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Returning the Self to Nature

Jeanine M. Canty, S1 Episode 2

Clinical narcissism is a psychological condition which stems from a lack of self-confidence, compensated by an overinflated ego. Collective narcissism expands this idea, arguing that our collective anxiety is rooted in a pervasive, societal narcissism, fostered by the Western capitalist notion of survival through individualist consumption. The alternative is reconnection, remembering that we are a part of the natural world.

Jeanine Canty is a professor in the transformative studies doctoral program at the California Institute for Integral Studies (CIIS) and author of Returning the Self to Nature: Undoing our collective narcissism and healing the planet. Her edited volumes include Ecological and Social Healing: Multicultural Women’s Voices and Globalism and Localisation: Emergent Approaches to Ecological and Social Crises.

Full transcript of the conversation between Jeanine Canty and our Authors on Climate Words host and Climate Books Coordinator, Rebecca Gerny, recorded on June 22, 2023.

            Rebecca: Hi Jeanine! Thanks for joining me! How did you come to be doing the work that you do? What draws you to this specific work?

            Jeanine: I'm a professor at CIIS (California Institute of Integral Studies) in San Francisco, but I telecommute from Boulder, Colorado. I always have to acknowledge that it's the lands of the Arapaho, Ute, and Cheyenne peoples and just a beautiful place. I was drawn to this work, particularly with ecopsychology which I felt had a bigger container for looking at how our disconnection from nature has really disrupted our natural ways of being. You can name almost any complex in our current society and route back to our disconnection from nature and Western civilisation.

            Rebecca: So you dig into that a lot in your book, Returning the Self to Nature: Undoing our Collective Narcissism and Healing the Planet. At Climate Words we’re really focused on words and definitions and how they're used in practice. I thought we might begin by talking about that term collective narcissism. Could you define that for our listeners and share when you first found that we needed this idea?

            Jeanine: I started looking at narcissistic personality disorder and found that it is always looked on as a personal piece where someone is so self consumed, arrogant as a means of safety and protection, but it comes across as really dangerous to themselves and others. I noticed that with individual narcissism, we don't bring the personal into the political, which is so much of ecopsychology. A lot of wisdom traditions really hold that if one person is suffering from a pathology, it's not about them. It's actually about the larger community, the larger society.

What we're seeing is collectively so many folks becoming self consumed that we're no longer able to be compassionate and service to others. We have such little time to pay attention to what's happening within the planet, particularly the ecological crisis, but any of the issues that we're facing in these times. It's kind of a way of protection or numbing out from the realities.

Western civilisation and corporate global civilisation encourage us to be self-consumed, because when we do that we don't care about these issues and we're also really good consumers because we're constantly buying things to prop up our notions of self.

            Rebecca: What characterizes our society of collective narcissism? You spoke in the beginning about this kind of distinct separation that we feel as humans, separate from our ecosystems, our environments, and our communities. How does that happen?

            Jeanine: Yes, let's unpack that so we have even ground to work with. With narcissistic personality disorder, there's traits and general patterns. The most prevalent pattern within that is having this grandiose sense of self and at same time having really low empathy for other people. (We’re all narcissists to a certain extent. There's folks that talk about a scale—so we want to be somewhere in the middle. Someone with narcissistic personality disorder or extreme narcissism is like a ten instead of a five, where we’d like to be. We don't want to be a one because then we'd have no ego.)

A narcissist also has no sense of shamelessness—they believe that they're never the problem. But ironically, they have a very fragile ego. Even though they're so boastful and arrogant, it's just a protection for deep rooted insecurity. They also have a really high hypersensitivity to critique. If you say something, give some constructive feedback to a narcissist, they do not want it. The last trait is always needing to feel special.

Going back to the fragile ego, there is a whole piece with a narcissistic personality disorder that goes back to object relations theory, or what many people now refer more to attachment theory. Usually in their early childhood years the narcissist had real damaged trust in their primary caregivers and in general in the world.

So applying that to collective narcissism, I really looked at that primary caregiver. In ecopsychology, we often think of Mother Earth as our primary parent with the basis that we have disconnected from Mother Earth. We really stop being able to connect with nature and all sentient beings. In collective narcissism, instead of Mother Earth being our parent, we replaced that with a global corporate parent, where our allegiance is truly to corporations, the mainstream society, and the consumer world.

We have a narrative in the U.S. that we're number one and we’re the best country in the world. We have this deep sense of arrogance coupled with this notion of fierce individuality and fierce independence. It's always about the person rather than the collective. Underlining that there is a deep belief of economic consumerism, that we can always grow our GDP, that where the more money you make, the better you are. So we have this grandiose sense of self that's perpetuated by the means and culture that we are situated in. With this, we tend to have a very low empathy for others because we're trained to just always think about our own needs. Underneath that we have these really fragile egos because we never had the deep intact relationships with nature as part of our rites of passage, our birthright. So we feel this sense of loneliness, this sense that something's missing, this sense of disconnection. We see that so much with the chaos we're seeing in these times—the deep depression, addictions.

            Rebecca: So before we get to the ways in which you offer we might heal from our collective narcissism, I wanted to kind of just dig into the sense of self that is so related to narcissism. You spend a lot of time in the book talking about different physiological and psychological concepts of the self. I was wondering if we could just maybe explore some of those, maybe starting with that false self of the narcissist and then moving to these other more, what you refer to as transpersonal self and interdependent other self.

            Jeanine: I'm a word lover and I geek out on all these different notions of self. The false self is really created by damaged trust with the primary caregiver. When we move it into an ecopsychology realm, it's the damaged trust from not co-evolving with and being in intact relationships with nature. There's people like Richard Louv who talks about nature attention deficit disorder and how most kids today don't spend enough time outside and in ecological systems.

When talking about damaged trust, I always bring up the author and psychotherapist Chellis Glendinning, and she's got this book, My Name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilisation. She has two really important concepts from my view. One is the original trauma, the moment that we separated from nature. She also talks about what is our inherent, intact relationship with nature. What does that look like? That's the primal matrix; that's what we're trying to move back towards which has three dimensions. One is having trust and belonging and the world—really being at home in our bodies and being at home in our home, in nature. In a lot of ways, it's recognising that we're all food in some form and we're all going to perish and die. But life is a precious gift, so let's inhabit it and stop spending all our time worrying about aging and death and sickness. Part of this is also having a unique purpose in life. In a consumer reality, where our life is our career and it's about status and money. Wisdom traditions talk about how we're born into this world with a gift to offer and also many gifts to receive which don't necessarily translate with a bigger pay check. And it's the role of the community to help each individual let this special purpose arise. The last part of that primal matrix is having non-ordinary states of awareness. These are just really about things in life that make us feel like, “wow!” Really small, precious moments like witnessing a monsoon or seeing a rainbow. I always like to say having the perfect cup of tea with just a drop of honey in it. Seeing a flower that just opened or seeing a beautiful bird singing outside. There's an infinite number of these and we can, in every moment, truly experience one.

Damaged trust doesn't doesn't allow for those things because we're in a very fearful, hurtful place. Our hearts, minds and worldviews are really closed. We've overextended our ego and a lot of our thinking capacities as our main lenses rather than our full somatic, relational, feeling, transpersonal, and spiritual selves, which have been numbed out.

Moving forward into a healthy path, the ecological self is a central concept in both ecopsychology and deep ecology, coined by Arne Nass, the Norwegian environmental philosopher. Beloved Joanna Macy calls it the greening of the self. So Arne Nass talks about it as the process of self-realisation, where we can go beyond our thinking-head to inhabit our full bodies. Then we begin to realize that our boundaries of self are actually beyond our bodies. Then we actually can start having relations with nature. At first it may be something small like there's a squirrel that always comes to your window, or in your yard, or on your stoop, and you talk to the squirrel. Or there's a special tree that you walk by every day, or a body of water, or particular birds, and you start realising that you are affectionate and may love this being and maybe this being even loves you. You realise that your wellness is bound up with one another. Then you might start seeing that it's not just the squirrel—I actually love this body of wateror this pathway or the sunset every night. Realising I actually love the natural world and I am a co-habitant of place.

When we start developing our ecological selves, we really start opening ourselves up and we get out of this Oh, it's all about me because we're thinking about home and place. When we really get into it, we start learning about the history of where we live. Like, what is this? What's the history of this land? And also what's the bioregional history? What's the local ecology? How did these mountains form? Then we actually can get even deeper and start listening to land and not only the seen, material assets, but that the earth is sentient and places have messages and wisdom to share with us. As environmentalists this is really key because often we're like, we're humans and we're going to solve everything. Yet we have allies that have so much more wisdom than we could even comprehend.

Within social justice work we talk about the multicultural self, coined by Carl Anthony. Similar to the ecological self, when we learn the stories of people around us and people that are strange to us, with different positionalities, qualities, political beliefs, physical abilities, and sexual identities and all different spectrums, we actually realize that we can at first step into someone else's shoes and understand where they're coming from. Eventually we realize that who we thought we are has changed because we have this new kind of superpower.

So as we expand on that ecological self and the multicultural self, in transpersonal psychology, and particularly the work of Carl Jung, there's the concept of the Self. It's really tapping into both the seen and unseen world and the collective consciousness and the collective unconsciousness. When we realize that everything is fueled by living energy that is not human driven. It includes us but it transcends us. And it's mysterious and it's wise and it's beautiful. We have the ability to be in harmony with this kind of force, but it means surrendering our ego selves and opening up to something greater. When we actually develop this skilfulness to do this we get guidance and help and creativity—the sky's the limit!

            Rebecca: I was really struck by your reading of the metaphor of Narcissus in the book, and I'm sure our listeners know the story, but Narcissus gets cursed to stare at his own reflection in the water. You propose that if only he could have seen the water and seen the reflective beauty of the natural world right there in front of him, that perhaps he might have been freed from that curse. I'm wondering if you could just talk a little bit about how we might heal from our collective narcissism and the role of spending time in nature and connecting with that self.

            Jeanine: That metaphor—the story of Narcissus—it's such a powerful one. In the book, and in my teaching, and in life, I always have to remind myself that everyone has a different path of healing and it's a process. So there's not really a cookie cutter solution, but I do propose, and in partnership with so many wisdom holders, that there are patterns. First, is what many people would call waking up to what's happening in the world right now. In the book I talk about the unraveling and that's recognizing that we have this ecological crisis, that we have this human-centric crisis and they're totally connected.

A big part of all of this healing is, especially once we come to this recognition that there's a problem, so many different emotions will surface. Folks like Joanna Macy and Pema Chödrön and Miriam Greenspan bring the value of attending to our emotions. In Western culture particularly, we're taught to keep those in the closet, keep those in our private spaces and maybe don't even experience our emotions. So much of the work of psychotherapy and different healing modalities is being able to first identify, “Oh, I'm having an emotion. What's it called and what does it feel like?” Once we can actually stop fearing our emotions and actually feel them, allow them to permeate our bodies and express them to others—that's a huge piece.

I also talk a little about the importance of actually loving who we are. The narcissist has a real fragile ego because they have been taught that they're not good enough and they create this false self to be good enough. But what if we actually just took our true inventory of who we are and we started to love ourselves for who we are, not for who we think we need to be? That's another huge process. A lot of my work is through practices of mindfulness, contemplative education, definitely within Buddhist practice as well, being able to attend to the present and to quiet our minds and become embodied, to become present.

The ecological and multicultural selves are also incredibly strong practices. We need to remember how to be compassionate to other people and come towards others with open hearts, not just people who reflect the values that we hold, but remembering that everyone has a story and everyone deserves love.

When I talked about that transpersonal self, I think that's actually the biggest key to all of this. That is that opening to grace. Remembering that there is a kind of sacred and mysterious living force behind everything. It's something that we all have access to and we're all part of. We don't have to wrestle to answers and actions through human thinking, that there's much more sacredness behind all of this.

            Rebecca: I’m curious, I think a large conversation in the climate movement is about individual action versus collective action. I was really compelled by your idea that our individual self is deeply connected to the health of the planet. You write that “awakening to our more authentic selves assists in our personal and collective planetary healing.” I'm curious if you could expand on this tension of the work that we have to do as individuals and then the work that we might do in community as well?

            Jeanine: Yes, they're such mirrors. I remember when I was in my late teens in college, I took a class that combined ecology, religion and feminism. I was introduced to the phrase the personal is the political that came out of the women's rights movement and it really clicked for me. Often we think of politics as these stuffy white men in some old building making decisions rather than, that actually every action that we do has political ramifications.

Often it can be overwhelming to think that we need to jump out into climate justice marches to make a difference, when we can do so many things on the personal level. We need to straddle the personal and the familial and the community and the larger political systems, at least being awake and alert to what's going on. Sometimes it's the smallest things that we can do, such as feeling our emotions, grounding in our body, unpacking our own stories of trauma and really starting to level up our intrapersonal skills and our skills of healing and engaging in our communities, both human and non-human.

There's really an infinite number of actions that we can do. Its like an exercise regime. At some point we don't even remember that we're putting in effort because it's a way of life. We can do that with all of these positive ecological behaviours, including compassion. There's just infinite qualities that we can be building all the time.

            Rebecca: Switching gears a little bit, I'd love to hear about your writing and creative process. When did you decide to write a book and how do you go about approaching that process?

            Jeanine: That's such a good question. For me, I don't think I'm a typical academic in terms of being in my head and feeling like I need to write really complex ideas. I tend to have something going on in my personal realm that mirrors the collective in some way and just sparks some big question for me.

One of the areas that I teach in is transformative learning and it really looks at how adults shift their worldviews. One of the keys to that is having a disorienting dilemma. I love that word, by the way. It's when you have some experience that just rocks your worldview. You can either repackage the experience to make it fit your current worldview, or you can choose to lean into and see some of our assumptions may be faulty. So I usually have some sort of disorienting dilemma and I just do a really long incubation period of holding the question and then finding answers. I do lots of research and reading, but also talking to other folks and paying attention to my dreams and all sorts of maybe nontraditional forms. I take lots of notes and I hopefully have some flashes of insight. As I'm doing all my practices too, the help from the transpersonal usually comes in a little bit. Sometimes I read my work and I'm like, Oh, like who wrote this? This is pretty good.

Voice is a big piece for me because I identify as multicultural, primarily as Black or African-American, but always feeling like I didn't belong in the spaces that I was in. My parents integrated all white neighbourhoods during my childhood and then you know we went to more multicultural spaces. But there was always a feeling of separateness. I noticed the collective suffering of the world and it really just pulled on my heart. So as I started finding words and patterns for all this in my own scholarship and hearing stories, primarily from elders, I really connected with it and then I was able to find my own voice.

After I completed a B.A., I decided after a while that I didn't want to be in the mainstream work economy. So I did a masters in cultural ecopsychology and then had the opportunity to do a PhD in transformative learning. Those are so writing intensive, so I had all of this kind of writing and those muscles were strong. For me it's always been a nerdy endeavour where I've got a lot of passion and creativity and then some solid concepts to work with, but then kind of curating all of these ideas together.

A lot of my students know this, I have a really nerdy ritual. Have you ever seen the movie The Breakfast Club? There's this point in the movie where Anthony Michael Hall writes a letter to the principal and no one else reads it. No one else is there. He just pats himself on the back. That's my ritual. When I finally finish an article or something, I'm usually just alone at my desk and when it feels complete I make sure that I pat myself on the back.

            Rebecca: I'm also curious if there are places and spaces that inspire you in your work, whether fictional or imagined or real or urban or natural.

            Jeanine: I actually chose my undergraduate university, Colgate University, because of the landscapes. I used to visit there when I was really young and I fell in love with forests and lakes. I’m definitely that type of person that likes to dwell on the edge of the forests and I love getting into bodies of water. Water is so inspirational. All the beings—it's unfathomable how many beings are in water with you, on you and in you.

I love walking in forests. I lived in Arizona for quite a while in high mountain desert areas and have done a lot of river rafting through the canyons. I lived in the foothills of Boulder for 15 years in between two canyons. I just recently moved into Boulder proper, which I thought was going to be so traumatic because I was no longer at the edge of the woods. But I am an avid biker and Boulder has the most wonderful bike system, bike trails, bike paths. It is just such a lovely way to get around. And then gardens, I always have a garden going.

At one point I thought that all my inspiration came from my direct home. I think I am becoming more fluid, recognizing that I've got enough connection lexicons with the natural world, I can make friends wherever if I’m respectful.

            Rebecca: So we've spent a lot of time talking about the words that you use in your book and in your writing. So in closing, this is something we like to ask everyone, is there a word in your personal life or a word that you've been thinking about a lot lately that inspires you or is important to you that you'd like to close with?

            Jeanine: Yeah. This just popped up—I love the word chthonic. It's part of a research methodology I use called organic inquiry. It's when you plant a seed and prepare the soil and you plant the seed and cover it up. And then you wait. So there's this gestation period and the chthonic is when those roots sprout out of that seed and you know something's happening, but the plant hasn't really yet emerged above ground. If you're a seed you’re just stewing with your roots and you know something is coming but you're not really sure what's happening. So I think as a collective right now, we're in the catatonic, well hopefully we’re planting some seeds.

I feel I’m in a chthonic place with my own research. I have some inklings and some things that are happening. I'm not sure what exactly is emerging, but I'm in the process and in the dark and waiting and it's like a groovy place to be too.