Sunday, 20 July 2014

Don't ask a fish

"If you want to know about water, don't ask a fish."

So goes the Chinese proverb, and I like it. Perhaps this says different things to different people, but to me this speaks of how the fish is immersed in water, it always has been and knows no other way, so it does not have the perspective to be able to explain what water is. I like how this can be applied to human culture and behaviour - we get so engrossed in our own way of thinking that we can't even conceive of any other way.

But I want to look at this from another angle - maybe it's a bit of stretch, I'm not sure. I was thinking about this a bit more literally.

It's fairly obvious that humans think of ourselves as the most intelligent species. When we're not dominating, destroying or subjugating other species, we're simply condescending toward them. ("Oh look at that chimp, isn't he so smart?") So in this proverb about the fish,  I hear a bit of "haha, stupid fish, doesn't even know it's in water."

How very clever of us humans. Of course we'd know if we were in water wouldn't we? Well, consider this scenario. I get a clean cup out of the cupboard and hand it to you, and ask what's in the cup? You have a look and, it's quite obvious. Nothing is in the cup.

Nothing? Are you sure?

In fact, the cup is full. It's full of air.

Don't laugh - for it takes only the briefest analysis to realise that air is not nothing. The air in our atmosphere is made up of a mixture of gases - about 78% nitrogen, 20% oxygen, 0.03% carbon dioxide, and a list of others in small quantities. Then there's water vapour, pollen, and dust carried in the air. Your body knows this even if your mind doesn't - think how the air can be different temperatures, it can by hazy or clear, heavy with humidity or salty and crisp. Put simply, air is a thing, not a no-thing.

And this is just the beginning. Consider this passage from a book by David Abram I read recently :

The air is not a random bunch of gases simply drawn to earth by the earth's gravity, but an elixir generated by the soils, the oceans and the numberless organisms that inhabit this world, each creature exchanging certain ingredients for others as it exhales, drinking the sunlight with our leaves or filtering the water with our gills, all of us contributing to the composition of this phantasmagoric brew, circulating it steadily between us and nourishing ourselves on its magic, generating ourselves from its substance. 

Air is a magical, beautiful, vital part of our world. We are in it and it is in us. If it's not always obvious - as it is when the wind is rushing by, making our hair dance - that's because we are exactly like the fish in the water.

A little concentration, however, can reveal to our mind the feel of the air coming in and out of our nostrils - cooler as it goes in and warmer as it comes out. We begin to feel the air brushing our skin, and notice the air rushing in to our lungs with each breath, where it exchanges precious molecules with those in our own blood.

In his writing, Abram describes how many indigenous cultures and mystic religions honour the sacredness of air. They understand it is not nothing. A contemplative mind sees wonder in the breath, the way each breath connects us to everyone and everything else. Now that modern society, so clever and so sure of ourselves, is busily changing the very composition of the world's air, perhaps it would do us well to stop to contemplate, to let the wonder of being alive wash over us. Breathe in and breathe out. Let the mind pause and calm its rapid movements. Let the wisdom of the body and the intuition of the soul speak. Breathe in and breathe out.

Have a read of David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal for a mind-opening journey. You'll be exposed to some amazing thoughts! (As well as words like phantasmagorical and chthonic).
Thanks for the lend of these books Danielle!

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