“But you know, Nalini, that we’ve been genetically manipulated by aliens,” Keegan grins, between mouthfuls of corn and arracacha I’ve just cooked.
I look at him blankly.
“You mean…you’re not too into evolution?” I venture.
Keegan grins. “Well, yeah, we believe that there were monkeys before and so on and these monkeys changed over time.” I resist the urge to correct him and say apes.
“But that at some point a few tens of thousands of years ago, extraterrestrial beings came to Earth and manipulated their genome to give us the DNA we have today. It’s the only explanation for why we are the way we are, the gap in the DNA and our apparently higher complexity.”
I am, suddenly immensely irritated and uncomfortable. Keegan is a new volunteer at the farm, who has just arrived this afternoon without warning, and with a 120L backpack and two smaller bags. He is carting a tent, sleeping bag, yellow flower tea, a jar of coconut oil, blue spirulina, a pyramid-shaped crystal for ‘attracting positive energy’ – apparently by shooting negative ions upwards, solar power chargers, and a glass water bottle in the shape of a giant egg, for keeping water molecules in hexagonal shape.
He’s somewhat typical of the Californian change-the-world types, perhaps except for his enthusiasm for AI and the fact that he bursts into song once every fifteen minutes trailing off from anything and everything I’ve said.
“I was thinking about this just this morning, actually,” I venture, “On my walk to the baños. You know, people tell me a lot of things, like oh, the landing on the moon didn’t happen, oh, the landing on the moon did happen, and I was laughing about the whole ‘conspiracy theory’ around this just this morning.”
“Oh yeah?” Keegan asks, raising an eyebrow.
I stab a carrot into the guacamole. “Yes. Because I realised – it’s just completely irrelevant to me. I don’t give a jot one way or another –”
“Well, I do,” Keegan interrupts. “It matters to me, because people should know the truth.”
I try not to raise my eyebrows, and take a deep breath.
“Fundamentally,” I press on, “I don’t care. It doesn’t affect my relationships with other human beings as human beings. It doesn’t change how I interact with them. It doesn’t change how I relate to their humanity.”
“It does for me.” Keegan stands up and wanders over to the compost bucket. “I care, because it’s the truth and people who don’t know the truth have less possibilities.”
“Yes, but if you change the way you interact with someone and relate to their humanity based on what they know or don’t know a priori, it’s a subtle form of judging them or of discriminating against them – which means you are not looking at them as they are right there right now; you are looking at them through the lens of your ‘truth’. So if you can’t see their humanity, it’s harder to connect on a human level.
“And anyway,” I carry on as he just stares at me in disbelief from across the table, “Love has got nothing to do with whether someone knows if man really did or did not land on the moon. In fact, if I suspend all belief and see and feel them totally with love and acceptance from the beginning, they may even be more open to creativity, imagination and change for whatever I’m thinking the ‘truth’ is later on.”
“That’s got nothing to do with this,” Keegan says. “That’s relationships. We’re talking about truth.”
“That’s got everything to do with this,” I say. “I’m talking about interacting with people, and that the ‘truth’ doesn’t make a difference for me.”
“But – ” he interrupts.
I cut him off gently, before he can try to convince me otherwise about aliens and moons. “Look, I’m not going to argue,” I say, “because arguing would imply I knew – and cared about – what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false. But that’s all in the realm of discriminating knowledge and that doesn’t interest me.”
“But it’s the truth,” Keegan says again, all but shaking his spoon in my face.
I get up from the table, unconvinced and unimpressed. I’m tired, uncomfortable and – despite my last name – a lover not a warrior.
“There is no such thing as truth,” I say, “And so, I’m not interested in truth – I’m interested in stories.”
Keegan, despite having read Fukuoka and being deeply moved by his un-philosophy, and singing on about blessed be this earth and all its beings, has missed the point.
He talks of using AI in food forests, that the ‘planet is changing immensely and becoming more inhabitable for humans’ (as if we have not had a hand in its massive changes) and that the ‘evolution of humankind’ is to get off this planet Earth and travel around the Universe in spaceships to join our extraterrestrial alien buddies in the vacuum of nothingness. I tell him I see this exactly in the same way I see modern living – with all its lights, washing machines, gadgets and portable devices – with Fukuoka’s distinct sense of what for. I’m perfectly happy finding extraordinary in the ordinary, seeing the universe in blades of grass, finding magic and mystery and wonder in sunrises and edible plants growing in unexpected places and the way animals move, and loving the people immediately around me – I don’t need to travel to another planet for this, much less spend the rest of my life pottering about the galaxies. There is enough – there is far more than enough – to explore just on one planet alone in my lifetime. Technology makes your world larger, sure, but I suspect there are diminishing marginal returns to the size of the Universal population or space you have access to anyway, and that ultimately one would find sheer time and head/heart-space a limiting factor. Perhaps, with some kind of integrated telepathic universal consciousness system, maybe not, but then again, I sort of like reducing my world down to just the person in front of my nose and being fully present with them. It’s a lot like falling in love – we consciously reduce our world to the relationship and in doing so often reduce – as Keegan says – our possibilities. But when you’re inside, fully inside, and the microcosm of the relationship is a world in itself, it doesn’t matter what size that world is – compared to all possible other worlds – really.
Moreover, I’m interested in the realm of in-between, of what if and of acting as if. I drew it on the Kadagaya chalkboard as something like this:
0% belief in ‘my’ explanation <—Acting as if——->100% belief in ‘my’ explanation
Somewhere between complete cynicism, suspending all belief, or ‘no-mind,’ and living – perhaps – as very young children do before society indoctrinates them with various ideals and theories, and die-hard fundamentalism on the other hand, which precludes other ways of being and interacting with the world, is a grey zone, a play zone Niki Harré calls acting as if in her book on infinite games. In many childhood games – tag, duck-duck-goose, tug-of-war, hide-and-seek, we don’t actually believe the rules are true or even matter, we just – for the briefest of moments (or hours) – act as if they do, and this is less about playing fully than about playing playfully:
“Play, sometimes when you are playing games, and even more sometimes when no one is being particularly playful, also has its consequences. It focuses you on the game and decreases your awareness and sensitivity to what is happening outside the game. It focuses you on the objectives, the goals of the game and decreases your awareness and sensitivity to anything outside of the game that might be engaging the hearts and minds of your fellow players. It releases you from responsibility for what might be happening outside the game so when the game is over you are like someone who has recently awoken, and in that moment of temporary disorientation more open to the world, to your fellow players.
“Playing playfully redefines the game and the consequences. It is transformational. It changes you. It changes how you relate to your children, your peers, to the people who serve you, the people who love you, the people with whom you work, sing, eat, love, play; the people you sit next to, the people you serve, the people with whom you stand in line, cross the street. You don’t get disturbed as easily. You listen more carefully. You are more interested, more compassionate, more aware. You rediscover the person you love being: alive, energetic, caring, responsive. You laugh more completely, you smile more deeply, you are a better friend, parent, lover. You dance more. You paint more. You are more.”
I am, therefore, interested in the kinds of attitudes and behaviours these stories we tell ourselves result in – not in the validity of the stories themselves, but the effect they have on the way we relate to nature and one another, our openness and vulnerability, the way we play in the world.
The story about aliens having genetically manipulated human beings and our evolution being to join the ETs, for example, irritates me for many reasons – especially when spoken of with a I-know-this-is-the-truth-90%-straight-face and not with lightness, play, as if. I’m happy to play with it, in humbleness that humanity knows nothing, in much the same way I’m happy to visit the burials tombs of Sillusthani over 4000m in altitude near Lake Titicaca, made with giant rocks perfectly inserted into one another and play with the idea that perhaps the ‘ancients’ were more connected to the Universe, had magical powers, could call on spirits or were helped by aliens.
The story Keegan tells irritates me, firstly, because it means a devolution of human responsibility for the planet and borders on escapism – as in, oh, oops, we fucked up the planet, now let’s just jump off it and figure out a way to live in space instead of trying to fix what we messed up. It also annoys me because it implies some kind of inherent discomfort with the idea that maybe, possibly we might have come from apes – and therefore this story entrenches the unexamined assumptions that somehow humans are special, gifted special abilities and powers (and intelligence) and are therefore ‘above’ – and disconnected from – the rest of species in nature, the exact kind of arrogant, dominance-hierarchical, warrior-based thinking that has led to our current economic system and planetary woes in the first instance.
The point isn’t whether or not ‘evolution is true’ or really happened, but if it did – or if we act as if – what the implications of humbly sitting back with all our animal friends in the grand scheme of things is, compared to the alternative, and what psychological barriers we hold to accepting – or at least ‘playing’ – with that explanation. Having studied evolutionary ecology, I don’t really need more scientific proof to convince me otherwise, although I rest fully aware of the gaps in our knowledge, the dangers of scientific fundamentalism and cheerfully take evolution as play.
The story also frustrates me because it entrenches determinism, or that everything somehow has to have a ‘higher’ cause, be explicable somehow, and that randomness, chance, (evolutionary/genetic) accidents, chaos are not sufficient – or sufficiently palatable – for the world around us. I read Fooled by Randomness and the Black Swan over 8 years ago now, and it still surprises me our propensity for hindsight bias and survivorship bias, our incapacity to deal with randomness and our endless urge to fit every observation into an understandable framework of cause and effect, or at least explanation. Taleb isn’t too dissimilar from Fukuoka when he writes:
“My lesson from Soros is to start every meeting at my boutique by convincing everyone that we are a bunch of idiots who know nothing and are mistake-prone, but happen to be endowed with the rare privilege of knowing it.”
“The formation of our beliefs is fraught with superstitions—even today (I might say, especially today). Just as one day some primitive tribesman scratched his nose, saw rain falling, and developed an elaborate method of scratching his nose to bring on the much-needed rain, we link economic prosperity to some rate cut by the Federal Reserve Board, or the success of a company with the appointment of the new president “at the helm.”
“We are not made to view things as independent from each other. When viewing two events A and B, it is hard not to assume that A causes B, B causes A, or both cause each other. Our bias is immediately to establish a causal link.”
“Probability is not a mere computation of odds on the dice or more complicated variants; it is the acceptance of the lack of certainty in our knowledge.”
“If the past, by bringing surprises, did not resemble the past previous to it (what I call the past’s past), then why should our future resemble our current past?”
“There is asymmetry. Those who die do so very early in the game, while those who live go on living very long. Whenever there is asymmetry in outcomes, the average survival has nothing to do with the median survival.”
I am reminded, not for the first time, that all ‘knowledge’ – of the world, from science as from the statistics that underpins it – is based on our assumptions, in other words the ‘story we tell ourselves about the world,’ what we hold as if it’s true and we somehow along the way turn this playful leap of faith into hard fact, forgetting that the world may not be as symmetric as we think, that the distribution may be power laws and not normal, that it may be fat-tailed and not thin-tailed, that we are potentially only looking at the survivors or that the game might be – as is often the case in the natural and social worlds – rigged from the start, or perhaps that we cannot assume independence. It’s not to say that we don’t have techniques for dealing with cases where none of the above apply, only to say that any techniques we do develop will have their inherent assumptions and hence biases, and therefore to take their results lightly and live in the humility that we may, perhaps, never know – know, as in 100% factually objectively know – anything at all:
‘Mr. Fukuoka is a scientist who is suspicious of science – or what too often passes for science. This does not mean that he is impractical or contemptuous of knowledge. His suspicion, indeed, comes from his practicality and from what he knows….Fukuoka condemns the piecemealing of knowledge by specialization. Like Howard, he wishes to pursue his subject in its wholeness and he never forgets that its wholeness includes both what he knows and what he does not know. What he fears in modern applied science is its disdain for mystery, its willingness to reduce life to what is known about it and to act on the assumption that what it does not know can safely be ignored….Mr. Fukuoka’s is a science that begins and ends in reverence – in awareness that the human grasp necessarily diminishes whatever it holds…Humans work best when they work for human good, not for ‘higher production,’ or ‘increased efficiency.’
And anyway. Who am I to question the joy people get from the ‘size’ their known world or world-of-access is currently – who am I to say well, they are not happy enough because they haven’t travelled to another country (/galaxy). If there is wonder, magic, mystery, openness and love in their worlds – however small or large these may be – then nothing more is nor ‘should’ be required to validate or legitimise the experience.
Bernard de Koven writes:
“The entrance to your playful path is wonder. The first step in the rediscovery of your play-fulness is that moment when you allow your self to wonder at something, to wonder at the beauty, the intricacy, the touch, the sense, the workings of the world.”
When I’m thinking about the stories we tell ourselves, how well that story allows or does not allow us to play and live in wonder is important for me. Perhaps the ET stories give the illusion of increasing the size of the playground, and the number and light-year distance of things to marvel and wonder about, but I am also wary of how they distract us from the reality, relationships and things to wonder about right in front of our noses, and, moreover, how the ET stories assert knowing things for a fact, and the assertion of intellectual confidence that comes with it, the not letting go:
“You don’t have to play to be playful. You don’t need toys or games or costumes or joke books. But you do have to be open, vulnerable, you do have to let go…Playfulness is all about being vulnerable, responsive, yielding to the moment. You might not be playing, but you are willing to play, at the drop of a hat, the bounce of a ball, the glance of a toddler, the wag of a tail. You are open to any opportunity. You are loose. Responsive. Present.
“Playfulness means presence, but not just presence. Responsiveness, but not just responsiveness. Presence and responsiveness, lightness and attentiveness, improvisation and creativity, a willingness to let go and become part.”
Playfulness is a willingness to toy with the paradox – or apparent paradox – that comes with life, something that Absolutely Utterly Convinced folk miss – be it in scientific fundamentalism, Business-As-Usual, conspiracy theory or extraterrestrial believers. Food is food, and food is not food, Fukuoka writes, and I’m suddenly struck with the joyful realisation that this is almost exactly how Donald Jessep describes the paradox of acceptance and non-acceptance simultaneously: it only all seems like paradoxes, because we are trying to describe it in words, and words have their inherent limitations.
Yes, I think, almost a year after our conversations on the topic, yes, exactly.
Gerald tells me, two weeks later, that he’s on a journey to remote indigenous communities, because he’s had some clues, some insight, some information. I am amused by his mysteriousness. He says, look, imagine we’re in a labyrinth. There are many paths out. Some longer than others, but eventually you get out. Most people these days don’t want to get out, so they keep going around and around in circles in the labyrinth. They don’t want to know the truth. They want to go to university, get married, have kids and die. Others are at standstill. Others say they want to ‘realise themselves’ – as a doctor, as a politician, as a musician – and worry about getting out in the next life. But I say – why wait for the next life? Why not in this one?
I ask him, but what does ‘getting out’ mean for you? When are you out of the labyrinth? I’m curious if the response to this, too, involves some kind of escape-with-aliens story. I’m also aware that he and I have had this exact conversation before. He says, when you know the truth. He looks at me, with such intensity and heart that I’m sure he’s not talking about Keegan’s kind of truth. What is the truth, though? How do you know? He says, well, for one, it’s not just cerebral. It’s not just your brain, right and wrong, true and false kind of truth, it’s not just experimentally-tested-and-proven, scientific, rationalist. It’s also a heart truth. A full body truth. A spirit truth. It’s something you feel, manifest, discern. It’s not discerning like we understand it – dividing and judging – but discerning in a more gut-feeling way. I grin, thinking of Women Who Run With Wolves. Like intuition? I ask? Yes, but not just intuition. Discerning, but not just discerning. Seeing, but not just seeing. You see, this may sound strange, but the truth is all around you, if you’re open to it. I receive it from plants, from insects. Animals come up to me from nowhere. And if you’re open – truly open – you hear things and see things that the rest in the labyrinth do not. I smile, remembering Anastasia now.
Gerald tells me a story of going to a remote village with his sister – a medical student, placed in practice in a village that had never before had doctors, much less received contact with the outside world. She finds odd scars of incisions and re-stitchings whilst examining the bodies of many villagers, thinks nothing of it until Gerald arrives and they are talking with the old folk. Why, they ask, how do they have medical incisions when this place has never had doctors or shamans of any kind? The village folk don’t refer to ‘aliens,’ or ‘extraterrestrials,’ or ‘omnis’ – just ‘people from space.’ People from space, they say, take certain individuals, cut them up, pop something inside – or maybe take something out, or maybe just fiddle around, nobody really knows – and place them back on Earth. But, I say to Gerald, not bothering to look around the children’s park to ensure nobody is listening, surely these people had contact with, I dunno, the rest of the outside world to conceptualise this? Or maybe it’s just a myth? Gerald shakes his head – wrong on both counts. They’ve been completely isolated, even from Spanish conquistadors, and even if it were a myth, the issue of the incisions still remains.
I love the way Gerald tells the story, not like it’s his story, but a story he has been passed on, with lightness and a twinkle in his eye. And, he continues, there are countless of these tales all over, if you only look.
So, I say, what does all this about extraterrestrials mean for us, you, humankind, life, death, ‘truth’?
He laughs. Look, he says, the purpose of my life isn’t to figure out if aliens are around or not. If they’re around, they’ll show up when they feel like it and we’ll, I dunno, maybe have a press conference or something.
I burst out laughing.
If they’re up to some other business, well, when it’s time for us to know, we will know, he continues. If they’re not around, it’s not the end of the world either. I’m not one of those people who gives a damn – because it doesn’t make a difference to this, us, here, now. I take a breath of relief. He carries on. And anyway, the biggest thing in all of this isn’t so much whether they are around or not, but whether we are opening our eyes, heart and soul to a deeper truth, taking responsibility. Yes, I want to say, that is exactly what I fear and frustrates me about the ‘oh, I’ll ride away on an alien spaceship’ narrative or ‘we’ll find another planet’ because it’s exactly that – it absolves us of responsibility.
I feel my body relax in response, and grin – light, playful, receptive. I’m happy to imagine, conjure, play with. I’m happy to hypothesise, ruminate, create stories. Just so long as those stories don’t become dogma or hard ‘truth’. It’s kind of fun. It’s exciting, not knowing – the mystery, the magic. I grin, imagining myself asking some poor Peruvian or Bolivian lady in a giant skirt and bowler hat about the men ‘up in the sky,’ the conversation we will have. I think, maybe, one day, I might even visit some of these villages myself.