After several years of running an eco-theology company dedicated to “re-enchanting our world”, I realized I needed to talk more about why re-enchanting is so critical at this moment of human history.
To create regenerative - that is, life-renewing and life-giving - societies in the age of climate change, we need to engage in re-enchanting our lives and our world.
That’s a bold statement. ReEnchanting is necessary for surviving and thriving in a climate changed world?
If you thought, “huh?” Keep reading.
If you thought, “yes!” but are not sure how to explain this to your “sustainably minded” neighbor who might think, “what?” - keep reading!
Let us start with some history, through which we can tease out some working definitions.
Once upon a time, humans lived in an enchanted world. Plants and animals and humans all talked to one another in various forms. Ancestors and spirits dwelled in sacred groves and old caves. A walk in the woods evoked local knowledge your grandmother passed to you via stories and songs about the herbs and the fungi that you knew how to harvest. You trusted your body and your hands. Seeds held within them the memory of ceremonies, as well as the promise of food. Objects were not “dead”. Life brimmed with meaning of mythical proportions.
Really? Was there really a time when birds and animals talked to humans? Am I asking you to take that seriously?
The answer to that is: Yes. Take it seriously.
I also suggest that you lay aside some of the stricter definitions of “talking to” and lean into some of what you probably already know: trees have their own forms of communication: they can spread knowledge about danger and sickness and shifts in the eco-system. They can help one another. So do and can animals. Trees, birds, and animals have ways of knowing and communicating to one another that scientists are just beginning to understand. Most scientists’ findings line up with ancient indigenous wisdom (a rather vague term that I here mean to say that place-based knowledge that has been tested and proved viable over centuries, even millenia), though the way of tracking and describing that is different. Some of humans’ most important forms of communications which modern people are not particularly adept at, including myth (telling and creating), story-weaving, ritual, music-with-creation, and dreams, are spaces where non-humans can enter. Many medicines have come known to their “innovator” in dreams.
I only dabble in herbalism, but I have enough experience with teas and essential oils (I’ve been a trained and practicing healer for about two decades) and have talked with effective healers from India to Sweden to Kenya to be very confident in saying that the non-human world communicates with the human world all the time. The question not, are they talking to us, so much as it is: do we know how to listen, and if so, are we accepting what we are being told.
We don’t know because we live in a disenchanted world.
The great 20th century sociologist, Max Weber, used the concept of “disenchantment” to describe the character of the modernized, bureaucratic, secularized Western society, where scientific understanding is more highly valued than belief, and where process are orientated towards rational goals. Weber explained that we have lost the traditional view, in which the “world remains a great enchanted garden.”
Nietzsche, following Weber, referred to the loss of miracles in the modern life as part of the process of disenchantment. He writes, “Because of the way that myth takes it for granted that miracles are always happening, the waking life of a mythically inspired people - the ancient Greeks for instance - more closely resembles a dream than it does the waking world of a scientifically disenchanted thinker.”
This loss of miracles accompanies a deep malaise and a spiritual emptiness that has been commented on by social thinkers from Weber to such organizational development thinkers as Peter Senge and modern sociologists such as Burber, all of whom have decried the loss of the spiritual in our common life.
To once again quote Weber (1918):
The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world. Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.
From this arises alienation and detachment that undermines our subjectivity and the potentiality for moral engagement with our familial, civic and ecological contexts. (We can hear here tremors of Marx’s critique of the alienated life.) Carl Jung powerfully articulated this disenchantment:
Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos. He is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional participation in natural events, which hitherto had a symbolic meaning for him. Thunder is no longer the voice of a god, nor is lightning his avenging missile. No river contains a spirit, no tree means a man’s life, no snake is the embodiment of wisdom and no mountain still harbors a great demon. Neither do things speak to him nor can he speak to things, like stones, springs, pants and animals.
Isolated: yes. But the patterns of disenchantment leads to the primacy of mind as expressed by Descartes’ famous ‘I think therefore I am’, a statement so focused on the interiority and supremacy of the intellect that it can lead one to question if the outside world exists at all, a question that, in one of its most accute and painful form, denies agency in a time when we deeply need active human agency. In his brilliant essay on Marx and Gandhi, contemporary philosopher Akeel Bilgrami articulates four primary distinctions that have come to claw their way through our collective psyche in multiple institutional frames: the transition from nature to natural resources; human beings into citizens ; people into populations; and knowledge to live by into the concept of expertise to rule by. Each of these transitions is a ramification of a disenchanted world. ReEnchanting dares to reveal, reverse, and recreate better forms.
Disenchantment results from industrialization, yes. But it also results from the Great European witch hunts, and the systematic, violent destruction of a world of medicinal wisdom held by women. Disenchantment goes hand-in-hand with colonization: it made it increasingly easy to dismiss the mythical interpretations of the world held by indigenous peoples the world over and, through dismissing them, to subject, objectify and demonize the people who held those perspectives. It made it easy to cast aside as irrelevant those world views which did not align with a scientific, dis-enchanted perspective. That which is already dead and worthless is much easier to kill.
One of the great contemporary American writers, Leslie Marmon Silko from the Laguna Pueblo, writes of how Westerners see the world:
They see no life.
When they look
They see only objects.
The world is a dead thing for them
The trees and the rivers are not alive
The mountains and stones are not alive.
The deer and bear are objects.
They see no life
They fear the world.
They destroy what they fear.
They fear themselves. - Ceremony
Now, of course, science has made a shift. It is increasingly recognized that the universe is actually alive. Various words are used from various disciplines to describe a united wholeness in all of creation: Gaia hypothesis, panpsychism, unified field of reality, the Cosmic Christ, physicist Gregory Matloff suggests the possibility of a “proto-consciousness field” in which even stars may be “minded” entities who purposefully chart their own path through space.
In a recent talk on “emergence” as a property of systems theory, Daniel Schmachtenberger referred to the phenomenon where something utterly new arises from the sum of its parts as the closest thing we have to magic. That a scientist can refer to a property of universal systems as akin to “magic” is one of many signals that our society is shifting: magic and enchanted worlds are becoming far more acceptable in the popular imagination. No longer need science and myth and enchantment and even miracles be seen as so far apart: not when biologists write books about the Secret Language of Trees and neurologists are studying the dynamics of myth.
Now we can say with even greater certainty: the old sages and sadhus were right. We live in a living. breathing world. We are being breathed.
But the point here is not simply that we are coming to re-integrate the “traditional” and the “modern” world views, enabling “enchanted living” to come alive even stronger than before. No, the point is that this re-enchanting the world is necessary.
In my work to enable enchantment as a healer, educator, preacher-speaker, guide/coach and artist-entrepreneur, I find three main reasons why it is necessary:
Enchantment is a natural way that humans engage with the world and one another. We are living enchanted beings in a living enchanted being: it is who we are. It is not simply “childlike”, or rather, children are born with innate abilities that modern culture knocks out of them and tells them are unimportant in order to survive in the secular world. If the overly secular world is part of the problem behind colonization, industrialization and the climate-changed world we are now living in, then you can automatically get suspicious about any gesture that takes an innate human trait such as living in an enchanted world and then insists that we dismiss it in order to be “adults” - especially when that means that so many of our “artistic” and “creative” selves are subsequently dismissed at exactly the moment when our creativity is most needed.
It is a critical part of sensemaking and thus story-telling. And humans live in and through story. It opens our minds, bodies and hearts up to the natural world and other humans and the patterns that are happening around us. Enchanting processes help us engage with and make sense of the enormous complexity and chaos around us. In a world of increased uncertainty, we need to be engaged more substantially in sensemaking. Sensemaking, patternmaking: this is the beginning of crafting new stories. It is also critical to any form of magic making and shifting consciousness and is highly supportive to enabling miracles.
It connects us with nature and other people and cultures that are not our own (or that we have been taught to dis-member from ourselves) - both of which are critical. If part of the basic cause of social and ecological destruction (never should we forget one without also bringing in the other, as the two are inherently interconnected even as they are distinct) is the “us-them” mindset in which humans are very, very separate from nature and from other humans, especially when that separation takes the form of domination, then enchantment is part of how we return home.
I realize I have, to a certain extent, danced around clearly defining the term “enchantment”. In her beautiful book, The Enchanted Life, argues for four major components of enchantment: that it is founded upon a sense of fully participating in a living world; it incorporates wonder and curiosity; it is embodied; it is an emanation of the mythic imagination (p38). Her definition brings us out of the common dictionary definition of something full of “child-like wonder” and “enjoyment”. I would like to go further than that, digging into the word itself a bit.
“Enchanting” is, literally, to chant over something. To engage with sound. NOt necessarily or only to be “understood”. Not to write an essay or to make an argument. To enchant, to chant, may or may not be understood at an intellectual level.
Many chants start with a hum deep in the throat. A culturally appropriate variation of an “om”. A connection to the sound that was the sound at the beginning of the universe. One often rocks or shakes the body when chanting, evoking not only the trance but the movement within the trance: the movement between the molecules and the atoms, between stars and lovers, between the alluring forces of attraction at the heart of all motion; all sex; all love; all life. The movement that is also a source of stillness, evoking and bringing us to a center that is the center of all beings. To enchant is to go there. It evokes muttering: that ancient language between mother (mutter in German) and child; a language that we instinctively use with animals large and small. To chant-over is to evoke that ancient power that is at the heart of all beings and to be in it and then to direct it. There is a consciousness, an intention - not from the outside looking in but from the inside looking around. From the inside we are participants and co-creators. Each note is like a thread, a thread that is connected to all of space and time, and we can weave those threads, and we do so through the magic of incantation. We bring bones to life.
(I could delve here into a long philosophical explanation of the importance of participation but I won’t bother because it is the experience, the experience the rocking motion of chanting that is important, not the arguments behind it.)
From within we can touch that great tangle of the web of relationships that holds all of life together and we can begin to work with it; to weave it. We weave it not with technology (by which I mean a tool that is outside of yourself and that you manipulate to your will) but with our artistic sensibility. That sense which knows the force of anime: life. Anime Powerful. Threatening. Sometimes scary and definitely not in our control.
But this is our inheritance as two legged creatures, passed down to us through traditional dance and song, calls-and-responses, seed-planting rituals and physical forms of prayer. To reEnchant is to engage with all of these sacred dimensions of time and space, of people and seeds and nature, of myth and storytelling and embodied, non-sensible motions that can lead us to where we are going. Indeed, it is to engage with the basic structure of magic and miracles, synchronicity and emergence, messiness and madness; laughter and love.
Now we might ask - what does Enchantment look like today, in everyday life? Some examples from the community I have been cultivating, in the relative protection of our proverbial Sacred Sequoia Grove created via online courses, includes:
Talking about climate change via childrens' books
Creating and playing with rituals, song, music, dance - and integrating that into all critical areas of life, from love to divorce to putting on solar panels to taking significant steps forward in your organization or network.
Telling the stories of plants you work with: not just their name and their “use”. Plants are more than their “use”. They are part of ecosystems and eco-systems are embedded in stories and myths. I’ll be doing a series on the mythical plants used in natural dies for some bags we are selling!
Chanting. How often do we let ourselves engage in chanting? Maybe it is a mantra in your prayer or meditation, an affirmation for changing your mindset, or a liturgy at high mass: there are many ways of chanting, and all of them have value.
When you go for a walk in the woods, wonder about the stories different peoples have told about the different plants. Pause. Note the bird song. Touch the tree bark. Listen. What do you hear through your fingertips? Sing to the stone. How does the song make you feel?
To engage with climate change seriously is to engage with trauma. Enchanting processes (shaking, dancing, chanting, making art, music, rituals, sharing with others, silence….) all of that helps you release that trauma from your body so you can be fully alive and present for whatever comes your way.
To enchant is to engage in the ancient arts of healing - from a much, much wider perspective. It is to ask, “where does this come from”? It is to look at a place and wonder about the stories indigenous peoples told about it. It is to look at a plant and wonder about the many, many perspectives. To live an enchanted life is to let your own perspectives shift and change.
It is to engage with your sensuality and sexuality as part of your spiritual life and part of what it means to be involved with the ecological world you live in. It is to seek the “dampness” of the earth as well as the clarity of the mind; the natural ebb and flow of rivers and sex and death as well as the so-called objects of computers and space ships.
It is to return and strengthen the child-wonder-awe: a state of deep gratitude and belonging.
It is to use circular calendars and acknowlege that we do not live in a clockwork universe but that space and time both curve, the past is in the present, progress is not always or maybe ever linear.
It is to create new myths, new stories, new rituals, new spiritual practices - even as it is to engage with the old. It is to find ways to integrate the seemingly oppositional forces.
It is to take the time to grow mint in your garden or even just in a small pot in your kitchen, and then to make tea from it, your garden and sip it slowly, and know that you do not in that moment depend upon a global trade cycle that brings you pre-packaged tea from three different parts of the world: you are sovereign, your food and your body and your sense of sent are all your own. And they are good.
Yes, yes. It is to be with the goodness of the world, regardless and even because of all that is falling apart.