“Only a single person was created in the beginning to teach that if any individual causes a single person to perish, Scripture considers it as though an entire world has been destroyed, and if anyone saves a single person, Scripture considers it as though a whole world had been saved.” — Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5
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And the results of that unfolding can only be experienced elementally. Earth yields and collapses, water expands and engulfs, heat/fire is generated and consumes, wind overpowers and destroys. Living through an actual earthquake we suddenly remember earth, real earth, not the chemical composition of soil. Maneuvering through turbulent sea or sky we remember, in our bones and blood – not “H2O” but real water, not a mere list of gases with approximate compositional percentages but real air. Our very emotions, kinds of insight, styles of personality, along with all our bodily processes, correlate remarkably beautifully and profoundly with these fundamental qualities of energy – symbolized for example by the five colors of Tibetan prayer flags.
The entirety of taoist practice and Chinese medicine, too, emerges out of elemental sacred vision and experience – again five energies, as it happens, though seen and worked with in somewhat different ways from the Indo-Tibetan. I know very little about other systems than these but enough to say that wisdom traditions in every continent seem to have arisen out of this kind of awareness.
By contrast, what does a purely scientific – that is, fundamentally conceptual and analytic – way of understanding what is “elemental” have to tell us about ourselves? About how we actually experience our lives, day to day, moment to moment? Copper, phosphorus, bromine, praseodymium: these truly are abstractions utterly disconnected from our bodily human reality. They take their places within an elegant and revelatory periodic table, yielding crisp, pristine, purposeful answers to a multitude of material concerns. And at the same time … they have nothing to say to us as we meet, personally, the phenomena of our inner lives in every instant.
I’m as much a product of my times as anyone and I’ve been experiencing Sandy, yes, as a rational phenomenon that can be “explained” via translation into meteorological language. But at the same time … there has been something, no not sentient, but in any event truly, fully alive taking place in “her.”
Today while walking, for instance, I couldn’t help but sense the closer presence of the storm. Vastly weakened from its peak, it is now passing about as close to us here as it will, and somehow this truth registered despite mostly gorgeous mild weather this last day of October. It announced itself in astonishing cloud formations and in the smell of the air, a sense of something mighty, commanding complete respect, having been discharged, of release and decline. Of the return to harmony after so monumental a display of power. Uneasy reprieve (those clouds belonging, after all, to the very same system that pulverized NJ and NYC), a feeling of some giant gliding past, all of us tip-toeing and holding our breaths as it were, hoping to avoid notice, lest maybe this Sandy character might change its mind and decide to go out, after all, with just one more bang…
Ultra-clever apes as we can be, we “developed” Westerners have seen fit to banish all elemental/energetic understanding from our universe. All “ordinary magic,” all sacredness.
We “know” that earth, water, fire, and air are not “real” elements but rather incoherent, primitive categories of “developing,” pre-scientific cultures. We know that there is only one possible way of understanding the elemental: conceptually, via thoroughgoing analysis. In fact, really, we can’t any longer conceive that there could be an alternative mode of seeing.
We know that the universe is really made up of Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium and so on, all the way up to … Flerovium and Livermorium now, it looks like. It never occurs to us that these too are actually human creations, abstractions. Except we also know that at the sub-atomic level all that solidity breaks down in very peculiar ways difficult to conceptualize. In fact at that point it all looks rather like what the buddhists call space – their fifth element, the non-material one of accommodation/complete openness which makes all form and phenomena possible. Which makes all combinations of the other four possible.
And yet, how interesting it is that for example we also give our hurricanes names. Human, mortal names, as befits a would-be democratic age, but names all the same. How is this so very different from the practice of cultures all over the world in naming deities of Ocean, Thunder, Fire, particular territories of the earth, the animating spirits of individual animals or plants? We no longer say Briareos but rather Sandy or Irene, but the impulse is the same, isn’t it?
The objection of course will be: ah but we don’t actually believe there’s a sentient being in there somewhere, animating that storm with purpose. This is true, but also not quite the point.
An energetic or sacred understanding of reality is not at all antagonistic to a scientific one as such. The two modes of perception simply operate in different registers, different realms in a sense. Side by side with all the explanations of why this storm was so unprecedented and powerful, with the hourly projections concerning trajectories, timing, wind speeds, rainfall, surge heights, another form of experience could yet be sensed within the discourse, dimly but unmistakeably. Underpinning the assumption of pure rationality lay, in fact, an attitude of awe, and fundamental incomprehension. Something like the “beginner’s mind” of Zen.
With all of our knowledges, we will never capture a storm in the pure abstraction of concept. We know, too, that we cannot master a storm. We may split atoms in a kind of ultimate display of techno-analysis, but even the terrifyingly murderous weapons that can be produced from such cleverness are still no match for an “entity,” that is to say a process, like Sandy. So we may only sit, and watch, and wait, as something far bigger than what our comprehension can encompass … unfolds. In its own sweet time.
(to be continued)