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Episode 1: The Art of Descent

photograph taken by Rachael Dunville 

photograph taken by Rachael Dunville 

In this episode, I introduce the idea of descent - of dropping down into our sensual experience. I also share some thoughts on our ascension-obsessed cultures, and why reclaiming descent is an essential part of redefining our relationship with the earth and our body.

Would You Rather Read This Episode? Here's a Transcript...

You’re listening to the Ekstasy Vine Podcast, episode one.

Hello - and welcome, to the Ekstasy Vine Podcast, where were we explore the sensual landscapes of nature and the body. My name is Ekstasy, and in this episode, I want to talk a little bit about a concept that I think is really essential to the art of reclaiming our relationship with the earth and our body - and that is the concept of descent.

And what I mean by descent is the practice of dropping down into the sensations of the body and reconnecting to our primal core - so that part of us that is so intimately tied to the earth, other species, and our own wildness.

But before we get into descent, I actually wanted to address its opposite - so the concept of ascent. I honestly think we are surround by cultures that are obsessed with ascension. Every day, we are encouraged to reach or to keep rising, striving, climbing, overcoming. Whether it’s traditional religious language or new age spirituality - the sciences - the world of business - or social hierarchy - it is basically the same concept, just dressed up in different words. So we hear things like…

Rise above your animal instincts.
You will 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 your chakras.
Reach for enlightenment.

So we’re all aiming high - following the arrow - trying to take a straight line up a linear path toward a goal - or whether that goal is insight, success, freedom, god, we’re just being taught all the time to go up.

And there is a really long history in European cultures especially of associating ascension with all things holy or progressive: the thinking mind, ideas, rationality, spirituality, godliness, heaven. These are all concepts that are associated with going up.

And while there's nothing wrong with ascension in and of itself, the problem is that descent - by virtue of being the opposite of all things desirable and holy - is that it’s usually considered profane or degenerative. So descent becomes connected to the body and all its messy desires and impulses, those unpredictable and uncontrollable forces of nature, the earth, demons, and even hell.

So I want you to take a second and think about some words associated with down: decline, drop, sink, fall, decrease. And I want you to see how do those words actually make you feel? Most of them have negative connotations - they are linked to feelings of fear, loss, or failure. The result of this is that we are both consciously and subconsciously taught to avoid and fear descent and all the things associate with it - including the earth and the body.

We are walking around like floating heads - constantly up in our minds, thinking thinking thinking all the time - or we’re disembodied spirits, trying to get out of our bodies and ascend and overcome the body’s cravings and needs. We’re dissociated from our feelings and our desires of our body because we’re trying 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).

Why does any of this matter? I mean, who cares if we are obsessed with ascension and we want to avoid descent? Well, for me, what I observe in a culture of ascension, the body and the earth are often seen as tools or even obstructions on this linear path to god-success-progress or whatever it is that we’re aiming for. So we are so busy looking and climbing UP, that we fail to look down at the damage that we’re causing to get there.

In some really practical terms, we are over-tapping and exhausting our energy resources here on the earth and pumping in chemicals into the soil to keep them productive. We’re treating our bodies pretty much exactly the same: working ourselves to exhaustion and then drinking coffee or other stimulants to try to stay fueled, to keep climbing. We are supporting leaders or hierarchies that divide us against each other and create social and financial inequality. We are perpetuating the hope that another place - out there - up there somewhere (either in heaven or in space) - will be better than this one, here. All of that is leading to a lot of suffering - for ourselves, our communities, and our planet.

So the question becomes, why do so many cultures seem to prefer ascension? We’re seeing the effects of it, but why are we doing this?

Personally, I think our anxiety about mortality is at the core of our fear of descent. Many of us live in a society that’s obsessed with youth and in serious denial about aging, or death, and the role that we play in the organic cycles of nature. Descent reminds us way 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), rather than face the reality of our own mortality.

Descent reminds us of the primal fear of the unknown and the invisible: those creatures that could be lurking in the dark recesses of the cave. And it’s also the fear of letting go, of giving up or giving in to the parts of ourselves that seem uncontrollable, those deep, dark parts of us that simply crave.

So I’m really curious what would happen if we stopped avoiding descent, if we actually slid down the linear line and curve it inwards, in order to learn more about what makes us human, imperfect and fragile.

I wonder, would we feel more connected to our bodies and their needs, instead of trying to escape them all the time? Would we become better at living in balance with the earth, instead of trying to leave it for some other reality? Would we treat each other with more respect and understanding, instead of climbing over each other just to reach the top?

Personally, 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 the desires that fuel my flesh. I want to descend into my humanity, to crawl into those dark and damp places, worm my way like roots through soil, curling up against the warmth of the earth's core.

But this can be really scary, especially for those of us who’ve been taught to be afraid of the dark - afraid of our human frailty - afraid of our insatiability - afraid of our unpredictable, animal nature that lies waiting in that darkness.

Or it can also be really confusing for those of us who feel like we’ve spent most of our lives down, in the dark - so either in depression, oppression, or in physical pain. Personally I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling pushed down by others and myself, trying to climb out of a dark hole of my depression and my anxiety, and so this concept of descent seems sort of counterintuitive. Like, you’re telling me I need to be ok with being in this darkness, I need to be ok with feeling down, doesn’t that mean that I’ll never actually get out of it, if I’m ok with it?

Well, no. I don’t think we should be glorifying descent any more or any less than we glorify ascent - darkness and light are just two ends on a really long spectrum of greyness. And I think our lives are hopefully going to be a practice of moving between them - the pendulum swinging from one side to the other. And hopefully the arc of that swing becomes less and less severe, but we are always going to be living in that grey space in between ascent and descent.

I think the key then is to be able to do both - to practice both - to feel comfortable with both. And right now, unfortunately, the world that we live in, the societies that most of us live in, there’s this obsession with ascent and avoidance of descent.

I like to relate a lot of this to my practice of pole dancing.

In pole dancing, there is obviously an emphasis on ascent - on climbing, reaching, going up. It’s really impressive to see a dancer, really high up on the pole, doing these incredible tricks, showing so much strength and skill.

But pole is also a descending art - it beckons us inward and down, into the sensual and primal sensations of the body. When I dance, I bring my awareness to my breath, to the tightening of muscle, to the slide of bare skin across the floor. My focus narrows on the pressure of my warm, soft hands wrapped around that cold, hard steel. And I feel the pull of gravity dragging me down, into the belly of the earth.

So for me, the pole represents the tension of opposites: the ascent and descent, the push and the pull, the light and the dark. And there's me - the dancer - playing in the space in between.

Connecting this concept to sacred ecology or herbalism, I often imagine that the pole is the Tree of Life - a sacred pillar or some kind of holy axis that unites the cosmos: its branches reaching up for the sunlight, ascending, but its roots are also going down, drinking deep from underground rivers.

And I call this practice - of uniting the opposites, of dancing in that grey space in between ascent and descent - I call that “Vining the Axis": my roots descending, my leaves ascending, my body spiralling like a vine around this great Tree.

I really love this imagery because I think it helps me access this concept of balance. And I don’t mean balance in the sense that everything is always perfect or even that duality is even something necessarily real. But again, it’s about dwelling in that grey place in the middle where we’re not afraid of either side. Where we’re willing to access all of these different parts of ourselves.

Unfortunately, in our daily lives, we tend to focus only on the part of the tree we can see - the trunk, the branches - and we’ve spent most of our lives only reaching and climbing up - avoiding the darkness of ourselves and our roots in the earth.

So in upcoming episodes, I’m going to be talking more about how we can descend into the dark - and what kinds of things we might actually encounter on that journey, in particular our Shadow Selves - and how we might want to start to feel more comfortable going down, into the depths, so we can face those parts of ourselves that society and different cultures that we might be living in are often teaching us to avoid.

In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments or suggestions for upcoming episodes, I’d love to hear from you, so you can head over to EkstasyVine.com where you can send me a message, download a transcript of this episode, subscribe to the monthly newsletter. And if you’ve enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving a review on iTunes and sharing this with your friends because your reviews actually help other listeners to find this podcast!

Until next week, I hope you have a wonderful week - and I hope you’ll join me next time.

photograph taken by Rachael Dunville