Embodied Presence: Listening to the Voices of the Earth
Recently a friend and I were talking about the global situation. He told me that it is really challenging for him to stay present with the pain and intensity of it all. I didn't reply but just sat in that feeling with him until he said, “I guess that's what got us into this mess, isn't it?” I smiled. “Yep, the turning away is what got us here. The thinking that it is possible to turn away, that we are somehow able to remove ourselves from the equation.”
In efforts to distance ourselves from the pain and suffering of the world, we create ever-more elaborate methods of distraction, content to direct our awareness towards anything except that which is most demanding our attention. As the modern industrial machine continues to insatiably devour the world’s forests and devastate the ecological integrity of our planetary life systems, so many of us remain deaf to the cries of our human and nonhuman kin. What can we do to reestablish open, receptive, and mutually enlivening channels of communication?
Many of us, rather than turning towards and being present to the vibrancy of the living world, indifferently attend only to mental modes of consciousness. These orientations severely restrict our ability to perceive as they control the ways we experience and perceive the voices of the Earth. This obsession with control which clearly has not always had beneficial consequences fosters a false sense of safety and creates conditions for unequal power dynamics to thrive. Witness the way that marginalized people, plants, animals, and ecosystemic beings such as rivers, mountains, and forests are treated by the individuals and collectives of our industrial civilization.
If reliance on the mental-rational mindset were considered a disease by modern allopathic medicine, the standard cure would probably be some form of meditation, or more likely medication, that would quiet the mind, but this would just be another form of control. Stopping the mind in this way only treats the outward symptom of a deeper state of disease and reinforces potentially harmfully dualistic orientations to the world.
We might also ask ourselves: what happens when we break free from the perceptual bars of our modernist paradigm? Perhaps this is the wrong question to ask for as humans we are inherently endowed with capacities to perceive in many different and much broader ways than those available via mental-rational cognition alone. If we explore more deeply we might find that the mind is not necessarily hindering our Earth community relationships, it is actually filling a void created by our lack of presence within the living worlds we inhabit. When we enter into states of embodied presence the scope of our awareness expands and intensifies, and our minds surrender their dominance. 1
Engaging with the world in this embodied and intimate way calls for an energetic posture that allows ecological intelligence to “safely” flow through our beings. Insofar as we orient ourselves through perpetual modes of being that offer a sense of control, this can be challenging. Although any encounter with other-than-human beings provides us with opportunities to experientially understand embodied perception, to better appreciate the subtleties of this grounded, flowing mode of being I highly recommend engaging in an intimate study with Devil’s Club.
Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus), an imposing member of the Ginseng family, spreads outward in colonies of 3–10 foot tall sprawling and sometimes curving, spine-covered stalks. With its rather large, similarly armed maple-like leaves this plant is unmistakable. It’s spine-covered stalks are usually considered evidence of its role as protector, but the spines also resemble antennae of awareness, specifically evoking the liminal zone of the subtle body which extends just beyond and within the boundaries of the physical body. It is in this marginal space that Devil’s Club teaches us to perceive and interact with energies beyond ourselves. They help us become more consciously aware of and fluent with the ways that other-than-human intelligence intermingles with our own. This “mutual indwelling in the same psychic space” occurs in what Thomas Berry describes as “a distinctive capacity of the transmaterial dimension of any living being.” He goes on to relate that “not only can two psychic forms be present to each other in the same psychic space but an unlimited number of forms can be present.” 2
Devil’s Club also demonstrates how to relax cranial focused awareness in order to allow consciousness to spread throughout the body. Like the inner white pith that fills the center of their very light stalks, Devil’s Club shows us how to mimic this lack of density in our own central channels. Simultaneously embodying these two postures allows wild, free-flowing energy to fill the body and prevents us from collapsing into rigid perceptual, emotional, or intellectual forms as it activates a deeper interaction with surrounding energies. Identity becomes fluid as does the sensation in the subtle body space where the physical being interfaces with that which is “outside” and seemingly separate from our bodies. Although it seems paradoxical from within objectivist points of view a more reliable and practical sense of protection and safety emerges when we adopt this energetic posture. But we might consider this protective quality to be a side effect of the deepening of our capacity for embodied perception. This mode of awareness situates us within the world rather than in opposition to it and allows us to experience and hear our greater selves through the energetic feelings and voices of Earth, but how do these perceptual encounters translate into human understanding?
Wouldn’t it be nice and tidy if there were an easy answer to this question? There isn’t, and trying to find one impedes the possibilities. If only it were as simple as asking a plant: “What do you have to say?” Although there are certainly times when our nonhuman kin speak to us in the from of an internal dialogue more familiar to our modernist sensibilities, they most often communicate nonverbally via images, bodily sensations, and dreams. In order to become present to the world we must be willing to become present to ourselves. Knowing ourselves allows us to know others, and knowing others allows us to know ourselves more fully. In other words learning to hear others starts within, and listening in this way is an active and intimate form of engagement by which our concepts of individuality and separateness must morph in order to become present with, receive, and hear the voices of the plants and other of our nonhuman Earthly kin.
Before closing I’d like to present one more possible hindrance to our hearing: shame. If we continue operating from a mental-rational perspective informed by a mechanistic cosmology in which humans are the only actors with agency, the idea that impacts to and the resultant messages from our bodies may speak of something beyond the personal are likely to be met with feelings of shame. Shame inhibits empathy which limits our ability to actively and intimately engage, and common reactions to shame lead to withdrawal and a lessening of our trust in the world. The sense of shame of which I write stems from feeling separate and other-than and is an inherent characteristic of the modern concept of self. While operating within this mindset trusting supposedly external and discontinuous systems beyond the human is not an option. Under these conditions many choose to impose more order and more control upon the system attempting to block out whatever it is that we don’t want to feel. In a self-perpetuating loop our self-imposed exile from the community of life increases our sense of alienation and disconnect. We don’t consciously experience the suffering of the world even though it certainly registers itself upon our psyches, but there is a price to be paid: we miss out also on the grand mysteries of existence.
Without intimate and embodied engagement our experiential lives wither. We walk narrowing pathways of perception and presence and unfeelingly stumble toward the deaths that we struggle so hard to avoid. But what happens when we turn towards, more deeply inhabit, and become present with? What happens when we consciously engage with in relationships of reciprocity and learn to welcome embodied experiences in their many and varied forms as feedback functions of the larger systems within which we participate?
When we stopped listening, the plants, the Earth, and other forms of ecological intelligence did not stop speaking, and even though we have ontologically dismembered ourselves in ways that neutralize their expression through us and hinder their communication with us, they persist. Even as we blatantly disregard plants and relegate them to environmental backdrop, they continue to seek our attention and express their particular portion of ecosystemic wisdom. In closing I will invite you in this moment to feel into what I’ve just presented. Does it resonate with some forgotten place within your being? Does your body register its truth? If so how will you now choose to become present with the living world and our nonhuman kin?
Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2006 Kindle. Kindle), Loneliness and Presence. ↩