The oceanographer Francois Serano recounts an experience with a young male sperm whale, who approached the researchers with curiosity and communicated the way sperm whales usually only communicate when they intimately interact among themselves. It was a highly unusual encounter, as if the whale wanted to tame the researchers and invite them to become part of their own. This meeting of two curiosities from vastly different worlds made him feel he was in harmony with the world. This curiosity about the radically other, that which is so profoundly different from me and by all accounts appears unrelatable, and the caring respect for each other across this large divide of different realities as we spend time in the presence of each other, creates peace, calm and harmony. This peace reveals itself to be communicative.
We have a habit of wanting to make the radically other our own, to assimilate it into our own reality, even devour it as a way of satisfying our thirst for knowledge, power, safety, and belonging. Case in point: Stuffed hunted wild animals as trophies at people’s homes, ethnic cleansing, and assimilation. We use our mind and the constructed sense of self to literally suck like a vacuum the radically other such as our body’s otherness into our familiar intellectual orbit, believing that we can understand its full complexity. Alternatively, we have to defend against other cultures, who with a similar mind like ours attempt to invade us. We have no clue how to really get to know the radically other by honoring the safe distance that invites the other to reveal itself.
In the presence of a wild animal, one cannot cheat, rationalize, defend or lie. Reality is inescapable and one is completely naked, forced to embrace vulnerability and simplicity in full presence. This also applies to being with and in our bodies. The body not only keeps the score, but has an existence, motives, drives, agendas, and energy flow all its own, belonging to a very different world from our world of thoughts.
When with an empty head and open ears we offer ourselves completely to nature, the other, and the body, and when we do that with mindful attention and respect, one then discovers an unexpected and infinite world we never imagined existed, which is the world we need to share with our children. This kind of curiosity for and openness to the radical other creates the real, deep sense of peace we crave.
We will never understand the radical other, the way we will never understand a whale or a whale us. What is essential though is the fact that there is intention on both parts to bridge the vast gap of different existential realities. We don’t need to fully understand the other to feel good; all we need is to want to understand the other across vast canyons of mystery. Given that we inter-are with everything, to live in peace and harmony with everything means finding the right distance that allows for the kind of presence that is the sum of freedom and togetherness. The space between me and the other is a matter of degrees of separation that ensure the thriving of curiosity as a way of safely reaching out without aggression or hesitation. In that sense, nature is inherently deeply social and teaches us how to live in peace by honoring uniqueness and variety.
Loaded with prejudice and preconceived ideas about the radically other, we become scared of otherness and difference. We then form opinions and engage in a distorted and dangerous chatter about that, which one has never mindfully reached out to, visited, explored, or invited for tea with an open heart. The result is war, ignorance, and self-imprisonment. We ought to become aware that we are inextricably connected to this world; and then, honoring that interconnectedness, that membership in a large web that has no weaver, makes us realize how serene we become, the way nature is an interwoven world that brings serenity. Segregation, isolation, and protective demarcation cause stress and tension, not peace. In reaching out with mindful curiosity, we always discover that the other is rich, and has marvelous stories to tell. Even if it is difficult or impossible to understand each other, it is the curious attempt at reaching out with kindness that counts. Whenever one goes to meet the radically other, other cultures, other species, other environments, our bodies, one can find that right distance that allows interacting and inter-being in peace. We then discover at the same time the unity of the world through that which we all fundamentally share when it comes to important questions, but also the diversity and the inequalities that are based on everyone’s uniqueness. We should never hierarchize these inequalities, attaching value judgments to them, but recognize them as what constitutes the world’s richness.
Let’s look at the jungle, a seemingly chaotic place of deadly competition, internal survival wars, and mutual interspecies aggression. We call that the law of the jungle. A closer look reveals a very different picture. When in the wild immediate survival needs are met, what’s left is free time to caress, to play, to explore, to just be there, wander around and cultivate the useless. The law of the jungle is about laziness, frugality, and cooperation, not striving, accumulation, and war. It is our minds that create this sense of time as a limited commodity, within which we feel constant pressure, the pressure to perform, to achieve, to distract, even to kill time and never waste it. We have a pathological and oppressive notion of time as something that can be wasted, killed, used or lost, as we go through life driven by the fear of never having accumulated enough. In the wilderness of nature and the healthy nature of our bodies, accumulation does not exist beyond what is necessary for survival, cooperation is the foundation for thriving, and laziness or leisure is the name of the game.
The jungle and the oceans are cauldrons of evolution, and competition is not the motor of evolution – cooperation and association are. Take corals: They are a combination of two small, seemingly insignificant, most simple organisms, and yet they have given rise to humungous structures that have profoundly changed the planet’s geography and given rise to many new and varied environments making an incredible diversification of life possible. The small has huge impacts that are only visible over time! Evolution gives rise to diversity, not privileged selections. What we are used to calling ‘natural selection’ is in fact natural diversification. Survival of the fittest and removal of the weak and dysfunctional is not the way nature works; these notions are human mind constructions about nature. On the contrary, what we thought was ‘natural selection’ and now understand to be natural diversification, is about the principle of encouragement of anything that has the ability to reproduce and survive, however imperfect, weak, or defective it may be. Evolution and its natural diversification are incredibly generous. As long as reproduction, creativity, and survival are possible, go ahead. Natural diversification supports the whole package, the unity of morphology, physiology, behavior, and where applicable social interactions, as long as the entity can reproduce itself. Nature is creative and tolerant; it is human beings that are selective, impoverishing, and intolerant. We reduce, nature multiplies. Our ideal is power, superman or superwoman, the hero, the strongman we elect into dictatorships. For nature, everyone is superman with its own uniqueness and assets, like the people of a democracy. Diversity in nature is beautiful, rich, and solid the way integration as linked differentiation manifests the FACES flow of energy, Flexibility, Adaptability, Coherence, Emergence, Stability, and health. The more we select by picking the good and discarding the weak, the bad, and the mistake, the more we reduce the potential for new creations.
Our world is now so small and we are so many that we cannot escape otherness anymore the way we could in the past with only a few human groupings on the planet. Isolationism profoundly goes against the laws of nature, which is the most creatively flexible, adaptive and stable phenomenon on this planet. Isolationism cannot lead to anything else than impoverished selection with catastrophic consequences from walls to bombs and wars as the symptom of our self-imprisonment.
The genius of nature is reproduction in the inexorable flow of change, and with such rich and enormously creative reproduction come little mistakes that sneak into the unfolding process, creating variety. The way the human mind creates by avoiding mistakes through repetition and reductive selection for a certain purpose, is antithetical to change, resilience and adaptability. The problem is that the purpose for which we select will inevitably change, and what has been selected for that purpose cannot adapt. To foster adaptability, we need errors and mistakes we can then nourish with a beginner’s mind instead of being so afraid of them, afraid of making them. Errors have no purpose and therefore tolerate any changing circumstance, thus always winning the survival game. When there is change, variety always provides at least one specimen able to do something new adapted to the demands of change. Variety always provides options to adapt. With monoculture, when there is a change, there is no variant to take over or compensate and adapt – it’s the end, meaning death and extinction. This is why in deep meditation we access the open plane of infinite possibilities, that vast, indescribable, and non-definable awareness itself as the source of everything that comes into being.
The current state of our planet causes many to give up, but giving up ignores the incredible creativity of nature that bursts open when we begin to simply protect it and not exploit it. Resignation and inaction are plainly inconceivable and morally irresponsible. The solution can only be found by humanity as a whole working together, with everyone involved.
The core learning points from all this for mindfulness practitioners consist of the following idea: To liberate ourselves from suffering, we need to liberate ourselves from the prison of stories and their associated emotions we incessantly and compulsively create in our minds. These stories are nothing more than the construction of an airtight virtual reality, in which we are the protagonists that act in the storied drama and continually try to make sense of our place in the scheme of the world. The body is the vehicle par excellence to extricate ourselves from our narrative bubble, and attention to the somatic sensations in the whole body, the breathing, and the experiences from the external five senses are paramount to teach us to disidentify from the stories we tell ourselves. However, the body and the external world are the radically other I was speaking about earlier, and it is very challenging for most to fully immerse ourselves into the experience of reaching out across a vast canyon of mystery to the radically other and unfamiliar the way the sperm whale did with the researcher and vice versa. It is this act of loving, well-meaning curiosity for and reaching out to what is entirely outside our familiar realm of comfort that lies at the core of healing and peace. The principles and laws of nature described above apply most definitely to our daily mindfulness practices, and in particular, the realization that nature entails not only the trees, rivers, forests, animals, and oceans in the external world, but also our very own embodied mind and body we inhabit day-in and day-out.
Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.