The Connected Self

“No man is an island”, wrote John Donne and his poetic insight is borne out by research. In the West, we think the self is somehow enclosed with the body, separate from other selves. This sense of independence is sometimes idealised, but also carries a seed of despair. As Orson Welles said, “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone”. It’s not hard to expose this as a Western fantasy.

Emotions are contagious. Most of us have had the experience of catching a friends laughter. You’re with some mates and one of them finds something hilariously funny. Before you know it, you’re all laughing, even though you might have no idea what’s so funny! Something similar happens when we smile or a frown. Try smiling more today and I bet you’ll find other people mirroring you. Some of this is probably due to mirror neurons, which are brain cells that fire in sympathy when we see someone behaving in a certain way (Ferrari and Rizzolatti). That’s part of the process but we’re far from fully understanding emotional contagion. What we do know is that it’s widespread.

Emotional contagion is vital to my work as a therapist as it allows me to get a deep empathic sense of how it is for my client in that moment. It’s a three stage process. First, I’m being sensitive to my clients emotional state. Second, my bodymind is responding to that state via emotional contagion: I’m picking up their emotional state and unconsciously reproducing it myself. Third, I’m sensing into how that feels. It’s as if my bodymind becomes an embodied mirror for my client. The danger here is that I might get too caught up in my client’s emotional world: I need to manage my emotional state so that I can be both fully empathetic and centred. Mirroring my client’s emotional state and staying centred can be deeply therapeutic. By embodying that centred state I reflect to them how that might feel and emotional contagion will help them feel centred too.

Two men waking in a field on a summers day

‘Walk and Talk’ ecotherapy

Therapists Elaine Hatfield and Richard Rapson note that anyone can usefully apply this same skill in their everyday relationships:

“By attending to this stream of tiny moment-to-moment reactions, people can and do ‘feel themselves into’ the emotional landscapes inhabited by their partners” (1993).

I’d flag up a couple of take-always from this research. First, it challenges the myth that that we are all self-contained individuals. Second, once we recognise that emotional contagion exits, we can use it to make our everyday interactions more empathic.

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Reap the Benefits of These Often Overlooked Self-Care Practices

To welcome in the New Year, I’m offering this very appropriate guest post from Cheryl Conklin of Wellnesscentral.info


Are you taking proper care of yourself? While much is made of self-care these days, many people don’t understand it. Self-care is more than getting an occasional massage or indulging in a good bar of chocolate now and then. Self-care means tending your physical and emotional essentials so you can be your best.

Stress takes a toll

We live in a culture that not only provides plenty of stress, but in some ways we embrace it as a matter of life. Unfortunately, we pay for chronic stress with the toll it takes on our bodies and minds. Stress is linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity, and chronic stress appears to often correlate with the development of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and depression. Chronic stress in the workplace can cause employees to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drinking alcohol or abusing drugs. If you’re constantly feeling stressed out because of work, be sure to find healthy strategies that will help you handle stress, such as getting enough sleep at night, setting boundaries and participating in healthy hobbies. If you have a dog, spend some time playing or hanging out with your pooch. Although you already know how special your four-legged friend is, you may not realize just how much dogs can relieve stress and anxiety in their human companions, particularly if you are suffering from a mental health condition like depression.

Joyful woman in woods

Get sufficient sleep

Sleeping may not seem like part of a self-care plan, but without good sleep your mental wellness suffers. Thrive Global points out insufficient sleep is linked to anxiety, depression, negative thought patterns and emotional vulnerability. Basically, your brain goes into a mode of wariness, leaving you punchy and compromising rational thoughts and behaviors. If you suffer with sleep deprivation, improving sleep hygiene is important and simple. Start by setting a schedule for when you go to bed and when you get up in the morning and stick to it. Your body will start regulating itself with the routine. Avoid exercising four hours before bedtime since invigorating activity can keep you awake.

Set boundaries

Do you have trouble saying “no”? Sometimes this little, two-letter word can make a big difference in our mental well-being. The Mighty describes setting boundaries as the “ultimate test in self-care.” There are many reasons people struggle with saying no, from a fear of disappointing others to avoidance of hassles to a dislike of conflict. Whatever your reason, learn to take up for yourself. Instead of sacrificing your time and energy when it’s at a premium, exercise your right to say no.

Enjoy a hobby

Time spent on a hobby might seem like a frivolous endeavor, but a well-chosen pastime can be a boon to mental health. Consider a healthy hobby including gardening, which can help lower stress levels, boost self-esteem and increase dexterity and strength. Or take up cooking and focus on finding nutritious, delicious, budget-friendly recipes. Engage in a mindfulness-oriented exercise program like meditation and yoga, both of which can improve your coping skills, help reduce stress, and build strength and energy. You can even set aside a place in your home that’s distraction-free where you can practice in peace. Whatever hobby you choose, just make sure you set aside sufficient time so you can make it a normal part of your self-care routine.

Do for others

Another important part of self-care many people miss out on is volunteering. Even if it sounds counter-intuitive, doing for other people can play a vital role in taking care of your own needs. Whether it’s helping with a fundraiser, assembling care boxes for people in developing countries or walking dogs at the animal shelter, performing charitable acts is good for you. Volunteering can lower stress levels, reduce feelings of depression and lower blood pressure. It can even improve your outlook on life and it doesn’t seem to matter what charity you choose, so select something you’re passionate about.

Good self-care is pretty simple, yet many important points are often overlooked. Get enough sleep, set boundaries, participate in a hobby, and do things for others. You’ll feel better embracing these paramount aspects of self-care.

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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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