Forest Mind

It’s warming up here now, and spring is around the corner—next week, in fact. And I get cooped up indoors during winter because (1) it’s cold and (2) everything goes to sleep. The trees stand tall but dormant, leafless, swaying only in stronger winds. I can look up at them casting silhouettes against the twilightening, television sky, and at those times, I can recall dreams and visions of similar scenes, as silence fills the moment even as someone is obviously telling me something.

But it’s warming up, and I sat outside after nightfall the other night, sitting on the stoop and looking at the pine trees in the distance sway in stronger winds, even as the oaks and pecans and other trees are still bare but starting to bud. And I had the wind—mostly a light one at first—with me. And as is my habit, I let myself zone out, letting the trees and wind and sky be my mind for a bit.

Now, I’m not exaggerating, nor am I being entirely lyrical here. I think most folks imagine their minds up “top”—in their heads or even maybe a little above, if they think about it. Or maybe that’s me. But I noticed a while back that tree canopies, because of where they were—over my head—I could extend my “mind” or consciousness and let the canopy “fill” or “be” my mind. The forest as my mind and consciousness—and to do so, I wind up “suspending” my normal ego consciousness. Like a suspended process on my computer.

“Visually,” the result can be that the normally rather facing-forward “predator”-ish vision that humans have refocuses into something else, and the vision blurs, but the shift in optic processing can lead to interesting visual ambiguity, or even polysemous (more than one meaning at once) vision. I’ve pointed here before how, after being shown a glyph or character, I meditated upon it and found myself seeing a twilight scene, a coiling mass of wyrms (serpents, what have you) in the distance with a dark-haired, pale woman foregrounded, trying to get me to see the serpents. This initial “low-resolution” vision gradually refined to where the column of serpents was also a tree, and the woman was still a woman, but one I recognized from older dreams and visions.

Blue & Green 6So, as I “zone out” staring at the trees—and I haven’t done this while high because I’m not one of the cool kids—and as I let the canopy fill my head/consciousness/mind/spirit/etc., I noticed that my vision would shift to that earlier entoptic phenomena of the blurry but polysemous state. And my consciousness was less my regular egoic self—indeed, I really rather suspect it was becoming a bit less visually oriented—and more the forest, more the wyrms and coiling reality of the world, more their movement.

I have done something like this often enough, and last night, as I was doing something similar again,  I realized something.

I was off-loading—or distributing—or extending—my consciousness into the trees.

Now, the idea of extended consciousness has been argued in various domains for some time. Mnemonics—structural and literary/storytelling memory aids—have been in use to extend human memory into linguistic formulae. A memory palace is a kind of extending our memory through other means—through conceptual extension to images or even architecture “in the mind” or otherwise. Books are a better-known memory aid, even dubbed prosthetics at times. Abacuses and calculators provide us cognitive extensions for processing mathematical operations. We will extend labor to groups and communities, and communities typically extend leadership or managerial processing to leader(s). We extend emotional and intellectual labor to others all the time.

But what I was doing was extending—or maybe off-loading—my consciousness to the trees.

Other Minds

Now, as is also my habit, I’ve had a few things in mind of late that also went into this cognitive stew.

I paused reading Weston, and I am reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religion, and it has been great thus far, even if I paid hardcover University of Chicago Press pricing. Kripal is the J. Newton Razyor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University, and his book is in part an attempt to reframe his academic writing to date—as a tenured comparative religion professor—into an accessible, introductory form. He’s done so because, as he describes it, most folks only know him by one or two of his books, and this knowledge represents a woefully incomplete impression of what his career and mission have been about. Kripal’s emphasis on consciousness emerges out his Catholic upbringing, his early professional work with Bengali Tantric thought, and his later turn to how imagination intersects with consciousness and energy and our lives. His opening page of the book immediately caught my attention:

The paranormal here is a potential story that wants to be told in and as us, a kind of writing of the real writing us…I have written this book as if…there is no other way to put it…as if I were a myth become real.[1]

This is very much my jam, and I know it’s a jam many of you have.

I’m by no means finished with the book yet, but it’s already given me plenty to think with. Kripal points to how imagination has often seemed enough to trigger potent energetic events. He recounts his own unexpected dozing Tantric experience in his room in Calcutta while doing his doctoral research, wherein he’d been immersed in research on the topic, had been reading the very allusive works of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa during the Kali Puja. Despite his efforts, Kripal was unable to reproduce the experience, but he notes how, in a way, his work since then has been an extending of “that Night” into the corpus, the body, of his work.[2]

Kripal points to a similar experience that “Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann” had when

she was studying witchcraft among white Britons as a graduate student. She had ridden on her bike to the train on the way to meet some of the magicians. On the train, she was reading a book they had suggested to her by one of their adepts. In particular, she was pondering the adept’s teachings on the ‘forces that flowed down from a higher spiritual reality into this one, through the vehicle of the trained mind.’ She struggled to understand the books’ complicated mix of Christian, Buddhist, and Jewish mystical language and ‘strained to imagine what the author thought it would be like to be that vehicle.’ As she did so, Lurhmann felt a strange power ‘rip’ through her. And it wasn’t just in her head. A bicycle light in her backpack caught fire and literally melted.[3]

Of course, this is when the more conservative or experienced practitioners will jump in and say, “That’s why you should always have a guru/teacher!”

Except when you don’t.

But, I’ve had Kripal in my mind even as I also listened to Marcus Matawhero Lloyd’s recent discussion with Gordon White at Rune Soup. Matawhero Lloyd had previously been on Rune Soup to discuss his experiences as an indigenous New Zealander who stood with Native American protestors at Standing Rock before returning to New Zealand to work at restoring an ancestral Pa site. In this restoration, he lived on the site and did his best to be patient and learned to listen to the land and his ancestors, even as his efforts drew attention from other indigenous New Zealanders. He recently found himself drawn to undertake an hikoi pilgrimage across the island, following its main river—or, more accurately, listening to ancestors and place spirits guide him across the island, mostly along the main river.

What I found most arresting about Matawhero Lloyd’s account of his experience is how, really, he’s had to learn how to hear and feel and communicate with the spirits. He spent most of his adult life, I believe, working in IT. However, his experience really falls in line with that imaginative quality that Kripal has spent a good chunk of his life exploring. Matawhero Lloyd would feel things, notice odd details in his environment that would tell him to pay attention (or to “be mindful,” as he said more than once, I believe) or to be careful, see brief flashes of particular images during entity encounters, and experience profound synchronicities. And it occurred to me that’s how I’ve been feeling my way forward from where I had been. And I had found it rather curiously effective how imagining similar experiences as Kripal described seemed to ride the edge for me of sliding into similar states. Indeed, I think I’ve unconsciously flinched and clenched to halt similar experiences often.

Extended Consciousness

Bare & BlueAs I realized I was extending my consciousness to the trees, the trees as my mind (and “crown” even “came to mind”—even as the canopy itself became an extended “crown”—however you may choose to use the term), in this reverie, I pondered walking the forest. I pondered opening myself and “zoning out” enough that I and the forest were walking together—to walk as the forest as well as myself. I pondered whether that act in some way quickens the forest. Would a similar act quicken the sky and stars?

What I’m getting at it is another way of considering the cosmogenic nature of imagination, mysticism, art, and magic—the idea that we are co-creating and even completing “Creation.” However, most of the time, we acknowledge only one-dimension of this relationship: that is humans look out, project onto the world.

But the world comes in, as well.

As Jung observes, ideas erupt from the unconscious and into particular persons—the “unleashing of emotional forces and ideas engendered by the spirit of the times,” let alone the more potent spirit of the depths, that defy most attempts at “rational reflection and still less by moral exhortation.”[4] Elsewhere, he points to the eruption of “completely new thoughts and creative ideas [that] can…present themselves from the unconscious—thoughts and ideas that have never been conscious before. They grow from the dark depths of the mind like a lotus and form a most important part of the subliminal psyche.”[5]

You see, just as I can extend my consciousness to the forest, so too can beings beyond my body extend consciousness into me. I think about Matowhero Lloyd’s experiences of beings looking into his mind and into the symbol set he’s familiar with so that they can choose a form to wear in order to provoke a reaction of intimidation and respect, especially from a being who wasn’t happy. I think also about how Matawhero Lloyd extended his navigational and conceptual consciousness to his ancestors and landscape to know where to go and what to do—or, from another perspective, how they extended their consciousness into him, so they could use him to do what they wanted to do.

I think about how, from a certain point of view, Ramakrishna and his writings and Kali and perhaps more beings extended their consciousnesses into Kripal not only on “that Night” but also through his career thus far.

It’s tempting to view the Unconscious as a nebulous idea cloud wherein ideas just sort of percolate forth into people’s heads at random. While that’s probably there, it ignores, well, magic and the world itself and everything other-than-human within it. I do not merely extend my consciousness into the trees, the wind, and the sky—I’m with them and in them and vice versa.

“The unconscious is nature,” Jung says.[6] The crux becomes what’s in nature.

Spirits, of course. Tree spirits. Spirits of place. Wandering spirits. The dead. Spirits of the air. Star spirits. Lake spirits. Bigfoots. Angels. Demons. Other people. And more.

And, yes, even ideas. Spirits of the times. Spirits of the depths.

Of course, it’s also easy to take these relationships as mostly immaterial. I remember Michael Pollan’s observations on corn:

Forty percent of the calories a Mexican eats in a day comes directly from corn…So when a Mexican says “I am maize” or “corn walking,” it is simply a statement of fact: The very substance of the Mexican’s body is to a considerable extent a manifestation of this plant.

For an American like me, growing up linked to a very different food chain, yet one that is also rooted in a field of corn, not to think of himself as a corn person suggests either a failure of imagination or a triumph of capitalism. Or perhaps a little of both.[7]

In a very real way, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, corn/maize has extended its consciousness and off-loaded its reproduction and species success to Americans. Westerners like to think that we’ve mastered corn, but corn sure seems to be doing well—probably better than most Americans are.

So, really, this extension of consciousness goes both directions, though I think humans—or Westerners, at least—wind up thinking we’re the lead, we’re the agents always. I suspect several classes of beings have seized upon this egoism on our part, have even fed it. But this extension is probably how things work.

This process also works with inspiriting statues and icons—we extend consciousness to the images, and the images also extend to the beings depicted. We extend our consciousness into nature, but probably in the West more often and more specifically into buildings—into our architecture, into halls and walls and closed doors and institutions and more.

But I wonder why I should walk only as myself when I could walk as the forest, as the city, or more—the stars a crown about my head even as the stars become my mind.

Filling Vessels

I’m reminded again of Iblis’s observation of how hollow humans are, how easy it is to fill them. And I wonder if it’s more our bodies he looked at. If I can extend my consciousness to the forest, then I am not just my body. I probably don’t inhabit my body, or fill it, as well as I should. That’s probably the primary reason for pursuing an embodied practice. But as clouds, as spirits ourselves, we fill our bodies—our spirits try to extend consciousness into our bodies, but also to more. But so do the Others.

To return to Kripal again here near the end, he points to three models for consciousness and energy. The second he points to is a Tantric fluid economy (which also puts me in the mind of humoral theory), wherein you have subtle fluids that you can manipulate through visualization and embodied practices. Kripal points to an alternative take on the second model as Freudian and cultural “sublimation” of emotional energies into subtler ends, such as through religious asceticism and meditation and so on. He also points to a resonance model, wherein one works to get normal consciousness out of the way or to realign the brain (or body, I would say) to “resonate” with particular “frequencies” or currents—and once resonant with the right current, your consciousness effectively extends (my phrasing here) into and through whatever you’ve resonated with.[8]

But, beyond energy models and frequencies and stuff like that, I also pondered a practitioner in a community drawing a magic circle on the dry earth and building a complicated pattern even as they extend consciousness into the countryside and sky and let the countryside and sky extend through them and the circle until the circle provides a way to let the magician extend themselves into it all, to inhabit it all for a time, in the hopes that they can bring the rain. Or that’s something I imagined last night.

Images: all images my own

[1] Jeffrey J. Kripal, Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 1. You can listen to Gordon White’s talk with Kripal about Secret Body and more.

[2] I suspect it was the active, ego-driven effort that got in his way, and I’ve noticed how my own successes in these regards come best when I’m just imagining and not trying.

[3] Kripal, 54-5 (emphases mine).

[4] Carl Gustav Jung, The Undiscovered Self (New York: Routledge, 2014), 25.

[5] Carl G. Jung, “Part 1: Approaching the unconscious,” in Man and His Symbols, edited by Carl G. Jung (New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1964), 38. I’ve quoted Jung twice here to avoid a certain modern Jung-derived writer.

[6] C. G. Jung, “The Tavistock Lectures,” in Collected Works, The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings, edited and translated by Gerhard Adler and R. F. C. Hull, volume 18 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 166. See also Jung’s musings on alchemy in C. G. Jung, The Collected Works, Psychology and Alchemy, edited and translated by Gerhard Adler and R. F. C. Hull, volume 12 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980).

[7] Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), 19-20 (bold emphases mine, italics are Pollan’s).

[8] Kripal, 61-3. The first model is “the ancient Platonic ‘remembrance’ model that explains how the descended or reincarnated philosopher remembers some eternal experience of Beauty and his companionship with a god” and seeks to mirror that experience through “ideally unconsummated” (and thus platonic, but often homoerotic) love and desire.

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