Love What You Love

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.” 

— Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”: 

[ Originally written in February 2022 ]

I pick up the piece.

What moves me to write here? I arrive at this blank page with a blinking cursor, body still trembling from a Collective Presencing session.

One thing feels true, this begins as a Love letter – a love letter to this strange practice that has permeated through my “self” or whatever this thin boundary is drawn around the elusive notion of selfhood. But what does it mean to love? This mysterious four-letter word that means nothing and everything at the same time.

A part of me rolls her eyes at it – the Cheryl who doesn’t want to sound like a naive romantic. She arrives at Collective Presencing equipped with a sense of purpose – she wants to develop skills around collective sense-making and creativity in the midst of what some call the “metacrisis” (but she prefers “the liminal chasm between worlds”) –  the overlap of the ecological, social and cultural collapse that we’re facing. 

She arrives at Collective Presencing with a desire for foresight. She doesn’t want to get stuck in the mistakes of the past. She wants to leap ahead into the future.

She arrives with a need for rigour. She wants to ensure that the qualities of this emerging practice are robust and informed. She doesn’t want to seem to come across too “woo,” or methodologically and metaphysically unsound.

But in the spiralling field of unknowing… questions arise around the very attractors that bring me here. 

What happens to purpose when the practice begins to diffract the very notions of individual agency and autonomy? (I begin to ask: whose purpose am I serving? Are we serving? )

What happens to foresight, when one’s sense of time becomes phenomenally non-linear? When the depths of the present are so much thicker, more entangled and mysterious than the projected horizons out ahead. 

What happens to rigour when the very structures of rational-empirical sense-making in Modernity, are founded on what Whitehead calls the bifurcation of reality – where the world of our perceived awareness is separate from “the world outside”? What happens when the sensing capacities of the body seem wiser and more robust than the mapping mind alone? 

I attended Collective Presencing for the first time in October 2020, stumbling upon it through the Stoa after I left Bonnitta Roy’s The Hollow series, vibrating with what I would later call “intensity” (and then even later, linking it to philosopher Jean Gebser’s notion of intensification of asperspectival consciousness). I would also later identify my experience of the online lecture series as subtly psychoactive – not dissimilar to a mushroom trip. I sense that what I had been exposed to was beginning to subtly unravel and re-weave the underlying foundations – the metaphysics –  of how I understand time, change and causality. All this was happening deeply, in unseen territories beneath the surface of conscious awareness, but I could feel it in my body. 

Yet I digress. I attended Collective Presencing for the first time with no idea about what I was stepping into or why (I would later describe that I felt “called” or “strangely attracted”). I remember the group of about twenty people checking in, and then we were asked to “speak to and through the centre”. I will not be able to tell you about the content of what happened, or exactly what we spoke of – but I knew I was extremely nervous, and I knew I had to go back. Something about it felt like the exact medicine I needed to hold and metabolise the intensity that  gripped my body.

I wrote about the first six weeks of my experience here, with out-of-character vulnerability and fawning enthusiasm that I would later attribute to someone falling in love. (I both smile and cringe when I re-read the puppy-love innocence of my first love letter, just like I will inevitably cringe at writing this second one here). 

I’ve been attending Collective Presencing consistently ever since, first simply learning how to speak to the centre. 

And the truth is, there is also something weird and spooky about embracing the sensation of being moved or spoken through. What was previously solid becomes more diaphanous and ghostly, separation between self and the other is more porous. 

And when I am in Collective Presencing, I begin to notice that just as the “self” is fluid, the territory of “what we know”, or “reality” is always shifting, changing –  it feels alive. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m being haunted, possessed by the unseen subtleties in the dark forest. Yet, as I stretch in my capacity to become more porous and receptive to the people and environment around me, I feel more – more intensity, more joy, more grief. And I also feel over-sensitive and irritated. 

Might I begin with a bastardization of Karl Marx: A spectre is haunting the planet —the spectre of Collective Presencing, and it whispers “wooooo!”. 

Pun aside. The haunted one is also wiser than she admits. Amidst the fears of “woo”,  something primordial and ever-present within her knows that there is more than meets the eye. There is something delicious in the mystery here. There is also something more true and more rigorous in her phenomenological experience, in the animist arts of showing up and noticing.  

But then I realize that there are no obvious maps. There is a book, but it tells me: you’re going to have to navigate the territory through your own direct experience – through practice, touch and felt sense, through scents and textures. Because what is more true than what is phenomenologically felt? 

What does it feel like to be part of a pattern that is emerging? 

I’ve relaxed that part of me that can’t tear her eyes away from the maps like purpose, foresight and rigour, that clings with clenched fists to “proof”: Prove to me that it’s real! Show me that it’s true! Tell me that it will save the world. 

It’s funny – you try to look for the perfect partner, lover, job with a list of check-list attributes that you want to see: “they must be this tall and this pretty and this smart”. 

And when you encounter your Beloved, you can’t help but “fall” in love. The earth pulls you down to your knees. Your animal body recognizes what it loves. 

“Reality” is so much more magical than anything you can imagine or make sense of. You are awed by the mystery of love. 

And the checklist is blown away by the wind. 

The Field

What is this field that we discover and create as we hold space of Collective Presencing through the vibrational frequencies of a video call? Let’s zoom in to this strange digital room that we all pop into… and zoom out to this global technology platform that skyrocketed in value when the pandemic locked the soft animal of our bodies behind the physical walls of our homes. 

In the apocalypse (but let us remember that apokálypsis means “disclosure or revelation”), our apartments and homes became prisons and cocoons.  We were afraid that the coronavirus might contaminate our bodies. Little did we know that we were already being contaminated by something else… an unfathomably deep longing for connection, for contact, for intimacy, for a world that might be different. A longing and a calling that begins a subtle mutation that is electrifying.

So people living all over the planet, across generations, space, time and geography, stumble across the dark forest of the internet and meet to connect. We show up with our faces in a grid of small boxes, filling the larger box of our computer screen. We check in with our unique voices and particularities, and place the piece in the centre. And just like that, our bodies sink into something deeper, a wider resonance field of energetic frequencies. We spill out of our boxes into a teaming ocean of love. 

Love seems to be that which is both empty and full. The container and everything contained.

Collective Presencing has invited me into feeling the collective field – suddenly, it is no longer a theoretical concept. I’ve heard about quantum fields, social fields, resonance fields, morphogenic fields. But somehow, the lived experience feels completely different from the abstracted descriptions. When the searching mind becomes still, and the ego quiets in the weave of collective attention, my awareness waterfalls into a deeper, more expansive ocean of frequencies. I inexplicably experience the field as a delicate fabric that I can touch and sense, shimmering in my awareness. Like running my hands through rippling waves of luminous light, or the gossamer threads of spider’s webs… 

As I listen to the words of others, my awareness is not simply focussed on the weave of semantic meanings and linguistic stories, but on the waves of felt frequencies that flow beneath. These frequencies resonate with the unseen strings in my own body, they pluck and vibrate at the instrument of my heart, and my soul responds to the call. My heart beats faster,  the whole body becomes warm, pliable, and radically sensitive. 

Often, this is when I am moved to pick up the piece. And  I let the centre radically speak through. 

I have nothing to prove. I can only share with you what the soft animal of my body knows.

The Body 

Thich Nhat Hanh writes about interbeing, the Buddhists have long talked about co-dependent arising. First Nations people around the world live by indigenous cosmologies of sacred interconnection. Quantum scientists like David Bohm describe the interconnected Whole. The truth is simple: we are all connected. But what does it mean to actually feel this living sensation? 

David B said in the session last week: there are energies in the earth that are too much for one body to hold. 

When he says this, I remember the morning I learned about the mass graves of over 750 Indigenous children that were buried in Canada. When I read an article about it, it was too much. I felt numb and disconnected. Before going into Collective Presencing that day, I could feel the pressure and tension heavy in my body. But upon arrival,  something in my body felt held by the “container”, this collective body made up of our attention and bodies. And when it felt held, “I” collapsed into tears and sobbing, touching into the indescribable pain and despair that I had forced down below, now rising, swelling and passing through my body like massive tidal waves. It was painful and difficult, and it was healing and releasing. I needed to connect with the grief and suffering of these children, to sense into the intergenerational pain of the adults who put them underground, to touch the cold cement of the unfeeling institutions, systems and cultures that alienate us from each other and the planet. 

The weight of Collective Trauma is “too much for one body to hold.” Yet I wasn’t alone. I don’t cry often, I’ve spent my entire life trying to “hold it together”. But sometimes, you’re holding it together behind a tough exterior, and then you see the trusted, loving face of your partner or your mother, and something cracks through. Your animal body knows, and it gloriously falls apart. You allow yourself to be held in the safe arms of your beloved.  

The landscape of my body is unique to me, lined and storied with my ancestral traumas and living experiences. And yet deeper currents run beneath… a hidden order entangling us at greater depths.

The more I practice and stretch my body to hold these waves of intensity, the more the thick walls of separation begin to dissolve. Skin becomes translucent and porous. As I leak more into the world, the world trickles and spills into me, flowing through the rivers and tributaries of the body. The territory of Self becomes a dynamic meeting place of fluid circulation and reciprocity. Paradoxically, the more tender I become, the more resilient. I cry more. I laugh more. I trust more. I care more. I love more. And when I do so, I feel like I’m doing so through and for something larger than just “me”. 

After 15 months of this dedicated practice, I know I am not alone in the field. We always co-host together, hold each other as a collective body of practitioners. We tune into Eric with his dancing light, into Nick for creative daring, Tanya and her senseful embodiment, David for warm steadiness, Ria with firm and loving wisdom, Brandon for wild imagination, Kim for fiery passion, Helen with fierce discernment, Justin as innocent sage…  and there are countless others unnamed, each with their unique frequencies and beautiful soul gifts that are generously, openly shared with the field. Our souls swirl together into the centre like a colourful kaleidoscope, creating this mandala spiralling towards a collective capacity and strength beyond our current imagination. 

Again, I have nothing to prove here.

I only want to share what the soft animal of my body feels. 

The Mutation 

One more thing as a sobering note of forewarning: love changes you. 

If you are clinging or attached to some older version of yourself, to the safety and security of a known role, shape, or identity, this might not (yet) be the practice for you. But if you feel called to become, to allow yourself to be contaminated, to change, to mutate into something that you may not know or understand and are afraid of, but you nonetheless feel this deep, unfathomable longing towards. I ask you to be brave, and consider coming to the edge. 

Sometimes when I step towards the edges of the frequency field, I feel as though I’m on the brink of flying. My heart is pounding and feels too big and too wild to be contained, threatening to burst through my chest. It feels like invisible wings are breaking through the skin of my back — through the vibrating intensities and rich subtleties of my longing. 

The other day, Tanya shared lyrics to the middle: “I want to be beautiful, so that I can serve eternity.”

And just like that, lightning strikes and everything holding my body together shatters into particles. Tears flood down my face. Everything that feels ugly in me is offered to the centre, and I am held in inextricable, luminous wholeness. My body shakes, and I cry softly. I am witnessed and held by the other two women in the field. 

In the aftermath of these experiences that can only be described as numinous, I feel at peace and full of wonder, like I’ve been touched by grace. It is not unlike the experience of architect Christopher Alexander after he climbs up the stairs of the Buddhist temple and is visited by a dragonfly. 

As I sat there, a blue dragonfly came and landed on the step beside me. It stayed. And as it stayed I was filled with the most extraordinary sensation. I was suddenly certain that the people who had built that place had done all this deliberately. I felt certain – no matter how peculiar or unlikely it sounds today, as I am telling it again – that they had made that place, knowing that the blue dragonfly would come and sit by me. However it sounds now, at the time when it happened, while I sat down on that stair, there was no doubt in my mind at all that there was a level of skill in the people who had made this place that I had never experienced before. I remember shivering as I became aware of my own ignorance. I felt the existence of a level of skill and knowledge beyond anything I had ever come across before.”

How did this come to happen? What are the conditions, the design patterns, the architectural affordances of Collective Presencing that come together to form this timeless moment, as though it was by deliberate design?  

What Collective Presencing invites are these moments of meeting your dragonfly, of making contact with the beloved.  I’m always surprised in every session. These aren’t just ideas, they are living and embodied. My animal body yearns to connect more, to make more contact, to create more life. I don’t know what will happen. I tremble. My heart beats. I speak, and what comes through is more mysterious, more whole, than I can imagine.  

I want to participate with the mystery that moves my trembling body.

I hope that you do not read this as the love-sick ramblings of a person drunk on the early infatuations of love. Because what is here is very sober, very steady, very fierce. 

You see, describing Collective Presencing is challenging, like describing love. I can’t pick it up and show it to you, break it down into atoms and point it out under a microscope. I tell you that it matters deeply. You’ll know it when you feel it. At least, that’s what the poets and song-writers tell you anyway. Don’t look for it, because it will find you. And suddenly,  you’ll feel it through the interdimensional passage of time and memory –  the remembrance of a mother’s kiss on your forehead,  fluttering like the shimmering wings of a dragonfly. 

Or maybe I can try to pick up the piece from the centre, and hold it preciously in front of you: for some people, it’s a rock, a seashell, a feather that they lift up to the screen. Often, it’s just the solemn words spoken “I pick up the piece”, the shape of each word held like precious pebbles in your mouth. Mine is a gossamer thread that I feed into the centre: the simple truth of what is present, offered from the entangled complexity of my being. I don’t know where it might take me, but I trust it, because that thread is a strange attractor of my soul.

One more time.

I have nothing to prove.

I am only letting the soft animal of my body love what it loves.

So I’ll feed the thread back in the centre, and as you feel the interweaving waves of potential, perhaps you too, might feel moved to pick it up. 

Perhaps you too, might dare to make contact with what your animal body loves. 

And I’ll put the piece down.