The Space Through Which Stuff Passes

sophie sheppard
I continue to draw great inspiration from Stewart & Cohen’s book Figments of Reality, a book that has clearly also influenced my favourite philosopher John Gray. In the book they state:

Living species, including humans, are emergent properties of (what Daniel Dennett has labeled) the ‘pandemonium’ of the body’s semi-autonomous processes — We are a complicity of the separately-evolved creatures in our bodies organized for their mutual benefit i.e. we are an organism. And our brains, our intelligence, awareness, consciousness and free-will, are nothing more than an evolved, shared, feature-detection system jointly developed to advise these creatures’ actions for their mutual benefit. Our brains, and our minds (the processes that our neurons, senses and motility organs carry out collectively) are their information-processing system, not ‘ours’.

Thinking about this in the context of my recent writings on doing versus being and what we’re ‘meant’ to be and do, I began to realize the absurdity of the entire concept of individual (which literally means ‘indivisible’), and hence of cultures based on individuality. As a complicity we, each of us, are not ‘one’, We are not singular. And that is true not only within us but without us — we are part of the larger organisms of community and Gaia, the community of all-life-on-Earth. Our bodies and the rest of what we call our “selves” are plural parts of larger pluralities.

It is not surprising then that we have this problem with deciding who we ‘are’ and what we’re ‘meant’ to be, and do. It is a question that can only be answered in the context of knowing what we are made up of and what we make up as part of larger organisms.

As a generalist, I have always struggled with aspects of my ‘self’ that seem to be constantly struggling with each other:

  • extrovert versus introvert
  • lover versus fighter
  • being versus doing
  • staying still versus changing
  • being present versus becoming
  • being happy versus being of use
  • pacifist versus activist
  • intuiting versus sensing/perceiving
  • thinking/conceiving versus feeling
  • love of simplicity versus love of complexity
  • love of silence/stillness versus love of transformation/movement

These are not, as I thought in my youth, dualities to be resolved as I got to know who I really was. These are parts of me, reflections of the parts of me. This is not about multiple identities or personae or personalities, they are aspects that are always present. But not aspects of one, rather aspects of the whole me, plural. This is why I have no use for psychology, which presumes (except perhaps for gestalt, which is not a ‘therapy’ but a methodology for self-discovery, or maybe I should say selves-discovery) to diagnose what is ‘wrong’ with us to make us ‘better’. And why I have no use for most religions that presume to tell us what our purpose is and how we should live, or for the modern scientific cults that teach us how to control and ‘program’ ourselves to live ‘integrally’.

The way to understand what we ‘are’, it seems to me, is a way not of greater self-control but a way, a Tao, of giving up control, of letting go and letting come. Of abandoning this foolish concept that ‘we’ are something that needs to be managed, directed, restricted, kept from being ‘evil’, either by outside disciplinarians and ‘leaders’ or by our ‘selves’. Of realizing that we are merely, and totally, the space through which stuff passes. Stuff material and non-materials. Coming and going. Combining and separating.

My anal list of things I want to spend more time being and doing is not inconsistent with this ‘worldview’. My purpose in practicing these things is not to become a ‘better’ person, more moral, or wiser, but rather to develop capacities, to become healthier and more resilient and more sustainable and hence ultimately happier and more useful to others and to the world. Happiness and usefulness confer enormous evolutionary advantage, so we shouldn’t be surprised that these are the things, ultimately, that we aspire to. (I should mention, by the way, that I have already started making time for some of these practices, even though my days are over-scheduled and ceasing doing the things that I have to stop doing will take some time and effort. That is the power of intention.)

So what does this mean, to be the space through which stuff passes? In a way, perhaps, it is being nobody-but-yourself, in the ee cummings sense. Or perhaps it is giving up the whole notion of ‘being’, and seeing the universe as composed of movement (or movement and stillness) and not matter at all (whatever ‘matter’ means, as one scientific theory after another about the makeup of the universe is undone by new discoveries). To be not the dancer, but the dance, or at least part of a dance so complex as to be unfathomable to us.

That’s as far as I’ve come in my thinking, and perhaps it’s absurd to think that I or anyone can go further in this remarkable direction. For further inspiration I’m re-reading phenomenologist David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous, in which he writes:

As we reacquaint ourselves with our breathing bodies, then the perceived world itself begins to shift and transform. When we begin to consciously frequent the wordless dimension of our sensory participations, certain phenomena that have habitually commanded our focus begin to lose their distinctive fascination and to slip toward the background, while hitherto unnoticed or overlooked presences begin to stand forth from the periphery and to engage our awareness. The countless human artefacts with which we are commonly involved — buildings, automobiles, television screens — all begin to exhibit a common style, and so to lose some of their distinctiveness; meanwhile, organic entities — crows, trees, rainfalls — all these begin to display a new vitality, each coaxing the breathing body into a unique dance. Even boulders and rocks seem to speak their own uncanny languages of gesture and shadow, inviting the body and its bones into silent communication. In contact with the native forms of the earth, one’s senses are slowly energized and awakened, combining and recombining in ever-shifting patterns…

An alder leaf, loosened by wind, is drifting out with the tide. As it drifts, it bumps into the slender leg of a great blue heron staring intently through the rippled surface, then drifts on. The heron raises one leg out of the water and replaces it, a single step. As I watch, I, too, am drawn into the spread of silence. Slowly a bank of cloud approaches, slipping its bulged and billowing texture over the earth, folding the heron and the alder trees and my gazing body into the depths of a vast breathing being, enfolding us all within a common flesh, a common story now bursting with rain.

I still have so much to unlearn.

(Thanks to Cheryl, Siona and Patti for sparking this realization.)

Painting above by painter and environmentalist Sophie Sheppard, auctioned in1999 at the Authors Unite in Defense of Mother Earth festival.


Category: Being Human
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8 Responses to The Space Through Which Stuff Passes

  1. It sure has been a while since I last visited your page Dave, but you never seem to disappointed me. This was an exceptionally good post; I love the amount of realization in it. I especially enjoy how you point out the absurdity of ‘individual’, because we are part of such a larger community. The idea of individuality only leads to the idea of separation; the idea that we are not dependent on what is around us. And I think I know which book I’m going to pick up next off my bookshelf of unreads’; Spell of the Sensuous… I to have so much to unlearn…

  2. Simon Hazelton says:

    Hi DaveExcellent post, a great read as ever. The capacities you’re trying to develop you already have! I wonder if the Ancient Greeks felt the same way as their civilisation crumbled and was replaced?Have a great day!

  3. Mariella says:

    To “be” through “not being”……The Tao te Ching says : the Tao that can be named is not the real Tao………….( ¿how can you get to “be” while you are “trying” to be…..? )

  4. Dave Smith says:

    I love this: “…letting go AND letting come.” That brings back in half of the universe! Dave

  5. Siona says:

    You’re welcome. :)And thank YOU, Dave, because this, to me, was just beautiful. I love what you said about space, and how YOU are the space through which and in which all those qualities emerge. Those traits you sometimes seem to wrestle with are just aspects and reflections of yourself that you can identify with or disidentify with, use or not use, develop or ignore. Who you are is so, so much deeper than that. You’re the page and not the ink; the screen and not the text; the sky and not the clouds; the ocean and not the waves… and on and on and on. Unlearning is easy. Just let go.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    (letting the comments just flow through me, and :-)

  7. Don Dwiggins says:

    Very nice, Dave! I especially like the “dissolution” of the dualities into aspects. Did I ever recommend Smith and Berg’s “Paradoxes of Group Life”? In any case, I’m recommending it now. Paradox is another way to view these aspects (or their interactions).

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