The Ground of Our Being Touches Us

“The foot feels the foot when the foot feels the ground.”

That quote by Ernest Wood is often misattributed to the Buddha. And it does express a Buddhist-like thought. Take the notion of co-touching from the Samyukta Nikaya:

“Who touches not is not touched. Touching he is touched.”

That being “touched by touch” (Thag vs.783) is a part of dependent co-arising and the bundle theory of mind, both central tenets of Buddhism (Robert Alvarado, The Foot Feels the Foot When It Feels the Ground). The separate, autonomous, and self-willed egoic-consciousness is not fundamentally real.

Everything that exists does so not as a ‘thing’ but as a feeling, a process, a movement, and a relationship. The self or any part of the self (e.g., the foot) emerges in awareness through interaction with the experienced world and perceived other. This is the sensory and social world as the ground of our being.

One theory in social science suggests that humans develop a theory of mind about others first before internalizing it as a self concept. So, the self is the introjected other. It’s similar to Lev Vygotsky’s private speech or self-talk, as a precursor to inner speech, that is the child’s imitation of adults talking to the child (Speaking Is Hearing).

We all begin life by first talking to ourselves as an other. And we carry this into adulthood. When you talk to yourself, who are you talking to and who is doing the talking? The other forever defines us, as if if the ground were to leave a print on our foot.

To the mind, the developing mind most of all, the world around us provides affordances (James J. Gibson) for actions and other behavior (The Embodied Spider; & “…just order themselves.”). These are known more for what they make possible and allow than for what they supposedly are, their socially constructed thingness.

We never know the world except as our experience of the world, since there is no self to know or experience without the world. The world is the primal self. The self is in and of the world. There is nowhere else to be.

That is why there is no foot in and of itself within awareness, no Platonic ideal of a ‘foot’, not without the ground that affords the foot the capacity to express it’s instinctual nature of footness. If one were to be so cruel as to completely bind an infant’s foot so that it could never move, it would shrivel up into crippled paralysis with little if any sensation.

The very sense of self would be constrained and the lesser for it. To emphasize this point, consider that the infant that is not touched at all simply dies. A foot is the touch and movement of the foot in relation to the ground. We aren’t separate from the world, not outside it, but immersed in it and an extension of it.

We need touch. We are touch. We touch by being touched.

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There are two ways you can demonstrate such truths to yourself. The first method is to practice meditation and mindfulness for years, preferably under the guidance of a religious or spiritual teacher, guru, etc. That is arguably worth the effort. But it does require commitment, effort, and sacrifice; and, admittedly, most of us feel too lazy to try.

If you just want to get a small taste of it, sit or stand completely still while softly and unblinkingly gazing at an unchanging visual field (e.g., an indoor wall). Give it a minute or so and your entire vision will go blank, not even go black but simply to disappear as an experience. Sensory perception is dependent on movement and change, either in the environment or from our bodies.

There is another self-experiment one can do. The above quote about the foot feeling the ground can be taken literally. Take your shoes off and actually feel the ground. Walk around your lawn. Maybe even go for a jog, if you have somewhere nice and safe for your tender feet. Try that for a few weeks or a few months. Being barefoot is the normal state of humanity, quite likely what Ernest Wood was doing when he had the above thought.

Feel what it’s like to not have your feet bound and numbed in tight shoes, thick soles, and synthetic materials. Feel what it’s like to be electromagnetically grounded, physically connected, and sensorily in relationship to the earth. The affordance of the earth is far different than the affordance (or rather unaffordance) of modern footwear.

Each will elicit different ways of inhabiting one’s body, moving in the world, and perceiving reality; maybe even altering one’s very sense of identity. Then contemplate all the thousands of other ways we are disconnected, distracted, and numbed from direct sensory experience of the natural world. That is how the isolated self is socially constructed, supported, and maintained. These rigid boundaries of self are the defensive walls of egoic consciousness.

* * *

It’s interesting to consider the fact that Buddhism arose in an environment where most people in the past walked around barefoot, since is its a warmer clime and industrialization took hold much more slowly. That is true of other religious traditions, like Hinduism and animism, that question or refute or simply never acknowledge the ego-self. Would the bundle theory of mind even occur in a society where everyone had worn shoes for centuries or millennia?

Even Western philosophers like David Hume who have written about the bundle theory of mind, as some argue, likely learned of it from Christian missionaries having returned from the East. These were ideas that apparently never originated in the West or, if they did, it was so long ago they were forgotten; maybe back when Europe was still tribal and animistic, back when footwear would’ve been more akin to a moccasin that doesn’t desensitize the foot.

Shoes are only needed in needed in colder regions, such as  Europe and North America; and only needed on rough ground, such as plowed fields. Maybe that is a causal or contributing factor to such a strong tradition of egoic individualism developing there. The European and American traditions of Christianity fear and disparage connection to nature. Maybe a long history of wearing shoes has predisposed people to that experience and worldview, identity and way of being.

That reminds one of the WEIRD cultural bias (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) that correlates to a unique profile of personality traits and social behaviors. One researcher and writer on the topic, Joseph Henrich (The WEIRDest People in the World), argues for various causes for this development in the modern West, from Catholic marriage laws to literacy rates. But maybe footwear should be added to this list.

Written laws and written texts are examples of media that are made possible by media technology (e.g., bound books and moveable type printing presses). Footwear likewise mediates our sensory experience of reality and hence footwear could be considered a media technology. It shapes not only the foot but also the foot-mind-eye axis, as a core dynamic function within the body-mind-world axis — proprioception and perception.

Besides Joseph Henrich, numerous others have theorized about mediated reality: Marshall McLuhan, E. R. Dodds, Bruno Snell, Julian Jaynes, Eric Havelock, etc. But the main focus has been on language, specifically written language. That is important in a literary culture with high rates of literacy. Nonetheless, footwear have been more central and earlier introduced to Western culture. And it’s the modern thick, bulky, and constraining shoe that has become so common over the past few centuries, in relation to our altering the environment so that such protective footwear is needed.

* * *

This post is another ripple in a river of thought. We’ve been slowly building upon a theory about the physical aspects of social constructivism: the infrastructure and apparatuses and systems that shape and confine us, the lifeway patterns and pathway dependencies that predetermine and preclude our individual and collective behaviors, the ideological interpellation that hails us with voices of authority and authorization, the metonymic and metaphorical framings that came with changes in media technology.

This involves agricultural system, food laws, and dietary ideology; land reform as moral reform and substance control as social control. One can show an increasing shift, across recent millennia (particularly starting in the axial Age but speeding up in modernity), from non-addictive psychedelics and evolutionarily-consistent foods to addictive sedatives, stimulants, and high-carb foods (alcohol, opium, cocaine, tea, coffee, sugar cane, grains, etc).

All of these things, it can be argued, rigidified psychological and social boundaries. Yet no single factor alone would likely have made possible and probable the emergence of the post-bicameral, post-axial, and post-traditional hyper-individualistic Jaynesian egoic consciousness of the body-mind as isolated-subject and container-object. It was also the continuing development along each technological line that forced the transformation.

Footwear has been around for millennia, whereas more recent is the invention of shoes that are highly-restrictive, thick-soled, and synthetically non-conductive.  Similarly, language existed for millennia prior to writing, bound books, printing presses, e-books, email, texting, etc. Even written language operated far back in the archaic world but only in a minimalistic fashion, primarily as bureaucratic accounting, before it ever developed into literacy as we know it. There are still other tools of identity formation like transitional objects (teddy bears, pacifiers, etc) that were or are not common in premodern or non-WEIRD societies.

The development and accrual of changes formed slowly, if the results sometimes only fully erupted following a triggering point (e.g., Bronze Age collapse). Those eruptions allowed for a destabilizing or destruction of some former pathway dependencies, in order to lay down new foundations, but always using the material of what came before. Still, some pathway dependencies were so entrenched they remained; if reshaped, restructured, and repurposed (e.g., written text).

This area of study also overlaps with with issues of physical health, mental health, and public health. Specifically, there is an interesting history of how dietary systems and food laws (e.g., Christianized Galenic humoralism) were used to enforce identity, culture, and social order. There has been an ongoing change in what is eaten that during modernity has led to disease epidemics, health crises, and moral panics. The relationship between diet and identity might’ve been more well appreciated in the past.

These contemplations are also mixed up with the study of archaic and ancient societies, along with the anthropological literature on animistic tribes. This particularly focuses on the transitional period from the late Bronze Age and it’s collapse to the Axial Age and the resultant post-Axial world. During the Bronze Age, there was what Julian Jaynes called the bicameral mind, a type of bundled mind, with voice-hearing traditions. Growth of size and complexity of the Mediterranean empires in the late Bronze Age is what caused their collapse, as overwhelmed by decades of natural disasters, refugee crises, and marauders.

That is what cleared the board to make way for the Axial Age, although the changes had already begun in the Bronze Age (e.g., written laws). One of the changes that didn’t happen until the Axial Age was the systematization of agriculture where former weedy farm fields became the focus of more intensive and controlled farming. This increased dependable surplus yields and so provided more agricultural foods in the diet, but it also meant better pest control, including eliminating most of the ergot that would take over unmanaged fields.

Ergot, as a psychedelic, was inevitably consumed on a more regular basis prior to this ancient agricultural reform, often unintentionally but sometimes on purpose as part of rituals. Interestingly, coinciding with lessening it in the food supply was also the appearance of cultivars of addictive substances like opium, sugar cane, etc. In Europe, there was a ‘regression’ after the fall of the Roman Empire. Some knowledge and practice of agricultural management was forgotten, as fields returned to being weedy again. Following that was what appears to have been regular mass ergot intoxications and sometimes deadly dancing manias, what is called ergotism or St. Anthony’s Fire.

Later agricultural reforms eliminated ergot again. Yet other psychedelics persisted in European culture. Medieval church imagery often portrays fly agaric ‘magic’ mushrooms. Such imagery continued into early modernity, as seen in Christmas cards.

* * *

Related to dietary practices and the food system, there is another connection that could be made. There were also agricultural differences between East and West. One study sought to discern agricultural differences as linked to socio-cultural and socio-cognitive differences. Yes, it’s true that Westerners grow more wheat and Easterners more rice; and it’s true that these agricultural systems require different relational patterns and practices. Wheat farming can be done by a single man with a plow, but rice farming requires numerous people working together and is more labor intensive in requiring twice as many hours of work. Furthermore, rice-growing communities have to collectively build and cooperatively maintain infrastructure (dikes and canals) for water management and irrigation.

Some have speculated that this constructs, encourages, and enforces divergent cultural identities and ways of thinking. This might be what underlies the stereotypical contrast between Eastern and Western thought. The former focuses more holistically, interdependently, and concretely on environment, background, and relationships; and the latter focuses more analytically, atomistically, and abstractly on the individual, foreground, and action. Also, descendants of rice-growers are more loyal to friends and family; while descendants of wheat-growers have more successful patents for new inventions. The thing is we don’t need to stop there with a simple hypothesis of causal link, since we can control some of the potential confounders by making a comparison within a single country, though still other confounders remained uncontrolled.

Wheat and other cereal crops (e.g., millet) are also grown in parts of Asia, specifically in northern China; while southern Chinese are rice farmers. Multiple studies have been done in comparing and contrasting the personalities, cultures, social practices, etc of these two agricultural populations. Even in the East, wheat farmers are more individualistic and rice farmers more communal. But also the same divide is seen in thinking styles with the Asian wheat farmers, as with European wheat farmers, in being more likely to use linear thought in focusing on isolated objects and subjects in the foreground while not noticing much about the overall context.

To return to the topic at hand, it might be useful to look at other aspects of what differentiates the two. Are Chinese wheat farmers more likely than Chinese rice farmers to wear shoes or boots more often and to wear shoes or boots with thicker soles and narrow enclosed toe boxes, as opposed to wearing thin, open-toed sandals or going barefoot? One suspects that would be the case.

It wouldn’t only be that the dirt clods of wheat fields are harder on the feet than the soft mud of rice patties. The colder climate of northern China would require wearing thicker shoes for a large part of the year for protection against coldness, discomfort, and frostbite. Interestingly, a similar pattern is seen in Europe as well with the concentration of wheat farming countries in the north with their long history of Protestant-style individualism, as contrasted to southern European Catholicism and communalism. A better and more comparable example is the United States.

Wheat-farming, of course, has been practiced in the northern states for a long time; but also rice-farming has been common in a large swath of the Deep South, what is called the Rice Belt. Similar to southern China, “even when the correlations were examined only within the Deep and Peripheral South, the correlations of collectivism with cotton and rice production remained strong” (Dov Cohen, Patterns of Individualism and Collectivism Across the United States). That is strong supporting evidence. To link it back to the main topic, for most of Southern history in the US, going barefoot was far more common. That has contributed to greater hookworm rates, as this parasite tends to enter through the sole of the foot from infested soil. Also, note that wheat-farming and industrialization has been concentrated in the northern states, as was the case in northern Europe. Industrialization, by the way, is the letter ‘I’ in the WEIRD acronym; and maybe the letter ‘W’ for Western could equally represent wheat-farming.

When we think of farming cultures and practices as affecting identity, personality, and mentality, we rarely think about what people are physically wearing as being causally significant or even relevant. But consider that the person in a colder climate is not only more likely to have restrictive, binding, and thick footwear but also restrictive, binding, and thick clothing and outdoor gear. Maybe it’s no mere coincidence that, for example, many animistic tribes with their extremes of a bundled mind tend to go barefoot entirely and often to barely wear any clothing at all, other than maybe a breech cloth (e.g., Piraha). Even among farming societies, some where heavy, cumbersome clothing and others lighter and looser (e.g., the sarong common in the East).

It is interesting how much our society, particularly among intellectuals and scholars (i.e., the literary elite), is obsessed with language and, most of all, written language. We have the most literary culture that has ever existed since language was invented. And it’s precisely populations with high rates of literacy that are the most WEIRD, to the extent that brain scans shows it alters the development of brain structure and neurocognition (see Joseph Henrich).

As such, we Weirdos see everything through language and text (e.g., this post here), and so that is the primary lens through which we understand the world and humanity. There is an obsession with the study of language, from text to new media: philology, postmodernism, linguistic relativity, metaphor theory, etc. So, language and the media of language gets disproportionate credit and blame for much of the changes, problems, and advancements in society. The differences between the cultures and mentalities of East and West are often placed within a linguistic frame.

But even when language isn’t the focus, what we emphasize is often something else that is equally less tangible. When farming is studied, what researchers tend to isolate out as causal are how people relate and act within different agricultural systems, the kind of thing that is harder to measure objectively. Oddly, it almost never occurs to them to think about the most basic and concrete factors like what is grown and eaten in affecting the body-mind, despite the vast knowledge we’ve accrued in nutrition studies. Diets determine nutritional profiles and biological functioning, one of the most powerful affects on neurocognitive development.

Or consider how one of the most transformative changes in all of human existence was the agricultural revolution in general, no matter if wheat or rice or whatever else. It increased size and concentration of human populations, increased size and concentration of domesticated animal populations, and increased contact between humans and animals. It also increased pathogen exposure and parasite load, both of which research shows to raise the measures of social conservatism and authoritarianism, insularity and collectivism, which are not only correlated to social behaviors but also altered personality traits (low openness, high conscientiousness, etc) and brain structure (e.g., larger amygdala).

Pathogen and parasite levels do follow a regional pattern as well, more near the Equator and less the further away; although this can’t entirely explain the agricultural differences. Thomas “Talhelm’s study found that Chinese students who lived just south or just north of the rice-wheat divide were as different from each other as students from the far south and the far north. And he noted rice-producing Japan scores uniformly high on the collectivist scale, even though the country is cooler and wealthier than most of China” (Bryan Walsh, In China, Personality Could Come Down to Rice Versus Wheat). Even rice-growing islands in the north fall in line with the southern pattern of behavior and personality (X. Dong, T. Talhelm, & X. Ren, Teens in Rice County Are More Interdependent and Think More Holistically Than Nearby Wheat County). Do people in all Chinese rice-growing populations, whether south or north, have similar footwear?

On the other hand, Walsh writes, “The rice theory isn’t foolproof. It’s almost certain that none of the young Chinese college students participating in Talhelm’s study have any direct experience with wheat or rice farming, which raises the question of how these psychological values are transmitted.” Maybe it’s not entirely about who is growing which crop and how it is grown, as part of a socio-cultural order. Instead, it’s possible that more important is who is eating which crop. Chinese, in general, are less individualistic than Westerners, no matter which region they live in. The simplest explanation could be that, as part of a national food system, all Chinese on average eat more rice and less wheat than Westerners. It might be about nutritional differences in each crop (e.g., gluten).

Then again, it could be something else not directly related to the crop or diet. Different kinds of farming in different environments and climates will incur different public health conditions and hence different physical health of individuals. The contrast between rice and wheat farmers goes far beyond merely how people socially organize within an agricultural system or what they eat within a food system. After all, what kind of footwear one wears or does not wear depends entirely on the agricultural system and all that is involved with it, such as infrastructure, housing, etc. Enclosed footwear, for example, could be protective against parasites and pathogens when the ground is covered in human and animal feces. So, it would depend also on the animal side of the farming equation.

None of the studies that we’ve seen, however, have ever been concerned with or curious about these kinds of confounding factors. This is a vast cultural blind spot. We forget that we are embodied minds that are co-extensive with the physical world around us, not to mention bundled minds in a bundled world. It rarely, if ever, occurs to us to think about something so simple as what we are wearing. Yet footwear, like a thousand other unrecognized factors, potentially has immense impact on us.

Spend some time observing people with modern synthetic shoes. Most of them walk stiffly, awkwardly, and often flat-footed; not to mention demonstrating an unbalanced and ungrounded way of physically holding themselves. Obviously, many people aren’t comfortable in their own bodies, absolute the opposite of barefoot indigenous people. Maybe simple things like footwear affect us far more profoundly than we are aware of, to the point of affecting our ability to grasp the Buddhist truth that to touch is to be touched.

Also, the combination of other unacknowledged factors could create a greater influence than any single factor alone. It would be a cumulative effect over a lifetime. So, yes, shoes will stunt and distort the bone and soft tissue development of the feet. There would be a lack of musculature and mobility that would make one prone to injury, not only in the feet but also from the stress caused in how it would throw off the movement of other joints, particularly the knees and hips. The feet are the foundation of the body, the contact and connecting point between body and world, and hence the mediating point in the sense of the embodied and enworlded self.

Diet and nutrition could exacerbate problems related to the feet and everything influenced by it. Dr. Weston A. Price, for example, observed that populations with deficiencies in fat-soluble vitamins had worse bone development: thin bones, asymmetrical features, narrow shoulders, narrow chests, caved-in chests, narrow jaws, crowded teeth, etc. But this also affected the bones in the feet: pigeon toes, flat feet, etc. This probably would make the feet narrower like all the rest.

Combine that with further squishing the feet even narrower into confining shoes. Most modern people are being crippled from a young age. We modern Westerners feel morally superior than the premodern Chinese who bound the feet of girls, and yet we also bind the feet of not only girls but also boys and then continue to do so into adulthood. No doubt, the premodern Chinese bound girls feet precisely because it alters behavior and is used for the social constructivism of particular personality traits and social roles, maybe not unlike hobbling a horse to make it more calm and controllable.

What might our own practice of foot-binding have on the entire population? When we personally observe or scientifically study our fellow humans, we tend to look to their faces, heads, arms, and upper bodies; in terms of their gaze, expression, tone of voice, gestures, etc. That is what we think most as defining who a person is, whereas their lower body of hips, legs, and feet is secondary as almost a mere extension of the upper body. We might be wiser to spend more time looking down to the literal ground of our being.

Wheat versus Rice: