Still in bed on a cloudy morning, hoping for those clouds to become rain, and reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s splendid book, BRAIDING SWEETGRASS for the third time. She makes me feel like I’ve come home. With her, it is natural to settle into what she might call ‘the indigenous mindset.’ I recognize it simply as my natural way of thinking and being, which means that I perceive the world by feeling as well as thinking, by sensing as well as defining. This is often not a popular stance to take, unfortunately.
Her reality, like mine, is composed of many dimensions at once, that vary subtly from one to another by a gradual shading of perception, the way the bands of color in a rainbow fade softly into one another. Yellow darkens into orange; orange brightens by degrees into red. Sound does the same thing as one pitch slides gradually up into a microtone of itself, and then a microtone of that, making my skin shiver and my heart swell. As a great lover of North Indian ragas, I can feel my whole body soften and tingle when I hear one, the music speaking to me with a depth of mood and emotion that speaks directly to my heart.
Kimmerer understands that this way of experiencing the world is quite different from the so-called rational way we are taught to think in our culture, when she says, “In our culture we have been brainwashed by Cartesian dualism!”
As a child who all but flunked out of elementary school, I sidestepped the brainwash by resisting much of what I was being taught. The fact was that much of what the teacher said made no sense to me. Sometimes I assumed I was stupid and sometimes I wondered if my teacher was. When the teacher was a kind woman, I was willing to pay attention; when she was not, I daydreamed. As I think back, I wonder if I had been on the right track all along, trying to put wonderments and feelings first, and the boring dry facts – like numbers – last.
I was not a very good student.
So here we are today, in lockdown and post-election with a new administration that is perhaps better than the last, but still quite mired in “Cartesian dualism”. Sigh… I wonder how long it will take us to wake up and smell the roses – literally! If we were all in school – which I believe we are – our teacher would give us assignments to wake up our senses, as well as our minds. She/He would find ways to make us laugh and cry, identify not only with one another and all creatures, but with the earth itself with its winds and waters and every emotion we humans are capable of. The indigenous way.
What if this world itself is our school – even if we’re grown-ups – and our lessons are designed to open up our perceptions as well as our minds, where we can see how everything is connected to everything else, from the stars in the sky to the tiniest flea on the back of your dog? The connections, and how they feel to our human bodies, may well be the essence of life itself. In my elementary school in Brooklyn, we got demerits for thinking that way! I was not a happy girl.
Recently, an old friend and colleague of my husband’s, came to town to give a guest lecture on molecular bonding at the University Herb had taught in. I went, of course, looking forward to seeing him again, and also wondering if his science, by this time, had evolved to include a more multi-dimensional view of the world. To my disappointment, it had not. Slide after slide showed diagrams of molecules with ‘bonding-lines’ as 2-dimensional as the screen they were projected onto. As for a context in which these molecules existed, there was none. Just blank background. It was like drawing a diagram of a tree that left out its context: the roots, the soil, the fungal web, the sun and the rain, the air.
I was as bored as I had been in third grade. I wanted to know a lot more about those molecules than just their shape!
Herb’s and my feisty fifty-six year-long marriage had included an ongoing dialogue about the nature of reality, as we tried to reconcile his scientific view with my intuitive understanding of how the world worked. Our children had to put up with our ongoing debate, not quite appreciating, I think, that Dad and I thrived on it! Day by day for half a century we dug down for the deeper truths, reaching one impass after another until shortly before he died, when his eyes one day literally opened in awe and he saw that, in his words, “worlds and worlds and worlds” underlay the physical structures he had spent his life studying.
In those last moments of his life, the veils parted and his eyes glowed up at me from his bed, astonished by what he was seeing.
Our friend and I got together the day after his lecture, and over a glass of wine at his hotel I wondered aloud about the diagrams of molecules he’d projected onto the screen and I asked about their context. He looked puzzled.
“Where are these molecules?” I clarified. He still did not know what I was getting at. “You know, their context…” Only a puzzled shake of his head.
“OK,” I tried again, “Do molecules just exist in empty space, or do they have a context? In your diagrams, they only have 3 bond lines – do they actually have more than that? Are they in motion, or are they fixed…?” Getting down to basic assumptions was a familiar impass Herb and I tended to get stuck in, and this made me miss him so much!
“Where are you going?” this fellow asked, bemused by his old friend’s wife.
“Looking for a deeper truth,” I finally confessed. “Like where are these molecules in the world, and what is around them? They must have more than just three bonds, right? So where are the others?” He laughed, and for a moment we just stared at each other, and then he said gently,
“We have to reduce it to a size we can study, otherwise there’s no way to get a grip on it. That’s how reductionist science works.”
I didn’t have the heart to point out that by reducing its properties, you made it become something else. And if so, then what were you actually studying? Certainly not a molecule – just the picture of a molecule dreamed up by a human brain for its own purposes. His eyes narrowed, and I shrugged. I wished I had kept my mouth shut, but it was too late. Anyhow, I was getting tired of this.
When he called for the waitress to re-fill our glasses, I made some excuse and left, and all the way home I wondered, of all things, about his love life! How could anybody so bound up in his head ever make a good lover? Good thing for Herb that he had me to shake him up and give him a run for his money, I muttered to myself as I turned the corner towards home. Boredom was never our problem!
But we had been asking the right questions all those years, I believe. Brainwashed by assumptions of unquestioned dualism in a much-too-small universe was not something I could agree with, ever! Herb knew that and, I believe, enjoyed the fight as much as I did.
I recall what one of my favorite choreographers, Alonzo King, had once said about his teaching technique,
“…Get yourself out of the way, so that what is larger than you can enter,” he told his dancers.
Yes, that is my search and has been since the third grade, to listen and feel for that larger world to enter in all its moods and dimensions, all its feelings and wonderments. I believe those who think only with their brains have no idea what they are missing.
A young friend recently asked me about who finally won the ongoing argument in my household, the scientist or the mystic?
“We both won,” I replied, “because neither of us was entirely right nor entirely wrong. It was about both of us rising above the duality to embrace the wholeness of the world as we each had a part of the picture, but neither of us had included the Whole Thing! Reality is clearly both, and, not either one or the other.
At the end, I believe Herb and I both understood that we were also both beginners in an ancient dilemma.
I hope my young friend took that in, because sad to say, that is not yet what she is being taught in college.
But it will come…