Reality is a Process and we are Participants by Nature
An Excerpt from ‘Exploring Participation’ (D.C. Wahl, 2002)
Each individual expression of identity, though by nature transient, is a creative reflection of the whole in its entirety. Every living being contributes uniquely to the continuous process by which the whole un/en-folds itself. If we value ourselves we have to value all of life, since life is who we really are.
We have to embrace the paradox of Being. We are subjectively experiencing parts of the whole that we are. How else could the whole become conscious of itself than through the subjective experiences of all its constituent parts?
It is important not to misunderstand all my comments about our co-creative agency in the world as a new form of anthropocentrism, while humans are very powerful co-creative agents in the emergence of the whole it is important to pay attention to how all of life is engaged in this process by which the one whole expresses itself through the diversity of its parts.
Borrowing Henri Bortoft’s terminology one could say: All of life is the coming into being of the world through the unitary event by which the parts and the whole enter into relationship through the creative expression of individual identity.
The diversity of life we experience around us, including our self is in fact a dynamical living unity. Seen from this perspective, Jesus’ words ‘love thy neighbour as through he was thyself’ gain a more profound and quite literal meaning. They speak of the basis of a holistic participatory ethics.
All of life creates and reflects the whole and thus has intrinsic value. This is the basis of reverence for life and appropriate participation in the restoration of the health of the whole.
Developing an environmental ethics based on a reverence for all of life and applying these values to everything we do becomes easier if we understand life is who we are and learn to embrace the mystery of the paradox of Life. As Albert Schweitzer explains:
“The ethics of reverence for life makes no distinction between higher and lower, more precious and less precious lives. It has good reason for this omission. For what we are doing, when we establish hard and fast gradations in value between living organisms, but judging them in relation to ourselves, by whether they seem to stand closer to us or farther from us?… How can we know the importance other living organisms have in themselves and in terms of the universe?”324
— Albert Schweitzer
As Thomas Berry has so beautifully said “the universe is a communion of subjects not a collection of objects.” We have to learn how to live that communion with the community of life. This process of learning is appropriate participation and will help us to move towards sustainability. As Brian Goodwin emphasizes:
“What we need is an education for collective living rather than for individual success. The collective to which we need to pay more attention includes all the other species of this planet, as well as the such as weather that allow their survival.”325
— Brian Goodwin
Another important conclusion is that change in the individual and change in the community are actually so closely related that they are not separate, but arise in co-dependence through the process we engage in every time we relate to the world and the community around us.
“Mind and self emerge in social relationships. Individuals are forming and being formed by a group at the same time. Mind and self arise between people rather than being located in an individual.”326 Understanding this relationship between our individual selves and the community we are engaged in and focussing on the potential that arises out of our co-operation in this process, may provide a basis for a healthier and more fulfilling community life.
We need each other, as human beings and we need the more than human world around us, in order to be able to participate in the dynamic process of continuously transforming unity. It is through the diversity of the ‘other’ — human and non human — that we are actually able to define and express creatively who we are.
Whether we like it or not and whether we are conscious of it or not, we can only be who we are in relation to the rest of the world around us. The ‘other’ and our ‘self’ arise together and reciprocate in defining each other.
Becoming conscious of this process and our participation-in-[wholeness] allows us to consciously cooperate and thus participate more appropriately in the nevertheless unpredictable emergence of creative and novel properties of the whole that connects us all.
In realizing that this emergence is unpredictable and uncontrollable, individual control and competition become futile. It is therefore not necessary to impose top down control and leadership onto communities, as the truly creative changes emerge from the bottom up through the creative interaction, participation and co-operative relationships of the individual members of such complex processes.
Appropriate participation and therefore sustainability would be greatly facilitated by — I believe necessitates — a reorganization of the current political power structures along the principle of subsidiarity.
We need to stop the continuing erosion of local and traditional knowledge and base our decisions on the slow knowledge that forms out of the collective wisdom of locally appropriate participation at appropriate spatial-temporal scales.
The health of the individual and the health of the whole are inseparably linked and thus to engage in the process of healing — at any scale — is clearly appropriate participation.
During the course of the 21st Century we will have to engage in this healing process at all scales to restore an Earth weakened by centuries of humanity’s inappropriate participation.
Diversity and resilience are an expression of a healthy whole and all our designs should aim to increase diversity and resilience, using individual, collective and overall health as indicators of success.
Ecovillages aim to create just such sustainable communities as the foundation for a healthy whole. To facilitate the emergence of health across all spatial-temporal scales, we have to create healthy self-reliant identities at all scales from the individual to the family to the community, the bioregion and on to larger networks of co-operation.
Sustainability starts with the appropriate participation of each and every one of us.
I will end this dissertation by giving my elders a voice, as I have done throughout the text through the use of many quotations. If you managed to follow my request to suspend judgement and to listen to your heart for the moments when meaning emerges in the happening of understanding, if the new reality which is slowly emerging from the new and ancient stories and the appropriate participation of millions of globally and locally aware and responsible citizens has begun to have meaning for you, if you can see yourself as a verb rather than a noun, as a reflection of the whole but not separate from it, then bringing all these insights together in one volume has met its intention.
In the beginning I proposed the hypothesis that the so-called new paradigm has evolved into a new story complex and powerful enough to create and maintain a new reality. Did it have meaning for you? I believe as more of us are beginning to live and tell their story of meaning, we are beginning to re- story and restore the Earth and our appropriate place in it.
Please remember true wisdom comes from many minds, we have to listen to each other and co-operate in this new era of conscious participation. Non-violent communication, conflict resolution and consensus decision-making at a human scale are clear attributes of appropriate participation.
It is time to stop studying the river from the sides of its banks and to learn to swim like little vortices, temporary expressions of individual identity, distinct but not separate from the river that contains us.
Ultimately the theory of appropriate participation has to be appropriate participation itself, because for the whole to heal and health to emerge on all spatial-temporal scales, for the process of sustainability to become a reality, all the participating parts have to become healthy and whole.
Theoreticians and academics will have to become whole people too, appropriately participating members of their local community and begin to actively live holistic, living theory through appropriate participation — teaching by example.
To make sustainability a reality we will have to face, what Gandhi called the greatest challenge of the modern age. For him this was not to remake our world, but to remake ourselves. Gandhi invited all of us to participate appropriately when he said:
“Be the change you wish to see in the world!” 136
— Mahatma Gandhi
“Ecological design is the art that reconnects us as sensuous creatures evolved over millions of years to a beautiful world. That world does not need to be remade but rather revealed. To do that we need research as much as the rediscovery of old and forgotten things. We do not need more economic growth as much as we need to relearn the ancient lesson of generosity, as trustees for a moment between those who preceded us and those who will follow. Our greatest needs have nothing to do with the possession of things but rather with heart, wisdom, thankfulness, and generosity of spirit. And these virtues are part of larger ecologies that embrace spirit, body, and mind — the beginning of design.”327
— David W. Orr
“The game of life, we might say, is cycles of creative emergence and extinction in which the reward is not long-term survival but simply transient expression of a coherent form, a revelation of a possible state of life which we call a species, whose value is intrinsic to its being. Life, it seems, is not to be measured by quantity of success but by quality of creative living.”328
— Peter Reason & Brian Goodwin
A Hopi Elder Speaks (edited):
“You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour, Now you must go back and tell the people that this is the Hour. And there are things to be considered.
This could be a good time.
At this time in history we, are able to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves
Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary.
All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.
There is a river flowing now very fast, It is so great and swift,
that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly.
Know the river has its destination.
The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the
middle of the river, keep our eyes open and our heads above water.
And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”329
The Elders Oraibi
[Note: This is an excerpt from my 2002 masters dissertation in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. It addresses some of the root causes of our current crises of unsustainability. If you are interested in the references you can find them here. The research I did for my masters thesis directly informed my 2006 PhD thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’ (2006), and after 10 years of experience as an educator, consultant, activist, and expert-generalist in whole systems design and transformative innovation, I published Designing Regenerative Cultures with Triarchy Press in May 2016.]