I’ve recently been reading a book called The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, an author identified as one of Utne Reader’s “hundred visionaries who are changing the world.” I admit I’ve felt a little self-conscious while reading it in auto repair waiting rooms and other public places because the title is suggestive of pulp romance or erotic fiction. How sensuality ended up being conflated with sexuality in this culture is clearer once you read the book, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s revealing, however, that sex is one of the places in life where the loss of felt connection that Abram does explore is revealed as dysfunctional and ultimately self-defeating. The habit of objectification that reduces breathing trees to so much lumber and a living landscape to an engineering problem doesn’t play out very well when applied to the intimate partners who show up in our beds as mother nature’s representatives, asking for connection.
Abram doesn’t write about this at all, but I’m starting here because it’s personal. We’ve all felt objectified at times, and it registers as anything from rudeness to dehumanizing violation. Most people understand, on some level, that treating others as objects is inappropriate. Often missing from our understanding is that it’s a pervasive feature of Western consciousness, one that efficiently produces destructive results across a broad range of human activities.
These destructive results are all around us and dominate the news. Abram starts with questions about the origins of the ecological crisis in particular and Western culture’s apparent disregard for the needs of non-human nature. The answer he brings us to is surprisingly simple: we do not experience, as most indigenous peoples do, an immediate and felt connection with the mood of our local river, nor feel in ourselves the place in the general order of things of the redwing blackbird perched on a swaying reed. Instead of this felt connection, which helped keep the world’s indigenous peoples in fair balance with their environments for thousands of years, there is objectification, separation, distance, and disregard. Western culture, argues Abram, treats rivers and redwing blackbirds as “things,” and often enough the culture treats its own members as “things,” too, which allows for astonishingly callous disregard. If we were feeling ourselves dancing with the living features of our world, we wouldn’t treat our dance partners that way. But we don’t feel it. We’re not dancing. So what are we doing?
“To define nature as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies.” (page 56)
There’s a lot in those two sentences. Consider the many ways this basic dynamic has been playing out between the Standing Rock Sioux and the companies involved in constructing an oil pipeline at Standing Rock, North Dakota. I’ve spoken with a couple people who have been there, and I’ve followed media accounts that included personal interviews, reporting, and video documentation of what’s happening. Events are often reported as a clash between members of a tribe seeking to prevent a pipeline from endangering its water, and business interests and their law enforcement and private security proxies. The images of uniformed, helmeted, armed and armored police arrayed against a colorful collection of eclectically dressed people carrying feathers and sage have captured attention around the world.
Underneath that confrontation, often framed in terms of legal rights and political objectives, is a basic difference in consciousness. On the one hand we have the bankers and businesspeople operating in faraway towers and their on-the-ground machine operators and police forces. These people have demonstrated no felt connection with the land and see it and the local rivers as merely impediments to getting oil to world markets to realize “profits” in terms of dollars. On the other hand, we have a people who directly feel this land, for whom its tearing open by machines is experienced as a violation not only of the land and their ancestral connection to it, but of their own bodies. Those digging machines are tearing the people up, and once constructed the pipeline will endanger the river that flows through their veins.
Further, I see a pattern of evidence suggesting that one of the project’s objectives is the destruction of the indigenous sensibilities and felt connection with the land that have informed the opposition. In this, it’s much like the witch burnings and inquisitions of Europe, when hierarchical structures within those cultures began attacking anything that remained of their own indigenous roots (as Abrams goes on to note on page 199), even, as I recently learned elsewhere, publicly burning the harps and murdering the harpers of Ireland. Likewise, it looks to me like Standing Rock has devolved into an attempt on the part of big business to exterminate a particular kind of consciousness, demoralize it, demonstrate its weakness, and win recruits to a less feeling way of existing in the service of these business entities and the governmental agencies they have co-opted.
The developing story at Standing Rock was suppressed for a very long time. From what I can see, it spread via nonmainstream news and social media, and opposition gathered momentum. Why? Is it an important story? Evidently quite a few people thought so. But the images, reports and information concerning events at Standing Rock did not spread because of events in Standing Rock alone. The information disseminated because of events happening in individual people’s bodies. Feeling shock, revulsion, anger, grief, and even horror, millions passed the story along using whatever harps we could find in this post-bardic culture. The story passed from feeling/sensing/intelligent body to feeling/sensing/intelligent body. I think it’s amazing how it grew, given the competition for people’s attention bandwidth by Candy Crush, instant Gene Wilder memes, the antic 2016 US general election, and the ongoing deluge of cute animal videos.
In me and I expect many others, the stories triggered a sick sense of eerie dread, a clamoring for justice, a desire to offer material support, and grief for what the people at the Standing Rock encampment have been enduring at the hands of militarized police forces. However, I felt something, and by connecting with these feelings within myself, I connected with these people. From there, seemingly chance encounters led to one-on-one conversations with people who had spent time in the camp, thus breaking through the mental habits of compartmentalizing and objectifying so typical of Western consciousness. First, I opened up to it emotionally. Next thing I knew, without doing anything more than opening to that connection, I was looking into living eyes and hearing living voices in which I could see and feel the events reflected.
And please, I am not comparing my “armchair protesting” with the on-the-ground struggles, hardships, injuries and indignities suffered by the Water Protectors in North Dakota. Emphatically: No. I am suggesting that for the water protectors to ultimately prevail, and not just in North Dakota but globally, we must move into the same kind of felt sense of connection that is motivating and empowering them in their actions. We have to start recovering this kind of awareness, beginning wherever we are. We cannot count on the Water Protectors to feel the devastation for us; we have to bravely feel it for ourselves. And, with utmost respect for the wisdom traditions of the earth’s remaining indigenous peoples, that wisdom won’t make any sense, or be of any use to us, unless we get in touch with our own indigenous wisdom, the kind that arises from the inside.
Making this connection may not be easy for many of us. This is no accident. We are socialized in countless ways out of our indigenous wisdom and the felt connection with ourselves, our surroundings and our fellow beings that informs it. We are conditioned instead to accept received ideas, often and especially in ways that run counter to that felt sense. For example, consider that in the United States, generations of mothers whose every instinct told them to pick up their crying infants were advised by authoritative doctors that “crying is good for a developing baby’s lungs” or that newborns wailing in terror at what they can only assume is abandonment will “teach the baby to self-soothe,” despite the fact that separation from caregivers has proven universally fatal for helpless young mammals since the age of the dinosaurs. Or consider young children who are told to sit still for seven hours a day when every cell in their bodies is telling them to move around a lot and explore the outdoors to develop their growing, sensing bodies in accord with the last million years of human evolution. By following such social programs – and perhaps worse, emulating the models of other people who have preceded us as initiates in these dark arts – eventually we lose connection with our own feeling bodies, and after that happens, it’s but a short step toward running a bulldozer of sullen self-righteousness through ancient burial grounds, or committing any number of crimes against the earth and its inhabitants.
How do we know if we are moving in the direction of our indigenous wisdom? Here’s a handy chart below. If we’re moving in the direction of our indigenous wisdom, we’re probably going to be moving toward the column on the right. The dominant cultural mindset is outlined on the left.
Experience mediated by text, screens, tech Immediate experience
Abstract thoughts Perception as conversation
Programming Spontaneous response
Machines, engineered systems & processes Organic systems
Logical, calculating, detached Holistic reasoning
Unrooted, metastasizing Connected to place
Head-centered experience Whole body experience
Clock-driven Biological/planetary rhythms
So here’s a question: Looking at these two columns, which kind of consciousness fills your working days? From what I can see, for most people, our education and employment tend to move us toward the column on the left. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that many of us would seek to find balance in recreational activities that move us toward the column on the right. This is fairly hopeful. It’s a good sign when people still know somehow that walking along the beach can be a helpful antidote to 50 weeks spent under fluorescent lights staring at a computer screen in an office cubicle. This is what I mean by indigenous wisdom, and given the forces arrayed against it, it has proven remarkably resilient.
However, there are some caveats in this, and we are in no position for hasty self-congratulations. We’ve been colonized, you see, by a kind of alien intelligence, and it doesn’t give up easily. We might go to the beach, but the alien intelligence will nudge us into thinking we have to consume more than sunshine and salt breezes to get our money’s worth of “fun” while we’re there. We might gingerly feel our ways toward some semblance of embodied consciousness in a yoga studio, but if we’re like most Americans, as we get down on all fours for the first time in ages we very likely will wonder if our hips are too big, if we look sexy in spandex or if we have all our needed equipment. The first thoughts amount to self-objectification; the second reflects the commercial colonization of yogic practice.
I live surrounded on three sides by one of Michigan’s lovely state recreation areas –hundreds of acres studded with lakes, stands of pine, and second-growth oak/hickory forest with trees now reaching maturity in some places. Compared with when I moved here twelve years ago, when I walk the trails today it feels more like a racetrack for bicycles. Although it’s praiseworthy that people are getting outdoors and away from their screens for a while, again I see a very evident infatuation with fashionable biking attire and fancy new high-tech bicycles and gear. Being a man I know how guys tend to be proud of whatever they’ve got going between their legs. In this case (no surprise) it’s a machine, and, as if everyone needs to be reminded that these cyclists are not street cobblers in Calcutta but instead drove here with their bikes atop their cars, their bikes and biking gear have to be super fancy looking. It’s not enough to simply walk in the woods, to amble along or wander off the trail and find a nice place to sit for a while. Instead, it’s more like: “Commuting v.3.0, The Fitness Version.” The sandy, forested hills are not felt as unique entities to get to know, dialog with and explore, but seem instead a mere backdrop for further ego-driven conquering. I step off the footpaths and let them pass at a clip.
Forgive me if this seems harsh. The point is, even within the minimal gestures most people in our culture make toward feeling some kind of connection with the body, the natural world, or with something that isn’t packaged, sold, or pushed at us through a screen, the fragmented bands of indigenous consciousness are colonized and subjected to settlement and exploitation by commercial interests as soon as new territory opens, and this says nothing about the vast swaths of inner landscape already ceded. No wonder so many people seem to be feeling backed up onto a reservation that is being steadily encroached upon and compromised.
I believe this is why the Standing Rock confrontation has gathered so much attention, and why so many of us have felt so deeply what’s really at stake there. Every one of us is a Standing Rock: a piece of the earth where this perennial confrontation is occurring, a place where indigenous wisdom is engaged in an ongoing skirmish with the abstract mandates and fortified self-deceptions of a culture out of touch with the planet. The ongoing conquest and confrontation is happening inside every one of us, and I suspect that becoming aware of this might ultimately decide the outcome of the larger battle.