Returning to the True Mother:
Nature and the Healing of Disordered Eating
“No voices now speak to man from stones, plants and animals, nor does he speak to them believing they can hear”
(Jung, C. in Totton, 2011, p. 18)
As Sharon Blackie articulated, “when we lose our relationship with the land…then in the deepest sense, we lose ourselves” (2016, p. 43). As a human race we have forgotten that we are part of nature, which has led to feelings of isolation and homelessness and the gradual destruction of our planet. But this separation is merely an outward reflection of an inward struggle. In Nick Totton’s book, Wild Therapy, he highlights how we now fear the ‘wild’ as we fear our own inner wilderness (2011, p. 2). In fact, the word ‘wild’ no longer means ‘in a state of nature’, but ‘course’, ‘savage’ and ‘unmanageable’.
In the dualistic world of masculine and feminine (referring to inner essences, rather than gender), nature represents all that makes up the feminine: darkness, the unconscious mind, intuition, emotions and the body. From this angle it is clear that our culture overvalues the masculine (i.e. light, the conscious mind, thought, logic and control), and suppresses the feminine. On a planetary level this suppression is reflected in the abuse of our natural environment, but on a personal level it can manifest in any number of mental and physical health issues. The focus of this article is on eating disorders, in particular Binge Eating Disorder.
Binge Eating Disorder
“Food has taken on such additional significance that it has long since lost its obvious biological connection”
(Orbach, 1998, p. 86)
Binge Eating Disorder (BED) was first fully recognised by the American Psychiatric Association in the DSM-5 (2013). Previously it had been generally known as compulsive eating. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) describes it as “a severe, life-threatening, and treatable eating disorder characterised by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort)”. Other hallmarks include, binging at least once a week and rarely using unhealthy compensatory measures (e.g. purging or over-exercising) (NEDA). Binges themselves have two features in common: “the amount eaten is viewed as excessive, and there is a sense of loss of control at the time” (Fairburn, 2013, p. 6). It is important to differentiate BED from simple overeating: overeating happens only occasionally and isn’t accompanied by overwhelming negative feelings, which can be non-stop for those with BED.
Officially around four million people in the UK suffer from some form of eating disorder (roughly 6.4%), with around half achieving full recovery (O’Neil, January 2018). However, I believe the figure to be much higher as the extensive shame and denial experienced by sufferers, mean that many go undiagnosed.
The main root cause of BED is a conscious or unconscious drive to suppress unwanted emotions or traumatic memories that reside in the body. This is done through the dissociative effect of a sugar high, or the general numbing and apathy produced by extreme overeating. From this disconnected place, there seem to be two main reasons to perpetuate the cycle: the first is to continue to anaesthetise any unwanted feelings that find their way to the surface (especially guilt at overeating), and the second is to fill the gap that is left by this separation from the body. As addiction expert Dr. Gabor Maté states, we “turn to addictions or personality patterns that help us get what we feel we are missing, i.e. love” (October 2015). Sufferers become cut-off from their feeling life so reach out to food (representative of our first experience of nurturance) for comfort.
Additional causes of binge eating include a belief in the need for punishment (BED is a form of self-harm and binges often follow periods of extreme denial), a desire for protection (through desexualising the body or by forming a barrier of fat), or as way for “energy behind [worries] to be harnessed to a more familiar concern about the body size” (Orbach, 1998, p. 46).
Binging is therefore a coping mechanism where food is used for “non-nutritive reasons” (Baer ed., 2006, p. 81). And, as Dr. David Hawkins (the psychiatrist and spiritual teacher) highlights, it is a “faulty, stressful and ineffective” method that actually leads to a progressive loss of awareness and an inability to truly connect (2012, p. 14). Rather like an autoimmune disease, the system of self-preservation becomes self-destructive, thereby exacerbating the original issue and perpetuating the cycle.
For therapists and sufferers alike, one of the main challenges of BED is recognising it. We live in a culture where the word ‘binge’ is now used in daily conversation (e.g. the Three UK #GoBinge advertisement), and where poor body image and dieting is ubiquitous. In fact, Jon Kabat-Zinn (founder of various mindfulness based health programmes) poses that, “one might say that the entire society suffers from disordered eating…just as, from the perspective of the meditative traditions, we suffer from a pervasive attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” (in Chozen Bays, 2009, p. xi). It has become difficult to see the addictive behaviour in our actions, making denial and unconscious resistance to healing very prevalent amongst those with BED.
Ecotherapy & Eco-Art Therapy
“We have roots, and they definitely did not grow in cement”
(Danzer, A. in Arvay, 2018, p. 1)
This deliberate separation from the body is reflected in our society as a whole: as we rely increasingly on digital technology, so our thoughts and skill-sets have evolved to be more mechanised, turning us into passive consumers detached from the tangible, breathing world around us. We have become numb and so require ever-increasing levels of stimulation (e.g. excessive entertainment, drink, food and sex etc.) to feel alive. But, as with binge eating, these methods are ineffective, so we remain hungry.
Ecotherapy exists as an antidote to this demise. It was founded on the concept that humans have a biological and emotional need to interact with nature, known as biophilia (Wilson, E. in Roszak, Gomes & Kranner eds., 1995, p. 4), and that it is only through this connection that we can regain a sense of wholeness. In practice, ecotherapy is where the therapeutic activity is undertaken with an “ecological consciousness or intent” (Jordan & Hinds, 2016, p. 14). The work is often done in a natural setting or with natural objects, and the key relationship is between nature and the client – the natural world is seen as the primary therapeutic source.
Eco-art therapy is a term used by the ecopsychologist Theresa Sweeney (2013). It is where art is created in nature and/or natural objects are used in of themselves or as inspiration in the artistic process. As with ecotherapy, the aim is to foster a connection with the natural world. Eco-art therapy is particularly powerful because meaning comes to us through metaphor in nature, so artwork can better help clients to communicate or translate their experiences. Remaining in the metaphor is also helpful for sufferers of BED who may be in denial or unaware of the extent of their problem.
Art and ecotherapy also combine particularly well due to the earthiness of many traditional art materials: clay from the earth, pigments from plants and minerals, brushes from animal fur, wax from bees, and various objects from wood etc. In using these materials, we are taken back to our ancient roots, when our ancestors truly worked with and respected the land.
Closely observing and drawing natural objects can further foster this sense of belonging. As John Moffitt wrote in 1971, “To look at this green and say/ “I have seen spring in these/ Woods,” will not do – you must/ Be the thing you see” (in Moustakas, 1990, p. 12). In the veins of a leaf are the lines on our palms; the grooves of tree bark mirror our own wrinkles; a blossoming flower can reflect a face held up to the sun; and within a bulb can be felt the hidden layers of our own inner potential. In a commercialised society where we are defined by our monetary value or ‘good looks’, nature offers us a space where we are truly accepted. She teaches us the inherent value in our existence, and that there is strength in the things that make us different. As Sweeney asks so beautifully: “could you imagine a bird telling a tree that it had painted its autumn leaves the wrong colour? Or a mountain telling the sky that is clouds were misshapen and crooked?” (2013, p. 33).
Another reason why bringing nature into the therapy room is so effective is because we experience it through our senses, and so are brought into our bodies – the part of us that is one with earth. As we connect with our physicality, we are reminded that the words ‘human’ and ‘humus’ (soil) have the same root and that we are made of the same 5 elements (earth, air, fire, water and space) as our natural environment. In this way the dichotomies of ‘self’ and ‘other’ dissolve, our rhythms become those of the world around us.
When it comes to binge eating, “there is an intricate interplay between our bodies and what we allow them to have, and our unconscious and conscious beliefs about our entitlements” (Orbach, 1998, p. 17). Because overeating most often occurs in individuals who regularly try to restrict their intake, fostering a sense of worthiness and abundance of resources is crucial. Art therapy in the outdoors is therefore optimal as the sense of not wanting to consume too many materials (e.g. paint in a traditional environment) is much diminished. In working close to the earth, we are also reminded of where our food comes from, helping us to develop a sense of reverence and respect. This encourages us to seek out more natural foods, rather than artificial, packaged products. And so eating can finally begin to do what those with BED subconsciously desire of it – it can tie them more closely to the land and give them a true sense of connection.
Binge eaters also often seek a sense of security in their food or in the resultant weight gain, which acts as a protective barrier or armour. But when therapy is conducted outside, nature becomes the container and the earth can be seen as a trustworthy, reliable and solid support. Additionally, connecting with trees through art can help develop faith in the strength of their own bodies (particularly the legs and spine), reducing the need for extra protection.
When it comes to the limitations of working with nature, it is important to take things slowly and test the waters at each stage. Working with ‘dirty’ materials such as clay or sand can create very visceral experiences that may draw a client too quickly into their body and trigger deep-seated memories or emotions. Otherwise, binge eaters often eat a lot of packaged foods, so this work may trigger additional guilt about the damage they are personally doing to the environment. One way to work with this is to use the packaging itself to create art. This helps the client to directly face their eating disorder, while at the same time recycling the waste products into something meaningful.
Returning to the True Mother
In her book, Women Who Run with the Wolves (1992), Clarissa Pinkola Estés speaks of our lost kinship with the wild feminine – a relationship that has become “buried by over domestication, outlawed by the surrounding culture, no longer understood” (in Totton, 2011, p. 152). Furthermore, as Satish Kumar (the environmental activist) goes on to say, our deliberate distancing from nature has led to a sense of needing to conquer it and steal its secrets and resources (March 2017).
Arvay, C., 2018, The Biophilia Effect: The Healing Bond Between Humans and Nature, USA: Sounds True
Baer, R. ed., 2006, Mindfulness-Based Treatment Approaches: Clinician’s Guide to Evidence Base and Applications, USA: Elsevier Inc.
Blackie, S., 2016, If Women Rose Rooted: The Journey to Authenticity and Belonging, UK: September Publishing
Chozen Bays, J., 2009, Mindful Eating: Free Yourself from Overeating and Other Unhealthy Relationships with Food, USA: Shambhala Publications Inc.
Fairburn, C., 2013, Overcoming Binge Eating, USA: Guildford Press
Hawkins, D., 2012, Letting Go: The Pathway of Surrender, USA: Hay House
Jordan, M. and Hinds, J. eds., 2016, Ecotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, UK: Palgrave Macmillan
Moustakas, C., 1990, Heuristic Research: Methodology and Application, London: Sage, Intro. and Ch. 2
Orbach, S., 1998, Fat is a Feminist Issue: Books I & II, UK: Arrow Books
Roszak, T., Gomes, M. and Kanner, A. eds., 1995, Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, USA: The Sierra Club
Sweeney, T., 2013, Eco-Art Therapy: Creative Activities that let Earth Teach, USA: Theresa Sweeney
Totton, N., 2011, Wild Therapy: Undomesticating Inner and Outer Worlds, UK: PCCS Books
O’Neil, K., January 2018, Eating Disorders: Is Inaction Tantamount to Negligence?, Therapy Today, Online
Film & Video:
Kumar, S., March 2017, We are Nature, Brazil: TEDx Sao Paulo
Mate, G., October 2015, Manifesting the Mind: Inside the Psychedelic Experience, USA: Spirit Plant Medicine Conference
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), Binge Eating Disorder,
Food is the ultimate symbol of our interdependence with nature, and eating disorders are a reflection of our disordered relationships with our bodies and, by extension, the earth. Our fear of the wild has become so great that we now shut ourselves away, use harsh chemicals to ‘disinfect’ our skin and our homes, and eat food so devoid of nutrition that we call it ‘empty calories’. Even in therapy, which has traditionally tried to help people tolerate anxieties, there has been a rise in methods that claim we can be in control. Therapy itself is also under more regulation, surveillance and monitoring (Totton, 2011, p. 3).
But, as Pinkola Estés goes on to say, “We may have forgotten her names, we may not answer when she calls ours, but in our bones we know her, we yearn toward her; we know she belongs to us and we to her” (in Totton, 2011, p. 152). Bit by bit we are awakening from our stupor and remembering that the earth is our mother, constantly offering us protection, nourishment and deep, unconditional love. So let us reopen our hearts to nature and invite a little wilderness back into the therapy room.
Sleeping in the Forest
I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the riverbed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.