The Spiritual, the Ecological, and the Pleasurable: from Cultural Aversion to Collective Embodiment

Cat McKay has created a beautiful artwork here; fusing her film making with my words to convey something of the experience of dancing contact improvisation outside. This is dance with a human other, and a more-than-human world. It’s one of my favourite things to do, and a powerful way of learning and knowing. And here below is something I wrote to introduce a contact dance workshop for non-dancers. It’s my take on the possibilities and the politics of this kind of embodiment experience. 

The Spiritual, the Ecological, and the Pleasurable: from Cultural Aversion to Collective Embodiment

Spirituality, an expanded mode of perception with particular felt qualities, has long been marginalised in science due to its unquantifiable, elusive and ephemeral nature. However, recent research in neuroscience, dance and somatics are providing narratives that ground and embody this perceptual method, helping to reframe spirituality as an important and innate biological capacity of the human animal. (Yet, I hope, don’t reduce it to only this.)

Spiritual experience, the way I understand it, is accessing the body’s knowing of its immense intelligence, its every-moment performance of interconnectivity, through breath, through the complex and harmonious interplay of trillions of cells, where each tiny little bit of us is full of awareness, capable of extraordinary responsiveness, forever listening with subtlety, curiosity, and care. 

Through embodied experience we can access knowing of the archetypal, which I define as the felt sense of ancient repeating patterns, millions of years old, like the body that is me but is greater than me, the emotion, the energy, the dance that comes through me but is older, wiser, vaster, stronger and stranger than me. This felt sense can include the process of becoming aware of the continuous touch that has, quite literally, made the body. For the body is an evolved process, made by and with the world, our cells, our senses that have reached out and recoiled over aeons. Through slow and steady practice of awareness of this, we may come to sense the evolved body is, in fact, the entire world.

We can reorganise our thinking to overcome the ‘epistemological error’ of presuming that ecological systems are not, in fact, an extension of our body. The philosophy of Deep Ecology is profoundly helpful here, furnishing narratives from science that open us to wonder, humble us with awe. I find it useful to remember how very recent is the knowledge that we are part of an infinite, expanding universe, the understanding that the elements that make up our bodies were formed within exploding stars; how we are all, literally, stardust. These are our wonder tales, stories that could connect us all. Stories like this could be a narrative of religion if we understand religion in its pure sense: a communal experience of being opened, being humbled, and feeling connected. 

Pleasure, the awareness of the joy of being a body, is part of this type of experiencing. Embracing pleasure is, I suggest, key to understanding the intelligent, creative aliveness of ecological systems – its ‘spiritual reality,’ as it were. 

Yet it’s hard to feel pleasure when one is afraid, and fear is a large part of the experience that many of us have of the public realm. Seeking to be safe among strangers is a large part of our daily negotiations. Separation is necessary and appropriate to an extent, but the degree to which it is the norm in modern culture can habituate an atomised self. 

In our culture we use drugs like alcohol to remove inhibition, to return us to the intense pleasure of being alive, being a body, and feeling connected. Touch is culturally loaded, but with care and awareness, I’m interested in how we could remove inhibition in safer, healthier ways, and model the change we want in the world by becoming more present, kind, open and generous through enhanced experience of our embodiment. And I’m curious, too, to explore how we might enhance an understanding of ecology through the process of movement, grounding knowledge of interconnection and aliveness, and giving it a ‘home’ in the cultural space of the body. 

It has been through just such a process: contemplating and cognizing my own embodied experience, that I’ve come to a richer appreciation of the nexus between the spiritual, the ecological and the pleasurable. 

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