Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
I originally posted this on the Big Stories thread, but I have decided to start an independent thread for it. It's a new book by David Abram on "cosmology," this one an earthly and fleshy cosmology:
Becoming Animal by David Abram
"Between the Body and the Breathing Earth
Owning up to being an animal, a creature of earth. Tuning our animal senses to the sensible terrain: blending our skin with the rain-rippled surface of rivers, mingling our ears with the thunder and the thrumming of frogs, and our eyes with the molten gray sky. Feeling the polyrhythmic pulse of this place -- this huge windswept body of water and stone. This vexed being in whose flesh we're entangled.
Becoming earth. Becoming animal. Becoming, in this manner, fully human.
This is a book about becoming a two-legged animal, entirely a part of the animate world whose life swells within and unfolds all around us. It seeks a new way of speaking, one that enacts our interbeing with the earth rather than blinding us to it. A language that stirs a new humility in relation to other earthborn beings, whether spiders or obsidian outcrops or spruce limbs bend low by the clumped snow. A style of speech that opens our senses to the sensuous in all its multiform strangeness.
The chapters that follow strive to discern and perhaps to practice a curious kind of thought, a way of careful reflection that no longer tears us out of the world of direct experience in order to represent it, but that binds us ever more deeply into the thick of that world. A way of thinking enacted as much by the body as by the mind, iformed by the humid air and the soil and the quality of our breathing, by the intensity of our contact with the other bodies that surround.
Yet words are human artifacts, are they not? Surely to speak, or to think in words, is necessarily to step back from the world's presence into a purely human sphere of reflection? Such, precisely, has been our civilized assumption. But what if meaningful speech is not an exclusively human possession? What if the very language we now speak arose first in response to an animate, expressive world -- as a stuttering reply not just to others of our species but to an enigmatic cosmos that already spoke to us in a myriad of tongues?
What if thought is not born within the human skull, but is a creativity proper to the body as a whole, arising spontaneously from the slippage between an organism and the folding terrain that it wanders? What if the curious curve of thought is engendered by the difficult eros and tension between our flesh and the flesh of the earth?"
I'm currently reading the book, and I enjoyed Abram's brief meditation on Van Gogh, which you can read here. The last page or so is not available on the Google preview, but enough is there for you to get the bulk of his reflections.
Here's one snippet:
…Vincent’s stars are not situated in space but actively deploy or secrete the space between them. For there is no prior space, no inert world or backdrop against which the things begin to exist; the cosmos is nothing other than this open and unfolding interchange between the powers that compose it. There is no stone or cloud that is absolved of this passionate activity, nor brick or brushstroke that is not participant in the co-creation of the present moment…. there is nothing inert or inanimate.
In particular, I liked his speculative suggestion that the growing receptivity of modern audiences to this work, after the initial lukewarm reactions of his contemporaries, was effected by the paintings themselves; that they called forth a new mode of seeing.
While I agree a lot with what he says, I can´t stop wondering that this apologetic obsession with the bodymind is not in itself a symptom of avoiding transcendence?
yes, I agree.
I was once a fan of Arne Naess, the norwegian deep ecology philosopher. I loved his writings, his deep sensitivity, his embodied vision of celebrating life.
I recall KW wrote something about the web of life neopagan apologetics. He told that Naess was not about Vedanta Shankara as some would like to believe it was. He thus showed, quite cogently, the limits of that philosophy.
PS: Btw I like Christian de Quincey´s writings.
Yes, I used to enjoy Naess's writings, too, especially back in the 1990s -- back when I took a workshop with Joanna Macy up in the Colorado mountains, as I recall. I read "Thinking Like a Mountain" before taking that journey.
Which works by de Quincey have you read? He was one of my teachers when I attended JFKU's Transpersonal Psychology program and I enjoyed his class -- which I now also teach -- and his two texts, Radical Nature and Radical Knowing. To a degree, his 'panpsychism' and 'radical naturalism' strike me as having something in common with Abram's approach, at least in terms of overall sensibility. For instance, I recall he offered a nature-based spirituality workshop a number of years ago that seemed (to me) to be drinking from the same 'stream' as Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous. But as I've followed de Quincey's work over the years, I've noticed a recurrent "New Age" theme that is a turn-off for me (emphasizing things like UFOs, dolphins as spiritual beings, etc).
Concerning work in this vein (ecospirituality and ecopsychology), I appreciate Andy Fischer's Radical Ecopsychology. David Abram wrote a laudatory forward to that book.
Recall from the embodied challenge thread:
Pertinent to this discussion is of course G. H. Mead, but we’ve gone over him at length before (see link). Just a tad from that discussion follows:
“The essence of Mead's so-called ‘social behaviorism’ is his view that mind is an emergent out of the interaction of organic individuals in a social matrix. Mind is not a substance located in some transcendent realm, nor is it merely a series of events that takes place within the human physiological structure. Mead therefore rejects the traditional view of the mind as a substance separate from the body as well as the behavioristic attempt to account for mind solely in terms of physiology or neurology."
Yes, he does do a bit of anthropomorphizing in his book. Since he does this mostly in the form of poetry -- or prose-poetry -- I have been able to go along with it, since it seems like he's trying to evoke a mood or a sensibility more than to make a definite philosophical assertion. Regarding the notion of anthropomorphizing, from the general movement of his arguments, I expect he would also not want to draw too hard of a line between the 'human' and the 'nonhuman,' seeing in that our long desire to hold the soul aloof from the (fallen) world and to preserve a 'place apart' for humanity. In his rhapsodic reflections, he seems to be saying, the 'human' is, in some sense, non-human: a particular 'expression' of multiform inorganic and organic forces and processes that stretch widely beyond us (in space and time); and the non-human is perhaps also 'human,' in some sense, in that what 'feels' close to home to us may not be 'uniquely ours.'
With that said, however, there are places in the book where he does seem to make assertions that border (to me) on a 'pre' form of animism: as when he talks about his house feeling dejected when his daughter and wife go away on a long trip. He specifically addresses the (expected) argument that he is merely projecting his feelings onto the plaster walls and wooden beams of his house, and argues that the explanation of projection is too simple -- that the 'house' confronted him with feelings incongruent with his own present mood. He says that he is no simple pure subject confronting a pure, passive object in his house; that the house is a body which, like other material forms, actively forms and in-forms the space around it. I can go along with the latter suggestion, but that doesn't mean he's not projecting. :-)
Reading a little more of Abram today, I'm reminded of Thomas Merton's Taoist-influenced reflections on, and celebration of, "perfectly useless" expressions -- like poetry, like the wild hammering of rain on the roof. In a sense, Abram's writings strike me as perfectly useless and impactical, but delightful nonetheless (and perhaps the better for being useless). In another mood, I might be prepared to defend a "use" for them, but this feels right to me now.
In his chapter on Mind, Abram plays with the notion that thinking functions by embodied metaphor, questioning the metaphors that cognitive science has recently used (mechanistic, computer-based), and exploring instead the wilderness landscape as a metaphoric 'base' for conceiving of mind's 'climates' and teeming activities. I won't try to repeat his metaphoric play here, but I was struck most recently by his careful description of encountering a deer in the wild, which moved quietly (and only partly visibly) through the underbrush nearby, and then which simply disappeared without a sign. He likens the presence and the sudden disappearance of this warm, intensely vital being to thoughts that move (with hints of strength, grace, wild life) at the edge of awareness, and then suddenly vanish upon close inspection. There's a "so what?" factor to this comparison, perhaps, but I like it nonetheless, finding it nicely captures my own experience of brief, enticing encounters with "wild" thoughts that escape capture or close inspection, and I appreciate where he takes this line of thinking: conceiving of the mind, not as a 'room' full of possessions (thoughts) but as an open world, in which 'thoughts' can present themselves in various ways (slithering barely seen underfoot, moving at the edges of awareness, fluttering lightly through awareness, etc) and in which 'thoughts' cannot simply be claimed as 'ours,' but which rather seem to have their 'own' intelligence, their own habits and patterns of movement.
This reminds me of the Navajo (Dine') conception of thought: as wind-like, co-extensive with the surrounding environment, moving through the awareness of the individual but not clearly (or solely) the possession or product of the individual.