The Arctic Wilderness and the Change Process in Psychotherapy

More than five years have passed since the journey on the North Fork of the Koyukuk, far above the Arctic Circle. The rapidly changing tableau of the events of that adventure and their meaning continue to come into focus. What remains most poignant and alive is the sense of isolation, of inner reliance, of being in the hands of the powers of fate, and, somewhat paradoxically, of love: love of the wilderness, of the animal spirit, of companionship, of the Infinite Oneness: the creation of meaning out of an undertaking where inexperienced canoe travelers set off in one of the most isolated areas on the planet and the events that occurred there. Part of me longs to go back and explore this amazing landscape more fully, to experience that sense of being so alive once again, see what else it might reveal, what more it can teach and reveal of the world, to revisit that sacred liminal space between self and nature, imminence and transcendence. Yet there are also many questions about the wisdom of returning, knowing more fully how it is to be little and vulnerable in a world of such enormous forces without access to help or rescue other than what might be available through one’s own resources and fate. Some people live in that world – us city slickers do not.

A few years ago I discovered the work of the deep ecologist Arne Naess who writes about “the ecological self:” the self that is broader than an isolated individual and includes an identification with the complete order of nature. I find myself drawn to that idea, seeking to take a second look at individual psychology, to find the common ground between individuation as a psychological process and the need for it to unfold in relation to the natural world. As a psychotherapist and Jungian analyst I can apply this experience clinically to my work through the archetype of initiation which opens up the diagnostic and therapeutic processes to an understanding of individual factors that are preventing movement through wherever development is stuck and points the way toward the next step on the individuation journey. Relationally, I understand the work to be a process that involves both me and my patient fully. Although to this day Jung has yet to receive due credit from relational and intersubjectivist writers, he pioneered the understanding that analyst and patient are in a state of mutual, reciprocal interaction in the therapeutic process such that change for the patient is impossible unless the analyst is also open to influence and change. In this way, thinking of psychotherapy through the lens of the initiation archetype leads inevitably to the involvement of the analyst in the initiatory experience where he or she is both a potential midwife and guide, as well as a possible hindrance or obstacle. As is true in all psychotherapy, analyst and patient are inextricably linked and the patient cannot progress in the work beyond where the analyst has himself or herself gone. The initiate learns from one who has been initiated already.

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