The Green Self: Ecological Crisis and Individuation

Posted: 16.04.2014
Updated on: 30.07.2015

8th International Conference on Peace and Nonviolent Action



The purpose of this paper is to examine the process of psychological growth, which C.G. Jung called individuation, in the light of current ecological crises. First, this paper will focus on the relationship between ecological crises and experiences of alienation in the modern world. Next, what I refer to as, the ‘Green Archetype’ in mythology, theology, and alchemy will be related to Jungian ideas of Shadow integration - the struggle with one’s dark side, as well as the coming to awareness of the inner, personified component of the psyche - the Anima and Animus, and the process leading to the realization of a deeper center that Jung called the Self. In the final sections, experiences of heightened spiritual awareness in nature and contact with deeper dimensions of the Self will be related to possibilities for healing the Earth.

This paper will primarily use a Jungian lens to present a vision of individuation, the development of personality, in the light of eco-psychology, philosophy, and comparative theology. Our current ecological crisis and the archetypal process of individuation will be examined in parallel. This discussion will provide a broader psychological understanding from a Jungian perspective of our current ecological turmoil and aide in further elucidating our underlying, connection to our living planet. The purpose of this paper is not to provide quantitative evidence for my arguments, but to describe the qualitative and archetypal dimensions of ecology and ecological crises as it relates to the individual and collective psyche.


individuation, earth, identification, crisis, consciousness.



Although not exclusive to the modern era, experiences of alienation, dissociation, anxiety, and a sense of inner division are a modern epidemic. One feels like a house divided against itself and doesn’t know why. While most workers in the field of mental health would suggest these psychological issues are related to biographical events or due to chemical or neurological imbalances, which is certainly valid on one level, it seems the radical increase of these symptoms in recent years is related to something much bigger, namely the unprecedented ecological crisis we now face. The ecological crisis has arisen in part by unconscious, instinctually driven patterns of consumption, fueling an exploitative capitalist economy which has lead to the plundering of the natural world. In the face of a collapsing biosphere and the mass extinction of species, the evolutionary growth and development that is required of the collective, must occur through each individual in the form of an increased psychological awareness capable of changing patterns of compulsive consumption that are now pushing us toward the brink. Our technological capacity has exceeded our ethical development to a dangerous degree and as Jung noted “every step forward in material ‘progress’ steadily increases the threat of a still more stupendous catastrophe” (Jung, 1970, p.465). The future of our species on a living planet and the transformation of the human soul are not just concepts but an unavoidable task. This is due to the fact that the values, desires, and aspirations connected to the current, global economic model are ecologically unsustainable to a dangerous degree.

The change that is needed is the personal growth that Jung called individuation. Individuation is a teleological process where one moves toward the fulfillment of one’s highest, creative potential. This is a natural process of inner development similar to an acorn’s innate potential of becoming an oak tree or a caterpillar emerging from the chrysalis as a butterfly. “Individuation, therefore, can only mean a process of psychological development that fulfils the individual qualities given; in other words, it is a process by which a man becomes the definite, unique being he in fact is” (Jung, 1967, p.122).  All the major components of Jung’s psychology are related to individuation. This process involves psychological differentiation, or distinguishing one’s values, traits, and self-actualizing needs from collective ideals and expectations; integration of different aspects of the personality: one’s ego and conflicting desires, one’s dark side or Shadow, one’s contra-sexual “feminine” or “masculine” psychological component (Anima and Animus); maturation: the establishment of dynamic equilibrium (homeostasis), inner poise - even in states of inner-tension, responsibility, self knowledge, and wisdom; and wholeness, the acceptance of paradox and ambiguity and the inner certainty gained through the experience of a connection with all of life.  According to Jung, “individuation means becoming an ‘in-dividual’, and, in so far as ‘individuality’ embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming one’s own self. We could therefore translate individuation as ‘coming to selfhood’ or ‘self realization’” (Jung, 1967, p.122). True self-development requires the overcoming of our reactive patterns and a movement toward our higher capacities. Some people are experiencing an acceleration of this process in relation to the unprecedented environmental changes we are facing, as they, like Jung, are coming to the conclusion that “the upheaval of our world and the upheaval of our consciousness are one and the same” (Jung, 1970, p.471).


The Alienated Modern Self        

The industrializing process of ‘development’ over the natural world and the encroaching commercialization of every square inch of available space have quite literally alienated humanity from its roots. In daily life we can see advertisements for an ever increasing array of products, yet it seems that many of our modern “needs” are manufactured along with the products that supposedly meet them. The relentless assault of our sped-up world with advertising launched from every direction can make one feel bombarded, “schizophrenic”, and small. We can smell the putrid carcinogenic fumes in the air due to far too many vehicles in use and sense the toxicity and pollution that surrounds us. In the morning news we can read dire warnings from climatologists, geologists, and the larger scientific community, about the devastating affects of climate change and pollution. We can turn on the television and watch the polar ice caps melt before our eyes. Books and articles in popular magazines quote Dr. James Lovelock, seminal climate scientist, saying that by 2040 Europe will transform into a Sahara desert (Lovelock, 2007, p.78) and 95% of the earth’s population will be wiped out by the year 2100 (Goodell, 2007). However, our lives are often insulated from having to face these immanent environmental problems head on. Some of us live a relatively privileged life and experience no inconvenience or deprivation at all. Yet, even amongst those of us living a “comfortable life” many are becoming aware that something is amiss. Many of us acknowledge and intuit that our world seems out of balance. In response to this knowledge and these feelings, we may turn inward and attempt to contact the center of our inner being. This requires that we block out the dysfunctional noise, so often seeming like someone else’s manipulative for-profit version of reality, that forever threatens to drown out the true voice inside, our authentic living presence. As Jung noted: “the complicated living conditions and the influence of the environment are so strong that they drown the quiet voice of nature” (1979, p.160). Yet the surreal distractions of pervasive rampant consumerism and the compromised quality of our environment seem to be a bi-product or symptom, and not the cause, of something more fundamental and monstrous.

So what is the cure for, what Jung referred to as, the “thousand ills” (1957, p.34) of modern civilization and for the alienation that so many of us feel?  From the perspective of many Eastern traditions, the answer is simple. The problems of civilization and alienation are due to wrong perceptions and unconscious values - our conditioned concepts and the unexamined emotional attachments assigned to them. For most of us living in the industrialized world, the problem may be just as literal as it is conceptual. In the words of Psychologist James Hillman: “to grasp the disorders in any subject we must study carefully the environment of the disorder” (1995, p.xxi). Others assert that it is our anthropocentric attitude, a feeling of entitlement to subordinate and exploit nature for the sake of short-term profits, which has thrown us out of balance with the rest of organic life.  

According to Psychologist Ralph Metzner, this anthropocentrism is a superiority complex masking unconscious insecurities and fears toward our natural environment. As he asserts in his book, Green Psychology: Transforming our Relationship to the Earth: “the realization is spreading that the root causes of environmental destruction lie in human psychology - in certain distorted perceptions, attitudes, and values that modern humans have come to hold” (1999, p.80). Metzner sees our relationship with the planet, in psychological terms, as being at a pathological level of development. He gives examples of being stuck as a species in several developmental pitfalls vis-à-vis our relationship with the Earth.  

The first pathology he identifies is infantile fixation. This is due to an insecure feeling based on mistaken assumptions of lack and shortage. “Adults who in infancy developed a basic trust that the world of nature and society can provide for their needs are not likely to be attracted to a worldview that demands a relentless struggle for competitive advantage” (1995, p.87). This cut-throat worldview and way of life with its implication for total environmental destruction is the prime symptom of our infantile fixation.  Metzner asserts that collectively “we have become blind to the psychic presence of the living planet and deaf to its voices and stories” (1995, p.88). The next psychological problem he sees is our addiction to “the relentless pursuit of ever more expensive and technologically advanced consumer goods that feed the entitled ‘false self’ while the insecure and empty inner-self remains anxious and wounded” (1995, p.90). This ‘false self’ is what Eco-Psychologists Allen D. Kanner and Mary E. Gomes contend is the product of “marketing efforts that create not simply an impulse to buy, but far more seriously, a ‘consumer false self’ an ideal that is taken to heart as part of a person’s identity” (1995, p.83). This false self is what Jung called ‘the Persona’, a compromise between our ego-identity and collective values and expectations. While, at times, a well-developed persona is necessary for collective functioning, the “persona is only a mask of the collective psyche…. Fundamentally the persona is nothing real: it is a compromise between individual and society as to what a man should appear to be” (Jung, 1967, p.106). According to Jung, it is difficult to completely shed this pseudo-identity because this “compromise role which we parade before the community” (1967, p.106), is “rewarded in cash” (1981, p.221). Yet it is this hunger for cash, our materialistic values, and our unhealthy and compulsive consumerism that perpetuates alienation and emptiness, leading to the more fundamental problem Metzner mentions next - dissociative alienation, the tendency to split off from lived experience and the things we actually see. “We can perceive the pollution and degradation of the land, the waters, the air - but we do not attend to it, and we do not connect that knowledge with the other aspects of our total experience” (1995, p.95).  

Falsehood and denial invariably create a disconnection from our instincts and this inability to respond appropriately to our external environment may have its roots, as Metzner suggests, in a lack of culturally sanctioned rites of passage. The ritual initiations that for tens of thousands of years kept humans aligned with nature have been eroded since the agricultural revolution. It seems the emergence of mental consciousness, which superseded the mythic world-view, has been bought at the price of psychological stability and ecological sustainability. There is evidence that at the advent of the agricultural revolution, about 12,000 years ago, a shift occurred in the majority of peoples’ religious beliefs; reverence for earth deities and immanent life processes were slowly phased out in favor of an exclusive emphasis on transcendent sky-gods. In the separation of consciousness from its preconscious fusion with nature an imbalance was created. In elemental terms, air and fire elements, sky-borne spirituality, were elevated and water and earth elements, the natural world, were negated. In more recent times, due in part to the modern, mechanistic, Western “enlightenment” world-view, our -‘splitting-off’- from nature has increased ever-more dramatically.

While recognizing that our modern - science-based - world view has achieved countless great things, religious studies scholar Karen Armstrong asserts that one of the consequences of our current paradigm is an “edited out sense of the ‘spiritual’ or ‘holy’ which pervades the lives of people in more traditional societies at every level and which was once an essential component of our human experience of the world” (1993, p.4). In our secular age many would reduce these intimations of the sacred to a ‘primitive’ participation mystique, but, as James Hillman points out, “even the high intellectualism of the Renaissance, to say nothing of the modes of mind in ancient Egypt and Greece or contemporary Japan allowed for the animation of things, recognizing a subjectivity in animals, plants, wells, springs, trees, and rocks” (Hillman, 1995, pp.xxii).

As Jung asserted almost a century ago, whatever is repressed - in this case the reality of our living planet - never goes away, but simply sinks into the unconscious. In the denial of our earth-embeddedness we have unconsciously pushed our instinctual, libidinal, symbolic and nature-personifying psychic functions into the shadow-land of the unconscious. The supposedly primitive parts of the psyche, imagined to have been discarded long ago in the course of human progress, are still very much alive and active under a thin veneer of civilization; but before we can reintegrate our psychic heritage, we first must face it. While Jung asserted that individuation, was in one sense, a violation of the natural man; an overcoming of nature, a sublimation of animal instinctuality, a separation of consciousness from its preconscious identity with the natural world, he also felt, paradoxically, that “the conflict comes from the fact that we want to be an animal just as much as a spiritual being” (2002, p.161). The solution to this conflict requires a reintegration of unconscious contents. The boiling cauldron of instincts repressed and edited out of civilization, must be re-encountered consciously. While activating and engaging these deep archaic layers presents several challenges, namely becoming aware of our own inherent capacity for brutality and inhumane ruthlessness, it is a necessary task in re-contacting both the psychological and, previously unconscious, instinctual ground of our Earth-based being. Individuation is the integration of our collective shadow on the most fundamental level. In The Undiscovered Self, Jung speaks to this directly:

What our age thinks of as the “SHADOW” and inferior part of the psyche contains more than something merely negative. The very fact that through self-knowledge, i.e., by exploring our own souls, we come upon the instincts and their world of imagery should throw some light on the powers slumbering in the psyche, of which we are seldom aware so long as all goes well. They are potentialities of the greatest dynamism, and it depends entirely on the preparedness and attitude of the conscious mind whether the irruption of these forces and the images and ideas associated with them will tend towards construction or catastrophe (1957, p.107).

Here Jung is pointing to the necessary struggle of encountering the Shadow as a means to self-knowledge and empowerment. Facing unconscious contents is an essential part of Shadow integration, enabling us to come into contact with not only the monstrous, but the positive, and noble aspects of ourselves that have been repressed. For Jung the Shadow was encountered, primarily, in dreams and active imagination and relationships. However, many eco-psychologists find that the most meaningful shadow work occurs when we spend time in a forest, or experience the majestic power of the mountains. When our lives become ecologically oriented, we may have the opportunity to experience the dormant, dynamic powers of our psyche, allowing us to “identify with our wilderness shadow, consume it, and assimilate it, thereby re-owning this vital and powerful energy” (Harper, 1995, p.194).


The Green Archetype

The word Archetype is derived from the Greek words arkhe (arche - αρχη) meaning first or original, and typos, meaning modeling, marking, imprinting. Thus, an Archetype is a particular complex of primordial or timeless images, behaviors, and emotions, evident throughout human history in events, myths, stories, and religious motifs.

For example: Love and the Lover, War and the Warrior, Wisdom and the Wiseman, Art and the Artist, are patterns of experience the human participates in, and also Archetypal roles enacted through individual human beings.  It was Plato who first posited this vision in his doctrine of ideal, or transcendent, forms. These forms are not human constructs, “rather they possess a quality of being, a degree of reality, that is superior to that of the concrete world. Platonic archetypes form the world and also stand beyond it” (Tarnas, 1991, p.6). Archetypes are inherent within each personality structure as each person’s character is constellated distinctly by different combinations of Archetypes. The full emergence of each individual’s archetypal pattern is inherent in the process of individuation, as the activation of an Archetype enables us to grow toward our higher potentials.

Jung argued that the - “modern man in search of a soul” - was cut off from his body and its instincts and from the living waters of his soul, the deep storehouse of archetypal images and feelings that have given meaning to humanity from time immemorial. The body and its instincts, nature and earth-embeddedness, are our primal heritage and this unknown face, must be re-integrated into consciousness.

This archetypal form of a wilderness shadow can be seen in the ancient image of the ‘Green Man’. Originating from the earliest pagan traditions, the Green Man is a personification of the regenerative life-force of the earth. This primordial archetype has even been unconsciously absorbed and integrated into Christianity, in the most obvious way by bringing trees and wreaths into the home for the celebration of Christmas. In Gothic-period European Churches one can find the sculpted leafy-man underneath pedestals and figures of “saints, popes, and bishops” (Metzner, 1995, p.138). This is clearly a nod to the pagan roots of Christianity. In Arthurian Legend, the Green Knight, who openly challenges the Knights of the Round Table, is an archetypal representation of the intra-psychic tension between Christianity and the primal origin of earth-embedded being.  

Christian mystic Hildegard Von Bingen analogized Christ and Mother Mary’s divine virtues to viriditas - ‘greenness’ (Metzner, 1995, p.140). According to this mystical brand of Christianity, which emphasizes the interrelationship between the divine spirit of the transcendent trinity and the divine beauty of the fecund earth, “green is the color of the Holy Ghost, of life, procreation and resurrection” (Edinger, 1992, p.213).

In the Hermetic traditions of alchemy and astrology, the color green represents hope, joy, and faith in the future. It is associated with the planet Venus, the archetypal Eros, in a constant and perpetually regenerative form. The alchemists considered green symbolic of the life-spirit, the anima mundi - the soul of the world; to the alchemists green signified perfection (Jung, 1973, p.432). Jung, in response to an alchemical text, had this to say about green and individuation:

The state of imperfect transformation, merely hoped for and waited for, does not seem to be one of torment only, but of positive, if hidden, happiness. It is the state of someone who, in his wanderings among the mazes of his psychic transformation, comes upon a secret happiness which reconciles him to his apparent loneliness. In communing with himself he finds not deadly boredom and melancholy but an inner-partner; more than that, a relationship that seems like the happiness of a secret love, or like a hidden springtime, when the green seed sprouts from the barren earth, holding out the promise of future harvests. It is the alchemical bendicta viriditas, the blessed greenness, signifying…. the secret immanence of the divine spirit in all things (1973, p.432).

This realization of inner beauty and value, with an exalted sense of emotional equilibrium and autonomy, is often an experience one has while in nature or in the presence of natural beauty. Psychologically, this encounter with the “inner-partner” signifies the ego coming into a harmonious and fructifying relationship with its contra-sexual element: the Anima/ Animus syzygy. Conscious assimilation of these Archetypes insures that “just as the Anima becomes, through integration, the Eros of consciousness, so the Animus becomes a Logos” (Jung, 1979, p.154). This “imperfect transformation” refers to what Jung called the Lower Coniunctio, an alchemical metaphor for a developmental phase on the path towards individuation where a union of opposites gives birth to a new capacity. In this phase, contacting nature can be the impetus to consciously unite with our previously undifferentiated ground of being, a psychological re-integration of inner and outer nature in its pure and benevolent form. In an ultimate sense this “secret happiness accompanying the discovery of the green one” (Edinger, 1992, p.214) can be a faithful surrender to the cyclical and regenerative nature of life, giving one a sense of perspective, an experience of self-love and harmonious belonging, a realization of connectedness within the constant flux of reality.

While the discovery of the Shadow, the Anima (or the inner feminine component of a man), and the Animus (or the inner masculine component of a woman), can be a wonderful aide in helping us recognize the Green Archetype, a symbol for our inherent wholeness and connection to all of life, the work of integrating these elements requires us to face every aspect of ourselves with brutal honesty and unflinching resolve. The Shadow, the Anima, and the Animus are the three most prominent archetypes in Jungian psychology because they have “the most frequent and the most disturbing influence on the ego” (Jung, 1979, p.145). While not wholly negative complexes, the often intense, emotionally possessive affects of these Archetypes relate to problematic attitudes and projections of all kinds, for example: blame and vilification, ‘animosity’, and the universal mother and father complexes. These are psychic factors that must be faced in the development of personality toward an individuated consciousness.  


Awakening to the Earth, Contacting the Self

When human beings re-establish a connection to the Earth, we tend to awaken to a larger more meaningful dimension of life. We may spontaneously ‘awaken’ while watching an iridescent hummingbird sucking the sweet nectar from a rose outside our window, or while in the midst of a vivid rainforest. In The Spell of the Sensuous, eco-philosopher David Abram describes this experience well: “As we return to our senses, we gradually discover our sensory perceptions to be simply our part of a vast, interpenetrating webwork of perceptions and sensations borne by countless other bodies - supported, that is, not just by ourselves, but by icy streams tumbling down granitic slopes, by owl wings and lichens, and by the unseen, imperturbable wind.” (1996, p.67). These experiences can lead to a heightened appreciation of the good, the true, and the beautiful aspects of nature; an appreciation of life itself. It seems that many people have these experiences on a regular basis, yet paradoxically often feel forced to come ‘back to reality’ and tend to their affairs in the ‘real world‘. Even when we gain the ability to feel a connection with nature, many of us continue to think of our world as ‘other’, as simply an indulgent escape from our concerns, obligations, and ‘real-life’ issues.

The problem is that we have been confusing our synthetic world, built in large part through a process of environmental degradation, with the ’real’ world, and mistaking the natural world for, at best, a tourist playground, if not a source of raw materials for human extraction and profit. As Jung said in his autobiography: “the urban world knows nothing about the country world, the real world of mountains, woods, and rivers, of animals and ‘God’s thoughts’ (plants and crystals)” (1963, p.155). Unfortunately, we don’t see the Garden of Eden as an immanent reality. The Earth is a rare yet finite paradise, and our ability to experience it as heaven is thwarted only by our distorted perception of reality. Thousands of years of patriarchy, namely certain pervasive interpretations of religious scripture that emphasize a distinct separation between humans and their environment, and the ‘enlightenment’ Cartesian - Newtonian paradigm, which assumes a split between inner, subjective experience and outer ‘objective’ reality, governed by immutable laws of physics, has created a “dissociative split between human spirituality and nature, body and mind, self and other” (Metzner, 1995).  Descartes’ distinction between res extensa (matter) and res cogitans (mind) was an essential landmark in the evolutionary process of a differentiated ego-consciousness capable of bringing the larger dimension of the Self into conscious awareness. However, this dualism has outlived its usefulness for humanity.

The solution to healing the Cartesian split between ourselves and the natural world runs parallel to healing the split between the ego and its relationship to, what Jung termed, the Self, our natural matrix of being. The Self is the spirit in nature, or the slumbering soul of nature, which must be integrated consciously. It seems to me that this healing integration must occur through an expanded identification; an identification that includes the natural world and all sentient life. Deep Ecology pioneer Arne Naess recognized that the ego, alienated from the nurturance of the Self, is related to humanity’s estrangement from nature. Naess listed five-themes in his eco-philosophy expressing this principle:

  1. The narrow self (ego) as distinct from the comprehensive Self (capital S).
  2. Self-realization as the realization of the comprehensive Self, not the cultivation of the ego.
  3. The process of identification as the basic tool of widening the Self and as a natural consequence of increased maturity.
  4. Strong identification with the whole of nature in its diversity and interdependence of parts as a source of active participation in the deep ecological movement.
  5. Identification as a source of belief in intrinsic values. (Hay, p.47)

Naess’ platform is a good conceptual description of a movement towards healing the split between humans and the planet; an advancement that is related to psychological growth through the expansion of consciousness.

Jung asserted that those undergoing this process of expanded awareness often experience a profound psychological change and tend to become harmonious, mature, and responsible and their orientation and values shift toward compassion, justice, and an intuitive understanding of life (1962, p.322). “The complications arising at this stage are no longer egotistic wish-conflicts, but difficulties that concern others as much as oneself. At this stage it is fundamentally a question of collective problems, which have activated the collective unconscious because they require collective rather than personal compensation” (Jung, 1967, p.127).  In other words, a natural outgrowth of personality development is an expanded consideration of and compassion for all of life and a capacity for deep, embodied ecological awareness. As Jung stated so plainly, this has positive social consequences.

This intuitive understanding and expanded identification can also be a consciously cultivated practice that enables the ego to experience its wider matrix of being- the Self. Steven Harper, an eco-psychologist and wilderness leader had this to say in regard to the experience that naturally emerges when one is in wilderness for an extended period of time:

As we experience our forgotten primordial self, we have the opportunity to catch the experiential glimpses of the origin of the primordial images, the archetypes. The awareness of our expanded self, is the experience of wholeness (1995, p.196).

In contrast, Philosopher Ken Wilber, in his work Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality, rejects this notion that our natural world is the locus for greater realization of the Self. Despite his emphatic recognition of the ecological crisis facing humanity and the efficacy of our natural world for psychological health, Wilber’s position is that spiritual identification with the earth denies our higher and transcendental source of being. Wilber often brands ecologists as being at a lower stage of spiritual development than the practitioners of ‘non-dual’ spiritual traditions. He claims that “as long as I interpret nature as the source of the Divine, then to just that extent I am locked out of any deeper or truer spiritual illuminations and intuitions” (1995, p.471).

Wilber’s insights are important because they serve to broadly represent the perspective of many practitioners of Buddhism and Vedanta, with which Wilber is loosely affiliated, in regard to the distinction between spirit and the natural world. However, it seems Wilber may be presenting a false dichotomy, a subtle dualism between flesh and spirit. Abram notes that “from scientific determinism to spiritual idealism and back again - contemporary discourse easily avoids the possibility that both the perceiving and the perceived are interdependent and in some sense even reversible aspects of a common animate element” (1996, p.67).

In addition to Wilbur’s arguments, another even more common psychological criticism of ecology as a spiritual practice, is that an expanded identification with something beyond the ego-personality is ‘nothing but’ regressive infantilism. The archetype of the Self and the experience of wholeness is reduced by many in the psychiatric community to what Freud called the primal “oceanic feeling.” Freud considered ‘religious’ or unitive experiences as being related to the primal ego, narcissism, and idealistic wish-fulfillment (1930, p. 68). Modern psychiatry, in many instances, still pathologizes personal experiences of the sacred. While it is true that mystical experience and pathology are not mutually exclusive, the archetype of the Self, being connected to something larger than one’s conscious ego-personality, is absolutely efficacious in the process of psychological healing and recovery. Of course, healing is paradoxically inseparable from wounding. In Jung’s psychology of individuation the opposites are always connected.

While there can be immense psychological challenges involved with changing one’s world view and consumer habits to reflect a deepening awareness of, and identification with, all of life, this is a necessary step for humankind toward an ecological consciousness. This is because compassion for other beings arises naturally as a consequence of a deep understanding of the inter-connectedness of all life. Furthermore, when the soul is brought to consciousness and liberated from her slumber in nature, it is no longer dominated by compulsive appetites; she no longer desires beyond necessity.

This expanded identification can even be extrapolated to cosmic proportions. Transpersonal psychologist Dr. Stanislav Grof’s “expanded cartography of the psyche” has mapped transpersonal experiences that include identification with “animals, plants and botanical processes, planetary consciousness and planetary evolution” (2000, p. 23). Through Grof’s modern consciousness research of people in holotropic, or non-ordinary, states, Grof has come to the conclusion that:

The universe is imbued with creative intelligences and consciousness is inextricably woven into its fabric. Our identification with a separate body-ego is an illusion and our true identity is the totality of existence. This understanding provides a natural basis for reverence for life, cooperation and synergy, concerns for humanity and the planet as a whole, and deep ecological awareness (2000, p.300).

Grof’s decades of research give phenomenological evidence for the experience of the Self, the totality of all conscious and unconscious aspects of the psyche. Depth psychologists have noted that symbols of the Self spontaneously emerging in times of psycho-spiritual crisis are often represented by spherical and quaternal symbols (1964, p.135). Jung used “the term ‘mandala’ because this word denotes the ritual or magic circle used as an aid to contemplation” (1980, p.360). The magic circles, or mandalas, spontaneously drawn by people in acute crisis were recognized by Jung as the psyche’s attempt at self-organization, its natural movement toward wholeness.  Jung stated that “the true mandala is always an inner image, which is gradually built up through imagination at such times when psychic equilibrium is disturbed…they are among the oldest religious symbols of humanity and may even have existed in Paleolithic times... Moreover they are distributed all over the world … they signify nothing less than a psychic centre of the personality” (1980, p.360). It is interesting to observe that these mandalas are consistent with earth symbolism. The earth is round, spherical, and symbolically has four seasons, four directions, four elements, etc. Additionally, in the midst of crisis or an intense search for answers, many modern people find themselves suddenly in need of being in nature. On a psychological level this search for healing contact with the numinous in nature corresponds to Hillman’s insight that: “Adaptation of the deep self to the collective unconscious and to the id[1] is simply adaptation to the natural world. Moreover, an individual’s harmony with his or her ‘own deep self’ requires not merely a journey to the interior but a harmonizing with the environmental world” (Hillman, 1995, p.xix). Eventually, through individuation, one can attain a clear view of the world and thus respond to external crises appropriately. Until then, one is always subject to the influence of unconscious drives, emotions, and compulsions.


Becoming Whole, Healing the Earth

As we experience the connection between our living planet and an authentic sense of being, we may come to realize that we are autonomously one with not only the biosphere but the creative principle itself. With a similar view to Grof, Theodore Roszak articulates that we are imbued with an ecological unconscious that lies at the core of the psyche. This psyche “is rooted inside a greater intelligence once known as the anima mundi… that has been nurturing life in the cosmos for billions of years through its drama of heightening complexification” (1995, p.16).  The complex and kaleidoscopic variety of life on Earth, from the perspective of many traditions, is the fruit of the cosmic, creative principle. It is lila –the divine play of existence - as explicated in the Vedas. Like Grof and Roszak, Dane Rudhyar, the seminal cosmological philosopher, felt that we should always carry the knowledge, that, essentially, we are this creative principle:

Consciousness and power are the two poles of human existence. Consciousness transforms potentiality into power; but through the use of power - in Sanskrit Shakti - new forms of consciousness arise which in turn actualize a new quantum of energy from the vast ocean of potentiality out of which universes periodically emerge. This is the great play of existence - the cyclic interaction of yin and yang, in Chinese philosophy. You are an individualized aspect of this eternal “dialogue” of consciousness and power (1979, p.97).  

In the midst of catastrophic climate change and the breakdown of life-giving systems, the question becomes: what do we do with this knowledge? What is the human role in the cosmic story? In Judaism the responsibility of the finite individual to the eternal absolute is called tikkun olam- world repair. The sixteenth-century Kabbalist Isaac Luria asserted that “God contracted part of God’s self into vessels of light to create the world. These vessels shattered and their shards became sparks of light embedded within material creation” (Friedman, 2004, p.13). According to Lurianic Kabbalah, the obligation of every Hebrew is to raise these sparks through mitzvoth (good works), when enough sparks are raised the world will become a mirror for the divine. What is being asked of us in the face of a collapsing eco-system and chaotic transitions is nothing less then immanent tikkun olam. We are cursed and blessed with an opportunity to wake up and change, open ourselves to renewal in the face of uncertainty and chaos, evolve as a species, and create new and sustainable structures.

Where do we start? In Working Through Environmental Despair, Joanna Macy outlines several psychological factors that prevent us from fully taking responsibility for healing the earth and therefore ourselves: disbelief, denial, the fear of painful environmental realities that lead us to psychic numbing, fear of appearing morbid due to our environmental concerns, fear of appearing stupid in our discussion of environmental facts, fear of our implicit guilt in the environmental crisis, and fear of our essential powerlessness to change socio-political structures. Macy gives several wise suggestions for breaking through this apathy and pain, into a more expansive relational connection to the Earth. The first quality needed is Self-Empowerment. We empower ourselves through recognizing our feelings of pain for the world, thereby unblocking repressed feelings and releasing the psychic energy we need for positive change. Positive change can only occur when we recognize our inter-connectedness with life and all other beings; this relates scientifically to a paradigm shift towards systemic thinking (systems-theory) in which phenomena are contextualized through an interconnected web of relationships. These new patterns of thought lead to an opening to positive disintegration, our willingness to face chaotic changes in service of a transformational re-birth into a new sustainable paradigm. A new paradigm requires a shift in power dynamics from “power over” to power with. We can increase the sum total of our conscious participation in life through our ability to use our power towards creative and sustainable ends as opposed to stratification and oppression (Macy, 1995).

Macy illustrates realistic challenges and provides some compelling ideas about how we can change. There is no doubt we need many more compelling ideas, a momentous surge of collective energy, and a paradigm shift in the collective psyche to adequately meet the dire crisis we are embroiled in. Jung fortuitously recognized that “it is from need and distress that new forms of existence arise, and not from idealistic requirements or mere wishes” (1970, p.476). The newest United Nations scientific report on climate change revealed that our window to act is NOW!  If we are to affect positive change we need to change not only our habits and structures, we need to change our hearts. As Jung said: “we are living in the Kairos – the right time - for a metamorphosis of the gods. This peculiarity of our time, which is certainly not of our conscious choosing, is the expression of the unconscious person within us who is changing” (Jung, 1957, 110). While we do not control this process -it is the unconscious person that is changing-, it is something that is happening to us, we must participate in this process in full awareness of the fact that the dire conditions of our external reality are a reflection of our inner turmoil and dysfunction.

The crisis and opportunity is ours.



In this discussion I have used a Jungian lens to outline possible reasons, in the light of eco-psychology and comparative theology, for our collective alienation from the natural world. I took a brief look at the archetypal ‘Green Man’ within the history of Christianity and the Hermetic traditions, and its potential for helping us to contact deeper aspects of the psyche. I then examined problematic assumptions vis-à-vis humanity’s relationship to nature, positing that solutions may lie in a broader identification with the natural world. Finally, I gave a broader perspective for human life as a dynamic piece in the cosmic story of creation, ending with Joanna Macy’s pragmatic perspective on the psychological tasks required of human beings to affect positive change on the planet.

In closing, as human beings have found themselves in the role of giving the Earth the capacity to perceive itself, it is my hope that the human species will not come to an end as a meaningless and failed experiment on the face of this beautiful planet. It is my hope that future generations will receive an intact biosphere. For this to be a possibility, we must look deeply within our own souls and open ourselves to profound growth through the process that Jung called individuation. Eventually, through individuation, one can attain the clarity required to respond to external crises appropriately. Until then, one is always subject to the influence of unconscious drives, emotions, and compulsions that put our biosphere in peril.



  • Abram, D. (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Armstrong, K. (1993). A History of God. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Edinger, E. (1992). Ego and Archetype. Boston: Shambhala.
  • Fox, W. (1990). Toward a transpersonal ecology: developing new foundations of environmental thought. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Friedman, D. (2004). Kosmic Kabbalah. Safed:
  • Goodell, J. (2007). The prophet of climate change: James Lovelock. Rolling Stone: November 2007.
  • Grof, S. (2000). Psychology of the Future. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Harper, S. (1995). The way of wilderness, in T. Roszak, M.E. Gomes, and A.D. Kanner (eds.) Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth and healing the mind (pp.183-200). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
  • Hay, P. (2002). Main currents in western environmental thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Hillman, J. (1995). A psyche the size of the earth, in T. Roszak, M.E. Gomes, and A.D. Kanner (eds.) Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth and healing the mind (pp.xviii-xxiii). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
  • Jung, C.G. (1957). The Undiscovered Self. (R.F.C. Hull Trans.) New York: Penguin Group.
  • Jung, C.G. (1962). Symbols of Transformation. (R.F.C. Hull Trans.) Princeton: Princeton University Press
  • Jung, C.G. and Jaffe, A. (1963). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. (R.and C. Winston Trans.) New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Jung, C.G. (1964). Man and his Symbols. New York: Dell Publishing,
  • Jung, C.G. (1967). Two Essays on Analytic Psychology. (R.F.C. Hull Trans.) Princeton: Princeton University Press
  • Jung, C.G. (1970). Civilization in Transition. (R.F.C. Hull Trans.) Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Jung, C.G. (1970). Mysterium Coniunctionis. (R.F.C. Hull Trans.) Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Jung, C.G. (1979). Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. (R.F.C. Hull Trans.) Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Jung, C.G. (1980). Psychology and Alchemy. (R.F.C. Hull Trans.) Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Jung, C.G. (1981). The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. (R.F.C. Hull Trans.) Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Kanner, A.D. and Gomes, M.E. (1995). The all-consuming self, in T. Roszak, M.E. Gomes, and A.D. Kanner (eds.) Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth and healing the mind. (pp.77-91).San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
  • Lovelock, J. (2007). The revenge of gaia. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Macy, J. (1995). Working through environmental despair, in T. Roszak, M.E. Gomes, and A.D. Kanner (eds.) Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth and healing the mind (pp.240-259). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
  • Metzner, R. (1999). Green Psychology: transforming our relationship to the earth. Vermont: Park Street Press.
  • Roszak, T. (1995). Where psyche meets gaia, in T.Roszak, M.E. Gomes, and A.D. Kanner (eds.) Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth and healing the mind (pp.1-18). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
  • Rudhyar, D. (1979). Astrological insights into the spiritual life. Santa Fe: Aurora Press.
  • Sabini, M. (Ed.). (2002). The Earth has a Soul: The nature writings of C.G. Jung. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
  • Tarnas, R. (1991). The Passion of the Western Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Wilber, K. (1995). Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality. Boston: Shambhala.
Share this page on: