In the presence of Diane Ackerman


Dear Diane,

Thank you for joining us today to explore the role of sensemaking in the learning process. You are a sensemaker extraordinaire; your body of wisdom related to the mind, the senses and deep play, is like music to my heart and ears. As someone who is devoted to and passionate about both sensemaking and embodied living and learning — thus whole person, enacting all our senses, capacities and intelligences — I am excited, delighted and grateful to be sensemaking with you today in this way.

Hannelie: Diane, in the learning process our little ones learn about life, creatures, ourselves, concepts and phenomena through the alphabet; thus engaging mostly our memory based on a few senses and mostly the intellect, and not through a direct, expanded, and personal experience. For example, we get shown this is an apple and that is how we spell it and that is how the word sounds. Our association is first with the visual and the letters, how they sound. We create and store this picture in our minds. No other senses are necessarily stimulated in that same moment; such as being handed a real apple, connecting to it, sensing into it, and engaging and awakening all our senses in this discovery process. To become aware that it houses not only nourishment for us humans, but that in fact it is the womb of many seeds, which will become an apple tree if we do not eat it. Our ability to become one with it through smelling it, tasting it, feeling the shape, and experiencing with awareness how it goes down our digestive system to the point where it transmutes into energy, with the perception that it energizes us and allows us to move around. Expanding this experience by cutting it open and seeing the seeds and inquiring about them, touching the texture of the skin, flesh and seeds, thus having a full sensory experience. Independent thinking, associated questioning and integrative sensing is not inspired or stimulated. We get told this is what it is, which can be a mental process only; an apple and that is what the word looks and sounds like. A picture of food will not nourish us. We are aware we can eat and consume it, yet there is very little association and relation to the apple as part of a much bigger ecosystem; the apple tree, the apple grove and the role of nature in this process, and how the farmer had to prepare the soil, plant the seeds, care for the grove, ensure it receives water, removing the weeds, and the natural process of it growing into a tree, which will bear the fruit, harvesting the apple, taking it to the market or distribution centre, and us being able to feed ourselves and enjoy its nutrition. There is a beautiful African proverb that says: “We can count the apples on a tree but we cannot count the trees hiding in the seeds of an apple.” For me the seeds in the apple is our hidden potential, which emerges when we begin to enact all our sensibilities and our body-mind-heart connection; all in one moment. Yet we understand so little about our brains and their capacities. Is the brain flexible?

Diane: The brain can hold an idea in its stock-room for years, occasionally checking to see if it has changed at all, revising it a little, and putting it back on the shelf, taking it down again when it seems to have evolved like a lemur from its original form.

Hannelie: We limit our mind’s capacity when we learn to make associations with the letters, the visual and the sound of the word only. To put it simply, we create a category and pattern, which is not necessarily connected to our other sensibilities and experiences and inquiries that arise later. Our minds can get lazy and resistant if not stimulated to have expanded experiences. What is it with us and patterns; the same thing over and over again, resistant to expansion?

Diane: Pattern pleases us, rewards a mind seduced and yet, exhausted by complexity.

Hannelie: Patterns play a huge role in language perception and cognition too. For example, associations with a letter in the alphabet in one language will be completely different from using the letter in another language. It will sound different and have a different meaning and effect, and it will follow a different pattern. My concern is that we create walls in our minds that create limited sensory experiences. You spoke about seduction, yet is it not just beautiful to sense into the essence and energy behind words? What is your experience in this regard?

Diane: The long a of the English alphabet has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. The confessions of a synesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leaking and drafts by more solid walls than mine are.

Hannelie: I love it; leaking and drafts in the mind. Just beautifully said. I can easily get seduced by the sounds, vibration, pronunciation and essence of words. My auditory senses celebrates when I expand my mental perception like that. How else can we think about our minds?

Diane: Another way to think of mind maybe as St. Augustine thought of God, as an emanation that’s not located in one place, or one form, but exists throughout the universe. An essence, not just a substance. And, of course, the mind isn’t located only in the brain.

Hannelie: I love that metaphor. Thank you. And yes, the mind is not only located in the brain and we now know that we in fact have 3 brains. Speaking about metaphors, for me it is a powerful way to introduce something we cannot perceive or conceptualize yet. Why would you say it is not harnessed that often in the traditional learning process; using metaphors?

Diane: Metaphor isn’t just decorative language. If it were, it wouldn’t scare people so much.

Hannelie: That reminds me of what Robert Stetson Shaw said; that we cannot see something if we do not have the right metaphor to let us perceive it. The scary part can be transformed by being creative in using metaphors. What I mean by that is using simplistic metaphors and narratives which are easily understandable and relevant. Speaking about creativity, an embodied experience provides us with much more richness and material to work with during the learning and creative process. Do you have any examples in this regard to share with us?

Diane: Yes, J M W Turner would strap himself to the mast of a boat and be transported into the heat of a storm at sea, which he would later paint in tumultuous heavings and sobbings of color.

Hannelie: That is amazing. This is what I call an embodied, authentic sensemaking experience. Thank you for this example. For me that is also an example of deep play, even though Mr. Turner might have had quite a traumatic experience during this storm; definitely courageous and committed. You share much wisdom about deep play. I do believe educators and parents should use play more during the discovery and learning process. We use play not only in sensemaking experiences, but also during our JOY Rendezvous Gap Experiences for young people and in our LIA — learn and innovate with Awareness Journeys. If you had to tell us about deep play in a few words, what would you share?

Diane: Deep play is ecstatic play. It involves the sacred and the holy. Sacred places catapult people into deep play.

Hannelie: Wow, what a beautiful and sacred way to share it with us. Thank you for that. You also touch on something that is so powerful and so little understood; the power of sacred places. We take in and absorb much more during peak experiences and heightened levels of consciousness; especially at such places. We are blessed to be able to visit and connect to many such places during the JOY Rendezvous where we are able to have embodied experiences in more than one way. J M W Turner was also in a sacred place, the ocean, when he had that embodied experience, which allowed him to express and represent his experience on canvas through the heavings and sobbings of color. The ocean, another of the treasures that us humans do not treasure and appreciate as our way of living do not even begin to respect and honor its wisdom, versatile life forms, and power. This brings me back to how we share during the learning and discovery process; it is not an integrated process, otherwise our oceans and the magnificent creatures that inhabit it would not be under such threat. Recently I had the sad experience of walking upon a dead sea-lion and some dead fish on the beach; who consumed plastic that was dumped in the ocean. It is no use of telling people not to pollute and litter, if the deeper understanding and expanded awareness is not there; all coming back to our learning and perception processes. We just don’t get it that existence is not created of silos; everything is interconnected and all life is symbiotic, and that we are a single living organism. Sensing into that brings another example of a natural resource and treasure that most humans do not value and treasure; trees. Again in my view because of the limited way in which we are taught to perceive it. If only we can harness the wisdom that trees and nature so graciously offer us. Can you give us an example of such wisdom?

Diane: A stand of aspens in Oregon is reputed to be the largest single organism on Earth, an underground mass from which over a hundred thousand trees tower. The trees work in unison; they telegraph their moods and news. Under attack, they send chemical messages to their neighbors, warning them of danger so they can rally in defense.

Hannelie: if only we can begin to understand and treasure the value of symbiotic relations and living. Sadly we are not sharing this level of wisdom with our young people. We pay attention to all sorts of useless, disconnected and meaningless information. What we do not realize is that what we pay attention to define not only us but also our experience of life. Do you agree with that?

Diane: Yes, what we pay attention to define us.

Hannelie: My wish and aspiration for humanity is that we can begin to taste the life offered to us when we enact all our sensibilities, capacities, and intelligences to live a full, meaningful, and authentic life, which in turn will enable us to respect and revere nature and each other. Curiosity, awe and wonder is for me is the starting point to discover and experience such an embodied life. Yet many are resistant to such invitations; to even just have a small taste of such an experience. And it requires from us to fall in love with life. How would you describe such a love affair?

Diane: The love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climbing abroad, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day. Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length.

Hannelie: Wow Diane, that is so beautiful. When I sense into that it makes me want to risk it all; all those limiting thoughts, feelings, beliefs, habits and the likes. During the JOY Rendezvous we redefine habits; heart awareness body in tune. Just wonderful. Sensing even further into this, the matter of writing comes to the surface. Not only on a personal level, but also in terms of the discovery process. Even as a young girl I realized the power of writing; our hands are the extensions of our hearts and the instruments of our minds. What a magnificent way to strengthen the body-mind-heart-spirit connection? In my experience it is a wondrous way not only to share our insights, thoughts and ideas with the world, but during the learning and discovery process this BMHS connection is powerful to not only perceive and conceive, but to have an expanded sensory, visceral and cognitive experience; something which allows us to make connections between things that is not otherwise possible. The smell and texture of paper, the almost imperceptible sense of pressure when holding a pen, the flow that happens spontaneously between the hands, heart and mind; it is a romance by itself and such a sacred experience. This type of embodied awareness is priceless during the learning process, not only to freely write but to bring together what we heard and perceived. It is vital during receptive processes. As a celebrated author yourself, how do you feel about writing?

Diane: Writing is my form of celebration and prayer, but also the way in which I organize and inquire about the world.

Hannelie: That is wonderful. I love it and full heartedly agree; whether one is a writer or not, it is an organizing principle and stimulates independent thinking and essential inquiry. These are all aspects of the discovery process we feel should have more airtime during the learning process. You speak about prayer, life to me is a living prayer and when we live life fully, enacting and treasuring all our capacities, sensibilities and intelligences, our lives become a prayer. One thing I became aware of during exploring embodiment and our body-mind-heart-spirit connection, is that we can have extraordinary visions and ideas, but our bodies can simply not hold or contain them. In having this awareness we can both challenge and support both the body and the mind. This is a powerful way that enables us to bring our ideas to life with confidence and conviction. We play with this in a variety of ways during the JOY Rendezvous and also during sensemaking experiences. When I mention holding, what emerges for you?

Diane: There is a way of beholding which is a form of prayer.

Hannelie: We would love to hear more about that. This wisdom is in your book, The Alchemy of Mind, is it not? Some last words of wisdom you would like to share with us? Perhaps in relation to memory or the mind?

Diane: Mind you, memories are kidnappable.

Hannelie: Thank you for sharing that so humorously. I have had experiences of that. It is something I would love to explore more during another sensemaking experience with you, perhaps in a live Sense-pod. I would love to dip into Deep Play, the senses, and the mind in a more expansive way with you. Thank you for joining us today and sharing so much wisdom and delight with us in this way. I am continuously surprised by the richness of the fabric of life when we leverage our wisdom and apply them within other contexts than in which they were originally shared; they become expansive and alive in ways we cannot even imagine. Thank you for sensemaking with us today. It was real fun. I look forward to a live session.

To you the receiver — reader, thank you for being with us today in the presence of Diane Ackerman.

Poet, essayist, and naturalist, Diane Ackerman is the author of two dozen highly acclaimed works of nonfiction and poetry, including The Zookeeper’s Wife and A Natural History of the Senses — books beloved by millions of readers all over the world. In prose so rich and evocative that one can feel the earth turning beneath one’s feet as one reads, Ackerman’s thrilling observations urge us to live in the moment, to wake up to nature’s everyday miracles. Diane Ackerman’s latest nonfiction book, The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us, celebrates the natural world and human ingenuity, while exploring how the human race has become the single dominant force of change on the whole planet, and the many earth-shaking changes that now affect every part of our lives and those of our fellow creatures. It received the P.E.N. Henry David Thoreau Award for Nature Writing and was a New York Times bestseller. Her other works of nonfiction include: An Alchemy of Mind, a poetics of the brain based on the latest neuroscience; Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden; Deep Play, which considers play, creativity, and our need for transcendence; A Slender Thread, about her work as a crisis line counselor; The Rarest of the Rare and The Moon by Whale Light, in which she explores the plight and fascination of endangered animals; A Natural History of Love; On Extended Wings, her memoir of flying; and her bestseller, A Natural History of the Senses. Photo: Michael Wechsler

What wants to be known to and through you today?

Hannelie Venucia is our resident Sensemaker at the Sensemaking Institute, and Joy-Rendezvous-er at The Rainbow Bridge Conservatory, Muse, Minstrel, Sage and Creator of this sense-pad called In the Presence of… Where collective and personal wisdom and insights take off and land. and



Hannelie Sensemaker Wor(l)dPainter Venucia

Hannelie loves to bring joy and to create and share enriching and expansive experiences and perspectives that remind us of our greatness, potential and genius.