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.
Hi Michael, I like your and Christopher’s take on wholeness and I haven’t really followed Sam much. For me, the idea of wholeness resonates. Occasionally, when I’m out in nature or living from service, I feel a oneness with life that supersedes the need to explain it. I feel it and know it. Maybe when we can feel a oneness with those people we disagree with, many of the world’s problems will be resolved. In love and peace, Brad
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Thanks, Brad. I think that tangible, personal feeling of connection we have is important to recognize and follow. Christopher Alexander actually talks about the necessity of letting our feeling and experience of wholeness to guide us through the process of building. I suspect it is both joyful, and really difficult to actually remain in that space… given how much we’re all packed full of modern values and perceptions and such. I think the masters can feel that oneness even in disagreement. It’s a good thing to cultivate I think.
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Sounds like an interesting process from Christopher. And yes, cultivating oneness is a great thing!
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Hi Michael, great piece, for which many thanks. Two topics of discussion, if you will:
T1: If, when remaining lucid in awareness, we abandon thought, we abandon even perception, do we not in that moment realise this wholeness, or is it more complicated?
T2: If, when remaining lucid in awareness, having abandoned thought, having abandoned even perception, and (if) in that moment this wholeness is realised, can subsequently the world of apparent un-wholeness (i.e. the duality of thingness) be concurrently perceived or overlain upon the wholeness? Or are the two mutually exclusive?
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I think on your first question, if you are asking about the wholeness I’ve ascribed to the universe–a living and unified dimension to all existence–then certainly that may be contacted through the process or vehicle you describe. But I also think it is profoundly natural and effortless, so that the practices to which we often adhere in an effort to “have” this experience are to a certain extent related to how confused we are to begin with. If we had been born into a culture that understands and relates to this wholeness, and had been given the recognition early on that uniqueness and wholeness are somehow profoundly and mutually necessary, then the awareness that all we encounter is a unique arising of wholeness might be as natural as walking through the trees with delight. But we’ve got a lot of psychic baggage today. We live in a society recovering from dead, mechanized models of reality and things that are as simple as the blooming feeling of the human heart don’t have a place just yet. So we’ve made it complicated…
I’ve probably by now answered your second question, but to be clear I think our awareness of wholeness, and our experience of being whole, occur not in spite of, but through the culmination of daily life. I think our attention can be placed on something very specific and so will not in every moment have the same perceptual dimensionality to it, but underneath the awareness of wholeness can chug along quite nicely–like the backdrop of the particular–and will often and whenever needed overlay with the mundane such that wholeness becomes the mundane. And so I’m not advocating for a dualism I don’t think–such terms confine this living reality too much to be useful–but I’m advocating the idea that wholeness can be a flower, a thought, a consideration, a response, the starting of the car, an acceptance of the need to forgive, the flavor of tea. The mechanics of how universal wholeness becomes each of these particular whole experiences is something I think we are yet to fully understand.
What do you think?
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Thank you for that brilliant response to what I suspect are unfairly posed, rather awkward questions, meaning that I’m not sure if there’s any watertight response possible. Or if there is, I don’t have it.
I suppose I would say in response to Topic 1, that an object-less awareness (some call it a Thoughtless Emptiness) at least has the value of ‘clearing the decks’, so that the conscious mind isn’t incessantly coalescing around some mind-object or percept. As you say, when the conscious mind supervenes there is not necessarily “the same perceptual dimensionality to it.”
In response to Topic 2, then I might suggest that the two states (object-less awareness & the conscious mind of objects & percepts) curiously can co-exist, and I think you may be saying this too when you say “wholeness becomes the mundane”, paradoxical though it is when expressed in words. Yes, if I’m reading you correctly, then we’re on the same page there, Michael.
I suppose the way these things are formulated in words may help or hinder, or more likely do nothing at all. On the one hand it’s entirely obvious that the brain & nervous system create and instigate the conscious mind of objects & percepts, and yet we live as if this wasn’t so; we live our lives imagining the objects are ‘out there’ (and indeed there is something out there of course), yet what we live in actuality (i.e as experience) is not out there, or at least not wholly out there (or anywhere!). I think that sometimes (always?) in these flashes of satori or wholeness that come along, then the higher knowing awareness ‘sees’ that all the world, including our own body, is a mind creation as it is apprehended. I suppose that’s why there’s all this talk of life being a dream, though that’s misleading. Some Buddhists have a nice way of expressing it:
“Before a man studies Zen, to him mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after he gets an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, mountains to him are not mountains and waters are not waters; but after this when he really attains to the abode of rest, mountains are once more mountains and waters are waters.” — D.T. Suzuki
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First of all thank you for engaging with me here. It is much appreciated! I want to try and come at this from a slightly different perspective, not because I take any exception to what you’ve said, but because I think when we consider this type of question from multiple perspectives we get a fuller picture.
Consider a thought experiment in which a child with an innocent, just-opening mind is told there is a monster hiding in the closet. If the child believes this, which I’d suggest it likely would, it is easy to see how the awareness of such a monster changes everything. It colors the child’s entire experience. So what I think is that the acceptance of wholeness, and the rejection of wholeness, are both like this. There is no middle ground, no objective position that is self-evident and allows us to be “off the hook” from having made an active perceptual decision. I think further that without the acceptance of wholeness as the nature of reality, meditation and other spiritual practices can produce a certain dichotomy of experience—in certain moments we are devoted to unity, but then we get up from the cushion and go out into the world and we are hamstrung by the monster in the closet we call separateness.
Using the language of this series of posts, the rejection of wholeness is the monster in the closet we’ve all been taught. The acceptance of our separateness has colored everything. It seems objective and self-evident. And because the nature of experience in this universe so thoroughly confirms the perceptual stance we’ve taken, there is a barrier to changing our fundamental worldview that is not unlike the concept of activation energy in physics. There is a threshold difficulty that must be overcome if one wishes to shift perceptions, and here is where I feel meditative practices, and other spiritual disciplines in general, can be truly helpful. They bring us to the precipice. But while they can lift us to the brink, they can’t make the choice for us of which side of that divide we will tumble back down when open our eyes and walk back into the world.
If we choose separateness again, that will be what we see. If we choose unity, we will fall into unity, and there will not be a single experience we have that is not colored by this unity. So I think of meditation and other spiritual practices as the sorts of actions that take us back to the point of genuine, profound choice—the only actual choice we ever have… The rest of the discussion we’re (collectively as a society) having is futile compared to this approach to genuine choice. All the rest is just pushing our peas and carrots around on the plate, and hiding them in the mashed potatoes of our so-called objectivity.
I think in all honesty it is a mistake to think there is a truly objective way of viewing phenomena. Events and things may be neutral in and of themselves, but the manner in which we as beings construct our perceptions cannot be accomplished without navigating the issue of self, of other, of non-self, and relationship. For me the notion of a dichotomy between the idea of objectless awareness and the conscious mind of objects and precepts is a false one. One is the sort of primordial bedrock of being, and the other relates to the manner in which being differentiates and comes into expression. So they are deeply unified. But in the movement of consciousness it may choose a path of coming into expression as a separate, self-created, bounded kingdom of consciousness, or it may do so as the felt experience of wholeness coming into form. I think these rooms will feel quite different, both on and off the cushion. And I think the manifest worlds that will emerge from the feelings of these two rooms, when present as the context and scenery of our awareness, will be markedly different as well. If we wish a world that works for the maximum number of people, I think it will come from cultivating the activation energy to cross the threshold of awareness from separateness to unity, and that anything less will leave us in conflict…
At the end of this journey the mountain is once again the mountain, but it is not the same mountain. And we are not the same beholders of the mountain. The mountain is always the mountain, of course, but it is the mountain in a new way.
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Really excellent, thank you, Michael, and I too appreciate your engagement on this. The more I read your thoughts on this, the more evident it becomes that we are indeed on the same page. For example, you say, “For me the notion of a dichotomy between the idea of objectless awareness and the conscious mind of objects and precepts is a false one.” Precisely! That is why I said, “I might suggest that the two states (object-less awareness & the conscious mind of objects & percepts) curiously can co-exist”, and it is as this very coexistence that wholeness becomes starkly obvious as the two (what were seemingly) separate states/perspectives cohere as one. The dichotomy of subject and object dissolves, and yet it is not nothingness that remains; the former distinct line that the mind had created between ourselves as the experiencing subject and the world it beholds doesn’t simply blur, it disappears. And yet we remain, the mashed potatoes remain, at one with the carrots and cutlery. 🙂
I didn’t listen to the podcast, but from what you say about Sam and Russel, it sounds like a perfect mirror of what is going on in the greater population. Each trying to state their position without listening to the other,or coming anywhere near a unified understanding and acceptance.
I loved this passage that Christopher wrote –
“Sixth and finally, the idea of wholeness encompasses the idea of healing. If we wish to heal something, we wish to make it whole…Healing is making whole; that which is healed has a stronger wholeness than that which is not healed..”
And then what you wrote –
“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.”
“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 hear your heart and passion so clearly in this piece, Michael. You are able to articulate what so many of us feel. The desire for Unity, and the frustration of not seeing it. What we see with our eyes is not what we know in our Souls. Thank you for sharing this with us. I have to trust that we will all wake up to this, and become One. It is happening. Peace and Love prevail. It is hard, at least for me, to be patient with the reckless galloping, though.I try to stay in the big picture, and I also want to be of service to help it happen. I feel you are being of great service with your writing , sharing your heart.
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Thank you, Mary. You do see this and me clearly I think. I’m very grateful for that.
There are so many specific problems that appear to demand, with urgency, particular solutions, the notion that allowing wholeness to occupy a central place in our understanding of being and of life is often a good ways down the list it seems. I tend to think it would resolve, in time, a great many of the obstacles we face to achieving an equitable, dynamic society which supports all forms of life.
Thank you for the kind words! I hope it is of service, and hope together we can step in that healing direction…
Peace and Love
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Another thoughtful and brain storming post, now my thoughts are all aflutter trying to pick and glean more about the theory of wholeness. I like to think like a vase, it will always be a vase, whether filled with water and flowers or empty. It is still the name we give it, as are our minds, whether filled to overflowing with chaos or empty in relaxed, it is all the same, but it’s the power that we give to choosing one over the other as being the right way that takes away the wholeness. I like to just find acceptance in all this is and will be, for we are a part of the whole and we can work wonders if we just create peace and love and the harmony to give birth to the vibration that we send out to the emptiness that is not empty, but just not yet given a name.
Peace, love and harmony,
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I think if I understand you, Kim, you’re saying that when we judge what is and isn’t whole, we’ve lost it. That’s when it slips through our fingers. And if so, I’d agree. Acceptance allows it all to remain just as it is, and judgment cleaves it asunder, at least the experience of it in our own minds. We can accept the whole thing at once, even if we don’t know each and every tiddly-wink and dust mote that are included in our acceptance. The beauty of wholeness is that genuine acceptance of one moment, one being, one drop of awareness in its pure form, is acceptance of everything…
Nice to hear you humming along,
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i’m grateful to have read
through your thoughts,
on those great thinkers
& process of delineating
& experiencing wholeness, Michael!
amazing what the mind can do
and not do to get in harmony!
imagine being in tune with senses
which can see the unseen
and touch at least some
of those other dimensions 🙂
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I’m imagining it, David! What a sight! Thank you for your thoughts and I think when Alexander speaks of this process of becoming whole, and of feeling our way to it through the heart, he would acknowledge the way we all touch these hidden dimensions…
Sweet Blessings, my friend ❤
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Likewise, Lorrie. Thank you…
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set in motion certain utterings of my heart…that makes sense to me…i prefer middles…beginnings and endings are hardest, to me…when i return home i will listen to the podcasts…i’ve also started to enjoy them this past year…ps. i also love your threads…much to chew on 😀 hugs hedy 🙂
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Yes! Beginnings and endings are always unique. Sometimes hardest, I agree. Creative beginnings can be difficult, but once we get our sea legs. Other times there is the joy of just beginning. But then there are endings. Endings of all sorts. The middle is where we’re not in need of thought. So i agree…. 🙂 I also love the boundaries in nature, the river deltas and borderlands that are so fertile, so cross-pollinated and interwoven. The spaces in the middle are vibrant, counter-cultural, indistinct and interwoven. This is what we need I feel…