The following article is excerpted from The Art of Losing Control by Jules Evans, published by Canongate.
In 2012, in the mountains of California, Mac Macartney went under- ground. As part of a Native American initiation ritual, he immersed himself in the pitch-black darkness of a kiva, a small subterranean enclosure where indigenous people practised sensory deprivation as a means to ecstasy. Mac was in there for ten days, with barely any food or water, with two other initiates: ‘We sat in silence apart from the very occasional brief exchanges such as “Are you okay?”’ On the last day, they emerged for the sacrificial killing and eating of a goose. Mac was a vegetarian, but he’d decided he’d also eat the goose. Then he went back into the darkness.
After a few hours, Mac felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck and knew he was going to witness something. He began to see the body of the goose in the darkness. It became ‘as clear as a photo’. Then he saw a grey form detach itself from the body and fly away. Neuroscientists would suggest this was a hallucination – sensory depri- vation is one of humans’ oldest and most reliable avenues to altered states. But Mac says:
In my understanding, I had witnessed the spirit of the goose leaving the body. Someone could say, no, that was just your brain creating a fanciful story that allowed you to feel OK about the action you’d taken. That’s possible. All I know is that I felt illuminated, it gave me profound insights, and I felt very touched. I don’t want someone else telling me what it was or wasn’t. I think we’re equipped with powers of discernment, and I don’t want to give mine away. Since then, I’ve had countless experiences like that, and I observe I become more peaceful, compassionate and empathic.
Mac is the founder of a spiritual community in Devon called Embercombe, and a teacher in indigenous wisdom at a place called Schumacher College, also in Devon. The college was founded in the 1990s by a former Jain monk called Satish Kumar. It was in part inspired by the back-to-earth movement of the 1960s and 1970s, in which thou- sands of hippies dropped out of college and went to live in sustainable- farming communes in the countryside. Schumacher College took the spirit of those communes and used it to improvise a new model of higher education. The college offers residential courses in environmental science, sustainable business and activism, permaculture, indigenous wisdom, and a philosophy called ‘deep ecology’.
The essence of deep ecology, Mac says, is the belief that ‘as long as environmentalism is approached as a purely rational, technocratic endeavour, it will only tinker at the edges. We need to go deeper. We need a re-understanding of our world as sacred.’ Deep ecologists believe that at the root of our environmental crisis lies a broken relationship with the natural world. ‘We’re fundamentally and dangerously disconnected from nature,’ says Mac. People disagree about when the relationship with nature was broken – some blame Christianity, while others point to the seventeenth-century shift from an animist to a materialist world- view. The writer Charles Eisenstein said at a recent talk at Schumacher: ‘If we hold ourselves as the only sentient, loving beings on this planet, then the attitude of instrumental utilitarianism is natural. It’s absurd to love the earth if you think it’s just a bunch of chemicals bouncing around.’
The Enlightenment shifted our model of human nature from a porous self in an animist universe to a walled-off self in an inanimate universe. Only rationality gives us sure knowledge of this universe; ecstatic states are delusional. Western culture’s reliance on instrumental rationality enabled us to control the material world but not relate to it – Descartes, pioneer of mechanistic materialism, saw all animals as emotionless machines, and even wondered if the people in the street were autom- atons. In the words of ecologist priest Thomas Berry:‘We can no longer hear the voice of the rivers, the mountains, or the sea. The trees and meadows are no longer intimate modes of spirit presence. The world about us has become an “it” rather than a “thou”.’
The disconnection from nature is bad for humans: we’re stuck in the narrow, fearful, lonely and boring ego-shed. The civilised mind is plagued by various emotional disorders, which deep ecologists say emerge from our lost connection to nature and our clinging to the ego. Colin Campbell, another teacher at Schumacher, says: ‘The industrial age has reduced our sense of who we are to a very small component compared to what it once was. There is a starvation of the soul, a malnutrition, resulting in an internal retraction in all of us. We’re more and more isolated.’ We have lost the ecstatic sense of a love-connection to the Earth and to non-human beings. Thomas Berry wrote:
The human venture depends absolutely on this quality of awe and reverence and joy in the Earth and all that lives and grows upon the Earth. As soon as we isolate ourselves from these currents of life and from the profound mood that these engender within us, then our basic life-satisfactions are diminished.
Our broken connection to the Earth is very bad for the Earth too. Psychedelic guru Terence McKenna declared the ‘suppression of shamanic gnosis, with its reliance and insistence on ecstatic dissolution of the ego, has robbed us of life’s meaning and made us enemies of the planet, of ourselves, and our grandchildren’. We are stuck in what McKenna called the ‘ego-dominator pathology’ – a pathology obsessed with control and exploitation for power, money and status. People, animals, plants and the planet itself all become fuel for ego-satisfaction. The ego-dominator mindset uses rationality to make its exploitation as efficient as possible, but it’s not actually rational – it’s insane. It refuses to countenance any limit to its desires, and denies the reality of ocean acidification, global warming, deforestation, declining fresh water, and the mass extinction of species. Mac says: ‘Parents all love their children, yet we’re behaving in a way that threatens the future of our children.’
Refinding the love-connection
Deep ecologists say the antidote to this toxic situation is a shift in consciousness from ego-centric to eco-centric. Thomas Berry wrote: ‘We need to seek relationship with nature, based on nothing less than an attitude of reverence.’ We need to return to the animist world-view, where we are porous selves connected to the spirits of nature, where nature is ‘not a collection of objects but a communion of subjects’, in Berry’s words.
But how exactly do we re-find a love-connection? The hope is that it’s never entirely gone away. Children naturally feel wonder and joy when they encounter animals and plants – indeed, they learn to imitate animal noises almost before they can speak. As adults in urban industrial societies, we feel less of this love-connection, partly as the only time many of us encounter animals, besides the occasional pigeon, is the meat section of our local supermarket. And yet we still feel it too, in those sudden epiphanies in nature, which we looked at in the Entrance Gate. We feel it in the wonder, bliss and awe when we encounter non-human beings – a hummingbird, a great redwood tree, a tiger, a pod of dolphins – particularly when the animal is much bigger than us, although, alas, most large mammals are either extinct or nearing extinction. We feel it on psychedelics too, especially magic mushrooms and ayahuasca, which give people a profound sense of being part of an animist eco-system.
Deep ecologists tell us that such experiences point to a genuine spiritual connection to an animate natural world. Stephan Harding, teacher in holistic science at Schumacher and the author of The Animate Earth, has said: ‘The most important thing now is to get the sense that we’re inside a great living creature. That feeling when you’re camping and you look out on the stars, or the way the moonlight falls on a lake, these are genuine communications from the Earth.’ We can learn to integrate those rare epiphanies, so that we shift from ego-centric to eco-centric, through the use of spiritual practices and rituals. Mac says: ‘We’ve been connecting to nature through rituals and ceremonies for hundreds of thousands of years. The trouble is, many people are alien- ated from Christianity, because it’s disconnected from nature and the body, and it’s quite authoritarian.’
So what rituals can we use? The students at Schumacher College – Schumies, as they’re known – often invent their own neo-pagan rituals in what one druid calls ‘adult play’. Neo-paganism has be to somewhat improvised, as the old pagan customs of Britain are basically forgotten. Others turn to Buddhist practices, like meditation, as a way to experience the interdependence of all things. There is a handful of Christian deep ecologists, who seek to develop forms of Earth- compassion, like Matthew Fox’s ‘earth mass’. But, mainly, there’s a fascination with the practices and rituals of indigenous people, like Native Americans, who are seen as having retained the spiritual connection to nature that Western civilization lost.
Schumies’ favorite ecstatic ritual is the ‘vision quest’. Inspired by Pueblo and Native American culture, this involves a person heading off into the wilderness for a period of solitary fasting, contemplation and communication with what Colin Campbell calls the ‘messengers’ of the animate Earth. A vision quest could last anything from 24 hours to several months, and may involve taking mushrooms or ayahuasca. The idea is that through this purgation and this opening to the wilderness, one will shift from ego-centric to eco-centric and receive healing wisdom from Mother Nature, in the forms of dreams, visions and animal-encounters. You may not have literal visions, although many do.