One artist's journey: Trying to live a creative life with grace, grit, gratitude...and a border collie.
(or perhaps I should say: greys, grit and gratitude)

10 January 2016

Take a Deep Breath

In his 1967 essay "Breathing the Future and the Past", astronomer Harlow Shapley wrote:

"Your next breath will contain more than 400,000 of the argon atoms that Gandhi breathed in his long life. Argon atoms are here from the conversations at the Last Supper, from the arguments of diplomats at Yalta, and from the recitations of the classic poets. We have argon from the sighs and pledges of ancient lovers, from the battle cries at Waterloo..."argon atoms associate us, by an airy bond, with the past and the future...
"Our next breaths, yours and mine, will sample the snorts, sighs, bellows, shrieks, cheers, and spoken prayers of the prehistoric and historic past.."

That concept first crossed my radar when I read it as paraphrased in "The Snow Leopard" by Peter Matthiessen:
"each breath we take contains hundreds of thousands of the inert, pervasive argon atoms that were actually breathed in his lifetime by the Buddha..."

To me, it is compelling to think that we are connected to everything that is, was and will be...by something so simple, vital, and intimate as our breath.

By Shapley's math/philosophy we are in an intimate relationship with everything that breathes or has breathed. For what can be more intimate than a shared breath?

In contrast to this inescapable intimacy, like most creatures, we are extremely territorial....and, like most other species, we mark our boundaries with sign.
Like bears reaching their height to claw mark a tree...or cats backing up to scent mark as high as possible...or Daffy Duck defiantly wrapping his arms around a pile of cartoon gold and squawking "mine, mine, mine!"...we go to great lengths to define what "belongs" to us.

Human signs may be literal: "no trespassing", "don't touch", "no parking","keep out"...marking boundaries of geographical property "ownership". We often take that one, or two, or ten steps further, though.  Our boundaries and "territory" may be political, theoretical, theological, ideological, artistic, intellectual, social, racial or sexual.

Maybe George Carlin put it best: "My shit is stuff and everybody else's stuff is shit."

What is it that makes us so determined to draw lines and build fences on the ground, in the air and in our minds?
We scream for our individuality and independence...but, in reality, we are a species that moves in bands, herds, tribes, cliques, teams, gangs, societies and committees. Most people seek to gather with like minds...be it over politics, religion, music, race, fashion or myriad other "clubs". Do we require "them" to define "us"...or do we need an "us" because we are afraid to stand alone?

Darwinist vs Creationist...Democrat vs Republican...rancher vs environmentalist...good vs evil...straight vs gay...fundamentalist vs athiest...PC vs Mac...black vs white...and there it is, the bottom line...black and white.
So many people seem to long for everything to be as simple as "black and white".

From the time we are children, we begin to judge, categorize and label everything around and within us.

It begins on the simplest level...Mom/Dad, good/bad, hot/cold, inside/outside, red/green. As we gather more information, we subdivide the categories further and further...simple dichotomous forks become complex systems of branches.

If the move to a polychotomous key for labeling what we encounter isn't bad enough, there are constant variables, tidal shifts, observer effects, "new" discoveries and so forth to keep us guessing endlessly.

Black and white is far easier to grasp than the infinite shades of gray and innumerable hues of color that paint the countless planes of reality.
But what would happen if we could forget about the black and white for a moment and immerse ourselves the plethora of colors in between? If we could stop auto-labeling and begin trying to cultivate empathy and understanding?

Every individual has their own unique perspective on life...their own set of dreams, experiences, hopes, tragedies, sorrows, accomplishments, failures, beliefs, fears, desires, struggles, passions, losses and loves.

How do we learn to find some common ground via our archetypical similarities rather than pre-judging based on race, gender, religion, fashion, politics, geography, sports, ideology or whatever?

It is one thing to have compassion and understanding for "us" and the people/creatures with which we have a sympathetic/empathetic/charismatic connection. Shapley and Matthiessen speak of breathing the argon of Gandhi and Buddha respectively...but we have that same "airy bond" with the Iraqis, Gengis Khan, mosquitos and the guy who cut us off in traffic. Having compassion does not mean you have to agree with or even like someone...but rather respect that they have a different point of view and remember that they share essentially the same dreams, fears, sorrows and air as you do.

Maybe being territorial is about being afraid...a base, primal reaction to the "unknown". Sadly, many societies channel that fear into a "strike first" mentality...convert them or conquer them...and if we can't make them into "us", then kill 'em. How sad to think of the innumerable lives and cultures lost in the name of one god or another, one political system or another, one oilfield or another, one color or another...and to what point? The fact of the matter is that, despite our best efforts to hold tightly, nothing is ever "ours" for long anyway....

Maybe, if we could let down our guard a little, fight our innate tendency to judge and label...we might just learn that "they" have a great deal to offer...and we all have a lot more in common than we'd sometimes like to admit.

And maybe, just maybe...with a little compassion and cooperation, we could channel our "superior intelligence" into finding non-violent solutions for the problems facing this planet and ALL who inhabit it.

So, take a deep breath...