Sharon Blackie in conversation with David Abram
Dr. Abram’s work engages the ecological depths of the imagination, exploring the ways in which sensory perception, poetics, and wonder inform the relation between the human body and the breathing earth. His philosophical craft is profoundly informed by the European tradition of phenomenology (in particular, by the work of the French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty) and by his fieldwork with indigenous peoples in southeast Asia and North America.
Dr. Blackie’s unique approach to working with the mythic imagination, fairy tales and folklore highlights the insights these traditions can offer us into authentic and meaningful ways of being which are founded on a return to the native wisdom traditions of the West, and above all on cultivating deep and enduring relationships to the places we inhabit.
(From the publisher)
“Barbara Ehrenreich is one of the most important thinkers of our time. Educated as a scientist, she is an author, journalist, activist, and advocate for social justice. In LIVING WITH A WILD GOD, she recounts her quest-beginning in childhood-to find “the Truth” about the universe and everything else: What’s really going on? Why are we here? In middle age, she rediscovered the journal she had kept during her tumultuous adolescence, which records an event so strange, so cataclysmic, that she had never, in all the intervening years, written or spoken about it to anyone. It was the kind of event that people call a “mystical experience”-and, to a steadfast atheist and rationalist, nothing less than shattering.”
The following is an excerpt from her interview with Terry Gross on the radio show, Fresh Air –
EHRENREICH: I got on a very poorly planned skiing trip with my little brother, who was 13, and a high school friend, and for some reason spent the night in the car in Lone Pine, California, a very little town at that time, and I got up that morning, went out of the car, the others were asleep, and started wandering around the streets of Lone Pine, and something happened.
It was – the only words I can put to it after all these years are that the world flamed into life. Everything was alive. It was like there was a feeling of an encounter with something living, not something God-like, not something loving, not something benevolent, but something beyond any of those kinds of categories, beyond any human categories.
And this lasted – I don’t know how many minutes this lasted in its full intensity. We went on from Lone Pine – for inexplicable to me reasons we went into Death Valley and spent the afternoon wandering around in Death Valley, which was on the way to L.A. And the experience continued there in the desert, though not quite as intensely.
GROSS: Let me read something else that you write about in your book. You write that if you had described it, what would you have said, that I had been savaged by a flock of invisible angels, lifted up in a glorious flutter of iridescent feathers, then mauled, emptied of all intent and purpose and pretty much left for dead. I mean it sounds, you know, both beautiful and violent, like you were mauled. That’s a very physical word to use.
EHRENREICH: Uh-huh. You know, if you read accounts of other people’s mystical experiences, and I only did that in the last couple – decade or so, both religious people and nonbelievers, I find that that sense of a violent encounter is also there. Among one of the most religious would be St. Teresa of Avila, and she certainly describes a loving God, whom she very much adores. She was of course writing for her – the Inquisitors.
But she also describes it as a violent kind of encounter, and what she sometimes felt like, that she had been just ground down to her bones by what happened. Or to take a more secular example, Philip K. Dick, the science fiction writer, the American science fiction writer, had a mystical experience that he wrote quite a bit about, and he said it was less like feeling enlightened by the Buddha or something than it was a little bit like being mugged.
…In the months that followed that experience in Lone Pine, I went back and forth. I had seen something, I had seen something amazing, it was an encounter, to finally deciding, no, this was a psychiatric episode. I’m a rational person. I have no rational way, other rational way of explaining this. It has to do with some kind of biochemical imbalances, some kind of messed up neuronal circuitry, and I decided that that’s how I was going to leave it.
I was never going to tell anybody about this because I didn’t want to, didn’t know how to, and on top of that I was just going to go on with my life and try to forget about it. So that was my solution for many years.
GROSS: When was the last time you had an experience like the ones you described that you could interpret as mystical or as a symptom of a psychiatric disorder or somewhere between the two?
EHRENREICH: Well, I no longer interpret them as symptoms of a psychiatric disorder. That’s what happened as I evolved from a, say, from my late teens into my 60s, is turning this over and over in my head, learning a whole lot of other things – for example, about the many, many people who have had what look like very similar experiences.
I decided I’m going to go with being sane, that I encountered something. It’s something that a lot of people encounter, all sorts of people. And I want to understand better what that is, what happens to us when we have these experiences and what, if anything, we are running into.
GROSS: What are some of your theories?
EHRENREICH: Well, I give speculations at the end of the book. You know, it helped that in the intervening years here I spent a great deal of time learning about religion and learning, for example, about the varieties of religion that preceded, and many survived, well into the age of monotheism.
And, you know, there’s almost no creature that hasn’t been a deity for some sort of people somewhere on Earth at some time: animals, animals/human figures – these deities generally are not good. That idea of a good deity tends to go with monotheism, or at least Zoroastrianism.
So there was apparently a lot of experiencing the world as alive in a way that we do not see it now. If you think of animism, it’s called a religion, I think that’s actually an odd name for it, but it’s considered the most, quote, primitive religion. But what it is is people seeing the world as a living presence, every part of it, and that rings true with my experience.
“The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
David Abram‘s perspective on how we perceive the world around us and how that perception can not only alter the ideas we may have about this world , but that it can also dramatically impact how we interact (or inter-be as Thich Nhat Hanh would say) with everything and everyone we come into contact with – this is of particular interest to me. I had read his Spell of the Sensuous some time ago and have had his Becoming Animal on my shelf, unread, since it was first released. I have finally taken it down and begun to dive into it. It challenges me to get out of my head and into my body, to be present. It also challenges me to look at the world with new eyes and to connect more dots as to why I have such an interest in this and related subjects which I hope to explore more as time allows.
The following are extended excerpts from an interview he gave to Derrick Jensen in 2000. That interview is worth reading in its entirety if the following is of any interest.
David Abram –
“I’m trying to understand how it’s possible that a culture of intelligent critters like ourselves can so recklessly and so casually destroy so much that is mysterious and alive, and in the course of it destroy so much of ourselves and our own capacity for wonder.
And it seems to me that it is not out of any real meanness that we are destroying so much of our world. It’s simply that we no longer notice these other beings, no longer really notice or feel that we are a part of the same world that the ravens and the rivers inhabit. We don’t sense that we’re inside the same story in which the squirrels and the salmon are characters. Somehow our ways of speaking, and our ways of living, perpetuate this odd notion that we stand outside of the world, apart from the world, looking at it, pondering it as if from some distant vantage point. And our science steadily tries to figure out the world, to come up with a precise blueprint of how it all works — as if the world were a vast machine we could somehow diagram and control if we can just get the right perspective.
How can we humans live in right relation to this river valley so that both we and the river and the salmon can all flourish — rather than: what kind of a machine is a salmon in itself, or what are the mechanisms that make this forest tick? By asking these latter questions we take ourselves out of relation to the forest, out of relation to the salmon, in order to comprehend their workings. I suppose it would be okay if we then brought ourselves back into a living relation with those beings. But we don’t! Instead we begin to focus on how to manipulate the forest, how to engineer the genome of the salmon for our own ostensible benefit. So much research, today, seems motivated less by a sense of wonder than by a great will-to-control. It is a mark of immaturity, I think, a sign that science is still in its adolescence.
In our culture we speak about nature a great deal. Mature cultures speak to nature. They feel the rest of nature speaking to them. They feel the ground where they stand as it speaks through them. They feel themselves inside and a part of a vast and steadily unfolding story in which storm clouds and spiders are just as much players as they are (more…)