Thought and Memory are the Body Thinking

Before the cognitive mind does its wonders, body and eye do their thinking. This is thinking without cognition. They don’t need it.

Traditions of cognitive thinking will analyze such thought. They might even judge it, or weigh it, or decide upon its “usefulness” or “reality.” Perhaps they will call it primitive. Perhaps they will call it patterning.

Perhaps they will call it art. Or artful. Or as one publisher said to me last year “you are advocating pre-modern thought.” Hardly. Every “body” does it.

This snaking tree (below) does it pretty well, too.

What can you make out of such thoughts? Well, that’s cognitive thinking again. There is no “making.” There is observation, there is being-with. There is the mind recognizing bodily space and reading itself there. But you cannot put words to it.

Artists recognize this space. Indigenous people recognize this space. Children recognize this space. How, though, are you going to speak of it? Well, for one, you can move around, within that bodily space. That’s called “walking” or “scrambling through the volcanic ash piles”, but, really, it is thinking.

That is, actually, enough. And then? Well, then you want to bring it back. You can’t exactly cut down a tree. When it’s gone, the “being there,” which was the thought-within-the-moment, is gone, too, and the body’s capacity for thought has died a little. It’s the same for bringing back a rock. It’s an amulet. A memory object.

A memory object, yes, that’s the thing. That’s what words are, too, and selves. They are amulets, powerful tools for condensing moments of presence into portable objects that can be reconstituted and recombined. As Robin Skelton taught so many years ago, a tree, the word, is nothing more than a stand-in for all the trees one has ever seen or experienced. It is not an abstraction drawn from them, but all of them. However, what Robin didn’t point out, or perhaps hadn’t observed (he did, after all, spend most of his life as a poet within cages of words), is that within a moment on Earth in which a bodily consciousness is present, there are centred points in that landscape that are not abstractions and have no “meaning.”

They may be “meaningless,” but they do what meaning does. They focus, centre, reduce randomness to pattern (although bodily pattern rather than cognitive pattern), provide reference points, and so on. They are not, however, portable in the way that “abstractions” are portable, yet look below. An image can be made of them. The image is portable. This, artists have known for a long time. I don’t mean contemporary artists who image the boundaries between abstraction, identity and manipulation through images, and often through subordinating them to abstract thought. Those are artists of the self, not artists of the Earth. They can speak for themselves well.

But what of Earth artists?  Well, of course, moving a body around creates narrative.

And carrying those images to others creates thought.

And inhabiting the distance inherent in space, collapsing it, so to speak, is bodily thought, too. One of the essential characteristics of it is that it is the same point occupied by memory. We could say (and I think we should) that it is memory. Memory not as “the past” but as “the present.” Minding, we might call that.

Let’s not forget Oðin, who cast one eye into the pool at the base of the tree of the world in order to receive wisdom. It’s mythology, sure, but it records the wisdom of a people. The eye was Oðin’s choice. All that was asked was a payment. What was unstated was that the reward, the nature of “quality” of the wisdom received, would be determined by the gift. As a human, with nothing, as we all are, Oðin didn’t hesitate to give away an invaluable part of himself. What he received in return was a pair of ravens, Huginn and Muninn, “Thought” and “Memory”. They fly at a distance around him, see where he cannot, and report back. In short, they are the Earth-form, or perhaps the Sky-form, of the eye that Oðin plucked out. It is in this sense that the striped shamanic stone below is accorded power. To recognize power in it, the abstractions of the cognitive mind, it’s particular form of sorting, needs to become a portable, bodily form. Where it is present, one can focus the “missing” thought, but as a human-body-Earth partnership that is exhibited as a form of intent. One intends to receive wisdom from the Earth by focussing it to a point. What one receives is wordless. To repeat a point, it is, in fact, meaningless.

Yet it is “significant.” Some examples from the Thompson Gorge. Here’s a roadside shamanic stone. It’s a bodily shape that concentrates a landscape, with inner and outer messages that are, in themselves, the only message. It’s not a language of thoughts, after all. And yet, it’s a human observer who can, within a human soul, mediate between the two.

Here’s another, in a dry wash. Note that the annual spring flood has deposited random stones on top of this striated rock. The divided energies of the rock, held within its unified form, hold a pattern of their same substance that is laid down in the way of writing or any other mark making, and read like it, but to no cognitive end.

For a cognitive end, you need distance, a gap to be closed by the body. It could be a wide gap of many kilometres, or a narrow, such as the split stone below. You will close it. The cognitive tradition might interpret that, but it’s no matter. The closing has already been bodily done.

In an essential, perceptual way matched by moving the body in space to change views from this …

… to this.

And if we put them together?

The body will unite them as well, no matter which order.

They are thought and memory as one: memory in the present. One remembers now. There is, in effect, no past not expressed as personal transformation in the present.


I know I promised to show today how these effects lead to action, thought, conservation and more. I think we’ve covered the first part of the process. The next will centre around this image from Iceland.

Ásmundarsafn, Reykjavik

Until then, love the troll you’re with.

Stekkalækur, Iceland

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