I remember the first time I noticed lichen. Burrowed into the nooks of worn tree bark, their greyed surfaces had evaded my gaze, receding into the background of woodland atmosphere. But with time spent on the trails of Mount Tamalpais, I began to look more closely. Each tree trunk observed became a world. Dried crusts carpeted the surface, with tassels of fine threads drooping in bunches. Tufts of lush moss sprung from the lichen like pompoms, while bracket mushrooms made idyllic perches for small-enough critters to look back at me.
I watched this artful tapestry weave in slow time. There appeared an elegant cooperation of organisms, each finding their place within the fabric of their arboreal host. I imagined my arm as a tree trunk, allowing lichen to course steadily up from my fingertips. I tried to embody the tree’s stable poise, breathing steadily in open allowance. I wanted to know what it was like in their world.
Peeling back the layers of the forest floor, it doesn’t take long to discover a nesting doll of worlds. Lichen themselves are composite organisms, a symbiotic exchange between fungi, which provide shelter and water, and algae or bacteria, which offer food through photosynthesis. So tightly knit is their exchange that they each cannot live without the other. Even our senses cannot separate them as distinct individuals, so we name their species in aggregate visual metaphors: reindeer, sunburst, soldier, and map. Meditating on this cooperation, I practiced settling into my best human approximation of their selfless give and take. An embodied acknowledgement that I, like the fungal architect or the algal chef, am in boundless exchange.
Finding Ourselves in Ecology
When the composite nature of lichen was discovered, it upended the modern view of nature as a contest of autonomous individuals. First hypothesized by botanist Simon Schwendener in the 1860s, the idea that lichen were composed of fungi and algae was met with fierce opposition. Not until the 1930s was he vindicated with experimental evidence. Lichens are far from a unique case. We now know that our bodies play host to trillions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. That through our viral habitants, our DNA has likely been exchanged with other creatures. That the mitochondria in our cells were once separate single-celled organisms engulfed by another. Is a lichen any more composite than we are? Is it possible to draw neat boundaries around any individuals? Despite our efforts to classify and distinguish, life has always been unbounded. We rise and fall from the same substrate. We exist in constant exchange.
How are we to consider our place in a world without individuals? The philosophical tradition of phenomenology offers one frame. Phenomenology arose in the early 20th century in opposition to attempts to describe the world objectively, instead turning its attention to what we know personally to be real. Philosophers like Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty would start with their subjective experience and then move outward. Contemplating where their experience starts and ends, they found no clear boundaries. Not only does our experience include the mind, but it also includes the body and the material of the world. As Merleau-Ponty wrote in The World of Perception, “The world is…the natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions…Only in the world does [one] know himself.” He referred to this “natural setting” as “the flesh of the world.” From the view of our experience, we can consider ourselves as extended bodies, encompassing our own flesh and the flesh of the world.
Another lens comes from the contemporary cybernetics movement beginning in the 1970s, which viewed nature as an interconnected system. Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela proposed the term autopoeisis to refer to the self-generating, self-maintaining structures of life. We are alive not necessarily as a result of the stuff that makes up our bodies, but rather from the processes that continuously exchange matter and energy with the environment to sustain themselves. Our cells are autopoeitic, as are our bodies, as are our broader ecosystems. We exchange constantly through our breath, our sweat, and our food. In Biology of Cognition, Maturana and Varela wrote, “Living systems are units of interactions; they exist in an ambience. From a purely biological point of view they cannot be understood independently of that part of the ambience with which they interact: the niche; nor can the niche be defined independently of the living system that specifies it.” From the view of our systems, we can consider ourselves as nested processes, nodes of exchange embedded within broader nodes.
Living in Closer Contact
These two framings of the self — as extended body and nested process — have helped me make sense of my place in the world. And as I internalized them, I begin to discover a new mode of being that expressed and reinforced a sense of embeddedness. Like the fungus and alga of the lichen, every relationship is made of feedback loops, beginning with close listening through the senses. Attending to the senses has brought me into closer contact with the world.
The senses are portals through which we can detect waves, chemicals, pressure, temperature, pain, and balance. Each time we attend to the senses, we invite our broader ecosystems into the self. In deep engagement we find that our constructed boundaries dissolve, leaving a profound sense of integration. We begin to notice more clearly how our bodies respond to these sensations, challenging preconceived internal preferences. This feedback loop, strengthened through steady attention, becomes autopoeitic, sustaining a connection between inner and outer world, between individual and ecosystem. We sink into reciprocal exchange.
Like all expressions, attending to the senses evolves with practice. It calls on us to approach the world with fresh eyes, notice how our bodies respond, and trust in the guidance of spontaneous relations. It runs counter to many facets of modern culture, which emphasizes novelty of presentation over active listening, prizes the conceptual orientation of the mind over the felt experience of the body, and programs artificial preferences into us rather than teaching us to cultivate our own. And so we must unlearn what we know in order to form a more authentic relationship with the world.
I refer to this practice as being open-bodied, for it opens us to the broader flesh of the world. It aligns our conscious experience with our ecological nature. It helps us find beauty in experiences we might consider mundane, unpleasant, or even painful. It reveals opportunities for purposeful engagement in each moment. Yet opening to the world is not without risks. With permeable boundaries, it invites in experiences of ecological destruction and human suffering once easy to shut out. But it remains a decidedly optimistic practice, for it empowers us to participate in the abundant relations ever available to us.
Opening the Body
Below I outline six successive skills that I have found to arise in open-bodied practice. These skills are not practiced linearly, though I present them in an order such that each builds on the prior. Being open-bodied is a practice of connecting with the world in resonant pleasure; allow your curiosity to guide your winding path through these stages.
- Sustained attention
- Cultivation of tethers
- Fine discrimination
- Expansive awareness
- Fluid sensory gating
- Spontaneous reciprocity
The first skill is sustained attention. We are so used to experiencing the world a certain way that we tend to lack interest in its day-to-day presentation. One reason for this is sensory gating, the body’s tendency to filter for information of interest. When we are born, we find ourselves swimming in a world of synesthetic percepts. But gradually, we learn to separate and label a bird from a tree from a friend. And by age eight, we complete the transition from experiencing the world through direct sensation to experiencing the world through an inner compendium of concepts. To reclaim our senses, we must relearn interest in the seemingly simple phenomena of light, pitch, texture, and scent. To hone this skill, practice the art of observation, fixating on particular sensations for a few minutes at a time. Avoid wandering aimlessly among sensations. Rather, sit with each for a time and, having fully noticed its detail, move with intention to the next. You will find that unintended sensations and thoughts compete for your attention. Cultivate a background awareness of your mental state, noticing these distractions as they arise and returning to a focus on your intended sensation. Consider this skill achieved when you can sustain attention on particular sensations uninterrupted for extended periods.
The second skill is the cultivation of tethers. Having fully perceived a sensation, we can bring it into the body, allowing it to imprint on the self. All sensations produce a corresponding response in the body: surprise tends to activate the head and chest, depression sinks the limbs, and happiness stimulates us globally. A strong reaction, attended closely, forms what I refer to as a tether, an embodied connection point between the self and the world. To practice, select a physical entity within reach of your person. Gaze at it closely, smell it, feel its texture, listen to the sounds it makes as you interact with it. Now, turn your gaze inward at the sensations that arise within you. Notice whether any parts of your body experience heaviness, lightness, tension, relaxation, or vibration. Notice whether your nervous system feels activated or depressed. Notice whether your mood is positive or negative. This is the imprint the entity has made within you. And as with all living process, the imprint shifts over time. You will find that sensations that once repelled you will start to attract you, and vice versa. Open yourself to the feeling, whether positive or negative. Consider this skill achieved when you can cultivate tethers at will in your day to day experience.
The third skill is fine discrimination. In sustained attention and felt response, we can begin to increase the amount of detail we perceive. There is a tradeoff between breadth and depth, and so in this space we set an intention to focus by following our tethers. If you are drawn to the sense of hearing, consider training your ear to recognize specific pitches and intervals. If you want to explore balance, learn to discern particular degrees of orientation to the earth. If you enjoy scents, try to identify specific odors and qualities. No matter what you choose, you will find that the detail you notice in one sensory domain will help you appreciate the detail available in all areas. You may also wish to pair these with exploring new applications of the senses, like learning an instrument, tightrope walking, or perfuming, adding more depth to your experience. You might learn to read nature’s sensory signs: listening to birds calls, observing layered vegetation, or sniffing out mushrooms like a truffle-hunting hound. Consider this skill achieved when you can accurately discern between individual units of sensation within one or more areas of specialization.
The fourth skill is expansive awareness. Having refined our ability to discern fine detail, we can expand to a holistic awareness of our entire field of experience. This helps us avoid ignoring wide swaths of our reality that we might find less interesting or pleasant. Our holistic perception is very different from our discriminatory lens. Instead of separate details, we perceive global qualities, forms, and moods of the world. To practice expansive awareness, direct your attention to broad spectra of sensation. This might include the full soundscape of a city or forest; all the qualities of light, form, and color in a landscape; all the sensations of the body throughout the skin, musculature, and viscera; or some synesthetic combination. It is this broad spectrum that allows us to read the spirit of nature and moves us to make art. What are the sounds of a time of day? What is the disposition of a healthy ecosystem? What is the scent of nutritious food? Initially, this field will be shallow in its perception, but over time, it will grow more detailed, taking in more information at a time. Consider this skill achieved when the gulf between discriminatory and holistic perception narrows such that your perception becomes a unified field of detail.
The fifth skill is fluid sensory gating. By now, we have learned to open our sensory gating, but it is not necessarily desirable to leave it open at all times. Open sensory gating can invite deeply emotional experiences into the self when we don’t want them — whether in response to everyday experiences or disturbing scenes. In nature, even the most interdependent symbionts have membranes. This stage recognizes that even though our boundaries are dynamic, they serve an important protective function. And so we cultivate the ability to open and close sensory gating at will. To close your sensory gating, turn your attention inward with narrow, discriminatory focus. In selectively attending to inner sensations, other sensations begin to diminish. Practice alternating your scope of attention to various bounds: a fingertip, your chest, your entire body, your room, the world. In times when you feel overloaded, a good candidate for your attention is the breath. The breath is a semi-involuntary cycle that sets the rhythm of the body through its interactions with the nervous system and viscera. Attending to it relaxes us, while containing our scope of awareness. Keep your focus tight — for example, on the breath sensations at the tip of the nose. Consider this skill achieved when you can open and close sensory gating at will.
The last skill is spontaneous reciprocity. Having tethered ourselves to the world, the world draws us into action. The actions we practice are those that arise naturally from deep listening and inner resonance. These tend towards efforts that nurture the source of the sensation in the world, allowing it to flourish more strongly. Such is the give-and-take nature of bonds. Reciprocity takes many forms, from expressing song to cultivating a garden, from offering emotional support to investing in institutions that support your community. Open-bodied practice does not tell us how to act but rather guides us to listen for the intuitive messages that inspire us. It rejects hardened laws to live by and instead compels us to watch for synchronicities and improvise in response. Initially your giving may come with some level of naivety, making false presumptions about what will nourish unfamiliar bodies and processes. What song best expresses your gratitude? What nutrients does your garden need? What emotional support does your friend desire? What systems are most supportive for your community? Notice the questions that arise. Allow feedback loops to guide you to deeper understanding and more resonant offering. Consider this skill achieved when you fluidly respond to your tethers with offerings of reciprocity.
I have been cultivating this open-bodied practice ever since I formed a tether with the tree, which formed its own tethers with the variety of creatures that call it home. This work is a form of reciprocity I offer to that original relation. I sometimes consider whether I will someday become the tree trunk that gives and receives with the lichen. It is beyond my capacity to know the tree’s experience, just as it is beyond the tree’s to know mine. The same is true for our understanding of each other as people; we are constrained by perspective. But by cultivating feedback loops, we can live more open to each other’s gifts and allow one another to flourish. We can form our own autopoeisis. We can embody life itself.
This practice is a product of many sources, including teachers, books, scientific research, sensory experience, and inward exploration. The following thinkers and “be-ers” have been instrumental in informing my approach. For each, I link to one book that can help you deepen your practice.
- On ecology: James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Fritjof Capra, and Suzanne Simard
- On phenomenology: Maurice Merleau-Ponty and David Abram
- On embodied cognition: Andy Clark, Philip Shepherd, and Bessel van der Kolk
- On sensation: Stephen Harrod Buhner and Diane Ackerman
- On attention: John Yates
- On meaning-making: Carl Jung, Mihaly Csikszentmihali, Viktor Frankl, Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard
- On aesthetics: G. Gabrielle Starr and Alain de Botton
- On belief systems: Joseph Campbell, Yuval Noah Harari, and Keith Basso
- On reciprocity: Robin Wall Kimmerer and Charles Eisenstein
In humble gratitude, I carry forward each of your awakenings.
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