here and now

January 24, 2013


I have a keen interest in Indigenous ways of being, knowing and doing. I think there is a lot we can learn from gaining an understanding of other people’s stories and culture. Hearing these stories, we are sometimes challenged to look outside of our accepted ways and we gain deeper insight into who we are, and what we think and do. We saw a documentary on the television last night called “The Grammar of Happiness”.

It was about the Piraha people in the Amazon and a researcher named Dan Everett. Dr Everett has researched the Pihara language for thirty years and says that the people do not use past or future tense. They also have no language for colours or numbers. Imagine that you only used present tense for all of your communications – it would have to change how you think and how you lived your life. Think about an interaction you had with someone recently. If you removed all of the past and future stuff, what would be left?

The Pihara seem to have a ‘here and now’ quality to their life. They live a hunter gatherer lifestyle, with no fixed dwellings and no agriculture. They don’t believe in a God and say that they are only concerned with what is happening on the ground at this moment. Apparently they don’t have any creation myths. I wondered about a spirit life. Many people living a traditional life have a language around the spirits of the environment they are living in. I didn’t get any answers from the documentary, so I looked online, and they do talk about their experience of spirits. Of course, they have a detailed knowledge of their environment and how to live in it.

How would you experience life if you lived this way? Not worrying about what happened in the past, especially with those things you have not witnessed yourself. Not worrying about what will happen in the future. Not worrying about how you came to be here and what your life’s purpose is. Just being.

We have a past and future-oriented culture. It seems that there is a growth industry in people earning an income to help others to sort out the sorrows of their past and to map out their hopes and dreams for the future. There is a saying that goes something like this “if your head is in the past or in the future, you are not living in the present”.

In the documentary I saw some evidence of the people talking about the future but it was very short-term. One woman was talking about her partner going out to catch some fish, and she said that he might come back with nothing. It seemed that she was teasing him. The people certainly would be justified in having some concern for their future and their way of life as  the modern world creeps up on them. They say they don’t want it, but they don’t seem overly bothered by it because it hasn’t happened yet.

I’m not sure if they reminisce, talk about their children when they were babies as we do. I’m not sure if having no language about the past means that you don’t bear a grudge. Does having no future tense eliminate fear? It wasn’t mentioned if they have language for emotional states, but I would be interested to find out. Dr Everett says he has never seen any mental illness amongst the people. I love the work I do, but I would happily give it up to see every child living a life free of anguish, a world with no need for my skills.

The Pihara’s lack of language for numbers means that they have either none, a few, or a lot. That’s it. If you asked a Pihara woman how many children she has she would name them. That’s nice isn’t it?

The documentary has lots of lovely visuals of mothers caring for babies, older children caring for younger children, monkeys and dogs living with the families (although they catch and eat monkeys living in the trees), and toddlers practicing their archery skils. Dr Everett said that boys have all the survival skills they need by the age of 9 or 10 years of age.

This is a simplistic view. An hour-long documentary cannot convey the complexities of a language and culture that has developed over thousands of years. However, this documentary has affected me in ways that I will continue to reflect upon. Today, I’m going to experiment with not using present and future tense and see what comes of it.

“Having spent the better part of my life trying either to relive the past or experience the future before it arrives, I have come to believe that in between these two extremes is peace.” ~Author Unknown


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