Sunday, July 21, 2013

Counting things

How to count trees?  What is a tree?  If the definition of tree includes not just what we can see above ground but the soil, roots, relationships both linear and subtle, communication between one tree and another, then when we add another tree, it shares the sun, the water in the soil, the relationships - it does not exist separately.  The trees don’t have an external environment.  Even humans are part of the trees interconnectivity.  

We humans don’t generally feel this.  The source, unity, or heaven we are looking for and have placed in the heavens or somewhere geographically or theoretically away from us is in fact what we refer to as our environment.  However, very literally the earth I walk on is the earth you walk on.  The sun that shines on me shines on you.  Because of our procreative nature we would not exist without each other.  So, referring to what surrounds us as our “environment” says two things.  “My environment”. “My” - that which is not me, that I own or control.  “Environment” - That which surrounds me.  An abstraction.

So when we “count things”, when we quantify, we must first assume the things to be counted are fundamentally separate from one another, or counting would be impossible.    This assumes a separate environment from the counter, as well.  The counter is counting, the counter is not the counted.  In an abstraction like mathematics with clear logical boundaries, 1+1= 2.  In relationships between living beings, as Dr. Douglas Brooks so wonderfully points out, 1+1= 3 - the third element being the relationship between the two things counted. 

If a thing is separate from you, you can choose to relate or not to relate to it.  It is an external.  Relating to it may or may not be in your interest.  Your primary interest, the one that is unspoken and assumed, is in general, you want to continue to live.  So, a sandwich is seen as part of your environment, and so you eat it because it is in your interest.  If you buy the sandwich with money, it is “your” sandwich.  If you make the sandwich from the raw ingredients that surround you - wheat, cheese, tomatoes, possibly a pig -  then it too becomes “your” sandwich.  When you digest the sandwich completely and excrete the “waste” - it is also your waste.  Where is all your poo now?  It is back in "your environment".  It is in the oceans, it is in the soil.  It is becoming a tomato you might again call “yours”.  Is there then an external environment, or just an mental abstraction we agree on?

If a tiger eats you, he must see you as not him.  You also must do this to that which you’d like to eat.  You’d eat a sandwich and even salivate at the thought of eating a BLT, but you could not eat your own living hand, even if you tried to.  Your hand is different than your arm and far from your mouth, but the felt fundamental connection to the rest of you is undeniable.  Your feeling motivates your action, both in the eating of the BLT and in not eating your own hand.  Aron Ralston, the hiker who’s story of being trapped in a canyon, his arm pinned by a boulder, eventually freed himself by breaking off his own hand.  It took him 5 days to realize he could do this.  In his telling of the event, Ralston says that eventually he came to see his trapped hand as an impediment to his survival, something dying and “other” than him.  He was able then to summon the courage to break the radius and ulna bones of his arm and escape.  Ralston saw his trapped hand as separate, and that allowed him to continue to live.

We quantify and separate for good reasons.  This article is not a moral objection to this, simply an illustration of it.  But we often forget that quantification is just an abstraction -  just a tool to allow us to behave in ways that can be beneficial to our interests.  Now that there is almost nothing left of “environment” to make use of, and there are billions and billions of “me”, we may be forced to see the unity underlying the differences.