An emergent system that has found an equilibrium between two polarities or opposing tensions naturally operates cyclically. Action and reflection. Day and night. Summer and winter. Youth and old age. Work and rest. Creation and consumption. The ebb and flow of an ecosystem. We only see these cycles interrupted in systems that have lost their equilibrium. Ruined or disrupted by an excess of either concentration or dispersion, they must undergo a period of sterility or chaos, respectively, to find a new equilibrium, oftentimes less complex and less rich than the one before. New levels of complexity emerge from that sterility, of course, but slowly. The extinction of the dinosaurs allowed mammal life to predominate. The collapse of the Roman Empire laid the seeds for modern western civilization. Yet it is not entirely accurate to say that an equilibrium, even as it oscillates, is oscillating about a fixed point.
There is a movement that leaps out, perhaps a rebellion of sorts against death. Even the rising and setting of the sun which we take for granted will eventually burn itself out. Our organisms have only so many cycles within them before the machinery falls apart. The cycles reach towards something, the equilibrium tends towards something. Perhaps this is merely human fiction and narrative attached to things that simply are, finding order in chaos and patterns in nothingness, projecting what we want to see upon our world as if it were one massive habitable Rorschach inkblot. So be it. That is the story-telling power of human consciousness, our power to see and name and speak and weave. Without that, what would we have? Naming it makes it real. To pretend otherwise is to ignore the basic principle of human consciousness, that we operate on faith in a fiction, usually a commonly shared fiction. A geopolitical border is not a real thing. But the belief in it changes how we act and how we relate, and that makes it real. Is an ecosystem tending towards something? More complexity and richness, perhaps, but like anything in nature it is pure process. There is no real end state that it is moving towards. End states are a human fiction, a product of our consciousness. Yet we cannot exist without them. We cannot witness ourselves or others without relationship to some end. We cannot experience the unity we seek without relating to some end. And yet when we get even a glimpse of unity, of meaningful felt experience in relation to others, there is nothing concretely different about the world. Yet we have changed in relation to it, and so it is experienced vastly differently. The very act of observation changes how we act and relate to it, changing the phenomenon itself, which exists only in the relationship.
And yet it is a long-known paradox of the human condition that we view each end we move towards as the end-all, be-all goal that will finally complete us. We think, this will be it, after this, I will have finally arrived. Yet there’s another end after that, and another, all the way up in one unbroken flow until our death. We transcend each end as soon as we achieve it, for we are not the same person who achieved it. We have transformed, and shifted our natural point of equilibrium. Transformation is but internalizing a resolution of tension associated with the achievement of an end. Through successful calling forth of the quality we seek in relationship, the relationship is now affirming a new being, freeing us to focus on new tensions to resolve and new ends to transcend. We then live the end as we constantly pour it forth back into the world, now aware of new or deeper tensions to solve. If we do not bring transformation forth in our expressions and experience, then it was not true transformation. In this world, idle capital is lost capital.
We move away from danger, and the absence of danger is an equilibrium point. We must move away from danger and what we value as bad, and we usually take the quickest path away from it. When we find somewhere safe, we can relax. Yet we stagnate and grow small in our boredom if we dwell there. Life is more than simply avoidance of danger and stress. We cannot stop there. And so we continue seeking, finding ever more expansive goodness to move towards as a function of expanding awareness. We are defined by our movement away from and especially by our movement towards. This is a search for new equilibrium points via transformation of being, where our capacity to relate is transformed and expanded such that we can make more meaning in ever more expansive relationships to the world. And because this process never ceases until we die, it becomes perpetual unveiling of being in the moment as moment-to-moment reflection of our process of relating. If we do not exercise this, we are not exercising the fullness of our humanity, for we are not expressing the majority of the basic impulses that guide our experience towards what we seek to bring alive.
If I am used to three meals a day, and switch suddenly to two, I may spend a week or more feeling quite a bit of discomfort impelling me to eat more frequently and return to my normal eating routine. My body eventually adapts, however. This is a simple example of a new point of equilibrium. The hunger doesn’t necessarily go away, but my relationship to it changes. And this is indicative of the transformation that has occurred. I cease feeling a constant, gnawing, urgent psychological need to find food, any food, and eat. In doing so, I realize that while I must eat, I need not be defined merely as an empty belly. I can sacrifice to be something more, someone different. I can choose to eat, or not. We may at any point decide to suffer one tension in order to serve a different tension, one that feels more important or more meaningful. Any parent, for example, instinctively knows or quickly learns that raising a healthy child requires that they sacrifice the satisfaction of some of their own needs. Parents need to forgo sleep to comfort or feed a newborn, for example. Financial sacrifices may need to be made so that the child has at least the necessities required to grow healthily. The parents may need to learn how to communicate better, enforce boundaries, and make myriad other personal changes such that the child grows up to become a mature, responsible, and independent adult. In all these cases we have underlying impulsions that act in tension with more self-centered impulses. In any given moment, there may be the desire to be good parents, to raise a healthy child, to not draw the scorn of the community through poor parenting, to take seriously one’s responsibility towards a new life one has created and who had no say in coming into this world. In resolving these tensions effectively with the tensions to also take care of one’s own needs, a contextualized solution is found corresponding to a new equilibrium point born of a transformative experience.
All of human history can be seen as one collective, emergent effort at shifting our common equilibrium point. Harnessing new energy sources and communications technologies allows us to concentrate ever more energy in tools, cities, and organizations. Westerners at this point have so completely adapted to readily available electricity and internet, for example, that we could not imagine life without it. New equilibrium points from more highly concentrated or differently concentrated energies open up entirely new ways of being and relating for us and our communities. Economist Jeremy Rifken shows in The Empathic Civilization that revolutionary shifts in energy production and communications technology fundamentally transformed human society and individual lives to the point that a species that evolved in hunter-gatherer bands of no more than a hundred or so individuals now cooperates and collaborates as nation-states and super-national coalitions. And optimistically, he writes, we are on the cusp of organizing and collaborating as a truly global civilization. Yet each transformation was prompted by a crisis, a crisis that was irreconcilable with then-current technology and forms of relating. Europe was on the brink of ecological and economic collapse due to massive deforestation, until coal and other fossil fuels were unlocked as an energy source. This created the industrial revolution and created the infrastructure for an electrically-powered society, and all that this implied for how we relate and organize our governments, institutions, and communities. William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their theory of generational cycles, point out how, like clockwork, major crises appear in a society once a saeculum, defined as a long-lived lifetime, approximately 80 to 100 years. These crises are the result of tensions between opposing polarities that finally come to a head. While destructive and terrifying, they are the only opportunities societies have for transformative experiences that allow them to progress. The high of each victory sows the seeds of its demise. Strauss and Howe note that the last crisis seemed to resolve the tension between capitalism and socialism in American society (think of the New Deal). The 50s and 60s were a heady time to be an American, but they were also times of often oppressive conformity. We have now swung to the opposite end of the pendulum, with an almost stifling emphasis on the needs of the individual- to the point where it is hard to be an individual at all. This crisis, they hypothesize, will come to a resolution of individual choice versus that of community.
Progress is not linear, for we would have no ability to course correct. Things seem linear when we zoom in. We’re either getting better or worse. If you zoom in enough to part of a circle, the curved line starts to seem straighter and straighter. Any straight line, after all, is merely a circle of sufficiently large radius. When we zoom out, we see the patterns, the ebb and flow, that emerges from complicated play of tensions testing, interacting, and resolving. Yet it is also not purely cyclical, for things clearly have changed and are moving directionally. We are spiraling towards something, with each loop corresponding to some crisis of tension, deep resolution and movement from a new equilibrium point. Modern man is infinitely more complicated in his relationships. We take commercial flight for granted, yet the coordination of requisite people, resources, and infrastructure boggles the mind. Electricity, stable governments and economies, reliable companies with communications technologies required to coordinate thousands across the globe, extraction and processing and delivery of raw materials into finished products, and much more. This is not to say we are smarter or better, as anthropologists have discovered when they find themselves unable to accomplish basic tasks taken for granted in the “primitive” society they are studying. Rather, we’re better suited for the world we have inherited and continue to build.
We see a clear pattern emerging, one that applies at any level of relating, be it the self or the society. It is the cycle of transformation in the face of difficult, unavoidable, and seemingly irreconcilable challenge. Less grandiosely, it is the simple and fundamental process of learning and changing in response to feedback from the world. Think about the four seasons: The blossoming of spring leads to the plenitude of summer. Summer cedes to the unraveling that is autumn, a time of both excess (think of the American tradition of Thanksgiving) and saving for the winter. Even plants take the opportunity of fall to encode their genes in the next generation, thus passing on the knowledge they have accumulated. Think of where we would be today had our ancestors not thought to integrate, encode, and so pass on their knowledge in the precious few tomes stored in medieval monasteries. Winter, then, is the crisis. It is the boon in disguise, the dark cold that makes the subsequent blooming next spring possible, fueled by the energy of the new and guided by the wisdom of the old. If there were no winter, no opportunity or reason for reflecting, change would be impossible. This pattern seems to be a fundamental part of the world as we can understand it, and of us as conscious, human beings, emergent from the laws of existence. Joseph Campbell’s famous theory that every story, myth, and dream is a variation of the monomyth or Hero’s Journey is the same pattern applied to myth, metaphysics, and human psychology. In brief, darkness falls over the land (winter, the crisis). The lands and the king are barren, or else the king is himself the tyrant laying waste. The hero, representing the blooming (or spring) of the new (whether it be a child, a generation, a phase of life, or an idea) leaves the known to venture into the unknown and slay the dragon or tyrant (representing the old order, and symbolizing the new taking responsibility and power). In doing so, he is often advised and aided by an old wizard figure (the wisdom of the past). Summer comes in which the restored kingdom celebrates. Yet the seeds of destruction are already sown, for during the fall the hero of yesterday becomes the tyrant of tomorrow, requiring a new hero and a new cycle. The variations on this theme are endless, as we know that no two stories are the same. The pattern is always there, however, for the relationships emergent from the ever-varying tensions are ancient, though always contextualized.
Each cycle, as large or as small as it may be, dealing with one person or many, is the root of effective movement and growth. We know that a bullet flies truer when the barrel is rifled, and the round spirals through the air to its target rather than simply being flung with no rotation. As it spirals, the air resistance (tension) stabilizes its flight and guides it to its target. The very thing that we might see as the obstacle is in fact central to the projectile arriving safely on target. In a place of safety, possibility, and excitement (the High), we move straight towards what we implicitly value. Yet that brings to light new conflicts, an obstacle that bars the way and that seems insurmountable from the current perspective. And it is insurmountable, with who we are then. So we must move laterally, change our perspective (our awareness), change who we are. We must become the person, or people, capable of seeing the conflicting tensions not as a problem but as an integral component of the resolution, the key to a richer and more effective way of relating, and the way forward towards what we seek in life, towards bringing alive what we hope to create, experience, and share. We transcend all ends and transform ourselves. It is nothing less than transformation of self, of society, of culture. It is a fact of life and experience, and we can only affirm or ignore it. To ignore it is to ignore who we are. Only in affirming it can we find what we seek in relationship.
...sees much and knows much