The Coastal Environment and the Human Psyche

Since time eternal, people have sought respite at the sea. The Japanese > have a poetic word for the triple-point of sea and land and air, called > Nagisa. It is a place considered to be invested with deep spirituality and > as such has a great influence on the human psyche. Like a Rorshak image, > the health of the human spirit can be reflected in what one perceives in the > presence of the ocean. Countless metaphors and religious traditions emanate > from coastal experiences. This paper will investigate some of those images > and traditions as they relate specifically to the healthy synergy of > humanity and the coast and the psychological influence of the coastal > environment on the human psyche. > July 17, 2008 Dr. Karen Melander-Magoon, D. Min. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together [God] called Seas. And God saw that it was good. -Genesis 1:10 O, Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; The earth is full of your creatures. Yonder is the sea, great and wide, Creeping things innumerable are there, Living things both small and great. * * * These all look to you To give them their food in due season; When you give to them, they gather it up; When you open your hand, they are filled with good things. -Psalm 104. Since the beginning of humankind, long after we had scrambled out of the primeval slime that gave birth to life on earth and after we had slipped out of the waters of our planet to take our place on land, we have experienced a yearning for revisiting the shorelines and coasts of the world. For many, simply the experience of being close to the ocean, experiencing its repetitive and yet ever-changing rolling surf, smelling the salt air and relaxing against the bracing sea air is enough. For others, the call of the ocean to swim in its waters or surf over its waves is irresistible. There are those who contend we yearn to return to the womb, its comfort and life-giving embrace. Others sense the innate power and life force of the ocean and find there a regeneration of spirit and soul as an outside, illuminating magnet. The ocean reflects the ever-changing nature of life and our own lives. From a distance, the vast oceans of the earth appear stable, consistent, even homogenous. And yet we know that to sit by the ocean through one day is enough to realize its enormous power, its unpredictability and its unparalleled nuances and variety in color and sound and motion. The landscape of the ocean and its inner complexity could be representative of our own inner being. The call of the seagulls can be spiritually soothing, as can the rush of the surf and the rise and fall of the tides. They mirror for us instinctively the tempests and calms, the rise and fall of our own psyches. The smell of salt and rush of the wind across the waves and our own cheeks reminds us of the purity of our inner nature and of its potential for healing or being healed. Visiting the ocean is a reminder of the vast landscape that resides within us, its power and sensitivity. We can learn to carry that memory within us to give us strength and refreshment, to replenish and nurture our souls. We can begin, as countless peoples before us, by absorbing the sound and smell and feel of the ocean as it fills our being. We can touch the seashells and sands. We can carry that image and the memory of the smell and feel of the shore with us into our daily lives. Numerous experiments have been done on the theta brainwave that is achieved through meditation. According to a BBC report from 23 June 1999, research on rats and other animals has already shown a link between slower brainwaves or theta oscillations and improved spatial memory. Slow down and remember more! How do we slow down? By being present in nature. And what better place in nature to find inner peace than along the coastal waters. We have all seen people practicing yoga on the beach or simply sitting to watch the sun collapse beyond the waves at sunset. In another Science Report from the BBC, a procedure was attempted to empty the mind and thereby increased wave activity was discovered. Similarly, experiments in Music Therapy have proven that the heart rate tends to match the rhythm of its environment. These and other experiments point to the possibilities of achieving a healing quality of mind and body through particular experiences. Empirical evidence has suggested since the beginning of humanities' involvement with the natural environment, particularly where the triple point of land and sea and sky exists (what the Japanese often call "Nagisa") that in that space a stillness and peace can emanate that replenishes or heals the human psyche. Sylvia Earle, former chief scientist for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), author of more than 125 scientific and popular publications, including a 1995 book, Sea Change, and distinguished speaker at California and the World Oceans in Los Angeles says on her web site, "I was swept off my feet by a wave when I was three and have been in love with the sea ever since," Earle said. "Even as a child I was lured into the sea by the creatures who live there: horseshoe crabs on the New Jersey beaches; starfish and sea urchins in the Florida Keys; and everywhere strange and wonderful forms of life that occur only underwater. It was and is irresistible." Earle remains a powerful advocate for the healing power of the ocean and our mutually dependency on and responsibility for its health and well-being. Just as we find healing grace by observing, dwelling near or experiencing the sensory marvels of the ocean and its physical challenges and inspiration, so we also learn to give back to sustain its health. It is perhaps in this give and take, this mutual respect, appreciation and sustenance that individuals and communities find their greatest health. Stories have been written and oral legends passed on from generation to generation about the mysteries of the ocean, from the miracles of mermaids to Jonah's Biblical adventure in a whale. All cultures have their stories of magic and mystery related to the coast, the oceans, and the near shorelines. The oral histories of tribal peoples relates back to the coast as a source of nourishment and inspiration. Many institutions are investigating the influence of the ocean on our lives, and reversely, the influence that we have anthropogenically upon the ocean. The following are related observations by the Ocean Mammal Institute, 2004-6, taken from its website: "Certainly the rapid degradation of our environment is forcing us to look within ourselves to find the root causes of our environmental problems. As we dare to look within, we realize that our connection to the Earth is deeper than we think. In fact, this connection has nothing to do with thinking, for it's only when we stop thinking that we can begin to experience our relationship to the Earth and the larger family of life." We are taught to think about and evaluate everything but rarely are we encouraged to feel the feelings arising in our bodies or listen to our inner bodily " knowing". This intuition or inner knowing arising from the body is closely connected to the energies of the natural world. But the body also is where we experience emotions - both positive and negative. In order to protect ourselves from feeling painful emotions, we sometimes create a separation between the mind and the body so we don't feel the pain. We literally disassociate our hearts from our minds; we disassociate from the pain of our emotions to shield ourselves from hurt. The consequences of this self-protecting strategy are enormous. Once we can't feel the painful emotions we also can't feel the positive ones. We simply can't feel and are no longer in touch with the innate wisdom of the body. Once we've disconnected from our body we are also disconnected from the Earth because our body is our direct connection to the nonverbal energies of nature. Strangely enough, when we intellectualize and separate ourselves from the natural world, we seem to think at that point we can and should control nature. If we are separate from the rest of nature, we somehow feel a license to abuse and overuse environmental resources for our own gratification and never feel the pain of our destructive actions. This separation of our intellect from our emotions - our hearts from our minds - has allowed us to make the decisions that have resulted in the acid-induced mortality of the forests, the expansion of deserts, the unprecedented disappearance of species, the plummeting water tables, and targeting whales with LFA sonar. The separation of our hearts from our minds has made possible our current environmental crisis, simply because we have "tuned out" our natural world. Once we have lost our attunement to our bodies and the cycles of Nature, I contend that a sense of exile grows within our souls. We feel alienated and empty and often act out various forms of violence and abuse against ourselves, each other and the Earth. Cutting down acres of irreplaceable virgin forest is a violent act but we can no longer consciously feel the effects of our violence. Similarly, allowing plastics and other contaminants into our streams and oceans is an act of unconscionable abuse when the result of such negligence is the strangulation or starvation or related deaths of countless aquatic species. We want to remove our suffering and anxiety from our awareness and try to fill up the emptiness with substances and experiences including material goods, relationships and power. These things can temporarily distract us but are not a lasting solution. The power principle is out of balance on the planet. Our presumed need for power tends to lead to greed and domination which in turn contributes to the environmental crisis. Somehow we need to bring that left-brain drive for power into balance with the more right brain qualities of creativity, compassion and nurturance. As we rebalance these two forces within ourselves, we'll surely find creative solutions to environmental problems. Once we connect again to the web of life, we find we have "come home". Sing, "I'm Coming Home, so light a candle" As we consciously make the decision to heal the separation between our hearts and our minds, we can be open to the "harmony of the spheres." We no longer abuse ourselves, each other or the environment. We remember our intimate connection to the intricate web of life. We can't always use technology to clean up the mess technology has created. The solution must come from a deeper source. Years ago Rachel Carson said, "We have to love nature before we can protect it." We can begin to reconnect our minds with our bodies - our intellect with our heart - by consciously coming out of denial, by admitting there's a problem and by going deeply inside. We can begin to trust our inner world. We can allow ourselves to become fully human working with our bodies to release the blocked energies and feel the full range of human emotions. We can feel our anxiety, grief and rage about the deteriorating state of the natural world. We can feel our love for Nature. We can remember rituals that help us connect our inner and outer experiences and feel our rootedness in the natural world. Rituals help us quiet our busy minds and gets us into a state where we can sense and feel things usually overridden by the verbal chatter of the dominant left brain. Then we can hear the voices of Nature. We can engage in contemplation and spend time in Nature alone or in groups reconnecting with the natural world. My observations of the impact of human marine activities on endangered whales has taught me many things. By being in the company of whales simply by snorkeling in Hawaii I can imagine how we can live in harmony with other creatures on this planet. Listening to their haunting songs helps us remember our connection to the larger family of life. They remind us of the magic of Nature. Humpback whales in the North Pacific I am told all sing the same song and it is the most complex song on Earth. Their song is constantly changing synchronistically in the same way by whales separated by thousands of miles of ocean. Scientists cannot explain how this happens - it is one of the great mysteries of Nature. Their effortless combining of immense strength and power with gentleness and grace reminds me that it is possible to balance our active, goal-oriented energies with the compassionate, nurturing energies within each of us. Certainly it is important to work on a specific environmental problem such as stopping the destruction of the rainforest, decontaminating lakes, rivers and seas, or protecting endangered species. But in order to successfully address the environmental crisis it is essential to transform ourselves internally. As we heal the separation between our hearts and our minds we will find new images and balanced energies within that nourish us and value life. We will become protectors of the Earth and all her creatures. Our goal is to reawaken the innate sense of our relatedness and reciprocity with natural law - to heal the alienation between ourselves and the natural environment - to co-create a partnership with the natural world rather than imposing our will on the world we live in. We can look at the natural world as the source of all sustenance and satisfaction instead of thinking of it merely as the background for our human activity. Only if we are willing to transform ourselves will we be able to successfully address the most pressing set of problems ever to confront humanity. A movement called Eco-Psychology finds resonance in the ideas of Jung and Freud related to the oceanic landscape of our beings. In Alison Rush's article for the Eco-Psychology Web page , she remarks: Freud's account of "the oceanic feeling", reported to by Romain Rolland, "consists in a peculiar feeling… which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of "eternity", a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded - as it were, "oceanic". Rolland suggested to Freud that this feeling was the ultimate source of religious experience. The nature of the sensation he described was akin to that expressed by nature writers like Henry Thoreau and Richard Jeffries, and seemed related to the overall experience of being alone in wild places. Alison Rush chose to quote Wordsworth, in his Lines written above Tintern Abbey, perhaps expressing the feeling as well as anyone: "And I have felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things." So, how is this "oceanic feeling" to suggest a healing power for the spirit? We are continuously confronted with the idea that we are whole only when we acknowledge that we are not separate from that which we call "nature". We have mentioned specific physiological responses of the human body to the ocean environment and see in the poets, the myth-makers and literati and artists through all generations a return to the planet's primitive grace in seeking wholeness for the human spirit. The artist reflects the search of the human spirit, but it is not just in art and story and poetry that we find indications of the ultimate power of the ocean and the "triple point" of land, sea and air on our conscious and subconscious worlds. In our own dreams many of us find a clue to this search for wholeness. Ultimately, the acknowledgement of our debt to the source of our being, which is found in water and the ocean's profundity, will make us all better stewards of our natural home and womb at the same time infuse each of us with a deep sense of our natural balance and well-being. Understanding the psychological phenomenon of the coastal area and its impact on the human spirit should make us even more constant partners in the dynamic of our coastal environment, stewards of its well-being not as guests but as participants in its process. I would ask all of you to think of how you personally participate in the coastal dynamic both professionally and personally. I would ask you to think how you encourage your family members to participate in the natural dynamics of coastal processes and in understanding and nurturing those processes. Many of you have written papers on the coastline. Don't forget to visit it with your family, to play in the sand with your children, to sing songs about the coast and remember the oral histories that track its evolution down through the ages. The mind is a limitless phenomenon. Our mind and spirit are available to us for healing, inspiration and hope as long as we nurture them in communion with their source, which is found in the natural environment, particularly the waters of earth. The ocean opens up to us from the shore where our feet touch the ground and gives us the space to soar and to heal. Suggested References: Gatherings, Journal of the International Community for Ecopsychology. Good source for photography, essays, ideas for "gathering" with nature Rosenblatt, Roger, Big Sur, Sept. 28, 1998, Call of the Sea Part I: Oceans and Coastal Areas, Heroes Gallery: Sylvia Earle, Time.com Rush, Alison, 1997, A Presence that Disturbs: Psychoanalysis and Conservation; The Ecopsychology Institute Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit, London, Sept 2004; Workshop on Theta Oscillations on the Brain: Neural Mechanisms and Functions