Essays

Plantasia

A philosopher’s travels in the garden of vegetal consciousness

Georgia O’Keeffe, Untitled (Abstraction Green Lines and Red Circle), 1970s. Watercolor on paper, 15 1/2 x 11 in. (39.4 x 28 cm). © 2023 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

  • Jan 20, 2024
  • Issue 9
  • by Simone Kotva

Recently, I’ve been having experiences that have made me question the chasm so often assumed to exist between plants and humans. These experiences have grown gradually out of a meditation exercise I’ve practiced daily for the past six years. The exercise is similar to mindfulness, but it is directed at plants and involves an altered state of consciousness. At first, I wasn’t sure what to call these altered states. Now I refer to them as “the enjoyment,” a description I came across while studying the history of Christian mysticism, and it stuck. Traditionally speaking, “the enjoyment” is an inexplicable sensation that arrives and, for a brief period, completely overpowers a person’s ability to speak or even think in words, images and concepts, including the idea of self. When I experience “the enjoyment” during meditation, the sensation lasts for maybe four or five heartbeats at most, but they are long, drawn-out heartbeats. Its effects can be compared to orgasm, except that it is neither sexual nor arousing.

During these experiences, my awareness is located in my skin, which becomes hypersensitive. This is stable but diffused, dispersed over the whole surface of my body. Although I write “I” and “mine,” the feeling is one in which subjectivity is not focused in a single place, but extended. My self is my skin, in touch with the environment, touching the environment. It is a deeply pleasurable but also profoundly disorienting experience.

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Six years ago, when I began the regular meditation practice that led to these experiences, I was knee-deep in a new research project. The project was about mysticism—and plants. Initially, I was interested in the way mystics favored plants, and how, in turn, plants appeared to mystics in visions. The Buddha famously experienced enlightenment while seated under the Bodhi Tree, a Ficus religiosa, or sacred fig tree. Many figures in Western Christian mysticism also received inspiration in vegetal milieus, such as gardens. Alternatively, mystical visions were delivered as vegetal allegories. Religious history is filled with examples of spiritual doctrines as represented by the anatomy of plants. The medieval mystic Mechthild of Hackeborn, for instance, once witnessed a magnificent tree erupting into her church, on which every fruit represented a different type of virtue and every leaf an aspect of Christ’s life. Here, too, an analogy can be drawn to Buddhism, in which spiritual teachings often are represented by plants, or conveyed in diagrams based on plant shapes, mostly lotus blossoms.

My experiences with meditation led me to another way in which plants featured in mysticism. This took a while to understand because not much has been written about it, and my interest was piqued when I read that certain Indian spiritual traditions call for a yogin to assimilate to a plant, especially in the deeper states of meditation. Intriguingly, this process was seen as perfecting rather than diminishing the yogin’s humanness. Rereading my Christian mystics, I discovered a similar theme in Western mysticism, which specifically advises readers to become like plants when attempting fruitio Deo, the “enjoyment of God” that is the aim of contemplation— occasionally alternating this instruction with exhortations to imitate the elements (water, fire, air, earth), animals and infants, sometimes all of these in the same passage. My favorite mystic in this regard is the 17th-century Catholic Jeanne Guyon, who writes that God is best enjoyed by imitating the activity of a potted plant positioned on a windowsill, taking in the sun. (Incidentally, fruitio, the Latin word for “enjoyment,” is related to the word for fruit, making God, in this type of mysticism, indistinguishable from the world’s wild growth.)

This image of mysticism as a kind of vegetal enjoyment fascinated me, and it quickly became the focus of my research. It was a new direction I had not seen before in the context of Western Christian mysticism, and it also spoke to my own experiences with meditation. I had thought that plants were important to mystics as visual objects and allegories. Now, another possibility entirely presented itself to me: plants as role models for mystics to imitate.

This concept is quite different from the examples I first mentioned, in which a spiritual doctrine is delivered in a garden or illustrated by means of a tree or a flower. While allegory is significant, it remains secondary to the spiritual message symbolized by plants. The instruction to participate in vegetal life foregrounds plants’ experience of the world. And, as I would soon come to discover, the way in which mystics define the enjoyment of God bears more than a passing resemblance to the way in which scientists who study plant behavior have begun to describe their understanding of plant intelligence.

My favorite mystic … is the 17th-century Catholic Jeanne Guyon, who writes that God is best enjoyed by imitating the activity of a potted plant positioned on a windowsill, taking in the sun.

According to one influential narrative, plants lack consciousness because they lack brains. This was one of the conclusions drawn from the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous 1974 article “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Nagel made the thenprogressive argument that animals other than humans were conscious, but left it at that. Bats were “alien” enough, Nagel contended. Plants were simply not on the radar; anything so far down the phylogenetic tree was not worth including in a philosophical discussion about consciousness. But over the years since Nagel’s argument, a distinct turn to the vegetal has taken place across several disciplines. The shift has been inspired by pioneers in the study of plant behavior, among them Anthony Trewavas, emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh, who has fought an uphill battle in his efforts to redefine intelligence. Trewavas’s position, which has slowly gained acceptance, rests on a radical turn away from the brain. His research, and that of numerous fellow scientists, shows that plants forage for food, communicate with other plants and organisms, sense the world, make choices and remember what has happened to them. In other words, they fulfill the criteria of intelligent behavior as it is understood by humans. For Trewavas, this suggests that brains are not necessary for “intelligent” behavior, and that thoughtful responses are not exclusive to mammals with brains but reach all the way down the structure of living matter.

Moreover, plants’ lack of a brain may have certain unexpected advantages, epistemologically speaking. As biologist Daniel Chamovitz argues in What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses of Your Garden —And Beyond, brainless consciousness can do things that brains cannot. Unlike animals, plants lack a nervous system with which to interpret environmental stimuli. This means that while plants sense the world, they do not process it; they possess the hardware, as it were, but lack the software to interface with what they sense through images, concepts, language and ideas. This is a drawback if you want to write poetry about, say, a summer’s day. But it is an advantage if you want to directly experience that summer’s day, unmediated by conceptual representations. Plant awareness, though more simple in terms of its construction than mammalian perception, is, for that very reason, more directly in touch with the elements. As Chamovitz puts it, evocatively, plants are free from subjective constraints.

Several philosophers—among them Emanuele Coccia, Luce Irigaray, Michael Marder and Elaine P. Miller—have labored scrupulously to put into philosophical language what might be meant by the idea of plants freed from the constraints of subjectivity, as well as from images and representations. What would it be like to experience the world without a self to bear witness to the experience?

At first glance, the notion seems as alien to human consciousness as Nagel’s contentions about bat intelligence appeared to the average philosopher in the 1970s. Yet, as Marder and others point out, the language that plant scientists use when talking about plant intelligence finds close parallels elsewhere in literature and culture. Chamovitz’s expression, for example, mirrors that of a mystic’s awareness of the world, often described as a process of un-selfing, one typically lacking in images and concepts. For Irigaray and Marder, mindfulness and contemplation have become ways of describing not only how humans think when they practice spiritual exercises but also how plants think. Marder, in particular, argues that when we contemplate plants, we may also be learning how to be attentive in the manner of plants. When focusing intently on plants we are “shuttling,” he writes in Through Vegetal Being: Two Philosophical Perspectives, between “vegetal mindfulness” and “human mindfulness.”

This is possible, he adds, because humans, while not plants, participate (like all animals) in plant-like activities simply by virtue of the fact that they are embodied. For Marder, vegetal mindfulness is characterized by a continuous attention to the elements—air, moisture, temperature and sunlight among them—while human mindfulness is discontinuous and braindependent. Plenty of non-brain-dependent activities occur in the bodies of humans and other animals. Skin, for instance, experiences a similar, incessant awareness of the world. When we look at plants contemplatively, Marder maintains, the resonance and sympathy so often felt by practitioners of mindfulness is not merely metaphorical. Rather, it is a kind of call and response between the plant’s continuous attention and the vegetal mindfulness that sustains our embodied existence.

I find that my own experiences speak directly to Marder’s description of a contemplative “shuttling,” as attention shifts from brain-dependent to involuntary activities. For me, skin has been a key factor. When meditating on plants, I feel myself becoming skin and thus leaf-like, taking in the world as a breathing surface. I wouldn’t say, though (nor would Marder), that my altered state of consciousness is for this reason the same as a plant’s way of knowing the world. To argue that it is possible to tune into shared vegetal ways in our embodied existence does not arrogate to humans the minds of plants. Instead, I think, it opens a highly generative zone of contact between humans and plants, a space in which entanglement may happen.

In the West, we are only now beginning to catch up to a profound understanding of plants, not simply as food but as knowledge-holders.

Both my experiences and the concept of plant intelligence could be seen as complementary examples of non-conceptual, or “anoetic,” thinking. The term was coined recently by Augustine Casiday, a scholar of Christian mysticism, and, in a scintillating coincidence, Chamovitz, in What a Plant Knows, uses a similar term, “anoetic consciousness.” Derived from the Greek anoesis, “anoetic” means without ideations or concepts (noemata). Chamovitz contends that consciousness exists in different forms and that plants’ “anoetic consciousness” makes it possible for them to be aware of the world without “seeing” it in pictures or ideas. While Chamovitz is not involved in discussions about mysticism, the term “anoetic” has a signi cant history in Christian spirituality. Casiday writes about the mystical practice of “anoetic prayer,” referring to the ancient Christian ideal of contemplation beyond words, images and sense of selfhood. His coinage draws from the 5th- and 6thcentury mystical theologian Dionysius the Areopagite, who held that in its higher states, prayer is anoesia, a form of knowing beyond intellect. In Dionysius’s telling, the praying person moves toward this state by way of negating everything that could be expressed in words and concepts about the world and about God, arriving at last in an ineffable mystical union. This via negativa, or “way of negation,” as it came to be known, represents one of the principal ways in which certain Christian mystics understand the path to the enjoyment of God.

In a felicitous turn of phrase, Marder has played with the idea that the via negativa of Christian mysticism may also be a via vegetativa, a “way of vegetation.” He reflects on the ways in which vegetal imagery performs a dual function in mysticism— as allegory and symbol but also as a teacher of spiritual practices. In much of mysticism, it accomplishes both. In Indian traditions of spirituality and also in Indigenous communities the world over, a common awareness of these functions has been shared for millennia, as discussed in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s bestselling Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. In the West, we are only now beginning to catch up to a profound understanding of plants, not simply as food but as knowledge-holders.

My meditative experiences have left me vividly alert to vegetal life, both in the sense of plants and in the sense of the vegetal activities that sustain other organisms. Whether this feeling is similar to that experienced by historical mystics, I can never know. But the preponderance of plants in mysticism suggests that it well might be, which interests me in part because mysticism holds such a rich store of practical know-how, with strong bearing on the current planetary emergency. Marder often points out that amid so much writing about plants (their virtues, properties and endangered state), little is said about how to think with plants, even as plants. For me, mysticism practiced as well as studied helps me make that shift, from writing about plants to possessing a multi-species ethic rooted in vegetal life.

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Simone Kotva is an Ecodisturb Research Fellow in the faculty of theology at the University of Oslo, Norway, and an affiliated lecturer in environmental theology in the faculty of divinity at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of Effort and Grace: On the Spiritual Exercise of Philosophy (2020) and is currently completing a book on multi-species mysticism. She frequently writes on themes such as attention, magic, vitality and the future of philosophy.