The moment of now

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.

The Illuminated Man, Duane Michals

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.

Stephanie Gottlob, improvisational movement artist

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.

Improvisation Animates

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.

Wired to survive?

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.

Adapted from Gilbert, 2019

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.

‘Sacred Ecology’ Revisited

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.

St. Catherine’s Hill
St. Catherine’s Hill

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.

Five steps to mental wellbeing

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 to Wellbeing

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!

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.

Why meditate?

BBC Radio 4 explored the question of mindfulness: Is it a panacea or just a fad? Although the presenter was occasionally somewhat tongue in cheek about the whole topic, her cynicism was tempered by the fact that for a lot of people, mindfulness works.

But the programme got me thinking, and in my meditation this morning I began to wonder: what is the point of meditation? For a long time I was mediating because I enjoyed it for its own sake. I find it relaxing and occasionally blissful. While that’s all great, I was missing the real point of meditation, which is to cultivate mindfulness.

Mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). Meditation is deliberately taking some time to practice being mindful. Whether focusing on the breath, music or the taste of a chocolate truffle, meditation is the conscious practice of paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally. Through meditation we become more used to being mindful, and I know from personal experience that regular practice leads to moments of being mindful at other times.

The potential benefits of mindfulness are myriad. While there is sound evidence that mindfulness alleviates anxiety and makes chronic pain much more bearable, it has far wider applications. My own experience bears out Eric McCollum’s belief that mindfulness makes us better therapists (2014) and long term practice can have profound spiritual implications. There is a lovely interview with psychotherapist Miles Neale that points out that the Buddha was a revolutionary who was “trying to empower people to have a radical transformation” that would enable them to “collectively change the fabric of society”. That leads a bigger question about mindfulness and morality that I’ll to return to later, but for now, if you don’t meditate, maybe you’d like to give it a go.

Mindful weeding

When Horace wrote that “He who has begun has half done”, I don’t think he accounted for weeding. Maybe they didn’t do weeding in ancient Rome.

Weeding, like meditation, is ongoing, so I spent Sunday afternoon playing with the potential of a mindful weeding practice. Given that meditation is the process of turning attention “towards one’s moment-to-moment experience” (Paramanada, 2007), there are endless ways to practise. As I knelt amidst the weeds, with my hands digging and sifting earth from roots, I felt my mind slowing and opening.

Then my practise shifted to something more focused: What weeds were clogging the garden of my mind? Was each ‘weed’ shallow and easy to pull out or like bindweed, deep-rooted and persistent? I began to think with the place: Where do the root networks lead? What feeds them? Is it even a ‘weed’ at all?

According to a rule of thumb from The Times, deep-rooted weeds thrive in poor soil, while shallow-rooted weeds prefer fertile soil. It seems that mental weeds are much the same, so remember to feed you mind.

References

Mindfulness in Nature

Mindfulness and ecotherapy are two of the most ancient and powerful approaches to healing mental distress. What happens when you bring them together? Last week-end I spoke about practicing mindfulness in nature at a conference on ‘Psychotherapy and the Natural World’ at the Eden Project.

The original invitation to deliver a presentation had been open ended; I could have chosen any theme related to therapy and the natural world. Mindfulness in nature came to me almost immediately, but I wondered if I could say anything about it that was worthwhile.

Once I sat with the notion it opened like a flower, revealing a pattern of connections with other core aspects of my thinking: Ecotherapy of course, (Mindful weeding), spirituality, (Aboriginal deep listening), Focusing (Focusing in Nature), Barry Patterson’s“ listening to the threshold brook”, and on and on.

Sunlight through pine trees

My PhD research identified meditation as one of the embodied pathways of connection with nature that inspired and supported environmental activism. One participant explained that his “connection with the earth” had become “a major part” of who he is. Mindfulness in nature had become a core practice for him:

“just spending time out in nature, just listening. Just looking. Not really thinking too much. It’s good to kind of not think, just become, just let it flow through you I guess” (Harris, 2008).

I’ve realized that the nature connection workshops I’ve been running for years are really mindfulness in nature sessions. Participants do experience a deeper connection with nature, but framing the practice as mindfulness really captures the essence of the work. It also shifts our perception of it: instead of focusing on some outcome – getting a deeper nature connection – it emphasises the process itself. That’s fundamental because mindfulness isn’t about making something happen; it’s simply about being.