Healing ourselves, healing the earth

In Insight and Experience by Phoenix ArrienLeave a Comment

The earth can help us in ways we can hardly imagine…so why don’t we just head into the bush and, well, start healing?


I am sitting with Big Bill Neidge (now passed on) outside his house in Kakadu in the Northern Territory. Big Bill is speaking of his land and his life, a life connected to the wild country in which he was born, the traditions of the Bunitj clan to which he belongs, and a culture ancient and threatened.

“Do you like my country?” I am startled, not expecting the question. I think of the magnificent towering escarpment bordering Kakadu. I think of the emerald greens of the wetlands and the wildlife and the orange sunsets firing across aquamarine skies.

“I love it. It’s beautiful.”He nods, looking at me. I feel a strange but not uncomfortable sense of falling into those eyes of dark brown with red around the pupils. The face is criss-crossed with creases and the black skin shines with sweat.

I shift uneasily under this scrutiny. Then, I am taking a deep breath…

…and the land is suddenly alive and I am existing in a very different yet oddly familiar space.

And so began my initiations into the indigenous way of perceiving the world around me. This developed into something I know call Healing Ecology, based on indigenous and shamanic viewpoints along with the research going into how we can heal the earth and the earth can heal us.

There is plenty of research into how we can give and receive healing with nature and the earth, including Dr Masaru Emoto’s research into how different water crystals look before and after they have been prayed over; and the positive research into ‘earthing’–connecting with the Earth’s permanent, natural, and subtle electric currents and fields–but here I want to be personal with you because there is nothing more powerful than lived experience.

A client, ‘Mary’, found herself in a psychiatric hospital deep in extreme despair and suicidal. One afternoon she decided to end her life and started running towards a busy road with the full intention of throwing herself in front of a truck. ‘Something’ she remembers, ‘tripped’ her and she found herself flat on the earth with strangely reassuring figures surrounding her.

“They seemed to rise from the earth”, Mary recalls. “All I could do was surrender to the earth, make a choice to live or die and be reassured by these earth spirits that I was meant to live.”

Traditional medicine men and women of indigenous cultures have known for thousands of years that the earth has powerful healing spirits, and that the role of the healer is to put people in touch with those energies. We in the West have forgotten this and often connect with the earth only during crisis or by chance.

As Mary experienced –and Susan whom we will see later –the earth can help us in ways we can hardly imagine…so why don’t we just head into the bush and, well, be healed?

Perhaps it is because we have lost sight of our connection with the earth and truly being part of her. Along with identifying with the illusion of separation with the earth and the natural world, we go into nature taking our idea of separateness with us. So a trip into the ‘bush’ can be a nice enough outing and we may feel a little better temporarily but we still feel separate.

The stones and cliffs, the trees and grasses, the kangaroos and geese; the earth murmuring and breathing, everything connected by contours. Everyone’s outlines move into sharp relief like metal engravings, all the contours of each animal running into other beings, other contours within contours. It–suddenly–all–breathtakingly–makes–sense…at a profound and fundamentally deep level.

I breathe and breathe, getting a glimpse of a deep connection and participation with Country. Breath motivates and moves. Land and life depends on my breath as much as I depend on it. The stones and cliffs, the trees and grasses, the birds and dingoes.

Often if we try feeling a part of nature it simply seems an intellectual concept or that we are forcing an experience that’s not real. Our lives are so filled with stories of separation producing a desperation to fill up the emptiness with consumption, stuff, addictions and people that embodying true nature connection eludes us.

Such stories of separation have a huge cost. On a personal level it can lead to an emptiness in the soul and a deep hunger that we try to fill in all sorts of ways that make it worse. On a community level we are isolated, finding it hard to find fulfilment relating with others. On a global level, a life-threatening separation has developed where we can’t see nature’s needs symbiotically linked to our own–as climate change, species extinction and pollution proves.

I am part of the wind and the energies. I hear the earth murmuring and breathing. I breathe with it –mighty timeless breaths with all life and all time and space.

The crocodile snaps, the water bird struts, the eagle screams and dives. The wonder of nature breaks through a turtle shell with baby crying life, the wallaby blends softly into paintings carved by wind.

Breathing with the trees

Trees absorb carbon and release oxygen; humans breathe in oxygen and release carbon. Thus, in simple terms, this can be viewed as a symbiotic relationship. This exercise can be done anywhere there is a tree.

1.  Stand in front of the tree, close your eyes and feel the earth under your feet

2.  As you breathe in, imagine breathing in the oxygen released from that tree

3.  Then as you breathe out, imagine the carbon you release being absorbed by that tree

4.  Repeat as many times as you like and watch how your awareness of the tree and yourself changes.

Many shamans or medicine people of ancient cultures understood that we have to ‘get out of our own way’ to heal, experience or understand something which our limited minds can’t grasp or allow to occur ‘out of our own control’, but often we are so conditioned to be in control that letting go and getting out of our own way long enough to allow real connection and healing to occur may require a big incentive or even crisis.

The high escarpment is the giant vertebrae of the land, an ancient mighty backbone sending signals to the rest. The mosaic of existence plays in and out with no apologies, the intensity of life shimmers into brilliant colours. I feel my part in the awe-inspiring grandeur of nature, and know with crystal-clear clarity as I breathe along with everything else, that if we rip up the land we rip up ourselves and all other life.

‘Susan’ struggled with a chronic debilitating medical condition for years until she was told that parts of her internal anatomy and several organs would need to be removed to save her. With little to lose she threw herself to the mercy of the earth. “I went to live in the forest and re-found the rhythms that I had never known, yet somewhere were already in me. I opened myself to the earth, trees, plants, animals, seasons, moon and my emotions and let nature know everything. Everything! I am not holding back on anything as I heal.”She pauses, “and I am now healing.”

Now we all have similar incentives even if we don’t directly feel it, and more of us are feeling something is terribly wrong as our lives fall further into confusion and isolation and the earth teeters on a crisis of being unable to support life. Radical and urgent internal and external healing needs to take place, and if we take the view that our bodies are part of the earth then, if we heal, we heal the earth.

Active healing of the earth can take many forms including direct action, protest, prayer, energy work and regeneration. The basic principle that I have found is that we need to let go of the cultural conditioning of seeing nature as separate. It is part of us and we are part of it.

Mary’s psychiatrist at the hospital was surprised that she recovered without intervention including shock treatment or drugs. Perhaps it is time to follow a more expanded view of healing and wholeness that can involve the earth–and we become involved with her.

The altered state recedes –how long was I in it –I twitch and blink as if waking from a dream. Big Bill is watching me and resumes speaking. Each cliff and each sacred site holds it own story. He knows the dreamtime tales of the animals that scuttle and scamper within the forests and floodplains. The stories teach his people how to survive in the cornerstone of their spiritual and physical existence, a land they have occupied for thousands of years. A long time to tune into country.

Next time you go outside, I invite you to take the opportunity to breathe with the land, to imagine that everything is connected. To imagine that you can heal the earth in some way and that it can heal you. The change that the world needs…begins with us.


Phoenix Arrien has a deep interest in indigenous healing and culture and feels fortunate to have sat, and still sits, at the feet of several elders who have been generous with their sharing and teachings. She is a shamanic healer, an experienced facilitator of healing and transformation workshops and deep ecology and healing ecology retreats.

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