Corners are as ubiquitous as they are unnatural. They symbolize what’s wrong with our civilization, namely, that we have disconnected ourselves from the other-than-human world. However, surprisingly, there’s a way to use them to live better.
I live in a box, and I bet you do, too. Like me, you may also do your productive work in a box. When you do physical shopping, you probably also shop in a big box. Much of your travelling time is spent going from one box to another.
Where is it possible to find boxes in the natural, other-than-human world? They aren’t there.
There are, occasionally, fairly straight edges, such as the edges of crystalline rocks like those of The Giant’s Causeway. Even they, though, seem unnatural. When my brother, parents, and I visited there in 1961, I remember that my mother had a difficult time believing that they weren’t made by humans!
No boxes, no corners.
Uncivilized (natural, savage) humans don’t live in boxes. Theirs is a world without corners.
When we civilized humans impose our will on uncivilized humans, they initially resent corners and everything that goes with them.
For example, John (Fire) Lame Deer was a Native American medicine man, healer, and philosopher. According to him, the Sioux call civilized white humans ‘wasicun,’ which means ‘fat-takers.’ White “Americans are bred like stuffed geese—to be consumers, not human beings.” [All direct quotations here are from the book listed below in Recommended Readings.] “Fat-taking is a bad thing, even for the taker.”
Except for some whites who are artists, “For the white man each blade of grass or spring of water has a price tag on it. And that is the trouble.” We look at hills and prairies, lakes and rivers, buffalo and badgers as property to be owned and consumed. It’s what I think of as the developer’s mindset.
The rules of the money game follow from the rules of the property game.
The rules of the money game lead to evaluating humans by measuring their net worth. What absurdity! How could what a human has be more important than what that person is? Uncivilized savages, by way of contrast, were under no such delusion. Lame Deer: “We had no money, and therefore a man’s worth couldn’t be measured by it. . . Indians . . . are lousy raw material from which to form a capitalist.”
Native Americans had no corners, either. Once they encountered corners, they realized it: “In our way of thinking the Indians’ symbol is the circle, the hoop. Nature wants things to be round. The bodies of human beings and animals have no corners.”
The circle symbolizes the world, the natural world. It’s not a coincidence that the only symbol in Zen Buddhism, the enso, is a circle.
According to Lame Deer, the Sioux “nation was only a part of the universe, in itself circular and made of the earth, which is round, of the sun, which is round, of the stars, which are round. The moon, the horizon, the rainbow – circles within circles within circles, with no beginning and no end.”
Though Lame Deer doesn’t mention it, this understanding of reality as being circular and without corners requires a natural conception of time, too, as circular (rather than arrow-like and directional). No corners, no progress.
This may seem very abstract. Lame Deer provides us with a brilliant concrete example:
“Just an ordinary old cooking pot, black with soot and full of dents. . . I’m an Indian. I think about ordinary, common things like this pot. The bubbling water comes from the rain cloud. It represents the sky. The fire comes from the sun which warms us all – men, animals, trees. The meat stands for the four-legged creatures, our animal brothers, who gave of themselves so that we should live. The steam is living breath. It was water; now it goes up to the sky, becomes a cloud again. These things are sacred. Looking at that pot full of good soup, I am thinking how, in this simple manner, Wakan Tanka [The Great Spirit, the great mystery] takes care of me. We Sioux spend a lot of time thinking about everyday things, which in our mind are mixed up with the spiritual. We see in the world around us many symbols that teach us the meaning of life.”
This is the opposite of what most of us civilized whites do. We normally take cooking pots and water and meat for granted. We are too busy trying to gain more and more and more.
“What we object to is the white man’s arrogance and self-love, his disregard for nature.”
Actually, there’s nothing wrong with corners. The problem comes with attachment to corners. Fortunately, we are not stuck with our attachments.
Like everything else, attachments are impermanent. “The priest talked about eternity. I told him we Indians did not believe in a forever and forever. We say that only the rocks and the mountains last, but even they will disappear.”
Where can salvation come from?
“We must try to save the white man from himself. This can be done only if all of us, Indians and non-Indians alike, can again see ourselves as part of this earth, not as an enemy from the outside who tries to impose its will on it . . . being a living part of the earth, we cannot harm any part of her without hurting ourselves.”
Lame Deer argues that we who are civilized live too much in our thoughts and seem to fear the natural world. Our initial task of reconnecting is simply to begin to perceive it again, to see, feel, smell, hear, and taste it.
Also, instead of sanitizing death, “kill honestly.” To eat a chicken, “cut off the chicken’s head, pluck it, and gut it” rather than buying it “in a neat plastic bag, all cut up, ready to eat, with no taste and no guilt.”
“To us, life, all life, is sacred. . . A death anywhere make[s] me feel poorer.”
Let go more frequently of corners and of machines: “People . . . are helpless, because they have forgotten how to make do without the machine.” He’s hopeful; he thinks many people are realizing this. “We are moving closer to nature again.”
In a pre-literate culture, the world is alive. In our culture, the world is dead. That’s because we have written language that enables us to live in our heads. Living conceptually deadens experience. I’m not sure Lame Deer realizes the extent to which his world is so much more lively and fresh than the world of nearly all the rest of us. (The ‘nearly’ is necessary because sages do exist, even white ones!)
Since attachments are thoughts and since Lame Deer is a good philosopher, it doesn’t surprise me that, in his own way, he recognizes that letting go of thoughts makes a critical difference:
“The wicasa wakan [holy man] wants to be by himself. He wants to be away from the crowd, from everyday matters. He likes to meditate . . . What you see with your eyes shut is what counts. / The wicasa wakan loves the silence . . . “
“. . . being a medicine man . . . is a state of mind . . . In order to be a medicine man one should find the visions there, in nature. . . You can tell a good medicine man by his actions and his way of life.”
“I mistrust visions come by in the easy way – by swallowing something. The real insight, the great ecstasy does not come from this. . . You have to work for this, empty your mind for it.”
He’s exactly right, of course. Here’s where corners can help.
In your daily life, begin noticing corners. Then, every time you notice one, practice letting go of thoughts.
Simple! It’s not easy, but it’s just that simple to begin improving the quality of life forever.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please pass it along.
Recommended post: The Bifurcation of Reality.
Recommended readings: John (Fire) Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes’s Lame Deer and David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous.