Intimate Ecological Engagement (Part 2)

Here is Part 2 of another piece that I wrote for a school assignment. Part 1 can be read here. I plan to expand it—deepening the study of each topic, relating it more to the work that we do in The School of Forest Medicine community, and by bringing in other viewpoints—and to incorporate it into the next book that I write.

Intimate Ecological Engagement and Our Collective Agency in the Face of the Unfathomable (Part 2)

Ecological Interdependence and Intimate Engagement

In the recognition of kinship, there is recognition of how kin differ, but this marked boundary between species is not exclusive. It is overcome by reciprocal responsibilities of mutual care and by an emphasis on consubstantiality, connectivities, and intersubjectivity. Awareness of the ecological interdependence of all life leads to a recognition of corporeal interpenetration between different living beings. (Hall 2011, chap. 5, Specific Kin and Care)

To act with integrity in regards to the Earth on local and global scales, we must be in right relationship to the Earth, and to be in right relation to the Earth we must be in right relationship to ourselves. Recognizing this sets us on the path to truly understanding our interconnectivity with all life, and whether we are aware of our interconnectedness or not, we are intimately and always engaged with every aspect of the world. In the introductory chapter of her book, Animate Planet, Kath Weston writes:

for every coal seam, aquifer, energy drink, and chicken nugget that late industrialism produces as alienated ‘resources' destined for consumption, there are people who have to engage—intimately, creatively, sometimes eagerly, sometimes reluctantly—with the land dispossession that new factories entail, the arsenic poisoning as borewells sink ever deeper, [and] the sweet scent of the latest chemical concoctions. (Weston 2017, 6)

In contrast to Weston’s examples which shed light on our unhealthy relationships to the “mutant ecologies” of industrial influence, cultivating empathic connection via communion with other humans and with nonhuman beings brings to surface aspects of our conditioning that resist the recognition of our earthly and universal co-existence. The severity of the current ecological crises also viscerally register in every body amplifying opportunities and providing pressure to cook away this conditioning and the associated shame that was incorporated into the human psyche during the time of the Severing. As rational ways of perceiving the world loosen, newly emergent ways of being, informed by integral modes of consciousness, begin to arise, altering our awareness of and relationship to immanent transformational energies. We no longer look "out there" for connections to liberate us from our human separation from "nature" but acknowledge what already is, and avenues of intimate ecological engagement open as we let go of old-paradigm thought forms and attempts to bridge non-existent gaps. When we operate from a true place of integrity, which fundamentally requires an awareness of our myriad connections within the web of life, we act not only in our own self interest but for the good of the greater whole, and as we recognize the agency and subjective experience of the nonhuman persons with whom we are inextricably bound on all levels of our beings (theirs and ours) a subtle but growing sense of our collective agency arises in the face of the unfathomable. The question is: Will our human attempts to ignore these visceral experiences outlast the increasingly insistent impulse to wake up and reorient?

A Communion of Subjects: Intimacy with the Community of All Life

That the Universe is a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects is the central commitment of the Ecozoic. Existence itself is derived from and sustained by this intimacy of each being with every other being in the universe. (Swimme 1992, 243)

Though it may seem quite strange by many in western industrial culture to treat nonhumans as subjective beings capable of intimate engagement, communication, and communion, for many indigenous peoples as well as those members of western culture whose perspective of personhood has shifted, it is clear that trans-species relations occur all the time. If we define persons from an animistic frame of reference as “those with whom other persons interact with varying degrees of reciprocity” and as those who “may be spoken with” as opposed to objects that “are usually spoken about,” (Harvey 2006, xvii) our conception of personhood broadens to include animals and plants. For some, mountains, rivers, rocks, and elemental forces also qualify for personhood. It is easier to allow for this capacity in animals, but is it truly possible to engage intimately with plants and other seemingly inanimate beings?

Anthropologist Nurit Bird-David contrasts modernist objectivist epistemology with the animistic epistemology of the Nayaka, a South Indian hunter-gatherer group. “According to [the objectivist] paradigm, learning involves acquiring knowledge of things through the separation of knower and known and often, furthermore, by breaking the known down into its parts in order to know it.” Cutting a tree down and separating its parts is one way to understand a tree, but so is “talking” with it. Engaging with a tree in this way “is to perceive what it does as one acts towards it, being aware concurrently of changes in oneself and the tree. It is expecting response and responding, growing into mutual responsiveness and, furthermore, possibly into mutual responsibility.” Setting aside our common objectivist, modern, mental/rational perception, we are able to access inherent yet mostly forgotten modes of consciousness that allow us to be “in-the-world with other things.” This orientation allows “one’s awareness of one’s environment and one’s self [to become] finer, broader, deeper, richer.” Respectfully relating to nonhumans and recognizing their own subjective experience of the world, the less other-seeming they become, and consequently our ability to “hear” and engage with them increases. (Bird‐David 1999, S77-78)

Recognition and understanding can only come through experience. So how does one experience the interconnectivity of all life and how do we begin to “listen?” I have found that venturing into wild nature and surrendering myself in vulnerability to the forces encountered there with respect and humility has allowed my relationship with the community of life to rectify within my physical body and energetic being. Developing relationships with nonhuman persons has helped me frame an understanding of self, and through this reciprocity of love and illumination, this sharing of heart, mind, and soul, a sense of kinship and trust has arisen, fertilized by an ever-renewing faith in wild nature and the universe.

But how do we orient ourselves in order to interact in deep relationship with other-than-human persons? I believe the first step is learning to access our vulnerability. A representative dictionary definition states that, “someone who is vulnerable is weak and without protection, with the result that they are easily hurt physically or emotionally,” but the deeper meaning of vulnerability, which often goes unrecognized, may be defined as a state which enables energetic interpenetration. (Collins English Dictionary n.d.) Setting aside our armoring enables us to truly feel the boundless nature of our interconnectivity. To be vulnerable is to be unafraid of connection and to allow communion with living, elemental forces and conscious, nonhuman beings. Vulnerability is also an antidote to shame and essential for empathic engagement. In this light we may view vulnerability as a source of strength and wisdom, rather than as a liability. To allow the waters of a rushing river to run through your being, to be shaken by the quake-force of the earth, to merge oneself with an ancient, towering Redcedar is to experience this truth for yourself.

Integral Consciousness, Inscendence, and the Renewal of Initiatory Practices

Thomas Berry told us that in order to invent new sustainable human cultures we must root our efforts not in our rational minds but in revelatory visions that sprout from the depths of the human psyche and from our encounters with the mysteries of the natural world. He coined the word inscendence to refer to this descent to soul that, with good fortune, ignites visionary experience, which in turn guides transformational action. (Plotkin 2011, Introduction)

In The Evolution of Integral Consciousness Haridas Chaudhuri writes about how our soul’s “deepest aspirations” arise from our “organic relationship to nature” and how their persistence in the “dreams of our minds” (Chaudhuri 1977, 15) illuminates the course upon which this evolution proceeds. Underlying this notion, in my understanding, is the idea that human consciousness is a reflection of the consciousness inherent in the universe itself and that the emergent integral mode of consciousness, like all of those that have preceded it, has existed since the beginning of time.

Chaudhuri describes how our society’s dualistic fragmentation of knowledge cuts us off from a true understanding of life. Using the religious idea espoused by the dominant western monotheistic traditions that God is transcendent and out there somewhere rather than immanent and all-pervading as an example, he points out that the “secret wisdom” of nature goes unnoticed. Only by recognizing the “multi-form and multi-dimensional fullness” (Chaudhuri 1977, 17) of reality can we begin to formulate the values that will steer us away from the present-day crises that threaten the viability of life on Earth, and only by being present to the wholeness of our individual selves and to our planet-wide web of interrelations will we act with integrity in all facets of our lives.

According to Bill Plotkin our inner spontaneities, which inform “the ways we perceive, think, feel, imagine, speak, and act when we inhabit our authentic role in the world” are an expression not just of our “genetic coding” but are a reflection of the many interconnections with all other beings within our inhabited ecosystems. “We take the form we do and have the instincts and spontaneities we have because of the place we inhabit, our ecological niche. And, like every other member of the Earth community, our niche shifts and adjusts—or at least ought to—in relation to the activities of all other members of the Earth community.” Echoing Chauduri, Plotkin goes on to state that “our ecological niche (our place) and our own unconscious psyches influence our human form and tendencies. Our nature coding is how the Earth is dreaming us, even how the universe is doing so, independent of any conscious beliefs we have about ourselves.” In clarifying Thomas Berry’s notion of “nature coding,” Plotkin writes:

Our cultural coding, when healthy, derives from our nature coding. It’s not that culture is unnatural, but that it’s a second-order coding, one that we design (unlike our nature coding), and one that can diverge from our nature coding if we’re not careful. Our nature coding is primary and foundational. Even our human ability to design our cultural coding is given to us by our nature coding. To become fully human, we require a healthy cultural coding in addition to our nature coding. But—and this is Thomas’s point—if our cultural codings deviate from the guidance of our nature coding, then our cultures themselves become the greatest threat to our survival, as we are now witnessing throughout the world. (Plotkin 2011, Genes, Place, Soul, and Nature Coding) 

In the industrialized societies we no longer have initiatory practices that align our cultural coding, the “root patterns, seed ideas, or consciousness-shifting images that might animate healthy, creative, sustainable cultures of the future,” with nature’s coding. The restoration of these integral processes of initiation must be “guided by visionary experiences that come to us in some transrational process from the inner shaping tendencies that we carry within us.” Rather than utilizing traditional transcendent spiritual practices, accessing these experiences calls for processes of inscendence that establish deep relationships with the wild. Without the renewal of real and true initiatory practices we will remain in an adolescent stage of development as a species and continue to relate to the world in a distorted way. (Plotkin 2011, Inscendence and the Dream of the Earth)

By opening ourselves to and communing with the mysteries of the universe and surrendering our ego-selves to beings embedded in non-differentiated forms of consciousness we invite an intensification of integral consciousness which can help orient us as we navigate these evolutionary passages. While working with plant medicines and the forces of wild nature, I have personally experienced and have witnessed in others whom I’ve guided and with whom I’ve shared space the fruits of these practices, and from these embodied experiences of interconnectedness modes of being that respect and honor the dignity of all beings arise and discernment of “what is ‘whole-maintaining’ and what is not” may become second-nature. “This is where communion is vitally important. Communion can be understood as the web of relationships or the dance between different aspects of the universal whole.” (Cullinan, chap.6, Taking Guidance from the Great Jurisprudence)

A Better Future for All of the Earth’s Children

What we are concerned with is the shaping of the human world itself: identifying values, establishing a civilizational discipline, molding a language that can carry our deeper interpretation of human experience, activating a communion with the divine, and providing an educational program in which succeeding generations can achieve an expanding life pattern along with an interpretative vision of reality. All these creative functions need to be fulfilled while we are establishing an encompassing human community that can relate effectively with the living and nonliving systems of the planet. (Berry 2006, chap. 5)

Without clear direction from cultural norms and values informed by nature’s coding we in the industrial growth societies have clearly steered the ship of life off of any viable course forward and are dragging the rest of the world to doom in our wake as we navigate solely by a rational, dualistic mindset. Our success is measured by our ability to continually extract, convert, and commodify the living essence of the Earth. In so doing we disregard the integral functioning of our planet’s bio-systems. Chaudhuri reminds us that when things go awry it is our duty “to reconstruct higher values on the basis of a clear understanding of the crucial problems of [our] epoch” and “to reaffirm the truth” in a way that is understandable to the people living at this time in our society. (Chaudhuri 1977, 16) I propose that we cultivate intimate engagement and empathic communion by accessing our vulnerability and work towards renewing authentic initiatory practices and broaden our awareness of kin as we look to plants and other nonhuman beings to guide us in these perilous times.

For the briefest flicker in the grand scale of time a main driving force and expectation for many of us as members of industrial growth societies has been to make a better life for our children, but it is clear that the health and well-being of our progeny are tied to the health and well-being of the entire Earth community. To ensure a better future for our children we have to ensure a better future for all of the children of Earth—nonhuman animals, plants, all beings, and all ecological systems. By letting go of this dream of ever-expanding growth we might feel that we are sacrificing too much, but what are the alternatives?

We can choose to continue irrevocably altering the conditions required for life to thrive on Earth or we can allow the pressure of the crises precipitated by Western industrial societies current orientation to life to clear away impediments to the expression of a consciousness that recognizes the interconnectivity of all life. This consciousness, based on the recognition that the universe is “a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects” and through which respect for all beings and justice for all cannot possibly be denied, is now shaping the way more and more humans are participating in the “transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.” (Berry, 1999, 3) In this spirit, guided and informed by intimate ecological engagement and in partnership with our kin—the entire Earth community—succeeding generations will be unable to act in ways that that put the integrity of the life systems of our planet at risk. We are not alone, but in accordance with humanity’s specific ecological role and bearing the full responsibility to act, the choice is ours to make.

Endnotes

5 In her book, Animate Planet: Making Visceral Sense of Living in a High-Tech Ecologically Damaged World, Kath Weston explores the implications of “a more intimate engagement with all that surrounds us and all that is us, as the lines between technology, bodies, and their surroundings [are] smudged.”

6 “Mutant ecology” is a concept that Weston borrows from Joseph Masco in his book, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post–Cold War New Mexico, “to describe the broader ecological effects of aboveground atomic testing in particular and the knock-on effects of research into nuclear physics more generally.” (Weston 2017, 213).

7 “Broadly speaking there are two kinds of animism. Or, more accurately, the word 'animism' is used in two ways. The older usage refers to an [sic] putative concern with knowing what is alive and what makes a being alive. It alleges a 'belief in spirits' or 'non-empirical beings', and/or a confusion about life and death among some indigenous people, young children or all religious people. Sometimes it is party to the assertion of a confusion between persons and objects, or between humans and other-than-human beings. It may also be part of a theory about the origins of religions and/or the nature of religion itself. The newer usage refers to a concern with knowing how to behave appropriately towards persons, not all of whom are human. It refers to the widespread indigenous and increasingly popular 'alternative' understanding that humans share this world with a wide range of persons, only some of whom are human. While it may be important to know whether one is encountering a person or an object, the really significant question for animists of the 'new' kind is how persons are to be treated or acted towards.” (Harvey 2006, xi)

8 Visit the “Talks and Lectures” section of The School of Forest Medicine’s website (https://forestmedicine.net/talks-and-lectures/) for more information about the author’s experience developing relationships with plants.

9 See Georg Feuerstein, Structures of Consciousness: The Genius of Jean Gebser

10 Integrity is “the state of being whole and undivided” (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/integrity) from the Latin integer (adj.) "intact, whole, complete,"  (https://www.etymonline.com/word/integer?ref=etymonline_crossreference)

11 Thomas Berry describes inner spontaneity as “a guiding principle, a consciousness, a transmaterial presence manifested throughout the material embodiment, an ordering principle observed in any living being that enables the complexity of the DNA in the genetic process to function in some coherent fashion.” (Berry 1999, 79)

12 Bill Plotkin estimates “that less than 20 percent of people in current Western and Westernized societies ever reach true adulthood.” (Plotkin 2011, Human Development from the Perspective of Inscendence)

13  Addressing a time-based precondition for the emergent integral structure of consciousness Jean Gebser writes: “By integration we mean a fully completed and realized wholeness—the bringing about of an integrum, i.e., the re-establishment of the inviolate and pristine state of origin by incorporating the wealth of all subsequent achievement. The concretion of everything that has unfolded in time and coalesced in a spatial array is the integral attempt to reconstitute the ‘magnitude’ of man from his constituent aspects, so that he can consciously integrate himself with the whole.” (Gebser 1985, 99)

References

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———. 2006. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco: Sierra Club books. Kindle.

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Chaudhuri, Haridas. 1977. The Evolution of Integral Consciousness. Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House.

Collins English Dictionary. n.d. “Vulnerable definition and meaning.” Accessed January 13, 2018. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/vulnerable.

Cullinan, Cormac. 2011. 2nd ed. Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice. Devon, UK: Green Books.

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Weston, Kath. 2017. Animate Planet: Making Visceral Sense of Living in a High-Tech Ecologically Damaged World. Durham: Duke University Press. Kindle.