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"A Call to Love": A Conversation about Our Planet with Dr. Gabrielle Taylor

"A Call to Love": A Conversation about Our Planet with Dr. Gabrielle Taylor

Lauren Ziel, ASW, talks to Dr. Gabrielle Taylor, Clinical Director at Michelle Harwell Therapy, about growing up immersed in the beauty of the natural world, making small efforts to effect change, and the ethical demands of being a mental health professional.

Lauren Ziel: Hi Gabrielle!

Gabrielle Taylor: Hello Lauren!

LZ: I’m really excited to talk to you because ever since we’ve had you as Clinical Director here at MHT, you bubble over with enthusiasm whenever we talk about conservation efforts and the state of our environment. With November being our month of focusing on the intersections between nature and our health as people, we just thought that you’d have so much to say on the topic. We’re excited to pick your brain about it. So, my first general question is: How has your connection to nature shaped you, from childhood to now? And has it informed you both personally and professionally?

GT: How my relationship with nature has informed me? That’s such a great question, actually. 

Like I have shared…I grew up outside. I grew up in Hawaii - pretty much born and raised there. So, that greatly shaped what my external life looked like. And I think that it greatly shaped my interior life. The landscape, the ocean, the mountains, the greenery….it really affected and infected my insides. Essentially, to be able to identity what growth looks like and what life looks like. I mean, I don’t want to be too corny…but it’s beautiful. Tropical beauty (laughs). So, how does it shape me? Well, I reference or resource my internal life to do the work I do and also to be in my personal relationships. There are landscapes there of width and depth that I can resource and can go into my self in order to go to places with others. I don’t know if that’s a corny answer, but I think it’s true.

LZ: Yeah, what you said about being able to see what growth looks like…yeah, nature being a metaphor. I love your use of language there. It makes me think about change that is both human and that you see in our environment and our external world - not the same, but mirrored and parallel…that’s a cool visual that you speak to.

GT: Our humanness is so interconnected to the natural world, right?

LZ: That’s a great segue…how do you view our humanness, our nature, and how it intersects with the world around us? How does being in and of nature benefit us and how being out of it can actually be a huge barrier to health?

GT: I think that our estrangement is a delusion. Our estrangement from nature is a delusion because we as living beings are part of the living world….that’s where we are headed given our mortality. There’s just an inextricable nature. And yet, with the Industrial Revolution, and with the concrete all around us, it greatly shapes us, and then we begin thinking concretely. We lose the spaciousness that we can access when we’re in nature, when we are walking through the woods, when we’re looking out at the horizon when we stand at the beach - that kind of space where we can get out into nature really helps us connect to ourselves in such a profound way.

LZ: I was thinking how ancient civilizations [or indigenous cultures] did have more of that connection….such as the buffalo eats the grass and we eat the buffalo…that there is this cascade that you can always bring it back to a source, which is this planet. Our place on it is only one spot in this big massive web. 

GT: A massive universe.

To me, care for the planet, being a good steward of the planet, is an extension of a mental health professional’s life....we’re called to be loving, compassionate, supportive people to others and to help people walk through the suffering that comes with being human, for whatever reason that suffering comes. The way that we are with people as analysts or therapists is to me the way we need to be with people in our lives, with the planet, with animals. To me, it’s a call to love. Caring for the environment and being concerned about climate change is not a political’re in a relationship with the planet and what does it mean to care for it?

LZ: So, we are therapists and you’re an analyst. You spend so much time inside, face to face with human suffering and internal struggle…How do you get your “outdoor fix” — how do you with commune nature when you’re not outside?

GT: Yeah, that’s a good question. Or yeah, even when I am inside. I think you can relate to this, Lauren…a lot of times when I have a break, I do a plank pose. Or do a headstand. Or do some core work. So, the snippets of movement where I can keep my body moving. And not fall into the abyss of sedentary life, which really leaves me in a lot of pain. Sitting decreases our lifespan 7 or 8 years or something? In a very literal way, l I keep myself moving. My art and the plants in my office can remind me of the importance of sunlight, the planet, and nature and what kind of emotional health that brings. But beyond that, and outside of the office…I think we all do this—we crave beautiful places. We crave a walk at sunrise. We crave a walk at sunset. We’ve got dogs; taking the dogs for a walk. In terms of vacation, I certainly want to go where earth is more accessible - essentially what is inspiring in a way that brings me back to myself in a certain way and reminds me of what’s important. Sometimes I can get lost in all the freeway, street driving, buildings that surround me in my day in and day commute and walk. I think going to beautiful places on the planet is so important to keep myself centered on what matters. All of this to me is about relationship. We as human beings are created for relationship with all living things. And I think that includes the planet, that includes animals. To stay related with each other and with the earth…it helps me feel more human.

LZ: You talk about that relational piece….yeah, even when you are “stuck” in the office, you can use that and find a relationship with yourself through movement. And then when you go out in these [natural] spaces, it’s a relationship that is just bigger than you. The more that we can touch into it, the more we realize how important it is. Given the state of the world, it evokes a sense of necessity to do something to maintain this ability to have something to connect to, have these beautiful spaces to visit, and to have a healthy body. The way things are going and have been going…it’s fraught, it’s scary….we may not have these extensions of self and relationships with the natural world because it’s not going to be here. 

How do you take the idea…you know, we work with people and we work with relationships…that is a love and a passion…what is our responsibility as therapists to maintain these connections outside of our therapy rooms and sessions? How can we as a community of therapists address the climate change crisis? You are both - an analyst and an advocate. How do you marry the two and do what you do and make an impact?

GT: For me, it all goes hand in hand. It’s all connected. I think if I were to distill it down…it would distill down to being loving, being compassionate. If you see someone throw trash outside out their window or just throw it on the street, it’s such a hostile, angry act. To me, that’s how it lands on me. You know, you much be upset inside to do that. To me, care for the planet, being a good steward of the planet, is an extension of a mental health professional’s life. Because we’re called…I don’t use this language to be overly religious, but we’re called to be loving, compassionate, supportive people to others and to help people walk through the suffering that comes with being human, for whatever reason that suffering comes. The way that we are with people as analysts or therapists is to me the way we need to be with people in our lives, with the planet, with animals. To me, it’s a call to love. Caring for the environment and being concerned about climate change is not a political discussion. Well, actually you’re in a relationship with the planet and what does it mean to care for it? And to leave it in as good as shape as you can, given that you get to use for a time? It’s just an extension of what we get to do in the consulting room. I don’t know if it’s a chicken and egg situation. It started outside for me as a little girl, and maybe that led me to the consultation room to participate in people’s and get to engage in the creativity of what therapy is and the growth process. 

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Again, I don’t want to be heavily moralistic, but along the lines of the analyst Donna Orange who writes about climate change and the ethical mandate that we have as mental health professionals….I just think we need to be concerned with all of life and think about how we take care of ourselves, and that includes the environment in which we live. They are inseparable for me. 

LZ: This is very specific. Since you’ve been at MHT, we’ve been making very practical changes to make this a more green small business. What are your favorite way to show your love and appreciation [of the environment] that you make sure to practice?

GT: The environment and the concerns around the planet…and the amount of plastic and trash that we are producing as our human population continues to grow is completely overwhelming. You can just feel completely overwhelmed and paralyzed. If you read that National Geographic issue that came out this summer, you could easily just fall into a puddle of despair. So, I’m of the mindset, like what we do in therapy…doing things one by one. I think every little small thing we do is of importance. For example, at MHT, when we had the move to put in a towel instead of paper towels because paper towels have already been recycled down and they are no longer recyclable. So, we made this move. I love that we did that. Every time I go in there, I’m reminded of the environment…and how we aren’t generating more trash with paper towels. I think it has a ripple effect. We use glasses in the waiting room instead of disposable cups. We recycle…we have been trying to use the recyclable trash bags. All of those things are so great. There’s so many opportunities to buy something that you can throw away or recycle. I tend to carry those things that are recyclable along with me throughout the day. If I don’t see a recycling bin, then I’ll just take the bottle home with me until I can get to the appropriate bin. It’s not that big of an effort to make my small contribution. In my private office, I try to put as much as possible in my big recyclable bag and try to throw very little in my trash bin. It’s crazy not to do these things that take only a little bit of effort.

LZ: Yeah, with all that we use…everything we get is from our environment. So, what is holding a glass bottle in your purse for 8 hours?

GT: I have imagery that helps me and reminds me. I saw that picture of the sea turtle that ended up with a plastic straw in its nose. I just have that imagery come to mind and feel the conflict inside when I see a plastic straw. I think it’s a good conflict to feel. So long as we use the conflict instead of giving into it or falling into despair — it’s motivating.

LZ: Yeah, having that imagery…once you see it, you can use it as motivating factor. You can’t put your head in the sand and pretend that it doesn’t exist anymore..…After we had our open house, we had a lot of food waste, which you know we had a lot of guests, there was a lot of food…I want to get a MHT compost is next!

GT: I brought some of the extra food home and I put in straight in my yard waste, in my compost. I couldn’t tolerate it going anywhere else. I also think with MHT going green.…as more and more businesses do that, it reminds other people of what we need to do together as a community of human beings. It’s like “Hey, let’s all do it together.” We don’t have to do it alone. We remind our patients who come in, “Okay yeah, I’ll think twice about asking for that plastic straw.” Or thinking about staring their own small contributions. It’s so important that MHT is doing it, to me.

LZ: Yeah, there’s that lean in approach….you’re doing little things. You don’t have to completely re-work it, go vegan, recycle everything, but that doing little things, at least in the beginning can elicit more and more change. I like that idea of not placing some high bar up; living in the constraints that you’re in but beginning to modify them. 

GT: Right, well said. 

LZ: Thank you so much. I’m really excited that you’re here and being an outspoken pillar to keep us all accountable. Talk about a ripple effect! It quickly took root in our practice and now we’re going green. It would have happened eventually but you made it happen a little faster.

GT: Well, I don’t know if I made it happen (laughs). I might have given voice to something and then everyone else was bringing things in and making the changes. The collaboration was certainly already there. The action has been taken.

Yes, thank you for having me!

Dr. Gabrielle Taylor serves as Clinical Director at Michelle Harwell Therapy and is a licensed Psychologist and Psychoanalyst in private practice in Pasadena, CA. She is also a member at New Center for Psychoanalysis where she serves on the Admissions Committee. She is Core Faculty at Wright Institute Los Angeles whee she supervises and teaches – her class The Poetry of Psychoanalysis: Contemporary Psychoanalytic Theory is favored among many of the students.

Lauren Ziel, MSW is a Registered Associate Clinical Social Worker, ASW #76483, working under the supervision of Gabrielle Taylor, PhD. Through the use of movement and mindfulness, Lauren develops specialized treatment for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, challenges in life-stage transitions, relational difficulties, and identity/intrapersonal development.