Imagine someone asks you this question: “What are you?”
We seldom get queried in this way, since the more typical questions are: “Who are you?” or “What do you do?”
So take a moment to answer the question of what you consider yourself to be, first and foremost. Some of us will answer with our careers: “I’m a physician.” or “I’m a writer.” Others will state an important social connection: “I’m a mother.” or “I’m an American.” A few will refer to religion: “I’m a Muslim (or Atheist, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, etc).”
But few of us will reply, without forethought: “I am a warm-blooded animal that walks upright on its hind limbs and possesses an enlarged brain.” And yet, that is probably the most central and accurate description we could provide.
Look back in time some five-thousand generations, or one-hundred-thousand years. Anatomically modern humans walked the earth, but most contemporary roles didn’t exist. Concepts about personality and social function, if articulated at all, must have been of more limited scope. We have no way of determining the language environment of these beings. No doubt people back then related to others as parents, children, and tribal members. Some may have been Shamans; some may have been leaders. So as individuals they may have had feelings about basic categories of identity and perhaps even words for them. But my guess is that they were far more aware than we are of their kinship with other animals and nature at large. The biological urgency of nutritive, protective, and reproductive drives may well have dominated their consciousness in place of the concerns about money, time, and networking that occupy our lives in the information age. They probably understood much more intuitively than we do how similar humans are to bears, monkeys, wolves, and antelope.
Humans were living, breathing, eating, defecating, copulating, and nurturing as animals long before they were writing, analyzing, conceptualizing, and philosophizing as citizens. Despite this, today we give far more attention to our concepts, and our feelings about our concepts, than we do to the basic biology that keeps us in the game. How many of us read a newspaper at breakfast or a magazine while sitting on the toilet? How many of us listen to our iPods while running or watch TV while digesting dinner? All these practices act to divorce us from our bodies. However, unlike unions between lovers, matrimony between mind and body is always “’till death do us part!” There is no chance of divorce, only alienation.
The powers of silence that I touted in a recent post may offer a return to our native state of mind. Before we learned to escape into the constructed realm of symbols and society, we remained grounded in the given world of bodies and biology. Make no mistake, I believe that language can help people heal, as evidenced by my efforts in writing these essays. But even more healing is learning to live beyond words, to dwell as organic beings embedded in the biosphere and related to all other life forms through an elaborate, eternal interchange. The material of our bodies came from the earth and constantly exchanges with it. Every calorie that keeps us alive is owed to some other organism that preceded us. Once death meets us at the end of our days, our physical forms will be released so their elements can again enter the timeless cycles of carbon, calcium, and creation.
In the meantime, we can find simple, lovely contentment by embracing, in silence, our bodies with their constant throbbing, gurgling, aching, hungering, and aging. Rather than feeling beleaguered by our organismic limits and imperatives, we can learn to honor them. Rather than hating how time drains the bloom from our faces and erases the potency from our contours, we can honor the natural, inevitable, and majestic seasons of every life.
Whenever the opportunity arises, I like to watch insects and other small creatures. The delicacy of their movements, the purposefulness of their travels, and the incredible intricacy of their bodies all impress me. A warm feeling of affection for these little beings often follows. If even a gnat displays this miracle of life, imagine how impressive you are as an organism. Think of the formidable truth of your brain, with its thousand-trillion synapses mediating a torrential flow of information. Remember the marvelous fact that you grew from a single cell inside the body of another organism much like you in every way.
With the stillness of meditation one begins to feel the ticking of the body, the flow of consciousness in the brain, and the exchange of air in the lungs. These activities are never-ending while we live, and through them our bodies are continually inviting our affection. Our living processes can be seen as somatic seductions that can help us reconnect with our true forms and escape the complicated tangle of words. They reach out to us every moment, beckoning us back into the sublime experience of living as warm-blooded bipeds on this ancient and bounteous earth.