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Arthur Rosenfeld

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Reclaiming Who We Are

Posted: 06/ 7/11 09:00 AM ET

The prehistoric way of life is much in the news these days, what with new studies showing that pre-agricultural people lived long, healthy lives, and with the resultant spate of diet books urging us to return to tribal options. Thinking about how far we've come and the strange direction human natural history has taken -- overpopulation, global warming, mass extinction, the chronic disease of affluence -- it's tempting to think that the establishment of agriculture represented our first step away from an integrated relationship with our natural world. Indeed when we stopped hunting and gathering we really did lose touch with the forests and the grasslands through which we had previously meandered, and perhaps in doing so we began to lose the ability to sniff a tiger in the glade or a lion closing in on us from the veldt. Out of the forest and into the field, we may also have lost the collective memory of which plants would best stop bleeding, clean a wound, cure a flu, ease the nausea of a rough pregnancy, open lungs in spasm from allergy or asthma.

Still, in all, it wasn't agriculture that really took us out of the natural world and set us on our present course of disconnection from it. What really did it was language. That's right, the spoken alphabet is the true culprit, the true force that took us right to a fork in the road and turned us away from representing our environment with gestures, touches, smells and auditory mimicry. Once we began using an alphabet to represent the world, other than a few onomatopoetic words in our spoken language, we no longer referenced it directly. Not referencing it directly, we began to represent it, to build a human castle of ideas in the air, one whose myriad passageways, dark dungeons and airy halls have preoccupied and fascinated us ever since. In his book, "Becoming Animal," David Abram takes this point further, saying that the internal chatter that meditating Buddhists strive so ardently to quiet really began with the advent of silent reading, a skill developed more recently than written language, which did not initially contain pauses or spaces between words.

Of course our rapidly accelerating trajectory away from nature has greatly outstripped the mere effects of language and cultivation of crops. Once we had begun to sever our ties to the land intellectually and agriculturally, we began to engage technology, pushing back our limitations, redefining the fine physical interface between ourselves and the natural world and increasingly isolating ourselves from nature's bounty and fury. These days, we no longer pay attention even to so basic a feature of the natural world as the diurnal/nocturnal rhythm of light and darkness, of warmth and cold, of torpor and activity. We work aptly named "graveyard shifts" and eat at any hour. In an endless, futile grasping at what will never truly satisfy us, we stimulate our senses with loud music and flashing lights when nature would have us tucked into our burrows, and we outstrip the pace of natural locomotion with bullet trains, autobahns and jets.

This increasing tendency to look at nature as "other" has led us to think of endangered species as earth citizens who need saving rather than our neighbors and cousins, to talk blithely, in certain esoteric circles anyway, of finding another planet to call home once we've "used up" this one, and to insulate ourselves like Russian nesting dolls inside concrete dwellings furnished in plastic that are themselves inside artificial buildings in turn positioned within concrete jungles we call cities. As if that were not alarming enough, our communication more and more frequently takes place not between physical folks, but between online or mobile accounts we access with our devices. Many of us no longer even actually talk to each other, much less smell and sniff and touch and rub each other. Spoken language and "disappearing into a good book" now seem tame stuff in our tendency to disconnect. Some people now spend more time living through their avatars on websites like "Second Life" than they do interacting with flesh-and-blood people.

The natural evolution of our species, you say? A necessary next step in helping God or the universe to become self-aware, you suggest? A necessary and logical step in freeing ourselves from the bonds of the physical mortality and pain? A midpoint in our melding with silicon to create a new, more intelligent and aware form of life? Maybe so, but the signs from our environment are otherwise. Whether we consider the wanton destruction of our home planet to the increasing rates of violence and disease to the rise of intolerant fundamentalism, nature is urging us to shift gears. Deep Ecologists would even say that she is fighting back, trying to preserve the larger organism we call Earth by containing the toxic damage of our cancer-like spread before it is too late.

Insulated, artificial living constrains our senses. It limits us to the tactile feedback of the keyboard and the optical input of the glowing screen. The remainder of our senses, our chemosensory awareness, our sense of smell, our yearning for touch, our response to the play of light on trees, our response to pheromones, the myriad thousands of circulating chemical messengers -- not just endorphins -- that spray our insides in response to physical movement, the intense emotional responses elicited by the actions of other flesh-and-blood people -- all this is being lost. With so much of our brain and so many of our senses out of the loop, we are becoming pale (unfortunately not thin) versions of our aboriginal selves.

The good news is that there is a way to reclaim our wondrous biological heritage, and that way is through mind/body practices. At the same time that the great swath of our society takes refuge in imagined worlds and flees each other's physical company in droves, interest and participation in mind/body practices is growing explosively. A counterinsurgency appears underway, as yoga studios are packed, and t'ai chi players are proliferating like pigeons. It is actually looking like we might be able to once again become sublime beings of sensory subtly, to once again experience the world in all its fantastic richness, from the tickle of gamma rays to the tiny rising of loam underfoot, to the distant, intelligent chatter of wildlife weaving yarns about us, to the miniscule shifts in barometric pressure that make each second, minute, hour and day unique and special.

Yoga brings us back into touch with the messages from both own body and the subtle energetic universe around us, while t'ai chi does the same, and in addition trains every molecule of the skin to strain for more information, not only from a partner, but also from the wind and ground, from gravity and momentum. Consider incorporating one of these ancient and august practices into your life. You'll be thrilled by the re-discovery of lost sensory awareness, and at the same time have access to a way of looking at the world and your life that ties the direct experience of living to Eastern philosophies quite different than the one evidenced by our culture of speed, greed, consumption and disconnection from nature.

 
 
 

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