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Archetypal Symbols Within Nature:
A Hidden Source of Meaning in the Journey of Pregnancy and Motherhood
According to Rubin, “childbearing requires an exchange of a known self in a known world for an unknown self in an unknown world” (1984, p. 52). It has been argued that the backdrop of pregnancy serves as the catalyst for such transformative experiences, having the potential to psychologically shift a woman’s self-identity from a habitual way of being into a deep instinctual relationship with the natural world. Here, selfhood is formed within the context of pregnancy and the inner workings of the mother-fetus bond. However, not all women are capable of gleaning such life altering awareness during pregnancy. This is particularly relevant for those women overwhelmed by high levels of fear and anxiety stemming from a growing culture of medical surveillance and monitoring during pregnancy and the laboring process.
Few researchers would doubt that emotional challenges pervading the perinatal landscape can have adverse effects on the developing fetus. For example, Jordan (2009) highlights, “the capacity to experience union with another and, therefore, a felt sense of attachment to nature, results from early positive experiences of the self-being with another” (p. 27). Note the function of theory Jordan sets forth is primarily focused on the role of pregnancy as central to the infant’s capacity to develop meaningful attachments with others and with broader schemes of nature.
The interrelationship between humans and nature is a subject matter that has long concerned the field of ecopsychology and the pregnant mother’s experience is by no means an exception. Discussions of this point are often linked with an understanding of psychological processes that either draw us closer to nature or estrange our relationship with it. This topic is also, of course, obfuscated by the dominant influx of theories outlining how nature is defined and under what circumstances it can be engaged. Appearing to ignore the natural rhythms taking place within the stages of motherhood, such theories fail to account for the embodied nature of pregnancy and the ways in which such an experience supports a vital source of well-being for pregnant women.
In their research, Olza & McDonnell (2010) shed light on Theodore Rosnak’s theoretical endeavor to heal the divide between humans and nature, setting out to elevate the repressed consciousness of individuals around the ecological plight of the planet. Drawing from Rosnak’s speculation of ideas, they define the term “ecological unconscious” as a “sympathetic bond with the natural world” (p.105). A defining feature of the human psyche, ecological unconsciousness is said to have been weakened by widespread industrialization of the Westernized world. An understanding of how such an ecological unconscious develops from the moment of conception to the onset of childbirth laboring could assist in the emergence of quality holistic health care interventions that support what is vital and natural to the process of pregnancy. Essentially, it would open a new field of ecotherapy within the confines of perinatal psychology, wherein pregnant women, expecting couples and their families could be assisted using natural healing processes.
Nature and the Meaning of Pregnancy
In order to explore the healing properties of nature, an understanding of the theoretical and cultural meaning of nature is of vital importance. In this article, the emergence of what I have referred to as nature secured its impetus from Fisher, (2002) whose vivid attention to detail offers a description upheld by many scholars and practitioners. As Fisher explains:
“…nature comes from the Latin word natura, which means birth,” hence the widespread association of nature with “mother” and its relation to such words as natal and pregnant. The Greek word is physis or phusis, which similarly means the process of genesis, growing, a-rising, e-merging, opening up, unfolding – as in the blossoming of a flower.” (p. 99)
As seen above, such words make the link between nature and life itself. Here, nature reflects a harmony with the seasons, a field of arising and passing phenomena or appearances, the cycles of death and rebirth, and restoration of the natural order of being. In similar fashion, Olza & McDonnell (2010) describe how childbirth often provides new mothers a profound connection with nature. They offer:
“When the birth goes undisturbed, many laboring women do feel a strong connection with the earth and other laboring women all around the world. While laboring, several women have described something akin to mystical experiences, a feeling of being part of the universe and fully connected to nature or the Earth. Mothers can remember vividly how they perceived trees, plants, or their pets more beautiful than ever while they were dilating. During labor, many women describe feeling a deep connection with surrounding nature.” (p.106)
With the above criteria, we capture a glimpse of the value and intention of a woman’s bond with nature during pregnancy and birth. These experiences have the potential to shift and alter the way women make sense of the world, having the capacity to perceive themselves in relation to the rhythms of nature. All phenomena surface out of this broader ground representing a hidden aspect of consciousness. Like a flower that mysteriously blossoms or a tree that inexplicably roots itself within the earth, a pregnant woman’s consciousness becomes intrinsically connected to a play of appearances in which the things that are disclosed to her are rooted in what still remains unknown.
Such a connection with natural phenomena inspires us to consider other ways we encounter the mysteries of the unknown. In Fisher’s account, he distinguishes between two types, dream images that are “given,” and emotions that “come up”. He begs us to question how we come to know these phenomena in comparison to what we discover by means of necessity. Here, I wish to speak of experiences that had to be the way they were because there could be no other way, like surgical caesareans, medical procedures in childbirth, and other interventions lying outside the scope of what facilitates a mother’s natural sense of reckoning. Highlighting the dangers evident here, Jordan (2009) contends, “relatedness to the nonhuman environment as one of the transcendentally important facts of human living, and the ambivalence we feel towards it, in the way we ignore its importance to us, is the source of problems in psychological wellbeing” (p. 28).
The point that we may derive from Jordan’s (2009) commentary is that pregnancy and childbirth need not be solely defined by dominant discourses of laboring within our society. To articulate such an idea means to refer to the earth as containing an invisible ground of giving in which both irises and ideas, deserts and dreams, can be understood as profound sources of guidance and meaning. This notion is expressed most adequately in the salience of midwifery arrangements. Accordingly, the experience of natural birth represents the center of the childbearing process. Midwives respect the natural arising of experiences out of the felt ground of the mother’s body and her connection to the natural environment. Like the cyclical process of seasonal climate changes, the contracting and expanding of the mother’s womb represents the center of human experiencing in the vaster, natural world; an evolving and experiencing of mind, body and spirit. This looking to spiritual and somatic processes of laboring is, of course, all together understandable, since in order for labor to occur, it is important that women connect with the primitive confines of their embodied nature.
Nature as a Maternal Source of Healing
There is an inherent value to respecting the natural tendency of a woman to let go and allow nature to run its course. It has been argued that an individual who is found to have a deep inner connection with nature should be able to perceive a number of factors (Schmitt, 2003). First, nature should embody a feeling of relaxation and inspiration. It should espouse an all embracing system of connection with life and others. Thirdly, one who acquires this knowing should feel an integrated connection to the world of nature, to other people, and to the body. Finally, one should feel an intimate connection with humankind and the earth.
To this end, a pregnant woman’s inner state of mind, creative process and relationship with aspects of nature are central. A unique feature of this process is the identity of motherhood being paired with that of trees, flowers blooming, and the voluptuous curvature of hills. These images deepen the maternal process emotionally, hereby fostering self-esteem and empowerment. Captured and retrieved during critical stages of pregnancy, birth and maternal loss, they evoke feelings of safety, calmness, self-assuredness, as the tree demonstrates how the woman can come into the fullness of her existence – centered, contained and moved by experiences of the sacred and connected with the vital essence of her being.
A few years ago, my husband and I visited Lake Tahoe, a spontaneous trip driven by a long drawn out fantasy of escaping pre-occupations with expanding our family and with the heaviness of failed hopes and dreams. Held and contained by the grieving process, we soon found security within the boundless space of water lurking peacefully within the gorge of the alpine forest. Ever profound and clear, apparently still and yet moving, this tranquil body of water acted as an archetypal force to get us deeper into our unconscious feelings and situation. Our imagination encompassed by the scale of the lake, we were caught off guard by the illusive drop off at the edge that abruptly symbolized the drifting of our heart’s desire into what appeared to be a murky abyss. While struggling to embrace this finality, we wept at its recognition, while also marveling the accuracy with which the lake appeared to project our innermost psychic dimensions. Per the lake’s inverted reflection, our life circumstances and the world had been turned upside down. We sought to take in this idea and could not see. Yet, in this confusion, there was still a sense of meaningful knowing. To abide within the pure essence of the lake was, as if, to be embraced by a sustaining force; a subtle balance of taking in and letting go, that was alone a place of clarity and bliss when we no longer sought to understand it.
The Therapeutic Benefits of Nature Bonding
The concept of creativity and its application to various therapeutic practices has been shown to exert a powerful impact on personal, emotional and spiritual growth in pregnant women and on the unborn fetus, deeply influencing the entire life cycle of the person to be. When orienting and validating a pregnant woman’s encounter with her own dynamic experience, this engagement emphasized self expression, movement and imagery stretching beyond perceptions of reality into aspects of natural world.
As we have seen, time spent engaging in the creative and actual domain of natural imagery allows pregnant, laboring, and soon to be mothers, alike, to see and experience childbearing through new beliefs, thoughts, words, actions and feelings. Such imagery also stimulates a range of physiological responses that move the body into a deeply relaxed state. While in this state, a mother’s pre-occupation with certain attitudes or sensations can be altered within the scope of mind-body awareness therapies (Rubin, 1984).
Most of us have lost touch with the significance of nature in our lives and fail to recognize our everyday experience as part of a broader engagement with ecological consciousness. Our fast paced, technologically advanced society often inundates us and distracts our attention away from the importance of such inner focus. Research has explored the ongoing mental health benefits of ecotherapy as a growing area of emphasis. Although nominally studied, an association between wilderness excursions and improved health outcomes of pregnant mothers has been highlighted within the research literature. Chalquist (2009) argues that the therapeutic ground of nature has the potential to promote an aspect of healing which further minimizes the use of medical interventions. For this reason, it is not uncommon to find the image of a tree, the sound of water or the life giving source of a flower or plant at a mother’s bedside in some birth settings. Indeed, in these optimal states of engagement with the rhythms of nature, the human spirit is strengthened and a greater sense of wholeness can be achieved.
Ways to Use the Natural World for Therapeutic Purposes
- Take a walk and let the natural elements (water, air, sun, earth) touch and pass through you.
- Pick a spot in a natural area and consider what it has to say about your life circumstance.
- Study a specific insect, mammal, reptile or bird. Consider how this mimics human life?
- Take a beloved or ceremonial object into nature. Sit with it until an image or understanding surfaces.
- Watch the sun rise or set. Consider what this movement represents for your life?
- Discover your unique way of using the natural world for therapeutic purposes. Share your experiences on the Natural Baby Pros website. I look forward to reading them!
Chalquist, C. (2009). A look at the ecotherapy research evidence. Ecopsychology, 1(2), 64-74.
Fisher, A. (2002). Radical ecopsychology: Psychology in the service of life. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Jordan, M. (2009). Nature and Self - An Ambivalent Attachment?. Ecopsychology, 1(1), 26-31.
Olza, I., & MacDonnell, S. E. (2010). Ecopsychology and the human newborn. Ecopsychology, 2(2), 105-109.
Rubin, R. (1984). Maternal identity and maternal experience. New York, NY: Springer.
Schmitt, T. (2003). Emotional bonds with nature as determinant of environmental awareness. Retrieved from http://www.lumes.lu.se/database/alumni/02.03/theses/schmitt_tobias.pdf.
Danielle Burns is an adjunct faculty instructor at Argosy University and a clinical social worker, providing mental health treatment services to mothers, fathers, and children throughout the San Diego region. She is also in the process of completing a PhD in Depth Psychology. She teaches from a perspective that integrates fields of biology, psychology, culture, creativity and spirituality. Thus, her work reflects an amalgamation of therapeutic and theoretical approaches. She is Vice President of the San Diego Birth Network (SDBN), and is affiliated with multiple forums including, the San Diego Postpartum Health Alliance (PHA), and the Association for Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH), where she advocates awareness of mental and physical health factors surrounding pregnancy, and the ways in which these influence the unborn.