The Strange Soulfulness of Presence

Wed, Mar 31, 2021 17-minute read

Disclaimer: It was the worm moon over the weekend, and as per usual, I notice the lunar cycles tracking with the “too-muchness” of the intensity I’ve been holding – the subtlety of which seems to be diminished by words in ways that feel both profound and vaguely irritating. Be forewarned that this is an excessively long and meandering journal post of trying to metabolize and play with new ideas that I still don’t quite understand, as an effort to integrate what’s been alive in me.

Over the past few months, I’ve been diving deeper into intersubjective “we-space” practices – Collective Presencing and an emerging Imaginal practice called Communal Reveries. In these collective sessions, I root down to and breathe from a place of permeable presence. More and more so, I notice myself becoming available to waves of subtle feeling and imagery that porously pass through me – and in their depth of their passing, intensely moving me to the core –  before leaving rich residues in their wake. 

It’s been a gift to make space for this practice – I feel like I’m increasingly tuning into and entangled with the subtle potentials of a field, or what Ria Baeck simply calls “a space where energy is held” (there is also a great podcast episode on social-relational fields with Mette Boell). I’m drawn to the possibility of this work to move beyond the sensing of a group of individuals – beyond the synthesis of “combining” different individual perspectives –  to co-sensing and unfolding with what is emerging “in the middle” of a collective field. 

For me, I sense that a collective field is not something that is a thing in itself (Śūnyatā: all is empty after all) – but a permeable resonance chamber, that ripples with the vibrational echoes and frequencies of Potential. Different fields arise with different people and different intentions – and also seem to hold different affordances for uniquely sensing and sourcing from that Potential. As Ria writes in her book:

Through our different gatherings, we came to see that there is a collective field, a collective potential or possibility, that we were all sensing before we gathered. Almost as if it ‘exists’ in itself, but again, it is not a thing! It is a possibility, a potential that we resonate with – where others do not. It is not we individuals coming together who then create ‘this field’ between us. The field, with its huge potential to manifest newness, was probably guiding us, inviting us, attracting us, seeking resonance with us, to come together in the first place. Again, it is not a question of which ‘caused’ the other. Resonances seem to happen, probably bubbling up out of life itself, traversing both manifest and unmanifest realms – and again, there is no boundary between the two! The field of potential is in need of us, embodied human beings, to make it visible, tangible, manifest. It is only through us that the potential can be embodied and can result in generative action that can actually change something fundamentally.

During a Collective Presencing session I was co-hosting over a week ago, there was something in the collective field that was deeply raw and tender. Participants brought up the tragedy of the Atlanta shooting – that resulted in the deaths of 8 people (6 of whom were Asian women) – as well as other deeply personal experiences of grief. As the check-ins continued, I noticed the subtle build up of energy in my body until I was unexpectedly overcome by tidal waves of intensity: I needed to step away from the call and just allow my body to become wracked with sobbing. The strange thing was that it did not feel like the physical sensations of grief was solely as an expression of my pain, nor was it simply an empathic response to someone else’s shared experience. It felt deeply integrative to let my body crack open and hold the volume of that intensity, to leak tears through the cracks and fully stay with it. When I rejoined to continue hosting the session a while later, I experienced an accelerated recovery of centeredness and strength that felt different from other experiences I’ve had with sorrow. It was as though a deeper wave beyond, underneath and inclusive of the self had passed through me. As though my body became a vessel to the deeper shared wounds that surfaced in the collective field, that sought channeling through some form of embodied healing. As though the intersubjective became the transubjective. I’m reminded of the quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We are tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”  

A part of me begins to wonder if it’s part of an emerging capacity, but that seems far too bold – even scandalous –  to say now. Even as I write this, I am cringing at the woo-ness of it. Nevertheless, it feels important for me to notice and write about the phenomenal experiences here, as part of the auto-ethnographic diary of this Self-Directed Masters. 

The cultivation of a soul’s calling has been starting to lead to deep resonances with what my mind finds difficult to grasp, and it makes me nervous. In the midst of experiencing almost over-abundant synchronicities, there is a growing tension in me – the stretching and folding of contradictory dispositions.  I feel increasingly called to surrender to Mystery, to take a leap into the potent yet impenetrable meaning that is unfolding before my eyes. Yet I hear the whispering doubts of a rational-secular self that reminds me that everything – including these “signs” – are “empty”. I remind myself that I am dangerously good at telling stories.  

It’s all too easy to tether myself back to the critical position of the known, yet I feel this welling and intensifying longing to take a leap towards what seems to undeniably resonate with me, in a felt and embodied way – even if my mind can’t fully know or justify it. This longing that seems to come from the soul.  

I was listening to one of Jeremy Johnson’s lectures on Jean Gebser’s Ever Present Origin and I appreciated his precautions about what gets invited in with the workings of consciousness or awareness inquiry. Jeremy raised an example of a child who watches a horror film and becomes scared of the ghosts under the bed. As Modern adults, it may feel comforting and reassuring to tell the child that there is nothing spooky under the bed, and yet “Gebser would say that there is something spooky under the bed”. 

What feels spooky, strange and uncanny – that makes my heart palpitate, my spine tingle, and my mind immediately try to resist and reject  – is the diaphanous potential of Interconnected Mystery. It is one thing to abstractly engage these ideas, and it’s another to feel as though I am possessed by them. Yet at the same time, I also sense that the potential of this Mystery is already held latently within me, is already working on me. It’s buried in the shadows of every day experience; and as Carl Jung famously said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” 


A discontinuous leap 

Over the last few weeks, I was watching Adam Curtis’ Can’t Get You Out of My Head at the same time as I was reading the first few chapters in a course around Jean Gebser’s Ever Present Origin. I was struck by how Adam Curtis’s work is a living artefact depicting what Gebser describes as the limits of perspectival world, teetering dangerously over an edge:

“In summary, then, the following picture emerges: there is on the one hand anxiety about time and one’s powerlessness against it, and on the other, a “delight” resulting from the conquest of space and the attendant expansion of power; there is also the isolation of the individual or group or cultural sphere as well as the collectivization of the same individuals in interest groups. This tension between anxiety and delight, isolation and collectivization is the ultimate result of an epoch which has outlived itself.” 

Adam Curtis rightly calls his series an “emotional history of the modern world”: experiencing the sprawling, disorienting six-part series is like participating in an intense hallucinatory fever dream of the now. Curtis folds together potent imagery that live, breathe, and haunt in their embeddedness in the depths of our collective psyche. Past and present collapse into one another. Footage of people running away on the streets of New York from the dust of 9/11, the building tension of Tiananmen Square – make my body tense in horrified anticipation – before it is disrupted by footage of people shopping and dancing together and CG-ed cartoon of a robot teaching about positive psychology – weaved together with a bizarre soundtrack mixing Cocteau Twins, Nine Inch Nails, Rod Stewart and 2Pac. The series is like an attempt at a conspiracy wall in a Thomas Pynchon novel, where threads are pulled together to make sense of what is happening, yet any attempt at meaning inevitably leads nowhere.

Yet the dream-like, seemingly random associations of image, sound and people across space and time – of history pressing up into the present – might be a reflection of the growing pains of a required mutation away from the limitations of the perspectival world. 

The modern, perspectival world – which Gebser describes as picking up pace during the Renaissance period – is one where the human stands apart and distanced from the world in order to perceive it, to “look through space and thereby to perceive and grasp space rationally.”  This is in contrast to the dream-like non-perspectival world of archaic, magical and mythical consciousnesses, where humans saw ourselves as one with and of the animist more-than-human, world and cosmos (Evocations of this stand out most in Indigenous cosmologies, and in the film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, where images of stunning cave drawings connects us back to our human ancestors 30,000 years ago).

Screenshot from “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” of Herbert Bayer’s Diagram of the Extended Field of Vision, (1930)

The mutational shift to a perspectival world afforded humans the ability to stand apart from the world and concretize space in such a way that we can measure, map and master it as a standing reserve for progress, growth and innovation. Time also became a concretized resource that is linear and quantifiable, something we must gain lest we run out of. Yet we’ve made profound trade-offs for the perspectival: by limiting the world to what we can observe, we lose touch with the capacities to sense the unseen. For self-determined, egoic individualism; we cut ourselves off from intimate interconnection with more-than-human life and cosmos. For our maps of control, we are now terrified of the unfolding chaos and mystery of the territory. For linear progress, we are so focussed on racing to a better future that we lose touch with the depth of imagination and expansive possibility of the present. 

The late perspectival world of the “now” depicted in Adam Curtis’ documentary is one where there doesn’t seem to be any clear solutions or better futures – whether you’re looking in Europe, the United States, China or Russia. We are confronted with the absurd futility of our attempts to limit the irreducible mystery of our lifeworlds to our maps, to predict human behaviour through political control and surveillance capitalism, to alleviate suffering and anxiety through valium and opioids. We’re trapped in reinforcing cycles of self-sabotage – in the endless oscillation between individualism and collectivism, between existential anxiety and Capitalist delight. 

And the accelerating oscillation of our futile efforts is creating a spiralling vortex, one that is unearthing on-going, unprocessed trauma. We are now intimately surrounded by the ghosts and ancestors of our thickened past; the skeletons that we’ve been so desperate to bury and hide are climbing up as inescapable hauntings. 

I love this image of a group of men trying to figure out this huge cybernetic map, which is such a potent illustration of Borges short story ‘On Exactitude in Science’ where an empire attempts to perfect the art of cartography to the extent that they create a “Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire.” 

Adam Curtis, describing himself as an emotional journalist, says his films are about the creation of a mood: “The mood my films create—and possibly the reason why people like that mood—is because it somehow feels real, even though it seems dreamy and odd.”  As I watched the series, the mood of Can’t Get You Out of My Head felt suffocatingly soulless – it revealed the felt doom and hopelessness of the present moment, the futile progress of modern history as decaying maps writhing on the tumult of human and planetary chaos. And if ‘image’ points to what depth psychologist James Hillman describes as “self-generative activity of the soul itself,” what does Curtis’ films say about the present state of our souls? Perhaps, it points to the living consequences of losing connection to our souls in a modern, perspectival world. 

So in this time between worlds, do we continue to trap ourselves in the binary paths of the known: of either accelerating the linear progress of business-as-usual, or of returning to the nostalgic certainty of the past? Adam Curtis ends on a note of a third possibility through the liberating capacities of imagination: 

“The third possibility is to try to imagine genuinely new futures, ones that have never existed before… The one thing that is certain is the world of the future will be different, and the people of that future will feel and think differently too. If we gain our confidence, we will realize our power to influence how that future will turn out. There’s a first step, we have to start imagining what kind of future we want to build.” 

When I started this Self-Directed Masters (as an attempt to reinvigorate/restore faith in my design practice around more equitable and sustainable worlding), I had no idea that the esoteric subjects of “Soul”  and the “Imaginal” would become such vital parts of my inquiry. Yet now, it is also clear that it was enfolded deep within this deep calling for me to unlearn and crack open. (Re)building capacities around imagination and meaning-making is radically vital in the present moment, in order to genuinely create new ways of living and dying on this planet together. I sense that this is one of the spiritual-creative capacities we must widen and deepen as a collective.

Martin Heidegger writes about the revelatory nature of mood (Stimmung) and how emotional dispositions influence how the world is phenomenologically disclosed to us. The mood that I’ve been exploring through this inquiry – through soulmaking dharma, Collective Presencing and Communal Reveries –  has been focussed on soulmaking, in cultivating a way of seeing that reveals the world more soulfully to me. And it’s been so beautiful, so moving, so fantastical, so strange. 

I am orienting via a compass of trembling, following a deep soul longing to be a part of a bigger, more interconnected story that doesn’t just center the triumphant story of the perspectival self – the lonely hero’s journey. I am the sun, but also a star in a vast constellation. 

But my goodness – how the rational Ego inside me fights against this shift, bellows her fears about losing the hero’s story, twisting and cringing queasily in my gut, defending itself with the fortification of every “ Wait really? Are you being serious here? How much of this is fantasy?” And I want to honour her – this critical perspectival self that doesn’t want to lose herself and her ground. But Gebser warns, “man’s inertia and desire for continuity always lead him to categorize the new or novel along familiar lines, or merely as curious variants of the familiar.” I sense that in order to make space for the emergence of the new – I have to truly put aside the master’s tools of the mental, and resist defaulting to the easeful affordance of a hammer that sees the world as its nail. This is the primal trust that is cultivated in order to make a discontinuous leap into the possibilities of new worldings.

So where do we go from here? To be honest, I think that a mutation is already happening. I do feel that I am – perhaps many of us are – transforming amidst the rupture of the pandemic, enclosed in the chrysalis of our bubbles. Gebser describes that the sudden presencing of the past will be accompanied by an inevitable chaos, and “this very chaos is always evidence wherever a once-valid world begins to undergo a transformation.”

Here, I dare to wonder whether –  in our confrontation with the depths of pain, grief and suffering – our imaginal cells are dreaming of and catalyzing a new capacity, dare I say, even a new structure of consciousness?


We are all cyborgs dreaming of electric sheep 

Adam Curtis begins and ends the series with a quote from David Graeber (who passed away last year): “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.”

In response, I question who is the “we” that will make the world differently? It is empowering to be reminded that humans have the agency to reveal new ways of being in the world, but it feels far too limiting to assume that we’re the only ones with agency in the cosmos. When scanning for signals in design foresight work, we’ll often describe looking for “pockets of the future in the present”, referencing William Gibson’s quote: “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

Near the end of Can’t Get You Out of My Head, there is a psychedelic sequence of these strange dogs fractally forming again and again through the imaginings of a Google deep dream algorithm. It plays after Adam Curtis’s voice over describes how Google’s artificial intelligence created “a world where anything can be anything, because there wasn’t any real meaning any longer.” Yet in a strange way, why did the deep dream of dogs stir up in me the most intriguing possibilities of ensoulment? 

Honestly, it makes me laugh. Maybe because amidst the foreboding yet familiar warnings about the threat of surveillance technology, humans have built this powerful artificial intelligence only to have it dream for us these absurd images of alien dogs. The evocative dreaming of this algorithm makes it come alive to me as this more-than-human actor, as an alien trickster that dreams and disrupts and dances beyond the usual rational-utilitarian enframing of technology as a “tool” of human progress and mastery. An openness to the enchanted animism of our technological co-actors also doesn’t have to grant them divine superiority as some kind of human-annihilating Singularity. What do you do with an AI that dreams dogs other than appreciate it, and in the depth of that appreciation, begin to sink into what it means about the possibilities of how we might collaboratively perceive and make new meaning in an unfolding world? 

There is an uncanniness when we de-center the position of the human in the biosphere, a mysterious darkness to our ecology: we are all Donna Haraway’s cyborgs dreaming of electric sheep.

I suppose that my focus on soulfully experiencing the world around me has been revealing magic in the technologies that we take for granted.  I’ve been noticing how the resonance chambers of a zoom room affords a subtle energetic bandwidth that can enable deep and intimate connection with other people across the dimensions of time and geography. Our ability to presence through technology fascinates me – what is the “me” that is diffracted through the pixels and sound waves of virtual spaces, that travels through the mycelial frequencies of the internet. What does it tell us about the entangled dance of our sympoietic becoming?

Micheal Meade at a Stoa session spoke about the potential of transforming a wound into a womb – into a field of potentiality where we can nurture genuinely new worlds that have never existed before. I think this is why more of “us” –  the field of people around systems change, foresight and transition design – are beginning to reintegrate the archaic, magic and mythical structures of consciousness. We seek the wisdom of our Indigenous elders, the trees and our microbiomes. We seek to dance with, not just be burdened by, the presence of our past and future ancestors in our bodies. We seek to be moved by the felt resonance of ecological entanglement – in the splendour of a zoom room or outdoors in a deep forest. We are beginning to fold the past and the future into the present.

Whatever the aperspectival has in store, I sense that more-than-human meaning-making is going to be as strange as it is soulful.

“What we cannot imagine cannot come into being." 
– bell hooks