The Life of Things

October 21, 2013

Here’s my summary of The Life of Things, the book by Bernie Neville i am helping to launch here in Melbourne tonight:

Bernie Neville’s The Life of Things – book launch intro by Geoff Berry

 Life of Things cover

 Let’s attend to a few matters that those of us attracted to this book need to ask, if we are to get an understanding of its import.

1: People seek counsel/therapy and the relationship, the process, attracts attention and research and findings and conversation – rightly so.

2: The earth is being treated awfully and this has been going on for centuries, even millennia, and our relationship with it is in desperate need of wisdom.

Therefore, 3: It would be nice to think a lot of work is going into the mutual field of concern here – people who need healing and who live in a sick world.

But 4: Not so much. Which is why this book is so important. The still emerging field of ecopsychology cares about the relationship between the way we humans think and act and the way we treat the earth.

Someone needs to help this field to understand more about the associated fields of counseling and therapy and Bernie has done that here.

The way he has done this brings together a vast amount of material that might by summarized as a way to stretch Carl Rogers’s person-centred approach to counseling so that it can include our feelings about the earth, about life beyond ourselves as individuals but also beyond ourselves as a race – to include sentient animals and other life forms, even the life of things. Bernie takes his title from Wordsworth, the great Romantic poet, who seemed to have an intuition that has since been incorporated into an almost scientific study of how we as humans perceive; how we sense things intuitively and approach this knowledge, which cannot be quantified by traditional scientific methods of physically verifiable empiricism but can be known. This can be couched in terms of ‘felt sense,’ to use Eugen Gendlin’s terminology; or in the morphological field, for Sheldrake; or in a variety of other ways that Bernie takes into account. They all add up to a new and exciting possibility, which is also possibly the oldest way of knowing we still have at our disposal. This is that sense of immediate experience, understanding or awareness we have when we are at one with the flow of life; when we are ‘congruent,’ as Rogers calls it, with our spirit as well as our emotional lives, our mind and body and drives and all the phenomena that become apparent while we are in ‘session,’ or in conversation, with another, or others, without editing or defensiveness or projection of personal desires or any other active ego-attachment energies. We often sense this ‘knowingness’ in dreams, in déjà vu, in moments of altered state awareness or synchronicities that seem to appear from outside of ourselves but also from within at the same time. We know we can adapt the way we live and think and act to accommodate more of this state and I think there is a general understanding, at least amongst the helping professions, that such a way benefits both individuals in a therapeutic relationship and also the life of other creatures and the planet itself.

Bernie spends a chapter outlining the way Jean Gebser’s notion of a newly emerging consciousness could integrate both rational thought and this magical sense of knowing at the same time. Gebser saw the possibility of getting beyond ego without denying its rationalities and realities; of tapping into the archaic, magical and mythical ways of knowing that have always been available to the human mind, ever since it became a vehicle of self-aware consciousness. Jungian approaches to psychotherapy have long since appreciated such possibilities and likewise saw that they could be activated without lapsing into the ‘deficient’ qualities of such modes (such as were practiced by Hitler and the Nazis, who were expert at manipulating the emotional, tribal and irrational energies of myth in a modern context).

Now Bernie wants to see the person-centred counseling approaches that he shows so much support for expand themselves to include this realm of possibilities. This would mean new and more expansive, as well as more closely attentive, understandings of the transference/counter-transference issue that is at stake in each and every therapeutic relationship; but not just into a paradigm that shifted away from the obvious social aspect of egocentrism to the new area of concern in the ecocentric. This is important and probably the most important thing happening to consciousness right now, imho; but it is the way it happens that counts, because – as Bernie notes – it is quite possible (even likely) that when we shift our attention to the earth and the way we treat it we take with us the very baggage that created the problem in the first place. This has been said before in different words, but in this context it inspires Bernie to expand his analysis to include the process philosophy of A N Whitehead and the deep ecology of Arne Naess alongside Rogers, Jung and Gebser. Now we begin to see not the relationship between two individuals in a counseling room, but a mutual unfolding towards a greater synthesis of complexity, of beauty, of soul and of an ensouled world. This is the becoming that was always being, the always slightly unknown mysterious draw from across the horizon that guides our unfolding as embodied, evolving beings. The extent to which we ignore such possibilities is the extent to which we do not seem to be evolving – to which we are mired in a mess of our own making, as a species, or as individuals, blocked from growth as a plant out of the light, blocked by our own processes of socialization, able at any point in time to move out of this blight and regain our birthright in a world made sacred by our recognition that it goes before us and beyond us, that it gives birth to us for no reason at all, that we owe everything and should be thankful enough to take care of this rare and beautiful planet, this jewel of the cosmos.

Bernie’s care to extend Rogers, as well as those following other counseling and therapeutic paradigms by asking them to take each other more seriously into consideration, accepts postmodern relativity and subjectivity, but takes equal care to ‘re-place’ it within an ecocentric context. This process concurrently ‘re-places’ the mechanistic cosmos and the self that is alienated within it with living things in relationship with each other, with subjects of unquestionable integrity rather than objects under a utilitarian gaze. But Bernie is also alive to the dangers of this manoeuvre, as were the thinkers he considers – the process of awakening opens us to strange and unknown places. But this then inspires us to become more adaptable, less sure of ourselves, more alive to the moment. Now the therapeutic relationship involves two or more people in a transformative and co-creative process, who mutually recognize themselves as part of a universal flow towards awakening, as part of nature, who are healing this part of themselves and the world at once.

What a great way to avoid going along with the tide, disastrous but so often seemingly unstoppable, towards the death of the planet and us with it. If Jung and Gebser fought to see beyond the Iron Cage of Reason, as the great sociologist Max Weber called it, without falling for the dank prison of fascism, then all of us involved in the therapeutic arts today must make clear our commitment to the tide of healing, which goes against the dominant paradigm of consumerist avoidance, escapist spectacle and egoic surrender to the smoke and mirrors of a postmodernity dedicated to keeping us in psychospiritual prison. The re-enchantment and re-sacralisation of the world does not require an irrational return to the allure of the magic/mythic world of emotive fulfillment that is so easily co-opted by the very corporate capitalist industries that created the problem in the first place. It requires us to integrate our deep knowing, our intuition of what a better world could be when the integrity and inherent value of other creatures and life and of the living world itself. This magic/mythic world of emotive fulfillment is felt to be real at the level of gut instinct, deeper than the socially-contextualised monsters of the Id, deeper than our socialized fears of each other in tribal or inter-personal senses, deeper than the Promethean drive that convinces us we are tied to ever-increasing technological power over the earth, or even than the Gaian fantasy that we re all one. This is the world of Hermes, the world Bernie introduces as beyond the classic myths of the hero or the mother, the place where we make decisions at the crossroads, where we recognize the way we lie to ourselves sometimes, sell out at others, play the Eros card one day and Thanatos the next, the world of the Trickster where reality is never quite what it seems but always more inviting to the whole self than most of the sugar-coated or watered-down or overly managed city and garden scenarios we are told constitutes reality today. Hermes may help balance out our leanings towards either Promethean technology or Gaian unity, but he himself also tends towards his own sense of pathology, if he does not let us find a balance and settle into ourselves with comfort and ease, the security of a stable ego, the newly emergent modern mythic paradigm of the ecocentric self, with the political agency of the individual but the transpersonal adaptability to put this egoic state aside, to dwell in the flow of the cosmic connections that underpin our electromagnetic selves without compromising our ability to be in the world and of the world and for the world.

Thanks to Bernie for inviting me to reflect on this book. It is a truly wonderful volume and I hope you all read it and put its insight to good use, on behalf of the earth and all living creatures – and things.



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