The Web of Meaning | Reflections & Notes

Jeremy Lent. The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom To Find Our Place In The Universe.


The incredible sweep of this book is a beautiful vision of humanity through the lens of a fierce analysis of all the various dynamics of our universe. Just like A Patterning InstinctThe Web of Meaning is a remarkably delightful, captivating, insightful, thorough, and profoundly accessible read that will transform how you think about everything.

Most important is the underlying moral hope; that these insights will yield a new kind of humanity and civilization based on philosophies, spiritualities, and perspectives that maximize life for all living creatures on this planet. It truly is possible to not just conceive a world that is fully regenerative, with full thriving, and full of love, but to actually bring it about. @JeremyRLent has provided for us now two exemplars and explications of the kind of synthesized thinking that is needed to accomplish this task. I highly commend these works to you so we together can catalyze the next phase of human transformation, one that maximizes our significance and flourishing, the ultimate aim in what it means to live a meaningful life.



Tea With Uncle Bob

At our current trajectory, humanity is headed for catastrophe. But it doesn’t have to be that way. (4)

An Integrated worldview

The Web of Meaning takes up where The Patterning Instinct left off, by laying out a framework for a worldview that could foster humanity’s long-term flourishing on a healthy planet. It is a worldview of integration: one that identifies the unifying principles that flow through all things, while celebrating the difference that lead to the richness of our lived experience. It’s a worldview that links together scientific findings in recent decades from such diverse fields as evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience and complexity theory, showing how they affirm profound insights from the world’s great wisdom traditions, such as Buddhism, Taoism and traditional knowledge from Indigenous peoples around the world. (5)

We’re accustomed to thinking of science as existing in a different domain from spirituality. We generally view the intellect as distinct from emotion; the mind as separate from the body; humans as separate from nature; and spiritual insight as separate from political engagement. In the integrated worldview laid out here, each one of these domains is intricately connected with the others in an extended web of meaning. (6)

…one’s personal search for meaning cannot be isolated from all that is going on in the world around us. (7)

Part One: Who Am I?

1. The Nameless Uncarved Wood

The Tao… Emerging from the mists of ancient Chinese tradition, it is translated literally as ‘way’ or ‘path,’ and it refers to the mysterious ways in which the forces of nature show up in the world around us. (11)

Going with the flow

Living according to the flow of the Tao was, they believed, an effortless state of being. The word te in the title of the Tao Te Ching (pronounced duh) referred to that natural condition. It meant the intrinsic nature of whatever arose in the world, such as the nameless uncarved wood sitting on my chest. And something in that state maintained a certain power, so that ‘nothing under heaven can subjugate it’. Animals, plants and other living beings spontaneously act according to their te, and because of that they flow with the way of nature—with the Tao. The Taoists called this type of activity wu-wei, or effortless action. Through wu-wei, Taoist sages explained, ‘all things come to their completion; such is the Tao of Heaven’. (13)

Somehow, something happened to humanity that caused us to lose wu-wei most of the time. (14)

A clue can be found in another Zhuangzi story about an archery contest. When the archers are playing for cheap tiles, they show top-notch skill. When they play for fancy belt buckles, they lose confidence; and when playing for gold, they become nervous wrecks. That’s because when the prize becomes more valuable, their goal orientation gets in the way of their natural skill, and they lose touch with their te. (14)

| The chinese word for goal orientation, yu-wei, was the opposite of wu-wei, and represented the antithesis of living according to the Tao. (14)

Language, in their view, was anathema to the Tao. … ‘The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao.’ (14)

‘One who knows [Tao] does not speak,’ declares the Tao Te Ching. ‘One who speaks does not know.’ Being in touch with the Tao leads to a different type of knowledge that doesn’t need language either to apprehend or communicate. (15)

Taoism, then, offers a view of human psychology that underpins a cohesive theory of civilization. According to this theory, the earliest humans lived in harmony with the natural world, but a certain type of uniquely human cognition arose that caused a separation from nature. This form of mental activity permitted language, goal orientation and planning, thus creating the foundations of culture that led eventually to civilization, along with hierarchy, artifice and technology—and the sense of alienation that comes from all of that. (15)

The executive suite

As humans evolved, the PFC expanded to take up about 29 percent of the cerebral cortex,… (17)

Probably the most important characteristic of the PFC is its connectedness. Virtually all other parts of the brain link to it directly. … This puts the PFC in the unique position of being able to coordinate and integrate everything into one coherent whole, and thus to initiate plans that take into account each of the various elements that might be important. (17)

What accounts, then, for the difference between the Taoist view and Gage’s experience? (18)

Blocking the flow (and redirecting it)

The ability of the PFC to create abstract general principles from specific experiences is one of the most important characteristics of human intelligence. It permits the flexibility and adaptability that is a hallmark of human cognition. In my previous book, I called this special faculty of the PFC a ‘patterning instinct’—one that we share with other mammals, but that we humans seem to possess to a far greater degree. (19)

In nature, creatures seem to behave according to their te, going with the flow of their natural drives. Humans, on the other hand, are continuously blocking that flow and redirecting it. … Our lives are filled with a nonstop barrage of inner and external motivations competing for our attention, and it’s a crucial part of the PFC’s function to prioritize these. (20)

…another key faculty mediated by the PFC—goal orientation. This is what the Taoists described as yu-wei, or the diametric opposite of going with the flow of the Tao. (20)

A well-honed PFC is an essential part of living successfully among others who are continuously using their own PFCs to negotiate the subtleties and complexities of daily existence. Our PFC is constantly blocking the unmediated flow of our instinctual drives and redirecting them to outcomes we desire. (20)

The interpreter and the mystic

If the information available is fuzzy or ambiguous, the left hemisphere simply fills in the gaps with whatever it can find, creating an elaborate story, if necessary, to make everything comprehensible. In Gazzaniga’s words, ‘it creates order out of chaos, and creates a narrative of and explanation for our actions, emotions, thoughts, memories, and dreams. (22)

| The left hemisphere is constantly telling us the story of ourselves. It’s because of it that we can develop a concept of ourselves as a separate self, with a past and future. It’s in the left hemisphere that we generate language, finding words for things, categorizing them and formulating coherent sentences. And it’s the left hemisphere, fabricating stories of our future, that produces our goal orientation and self-control. (220)

It focuses on spatial patterns between things. It readily accepts an ambiguous or incomplete situation without trying to impose coherent meaning on it. It savors fluid, indeterminate and vague conditions. It’s also more closely connected with internal bodily experience, making its perception of the world more vibrant, filled with smell, sound and sensation. (23)

cf. Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight.

When the stroke temporarily blocked the left hemisphere’s activity, she was able to recognize that ‘at the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connected to my feeling of deep inner peace. It is completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy, and compassion in the world.’ (25)

A path of integration

cf. Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

…he argues that the hemispheres are ‘involved in a sort of power struggle’ which has already been decided—the left hemisphere won hands down. (26)

McGilchrist believes this dominance was expressed in its most extreme form in the Western tradition, culminating in our current technological civilization. (26)

While these models of cognition may differ in some subtleties, they all share a view of a split human consciousness. One part of this split—’primary’ or ‘core’ consciousness, which I prefer to call animate consciousness—covers the whole array of experiences that humans share with other mammals: hunger, sexual urges, pain, aggression, desire for warmth, caring for our offspring. The other part covers the cognitive functions that differentiate humans from other animals—the capabilities that allow us to do things like plan for retirement, drive a car, read a book or build weapons of mass destruction. We know through modern neuroscience that these functions, which collectively I call conceptual consciousness, are mediated by the PFC and concentrated in its left hemisphere. (27)

The Greeks, then, saw a similar split to the Taoists in human consciousness, but they came down on the opposite side of this split in their value assessment. For the Taoists, it was conceptual consciousness that separated humans from the Tao. For the Greeks, it was only through reason, an essential property of conceptual consciousness, that humans could get in touch with divinity. (28)

Do we really have to choose between the Interpreter and the Mystic? Between reason and emotion? Between civilization and the Tao? (29)

| I don’t believe we do. Much of this book is devoted to exploring a path whereby we can integrate these two aspects of human cognition into one coherent whole—into a lived experience where those two split parts of the human psyche can be woven into a rich vibrant unity. (29)


There are two different aspects to human cognition: conceptual consciousness and animate consciousness


Conceptual consciousness has enabled civilization, but also causes humans to be separated from the effortless behavior of wu-wei


Rather than conceptual and animate consciousness being in opposition, it is possible to integrate them

2. The Original AI: Animate Intelligence

cf. a German horse known as Clever Hans; Oskar Pfungst

While Clever Hans was performing his tricks, an American psychologist, John Watson, was launching a scientific movement known as behaviorism, which interprets all animal behavior as based on nothing but instinctual conditioning,… (32)

…the findings of modern scientific research have more than validated these Indigenous insights about the intelligence of the natural world. Far from being mindless, automated mechanisms, it turns out that every organism in nature demonstrates stunning intelligence — an animate intelligence that has evolved on Earth over billions of years into a dazzling variety of forms. … By recognizing this intelligence pervasive to all of life, we can gain a greater sense of who we are, as humans, really are — with crucial implications for how we might relate to the living world around us. (33)

You get what you measure

cf. the Flynn effect

It is as though the left hemisphere of the prefrontal cortex is establishing dominance over human consciousness…at the steady rate of three points per decade. There is a classic aphorism in organizational theory—’You get what you measure’—here we see how true that is when applied to our entire global civilization. (34)

cf. Howard Gardner; Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence

However, these alternative definitions of intelligence still center around human cognition. (35)

Humans have certain kinds of intelligences whereas rats, birds, and computers foreground other kinds of computational capacities. — Gardner

This is a classic Cartesian ruse: define a quality in terms of human behavior, then claim other animals don’t have it because they’re not human. (35)

…the concept of Dreamtime. In Aboriginal culture, (35) Dreamtime is a particular form of time that exists in both past and present. The Aboriginal creation myth tells the original ancestors who lived long ago, laying down the pathways and patterns of life, and yet somehow still exist in the present. ‘They are just as much alive today as they were in the beginning,’ explains Aboriginal leader Silas Roberts. ‘They are always part of the land and nature as we are.’ (36)

Roughly four billion years ago, when life first emerged on Earth, it did so in the form of single-celled organisms, very similar to the bacteria that—like Dreamtime ancestors—still exist today. And like them, these ancestors laid down the pathways of life for all organisms that have since evolved, including plants, fish, horses and humans. Genetic studies have shown that another insight of Indigenous traditions around the world—that all living beings are family—is entirely true. A mouse shares 84 percent of its genes with humans, fruit flies share 52 percent, and even a banana shares 44 percent of its genes with us. (36)

Where there is life there is mind, and mind in its most articulated forms belongs to life. —Evan Thompson

The ‘mind’ of a cell

Billions of years before modern humans developed nanotechnology, ancient bacteria learned how to control specific molecules to do exactly what they want. (37)

No matter how complicated a machine might be, it doesn’t possess intrinsic intentionality, which is the defining characteristic of cells, along with all the organisms they comprise. (38)

…the experience of being alive…is the center of what defines an organism. —Andreas Weber

…the First Law of Desire: ‘Everything that lives wants more of life. Organisms are beings whose own existence means something to them.’ (38)

| For a cell to have a sense of its own existence requires a certain kind of awareness. Each cell must be aware of itself as a self:  it knows what is within its membrane and what is outside; it determines what molecules it needs and which ones to discard; it knows when something within it needs fixing and how to get it done; it determines what genes to express within its DNA and when it’s time to divide and thus propagate itself. … ‘Where there is life there is mind.’ (39)

cf. slime mold:

Cells are also very aware of their relationship to others around them. In fact, many bacteria have a highly developed social life. In a process known as quorum sensing, bacteria recognize molecules (39) discarded by other nearby bacteria, and use this information to assess how many of their own type are around. (40)

Given the advantage of cooperation between single cells, wouldn’t it make sense if cells began entering into even more complex relationships with each other? … Cellular communication between organisms gave rise to communication within an organism. (40)

The networked intelligence of plants

In humans…calcium levels rise when neurons transmit information. (41)

The most important thing to understand about plant intelligence is that plants are rooted in the ground. …they need to be exceptionally skillful at exploiting whatever conditions they find themselves in. …plants had to evolve sophisticated systems to protect against any insects, animals or fungi that wanted to munch on them. … Therefore, the functions that we identify with specific organs—breathing, metabolizing or evaluating—had to be carried out in a distributed fashion through the entire body of the plant. That way, a big chunk of the plant might be devoured by an animal but it could remain healthy and merely sprout new shoots. (41)

As plant biologist Stefano Mancuso points out, this modular approach to organizing a system is found in modern network theory, and formed the basis for the development of the internet. During the Cold War, US military strategists were concerned that one nuclear strike might wipe out their central command, so—just like plants—they constructed an information network (originally known as Arpanet) that could continue to function even if many of its nodes were destroyed. (42)

| Plants do, however, contain a structure that has some analogue to a mammalian brain: their root network,… …roots have the ability to process enormous amounts of information about their environment, including attributes such as moisture, pressure, vibration, electrical field, toxins, chemical gradients and the presence of neighboring roots. …small plants have as many as fifteen million, and mature trees are estimated to possess hundreds of millions. (42)

Plants also learn from experience. (43)

Perhaps most intriguingly, plants also exhibit unique personalities: they don’t all act the same way as their neighbors in response to the same stimuli. (43)

Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard has discovered what she calls a ‘wood-wide web’ of tree communication that shares information about insects and other threats. (43)

The moods of a worm

One reason plants appear passive to us is that they live on a different timescale. … When a caterpillar starts eating a leaf, the alarm signals travel up the plant at the rate of an inch every three minutes, and it takes about an hour before it produces repellent chemicals. (44)

It was primarily to speed up the rate of internal communication that neurons evolved in animals as specialized cells that transmit electrical signals exceptionally quickly. … The first neurons evolved in aquatic creatures over five hundred million years ago, in the form of distributed nerve nets, which can still be found in modern jellyfish. (44)

| As neuronal networks grew more complex, it became more efficient to route all the neurons’ information through central nodes, which could also be used to transmit action signals back to different parts of the organism. Many of these nodes, called ganglia, eventually coalesced into a centralized organ that specialized in integrating the vast array of inputs about what was happening both inside and outside the organism, assessing what it all meant and directing activity accordingly—the brain. (44)

| How could the brain determine what the organism should do? It would have begun on the basis of Weber’s First Law of Desire: it wanted more life for the organism. A crucial activity, then, would be to continually monitor all the systems that maintain the organism’s health and make immediate adjustments whenever anything begins to go out of kilter: a fundamental and highly complex process known as homeostasis. (44)

…we can think of feelings as mental deputies of homeostasis. —Antonio Damasio

At the very root of all nervous system activity, including all that is conventionally viewed as intelligent behavior, are feelings. (45)

The continuum of consciousness

cf. William James

…perhaps it’s more valuable simply to consider a continuum of consciousness, beginning with a single cell—which, as we saw, has its own kind of mind—… (47)

Overcoming ‘anthropodenial’

cf. Marc Hauser; Michael Tomasello

We even possess within us an evolutionarily ancient nervous system separate from the brain—the enteric nervous system—which contains about half a billion neurons, stretches along our entire gut, and is believed to influence our physical and mental states as well as control our digestion. (50)

…ethologist Frans de Waal, calls this ideological fundamentalism ‘anthropodenial’—the denial, in the face of overwhelming evidence, of the shared emotional experience between humans and other animals. (51)

First, we must recognize that an animal’s emotion is both shared by us and unique to that animal. (52)

A second principle is to honor the intrinsic nature of another animal’s experience as no less valuable than our own. (52)

A third principle is to recognize our deep interconnectedness with all life, including plants, insects—and even single cells. … Scientists concur that all life can trace its lineage back to a shared ancestor (known as LUCA for ‘last universal common ancestor’) that lived about three and a half billion years ago. … Evolutionary biologists call it deep homology: the recognition of fundamental life processes shared across widely divergent species. Some of these processes show up in Weber’s First Law of Desire: the will to live that drives us all. Because of that common ground, we can feel the life force, as well as its diminishment, all around us. … This leads to Weber’s Second Law: that the desire to live is palpable and visible, always present in the living body. To see it in other organisms, all we need to do is feel it in our own animate consciousness. (53)

Toward an integrative intelligence

The first step in forging an integrative intelligence would be to recognize that our mind does not exist separately from what James Gould calls our ‘natural repertoire’. On the contrary, our mind is an intrinsic part of our natural repertoire, arising from the continual, dynamic process of our nervous system interacting with our body. In the memorable phrasing of Antonio Damasio, ‘No body, never mind.’ An integrative intelligence would start with a conscious recognition of our deeply evolved animate intelligence, and set the intention to incorporate its wisdom fully into our own identity, values and life choices. (54)

Weber’s Third Law of Desire elegantly expresses this: ‘Only in the mirror of other life can we understand our own lives. Only in the eyes of the other can we become ourselves.’ (55)

Perhaps the greatest challenge to human intelligence today is not how to accomplish the next technological breakthrough or build the most advanced AI, but how to integrate human ingenuity with our own animate intelligence and that of the natural world. (56)


Animate intelligence is highly complex, and exists all around us, in every sentient being


Rather than being machines, every animal with a nervous system likely has subjective experiences driven by reelings that, at the deepest level, are shared by all of us


By connecting with our own animate intelligence, we can recognize our deep interconnectedness with all of life on Earth

3. The Most Important Relationship In Your Life

It seems that part of the human condition is to experience a kind of split personality, with an ‘I’ engaging in an ongoing relationship with a ‘self’. We talk about ‘gaining control of myself’ as if there is a battle going on between these two entities. We can view ourselves harshly, as your friend did, pushing ourselves hard or even hating ourselves; and we can equally be kind to ourselves and care for ourselves. In addition to experiencing ourselves as so scattered that we need to ‘pull ourselves together’, w can also be ‘beside ourselves’ with rage, or at the other extreme, ‘be at one’ with ourselves. We can ‘lose ourselves’ in a dance and sometimes ‘find ourselves’ in a chosen vocation. (58)

How ‘I’ and the ‘self’ split apart

As we’ve seen, at its most fundamental level, the sense of being a self—and the animate intelligence arising from it—most likely exists, in one form or another, in every living organism. It involves basic biological regulation, the experience of the here-and-now, the very sensation of being alive that is often referred to as sentience. (60)

These unique, moment-to-moment embodied experiences are known as qualia. They arise and pass in consciousness and can only be felt for that particular moment. …William James, noticed in the late nineteenth century that this ‘fluctuating material’ of his inner experience was ‘at each moment different from that of the last moment’ and memorably coined the term ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe it. (60)

This ability of animals to incorporate past experiences into the present is a crucial evolutionary attribute, but it probably doesn’t involve the elaborate reconstructions of the past and conceptions of the future that humans constantly create. (60) …Gerald Edelman has called it the ‘remembered present’. (61)

The influential ‘social brain hypothesis’ asserts that humans’ distinctive cognitive capacities are the result of increased social complexity in our ancestors’ lives. (61)

theory of mind: the recognition that other people have minds just like we do, allowing us to guess how they might respond to something by mentally putting ourselves in their situation. (61)

Neuroscientists have discovered that the same part of the prefrontal cortex is activated when people think about attributes of others as when they think about their own attributes. It’s as though, int the brain’s social intelligence, the community of people important to engage with includes not just family and friends, but also the self. (62)

metacognition: the ability to think about one’s mental states and exert some influence over them. (62)

Telling the story of your life

‘mental time travel’. While the self only exists in (62) the present moment, the ‘I’ is capable of remembering all kinds of detail about previous selves and imagining what future selves might feel like. (63)

The ‘I’ is constantly evaluating the self, making judgments about it and—crucially—can influence the direction the self will take in the future. So, the ‘I’ is not just telling a story about the past, it’s also actively constructing the story of the future through the way it interprets the past and the choices it makes in the present. (63)

‘It’s complicated’

Self-control was as powerful a predictor of success as intelligence or the family’s socioeconomic status. (65)

[via: In this section, Lent refers to the famed “Marshmallow Test.” The footnote here reads: “Terrie E. Moffitt et al., ‘A Gradient of Childhood Self-Control Predicts Health, Wealth, and Public Safety,’ PNAS 108:7, 2011, pp.2693-8; Angela Duckworth, ‘The Significance of Self-Control,’ PNAS 108:7, 2011, pp.2639-40. For a refutation of the importance of delay in gratification as a predictor of life success, see Tyler W. Watts, Greg J. Duncan and Haonan Quan, ‘Revisiting the Marshmallow Test: A Conceptual Replication Investigating Links Between Early Delay of Gratification and Later Outcomes’, Psychological Science 29:7, 2018, pp.1159-77.” In addition, there are these popular-level articles, Marshmallow Test Experiment and Delayed Gratification in Simply Psychology; “The ‘marshmallow test’ said patience was a key to success. A new replication tells us s’more in Vox; Why Rich Kids Are So Good at the Marshmallow Test: Affluence—not willpower—seems to be what’s behind some kids’ capacity to delay gratification., The Atlantic.]

…a vast amount of research has been undertaken in how ‘I’ and the ‘self’ should come to a decision about something. (65)

Trust your gut?

cf. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

When we think of ourselves we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. —Daniel Kahneman

…it’s actually System 1 that makes most of our decisions for us. ‘The automatic System 1,’ he declares, ‘is the hero of the book.’ (66)

anchoring: we let ourselves be influenced by the first number we see regarding a given situation. …recency: something you read about in the newspaper this morning will seem more important than something that occurred last year, even though the earlier event might actually be far more significant. (66)

‘theory of unconscious thought’. Their [Ap Dijksterhuis and Loran Nordgren] theory indicates that the more complex the problem, the more you should let your unconscious decide. The conscious mind, they explain, is limited by how much it can hold. …it gets overwhelmed. At that point, it tends to get swept along by one or more cognitive biases, and then uses its left-brain interpreter to rationalize its judgment. …think about something completely different. Sleep on it. … At some point, you’ll begin to ‘get a feeling’ that a particular decision is the right one. That’s when you should listen to what your intuition is telling you. That’s when it’s a good idea to ‘trust yourself’. (67)

‘I think, therefore I am’

It turned out that the preparation for the movement in the brain occurred nearly a second before they were aware of their decision. … More recently, using a sophisticated fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine, a team of researchers in Berlin discovered patterns of brain activity that predicted a conscious decision by as much as seven seconds. (68)

…not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar. —Anthony Cashmore

The neuroscientific data is incontrovertible, but what does it really tell us? In my view, it is the astonished reaction of the researchers that seems bizarre, not the experimental finding. What is strange is that they identify themselves so completely with the ‘I’ of their conscious awareness that they view their own neurons as separate entities making decisions without them and forcing their bodies to act in a certain way. (68)

…the Western tradition is unique among cultures in turning this split into an unbridgeable, gaping chasm and constructing an entire system of philosophy from it, to (68) the point that only the conscious ‘I’ is believed to have any identity at all. (69)

The profound irony is that, while Dawkins, Cashmore and others like them believe they’re rejecting Christian superstition by focusing on the biological underpinnings of decision-making and thereby denying free will, they are in fact implicitly endorsing the dualistic view of human nature they inherited from the Christian/Platonic tradition. While they no longer view the ‘I’ as a soul with hopes of eternal redemption, they continue to believe that their true essence exists entirely on one side of the chasm of split consciousness, while their bodies, along with those neurons making decisions without them, are somehow separate from their actual identity. (70)

There are, however, different ways to acknowledge, and experience, the sense of who we really are. These alternative approaches have been explored for millennia by non-Western wisdom traditions, and are recently being rediscovered by leading scientific researchers. (70)

‘I feel, therefore I am’

…reason is more like a lawyer, who hears what his client (intuition) really wants, and then builds a case to argue why it’s the best approach. (72)

Alarming as this study is, we shouldn’t necessarily view the role that feeling has in decision-making as negative. …our sense of morality is grounded in feelings and emotional responses. Without those, we’d have no basis for moral judgment. Imagine a person who makes purely rational decisions without incorporating emotions in any way. He decides what he wants to achieve and works out exactly how to attain his goal, regardless of the consequences. The word for someone like that, Haidt points out, is a psychopath. (73)

…much of what we think of as our innate sense of morality is something we learn through our exposure to culture. …between the ages of around nine and fifteen, we go through a particularly sensitive period of this kind of learning. … In the memorable words of biologist Robert Sapolsky, ‘our guts learn their intuitions’. (73)

The democracy of consciousness

What sense can we make from this intricate entanglement of ‘I’ and my ‘self’? One principle that emerges is that, far from being on opposite sides of an unbridgeable chasm, they are actually inseparable. The decisions you make in your life, from trivial ones like which way to drive home to major ones like what career to pursue or whom to commit to as a life-partner, are made by all of you, not just the ‘I’ and not just the ‘self.’ (73)

| Once we realize this, we can begin to see ourselves as integrated organisms arising from the patterns of connectivity between those networks that we identify as ‘I’ and ‘self’. (73)

the ‘wisdom of the body’. (74)

Embodied mind and mindful body

Where in your body do you think your mind is? … …the word for mind is the same as for heart—xin in Chinese and kokoro in Japanese. (75)

[via: And “lev” (לב) in Hebrew.]

The heart-mind [xin] is nothing without the body, and the body is nothing without the heart-mind. —Wang Yangming

In contrast to the European tradition, the Chinese saw no essential distinction between reason and emotion. Some philosophers used a particular word, tiren, to refer to knowing something, not just intellectually but throughout the entire body and mind—for which no English word exists. …fully embodied.9 (76)

[via: For more, see

Zhu conceived of the experience of knowing as deeply affecting the entire self. The additional image that he used to expand the scope of the concept is that of a skeletal framework or a body (ti). When used as a verb in the context of relating the self to things, ti means to make things part of the body or of the self – in short, to embody them. Tiren means to understand something personally, with one’s body and mind. This knowledge becomes qualitatively different from knowledge that does not involve personal experience. Investigating things goes beyond looking at static objects – it means getting involved with the affairs of the world. Embodiment is a combination of cognition … and empathic projection of the self to the object.]

With this more integrated view of human experience, the traditional Western idea of free will was alien to Chinese thought. (76)

When we first learn a skill, we use our prefrontal cortex extensively, as we’re consciously figuring out what to do. At a certain point, once we’ve transitioned to a state where it becomes automatic, we use parts of the brain that are evolutionarily more ancient, such as the basal ganglia and cerebellum. Edward Slingerland, a Chinese scholar who has written two books on wu-wei, calls this ‘body thinking.’ (76)

The full experience of wu-wei occurs, not so much when we’re on autopilot, but when we integrate automatic activity with conscious attention. In terms of dual system theory, wu-wei happens when both SYstems 1 and 2 are in smooth synchrony. As Slingerland describes it, ‘for a person in wu-wei, the mind is embodied and the body is mindful; the two systems—hot and cold, fast and slow—are completely integrated. The result is an intelligent spontaneity that is perfectly calibrated to the environment. (77)

[Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi] describes this pleasurable state [‘Flow’] as existing on the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when there’s just enough challenge to remain absorbed, but not so much that you become overwrought. At this point…the concern for the self disappears in the absorption of the moment, but paradoxically the sense of who you are expands dramatically. (77)

‘Whatever you think is delusion’

Zen is not opposed to reason and intellectual thought, but it recognizes the tendency to become so wrapped up in concepts that we begin to believe they are reality itself, rather than models of reality. … When we use conceptual consciousness to make sense of things or to make up a story about them, we lose (78) touch with reality. (79)

Whatever you think is delusion. —Dainin Katagiri

Chan monks developed an ingenious technique to break the grip of logical thought on the human psyche in the form of koans, a type of riddle that a teacher poses to a student, to which there is no logical answer. …’What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ …’When you can do nothing, what can you do?’ and ‘What is the color of wind?’ By engaging in this process, students could learn to recognize and undo the habitual cognitive patterns that prevented them from achieving deeper insight into the nature of reality. (79)

…of all the cognitive patterns blocking a deep realization of reality, the most insidious is the belief that ‘I’ am an objective and fixed entity, rather than a mere abstraction. (79)

The word for this Buddhist insight, anatman, which literally means ‘no atman‘, is often confusingly translated as ‘no-self’, but it would be more accurate to translate it as ‘no-fixed-I’. (79)

…the principle of anatman states that there is no objective ‘I’ at all, so the question of whether or not ‘I’ have free will is itself illusory. Perhaps a new Zen koan might go: ‘If I don’t really exist, can I have free will?’ (79)

Bridging the gap between ‘I’ and ‘self’

dukkha is frequently translated as ‘suffering’, but it actually refers to a much broader spectrum of experiences arising from the stories that ‘I’ inevitably construct, including feelings of unease, worry, grasping, longing, regret, embarrassment, and a host of other states derived from the workings of conceptual consciousness. (81)

The dance of the ‘I’ and ‘self’

While self-control has been shown to produce more successful life outcomes, if applied excessively, it doesn’t lead to sustained happiness. Rather, like an authoritarian regime forcing itself on a population, it might achieve apparent stability, but only at the cost of seething resentments that ultimately lead to acts of sabotage and potentially even revolution. Instead, establishing a more wholesome ‘democracy of consciousness’ can lead to both greater stability and a more peaceful inner experience. (83)

| The key to a successful democracy of consciousness is a full and ongoing integration of the different aspects of ‘I’ and the self. (83)

The relationship between ‘I’ and self is a bit like a partner dance set to the music of life. Each partner differs from the other, but can learn to attune to the other and respond harmoniously to the other’s moves, sometimes closing in, sometimes moving further away, sometimes setting a new tone and sometimes following the other’s lead, but always remaining in relationship—and rather than trying to dominate or surrender, coordinating with the other to co-create an experience that neither could ever attain by themselves. (83)

| Ultimately, then, in answer to the question ‘Who am I?’, it turns out that I am an ongoing process—the result of a continual dance enacted by the different parts that comprise me. (83)


We are blended organisms arising from the patterns of connectivity between the networks we identify as ‘I’ and ‘self.’


My true identity doesn’t exist in ‘I’ or my ‘self,’ but emerges dynamically from how ‘I’ interact with my ‘self’


When ‘I’ welcome and honor the various needs and feelings of my ‘self’, I can more fully integrate them, and achieve a well-functioning democracy of consciousness


I am the integrated product of my animate and conceptual consciousness—an ongoing process of ‘I’ and ‘self’ continually interacting


[via: So, what about a ‘communal consciousness’ where identity is shaped by what the community says, values, and guides in someone’s life. Similar to the “I” and “self” designation and integration, should there not also be an integration o the “I/Self” and “Society” or “other”? (I do sense, this may be coming in the pages that follow.)]

Part Two: Where Am I?

4. The Patterns of the Universe

The Ship of Theseus

…was it still the original ship, or was it now something entirely different? (89)

Heraclitus was known as the ‘philosopher of flux’ because he was fascinated by the continually changing nature of the universe. ‘It is impossible,’ he famously wrote, ‘to step into the same river twice.’ (90)

The interconnected web of dharma and Tao

…the I Ching (literally ‘Book of Changes’),…it’s based on the understanding that the entire universe is comprised of a dynamic flow of energy and matter called qi (pronounced chee). (91)

…E=mc2. In plain English, this states that the energy of a body is equal to its mass times the speed of light squared, showing that at the deepest level, energy and matter are transmutable. (91)

A core principle they [the Chinese] discerned was that qi exhibits a continual interplay of polarities they called yin and yang. Yin represented softness, wetness, darkness and receptivity, while yang represented hardness, dryness, light and activity. We can understand yin and yang like the north and south poles of the Earth, or the positive and negative poles of an electric current. Each is an integral part of a complete system, and neither can exist without the other. (91)

…early Chinese thinkers came to see the universe as an intricately interconnected web of activity. (91) … Based on this understanding, Chinese sages concluded that the most skillful thing a person could do was to learn to attune their actions with everything else going on around them—and thus harmonize with the Tao. (92)

…another crucial Buddhist insight: the impermanence of all phenomena. (92)

Tracing the ripples of time and space

Neo-Confucian philosophers were particularly interested in explaining the conundrum that the Greeks had broached with the Ship o Theseus. How could things be in continual flux yet remain persistent? …while everything was composed of qi, the principles by which the qi was organized were just as important. The word they used for these principles was li,… …in the words of their principal philosopher Zhu Xi, ‘throughout the universe there is no qi without li, nor li without qi’. Or in other words, matter and energy simply can’t exist without being organized in some fundamental way. (93)

We can think of li, then, as the ever-moving, ever-present set of patterns that flow through everything in nature and in all our perceptions of the world—including our own consciousness. (93)

By focusing attention on these patterns of connectivity, from small to large, Neo-Confucian philosophers developed a deeply integrated understanding of how humans relate to the natural world, how core values arise from human embeddedness in nature and how there is no ultimate distinction between what is material and spiritual. (94)

A ‘pointless’ universe

What is the heart, but a spring and the nerves but so many strings? —Thomas Hobbes

[via: Our analogies and metaphors are frequently technological and therefore self-referential, almost a form of self-centrism.]

I do not recognize any difference between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes. —Descates

reductionism,…’to divide all the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as many as were required to solve them in the best way’. … Science itself became divided into separate disciplines, such as physics, chemistry and biology, and each domain progressed by dividing its objects of study into ever-smaller components. (94)

[via: “Reduction = Divisionism, leading to isolationism.”]

However, over the centuries, many scientists and philosophers have been so swept up by the success of their enterprise that they began to believe that reductionism alone could ultimately explain the universe itself. (95)

cf. Pierre-Simon de Laplace

…all of nature is the way it is…because of simple universal laws, to which all other scientific laws may in some sense be reduced. —Steven Weinberg

First, it means there is one objective reality out there, in which every event that happens—whether it’s the next thought you have, the next movement a worm makes…is completely predetermined. (95)

If everything can be reduced to a predetermined sequence zillions of particles hitting each other, then the universe has no intrinsic value or purpose. … ‘The more the universe seems comprehensible,’ [Steven Weinberg] writes, ‘the more it also seems pointless.’ … ‘At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.’ (96)

| Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t want to live my life based on an illusion, and if my only option were to live on that knife-edge, then so be it. But what has repeatedly been propagated as fact might be better understood as, rather, a limited and circumscribed account of reality. (96) …it may be more accurate to view it as a simplification of reality that excludes important attributes. (97)

Ignoring the gorilla

But when reductionists take a leap of faith by claiming their methodology explains everything about the universe—and that alternative methodologies are therefore invalid—they fall into the trap of fundamentalism. Like other fundamentalist creeds, this doctrine, which may be called ontological reductionism, shuts complexity out of its reckoning, painting the world as black and white. (98)

[via. This is perhaps why Sean Carroll uses the term “Poetic Naturalism.”]

While accepting that everything obeys the incontrovertible laws of physics, we can recognize that, in addition, things act according to other sets of principles that make them ‘more than’—rather than ‘nothing but’—meaningless colliding particles. (98)

What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning. —Werner Heisenberg

The more we know about our universe, the more difficult it becomes to believe in determinism. —Ilya Prigogine

The flap of a butterfly’s wings

…the ways in which things connect are frequently more important than the things themselves. … Reductionism is, and will continue to be, an immensely powerful tool to discover the hidden secrets of nature, but, when trying to figure out how a complex system works, these other disciplines are remarkably effective at revealing insights that reductionism alone could never uncover. (100)

Complex systems tend to be self-organized. No one came up with a plan for how they should be designed, or built them according to a blueprint. Instead, the different parts making up the system interact until they settle into a relatively coherent and stable pattern of behavior. One of the fascinating attributes of self-organized systems is how simplicity appears to emerge from underlying complexity. (100)

However stable they might appear, complex systems are also subject to unexpected behavior, as a result of the nonlinear nature (100) of their interactions. (101)

cf. Edward Lorenz, the founder of chaos theory

Systems theorists tell us, on the contrary, that complete control is impossible. That doesn’t mean, though that we can’t use our knowledge to skillfully influence how complex systems work. …systems thinking offers the tools to learn how to attune with, and perhaps steer, complex systems. (101)

Spiraling patterns in nature

Strange, but natural, attractors

…the pattern is never fixed but remains within certain boundaries. …Ludwig von Bertalanffy called this state a ‘flux-balance’… (104)

Physicists call the ultimate state of a system its attractor. … This kind of attractor [thermostat] is called a limit cycle, because it defines the limits of your house’s temperature within a set range. But self-organized systems are different from both of these. No physicist can ever predict exactly where they will end up: within their parameters, they remain chaotic, never retracing exactly the same path, while undulating in a state that is far from equilibrium, like a pendulum that’s continually swinging itself. (104)

strange attractors, because they didn’t follow a predictable path. … We’ve seen that homeostasis is a core feature of organisms—an intrinsic part of animate intelligence, maintaining all systems of the body in a stable state within certain parameters. … (14) …I will break with the physicists and call these vitally important dynamic patterns natural attractors. (105)

Systems theorists recognize that, just like the I Ching‘s description fo the Tao, there is no ‘fixed law’ to these natural attractors—but they have identified some important principles about them. (105)

| One principle is that natural attractors are frequently quite robust, even in the face of perturbations. (105)

Seeing the forest for the trees

…there are times when they reach a tipping point where the system alters dramatically, sometimes transforming beyond all recognition. This kind of metamorphosis is known as a phase transition. (106)

These cascading system effects are a major reason why the risk of catastrophic consequences from even seemingly small increases in global temperature are far greater than many people realize. (107)

| Phase transitions, though, are not always bad. In fact, they are the very essence of creativity. … In these cases, and countless others like them, we see a process known as emergence: the system’s complexity reaches a critical mass that transforms into a new coherence that couldn’t have occurred by simply adding up each of the system’s elements. This is the source of the famous saying, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ (107)

[via: What I would like to call, “The whole is different or other than the sum of its parts.”]

Emergent life

This theory of life’s origins as a self-organized, emergent process has been called autopoiesis by…Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, from Greek words meaning self-generation. (108)

…the system as a whole emerged with a separate identity from the complex interactions of its parts. Even as it was created from its components, it simultaneously guided what each of the parts needed to do. Philosopher Evan Thompson describes this amazing process as reciprocal causality, because the whole and the parts exert a reciprocal causal effect on each other. (109)

It’s rather awe-inspiring to consider that, ever since the first cells emerged on Earth over three and a half billion years ago, this dynamic, co-emergent process has never stopped. In a perpetual flux-balance spanning eons and infiltrating virtually every nook and cranny of the planet, life has continued to suck energy from the outside environment, expel what it didn’t need and modify itself to form the vast, beautiful, living ecosystem that we are all part of today. (109)

| Another astonishing aspect of this self-generating flow of energy brings to mind the paradox of Theseus’s ship: each living organism is continually exchanging the materials comprising it, while retaining its own I identity as a coherent, integrated entity. As we contemplate this, it becomes apparent that life isn’t a thing at all—it’s an ongoing process of integrated self-generation and self-maintenance. (109)

It is becoming increasingly clear that to understand living systems in any deep sense, we must come to see them not materialistically, as machines, but as stable, complex, dynamic organization. —Carl Woese

The patterns of ‘all the other things’

…another significant attribute of many self-organized (109) systems: the propensity to repeat patterns at ever-increasing scales, known as fractals. (110)

Systems scientists studying the fractal patterns of natural phenomena have made an important discovery: there is a consistent inverse logarithmic relationship between the amplitude of a fluctuation and its frequency. In simpler terms, this means that self-organized systems tend to exhibit many small fluctuations, fewer moderate ones and rare large fluctuations. … This principle, known as a power law, applies to an astonishingly diverse set of phenomena. (111)

…they have a hub-and-spoke type of connectivity that also follows a power law. Lots of nodes in the network have just a few links with close neighbors, while rare nodes—the hubs—have a large number of links extending throughout the network. This is also known as a ‘small-world’ property, because wherever you are in the network you can usually (111) get anywhere else with a relatively small number of hops—as long as you go through a hub. (112)

…the Three Degrees of Influence rule. It turns out that whatever we do or say tends to ripple through our social network, impacting not just our friends but also our friends’ friends and even our friends’ friends’ friends (three degrees out). This applies to a diverse set of phenomena such as political views, weight gain and even happiness. (112)

Each self-organized system is itself part of a larger system, while it contains multiple smaller systems within it. … Arthur Koestler was the first modern thinker to identify this particular form of organization in life, which he called the holarchy (from the Greek word holon meaning ‘a whole’), recognizing that each part is a coherent entity in its own right, while also an integral component of something larger. (112)

Gewu: the investigation of things

cf. Stuart Kauffman; Zhu Xi

Andreas Weber points out, this is a logical outcome of reductionism, which derives much of its success from the analysis of dead matter rather than living systems. ‘Should it be so surprising, then,’ he reflects, ‘that the survival of life on our planet has become the most urgent problem?’ (114)

The original gewu, in contrast to the presumed objectivity of reductionist science, recognized that the observer was an integral part of the very system being investigated, and as a result the investigation could never truly be value-free. This is a theme that modern systems scientists are rediscovering. (114)

cf. Brian Goodwin; Thomas Kuh; Tu Weiming

‘Everything is an integrated whole.’ In fact, by applying that concept in his [Tu Weiming’s] research, ‘he can become a great scientist’ because, rather than trying to explain one separate part of a puzzle, he begins asking questions about how everything fits together. (115)

The pattern that connects

cf. Gregory Bateson; Cheng Yi; Norbert Wiener

Imagine an infinitely complex, woven fabric that connects all things in its intricate weave. What would happen if you pulled on a thread? You might notice a different part of the fabric begins to pucker, because of a connection between the two areas you hadn’t realized existed. This leads to a crucial principle: the interdependence of all things. (116)

…Thích Nhât Hanh…refers to as ‘interbeing’ [dependent origination.]

“To be” is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing.’ (117)

By virtue of our birth into this world, each of us is a constituent part of the holarchy of life, the boundless ocean of li ripples that ‘rolls through all things.’ (118)

Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. —Einstein

To regain our full humanity, we have to regain our experience of connectedness with the entire web of life. —Fritojf Capra


In a complex system, the ways in which things connect are frequently more important than the things themselves


Life is not a ‘thing’, but an ongoing, integrated process of self-generation and self-maintenance known as autopoiesis


The interdependence of all things means that everything—including each of us—is dynamically related in some way to everything else.

5. The Harmonic Dance of Life

… Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense. —Richard Dawkins, Selfish Gene

The trouble with the selfish gene story is not just that it’s scientifically flawed; it’s also that it presents such an impoverished view of life’s dazzling magnificence. The discoveries of modern researchers showing how life evolved to its current state of lavish abundance reveal a spectacle of awe-inspiring complexity, mind-boggling dynamic feedback loops and infinitely subtle interconnections. (124)

…this new understanding of life can perhaps be summed up best by reprising the insight of ancient wisdom: what has evolved on Earth, in all its glory, is a harmonic web of dynamic activity. (124)

Decoding the ‘book of life’

cf. Adam Smith; Thomas Malthus; Jean-Baptiste Lamarck; August Weismann; germ cells, somatic cells; Gregor Mendel

…a new generation of biologists combined the ideas of Darwin, Weismann and Mendel to construct what became known as the Modern Synthesis,… (125)

…information theory offered a ready-made set of metaphors to describe their discovery.

It turned out that the entire human genome contained about 21,000 genes that coded for proteins. The tiny roundworm C. elegans, rather embarrassingly, had a similar number, while wheat had more than four times as many. (127)

The language of the gene

At its heart, the model’s fundamental flaw was the machine metaphor it was built on. Genetic determinism, as it is sometimes called, was based on the underlying idea that organisms, like machines, are comprised of components with linear relationships that can be precisely determined. As we’ve seen, the reality is that living organisms, from the first protocell onward, are complex systems with multiple feedback loops creating nonlinear relationships. As such, they demonstrate far more complexity than even the most complicated computer. (127)

…in addition to all other tasks, proteins act directly on the DNA of the cell, specifying which genes in the DNA should be activated. (128)

It means that the relationship between genes and the organism is not one way but circular. DNA can’t do anything by itself—it only functions when certain parts of it get switched on or off by the activities of different combinations of proteins, which were themselves formed by the instructions of DNA. This process is a vibrant, dynamic circular flow of interactivity. (128)

What this means is that there is no such thing as a ‘gene for something.’ Genes are expressed within the cell as a result of what is going on around them. … Just as words have an array of different meanings based on their context, syntax and grammar, so DNA and proteins use their own language, with its own syntax and grammar, to determine what’s best at that moment for the cell. (129)

The creative cell

…depending on the environment a cell and its corresponding organism find themselves in, the conversation that takes place with its genes may be very different and lead to unexpected outcomes. (129)

[via: Lent describes the DNA change of locusts and grasshoppers here. I found this Scientific American article in addition to the footnote: “David Dobbs, ‘Die, Selfish Gene, Die’Aeon, 3 December 2013.]

Biologists use the term developmental plasticity to refer to this ability of organisms to react creatively to their environments based on their particular needs, but we can use a different descriptor for this phenomenon—animate intelligence. (131)

Going beyond the gene

Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, arguing that the new findings require a broader conceptual framework. (131)

The foundational idea of the new thinking is that evolution is driven not by genes alone but by organisms which, in the words of leading proponent Kevin Laland, ‘play active and constructive roles in their own development and that of their descendants.’ (132)

…hundreds of recent studies have shown that a lot more than genes are transmitted from parents to their offspring—such as hormones, antibodies and parts of the egg, as well as crucially important molecular components, called methyl groups, that attach to DNA to help turn genes on and off. Researchers call these transmission epigenetic, which simply refers to any form of inheritance that isn’t genetic. (132)

Epigenetic inheritance has now been shown to affect a wide variety of natural functions in animals and plants,… And it’s been shown to last for at least ten generations, and even hundreds of generations in plants. (132)

| There’s another form of epigenetic inheritance we humans know well—culture. (132)

Animals, it turns out, are masters at directing their own evolution, not just through culture but by modifying their environment in ways that eventually become an integral part o their species’ repertoire. (133)

The network of life

The earliest life consisted of single cells called prokaryotes, which are very similar to the bacteria that have thrived on Earth ever since. (134)

Not much happened…for another billion years or so, other than a particular kind of bacterium started proliferating which released oxygen into the environment as part of its metabolism. This new addition to the atmosphere was toxic to many early cells, causing the first mass extinction event on Earth. It was around then that a new type of cell arrived on the scene. Called a eukaryote (Greek for ‘true kernel’), this cell contained a nucleus that housed all its DNA material. Eukaryotes found a novel way to get their nutrition: they took advantage of their more flexible cell walls to engulf other bacteria and ingest them, breaking their parts down to use as food. (134)

A eukaryote engulfed a prokaryote, and instead of digesting it, they started working together. This particular prokaryote was a tiny powerhouse, specialized in taking oxygen—now ubiquitous—and turning it into energy. Called a mitochondrion, it formed a relationship with eukaryotes that could lay claim to be the most successful partnership on Earth. …(in plants they’re called plastids),… (134)

In the early years of life on Earth, it’s likely that gene sharing (known officially as horizontal gene transfer) was the predominant way evolution worked. In fact, researchers now believe that the eukaryote genome was itself the result of a fusion of two prokaryotic genomes. Instead of the Darwinian tree of life, biologists are offering alternative metaphors such as a bush or net of life to better describe how we are all intricately connected. In the memorable words of Lynn Margulis: ‘Life did not take over the world by combat but by networking.’ (136)

[via: The above Margulis quotes is from Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution.]

Eukaryotes, however, gradually devised another form of cooperation that led to the full unfolding of the prodigious grandeur of life on Earth as we know it today—multicellularity. (136)

Better together

Almost every manifestation of nature that we can see with the naked eye is multicellular:… (136)

Somatic cells had to give up their own ability to reproduce in order to become part of something bigger than themselves. (137)

…virtually all creatures on Earth have continued to share about a third of their genes from the collective ancestral pool. … Even as species became more differentiated, they developed ways to trade their own specialized skills for the unique skills of other species that could help them thrive. This process, knowns as symbiosis, is so widespread throughout nature that it forms a bedrock of every ecology on Earth. The prevalence of symbiosis means that life is rarely a zero-sum game, where a species can only gain at the expense of another. On the contrary, by working together, species have co-created ecosystems everywhere in which the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts. (137)

Cooperation, competition and harmony

The extreme commitment to cooperation made by the cells in your body becomes stunningly clear when you consider that they voluntarily kill themselves when they are no longer needed for your body’s healthy functioning—a process called apoptosis. When they make this decision, they don’t just call it quits and decompose. In a careful choreography, they instruct their genes to create a crew of enzymes that meticulously cut the large molecules of DNA, RNA and proteins into bite-sized pieces which are sorted into little membrane packages and fed to neighboring cells. (140)

[via: A “dividing up the inheritance.”]

Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. —David Sloan Wilson and E.O. Wilson

When groups evolve to become sufficiently cooperative, they (140) get closer to the state of an organism. Colonies of social insects like ants or bees are so highly cooperative, in fact, that they are frequently called superorganisms. … We can conceive of evolution now as a multidimensional force acting through both competition and cooperation at multiple levels—within the organism, in symbiotic relationships, within a species, between species and within an ecosystem. (141)

…we can move beyond a sterile debate about whether evolution is a result of competition or cooperation. (141)

Maybe there’s another way to describe the elegantly complex interweaving of natural processes that comprise an ecosystem: harmony. (141)

Mind the metaphor

cf. Raymond Kurzweil; Max Tegmark; Gordon Gekko

Robin Wall Kimmerer refreshingly writes about symbiosis as a ‘relationship of gratitude and reciprocity [which] can increase the evolutionary fitness of both plant and animal’. …if humans embrace their symbiotic relationship with the rest of the living Earth and tend it accordingly to create conditions for mutual flourishing, this would lead to the long-term benefit of humans and nonhumans alike. ‘The stories we choose to shape our behaviors’, she writes, ‘have adaptive consequences.’ (144)

The sacred dance of life

Frequently, when cell biologists describe the mind-boggling complexity of their subject, they turn to music as a core metaphor. (145)

What might happen if we applied this new understanding of nature’s harmonic dance to establish different norms for our own society? Imagine if, instead of our socioeconomic system constructed on the presumption that ‘the economy of nature is competitive from beginning to end’, it was structured instead on the basis of symbiosis—an ecological civilization. (146)


Every major evolutionary step since life began on Earth was a result of increased cooperation between different types of organisms


Life is not a zero-sum game: through symbiosis, species have co-created ecosystems in which the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts


An ecosystem arises from organisms acting together in a complex interweaving of both competition and cooperation: a harmonic dance of life


I exist in a fractally connected, self-organized universe where everything relates dynamically to everything else


Part Three: What Am I?

6. The Deep Purpose of Life

After Plato’s death, Aristotle set up a competing school in Athens, the Lyceum where he taught his own philosophy based on his view that every living being has an intrinsic purpose, the expression of its defining essence, which he viewed as its soul. ‘If the eye were an animal,’ he explained, ‘sight would be its soul, since this is the defining essence of an eye.’ (153)

Virtually all cultures at that time shared an understanding that a life force existed in every living entity, a spirit that impelled them to do what they did. (153)

In ancient China sages developed these Indigenous insights into a categorization of the kinds of qi (energy/matter) that existed in an organism. One kind was shen, the vital spirit that animated a living organism. Another was jing, the generative principle that was believed to emerge in an embryo at the moment of conception, driving its growth and eventual reproductive energy. (154)

By the nineteenth century, when scientists were less willing to resort to theology for ultimate explanations, the problem resurfaced. How could you explain the obviously purposive behavior of living organisms? Some scientists theorized that creatures contained a life force, an élan vital, that worked according to specific laws, like gravity or electricity. However, by the early twentieth century…vitalism had fallen into such disrepute… Along with vitalism, any theory that living entities possessed intrinsic purpose—known as teleology—was discarded by mainstream science… (154)

…we’ll discover not only that life does have purpose, but that intrinsic purpose is, in fact, a defining characteristic of life. Research in the dynamics of self-organization is forcing leading scientists to rethink how evolution itself works, and suggests a directionality to life on Earth that requires us to reconsider humanity’s true place within it, with enormous implications for the potential trajectory of our species. (155)

What does life want?

The story of life’s deep purpose begins, ironically, with death. A certain kind of death: the ‘heat death’ that scientists tell us is the likely ultimate fate of the universe. (155)

In his seminal book What Is Life? [Erwin] Schrödinger explained that lining organisms exist by converting the entropy around them into order, creating temporary eddies of negative entropy, which he called negentropy. …a local loophole to the [Second Law of Thermodynamics] that’s maintained itself on Earth for billions of years. Wherever there is life, entropy is being reversed—at least for a while. (156)

[Living entities] ingest [entropy] in the form of energy and matter, break it apart and reorganize it into forms that are beneficial for their continued existence. It’s a process that goes by a common name: metabolism. (156)

The moment that a set of molecules first sucked in entropy to organize itself was the moment that physics and chemistry combined to give birth to biology. (156) …The first step toward life occurred when sets of molecules began to catalyze each other’s reactions—an autocatalytic set—and formed a semipermeable membrane around themselves, using other molecules from outside to maintain the process. This momentous event marked the first time that matter began to reverse entropy on Earth. (157)

| It was also the moment when teleology first appeared on our planet. …those autocatalytic sets had crossed a threshold of value: they began making judgments about what was around them. The molecules out there held meaning to them: one molecule was harmful, another was beneficial because it permitted them to continue converting entropy into order. (157)

There is no organism without teleology. […Immanuel Kant was the first European philosopher to recognize that a core characteristic of life is that each part exists for the sake of the whole, writing, ‘The definitino of an organic body is that it is a body, every part of which is there for the sake of the other (reciprocally as end, and at the same time, means).’]—Hans Jonas

While controversy remains over the exact details of what constitutes life, most biologists have converged on a small set of essential attributes. First, there must be a boundary between the organism and the rest of the world—between the entropy out there and the order within. Whether it’s a cell wall or skin, the boundary must be semipermeable, with the ability to ingest what’s needed from outside and expel waste from within. Second, a living entity must actively persist in a continually dynamic metabolic flow, repairing and rebuilding its constituent parts to resist the wear and tear that entropy relentlessly imposes. When this active flow ceases, that’s the moment of death. Third, a living being must be capable of self-reproducing. The Second Law dictates that, after some time, in spite of its best efforts at self-repair, a living system will begin to degenerate. Whether by cell division or by procreation, it must have a way to pass on its unique capacities for negentropy to future generations. (158)

| Underlying these three essential criteria for life is a deeper principle: the purposive self-organization that permits it all to happen. (158)

A cascade of negative entropy

From the earliest times on Earth to the present day, virtually all the energy that life consumes derives ultimately from the sun. (159)

all living entities are energy transformers, converting energy around them into their own unique form of negentropy. … Alfred Lotka, who proposed a Fourth Law of Thermodynamics, which stated, ‘Evolution proceeds in such direction as to make the total energy flux through the system a maximum compatible with the constraints.’ (159)

Once you start seeing living entities as patterns of energy flows, there’s no reason to draw artificial lines separating them. Symbiotic relationships can be understood as the inevitable consequences of different organisms working together to resist entropy more effectively. The vibrant complexity of a healthy ecosystem is the natural result of a multifaceted, glorious cascade of negative entropy. … Through this lens, evolution itself may be understood as life developing increasingly sophisticated ways to maximize the conversion of energy into negative entropy. (160)

The virtuosity of the cell

I believe very strongly that the fundamental unit, the correct level of abstraction, is the cell and not the genome. —Sydney Brenner

The wisdom of the crowd

…an embryo develops from a single microscopic cell to a full-fledged organism. This process, called ontogeny, has been extensively studied, yet retains its mystique as one of the greatest enigmas of life. How is that first cell able to divide into a series of two hundred different types, each cell coordinating its proper function with a trillion others to form a perfect infant,… (162)

Fundamentally, ontogeny is a triumph of self-organized emergence arising from the interplay of a massive number of tiny, relatively simple interactions of cells closely coordinating with each other. Each cell reacts to its local conditions without requiring an understanding of the big picture. (162)

A cell makes its determination of what to do based on what the cells next to it are doing. It doesn’t need to know the ultimate goal of the system as a whole, but it needs to be exquisitely attuned to its neighbors and respond to the signals it receives with its own clear feedback mechanisms. (163)

The deep learning of the ecosystem

…there’s no need for an organism to be conscious of its role in the grand scheme; it merely needs to perform its moment-to-moment striving to maintain, regenerate and reproduce itself. As it does so, each organism—along with its constituent parts—continually makes a series of tiny, self-organized decisions that accumulate into coherent animate intelligence, thus permitting the resilience, adaptability and ingenuity of living beings everywhere. (164)

One quality…is redundancy: there are frequently multiple ways to accomplish the same goal. … This is one of the key factors leading to life’s robustness, because if one pathway fails, another is usually available. (165)

| Another principle is conservatism; once life has found something that works well, it reuses it continually in different situations. An example is a set of genes called the hox complex, first discovered in the fruit fly, which specifies how body segments should develop, such as whether an appendage should grow into a leg, wing or antenna.

Another crucial aspect to its self-organization is modularity: allowing various populations of cells within an organism to do their thing without being hampered by what’s going on elsewhere. … Modularity also allows for innovation, as cells self-organize to arrive at new ways to solve a problem, while the rest of the organism remains stable. (165) …coordination: even within a cell, genes need to act together in networks to accommodate a new development and smooth out any hiccups that might occur. (166)

…evolvability: the ability of organisms to adapt continually to changing environments, stabilize their new skills and adapt again when conditions require it. According to leading theorists, evolvability itself evolves. (166)

| This leads to an important implication: evolution doesn’t just happen, it gets better over time at what it does. … Evolution learns. (166)

…when a network of neurons achieves a successful outcome, the nerves strengthen their connections, making it more likely that they’ll come together in a similar configuration the next time. [Donald Hebb’s] discovery, known as Hebbian learning, was immortalized in the expression: ‘Neurons that fire together wire together.’ [An interesting way to interpret this aspect of Hebbian learning is that it turns correlation into causation.] (166)

Life metamorphoses into Gaia

cf. James Lovelock; the Gaia hypothesis

…all Earth’s organisms ‘live with a world that is the breath and bones of their ancestors and that they are now sustaining.’ Gaia is the emergent result of life and Earth evolving together, perpetually shaping and reshaping each other. (168)

| Lovelock realized that this co-evolution of life and Earth generated beneficial self-regulatory feedback effects,… In the first two billion years of Earth’s history, for example, sunlight flooded the planet with ultraviolet rays that rapidly degraded DNA. Life could only survive in the oceans, protected from lethal radiation. Eventually, in what’s known as the Great Oxygenation Event, new species of bacteria emerged that photosynthesize sunlight more efficiently, generating oxygen as a by-product. As oxygen accumulated in the upper atmosphere, it converted into ozone, which shielded Earth from the deadly UV rays, allowing life to leave the oceans and colonize dry land. It was life that made the land habitable for life. (168)

Complexity, cooperation and civilization

Whether it was mitochondria partnering with eukaryotes, single cells combining to create multicellular organisms or insects collaborating to form colonies, the great phase transitions of life have all required massive upsurges in cooperation. (170)

A perennial problem for cooperating groups throughout the history of life…is the risk of free-riders: those that take advantage of the benefits of the group without making a fair contribution. If there are too many of them, they undermine the effectiveness of the group and may cause it to disintegrate. Genetic relatedness is one way evolution solved this problem: cells and organisms evolved to cooperate more closely with others that share their genes. But cooperation extends far beyond genetic affiliation. (170)

| Ultimately, the crucial success factor for cooperation at increasing levels of scale is integration—a state of unity with differentiation. In a fully integrated system, each part maintains its unique identity while operating in coordination with other parts of the system. (170)

As pre-humans evolved in bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers, they developed a sophisticated social intelligence enabling them to collaborate closely with each other. Early hominids also faced the free-rider problem, and the characteristics they evolved to solve it became an intrinsic part of human nature: a powerful instinct for fairness, combined with a drive to punish those who flagrantly break the rules, even at one’s own expense. Many of the qualities we prize in a person, such as compassion, generosity, honesty and altruism, are the results of our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolving the aptitude to collaborate successfully as a group. (171)

Eligible for the Federation?

Life physically culminates in Man, just as energy physically culminates in life —Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Teilhard saw this inevitable progression continuing toward what he called the Omega Point—the ultimate stage of evolution in (172) which all distinctions between artificial and natural are dissolved, when Humanity’s consciousness will fuse with the entire natural world to form one unified organism of embodied intelligence. (173)

[via: Apparently, there is an Institute based on the Omega Point idea.]

cf. The Singularity Is Near


Life’s deep purpose is to maintain and regenerate itself to make more life in an ongoing rebellion against the law of entropy


Every organism is a purposive, persistent, dynamic pattern of energy flow, playing its part in the larger drama of life’s defiance of the law of entropy


Evolution is the process of life developing increasingly sophisticated ways to maximize the conversion of energy into negative entropy

7. The Tao in My Own Nature

cf. Helen Keller; Anne Sullivan

The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free! —Helen Keller

Nature’s self-organized intelligence

…murmuration—swooping down, separating and rejoining, contracting and expanding, then unexpectedly shifting direction. … There is no lead starling directing how the rest of the flock should act. Instead, biologists have found that starlings—along with schools of fish in the ocean, swarms of insects and other flocking animals—are merely following a few simple rules of thumb, such as ‘Don’t get too close to your neighbors’, ‘Adopt the same direction as those next to you’ and ‘Avoid becoming isolated.’ (179)

There are a few basic ingredients common to virtually all (179) these behaviors: you need a large number of individuals interacting with each other repeatedly; you need a certain amount of random fluctuation in how the individuals behave; there must be some kind of positive feedback loop, whereby actions become rapidly amplified throughout the system; and just as importantly, you need a form of negative feedback that sets in once the amplification reaches a certain point. (180)

The (not so) Hard Problem

…the Hard Problem of consciousness—a term coined in the early 1990s by philosopher David Chalmers. …we might one day explain the various processes by which neurons in the brain form images, memories, language and even make decisions. That’s the ‘easy problem’. But, he claims, we will never be able to explain why all that neuronal activity feels like something. Earlier, we came across the concept of qualia: those subjective moment-to-moment experiences unique to our inner sanctum of consciousness: the redness of a red napkin on your lap; the particular taste in your mouth right now. The unique subjectivity of qualia, Chalmers asserted, is the Hard Problem that can never be explained. (182)

From an evolutionary perspective, the gradual rise of subjectivity in consciousness is something we’ve already traced. It emerged, (182) as William James put it, ‘for the sake of steering a nervous system grown too complex to regulate itself’. There is no unbridgeable gulf between subjective experience and bodily functions. On the contrary, feelings arose from the crucial need of organisms to maintain homeostasis and have evolved to greater complexity ever since. Once we recognize there is no insurmountable Hard Problem we can get on with the fascinating task of trying to understand how, indeed, all that neuronal activity does create the qualia of subjective experience. (183)

Enacting our own consciousness

Each neuron links through synapses to as many as a thousand other neurons, with the result that our nervous system contains over a hundred trillion interconnections. (183)

The Hebbian form of neuronal self-organization leads to a powerful combination of reliability and flexibility—crucial principles of life’s evolutionary success. The reliability arises because there are multiple redundant neural pathways that can lead to a similar outcome. The flexibility emerges from the fact that there is no fixed blueprint directing how a brain should work. (184)

The dynamic neural self-organization that generates consciousness results from continual interaction between a person and their environment—both the internal environment of bodily experiences and the external environment of people and events. Consciousness is not something that happens to us; it’s something that we enact through our own participation in’s an ongoing activity emerging through our engagement with the world. Do you remember how Neo-Confucian sages observed that the connections between things are frequently more important than the things themselves—something invalidated by modern systems theory? The phenomenon of consciousness is—perhaps second only to life itself—the most powerful testament to validate this profound insight. (184)

A crystal in a trillion dimensions

…neurons organize themselves through hubs and spokes,… (184) … Neurons are also organized fractally, so their patterns of connection look similar at different scales. (185)

Another crucial characteristic of how neurons connect is integration—a concept that is fundamental to life and equally essential for consciousness. (185)

It is the ability of the nervous system to be both modular and unified at the same time that allows it to create a moment of consciousness—one of those distinctive subjective qualia. On a timescale of a fraction of a second, multiple clusters of different neural groups come together from all over the brain to form what has been called a ‘dynamic core of consciousnes.’ A fraction of a second later, some connected neurons part company, while others link up to generate the next moment in the stream of consciousness that we all experience. Consciousness, therefore, is not a thing, nor does it exist in a fixed location in the brain, but is an ongoing process of continual linkage and differentiation through billions of interconnecting pathways. The dynamic core is never exactly the same, but from one moment to another there is enough consistency in its repertoire for it to feel like a smooth flow. (185)

…Giulio Tononi…developed a full-fledged theory of consciousness called Integrated Information Theory. Specifically, he defines the quantity of consciousness experienced in a system as the amount of information arising from integration, above and beyond the information maintained separately in the system’s parts. (185)

…some intriguing implications. One is that consciousness can, in principle, be quantified if you could measure the information flows. His model has already been used, with encouraging results, to ascertain through neuroimaging whether unresponsive patients are truly unconscious or ‘locked in’ and simply unable to express themselves. Another implication is that consciousness is substrate independent: any system that integrates information has a certain amount of consciousness, which could theoretically be measured. * This in turn leads to a provocative assertion: since even the protons, neutrons and quarks within an atom constitute an integrated system, however infinitesimal, this would mean that all matter is conscious to some degree. Tononi’s claim — coming from one of the leading neuroscientists in the field — is known more generally as panpsychism, and is noteworthy for how profoundly it corroborates the view shared by Indigenous traditions across the world of the intrinsic consciousness of everything in the universe. (186)

[via: In the margin I wrote, “Are we headed to panpsychism?!” near line three (*). At the end I wrote, “Ah…”]

My personal opinion is that, rather than diminishing the sacred quality of consciousness, it opens a pathway that bridges the sacred and the scientific. In modern gewu, as in Neo-Confucianism — and in contrast to Western dualism — there is no inherent distinction between the spiritual and the material. It’s the miraculous ways in which the material world self-organizes that create the conditions for all that is sacred and meaningful in the universe. (186)

…if it could be mapped din what he calls qualia space, would be like a multifaceted crystal in a trillion dimensions. (186)

[via: is this a description of consciousness as multidimensionality? Is this where the multiverse / many worlds meets neurology?]

Attractors of Consciousness

The everyday words we use to describe our inner experience capture these fractal patterns: momentary sensations may cohere into a particular feeling which, if it stays around, becomes a mood. Later in the day, something may happen to shift that mood, or possibly deepen it until it becomes a state of mind that might turn into a new relatively stable attractor. Our momentary thoughts can cohere into ideas, which over time might congeal into attitudes or beliefs. (187)

It may seem random, but scientists analyzing these [ant] movements have discovered that they follow a particular fractal pattern known as a Lévy flight, which has been demonstrated mathematically to optimize foraging success when the prey is scarce and randomly distributed. (188)

Is there a state of mind you recognize in yourself that seems to follow a Lévy flight path, looping in seemingly random directions, going hither and yon, sometimes taking short detours, sometimes getting stuck in long diversions before coming back to where you began? It’s known of course as mind-wandering,… By some estimates, we spend about a quarter of our waking life mind-wandering. Neuroscientists have identified a particular attractor of neural connections in the brain that is activated during mind-wandering, called the default mode network. (189)

It might be helpful to think of our default mode network as a salience seeker: exploring neural pathways to seek out what’s important, it pounces on what’s salient and raises it to conscious attention so we can mull it over. … It might feel like random mind-wandering, but just like the ants seeking a food source, you can think of it as your consciousness pursuing its own fractal Lévy path, searching for salience. (189)

Laying down a path in walking

Think back to the last time you lost your temper. Frequently, this will happen unexpectedly, but when we reflect on it later, we realize that the issue had been steadily building up until something — seemingly insignificant in itself — broke the dam. Similar to the amplification effect of termites leaving pheromones on a mound until it becomes a tower, something might keep bothering us below the level of consciousness, until it accumulates enough neural pathways to break our composure. This experience can be characterized as a phase transition, an avalanche of consciousness, which might be quite rare but — consistent with power law principles — when it happens, it can feel seismic. (190)

Wanderer, the road is you
footsteps, nothing else;
wanderer, there is no path,
you lay down a path in walking.

—Antonio Machado

[via: Reminds me of a bedouin saying, “The way to keep a path alive is to walk on it.”]

Through intention, we can literally sculpt the shape of our own attractors of consciousness. … Ultimately, the person we become, along with the quality of our lifelong inner experience, is determined by the fractal layers of neural patterns that, moment to moment, form our attractors of consciousness. (192)

Cultural attractors and archetypes

In a process known as deep enculturation, the values and beliefs a person holds about the world are formed in their early years by the patterns of meaning molded into their neural pathways by their culture. (1932)

…anthropologist Joseph Henrich has pointed out, it’s the primary reason why humanity has achieved dominance over other species. The shared knowledge earned by communities through trial and error, accumulating over generations, creates a collective intelligence far beyond the capabilities of even the most brilliant single mind. (192)

[via: On page 193, Lent mentions a famous experiment by Stanley Milgram, having someone stand on a busy New York street and look up as though something interesting was going on, and counting how many others stopped to look in the same direction. I was delighted by this, for years ago when teaching a class on the book of Acts, I had students do the very same thing in the quad, in reference to Acts 1:10-11.]

I believe…that Dawkins’ conception of the meme is (193) as misguided as the notion of the selfish gene and for the same underlying reason: just as the selfish gene was based on a flawed mechanistic conception of life, so the meme is based on an equally erroneous mechanistic conception of culture and consciousness. (194)

Instead of the meme, I suggest a more valuable way to approach the study of cultural transmission is the notion of a cultural attractor. (194)

A cultural attractor is never exactly the same in the minds of two different people. There may be a great deal of similarity in the ways a cultural attractor is expressed, but each person has their own unique way of perceiving it. (194)

The longest lasting of all cultural attractors, going back to the dawn of culture itself, are archetypes. Archetypes may be understood as shared patterns of human behavior that are deeply meaningful and universal to the human experience, but manifesting uniquely for each person in each new generation. Examples…might be the Nurturing Motherthe Hero’s Journeythe Tricksterthe Lover and the Wise Elder. (194) …[Carl Jung] described them as phenomena of a ‘collective unconscious’. (195)

The Adaptive Cycle

Like attractors of consciousness, the time scales of shifts in cultural attractors exhibit a fractal quality. There are short-lived fads … may develop into trends… Extending to longer time scales are complexes of values and behaviors that define a generation, such as the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, … Spanning multiple decades are eras that may be defined by a dominant political or economic ideology. … Then there are the grandest cycles of all: the rare but momentous shifts in a dominant worldview that can transform the beliefs, practices and daily lives of entire populations for multiple generations. (196)

the Adaptive Cycle model of change… (196)

As a rule, every complex system passes through a life cycle consisting of four phases (Figure 6). It begins with a rapid growth phase, where innovative strategies can exploit new opportunities — think of entrepreneurs developing new products or businesses targeting new markets. Over time, the system settles into a more stable conservation phase, characterized by established rules and relationships that gradually become increasingly brittle and resistant to change. At some point, a tipping point causes a phase transition, known (196) as the release phase. Think of lightning igniting a forest fire or a sudden market crash. This is followed by a reorganization phase, when the future of the system is up for grabs. In this period, which can feel chaotic, new ideas or charismatic individuals can have an outsize impact on how the system will look as it prepares to enter the growth phase of its new cycle. (197)

There is a possibility of a flourishing future for humanity that could avoid the extremes of collapse on one hand or a techno-dystopia on the other. However, getting to that future will require a phase transition of our dominant cultural attractor: replacing the mainstream mechanistic worldview with one that is life-affirming, based on the deep recognition of humanity’s interrelatedness with the living Earth. (198)


The principles that apply to complex, self-organized systems in the natural world also apply to our own nature and to human culture


Consciousness is something we enact as a continual process of linkage and differentiation through billions of interconnecting neural pathways


As humans, we have the power to reshape our own attractors of consciousness through intention


As part of life, I am an integrated, dynamic flow of negative entropy, following the same general principles as the rest of the natural world


Part Four: How Should I Live?

8. Flourishing as an Integrated Organism

Health in harmony

…an intrinsic quality of life itself, incorporating both competition and cooperation. Chinese philosophers understood clearly that harmony doesn’t just mean agreement. (204)

Harmony, then, arises when you successfully blend contrasting elements within a system to create something greater. … Rather than trying to transcend difficult feelings, they taught that a person experienced well-being when their emotions arose harmoniously ‘in due measure and degree’… (204)

There is harmony in sorrow —Wang Yang-ming

Ayurvedic medicine. There, physicians focused on three different forms of energy, called doshas… Neither the Chinese nor Indian system saw a separation between the physical, mental and spiritual health of a person. It was understood that each aspect of a person and their environment needed to be in balance for them to thrive as an integrated organism. (205)

[via: “compartmentalized” / “dualistic” / “categorized” = disintegration.]

A number of leading medical researchers, though, are turning to Chinese and Ayurvedic traditions as inspiration for what has become known as integrative medicine. Back in 1948, the World Health Organization defined health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. (206)

Integrative medicine views the body as an ecosystem containing diversified microbial hosts, rather than a battleground where pathogens are fought to the death. … Health, like consciousness, is a natural attractor — never fixed but continuously following resilient, dynamic flows within certain parameters. (206)

The human mind-body organism

Imagine discovering a treatment that reliably improves symptoms by between 25 and 60 percent across a wide variety of serious diseases affecting hundreds of millions of patients worldwide, with no adverse side-effects and costing almost nothing to produce. … It’s called the placebo effect. (207)

Placebos work through both changing a patient’s experience of their symptoms and, remarkably, alleviating the symptoms themselves. They do this primarily through the body’s autonomic nervous system, which regulate functions such as blood pressure, gastric motility and pulmonary action. … One researcher has called this deep intelligence our ‘health governor’… (207)

The placebo acts like a bridge between a person’s conceptual and animate consciousness. It works when a patient attributes a particular meaning to an intervention and channels the significance through his animate intelligence, which reacts accordingly. For this reason, some researcher suggest we should replace the world placebo with the term therapeutic meaning response, to more accurately describe how mind, body and culture interact in healing. (208)

While we’re all aware of the effect diet and exercise have on our bodies, what is less well known is how powerfully emotional states impact our health. (208)

[via: The etymology of the word “placebo” from Online Etymology Dictionary: “early 13c., name given to the rite of Vespers of the Office of the Dead, so called from the opening of the first antiphon, “I will please the Lord in the land of the living” (Psalms cxvi.9, in Vulgate Placebo Domino in regione vivorum), from Latin placebo “I shall please,” future indicative of placere “to please” (see please).” Below are the biblical texts:

Placebo Domino in region vivorum. — Psalm 114:9 (Vulgate)

אתהלך לפני יהוה בארצות החיים — Hebrew Bible, Psalm 116:9

ευαρεστησω εναντιον κυριου εν χωρα ζωντων — LXX, Psalm 114:9

I walk before the Lord in the land of the living. — NRSV, Psalm 116:9]

A sense of optimism also plays a significant role in health outcomes — a bit like a universal placebo for life in general, causing people with more upbeat emotions to live longer, healthier lives. One study following heart attack survivors showed that optimism was a better predictor of avoiding a second heart attack than any other factor. Other researchers squirted rhinovirus into people’s noses and discovered that pessimists were twice as likely to develop a cold as optimists. In another study, a month after a group of office cleaners were told that physical work was good for their health, their average blood pressure dropped from elevated to normal. (208)

In Japan, cardiovascular patients who lacked ikigai, which means ‘having something worth living for’, were found to have a mortality rate 60 percent higher than those who had it. (209)

…An important way in which emotional state affects health is through its impact on telomeres, which are protective caps at the end of the DNA strands that make up our chromosomes,… (209)

The vagus nerve, which is a core component of the autonomic nervous system, has been found to play a crucial role. People whose vagal activity is more responsive to changes — known as high vagal tone — tend to be more sociable, empathetic, expressive and cheerful. Not surprisingly, these fortunate people are highly valued as friends and tend to experience greater well-being. (209)

Bodily posture that express emotional states have been found to induce those states when they’re consciously adopted. For example, a head tilting upward elicits pride; hunching induces depressed feelings, and when a person smiles, this increases their enjoyment. (209)

“Don’t fake it ’til you make it. Fake it until you become it.”

[via: Does staring down at one’s cell phone have a similar physiological effect on the vagus nerve? Also, sociology’s corresponding principle is called “praxis.”]

One that has become popular worldwide is yoga, a word that originally meant ‘to yoke,’… (210)

Dancing and drumming are other modalities that, besides being enjoyable in themselves, have multiple health benefits. Drumming has been found in various studies to reduce stress, blood pressure and pain, by triggering endorphin release in the body, reducing cortisol and activating the immune system. Dancing has similar effects, along with improving motor coordination and enhancing social interaction. Both activities are deeply integrative, requiring a person’s conceptual, animate and social intelligences to engage and synchronize with each other, leading to the more harmonious inner states that the early Chinese sages identified as essential for good health. (210)

qigong (pronounced chee-gong) and tai chi,… …‘skillful management of qi’… (210)

Eudaimonia: fulfilling your true nature

In Buddhism this experience of enduring happiness is known as sukha. … a deep sense of lasting well-being that underlies and infuses all emotional states. …it fully embraces every instance of emotional pain and pleasure that arises. If we consider human consciousness as a series of fractal layers, this becomes easier to understand: while experiencing the moment-to-moment fluctuations of daily life at one level, we can meet all the hubbub at a deeper level with a spacious sense of abiding equanimity. (211)

Aristotle made a crucial distinction between two forms of happiness: hedonia and eudaimonia. Hedonia, as its name implies, refers to transient states of happiness that arise from pleasurable stimuli. … It includes every kind of sensual pleasure, such as tastes and sounds, and also the fleeting but less tangible kind of pleasures that we get from being praised, feeling powerful or admired, acquiring material goods or feeling financially secure. (212)

| Eudaimonia, on the other hand, refers to the state arising from fulfilling one’s true nature. …striving to achieve his full potentiality, and flourishing in his unique way, …the source of sustained well-being. … Stoicism and Epicureanism, based their teachings don’t he core concept of eudaimonia, differing only in their interpretations of what it actually meant to live one’s life int he best possible way. (212)

…in the field of psychology there has been a new emphasis on the positive attributes of well-being rather than merely trying to fix a patient’s psychological problems. (212)

An inventory of lasting happiness

Ninety-five percent of human history was spent in bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers, and our basic needs, desires and emotions evolved to make our ancestors successful in that milieu. (213)

…one of our deeply evolved needs is to do work that is meaningful and challenging. An important aspect of well-being revolves around being engaged purposively in work, setting goals for ourselves and then striving to achieve them. …it’s the journey, not the destination, that gives us the greatest pleasure. (213)

For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, being accepted as part of a community was essential for survival. (213) …community belonging, friendship, family bonds, physical intimacy and partner love. Raising children, interestingly, has been shown to increase eudaimonic, but not hedonic well-being: parents report feeling more stressed on a daily basis but enjoy greater long-term life satisfaction. (214)

[via: Reminds me of a book title, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior.]

People who believe their happiness can improve report greater life satisfaction. The same is true for those who emphasize gratitude, both to others and for the positive aspects of their own life. Another emotion demonstrated to elicit both greater happiness and health is awe: the sensation of being in the presence of something vast, something greater than our own limited existence. (214)

| In fact, simply being in nature is one of the most reliably effective ways to feel happier and healthier. A classic study in 1984 reported that surgical patients assigned to rooms with windows looking out on a natural scene took fewer painkillers and had shorter post-operative hospital stays. Since then a number of studies have shown that nature-assisted therapy is effective across a wide range of diagnoses. (214)

Perhaps the most important attribute of all — one that both incorporates and transcends many of the rest — is having a sense of meaning and purpose in life. (214)

[via: Here Lent refers to Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning.]

…the discovery of neural plasticity in recent decades has opened up a vast arena of possibilities for intentionally changing one’s own happiness baseline, rather than relying on the serendipity of life events. If we engage in practices that redirect our neural attractors, they have the potential to durably alter the baseline of our inner experience. (215)

Cultivating your mind with meditation

….in India, the Buddha frequently referred to meditation…as bhavana, which literally means ‘cultivation.’ (215)

…London taxi…drivers’ brains were significantly larger in the part of the hippocampus that stores spatial information. (216)

Essentially, the brain reacts to mental exercise in the same way the body reacts to physical exercise. …both neuroscience and ancient wisdom tell us that we can enhance our well-being by skillfully exercising our minds. (216)

Instead of reacting to a difficult emotion with aversion, we can gradually learn to hold it tenderly, be curious about its provenance, experience it as bodily sensation and allow it to flow through consciousness until it passes over to the next attractor that arises. (216)

A society based on dukkha

This paradox highlights a crucial principle of well-being: an individual can only fully flourish within the context of a society which is itself healthy. Becoming a fully integrated organism means not just integrating within, but also integrating fractally with community, society and the entire ecosystem. We exist in a holarchy. Just as a single cell can’t flourish in a diseased organism, so the well-being of an individual human requires a healthy society. (219)

Our society’s emphasis on the pursuit of individual material success has led to a steadily rising obsessive focus on narcissistic self-esteem. (219)

A large number of studies tracking a wide range of populations around the world have consistently found that people with materialistic values have lower well-being and suffer more psychological problems than those for whom materialism is less important. One reason for this is known as the ‘hedonic treadmill’: people’s material aspirations change according to their situation, so as soon as they achieve their goal — whether it’s a flashier gadget, a bigger house or a higher status job — they immediately aspire to the next step on the treadmill, never satisfying their need to grasp for more. Buddhism, as we’ve seen, has a word for this perpetual state of discontent on which consumer society is based: dukkha. (220)

He who is attached to things will suffer much.
He who hoards will suffer heavy loss …
There is no calamity like not knowing what is enough
There is no curse greater than the desire for gain.
Therefore, he who knows what is enough will always have enough.

—Tao Te Ching

Weaponizing dukkha for profit

Modern consumerism can, in fact, be traced back to chilling cynical strategies first employed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by ruthless business men who discovered how to condition entire populations to become sources of profit at the expense of their well-being. (220)

| A trailblazer in this regard was Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, who use his uncle’s insights into the subconscious to (220) identify people’s deeply buried needs and manipulate them into consumer impulses. The same social instincts that had allowed our ancestors to thrive in hunter-gatherer bands — desire for status, fear of exclusion — now became fodder for advertisers, driving people to act against their own welfare. One of Bernays’ coups was to break the social taboo against women smoking by paying models in a New York Easter Sunday parade to dress as suffragettes and flamboyantly light cigarettes, declaring them to be ‘freedom torchers’. (221)

| Bernays proudly described his work as ‘the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses’, declaring, ‘Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government that is the true ruling power of this country. We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of … who pull the wires which control the public mind.’ (221)

…we have a boundless field before us; there are new wants that will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast last they are satisfied…by advertising and other promotional devices. [from President Herbert Hoover’s report on the economy, 1929]

This has been called ‘limbic capitalism’ by author David Courtwright: a pervasive methodology to encourage excessive consumption and ‘addiction by design’ through targeting our limbic system — the source of instinctual drives. Our desire for sugar, salt and fat has been exploited by corporations designing scientific algorithms to target our ‘bliss point’ — the irresistible reaction to food precisely engineered to maximize flavor — leading to a global pandemic of obesity and diabetes. (221)

A modern-day Bernays named B. J. Fogg founded a field in the 199s called captology, derived from the acronym CAPT—’computers as persuasive technology’. At the ominously named Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, he has taught budding entrepreneurs how to use technology to ‘change people’s attitudes or behaviors’. (222) …In a process known as ‘brain hacking’, developers design ‘hot triggers’ that initiate behavioral loops in our subconscious. (223)

Psychologist Richard Freed writes how the addictive overuse of smartphones, video games and social media is ‘tearing the family apart,’ with teen girls refusing to be separated from the devices that are making them miserable, and boys obsessed with gaming at the expense of schoolwork or other extracurricular activities. Like Wayne Chilicki, Facebook is now doubling down on its strategy by getting them early, targeting children as young as five years old through its recently launched Messenger Kids. (223)

Cultivating societal well-being

While the addictive use of technology is tearing families apart, (223) the rise in extreme inequality is likewise tearing societies apart. (224)

What is less well known is that the overall health and well-being of a population is determined, not so much by a country’s wealth, but rather by how evenly that wealth is distributed. (224)

[via: Here, the book Spirit Level is referenced, which has had worthwhile critical reviews and evaluations.]

…the most significant factor is the stressful psychological experience of being disempowered and marginalized. Long-term studies of civil servants with equivalent access to healthcare have shown that low job status, more than differences in lifestyle, correlated with a higher risk of heart, lung and gastrointestinal disease, cancer, depression and suicide. (224)

Unequal societies also correlate with higher levels of violence, frequently as a result of people feeling disrespected and powerless, along with higher rates of mental illness, crime, alcoholism, drug abuse, homicide and incarceration. Similarly, there are vast differences in trust,… (226)

Both inequality and runaway consumerism are maladies of a global civilization built on values that align with hedonic impulses but virtually obliterate any conception of eudaimonia. (226)

…Gross National Happiness index…incorporating factors such as well-being, health and biodiversity. (226)

Achieving fractal flourishing

…in central and southern Africa a guiding principle for life is ubuntu, which is frequently translated as ‘I am because you re; you are because I am’. (227)

In Australia, Aboriginal people engage in the meditative practice of dadirri, which they describe as ‘deep listening, silent awareness’ of the natural world. (228)

The concept of planetary health emphasizes that human health is intricately connected to the health of natural systems within the Earth’s biosphere — Planetary Health Alliance

Achieving this would require what they call a ‘planetary consciousness’: reconnecting with the ancestral understanding of the unity of all life and applying this awareness to formulate global health policies. Another international network of over 6,000 organizations has endorsed the Earth Charter, a declaration of global life-affirming ethics, which states that ‘we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life-forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny.’ (228)

…increasing psychological maturity is associated with expanding awareness, care, and compassion … the wiser people are, the greater the number of people and creatures they will seek to benefit, and the deeper the kind of benefit they will seek to offer. (229)

…Mencius and other Chinese sages…described a highly desirable state called cheng, which was the experience of true integration of consciousness, both within and without. (229)


Living according to the principle of eudaimonia can lead to a life of sustained well-being


WE can cultivate well-being in ourselves through intentional practices that nurture healthy attractors of consciousness


An individual can only fully flourish within the context of a society which is itself healthy (fractal flourishing)


Our global civilization is built on values that align with hedonic impulses and oppose eudaimonia

9. Cultivating Integrated Values

cf. Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save

Whether we’re regular citizens or sages, he argued, we have an inborn moral sense. … The way we foster our innate goodness, Mencius explained, is by staying in touch with our instincts and learning to express them skillfully in the world. (233)

The human heart is so steeped in the poison of sin, that it can breathe out nothing but a loathsome stench. — John Calvin

While the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution challenged many aspects of Christian thought, one thing they never questioned was its belief in humanity’s intrinsic malevolence. (233)

cf. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Amazingly, much of what passes as mainstream scientific (233) thinking in the modern world has maintained the traditional conception of humankind’s Manichean struggle between good (the domain of reason) and evil (our natural instincts). (234)

What passes for co-operation turns out o be a mixture of opportunism and exploitation. [Michael Ghiselin and Richard Alexander, cited in David Sloan Wilson, Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015, p.34: Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, cited in Mathieu Ricard, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, transl. Charlotte Mandell and Sam Gordon, New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2015, i Book edn, Chapter 31.]

The ‘moral arc’

…the problem known as the naturalistic fallacy — the ease with which we slip from describing ‘what is’ to ‘what ought to be.’ (234)

moral norms have a tendency to change from one generation to the next. In fact, the shifting baseline of morality is one of its most salient characteristics. (235)

[via: Morality is “inter-subjective.”]

In short, we are living in the most moral period in our species’ history. — Michael Shermer

How values evolved

…when the first protocells made a determination about which molecules were beneficial and which were harmful, they made a value judgment. Value, however rudimentary, had emerged on Earth. (236)

…living beings constantly commit the naturalistic fallacy. —Andreas Weber

As creatures evolved bigger brains, their value judgments became ever more sophisticated. The influential triune brain theory of neuroscientist Paul MacLean posits that the human brain comprises three different ‘brains’ that evolve over different timescales. The ancient reptilian brain is driven by instincts such as the ‘fight or flight’ response; the more recent mammalian brain helps manage relationships through such behaviors as maternal bonding, attachment and emotions; and the most recent neocortex (containing the prefrontal cortex) allows for more complex behaviors such as planning and integrating. (237)

| Psychologist Darcia Narvaez has suggested that, as the brain evolved, new layers of ethical evaluations emerged with it. The most ancient, arising from the reptilian brain, is the Security Ethic, which emphasizes our physical survival and regulates impulses such as fear, anger and sexual drive. With the evolution of mammals, who care for their young, and Engagement Ethic emerged, incorporating feelings of intimacy, care-giving and loneliness. (237)

| We can trace the roots of empathy and altruism back to this early Engagement Ethic. A mother looking after her young needs to know what they’re feeling so she can do a better job of protecting them. … It’s possible that mirror neurons evolved for this purpose,… (237)

…the Ethic of Imagination, involving such mental feats as consideration of alternative actions and ‘perspective taking.’ (238)

The moral species

Somehow, humans learned to cooperate with each other on a grand scale. (239)

…hominids developed what are called moral emotions such as guilt, compassion, embarrassment, shame and gratitude — emotions that arise from our intricate social interactions. (239)

[Christopher] Boehm calls this a ‘reverse dominance hierarchy’ because the group as a whole establishes dominance over aggressive individuals. Over time, through an evolutionary process of group selection, nomadic bands that emphasized group identity flourished, whereas those that ceded control to a dominant alpha male eventually failed. (240)

| Eventually, people’s sense of identity expanded from their own self and kin to include their entire group. The common welfare became a touchstone for values: those who acted selfishly at the expense of the group were considered bad, whereas those who acted altruistically were seen as good. In a gradual process of culture-gen co-evolution, those ethical distinctions became embedded in the genetic endowment of the bands that flourished, eventually becoming endemic to the human species. We don’t just act morally because we think we should — we do so because it feels right. (240)

We are volution’s latest major transition. Alone among primate species, we crossed the threshold from groups of organisms to groups as organisms. — David Sloan Wilson

…our ancestors developed an instinct to punish those they caught taking advantage of the rest of the group. …‘altruistic punishment’… (241)

The cultural evolution of values

‘parochial altruism’ because frequently it only extended to the in-group. … Aggressive communities conquered those that were more peaceful, foisting on them warrior cultures that prized machismo and violence.

[via: Lent’s line of argumentation here follows from the development of agriculture, settled lifestyles, and the emerging concepts of wealth, and property defense. This should be compared with The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow]

Over generations, the scale of aggression ratcheted up, as villages consolidated into chiefdoms, and some eventually became empires. Cultural historian Riane Eisler calls these patriarchal societies ‘domination systems’ in contrast to the ‘partnership systems’ that predominated among hunter-gatherers. (242)

As these domination-based societies grew ever larger and far-flung, it became increasingly difficult to control them by force alone. But the dominators had a secret weapon that they used to great effect: the moral instincts of their subjects. Early civilizations around the world were characterized by religious beliefs that channeled moral intuitions into behaviors that supported (242) the authority of the centralized power. (243)

…the Axial Age, many of the great systems of thought we’ve inherited — including Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Vedanta, Greek philosophy and the Old Testament — transformed their cultures’ traditional beliefs. While differing from each other in many regards, they generally looked to a more sublime source of values than the local god of their region. (243)

[via: The taxonomy of “ages” as is so common in history and anthropology is being reconsidered in light of new thinking. For example, the “axial age” may not necessarily be a new era of moral or religious development as cultural / technological as the only reason we know about this age is because of written language a technology that now preserved ancients’ thinking and processing, at least in their written form.]

cf. the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done to yourself. (244)

Even today, in the United States, it is commonly believed that those who are not God-fearing are less likely to be ethical. (244)

Many thinkers now look to science as a solid basis for constructing a universally valid moral system. … There are core values underlying scientific methodology such as honesty, evidence-based inquiry, openness, accountability and tolerance, among others. (245)

How our guts learn their intuitions

The contrast between our innate morality and our cultural values can sometimes lead to severe inner conflicts, which have generated many of the iconic dramatic tensions of our cultural heritage. (245)

This discrepancy [in the runaway trolley example] points to two different pathways for moral cognition within us, which roughly map onto conceptual and animate forms of consciousness. (246)

Our moral intuitions, [Jonathan] Haidt argues, are ‘both innate and enculturated.’ Research has shown that we tend to internalize our values during a sensitive period of cognitive development in late childhood and adolescence. (247)

Our guts learn their intuitions. — Robert Sapolsky

This is the reason why morals can evolve over generations. They don’t just evolve according to some natural law; they can also change as the result of deliberate acts of persuasion instigated by thought leaders of each age. (247)

The individual pursuit of happiness

The idea of constructing a system of values based on scientific principles such as evidence-based inquiry and openness seems admirable. However, the moral rationalists have not lived up to their own standards. … The individual is not the fundamental unit of nature; natural selection has been convincingly shown to work on groups as well as individuals; and states of the human brain only exist through interactions with the body and the external world. The moral rationalists base their intellectual constructions not on true scientific principles but on the credo of fundamentalist reductionism, which, as we’ve seen, requires an ontological leap of faith. (248)

Their fixation on individual experience as the only benchmark for well-being causes them to neglect the fractal dimensions of flourishing: the recognition that true well-being can only exist within a flourishing community embedded in a healthy society and a thriving natural world. (248)

Since the 1980s this individualist value system has become entrenched in global mainstream discourse in the form of neoliberalism: a pseudo-philosophy based on the fiction that humans are isolated, selfish, rational, calculating materialists for whom social and moral connections with others are irrelevant to happiness. (249)

In the United States corporations have been given legal personhood with free license to influence elections: however, if a corporation were actually a person, its single-minded obsession with profit at the expense of anything else would cause it to be diagnosed as a psychopath. … Studies have reported that, whereas psychopaths make up just 1 percent of the human population, their proportion among business executives ranges from 4 to 20 percent. Characteristic traits associated with psychopathy include insincerity, lack of remorse and an inability to experience empathy or concern for others. (249)

‘One body with Heaven and Earth’

…a worldview known as indigeneity, which affirms the deep interconnectedness between all aspects of creation. Referred to as the Four Rs, they are: relationship, responsibility, reciprocity and redistribution. … Relationship is a kingship obligation, recognizing value not just in family but in ‘all our relations’ including animals, plants and the living Earth. Responsibility (251) is the community obligation, identifying the imperative to nurture and care for those relations. Reciprocity is a cyclical obligation to balance what is given and taken. And redistribution is the obligation to share what one possesses — not just material wealth, but one’s skills, time and energy. (252)

The self-seeking behavior considered normative in the neoliberal worldview would be viewed as a form of madness in traditional Indigenous cultures, grounds for some kind of therapy or possible ostracism. (252)

[via: As David Graeber and David Wengrow write in Dawn of Everything.]

Everything from ruler, minister, husband, wife, and friends, to mountains, rivers, heavenly and earthly spirits, birds, beasts, and plants, all should be truly loved in order that the unity may be reached. Then will I really form one body with Heaven and Earth and the myriad of things. — Wang Yangming

Because of this sense of intrinsic goodness, the Chinese didn’t believe that acting morally required the exercise of willpower. Instead, it required the practice of discernment: distinguishing between what was truly good and what only appeared attractive. (253)

Dispelling the suffering of others

According to the Buddhist principle of dependent origination, all that arises depends on everything else that came before it: we live in a universe of endless interdependence. Another crucial Buddhist insight, as we’ve seen, is that the sense of a self as a fixed entity is simply a delusion: an awakened person realizes that in fact the rigid boundaries we create between ourselves and others are mere construction of the mind. (253)

| The combination of these two principles can lead in Buddhist practice to a benevolent concern for the welfare of all sentient beings, known as metta, or lovingkindness. (253)

In many parts of Asia, there are shrines dedicated to Guanyin, a goddess symbolizing compassionate awakening, whose name means ‘the one who listens and hears the cries of the world in order to come and help.’ (254)

…the Buddhist ideal of a bodhisattva: someone who, having achieved enlightenment and been liberated from the endless cycles of reincarnation, has nevertheless vowed to remain in the world to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings. (254)

‘I am life, in the midst of life’

…one common factor emerges from the wide range of moral philosophies we’ve encountered: our version of morality is, to a very large extent, a function of our identity. If you identify with your community, your values will emphasize the welfare of the group. If you see yourself as an isolated individual, your values will accordingly lead you to pursue your own happiness at the expense of others. (255)

[via: “Intersubjective identity.”]

| Is it possible to develop a universal morality — one that’s not bounded by cultural predispositions? (255)

[via: “When one part of the body suffers, we all suffer with it?”]

A truly integrated system of values would recognize this as its foundational principle. Once we see ourselves as an integrated system within systems, our values emerge accordingly. Cultivating integrated values means not being stuck in one identity or even favoring one over the other, but recognizing that we exist in a continual dynamic flow of the different fractal layers of being. (255)

That doesn’t mean going back to an illusory golden age of nomadic hunter-gather bands, but moving forward to co-create a consciously constructed ‘partnership society’ of the future. (256)

…it’s possible to shift ingrained societal norms, and keep moving the moral arc away from the dominator ethic of the past. Studies conducted by animal liberation groups have shown that incremental moral change is not just beneficial in its own right, but lays the groundwork for more profound shifts in the moral baseline over generations. Through collective action, it’s possible to keep the ‘moral Flynn effect’ moving forward, gradually shifting ethical baselines and building an increased capacity for global compassion in new generations. (256)

When life first began on Earth, it brought value into existence. Rather than commit a ‘naturalistic fallacy’, it achieved a miraculous ‘naturalistic alchemy’ — out of bare matter it created a perpetual transformation from ‘is’ to ‘ought.’ Every living entity since then has shared a will to live and flourish. As humans, when we acknowledge the life within ourselves that we share with other organisms on Earth, we must then listen to life’s howl of anguish and strive to bring it back to health in the face of reckless destruction. (257)

I cannot but have reverence for all that is called life. I cannot avoid compassion for everything that is called life. that is the beginning and foundation of morality. — Albert Schweitzer


Because of our evolved moral emotions, we don’t act morally just because we think we should, but because it feels right


Our ‘guts learn their intuitions’ based on the norms of the culture we grow up in


Our version of morality is, to a large extent, a function of our identity


A truly integrated system of values would be based on the foundational principle of interconnectedness

10. Human/Nature

This delightful story [of Lord Thien], from eh ancient Taoist text, points out the absurdity of anthropocentrism — the view that humans are  more important than any other species, and that the rest of nature exists (or should exist) for human benefit. (260)

Arriving in what they called the New World, [Europeans] perceived a wilderness that had been put to ‘no good or profitable use’ — what they termed vacuum domicilium. (261)

The unremitting onslaught of European power represented not just a one-sided battle over territory; it was also a conflict over humankind’s proper relationship with the Earth. (262)

The Great Acceleration

This explosion of human activity has, however, come at a massive cost. As our global civilization expands its scope, it does so by literally consuming the living Earth. Three quarters of all land has been appropriated for human purposes, either turned into farmland, covered by concrete or flooded by reservoirs. Three quarters of rivers and lakes are used for crop or livestock cultivation, with many of the world’s greatest rivers, such as the Ganges, Yangtze and Nile, no longer reaching the sea. Half the world’s forests and wetlands have disappeared; the Amazon rainforest alone is vanishing at the rate of an acre every second. (263)

…less than 13 percent of the oceans [are] free from human impact. (263)

The nonhuman creatures with whom we share the Earth are being systematically annihilated by the Great Acceleration, as they lose their habitat, are hunted down, or poisoned by our pollution. (264)

…half of the world’s estimated eight million species will be extinct or at the brink of extinction by the end of this century unless humanity changes its ways. (265)

If, millions of years from now, another intelligent species were to examine the archaeological record, they would quickly realize that something unprecedented in Earth’s history had occurred during our era. (265)

Leading Earth scientists have identified nine ‘planetary boundaries’ representing what they call the safe operating space for humanity — but report that we have already exceeded four of them. …we are facing ‘widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss.’ (266)

Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory. [Jhan Rockström et al., ‘A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,’ Nature 461, 2009. pp. 472-5; William J. Ripple et al., ‘World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice,’ BioScience 67:12, 2017, pp. 1026-8; Will  Steffen et al., ‘Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet,’ Science 347:6223, 2015, 1259855.]

Where did nature go?

We are as gods and have to get good at it. — Stewart Brand

…known New Conservationists, others as Eco-modernists — who believe humanity’s destiny is to take charge of nature and mold her to its will. (266)

We are already running the whole Earth, whether we admit it or not. To run it consciously and effectively, we must admit our role and even embrace it. — Emma Marris

A major theme of this group is to question the very idea of nature as something separate from humanity. (266)

Making nature earn her living

…along with their glorification of human supremacy, the New Conservationists are fervent believers in the power of markets and technology to bring about a rosy future in an environment purposefully constructed to maximize human aspirations. Believing that the value of nature exists solely in how it benefits humankind, they argue that conservation should become a tool for economic development. They promote a vision of ‘working landscapes’ where, for example, trees are cultivated to produce lumber, even if that means cutting down old-growth forests and replacing biodiverse ecosystems with monocultures. (269)

| Since humanity has now emerged triumphant, the New Conservationists argue, nature should be assimilated into the same globalized market-based economy that has enveloped the rest of life. This process used for this assimilation is known as ecosystem services: a methodology to calculate a financial value for each of the services nature provides for humankind. (269)

If they could show key decision-makers, they felt, how valuable nature’s gifts were, then surely they would stop demolishing their own wealth. (269) … Economic values have been placed on coral reefs, wetlands, rivers, woodlands and tropical forests — there have even been attempts to place a monetary valuation on the entire planet. …natural capital. (270)

The most obvious problem is that, once a natural ecosystem is made the subject of cost-benefit analysis, its survival depends solely on its relative value compared to any competing development project. (270)

Perversely, the more compromised a natural ecosystem becomes — such as the bleached coral reefs that no longer host diverse fish populations — the less valuable its services and therefore the less incentive there is to maintain it. Sometimes economic incentives can work directly against what is good for a healthy ecosystem. (270)

At a deeper level, putting a monetary value on ecosystem services implicitly changes the way in which people think about nature. (270)

At the deepest level, we must ask what kind of ludicrous folly it is to debase our living Earth, the only source of life that we know of in the universe, to a financial market instrument. Consider someone you love dearly, such as a parent or child. If a billionaire walked up to you offering any amount of money to buy her, abuse (271) her and then kill her, would you consider it, even for one instant? (272)

Oscar Wilde once famously defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. By incorporating nature’s gifts to humanity into the global financial system, our society is enthroning cynicism as the primary value by which to judge all else. (272)

The Great Dying

The disturbing reality is that, once it’s gone, people forget they ever had it. Whatever conditions people grow up with are the ones they generally consider normal. This is a tribute to the amazing plasticity of the human mind, but it means that we tend to take for granted things that should never be accepted. (272)

shifting baseline syndrome…’the gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance’… (272)

The somber truth is that the vast bulk of nature’s staggering abundance has already disappeared. We live in a world (272) characterized primarily by the relative silence and emptiness of its natural spaces. (273)

Through extinction, we are dumbing down nature, eliminating the plentitude it has so painstakingly accumulated. (273)

| Terminal as extinctions are, the virtual disappearance of most populations of existing species, known as extirpations, are perhaps even more devastating. It’s has been calculated that, since the rise of human civilization, Earth has lost 83 percent of its wild mammals, 80 percent of marine mammals and about half the biomass of trees and plants — a worldwide elimination of life’s abundance that has been aptly named by biologist Norman Myers the Great Dying. (273)

…extirpation is the great, sucking retreat of the tide of life. — J. B. MacKinnon

…overall we’ve lost around 90 percent of nature’s profusion. We live, MacKinnon observes, in a ‘ten percent world.’ (274)

The ideology of human supremacy

…It’s rather stunning to consider that all this destruction has been carried out by a species that has been around for less than 0.01 percent of life’s history: a species that makes up just 0.01 percent of all life on Earth as measured by biomass. … What would other animals say about humans, if they had the opportunity? (274)

…eco-philosopher Derrick Jensen points out, that if animals could speak, they would tell us that when they see the face of a human, they don’t see a god — they see the devil. (275)

When malignant cancer cells spread, they generally do so on account of abnormalities in their DNA that cause them to ignore regulatory feedback from neighboring cells, leading to uncontrolled proliferation. Some see this kind of dynamic in global capitalism, which requires perpetual growth in the production and consumption of resources just to remain stable. Rather than viewing humanity as a species overwhelming nature, they see the system of norms, laws and power relations instituted by global capitalism as the source of this massive disruption. As such, they suggest that ‘Anthropocene’ is a misnomer: it unfairly lays the blame for climate breakdown and ecological collapse on all humans throughout history, whereas it’s really only a small minority of humans int eh past few centuries. … The true name of our era, they argue, should be the Capitalocene. (276)

It’s estimated that Indigenous people, while accounting for less than 5 percent of the global population, protect 80 percent of its biodiversity… (277)

The Honorable Harvest

As a counterpoint to shifting baseline syndrome, tribal elders may have preserved the cultural memory of more abundant animal populations from earlier times, and encouraged the institution of rituals and observances that reoriented behavior to more sustainable practices. (278)

Ecologist Kat Anderson,…has identified two overarching principles of harvest: leave some of what is gathered for other animals; and don’t waste what you have harvested. …Robin Wall Kimmerer describes a series of precepts among Native Americans known as the Honorable Harvest that guide practices, including rules such as: ask permission before taking; take only what you need; and give a gift in reciprocity for what you have taken. (278)

[via: cf. Leviticus 19:9; 23:22]

Anderson observes that the Native American approach to the land exists somewhere between the two conventional categories of ‘hunting and gathering’ and ‘agriculture.’ Instead, in a series of practices she describes as ‘tending the wild,’ she shows how Indigenous people developed ways to maintain the health and abundance of the land without domesticating it. Some plants even appear to have co-evolved with humans in a symbiotic, mutually enhancing relationship. (279)

The ecological self

…E. O. Wilson coined the term biophilia to describe the innate tendency for people everywhere to love nature, and to feel a visceral emotional connection with other living beings. (280)

Life is under attack from our civilization — it is being systematically ravaged at a pace that is rapidly increasing. How can we respond to this pain when we truly absorb its enormity? As Aldo Leopold reflected, ‘one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.’ (281)

…as the ecological catastrophe escalates, people are alone no longer in facing nature’s devastation. …‘ecological grief.’ (281)

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it ends otherwise. — Aldo Leopold

Tending Mother Earth

In ancient Norse will meant self-willed or uncontrollable: deor was a term for an animal (giving rise to our word ‘deer’). So, according to one etymological interpretation, will-deor-ness meant self-willed land, or the territory of self-willed animals — in contrast to cultivated land with domesticated animals. On this basis, we can think of wilderness not as something pristine or untouched by human hands, but as land with the scale and biodiversity to accommodate its own self-willed preservation. (283)

…the word ‘tend’…derives from the Indo-European word ten meaning to stretch,… (283) tensing the string of a musical instrument. … By applying purposeful action in just the right way, we can create beauty, turning a piece of string into a vehicle for music or harvesting sweetgrass in a way that makes it more abundant. (284)

Sunzi, author of the ancient classic The Art of War, describes shi as skillfully arranging circumstances to allow a general to win a war without actually having to fight one. (284)

Life has evolved symbiotically — as one organism became expert in a particular function, it learned to team up with another organism with expertise in a complementary function, so they could prosper together. …what’s crucial is that both parties gained from the symbiosis. As in the Honorable Harvest, reciprocity became a fundamental attribute of sustainable relationships within a healthy ecosystem. (284)

…there is an alternative to the dichotomy that views civilization as either the triumph of humans over nature or the inevitable ruination of life’s plentitude. (284)

Permaculture (from ‘permanent agriculture’) is a design protocol that works with rather than against nature, using the inherent qualities of plants, animals and terrain to construct systems for long-term sustainability. (285)

At the deepest level, the principle of conscious symbiosis can be applied to all aspects of humankind’s relationship with the living systems of Mother Earth. In every case we must ask what are the initial conditions that could lead to symbiotic mutual flourishing, so that human activity not only avoids harm, but actively generates health for the living Earth. If the Anthropocene is characterized by destruction of geological proportions as a result of the ideology of human supremacy, could we reorient the direction of human progress toward an era of potentially far longer duration — one that has been called the Symbiocene — characterized by the symbiotic flourishing of humans and Earth? (286)

Toward the Symbiocene

cf. Cassidy Randall, ‘A Rewilding Triumph: Wolves Help to Reverse Yellowstone Degradation,’ Guardian, 25 January 2020; Johan Rockström and Mattias Klum, Big World Small Planet: Abundance within Planetary Boundaries, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015, Kindle ed, locations 1368075; Alysa Landry, ‘Native History: Yellowstone National Park Created on Sacred Land’, Indian Country Today, 1 March 2017.; Nature Needs Half; a global Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth

However, even these visionary and groundbreaking movements are not enough to turn the tide of global destruction that our civilization is wreaking on the Earth. Ultimately, the Great Acceleration has been fueled — and continues to be fueled — by the incessant requirement for growth in production and consumption characterizing the globalized market-based economic system dominated by vast profit-driven transnational corporations. If we are to redirect our civilization’s trajectory away from catastrophe, we must change the underlying foundation of values on which this global cultural and economic system has been based. We must move, ultimately, from a civilization that is wealth-based to one that is life-based. That means, at the deepest level, reconnecting with what is most meaningful to us as living, loving human beings. (288)


As a result of human depredation, nature’s splendor is now a shrunken fragment of what it once was


Human supremacy is an ideology that sanctions us to devastate the nonhuman world without feeling moral qualms


By tending nature, humankind can fulfill its destiny while nurturing life to thrive in its glory — allowing the symbiotic flourishing of humans and the Earth


As a living being in the midst of life, I should pursue symbiotic, fractal flourishing for myself, for humankind and for all life


Part Five: Why Am I?

11. Everything Is Connected

The Jewel Net of Indra

Based on this ingrained cultural baggage of the individual soul, is it any wonder that the wealthy elite feel entitled to enjoy their worldly paradise while billions of other human souls suffer in dire poverty? [Thomas Talbott, ‘Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought,’ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, 2017. I am indebted to Daniel Schmachtenberger for pointing out the moral implications of the traditional Christian notion of heaven and hell in his talk at Emergence, 28 August 2016:] (295)

[via: cf. Luke 18, Rich Man & Lazarus]

| There is a fascinating contrast to the Christian story of the soul’s salvation in the Buddhist conception fo the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva, as discussed earlier, is someone who, having worked tirelessly to achieve enlightenment, has arrived at the threshold of nirvana — the opportunity to be released from persistent cycles of reincarnation. But rather than opting for liberation, the bodhisattva chooses to return to the world and work ceaselessly until all beings have awakened from needless suffering. … It’s not that she is sacrificing herself for the benefit of others; she has awakened to the realization that the very notion of a separate self is a falsehood. (295)

A breathtaking Buddhist conception, called the Jewel Net of Indra,… In the heavenly abode of the god Indra there exists a wonderful net that stretches out infinitely in all directions. In every eye of the net there hangs a glittering jewel. Since the net is infinite, there are an infinite number of jewels. The jewels are polished so perfectly that, if you inspect any one jewel, you discover that all the other jewels, infinite in number, are reflected in it. Moreover, each of the reflections is also reflecting all the other jewels, so the reflecting process itself contains infinite dimensions. (296)

As First Nations scholar Richard Atleo explains, the Indigenous principle of tsawalk (meaning ‘one’) holds that all issues, whether social, political, economic or philosophical, ‘can be addressed under the single theme of interrelationships, across all dimensions of reality — the material and the invisible.’ (296)

Cleansing the doors of perception

To gain an understanding of meaning itself, perhaps we should turn to those who have had experiences of some kind of greater reality beyond our everyday world. These phenomena, sometimes referred to as mystical states, are among the most important (297) aspects of the human experience. (298)

Mystical experiences are surprisingly common,… ‘Flow’ experiences can allow access to a temporary sensation of wu-wei. … A version of this state — known as the overview effect — has even occurred in astronauts orbiting the Earth and feeling overwhelmed by a profound shift in identity as they see our shared home as a tiny orb in the vast bleakness of space. (298)

After [William] James experimented with nitrous oxide, he became convinced that regular states of consciousness should not be viewed as the ‘sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe’ and wondered whether mystical experiences might present (298) ‘superior points of view, windows through which the mind looks out upon a more extensive and inclusive world’. ‘No account of the universe in its totality,’ he declared, ‘can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.’ (299)

| Academics who have taken James’s cue and methodically studied mystical experiences have identified a common set of features. To begin with, there is a loss of the ego — the constant, chattering ‘I’ with its fixed personal identity and established boundaries. (299)

cf. Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception

Other characteristic features of mystical experience seem to imply a temporary jettisoning of conceptual consciousness, with its linear, logical processing. (299)

…the ancient Greek ekstasis, [εκ στασις] meaning standing outside the normal boundaries of the self and experiencing a connection with something greater.

…all-encompassing wholeness… …there is no reference point outside this Oneness from which to get a perspective on it, as it is the whole existence. — Christopher Bache

The perennial philosophy?

…some have theorized that there is, in fact, an objective reality out there, beyond normal human cognition, waiting to be discovered through the mystical state. This view, known as the ‘perennial philosophy,’ has been around for centuries, but was brought into popular circulation by Aldous Huxley when he wrote a book by that name. It’s an alluring vision based on three particular claims: first, there is a universal truth available to be discovered; second, in mystical experiences people of different cultures access the same objective truth, even if they later interpret it according to their particular tradition; and third, by accessing this truth a person can enter a blissful state that will transform his or her life. (300)

All the Buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the One Mind, beside which nothing exists … for it transcends all limits, measures, names, traces, and comparisons. Only awake to the One Mind. — Huangbo

Plotinus…shared similar ideas, saying that if a person could truly see himself, ‘he will see God and himself and the all.’ (301)

I became a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Inconceivable as it seems to ordinary reason, you — and all other conscious beings as such — are all in all. —Erwin Schrödinger

…Einstein viewed our sense of separateness as ‘a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.’ (302)

One critique has focused on the fact that a sense of oneness is only one aspect of mystical experiences. …the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, describe their deepest experiences in terms of a dialogical ‘I-thou’ relationship with divinity. (302)

There are NO pure (i.e. unmediated) experiences. — Steven Katz

For any mystic, Katz maintained, his particular tradition’s ‘images, beliefs, symbols, and rituals define, in advance, what the experience he wants to have, and which then does have, will (302) be like.’ … In each case their perceptions of ultimate reality is, in fact, a construction of their own cognitive frames. (303)

| Perennialists have since pushed back vehemently. …many people’s mystical experiences come as a complete surprise to them, often causing them to break with the religious or secular beliefs they had previously held. (303)

If Katz and his fellow constructivist are right, then mystical experiences might still be important to a person’s own sense of meaning, but they tell us nothing about any underlying reality. If, on the other hand, these states open a window ‘to a more extensive and inclusive world’ — if experiences of oneness really do reflect some kind of ultimate truth — then it’s important to understand what we can learn from them and how these teachings might influence our lives. How might we determine which it is? (303)

Where is the oneness?

Transcendence, which means literally to ‘climb over,’ implies that the world as we see it, with all its messy details, must be left behind to achieve a state of unity. The higher you go, the purer and more visionary you become, until ultimately you might reach a state of communion with divinity up in the heavens. (303)

[via: Is this also a part of the “Great Chain of Being” and “Religious/Mystical Hierarchy.”]

In both Vedic and Christian traditions belief in transcendence as the path to the sacred led to widespread rejection of bodily desires and worldly concerns by spiritual seekers. (304)

[via: Gnosticism, Platonism, and Doceticism.]

| The underlying idea that ‘higher is better’ is so embedded in language and culture that it has shaped our patterns of thought. When we hear about a ‘peak experience,’ a ‘higher purpose’ or the ‘high point’ of a journey, we instantly know that the references to height denote something good. … An entirely different way to conceive oneness is through immanence (coming from the Latin for ‘remain in’). From this perspective, oneness is not found in the heavens but is right here, in this world with all its disorderly muddle. (304)

If you love the sacred and despise the ordinary, you are still bobbing in the ocean of delusion. — Master Rinzai

If one wishes to know the reality of Tao, one must seek it in one’s own nature. — Zhu Xi

The neuroscience of oneness

cf. Stanislav Grof

The very word psychedelic — coming from the Greek for ‘mind-manifesting’ — was formulated from the idea that its use could make manifest the hidden workings of the mind. (307)

Local nodes connect tightly with each other, and a few select hubs maintain linkages with far-flung regions. These represent the normal attractors of consciousness that permit us to go about our daily business fairly robustly. New inputs may throw the occasional wrench into our neural networks — an argument with a loved one, unexpected news at work, a surge of attraction for that cute guy at the bar — but our resilient attractors of consciousness quickly absorb the perturbations and resume their normal course. In particular, our default mode network maintains its continual flow of mulling about the past, hypothesizing the future and fortifying the boundaries of the ego, while engaging in constant inner dialogue between ‘I’ and the ‘self.’ (307)

Figure 9: Simplified visualization of brain network changes on psilocybin. [left] Normal (placebo) [right] Psilocybin

…mystical states might reveal more than is normally available to consciousness. It also becomes apparent why someone in a mystical state perceives things as more interconnected and unified than normal — because that is how the brain is processing its inputs. (309)

…there is another brain state similar to the psychedelic one where connections between neurons are far more extensive and less reliant on the PFC’s filtering. …being an infant. As developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik points out, an infant’s brain is a mass of interconnections that are gradually pruned as they learn their own sense-making ways, sculpted by the culture they grow up in. From this perspective, we could view psychedelics as an opportunity to revisit the wonder and openness of childhood… (309)

This implies that a mystical state does — as the perennialists argue — free us temporarily from the conditioning influences of our culture, and allows us to see the world as more interconnected, more unified than our dominant culture tells us it is. (309)

If you watch carefully, everything alive reveals itself to be a pattern of connection and superposition … Understanding is communication of a connective tissue with itself. — Andreas Weber

…does normal consciousness obliterate our perception of deeper interconnectedness, which is in fact always present? (310)

Living in a sea of rhythm

Modern scientists have since discovered that vibrations underlie virtually every aspect of nature — vibrations of atoms create heat and sound, and vibrations of electrons generate light. Like Huygens’ pendulums, vibrations lead things naturally to synchronize with each other, including such disparate phenomena as the dripping of faucets, the coherence of laser beams and the entrainment of the moon’s spin to Earth’s tides. (311)

| Life itself depends on molecules interacting with each other through vibrating or oscillating energy fields. …nerve impulses fire at a frequency of a thousand per second while flying insects oscillate their wings two hundred times a second. …our heart rate and respiratory rhythms, our cycles of hunger and thirst, and our daily circadian rhythms of sleeping and waking. (311)

Throughout the living world, synchrony represents an invisible bond that links organisms together in multiple, complex rhythms through time and space. … As physicist Mae-Wan Ho puts it, each of us is the emergent result of the ‘quantum jazz of life.’ Our very existence arises from ‘the complex rhythm of the organism dancing life into being, in which every single player is freely improvising and yet keeping in tune and in step with the whole.’ (311)

| Consciousness itself arises as a harmonic synchronization of different oscillations in distinct frequency bands. (311)

Vittorio Gallese, the neuroscientist who co-discovered mirror neurons, calls ‘a shared manifold of intersubjectivity.’ (312)

Interpersonal synchrony plays a crucial part in their development. A mother holding her newborn — cooing, smiling and gesturing — is engaged in a coordinated choreography of rhythm, to which the infant immediately attunes and begins forming her own neural network of emotional resonance. (312)

The human species lives in a sea of rhythm. — Edward Hall

…from a purely reductionist perspective music doesn’t really exist. … Music is an emergent phenomenon arising from participatory interaction between a player and a listener. It exists in the interrelatedness between embodied minds, in dynamic patterns of vibration generated, transmitted and received through time and space. (313)

The individual mind is not confined within the head, but extends throughout the living body and includes the world beyond the biological membrane of the organism. — Evan Thompson

Cognition, Thompson and others explain, (313) is characterized by what they call the ‘four E’s’: … It’s embodied because it requires a living body; it’s embedded in the world and its particular culture; it’s extended beyond the body through dynamic interactions; and it’s enactive in that it never simply receives inputs but continually brings forth a world of meaning through its unique subjective patterning of consciousness. (314)

There is, as we’ve seen, a vast category of things — life, mind, consciousness, music, cognition and rainbows, to mention just a few — that are emergent phenomena, existing only as ar result of complex, dynamic interactions between different entities. Meaning also belongs in this category. In the same way that we can enact a rainbow by gazing into the rain, we enact meaning by the way in which we attune to the connective rhythms of the universe. Like music being played, like the refracted sunlight in the rain, the meaning potential is always there — it’s just waiting for us to tune into the right wavelength and engage with it. (314)

Meaning is a function of connectedness

This would explain why the sensation of massive interconnectedness in a mystical state brings a flood of positive emotions to those who experience it — their patterning instinct achieves a kind of ‘orgasms’ of consciousness as it undergoes a phase transition from a more limited pattern of meaning to one that is vastly more expansive. (316)

Once we understand meaning as a function of connectedness, it becomes clear why die-hard reductionists, who look for reality in indivisible particles, claim the universe is without meaning. (316)

…each point is really a node that only contains meaning to the extent it’s connected to other nodes in the web of meaning. (317)

Weaving the web of meaning

All spiritual experience is participatory. — Jorge Ferrer

Building on this understanding of meaning, we’re ready to consider another vast and ineffable concept frequently raised in spiritual settings: love. (317)

…I believe that, like meaning, love may be defined in terms of connectivity — specifically, as the realization and embrace of connectedness. (318)

…Empedocles, described the universe as comprising two opposing forces: strife, which pulls things apart, and love, which brings them together ‘to become one’. (318)

Life here was not the assemblage of parts but the harmonious expression of a unified whole rippling through life, the way wind ripples through a wheat field … Diversity did not rupture oneness. Oneness expressed itself in diversity without itself falling into diversity … Reality was a fluid energy expressing itself in diversity. — Christopher Bache

[via: This reminds me of Huston Smith’s The Soul of Christianity, in which he says, “In descending to finitude, the singularity of the Infinite splays into multiplicity — the One becomes the man.”]

Opening our eyes to the rainbow

The pattern which connects is a metapattern. It is a pattern of patterns. — Gregory Bateson

The word ren originally meant to fulfill their role within society. However, the Neo-Confucians expanded it to incorporate the entire cosmos. (320)

Just as a body can become numb or paralyzed (literally ‘no ren‘ in Chinese) and not feel its connections, so a person can become numbed to their intrinsic connectedness with the universe, but that doesn’t mean the connection isn’t there. Just as a blind person can’t see a rainbow, and a deaf person can’t hear music, so a person who is numb to their interconnectedness can’t realize ren. (321)

…each of us can choose to delete those parts of our consciousness that attune to the love and suffering of others, to the sentience of all life on Earth and to the sublime glory of the universe. But that choice inevitably leads to a loss of meaning in life. (321)

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it. — Rumi


Mind, life, consciousness and meaning are all emergent phenomena, existing only as the result of complex, dynamic interactions between different entities


Just as we enact a rainbow by gazing into the rain, we enact meaning by how we attune to the connective rhythms of the universe


Meaning is a function of connectedness: the more extensively we connect something with other aspects of our lives, the more meaningful it is to us


Love is the realization and embrace of connectedness

12. From Fixed Self to Infinite Li: The Fractal Nature of Identity

Dualism or reductionism? A false choice

Twentieth-century biochemist Jacques Monod succinctly summarized what had become the mainstream scientific approach when he declared, ‘Any mingling of knowledge with values is unlawful, forbidden.’ (327)

[via: Lent mentions here Stephen J. Gould’s NOMA]

Adherents to this creed [ontological reductionism] present their audience with a stark choice: either accept the ultimate meaninglessness of the cosmos or deceive yourself into feeling better by believing in a creator God. Over the centuries, some who refused the balm of religious belief have expressed the existential dread they’ve suffered as a result. As early as the seventeenth century, mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote how ‘when I survey the whole universe in its deadness … I am moved to terror.’ Jacques Monod concluded that ‘Man at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe,’ while philosopher Bertrand Russell divulged that, accepting the reductionist worldview, he had to build his philosophy ‘only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair.’ (328)

Even though reductionism and science are frequently regarded as indistinguishable, there is a clear contrast between them. In its ontological form, reductionism is a belief system relying on a leap of faith: it asserts that, because its method works effectively to understand many things about the universe, it can be used to understand everything about the universe. Science, on the other hand, is a systematic methodology for examining the nature of reality based on principles or observation, hypothesis, prediction, testing and analysis. At its best, science is built on core values of transparency, open-mindedness, honesty and receptivity to criticism. It is possible to reject the reductionist (328) leap of faith about the cosmos while remaining fully committed to the scientific method as a powerful vehicle to investigate the nature of the universe.

People who believe in a spiritual dimension to the cosmos frequently criticize what they call ‘scientism’ or ‘scientific materialism’ when the more appropriate target of their criticism would be ontological reductionism. … Reductionists claim these phenomena are nothing but their constituent parts and can be explained accordingly. However, in each of these areas scientific research has identified principles of self-organization and emergence that explain how these phenomena arise in a way that could never be predicted by reductionist methods alone. (329)

Integrating science with spiritual meaning

The aim of science is not things themselves, as the dogmatists in their simplicity assume, but the relations among things. — Henri Poincaré

…Gestalt psychology — known for its famous statement, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ (329)

Systems thinkers don’t reject the basic parameters of reductionist science or posit an alternative dimension where the rules of physics don’t apply. They merely argue that, at each level of complexity in a system, new properties emerge that can’t be understood using methodologies appropriate for lower levels. However, embracing systems thinking activates a conceptual switch that disrupts the foundations of the reductionist worldview. (330)

‘We can no longer be naïve observers (330) who live outside eth phenomena we manipulate,’ writes a team of prominent systems biologists. Instead of trying to control complex systems as though they’re machines, this leads to exploring how to participate skillfully within the system. (331)

When life emerged on Earth in a cascade of negative entropy, value and purpose also came into being on our planet. … Deep down, we are part of the same web of life that we’re studying. (331)

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. … To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself fas the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms — this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. — Einstein

[via: At the “…” are these lines: “It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion.”]

Reverence for the universe

Wisdom consists in one thing, to know the principle by which all things are steered through all things. — Heraclitus

In spite of Plato’s opposition, this idea resonated for centuries with many Greco-Roman philosophers, finding its zenith in the Stoics, who saw divinity as interpenetrating everything in the cosmos, forming an organic unity. However, this tradition was effectively shut down with the advent of the Christian hegemony. (332)

Traditional Chinese landscape paintings evocatively capture the prevalent sense of meaning existing in the spaces between things. Scholar David Hinton highlights an exemplary painting by Shih T’ao showing an artist/intellectual gazing into the distance from a mountain peak (Figure 10). The landscape isn’t portrayed realistically; rather it is depicted with a sense of mysterious emptiness, inviting an awe similar to that described by Einstein as ‘true religiousness’. (332)

Figure 10: Shih T’ao, ‘Broad-Distance Pavilion’

The Neo-Confucians inherited from earlier Chinese philosophy a concept called the Supreme Ultimate — the original creative force that generated the yin/yang principles underlying the Tao. But rather than anthropomorphize this into a God, they understood it as a kind of fractal, holographic pattern that permeated (333) all reality. (334)

…pantheism: the belief that divinity exists, not in a separate dimension, but in every aspect of the universe. (334)

We followers of Spinoza see our God in the wonderful order and lawfulness of all that exists and in its soul as it reveals itself in man and animal. — Einstein

…the split between science and spirituality pervading modern discourse is unnecessary and misconceived — merely a result of the flawed dualistic cosmology formulated in early Europe and partially inherited by reductionist science. (334)

A modern rendering of gewu requires, above all, a practice of integration: weaving together the fixed laws of reductionist science, the organizing principles of complex systems, teachings from wisdom traditions and spiritual insights of subjective experience to arrive at a coherent appreciation of the universe and our place within it. It invites us to recognize that we live in a vast, fractal universe with patterns that are both recognizable and forever unfolding, mysterious beyond human comprehension, yet manifesting a deeply meaningful harmony that permits us, with reverence and awe, to apprehend its unfathomable glory. (335)

The spirit as a natural attractor

There is one particular recognizable and ever-changing pattern of great importance to each of us — our personal identity. (335)

Once we recognize spirit as a coherent series of dynamic (335) patterns — or li — new visas open up in our perception of life. We can appreciate that the li of our loved ones, our friends, our family, exist within us, and that our own spirit resides in them. We can understand love between two people as a partial fusion of spirits, forming its own emergent properties. We can recognize that the li of people we were once close to but are no longer alive still exist within us. (336)

…we can define spirituality as seeking meaning in the coherent connections between things, rather than in the things themselves. In this sense, spirituality and systems thinking are intrinsically aligned. (337)

An infinite ocean of li

Similarly, in Buddhist thought a core insight is that suffering arises ultimately from clinging to the illusory notion of a fixed self. … Buddhism teaches that the conception of a fixed self confines a person within its boundaries, thus leading to the endless pursuit of hedonic pleasures to try to appease its needs — which are never fully satisfied. (338)

…human identity naturally extends far beyond the individual ego. … Imagine you knew you would live a normal lifespan but, unbeknown to anyone else, Earth would be completely destroyed a month after your death in a collision with an asteroid. (338) Would you feel indifferent because your own life would be spared? Unlikely! If you’re like most of us, you would see this future event as catastrophic, taking most of the meaning out of your own existence. [Samuel] Scheffler’s point is that, to a great extent, we derive our sense of purpose in what we do from the assumption that humanity will continue its existence into the future. We identify not just with our own direct descendants, but with humanity as a collective unit. The remarkable conclusion he arrives at is that the ‘coming into existence of people we do not know and love matters more to us than our own survival.’ (339)

Just like the wind, which is invisible except for its effect on the waving branches of trees, these li ripples are continually transmitted but may only be noticed once you attend to them, and frequently their impact may remain forever unknown. (340)

[via: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear it sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”]

Once we expand our personhood beyond the fixed barriers of an egoistic self, our identity begins to follow those ripples as they flow ceaselessly through an infinite ocean of li. The more we identify with the li and conduct our lives in harmony with those ripples, the more we can become one with the fractal unfolding of the universe in all its mystery. (340)

[via: Man at work comes home and kicks dog.]

‘Call me by my true names’

This realization, expansive as it may be, also brings an inherent ethical responsibility. (340)

Once we recognize that we are lire — a particular form of it with added layers of conceptual consciousness and self-awareness — we are called by the overriding imperative to devote our own little eddy of sentience to the flourishing of all life, of which we are but one tiny part. (342)

When such joy is born, it cannot be stopped … You cannot help but begin to unconsciously dance along with your feet and wave your hands in time with it. — Mencius

The universe reflecting on itself

In the same way that bacteria learned to transfer genes to each other to create a virtually immortal quasi-superorganism, so humans are developing the ability to transfer ideas to each other and participate in forming a global consciousness. (343)

The possibility for future flourishing requires that we wake up, not only to ourselves as a collective consciousness, but to our deeply ingrained role with the rest of life on Earth. We must recognize that, as an integral part of Gaia, we are engaging in a process by which Earth itself is becoming self-aware. (343)

At this critical juncture our overriding imperative must be to harmonize the power of conceptual consciousness with the animate intelligence in ourselves and intrinsic to all life on Earth. Only through this process of integration will we find a form of symbiosis that enables the mutual flourishing of humans and nonhuman nature into the distant future. (344)

| The momentous project facing us is, in the words of cultural historian Thomas Berry, humanity’s Great Work. (344)


The li of our loved ones, our friends and our family exists within us, while our own li resides in them and will continue even after our death


Everything we do, every word we speak, creates li ripples in the fabric of existence


Once we recognize that we are life, we are called by the imperative to devote ourselves to the flourishing of all life, of which we are a tiny part


I am here to weave my unique strand into the web of meaning


Part Six: Where Are We Going?

13. Weaving a New Story of Meaning

Robin Wall Kimmerer recounts how, during dark winter nights in the Great Lakes region, sitting around the fire, Ojibwe children would be told the terrifying tale of the Windigo monster that might come stalking them. The windigo was a ravenous ten-foot giant, with yellow fangs, putrid breath and a heart made of ice, that roamed greedily across the snow looking for humans to devour. If you became one of his hapless victims, you suffered a fate worse than death — one bite from a Windigo and you would become one yourself, doomed to roam the plains with insatiable hunger, cannibalizing your own species, tormented by a need that could never be fulfilled. This was the defining mark of a Windigo: the more they consumed, they [sic] more voraciously they rampaged through the land seeking their next victim. (349)

Driven by our Windigo mania, our civilization seems caught up in what UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called a ‘global suicide pact.’ (350)

[Some of the leading spokespersons for Uncle Bob’s soundbites are Steven Pinker, Hans Rosling, Matt Ridley, Brendan O’Neill, Johan Norberg (Cato Institute), Nicholas Kristof, Max Roser and Michael Shermer. For a brief summary of their positions, see Oliver Burkeman, ‘Is the World Really Better Than Ever?’ Guardian, 28 July 2017. For an in-depth polemic stating their position, see Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, New York: Viking, 2018. For critiques of Pinker’s book, see John Gray, ‘Unenlightened Thinking, Steven Pinker’s Embarrassing New Book Is a Feeble Sermon for Rattled Liberals’, New Statesman, 22 February 2018; David A. Bell, ‘The PowerPoint Philosophe,’ Nation, 7 March 2018; George Monbiot, ‘You Can Deny Environmental Calamity — Until You Check the Facts,’ Guardian, 7 March 2018; and my own ‘Steven Pinker’s Ideas About Progress Are Fatally Flawed. These Eight Graphs Show Why,’ Patterns of Meaning blog, 17 May 2018.] (351)

The question of progress

…progress for whom, exactly? Ever since Europeans colonized the rest of the world, there has been a gaping disparity between the (352) fortunes of the conquerors and the conquered. For example, the Indian subcontinent, prior to British control, accounted for more than a quarter of the world’s economy. After centuries of looting, mass famines and deliberate destruction of its thriving industries, its share had plummeted to 3 percent. In the Americas, a combination of genocide and disease decimated the Indigenous people, wiping out close to 99 percent of the population in some regions. (353)

When economic growth is based on unsustainable consumption, the result is not progress but what economists call overshoot: depleting the Earth’s bounty faster than it can be replenished. (354)

Windigo, Inc.

…the threat that artificial intelligence (AI) will take control over humanity … [is] missing the fact that humans have already created a force that is well on its way to devouring both humanity and the Earth in just the way they fear — the corporation. (355)

[via: In many ways, we are the AI, created “artificial” humans through the reprogramming of our cognition into consumers, extractors, and conquerors.]

…the Windigo AI kept expanding its domain, becoming a legal ‘person’ in the United States entitled to constitutional protections but without any factors that constrain real persons, such as moratlity, risk of jail or a moral conscience. (356)

Humanity now finds itself in the dire position of having ceded control of its destiny to a psychopathic force dedicated solely to turning human and nonhuman life into every-increasing financial returns. (357)

Careening toward a precipice

Figure 13: The planetary boundaries defining humanity’s safe operating space

the synchronous failure of global systems, where like a set of dominoes, the crash of one system destabilizes others depending on it. (360)

Fortress Earth. In this scenario, most of the world’s population does in fact undergo the devastation of climate-induced collapse, but an affluent minority maintain their comfortable lifestyle, secure in gated communities protected by high-tech surveillance and patrolling drones. They may even keep enjoying high returns on their stock market investments, as corporations find ways to monetize the collapsing infrastructure of the rest of the world, growing their countries’ GDP even while the vast majority of humanity are foundering. (361)

Rewriting the operating system

The depiction of humans as selfish individuals, the view of nature as a resource to be exploited, and the idea that technology alone can fix our biggest problems are all profound misconceptions that have collectively led our civilization down an accelerating path to disaster. The only way we can truly change our trajectory is by approaching society’s problems from the foundation of an alternative worldview — one that affirms life rather than the accumulation of wealth above all else. (362)

There is much for humanity to learn if we look to the fundamentals of life’s own operating system. (363)

| Natural ecologies, as we’ve seen, are characterized by both competition and cooperation, but the major evolutionary transitions that brought life to its current state of abundance were the results of dramatic increases in cooperation. The key to each of these evolutionary steps, and to the effective functioning of all ecosystems, is mutually beneficial symbiosis: each party to a relationship gives and receives reciprocally, reflecting each other’s abilities and needs. In symbiosis there is no zero-sum game — the contributions of each party create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. (363)

| One consequential result of symbiosis is that ecosystems can sustain themselves almost indefinitely by circulating the energy flows they receive from the sun for the optimal benefit of all their constituent parts. The waste of one organism becomes the nutrition of another. (363)

harmony. … Harmony doesn’t mean insipid agreement; on the contrary, it arises when the different elements within a system each express their own needs in such a way that the system as a whole is enriched. Harmony itself can only arise when the various forces comprising the system are in balance. This can take the form of balance between competition and cooperation; between the system’s efficiency and its resilience; or between growth, maturation and decline. (363)

Nature organizes itself fractally:…each system contains its own fully integrated animate intelligence, identifying and fulfilling its own needs, while contributing to the well-being of the larger systems within which it is embedded. In nature, the health of the system as a whole requires the flourishing of each part… Each system is therefore interdependent for its long-term health on the vitality of each of the other systems. (364)

Nature’s animate intelligence has enabled it to respond adaptively to every kind of situation arising over billions of years, developing in the process an awe-inspiring plethora of diversity. Even within a single organism, the modularity of its self-organized design allows different populations of cells to innovate, coming up with new ways to solve a problem, while closely coordinating with other cells within its network. This complex dance of diversity, innovation and coordination is largely responsible for the adaptive resilience demonstrated by ecosystems, enabling them to thrive as healthy, coherent communities for millions of years. (364)

Envisioning an ecological civilization

Fundamentally, an ecological civilization would be one that was structured to optimize eudaimonia rather than hedonia. (364)

The overriding objective of an ecological civilization would be to create the conditions for all humans to flourish as part of a thriving living Earth. A fundamental precept would be the recognition of fractal flourishing: the well-being of each person is fractally related to the health of the larger world. Individual health relies on societal health, which relies in turn on the health of the ecosystem in which it’s embedded. (365)

…a natural ecology is based on symbiosis. … that translates into foundational principles of fairness and justice, ensuring that the efforts and skills people contribute to society are rewarded equitably. Recognizing that the flourishing of the system as a whole requires the health of all its constituent parts, an ecological civilization would foster individual dignity, providing the conditions for everyone to live in safety and comfort, with universal access to adequate housing, competent healthcare and quality education. (365)

…truly integrated — a state of unity with differentiation in which the flourishing of each constituent part generates the well-being of the larger whole. (365)

Just as an animal requires the robust circulation of its lifeblood to maintain its health, a  life-affirming economy would enable the widespread circulation of its wealth throughout the entire community. And crucially, growth would become one part of a natural life cycle, slowing down to maturation once it reaches its healthy limits, leading to a steady-state self-sustaining economy designed for well-being rather than consumption. (366)

Above all, an ecological civilization would be based on an all-encompassing symbiosis between human society and the natural world. Human activity would be organized not merely to avoid harm to the living Earth but to actively regenerate and sustain its health. (366)

An ecological civilization in practice

cf. Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics

Inspired by a vision of a future where the commons once again becomes a resource for all humanity, tech pioneers have created digital commons, such as Wikipedia and Firefox,… In an ecological civilization the commons would once again take its rightful place as a major provider for human welfare. (368)

A future society may look at our endorsement of these inequities with the same bemusement with which we regard the medieval notion of the divine right of kings. In recognition of this, an ecological civilization would fairly reward entrepreneurial activity, but severely curtail the right of anyone to accumulate billions in wealth, no matter what their accomplishments. (368)

| The second major implication is that it is the moral birthright of every human to share in the vast commonwealth that our ancestors collectively bequeathed to us. (368)

Corporations above a certain size would be required to be chartered with the explicit purpose of optimizing not just shareholder returns, but also social and environmental outcomes. This approach — sometimes referred to as the ‘triple bottom line’ of people, planet and profits — already exists in the form of certified B-corps and benefit corporations. (369)

In place of vast homogenized monocrops of industrial agriculture, food would be grown worldwide based on principles of regenerative agriculture,… Manufacturing would prioritize circular flows with efficient reuse of waste products built (369) into processes from the outset, and locally owned cooperatives would become the default organizational structure. Technological innovation would still be encouraged, but would be prized for its effectiveness in enhancing the vitality of living systems rather than minting billionaires. (370)

Cities would be redesigned on ecological principles, with community gardens on every available piece of land,… The local community would be the basic building block of society, with face-to-face interaction regaining ascendancy as a crucial part of human flourishing. Education would be re-envisioned, its goal transformed from preparing students for the corporate marketplace to cultivating the wisdom, discernment and emotional maturity required for each student to embark on their own lifelong journey of eudaimonia. Oppressive relationship structures inherited form domination systems — such as patriarchal and racist modes of behavior — would be reshaped from early childhood by educational modalities emphasizing ethics of partnership systems. (370)

Online networks that have already achieved scale, such as Facebook, would be turned over to the commons, so that rather than manipulating users into hedonic behavior to maximize advertising dollars, the internet could become primarily a vehicle for humanity to further develop a planetary consciousness. Cosmopolitanism — an ancient concept from the Greeks which literally means ‘being a citizen of the world’ — would be the defining character of a global identity that would celebrate diversity between cultures while recognizing the deep interdependence that binds all people into a single moral community with a shared destiny. (370)

[via: Slight question of the etymology of “cosmopolitanism,” which simply means “world city” (κοσμος πολις), not necessarily “citizenship?”]

| Governance would be transformed to a polycentric model, where local, regional and global decisions are made at the levels (370) where their effects are felt most. … A worldwide Rights of Nature declaration would put the natural world on the same legal standing as humanity, with personhood given to ecosystems and high-functioning mammals, and the crime of ecocide — the destruction of ecosystems — prosecuted by a court with global jurisdiction. (371)

[via: This is starting to sound like a utopia folding back over on itself. How can all these determinations be made?]

Entering a phase transition

An important lesson from history is that — like all self-organized, adaptive systems — society changes in nonlinear ways. (372)

Coming back to life

…both positions [optimistic or pessimistic] merely become excuses for inaction: optimists believe things will work out fine without them; pessimists believe nothing they do can make things better. There is, however, every reason for hope — hope, not as a prognostication, but as an attitude of active engagement in co-creating that future. (375)

We live ina  world designed to keep us numb — a culture spiked with innumerable doses of spiritual anesthesia concocted to bind us to the hedonic treadmill, to shuffle along with everyone else in a ‘consensus trance.’ (376)

As we learn to open eyes that have been sealed shut by our dominant culture, we can discern the rainbow that was always there waiting for us. We can awaken to our true nature as humans on this Earth, feel the life within ourselves that we share with all other beings, and recognize our common identity as a moral community asserting the primacy of core human values. (376)

Weaving the web of meaning

…adrienne maree brown describes a process she calls ’emergent strategy,’ in which relatively simple acts of intentional, transformative practice with other scan self-organize into larger structures of societal change. (378)

In contrast to the old communist adage ‘The end justifies the means,’ an ecological principle is that there is no end — simply a continued organic unfolding of whatever means becomes the predominant mode of operation. For this reason, while outrage at injustice and devastation may helpfully energize us, it is critical not to let feelings of hate and resentment infiltrate our actions. When we engage with the world with resentment, it ultimately strengthens the story of separation that created the damage in the first place. (378)

[via: Light and love in response to dark and hate.]

| An ecological worldview leads naturally to acting out of love — the realization and embrace of connectedness. (378)

…Rabbi Michael Lerner calls ‘revolutionary love’ — one that aims to heal and repair the world by affirming the unity of all humankind. Revolutionary love means having compassion even for those who are the oppressors, even for those actively involved in the destruction of the living Earth. (379)

[via: ‘Love your enemy.’]

We must not only heal the suffering that oppression causes, but we must also heal the suffering that causes oppression. — Sterling Toles

Weaving the web of meaning ultimately means integrating all the different parts of ourselves, including those that feel egotistical, fearful and selfish. When we hear these parts within us, it is an invitation to look deeper and ask what are the core human needs that have not been met, that are crying out for attention. (380)

Defend the world in which we win as if it were your child.
It is your child.
Defend it as if it were your lover.
It is your lover.

– Aurora Levins Morales

More important than the scale is intention: a deep, authentic devotion to the well-being of life galvanized into action. (381)

The rice pile

First, there is a sense of empowerment. However inconsequential our own actions might appear in relation to the massive forces driving our world, we can have faith that their potential resonance extends far beyond what we’re able to visualize. Second, there is an awesome responsibility that adheres to the empowerment: the way in which each of us chooses to engage with the world, no matter how insignificant it might seem … matters. With each of the choices we make, the words we speak, the actions we take, we are playing a role in either inhibiting or catalyzing the great transition our society needs if we are to bequeath a flourishing world to future generations. (382)


What is the sacred and precious strand that you will weave?


About VIA

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