Sunday, January 9, 2022

The Elemental and the Civilized

(Another excerpt from my next book project. Italics are from my journal entry in 1979 while living in the state of Kerala, India.)


When visiting England, Gandhi was asked: “What do you think of Western civilization?


He replied: “I think it would be a good idea.”


When I first read Thoreau and soon after, Whitman and Emerson, I was already resonating with the idea that our best selves lie closest to nature, that our true nature is close to us and right at hand and gets needlessly obscured by too many layers of “civilization. “ Our feet are imprisoned in thick-soled shoes, our body wrapped in layers of cloth that limit our movement, our hands made dumb by too much button pushing, our legs grown weak by cars and buses, our intuitions buried under mountains of printed dogma, our souls made small by too much social niceties. Even music, that most direct path to soul and spirit, is blocked by sheets of paper with little black dots. By the 17/1800’s, the English poet William Wordsworth was already complaining: 


The world is too much with us, late and soon.

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

Little we see in Nature that is ours, we have given

Our hearts away, a sordid boon…


And goes on to wish that he could return to the state of a “a pagan suckled in a creed outworn” to revive his Spirit. 


Some part of me was looking also to the Pagan, not the one proclaiming “a creed outworn” but the one in tune with the timeless alignment of one’s own natural spirit with the spirit of the natural world. And so I was attracted to teaching three-year-olds, to sitting silently in meditation with attention to breath and posture as a way back in, to backpacking, to the vibrant rhythms and soulful singing of jazz and West African music, to brown rice and vegetables and water over fancy French cooking and coffee. 


All of this made the time in Kerala especially rich. On one hand, it was about as far away from my American upbringing as one could get, completely alien and unfamiliar— like that moment of awakening to the thundering drums and cymbals and otherworldly-costumed Kathakali actors battling on a stage and then stumbling into an elephant sleeping in the field. On the other, something was clearly recognizable, resonating with some timeless and universal quality in my soul. The foods, the dress, the language, the musical instruments, the music, the land, the gods and goddesses, the rituals and ceremonies, the myths and folk tales, the arranged marriages, the absence of cars and minimum electricity— all of it completely new and foreign yet strangely familiar. The feeling of connection I had with the people, that at-homeness in the festivals, the growing intimacy with the land, all of it had to do with removing the unnecessary layers and getting to the root of the matter.


India indeed is a civilization in the dictionary definition of the term —“the stage of human social and cultural development and organization that is considered most advanced.” Far from the tribal cultures of hunter-gatherers living in the forests or small agrarian cultures out in the fields, but much closer to both than England or the U.S.. The people are more wholly in their bodies, the religious festivals with vibrant and powerful drumming offer a direct line to Spirit without the bland intermediaries of polite prayer or hymns sung from a book with little feeling, the lifestyle in Kerala intimately tied to the land and the natural cycles of the seasons. As noted in my next entry.


Feb. 19, 1979— my chappel (flip-flop) broke today and had to walk back barefoot from town. How nice! To feel the contours of the earth, the coolness of dried cow-dung paths. Even a half inch of rubber can break our direct connection with the earth, the ground of our being. We met a Canadian traveler who described a month’s walk down a river in Borneo with tribal villagers who hunted monkeys with blow darts, walking in complete silence and full awareness, sometimes smelling the game before sighting it. Alive in all their senses, at home in the rain forest attuned to the plants and animals and watersheds, hunting their food directly, with respect and gratitude.


This puts a whole new light on the usual notions of primitive and civilized society. If we accept the Earth as Mother, it is “primitive” society that is most advanced, living with alert bodies, sharpened senses, deep respect, great intelligence, a beautiful sense of the wholeness and integration of life, with art and religion woven into the fabric of the daily round. Thinking along these lines, primitive becomes primary, elemental (a word Orff used often), living close to the Source without all the unnecessary layers. Of course the modern world will not hearken back to these primary cultures, but we can work to keep in touch with the source of our being within the structure of civilization— hence Orff, Zen and Jazz, for example. Where they still exist, we can protect these primary cultures and learn the lessons they have to teach us. 


That was wishful thinking! Decades later,  the “civilized” corporate destroyers continue to raze rain forests to graze cattle for McDonald’s, displace indigenous people, ravage the earth to get fossil fuels so suburban Americans can drive to the mall to buy plastic products made in China they neither need nor truly want. Both children and adults spend a good part of their day sitting pushing buttons manipulating artificial worlds and staring at two-dimensional screens that have no taste, texture, smell. 


And yet, there is some movement toward farmer’s markets, more bicycles and less cars, more people hiking in national parks. Westerners are playing djembes and didjeridoos, taking yoga and Afro-Haitian dance classes, growing gardens in their back yard. There is a move to re-awaken the body, re-connect with the natural world, re-examine the ways to bring Soul and Spirit into the daily round, re-imagine a more sustainable and ecological way of life. Perhaps we are learning some of these needed lessons, though possibly too little and too late.

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