Spirit in a time of remembering
I’ll admit to having a hard time winnowing my lists of online reading; I want to, I really do, but new wellsprings of worthy writing keep appearing. One of the latest is a spin-off of Killing The Buddha, a long-established fount of reflections on spirituality in our culture. On the new site, freq.uenci.es, which I glance at once a week (it’s part of my “Tuesday” tab set), this hit me like a ton of bricks:
The present epoch is historically unique in that the spirit-side of life can no longer be taken for granted. It appears both in innumerable fragmentary shapes and as massive blocs of fundamentalist and totalizing conviction, and quite often it seems to not exist at all, as though there were some kind of systematic power at work to drive it out of our lives.
Indeed! Call it consumerism, media overload, mechanistic thinking, or simply lives too full of things to do and places to go; the end result for too many of us is a fragmentary relationship to spirit, and for more still, a disengagement from what has been, for most of human history, the central unifying thread of individual and community lives. But what do we mean here by “spirit?” Joel Kovel begins this essay, entitled spirituality, revolutionary by laying it out out about as concisely as I’ve ever seen:
In all places and all epochs human beings have used some such word as “Spirit,” to designate the animating, world-moving force within them; the relations with ancestors, demons, totems, ghosts and other “spirit-beings”; and the Supreme Being, the godhead that permeates the universe and creates the world and is bound together in our religions. In sum, what has been known as spirit relates the human self to the universe and all its beings and forms of being. Spirit is no residual category, then, but an ontological potential of humanity, a vital part of being human. It is as essential for human nature as building a web is for “spider nature.” For all creatures are inserted into nature at a certain point and with a certain internally articulated set of relationships. These frame the possible arrangements that creature has with the rest of nature.
No doubt one reason Kovel’s piece hit fertile ground in me this week is that I’m currently re-reading David Abram’s most recent book, Becoming Animal, which can be seen as taking that final thought above and running with it: into the wilderness, around the world, and deep inside our own engagement with the landscape around us. Abram reminds us of one way back to spirit: by coming alive in our bodies within the larger body of the earth. And more than that: he questions our cultural conviction that our experience of the world is somehow an interior thing, each of us with our own skull-encapsulated mind, which may be just an ephemeral consequence of purely mechanical neural activity. What a lonely and hollow way to experience this essence of what it is to be human! Reflecting on the obvious communicative interactions among all the living things of the world, Abram suggests:
Mind is not at all a human possession, but is rather a property of the earthly biosphere—a property in which we, along with the other animals and the plants, all participate. The apparent interiority that we ascribe to the mind (may) have less to do with the notion that there is a separate mind located inside me, and another, distinct mind that resides inside you, and more to do with a sense that you and I are both situated inside it—a recognition that we are bodily immersed in an awareness that is not ours, but is rather the Earth’s.
Never fear: Abram’s “mind” is far more than our thinking selves. His renewed animism aims deeper, reminding us of traditions, science findings, and direct experiences that suggest a deep coherence, a world in which the western split between spirit and matter is rejected, bridging the great divide created by Descartes’ declaration that the human mind (and spirit, the “I am”) stands apart from the entire material world. Instead, we are invited into a remembrance that our local habitat is a “diversely differentiated field of animate beings, each of which has gifts relative to the others. And we find ourselves not above, but in the very midst of this living field, our own sentience part and parcel of the sensuous landscape.” All the miraculous wonder of our earthly creation (and in a subtler way, also the sun and cosmos beyond) sharing a fundamental commonality of reciprocity and mutual engagement in which “our own sentient organism is…an intensification or fluctuation within the sensitive flesh of the world.” This is an embodied spirituality both ancient and utterly revolutionary in our modern world.
More after the break: (image above right: Lydia Larson)
This sort of expanded sense of what it is to be human, and indeed, of what it is to be deer, tree, forest, or mountain, is of course not new. Visionaries and nature mystics through the ages have sung much the same song: Blake, Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Hesse, mystery traditions including theosophists and Freemasons, right down through the beats and hippies and deep ecologists and modern pagan communities, all have taken as their primary relationship their engagement with spirit and all that which, as Kovel noted, binds the world.
These same bigger-picture perspectives, speaking for all people, all beings, all life in the face of unimaginable social and environmental breakdown, are at the heart of the Occupy movement. While it seems that most of the occupiers are urban folk, many of the General Assembly facilitators and movement strategists have decades of experience in non-hierarchical group process and non-violent resistance that emerged from some of the most practical idealists to emerge from the sixties, notably those who formed earth-centered pagan communities that have been involved in progressive social change work ever since (bioregionalists and All Species activists/educators also share some of these skills and interests). Danny Goldberg’s recent essay on OWC, In Defense of Hippies, acknowledges that while drum circles, interminable discussion, and commitment to community over policy rub many mainstream observers and progressive activists the wrong way, “Yet it is precisely the mystical utopian energy that most professional progressives so smugly dismiss that has aroused a salient, mass political consciousness on economic issues—something that had eluded even the most lucid progressives in the Obama era.”
Goldberg looks beneath the surface of the 60’s and the present movement, reminding us, “At their core, the counterculture types who briefly called themselves hippies were a spiritual movement.”
In part they offered an alternative to organized religions,…but most powerfully, the hippie idea was an uprising against the secular religion of America in the 1950s, morbid “Mad Men” materialism, and Ayn Rand’s social Darwinism….Any bohemian movement will attract goofballs. Drum circles may inspire and unify a crowd in one situation, but simply drown out conversation in another. It is one thing for a polite protester to offer “free hugs,” and quite another for a sweaty inebriate to impose them. The way to deal with this is to rebuke individual jerks, not to dismiss a vibrant section of mass culture.
Kovel evokes a much earlier spiritual root of today’s unrest: “The struggles of Jesus against the money-changers initiate not only a new moment in religious history, but were the first, anticipatory, instances of an anti-capitalist campaign, when capital was only lying nascent in its cradle.”
He goes on:
Today, capital has become hegemonic and world-destroying at the same time. Its society of rampant egoism—because the ego-form is the only model of self suitable for capitalist relations of production—along with the astounding panoply of idolatry known as consumerism, poses the greatest threat of all history to the survival of our species and innumerable others. It is this massive weight that burdens spiritual existence today—and demands that we find new ways of spiritual realization.
Abram picks up a related thread, stressing that as we set ourselves above and outside the life of the planet,
…we seal ourselves into a numbing solitude, a loneliness already settling around us as the complex creativity of forests gives way to the numbered productivity of even-aged tree farms, as the diverse riffs of songbirds steadily fade rom the soundscape, and the wild, syncopated chant of the frog chorus that once rocked the fields every spring dwindles down to the monotonous hum of a single street lamp. Do we really believe that the human imagination can sustain itself without being startled by other shapes of sentience—by redwoods and gleaming orchids and the eerie glissando cries of humpback whales? Do we really trust that the human mind can maintain its coherence in an exclusively human-made world?
But of course, this is not an exclusively human-made world; we have reshaped it nearly beyond its limits, but by doing so, we are also now being forced to recognize the consequences of our hubris. This, too, is a central message of OWS, that “another world is possible.” Is necessary.
Looking beyond the 1%, beyond the 99%, to the larger matrix of life in which we must rediscover our place if our society is to find its way, Abram calls us out of our minds, out of our ideologies, and into our bodies, into our surrounding landscape, and into relationship with the greater whole that addresses precisely that spiritual void Kovel calls on us to fill. We are invited back into the community of life, where we might find our human place, insightful in our way, yet alongside many others equally worthy of respect and consideration. Together, there is relationship, and a non-hierarchical co-creation that would garner consensual happy hands at any General Assembly:
The body is precisely our interface and exchange with the field of awareness…every one of us experiences it differently (with its own sensory orientation and style)…according to the proclivities of its own flesh. We inhale the awakened atmosphere through our skin or our flaring nostrils or the stomata in our leaves, circulating it within ourselves, lending something of our unique chemistry to the collective medium as we exhale, each of us thus animated by the wider intelligence even as we tweak and transform that intelligence. The rooted beings among us twist and flex in the invisible surge; other creatures are carried aloft by the whirling currents.
We participate in this encompassing awareness with the whole of our body, as other animals participate in it with theirs, the snow leopard with its tensed muscles and the hawk with its splayed wing feathers. Every creature here inhabits and moves through the same field of mountains and melting ice, imbibing the same air, the same boulder-strewn awareness. Yet each animal filters this awareness with its particular senses, its access to the whole limited by the arrangement of its limbs and the specific style of its pleasures, by the way it obtains nourishment and the way it avoids becoming food for others. Each creature—two-leggeds included—has only a restricted access to the mystery of the real. As a human I may have compiled a great mass of data about the ways of the world, yet in a practical visceral sense (carnal knowledge being the primary form of intelligence), an earthworm knows far more about the life of the soil than I do, as a swallow knows more about the wind. To be human is to have a very limited access to what is.
In several sections of Becoming Animal, Abram evokes the many ways that the world speaks: in sound, gesture, scent. He recalls sudden encounters with animals in dangerous situations, when he found himself singing a tone, mimicking their guttural defensive cries, or simply speaking in his own gentle human language; each time, the tense uncertainty faced by both he and the creatures was diffused. But more:
The activity that we commonly call “prayer” springs from just such a gesture, from the practice of directly addressing the animate surroundings. Prayer, in its most ancient and elemental sense, consists simply in speaking to things—to a maple grove, to a flock of crows, to the rising wind—rather than merely about things. As such, prayer is an everyday practice common to oral, indigenous peoples the world over. In the…West, however, we’ve shifted the other toward whom we direct such mindful speech away from the diverse beings that surround us to a single, all-powerful agency assumed to exist beyond the evident world. Still, the quality that such respectful address entails…is much the same. It is a practice that keeps one from straying too far from oneself in one’s open honesty and integrity, a way of holding oneself in right relation to the other, whether that other is a God outside the world or the many-voiced world itself.
Which might bring us back to the roots of non-violent protest, in the other primary spiritual thread of the 60’s, that which fueled the civil rights movement. Goldberg concludes his OWC In Defense of Hippies piece:
As Martin Luther King pursued his strategy of nonviolent protest, the NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, who oversaw most of the legal strategy for the civil rights movement, mocked him by asking, “How many laws have you changed?” King replied, “I don’t know, but we’ve changed a lot of hearts.” Obviously, the civil rights movement needed both spiritual and legal efforts to achieve its goals. So do modern progressives. As Nick Lowe asked in the song made famous by Elvis Costello, “What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?”
For more on Becoming Animal (just out in paperback), runner up for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award and finalist for the 2011 Orion Book Award, see this press release from Anchor Books, or this extended excerpt from Orion. Here’s David’s Alliance for Wild Ethics website, which features several videos, including this one: