Once Upon a Time, We Were Together

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Image by Nancy Madar

Image by Nancy Madar

“Once upon a time, we were together”—words from Indian-born, Canadian poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar. “Follow the trail / To young Douglas firs, tree farmed, / close to power lines, radio towers visible, / western Hemlocks, also planted. / coastal streams built over, where coho once, pink once, chinook, / chum, salmon, steelhead— / Once upon a time, we were together.”[1] These words—like words of so many poets, novelists, artists, theologians, philosophers, prophets, healers, shamans, clergy, naturalists, farmers, elders—like so many words written, spoken, sung, imagined and dreamed throughout the modern era—express profound longing for something that has been lost. Here the poet notes lines of trees planted like power lines, in even rows upon land that is neither linear nor even. She notes how the world has built itself over ancient coastal streams where so many species of salmon once ran. But it’s not just that the trees now stand in straight lines rather than in natural groves, copses and thickets; it’s not just that streams and salmon no longer run—these losses are lamentable enough. She’s naming deeper, hidden loss—difficult to feel, and more poignant when we finally do feel it. She’s naming the lost human relationship with trees, with streams, with salmon. “Once upon a time, we were together.”

That’s the beginning of a story—“once upon a time, we were together.” It’s the human story. It’s our story. It is my prayer that this story will circle ‘round, ending where it began. And in the interest of the story ending where it began, I want to introduce you to the work of Morris Berman, specifically his 1981 book, The Reenchantment of the World. Berman describes himself as a sacred humanist. He is a historian, cultural critic, philosopher, professor, novelist, poet, pundit, blogger, the author of many books, including 2012’s Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline,[2] and a leader of the Wafers.[3] W-A-F: ‘Why America Failed.’ One who subscribes to the notion that America has failed is a Wafer. When he wrote Reenchantment Berman was—or at least seemed—hopeful that the industrialized West would undergo a revolution in culture, society, politics, economics and science necessary to avert the kinds of crises we currently face. Today he is differently hopeful. He puts his hope in what he calls New Monastic Individuals. He is not hopeful about the United Sates. He offers a searing critique of America and its people. In a recent interview he said “I’m not an optimist…. [The United States] is going … the way of the Roman empire and [will] just fall apart.”[4]

I asked him online if he could offer some reflections on the impact of Reenchantment since 1981. He wrote back to me, “My Dear Reverend,” and offered 1,000 apologies for not having time to offer such reflections. He was warm and welcoming. He hoped my flock appreciates how I’m using the book. I asked if he could give me a one-word answer—do you still stand by the book, yes or no? He said “yes, but with a lot of modification.”

The Reenchantment of the World was extraordinarily meaningful to me. It is the book I needed to read now. It woke me up to knowledge that has always been present in me, but which I struggle to keep before me. It’s the knowledge, essentially, that once upon a time, we were together. Once upon a time we human beings were together in mind and body, a seamless whole. Once upon a time, we human being were together with Nature, a seamless whole. And once upon a time, Nature and divinity were together, a seamless whole. Berman says: “The view of nature which predominated in the West down to the eve of the Scientific Revolution was that of an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers, clouds were all seen as wondrous, alive, and human beings felt at home in this environment. The cosmos, in short, was a place of belonging…. Member[s] of this cosmos [were] not … alienated observer[s] of it but … direct participant[s] in its drama. [Their] personal destiny was bound with its destiny, and this relationship gave meaning to life. This type of consciousness—participating consciousness—involves merger, or identification with one’s surroundings, and bespeaks a psychic wholeness that has long since passed from the scene.”[5]

But I didn’t just wake up to this knowledge of ancient, inherent togetherness. I woke up to the fact that we modern western people lost it. We lost this oneness of which poets, prophets and philosophers speak. We lost participating consciousness. We’re not even sure what that term means. We talk about an interdependent web, about everything coming from the same primordial, Big Bang fireball, about being star stuff, about being once cosmic family, one earth, one human family, everyone and everything related to everyone and everything else. But these are just words that live in our minds. They enable us to think about relatedness, but they don’t have the power to bring us fully, viscerally, sensually into an actual, ongoing felt experience of relatedness. Participating consciousness has that power. We lost it. And I’m convinced that in the deepest places in us we long for it because, in the deepest places in us we know: once upon a time, we were together.

In the first half of Reenchantment Berman analyzes how the architects of Modernity—the people who established modern science, technology, industry, capitalism, nation states, and corporate and governmental dominance of the environment—separated mind from body, separated humanity from Nature, separated earth from divinity. However, the early modernists never disproved the reality of participating consciousness. They didn’t need to. They rejected it and proceeded to build institutions, structures and systems that denied it. We’ve inherited those institutions, structures and systems. Understand this: The sustained, visceral human experience of oneness with Nature didn’t go away because it was proven to be wrong. It went away because it stood in the way of modern science’s need to separate body and mind. It went away because it stood in the way of capitalism’s need to dominate Nature. It went away because it stood in the way of modernist Christianity’s need to civilize the so-called heathens. It went away with a sword at its back, a gun at its head and flames lapping around its feet. 

"Head East" by James Starkey “Head East” by James Starkey (Itaziptco Lakota)

“Head East” by James Starkey “Head East” by James Starkey (Itaziptco Lakota)

A horrific example of this in more recent American history is the Indian School movement which forced Indian children—accustomed to a more earth-based, participating consciousness—to attend boarding schools where missionaries stripped them of their language, culture, religion and relationship to Nature and imposed modern consciousness on them. Berman doesn’t mention this example, but he does argue that widespread mental illness in our culture is a symptom of the loss of participating consciousness. That’s an overstatement, to be sure. Cultures with participating consciousness also have mental illness. But someone on his blog quoted writer Kent Nerburn’s claim that high rates of suicide in Canada’s First Nation communities are the ongoing result of “full-blown cultural PTSD, born of the boarding … school experiences.”[6] The loss of participating consciousness can make some people and some communities sick for generations. Berman says “for more than 99 percent of human history, the world was enchanted and [humans] saw [themselves] as an integral part of it. The complete reversal of this perception in a mere four hundred years or so has destroyed the continuity of the human experience and the integrity of the human psyche. It has very nearly wrecked the planet as well.”[7]

 400 years after the dawn of Modernity, most westerners—I include us in the category of ‘most westerners’—have been socialized into a culture that cannot and will not recognize participating consciousness. We don’t know what it is. We don’t have words for it. We don’t know what it feels like. We don’t know how we could be human differently. Berman theorizes about it, but he too is a creature of Modernity. We can romanticize about what pre-conquest Native American culture was like and how it supported participating consciousness. We can romanticize about what pre-modern European culture was like and how it supported participating consciousness. I get chills up my spine recalling that Isaac Newtown was secretly an alchemist, immersed in the older, occult world-view in which human beings permeated Nature. But we can’t really know. At best, we catch brief glimpses—in dreams and intuitions, in our inspired moments of creativity, in the endorphin rush of exercise or yoga, in those exhilarating moments of communion with Nature we describe as spiritual—but it’s always only a glimpse, always fleeting, never enough.

I’ve always said: “spiritual experiences are fleeting.” But I think that’s a lie. This is one of the ways Reenchanment has woken me up. The only reason these experiences are fleeting is because there’s no room for them in our modern consciousness. They don’t fit. They’re strange. They’re abnormal. But imagine a culture with a different philosophical foundation, a different relationship to Earth, different assumptions about what constitutes scientific knowledge and how we obtain it, different economic relationships, different corporate priorities. In such a culture such experiences might not be fleeting at all, might not come only at the margins of awareness or the edges of sleep; might actually be more … normal. Imagine that! That’s the revolution Berman was imagining: the emergence of an entirely different culture that could support and affirm participating consciousness. Our hope, he said, “lies in a reenchantment of the world.”[8]

In the second half of Reenchantment Berman offers the metaphysical basis for such a world. [9] He proposes a holistic, cybernetic theory of Mind, grounded in the research of the cultural anthropologist, Gregory Bateson. It’s a sweeping, multifaceted proposal drawing on studies of childbirth, child-rearing, learning theories, alcoholism and Alcoholics Anonymous, analogue vs. digital knowledge, Schizophrenia, tribal rituals, circuitry and coding, the principle of incompleteness…. the scope is mindboggling.[10]

One message I take from it all is that a culture that can experience a reenchanted world will be holistic. Holism is the idea that every component of a system is in relationship with every other component of that system. One cannot understand the whole by examining the parts in isolation from each other. Breaking a thing down into its constituent parts for study is called atomism, and it lives at the heart of the Modern world-view. It assumes the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. But to truly understand the whole one must examine relationships, systems, processes, energy flows. Because it includes these things, the whole is inevitably larger than the sum of its parts. In 1981 Berman saw signs of an emerging holistic culture in feminism, the environmental movement, racial self-determination movements, and in religious renewal, which I suspect referred to the increasing American interest in eastern religions, yoga, Native American spirituality and paganism.[11] He said these movements “represent the repressed ‘shadows’ of industrial civilization. The feminine, the wilderness, the child, the body, the creative mind and heart, the occult, and the peoples of nonurban, regional peripheries … that have never bought into the ethos of the industrial heartland.”[12] What unites these various movements is recovery. “Their goal,” he says, “is the recovery of our bodies, our health, our sexuality, our natural environment, our archaic traditions, our unconscious mind, our rootedness in the land, our sense of community and connectedness to one another.” [13]  

“Final Planting” by Sharon Gresk (Bicycle wheels re-purposed as a trellis for climbing vines–a symbol of recovery!)

“Final Planting” by Sharon Gresk (Bicycle wheels re-purposed as a trellis for climbing vines–a symbol of recovery!)

This sounds oddly akin to what we’re trying to do in this Unitarian Universalist congregation. Those of you taking the class on Thomas Moore’s A Religion of One’s Own, for example, are doing recovery work. We’re exploring dreams, sensuality, eros, creativity, wilderness, community; we’re exploring how to access the unconscious by paying attention to intuition, hunches, art, music and serendipitous occurrences. We’re knitting mind and body back together. But how does this recovery lead to participating consciousness, to an ongoing, intimate, felt relationship with Nature? How does this work reenchant the world?

A leap is required here, a leap out of the Modern mind. Are you ready? Ask yourself: what is the unconscious? What is your unconscious? Can you give a definition of the unconscious that adequately explains what it really is, where it resides, what it’s made of, why it seems so opaque, so difficult to visit? What blocks us from just peering into it? Is that what we’ve lost—the capacity to peer into our unconscious? No. Here’s the leap: We’ve been tricked into believing there’s a vast, numinous realm hidden in ourselves and that it’s healthy to peer into to the extent we can, because it is the source, the cause of our neuroses and worse. That’s a modern idea—that we each possess our own, discreet vast, hidden realm called the unconscious. It’s a lie. Only the tiniest, most miniscule portion of what we call the unconscious lies immediately within us. If we want to encounter it in its true breadth and depth, the direction in which to peer is not in; the direction is out, to Nature.

This is the most important message I take from Reenchantment: The physical, sensual, visceral world of Nature and what we call the human unconscious are one and the same. That’s what we’ve lost. Those intuitions, hunches, dreams and moments of communion? Those aren’t inscrutable messages from some vast, hidden realm. They are your consciousness trying to participate! They are your consciousness trying to participate in Nature in the midst of a non-holistic modern culture that cannot and does not recognize the intimacy and beauty of your relationship with Nature and has, historically, used violence to make it go away. No wonder these experiences are so fleeting. They are dangerous. Newton knew this! No wonder that modern sense of cosmic homelessness, that modern malaise, that modern existential anxiety. No wonder excessive, hyper war-making! No wonder a planet entering environmental collapse! “If we are in an ecological, systemic, permeable relationship with the ‘natural world,’” says Berman, “then we necessarily investigate ‘that world,’ when we explore what it in the ‘human unconscious,’” [14] and (my words) we necessarily investigate the ‘human unconscious’ when we explore what is in the ‘natural world.’

From a modern perspective, this sounds wrong. And I know it’s still too abstract. So, I have an assignment for you, a thought-feeling experiment. Go outside, breathe deeply, and imagine that every natural thing you encounter, every natural thing you see, taste, hear, smell, touch is your unconscious. You don’t need to accept it as true. Just imagine it is. Your unconscious: entirely knowable, not hidden at all, not opaque at all, not actually ‘un-anything.’ It’s been right in front of you your entire life. All around you. You knew it as a child. Everyone knows it as a child. I’ve been following this assignment for weeks. This grass-my unconscious-this grass. This tree-my unconscious-this tree. This night sky-my unconscious-this night sky. This cloud-me. This horse-me. Dirt-me. Stone-me. Forest-me. Us. Together.

Photo by Duffy Schade

Photo by Duffy Schade

Do the assignment. Not just once. Do it again and again, and don’t stop. See where this imagining takes you. What new/old knowledge comes? What does it explain to you that didn’t make sense before? I find it explains a lot. And in my private moments I’ve been weeping with joy. The world is enchanted.

It’s hard to stay in the world of this assignment. Our culture can’t support it and doesn’t really allow it. But I urge you to try. We’ve got to start somewhere. And remember, once upon a time, we were together. So our story began. My prayer is that our story will circle ‘round to end at its beginning.  

“Max Picking Blueberries” by Josh Pawelek (Every child knows something about participating consciousness!)

“Max Picking Blueberries” by Josh Pawelek (Every child knows something about participating consciousness!)

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Saklikar, Renée Sarojini, “Before Is Also a Place: To the Eve River.” See p. 37 of the 2016 “Poem in Your Pocket Day” website: https://www.google.com/search?q=%E2%80%9CBefore+Is+Also+a+Place%3A+To+the+Eve+River%E2%80%9D&oq=%E2%80%9CBefore+Is+Also+a+Place%3A+To+the+Eve+River%E2%80%9D&aqs=chrome..69i57.1086j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8.

[2] Berman, Morris, Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2012).

[3] Check out Morris Berman’s website, Dark Ages America, at http://morrisberman.blogspot.com/.

[4] “Resistance Radio – Morris Berman – 03.13.16” (Progressive Radio Network): http://prn.fm/resistance-radio-morris-berman-03-13-16/.

[5] Berman, Morris, The Reenchantment of the World (New York City/ Ithica: Bantam Books and Cornell University Press, 1984) p. 2.

[6] Nerburn, Kent, “An Important But Hidden Story that Needs to be Heard,” Kent Nerburn: Wandering, Wondering and Writing, April 14, 2016. See: http://kentnerburn.com/an-important-but-hidden-story-that-needs-to-be-heard/. The article on the high suicide rate among First Nations people to which he is responding is here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/11/canada-first-nation-suicide-attempts-attawapiskat.

[7] Berman, Reenchantment, pp. 9-10.

[8] Berman, Reenchantment, p. 10.

[9] Berman, Reenchantment, pp. 142-143. He wanted a metaphysics that wouldn’t return us to a naïve animism or to a hunter-gatherer existence, and one that didn’t close down the enterprise of science but instead opened up new ways of doing science.

[10] Berman followed Reenchantment with two more books—Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West in 1989 and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality in 2000.

[11] Sounds strangely (or not) akin to the spiritual interests and identities of many Unitarian Universalists. Just sayin.’

[12] The separatist Basque region of Spain is an example of such a nonurban, regional periphery.

[13] Berman, Reenchantment, pp. 281-282.

[14] Berman, Reenchantment, p. 142.