Many of us live in a culture obsessed with ascension.
Traditional religion or new age spirituality - faith or intellectual reasoning - business or social hierarchy: it is the same concept in different words.
Rise above your animal instincts.
Ascend to heaven.
Overcome the body's craving.
Raise your profits.
Climb the ladder of success.
Grow towards the light.
Move your energy up through the chakras.
We are rising, striving, climbing, trying so hard to go up up up. We are following the arrow - aiming high - trying to take a straight line up a linear path toward god, insight, success, freedom.
The result of this is that we are taught to avoid, and even fear, descent. Think about words associated with down: decline, drop, sink, fall, decrease. How do those words make you feel? Most of them have negative connotations - they are linked to feelings of fear, loss, or failure.
There is a long history in European culture of associating ascension with all things holy or progressive: the thinking mind, ideas, rationality, spirituality, godliness, heaven. And its opposite - descent - is considered profane or degenerative. Descent is connected to the body and all its messy desires and impulses, the unpredictable and uncontrollable forces of nature, the earth, demons, hell.
This kind of dualistic thinking is problematic for lots of reasons (especially when we get gender - and concepts like masculinity and femininity - involved). And while there's nothing wrong with ascension in and of itself, this kind of exclusionary approach, where one direction - UP - is preferable over the other, everything associated with the descent becomes undesirable or downright dangerous to the project of progress.
Why do we do this?
Why do we prefer ascension? Perhaps descent reminds us of the primal fear of the unknown and the invisible: the creatures that could be lurking in the dark recesses of the cave. Or perhaps it is the fear of letting go, of giving up or giving in to the parts of ourselves that seem uncontrollable, the parts of us that simply crave.
Western culture has made a habit of denying the body's needs and desires in the pursuit of intellectual growth or religious piety. We are walking around like floating heads or disembodied spirits, completely dissociated from the feelings and desires of our body in an attempt to keep going up a linear line - to rise above our human weaknesses and achieve something great (like enlightenment, wealth, success, progress, salvation, or spiritual immortality).
We live in a society obsessed with youth and in serious denial about aging, death, and the role that we play in the organic cycles of nature. Personally, I think our anxiety about mortality is at the core of our fear of descent. Descent reminds us too much of the fragility of the human body and the inevitability of death and decay. And most of us would rather focus on climbing up, toward some promise of a better life (or afterlife), than face the reality of our own mortality.
Why does this matter?
In a culture of ascension, the body and the earth are often seen as mere tools or even obstructions on the linear path to god-success-progress. We are so busy looking and climbing UP, that we fail to look down at the damage we cause in getting there.
We are poisoning our bodies and poisoning our land. We are over-tapping and exhausting our energy resources and pumping in chemicals to keep them productive. We treat our bodies similarly: working ourselves to exhaustion and drinking coffee or other stimulants to stay fueled, to keep climbing. We are supporting leaders and hierarchies that divide us against one another and create social and financial inequality. We are perpetuating the hope that another place - up there somewhere (either in heaven or in space) - will be better than this one.
I'm curious what would happen if we stopped avoiding descent, if we slid down the linear line and curve it inward, in order to learn more about what makes us human, imperfect and fragile. Would we feel more connected to our bodies and their needs, instead of trying to escape them? Would we become better at living in balance with the earth, instead of trying to leave it for another reality? Would we treat each other with more respect and understanding, instead of climbing over one another to reach the top?
I want to reclaim descent and use it as a practice to redefine how we relate to our bodies, to the earth and to each other. I want to drop down into my own body, to understand the sensations and desires that fuel my flesh. I want to descend into my humanity, to crawl into the dark and damp places, worm my way like roots through soil, and curl against the warmth of the earth's core.