What is it like to be an octopus? This question is at the heart of Sy Montgomery’s ‘The Soul of an Octopus’, a remarkable book that chronicles the author’s study of the intimate lives of a group of cephalopods. Their emotional states and social interactions are brought to light as is a wider consideration of the different types of consciousness in other living beings. In this passage from the book, Montgomery for the first time goes underwater to explore the physical reality of the octopus’ home and – to her own exhilaration – finds that her mind and her perceptions are challenged.
I could stay forever here just watching it breathe. But everyone else deserves to see the octopus too, so I move aside, inventing a new signal for Francisco: my fingertips slightly overlapping, palms toward my chest, bringing my hands in and out toward and away from my hammering heart. But Francisco already knows, has seen the rapture on my face. For more than a year and a half, since meeting Athena, since coming to know Octavia and now Kali, each time I’ve reached into the tanks where we have brought these creatures into our world, I’ve longed to enter theirs. At last, in the warm embrace of the sea, breathing underwater, surrounded by the octopus’s liquid world, my breath rising in silver bubbles like a song of praise, here I am.
There follows a parade of wonders: A splendid toadfish hides beneath a rock. Once thought to live only in Cozumel, it’s pancake flat, with thin, wavy, horizontal blue and white stripes, Day-Glo yellow fins, and whiskery barbels. A four-foot nurse shark sleeps beneath a coral shelf, peaceful as a prayer. A trumpet fish, yellow with dark stripes, floats with its long, tubular snout down, trying to blend in with some branching coral. Big D invents a hand sign on the spot: a fist to the mouth, holding the thumb of the other hand, with fingers up and wiggling, as if loosing the notes of a wind instrument. A school of iridescent pink and yellow fish slide by inches from our masks, then wheel in unison like birds in the sky,
I have known no natural state more like a dream than this. I feel elation cresting into ecstasy and experience bizarre sensations: my own breath resonates in my skull, faraway sounds thump in my chest, objects appear closer and larger than they really are. Like in a dream, the impossible unfolds before me, and yet I accept it unquestioningly. Beneath the water, I find myself in an altered state of consciousness, where the focus, range and clarity of perception are dramatically changed. Is this what Kali and Octavia feel like all the time?
The ocean, for me, is what LSD was to Timothy Leary. He claimed the hallucinogen is to reality what a microscope is to biology, affording a perception of reality that was not before accessible. Shamans and seekers eat mushrooms, drink potions, lick toads, inhale smoke, and snort snuff to transport their minds to realms they cannot normally experience. (Humans are not alone in this endeavor; species from elephants to monkeys purposely eat fermented fruit to get drunk; dolphins were recently discovered sharing a certain toxic puffer fish, gently passing it from one cetacean snout to another, as people would pass a joint, after which the dolphins seem to enter a trancelike state.)
The desire to change our ordinary, everyday consciousness does not seize everyone, but it’s a persistent theme in human culture. Expanding the mind beyond the self allows us to relieve our loneliness, to connect to what Jung called universal consciousness, the original inherited shapes shared with all minds; unites us with what Plato called the animus mundi, the all-extensive world soul shared by all of life. Through meditation, drugs, or physical ordeal, certain cultures encourage seeking altered states to commune with the spirits of animals, whose wisdom may seem hidden from us in ordinary life. In my scuba-induced altered state, I’m not in the grip of a drug: I am lucid in my immersion, voluntarily becoming part of what feels like the ocean’s own dream.
Who is to say that dreams are not real? Hindu mythology tells the story of the ascetic Narada, who won the grace of Vishnu and invited to walk with the god. When Vishnu became thirsty, he asked Narada to fetch him some water. Narada went to a house and there met a woman so beautiful he forgot what he came for. He married the woman; together they farmed the land, raised cattle, and had three children. Then came a violent monsoon. Floods threatened to carry away the village’s houses, the cattle, the people. Narada took his wife by the hand, his children by the other. But the waters were too strong and they were lost. Narada was swept beneath the waves. Washed up on shore, he opened his eyes . . . to see there, still waiting for his drink of water, Vishnu—the god who is often pictured as sleeping on a fathomless ocean as his dreams bubble forth to create the universe.
Once back on board the Reef Star, I pull off my mask and weep with joy.