How to Engage an Octopus
Updated: Jun 11, 2018
People often ask me about my favorite writings related to relationships and self development. It turns out, the article I find most provocative was not intended to be a reflection on relationships at all but an article about an octopus.
“What is it like to be an Octopus” is an intriguing article written by Boria Sax and illuminates how we approach questions about “what it’s like” to be something or someone else.
Sax discusses the wonder of the octopus and how difficult it is for us to understand the world of an octopus from the human perspective. Octopuses are incredibly intelligent creatures, but their thinking is fundamentally different from that of a human. An overly simplistic, and likely biologically butchered explanation, is that an octopus thinks with its arms. Each of the arms is somewhat independent of the other in its ability to think and act. It’s as if it each arm has a mind of its own, so much so that if one of the arms is severed it will continue to seek food and act independently. In order to imagine ourselves as an octopus Sax states, “we must divide our very consciousness into at least seven parts, six arms or more and a head. To imagine this, you might think of seven friends or brothers, so close that they seem to be inseparable.”
The article is applicable because it approaches the “what is it like” question with the wonder, reverence and awe necessary to facilitate engagement with the other. To understand the thinking of the octopus one must have patience for complex and messy theory. The octopus has captured the attention of many philosophers seeking to gain a better understanding of the human reality. Sax and others choose to explore the octopus because its experience is so distinctly and fundamentally different than that of a human.
The “what is it like” question is crucial to discovery of self and discovery of other. It is the driving question in my work as a Marriage and Family Therapist. Individuals, partners and families come to therapy because they are struggling to engage in the “what it’s like” dialogue. What if we approached the “what it’s like” question in our relationships the same way philosophers approach the question of the octopus? It seems this stance could greatly benefit our relationships.
Approach the “what it’s like” question with wonder and awe. Distinctive otherness makes this question easier, as we assume we know nothing. When we suspend judgement we make space for discovery. Discovery ignites wonder. Appreciation and awe follow wonder, creating an appreciation of the otherness. When driving to a new place in an unfamiliar region I am more likely to look up directions and carefully follow them to my destination. Along the way I marvel at the landscape and appreciate the view. But I am more likely to get lost when I am traveling to a new, yet familiar, place. I assume I know the way and am less present in the process of navigation. I neglect to ask directions and before I know it I am lost. A premature “me too” gets in the way of deeper understanding, and relationships benefit when we can suspend the impulse to reference our own experience.
Think about your own thinking. Before beginning any exploration into the unknown, one must tether oneself to a point of reference. In the exploration of other, this point of reference is the self. Before we can understand the other we must become aware of assumptions we make based on our own experiences. This requires a practice of bringing attention to our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Self discovery is not a linear process and is harder than it looks. Self discovery is dependent on the ability to engage with the other as a point of comparison. David Foster Wallace infamously articulated this conundrum when he asserted that a fish is unaware of the very water in which he swims. Relationships benefit when we are able to understand the “water” in which we swim.
Engage in relationship to increase knowledge of self and knowledge of other. There is a reciprocal process between knowledge of self and knowledge of other. This is the power of relationship. Philosophers who studied the octopus gained insights into human thinking by engaging with the most foreign of earthly creatures. The more we learn about the other, the more we learn about ourselves. The more we understand ourselves, the more we can understand the other. Enlightenment requires that we clash into our differences. Sometimes we are afraid to discover differences because we believe it will sever connection. But we cannot discover our similarities without discovering difference. As scientists compare humans to octopuses they uncovered similarities in a creature that they assumed was foreign. This process illuminated the truth that we can be fundamentally different yet have commonality. Through this commonality we can simultaneously find connection and diversity. Relationships benefit when we are able to live in the tension of similarity and difference.
Understand the limit to understanding. The gap between a first-person and a third-person point of view is inescapable. As Sax says in his article, “Having an experience will always be different from having a description of it.” These limits to understanding other’s experiences can breed frustration and conflict. Often these are the times we want to cut off from the other. We may say, “I don’t get them, and they don’t get me.” It can be upsetting to not understand the actions of the other. But this is when the ability to see the other with wonder and awe becomes so necessary to maintain relationship. We must see the other’s behaviors and appreciate that although they are different than our own, they serve a function. Often times we get so stuck in trying to understand with our head, that we cannot relate with our heart. The way Sax approaches the octopus has captivated me and enriched my appreciation for the creature. I see the octopus as a unique soul now in a way that makes me want to learn more and increase my connection to it. Relationships benefit when we approach the “other” with this sort of respectful curiosity.
Know which life experiences have taken on minds of their own. If an octopus loses its arm, the arm will continue to operate on its own. We all have experiences that left unexamined and unintegrated can go rogue and inform our experiences in the here and now. When we are aware of the way in which past experiences influence our current understanding we can better respond to what is in front of us.
Honor others in their entirety (aka know when to ditch the scientist hat). We can avoid limiting our genuine understanding of others by being mindful of the things we may impose on others, positive or negative. The unknown can easily become a blank canvas for our projections. We can also create overly simplistic categories in efforts to understand the other. We must learn to tolerate the unclassifiable, the grey, and even conflicting thoughts. This is when it may be helpful to abandon the scientist hat for that of a fellow voyager on our vast planet and return to wonder.