how it looks from here.


On the redemption from redemption itself: a book report

How birthing takes place matters; how infants are raised matters; having a rich and active dream life matters. Animals matter, and so does ontological security and the magic of personal interaction and healthy and passionate sexual expression.Career and prestige and putting a good face on it and the newest fashion in art or science do not matter. Coming to our senses means sorting this out once and for all. It also means becoming embodied. And the two ultimately amount to the same thing.

Something obvious keeps eluding our civilization, something that involves a reciprocal relationship between nature and psyche, and that we are going to have to grasp if we are to survive as a species.

-Coming to our Senses

Out of the stack of books I plan to tackle in these first preparatory months of 2012, I pulled Morris Berman’s Coming to Our Senses. This year it’s 23 years old, the book, and still breathtakingly pertinent; I think Berman’s a thinker for the ages. Here he accounts for the history of Western civilization as a systematic disappearance of our bodies’ experiences of existence.

Our bodies’ deep understanding is that we are whole and connected: to nature, to the planet, to each other, to flow/divinity. Today we most often sense this “undivided consciousness” with sex and inebriants; or when we fall in love with someone. (An echo: I was just listening to Marianne Williamson talk about love: how often we tell ourselves that it’s the falling in love part that is the delusion, and that “normal life” is the reality, when in fact it’s just the opposite: the experience of merging, of oneness, is the reality, and it’s the rest of the time we’re deluded.) We also feel undivided consciousness during ecstatic mystical/spiritual experiences, during which “everything is alive, quivering, embodied.”

While our bodies constantly provide us with this understanding of the fundamentals of what it is to be alive and present, our minds-egos-language-culture-history-institutions repress this knowledge, and put us in a nearly continuous past/future-oriented state in which the now is lacking. “We are asked to give up our basic, and most trustworthy, way of knowing the world in favor of a phony charade of polite agreement. This is a colossal mutilation, and it accounts for much of the rage and pain that all of us carry.”

Experiences of undivided consciousness are now fleeting instead, and the rest of the time we feel incomplete and separate; we feel the “continuum rupture.” This causes our fundamental anxiety. We spend the majority of our lifetime, if not all of it, “stuffing” this gap, or a-voiding this void, aka the “nemo.” “If you are in your body most of the time, the Void is not so threatening. If you are out of your body, on the other hand, you need a substitute for the feeling of being grounded. Much of what passes for ‘culture’ and ‘personality’ in our society tends to fall into this substitute category.”

On “nemo-stuffers,” Berman writes “ ‘Success,’ career, reputation, money and the accumulation of material goods are the most obvious forms…there are many more that are equally hollow and equally ‘sacred’: spectator sports, patriotism and war, organized religion, and even a good deal of artistic or creative activity.” “Capitalism,” he posits, “relies heavily around the anxiety centered around the nemo to generate sales.”

So the basic fault—self/other, body/mind —begun as separation but quickly becoming antagonism (self VS. other, body VS. mind) – led to every other “othering” we’ve created: human vs. animal, wild vs. tame, male vs. female, science vs. magic, and on to racism, classism, nationalism, etc etc ad nauseam. Religion, for example, “comes into being when the basic fault that arises in the human psyche is projected onto the external world, so as to create a corresponding gap, or fault line, between heaven and earth, sacred and profane.”

Berman goes on to argue that history, as a field, has failed to include the sensed, the body’s experience: the body is absent from (modern) history. When history became systematized like a science beginning in the 16th century, it went from being storytelling, with stories’ emphasis on emotions and felt experiences, to “the facts.”

So his thesis is “that the life of the body, and the emotions, and the subjective experience of how mind and body interact, constitute the real events of our lives, and they condition, if not cause, everything that happens ‘historically.’ The challenge for history (i.e. for historical analysis) is to start seeing the larger dramas in these somatic and ‘subatomic’ terms, and to come up with a methodology that convincingly relates the visible to the invisible.

Berman argues that every heretical movement in history has comprised a reaching across the gap, a longing for the experience of undivided consciousness through the body “by means of certain somatic techniques of breathing, chanting, meditation and so on.” Mystical/ecstatic experience is usually understood as an “ascent,” a bridging of the gap between heaven and earth, human and divine, mortality and immortality. It’s heretical because the establishment wants to mediate the experience of undivided consciousness, otherwise their institution would be rendered superfluous. Hence repression by the establishment.

“The mind/body split that we live with, and individually suffer from, today is a direct legacy of this two-step process, i.e. using an occult or somatic insight to dislodge an old system, and then reacting with fear to the very tool that made this possible, dropping it like a hot potato, and erecting a new (rigid) system in place of the old one, a system whose very existence depends on the mystical insight now being rejected.” In this sense, science (the dominant Western philosophy aka “religion” since the 17th century) is just another calcified repression of those attempting to experience oneness (another “Transitional Object (T.O.), in Berman’s terminology.)

In conclusion: “The linchpin of the Western reality system, as I hope I have been able to demonstrate, is the split between “heaven” and “earth,” a split that is nothing more than a projection of the basic fault, and that can only be bridged by an ascent structure, an ecstatic journey capable of traversing transitional space. The religion or philosophy or social system that then gets organized around that vertical journey (or journeyer) then acts as a Transitional Object that holds the culture together for the next few hundred years…. There is another alternative to recycling the ascent structure one more time, and that is to finally abandon it once and for all. This means, at least initially on the individual level, learning to live with the abyss; recognizing the gap for what it is. Far more important than finding a new paradigm (T.O.) is coming face to face with the immense yearning that underlies the need for paradigm itself. This means exploring what we fear most: the empty space or silence that exists between concepts and paradigms, never in them. We are indeed in a system-break, and the temptation to stuff the gap is very strong; but the ‘road less travelled’ which is that of looking at the nature of paradigm itself, is the truly exciting and liberatory path here. There can be no healing of our culture and ourselves without taking this option, and it will not go away, whether we miss it on this ‘round’ or not. Nothing less is at stake than the chance to be finally, fully human.