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Hunter-Gatherer Consciousness: Paradox





Along the lines of Morris Berman in Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality, I am going to argue in this chapter that hunter-gatherers exhibit a form of awareness that would seem quite counterintuitive to a modern, civilized individual. They do not experience the sacred (if they can be said to do so at all) in the same way that we do; indeed, awareness for them is what I am going to call "horizontal" as opposed to "vertical" (which would describe hierarchical civilized beliefs), the meanings of which words are subtle and should become clearer in time. This horizontal spirituality is, surprisingly to some, actually a secular perspective; it does not involve deities or any kind of formal religion. Berman has called this particular type of awareness paradox, and I shall do the same.

          Paradox is a diffuse type of primordial awareness that includes being able to hold in one's mind a pair of opposites simultaneously, as well as the ability to see a discrete point and the surrounding field in the same act of perception. It is difficult to define, because it is a fundamental awareness, but hgs seem to exhibit it, and in the past probably did all the more so -- it could be likened to a kind of animism, an awareness of the immanence in the here and now, an affirmation of the sacredness of what to us is ordinary, day-to-day life. I would add that this awareness appears to be a relatively heightened one, as well. David Peat writes, "The indigenous mind may well be able to tolerate paradox and ambiguity because this order is closer to the inner structure of reality than a more mathematical form of logic (Peat 2007)." This dominant mode of consciousness does not involve unitive trance, but a peripheral, diffuse sort of awareness, and is probably a very old genetic memory, in that it seems to be continuous with the kind of alertness animals often display. Berman writes, "In humans, as the word 'paradox' suggests, it includes holding contradictory propositions, or emotions, simultaneously; sustaining the tension of this conflict so that a deeper reality can emerge than one would have if one simply opted, for example, for Self or Other." In vertical (civilized, hierarchical) complexes, no paradox is present; instead, what is often appealed to is "certainty."

          There is a quality here of the universal in the particular (and vice versa) in which the mind is moved "to unfold itself in the space between contradictions (Berman 2000)." Paradox involves a moment of suspended animation, a moment of pure "Is-ness" that cannot be circumscribed by any formula or ideology. It is a very different mode of consciousness than the one we are used to. It is not precisely a non-egoic state, although that may approach it, but rather one of, as I mentioned, heightened awareness -- there is no boundary loss, bliss or sacred authority of any kind.

          I will say that it is no coincidence that Zen Buddhism has certain definite affinities with the hunter-gatherer psychology. Zen is the practice of discovering one's true self; before we were tied down by sedentary civilization and its attendant vertically-oriented psychology, every human experienced the true self of homo sapiens all the time. There are enough vestiges of the hunter-gatherer past to enable us to recognize a coherent psychology, rooted in horizontality, immanence, even animism -- and they all directly correspond with what is known of the Zen experience. I would also say, however, that we cannot forget that Zen was a product of vertical civilization, so the correspondences and certainly the context have to be seen as inexact by comparison.

          Hugh Brody, who spent time with native groups in British Columbia, says of them, "Above all they are still and receptive, prepared for whatever insight or realization might come to them, and ready for whatever stimulus to action might arise. This state of attentive waiting is perhaps as close as people can come to the falcon's suspended flight, when the bird, seemingly motionless, is ready to plummet in decisive action (1981)." Ortega y Gasset (1986) also describes the experience: "It is a 'universal' attention, which does not inscribe itself on any point and tries to be on all points. There is a magnificent term for this, [namely]...alertness...Only the hunter, imitating the perpetual alertness of the wild animal...sees everything." Walter Ong describes it as a "world presence" rather than a worldview (1969).

          In the paradoxical mindset, one is simultaneously focused and nonfocused. It is hovering, or peripheral, rather than intense or ecstatic. In such a moment, one feels individual and unique and universal, at the same time. Deep connections with other human beings are forged because that which is most personal is also felt to be the most general; and that which is fleeting is seen as that which is most enduring. Tony Hiss (1991) states that in this form of perception we are "putting at our disposal an evenhanded, instantaneous, and outward-looking flow of attention, [which] acts like a sixth sense." When we diffuse our attention and relax its intensity, Hiss says we initiate a change " that lets us start to see all the things around us at once and yet also look calmly and steadily at each one of them."

          So, is this experience one of the "sacred"? The major problem with describing it that way would be that it is largely a product of modern bias. For hg societies there was no separate category of existence for "the sacred." Spirit, in their eyes, was no more complicated than "water coming off of a leaf, the smell of the forest after rain, the warm blood of a deer (Berman 2000)." Anthropologist Paul Radin said of the Winnebago Indians that reality for them was heightened to such a degree that the details of the environment seemed to "blaze" (Diamond 1974). And this is not a trance experience; there is no loss of consciousness or "fusion with the Absolute" here. It is immanence, not transcendence; it "involves heightened awareness, not 'burning bush' experiences and boundary loss," writes Berman. Indeed, for them, the secular is the sacred, and it is all around us. This is the primary reason for calling it a "horizontal" reality.





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