Where is wilderness?

I’m currently featured as a ‘wilderness thinker’ for a project on ‘Thinking Wilderness’. I took a sideways look at the question of what ‘wilderness’ means and came up with more questions than answers. I explore the question ‘Where is wilderness?’ Readers of this blog won’t be surprised at the direction my journey took. From a bodymind place perspective, wilderness is not simply somewhere ‘out there’ because simple notions of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ no longer make sense. Read the full post on the Thinking Wilderness Project site.

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Wholebody Focusing – Grounding into being here

I’ve only done an introductory week-end of Wholebody Focusing (WBF), so these initial thoughts are somewhat tentative, but I want to touch on the role of grounding in WBF.

Gene Gendlin, the philosopher/psychotherapist who developed Focusing, states that the body extends beyond the skin so that the body “lives immediately in its environment, both physically and socially” (Gendlin, 1994). Wholebody Focusing takes that idea forward more explicitly than traditional Focusing and I find that very exciting.

The first crucial stage of WBF – which is absent from traditional Focusing – is grounding. I’m familiar with grounding from both my spiritual experience and my embodiment training, so at first assumed I knew what this involved. But I realised that WBF grounding was something subtly different. My usual grounding process is to sense the weight of my body on the ground, feeling my weight as if I were a rock on the earth or visualizing myself as a tree with roots deep in the soil. WBF involves a similar sensing of our physical selves, but also opens out to relationship with everything else. Astrid Schillings calls it ‘grounding into being here (Dasein)’ (2014) to emphasizes how it requires both being in the world and being with others. Through grounding into being here we become aware of the body as “an ongoing interaction with its environment” (Gendlin, 1992). We thus become grounded in “all the ongoing interactions that we are” (Schillings, 2014).


There are many crossovers with other ideas I’ve explored here. I’m especially struck by how WBF seems to relate to ecopsychology, notably my experiences with Focusing in nature which now seems more like Wholebody Focusing in nature. WBF might also offer a new way of understanding my experience of sensing the pulse of the seasons at Imbolc last year. It’s a powerful approach and I’m already finding that WBF is enhancing my spiritual practice and my therapeutic work. My sense is that WBF could be a space where many themes of the body mind place meet.

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Becoming another: connected selves

My previous post critiqued the notion of humans becoming animal. I argued that humans are animals, so we can’t become animals. But there’s actually a much more interesting angle to all this. Ignoring for a moment species boundaries, what does becoming another being mean?

Anne Game is an academic – a sociologist – and a keen horse rider. One morning her horse, KP, became inexplicably paralysed and she had to relearn how to move. As part of her healing process KP wanted the relationship with Anne that came from being ridden. At first the horse found it hard; Anne was fearful of hurting the horse – or herself – and progress was slow. But a dramatic shift happened when Anne let her body move as if she and KP were cantering: “To help her to remember canter, my body had to take up this movement. The between horse and human movement canter had to be generated for KP to entrain with it, to get in the flow” (Game, 2001).

We might say KP learnt to canter again though Anne’s movement. But that’s not quite it: the horse/human, the centaur that is KP/Anne learnt to canter again. As Anne puts it, “I propose that we are always already part horse, and horses, part human: there is no such thing as pure horse or purely human. The human body is not simply human”.

From this perspective it became clear to Anne that her own fear had been holding back KP’s initial efforts. “The protectiveness I felt was more likely to have been self-protection, a consequence of identification. And identification is clearly inappropriate in the circumstances, for it involves being too close, too attached to be able to be with the other and feel what they need. When I identify with you, your situation becomes mine: closed off in separateness, I thus lose the capacity for the other to be called up in my self”.

horse

Becoming horse is not about identification. It requires something more subtle. Anne proposes a “a forgetting of human self in a between-human-and-horse way of being” that however retains a “a fearless capacity for otherness and difference”. Anne suggests that this models how effective therapy needs to offer a “non-attached holding of self and other”. Anne doesn’t say much more about that, but it’s a profound insight that I hope to unpack myself in future posts.

If we take ourselves to be self-contained, autonomous beings in an world of others, then much of what happens in therapy is mysterious. If, however, we understand subjectivity as a phenomenon that emerges from a complex flux where bodies are not discrete, then our therapeutic work – and many other, otherwise inexplicable phenomena – become clearer.

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Becoming Animal

I’m preparing for a forthcoming debate on the role of “becoming-animal in promoting ecological activity”. It’s at the University of Brighton on Saturday and I’ve been circling the question for a the last week or so. The debate is framed around traditional stories of humans shapeshifting into animals, stories which blur the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. And there’s the rub, for if humans are animals then what would it mean to become animal? Perhaps it would mean becoming more fully human, more alive, more aware of our fleshy embodiment.

I’ve long been entertained by the futile struggle to maintain the boundary between ‘human’ and ‘animal’. When I was a kid there was a whole list of supposed differences; humans use tools, use language and have self-consciousness – animal don’t. As the years pass, these ‘boundaries’ are falling away. The question of whether other animals have language is debatable and rather depends on what we mean by language. But other animals use tools and demonstrate what certainly looks like self awareness.

So why are we hairless apes in denial about our animality? And does that denial tie in with our apparent inability to live sustainably? Maybe. David Abram’s recent book Becoming Animal has some clues. Abram suggests that we “fear our carnal embodiment” because it reminds us of our mortality. We cannot allow that we “must die in order for others to flourish”, so escape into “dreams of machine-mediated immortality”. This is not only futile, but costly, because it leads us to dull the sensory richness that is our birthright. Our technologically mediated and scientifically framed world distances us from the immediacy of engaged experience. As Abram poetically puts it, “modern humanity is crippled by a fear of its own animality”.

The sociologist Max Weber proposed that modernity has disenchanted the world (1971). That’s true as far as it goes, but it’s clear that the process is incomplete. Something more fundamental than either science or culture resists disenchantment: our embodiment. So I return to where I began. Becoming animal means re-joining the dance of life with the community of the other-than-human. We must rediscover the fecund mystery of sensory engagement, accept our animal mortality and come to feel at home in our own skin again. Paradoxically, becoming-animal is to become fully human.

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Embodied peacemaking

This is the 100th anniversary of the day Britain entered the First World War. Over 16 million people died. This was not to be the ‘war to end all wars’: conflict continues around the world, and many millions more have died since Armistice day in 1918.

Have we learnt anything about building a lasting peace? I’ve just come back from a four day training retreat focusing on embodiment. I was presenting a session on nature connection and was honoured to be sharing the programme with Paul Linden. Paul, who has been practicing Aikido for 41 years and is something of a genius in bodymind awareness, has developed an approach he describes as ‘embodied peace building’.

Amongst other things, Paul is a philosopher, and he presents his peacemaking approach with great precision. He begins with a definition of peace as “the condition in which conflicts are dealt with and resolved in respectful, life-affirming ways” (2007). Conflict resolution typically emphasizes thinking, listening and talking, but this can only succeed if those involved are “in a state of inner and outer peacefulness” (2007). Paul’s techniques teach us how to embody peace and calm. From that foundation, we can begin to explore ways of resolving conflict. Without the sense of safety and empowered love enabled by Paul’s method, conflict all too easily flares up as soon as negotiations get difficult.

corn-poppys_3-cutb

Words alone aren’t enough. Morality is not some abstract set of principles or a divine injunction: it is “built into the very structure of the body”. Ethical behaviour emerges with profound inevitability “from an integrated body state of power and love” (2007).

I’ve long been convinced that our embodiment holds the key to positive change, whether that’s in the context of environmental awareness, mental health or spirituality. Paul’s work confirms my belief. More importantly, it saves lives.

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Focusing and Experiential Listening skills for activists

I’m excitedly preparing to co-facilitate a workshop which will introduce social change activists to Focusing and experiential listening. It’s emerged from an event about psychotherapy and activism that I posted on last October.

The workshop is part of my Focusing Oriented Therapist training, but it’s much more than that; it feels like I’m coming round the spiral of life again, returning to old concerns with fresh resources. I’ve seen activist friends burnout and it’s a tragic loss. When I speak of tragedy in this context, the ideas of tragic drama come to mind: a tragic hero falls because of some fundamental aspect of their character or conflict with some overpowering force. Activists burnout because they care too much. They push on beyond what is humanly sustainable, driven by a drive to do something that can ultimately destroy them.

But what if we can sense into that impossibly demanding drive and be with it rather than becoming consumed by it? Focusing allows us to sense into the whole context of our lives and to understand parts of ourselves from a much wider perspective.

The workshop takes place this coming Saturday at the Common House in London. You can turn up on the day or contact me for more information.

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The psychotherapy of place

Blog posts to Bodymind Place have been scarce this year, and for good reason; I’m working on an MSc dissertation about the therapeutic relationship in outdoor therapy. But this morning my research reached out and touched the themes of this blog. I’ve interviewed psychotherapists who’ve worked with clients outdoors, typically in woods or parks, and while reading a transcript I saw that my research is influencing my practice.

How we are in the world is about the matrix of mindbody place, and many of my clients have been powerfully influenced by the places they live or grew up in. Although it seems very obvious that where I live or grew up will influence how I feel or even who I am, that reality is largely neglected by psychotherapy. The traditional Freudian model focuses on individuals caught in Oedipal family relationships and place is all but ignored. Psychotherapy in general seems to have forgotten embodiment, although there are notable exceptions like Focusing, body therapy and some Existential approaches. But even in the more embodied psychotherapies, place is rarely discussed. The term embodiment implies place – we are all embodied somewhere – but it often seems that those working with embodiment treat place as a mere background, an adjunct to the important business of having a body.

Merleau-Ponty suggests that we have “a knowledge of place which is reducible to a sort of co-existence with that place” (2002 [1962]). It’s not that I am sitting in my room – I am in a co-existence with that space. Gendlin is even more radical: the body “is an ongoing interaction with its environment” (Gendlin, 1992). To be clear, there isn’t a typo there: Gendlin isn’t saying that the body is in an interaction, but that the body actually is that interaction.

A blurred figure walking in a subway

Walking in the subway

Ecopsychology engages with the wider world, and ecotherapists might well ask about a client’s relationship to nature. But how often do therapists consider the places that we live in more generally? We typically ask about siblings, parents, intimate partners and the like, but when do we wonder about the everyday landscape of our client’s lives? “How do you feel about your home? What’s your local area like? Do you drive to work, walk or take the bus? Where did you play as a child?” If ecotherapy is about the environment rather than just the ‘natural’ world, (whatever that means), these questions are vital.

Clients sometimes talk about the fields they played in as children, how they feel when they wake up in the familiar space of home or what the corridor outside their flat means for them. I’m increasingly curious about these things, perhaps because I’m aware of the importance of this dimension of our existence. Where do we go with this? Ecopsychology has opened new pathways and my Focusing practice is sensing into this edge. There are also clues in the work of Gaston Bachelard, who proposes a new strand of psychoanalysis he calls topoanalysis. Topoanalysis “would be the systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives” (Bachelard, 1969 (1958]). I haven’t had time to study Bachelard yet, but watch this space.

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Sex, sensuality and the natural connection

I can’t help thinking that Valentine’s Day is too early in the year: Sex in the great outdoors is often as good as it gets, but not in mid-February! The Pagan celebration of sex and fertility, Beltane, falls on May Day, and by then there’s a least a chance that couples will want to mark the rising of the sap in the woods.

Assuming that sex in nature is often more exciting than the indoor varieties, why might that be so? Most of us will look and feel better after even a brief time outdoors. OK, that’s a generalization, but walking gets the blood flowing, tones the muscles and fills our lungs with fresh air. There’s also a lot of evidence that being outdoors improves self-confidence and reduces stress (see Ecopsychology research). More importantly perhaps, we get far more sensory input when we’re in nature, and if we’re in the right mood some of that sensory input can promote an erotic affect.

I got chatting with Mark Walsh (Integration Training) about this while we were shooting some video interviews.

Many years ago I wrote a chapter called ‘Sacred Ecology’ for a book on contemporary Paganism. In it I suggested that “good sex is the closest most people get to a truly spiritual experience”, but added that “ours is not an erotic culture … & sex has become a form of consumption” (Harris, 1995: 152). Which brings us back to Valentine’s Day, which is arguably no more than a cynical attempt to make money from the beauty of erotic love.

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Embodied Facilitator Course

Last year was the first time that Integration Training offered their Embodied Facilitator Course – a professional course for people training and coaching in an embodied way. I was honored to be invited to be one of the guest trainers and had a wonderful morning facilitating a nature connection workshop. I stayed on for the rest of the week-end so that I could join a Samurai Game run by Francis Briers and a workshop with Paul Linden. Francis and Paul are at the top of their game, so it was an amazing week-end. The course participants had several week-ends like that plus ongoing coaching in embodied practice.

The EFC is happening again this year, and I’ll be back – along with Francis, Paul, Wendy Palmer, Michael Soth and more! I don’t usually plug trainings here, but this is an exception.

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Cross Bones Graveyard: Honouring the Outcast

Cross Bones – an unconsecrated graveyard in south London – is the final resting place of around 15,000 bodies, mostly paupers and prostitutes. These are the outcast dead, unnamed and largely forgotten until construction workers began to unearth their bones in the early 1990′s.

It’s a remarkable site that in many ways embodies the power of the relationship between bodymind and place. The graveyard is now owned by London Transport and fenced off from the general public by high metal gates. The gates are covered with offerings: ribbons, flowers, dolls, candles in jars, small toys, pieces of wood, beads – myriad objects made sacred by intent.

A wooden wreath with ribbons and a cross attached

A wreath hung on the gates

The area used to be poor and largely undeveloped and no-one was very interested in a pauper’s graveyard. It was just another piece of derelict land – fenced off and almost forgotten. But that all changed when construction began. Workers quickly began to discover bones – lots of bones. Once they realised these weren’t the remains of some gangland killing, the Museum of London was called in.

At around the time that the first bones were unearthed, a local urban Shaman began to hear the voice of one of the spirits of the place. Soon after people began to honour the outcast dead with simple ceremony and offerings. Since then Cross Bones has inspired a collection of poems and plays (Constable, 1999), many Halloween ceremonies and a monthly vigil to honour the Outcast Dead.

I’ve recently published an academic journal article about the site (Cross Bones Graveyard: Honouring the Outcast). My article explores the power of Cross Bones as a physical expression of the spirit of radical acceptance. Cross Bones subverts familiar divisions between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’, ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’. As a result, this special place is profoundly healing.

“That’s the healing, for me, what we’re doing … the break between the physical and the spiritual. ‘This is good, this is not good’. That duality.” … “… bringing those things together, making the pathway open. Yeah. That’s why it’s a healing place for me, because it does that” (Jen, in interview).

I hadn’t intended to write a Christmas blog post, but now realise how appropriate this is. I hope those celebrating the birth of Christ – a physical incarnation of the sacred who frequently honoured the outcast and sought to bring healing to the world – will agree.

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