Here’s the deal:
You can be alive, barefoot and sensuous, awake to the sea and the sky, the birds that talk to you and the trees that listen, palpably aware of your friends and your enemies in the forest, staking all with every breath, your senses heightened and your wits on high alert, touching the soft grass and the hard rock, the hot sun and the driving snow, your every movement in tune with the earth…
You can be comfortable and secure, surrounded by art and mathematics, stories, song and dance, your day filled with luxuries and conveniences, safe from the elements, from predators and even from most disease, living in a world of abstractions, remote from your ancestry and alienated from your animal skin, reasonably assured of a long life, but wondering all the while how you fit in and why you are alive at all.
“Not fair!” you protest. Why can’t I explore the wilderness preserve with my gore-tex raingear and vibram soles? Why can’t I swim with the dolphins, then come home to delicious Chinese take-out, hot from the microwave?
But maybe it’s not a question of what you can have but who you are. Are you the thoughts in your brain, or are you the tingling flesh and the animal instincts in your breast? Are you a separate individual adhering to a social contract or are you a cell in the body of Mother Gaia?
We didn’t get to make this choice; the decision was made when we were born in Levittown or Shaker Heights, rather than in Borneo or the Upper Amazon. Now we may have a nostalgia for a feeling of grass between our toes, but it seems utterly impractical to leave civilization behind, even for a week’s immersion. Our childhood was spent learning the requisite social skills and attuning ourselves to cultural convention, not planting our roots in the rich, humus Earth.
Every animal recoils from pain and seeks to reduce its discomforts. In fact, pains and pleasures are the animal’s life guidance system. No wonder that when we permanently triumph over pain and establish comfort as a birthright, we are left rudderless, haunted by existential anxieties, prone to depression and loneliness and, only a bit less universally, to addiction, exploitative relationships, greed, narcissism, status-seeking and schadenfreude. In indigenous cultures, suicide is unknown, and there is no word for “depression”.
Can we, who have been socialized out of nature and into a relationship with the natural world that is intermediated by our brains—can we, after the fact, experience the sense of belonging that is the birthright of every otter and elephant and every Bushman? Probably not.
But I’m optimistic that we can retrain ourselves, with patience and concentration in a quiet, low-stimulus setting, to recover some aspects of the sensitivities of the primordial human animal. We may not learn to sense the presence of an unseen deer or raccoon or a panther in the woods, though our ancestors depended on this sense for their survival. But we might learn to remember our dreams, and even to direct them, to discern in them information about things of which our minds have no conscious knowledge. We might cultivate the intuitions that can guide us to wise action, transmitted to us transpersonally or from a living universe. We might tune in to messages about danger, about our loved ones, about our destiny. The Universe is instructing us about all that is asked of us, and we may recover the ability to surrender to her guidance.
— Josh Mitteldorf
Of course, there is no book that can teach you to taste the wind in your nostrils or feel the blades of grass between your toes, but if there were such a book, it would be Becoming Animal, by David Abram.