Artwork by Safa Yakoob
Join the Dance of the Universe: Commentary on Becoming Animal
By Marwan Elkrewi
Becoming Animal (2010) by David Abram starts with a reminder of our bodily nature, of our belonging to the animate world, the world many of us perceive as filthy and sinful, and many others as a huge aggregate of inert objects and mechanical events. Yet the book calls for a different perception of the world, a far richer and deeper understanding of the surroundings as different forms of intelligence in which we participate. It calls for a reexamination of our notions of intelligence and language, of our deeply entrenched conceptions that the two are exclusively human possessions. With that, the book offers a rich notion of being in the world, of becoming one with the bodily nature in order to access a higher realm of existence, not far in a transcendent dimension, but outside in the sensuous world, an understanding that transcends duality and conveys a truth very similar to the Buddhist co-dependent origination. This paper will reflect on some of the factors that seem to have contributed to the loss of contact with the animate world, relate the premise of the book to some important concepts of Buddhism and Zen, and reiterate the conclusion of the author in order to offer context for the paper.
Many factors seem to have contributed in the loss of contact with the more-than-human world, one of which is the rise of phonetic writing. With the invention and spread of phonetic writing, language seemed to lose some of the creative powers it used to have for indigenous cultures and started to take on a representational function; consequently, humans started to mistakenly think of language as a human property, and of everything around as speechless. The term language became limited to human words, and all other types of meaningful speech were observed as less sophisticated. This limitation gave rise to an object of distinction between humans and other creatures, an object to which humans became attached, a type of attachment that turned ‘into opposition, conflict and struggle’. This attachment to words restricted the ability of humans to engage in other forms of thinking, for words became so embedded in their thinking patterns and the possibility of other forms of thought ceased to exist. As Osho states, “working with words is playing with fire, because words become so important that the meaning loses meaning. The symbol becomes so heavy that the content is completely lost; the surface hypnotizes you and you forget the center” (2011, p. 1). When words are mistaken for the real entities and when people forget that language arose as a response to an animate, expressive world, they lose the ability to recognize the beauty and mystery of the sensuous world, to grasp meanings from the shifting shapes and rhythms of nature, to think through their senses, yet they miss a great opportunity to enlarge their scopes of understanding.
Whether sustained by a desire for spiritual transcendence or by the contrary wish for technological control and mastery, most of our contemporary convictions carefully shirk and shy away from the way the biosphere is directly experienced from our creaturely position in the thick of its unfolding. They deflect our attention away from a mystery that gleams and glints in the depths of the sensuous world itself, shining forth from within each presence that we see or hear or touch. (Abram, 2010, p. 302)
Two different perceptions of the world helped shape our contemporary relation to the biosphere: the religious and spiritual views that demeaned the physical world, including the body, as filthy and sinful, and the scientific understanding of the animate world as a mechanical system. The religious views created a dichotomy between good and bad, and aspired for an experience of a divine of an immaterial form, an experience beyond the limitations of a body, for the material form is extrinsic to the divine, and one has to seek the divine with a similar nature. On the other hand, the scientific view built on the division of the world into two substances, as conceptualized by Descartes: matter and mind. Matter is mechanical, determinate, and extended, where mind is immaterial and free of all physical constraints and limitation. These two understandings, with different variations, helped enlarge the gap between humans and the rest of the living world, for humans are the only creatures with self-awareness, highly developed brains, linguistic abilities, and moral standards. Be that as it may be, it provided a justification for many humans to treat the world as their playground, and to ‘ceaselessly mine and manipulate nature for [their] own, exclusively human, purposes’. Nonetheless, this self-idealization of the human race continues to distract many humans from the enigmatic nature of the world and the different forms of creativity and magic surrounding all the living creatures, the divinity and purity underlying earthly existence.
“To be a human is to have a very limited access to what is” (Abram, 2010, p. 217). However, humans continuously try to move beyond the limitations of their embodiment, trying to gain access to higher truths, scientifically, through reasoning and experiment, and religiously, through practice and meditation. However, few are the ones who choose to enlarge their consciousness by connecting to their senses, by observing the world from within, as a part of it, and with the humility required for learning.
The more studiously an apprentice magician watches the other creature from a stance of humility, learning to mimic its cries and to dance its various movements, the more thoroughly his nervous system is joined to another set of senses—thereby gaining a kind of stereoscopic access to the world, a keener perception of the biosphere’s manifold depth and dimensionality. (Abram, 2010, p. 217)
The biosphere is a huge field of awareness, in which humans and all living creatures participate, each through their own distinct embodiment. However, with a certain understanding of existence, it might be possible to enlarge consciousness and gain access to a ‘non-human form of experience’. This form of understanding starts by grasping the interconnections and the interdependences between all forms of existence in this world, for the human mind is inseparable from the body, and the body is inseparable from the material world. The human body is continuously shaping itself as a part of the world, nourishing and sustaining its flesh by the plants and the other animals it might eat or interact with, breathing and embracing the flows of winds and waters, and allowing other forms of intelligence to interact unconsciously with the flow of its thoughts. This form of thinking through life carries the mind into different valleys of understanding, full of magic and wonder, with a deeply enigmatic authenticity.
In Buddhism and Zen, the realization of the lack of an ultimate demarcation between humans and other forms of existence can be reached through a different form of reasoning. For instance, in Chinese Zen, there are three stages in the understanding of the nature of existence, which can be elucidated through the example of mountains and waters (Abe, 1989, p. 4-7). In the first stage of understanding, ‘Mountains are mountains, waters are waters.’ In this stage, the mind affirms the existence of both mountains and waters as real entities, different from each other, each distinct with certain characteristics. At this stage, the mind is stuck in duality and objectification, for both objects are posed as independent entities. This stage is the same stage in which the separation between the sensuous world and the mind happens, for the mind, the subject, perceives the world, all objects, as full of existence and each distinctively different from it. Then through a reductionist approach, the mind can realize the emptiness of the ‘self’ first, the subject, for whenever the real self is to be found, it becomes an object of a hidden subject and the process continues, yet the nature of the self is empty. With the same approach, one can understand that the same applies to the whole animate world. Then, ‘Mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters’, for mountains and waters are existentially empty and have no real independent existence. However, with that conceptualization, the negation is partial and the differentiation still exists, which opens the door for the third stage, which is absolute affirmation, ‘mountains are really mountains and waters are really waters.’ In that stage emptiness turns on itself and duality is completely eliminated, yet all existence is perceived in Suchness, as a net of interdependently originated entities. With duality eliminated, the mind is free to wander in emptiness, the whole world gains its enigmatic nature, and the distinction that creates opposition disappears. In that state, the duality between the mind and body disappears, and the full person is ready to forget words and receive the re-birth of the animal inside.
Humans learned to step outside of the world, but for the future, a step back into the world is required. We have to learn to think through our bodies, to observe the world from within, for the world and all its creatures suffered enough from our selfishness, from our irresponsible and unjustifiable lack of concern. “No wonder so many creatures are dwindling and disappearing, their homes ravaged with toxins, their forests transformed to stumps” (Abram, 2010, p. 304). For us All, lets forget words and speak with the sensuous world, for “when the mind is not filled with words, the heart speaks to the heart” (Osho, 2011).
Abe, M., & In LaFleur, W. R. (1989). Zen and Western thought. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Abram, D. (2010). Becoming animal: An earthly cosmology. New York: Pantheon Books.
Osho, ., & Foundation, O. I. (2011). The empty boat: Encounters with nothingness. New York: Osho Media International.
Marwan Elkrewi is a Libyan electrical engineer with a concentration in communications. He has a philosophy minor with a focus on philosophy of religion and philosophy of technology. He wants to live and work as a hybrid, at the intersection between philosophy and engineering. Marwan is planning to pursue an interdisciplinary PhD, focusing on the practical aspects of the philosophy of technology. He also hopes to compete in the Crossfit games of 2017.