Being humus

Every atom in this body existed before organic life emerged 4000 million years ago.

— John Seed (1988, 36)

Everything is actually everything else, recycled.

— anon

Body structure is always involved in some processes, else it disintegrates. It is a structure from process, for further process, and only so.

Gendlin (1998, I)

Ye are all created out of water, and unto dust shall ye return.

Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas ¶148

This ourth of years is not save brickdust and being humus the same roturns.

Turning Life

mined leaf

Life as God and music and carbon and energy is a whirling nexus of growing, fusing, and dying beings. It is matter gone wild, capable of choosing its own direction in order to indefinitely forestall the inevitable moment of thermodynamic equilibrium— death. Life is also a question the universe poses to itself in the form of a human being.

Margulis and Sagan (1995, 55)

Where there are humans, you’ll find flies and Buddhas.

— Kobayashi Issa

Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf.

— Annie Dillard (1974, 16)

The birth and death of the leaves are the rapid whirls of the eddy whose wider circles move slowly among the stars.

Tagore, Stray Birds 92

Life is like an analogy.


It takes a long time to learn that life is short.

— gnox

Passing by

Turning to page 41 of The Restored Finnegans Wake, where

one is continually firstmeeting with odd sorts of others at all sorts of ages

, we find somebody being asked to tell once again

that fishabed ghoatstory of the haardly creditable edventyres

which form the matter

of the most commonfaced experience

. But who is this somebody now?

it is a slipperish matter, given the wet and low visibility (since in this scherzarade of one’s thousand one nightinesses that sword of certainty which would indentifide the body never falls) to idendifine the individuone

whose turn it is to tell the old ghoatstory.

Packed into those words indentifide and idendifine are intimations of dendritic branching, dividing, defining, ending, teeth, finish and faith, as well as identity. The body it seems is itself a ghost of an old goat who will ever scape the sword of would-be certainty: it would pass right through, as the body passes through time without making a mark on it.

Another Irishman, W. B. Yeats, composed for his own tombstone a remarkable epitaph:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

Since he died in 1938, Yeats could not have known that his epitaph bears a striking resemblance to the shortest saying in the Gospel of Thomas, 42:

Jesus says: ‘Become passers-by.’


There is much that can be (and has been) said about this saying and its various translations (see Meyer 2003, 59-75); but let us add a few suggestions. First, the two words of this saying link identity (‘become’) with dynamic itinerancy (‘passers-by’), and thus compress the concept of semiotic closure into an expression the size of a mustard seed. In another context, this same seed could sprout an expression like that of Dogen: ‘Impermanence is the buddha-nature.’ Moreover, the Coptic root of the word translated ‘passersby’ is derived from the Greek parago, which is remarkably similar to the Sanskrit word paragate, which appears in the mantra at the climax of the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, a very brief and essential Buddhist scripture. According to Thich Nhat Hanh (1988, 50), paragate ‘means gone all the way to the other shore.’

The whole mantra is Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha. Nhat Hanh translates ‘Gone, gone, gone all the way over, everyone gone to the other shore, enlightenment, svaha!’ (the last word being a ‘cry of joy or excitement’). This is also related to Tathagata (‘thus-gone’) as a title of the Buddha. (Leighton and Okumura (2004, 103) render it as ‘the one who comes and goes in thusness.’) Thomas 42 could then be read as an exhortation to seek enlightenment – especially in the Zen context where practice is enlightenment and enlightenment is practice (rather than a “state” that you aim to arrive at and dwell in eternally). There is also a parallel Islamic saying – ‘This world is a bridge. Pass over it, but do not build your dwelling there’ (Meyer 2003, 70) – which may spring from the same source as Thomas 42.

Life depends eternally on chaotic itinerancy: try to fix it and it founders. The point is not to stand on the other shore, or to be Somebody, but to be thus gone.

The nerve bible

Laurie Anderson (1995) calls the body the Nerve Bible – the most intimate of scriptures.

Elaine Pagels (1979, 62-3) cites gnostic sources for several ‘mystical meanings’ of Biblical images, which interpret them as references to the human body:

  • Paradise = womb
  • Eden = placenta
  • river flowing forth from Eden = navelcord
  • Exodus = passage out of the womb (Red Sea = blood; and what was Paradise has now become the land of bondage!)

She also cites examples of interpretations running in the other direction:

  • ‘pregnant womb of any living creature’ = ‘image of the heavens and the earth’
  • cry of the newborn = ‘spontaneous cry of praise for the glory of the primal being’

Gershom Scholem likewise notes the organic nature of Kabbalistic imagery:

… to the Kabbalist the unity of God is manifested from the first as a living, dynamic unity, rich in content. What to the Jewish theologians were mere attributes of God, are to the Kabbalist potencies, hypostases, stages in an intradivine life-process, and it is not for nothing that the images with which he describes God are first and foremost images pertaining to the organism.

— Scholem (1960, 94)

What the Kabbalist calls ‘the not yet unfolded Torah’ (Scholem 1960,
49) is what Gendlin calls the implicit intricacy. In Kabbalah the sefiroth which constitute the divine life itself and its creative power are symbolized as a language of revelation hidden behind the explicit language of the Torah, yet so precisely implicated with it that ‘if you omit a single letter, or write a letter too many, you will destroy the whole world’ (Scholem 1960, 39).

Arthur Green (2004, 38) says of the first sefirah, Keter:

There is no specific ‘content’ to this sefirah; it is desire or intentionality, an inner movement of the spirit that potentially bears all content but actually bears none.

The sefirot are implicit all the way down to the Shekhinah – which is still haunted by Plato’s ghost:

While the inner logic of the Kabbalists’ emanational thinking would seem to indicate that all beings, including the physical universe, flow forth from Shekhinah, the medieval abhorrence of associating God with corporeality complicates the picture, leaving Kabbalah with a complex and somewhat divided attitude toward the material world.

— Green (2004, 53)

Subconscious observation

Gombrich shows in Art and Illusion that painters achieve the illusion of “realism” (accurate representation of visual experience) by learning techniques that take advantage of the viewer’s visual instincts, especially his need to make some familiar sense of what he sees; they don’t do it by “painting what they see” with an “innocent eye.” For subtlety of seeing, then, we might look more to a tracker (see Rezendes 1999) than to a painter. In a similar vein, Peirce remarked that the “character sketches” usually found in successful novels are not particularly subtle compared to the observations of a truly skilled reader of people.

But then it is to be remembered that the first and most genuine element of observation,—the subconscious observation,—was not the principal task of those literary artists. What they mainly had to do was to translate observations into words,—and to draw character sketches which the not too fine reader would recognize as agreeing with his own subconscious impressions.

— Peirce (RLT, 184)

The role of the reader, then, is to play along, which she can’t really do if she takes ‘too fine’ an interest in the details of the artist’s work. That would be a reader’s error comparable to the error of premature precision in dialogic. In both cases, these are errors because the ‘subconscious element of observation,’ as Peirce called it, is far ‘finer’ than the crude models consciously made.

That subconscious element of observation is, I am strongly inclined to think, the very most important of all the constituents of practical reasoning. The other part of observation consists in moulding in the upper consciousness a more or less skeletonized idea until it is felt to respond to [the] object of observation. This last element is quite indispensable if one is trying to form a theory of the object in hand, or even to describe it in words; but it goes a long way toward breaking down, denying, and pooh-poohing away, all the fineness of the subconscious observation. It is, therefore, a great art to be able to suppress it and put it into its proper place in cases where it attempts impertinent intermeddling. Do not allow yourself to be imposed upon by the egotism and conceit of the upper consciousness.

— Peirce (RLT, 182-3)

Perhaps ‘the fineness of the subconscious observation’ is the ‘implicit intricacy’ of which Gendlin speaks. This may not be a way out of the ego tunnel, but it can bring some light into it.

Ego Tunnel

The ‘view from within’ is from inside the process of embodiment, not from inside the skull or the skin. There is nobody inside the body reading the information coming in through the sense channels or any other channels. It is the bodymind itself, acting out its own integrity, which does the reading and meaning. To do this consciously, the brain conjures up a phantom for you to think of as your self. Thomas Metzinger calls this the phenomenal Ego, and calls its world the Ego Tunnel:

Whenever our brains successfully pursue the ingenious strategy of creating a unified and dynamic inner portrait of reality, we become conscious. First, our brains generate a world-simulation, so perfect that we do not recognize it as an image in our minds. Then, they generate an inner image of ourselves as a whole. This image includes not only our body and our psychological states but also our relationship to the past and the future, as well as to other conscious beings. The internal image of the person-as-a-whole is the phenomenal Ego, the “I” or “self ” as it appears in conscious experience; therefore, I use the terms “phenomenal Ego” and “phenomenal self ” interchangeably. The phenomenal Ego is not some mysterious thing or little man inside the head but the content of an inner image— namely, the conscious self-model, or PSM. By placing the self-model within the world-model, a center is created. That center is what we experience as ourselves, the Ego. It is the origin of what philosophers often call the first-person perspective. We are not in direct contact with outside reality or with ourselves, but we do have an inner perspective. We can use the word “I.” We live our conscious lives in the Ego Tunnel.

— Metzinger (2009, 6-7)

Metzinger’s ‘Ego Tunnel’ is roughly equivalent to the cognitive bubble in Turning Signs; his proposition that ‘We are not in direct contact with outside reality or with ourselves’ is equivalent to the Peircean proposition that all cognition is mediated, i.e. ‘all thought is in signs.’

Spiritual body

In 1 Corinthians 2 and elsewhere, St. Paul distinguishes between two kinds of people, the psychic (ψυχικός) and pneumatic (πνευματικός) – translated in the King James Bible as the ‘natural man’ and the ‘spiritual man’ respectively (see Chapter 4). At that time ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual’ were felt to be opposites, as ‘natural’ was synonymous with ‘worldly.’

Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect [teleiois]: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory:

1 Corinthians 2:6-7 (KJV)

Since it is not ‘temporal’ but mythic wisdom, ‘hidden’ from secondhand (public) sight, we can say it is ‘ordained before the world,’ just as Buddhists say that the Buddha-nature is beginningless, unborn and undying. But Peirce says the same about the continuity of time itself …

Now we have received, not the spirit of the world (to pneuma tou cosmou), but the spirit which is of God (to pneuma to ek tou theou); that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.…

For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.

1 Corinthians 2:12, 16 (KJV)

The ‘we’ here is ambiguous; gnostics could read this chapter as an indication that Paul taught a ‘secret wisdom … not to everyone, and not publicly, but only to a select few whom he considered to be spiritually mature’ (Pagels 1979, 43; see 2:6 above, and the Gospel of Truth in NHS). Indeed Paul goes on in the next chapter to say that the Corinthians did not qualify as ‘mature,’ and still don’t, ‘For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving like ordinary men?’

Then in 1 Corinthians 15, we come to ‘the end, when he [Christ] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power’ (15:24, RSV). At this point comes the resurrection of the dead: ‘It is sown a physical body [σῶμα ψυχικόν], it is raised a spiritual body [σῶμα πνευματικόν]’ (15:44). The end of social hierarchy seems to be the beginning of spiritual life: ‘we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye’ (52), and ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ (54). The law, as embodiment of social convention, authority and power, seems to be swallowed up along with death, for ‘The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law’ (56).

Jesus said, ‘I shall give you what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard and what no hand has touched and what has never occurred to the human mind.’

Thomas 17 (Lambdin); cf. 1 Corinthians 2:9

Valantasis comments on this that ‘Jesus offers the hearer something that transcends human capacity’ (Valantasis 1997, 84). But if you are human, then nothing beyond human capacity can be given to you, since you will not be able to receive it. What is offered here is new experience, unfiltered through old categories and habits, or rather taking them as a point of departure. (It’s not take it or leave it but take it and leave it.) This is not beyond human capacity; in fact it happens all the time, but being alive to it takes some unlearning, takes what John Dewey (1934) called perception as opposed to recognition. The veil of habit hides the Firstness of the phaneron, and generality dissipates the force of discovery. So maybe that’s what Jesus is offering here. Dogen in his essays and talks makes a similar offer, but since he urges you to realize it rather than saying that he will ‘give’ it to you, it sounds more like a challenge than an offer – a challenge to awaken.

To carry the self forward and illuminate myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening.

— Dogen, ‘Genjokoan’ (Tanahashi 2010, 29)

The Eternal Body

Man has no Body distinct from his Soul, says Blake (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 4); or as Gendlin puts it, ‘There is no body separate from process’ (1998, IV-A.c).

Blake’s Body is Eternal, as everything ‘exists’ in this Body where ‘not one sigh nor smile nor tear, one hair nor particle of dust, not one can pass away’ (Jerusalem 13:66-14:1). In this respect they are like qualities (Firsts) in Peirce: ‘a quality is eternal, independent of time and of any realization’ (CP 1.420, c.1896). A process, on the other hand, must involve time and thus Peirce’s Thirdness.

In Blake’s Jerusalem (5:19), he takes it as the ‘great task’ of the artist

To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination.

‘Expanding’ would have to be a process, which takes time, just as meaning does. Imagination is meaning spacetime, and must be ‘ever expanding’ because it contains everything that exists or has existed: it is the Eternal Now. But as the ‘Eternal Body of Man’, of which we are all Members, it must also be a process, a living process (though Blake would not use that term). This recalls the metaphor of the human community as members of the body of Christ, developed at length by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. Of course, to Paul, this was not ‘merely’ a metaphor: to be a Christian was to live in Christ. To Blake, this meant to live ‘in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination,’ the Eternal Body.