Wednesday, 8 December 2010

I-Thou: making cosmic connections

‘The It is the eternal chrysalis, the Thou the eternal butterfly’ - Martin Buber

Several days ago, I climbed inside a snowdrift. I had been taking photographs of the extraordinary weather conditions that we’ve experienced over the past week here in West Yorkshire and became intrigued by the smooth contours of a particular drift. If you can imagine, the drift itself at its highest point was around six feet tall but the strong winds had crafted the snow into a circular container. If I looked to the North or the East I could see nothing but the purest blue-white snow. When I gazed out to the West where the drift was waist-high, the snow-covered valleys and the moors beyond stood out like a white patchwork quilt brushed with soft buttery tones of low sunlight. To the South, where the drift was a mere two-foot high, I could look back down the lane: a corridor of undulating snow-waves edged by the glittering, snow-covered bushes in the hedgerows.

I stood … and I listened. At first, I heard nothing. As my senses slowly acclimatised to the silence I began to notice sounds: a plane humming gently, miles high in an azure sky … the dying of a leaf’s slow fall to earth … the sudden sound of a finch’s breath chattering life into the freeze of a morning. I looked into the snow and saw the different shades of white, pushed my fingers into the soft crush of its texture and, putting them to my mouth, tasted the melt of its chilly essence on my tongue.

The next thing I remember is the throaty grumble of a passing Land Rover pulling me from my reverie. Yet time had most certainly passed between my experiencing of the snow and my moment of awakening. At some point in space my glacial cocoon had ceased to be an It, as I became bound up in relation to it. As Martin Buber writes, I had been ‘seized by the power of exclusiveness.’

What does Buber mean by this? In his seminal text I and Thou he describes his encounter with a tree. ‘I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background.’ Despite Buber’s poetic description of the tree it remains an object to him: a structure standing tall in space and time. However, as he is drawn into the heartwood of the tree, he is no longer separated from it. He does not physically touch the tree, yet he has joined with it in a spiritual way. He is in a state of I-Thou, where all the individual components of the tree and its widest surroundings have fused into a wholeness that includes him too.

Buber likens this spiritual joining with an ‘other’ to the pre-natal life of a child within its mother’s womb. ‘In the mother’s body,’ he writes, ‘man knows the universe, in birth he forgets it.’ In the primal world of the mother’s womb there is a ‘cosmic connection’ between the unborn child and its mother. When birth occurs and the cord is cut, the child experiences separation for the first time: a world of other-than-me objects. From the moment the child inhales its first lungful of air, the desire for that primary connection with its true Thou will dwell in its spirit for the remainder of its breathing life.

Inside my snow pod it seems the absolute wonder of nature had captured my Thou. I had lost contact with its individual parts (the snow, the sounds, the surrounding countryside) and stepped into the glory of the whole. Only when I was jerked out of that space by the jeep’s approach did my relationship with the eternal Thou melt away and the objective experience of being in the drift kick back in.

Back home, sat by the fireside sipping steaming hot coffee and biting into a slice of freshly buttered toast, I considered this comfortable world of objects that offers me all manner of incitements, activities and rewards. Surely, I thought, the reassuring presence of the familiar is more precious to us than the odd, ephemeral drift into the sublime? And aren’t such ethereal encounters merely dalliances: a few minutes of escapism as we step out of a difficult and dirty world into a bubble of pure self-indulgence?

Shivers of my earlier communion with nature purled down my spine: big feelings that countered my rhetoric better than any words could. Without It (the concrete components of our world), I realised, we cannot live – but he (sic) who lives with It alone … he who never reaches beyond the security of a world of familiar things … will never step into the cool light of creation; never come to feel the reckless joy of I-Thou;

First Snow – by Mary Oliver
The snow
began here
this morning and all day
continued, its white
rhetoric everywhere
calling us back to why, how,
whence such beauty and what
the meaning; such
an oracular fever! flowing
past windows, an energy it seemed
would never ebb, never settle
less than lovely! and only now,
deep into night,
it has finally ended.
The silence
is immense,
and the heavens still hold
a million candles, nowhere
the familiar things:
stars, the moon,
the darkness we expect
and nightly turn from. Trees
glitter like castles
of ribbons, the broad fields
smolder with light, a passing
creekbed lies
heaped with shining hills;
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain — not a single
answer has been found –
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.


  1. Wonderful use of the snow as an analogy for life. I've long struggled with allowing my world to be small, made up of a few familiar things. More recently though I have made a concerted effort to evolve and expand, to take more risks. I know with certainly the result will be this I-Thou that you are speaking about. My chance to dip my toe in the pool of life, to learn and experience new things. It frightens me, but I want that more than anything. Thank you for writing this beautiful and inspiring piece.

  2. Thank you for such lovely comments, Heidi. For me, the most rewarding thing about posting on a blog is when someone really connects with your writing & takes something positive from it (as I inevitably do with your words). Your ambivalence about learning & experiencing new things is clear to see ... but, for me, that is a state of being to be welcomed & expected. If we didn't feel that tinge of fear when faced with something new under the sun it would suggest to me a degree of complacency. I believe we need the heart to be involved in order to feel the experience and connect with it at the deepest level. Once again, a sincere 'thank you' for your response.

  3. Beautiful writing, Peter. I didn't always have awareness of these things (or at least, had never really thought about it)having 'shut out' a lot of what I was feeling. But through mindfulness and spirituality I have 'awakened' & I feel a vibrancy in life that I never used to. I even enjoy going out and getting wet in the rain these days! *smiles* Because of the very fact of feeling so good when drying off after with a cup of tea. There's nothing like it. I intend to embrace what I can now, make up a bit for those 'lost' years. No doubt I'll be terrified sometimes....but that is living. :) Thank you for pointing me to this...a wonderful piece. xo

  4. Thanks Louise ~ so good to know that you have 'awakened' to such moments. I guess it feels as if your soul has been opened after being closed off for so long? It's such a beautiful & virtually indescribable feeling, isn't it, when you do awaken after experiencing'the glory of the whole' ... the absolute joy of having been in an I-Thou encounter :)