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Gentle Action for a Harmonious World

Edges Magazine, December 1989

When I was a student I drove an old car with the disconcerting tendency to come to a sudden shuddering halt in remote locations. But in those days I also had a pamphlet that helped me figure out what had gone wrong. This diagnostic sheet began by breaking down symptoms to determine if the problem lay in the fuel supply or the electrical system. If no fuel was reaching the engine, for example, did the fault lie between the fuel tank and the carburetor? Step by step the source of the failure could be traced to an individual component. On one occasion it turned out to be a blocked needle valve, on another moisture in the distributor cap. By dividing the car into a series of separate parts and taking into account the interconnections between them it was possible to make a correct diagnosis of any problem and take the necessary action. Getting the car running again involved cleaning or repairing that part the proved faulty.

When it comes to engines and machines this approach is extremely powerful. It allows a complex system to be analyzed into a series of separate interacting parts and the solution to any malfunction focuses on a particular faulty component. Machines can be analyzed in this way and the outcome of any intervention can be predicted. How simple it would be if the same technique could be applied to the global problems that face us to day, to economics, ecology, human conflict and even to our bodies. The difference is that nature, society and we ourselves are not machines but are enormously more complex and subtle so that their behavior cannot be analyzed, evaluated or predicted in any mechanical way.

Admittedly doctors diagnose diseases but they do not operate in exactly the same way as automobile mechanics. Determining a disease involves piecing together a complex set of signs and symptoms so that the whole thing is closer to recognizing the features of a familiar face than analyzing a machine. And recognizing faces is a highly sophisticated process on the part of the brain. We can spot a friend in a crowd after many years under a variety of lighting and even with different facial hair. No one yet fully understands how this is done but certainly dealing with faces and illnesses is far more complex than working with machines. In addition, although people ‘have’ measles or influenza the course of the particular illness is unique to each individual. Finally, while a medical solution may be proposed, just as a car is repaired, the actual course of the cure is not so predictable.

Our everyday experience tells us that nature is very definitely not mechanical but the problem, in many ways, is that we continue to behave as if it were. Our organizations often react in mechanical ways and legislators believe that all problems have well defined solutions, that every situation can be exhaustively analyzed and that the outcome of a course of action can be accurately predicted. But once we view nature and society as mechanical then we tend to act and treat it in a mechanical way and that is where the trouble lies. That, in essence, is why the world faces so many problems today and why the solutions offered by organizations and governments often do not work or end up making a situation much worse.

Why have we got ourselves in the mess we have today? One source of the problem lies in attitudes that have been enhanced by the science introduced by Isaac Newton that proved to be one of the most successful systems of thought the world has ever known. In many ways Newton’s view of the universe was correct for even today his physics is used to guide the Voyageur space probe on its journey through the planets. Newtonian theory predicts the time of eclipses and the movement of planets for centuries ahead. Newton’s legacy can explain everything from the earth’s tides and trick shots in billiards to the reason air expands when it warms or why a cyclist leans inward when going round a tight corner. Newton claimed to be able to explain the whole physical world with only three simple laws and in terms of individual bodies that interact together through known forces. Newton’s triumph was to see a universe of stars, planets, apples and billiard balls within a single unified scheme, a scheme moreover that was incredibly accurate in its predictions—the world in essence as a giant machine.

Scientists argued that the machine of physics was universal, that chemistry could be reduced to physics and, in turn, biology reduced to chemistry. Even Sigmund Freud believed that the mind would one day be understood ‘scientifically’for his theories of psychopathology were based upon the idea of blocks in the free flow of biological energy;consciousness was reduced to thermodynamics! If an objectified, reductionist approach could be applied to human behavior then why not to economics, history and sociology? Would all human knowledge one day be reduced to a single overarching system? But here the problem begins, for when such a science objectifies nature and views it as a subtle and complex machine then it leaves no room for human feelings and ethical values.

The problem is that while our human experience tells us that this reductionist and mechanistic approach is not simply over optimistic but profoundly wrong, our organizations and governments, plans and strategies retain a simple faith in prediction and control. Clearly if, at its deepest level, the world is not mechanical yet our strategies and plans are predicated upon a mechanical perspective then we are in serious trouble. Mistaking the red light of a stop signal for a neon advertising sign may lead to a traffic accident. But looking at the problems of a rain forest, inner city violence, or the human body as if they are readily analyzable and would yield solutions with predictable outcomes is going to land us in even deeper trouble. Perceiving and valuing nature in inappropriate ways has got us into the crisis the whole planet now faces.

The Newtonian or mechanical approach oversimplifies, fragments and very often leaves out what is most important. In addition, its power to make models, make precise calculations and come up with predictions, lures us into the false sense of security of believing we actually know what we are doing. Two hundred years of scientific analysis and prediction has also encouraged our objectification of the world which has the effect of neglecting human values and weakening our relationship to nature. It enhances our tendency to dominate, control and exploit the natural world. Every problem, it is believed, has a solution that can be applied to a particular part of the system. And if that solution does not work, then yet another study group must be convened and its proposals applied with even greater vigor. Objectifying nature leads to a loss of sensitivity and to a lack of meaning at our being in the world.

Today we are becoming increasingly aware of the inadequacies of this traditional approach. There is the pragmatic objection that despite the policies and strategies of the past two hundred years our planet and indeed human life is now under threat so something must be fundamentally wrong in our relationship to the world. But it is also possible to attack a mechanistic, reductionist perspective on purely scientific grounds. Quantum theory, for example, shows that, at the atomic level, nature cannot be broken into independent parts. Niels Bohr, one of the great prophets of quantum theory, spoke of quantum systems as unanalyzible wholes. More recently John Bell has demonstrated the curious correlation that exists between quantum systems even when they are separated by large distances. Bell’s correlations cannot be explained by appeal to any mechanical interaction.

Quantum wholeness clearly demonstrates a limit to physical analysis and to the notion that systems can always be broken down into interacting parts. Indeed the very notion of what has been called independent elements of reality is entirely incompatible with quantum theory.

It could be argued that quantum theory only applies at the atomic level of things and has no relevance to questions of ecology and social behavior. The essential point is, however, that the very assumptions of classical physics which lead to our reductionistic and fragmentary attitudes has now been shown to be inconsistent, for at its smallest level matter is no longer analyzable in classical terms. Quantum theory shows that there are other, more holistic, ways of thinking about nature.

But there is no need to go to the very small to discover this. A whole new series of studies variously called open systems, far from equilibrium thermodynamics, catastrophe theory, chaos theory and fractals are all producing dramatically different metaphors. These different studies can be grouped under the heading of non-linear and open systems. They encompass everything from rivers, weather and electrical amplifiers to economics, insect populations and the electrical activity of the human brain.

Non-linear systems are the rule rather than the exception in nature and their behavior is rich and varied. To begin with, breaking down a non-linear system into its component parts is strictly limited. This is well illustrated by the example of a vortex in a river. A vortex or whirlpool is remarkably stable, it stays in one place over a long period of time and is resistant to change—disturb the water by throwing in a stone and the vortex quickly resumes its previous shape. It is very like one of those independent bodies of Newtonian science yet clearly it has no existence apart from the river. A vortex persists by virtue of the water that flows through it. The river is not made up of the vortex, wavelets and other features as a machine is made out of parts, rather the vortex is born out of the flow of the river; there is no point where the river ends and the vortex begins.

Non-linear systems boast even more remarkable features called solitons that behave just like Newtonian bodies, moving through space, carrying energy and even colliding. Yet in all cases they are expressions of the movement of the overall system. Certainly a system may be analyzed and understood in terms of these quasi-independent parts. This may work for a certain range of behaviors and enable predictions to be made. But push the system a little further and it reaches a bifurcation point where the ‘parts’ suddenly disappear and the whole system jumps into some new and totally different mode of behavior.

Non-linear systems have a wide range of possible behaviors, these stretch from extreme resistance to change, stable oscillations, complex dynamics with the infinite detail-within-detail of a fractal to chaos. In fact something as delicate as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can flip a non-linear system from order into chaos. Working on past experience may not always be a good guide to future behavior, for things can suddenly change in unpredictable ways. While a system is remarkably stable to certain external changes it may well be exceptionally sensitive to others so that the very slightest change in one of them produces dramatic and unpredictable results. But this means that interfering with one part of a non-linear system may produce a violent and unexpected change in some other, distant part.

Weather, economics, population dynamics, ecology and society itself all come within the umbrella of non-linear systems and this means that all scientific analysis and the creation of theoretical models must be seriously qualified. A computer model of a system may work in a certain region but change the external conditions ever so slightly and the whole thing can break down. Dealing with a non-linear system becomes as much an art as a science. Systems in nature may be resistant to certain forms of intervention, rapidly repairing themselves, yet vulnerable to others. A given solution may work in one instance yet produce drastic and unforeseen consequences in another. Nature is not a machine, it is complex, subtle and can be incredibly sensitive to certain changes. Nevertheless we continue to abuse our planet and assume that any problem we create can be patched up by an appropriate solution. Institutions and politicians have a similar faith when it comes to economics, social policies, and international conflict. Our boundless optimism becomes pathological for it is out of touch with reality and does not take into account everything we have learned about the complexity, sensitivity and subtlety of life itself.

The problem lies in our inadequate perception of the world and our lack of any proper relationship to nature. This has become entrenched in our institutions, social values and policies. The world is an organic, living thing, flexible and ever changing yet the institutions we have created to deal with it are rigid and insensitive. Their policies are reactive and persist long after the context in which they were created has changed. Hierarchical organizations having limited lines of communication and inflexible structures are supposed to deal with a rich and complex world. How is it possible for any policy to meet the challenges of a system that is far more subtle and varied than the institution that attempts to control it? such intervention is doomed to failure. Science and technology is not going to save the world, neither are computer models and policy studies. What is needed is something radically different that is at least as subtle as the issues and natural systems we face.

Is there a way out? How can we deal with systems so complex and sensitive that they defy the most advanced computer? I believe that each one of us possesses the tool to do the job—the human brain, a brain moreover that is an integral part of a sensing, feeling human body. Institutions may be the dinosaurs of the twentieth century yet they are composed of human beings who think and feel and are all born with the capacity for unlimited creativity. The question, therefore, is how can our human creativity, values, thought and feelings restore harmony on our planet and give greater meaning to our relationship with each other and the world?

The point about creativity and, indeed, about being alive is that it cannot be prescribed, it is ever changing and ever new. Certainly a creative response cannot be laid down as a program in a magazine article. Nevertheless I would like to suggest certain clues and signposts, the first of which is to look at the possibility of doing nothing, or as I prefer to put it, an active and creative suspension of action.

Our modern world is founded on the desire for endless progress and novelty. When in doubt, do something. When faced with a problem look for a solution and apply it. When a crisis threatens our natural reaction is to act. We call upon governments to ‘do something.’ But doing something got us into this mess in the first place and can lead to unpredictable consequences. What happens, however, if an organization decides to suspend action?

Of course the lights will begin to flash and the alarm bells ring. Like Pavlov’s dog an organization is conditioned to react and respond. But what if it does nothing—but in a very watchful way, and this applies not only to organizations but to individuals as well? The first stage will be one of panic and chaos, a flow of commands and information. All of this is not being generated by any external threat but through the internal structure of the organization itself. By remaining sensitive to what is going on, it may be possible to become aware of the whole nature of the organization, of its values, the way its information flows, its internal relationships, dynamics and, in particular, its fixed and inflexible responses—the organizational neuroses and psychoses if you like.

Arthur Koestler suggested that a scientific revolution is born out of the chaos as a paradigm breaks down. It is possible that something new and more flexible could be born out of the breakdown of fixed patterns in an organization, policy group or individual. Through a very active watchfulness it may be possible to detect its unexamined presuppositions, fixed values and conditioned responses and in this way allow them to dissolve by no longer giving energy to support them. The idea would be to permit the full human potential for creativity within each individual to flower, it would enable people to relate together in a more harmonious way and human needs and values to be acknowledged.

In this fashion the organization or group dies and is reborn. In its new form it becomes at least as flexible and sensitive as the situation it faces. Now, using science, human creativity and the art of working with complex systems it may be possible to perceive a complex system correctly and model it within the organization. This new understanding would be the basis for a novel sort of action, one that harmonizes with nature and society, that does not desire to dominate and control and but seeks balance and good order and is based on respect for nature and society.

The type of action or remedy that is required will, of course, vary from situation to situation, which suggests that a policy or organization itself should not be fixed but must evolve organically with changing contexts, continually dying to its fixed forms and being reborn anew. In some cases intervention may be directed towards a particular problem but in others a global and gentle form of action may be needed. Non-local systems, like ecologies or the human societies, are fundamentally holistic so that influences at one location propagate throughout the systems. Moreover they are extraordinarily sensitive to certain types of change so that what is required is not some major intervention but something very gentle and delicate. The problem of an oil spill may suggest an immediate clean-up in a particular location but preserving the Brazilian rain forests requires a more subtle form of action that begins, not simply in the forest itself, but in locations as distant as Japan and the US and involves activity in a host of different fields such as trade, economics, agriculture and ethics.

Gentle action is applied globally and seeks to restore harmony. To return to a mechanistic example, it could be compared to the fine tuning of an automobile in which a series of tiny, coordinated adjustments allow for greater power and efficiency. Another example is to contrast it with the violent local action of a stone thrown into a lake from which ripples spread out until they are lost in the tiny random wavelets at the edge. Suppose, however, that a harmonious coordination of tiny waves at the edge of the lake were possible. This would require a non-local yet gentle action that flows from a much greater sensitivity to the whole system. Surprising as it may seem, physics shows that if such a coordination is made of all the phases of the individual wavelets then these ripples will begin to interfere with each other in a constructive way. They start to move inward, towards the middle of the lake and grow in size until they produce a splash right in the centre. In an amazing fashion a large effect is produced out of a very gentle action involving the whole of the lake. A great flow of energy has grown organically out of a highly intelligent yet almost imperceptible form of intervention.

What our planet requires are not violent revolutions, or vast government programs imposed from above but a new action that is sensitive and highly intelligent. This action must grows out of our sense of harmony and relationship to nature and each other. It has its source in very gentle but coordinated activity that sweeps inwards and outwards so that the whole system is able to produce it own healing. Dealing with urban violence or the Brazilian rain forests is not the exclusive province of a particular government but begins in each individual and stretches across the entire globe. Each of us is empowered to face the problems that challenge the planet and, by developing a greater sensitive and a more meaningful relationship to the whole of life, this ability to heal our selves and our planet will echo around the world just like those tiny ripples in a lake that grow into a giant wave. If there is to be hope for the future then it must begin with the creativity and sensitivity of each one of us.