Monday, March 31, 2014

Of "I and Thou"

What does a nerd do when she's on spring break? She reads a philosophy of the sensuous and blogs about it before she even gets out of bed. Well, to be fair, I would rather be on a tropical beach, but I can't afford it. And honestly, I'd be reading The Spell of the Sensuous  on that beach.

I just read two of the most exciting sentences I've read in quite some time. But before I get to those, let me address what's been on my mind these past few mornings when I wake up (and it's relevant, leads up to the exciting sentences etc.). You see it's spring and in Chinese medicine school, you can't help but focus on the particular qualities of whatever season you are in and what the philosophy of the ancients was in regard to that season. Spring is about the Liver and Wood and Wind. Wind has captured my curiosity. Not just recently, but since I was a child. Right now, with spring winds whipping through the cedars and tapping on my studio's windows, I am obsessed with wind.

As a child I used to like to stand outside as the weather shifted into tornado clouds, green skies, swirling masses, leaves curling to show their underbellies. It was the ultimate in excitement. Warm air caressing my body, I would raise my arms and pretend to command the sky. (It wasn't quite the ego trip that it sounds like... more of an engagement with the elements.) On a sunny day I would lay for hours in a field listening to the song of tall, dry grasses commingled with bird calls. Both were sensuous experiences that engaged all of my senses.

I keep thinking lately about the nature of wind in particular though. Wind seems so different than the other elements. You can't really touch or hold or contain wind. You can't directly see it. You experience it most commonly through its effects on other things. The movement of tree leaves, the shaping of sand, tousling of hair.

You also come to know wind through sound- wind chimes, reeds. This has me thinking about the sounds we make and their origination in breath. One of the most obvious examples would be woodwind instruments. Like the wind itself, we can create music through our breath across and through these surfaces.

It doesn't take much to make the leap to speech itself. The shaping of wind-breath through our vocal cords, epiglottis and tongue. The proverbial "if a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound" is only half the equation though right? It is the reverberation along the ear canal, past minuscule hairs, off the drum, into the sea-shell that is the cochlea of our inner ear that creates a reception of sound. (That is then translated specifically by our individual brains into a myriad of understandings that are related to our individual experiences.) The other half of the equation, that by many beings is sensed through an ear.

I am then reminded of Martin Buber's I and Thou and his discussion of the sacred nature of words. It's been years since I have read this mini-tome, but my take away was that words are acts of creation. We use words to convey a shared understanding of an object or being, but by applying a word to an object/being, we necessarily confine the object/being to our understanding of it. Buber is specifically addressing the profaning of the divine when we use words to define "God". We are taking something that is beyond our experiences and limiting it to our experiences thereby narrowing it's very nature to something within the human realm of experience. More to my current topic, our words are powerful.

The other aspects of wind important here are wind's nature to spring and wood. It is in spring that we see new life. We see long dormant seeds sprout through wet soil. This defiance of gravity is a lesson in the nature of wind. It takes enormous energy for this new life to burst out of the confines of its seed shell and through the soil into the increasing sunlight. There is a warmth in the surrounding, a shift in the angle of the sun, that calls it forth. An exchange if you will. My teachers have pointed out that seedlings need resistance. A seed that sprouts on the surface of the dirt will soon whither and die and rarely makes it to fruition. The seed that sprouts just the right depth under ground grows strong.

Wind and it's resistance to "other" illustrates the creative aspect of spring. We literally see wind in it's relationship to other objects. Wind, represents change and life (to paraphrase Brandt Stickley). It is the wind that moves seeds across oceans. Wind carries pollen and the insects that inseminate plants. Wind, and by extension, breath becomes a generative force. Through this we can see the power of our words, our formation of breath into meaning. Our words interact with the world around us to literally shape that world, to interact relationally with our surroundings.

And, finally, we come to the most exciting sentences I've read in some time. In his book, The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram draws us into how our language can cut us off sensorily from our surrounding world.

"By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies."

"Only affirming the animateness of perceived things do we allow our words to emerge directly from the depths of our ongoing reciprocity with the world."

While we are never truly separated from our surroundings, our words go on affecting our environment but without our awareness of that effect. Additionally, we deny ourselves the reception of the response of the objects and beings around us. We feel alone when we are not, simply because we are closed off to seeing the animateness of the life around us. Lovely, lovely words my friends from a book I'm going to enjoy spending my spring break indulging in!