Sunday, October 07, 2012


Anthropologist Ray Rapaport’s formulation is that human homeostasis is like a stream in which humans can live, though not always comfortably.  If humans go outside the streambed to where there are not enough of the essentials for the individual, that individual dies -- either quickly or slowly.  If the whole landscape changes so that the stream bed dries up or changes course, the whole species dies.

What are the elements of human homeostasis, and how do they interact with the individual body?

AIR:  In the proper proportions, pressure, temperature, freedom from toxic gases and particulates.  (The ability to inhale, distribute oxygen through the body, and exhale unwanted gases.)

WATER:  Same as above, in sufficient liquid quantity to keep the body resupplied in the proper proportions for the cellular fluids that support electrolites, digestion, respiration.  (Water must flow through the body: in through the mouth, distributed through the body, out through lungs, skin and kidneys.)

FOOD:  Sufficient calories, sufficient roughage, trace elements and vitamins, so on.  Not too much sugar, salt, fat.  (Nourishment is taken in, processed, the molecular elements distributed, leftovers excreted.)

MOVEMENT:  Large muscle exercise, smooth muscle function (intestines), rhythm maintenance (heart/lungs).  Interaction with gravity.

PROTECTION:  Not just shelter in the sense of a roof for shade and keeping dry, but also protection against diseases, vectors and predators.  (Seeking, building, maintaining an active and vigilant interface with the environment.)

HUMAN INTERACTION:  Obviously without sex the species cannot continue, but without other humans, an individual will not survive.  The essence of this category is brain function in terms of managing thinking and emotion.  The following are necessary:

Nurturing and education through childhood at least; lifelong is better..
A holding community (family, neighborhood, congregation, tribe, nation)
A psychological platform shared by others so as to be confident.
Exploration of ideas, beliefs and habits.
Sex.  (So strong it can sometimes override most of the other necessities.)

A brain that is frightened is closed up, unable to learn new things because it is processing for survival.  A brain that has enough of the things on this list, will be open to existence at the outer limits of its capacity, which is where the intense emotion we call “spirituality” can be felt.  

Remember Abraham Maslow’s pyramid with Self-Actualization at the top?  Maslow came out to Alberta briefly to see about studying Blackfeet but decided it was too tough for him and left it to others. (He was a Brooklyn boy and a bit of a runt.)  One of the women doing the study actually published results but others also found it too tough and left.  The high prairie is not an easy place to live.  Beyond that, “self” actualization is not particularly helpful in a place where interaction with others is often the key to survival.  "Self" can slip over into being narcissistic, encouraging hoarding, or blame, or powering down those seen as less worthy.   A Manhattan intellectual Jew from a close family can be a loner, but a rez-dwelling “aboriginal” with a shattered family and no education will be hard-pressed.  His or her survival will depend upon belonging to a group.

The key to the success of the Blackfeet was that they had strong but fluid “holding communities” in their gens or clans of mostly related people.  Usually about a hundred folks, everyone knew everyone so that peer webbing often took care of justice or compassion issues in the same way that a small church congregation works, or maybe a small business or a neighborhood.  Because the Blackfeet were nomadic, the very fact of seasons kept them flowing over the land, interacting, in the now but able to predict and prepare for the future.  Probably they were less vulnerable before horses, which needed grazing, allowed long-range raiding, encouraged the accumulation of goods, made it easy for strangers to come and the young to escape in something like the same way as the later invention of the automobile.

Yet we try to see tribal life as ideal and stable rather than the constantly recalibrating and analytical people they were.  As long as they were close to the land, dependent only on their own hunting skills because buffalo were so abundant, defended against disease by simple remoteness from the urban places where people exchange contagion and from the kind of farms with domestic animals like cows and pigs that constantly “spill” (in David Quammen's word) disease, evolved physically to be runners and meat eaters, the Blackfeet were in their stream of homoestasis and survived.

Their stream did not dry up:  rather it received a confluence from a much bigger and muddier stream of elements they were not prepared to manage.  A century is a short time, as cultures go, to evolve after millennia of what seems to us to be “always.”  But in those millennia the scientists find many patterns of change and adaptation.  Blackfeet -- Plains Indians in general -- have been for modern society a “platform” idea, an ideal.  They were, even in the days when we were starving them to death.  They are, even now as they struggle with “fracking” which was legally enabled -- very quietly -- under the table; that counting table which is a different kind of platform.  Drilling can dry up a stream.

The language of the arts is metaphor and since the management of the interface with the world, the intense feelings we call sacred, is an art form, liturgy is a metaphor art, dependent upon sensory awareness.  As long as the metaphor system and the wisdom it holds responds to the actual world of the person or community, it will work to sustain homeostasis.  

The language of kings and shepherds, miracles and conquest, tribe-against-tribe that came out of the environment around the Mediterranean and formed platforms called “Judaism,” “Islam,” and “Christian,” no longer works very well.  As documented in the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, and all the papyrus scroll writings floating around without ever making it into anyone’s canon, some of the wisdom works and some of it doesn’t.  Some of it is outright toxic.  Too many people insist on a “holus-bolus” swallowing without chewing.  They say their chosen documents are “sacred.”

But they are not.  They have become a labyrinth, a man-made series of walls to control behavior.  “Sacredness” is a process between the person and the universe, a functioning interaction at a high level that changes constantly in order to maintain homeostasis by offering a metaphor platform.  Homeostasis does not mean paralysis.  Quite the opposite, it means change.  It is not a statue but a dance.  Wasn’t it King David who knew that?  And demonstrated wearing only an apron?

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