The Fish Bowl

Not too long ago I was sitting in the waiting room of a dentist’s office, patiently waiting my turn. The waiting room was small, and it was dominated by this huge aquarium, a very large fishbowl as it were. It was beautifully laid out with all kinds of colored gravel, fascinating rocks and plants, and of course an amazingly varied assortment of eye-grabbing fish. It was very peaceful watching them swim around this huge tank. But I also began to see something else here. The fish were in their own world and I was in my own world. The fish were seemingly aware of a boundary to their world–every once in a while a fish would bump up against the glass wall of the aquarium. Was I aware of the “boundary line” of my world?

What is more striking is that the fish seemed hardly aware of anything outside their world, what was beyond that “wall” they would hit once in a while. If you wiggled your fingers in front of the glass, you would elicit a slight reaction from some of them. But the comings and goings in the room seemed not to affect them at all–contrast that with a dog or cat in the room. So they exist in “another world” from us–the dog or cat are “more” part of our world. Now what I am getting at is this parable of the fish bowl. We all live in a kind of fish bowl with boundaries that we are hardly aware of; and at the same time most of us have no inkling of any other possibilities beyond that fish bowl life of ours. A few of us catch a glimmer here or there and perhaps we might want to tell our fellow fish-bowl inhabitants, but it is almost useless and truly futile. To know what is really beyond that boundary wall of our fish bowl we would need to radically experience a different kind of life.

Now this fish bowl thing comes in every aspect and level of our life. There is the political fish bowl; the economic fish bowl; the cultural fish bowl; even the physical fish bowl; and, yes, there is also the religious fish bowl. It is important to realize at this point that there is not necessarily anything wrong with this. Nor am I talking about our individual, personal kind of limitations. No, I am referring to structures whether they be the “given” of our environment or the “created” by our various cultures. These structures may very well be beautiful and/or well-made–that’s not the point of what I am saying. In a sense that’s irrelevant–whether the plants and rocks are arranged in a nice way or a horrible way, at some point some of us begin to wonder what’s beyond that “glass wall.” So what I am getting at is simply to recognize that you and I are living in a very real fish bowl.

Let’s consider the physical fish bowl first. I am sitting on a mountain in the Sierra Nevada. What a view in all directions from 10,000 feet up. What a beautiful world we live in. I can see for miles and miles; and at night, on a moonless night, the whole sky is lit up with countless stars that are light years away, hundreds of light years, thousands, millions, even billions. It is truly mind-boggling how vast this universe is; totally unimaginable the scope of the space between galaxies. That fuzzy patch in the sky is the Andromeda Galaxy, over 3 million light years away–that’s light traveling at 186,000 miles a second would need 3 million years to reach earth. So when you see that fuzzy patch of light you are looking at light that left that galaxy 3 million years ago!! Such enormity is almost beyond imagining, and yet, and yet, it is still a fish bowl…. An incredibly huge fish bowl, but still a fish bowl. What lies “beyond” this awe-inspiring vista? Like good Platonists we might meditate on the beauty before us and intuit that there is something “beyond” that and which is the foundation for it all. In a sense, when we ponder this beauty in the right state of mind we are responding to those “fingers wiggling” outside the fishbowl. There is a world “beyond.” But this “beyond” is not beyond like the galaxies…it is of an order that is something totally other. Of course we might also just exploit everything around us, the fishbowl as “resource,” and thrash about our fishbowl and be totally ignorant of it all. That is the more common thing.

Ok, there are all these other fishbowls that we inhabit: the economic, the political, the cultural…. It is amazing how we absolutize the boundaries around the worlds we inhabit…and so other possibilities become almost impossible. But I am not going to waste any time on these fishbowls but go on to something much more interesting to me: the religious fishbowl. This one is a tough one for all of us to deal with. Whatever religious structures we are part of and committed to, well, these do seem to be absolute and “final,” “all-defining.” No matter which tradition we are part of it is in fact a very real fishbowl: Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Moslem…. And like I said before there’s nothing negative implied in saying this. That is simply reality and very normal: we are the pretty fish swimming around among our beautiful plants and rocks that makeup our tradition. It is the world in which we truly live and grow. However, some of us begin to sense a world “outside” our fishbowl; something there is that is “beyond” everything we know or claim to be true or experience as real. This is very difficult because we are so committed to our religious concepts, formulations, rituals, etc. This was certainly true of Merton; he wanted to learn from other traditions, especially Buddhism, because he sensed a whole spiritual world outside the formulations of his own tradition; but he did not really want to “tinker” with the key formulations of Christian spirituality. The person who went way beyond all that was Abhishiktananda. In a very real sense he seemed to do what is really impossible: live in two fishbowls at the same time! By the end of his life he was ready to reinterpret a lot of fundamental Christian formulations in the light of his new experience. He could no longer just swim along within the usual rocks and plants no matter how pretty they seemed.

But let’s be very clear about this: you are always in some fishbowl and it is a delusion to think that you “break free” by dropping your traditional symbols or changing your traditional formulations willy-nilly (as too many liberal Christians seem to believe). Each and every religious tradition is its own fishbowl but its adherents will hardly acknowledge such a state. Each and every religious tradition tries to give an all-encompassing explanation of reality in the terms available to it in its fishbowl. My own tradition, Catholicism, is really good at this and does not hesitate to claim a kind of universality that explains it all as it were. From this standpoint all the other traditions are respected and accepted as partial or incomplete “goods.” In other words all the other traditions are really part of the Catholic fishbowl, only in this incomplete manner. If you think this is peculiar to Catholicism, you would be wrong. I read a talk by the Dalai Lama in which he praised all the other religious traditions and especially Christianity and asked his Tibetan Buddhists to respect all these traditions, and he said they all contained something good and important and were perhaps the best way for a particular person to follow; but at the end of it all he could not acknowledge that there was anything other ultimately than Buddhist enlightenment at the end of the road as it were, and that eventually this is what everyone finally gets to. Now that sounded very much like the Catholic view but coming from another place. So each and every tradition represents itself as a “final answer” to what human beings seek, but that answer is always in terms of what is within that fishbowl. This is nothing negative; it is simply the inevitable nature of human knowledge and discourse and vision. There is no such thing as “leaving the fishbowl.” But some of us may at some point “bump against that glass wall,” or sense some fingers wiggling out there, and begin to wonder about some “beyond” that is truly beyond our fishbowl. At a certain point we may begin to talk to others about what we sense of this “beyond,” and here we might find ourselves as outcasts, as strangers and aliens, even considered as mad. There is a Desert Father story about this:

“Abba Anthony said, ‘A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’”

To begin to be aware of your fishbowl is to risk seeming “out of it”–because to acknowledge the fishbowl nature of your position is to acknowledge that there are these limitations, and then the big question arises naturally, what is beyond these limitations? After all the fishbowl is what defines reality for most. Here is another example, a real historical example, of the difficulty one encounters when one “bumps up against the glass wall of a fishbowl.”

Early in 1941 a Jewish gravedigger was going from village to village in Eastern Poland trying to tell Jewish people that they were in great danger, that he had seen with his own eyes the Nazis gassing people in these mobile units with carbon monoxide–this was just before the big death camps opened up. This man was racing ahead of the death squads trying to warn everyone. When he got to Warsaw and talked to the Jewish leadership, they thought he was ridiculous or even mad. No one would listen to him until it was too late. It was just inconceivable that something so terrible could happen to them, who were so well ensconced in this social matrix. So, besides being an incredible historical example, it is a kind of allegory for the fishbowl effect that I have been speaking about. The Jewish leaders had a deep comfort zone within that cultural fishbowl they were in and no word could penetrate that glass wall. In a sense it was a psychological fishbowl more than anything else, and they were just too comfortable within this fishbowl. So this is a negative example, showing the possible negative repercussions of bumping up against that wall. But never mind all that. For most of us most of the time it’s simply just swimming along in our fishbowl serenely until one day we may quite peacefully get an inkling of something “beyond” all our words and formulations, a real glimmer, and we might be able to give some hint of that to our fellow fish, or maybe not…no matter. Let us listen to the gentle words of Li Pai, one of China’s greatest poets who lived almost two thousand years ago:

            You ask why I stay in the mountains

            I smile without speaking, my heart content

            Peach blossoms in the stream float into the distance

            There’s another realm beyond the world of man.


Quiet words, small hints, but who is listening?