When I began this series of posts I was frustrated by the particular combination of admiration and frustration I had been feeling—and still feel—listening to Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast. While I appreciate Sam’s take on many things, what frustrated me was his unwillingness to engage with ideas about the nature of the universe that lay in the unexplored midlands between the polarities of fundamentalist theism and the same sort of scientific materialism. On multiple occasions I’ve witnessed his swift dismissal and/or refusal to engage on any ideas that lie in this region.
This frustration reached its peak for me in his discussions with Russell Brand on a recent podcast, in which Russell asked if there might not be some underlying, unified ground of being that remains once religions are stripped of their dogma, their ritual, and their political machinations. I’m not quoting exactly, so please give me some leeway here. Russell essentially asked about the possibility of genuine oneness, to which Sam responded by noting that the Catholic dogma about the sanctity of life had extended human suffering by denying the possibility of embryonic stem cell research. This seemed out of left field to me. (For those interested in listening briefly, the podcast with Russell Brand is freely accessible on Sam’s website, and this exchange I’m paraphrasing begins at time 1:38:00 plus or minus.)
Russell responded by saying he felt ultimately he and Sam would be on the same side of that one, though Russell understood a certain hesitation comes into play when discussing human life in any form. Then Russell attempted to turn the conversation back to the possibility of genuine interconnectivity and oneness, and Sam chose to focus on a tangential point of Russell’s long-winded reply—here Russell’s somewhat sprawling style undermined him I think—which was Russell’s stated discontent with consumerism. Instead of addressing what I felt was a central thrust of the previous hour and a half, Sam deflected the conversation to this sidebar on religious dogma, and then regrouped, eventually, on the possibilities of nuclear terrorism, the need for good laws and externalized systems so that nobody has to be a moral hero to do the right thing, some interesting psychological research on the human response to suffering, and statistics on world poverty.
So what I would like to do today is explore the territory I felt was unexplored: the idea of wholeness. Wholeness is a beautiful and enigmatic possibility I don’t think we can yet exclude from being fundamental to nature and the universe. And I want to explore it through the lens of Christopher Alexander’s writing, which ever since I discovered it has always moved me to joy even in the shortest of passages. Christopher is an architect, and has devoted his career to researching processes conducive to creating spaces that nurture human beings, encourage organic interconnection, vulnerability and well-being, and step away from the modern artificiality of concept and image that leave us bereft. He calls this sort of building “life-giving” and he views the sorts of processes that generate life-giving spaces as being healing to the builder. A central theme to Christopher’s work is wholeness.
Last night I read a description he wrote on wholeness and I thought it worth offering directly, as I was struck by its beauty and power. I hope you will find, as I do, the intensity and care of thought that he has placed into this passage. (The emphases are from the original.)
[beginning of excerpt from Battle for the life and Beauty of the Earth]
“First, wholeness is a structure, and can be understood as such. This means that when we try to find the wholeness of a particular thing or place, we can point a finger at that structure, and so make it possible to share our idea of what the wholeness is.
“Second, the thing we call wholeness—the feeling or the intuition, of what wholeness is—always extends beyond the thing in question. If we speak of the wholeness of a person, we may be confident that this wholeness is felt through that person’s connection with the world. It is not possible to be whole by being isolated from all that surrounds you.
“Third, there is also the fact that somehow, any wholeness we want to point to, or think about, seems to elude comprehension. That is why I sometimes call it ‘wholeness, the intangible.’ The intangible comes from the fact that every thing that has, or maintains, wholeness is always unique. This means that words and concepts almost always fail to encompass it perfectly; only the wholeness itself can point to what it is.
“Fourth, there is, too, the presence of unity. What we refer to as wholeness, is a quality of being one, of being glued-together, interlaced, being unified. It is, also, somehow, at peace. Even if it is a raging storm at sea where we experience wholeness, somehow, in some sense and some fashion, it is peaceful, because it is exactly what it is, and nothing else.
“Fifth, each wholeness contains and is composed of myriad other wholes. This last is something that is describable. There are specific geometric qualities and properties that come into play. These tell us what kinds of relationships between smaller wholenesses and the larger ones, are doing the hard work. They are always there, and must be there, in order to create the wholeness of the larger thing.
“Sixth and finally, the idea of wholeness encompasses the idea of healing. If we wish to heal something, we wish to make it whole. The Middle-English word hale, lying as it does halfway between whole and heal, gives us a sense of this connection. Healing is making whole; that which is healed has a stronger wholeness than that which is not healed.
“Wholeness can only be understood in the act of grasping it and moving into it, creating it, and experiencing it. Much as we might like to have a crisp definition, it is simply not possible. We can reach understanding of wholeness only when we see the objective wholeness in the thing or place, and simultaneously experience the growth of wholeness in ourselves. These two must go together. That is the nature of the phenomenon.”
[ending of excerpt]
I want to close by suggesting that what excites me about both science and spirituality is the experience Christopher describes above—the spontaneous discovery of wholeness, which in its occurrence is always both within and without. I think what Sam has chosen to dismiss in his pursuit of the rational is the possibility that all existence exists together, the possibility that wholeness is the fundamental characteristic of the universe. The reason I think this matters—and matters profoundly, completely, and ultimately—is that if Christopher Alexander is correct, then to heal our world we must learn to make it, and ourselves, whole. Step by step, and piece by piece. But if we cannot even speak in reasonable circles of this notion—if it is so occluded from rational thought as to be omitted from the discussion—then I fear the modern conversation is missing the most essential.
I started this blog to set into motion certain utterings of my heart I wasn’t sure I’d be able to say. I began writing poetry here, and I’ve begun writing fiction as I can, because sometimes you can come at it this most directly through the uncanny mobilization of deep awareness into form that we call art. I know we all return from the world with our particular discontentments. We each have our individual disappointments. But I suspect they are all related, all the same even. I suspect all of our hurt and disappointment and suffering is the product of failing to comprehend and relate viscerally to, in our daily lives, the pervasive wholeness that lives and moves and gives us being.
There are countless points of particularity to arbitrate in the meanwhile. But the specifics are, for me, not the level at which healing will come. Until we come home to this, to what is simple, beautiful and immediate, and truly powerful, our world will remain broken in its reckless gallop. I feel this as strongly as anything I’ve felt in my life, and I had to say it. At least once.
You are my beginning and my end, my true desire, and my completion. We are only this together.