Surrendering to the Creative Self

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Book Reviews / Science

In this, the second of three pieces developed in response to Ka’s quotation challenge, I want to explore briefly the ideas and work of Christopher Alexander, an architect, writer and thinker whose work has had a profound impact on me.  The quotes I’ve selected all come from his four volume series entitled The Nature of Order.  I don’t remember exactly how I discovered this work, but I do remember knowing instantly that I desired to read the entire collection, and that the investment in the books would be worth it.

I wasn’t disappointed.  The books themselves are beautiful, full of artwork, shape, texture and color from around the world, both historical and modern, as well as images from Alexander’s own personal and professional work.  I think it was probably close to eight years ago when I found these books, and I continue to be inspired by these works today.

It is exceedingly difficult to narrow down the contents of these four books into a concise post, as they expound not only a new architectural theory, but explore as well the profound relationship that exists between the human—the builder, or creative agent—and the world.  I’ve decided to select quotes centered around the notion of the self, an enigmatic phenomenon that is fundamental to Alexander’s architectural theory and that has been a periodic subject of discussion here also.

A key argument of these works is that modern architecture is built upon hollow concepts—that it is centered around image.  Works built around images that do not drawing their meaning and their context from the surrounding world, that do not infuse space with life, and that are not responsive to our deepest needs as human beings are typical of the modern approach to building.  At the root of all this, is the disconnected self.

In the first book in the series, The Phenomenon of Life, Alexander writes about the importance of the personal experience.

“The trivialization of the word ‘personal’ is part of our present popular culture, immersed in mechanistic cosmology.  But from the point of view of the world-picture in this book, ‘personal’ is a profound objective quality which inheres in something.  It is not idiosyncratic but universal.  It refers to something true and fundamental in a thing itself.

“I believe all works which have deep life and wholeness in them are ‘personal’ in this sense.  Indeed, this quality is an essential and necessary part of what I have identified as life in things.  When we deal with the field of centers, we are dealing with a realm of personal feeling in which feeling is a fact—as much a fact as the radiation from the sun, or the swinging of a pendulum.”

One of Alexander’s chief concerns throughout this series is that we come home to the personal feelings in our own hearts, and not proceed from the abstractions of thought and theory alone.  In some interesting research that he conducted, he created thirty or so different templates of alternating black and white squares.  Each template had the same number of overall squares, but differing sequences of black and white.  They represented wide ranging studies in terms of pattern complexity, sequences, symmetries, etc.  He then asked a large group of people in a controlled study to rank the templates according to which one most accurately reflected their “eternal self”.  Alternately, by which generated within the participant the most “wholesome feeling”.  The results were striking.  There is a universality to the personal—a recognition of wholeness, beauty and order that are not merely “tastes”, or “opinions”.

This self that Alexander is referring to is explored in further detail in the fourth book of the series, The Luminous Ground.  It is, as we will see, not what is often termed an ego—a false self striving to achieve existence in its own right, apart from all that is.  Rather, it emerges as quite the opposite.  Alexander’s own words will serve best here (emphasis retained from the original):

“I wish to say that the relatedness through which I feel that my own self and the tree in the field are directly connected is the most fundamental relation that there is.  I wish to say that it is in this relatedness—in realizing my connection between my own self and the tree, or the pond, or the road or the grass—that I learn, feel, understand, that I am of the world, that I partake of the world, and it is in this relation that my real connection with the universe may be understood and experienced by me.

“I claim that the relatedness between myself and a thing in the world which encourages my relatedness is the most fundamental, most vivid way in which I exist as a human being.  When it occurs, my own self—the degree to which I am connected to the world, the degree in which I partake of the interior ‘something’ that underlies all matter—is then glorified, is at its zenith, and I then experience myself, as I truly am, a child of the universe, a creature which is undivided and a part of everything: a small extension of a greater and infinite self.

“I claim, therefore, that this simple relation between myself and the treestump by the pond, which moves me, is a connection so profound that my full existence in the universe is made solid, is manifested, is captured by it in its entirety.  It is not a small moment.  It is the glory of my existence as a person—no matter how humble I am—which I can feel so long as I am in the presence of nature or in the presence of other human-made structures which, too, have the same living structure and hence the capacity to form this bond with me.”

The process and the aim of creating buildings, paintings, or vases is therefore one of mobilizing the relatedness one feels within to create life in the world—to add to the life of the world by accessing the childlike self within and bringing it forth.  Alexander suggests this requires a certain desire and willingness on the part of ourselves as builders, a state of mind in which the egoic self is set aside, and all focus is upon becoming one with the world.

“…to make a thing which [has life], I struggle—myself, the maker—to become one with the world.  This sounds nice.  It sounds like religious stuff again.  But I am doing it only to become better, only because I do want, in the end to make a perfect thing.  It is terribly hard, because to become one with the world, I must genuinely want to become one with it.  I have to catch each flash of ‘wouldn’t this little detail be great’ and kill it.  Instead I must keep on the hard work of paying attention, trying to understand what I need to make the deep feeling come forth.

“This means that I must genuinely give up all the remnants of my desire to be separate.  I must genuinely seek, and want, and open my arms to being not separate.  Most of the time I fail.  I fail because, to do it, I must honestly give up every last trace of wanting to be distinct, famous, separate, identifiable.  That is one reason why I have to do so many experiments—trying, testing, failing, failing, failing—then once in a blue moon, one time in twenty, occasionally succeeding.  I fail those nineteen times because I am trying to think something, I think I have a good idea.  Then the twentieth time, somehow, when I am lucky, something perfect sneaks in, without my knowing it.  But I have to be fast enough to catch it when the time comes.”

I love the process Alexander describes, and I think creative people in any discipline or field can perhaps recognize traces of the familiar in his process.  The egoic self dissolves, and the truly creative moment emerges as the one most deeply expressing the unity of self and world.  The act of building, is thus the act of joining self and world together, as one, in the presence of the human being.  The conclusion to which Alexander arrives is that this creative process of surrendering to not-separateness, while revealing the universal, paradoxically discloses the profoundly meaningful content of the personal.

“This is, perhaps, the central mystery of the universe: that as things become more unified, less separate, so also they become most individual, and most precious.”

Alexander’s writing speaks deeply to me about the fundamental union of the human being and the world, and the self that emerges in his process is the dynamic expression of a fundamental relatedness.  I cannot think of a more beautiful task than the one Alexander advocates: the healing of ourselves and the world by becoming a personal window peeking into the universal.

26 Comments

  1. Wonderful post Michael. I wasn’t familiar with his work, but I think you’ve summed it up nicely. I want to live and create from this place of oneness and relatedness. Maybe the most important work we can do. Thanks my friend. To peace, love and relatedness.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hi Brad,

      I might even say that aside from being the most important work we can do, in a way it is perhaps the only work we can do… all of our acts of image-building– whether aggrandizing or belittling– being sadly ineffectual in terms of unifying us with one another and the whole enchilada. And what work is there, but unification, and the expression of unification?

      Oh, yes…! I nearly forgot.

      Tax forms.
      🙂

      Michael

      Liked by 2 people

  2. building, no building, building. Or maybe, space and me, space, space and me. hmm, not quite it – but thank you for serving up these wonderful deep insight Alexander offers into his process. As I am merging with the bodies of individuals dancing the story of us all, I feel a similar exactness in your presentation of some of Alexander’s ideas. Go deeply into each art form and they all meet in the center, I am sensing tonight. See you there, M, in that space!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Marga,

      Your opening is spot on… Whole, distinct, distinct, whole, distinctly whole (whoops!), wholly distinct (darn!)…

      I agree with you, that all these art forms meet somewhere, and the principles are the same. I was thinking of this today. There is one property of beautiful buildings and works of art that Alexander identified called “good shape”, or something close. I don’t have the books in front of me right now. It made me think of dance choreography, and your recent post, and the way that the dancer’s movements must have good shape, a positive shape, an assertive shape that flows through space without overwhelming it…

      I think of Alexander often… whenever I am arranging or moving things in space, or putting lines on paper. I don’t do enough “art” to really have the hang of it, but I think the principles apply to writing as well… Stories we love have symmetry, interlocking patterns, an emptiness at the middle, good borders… My failure rate in this department eclipses Alexanders I’m afraid, but it’s delicious fun trying!

      See you there!
      Michael

      Liked by 2 people

      • I just want to pull this out:
        “good shape, a positive shape, an assertive shape that flows through space without overwhelming it…” lingering here for a bit!

        Liked by 2 people

        • Please… here comes another term from the series I like to reflect upon that I think is eminently relevant to dance. In the second book he explores how to create a field of centers– lines on paper, walls in space, openings in walls, columns in fences, etc.– that have life. He refers to the process as a sequence of structure-preserving transformations. It emerges over time as piece by piece the next element is laid down in relation to the previous, preserving and enhancing the existing space. It is as if the space becomes richer and richer through this enfolding, and I think this is obviously applicable to dance choreography, where movements echo one another, build upon one another, explore new terrain and then return… always preserving a dynamic field of order in a manner that gives rise to new versions of itself…

          Such fun!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Sorry for jumping in here, Michael, but when I just read this it also perfectly describes our time here in the earth school.

            “It emerges over time as piece by piece the next element is laid down in relation to the previous, preserving and enhancing the existing space. It is as if the space becomes richer and richer through this enfolding,”

            It feels exactly like the transformations my soul is going through to become, or quite possibly to SHOW what it already is! Either way, the creative process and being in tune with nature…respecting all things and feeling a part of it…YES…is the balm of my soul. I only recently started answering ‘yes’ to the question ‘Are you an artist?’ Prior, I didn’t give it a label but I knew that “I HAD TO MAKE THINGS!”

            Bless your beautiful soul, for it speaks to me, and I am always comforted by it’s words! ♡

            Liked by 2 people

            • Jump right in, Lorrie! Your thoughts here are well taken… it is true that our journeys here seem also to unfold in a sort of stepwise manner, with each movement building upon the previous. I like that you bring up the point that perhaps the soul is already complete, and it is a process of revealing it, as I think there is something important in that. In accepting the completeness, and knowing that what is occurring is an exploration or unveiling of the spacious mystery that we already are, it takes the edge off of needing certain events or outcomes to occur in this life… And yes, you are an artist!

              Blessings to you also.
              Much Love,
              Michael

              Like

            • You know Michael, it is like the true essence of our spirit…just is. Always has been…always will be. Then we add layers on top of it…I suppose some would call it ego…but we lose sight of the energy within. I was so clear as a youngster, and felt so connected to Spirit…to love. It was a slow progression…it had to have been…for I had no idea that it was happening. And then one day, the pain of denying my soul became so great I finally woke up! And now, every day, I am so grateful….FOR EVERYTHING!! The good times…the ‘perceived’ bad times…and all things in between 🙂 I’m not perfect…there are times I tend to duck out when the movement is swift or particularly painful, but I eventually come back to life…to love!! And I want you to know that your energy is so very important to me…it is clear….and it is brilliant…and it is beautiful!! Thank you, my friend! ♡

              Liked by 1 person

            • Hi Lorrie,

              A Course of Love describes our experience as it conforms to the Laws of Man vs the Laws of God, suggesting that our “adjustment” in this world has been the imposition of all the ideas contained in the Laws of Man… which need not be so… It’s how we’ve trapped ourselves in particular forms of experience that ultimately lead to suffering. I think you are touching on this here, and on what Jesus calls “unlearning” in that same Course, which is the process of forgetting all that we have “learned” that isn’t actually so. Until this is complete, in our experience these things still seem to be so. while we perceive in this way. I would say you are perfect, and that these movements we all have, wobbling and falling, side-stepping temporarily the truth of ourselves, are just inconsequential moments of delay in the inevitable return… I’m so glad I’ve been helpful. You’ve been very helpful to me as well… We’re all helping each other on this path…! In a way, I think the path is nothing more than the return of one another to one another.

              Blessings
              Michael

              Liked by 1 person

            • Ah! Michael…yes! Yes to everything above…yes to us returning to each other. What a beautiful sentiment. I am working my way through ACIM…and have not studied A Course of Love…YET. The love and energy that you emanate is a very high recommendation indeed!!! All in due time… 😉

              I read your response about your cover art…and I am sending beautiful energy that the issue will be resolved. I can’t wait to hold it in my hands!! ❤

              Liked by 1 person

            • Thank you, Lorrie. The cover issue will get resolved. Some kind of technical glitch. The cover spec’s meet the requirements of the publisher, but the result isn’t lined up quite right, so something slightly off at the printer’s… I think we’re close!

              And ACIM is certainly a mouthful! I spent a lot of good hours with that one… I think you will really like ACOL, too, should you choose to read it at some point. It is written more for the heart, and comes at some of the same issues from a different vantage point that is also very healing.

              Much Love,
              Michael

              Like

            • Thank you , Michael…I am sure I will spend time with it 🙂 I have so much going on that I don’t get to read books as much as I would like to. But I will “make” time when your beautiful book is in my hands…sending good energy 😉
              ♡♡

              Liked by 1 person

  3. This is fascinating Michael, and I do so love it when reading those words of others which set the mind alight with enthusiasm and interest on this tricky subject of inter-relatedness, as Alexander’s did for me here. It seems to me that the apparent scarcity of such works – although any assessed scarcity is necessarily personal to the individual – is that all too often writers find it hard to escape, what are to many, unhelpful quasi-religious overtones, or they perhaps resort to what come down to meaningless abstractions in their bids to convey what is a real, albeit subtle, human experience encountered by many. From the excerpts you post here, Alexander seems eminently capable of avoiding these pitfalls whilst retaining clarity and the possibility of ready comprehension by the open and inquiring mind.

    I am unsure whether the italicisation is yours, but this raised a smile of recognition within me: “. . . the relatedness through which I feel that my own self and the tree in the field are directly connected is the most fundamental relation that there is.” In the little manual I wrote about contemplation, I describe a practice of being out in nature and silently examining one’s relation to a nearby tree whilst stripped of the usual conceptual baggage and overlays, instead just resting in the seamless awareness that unites tree and oneself. If it works, and it may well only do so in brief glimpses due to its extreme subtlety, then we become the relatedness that Alexander points to – the unicity of space becomes as vital an aspect of phenomena as the spatially delineated tree and our physical being, and in the process it becomes clear that there is a very fundamental distinction between the world as a remodeled mind-creation, and how awareness meets it prior to perceptual categorisation in a non-localised unicity. I think I am referring to what Alexander is, though cannot be certain of course. In any case, I shall investigate Alexander further, and thank you for the introduction Michael.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hello Hariod,

      The emphasis was retained from the original work. I was smiling to myself as I wrote this, remembering your use of the same image and knowing you would enjoy this bit of symmetry…

      I do think there is a sameness to what you are describing and what Alexander is pointing towards, but I am not absolutely certain. One aspect of Alexander’s description that I love is his definition of the “I”, which I didn’t touch upon here given the limited space. He uses the “I” not as we would, as the pronoun identifying little old me, but as a way of identifying an “isness” found interpenetrating all things. Alexander asserts that there is a singular field underlying all of reality, and that it is present in all matter to a greater or lesser degree, and that this experience with the tree is a type of resonance of the presence of the “I” in himself with the presence of the “I” in the tree. The “I” is the same. There is only one “I”, and yet it is activated or asserted in the experiential recognition of itself.

      Our failure as builders is partly our failure to recognize our responsibility to somehow craft structures that are more conducive vessels for amplifying or revealing this “I”, which is not a matter of taste in his opinion. It has nothing to do with style or with fashion. Any style could enliven the “I”, and mobilize it in the world. In fact, one might even argue that every “authentic” style– meaning those explorations rooted in digging for what emerges truly from within us when we diligently pursue this not-separate state– is a way of bringing life to the world.

      I do think you will enjoy what you find, should you take the time to explore his works thoroughly. He takes his time and works to the “metaphysical” elements of his practice very slowing, focusing first on tangible experiences universal to human experience…

      Michael

      Liked by 2 people

  4. OOOH, Michael! I can feel your excitement about this 4 volume text – this Nature of Order. I must confess, I am sparked to add this text to my reading list, which is more or less an imaginary list at this point 😉 I must admit, too, that I feel the word EGO is used so strangely, and inconsistently, by all – including myself. I need to read more to sense what is embodied in this text for which you gave us a sneak preview. The word EGO is a trickster word, igniting people into finger-pointing and shadow maneuvering. I’m thinking of the Eggo waffle commercials and chuckling. How clever they were!

    Boy do i agree with this text below:

    “This is, perhaps, the central mystery of the universe: that as things become more unified, less separate, so also they become most individual, and most precious.”

    Magnificent! Thanks, Michael, for you being you. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Ka,

      I agree with you about the ego word, though you wouldn’t know that by my use of it here…! I think I will try to come up with an alternate word where possible. The truth is that Alexander himself uses it quite sparingly, probably about as many times in his whole series as I have in this one post. You would have to work hard to find those passages… 🙂

      One of his fundamental ideas is that architecture rooted in “image”– image being an exterior lacking in inner meaning or relatedness, but standing as a glaring assertion (again, my own attempts at paraphrasing a much better discussion in the original)– does not enhance the life of ourselves, or of the space it occupies. I’m enchanted by this idea of creating life by working with natural materials… And I do think it is breathtakingly difficult…

      But I’m really glad you enjoyed this and some interest was sparked. I thought it would be a topic you would enjoy…

      Thanks for being you, too, Ka!
      Michael

      Liked by 2 people

      • 😀 Your reply made me smile.

        Coinciding thoughts: I found the following commentary written about book 4 (of the 4 in your post), Luminous Ground, “And then, in the middle of the book, comes the linchpin of the work – a one-hundred-page chapter on color, which dramatically conveys the way that consciousness and spirit are manifested in the world.” I’m thinking about my current appreciation for the spark of color as it ignites within me new levels of revelation and perception…and with that I just added these books to my reading list.

        Today I added 3 other books (in addition to the 4 you have inspired me to include from your post) onto my now-real-again book list. I shall have plenty to do offline 😉

        Also my relevant thoughts have taken me to Martin Buber; I and Thou; and to a friendship with another beautiful soul around the age of 15 (me and she) who introduced me, then, to I and Thou.

        It would appear that books on moving beyond mechanistic “it-ness’ of cosmology to the full feel of embracing an “all-us” sense of god particle…as in, it’s all made of God-us, would be most suitable for life on Earth. Maybe I got carried away here, but I had help.
        Aloha, Ka

        Liked by 2 people

        • Yes, Ka. You certainly had help!

          I am not familiar with Martin Buber, but after a quick peek into his ideas, they seem very apropos to this post. I wish these ideas were taught more in schools and universities, and weren’t ideas we happened across by chance or luck or fate or desire alone. Whatever combination it has been for us. Actually, I’d rather they weren’t taught, but were available. Because who wants to learn what they are force fed? If we just had a little more access to beauty, and to genius, what a difference it would make I feel…

          I am actually in the midst of the long discussion of color right now. It is indeed a beautiful section. He offers some very interesting ideas and relates them to his first book, where he identifies fifteen or so properties of living buildings-objects-art that seem to be recurring themes. He links many of them to his ideas about color.

          Ahhh…. very interesting stuff!

          Aloha
          Michael

          Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Ellen. I, too, find the idea of unity striking. It would be quite easy for me to say that these works are the core ideas of A Course of Love, applied to architecture. In fact, I don’t really think that is too much of a stretch in some regards. Unity is fundamental… it changes our approach to everything… As Alexander said, we have to desire it, though. We have to dig for it. Be willing to see past some of our awkward or roughened edges to the love that has always been within…

      Love,
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes! There’s a familiarity about this, something I’ve been aware of in peripheral vision. That’s where the missing ‘self’ went… interesting that when asked directly about the self/no-self issue, the Buddha didn’t answer, explaining to close friends later that any answer he might give the questioner would lead to speculation and therefore be inaccurate. I sense something of this in the difficulty Alexander experiences when he has to ‘honestly give up every last trace of wanting to be distinct, famous, separate, identifiable”, and it may be the last one of twenty attempts in his experiment that is successful. I find it inspiring, motivating, thanks for posting…

    Liked by 1 person

    • My pleasure, Tiramit. Thanks for this comment, and acknowledging the challenge of grappling with this head on… I think by the twentieth attempt whatever’s in the way is so frustrated by the effort to make sense of the process, it just accepts whatever’s next, and then some wisp of beauty passes through… I find it inspiring as well… it reminds me of A Course in Miracles, when it says all we need is “a little willingness…” It seems to me Alexander is putting his finger on what this means…

      Peace
      Michael

      Like

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