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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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

10535621_10152596515807556_2932732314398523292_oSean 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/

 

26 Comments »

  1. Nice essay. I’m lucky enough to live in a rural area with easy access to mountains, rivers, lake and even the ocean with a bit of a drive. I don’t see how I could maintain a semblance of sanity without being able to disappear into the woods regularly.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sean, I really like a lot of your work, even when we disagree. Today I’m leading a discussion on sensing Deity – what it feels like and how to achieve it, and parts of your essay will likely find it’s way into the talk. Thanks!

    Having said that, what system has ever existed that hasn’t put people in a constant state of having to fight for their survival? More and more, I see the wisdom of Maslow’s pyramid and how hard it is for people to escape that second tier. In college, I wrote an essay postulating that the way to advance out of Maslow’s security tier was not to attain physical security, but to attain emotional and psychological security – that without that, you cannot escape from deficiency needs. The instructor didn’t like the concept so much, but I still aced the course. The longer I live, the more I believe that. Nothing can have power over a free soul. And being a witch is to be truly free.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you!

      My own sense is that while there has always been struggle, the level of struggle has not been so constant until very recently in human history.

      I feel like a lot of recent neurobiology is calling Maslow into question, in very much the ways your college paper did.

      When I think of the most economically desperate people I have ever met, internal refugees in the shantytowns outside Bogota, one thing that strikes me is the level of vitality and resilience community solidarity brought to them, and how sharply that contrasts to life at the center of the empire.

      A free soul can indeed overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but freedom is hard to find when its cost seems to be the loss of what we need to survive.

      But never impossible. And that is why the Craft has so long been ally to the poor.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this so much, because I feel what you are describing so strongly. I so miss the experience of the numinous, and I agree that I cannot feel it anymore because I have dissociated. But when the feelings of perpetual danger cannot be escaped, how do we come back into our bodies? Do you have any techniques that you’ve found effective (and affordable)? Being in the woods used to be enough, but not anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I started feeling this way recently when I noticed the parking stalls were so tiny i could barely get out of my car without hitting the car next to me. Then paying just to park everywhere i went, was a subtle testament that if you can pay $20 you can be here and economical status counted toward freedom to be in a space.

    The subtle pushing of economic freedom was disturbing to me a college student with little finance. It felt hostile but i couldn’t describe in words the subtle hostility, but my body sensed every danger of it first, before my mind could rationalize the class wars that is happening all around us.

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  5. ‘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.’

    For me it’s a constant battle between these states (I’m forever swinging between anxiety and depression) to maintain my connection with the land, deities and ancestors. Much caused by pressures of capitalism to see personal worth in terms of earning money and having a proper profession… Thanks for this beautifully written and insightful article.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Really well written post here. It speaks levels that I can empathize with immensely. Capitalism does create in us a constant state of fear: move outside the box and everything will crumble. I would love to be able to be embodied with true freedom to do the things that I really want to do such as not live in urban and suburban areas, live off the land and not be bothered by the materialistic society. I know plenty of people who feel the same, but it’s that fear of being ostracized by their family and peers as making the “wrong” decision in life. I feel a more of a sense of community in the forest than I do in the city or suburban neighborhood packed densely with human beings. As we’ve clear cut forests for developments, we’ve clear cut a hole in our souls that’s constantly being filled in with impermanent materialistic nonsense and “reality” shows. This only creates the conditions of “dumbing down” of society and a lack of respect for all life.

    PS: I consider myself a constant herbalist in training especially with my girlfriend and I building our All Natural soap, lotion etc… products. Good tidings and may the Gods watch over you!

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  7. Brains and how they work are fascinating; your description of the moment of connection is lyrical; both together are wonderful.
    I think that being able to recognize and treasure the present moment where we are comfortable, not experiencing any hungry/thirsty/tired physical needs, and unthreatened work for that connection as well as the connective places….. if we don’t immediately fill the safe moment with future worries.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. loved feeling what you wrote. Agree that embodiment is more difficult and much more fulfilling than disassociation. I can’t agree that in our that in our society the political system determines this.

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  9. Thank you so much Sean, I really resonate with this and have done since I was a child growing up in such a dense urban environment. I often get the urge to run and will situate myself somewhere coastal, but then I always return feeling like there is a calling to assist and contribute to community, to inspire our re-connections.

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  10. I relished reading this and enjoyed the reverberation of Truth ring in me. Can you tell me what this line is quoted from, I didn’t see a citation? “a world in which other worlds are possible.”
    thank you.

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  11. This is really beautifully written and explains much in my life.

    Perhaps my dissociation is why it feels so difficult to actually feel the spirit presence of my plant friends or my spiritual guides and allies. What a relief to think that it is not an inadequacy on my part.

    Thanks for writing and sharing this.

    Like

  12. Lots I agree with here, but I think cultural disembodiement started long before late capitalism. I look to Descartes and the rise of rationalism. I’d also argue that enchantment is alive and well, expressed in our daily resistance. There’s many ways to encourage deeper realisation of our embodiment. I listed 6 in my PhD research: the wilderness effect (from ecopsychology), Gendlin’s felt sense, ritual, deep trance, meditation and entheogens, There are of course many more!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you Sean for this beautiful writing. I saved the last bit to share with my folks – with appropriate credit given. It is Such an important message, it needs to be shared. Blessed be your journey. In Peace… ~Robin Whitaker

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  14. Absolutely brilliant, thank you for these wise words and this fresh angle on the “disenchantment” of the modern era. This quote sums it all up so completely beautifully -“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.”

    Like

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