Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm

Beyond the doors of perception into the dreaming of the earth

Review of a book by Stephen Harrod Buhner.

plant_intelligenceFor some time since reading Stephen Buhner’s book, I have been struggling to comprehend the full richness of what he puts forward. It is a book about how we perceive the world, about perceiving the depth, rather than the surface, of the world. For example, in this quote from Manuel Cordova Rios:

“As my glance wandered in the treetops I became aware of undreamed beauty in the details of the textures of leaves, stems, and branches. Every leaf… seemed to glow with a greenish golden light. Unimaginable detail of structure showed… A nearby bird sang… Exquisite and shimmering, the song was almost visible…”

Many people have had similar deep experiences, but the problem is to keep alive to them in a world dominated by surface things.

Buhner suggests that by opening up to and accepting our true selves we begin to see the world from a deeper perception than the mere surfaces of social conventions and laws.

Henry David Thoreau was one of the most eloquent exponents of our deep connection with nature. Robert Bly speaks of his books:

“As we read Thoreau’s work… we slowly become aware of a light in and around the squirrel, the ant, the woodcheck, the hawk, that belongs to them and not to the eyes observing or the brain producing words.”

Buhner states that his book “is about developing the skill of intentionally altering perception in order to perceive the light in and around the squirrel… about learning how to consciously use it as a tool of perception and cognition…” Now that is ambitious.

Let us get a sense of the work by looking at some of its main themes.

The doors of perception – sensory gating

Buhner suggests that every organism is deeply interwoven into the ecological matrix from which it is expressed. At the interface are located specific organs for perception of the exterior world in order to survive. The implication is that all life forms are self aware and intelligent and can determine meaning from the environment. Sensory gating allows the organism to focus on a limited aspect of world, rather than the myriad inputs; otherwise we would be overwhelmed with input. The gating becomes unconscious habit. We perceive what we expect to perceive.

Children are expected to fit into a defined ‘normal’ range of gating. The more wide open their gating channels, the more likely they will be seen as ‘not normal’. Newborns have minimal gating, so it develops during childhood. They don’t have the intermediary of language and see and hear ‘the old way’ before language. Developmental stages have different function and gating dynamics. Earlier stages can be reverted to at any particular point in time.

People trained in exterior focus (c.f. modern education) get stuck on surfaces and in language and can no longer find depths. This is pretty apparent in today’s Western societies.

Modern science has gated the meanings that come from the world, such as synchronicities, empathy with other life forms, and astrological significances – because they cannot be measured.

Opening the doors

“…the door to the soul is unlocked; you do not need to please the doorkeeper, the door in front of you is yours, intended for you, and the doorkeeper obeys when spoken to”

Robert Bly

Intentional activity or attention can override habitual gating. Once open more widely the gates can stay open; it is repetition that habituates the skill.

Goethe said: “every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us.” Paying attention, even at a later age, on a regular basis, can reset unconscious gating and make us more sensitive, eg to music. The capacity for opening the doors of perception is built into us. This gives a way through the problem articulated by Einstein (I paraphrase) “We cannot solve the problems of today with today’s thinking” …which tends to be interpreted in a purely logical way as a ‘paradigm shift’, but probably more importantly relates to the need to actually change our perception of the world.

Other ways are identified to override gating, include meditation, halluicinogenics, focus on feeling perception.

Once gating is more open, we become sensitive to more meaning. The existentialist despair at the loss of meaning in the world was actually a disease of the scientific enlightenment.

Opening to the feeling sense

Reclaiming the feeling sense, and developing it as a primary sensing tool, is one of the main ways to begin to enter more deeply into the metaphysical background of the world. The key is practice and focus on How does it feel? Every physical object has its own distinct feeling sense.

“recovering the response of the heart to what is presented to the senses”

James Hillman

Absorbed reading, writing, creative science, playing music can all involve a shift in consciousness involving feeling and invoking the ‘dream state’.

But in feeling, you will see the dark as well as the light. It takes courage to keep feeling and not close down. The first step is to feel everything you come into contact with. Determine whether you like it or not – get a sense of its underlying nature. ‘Why this response?’

Buhner covers issues that may arise, such as how to handle self caretaking, sensory overload, depression, taking on other people’s stuff and other issues. He references inner child / inner council work of e.g. John Bradshaw and Eric Berne.

Everything is intelligent and inextricably intertangled

The reductionist scientific viewpoint has led us up the garden path. The world is far more complex than that. It is living intelligence, described by concepts such as complex systems, self organisation, state changes, symbiogenesis, autopoiesis etc. Intelligence is manifested by all organisms – bacteria, plants, animals, ecoranges, the earth as Gaia… This was actually the direction of thinking taken by Darwin in his later works, eg seeing the root of a plant as its brain, sensitively using intelligence to navigate through the soil. Evolution sees common patterns emerging from bacteria through plants to animals and humans,

The natural world from which we are expressed when we are born is a context or scenario, continuously evolving, fluid not static, dynamic and co-evolving. The biosphere is so complex and evolving that we cannot know the consequences of anything we do.

Background and foreground are tightly coupled. There is a “softness of the boundary between inside and outside” (Lewontin). Opening of sensory gating channels leads to thinning of the boundary between self and nonself.

Golden threads of connection run through the world. We should trust our response to world; it has meaning. These threads touch us because something deep inside us needs what’s on the other end of that thread. [c.f. synchronicity, astrology.] We can immerse in the thread through feeling…

Reductionist education discourages this capability that is in us.

Psychotropics in the ecosystem

Psychotropics such as serotonin, psilocybin, DMT, cannabinoids are deeply interwoven into the structure of life, where they play a role in reducing gating. History shows such drugs as playing a role in ‘depatterning’ a certain percentage of the population to subsequent advantage. The explosion of creativity from the 1960s provides a fairly convincing example eg 1960s western music, Steve Jobs et al and the creation of modern IT. However:

“Those who open sensory gating are a danger to the fundamental underpinnings of the reductive paradigm.”

The psychotropics have been long banned by conventional society.

Natural Science and the Imaginal World

The naturalist Barbara McClintock was ostracised because not she was not reductionist. Her approach was to have the “patience to hear what the material has to say to you”, approach the world with a childlike self.

“the first step in the ecological reclamation of the self is to feel, to reclaim the parts of ourselves that feel and feel deeply.”

This ‘seeing’, rather than ‘looking’, requires empathy with the material. Something new arises. Meaning is grasped. This was the essence of Natural Science, and was the science of Goethe.

Sensory perceiving is what you do instead of thinking with your mind; it is ‘the old way’. This can lead to the encounter with other intelligence, such as the dolphin. Becoming aware of the living contextual field, we touch the one livingness, the Tao.

Science vs Barbarianism

In every field, the original pioneers who followed their heart without formal training are followed by the sober well-prepared ones, who have little wisdom to offer. We might take the example of the development of modern psychology and its subsequent codification, or the distortion of the ideals of the USA by some of its modern ‘leaders’.

Also, the early pioneers’ gating channels narrow with age… they become more conservative and pass this on to those following. We have only to look at the later Freud resisting the advances of those who came later to build on his foundations.

The disadvantage of formal schooling is that it takes a long time to discover that one has been poorly educated, to realise that what one was taught is a mere map giving but little insight into reality. I well recognise this syndrome.

Buhner is hard on science, suggesting that most published research claims are false, due to the influence of large scientific journals, sponsors, referees, and money. The dissociated mentation that has come from science – communication devoid of feeling – is seen as the hallmark of the ‘reasonable man’.

He suggests that sensory gating is a lot more open in every other culture on earth (compared to Western)! Yet we want to impose top down solutions on the rest of the world.

We have to use a different kind of thinking, step outside normal channels. We must become the new barbarians, asking “How does this feel to me?”, the crucial question every time… We will begin to be truly ourselves; our words beginning “to take on a depth that is truly alien in our time”.


This book is a tour de force presenting a world view that is immensely appealing to this reviewer, consonant with the views of many working towards a New Renaissance, and profoundly disruptive of the current Western majority paradigm. It requires a change in the way we perceive the world. This is what the real world is about.

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