Liology: Towards an Integration of Science and Meaning

In June, I attended a seminar held by Fritjof Capra at the Center for Ecoliteracy, called The Systems View of Life.  It was a great experience to meet people with a similar viewpoint on how systems thinking can fundamentally affect our way of living on this earth.

I gave a presentation there called “Liology: Towards an Integration of Science and Meaning,” which was my first opportunity to present my ideas of how the traditional Chinese notion of the li – the organizing principles of the natural world which are the outward manifestation of the tao – are describing the same principles of self-organization that complexity theory and systems biology are trying to understand.

The implication of this is that science and spiritual meaning are commensurable – they describe the same reality.  They are not separate ontologically from each other, as both the scientific and the monotheistic traditions would have us believe.

Liology: Towards an Integration of Science and Meaning

Here’s a link to a “studio version” of the presentation that I gave to the seminar, and here is a pdf version of the slides.

Liology: Towards an Integration of Science and Meaning: pdf presentation

Finally, here is the introductory first chapter of the book I’m writing on the subject, also called Liology: Towards an Integration of Science and Meaning.


When I die

When I die.

When I die
I want those of you who are still around
And who love me
To share in my ashes
In the proportion that my spirit remains with you
According to the principles of the Tao
And I want each of you
To hold my ashes in your presence
Until such time
As you realize what is the fitting way
For you to return those ashes to the earth
And as you return those ashes
Whether in the rain or the sand,
The sea or the soil
Whether fertilizing a tree
Or blowing in the wind,
I want you to consider that these elements
Which I had temporarily rented
Are the stardust of the universe
Which momentarily hung together
To permit my spirit to emerge
And that spirit still remains within you
As ripples in your soul
And I want you to temper any sadness
With the joy of the love
My spirit brought to you
And to feel the blessing
Of the miracle we shared
Of our temporary conscious presence
As part of the infinite universe of
Energy coalescing
Into life.

The li of shared arousal

What makes the idea of the li so radical for our society is that it’s both a spiritual and a scientific term.  It offers us a bridge between the two domains of spirituality and science that have been so zealously off-limits to each other in our current cognitive framework.  The li, as described in other posts, refers to the traditional Chinese Neo-Confucian term for the patterns of organization that link energy/matter (ch’i) together.  These patterns are both fixed and dynamic.  From a spiritual perspective, the Tao may be viewed as the universal set of manifestations of the infinite li: the infinite patterns by which nature organizes itself.  From a scientific perspective, the li may be understood as the patterns of organization of complex systems studied in complexity science and in systems biology.

A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) offers a wonderful example of a rigorous, scientific study of the li of shared arousal in humans.  Of course, the authors don’t use the word “li.”  Instead, they refer to the more mechanistic term “information,” which is about as close as modern science has yet come to an awareness of the li.  In the study, the researches focused on a powerful fire-walking ritual conducted each year in a little village in Spain. Here’s how they describe the ritual:

After dancing for several minutes in a circle around the glowing bed of coals, the fire-walkers assemble and decide the order in which they will cross. They then take their place on the ground to wait their turns. The sound of a trumpet beckons each fire-walker to the walk, one by one. The fire-walk is conducted bare-footed, and most walkers carry another person on their backs while crossing the fire, typically a spouse, relative, or friend.  Once they have crossed over, their closest friends or relatives rush over to hug and congratulate them.

Firewalkers in San Pedro Manrique synchronizing their heartbeats with related spectators

The researchers studied the heart rate of the fire-walkers as well as spectators.  But they made a distinction between the spectators who were closely related to the fire-walkers, and those who were just there as tourists.  What they found was that the heart rates of the closely-related spectators synchronized very closely with the fire-walkers, while those of the unrelated observers remained uncorrelated.

The researchers point out that there was no physical contact between the fire-walkers and their related spectators whose hearts rates peaked along with theirs.  As they put it:

The synchrony of the physiological markers shared by the two beings cannot be due to direct exchange of matter or energy, leaving only the information available to spectators and participants as the basis of the coupling. Whether information is sufficiently salient to bring about coupling is determined by whether the spectator is related to at least one of the fire-walkers; hence, the coupling is socially modulated. The shared dynamics of heart rate are thus the consequence of socially modulated information-mediated coupling.

The key point is that there was no “direct exchange of matter or energy.”  That is what, in traditional Chinese terms, is called ch’i.  As the Neo-Confucianists explain it, the li is what connects the ch’i.  In the case of the fire-walkers, the heat of the coal directly affected their own heart rates, but it was the sight of the fire-walkers, the sounds of them, and most crucially, the emotional connection with them in the hearts of the related spectators, that caused the spectators’ heart rates to synchronize with them.  It was the li that synchronized the hearts of the spectators with those of the fire-walkers.

When you look a loved one in the eyes, it’s your shared li that connects you.  And even within your own body, it’s your li that makes you who are.  Your cells and their molecules come and go, but your li remains stable, changing dynamically as you mind/body organism develops, but always maintaining a connection with what you’ve been before and what you will become.  After you die, your li will remain in the hearts of those who loved you.  In fact, what we really are is not a bag of skin, flesh and bones.  What we really are is a temporary collection of li, of a massively integrated series of self-organized patterns.

The li is the connectivity that binds us into an organism.  It’s the connectivity that binds us to each other.  Connectivity is the underlying principle of meaning in our lives.  In fact, ultimately, the unconditional love that spiritual mystics describe is really an experience of the limitless connectivity of the li through which all things are related.  This is the true meaning of the scientific research conducted on those fire-walkers and their spectators.  But you won’t necessarily find these conclusions in the august pages of the PNAS.

What’s The Point?

What’s the point?

The beauty of it is that when you arrive at the point

You see that it’s connected to another point

And another point

And so many other points

That you begin to recognize

That it’s really

Not a point after all


And you see that the full stop

Is really so full

With everything that’s come before

And everything still to happen

That it’s really not a stop

Just a coming and a going

A moment to pause

And notice


And when you get to the period

You look up and see

That it’s all part of a much greater period

That encompasses all the other periods

That have been

And are yet to come


At which point

You notice that the point

Is one point in an infinite connection of points

That fill the universe

And that the point of it all

Is no point at all




Trust that the breath you exhale

Will be followed by another one

In its own good time.


Trust that the wind biting your skin

Will eventually give way to

The warm kiss of the sun.


Trust that smiles invite,

That frowns conceal,

That eyes can be a gateway to the soul

And that words don’t always mean

Exactly what they say.


Trust that hurt will lead to closure

For a while

Until it’s over

And you open up again

A little bit stronger.


Trust that the bird gliding overhead

Won’t deposit droppings on your face

And if it does

You can always clean it off.


Trust in trust.

Trust in the fact that

Trusting won’t always take you where you want to go

But not trusting

Never will.

A Constitution for a Democracy of Consciousness

In this blog, I advocate trying to achieve what I call a “democracy of consciousness,” where all your inner voices, values and feelings get a fair hearing in your conscious attention.  For most of us, the values we pick up from our family, peers and society over the years tend to censor this inner democracy, and it takes a sustained conscious effort, with lots of practice, to allow your inner voices the hearing they really want.  It can also be an emotionally challenging experience.  Some of those voices may have painful emotions attached to them, and other voices may be in conflict with each other.

I’ve recently been working on my own democracy of consciousness, and as I’ve done so, I’ve been coming up with what you might call a “constitution” for that democracy.  As with a country’s constitution, the rationale for a constitution is not to take sides in the democracy, but to establish the fundamental ground rules for how the democracy should be implemented.  What are the bedrock principles on which everything else should stand and move?

The following is my own “constitution” that I’ve been developing.  They go deep into the heart and soul of our human experience, and it’s in that place, deep in the experience of your mind/body that they will make the most sense.  It’s a work in progress, but so far it’s been helping me a lot, and I hope it may do the same for you.

You are what you intend to be.
There is no such thing as success or failure.  There is only experience.
Intention flavors experience.
Intention allows you to love yourself.
In a democracy of consciousness, you are always the victor.
Loving yourself is loving everything.
Love integrates.  Kindness lubricates.
Lovingkindness is love in kindness.
Listening to the body is wisdom.
When barriers go, energy flows.
The more energy you spend, the more you have.
The two constituents of life are energy and love.
There is no social status, only energy flows or blockages.
Transcending the self is becoming immanent in the universe.

Rhythms of Joy

Smiles caressing.  Bodies beaming.  Eyes rejoicing.
Beats inviting.  Intertwining.
Joy arising.  Rhythm beating.  People joining.
Past and future. Separating.  Walls encroaching.
People – rhythm – dancing – rising.
Waking from a deepened slumber.
“It’s OK” a voice inside me.
Breaking through the walls enclosing.
Music – rhythm – waking faster.
Shattering the glass enclosure.
Freedom calls the joyful dancer.
Cruising on the waves of laughter.
Does the gull consider falling?
Do the waves forget their swirling?
Does the ecstasy take pause to fear
As it flies through the rhythms of joy?

Energy Strikes: how you and I can really make a difference in fighting global warming

It seems unstoppable: the world’s getting warmer, bringing climate change catastrophe ever closer.  Carbon levels in the atmosphere keep increasing, and our politicians don’t do a thing about it.  The coalition of big business and embedded political interests wants to keep most people ignorant about the disaster our global society is bringing on itself.

But there’s something we can do about it.  Each of us, as individuals, can join in a global movement which has the power to bring about real, fundamental worldwide political change in a matter of years.  In our lifetimes, we can play a part in turning round the global warming juggernaut.

How?  Through Energy Strikes.  What’s an Energy Strike?  It’s a day of worldwide action, when each of us uses only the amount of energy that would lead to an eventual stabilization of atmospheric carbon dioxide to the sustainable level of 350 parts per million.

Energy Strikes aren’t happening yet.  But the first one could take place in 2012 if you and I set our minds to it now.  How is that?  Because three of the foremost direct action environmental groups in the world are putting their minds together to come up with a coordinated long-term strategy to stop our civilization careening towards climate change disaster.  They’re going to be making decisions this fall about which strategy to pursue.  They’re open to new ideas, and seeking our input.

[Click here for a pdf document explaining Energy Strikes in more detail.]

Gandhi's 1930 salt march catalyzed the successful struggle for India's independence from the British Empire. Energy Strikes can do the same for the global struggle against climate change.

If you think the idea of annual global Energy Strikes could start to make an impact in raising global awareness about climate change and putting pressure on politicians, then please spend 2 minutes to do the following:

1.) Click on this link to send an email directly to the the leaders of the three powerful direct action groups:

Bill McKibben of
Philip Radford of Greenpeace USA
Rebecca Tarbotton of Rainforest Action Network

2.)  Copy and paste the following text in the message (and make any changes you feel like):


Bill, Phil and Rebecca,

I support the idea of building a worldwide movement of annual Energy Strikes, when each of us uses only the amount of energy that would lead to an eventual stabilization of atmospheric carbon dioxide to the sustainable level of 350 parts per million.

An “Energy Strike” would be a worldwide day (or days) when all participants used only the amount of energy, on a per capita basis, that would lead to an eventual stabilization of atmospheric CO2 to 350 ppm.  An energy strike would be an annual event. It could be held any time during the year, but the proposed date would be a “Sustainable Energy Day”: the day in the calendar year when the world has emitted the maximum amount of CO2 consistent with an eventual long-term level of 350 ppm in the atmosphere.

During an Energy Strike, those participants who are taking time off their daily work might congregate and picket at the centers of high CO2 production: e.g. airports, coal-fired power plants, luxury auto dealerships.  The first Energy Strike would be a one-day event. Then, it would be rolled out over a number of years with gradually increasing time spans.

The vision of an Energy Strike arises from the Gandhian principle of non-violent non-cooperation, using powerful symbolic events to catalyze mass participation and raise global awareness.  The novelty and symbolic resonance of a global Energy Strike would have significant media impact. Visually, the sight of picketing strikers at airports or coal-fired power plants around the world could be compelling.  Over the years, Energy Strikes could have a major impact on raising global awareness about climate change and turning around the climate change juggernaut.

Please consider this strategy for a coordinated worldwide response to global climate change that could really make a difference.

3.) Now share this blog post with at least two other friends or associates, and ask them to do the same.  Within a short while, Bill, Phil and Rebecca will see that this is an idea that resonates.  And you’ll have played your part in the first step towards regaining our future for a sustainable human presence on the earth.

If you want to read more about the Energy Strikes idea, click on this pdf document.  Congratulations: you’ve just made a difference!

Finding the li? It’s easy! You see…

It’s easy, you see, to find the li,

Since the li’s all around, everywhere you can see.

When you hear that bird tweet in the trees

When you feel the warm sun through the breeze

Then you’ve found it, you’re in touch with the infinite li.

It’s easy, you see, to find the li,

Except when we lock it away for no-one to see

When we seal it up with the barriers of self

Through our constant pursuit of happiness and wealth,

Then we blind ourselves to the infinite li.

It’s easy, you see, to hear the li

Since it’s bubbling up all the while within me

Those trillions of cells dancing effortlessly

Cheek-to-cheek in free choreography,

I’m in touch with – I am – the infinite li.

It’s easy, you see, to feel the li

When you surf the waves of the ceaseless sea

When dancing the dance of ecstasy.

Since love is the li’s connectivity

My li is in you, and your li is in me

So our li is our true immortality.

I am the wilderness before the dawn

Eliminate learning so as to have no worries
Yes and no, how far apart are they?
Good and evil, how far apart are they?

What the sages fear,
I must not fear.
I am the wilderness before the dawn.

The multitude are busy and active…
I alone am bland,
As if I have not yet emerged into form.
Like an infant who has not yet smiled,
Lost, like one who has nowhere to return.

The multitudes all have too much;
I alone am deficient.
My mind is that of a fool,

Worldly people are luminous;
I alone am dark.
Worldly people are clear-sighted;
I alone am dull,
I am calm like the sea,
Like the high winds I never stop.

The multitudes all have their use;
I alone am untamable like lowly material.
I alone am different from others.
For I treasure feeding on the Mother.

From Tao Te Ching 20.  Translation: Ellen M. Chen.

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