Seeking Refuge: Bringing Nature into the Healing Practice


Every day I sit with people who feel sad, isolated, broken and lost.  Often the snaky currents of past traumas ebb and flow in their hearts, leading to an overwhelming feeling of anxiety, depression and dissociation.  Many of these people feel like raw nerve endings plugged into a high voltage socket.  The constant hum of fluorescent lights, electronics, screens, tweets and car horns cascade into an overbearing assault on the nervous system.  Many feel the burden of modern indentured servitude to school loans, high rent prices and few worthwhile jobs.  And as this cacophonous spell of modern industrial society casts its spell, many are falling. Falling into sadness, addiction and illness.  I feel the palpable desire for escape, for disconnection from the maw of this global unraveling.  I feel the strong desire for refuge.


The suffering in my office cannot be disconnected from the loss of old growth forest in my native region, from the sprawling urban landscapes, from the loss of coral reefs, from the polluted skies and boiling Earth.



When I work with trauma and sadness in my office, I try to think of the larger perspective, those songs of the sparrows and elk and the whisperings of Hawthorne, Maple and Fern nearby.  These are the creatures trying to sing us back home, trying to remind us of that refuge we seek; the quiet beating heart deep within the chaos of this fragmented world.


As a therapist and an herbalist I try to think of how to bring the natural world into the office, to bring the forest and sea into our sad and distant hearts.   There are many plants that can help soothe our souls, quiet our minds and strengthen the spirit.  The simple act of offering a cup of tea made with berries, leaves and flowers from nearby fields and farms is a way for the heart to remember, to come back to itself.  The smell of cedar smudge gathered in the Olympic mountains, of lavender collected in a friend’s garden becomes the messengers of long forgotten beauty and sacred joy.   Sitting in a garden surrounded by aromatic blooming rosemary, daphne and sage flowers reminds the senses to delight, to play, to feel at peace.   Herbalism is not simply a practice of replacing drugs to improve mood.  It becomes a practice of remembering; of calling back the forest, flowers and streams, of reawakening our hearts.


Much of modern ecotherapy practices are centered around connecting to the natural world around us.  Herbalism teaches us that we can not only get to know the natural world directly but we can also bring the plants inside, make medicine from them and literally take them in.  This is what I might jokingly call “applied ecotherapy.”   Teas, tinctures, flower essences, pot pourri, smudge, incense and infused herbal massage oils are all ways to practically bring the natural world in and to connect to the natural world viscerally, sensually and organically.    The commercial herbal market is a billion dollar industry that often sells the idea of taking prepackaged capsules to heal ailments.  But the herbal road that I promote is one of making alliance, getting to know your plants in the field and in your cupboards, gathering in the scents, aromas, taste and feel of each plant as a friend.


Much of the work for helping folks who have experienced trauma centers around mind body techniques these days- EMDR, tapping, breathwork, etc.  And these can be deeply helpful.  But we often overlook the rich potential for healing that lays around us- the natural world.  Indigenous peoples with PTSD are returning to native ceremony and practices that honor the Earth.   Many are starting to turn to practices such as ecopsychology and herbalism.  There is a yearning that is coming from deep within us to reconnect to the natural world, to rewild.   Plant based therapies offer the potential to heal the suffering of a hyper engaged nervous system that is revved into high gear or frozen into dissociative states.  They gently activate the ventral vagus nerve to bring on a parasympathetic relaxed state.  They can unwind our fear and start to teach and entrain a slower rhythm, a vibrant stillness.


We are born to a world steeped in trauma but we are also born into a world of beauty and revolutionary resiliency.  The dandelion spreads its leaf wings up through cracks in the pavement.  A crow caws its story above the din of honking horns.  A wild poppy and the tall stately mullein share their beauty by the side of the freeway.  We cannot erase the wounds of our time, but we can sing other songs too- the songs of the graceful deer and majestic waterfall.  We can bring the natural word inside to the office, to the hearth and home, to kindle our joy, to build a strong and beautiful refuge.



This article was written by Jon Keyes.    Jon is a licensed professional counselor and herbalist.  For more articles like this, please go to


You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health

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