With their power to slow us down, awaken our senses, and bring background details into vivid relief, body practices should be recognized as essential techniques for cultivating environmental awareness.
You are walking, rather slowly and deliberately. Your attention is on the sensations of your feet contacting the ground: heel, sole, toes; shifting your weight, lifting, swinging your leg, and so on. You’re conscious of the texture under your feet; your body’s weight; the ever-present pull of gravity and the balance of forces keeping you upright. Your attention is just occupied enough to stay with your simple sensations. As you walk, steadily, calmly, you become more aware of little details that normally escape your notice, like the volume of the space you’re moving through; little noises in the environment; the gentle patter of rain outside; the cool, moist air on your face and hands; the muted shadows; the soft gray light.
You’re doing mindful walking, a moving contemplation practiced by Buddhist monks for over two millennia. Your hands are lightly clasped at the level of your sternum, your gaze is softly focused and directed slightly downward. You don’t feel particularly spiritual—it’s just walking. Yet your experience feels fresh, simple, and ordinary. Paradoxically, narrowing down our attention to immediate sensations opens our senses to appreciate details of things that are always there, but usually recede into the background in the press and push of our busy lives.
Practices that engage the body and mind, such as mindfulness, yoga, and others, are often valued for stress reduction, fitness, and so on. Some people regard them as profoundly spiritual, but they are not commonly considered to be ecological practices. Here I want to suggest that, with their power to slow us down, awaken our senses, and bring background details into vivid relief, body practices could—and should—be recognized as essential techniques for cultivating environmental awareness in a distracted world.
Progress in preserving the Earth seems heartbreakingly slow; despite decades of passionate, dedicated effort and substantial gains, precious habitats are still being destroyed, species diversity still declines, and the root causes—rampant industrialism and reliance on carbon-based energy—continue at a terrifying rate. Many explanations have been offered for the glacial pace of our collective response to the environmental crisis: from the short-term profit motive, to the Western objectification of nature, to a hard-wired human inability to respond to long-term consequences. It seems difficult for our civilization as a whole to see the natural world as having value in itself. In his 1967 essay “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Lynn White, Jr., wrote, “What we do about our ecology depends on our ideas of the man-nature relationship.” He traced the problem back to the Judeo-Christian injunction that man should subdue nature. But whatever the root cause or causes may be, it seems clear that the business end of the “developed world” sees nature not as being full of living entities with their own values and needs, but as inert material for human consumption—at best, pretty scenery for our complicated human dramas. In former times we spoke of “Mother Nature”; now, in the newly dubbed Anthropocene epoch, like no other period in human history, we live with so many artificial layers between us and our natural environments that it is more apt to call her grandmother: no longer the nurturing parent, she is removed from our daily lives and somewhat inconvenient; nice to visit on holidays, perhaps a bit feeble, and easy to forget about.
Encounter with a Spider
Ecological philosopher David Abrams has proposed an original explanation for our collective environmental sleepwalking. His resumé is unique: a former stage magician who was studying the use of illusions by traditional shamanic healers, he initially didn’t have much interest in ecology. On the island of Bali, on one of his many excursions in the countryside, he found himself forced to spend a night in a volcanic rock cave, trapped by a sudden monsoon. With little else to do, he became transfixed by the purposeful activity of a spider spinning its web across the cave’s mouth. This experience was his introduction to the power that an encounter with a living creature has, as he put it, to “instill a reverberation in oneself that temporarily shatters habitual ways of seeing and feeling, leaving one open to a world all alive, awake, and aware.”
Abram’s newly awakened sensitivity (combined with his exceptionally game attitude) led him to profoundly moving interactions with the wild that most of us can scarcely imagine. But when he returned to the United States and resumed normal life, he was dismayed to find his vivid rapport with the natural world fading: “my bodily senses seemed to be losing their acuteness, becoming less awake,” and further, “it became apparent that other animals were not as awake and aware as I thought.” Abram became convinced that there is something seriously wrong with the modern perception of nature. The non-human life of the Earth, he concluded, “can be perceived and experienced with far more intensity and nuance than is generally acknowledged in the West.”
How did we collectively lose this intimate experience of nature? This is not a casual question: Abram suggests it may be at the root of our environmental crisis, and may contain the only solution to it. In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, he presents an intriguing hypothesis: he links “nature blindness” to the practice of alphabetic writing. While pictographic scripts like Chinese, Mayan, and Ancient Egyptian refer to natural forms, the Greek alphabet—not to mention the Roman characters you are reading now—reference only the phonemes of human speech, creating an abstract, exclusively human world. Abram compellingly cites studies of oral cultures to show that their speech is inextricably bound with non-human life forms and the landscapes that they inhabit. Non-literate peoples, he suggests, experience nature immediately, personally, and intimately: a mode sometimes designated by the term “animism.” It is exceedingly difficult,” Abram writes, “for us literates to experience anything approaching the vividness and intensity with which surrounding nature presents itself to the members of an indigenous oral community.” When we began to write and read, Abram claims, “The participatory proclivity of the senses was simply transferred from the depths of the surrounding life-world to the visible letters of the alphabet.” When we read, we unconsciously endow the abstract shapes of letters with an uncanny life, coming to our minds as voices and images, appropriating the vitality with which humans formerly perceived the natural world.
Whether or not we embrace Abram’s explanation, it is beyond question that modern scientific knowledge has erected its powerful framework by systematically distancing itself from immediate experience. René Descartes supported the scientific revolution with his forceful argument that true knowledge (and the power over the material world that it entails) requires us to reject the colorful, tactile, and smelly world of the senses in favor of measurable quantities: size, speed, weight, distance, etc. On this philosophical basis, the image of the universe as an immense machine was established: the antithesis of Abram’s animate nature. We now live in the world created by science, and our experience is more mediated than ever, relying not only on written words, but on pixel-generated letters on glowing screens, to tell each other exclusively human stories incessantly. It is ironic that environmentalists often rely on the power of their abstract, after-the-fact data alone to communicate with the public, neglecting the very sensory and emotional experiences that motivate their love of nature. Learned papers on environmental ethics, the charts and graphs of climatologists, and weighty scientific reports somehow fail to move the general public to demand action from legislators, while researchers across disciplines tell us that political action is more often motivated by emotions, narratives, and symbols than by rational arguments.
So what can be done? If our official knowledge, our technology, and our communications media constantly envelop us in a distanced, de-natured human world, is it any wonder it is so difficult to see, in Aldo Leopold’s phrase, “the land as a community to which we belong”? Abram advocates re-appropriating writing, using it to tell stories that speak from the voice of rich, full-bodied experience to situate us back on Earth. His virtuosic word-performances, especially in his second book On Becoming Animal, practice what he preaches: they transfigure landscapes, birds, and even such neglected phenomena as shadows and the moods of weather into lyrical pictures of a re-enchanted world.
But not everyone has the time and means to travel to remote wildernesses and commune with aboriginal shamans. Could there be a more direct and radical (in the sense of “at the root”) way to reconnect with the vivid, feeling-rich experience of the land that our non-literate relations have enjoyed? Fortunately, there may very well be a way to awaken our senses that is near at hand and easily afforded. There is a great reservoir of such knowledge that humankind has amassed over centuries of civilization: I am speaking of body cultivation techniques, whether mindfulness, yoga, Taoist-inspired practices such as t’ai chi and martial arts, and modern therapeutic practices such as Feldencrais Awareness through Movement, the Alexander Technique, and Body Mind Centering. Performing artists, whose medium is the body, have developed a wide spectrum of techniques designed to get them “out of their heads and into the space.” Body knowledge might just give us a ready way to transform our perception of the natural world; after all, if it is good to invoke the living Earth in writing, how much more powerful to summon it into experience with practices designed to bring us down from the heady clouds of abstraction and into the vivid, chattering world of life? As Abram himself put it: “Huge centralized programs, global initiatives, and other ‘top down’ solutions will never suffice to restore and protect the health of the animate Earth. For it is only at the scale of our direct, sensory interactions with the land around us that we can appropriately notice and respond to the immediate needs of the living world.” To understand precisely how body practices are the royal road to rediscovering our primal experience of nature, we must follow Abram into the sometimes surreal world of phenomenology.
The World as Flesh
Simply put, phenomenologists are philosophers who investigate subjective experience. They discipline themselves to pay attention to things that we normally ignore—which can lead to some very strange observations. For instance: since our two eyes sit next to each other on the front of our face, they create a sort of illuminated area surrounded by unseeable dark, as if we were continuously wearing shadowy hoods we can never remove— see for yourself! In the course of everyday life, our minds fill in such perceptual gaps; only studied observation can uncover what was never really hidden. Phenomenology reveals that perception is fluid, subtle, and malleable: your attention can shift in an instant from touch to sound to sight; from the itch in the middle of your back to the sound of a sudden movement in your room, to the sight of a moth fluttering around the lamp. We are so accustomed to this effortless fluidity, we don’t usually appreciate how miraculous it is.
The French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty is generally recognized to be the premiere philosopher of perception and the body. Not as famous (or as gloomy) as his friends and collaborators Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, he was a model of the public intellectual, engaged in science, medicine, education, and politics. In his writings Merleau-Ponty returns again and again (as Abram does after him) with a sense of wonder to the uncanny fact that our bodies, with their multiple sensory organs, bring the world into being around us without our having to think about it; our senses are “pre-reflective,” and our bodies, in fact, are the necessary precondition of our being able to think at all. He called this base, elemental level of experience “a mystery without a solution,” “savage being,” “a world more ancient than thought.” In his later writings, he proposed a poetic term for this seamless dynamic fabric of the perceptual world: he called it “la chair,” or “the flesh,” as though our eyes, ears, and skin actually form one unbroken continuity with the world, which comes into being in the interaction of perceiver and perceived. In almost erotic terms, he describes how the senses and the world embrace and caress one another in a pre-reflective pas de deux: “It is my gaze which pairs off with color, and my hand with hardness and softness. The sensible gives back to me what I lent to it, but this is what I took from it in the first place. . . . I abandon myself to it and plunge into this mystery, it ‘thinks itself within me.’”
At this base level of perception, Abram affirms, “we are all animists.” From this perspective, “detached observation” is actually impossible: just as the world is available for us to perceive, so we are available for the world; it’s a two-way street. “The body,” as Abram succinctly phrases it, “is precisely my insertion in the common or intersubjective field of experience.” For Merleau-Ponty, participation in a living universe is our body’s natural performance: only after a long process of dissociation have we come to experience ourselves as entirely separate, isolated selves.
Abram’s story of writing as the beginning of our nature-blindness is (as he acknowledges) just one facet of an overdetermined set of historical developments; one could as easily point to agriculture, mathematics, clock-time, and bureaucracy as milestones in humans’ gradual disenchantment of nature. And while each of these developments has brought benefits that we would not want to live without (with the possible exception of bureaucracy), it now may be time to consciously integrate a more archaic mode of perception into our experience: to remember our bodies as inseparable from the natural world. Taoist scholar and ecological thinker James Miller makes this point very bluntly:
The body, then, should be the site par excellence for environmentalism as a social movement. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the failure of the environmental movement can be attributed largely to the way it perpetuates the type of dichotomous reasoning that precipitated humankind’s divorce from nature in the first place. As long as environmentalists urge others to respect, heal, or value nature as an object beyond the hermetically-sealed walls of their bodies, they subtly and unconsciously reinforce the absolute separation of the mind from the world.
Coming to Our Senses
Body knowledge is an ancient part of our human heritage: the earliest literate civilizations created exercises explicitly to connect practitioners with a kind of primordial experience, whether Tao, Brahman, or Buddha nature. In modern times, various savants have developed body practices out of a perceived need for a habitually disembodied culture to “come to its senses.” In the past few decades performing artists have adopted a whole spectrum of techniques to ground themselves “in the moment” where creativity occurs. Since all these diverse practices work with attention and the body, they all have the power to awaken a sensory, aesthetic, and emotional pre-reflective relationship with the natural world.
1. Asian self-cultivation techniques
Asia has produced the most sophisticated somatic disciplines, with numerous distinguished lineages literally going back millennia. Taoist sages sought to return to a native pre-civilized wisdom; the practices of Taoist and Neo-Confucian traditions include t’ai chi, chi kung, martial arts, and other highly refined techniques. They were part of the culture’s highest ideals; their goal was explicitly described by Neo-Confucian sage Wang Yangming as “becoming one body with all things.” In feudal Japan this ideal was codified as shugyo: “self-cultivation;” contemplative disciplines were considered essential for the cultured person; they were practiced by artists, warriors, and courtiers alike. Combining mindfulness with indigenous Shinto animism, yamabushi monks practiced vigorous moving meditation in the mountain wilderness. The arts of yoga developed in India as a similar cultural ideal; in recent times, the postures of hatha yoga have become extraordinarily popular throughout the world for the sake of fitness; their original goal was to allow the yogin to realize the identity of the soul and the divine. It’s worth mentioning that traditionally yogis practiced in the forest, removed from the cultural constraints of caste and karma, while the Hindu ideals of non-violence and rebirth offer a view of humans on the same level as other life forms. And of course, many of the codified forms of traditional body practices get their names from features of nature: birds, mammals, snakes, the sun and moon, et cetera. Buddhist mindfulness was developed as a countermeasure to some of the yogis’ more extreme asceticism; Buddhist meditators cultivate “bare attention” in the present moment. With an attitude of maitri (“loving-kindness”) towards one’s self and all beings, their ethos of gentle precision has definite environmental applications.
These three broadly defined traditions—Taoist, Hindu, and Buddhist—all begin with the body. In particular, they place great emphasis on the breath, one of the fundamental background activities of animal life. We normally breathe without thinking about it, but we can also easily breathe deliberately; hence the breath is a key support for cultivating body awareness. With its continuous rhythmic exchange between inner and outer, like a swinging door, awareness of our breath keeps us from ever completely thinking of ourselves as separate from the world.
2. Somatic exercises
In the twentieth century, thoughtful people, recognizing the tremendous need for body knowledge in Western culture, developed various systems of “somatic” training (from the Greek sōma: body) that have become accredited under their founder’s names. Moshe Feldencrais developed his “Awareness through Movement” technique when doctors told him he would never walk again after an accident; a trained engineer, he applied structural principles to the muscular and skeletal systems to create a series of exercises that gently encourage minute awareness of body sensations. Similarly, Rudolf Laban, Frederick Alexander, and Irmgard Bartenieff developed somatic systems that have been variously employed in movement therapy, voice training, and kinesiology. More recently, Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen has taken somatic studies to a new level of sophistication: her “Body Mind Centering,” part therapy, part pure research, applies mindful attention to the body’s anatomical systems to an almost superhuman level of precision.
3. Body knowledge in the performing arts
Most, if not all, of the above techniques have been adopted by performing artists who, quick to recognize that the freshest, most vital, performance happens “in the present moment,” have accumulated a great store of practical body knowledge. Viola Spolin’s theater games have been a staple of acting classes for decades; Spolin used the “point of focus,” an improvisational premise, to get her students “out of your head, into the space” (one of her favorite coaching phrases). Tadashi Suzuki’s body-based actor training is taught all over the world; Anne Bogart and Tina Landau’s “Viewpoints” approach to theater and dance composition utilizes fundamental perceptual qualities such as spatial relationships, rhythm, and topography to create rich, interesting compositions; one of them, “kinesthetic response,” plays on our body’s ability to spontaneously react to the feeling tone of external stimuli. While obviously some artists explore the human/nature relationship in their work, these techniques have yet to be widely appreciated for their perception-changing ecological potential.
Any of the practices above could be applied to developing ecological awareness. But environmental practice itself should also be recognized as a body discipline. The very acts of fieldwork—patient observation, measurement, identifying species, and the like—require the same kind of precise, gentle attention as yoga or Feldencrais practice. Conservation actions, such as tagging animals, removing invasive species, and land reclamation, are inherently embodied and have similar power to awaken awareness and empathy with the non-human world. You could say the same for virtually any activity that puts us in touch with our senses: as poet Gary Snyder wrote, “The same happens to those who sail in the ocean, kayak fjords and rivers, tend a garden, peel garlic, or even sit on a meditation cushion. The point is to make intimate contact with the real world, real self.”
How Somatic Practice Transforms Perception
When talking about “humans and nature” it’s easy to forget that humans are nature. Our bodies are the closest, most intimate experience of the natural world we can possibly have: our rock-like bones, our windy breath, our branching veins and nerves, the salt-sea tides of our blood that we have in common with all the other vertebrates. Our sensing body pulses at the center of our experiential world like a heart in a larger body; it is by calling attention to our sensory enmeshment in our environment that somatic practices re-awaken our innate ability to experience nature, step by step.
1. Slowing down
Whether you are doing yoga, t’ai chi, mindful breathing, or any other somatic practice, the first step is to do the practice for its own sake, not toward some future goal. The familiar movements of the practice slow down your rushing mind, which is always thinking about the next thing. Attending to the details of your body and breath opens up the realm of proprioception, sensing your own body. The precise, immediate sensations of gravity pulling your bones and muscles; the subtle, balanced strength holding you upright; the feeling of air moving in and out; these inward perceptions pull your attention into the present moment.
By the spring’s edge
the tiny frog
glistens like new-cast bronze
2. Attending to details
As you become more familiar with your practice, you can do it with less and less effort (a process known to phenomenologists as “sedimentation”). The practice becomes second nature; this frees up your attention to notice ever-finer details of your experience: how the soles of your feet feel on the ground; a tightness in the pit your stomach; the actual texture of your breath; the fluidity of your joints as they release minor tensions, and so forth.
announce water striders
signaling their neighbors
3. Turning inside out
Not trying to achieve a specific goal, you become more available to what is actually happening. Present and alert, you begin to notice things in your surroundings that normally recede into the background: environmental sounds, the quality of light and shadow; the volume of space; the temperature of the air on your skin. This is the “magic trick” of body practices: directing your attention to one simple, rather boring thing allows your attention to flip outward and naturally call the unseen into your field of attention. This perceptual shift is like yawning, falling asleep, or other bodily functions: you let it happen rather than will it to happen. When this occurs, the living, interdependent quality of the senses blooms into awareness: you feel your body-self as the active center of a life-world coming into being as your attention plays over it, foreground and background ever-shifting as some detail or other grabs your notice. You hear the wind sighing in the leaves, and the leaves and the wind summon your ears to their sound; the sky calls your eyes to its particular shade of blue; a stone may suddenly capture your interest, impelling you to bend down and reach for it; a minute motion in the corner of your eye calls you to the presence of another life.
“There are no spirits here,” I say,
then freeze in the gaze
of an alert spider
4. Recognizing other minds
You become aware of yourself as an object for other beings to perceive, as well: the robin boldly chattering in your face; the snake whispering through the grass as it tries to avoid you; the ladybug finding your jacket a convenient landing pad; the moose calmly inspecting an interloper in her domain. Your sense of identity subtly shifts from being a self-enclosed, self-possessing individual to an active element in a larger universe of give and take: a detached observer no more, you become keenly aware of your presence changing the world and being changed by it.
Shocking, a midday
chorus of owls
sounds from the deep pines
5. Awakening empathy
Awareness of other beings, in their particularity and in the moment, allows you the possibility of empathizing with them. They are not mere background; it becomes obvious that they, too, are the centers of their own life-worlds: your neighbors in a community of beings. You can read their moods and intentions in the details of their movements and sounds, as we can sense each other’s moods by subtle changes in tone and expression.
Traffic sound fades
When I tune my ears
Starting from the ground of attending to the simple, ordinary sensations of your body, you have succeeded in changing your perception of nature from an irrelevant backdrop to a vibrant, fascinating life-world full of music, drama, comedy, and spectacle. As you practice more, this awareness becomes an ever-available option in the spectrum of experience.
A Cultural Tectonic Shift
Western civilization has always had a tense relationship with both nature and the body: from Plato through Augustine to Descartes and the mechanistic worldview, “mind” (or “spirit”) has always been considered superior to “matter.” This bias hangs over other oppositions, such as master/slave, male/female, and civilized/savage; in a sense, we can say that the “original sin” of the West has been to try and pretend humans are not animals and that we (some of us, at any rate) can somehow transcend the natural world. To this day, nature is regarded as economic “material,” and the word “body” has very mixed connotations. But there are hopeful signs that the antique prejudices are wearing out: the dawn of ecological awareness, the Gaia hypothesis; the growing popularity of body disciplines; inroads into recognizing animal emotions; medicine gradually acknowledging the body as a feeling subject, and the acknowledgement of “embodied cognition.” The mechanistic philosophy of the nineteenth century, though still in circulation, is wearing thin in numerous places.
Upon close investigation, scientific objectivity appears to be a specific style of embodiment—very powerful, to be sure, but not useful for all purposes. Science embraces a robust skepticism, questioning both intuition and authority in search for knowledge uncolored by emotional preferences. The early scientists had to defer the evidence of their immediate experience in order to discover that the sun, rather than rising and setting under the Earth, is actually a huge object that our planet is orbiting; or that bacteria, not malevolent spirits, cause disease. Scientific knowledge was laboriously carved, datum by datum, out of the ancient world’s lore, doctrine, and naive experience. It was a brilliant, heroic task—accomplished with a certain degree of arrogance—and it has proven to be powerful beyond the imagination of any humans who have lived before us, revealing subatomic particles and astrophysics, DNA and neural mapping. It has created the world we now inhabit. As we know, this amazing world has come with some hefty negative consequences that we as a species are still struggling to deal with. Between answering emails, checking the Twitter feed, and worrying about insurance plans, investment strategies, mortgage payments, philosophies, ideologies, politics, and thousands of other things happening in an abstract, human-made universe, our fellow non-human co-inhabitants of the Earth recede to the distant horizon of our life-world—if we notice them at all.
It’s easy to dismiss body practices as just a nice thing to do in our leisure time, to reduce stress and maybe become more supple. But body knowledge is our inheritance as human animals, and at this point in history, we might actually need somatic practices—with their power to slow down our busy minds and give us access to the most intimate contact with nature we possess—to recover that heritage. This kind of environmental perception isn’t nature worship or mysticism: it’s simply embracing a pre-scientific form of knowing that is part of what it means to be born and live on Earth as an animal body. We can value the experience without necessarily embracing ancient metaphysics or adopting the interpretations of indigenous peoples. The task that presents itself to us, rather, is to integrate experiential knowledge with all the marvelous scientific information we’ve accrued to develop a truly twenty-first century ecological culture: a culture that joins hard data about the natural world with our innate emotional and aesthetic responses to the land and the beings that live on it.
Recognizing the power of somatic practices to awaken ecological perception could open up tremendous opportunities for new approaches to education, advocacy, activism, ecotourism, and lobbying; a bit of time spent with stakeholders doing yoga or Feldencrais in a natural setting could turn a site visit into a vivid and personal realization of our kinship with all life. Artists could create works blending their ecological experiences with current scientific knowledge to transcend the arid conceptualism and self-reference that marks so much contemporary art. Embracing our status as animal bodies in the world could bring about tectonic shifts in our culture, with profound implications for medicine, politics, philosophy, and spirituality. It would not be difficult to devise studies to put body knowledge on a scientific footing; in fact, much of the work is already underway, if scattered across disciplines.
If the human species is to continue living on anything like the Earth we now know, body knowledge will be an essential resource for, in Leopold’s phrase, “building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind”—to change our perception of the natural world from an afterthought to the kind of intense, meaningful experience that motivates us to preserve it.
.Quoted in Environmental Philosophy in Asian Traditions of Thought, J.B. Callicott and J. McRae, eds. (New York: SUNY Press, 2014), xvii.
. D. Abrams, The Spell of the Sensuous (New York; Vintage Books, 1997), 19.
. Ibid., 25.
. Ibid., 27.
. Ibid., 124.
. Ibid., 138.
. A. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (New York: Ballantine, 1966), xviii.
. Abrams, The Spell of the Sensuous, 268, emphasis in the original.
. M. Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception (London: Humanities Press, 1981), 215.
. Abrams, The Spell of the Sensuous, 44.
. J. Miller, “Ecology, Aesthetics And Daoist Body Cultivation,” in Environmental Philosophy in Asian Traditions of Thought, Callicott and McRae, eds., 226.
. I have Gavin Van Horn to thank for this insight.
. G. Snyder, The Practice of the Wild(Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1990), 101.
. G. Claxton, Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More Than It Thinks (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2015).