Seeing Resentment for the First Time, gouache and acrylic on paper, June 2020
At a collective level, we are in a process of dying; it may not have looked like it for a very long time; it may have looked just like “the way life is”, as it’s been happening at a time-scale spanning generations. We’ve been able to prolong our dying process by centuries, and build complex systems to lengthen the process as much as we can. Now the course of death is catching up with us, and we’re being asked whether we are willing to take responsibility and do whatever it takes to bring ourselves (and all of the planet’s other living citizens) back from the brink. Responsibility is often associated with a feeling of burden and sacrifice. In service of a healthier conception of responsibility, many break it down as “the ability to respond” .
Greta Thunberg famously used the metaphor of “the house on fire”  to illustrate response-ability: we need to put the fire out, immediately. At a reality-level, it matters little how this plays into appearances, moral ideologies, philosophies, or our sense of identity. The reality of the fire trumps our narratives about it (and about ourselves and how we relate to it). All that matters is taking action to change the course of the crisis.
Response-ability hinges on how we interface with reality, and our basic connection point with reality is our body. Yet the body is a tough place to be for many (if not most of us), unless we’ve cultivated a relationship with our body as a conscious practice; the global culture has normalized many institutions, practices and ways of living that make the body numb and favor our disconnection from it– even as simple as the fact that we spend most of our days sitting (when bodies are designed for moving) all the way to the subtle ways our emotional expression has been sculpted by culture to allow only certain kinds of outlets (notice for instance, how you learned to laugh, or to cry, or where/how to direct your gaze during a conversation, as a starting point).
In light of this, it’s no surprise that we don’t quite know, anymore, how to respond to the house being on fire. We’d need the skills that we would have built from a lifetime of being connected in our bodies– at every level of leadership, too, from individuals, to communities, to cultures.
Body-disconnection is no small thing, and it’s no accident.
There was a time when we convinced ourselves (this happened over centuries at a historical time-scale) that the body was evil and needed to be separated from and purged. We convinced ourselves– and anyone who didn’t agree was to be harmed until they did, or killed if they refused completely–that the material world, and our bodies in it, was a sinful illusion to be separated from, controlled and sterilized, until we could go to some kind of “better place” .
Before that time we could rely on our bodies (and our hearts, housed within those bodies), to feel with immediacy what was life-affirming, and what wasn’t. We didn’t just have “animal instincts”– we still do– we had a deep seated body-literacy that allowed us to understand and respond to the smallest signals our bodies could generate.
After that time, up to now, when our civilized way of life occupies most of the planet, we leaned on the story of bodies, and the physical world itself, being evil, as a justification to create methods that would lead us to be so powerfully cut off from our bodies’ signals, that we’d each need years; if not decades of rehabilitation to feel again, and to understand again what we’re feeling, and what our feelings tell us to do .
It’s in the midst of that numb era– up to the present, right now–that life is demanding that we act urgently to turn the tide of destruction that our ancestors set in motion thousands of years ago . And we are, rightly, struggling with it, because to act, we need our bodies. We need the empathy that is seated in our animal nervous systems. We need our bodies (acting together) to access collective power and agency. We need the body’s attunement to what’s life-giving, that should be as natural as our sense of smell telling us whether a fruit we’re about to eat is fresh or rotten. We need our bodies to tell us that we want to live, at a time when so many are on a track to passive suicide. Without our body’s resources, we only know how to choose from our thoughts. We are left cut off from what we can see, feel and experience plainly– our reality connection severed or distorted.
In the past, a high level of sophistication at the body level meant a strong attunement to our environment: noticing danger and acting to evade or confront it as needed; a strong awareness of the countless other living beings around us, meaning we’d feel relaxed and at home as our co-partners in life felt deeply known to us, rather than alien or just a backdrop to our activity. This also meant our experience of life would not be felt as a struggle but as logical and natural call-and-response between the needs of the body and the actions we took to care for those needs: if we were hungry, we knew how to interact with the world to feed ourselves; and all our physical, emotional and spiritual needs would be met in similarly life-connected ways. (sources) This is not a “fairy tale” we’ve constructed from imagining the past as a better time, but a consistent experience that the indigenous people of our planet report to this day: it’s the “human norm” which we’ve steered away from.
Last but not least, it’s through our bodies that we experience interpersonal attunement. An attuned body responds to minute signals; for instance, studies report that cultures that practice traditional child-rearing see an interesting phenomenon: as a general rule, their children don’t cry . It’s not because their crying is suppressed, but because they don’t need to get to the point of crying to have their needs responded to: all it takes is a small vocalization or gesture, and their caretakers will notice and respond. Even in our culture, we see this in attuned relationships– have you ever been so close with someone that you just know how they’re feeling/what they’re thinking based on a certain intake of breath, or the sound of their footsteps coming in the door? This, too, is what it means to be connected to (and through) our bodies: to be body-literate means we have access to our empathic attunement (to other people, to our environment, to life and to ourselves) and can respond skillfully from that space.
Remembering what to do in a fire
You’ve probably heard the term “muscle memory”– there are certain things you need to practice for, refine your (physical) skills through ongoing “doing it”. When something becomes muscle memory, that’s when we don’t need to think about what to do; we can simply access that skill when needed, because we’ve trained our body to do it without needing to plan the execution mentally. Firefighters rely on this kind of training, and in contrast, most of us are not trained to stay present and skillful in an emergency, let alone the collapse of all life.
What comes next for many of us, is a process of rehab of our bodies and their connection to the world and to each other, as an essential part of a robust approach to the pervasive Crisis/crises we’re facing. Read through the source material and exploratory links for this post below, as a way to start getting acquainted with how we, as a culture, detached ourselves from the body, why, and how to begin the process of reconnecting.
Sources and starting points for exploration
[ 1 ] This reframing first originated from a quote by Stephen Covey who wrote:
“responsibility—“response-ability”—the ability to choose your response.”
[ 2 ] From Greta Thunberg’s speech at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, January 2019.
[ 3 ] Jeremy Lent traces the development of the western split between the body and the mind in his book, The Patterning Instinct. You can also watch him explain this idea in this video.
Steve Taylor explores the broader context of our cultural split from the body and nature in his book, The Fall.
Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael Trilogy also explores the historical roots of our cultural demonization of the body and the world
[ 4 ] If you haven’t had a chance to start your rehab process, I recommend beginning with this article by Jennifer Harvey Sallin, as a way to map your next steps.
[ 5 ] The levels of destruction of life on our planet are becoming exponential, and we need to act now. If you’re not familiar with the level of collapse we’re currently facing, read this article
For many more resources to become informed and take action on behalf of life on our planet, read through the posts in my collaborative advocacy and education project, I Heart Earth
[ 6 ] Child rearing practices (and outcomes) in different cultures are a great way to understand the contrast between how western, civilized institutions and practices shape our bodies from very early on. Here are some resources to start exploring these contrasts.
Tribes know better how to raise well-adjusted children
Parenting Lessons from Tribes around the World
The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost by Jean Liedloff