I read a book a few months ago entitled The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. I had never given much thought to octopuses before, but it turns out they are remarkable, completely alien creatures. Here is how the author of the book, Sy Montgomery describes them:
“Here is an animal with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen. It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange. It can change colour and shape. It can taste with its skin. Most fascinating of all, I had read that octopuses are smart. It’s hard to find an animal more unlike a human than an octopus. Their bodies aren’t organized like ours. We go: head, body, limbs. They go: body, head, limbs. Their mouths are in their armpits—or, if you prefer to liken their arms to our lower, instead of upper, extremities, between their legs. They breathe water. Their appendages are covered with dexterous, grasping suckers, a structure for which no mammal has an equivalent. And not only are octopuses on the opposite side of the great vertebral divide that separates the backboned creatures such as mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish from everything else; they are classed within the invertebrates as mollusks, as are slugs and snails and clams, animals that are not particularly renowned for their intellect. Clams don’t even have brains.”
Not to mention that two thirds of their neurons are in their arms. If one gets severed, it can still function for a long time on its own. When I think of this amazing fact, I imagine a sentient arm, floating peacefully through the water, the epitome of alone-ness. For isn’t that the greatest solitude, being severed from yourself?
Oh, and it has 3 hearts.
How does a land-loving bipedal, one-hearted, creature with a centrally-located brain even begin to understand how it is to move around the world like an octopus? How do we even begin to understand what might go on in the brain of a creature whose very way of being, of experiencing the world is so different than ours?
We can’t. But then again, how do we know what anybody is thinking or feeling given the vast amounts of variables that go into shaping the thoughts and emotions of every individual? This has overwhelmed me for some time. How do we even begin to understand each other when our experiences – even when they are experiences of the same events—are so different?
Bernard Shaw once said that “the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Nowhere is this most true in the ways that we love each other or want to be loved.
Certainty is an illusion
I think that one of the biggest fallacies of younger humans is this notion of certainty. We think we have figured out the world, we have taken its measure and for the most part found it wanting. Hence youthful militantism, the need for change. Why students and the young are usually the driving forces behind revolutions. They enjoy the unique privilege of seeing the world as black and white, as right or wrong. The world just needs some fixing, some putting to rights. It is so simple and clear! Why don’t the older generations see it?
Youth overlay the world and all its unknowns with a veneer of certainty. Perhaps we need to do this to try and figure out how to live in it. Perhaps the concretization of our identities, of our world, is the ladder we need to climb before we can kick it out from under us and glimpse the reality of our situation, which is that we are living in a sea of chaos with very little known to us and very little under our control. That we ourselves, are chaos, or, as I like to put it, fluid catastrophes.
The problem with concretization is that we tend to cement ourselves in, to narrow our own potential and thus that of the world. The statement “I don’t like spiders” becomes a part of who we are and thus we need to react in fear whenever one is near or in the extreme, not travel to a place that might have big spiders. I am not artistic. I am not a good caregiver. I am not lovable.
We concretize these stories about ourselves and thus we set our limits in this world. Or in octopus parlance, we amputate parts of ourselves as necessary sacrifices to our certainty.
What we do to ourselves, we do unto others as well. What is the time it takes for someone to form a first impression of someone else? Seven seconds. Most of us meet someone, take their measure, and classify others in that small space of time. Friendly or unfriendly, interesting or not interesting, we have already set some pretty tight constraints on our perception of that person.
We also tend to think we have the measure of others. That we understand them and are effectively communicating with them. However, all we are doing is overlaying their uniqueness with our own, understanding them as a slightly distorted reflection of ourselves. Until the veneer wears off and we are faced with the terrible knowledge that what we thought of as certain was only an illusion, a trick we played on ourselves to make ourselves feel safe.
It is truly one of the most disorienting things to find out that your certainty does not jive with someone else’s. Two people can live through the same event and have a totally different experience of it. I have been struck by the many times my sisters and I are reminiscing only to discover that we have totally different memories of the same exact thing. One of us will remember it fondly as a happy time, the other will remember it negatively because someone said something or did something that rubbed them the wrong way and the other will not have any memory of it at all because it wasn’t noteworthy to them.
In the clinical sense, projection is “a theory in psychology in which the human ego defends itself against unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. For example, a person who is habitually intolerant may constantly accuse other people of being intolerant.” Wikipedia
Projection as a defense mechanism is not very effective. It is not only an offense to the poor projectee who we are treating as an emotional landfill and dumping all the crap about ourselves we are uncomfortable with onto them, but it is also an offense to ourselves. If we are projecting it is because there is some part of us that is ashamed. And as I have said before and will probably say again, shame makes monsters of us all.
When we project, we close ourselves to the “other” of that person, their octopus nature. We cease to be genuinely curious about their motivations, their context. In a real sense we stop communicating with them and though it looks like we are having a conversation, we are really engaging in a monologue with an avatar of ourselves.
The worst part is that we close ourselves off to our own octopus selves. It is like being an octopus who has decided they can only be one colour, one texture, one shape, when really there are infinite possibilities for them, just as there are for us.
Honour the octopus in others
This has been my mantra for 2018. I am practising the notion that I actually have no idea what motivates anyone else and why they do what they do. I won’t lie, it is bloody hard. Because it means honouring the mystery of the “other”, in Martin Buber’s beautiful terminology. It means showing up in a spirit of curiosity and not judgement, of not overlaying our own thoughts and feelings onto the graceful, fluid forms of others.
Honour the Octopus in Ourselves
“We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves.”
― Martin Buber
If we are to honour the octopus in others, we first have to honour it in ourselves. That means accepting the not so beautiful parts of ourselves- the hard beak at the center of our bodies, our venomous bite, the tendency to spew ink when in danger. Because the moment we can see these propensities in ourselves, understand, forgive and by observation and compassionate practice begin to change our reactions, we can begin to extend the same courtesy to others.