Continuity

 

The persistent seed

The Persistent Seeds

It’s not unusual to see vegetation sprouting through cracks in the pavement, but this little plant was growing in mud alongside a railroad track that had been thoroughly covered with oil. That it’s growing at all speaks to me of the resilience and continuity of life. However the seed got there and despite the conditions and a harsh winter, when the moment was right, they awakened to the call of Spring and, rising in the direction of heat and light, gave birth to the form of their “ancestors.”

Observing this process—and relating it to the lifecycle of maize plants—the ancient and modern Maya of Central America adopted the belief that death gives rise to life. While the ancients believed that only divine kings would reincarnate, the general population believed—as many do today—that their sons and daughters “replace” the souls of their grandfathers and grandmothers, providing continuity of their lineages essence.

Ethnographers studying the Maya report that within certain societies, when an elder dies his relatives begin to look for his “kex,” a newborn replacement for him within the extended family. This is somewhat similar to the Tibetan’s search for the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. For the Maya, as with maize and other crops, birth and rebirth demonstrates conclusively that life is not a straight line of events from birth to death, but a continuous cycle, a “sacred round” wherein life “breathes” in and out, allowing old forms to die and new forms to be born.

Although the forms we take bear some resemblance to those of our fathers and mothers, and we carry within us their genes—along with many of their values, beliefs and aspirations—we are, like the plants in this image, new and unique individuals carrying forward and evolving our biological essences. And doing this in the context of fresh conditions with expanding social and technological complexity the capacity and direction of thought—consciousness—also evolves.

Just as the composition of the soil influences a plant, the physical, mental and social composition of the environments we grow up in condition our thinking, responding and creating in ways that are different from our parents. Because consciousness increases with complexity, each generation is more knowledgeable and aware than the last. And this increased awareness, particularly as it multiplies and globalizes, will lead us—gracefully at times; painfully at times—to assume greater responsibility for the quality of the “soils” that will nourish our grandchildren and their grandchildren when they “Touch the Earth,” the Maya way of referring to incarnation.

For indigenous people the world around, maize was the perfect metaphor for life because a single stalk cannot stand; it will easily be toppled by gusts of wind. To survive, it must grow in close community where there is mutual support.

To live is to communicate life, because life is essentially a spreading, growing phenomenon. Therefore, the more one communicates life, affirms life in one’s fellows, gives oneself to enhance their lives, the more one is alive, is truly living, and thus, is truly oneself.

Beatrice Bruteau, Philosopher

Author, Radical Optimism: Practical spirituality in an uncertain world

Perception

 

How and what we see are interpretations

 

In part, our uniqueness as individuals traces to our capacity to perceive, beyond merely looking. Aldous Huxley famously observed that “The eyes and the nervous system do the sensing, the mind does the perceiving.” The eyes gather information and the nervous system delivers it to the brain where it is sorted, referenced to memory and interpreted. The object of my reflection here is that everything we sense and know comes down to interpretations based on perceptions. In this light, the mystics and physicists who observe that this world is an illusion makes sense, particularly when we consider that our perceptions—and the acts that follow from them—are determined by the lenses through which we view each other and the world.

Even as we use instruments to learn about objective reality, interpretations relating to it are based on these lenses. They include our biological inheritance, family upbringing, peer group, physical and social environments, education, affiliations, status, belief systems and accumulated experience. In a sense, each personality is a culture unto itself,  uniquely formed and constantly under construction. I am not the person I was ten minutes ago, much less ten years ago because my personal and social lenses are dynamic, ever changing.

Recognizing that everyone is seeing through different lenses should urge tolerance and compassion in our interactions, or at least some respect and patience when our perceptions, judgments, preferences and choices differ. Yet across cultures, people are willing to risk everything for the satisfaction of being “right” or being in possession of “the truth” or the “best way” to accomplish something. We will even kill and be killed holding onto a perception or belief that derives from this strong sense of knowing. Is my personal reality fixed, so dependent upon my way of seeing things and being right that my world would crumble if it were proved otherwise?

I can’t imagine. But considering that one of our primary lenses are the stories we’re told—and understanding the power of story, which provides the basis for all religions, cultures and most everything we believe in—I can see how personal realities could become fixed and immutable. A lie or conspiracy theory told often enough and with passion can easily be accepted as true. And we’re seeing how perception can be weaponized, as in radicalization and brain washing.

On the other hand, there’s survival value where there’s the ability to see the manipulators behind the curtain and keep an open mind when exposed to different points of view and change. Writing of the power of story and storytelling, human potential author Jean Houston asserts “Change the story and you change perception; change perception and you change the world.” Given that, the way to win a war or succeed in political office is to tell stories that affect changes in perception.

In many instances, clashes over differences in perception have more to do with strategy than outcome. Americans generally agree on the fundamental rights and privileges articulated in the Constitution and Bill Of Rights, but we differ strongly on how to realize them. Some see political power as an opportunity to strengthen the whole of society by empowering the governing body to act on behalf of all citizens. Others, fearing the possibility that those who govern will overstep or abuse this power, prefer to empower individuals and corporations directly, believing they can and will take responsibility for themselves. We may want the same outcomes, but we see different ways to achieve them.

At the extreme end of the spectrum are dictators and tyrants who hold onto their perceptions so tightly, they feel justified in killing and waging war. Whatever their outer objective, they have to “win” in order to prove to themselves and others that their perception is the correct one. The genesis of their perception can be be simple or complex, but the severity of it is determined by how tightly they hold onto the notion that they know best. Publicly stated or privately held, it’s their signature position.

Differences in perception are often the root cause of conflict. Archaeologist David Freidel defines “culture” as “the shared conception and perception of reality in a society.” Indigenous peoples the world around perceived rocks, mountains and art objects as being alive, while we only attribute life to animated organisms. And now, the environment is paying the price for that perception. Farmers destroy rainforests in order to feed their families, whereas environmentalists view those same forests as the lungs of the planet. A dandelion for one person is an object of beauty; for another it’s a weed.

So what is the truth? Who is right? In one lens better than another? According to the Bible, it’s by our actions—consequences—that we shall be known. Philosophically we can say that, for the most part, each individual’s perception is valid for themselves. It’s their personal reality. But all actions have consequences. If the dandelions in my yard are crowding out the grass, I can run the lawn mower over them with impunity. But when I put down poison to kill them, animals and birds can be affected, and that has consequences for the neighborhood. (A neighbor of ours had a cat that died from eating another neighbor’s grass treated with weed killer).

We say that “Seeing is believing.” Like all good formulas, it works both ways: Believing is seeing. Thus the popular phrases: “We tend to see what we believe,” and “We see what we want to see.” Perceptions are always biased by what we already believe. The “truth” or “rightness” of a belief or perception is and can only be personal, a singular viewpoint. Characteristically, the more powerful one feels the more this is suppressed.

At all levels, perceptions gain credibility by consensus. The more people who agree with our perception on any issue, worldview or experience, the more we—and they—hold onto it. As we’ve seen, the lives of public figures and celebrities can easily become tragic. As egos become inflated, there’s a loss, confusion or misdirection of identity. One’s perception of self comes into question.

We do not see ourselves, others or the world objectively. The balanced position then is to practice tolerance, respect the perceptions of others and become more aware of our perceptions, always on the lookout for refining and aligning them with the truth as we discover more of it. Easier said than done, but we have a model. Arguably the greatest teaching on perception and its consequent behavior was Jesus, the Christ who advised us “Love they neighbor.”

Whenever we encounter a viewpoint or behavior in contrast to our own, we can choose a loving response. Whether in thought, word or deed, rather than attack we can at least allow and respect a person’s right to see things as they do. And keep an open mind. In a constantly changing world, the truth of anything is always bigger than what one individual can see. The eyeglasses in the photograph above, remind me that we all see through unique and constantly changing lenses. 

 

A person has not only perceptions but a will to perceive, not only a capacity to observe the world but a capacity to alter his or her observation of it — which, in the end, is the capacity to alter the world itself. Those people who recognize that imagination is reality’s master we call “sages,” and those who act upon it, we call “artists.”

     Tom Robbins, American novelist

 

Power rests in the conjunction of what the individual perceives of his own internal being. What he perceives in the world about him, and how he relates these perceptions to establish his relations with other human beings.

Richard Adams, English novelist

 

The world you perceive is made of consciousness; what you call matter is consciousness itself.

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, Indian guru

Attention Capital

Staples in Telephone Pole

Our reality is shaped by how we spend it

Fundamentally, the job of the film and television director is “attention management,” capturing and holding the viewer’s attention and moving it from place to place within and between scenes. In ancient cultures, chiefs, rulers and landlords played that role, sending out “criers” who went around shouting the news and information they wanted their subjects to know about or take action on. The rapid evolution and expansion of communication technologies has occurred in part as a consequence of complex societies where producers and advertisers want to attract attention, and where consumers want their attention managed for enjoyment—and for many more reasons.

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther, a monk, nailed a list of grievances against the Catholic Church onto the door of a chapel in Wittenberg, Germany. A consequence of this was the Protestant Reformation. In June of 1982, I tacked a notice on telephone poles and community bulletin boards around town to invite people to come to a local park to discuss ways to promote Cincinnati as a “City Of Light,” a place where notable thinkers and achievers in the arts, sciences and humanities would come to dialogue and express their views on stage and on television.

More than fifty people showed up. We met once a week for four months, but the financing we needed didn’t materialize and that was the end of it. In July, 2012 I photographed this thoroughly stapled telephone pole near Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. I imagined the consequences of all the notices that were attached to it. For instance, uncountable numbers of people attended a performance, convened at conferences, meetings, lectures and recitals, found lost animals, bought and sold property and goods, offered and secured services and met their significant others. And more. Represented on this pole is a nexus of attention. And while it may still be used to attract attention, we now have an intercommunicating network of technologies performing that function through fibre optic cables and between satellites and land-based towers enabling potentially every person on the planet to capture, hold and direct the attention of everyone else.

Technology pundit Esther Dyson wrote that “The most important finite resource in the late 20th century is people’s attention.” More recently, author David Shenk observed that “As competition heats up, in order to get our messages across, we have to wrap them in ever more provocative and titillating packages; we TALK LOUDER (his emphasis), wear more and brighter colors, show more cleavage and say shocking things.” And do shocking things. It’s the phenomenon of “desensitization.” Repeated attention diminishes our response to dramatic sights and sounds. Filmmakers and television producers feel they have to keep raising the bar on violence, sexuality and special effects in order to gain and hold our attention. It’s why the volume of movies in theaters continues to increase, and as a consequence of hearing loss, many more people have become “loud talkers.”

Executives in the radio, television and film industries say they’re in the business of delivering news, information and entertainment. Increasingly however, it has become apparent they are actually in the business of maximizing attention, arguably with less interest in content and more interest in securing “eyeballs for advertisers.” Having invested many years in the television industry professionally, and after having researched its history, structure and social function, I’ve come to the conclusion that commercial television is stuck in a period of prolonged adolescence.

Television is a social mirror. It reflects the mentality of the people it serves. So as long as viewers are passive consumers rather than active advocates calling for intelligent, inspiring, empowering, enriching, useful and socially responsible programming we will continue to complain that there are “hundreds of channels and nothing’s on.” Nonetheless, as a long term optimist, I believe there will come a time when television will reflect and serve a society that has grown into adulthood.

Actually, where we are right now is not a bad place; we’re just in transition. A multitude of pressures, especially those relating to truth-telling, economics, environment and security are urging us to learn that our communication “toys” can be used for higher purposes. But before these can be realized, we have to learn how to use them securely and responsibly. I believe that, through these pressures, including long term public dissatisfaction and industry experimentation, television professionals will come to appreciate the medium’s higher potentials and discover that delivering substance has survival value.

Currently, power is perceived as residing in the technologies themselves, but these are just the means of message production and delivery. The real and by far greater power for the communication industries resides in the delivery of real value, images and information that contain substance—content that matters, that helps us relate better, construct meaning and build more satisfying and contributing lives. As a nation becomes more complex and realizes its interdependence with other nations, it could even become necessary for the media to turn its attention more toward matters of personal safety, growth, social development and planetary stewardship. Public television has been a leader in this regard.

Because attention is a choice, it’s formative. It shapes us. What we attend to defines us and shapes our reality. A guideline prescribed for novelists is to reveal the truth of a character more through their actions than their words.  Socially, because the mass media, particularly television and the Internet, provides a common “reality” reference for most of us, our collective attention generates “memes”—units of culture, including colloquial language, gestures, fads and trends in fashion, food and music.

Memes largely define what is “cool” and acceptable in the culture, so advertisers keep them in front of us to entice us to “spend” our attention capital—dollars— accordingly. Anthropologist, Edward T. Hall, wrote that “Culture is what we pay attention to.” When we know that our our attention is simultaneously cultivating myself, my reality and society, we can more consciously choose how to direct it.

What we pay attention to is no trivial matter; we are what we attend to. 

                                               Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Psychologist

                                               Author, Flow: The psychology of optimal experience

Particularity

Ribbed Bivalve Shell

A strategy for making the ordinary look special

In the early years, I used to spend a lot of time walking up and down the many rows of vendors at outdoor antique fairs looking for that rare situation where the quality of light illuminating an object peaked my aesthetic sensibility.

Later on, I noticed that there was a pattern to the places where I was more likely to find something to photograph. These were the booths that were less cluttered. The objects on display were separated by some space; the more the better. When the items were all clumped together in one case or on a table, none of them seemed important. Visually, the experience was chaos, and that reflected upon the vendors, how much or little they cared about their offerings.

When one object was singled out for display, isolated, my eye went right to it. If someone doesn’t care enough about their goods, it’s not likely that I will either. Conversely, when I see objects separated out, displayed on a clean surface or cloth where the sunlight enhances its form, color or texture I’m drawn to it.

Our minds are visually impatient. When presented with a rose bush we look from one blossom to another. And when we’ve seen them all we move on. Whether it’s cars, food, furniture, seashells or paintings in a museum we want to see everything. That’s natural and appropriate. But by taking it all in—the wide view—we can miss the deeper experience that comes from focusing on just one thing and staying with it for a time. I’m reminded that the greatest compliment we can pay an artist is to spend time with his or her creation.

Novelists use the word “particularity” to describe a character, setting or situation to make them special. High value. Here’s the description of a scene: “Sam pounded the bar, insulted the bartender and threw his beer bottle on the floor.” We get the idea, but particularity makes it sparkle: “Sam’s eyes lit with rage. He pounded his black fist on the bar and grabbed his Budweiser by the throat. Cursing, the bartender hurled it the floor where thick shards of glass, beer and foam scattered the peanut shells.”

In writer-speak, particularity amounts to “showing” rather than “telling” what happened. Since “God is in the details,” whenever there’s a multiple of anything, appreciation is heightened by going in close, examining one detail at a time. We don’t buy a Toyota; we buy a particular Toyota.

Particularity is well known strategy among jewelers. Diamond rings and necklaces surrounded by greater space suggests greater value. It’s why museums and galleries give as much space as possible to their important holdings. Artists use this technique to choose a wide mat within a frame to surround their painting with blank space. Writers know the value of including lots of white space on a page or screen. Likewise, filmmakers hold on a shot, so viewers have time to examine the elements within the frame. The message of space surrounding an item or image is clear: “This is precious, worthy of your undivided and sustained attention.”

Out in nature, our visual strategy is more often deductive, scanning the whole beach before looking for the spot that appeals. The shell in the above image is very common. Ordinary. But when it’s displayed alone with care and lit to enhance its features, it becomes exceptional. With our attention held on a particular shell—the inductive approach—we gracefully ease into appreciation and gratitude for all shells, and nature itself. When photographing, I’ve noticed that a forest can evoke a “Wow” in me, but a single tree can speak more poignantly to me of “treeness,” of essence beyond and including magnitude.

In environments like antique, flower and car shows where there’s a lot to see, the mind wants to move on once we’ve recognized an object for what it is. But the soul is better served by focused attention, beyond recognition. Having learned this, I walk past areas where there’s visual “noise” or chaos and stop where there’s evidence of order and caring in both subject and presentation. That’s where I’m more likely to find something worth photographing. (I mute the sound on television commercials and look away for the same reason).

 

 Always to see the general in the particular is the very foundation of genius.

Arthur Schopenhauer

 

Equifinality

Every member of a living system has equal opportunity to change it

Alphabet Letters

 

The whole system’s principle of “equifinality,” a term coined by the father of systems theory, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, holds that in open systems, for those that have external interactions, a given end state can be reached by many potential means. To lock on to a single pathway, observation or solution can overlook a simpler or better way to reach a goal. The advice then is to reserve judgment and keep an open mind.

Beyond ideas and perspectives, equifinality has implications for individuals within social systems, suggesting that each member has equal opportunity to affect the outcome of the whole—by paying attention to potential solutions and staying open to alternative pathways to reach a goal, noting that any change will affect the output or outcome. Change any element, person or function, however slightly, and the system will perform differently than it otherwise would. Stated positively, no matter how small, invisible or seemingly insignificant a person’s function within a system, they exert an influence on its performance and outcome.

A rock group is an open system composed of interacting members. As such, it performs differently each time the performers take the stage. Things happen. One musician substitutes for another. A guitar is not properly tuned. The drummer is trying out new sticks. The lead singer is depressed. An amplifier is replaced and now the sound is different. Likewise, corporate cultures change when an employee begins to eat lunch at his desk, when a mother brings her toddler to work, when an executive begins wearing jeans and when employees begin working at home.

It’s why we can’t step into the same river twice. Every millisecond, the water molecules are exchanged; stones move; leaves fall in; the wind and fish contribute to turbulence. An example I cited for my students has to do with film and television production considered as a social system. Change one word in a script, decide not to stop for lunch, swap out a microphone or a light, the outcome is altered. We see it at work in movie remakes and television series. Success in the first movie or episode generates more money, more expensive talent and new writers who have their own ideas about what will succeed in the future. Time and larger budgets bring about changes and suddenly The Good Wife isn’t so “good” anymore, Sherlock’s cases become more complicated and are anything but Elementary and Person of Interest shifts from stories about people to cyber warfare. In other corporations, even churches, a new person at the top affects widespread changes. Understandably, they want to make a difference. 

 

Contemplating the Personal and Social Consequences of Equifinality

In the above photograph, each lettered tile is a bit of data. Displayed as they are, the whole represents a field of potential, meaning the letters could be put together in a staggering number of ways. Like magnetic letters on a refrigerator door, a child could use them to spell the word “dog.” Another child could use the same three letters to spell the word “god.” The equifinality principle gives us a reason to appreciate that everyday choices and behaviors make a difference, whether intended or not.

Linda’s switch from merely “fresh” to “organic” head lettuce affected changes—in our bodies, for the local supplier, farming systems and health systems, even the economy. Slight, yes. But nonetheless real. And little things add up. Every time we turn on the radio or television or engage in social media, we contribute to the sustainability of the medium and cast a vote for more of its content and upgrading.

Currently, we’re being made aware of the marketers behind the curtain, quantifying every decision we make, modifying their systems; accordingly, there’s big money in monitoring individual choices and behaviors. And the principle can be used to purposefully affect change. For instance, Linda and I are telling certain restaurant cashiers why we prefer paper rather than plastic cups. And in other circumstances we bring our own cloth napkins and saltshakers. These are small things, but in many instance people either learn how they affect the environment or appreciate our choice.

Knowing that my choices and behaviors are affecting change, I can be more aware and deliberate. Do I really want to sustain this activity or business? Do I want to cast a vote for more of this product to be produced in this way? Is this information, service or philosophy in alignment with my values? Does the situation lift me up or inspire me? Do I want to support a company that isn’t socially responsible or ecologically aware?

It occurs to me that this sounds like a lot of self-regulating introspection. Editing this post, I hesitated and observed that the individual words, ideas, and questions I’m expressing are affecting you, and who knows what else. I paused. Do I really want to put this information and these self-regulating questions out there? Indeed, I do, because I’m advocating that we become aware that even our smallest decisions are making a difference—and that difference can affect positive change. 

Full disclosure, there are times when I go against the voice of my authentic self, as when I consume more sugar and television than I know I should. Sometimes we just want what we want—and we accept the consequences. On balance, however, I find comfort in the act of making “a good faith effort” as often as possible.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead, Anthropologist

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Perspective and Perception

From where we are looking, what is our view of the world?

 

Being six-foot-five, I’ve always viewed the world from a slightly higher perspective than most people. For instance, I see the tops of furniture and people’s heads, and I can see farther in a crowd. No big deal. But that each of us perceives the world and other people from different perspectives, sometimes dramatically so due to our unique physical and mental endowments and upbringing, it is a big deal.

Differences in perspective and perception, with its attendant communication challenges, is at the root of prejudices, disagreements and abuses that can provoke violence, even war. I selected this image for contemplation because it depicts the nature of perception in the context of a whole system, the part-to-whole relationship. Here, individual drops of oil are seen moving in relation to one another on the surface of water. Although the composition of the drops is identical, they are each unique in size, shape and tonality due to their position relative to the light source and each other. If they had eyes, each drop would perceive a “reality” different from the others, so different we would not be surprised to hear them proclaim such things as “I’m bigger than you!” “I was here first!” “You’re blocking my light!”  

As individual drops, they’re looking from and only considering self, defining and ordering their world from a narrow and limited point of view. Given our five senses, we do the same thing. Eyes, for instance, evolved at the top of our bodies so we could survey the immediate physical and social surroundings. But we also have brain-minds that have the capacity to learn about and envision systems that can only be detected with instruments. For instance, the Hubble and James Webb telescopes are expanding our perception of the universe dramatically, challenging us to shift our perspective on who we are and where we are. Consider:

  • The big bang occurred about 14 billion years ago, giving birth to the universe.
  • 75% of the universe is dark energy; 25% is dark matter; 5% is the matter we’re familiar with.
  • It takes one million years for the light from the center of our galaxy to reach the Earth.
  • The Milky Way galaxy is 100,000 light-years (distance light travels in a year) across and 1,000 light-years thick.
  • There are more than 200 billion stars in our galaxy. 
  • Nearly 99% of our solar system’s mass is in the sun.
  • Our solar system orbits the Milky Way every 200 million years—at a speed of 570,000 mph.
  • Earth resides 25,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way.
  • Light from the sun takes 8 minutes to reach us. We never see the sun in the present moment.
  • The Carina Nebula lies 7,500 light years from Earth. It’s 140 light-years wide.
  • There are at least 125 billion + galaxies in the universe.
  • Star V838 is 600,000 times brighter than the sun. Its size would engulf the solar system out to the orbit of Jupiter.
  • In the center of the Sombrero galaxy there’s a black hole with a mass equal to a billion suns.
  • Hubble has imaged 10,000 galaxies in the Fornax constellation, which is 13 billion light years from here.
  • Galaxies 300 million light-years from us are moving away at about 16.5 million mph—and the expansion is speeding up.
  • By one astronomer’s calculation, “There are tens of billions of potentially habitable planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone.”

Occasionally, we’re reminded that the universe is vast and beautiful. But for many that perspective is fleeting, not very relevant. The quantum reality and cosmic immensity seem to have nothing to do with earning a living, parenting, managing work or getting an education. Except for certain circumstances, we tend to keep our focus narrow, on what’s in front of us. 

Narrowly focused perceiving has had, and continues to have, survival value. It’s how living systems survive, grow and reproduce. But on December 7th, 1972 the astronauts of Apollo 17 opened our eyes to what the Earth looks like from space. Overnight, our perspective changed. An imagined image suddenly became visible, real—an enormous blue body floating in the immensity of space, appearing as a whole system. And we realized that beneath the clouds, ourselves and everything we know has transpired and is unfolding. 

How to respond to such immensity? What are we to think? How does it affect our perception of ourselves? Of God? Of the future? Astronomy magazines and images from space online always increase my sense of wonder and appreciation. Given the context of what’s going on over our heads, personal, social and political challenges seem trivial. And in the context of evolution, we’re a very young species, barely out of the womb, just opening our eyes to where we are, struggling to learn and adapt to each other and changing conditions through trial and error. Combined, these perspectives position us in a place that recommends patience and compassion rather than fear, confusion or pessimism with respect to the future. 

A broader perspective can contribute to the management and healing of negative consequences due to conflicting perceptions. The Congress of the United States provides an excellent example of the consequences of head-in-the-sand narrow perspectives. Dysfunction, divisiveness and stalemate occurs in a living system when the members vigorously champion and cling to their own or a group’s perspectives rather than reason together to discover the best, most workable solution to challenges. Eventually, self-centeredness fails at every level because it serves a narrow and limited perspective relative to the greater whole. Unlike the oil bubbles in the above image, by consciously deciding who we are, the nature of our relationship to everyone else and the planet and how we will use our energy, we create the world of our experience. 

 

The impossibility of arriving at ultimate formulations of reality does not represent a defeat for the inquiring mind. It is only final assertions that are suspect, not the process of knowing itself. For we each have a valid and important perspective on what is. And to the extent that we can acknowledge the partiality of this perspective, what we say stays clear and true.

Joanna Macy, Ecologist, general systems theorist

______________________________________

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DavidLSmithPhotography.com

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Flow

It makes a huge difference where we’re planted

“Going with the flow” is an expression that suggests it’s a better life strategy is to align with rather than resist what’s happening. As guidance for individual behavior, paddling with the “current”—in the context of home, work and relationships—is certainly easier than paddling against it. In this image of waving grass, sometimes called “Whisp” or “Foxtail,” there’s more to be observed than just the blowing wind. From a whole systems perspective, I note that the stalks that support the tassels are rooted in the ground. They stand together as a community of sorts, and they lean in the same direction in response to the wind. Systemically, as a group, they can be seen as evidence of harmony.

Flow is in evidence at many levels.  Atoms, for instance, flow together or unite to form molecules, molecules combine to form cells, cells join to form organisms, organisms integrate to form bodies and so on. In nature, flow is represented in schools of fish, crop fields, herds of wild mustangs and flocks of birds, all moving together in harmony with each other and with their environments. Human communities that evidence flow include high functioning families, teams and synergistic work groups where people are all moving in the same direction. On a grander scale, Sweden, Japan and Canada are often cited as societies that are harmonious and less militant, places where there’s less social discord and more people living happier lives. Why is that?

The question is too big and complex to even approximate a reasonable answer, but it elicits a smaller question that piques my interest—What are the energies that result in or give rise to flow in human systems? An answer to that would also suggest the qualities that contribute to harmony. One thing for certain, they are notas evidenced by religious and political polarization—the energies of intolerance, inflexibility and interfering.

Because analysis of living systems begins with an assessment of individual members, specifically their behaviors and relationships, I pulled up a list of some of the higher human character traits that were part of my “Vision for Television.” Here, I think they go a long way toward suggesting the energies that contribute to flow in individuals and society.

Acceptance • Altruism • Appreciation • Awareness • Caring • Compassion • Confidence • Cooperation • Courage • Creativity • Curiosity • Empathy • Faith • Flexibility • Forgiveness • Goodwill • Gratitude • Helpfulness • Honesty • Humility • Humor • Imagination • Integrity • Intelligence • Intuition • Kindness • Love • Patience • Respect •   Responsibility • Reverence • Tolerance • Trust • Wisdom • Wonder • Zest for Life

I believe these characteristics, or qualities, are contagious. As we experience them in others, they are awakened in us. And given even a small group, they can shape the direction of social change. On balance are the energies that retard flow and harmony, evidenced by the destructive “winds” blowing in the Middle East and other parts of the world where separatist factions and fundamentalist ideologies are bent on destruction rather than construction. Like grasses on the prairie, it makes a huge difference where individuals are planted or located. Those who paddle against the flow of life may expend a great deal of energy, but relatively little is accomplished that is enhancing and sustainable; the nature of conflict is merely to escalate.

Feeding my long-term optimism are the seeds of reason, respectful communication, intelligent creativity, wisdom, planetary stewardship and the rule of law, energies that are on the ascendency because evolution favors increased freedom, order, complexity and consciousness. How grateful we are to have been planted in such rich soil.

The evolution of consciousness always moves in the direction of greater love, inclusiveness, tolerance, synthesis, freedom, and empowerment, however slowly and painfully.

Corinne McLaughlin, Author, educator

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Love

Metaphysical gravity Something we are?

 

Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin S.J., wrote that love is “The affinity of being for being.” Affinity recognizes love as an energy that’s not only a human experience, it’s also intrinsic to the universe. In support of this, engineer and futurist, R. Buckminster Fuller, often said that “Love is metaphysical gravity.” That is, it holds all things together, in relationship, at all times, everywhere. And with regard to the action that love gives rise to, Mother Teresa said, “It is not the magnitude of our actions but the amount of love that is put into them that matters.” Love can be many things but putting these ideas together we can say that love is an energy, a force the favors relationship and affects bonding throughout the universe.   

Country singer, Clint Black, sings a beautiful song that says, love isn’t something that we find or have, “It isn’t something that we’re in, it’s something that we do.” The song references the frequencies of love that are the subject of literature, theater, film and mass media—romance, intimacy, amorous relationship and marriage. As biological creatures it’s natural and evolutionarily necessary for these to be paramount in our consciousness, rites, rituals and celebrations. Within these frequencies we marvel at the process of “falling” and “being” in love and lament the falling out of love. Indeed, love at these frequencies is something that we do.

The ancient Greek philosophers understood that there’s more to love than finding it and making it. Their term, eros, referred to this kind of elemental love—eroticism and intimate love, the kind of love where there’s an expectation of return. “If you make me happy and I’ll make you happy.” Another kind was storge, the natural affection between parents and children. It says, “I cannot help but love you.” Philia was affectionate regard for friends—“If you show me virtue, equality and familiarity, I will care for you.” And agape was the term applied to brotherly love, charity, the love of God and God’s love for man. Significantly, the latter was regarded as unconditional—“No matter what happens or what you do, I will love you.” Thomas Aquinas wrote that agape was “To will the good of another.” 

All these distinctions, different frequencies of vibration, regard love as a quality of relationship between human beings or humans and God, given our five senses and common interpersonal experience. But there is a higher and more potent frequency. “Transcendent” love steps away from material, space/time relationships and moves into the realm of Ultimate Reality, the present moment and union at a cosmic level where there is no object at which to direct love. It simply is, often occurring as an unexpected, fleeting and uncontrollable upwelling, a completeness that encompasses all that is. And it urges no action, no reciprocation. Indian guru, Sri Nisargadatta, said “When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that’s wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that is love. Between these two my life turns.” It’s the difference between doing—”I love you,” and transcendent love—”I am love.” 

If love is metaphysical gravity, the energy that holds all things together, might it be that the experience of transcendent love occurs when this is fully realized? I’m reminded that we only know these energies by their effects. For instance, we know how atoms interact and unite to form matter, that sub-atomic “particles” are actually energies of attraction and repulsion and that between them by far is space. But we don’t know why these energies are as they are. The same is true of love. If Buckminster Fuller is right about the energy of love holding everything together at every level, might love be—or give rise to what scientists are calling “Dark Energy?” Indeed, something we are? 

Benjamin Disraeli wrote, “We are born for love. It is the principle of existence, and its only end.” If all the above is true, what would be the consequence of living in such a universe? My view combines what Mother Teresa and Thomas Aquinas recommended, that as conscious beings, evolution encourages us to maximize the amount of love in all that we do and, as much as possible, widen our circle of love until it becomes inclusive, universal and unconditional, willing the good of the universe and all it contains.

On the everyday practical side, awareness of these vibrational distinctions in love can ease suffering. From the Buddhist perspective, the more we move from eros to agape—from thoughts and words of judging to non-judging, from controlling to allowing, from disapproving to supporting, from criticizing to empowering, from denying to accepting and doing to being—the less we suffer in the face of breakdown and disappointment. Irrespective of the frequency of love energy, it promotes union, the refinement of personality and the expansion of consciousness.    

Someday after mastering the winds, waves, tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., Priest, paleontologist

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Faith

Grasping lightly can lift us up; grasping too tightly holds us down

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Dictionaries generally provide two definitions for the word “faith,” one being the trust or confidence we have in someone or something, the other a strong belief in God or a doctrine of religion irrespective of evidence. This image of a mother holding a child’s hand clearly speaks to the former, but in it I see where both aspects have their origin.

As infants and through childhood we are completely dependent upon others. Trust is given and “a given” if we are to survive. We take on faith that someone, usually parents or guardians, will be there—and able—to provide for our physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual needs. It seems like this should be an inalienable right as a prerogative of birth, because care given by responsible adults is what it takes minimally for children to become whole, healthy and contributing persons. That too often these essentials are not provided, deepens my appreciation for what I took for granted as a child. Even as adults, we have faith in family members and friends. They are the ones we can usually turn to in difficult times.

We also have faith in the systems that provide the contexts for our lives—schools, churches, small businesses, corporations, non-profit organizations, local governing bodies and the Federal government. My careers in education and business were all grounded in faith—that my teachers knew what they were talking about, that higher education would lead to desirable and creative work opportunities, that the economy would grow, that salaries in my field would be enough to support a family and so on. 

Along the way we learn that some of our faith in people and institutions was misplaced. Neither individuals nor institutions can always be trusted. Not everyone is responsible, not everyone behaves ethically. People and circumstances change. And so, through disappointments we develop some discernment as a hedge against misplaced faith.

Faith has higher and lower vibrations. The “higher” is acceptance of what is. Bo Lozoff, an American writer and interfaith humanitarian wrote that “Faith is a profound acceptance of life’s ultimate goodness no matter what happens.” At the opposite end of the faith spectrum is fanaticism—excessive, irrational, uncritical zeal characterized by an unwillingness to recognize and respect differences in opinion or belief. Robert Pirsig, author of Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance wrote that “No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kind of dogmas or goals, it’s always because they are in doubt.”

In this regard I think of President Biden’s campaign perspective, that “We’re engaged in a struggle for the soul of America.” Former California State Senator John Vasconcellos said the same thing in 2014, adding, “We are struggling between two visions of human nature: faithful and cynical.” Indeed, held lightly and with an open mind, faith can unite and lift us up. Grasped too tightly it divides and holds us down.

In the long run the fate of a civilization depends not only on its political system, its economic structure, or its military might. Perhaps, indeed, all of these ultimately depend in turn upon the faith of the people, upon what we believe and feel about man; about the possibilities of human nature; about our relation or lack of it to such intangibles as the meaning of morality or the true nature of value.

Ashley Montagu, Anthropologist

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Joy

The soul’s feedback mechanism

 

When I first printed this image, I thought it was a nice expression of childhood exuberance. Looking deeper now, I see  humanity standing between earth and cosmos expressing joy. Given how our bodies evolved from the earth, it’s like the planet’s rising up here, now conscious, reaching out in a celebration of life and a yearning to connect with the great mystery. 

Images coming from the Hubble and James Webb telescopes are revealing the unimaginable scale, beauty and variety of the cosmos. It’s humbling on the one hand, yet there’s also an immensity within. Noted poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson referenced it when he said, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” Beyond plants and animals, we can   come to know and realize our potentials, and in the process discover what and who we are and why we’re here.

Shakespeare’s despondent Prince Hamlet, contemplating suicide, wonders whether it’s nobler “To be or not to be.” Living may be painful, extremely so at times, physically, mentally and spiritually. At the other end of the spectrum it can also be joyful. It’s been said that every experience is “Grist for the Mill,” an opportunity to realize what we’ve come here to learn. 

Philosophers from Socrates on, regarding happiness as the ultimate good, debated its nature and how to achieve it. Today, formulas and strategies abound in every medium to help us in the pursuit of happiness. I believe they should have been talking about and promoting “joy,” which is not the same as happiness. While joy can deliver happiness, it’s very different, a subtle quality of alignment with one’s reason for being and connection to the greater life—spirit. For me, it comes in moments of gratitude, appreciation and increased focus, brought on by a sense of satisfaction that comes from immersion—being in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing. 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, defines “flow” as “A state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work.” In his talks he says flow is the secret to happiness. Indeed, but in my worldview, happiness stands on the shoulders of joy. As I see it, happiness is a positive emotion that ripples like waves on the surface of the ocean. Joy is more fundamental, an emanation from the depths, a confirmation that says the current thinking or activity is aligned with purpose, in harmony with the soul’s agenda for this lifetime. 

Soul emanations like joy are subtle. They tend to emerge in silence and calm emotions. And they usually surface in reflective moments after an immersive experience. May you have lots of joy, and may it bring happiness along with it!

With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.

William Wordsworth

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smithdl@fuse.net

DavidLSmithPhotography.com

Photography Monographs (Select a book. Click on in it to turn pages)