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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Linear Thinking (p. 85)

From chapter "Compartmentalization and its Opposite"

Have you wondered why, in this book ostensibly about shit and more broadly decay, I wrote about making love, followed by a description of my Amaru’s death, jumped from there to insomnia and then to the porous boundary between waking and sleeping, from there to dream leakage, and then back to making love? I do this sort of thing in all my books and talks.

Years ago after one of my talks, someone said to me, “At first I didn’t understand your jumps, and then I thought you were crazy, but now I see the patterns, and I see how the different subjects come together, and I like it.” I’ve gotten a fair number of letters over the years from people who say, “Thank god I’ve finally found someone who writes like I think.”

I like these notes, but I don’t like the notes in which people compliment me on what they call my “disorganized style,” and for “writing whatever happens to come to mind.” The reason I don’t like them is that my style isn’t disorganized, and I don’t (usually) write whatever comes to mind. I try to make the organization as tight as I can. But my writing is organized along different principles than those that normally guide discourse and thought in this culture. I write this way to undercut or even destroy the monopoly, the stranglehold, that linear thinking has over our discourse, our thinking, our lives. This hegemony is incredibly dangerous.

It’s dangerous in part because it doesn’t match reality. The world is not organized linearly. A forest is not organized linearly. A river is not organized linearly. An intrahuman (or interspecies) relationship is not organized linearly. A human (or nonhuman) is not organized linearly. Life is not organized linearly, or parabolically, or sinusoidally, or any of the other mathematical models we can try to project onto it; these regressions may sometimes describe a portion of what we see, but they do not come close to defining reality. These regressions are not reality, and they are no substitute for reality. The combination of the near-ubiquitous cultural delusion that one’s concepts are more important than the real and the near-absolute cultural narcissism where one perceives oneself as entitled to exploit everything and everyone else has led to a culture capable of destroying everything.

* * *

But there are other ways to be, other ways to perceive, other ways to think. The Lakota man Brave Buffalo said, “I have noticed in my life that all men have a liking for some special animal, tree, plant, or spot of earth. If men would pay more attention to these preferences and seek what is best to do in order to make themselves worthy of that toward which they are attracted, they might have dreams which would purify their lives. Let a man decide upon his favorite animal and make a study of it, learning its innocent ways. Let him learn to understand its sounds and motions. The animals want to communicate with man, but Waka´Taka [the Great Spirit] does not intend they shall do so directly—man must do the greater part in securing an understanding.”

I asked the American Indian writer Vine Deloria what, in the Indian perspective, is the ultimate goal of life.

He said, “Maturity,” by which he meant “the ability to reflect on the ordinary things of life and discover both their real meaning and the proper way to understand them when they appear in our lives. Now, I know this sounds as abstract as anything ever said by a Western scientist or philosopher, but within the context of Indian experience, it isn’t abstract at all. Maturity in this context is a reflective situation that suggests a lifetime of experience, as a person travels from information to knowledge to wisdom. A person gathers information, and as it accumulates and achieves a sort of critical mass, patterns of interpretation and explanation begin to appear. This is where Western science aborts the process to derive its ‘laws,’ and assumes that the products of its own mind are inherent to the structure of the universe. But American Indians allow the process to continue, because premature analysis gives incomplete understanding. When we reach a very old age, or have the capacity to reflect and meditate on our experiences, or more often have the goal revealed to us in visions, we begin to understand how the intensity of experience, the particularity of individuality, and the rationality of the cycles of nature all relate to each other. That state is maturity, and seems to produce wisdom. Because Western society concentrates so heavily on information and theory, its product is youth, not maturity. The existence of thousands of plastic surgeons in America attests to the fact that we haven’t crossed the emotional barriers that keep us from understanding and experiencing maturity.”

One of those barriers—and I want to smash this barrier—is the stranglehold linear thought has on thought itself, such that any other thought is considered nonthought, any other organization is considered disorganization.

A forest, for example, is organized in a way we have been trained not to recognize (in fact, often to fear). Our culture has trained us not to understand a forest in even a shadow of its full complexity because understanding would impede the exploitation of that forest. Consider this: perceiving a forest only or primarily in terms of board feet facilitates the forest’s exploitation. Perceiving the complex interrelationships that make up a forest does not. Likewise, perceiving a river only or primarily in terms of the amount of hydroelectricity it can produce facilitates that river’s exploitation. Perceiving the complex interrelationships that make up a river does not. Likewise, perceiving a woman only or primarily in terms of her orifices and how you can gain sexual satisfaction from those orifices facilitates that woman’s exploitation. Perceiving the complex interrelationships that make up a woman does not.

I want to be able to begin to recognize the organization of a forest, the organization of a stream, the organization of a woman.

No, I want to be able to understand what a forest, a stream, a woman may wish to communicate to me. Even more than that, I want to be able to understand a forest, stream, woman on each of their own terms, insofar as each of them may wish me to understand them.

To do so, I must begin to break the shackles of linear thought.

I’m not saying that my work is anywhere near so complex as a forest. Of course it’s not. But I’m attempting to introduce—or rather re-introduce—myself and readers to a new—or rather old—way of seeing, thinking, being in the world, relating to the world, a way that does not rely on the particular and peculiar compartmentalization that characterizes this culture, a way that is far more complex than this culture’s “normal” mode of thinking, a way that is, I believe, is far more natural.