The Embodiment Conferencewas a huge online event that took place in late 2020. I was the Manager of the Ecology and Research Channel and I also gave a presentation about the Embodied Pathways of Connection. While there have been a few days of free access to the Conference recordings, most of the time they’re behind a paywall. Fortunately, I’m able to share my presentation here. Although you can read an introduction to the Embodied Pathways of Connection in a couple of my blog posts, this 50-minute presentation allows me time to go into more depth. I refer to some of the other presentations from The Embodiment Conference, but you don’t need to watch those to understand what I’m talking about here. However, the Conference organisers will be delighted to sell you lifetime access to all the recordings if you’re keen!
In this presentation, I’m proposing that there are numerous ways of altering consciousness that can enable us to access our embodied knowing and awaken from what Thich Nhat Hanh called “our illusion of separateness.” These are the Embodied Pathways of Connection (EPoC). I talk about several of them in this presentation: mindfulness, psychedelic experience, nature connection, dance, ritual and Focusing. These are the EPoC that I identified when I was doing my PhD research, but are others I haven’t explored yet – art and sex are probably the most obvious.
Since I gave this presentation I’ve been working on a book about the EPoC and my ideas have developed a lot and changed in some ways. I’ll say more about that in future blog posts, but for now, I hope you’ll enjoy this. There’s a short introduction to the Ecology and Research Channel and I open with a reference to a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh: “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness”.
What happens when we combine mindfulness in nature with somatic therapy? That’s the theme of my conversation with Rochelle Calvert for The Embodiment Podcast. It’s very timely too, as one of the topics we discuss is “living an ethical, embodied life” in a time of ecological crisis. Rochelle is passionate about her work and deeply committed to environmental healing. No wonder we got on!
I’ve often talked about why mindfulness works so well in a natural environment, and we explore that together. Rochelle then provides a very clear introduction to Peter Levine’s somatic experiencing and explains how she combines it with mindfulness in nature.
Rochelle recognises the powerful way that nature “calls us into presence”. By helping us to awaken to our senses, nature can enhance our embodied awareness. This allows us to access the wisdom of the body, awakening our inner sense of safety, well-being, and connection. Western approaches tend to exaggerate the importance of the thinking mind and forget the wisdom of the body, but it’s “the innate intuitive healing of this body” that brings healing from trauma.
Rochelle then shares her version of a classic somatic experiencing practice, pendulation: It’s one of her favourite practices and is both simple and very powerful. There are full details in her book, but you’ll get a good sense of it in the podcast.
Reciprocity is a word Rochelle uses a lot, and the question of how we can give back to nature is key for her. One of the most important topics we discuss is living an embodied ethical life. How can I be an ally to nature? How can we live in integrity with our planet? This is a recurring theme of this blog, and Rochelle’s work beautifully deepens the field of embodied ecology.
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”.
Love it or loath it, Christmas is a stressful time for many people. Money worries, anxiety about ‘getting it right’ and spending extra time with the family can all crank up the pressure. Perhaps part of the solution is to bring some mindful presence into your Christmas.
Mindfulness practice is an excellent way to reduce stress. John Kabat-Zinn, who developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness meditation as “the intentional cultivation of nonjudgemental moment-to-moment awareness” (1996). In essence, mindfulness is about being present to the moment. Typically mindfulness mediation will focus on the breath, but you can use any aspect of your immediate experience. If you find yourself starting to get stressed about what to buy someone for Christmas, just pause for moment. What is happening for you right now? Be with the experience, however unpleasant it feels, and try not to make a judgement about it. You may find all kinds of narratives going on in your head: ‘They’ll hate that’, ‘I’m running out of time!’, ‘She/he is so hard to buy a present for’. Can you hear yourself for a moment? Can you just listen to that narrative without getting caught up in it? The key here is to be with the feelings and thoughts but not be in them. It’s as if you’re sitting next to those feelings and worries with compassionate awareness.
If that seems impossible, then just try to become more aware of your physical sensations. Feel the ground beneath your feet. Notice your breathing; there’s no need to try to change it, just watch it for a few breaths. Listen to the sounds around you. More than likely it’s Christmas music, but don’t judge it as good or bad. Can you just listen to the way the sounds come and go around you? By simply paying attention to what is going on for you right now you are becoming more present. Even 30 seconds of mindful presence can help reduce your stress.
Often the most tricky part is noticing that you’re getting stressed in the first place and that’s where a regular mediation practice really helps. If you spend 10 or 15 minutes a day practising watching your breath, you begin to notice what’s going on for you during the rest of the time.
By calling presence ‘the perfect gift’ I risk making it sound like a commodity and it’s true that ‘mindfulness’ is now a business for some. But presence is not something you can buy and it can be transformational. Being more present will help you manage Christmas stress, but mindfulness practice also nurtures compassion, calmness and wisdom. So although the immediate benefits are mostly for you, your mindfulness practice will benefit all beings. That’s why I call it the perfect gift.
Many years ago I saw a talk by the American photographer Duane Michals. Michals rarely works with a single image, preferring to create short sequences of pictures that question our conventional understanding of reality. Michals created a characteristically intense moment in his presentation when he repeated one word about seven times in a way that emphasized its essence: Now! Now! Now! Now! Now! Now! Now!
For those few seconds I was entirely in the moment. It was an unforgettable experience. All this was long before Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, but they highlight the same mode of consciousness.
I work with that moment of now every morning during my meditation practice. Some days I can truly be in the now for a while – really being with my breath – and it’s an extraordinary experience. There is a timeless calm. But the ‘monkey mind’ doesn’t sit still for long and in the next moment there’s some commentary running again.
I’ve found it very helpful to approach watching my breath with the same attitude of attention as I adopt with a psychotherapy client. When I’m with a client I work to be completely present. What is happening right here right now? If I can be with my breath that way, then I become present to myself, to this moment, to now.
“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
But sometimes I get caught up in the striving. After my meditation I’ll judge my practice: How much of the time was I present? How persistent was my monkey mind? I might conclude that ‘Today was better/worse than yesterday.’
John Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness meditation as “the intentional cultivation of nonjudgemental moment-to-moment awareness” (1996). Just such a moment came today, in the midst of an otherwise quite ordinary Wednesday, and it made me realize that meditation isn’t about achieving something – less monkey mind or more ‘timeless calm’. It’s the practice that matters, not the result. Moment-to-moment awareness – being in the now – emerges slowly from practice. The realization that now is all there is comes like a strangers smile, unbidden and unexpected.
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.
According to evolutionary neuroscience we’re not wired to be happy or content but simply to survive. It’s a new science, so such judgements are subject to review, but it certainly seems that our bodymind system easily becomes dysfunctional in modern industrial societies.
Paul Gilbert is a clinical psychologist and developed a new therapeutic approach called ‘compassion focused therapy’ (CFT). Paul has identified three basic bodymind systems; one is focused on potential threats, another on finding resources, and the third on calm contentment & soothing. When the threat system is active our attention becomes like velcro for danger signs and teflon non-stick for anything positive: If you’re on alert for wolves then the fact that the moon looks fabulous is pretty irrelevant! Short-term that’s fine and once danger has passed we naturally shift to either the search and reward mode or the calm contentment system. As long as there’s a cycle between these three systems, we’re fine.
Because the threat system has survival value it can override the other two and it’s activated whenever there’s a perceived danger. The threat system works on a ‘better safe than sorry’ basis so will trigger whenever we feel that a situation isn’t safe. Many people live in situations which don’t feel safe; low income, precarious or stressful work, discrimination, difficult relationships or just keeping abreast of the news. That means that the threat system is often over-active and many people don’t spend enough time in the regenerative contentment & soothing system.
Compassion focused therapy draws heavily on mindfulness to help people learn to rebalance themselves. By becoming mindful of when we’re stuck in the anxiety provoking threat system, we can learn to shift into calm contentment. Self compassion is hugely helpful in this, and though we all have compassion, we may not practice it much. In our culture it can be seen as a sign of weakness or a distraction from the busyness of our lives. But in fact compassion is a form of courage that inspires us to act. With practice we can develop more compassion for ourselves and others, healing within and making the world a better place in the process.
It’s worth noting that mindfulness is the key strategy in CFT. Mindfulness, like so many of the other approaches to alleviating mental distress, is an embodied pathway of connection. If we really are wired to survive, perhaps early humans developed the embodied pathways of connection as a route to a deeper thriving? Practices like mindfulness, ritual, dance, psychedelics and the deliberate use of trance emerged early in human evolution. These same practices are retained by many indigenous groups and have therapeutic value for them. The same is true for all of us: These ancient healing practices can take us beyond mere survival mode to a vibrant, joyful existence.
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.
As I was walking home one evening I saw a card lying in the street. I picked it up and realized what it was; the five steps to wellbeing developed by the New Economics Foundation (NEF). This little card is a brilliant reminder of the 5 steps so I now make sure I see it everyday.
The five steps are simple and powerful.
Connect – I’ve often written about the importance of connection; in fact I think it may be the most fundamental source of wellbeing. The NEF research concurs: Having less than four close relatives or friends puts you at high risk of future mental health problems. On the other hand, wide social networks “promote a sense of belonging and well-being” (NEF).
Try to connect with the people around you:
Talk to someone instead of sending an email or text;
speak to someone your don’t know yet;
don’t just ask how someone’s weekend was; really listen when they reply.
Be active – In Exeter, there’s no excuse! Walking, cycling, kayaking, climbing, swimming, football or, of course, rugby! You don’t have to take on anything too demanding; just find an activity you enjoy and make it part of your life. I often recommend physical exercise for clients who are experiencing depression: Exercise can boost your endorphins and moderate aerobic exercise can help with emotional regulation (Bernstein & McNally, 2017).
So why not go for a walk, try a sport, take up yoga or maybe tai chi? If you walk to a colleague’s desk instead emailing them, you get a bonus social connection!
Take notice – Research shows that paying attention to your immediate experience and ‘savouring the moment’ enhances wellbeing. It can also deepen self-understanding, thus helping you to assess and reaffirm your priorities. Taking notice is related to mindfulness which has been shown to promote positive mental states and facilitate emotional self-regulation.
Cultivate your curiosity; look out for the unusual.
Notice the changing seasons.
Just pause to notice your sensory experience: Really be with this moment.
Remember to check in with your self: How are you feeling right now?
Keep learning – lifelong learning promotes optimism, enhances self-esteem and improves overall life satisfaction. Learning new skills also encourages social connection and is associated with a more active life. Why not join a class, a book club or learn to play an instrument?
Give – Remember the injunction to “practice random kindness”? It seems the Hippies were onto something! Evidence from a range of sources suggest that giving promotes wellbeing. It doesn’t need to be much: Research found that just one act of kindness a week boosts wellbeing. A simple smile or a kind word can count. Start small and maybe you’ll be encouraged to do more, like volunteering for a local community project.
While the NEF research notes the importance of contact with the natural world for wellbeing., they don’t highlight it. I think they’ve missed a crucal step there as these five steps work beautifully in nature. You could easily weave all five steps into a bird watching walk with friends, volunteering for a local conservation group or helping out a neighbour with their gardening!