New steps to an ecology of mind 

‘Coming home to the whole of which you are a part’

We live together in a complex world where small events can have dramatic consequences, because everything is connected to everything. The corona-crisis shows that a micro-organism on a market in China can lead in a cascade of consequences to a drastic reorganization of our lifestyle. We work from home, watch webinars online, and get informed by the media we trust. Grandparents read to their grandchildren through video-calling. There is ‘skin hunger’, fear of illness and loss of income. The stock market collapses and the sky clears. Social, mental, cultural, biological, technological, economic and political systems are interrelated, and the issues of our time cannot be approached from one context unambiguously. Nora Bateson speaks of a necessary “trans-contextual perspective”.

In these times I feel the need to reconnect with the systems theory that inspired and shaped (in-formed) our practice and which seems to be useful again, navigating the complex systems in which we live together. In the work of pioneer Gregory Bateson, he emphasizes that we have come to see the world too much as a collection of objects rather than as a unity of interacting subjects. According to him, this is an epistemological error, with serious consequences, the consequences of which we are now seeing more and more.

I have been talking with Evanne Nowak, climate therapist and program maker, about the question on the relationship that might exist between the climate crisis, changing living environments, and our social and psychological well-being. Gregory Bateson argued not to see the social, the mental and the living environment as separate. In systemic therapy we do connect mental and social processes, but I wonder to what extent the living world around us can be given a place in our work.

With regard to the social, Bateson argues, we should perhaps focus less on the question “who will I become”, but rather on the question “who will I become with”. All living systems have mental capacity, says Bateson, because they know how to relate to a changing living environment. To survive, each system is simultaneously dependent as well as contributing to a larger living system. In order to be able to do this, living systems must develop an awareness of both their own becoming in the whole and of the becoming of the whole, the living environment. This is what we can call a “systemic consciousness”, a consciousness with which we can be relational responsible towards actants (people, animals, plants, things) in the different and inseparable life systems.

Psychological complaints are seen, from a systemic perspective, as expressions of loss, grief, resistance to what is in danger of being lost unintentionally. In family therapy we look for ways to reconnect. We pay attention to the restoration of relationships through generations. We see behavior, not as isolated and pathological, but as embedded and logical in the context. An expression needs a response in order not to solidify or radicalize. Can we add the relationship with the living world to the search for ways to re-connect?

Gregory Bateson learned about learning by studying dolphins in Hawaii, learned about meta-communication by observing play and struggle in otters at the San Francisco Zoo. The Indians did not dance the rain dance to induce rain, as comic books teach us, but to experience synergy with the whole. Philosopher Timothy Burton states: ‘We have become traumatized because we have lost ties with non-human beings’. He wonders if we can see the snail as a distant relative. We are experiencing ecological grief because of the loss of biodiversity and the landscapes in which we grew up, says Evanna Nowak, and that deserves attention. Should reconnection with the living world be part of systemic therapy, to come back home to the whole that we are a part of?