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Suspending Fixed Change and Moving Towards Gentle Action

Beyond Consolidated Forms: Emergence of Change. Eranos Roundtable Session, November 20–24, 2002

The Obsession with Change

I’ve been asked to talk about change and I want to address not only the nature of change but also what lies behind out modern idea of the necessity for change, novelty, progress and control. The poet Ezra Pound adopted the maxim ‘make it new’ and that was the ethos of movements in poetry, art, literature and music during the early twentieth century. Yet novelty in itself is really a new idea. Vasari, writing about the painters of the Renaissance reserves the highest praise for those whose work could be compared to the ancients. In fact novelty is only one aspect of creativity. Creativity can also mean renewal, breathing life into established forms. One of the most creative person I knew was a baker—each day he baked loaves of the same shape and weight but the bread was fresh and full of his creative spirit. Creativity can also mean healing—that is making things whole. And when we speak of healing we may think in terms of Jung and his therapeutic approach and ask, ‘Where does the healing take place’? Jung may reply that it occurs within the alchemical vessel.

So if we speak about the creativity of change we may mean that from the outside things appear to be the same as before, yet their inner spirit has changed, been renewed or made whole.

But let me return to our modern obsession with change and the notion that creativity must always produce something new. It is an obsession with urgency, viewing life in the short term, constantly seeking rewards, feeling uneasy with uncertainty, and wishing to maintain control in every situation. Probably this has many roots, let me point to one that occurred in the early 13th century. In a remarkably short space of time Europeans adopted Arabic numerals, double entry bookkeeping, systematic musical notation, accurate map making and the secularization of time though the first mechanical clocks on public buildings. Arabic numerals mean the ability to multiply large numbers, double entry bookkeeping meant that for the very first time merchants could keep track of stock and profits—they knew where they were and where they could go in the future. It was also the period in which the metaphor of time=money began—saving time, putting time aside, wasting time. Before that time was sacred—Aquinas had warned against usury, lending money with interest—because time belongs to God.

Mental Tools

What had happened was that Europeans had been given powerful mental tools with which to abstract the world, to model it in the imagination, to project into the future, to set economic goals. Humans could now compare where they were going with where they wanted to go—in short they had mental tools for prediction and control and they could begin to talk about progress in terms of an unconditional good. No longer did they live in a world of cyclic renewal—time had been turned into a line that could be quantified by numbers.

This is where the roots of Western science and technology lie; the power to abstract and quantify the world—an enormous power with enormous advantages, yet at the same time that world has been objectified. Compare this with the Renaissance development of perspective where the world is externalized as if viewed through a window. This objective world has become devoid of qualities, in favor of quantification. It is the scientific world that is objective and value-free.

The blame for what has become known as the mechanical worldview is often laid at the feet of Isaac Newton. But others have called Newton the last Mage—for he spent as much time working with his alchemical experiments as he did with his physics. For Newton gravity was an occult force and the various forms of the world would one day reveal they are ground in the ‘one catholik (universal) matter.’

The Rise of Science

Yet history is selective and we end up with the overarching view of ‘the Newtonian clockwork’ in which the cosmos is seen as a great machine. A machine has specifications; it should work in a certain way. If it does not meet its specifications then we assume that something has ‘gone wrong’ and this error can be traced to a fault in one of its parts. Thus we examine the way parts interconnect, isolate the error, and repair or replace the component.

This approach works well with machines, the problem arises when we apply the same thinking to ecologies, society, or individual human beings. We want continual progress, we want to control the way things work and when they don’t, we experience a certain anxiety and the accompanying desire to ‘fix the situation,’ ‘change what is going on,’ ‘exert control.’ But all this is part of a highly pervasive worldview that is at least three hundred years old—that the world (society, ecologies, other people) is ‘out there’ and can be controlled and fixed by our mental and physical technology.

It is based on the assumption that the world is composed of objects—things that exist quite independent of us and of other objects. Each of these objects has its own intrinsic properties and, in turn, they interact via forces and fields. There is an apple with a well-defined position on Newton’s apple tree. There is the earth between our feet. Like the earth and apple by a well-defined force—gravity—and the apple falls according to Newton’s law of motion. This is the perfectly mechanical world of classical physics.

The World of Quantum Flux

The world of quantum theory is totally diverse. To begin with a quantum system could not be said to ‘possess’ intrinsic properties. Rather properties manifest themselves according to the sorts of questions we ask. Design one sort of experiment and a quantum system will give a particular answer—i.e. it may tell us how fast an electron is going. Use a different type of experimental orientation and we find out where the electron is located in space. But it is not legitimate to say that the electron ‘has’ a speed or ‘has’ a position. Rather these are the result of our large-scale interactions with the quantum world.

Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle tells us that when attempting to measure one of these properties e.g. speed, we discover a degree of uncertainty in the other, e.g. position.  But be careful—it is not so much that measuring one ‘disturbs’ the quantum system but rather than intrinsic properties are not really possessed by an electron—and thus cannot be ‘disturbed.’

I hope this is not becoming too difficult to comprehend. Let’s put it another way. The quantum world is no longer objective but participatory. When we observe the quantum world we reach in and participate. Ours is a participatory universe.

For years Einstein argued that there must be independent elements to quantum reality—yet the majority of physicists would not now agree with him. Quantum reality is closer to an organism than to a machine.

And what of elementary particles themselves—are these the objects, the building blocks out of which the world is made? Heisenberg would not agree, neither would David Bohm. For Bohm the electron is not an object but a process. It is a constant process of enfolding and unfolding. The electron does not move from A to B, rather an ongoing process takes place which can manifest itself as events at A and events at B.

The Holomovement

Indeed for Bohm the basis of reality is the holomovement—the movement of the whole. The objective world of classical physics is just one aspect of something far deeper—Bohm called it the Explicate Order. It is the order of apparent independent existence; a world of well-defined objects with locations in space that interact via forces and fields.

But this is only a surface appearance for there is a deeper, Implicate Order. This is the order in which objects are enfolded one within the other. So that object A can be contained within B at the same time that B is contained within A.

Language and the Blackfoot Worldview

Quantum theory has been around for almost a century, yet our society still continues to act as if we live in an objectifiable world in which everything can be controlled in the service of continuous progress. It is a world in which change is seen in a particular way—i.e. as being a movement away from what is fixed. By contrast, Bohm’s notion begins with constant movement and sees objects as temporary forms within the flux.

The reason that we have not adapted to this new world of quantum theory is, I feel, because of the persistence of the mechanistic illusion of separate objects, with intrinsic properties, in interaction. This is persistent because it is ingrained in the very language we speak. Modern Indo-European languages are based on the notion of subject-predicate. It is a world of nouns linked by verbs—which perfectly represents the world of objects linked by forces. ‘The cat chases the mouse.’ There are two independent and well-defined actors, cat and mouse, linked by an action—chasing.

In fact Bohm speculated about another language, he called the Rheomode or flowing mode, in which verbs are central and what could perhaps be called noun forms emerge as particular cases of verbs. In order words it would reflect an implicate order in which particulate explicate forms unfold from the implicate in a temporary manner.

In fact Bohm had no need to invent such a language—it already exists in the Algonquin family of languages of North America that include Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Micmaq, Ojibwaj, Montaignais and Naskapi. It is a language and a worldview that extends from the central plains of the United States, up through Montana and Alberta and across into Ontario and northern Quebec—an area far greater than Europe.

These languages are very complex, transitive verbs can have as many as 350 endings while intransitive require 1200! Moreover their time and space are unified within their tenses for an event happening a long distance away requires a different tense from one that happens nearby—since it takes time to travel between both events.

Let me take one example, it is from a dictionary of Montagnais compiled by a Jesuit priest in 1729. It refers to two words—or one sound complex—which had been translated as ‘the magician sings to a sick man.’ A Native American worldview had been transformed into that of a European mind who saw healing as involving a doctor or priest—one independent actor—who does something to another—a sick man.

In fact what the Montagnais is really saying is ‘singing is going on’—the basis is that of an action or a movement. Within that action of ‘singing is going on’ there emerge out of the flux of sound the idea of a medicine man and of a sick man. But the prior reality is the singing and not that of an actor who interacts with someone else.

Indeed, this language presents an exact image of, for example, the Blackfoot world. The Blackfoot will say, ‘if you want to know our science then learn out language.’ The Blackfoot live in a world of flux and movement. Nothing lasts forever; all is within the flux of change. It may be possible to make a mark in that flux, but that mark will also fade unless it is supported by ceremonies of renewal.

Even Blackfoot society is not a stable thing unless supported by such ceremonies as the Sun Dance. Indeed each morning Blackfoot people will carry out the sacred pipe ceremony at sunrise. A Western mind may assume that somehow the ‘primitive Indians’ believe that their ceremony causes the sun to rise each day. But that is to think in terms of fixed categories and interactions. Ask a Blackfoot and he will say it is a ceremony of renewal whereby harmony is renewed between events in the heavens and those on earth. In fact that is very close to Kepler’s views on astrology. Astrology is not about some interaction between the stars and our fate, rather it expresses the harmony of the celestial world and that on earth. The only difference between Kepler and the world of the Blackfoot is the sense of obligation to perform ceremonies that will constantly renew that harmony, as well as the contracts entered into by the ancestors with the keepers of the animals and the spirits of earth and sky.

Again contrast these two worldviews. The European sees change as being the alternation of something fixed. The Blackfoot begins with transformation and flux and attempts to maintain certain temporary patterns free from change through the operation of ceremonies of renewal. This means that there are no such things as fixed categories of thought within Blackfoot philosophy. Jacques Derrida has pointed out the way Greek philosophy is based upon binary oppositions—dividing up the world into good and bad, animate and inanimate, speech and writing, internal and external, essence and appearance—and that this is endemic in Western thinking. (It is certainly present in this talk I have written). That is we divide the world into categories and binary oppositions. But this is not possible in Blackfoot. Animate/inanimate are more subtle distinctions ‘this stone is alive, that one is not.’ There is no category of ‘fish’ for example in Mic Maq, only particular processes that take place in water.

Even an individual person is not a permanent fixture with a single name and personality. Indeed the Blackfoot found the idea of having a single personality throughout your life as being somewhat boring. How much closer is this to the Buddhist notion that the self is something fleeting that appears and disappears—again rather than speaking about the European personality or self changing during healing, we begin with a flux out of which a self emerges and transforms in a more fleeting way.

Controlling Change

Our current ethos is that of a fixed objective world over which we can exert control via plans, policies and the application of science and technology. Thus where change occurs it is a fixed change, one that is preprogrammed for progress. In this sense change is an illusion—it is not the free flowing movement of Bohm or the Blackfoot out of which perceived reality emerges—but something imposed and artificial.

In those cases in which the world does not accord with our plans, policies and predictions we view the result in terms of problems. And problems must be fixed. When a problem occurs, when things don’t go according to plan, we develop a sense of anxiety and are conditioned by out ethos, to take action and exert control. Something has gone wrong somewhere and something must be fixed.

This is the way social agencies, corporations and governments work. They see a problem and they impose a solution. If that does not work then they must exert control in an evermore vigorous fashion. There are so many examples in our modern world where politicians viewing the conditions of some developing nation have imposed their own vision of aid, help or development, only to make the conditions even worse. At all costs change must be controlled, we cannot tolerate uncertainty, we cannot bear to be in silence, we cannot live with inaction. And thus we continue to poke our imperialistic fingers in the pie and make the mess we have created even worse.

What is the alternative?

Creative Suspension

Our modern world is founded on the desire for endless progress and novelty. When in doubt do something. When a crisis threatens our natural reaction is to act. We call upon the government 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 a government, organization, or individual decides to suspend action?

Let me take a dramatic example. You arrive at the scene of a traffic accident. A woman is covered in blood and screaming hysterically, her husband sits at the wheel of his car calm and unmoving. A pedestrian is lying on the road holding his leg and sobbing. Our immediate action is that we must do something; we must rush to help the injured woman. We must put things right. But in doing so we could open a wound or cause further injury.

But a doctor who arrives at the scene does not act. She simply uses her eyes. She looks at the condition of the three victims. Only when she has looked does she use her hands very gently. The pedestrian has broken a leg, the woman has superficial injuries but her husband’s eyes are unfocussed and the doctor suspects that he may have a serious head injury. Only now, having suspended immediate action, is the doctor able to give instructions to the ambulance crew—it is safe to remove the woman from the car. The husband, who is now in coma, must be rushed to emergency room, and so on.

What applies to a traffic accident could apply to a crisis within an organization. What happens when change does not proceed as predicted? 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 it 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 when 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. Given a new ethos it is possible that a new sort of action could emerge, one that harmonizes with nature and society, that does not desire to dominate and control but seeks balance and good order and is based on respect for nature and society.

Gentle Action

The new type of action I am suggestion emerges out of Creative Suspension. Whereas our current anxiety about change leads us to apply control externally, Gentle Action unfolds from the entire system. Our current form of action could be compared with the violent disturbance that occurs when a rock is thrown in a lake. A large splash is produced from which ripples spread out until they are lost in the tiny random wavelets at the edge. But think of something totally different, think of the harmonious coordination of tiny waves at the edge of the lake. While probably impossible in practice this is quite possible in theory and can certainly be modeled on a computer. It 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 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 center. In an amazing fashion a large effect is produced out of a very gentle action involving the whole of the lake. What is required is a high degree of intelligence that emerges out of an understanding of the whole. In this way an effect grows organically out of a highly intelligent yet almost imperceptible form of intervention that involves the whole of a system.

Such Gentle Action is I believe possible if we can only change our current way of thinking. Ecologies and human societies, are fundamentally holistic so that influences at one location propagate throughout the systems. Moreover they are extraordinary 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 including trade, economics, agriculture, and ethics.

What our planet requires is not violent revolutions, or vast government programs imposed from above but a new action that is sensitive and highly intelligent. This action must grow 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 sensitivity and a more meaningful relationship to the whole of life, this ability to heal ourselves 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.