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
Together
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.

Rhythms of Joy

People.
Smiles caressing.  Bodies beaming.  Eyes rejoicing.
Rhythm.
Beats inviting.  Intertwining.
Dancing.
Joy arising.  Rhythm beating.  People joining.
Thoughts.
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?

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,
Nebulous.

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.

I give thanks…

I give thanks to the trees, the sun, the trails, the wind, for being there.

I give thanks to my lungs for breathing me.

I give thanks to Pete Townsend for Baba O’Riley.

To Keith Moon for drumming me.

To Roger Daltrey for singing to me:

“I don’t need to fight to prove I’m right.

I don’t need to be forgiven…”

I give thanks to William Blake for telling me

“You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.”

I give thanks to my mind for carrying me along in its currents.

I give thanks to my li for sustaining me.

“Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness”

Here’s a working draft of the Introductory section of my book, Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness.  I invite constructive comments from readers of my blog.

[Click here for a pdf version of this post]


FINDING THE LI: TOWARDS A DEMOCRACY OF CONSCIOUSNESS


Introduction.

Imagine a satellite being launched into geosynchronous orbit, but its controls aren’t working too well.  If the trajectory gets too steep, the satellite will break through earth’s gravity field and soar into outer space, leaving earth behind forever.  On the other hand, if the calculations were wrong, the resistance of the atmosphere might become too great, and the satellite would come crashing down to earth in a fiery ball.  Only if everything is managed with great care will the satellite achieve its stable orbit, locking into synchrony with the earth.

I see our human trajectory like that satellite.  Our ever accelerating rate of technological innovation has allowed the human race to accomplish things that couldn’t have been dreamt of even a hundred years ago.  And the daily advances in areas like microchip technology and genetic engineering offer promises of ever more fantastic achievements.  At the exponentially increasing pace of this technological change, it won’t be too long before artificial intelligence transcends human intelligence and human DNA can be safely enhanced to produce an improved species.  That’s the analogy of the satellite breaking through earth’s gravity field to leave its home planet behind forever.

But there’s no guarantee that this is what the future holds for our species.  Our technological progress has been based on exploiting our world’s natural resources at an ever-increasing pace, to the point that the current rate of material progress appears unsustainable on many fronts.  In addition to the threat of climate change, there is a rapidly accumulating list of equally daunting issues such as capacity limits in crucial resources like oil and water, deforestation, desertification, oceans emptying of fish and a massive extinction of species.  If the convergence of these multiple threats becomes too much to handle, our global civilization might face a total collapse.  This is the analogy of the satellite hitting too much resistance and crashing down in a fiery ball.

To me, and most likely to you too, neither of those scenarios is attractive.  But is it possible for the human race to manage the trajectory it’s on closely enough to reach a stable orbit?  What would it take for us to achieve that?  That’s a question this book attempts to answer.  But the approach taken in this book has very little to do directly with global economics or environmental politics.  There are plenty of other books currently being published offering plans for social and political transformations that could help to put us on a more sustainable course.  The fundamental problem, however, is that as long as each of us continues to live according to the values infused in us through our culture, it’s not realistic to expect any real change in the human trajectory.

This book is based on the premise that there are some fundamental, structural elements to our modes of thought that drive our global culture on its accelerating and unsustainable path.  Understanding those foundational structures requires looking deeply into the historical and psychological sources of how we currently think.  It may not be a simple journey, but it’s only when these foundations are clearly understood that we can explore possibilities to rebuild our patterns of thought in ways that might permit us to enjoy a sustainable future on our planet.

This book takes us on a journey into the depths of our modern consciousness and identifies some faults in the foundations.  At the same time, it offers an alternative foundation of thought, based on a fusion of scientific insight and traditional wisdom, that could provide us with a sturdier basis for the next phase in our human project.

In order to accomplish this exploration, the book is divided into three parts.  The first part attempts to understand what happened historically to our collective consciousness that put us on our current trajectory.  It offers what I call a “cognitive history,” an investigation into the major historical factors that structure our modern consciousness, from the earliest days of the human race to the present day.  The second part examines the biological source of our consciousness and explores the new view of life as a dynamic, self-organized system proposed by leading thinkers in biology and complexity science.  The final part of the book integrates learnings from the first two parts, offering a way of thinking about ourselves and our relationship with the natural world that synthesizes major themes from both Chinese and Western thought traditions, proposing a worldview that could bridge the chasm that currently exists between science and spirituality and could potentially offer a path for sustainable living on our earth.

What follows is a more detailed description of each of these three parts.

Part I:  An archaeology of the mind

The first part of this book conducts what may be thought of as an “archaeology of the mind.”  It attempts to uncover the layers of cognitive structures that comprise our modern consciousness and investigate how they were originally formed.  In order to do that, we have to go back to the very origins of our species and determine what it was that made homo sapiens unique in the history of our planet.  From that foundation, we take a look at the worldview of our hunter-gatherer ancestors  who have accounted for the vast bulk of human history.  Then, layer by layer, we’ll trace how the phenomenon of agriculture transformed the world, and how this in turn paved the way for the great early civilizations that spanned the continents.

At that point, though, our archaeology dig stumbles on a strange bifurcation in its cognitive search.  We’ll take a close look at how, roughly twenty five hundred years ago, a unique confluence of cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean led to the emergence of an unprecedented dualistic cosmology, a complete separation of the eternal and sacred from the material and profane, which has formed the basis of our modern worldview.  At the same time, we’ll see how in China, separated by the Himalayas from their contemporaries in the West, a sophisticated and fundamentally different cosmology emerged from earlier shamanistic and agricultural traditions.  We’ll begin to explore the significance of these contrasting worldviews, and see how they led to a divergence in the way people understood themselves and their relation to the natural world.

Back in the West, we’ll trace how the Christian view of the universe permitted the astonishing transformation of thought that led to the Scientific Revolution, the gateway to our modern world.  We’ll see how fundamental concepts that we take for granted nowadays, such as Reason, Truth, Measurement, Time and Progress, evolved over the past two millennia into their modern forms.

The tyranny of the prefrontal cortex

As we conduct our archaeology of the mind, we’ll be viewing our findings through a lens that’s been provided by recent developments in neuroscience.  A major thesis of this book is that a crucial part of the human brain – the prefrontal cortex – has played a central role in the human story.  The prefrontal cortex (hereinafter referred to as the “pfc”) is that part of the brain responsible for mediating those cognitive abilities we view as uniquely human, such as symbolic thought, abstraction, planning, rule-making and imposing meaning on things.  It’s a part of the brain that’s far more developed in humans than in other mammals.

Neuroscientists have already established for some time now that the pfc is a central component of human uniqueness.  But this book’s thesis goes beyond that.  It argues that the unique evolutionary expansion of the pfc in the human brain, combined with the dynamics of culture (itself a product of pfc activity) has created a positive feedback loop leading to an imbalance within the human psyche, both collectively and individually.  Within each culture, a cognitive network of symbols constructed over countless generations imposes itself on the mind of each child growing up, structuring the pathways of that child’s cognitive perception.  This structuring gives each individual’s pfc a greater role in shaping a person’s consciousness than it would otherwise have.

This has been true for all the different cultures that have evolved throughout the world over the millennia.  But this book proposes that, along with the rise of a dualistic worldview, something unique happened to the relative power of the pfc within human consciousness in the Western world.  For the first time in human thought, the pfc’s function for abstraction became a core value in itself.  Reason was separated from emotion.  Abstraction became conjoined with the notion of an eternal and omniscient monotheistic God.  The human soul became defined on the basis of the abstracting function of the pfc, and viewed as eternal and holy, the link between human and God.  Conversely, that part of the human experience that we share with other animals and is less dependent on the pfc – our instincts and our physical sensations – became viewed as inferior.  Paralleling this dualistic, split view of the human being, mankind’s relationship with nature experienced a similar divergence: nature became increasingly seen as something separate from mankind, something that lacked an eternal soul.

While the pfc’s capability for abstraction was forming an eternal God in its own image in the Western world, a very different cosmology was developing in East Asia.  Over the course of a millennium, two indigenous Chinese thought traditions – Taoism and Confucianism – became infused with Buddhist ideas imported from India, leading to the flowering of a philosophy known as Neo-Confucianism.  Around the time that William the Conqueror was invading England, the Song dynasty of China was conceiving an integrated view of the relationship between the spiritual and material worlds that placed the pfc-mediated functions in harmony with the other aspects of human experience, in direct contrast to the dualism developing in the West.  Specifically, the Neo-Confucianists thought of the universe in terms of dynamic patterns, or li, which organized how matter and energy, or ch’i, were manifested.  They saw the living world as one gigantic, interconnected organism, and in fact their cosmology has been referred to as an “organismic” worldview.

In recent centuries, however, traditional Chinese thought – along with other indigenous cosmologies around the world – has been overwhelmed by the modern, scientific worldview which hitched a ride along with the global military and industrial conquests of the Western powers.  And the first section of this book goes on to examine the cognitive roots of the scientific revolution that has so transformed our world.

In the traditional narrative of European history, the rise of the scientific worldview is generally seen as being in opposition to Christian theology.  The current ongoing raucous debate between the two sides may be presented as evidence enough for this.  But viewed from the lens of the pfc’s influence over human consciousness, the scientific revolution appears as yet another stage in the pfc’s rise to power.  In fact, “power over nature” (including our own human nature) may be identified as the hallmark of the scientific revolution, a theme introduced by Francis Bacon in the 17th century that has since become a foundation of modern thought.  And the systematic application of reason has now become generally viewed as the only way to arrive at an objective truth.

I’ve called this cognitive imbalance the “tyranny of the pfc” over the rest of our consciousness.  The choice of this term is designed to communicate the notion that it’s both an unnatural and unstable dynamic.  In fact, this tyranny of the pfc has been responsible for creating the current unsustainable trajectory for the human race.  Whether it continues to successfully harness technology to take us into a future of genetically engineered super-humans and artificial super-intelligence, or whether it ransacks the desacralized natural world into ruin, either way life as we know it will be headed for extinction.  Either our humanity or our civilization is at risk.

Part II: An exploration of the pfc, consciousness and life

The term “tyranny of the pfc” is used in the first section to describe how our modern set of values overemphasizes certain characteristics of our thought processes that are mediated by the pfc, to the profound detriment of both our own experience of ourselves as well as our relationship to the natural world.  The second section explores the fundamental question: since the pfc is a central part of our human uniqueness, is the “tyranny of the pfc” an inevitable outcome of humanity’s cultural evolution? Or is there in fact another basis for us to understand ourselves and to experience our relationship with the world around us?

The section begins by using recent insights from neuroscience research to examine the ways in which the pfc makes us uniquely human, and then starts digging down into the very roots of consciousness and life.  It distinguishes between the kind of pfc-mediated consciousness experienced only by humans, conceptual consciousness, and the kind that we share with other animals: animate consciousness.  But where does animate consciousness come from?  As we uncover the remarkable complexities of other life forms and the astonishing workings of individual cells,  we begin to see how even individual bacteria make choices.  This exploration leads us to a form of intelligence existing at a cellular level, which has been described as “the intelligence that lurks in nonhuman nature,” and which I refer to as animate intentionality.  Understanding animate intentionality takes us on a path that opens up a different perspective on human consciousness and indeed, on life itself.

Finding the li

How do creatures without a brain – plants, fungi, bacteria – figure out what to do?  How do creatures with tiny brains – ants, bees, termites – act so smart as a group?  Biologists have achieved major insights into these puzzles in recent years by analyzing what is known as self-organization: the principles by which highly complex living systems can achieve sustained levels of intelligence, order and flexibility.  This has led some biologists and philosophers to the fundamental notion of life itself as a self-organized system, which becomes a cornerstone for the new way of looking at ourselves and our world proposed in this book.  In this view, the dynamic organization of a system, the ways in which each of its parts interrelate, are more significant than the physical matter of which the system is comprised.

Think of a photograph taken of yourself when you were a child.  Most of the cells that were in that child no longer exist in your body.  Even the cells that do remain, such as brain and muscle cells, have reconfigured their own internal contents, so that probably none of the molecules forming that child in the photograph are part of you now.  So what is it that still connects you to that child?  It’s the principles of self-organization in your body, the ever-dynamic but remarkably stable interrelationships existing within and between the cellular components of your body and your brain.

But these interrelationships don’t just stop at the boundary of your body.  In fact, these principles of dynamic self-organization apply to all living systems, from the tiniest cell to the largest ecosystem.  From this perspective, all living organisms can be seen as both comprising smaller self-organized systems, and at the same time being a part of one or more larger self-organized systems.  In this view, no living system is self-sufficient, but is interdependent within what is known as the holarchy, a conceptual model of systems acting within systems.  The largest system of all in the holarchy would be the biosystem of the Earth, which is sometimes referred to as Gaia, named after the Greek goddess of the Earth.

If this description of life reminds you a little of the Neo-Confucian view of the world as one giant, interconnected organism, this is no coincidence.  Remarkably, the principles of self-organization that modern biologists and complexity theorists have uncovered may be understood as the very same dynamic that traditional Neo-Confucian philosophers in China described as the “li.”  In both cases, the emphasis is on understanding the interrelated, dynamic qualities of a living system as its most important feature, rather than merely analyzing the system’s physical components.  However, whereas modern scientific investigations use advanced mathematics and computer modeling to understand these principles, the Neo-Confucianists used their perspective on the li to achieve profound spiritual insights.  This astonishing and informative congruence of modern scientific thinking with a sophisticated, traditional worldview that flourished a thousand years ago becomes a major theme in the final section of the book.

Part III: Towards a democracy of consciousness

In Part I, our archaeology of the mind identified some flaws in the foundations of our modern worldview.  In Part II, our journey into the heart of consciousness revealed an alternative biological view of life that connects with the Neo-Confucian “li” from a thousand years ago.  The third section pulls together learnings from the past and the present into one integrated worldview, proposing an approach that bridges science and spirituality to lead us away from the tyranny of the pfc and towards a democracy of consciousness.

In our modern world, the tyranny of the pfc described in Part I has led us to a chasm that separates science and spirituality.  But other, non-Western traditional worldviews never experienced that split.  How did they deal with those attributes of the pfc that make us uniquely human?

The classic Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching, begins with the words, “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the everlasting Tao,” and many of the following pages reinforce this theme.  Language – that uniquely human and most powerful of all artifacts created by our pfc – is seen as anathema to an understanding of the Tao. Similarly, when we turn to Buddhist thought, we find a systematic attempt to undo the constraints of the pfc’s conceptualizations.  The Buddhist emphasis on living in the present moment can be seen as a way to avoid the constructions of past and future that are the hallmark of pfc-mediated activity.  Interestingly, these traditions shared an emphasis on cultivating the mind through the practice of meditation, to integrate mind and body and to quiet the incessant chatter of our pfc-based inner narratives.

Of course, in the West, there have been those who fought against the tyranny of the pfc, but they didn’t have a systematic foundation of thought like Taoism or Buddhism to turn to in their struggle.  I call these people – such as Wordsworth, Blake or Van Gogh – “pfc rebels” and as such they have tended to surface in the arts, a social safety valve that has allowed Western mainstream thought to keep its structure secured.  And there has also been a philosophical tradition, from Aristotle to Spinoza and the 20th century phenomenologists, which has attempted to see the world from something like the Neo-Confucianist perspective of the li, but it’s generally been hidden by the glare of mainstream Western dualist thought, and as such I call it the “moonlight tradition.”

In our modern Western world, even without the practices of Taoism and Buddhism, there are still plenty of ways that each of us, on an ad hoc basis, finds moments to escape pfc tyranny.  Some people have experienced moments of pfc-liberation through taking hallucinogenic drugs.  The vast majority of us have known those special moments, in sporting activities, walking in nature, looking a loved one in the eyes, or making love, when the constructs and abstractions of the pfc melt away and we’re fully in touch with our animate consciousness.  Perhaps the most common form of ongoing “pfc disobedience” is music, that pervasive and primal vehicle of communication that we humans most likely used for millions of years before language evolved.

Liology

Yet all these ad hoc moments of freedom from pfc tyranny are not enough.  Individually, our lives are controlled by values that are not entirely our own; and globally, we’re all doing our part to drive that human trajectory on its unsustainable crash course with the Earth.  We need a more systematic framework on a stable foundation to move towards a democracy of consciousness.  The one that I propose is called liology.  The very word liology is designed to demonstrate that it is a fusion of Western and Eastern worldviews: the Neo-Confucian notion of the li merging with the Western scientific tradition (the “ology” part which is Greek for “study”).  Liology means a study of the organizing principles that link all living entities, a project (in Heraclitus’ words) “to know the principles by which all things are steered through all things.”  But it’s not just a “study” in the conventional Western scientific meaning of pfc-based analysis.  It’s also an investigation of ourselves and the natural world using both our animate and conceptual consciousness.  And the “li” that is studied is both a scientific and spiritual term.  In liology, there’s no fundamental distinction between the two.  Liology is proposed,  not as a substitute for conventional Western science, but as a complement to it.  Realizing the intrinsic connectedness of all things, liology would tend to lead to solutions that emphasize participation with, rather than control of, natural processes.

What liology means for us as individuals is a framework to achieve a democracy of consciousness within ourselves, to harmonize and integrate our conceptual and animate consciousness.  This has major implications for the values by which we choose to live our lives.  Liology will tend to emphasize a new set of values linking our human identity with the natural world, extending our circle of empathy beyond other humans to the interconnected li of other living entities all around us.  The destruction of the natural world, along with transcendence of our humanity into an abstract super-intelligence, would both be anathema to the values arising out of liology.

Finally, liology opens the possibility for broader spiritual growth.  The integration of our conceptual and animate consciousness, combined with an increasing awareness of the connectivity of our li with the li all around us, offers a path to transcend the fixed sense of self that our pfc-oriented culture locks us into from early childhood.  A practice of liology can help us to experience the world that Neo-Confucian philosopher Chang Tsai described over a thousand years ago:

Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and such a small creature as I find an intimate place in their midst.

All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions.

Enjoy the ride!

Wang Yang-ming and the democratization of sagehood

To Acquire Wisdom: The Way of Wang Yang-ming

By Julia Ching

New York: Columbia University Press. 1976.

Things were looking very bad for Wang Yang-ming.  Midway through his career as a successful minister, he intervened to save some people unjustly imprisoned.  Instead of saving them, he was imprisoned himself, flogged and sent into exile, where he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt.  There he was, in a frontier region of the Chinese empire, a desolate, tropical hole infested with serpents, malaria and outlaws fleeing from justice.  He thought he’d never make it back to civilization, and had a coffin made for himself out of stone, which he looked at nonstop while sitting, meditating, day and night.

It was there, deep in meditation one night, that Yang-ming received enlightenment.  He leaped up, waking those around him, telling them: “I have finally understood that my human nature is quite adequate for the task of achieving sagehood.”

Julia Ching’s book on the life and philosophy of Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529) takes you right into the heart and soul of Ming dynasty China.    This, in itself, makes it a good read.  But what makes it special is the penetrating insight it offers into the revisionist Neo-Confucian philosophy he formulated several centuries after the height of the classic Neo-Confucian age during the Song dynasty.  This philosophy is not some historic relic of mere academic interest.  Far from it.  Wang Yang-ming’s philosophy is more fresh and relevant today than ever, and is increasingly validated by recent findings in neuroscience and systems biology.

It’s fitting that Yang-ming’s enlightenment occurred in the middle of his political vicissitudes, because for Yang-ming, knowledge and action are one and the same thing.  For him, the idea of pure knowledge, separated from experience, is nonsense.  As Ching puts it, “One can become a sage only by acting in a sagely way, and this action itself is knowledge.”  On the flip side, as Yang-ming says, “One can only know pain after having experienced it.”

And just as knowledge and experience are inseparable, so sagehood – the Neo-Confucian version of enlightenment – is not some distant, transcendent goal.  Rather, sagehood exists within every one of us.  You could say that Wang Yang-ming promoted the democratization of sagehood:

the ideal of sagehood still remained the reserved goal of a few selected scholars, who always risked the danger of being considered mad (k’uang) for daring to have such an ambition.  It was against this situation that Yang-ming revolted, and, in revolting, would present his own discoveries – that every man not only can be a sage, but possesses within himself all the means necessary to become one, and that sagehood is not a remote, impersonal ideal, but a concrete goal, well within reach, a state of mind, self-transcending and yet to be made immanent, to become internalized…

Sounds great, but how do we get there?  Wang Yang-ming builds on the idea of the ancient Confucian scholar, Mencius, that human nature is naturally good, but tends to get corrupted by environmental influences.  “Sagehood,” in Yang-ming’s opinion, “is a quality with which every man is born.  To become a sage is simply to recover one’s original innocence, to take over one’s self completely by recapturing one’s pristine state of mind and of heart.”  If you are able to get to that place, there is a joy you can experience from that inner “peace of mind-and-heart,” at which point you can truly say: “All things are present in me.  I have no greater joy than to find, when I look deep into myself, that I am true to myself.”

But don’t confuse being true to yourself with being self-centered.  Far from it.  One of the great revelations of Neo-Confucian thought, which would be so valuable to us in the West if we could only learn it, is the ultimate interdependence of self and other.  In Wang Yang-ming’s case, this insight took the form of the phrase hsin chi li, which may be roughly translated as “the human mind-and-heart are ultimately identical with the organizing principles of nature.”

As I’ve described elsewhere on this blog, modern scientific thought is beginning to describe this mysterious Neo-Confucian view in rigorous, technical terms, as in this description of complex adaptive systems by Princeton evolutionary biologist Simon Levin:

Ecosystems, and indeed the global biosphere, are prototypical examples of complex adaptive systems, in which macroscopic system properties … emerge from interactions among components, and may feed back to influence the subsequent development of those interactions…  Examples of complex adaptive systems abound in biology. A developing organism, an individual learning to cope, a maturing ecosystem, and the evolving biosphere all provide cases in point.[1]

So, as you gradually accumulate an understanding of the external world, this can lead you to a better understanding of your own nature… and vice versa.

By following the implications of this interconnection, and through Wang Yang-ming’s approach to experiencing it, not just intellectually but in your gut, it’s possible to arrive at a realization of the ultimate unity between each of us and the world around us.  This naturally leads to what Yang-ming called jen, an overflowing sense of love between humanity and the natural world.  For Yang-ming, as Ching describes it, “the world of nature and of human society are fundamentally one, and unity with other men extends itself to unity with birds and beasts and the whole cosmos.”  In his own words:

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 [through] my humanity (jen).  Then will my clear virtue be completely made manifest; then will I really form one body with Heaven and Earth and the myriad things.

At a time when our global greed and plundering of the earth’s resources is causing millions of barrels of oil to spew out of the bottom of the ocean, enveloping pristine lands and innocent sea creatures in a black cloak of death, if only more people would stop and consider this view of our relationship to nature.  Ultimately, we’re all one and the same.  As Wang Yang-ming put it in one of the beautiful poems appended to the book:

Swimming in the depths, the fish are passing on words of power;
Perched on the branches, birds are uttering the true Tao.
Do not say that instinctive desires are not mysteries of Heaven:
I know that my body is one with the ten thousand things.
People talk endlessly about rites and music;
But who will sweep away the heaps of dust from the blue sky?

And who will sweep away the heaps of tar balls from the Gulf coast?


[1] Levin, S. A. (1998). “Ecosystems and the Biosphere as Complex Adaptive Systems.” Ecosystems, 1998(1), 431-436.

Life as an ontological surprise

The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology

By Hans Jonas

Evanston: Northwestern University Press.  1966/2001.

I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog that our Western conceptualization of the universe could gain a lot from the Chinese Neo-Confucian view that sees reality arising from a confluence of li and ch’i, the organizing principles of nature (li) being applied to the raw energy/matter (ch’i).  In this approach, if you look at a candle, the ch’i comes and goes every moment in the substance of the wick, candle wax and oxygen burning up, but the form of the flame, the li, is what remains stable.

In his book, The Phenomenon of Life, Hans Jonas, a 20th century existential philosopher (a pupil of Martin Heidegger), never mentions Chinese thought, but his approach to matter and form resembles the Neo-Confucian approach so closely that it offers an example of how certain Western philosophical paths form a natural bridge to the Chinese tradition.

When considering life, as opposed to inanimate objects, Jonas tells us, “form becomes the essence, matter the accident.”  “In the realm of the lifeless,” he explains, form is no more than a changing composite state, an accident, of enduring matter.”  But when you look at “the living form,” the reverse holds true:

the changing material contents are states of its enduring identity, their multiplicity marking the range of its effective unity.  In fact, instead of saying that the living form is a region of transit for matter, it would be truer to say that the material contents in their succession are phases of transit for the self-continuation of the form.

This approach to understanding life is fundamentally at odds with the Western dualistic and reductionist view, and so it’s not surprising that Jonas’ book, viewed as “the pivotal book of Jonas’s intellectual career,” spends much of its time attacking reductionism, tracing its ancient roots from Orphism all the way through to modern renderings such as August Weismann’s dualist distinction of germline from somatic cells and the Neoplatonism of some modern mathematicians.

Jonas offers a strikingly clear narrative of how  Greek Platonic dualism, which formed the ontological basis for Christian cosmology, set the groundwork for modern reductionism by draining the spirit out of the material world.  He explains how concentrating the sense of the sacred into the eternal realm left a “denuded substratum of all reality,” which is then viewed as a “field of inanimate masses and forces.”  And he emphasizes the central importance of this dynamics in the structure of Western thought, saying:

In more ways than one, the rise and long ascendancy of dualism are among the most decisive events in the mental history of the race.  What matters for our context is that, while it held sway, and in an otherwise varied career, dualism 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.

Jonas sees the crucial moment occurring in the seventeenth century.  Christian dualism had already “drain(ed) nature of her spiritual and vital attributes,” leaving “the new metaphysic of science” to seal the deal.    In company with many other historians of philosophy, Jonas sees Descartes as putting the final nail into nature’s vital parts, describing how “Descartes’ division of substance into res cogitans and res extensa… provided the metaphysical charter for a purely mechanistic and quantitative picture of the natural world.”

Other historians of philosophy have traced a similar path, but Jonas’ book really comes to life when he offers an alternative worldview, which is where he begins to sound intriguingly like a Neo-Confucianist.  Jonas describes life in almost poetic terms, describing how, “in living things, nature springs an ontological surprise,” where “systems of matter” no longer exist by the “mere concurrence of the forces that bind their parts together, but in virtue of themselves for the sake of themselves, and continually sustained by themselves.”

This interpretation of life as an emergent phenomenon is a philosophical forerunner of current views espoused by leading thinkers in biology and complexity theory, such as Stuart Kauffman, Evan Thompson and Ursula Goodenough, among others; and in fact it was Thompson’s book, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, reviewed on this blog, that originally alerted me to Jonas’ writings.

As Thompson noted in his book, Jonas deserves credit for highlighting the “all-pervasiveness of metabolism within the living system.”  Most of us think of metabolism as something that happens when we eat, an important part of life but not exactly the foundational concept.  However, as Jonas argues:

The exchange of matter with the environment is not a peripheral activity engaged in by a persistent core: it is the total mode of continuity (self-continuation) of the subject of life itself… the system itself is wholly and continuously a result of its metabolizing activity.

This is the crucial differences, Jonas explains, between a living system and a machine, and underlines the inadequacy of any scientific approach that views living organisms as just very complicated “machines” – the core metaphor of the reductionist view.  “It is inappropriate,” Jonas tells us, “to liken the organism to a machine,” and here’s why:

[M]etabolism is more than a method of power generation, or, food is more than fuel: in addition to, and more basic than, providing kinetic energy for the running of the machine … its role is to build up originally and replace continually the very parts of the machine.  Metabolism thus is the constant becoming of the machine itself – and this becoming itself is a performance of the machine: but for such performance there is no analogue in the world of machines…

Following on the implications of this, Jonas concludes that “the organism must appear as a function of metabolism rather than metabolism as a function of the organism.”  Which takes us back to the li and ch’i of Neo-Confucianism.  Metabolism can be viewed as a process of changing the organization of matter, cell by cell, molecule by molecule, breaking apart the prior organization and reorganizing the molecules into a form that optimizes and becomes the organism, on a continuous, dynamic basis.  Viewed in this way, it’s the li, the organizing principles, that define the organism, and the matter/energy, the ch’i, is merely the raw material being used to maintain the li.  Or, to put it in Jonas’ words, the organism is a function of metabolism.

Jonas then ventures deeper into the implications of this reversal of traditional Western priorities.  He shows how the existence of an organism leads to the emergence of teleology, an underlying sense of purpose.  Traditional Western scientists steer clear of notions of teleology, fearing that it smacks either of Aristotle or Christian theology.  But in fact, as Jonas makes clear, teleology is the logical result of the unique dynamics of living systems:

But there is always the purposiveness of organism as such and its concern in living: effective already in all vegetative tendency, awakening to primordial awareness in the dim reflexes, the responding irritability of lowly organisms; more so in urge and effort and anguish of animal life endowed with motility and sense-organs; reaching self-transparency in consciousness, will and thought of man: all these being inward aspects of the teleological side in the nature of ‘matter.’

Because of this universal characteristic of teleology in life, Jonas concludes that “life can be known only by life.”  “We poor mortals” have an advantage, Jonas tells us, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, over the Neoplatonic God existing as an eternal, never-changing idea of perfection:

Happening to be living material things ourselves, we have in our self-experience, as it were, peepholes into the inwardness of substance, thereby having an idea (or the possibility of having an idea) not only of how reality is spread and interacts in extensity, but of how it is to be real and to act and to be acted upon.

This has profound implications for what it means to “know something.”  Knowledge of any living system can never be a purely abstract conception.  True knowledge involves an integration of our minds and bodies, our conceptual and our animate consciousness.  Not surprisingly, alien as this view is to Western thought, the Chinese long ago had a word for it: tiren.  In another review on this blog, I’ve quoted Chinese scholar Donald Munro on the meaning of this word:

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…  Embodiment is a combination of cognition … and empathic projection of the self to the object.

For Western reductionist thinkers, life might indeed be, in Jonas’s words, an ontological surprise.  But I have a feeling that, for Chinese Neo-Confucianists, Jonas’ discussion of “the phenomenon of life” would be no surprise at all.  For them, the surprise would be the reductionist view of the world that only measures the ch’i, remaining blithely oblivious to the fact that the li even exists.

Exploring the Li of Consciousness

Rhythms of the Brain

By György Buzsáki

New York: Oxford University Press.  2006.

György Buzsáki’s book is viewed by the academic press as a “must read,” particularly for “neuroscientists looking to get an up-to-date and challenging exposition of many of the big questions.”  I’m sure that’s true.  But I view it somewhat differently.  I see Rhythms of the Brain as one of the increasing number of modern scientific descriptions of the authenticity and power of the classical Chinese concept of the li.

Now what could a book on the brain by a leading neuroscientist possibly have to do with traditional Chinese thought?  Readers of this blog will know that “the li” is a Neo-Confucian concept of the dynamic organizing principles of nature.  In traditional Chinese thought, Nature is composed of two interrelated principles: ch’i, which we can loosely translate as matter/energy; and li, which are the organizing dynamics by which the ch’i is manifested.  There’s no ch’i without li, and there’s no li without ch’i.

Now let’s fast forward a thousand years to Buzsáki’s book.  The physical composition – the ch’i – of the brain is staggering on its own account.  Buzsáki tells us how the human brain has about “100 billion neurons with an estimated 200 trillion contacts between them.”  But what makes the brain even more amazing is how it can organize these trillions of connections to cause us to think and feel, to be aware of the world and of ourselves, to be able to sit here and read these words.  That’s where the rhythms of the brain – the li of consciousness – play their part.

Think about it this way: the moment someone dies, their brain still exists, but there’s no longer a mind.  If you freeze their brain instantaneously, you could theoretically trace every one of those 200 trillion contacts.  But all you’d be looking at would be a complicated tangle of protoplasm.  The ch’i would still be there, but the dynamic, pulsing rhythms, the li, would be gone.

Buzsáki’s book is all about the li of the human brain: the rhythms that form the complex, self-organized fractal patterns that come together to create the emergent phenomenon of consciousness.  Buzsáki’s analysis utilizes the crucial concept of the brain as a complex adaptive system exhibiting a “nonlinear relationship between constituent components.”  As such, the rules that apply to self-organized systems elsewhere in the universe – in cells, ant colonies, fish swarms, global climate, (to name but a few) – also apply to the brain’s functioning.  Some of the results of this, in the brain as in the other systems, are that “very small perturbations can cause large effects or no effect at all” and that “despite the appearance of tranquility and stability over long periods, perpetual change is a defining feature.”

Buzsáki’s analysis emphasizes the distinguishing characteristic of such systems: emergence of a higher level of organization through “reciprocal causality,” which he describes as follows:

emergence through self-organization has two directions.  The upward direction is the local-to-global causation, through which novel dynamics emerge.  The downward direction is a global-to-local determination, whereby a global order parameter ‘enslaves’ the constituents and effectively governs local interactions.  There is no supervisor or agent that causes order; the system is self-organized.  The spooky thing here, of course, is that while the parts do cause the behavior of the whole, the behavior of the whole also constrains the behavior of its parts according to a majority rule; it is a case of circular causation.  Crucially, the cause is not one or the other but is embedded in the configuration of relations.

Buzsáki explains how this dynamic leads to that special combination of flexibility and robustness that our minds possess, whereby we seem to experience both stability and continual change at the same time.  Brain dynamics, he states, are in “a state of ‘self-organized criticality.’”  As such, the dynamics of the cerebral cortex display “metastability,” whereby in some cases the smallest perturbation can cause a major shift in the patterns of neuronal firing, and in other cases that firing can return to its previous patterns even after receiving large perturbations.

Buzsáki notes that such self-organized systems generally demonstrate a power law distribution, which leads to the inevitability of “rare but extremely large events.”  Here, he sees an exception to the general rule in the case of the normal brain, arguing that “such unusually large events never occur” because the balancing “dynamics of excitation and inhibition guard against such unexpected events.”  However, I wonder if that’s the case.  I know that, usually, when Buzsáki and other neuroscientists are considering these uniquely synchronized events, they’re thinking of the pathological synchrony of, for example, an epileptic seizure.  But what if they consider a highly infrequent synchrony between different brain systems that usually remain asynchronous?  Most of us have experienced rare moments in our lives where the normal balancing metastable dynamics are suddenly blown away.  For each of us, these moments will be totally unique, but in typical cases they might take the form a feeling of spiritual transcendence, of extreme love or anguish, a moment of enlightenment or of utter despair.  In many cases, these experiences can have such high valence that they can shift the previously metastable patterns of our brain into a new attractor manifold.  In more common parlance, these moments can profoundly affect our values and behavior for the rest of our lives.  I believe that this is an area that could profitably be explored by the methodology Buzsáki lays out in his book.

More generally, in examining the implications of the brain’s power law dynamics, Buzsáki ventures into the parallels between brain dynamics and other externally generated patterns exhibiting the same power-law distributions, such as music.  Buzsáki speculates that

Perhaps what makes music fundamentally different from (white) noise for the observer is that music has temporal patterns that are tuned to the brain’s ability to detect them because it is another brain that generates these patterns.

This speculation has in fact been empirically supported by physicists Hsü & Hsü who have identified a scale-independent fractal geometry in the music of Bach and Mozart.[1] But I wonder if the implications go much farther than this.  Supposing it’s the power law distribution itself that resonates with the brain, rather than the fact that “it is another brain that generates these patterns”?  In this case, might we consider the rhythms of the brain as a fundamental source of esthetic appreciation?  Do we, in fact, find nature so beautiful because at a foundational level, the self-organizing complexity of the brain responds to the analogous patterning that it perceives around it?

Tropical mollusk shell: an example of the intrinsic beauty of self-organized systems

Beauty is traditionally defined as “unity-in-variety,” as “that mysterious unity that the parts have with the whole.”[2] This description sounds remarkably similar to the self-organized reciprocal causality of complex adaptive systems referred to above.  In an interesting analysis, biologists Solé & Goodwin describe Hans Meinhardt’s research on tropical mollusk shells, demonstrating the generic order intrinsic in natural patterns.  The pigment patterns in mollusks, they tell us, “provide one of the most beautiful and convincing demonstrations of constraint arising from intrinsic self-organizing principles of biological pattern formation.”[3] Could this perceived beauty in fact be a case of the human mind, an emergent product of self-organized dynamics, recognizing an external manifestation of those very same dynamics?

Over a thousand years ago, Chang-Tsai, one of the founders of the Neo-Confucian movement, made a famous statement that resounded with future generations of philosophers:  “What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.”[4] Could it be that Chang-Tsai and György Buzsáki are in fact exploring the same reality, a thousand years apart?


[1] Hsu, K. J., and Hsu, A. (1991). “Self-similarity of the “1/f noise” called music.” PNAS, 88(April 1991), 3507-3509.

[2] Garcia-Rivera, A., Graves, M., and Neumann, C. (2009). “Beauty in the Living World.” Zygon, 44(2:June 2009), 243-263.

[3] Solé, R., and Goodwin, B. (2000). Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology, New York: Basic Books.

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

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