Before I was – staring out at endless ocean, –
She and I were
Her touch, her heartbeat, her being
In sound, sense and emotion
– a distant foghorn from out at sea; elsewhere. And it’s echoing; space –
I am hunger, I am tiredness, I am discomfort, I am laughter and love in that voice and in those eyes, I am that love.
I, too, am her tiredness, her frustration, her feeling of helplessness, her sorrow, her unbearable rage.
– mountainous waves stare down, the thought alone of which could annihilate, seabirds echo a cry
splintering through that unearthly, desolate place –
Our tangled worlds dance in one another’s shadows.
Erratic wind skims across the sea surface, mirroring our dance. A wave gently pushes through.
Separation. For me, the word points not only to our separateness, but also to a time of non-separateness, when there was no conscious ‘I’. The idea of a separation appears to be at the core of our culture in the ‘West’. The word ‘conscious’ has in its construction the root word ‘skie’, meaning a ‘cut or split’, which is where we get the words ‘science’ and ‘shit’ from. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the primal separation is illustrated in the expelling of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden, after their eating of fruit from the tree of knowledge – a clear metaphor for our acquisition of self awareness, and hence separation from the paradise state of oneness with the universe. There is now a sense of ‘I’ and ‘not I’. This separation from Paradise, and from the universe, can be thought of as our primal wound.
I woke up crying, a newborn.
Feeling again the raw sensation of physical aloneness. Soon after we fell apart, I dreamt we were naked in the lake next to the jetty. I feel your skin against mine; We’re innocencently entwined unborn twins.
With a slow violent lerch, like the pull of an undercurrent, our closeness sighs with a grief un-named, yet expressed in the summer night skies.
In western psychology, this idea relates to the initial physical separation of a baby from her mother. Through a gradual process the baby learns that they are a separate person, when growing up with caregivers that respect the integrity of the child, and takes part in their learning, setting and guarding of boundaries. This acknowledgement of the process is also very important; it’s fortunately not as black and white as our reading of the biblical narrative. According to studies in infant-caregiver attachment, we continually negotiate our separateness and dependence with our surroundings, using what is termed an ‘inner working model’, that is initially learned through the relationship the child has with their caregiver during the first three to four years of our life. The numerous so called psychopathologies that plague our modern societies are often put down to an unintegrated sense of self as a separate being; In short, incomplete separation, where a self-organizing personality structure is stuck in primitive patterns of codependency that have become self limiting, or abusive. According to existential psychology, we can avoid our separateness through attempts at merging with the Other, a person, institution, state or substance, and which while providing a soothing balm for the primal wound, has a deeper, hollow sting of avoidance of living our own lives.
We fell together, colliding with such a force that our centres fused, neither of us stopping it, being fix and addict in turn. Eventually you found the space I’d been hiding from you, malignant and damp with a frightened aftershock-emptiness, still stinking from the tail-end echo of a scream. Or was it a nervous laugh? An exhalation of some sort, sucking with murderous need. Hooked, we were both pulled under.
Certainly, in a modern western context, this conceptualization of an individual identity being separate from others is crucial to our judging of what it means to be a healthy person, in healthy relationships, in a healthy society. An individual needs an awareness of themselves as an autonomous being positioned in relation to their environment, otherwise they would quickly go insane. But our impressions of reality are always mediated through frames of perception, be it our five senses, or mental frames which are learnt. These frames are ephemeral cultural artifacts. They are kept alive, and constantly developing, like sourdough starters. They are our cultures, which influence the way we perceive, learn and live. In this way the idea that there is an objective reality that is separable from our experience of it is questionable. We are complex assortments of selves, nested in delicate interdependence; and this is where complexity disrupts the clear cut split between self and other. The Judeo-Christian, Western idea of a split has brought destruction to ourselves, our communities and the living planet we depend on. Historically, the idea of a separation has been used as a way of authorizing control and subjugation of people that were seen as ‘other’. It has enabled the labeling of eco systems as resources at our endless disposal, without consideration of the consequences to the systems that our actions may have. Biologically, humans are themselves hosts to bacteria, living in a finely balanced symbiotic relationship to ‘us’ – As Timothy Morton asks in his book ‘Humankind’, ‘Am I simply a vehicle for the numerous bacteria that inhabit my microbiome? Or are they hosting me?’. This is if we can even imagine ourselves as separate from them?
Similarly, we have as fluid a relationship as this, to others and to our environments. The occasional dissolving of ego boundaries seems like an increasingly vital exercise in our culture that worships the individual. The euphoria of dancing in a rave, the feeling of transcendence when staring at the sky and intuiting one’s small place in the larger whole, in expressions of sexuality, and the allowing of physical boundary crossing, and temporary merging in orgasmic states. The experience when listening to music, that one becomes the music; Once the sound vibrations have passed through the air, and entered one’s body, sound and self are non-separable. These journeys into the primitive world of oneness are seen as transgressive, and even dangerous – so fearful we’ve become of uncertainty, lack of control over our own nature – which is not ordered like our gardens and modern cities, but is complex, appearing chaotic, but nevertheless self-organizing and striving for equilibrium. The existential psychologist Irvin Yalom writes that ‘Fusion with another individual, with group or cause, with nature or with the universe always involves a loss of self: it is a pact with Satan and eventuates in existential guilt – that guilt grief which laments the unlived life in each of us.’
Is the concept of self that Yalom refers to here, when warning of it’s loss, a Western conceptualisation that takes the split for granted? When taking our separateness as the starting point, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that deviation from separation is unhealthy. The word ‘fusion’ in this context is being used warningly, with a fear that at any moment we could lose our god-given place as self-aware stewiards of the earth, and return to a lower animal state.
Though Yalom’s analysis of the ‘grief which laments the unlived life’ feels accurate, his way to get to this conclusion, in my opinion, opens up more ways of creating violence, as it is missing nuance of the complexity of our position. In many ways, we cannot avoid our embeddedness in nature; as we are nature, contain nature, are dependant on nature. As Nora Bateson writes ‘The singularity is a great violence, and silence to all that I am in plurals…Nine out of ten cells in my body are inhuman and belong to the larger ecology. All those creatures lived in and on me. My health is their health; their health is my health….’. (from ‘Small Arcs of Larger Circles’)
In historically non monotheistic cultures, such as hunter gatherer societies, a broader, more inclusive conceptualization of self lead to a different relationship between humans and non humans. A relationship not based on control, but rather on respect or even worship. As Jeremy Lent writes in ‘The Patterning Instinct’, ‘the Chinese sought reality within an organic view of the universe, looking for how each part harmonized within the entire system.’
The awareness and negotiation of one’s boundaries may not be fixed; as the self is not a noun, and cannot be located in any one place. Even the notion that all of our selves are limited to the confines our bodies is being investigated in the fields of phenomenology and inter-subjectivity, as our understanding of what constitutes selfhood, broadens to include non human life, such as animals, plants and ecosystems. The question of separation is not either or, rather it is a continuous dance of acknowledging our simultaneous interdependence and separateness. With a broadened notion of self, Carl Sagan poetically put it ‘Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can. Because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.’. This humbly repositions the responsibility for self awareness outside of our previously limited understanding – One could ask, did humans choose to evolve? Is it not arrogant to think we have been in total control over ourselves and our destinies? And that we are now? If this is the dominant view, then I see art and music as a way to propose greater trust in the innate creativity, and resilience of nature-in us-in nature. Let go of the need to control.
To close, I will quote a passage from Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ (Chapter 19), which expresses in gorgeous prose, a sort of pagan poetry, the fine and beautiful balance in the human position, both elegant and cultured whilst retaining a reverence for the mysterious, wild and uncontrollable:
It was a typical summer evening in June, the atmosphere being in such delicate equilibrium and so transmissive that inanimate objects seemed endowed with two or three senses, if not five. There was no distinction between the near and the far, and an auditor felt close to everything within the horizon. The soundlessness impressed her as a positive entity rather than as the mere negation of noise. It was broken by the strumming of strings.
The outskirt of the garden in which Tess found herself had been left uncultivated for some years, and was now damp and rank with juicy grass which sent up mists of pollen at a touch; and with tall blooming weeds emitting offensive smells — weeds whose red and yellow and purple hues formed a polychrome as dazzling as that of cultivated flowers. She went stealthily as a cat through this profusion of growth, gathering cuckoo-spittle on her skirts, cracking snails that were underfoot, staining her hands with thistle-milk and slug-slime, and rubbing off upon her naked arms sticky blights which, though snow-white on the apple-tree trunks, made madder stains on her skin; thus she drew quite near to Clare, still unobserved of him.
Tess was conscious of neither time nor space. The exaltation which she had described as being producible at will by gazing at a star came now without any determination of hers; she undulated upon the thin notes of the second-hand harp, and their harmonies passed like breezes through her, bringing tears into her eyes. The floating pollen seemed to be his notes made visible, and the dampness of the garden the weeping of the garden’s sensibility. Though near nightfall, the rank-smelling weed-flowers glowed as if they would not close for intentness, and the waves of colour mixed with the waves of sound.