Unravelling our inner worlds

Do you know what your inner world looks like? Have you ever thought to find the language, the art, the poetry, to express it? All our lives we have been taught to minimise our inner worlds. It is now time to magnify them now.

Do you know what your inner world looks like? Have you ever thought to find the language, the art, the poetry, to express it? All our lives we have been taught to minimise our inner worlds. It is now time to magnify them now.

Here is a Yoruba creation story, as told by Minna Salami in Sensuous Knowledge.

“In the beginning, there was only the sky, the sea, and the gods. Olokun was the Sea Goddess, and Olorun was the Sky God. One day, Obtala, the god of creativity, asked the Sky God if he could create land and living creatures to alleviate his boredom. Olorun approved, and Obatala created Ife, the great city that remains the cradle of Yoruba civilization. However, when Olokun found out that Obatala created earth and land in her territory without consulting her, she retaliated with a great flood that inundated the first city of humankind.

Eventually Ife was rebuilt, and it became the “ondaiye (the place of creation), orirun (the source of life), and ibi oju ti nmo wa (the place from where the sun, or enlightenment, rises),” as the eminent professor Banji Akintoye describes Ife in “A History of the Yoruba people.” But the luminous strength of feminine wisdom was out of balance in the new Ife, and the genders were locked in an eternal power struggle.

To prosper, the people received ogbon, which refers to knowledge, or phronesis (practical wisdom). However, the gods knew that ogbon had to affect both the minds and hearts of the people. So they divided ogbon into ogbon-ori and ogbon-inu, concepts that literally translated mean “knowledge of the head” and “knowledge of the gut” but that respectively refer to intellectual intelligence and emotional intelligence. To have only one type of knowledge, according to the Yoruba epos, was to be only partly wise.”

Presently we live in a world which is shaped by knowledge of the head—by intellectual intelligence, the consequences of which need no further elaboration. Indeed we’ve reached a crossroads for a while now, searching for answers, grasping for a different way. But, as has been said before, across centuries, languages, cultures, creation stories: the answers are within us, within “the knowledge of the gut”. In English we say, “trust your gut”, or “gut feelings”, or “gut reactions”, or “gut instincts”. Gut, functioning as an adjective, means “arising from one’s inmost self”. Inherent in these sayings is the belief that the body—or more accurately, our inner world—knows more than we can comprehend.

In Sensuous Knowledge, Minna Salami writes: “The acceptance of the raw, pure quality of interiority is essential to meaningful change.”

She goes onto say that this is vilified within the Europatriarchal narrative. There is no space for interiority: it is inappropriate and untrustworthy. “Poetry is the language of the interior of the soul. Nature inhabits the interior of the earth. And women’s sexual organs, which carry poiesis (life, pleasure, and creation) are interior.” Her words are worth quoting at length, so: “Not only is the vagina a wet, warm, and dark place, like the enclave of a forest, it leads to an even more hidden yet life-bearing location, the womb. Surrounding all of this sexual interiority like an ozone layer is the clitoris, a poetic organ if ever there were one.”

Notice how all three—poetry, nature, and women’s sexual organs—are disparaged, dismissed, and destroyed. Drawing links between the three is more to make a point, than to essentialise interiority as a purely “feminine” quality: it is not. Interiority is not gendered: we all have inner worlds, and the world would be better for it, if we cultivated personal practices of growing our inner worlds.

And what does it mean to do so? What is our inner world? What is “interiority”?

In “Reality as Commons: A Poetics of Participation for the Anthropocene”, Andreas Weber writes: “Poiesis [...] means creative self-realization – an element that brings forth reality, that cannot be suppressed, and that can never be sufficiently understood to be successfully controlled. [...] Poiesis is inner goal-directedness, bringing forth oneself, giving oneself over, self-expression, feeling, and accepting. [...] Poiesis is the “wasteful” promiscuity of creation.”

It is creation that isn’t just unleashed: it explodes, it spills over, it expresses, out of necessity. And it is the inner self of, as Andreas Weber describes, “our feelings, our social bonds, and everything that we experience as significant and meaningful”. It is the poetic dimension of our lives, and it “describes the world that we experience in the perspective of the first person – the world in which we are at home in an intimate way and the world that we seek to protect through political arrangements.”

It is our nonreplicable, idiosyncratic, first-person experiences of the world, that is expressed through poetry. It is poetry, not as in the grandiose, artistic, and strikingly eloquent (though it could be), but as in poetry: real, imprecise, reflective. “This is,” to reference Audre Lorde’s famous essay, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”, “poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which — until the poem — nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.”

Poetry, the language of our inner worlds, is not a luxury. We are all versed in it, from birth. It is why Minna Salami argues that the acceptance of the rawness, pureness of interiority is essential to meaningful change. When we accept the existence and importance of inner worlds, we affirm every individual’s experiences in this world as truth. There is no ‘right’ way of being. This is key to change because then we are accepting true diversity, rather than insisting on one way of doing things. We cease to control, to enforce, to normalise, to pathologise.

And it is not just us humans that have inner worlds, as Andreas Weber explains in Enlivenment: “Current views in empirical biological research, particularly in developmental genetics, proteomics and systems biology, are beginning to appreciate self-production and autopoiesis as central features of living beings. [...] In the emerging new picture, organisms are no longer viewed as genetic machines, but basically as materially embodied processes that bring forth themselves.”

All alive beings have poetic dimensions, with colourful inner worlds and subjectivities, first-person experiences. Again: the acceptance of interiority is essential to meaningful change (if we accept the interiority of nature, too, everything would be different).

So we have to enlarge our inner worlds. Allow them to burst forth. Quieten the noise so we hear our bodies speak. Pay attention to our gut-everything. Let ourselves be led by our own experiences, and express them authentically, uniquely, as they are, our own. It is not to say that the knowledge of the head should no longer be heeded (Ursula K. Le Guin says: “Science explicates, poetry implicates”); it is to say that the knowledge of the gut should, too, be given space to point us in the right direction, wherever that may be.

“To have only one type of knowledge, according to the Yoruba epos, was to be only partly wise.”

Here are some words of advice from Minna Salami on where to begin, from the approach of sensuous knowledge: “You can just approach your being from the right now, from being present, from being alive. And the way that you bring yourself into that presence… is through a more holistic observation of your experiences, of the things that surround you, of your relationship with things that surround you.”

Sensuous knowledge, a holistic approach to knowledge, seeks to encompass forms of knowing that have been hidden within and by the Europatriarchal narrative. These include the dismissal of all of our inner worlds and our individual experiences, the expression of them (in the form of arts, poetry, feeling), and of course, most of all, the inner experiences that have the most multiplicity and depth: black feminism. She says that if there’s one thing that defines black feminist thought, it’s “the argument and the perception for interconnection between systems and experiences and structures”.

Black feminism interweaves the personal and the political, and in doing so has been able to establish a richness of inner worlds most of us haven’t accessed. “If we are the group that were always excluded from whatever hierarchy of power, we have actually, in our otherness, been able to access the whole of reality. Even though it has come from so much suffering, and pain, and trauma, in history. We’ve actually been there all along, looking at the arts, the body, the ecosystems, ancestral and traditional legacies, as sources of knowledge.”

In this moment, Minna Salami says, “black feminism is for everyone”. “It is a repository of thinking around these questions [of contemporary importance], and now is the time to disseminate it. To share those, in the spirit of love and togetherness, which is what we need.” And in this spirit, she is the curator of Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Course for Everyone. Join us on the course, to be led into the world of both and more, to unlock your own inner world, and to learn to express it boldly.


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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