Health & Disease

Permaculture and Healing – Part 4

Practical ideas for healing self and community

In parts 1 (1), 2 (2), and 3 of this series, we have explored the issues of the modern healthcare system as being detrimental to human and environmental health; looked at ways we can empower ourselves to encourage self-responsibility and healing; and explored the ancient role of ‘healer’ as being one who not only helps humans to be healthy, but provides a diplomatic link between people and the ‘more-than-human’ (3) world, ensuring that a balance is kept in the ecology of the ecosystem, without which the physical and psychological health of the community would be jeopardised.

Thank you to all those who have joined the journey so far. In this final part, we will draw all of these threads together and see how they can be applied to our own lives, with a few suggestions for practical steps we can take towards community healing.

Why do we need community healing?

Using the permaculture lens, we can see that healing is a holistic process which needs to take into account all aspects of the ecosystem in order to function effectively. From this perspective, we can see that we can only heal ourselves if we also heal our world, and vice versa.

Translating this to our current lives and situations, we can see that there is a need to address the health of our immediate environment if we are to become truly healthy ourselves. This has to include the humans with whom we come into daily contact, whether this is physical, electronic or emotional; as well as the more-than-human world which we are a part of, in many visible and invisible ways.

Psychology of the spirit

Psychosynthesis, as I have written about before (4), is a holistic psychology and as such can be seen as a useful permaculture tool to apply to human healing. One idea from psychosynthesis is that of ‘primal wounding’ (5); which can cause problems when we do not integrate traumatic experiences but bring in protective mechanisms which close ourselves off to certain aspects of human experience we (probably subconsciously) judge as being too painful to deal with.

It is very difficult for us to heal our wounds if we do not have an “empathic holding environment”; i.e. a surrounding community of people, institutions or others who are ready and willing to accept us as we are, in order for us to process our healing more effectively. Since many of us do not have such an empathic holding environment, then we do not feel connected to our communities, which in part can explain why so many of us readily engage in “massive abuses of the natural environment that threaten the holding environment that every one of us shares—the planet Earth itself.” (5)

This is the same issue raised by David Abram; that we are disconnecting ourselves from the world around us, and so feel more able to engage in practices which cause ecological unbalance because we cannot feel that we and the world are one (3).

Remembering the connection

This rift in the human psyche can be seen as a fundamental thing we need to focus on if we are to truly achieve healing in a sustainable and effective way. How can we regain this connection? Perhaps the first thing to address is that we were never really disconnected in the first place. As Abram points out, we can artificially abstract ourselves from nature using language, but this abstraction is an illusion – and a dangerous one (3). Even very well-meaning humans who wish to engage in ecologically conscious practices are still perpetuating unconscious environmental destruction when we separate ourselves – even linguistically – from the natural world.

One way to address this is to start altering the language we use. Perhaps this is the first step to changing our actions and our ways of relating to the world around us. Instead of excluding ourselves from nature, we can include ourselves as part of her; instead of seeing a separation between ‘humans’ and ‘others’, we can include ourselves within the ‘more-than-human’ world.

Perhaps once we begin using inclusive language in this way we can begin more readily to actually experience, using our senses, the empathic holding environment of the Earth.

Society’s response?

With the above suggestion, we could use language as the initial key to find our way through verbal thought to nonverbal sensuous connections and perhaps find an empathic holding environment where we can begin to heal our wounds. The exact setting of how you personally put this into practice depends on your own situation.

There is the possibility that, having re-established their connection to the more-than-human world, and thus able to empathise more readily without as well as within, some may become overwhelmed by feelings of pain and suffering as they are expressed in so many aspects of the world today. This reaction may be very natural and perhaps unavoidable. Grief is an integral step in the healing process (see for example 6, 7), and we cannot choose when or even why we feel it. Yet much of our human community does not necessarily have a holistic way to deal with this.

Recognising healing as a journey

Many who are overwhelmed by experiences which have been classified as ‘depression’, ‘bipolar’, or other ‘diseases’ may not even be experiencing their own personal primal wounds, but those of our society or biosphere as a whole (5), or even those of our ancestors, grieving at the pain of being torn apart from the landscapes of their homes (see for example 8). Much of the modern institutionalised and even ‘alternative’ mental healthcare responses to such incidents treat such individuals as being in some way damaged or ill, and needing a cure. From a permaculture perspective, they can much more readily be viewed as becoming more, not less, whole than they previously were, and that their journey is an essential step towards the healing of our entire global community. As Firman and Gila put it:

“Those with diagnosed psychological disorders are not lost in some sort of mad world completely foreign to a normal world; they are simply experiencing—acutely and painfully—particular points on an experiential spectrum that we all share.

“It may even be that those who focus on their healing in this way have been called to deal with the collective primal wounding that most of us desperately attempt to avoid. Perhaps they struggle for us, seeking to heal a hidden abscess in our collective spirit that insidiously poisons all of our lives…those who so intensely confront our collective wounding are not tragically flawed unfortunates unable to achieve normality but instead are dedicated laborers in the field of human evolution.” (5)

Marking life experiences as part of community

In order to fully recognise and accept this healing process, one thing we could do is engage in community practices.

As I touched upon in part 1 of this series Ilich pointed out that one way in which the modern medical healthcare system can be seen as having taken away our control over our own lives is that of the medicalisation of birth and death. Ilich said:

“A society’s image of death reveals the level of independence of its people, their personal relatedness, self-reliance, and aliveness.” (9)

The fact that we have put birth and death into a hospital is robbing us of our ability to ritualise these events as a community, and to honour, respect and celebrate them in a way which can be integrated as part of our psyches, as well as to our connection to our communities. This can be similarly applied to any life stage.

The importance of ritual

Perhaps, then, what much of modern society is missing is the regular engagement in community rituals.

It seems that in order for us to truly experience healing on a personal, community and global scale, we need to integrate rituals as part of our life-practices. This may be surprising to hear for some permaculture practitioners, and I wish to clarify now what I mean by ‘ritual’.

Permaculture is a scientific method, and as Bill Mollison said:

“…permaculture is not biodynamics, nor does it deal in fairies, devas, elves, after-life, apparitions or phenomena not verifiable by every person from their own experience, or making their own experiments. We permaculture teachers seek to empower any person by practical model-making and applied work, or data based on verifiable investigations.” (10)

Perhaps for some people, ‘ritual’ is the antithesis of this. However, what I am seeking to re-establish here is not belief in non-verifiable phenomena, but physically-felt connection between ourselves and the others present in our communities. How this is put into practice is not as important as the practice itself.

What is ritual?

Ecologist and grief ritual facilitator Francis Weller describes ritual as being a held space which enables a state of “derangement” (7); that is, a space within which we can more readily experience emotions, phenomena and learnings which are not generally available to us during our daily lives.

In this way, ritual can be seen as a way of providing a safe space for ourselves and our communities to explore the normally hidden depths of our psyches, and those connections which are ever-present but perhaps not always readily felt between ourselves and the other inhabitants of our ecosystem. From this perspective, ritual is an essential part of human existence, in much the same way as Zone 5 (see for example 11), the “wilderness zone”, is an essential part of any permaculture design. We do not enter Zone 5 on a regular basis, and we are not always certain what exactly we will find there when we do. Yet we keep it as part of the system as it provides a pattern which we can learn from, emulate and be nourished by, all at once.

Symbols as part of human experience

Once we begin to recognise this need for ritual, we can begin to interpret it in whatever way we see as fitting to our own lives. Ivan Ilich, though he was an ardent critic of institutions of religion, colonialism, healthcare and education, was himself a practising Catholic priest for much of his life (12). As Joseph Campbell put it, rites are what help us to make sense of the world and our place in it (13); but, as he said, those rites need to be continuously evolving with our own evolution, lest they become just another stale and rigid holding pattern which would stifle our creativity and progress.

The symbols we choose to use in our rituals are not important. But it seems we have somewhat of a universal need to regularly engage in ritualistic practices within a space in which we feel safe enough to genuinely let go of preconceptions and to deeply engage with each other and the present moment.

Ritual in modern life

Holding safe space seems inseparable from a properly-held ritual. The safe space, or empathic holding environment, is what can encourage us to connect to our deeper and higher selves, and thus to feel a more vibrant and understanding connection with those around us. So in order to fully celebrate life stages with ritual, it seems important that at least one person is engaged in the sole function of holding the space. That is not to say that others cannot be present. We have a lot of medical technology which can help to ease the processes of birth and death, and those who know how to operate such technology need not be disregarded.

How is this being addressed in modern society? One way in which the ritual of birth could be seen as being honoured is with the rise in popularity of ‘doulas’. The word ‘doula’ was first coined by American anthropologist Dana Raphael in 1969 (14), and their role is to be present before, during and after a birth, not to help with the physical aspects of the event but to provide emotional and spiritual support to the mother and those others who may be present. Similarly, ‘death doulas’ or ‘soul midwives’ (15) provide spiritual and emotional support at the time of death to those about to embark on this final journey, as well as their immediate loved ones. A doula is now a respected profession in many countries, and many in the UK are employed by the National Health Service (16).

Being born and dying are things that everyone in the world does, but we usually only do each of these one time. In between these momentous occasions, how can we maintain our connection to each other through ritual? Francis Weller’s work is one example; he holds regular ‘grief ritual’ weekends wherein a safe space is created for participants to express previously held-in feelings and emotions connected to grief (7). Dance meditation is another practice which encourages this kind of expression in a safe space, focussing not only on one emotion such as Weller, but on the safe expression of all held-in emotions. For example, Gabrielle Roth’s ‘Five Rhythms’ (see for example 17), Daisy Kaye’s ‘Dancing Alchemy’ (18) or the institutionally-recognised Dance Movement Psychotherapy (19).

There are many more examples in this growing field of connection. I would love to hear readers’ stories of their own use of rituals as part of holistic healing practice.

Healers as a profession

One final issue I would like to address in this series is that of the monetisation of healing. This is perhaps most clearly detrimental in situations such as doctors’ decisions being influenced by whichever pharmaceutical companies are sponsoring them (see for example 20), or with the results of scientific studies being influenced by whoever is paying for the research (see for example 21).

On a more fundamental level, the idea of healing in exchange for money can be seen to throw up questions of ethics. If healers are being paid for their work then perhaps in some way, their incentive to heal will always be money, regardless of how passionate they are about the healing itself. On the other hand, of course, if they are not paid, they may find it very difficult to make healing their life’s work, as well as struggling with feelings of under-appreciation.

How can we address this? The traditional healer’s role is one of acute ecological awareness; if a “shaman” was to focus too much on the healing of human elements, they would be engaging in an unbalancing of the ecological relationship, and so create more sickness in the long-term. This seems to be true in the case of individual healers as well.

You could say that healing should never be a full-time profession, since we can only help to heal others when we feel well-rounded and healthy in our own lives, which includes the expression of many creative impulses, not only the impulse to heal. In this way, the very practice of healing as a full-time profession can be seen as an unbalanced way of operating, and which can cause long-term detrimental health effects upon the healers themselves. For example, there is a high rate of stress-related illnesses among medical professionals in the UK ( see for example 22).

Transcending individual healthcare

One way in which we could address the monetisation of healthcare is through the establishment of community healthcare. The National Health Service (NHS) (23) in the UK, though it may be not be a perfect example of holistic healthcare, could serve as an inspiration for this. The NHS is funded by a portion of the tax which every working adult in the UK has to pay, which tax is then redistributed throughout the healthcare system so that when any UK citizen requires healthcare, this is all provided, as it were, for free (though they are regularly paying into the sustainment of the system) (24).

One thing which any taxation system does not provide is choice – citizens cannot choose whether or not to pay into the NHS, or how their money is spent. But the idea of a community-funded healthcare system could perhaps be taken and used in a fairer way, wherein members of a particular community can choose how and where they give money, which money is then distributed to a group of community healers whose methods are fully disclosed to and approved by the community themselves. I do not know of any formalised examples of such systems, but would be interested to find out, if readers have any suggestions.

Following your own path

So we come to the end of this series on permaculture and healthcare. The suggestions found within these articles are there to provide inspiration; how you choose to engage in your own personal, environmental and community healing is up to you.


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Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.

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