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

 

Advertisements

Trust

TRUST

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.

Transcendence or Immanence? You can choose one but not both…

Beyond the Postmodern Mind: The Place of Meaning in a Global Civilization

By Huston Smith

Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.  1982/2003.

Huston Smith is one of the most respected spiritual thinkers of our time.  Having been born in China to Methodist missionaries in 1919, he practiced different Eastern religions for several decades and wrote one of the few religious bestsellers of the 20th century, called The World’s Religions, in addition to many other well received books on religious beliefs.  So it is with some trepidation that I take issue with this great man on a fundamental matter of spiritual thought.

In Beyond the Postmodern Mind, as well as other more recent writings, Smith argues strenuously against the soulless nature of modern scientific materialism, positing a transcendent meaning to life that in his view, science “cannot handle.”  As I’ve described in other posts, I wholeheartedly agree in his invective against scientific reductionism, although I think his attack on science errs in equating reductionism with the whole scientific enterprise.  But other thoughtful scientists have already locked horns with Smith on that topic, so I won’t go there.[1]

In this post, I suggest instead that the fundamental structure of Smith’s spiritual cosmology is incoherent.  Smith eloquently describes a universe where meaning is both transcendent and immanent.  But I believe that if you want to conceive of your spiritual experience in a coherent way, you can choose transcendence or you can choose immanence.  But you can’t choose both.

In making my case, I’m not only going against Smith.  I’m also by implication criticizing the revered thinker, Aldous Huxley, whose book The Perennial Philosophy, a collection of mystical writings taken from different faiths around the globe, has gained enthusiastic advocates worldwide since its publication in 1945, and is viewed by many as a bible for ecumenical, liberated spiritual thought.

Smith himself is one of Huxley’s greatest advocates, quoting Huxley’s definition of the “perennial philosophy” as “the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being,” adding that he “cannot imagine a better brief summation.”  Later on in his book, Smith follows Huxley’s use of the two terms “immanent” and “transcendent” in the same sentence, stating that:

Looking up from planes that are lower, God is radically transcendent…; looking down, from heights that human vision (too) can attain to varying degrees, God is absolutely immanent.

Aldous Huxley: conflates “transcendent” and “immanent” in his "Perennial Philosophy".

The “perennial philosophy” advocated by Smith and Huxley is an attractive proposition from an ecumenical perspective, an enhancer of global spiritual integration.  The use of these two terms together was, I surmise, a deliberate choice by both writers to conflate the “transcendent” spirituality of monotheistic and Vedic religion with the “immanent” realization of East Asian traditions, thereby proposing a sense of mystical Oneness that embraces the metaphysical truths of all the world’s major religious traditions.  While I fervently support that goal, I believe that the conflation of these two concepts conceals some inconvenient but fundamental differences between them.

Let’s explore the meaning and etymology of both of these two terms before we go any further.  In a paper called Transcendence East and West, professor of comparative philosophy David Loy notes how the Latin trans + scendere means to climb over or rise above something.  Transcendence, he explains, is “that which abstracts us from the given world by providing a theoretical perspective on it.”[2] Implicit in this concept is the notion that spiritual meaning exists somewhere “up there” above worldly, material things, in a pure, eternal dimension.  Perhaps the ultimate statement of spiritual transcendence comes from this passage in the Katha Upanishad:

Higher than the senses are the objects of sense.
Higher than the objects of sense is the mind;
And higher than the mind is the intellect (buddhi).
Higher than the intellect is the Great Self (Atman).
Higher than the Great is the Unmanifest (avyakta).
Higher than the Unmanifest is the Person.
Higher than the Person there is nothing at all.
That is the goal.  That is the highest course.[3]

Now let’s turn to our other word, “immanence.”  The respected neurologist and Zen Buddhist, James Austin, notes that this word comes from the Latin immanere, to remain in.  In contrast to “transcendence,” “immanence” implies that spiritual meaning exists continually within us and all around us.  It’s there for the taking.  We just need to notice it.  Austin uses the word “immanence” as the descriptive term for the “deep realization” of kensho (the Zen term for a moment of enlightenment) that “ultimate reality is right here, in all things, and not elsewhere, or distant from us.”  In this moment of enlightenment, Austin describes, “no miracle is greater than just this.”  He quotes a famous saying from an old Zen teacher: “If you love the sacred and despise the ordinary, you are still bobbing in the ocean of delusion.”[4]

What a mix up!  How can spiritual meaning be derived from “up there” in one tradition, from “down here” in another tradition, and from all of the above in the “perennial tradition”?  A sensitive reader might be forgiven at this point for thinking: “Look, the words might be different, but the feeling is the same.  They’re all talking about a special moment of great meaning.  That’s an experience we humans can all share.  So let’s not get hung up on semantics.”  This is a viewpoint that I myself hold, when it comes to those rare moments of enlightenment we might be fortunate enough to experience.  But in this case, the difference I’m highlighting is far more than semantics, and here’s why.

The celebrated philosopher, Walter Stace, in an analysis of mystical states of mind experienced by people across many cultures, concludes that while the experience itself may have common elements among all humanity, the “many and varied conceptions” that accompany these experiences are “the products of post-experiential cultural and religious categorization and are not inherent in the experiences themselves.”[5] In other words, how people interpret their mystical experiences is structured by their foundational cultural assumptions.  This doesn’t for one instance take away from the validity of those experiences; but precisely because of the power these experiences have on the individual’s psyche long after the event, the interpretation can be crucially important to that individual’s future assessment of meaning and will both reflect and reinforce the underlying metaphysical constructs that inform that culture’s values.

In fact, I believe that the traditional Western, monotheistic-oriented view of transcendence is one of the most important aspects of a fundamentally dualistic view of the universe that has pervaded Western thought for two and a half millennia.  We see it emerging in the Western tradition as early as the Presocratic thinker Anaxagoras (c.500-428 B.C.), who posited a pure Mind which “is infinite and self-ruling and is mixed with nothing but is alone by itself.”[6] This notion got taken up by Plato for whom, in the words of the great classicist Francis Cornford, “the immortal thinking soul, which alone knows reality, is sharply distinguished from the body, with which are associated the lower faculties of sense, emotion, and desire.”[7] Then, with the rise of Christianity, we see the merging of a Hebrew omnipotent God with Plato’s body/soul division, to construct a universe where the cosmic dualism of an eternal God above ruling a material world below is paralleled by a human dualism of an eternal soul ruling the mortal body.

But as we all know, the soul’s rule of the body is somewhat problematic.  No-one has described the tortuous tensions arising from this search for transcendent meaning better than the Apostle Paul, who put it this way:

For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.  What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?[8]

Apostle Paul: defined the tortuous spiritual conflict arising from dualism.

For nearly two millennia, countless millions of people pursuing spiritual transcendence have suffered the conundrum defined by Paul.  This dualistic division of the universe then took a more modern incarnation after Descartes merged the Christian “soul” and the newly ascendant notion of “mind” into one entity, the res cogitans, utterly separate from the body, creating a “theory of mind and thought so influential that its main tenets are still widely held and have barely begun to be reevaluated.”[9]

In a cross-cultural analysis of views of transcendence, Professor Guoping Zhao has noted the potentially harmful effects of pursuing transcendence as a target external to our own physical existence:

What is particular about the modern notion of transcendence is that it is a transcendence of us, but at the same time, it is also transcendence from us, from the very material that constitutes human experience. It is this disconnected form of transcendence, I suggest, that makes our pursuit of transcendence at times unexpectedly harmful to human well-being.  For when transcendence means “disconnected from” the material nature of humanity, it detaches the modern construction of humans from everyday human experience and the deeply felt and commonly shared human sentiments.[10]

Here, Zhao has noted the spiritual harm that can be caused to the individual by seeking transcendence from something outside his/her own embodied experience.  In addition, I think this sense of transcendence as other-worldly has led to what philosopher Hans Jonas has called “among the most decisive events in the mental history of the race,” where our dualistic view has “continued to drain the spiritual elements off the physical realm – until, when its tide at last receded, it left in its wake a world strangely denuded of such arresting attributes.”[11] If spiritual value is derived from an eternal heavenly dimension, then ipso facto it is not intrinsic to the trees, rivers and animals of the natural world.  In a grand irony, the transcendent view has been partially responsible for the very scientific materialism that Smith so derides, one that has led to a desacralized earth, where the spiritual resonance of the natural world has been transformed into the economic value of geological resources and “ecosystem services.”

Thus it is that when Smith and others pursue spiritual meaning as transcendent, they leave the natural world around them denuded of meaning, fair game to those who would view their environment as resources with value calculated in dollars and cents.  On the other hand, when spiritual meaning is realized as immanent, the gap between the sacred and the scientific begins to get blurred, even disappear.  Biologist Ursula Goodenough describes her awe of nature in terms reminiscent of Austin’s description of kensho, when “no miracle is greater than just this”:

As a cell biologist immersed in [a deep understanding of, and admiration for, the notes and the strings and the keys of life] I experience the same kind of awe and reverence when I contemplate the structure of an enzyme or the flowing of a signal-transduction cascade as when I watch the moon rise or stand in front of a Mayan temple.  Same rush, same rapture.[12]

The notion that spiritual meaning is immanent – ever present and all around us – is a liberating one in a world increasingly dominated by the scientific enterprise.  From this perspective, spirituality doesn’t have to flee from the material world into a construction of another eternal dimension.  Spirituality doesn’t have to fight a rearguard action against ever more intrusive scientific insights into the forces of evolution or the neural correlates of consciousness.  Rather, spirituality can embrace scientific illumination as yet another source of wonder, another means by which the infinite complexity of the natural world manifests itself to the human mind.


[1] See Goodenough, U. (2001). “Engaging Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters.” Zygon, 36(2), 201-206; Pigliucci, M. (2010). “The Place of Science.” eSkeptic, March 10, 2010.

[2] Loy, D. (1993). “Transcendence East and West.” Man and World, 26(4), 403-427.

[3] Quoted in Barnes, M. H. (2000). Stages of Thought: The Co-Evolution of Religious Thought and Science, New York: Oxford University Press.

[4] Austin, J. H. (2009). Selfless Insight: Zen and the Meditative Transformations of Consciousness, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

[5] Cited in Roth, H. D. (1999). Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism, New York: Columbia University Press.

[6] Quoted in McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, New York: Allworth Press.

[7] Cornford, F. M. (1912/2004). From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation, New York: Dover Publications.

[8] Romans 7:22-24

[9] Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books.

[10] Zhao, G. (2009). “Two Notions of Transcendence: Confucian Man and Modern Subject.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 36(3:September 2009), 391-407.

[11] Jonas, H. (1966/2001). The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

[12] Goodenough, U. (1998). The Sacred Depths of Nature, New York: Oxford University Press.

A Moment to Touch the Li

Wife lying sick in hospital bed.
Long hours sitting by her side.
But lunch time brings a walk to grab a sandwich
Through quiet pathway along a little stream.

Surrounded by hedges on both sides
Sounds and smells of spring in the air.

The tweeting of birds calling to each other
Fresh-cut grass and honeysuckle flood the nose.

New shoots jutting out from the hedges
And flowers beckoning with splashes of color.

What a moment to touch the li!

The Three Boxes of Enlightenment: A Story

“So, you tell me you’ve achieved enlightenment!  Congratulations!”

The little, old man smiled at me in a strange way.

“Now that you’ve arrived at this new status, there’s something very special I have to show you.  Very few people have ever seen it.”

With that, the funny little man turned and began walking back to his house, beckoning me to follow him.  He led me down the stairs to a dusty old basement, lined with shelves holding a variety of oddly shaped items.

“Here they are!” he exclaimed with satisfaction.  “My three boxes of enlightenment.”

He reached up to a high shelf and, one by one, took three sealed wooden boxes down and put them on a table next to me.

“Here, open it up!”  He pushed one of the boxes toward me.

I picked up the lacquered box, barely able to see its colors through the dust on top.  I saw it had a latch, which I opened.  The lid creaked up on a hinge.  I peered inside.  Strange, indeed!  All I could see in the box was a dirty little piece of black string.  As I looked more closely, I realized I was looking at a used candle wick.

“Isn’t it beautiful!  Isn’t that extraordinary!” the little old man cried out gleefully in his strange accent.  “This is the beauty of the candle’s flame.  One evening, there I was, watching the flame flickering in the breeze, dancing to the invisible music of the air currents, sucking up the wax and turning it into warmth, brightness and life.  It was so beautiful, I wanted to capture it forever.  So, I took my scissors, cut the flame off the candle, and put it in my box.  And here it still is, after all these years, my beautiful candle flame.”

I looked again, but all I could see was a dingy little remnant of blackened thread.  Before I could ask him what on earth he was talking about, he had jumped up and started pushing over to me another of his boxes.

“Now, this next box is really something special!  Open it!  Open it!”  He could hardly contain his excitement.

As I picked up this new box, wiping the cobwebs away, I noticed it was heavier than the last.  It seemed to have something liquid swishing inside.  With a little consternation, I carefully unlocked the lid.  I opened it up and saw that it was full of water.  I gingerly put my nose towards it.  A smell of mildew from the sides of the box wafted up at me.  It was too dark to see below the surface of the water, but it didn’t seem like it contained anything else.  Just a liter or so of slimy, smelly water.  What was so special about this water? I wondered to myself.

“Isn’t that the most dramatic thing you’ve ever seen!”  The strange old man could barely contain himself.  He jumped off his stool and came over to where I was sitting.  He peered into the recesses of the watery box.

“I still remember the beauty of that moment like it was this morning!” He continued breathlessly.  “I was walking on this mountain path, and came across a hidden waterfall.  The water was crashing down!  I could hardly hear myself for the sound of its roar.  As the water hit the rocks, it foamed and fulminated, throwing up spray, whirling around like a wild animal.  It was breathtaking!  I can still taste the freshness of the stream, its cold sensation, as if it had just melted from the snow minutes earlier.  So I took my little box and captured some of the water.  I’ve kept it down here ever since!  Isn’t it sensational!”

I was wondering how I could politely point out to my odd host that, in fact,  all I saw was some stagnant water slowly becoming a health hazard, when he stretched up and grabbed the final box.

“And here,” he said to me, beaming, “here is my final glory.  This one, I guarantee you, you will never forget!”

By this time, almost panic stricken, I took a deep breath and accepted his gift of the final box.  This one was really sealed.  I had to go around the edges, untwisting some little metal strips, before I could free up the lid.  What was I going to find inside?  I carefully opened up the lid and, holding my breath, looked in.  Nothing.  There was absolutely nothing inside.

“Can you believe it!” the funny little man was getting so excited his arms were starting to swing by his side.  “This is my crowning achievement!  Sunlight!  Transcendent, glorious, life-giving sunlight.  There I was, one beautiful summer’s afternoon, feeling the warm glow of sunshine on my skin, and I knew this moment was to be treasured for all time.  So, I got my most special box, put it in the sunlight and closed it tight, capturing who knows how many sunbeams.  You must admit, my friend, this is truly momentous!”

My heart was sinking as the old man led me back outside.

“Now, my friend,” he said to me as we were making our farewells.  “Next time you arrive at a moment of enlightenment, you could just let yourself feel it, experience the moment, be one with the harmony of the sensations going through you, embrace it and share it quietly with those around you in the form of grace and love.  But, I’d much prefer if you could think about it for me, give it a name, put a frame around, box it up and bring it to me.  Then I can add it to my three boxes of enlightenment.”

With that the strange man shook my hand heartily, gave a formal bow and turned to walk back into his house.

“But wait!” I ran after him and grabbed him by his sleeve before he disappeared through his front door.  I plucked up my courage.

“Your boxes don’t have enlightenment in them!” I blurted out.  “They’re nothing but remnants of those moments.  When you took your scissors and cut the candle wick, you extinguished the flame.  When you caught the water and locked it in a box, you turned the fresh stream into stagnant poison.  And when you closed the lid on the sunlight, you didn’t catch the sunbeams – you just shut them out.”

I thought I’d insulted the old man.  But instead, his face broke out in a smile.  A calmer smile than before.  He suddenly looked both wiser and kinder as his eyes embraced me.

“And that’s exactly what you do, my young friend, when you tell me or anyone else about your moment of enlightenment.”  His voice was soft and gentle.  “That’s exactly what you do the moment you start thinking to yourself ‘I’m enlightened.’  There may be moments in your life when the waves of your body’s sensations and the waves within your mind achieve a perfect harmony, when your reality and that of the external world is synchronized, when time becomes eternal.  Let those moments be.  Don’t try to put a box of thought around them, don’t lock them in with words, and close them off with your concepts.  Just let them be.  And if you let them be, they will melt into your being and express themselves in love and kindness.  But as soon as you try to encapsulate them with a sentence, you will extinguish the flame, and all you will be left with is the burned candle wick, and the empty words: ‘I’ve achieved enlightenment.’”

And when I finally left the old man, and closed his gate behind me, I thanked him from the deepest part of my being, because his three closed boxes of enlightenment had opened up the boxes in my heart that I didn’t even know were there.

The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li

For millennia, the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt were undecipherable to the modern world.  Then Napoleon’s troops discovered the famous Rosetta Stone in 1799, with an ancient proclamation in three languages, one of which was Greek and another hieroglyphs.  After some years of intensive work, the hieroglyphs were finally deciphered.  The awesome – and previously unknowable – world of ancient Egyptian thought had opened up to modern minds.

The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li

The chasm that currently exists between spirituality and science is a little like the gap between hieroglyphs and European languages before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.  From the perspective of our scientific world, spirituality remains mysterious, alluring, but ultimately unknowable.  However, I believe that the traditional Chinese conception of the li – the organizing principles underlying every aspect of the universe – offers us a kind of metaphysical Rosetta Stone: a conceptual bridge between the material world of mathematics and science and the immeasurable world of the spirit.

In western thought, the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Islam or Judaism are often viewed as the only spiritual alternative to scientific materialism.  With their dualistic worldview, positing an intangible dimension of God and immortal souls, they are incommensurable with scientific thought: ultimately, one can never be measured in terms of the other.  Many people, rejecting dualism but sensing something greater than reductionist science allows, seek non-traditional explanations, which are frequently dismissed by science as incoherent.

In contrast to these approaches, the perspective of the li offers a coherent, non-dualistic mode of understanding how the natural world can be at the same time tangible and mysterious, how our lives can be both flesh and blood and spiritually meaningful.

The Neo-Confucian approach to the li and modern scientific thought both start out from the same place.  They both posit a material universe explainable on its own terms, without having to come up with a supernatural Creator.  The greatest Neo-Confucian philosopher, Chu Hsi, was very clear about this, as we can see from the following excerpt:

The blue sky is called heaven; it revolves continuously and spreads out in all directions.  It is now sometimes said that there is up there a person who judges all evil actions; this assuredly is wrong.  But to say that there is no ordering (principle) would be equally wrong.[1]

Both Neo-Confucian and scientific thought look at how energy and matter interact in order to understand how nature is organized.  But from that same starting place, they follow two different directions.  Science looks for measurable laws that are held to be universally true, and technological advances have permitted science to find these laws in ever smaller units.   Neo-Confucianism, by contrast, looked for organizing principles, regardless of whether they were measurable or not.  With this approach, it perceived the very thing that science has eliminated from its purview: the boundless spirit pervading the natural universe.  This is best seen in another excerpt from Chu Hsi’s teachings, where the master responds to a reductionist-leaning pupil:

Fu Shun-Kung asked about the Five Sacrifices, saying that he supposed they were simply a duty; a manifestation of great respect; it was not necessary (to believe that) any spirit was present.  (The philosopher) answered: ‘(No spirit, say you?)  Speak of the mysterious perfection of the ten thousand things and you have spoken of the Spirit.  Heaven and earth and all that is therein – all is Spirit![2]

Natural laws lead us to hard science.  The li leads us to a spiritual understanding of the world.  One key to the difference between “natural laws” and the “li” is the concept of measurability.  Natural laws must, by definition, be measurable in order to be counted as laws.  The li, on the other hand, exist in an infinite array through time and space and can never be completely measured.  For this reason, natural law works well with what we can measure, such as molecules, spectrums of light, acceleration of gravity, etc.  But it struggles when we try to use it to understand things we can’t measure: feelings, ecological systems, evolutionary processes, consciousness.  The li, by contrast, makes no distinction between what you can and what you can’t measure.  To understand the li requires a different approach – it requires integration.

Leading thinkers in complexity science find themselves at the boundary where natural laws meet the li, and struggle to communicate this thought within the limitations of our Western scientific terminology.  Here is how J.A. Scott Kelso, a neuroscientist who applies complexity theory to the dynamics of the brain, describes his view of what lies beyond the boundaries of conventional physics:

… my answer to the question, is life based on the laws of physics? is yes, with the proviso that we accept that the laws of physics are not fixed in stone, but are open to elaboration.  It makes no sense to talk about the laws of physics as if the workings of our minds and bodies are controlled by well known fundamental laws.  As I stressed earlier, it will be just as fundamental to discover the new laws and principles that govern the complex behavior of living things at the many levels they can be observed… At each level of complexity, entirely new properties appear, the understanding of which will require new concepts and methods.[3]

Kelso is describing the li.  The key to understanding what I mean is that “the li” is both a scientific and a spiritual term.  It’s a term that covers equally well findings of modern complexity theory and traditional Chinese philosophy.  The reason this can occur is that complexity science and the spirituality of Chinese thought are interconnected.  Rather than describing different dimensions, they’re using different approaches to understand the same underlying reality.

There are profound implications to this.  Complexity science leads us into a world where some conventional scientific preconceptions have to be reconsidered.  As we explore that world, we are fortunate to have generations of sophisticated thinkers from traditional Chinese philosophy to help us map out the way.

Conventional science is predicated on prediction, power and control.

Conventional science is predicated on prediction, power and control.

For example, the conventional scientific approach to the world is predicated on the notions of prediction, power and control: the ability to predict natural phenomena gives us power and consequently control over those phenomena.  In contrast to this, a scientific approach that acknowledges the li – the complexity arising from self-organization and emergent states of living organisms – leads to the realization that the conventional level of prediction, power and control are impossible.    Instead, acknowledgement of the li leads towards a sense of participation rather than power, encouraging harmony within a process rather than attempting to impose control.  This is how biologist Brian Goodwin describes this realization:

A new frontier is now opening for our culture, a frontier where science will continue to be relevant, but in a radically altered form.  Instead of a primary focus on controlling quantities, the challenge for science is to cooperate with the natural creative dynamic that operates at the edge of chaos, to experience the qualities that emerge there, and to move toward a participatory worldview which recognizes the intrinsic values that make life worthwhile.[4]

The “participatory worldview” Goodwin describes raises another key principle arising from the li: the interactivity inherent in our relationship with both ourselves and the world around us.  We are inseparable from the natural world: what we do to it has implications that inextricably pull us back in.  And we’re equally inseparable from ourselves: we are constantly creating and re-creating ourselves whether we know it or not.  As physiology researcher Peter Macklem puts it: “Who is our artist?  We sculpt ourselves.”[5]

A full understanding of this dynamic interactivity has the potential to take us to places that are considered “mystical” in Western traditions, but mainstream in the traditional Chinese philosophy of the li.  In a famous document known as the Western Inscription, one of the founders of Neo-Confucian thought, Chang Tsai, took this participatory worldview to its ultimate logic with a vision of our cosmic inseparability from the natural world:

Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and I, a small child, find myself placed intimately between them.  What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.  All people are my brothers and sisters; all things are my companions.[6]

Chang Tsai is not alone in his vision; in fact, he’s part of a long tradition of Chinese thought.  Over a thousand years earlier, the ancient philosopher Mencius noted that “One who fully explores his heart/mind will understand his own nature, and one who understands his own nature will thereby understand Heaven.”[7]

Ant nest organization parallels the neuronal interactions of our brains.

What do they mean?  These statements begin to make sense when you think about them in terms of the li – nature’s organizing principles.  Modern scientific research is beginning to identify self-organized dynamics within each of the trillions of cells in our body that are similar to those that form ecological communities – even communities as large as the entire natural world.[8] Biologists are increasingly discovering close parallels between the organized behavior of social insects such as ants or bees and the neuronal interactions of our brains.[9] Kelso touches on this dynamic when he notes that “a remarkable, possibly quite profound, connection seems to exist among physical, biological, and psychological phenomena.”[10]

If the li that comprise our own existence share their dynamics with the li all around us in the natural world, then this might explain the feeling of awe and oneness we sometimes experience as we observe our universe.  Biologist Ursula Goodenough gives a sense of this bridge between science and the sacred:

As a cell biologist immersed in [a deep understanding of, and admiration for, the notes and the strings and the keys of life] I experience the same kind of awe and reverence when I contemplate the structure of an enzyme or the flowing of a signal-transduction cascade as when I watch the moon rise or stand in front of a Mayan temple.  Same rush, same rapture.[11]

In fact, some studies have identified similar patterns of self-organization in both music and the human brain, offering us a hint that our esthetic sense is intimately connected with the universal patterns of the li that Chang Tsai described.[12] The modern Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield expresses the sense of spiritual awakening that can arise from this realization:

From an awakened perspective, life is a play of patterns, the patterns of trees, the movement of the stars, the patterns of the seasons and the patterns of human life in every form…  These basic patterns, these stories, the universal archetypes through which all life appears, can be seen and heard when we are still, centered, and awakened… Our lives are inseparable from our environment, our species, our relations with the stream of all that exists…  All things are all a part of ourselves, and yet somehow we are none of them and beyond them.[13]

A thousand blossoms: touching the li of Nature.

How far we’ve come (while remaining commensurable with scientific thought) from the reductionist thinking that’s typically associated with conventional science, an approach that can be epitomized in this observation by Nobel laureate physicist and reductionist spokesman Steven Weinberg: ‘I have to admit that sometimes nature seems more beautiful than strictly necessary.’[14] In contrast, here are some thoughts of Neo-Confucian philosopher Chu Hsi on the experience of touching the li of Nature:

Spring colors in the West Garden beckoning,
I rushed up there in straw sandals.
A thousand blossoms and ten thousand buds in red and purple:
Who knows the creative mind of Heaven and Earth?[15]

_____________________________________________________

Note: This is the fourth in a series. Go to other posts:

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

3: Wiggles in the Stream of Time: Li and Ch’i.

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

5: Einstein, Chu Hsi and the Investigation of Things.


[1] Cited by Needham, J. (1956/1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume II, London: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Cited by Needham, op. cit.

[3] Kelso, J. A. S. (1995). Dynamic Patterns: The Self-Organization of Brain and Behavior, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

[4] Goodwin, B. (1994/2001).  How the Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[5] Macklem, P. T. (2008). “Emergent phenomena and the secrets of life.” Journal of Applied Physiology(104), 1844-1846.

[6] Quoted by Ching, J. (2000). The Religious Thought of Chu Hsi, New York: Oxford University Press.

[7] Cited by Slingerland, E. (2003). Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China, New York: Oxford University Press.

[8] See, for example, Lovelock, J. (1979/2000). Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[9] See, for example, Couzin, I. D. (2008). “Collective cognition in animal groups.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(1), 36-43; Wilson, D. S., and Wilson, E. O. (2007). “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology.” The Quarterly Review of Biology, 82(4: December 2007), 327-348; Ward, A. J. W. et. al. (2008). “Quorum decision-making facilitates information transfer in fish shoals.” PNAS, 105(19), 6948-6953.

[10] Kelso, op. cit.

[11] Goodenough, U. (1998). The Sacred Depths of Nature, New York: Oxford University Press.

[12] Wu, D., Li, C.-Y., and Yao, D.-Z. (2009). “Scale-Free Music of the Brain.” PLoS ONE, 4(6:June 2009), e5915.

[13] Kornfield, J. (1993). A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, New York: Bantam Books.

[14] Quoted by Horgan, J. (2003). Rational Mysticism: Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment, New York: Mariner Books.

[15] Quoted by Ching, J., op. cit.

Re-weaving the Rainbow

As the scientific revolution took hold in Europe, in the 18th and 19th centuries, some people were horrified by what seemed to be the destruction of the Nature’s spirit at the hands of mechanical forces.  The Romantic poet, John Keats, memorably wrote in his poem “Lamina”:

Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy? …

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line…

Unweave a rainbow.[1]

Does the scientific method unweave the beauty of the rainbow?

Since then, we’ve had two hundred more years of unweaving.  Laws of nature have been formulated and reformulated.  Mysteries of nature have given up their secrets.  And the split between the scientific and the spiritual view of the universe has become a chasm.  A poignant modern expression of this can be seen in an Amazon review of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, a book that posits a reductionist view of evolution where each of us is seen to exist for no reason other than to act as replication vehicles for our genes:

Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it… On one level, I can share in the sense of wonder Dawkins so evidently sees in the workings out of such complex processes… But at the same time, I largely blame The Selfish Gene for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade… Never sure of my spiritual outlook on life, but trying to find something deeper – trying to believe, but not quite being able to – I found that this book just about blew away any vague ideas I had along these lines, and prevented them from coalescing any further.  This created quite a strong personal crisis for me some years ago.[2]

This blog, Finding the Li, will explore ways in which that beautiful rainbow of Nature’s mystery can be rewoven by a confluence of science and spirituality.  My underlying proposition is that there is no necessary disconnect between the two.  There are, no doubt, scientific belief systems that are incompatible with the search for meaning; and there are spiritual belief systems incompatible with scientific rigor.  These are all grist for the Science vs. Theology debate that has endured for too long, trotting out old truisms in new clothing.

My interest in this blog is, instead, to explore the ways in which rigorous science can expand its project to access the mysteries of nature, and to engage the perspectives offered by some of the world’s great spiritual traditions that remain compatible with the findings of science.  My hope is that, in this exploration, people like the reviewer of Dawkins’ book may find “something deeper” while remaining committed to the intellectual rigor of the scientific method.

There’s a companion blog to this one, called Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, which is dedicated to analyzing how the uniquely human capabilities of the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (“pfc”) – our ability to create abstractions, symbols, value systems, and to live by them – have created an imbalance in our human consciousness, which I’ve characterized as a “tyranny”.  While that blog diagnoses what’s happened to our society and our collective consciousness, this blog explores ways to potentially remedy this imbalance, and move towards what I call a “democracy of consciousness.”

One way to think about what this means is to consider the difference between the notions of “control” and “coordination.”  Traditional approaches in our Western culture view the role of the pfc-mediated part of our being – variously referred to through our history as the “soul,” “reason,” or “will” – as one of control.  The pfc’s faculties are meant to control the demands of our bodies and emotions, and by doing so, enable us to transcend to a higher spiritual or intellectual plane.  However, to the extent that our living beings are viewed as complex, self-organized systems, then the role of the pfc can begin to be seen instead as one of coordination.

In a 2004 paper, systems biologist Mihajilo Mesarovic and colleagues write about the difference between control and coordination:

There is a critical distinction between control and coordination.  Control is ‘dictating what is to be done’.  Coordination is providing ‘motivation’ for the controllers (regulators, modules, subsystems) to act so as to advance the overall system’s objective while the subsystems are performing their own functions, modified by coordination…

In a multilevel, hierarchical system… the task of the higher-level regulators is not to control but to coordinate, i.e. harmonise the functions of the first level regulators under changing conditions.[3]

Mesarovic et. al. are discussing complex biological systems in general.  My proposal is that we humans are complex biological systems par excellence, but that in our Western culture, we’ve learned to view our pfc’s function as controlling rather than coordinating this system.  When I describe moving towards a “democracy of consciousness,” I’m talking about learning how to devolve power back to those other aspects of our being, and develop our pfc’s faculties for coordination rather than control.

Does the conductor coordinate or control the orchestra?

One of my favorite metaphors on this subject is that of music.  I’m going to propose in this blog that music offers a more powerful metaphor for how our minds really work than the common cliché of “brain as computer”.  Think of the conductor of an orchestra… what’s he doing?  Controlling or coordinating?  Or a mixture of both?  How does an improvisational jazz band keep it together?  Who’s in charge?

It might not seem like a big change, but this shift in our awareness that I’m proposing involves a fundamental restructuring of our sense of ourselves and our values.  And, ultimately, I believe this is what’s necessary if our global society is going to truly resolve the great imbalances of today’s world, manifested in global climate change and the greatest extinction of species in 65 million years.

Here are some of the topics this blog will touch on, all of them interrelated.  I’ll add links to the topics below as I publish posts on each particular subject:

  • How current approaches to self-organization add to our understanding of evolution, challenging the old reductionist “modern synthesis” developed in the early 20th century.
  • How Chinese traditions of the Tao and Neo-Confucianism can help illuminate modern theories of self-organization and evolution (this is where we’ll come across the “li” in the title of this blog)
  • How Buddhist approaches to consciousness can help us transcend the pfc’s metaphor of the self.
  • How neuroscience sheds light on the power of meditation to help us towards a democracy of consciousness.
  • How “animate intelligence” contrasts with our more conventional understanding of “conceptual” intelligence.
  • How we can reharmonize our own animate and conceptual consciousness, and in doing so, play our part in re-balancing the human impact on the environment.
  • How all these findings can lead to a new set of global values for the 21st century.

Enjoy the journey!  And please share your comments whenever you feel you have something to say.


[1] Quoted by Orians, G. H. (2008). “Nature & human nature.” Dædalus(Spring 2008), 39-48.

[2] Cited by Dawkins, R. (2006). The Selfish Gene, New York: Oxford University Press, p. xiii

[3] Mesarovic, M. D., Sreenath, S. N., and Keene, J. D. (2004). “Search for organising principles: understanding in systems biology.” Systems Biology, 1(June 2004), 19-27.