Blog Post - Re-minding our Selves of our Natural Communitas

Picture of Dylan AdamsIn the second of our blog series, Dr. Dylan Adams shares his thoughts and reflections regarding the liminal nature that the COVID-19 crisis has brought to society and education. Rhetoric as a result of the crisis is awash with dire consequences associated to the pandemic, but does this liminality represent an opportunity to change society for the better and feed into a greater sense of communitas? Although not necessarily straightforward, taking reflexive time to consider how humanity connects with the world may help to feed in to a re-imagining of education for the benefit of all.

We are currently living in a time of crises. The Covid-19 pandemic has been added to the climate crisis as existential threats to previous “normalities”. Nevertheless, the UK Government (2020) has outlined steps so that we may “rebuild” and return things to the way they were before. The desire to get back to the way we were before only fuels the sense for many that we are living in limbo (Kale, 2020); a liminal time, betwixt and between the normality of our past and the fear-full projections of an austere and limited future (Wilson et. al., 2020). Yet it is now arguably, in this liminality and time of crises, that hope for significant change and a new, improved future can be found. Boltanski and Thévenot (1999) suggest that critical moments provoke reflexivity and a realisation “that something has to change” (p.359).

Turner, the anthropologist who first developed van Gennep’s (1909) concept of liminality, argued that liminal times allow for “reclassifications of reality and man’s relationship to society, nature and culture” (Turner, 2008, pp.128-129). This is not only an academic issue as he stated they “are more than classifications since they incite man to action as well as to thought” (Turner, 2008, p. 129). Liminality is therefore perceived as an opportunity to imagine and enact change.

Picture of Children Learning Outdoors

Picture provided by Dr. Dylan Adams

A recent survey (BBC, 2020) found that 43% of children are not looking forward to being “cooped up in their classrooms all day” when lockdown is over. In addition, 20% said they enjoyed “seeing more birds and insects in their garden” and 20% also said they enjoyed seeing fewer cars on the roads at the moment. There is already growing evidence that exposure to nature positively affects children’s mental health (Moens et. al., 2019). Moreover, it is argued that wellbeing increases when children feel a connection to nature (Bakir-Demir, 2019). Over fifteen years ago Louv (2005) argued that children were suffering from ‘nature deficit disorder’. More recently he stated that he hoped the “one silver lining” of this pandemic is that “we’ll have more time for each other and nature” (Louv, 2020). Research has shown that since the pandemic outbreak, air quality and water pollution across the globe has improved (Sadaat et.al., 2020; Zambrano et.al., 2020). Of course, if the pandemic ends and we return to business, or busyness, as usual then presumably previous pollution levels will return. However, research seems to reveal that the more people feel connected to nature, the more they wish to protect it (Mackay and Schmitt, 2019). Connection to nature has been viewed throughout the ages as more than just providing health benefits or being good for the environment. Realising our relation to nature is to realise our spiritual selves (Berry, 2015). Yet we are warned that modern habits and indoor lives mean that we are losing “intimate modes of divine presence” and hence “losing ourselves” (Berry, 2015, p.8).

Turner (1974) positioned liminality as not only being an opportunity for change, but also as leading to communitas. Communitas is likened to an intense feeling of community, the state of mind that is accessed by Hindu mystics when they reach the Atman, the spirit of all life that exists in all beings, therefore “embracing nature as well as culture in communitas” (Turner, 1974, p.203). Turner also likened communitas to the Zen algorithm, “all is one, one is none, none is all” (2008, p.113). That is not to say that communitas is only achieved by those who are religious or spiritually devoted. Rather “communitas is a fact of everyone’s experience” (Turner, 1974, p.231). Therefore, communitas reveals our true nature as spiritual beings in community with all living things (Turner, 1974).

Yet others have argued that not all liminal experiences inevitably lead to communitas. Thomassen (2016) suggests that we can have limivoid experiences whereby “the ‘other side’ of the experience does not result in “a transformed or re-generated human being” (p.188). He gives the example of bungee jumping where the “jump is into a void which is simply… a bottomless void with no other meaning” (Thomassen, 2016, p.188). Nevertheless, our research shows that when children feel a deep connection to nature, they can have optimal or spiritual experiences of communitas (Adams and Beauchamp, 2019; Adams and Beauchamp, 2020).

Arendt (2006) warned that a crisis “becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments”, as a closed mind misses “the opportunity for reflection” that crises provide (p.171). But simply to reflect is not enough if we are to realise the “unprecedented potency” (Turner, 2008, p.128) of liminality. How can we ensure that these times of crises are not merely limivoid moments? Arendt (2006) argued that “education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it” (p.193). How do our current systems of education show that we love the world? Perhaps this time of crisis and liminality gives us an opportunity to improve our ways of education. Perhaps we can show that we love the world enough, by prioritising our communitas with each other and the more-than-human world.

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