2 Ecopsychology in Taiwan Dec 5 – 16 2013

As I exited from customs I was heart-warmed to see two grinning Taiwanese women holding a board with my name on. They recognised me from my picture. Soon we were driving through the warm evening air towards Taipei city – although they think it’s cold. They dropped me at a rather chic hotel and I found myself sleeping on the 16th floor, feeling a bit ungrounded and in awe of the strange surroundings so not my style!

Breakfast is buffet style Taiwanese food: spicy fish, beef, pork, and a range of vegetable dishes. It’s a good job I always did like eating supper for breakfast. Late morning I wandered out of the hotel into a warm sunny day and headed for the local Xintian Temple which has a beautifully ornate Chinese style roof with curly ends and many carved animal figures.

Xingtian_Temple_DSC02312 (1)            healing at Xintian

There were people prostrating towards the god of the temple, Guandong. The custom is to greet the god, tell him where you come from and what you wish for. On each side of the temple there were women dressed in long blue Chinese style robes who seem to be offering some kind of energy work. I found a local man who told me that these women can take fear out of your body. This seemed like a good idea with 10 days of lectures and workshops ahead.

I wandered back to the hotel to meet Yu-Su, a dance-movement therapist from southern Taiwan. She trained at Goldsmiths College, London for 3 years, and during that time she came on a 1 week course on Ecopsychology that I taught with Dave Key at Schumacher College, Devon. So it was very good to spend the evening with her and to be able to ask her more about psychotherapy in Taiwan. There are quite a number of therapists trained in different modalities – but only a few art therapists and dance therapists.

It was a good job we were together for supper as the menu was entirely in Mandarin and little English spoken. I was surprised as I imagined Taiwan, with it’s technological and industrial advances, to be much like Hong Kong. But in fact this is not an international destination, the other travellers at my hotel were Chinese and  there was not another white person in sight.

Saturday: Taiwan is a volcanic island with many hotsprings. So this morning Yu-Su took me to a hot spa in the north of Taipei where we could bask in various baths of different temperatures. Then we went to Taipei University for my first talk: an introduction to the field of Ecopsychology, giving some case studies, to an audience of therapists.  This was part of a conference on Mental Health.

Here I met Chun-lin for the first time – we had been emailing each other for at least a year to plan my visit. He is a psychiatrist, a member of the Taiwan Jung Development Group and the co-founder of The Society of Wilderness (SOW) – the largest NGO in Taiwan with some 10,000 members, founded 20 years ago. He has generated alot of interest in Ecopsychology in Taiwan. Then, when John Seed (an Australian rainforest activist) visited Taiwan 2 yrs ago, he recommended Chun-lin to get in touch with me.  Very exciting for me because, as far as I know, this is the first time that the field of Ecopsychology has started to grow outside of the white western world. (For those who don’t know the history of Ecopsychology, it began in the USA in the 1990’s, closely followed by Sth Africa and Australia – all white cultures with access to large areas of wilderness. Most of the Ecopsychology literature has come out of the USA.)

Yu-Su translated my talk. I had deliberately used simple language but it’s surprising how difficult translation can be sometimes. I think the most tricky phrase was “We’re completely fucked” – a response from a client when talking about our future on the planet.

I’d been warned that audiences in Taiwan (as in many Confucian societies) would be keen for me to do all the talking and very shy to ask questions. So when I finished I asked them to talk in pairs and plenty of questions followed. Amongst other things, several people wanted to know about ecotherapy “techniques”. What I was struck by, however, was how similar the range of questions was to an audience at home. Chun-lin told me he was inspired by the case studies, as he had not heard such examples before. There are few therapists working in this way.

Sunday: It was an early start as I was being picked up by 7 people (including Yu-Su) from SOW and being taken on a 3 day trip into the mountains. They were just as excited as me, as none of them had been to the villages we were going to visit.

I think many people (including me before all this happened) imagine Taiwan as an industrial wasteland making endless plastic toys. But no! This is an emerald isle. We drove for several hours into mountains covered in great forests, around endless hairpin bends with spectacular views.  On the way we stopped off for lunch at a funky cafe where two young women were making such amazing food that I ended up being just like the Taiwanese and taking photos of everything (stopping short of posting it all on Facebook).

2013-12-09 06.57.45         cafe group

Finally we arrived at a village called Smangus – just in time for a quick tour given by a local chief. Here is a bundle of millet, their staple food.

2013-12-08 17.08.24           2013-12-08 16.58.45

There are 14 different indigenous tribes still living in the mountains of Taiwan (about 2% of total population 23m), with as many different languages. They still practice some hunting and gathering. Interesting that genetic tests have shown that the indigenous peoples of Taiwan are some of the ancestors of the Maori peoples.

The history of the country is complicated. Their first colonisers were the Dutch in 17th century, followed by the Spanish and then the Japanese in late 1800s (who took many of the huge trees), followed by the coming of Chiang-Kai-Shek with Han Chinese in 1946. The official language is Mandarin, but there is also Taiwanese, and so many other languages I couldn’t keep count.

The indigenous peoples are still suffering from some oppression – for example much of their land has been taken and there is an ongoing struggle for them to get it back. It’s the same old story as for so many other first nation peoples around the world, although I was told that there is more respect for the indigenous peoples here in Taiwan than in most other countries, and that things have improved in the past decade.

Smangus is a unique village in the face of this oppression. Poverty was driving people into the cities to find work but they returned to the village in bad shape and the tribe was dying. Around 1991 the chief dreamed of the ancestors who told him in the dream that there was a group of sacred trees located to the east of Smangus, and that the trees would help the village to flourish. Others in the village also had dreams about the future of the village. It did not take long to find the trees which are red cypresses, 5km from the village along a track. The tree named ‘big master’ is 2,500 years old with a perimeter of 20.5m and a height of 35m.

Many people started to come to see the trees, and some of the villagers built guesthouses; but this created competition and undermined neighbourhood relations. So the tribes people decided to create a collective, most households joined, and to this day the village is run cooperatively and sustainably. This has attracted alot of attention with Taiwan and beyond. There is a film about the village called “Smangus: A year Beyond the Clouds”.

On both evenings our group met with the chief and priest of the villages around a fire; most of what they wanted to tell us about was the story of their relationship with the land. For example, the government has made a rule that absolutely nothing can be taken out of the forests – which might seem like good protection from one angle. But for thousands of years the Tayal peoples have only ever taken fallen trees to build their houses and make fires; that is their rule: to never cut down a live tree. But now they can be fined for taking fallen wood and instead are forced to use imported materials to build their houses. There are countless similar stories, and it is very hard for them to fight their case in the courts.

Another interesting issue is their religion. Christianity appeared about 100 years ago, brought in by missionaries. However, they seem to have found a way of weaving together their own indigenous belief systems together with Christian beliefs. They are still in the process of transforming many the Christian stories into their own, based in their own land; so the mosaic figures around the churches are in Tayal dress, and inside the church is a cross made out of sheaves of millet, their staple diet and sacred food (below). Some of the Tayal say that there were so many different belief systems among the indigenous peoples that Christianity has been unifying. It’s hard to really know what is going on beneath the surface in a two day visit.

Monday: Another very early start as we walked several hours to visit the grove of sacred Cypress trees. The temperature was much cooler up in the mountains compared to Taipei city, much like walking in English October. It was beautiful to walk through swaying bamboo forests, creaking as they rubbed together in the wind.

2013-12-09 08.01.03           2013-12-09 10.12.02

The signs at various point were carved in wood and I was able to literally get a better feel for the mandarin characters with my friends translating each one. How interesting to find an image based language. Despite being so familiar with this text from Chinatown and films, I realised I had never stopped to take it in. The much more symbolic, conceptual alphabet written from left to right along the page seems in keeping with the western left brain rational way of seeing. Whereas the image based characters going from right to left and bottom to top seems more right brain intuitive. I felt inspired to learn it….but what a task!

Food in the villages was an experiment: pigs trotters, jellyfish, pigs intestines, thousand year eggs, pickled pears, and who knows what else didn’t get translated. Good job I’m handy with chopsticks too, as I didn’t see a knife and fork for 10 days.

Later that day we drove to another village and met up with a woman (below, right) who had been involved with SOW, but who had then married a Tayal man.

mountain group         2013-12-10 09.22.38

The indigenous peoples rarely marry the Han Chinese. Very sadly her husband died 2 years ago so she is struggling to be part of the community, farming the land using permaculture and Shumei agricultural methods, and bringing up two young sons – not an easy life. But she does have the most beautiful cabin on her land for anyone wanting to come and volunteer for her, so if you know any willing Wwoofers, it would be a very interesting place to stay.

Tuesday: We drove back to Taipei stopping for countless photo sessions. The views were stunning…. here is a sea of cloud below us.

sea of clouds        woman in hotspring

Further down the valley, at a river crossing, someone knew of a hotspring.  So we all went down to the river beach to find this small pool of boiling water by a fast flowing freezing cold large river. An older Taiwanese woman was there in her bathing costume, practising her daily ritual of immersing herself in the spring waters. It was so hot that I could only soak my feet.  Great the way the photo (above) has created her very own sunbeam!

Wednesday :  Back in Taipei, in a different hotel with an airless room looking straight onto another building in the middle of the city. The next few days were filled with more talks. Today I spoke on ‘Recovering the Indigenous Self’ to a group of 80 people in the Psychology and Religion Dept at Fu-Jen university. We were joined by the vice-president in the front row in his suit and tie, and translated by an eminent professor who seemed to turn my talk into an academic speech. At first I couldn’t work out what was going on – one of my sentences seemed to be followed by a long paragraph from him. What to do, when I couldn’t understand what he was saying?!!  This was a difficult situation, which ended in having to spontaneously cut my talk by about half – a steep learning curve about working with a translator.

talk at Fu Jen uni

Thursday: Chun-lin and Yi-ren took me to a dormant volcano. By now the weather had turned cold, and the mountains were shrouded in mist, so when we approached the hissing volcano we could not see the steam. But then as if by magic, the clouds parted just enough to see the crater surrounded by a yellow line of sulphur, with great lines of steam pouring out.


Afterwards we stopped off at a fruit stall and I sampled some new fruit: jujube, which are just like green apples without the eye on the bottom; starfruit; tiny little mandarins; pickled green mango and pears; and plenty more.

We then went to visit the land of Winkey, a professor of ancient Chinese philosophy, where was a tiny temple devoted to the land god with many animals and mythical creatures on the roof.

SOW talk

On Thursday evening I spoke on ‘Consuming the Earth’ to a group of about 50 people at SOW, a interesting audience both activists and therapists and I’m not sure who else. My translator was Yi-Jen, a woman who I had met when she was studying the one year Masters in Holistic Science at Schumacher College.

SOW talk 3

Left to right: head of SOW, Yi-Jen (translator), MJ, Chun-lin (host)

Friday: I spoke to a smaller group of people at Taipei Medical University on the links between Medicine and Ecology translated by Yi-ren, who had spent 10 years going back and forth to London doing a PhD at UCL. Now his studies were in the area of the spirituality of indigenous peoples of Taiwan. Oh so very many interesting people to meet, and not enough time to really stop and have long conversations with them all.

Saturday and Sunday: I ran a two day workshop for 50 SOW activists. My translator Dawa was a very interesting young woman who had spent 10 years in the USA, part of which was training at Tom Brown’s tracking school. She had then married an American man from the school and they had both returned to Taiwan to offer Vision Quests on a piece of land that she had inherited from her grandfather. We had some great conversations during breaks.

The weather had truly made a turn for the worse and it just poured with rain for the entire weekend. Nevertheless, they were keen to carry on with the outdoor exercises I’d planned.


Conferring with Dawa, the translator

One of the people who attended was a publisher who had already negotiated the rights with Karnac to translate the Ecopsychology anthology into mandarin that I edited with Nick Totton: “Vital Signs: Psychological Responses to Ecological Crisis”. They were hoping to complete this by 2015, and there was much arm twisting to persuade me to return for the book launch.

At the end of the two days of workshops there was a nice surprise. Everyone had written a little card to give to me, and they spontaneously got in line for hugs. That was a great way to end.

On Sunday evening I delivered my final talk to the Jung Development Group. I always knew I would be tired at this point, but when I arrived in the room and sat at the podium looking through my notes I was really so tired I wondered how I would string a sentence together.  Of course I did manage it, but it was far from my best performance – frustrating, given this was my favourite subject. I plan to write a paper on this and will post on my website in due course.

All in all, it was an AMAZING experience. I loved every second. Thank-you to everyone in Taiwan for inviting me and especially to Chin-lin who put so much hard work in to making this happen.





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