Thinking the (im)possible

What if the thing we think of as agency, the deliberative system of assessment and decision making, resulting in action, is entirely wrongly conceived? What if, in fact, this mistaken idea we have about what we decide to do is creating, and maintaining, a relationship with the ecological context that is increasingly, and now critically, destructive to the systems we depend upon?

I want to consider agency from a different perspective: agency as realization. Realization itself is not communicated through reasoning or even through language but through pointing towards an experience which must then itself be experienced. This is like experiencing (rather than thinking) impossible possibilities, including the possibility that by experiencing ourselves as explicitly realizing systems, at the time while the realization is happening, enmeshed within implicitly reactive exchanges, our response becomes a part of that dynamic. We become aware of what we are and this shifts everything.

Can we ever again ‘speak the language of nature’ (if we ever did, or if we do not still)? Of course, it depends, both on what we think of as the framework of our experience, within which all else is interpreted. Could this really be possible or would this just imply staring into two mirrors that reflect one another infinitely but never allow us to see outside what they are reflecting? If this is all that happens when we study ourselves, then we are not just enmeshed: we are entrapped. . If we are physiological organisms, then we are also genetically driven to desire more goods, to push back limits, to maximise our capacity to exploit ‘resources’, and so on, and no matter what degree of attention we pay to our activity, the railtracks of our DNA will dictate our direction. If this assessment is right, then being able to recognise our enmeshment is no more than an accidental evolutionary hiccup, and a tragic one at that, since it allows us to watch the uncontrollable acceleration of our demise while strapped to the engine that is driving it.

This is the nihilism that underlies a sense of hopelessness, a sense that there is no point in attempting to reverse or mitigate the effects of our catastrophic impact on the ecological context that supports and nurtures us. We can only gaze, terrified, into the very heart of our own darkness. There is no one to blame, and no Other to rescue us. We face the ultimate absurdity of our own condition, that of a creature doomed by its own nature. There is nothing, even, to fear, since fear would imply that we could do something to react against ourselves, but it is ourselves that are creating the conditions for our own destruction.

Going on a silent retreat, or isolating oneself, taking certain drugs or enduring a situation of extreme trauma, can all allow the fundamental horror of our condition to confront us. There is no escape. At this point, a kind of psychosis can take hold. We cling to anything, even if we know, in our hearts, that it is a lie. We repeat it like a mantra, willing it to be true: God Is! Or we turn the other way and embrace our destructiveness, wreck relationships, exploit to the maximum degree possible our context, rout it because at least, by increasing the pace of the destruction, we may, just for a moment, feel something, while also, of course, increasing the chances of it all being over, sooner.

Are these our choices? Denial, retreat into self delusion that never quite convinces us, but we sound the gong louder, sing the hymn with total force and focus, count the beads, whisper the prayers over and over? Or doomster-laden drives down the fastest lane to destruction, kicking against the petty attempts at civilisation, culture, community or any other endeavour that attempts to build while the ground is crumbling beneath our feet? What else is there? Humour, laughing into the dark, because the situation is wholly absurd and meaningless? The vaccuum that these possibilities create sucks us in and in any attempt to go beyond this level of understanding, we risk, insanity, anger, triviality or the great companion to exhaustive effort: apathy.

What happens if we manage to turn our understanding another way, if we see ourselves as within, and intimately elemental to, the situation we observe? What if we begin to understand that our capacity to understand, to observe, to realize where and what we are, is more than enough to shift our interactions? What if ‘just sitting’ is the strongest response we have? If we go on, through the vaccuum-black horror of nihilism, we find that we are delicately attuned natural systems, just as all natural systems are. We have developed with a capacity to live within those systems. We express autopoeisis, playfulness, creativity, vulnerability, from the moment we are born. We are curious, inventive, imaginative. We elude analysis. This is true not just of humans, of course, but this impermanent, dynamic, shifting animism exists throughout the universe. We are insubstantial, reliant on air, complete in our skins yet utterly interdependent, and with this extraordinary capacity for consciousness, for self-awareness, for realization. Most of our acts are unpremeditated, and even, to use Schelling’s word, unprethinkable. We surprise ourselves, if we take the time to look, with how unpredictable we are. Because consciousness is a quality that has emerged, like a gift, to mirror the universe back onto itself. The greed and yearning we experience to own, to fill the horror-vaccuum with whatever material or energy we can suction up, is the manifestation of our fear of what we are. However, just sitting and going through the realization of this fear reveals it to be a fear of death. We cannot kill death, however hard we try. We must find some way, without lies, without denial, without rage, to embrace, to radically accept death as the shadow that creates form and firmness. To realize is to sit with this acceptance, to embrace and honour ourselves, to recognise but not to exacerbate the flow of energy that both creates and, in the end, disippates us. We are no more destructive or creative than any other force in the universe. We are no more of an anomaly. We are mirrors of the universe and it is the mirror through which we understand ourselves.

This is the illuminating proposition that lies at the heart of realization as action. We do not need guiding sets of principles to know what to do. We need to know what we are doing, what is happening right now. We need to practice bringing our attention back, again and again, to the staying point of focus on the dynamic, moving moment. This is the practical necessity of our condition, and practical necessity precedes ethics, but ethics is an unnecessary complication, pushing the moment away, into an impossible, unachievable, utopian ‘then’. ‘Then’ all will be well. We never get to then but it creates the separation between heaven and earth.

Four hundred years of a narrative that analyses Nature into atomistic parts, classifying separate elements individually, has allowed us to distiguish, and construct, to include, and also to exclude, to the extraordinary technological and numerical advantage of our species. However, this is the same narrative that demands we see ourselves as exclusively possessed of souls, as having advanced to the head of the evolutionary ladder, and therefore as entitled to dominate and subjugate, steward or destroy, any of those we have named and numbered.

It is, therefore, time to review the context, to recognise that we are inside the results of interactions (climate change, biodiversity loss, habitat destruction, for instance) and they (pollution, radiation, modified food) are inside us. Instead of pushing the ideal forward, claiming that we are creating something that is to the benefit of all, we need to acknowledge that our so-called ‘progress’ has resulted in fewer and fewer succeeding in sucking more and more energy from the systems we all depend upon, to the extreme detriment of all the rest. We need to sit with, to walk with, this knowledge. To get moving again, we need first to be still. This is not a call for some Romantic return to Paradise. There was no such place, only the richly biodiverse roots of our ancestry did offer us more options, and the impoverished systems we now depend upon require our nurturing.

Just sitting is premoral. Just walking requires no thought about a right way or a wrong way, as long as it is done with the effort of full attention. We can cook, we can garden, we can even drive, speak, do business, and dream with realization. Isn’t it strange that we have had this capacity all along, that we already know how to live, just by watching ourselves, but that we have worked so hard to ignore our knowledge of what is going on? What is this blindness for? Why do we resist the understanding that is being whispered to us with every outbreath, that we belong, that we have the capacity to belong with skill, that it is a matter of practical necessity that we recognise our belonging as a gift, or a curse? The world is screaming at us to wake up. Our own bodies are groaning under the weight of this denial. Nothing that we do now matters, if we refuse to acknowledge the common ground of our experience.

How does realization in action manifest itself? It is a practice, in the sense that it is a way of living. It is also a practice, in the sense of a way of perfecting a skill. We practice watching what we already do, without judgement, without evaluation, or suggesting to ourselves that such and such was right, or wrong, good, or bad. We practice bringing our attention to our actions as we are undertaking them, to our thoughts as they develop and intensify, or dissolve and disappear. We watch our words with curiosity: you think you know what you are going to say, until you begin to listen to yourself speaking, as you speak, and then you begin to realize that what you are saying is a result of myriad threads of immediate and distant circumstances. The sounds coming out of you are echoes of others, reactions to subtle messages, physical and verbal, from your interlocutor, coloured by your sense of well-being (or disease), by your immediate environment, familiar or strange, by whether the sun is shining, or it is raining. All that is happening right now, all that has happened up to now, creates the words you use, the phraseology, the tone, the mannerisms that accompany the words. This, in turn, creates conditions for your respondent. In this infinitely complex set of interactions, it may seem impossible that realizing, in the sense of watching, and observing, understanding by gaining insight through watching, and also, therefore, creating space, the psychological distance of observation, can allow new possibilities to arise, a slight shift in your reactions, a microbeat of reflection before you find the words or activities rearranging themselves, playfully, into different patterns.

It is a matter of scale. We are taught that, in order to alter the ecological catastrophe, in order to respond, we need huge interventions, we need to fire rockets filled with chemicals into the atmosphere to generate clouds that will hammer down rain on drought-ridden regions. We need to understand ourselves from space, or by searching for life on other planets. Perhaps we need these interventions. Perhaps they will emerge as possibilities, even after engaging the effort of realization. But realization itself works on the tiny shifts in the patterns developing in individual human brains. Meditative practices alter the systems within the brain. We are not looking for stasis, or harmony, either internally, within the organisms that we are, nor in Nature, which we can neither ‘restore’ nor live ‘in balance’ with. Instead, we are recognizing dynamism, impermanence, interdependence, and that there is a flow, a way in which energy disippates and matter cycles, that benefits the systems upon which we depend, from the level of interpersonal relationships, to the level of the Earth’s systems (and, perhaps, beyond).

We can synchronise ourselves to the unfolding of these graduated flows of energy, to the pulses of increase, and growth, and decline, including our own demise. This recognition is useful when we are watching for practical, pragmatic responses that enhance the relationship between human and natural systems. Realization allows us to slow down the impact of the exploitative urge by slowing down our interventions, making exploitative activity less profitable. We can create benefits to leaving land undisturbed, to allowing systems to self-regenerate. We can create policies that allow governing bodies to buy up small tracts of land so that would-be exploitative individuals or companies know that they are going to have to deal with legislation, instead of just appropriating vast areas for exploitative operations.

We are not the deliberative creators of change that we have been taught to believe we are. Our agency, our capacity to respond, lies entirely in our capacity to realize, to sit with, to observe, what is going on in and around us, and over which we have no control until and unless we realize our situation. When we consider our relationship with the ecological context, a context that is in critical condition, we do not change the context through confrontation or aggressive tactics that only engender more fear and hatred. Instead, we need to use the effort of paying attention to what and how we act, and this, in turn, allows us to shift. Three attitudes are elicited through realization. A kind of solidarity is created when we become increasingly sensitive to the particular details of our own circumstances, to the pain and suffering we have already endured, and to the pain and suffering that, with a bit of imagination, we recognise as having been endured by all others. We can extend this compassion beyond sentient creatures by understanding that interdependence implies that there is no clear boundary between what is responding and reacting and aware of itself, and what is responding and reacting, and is not aware of itself. We have endured pain and humiliation, simply in our attempts to survive. Given the information we had, we did the best we could. Acknowledging this is liberating: we need not blame ourselves for the impacts we have had, on others, or on the wider ecological context. We may feel deeply saddened by the catastrophic impact these survival attempts have had. However, with the benefit of a hair’s breadth space, the space at the end of the breath, we can see how it might be possible, both because, and in spite of, our situation so far, to feel compassion for the state we are in. Like watching the struggling attempts of ants to regroup after an invasive attack, all our efforts have been to come into accord with the flow of energy and the cycling of matter. When we see this, we may not find we can suddenly free ourselves from addictive patterns, or resolve all the broken features of our relationships. However, we are suddenly and immediately in the only position from which active change can take place and that is a powerful step.

The view of ourselves I have illustrated here depends on a post-Darwinian view of nature. This means that events are interconnected, rather than unique or discrete, and that rather than laws being absolute and universal, natural laws are probabalistic, and hence, always to some degree open to unpredictability, themselves impermanent, and dynamic. We humans, within this paradigm, offer a responsiveness that straddles the interactions going on in and around us, and our capacity to observe them. ‘Now’ is not a moment but a wavering boundary, just as realization is not agency in the traditional sense of a determination and ability to act. Realization is grasping the entire trajectory, all at once, and in doing so, loosening its inevitable progression, causing it to waver and open into a shifting set of alternatives, as wide as the realization itself. Our agency depends, therefore, on the effort we are prepared to make to pay attention, to observe, and to open, through shifts in language and in focus, to shifts in how we interact.

What we attend to is – and has to be – based on what we already do. We begin to see the grounds, and the framework, that shape what we include in consideration now. We cannot help but tell a story to ourselves about what and why certain elements of our context are worthy of inclusion in our consideration, while others are not. We interpret evidence, weigh up interests, establish policies and rules, based on what is worth considering. This is how we develop an ethic, a code by which to live. However, developing this ethic is both futile and unnecessary. Rules, and legislation, can be ethically neutral, can be purely pragmatic. We can have practical rules for what to include based not on what we value in a moral sense, but on what we take into consideration by constantly reflecting and adjusting our conceptual model with our experiential or empirical knowledge. There is a kind of ‘reflective equilibrium’ to this process, but with an awareness that this blaancing of concept and experience is ever shifting on a fulcrum that is in motion, so we cannot rest with ‘this is always right, here’, and need to learn to make case by case assessments, just as they arise, through realization of all that is involved. Only through realization can we develop the kind of flexibility needed in our response.

What we pay attention to is both what we are interested in, in the positive sense, and what we are obliged to consider because it forces itself on our attention. But when we realize our situation, everything becomes interesting, including the soil, rocks, trees, buildings, microbes and everything else. The field of ethology only developed after the Second World War which means that we only recently began considering other animals worthy of study as complex organisms with behavioural patterns that were not just mechanistic responses but highly developed evolutionarily appropriate, non-linear patterns. We were wrong to treat women and slaves as non-humans. The lesson from this is that we need to widen our consideration of what is interesting. There is not ‘final criterion’ for including a category within our interests. Self interest is universal interest. Consideration, attention and realization can (and must) be paid at least in recognition of the interdependence of systems, but this can happen in an ethically neutral fashion. We do not need to seek to justify our attention with reference to the value of ecosystems, and so on. This will always depend on the context of our own value scheme. We are necessarily constrained in what we value by our status as humans. However, this does not preclude us from considering systems and it is this broadening of our consideration that seems to me so vital as an exercise in extending our capacity to respond to the current predicament, particularly given the idea that it is only through attention, awareness or realization that we are agents.

So far, I have mostly talked about the first sense of realization: realization as insight, or understanding. But realization also means ‘to make real’, to actualise (in Zen terms). It has a dual function and the second function is the full manifestation of human agency. What is made real through bringing to attention is the set of relationships that are then brought to awareness but since the act of bringing them to awareness acts as a metasystem, then the act of realization is also the capacity to shift this set of relationships by overviewing them. realization is not passive just as consideration is not passive. It requires the holding of a situation or condition in awareness. If we ask ourselves what kind of creatures we are now, with this insight in mind, we must take responsibility for shifting the system of our enmeshment, and so, for co-creating our reality. Many myths, many stories attest to a recognition of this co-creation. Perhaps it is time for us to unearth these stories, and to somehow find a way of reconciling science and art, human and Nature, through narratives that thread between them.

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