The culture of direct experience
And how we lost it, but just might be getting it back.
Once upon a time, we used to know things.
Things about our inner and outer landscapes, from Earthly to cosmic cycles; what our bodies, minds, and souls needed; how to be part of this planet without depleting it.
And then, we forgot.
Humans began as hunter-gatherers, living not off of but along with the land. Individuals and societies were in symbiosis with the natural world, because they had to be. They understood how the movements of celestial bodies exerted similar forces upon the life below, driving seemingly infinite cycles of death and rebirth. A shrinking number still live like this today, hunter-gatherer peoples whose survival relies upon a deep, broad knowledge of the local environment: sources of water and shade; areas populated with edible plants and frequented by animals; the ebb and flow of tides and turning of seasons that drives the movement of species.
Everyone in these societies has to be familiar with the local pharmacoepia: the plants, herbs, and fungi that can be either medicine or poison, depending on the dosage. While individuals with especially potent abilities may apprentice as healers or shamans, this knowledge isn’t restricted to a specialized class. It’s literally a matter of life or death, and all members of the group grow up learning how to nourish themselves—and, perhaps most importantly, to be their own healers. Herbs, plants, and fungi are not only used as food and medicine, but spiritual sacrament, and people are taught which preparations and settings are suited to each purpose, practices handed down through generations of elders.
Hunter-gatherer societies tend to have “animist” belief systems, a catch-all term describing that everything in the Universe is imbued with an animating force: not just animals, plants, and people, but rocks and minerals, water and light, sometimes even objects and words. Cosmologies passed down from the planet’s first people recognize and honor the balance of the elements—earth, water, fire, and air, but also ether, the stuff soul is made of, containing and permeating everything; the unseen substance that makes up so-called empty space.
Long before modern physics, Indigenous societies have known that energy cannot be created or destroyed. They communicate with the spirits of plants, animals, ancestors, and the etheric realm primarily through altered states: ingesting a plant, herb, or beverage; dancing, chanting, or meditating; anything that induces a hypnagogic state, the place between waking and dreaming. While ceremonies may be led by shamans, these practices are not the purview of a priestly class. They’re freely accessible to everyone who can breathe, sit, move, or utter sound, and the original religion was a spirituality of direct experience.
Hunter-gatherer societies have also historically emphasized sharing, from food to sex and parenting and spiritual ceremonies, celebration, and mourning. Individuals know how to resource themselves and provide for their kin while preserving the ecosystem in which they’re embedded and upon which they depend. And they do it not just for practicality, but because they’ve directly experienced all of it as imbued with the divine.
Even agriculture started off as a reciprocal practice, though this was the beginning of the end for most direct-experience cultures. People no longer had to read the signs written in the wind, leaves, and animal tracks, but could fix themselves in place, extracting from the land. For the first time, people sustained a larger population than the land could naturally support, and numbers grew. Yet some cultures maintained traditions that worked with the Earth’s natural cycles, conducting agricultural activities by the cycles of the moon and movements of planetary bodies. In others—those that became the Global North—they metastasized into ever-more extractive measures, giving rise to industrialization, commodification, and capitalism.
Feeding growing populations became a full-time job, which meant that some people had to specialize in farming—while others lost this knowledge altogether. Gathering, meanwhile, was made largely obsolete, along with the feminine bodies that once performed this essential social role, who also became the property of the new power barons, along with the land where men now erected enclosures. Knowledge of natural resources and sustainable farming, passed down largely through oral tradition and apprenticeship, was gradually lost. Along with food production, healing and spiritual practices also became the purview of specialist classes, outsourcing salvation to intermediaries who sell your own body and soul back to you at a premium.
As recently as 200 years ago, even non-Indigenous Americans knew where their food came from, and most still grew it themselves or were in a direct relationship with the person who did, often trading for it with goods and services. Today, as the pandemic revealed, most don’t know how to cook a meal or even stock a pantry; nourishment is increasingly provided by complex networks of apps, chefs, and couriers that foster dependence on not only other people, but devices. We even outsource those most fundamental activities, making sounds, creating art, and moving our bodies, to professional performers and artists who are “better” at it than we are, consuming their offerings as passively as an Uber Eats delivery.
Technology has made us simultaneously more isolated and interconnected than ever before. Yet both in response to, and as a result of, innovations like the Internet and smartphones, the Global North is seemingly experiencing an archaic revival. Growing numbers of people are supporting local farmers and starting their own gardens; holding festivals that operate on gifting economies; finding transcendence through singing, dance, and somatic-focused events; reconnecting with nature, the divine, and each other through psychedelic states. But even here emerge the gatekeepers, existing, as it all does, within hierarchical structures and cultures.
Psychedelics, for example, are entering the mainstream through clinical trials and research studies where scientists have to “prove” these substances “work” for treating the outcomes of trauma in tightly controlled settings, administering the most unpredictable and individually variable substances in a one-size-fits-all setting, sometimes by providers who have never even used them. But these substances work the way the Universe does, by introducing just the right amount of chaos to keep everything in balance, which doesn’t map to the scientific realm, with its focus on replicability. Perhaps most importantly, these frameworks put an intermediary between us and our own consciousness and spiritual practice—outsourcing the essence of human experience for often-unobtainable costs.
Besides, the “cutting-edge” science of the Global North is merely offering physical evidence for what ancient and Indigenous peoples already knew: that we are nature, food is medicine, drugs are good for you, and everything is spiritual. New technologies such as mass spectrometry and gas chromatography allow us to look more closely at life than ever before, applied to everything from fossils and ancient remains to neurons and psychoactive chemicals, and the closer we look, the more we see that everything is interconnected.
Systems theory now permeates every field from medicine to social science and psychology, revealing biology as ecology and what we once viewed as separate—from the human organism to the “disorders” and diseases that spread through bodies, brains, and generational lines—are both the hosts and products of a web of interwoven ecosystems. Studies show that plants, fungi, and trees send messages through vast networks, make their own music, and even scream when harvested, while animals communicate through languages as complex as human ones.
Life itself is emergent and self-organizing, the complex arising from the simple; it’s written in the fractal patterns of snowflakes, crystals, and cacti and described by some scientists and philosophers as information theory. Described millennia ago by Vedic cosmology, we now see that not even space is really empty: the ancient element of ether is what some call the quantum field, the cloud of endless possibility through which nondual energies pass, seemingly fixed entities that are constantly changing, everything undulating and vibrating, made material by the act of observing them.
Anthropologists now know that people in early foraging societies were much healthier than we’ve been led to believe, with longer lifespans, stronger bones, and even taller stature than their agrarian descendants. It’s not only acceptable to call capitalism—agriculture’s direct ancestor—the root of nearly all modern suffering, it’s cliché. And clinical psychedelic trials reveal that these chemicals and concoctions can heal what ails the body, mind, and soul, trying to find the neural correlates of transcendence and quantify the mystical experience that has been lived since time immemorial by consciousness explorers and spiritual seekers all over the world.
But we don’t have to beat ourselves up for this late awakening; we’re the products of a culture that adopted science as its new religion, a cosmology whose rituals and rites revolve around the physical senses. In this worldview, to tangibly perceive something is to revere it, and for some, science is a path to awakening as profound as any spiritual ritual. Indeed, science is an essential element in our collective awakening. The problem comes when it’s declared the only truth, made dogma just like religion and forced upon others who haven’t lived more esoteric realities.
I hope the Global North can rediscover the culture of direct experience before it’s too late. That means offering access to the knowledge and practices that empower people to heal and nourish, connect and transcend, creating the worlds in which they want to live. For once you’ve felt, with every fiber of your being, that you are not only connected to everything in the Universe, you are it, your particles made of the same ever-loving stuff that runs in and around and beside and through everything that makes this world beautiful and terrible and so totally worth it, well, there’s no turning back. You’ll get thirsty for the richness of the rare and precious experience that is life on Earth, and you’ll want everyone else to experience it, too.
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