Gaia and psyche: the spirit of place

By Denise Horton

Human beings are an expression of their landscape. – Lawrence Durrell

I live at the foot of Big Bastard Mountain in Rappahannock County. I have a deep love for the Blue Ridge, a connection so old and bone-deep that I have at times pressed my belly against its rocks, aching. A few years ago, I wrote a poem about Rappahannock, and the spirit that lives here:

Here in Rappahannock I belong to God.
I have no memories of the past; the future cannot claim me.
My ghosts keep a respectful distance.
Mystery calls me home.
My prayers mingle with the woodsmoke, and call as little attention to themselves.
Peace claims me, insistent as a scorned lover.
I surrender.
Here in Rappahannock I belong to God.

The Spirit of Place – the genus loci – is an ancient term that refers to the sacred power and deep spiritual connection that we feel in nature’s holy places. Awe-inspiring, breathtaking, spectacular – these describe scenery, but not spirit. And sacred places are all about spirit.

Although many are visually dramatic, the power of a sacred space derives from its essential connection to the ineffable, the unknowable, the Great Mystery. According to the late mythologist Joseph Campbell, “The idea of a sacred place . . . is apparently as old as life itself.” 

We are stirred by the names alone: Delphi, Stonehenge, Machu Pichu, Mecca, Lourdes, Jerusalem, the Black Hills, Joshua Tree, Mt. Sinai, the Ganges River, the Great Pyramids. They are the chakras of the earth, “a microcosm of the macrocosm,” the sacred energy centers that empower the buzzing, blooming life of all that inhabit the planet. As James Swan, a well-known eco-psychologist, says, ”We are drawn to them like ants to honey.”

The earth’s surface is dotted with sacred sites: springs, rivers, rock outcroppings, caves, mountains, valleys, deserts. According to the Hopi, these are “the spots on the fawn,” the earth’s places of light, creativity, healing and power. Drawn to these magical, magnetic sites, ancient religions erected shrines, performed rituals, conducted sacred ceremonies and celebrated seasonal agricultural festivals such as Solstice and Beltane. Kivas, temples and other religious structures were sited and designed to amplify the healing energy of the land, and an underlying “grid” of energy meridians called “ley lines” was thought to criss-cross the planet, connecting all sacred sites.

Sacred places have the ability to awaken in us an expanded psycho-spiritual consciousness, or what the Salish Indians call skalalitude. In this altered state of awareness, we may experience a reconnection to the earth which can give rise to powerful mystical experiences: visions, ecstatic peak experiences, unity with nature and the universe, shamanic shape-shifting and communication with other species, death-and-rebirth. Transpersonal experiences in nature can lead us into a healing process which will profoundly transform our psyche and our view of the world we inhabit.

We may find, according to Jungian analyst James Hillman, that “the bad place we are in may refer not only to a depressed mood or an anxious state of mind: it may refer to a sealed-up office tower where [we] work, a set-apart suburban subdivision where [we] sleep, the jammed freeway where [we] commute between the two.” 

In “Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind,” Lester R. Brown, former president of Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., claims that “eco-psychologists are drawing upon the ecological sciences to reexamine the human psyche as an integral part of the web of nature.” As we reconnect with nature, we reconnect with ourselves at a soul level . 

As I work with clients at riverbanks, in ancient graveyards and on pristine mountaintops, I find myself re-entering an ancient shamanic tradition, “where psyche meets Gaia.” In the words of Walt Whitman, “Was somebody asking to see the soul? See your own shape and countenance, persons, substances, beasts, the trees, the running rivers, the rocks and sands.” 

Denise Horton is a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist, Jungian/transpersonal healer and artist in private practice in Charlottesville and Rappahannock County. She also leads Wilderness Vision Quests for Women. She can be contacted at 434-825-3088 or hawkslanding1@earthlink.net.

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