Blackator Copse is a patch of ancient oak woodland on Dartmoor. Although it’s small – only 21 acres – this rare habitat is nationally important because of the exceptional variety of lichens and mosses. It’s a magical place and I was very grateful to be there again over the Bank Holiday weekend. I conversed for a while with the spirits of place that afternoon, and the idea came that Western civilization is in thrall to an evil spell. Perhaps it’s what the sociologist Max Weber called “the disenchantment of the world” (1962 ). Weber described how animistic beliefs become replaced by purposive-rational action. We gained scientific understanding and control from this Faustian pact with reason but lost something precious in the process.
I’d planned to camp at Blackator Copse and was sitting quietly enjoying the peace when the throbbing beats of banging techno came drifting across the green. I’m well up for some dance music in the right setting, but Blackator Copse most certainly isn’t one of them. Half a dozen lads wandered into the Copse, clearly delighted to have found this little piece of paradise. ‘It’s Bank Holiday weekend’, I thought with a shrug and headed up the hill to a quieter spot.
I came down again the next morning just as they headed off. I sat by the river enjoying the silence for a while and then wandered along the bank. There were a few scraps of rubbish lying about, which is pretty much what I’d expected, but also the remains of a fire. At this point, some context might be useful. Open fires are banned on Dartmoor. First, they aren’t safe as parts of the Moor get very dry. Second, people who light fires on Dartmoor don’t bring in a supply of supermarket bought wood. They collect whatever they see lying around, which will be covered in the lichens and mosses that are part of a unique ecology. Some of the species found here are threatened with extinction in Europe and people burn them. While this is partly ignorance, but it’s mainly due to a consumerist attitude to nature. For some people Blackator Copse – and every other natural place – is simply a resource to be consumed: Get there as fast as possible, use it and leave without paying.
I’m reminded of an occasion many years ago when a friend and I stood in front of a Renoir. I was lost in rapture, but he broke my reverie when he asked “How much do you reckon that’s worth?’ (Framing perception). It’s as if the guys who enjoyed that bonfire of ancient wood and rare lichens were in a different place from me: I wandered amidst magic and they sat in a disenchanted theme park.
I wrote a Tweet today criticizing Extinction Rebellion (XR). It was an honest response but felt odd as I’ve been a supporter for ages and was a regular contributor to the XR newspaper, The Hourglass. So why the change of heart? When XR first came to my attention I was somewhat dismissive. ‘Here we go again!’, I thought. ‘Yet another climate change campaign using the same old strategies we’ve used for decades’. I’ve been involved in environmental activism for over 40 years so my cynicism was not unfounded.
My mood changed as I saw what XR were doing. Regenerative culture was at the foundation of this new movement and it was characterized by imaginative, original and powerful actions. The aim, I thought, was to build a mass movement, raise awareness of the climate crisis and build a truly regenerative culture. I believed XR were engaged in what used to be called consciousness raising, fundamentally changing how people thought about climate change. This was exemplified for me by the Red Brigade, white face-painted activists dressed in red, walking in slow procession. The Red Brigade are silent and they don’t carry banners; the power of their presence flows from a deeper place.
In 1970 the Anti-Apartheid Movement launched a campaign against Barclays Bank. The Bank had a huge presence in South Africa and local branches were regularly targeted by activists. 16 years later Barclays withdrew from South Africa. Fast forward to 2021 and XR activists smash windows at Barclays Bank. It’s hard to gauge the public response but this doesn’t look to me like consciousness raising or regenerative culture. We don’t have 16 years to deal with climate change and frankly that’s simply a symptom of the much deeper malaise. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.”
The articles I wrote for The Hourglass were often about nature connectedness, which we now know encourages people to protect the environment (Mackay & Schmitt). Related research suggests that mindfulness can also lead to pro-environmental behavior (Barbaro & Pickett). It’s no surprise perhaps that psychedelic experience can have a profound impact on our sense of nature connectedness and can increase positive environmental action (Forstmann & Sagioglou, 2017; Kettner et al. 2019). All three are examples of what I call the embodied pathways of connection (EPoC) and provide a clear escape route from our “illusion of separateness”.
I’m a pragmatist, not an ideologue. Direct action certainly has a place in environmental activism but don’t be misled into thinking it’s the only game in town. Stanislav Grof, the Czech psychiatrist who helped found found transpersonal psychology sums it up beautifully:
To engage with climate change we need consciousness change. Nature connectedness, mindfulness, psychedelics and the rest of the EPoC are far more powerful tools for that than smashing windows.
It’s too late for anything less than the extraordinary.
John Danvers is an artist, writer and poet whose work emerges from over fifty years of Zen meditation practice. John gave a wonderful presentation at The Embodiment Conference last October called “Interwoven Nature: relatedness and identity in a changeful world”. There’s a link to a recording below, but before you listen I’d like to highlight and contextualize what I see as a few key points.
I came across John’s work though the Exeter Meditation Circle, a group I’ve been attending regularly for several years and which he facilitates. I was intrigued by John’s ideas so read his book, Interwoven Nature: relatedness and identity in a changeful world (Danvers, 2016). The book Is excellent and it’s enriched my ideas, notably about the embodied pathways of connection (EPoC). John was an obvious person to invite to speak at The Embodiment Conference and his talk is located at the intersection of embodiment and ecology that I’ve rather dramatically claimed is the best way to save the world!
John’s talk ranges across topics that include Covid, ecology, narcissism and politics, but I take his core message to be that mindfulness meditation can enable us to realize how interconnected everything is: there is a “kinship and fellowship between all beings”. This is an ecological and relational understanding of the self.
For those with little or no experience of meditation, it might seem extraordinary that zazan can be so powerful. It’s deceptively simple, requiring nothing more that just “sitting quietly, paying attention to whatever arises in our embodied minds and in the world immediately around us”. But this practice can reveal that the self – that oh so precious center of the Universe that Western culture has deified – isn’t a thing at all, but a process.
“we are mistaken if we believe and act as if each ego/self is a fixed and essential centre of the universe; we become wise when we act on the belief that the self has no fixed essence and is woven into the universe and inseparable from it” (Danvers, 2016).
John eloquently describes what happens when we slip back into habitual thinking. He can feel fragmented, “divided within myself”. He can fall into the Illusion that “my mind is divided from my body”. This sense of fragmentation can lead to him feeling disconnected from the world and alienated from everything: “I’m so locked into my divided self that I feel separated from what’s around me”.
Our minds seem to habitually fall into this state, even after decades of zazen practice. I think there may be good evolutionary reasons for why this divided self seems to be our default mode of being and I’ll say more about that another time.
This isolated self tends to see the world as threatening and too easily finds danger where none exists. In this habitual state of separation “we can be too easily swayed by popular rhetoric”. Recent events in the USA are just the most recent example of what happens when people feel alienated and threatened, but every page of history tells the same story.
We habitually identify with what we’re feeling – “I’m angry!” – and with our opinions – “They’re wrong!” Mindfulness allows us to loosen these attachments and “can help us distinguish between habitual reactions and how things actually are”. We can learn how to open a space between our emotions, thoughts and opinions and our awareness of them. We gain the freedom to distance ourselves from habitual reactions and respond in ways that lessen rather then feed conflict.
The illusion of separation doesn’t only feed political unrest; it forms the foundation of consumerism. Consumerism depends on our tendency to “chase after novelties in the hope that our desires and wants will be fulfilled”, but these can no more satisfy us than a mirage can quench the traveler’s thirst.
Before closing, I want to touch on John’s art, which is informed by his mindfulness. Any art practice is “a form of relationship to the world around us and to the world within us … and those two things are very interpenetrating”. Art can be an act of “self revelation” and “opening up to the world”. Looking at art can reveal how other people see the world, allowing us to “look afresh” in a way that can be similar to zazen. John’s thoughts on art and mediation remind me of the work of Stephanie Gottlob, who comments that her mindful experiences in nature “are an integral part of the creative process”.
I’m delighted to host this post from Stephanie. We’ve been corresponding for several months and I love her writing, photography and process.
“Is art an imposition of order on chaotic Nature or is art a matter of discovering the grain of things, of uncovering the measured chaos that structures the natural world? Observation, reflection and practice show artistic process to be the latter” – Gary Snyder
I am an improvisational movement artist.
A year ago I left the life I had been living in Toronto to follow a calling of embodying the various natural biomes of North America. I bought a truck camper and for these past 12 months I have been living and dancing in remote parts of Nature exploring movement improvisation, creative process, and somatic experiences on, and with the landscape. Each biome that I have thus far explored – deciduous forest, freshwater lake, arctic tundra, swamp and grasslands – reveals something new about somatic embodiment and artistic expression.
While in Nature I improvise with various elements of the landscape: water, color, mountains, sounds, rock, mud, grass, heat, roots, wind, empty space. It is a somatic approach to creativity and art.
A few things have emerged from these investigations:
Improvisation is a Somatic Experience
The body is a landscape and the landscape is a body.
For me, improvisation is about merging with the qualities of Nature, rather than the objects of Nature. It’s the flow, movement, density and textures that pass back and forth between us. Through improvisation I try to embody these qualities… her arcing, sparkling, darting, expansive qualities. And it goes the other way too. Sometimes I turn inwards, towards my somatic felt senses and notice how I feel in relation to the smells, the soil, the empty space. This leads to improvisational connections as well. To me, these inner felt senses and nature’s outwardly expressed qualities are the same. We are the same inside and out.
The land is an aware and active canvas on which to create movement art.
During improvisation, Nature animates. She comes to life in the creative moment. This happens when we are in relation, in a creative relationship. The creative choices we make during the improvisation feels like a co-emerging process. During these moments of creativity, the landscape seems to toss, unravel, support and express independently, like an improvisational partner. Landscape and I… always a duet, at least a duet.
Improvisation is a Process of Finding through Imagination
The process of improvisation with the landscape is more about finding aesthetic moments as opposed to creating them. These artistic moments, for me, seem hidden or veiled. It is something Nature and I find together. We uncover them. We wait for them to be revealed.
One of the most important ways these moments are revealed is through the imagination, between I and the landscape. By imagination I mean a creative consciousness that is beyond thinking, doing, using, or even being. Imagination is an innate capacity in all things to transcend and express meaning. This meaning, is more of a non-specific meaning, a meaning such as presence or sacredness, beauty or individuality.
Improvisation Reveals Place
“The only mythology that is valid today is the mythology of the planet – and we don’t have such a mythology… Myths must be kept alive. The people who can keep them alive are artists. The function of the artist is the mythologizing of the environment and the world.” Joseph Campbell
When improvising in wildness, theses aesthetic moments can begin to have a sense of story of place. Or even myth. There is a necessity of expression emerging from place. From this particular place. The expression, to me, does not feel like an ancient indigenous myth or fairy tale. It doesn’t feel narrative. It feels new. More like a process of emerging-myths expressing themselves as movements, as images, as sounds. Between human and wildness. These aesthetic moments in improvisation do offer one way of capturing mythic moments. Human and Earth.
Improvisation and Somatic Meditations
A deepening of meditative experience, is a deepening of aesthetic experience.
The somatic meditative or mindful experiences I encounter in Nature are very important in developing, deepening, and creating nuance in how I improvise with the land. Aesthetic experiences are very much linked to a state of mind. They are an opening into the unknown. They are a layering of the senses. They bring the imagination into the reality of experience.
Some of the somatic meditative experiences encountered in Nature:
the nuance of distance between the extremes of near and far revealing itself in the open tundra
silence experienced not as the absence of sound but as a landscape of feelings
an internal experience of natural objects morphing while drifting in a canoe on the swamp
the subtle differences between ‘walking’ and ‘wandering’, between ‘here’ and ‘place’
how boredom mysteriously leads to insight and freedom
These somatic mindful experiences, to me, are an integral part of the creative process. They reveal the wildness, the vitality, and the mystery of the connection between human and landscape.
Stories are powerful; we live by them. I recall hearing once that those who control the stories control reality. Charles Eisenstein points out that our current world-view is built on the “Story of Separation”. This story is pretty much the version of reality presented by late 19th Century mainstream thinking:
“You are a separate individual among other separate individuals in a universe that is separate from you as well”;
“There is no purpose, only cause. The universe is at bottom blind and dead”;
human beings must “protect ourselves against this hostile universe of competing individuals and impersonal forces, we must exercise as much control as possible” (Eisenstein 2013).
This old story is looking shaky these days, but is still widely believed. It’s familiar after all, and opening our minds to something radically different feels very uncomfortable.
What we need, Eisenstein suggests, is “the Story of Interbeing”, a new story that understands that “our very existence is relational.” We’re not ready for that new story but for many of us the old story no longer rings true, so “we still must traverse, naked, the space between stories” (Eisenstein 2013).
As activists we sometimes find ourselves using the Story of Separation to make sense of our world. This can be misleading, as we get caught up in a model of reality that’s the fundamental root of the problem. Eisenstein believes that we “need to ground environmentalism on something other than data” and he draws on Deep Ecology to explore an alternative:
“When we as a society learn to see the planet and everything on it as beings deserving of respect – in their own right and not just for their use to us – then we won’t need to appeal to climate change to do all the best things that the climate change warriors would have us do” (Eisenstein, 2015).
The work of Charles Eisenstein, David Abram, Glen Mazis and myself is rooted in single insight: We are relational earthbodies, fundamentally intertwined with the more-then-human-world. This is the truth at the heart of the embodied ecology that’s emerging.
How can we escape from the heady over-analytic thinking that our culture is caught up in? Philip Shepherd proposes a path to “radical wholeness” that’s grounded in the deep wisdom of the body (Shepherd, 2017).
Western culture has long prioritized abstract rational thinking over what we might call embodied knowing or embodied intelligence. The abstract mode of relating to the world sets us apart from everything else: It sets a clear and inviolable boundary between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, between me as ‘subject’ and everything else as ‘object’. I’ve referenced many thinkers in my posts who agree that this is nonsense: Amongst others, Eugene Gendlin, Andy Clark, Merleau-Ponty, David Abram, Glen Mazis and Charles Eisenstein.
Philip adds some valuable insights to this ongoing embodied revolution. He explores our sensory capacity, noting the inadequacy of the Western model of five senses and proposes that our primary sense is our ability to sense wholeness; this is what he calls holosapience. Wholeness is not something we need to strive to achieve; it’s not a destination. Paradoxically perhaps, wholeness is both unknowable and fundamental to our being. We cannot objectivity know wholeness, but we can feel it, hence the importance of holosapience. We need to come to rest in the body so that we can be fully present to wholeness and this is facilitated by the grounded sensitivity which forms our embodied intelligence.
For me, Philip Shepherd’s special contribution is to provide simple and powerful ways for us to actually experience the reality of our embodied intelligence. One practice struck me as being especially pertinent right now. I’m preparing for an online event with Philip so I might be forgiven for wanting to present myself well. But there’s a danger that I might slip into what Philip calls ‘presentation mode’, a carefully monitored way of speaking that’s intended to make me sound impressive! We’re all familiar with presentation mode as we use it a lot of the time. It’s driven by our anxiety about not knowing, about sounding like we’re not in control. Philip describes it as speaking from the sternum and suggests moving our awareness to the back of the chest instead. When I try this I sense a shift in how I relate to what I’m saying: It feels more open, grounded and available.
Philip Shepherd and I have exchanged ideas a few times and he’ll be joining me for the Embodiment Conference, in October. Next up is Charles Eisenstein, a radical new voice – for me at least – that has an urgent freshness.
Glen Mazis is a philosopher and poet whose writing frequently merges both skills. I came across his book Earthbodies (2002) during my PhD research on embodied knowing and found it hugely exciting. Mazis explains that ‘bodies’ are much more than we realize. We think of our bodies as bound by the surface of our skin, what Andy Clark calls the ‘skin-bag body’. Mazis, like Clark, believes that’s an illusion, and to explain why he introduces the term ‘earthbody’.
In the West we typically emphasize ownership of objectified bodies. Bodies are beautiful, ugly, fit, sick, strong or weak. And somehow ‘owned’. But “an earthbody isn’t ‘yours,’ it’s the world’s”. For Mazis “you don’t ‘have’ this body. You are part of a dynamic process that we might call ‘earthbodying,’ if we weren’t so used to referring to ourselves with nouns” (Mazis, 2002).
The term earthbodies describes a process more than an object. Earthbodies are “sensual, perceptual and feeling conductors through which richer meaning flows than we can grasp intellectually” (Mazis, 2002). Mazis emphasizes how fluidity and connectedness constitute our embodiment. Countless threads of connection pass though earthbodies, weaving each individual into the wider fabric of the world.
To write of the “fabric of the world” is particularly appropriate because it’s a phrase used by a philosopher that Mazis is profoundly inspired by; Merleau-Ponty. Several strands of thought come together at this point: Mazis, Abram and Gendlin all draw on Merleau-Ponty and all four argue for some notion of the ‘body’ as an open, interactive process.
Conventional notions of the body in Western culture stand in blunt opposition to that radical notion. As Mazis points out, the idea that you might be an open, process in fluid interaction with the world “may sound fantastic to you because we have been taught to close our bodies, lock our knees, and brace ourselves for life and its tasks” (Mazis, 2002). This numbing shut-down means that most people “fail to experience the pull, the tides, of the earth’s motion which stream through us”.
Merleau-Ponty distinguishes between the objective body – the body regarded as an object – and the phenomenal body, which refers to my (or your) body as I (or you) actually experience it. But we typically blur that distinction, experiencing our bodies as enclosed objects that we ‘own’. As a result many people “live much of the time in a state of disconnection and dislocation … and have little sense of where they are, what they feel and what they sense, especially not in the myriad depths and dimensions of the perceptual” (2004).
Mazis points to another way of experiencing our embodied condition that allow us to be more caring, more environmentally aware, more open and more loving. Mazis seeks to “reveal the dance of the planet”, so that we – as earthbodies – can come to experience the earth’s constant motion as more than merely physical: It’s also “emotional, imaginative, spiritual, linguistic, communal, and natural” (Mazis, 2002).
Glen will be joining me for forthcoming on-line Embodiment Conference, which is free to attend. My next post will introduce Philip Shepherd, who will also be Presenting at the Conference.
David Abram’s first book, The Spell of the Sensuous, (1996) has influenced pretty much everyone in the world of ecopsychology and environmental philosophy. Its themes are summed up in the subtitle: Perception and Language in a More-than-human world. By way of introduction, I’ll touch on each of those themes.
Perception Abram is more than just a philosopher; he’s also an ecologist, anthropologist and slight-of-hand magician. That unusual combination gave Abram some unique insights about perception:
“The task of the magician is to startle our senses and free us from outmoded ways of thinking.” (Interview with Scott London, 2018).
Abram’s interest in perception led him to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and he develops that into an embodied environmental philosophy. Abram challenges conventional ideas about subject and object, inside and out. He reveals that our perception is always participatory; it involves “an active interplay, or coupling, between the perceiving body and that which it perceives” (Abram, 1996). Thus he comes to understand the body as “a sort of open circuit that completes itself only in things, in others, in the encompassing earth” (Abram, 1996). There are echoes here of Eugene Gendlin who understood the body as extending beyond the skin into “a vastly larger system” (Gendlin, 1997).
Language It’s not only humans who have a living language. Abram suggests that “various animals and other natural forms today speak in their own unique dialects” (Abram, 1996). Oral cultures fully appreciate this reality; they’re aware that we’re “corporeally embedded” in a “living landscape” (Abram, 1996). But the influence of writing has led us into a “more abstract mode of thinking” that conceals our sensuous, embodied relationship to the more-than-human world (Abram, 1996).
A more-than-human world We are part of a more-than-human community: “the animals, the plants, the trees, even whole forests” (2018). Every member of this wider community has its own wisdom and way of being.
“Each place has its own mind, its own psyche. Oak, madrone, Douglas fir, red-tailed hawk, serpentine in the sandstone, a certain scale to the topography, drenching rains in the winter, fog off-shore in the winter, salmon surging in the streams – all these together make up a particular state of mind, a place-specific intelligence shared by all the humans that dwell therein … ” (Abram, 1996).
Abram was one of the first to recognize the importance of animism for ecological thinking. Animism had long been dismissed as a primitive error, but by the early 1990’s Religious Studies scholar Graham Harvey had identified it as a powerful influence amongst Neo-Pagans. Abram was on a parallel track to Harvey, following the thread through older, indigenous cultures.
Abram continues to explore these themes in Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (2010), another book I highly recommend. It’s important to note that Abram is a practical philosopher and his work with the Alliance for Wild Ethics is perhaps as important as his writing.
I’m delighted to say that David Abram will be joining me on the Ecology and Research channel of The Embodiment Conference. This on-line event takes place from 14 – 25 October and it’s free to join.
In my next post I’ll introduce philosopher and poet Glen Mazis.
The UN message is clear: “Climate change is running faster than we are – and we are running out of time.” Most of us know climate change is an unfolding disaster, but we still don’t change. Why? It’s not what you know, it’s the way that you know it. We know the facts and figures in our heads, but don’t – or can’t – engage on an embodied, gut level.
I first explored these idea in Sacred Ecology and it’s still my most popular publication even though it’s over 25 years old! I wrote about ‘somatic knowing’:
“Besides the cerebral knowledge we all possess, the words & ideas stored in our heads, there is a deeper knowledge held within the tissue of our bodies. It is a somatic, physical knowing which comes from direct experience. This is the knowledge of faith, of emotion, of the gut feeling”.
Fast forward a quarter of a century, and I’m still exploring the same territory. I’ve found many allies in that time, people like David Abram, Glen Mazis, Charles Eisenstein and Philip Shepherd. You may not know them yet, but trust me – these are some of the key thinkers in what we might call embodied ecology. You’ll be able to hear from these four – and many others – as part of the free on-line Embodiment Conference in October. The conference will include over 1000 speakers from disciplines as diverse as yoga, coaching, meditation and therapy.
The Embodiment Conference takes place from 14 – 25 October. It’s free to join, but numbers are limited so sign up now if you don’t want to miss it.
In preparation for the event, my next few blog posts will introduce some of the thinkers featured at the conference. Next up will be David Abram, cultural ecologist, geophilosopher, author of ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ and a source of inspiration for many!
Over a quarter of a century ago I presented a paper called ‘Sacred Ecology’ at a Newcastle University conference (1994), and it’s still my most widely read article. Should I be dismayed that I haven’t come up with anything more popular or pleased that it’s remained relevant?
Sacred Ecology was published in 1996 (Harvey and Hardman) and has been republished several times since, both in books and on the internet. When ‘Humanistic Paganism’ re-posted Sacred Ecology in 2015 I added a short introduction to put it into context. I commented that my emphasis on ritual missed something: “While ritual can be very powerful, there are many ways to access the wisdom of the body and some – like Focusing – are arguably more reliable”. Five years on, I’m increasingly curious about a whole range of embodied pathways to the wisdom of the body and what fundamental principles might underpin them. I’ve already discussed several of these pathways in this blog: Focusing, mindfulness and the wilderness effect, but there are many more.
Since writing Sacred Ecology I’ve gained a better understanding of ritual. Back in the ‘90’s I was heavily involved with Paganism. While that gave me a profound personal experience of the power of ritual, it was in a very specific context. I’ve since explored ritual in other contexts, notably ecopsychology and dance therapy.
Ritual is fundamental to the practical ecopsychology of Bill Plotkin and Joanna Macy. While Plotkin has a more Pagan orientation, Macy’s ‘Work that Reconnects’ is grounded in Buddhism. Both are valuable and widely influential.
Psychotherapy can be a kind of ritual: I’ve argued elsewhere that ritual theory can help us understand the healing process in outdoor therapy (Harris, 2014) and that’s probably true of psychotherapy in general. Moreover, ritual is used explicitly in Family Therapy (Hecker & Schindler), dramatherapy and the dance therapy developed by Anna and Daria Halprin.
Does all this shed light on why Sacred Ecology is still relevant? I wrote Sacred Ecology to illustrate the importance of EcoPagan ritual, but if that’s all it was about I doubt that anyone would bother to read it today. Sacred Ecology hints at something more fundamental: A profound re-connection with the other-than-human revealed thorough the wisdom of the body.