The Neurobiology of Re/enchantment
My gods come to me when they find my heart open.
They come when I am walking in the forest at twilight. They come when I am watching the wind blow across water that was still just a moment before. They come when I am lying in bed at the edge of waking, calling first in the voices of Owls and Ravens. They come when my lover and I are alone on a winter’s night by the woodstove. They come when I am at the gym and the rest of the world slips away and in the moment before they arrive there is nothing but the weight pressing down and my muscles pushing against it. They come with the scent of Hawthorne blossoms and the feeling of cold rain on bare skin.
They come when I am deeply embodied and open to connection — something far too rare in my life and the lives of most people under late capitalism.
Our ancestors evolved in a world that they experienced as alive and always speaking to them. Their bodies were attuned to the rhythms of wind and water, the sound of the air moving beneath an Eagle’s wing, the exhalations of Cedar and Honeysuckle and Datura, the pheromones and heartbeats of each others’ bodies.
Their bodies, and our bodies, the bodies of their descendants evolved to live in communion with each other, the living world around them, and themselves in all of their parts. Like all mammals, their primary impulse was toward connection — as long as the world around them felt safe.
Psychiatrist Stephen Porges speaks of our capacity for neuroception, ” a neural process, distinct from perception, that is capable of distinguishing environmental (and visceral) features that are safe, dangerous, or life threatening.” He says that “Neuroception represents a neural process that enables mammals to engage in social behaviors by distinguishing safe from dangerous contexts.”
When we experience the world as safe, we seek to engage each other. Our vagus nerve carries a strong signal to the heart, which allows it to maintain a rhythm that is coherent with what is happening in the world around it. We breathe more deeply. Our muscles relax. We are open.
When we experience the world as unsafe, the signal the vagus nerve carries to the heart becomes weaker. At first the heart begins to speed up, and, as it does, norepinephrine and adrenaline first make us increasingly vigilant, and then make us increasingly fearful and aggressive. Eventually we reach a fight or flight state, where our cognitive awareness of the world around us slips away and we are acting on pure survival instinct.
If we have experienced our most desperate struggle failing to keep us safe, then we may go into the opposite state when we sense danger — surrendering to the inevitability of disaster, becoming increasingly numb and dissociated until we freeze completely.
Life under late capitalism is marked by a near constant oscillation between those states of hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal, making it rare for us to experience authentic connection.
Stress — situations in which it is unclear whether we will be able to meet our basic survival needs and trauma situations in which we feel powerless to protect ourselves and meet our needs and are overwhelmed with terror — are ubiquitous in contemporary life, especially in the lives of the poor. They constitute the permanent state of emergency of the oppressed described by Walter Benjamin. Privilege and wealth buy a certain degree of insulation from direct violence and stave off desperation (though never completely, especially for children experiencing violence within their families.) For the poor and the marginalized, survival is always in jeopardy. And for many more, the threat of falling into poverty or stepping outside the bounds of cultural acceptability creates a constant edge of fear. For survivors of trauma, the unresolved terror held onto in the body can make it difficult to ever feel truly safe.
Many people have written about how the structural violence of capitalism puts people in a constant state of having to fight for their survival, and the fear of losing access to what we need to survive keeps us from being able to focus on transforming the systems that dictate the conditions of our survival. (I wrote about it here.)
But capitalism also separates us from the memory of things worth living for and worth struggling for: in a survival state, sex becomes a release of tension, religion becomes a litany of desperate petition, art becomes escapism, the wild world becomes a distant memory. Cynicism follows naturally on this. The idea that humans have ever cared for each other in ways marked by connection rather than competition can seem a cruelly ridiculous fantasy. So can the idea that the other-than-human world can be a source of visceral and intuitive information about ways of being outside the prisons we have forgotten we are in since we have known only them for most of our lives — save the beautiful moments when we get respite from our struggle to survive to briefly glimpse “a world in which other worlds are possible.”
As a trauma survivor, I have learned some things from other survivors about time and emotions. I have learned to know both that threats I face and have faced are real, and that the overwhelming sense of terror I feel when my senses recognize something that reminds me of those threats is not always the whole truth about what is happening right now.
This is as true of collective trauma as it is of individual trauma.
The way out of that state begins with coming back to the body and its senses.
If the world seems devoid of magic, maybe it is because capitalism keeps us under a neurobiological enchantment that prevents us from sensing the presence and movement of the numinous.
If the gods and the ancestors and the forest seem silent, perhaps it is because our fear has moved us out of our bodies, separating us from the capacity to hear them.
When we reclaim our bodies as our own, we break the spell cast on us.
And as our wild spirits become embodied again, we again feel the touch of the human and the other than human worlds, the return of connection that gives rise to solidarity which animates community, making it possible to bring new worlds into being.
Sean Donahue is an herbalist, poet, witch, and feral creature living on unceded WSANEC territory on the southern tip of what colonial cartographers now call Vancouver Island. He worked as a political organizer for a decade or so before realizing an introvert with a decidedly non-linear approach to the world was better suited to talking with plants and gods than to managing organizations, and also had a brief career as a journalist reporting on repression and resistance in Latin America. He is Priest and a keeper of the Green Wand in the BlackHeart Line of the Anderson Feri Tradition of Witchcraft. He blogs at http://greenmanramblings.blogspot.com/