Drinking more coffee in a tree
Today after lunch I cooked some coffee and climbed the oak to enjoy the coffee. It seems to be four years and one day since I first posted about drinking coffee in a tree. That post was mostly about depression and recovery. Oh well. I've often been thinking about those same themes, and for today's post I'd like to ponder the sense of bodily presence.
I don't remember exactly, it must be about 20 years ago when I read Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse. I have probably forgot most of the details and some of the grand thoughts of the book. But what I remember is the main character's sense of alienation, creeping depression, and a quest to re-find a sense of bodily presence. He is educated and philosophical, and distanced from the mainstream society which seems so petty bourgeoisie to him - he secretly slightly envies their sense of family connection, their naive faith in traditions and habits, their sense of belongingness, yet he knows he can't join that; he is a disillusioned outsider. Yet, he doesn't appear that satisfied with his alienation, and he makes friends with bohemians. They invite him to things like dancing and sex - but he feels awkward and clumsy, alien to his own body. He understands that non-reflective bodily presence and sharing would be the remedy to alienation, allowing him to feel connected and vibrating with a primordial sense of Life. So he wants to learn, but that is not easy. (Or, this is what I remember. For the English title of the book I checked wikipedia, and the article said that Hesse felt that the book was largely misunderstood. For now, I'm not going to read any interpretations nor commentaries, as this is merely my half-faded memories - not an attempt to capture the essence of what Hesse wanted to say in that book.)
Another version of that same theme seems to be presumed when people talk about ill effects of over-thinking - suggesting that one could instead just feel and let things come and go, to flow. That sounds like a simple advice, but I suspect there are different layers to this. First, there is this Steppenwolf -question; what if one just feels alienated and empty - what if analysis and rationalization are the only ways one knows? In that case it might take some learning, failures and adventures to re-discover a naive sense of direct feeling. Second, feeling is affected by experience, and experience often comes also with verbal and rational understanding. For example; when I watched Revenant I several times felt alienated by unrealism of some scenes. Out of curiosity, I read some discussion threads in internet, and found other people also complaining about the main character spending so much time submerged in ice-cold water, and then not suffering a slightest hint of hypothermia. Someone replied "don't over-think it but just allow yourself to enjoy the first-hand experience of the story!" - and others tried to explain that for them there is no enjoyable first-hand experience, as they are familiar with cold temperatures, and based on experience it is a first-hand non-reflective feeling of "No it doesn't work like that!". Same for me, I couldn't bring myself to naively enjoy the story, as I was alienated by many details violating my own sense of harsh realities of sub-freezing temperatures. (OK, I tried to be forgiving and thought that maybe this isn't a realistic survival story, but more a metaphor of man's inner journey. But in that case it would've been better to abandon the seemingly realistic historical setting, and go all phantasy.)
There is yet another, subtle layer - which has been the main issue for me. That is traumatic memories. I've often heard people telling me that I would feel better the more allow myself to be present in my body. And about as often I've heard people telling that I seem to be extremely sensitive and profoundly aware of bodily and emotional energies around. So do we have a contradiction here? Maybe, maybe not. It took me some years of studying trauma psychology until I started to better understand that what I experience is a common pattern for people who have faced severe trauma. Especially, if the trauma was prolonged. (In this context trauma generally means any life-threatening situation or anything which feels like an existential threat.) If, after the traumatic events, the trauma reaction is not thoroughly defused, it might get stuck. One doesn't fully return to normal state, but remains in after-shock. Some develop PTSD, some show symptoms like sleep disorder, heightened anxiety, anger fits etc. And that traumatic memories are partially stored in bodily experience. As a specific example; when I was a baby, a piece of apple got stuck in my throat and I was about to choke. My parents couldn't get me back to breathing, they had to call an ambulance. As I was rushed to hospital, the piece of apple turned loose and my breathing resumed. I have been told this story one or two times, and I never asked for exact details - like for how long I was out of breath. But anyhow, I'd guess this goes as a life-threatening situation. And even today, in my own non-filtered raw first-hand sense of bodily presence, I can sometimes easily slip back to a state where my breathing stops, i feel indifferent and alien to the world, there is no pain but otherworldly calm - and then my breathing resumes and I feel kind of a disappointed, having to return to this world of panic and trouble. Seen against this kind of experiences, I don't quite believe that 'naive bodily presence' would automatically mean one feeling better. The unpleasant, the disturbing, the unresolved memories might be there, lurking and waiting to be faced again, to be dealt with.
So, today I sat in the oak at my yard. I felt the warm metal mug in my hand. There was gentle wind of cool fresh air. The world was silent, I couldn't hear engines running nor planes flying - and that felt safe and peaceful. I felt the fresh air in my lungs. I felt free and independent - I mean, if I was living in a city, it would require a lot more effort to find a suitable tree to climb on without anyone getting upset. But here I was, enjoying the peace and safety of solitude. I can still recognize a certain weight of remains of trauma energy, and there still is a mild sense of mental fog hindering some areas of my cognitive functions. But I can climb trees, my body doesn't feel like too exhausted for fun things like this. And I've been re-finding the sheer joy of dancing and bouncing around. Yet I can't always recognize if I'm alienated from my bodily presence (like Steppenwolf), or if I'm deeply present only that my bodily memories are cluttered with violence and trauma. Or, if it makes a difference =) I mean, after all, what counts is my ability to cope with these things, my ability to find things which help to resolve unresolved trauma memories, and all the strange unexpected adventures which have greatly contributed towards healing this or that aspects of those old traumas.
Hehe, I was already about to finish and to post this text, but then an additional thought popped into my mind; I don't know, but to me it seems that in many religious or spiritual traditions there is this assumption that 'bodily' is somehow lowly, hedonistic and the source of egoistic sin - while 'the spirit' is noble, rational and good. And I'd guess this dualism is related to the problems of Steppenwolf - and to some contemporary problems of Western culture in general. The power of this dualism lies in the assumption that carnal flesh is essentially lowly and hedonistic, and that there is no changing that. That humanity and moral decency lies in the souls ability to control the primitive bodily instincts. Oh well. To me that seems like a path to feeling alien to ones own body (and probably also to treating other people's bodies as mere items.) I'm not sure where that presupposition of unchangeable essence comes from - as to me it seems that our bodily presence, instincts and feelings are fluid and capable of changing over the course of time. Those changes can't be forced, nor triggered by mere conscious decision. Yet there are ways to facilitate inner changes, and I've been interested in those ways since my childhood. For me, when it comes to morality or spirituality, the higher good is deeply rooted in bodily presence - after all, my individual life depends on the oxygen, warmth, light and nutrients provided by nature. Not only knowing that in the head, but feeling that in lungs and stomach and emotions, for me that is both the cure to personal depression and also the spiritual motivation to treat others with respect.