Gods That Are Looked At

Some may imagine that there are two worlds, one “out there” and a separate one being cognized inside the skull. But the “two worlds” model is a myth. Nothing is perceived except perceptions themselves, and nothing exists outside of consciousness. Only visual reality is extant, and there it is. Right there.

–Robert Lanza, Biocentrism, 36

And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses / Had the look of flowers that are looked at.

–T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton”


I sit on a wide slab of broken concrete that veers down into the stream.

“What’s that?” my redheaded three-year-old, Marshall, points a dirt-caked fingernail toward another piece of concrete that juts up from the middle of the stream, submerged except for its tip, water frothing at its seams.

Trees along the bank stretch upward and lean over us, and tangles of brush thicken the water’s edge. On the other side of the stream rises a hill of dry grass under a soft blue sky. At our backs, the beaten path lies in a small stretch of forest, a preserved nature trail that I might forget is a trail if not for these masses of concrete.

But I know this is no wilderness. We’re still in suburbia, our apartment door a scant half-mile away. The entrance to the trail stands at an asphalt road not more than a hundred yards.

Marshall sits beside me in his knitted cap and Paddington Bear coat, his bright blue mittens wrapped around a navy plastic cup long-emptied of the stove-stewed cocoa. Honey, milk, cocoa powder, chocolate chips–all slurped down two minutes into our expedition.

I sip homemade coffee from a ceramic to-go cup and listen to the brown water of the Wissahickon rush by. “Just more concrete,” I answer.

We are a silent pair of old men fishing by a creek, lazing like the Saturday it is.

A Cooper’s Hawk soars in circles over the trees and high above the hill. “Look,” I point upward to the patch of blue sky. “Did you see the bird?” I ask Marshall. “She’s in the trees now, but look–she’s circling back around. Can you see her?”

“Yeah,” he says, “I do.”

The hawk flies away and we resume our placid river-gazing.

I think the river is a strong brown god–sullen, untamed and intractable, patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier.

I look at the thread of thin mud dribbling by our feet. No strong god this.

And yet this stream feels like a muted, but substantive, glory to me–a wonder for a suburbanite living just a short train ride from Philadelphia. I can see in this small trickle of water how a river could become a god where a river god is needed, in another age or region of the world that relies on the river for agricultural flourishing.

But here it’s little more than a problem confronting the builder of bridges. The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten by the dwellers in cities.

I am not a city-dweller, but we have our own strange gods in the American suburbs, gods by other names, gods that order our days for better and for worse. Gods of light and energy that determine when we rise and sleep. Transportation gods that ordain where we go and how we get there. Gods of urban planning and architecture that stratify our towns and decide what gets built where. Socio-economic gods enshrined in our legal system and upheld by our white supremacist myths, gods that determine who makes how much and where they live. Gods that reflect how they are looked at.

Often, gods start to bleed together. They dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river.

Here in the suburbs, there is little reverence of the river or honor for the storm. Rain and river neither sustain or disturb us, so we pay them little heed until we feel the weather gods lashing out because of our neglect and abuse.

As I write this, hurricane Irma rips through Florida. Already it has torn through the Caribbean, passed north of Puerto Rico and surged through northern Cuba. Last week, hurricane Harvey devastated southeastern Texas.

Floods, storms, droughts, earthquakes–natural disasters have been around since time immemorial and have been pinned on gods for just as long. Drought means a storm god is missing. Flood and storm are the work of a miffed deity.

But that was in the old days, in the polytheistic imagination. In spite of the proliferation of gods, the West insists we have just one (or zero, depending on who you ask). When the U.S. experiences a natural disaster, there’s always a pastor or two on hand to say that this one God is punishing us for legalizing gay marriage. It is not the weather gods angry at us for making the earth hotter, gods roiling at our exacerbation of the planet. No, the one God sends a hurricane as the “due penalty of our error,” the error of letting people marry whom they choose.

But I’ll waste no more time on the impious, the frauds that don’t respect their own visions. They don’t take responsibility for the beings that rise and dance in response to their gaze. I want to live in the company of people who are mindful of the gods within our purview.

As I sit on the creek bank next to my son, the child of my body–my self disseminated, de-centered–I feel only wonder.

Everything is full of gods.

I don’t know what Thales meant by this statement or, for the life of me, why I always remember it wrong. It sticks in my mind as The air is thick with gods. A fog, a sense of density, an everything. The universe is an ocean, gods are its water. No matter where you turn, lo and behold! A god. There it is. Look! A god that is looked at.

I turn my head to look at Marshall staring at the water. “Are you ready to walk back now?” I ask.

“No,” he says, not turning his eyes. “Let’s stay.”

This, here, is the miracle of consciousness: to be confronted with the indissoluble. Everything is full of gods, the universe swirling with infinite potentials, thick with what could be if we would only stop and perceive. A world where there are no ‘false’ gods. All the gods perceived are perceptions. All roses have the look of flowers that are looked at. Nothing exists apart from consciousness. Of all the gods and flowers that might be cognized, these are the ones that capture our gaze (or are captured, framed, by our gaze).

In a universe of possibilities, uncountable abstractions that could become concrete, this right here is the actual I see.

I am at this juncture of the Wissahickon, looked over by these particular trees. I drink the coffee in my hand, the cup crafted from hot water and two thimblefuls of beans from Ethiopia, the coffee I will never drink again even if I make a similar-tasting cup from the same batch of beans. I sit beside a small human who might have been, or been very different than he is now, a conscious body that is changing day by day.

As the slight brown god flows by under our watch, all the gods dissolve into its current.