Pinakarri: Aboriginal deep listening

‘White Fella Dreaming’ writes about Pinakarri, a practice from the Aboriginal Mandjilidjara Mardu people of Western Australia. Pinakarri literally means “ears standing up” and is usually translated as ‘deep listening’, a listening with the whole bodymind. It struck me because of the similarities with practices I’m familiar with from ecopsychology, spirituality and therapy.

This is a slightly edited version of the guide to Pinakarri from White Fella Dreaming:

  1. Sit quietly and sense where your body connects with whatever is supporting you right now; the ground, chair or cushion.
  2. Feel the weight of your body and notice how the earth supports it. No matter what you are sitting in, it is made of earth in one way or the other. The gravity that holds you there was created with the beginning of the Universe.
  3. Become aware of your breath. Listen to the difference between the in breath and the out breath. This is how the Universe sounds when it sings through your body.
  4. Become aware of the slight difference in temperature between the in and out breaths. This difference is what you give to the act of breathing. The heat involved in that change comes from the Sun. It is warming up life through your body and you are a channel for this process. You embody the energy of the Sun. You are completely unique and absolutely universal at the same time.
  5. Now listen to the beat of your heart. This began in the womb and stays with you until death. It beats out a particular rhythm and sound.
  6. Find the first point of tension you become aware of. Breathe into that spot and consciously relax it with the power of the Sun and the universal energy you are now aware of. Breathe out the tension.

While much of that sounds like Buddhist breathing meditation, several elements recall a Western Pagan earthing ritual (Starhawk, 2004) and other aspects echo the practice of ‘grounding into being here’ from Whole Body Focusing. All of it sits beautifully within certain strands of ecopsychology (e.g. Bill Plotkin and David Abram). Have these approaches appropriated Aboriginal practice? I very much doubt it. Although there has been a lot of influence on Western Paganism and ecopsychology from indigenous wisdom, I think it’s likely that people across the planet have learnt this kind of deep listening simply by virtue of being embodied and aware.

It’s not what you know …

… it’s the way that you know it. I sometimes have a name ‘on the tip of my tongue’. I’m sure you know that odd feeling; you both know and don’t know at the same time. We make sense of these experiences by talking about an unconscious knowing that we can’t always bring into full awareness.

But there’s a curious flip side to this: You can ‘know’ something consciously without really ‘getting it’ at a deeper level. My therapy clients will sometimes comes to a realization – an ‘Ah ha!’ moment – when they grasp something in a new way. “I knew that already, in my head, but now”, they add with a touch to the heart or stomach, “I know it here”. The difference is profound.

I first wrote about this 25 years ago in Sacred Ecology:

“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”.

I later discovered that I was describing embodied knowing and went on to do a PhD on the subject (Harris, 2008).

Conscious knowing is just the tip of the iceberg

Embodied knowing is fundamental to my work as a therapist. In many cases a client knows exactly what’s needed, but doesn’t have conscious access to that knowledge. At other times someone will know something consciously, but lack an embodied grasp of it. The therapist is rarely – if ever – the expert. Our role is facilitating the client’s journey of growth and self discovery, which typically involves integrating their embodied knowing.

There’s another vital aspect to this which takes me back to where I started. In Sacred Ecology I wrote that we need to understand our deep relationship with the other-than-human world at the level of embodied knowing. Unless you’re avoiding the news, you’ll know, in your head at least, that there’s a climate crisis. The facts are clear and have been for years, but nothing much gets done. Action on climate change is characterized by denial and broken promises and time is running out: We may have less than 18 months to avoid catastrophic change. But unless we get that at a gut level, really feel what it means, we’ll remain in what Zion Lights calls ‘passive denial’. You may know the facts about climate crisis but, painful though it is, you have to experience the reality in your body. That wisdom of the body is like taking the red pill; there’s no going back.

When I wrote Sacred Ecology I believed that myth & ritual offered the best route to the wisdom of the body. I’ve since recognized that there are many pathways to embodied connection. These include practices that are already advocated, like mindfulness and nature connection. We need to focus in on these pathways and learn how to use them more effectively. This is embodied ecology and may be our best hope for a future.

The Embodied Pathways of Connection in Therapy

My previous post introduced the EPOC, embodied practices that can reveal our radical interconnectedness. I initially came across the EPOC during my PhD research into spiritual eco-activism: The EPOC both inspired and supported the campaigners I worked with (Harris, 2008). Years later I noticed something curious; the EPOC I’d identified amongst road protesters seemed to underpin much of psychotherapy!

That may initially sound implausible, but the deeper I’ve looked into this apparent link, the more sense it makes. My research with activists identified seven EPOC; nature connection, meditation, Focusing, ritual, dance, trance and psychedelics. These seven all map to psychotherapeutic practices:

  • nature connection is the foundation of ecotherapy;
  • mindfulness meditation is at the heart of third wave CBT;
  • Focusing is a therapeutic practice;
  • psychedelic psychotherapy may be the next big mental health breakthrough;
  • dance therapy has been around since the mid-60s’;
  • ritual is widespread in psychotherapy, while
  • trance is an altered state of consciousness which is common in psychotherapy.

This is a big subject, but there’s two points I can make about how the EPOC function in psychotherapy. First, the EPOC facilitate access to embodied knowing and that process is fundamental to how psychotherapy heals. Second, they can dramatically widen our perspective: If you’re focusing too much on your own mental processes, mental distress is often the result.

John Kabat-Zinn launched the therapeutic mindfulness revolution that’s transformed the lives of millions. He believes that connection is fundamental: “the quality of the connections within us and between us and with the wider world determines our capacity for self-regulation and healing” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).

Many Focusing Oriented Therapists speak of that connection too: “Focusing allows our consciousness to settle into that area in ourselves where there is physical in-binding with the rest of the cosmos” (Campbell and McMahon, 1997).

Research into how psychedelic psychotherapy works has come to the same conclusion: “a sense of connectedness is key” (Carhart-Harris, et al, 2017). The theme of connection also runs through dance therapy: Connecting the mind and body, the conscious with the unconscious, the self with the other (Halprin, 2002).

This leaves ritual and trance, which are both complex and multifaceted. I’d argue that ritual is fundamental to many psychotherapeutic approaches and my experience of psychoanalysis felt deeply ritualistic. But for the moment, I’ll be more specific and reference Family Constellation Therapy (FCT) which explicitly draws on African healing ritual. FCT is based on the notion of the ‘knowing field’ a web that “propagates information and affect through the family and ancestral network” (Adams, 2014). That sounds strange to Western ears, but accords very well with Eugene Gendlin’s claim that “Your physically felt body is in fact part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people. In fact, the whole universe” (1981).

Trance is much more common than many of us suppose: When you’re watching a film or reading a novel, you’re most likely in trance. Hypnotherapy is of course the most obvious use of trance in psychotherapy but it’s arguably more fundamental. Furthermore, nature connection, meditation, Focusing and psychedelics can all induce an altered state of consciousness which we might call trance. On that basis, trance can certainly facilitate a sense of deep connection. There’s also a powerful association between psychotherapy and shamanism which gives trance a central role (Thalhamer, 2015). Boundaries get very blurred at this point because Shamanism is intimately engaged with nature connection and can include aspects of meditation, Focusing, dance, ritual and psychedelics.

We’re now close to the place to which these embodied pathways of connection all lead. For Glen Mazis this place is about ‘earthbodying’; Philip Shepherd names it “radical wholeness” (2017); David Abram might speak of participatory perception (2010), while Susan Greenwood writes of “a heightened awareness of an expanded connected wholeness” (Greenwood, 2005). For me this place is characterized by a particular kind of embodied knowing, the “wisdom of the body; that all things are ultimately one” (Harris, 1996).

The Embodied Pathways of Connection

What links mindfulness, psychedelics, nature connection, ritual and the therapeutic technique of Focusing? They can all help us access to our deepest embodied knowing and awaken us from the illusion of separation. For Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and lifelong peace activist, the purpose of our existence is “to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” But how?

Meditation is one path, and John Danvers wrote that mindfulness is a tool for coming to “fully realise that we are relational beings in a relational universe” (Danvers, 2016). John describes an experience where mindfulness allowed his fixed sense of self to dissolve:

“the egocentric, unitary, ‘I’, wasn’t there. Instead a different state of being was at work (or at play) – as if the edges of myself were dissolved into the surrounding space. It felt like there was no separation between me and the world” (2016).

Gail Bradbrook felt an inner stuckness for years. She was passionate about social change, but none of her campaigning efforts had really taken off. So Gail headed off to Costa Rica to experience the healing power of psychedelics – AKA enthogens – including Ayahuasca. She had heard reports of how “people on psychedelics report a deeply felt sense of peace, oneness and unity with the planet” (Bradbrook, 2019). The experience was transformational and on her return home Gail co-founded Extinction Rebellion.

Throughout the ‘60’s and ‘70’s Robert Greenway led groups on multi-day treks into the wilderness. He found that spending several days in wild nature could have a “profound impact on the psyche”. People typically had “feelings of expansion or reconnection” that he identified as spiritual (Greenway, 1995). I’ve written about this wilderness effect elsewhere, but it’s important to note that spending even a brief time in nature can open our awareness of deep connection. Claire Thompson describes her experience of watching a dramatically beautiful sunrise:

“I didn’t realise until afterwards, but my sense of self was absent. I was simply absorbed by the intrinsic wonder of the view and intimately involved in deep contemplation of the pure grace and delicate beauty of nature. I was an integral part of the scene” (2013).

Loch Voil

Ritual is one of the most ancient, powerful and widespread pathways to connection. In Sacred Ecology I wrote that being “part of a powerful ritual” can enable us to “come to the wisdom of the body; that all things are ultimately one”. A lot depends on the intention of the ritual and the integrity of those who facilitate it, but it’s no accident that members of my local Extinction Rebellion group will lead a Summer Solstice Ceremony this evening to support the movement.

I’ve often written about Focusing and Eugene Gendlin, the philosopher and psychotherapist who developed it. In essence, Focusing is a process of sensing into the body, curiously open to what meaningful sensations might be there. Many people have walked this pathway of connection and Herbert Schroeder is a good example. Herbert was working as an environmental psychologist for the US Department of Agriculture when he began experimenting with Focusing in natural spaces. He experienced “an inward, bodily sense of myself expanding out into space, as though the boundary separating myself from my environment had become relaxed and permeable” (2008).

How can practices as diverse as Focusing, ritual, meditation, taking psychedelics and walking in nature have such dramatic – and similar – effects? Gendlin gave us a key part of the answer when he wrote that the “physically felt body is in fact part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people – in fact, the whole universe” (1981). Gendlin, like many other thinkers, recognized that we are not the isolated individuals of our cultural myth.

The quotes above all speak of connection, relationship, expansion and the dissolution of boundaries. Although they’ve taken different pathways, they seems to be arriving at the same place; the wisdom of the body that revels what Thich Nhat Hanh calls the “illusion of separateness”. Mindfulness, psychedelics, nature connection, ritual and Focusing are all pathways that lead us to deeper connection. Crucially, they are all part of our embodied experience. These then are embodied pathways of connection (EPOC). There are other EPOC, some of which I’ve already identified; trance, dance, sex and sensual experience. Others are still to be recognized, so if you think there’s an EPOC I’m missing, I’d love to hear from you.

In my next post I’ll explore the role of the EPOC in therapy.

Glen Mazis & David Abram discuss embodied ecology

Last year I was invited to host the ecology thread for the 2018 Embodiment Conference. Who would I recommend to speak on the subject of embodied ecology? Two thinkers immediately came to mind who have been a huge influence on my own work: Glen Mazis & David Abram. This podcast brings them together in a fascinating dialogue. After a brief introduction, I sit back to enjoy a journey through embodied ecology guided by these poetic philosophers. The core theme is, I think, participation. Glen points out that “The world is in your body and you’re feeling what it’s telling you”. David develops that idea with his suggestion that “to be a body is to be entangled, enfolded and infused with so many other bodies, most of which are not human”.

Both of them are fascinated with imagination and language. David points out that “our bodies are imagining the world constantly … Imagination is an act of the sensing body itself, all the time. We are creatively adding to to what is immediately given in the world”. Glen develops this idea when he speaks of how poetry is “a way of using language that tells you, no, you can’t stay just in the web of words, you’ve to go back to your fleshly experience”.

Glen and David explore many of the topics I’ve touched on in this blog – Merleau-Ponty, deep ecology, embodied knowing – and then follow the path into sensuality, language, climate change and eco-trauma. David beautifully expresses the pain: “To taste the world with our creaturely senses all open and awake is to feel a world that it is filled with wounds”. Glen identifies the danger here: “There’s the cycle of hurt and violation … that takes you further away from the resources you need”. But this source of pain is also the root of healing. For David “that edge of grief and pain is just a threshold, and if we step thorough that threshold without flinching from it we come into a world of wonders”.

We all agree that nature connection, opening “to the more-than-human world is the path to healing”. This is a very familiar route for some of us, but as Glen points out, it can be a rough walk and many people will need support along the way. However, he adds, “As soon as they open themselves, it’ll be self-affirming because the world is a nourishing place”.

Related resources:

Sitting at the threshold brook

I’ve realised that what Barry Patterson calls “listening to the threshold brook” is the Sit Spot by another name. I’ve already outlined the principles of the Sit Spot: Find a place outdoors and sit there everyday for at least 15 minutes.

Sit Spot practice is both simple and profound. It lay at the heart of the mentoring Jon Young received from Tom Brown Jr. and is the primary Core Routine of the Art of Mentoring (Young, Hass and McGown, 2010). It’s no surprise, then, that many Eco-Pagans have the same practice, but that realisation took me a while!

My Ph.D. research identified listening to the threshold brook as one of a number of ways that Eco-Pagans connect to the animate world of nature. I concluded that it works – in part at least- by shifting awareness down the cognitive iceberg and thus enhancing our sense of connection. If I’m right, then the Sit Spot works the same way. The next question is, can the cognitive iceberg model help us understand how other Core Routines work their magic?

The threshold brook

My Ph.D. research into embodied knowing found that Eco-Pagans living in urban environments often had a powerful spiritual connection to a specific place. Barry Patterson, one of my research participants, described this connection as listening to the “threshold brook” (Harris, 2008).

The phrase “threshold brook” stands for any of the innumerable natural  miracles our fast fleeting lives ignore. It’s from John Keats’ poem in The Human Seasons: “Fair things pass by, unheeded as a threshold brook”.

But what if we did pay heed?

The threshold brook is there. Now how about I actually spend some time with it?  And how about one day, after maybe months or weeks or however long it takes, maybe one day no matter how cynical or jaded or sceptical or clever, or over analytical I was, that one day this special brook actually did speak to me. And told me what I needed to hear. And then I got up from sitting by the threshold brook and walked back into my world a different person” (Barry Patterson).

Listening to the threshold brook provides a “deepening sense of place” (Patterson, n.d.) for Eco-Pagans, who often listen to its voice using the felt sense described by Gendlin (1981). As Barry explained, when the threshold brook speaks, the hearer’s world changes forever because it reveals our “sacred relationship with the world” (Zoe, research participant): Thus one place can pattern a sacred relationship to the world.

Framing perception

As a friend and I stood gazing at a Renoir, I felt its beauty gently suffuse my body. My friend turned to me and I smiled, expecting to share the moment. “Wow!” He said. “How much do you reckon that’s worth?’

Seeing the wood or the trees

When you look at this photograph do you see a rainforest ecosystem or thousands of dollars worth of timber? It’s all a matter of perspective; the logger who makes his living from cutting down Tasmania’s rainforest sees wood, while I see trees.

Let’s frame it differently: Let’s drain out the colour and simplify the representation to show this area in terms of logging rights.

Pulpwood concession areas, 1985

It’s pretty hard to see a rainforest ecosystem now.

My photograph and the map are cultural representations of place, but is either more ‘true’? The photograph is an aesthetic attempt to record a sensual, embodied experience of place, whereas the map is a simple representation of data, so surely it’s more rational and objective? No; evidence from cognitive science – and elsewhere – suggests that reason cannot function without emotion and the ‘objective’ world simply doesn’t exist. As the enactivist Varela explains, “knower and known, mind and world, stand in relation to each other through mutual specification or dependent coorigination” (Varela et al., 1991).

We create our world in the very process of perception.

Nature connection: Core routines

The sit spot is one of 13 core routines described in Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature. They are:

  • Sit spot
  • Story of the day
  • Expanding sensory awareness
  • Questioning and tracking
  • Animal forms
  • Wandering
  • Mapping
  • Exploring field guides
  • Journalling
  • Survival living
  • Minds eye imagining
  • Listening for bird language
  • Thanksgiving

Regularly practising just some of these powerful techniques will deepen your connection with nature.

Some of them look familiar: Thanksgiving, for example, is part of every spiritual path and you probably have memories of wandering or telling the story of the day if only from childhood. A few may strike you as odd: What would it mean to practice animal forms or survival living? Your tribal ancestors would be able to tell you.

The Core routines were developed by the Wilderness Awareness School under the guidance of Jon Young. Jon draws his inspiration from his childhood mentoring by tracker Tom Brown Jr., who was in turn taught by Stalking Wolf, an Apache elder.

Although Native American teaching forms the foundation of Jon’s work, he draws from ancient and modern nature connection strategies from around the world: Jon is as likely to tell a story about about the Kalahari Bushman as he is to reference ecopsychology.

I’ve trained with Jon and use the Core routines – and much more – in my nature connection workshops.

The sit spot

The principle of the sit spot could hardly be simpler: Find a place outdoors and sit there everyday for at least 15 minutes. Although it’s generally traced to Native American teachers, this ancient practise is cross-cultural. What modern Pagans call ‘sitting out’ has a more explicitly spiritual purpose, but is essentially the same thing.

A overgrown wooden bench. Copyright Adrian Harris.

Spending time in your sit spot is a meditation that fine-tunes your sensory awareness. Gradually, patterns in nature become apparent and in time you fall into a ”deepening sense of place” (Patterson). Such subtle embodied communion with one chosen place can pattern a sacred relationship to the world.