Is the Universe Conscious?

Is everything at least a little conscious? It may sound crazy, but this idea, known as panpsychism, has a long and reputable history. Panpsychism was pretty much dismissed by 20th Century science, but it’s making something of a comeback. Some of the most respected names in philosophy were panpsychists: Spinoza (1632–77), Leibniz (1646–1716), Schopenhauer (1788–1860) and Whitehead (1861–1947) for example. William James (1842–1910), sometimes called the “Father of American psychology”, also supported panpsychism.

Tam Hunt’s recent post about panpsychism on the Scientific American blog (5/12/18) quickly promoted a critique. Joshua Tan points out that while Hunt’s theory is fascinating, it’s not science (11/12/18). Tan is right of course: Hunt’s ideas are simply speculation and there’s no evidence for panpsychism. So why have generations of thinkers bothered with it?

Philosophy and neuroscience continue to struggle with the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness: “The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive there is a whir of information processing, but there is also a subjective aspect” (Chalmers). The hard problem rests on the assumption that consciousness emerges in some mysterious way from matter. This position is sometimes called the ‘discontinuity theory’: At some point in evolution consciousness comes into existence out of nowhere. Assuming for a moment that God didn’t create consciousness, how could this possibly happen?

A map of neural circuits in the human brain.

A map of neural circuits in the human brain. © Human Connectome Project

While conventional approaches haven’t made much progress with the hard problem, some neuroscientists, (notably Christof Koch), suggest that panpsychism offers an elegant and simple solution. Continuity theory proposes that consciousness exits everywhere but only becomes recognized as such when it reaches an advanced stage of development. On this model, a kind of primitive, distributed consciousness has existed since the Big Bang, but until carbon-based life developed sensory systems it wasn’t apparent. Consciousness is like gravity: Every atom has a very small amount, so it’s effectively undetectable, but on larger scales it becomes increasingly apparent. As creatures evolved the ability to represent aspects of the world, conscious of things appeared. Sometime later self-awareness emerged and eventually we began to wonder about the hard problem of consciousness.

Neither the continuity nor the discontinuity theories are scientific. Given that neither of them can be proved or disproved, what is the rational stance to take on this question? Max Velmans, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of London, concludes that the continuity theory is “more elegant” (2013) and is sympathetic to panpsychism. I suggest we apply one of the sharpest tools of reason to this question: Occam’s razor, sometimes called the law of economy, states that “plurality should not be posited without necessity”. Occam recommends that if we are given two equally plausible explanations, we should choose the simpler alternative. Panpsychism may not be scientific, but nether is the alternative theory. Arguably a reasonable person will prefer the simple elegance of panpsychism to the suggestion that consciousness mysteriously pops out of nowhere.

If panpsychism is true, there are significant implications for the kind of New Animism proposed by, amongst others, Graham Harvey, David Abram and myself; but that’s a discussion for another blog post!

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Embodied Ecology: A Relational Vision

One core principle lies at the heart of embodied ecology: We are relational earthbodies, fundamentally intertwined with the more-than-human-world. Almost every thinker I’ve discussed on this blog speaks that same truth in their own voice. Let’s listen to a few.

Charles Eisenstein talks about interbeing: “my being partakes of your being and that of all beings. … our very existence is relational” (2013). Philip Shepherd writes that “ the body knows … that it belongs to the world, expresses the world, is held by the world and shares in all that happens to the world” (2017). According to Glen Mazis we are earthbodies, “where flesh is not mine, but of the planet’s of which I am part”, (2002), while David Abram affirms that we’re “corporeally embedded” in a “living landscape” (1996).

Seagull flying over waves

© Author

Philosopher and psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin concluded that we need “a new conception of the living body” as “a vastly larger system” than that proposed by medical science (1997). Gregory Bateson said something similar: “the mind … is not limited by the skin” . He adds, that “there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a subsystem” (1972). Merleau-Ponty, arguably the father of embodied thought, expressed it beautifully:

“As I contemplate the blue of the sky … I abandon myself to it and plunge into this mystery, it ‘thinks itself within me,’ I am the sky itself as it is drawn together and unified, and as it begins to exist for itself;“ (1962).

Neuroscientists have come to the same conclusion. Francisco Varela and his colleagues conclude that: “organism and environment enfold into each other and unfold from one another in the fundamental circularity that is life itself” (Varela et al., 1991).

How is it then, that our culture has got so confused? We still listen the story of separation told by Descartes and Plato. For Mazis it’s “diabolic logic: me versus you; us versus them… It rationally divides and opposes that which is one.” (2002). Eisenstein names the illusion more prosaically: “You are a separate individual among other separate individuals in a universe that is separate from you as well” (2013).

We have to wake up from this illusion of separation, but how? At least part of this process of healing is to become more aware of our embodiment. Paul Linden suggests that “spending time learning to sense the body with fullness and immediacy would move people toward sensing themselves as part of the web of life”. Could this enable us “to feel part of a living planet and take responsibility for the ways humans affect the global environment?” (1994).

I can quote from many others who have come to a similar conclusion. Shepherd, for example, identifies how practices that bring you back to the body “carry you beyond the wound of separation” (2017). This emerging field is sometimes called ‘ecosomatics’, which Nala Walla defines as “The art of sensing the ‘inner body’ as a way to connect to the greater social and planetary (Gaiac) bodies” (2009).

Ecosomatics is a more refined expression of what I once called Sacred Ecology: “a deep knowing of the sacredness of the Earth that is more than just an intellectual awareness of the facts & figures about species decimation & habitat loss. It is a feeling of unity with the Earth that we have in our gut” (1996). My current project is to explore the kind of practices Linden, Shepherd, Walla and others propose: These are embodied pathways of connection that can awaken us from the dualistic dream that is destroying the World.

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The European Journal of Ecopsychology

I’ve written a couple of articles for The European Journal of Ecopsychology (EJE) in the past and I’m delighted to say that I’m a member of the new Editorial Team. The Journal is peer-reviewed and explores “the synthesis of psychological and ecological ideas from a variety of perspectives”. The new Editorial Team will preserve the ethos and approach of the Journal, which I believe is unique.

When I was looking for somewhere the publish my MSc research, I had several quite challenging criteria to meet. Most importantly, I wanted my work to be as accessible as possible to the ecotherapy community. Most academic journals charge high fees to read published articles, which means that unless you have a University account access is difficult. The EJE currently publishes everything online for free.

Cover of The European Journal of Ecopsychology

Because the paper I wanted to publish was based on an MSc dissertation, it was quite long – far longer than most journals would accept. I could have shortened it, loosing what I felt were useful contributions to the field. Paul Stevens, who was until recently the EJE Editor, accepted my submission as it stood and none of the review panel required any cuts.

Ultimately of course it’s the material published in a journal that make it special. Here again the EJE stands out. For example, the current issue includes:

  • Brian Taylor on The generosity of birds: Ecopsychology, animism, and intimate encounter with wild others, and
  • The seven pathways to Nature Connectedness: A focus group exploration by Ryan Lumber, Miles Richardson & David Sheffield.

Previous volumes have been devoted to topics like ecopsychology and the psychedelic experience (Volume 4, 2013) or queering ecopsychology (Volume 3, 2012). These are fascinating subjects, but they are rarely explored in academic journals. The EJE is exciting and innovative; it pushes the boundaries and engages with areas of ecopsychology that might otherwise be ignored.  I’m delighted to pick up the baton from Paul and carry the EJE into the future. I hope you can join me on the journey!

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Philip Shepherd

How can we escape from the heady over-analytic thinking that our culture is caught up in? Philip Shepherd proposes a path to “radical wholeness” that’s grounded in the deep wisdom of the body (Shepherd, 2017).

Western culture has long prioritized abstract rational thinking over what we might call embodied knowing or embodied intelligence. The abstract mode of relating to the world sets us apart from everything else: It sets a clear and inviolable boundary between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, between me as ‘subject’ and everything else as ‘object’. I’ve referenced many thinkers in past posts who agree that this is nonsense: Amongst others, Eugene Gendlin, Andy Clark, Merleau-Ponty, David Abram, Glen Mazis and Charles Eisenstein.

Philip adds some valuable insights to this ongoing embodied revolution. He explores our sensory capacity, noting the inadequacy of the Western model of five senses and proposes that our primary sense is our ability to sense wholeness; this is what he calls holosapience. Wholeness is not something we need to strive to achieve; it’s not a destination. Paradoxically perhaps, wholeness is both unknowable and fundamental to our being. We cannot objectivity know wholeness, but we can feel it, hence the importance of holosapience. We need to come to rest in the body so that we can be fully present to wholeness and this is facilitated by the grounded sensitivity which forms our embodied intelligence.

fast water flow over rocks

© Author

For me, Philip Shepherd’s special contribution is to provide simple and powerful ways for us to actually experience the reality of our embodied intelligence. One practice struck me as being especially pertinent right now. I’m preparing for a series of public discussions with several thinkers – including Philip – whose work I admire, so I might be forgiven for wanting to present myself well. But there’s a danger that I might slip into what Philip calls ‘presentation mode’, a carefully monitored way of speaking that’s intended to make me sound impressive! We’re all familiar with presentation mode as we use it a lot of the time. It’s driven by our anxiety about not knowing, about sounding like we’re not in control. Philip describes it as speaking from the sternum and suggests moving our awareness to the back of the chest instead. When I try this I sense a shift in how I relate to what I’m saying: It feels more open, grounded and available.

I’m aiming to forgo presentation mode in my forthcoming discussions, choosing grounded sensitivity and presence instead. If you’ve signed up to the Embodiment Conference, you can be the judge of how that works out in practice: I’ll be in conversation with Philip Shepherd on 15th November.

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Charles Eisenstein

Charles Eisenstein is a new voice for me, but his words resonate deeply and fill me with hope. Eisenstein on the gift economy is well worth a read, but I’m going to focus on his more recent work as it relates to embodied ecology.

Stories are powerful; we live by them. I recall hearing once that those who control the stories control reality. For Eisenstein our current world-view is built on the “Story of Separation”. This story is pretty much the version of reality presented by late 19th Century mainstream thinking:

  • “You are a separate individual among other separate individuals in a universe that is separate from you as well”;
  • “There is no purpose, only cause. The universe is at bottom blind and dead”;
  • human beings must “protect ourselves against this hostile universe of competing individuals and impersonal forces, we must exercise as much control as possible” (Eisenstein 2013).

This old story is looking shaky these days, but is still widely believed. It’s familiar after all, and opening our minds to something radically different feels very uncomfortable.

What we need, Eisenstein suggests, is “the Story of Interbeing”, a new story that understands that “our very existence is relational.” We’re not ready for that new story but for many of us the old story no longer rings true, so “we still must traverse, naked, the space between stories” (Eisenstein 2013).

Back lit tree at sunset

Hembury Fort, Devon. © Author.

As activists we sometimes find ourselves using the Story of Separation to make sense of our world. This can be misleading, as we get caught up in a model of reality that’s the fundamental root of the problem. Eisenstein believes that we “need to ground environmentalism on something other than data” and he draws on Deep Ecology to explore an alternative:

“When we as a society learn to see the planet and everything on it as beings deserving of respect – in their own right and not just for their use to us – then we won’t need to appeal to climate change to do all the best things that the climate change warriors would have us do” (Eisenstein, 2015).

The work of Charles Eisenstein, David Abram, Glen Mazis and myself is rooted in single insight: We are relational earthbodies, fundamentally intertwined with the more-then-human-world. This is the truth at the heart of the embodied ecology that’s emerging.

I’ll be talking to Charles Eisenstein on 13th November as part of the on line Embodiment Conference.

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Glen Mazis

Glen Mazis is a philosopher and poet whose writing frequently merges both skills. I came across his book Earthbodies (2002) during my PhD research on embodied knowing and found it hugely exciting. Mazis explains that ‘bodies’ are much more than we realize. We think of our bodies as bound by the surface of our skin, what Andy Clark calls the ‘skin-bag body’. Mazis, like Clark, believes that’s an illusion, and to explain why he introduces the term ‘earthbody’.

In the West we typically emphasize ownership of objectified bodies. Bodies are beautiful, ugly, fit, sick, strong or weak. And somehow ‘owned’. But “an earthbody isn’t ‘yours,’ it’s the world’s”. For Mazis “you don’t ‘have’ this body. You are part of a dynamic process that we might call ‘earthbodying,’ if we weren’t so used to referring to ourselves with nouns” (Mazis, 2002).

The term earthbodies describes a process more than an object. Earthbodies are “sensual, perceptual and feeling conductors through which richer meaning flows than we can grasp intellectually” (Mazis, 2002). Mazis emphasizes how fluidity and connectedness constitute our embodiment. Countless threads of connection pass though earthbodies, weaving each individual into the wider fabric of the world.

To write of the “fabric of the world” is particularly appropriate because it’s a phrase used by a philosopher that Mazis is profoundly inspired by; Merleau-Ponty. Several strands of thought come together at this point: Mazis, Abram and Gendlin all draw on Merleau-Ponty and all four argue for some notion of the ‘body’ as an open, interactive process.

Conventional notions of the body in Western culture stand in blunt opposition to that radical notion. As Mazis points out, the idea that you might be an open, process in fluid interaction with the world “may sound fantastic to you because we have been taught to close our bodies, lock our knees, and brace ourselves for life and its tasks” (Mazis, 2002). This numbing shut-down means that most people “fail to experience the pull, the tides, of the earth’s motion which stream through us”.

River and rocks in dappled sunlight.

Teign Gorge, Devon. © Author.

Merleau-Ponty distinguishes between the objective body – the body regarded as an object – and the phenomenal body, which refers to my (or your) body as I (or you) actually experience it. But we typically blur that distinction, experiencing our bodies as enclosed objects that we ‘own’. As a result many people “live much of the time in a state of disconnection and dislocation … and have little sense of where they are, what they feel and what they sense, especially not in the myriad depths and dimensions of the perceptual” (2004).

Mazis points to another way of experiencing our embodied condition that allow us to be more caring, more environmentally aware, more open and more loving. Mazis seeks to “reveal the dance of the planet”, so that we – as earthbodies – can come to experience the earth’s constant motion as more than merely physical: It’s also “emotional, imaginative, spiritual, linguistic, communal, and natural” (Mazis, 2002).

I’ll be speaking to Glen as part of the forthcoming on-line Embodiment Conference which is free to attend.

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David Abram

David Abram’s first book, The Spell of the Sensuous, (1996) has influenced pretty much everyone in the world of ecopsychology and environmental philosophy. Its themes are summed up in the subtitle: Perception and Language in a More-than-human world. By way of introduction, I’ll touch on each of those themes.

Perception
Abram is more than just a philosopher; he’s also an ecologist, anthropologist and slight-of-hand magician. That unusual combination gave Abram some unique insights about perception:

“The task of the magician is to startle our senses
and free us from outmoded ways of thinking.”
(Interview with Scott London, 2018).

Abram’s interest in perception led him to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and he develops that into an embodied environmental philosophy. Abram challenges conventional ideas about subject and object, inside and out. He reveals that our perception is always participatory; it involves “an active interplay, or coupling, between the perceiving body and that which it perceives” (Abram, 1996). Thus he comes to understand the body as “a sort of open circuit that completes itself only in things, in others, in the encompassing earth” (Abram, 1996). There are echoes here of Eugene Gendlin who understood the body as extending beyond the skin into “a vastly larger system” (Gendlin, 1997).

Language
It’s not only humans who have a living language. Abram suggests that “various animals and other natural forms today speak in their own unique dialects” (Abram, 1996). Oral cultures fully appreciate this reality; they’re aware that we’re “corporeally embedded” in a “living landscape” (Abram, 1996). But the influence of writing has led us into a “more abstract mode of thinking” that conceals our sensuous, embodied relationship to the more-than-human world (Abram, 1996).

Rainbow in waterfall over rocks.

Wentworth Falls. (Copyright of author)

A more-than-human world
We are part of a more-than-human community: “the animals, the plants, the trees, even whole forests” (2018). Every member of this wider community has its own wisdom and way of being.

“Each place has its own mind, its own psyche. Oak, madrone, Douglas fir, red-tailed hawk, serpentine in the sandstone, a certain scale to the topography, drenching rains in the winter, fog off-shore in the winter, salmon surging in the streams – all these together make up a particular state of mind, a place-specific intelligence shared by all the humans that dwell therein … ” (Abram, 1996).

Abram was one of the first to recognize the importance of animism for ecological thinking. Animism had long been dismissed as a primitive error, but by the early 1990’s Religious Studies scholar Graham Harvey had identified it as a powerful influence amongst Neo-Pagans. Abram was on a parallel track to Harvey, following the thread through older, indigenous cultures.

Abram continues to explore these themes in Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (2010), another book I highly recommend. It’s important to note that Abram is a practical philosopher and his work with the Alliance for Wild Ethics is perhaps as important as his writing.

I’m delighted to say that I’ll be interviewing David Abram as part of the ecology thread during The Embodiment Conference. This on-line event takes place from 13 – 24 November. It’s free to join, but numbers are limited.

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How to Save the World: Embodied Ecology

The UN spelt it out this week: “Climate change is running faster than we are – and we are running out of time.” Most of us know climate change is an unfolding disaster, but we still don’t change. Why? It’s not what you know, it’s the way that you know it. We know the facts and figures in our heads, but don’t – or can’t – engage on an embodied, gut level.

I first explored these idea in ‘Sacred Ecology’ and it’s still my most popular publication even though it’s almost 25 years old! I wrote about ‘somatic knowing’:

“Besides the cerebral knowledge we all possess, the words & ideas stored in our heads, there is a deeper knowledge held within the tissue of our bodies. It is a somatic, physical knowing which comes from direct experience. This is the knowledge of faith, of emotion, of the gut feeling”.

Maori sculpture in Aotearoa

Maori sculpture. Aotearoa.

Fast forward a quarter of a century, and I’m still exploring the same territory. I’ve found many allies in that time, people like David Abram, Glen Mazis, Charles Eisenstein and Philip Shepherd. You may not know them yet, but trust me – these are some of the key thinkers in what we might call embodied ecology. I’ll be talking to these four as part of the free on-line Embodiment Conference in November. The conference will include over 100 speakers from disciplines as diverse as yoga, coaching, meditation and therapy.

The Embodiment Conference takes place from 13 – 24 November. It’s free to join, but numbers are limited so sign up now if you don’t want to miss it.

In preparation for the event, my next few blog posts will introduce the four thinkers I’ll be interviewing during the conference. Next up will be David Abram, cultural ecologist, geophilosopher, author of ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ and a source of inspiration for many!

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Smart, Helpful Tips for Better Sleep and Better Health

I occasionally host a guest post from an expert on a particular topic. This post is by  Cheryl Conklin of Wellnesscentral.info.


For many of us, sleep might seem like a waste of many hours. We’re lying down in a bed with our eyes closed when we could be doing work, getting things accomplished, and changing the world — or, at the very least, catching up on our latest show on Netflix. If we think this, we would be wrong, though. Improving our sleep habits will improve our lives in many ways, including boosting our mental health. Here are a few tips on how to create a sleep routine.

Lack of Sleep

First, a little more on the dangers of not getting enough sleep. A lack of sleep can cause long-term issues like high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and depression. It can also lead to a greater risk of depression and anxiety, increased risk of heart disease and cancer, impaired memory, a reduced immune system, and weight gain.

The point; you need more sleep. To create a mental health-boosting sleep routine, you need to know how much sleep you should be getting. The recommended amount, however, is based on your age. The National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours for everyone 18 years old and older. Of course, you may need even more if you have been staying up late for a while or if you have extra stress in your life.

Signs that you are running a sleep deficit include feeling tired throughout the day, using caffeine just to make it through the day, not sleeping well, not waking up refreshed, and getting drowsy while you’re driving or watching TV.

Creating a New Sleep Routine

If you’re not getting enough sleep, try creating a new sleep routine. First, set a regular bedtime and stick to it. Your body will respond well to the consistency. You’re also more likely to get good sleep if you schedule your rest just like anything else you want to get done. You should also stay away from caffeine, even if you think you need it to stay awake during the day. If you drink it too late in the afternoon, you’ll likely still be awake at night.

You can also help your body relax before bed by taking a hot bath and meditating for a few minutes. Create a calm, soothing environment with a temperature that works well for you. You should also get any preparations for the next day done about an hour before bedtime if possible.

Here’s another tip that might be hard to follow, but it will be good both to help you relax and clear your mind; turn off your electronic devices about an hour before bedtime. The artificial light isn’t good for you, and you also want to have some time to wind down without worrying about social media or what is happening online.

sleeping woman

Other Sleep Aids

If you’re still having trouble sleeping, a few other aids may help you get the rest you need to keep you in good mental health. Several over-the-counter sleep medications can work well. (The National Sleep Foundation recommends using these for a maximum of four weeks.) If your problems seem more serious, you should see a doctor about your sleeping issues. They can check for underlying health problems, such as depression or a thyroid problem. They can also refer you to a sleep specialist, especially if they suspect a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea.

Following these tips should get you into a good sleep routine that will be beneficial for both your mental and physical health. This will help you perform better at home and at work and will put you on the road to a happy life. Now, get some sleep!

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Nature and the therapeutic relationship

I completed my Masters dissertation back in 2014, so it was interesting to re-work it into a journal article several years later. My question was whether working in a natural environment had an impact on the therapeutic relationship. It does, of course, but how?

The existing literature noted seven key themes:

  • 3-way relationship;
  • Nature and the therapeutic process;
  • Symbolism, metaphor and synchronicity;
  • Power;
  • Self/other, inside/outside;
  • Nature and the therapeutic process;
  • Boundaries and containers.

I found all of those in my research, as well as two completely new themes; the turning point and transference. The term ‘transference’ comes from Freud and it describes the phenomena of ‘transferring’ our feelings about someone in our past to a different person in the present. The person in the past is someone of deep importance to us, typically our father or mother. I’d guess we’ve all experienced that, even if we didn’t realize what was going on at the time! My research found something rather odd and potentially very significant: It’s possible to transfer strong feelings about some significant person in our past to a natural object or phenomena. A tree, for example, can come to represent someone’s father or stormy wild weather can powerfully evoke emotional echoes of a mother/son relationship. I wonder if this plays into the idea of ‘Mother Nature’?

people walking in the woods
There’s a key moment in therapy in nature, a turning point where the client and therapist pass a threshold and enter into a liminal space. I draw parallels with anthropological theory about rites of passage, which highlights the importance of that in-between space where the initiate is neither who they were nor who they are to become (Van Gennep). In a rite of passage there’s a midpoint of transition where, for example, the person is no longer a girl, but not yet a women. The anthropologist Victor Turner emphasized the importance of this central liminal phase where the ritual participants are “betwixt and between” (1967).
What has all that to do with therapy? Turner’s notion of liminal space seems to be closely related to what psychotherapist Donald Winnicott calls “transitional space”. Transitional space is “is an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute” (Winnicott, 1971). Is where therapeutic healing happens?

I’m ending this post with some big questions left open. No apologizes for that: I did the same in my dissertation! Sometimes the value of research comes from the questions it asks rather than the answers it claims to offer. I’ll end here with the same quote from Merleau-Ponty that concluded my dissertation:

“[t]he accomplished work is … not the work which exists in itself, like a thing, but the work which reaches the viewer and invites him to take up the gesture which created it” (1993).

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