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.
‘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:
Sit quietly and sense where your body connects with whatever is supporting you right now; the ground, chair or cushion.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Research has established that spending time in the wilderness can have profound effects on people. This “wilderness effect” (Greenway, 1995) usually occurs in truly wild places like the Grand Canyon, but my research shows that it can work its magic in more urban environments.
I describe this process in my article on ‘The power of place: Protest site pagans’, which has been published in the European Journal of Ecopsychology. The article expands on several themes I’ve explored here, notably Eco-Paganism, the spirit of place and the cognitive iceberg. It’s based on my research with protest camps activists and describes how spending extended periods of time in nature can catalyse profound personal change.
The article also explains the model of embodied situated cognition that I’ve described as ‘the cognitive iceberg’ in several posts. In the last section I use the cognitive iceberg model to provide a partial explanation for how the wilderness effect works. I think it works really well as a companion piece to my chapter in The Wanton Green, which was published in 2012.
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.