Phenomenology: A New Way of Relating

March 18, 2014 | Posted in: Psychology



“For far too long, humanity has envisioned itself as an alien presence in nature, thus steering many of the world’s religions and moral codes toward a rebellion against our own natural being. Having constituted ourselves in opposition to nature, we adopt values and purposes that threaten the earth itself. Only a reconceptualization of our place and role in nature can work against this tragic disconnection from ourselves and from the wellspring of our being. To begin this task by reconnecting us with our most basic and primordial experiences of the natural world—such is the power and promise of eco-phenomenology.” Charles S. Brown


As children, we sponge up the cultural and familial stories that tell us “how the world is.” As we grow older, our working model of reality is shaped and solidified, based on these absorbed beliefs and our personal experiences. We’ll begin to live, quite unconsciously, our mental view of reality and, as if we were wearing lenses, our beliefs will filter and translate all incoming experience. These unconscious beliefs will be perpetuated indefinitely if our paradigm is never challenged.

Fortunately, today we are surrounded with such a wealth of information and a diversity of worldviews that new experiences are frequently throwing our notions of reality into question. If we allow ourselves to peek beyond the safe walls of how we think things are, we can encounter once more a state of “not-knowing” in which we’re able to experience the world as it comes into our conscious awareness, without falling into automatic old patterns of labeling and judging.

In the early 1900s, Edmund Husserl, a mathematician and philosopher, introduced his theory of phenomenology, which stood in direct opposition to the paradigm of his time which saw the world as mechanistic and completely determinable based on a known set of natural laws. In 1985, the environmentalist Neil Evernden released his book The Natural Alien, which first offered phenomenology as a way for individuals to establish new relationships to the ecological community and their own bodily senses.

“[Phenomenology is] a kind of deliberate naivety through which it is possible to encounter a world unencumbered with presuppositions… a return to the things themselves, to a world that precedes the knowledge and yet is basic to it, as countryside is to geography and blossoms to botany.” Neil Evernden

In phenomenology, the goal is nothing more than to be aware of sensory experience as it’s happening, ignoring any conceptualizations, labels, or judgements the mind might offer. David Abrams, in his wonderful book Spell of the Sensuous, states that through phenomenology we “seek not to explain the world but to describe as closely as possible the way the world makes itself evident to awareness, the way things first arise in our direct, sensorial experience.”

Phenomenology asks that when we encounter another entity in the world (be it animal, plant, rock, or sky) we give our focus initially not to labeling and categorizing. Rather we bracket such preconceptions so that instead we can be fully present as phenomena enters our conscious experience. Indeed, a phenomenologist seeks to treat each moment as a new experience, because truthfully it is. Every time we gaze upon our surroundings, we’re literally seeing a new world spread before us. It’s only the mind that can convince us that there’s nothing new to behold.

Girl in White in the Woods, Vincent van Gogh, 1882.

Girl in White in the Woods, Vincent van Gogh, 1882.

“[W]e don’t really perceive the beings around us unless we suspend our already-settled certainties, opening ourselves toward whatever pulse rides within each thing we meet. The expectation of a basic enigma at the heart of the every ostensible ‘object’ kindles a new humility within ourselves, engendering an empathetic attunement to our surroundings and a compassionate resolve to do lease harm.” David Abrams

When we were children, each tree was new and thus worth exploring. For most of us, by the time we reach adulthood our minds, upon encountering a tree, quickly and unconsciously label it “tree” and that’s the end of that. The tree becomes an object of little interest. Yet, our sensory experience is far more rich: sensorially, each tree is an entirely new being to experience, every time we encounter it.

In the face of powerful mental habits that ignore sensory experience as it’s arising, phenomenology seeks to reconnect humanity with the more-than-human world. It asks us to set aside our predetermined notions of what is, and what is possible, in order to encounter the more primal world that exists beneath human society and the ideologies inherent to it. Our sensory experience unfurls before us an ecological world filled with awareness, creativity, and wonder; a world that is constantly new every moment.

When we recognize that the entities around us are also taking in information, changing and adapting, and impacting the ecological community as a whole, the story changes from a mechanistic and mindless environment to an ever-changing world filled with knowing and value, where humans are but one expression, one wondrous way of being out of billions of wondrous ways.

Just one person out of 7 billion + on a journey to live a life that is vibrant, soul-fulfilling, useful to others, and consciously engaged with the ecological community that sustains all life, including mine and yours.