Most dancers work in a studio, but Stephanie wanted to see what happens when she went out into the wild. Stephanie spends weeks living in some of the most remote parts of North America: she’s visited rain forest, deserts, tundra, lakes and swamps.
I interviewed Stephanie for the first episode of my new podcast series, Embodied Pathways. We explore art, nature connection, embodiment, dance, relationship, activism and spirituality. There are many crossovers with the themes of this blog, but one is foundational: where we are has a profound impact on who we are. Stephanie describes the mythic power of the ancient rainforest she visited and the powerful impact it had on her “unconscious imagination”. She concludes that “We need the forests to be human”.
This reminds me of Christopher Preston’s work. He concludes that “the physical environment is not just a site in which mind operates; it is a characterful place that influences the products of the mind” (Preston, 2003: 88).
David Abram says much the same:
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 … ”
Relationship is central to Stephanie’s work. Sometimes there’s a merging, a blurring of the self/other divide, but at other times there’s a clear engagement with an animate other. In the guest post Stephanie wrote for this blog, she writes: “Landscape and I… always a duet, at least a duet”.
Towards the end of our conversation, we touch on the environmental crisis, It’s an emotional moment for me, but Stephanie’s experience has taught her well; in the face of fear and immense challenge, she finds a place of trust and engagement.
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.