Collapse & Awaken: submission for the Dark Mountain (Pt.2)

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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.

5 comments

  1. This is all really interesting and powerful stuff. My only real criticism is that you sidestep the actual cognitive insight that Awakening is about and the heart changes that it then manifests. That is that the mind experientially recognizes that its idea that it has a separate I or awareness that it owns is a fallacy. That there is only one Awareness and we all are it. That awakening is the ground on which all the other shifts you are talking about can flourish with radiant power. However working on the changes as you go makes sense. That is why it is of value to seek it, then fail in that seeking and then perhaps, awaken. Someday this process will be par for the course I suspect for all of humanity. But it may take a thousand years. Peace, M

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  2. I like your description of awakening. It sounds realistic and in tune with the modern world. However, it raises the question as to how one can track the awakening process. I appreciate that in one sense it is a never ending process, but there should be a difference between how one feels when one takes up a Buddhist meditation practice at the beginning and how one feels ten years down the line, for the sake of argument. At present, teachers are very much the arbiters of how enlightened/awakened a student is. I think we need to get away from that for all kinds of reasons. So how does one track one’s awakening progress on one’s own? Are there any clear benchmarks on the way that we can use as personal markers? I think this is an important point not for egoistic reasons. If we are to extract the most beneficial meditation techniques from Buddhism and make them more publicly available, we need to be clear about their effects and precise about how those effect manifest in people over periods of time. In fact, we do this in a walks of life. If I go to the gym and use particular weights on my body I can be fairly sure that I will acquire muscle growth and definition within certain areas of my physique over a period of time. I can even be fairly precise about this. Can we do the same for the awakening process?

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    1. Hi David, It’s a great question and I don’t think there’s a single answer at present. The next episode of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast will tackle the topic of enlightenment and the issue you’ve brought up will feature in the discussion so keep your ears tuned. Thanks for commenting.

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  3. I look forward to hearing the podcast! I think there is a growing number of people who are disillusioned with traditional Buddhism and its power structures, but are committed to awakening, subscribe to the four noble truths and eightfold path and want to do some good in the world. Your site is playing an important part in opening up the whole debate about how we can evolve Buddhism to fit the 21st century and I thank you for that.

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