Thank you, Mike Morreale, for sharing this wonderful article by Robert Nozick __________________________________________________________________________
The Holiness of Everyday Life by Robert Nozick (From The Examined Life)
EACH AND EVERY portion of reality, the Transcendentalists said, when viewed and experienced properly, stands for and contains the whole. Likewise, religious traditions do not always view holiness as removing oneself from everyday life and concerns. In the Jewish tradition, the 613 commandments, or mitzvot, raise and sanctify every portion of life just as the people who follow them view themselves as having been sanctified through being given them. The Buddhist tradition, not only in its Zen aspect, brings the meditative attitude of complete attention and focus to all activities. Holiness need not be a separate sphere. There also is the holiness of everyday life.
How deeply might we respond to the everyday things in our lives, for instance to life’s ordinary necessities? For the most part, we take in food and air, we eat and breathe, without special attention. How do these activities differ when we attend to them? And are these differences desirable?
Eating is an intimate relationship. We place pieces of external reality inside ourselves; we swallow them more deeply inside, where they are incorporated into our own stuff, our own bodily being of flesh and blood. It is a remarkable fact that we turn parts of external reality into our own substance. We are least separate from the world in eating. The world enters into us; it becomes us. We are constituted by portions of the world.
This raises primal issues. Is the world safe to take in? How do we come to trust it or find this out? Does the world care enough about us to nourish us? The example David Hume used in formulating the problem of induction was whether we can know that bread, nourishing in the past, will continue to nourish us. Bertrand Russell’s favored induction example was whether we can know that the sun will rise tomorrow. (He also told of a chicken: the person who each previous morning has fed it this morning has come to kill.) Is it an accident that the problem of induction expresses itself as a worry over loss, of nourishment, of warmth and light, of safety?
Eating food with someone can be a deep mode of sociability — the Romans were offended that the Hebrews would not join them in meals — a way of sharing together nurturance and the incorporation within ourselves of the world, as well as sharing textures, tastes, conversation, and time. Rapport and intimacy thrive when our normal physical boundaries are relaxed to take something in; it is no accident that we often suggest getting together with another over a meal. The loving preparation of food, the visual beauty it presents, sensuousness in eating, the daily sharing of such meals in leisure and loveliness—all these can be a romantic couple’s way of being lovingly together, a way for one or both to create a piece of the world they treasure. (For a large number of people in the world, the basic fact about food is how difficult, sometimes impossible, it is to come by. We should remember the biological and personal havoc this produces, even as we study food’s social and symbolic significance when it is plentiful.)
Eating has an individual side also, a nonsocial one. What is its character when it is attentive, neither oblivious nor aesthetically distant? First, awareness is focused upon the activity of taking in the food, not simply on the food’s qualities. We meet food in the anteroom of the mouth and greet it there. We probe and explore it, surround it, permeate it with juices, press it with our tongues against the roof of the mouth along that hard ridge directly above the teeth, place it under suction and pressure, move it around. We know its texture fully; it holds no secrets or hidden parts. We play with the food, we make friends with it, we welcome it inside.
We open ourselves, also, to the specific character of the food, to the taste and the texture, and so to the inner quality of the substance. I want to speak of the purity and dignity of an apple, the explosive joy and sexuality of a strawberry. (I would have found this ridiculously overblown once.) I have not myself tasted that many foods, but the times I did seemed a mode of knowing them in their inner essence.1 There is a Buddhist story of a man who, fleeing a tiger, swings on a vine over a precipice and sees another tiger waiting below; then two mice start to gnaw away at the vine. He sees a strawberry near him and with one free hand he plucks and eats it. “How sweet it tasted!” We wonder how the man could have responded thus to the strawberry in that situation. He did because he tasted the berry and knew it. What I don’t know—and the story does not go on to tell us—is his knowledge of the tiger. On the basis of only a very small sample, I think that many foods open their essence to us in this way and teach us. I don’t know whether artful concoctions can give us such knowledge, and so I am skeptical about the assumption behind Brillat-Savarin’s asking Adam and Eve, “who ruined yourself for an apple, what might you not have done for a truffled turkey?” A creator of an original dish that did impart new lessons would be a significant creator. While I do not think the world has been stocked with these substances for our benefit and education, how these foods have come to have such amazing essences is a question worth wondering about. It would be nice to think that by so knowing them and incorporating substances within our flesh we raise them to a higher plane of being and so benefit them in turn. (Could animal flesh, though hardly the animal itself, be benefited by being incorporated and transformed into the flesh of a being with greater consciousness?)
Eating with awareness also brings powerful emotions: the world as a nurturative place; oneself as worthy of receiving such nurturance, excitement, primal contact with the nurturative mother; the security of being at home in the world, connection to other life forms, thankfulness too—the religious will add—for the fruits of creation.
The mouth is a versatile arena, the location of eating, speaking, kissing, biting, and (in conjunction with the nasal cavity) breathing. Perhaps the first four can be emotionally laden, but isn’t breathing uncomplicated and automatic? When one attends to breathing, though, it turns out also to be a full and rich process. Eastern techniques of meditation recommend “following the breath,” focusing upon the inhalation, the pause, the exhalation, the pause before the next inhalation, and so on, repeating the cycle. One can also change the rate and tempo of these, prolonging the exhalation in a constant slow process, holding the breath after the inhalation. Remarkably, such simple breathing techniques alter the nature of one’s awareness, in part by becoming the simple focus of awareness, bringing into a nondistracted point and quieting other thoughts. In part, also, the changes in consciousness might be immediate physiological results of alterations in mode of breathing. Yet, there also are the changes wrought by the fact that it is breathing that the attention is focused upon. Breathing, like eating, is a direct connection with the external world, a bringing it inside oneself. It involves immediate changes in the body, including large changes in the size of one’s chest cavity and belly. Perceiving one’s physical being as a bellows, breathing the air in and out, enlarging and contracting in reciprocal relation to the outside space, being a container of space within a larger space, sometimes unable to distinguish between the held-in breath and the held-out breath until you see what happens next—all this makes one feel less enclosed within distinct boundaries as a separate entity. Breathing the world, even sometimes feeling one is being breathed by it, can be a profound experience of nonseparation from the rest of existence. Within meditative breathing, emotions too can be brought more easily under control and evaluation—they do not simply wash over one to produce unmediated effects.
Moreover, a prolonged attention to breathing, as in meditative practice that “follows the breath,” following the rising and falling of the chest and diaphragm, can develop the attention so that it becomes supple and concentrated, not subject to wandering, able to be maintained indefinitely on an object, and this attentiveness to breathing can be interwoven within daily activities too, thereby sharpening the nature of the attention to everything falling within the interstices of the noticed breathing. One can place external things or emotions, if fearful or stressful, within the calm and calming latticework of this attentive breathing, and within this attended-to structure too, subtler bodily rhythms become apparent which in turn can be attended to and followed, forming yet another lattice from which one can be suspended to delve deeper still. T
o carry on our eating and breathing in this intense meditative fashion most of the time would insufficiently recognize the relaxed and easy naturalness these activities can have, but it seems important to do so sometimes at least and to carry with us the lessons we have learned thereby, returning on occasion to reconfirm these lessons or to learn new ones.
Attention also can he focused upon other things, inner or outer. The sun can be experienced as a direct source of light and warmth for oneself, and (aided by one’s other knowledge) as the major energy source for all life processes here on earth. One’s own body and its movement can also be focused upon attentively.
The most ordinary objects yield surprises to attentive awareness. Chairs, tables, cars, houses, torn papers, strewn objects, all stand in their place, waiting, patiently. An object that is displaced or awkwardly placed on purpose is no less a patient waiter. It is as though being an entity, any kind of entity, has its own salient quality, and we can become aware of something’s entityhood, its sheer beingness. Everything is right exactly as it is, vet everything also is poised expectantly. Is some grand event being awaited, is there something we are to do besides simply knowing entities? (Are these dignified objects waiting there to be loved?)
Still, to linger on these matters and describe these details may seem “too precious.” It would be a shame, though, to pass through one’s life oblivious to what life and the world contains and reveals— like someone walking through rooms where wondrous music is playing, deaf to it all. Perhaps, after all, there is a reason why we have bodies.
Holiness is to stand in a special and close relation to the divine. To respond to holy things as holy may place us, too, in a more special relation to them. Seeing everyday life as holy is in part seeing the world and its contents as infinitely receptive to our activities of exploring, responding, relating and creating, as an arena that would richly repay these activities no matter how far they are taken, whether by an individual or by all of humanity together throughout its time.