Weave Your Braid: Ecology and Mental Health
We are all weavers. Ecology and mental health both depend on this weave. They are integrated systems. The challenge comes when as humans we make a choice to mute or diminish our response-ability. When this muting becomes a habit, we choose compensatory behaviors. These behaviors come with a cost. People can get stuck in craving these replacements. They can become addictions.
Nature, in contrast, does not get stuck. There is rain after fire, there is decay after growth and then rebirth. Sky, wind, water and earth all course through our being. Nature gives you a texture and a voice, like a loom, to weave on. The mission in mental health is to restore peoples’ loom. To give them back their purpose and meaning and a sense of belonging.
One of the best ways to do this is with the outdoors. Of course, music, art, dance, intimacy, and a myriad of other textures are instruments as well. The common denominator is a sense of invitation and resiliency. Grass, birds, dappled light, and the cadence of your steps inform you. Peoples’ voices and laughter add to the recipe. Spirit and mystery are integral. And then when you break down, there is a place to land and enough vitality to support you.
Many people today are experiencing trauma and weariness. On the clinical side, many mental health hospitals teach patients how to stop sinking and float, but they don’t do a good job of teaching them how to swim, how to handle the rapids that inevitably come. Medication has its benefits, both short and long term. There are many positive modalities and nuances in medication management. At some point doctors and patients decide whether to stop the meds, reduce them or continue at their present level.
In this context, however, we cannot have a medicated society. We cannot settle for reducing the current on the river rather than becoming better paddlers. We cannot settle for the compensatory behaviors that are replacements for authentic need.
Let’s look at some of these compensatory behaviors. Getting drunk and wasted gets you out of your own will, but a better way to do this is with a vision quest as you come into adulthood. You fast for three days so that you can listen to Spirit infuse your life. Your will becomes secondary to the instructions you receive. However, we do not have enough rites of passage for young men and women and getting wasted becomes a sad substitute. Going to jail for repeated drunkenness is a further consequence.
Connection is an authentic human need. We need a sense of invitation. On the other end of the spectrum is dismissal and neglect. How many compensatory behaviors come out of the belief that humans were kicked out of the Garden? Excessive shopping and possessions to make you feel you worthy? Endless stimulation to make you feel alive? Getting kicked out is actually not the problem. The problem is the toxic shame that comes with it. People make mistakes. They have needs. Some shame is okay. Toxic shame, however, imprisons you. It keeps you from getting back into the garden. We cannot feel ashamed of having a body and having needs.
The reality is that we have a garden called earth. Humans have hands and are given the role of stewards. Life is a gift. In a park, you look across the panorama of cultures and ethnicities and feel there is room for everybody. Braided together over time, you find your place. You feel included.
The key is to restore this tactile sense of inclusion. A couple of proposals come to mind. What if we built outdoor classrooms at schools? A peaked roof, 18’x24, with picnic tables underneath and a drop-down for a projector? Somehow, we need to balance the engine of the alphabet. As much as I like to write, I realize that “living under the spell” is incomplete. Moreover, letters enhance a need to gather and consume. The alphabet is a consumption driver. Covid-19 is pushing us to remember what really matters. Where on the recipe card does the alphabet fit? We need to re-weave the braid. Being of sound mind comes first.
In addition, what if we took the shuttered Sears campus that we have here in Sacramento and removed 2/3 of the parking lot and repurposed the campus as a dormitory and agricultural hub? If we harness the principal of decay, we know that some businesses will close out and thus be sites for rebirth. Sacramento is building a soccer stadium and a new Kaiser hospital. Concomitantly, we can build gardens and green spaces out of old retail plots. There are plenty of abandoned parking lots across our whole country that could become gardens and green spaces.
Another compensatory behavior is the concept of ownership. Life is gifted, not owned. So why is ownership so compulsive? Yes, it’s that feeling of belonging. Why does a nice car matter more than walking barefoot on the ground? Why does clothing matter more than feeling the wind on your skin? Why does your lawn matter more than the woods of your heart? These are all notes in the song, but you have to know what portion to give them and how they relate to the other notes. The key is alignment. A nice car matters, but where does it belong on the scale?
Addictive behaviors hijack the recipe. They formulate a craving that is dysfunctional. In a culture that primarily teaches to go up and out we have to revere depth. Denying depth results in break downs. Let’s get to the bottom of things! When we have a well in addition to a stream, we have a quiet place to go to. There’s good water there. Celebrate your well.
In summary, too often we go to sleep on the stream of convenience and distraction. The confusion sets in and the harmony becomes alien. We are losing species at an alarming rate. Habitats are disappearing and global warming is advancing. Consumption is the driver. In response, teaching connection is essential. We have to get our filters back. Because when they’re too full of illusion, they don’t work. Is an ivory amulet worth an elephant’s life? Is a new pipeline worth the risk to a tribe’s drinking water? Is your need for busy-ness sacrificing your peace of mind?
Back to the loom. Pay attention. Parks and public space help you clean your filter. Intrinsically, you feel what matters. You feel it with your eyes, your feet, your voice and in someone’s smile. You are present in your body with Spirit. Portion, sequence and texture are revealed.
Parks reflect the thresholds for sustainability that govern people and their environments. Ecology depends on integrated systems. So do people. When you experience these thresholds directly, they become precious.
Our aboriginal elders gave us much wisdom. Be still. Dance. Go deep. Come together. Fly with the geese and be on the land.
Harry Eldredge has lived in northern California for over 30 years, seasoned by the ocean winds and hills. His background in ecology and comparative religion are foundational in his work as a substitute teacher, mental health counselor, and community advocate. He moved to Davis in 2021 from Sacramento and enjoys his walks in the open fields north of Covell.
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