Allan Frater is one of the trainers at the Psychosynthesis Trust, with a particular interest in exploring the meeting place between imagination, ecology and culture. Over the past couple of years, he has been running a series of workshops that have developed a theme he calls, ‘wild imagination’. We met to hear about the forthcoming series of public events he has created for the Trust this autumn, entitled, ‘Embodied and Embedded’.
Question (Q): Maybe we could start with the theme, ‘Embodied and Embedded’?
Comments (C): Sure. Embodiment is the direct experience of our bodily felt emotions and impulses. That might be the sense of wellbeing we have after exercise, or some time spent in nature. Being present and relaxed in our own skin. Also, we would want to have this body sense during more difficult times, so that we can register and process our physical experience – otherwise it goes unconscious and we get neurotic, caught up in addictions that numb us from ourselves.
Q: Sounds like body-work?
C: Yes, that’s part of it. In the therapy world the importance of embodiment and body work has long been recognised. Our awareness needs to touch our whole being, not just our minds. It needs to go bone-deep. Language-based understanding is just not enough for lasting change.
Q: The first talk in the series is about body therapy?
C: Yep. Nick Totton did a well-received evening last autumn on ‘Wild Therapy’ and is back again this year on Friday 28th September, when his title will be: ‘We Are All Body Psychotherapists!’ He will be drawing upon the material from his most recent book, ‘Embodied Relating: The Ground of Psychotherapy’ (Karnac,2015).
Q: And what about the embedded bit?
C: Embodied goes hand in hand with embedded. It’s like you can’t have one without the other.
Embodiment awakens our sensing aliveness, through which we perceive and participate within the world around us.
However, often this connection between embodiment and embeddedness is only implied and we really want to spell it out in the series.
Q: So, through embodiment our senses awaken and we experience our embeddedness?
C: Exactly, our senses evolved over millennia to do just that, connect us to our world. Our senses were needed and used by our ancestors to forage safe foods and hunt wild animals, to read the weather and travel across difficult terrain.
Of course, these days if I’m hungry I can just step around the corner to Tesco’s. I can glide over the land on a road or fly above it with Easyjet. If I’m cold I just turn up the heating. If it’s dark I turn on a light switch. I am somewhat insulated from my environment, and this works against both my embodiment and my embeddedness.
Q: The down sides of our technological love affair?
C: Exactly. I mean every time I pick up my smartphone I feel like another little piece of my corporeality dies. It gets sucked into the machine and gives strength to my disembodied digital self. And then it’s as if I exist in two environments at once, the physical and the entirely digital on-line environment. And my attention being a finite resource becomes diluted and fragmented. My sense of being grounded in a material reality is reduced.
Q: Just from picking up a phone?
C: It’s not just a phone, it’s a digital shield. Sitting on the Underground beside someone peering into their screen. I feel cut off from them. Even though I’m not talking with them, sitting beside a phone user is a bit like talking to a person who is not looking at me. I feel kind of extinguished, rubbed out. Smartphones filter awareness, they alter our perceptions, they change who and how we are.
Q: Eh, we might be in danger of losing all the people who love their phones?
C: That’s a lot of people. I mean, even I love my phone. Well, sometimes.
But it’s not really about phones. The smartphone is just an obvious example, because it is at the leading edge of current technological and cultural change.
If I had been around three hundred years ago, I probably would have lived in a village and not travelled far. I would have got most of my news from talking to friends and neighbours, who I saw on a regular basis. Entertainment was sitting up at night around a fire, sharing stories and memories of our ancestors.
Whereas living now in London, there is just so much stimulation. I can’t take it all in. I shut down just to get by. I avoid talking to people on public transport. I know my neighbours a bit, but not well. I keep in touch with work and friends increasingly through answering e-mails, texts and Skype calls rather than physical meetings. Much of my entertainment is produced in far-away centres. A kind of homogenised, of everywhere and nowhere culture.
And if I’m stressed this shutting down gets exacerbated. It can sometimes feel like I’m passing through the world in a bit of a dream state.
I hesitate to say that disembodied is the new norm, but I do know that I have to work increasingly harder for my embodiment.
Q: But we can’t go back to those quieter times? Or can we? Might you be accused of a certain Romanticism here?
C: Maybe. Some might call me naïve, backward-looking, an eco-nut, a hippy flake, or any number of similar terms of mental disparagement. Name calling is easier than engaging in the argument.
But I mean, I am a Romantic. I’ll take that badge and wear it with pride! Not in a nostalgic or airy-fairy way. I’m good at doing the dishes and taking out the bins. It’s just that I don’t buy the techno-dream of modernity. The idea of inevitable and all-for-the-good technological progress. Or that even if we acknowledge the problems, technology will save us. Really? Not in itself, surely.
The Romantic movement emerged during the early 1800s as a reaction to the dehumanising impact of the industrial revolution. Although we think of it now as a kind of poetic sensibility, at the time it was a radical political movement, fighting against the dogmas of materialism and scientism, making a stand for the intrinsic value of the emotional, the imaginal and the natural world.
I like what Martin Shaw says, he promotes Romanticism as a ‘waking up’ and a form of ‘activism’. A waking up from the isolation and destruction woven into the fabric of our techno-world. I’m searching for a more joined-up and connected story than that.
And often we can find those more inter-woven stories and ways of being by looking back to pre-modern cultures. It’s about a historical perspective. We are living through a time of such rapid cultural change. And you need a base line for comparison, to kind of see our times more clearly, in relief. Which helps me name the lostness that gnaws at the edges of my awareness. And then do something about it. Come back to myself and my surroundings.
That’s what this series is about.
Q: One of the talks in the series sounds like it speaks to this historical perspective, is that right?
C: Yes. Paul Maiteny will be speaking on Friday 23rd November, when his title will be, ‘Trans-personal Eco-psychology: Embodying Ancient Wisdom for Ecologically Embedded Living’. Paul is a therapist who integrates ecological and transpersonal approaches. One of his publications is, ‘Longing to be Human: evolving ourselves in healing the Earth’, in ‘Vital Signs: Psychological Responses to Ecological Crisis’ (Routledge, 2012). Paul will be coming fresh from interviewing Chris Packham at the ‘Small Earth’ conference organised by Confer, 8th-11th Nov.
Q: But we’ve missed out on your talk, the one in-between Nick and Paul.
C: My talk is on Friday 12th October, ‘The Inner Child Breaks Out’.
Q: Breaks out of where?
C: Well, it’s not a heist movie, not really. I’m exploring ‘Embodied and Embedded’ via the perspective of Imagination. I’m interested in how the imaginative malleability of childhood, when we unselfconsciously talked to our Teddy Bears, very often fades away as we grow older. I think that’s such a loss. I want to get it back.
Q: Now I see, you are a Romantic!
C: Well, don’t you feel the loss of it too? I mean we grow up, we spend more time indoors than out. We get stuck behind desks; these days kids get stuck behind screens too. And our education promotes rationality over dreaming. And what happens to our feeling of being embedded in the world? It fades away. Our centre drifts to our thoughts, and we move towards living more inside our heads than in the world. And I think hand-in-hand with this is an impoverishment of imagination.
Whereas the embodied and embedded child had an imagination that took her out into the world, into a perceptual interaction with the animals, plants and trees, the disembodied adult has an imagination that has shrunk back from the senses. Where has that imagination gone? It has been stuffed within, become an ‘inner imagination’, an interiority divorced from the physical world. And the Inner Child is perhaps the most ubiquitous inhabitant of this inner world.
Let’s just say I’m only half joking when I suggest the Inner Child has a case of Nature Deficit Disorder. She is looking a bit pale. She seriously needs to get out more.
Q: How does that work? She’s just a character, right. How can she get out into the world?
C: Sure, but that’s just the kind of literal question that comes from assuming that imagination is somehow only inside us. That’s just one way of understanding imagination, a modern understanding.
In the talk I draw upon pre-modern cultures, where the enchanted perspective of childhood wasn’t just a naïve phase prior to adulthood but nourished through initiation rites that built upon rather than denied participation with the presences of the natural world.
The questions I’m exploring are: What if our childhood enchantment is a psychic inheritance, embedded in our DNA, from our hunter-gather ancestors? Might our adult estrangement from this inheritance be a root cause of our modern alienation? And how might we recover this imaginative perception in adulthood, as a route back to our ancestral sanity?
Q: Ok, wow. I’m just trying to get my head around all that.
C: Take your time.
Q: It’s like what we call the Inner Child never got locked up inside in the first place? That early way of seeing the world was once encouraged, developed upon, refined. Is that it?
C: Exactly. Whereas, if you get told often enough as a child to ‘grow up’, to ‘not be silly’, you learn to hide away the conversations with your Teddy Bear, or with your friend the mouse who lives at the bottom of the garden.
But this way of being does not die completely. It just gets shunted into more acceptable areas. We use it all the time when we read. When we scan our eyes over a text of, say, Jane Eyre, we come to hear her quiet voice, we come to see her sitting on a window seat, looking out at the rain across a Northern landscape. Images of Jane Eyre appear between us and the pages of the book. It’s such a common, taken for granted experience, that we seldom think about it as a creative act of imagination. And particularly because we assume the story is going on in our minds, in our heads, we don’t think of it as arising between us and the text. But it is no different from the way a child listens to a doll, or an indigenous person might read signs in the fissures of a rock face or hear a talking stone.
Q: So that’s three talks all together. And you are running a day event?
C: Yep, it’s called ‘Wild Land Dreaming’, on Saturday 1st December.
Q: What’s that about then?
C: It’s similar to the themes I’m exploring in the ‘Inner Child Breaks Out’ talk. I call it ‘wild imagination’ – releasing images from the interiority of our ‘inner imagination’ so that we come to see their activity in our everyday lives. And in this event, we will be looking in particular at the role of imagination in our relationship to the patch of earth where we live.
Q: Hence, ‘Wild Land Dreaming’?
C: Exactly. The title takes inspiration from the aboriginal tradition in which Dreaming or Dreamtime is not a product of human dreams, but of the earth itself. To the aborigine’s, the land is a wild and autonomous presence with many voices.
We moderns might find this exotic and strange, and yet not long ago all cultures emphasised the land, animals and plants as a source of story and song, identity and belonging. Not just Australian aborigines but here in Britain too, for example in our Celtic folktales and myths. This was before the tales were written down, which changed the stories and changed the culture too. Books allowed for reading in distant locations, and so the stories no longer directed people to their surroundings. The contours of the land where the reader was no longer matched those described in the stories. And in this way the local cultures slowly died.
The loss of such local connections in our increasingly digital and disembodied world is arguably robbing our senses of their integrity, our minds of their coherence and creating an ever more disconnected and ill at ease people and society.
Q: Can you say more about that?
C: Sure. Maybe I could share another inspiration for this event?
Q: Sounds good.
C: OK. I’ve been getting a lot of good nourishment and wisdom recently from reading an anthology of Wendell Berry, ‘The World-Ending Fire’ (Penguin, 2018). Berry is a writer, who as a young man in the sixties living in New York decided to return to Kentucky, the place of his childhood, and take up farming. Berry has spent a lifetime reflecting on and writing about how his life has been informed by really getting to know this piece of land, and the connection he has to his ancestors through this land, which he still farms in the old ways, with horses.
One line, a typical line, goes like this, “However small a landmark the old bucket is, it is not trivial. It is one of the signs by which I know my country and myself.”
Q: It make me wonder what the landmarks are in my life? It sort of intuitively appeals to me but at the same time I’m drawing a blank. I can’t think of any landmarks.
C: Give it time. If you stay open they will reveal themselves.
Q: Even in the city?
C: Even in the city. Why not? On the day event we will be exploring the urban environment around London Bridge, tuning-in to the presences in the local streets, squares and parks.
I don’t think we need to do a ‘back to the country’ thing like Wendell Berry did, or like Thoreau did. That would be Romantic! But not everyone can or wants to do this. I certainly don’t. And yet living in the city, I feel an affinity to Berry’s project, at the heart of which is the importance of attending to where we are, really living in a place, getting to know it. An embodied sense of belonging.
What intrigues me is how this might lead to the re-creation of our lost local culture. The rediscovery of a deeper imaginative engagement in our lives. A telling of stories that connect us to the land where we live and yes, to the Underground and the 91 bus. That’s the kind of Wild Land Dreaming I’m interested in.
Q: But if living in a city is so overwhelming and alienating, perhaps we are shutting down for a reason?
C: That is a great question. And I think a scary one. Because yes, there is a truth in that. As the alchemists would say, ‘as within, so without’. Our personal experience within, reflects the collective experience around us. We are a product of our culture. It gets internalised.
Wilhelm Reich, the pioneer body therapist, wrote about a ‘body armour’ that both represses our personal spontaneity and vitality, and also as the name suggests, protects us from the threats of a hostile environment. It works both ways.
The question is, what do we do about it?
I don’t want to collude with the madness. I don’t want to help people adjust to a sick society. To armour up further. I mean, I don’t think that works anyway, at least not for very long.
My first and immediate response therefore is to help people face into the situation. I think this is what therapists will be doing increasingly. A shift of emphasis from personal-biographical to cultural-environmental. The world is unravelling, going through a lot of disruption and uncertainty. People will be needing more and more help to deal with that. Therapy can help us acknowledge and work with our responses, rather than collude or pretend the wider context does not exist.
Longer term, what I think we are looking at is some kind of cultural change. I mean, for the better! The old story of separation, of living in a dead world that we can plunder with impunity, that story is in its death throes. That is a crisis and also an opportunity. Something new can come in.