In this piece for the Land Lines blog, psychotherapist Susan Holliday revisits the role of wonder in revealing to us the hidden depths of human nature.
In the hush of lockdown I have found myself walking around my little patch of south London more often. My dusty senses have been swept clean by the intricate and ever-changing details of nature in the gardens, parks and trees around me. I am not alone in this. Social media has abounded with intimate pictures of nature seen afresh. The uncurling of a leaf. Recordings of birdsong. Buds blossoming. At the same time, many of us have looked at ourselves more deeply. Away from the glare of our carefully curated lives we have found traces of subterranean dramas, trails of nocturnal longings, and tracks leading to uncharted inner landscapes. Perhaps there is more to human nature than meets the eye. More to feel, more to sense, more to see.
When I tell a new acquaintance I’m a psychotherapist, I often encounter the response ‘How do you do it? How do you sit with all that depression?’ The question floors me every time. It assumes that the ordinary men and women who step into my practice room are all grey, washed out and featureless, that my seeing of them might resemble a walk through a desolate landscape on a dull winter’s day. The truth is that beyond the surface symptoms of troubled lives, I have discovered ecologies of feeling as intricate as coral reefs and walked in landscapes of human experience as irreplaceable as our rain forests. Have you any idea, I want to reply, just how much richness, intelligence and beauty surfaces from the depths of every human being – if you just know how to look?
Most of what I have learned about seeing deeply within human encounter, I have discovered from a lifetime of wandering and wondering in the natural world. Seeing nature ‘out there’ has fashioned how I see nature ‘from the inside’.
It all began one hot July morning sitting in the classroom on the last day of term. We were nine or ten and our bright hearts were already turning towards the long summer break. Pens in our still small hands we transcribed from the blackboard a single piece of homework. It went something like this:
- Find a small patch of nature which interests you
- Mark out a square
- Make time each day to visit this square
- Spend ten minutes really looking at it. What do you see?
It didn’t take me long to find my square. A miniature world of lichen, woodlice and moss, crowded into the crumbling clefts and cracks of an old stone wall. Sunken deep-dappled in the shade of an ancient beechwood, the wall flanked a bygone country lane. Roots of a mighty tree lay entangled within it. Wood and stone wrapped around each other in a petrified embrace. They helped each other to stay standing. I sensed that the strength of this tender bond had something to do with the soil-swathed underworld in which the roots had their foundation. I couldn’t see this other dimension, but as I traced my finger down to the toes of this ancient foot, to where the roots disappeared beneath the earth, I knew the tree didn’t end there. Years later I learned that this touching point between the seen and the unseen is known as the ‘crown’ of the root. This sovereign birthing place, where new life first emerges into view, has been my passion ever since.
My encounters that summer with a small patch of the natural world deepened my seeing. Each day my eyes found something new. Tiny alpine blooms in shades of dusty pink and purple mixed with a lattice of ferns and dense green clumps of moss. A silver trail betrayed an early morning snail. An overnight shower saturated the stone and transformed its palette. Afternoon shade lowered the pitch. And in the cool darkness between stones, many-footed creatures busied themselves undisturbed. It was never the same square. The wall just kept on giving. Intricate. Abundant. Always new.
Somewhere beyond words I began to trust in nature as a source of revelation. Wonder took root in my seeing. I let go of the idea that the wall was self-evident and began to realise that its richness was revealed to me through the quality of my looking. Over time my seeing became more sensitive to nuance, detail, trace and tone. It wasn’t just the wall that was never the same. My seeing enriched and transformed me.
This deepening of vision took place because I gave the wall my undivided attention, because in the square I had a boundaried field of vision which intensified my concentration, and because I returned to see it repeatedly over time. What I couldn’t have known then, and I only begin to understand now, is that this simple exercise of attending with concentration over time was to form the foundation of my creative practice as a photographer and the frame for my professional work as a psychotherapist. In both aspects of my life I like to mark out a square and ask myself ‘what do you see?’ The square is sometimes the viewfinder of my camera, sometimes the sealed chamber of therapy. It acts like an aperture through which my seeing begins to focus into a state of undivided attention. Then, like a piece of light-sensitive photographic paper, I wait, until my seeing reveals more of what is really there.
For in nature, there is always more.
Perhaps it takes the greatest of scientific minds to stand with due humility in the face of nature’s unfathomable complexity, depth and intricacy. Einstein recognised that the nature which we think we see, is merely the surface of a vast and vital hinterland.
Nature shows us only the tail of the lion.
But there is no doubt in my mind that the lion belongs with it
even if he cannot reveal himself to the eye all at once because of his huge dimension.
This unfathomable realm of nature is not just ‘out there’ in an environment, it is also ‘in here’ in the depths of human experience. The roots of who we are lie hidden below the surface. Like the entangled tree, our lived experience is half hidden. It has an unseen dimension which is the fulcrum of all life. In our depths lie the nursery grounds of being, where seeds of possibility wait to be quickened into life through the warmth of our attention. These vast and vital dimensions are not merely buried in our history, they are crowning right here and now. Unwatered by wonder and curiosity, the very source of our aliveness risks drying up. This desiccation erodes not only on the experience of those who are unseen. It also withers our experience as people who see.
In the century since Freud and others helped us to understand how early patterns of nurture shape future life experience, we have lost sight of the hidden wonders of human nature. Influenced perhaps by the conquering ideals of nineteenth century explorers and missionaries who set out to subdue and civilise a ‘savage’ nature, Freud proposed ‘the principle task of civilisation, its actual raison d’etre, is to defend us against nature.’ As though to reinforce this opposition between a civilised human and a native one, he abandoned a vocabulary of experience rooted in imagery drawn from nature and replaced it with a lexicon of abstract nouns. Words he popularised (id, ego, superego, libido) have since become ingrained in popular culture and professional practice.
Robbed of the nuanced poetic vocabulary of our native tongue, the interior spaces of human nature appear to us, as the forests of the Congo did to nineteenth century writers as a ‘heart of darkness’. We dare not enter. Instead we live at the perimeter where nature is levelled and enclosed. Titled and tilled – but largely untold. Unseen, our lives seem unremarkable, commonplace, featureless. We look away perhaps, for fear of discovering an interior wasteland.
Increasingly blind to nature within, we are losing faith in the existence of a wellspring in our depths, a source of emotional nourishment and personal truth which is alive moment to moment, in all of us. Overlooked like our oceans, these vital depths become dumping grounds for our toxic waste.
Disconnected from the vital intelligence of our own nature we look to things, mountains of things, to replenish the void in our being. We plunder the natural world around us to fill the bottomless pit within.
Our myopia, it seems, is costing us the earth.
Modern psychology, with its love of labelling, reinforces this surface vision. It suggests that seeing is an outward movement in which our sight travels ‘out there’ to make contact. In my experience seeing is primarily an act of ‘taking in’. When new life surfaces within the therapeutic relationship it feels surprising, tender and deeply affecting. I, the seer, become vulnerable to what lies before me. Perhaps this is why the word wonder shares its root with the German Wunde, meaning ‘wound’.
Wonder may seem counter to the objectivity of science which has so enhanced the authority of psychotherapy in recent decades, but for me wonder and objectivity are not opposites. As a photographer I see into the depths of nature using a range of cameras and lenses, but my vision relies primarily on the quality of attention through the eye which is alive to a world which is constantly surprising. In the same way the tools of psychotherapy – developmental psychology, attachment theory, neuroscience – offer invaluable conceptual tools through which to view our human experience. But these concepts are just that – they are the lenses not the eye.
Seeing others deeply, I have encountered in human nature, a realm which is profoundly interconnected, utterly beautiful and intrinsically worth cherishing. For nature, be this the Amazon jungle or the deeply wooded glades of human experience, is not a ‘heart of darkness’. It is not unconscious, like a drunkard, an idiot, or a brute. Nature is more conscious than we can begin to imagine. It is life itself, continuously birthing and renewing and bearing fruit.
Our longings, dreams and intuitions are all messages from this original nature which seeks to emerge out of its implicate state, so that it can illuminate our lives. Jung understood this when he wrote:
Entering yourself through dreams, is touching nature from the inside.
During these unprecedented times, when so much is being revealed and reordered, we have an opportunity to cultivate a deeper vision of human nature. Nature writing has much to teach us, about seeing afresh, about patience and about wonder. Walking around my local patch of nature recently and reflecting on my childhood experience of seeing the wall, it seems so clear to me. I visited a small square of nature for a few minutes each day and asked the question ‘what do you see?’ Over time I came to know this unremarkable wall intimately, in its abundant and ever-changing beauty. Wonder took root in my seeing. I found myself caring about it. A wall. How much more might we cherish the person we come to know through the practice of seeing deeply.
Susan Holliday, August 2020
About the Author
Susan Holliday is a psychotherapist in private practice in London. Inspired by the tradition of nature writing, she explores the art of seeing deeply in her forthcoming book ‘Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart’.
Poems and other writing: www.sueholliday.com