Updated: May 6, 2021
This essay was first published in Dark Matter, Women Witnessing, October 2020
Germination and the sprouting of roots begins with an act of burial. The seed becomes a sacrifice, made sacred by surrender into mystery, buried deep in the womb of the earth. The seed begins as a contraction, a concentrated core of aliveness. Its hard shell a protection against premature revelation, carried within it the exquisitely sensitive discernment of knowing when it is safe to unfold. The seed needs the pressing warmth of soil to begin the process of germination. It is so painfully close to the bone, so fearful of exposure, so utterly tender and raw. The process begins at the core, in that deep listening and stillness, an intense concentration of energy, a humming pulse of life. The sacred dark, warm and moist, the compost a sovereign trust in the necessity of loss as material for transformation. From here an internal ignition begins within the seed, a moment of choice, knowing it is safe to crack open and spill its tender roots into the soil, a libation, a re–membering.
As children of a broken culture, steeped in colonial ideologies of reductionistic perception, we move through the world like fragmented atoms, shot through with the ghosts of ancestral displacement and relational absences. Like acorns not yet planted within the soil, many humans of this culture remain trapped in a hard protective shell of identity. This shell is the blunt force, the outer edge of a system that’s trying to protect the tender inner parts that don’t yet have support to express their vulnerability. So many symptoms bubbling forth from this time–depression, anxiety, addiction, consumption, extraction, etc–are ways in which the latent layers of ourselves are trying to express their longing for deeper forms of connection with life. To begin to crack open, an acorn must be returned to the relational supportiveness of the earth body, to sense the holding of larger supportive presences so that it can feel safe enough to unfold.
As Trickster–Poet Bayo Akomolafe describes, our very identity begins to change when we take the time to crack open in this way:
The ‘human’ isn’t a fixed thing at all, ready, sure, already there; it’s…replete with loss and disappearances and monsters and’ secretions and microbial transgressions. ‘It’ is an undiscovered continent with an outline that is markedly different from the shape we are used to. Not drawing the line too closely around the humanoid shape we are used to allows us to see a vast body…what the Iroquois⁄Haudenosaunee call the ‘long body’.1
Only from the holding of this long–body will an organism willingly surrender into the vulnerability of collapse.
Collapse as Medicine
I have come to believe that the great unraveling always begins with a turning inward. Curling within, leaning toward, collapsing into, landing upon, and diving through are all gestures of return. They denote a vital longing to come home. —Liz Koch2
Within this culture, we fear experiences of disintegration, breakdown, and collapse. But what if the collapse is also a part of the medicine? There are openings and cracks in these times of breakdown, windows into other worlds.
Sparking the Deep Adaptation movement, climate scientist and educator Jem Bendell wondered what possibilities for transformation would emerge if we began to “consider collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable and extinction as possible.”3 Far from provoking increased apathy and fear, Bendell noticed in his students that an awareness of loss catalyzes “a new way of perceiving self and world.” Opening up these conversations about collapse can lead to “shedding…concern for conforming to the status quo” and bringing a “new creativity” to peoples’ focus on the future.
To allow our bodies to move through the embodied emotional impacts of an awareness of ecological devastation and near–term civilizational collapse is a profound act of resistance, operating on a level deeper than the suppression of symptoms. Bayo Akomolafe explains how many approaches to traditional activism that emphasize fighting and punishment simply escalate the current arrangement while doing nothing to change it on a deeper level:
If we beat the system at its own game, we’ve lost. It is no longer time to rush through the contested world blinded by fury and anger — however worthwhile these are. Now… is the time to ‘retreat’ into the real work of reclamation, to re–member again our humanity through the intimacy of our relationships. The time is very urgent — we must slow down.4
When I fully slow down, I can sink into the imaginal, into the felt-sense intelligence of my body and the earth. From this slowness, I begin again to feel the sacredness of time, its spiral nature, those dilations into other worlds in which deeper knowings from earth and the sacred emerge.
This slowing down invites us into “a time in the ashes,” a practice described by Francis Weller as a mourning ritual in ancient Scandinavian cultures. In this contemplative time, people who had experienced a loss would spend many months alongside “the fires that were aligned down the center of a longhouse. ”5 According to Martin Shaw, this was also a practice through which Scandinavian cultures would initiate their adolescents, giving them this time to descend into melancholy and a contemplation of mystery.6 Weller explains:
Little was expected of them during this time, which often lasted a year or more. The individual’s duty was to mourn, to live in the ashes of their loss, and to regard this time as holy. It was a brooding time, a deeply interior period of digesting and metabolizing the bitter tincture of loss. It was a time out of time, an underworld journey to the place of sorrow and emptying. Whoever came back from this sojourn came back changed and deepened by this work in the ashes. And indeed, any who undertake real mourning return with gravitas, wisdom gathered in the darkness. These women and men become our elders, the ones who can hold the village in times of great challenge.7
Relinquishing the emotional flooding and elevated stress of trying to “function” amidst the pervasive woundedness of business as usual, the thickness of a time in the ashes can give us the capacity to perceive other ways of being.
As we slow down, we open towards the wisdom of a larger intelligence, feeling the many threads of relationship, the earth we are embedded in, the medicine we carry in our bones.
What unknown roots, what unknown larger community of forest, reaches out to the vulnerable body of my surrendering? If only I could describe to you the vast aliveness I feel myself embedded in when I am quiet, the depth of connection underneath the words. It starts at the core, at the tender presence with myself, at the not knowing. There is a paradox here: supporting and going into the contraction creates the opening that becomes the way back into the wider context. The deepest inside is the deepest outside. Inside me is the operating system of the universe. Inside me is that initiatory impulse to grow and transform. More sensation, a greater complexity of feeling combined with a greater spaciousness and capacity to hold. Dropping into my lower body. Down, down, down. The part that is below the surface, floating in a place of deep stillness. In the womb. Not born yet. Symbiotically partnered with the world. No separation, no distance. The umbilical that feeds me. Here there is no place to stand outside of. Only a deeper going into the center of the process, the core of the aliveness, the wider body knowing the true timing of pushing me out.
For transformation to be possible, there first has to be a stopping, a pausing, refusing to continue the dance of fear and survival. When I finally surrender into collapse, then I can feel the heartbreak. There is deep grief here. Grief at how long I have spent running, dissociated from the depth of my own sensation, pushing through instead of allowing myself to collapse and unfold.
As a culture—and as bodies within the culture—surrendering into collapse opens a liminal portal that draws us back to look at the location of our culture’s ruptures, the dissociation from an animistic relationship with the earth. These ruptures can be seen as the incomplete attempts at a rite of passage, a way that we have become frozen in the liminal mid–point of an initiation because we lacked the support we need to complete it.
Animist–indigenous peoples embody a bone–deep knowing of the potency of rites of passage as necessary for the transformation and maintenance of culture. Western anthropologists, yearning to re–member this threefold process of transformation, have identified a threefold pattern through which such rituals often emerge:
Separation. Liminality. Incorporation.8
This threefold pattern is a fractal, appearing also in the ways in which our brains integrate new experiences into embodied knowledge. As neuroscientist Ian McGilchrist has depicted: learning and transformation occur, not through one hemisphere of the brain dominating the other, but through the interplay between the sides.9 An organism starts out in right brain, in the space of embodied experience, and shifts into left brain to look with focused attention at something, momentarily dividing it out from the whole to understand it as an isolated phenomenon:
One of the challenges that a culture dominated by left-hemisphere concerns offers us is a tendency to remove whatever comes to its attention from the context that holds and informs it.10
There is nothing wrong with the way the left hemisphere abstracts a fragment of a wider whole into a concept, what is problematic is that the essential return into the right hemisphere is often missed by our culture. The integration of knowledge is only possible when the isolated element is incorporated back into the whole of direct experience through a return to the right hemisphere.
Without such a sojourn returning abstracted information into embodied experience, what has been fragmented by the left hemisphere remains displaced in a limbo of disembodied intellect, a perception which over time is embedded in the very metaphors that make up how we view reality, institutionalizing a disconnection from relational context. Psychologist Resmaa Menakem reiterates this theme as he speaks about the phenomenon of cultural trauma:
When we’re talking about trauma, when we’re talking about historical trauma, intergenerational trauma, persistent institutional trauma, and personal traumas — whether that be childhood, adolescence, or adulthood — those things, when they are left constricted, you begin to be shaped around the constriction. And it is wordless. Time decontextualizes trauma.11
Neurobiological psychologists identify the “reciprocal relationship between fear and the tendency to shift into left–hemisphere dominance.”12 This traumatically activated view of the world simplifies the complexity of ecosystems and traditional communities into resources to be extracted. Much of the perpetuation of ecological devastation and societal oppression is enforced by this dissociative shift towards the left hemisphere.
Like an acorn unaware of its capacity to become an oak tree, we have culturally forgotten the journey from left hemisphere abstraction back into the relational context of the right hemisphere.
We have lost access to this singing process that happens in the darkness, the liminal journey through all that is subterranean, implicit, unconscious, and unintegrated.
Francis Weller describes how initiatory processes which mirror the pattern of a right–hemisphere return also serve the ecological function of weaving the individual into deeper relationship with all that sustains them:
Initiation, in its deepest traditional sense, was meant to keep the world alive. The purpose was not individual, but cosmological in scope…It was and is the role of mature individuals to honor our “place in the family of things” by carrying out the rites and rituals that sustain sacred relations with the world. Initiation is a process of breaking us open to a recognition of our participation in a vast array of “otherness.” A sea of intimacies is available outside the constraints of a narrowly proscribed identity. We are part moon, part wind, part creek, part antelope, part cloud. Our deep memory knows this is true and the process of initiation, from the perspective of the indigenous soul, is to shake loose those memories, that form of remembering that affixes those linkages in our hearts.13
Processes of initiation in indigenous and traditional cultures often involved coming into a deeper relationship with mortality and the sacred. Indigenous processes of initiation serve also as a way of teaching young people how to be in relationship with the extreme responses of their nervous systems and to integrate intense experiences so they do not remain stuck in the body as trauma.
Through processes of initiation, relationship to time changes. Weller believes that the process of re–membering an initiatory culture will be a journey of many generations:
Right now we’re picking up the tattered threads of discarded practices, forgotten rituals, and trying to see if the cloth even has a semblance of meaning to it, and we have to be willing to risk and fail, we have to be willing to risk trying small gestures that might feed something that can build and build and build. We are starting without any solid ground beneath our feet, but what I do trust is that that ground is inside of us.14
Germinating practices of initiation that return what has been fragmented back into relationship are desperately necessary in this time of ecological and social unraveling. If we allow experiences of collapse to open us to the support of the wider earth body, we will begin to root ourselves back into belonging.
I asked him if he thinks it might be possible for humans to restore nerve damage. Referencing nature, he tells me yes—absolutely. Living plants recover and so can people, he explains, when given the right support and nourishment. It is not that the same nerves grow back, he clarifies, but, similar to the fig tree, with the right stimulation, new neural pathways can begin to form. Branching and enervating new pathways of thriving as life’s healing waters provide rivers of new information through our fluid midline. — Liz Koch15
How do we weave beauty out of the centers of our germinating ancestral pain bodies?
Within the discourse of Cultural Somatics germinated by Tada Hozumi and Dare Sohei at the Ritual as Justice School, culture is defined as the “invisible somas (bodies) and nervous systems that emerge from networks of complex relationships, which include humans as well as ancestors, animals, plants, natural elements, and other beings. ”16 Embodiment practitioner Teresa Reid describes a similar dynamic of the relational field emerging between bodies when she writes about Francis Weller’s concept of the “third body”:
[The third body is] the Soul of the relationship, the vessel which holds all that is moving and being exchanged between you and the other. It materializes and takes shape…when we hold our own sovereignty while opening to intimacy and shared connection with another dancer, a friend, a pet or a tree. It is the field through which we touch each other, where we reach across and find a place of overlap. It is the field that embraces us on the dance floor, the aliveness that pulsates within shared space, the harmony of the whole structure. And it has its own dream about what it wants to become.17
Recently, an online class led by Liz Koch gave my body a deep sense of the embodied process of connecting to the third body of the earth. Koch describes the need for landing and locating as the way to connect with the nourishment and recovery underneath the disruption. She explains that her work isn’t about releasing or working with disrupted states, it is about going underneath them to a place of nourishment, “dropping into a layer deeper where the slime is still moving.”18 She led us through this process by inviting us into fluid movements of deep rest while sounding and allowing the breath to move us, deeply hydrating our fluid systems, tapping into a deeper rhythm of restoration.
A different relationship to power is there, in the relational field of the third body, that place where it is possible to speak directly to the soma of the culture. Here, we do not hold onto power through domination and control, power is instead found in the releasing into relationship with something larger. Francis Weller explains that, in indigenous and traditional cultures, power was not seen as a tool to dominate others, power was instead seen as “a consequence of the scale of relationships one was associated in...Power is a consequence of relationships to the wider field of intimacies with forests, with the night sky, with friends, with ancestors.”19
This accessing of power through connection with our vast bodies is the same process through which forests are able to create micro–climates, regulating rainfall and nourishing entire ecosystems through their relatedness
A process rises fruiting from the earth, as tender as the luminous bodies of ghost pipe emerging from the mycelium. Blossoming out of a web of subterranean relationship, ghost pipe does not photosynthesize, it receives its nourishment from the gifting of mycorrhizal fungi and the forest root system. Ghost pipe is a potent metaphor for those of us with lineages of displaced ancestors and broken culture. Orphans born without the chlorophyll of traditional teachings, eldership, or community, so many of us are beings without direct access to sunlight. We must find our own nourishment underground.
In the depths of each of us are webs of relationship to the long body, the cultural soma, the earth. Each of us exists as a consciousness point within this wider body, our existence created by this relational weaving held sacred within the cosmologies of animist–indigenous cultures as a foundational aspect of aliveness. We are participants in the same complex fractal of fruiting bodies composting dead tree trunks and neuronal networks re–integrating embedded trauma into conscious awareness. The ability to transform what is dying into material nourishing for life arises from the support of this wider body on every level of scale.
Any words? Any words for this place of silence? This thick contented rest, wind soft against skin. From the depths beneath me, from the delicate listening of my lower back pressing into earth. Delicate fibers of root tips, filaments of sensation journey on, while above, tender green of unfolding leaves quiver in the wind. The current is strong—it will run us against the edges of ourselves, carving out fresh shapes, against the softened rock we will be formed. We will find ourselves in silence and the falling tide. The ache of our homecoming will be sweet, we will become again mere tender parts of the earth breath, yearning for new growth. New leaves transpiring as much from soil as air, trees assembling themselves both out of uncertainty and ground. What unknown roots are reaching out to entwine with us here, meeting the tiny tendrils of aliveness unfurling from the fruiting bodies of our remembering?
To see the annotations for this essay, go to the original publication here: https://darkmatterwomenwitnessing.com/issues/Oct2020/articles/Shante-Sojourn-Zenith_Collapse-as-Medicine.html