I live in a literate culture. Now, even more than ever, communication takes place through the 2-dimensional mediums of text and image. Video chat has taken the place of face-to-face meetings in many contexts, texting has replaced hours of phone calls and I have comment threads instead of conversations with several people at once. I don’t feel a need to bemoan these changes, but I do feel a need to observe them. What I see when I do that is a decreasing level of importance placed on the location of the person’s body who is engaged in communication through one of these mediums. What I do with my feet while texting seems to have little direct impact on how the recipient of the message will respond, for example.
If I look below and behind the cultural overtones of these 2-D practices, I start to see something else. What is in that space doesn’t demand attention like a YouTube video does, so it is easy to overlook. There, down under the assumption that the rest of my body doesn’t matter when my face is on video chat, lies the question that is the title of this post. I found it floating over to me one day while I was doing my regular meditation on connecting with sunlight. I stand with my eyes closed and carefully orient my face towards the sun, based on the sensation of light and warmth alone. Then I stand in that sensation for at least three breaths before stepping forward into whatever the next action is. It was a day with a schedule, and I felt like taking time with the sunlight might help me sort it out a bit better. As the rays landed on my forehead and palms, there the question was, expecting an answer.
As a practitioner of a revivalist spirituality that seeks to connect with some very old practices that originated long before culture was carried out primarily in 2-D mediums, I spend a lot of time looking at artifacts from thousands of years ago and thinking about world views. I often wonder about what sort of underlying ways of seeing guided the people who painted the symbols that have fascinated me for so long. What did it feel like to be the potter who painted my favorite octopus vase? How did the person who applied the red to mark the center of a flower on a mural decide when and what to eat? What did a parent who lived near a beach that is now under the sea choose to do when a child came running over to them with a found seashell? Rather than tales of wars and power, I feel that it is the combined thread of what is behind these little decisions that most fully describes a culture.
On more than one occasion, someone has said to me, or in my presence, that we can’t know anything about the past until we find a primary, written source that explains it to us. To me, this appears to be a statement that is really about translation. It seems to encode the idea that the past cannot be meaningful unless it is translated into today’s preferred method of communication. When someone makes a variant of that statement, I hear a comment that has more to do with a contemporary person’s abilities and limits in terms of how they receive information than at does with understanding the past. Conversely, I could also be missing the point completely. Perhaps we can’t know anything for certain unless it is written down.
Is knowing something for certain the most important thing? Could it be that the primacy of the concept of knowing something for certain on an intellectual level is relatively recent, and might not have had the same meaning to the people who lived in the past that we ascribe to it now? What appears to me in this case is a different question. What does the tangible inheritance we do have from the past tell us? Put another way, how does the language of 3-dimensional shape and form used by the ancient Minoans communicate? I claim them as my spiritual ancestors, so what can I learn from the way they organized space? It seems possible to me that the spaces they created, which endured across many generations held meaning for them that I could access some version of by relating to a space with a similar shape. This is the way dances and gestures retain meaning as they are passed down. It is a common way for cultures with strong oral elements pass along meaning in many ways. At its most basic, it is how children learn to communicate, by doing something they have seen someone else do.
I can’t read an account of something that happened thousands of years ago on an island across the world form where I live. Instead of focusing on the absence of that experience, I can do what my daughter does all the time. I can look at what happened, then do it to the best of my ability. Then I can pay attention to the results and decide if I want to do something like that again in hopes of getting similar results. Rather than waiting for a written history, I can look at the art and artifacts. I can dive into their wealth of visual and symbolic information to see what I can learn by doing.
It is not possible to read text written by people alive when the art was created that explains what is happening in a mural on the wall of a former temple like it is in a museum today that focuses on contemporary art. It is absolutely possible for me to hold my body in the ways the subjects of the mural hold their bodies, or to make art that uses the shapes and symbols they used. If I can let go of the need for an intellectual explanation of what I am doing until after the fact, different possibilities can emerge. As I do this, I can entertain the possibility that the reason we don’t have title cards for the Minoan murals could be that the people who painted them didn’t feel they were needed. Perhaps they had other priorities that included other ways of knowing things that didn’t require textual verification and support.
Several things have emerged for me so far from this direction of inquiry. The first is that their buildings show that they took care to orient them in specific ways that connected to astronomical occurrences. I have had the opportunity to do some of this in my own life, on a very small scale. I don’t have the ability to build anything approaching the scale of a Minoan temple. I do have the opportunity to build a version of something much smaller. It is a little feature that is most often overlooked by discussions of the past, but it is what is what I can do here and now. Through the process of building and living with this purposeful alignment and arrangement of materials in space, I have learned a great deal from the lived experience it brings about.
An important part of this for me has been a deeper awareness of the presence of light. Through the process of learning about how to build something that will meet the brilliance emanating from a celestial body at a particular angle at a particular time, I have also been learning about what it is necessary to do with my body to bring that moment about. I have been learning what is needed to allow me to move fairly large stones into the locations they need to be in for that to happen. I needed to learn which muscles and which angles to use in the lifting and pushing. I needed to learn which chants to sing and which drum beats to play that would allow me to get to a state where such lifting could be done safely. I had to learn all kinds of things about how stones behave and how sand forms into shapes.
The process included what it feels like to have accomplished a physical feat that I didn’t know I could carry out until I needed to do it. At the end of the building, I was able to look at a photograph of a small structure that is 4,000 years and say “I know how that can be built” because I had just finished doing it. An important distinction to make here is that I don’t claim to know how the people who changed the shape of the physical world in a particular place did it or even why they did it. Instead, I am interested in knowing who to get a similar result in my time and place in my personal rearranging of the physical. I am like the child who looks at what someone older than I am did and tries it out to see if it gets results I want to repeat.
So far, those results have mostly been about listening. I have been learning what it feels like to stand on a stone that I placed so that it can let me know when the light will be in just the right place for me to be there with it. I have been hearing what the sound of bear feet walking a pattern based on voluntary limits is like to make. I have found the need to gain all kinds of skills related to keeping rocks clean that I didn’t know existed. There are also other things that have no words, but that are in my hands, my joints, and in my muscle memories of what I did when I manufactured tools out of pieces of my construction materials, then realized they would have been undetectable to an archeologist because they had not been changed in any way, only chosen. All of these moments are small and personal at the same time as large and connective. They don’t make me better than anyone else to have experienced them, but they do make me better at being myself than I was before I participated in them. Through them, I learned of new capacities that I did not know I could possess.
There is a difference in the feeling that comes from completing a building project that has the goal of providing shelter and one that has the goal of providing an opportunity to align with sunlight. It is similar in some ways to the difference between writing a technical manual and writing a poem. The same medium produces two very different results. Each goal has its own set of circumstances that it brings about and its own set of teachings to share with the people involved.
My experience was one of slow magic that was carried out in silence simply because words would not be useful in accomplishing it. I was doing it unaided by other humans. All of the calculations were spatial. Most of them were based on relationships between objects. Using letters, words or numbers would have complicated things.
Slow magic like I experienced in the building doesn’t translate well into anything written either, because it happens in the same 3-dimensional space that my body occupies. I could take photos of it, or get on video chat to discuss it, but I could not actually share with another person the embodied feeling of standing there, with my feet on a stone and my forehead receiving the sunlight. I could talk about it with someone else, but not truly share it. To do that, they would have to be and move in space with me.
As I stood there, being surprised by the question, I found myself doing my best to give the response the question seemed to require. This was to honor the question’s source, the stones under my feet, the air in my lungs, my body, its source, the light, its origin point, the water that makes my blood flow, where it comes from, and everything all of that is connected to.
In attempting to do that, I am doing my best at honoring life by practicing the magic of presence. If the ways they chose to organize space are any indication, the people who lived on Crete during the Bronze Age and before were consummate master of the same type of magic. They were very good at arranging physical space in particular ways. Maybe it doesn’t matter that I can’t read their thoughts on their experiences. Perhaps the fact that I am doing this here and now is a way to step into a dance that can be both beautiful and satisfying. The same has been be true for me with the smaller actions, like pouring a libation or being present for a sunrise or offering a listening ear. Perhaps it is joining the dance that matters most, even more than understanding it. What do you honor by your presence?