Identity angst appears to be increasing in western, and westernized, culture. We have lost our way as a species and fail to deeply understand who we are as humans in relationship to that from which we emerged, Earth. Less and less individuals feel firmly rooted in authenticity, both as unique individuals and as human beings living on Earth. I see this, for example, in many of my college students, who are, in my opinion, in a difficult conundrum to say the least. The academic system requires students to discover a vocation to study, to commit to it, and go into enormous debt in its pursuit, all before the they have a deep sense of who they are and what they love. Why are more people feeling disconnected and lost? It has more to do with maturity than chronological age; thus identity confusion does not discriminate and is felt by a variety of ages given the immaturity of western culture. Traveling the path of maturity in an immature culture can feel like swimming upstream. And although the journey can be wrought with equal amounts of trepidation and allurement, a life path resonate with one’s soul gives us an enormous gift: a death ending in celebration and preparedness rather than one of regrets and desperation.
Both young and old people struggle to accurately know themselves in the absence of wandering away from the village of normalcy, especially in wild and non-human places. By normalcy, I am referring to the typical social conventions influencing worldview and social acceptance. Within this context lies the age old tension between authenticity and social belonging. We often choose social acceptance over authenticity during our immature years; however, if we are fortunate, our psychological seasons turn, opening up the opposite opportunity, choosing authenticity over social acceptance. All healthy cultures have known throughout human history that young people must be offered the opportunity to wander beyond their psycho-social boundaries to have new life experiences. Such exposure is different from what we are used to, catalyzing initiatory processes that have the ability to triangulate our authentic position among our people, the world, and our multifaceted selves.
Taking steps towards the interface between our known world and beyond exposes us to the many parts of ourselves who make themselves known during novel experiences. One of the first steps to this process, I believe, is to acknowledge that our psyches are home to more than one persona. Most of us would adamantly defend that we represent a single identity, and that may be so; but that identity is a conglomerate of its various parts and is not always consistent–as different parts unexpectedly grab the steering wheel of our lives, hijacking our identities. Indeed, it seems humans harbor many different parts to our psyches, manifesting themselves in different circumstances of our lives. Have you ever acted out of the ordinary in a strong reactionary way, much to your misunderstanding? Or perhaps you may have noticed that you act differently around different social circumstances. Similarly, many people notice what they love to do, but do not attribute that insight to a part in their psyche. Adding some context to how we know ourselves through identifying parts of our psyche can help constellate the precision of our self awareness and even expose parts that have gone unnoticed. Taking the time to understand the parts of ourselves is worth its weight in gold regarding deep self discovery. It informs us as to what our gifts are in addition to our shortcomings and become a map to our inner terrain.
Mainstream psychology seems to be hyper-focused on human shortcomings through universal pathologies, recorded in the Diagnostic Statistical Manuel (DSM). While this can be useful in some ways, it is a strong possibility that this is an incomplete approach, focusing only on half of the components for any given person. We need educational models that aim to illuminate universal aspects of wholeness, facets, and inner resources of the human psyche to help identify what humans may draw upon in themselves in times of hardship and transition. I agree with Dr. Bill Plotkin, that humans have, to varying degrees, access to universal inner resources (parts) that can be drawn upon for self healing and whole-ing.
Allow me to be clear about what I mean by healing and whole-ing. Healing is the processing of subpersonalities, or immature parts, and their subsequent emotions. In other words, healing is the tending of psychological defense mechanisms, created early in life to help keep us safe and are now keeping us living a small life. They emerge in our lives as inner critics, victims, orphans, tyrants, escapists, addicts, and shadowy projections bubbling up from the unconscious. Often these subpersonalities have unfinished emotional processing that need attention. Left to their own devices, they are happy running our lives, keeping us living small, under the assumption that we need protection from being wounded any further. At times it is a good idea to keep these parts employed as high ranking CEO’s of our identity; at other times, their way of going about business is self sabotaging and undermining of our greater self. In order to initiate healing, we need access to our whole self.
Whole-ing is the process of retrieving inner facets and resources (mature parts) that we were born with. By cultivating and enlivening these aspects of our wholeness we can tap into the psychological resiliency necessary for the path towards awareness and embodiment of our authenticity and our innate humanity. One of my mentors, Dr. Bill Plotkin (2013) identifies four main categories of inner resources in his book Wild Mind: Generative/Nurturing Adult, Innocent/Sage, Wild/Indigenous, and Muse/Beloved. Cultivating each of these is partaking in the process of whole-ness and is necessary in psychological maturation.
Human psyches have sprouted out of the Earth’s field of psyche–yes, I assume, humans are not the only beings that swim in that field. It is not ridiculous, once honoring this connection, that, while our healing may be uniquely human, our facets of wholeness can be found beyond the human realm. Plotkin goes further to suggest that these inner psychological resources are mirrored back to us in the non-human world. In my own graduate dissertation, I muse about unintended benefits of outdoor education regarding the garnering of inner resources simply from connecting to the non-human world in a deeper way than typical mainstream western culture. Concomitantly, I believe that self whole-ing can be more readily achieved through specific nature-based practices that aim towards their cultivation. All four categories of inner resources (Generative/Nurturing Adult, Innocent/Sage, Wild/Indigenous, and Muse/Beloved) can be observed in the natural world as part of its amazingly balanced and resilient life system. Seeking out examples of these facets and spending time with them in wild places is a effective way of finding them in our own life system.
People have intentionally separated themselves from human-centered cultures towards the realm of the nonhuman world throughout history to “find” themselves. The nonhuman world places us in a more-than-human field of psyche where we can pause and eddy out from our mainstream identity that is often heavily supported in the human realm. Space is created to reflect, emote, and integrate at the place where our psycho-social identities lap up against the shores of humanity, elicited through contact with the more-than-human world. Here we can put down our baggage and engage with ourselves and the world more deeply. The inner resources of our psyche are mirrored in the playful vitality of wild beings, the innocence of life and death, the creative process of the emerging world, and the life sustaining nurturance of Earth herself. Additionally, this space is a strong container for whatever emotions we may pour forth. Wild places can hold all we have to express through feeling, imagination, sensing, and thought, regardless of maturity, if we are willing to surrender to it. The nonhuman world can be an amazing ally in befriending all parts of our selves; and in tending to our parts we have the opportunity to move forward along our life path, with the freedom to choose what parts we want to be leading us in service to our deeper selves.
Cultivating our whole-ness and tending to our healing within the nonhuman world is a practice in human maturation both individually and collectively. Simultaneously, we associate deep nature connection with our personal development thereby tending to one of the other great tragedies of the western culture, nature-disconnection. Alan Watts (1966) reminds us that, “we do not come into this world, we come out of it, like leaves from a tree”. It is in this perspective that we would do well as a disconnected people to return to the more-than-human world to tend to our wild deep self discovery as a gift to both our souls, our people, and the Earth community.
Plotkin, Bill. (2013). Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Psyche. New World Library, Navato, CA.
Watts, Alan. (1966). The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Random House, New York, NY.