A PhD thesis by Adrian Paul Harris

Pagans and Eco-Pagans

Paganism is a complex movement which suffers from a schizophrenic split between its identity as a 'nature religion' and its esoteric origins. This split is highlighted by the existence of Eco-Paganism, which is found as a sub-culture within Traditional Paganism and amongst environmental activists, notably at UK road protest sites. Although there is much common ground between mainstream and Eco-Paganism, there are significant differences in emphasis, attitude and approach. Letcher classifies Eco-Pagans into two non-exclusive groups; those who are part of a given Pagan Tradition and more eclectic "detraditionalized" Eco-Pagans (Letcher, 2005: 556). Letcher's model is useful, but as not all protest site Eco-Pagans are detraditionalized, I distinguish between protest site and urban Eco-Pagans to provide a second axis, although boundaries between all these categories are fluid.

Embodied Situated Cognition

Merleau-Ponty concluded that in knowing the world we become part of it, and thus the conventional subject-object distinction was illusionary (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). Gendlin developed Merleau-Ponty's work, showing how an intricate "bodily sensed knowledge" (Gendlin, 1981: 25) emerges from our bodily interaction with the world. Anthropologists have theorised aspects of embodied knowing: Bateson, for example, concurred with Merleau-Ponty that mind is immanent in the world. The sociological approach is significant for Mauss's notion the habitus, which was further theorised by Bourdieu (1977). The habitus carries embodied cultural knowledge that is tacit and practical, so is consistent with Merleau-Ponty's stance.

Second-generation cognitive neuroscience has been influential in discussions of embodied knowing and confirms that cognition is embodied and situated. Cognitive neuroscience also supports the position held by Merleau-Ponty, Gendlin, Bateson and others, that at least some fundamental aspects of the mind-body extend beyond the skin. Preston develops this discussion by claiming that we think with place, and this has a fundamental impact on our being-in-the-world. Enactivism is currently the most developed model of embodied situated cognition, and emphasizes that what we conventionally think of a 'subject' and 'object' are co-arising. Some enactivists (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999) emphasize the role of embodied metaphors in cognition.

Ecopsychologists concur that mind and world cannot be separated. Ecopsychology identified the wilderness effect, which demonstrates that spending time in the organic environment can catalyse profound spiritual experiences. The mechanism remains under discussion, but social and spatial factors seem significant.

I conclude that embodied cognition is situated and grounded in practical activity. This process is largely non-verbal and pre-reflective, and depends on an affective, sensual mode of being-in-the-world that reveals a fundamental integration between what we conventionally understand as 'self' and 'world'. Because our cognitive processes are intimately bound up with our surroundings, place has a profound influence on our being-in-the-world. Place operates in the background all the time but we sometimes think with place more explicitly. This influence is apparent in research correlating childhood play in the organic environment with heightened adult environmental awareness (inter alia, Cobb, 1977) and extensive evidence of the wilderness effect (inter alia, Greenway, 1995).

The Enactive Process Model

I develop the consensus outlined above into the enactive process model of embodied situated cognition, illustrated below with my cognitive iceberg diagram.

Fig 1: The Cognitive Iceberg

My 'cognitive iceberg' is inevitably an oversimplification and presents the local environment and physical body as more separate than the enactive process model suggests. In summary, the whole 'iceberg' triangle represents the physical body, while the area below the wavy line represents the "cognitive unconscious" (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999: 10). This contains the Primary Metaphors (PM) that underpin Complex Metaphors (CM), and sets of interrelated Complex Metaphors (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999) which I interpret as habitus seen from a different perspective. The physical body is engaged in a dynamic relationship with the local environment through extended cognition, perception and what Gibson calls "affordances" (Gibson, 1979). As 95 percent of embodied thought occurs below our consciousness (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999), most of this processing never reaches everyday awareness, which is at the iceberg's tip.

At tip of the iceberg is everyday conscious awareness, a very small percentage of who we are: Consciousness is simply what we are aware of, the minimal aspects of a complex process, but because we identify our 'self' with consciousness we tend to discount the deep body 'self' that actually governs much of our behaviour. This top level of awareness is quite narrowly focused and tends to heighten our impression of a subject/object distinction. The dotted area just below the apex designates 'gut feelings' or felt senses. Further down the triangle awareness widens out into what I call the deep body, becoming less focused and blurring the distinction between self and other, shown in the graphic by the gaps appearing in the sides of the triangle. A distinct boundary marks off the cognitive unconscious because it is normally inaccessible to intentional influence or conscious awareness. However, this line is wavy, because under certain circumstances - in ritual for example - the deep body can access and influence at least some of what lies below the line.

The enactive process model provides a powerful tool for understanding embodied cognition. Specifically, because this model helps elucidate what I describe below as processes of connection it can powerfully illuminate embodied knowing in Eco-Paganism.

Embodied Epistemology

Gendlin provides a naturalized epistemology grounded in our phenomenological experience of the felt sense that enables me to discuss embodied knowing from the perspective of propositional, academic knowledge. The intricate embodied knowing of the implicit is carried forward to be symbolized in explicit awareness as, for example, speech, gesture or thought. Gendlin's philosophy collapses the subject/object distinction in just the same way that enactivism does (Varela et al, 1991) by showing that the body is "an ongoing interaction with its environment" (Gendlin, 1992: 349), and thus avoid the problems intrinsic to dualism.

Methodology: Embodied Hermeneutics

I outline an embodied hermeneutics that develops the work of McGuire, Gendlin and Todres (Todres, 2007) to provided a consistent methodology that fulfils the criteria set out by New Paradigm Research and feminist methodologies. It also fits the requirements of the methodology of mind/body/self intersubjectivity proposed by McGuire, as it can readily be taught and has both "precision and rigour" (McGuire, 2002: 209). In practice it is a powerful and flexible means of researching embodied knowing which builds on existing research to make an original contribution to social science methodology.


In addition to providing a vicarious experience of life on a protest site, and thus enhancing felt understanding, my autoethnography develops several of the thesis' themes. It contributes to my ethnography of Eco-Paganism by providing details of how it feels on a site; for example the physical exposure, the camaraderie and the way time passes. The gradual influence of the place on my own spirituality is also apparent. The chapter problematizes several conventional dualities, including academic discourse versus emotional engagement and entering/leaving the field, thus developing an ongoing theme.

Processes of Connection

I identified several processes of connection that inform and inspire Eco-Paganism, each of which functions through embodied situated cognition. These processes of connection are, in order of significance for this study, the wilderness effect (and similar intimate experiences of the organic environment), the felt sense, ritual, deep trance, meditation and entheogens. The erotic is also a powerful processes of connection and I do not suggest that this list is complete. These processes tend to deepen our sense of connection with the organic environment, can enhance a sense of community and personal empowerment and often alter our sense of self: They thus enable a communion with the genius loci which empowers activism, inspires spirituality and informs Eco-Paganism. All of these processes can shift awareness down the cognitive iceberg making the process of co-creating reality described in the enactive process model more transparent.

Given the considerable power of the processes of connection and thinking with place within Eco-Paganism, I expect their influence to be apparent elsewhere. As the wilderness effect and thinking with place contribute to Eco-Pagan motivation, this finding has significance for motivation research.

Listening to the Threshold Brook: Urban Eco Paganism

"... contented so to look
On mists in idleness - to let fair things
    Pass by unheeded as a threshold brook".

John Keats, The Human Seasons

Most urban Eco-Pagans experienced a powerful childhood recognition of their connection with the organic environment that inspired an earth based spirituality grounded in an embodied knowing. Nearly all urban Eco-Pagans experienced some disillusionment in their interactions with other Pagans, many of whom do not share their enthusiasms. However many of them benefited from the training they received in mainstream Traditions, typically becoming more sensitive to their bodies in general and their felt sense in particular. The felt sense served as a key process of connection: By learning to become aware of how we think with and through the embodied situated self, urban Eco-Pagans enhanced their embodied communion with places, flora, fauna and spirits, thereby enriching their practice and nourishing a life-long spirituality. As well as being profoundly healing, these intimate local relationships, which one participant describe as "listening to the threshold brook" (Barry Patterson, 2007), patterned a sacred relationship to the world. It is the recognition of our connection with the organic environment that ignites and feeds the fires of urban Eco-Paganism.

The Power of Place: Site Eco-Paganism

My fieldwork with site Eco-Pagans revealed the impact of spending extended periods of time in the organic environment. All the processes of connection were significant but the wilderness effect was particularity important, catalysing a spiritual emergence for several people, and playing a fundamental role in the development of site Eco-Paganism. This dramatic example of the power of place helps explain several key characteristics of Eco-Paganism including its origins, emphasis on orthopraxy, and eclectic spiritual practice. Trocco's work suggests that the practices of Paganism will enhance the wilderness effect (Trocco, 1997), and considerable evidence suggests that the processes of connection are mutually reinforcing (inter alia, Greenway, 1995).

A Model of Spiritual Understanding

The enactive process model can explicate the overall patterns of my fieldwork material and reveals how the power of place can inspire activists. My fieldwork touched the individual threads of many lives, and my thesis wove them into a tapestry with a distinct pattern: By various means we slip down the cognitive iceberg to become aware of "a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a subsystem" (Bateson, 2000 [1972]: 467). This plunge into the deep body awakens us from the dualistic dream that we are separate from the "wisdom of the body" (Harris, 1996: 152). We experience this psychological shift phenomenologically as a sense of spiritual connection that allows us to "attune ... to the natural world", and can feel

[l]ike being in a great big dream, relevant messages are being spoken everywhere, telling me things I need to hear, and to which I need respond (Fisher, 2006: 103).

Such messages were spoken by the threshold brook and I described their power to change lives. In as much as the immanent sacred is that which enables communion with the world and offers spiritual knowing, its source is the deep body which blurs into our organic environment. However deeply we drink from this source - a threshold brook perhaps - the depth of potential implicit knowing will never be drained and the experience of connection remains ineffable.

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