Becoming animal

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chipmunk among Canada mayflower leaves

The other evening, my fifteen-month-old niece Elanor gave utterance to her first distinct, undeniable series of English words. They were animal sounds.

I had already gone down to my own house, worn out from a day of visiting, so what follows is based on my parents’ account. Elanor loves books – all books, even the ones without pictures – and as the adults talked, it seemed nothing out of the ordinary for her to sit on the couch with one of her favorite books on her lap, slowly turning the pages. It was a picture book for small children called Animal Sounds, which has foldout, cardboard pages, and for novelty’s sake, apparently, she was looking at it upside-down. Her grandpa was the first to notice that Elanor was imitating his pronunciations of the onomatopoeia in a low voice. “Ribbet! Ribbet!” she said as she looked at the upside-down frog. Then she turned the page to the lion cub. “GrrrrrrOWL!”

Dad signaled Mom and Steve to shut up and watch. It was no fluke. “Squawk! Squawk!” said the parrot. Another turn and unfolding of the complicated pages, and the baby elephant was clearly saying “Baroooo!”


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tent caterpillars on a wild sweet cherry

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of each kind, cattle and crawling things and wild beasts of each kind.” And so it was. And God made wild beasts of each kind and cattle of each kind and all crawling things on the ground of each kind, and God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness, to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and the cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the earth.”

And God created the human in his image,
in the image of God he created him,
male and female he created them.

(Robert Alter, trans.)

This is the notorious passage in Genesis leading up to God’s first commands: be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it, hold sway (radah). About this last verb, Alter notes that it is “not the normal Hebrew word for ‘rule’ […] and in most of the contexts in which it occurs it seems to suggest an absolute or even fierce exercise of mastery.”

Could we ask for a more explicit expression of the kind of anthropocentrism that has fueled our current environmental malaise? And yet the passage is not without redeeming qualities. Notice, for example, that wild animals and creepy-crawlies are given equal standing with livestock. This is consistent with other parts of the Bible, such as the 104th Psalm and the last chapters of Job, which explicitly recognize the claims of untrammeled nature. One can also see some irony in the account of humanity’s separate creation. While all other earthly inhabitants were brought into being through the utterance of spells – or prayers, if you like – the human is fashioned by reference to an image, as idols are made. This is brought home by the parallel Creation myth that begins a few verses later, in which God literally fashions the man out of clay, and simultaneously gives birth to the world’s first bad pun (“‘adam, ‘human,’ from the soil, ‘adamah,” as Alter puts it).

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yellow mandarin

These thoughts were sparked by an entry in a new (to me) blog called, by Rabbi Shai Gluskin. According to Rabbi Gluskin’s post Shade Under Sun, the word tzelim, “image” or “idol,” derives from the word for shade or shadow, tzel.

We are idols made of flesh and bone, mere shadows of God. Certainly we shouldn’t be worshiped. Though not the real thing, we do share some of God’s qualities.

Taking refuge in the shade, safe from God’s blinding light we can look up and see the canopy illuminated. This illumination is akin to our inspiration.

We can, however, forget to look up. We may, like Adam, delude ourselves into thinking we can hide from God. The shadow then is no longer a protector from God’s blinding light, but a vice to run away [into].

I like the way Rabbi Gluskin grounds his interpretation in the arboreal imagery of spring. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, trees are explicitly recognized as a potential focus of idolatry, reflecting the historical competition of the Yahwist cult with the cult of the Asherim. In fact, in the second chapter of Genesis, the humans’ first openly idolatrous behavior is toward a tree.

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a Baltimore oriole harvesting insects from young black walnut leaves

Let’s step back a few verses, though. In the first Creation account, as I mentioned, non-human animals are not shaped, but merely spoken into being. Given the primacy accorded to mindful prayer in Jewish tradition, wouldn’t this actually threaten to raise their ontological status above that of humans? Perhaps the original compilers of the Bible thought so, too, because in the second story, we see the order of (male) human and animal creation reversed – and this time, God fashions all creatures from the soil, and subcontracts out to Adam the job of giving them names.

But were these creatures, too, fashioned after pre-existing prototypes – are they “made in the image of God”? If God works the way a sculptor does, shouldn’t we expect him to project some element of his own identity into his work, like any artist?

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gaywings, or fringed polygala

Of course, it would be absurd to accuse God Himself of idolatry. But he does seem to be actively encouraging Adam’s own tendencies in that direction, fashioning the animals one by one not only “to see what he would call it,” but also to see if any of them would appeal to him as a “sustainer.” When none seem to fit the bill, the female human is created while the male sleeps, almost like a sexual fantasy given flesh. The stage is set for idolatry, loss of innocence, fear and exile. Alter says,

The Hebrew ‘ezer kenegdo (King James Version “help meet”) is notoriously difficult to translate. The second term means “alongside him,” “a counterpart to him.” “Help” is too weak because it suggests a merely auxiliary function, whereas ‘ezer elsewhere connotes active intervention on behalf of someone, especially in military contexts, as often in Psalms.

But the Psalms are directed toward God, are they not? Did the authors of this myth mean to suggest that in his yearning for a flesh-and-bone sustainer, Adam was already drawing away from God? His first recorded utterance is no psalm, but an impassioned poem to the woman – a naming-poem, a spell.

The language used for Eve’s creation, says Alter, is architectural rather than sculptural: the verb means “to build” rather than “to shape,” and “the Hebrew for ‘rib,’ tsela’, is also used elsewhere to designate an architectural element.” (This imagery helps set the stage for the Tower of Babel story, perhaps. Or at least suggests that we should see the Tower as anthropomorphic, if not theomorphic.) The idolatrous impulse here is quickly realized with the entrance of the first non-human animal a few verses later. No sooner have we been told that the man and woman “become one flesh” and that “the two of them were naked … and they were not ashamed,” then the serpent appears to set them against each other. And the main descriptor used for the serpent, ‘arum, “cunning,” is a play on ‘arumim, “naked.”

Thus, guided by the active intervention of one of the animals Adam named, Eve “saw that the tree was good for eating and that it was lust to the eyes and the tree was lovely to look at, and she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave to her man, and he ate.” The word translated as “lust” will appear often in the exhortations of the prophets, for whom lust and idolatry seem to have been closely linked.

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blue-gray gnatcatcher on scarlet oak sapling

Eve’s first act is to look for her own ‘ezer kenegdo, it seems. Forget for a moment the millennia of moralistic and sexist interpretations based on the premise that the rightful place for righteous humans is back in some otherworldly version of that paradise. Forget the quintessentially priestly assumption that ignorance – unthinking obedience – is bliss. What the Genesis Creation stories really suggest is that rebellion is somehow intrinsic to created beings. A thing is no sooner named, fashioned, or dreamed up – a child is no sooner birthed – than it acquires its own personality, as every artist or parent knows. Self becomes Other, and Other then returns to open the eyes of the Self. The pivotal importance of the serpent in the Genesis story (the devil is nowhere in sight) almost bridges the gap between this and other tribal Creation myths, where animal tricksters also play central roles. By the time we get to Abraham and Sarah – let alone Jacob, Job and the Prophets – we find human beings capable of telling God a thing or two.

What could we possibly know that an omniscient God does not? Humility: the dawning recognition that we are not, in fact, the center of the universe. A sense of wonder. Without some measure of selflessness, is true empathy possible? The infant, godlike in her egotism, can hardly begin to imagine herself as another being; her squawks and chirps and cries are solely her own. Only with the growth of other-consciousness can she become capable of the imagination necessary for anthropomorphizing empathy. If – as eco-philosopher Paul Shepard asserted – it is the animals that made us human, could we not also say without any impiety that it is humans who taught a violent and amoral god how to be Good?

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Photo from last year’s trip to the reptile zoo. See here and here.


UPDATE: Steve tells me that Elanor had actually been saying “Woof, woof!” now and then for a month or so, and that the evening before her “reading” of the animal sounds book, she had added a second element to her vocabulary: “Tickle, tickle!” Make of that what you will.

38 Replies to “Becoming animal”

  1. Whew. I’m glad I’m a simple buddhist and I don’t have to undertake this sort of mission! “Emptiness of emptiness” is a lark compared to instructing God :-)

  2. Dave, wow! Inspired.

    Leaving the Garden of Eden, “becoming animal” is essential to the moral development of human beings. Key to “moral development” is the word “development.” We MUST start at a “low” rung. The snake is simply faciliatating something that needs to happen.

    There is a midrash (a post biblical tale that explains or riffs on something in scripture) that says that human beings are all-knowing in utero. As a child descends the birth canal an angel touchs the spot between our upper lip and nose and the child loses all that knowledge. Our task in living our life is to regain it. The impression above our upper lip is what the angel leaves as a mark on each of us.

  3. This was great fun, and one I know I’ll return to.

    The New Testament extrapolations from the image language in Genesis seem to play on the intrinsic rebellion you mention. My mentor likes to refer to Christ as “the icon of God,� giving a sort of Greek pronunciation to a repeated reference in the Epistles, usually translated “the image of God.� To me, the most interesting sequence is in 2 Corinthians 3 & 4, which I think climaxes in the last sentence of chapter 3, here in the New Revised Standard: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this come from the Lord, the Spirit.�

    It seems to include an acknowledgement of our tendency to become like what we idolize, or to refashion ourselves in another’s image. A couple of invectives in the Psalms against idols end with the warning: “Those who make them will become like them.â€?

    “Self becomes Other, and Other then returns to open the eyes of the Self.â€? — well put!

  4. Thanks for the comments! Last night, I almost started this string with one of my own: Who the hell is the target audience for this post, Dave? Non-believers have little time for the Bible, and people of faith will have little time for this line of unreasoning! But one thing I’ve found in two and a half years of blogging is that every post finds its own audience. Welcome!

    Dale – A “simple buddhist”? Ha! (I’ll have a post up especially for simple people later on today.)

    I think the notion that God can learn anything from dialogue with humans is somewhat less heretical in Judaism than in Christianity or Islam. But of course, i don’t have much invested in this, either, having more of a literary enthusiast’s interest in the Bible than anything else.

    MB – Good call! Wish I’d thought of that on Thursday – it would’ve made a dandy illustration.

    Rabbi Gluskin – Hi! Sorry to have held your post in moderation all night (there’d be over a hundred spam comments for every post if I didn’t make first-time commenters wait for approval).

    Yes, I’ve heard that ‘drash (probably from Velveteen Rachel) – a wonderful notion! In a way, it jibes with an etymological analysis of that slippery word “development” (remember, I’m an environmentalist, and therefore deeply suspicious of all claims by self-styled developers). As my brother Mark, a geographer, once pointed out, to de-velop originally meant to strip down to the core or essence.

    My point is that we must be careful not to assume that we are on some simple continuum (or worse, ladder) with Beast at one end and Angel at the other. Many people, hearing the language of development, immediately assume vegetative growth, some form of heliotropism. And all too often end up with metastasis – “the ideology of the cancer cell,” in Edward Abbey’s pungent phrase.

  5. Peter – Thanks! I was hoping you’d stop by and share your reactions. I have only the most passing knowledge of the Epistles, so most of this was news to me.

    Your comment reminds me of those Senegalese Sufis I wrote about a while back, who focus so obsessively (and perhaps un-Islamically?) on the icon of their saint. I think I quoted Walter Benjamin on the aura of a work of art, or something. At any rate, yes – that’s a very important insight, and one that I was perhaps semi-consciously groping toward in this post. As we saw recently with the debate among cooler-headed Muslims about the Danish cartoon controversy, icon reverence and iconoclasm tend to alternate within monotheistic traditions, and sometimes even manage to coexist.

    Without getting into an involved discussion about how and whether the icon differes from an idol (my brother Steve tells me that religious Hindus, when speaking in English, habitually use the word “idol” to refer to images of their gods), I will say that the command against idolatry has always struck me as the most important and most radical in the whole Decalogue. The impulse of fundamentalists to bow down before a calcified tradition is inherently idolatrous, in my view. So I found your comment refreshingly subversive.

  6. To put it another way: the monotheistic traditions are each of two minds about attachment. While Buddhists insist that all attachment is harmful, Western monotheists seem to feel that some forms of attachment – even passion – can be fruitful.

    I could go on, but I am having a sudden attack of conscience for saying so much when I know so little. In all likelihood, there are different realms of truth for different kinds of seekers. The Sufis speak of a caesura in the middle of the Muslim profession of faith: “There is no God // But God…” Non-attachment. Attachment. Are we sure we understand the difference?

  7. Dave, wonderful , stimulating, meandering reflections on a fascinating theme. As a practitioner of Dialoguing with Deity, I should have a lot to say about this but I have enormous reluctance to doing so in any form other than s a fully-formed comic strip. So, reluctantly, I will refrain until such time as I can manage to reconnect to the necessary wavelength.

  8. To me — and here I believe that for once I’m an entirely orthodox Buddhist — the trouble with approving of any attachment is that they’re all attached to each other. To think you can admit just one or two and dismiss the rest is to be hopelessly naive about how the whole thing works. Just as there’s no such thing as just one cockroach, there’s no such thing as just one attachment. I’m attached to prayer, say — what could be more admirable? — but then I’m attached to the place where I pray. And to having the leisure to pray. And to the income that guarantees both. And to my reputation at work that guarantees the income, and to the SUV that guarantees the reputation, and to the oil economy that guarantees the SUV, and so on and so forth, all the way to perdition.

  9. Natalie – Hey, glad you found this stimulating. Are you saying there might be more epidsodes in the G-d interviews? That would be swell! But does one really reconnect to a wavelength? I’m trying to picture that and failing. Maybe if I were a graphic artist…

    Dale – all the way to perdition
    Where else would you want to be, though? As long as anyone else is still there, shouldn’t you be there, too?

  10. Yes, thank you! She’s not only very bright and curious, but remarkably even-tempered. And her special fondness for her grandpa is a pleasure to observe.

  11. We’re born idol worshippers, I think. The easy way out is to get in a group that defines “idol” narrowly, as the fundamentalists you mention may do.

    I think you’re right about monotheism’s two minds about attachment.

    On the one hand, I’m an orthodox Buddhist with Dale. My attachment to prayer is directly related to my attachment to the oil industry.

    But I’m back to my Old Testament when I see God working through my attachments, or at least in spite of my attachments. I need the “sure mercies of David,” whose attachments led him into, inter alia, adultery, murder, and a certain lack of judgment concerning his children.

    To my way of thinking, these two sides of the brain are connected, since my weakness, if fully embraced, will lead to greater detachment. That’s a big “if,” but I’ve seen it happen a little. I have to be secure enough in another’s love, though, to have a chance at this embrace. (You might say I have to be embraced before I can embrace my idolatry. It is a lot easier to define idols exclusively as “things.”)

    (This is a very real choice. In my church work, I’ve seen people get close to addressing a powerful attachment. Sometimes — sometimes — they break down and receive love in a place where they’ve never experienced it before. The attachment loosens. More often, they get more religious and seek out a group of Christians who are selective in what they label attachments. When God is getting close to the tried-and-true passive aggression I use against my wife, it’s easier for me to join a group that condemns others for adultery, smoking, etc.)

  12. It occurs to me that I probably unfairly characterized Buddhism in the comment I just submitted. Although I didn’t intend it, my comment implies a comparison between our religions, and I am in no position to make that. I am more ignorant about Buddhism than you (Dave) claim to be about the Epistles. Please forgive me, Dale and everyone else!

  13. On attachment. Maybe attachment and liberation from attachment are the same thing?

    I think unhealthy attachment is when we get stuck in some kind of pattern which prevents us from truly seeing ourselves and others with any perspective. People in this rut don’t see the world or live in the world but rather project onto the world from the unchanging movie that is running in their head. They are cut off from the renewing life forces in the world.

    I don’t think that is the same “attachment” referred to positively in some Jewish or Christian texts. There attachment can be about a whole-hearted connection to the divine. I think the consequences of having a whole-hearted attachment to what western religions call the divine would have life consequences very similar to those Buddhists that have some modicum of success in giving up attachments.

    I don’t believe that all religions are the same, but I think these differing approaches to attachment between east and west may not reflect such a large difference in world-views.

  14. On idolotry. Here is a short definition of idolotry I once heard from Rabbi Harold Schulweis: “Idolotry is understanding a part as if it were the whole.” Or something like that.

    Which reminds me of a line I find very troubling in the New Testament in John, something like, “Only but through Me (Jesus) can you come to the Father (God).” It is the “only ” part that I have such a hard time with. I think it is wonderful that people can find God with the help of Jesus. But why the exclusive access? I presume that liberal Christians have found an acceptable interpretation of that or simply, “Some scripture is truer than others.”

  15. I love Rabbi Schulweis’s definition of idolatry. That’s broad enough to give the charge some teeth.

    Jesus, of course, claims to be the whole. I think you’ve well summarized the conflict that drives John’s gospel.

    Too much of the New Testament is built on the idea behind the quote you mention to bother explaining away the quote. It’s difficult to see what I call the Spirit of God work through many faiths (and non-faiths) and, at the same time, to accept Jesus’ words about himself. It may drive a professing Christian to declare a mystery, and a lot of mysteries are cop-outs.

    I’m not sure what a liberal Christian would say, or even a Christian. This kind of question strips everything off of me. Jesus offends me. Looking back on it, it may be the most important thing about him for me.

  16. Was thinking, “Great midrash!” as I read through this post.

    Shai Gluskin’s quote from Rabbi Schulweis — “Idolotry is understanding a part as if it were the whole.â€? — immediately made me think of the oft-misunderstood definition in Hinduism of “maya”, which is often simplified to mean “illusion.” The definition in the University of Wyoming’s ReligioNet Hindu glossary is, “The true nature of the cosmos we can see. In Sanskrit, the word means ‘illusion,’ but that does not just mean that it is imaginary. Instead, since it is what we can see, we must deal with it and live within it.” Our perception by nature is limited.

    When I read here of the significance of trees as the focus of idolatry, I first thought of the “world tree” so prevalent in belief systems. But then I remembered the importance of trees — especially olive trees — to Middle East economy, as much now as in ancient times. And then about Hadassah trees, and holidays like Tu B’Shevat. Control of a region’s trees is a way to wield power — and focusing on wielding power can itself be a form of idolatry.

    I prefer to think of “lust” in Mary Daly’s terms, those of unmitigated passion, a freedom from bondage. That is also a double-edged sword, when passion transmutes into obsession no matter what the object (and thereby cycles back to bondage, i.e., idolatry of the object in question). As for serpents, they embodied the mystery of natural cycles, fertility/death/regeneration, in figures such as the Snake Goddess of Crete and Ouroboros. Wise beings in that context.

    Perhaps the knowledge we seek to regain is how much we are and have always been animal — not so much “becoming” as “remembering”….

  17. Dave, of course there will be more episodes in the God interviews – it’s an ongoing undertaking. But yes, it definitely requires connection to a particular…whatever it is….wavelength is as good a definition as any.

    About attachment: I’m not so keen on eliminating it. The ultimate attachment is love, even in its most “detached” form as agape, which (despite a lot of contradictory evidence) is the stuff I imagine God being made of. In my imagined version of Divinity, it would be impossible for the Creator to be unattached to creation. If God exists ( the question and the answer are meaningless if one does not accept that possibility) and if love is essential to that existence, then God is “attached” to us and we to God in endless combinations. Maybe the effort required to free one’s self of certain attachments, those that are chains, is just so that one can focus all one’s energy on the main attachment.

  18. Wow, these are some challenging comments! To say that I am honored would be an understatement. Actually, I’m feeling a little out of my depth.

    (I read something last week, can’t remember where – some metablog for a structured blog community, I think. Anyway, there was a post advising bloggers on how to answer comments in order to keep message strings alive: stay active in the thread, respond to each point made by a commenter. etc. All good advice, as far as it goes. But sometimes my own responses seem so beside the point as to risk trivializing the other’s comment. A good host must also know when to stand aside, I think.)

    Peter, your thoughts on idolatry and Christian fundamentalism are very interesting. I think your follow-up comment about Buddhism was unnecessarily apologetic, though. Of course any such comparison is going to be risky – few people have sufficient depth of experience in two traditions to represent both perhaps as well as they need – but for the purposes of informal, ecumenical dialogues like this one, such comparisons are necessary, inevitable. I don’t think anyone can accuse you of disrespect.

    I share Rabbi Gluskin’s discomfort with that line from John. In fact, the lack of such a sentiment within Judaism – even with the whole “chosen people” mythos – probably goes a good way to account for my stronger inclination toward/affection for that tradition, despite my solidly Protestant heritage. But intellectually, at least, certain things about Christianity do continue to appeal to me: the focus on incarnational divinity and blood sacrifice, and this theology of scandal that you allude to.

    Rabbi Gluskin – Thanks for continuing to engage in what is turning out to be a really fruitful discussion! Dale could say better than I , but your paragraph about unhealthy attachment is strongly reminiscent of some of Dale’s own writings about the perils of habitual thinking from a Vajrayana Buddhist POV.

    Let’s not overlook the single, biggest difference between Buddhism and theism, though: the doctrine of anatman. Though even here, I suppose that language of Western mysticism (Ayn Sof, e.g.) almost bridges the gap between essentialist thinking and shunyata. That’s not for me to parse, though. Glibness in this area is offensive. and as for silence, my mouth is too small to accomodate the appropriately sized stone.

    I too like this quote from Rabbi Schulweis. (Come back in a year and you’ll probably see me echoing it as if it were my own insight!)

    Elissa – Hi! Thanks for joining the discussion. I don’t have much to add to your comments except to agree whole-heartedly. Thanks for elaborating about trees. It’s funny, Deuteronomy inveighs against sacred groves, and now there’s Tu B’Shevot. It inveighs against observing the phases of the moon, yet look at the importance of the new moon in Rabbinal Judaism. And you’re right – whenever I read about thousand-year-old olive groves being bulldozed under, I feel sick in the stomach. Controlling trees, controlling water – the second in particular so often cited as a divine attribute in the Tanakh.

    From the standpoint of ordinary (as opposed to religious) human experience, lust is the ultimate double-edged sword, isn’t it?

    “Remembering” is a much better, more resonant word here than “becoming” – you’re right. Thanks.

  19. Hi again, Natalie! I guess you slipped that one in while I was busy typing my own comment. I’m glad to hear you’re continuing with the Interviews series, although I like the Mickey Mouse memoir just as much and am glad you’re devoting the time to write it down. (The latest story, about smuggling yourselves aboard a slow boat to Europe in the dark, made great bedtime reading last night!)

    I don’t exactly disagree with what you say here, but I don’t think it goes quite far enough. I think there’s an inescapable paradox at work, in that the Creator does/did have to withdraw at some point, simply in order for other beings to retain their otherness. Thus free will, “evil” and all that. So while it may be impossible for the Creator to be unattached to creation, it is also essential – just as you give up most claims on a piece of artwork after someone buys it. It becomes theirs to mutilate or destroy if they so desire.
    O.K., now I have to go enjoy this beautiful day…

  20. Your comment wasn’t there, Dave, when I was applauding Natalie’s, so my unqualified praise is no reflection on it.

    (Whew! Maybe I’m not so attracted to offensiveness…)

  21. Peter, I think you “get” Buddhist practice better than most of the Buddhists I know. Apology appreciated, but not accepted :-)

    Elissa, Natalie, “attachment” is a technical term here. It means, roughly, “feeling I *must* have something, do something, or keep something, because I’ve invested my identity in it.” Love of God, nieces, tentworms, etc., might or might not be attachments. No one can really know but the lover.

    Dave, to put it in a ludicrous nutshell, the “three turnings” of Buddhism are a sort of progression away from rejecting attachments absolutely all the time, to using them to subvert themselves.

  22. Sorry, but this is a conversation I can’t seem to get away from.

    “..Love of God, nieces, tentworms, etc., might or might not be attachments. No one can really know but the lover…”
    Beautifully put, Dale.
    What if “becoming attached” were really the goal? So deeply attached that one’s identity is only revealed when it can find that to which it can become wholly attached? As my friend the artist Michel Seuphor once wrote:
    “When you find what you love best, you must immediately subordinate to it all the rest”.
    In art that is certainly true. Why not in life?

  23. Natalie, please don’t apologize! I love long, rambling conversations verging on B.S. sessions.

    I think you and Dale are really on to something. But to get beyond this point we’d probably need more stories and concrete examples, because otherwise we just end of talking/arguing about abstract terms that could mean almost anything.

  24. Everybody here must have stories around this subject, it would be great to hear more of them. I love the midrash about the angel leaving its mark on our upper lip.
    You’re right about the tendency to veer off into abstractions whenever the Unspeakable/Unsayable is spoken of – that’s what often irks me about theological discourse.
    Here’s an example from my own experience:
    The times when I feel the actual presence of what I conceive to be God (the “Thou” ) are always moments in which there is a *going towards” an other, or perhaps an opening of the self to another. Much more than empathy or compassion. and completely different from my experience of freedom from attachment (a floating, vibrant serenity when it happens, but not necessarily a meeting with God). But these are such subjective experiences, I can’t possibly declare them to be definitions of “attachmentt” or “detachment”.

  25. That sounds similar to what I think of as “active empathy.” A going-towards – exactly! But I must be more of an animist than you, because I am almost invariably focused on the particularity of the other, and don’t intimate much about Otherness. Many of my best poems have come out of these sorts of experiences – for example, In the Ice Forest, or the one I mentioned in the ampersand post, Grace.

    The way I would describe my mental state at such times: integrated into the flow. Detached, yet thoroughly involved. Probably very similar to the place where a martial artist wants to be.

  26. By the way, here is the sermon where the Harold Schulweis quote about idolatry originated: Adonai-Elohim: The Two Faces of God. A theodicy that leaves plenty of room for nature and accident.

  27. I’m glad you mentioned “In the Ice Forest.” I read it as the epigraph of your mother’s Appalachian Spring. I thought it was one of your best short poems. A beautiful balance of imagery and poetic observation! The mental state you describe comes across very well in it, I think.

  28. Thanks, Peter! She surprised me with that when the page proofs arrived. (Of course, using epigraphs from poets one isn’t related to can sometimes be a very expensive proposition! I didn’t charge her anything.)

  29. Natalie wrote: What if “becoming attachedâ€? were really the goal? So deeply attached that one’s identity is only revealed when it can find that to which it can become wholly attached?

    I think what you mean by “wholly attached” is precisely the same thing I would mean by “free of attachment” :-) It’s the delusion of self that isolates us from what we love.

    The depictions of enlightenment in Tibetan sacred art as sexual union & ecstasy are not just sexy advertising. It’s the best analogy we know.

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