…And They are Seeing You: Making Culture with the Help of Goethe’s ‘Exact Sensorial Imagination’ and Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr’s ‘Dadirri’

Edge of the Sacred Conference, Whitegums, Arrente Country, July 2016

Thank you, Keith and Stella, for inviting me to be part of this gathering. Thank you to Mallee and the Arrente for our gracious welcome. I feel very grateful to be here. I hope I have something to offer; more and more as I progress in my PhD research I feel that my discoveries might just be a natural part of the maturing process. Hence my desire today to beg the indulgence of the many elders here.

I wish first to acknowledge my many extraordinary teachers, first, the Country I come from, the river and sea, mountains, creeks and valleys, many names, many loves. Aunty Joy Murphy and Ian Hunter, Wurundjeri elders of that Country. Martin Prechtel, the courageous one. Also profound teachers in zen buddhism, deep ecology, process oriented psychology, and social ecology, who have helped guide my journey. And too, elders in this room.

I realise that I have 25 years of being accompanied by bioregionalism and other environmental philosophies, many years of dance and other movement practices. More recently I have a growing sense of interoception, the feeling of the inside of my body, and appreciating its role in helping me work with mood and emotion. It has taken a very long time, but feeling has now become the thing I most value, it is what I choose to trust and the result of this listening is what I need. 25 years consciously pursuing these questions, 45 years alive; I’ve needed all this time to come to this degree of peace. It’s taken me a long time to appreciate that attending intelligently to feeling is my way to learn.

Once I knew where I was placed on the program, I wondered if there could be something useful I could offer as a prelude to Dadirri? Some way, perhaps, of helping to ready our organisms. Let’s see how we go.

My initiation, as it were, into this work came with my Pilgrimage, a three-week walking journey from the sea to the source of the Birrarung, the Yarra River. Ian Hunter spoke of that path as a Songline, and the Wurundjeri requested to the spirits of the ancestors that the spirits walk with us. But we had to remake a way along that path, through a city and its sprawl, for in many places the river was fenced off, so part of our task became gaining access to the ancient way. That three-week journey was the strangest, most powerful experience of my life, one I felt a huge responsibility to share. Writing the book about it compounded and deepened the strangeness, as the writing process seemed to partake in the mysteries that accompanied the walk. My current PhD has sought to understand more of what was happening, what my body, over those hundreds of kilometres, may have learned that my head could not comprehend.

I do, now, 13 years after that journey, know a little more. I feel grateful to have discovered a rich stream of scholarship that helps explain but does not diminish the mystery. I’ve found that within Western philosophy there is much that has helped me understand my experience, extending back thousands of years to Neoplatonism all the way through to contemporary approaches such as Deep Ecology. Today I’ll share a little about Goethe, and engage with contemporary explorations of his ideas.

Johann von Goethe, who lived from 1749 to 1832, is known as the greatest of all German literary figures, holding a place similar to Shakespeare for English speakers. He is far less well known for his science.  Stephen Buhner’s Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, a text grounded in Goethean science, has been foundational, for it has explained much of my experience to me, and respectfully supports and validates many indigenous ways of knowing. It speaks of how to widen sense perception and explains cultural strictures against doing so. It describes extraordinary similarities between human, animal and plant physiologies. And it celebrates the vibratory natures of all living things, the songs, it could be said, of the various form of life, soft earth music some sensitive or well-trained folk can hear. I’m very much at the beginning of this learning journey, but I’m committed to a thorough investigation of his method. Which is important, it seems:  Goethe’s  stresses the importance of training and education. … He also reports that as a person’s abilities to see outwardly improve, so do his or her inner recognitions and perceptions become more sensitive… As one learns to see more clearly, he or she also learns to see more deeply. One becomes more “at home” with the phenomenon, understanding it with greater empathy, concern and respect. (Seamon, 1998)

Goethe called his process of subtle, attentive observation ‘exact sensorial imagination.’ According to him, this ‘delicate empiricism’ (‘the effort to understand a thing’s meaning through prolonged empathetic looking and seeing grounded in direct experience’)(Seamon 1998, p3) was necessary in order to truly understand the nature of living systems. Such observation would enable the capacity to ‘see from the whole.’ (Senge 2005:loc 2842)  Imagination in the way that Goethe means it is not something ‘made up,’ rather it is specific information gained through close visual attention, yet not visible to the normal way of looking. Buhner describes it as the ‘capacity of seeing with the internal eye, using the imaginative sensing of the feeling self.’  (2014, p335) Here is philosopher Henri Bortoft describing the method:

Goethe’s way of seeing is …not concerned with providing an alternative explanation of phenomena, but with an alternative to explanation. This alternative is the seeing which is twofold …(where) the different parts and the wholeness or unity of these parts are simultaneously present together. We are involved in a double way, simultaneously through the organ of sensory sight and the organ of imagination. (Bortoft 1996, p306-307)

Writing about this method is difficult, because without experiencing this perception shift, it doesn’t make much sense. The clearest example I’ve yet found to demonstrate this point is the following:

 The inventor Buckminster Fuller was fond of holding up his hand and asking people, “What is this?” …He would point out that the cells that made up that hand were continually dying and regenerating themselves. What seems tangible is continually changing. …”What you see is not a hand,” said Fuller. “It is a ‘pattern integrity,’ the universe’s capability to create hands.” For Fuller, this “pattern integrity” was the whole of which each particular hand is a concrete manifestation. (Senge 2005, p6)

Here, our contemporary understanding of biology helps us see beyond the surface; seeing becomes ‘seeing into.’ This transformation of seeing can be a startling experience in itself, but it is what can happen next that makes for the real head-trip:

The researcher, in directing attention exclusively to the phenomenon, is in fact surrendering to the phenomenon, making a space for it to appear as itself. This provides the condition for the reversal of will to happen, from active to receptive will, whereupon it is the organizing principle of the phenomenon itself which can come to expression in the researcher’s thinking.   (Bortoft 1996, p242)

Glimpses of this type of consciousness, it is no exaggeration to say, completely changed my world. The title of this talk was inspired by a day a few years ago, when, walking and watching, suddenly, I was both seeing into, and seen into. This is how I wrote it down that day. Note the pronoun.

You look, from where you live, to the mountains. One day, to your astonishment, you realise the mountains are looking back at you. You see the mountains. And they are seeing you. Who must you then become, to be worthy of such a gaze? If you listen, the mountains will tell you.

How do you become a listening person? How could we become a listening people? In striving to discover this, the real work begins.

Perhaps my astonishment is the most astonishing thing. Heidegger (1977, p130) writes: ‘The world picture does not change from an earlier one into a modern one, but rather the fact that the world becomes picture at all is what distinguishes the essence of the modern age.’ In other words, not so long ago, we saw deeper.⁠  The visual was a portal to another way of being in the world. Yet Heidegger also suggests other senses are the way to return to Being. George Steiner says ‘For Heidegger,… the human person and self-consciousness are not the centre, the assessors of existence. Man is only a privileged listener and respondent to existence. … It is a relation of audition. We are trying ‘to listen to the voice of Being’.’

Returning to Goethe, his long-neglected science is finding some fascinating contemporary expression, including the North-American based Presencing Institute, ‘an awareness-based action research community for profound societal innovation and change.’  Their research includes extensive interviews with hundreds of people on experiences of ‘seeing from the whole.’ I am particularly interested in the following point they make:

“Again and again in our interviews, people used the image of the heart when they talked about the shift to seeing from inside the whole. People talked about it in different ways, but the imagery was strikingly consistent. (The HeartMath institute has) identified three major neuronal networks in the body. The largest, of course, is the brain. But there are two other major clusters of neurons, in the intestinal track and in the cardial sack. It seems that there is really a physiological basis for ‘gut knowing’ and ‘knowing of the heart.’ These are not just metaphors.” (Senge 2005, p54)

I too have experienced the heart to be a sense organ of pattern perception, our biology’s way of involving us in something larger. It may, perhaps, be just a metaphor, but I’m interested in the research into the vibratory nature of this organ, its unceasing creation of an electrical field that interacts, in ways in which we are unconscious, with the vibratory fields of all living beings. A few weeks ago this knowing landed in me in the form that heart’s knowing takes. I stood in the forest at sunset, turning, turning, attuned and open, a human who knows what it is that she sees. Who is what she sees, drenched, saturated, in pattern. It was a moment of grace, a feeling simultaneous of heart and head, of finding the single, fitting word for the experience. Love. Love is the feeling of pattern, and here, I knew myself as ecology.

It is at this point I wish to briefly introduce the work of one of this gathering’s honoured guests, Miriam Rose Ungunmerr, and her Dadirri, ‘Deep Listening.’ I am delighted by the parallels I observe between Dadirri (ostensibly an aural process) with Goethe’s ‘Exact Sensorial Imagining,’ (ostensibly visual) both of them techniques of enhanced perception that enable the aliveness of all beings to be experienced, and both of them tending to synasthesia, synasthetic perception, where the division of sensory modes is called into question.

It doesn’t feel to be my role to say much about her work since she will be here and do it in her way, but for the purposes of making these connection I need to say a little. Miriam-Rose describes Dadirri as ‘inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness.’ She writes: We could not live good and useful lives unless we listened. This was the normal way for us to learn – not by asking questions. We learnt by watching and listening, waiting and then acting.

Miriam-Rose speaks of Dadirri as a gift for all Australians. I am very moved by her generosity, and the courage and forgiveness behind that generosity. And I am also moved also by Goethe, Germany’s most celebrated writer, who said that his literature is of little value compared to his scientific method of wholeness, of aliveness, yet living to see his science almost entirely ignored in favour of a science of reductionism, where things are understood through killing them and dissecting their bodies. Our culture’s destructive behaviours could be seen as the result of turning our backs on both indigenous wisdom and on European practices of attention to life. Could redress come with enhancing our capacity to learn to listen deeply, see deeply, attune our awareness, learning the heart’s intelligence?

We live in the interplay of two modes of knowing, the one chattering like a monkey yet powerless to mean, the other meaningful as a sunset yet powerless to name. (Kane 1994, p144)

When I first returned from my pilgrimage, I felt emotionally destabilised by my experiences with the more-than-human world, so overcome that I couldn’t attach names to the feelings – the feelings were too big, too strange. I had body sensations that countered my brain’s investigative capacities. My challenge was learning how to understand through my entire organism. I was first drawn to Goethean science because of how precisely the descriptions of their processes matched my spontaneous experience. It is helping me to develop techniques to balance the body’s sense of numinosity and the brain’s curiosity, to engage in full body listening, using both the heart’s sensory acuity and the head’s cognitive accuracy.  It has confirmed my vividly felt instinct that to honour both demands a particular deportment, a specific mode of discourse, and a sense of the absolute necessity for truthfulness, precision, and care. Goethe writes of this:

The student must proceed carefully when making the transition from experience and seeing to judgement and interpretation, guarding against such dangers as “impatience, self-satisfaction, rigidity, narrow thoughts, presumption, indolence, indiscretion, instability,” etc (Seamon, 1998, p3)

Such attention to virtue seems almost quaint in these times, yet it appears necessary for this scientific method to achieve results. Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana speaks of the importance of love – heart cognition, perhaps – as utterly essential to his science:

He says that “love, allowing the other to be a legitimate other, is the only emotion that expands intelligence.” When people encounter stories such as …a biologist such as Maturana speaking of love, they may easily dismiss what they hear as “philosophizing.” But to do so misses an essential point: these views of the world and of life directly reflect (his) understanding as a scientist. … Maturana’s understanding of perception centers on the fact that we’re not passive observers of an external world; rather, we know our world through interacting with it, and our emotions can limit or enrich that interaction. (Senge 2005, p197)

I’m curious about the possibility of a bridge Goethean science could build in collaboration with Indigenous knowledge. There’s something I’ve heard not infrequently over the years from Aboriginal people, to the tune of ‘we’re ok, it’s you lot that need to get it together. Go and look after your own mob,’ or ‘where’s your Dreaming?’

I’m sure there are many ways to journey this. Goethean observation is just one tool to help enculturate and cultivate depth perception.

Not that this is necessarily straightforward. Personally, I need to work daily to integrate my recent education. My cultural background is distant from this way of being, busy as it is with busyness, with a thousand fleeting fears. This combines with my personal history; formative emotional experience that I found too difficult to integrate as a child. I grew up with a parent who believed absolutely in one story of western science – that current around the time of my birth, the report of the Club of Rome, the first science on the coming climate change chaos. I didn’t expect the world to be humanly habitable when I grew up unless we all came together in service of transformation. That turned out to be wrong. I expected a worldwide greens government once the state of the situation was known. No signs of that. I’ve grown up deluded, I’ve grown up believing my actions will change things. I’ve spent very little time being. Until I do, I imagine stress and forgetting to continue as default modes. I find I need to write my way back to grace, every morning when I return to my work – and if I don’t, I simply don’t remember my vaster body, and I waste my day in vagueness, a sense of not fitting in. To gain a sense of perspective I must enter my awareness into the aliveness of the actual scenario; intertwining biological processes, making in every moment, cells dividing and dying, water passing through our systems, tree and me, and the breathing of air between us. I engage with the wondrousness of my senses, and I slowly remember to “see.” I return to reality, as it were. And I’m astonished anew at how much we’ve abstracted out thinking from our bodies. I’m made aware of our failure to recognise that what people everywhere have named as ‘being with god’ can simply mean participating with this feeling of life, knowing oneself within the system of life unfurling.

My way of understanding these things is that I won’t be able to feel beyond myself if I haven’t learned to feel inside myself, I cannot listen to the earth unless I’m prepared to listen to myself.

Overwhelming shame or fear disable our capacity to listen.  I have to do so much emotional work in order to listen well. I’ve discovered it is essential to learn to give myself kindness and care. And why not; I too am the earth.

So now that I’ve done some work on self-soothing, I’ve practiced my inner listening, how is my outer listening progressing? Barely, I’d say. Truthfully, it’s very slow. I’m working at not shaming myself further by judging this, only to descend into a self-punishing anxiety spiral. Barely is not nothing. Barely is good. For as I’m practicing kindness with this body, I’m feeling kindness flowing from all things. As I honour the inner body with listening, I am more available for my outer body, this earth. I’m quieter inside, so listening is easier.

We cannot, with our everyday mind, understand the fullness of our biological nature. Our neocortex does not hold awareness of the multitude of functions the autonomic nervous system takes responsibility for; breathing, digesting, releasing egg into womb. Our bodies are mysterious to us. Yet we can consciously engage with our unconscious by an action such as watching the breath, as is done in meditation. We observe our organism, gently, and patiently. We witness its complexity, we sit with its mystery. And then, sometimes, a shift happens, and a wholly different awareness takes over. Such embodiment can enable enhanced sensory awareness, in turn, enhanced sensory awareness can lead to an experience of profound interrelatedness, a deep sense of being inextricably part of all things.  Wholeness, aware of itself. Wholeness, being itself.

Our mammal bodies, our upright gait attests to millions of years of shaping, of adaptation to fit a niche amid grassland and woodland, river and coast, and many hungry beings. How I have been made by the world is of greater interest to me than what I might make of the world. Is there, then, an effective and authentic mode of accessing this sense of ‘being made’? One can go walk around Kata Tjuta – then it’s easier, I knew, last week, that stone and wind and water made me. They are ancestors, they shaped this brain. The world, the whole world, made me.

But at home, at my desk, can I reverse my cultural norm of conscious awareness in favour of letting the unconscious lead me into new knowledge?

Listening. Witnessing. I can engage with another being, or my own body, as an ‘other’. Witnessing is happening in either case. There is a sense of both of us, me and my body, or, say, the plant, coming into a fuller potential through our witnessing of each other. It is the cultural convention of this time to consider this my brain, rather than brain belonging to an entire realm, a place. We could instead understand it as a locus of conscious awareness, here, now. This brain as a place for the plant’s experience of itself to grow. We all grow, together. Kata Tjuta has brain, you go there, you understand how that site is sacred and sung, and gratitude for the Anangu and their Tjukurpa will undo you. It will undo you.

To be one with the ever-present field of interaction, giving conscious self-awareness to its ever-evolving, ever-creative flow. Here, we understand we are needed. Life, aware of itself, grateful, and humbled. This is the good and the true and the beautiful, this is culture, and humans everywhere have been doing it for thousands upon thousands of years.

All the world needs love such as this.

A few notes on practices

All of us fall in and out of different states of awareness all the time. Learning fluidity between states, practicing the transitions, integrating various modes of being and knowing, these can become part of our culture. Analysing and being need to work together create an embodiment of knowing, knowing which is empowered toward expression, a delicate, humble knowing which can, paradoxically, somehow express the mysterious presence of not-knowing. Sean Kane writes of how Indigenous peoples and oral cultures around the world addresses these different knowings in his Wisdom of the Mythtellers: ‘In negotiating a dialogue with nature, the mythteller safeguards a balanced and flexible exchange between two kinds of knowledge: one approached through ritual, skill and dream, the other through some form of consciously purposeful behaviour.’ (Kane 1994, p121)

What are rituals to heighten awareness of the pattern and the process?

Breathing together, together with trees, breathing in their outbreath, their gift of life to us, they breathing in our outbreath, our gift of life to them.

Feeling the air, acquainting ourselves with invisibility. What is air? Invisible, ungraspable, sometimes we feel it, warm or cool, streaming toward us. Often we don’t feel it at all. But what if we walk through air as presence, and walk mindfully – walking meditation as encounter with mysterious other, mysterious self. How does that change things when we move, each moment attentive to air? To experience the generosity of how it opens before us, the way it cradles us, encompasses us, is a practice of gratitude.


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Goethe, J. W. von.  Goethe’s Botanical Writings, B. Mueller, trans. Woodbridge: Ox Bow Press, 1989

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Seamon, David, Goethe, Nature and Phenomenology. In Seamon, David & Zajonc, Arthur, (editors) Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998

Senge, Peter (et al). Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organisations and Society. London: Nicholas Brealey, 2005

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Ungunmerr, Miriam-Rose. About Dadirri. http://www.miriamrosefoundation.org.au/about-us/about-dadirri 2002

Varela, Francisco. Thompson, Evan and Rosch, Eleanor. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. London: MIT Press, 1993

Ward, Maya. The Comfort of Water: A River Pilgrimage. Yarraville: Transit Lounge, 2011

Zajonc, Arthur. Meditation as Contemplative Enquiry: When Knowing Becomes Love. Great Barrington: Lindisfarne Books, 2009

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