Over the course of the last hundred years, Western scientists have given us a deeper view of the Universe, of Life & Nature as a creative and unified self-organizing process. Unfortunately, most modern societies are still operating with outdated ideas and assumptions, that do not reflect this new paradigm.
Albert Einstein understood this, as have many others. In order to survive as a species, it is essential that we shift paradigms, developing ways of thinking (and behaving) that are more aligned with how human life and Nature’s systems actually work.
Every “thing” that exists in our Universe is a dynamic complex system, interdependently connected to other systems, constantly moving and changing, less a static “thing” than an evolving and transforming creative process.
We see galaxies and hurricanes spinning, continents moving, societies changing, children growing, rivers flowing, artists creating, friendships forming, flowers unfolding. This is how Nature evolves, grows and changes, with everything connected interdependently, constantly transforming… atoms and molecules drifting together, then moving apart, re-organizing as if the whole Universe were alive.
Modern Systems Sciences are now converging on a unified understanding that helps us to recognize patterns, processes and principles that apply to a wide range of physical structures that exist all around us. Human beings are a living part of this, we exist as creative expressions of complex interconnected systems changing and evolving in our Universe.
This has given rise to a new appreciation of our relationship to the Cosmos, a deeper understanding (and spiritual experience) for many scientists of ourselves as part of a greater whole. As Einstein put it, “I like to experience the universe as one harmonious whole. Every cell has life. Matter, too, has life; it is energy solidified.”
The Emerging Systems View Has Ancient Roots
Similar views of Nature’s Paradigm have arisen in other cultures and ages. Almost two thousand years ago, the Roman philosopher Cicero, spoke of the Universe as a unified field of interdependent relationships, writing “Omnia vivunt, omnia inter se conexa” that “Everything is alive, everything is interconnected.”
The emperor Marcus Aurelius shared a similar perception, of the whole Universe as a single living being:
“Never forget that the universe is a single living organism possessed of one substance and one soul, holding all things suspended in a single consciousness and creating all things with a single purpose that they might work together spinning and weaving and knotting whatever comes to pass.”
In ancient China, the philosopher Lao Tsu described the Universe as being a unified flowing process, guided by what he called the Tao, or the “Way” of Nature. The goal of Taoist philosophy is to align with this way, to learn how to balance opposing forces, to think (and move) in harmony with the Natural world and the rest of the Universe.
In the 1800’s, American Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman shared a similar view with their words and poetry. Like the artist Vincent Van Gogh, they saw the Universe and Nature as a flowing unity, an ever-changing cosmic whole.
“Every particular in nature, a leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
In the 20th century, Albert Einstein (and other scientists) have communicated this understanding to us, that the beautiful evolving structures in our lives (and the greater Universe) form an interdependent unity, that all the parts (including ourselves) that we had thought to be separate are in reality interconnected. Modern systems thinker Fritjof Capra describes the emerging systems paradigm in science this way:
“We have discovered that the material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships. We have also discovered that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain, but also the immune system, the bodily organs, and even each cell as a living, cognitive system. And with the new emphasis on complexity, nonlinearity, and patterns of organization, a new science of qualities is slowly emerging. We call this new science ‘the systems view of life’ because it involves a new kind of thinking – thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context. In science, this way of thinking is known as ‘systems thinking’, or ‘systemic thinking’.”
Unfortunately, our connection to (and appreciation for) the cosmic web of natural systems that supports us (and has brought us into being) is not given much attention in the mundane affairs, militaristic concerns and materialistic power games of high technology civilizations.
Most modern humans are so absorbed in politics, wars, careers, technological innovations, addictive pleasures and quests for economic dominance (or security) that they rarely reflect upon (or feel gratitude for) our interdependence with Nature and the rest of the Universe. It just does not seem to be a top value or priority.
At work our experiences are compartmentalized by units of time and deadlines, focusing people’s attention on mundane tasks that need to get done. At home we are overwhelmed with finances, chores, domestic worries, interpersonal struggles and endless daily problems that need solving. Rarely do we feel we “have time” to look out the window and experience a sense of connection to the wider Cosmos.
In schools the focus is on testing and the collection of data, to prepare young people for college and careers. We teach our children the names of the parts of their physical bodies and structures in Nature, but don’t put much emphasis on having them experience the
Universe as a whole or understand their relationship to all that exists.
They are taught that ecology, physics, biology, astronomy, economics, sociology, psychology, politics, history, religion, art, literature, poetry and chemistry are
completely separate fields (and should be kept that way). Everything is divided up into pieces, all knowledge to be memorized, categorized and compartmentalized.
Rarely are children taught how these pieces fit together. There is little or no discussion of how modern Science’s emerging view of the Universe as a unified whole relates to the art of Van Gogh, the philosophy of Lao Tsu, the religion of the Romans, the spiritual ideas of Albert Einstein or the poetry of Walt Whitman.
Few get a sense of the big picture of Science or the spiritual implications, how their biological growth is an expression of universal creativity, guided by the DNA of ancestors, nurtured by their mothers’ bodies, with cellular systems running on solar energy passed along by glucose molecules from the leaves of plants that captured photons from our nearest star, the sun.
Civilization’s Dominant Paradigm is Focused on Economic Survival
Materialistic societies are so focused on economic survival that most people don’t pay attention to the interconnections and synergistic processes that support our lives. This is especially true in hierarchal “civilized” cultures with languages that developed (over the centuries) in order to keep economies running, not to help us feel a sense of unity and connection with Nature or the Universe.
“People normally cut reality into compartments, and so are unable to see the interdependence of all phenomena. To see one in all and all in one is to break through the great barrier which narrows one’s perception of reality.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
Our minds are trained to divide the world up into dualistic categories such as right/wrong, good/evil, winner/loser, developed/primitive, winners/losers and us/them, unaware that these are conceptual projections of our belief systems, not actual characteristics of the world.
The rigid categories of our language systems influence how we think (and feel) about everything around us. We see ourselves as separate from fellow human beings, and the Universe to which we belong.
Perhaps because the dominant warrior civilizations have been so successful at wars and conquests, we have come to see problems as something we must battle rather than understand more holistically, or as symptoms of our predatory and compartmentalized ways of thinking.
As the agricultural revolution led to a surge in human populations, it must have been especially difficult for European & Middle Eastern nations, where a hostile invasion by one’s neighbors could happen at any time. One of the sad truths of history has been that tribes and cultures that learned to peacefully coexist ran the risk of being conquered, enslaved or exterminated by violent neighbors.
As a result, members of successful warrior civilizations have tended to ignore important natural processes and interdependent connections that exist but don’t fit with their survival priorities, essentials of life that don’t respond well to power games and manipulation.
“The difficulty is this fragmentation.. All thought is broken up into bits… Therefore, people cannot see that they are creating a problem and then apparently trying to solve it… Wholeness is a kind of attitude or approach to the whole of life. If we can have a coherent approach to reality then reality will respond coherently to us.” ~David Bohm
It’s like Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall, once predatory civilizations came to view the Universe as distinct objects and little pieces, their members no longer experienced a sense of connection to the whole. Technologically “advanced” cultures became successful at constructing machines and dominating others, losing touch with the natural rhythms, ecological interdependence and organic oneness of the world.
It’s a tragic paradox. Highly intelligent, yet ignorant of connections, we have created a host of seemingly insolvable problems for ourselves and others. Because unless one truly understands the nature and root causes of problems, one cannot solve them. We can create machines, build incredible technologies, and yet are like idiots when it comes to solving problems that involve complex natural systems and living beings.
“This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” ~Albert Einstein
The field of medicine, for example, while excelling at surgery (which requires a deep understanding of how the body’s systems are organically structured) puts great emphasis on using drugs to suppress the symptoms of “illnesses.”
What is ignored is that our bodies have a natural wisdom and intelligence, they “know” how to grow, heal and care for themselves, to maintain balance, grow and regenerate.
Our bodies are masterpieces of biology, that have evolved over millions of years with the capability to maintain and self-regulate their health. When these natural abilities are ignored– for example when nutrition, exercise and diet are not given proper attention or people ingest toxic substances– then problems like obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease arise.
When it comes to education, human children have a natural curiosity and love of learning, they have magnificent self-organizing brains that seek to understand the world’s patterns and develop complex skills.
In the early years this natural learning process is supported by parents and families, but not as much by society’s mechanistically structured institutions of schooling.
As a result many young people are turned off by formal schooling, believing themselves to be stupid or failures. But there is nothing wrong (or stupid) about a human child. We are all miraculous works of nature, the result of millions of years of evolutionary development and fine tuning.
“You are something that the Whole Universe is doing, in the same way that a wave is something that the Whole Ocean is doing…” ~Alan Watts
It’s those in positions of authority attempting to program children like machines, that destroy their natural love of learning. Children will learn quickly, enjoyably and easily when their natural curiosity, creativity and interests are encouraged and respected.
When young people fail to learn (or are discouraged by schooling) its adults forcing inappropriate methods and mechanistic systems (out of touch with reality) that have failed, not the children.
The kinds of problems we see in health care and education exist in other “civilized” institutions as well. In each case, its often a lack of compassion and “ignorance” about the interdependent nature of reality (and how natural systems work) that creates many of our “modern” problems.
Wars happen when human beings hold on to past grievances, identify with tribal loyalties, wish to protect (or acquire) territory or seek revenge. To kill fellow human beings requires a closing of the heart and a compartmentalization of thinking, seeing the world as a battle between “us” and “them.”
The sacredness of life is temporarilly forgotten, the core teachings of our spiritual traditions (and the truth that humans are part of one interconnected family) ignored.
Environmental pollution and destruction occur when the health and harmony of Nature is not respected (or prioritized). Again, its a matter of thinking we are somehow separate from the rest of the planet that surrounds us. When human beings don’t support the natural balance of ecosystems, it’s usually because we fail to keep in mind that the harm we do to the natural world we also do to all future generations, and ourselves.
Economic problems are also linked to civilization’s compartmentalized and selfish ways of thinking. It’s an extension of the way emperors and kings have thought for over two thousand years.
Wealth inequalities arise when a few people seek to dominate others, to accumulate (and then hoard) resources for themselves, without caring about their sisters and brothers in surrounding communities who require an equitable share of that wealth to live happy and healthy lives.
In a sense, human communities and nations are like physical bodies. In a body every cell requires a fair share of the energy in order to thrive. When a group of cells take more than their share, without concern for the rest of the body, the health of the body is damaged and becomes unstable.
In any complex unified system, natural balance and harmony is a priority, and chaos will arise until it is restored. Human history over the last few thousand years is in large part the story of this imbalance.
Most social problems arise from these inequities and the compartmentalized thinking that perpetuates our ignorance.
Drug abuse, crime, violent revolutions, terrorism and other such “disturbances” down through history flow from the extreme wealth and power imbalance of complex hierarchical civilizations. They are directly related to the poverty, oppression and unhappiness associated with those on the bottom end of wealth inequality and oppression.
“Creating a society that goes against human nature is what creates the suffering… We live in a completely unnatural society, that actually tramples on what it means to be a human being. That’s the essence of suffering, and there are so many ways in which our society does that.” ~Dr Gabor Mate
When people are healthy, happy and leading meaningful lives such behaviors are less likely to arise, and can be calmed quickly. This does not require a forced political solution (such as Communism) as much as a change of mindset, and greater compassion. If more people in positions of power and dominance began to think differently and care more, the problems associated with poverty could be solved, quickly.
The Reality We Create Arises From Our World Views and Beliefs
Humans organize the world based on our beliefs and perceptions. If we see a world at war, a world of winners and losers, of competition (and battle over resources ) we respond that way, defensively and aggressively.
If we view the world as a place where everyone is a member of our extended family, where everything in the Universe is interconnected ecologically and holistically, we will respond more compassionately and generously.
The challenge for humanity now is to transform and transcend our fractured views of the world, to shift paradigms, to return to a more wise and holistic understanding of ourselves and our place in the Universe.
A change in thinking and behavior will result naturally from a change of heart. As Einstein put it, “Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
“As a species, we are on the cusp of an evolutionary choice. Standing at the dawn of this perfect storm, we find ourselves at the beginning of a process of civilizational transition. As the old paradigm dies, a new paradigm is born. And many people around the world are already making the evolutionary choice to step away from the old, and embrace the new.”~Nafeez Ahmed
Once enough of us open our minds and collaborate together, there’s a good chance we’ll find many of our problems can be solved quite easily. By aligning our species with the wisdom of Nature (and our own hearts), the health of our planet and communities could be restored.
We just need to recognize our interdependence with the rest of the Universe, be more generous and grateful, care about one another, re-evaluate our priorities and change the way we think.