Winter Campfire 5

by Carl Strang

Winter is a time when we slow down and become introspective. Sitting and staring into the fire, we ponder the big questions. If you have been following this blog, you know that the focus here is science, science that can be done simply in outdoor settings. But we are more than scientists, and science has well defined limitations that need to be understood by everyone who does science or studies its findings. This winter I am using one post per week to develop my own viewpoint and biases, in particular sharing my take on the relationship between science and spirituality. In part this defines for me what these two realms of human experience are all about, and also develops the separate methods used for inquiry in each realm. I plan to place this paragraph in front of each entry in this series, so that those who are interested only in natural history or in scientific practice can skip these posts.

Advanced Awareness: Intuitive Techniques

In one of the classes I took from Tom Brown, Jr., he and his instructors took my group of students out half a mile from camp one night, had us blindfold ourselves, and told us to make our way back through the woods to camp, following the sound of a drum that was being pounded by an instructor. We found that we could somehow feel the spaces between the trees and go to them after a couple of encounters with trunks. By the time we made it back to camp, we could feel masses of brush and avoid them, as well. My initial interpretation of this experience was that we were using an additional sense, called proximity sense by some, which gives us information about nearby physical objects and spaces. At first, most people find spaces easier to identify confidently than objects. This is easier to do with massive objects like trees than with smaller ones. In 2009, Spanish researchers reported that they could teach people to echolocate by listening to sounds they produced with a particular type of palatal tongue click. It is possible that the complex range of pitches and harmonics produced by our footsteps in the dry leaves may have included echoing sounds we were decoding in this way. Some things I have seen done by advanced martial arts practitioners lead me to keep this interpretation open, however.

The most practical of the intuitive subgroup of awareness techniques is gut feeling. It involves paying attention not only to sensations from without, but those within. We are part of the landscape through which we are moving. In most people, some impressions are registered indirectly, not in the brain but projected into the gut. I find that gut feelings confirm or deny my conclusions, my choices. I feel drawn toward some possibilities, repelled from others. This is one form of intuition, an important foundation for awareness that we in our Western, rational society have neglected. Once people get around the brain’s ability to mimic gut feeling, and use it purely, they often find it a great awareness tool. 

When profound relaxation and practice in intuition are combined, remarkable experiences can result. I was walking a trail in the Morton Arboretum, a wonderful private-foundation-run area in my county, a few years ago. I crossed a dry stream bed and followed a trail that ran 15 yards above it. I was contemplating a beautiful oak when I got a message, as though someone were speaking in my head, to hold very still, as a large animal was coming toward me along the streambed. A minute or so later I saw a glimpse of it, in the distance, a yellow color to its fur. Soon it was passing below me, a red fox with a dead chipmunk in its mouth. It reached the place where I had crossed the streambed a few minutes earlier, turned around, and quickly went back the way it had come.

Sometimes intuition makes use of metaphors. I was building a survival shelter for demonstration purposes in a brushy area of the preserve where I worked. I had been taking my time, doing it right without visibly damaging the landscape, and it had taken all day. I was carrying an armload of leaves for bedding, still out of sight of the shelter, when my eye was drawn to a bit of litter, a broken piece of black plastic shaped like a claw. I had the impression that something described by that plastic was at my shelter. I had visions of some black-leather-clad vandal, and very quietly wound my way through the last 50 yards of footpath. Then I had to laugh.  A black cat was investigating the shelter. This cat had been a frequent visitor to the forest preserve for over a year, but was so aware and so stealthy that except for a handful of sightings, I knew it mainly by its tracks. The insulation of the shelter had masked my approach, and when I started to laugh, the cat practically turned itself inside out as it exited the shelter and fled.

The Whole Landscape is a term I use for the combination of physical and intuitive techniques, applied to the surroundings as a whole. We need to treat all the senses the way we’ve been treating vision. It’s time to hear, smell, feel in the three dimensions, out to the limits of the landscape, in wide angle, i.e., in all directions at once. Maintaining The Whole Landscape for even half an hour can produce a sense of magic, a comprehensive connection to place. Hearing, scanning, moving slowly and gut feeling are the most important contributing elements.

I should insert here the observation that neurophysiologists do not ignore intuition. One hypothesis is that subconscious integration of subliminal sensory cues with memory and experience leads to gut feelings and other intuitive experiences. I have no quarrel with that, to a point, but as far as I know such an interpretation goes well beyond the data at present. Intuition is complex, a catch-all term. I am not prepared to rule out spiritual aspects. For the moment I want to emphasize its value as a technique for awareness, but as such it is a method that has applications in spiritual inquiry as well as physical exploration. More will be forthcoming on this topic in this series.

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