Glen Mazis

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.

Thinking with place

I spent last weekend at an ecopsychology retreat in Lancashire. We were staying in a stone barn in the woods, very close to a peat stained river that surged over ancient rocks.

a peaty stream running over flat rocks

On Saturday I paired up with a colleague for a ‘medicine walk’. This was a wander, wherever instinct led, but with senses awake to the potential for meaning in our surroundings. It was surprisingly powerful and it’s worth pondering why.

Natural places are rich in metaphor and humans are habitual makers of meaning, so perhaps it’s to be expected that a damp, dark grove might trigger a sense of fecund mystery.

While such an interpretation isn’t wrong, it misses the sophistication of the process of thinking with place. The ambiguity of that phrase is productive: While thinking with place can refer to how we use a place as a tool to think with, it also implies animistic thinking together with place.

In future posts I’ll argue that the subject/object distinction is largely artificial – the “organism and environment enfold into each other” (Varela et al. 1991). I’ll also describe how the mind can reach beyond what Clark calls the “skin-bag body” (1997). It is, therefore, by no means clear where my mind ends and the spirit of place begins. To suggest that there’s a richly metaphorical natural world ‘out there’ and a human meaning maker ‘in here’ is far too simplistic.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote:

“As I contemplate the blue of the sky … I abandon myself to it and plunge into this mystery, it ‘thinks itself within me,’ I am the sky itself as it is drawn together and unified, and as it begins to exist for itself; my consciousness is saturated with this limitless blue …”
(Merleau-Ponty, 1962).

In conclusion, person and place are part of a single process; bodymind place.