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The transformative power of autistic thinking

Poet and essayist Chris Martin works with autistic writers to help them transform their lives through their art. In a positively riveting recent essay at Literary Hub, he reflects on the critical — and rising — value of the autistic perspective at a time when our relationship to “the more-than-human world” has entered an acute crisis:

Neurotypical brains, which prioritize human content, zero in on the complex dance of social life unfolding around us, alert at all times to a change in the established choreography. A great poet, however, must ground their work in sensory observations that move past the often transactional nature of human experiences to get at the vast “real world” going on all around. We too often miss or overlook what’s really going on around us. And that’s what autistic writers do naturally. . . .

When we think of unique and caring individuals like [my autistic student] Bill as a collection of deficits, we not only risk alienating them, but we also put in jeopardy the parts of ourselves that exist necessarily outside the so-called norm. In life, as in poetry, we must remain open and assume ability, so we don’t miss out on crucial lessons like the one Bill taught us that day at Hallam Lake, as he deftly tapped into the vicarious life of a crippled bird. And we must learn, like Bill, to hear the hurt and yearning of the more-than-human world and cultivate the rich, layered, and autistic attention our planet desperately requires. . . .

Autistic thinkers habitually see and hear with an environmental bandwidth that dwarfs their neurotypical counterparts. They perceive widely, warmly, and with an earnest curiosity that treats the more-than-human world as a phenomenal network to be engaged, not a menu of resources to be exploited. . . . Where others perceive nothing but a mute backdrop to their busy human affairs, these autistic thinkers comprehend a bustling chorus of more-than-human voices accompanied by a dense dance of more-than-human forms. . . .

Gonzalo Bernard, an autistic artist and shaman, has written about autism as “the shaman’s disease.” He points to the oracular within the echolalic, the dervish inside the stim. To Bernard, [my student] Hannah’s song is no different from his om, giving the contemplative mind a root from which to bloom. It is this mixture of truth, connection, and contemplation that endows the autistic thinker with transformative abilities. They can see what others can’t, because their eyes are wide open to the more-than-human world, preferring the periphery to direct contact. They not only hear with greater acuity than their neurotypical counterparts, but also hear more widely, more deeply. The strength of their empathy for the more-than-human world leads autistic thinkers to completely transform the way we talk about environmental crisis. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that autistic voices are among our best resources for facing climate change. We, as a species, need to enter a stage of deep listening if we are to survive. Our listening must grow, as Hannah wrote, ever deeper.

More: “The Listening World: Neurodivergent Voices for a More-Than-Human World

Collapse and dystopia: Three recent updates on our possible future


It looks like we can forget about “collapse fatigue,” the term — which I just now made up (or maybe not) — for the eventual exhaustion of the doom-and-collapse meme that has been raging its way through our collective public discourse and private psyches for the past decade-plus. I say this based on three recent items that have come to my attention spontaneously, as in, I didn’t go looking for them, but instead found them shoved into my awareness.

ONE: Just a couple of weeks after James Howard Kunstler asked “Are You Crazy to Continue Believing in Collapse?” — and answered, in sum, “No” — we now see that

TWO: a new collapse warning of rather epic proportions and pedigree has begun making its way through the online doom-o-sphere, starting with a piece in The Guardian:

A new study sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution. Noting that warnings of ‘collapse’ are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to “precipitous collapse – often lasting centuries – have been quite common.”

. . . By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.

These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]” These social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse,” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”

. . . Modelling a range of different scenarios, Motesharri and his colleagues conclude that under conditions “closely reflecting the reality of the world today . . . we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.”

Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?

The study highlights, in a manner reminiscent of dystopian science fiction, the specific way this division into Elites and Masses not only might play out but has played out in the histories of real societies and civilizations: Read the rest of this entry

Alan Watts: “The Real You”

“It’s absolutely necessary that we let go of ourselves, and it can’t be done, not by anything that we call ‘doing it’ — acting, willing, or even just accepting things. . . . When you look out of your eyes at nature happening ‘out there,’ you’re looking at you. That’s the real you, the you that goes on of itself. . . . You’re breathing. The wind is blowing. The trees are waving. Your nerves are tingling.” — Alan Watts

(For all you who are wondering: Yes, this fairly sublime little music-and-video setting of some wonderful words by dear old Alan comes to us courtesy of John Boswell, the same man behind the Symphony of Science project.)

Recommended Reading 33

Recommendations this week, spanning a vastly broad variety of trends, issues, ideas, people, and subjects, include: the pressure on American policymakers to adapt to increasingly wild weather; Daniel Pinchbeck’s analysis of the wild weather and other aspects of our current ecological crisis as a collective planetary-spiritual experience of initiation into higher levels of consciousness; an assertion from Rupert Sheldrake that minds are not limited to brains; renowned philosopher Elliot Sober’s critique of renowned philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos; an analysis of the crisis facing the American publishing and literary world in an age of epic corporate mergers, along with a (self-admittedly futile) call for the enacting of government policies to protect culture; and a fascinating analysis of the “Gospel of O”: the idea of “emptying yourself for Oprah” that stalks proudly and prominently throughout the American media-cultural-psychological landscape. Also see the final entry below for a heads-up about a conversation that’s currently unfolding both here and elsewhere on the Internet about the meanings of horror, as spurred on by a recent Teeming Brain column. Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 31

This week’s recommended reading includes: a warning about and meditation upon the possible dire consequences of the human species’ spectacular success in dominating the planetary petri dish; a profile of a literary journal devoted to injecting ancient wisdom into the wasteland of the modern cyber-soul; a beautiful explanation and defense of literature’s inherent resistance to being “understood” by algorithmic data analysis; information and opinions on Mind and Cosmos, the new book in which philosopher Thomas Nagel argues for the inadequacy of the standard materialist version of science; a warning and lament about the artistically decrepit state of American cinema; a long 1979 article, written in the immediate aftermath of the original Stars Wars movie, that examines both the movie’s seismic cultural impact and its origin in the mind and machinations of George Lucas; notes on a recent lecture given by psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, famed for her research into the phenomenon of “hearing voices” and its psychological and cultural meanings; and a fascinating New York Times piece about a Greek island where people tend to live longer and healthier lives than anywhere else on the planet. Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 28

This week: posthumously offered words of warning and encouragement to an America in decline from Ernest Callenbach, author of the 1975 classic Ecotopia; insightful meditations on the intrinsic value of the humanities and their inherent resistance to being explained (as in, explained away) by quantitative scientific methodologies and approaches; a 1908 essay by a French author celebrating the philosophical value of “the scientific-marvelous novel,” i.e., science fiction; a penetrating essay by Adam Curtis on a classic 1990s BBC television series about ghosts and what it reveals about the real residing place of phantoms and specters in our modern mass media culture; and an essay by clinical psychologist and paranormal researcher James Carpenter on his fascinating theory about the fundamental and a priori place of what’s commonly called “psi” in the basic workings of human consciousness and perception. Read the rest of this entry

Terra Sacra Time Lapses (SHORT FILM)

Mesmerizing, beautiful, and even revelatory, this short film effectively does what the time lapse portions of Koyaanisqatsi did for contemporary urban-technological cityscapes and selected portions of untouched nature, only it expands the scope to encompass the planet as a whole — an appropriate ambition for a film titled “Terra Sacra,” Latin for “Sacred Earth.”

“Terra Sacra Time lapses” was photographed and edited by photographer-filmmaker Sean F. White in conjunction with projects he was working on for various high-profile media organizations (e.g., public television, National Geographic, The Discovery Channel), and it features a really fine original score by film and television composer Roy Milner. It also has its own Website, where White offers this evocative description of the project’s spiritual and practical genesis:

An around-the-world journey celebrating our Sacred Earth. Six-years in the making … seven continents … 24 countries.

My life as a filmmaker has been a journey which has blessed me with the privilege of seeing some of the most surreal and timeless places on the planet. These images of our Sacred Earth set to music are my way of sharing some of the magic I’ve experienced along the way … “Terra Sacra Time Lapses” is a short film featuring remote landscapes and ancient monuments from around the globe. These images were photographed between 2006-2012 on personal travels and assignments for Art Wolfe’s Travels to the Edge and Parallax Film Productions. I’ve combined my favourite shots from these trips into non-narrative film that touches on a theme close to my heart: Sacred Earth.

Frame from “Terra Sacra Time Lapses” by Sean F. White

… The six-minute film is a journey through three distinct Acts: (I) Primordial Earth (II) Past meets Present and (III) Eternal Universe. This film is a personal project to share the beauty and awe I witnessed at these locations. I hope viewers will be moved by the intangible power of our Terra Sacra.

For another short film that is formally unrelated but thematically and artistically akin to “Terra Sacred Time Lapses,” see “Within Two Worlds.”

Midway (FILM TRAILER) by Chris Jordan

Midway is, or will be, a film from the MIDWAY media project, and its trailer is one of those rare instances of the form that, like the megatrailer for Cloud Atlas, delivers a powerful experience in its own right.

Here’s what it’s all about:

The MIDWAY film project is a powerful visual journey into the heart of an astonishingly symbolic environmental tragedy. On one of the remotest islands on our planet, tens of thousands of baby albatrosses lie dead on the ground, their bodies filled with plastic from the Pacific Garbage Patch. Returning to the island over several years, our team is witnessing the cycles of life and death of these birds as a multi-layered metaphor for our times. With photographer Chris Jordan as our guide, we walk through the fire of horror and grief, facing the immensity of this tragedy — and our own complicity — head on. And in this process, we find an unexpected route to a transformational experience of beauty, acceptance, and understanding.

We frame our story in the vividly gorgeous language of state-of-the-art high-definition digital cinematography, surrounded by millions of live birds in one of the world’s most beautiful natural sanctuaries. The viewer will experience stunning juxtapositions of beauty and horror, destruction and renewal, grief and joy, birth and death, coming out the other side with their heart broken open and their worldview shifted. Stepping outside the stylistic templates of traditional environmental or documentary films, MIDWAY will take viewers on a guided tour into the depths of their own spirits, delivering a profound message of reverence and love that is already reaching an audience of tens of millions of people around the world.

In fulfillment of its description, the film looks to be beautiful, mesmerizing, haunting, and horrifying all at once. Nor is the convergence of these emotional and philosophical resonances an accident; the project’s director, the aforementioned Chris Jordan, is the internationally acclaimed artist and cultural activist whose startling, supersized images of Western culture’s almost inconceivable pollution and wastefulness — showing, for instance, how many paper cups or plastic water bottles we use in a day or a year — have achieved considerable notoriety and visibility in recent years, thanks largely to his widely circulated 2008 TED talk. Philosophically speaking, Jordan’s images

explore contemporary mass culture from a variety of photographic and conceptual perspectives, connecting the viewer viscerally to the enormity and power of humanity’s collective unconscious. Edge-walking the lines between art and activism, beauty and horror, abstraction and representation, the near and the far, the visible and the invisible, his haunting works ask us to look both inward and outward at the traumatized landscape of our collective choices.

Augmenting that description, Jordan’s own words bring out the deep fusion of ecological spirituality and authentic apocalypticism embodied in his work and mission:

I wonder if there may be some value in simply honoring this in-between place, acknowledging the space of open possibility where we stand. This is the moment of dissolution before the new form emerges, the imaginal space of potential from which all else will flow. As the marine scientist Sylvia Earle says: the next ten years are the most important in the next ten thousand.

It may be unnecessary to point out that this all resonates in perfect harmony and synergy with our focus here at The Teeming Brain on the deep meaning of apocalypse in an era of collapse, breakdown, revelation, and renewal by fire.

“Mossgrove / Bed of Moss” (SHORT FILM in 2 parts)

In distinct contrast to the surreal metaphysical/ontological grunge and horror of “Metachaos,” our other cinematic suggestion for today, here’s a linked pair of positively lovely short films, set to beautiful solo piano music and focusing on certain aspects of the natural world that usually go unnoticed by us humans. The paired title is “Mossgrove/Bed of Moss.” The director is Kurtis Hough. The music is by Rachel Grimes, from her album Book of Leaves. Hough describes the two films together as his “complete two part timelapse/macro art film exploring the lush mossy landscapes of Oregon.” More specifically, they explore the state’s slugs and moss.

Trust us, you’ll be surprised at how hypnotic the whole thing is.