Containers, Physical & Mental

A Fishbowl Parable

Oshan Jarow
Mar 19 · 6 min read
Blueman in the flesh — Image by Avery McStay

Sometimes, containers break. Imperceptible containers, like those of thought, mind, consciousness; or tangible containers, like vases, pencil cases, or fishbowls. But the boundaries between these two types of container are porous. Physical containers can hold our mental lives in particular shapes, while mental containers often manifest themselves into our lived realities. With time, most lives become containers themselves, holding our bandwidth of experience and attention into particular patterns, particular sets of routine activities, particular habits of daydreaming, posture, and breathing.

And we can’t help but exist within containers; it’s containers all the way down. A broken container leads us into new atmospheres that quickly reveal their own walls. Even in enlightenment, that final breaking of all mental containers, it’s written: “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”

But the breaking of these containers is a thrill, if not for the brief moment in which we have not yet found the new walls and exist as unbounded explorers cast off into infinity, then for the new and larger containers into which we settle. This is the same metaphor Emerson employed, writing in Circles:

“The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end. The extent to which this generation of circles, wheel without wheel, will go, depends on the force or truth of the individual soul…The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is…to draw a new circle.”

A fishbowl sits, precariously, on the fourth of six pinewood bookshelves to my left. In it, a psychedelic-blue beta fish named ‘Blueman’ wiggles around.

I like to think the shelves are well built, I built them myself. But they’re 9-inches deep and sit upon 7-inch L-brackets, so there’s room to imagine wobbling, even a shelf sliding off its bracket entirely in a freak accident. In such a daydream, I wonder how Blueman might feel. Specifically, I wonder if Blueman’s experience being ejected from his container and then hastily reinserted into new water after a brief flop on the floor might resemble a mystical experience, or any experience that pushes beyond the habitual amplitude of our waking consciousness, peaking into unfamiliar, exhilarating, fearful terrain.

It could happen like this: Blueman’s shelf wobbles as my shoulder scrapes it in passing, pushing it towards the precarious edge of its bracket. The weight of the fishbowl is too great, and tips the shelf over the edge.

Now imagine you are the fish, and the bowl is falling from the shelf, and time is slowing and your eyes are wide so that each micro-moment of the ordeal can be thoroughly felt and scrutinized.

First, the calm waters begin thrashing. What was once the unmoving, invisible atmosphere now violently shakes and moves. Spacetime curves and flops, and we are thrown around like popcorn.

As the fishbowl enters free-fall it ejects all contents: the fish (you), the water, all the white pebbles, the little green leaf suction-cupped to the side of the bowl. You can’t breath, because you’re no longer immersed in water, but things are happening so fast you might not notice.

The fall breaks with a thunk on the floor. The fishbowl cracks and shatters, the white rocks scatter everywhere. You, the fish, now swivel the eyeball still facing outward in saccadic, frenzied jolts. Your gills screaming, you flop up and down. You are then scooped up in frightening fashion by two large hands, scurried 10 feet, and dropped into a small glass of tap water.

This water is different. The temperature and floating particles are unfamiliar, your internal mechanisms struggle to adapt and retain their vital functions. You swim vigorously, repeatedly ramming into the glass wall because you’re not familiar with the space yet.

After an hour or so of acclimation, you find the glass lifted, spacetime again flushes you out, and you drop back into a new fishbowl, the bottom lined with those same white pebbles, the same green leaf suction-cupped to the side.

But again, things feel different. You are not in your old fishbowl. Regardless, you will settle here. You will resume the life of a fish, and the past will settle behind you. The event might lodge itself in the unseen layers of your psyche, so that you become a more nervous fish, perhaps quicker to swim away from approaching hands.

But as the water settles, and routines soothe the nerves, you might remember how the water, now so still, once thrashed and threw you about. You might grow suspicious of the settledness of your fishbowl, as if a hue of artificiality now pervades the space. You might introduce into your morning routine a practice of swimming vigorously in circles and zig-zags, concentrating the motion in as tight a space as possible, just to feel the movement of the roused up water when you abruptly stop. To remember that the atmosphere is not fixed, that the settledness of things is a property of your own inertia, rather than a law of the environment.

The only difference between me and this fish is that our default states are inverted. Mine is busyness, motion, and movement. I am always swimming in thoughts, always doing something. My morning practice is not motion to remind myself that stillness is artificial, but the opposite: stillness, to remind myself the busyness, the incessant doing is artificial.

Breaking the containers is helpful every now and then. Hunter S. Thompson took LSD roughly once a year “to clear the pipes”. Some sort of routine disruption of all routines helps lubricate our lives as the ‘self-evolving circles’ Emerson proclaimed them to be.

Or take Michael Pollan’s metaphor he used on the book tour for his book-bound revival of psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind: Consciousness is like a big snowy mountain peak, with fresh powder on all sides. Over time, we take sleds down the peak, hike back up, and repeat. Thoughts and actions and habits each run their own sleds down the peak, creating grooves in the snow. As we all know from childhood, once there’s a track in the snow, the sleds naturally fall into that track, and further pack it in.

Psychedelics, Pollan writes, are like a fresh snowstorm. The tracks are filled in, the peak is once again — briefly — untouched and pristine on all sides. Any direction becomes possible once more. The old ruts are gone. The pipes are clear.

Rites of passage rituals, those cultural practices we’ve let slip through our industrial fingers, served similar purposes. They took the reins of a youth’s developing tracks in the snow, the emerging ‘default states’ that will come to define our prevailing containers, and helped direct them in line with what elders have learned about the ride. Or at least gave them the tools and space to chart their own course, rather than unconsciously adopt a trajectory from the internal logic of the socioeconomic system they operate within.

Could we make rituals of fishbowl-breaking proportions? Routine breaking of all settledness, reconvening with the most stable and unbreakable existential currents we’ve yet discovered? Might our cultural rituals become more than corporate advertisements and sponsorships? What might such rituals in the modern context look like? How can we imagine and sanctify them in the spirit of down-regulating dogmas, and up-regulating autonomy?

These are questions I ask myself while I sit at my desk, watching Blueman float near the edge of his bowl. I’ve never actually knocked him over. But now I wonder, only half-mockingly, whether I should?


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Oshan Jarow

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Interested in many things, like consciousness, meditation & economics. Sure of nothing, like how to exist well, or play the sax (yet). More:

The Consciousness Column

An ecosystem of writers exploring consciousness & culture.

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