Humans have been dealt a rather unique–if not strange–burden. From birth, we crudely assemble an understanding of the external world as it relates to our internal one; the world of one’s own body, mind, senses, and thoughts. We understand with great clarity and immediacy the sensations of desire, fear, love, and pain, and we hold these feelings central to our deep and inextricable notions of self; beliefs, values, dreams, ideas, emotions and sensations coalesced and embodied. This too, begins by first making these quiet distinctions between oneself and that which is external. In short, we are quick to become ourselves, and to wholly want to become ourselves and whatever idiosyncrasies and specificities this notion of self may imply. We imagine and cultivate–perhaps, curate–an abstraction of identity wherein we can subtract ourselves from all else, know ourselves separate from our knowing of all else, and thus create a defined and bolded boundary between the self and that which is immediate to it, and everything else: things distant, made not real or, at the least, difficult to construct, in the realm of one’s own knowing. Our collective captivity to an exclusively subjective experience, the human experience, has proven a most enigmatic dilemma: what is our place in the world?
Lest we condemn ourselves in defeat, simply, a species’ oxymoronic collective individualism gone rampant and unchecked springs forth environmental and philosophical implications undeniably overwhelming in scope. Under what basis can we claim exception to forces of nature out of our control? Instead, so often we find our condition to be a simple, dismissable truth of life: traceable within all humans alive or dead, and borne of our own hubris. We rarely or never admit, or even acknowledge, that this is in many ways an anomaly through-and-through: there is, in fact, inherent danger in existing this way.
This is the great danger: we cultivate an exclusively human theme of arrogance, and, subsequently, suffering. We inscribe ideals of the atemporal and indestructible to things inherently destructible, and invariably fragile. How could we not, given the limited, narrow perspective of the individual? We find this no truer in ourselves: in our lives and the monuments thereof, physical or not, that we have so delicately erected and assembled. In our own civilizations, we witness the built manifestations of the collective selves and their monuments, acting as if independent of any external force and singularly dependent on its own fitness to prosper, assuming positions of precedence via the authority of complex belief systems. We fail to realize that there is a problem until things don’t go according to plan; when we’re not as in control as we were so sure we knew we were. Of taming volcanoes in preservation of an ancient Icelandic settlement, John McPhee writes, “…the true extent of the victory will never be known–the role of luck being unassessable, the effects of intervention being ultimately incalculable, and the assertion that people can stop a volcano being hubris enough to provoke a new eruption” (p. 179).
The danger in this arrogance is two-fold. We not only harm ourselves, but our surroundings as well. We create fertile grounds for exploitation, absolving ourselves of responsibility through understanding our surroundings and neighbors only in the context of the self. Only when catastrophe becomes immediate do we discover that the vision allowed by the “exclusively subjective experience” was absurdly narrow in the face of the complexity of how the world actually functions.
Invariably, this hubris is self-destructive. We build lofty desires of things invincible in a world that is, by its very nature, finite, and laden with entropy. Moreover, we exempt ourselves from the flow of natural processes and authorize exploitation, degradation, and greed. When the resultant consequences are pain and suffering, who is to blame but ourselves? In the writings of Lao Tzu we read, “Empty of desire, perceive mystery. Filled with desire, perceive manifestations” (verse 1). In many ways, we have become victims to the self. We have manifested grotesque consequences from the way we live, and have ourselves been transformed into unrecognizable manifestations of how the world naturally behaves.
Given this, how then, should we behave? For a moment, let us digress.
Andy Goldsworthy is a Scotland-based, British artist and sculptor whose art takes form from the materials of his given surroundings and environment. He erects egg-shaped cairns: guardians of stone that defend the quiet underbrush of a remote forest, or protect an alcove in a wall of rock along a bend of dirt back-road. He arranges icicles snaked about a conical rock, as if piercing it, along a frozen winter shore, and thin, curved twigs neatly placed in the pattern of concentric rings around a smooth, domed rock in a tranquil stream. Some of his pieces can last no longer than the time it takes to assemble them, whether it’s the afternoon sun melting away frozen components of icicle or snow, or if it’s the unstoppable flow of water in a tide, creek, or stream that eventually swallows or carries away one of Goldsworthy’s ephemeral creations. But part of his art, as Goldsworthy understands, is that it is temporary. In this, the process of disintegration is equal parts fundamental to the art as is its creation; in other words, an ephemeral sculpture is incomplete if it isn’t destroyed. Goldsworthy is able to acknowledge this simultaneously contradictory and interdependent duality, and then synthesize and channel the directions–the crests and troughs–of that energy into art.
The philosophy of Goldsworthy extends past the merit of his art. Undoubtedly, we recognize a deep frustration, struggle, and irreconcilability with ourselves and the world. The entropy and disintegration, when paired with rigid desires and mankind’s anomalous Madness gene, as we find, is the primary cause of this; pain and suffering, a symptom of an unsustainable condition. In this, there is liberation in a surrendering of sorts–though it is important to make the distinction that this is not necessarily a giving-up, or a surrender to apathy or nihilism. Rather, Goldsworthy’s art reflects a way to live that is able to reconcile the complexities and interdependent properties of nature that have so often eluded us.
Tao Te Ching describes, “Is and Isn’t produce each other” (verse 2). How could this be true of two things antithetical to each other? Yet, we see this theme of interdependence repeated and omnipresent. If there is no darkness, light would not be light–it would not exist. As for mankind, we find ourselves at the crossroads of the dualities of life and death, desire and fear, joy and suffering. The solution is not to subscribe to any one half, as that would threaten the interdependent nature and render such a lifestyle meaningless, or would moreover once again subject oneself to deriving pain in entropy.
Instead, we imagine life as a stone disturbing the stillness of a pool of water. The subsequent ripples exhibit crests and troughs of equal height or depth, simultaneously propagating from the center. It is easy to look at one crest or trough and see disturbance and unbalance, but a fuller picture sees the whole in perfect balance, equal and interdependent to the pool in its stillness, before given the energy initiated by the stone. The challenge, then, is to channel and intercept that wave of energy and to, so to speak, surf. To acknowledge the moment of each peak or depth with the same stillness of the stone-less pool. To be in-tune with the flow of energy and to surrender, bend, and shift to it, like water. To sculpt ourselves as un-separate with the world, to return to it, and to acknowledge that one way of being could not have existed without the other. What we find in this is not self-destruction but a destruction of the illusion self: selflessness, wisdom, synchronicity, liberation, solace.