritual Ecology

If I look at separation from nature through the lens of the principles of collective trauma and healing, and apply the principles of inner rest, relational presence, and emergent restorative action, I come to a prescriptive approach for this disconnection:

  • Rest in inner stillness. A key part of collective trauma healing is to rest in inner stillness, or to be in witness consciousness: a state, where you are able to dis-identify with your personality layer. To know yourself as part of the field; as part of something greater. As a daily healing practice, concentrate on accepting the miracle that is “you” as a natural seed of life. You have the right to be, and you already belong.
  • Treat yourself with care. Remember, you are not separate from the planet – so don’t, as Thomas Huebl says “burn your own substance- your burnout is the planet’s burnout.”
  • Find a human ally(ies) (dyad or triad). Dr. Rupert Read says “We are nature coming to an awareness of what we are doing to ourselves.” With others, we enter into a relational space of presence to inquire:
    • How does connection with nature or the web of life live in and as you?
    • How does separation from nature live in you?
    • Where do nature estrangement, ecological disruption, or climate grief live in you?
    • Here we might also Investigate what comes up when you consider changing the story and living into new story: changing your consumption habits, your behavior, and other patterns. Where and how will you belong if you change the story of separation?
  • Begin the process of relearning or feeling yourself as nature, with your allies, or with a community that is committed to awakening, feel it all. Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy writes, “The refusal to feel takes a heavy toll. Not only is there an impoverishment of our emotional and sensory life… but this psychic numbing also impedes our capacity to process and respond to information… depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies.” Together, we develop our inborn perceptual capacity to feel the web of life.  To experience the wonder and awe of life. To listen with the whole body. To be outside in all kinds of weather. To grow something.
  • Charles Eisenstein advises us to “Find a piece of land and love it”. Paying attention is the key language of love. Meet and know the trees and the plants on your very own patch of familiar land. If you don’t have a personal patch, love a park. Love a public space, or a wild space- it’s not about ownership, it’s about presence, attention and communion.
  • Embody the re-enchantment of the world. Science and mystery are not in competition or conflict. We can hold both at the same time. Concentrate on reweaving our essential being as part of the magic of Earth.

When we reconnect with our fundamental belonging as nature—when spirit lives all around us and through us, in the air we breathe, in the food we eat, and through our very own tissues—when we are once again the spray of the sea and the ice on the pond and the sun-warmed wind and ripe pear dripping down our jaws- then we heal the collective trauma of our developmental severance from nature.  From this reconnection,  flows a greater collective, naturally emerging commitment to restoring our human and planetary ecologies.  


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