Turning the World Inside Out
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” John Muir
One day, I too came to this same realization. Because of where I live in New Mexico, the world around me is hard not to notice. In fact, it is hard not to want to be in it. The world around is so huge, so vast, so alluring.
On this day, climbing for about an hour up the mountain behind my house, I end up sitting on the edge of a tall red rock cliff overlooking my small village of about fifty small dwellings. From my perspective these shelters looked a bit like anthills or groundhog mounds, low to the ground, made of mud, as are many of these earth brown adobe homes. When an old adobe home is vacated, they look like an abandoned bird’s nest, a temporary shelter returning back to the earth, at its own time, in its own way. Biodegradable.
Our Adobe House in Red Rock Country
Looking at these shelters from high above, I thought to myself, “These shelters are outside in exactly the same way the ground or the cliffs or the sky are outside, in exactly the same way I am outside right now. Maybe there is only outside, and everything is in it. Even when I am inside my tiny earthen house down there, am I not still outside? Am I not always outside?” As odd as it may sound, after that revelation, my life has not felt the same.
In the fall, at harvest time, when the orange moon hangs low and large in the sky, some Jews will make a temporary hut called a Sukkah. There are rules as to its construction. For example, a Sukkah must provide more shade than sun but must be made in such a way that at night one can see at least three stars through the roof. For a week or so, observant Jews will eat their meals in their Sukkah. Some will set places at the table for beloved ancestors whom they will invite to join them, invoking their presence through story. The frail structure of the Sukkah reminds us that our bodies too are fragile, impermanent structures but even so, best not to wall ourselves off, to shut ourselves out from the natural world, a world overflowing in abundance and beauty.
“I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.” Mary Oliver
Making this one linguistic shift radically affects the use of my senses and the tone of my body. Now, when I am covered by a shelter of any sort, even this large apartment building where I now sit in Osaka, I still feel like I am outside. I no longer lose the sense that it is morning, afternoon, or night, that it is sunny or cloudy, rainy or windy, cold, hot, dry or humid. Though sheltered, am I not still outside?
Now, when I go back outside, I am going back into the world. When I take shelter, I am coming out, coming out from the cold, coming out of the rain, out of the elements, out from what is elemental, out of my element.
At some point along the way, I realized that it is not possible for me to be in my own world. I can only be in the world because there is only the world and I am in it. Then I realized that the same is true of my body. I do not and cannot live in my body. My body lives in the world with the rest of the animal kingdom. Do we not think of a bear hibernating in its cave or den as living in nature, of baby birds in their nests as being in nature?
Are we not in nature? Just as we spent 9 months living in our mothers, so too we spend the however many number of years allotted to us living, gestating, inside the great mother of us all. Is there any other world but the world of nature?
No wonder we feel alone. No wonder we feel lonely, cut off, shut out, abandoned. Motherless children. But we have not been abandoned. We left. Somewhere along the way we became confused. We began to believe that being in the world was being outside and being in our homes or offices was being inside.
Can you remember when you were very little, how much you wanted to get out of the house and into the world? How, as it was getting dark, you did not want to go home for dinner. You wanted to stay under the open sky, in the fresh air, lying on the soft green grass, rolling down a hill, climbing up a tree, playing in the biggest playground in the world? For most kids, that’s natural. Now, when I am at Ghost Ranch, hiking up Chimney Rock or Kitchen Mesa, I often get the feeling I am walking inside of the biggest church/mosque/temple imaginable. It is as big as I can see in every direction. The ceiling seems infinite, the floor fantastically large. Everything I can see exists inside the cathedral of the world.
Atop Chimney Rock at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico
The first step for me was to realize that everything is outside, that the house I live in, is outside. That everything is outside. The second step was for me to realize that when I am outside, I am actually inside, inside Earth’s Cathedral, inside the Mother of us all. Once this became my new normal, John Muir made perfect sense.
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
I invite you to experiment with this linguistic shift. If you succeed in reversing this spatial metaphor, something wonderfully strange will begin to happen. When you are home under your own roof, or sitting at your office desk, your sensory field will broaden. Though sheltered, you will hear the larger world speaking to your body. Your peripheral vision will take in more light, your breathing will improve, your sense of smell will become more astute, your skin will record the weather, your muscle tone will engage, your bones will begin to balance, you will become less sleepy, more sensorially alert, your mammal body will reassert itself. You will find yourself wanting to spend more time in the world, unsheltered, in the elements, in your element.
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” — Mary Oliver, Wild Geese