|Maquettes created in the style taught by Clive Hicks-Jenkins for compositional study.|
may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old
may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young
and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile
In my previous post on fungi, I quoted David Abrams’ suggestion that shamans go about trying to expand their knowledge past what their specifically human senses can teach them by binding their perception, and then their nervous systems, to those of another animal--by learning to experience the world as that other animal, and thus obtain information otherwise hidden from them. In Becoming Animal, Abrams suggests that a big part of what we could learn from any animal would be to listen to the whole of our bodies, to even allow the information coming in through our skin and ears and noses and eyes to overwhelm and silence the voice in our heads with whom we usually spend our days.
“Never having separated their sentience from their sensate bodies—having little reason to sequester their intelligence in a separate region of their skull where it might dialogue steadily with itself—many undomesticated animals, when awake, move in a fairly constant dialogue not with themselves but with their surroundings. Here it is not an isolated mind but rather the sensate, muscled body itself that is doing the thinking, its diverse senses and its flexing limbs playing off one another as it feels out fresh solutions to problems posed, adjusting old habits (and ancestral patterns) to present circumstances.
This kind of distributed sentience, this intelligence in the limbs, is especially keen in birds of flight. Unlike most creatures of the ground, who must traverse an opaque surface of only two-plus dimensions as we make our way through the world, a soaring bird continually adjusts minute muscles in its wings to navigate an omnidimensional plenum of currents and interference patterns that alter from moment to moment—an unseeable flux compounded of gusting winds and whirling eddies, of blasts and updrafts and sudden calms, of storm fronts, temperature gradients, and countless other temperamental vectors and flows that may invisibly and at any moment impinge upon your feathered trajectory—whether from in front or above or below, shoving you from one side or the other or from several directions all at once. Flying is an uninterrupted improvisation with an unseen and wildly metamorphic partner.”
Many animals in the world’s forest will keep a keen attention to the songs and silences of the birds, using them to locate any change--dangerous or not-- in the forest’s activities, such as the arrival of a human, or a fox, or the approach of a storm, all information that can be gathered from the bird’s unique access to the sounds and scents on the breeze, to changes in its eddies and flows, and also to their brilliant perspective allowed by quick access to great heights.
So it was that Abrams’ studies with a particular Shaman in Nepal, Sonam, focused on developing a relationship with a bird: the raven. His studies, however, began slowly, and the methods recall the idea explored in my first St. Theodora post, of the story of our loss of Eden perhaps actually being one about our new focus on transcending the landscape around us and being above it; our loss, therefore, of the ability to feel the garden or paradise, and to understand the language of its parts--a loss which left us bereft, and very much alone. So Sonam first had Abrams focus his eyes on a rock, for hours at a time. Then he had him focus on a point just inside the rock, then on a point in the air somewhere between himself and the rock. Then he asked him to focus his eyes and his ears on that point in the air between himself and the rock. Each request provoked some new difficulty, as you can imagine, and took focus, and time, to accomplish.
During all this time, Abrams’ understanding of his senses and how they communicate with each other and deepen each other was developing, as was his sense of the rock, and also the air. He says:
“The strangest thing about my time with Sonam and his wife, Jangmu, was how deeply I came home to myself during those days and nights. Rather than sampling alien practices and exploring beliefs entirely new to me, it was the quality of my own felt experience that became ever more fascinating, the carnal thickness underlying even my most ephemeral daydreams. From that first evening in their house, I found myself noticing ordinary, physical sensations much more vividly than I had realized was possible. As though something in my hosts’ way of moving somehow untied and dispersed all my abstract reflections. The churning of words within my head simply fell silent when I was anywhere around Sonam, freeing my awareness to witness the unique intensities of particular textures, smells, and sounds as these registered along my skin or in the depths of my viscera. Their home, with its stone walls, had a palpable density that hunkered close as I slept on the mud-caked floor across from Sonam and Jangmu, and when I awoke in the mornings I seemed to emerge from my private dreams into the wider dreaming of this breathing house nested within the broad imagination of the bouldered hillside.
And herein was the strangeness: the more my consciousness sank into the muscled thickness of my animal flesh, the more I could feel the tangible earth around me swell and breathe and move within itself—trees, riverbanks, and boulders quietly responding to all the happenings in their vicinity.[...] As though by dissolving my detached cogitations into the sensory curiosity of my body, I had slipped into alignment with the sentience of the land itself. Awakening as this upright, wide-eyed, smooth-skinned thing, I noticed that all the other things around me were also awake.
[...]Hence I began to feel far more palpably present, and real, to the rocks and the shadowed cliffs than I’d felt before. I felt that I was known to these mountains now. This experience—this awareness of my elemental, thingly presence to the tangible things that surround me—has remained, for me, the purest hallmark of magic, the very signature of its uttermost reality. Magic doesn’t sweep you away; it gathers you up into the body of the present moment so thoroughly that all your explanations fall away: the ordinary, in all its plain and simple outrageousness, begins to shine—to become luminously, impossibly so. Every facet of the world is awake, and you within it. The deeper I slid into the material density of the real, the more I found that there was nothing determinate or predictable about existence. Actuality, this inexhaustible mystery, cannot be domesticated. It is wildness incarnate. Reality shapeshifts.”
|Maquettes made by Zoe Blue|
|Maquettes made by Zoe Blue|
This segment of his book struck me as so completely in tune with the process Katharine Butler Hathaway described, in her memoirs, as a method of releasing herself from the monstrous grip of terrors and self-destructive beliefs both as she lay strapped tight to her board, day in and day out, for those ten years of her childhood, and as she tried to develop as an adult afterwards, with the physical and emotional difficulties caused by her disfigurement. She would focus on some ordinary thing around her-- a chair, a door, a table-- focus on it, not as a superior being but in appreciation, until she began to see what an amazing object it really was, until she began to feel the object’s uniqueness, it’s aliveness. And from that feeling, she was able to realize a certain magic to all parts of the universe, and it became apparent to her--it became overwhelmingly clear--that all kinds of things were possible, that all kinds of amazing possibilities lay in front of her. And she went about them. It is true, what Abrams says. Reality shapeshifts. Nothing is determinate or predictable about existence--it’s only when your awareness barely skips over what’s around it that things seem so solid, unchangeable, and pre-ordained.
Nothing is even determinate about your own body. As his studies progressed from rock to air to raven, as he began to learn the dancing motions of the bird, and the feeling between its shoulder blades brought to him by his prolonged exercises of attention, he became able to experience things very differently. He developed his focus on the bird to the extent that Sonam finally came to him with a new request: to bring his tactile sense--his full bodily sense--into the exercise. He wanted him to focus his entire body to the place where his two eyes converged onto the body of the raven.
He explained this by talking about the fire in the hearth and the water in a small nearby brook. He wanted Abrams to look not only with his eyes, and he wasn’t asking him to reach out his hand touch the fire or the water; he wanted him to feel himself as the fire, to feel the heat building in his chest, radiating outward, to feel the easing of his muscles and the cooling of his organs with the fluid motion of the water. What he wanted Abrams to do was to approach that shamanic magic of entering the bird’s body.
“After several days of exasperated effort spent on the baffling task set for me, the fruition arrived unexpectedly, when I’d given up for the afternoon and was making my way back toward the hut. A couple hundred yards along the trail I came upon a raven crossing the dirt to peck at the corpse of a small rodent. As the bird leaned forward, I felt something inside me tip forward as well, and lost my balance for a moment. I regained my equilibrium as the bird kept pecking at the carcass, but now couldn’t help noticing a sensation in my neck every time the raven reached its beak toward the ground. After a few tries, the bird succeeded in loosening a large morsel from the remains, and swooped up onto a shelf of rock with the gore in its beak; as it did so I felt a sudden weightlessness in my chest which abated as the raven settled onto the ledge. Had I really felt that? Yes!!! I knew immediately that this was what Sonam had been nudging me toward. The sensations were subtle, but unmistakable. As if the bird outside me had somehow awakened an analogue of itself inside my own muscles. Or, rather, as if the raven were not only pulling apart that bit of blood and meat out there on the rock ledge, but was also doing so in here, within my own organism.”
After some practice, he became more able to feel most of the things he saw with his eyes, so that he was able to experience the gentle motions of a field of flowers in the breeze or the weight of a heavy load carried by a child, or even sensations related to particular types of clouds.
Since the theories of evolution suggest that we have done much of this before--transforming from fish to lizard to bird, or stretching out deep inside the soil as seemingly endless mycelial mats--perhaps what is really happening with this kind of intensely focused perception is an entry into non-linear time: into the same Dreamtime he talked about in The Spell of the Sensuous. He explains there that the Dreamtime is not a time properly understood to be in the past, a time which is over, even though it is the time which tells the story that explains the shape of the land and the relations of the people and other animals and the plants that make it up. It is like that latent image--a story you tell yourself about yourself which then controls what you see, what you miss, what ‘happens’ around you. It is a dream, and as in a dream, all the animate and inanimate beings around you quiver with a certain magic, which physics calls potential, and which can be seen, even, at some incredibly microscopic level where the vibration of your atoms becomes apparent. That is a time which is also a place, and you can move around within it and, if you focus, feel it from a different part of your consciousness--say, that of a bird. And if you can experience the story you are a part of from a different angle, then you have loosened the chains of your own character-arc, and reality shape-shifts around you (and inside you).
|Maquettes by Zoe Blue|
And this brings me back to St. Theodora, to her desire for her hair to become the trees, her blood the water to feed them, and her body a church. Reading Abrams’ Becoming Animal, I begin to see that church as the temple, the space in which the different aspects of the earth meet, change one another, and disperse again:
“Was this, then, the truth of perception—the body subtly blending itself with every phenomenon that it perceives? During those days, it began to seem as though my body was not, properly speaking, mine, but rather a piece of the sensuous world—and seeing was a steady trading of myself here with the things seen there, so that this sensitive flesh became a kind of distributed thing, and the visible terrain a field of feeling. And yet, as I noted—scribbling—in my journal, there was still distance and depth. The commingling of myself with things did not dissolve the distance between us, and so the sentience at large was hardly a homogeneous unity or bland “oneness,” but was articulated in various nodes and knots and flows that shifted as I moved within the broad landscape: that round rock overhanging the cliff’s edge feels like the right knee of the valley, as that jostling bunch of trees across the river far below seems an agitation within the groin of the world, and the ribbon of water way down there is now, yes, a thread of icy clarity winding up my spine. Perception alters, and with it the earth. The magician’s body is a kind of cauldron brewing potions that alter their powers according to the precise blend of senses involved; he offers these in turn to his apprentice, whose creaturely body slowly awakens, loosening itself from societal, fear-induced constraints.”
So Theodora moves, with deer-like grace and care, through the forest. She dons her cape of feathers for a shamanic dance, and meets with her familiar, at his moment of transition between lizard and bird, and experiences the world as a flux, as a moment, briefly lucid and amazed at the precise creativity of her own dreaming mind.
|Maquettes of St. Theodora and her Bird-Lizard Companion|
by Zoe Blue