Saturday, January 1, 2011

What is Alive? The Budding Animist in Me Speaks His Mind

That an idea could be alive, willful, sentient, is probably the most liberating piece of information I’ve encountered in a very long time. This notion derives from the supposition that life is not the province of animals and plants but rather is an energy force that animates through attention. When I attend to another person, life is generated in the dynamic attention of our beings. Our relationship becomes an entity in itself, responsive to our intentions, our desires and our attentiveness. We can caretake relationships with the same nurturance that we would give a child. We can also neglect relationships and they can wither. The relationship is a living entity. The manner in which we mentally and emotionally consider our relationship to another, can either support the vitality or drain the health of that organism. This organism created by one’s attention to another is both dependent upon and yet independent of the ones attending. It exists as a life force even when neither party is thinking of the other. It lives on its own, and can perish if neglected. Can we live with a level of commitment to how we attend to our world that is commensurate with the idea of myriad life forms born through the quality and focus of our attention? What happens when we live with such care and commitment?

I first came upon this notion while teaching piano privately, with an emphasis on improvisation. In the early stages of this idea’s emergence, I would routinely ask my students to imagine a lonely deserted island of people all thirsting for art and beauty, and suffering miserably from a dearth of such creative expressions. I would ask my students to imagine that, one day, all the people on this desolate island have been called together in a glorious amphitheatre boasting a magnificent sound system. The people are seated, eagerly awaiting a performance. They are silent with anticipation at the promise of some taste of music, something they’ve been deprived of for a very long time. I would tell my students to imagine that the piano at which they sit is somehow directly connected to this far-away amphitheatre filled with people who are hungry for a taste of artistic beauty. “These people are the perfect audience; imagine that every note you play matters,” I would say. “Believe that every ounce of your personal, musical expression will fall upon thousands of appreciative and attentive ears thirsty to take in every drop of your sound without judgment.” I would challenge my students to always seek to play with a level of commitment and responsibility appropriate to such an imagined situation, with this consistent level of discipline and uncompromising focus. At some point over the years of my teaching, I began to change this story, simply asking my students to imagine that the music they played was itself a living thing; that every song was a conscious entity born to their hands, that the moment they touched the instrument a life form entered the world. Such a life could grow healthy and strong with the proper disciplined attention, or it could become ill and unhealthy through our neglect or inattention. The vitality of its very life would be entirely dependent upon the quality of our commitment to it. If we attempted to own a song, it would resist such possessiveness, if we tried to use our playing to impress others, the music would detach from the inspired source of our creative expression, if we neglected it with inattention, it might literally die in our hands. Neglected songs can die a violent death. What level of attention would we musicians play with if we considered every musical rendering to be alive?

Moving away now from music, what if we create life constantly through the quality of our attention and the interplay between subject and object? What if the true nature of ‘life,’ concerned relations between things seen, things attended to, things considered? And I am proposing, to be clear, that something literally ‘comes to life’ between subject and object, and that that thing is vitally alive, infused with a cosmic and miraculous energy moving like wind; forceful, present, if unseen.

We look with awe at the sunset and then that colored sky itself is alive in this dance with our attention. It lives, and that thing which lives ‘knows’ it is the object of appreciation. What if every moment of our existence were an act of creation? If this were the true essence of life, how would we choose to live? How would we attend to our relationships if we understood them to be life-forms in their own right?

I believe we must expand our notion of what is ‘alive.’ We limit life so often to mere physical essences having clearly defined boundaries, such as birds, trees, or people. What if life were not bounded in this way at all, not limited to the edge of my skin? What if life were born in our attention, in the interaction of subject to object, in that relationship? What if such a life-form really did continue to exist even after I turned my attention elsewhere? What if the idea I now hold of my deceased grandmother were a part of, as well as a continuation of, that physical form she once occupied? What if we keep our ancestors alive through our stories about them? Tribal people understand this to be the case. And they understand that mountains are alive and that the ‘spirit’ of a mountain represents a force greater than the ideas collectively held about the mountain. Animistic traditions are based or much more subtle notions than the simple statement that ‘everything is alive.’ Life is an energy, and in a way it is a fusing of energies into something that becomes willful, conscious, aware, intentful. The multitude of cells cooperating to form my body represent a coalition of energies, and “I” now become alive. I train my hands and my mind for many years to manipulate sound waves in complex interactions, and suddenly I play a song on the piano that touches you deeply. I bring into our world in that performance a new life. I guide it gently, intentionally, honestly, in an unbiased way if I can, and then it speaks its language of this Universe, which is a language of love.

And what about ideas themselves? What if ideas are in fact alive? What if everything I am writing here, this idea I am sharing about what it means ‘to be alive,’ this idea that attention creates life, what if this idea I am sharing is alive? What if you the reader –in your response to, attention upon, and interaction with this idea- become its co-creator? What if our ‘togetherness’ around this idea has in this moment birthed and sustained the idea in a way, and what if it is here not just because of either of us, but also in order to touch each of us with its beauty, its playful promise, its wistful dance through our hearts and minds in this moment? What if it has that much intent and goodness, all on its own? The songs I play on the piano do not really come from me. They come through me. I know this well. If I dare to intrude upon the moment of improvisation as a musician with thoughts, goals, intentions or other ‘cognates,’ I immediately know it because the song aches and moans and shivers and weakens in my hands. I back off and try to just let it become what it is. That is the most honest and heartfelt music. The same with ideas. I am a trained ‘thinker,’ scholar, idea scout, thought tracker, and I try my best to let these words move through the hands and mind without too much interference. The idea I have been writing about here, is so fresh that I am very inexperienced at surrendering to its emergence with the same competence as I do with music.

The gifted David Abram helped me to enter the dance of these ideas in his book Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. I’ll close this post with his words:

“How many times has it happened, in the course of going about my work, that a potent thought will make itself felt at the edge of my awareness –an insight whose rightness I can sense even before I know its content- yet when I turn to fix my attention upon it, I find that it has already vanished, leaving only a vague flavor or trace?...The frustration entailed by such phantom thoughts had disrupted my youthful confidence in my own ability, as a philosopher, to reflect upon matters with some accuracy. But I was now beginning to realize another possibility: that ideas had their own lives independent of mine. That indeed some vital ideas were like creatures wholly unaccustomed to human contact, wild notions whose robust elegance and vigor required that they keep their distance from those who might strive to define or domesticate them.”