Wednesday, March 5, 2008

food and scale: impressions from shanghai

This afternoon as I sat down to lunch- Japanese fried rice at a local noodle shop on the sixth floor of a building on Nanjing road- I received, for a moment, a real impression of gratitude for the food.

Like all such impressions, it was organic rather than intellectual—a resonance of reality within being--not an idea of what the food was, but rather an experience. It was very ordinary food, in a very ordinary place. Nonetheless (and I'll grant this may sound odd) the very fact that we have food and can eat it struck me as extraordinary.

As a matter of course, I find, I develop and retain little appreciation for the effort that goes into providing me with food. Modern food production and delivery methods have distanced me from what food costs, and what it is worth.

Every bit of food that is given is, in a very real sense, hard-won from the processes that nature uses to support itself. All of it begins with an absolutely incomprehensible expenditure of energy on the part of the sun. Plants receive a tiny fraction of that largess, and make use of devilishly intricate molecular mechanisms to harvest and store the energy. From there it moves up the food chain in a process that is paid for by one death after another, until it finally reaches us in a
form we can understand. Except that we no longer understand it any more.

All of life is based on consumption. In biological life, it is a science. In works of the spirit, we might argue, it grows into art; but in works of the flesh, it decays into vice.

As we sit with food in front of us perhaps we can take a moment to sense just what it is to eat.

Another impression garnered at lunch on the street: Nanjing road, one of Shanghai’s premier shopping districts... there are so many people on this planet. The numbers are absolutely staggering, and it is only by perpetually forgetting what we see around us that we manage to separate ourselves into the microcosms of our own lives. And in that desperate isolation, become enslaved to our imaginations, where we assume all the significance.

Bizarre, isn't it?

It occurs to me that man has two “settings” in his current psychological state: both consist of hypnosis.

One is self-hypnosis, the art of falling into the narrow perspective of ego, where there is no one and nothing but one’s self and one’s needs and greeds.

The other is mass hypnosis, whereby men become part of a mob and lose themselves in a torrent of collective psychopathy—usually ending in what Gurdjieff referred to as “the process of reciprocal destruction.”

There’s very little middle ground between the two, and what there is is occupied by a distinct minority of people who realize that there is something wrong both with their own perception of the world--and everyone else’s. Weird people. People, for example, who are willing to read "Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson." An unlikely enterprise, if ever there was one.

No individual force is going to change this very much; in this sense, Gurdjieff’s pessimistic assessment of the potential for humanity’s evolution as a whole seems entirely justified. It’s only on the individual level that such evolution is possible, yet such evolution is only possible by, at the outset, recognizing our own nothingness.

Many, many years ago, very early on a Thursday morning in Manhattan, Peggy Flinsch began a sitting with the statement, “We are tiny little creatures.”

The truth of those words dropped into the well of silence in the room like a stone, sending out ripples that are, these many years later, still reverberating against the walls of my Being.

That was most of what she said during that sitting, but I felt then (and still feel now) that she touched on something essential which we, in our sleep, forget. It’s only when I try—as I did this morning—to truly sense just how tiny I am that the scale of the universe begins to beggar my considerable imagination and I am forced to concede defeat. I’ll never be able to grasp how small I am. And—drawing from yet another lesson from my group leader Betty Brown—I’m reminded of how presumptuous, yes, even arrogant, my belief both in my own importance and what I am trying is.

It may well be that the only real measure of my worth will be in terms of relationship and participation, both of which require me to give up some of this disease called egoism.

Being on the spot in both an inner and an outer sense demands some sensitivity to these questions, which can be difficult to muster when jet lag is having its way with the organism. Nonetheless, in an inner sense, there is support within sensation—and, as always, I return to this opportunity, because that is where the root of it all lies.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

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