Marco van den Berg Scholten |
Visual for Beckonings

Being: we are the “thinking animals”. But what does it mean to be thinking?

First of all, we need to trace the impetus of our very thoughts: where and when do they arise? How do they come to be? Are they born inside-out? Perhaps to raise the question: does individual agency create thoughts?

Very important: I don’t pose these questions from within a scientific, measurement-compulsive frame. At least I hope I don’t. I try to steer free of prepositioning myself. I simply try to be, let my body breathe, sit still, and observe. This is very difficult. But I try and I notice the first sensation that comes is the impulse of grasping. My thinking is trying to control what’s in front of me, what is entering my consciousness (and what is that. . . ?) through seeing and hearing. Perhaps more strongly by seeing than by hearing. It wants to name it, and therewith shape it so that it fits my language. This happens seemingly automatically. The naming is the expression of the grasping, for there needs to be a controller, a place-maker, which apparently comes about inside of my consciousness. A meeting takes place, but I cannot release myself from the conviction that the grasping is an innate mechanism. In no way does the observed impose an impulse on me. I don’t get tickled by it to control and name. The grasping impulse appears to be my own.

What follows is the question: where does the impulse to grasp originate from? It is certainly older than my faculty for language, for I grasped for air before I spoke one word. Way before. Breathing –inhaling, then crying– was my first act, outside the womb, and breathing without my mother my first attempt at living without the umbilical cord. Breathing precedes thinking. Let’s place that on the mantelpiece of memory. Then, what does that imply?

Once we have accepted the placement on the mantelpiece, how do we see breathing? It is the sustaining automaton of the being in its thrown-ness. We are catapulted into our first breath, away and out of the safe and warm shelter of mother, and suddenly we have to rely on our little lungs for oxygen. It cannot be anything but traumatic, to be shifted so existentially so abruptly. We startle into our first breath. It’s more than a hunch that tells me here is where our grasping is born. For we are born, and immediately after an existential way of being is born too: the sustaining automaton which has as its primal mode grasping. Even when this is not so heavy an imprint ( not all babies cry, I’ve been told ), it is still safe to say that the urge for the in-breath is something foundational in our being. We grasp, sustain, and, relaxed again, we breathe out. It is a cyclical movement of pulling in, caring for, and releasing. And so we uphold ourselves, until we release our final breath. It is the rhythm of our life, we grasp, sustain, let go: on and on, until our death. It frames our personal time.

And then, after a year or so, language enters our life. My simple intelligence tells me that this is in no sense as fundamental to sustaining our time-life as the first gasp, which came –let’s remind ourselves– with a very sudden cut. But as for language, it is all input, and it seems to me not very biological. It is entering, first a careful toe, then a foot, then more, into the stream of an existing, language-driven culture. It is, however, the field into which our thrown-ness is gradually relocated, and therefore, our ground for making sense of everything, through language, through thinking. This process, I believe, is placed over the existential imprint, which is grasping after the initial experience of the cut. Grasping becomes a ground for the thinking process.

Therefore, grasping is the first part of taking our time, and of making our time. We word ourselves toward our actions. First we take hold, understand, then we reflect, perhaps conclude, or we just react, then we come into action and go out and do. This is the three-dimensionality of personal time: always there is the past, the present and the oncoming (“Zu-kunft”) in play. Nowness is never really independently present.

So grasping is fundamental to thinking. But only in our personal narrative. For when we helicopter over the field and survey the whole of life, it is perhaps our foremost obstacle to transcending the sphere of individual time to reach the realm of the force of general life. With “life” I mean that bundle of energy and information which brings living beings tobe.And immediately following that: that which brings beings to flourish, find purpose, to stand straight as a unique story within the whole of life. Interestingly, in order to flourish, it is imperative for the human being to find his or her voice, independently of grasping. Possibly, it is the release of that primal ego-instinct, the pulling back from it, the relaxing of its grip, which opens up the space for the human to learn to think on his own, and use language in a free way. We begin our time-life with grasping, then we ‘get’ language, then we learn to think in language, first by grasping anything new, but at some point we dare to lose control and language becomes like a previously hidden magic gate, behind which a new world of being exists. We go through the gate and play around in this magic world. Then we find our voice. And only then we begin to truly think. We have learned to stand straight, as our unique story within the whole of life has become clear. And everything learned, and thus given, is free to roam in the different realms of consciousness, but nothing is any longer bound by, or necessarily supported by, grasping.

That is when true thinking is born within “the thinking animal”.

Now, how many of us go that journey?