Feeling Your Feelings Back to Nature

A hallmark of the awareness outlook is that we should just be natural. We should return to basics. The difficulty, of course, lies in knowing what is natural and basic, and how to get there. Self-awareness specialists often seem confident that they have the answers. They claim our daily experience represents but a highly impoverished version of what life can be like. Life, in short, can be beautiful. The basic reason it isn't is that we have settled for such an inadequate substitute. Inadequate because it simply isn't real.

Behind these ideas lurks a vague romantic conception of real living, and excessive optimism about what can be accomplished through reasserting "the organic unity of the individual and nature," as it's often put. According to Claudio Naranjo, it is time for us to be "abandoning forms and searching for the essence that animates them, an essence which often lies hidden in the forms themselves." 1 One might well agree that there are a great many forms we should indeed abandon. The problem remains, however, whether one can do away with forms entirely. What then would be left? Presumably, that "essence." Yet this mysterious entity continues to elude philosophers and gurus, along with more empirically minded investigators. Naranjo himself elsewhere refers cryptically to "a need which seeks a nourishment words can only hint at."

Much of the motivation behind the call for getting back to basics is reasonably sound. (Though often it's stated in exaggerated form.) We are said to have become artificially split off from intimate connection with ourselves and our natural environment -- literally, out of touch and out of tune with our humanity, and with the natural world. We are surrounded by material possessions, obsessed with meeting externally imposed standards, overstimulated by cultural distractions, overwhelmed by meaningless tasks performed in alienating settings. These circumstances, we are told, have deprived us of our sense of wonder. We have lost all feeling for the elemental and eternal verities of nature.

According to proponents of the new awareness, we experience life almost exclusively in indirect and secondary ways. Other people tell us what to do. We also let them (the socalled experts) tell us what we ourselves and the world around us are like. Our direct perceptions have been distorted by an overlay of preconceived interpretations. As a result, our sense of reality only taps a narrow vein of the wealth of direct experience we could potentially mine. We are so preoccupied with these secondary processes -- interpreting, rationalizing, classifying, and organizing -- that we fail to appreciate the essential unity of life.

To overcome these tendencies we need, it is said, a new kind of revolution. According to Theodore Roszak, we must "liberate the visionary powers from the lesser reality in which they have been confined by urban -- industrial necessity." This means a return to directness. To feelings, instead of words describing feelings. To unity and wholeness, instead of distinction-drawing and categorizing. To fluidity and process, instead of a false and static sense of finality. To wonder, instead of ungrounded certainty. To life affirmation, instead of deadening routinization.

Some awareness-oriented writers see a new connection with the natural environment as the key to such change. Roszak, in his book Where the Wasteland Ends, writes eloquently of the need to surmount "the artificial environment." He and others have argued that the growing environmental concern and the self-awareness quest should feed into each other. So far, however, the link seems tenuous at best.

A Canadian writer, Robert Hunter, has suggested that environmental decay is the one issue on which all the dissident elements in our type of complex society can agree. Since the environment affects everyone, potential conflicts will be muted and a unified social movement will become possible. 4 Both Roszak and Hunter are strong enthusiasts for the growing focus on self-awareness. To them, the environmental crisis is the cutting edge of the new-style revolution that will produce a more general change in consciousness. Deterioration of the natural environment will force us to recognize the bankruptcy of our prevailing technology, and to explore alternative ways of knowing and acting. And as we do this, we will develop still greater regard for our natural surroundings -which, in turn, we will then make greater efforts to nurture and sustain.

These are attractive predictions. However, there are few signs that all this is really about to happen. To be sure, particularly among segments of American youth, a new appreciation of nature seems evident. Witness the renewed interest in farming and "homesteading," and also the enormous popularity of health foods. The recent communes too, are predominantly rural, and can be seen as part of a "back to the

land" movement. But are these trends significantly encouraged by the movement for self-awareness? It does not seem so, given the dominant direction that movement has been taking.

Contemplativeness and enhanced appreciation of nature may tend to go together. Quite probably it is true that all too often our attitude toward the environment has been one of apparent hostility. As Alan Watts puts it, "The hostile attitude of conquering nature ignores the basic interdependence of all things and events -- that the world beyond the skin is actually an extension of our own bodies -- and will end in destroying the very environment from which we emerge and upon which our whole life depends." 5 Overcoming or at least tempering this hostility is a commendable goal. But the main thrust of recent self-fulfillment activities is not toward achieving it.

The environmental crisis nicely illustrates the awareness movement's potential and its limitations. In this area, as in so many others, we see that a new individual consciousness -- if widespread enough -- could activate pressures for change. By itself, however, it could scarcely begin to effectuate the many kinds of change that are needed. Searching for what is real in themselves and the world around them may lead some people to feel a new reverence for nature. A few may then take personal action in its behalf. But significant environmental change requires a large-scale and well-focused collective effort. It requires revising or reversing current public policies and altering dominant social institutions. Fragmented instances of self-awareness will not be adequate to this task.

Utopians or visionaries (depending on your viewpoint) stress the implicit link between self-realization and remaking the environment. Most of the popularized awareness tracts, however, are silent on this issue. Similarly, the hordes of middle-class yoga enthusiasts, rap-session devotees, and other growth-program consumers, are not about to throw themselves into radical action on the environmental front. There may well be a logical sequence from a focus on self-awareness

to concern with personal well-being, to awareness of health problems and their sources in our treatment of the environment. Yet a logical sequence is not necessarily an actual one. Whether a new consciousness will actually promote the kind of self-activation needed to alter highly entrenched social priorities remains to be seen.

Consider, for example, the growing interest in so-called health foods. New outlooks on the relation between people and nature have helped bring this trend about. And eating better food undoubtedly makes those who do so, in turn, feel better about themselves and what nature has to offer. Yet these outlooks and actions alone can only take us so far. Food growers and processors, distributors and promoters are all important focal points for action directed at really significant change. Governmental assistance and legislative directives and controls are needed, along with massive changes in social values and preferences. It could be argued that once we all demand healthful foods they will be made available. In a sense this is correct. But generating a collective consciousness of this sort presupposes a far-reaching program of education, with facts, figures, and arguments.

By the same token, vested interests in existing priorities and in particular food products will not simply disappear because of some new feeling about self and nature. Obstacles to turning our food consumption in a more healthful direction are especially apparent when one considers the role of advertising and the place of children in this domain. Children usually eat what their parents give them to eat, but frequently (in our society) they tell their parents what it should be. And what it should be they've learned, to a great extent, from television. Even if adults were immune to the constant bombardment of advertising for brand-name food products (including "junk food"), children could hardly avoid being affected by it. The parent-pestering that results cannot easily be resisted.

So the media and advertising industries are at once implicated in the situation we wish to change. Under a system such as ours that so venerates profit-making, the aim, furthermore, is to produce and distribute at low cost regardless of health value. This tendency too must be faced up to by advocates of change. And this is all without even taking into account the ramifications of persisting poverty. For the really poor among us, the urgent goal is not health food, but just plain food. In such circumstances, it is hard to concentrate on abstract longterm benefit.

Ultimately, then, the question of health foods -- like other specific policy issues to be considered throughout this book -involves myriad aspects of our socioeconomic order. Selfawareness may propel individuals into actions aimed at producing meaningful change. It can initiate and activate, but by itself -- at least in the absence of a widely shared sense of collective interests and goals -- it cannot accomplish much more. Potentially it is a significant generator of change. Whether it will fulfill this potential, however, depends on the extent to which individuals caught up in the awareness-enhancing process can move beyond its built-in limitations. Perhaps we should distinguish between experiencers and activists. Certainly it is possible to be both, but emphasis on one mode may be largely at the expense of the other.

At present, the self-awareness movement is encouraging us to become a nation of "direct experiencers." This need not preclude active pursuit of social and political goals, but the danger is that the very process of experiencing will itself envelop us. An exclusive focus on the personal and interpersonal levels of human experience encourages that result. When the path back to basics takes an inward direction, it tends to inhibit sociopolitical action. The experiencing of experience (recapturing a sense of basic "process") that is lauded as a new consciousness becomes, then, a distinct drawback.

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