Learning How to Dance
On how we’ve forgotten how to live with helpless awe
“Native Americans have to concede that rain dances don’t work.”
Yeah, snort. How funny can you get? It’s the New Rules segment of “Real Time with Bill Maher” and the host has just tossed his gag tomahawk at the First People. A picture fills the screen: Indians in full regalia, dancing. The caption below it says “Tribal Thumpers.” He pauses, straight-faced, eyeballs rolling in sarcasm. There’s a trickle of laughter amid the awkward silence, then Maher turns away from the camera, presumably toward the crew back stage, and calls out in his fake shame-on-me voice, “Are you making fun of Indians, Bill?”
The moment lasts about 20 seconds, then he’s on to the next putdown joke.
So why am I still thinking about it a week later? Indeed, it has ahold of me like an insane car alarm that won’t shut up. What’s reverberating in my head isn’t some moral offense at a politically incorrect joke, which I could, I think, shrug off. What I can’t let go of is the arrogant American ignorance fueling this gag. It wasn’t funny. It was just stupid — but stupid in a way that celebrates and perpetuates pretty much everything that’s wrong with who we are.
The humor in the joke was, of course, that it brought a “civilized,” technologically advanced perspective — our perspective, as smart-phone wielding American spectator-consumers — to bear on the delusional rituals of savages. Snort, snort. They think some dumb dance is going to make it rain. Not only is this cheap, bully humor, perpetrating a sense of feel-good superiority, it’s cluelessly Newtonian in a quantum world. The losers here are the ones trapped in linear thinking, who assume they understand a viewpoint about which they, in fact, know nothing.
“Regular Americans” have to concede that using up the planet’s resources doesn’t work. Perpetuating an economy based on war and environmental destruction doesn’t work. Invading Third World countries doesn’t work. Filling the ocean with plastic trash doesn’t work. Destroying everything we value doesn’t work.
“Humanity has entered a time of profound change,” proclaims a website called Great Transition Stories. “We are pushed by necessity and pulled by opportunity. The push is a growing systems crisis, evident in the breakdown of financial institutions, climate disruption, resource depletion, unsustainable populations, and more. . . . The pull is the opportunity to rise to a new level of human maturity, partnership and freedom. . . .
“It is vital that the human community come together. . . .”
This coming together is not a simplistic sort of acceptance or tolerance of other worldviews, e.g., the technologically advanced West benignly welcoming the primitives among us into the community of nations. The West — the planet’s colonizers and bullies — has to do something far more profound. It has to arrest its sense of superiority and let go of what it thinks it knows, in particular that we live in a linear, mechanical, cause-and-effect universe, full of separate objects — “facts” — that are disconnected, inert and awaiting our exploitation. We have to start relearning the nature of things.
Quantum physics, the cutting edge of Western science, has known for a while now that we don’t live in a mechanical universe. The universe is energy — spirit.
As physicist David Peat writes in his book Blackfoot Physics: “. . . scientists who have been struggling at the leading edge of their topics have created ideas that resonate with those of Indigenous science. For example: Quantum theory stresses the irreducible link between observer and observed and the basic holism of all phenomena. So too, Native Science holds that there is no separation between individual and society, between matter and spirit, between each one of us and the whole of nature.”
Such words start to deconstruct the joke. Maybe a rain dance isn’t meant to be an action as linear as turning on a faucet, but rather a joyous, intense means of participation with the universe. Perhaps there is no dividing line between human beings and the rest of the universe, and what they do, if that action emerges from their depths, has a quality as natural as thunder or rain.
I say this not with any sort of expertise in indigenous knowledge, but simply as someone who is trying to push himself — within the limits of my language and culture — to the edge of what I think I know. The universe is a living organism. What does this mean?
“The assumption of the laws (of science) is that we’re a non-living universe,” biophysicist Beverly Rubik said at an event called the Language of Spirit Conference, in Albuquerque, that I attended a few years ago. “We ought to start over. We have a science that starts with deadness. It’s time to re-envision science — in a living universe.”
Perhaps we have to break open language itself in order to begin to become, again, knowingly part of a living universe. Rupert Ross, in Returning to the Teachings, at one point discusses the differences between noun-focused Western languages and verb-driven indigenous tongues.
“It has to do,” Ross writes, “with the difference between standing behind the triple-pane window of your cliffside mansion and watching the sun go down over a quieting ocean — and watching instead the first beginnings of a sunrise over that same ocean, but from flat on your belly on a wet surfboard three hundred miles out from shore, as the ocean beneath you awakens.
“In the cliffside mansion, there is a conviction of separation, stability and control. On the surfboard, there is the conviction of intimate and inescapable exposure to unfathomable powers which, while they might let you ride them, will never let you gain control over them.”
We’ve forgotten how to live with helpless awe, how to subordinate our knowing to our awareness of the unfathomable. Most of all, we’ve forgotten how to dance with it.