Derrick Jensen and being who we were meant to be

I have just finished reading Dreams by Derrick Jensen (Seven Stories Press), and have again been struck by the way the evolution of his thinking intertwines with areas of interest to me, although our starting points and cultural references are quite different.

Needless to say, this 550-page book is full of the sharp comments on the state of our civilisation that readers have come to expect from the increasingly influential deep green American thinker.

Take, for instance, his observation that ‘sustainable development’ is in fact an oxymoron “since ‘development’ is a euphemism in this case for industrialization, which is by definition unsustainable; in fact, industrialization is utterly, irrevocably, and functionally antithetical or sustainability.”

Or this acerbic remark: “I’ve never had much patience for those – and there are a lot of them – who consider humans to be the ‘apex’ of evolution, who evidently believe that all of evolution took place so that we can watch television.”

And you can’t spell it out much clearer than this: “Progress is pure selfishness. Progress is theft. Progress is slave-mongering. Progress is murder. Progress is genocide. Progress is ecocide. Progress is sociopathy.”

It is hardly surprising, given his environmentalism and interest in indigenous cultures, that Jensen shares the view of life as a complex unity, or a network of interconnected entities, to which I referred in Antibodies.

He describes a visit by Jeannette Armstrong to northern Russia, where she witnessed a villager correctly declare the whereabouts of some elusive caribou on which they depended for food and skins. “Jeannette asked the man how he knew where the caribou were, and he responded, ‘How do you know where your hand is?’.”

Even more fascinating, from my point of view, are Jensen’s musings on fate and how indigenous people believe we are guided by “original instructions” – our responsibility being to live our lives according to them.

This is very much what I see as our role as ‘antibodies’ or ‘anarchangels’, born with a particular role to play for the benefit of the Whole, if we can only clear ourselves of the egotistic materialism that blocks the channels of our destiny (so that, in Jensen’s words. “we never can become who we really are and were meant to be”).

I have written before of Jensen’s inspiration from indigenous American spirituality and, discussing Mayan beliefs, Jensen explains the idea of a non-physical presence needing the physical manifestation of an earthly being through whom it can act on our material plane. In his case he is of use because “I have fingers and thumbs, and can write things down.”

This universal concept of the spirit that wants to be flesh (even as the flesh longs to be spirit) is also expressed in Sufi mysticism, into which I have recently been dipping. The Sufi commentator ‘Abdul-Karim Jili, for instance, says of the Divine: “His attributes are not completed except in us. So we give Him the attributes and He gives us being.”

This need for abstract to become real is of course, mirrored by Jensen’s insistence on the urgent need for drastic action to halt industrial capitalism, for a resistance movement to emerge and bring down civilisation.

Spiritual awareness is of no use at all if it does not feed back to the worldly level – as we saw, the very reason why we are alive, with a presence in the real world, is that we have the ability to act, to physically intervene.

As Jensen says: “If we don’t stop them from killing the planet, nothing else matters.”

Derrick Jensen and Native American spirituality

This is not the first time I have mentioned Derrick Jensen in this blog. His writing is unbeatable in terms of bringing home the horrific reality of the destruction of this living planet being carried out by the industrial system – and, of course, in terms of inspiring people to do something to fight back.

The very depth of his analysis lends a certain undercurrent of spirituality to his work, but he now seems to be going further in that direction.

I have just caught up with his 2009 novel Songs of the Dead, which very much revolves around a mystic and timeless dream-consciousness connection to the natural world.

Here is a passage to give you a flavour:

“I see Indians dancing. I see fires. I see days and nights and years of celebrations and mournings. I see people making love. I see the same for all kinds of animals, all kinds of plants. I see them living, dying, loving, hating. I see generation after generation of human, generation after generation of cedar, generation after generation of porcupine, generation after generation of ant, generation after generation of grasses, mosses, generation after generation of fire.

And suddenly I see even more. I see generation after generation of muse, dreamgiver, demon, walking back and forth between worlds. I see geese and martens and wrentits moving between worlds. I see humans moving between worlds. I see all these worlds being renewed by this intercourse, this movement across borders porous and impenetrable and permeable and impermeable and breathing and alive as skin. I see these worlds winding and unwinding, tangling and untangling like the lovers they are, and I see moments in time, too, winding and unwinding, tangling and untangling like the lovers that they are, too. These worlds, these moments, they are not one, they are not two. They are lovers, like any others.”

Jensen here reminds me of both Richard Jefferies, with his ability to rise above the moment and see centuries and millennia spread out beneath him, and also of the Sufi poet Rumi, with his use of the word ‘love’ to describe his relationship to the Oneness.

As an American, the human spirituality that Jensen tunes into is that of the American Indians who shared the land with nature for so long before the arrival of the Europeans.

The central character in the novel is psychically wounded by the life-hating violence of the ‘wetiko’ invaders and makes an interesting comment about the difficulties for people of European descent in America to link into a collective unconscious.

“I asked for dreams. Nothing. I looked at the stars and asked. Nothing. I sat beneath trees and asked. Nothing. I held soil in my hands and asked. Nothing. My only hint of anything, and I’m sure this was simply a projection on my part, was a faint voice saying, ‘I can’t hear you very well. You’re too far away.’

Projection or not, what the voice said to me was true. My ancestors, the ones whose blood mingled for generations with the same soil, are half a world away in Europe, too far away to be able – at least with my inexperience – to help me.”

But is this a problem or a blessing in disguise? If we believe that spiritual energies go a lot deeper than human cultures, and that our relation to them is ingrained deep in the universal human psyche, then we should not need any specific framework in which to search.

Yes, it might be easier for us to access these deeper levels by making use of living spiritual traditions and yes, it does help if we can find some resonance in the geographic location where we live.

But those of us living in the ‘Old World’ risk being thwarted and misled by the layer and layers of falsehood that cover the useful and neglected core of religion.

Is it, perhaps, easier to connect straight to the heart of things via indigenous spirituality, which is directly sourced in nature and not clothed in the many deceits of civilization?

As ever, I’m interested to hear people’s views on this. Email me at paulcudenec(at) or leave a comment

What does fighting back mean?

Some of the feedback I have received about Antibodies has revolved around the idea of resistance. What exactly am I suggesting here? I’ve just come across this definition of ‘fighting back’ from What We Leave Behind by Derrick Jensen (pictured) and Aric McBay which explains very nicely what I mean.

“Fighting back, in the broadest sense, means a great deal. It means giving up on the fairy tale that those in power act in the best interest of us or the planet, or that they are systematically capable of thinking in the long term. It means no longer pretending that industrial progress will bring us to some bright new beautiful tomorrow. It means stepping outside of the carefully circumscribed limits that keep us ineffective. It means deliberate and strategic opposition to those in power, instead of attempts to lobby or convince them to please stop exploiting people and destroying the world.

“Fighting back means doing what is appropriate. It means seeking solutions appropriate to the scale of a problem. It means not ruling out actions just because those in power (or Gandhian activists, or the Bible, or those who think buying recycled toilet paper is sufficient, or liberal members of the ‘loyal opposition’) say they shouldn’t be used. And fighting back may or may not look like fighting: it doesn’t have to look like violence (although it may). It means not using violence when it’s appropriate to not use violence. It means using violence when it is appropriate to use violence. It means using industrial technology when it’s appropriate, and not using it when it’s not appropriate. It means being strategic, and being smart, and remembering our allegiances and our end goals.”