What we seek exists only in relationship, and could be brought alive in relationship at any moment. But we cannot see it yet for we lack the awareness.
What we seek exists only in the unveiling of relationship
External action, possession, or consumption without inner feeling is pointless. This is intuitively obvious. Everything we seek we seek because of how we think it will make us feel. Money will make us happy, powerful, prestigious. A relationship will make us happy. Food will make us full and comfortable. Alcohol will make us feel good. A movie will make us entertained. Good product designers know that users don’t care about any particular feature or product. They care about how the product or feature makes them feel. How it changes their experience for the better. We expect a certain effect on our inner experience or state based on our actions. Were we to feel nothing, we could not move through the world. To have no inner feeling would be like having no senses. We would have no feedback from the world, and no way to act effectively. Anything we do, we do because of the expected effect on our inner state or experience.
We can only assign meaning to things that we feel for. We can only move meaningfully towards things that we feel for. We seek aesthetic experience, that is to say felt experience. Anesthetic experience, literally unfelt experience, is by definition meaningless experience. No one seeks meaningless, unfelt experience. What is important is the feeling of the experience, the awareness of the experience. The experience of the experience, if you will. We may argue about what we want to experience, but what we want to experience we want to experience deeply. This could be felt experiences of meaning, beauty, goodness. Or it could be of power, status, influence. We could say that we want to experience and feel deeply certain qualities, or that we want our experience to deeply have these qualities.
Any abstract quality that we seek, of course, cannot be said to exist anywhere material, out there in the physical world. Courage, or power, or beauty does not exist in a thing. Things merely are. Anything external we desire or despise isn’t inherently good or bad. Even food simply is. Only the fact that we need it to survive makes it good. Any value judgement is not an a-priori fact, but rather an implied fact from our desiring or despising of it. However, if none of these qualities or values exist in the things we seek, why do we seek them? Of course, we need to eat and drink and sleep to survive. Beyond the basic physiological necessities, however, the things that represent the qualities we seek cannot actually give us anything because we only project the qualities on to them. They are neutral. Take money. Many think money will make them happy. Yet happiness is nowhere to be found in money. Nor is unhappiness. Power is not found inside money, either. And yet, I can make other people do things I want them to do if I offer them money.
Clearly, any of these qualities I seek to experience only exist in the relationship of the parts. Because everyone relates to money as something valuable, it becomes valuable. But that value exists not in the money itself, but in our relationship to it. It is ethereal, in the air. This ethereal quality of value can only exist as a moment-to-moment unveiling of value. After all, there is no value “in” the money, but only in our belief- that is to say in our relationship- to the money. If we were to cease seeing money as inherently valuable, then that quality would no longer be affirmed in the relationship and it would disappear. Think about modern money. The United States and most any modern country no longer back their currency with precious metals. It has value because the government says it has value. Even were it to be backed by precious metals, these metals themselves have no a-priori value. As far as we can tell, it was a coincidence that one ancient kingdom’s currency of gold became an accepted international standard thousands of years ago, rather than sea-shells, or barley seeds, or stones of some kind. Even if gold has no value to me, if I know my neighbor prizes gold, and he has something I want, then suddenly gold does have value to me, because of my relationship with my neighbor. Any idea we have of citizenship, of countries, is similar. Countries don’t actually exist out there in the land, in the world. They are pure fiction. A fantasy. And yet because of our relationship to the fantasy (we believe in it and affirm it through our actions), we can build relationships with other people who believe in that fantasy. The more we relate on the basis of that fantasy, the more we can do or build or make together, and the realer that fantasy seems. I can only be patriotic, or not, in relationship to this mutual hallucination. I can only be courageous, or not, in relation to a fear or danger, itself a relationship. I can only be rich in relation to the poor. Everything we are or want, it seems, exists only in relationships.
Objectively, there is no ethereal third entity in between two things. And yet subjectively, we know that each relationship has a substance to it that is more than simply the sum of the two people, something emergent from the relationship. Does an emergent phenomenon actually exist? No, but then neither does the United States, the European Union, Germany, or China. These are all made-up entities- national boundaries correspond to no real, physical phenomenon to account for the fact that people living a mile away speak mutually incomprehensible languages. And yet they have a real effect on the world and hence a real present. When we speak of America, or Spain, or Brazil, we immediately have a sense for what that emergence is, and what its quality is in relation to us. These incorporeal, emergent phenomena have real effects on us. As people, as organisms, as men and women, we are the synthesis of all those tuggings to and fro. Between any two people is the relationship. Any quality obviously does not exist in a thing. It also does not exist within people. It cannot exist in anything physical. The only place these qualities can live is in relationship, as emergences. The only way these qualities can come alive in us, in our felt inner experience, is for them to come alive in the relationships that form us and bind us.
If the quality must come alive in the relationship to be alive in us, then everything else in that relationship must also be infused with that quality for it to be real. Any inner change, then, is incomplete without a corresponding outer shift in our context, and vice versa. Because we are always in relationship, we are always affecting that which we are in relationship with. We need our relationship to our context to do anything, for without context there can be no relationship and no emergent qualities. Between the Father and the Son there is the Holy Spirit, but there cannot be the Holy Spirit without both the Father and the Son.
The quality in the relationship then reflects back upon us and affirms that quality within us. To change the thing, change the relationship.
We can now definitely speak of a relationship, or a quality in a relationship, as something ethereal yet made perceptible by its effect on us and our felt experience. We cannot point to anything physical or visible, but it clearly exists in the sense that it has a real, measurable effect on the world and on us. Natural selection made all living things into what we are today, but natural selection is simply a shorthand for the infinitely complex historical web of relationships between all living things that led us up to this very moment in time. Yet this “invented” natural selection has a very particular quality such that we can study it, understand it, and use it to make future predictions. There is no “natural selection” out there in the world. It exists only in the relationship between us, human beings, and the rest of the teeming, bustling life on the planet. Despite its “invented” nature, as all theories are, it is the most accurate way we have to think about where life came from and where it is going.
As a generative, global idea it captures the entirety of those relationships, which is more than simply all the interactions together. In order to understand how this pattern of natural selection influences our context we have to examine the level of that relationship, not the level of the constituent parts. The relationship is perhaps a fiction, but a useful one, a fiction that is paradoxically more true than simply examining the parts. The parts must relate in some way, and that relationship affects all of us to varying extents. Would we be able to say that natural selection did not exist if human beings were not around to observe it? Does a relationship depend upon a self-aware observer, a witness? Perhaps, perhaps not. But certainly no human qualities, such as courage, or honor, or beauty, or goodness, could exist in a relationship without a human observer.
Regardless, we can now describe the relationship, and anything alive in the relationship, as emergent from the parts. The emergence is the relationship and the effect of said relationship between any arbitrarily chosen parts. We can speak about the emergent phenomenon of any items in relationship with one another. Not every emergent phenomenon is useful or interesting to look at, however. What is worth our time, our awareness, our life force? What is useful, beautiful, interesting, engaging, fascinating, curious, wonderful, sublime? I can look right now at the emergence of the things on my desk. Do the things on my desk create an emergent phenomenon that is useful to the things it in turn is in relationship to- in this case, myself, and what I am writing now? If the emergent phenomenon that is created is chaotic and messy, then perhaps in interacting with it I am also messy and chaotic. Emergent phenomena interact and build upon one another, with each part in the system both pulling and being pulled by the other parts. We can speak of a global emergence now that near every part of the globe is linked in commerce and communication. Those global emergences are made up of relationships of smaller emergences: of regions, civilizations, nation-states. These are made up of smaller emergences, regions within a country, communities, cities, towns, counties. We can take this as far as we wish, to any level of detail we wish. We get to the level of the individual human being as a part, and even then we see how this illusion of self is itself an emergence.
It should be clear how the evolution of our organism is emergent. Through untold iterations, trial and error over myriad experiments, the current human biology, including our instincts towards others, emerged as a solution to the problems of survival and reproduction. Any illusion of centralized design is exactly that, an illusion, a Wizard of Oz show. Any healthy, emergent system arising from the distribution of its parts gives that illusion of centralized control. The illusion of control disappears when a system collapses. That consciousness itself is an emergent pattern, a resolution of tensions, is less obvious. As far as we can tell, there is no single organ of consciousness in our organism. Any living thing is, at its core, a feedback loop attempting to seek out and maintain an equilibrium conducive to its ends. This much we have established from the previous chapter. As organisms grow more complex to be able to thrive in increasingly complex environments, so too does the feedback loop that emerges from that organism grow more complex. Douglas Hofstadter, in I Am a Strange Loop, provides the example of a mosquito. It’s feedback loop is exceedingly simple. Seek warm blood, avoid incoming objects. Human beings have much more feedback to take in, and accordingly our feedback loop is much more involved. Eventually, that feedback loop became complex enough it began to see patterns, and to be able to assign them names. From “turning about to look in upon itself”, as Hofstadter put it, the human loop saw itself and others and began to be able to say I and You. Indeed, we can see varying levels of self-consciousness in other primates, dogs, elephants, and dolphins. This consciousness capacity- the ability to look upon oneself as the object of attention- arose from the ever increasing need to react to increasingly complex environments. It emerged as a resolution from the distribution of our neurophysiology.
So any relationship creates an emergence of varying relevance or usefulness, the relationship being a two-way feedback loop created from the distribution of the parts. A certain distribution implies a different relationship and thus a different emergence. Since the relationship is ethereal, we cannot act directly upon it. We act upon the relationship indirectly, by distributing the parts differently, but then that relationship bounds back upon us and acts upon us. I might build a house that reflects my relationship to the world. In the act of building the house, I am creating a relationship and an emergence. Yet that house will always communicate my social status, how my family is organized, how my society runs (compare a pioneer’s sod house to a modern stick-frame design). In a two-way feedback loop, it is reflecting certain qualities of the relationship back at me constantly. As long as I live in that house, those qualities are being affirmed. George Orwell describes this effect powerfully in his essay, “To Kill an Elephant.” As a British policeman in India, when an elephant goes on a rampage through a village, Orwell is compelled by the expectations of the Indian villagers to kill the elephant, though he doesn’t want to. The relationship acted back upon him. Any good parent, leader, or authority figure knows of the power of expectations. They are seeding the relationship with qualities that reflect back upon those in the relationship.
By bringing a quality alive in the relationship, it then bounds back upon us- upon everything being related- and affirms that quality within us. Because that quality is felt in our inner experience, it has an effect on our actions in relationship. When we relate to another, it is not that the other person gives something to us, or we give something to the other person. Rather, in meeting another in a certain space, an emergent relationship, emergent from the two (or more) people, is formed. The quality of that relationship created by the constituents is what bounds back to affect us, guide us, and shape us. So when two people freely and responsibly engage, that relationship has a certain quality that affirms and shapes those involved. The quality created in the relationship is the chisel. To change the an, thing, or person, change the relationship, and the relationship will enact it. For to attempt to change the thing itself is to kill the very thing we hope to see flourish. We cannot force a tree to grow anywhere we might will it. We can only plant it in a propitious environment, with the right relationships- or we can change the environment itself to create the relationships. We think we can force someone to do something, but if it is done against their will, we have denied in the relationship their basic humanity. We have done violence to them, and killed some part of them. That murder reflects back upon us. As we are our relationships, if we willingly damage or diminish a relationship, we do violence to ourselves in the process. When we stay in a damaging or diminishing relationship, we do violence to ourselves.
If we are what we do, we are also how we do it. Everything we do is in relationship to our context, to something beyond us. There is no vacuum in human experience. The relationship and its qualities are only real and alive inasmuch as we bring it alive in each unfolding moment, through the delicate and deliriating dance of action, feedback, impulsion, action. That is the net result of who we are: our relationship with context, people, things, ideas, communities, organizations; all brought to life in the moment through engagement, communication, movement, action. We are what we do so we are our relationships. It is not a sum but rather a synthesis, just as consciousness is more than the sum of each individual member of the human body. Call the net difference the human soul if you like. I offer no precise formula for this, nor should we need one. I only assert that the quality of our relationships is the quality of our emergence which is the quality of us. Our values, ideals, principles, dreams, qualities and desires are only real inasmuch as they are reflected in our relationships, however humble those relationships may be. We cannot objectively assign a measure to our emergence, to our qualities brought alive in relationship, but we can feel and intuit the growth one way or another. Will this context, relationship, end or mean grow me as a person? Or will it circumscribe, shrink, or stagnate me? Deepening or expanding awareness of self-in-relationship is an inescapable foundation of human experience. It is the process of becoming more human. And, wrote Nobel Literature Prize Laureate José Saramago, “our only great task consists of becoming more human.”
The quality is always there, waiting to come alive, but we lack the awareness to see it.
Ultimately this quality-in-relationship is all there is. As conscious beings, we set ends and expect them to fulfill us in some way. Past experience, however, teaches that every end we reach gives way to another end, ad infinitum. Ends, ultimately, are a product of human consciousness. They are another of the many useful fictions we sell ourselves. Nature is pure process, pure unveiling of being in the moment, the product of the complex web of relationships unfolding in perfect synchronicity in the moment. Thus a given quality we seek is always either dormant or unveiling in the moment. There is no end where it can said to be achieved. It is either constantly becoming in each moment, or it is not. It is either alive in that very moment, fed by the constituent parts and shining back upon them like a fire in the night, or it is as a seed, dormant and awaiting the proper circumstances to come into being. It cannot spring from nothing, and so it lies, waiting to be noticed and cultivated. Any relationship theoretically must contain the seeds for all possible qualities, for the entire spectrum of human potentialities. There is no neutral act, and so we are always bringing some of these qualities to life. We would do well to make sure they are the qualities we truly want.
We could bring any quality alive at any moment in the relationship. It is a matter of seeing what is already there, in the infinite web of relationships that bind us to this earth. For awareness of the emergence makes it so. Awareness of myself as an American makes that true for me. Awareness of myself as a man makes that true for me. Awareness of myself as a being makes that true for me. These things ring true, of course, but these emergences also do not shift. What about to be courageous, to be good, to be honest, to be grateful? I can be grateful now, for whatever I choose. I can feel that in my relationship to my life and my context. I bring the seed to life. Yet at some point in the future, I will become distracted. I will lose my awareness of gratitude. Or of facing my fears courageously. Or of whatever phenomenon I am attempting to bring to life. For our awareness is as a tiny net we are casting into an enormous ocean of unconsciousness. To be aware of one thing is to be unaware of something else. What we notice, perhaps, is who we are, because that is what we bring alive in our relationships. If I could move through my day with perfect intentionality and perfect awareness of how to effect that intentionality, I could make live whatever quality I wanted. Because to be aware of choice in the moment and its consequences is to be able to act effectively in accord with the desired quality. But perfect awareness is beyond our reach. It is the back door, the long way ‘round, to the unity we seek.
We can now say that we could bring any quality alive that we so chose. By seeing it in the relationship, it would become true for us, and become a self-reinforcing feedback loop for anyone in that relationship. Anyone who has had both bad and good managers knows how the same team can perform and relate drastically differently based on the leadership or management skills of the person nominally in charge. They are calling out different qualities in the same relationships, by creating the context for those qualities to emerge. It can be as simple as viewing (having awareness of) the team as competent or incompetent; perhaps viewing humans as basically lazy or fundamentally seeking to do good where we can. The team then reacts to those qualities brought alive in relationship. How they react to the living qualities is up to them, but they are reacting to the same qualities. Their experience has been circumscribed by the relationship and its qualities. We can see how the qualities we choose to bring alive have powerful effects. An influential or charismatic leader can inspire confidence, trust, complicity, and effort in a team, community, or society far beyond what anyone thought themselves capable of. The team members were the same, only their relationship changed. Pragmatists seek to “stack the deck” in their favor such that they have no choice in any moment but to bring to life the quality they want. Someone who wants to be healthy might get rid of all the food in their house they have an unhealthy relationship to, for example, to avoid temptation in the first place. Religions teach that we must rise above our earthly relationships and cultivate a relationship with the source. In so doing, every other relationship must necessarily have the quality of that relationship with God.
Based on our context, our relationship to said context, and our awareness of ourselves in relationship, we are always bringing qualities to life with others and could theoretically bring to life any quality we so chose in any moment. We simply, confoundingly, and frustratingly lack the awareness to do so on a consistent basis. We are slaves to rote, habitual, automatic behavior. We know what mistakes we are likely to make, or we soon find them out from experience. Yet when the moment comes to choose differently, to bring a different quality to life, we are unaware of the chance to call it into being until it is too late. That is, if we ever become aware of it, period. How much richness, how much goodness, how much of what we seek exists under our very fingertips, passed over by our scattered gaze, unheard by our desensitized ears? What do we not even notice that we don’t notice?
Christians say that the Grace of God is always there, waiting to be freely accepted as a gift freely given. As I understand it, the Grace of God is what I am calling our unity lost. We are searching for it, it is right there, yet we cannot believe it. It cannot be worth much if it is so freely given, so easily felt. It cannot be the real thing. And so we must make it hard on ourselves. We go in one big circle. We leave home, we are transformed, and we come right back home, right back where we started, able to feel the Quality more than before. If we could but see it, freely accept it, from the beginning! Yet such is our lot in life. To bring alive any quality, including the Quality, we must set off on a journey to fundamentally change who we are and how we relate. In changing how we relate and deepening our awareness of how we relate, we beget life itself. For what is life without the awareness of itself? There can be no Quality and no qualities without this awareness. And so the journey into the world and into ourselves is fundamentally and ultimately a transformation into greater, more expansive, more penetrating awareness. Perhaps we cannot be perfectly aware, for that would make us as God, but we can be very good at being aware of what to be aware of.
 The natural distribution of languages would be a slow gradient of dialects that among close neighbors, at least, would be mutually-comprehensible.
 Churchill: “We shape our buildings, then they shape us.”
 “A nossa grande tarefa está em conseguirmo-nos tornar mais humanos.”
 “The search which we make for this quality which has no name, in our own lives, is the central search of any person, and the crux of any individual person's story. It is the search for those moments and situations when we are most alive.” Christopher Alexander
...sees much and knows much