By Hank Edson
Monical Gagliano’s book, Thus Spoke the Plant, is a work of art, a major contribution to science, a precious seed for a culture worthy of Gaia’s Eden, a philosophical, political, ethical treatise and an intimate confession and diary demonstrating the dense richness that is the hallmark of the genius of nature’s organic integrity.
In this book, Gagliano weaves the multi-layered narrative of the expansion of her and our ecological worldview that resulted from the combination of her training in science and the call she received from the vegetal community of beings to know and learn a deeper understanding of their and our reality.
The Big Idea
The obvious big idea this book offers is its personal testament and scientific proof that plants are sentient beings with a wisdom they can communicate and from which human beings can benefit. This is a startling idea for many, especially those still prone to regard animals from the Descartian worldview in which they are considered not to have a soul, not to know pain, and to be sheer automatons engaged in insensate biological mechanisms. Hard to explain, but this perverted 17th Century European imperialistic mentality still asserts a diseased inertia in our scientific institutions, which as a result we continue to find expressed in our culture and our politics and even in our own personal biases concerning the way we navigate the world in tandem with other living beings. I have been as terribly guilty of this disease as anyone.
And one of the refreshing things is that part of Gagliano’s narrative is her discovery of her own biases. In this respect, Thus Spoke the Plant shares a lot in common with Jeremy Narby’s The Cosmic Serpent in that his book is also not just a scientific study or a personal testament of inward experience, but also a confession of the bias and ignorance that came to light within himself as he struggled to remain scientifically open in processing his inward experiences.
A Second Big Idea Underplayed
The thing that this book underplays or, rather, leaves to reviewers to emphasize, is the idea that knowledge gained through Shamanic training is not to be dismissed as explicable through some unknown psychological process strictly contained within the psychology of a limited self that is separate and distinct from the rest of the world.
This concept of the separate and distinct self is another relic of the 17th century mechanistic worldview that remains unrelentingly and inexplicably influential today even after science, ecology, and psychology have established that the separate and distinct self is illusory. And let us also add to these authorities, the arguably far more important testimony from spiritual masters from around the globe from many different faith traditions spanning thousands of years. Gagliano leaves to the reviewer the task of contradicting the atheists and agnostics who argue that spiritual experience is or may be explained as a mechanism of the mind of the separate and distinct individual and is not an indication of the underlying reality of a self-conscious, communicative unity. Yet, though she does not press the issue, her book nonetheless quietly establishes that Shamanic training provides an effective and real way of experiencing and acquiring knowledge of a larger reality that does exist beyond our illusory perception of ourselves as separate and distinct individuals. Moreover, the experiences she shares in her book show that the knowledge that can be gained from such training is cutting edge. Gagliano seems chosen by the plants to offer just the right combination of elements necessary to eliminate any other credible conclusion being drawn from reading her book that that Shamanic practice is in communication with a universal underlying reality and is not just an illusory experience contained within the adaptations of an isolated mind.
To go further, and Gagliano does make this point, Shamanic training is capable of acquiring this cutting edge knowledge much more quickly than modern science ever has, as demonstrated by the thousands of years indigenous peoples have known and understood aspects of the function and benefit of plants and their relationship to other living beings, which modern science has not yet found a way to explain.
The Larger Import: What We Learn About Ourselves from Our Plant Teachers
But one would be badly mistaken to think that the most important contribution of Thus Spoke the Plant lies in its establishment of the communicative, sentient wisdom plants offer the world or the validity of Shamanistic practice as a scientific pursuit of knowledge. Gagliano establishes that plants have greater things to teach us about our own selves, and in sharing what and how they have taught her, she quietly establishes herself as a teacher of humanity, which I would assert is the highest calling one can have.
As an example of a passage that teaches us not about the wisdom of plants, but the nature of our humanity, consider the following:
“Years later, I would learn that my experience of emotions like anxiety was really about and how to harness these emotions’ gifts — yes, gifts. Anxiety, for example, is a valuable messenger, one that speaks to my prevailing belief construct and its sphere of influence. This belief construct is like a container, which I take to be objective reality, and anxiety always arises to alert me when I have reached the edge of the container. Anxiety speaks of the uneasiness of staying within the container’s fortified walls once their restrictive presence is felt, and in this rests its precious gift — the call to break down the walls of personalized assumptions and outgrown perspectives, the invitation to realize new possibilities, when my current restricted understanding sees only impossibilities. This is why coping with anxiety does not really stop anxiety; the answer is not in understanding and resolving anxiety, but in changing perspective so that anxiety simply disappears. When it happens, the precious gift it brings is one of joy and excitement for life.” (page 44)
The Value of Perceptual Awareness and the Way It Becomes a Blinder
Here is another quote I love:
“It should be clear that unlearning distinctions doesn’t mean not seeing them; it doesn’t mean that differences are not useful. What it does mean is that we stop being obsessed with them to the point that we cannot see anything beyond them and thus miss the incredible richness of qualities and characters of both the human and nonhuman world.” (page 71)
A moment ago, we were talking about the illusion of the separate and distinct self. Here, Gagliano’s reflection on the way our old mechanistic worldview operates by “differentiating ourselves from nonhuman others through the things that those others lack” (page 69) also helps us understand that dispelling the illusion of the separate and distinct self through experience of our underlying unity with all being does not require us to regard our experience and perception of ourselves as separate and distinct as having no value or meaning. We do not have to surrender this sensory awareness of what one might call our surface differences; we simply should not let this more superficial awareness become a blinder that prevents us from being aware of the deeper generative reality of unity.
Our Need for Control
Here is another quote in which Gagliano and her plant teachers teach us about ourselves:
“Throughout human history, we have constructed boundaries to define reality in an attempt to soothe our need to feel safe in our own skin and at home in a world we are, fundamentally, so afraid of. Threatening the very thing they promise to protect — our feeling of being safe — these boundaries are, and always were, fictional walls that restrict our understanding of who we truly are and that replace clear seeing with misconception — the illusion that we need to control a world we have no control over. Our need to feel safe (and, correspondingly, the feeling of not being safe) in the word seems inextricably linked to our need to control it. But what if we were to realize that the only reason we feel unsafe in the world is because we believe we need to control it?
As the sacred jungle Tobacco would teach me a year later, we have no control over the circumstances that face us until we surrender the need to control them. As long as we need to control our circumstances, we also need to feel unsafe and insecure about them, because the two states are bound together in a self-perpetuating and irreconcilable loop that goes like this: we try to control because we feel unsafe and believe that by controlling our world, we will feel safe in it — and yet we never do, and we cannot feel safe in the world if we keep believing that the world needs controlling because, without our control, there is something unsafe about it.” (page 86).
In this explanation we find the root of the global ecological crisis unfolding for humanity at this time. Humanity’s need to control the world in order to feel safe is in direct conflict with the reality that the laws of existence were not authored by humanity. Therefore, what we should understand, as an intelligent and wise and conscious species, is that it is not up to us to control anything but our own harmony with the laws of existence, which we may also call the ecological laws of nature.
We don’t acquire the control over our destiny that will make us feel safe until, as Gagliano says, we agree to surrender to the ecological laws of existence and live in harmony with them! When we try to seek safety by controlling not ourselves, but the world around us, we violate the laws of nature and create the very dangers we fear in the toxic imbalances of our own making. This is why we have a 6th Great Extinction, ocean acidification, and a climate crisis. Ultimately, our greatest control resides in our submission to the authority and control of the ecological laws of nature, which require us to live and act in balance with all being, with respect for all life, and with gratitude and humility before the greater wisdom and power framing the awesome beauty and grace of creation.
A final quote from Gagliano’s book teaching us about ourselves pertains to forgiveness:
“‘Child, of course you feel disoriented and scared! You believe in what do not exist. You believe in who you are not. But know this. You, that glorious beam of light that traveled across the infinite to be born into the body of this world, always were; you existed before any belief system, before anything and after everything. How can you truly lose your map? How can you truly forget your very first story?… Forgiveness,’ whispered Tobacco, ‘this alone illuminates the way out of the maze humanity has created with all its beliefs.’
Once again, Tobacco answered my question before I knew I had asked it. ‘Forgiveness is not a doing. It is an undoing of the imaginary “self,” the one you have come to believe you are…This mock doing of yourself will strike its final deceptive maneuver to keep you trapped in its maze in a state of separation — the belief that you do not deserve forgiveness because you are guilty of all possible wrongdoings. But this is simply not the truth, because you are none of your doings. Accept this, even if you do not understand this now. Accept this, and you will remember who you are. Accept this, and you will know it to be true. And through this, you will realize that, in the end, the love that you are does not need forgiveness at all!” (Page 130).
Thus, Tobacco teaches Gagliano and Gagliano teaches us that all the wrongdoings being done to our planet Earth are not us. We simply need to undo the idea that we are separate and need to be in control. Admittedly, this undoing of ourselves is a hero’s task, not necessarily a simple matter, but truly an epic adventure. But once we do this, if we are equal to it, then, we can and will become witness to the fact that we are all one unity that follows an eternal law of balance and harmony that extends from before and beyond the world of nature, which is itself a reflection of that beautiful balance and harmony. It is only when we believe in “who we are not” that our belief distorts our vision, clouds it with a misconceived sense of self, and prevents us from seeing the grace in which our eternal story unfolds in peace and well-being.
Over many years, I have been blessed to study under two Sufi masters. I make no claim of such mastery myself. But everything I have learned from them is in harmony with the wisdom offered in this beautiful book, which to me is a further demonstration of the profound depth and value of Thus Spoke the Plant: There is testimony here that there is no monopoly on the ways to access the underlying reality of our spiritual unity.
As with everything under the laws of nature, diversity is a demonstration of our unity. In a world misguided by the denial of the communicative sentient wisdom all beings offer, by the imaginary separate self and it’s need for control, and by a further manifestation of that imaginary separate self’s anxiety and fear — the insane insistence that salvation depends upon the invalidity of all modes of living and thought other than one’s own — in such a struggling, suffering world, this testimony is a vital part of expanding our ecological worldview and finding healing, joy, and excitement for life within that precious gift.
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