10 April 2010


I'm awful keen on things lining up, on serendipity, coincidence, or whenever it is that what's floating about over here, pops up over there, too. I know Tim Kelley encourages us to recognize these instances as indicative of "flow", of our somehow working in concert with the universe, and thereby, more purposefully; or, at least, to heed their call to "pay attention to this".

Bearing that in mind, since joining the Integral Awakening Group, I'm frequently delighted to find how the themes we're discussing in a given week resonate through other conversations in other corners of my life; and also, how often the assorted mass media I absorb expands on those themes. To wit, a few months back, when we were first reading, in Soulcraft, pp. 167-172, about "talking across the species boundary", I spent a long day of painting, listening to some podcasts I'd cued into a playlist, that went from a Radio Lab episode called Animal Minds, to a Fresh Air profile of Temple Grandin, to a Radio Lab short, The Shy Baboon. I was just catching up on shows I hadn't listened to, but it turned out all the shows were exploring different aspects of how we communicate with the animal world.

The Radio Lab episode combines a few tales analyzing our tendency to anthropomorphize our fauna kin (a subsequent episode, Lucy, tells the story of a chimpanzee raised as though she were a human); Temple Grandin is a fascinating woman, who attributes to her autism, her capacity for understanding how animals think, "in pictures", as she puts it; and the woman who tells a story, in The Shy Baboon, of finding herself unexpectedly in close quarters with a troop of wild baboons, says, "We're so used to this dividing line. There's humans on one side, and there's all the other animals on the other side, and we don't meet up, but if you go back in evolutionary time, that line wasn't there. So... I felt like I was retrieving something that was my heritage. It felt so completely natural to just be with them, to not be doing anything, to just be." Paul Theroux echoes this, in the Animal Minds show, as he describes watching his pet geese, in the same fashion Plotkin asks us to be mindful of the messages animals have to share with our soul:
My writing day ends in the early afternoon, I have lunch, and there's a long sunny period in the afternoon, when I'm alone, I'm with the geese, and I sit around with them, and try to make out what they're doing among each other, paying no particular attention to me. It's simply watching the world as it was. You're seeing creatures behaving as though cities don't exist, presidents don't exist, governments don't exist, roads don't exist, as if it's before the fall, as though it's "the peaceable kingdom"; simply watching animals who are content, doing their thing. Then, you feel a bit like Adam.
But, anyway, all of that was literally months ago! Who's still crossing species boundaries in this day and age?!

Yesterday, I had another of the occasional days that arise in my work, wherein the patterns and plans have all been laid, and I need only spend the day covering parts of a wall with paint. This one was a little out of the ordinary, in that I was illustrating, in one shade of bright green, the improvised reeds and leaves of an overgrown meadow, on the walls of a new hybrid auto repair shop. But still, it doesn't require a particularly active thought process, and it's a part of the job I often describe as "meditative". That said, I often choose to fill that meditative space with headphones... So, yesterday, I caught up on some back episodes of Fresh Air, including one from last week interviewing Judith Shulevitz, about her new book, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. The host describes the book as, "part a history of the ancient day of rest and in part a memoir about why [Ms. Shulevitz] started observing the Jewish Sabbath, how she observes it, and why she's so ambivalent about it". I thought it was some pretty rich stuff, particularly considering that next Friday night, the Awakening group is planning to have an ersatz, non-orthodox Sabbath dinner together. Here are a few passages from the transcript that grabbed my attention:

The Sabbath is not just a choreography of the world, of the physical world. It's also about a change in attitude in you. You are not to set off a chain of events which will cause you to use the world instrumentally and dominate the world.
So it's this deep philosophical idea about not just resting yourself but sort of letting the world rest too.
It makes perfect sense if you're inside the system and you understand the basic premise of the thing, which is making sure you don't do any work and that you are transformed through this not-doing of work, and it makes sense to you. And if you're outside, you think - what the heck is that? Now, why would that work? And the reason is, it's really about an internal transformation as much as anything else.

[W]hat I want people to take from these ideas is the idea that even on your days off, even though you do need to do the work of home maintenance, self maintenance, family maintenance, you know, you have to take care. Taking care is a wonderful and important part of life. You also need time for just being together and time for not exerting mastery of the world, not using time in a utilitarian way but just pleasure.
But the central idea of the Sabbath is, I think, it's not just resting. It's this idea - this is where the collective part comes in - it's this idea of resting together. We have to arrange things so that we can not work together. We can be together. [...]
If you don't sort of pay attention to actually setting aside time to be together, you very possibly won't.

Terry GROSS: You quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as describing the Sabbath as a cathedral in time. And then you write: Sabbath takes you out of mundane time and forces you into what might be called sacred time. That's really nice.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Yeah... Well, I struggle with this idea. And actually, the best I can do with it is to think about the psychoanalytic hour. This is because - and as I say in the book, I'm in psychoanalysis myself. And as I am with Sabbath rules, I adhere to them, and I'm sometimes quite grumpy about them. But in this - in the psychoanalytic hour, you must show up on time. You leave on time. And in that time, there's a kind of openness and inchoateness and a boundarylessness where you can explore. And then time is up, and you go back to being your normal person, your normal self and, you know, you sort of go about your business.
That time, that openness is, to me, the best I can do with the idea of sacred time. It's 'other' time. It's time where you are not what you are. You are something else, and you are open to something else.
GROSS: What's the difference in the way that psychoanalysis speaks to you and the way that Judaism speaks to you?
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Wow. Judaism speaks to me out of the past. That's what I love about it. It's as if - and the reason I love ritual is it's embodied. It's in bodies. Bodies do it, and it speaks to me out of those bodies. And it's almost as if when I do something, when I perform a ritual - which I know was performed possibly somewhat differently, but basically in the same way thousands of years ago - I feel as though somehow it's almost as if I'm touching the chain of tradition. I'm touching the ancestors and the chain of tradition, and they're coming into my body. I'm almost psychically possessed. That is the power of it. And the language is the same way.
Now psychoanalysis, you know, when you put it that way, no one's ever asked the question that way. I mean, I think that there's something rather similar, because it's about opening yourself up to language in the presence of this person who creates a safe space for you to do so, whose meaning you don't know, but you want to come to learn. And then you're opening yourself up also to feelings. And, you know, the more I talk, the more I think they're really the same thing.
It's just about putting myself in a ritual situation - which is after all, what the psychoanalytical situation is - in which I can come to hear words and actions in a new way. So I would end by saying they're the same thing for me.
GROSS: Let me suggest a difference. In religion you are one of many. You're a part of this tradition. You are practicing what has been passed on through generation to generation. And I think in psychoanalysis, maybe you're alone. It's - I mean, it's about you. It's about the very inside of you that is maybe different, or at least slightly different from the very inside of everybody else.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: I would disagree. I would actually say the more you open up to what's inside you, the less it is your own. And the more you see that you are a product of all these people and these words that have been put into you and you begin to parse them and to realize that 'you' is actually a crowd - so, I mean, that's been my experience in psychoanalysis, is I am much less alone and much less just solitarily me than I thought I was.

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