Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

Eco-psychology: Using bonsai to heal and find meaning

By Dr. Caroll Hermann

In a recent episode of Binnelanders, a popular Afrikaans soapie on kykNet, Iva, the psychologist overcame her grief of not being able to have children by planting a tree. Some bonsaiists “make”a tree in remembrance of loved ones who have passed on or as a celebration of the birth of their children. More recently, avenues of remembrance have sprung up and dedicating a tree to mark memorable occasions has become the norm, driven also by the Arbor Day Foundation.

Forty years ago, in 1976, a 388 year old White Pine bonsai that survived the Hiroshima nuclear bombing was given to America as a gift of friendship and the creation of connections between two cultures.

Many ask what the difference is between bonsai and gardening. Bonsai literally means “tree in a pot” whereas gardening could mean the all-encompassing activities in one’s garden. Once people see past the “foreigness” of bonsai (or perceived difficulty), it is easy to formalize the concept of growing a ‘tree in a pot’.

Art psychotherapy is not new and neither are the good feelings bonsai practitioners experience when they work on their trees. For years and years, bonsai practitioners have known what has now been formalized in a PhD study at the University of Zululand. In 2012, over 200 bonsai practitioners took part in a study that empirically proved that working with trees, sculpting, growing, feeding, watering and weeding makes you feel better.

Jill Badonsky, a creative coach trainer, said that the feeling of being creative is synonymous with joy and fulfillment. With bonsai therapy, a tree is planted, nurtured and cared for, in the memory of something special in the person’s life, such as a birth of a child, death of a loved one, or in memory of a special place visited, or even a tree seed that comes from a special place or moment. Bonsai is a living art and as such one’s work is never finished.

The Western psychology of Freud and his mates believed that to heal properly you needed to release your emotions to relax. Non-Western cultures have healing traditions that remind people that through relaxation, one can grow consciously. To look inward, is to reach out. The art of bonsai practice is an expressive one and it involves all the senses during the emotional and somatic processes. What makes bonsai different is being able to take your tree with you: when you move, go to university, get married, get divorced. It can always, as long as it lives, be with you.

As a psychotherapist, it can be difficult reaching out to rural communities where language barriers, perceived racial differences, and formal educational levels might interfere with developing a therapeutic relationship.

A current study through the University of Zululand is being done amongst a group of traumatized youth in the Dukuduku area, in KwaZulu-Natal. Short, basic principles of the art are explained to the participants in a group. Then they select trees in a nursery and elementary group therapy rules are employed to allow the participants to share their narratives. All the while, the therapist is guiding and prompting. After a single session there are parting remarks such as “I feel better already…” or “I did not know working with trees could make you feel good…”or “I don’t want to sell my tree, it will always remind me of the day I started healing…”

During the group, participants were encouraged to talk about their traumatic experiences. Many stated that it was easier to talk about horrific incidents while “working” on their bonsai tree. Using bonsai in a therapeutic setting cuts across so many boundaries, such as language, race, ethnicity and social status. The therapeutic space has been “neutralized” in that neither the client nor the therapist “owns” it. The client is more at ease in this non-threatening environment and engages therapeutically without conscious effort. The client’s self-esteem is not threatened in that “no mistakes can be made” and if something breaks, the plant will always grow another branch/leave/flower. I have seen clients left in awe of their bonsai creation. Awe is “a transpersonal concept that represents deep, meaningful, evocative and ineffable experiences”. In other words, it leaves the person with a “feel good” moment.

There is a general consensus that experiences in nature often lead to a new evaluation on life. According to Martin Jordan & Joe Hinds in their new book Ecotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, participants described a “sense of gratitude for just ‘being’ and for the ability to experience the beauty in nature”. Not only can Bonsai Psychotherapy contribute to healing, but it can also work as a preventative program, preventing mental health problems from worsening.

Dr Caroll Hermann is a wife, mother of three boys, koi-keeper and bonsaichologist with over 500 trees. She is currently a Senior Lecturer at the University of Zululand and obtained her PhD in 2014 in Ecopsychology with the topic: Integral ecopsychological investigation of Bonsai principles, meaning and healing.

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