Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Waking to the Present

From 1977 to 1985, the linguistic researcher Daniel Everett lived with the Pirahãs, a Brazilian people with no concept of time, no numbers, and no subordinate clauses. His findings baffle linguists and challenge the most popular conceptions of what constitutes human language, such as Noam Chomsky's universal grammar. These theories claim that embedding concepts within other concepts makes human language and thought unique.

This is an interesting time for this debate because the world is increasingly understood through symbolic abstractions. With technological proliferation, literacy is becoming more like a survival skill than a convenience, not only in Western nations, but all over the world. Globalization means that anyone without the ability to manipulate laws in their favor will become a second-class world citizen.

But if abstract thoughts are not necessarily fundamental to human nature, is a world based on laws and negotiations more or less human and more or less fulfilling? Everett said the Pirahãs lived only in the present. In many philisophies, that state of mind would be considered the ultimate accomplishment after a life of discipline of meditation. Buddhism is a good example, but this goal isn't limited to followers of Eastern religions.

Living in the present implies a kind of slow, stress-free existence that is the polar opposite of modern life. Stress is often identified as the largest health risk to people in developed nations. It would be a mistake to assume that the Pirahãs live a perfect life, but at least in avoiding worries and complications, they seem to have an advantage over the rest of the world.

If this is a desirable state of mind, why is it so difficult for us and so easy for the Pirahãs? Few would be willing to trade convenience for a life with the Pirahãs, but how many of us would like to be as carefree as we were when we were children? It might be that, in avoiding the complications of abstract concepts, the Pirahãs live more satisfying lives.

Or it may be that they're just as stressed as we are, or that Everett is wrong about them. But what if they're not and he's not?

It's worth considering that, although our present world is very different from where the Pirahãs live, we might be able to be just as aware of what goes on around us, even in the information age, when everyone knows how to lie and making sense of the chaos seems impossible.

Most people try to ignore what happens outside their own immediate area to shield themselves from the difficulty that comes with a broader worldview, but they usually end up as stressed as anyone else. The Pirahãs believe that everything is always the same, but we're trained to fear the future: terrorism, economic loss, environmental disaster, losing a loved one; otherwise, there would be nothing to worry about.

Untangling ourselves from that web would be a tricky proposition, especially since many of our fears are valid or even inevitable. Dealing with the future without fearing it would mean bringing it back into the present, finding a sustainable balance in a changing world. If this is even possible, it could never be achieved without hyperawareness.

"The Ambient Now" is the unnoticed all around us, the things we ignore that affect us intimately. This blog is dedicated to news and commentary from someone who wishes he was as aware of his own world as the Pirahãs are of theirs.


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Blogger Alicia said...

I find the comments here to be discordant with the general theme of the post.

"Buy Rosetta Stone, you will learn so many languages this post will be obsolete"

That would have been more appropriate.

9:44 PM  

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