Modern psychology begins with a medical model, so it comes as no great surprise that the current regime of diagnosis and prescription follows a mode that defines most mental health issues according to symptoms and cures. But in the 21st century, we are learning more about the extent – and the limits – of our knowledge of the mind. Sure enough, the human mind works within a physiological system – it’s part of our bodies and our environment – but it cannot be reduced to a merely causal mode. Like nature, the mind has self-healing capacities. And, mirroring the world, our mind – or psyche – sometimes operates according to patterns that are too large or too small to appreciate in the moment. The recent documentary Earth From Space provides some metaphors that are useful for a discussion about the parallel (and interconnected) worlds of mind and nature.
Sometimes when we are sick, we only find out later that this was a symptom of the body attempting to heal itself. The common cold can often be seen to work in this way, especially when we work too hard for too long; sickness stops us in our tracks and allows the body to force us to rest. Who knows how often a minor illness has given our bodies time for white blood cells to eradicate some intrusive threat? Similarly, a severe tropical storm is damaging in its immediate effects, but (according to the meteorologists behind Earth From Space) it is also a way for the atmosphere to release energy that has built up from the combination of heat and water vapor over the oceans. And our minds can be understood in a similar vein; pent up anger can rise to the surface unexpectedly, due to external or internal pressures we may not always recognise. The difference between this and a weather pattern is that we can choose how such energy is expressed and we can create safe release valves so that it does not become dangerous, like a perfect storm or debilitating physiological illness.
Such understanding can help us to reframe the way we think about psychology – including the self-healing possibilities of the mind – today. Consider a reframing of the three great movements in 20th century thought, which saw them in conversation, integrated in a more inclusive way of understanding the human mind as an interconnected part of the even wider spheres of ‘the meaning of life’ on our planetary home, the earth. Far from reducing our understanding of the psyche to a merely medical model, the conversation between existential, phenomenological and depth psychologies can extend the way we think about what it means to be human in the Anthropocene.*
All three of these great movements, in different ways, deal with the ‘meaning of experience,’ and they all work as a creative response to the reductionism of a merely bio-medical model of the psyche. An existential psychology asks how we can create meaning in the face of the meaninglessness of the physical universe, especially knowing what we do about the enormity of the endless galaxies (and the even more vast abyss of empty space beyond) and the brutal injustice of the natural world of animal life. But existentialism responds not only to the cold hard facts of science; it also asks questions of meaning in the face of what some people are prepared to do to each other. The paradigmatic example was the concentration camps and Victor Frankl’s way through this horror, although Sartre’s recognition of our more everyday angsts such as the fear of freedom, alienation, death and others is also an important set of considerations.
Phenomenological psychology, on the other hand, sought a framework for understanding the way we experience things, which counters or complements the classical philosophical standard of truth (the abstract or ‘pure’ reason revered by Plato and Kant and integrated into the scientific method of empirical observation and theoretical extension). Can we trust our personal observations, of our inner lives and of the way we experience embodied life in a social context? How do we make sure such considerations matter, in the face of scientific reductionism and the logic of the markets, for instance? Such questions lead to some incredibly rich discussions about the poetics of the human condition and what we find meaningful and worthwhile in terms of fact and value.
Responding to both these schools of thought, not in terms of chronology but as another way of considering human consciousness and our cares, depth psychology wonders aloud what deep historical, sociocultural and biological patterns lie behind (or give rise to) the unique value of each of our individual lives. Such patterns were seen by Jung as ‘archetypes’; ancient templates according to which even our most spontaneous experiences could be seen as endless repetitions of certain master codes of biology and psyche. In dreams and hopes, we spontaneously reinvent the same kinds of outcomes as our ancient forebears, even though we live such different kinds of lives. Little wonder that links to animal wisdom and strange intimations of spiritual beings inhabit the deepest recesses of our minds, if the body itself gives rise to such codes. We dream in a timeless realm, where human socialization only has a certain amount of impact on the whole self we are in mind, body and the depths of the soul.
When combined, these explorations into the human mind could all be seen as mirrors of nature’s attempts to heal itself. Just as our bodies, like the earth itself, express symptoms of imbalance in minor colds and violent storms, so the mind pushes itself into difficult realms of challenge, times where it must create healing powers such as white blood cells to consume the poisons that have accumulated within. Out of the relative darkness of these mysterious explorations we seem to be able to become more aware of healing powers within.
A truly integrative psychology must therefore work to be inclusive of all our concerns for a meaningful life, which takes into account these three great schools of thought while also embracing and transcending the potentially reductive realms of scientific reason and empirical observation. Such an integrative psychology must also be greater than the sum of its parts, by pointing towards the unfathomable depths of the human soul, the endless nature of psyche, the open-ended way we can consistently strive beyond our limits and find possibilities – for love and adventure, growth and embrace – no matter how hopeless circumstances sometimes seem. And for this integrative psychology may find its ultimate home in the way it mirrors nature, where life always finds a way to keep seeking growth in the face of any and all challenges.
*The Anthropocene – a new geological era that recognises human responsibility for our world-changing effects on the global climate and on the environment everywhere.