Discovering the Ingredients of Environmental Arts Therapy.
by William Secretan
Environmental Arts Therapy (EAT) is an alchemical marriage. Not only is it a unique amalgamation of arts therapies and applied eco-psychology, it is also a meeting point between the very physical realities of natural materials, locations and cycles and the metaphysical world of personal, and transpersonal, symbolic realities. The theory underpinning the practice of EAT is a water drawn from many deep wells, and it is the marriage of these multifarious elements, contained within the structures of ritual, story and the turning wheel of the seasons, which make it a unique and exciting approach to therapy.
EAT is a synergy, and could be described like the story of the goddess Ceridwen’s magic cauldron. It is an interlacing of ingredients that, once mixed, combined and entwined, produces a total effect that is far greater than the sum of the individual parts. According to the story, Ceridwen's son, Morfran, was as hideous on the inside as he was ugly on the outside. So, by way of compensation, Ceridwen set out to endow him with divine knowledge. She created a magical potion in her cauldron that would grant her son the power of ‘Awen’, - the gift of sacred wisdom and poetic inspiration. Through four seasons the cauldron had to be fired and so, for a year and a day, she set an old, blind, man, Morda, to feed the fire beneath the vessel, while a poor and neglected child, Gwion Bach, laboured over the concoction, stirring and stirring. The spell was cast so that the first three drops of liquid from the potion gave wisdom, while the rest was a deadly poison. The neglected child, Gwion Bach, grew so weary while stirring the hot cauldron that, one day, towards the end of the four seasons, his arm slipped and three hot drops splashed onto Gwion's thumb, burning his skin. He instinctively put his fingers in his mouth, and instantly gained all the wisdom and knowledge that Ceridwen had intended for her son (Guest 2014).
The role of the Environmental Arts Therapist has both active and passive qualities. Like the blind old man, Morda, EAT therapists create the right conditions for alchemical transmutation (Siddons Heginworth 2009). Morda does not presume to be the custodian of wisdom or healing, but he carries the wood, fetches the water, tends the fire and always endeavours to apply the right level of heat. This is what Egan (2013) calls ‘the skilled helper’, and so EAT finds itself at home amongst the humanistic traditions of psychotherapy, clearly employing aspects of person-centred and psychodynamic thinking. Morda’s role in the story goes barely noticed and, like the quiet, supportive therapist, this is as it should be. It is Gwion Bach who is, perhaps, the EAT client, and whose task it is to toil with the churning pot of sacred wisdom and poetic inspiration. It is Gwion, who must ultimately drink from the cauldron - burnt as he is in doing so. It is he who must then grapple with the figures of his oppression and ultimately find a way to transform himself.
Like Boal’s (2008) model of theatre for social and political change, Theatre of the Oppressed, EAT is a model of therapy that seeks to unseat the internal oppressors of the client’s subjective reality. In drama, Boal (2008: pp. 73-74) writes, we are shown "the external collisions of forces originating internally - the objective conflict of subjective forces". EAT focuses particularly on the process of enabling the client to not only unseat the, often parental, figures of oppression, but to also lift up the inner child to a place of nurturing love and safety. In the story we see Ceridwen, the mother, trying to save her son, Morfran, from his own monstrous nature. There is no explanation as to why he is this way and we, as readers, are therefore left to wonder how responsible Ceridwen is for his damaged nature. Likewise, we are confronted by the image of Gwion, a child victim of neglect. The inner child, Siddons Heginworth (2009: p.13) tells us, "is the authentic feeling centre, this archetypal totem of freedom, wildness, love innocence and renewal that we sacrifice over and over again". By allowing us to meet with both Ceridwen and Gwion, EAT does not foster an illusion of giving us back our lost childhood, but as Miller (1997) describes, the therapeutic process does allow us to return to our feeling self, at an adult level, wherein we can mourn and regain our vitality.
As we journey into the therapeutic space we enact a ritual in which a threshold is crossed. Passing through a symbolic gateway immediately demarcates the space between normal reality and the liminal place where everything can become a thing of symbolic significance (Hougham 2006). Gwion’s journey, like EAT, is anchored in the cycle and symbols of the four seasons (Siddons Heginworth 2009). This seasonal process allows the client to encounter several natural themes, such as birth, death, love, loss, masculinity and femininity. The manner in which these themes are discovered is reflected in Ceridwen’s constant gathering of natural materials - all of which hold magical, and symbolic, potency. This parallels one of the active qualities of the EAT therapist, who throws into the pot story, folklore, and creative interaction with the environment. These elements are all added into the mix, while Morda, engages practically with the four core elements of fire, water, earth and air in his task of keeping the cauldron on the boil for a year and a day. Linden & Grut (2002: p.12) describe how, “using nature as a metaphor, it is possible very quickly to access deeply traumatic events and to work on the most difficult feelings, and the life cycle embodied in nature carries the promise of healing”. Jordan (2014) adds to the notion of working with the seasons in therapy, describing how the idea of the self, existing within a cycle of seasons, can emphasise the idea that our state of mind is not static. Jordan goes on to suggest that we are all capable of transcending our difficulties and in a constant state of change, from one season to the next.
Berger & McLeod (2006) describe nature as a sacred space for therapy to take place. With this description they link, what they call ‘nature therapy’, to shamanism and ritual, acknowledging that within nature not only has the ‘space’ of the therapy changed, but the qualitative feel of the therapy is different too - allowing for a shift from normal reality to something numinous. Through the use of art forms within therapy, such as movement, dance, drama and music, symbol is placed at the heart of the modality. I have, on occasion, felt the sense of ‘other’ in the dramatherapy studio, whether when making a button sculpt, moving with masks or creating a painting. However, while these creative tools are each powerful gateways to the unconscious, they are inanimate until placed in the client’s hands or my own. The forest moves of its own volition. Whatever it is that the client brings to an EAT session, these are rituals in which a third party, something ‘other’, is always present too. Berger & McLeod (2006: p.88) describe this as the “three-way relationship of client-therapist-nature”, acknowledging nature as a third party in the traditional client-therapist dyad.
As soon as liquid from the cauldron touched Gwion’s lips, he gained all of the potion’s wisdom and knew all that was to come. Knowing that Ceridwen would be furious, Gwion fled the scene and thus began a magical battle. Ceridwen chased him, but using the powers that he had gained from the potion he turned himself into a speedy hare, while Ceridwen transformed herself into a hungry greyhound. He then became a salmon and leapt into a river, while she became an otter and darted on after him through the watery torrents. Gwion turned into a sparrow; Ceridwen became a hawk. Finally, he turned into a single grain of corn and hid inside a barley store. She then became a hen and began pecking her way through the mountain of corn. Being a goddess, it was not a difficult task for Ceridwen to discover Gwion, who she quickly devoured. Yet, because of the deep magic of the potion, Gwion was not destroyed.
Siddons Heginworth (2009) describes how embarking on the journey into therapy demands of the client, and the therapist, to journey into the places of greatest resistance. Like the dance of Ceridwen the huntress and her vulnerable but evasive prey, Gwion Bach, the dance of therapist and client encounters vulnerability, resistance, risk and the constant threat of painful feelings and traumatic memories. This is far from easy and means engaging with danger at all times. EAT is a form of therapy that is far from being risk averse. This is a therapy that takes place outside the perceived safety of the clinician’s room, where risk assessments can only go so far. Clients may climb trees or do battle with brambles; they might rampage through the woods or send shrapnel flying as they beat the earth with the splintering limb of a fallen tree. Clients may also engage, physically with the therapist, in ‘play-fights’ and tussles. Dramatherapist, Read Johnson (2013), dismisses the notion of the ‘safe space’ and acknowledges that therapy is dangerous, and that the therapists’ pre-occupation with always creating a safe space is misplaced. Read Johnson suggests that within dramatherapy, and EAT by extension, we should not be interested in safety, we should be interested in risk and the acceptance and management of risk. Ross (2011) too discusses the danger of play, suggesting that as we suspend our disbelief, so too do we suspend the normal routines that protect us in our day-to- day lives. Ross points to Winnicott’s (1971: p. 107) description in Playing and Reality of the “danger area”, arguing that one of the key duties of the therapist is to manage the client’s necessary danger effectively so that they are able to be vulnerable. EAT contains strong elements of traditional ritual and rites of passage, where dangerous and physically arduous experiences were commonplace and initiates took risks with life and death (Van Gennep 1960).
Very soon after consuming the corn, Ceridwen discovered herself to be pregnant and she knew that she was carrying Gwion. The goddess resolved to kill the child as soon as he was born. However, when she saw him, he was so beautiful that she could not kill him. Instead, she sewed him up inside a leather-skin bag and cast the babe into the ocean. The child, still charmed, did not die, but was washed up on the shores of Wales and was rescued. The transformed Gwion Bach, now reborn, grew up to become the legendary Chief of Bards, Taliesin.
In the death of Gwion Bach we see his transformation come to completion. He descends into the belly of Ceridwen, the cosmic womb. The descent is an important image in ritual and mythology throughout the world (Bell 2009; Graves 1999). Whether in the Greek tale of Hades’ abduction of Persephone or the Mesopotamian story of the Descent of Ishtar, descent and ascension, as a symbol of transformation, is universal (Campbell 2012). Shaw (2012) uses the story of Dante’s Inferno as a metaphor for the therapeutic journey, in which the therapist, represented by Virgil, descends into hell with Dante. Shaw asserts that sometimes we must be willing to descend into the shadow with our clients, passing right over the devil’s back, before we can find reconciliation. The reconciliation of Ceridwen and Gwion comes when she looks upon the face of the newborn Taliesin. Ceridwen sees the babe in its most vulnerable state, and it is beautiful. “Just as the elder holds the child always at its heart so the child is born with the seed of the elder that they will become” (Siddons Heginworth 2009: p.19).
The cycle of this story, through life, death and rebirth; through the four seasons of a year and a day; through the images of oppression and liberation, ritual and spontaneity, demonstrate many of the ingredients in the cauldron of Environmental Arts Therapy. EAT draws on several sources for inspiration, in the arts, therapy and the natural world. By not only using myth as an aid to the therapeutic experience, but as a lens for understanding the processes of this method, we see this modality as more than simply an amalgamation of individual theories and techniques. EAT has, at the very core if its nature, an archetypal quality. EAT is a synergy in which cycles of myth and rites of passage come to life through the bridging of the ephemeral, internal, psychic world, and the very tangible, grounded experience of the wild, natural world. When we walk with both Ceridwen and Gwion, it is this bridge that we cross.
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