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Posts on the Andean Cosmovision

Tag: Gregory Bateson

Stepping into the Same River Twice

The use of reason for self advancement poses a danger to the Cosmic order.
Heraclitus of Ephesus

I would like to start with an anecdote that the anthropologist Gregory Bateson liked to relate concerning the ancient Greek philosophers Heraclitus and Cratylus. Heraclitus believed that the most fundamental thing about reality, about the Cosmos, is that it is constantly flowing and changing. He is best known (among those who know of him at all) for having proclaimed that “a person cannot step into the same river twice.”  Which is worth contemplating.

Cratylus was one of Heraclitus’s students. He went a step further than Heraclitus (so to speak) to proclaim that you can’t even step into a river once. Cratylus believed that if everything is flowing, changing, then names (i.e. nouns) don’t make any sense.

Let’s take, for example, my name, which is Oakley. To what object does that name apply? Consider me first as a human body. Our bodies are constantly changing, getting rid of old cells and replacing them with new cells. Every month we completely replace all of our skin. We grow a new liver every 6 weeks. Over the period of a year we replace every cell in our bones. There are some cells in the body that appear to be more or less permanent, for example some cells in our eyes and in our central nervous system, but even they are the product of a never ceasing flow that involves getting rid of old atoms and replacing them with new atoms. Essentially there is not one atom in our bodies that was there five years ago.

On the mental level change is much more rapid and certainly constant. Every event we experience changes our nervous system; memories are formed, attitudes and beliefs are adjusted, skills are acquired or begin to atrophy. If you met my five years ago and then meet me now you will still probably call me “Oakley” but the Being to whom the name applies is actually a different Being, made of different atoms and being run by a different mind.

It might be more accurate to give me a different name every time you meet me; “Oakley 1”, “Oakley 2:, “Oakley 3”, comes to mind. Or, perhaps it would be easier to refer to me as the verb “Oakleying”, and thus identify me not as an unchanging solid object but as a continuing process, like a river, that is still here but never the same.*

Cratylus was convinced that our use of language fundamentally distorts our understanding of reality. Staying true to his principles he then gave up the use of all language and went around just pointing at things instead. But, as Bateson liked to add, because he didn’t tell anyone what he was doing no one understood what he was doing or what his point was.

*There is a little further we can go with this. I didn’t know if you would find this interesting or too dry so I have delegated it to this end note. While Heraclitus is best known for having pointed out that “no one can step into the same river twice” another version is that he said “a person both can and cannot step into the same river twice”. The molecules of water themselves, which constitute the river, will be different each time we step in. The rate of water flow, the patterns the water makes while flowing, the leaves and sticks floating along, and the river bed will constantly change. But still, there is a river there both times! So exactly what is there both times? A flow of water. In that statement a “flow” is a noun, there is “a flow” both times. But “a flow” is a “nominalization”, a verb that has been sneakily morphed into a noun. “To flow” is a process, not an object. But “a process” is also a nominalization, for it too is a verb that has been morphed into a noun. Nominalizations are distortions of reality. They distort not only how we talk about reality but also how we think about it.   It would be more accurate to say a river is “flowing water” rather than “a flow of water”. “Flowing water” presents an active image in my mind, and it only applies to the present moment with no promises about the past or future. Then there is one more nominalization to mention, that we are beings of the Cosmos.

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The Creature and its Creations

Don Américo Yábar

The first part of this post was inspired by Alan Watts (1915-1973) and his book Nature, Man, and Woman. Watts was a wonderful writer and philosopher best known for bringing Eastern philosophy into Western culture. His titles include The Way of Zen, Tao: The Watercourse Way, This is It, Psychotherapy East and West, The New Alchemy, The Joyous Cosmology, and The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.

I would like to begin by asking the question, “Are we more like clocks or are we more like flowers?”

Let us begin by considering clocks. Clocks are created to fulfill a purpose, which is to indicate the time. After the purpose of the clock has been determined we can apply our rational mind to how to construct such an object. From this design various parts are manufactured and assembled into a working clock. The creation of a clock, then, has these elements: 1) it is created by a creator who stands outside of the clock itself; 2) the clock consists of pieces that were made first and then assembled into a whole; and 3) the clock was created to meet some purpose.

Now let us move on to flowers. First, we note that flowers don’t have pieces. They have petals, and stems, and roots but these are all part of a whole. We can break off the petals and call them pieces, but they weren’t created first and then glued on to the stem, they emerged from the stem, and once we turn them into pieces by breaking them off we can’t snap them back into place. Second we note that flowers are not constructed from the outside. Flowers grow from within. The growth of the flowers is informed by the seed (using the the old-fashioned meaning of “informed” which is “to give shape from within”). And third, the flower has no purpose, at least not the sort of rational purpose that goes into making a clock. Flowers weren’t created with a purpose and then inserted into the web of life. They co-evolved with other life, with pollinating insects in particular. Flowers do play an important role in the interrelations of life on the planet. This role was not rationally decided upon from outside the dance of co-evolving life but emerged from within that dance, a dance that earlier proto-flowers had a part in.

In Western society we are very familiar with the process of making things like clocks and computers and houses…and dinner. When we turn to consider who or what made us, and made the Cosmos, it is natural to conceive of a Creator in our own image. Such a Creator would exist outside of the Cosmos that he/she/it created, the Cosmos would consist of individual pieces, and the creation and its pieces (e.g. we humans) would be created for some purpose.

What if a growing flower, however, is the better metaphor for existence and creation, that the Cosmos grew from within, that everything is interconnected, that the creator is not an external God but an internal blossoming, that the Cosmos created itself from within and continues to do so? Well, if this is the better metaphor then we are left with no “purpose” for our existence. Poor us and poor flower!

Alan Watts says about this, “Such a line of thought may be … disturbing, since it suggests a universe of life which has no motive at all…and surely an absolutely purposeless world would be the most depressing of all possibilities.” He then goes on to say, “But the idea of a purposeless world is horrifying because it is incomplete. Purpose is a preeminently human attribute.”

In the dictionary purpose is defined as the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exits. To say that we, and the Cosmos, have no purpose is simply to say that our existence is not the product of rational thought, and that is far from saying what we are the product of, which would be nature and the Cosmos.

Again, turning to Watts.“To say that the world has no purpose is to say that it is not human, or, as the Tao Te Ching puts it: ‘Heaven and Earth are not human-hearted (the Chinese character “jen”)’. But it continues: ‘The sage is not human-hearted‘ (Tao Te Ching, Chapter V).”

What I propose Heaven and Earth (and sages) are is Cosmic-hearted. This flow of thought brings us to the “path of the heart” (see the previous post Paths to the Other Side of Reality). The path of heart does not lead to the human heart and its emotions, it leads through the human heart (actually the munay) to the heart of the Cosmos. This is what underlies the Andean meditations and also underlies salka. The Cosmic heart occasionally shines through the cracks of our reality while we are meditating, and when it does we experience the meaning of our existence.

Returning to earth, I would like to now consider the work of Gregory Bateson (1904-1980). Bateson was an anthropologist, social scientist, and linguist who helped create the discipline of cybernetics (also known as “systems theory”).  He was a pioneer in using cybernetics to explain social, psychological, biological, and ecological systems. Bateson proposed an elegant definition of “mind”  that resolved the “mind/body” problem (the situation where the mind seems to be both transcendent to the physical realm yet also seems to be just a byproduct of the physical realm). It would take too long and be largely irrelevant to describe his solution here but a consequence of it is that both humans and larger ecological systems fit his definition of having a mind.  From within this perspective we can see that human creativity and biological evolution share the same processes, and one is a special case of the other.

Bateson took the cybernetic explanation as far as it could go, eventually tackling the nature of the sacred in his aptly titled book “Angels Fear: Toward an Epistemology of the Sacred”. Some of Bateson’s ideas have appeared earlier in this blog, and in my book, under the titles “Why a Swan?” and “Lesson of the Mask .

The following is from the chapter The Creature and its Creations in his book A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind. In his very logical and erudite way Bateson begins by making the case that creations give us insights into the creatures that created them.  He then turns to the narrative poem Peter Bell by William Wordsworth, and says:

“Wordsworth mocks that to Peter Bell,

‘A primrose by a river’s brim

A yellow primrose was to him,

And it was nothing more.'”

Bateson proposes that, “To the poet, the primrose can be something more. I suggest that this something more is, in fact, a self-reflexive recognition. The primrose resembles a poem and both poem and primrose resemble the poet. He learns about himself as a creator when he looks at the primrose. His pride is enhanced to see himself as a contributor to the vast processes which the primrose exemplifies. And his humility is exercised and made valid by recognizing himself as a tiny product of those processes.”

Yes, he writes that way.

My original intent in creating this post was to share the related thoughts by Alan Watts and Gregory Bateson about the underlying processes of the Cosmos, thoughts that have helped me integrate my experiences in the Andean Cosmovision with my intellectual Western worldview.  As I have been writing, however, another thought has arisen that I would like to include.

Many years ago don Américo recommended to me that ‘we make our lives a work of art”.  I have always loved that advice.  In thinking about it now I see it as a way of having my life be more in accord with the processes of the Cosmos itself.  I think about the world a lot, and when I do I often get to a decision that seems to have no rational best choice;  “On the one hand I could…” and “but on the other hand I could…”  This is very familiar territory for me.  When I remember Americo’s advice I turn back to the options and ask myself which would be the more artistic path to take.  When I do the choice is usually obvious.



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