The Pirahá are a tribe in the Amazon who have resisted missionaries for over 300 years. The main reason they give is that no one has seen Jesus with their own eyes, therefore it violates their Immediacy of Perception principle. If you haven’t seen it, or someone you know hasn’t seen it, then it’s not worth bothering with. They are perhaps the ultimate empiricists. Their language is notoriously difficult, but one man has mastered it well, a linguistic professor who went to convert them, and ended up losing his faith to them, because they seemed so content, so happy with their lives, that they didn’t need Jesus to “save” them. He realised his attempts at conversion were just another form of colonialism. He also realised that their language violated something that Noam Chomsky had decreed was universal among languages; recursion, or the capacity to create long, complex sentences. Everett showed that Piraha didn’t have this capacity. As a result, Chomsky and his cohort have dismissed Everett as a charlatan, and denied him access to the Piraha, a people he has devoted his life to! What is paradoxical is that Chomsky is a well-known anti-imperialist, and yet here he is expunging any dissent from his fiat about language. The desire for biological uniformity, without any evidentiary proof, is the typical of the kind of arrogance displayed by the inductive linguists who work in the lab and not in the field. The possibility that a language may demonstrate a unique creative weltanshauung is anathema to them. As I discuss elsewhere, it is usually when the anomalies start to build up that the paradigm is doomed, and the hardline defenders are unrepentant until death, for it would mean renouncing their life’s work, which is what a scientist should welcome as progress. But Science forgets that research is done within the fragile walls of an ego.
I cite the Pirahá because in our techno-polluted, compass-spinning world, their certainy and calm in the face of death ( they lack myths or redemptive beliefs beyond “spirits”) by the fact that their grammar possesses no future or past means that they live entirely in the present, which has become something of a Holy Grail for the entire “Mindfulness” industry and indeed, my own “industry”. So much of the modern world is plagued by worry, fear and regret that the vast Therapy Mushroom has sprung up to help us “get over it”. Staying in the present is all very well, and is, indeed, the cornerstone of one of my own personal Buddhist practices, but there are some qualifications that need airing. Whilst it seems that the culture of the Pirahá has shaped their grammar, and thus their world-view, we cannot borrow their language and thus their sunny disposition. They lack almost all of the cultural, scientific and artistic wonders we have, but they are completely attuned to their botanical and floristic environment, totally immersed in the forest and the river, knowing the name and capacity of every tree and flower. I cannot express how envious I am of this when I trudge to the cold, electric supermarket to buy dead, boiled milk in a disposable carton, paying paper to a zombified immigrant from a warm climate who is dying inside at minimum wage. I feel disconnected to a massive degree from the sources of my nutrition, and thus the earth, which leads, it must lead, to a form of psychological detachment, and possibly pathological interiority. I saw my own sister disappear into a room for 9 years, emerging only at night to gaze vacantly at the television and eat pizza. She was eventually hospitalised for “schizophrenia” and now wanders the dirty, curry and vomit-flecked streets of the Dublin quays as a homeless person, a gifted sculptor driven mad by my mother’s pathological insensitivity, herself a victim of her own mother, an emotional cripple who was no doubt poisoned by her own mother. I suppose this is a form of Family Recursion, cripples creating cripples ad infinitum, like an Escher drawing, a cripple in time.
Even those who isolate themselves in communities grow their own food, and earn some rooted satisfaction. Tai chi is my attempt, beside my love of trees, to cleave to the natural world. I need the earth element, and despite my adornment of my studio with motifs from misty Chinese mountains, they remain re-presentations, two-dimensional ghosts. It is the goal of my practice to try to integrate into this mess, and to learn to see it all as a hologram, to trust the results of the Quantum shamans, those brave scientists who peered through the muzzy gauze of Absolute Reality and saw a fuzz, a non-local vibration of possibilites. Futurities are not givens, they are subjunctives, possibilties based on Present stimuli.
I want to be a Pirahá. I want to move like a fish in my environment, comfortable and at ease with everything. In this fractured, consciousness-cursed body we live in that stumbles through the wreckage of a bleeding planet, this goal seems further than ever from manifesting. And yet the Pirahá persist, as long as the Amazon is there, yet that is also disappearing.
Tai Chi and qi gong, alien practices to my freckled pale self here on the Atlantic shelf, have irradiated my life and made it porous to knowledge that meant little on first perusal but that have, through constant exposure, led to illumined eurekas in my limited little head. May it lead you to a deep sense of ease under your skin, so that you can move like a Pirahá in a forbidding city, the concrete jungle where humans can be Piranha to each other.