A Turbulent Stream

This post grew in response to a conversation over at Leaving Babylon around questions of planning.

We imagine ourselves on stable ground, or fear that we are otherwise in a chaotic jumble. We are within dynamic flows. These take place around us and within us and can be thought of as motions upon morphic fields that affect and shape our perceptions, our judgements, our actions. Perhaps the most fundamental flaw behind our notions of planning is this misunderstanding where we stand. Let’s take globalization as an example. We are each of us in a different part of this great stream that has swept through the world. Parts of its flow are yet still, in those rare outposts where it has not yet taken hold. Parts are in full flood and other parts of its flow are reversed in counter eddies.

We imagine that as individuals we are static and that our relative movement in relation to our immediate surroundings is in some way absolute. We wonder why others – in different parts of the flow – don’t do more to respond, or in some way fail to meet our expectations of a rational response. We lash ourselves over our apparent inability to change our own position.

What we fail to consider is what the surrounding flow does to each of us even before it can be affected by our individual differences of temperament or ability.

How can any plan – a static, fossilized recipe that draws attention and effort away from what surrounds us at each moment do anything but lead us astray? Think of a brook running over stones and dropping off ledges into pools. Look at various leaves, sticks, fish, bugs, and birds at various points along its course. As they move from one part to another. If we insist on a static frame of reference we are like a pre-Copernican astronomer trying to reconcile the movements of the planets with an earth-centric conception of the universe. All sorts of elaborate machinations are needed – full of special cases and counter intuitive rules – to make it work out in any plausible approximation to what we see. That’s where we are with our plans.

Chaos is a quality of perception not a state of existence. There is only relative stability and instability. Chaos is an instability that is misunderstood or beyond our comprehension. It is part of a cosmic order that we are incapable of perceiving at a particular time. This is a good working definition of drowning.

What separates a swimmer from someone drowning is the way a swimmer acknowledges and respects the limitations of immersion in water. A person drowning rejects them. It is this rejection of their situation and its constraints that puts them in danger. A swimmer is immersed. A drowning person is not just in denial, but actively rejecting where they are and insisting that the same “rules” that work on land should apply. They attempt to climb out of the water. They close themselves off from any possibility of learning from their situation, from learning how to adapt to what almost any human body will do on its own if left to its nature. A body floats. With little trouble it can float in such a way that one can maintain breathing and maintain life. A drowning person for whatever reasons that lead up to their being overwhelmed by their condition, closes themselves off from these possibilities.

Solid ground, under the most stable of circumstances is still at most a convenient fiction. We are all, always immersed in turbulent flows that will overwhelm us if we lock-up and refuse to engage, to recognize the fact of our immersion. The habit of turning away from our direct experience, looking for “leadership,” for directions, for some plan to show us how to proceed; will only get us drowned as they divert our attention from the turbulent flow.

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18 thoughts on “A Turbulent Stream

  1. Antonio; your analogy of swimming with conditions or drowning in resistance/denial is superb.
    The image of turbulent water brought back memories of canoeing in Canada. Sometimes, while going along on a peaceful section of river,. you begin to hear the sound of white water ahead. Taking heed, you pause to scout, as best you can, the best way through what lies ahead. Just paddling on without a thought or a plan is foolish. It would be even worse, though, to go through the rapids with eyes fixed on a map or set of instructions. Rigid adherence to any preconceived plan (7 strokes on the left, 3 on the right…) would have us on the rocks for sure! Mind and senses alert in the moment, smooth, quick response to ever-changing reality, it’s amazing what dangers we can survive.
    Sometimes I worry, though, that habitual reliance on an intellectual or academic approach to problem solving (if I read the right books, I’ll be able to swim! :-) ) misleads too many people away from developing genuine competence.
    I’d say it’s time to get out there, make some mistakes, get wet and learn some skills while we are still in relatively calm water.

    I feel that we have choice in the way we respond, but is that just an illusion?
    Perhaps the “morphic fields that affect and shape our perceptions, our judgements, our actions” move us helplessly along. That’s the part I can’t clearly understand.
    Hopefully, communication too, is an effective part of the energy turbulence, helping to shape the way people respond to what is happening.

    An excellent, thought-provoking post. Cheers.

    • Tamnaa,

      Thank you!

      And welcome.

      “Mind and senses alert in the moment…” Exactly.

      “genuine competence…” There is no substitute! This is where we find the chasm between Craft and technology. Technology holds out the false promise of a substitute for competence by buying into a recipe.

      We are moved by the fields around and in us, but we also influence these fields and this does lead to shift changes. It’s not easy and we are out of practice, but this is a way past futility.

      I agree, communication, especially true dialogue, is an effective agent that modifies the shapes of our responses.

  2. The thing is… people think as though there are only two ways to run the river… either you go by the guide book, or you ride like a snail on a log, helplessly carried along. Eh… Black and white thinking is alive and well…

  3. “how do we engage with people who are trapped in b&w thinking without pushing them deeper into their delusions?”
    Quick answer: Demonstrate.
    I’ve always found that there’s a huge gap between the expression of an idea and the realization of it through doing. Very often people who have really good ideas and work hard at verbalizing them well still haven’t done much about putting their ideas into practice. If their ideas attract a following and it starts to become a movement, it’s likely the whole thing will come off half-baked and ineffectual. Ideas and words are important but they’re just not enough.
    Like turning a clay pot on the wheel, it’s a dynamic process requiring constant subtle response to situational reality. Something useful and potentially beautiful may be created this way but it’s entirely possible to “know” how it’s done and yet be unable to do it. The pot begins to wobble and then it flops!

    So movements like Transition or Permaculture are like pots on the wheel. If somebody sees wobbles developing they might be tempted to say “Hey, you’re doing it wrong! My ideas are better”
    But that’s not self-evident. The trouble might not be one of ideas at all, but rather in mastering the skills for realization. It would be perfectly understandable if the critic were told to go get some clay, slap it on the wheel and “show us what you can do!”

    A good pottery teacher first demonstrates the creation of a truly inspiring pot and then, if anybody is interested, encourages and guides the students as they get their hands into the clay.

    Make sense at all?

    • Makes sense. Though I still think that critiques do have their place.

      The Omega catalog just came my way (can’t people tell charlatans from the real thing? apparently not) and there is a neat bit by Bobby McFerrin. They ask him whether he is able to teach other people what he does so well. He says:

      “You know, I don’t actively teach it. But if I stand there, appreciating the world around me as full of amazing sounds and the possibility of new ones, I think that invites other people to see the world that way too.”

      • This question of critique and its place is a big one! We who tend to think and feel that things are amiss have had a long history with criticism. We’ve felt the way our warnings are never heeded. We’ve felt the sting of others criticism of our “impracticality.” We’ve been immersed in frustration over watching things go from bad to worse when any of many suggested criticisms – if they’d been accepted in time – would have made substantial differences. This cycle has worn deep ruts in our psyches.

        Does it help? Warnings heeded do help, “Hey! watch out!” and we put out a helping hand and divert catastrophe. This is our model. This is our dream.

        The key is that this works when warnings are heeded.

        What about when they are not?

        Do they still help?

        I’m not so sure.

        It has to do with attention. Let’s start with the attention of those who are not listening, or who refuse to listen. For them our harping acts as a distraction. It puts us between them and their situation vis a vis the thing we are warning against. This distraction goes even further. It often results in a reaction of opposition. “I was minding my own business when…” “Who do they think they are telling me…!” These reactions then cripple any possibility for those people to find their own connection to Mind and find a way. Even if they do “follow” our advice, we have insured that they will have a much harder time actually meeting their difficulty creatively. They can’t. They’ve been steered by us to follow.

        The other thing a focus on criticism does, this time for us, the critics, is that it takes up our attention. People are right when they get fed up with critics, “Why don’t they find an answer!”

        We can’t create if we keep our attention focused on all the stupid stuff others are doing. It’s like the old obstacles-in-my-path routine. Sure, I need to know what’s in the way, but unless I take my eyes off it long enough to find a clear path, I’ll just ensure that I hit that obstacle squarely.

        Criticism then, outside the model of what we wish it would be, the clear warning well received that saves the day, is actually, most often, just another way of distracting ourselves from the necessity to buckle down and do the creative work.

        McFerrin’s example is exactly right! That is how insight is transmitted.

    • Thanks Tamnaa,

      You’ve nudged me into looking at the whole movement phenomena in a different way.

      Within a living culture/culture of life what you describe is what goes on. People do, and the passing on of what is done happens through shared doing. There is no, or little “education” going on. This works in the way you’ve described.

      The whole education as an “industry” concept is quite recent. Tie that with the fetish for innovation and we get this epidemic-theory for how behavior is passed on. Instead of learning being embedded in every day life and having adaptations evolve within the awareness of the people who are living it we rush off to inoculate people with vaccines against certain ideas and strive to infect them with others.

      This gives a whole other set of dynamic reasons why this whole concept of movements is flawed at its base. By definition a “movement” requires that a few set themselves up as leaders and turn their efforts to recruitment and manipulation and coercion to keep the herd moving. None of this has anything to contribute to the way people actually learn, actually change. This reaches its inevitable absurdity with “movements of liberation.” “Follow me! I’ll make you free!”

      Learning, evolution, creativity are nurtured and not transmitted like some disease. This happens one person at a time.

      Our habits of looking for short-cuts, like setting off in great herds for distant “goals,” ends up funneling off so much of the energy that could go into useful change. As soon as three people have some inkling of an “innovative” new approach they rush off to form a movement! This skimming effect removes those most likely to do anything useful, and it does it at their own hands!

      Both the habit of doing this and the underlying impatience and distrust of anything that is not under direct, though illusory, control; together keep us spinning our wheels.

      Insight is shared by someone who is ready to see, seeing what another is pointing to. This cannot be commodified, as we are finding with everything else, without losing any value that might have been there in the first place.

      • Yes, I think criticism is often valuable. I subject my own actions to critique constantly. It’s frustrating, really, because I never listen. :-)

        re: learning in a “living culture” (although I worry it may be dying)…
        If you go to: http://tamnaa2.blogspot.com/ and scroll down several pics you will see my wife learning as a true expert demonstrates astonishing skill in spinning cotton thread. This lady did not learn from a book. She didn’t take a course or receive “certification”. She learned from her mother in the traditional manner passed down through generations over many centuries, perhaps thousands of years.

        It’s funny to me how the first thing these movements need to do is create a catchy name or label. Just last night I saw a story about a Thai farmer who was growing fruit trees, bushes, vines and vegetables in a mixed way on his land. As the story goes, passing foreigners began to stop to take photos of what he was doing and to talk to him. They asked him where he had learned “Permaculture”. Of course, he had never heard the term. He was just growing food in the traditional way to the best of his ability. His place has since become an organic permaculture demonstration center or something.

        Do you think we humans might be such a socially driven species that, before we can do individually what we think is best, we first need the sanction of a popular group or movement?

      • Thanks for those examples. They show a difference in attitudes between the way your wife approached an opportunity and the way these passersby did. She approached quietly and open to what was unfamiliar. They approached in a hurry to bury any possible fresh insight into a label they had learned to regurgitate.

        I think this is already at least a partial answer to your question. Not everyone has this desire to follow, at least not always.

        It seems that what we are seeing is tied to the twin habits of our day to want ease, and therefore not have to come to our own conclusions, and this axis from technology to innovation to movements that has grown out of a reductivist worship of efficiency in which everything is accepted as a means to some end, and no other way of being-in-the-world is imaginable.

        It is just as much “human nature” to approach the unfamiliar in awe and wonder as it is to rush to label it and bury it in the maw of unconsidered habit.

        How do we recognize the factors that lead us one way or the other? How do we adjust our course to avoid the latter? These are big questions.

    • Jack,

      Yea….

      What the river straighteners miss is that they ARE in the river. Their “bird’s eye view” is an illusion. If they would allow themselves to feel where they are – in the flow with everything else – the whole idea of “fixing things,” straightening the river, would appear as foolish and dangerous as it is!

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