Sunday 27 June 2021

Relearning the Language of a Lost World

'Sentience' by Meryl McMaster (from Issue 16 - REFUGE)

This is an article I wrote for Noema magazine in the spring. It forms the basis of a new online course I am running with fellow Dark Mountaineers this September, to explore how we may reweave our place back into the fabric of a sentient Earth. Do join us!


Last May, as the first lockdown came, I found myself taking part in an online discussion about a theatre production called The Encounter by Simon McBurney and the Complicité company. Inspired by the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu, the one-man performance follows the real-life track of Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer, who becomes lost in the Brazilian rainforest while searching for the Mayoruna people. The encounter plunges him into another world, in which he has to navigate with a different consciousness, as the tribe retreat deep into the forest to escape its destruction.

On the panel the indigenous filmmaker Takumã Kuikuro of having to adopt ‘two minds’, a double consciousness, to both maintain his own culture, and deal with the modern world that was encroaching on his people’s way of life.   

We need to do this the other way round, I responded. We need to develop a consciousness to re-entangle ourselves in the sentient Earth, as McIntyre was challenged to do in the forest. Because it feels the only way we can deal with the devastation our civilisation continues to wreak is to radically change how we perceive the natural world and our place within it.

But how do we go about this? Is it even possible? Can we like the Mayoruna find a ritual that enables us to start again?

In the 1990s, I went on a journey, like thousands of other seekers, in search of another language. I went to South America, whose culture was still threaded with hawks and flowers and wild rivers, unlike the urban, alienated tongue of my native Britain. It was there I realised I was not in another country to find a more Earth-based story to live by but to deconstruct one I had unknowingly inherited. And it wasn’t a journey that took me to a place of clarity and understanding I could carry home in a suitcase. It took me off track entirely.

I never went back to my fashionable city life. The travelling was the beginning of another kind of return altogether.

In his ground-breaking work, The Master and His Emissary’ the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist explores the very different kinds of perception orchestrated by the two hemispheres of the brain. The attention of the left focuses on detail, the right perceives the whole picture. The left hemisphere deals with the abstract and prefers mechanisms to living things, where the right hemisphere has a more flexible and immediate relationship with the physical world. To see the complexity of the Earth, to make complex, consensus decisions means you need to use the focus of the left hemisphere in tandem with the wide-ranging implications perceived by the right.

Without this working relationship, the untempered unconscious forces within ourselves and our societies run amok. We think we make rational fair decisions, even though it has been proved, particularly in the case of governance, that we are swayed by our unconscious feelings, embedded in and frequently manipulated by the dominating belief system.

McGilchrist argues that, despite its inferior grasp of reality, the left hemisphere is increasingly taking precedence in the modern world, with perilous consequences. So, to become entangled in the world, to regain kinship, our place on the planet, requires a deliberate engagement with the consciousness of the right hemisphere.

The map is not the territory

It is commonly assumed that our connection to the wild world, as Takumã and his people have kept theirs, has been lost and is not possible to regain. However, this is not true. It has just been forgotten and lies deep buried within us.

Every person is born with archaic intelligence embedded in their bones. Though our minds are distracted by numbers, algorithms, facts and data, still our physical beings, stepping into a rainforest, or a mountain path, recognise instinctively these patterns of fur and feather, stone and leaf. We see the moving shapes of clouds and rivers, but we just don’t remember how to communicate with each other about what we experience. 

I went to the deserts of the Americas to remember the ancestral language of belonging and obligation my own culture had tried to erase centuries ago. I investigated the lexicon of plants and the territories of dreams in practices that followed those travels. The encounters with the physical planet and investigation into its language was the key that opened the door.

The main challenge in learning the lexicon of the right hemisphere is ironically the words themselves. The word is god in our left-hemisphere dominated world: treaties, laws, religions of the book, are all constructed of words. If we say something, or write it down, we think it is as good as done in reality, even though our actions and feelings do not match what has been said. The left hemisphere loves to capture and control the world in linear and grandiose language, naming and categorising everything it sees and putting it to use. So even approaching the nonhuman world, by labelling it ‘nonhuman’, you put it into a category of things you can own, like placing a shamanic drum in the glass case of a museum, rather than playing it and travelling to the Otherworlds.

To re engage with the world as kin requires an entirely different approach. It is no good shouting English (or Latin) words at the nonhuman world if you want to hold a dialogue. You have to learn a whole set of skills that have nothing to do with your education. You have to use your whole body and slow down to the pace of your heart. Most of all you have to learn to stop talking in your head, and listen. Let that being in a dream, that flower, come to you and reveal its nature. Humbleness is required, not knowing is required, a shift of attention is required. You are no longer commandeering the world like Alexander, describing, analysing, and putting everything into a spreadsheet. Quite often, you are not going to like what you feel. 

Corporations now ransack the Amazon in search of cures for cancer and other diseases of the modern world, individuals travel seeking heal the traumas behind their addiction and depression, but the vegetalistas, those who work with plants, go to the forest to remain in harmony and communication with it. It is an ongoing relationship they maintain with ritual and story and song. If you ask them: where do you get your knowledge from? They will tell you the plants told them, the animals came, a spirit arrived in a dream.

So, from your own dreams you learn, slowly, that animals speak by their presence, the way they move within a landscape, in relationship. You learn you have affinity with some more than others - birds, whales, snakes - how you feel when you are with them. You learn that plants reveal their intelligence in elegantly framed storyboards and koans. Some are more ‘talkative’ than others. After the practice, you do what human beings have done for aeons in response to this conversation: you sing, dance, paint, find words. You forge a lexicon to remember and share with the world, a bridge that spans between the dimensions of the human, animal and plant kingdoms.

But you also go to meet something else.

Here Be Dragons

In 1969, an anthropology student called Michael Harner began to work with the Conibo tribe in the Peruvian Amazon. To understand us, he was told, you have to take the plant hallucinogen ayahuasca. In the book that was to remind the modern world of the pan-global practice of shamanism, he writes of his first encounter with the ‘vine of death’ where giant reptilian creatures spoke with him from the depths of the back of his brain. The creatures showed him the planet before there was any life and how they came to Earth from the sky to escape their enemy.

‘The creatures then showed me how they had created life on the planet in order to hide within the multitudinous forms and thus disguise their presence. Before me, the magnificence of plant and animal creation and speciation - hundreds of millions of years of activity - took place on a scale and with a vividness impossible to describe. I learned that the dragon-like creatures were thus inside all forms of life, including man. They were the true masters of humanity and the entire planet, they told me. We humans were but the receptacles and servants of these creatures. For this reason they could speak to me from within myself.’ 

‘We are in charge’, they told him, at which Harner relates, everything that was human inside of him rebelled. Afterwards, he tells a wise elder about his experience: ‘They always say that,’ the shaman said.

In a time of colonial reckoning, where movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter challenge the exploitation of human bodies, the urge to re-indigenise ourselves and reconnect with the natural world becomes stronger.

In many ways, the geography we find ourselves in dictates what we have to deal with in order to find this re-entanglement. Each country brings its own challenges. In the New World, indigenous cultures still exist but a reconnection to the land by its settlers brings a heavy historical karma to bear. The Native American myths embedded in the land are not easily understood, and to engage with the mythos of their own motherlands means facing the conditions that forced their or their ancestors’ original emigration.

In Europe, the links to a land-connected indigenous culture are buried in deep time, their myths turned into children’s tales, or a fanciful spirituality. The wild places are severely compromised by industrialisation and feudal property laws. A kind of amnesia prevails.

Either way the gate that bars most modern industrialised people from access to the nonhuman realms, has to be broken open: whether by encounter, by plant medicine, or iatromantic practice. Our ordinary night dreams can be allies in this rediscovery, but only so long as we understand they are communications from the right hemisphere, part of the world’s dreaming, and not a psychological problem to be sorted by modern medicine.

When you embark on a journey of return, you realise that individual work is only relevant if it takes place within the collective realm. No matter how revolutionary or forward thinking a social movement can be, it will always be at the mercy of the unconscious forces of the collective within which it operates unless it develops a protocol for dealing with them. The dragons are always in the room. The modern group practice of ‘staying with the trouble’ gives the right hemisphere time and attention to voice what is left out of any left-hemisphere conversation, but only if the individuals taking part have undertaken their own inquiry. 

When you work with dreams, you realise no one cares about your righteous thoughts and opinions. Immersed in a kind of violent detective drama, you are always fugitive. To withstand and not be at the mercy of a dream’s force fields you need to learn fast that the ‘language’ these places speak is physical and energetic. What matters is not what you think but how you act: how you move out of stuck places, how you refuse to take an inferior position, how you stand up to the monsters advancing towards you. The act of opening your mouth and voicing out loud your feelings is what liberates you from their dominion.  

In the dualist narrative in which most of our lives are held, one side has always to be the victor and the other defeated. But in the world of consciousness, where nothing is black and white, the monster, the dragon, is also the seat of your energetic power and all of your creativity. A treasure they famously guard with fire and claw.

Trapped in a hostile story of civilisation, we are always conquering monsters when we need to be standing up to them and learning at the entrance of their caves. The ancient myths tell us about the travails of the Underworld, the fairy stories of initiations in the deep forest. All these tales bequeath ‘technologies’ for dealing with these challenging encounters on an individual basis, in order we return and hold that knowledge and experience within the wider world.

But this is not an easy task. The terror that most people feel when opening up to let the ‘nonhuman’ in - the wild world, the mythos, the microbial universes within their own bodies - is the terror constructed by the left hemisphere, so it can maintain control. The dragons rule absolutely in patriarchal monotheistic civilisations, where the human heart and creaturehood exist only to acquiesce to their command. Any step out of line is met with playground bullying and humiliation. You only have to see how the right-wing press and politicians howl with derision at any mention of ‘woke’ culture, so we do not look at the cruelty and extortions of empires, to know how any shift towards a recognition of interdependence is met, both within the self and outside it.

But this does not mean that people are not waking up to the historical injustices meted out to the ‘savages’ of civilisation. This does not mean that people are not defending the creatures or the forests. It does not mean that the more-than-human world is not an ally in any kind of move by human beings towards regeneration.

But at some point, you realise that when you say human beings are not central to life, it means you have to radically reconfigure your position within it beyond words. Not by taking the human out of the picture, but by becoming the kind of human being who is kin with nature, who can speak both the language of a falling Empire and the language of the wild, mythic world it is forever trying to keep in bondage. We have, like Harner over a half a century ago, to stand up to the authoritarian rulers inside us. Loosen our shackles and declare our emancipation.

Entering the sanctuary

At the end of 2020, as countries continued to be ravaged by a pandemic, 800 people tuned into a broadcast by the philosopher and teacher, Bayo Akomolafe. The online course held over three months was in order to ‘make sanctuary together.’ Sanctuary is defined in this context as a space people escape to from the ‘plantation’ of civilisation, where we can discover the ‘technologies of fugitivity.’ A place where we can meet the world differently and re-entangle our bodies and imaginations within a shifting biome.

Akomolafe uses the story of the transatlantic slave trade, as well as the Yoruba mythic  trickster Èṣù, to help us navigate this territory. In doing so, he brings us face to face with our own colonial past and takes us beyond the modern tale of confusion and fragmentation. In a sense, to find out why we are so lost is to understand that the time of fall is also the journey into a collective shadow, and that the myths of indigenous people – those of our own native lands and those of the countries once held under colonial rule - are the ships we need to cross what seems like an unnavigable ocean.

In The Encounter the protagonist crucially loses both his watch and his way. This vulnerability and loss of control over time and space allowed him to meet the forest tribe and witness their ritual return, the burning of their material possessions, everything they have known and loved, in order to start again.

Like Takumã’s people who have had to learn the ways of the modernist world in order to survive it, we too have to learn another language in order to negotiate our hollowed world and remake a place for ourselves within the living web of Earth. But this way means we have, like the tribe, to begin again and let go of what we have held on to. 

Becoming fugitive means losing the story of our place in the plantation, losing our form in a world of hierarchy where form is what counts. This we do not want to do, because we lose what we have worked hard for, we lose status and comfort. But we gain in another way: we gain our own agency and meaning for being here. We gain kinship with the beasts. We gain the ‘kingdom’ of the fairy stories and bring back treasure from the Underworld. And we advance towards the unknown, come what may, because somewhere deep inside us we know, that no amount of worldly prestige or riches can ever match the experience of knowing our true worth as a creature among our fellows on this all-communicating Earth.