a conversation about deep presence with dan kowalski
CG: What is ‘deep presence?’
DK: Experiencing presence is coming into relationship with a person or place. Experiencing deep presence is coming into a deeply felt relationship with the living Earth.
CG: You believe this is an essential connection for each of us to find and feel; to rediscover.
DK: Our connectedness with each other and the larger living world is innate, yet greatly challenged and diminished. We have to regain our ability to experience it. It’s in our best interest, because it leads to a fundamental state of well being; not just for us individually but also for us collectively as a society.
CG: How can one go about entering this state of being?
DK: In the wilderness of Southeast Alaska, where I’ve been guiding for many years, the discovery is open to anyone.
But in a lifelong way it comes down to ‘practice,’ to an ongoing engagement you adopt versus a task you complete. What you discover is that more engagement leads to greater depth.
Engagement is fundamental, as are aspects of Eastern spiritual practices, especially mindfulness: paying attention and being present to whatever is unfolding around you. This doesn’t have to be in the wilderness. It can take place wherever you find yourself.
In my experience, the entire Earth has a deep presence, and expresses itself magnificently. It’s always there, even when muted by the buzz and rumble of human activity.
CG: Isn’t it easier to be highly present in the wilderness, because there’s nothing else to divert your attention?
DK: The wilderness offers a very straightforward place to experience this wonder and pure quality of being. Because everything flows the right way there; the rhythm is much slower; you feel at home inside it and inside yourself.
Urban environments are no less wild in their way. There’s so much stimulation going on, and sensory overload. To prevail and prosper in these surroundings our systems have evolved sophisticated filters and other coping mechanisms. But these adaptations don’t lend themselves to deep presence, or to ‘long wave’ ways of being. Which is one reason why many people establish meditation and other contemplative practices like yoga…to connect with the long wave and counterbalance the man-made stresses.
CG: Explain this long and short wave notion.
DK: I think of wavelengths of light and sound, and ocean currents, as metaphors. Long waves have more penetrating power. At sunset and sunrise we see the rich reds and oranges because these longer waves penetrate the thicker atmosphere. Or the low thundering whoosh of a whales’ breath you can hear across a stretch of water. On the ocean, there are long, storm-generated waves that develop way off in the Pacific. They move across the ocean in long, rolling, undulating swells. When we’re fishing for halibut, it’s much easier to get into a working rhythm with these long waves than with shorter, wind-driven chops which can be quite uncomfortable.
Short-wave frequencies do have a place and value in our daily lives. They sharpen our mental processes, helping us to focus more clearly and analyze and act faster.
CG: But you’re especially keen on riding the long wave.
DK: I am, because the long wave gets short shrift in our modern culture, our ‘technogenic’ culture obsessed with speed and efficiency but too often caught up as a result in short wave, multi-tasking behavior that’s percussive and chronically distracting. Chronic distraction is the opposite of deep presence.
Some wise traditions have upheld the long-wave way all along, including a deep respect and reverence for all living things. The Eastern and Native American cultures in particular, which are good models.
With the monumental challenges facing us in the world, we desperately need to have and integrate both the long and short wave.
CG: How is our relationship with the natural world changing?
DK: The Judeo-Christian tradition of thou shalt take dominion over all things is hard to support when we’ve now reached or exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet. We need to realize we’re not separate from but part of it; to understand that when we do harm to it we do harm to ourselves.
What needs to come to the fore is our beautiful, inherent nature to care and nurture, to steward. It can motivate us to reconsider our choices and our ways of living.
CG: Are there champions you look to who are making efforts to inspire positive, powerful awareness and change in this sphere?
DK: Many, which is a good sign. In the West, John Muir was the most prominent thinker to champion the cause of what today is called ‘bio-centrism,’ another way of saying everything is interconnected. Radically interconnected. Muir felt this in his bones.
I look to Bill McKibben, who writes wonderfully and stridently about our relationship with climate change. The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, who calls for doing things much differently. Whose view is this may be our only chance to get our act together and change course while we still can.
Others I pay close attention to are Joanna Macy, part of The Great Turning Initiative, essayist and poet Gary Snyder; the critic and farmer Wendell Berry, earth scholar Thomas Berry, author, naturalist and ecologist Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez. Also Aldo Leopold, who was the father of wildlife management.
CG: What about the progress of the environmental movement?
DK: The ‘environmental movement,’ as it was pegged back in the 70s and 80s, is in a state of flux right now. Many of its orientations are less salient today because of the far more complex conditions we’re up against. Yet despite the complexities, there are still significant environmental champions at work promoting sensible, deep and right-on ways to proceed.
CG: Could there be an incredible simplicity that transcends all the complexity? If we could arrive at a deeper sense of the interconnectedness you’re talking about, wouldn’t respect and reverence for all living things flourish?
DK: Yes. But people can have an intellectual understanding of something and at the same time have no visceral awareness. If we don’t get it in our bones it won’t show up in how we live; in the defining qualities of our being.
CG: You guide people into the profound experience of Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage; and facilitate conversations with Nature and the wild.
DK: It’s wonderful to witness people who travel here come into harmony with the wilderness, this awe-inspiring habitat that’s very long-wave from its native culture to its wildlife to its tides.
CG: What about the meditative visual journey you co-created on DVD, Deep Presence: Meditations on a Wild Coast? That uses an innocent eye and ear to take you into the soul of this landscape if you’ve never been there, or back into it if you have.
DK: The immersive nature and language of film is very effective in touching and engaging your heart and mind. And films like this one that celebrate the wilderness and invoke wonder can bring a deeply satisfying encounter and experience to you at home.
CG: What about engagement in terms of how companies communicate with us; the ways marketers and others want to ‘engage’ us?
DK: Our attention is precious, and our identity in many respects distills down to what we pay attention to. But our deeper being has a subtle compass: we know in our bones whether or not something is relevant and life-affirming.
The current crisis of confidence has given companies a tremendous opportunity to re-evaluate the compass-heading of their messages to us; in order to find a deeper resonance with people. In this information-overloaded environment, their voice and messages will draw our precious attention and will resonate if but only if they speak and make sense to our core.
CG: What’s the most vital next step we need to take?
DK: To move to discover and engage with our vital interconnectedness with each other and with the larger living world. Right action will come from knowing this place in our bones.
CG: Dan, thanks for all your thoughts. I look forward to joining you in Alaska and continuing our conversations there.
Dan Kowalski is a filmmaker, founder of Pacific NW-based Rollingbay Works www.rollingbayworks.com and a long-time commercial halibut fisherman and wilderness guide in Southeast Alaska. He co-produced Deep Presence: Meditations on a Wild Coast.
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