Friday, October 15, 2010

I and Thou

Martin Buber (1878-1965) was an Austrian-born Jewish philosopher best known for a concept he described as the "I-Thou" relationship.

According to Buber, most people sadly exemplify the opposite. The "I-It" mentality sees the world as a collection of objects and thus creates a sense of separation and disconnection from the true nature of reality. Furthermore, as our human society becomes more industrialized and complex, we tend to create more objects and thereby exacerbate our collective isolation. This condition sounds remarkably similar to the "wall of grief" described by Jon Young, or the idea of "nature deficit disorder" proposed by Richard Louv. One could argue that the global objectification of both people and nature has driven the planet to its current state of disease.

In contrast, the "I-Thou" relationship is a direct spiritual encounter between living beings. When we encounter that level of connection, our sense of separation ceases to hold any meaning. Labels disappear, differences fade, and judgments surrender to deep love and understanding.

We can never find the "I-Thou" relationship by seeking, just as those who seek a vision can never force the spirits to open the windows of heaven. The best we can do is to make ourselves available to encounter the moments of connection as they happen. We cannot force the wind, but we can quiet our minds enough to appreciate the wind as it passes by. Likewise, the "I-Thou" relationship is an act of grace.

We may seek connections with nature and with one another, but the true moment of spirit-connection is a gift.

Unlike the modern industrial complex, most indigenous peoples embody the "I-Thou" relationship between humans and nature. The natural world is not a thing to be bought or sold. Indigenous societies inhabit a world where animals, plants, and even minerals are people, and where they stand forever in relationship to the spirits of the land.

From the book "I and Thou," Martin Buber says:

I contemplate a tree.

I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes or green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.

I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air, and the growing itself in the darkness.

I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life... I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.

Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and its condition.

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.

"...Relation is reciprocity."

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