What happens in a moment of perception?

“The world, it seems, longs to receive gifts and to offer new things itself. A new cosmos opens up here; the world of an ethics of the gift.” A world of abundance, and responsibility, opens up when we examine what happens within a moment of perception. What if we saw perception as the gift, and perception as the gifting, in the circle of the gift?

We humans live in a natural world where we are undeniably, consistently, being gifted.

The sun, without which all life as we know it could not exist, shines unrelentlessly. The rain, which nurtures the fields and lands upon which life grows, showers and offers respite from drought. The air we breathe is abundant, too: as we take life-giving breaths every moment, as our bodies desire to live every moment—working, unabated, to enact chemical and mechanical processes to transport oxygen into every cell—we are, consciously or not, being gifted.

The serendipitous combination of these natural elements breathe life not just to us, but to everything we consume: now-ubiquitous corn, the pantry staples of wheat and rice, fresh basil and thyme, earthy potatoes and carrots, sweet berries and spicy pepper, and abundantly more beyond that.

As Andreas Weber writes in Matter and Desire: “The vivacity that we experience in the old, densely interwoven network of relationship is an offering without expectation of return: an expression of life that enlivens.” This much we know: but do we act according to this deeply natural principle of gifting?

Do we act according to this deeply natural principle of gifting?

This is an age-old question, and is one that is often answered too eagerly, with the intention of painting humans with a broad, uninformed stroke.

“Humans take,” we hear, “humans are greedy”. “Humans have created institutions, systems, entire economies to take.” We sometimes also hear quantified versions of these statements: that reciprocal relationships are a thing of the past, and that “we” “used to” practice living in that way, but not anymore. But to say this is to turn away from entire cultures and communities who have always, and still, live according to reciprocity, who understand that the living world gifts, and what we take is a gift, and we return the gift however we can—it is not a precise measurement, nor is it ever truly one-to-one.

Ayisha Siddiqa shares, for example, that “Food is sacred in communities like my mother’s. It is begun with prayer and we ask the things we are eating permission and nourishment followed by an acknowledge that animal life is no more precious than ours.” She adds: “Tribal communities are connected to the cycles of life because no sacrifice of plant life or animal life is removed from our immediate reality. … Meat is a rare luxury in many villages, only made in cold weather or ceremonies. Even then, people take only as much as we can consume and need.”

Perhaps similarly, in Matter and Desire, Andreas Weber shares that [Lewis] Hyde “reports about a Maori tribe whose members regularly carry parts of the quarry from their hunt and the bounty of their harvest into the woods in order to symbolically nurture the productive power of these other beings. There, the food breaks down, consumed by animals and transformed by mushrooms, and it does, in fact, reenter the cycle of becoming and dissipating.”

In both of these cultures, perhaps as Weber proposes, humans “know that the “circle of the gift” must not be broken if the nourishing powers of the natural world are not to run dry.” This is acting in accordance with “deep ecological insight”.

It is not so much about the act of returning the gift necessarily, as it is more about a recognition that when we take, whether we know we are doing so or not, we are part of a wider, ongoing process of life-giving and life-taking.

Living urbanised, consumerist, capitalistic existences have severed our ties with this: though if we pay attention, even to ourselves, we will all be able to see that even we embody this principle: the air we breathe out can be seen as a gift to the plants around us.

As Weber writes: “nothing living can be possessed. It obliges one to offer up a part of one’s own life comforts in order to strengthen the aliveness of all others.” When we deeply understand and enact this ecological principle, inevitably the question is: how can I be of service to life? How can I be a creature that enlivens?

Robin Wall Kimmerer writes: “I’ve been told that my Potawatomi ancestors taught that the job of a human person is to learn, “What can I give in return for the gifts of the Earth?” This is a question so fundamental to our being that it holds a central place in the mythic creation story of our people, a story shared by the first peoples of the Great Lakes.”

Kimmerer and Weber converge on this point: “every perception is given to us.” Paying attention is the gift. Paying attention is a gift. This is an act that is so profound, it requires several meditations to understand. Kimmerer reminds us that it’s “appropriate that we call it paying attention … for attention, we all know too well, is a limited resource.” The payment, and paying, of attention, can never truly be quantified by capitalistic markets. Because what happens in a moment of paying attention can be magnified immeasurably. Paying attention, in whatever form of sensorial perception, is a greatly participatory process. Inherently, it involves layer upon layer of contact, which, with awareness, represents erotic participation on and in Earth. And Eros, as is applied here, is according to Weber’s interpretation of Eros: as sensuous, ecological, life-giving.

“We are only able to see because the energy of a photon bends around the protein stacks of our photoreceptors. In order to pass the stimulus along, channels for charged particles must be established in the cell membrane. The energy for this is provided by the transformation of substances that we put into our mouths and chew. Perceiving warmth means that the physical forms of the antennae of certain sensory cells have been deformed by infrared waves. In order to read the data found in DNA, their strings must be channeled through complex formations of protein.

When an animal smells a fellow member of its species, the scent causes a physical deformation of certain areas of the sensory cells in the nose. Birdsong makes the air vibrate, which in turn sets perceptive membranes like our eardrums in motion, which subsequently transfers the vibrations to incredibly fine, sensitive hairs rooted in fluid, which finally pass on the stimulus through the excitation of electrically charged atoms. All this is touch.

All of these are examples of physical encounters, without which no abstract information could be processed in the biosphere. All of these are examples of how deeply we are enclosed within a cosmos of contact and caresses.”

Andreas Weber, Matter and Desire

Every perception is living and life-giving: “every encounter is a communion, an exchange of gifts, a feast.” The biological, physical events that happen within a moment of living perception mean that the moment itself is generative and full of life, and evidence of life. And there is more beyond the moment itself too.

As Kimmerer explains: “attention generates wonder, which generates more attention … Paying attention to the more-than-human world doesn’t lead only to amazement; it leads also to acknowledgment of pain. Open and attentive, we see and feel equally the beauty and the wounds, the old growth and the clear-cut, the mountain and the mine. Paying attention to suffering sharpens our ability to respond. To be responsible.”

Today I am meditating on the idea that perception is the gifting. To ourselves, and to the Earth: the act can be the acknowledgement of the circle of the gift, and it is already the enactment of it. The question that follows then is can we be more involved in this act?

Can we slow down enough to feel the erotic, ecological processes that are happening? Can we tune into the sensorial, through which we cross the worlds of perception, into attention, and into relationship? Can we settle into the worldly, earthly relationships we are already unconsciously, subconsciously a part of, reject anonymity, disconnection and loneliness, and re-invoke awareness, intention, participation and consent? How can we acknowledge our existence as in service to the circle of the gift?

“The world, it seems, longs to receive gifts and to offer new things itself. A new cosmos opens up here; the world of an ethics of the gift.”

Andreas Weber, Matter and Desire


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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