Thursday, May 22, 2008

Biophilia


Last night, I was watching nova on PBS, "Lord of the Ants." The program was about Edward O. Wilson, a gentle and charming Southern gentleman--from, of all places, rural Alabama -- who originated the ideas about sociobiology, and is one of the world's foremost experts on ants.

Regular readers will recall that two days ago, I mentioned the fact that ants communicate through a chemical language. On the program, Wilson points out that almost all creatures use chemistry to communicate with each other. The language of molecules is far more complex and involved than anything we have ever developed with words, and it has been in play for literally billions of years. What man calls "language" is an extremely crude and inaccurate latecomer to the party.

Wilson has propose the term "biophilia" to describe what he believes is an inherent affinity in man towards other living creatures. Leaving the question of religion out of the argument for the moment, Wilson sees man as an integrated part of world biology, not as an entity separate from it. His sociobiological concepts shocked and disturbed the modern world when he first introduced them, because he placed man firmly in relationship with his biology and environment, rather than separate from it. In an odd way, he married a modern and reductionist worldview -- that of Western science -- to the animism of traditional cultures. I'm not sure there is any great difference between a shaman who believes that nature is our mother and we are all born from it, and Wilson's view of man as being an inseparable cousin of all the other organisms around him.

In other words, Wilson went against hundreds of years of western separatist philosophy and science which placed man apart from and above the rest of nature, and demanded that we see ourselves as being in relationship with it. This might be the core point of his lifelong work.

This question of relationship to the rest of the planet is an important one. Members of the Gurdjieff work may recall that Jeanne DeSalzmann sometimes said that our inner work is for the benefit of the whole planet, and that without it, "the planet will go down." There are, of course, conservatives in the work who scoff at such statements (and even at Jeanne DeSalzmann herself, who some lines see as a revisionist who corrupted the Gurdjieff teachings) but overall, I think most of us understand that part of the work we are sent to do on this planet has to do with our relationship to nature and other living creatures.

The idea of biophilia is that there are deep roots we all spring from, and that man has an innate ability to sense them.

The part of Edward O. Wilson that is able to sense such things wasn't damaged. Wilson has argued that man evolved to take in impressions of the natural world, and that when he fails to do so, it creates psychopathy of various kinds. When you look at the increasingly technological nature of our lives, and the increasingly inexplicable levels of random violence and insanity we see arising in societies today, it's fairly easy to see that he called it absolutely right.

All of this relates closely to Gurdjieff's idea that man is meant to be taking in impressions in a right way. We can further presume that the impressions are not meant to be impressions of exploitation and destruction of our environment, but rather what the Buddhists would call a right valuation of our relationships -- both to ourselves, our fellow man, and nature in general. Almost all right-thinking people understand this requirement, and see that most of us fall short in this area.

Unfortunately, because man has lost his organic sense of Being, the vast majority of human beings no longer have any connection with this, and consequently, we are destroying the planet, and with it, almost certainly, ourselves.

It puzzles me that most of us would, it appears, prefer to watch things blow up (or people screw each other) on television screens than to have a healthy relationship with the natural world. I grew up, like Edward O. Wilson, fascinated by plants, animals, and geology, and yet my children show almost no interest whatsoever in this. I love my kids, yet I can't help but feel that there has been a terrible atrophy of sensitivity to nature from generation to generation.

As this takes place, we draw ourselves deeper and deeper into the extinction events which we are solely responsible for.

Biophilia may indeed be a real sensation man is supposed to have -- I feel quite certain that it is -- but man is losing the sensation, and in doing so, he may lose the thread that ties him to the planet. Consequently the planet may no longer need man. As Steven Jay Gould pointed out, the question of whether or not "consciousness" as man experiences it is actually "the" supreme evolutionary adaptation, or a defect that will ultimately lead to our extinction, is still very much up in the air.

So what does all this have to do with our inner work? I think it has everything to do with our inner work. The development of sensation is not, after all, just a development of "sensation of self." To understand it in that manner is to understand it in much too narrow a way. What we are seeking when we seek sensation is what I call the organic sense of Being. I use this term because the term "sensation" seems entirely inadequate to me. Its accuracy is limited by context: sensation alone is not enough.

This organic sense of Being has an objective and impersonal quality; it's not all about what we own, and how we are, in the ordinary sense. It doesn't even belong to us; we receive it.

The organic sense of being goes beyond simple sensation to achieve a different level of awareness of our relationship to the planet. It is part of the chemical language that our bodies speak; a language that our words make us forget. When I speak about the entire dharma being expressed in a discarded cigarette butt, I speak about the organic sense of being bringing us to the moment where we are, so that we see what actually is.

The development of sensation begins with the development of the sensation of our cells. Our cells are entities on the level below us, and each one of them is actually an individual that does not belong to us. In a certain sense, we belong to it, because it is the collective effort of them that creates us. We ignore this at our peril. We need to serve ourselves properly by caring for our body nutritionally, emotionally, and so on, or the cells will break down, as everyone finds out sooner or later.

This takes me back to a principle I have expounded on many times in this blog, which is that man's consciousness must extend down as well as up. That is to say, consciousness must move in all directions in order to grow in a healthy manner. Just trying to connect with God may work, but if we do not connect to the lower levels beneath us, it is incomplete. Energy must flow and circulate, not move in one direction.

And, of course, this principle is expressed every single day in this blog, in the closing wish:

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

3 comments:

  1. Actually or sensation cannot reach the level of the individual cell. It only raches the world of tissues. As such it does touch the world of cells, but only that consciousness might reach the tissues.

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  2. Depending on experience, the ideas of various individuals about this may differ, but I certainly agree your voice should be heard on the matter.

    It's said by Dogen that the Buddha reached levels of sensation unimaginable to us. Hearsay, of course, but it implies depths we may not fully understand.

    Thanks for posting.

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  3. I would like to know how Peter "knows" that sensation cannot reach individual cells?

    While it might be ordinarily true, the statement sounds rote and formatory, as though it was learned from a book ar someone else's statement which are equally based on lecture and not personal experiential gnosis.

    The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Pada 3 (chapter three, literal translation Pada: "foot") lists many "Perfections" or "Siddhis" which can be attained by the dedicated Yogi, including intimate knowledge of the Macro and Micro cosmoses.
    Yoga Sutras, Chapter three, sloka (verse) 25:
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    26] Also, the Yogi achieves super-sensitive perception so that the small, the remote or the concealed come to the light of knowledge.
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    So I think we cannot declare any dogmatic approach to the so called "limits" of Man's potential and intimate "knowledge".

    No arguing with Peter, just entering the dialogue.

    --rlnyc

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