MORE ON ‘THE SPELL OF THE SENSUOUS’

desertLast week I wrote rhapsodically about David Abram’s wonderful book The Spell of the Sensuous, though at that time I had only worked one third the way through its pages. I’ve now completed the book, and confess to a certain disappointment, though that is due in no part to Abram’s efforts, which are startlingly original, or his arguments, which are brilliantly articulated and scrupulously supported. Ultimately it was I, as the reader, who failed to do my part, and fell short in the thorny, tangled journey to rediscover what we civilized humans have so obviously lost. Perhaps it is my own imaginative poverty that precluded me from completing this important journey, despite my best intentions, or perhaps I am just too far gone down civilization’s lonely, separate, sterile path, to be able to find my way back home, to fall again under the spell of the sensuous.

As I mentioned in the earlier article, Abram presents a thorough explanation of the history of phenomenological thought, applying in particular the work of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger to explain how tribal cultures and other creatures appear to see, feel, and perceive the world in a fundamentally different, and more profound way, than we do in our modern Western culture. He goes on to explain why this is, by describing how the invention of the written alphabet, and through it the invention of the concepts of absolute space and separate, linear time, and our conception of the air which surrounds us as merely empty space — allowed Western man to create a separate, thoroughly plausible, abstract reality, that, in the civilized world, with its need for hierarchy, laws, instructions, rules, and restrictions, was (and is) a more useful reality than the ‘real’ one. Over time, this abstracted reality and its artefacts have dulled our sensitivity, our awareness of and ability to reconnect with the ‘real’ world, the sensual world of which we are inextricably a part, and upon which our survival utterly depends, but which we are ever more unaware of, indifferent to, and detached from.

Abram describes the following exercise for reconnecting with the sensuous, for sublimating the abstractions that interfere with our ability to relate to the Earth:

I locate myself in a relatively open space — a low hill is particularly good, or a wide field. I relax a bit, take a few breaths, gaze around. Then I close my eyes, and let myself begin to feel the whole bulk of my past — the whole mass of events leading up to this very moment. And I call into awareness as well my whole future — all those projects and possibilities that lie waiting to be realized. I imagine this past and this future as two vast balloons of time, separated from each other like the bulbs of an hourglass, yet linked together at the single moment where I stand pondering them. And then, very slowly, I allow both of these immense bulbs of time to begin leaking their substance into this minute moment between them, into the present. Slowly, imperceptibly at first, the present moment begins to grow. Nourished by the leakage from the past and the future, the present moment swells in proportion as those other dimensions shrink. Soon it is very large, and the past and the future have dwindled down to mere knots on the edge of this huge expanse. At this point, I let the past and the future dissolve entirely. And I open my eyes…

Abram finds this exercise immensely increases his awareness, his ability to perceive the here and now. Indeed, this exercise seems to me not unlike many meditation, relaxation, hallucinogenic and spiritual ‘stand still and look until you really see‘ exercises I have tried before, always, as this time, alas, without success. If this works for you I am envious. Abram paints some lovely pictures of what he senses after this awakening:

A butterfly glides by, golden wings navigating delicate air currents with a few momentary flutters before they settle on a white flower. The seedstalks of the grasses bounce in the breeze, while clustered wildflowers tremble on their stems, awaiting the humming insects that motor haphazardly from one to the other. Fragrant whiffs from new blossoms in the overgrown orchard by the creek stir not only the winged beings, but my own flaring nostrils as they reach me from afar, drifting like spiderwebs on the faint winds.

As much as I appreciate the beauty of this poetry, it describes to me only another person’s experience, one somehow inaccessible to me. “Today the speaking self looks out at a purely ‘exterior’ nature from a purely ‘interior’ zone, presumably located somewhere inside the physical body or brain,” Abram writes. “Within alphabetic civilization, virtually every human psyche construes itself as just such an individual ‘interior’, a private mind or consciousness unrelated to the other minds that surround it, or to the environing earth. For there is no longer any common medium, no reciprocity, no respiration between the inside and the outside. There is no longer any flow between the self-reflexive domain of alphabetized awareness, and all that exceeds or subtends this determinate realm. Between consciousness and the unconscious. Between civilization and wilderness.”

So here we are, unable to remember the way home, unable to escape the prison, the solitary confinement into which our minds have been so seductively and systematically lured by the culture and language of civilization that now forms and informs the very neural structures of our brain. Only in art, in poetry, in wilderness, in music, and in the rare book that attempts to liberate us with those very abstract words and text-images that carried us away in the first place, those clumsy tools that are simply not up to the task, can we even hear the echoes of the world we have left behind:

An alder leaf, loosened by wind, is drifting out with the tide. As it drifts, it bumps into the slender leg of a great blue heron staring intently through the rippled surface, then drifts on. The heron raises one leg out of the water and replaces it, a single step. As I watch, I, too, am drawn into the spread of silence. Slowly a bank of cloud approaches, slipping its bulged and billowing texture over the earth, folding the heron and the alder trees and my gazing body into the depths of a vast breathing being, enfolding us all within a common flesh, a common story now bursting with rain.
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7 Responses to MORE ON ‘THE SPELL OF THE SENSUOUS’

  1. Indigo Ocean says:

    What I am about to say is kind of like opening a debate about the existence of God. Since both parties start with a leap of faith then build a logical argument upon it, there isn’t really much room for debate. No one can use the 5 senses available within 3 dimensional reality to prove or disprove the existence of any phenomena that cannot be measured through the 5 senses and is existent in 5th, 6th and higher dimensions. So in the absence of externally verifiable proof there is instead belief.So here is my proposition to you, Dave. Visit a Reiki, Johrei, or similar energy worker near you and invest in a session. Consider it an experiment, or a voyage of discovery. But try it. I do energywork with AIDs patients, executives, children and adults, all manner of people. Some come ready to receive and others with significant skepticism. They all leave glowing, able to see the colors pulsing in the space around them and feeling both the peace and clarity that meditation aims to build over time. You can read a little more about my work at http://www.blisstherapy.com since hopefully your knowledge of me over the past year lends some legitimacy to what I am saying about how it all works, but the real issue is finding someone near you who does something similar and having the experience of it. Then explanations won’t be necessary. Good luck. Peace and blessings – Indigo

  2. Don Dwiggins says:

    A couple of other suggestions:Visit Elisabet Sahtouris’ website at http://www.ratical.org/LifeWeb/, and read about her experience with indigenous cultures. Among other things, she speaks quite seriously of “indigenous science” (she’s a biologist herself, so she knows western science from the inside). In particular, check out Chapter 19 of “Earthdance”. (The rest of the book is interesting as well, for a good overview of Gaia Theory.)Read Paul Rezendes’ book “The Wild Within”. If energyworking doesn’t cut it for you, maybe learning to track will do it (www.walnuthilltracking.com/). Even if not, the book is a wild ride.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Indigo: I’ve sent you a separate e-mail.Don: Thanks — you’ve given me lots to read and think about. I’ve scanned earthdance briefly and am looking forward to reading it in its entirety. Have you taken any of Rezendes’ courses or done any tracking yourself?

  4. Patti Battin says:

    Discovering or recovering our earthly connections in a couple of exercises over months is unrealistic when you consider the of thousands of years it has taken for this abstract mode of thought and technological trend to develop. But. . . on a very basic and practical level, you can start to make the connections. Which by the way is very much what Abrams is urging, being in the world on a physical level, with body awarenes and environmental awareness.It requires some soul searching and committment and action.So ask yourself what is it you do to connect with the natural world? What shifts can you make? What can you let go of?The biggest thing I see in my community is consumerism (and I love to shop!) On a local level and a national level it is spiraling out of control. Housing starts are stalled and the feds freak out. Look at the other side of the coin – What does continued growth in housing starts do to the natural habitat? We lose (hundreds?) of species a day to loss of habitat. Global warming is due to converting our natural resources into industry.So my original thought in writing this morning was to push a book. For those who care: ‘Noah’s Garden: Restoring the ecology of our own back yards.’ by Sara Stein. This little book addresses this issue in an incredibly practical way: Finding ways to reintroduce native species into our backyard (and front yard) landscapes, and restoring the natural landscape. The cool thing about it is that it is so do-able. The marketing systems are in place. If the media caught on to it and popularized it, and building franchises pushed it, Americans would be lining up at the Home Depot registers with native blueberries to plant their hedgerows, and buying books on wetland and bog gardening. So imagine this catches on all over suburbia: each little plot has a perimeter of forested grove, a small grassland or meadow area and maybe a bog, pond or wetland area (over the septic tank!) If each little plot were to incorporate a more natural and native selection when you tile all these mini eco systems together it will build into a larger natural system that will support a greater diversity of species and improve our air, water and overall environment. How hard is that? Americans already spend millions of dollars weeding and feeding and mowing their sterile lawns. The biggest obstacle I have found to sharing this book, is that contrary to Abrams belief that we are a literate society, many Americans don’t read or have time to read.But the book is well written and an easy read, it

  5. Patti Battin says:

    Discovering or recovering our earthly connections in a couple of exercises over months is unrealistic when you consider the of thousands of years it has taken for this abstract mode of thought and technological trend to develop. But. . . on a very basic and practical level, you can start to make the connections. Which by the way is very much what Abrams is urging, being in the world on a physical level, with body awarenes and environmental awareness.It requires some soul searching and committment and action.So ask yourself what is it you do to connect with the natural world? What shifts can you make? What can you let go of?The biggest thing I see in my community is consumerism (and I love to shop!) On a local level and a national level it is spiraling out of control. Housing starts are stalled and the feds freak out. Look at the other side of the coin – What does continued growth in housing starts do to the natural habitat? We lose (hundreds?) of species a day to loss of habitat. Global warming is due to converting our natural resources into industry.So my original thought in writing this morning was to push a book. For those who care: ‘Noah’s Garden: Restoring the ecology of our own back yards.’ by Sara Stein. This little book addresses this issue in an incredibly practical way: Finding ways to reintroduce native species into our backyard (and front yard) landscapes, and restoring the natural landscape. The cool thing about it is that it is so do-able. The marketing systems are in place. If the media caught on to it and popularized it, and building franchises pushed it, Americans would be lining up at the Home Depot registers with native blueberries to plant their hedgerows, and buying books on wetland and bog gardening. So imagine this catches on all over suburbia: each little plot has a perimeter of forested grove, a small grassland or meadow area and maybe a bog, pond or wetland area (over the septic tank!) If each little plot were to incorporate a more natural and native selection when you tile all these mini eco systems together it will build into a larger natural system that will support a greater diversity of species and improve our air, water and overall environment. How hard is that? Americans already spend millions of dollars weeding and feeding and mowing their sterile lawns. The biggest obstacle I have found to sharing this book, is that contrary to Abrams belief that we are a literate society, many Americans don’t read or have time to read.But the book is well written and an easy read, it

  6. I am finding this somewhat later than other comments, so if I don’t see a response, I’ll understand. When I read the book, (and I’m always 2-3 years out of date it seems), I connected with what Abrams said for the most part, but I see where people could miss the bigger point and some of the subtleties. Why do people like to hike and walk outside? Why do people like to swim and go to parks and build campfires? I think the book addresses this in an unspecific way. People like to do these activities because whether they realize it or not, at a subconscious level, they are connecting with nature. I’ve been told that they just like the wind in their faces, and the sunshine, or a plethora of other excuses. I think that just by doing things like mentioned before and learning to recognize when the connection is made is a first step. Sort of like active dreaming, sometimes you can do it, sometimes you can’t, and it doesn’t work when you force it. Connection to the wild side is not a light exercise, it takes practice, and an investment in time. Instant gratitude is for McDonald’s, not for interconnectedness.

  7. Jules says:

    I first read Spell of the Sensuous five? years ago. I remain impassioned by this book, because in its totality it describes the sense of nature. I can relate, becuase I grew up in a very remote area, basically in a cabin in the woods. I was immersed in nature for my first 12 years of life. I will never forget the sense of it. If you have been unable to experience lucid moments as described by Abrams in the text, I wonder, have you ever spent a great length of time immersed in nature? I’m afraid that the more condintioned one is to the modern environment, the longer it will take to shed that energy and open to the sense of wilderness, but the gift is well worth the trouble. Perhaps, you have not been patient enough. Don’t rob yourself.

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