The Metaphor of “the Flesh” and the Aliveness of Reality

In Spell of the Sensuous (a book celebrating and explaining the animist perspective), David Abram quotes extensively from the French philosopher of phenomenology, Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Merleau-Ponty experienced the world as a living medium, i.e. the world weaves itself entirely out of sensing, living, acting subjects, whether or not we scientifically classify them as such. The air, the rocks, the colors, the smells, other beings, whether (in the words of Tom Brown, Jr.) “living, growing” or just “living”, all these entities act, feel, and relate.

He called this reality, “the Flesh”. Merleau-Ponty affected me profoundly by his notion of “the Flesh”, and made me more aware of what I experience when I experience the aliveness of reality. We have many cultural taboos against a world whose value originates fundamentally in a fleshy experience, certainly. Phrases such as “sins of the flesh” spring to mind.

Ironically, Tom Brown, someone who I respect and cherish as a teacher, has used just such notions to contrast a deeper experience in nature. In his books, he speaks of “the false gods of the flesh”. I at once know exactly what he means, and also feel uncomfortable with that articulation. “The false gods of the flesh” has always felt like something that a fundamentalist christian would lecture me about, as he wagged his finger. Yet I know the destructiveness of greed and materialism, the falseness of their claim to satisfy.

When I think of greed, however, I think of a disease of the mind, not the flesh. “Wanting” something that I don’t have, takes me out of my body, takes me out of the moment, deeper into my head, not deeper into my flesh.

It seems to me calling them “the false gods of the flesh” misdirects one’s attention from the source of the problem: the mind.

Would it clarify the challenge that the modern age presents us, to call greed, materialism, distraction, “the false gods of the mind”, instead?

Doesn’t the gratitude of each breath, each moment, take us deeper into our bodies, into our flesh, connecting us deeper with the actions and experiences that truly satisfy, rather than the doping substitutes of TV, drugs, abusive relationships, houses, 72 F central heating, etc., which take us deeper into our fevered brains?

I think so. I think the only gods that will not lead us astray, the only gods without falseness, we will find in the gods of the flesh.

The very ground we walk on, many (all?) indigenous people consider it the flesh of mother earth. Does this not make the air, the flesh of the sky? The waters, the liquid flesh, blood? The stones, the mineral flesh, the bones? Lightning and electricity, one of many energetic fleshes, the same as the ones that light up and spark within our own flesh? All living, feeling, sensitive tissues, one pressed upon another, all dancing, relating, speaking together.

What magic happens when we open our bodies to such a world? The oneness of our flesh, nestled in with that of our vast mother, we small moving beings in an immense cooperating body, a vast landscape of living flesh, all celebrating together the community of life.

Written by Willem