a thought on Sandy

Ultra-clever apes as we can be, we “developed” Westerners have seen fit to banish all elemental/energetic understanding from our universe. All “ordinary magic,” all sacredness.

We “know” that earth, water, fire, and air are not “real” elements but rather incoherent, primitive categories of “developing,” pre-scientific cultures. We know that there is only one possible way of understanding the elemental: conceptually, via thoroughgoing analysis. In fact, really, we can’t any longer conceive that there could be an alternative mode of seeing.

We know that the universe is really made up of Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium and so on, all the way up to … Flerovium and Livermorium now, it looks like. It never occurs to us that these too are actually human creations, abstractions. Except we also know that at the sub-atomic level all that solidity breaks down in very peculiar ways difficult to conceptualize. In fact at that point it all looks rather like what the buddhists call space – their fifth element, the non-material one of accommodation/complete openness which makes all form and phenomena possible. Which makes all combinations of the other four possible.

And yet, how interesting it is that for example we also give our hurricanes names. Human, mortal names, as befits a would-be democratic age, but names all the same. How is this so very different from the practice of cultures all over the world in naming deities of Ocean, Thunder, Fire, particular territories of the earth, the animating spirits of individual animals or plants? We no longer say Briareos but rather Sandy or Irene, but the impulse is the same, isn’t it?

The objection of course will be: ah but we don’t actually believe there’s a sentient being in there somewhere, animating that storm with purpose. This is true, but also not quite the point.

An energetic or sacred understanding of reality is not at all antagonistic to a scientific one as such. The two modes of perception simply operate in different registers, different realms in a sense. Side by side with all the explanations of why this storm was so unprecedented and powerful, with the hourly projections concerning trajectories, timing, wind speeds, rainfall, surge heights, another form of experience could yet be sensed within the discourse, dimly but unmistakeably. Underpinning the assumption of pure rationality lay, in fact, an attitude of awe, and fundamental incomprehension. Something like the “beginner’s mind” of Zen.

With all of our knowledges, we will never capture a storm in the pure abstraction of concept. We know, too, that we cannot master a storm. We may split atoms in a kind of ultimate display of techno-analysis, but even the terrifyingly murderous weapons that can be produced from such cleverness are still no match for an “entity,” that is to say a process, like Sandy. So we may only sit, and watch, and wait, as something far bigger than what our comprehension can encompass … unfolds. In its own sweet time.

(to be continued)