A silver bowl filled with snow, a heron hidden in the moon – full-immersion methodologies

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For the last few years I have been approaching research using ‘full-immersion’ methodologies: ‘the method that requires investigators to become, as completely as possible, that which they wish to understand’ (Desmond 2011,  drawing on Wacquant 2004 – thanks to Christine Eriksen for drawing my attention to Desmond’s phrase). Consequently, my work on hunting (Adams 2013, Adams 2014, and another forthcoming this year) required me to acquire a firearm and appropriate licences and learn to hunt – to become a hunter.

Currently, I am following this approach with freediving research. I am interested in freediving as an expression of our relationships with the Blue Planet (the world ocean is 70% of the planet’s surface, and 99% of its living area; and the fluids of the human body reflect the chemical composition of seawater: the ocean is also inside us all). And the Blue Planet is of course intimately part of all the terrestrial components of ‘Earth.’ This investigation has led me down interesting and perhaps surprising paths. I have certainly been freediving many times; but am also learning yoga, including the breath practice of pranayama; and most recently participated in a Zen Buddhist meditation retreat.  Many freedivers maintain strong yoga practice and many study meditation, including yoga meditation, Vipassana and Zen.

Geographers have been examining aspects of these practices for some time (eg: yoga). ‘The place of spirit’, a recent paper about geographies of religion and spirituality summarises and critiques some debates alternatively focusing on the increasing secularization, or the persistence, of religion and belief, in modern societies. One strand these authors identify is how ‘religion – unlike secularism – can provide a set of discourses that can weave hope, nurturing, spirituality and the idea of a better future together.’ While you could reasonably question whether the yoga traditions constitute a religion, and indeed raise the same question about Zen, they clearly engage with spirit, and I, like these authors, am interested in how these traditions relate to practices of caring and making a difference.

This has resonances both with recent discussions of affinity politics and Indigenous geographies, and belonging, with feminist analysis around slow scholarship; and discussions of the place of self-care in research (and in the rest of our lives). And also with our obsession with the Western version of the Anthropocene. As Anja Kanngieser and Angela Last have just argued, ‘it is necessary to continue re-examining one’s relation to the earth with regard to both human and non-humans: this is not simply all of ‘humanity’s’ fault.’

On the Big Island in Hawai’i I dived with legendary freediver and (ex)spearfisher Carlos Eyles. Diving with Carlos was a unique experience: he is 74, and practices at a distance from the somewhat competitive and quantitative structures of much contemporary freediving (how deep is your dive, how long is your breath-hold?). He argues that the ocean is a non-linear system, and needs to be approached in a non-linear fashion: a good reminder to me to throw away the numbers. He cares less about the names of different marine species, and more about how they interact, with each other and with him.

At Yokoji Zen Mountain Centre, as well as practicing many hours of silent seated zazen, I took seriously the idea of the mountain as my teacher, and repeatedly solo hiked the very steep climb out of the valley to the Pacific Crest Trail and Apache Peak. The area was subject to a significant forest fire in 2013, and technically the trail here is closed but remains precariously accessible.IMG_9092

As I discussed in dokusan (the Zen teacher-student interview) with Roshi Tenshin, there were many lessons on the mountain (mostly pretty obvious: don’t necessarily attempt the summit on the first day, sometimes you need to go sideways on the way up, obstacles focus your attention; and some more challenging: risk and fear bring you sharply into the present). I discovered that rattlesnakes are polite (the rattle is just to let you know they are right there, near you, and it would be good if you stayed away); and saw signs of many local non-humans (mule deer, squirrels, coyote or fox, mountain lion) – all I’m sure, far more enlightened than I became.

In Buddhism they talk of ‘taking refuge in the three jewels’: the Buddha (the teachers); the Dharma (the teachings); and the Sangha (usually interpreted as the community of practitioners, but the translation from Sanskrit literally means ‘forest’). Prominent American Zen Buddhists and writers Gary Snyder and Peter Matthiessen have both engaged with this idea of the sangha, the community of practice, as including all elements of nature.

There are numerous connections here. Fifth century Buddhist monk Bodhidharma enjoined us to ‘make the mind like trees and rocks’, and Dōgen, the thirteenth century founder of the Soto Buddhist school (of which Yokoji is a part) wrote the ‘Mountains and Rivers Sutra’. In the West, conservationist Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac famously urged that we should ‘think like a mountain’, and in an overlap with my own trajectory, prominent conservation biologist Michael Soule is both a Buddhist and a hunter.

I have not found a lot of Buddhist discussion of oceans, but geographers are increasingly engaging with the Blue Planet. At the recent AAG conference in San Francisco, Jessica Lehman argues that ‘the ocean takes in the detritus of human history, but releases it at difficult to predict times and places, frequently in forms that elude definitive human readings, suggesting both alternate histories and the impossibility of compete knowledge.’

Meditating freedivers and their non-human companions, ‘like the ocean itself, … can move across, fold into, and emerge out of water in unrecognised and unanticipated ways’ (Steinberg and Peters 2015). In yoga and meditation, practitioners speak of ‘resting in the space between breaths.’ In marine mammal physiology, researcher Robert Elsner uses the term ‘strategic metabolic retreat’, describing the way seals will drift underwater, not breathing, not swimming, not hunting – resting in the space between breaths.

Both freedive and hunting research are for me intensely personal. They are both about death and life, in both an individual sense and a planetary, species, sense. They both connect to continuities with Indigenous and local traditions all over the world. While the full-immersion approach conveniently makes me an insider in some contexts (a version of what anthropologists call ‘emic’ research), it is the autoethnographic and phenomenonological aspects I find most productive.

And I love the journey.

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  • My title is from the 1,000 year old, beautiful and mysterious Zen poem, ‘Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi’ by Hokyo Zammai, which we repeatedly considered in zen practice at Yokoji. It has specific geographic instruction: ‘Penetrate the source and travel the pathways; embrace the territory and treasure the roads’.

 

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