Collapse & Awaken: submission for the Dark Mountain
This was a piece I wrote for the Dark Mountain Project about a year or so back. It’s been hanging around gathering computer dust amongst other lost projects, so as it’s been a while since I’ve written anything for the site, I decided to post it here. The piece is long. I know this is unfashionable these days, but it is what it is. As it’s long, it will be posted in stages.
It is ultimately a semi-creative piece as much inspired by Shamanic and Animist thought and practices as it is by Buddhist thought that seeks to honour some of the ideas and themes over at the Dark Mountain Project set up by the author and ex-journalist Paul Kingsnorth and Douglas Hine. If you want to know more about them, click here.
Here’s part one.
In the future, we may all end up being wannabe shamans and buddhas, striving to re-invoke the sacred after so much meaning and identity is lost during the slow dissipation of the elaborate human made world we once knew. We will remember scraps of practices and rituals, pasting them together in scrapbook form in an attempt to re-invoke our feeling-selves that have been severed from the brush, seasons and landscapes that our parents spoke of as the once normal. In our attempts, we will merge with rivers & streams, swimming amongst plastic wrappers and murky twists and turns, searching for some sense of purity amongst the lost innocence, our species no longer capable of dreaming itself in and out of the Earth’s breast, our gifted past tossed away by short-sightedness, solipsism, and species-centric arrogance. Some will stare breathless & frozen, whilst others will get on with the business of adjusting to what is immediate; some of these folk will be awake.
In Animism, empathy is king, whilst in Buddhism, compassion rules. Is it possible to embrace the depths of our collective darker ways and merge with their results without breaking in two? That is, are we able to tenderly immerse ourselves in the damaged landscapes that surround us and breathe with them as they are, and not as we imagine them to be? This is the spiritual and emotional challenge that twirls around the Dark Mountain. Environmentalists know the pain of opening to the seemingly bottomless sadness that faces anyone willing to sober up and look into the heart of our impact on the myriad animate and inanimate species that surround us. Delicate selves are usually not sturdy enough to withstand the dark sobering wind that rips through the heart and at innocence cocooned within idealistic cotton. What then is to be done? For surely the Dark Mountain is at heart a wake-up call, a sobering invitation to see the world as it is, and choose a response, rather than simply react. This type of call is not unfamiliar to certain forms of Buddhism, which has the recognition of suffering, often redefined as dissatisfaction or angst, at its heart.
We might consider that much of what has caused the Capitalist Consumerist destruction of the natural environment and its living breathing participants has not only been the objectification of literally everything, but such a system furnishing us with endless ways to avoid our own suffering, dissatisfaction and angst, particularly with regards to the unknown that surrounds us, that moves backwards and away into the past, and that flows open-endedly into the future. Much of the consumerist drive is an attempt to stuff a metaphorical hole within us with gadgets and trinkets and ideologies of infinitude or the old myth of father-figure salvation. The castration of meaning and of such concepts as sacred has left us with new questions that a materialist belief system cannot meet. The most apt philosophy for the brave new world is nihilism it seems. Perhaps though there is something worth exploring in the relationship between a spiritual tradition or two and the stark environmental reality in front of us? I want to suggest that Buddhism and Animism each have some central elements of knowing that can aid a sobering-up and a reconfiguration of our distorted ways of perceiving and inhabiting the environmental horizons in which we are situated.
There are sobering voices within the global Buddhist landscape calling for radical change in our relationships with the economy and the environment. David Loy, a prominent American scholar and Zen Buddhist teacher, has written numerous works identifying the madness of modern day Capitalism. His sharpest critique finds voice in a vision of the three roots of evil manifest collectively as ‘institutionalised greed, institutionalised ill will, and institutionalised delusion’ and he calls for a ‘social awakening’ in order to respond to them . There is eco-Buddhism, and the behaviour of Southeast Asian Buddhists that wait days for ants to pass instead of crushing them underfoot when cleaning and building, reflecting traditional monastic morality. Although admirable and worthy, the majority of environmentally conscious Buddhists stand in the same landscape as the environmentalists who hope that humans will eventually stop being so short sighted through choice alone and relinquish their own self-obsessions, and our blind collective trudge along familiar paths furnished by the reigning ideology of progress. Of course, this idea is confirmed as folly each year as politicians and citizens worldwide are all too happy to pretend the threat is way off in the future and that it is best to carry on as usual for as long as possible in the odd hope that nothing will ever change. It is funny how often our own creeds are lost on us.
When sobering reality arrives, it is rarely pleasant. A reminder that we have been sleepwalking and have literally wasted days, months, years of our existence living poorly and living submerged in warped delusional social practices. For some the reaction is hatred, anger, rage, for others it is internalised, leading to self-destruction or loss of anchors that might permit some degree of well-being. Both reactions can result in self-harm, yet if we are really extensions of the Earth herself, then what good does it do to cause further pain to the elegant forgotten lady we have taken for granted?
We like to think we are special somehow, distinct, both as individual selves and as a species. Yet we are not. Most of our existence is entirely unoriginal, probably all of it. Certainly the range of thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations that make up ‘me’ or ‘you’ are recycled and reflective of mass-feeling, mass-emoting and mass-sensing. We humans are in many ways a collective hive, or ant like, and in the grand scheme of things, equally fragile. We are incapable of existing apart from each other: a web of selves that build into localised story bound colonies. Even in physical separation our thoughts mirror a shared linguistic landscape and ideological allegiances, which means that true isolation and aloneness are impossible in any real sense. Images of such interrelatedness and inseparability between the many members of a species tribe often inspire bland claims of oneness and togetherness with resultant apathy or smugness. Although tribal cultures have been romanticised for far too long by those with spiritual inklings of the earthy persuasion, rather than do so, we might simply recognise that a good number of them do live within a vision of the world in which they are indistinct from the insect colonies with which they co-exist unilaterally, rather than hierarchically. That it is our failing to do the same has rendered us so dangerous and so forgetful of our place within an organic world order of co-dependency.
As the tide of inevitable change flows around us and through us, Buddhism and Animism exist as paradigms that can be harnessed to accompany ever sobering and spirited wanderers into the misty, murky future. Each has something unique and pragmatic to offer that may give rise to new social practices within a new social order in which we are co-participants alongside the other animate and inanimate species. Each provides a means for managing our existential questions and our existential practices in order to survive as questioning, feeling, sensing creatures in a shifting global hierarchy in which the weather becomes the leading super-power. I like to envision them as repositories of experimental human history and practice that can be felt and thought into, rather than as providers of new beliefs and social practices to be conformed to. In this sense they operate as positional realities to be explored and learnt from and as aids to human searching and questioning.
For it is uncertainty that scares folks most, and it is the great unknown that terrifies, ultimately manifest in the very real demise that awaits us in death, yet, on a more immediate level, it is woven into our attempt to grasp at intangibles and hold tightly to whatever we value: the adornments of our personal narratives and the small routines that we decorate our open existence with. In a sense, we might consider the great unknown to be a sort of universal mirror of ultimate, glaring honesty that challenges us to swallow whole our unknowing predicament and our finite, horizon based situatedness in embodied forms. We recoil though, and rather like cows, we bracket the world into manageable spaces and limit horizons into traceable terrains onto which we sketch out our perceptions. We are generally incapable of grasping vastness, our attention always being contextualised. Otherwise, vastness is straight jacketed into borrowed poetic deferral to light and love by the romantic and spiritually indulgent or to equally reassuring nihilism by the pessimists. This in a sense explains why we are ideologically bound creatures and why we struggle to give up our allegiance to them. Our fear of the unknown and this need to bracket the world into manageable, meaningful spaces is so thoroughly instinctual and unconscious.
The enlightened folk will wander as lost as others, but they will be fully there, impregnated with the immediacy of a shared open predicament.
by Matthew O’Connell Part 2:
This continues a three part post of a submission for the Dark Mountain. Part one can be found by clicking here. You can find out more about the Dark Mountain project by clicking here. On with it we go.
Radical Human Freeing into the World
The views that follow will run contrary to both traditional Buddhism’s general conception of itself, and the academic interpretation of Buddhist orthodoxies, for Buddhism like Christianity has many strands and families, each claiming its own superiority. This contrariness is deliberate. I will be taking a post-traditional view of Buddhism that situates the phenomena of Buddhist practice and ideas outside of enclosed Buddhist ideologies and into the shared human realm of experience, as much as such a project is possible. I will follow with a view into Animism, or better, new-Animism, as an alternative conceptual base for relating to the environment, then, finally, lay out two simple practices, one from each sphere, as invitations to readers to embrace a rawer relationship with what is immediate both in one’s physical and one’s sensory environments. Let’s jump in at the deep end of the pool.
Have you heard of spiritual enlightenment? Enlightenment in Buddhism has many faces, interpretations and tricks. It is simultaneously lauded and ignored. It is typically invoked as an illuminated carrot to be chased round samsara by believing bees, but, so few get a sniff of it, let alone a bite. Why is that? Enlightenment in Buddhism has long been a political tool. Over time, since Buddhism’s inception as human activity and history, it went from being a relatively straightforward affair, albeit one based on renunciation of much of what makes us human, to increasingly emerging as a shape shifting power held by the elite few. Such a delusional interpretation was adopted by Westerners seeking out new religious and spiritual experience, and even new father figures to save them, and it is only recently that the hegemony of the elites has begun to wane. Frankly, the idea of renunciation from the world is absurd, going against the facticity of our situated embodied condition. As was noted by the philosopher Martin Heidegger, we can never be detached from the world. We can only refuse its immediacy and push it away, but there it remains, hovering around us with its weight bearing down, pressuring us back into the flesh.
A new generation of seekers, strivers and sand treading folk have realised that outside of the ideology of the ruling classes in Buddhist circles and the myth of renunciation, enlightenment, or better, awakening, is a thoroughly human affair obtainable when not based on foolish attempts to escape the world. But if you are unfamiliar with such business, perhaps you will ask, awakening to or from what exactly? And you should ask. I am going to present some possibilities in order to open horizons of discourse and sharing. I shall from now on stick to the term awakening and not enlightenment for the latter refers to little that is tangible and that can emerge from the word itself.
Firstly, awakening is essentially concerned with addressing existential suffering, which means our emotional and mental spheres of being, and our conscious experience of ourselves as beings that exist in a world of flesh and relationships. Secondly, I see it as completed by an ongoing animistically informed relationship with the lifeworld: the term the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl coined to refer to the world as it is pre-given, as the shared landscape into which we emerge. Awakening cannot therefore be concerned with escapism, rising above, removal or detachment of the individual from the world as it was in Buddhism’s earliest manifestations. Rather, it must be concerned with a furthering merging and intimacy with the world and as a movement into a completeness of being in the immediacy of our empirical landscape. I am going to suggest that it is ultimately what makes a sobering existence possible in a world devoid of hope.
To awaken is to exit from a state of indoctrinated collective sleep by initially recognising that we are stories, individual narratives that intermix with collective chapters in the history of our species. To awaken is to disembed our feeling, emoting, and thinking habits from the addictive nature of such narrative turns, and immerse ourselves in an intimate, yet free (as in creative and open-ended), exploration of the immediate and real as unfolding process with no true fixed point, intimately immersed in rich historical emergence. As embodied stories most of us have not understood that alternative endings exist.
Essentially this is a radical modality of being that breaks from the reigning consumerist ideology in which we are transactional mechanisms in a global capitalist network of owners and consumers, where everything must exist as an object deemed worthy only in its ability to provide sustenance to economic growth. Such a strange religion we have been duped into following where the dark god of profit must be fed such bloody sacrifices in an ever increasing frenzy! Seems little different to the sort of madness that grasped so many cultures before their demise.
Awakening as I am defining it here stands in opposition then to both capitalism’s objectification of life and religion’s penchant for escapism and final release. It is a release but a radical one into the world, as it is, in any given moment, minus the solipsism and narcissistic turn that plagues our animal species. It is not a possession then, or trophy, but a qualitative modality, an opening to vaster horizons, and to a depth of relating to everything as living, breathing component of the vastness that marks the outer reaches of the horizon in which we are all situated. It is to awaken to the selfless, soulless, flux that we are and become free of habitual, falsified being. It is to recognise how we exist only in relationship to a moving present that is simultaneously open and confined.
How is it realised? How does one wake up like this or to this? Primarily through a reconfiguration of our intricate, habitual relationships, and by that I do not mean with friends and family, although they also play their part of course. Rather we do so through the most basic elements that our conscious experience of being in the world is situated in and expressed through; thinking, feeling, sensing, conceptualising and intending. We must build this reconfiguration on a new qualitative relationship with awareness and attention as relational processes, rather than as mediating forces between sensorial perception and external stimuli.
Buddhists old and new are all too often trapped within the reification of all this into exalted myths, but they would do well to leave aside the typical enlightenment myths that pop up as, amongst many, the super-human fetish, the escapist-fetish, the next-lifetime-fetish, the denial-desire-fetish, the perfect-moral-equilibrium-fetish, and instead look squarely in the face of what we can actually know, as physical, emotional, thinking beings. In doing this our experience once again reveals itself to be all that we ultimately have and that our experience is always at its most basic an opening or closing to what is unfolding and emerging in the environments in which we are situated. Everything else is a warped echo, perhaps from a life of timidity, and a hopeful, maybe even fearful, attempt to anticipate what will come next.
This situated, embodied and process orientated view of the person is not new. It has been building as a conceptual force in Western Philosophy, Geophilosophy, Anthropology and the Cognitive Mind Sciences for some time. This is not the first time that it has been placed alongside some form of Buddhism either, especially finding kinship in expressions of Nyingma and Kagyu Tibetan Buddhism in its more shamanically orientated persuasions, more recently in the work of Tarthang Tulku, as well as in the eloquent calls to nature in Japanese Zen. It is a modality of social practice in many tribal cultures including the Aborigines and it is one of the major alternatives to a reductionist view of life.
Unfortunately, many readers may find this all a little irrelevant, whilst interpreting an idea such as awakening as some sort of spiritual nonsense, an escapist fantasy even, perhaps considering there to be more important things to focus on like gardening, stockpiling food or learning to forage for wild fruits. The way I see it, though, is that decline and ecological collapse can only be responded to, rather than reacted to, by a species that is in a much more conscious relationship with its environment as host, and that is founded within new experiential horizons, as opposed to fixed positional beliefs. I want readers to appreciate that what I am attempting to describe here is not Buddhist, but an experiential and human dimension of potential that can be conceived of as radical-human-freeing into the world.
Animism plays its part
I will now turn to water, the theme of this publication, and bring in Animism. I am going to suggest that from an Animist and/or Panpsychic view we find ourselves to be beings submerged in the world and that our consciousness merges with that world, rather than exists as apart from it. The maverick anthropologist Tim Ingold in his theory on lines sees humans as becoming into the world, which is to say that we are processes in constant emergence, not fixed objects that populate inanimate landscapes. This view is logical if we consider how fundamental the exchange is between our physical body and the environment for our mere existence. We are impregnated constantly by the elements of the world and we are constantly dying away onto its surfaces through shedding skin, hair and other molecules, as well as excreting, spitting and leaking. We are constantly being re-grown through ingesting air, light, plant and animal sustenance. And we mate with the world in a sense by attaching earthly forms to our bodies such as clothing, oil, plant and animal substances, jewellery, and increasingly technology. We can even argue that all sensory perception is a co-arising as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French Phenomenologist, observed rather than a relationship between subjects and objects, in that perception is not a looking out onto, but rather a meeting between the perceiver and the perceived. From my own neo-Shamanic roots, internalised water is not only fundamental to our physical survival, but is also mirrored in our emotions. Water moves in and through us in a myriad ways.
Any form of contemporary misfit or outsider human spirituality must avoid the seduction of the exotic and the commercialisation of our innate drives to know, to experience, to meet, to evolve as a species, and the equally problematic veneer of the certainty of the rational. We do not need to romanticise these animist processes or observations, rather, they are the norm from which we are generally alienated and thoroughly unconscious. Unfortunately, the tendency of new-age spirituality with its culture of the eternal self and general solipsism has rendered much of what I am describing here off-limits to the more discerning, sceptical and, dare I say, grown up individual. Furthermore, it is only a dominant materialist and scientistic ideological framework with its seeming guarantees that has convinced folks that we are isolated, atomised brains moving around a material world of isolated atomic bodies. Such an ideological framework is obsessed with control and boundaries, which as has been shown here, runs counter to the enmeshed reality in which we exist. I admit that the word spiritual is problematic. I would argue that there is nothing particularly spiritual about experiencing synaesthesia in the manner that the eco-philosopher David Abram alludes to, for example, or merging awareness with the bodily processes and the potential for bliss, extreme feelings of joy and love. In each case we are simply articulating a relationship of inter-being that goes against codified norms of a materialist culture and a Christian heritage that is so infused in our sense of self in the West that even atheists are dogged by its ramifications. Yet, we are forced in a sense by the rational of our times to take a stand on the sides of incredibly dull binaries: religious or atheist, spiritual or realist.
Returning to water, we can actually consider its movement as a metaphor for the dissipation of our false mode of being, and of awakening, in part, as an empathic journey through the torrents of the world. With effort and time we may eventually find ourselves able to bathe the world in empathic wonder, not as a god-like creature, but as an organically sound element of the earthly lifeworld. If water is emotion, then its external forms of expression in the world are multiple and can be invoked, as a shaman might, in order to dissolve emotional complacency and comfort and create opportunities for open expression. That is we can learn to align our feeling and emotional experience of being with vastness. Bathing the experience of self as being, in rolling streams, flowing rivers, polite and wild waterfalls, whirlpools, bubbling vortexes, the chaos and harmony of moving bodies, and the stillness in lakes and ponds, as well as the vastness of seas and oceans, can dissolve the boundaries that mark out the emotional chapters of our self-narrative.
If water mirrors our shared lifeworld in its emotional potential, it would be interesting to consider what it would mean to be free emotionally at this point where we seemingly have an excess of the real stuff around us. What would it mean to be able to simultaneously express a far wider range of emotion and feeling, whilst no longer being entrapped in cyclical emotional patterns? Patterned emotional behaviour is culturally situated, but the qualitative nature of emotional expression, a spectrum along which feeling wells and releases through the body, seems universal and therefore an essential component of what it means to be human. Emotional freedom would necessarily indicate the capacity to freely experience any emotion, fully, without becoming lost or determined by it. It would mean no longer resisting the intensity of emotional waves, or attempting to force a replay of emotional patterns that renew, or enforce our sense of self. Emotional freedom would finally imply the ability to harness emotions as energy and as bringers to truth.
I personally find it surprising how so few individuals care to known themselves emotionally. This is possibly due to different cultures having a preference for particular, limited, emotional formulations and differing degrees of intensity. For the Brits reading this, memories of Victorian era emotional suppression will perhaps linger on, but it is not only Victorian era Britain that sought to suppress and control the emotional well of human existence through an icy romance with rationality and self-control. Northern Europeans have long held similar tendencies, sharing our need for alcohol to loosen up, whilst Southern Europe has at times taken a different route through seemingly more impassioned self-expression. That too though has its limitations and in my own experience, although generally healthier, more emotionally expressive cultures tend to inculcate patterned modalities of emotionally acceptable expression just as much. Collective identity is as much about emotional expression and feelings as it is about beliefs and knowledge. Although these are of course generalisations, each one points to shared practices emerging from collective narratives, which will always be leaky with non-conformists emerging.
Some useful questions: To what degree are we engaged in collective feeling and emoting? That is to say, who is feeling, what is being felt and how? How much are we capable of feeling? Where do we place the boundaries on what can or cannot be felt? How much are we able to express and feel through emotional honesty? Does our relationship with emotional expression, individually and collectively, renew, revitalise, or inculcate shared norms of suppression, of adherence to what is deemed normal?
Emotional expression is generally learnt and we parrot emotions, limiting the degree and intensity of feeling, and many of these patterns of limited feeling and emotional expression are artificial constructs created by the dominant ideological framework into which we emerge and grow. That we have a clear preference for a narrow range of emotional choices compounds the experience of ourselves as separate atomised beings, isolated into individual narratives.