Human-built environments are digital, digitized, bitted, quantized. They are binary or ternary or decimal. They have hard edges and extents, which exist in specific pre-defined sizes with nothing in between. They are all-or-nothing. My way or the highway. They brook no argument; they are unforgiving. A room is always the same size no matter what. The walls define it completely and heartlessly.
What if this particular morning I want to be held tight and cradled softly because I am sad? No, the room will not come towards me. What if today I am exploding with delight and energy and want to expand in all directions? No. The room is a harsh disciplinarian and will not yield. It will not give us any more space no matter how heart-wrenching or simple our need.
The room is pre-defined to a given size – it is you who must change, you must submit, you must tolerate – it never will. We can cover over these edges with comfort – soft textiles and furry rugs. We poke some holes in it – windows, however these too have pre-defined sizes that cannot grow or shrink, and we fill them in with another hard transparent surface. Underneath, the unyielding boundaries persist.
We invest enormous amounts of resources – time, energy, toil, money – in maintaining these structures in this manner. Replastering walls, maintaining their straightness, their sharp corners, their unyielding definition. We construct these barriers against the forces of nature, as bulwarks against anything that might encroach into this bubble of quantization.
This seems to me a strange madness that we have developed our architecture in this way.
I think it mirrors the bulwarks we create in our mind to protect us. That we pour vast amounts of emotional and mental energy into maintaining. To protect us from what, exactly?
Nature is analog. It is extensive. It is fractal. Nothing is particularly sized at all, or if so only for a while, relative to its own process’s timescale – mountains move slower than dandelions from our vantage point – and then it morphs. Each aspect arises, then abides, then falls. What is now a seed soon becomes a tree, and then becomes soil, then something else. Look at a single branch of a single tree – how many differently sized leaves there are, how many angles of rotation are present in the extent of this one branch, and how that will be different tomorrow. No fixed sizes and no straight lines are to be found anywhere.
Everything in nature is an unfolding process. But in our human environments we seem to miss this basic fact and instead try and create fixed entities. This is so similar to how our mind creates fixed versions of ourselves, our loved ones, and everything we encounter. And so perhaps it’s not so strange that we evolved our architecture in this way also. I think that in the same way as our fixed views of people and beliefs cause so much suffering, so too does our architecture. On the inside of our walls, standing on pavement, intentionally cut off from the processes of nature, we atrophy and die.
Fixed entities do not exist anywhere in nature. Everything is a process. Of course we humans are nature as well; we are a process – everything we create is actually just a moulding and a redirection of a set of processes. Like a potter moulds clay by arranging their hands in particular ways in space while the earth spins.
But we seem to hate this idea. We reject it and keep trying to make fixed entities – our rooms – by constantly pouring energy into constructing these dams. Dams we construct against the flow of energy. We surround ourselves on all sides – a vast expanse of asphalt below us covering the ground in all directions. Walls all around us, literally around every “corner”, a concept that really only exists in human architecture. Ceilings above us. We build all these dams to separate out the air, the light, the energy, the infinitely-variable and always-flowing nature of reality. And then create an entirely different environment based on specific, pre-defined, unchanging sizes. Quite an alien concept when we step outside and really look.
Human environments create comparison. In nature, comparison almost never occurs to us. We don’t compare trees – how ugly that one is in comparison to this beautiful one. Each tree is perceived independently as well as part of the whole, but not pitted against each other. Yet we constantly compare one house against the next. It is the nature of how we create them as fixed entities that engenders this comparing. This chair is too big or too small or too high or too low for me. If the chair was not constructed to be so fixed in how it extends in space, this jarring difference would not exist.
A couple of days ago I went clambering around in a boulder field that I spied from the road, feeling and responding to a deep-seated need to press my feet and hands, my legs and thighs, my belly and back against the rock. As I clambered, and as I stayed still, I simply fit right into the nooks and crooks of the rocks, nestling perfectly. There was an infinite variability available – the rocks provided all angles, all sizes for my body to mould itself around. In a restaurant it is an entirely different situation – my body suddenly becomes too large to fit in the predefined booth. And because the booth provides no variability, it is fixed-size – it follows in that world that it must be my body that is wrong. This whole comparison framework just doesn’t exist outside in nature.
I felt this so strongly a few years ago when I was really starting into this journey to the outside. I remember going to Yosemite Valley, in California. I had just spent a week up near Mount Shasta in the northern part of the state over the Christmas holiday with a friend, but I could hear my body crying out for more – more outside. I just couldn’t countenance going back to the city. I still had a week of vacation from work left. Serendipitously on the way back to San Francisco an email arrived letting me know that there was a last minute booking available to stay in Yosemite. I grabbed it on the spot. I drove back to my apartment in San Francisco, did a load of laundry, got right back in my car and headed out to cross the state again, to Yosemite National Park.
When I got there, I walked out into a huge rolling meadow, sat on the ground, and felt this enormous sense of right-sizedness come flooding through me. My shoulders sinking to the earth, a visceral feeling of stress falling away from every muscle in my body, grounding to the earth. In human-made environments I am constantly too big – too tall for doorways, too big for airline seats, my legs too long for cars. Out here in the meadow, the whole concept of size essentially goes away because there are all sizes in infinite variations. From daisy petals to blades of grass to bushes to trees to enormous mountains. And within each one of those categories also infinite variations play out.
And, beyond that, my first experience of a different way to view reality, where we look at the space in between objects as being contiguous with us rather than only seeing the objects, separated. Shifting allegiance to space instead of edges. This joyful view where we are analog patterns of energy in a field, dancing and flowing with each other rather than distinct lonely objects.
Such a feeling of well-being suffused me. In AA they speak of becoming “right-sized”. I finally felt what that was like. I noticed, in its absence out there in the meadow beneath the mountains, the constant level of stress that not feeling right-sized had been creating, taking its toll on me over decades. It was a major source of shame, this sense of wrongness, that I unconsciously internalized.
For me now when I come inside into human-built environments it feels like walking through the looking-glass. Like popping through the transparent wall of a soap bubble I come into a world where all the laws of physics are different. It is quite low-dimensional. Like a very low-resolution pixelated picture, because only a tiny number of sizes exist, rather than the infinitely-variable nature of our spatial and energetic dimension that is outside.
And energetically I intensely feel the dams. The instant I walk inside any building it is like the power source is removed. My battery keeps me going for a while, but it is like being ejected from heaven. A sadness descends upon me. A confusion – why do we do this? The instant I walk outside, the power comes back on.
The longer I spend inside, the more I get used to it of course, like the proverbial frog in slowly boiling water. I spent most of last year outside – sleeping, working, living all literally outside. These past few months I’ve spent most of the time indoors, at least in comparison. My batteries, practices and walks outside have kept me going, but recently I noticed more and more that they were draining. I started noticing again, relearning again, how I feel when I’m outside and in comparison how I feel when I’m inside. And because I have learned to care how I feel, I change my life, my actions, my steps to follow this heart signal. It’s about much more than just visiting the outside occasionally to go for walks. It’s about entirely switching my allegiance to being outside – sleeping, eating, working, living outside, and occasionally visiting inside, rather than the other way around.
The intense messaging over the past few months to stay inside has had an impact on us all. I choose to actively work with this now, to follow the signal of my heart. The mountains are calling and I am responding. Those leaps of joy you feel, perhaps when you sit outside, or when you clear out a space in your home? Notice them! Follow them. Move towards them.