I knew of a physicist at the University of Chicago who was rather crazy, like some scientists, and the idea of the insolidity, the instability of the physical world, impressed him so much that he used to go around in enormous padded slippers for fear he should fall through the floor.
— Alan Watts, Nothingness
Most people would laugh at such a scientist. But as new science steadily addresses realities far beyond the reach of our so-called “common” sense – I find myself wondering about the craziness of those padded slippers.
After all, what would you do if the theoretical science that formed the framework for your world view suddenly turned out to be visibly, tangibly verified by your everyday sensory experience? If, for example, instead of seeing a floor, you saw a million swirling points of energy?
I suspect you might be just a little….well, freaked out.
Indigenous cultures have taught such concepts for millennia – for example, that we are all energy beings, and that we are all connected – but despite popular movies like What the Bleep and corroborating data from institutes such as HeartMath Research Center, modern society has a great deal of difficulty accepting the empirical reality of such concepts.
We’re deeply conditioned by our secular-materialist culture to believe that we are isolated individuals, that the boundaries of our minds do not extend past our skulls, that a solid floor is a solid floor, that…well, you get the idea. Even if we subscribe to the belief that we are all connected, and that we can communicate energetically, a core of skepticism may linger: without direct personal experience, how can we be sure? And we file the quantum concepts away in an agnostic cubbyhole.
For example, I’ve always held the belief that all beings, from stones to trees, from viruses to gorillas, from crickets to skunks, from krill to whales – and oh yes, also including humans – are sentient, thinking and feeling in their own unique way. These beliefs are woven into indigenous faith and practice around the world, in shamanic cultures from the Amazonian rainforest to the Siberian steppes. And they’re core beliefs that I’ve held, and tried to act upon, since long before the days of my husband’s deep involvement in Traditional Native American practices.
But it wasn’t till this past weekend, when I was out doing homework for the Land Healing apprenticeship* I’m now pursuing, that I received a firsthand experience of exactly what these beliefs mean in real life, outside the heady realm of cherished certitude. And I’ll admit – I was mind-boggled.
I was walking a path on sacred land near my home, and intentionally stopped to connect sensorially and at heart level with two trees along the way, as I’d been taught in the first class. Connecting with each tree individually, I received very different impressions of personalities and attitudes toward humankind (or rather, human(un)kind in one case…passing two-leggeds had not been kind to that Standing One).
I responded politely to the input those trees were giving, and then stepped a little further down the path…and had the mind-boggling sense that every tree in the park was aware of me and assessing me – my intent, my attitude, my reasons for connecting and communicating with their two siblings.
Have you ever stood at a podium in front of a thousand psychics, all of them “reading” you? That’s roughly how this felt. I’d read old folk tales of people wandering into a forest and experiencing the spirit of the wood, panicking and fleeing – I’d never been able to understand such a reaction; forests had always felt like sanctuaries for me.
Now, however, I could understand. While the gaze of these uncountable trees was in no way hostile, it was wary, cautious, penetrating, evaluative…and overwhelming. I responded to the unspoken questions – “Who are you and what are you doing here? What do you want with us?” by explaining that I was a beginner trying to learn the right way of being in relationship with nonhuman beings, and asked them to ease up a little – they were scaring me! And they did. The contact broke, the sense of intense attention faded; I could breathe again, and continued on my way.
I have been sitting with the aftershocks of that experience for the past week. Even though I’d hugged and talked (privately) to trees for years, even though I’d experienced individual trees as sentient beings in class as well as in the two conversations before the encounter with the entire forest, even though I’d had every reason to expect such a response from the forest as a whole, the experience of trees en masse, as a crowd of individual personalities, was beyond any of my imaginings.
I remembered the response my husband used to give to such experiences: “Welcome to the Real World”....that is, however much I believed in interbeing, the interconnection and sentience of all things, I couldn’t know this as reality until I stepped past my conditioning to experience it directly.
And the implications were staggering….
Imagine living in a world where energetic communication not just with other humans, but with every other being was not only possible, but also acknowledged fact…not a fantastical delusion to be treated with antipsychotic drugs, but the foundation of uncountable indigenous cultures. We know this to be the truth…and yet this real-world daily communication has been dismissed by this “enlightened” culture as pagan superstition.
Imagine living in a world in which plants, animals and humans consciously coexist in a delicate dance of balance that leaves their environment largely intact for millennia. We know that this also is true – it shows up in one account after another of intact indigenous cultures, even today.
Just sit with those images for a moment. Imagine being a consciously participating element of a living, communicating, mutually supportive environment, gaining wisdom from every other element.
Now picture our world, with humans isolated from all other beings by an assumption of superiority and dominion, exploiting or eradicating those other beings while we debate their level of sentience and dismiss what knowledge cannot be gleaned by instrumentation and metrics.
Is it any wonder that this culture is crazed and soul-starved? And what is there to be done about it?
I have only just completed my second lesson of the apprenticeship, so I am hardly the one to advise wholesale solutions. However, the old childhood rule for crossing the street does come to mind:
Stop. Stop assuming, stop numbing out, stop objectifying…
Look. Try looking at everything around you as a sentient being. What would it be like to get the perspective of an oak…a deer grazing in your garden…a polluted river?
Listen. Next time you’re about to prune a tree, for example, tell the tree politely what you’re planning to do and why, then ask permission. And wait to see what you hear or sense inwardly.
If nothing else, ask – what if? Even if you already believe that we are all related and all beings are sentient in their own unique way, what if these trees, for example, are not simply standing passively in the earth, waiting to serve the purposes of humans, but are observing and participating in their environment in ways we can’t even imagine – and quite capable of communicating their perspective?
You may be familiar with the Gaia theory of a conscious, self-regulating planet. For many of us it ties in with the Earth-centered values we have carried for many years. Now take it a step further: what if that theory describes not only a living system of interacting organic and inorganic elements, but also a living system of interacting individual consciousnesses – consciousnesses with which we can communicate and interact to heal the wounds this world has suffered?
* Deepest gratitude for the insights offered in this entry go to Maria Mihok, teacher of the “Sacred Land: Way of the Earth Healer” apprenticeship, and her training through Stephen Buhner, author of Sacred Plant Medicine and The Secret Teachings of Plants (among others), and the Wilderness Awareness School.