I had the opportunity to interview Charlton Hall, MMFT, LMFT, therapist and Chief Druid of the Universal Order of Druids about his survey, Pagan Perspectives on Marriage, mental illness in the Pagan community. If you are a Pagan and would like to participate visit www.surveymonkey.com/s/67JKXMG
Masery: You are currently a member of the Universal Order of Druids. What originally drew you to a Pagan path? How long have you considered yourself a Pagan or Druid?
Charlton: I began dabbling with Wicca in 1975 or so. Back then there weren’t many qualified teachers, so most of the knowledge I gained came from books. In 1978 my family moved to Pensacola, Florida and I found Emerald Coast Grove. This was a RDNA Grove. The teachings of Emerald Coast resonated much more with me than what I’d learned of Wicca. It was a sense of ‘coming home.’ A lot of the things I was taught through Emerald Coast rang true with me. Many of the teachings were things I had believed for most of my life, or had figured out on my own already. So on Samhain of 1979, I completed my initiation and dedicated myself to the path of Druidry. So in one way, I’ve been a Druid since 1979. In another, I’ve been one all my life.
Masery: Why did you decide to pursue a career in psychology?
Charlton: I tell everyone I was a Freshman for 20 years. I started college in Pensacola. In fact, the college is how I found Druidry in the first place. I was a Psychology major then, but I was also an 18-year-old young man who’d just moved to the Gulf Coast. The college was in one direction, and the beach was in another. I found myself heading towards the beach more than heading towards the college, but I always retained two passions: people’s behavior and art. I eventually dropped out of college to become a beach bum. I didn’t return to complete my degree until I turned 40.
I’ve lived in the Bible Belt for most of my life. A lot of the things I saw as a young man, and still see all around me, just didn’t make much sense to me then or now. I suppose I was drawn to psychology in an effort to figure out why I was different, and why others didn’t see the world in the same way that I saw it.
Anyway, after dropping out of college I started airbrushing shirts on Pensacola Beach. This led to a career in textile design, which eventually led me back to my home state of South Carolina, designing woven fabrics in the textile industry. College had always been in the back of my mind, so when the textile plants started closing, I returned to school and completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Experimental Psychology, then a Masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy.
Masery: How did you end up in North Carolina working for the Saluda Counseling Services?
Charlton: I did my Masters at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, which is right across the state line from Saluda, North Carolina. I have always been attracted to the mountains of western North Carolina. There’s a wonderful…and ancient…healing energy to these mountains. So when I found an available office in nearby Saluda, I leaped at the opportunity. The surrounding mountain areas, waterfalls and woods, are perfect for the practice of Mindful Ecotherapy.
Masery: The Saluda Counseling website mentions you hold workshops on Mindfulness and Ecotherapy. I am familiar with ecopsychology, the idea that there is a synergy between planetary and personal well being. What is Ecotherapy?
Charlton: Ecotherapy is basically the practical application of Ecopsychology. In the beginning, Ecopsychology was more theory-based, and Ecotherapy was more about putting the theory of Ecopsychology into practice. The two fields have merged in recent years, so that the terms are used interchangeably. I suppose it comes down to the difference between therapy and psychology. Therapy is more self-directed. The therapist is more of a ‘coach’ who helps guide the individual to self-awareness.
Masery: How would you describe Mindfulness and what are its benefits?
Charlton: Many people think that Mindfulness is simply a meditative technique. It is, but it’s also much more. It’s a different way of seeing the world and your place in it. It’s a way of living in the present moment. Think for a moment about the last time you were stressed out. Was that stress about something that happened in the past, or about something that might happen in the future? Very few things that cause stress and anxiety are about what’s happening with us right now. Mindfulness is a way of creating some space between us and our problems so that we can gain more self-awareness. The better we know ourselves, the better we’re able to handle what life throws at us.
Masery: On a Pagan networking site there was a discussion on mental illness where several people mentioned attending meditation groups where the guide had a disclaimer that it could be troubling for people with bi-polar disorder. It was an older thread so I didn’t get to ask what type of meditation the group was doing. The therapists and psychologists I’ve meet usually recommended meditation as a method of relaxation. Are some forms of meditation harmful and if so, what kinds?
Charlton: I’ve used meditation with bipolar clients with great success. I always caution my clients before beginning any meditation exercise that if they find themselves in distress, signal me in some way and we’ll stop. If they’re practicing alone, they should also stop if they find their anxiety increasing. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of different types of meditation. Some may be harmful in some situations, but there are very few situations in which basic mindful meditation is harmful.
About the only problems I’ve ever encountered with mindful meditation is with clients who have severe sexual abuse or trauma issues. Even then, it is still very beneficial, but in such cases you have to pace yourself. Trauma victims often suppress emotional areas that are too painful to endure. If that can of worms is opened without preparation, they can be traumatized all over again. I would advise anyone with a severe trauma history to only practice meditation under the guidance of a competent, licensed therapist.
I would also add that such cases are rare, and in any case, you are your own best guide as to what you can handle. There’s no danger at all in trying mindful meditation yourself. If you feel your anxiety increasing, simply stop doing it, and seek a good therapist who can guide you through the process.
(Charlton offers very important advice here. As a survivor of childhood physical and mental abuse, I wish I had sought counseling as soon as I was an adult and out of the situation. I had practiced meditation on my own for many years but my mind often lead me to scenes of pain, death, and destruction unless I was guiding someone in a preplanned meditation. I didn’t listen to my spirit guides and tend to my magic studies patiently. I wanted to learn more and more and delve deeper and deeper into my psyche. It wasn’t until I began therapy and surrendered to the healing elements of time that I understood how the mind can get caught in a loop of pain and learned techniques to safely deal with traumatic emotions and control negative thoughts. The therapist was there to ease me out of more distressing images that occurred during the healing process.)
Masery: How has Druidry or Paganism influenced your mental health practice?
Charlton: I tell my Pagan friends that Mindful Ecotherapy is basically Druidry with scientific-sounding terminology. I’ve been amused that people will turn out for workshops on Mindful Ecotherapy, whereas if you told them they were practicing Druidry, they might be a bit put off.
But seriously, I was a Druid a long before I became a Family Therapist. It’s interesting to me that so many Druid leaders (Phillip Carr-Gomm, John Michael Greer, etc.) have backgrounds in psychology and/or counseling. People who are drawn to nature seem to be drawn to the healing arts as well. I think that nature is the missing piece to traditional forms of psychotherapy, and Druidry today reflects that.
I am trained in Family Systems Therapy. This school of thought views families as a complex set of systems and subsystems. From this perspective, individuals don’t have problems. The problems occur with the interactions between members of a system. What Mindful Ecotherapy adds to this perspective is the idea that nature is also a system. We interact with nature as much as we interact with other people.
I have a visualization exercise in my workshops in which I have participants picture themselves stuck in traffic in a hot car on a busy city street, then imagine themselves sitting on a quiet beach or in the woods. I then have them take their pulses after each visualization. The consistent result is that their heart rates are much higher after the traffic example than after the nature example. If simply imagining a natural setting can have that effect, imagine what actually being in nature can do for your wellbeing!
Druidry, to me, is about experiencing nature’s healing power. I try to bring this healing power into my mental health practice as well.
Masery: Have you had a chance to speak with coworkers about how they can better assist Pagan clients? What was that experience like?
Charlton: I remember when I was still doing my clinical practicum. I was working with a Pagan family, and I had a fellow student sit in on a session. I hadn’t thought to brief her on the family’s religious orientation, and when they started talking about Paganism, she became increasingly uncomfortable, and refused to sit in on any more sessions with them. I found out later that she (the student therapist) was from a fundamentalist Christian family.
Being in the Bible Belt, most of my fellow therapists are of a Christian orientation. I get a lot of referrals from them because they know I’m comfortable working with Pagan clients, but I also recognize the need for diversity training for therapists who may be unfamiliar with Pagan spiritual orientations.
When I’ve spoken to fellow therapists about assisting Pagan clients, responses run the gamut from interest in learning more to, ‘But they’re going to burn in Hell!’ I think there’s so much misinformation out there in the Christian community about Pagan belief systems that there’s really a need for this sort of diversity training. In my Marriage and Family Therapy program, we had a course on Cultural Competency, but cultural competency is such a wide topic that we spent maybe fifteen minutes on various forms of religious expression. So there’s a definite need for more in-depth education on the topic.
Staff of Asclepius interview with Kimberly Hendrick, PhD about the groundbreaking Pagan Health Surveywww.patheos.com/community/paganswithdisabilities/2011/01/16/interview-with-kimberly-hendrick-phd-about-the-groundbreaking-pagan-health-survey/