Mindfulness: Ephemeral Art
by Susan Keijo Sensemann

photograph by Susan Sensemann

photograph by Susan Sensemann

I’ve made art everyday for fifty years. The accumulated racks of paintings, flat-file drawers full of drawings and stacks of photomontages weigh me down now. I continue to make ‘my art,’ but I have also begun to construct ephemeral art that requires no storage at all - mandalas of fallen leaves, flower petals, sticks, shells, stones and recently, colored sand and salt. My meditative art practice begins as I gather flowers, separate the petals from the stems, pick up fallen leaves, and sort everything by shape and color. I dye sand, salt, and lavender seeds with vegetable pigment for mandalas that are particularly intricate.

I place one flower in the center of the given space - yard, floor, table - and make concentric circles until I have used up my materials. Two feet to twelve feet in diameter for various kinds of celebrations and rites of passage: an eightieth birthday, a wedding, a passing, a remembrance. After I sit with the completed piece, I sweep up the component parts, put them in a woven bag, and release it all into a nearby river, ocean, lake or pond. 

I document the process and am surprised by what my camera catches: red rose petals floated into the shape of a heart the day my dog died and lavender seeds seemed to hug a reflection of a tree as I remembered the death of a friend’s granddaughter. In my tribute to Western medicine for saving a friend’s life, the wind carried one zinnia blossom out into a small lake and the flower’s soft landing created concentric ripples well off the shore. The petals and leaves eventually float with the current, but sometimes they cling to the bank or shoreline before they sail away. I sit on the water’s edge and witness transformation and ephemerality as what was tangible joins a greater ebb and flow until it disappears entirely. As an artist making pieces that are impermanent, I surrender my control and will to what is unpredictable, spacious and magical. I am always reminded to go with the Flow.

Today I gathered autumn leaves for a mandala to mark the one-year anniversary of the passing of Leonard Jikan Cohen - poet, songwriter, performer, scholar, prophet and ordained Buddhist monk. I began making my tribute mandala with a Buddhist verse that calls for benefaction and liberation of all other beings.  Then, I cranked up Jikan’s music and danced as I arranged the leaves to “Traveling Light,” “True Love Leaves No Traces” “Dance Me To The End of Love,” and “Hallelujah.”  Leonard wrote that everything is in flux. Nothing is permanent. Thank you, Jikan.

True Love Leaves No Traces, 1977, Leonard Cohen:

As the mist leaves no scar /  On the dark green hill /  So my body leaves no scar /  On you and never will /  Through windows in the dark /  The children come, the children go /  Like arrows with no targets  / Like shackles made of snow .  As a falling leaf may rest /  A moment on the air /  So your head upon my breast / So my hand upon your hair.  And many nights endure /  Without a moon or star /  So we will endure  / When one is gone and far .  True love leaves no traces /  If you and I are one /  It's lost in our embraces  / Like stars against the sun.



Mindfulness: Facing Fear
by Susan Sensemann

photograph by Susan Sensemann

photograph by Susan Sensemann

We face tests of one sort or another many times a day, some of greater consequence than another: the driver in front of us turns without a signal or our dog pushes through the gate. Other situations are more complicated: a family member wrongly casts blame, a partner gives us the heave-ho, an opportunity for a promotion requires a move to another city. Some decisions are met with a turn-on-a-dime reflex - our brain stems takes care of that.  Others require clear communication as well as thoughtful and skillful means to best sort through possible outcomes. 

When met with the unexpected, we might be flooded with fear. Will I make the right decision? What if I don’t? Why doesn’t the pro and con list add up to a clear answer? You hear a voice in your head “This is a TEST!” You panic and cringe away from the circumstance with a cold, grey feeling of dread. A possible response is to flee from the situation, to fill our time with more television, sports, food or drink. Carbs are good for distraction as we avoid our fears and push our sadnesses and discomforts onto the other end of the sofa and hand them adult beverages. Hiding from fear is not unusual. We don’t like the sweaty palms that accompany uncertainty. 

A mindfulness meditation practice trains us to be proactive rather than reactive. We take time to sit. Spine and head are tall as we breathe into the fear. We bear witness. We Name that Emotion like a 50s television quiz show. We breathe into the reality that our fear is not real. It certainly feels real. So, we name it again: Fear. Big old Medusa-headed Fear. What is the trigger for that basic human emotion? Do we need to recoil from a snake? Take shelter from a tree that’s about to topple? Or is our fear based in mental projections that the worst is bound to happen. We catastrophize.  A mindfulness meditation practice reminds our body to sit still as we count our breaths. And, within our stillness, the monsters in our mind’s eye head to the hills.

It is within this pause of sitting and breathing that we have the opportunity to become a Spiritual Warrior. Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche wrote that the term Warrior refers to one with open-hearted courage; one who embodies basic human wisdom that arises through relaxed confidence, joyful awareness and gentle, ever-loving generosity. Being an open-hearted warrior can hurt, but we bear that pain with gratitude, too. We are alive. Spiritual Warriors embody the courage to face fears and very possibly, to dance with them to the edge of the forest. 

Mindfulness and the Gap
by Susan Keijo Sensemann

photograph by Susan Sensemann

photograph by Susan Sensemann

The ups and downs that are inherent to being human come to us at break-neck speed. I wrote ‘to us’ and not ‘at us.’  Each event that causes us to stop, pause, take stock, evaluate a way forward and push on through is a lesson when we take the time to bear witness to what is happening at any given moment. What I mean by ‘bear witness’ is to sit with the feelings that arise within our bodies as we muddle through shock, grief, sadness, loss and sometimes the awe of something as ordinary as watching a red maple leaf pirouette to the earth in late October. We weep with the leaf - its perfect spiral as it dances with the wind or dances to its own music. We might weep because we know that winter is bearing down. Some of us prefer warm beaches to wrapping scarves and wearing boots, but the earth is simply asking for a blanket until she yawns, stretches and pops forth with shades of green in April. That is poetic. 

What about the conversation, one word, that changes the course of life as we thought we knew it? Famine or feast. Angel or beast. The unknown. The not known. That which is not prescribed pre-planned, prepared as we expected or hoped. The diagnosis. The simple word “not.” Maybe the words “I love you.” Maybe the last breath of a beloved dog. Maybe the first breath that a granddaughter breathes as we question what sort of grandmother we might be. It’s all new.

It is a matter of stopping, noticing, feeling what is occurring in that very moment. To see and feel what is happening at any given time is mindfulness. To appreciate the possibility inherent to any moment’s unexpected presence might be called the Gap.

Mindfulness, our practice of meditation, helps us learn to stop, pause, breathe, and pay attention. We learn to swim in the gap. Bask in it if we like palm trees and warm waters, 

dance in it if we love rhythm and music. Or, sit in stillness and silence if that is where we locate our hearts. The Gap is the unexpected. To be in the Gap is our practice. Not knowing, bearing witness to whatever arises, knowing within the sacred space of our open hearts what it is that is arising and choosing to move with the flow that simply is an open heart. Sometimes that open heart hurts so much that we can hardly bear it. The sorrows, the joys. Mindfulness prepares us to dance with the unknown. Leonard Cohen wrote: There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. That is the Gap.

Warm Data by Nora Bateson

We are grateful for Nora Bateson's permission to publish this ground-breaking article on our Zen Life Blog. 

Contextual Research and New forms of Information



Recognizing that complex problems are not susceptible to predetermined solutions, the International Bateson Institute has taken up the task of generating a category of information specifically dedicated to description of contextual relational interaction, calling it “Warm Data”. The units of knowledge by which reasoning and calculations are made namely, data, information, and facts, suggest processes of research into which we place our hopes for better understanding of the world we inhabit. But the subject being perceived must dictate the necessity of understanding in different ways, therefore producing different kinds of information. Warm data is the product of a form of study specifically concentrated on (trans)contextual understanding of complex systems. Utilizing information obtained through a subject’s removal from context and frozen in time can create error when working with complex (living)systems. Warm data presents another order of exploration in the process of discerning vital contextual interrelationships, and another species of information.

“Warm Data” can be defined as: Transcontextual information about the interrelationships that integrate a complex system.

Information can come in many forms, depending on what is being studied. There is a need now for a way to gather and impart relational information when what we need to study is relational in nature. Warm Data is a category of information to develop in tandem to existing forms of data. This kind of information is a slippery mess of variables, changes, and ambiguities. It does not sit nicely in graphs or models, and it takes longer to produce. Since Warm Data describes relational interdependencies it must also include the necessary contradictions, binds (double-binds and more), and inconsistencies that occur in interrelational processes over time. Warm Data is the delivery of these multiple descriptions in active comparison, usually in a form that permits and even encourages the subjectivity of the observer within which it is possible to make meta connections.

This essay is an exploration of how and why Warm Data is developing as a form of documentation of relational and contextual information. Here the discussion does not go into the ways in which Warm Data are produced, or what do with Warm Data in terms of “actions”.

Making Sense & Science:

In early 2012, I was at a session on Big Data at the SAS Institute in North Carolina when I declared to my colleagues that there is a need for “contextual information” and first referred to it as “Warm Data.” That moment marked the beginning of conceptualizing and exploring the possibilities of producing an approach to research, and then imagining what the delivery of “Warm Data” research might look like.

I was not clear what it was yet, I was only certain of one thing: that a new kind of information was needed to balance the information produced by research that decontextualized its subjects of inquiry. In short, the way in which we make sense of the world has everything to do with the way we behave in it, so I saw a need for another sense-making as a necessary component of shifting behavior. Five years later the International Bateson Institute is now utilizing “Warm Data” in our research and findings on addiction, how systems learn, health and ecology.

Science, the systematic pursuit of knowledge, is at the center of the post-trust, post-truth meltdown. It appears that information as a product of knowledge, is now on trial. Every research study it would appear, is perforated with holes of distrust and met with counter evidence. Research bias and funding-based conflicts of interest have undermined public confidence in scientific research results, even though good research remains the best (and only) possible way forward as we look for ways to reduce our negative impact on the world around us. Subsequent public confusion and division is resulting in binary argument fueled by information that has been derived without the complexity required to actually make sense of it contextually. The damage is vast.

In this era, it is nearly impossible to get through a day without contributing to the destruction of our world. By lunchtime most people have participated in: further disruption to the ecology, an increase in the wealth gap, the demise of social justice, and the vengeful division between cultures. Breakfast cereals are laced with chemical pesticides that are known to be toxic both to our bodies and to the soil. They also contain damagingly high amounts of refined sugar. Yet these harmful practices have been approved by the institutional authorities of science and society. How has it come to this? And how can new patterns of interaction in our societies be encouraged to emerge? Our social deference to authorized institutions in the interest of collective safety has evolved over centuries. But that safety has been contaminated, along with our trust in the institutions that are supposed to provide truth and justice. How can science evolve to contribute to greater trustworthiness of our socio-economic institutions? How can sense be made of this tangle?

Part of the problem is that, globally, nationally and personally, we face crises that can be described as “complex” or “wicked” problems. Complexity is recognizable in situations which have multiple variables in ever shifting contexts of interdependency. Some examples of complex living systems are oceans, cities, families, economic systems, culture, the health of our own bodies, and the medical systems we expect to support them.

In each of these systems, vitality is produced by multiple processes in contextual interaction. To study a jungle is to recognize that the jungle itself is not an isolated “thing” but instead exists in the interrelationship between soil, foliage, animals, weather patterns, bacteria and so on. The same contextual linkings can be found in all living systems; approaching the system without an understanding of this holism will create short circuits in the complexity and countless unintended consequences. Making sense of the vitality of a complex system is an inquiry into its way of making contact. A study of the relational patterns gives entirely different understanding of the way in which a system is cohering.

“At present there is no existing science whose special interest is the combining of pieces of information. But I shall argue that the evolutionary process must depend upon such double increments of information.

Every evolutionary step is an addition of information to an already existing system. Because this is so, the combinations, harmonies, and discords between successive pieces and layers of information will present many problems of survival and determine many directions of change.”

Gregory Bateson, Mind & Nature, 1979

Why Warm Data?

Although statistical data is useful, it is also limited by the common practice it often accompanies: decontextualizing the focus of inquiry. To study something is usually to pull it out of context and examine it in isolation. Rarely is the study re-contextualized to look at the complexity of its larger web of relationships. Warm Data circumnavigates the limitations inherent to statistical analysis by engaging a transcontextual research methodology, bringing not only context, but multiple contexts into the inquiry process. In order to interface with any complex system without disrupting the cohesion of the interdependencies that give it integrity, we must look at the spread of relationships that make the system robust. Simply using analytic methods focused on parsing statistical (cold) data will often point to conclusions that disregard the complexity of the situation at hand. Moreover, information that does not take into account the full scope of interrelationality in a system is likely to inspire misguided decision-making, which compounds already “wicked” problems. Warm Data is not meant to replace or in any way diminish other data, but rather it is meant to keep data of certain sorts “warm” — with a nest of relations intact.


Photo by Jeff Bloom

Photo by Jeff Bloom


Transcontextual Research & the Rigor of Ambiguity:

Warm Data provides cross-sector interrelational information because it is the outcome of a research approach premised upon the transcontextual interaction inherent in any system. This sort of inquiry is daunting and perpetually in its pioneering stages. This research is has as its basis humility for the un-knowability and ambiguity inherent in these forms of study. However, these inevitable uncertainties we recognize do not lead us to an abandonment of deep study. On the contrary, studying relational information from multiple contextual perspectives, produces more work, takes more time, and requires larger teams. The rigor of this research is not to be underestimated. For example, if one wants to study the ways in which food impacts our lives, a multifaceted study of ecology, culture, agriculture, economy, cross-generational communication, and media is needed. This transcontextual platform provides a wider contextual framework for further inquiry into what forms and constitutes certain international contemporary issues such as eating disorders, starvation, and other health problems associated with diet. Or in a family study, to better understand an individual family member the Warm Data of the family culture, and other contextual information is enormously productive. The meanings of behavior differ greatly from family to family and from culture to culture, therefore contextual information can provide needed insight into otherwise line item analysis, diagnostics and understandings of causation. People migration, the changing banking industry, and the challenges facing mechanical and civil engineering are all topics that would benefit from an increase in contextual, relational information.

Warm Data is generated through a Batesonian[1] approach of comparing interrelating processes in a given system. This approach needs us to reconsider our prevailing epistemology, to foreground the study of interdependency, to observe the observer and to look for “the pattern that connects”.


What is the pattern that connects? This question, famously posed by Gregory Bateson (father of the author), draws the inquirer and researcher to another level of description. It is an invitation to reach behind the perceived separations of knowledge to get to the contextual knitting together of definitively inseparable processes.


A majority of current scientific research tools and methodologies pull “subjects” from their contexts in order to derive detailed, specialized, quantifiable information. To complement, and yet support, this specialized type of science, a wider practice of science in the future might develop ways to utilize information derived from both detail and interdependency. However, for now, the cultural habit of decontextualizing information, or, reductionism, is the standardized, authorized, and empirical norm.

An evolution in the realm of science is needed to foreground, and find ways to communicate (and “deliver”) another form of information, one that is less likely to be riddled with errors deriving from hidden contextual consequences. But it will require a significant shift in epistemology to begin to perceive the interrelationality in addition to the parts and wholes of any given system. A shift in the way information is derived will, in turn, inform the actions we take to protect society and ecology.

The Scientific Revolution of the 1600s brought us the scientific method and the bounty of mechanistic thinking. It brought us the notions of induction, empiricism, hard evidence, quantitative measurement, and objectivity. All of these have been enormously useful: skyscrapers, aircraft, computers and EKG machines are all manifestations of this form of scientific research and development. But not all studies are served by the empirical and inductive quantitative method. There are some forms of understanding that resist measurement and elude objectivity: these can include understanding of what is necessary for raising children well or understanding the ramifications of culture on climate change. Reductionism, or the habit of isolating information from its context(s), has been good to us, and it has been deadly.


If there is a concerted effort and demand from the scientific community and from society at large, we may witness a shift in scientific practices to include another form of research that will deliver information that includes the interdependency within complex systems. But this is not an easy shift. The habits of studying things through silo-ed disciplines is deeply entrenched in our culture.

In the mid 1950s the beginnings of a new way of understanding systems emerged in the study of “cybernetics”. Cybernetics offered the tools to look at how the “parts” of systems came together. But this tool was not easy to bring into the fold of scientific notions of isolating objective truth. The logic of “cause and effect” within the study of complex living systems defies the confines of existing methodologies. Interrelationships whose combined processes create the conditions for a particular consequence, such as an addiction, or economic wealth gap, or racism are impossible to quantify without distortion.

Observing the observer:

It takes a team of people to study in this new way. It also takes an open-ended declaration of “outcome” because this form of scientific research will produce only unforeseen “deliverables”. Stabilized, standardized “objective” science is fine for the study of some subjects, but not all. In the case of living systems and complex problems the “facts” are not always enough. The facts according to whom? Through what cultural, and methodological lens were they looking?

The observer matters, and teams of observers matter. Since data are always derived through the particular lens of the researchers, descriptions of their filters of perception are vital information and must not be sterilized out of findings.

As we currently witness the melting of trust in science, politics, law, medicine, social systems and economics, it is clear that this era will require a reclaiming of trustworthiness. Lamenting the postmodern condition of multiple relative truths and impossible clarity is only partially useful in regaining trustworthiness. Beyond the cynicism that the postmodern dilemma delivers is the practical need for better questions, and more rigorous inquiry into complexity.

We can remember that at the same time as the scientific revolution of the 1600s there was a corresponding period in art in which the techniques for rendering perfect replication of still life were constantly improved. Yet in the ensuing centuries it became clear that perfection was not enough. Baroque still lifes may have pursued a photographic realism, but later art movements such as Impressionism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Modernism and Postmodernism were responses to a need for a different envisioning of information, as not only “about the chair” but about who is seeing the chair, and how it might be possible to perceive “chair-ness.” Now perhaps it is time for science in its turn to adopt a parallel course of discovery around what perception and information are.

Historical antecedents:

Warm Data is not really new. Throughout history people have used aggregated information toward a natural history approach. Often these findings were often metabolized into other forms of information more readily recognized by the society. It would seem that devolution of natural history is part of the natural history, as it gets sucked back into the cultural paradigms of credibility. The limits of rationale hold particular sense-making habits in place, while others remain threatening. However, there has been a stream of inquiry that has always existed in which relational information was produced. This introduction of the notion of Warm Data is offered here in response to the need for this type of information to be strengthened and honored.

The alchemists, Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe, William Blake, people producing case law, Pythagoras, anthropologists, and artists like Shakespeare, Hokosai, Bjork and countless others have used their own means of bringing together multiple forms of information and rubbing them together to find new perspectives. Currently qualitative research teams and methods are becoming increasingly popular. They may benefit from the naming of another form of information in which to place their findings.

Characteristics of Warm Data:

To more effectively meet the challenges of this new sort of rigor, we require studies that generate understanding of contextual systemic data. The information generated makes a difference not only in scientific research, but also in the contextual influences considered in decision-making. Here are six characteristics of Warm Data.

1. Multiple description: This is a way to illustrate processes and contexts of interdependency. Multiple description both blurs the distinctions between contexts, and describes them through difference, comparison and relational perception. While it might appear that this process would lead to an untenable and infinite collection of perspectives, the Batesonian notion of information as “difference that makes a difference” is way to study the relation between perspectives, through contrasting qualitative characteristics. The information is not located but diffused into the contextual contacts and boundaries.

2. Looking for pattern: We compare findings from one context with findings of similar patterns in other contexts, to generate hybrid information. This is very much in keeping with Pierce’s Abduction. The findings from pattern comparison across contexts are conceptual, and indirect. For example, the patterns of ecological relationships in a tide pool can be compared to the patterns of relationship in a family, but the needs of survival for the tide pool are clearly different in detail than those of the family. Understanding the patterns comparing ecological systems is useful for studies of other systems, even though the systems may be not be alike in their details.

3. Paradox, inconsistency and time: Scientific research premised upon the complexity of a system in relation to its environment will produce paradox and inconsistency, by necessity. In order to keep the complexity intact, results should feature these dilemmas without resolving them. In fact these instabilities are sources of information about the relationships that are highly generative. Relationships over time change, and aggregated relationship such as a forest or society must produce responses to responses that are disruptive. The disruptions are rich with Warm Data.

4. Holism and reductionism: Information derived by zooming out to study context is as important as the information derived by zooming in on detail. These two forms of information are not alike. One is relational and overlapping, the other is isolated and (sometimes) linear. Both are needed in relation even when they produce contradictions. Smaller and larger contexts are tangled up mutually calibrating interactions. They are not concentric nor are they separable; rather they are steeped in interdependency.

5. Cultural epistemological responsibility: Science and culture are deeply entwined. Development of inquiry that is simultaneously inclusive of multiple generations, cultures, and sectors is useful to keep observers’ frames relevant. Information is only as perceivable as the sensorial limits of the observer. A variety of perceptions lessens blind spots.

6. Aesthetic/mood/rhythm: In any inquiry of life, the aesthetic matters — perhaps above all else. This vital condition of any interrelational context is often ignored in favor of misplaced rationality. Given that complex systems are interrelational, the nature of the relationships needs to be noticed. The aesthetic is the conduit through which relation occurs. While the aesthetic need not be valuated, it must be noticed to better assess relational information. Keeping in mind that the opposite of aesthetic is anesthetic, it is clear that increasing sensitivity is preferable to numbness as it increases receivable information.

Just as the methodology for generating Warm Data is characterized by transcontextual research, the end-product and delivery of this information will be characterized by multiple description (though all aspects of Warm Data involves both transcontextual research and multiple description). I need look no further than my own hand for an illustration of how multiple description can increase the scope of understanding within a system and between systems of understanding. To illustrate this, let us ask, “What is a hand for?” Different contexts provide contrasting contexts for understanding. A violinist’s hands hold the muscle memory and learning of a lifetime of practice. But a sculptor’s hands know weight and texture and pressure in another way. People who use sign language express not only words but also emotion through their hands. In this sense, the contexts that the hand exists within, (anatomy, music, memory, language, cognition) each provide a realm of relational data to be explored. This is just one simple example of the possibility of transcontextual research. At present the International Bateson Institute is currently researching the Warm Data of: Addiction, Health Care Systems, Education, Climate Change, Emergency Population Relocation, Double Binds within Political Discourse and more.

The Theory:

There are several theories at work within this process. Here are a few:

Patterns that connect

2. Difference that makes a difference

3. Multiple description

4. Symmathesy: Contextual Mutual learning and calibration

5. Autopoiesis, and Mind (Maturana, Varela, Thompson and Bateson)

6. Systems and Complexity Theory

7. Ecology of communication

8. Double binds

9. Conscious purpose

10. Epistemological frames

11. Change in complex systems

12. Interdependency

13. Abduction (Pierce)

14. Transcontextual Research

Meet the Hydra:
Beyond the conventional problem solving techniques of reducing and resolving, problem solving in complexity further requires an understanding of the interdependencies that are generating the issues. We must address these even in addition to our ever more acute and urgent responses to rising situations. Like the heads of the mythological Hydra our crises are many now. But in our silo-ed world the crises that we perceive and address are also silo-ed, as is the habit of finding silo-ed solutions. Much like chopping off the Hydra’s heads, the resulting solutions that do not address the complexity seem only to generate more consequences.

The most serious problems facing us now are not in any particular institution, but rather in the relationship between them. If change is made it is a consequence of a shift not only in the problematized part, but in the combined conditions in which the system exists, be it a person, organization, forest, or society. Like an ecosystem the interdependencies of the institutional systems are interlinked and steeped together in patterns that make it difficult to create whole systems change. To address our socio-economic and ecological crisis now requires a level of contextual comprehension, wiggly though it may be to grok the inconsistencies and paradoxes of interrelational process. Far from solving these dilemmas or resolving the conflicting patterns, Warm Data utilizes these characteristics as its most important resources of inquiry.



The Hydra grows new heads every time one is chopped off.


Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2000. Print.

Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Cresskill: Hampton, 2002. Print.

Bateson, Nora, “Warm Data.” The International Bateson Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.

A Moment of Peace, A Day of Peace, A World of Peace


Today is the United Nations International Day of Peace (IDP). Each year this day is observed around the world on September 21. The United Nations Assembly has declared this as a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples. An invitation to all nations and people to honor a cessation of hostilities for the Day. 

"By opening our hearts, joining hands and reaching out to refugees and migrants, we can move closer to attaining peace, prosperity, and protection for all." UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

Please set aside a moment of silence at noon today and join millions of others around the world focusing their intentions on peace. 

Roshi Robert Althouse
Abbot, Zen Life & Meditation Center, Chicago

Wildflowers Grow Everywhere
by Sensei June Tanoue


This past Sunday Roshi Amy “Tu es cela (You are this)” Hollowell gave the dharma talk at our Sunday Morning Zen Program.  Amy leads our sister sangha (Buddhist community) the Wildflower Zen Sangha in Paris.  

We met almost twenty years ago when my husband and I, working with the Zen Peacemakers, went to Paris for a conference in September 2001.  We met in the wonderful conference center in Chartres, France where the famous Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres is located.  The cathedral, designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, is considered “the high point of French Gothic art.”

Even before the Gothic cathedral was built, the town of Chartres was a place of pilgrimage.  Some sources say, Chartres was a pagan site originally dedicated to the traditional Mother Goddess with whom the Virgin Mary is often fused.  The cathedral is perfectly proportioned and I remember sitting in it and feeling its strong, nurturing, peaceful energy - much like the energy I feel at the end of a 7-day silent meditation retreat.  I remember seeing a labyrinth painted on the old stone floor and imagined how many people had walked it in meditation.  Chartres remains a highlight of my spiritual experience.

I left Paris early on the morning of September 11, 2001, and in mid-air, somewhere over Idaho, thecaptain announced that our plane was being diverted to Calgary because the airspace over the United States had been closed.  That was the beginning of my, and the whole nationʻs, 9/11 experience.

Bearing in mind all of these events, it was wonderful to see Amy again.  She had been a serious Zen student then and is now an accomplished Zen teacher.  She guides students in France, Australia, Ireland, UK, Portugal and Spain. That day they, connected by the Zen Life & Meditation Centerʻs FaceBook Live page, all listened to Amy speak from Chicago!  I love technology when it works beautifully like this.

Amy mentioned in her talk why she named her zen community Wildflower Zen Sangha.  She said that wildflowers grow everywhere - in cracks of cement, in rocks, on mountainsides - everywhere.  Theyʻre all different according to their particular environment.  She also said , “Our nature, is also wild in the sense that we are not limited by what we think we are.  We can free ourselves of these identifications - we can be free.  we can be anything…”

Several times a month, I volunteer to go to the Cook County Department of Corrections to teach women meditation in Division 4.  Cook County admits roughly 100,000 detainees annually and averages a daily population of 9,000.  Last Thursday marked a year that Iʻve been teaching meditation there.  

I am aware of how comfortable I now feel walking through security and greeting the guards as compared to when I first began. I was very fearful back then.  

Entering, thereʻs a long concrete walk from the Security Office to where the women are housed in Division 4.   The walk has tall chain link fences on both sides topped by barbed wire.  There are also big bales of coiled barbed wire on the ground on the other side of the fence.

Last Thursday was a beautiful day. The breeze was cool and gentle with blue skies and puffy clouds.  I noticed blue wildflowers, that looked like chicory flowers, poking their delicate heads through the bales of barbed wire on the sides of the concrete walk way.  I thought, “Such beauty in a place of great suffering.”

My class is held in a room that has cement floors, artificial lighting, and tough plastic chairs stacked up in colors of maroon, gray and black.  I arrived first.  Then the women came in - mostly women of color - blacks and Latinas.  A couple had been to the class the week before and looked happy to see me.  They said that they had been practicing the meditation I taught them, and that it had really helped.  

That day twelve women showed up, most of whom had never been to the class before.  These women looked wary, like they were very stressed out but trying not to show it.  Some looked rather scary and it was these women whom I especially paid attention to.  My first thought was to not look in their direction.  But my meditation practice is about working with fear and not turning away.  I found by the end of class, these women looked absolutely different, “normal,” and not scary.

We began with Donna Edenʻs Energy Medicine exercises - about 10 minutes of breathing, tapping, and specific movements which really helped them to smooth out their energies.  Then I read them a powerful letter from Fleet Maull who co-wrote the workbook, “The Path of Freedom,” with Kate Crisp.  In his foreward, Fleet talks about developing emotional intelligence with the help of mindfulness meditation to free himself from the prison of his own making - his mind.  

Whenever I give meditation instruction I always talk about being embodied.  This is not an easy thing to do in America where the body is valued only in service to our consumerist culture.

So last Thursday, I added hula to my class. Hula is a wonderful way to feel embodiedwhen you begin to connect your mind and body while you dance.  The women were very excited to get up and start to move to the simple yet powerful steps of the Hula.  A few women were initially very uncoordinated, but I told them not to worry, to be patient because their neurological pathways were just getting connected.  It takes time.

Since we didnʻt have music, I decided to sing the classic Hawaiian song, Pua Mana, for them.  It was glorious, really, singing a Hawaiian song for 12 women detainees - all having a blast dancing their first hula in Cook Countyʻs Department of Corrections Division 4.  And when the dance was done, they all looked like completely different women.  Their faces were bright with smiles and excitement.  Wildflowers grow everywhere.



September Fund Drive for Texas


We have all witnessed the terrible floods and suffering taking place in Texas during this last week. The lost of life, of property and infrastructure to the Houston area is heart-breaking. To help support people in Texas, we are conducting a September Fund Drive for Texas. All donations we receive during the month of September will be sent to the Houston Food Bank. If you make a donation by check, please make it out to the "Zen Life & Meditation Center". We will add that to all other donations made during the month and send a check from our Center to the Food bank at the end of the month. 

Please give generously. 

Thank you,

Roshi Robert Althouse and Sensei June Tanoue
Co-Founders, Zen Life & Meditation Center, Chicago



ZLMC Statement, 8/16/17

It is with sadness and disbelief that we witnessed the hatred, terror, and intimidation of neo-nazis, racists and white supremacists demonstrating in Charlottesville this last weekend. There is no place for this kind of hatred and bigotry in our country, and they should not be given permits to gather in any city on American soil. There is no moral equivalency between neo-nazis and people protesting what they represent. The response of President Trump diminishes the presidency, himself and all Americans. We raise our voice unequivocally in support of all life and respect for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion. 

Abbot, Zen Master Robert Joshin Althouse
ZLMC Board of Directors - Sensei June Ryushin Tanoue, Mark Shishin Gelula, Diane Bejcek, Pat Teiko Farrell, Mike Fujii, Robert Demaree, Vivienne Lund, Susan Keijo Sensemann, and Barbara Ciancio

The Resistance is Broken Down at Last
by Sensei June Ryushin Tanoue

Hiola ka pali ku, naha, ka pali paʻa.
The standing precipice falls, the solid cliff breaks.
The resistance is broken down at last.

'Olelo No'eau #1011
Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings, 
Mary Kawena Pukui

To take full responsibility for your life.  What does that mean?

I think it means understanding your basic life affirming needs, owning your feelings and standing your ground.  It doesnʻt mean blaming others for your emotions, feelings, and thoughts. 

Iʻve been going to the Cook County Correctional Facility and teaching meditation to the women in Division 4.  They have made decisions in their lives that have lead to their incarceration.  Low self-esteem and blaming others are common habitual practices there.

Weʻre using an excellent workbook called "Path of Freedom - A Mindfulness-Based Emotional Intelligence Workbook for Prisoners," co-written by my friend Fleet Maull.

Fleet served a 25-year, no parole, sentence in federal prison.  He says in the workbookʻsforeward, "To find the Path of Freedom, you first need to realize you are in prison.  This may seem easy when you find yourself actually locked up - incarcerated in a jail, juvenile facility or prison.  But what about the prison of your own making ... what about the prison in your mind!"

Perhaps a third of the women who come to my class have found incarceration to be an excellent motivator for them to change something in their lives so they can move forward.  They have begun to take full responsibility for their lives by freeing themselves from the prison of their minds.  They come to learn whatever they can to help them on their path of freedom.

But Cook County detainees arenʻt the only ones imprisoned in their minds.

The first step to freedom is to notice how some habitual ways of thinking do not serve you.  Thoughts can be very subtle, and it takes intention and attention to see them clearly.  Mindfulness meditation is a foundational practice for your Path of Freedom.  It trains the mind to be awake, stable, peaceful, reflective and grounded in the present moment.  Itʻs a practice that takes discipline just as hula does.

One of my favorite ancient hulas is Ke Haʻa La Puna (Puna is dancing in the Wind). Puna is a district on the Big Island of Hawaii that is in the realm of Pele, the Volcano Goddess.  Puna also means spring (of water).  The title can also mean all life is dancing in the wind.  Iʻve often mulled over the meaning of the refrain thatʻs part of this chant.  Hula leʻa wale i kai o Nanahuki.  Hula leʻa wale (only to dance in utter clarity!) i kai o (in the sea of) Nanahuki (literally pulling away or drawing back). 

My manaʻo (thoughts) are that your life is in your hands no matter what your life circumstances are.  Itʻs not productive to blame others. You can always pause and take a backwards step to reflect before you act.  

In that pause, a lot of dancing and clarity can happen.  In that pause, you choose between being curious or being afraid.   Can you notice if your heart is opened or closed?  If closed, can you just breathe for awhile and reside quietly in your body instead of jumping to quickly into analytical thinking?  Such thinking to try and figure things out is an old habit that doesnʻt always work.

Can you be patient and generous with yourself instead and notice whatʻs going on in your body as if it were a dear friend?  Can you just be there for a few minutes, maybe just five minutes or more?  

Notice your thoughts flooding in and try to drop their storyline - let your thoughts go - and just be with your body, breathing.  Do this over and over, again and again.  This is the practice of meditation.  This is how you tame your mind and learn what taking full responsibility means. This is how the resistance is broken down at last.  

Malama pono (take good care of your body, mind, heart),

June Kaililani Ryushin Tanoue

Kumu Hula and Sensei (Zen Teacher)



My Journey Toward Writing the Arte of Now: Practice of Immediacy in the Arts
by Nicolee McMahon

Practice of Immediacy painting by Nicolee McMahon

Practice of Immediacy painting by Nicolee McMahon

My journey toward writing the Arte of Now: Practice of Immediacy in the Arts ® is a weaving of Zen, shamanic training, art, and not knowing. To best exemplify how a few of these threads weave together is when I got lost while camping in the desert with my family several years ago.

We all got up early to go bouldering about ten minutes away from the campsite. As I was climbing a large rounded, grainy boulder I began to feel dizzy. At the top of the boulder, the dizziness continued, along with nausea, and the desire to throw up. I shimmied down the boulder and we all waited for my dehydration symptoms to settle. The faces of my family were full of concern for me and also for the desire to go exploring. I told them I was feeling better and I’d stay behind. My children asked if they could walk me back to the campsite, but in my stoic, ‘I can handle this’ style, I said I’d be fine. They told me to follow the sandy wash path back to the campsite when I was ready. I sat on a rocky ledge in the shade of the boulder and watched them as they continued on their exploratory hike.

After sitting quietly for a while, I had a desire to see the beauty of my family walking together in the distance. I eased myself off the ledge and walked five to ten minutes on the path I believed they had taken twenty minutes earlier. I could not see them and walked up to higher ground to see if that would give me a better view. There was still no sign of them. Deciding to go back to camp, I found what I believed was the sandy path they had mentioned. I followed it but was led to boulders instead of the campsite. I knew to go south by following the sun, and continued looking for the path we had all walked on before. But each path took me to new boulders, and more dead ends. I had half a bottle of water, two protein bars, and an electrolyte mineral packet in my pocket. After two hours of walking, the terrain was becoming more and more unrecognizable. No humans, no human foot prints, just coyote, rabbit, sheep, and large cat tracks. At that moment I knew I was lost. I began yelling, “Help! I’m lost.” I drew two-foot arrows with the heels of my shoes, hoping they could be seen from the air should a plane come searching for me later. The arrows were also markers to let me know if I was walking in circles. It was dry and hot and I had no idea where to turn. I felt fear, but did not give into it. I needed calm steadiness to tap into my resources to get me through this journey. I was aiming west, as that was the direction from which we had entered Joshua Tree Park the day before. I had been walking about three hours judging by the position of the sun. I had one protein bar and poured the electrolyte packet into my water bottle, sipping only enough to wet my parched mouth.

I remembered how I had ‘lined up’ to find where to make my medicine wheel dur- ing the three vision quests I had done years before. Lining up is a very deep and practical practice where one can ask a simple question and learn answers from areas of the body. If there is no agreement among the areas, one can learn what that is about, but the main point is not to proceed until one is lined up. I applied that knowledge each time I needed to make a decision about where to turn in this convoluted journey west. Finally, I found a path full of human shoe prints and bicycle tracks, but no people. The sun’s position indicated it was at about 4 p.m. I felt such relief and laughed, as I followed what felt like the yellow brick road. The undulating line of the bicycle wheel was like a rope that could pull me forward. “Help! I’m lost!” The sun was getting lower on the horizon and I wondered how I could keep myself warm in the frigid temperature of the desert night wearing a light shirt and tank top. Eating half of the second protein bar and drinking a sip of water, I saw the weakness of my stoicism, and “I can do it” attitude. Realizing I could die in the cold desert night, while asking the universe for help, I surrendered to something very deep within. All of a sudden I felt my whole body fill with light.

Fifteen minutes later I saw a man, carrying his gear, walking toward me. His name was Marcos. He had not been to Joshua Tree in ten years, but had had an impulse earlier in the day to come and take pictures of the landscape in the full moonlight. When I told him I had turned seventy two days before, had been walking for five plus hours and was lost, he willingly helped me. We walked a mile to his car talking about our backgrounds and interests. Although he drove me to the campsite, he wanted to get back to the trail and quickly left. Reunited with my concerned and happy family, I sat before the firepit, slowly drank two pints of water, had dinner and rested in the warmth of family, as the cold desert night circled around us.

Getting lost, and finding my way, informed me deeply. The experience gathered my many years of Zen training, my decade of studying with female shamans, and my deep trust of the great unknown. It was one of those rare experiences that is so direct there is no time to wonder, no time to give meaning to a situation — just the raw immediacy of now. And that raw immediacy of now is what the practice of immediacy in the arts® (PIA) is about.

Writing a book about the practice of immediacy in the arts was like being called to participate in a dance with steps I didn’t know, and yet I knew the steps once I started writing. The structure of the book happened within the first two hours of my week stay in a writer’s cabin. The following ten months integrated writing, working, relationships, retreats and letting my mind wander. The book is an accumulation of twenty years exploring the practice of immediacy in the arts and discovering ways of accessing creative flow through the cacophony of what’s emerging within and without right now. The beauty of the practice is that it also cultivates awareness, openness, not knowing, broad inclusiveness, trust and curiosity.

PIA was born into my world in the mid-1990s. I had a profound experience during Stan Grof’s holotropic breath work. Shamanic drumming music is an essential ingredient of this practice. While doing the breath work and moving to the drumming, all my energy centers lined up and from the top of my head I felt a creative energy drop into my body, move out the bottom of my torso, and in my mind’s eye the creative energy circled the world. I had no idea what this meant, but I was intrigued and began exploring different ways of learning about it. As I had been training in Zen since 1980, the soil in which the practice of immediacy in the arts could take root was full of rich nutrients.


What was this soil like? Attending to the ever-changing unfolding moment had been developed through many years of daily meditation on my own, and later, in long Zen retreats. Meditation honed my attention, helping me to look into the fluid, interconnected empty nature of myself and the phenomenal world. I learned to open to not knowing, and became ‘stupid,’ by letting go of fixed notions through years of koan practice. What emerged was a deep appreciation of the wonder and ordinary oneness of living.

My Zen journey began at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. I lived a householder life two hours away, and needed a different model than what had been passed down for cen- turies: the belief that true practice cannot be done unless one leaves home—Dharma first and family second. Buddha set the example two-plus millennia earlier by leaving his wife and baby — before phones, cars, the Internet, planes and accessible teachers were as available as they are now.

To keep my family together and to pursue what was deeply true for me, I would need to find ways to live in both the everyday world of family life and the Zen world. The resolution came upon reading Dogen Zenji, a 13th century Japanese Zen master’s writing:

If [you] throw [yourself] into whatever the situation truly calls for then both the activity and the method by which [you] carry it out will naturally work to nurture the seeds of the buddha dharma.”

Seeing that the buddha dharma, the realization of the Buddha’s teaching, is each mo- ment of my life, resolved my inner tension — I was fully engaged in my family and in Zen training — they were not two.

Wanting to clarify my understanding and resolve my doubts, I was steady in practice and in letting go of how and when such clarification would happen. Thus began dedicated koan practice, weekly commutes to train with my teacher and attending six- plus weeklong retreats per year for fifteen years.

My Zen teacher, Maezumi Roshi, was very encouraging of women’s practice. I always felt deeply seen and supported by him and the Zen community. Women and men were mixed together in the meditation hall. Women were not prevented from training with men as they were in Japan. Of his twelve successors, four of us are women. He was a very good gardener in the actual garden, and with his students. He would clip, water, prune, and challenge. If I was sticking to oneness, he would throw me to everyday functioning — back and forth, back and forth, until there was no difference. He died in 1995, three months after he gave me Transmission (teacher empowerment). I’m number eleven of his twelve successors.

After his passing, I needed to find my way of sharing what I had learned and realized in the many years of training with Maezumi Roshi. The creative arts have been part of my life since I was a child — music, drawing, painting, and beading. But when I began Zen training, I put art aside as raising a family, going back to school to become a marriage and family therapist, and doing intensive Zen practice were all consuming. But now I wanted art back in my life. By the late 1990s, although struggling with breaking the format of retreats, I decided to bring PIA into retreats — especially as I could now articulate what the practice of immediacy was about.

In retreats, we noticed that PIA deepened meditation, participants were more alert, and the overall retreat environment was quieter. PIA seems to cut through the need to control, as whatever emerges in one’s awareness is included. Retreat participants

were discovering their creativity. One person found his poetic capacity. Another was a musician who hadn’t passed his masters exam. He took to PIA and practiced daily, opening up an inner space so that when he took his exam again, he didn’t freeze up — if he was self-critical he just included it. He passed his exam with ease.

The practice of immediacy in the arts organically teaches the uniqueness of each moment and that each moment is equal to the next—each moment is what it is, regardless of our views. You learn to swim in the midst of things no matter what your ideas, fears, opinions are, no matter what is going on in the environment. Whether one meditates or not, PIA offers an understanding we don’t normally get in our lives and can help us be more present.

The rich soil of Zen training brought forth essential elements of the practice of immediacy in the arts: opening to not knowing, attending to what is at hand, including whatever is occurring, and including expectations instead of being hindered by them. Another soil enrichment would come from my shamanic training: following how energy flows.


I believe it is important for a spiritual teacher to be a student in some area of one’s life. But after Maezumi Roshi died, I wasn’t ready to pursue being a student again for a while. When the time came, I wanted to learn about the shamanic traditions — I’d had a powerful dream in the late 1980’s that seeded this interest:

I am standing in a poorly lit room. Opposite me, sitting in a chair, is a shaman who is throwing a small round ball of light at me. I catch and throw the light ball back to him. Each time I am able to do this, he increases the strength of the light ball. We continue like this for about ten rounds. Finally he throws a light ball that I know is too powerful for me to return and I quickly go into a nearby bathroom and crawl out of a window. I awakened from the dream. I knew I needed to face the light ball I had tried to escape. I went back to sleep and was at the same place as before I’d awakened. The now large light ball came directly at me, but instead of catching it, the ball entered me and I became a body of light.

At the beginning of the new millennia, I heard about a female shaman, and began training with her, a training that did not involve plant medicine or any hallucinogenic substances.” As I was entering a tradition I knew nothing about, beginner’s mind and becoming a student by surrendering to this new teacher was how I began. With ‘soul retrieval’ (a shamanic journey method), she brought back many parts of myself from my birth to adulthood. I began to feel much fuller as a woman. I created a medicine wheel at the side of my house where I drummed and journeyed. Journeying is a powerful modality that brings a great deal of understanding and can enable rapid gathering of knowledge for one’s own life or another’s.

Through training with her, I learned about female power, capacity, and influence in a completely new way. She began a woman’s group with her other students where we learned many female practices, such as how to become the elements of nature, to hear and talk with the natural world, to gather information by ‘lining up,’ to trust life and what was unfolding, to make our home a place of well-being and beauty. We learned to deeply appreciate men and the differences between men and women. Instead of listening just at a mental and emotional level, we learned to listen at a deeper level to ourselves, men, children, others, and the natural world. She encouraged us to see that everything was sacred, to live with no regrets, to be fearless and open to what was scaring us (as it is probably ‘juicy.’) She emphasized that vulnerability and love are at the heart of female power and wisdom.

When she began taking us on vision quests, we trained for a year, doing daily cere- monies at our home medicine wheels. In May we would go to the La Jolla Indian campground near San Diego where we each stayed alone in nature for up to three nights and four days. On the vision quest, to find the location for creating my medicine wheel, I ‘lined up,’ using the practice the medicine woman had shown us. I had many experiences on my three vision quests and was profoundly informed beyond words. After over seven years studying with her, I knew it was time to leave. I gave her three gifts expressing my profound gratitude for all that she had given and done for me.

In 2011 I went to Peru and was very moved by a Q’ero shaman I met in El Valle Sagrado. A few years after I returned home, I found a woman trained in the Peruvian Q’ero shamanic tradition to study with and learned about the Q’ero medicine wheel. During this time I had another guiding dream:

I am standing, looking at the steep side of a desert mountain of rock and sand. The tan and earth colored striations on the side of the mountain were quite beautiful. Suddenly, the shape of a stone man began to emerge from the area I was looking at. He looked like a man made out of rock, walking in an angular, jaunty manner, waving to me to follow him. Walking behind him, we entered a well-lit cave that went deep into the earth.

The dream awakened an intuitive understanding of cuyas, sacred stones that are central to working with the Q’ero medicine wheel. I practice with them to this day, intuiting where the cuyas belong on the medicine wheel that lies on top of a red woven cloth purchased from the shaman in the Sacred Valley in Peru.

The shamanic traditions connected me in a new way to mother earth, to my deep knowing, to how energy flows, to the rhythms of the earth, to the animal and plant worlds, to the elements, to the directions, and to aspects of the unseen world beyond what the rational mind can hold. My Zen teacher might have called what I was learning ‘makyo,’ which means ‘illusion or hallucination’ in Japanese. Trusting my intuition, I knew I was not interested in being a shaman, yet I was learning ways of perceiving that were helping me in my life, my art, my work, and with my students.

The shamanic practices broadened my understanding of how to pay attention to the flow of energy, and that extended to the practice of immediacy in the arts in following a creative flow ( to witness PIA). Of the five simple directions for PIA, creative flow is the last guidance:

  • find the medium you want to work in
  • open to not knowing
  • include and express what you are aware of as it shows up
  • express expectations as they are occurring
  • if you enter a creative flow, follow its unfolding

These directions emerged as I explored what PIA was about. By practicing with the above directions, my own art has deepened and released creativity I would never have imagined. A friend who was visiting looked at the paintings hanging on the walls and asked, “Who are all the different artists?” He didn’t know I had painted them and rather than answering, I asked him what his impressions were of the art. He remarked that the paintings were all so different from one another. The differences are what amazes me too—by following the PIA directions, what emerges is a unique coming together of the moment in creative form. This also happens with writing, music, and dance/movement.


To study without applying what’s been learned is like eating a meal without digesting it. But how is what we’ve digested applied? Over the years, PIA has taught me so much, and even though there is a website where anyone can see how to do the practice, I kept having an inner push to write a book about the practice of immediacy in the arts. I’ve never thought of myself as a writer, so I resisted this “hand on my back” pushing me into an unknown direction. But I knew at some point I needed to apply what I’d learned in book form so that PIA could be available for others to learn about. There’s a Zen koan: How do you step off a 100’ pole? Stepping off the pole captures what writing the book initially felt like. The answer to the metaphorical question, of course, is: just take that step.

I began my journey toward writing the Arte of Now: Practice of Immediacy in the Arts by saying it is a weaving of Zen, shamanic training, art, and not knowing. Although not knowing is an essential part of both Zen and shamanic understanding, an experience when I was ten created a profound sense of how not knowing can lead us right to where we need to be:

My mother, stepfather, and I moved to Acapulco before it was developed. We were staying at a friend’s apartment. I was in school but barely understood Spanish. I knew we were going to move to another place and my mother had told the school bus driver to drop me off at the new locale. Her Spanish wasn’t very good yet. Instead the bus driver dropped me off at our friend’s apartment. I thought that maybe there was a change in plans, and got off the bus. When I walked up stairs, all the furniture was gone, no one was in the apartment and no one else was around. I truly did not know what to do, but I started walking. Three miles later I had walked right to my mother who was waiting for the bus to drop me off. She was shocked. I could not explain to her how I found her.

The not knowing of this experience was pregnant with all kinds of possibilities. Anything could have happened. But at ten years old, it opened in me an understanding that we really do not know what is going to happen next. We live in possibility.

The threads of not knowing, Zen, the practice of immediacy in the arts and my shamanic studies taught me to dance with the energies at hand. Zen training created good growing soil, and the shamanic studies helped me feel how the energy was moving so I could be a better gardener for this simple yet powerful creative practice.

Let me end with a famous Zen story in which two old teachers were asking and answering one another’s question

“Where are you going?”
“Around on pilgrimage.”
“What’s the purpose of the pilgrimage?”
“I don’t know.”
 “Not knowing is the most intimate.”


Nicolee McMahon

Nicolee McMahon, Roshi, is a Dharma heir of Zen Master Taizan Maezumi, Roshi. She is co-founder of the Three Treasures Zen Community in San Diego, California. She is semi-retired but continues to co-lead retreats several times a year. She has been creative throughout her life, and after an unusual experience, she developed the Practice of Immediacy in the Arts (PIA). She is married, and has two grown children, a stepson, and four grandchildren. She is also semi-retired as a Marriage and Family Counselor.

Read more articles by Nicolee McMahon.

All original work attributed to Nicolee McMahon © 2017 Nicolee McMahon.

Seeking Refuge
by Mary Grace Bertulfo

“’One is one’s own refuge, who else could be the refuge?’ said the Buddha.” – Walpola Rahula

Monday night. 6:10 p.m. Alone.

I drove down Lake Street in our worn, twelve-year old mini-van. Hot fury heaved in my chest and shoulders and transformed into a high-pitched scream that poured out of my throat for two whole blocks. I screamed until I had no more energy. I screamed until my voice was hoarse. Had I been a superhero, Wonder Woman say, the scream would have been a siren shattering every van window. But I was just a regular woman, terrified and furious and grieving, trying not to speed or do something reckless as I drove.

I was already ten minutes late when I finally decided to go. It’s rude to walk in and make noise when everyone’s already started. But pain stormed my mind and I had to end it.  I’d do more damage than good if I stayed turbulent. 

The Zen Life & Meditation Center, evening meditation.

 Inside the spacious room, lights were dimmed. Seven bodies sat silhouetted on blue and gray zabutan and zafus, meditation cushions, and black chairs lined the walls. Most of the cushions and chairs were empty. It was dinner time, after all. Seven stalwarts occupied a few, scattered ones. A pillar candle flickered on the altar. A delicious silence permeated the room, the sounds of slow breathing, the spaces between the bodies infused with a calm energy. I was home.

I clicked the door shut as softly as possible so I wouldn’t disturb their flow; the click seemed to echo anyway. I crumpled into the closest chair, leaving my boots and jacket on, happy to have made any part of the evening session. Time slowed. 

Breath. My immediate view was the legs of the wood table, the corner of the rug, and refreshing shadows falling on the bookshelf.

Breath. The exchange of air between, now, eight people, was the same air dinosaurs breathed 230 million years ago; tonight’s oxygen, a refreshed gift from maple, oak, and hawthorn trees. Respiration connects people to distant beings and to each other.

Breath. A white, navy veteran walked into a bar and shot two Indian Americans and the white American who tried to stop him. Breath. News reports say he was looking for Middle Eastern people, immigrants with no visas to work in America.  The two immigrants, Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, had been working legally as engineers in the U.S. for over 10 years. Breath. Kansas is far away from Chicago. Breath. Kansas is everywhere in America if you are brown – and angry white men with loaded guns can’t tell the difference. Breath.

 Murder solves nothing.

I must fight the tears; I can’t break down. When I meditate in morning sunlight, dust motes rise, turn, and sparkle. They are specks of my skin, my arms and legs breaking down. They float, leaving shimmering trails as the world spins on its axis and “I” disintegrate. 


My sixteen-year-old boy will soon live on his own. I want to fall down in a heap on the floor and wail at the world’s stupidity and violence.


Last summer, a boy from my son’s high school, Elijah Sims, was shot and killed. He was eating and hanging out, laughing with a friend at a fast food joint in Austin, the Westside of Chicago. We stood with other parents weeping at his vigil.


Too many guns. Too many furious hands. Boys gone too soon.


The Bell-ringer intones a small bell for Walking Meditation. I quickly unzip my boots during the transition and, jacket still on, I join the line. 

Our socked feet walk from one corner to the other of the sitting area, creating square formations across smooth Pergo. Cars zip past the Zen Center as rush hour traffic heads home for dinner. Headlights cast our shadows across the walls in a beautiful interplay of light, darkness, and the silhouettes of seekers. This is the Walking Meditation Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse and Sensei June Ryushin Tanoue taught to help us alleviate our own suffering.

Walking Meditation always helps my flow. It doesn’t matter if we may look like Zen Zombies; we’re mindful instead of mindless. I slow down my movements. Raise my left foot, balance with my right, an exaggerated arc of footfall slows down my thinking, slows me down until I can be here, right now. Here. I walk and exist in this one place. Fury and sorrow ease their grip. The world inside me extends, grows vast again, and loosens.


A light bell intones, once, then twice. Our sangha of eight, our small evening community, bows to each other. The rest of the meditators return to their cushions and I sneak a seat against the far wall across from a tall, elegant bell.

A floor bell intones, one, two, three times, and calls us back to our second sitting meditation. Now the fury and sorrow are moments, fleet-footed sensations that zip through my interior world and take up residence in different parts of my body.

Somewhere I’d read that labelling these fleeting sensations was one way to detach, to hold them at a distance so that they could be observed lightly. Is this Vipassana practice? I’m still a novice to meditation after all these years. I fumble my way; fumbling is all right.

Sensations: Pressure behind my eyeballs, the flare of my nostrils. Fury pulses there. Hello, fury, I say trying to make friends with it.


I have long hair past my waist, a mix of brown and threads of silver, earth turning to starlight. Even other Pilipinos sometimes confuse me with being Indian or Mexican American. Nowadays white Americans, strangers, glare at me on the street just as they did after 9-11. The day after our presidential election, I was pushed aside in my gym elevator by a white man a head taller than me who glared and said, “I go first now.” I was appalled and shocked. I’d been going to that gym for years and nothing like this had ever happened before. When his friend, another tall white man, made moves to step over me a second time, I blocked his way, glared back and took my rightful place in line. He shrank back a little. The body language, these micro-aggressions between us, reflect a social war brewing, all sides saying, “This is my America.” I don’t want to respond to white men’s hate and entitlement by becoming hateful myself.


What is lodged in our bodies? What family history do I still need to release? My father and many Pilipino men served in the U.S. Navy in the 1960’s, passing ingenious tests of language, culture, and physical fortitude. But once they were admitted, they were restricted to serving in the galley, the kitchens. “I peeled a lot of potatoes,” he said. My dad, uncles, and their navy buddies were called “brown monkeys” by their white superior officers, threatened, and harassed. This was their pathway to citizenship. Racism was a rite-of-passage.

My mother left the Philippines during the Brain Drain Era, like thousands of Pilipina nurses, to work in the United States. The white doctor she worked for harassed her about her accent. My uncle stood in his driveway in suburban Detroit after a long day of work. Three white teen boys pulled up in a car and threw beer cans at his head. “Go back home!” they yelled at him. He was a full American citizen, standing in front of his own house. He was home. My aunt, the undisputed matriarch of our Michigan family, went shopping at the mall one day with our young cousins in tow. White teens spit in her face. She wiped off their dribble, summoned her dignity, took my young cousins, and walked away. How many things did our elders endure? We know they didn’t tell us the half of it; they didn’t want to speak about it at all.


Skinheads chased and harassed my cousins when they were in high school. So what did they do to respond? They learned to be tough so they wouldn’t get beaten down, continuing the karmic cycle.


My litany of grievances against white privilege and white supremacy manifests as the pressure behind my eyeballs, the flare of my nostrils, my heart drumming – fury.

Return to breathing, follow the breath through the tunnels of my nostrils, into my lungs as my chest fills and empties.

Every time I have a sensation of fury, I label it: “Sensation, sensation, sensation.” This is a game of masking and detaching so that I don’t get caught up in feeding the fury with my attention. I say that as many times as I need to until the feeling subsides. Tendrils of tension unstick from the inside of my skin.

Sensation: My throat hurts from screaming in the van. It feels raw, stretched, and scratchy. I want to cough and a realization arises, “My own anger can hurt me.” 

I let that moment fall away, too.


I feel a new sensation: My jaw clenches and tension tightens the top joints. The energy feels like a solid casing of stress. I breathe and encourage my jaw to soften, soften. But it won’t and that stresses me out more.


I remember the first guided meditation Roshi did with my group. He had us close our eyes, visualize being under water, somewhere deep and still. The waves crash above us, but we’re so deep the turbulence can’t disturb us. I close my eyes and go there.

Under water, shafts of light pierce the darkness and illuminate a sandy sea floor and living coral. Schools of slender, blue fish swim past. My hair floats outward like a mermaid’s, my limbs lighten, and the sense of heaviness leaks from my body. My breathing loosens and finally so does my jaw.

I name the feeling that’s been jangling my skin. “Anxiety.”

Thoughts arise like mosquitoes buzzing. When I travel internationally this summer, will they let me back in to America? Or will the government detain me for hours until they “ascertain” if I’m a citizen even though I was born in America on a U.S. naval base? Will they make me feel like a criminal because I’m a brown woman? Will they prod my hair again, my hair which is private and intimate? In my lifetime, only my lovers, my mother and sister, my husband, and our family’s children have touched my hair. Now, the U.S. government pulls me aside and searches it for weapons. It’s so degrading.


Will a random white man shoot me, too, because I’m brown and his fury is unchecked and misdirected? How can I let my boy go out into this world and be a man here? How do we protect our children from what we can’t control? Can I shrink him, turn back time, scoop him onto my lap and guard him with the strength of my arms? I hurt with a mother’s love.


I let the tropical waters of the visualization leach the anxiety from my jaw, my arms, and legs until my real body feels like a wet noodle, languid and relaxed.


It’s less than 45 minutes since I walked through the Zen Center door. I’d watched the thoughts and feelings rise and fall, rise and fall away. I needed to sit and stop my mind from freaking out. The pain, the shock, and the trauma are real. But I don’t need to perpetuate my own suffering by dwelling.

The gunman’s face swims to mind, a picture from the news. He looks angry, disheveled, his hair askew. He’s 51 years old and I can’t help but wonder if it was his fury and hatred that caused him to decide to shoot three people. Witnesses heard him say, “Leave my country.”

Pity rose and fluttered in my chest. What kind of mental hell was this man in? Who fed his fears with images of brown people and people from the Middle East as dangerous enemies to America? Who told him that America, first the land of Native Americans, now means white America?

The skinheads, the gunman, the spitters, the racist doctor, the naval officers, the three beer can throwers, the two men in the elevator – are they locked in fear and fury, too? Unchecked, unbalanced and bolstered by white privilege and white supremacy? Suffering?


Near the end of meditation, a few images fell, like petals tumbling in my mind: my son’s hair, long and shaggy, his sweet face, and the gentle way he tosses back his head when he laughs.

The floor bell rings, its voice a deep base vibrating across the comfortable dimness of the room. Slowly, the silhouettes of the other seekers shake their legs and stretch, and the lights come on.

The seven other meditators are white. We created peace together during this meditation, breathing as one community the way we do every week. This reminds me concretely that not all white people are gunmen or spitters or pushers or racists. One white man, Ian Grillot, a real hero, tried to stop the Kansas gunman.

My eyes well with tears. I feel gratitude for these white Americans and the peace our sangha practices. In this moment, I am incarnated as a female body, marked by Pilipino and American cultures. I have just practiced a 2,500 year old Indian tradition in a Center that grew from a Japanese lineage and which lovingly supports Hawai’ian dance and hula. Race is a great illusion, one we embrace, live through, and solidify as our bodies flake away into sunlit dust motes.

We meditators stand and give hugs all around.

The Bell-ringer, Pat who is a Catholic Sister, and I go out afterward to a bar. The bar is boisterous and packed. Tennis and soccer blare from the TVs while laughter and chatter spill easily from table to table. She has a glass of red wine, I have a cup of coffee, and we break bread, a couple of hot buttered pretzels on an unseasonably warm February night. We have the kind of fumbling, sweet, searching conversation new friends have in these times and talk about white privilege, racism, violence, parenthood, how much I love my boy, a universe we have no control over, the need to do what matters, students, and the wonder of snow. 

“I knew from your hug that something was off,” Pat told me. So she invited me out, listened, and gifted me with her steady, warm presence. She gives me her no nonsense advice to face the illusion of control, looks me in the eyes, and adds, “I care.”

This, too, is healing.

I look around the restaurant. Tonight is Trivia Night. The crowd is mostly white except for me and a few other people of color. From the bar, I watch the door open and close. White men enter as I enjoy time with my friend – just as Srinivas Kuchibhotla had been doing before he was shot and killed in Kansas.

The men walking through the door are unarmed, so far.

I watch them…and I breathe.


Seeking Refuge was first published in Riksha Magazine's 2017 Inaugural Issue.


Mary Grace Bertulfo has written for television and children’s education in such venues as CBS, Pearson Education Asia, and Schlessinger and for conservation magazines such as Sierra and Chicago Wilderness. Her fiction has appeared in Growing Up Filipino II, Our Own Voice, The Oak Parker. Her essays and poetry have appeared in various anthologies. She was a 2016 NVM & Narita Gonzalez Fellow. Mary Grace works from Calypso Moon Studio in the Oak Park Arts District and teaches creative writing to children through her program, Taleblazers. She is currently at work on a novel.

We Crave Dark Nights
by Diane Wilson

On Cancer, Turtles and Your Very Own Bedroom

Who doesn’t love the excitement and color of city lights at night? But recent research shows we need true darkness for our own health and for the animals who live among us.

On Earth Day, my husband and I watched the film (recommended by Lisa) called “The City Dark.” It was an award-winning documentary shown at the Adler Planetarium from the One Earth Film Festival. In the film, Director Ian Cheney bemoans the fact that constellations are no longer visible in large cities due to light pollution at night. We lose something fundamental spiritually when we no longer see ourselves in relationship to the grandeur of the cosmos, according to experts.

Increased Risk of Cancer

In “The City Dark”, Cheney assembles scientists from numerous fields to weave together the premise that night darkness is important to our physical health.  Recent studies show that exposure to light at night can actually increase tumor growth. Melatonin production is suppressed and normal circadian rhythms are interrupted. There is a link between low levels of melatonin and cancer, specifically breast, ovarian, and prostate. For example, breast cancer was found associated with women doing shift work.

Disoriented Turtles and Birds

Cheney shows an adorable endangered species: sea turtle hatchlings in Florida. They have a limited amount of time to find the ocean after emerging from their eggs in the sand. City lights can confuse them so much that now lighting is regulated along some of these beaches.

Here in Chicago, birds fly into skyscraper windows throughout the night, confused by abundant lights and glass windows. This problem occurs primarily in the spring and fall during migration seasons, with thousands of birds dying yearly.

A wonderful organization called Bird Collision Monitors advocates for and rescues injured birds throughout the city. In the wee hours of the morning, volunteers scour the streets for injured feathered friends.

Actions We Can Take: About Your Bedroom

  • The lesson learned here is to turn off all your devices before going to sleep: TV, computer, cell phone, and reading light.
  • Leave all devices 3 to 5 feet away from you in order to avoid electromagnetic radiation at night. Put your Internet devices on Airplane Mode.
  • Use room darkening window shades to get complete darkness. If you must have a light at night, use a red bulb (which will not affect melatonin production).
  • Consider helping your friends become aware that all night light isn’t helpful. For example, as beautiful as this picture of Las Vegas is, lights turned upward to the sky are potentially wasted lights. Cheney notes more directed light with shades to funnel light downward is best.
  • If you work in a tall, glass building downtown, try to convince building management to treat the glass with applications to block a view of the interior -- it confuses birds. Also, ask them to extinguish or dim all lighting at night. Learn more from Bird Monitors.

The future of lighting will be in designing ways to illuminate the areas we need without polluting the rest of the world. If your next door neighbor has a flood light outside your bedroom window, this will intuitively make sense.

Thanks Lisa Files for recommending this fine documentary (also now available on and for helping me write this up.

In CancerBrain Tags darknessEarth DayThe City Darklighttumorsmelatonincircadian rythymssea turtlesbird migration

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Chicago Street Retreat
by Sensei June Tanoue

When we go…to bear witness to life on the streets, weʻre offering ourselves.  Not blankets, not food, not clothes, just ourselves.”

~Bernie Glassman, Bearing Witness

A street retreat is a plunge into the unknown, and yes that means being far away from my comfort zone.  A couple of weeks ago, five women joined Genro Gauntt from the Hudson River Peacemaker Center, to live for 3 days on the streets of Chicago to bear witness to homelessness.  It was late April and the weather forecast for Chicago was rain and cold. 

I really didnʻt want to do it initially.  Iʻve grown accustomed to my comfortable bed and safe lifestyle.  But Iʻve found that itʻs important for me to stretch myself regularly and to actively practice our three Zen Peacemaker Tenets.  The first is Not Knowing which means letting go of fixed ideas about the world and myself.  This isnʻt an easy thing to do in normal life, but doing a street retreat forces you to look at the world from a different perspective.  

The second tenet is to bear witness to what arises within myself and around me.  I bore witness to my great fear of the cold and just not knowing what to expect.  The third tenet is loving action that naturally arises if you do the first two tenets well.

Preparation for the retreat included no showering for 5 - 10 days prior and begging people to pay your registration fee of $500.  (You couldnʻt use your own money). 1/3 of the fee went to the Hudson River Peacemakers, and the other 2/3 went to the organizations who helped us on the retreat. 

So with some trepidation, I signed up.  Raising the registration fee was the easy part. People were so generous when they heard what I was doing!  Then, I knew I had to do it.  I remember getting up the morning of the retreat, noticing gray skies, and just feeling like sobbing. I noted fear in my body and mind.  But I didnʻt feed it with any stories about how scary this retreat might be.

I began to get my meagre things together.  Warm blanket and jacket, check.  Rain poncho, check.  Empty water bottle I saved from the trash, check.  And kleenex - that wasnʻt on the list but my hay fever was kicking up with the arrival of spring - and I thought a handful of kleenex would surely be alright to pack.  I noted that the heaviness of fright had left.

I watched the weather during the week of the retreat religiously hoping that the forecast for rain would change. Genro was very helpful. He has studied Native American ways with his Lakota friends at the Pine Ridge Reservation.  He reminded me of the Hawaiian way whereby you can pule (pray and request) from the heart for different weather conditions.  So I meditated and prayed, and lo and behold, we were blessed with no rain!  But still the weather was nippy, dropping to the low 40ʻs the first night and the high 30ʻs the next night.

Hereʻs a description of the first day of the retreat.  

We met in Clarendon Park in mid-afternoon.  There were a couple of city workers on riding mowers making a racket as they cut the grass literally a foot from our meeting place throwing some grass on us and making lots of noise.  I think the mowers matched the kind of noise that was growing inside of my head as we started the retreat.

We moved to a quieter place and sat in a small, tight circle.  Genro laid down a weathered, navy blue neckerchief on the grass.  He placed a small candle in a red plastic holder, and his jizo bracelet on it.  We meditated for about 20 minutes.  Then he lit the candle and someone made a dedication.  Then he started to tell us the safety precautions.  

We needed to always stay together or at least be in pairs.  That went for bathrooms as well.  When he mentioned bathrooms, I noticed a little anxiety poke up in the pit of my stomach.  When I voiced this anxiety, Genro reassured us that there were bathrooms everywhere.  We found this to be true: MacDonaldʻs, Home Depot, Starbucks, churches and the soup kitchens where we went for meals.

So we started off walking in the direction of the first soup kitchen that served dinner.  This was in Uptown.  When we got to the Cornerstone Community Outreach Center, we found out that they were only open to members who were staying in their family shelter.  They wouldnʻt serve us.  So we had a slight dilemma: how to get to the Franciscan Outreach Center in Wicker Park in time for dinner.  We would never make it walking.  Fortunately our leader had an emergency fund for times like this.  Plus a few of us had L cards that we had used to get to Clarendon Park. So we took the L down to Wicker Park and walked about a mile to the Franciscan soup kitchen.

There were mostly men at the Franciscan Outreach soup kitchen and a couple of women.  White male volunteers from a downtown bank were serving the meal.  We stood in line, got a number, and walked into a room that was off of the kitchen.  There were about 9 square tables that seated four people each.  We sat down with our number on the table, and the volunteers brought us a plastic plate with compartments that had food in them.  

That first meal consisted of a few slices of either vegetarian breakfast or maybe pork patties that were overcooked.  It was tasty but the consistency of cardboard.  (Not that Iʻve eaten cardboard before).  There were a couple of wieners that looked lonely, and some kind of whole wheat rotini noodle dish. A third of the noodles were dried up and hard to eat.  There was also half of a slightly stale sweet roll and maybe a cookie.

I was trying to fit in; which makes me laugh right now because Iʻm sure we stuck out a bit.  But I didnʻt feel judged by anyone in any way.  There was a very friendly woman volunteer who kept talking in a kind of nervous but friendly way to my friend Susan Myoyu Anderson who sat with me.  She gave us business cards for the Franciscan Outreach Center which included information about the shelters they had for men and women.  She encouraged us to come back and eat again for lunch and dinner.  I was grateful for her friendliness but didnʻt look forward to coming back.  The food wasnʻt perfect, but we were thankful.

The woman volunteer told Myoyu and me when the men had left the table - in a quiet voice - that she had been raped when she was younger and was not comfortable with men in close proximity.  She was fine helping out at the soup kitchen, but she didnʻt like to sit next to men.  

Talking to the homeless men was a little daunting for me.  But when I stopped feeling self-conscious, I found the men I talked with to be civil and friendly.  Some were certainly lost in some kind of addiction, but I didnʻt feel endangered in the soup kitchen.  Plus we got some good information - that there was nowhere to get breakfast in the morning.  But we could get lunch at a soup kitchen the next day at St. Stanislaus KostkaChurch.  We had missed that soup kitchen on the Greater Chicago Food Depositoryʻs list researched prior to the retreat.

After dinner, it was time to look for a place to sleep.  We didnʻt stay at shelters because we didnʻt want to take up beds there.  Genro directed us to look for cardboard.  He said cardboard was great for sleeping on the ground.  “Cardboard” I thought to myself.  “Oh geez, here we go.” 

And as we walked through Wicker Park looking for potential places to sleep, we found lots of cardboard in the form of empty Amazon boxes.  We borrowed some of the bigger ones and tore up a side seam so it would fit our bodies.  We folded and carried them with us.  We looked at potential sleeping places that didnʻt appeal to me - a littered embankment of the Chicago River, inside a gate that stored big garbage containers and the back of a punk rock nightclub.  We also looked at a park that was surrounded by homes and a school.

Finally after about an hour or so of walking around, lugging our backpacks and, now large sheets of cardboard, we came upon the Chicago River off North Avenue.  We walked on the side of the river down a street where Kayak Chicago was situated.  There wasnʻt a fence, and it was a little secluded.  It was dusk and night would soon be upon us.  As we were checking it out, one of their employees drove up on his motorbike and asked what we were up to.  

I started talking with him because just the week before my husband and I had been down to the river at The Kitchen for dinner, and he had commented that it would be fun to kayak on the river.  I had doubts about the cleanliness of the river.  So I asked this man, “How clean is the river?”  He said a few years ago the river had been determined to be toxic but soon the status would be changed from polluted to swimmable.  

The geese and cormorants seemed to be having a wonderful time.  Then another member said that we were on a street retreat looking for a safe place to bed down for the night and asked if we could use their spot near the entrance to the river?  He looked a bit perplexed and said, “Ahhh, well… I guess so…” scratching his head.  He said that sometimes people came by looking for scrap metal, but that was about it.

So we found a place that was near their locked metal gate that opened to the river.  Their kayaks were on the other locked side of the gate.  We carefully placed our cardboard over the gravel - four of us side by side.  We got our blankets and small sleeping bags out and laid down carefully on the cardboard.  Genro positioned himself at the base of the metal gate right in the path of the wind coming off the river.  Another woman parked herself near Genro.

The sun was beginning to set and the sky was a beautiful deep blue.  Big, white, puffy clouds that were slowly moving across began to turn amazing colors of peach.  It was an amazingly beautiful sunset. There was a little wind blowing off the river, but this street retreat seemed very doable.  But when the sun went down, it got much colder.  Two women on either side of me had brought small blankets - not enough for the cold.  

So I suggested sharing my big blanket, and we all huddled together to try and ward off the cold.  I hadnʻt slept on the ground in a long time, and soon the gravel was poking through my cardboard giving me an acupressure treatment I wasnʻt happy about.  My body ached every time I moved trying to get comfortable.  I really wished I had two pieces instead of one to lie on.  

In the middle of the night, I heard footsteps on the other side of the gate we were sleeping in front of.  Annie heard them too, and we listened intently hoping the person would go away.  

About 15 minutes later, a young man who worked at Kayak Chicago came around in the back to where we were all sleeping and said something like “Holy Shit!”  

Annie immediately sat up and blurted out, “ Weʻre on a spiritual homeless street retreat, and we talked to someone who worked here earlier who said we could stay here!”  The young man was shocked but quickly came to his senses and said with some concern, “Oh…okay…..umm, do you need more blankets?  Iʻve got some in my car.”  

We said, “Sure that would be great.”  He went back to his car returning in about another 15 minutes with a heavy blanket and a blow up mattress for us to use.  That was an unexpected gift.

I had maybe a few hours of sleep that night.  The morning dawned cold but clear and beautiful!  There were flocks of seagulls and cormorants flying all around.  There was a Home Depot a block away where we could use the bathroom and warm up a bit by sitting in their lawn chairs. 

So that was our first day of the retreat!  A friend asked me what part of the experience most impressed me.  After a little thought, I decided it was the resiliency of the human spirit - mine and othersʻ. Thatʻs what I found with this offering of ourselves.  Thereʻs something very good that happens when you face your fears and enter the realm of the unknown.  I found kindness, courage and lightness of being.  

In Memory: Eugene Gendlin 1926-2017

Eugene Gendlin, affectionately known as simply "Gene" to his many friends, passed away on May 1, 2017. An American philosopher who developed many innovative ways of thinking about embodied wisdom and what he called the "philosophy of the implicit", Gene developed the process of "Focusing" that we now offer as a four week mini-course in our Gateway Series at the Zen Life & Meditation Center, Chicago. Our Zen Center and the world is deeply indebted to the work of this fine man. Some of his best known works are "Focusing", "Thinking Beyond Patterns", "A Process Model", "Introduction to Thinking at the Edge" and "Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy". He will be deeply missed. He had a significant and positive impact on an untold number people on this planet. 

Cracked Bell
by Roshi Robert Althouse

                image by Christine Steyer

                image by Christine Steyer

When the liberty bell was brought over to America from England, it wasn't too long before it cracked. The bell was melted down and recast at an American foundry but apparently, they didn't get it right either and it cracked again. 

A few days ago we did a Gate of Sweet Nectar service towards the end of our Spring Retreat (Sesshin). In the service we invited Leonard Jikan Cohen to become our Honored American Ancestor. There is a beautiful line from his poem, Anthem that you probably know well that goes as follows:

"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in."

Since we hadn't done the Gate of Sweet Nectar service for some time, we were a bit rusty and it was far from a perfect offering. Traditional Zen practice can easily be afflicted by this desire for perfection. So it can be disappointing when we fall short of the mark. 

I'm turing 68 in a few days, and I'm afraid my body is also falling short of the mark. It's so easy to gain weight, and a nerve in my neck and right arm get's easily inflamed making it difficult for me to sit meditation at all. 

If I learned anything from this retreat, which I could not participate in fully, it was to accept this cracked bell with more kindness and equanimity. I'm grateful for the true wealth in my life, my wife and sangha community. 

I had a dream during the retreat. I was on some beach with many people, and it was like a party, a demonstration or a Trump rally. It felt like a mardi gras because people were dressed in wild costumes. There was electricity in the air - a sense of excitement and danger mixed together. And then I found myself in a claustrophobic parking structure with a group of men that were spoiling for a fight. I was trying to find my way home but this mean looking character would have none of it and wouldn't let me go. And then I woke up. 

Dreams are about ourselves, and they are often about aspects of ourselves we'd rather not see. So this dream helped me see that I have some strong feelings about my country. Clearly, we are struggling through difficult times and it feels like we are, in many ways, a drift. So this dream reminded me of my own passion and aggression and how easily I could project it on to others. Perhaps it would be helpful to remember that our country, too is that cracked liberty bell in Philadelphia. 

What's the lesson here? Isn't it to open the heart? Isn't it to be kinder towards ourselves and others? It's easy to give in to fear and anger and to harden the heart with fixed ideas, opinions and judgments. 

Keizan Zenji, a great teacher in my lineage encouraged all of us to not only be ok with being this cracked bell, but to embrace it as the way itself. 

"Even though the firmament may be as clear as the water in autumn,
How could this compare to the hazy moon on a spring night?
Many want it pure white,
But sweep as you may, you will never empty the mind."

Imperfectly perfect, just the way you are. What could be better than that?


Normalize Discomfort

When you think of living a Zen-inspired life, you might imagine it will lead to better times. You might have read impressive stories about people practicing Zen who have had extraordinary breakthroughs, and enlightenment experiences. 

So when things arise in your practice and your meditation that disturb you, you may easily get discouraged. This isn't what you signed on for. So I want to suggest that you normalize discomfort; that you proceed by allowing and acknowledging that suffering is part of your life and to walk on a spiritual path means to engage and transform this suffering, but not to avoid it. 

When I was seven years old, I used to sit by the heater in our living room and try to read the Bible. I talked to God and told him that if he would give me a sign, I surely, I would believe in him. But he never did give me a sign and I remember being quite disappointed and let down. 

Now I am turning 68 in a few months, and the body is not what it was so long ago. It's getting tired. I've developed a pinched nerve in my right arm which is stubborn and difficult to heal. And once it heals, it comes back several months later and plagues me for 3 to 4 months, making it difficult to even sit meditation. 

I can't say that I've always approached this pain with great equanimity. Sometimes I am frustrated and grumpy about it. But I take it as an opportunity to learn something. Pain can be a great teacher if you don't fight it. When I fight the pain, it gets worse. 

So I suggest that you normalize discomfort and then when it arises in your life, as it surely will, you won't be so upset. Our practice is to bear witness to both the joys and the sorrows of life. May your life be rich with both. 

Roshi Robert Althouse

Path of the Spiritual Warrior, Four Dignities - The Dragon

This is the fourth and final post on the four dignities of the Spiritual Warrior. This fourth dignity is the dragon of inscrutability. The warrior's spiritual path is rigorous and thorough, beginning with the work of the Tiger of meekness. It continues with the Snow Lion of perkiness inspired by discipline that is uplifted and joyful. The Garuda of outrageousness helps the warrior go beyond the dualities of hope and fear to trust an unconventional wisdom that is in service to awakening and healing suffering. Here we will appreciate the Dragon of Inscrutability. 

Dragon of Inscrutability

In Eastern traditions, the dragon is viewed as a symbol of vitality and a liveliness. The dragon enjoys resting in the clouds and the wind. Trungpa says, "According to tradition, the dragon abides in the sky in the summer and hibernates in the ground during the winter. When spring comes, the dragon rises from the ground with the mist and the dew. When a storm is necessary, the dragon breathes out lightning and roars out thunder." So the dragon is a dynamic archetype for the movements of seasons and weather; predictable within a context of unpredictability. This kind of strength and flexibility could be very useful for us in our current chaotic political environment. 

Inscrutability here does not mean being tricky or devious. It means giving birth to fearlessness. The previous stage of the Garuda has helped the warrior go beyond conventional conditioning. Fearlessness is expressed through gentleness and empathy for others. This allows the warrior to be patient and to allow situations to develop. The warrior can afford to be noncommittal with a sense of humor. 


Inscrutability is an expression of confidence. You are settled within your experience so you have no hesitation or fear. You can be noncommittal, yet follow through. You don't have to spell everything out because you can be with uncertainty. Truth arises from the situation. You don't need any confirmation so you also don't have to be the center of attention. You are not in any great rush, so you can begin with the basics. You are not calculating according to some idea of gain or loss, but you are working with the situation, bearing witness to whatever arises, and doing so, always with sympathy and compassion for those around you. So this unconditional confidence comes from giving and extending yourself 

Heart of the Warrior

We've been appreciating qualities of the spiritual warrior which arise from not needing to defend any territory. This selfless, open and gentle conduct is the heart of the true spiritual warrior. Such a warrior is not aggressive, bombastic or arrogant, but humble, kind, gentle and extremely accurate in whatever they do or say. Without a pre-set of rules, they still manage to conduct themselves appropriately in whatever situation they find themselves. I hope through the regular practice of meditation and your commitment to this spiritual path of the dharma, you will find your footing in this way and help to awaken and inspire others around you, even if the times seem chaotic and dark. As our 44th President Obama said, "It not the end of the world until it's the end of the world."

Roshi Robert Althouse


A Word in Progress

by Nora Bateson

By all conventions in social media, this article should never have seen the light of day. Nevertheless, we are publishing it here and we hope you take the time to read it. We are grateful to Nora Bateson for giving us permission to post it here on our Zen Life Blog. Roshi Robert Althouse

This is a big blog post, ( 25 pages). This paper was presented at the International Society for Systems Sciences Conference in Berlin August 2015. It will be published in the ISSS Journal as well. The following pages are a beginning of a concept and terminology that I have found useful in my own work to describe the learning within shifting interactions and patterns through time. There are many chapters to come. The next chapter is on mutual learning contexts that are comprised of living and non-living systems.I hope it will be useful for you as well.  Enjoy…

Proposing a New Word that Refers to Mutual Learning in Living Systems:


– copyright Nora Bateson 2015–


Part I

The Word “Symmathesy” On The Page


I would like to propose a new word for “System” that refers specifically to living systems – that is, to systems which emerge from the communications and interactions of living vitae (another new term, one which will be defined later). The new word, and concept, for “system” that I propose is one which highlights the expression and communication of interdependency and, particularly, mutual learning. The existing word, “system”, while useful for discussion of many kinds of systems, does not communicate contextual fields of simultaneous learning as is necessary for life. The inclusion of mutual learning in the terminology is specifically meant to preclude the models of engineering and mechanism that are implicit in much systems theorizing today.   We have learned that when dealing with living systems, the many variables of developing interaction become untenable to consider in such mechanistic parameters. This change in concept should spark a significant shift in our work, in the sciences, applied professions, communication, arts, that addresses or depends upon our understanding of life and evolution. The discourse with which we discuss and study the living world should be representative of the living world, and should cautiously avoid connotations that imply or are derived from engineering.

The notion of systems as being an arrangement of parts and wholes has become a distraction from the new systemic vision, which we are trying to encourage, that sees life as relational mutual learning contexts. As studies ranging from cognitive science to epigenetics, social science, ecology and evolutionary theory, are increasingly showing, evolution emerges in interrelationalitynot in arrangement. Therefore the need is acute to create a differentiation between living systems and other systems.

Biology, culture, and society are dependent at all levels upon the vitality of interaction they produce both internally and externally. A body, a family, a forest or a city can each be described as a buzzing hive of communication between and within its vitae. Together the organs of your body allow you to make sense of the world around you. A jungle can be understood best as a conversation among its flora and fauna, including the insects, the fungi of decay, and contact with humanity. Interaction is what creates and vitalizes the integrity of the living world. Over time the ongoing survival of the organisms in their environments requires that there be learning, and learning to learn, together. Gregory Bateson said, “The evolution is in the context.” So why don’t we have a word for mutual learning in living contexts?

I want to put the Greek prefix Syn/ Sym (together) + Mathesi, (to learn):

Symmathesy = Learning together.

(Pronounced: sym- math-a-see)

 A working definition of symmathesy might look like this:

Symmathesy (Noun): An entity composed by contextual mutual learning through interaction. This process of interaction and mutual learning takes place in living entities at larger or smaller scales of symmathesy.

Symmathesy (Verb): to interact within multiple variables to produce a mutual learning context.

Interdependency is vital to the health of any system. But, the interdependency does not sit still. All of biological evolution, and development of culture and society, would seem to be a testament to the characteristics of contextual multilayered shiftings through time. Nothing stays the same, clearly. So could it be that change is a kind of learning? If a living entity transforms, even slightly, some of its contextual interrelationships, it is within that shift that a calibration change is revealed. The same kind of tree in the same forest does not necessarily grow to be the same shape. One may have higher winds to contend with, or grow with a thicker density of flora around it. The trees in these contrasting contexts live into their contexts by receiving the many forms of relational information they are within, and responding to them. Thus they grow to be different shapes, to metabolize at different levels and so on.

Our conceptual understanding of the living world can be elevated with a new terminology that better describes the processes we are referring to within it. The viability of this new term is a step toward a clearer understanding of the way we describe the difference between what we can “control”, i.e. in material terms, and that which requires another approach, i.e. interacting with the complexity of evolving living systems.

What is the difference between learning and life? None.

 When is something living NOT learning? Never.

 The concept I have begun to seed in the following pages is my attempt to provide what I hope will be a useful fusion of ideas. I invite the reader to recognize its combined sources in systems theory, (including complexity theory and developmental systems theory), as well as the theory of MIND, presented by Gregory Bateson in his book Mind and Nature. While both of these bodies of work have provided the roots of our work today in developing new forms of research for the International Bateson Institute, I have found that within those vocabularies I habitually need to clarify the terms, so as to incorporate the transcontextual and ever changing variables of life. This has become a task that invariably accompanies our studies of complex life. The explanation needed to differentiate the characteristics of a living system from a mechanical system seems to necessitate a repeated listing of the processes of interrelationship that currently must be tagged onto every discussion. Equally distracting is the explanation needed to differentiate between Gregory Bateson’s ideas of MIND as life, from a related contemporary idea which it is connected to, but not reducible to,–“neuro-cognition”. While for me MIND is much closer to being a usable concept, the tendency in our culture to confuse ‘mind’ with ‘brain’ creates for many people a rabbit hole of misunderstandings around the notion of immanent MIND. This tension between the concepts Bateson developed and called MIND, and systems theory, has provided a base from which I have begun to play with the idea of mutual learning as the basis of life.

Mutual Learning Contexts:

The International Bateson Institute was founded in 2014 with the mission of developing a process of inquiry that would begin to take into account the many contexts that any particular field of study exists within. It is difficult if not impossible to find a subject to study in the living world that is definable within a single context. Transcontextual research offers multiple descriptions of the way in which a ‘subject’ is nested in many contexts. This information provides descriptions of interactions that seem to erase the boundaries of what we might have previously considered to be parts and wholes. Medicine is entwined in culture, food, environmental conditions, education, economic stability, and more. Economy is formed through culture, transportation, resources, communication and media, education etc. To study the biological evolution of a pond it is imperative that other contexts in which the pond exists be included in the study. These might include the geological history of the region, human interaction (including food culture, sport culture, economics of tourism etc), chemical balance, weather patterns, concentrations of various species. Research without the study of multiple contexts renders the information about a given subject as though it were isolated from the many systems it is within, and therefore a great deal of data is not visible.

Inquiry that stretches multiple contexts has begun to reveal that the interaction between vitae provides more information, and a more integrative set of possibilities, for interaction with the complexity of the “subjects”. Any symmathesy, such as a person, a family, a forest, a nation or an institution, can be viewed or studied in the hope of revealing the way in which it has learned to form itself within the contexts it interfaces with. Like a great living puzzle whose pieces morph into compensatory responsive shapes, living systems require that we develop a language to hold the conceptual multiplicity of perspectives. We have to be able to consider the variables at a higher order. Transcontextual research brings us discovery of new interactions and provides a wider angle lens.

Right away we see that there are a host of questions and fleshing out of this concept in multiple areas to be addressed. Is it a noun or a verb? Is a living entity a thing? Or is a living entity part of a relational process? Can a living entity be both? To incorporate a comprehensive base in our syntax of this theory, I believe we will need to stretch even our understanding of grammar.

In this paper, I am merely introducing the term. The development of the conceptual arena for symmathesy, and symmathesies will continue over time and with multiple scholars, artists, and professionals. But there are a few considerations that need to be addressed as they fold into the definition of what a symmathesy is and what the symmathesy process entails.

 As a word, “symmathesy” is part of a family of terms of description of the relational characteristics of the living world. Other terms in this family include “symmetry,” “symbiosis,” “sympoiesis “and “system.” Each of these terms includes a prefix indicating ‘together’, sym, or syn—followed by focus on order, growth, pattern and more. Symmathesy is potentially a newcomer to this family of concepts and attracts attention to mutual learning.

 The tendency to think in terms of functioning parts and wholes is misleading for our future inquiry of living, co-evolving systems.

Metabolism, immunity, cognition, culture and ecology are all examples of living interactions. Within these examples, perception, communication and learning are observable as open-ended interchanges in and between a tangle of varying perspectives. In an attempt to address the increasing mix-ups in our inquiry of living “systems” as they are differentiated from mechanical ones, a new vocabulary is needed. It has now been more than half a century since the Macy Conferences which marked the emergence of cybernetics, yet we still are not able to properly refer to the living world with anything more articulating than this one overarching term: “System”. The primary downside of the word “system” is its invocation of “arrangement” (inherent in the Greek prefix “sys”).

The way in which we have culturally been trained to explain and study our world is laced with habits of thinking in terms of parts and wholes and the way they “work” together. The connotations of this systemic functional arrangement are mechanistic; which does not lend itself to an understanding of the messy contextual and mutual learning/evolution of the living world.

Reductionism lurks around every corner; mocking the complexity of the living world we are part of. It is not easy to maintain a discourse in which the topic of study is both in detail, and in context. The tendency is to draw categories, and to assign correlations between them. But an assigned correlation between a handful of “disciplinary” perspectives, as we often see—does not adequately represent the diversity of the learning fields within the context (s). The language of systems is built around describing chains of interaction. But when we consider a forest, a marriage, and a family, we can see that living entities such as these require another conceptual addition in their description: learning.

If systems are comprised of parts and wholes, what is symmathesy comprised of?

Shifting our understanding of the make-up of the conglomeration of interactions that form a living entity so that we are not defining parts and wholes is the first step in our understanding of this new term. After all, the “parts” in a living entity are also learning from each other within the context of interrelationship with the external environment. As such they are hardly distinguishable as “parts”.

How can we assist ourselves in this thinking? The paradox of looking at the context or ‘whole’ as produced by its components or ‘parts’ is confusing since not only the outline of the context is scalable, but the idea of parts is blurred. I am not suggesting that that our inquiry should be only in terms of wholes. Obviously there are boundaries. The boundaries of our own bodies, cities, or the oceans, are easy for us to see as ‘parts’ of the world. Often our drawing of these boundaries is based upon arbitrary lines that are convenient for our description.

The habit of conceptualizing in this way creates confusion at another level…the level of how to see the interactions and interrelationships. If we perceive that the functions of living ecologies are the effect of processes taking place between parts and wholes we become prone to assigning agency to “parts”. We divide the ecology in order to label it and specify the “functions” of the processes that give the ecology life. The drawback with this approach is that the focus centers on the bits and their ‘roles’ while losing sight of the contextual integrity. Agency infers that parts can be separated from wholes and exert individuated action. In symmathesic thinking, the notion of agency does not apply. This is because the formation of the ecology in question is necessarily evolving within its context, not its parts.

The context is not inside any of the parts but is created in the interaction. Where is the culture of a city? Is it in the history? In the language? In the religion? In the environmental constraints? It is not findable in any of these ‘parts’, yet all of them are integral. In hopes of finding new clarity around our inquiry into what takes place interrelationally, we need to change our terminology away from a language of “parts.” As a habit of thought this ‘parts and wholes’ tendency pulls us back into a mechanistic model. We might do better to employ a word that invites us to think in terms of the “parts” being alive, and not simply cogs.

At the same time the “whole” is best thought of as another interactive symmathesy at the next larger context. In the example of the human body it is habitual to think of our organs as parts of the whole, but each of these are in fact contributing to a contextual interaction. The “function” per se of the “parts” is indistinguishable from their interaction (the “whole”) that is always learning. Their mutual interaction in turn becomes the immanent viability of the entity in a contextual evolution (learning).

Defining life in terms of “parts and wholes” quickly slips into thinking in terms of arrangement and mechanistic function. The upside of that genre of thinking is that it provides separated subject boxes for us to study and arrange our studies within. It has leveraged our thinking into all that we know as science and technology at this time. But the downsides are that arrangements of “parts and wholes” blind us to the developing interactions that take place in life. The “parts,” like members of a family, organs in a body, species in a jungle, etc. are inside evolutionary processes. These living “parts” do not “work” in the way that an engine works, not even a very complicated engine. The difference is the compensatory relationality and communication. Through complex cybernetic entanglements of interaction living entities become vessels of communication.

Instead of “parts” and “wholes”, let us think of boundaries in symmathesy as interfaces of learning. We will refer to these interfaces as “vitae” (a term derived from the Latin vita, meaning life)

Multiple Description and Interfaces:

In our research with the IBI (International Bateson Institute) we have engaged in a research process that has as its mission a search for relational data, or what we call ‘Warm Data.” The IBI aims to devise and design research methodologies that use multiple description to illustrate how interactions in complex systems interlink. These multiple descriptions increase our ability to take into account the integrity of multilayered living systems, to think about multilayered “interactions”, and to engage change at a contextual level. Revealing the inter-weavings of complex systems requires a research method that can encompass the many contexts in which the system forms interdependency. Therefore these studies are also transcontextual.

The complexity of this sort of inquiry is daunting. If we are to study, for example, the way in which food impacts our lives, a multi-faceted study of ecology, culture, agriculture, economy, cross-generational communication, media and more must be brought to our study in a linking of interfaces that together provide a rigorous beginning place from which we may better understand what is on our plates. From that beginning position our inquiry into eating disorders, poverty and hunger, and the dangers of GMOs, can be approached in another fashion altogether. How do these contexts interface with one another?

The delivery and reportage of our inquiry of IBI research is necessarily presented in multiple description. It is within this process that we became acutely aware that in our multiple description of living ecologies the notion of parts within a system broke down. One reason for this breakdown in the use of this existing terminology is that when we engaged our multiple descriptions of either the “system or the parts” we found we were limited.

We need not look further than our own hand for an illustration of how multiple description increases the visibility of the necessary shift in our way of defining what a part is. Is a hand the thing at the end of your arm? What is a hand? A violinist has memory and ongoing learning in her hands. A sculptor has another sort of learning in his hands. We each have handwriting that is almost but never quite consistent. We know the touch of our partner. A deaf person uses the hand to express language. We gesture, we stroke, we sense, we know, we learn through our hands… So what is a hand?

The hand is a “part’ but it is alive, and integrated into larger contexts of living and learning, or symmathesy. It is important to the use of the concept of symmathesy to think about the boundaries and “parts” of living things as interfaces. The outlines we draw are useful to us as arbitrary separations that conveniently contain our study within limits we can manage. However, these outlines more aptly serve as indications of areas of interaction, transmission and reception of information. The skin of our bodies provides what looks like a boundary around the self, but the self extends well beyond the container of our flesh, both biologically and socially. Touch, temperature, expression, health, embarrassment, and so much more information is transmitted through the skin. The same can be said of the edges of a forest. It may look like where the forest ends and another landscape begins, but a great deal of interaction of animals and plants take place at the margins. The boundaries are in that sense vital interfaces for communication and learning.

This is a rigorous endeavor. The pull of our old thinking in terms of parts and wholes is difficult to move away from. However the vistas from which we can begin to view life anew with these concepts reveal possibilities of richer inquiry.

Models need remodeling:

A signature depiction of a ‘system’ as generated through system theory and complexity theory is the modeled imagery of boxes and arrows representing their parts and wholes arrangement. Sometimes these illustrations also include arrows to denote “process”. But, from the ‘symmathesy’ perspective we see that there are dire errors which are made whenever we diagram living systems with the usual boxes and arrows textbook illustrations. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there is no model or diagram that can effectively illustrate the learning within the context.

Symmathesy does not fit into these descriptions; the mutual learning in the context is not visible through boxes and arrows or concentric circles or whatever geometric designs are attempted. In a push against the cultural inclination to utilize these engineering diagrams to discuss complexity of life, symmathesy must remain illustrated through either life itself, or through symbolic representation that communicates at multiple levels (e.g. art).

How will we illustrate Symmathesy?

Our existing forms of explanatory process and the meta-messaging of the “report“ of those explanations contain repeats of the mechanistic patterns and the logic that is normative within them. For our purposes illustrating and expressing the presentational communication of symmathesy, caution is needed to avoid the traps of thinking in terms of blocks. Thing-i-fying in our studies will derail the ability to perceive the symmathesy. Consider the challenge of graphing one’s own learning within language, culture, family, community and society, bioregion etc., the process is so multilayered and broadly spread through us all that description requires a wider language. Moving from our accustomed material and logical structures of thought into another kind of rigor in our theoretical description of contextual mutual learning requires the adoption of a new set of principles which we hope can perhaps become familiar over time. For now, we will start by avoiding boxes and arrows, and step-by-step solutions.

Art may be the only way to truly describe living complexity. Why? Because living entities exist in interaction over time. They are learning, and this frames direct communication as freeze frame in time and space. A direct defining of the “parts” of a learning context would necessarily be temporary, and likely obsolete by the time they were made. Even if the structure of the organism is kindred in pattern to others of its type, (like a heart, in the case of a body, or a reed in the case of a riverbed), the viability of the particular organism’s survival is critically dependent on its ability to live vis-a-vis the other living organisms in its conjoinment. In other words they all have to change. They all have to learn.

Part II

The Word In Meta-Communication

The terminology we use to describe living things carries meta-meanings:

For decades the word “system” has done its part to communicate the notions we are now trying to describe. So why change it now? Our ability to increase the precision of our thinking in this realm is hopefully aided by this new distinction, in its metaphor, implication, and inferences. Words say more than they spell. Anthropologist Margaret Mead used to stick her tongue out when she spoke. I am told she claimed she was “tasting the words”. People with synesthesia hear colors, see music, and feel sensations around words. The transfer of perceptions into each other like colors into music, tastes into words, emotions into smells and so on, provides a natural cross referencing of information. Numbness to the flavor and the sensation of words is common in what we think of as normality. Symmathesy, as a term, changes the flavor of the thoughts and theories we can generate about life, placing them inextricably in relation, and in constant learning.

Perhaps we all have the capacity to increase our synesthetic perceptions. I don’t believe that anyone is really immune to the potions words spill. A word is more than a mere combination of letters and sounds. The potency of words reaches the substrata of all of us. Words carry culture, carry history; they form and confine our thoughts. Words matter.

To discuss the sort of things we want to discuss here—things like families and cultures, like ecologies and organizations– we are going to have to care about the words we place on the page, and the words we shape in our mouths. We will live in them, and our stories will be furnished with their upholstery.

The intellectual and emotional acreage of our domain has a periphery of worded fences. They hold us as we hold them. To stand by our existing words, in systems and complexity theory, limits the development of our ideas; the words are inadequate. So often the word for something or someone is a box, an outline: a set of limits. A tightness that shuts the “subject” in isolation from its context. The vocabulary of this field of inquiry funnels us in, and hacks into our epistemology with sneaky inferences.

When we think of systems, what do we perceive? How do we describe what we perceive? How do we think?

 Desperately we need to increase our understanding of the world we live within, of this there is no dispute. But how? when we are caught in a Mobius strip of information, communication, information, communication… and while clutching a culture with a proclivity for quantified, step by step, formulized, ossified, solutions? Those rigidities decrease the visibility of the “symmathesy”. How can we describe life?

The patterns of the mechanistic lens have enchanted us through every aspect of our lives. Education, politics, medicine, business, marriage, parenting, and our relationship at all of these junctions to the biosphere we live within. The stench of machine oil is everywhere as parts and wholes are geared into “function” in clicking and clanging bits that leverage the pattern into position. It “WORKS”. Or when it doesn’t we say, it has become dysfunctional… i.e. the cogs are bent, and the thing can’t turn.

Perhaps the labyrinth of our epistemological errors has no beginning. People point to Descartes, but certainly Aristotle shares the blame. Before Aristotle there were probably others. The notion of tribal identity, religion, and even territory for animals may have provided the patterning that we are now contending with. The history of how we got here is rich and deep, and beautifully addressed by various scholars. For now, let us just say that there is no causal path to unwind us out of this habit. At this juncture the best course is simply to move on.

Mechanism has its place:

There is nothing wrong with thinking in mechanistic ways: After all, the productive innovations of humanity have largely stemmed from this approach. It has given us circuitry, engineering, technology, cars, much of modern medicine, a socioeconomic system, the makings of democracy and so much more. We as members of our socioeconomic infrastructure need this sort of thinking. We thrive on it. We are good at it. But we need another kind of thinking as well, without which we will probably destroy the ecosphere and likely each other.

Part III

What is Learning in Symmathesy?

What is learning? Since the term symmathesy, as a description of living things pivots on the idea of mutual learning, it is necessary to consider carefully what is referred to as “learning.” Here is a list of a few characteristics of learning in symmathesy.

Learning in a living context can be best thought of as a change in calibration. The use of the word “calibration” here is an extension of Gregory Bateson’s cybernetic concept in Mind and Nature (Chapter VII).

The most common definitions of learning involve the acquisition of knowledge within a progression of stages of physical or intellectual development. But in our use of the term, learning has been stretched to include the entire living world, as a context of learning in and of itself, as a symmathesy of symmathesies. Learning has also been stretched to include much of what we think of as adaptation and even addiction. And of course the living world itself is made up of living worlds. In these ways, the term learning here is closer to co-evolution. Here are early considerations around this definition of learning:

1. Contexts: The characteristics of learning in symmathesy are contextual, even at the smallest scale. The interrelationality within which any living thing exists presents contexts of both internal and external interactions. For any person, for example, there are both the internal workings of their body, (the nervous system, digestive system, circulatory system and so on), which are dependent upon the external relationship that person has with not only the biological world upon which they are dependent for air, water, food etc.; and there are also the interactions in their personal lives. But these are not independent of each other. The ‘loving’ or ‘mean’ things that someone says at breakfast have an effect on blood pressure, digestive process, and cognitive (implicit or explicit) understanding of identity within a culture. The same sort of interdependencies exist in a forest. Though the nodes of receipt and transmission of information may be more difficult to assign, the processes necessary to the continued “life” of the forest are woven into the contexts of the relationships between the micro-organisms, the flora, the fauna, the climate — as well as the internal processes of each tree, the extension of its roots, the transportation of its sap, the photosynthesis in its leaves, and so on. In order to survive, in both of the above examples, the living organism must position and reposition itself within contexts of variables in their interrelationships.

Of course, all of the society that the person we are describing is also located within is shifting in a countless field of variables, as is the forest around the tree we spoke of. The contexts are variables that are learning together.

2. Calibration: Learning in symmathesy is an ongoing process of calibration within contexts of aggregate interrelational variables. This calibration does not require conscious involvement. The learning that any living thing must either continue within (or else become obsolete) is a wide-angle process receiving of information of difference from simultaneous multiple (countless?) interactions. Complexity does not divide itself and therefore life requires calibration within multiple streams of information and interaction. In order to do a simple task, such as walk across a room, a staggering calibration of information must take place. Not only does one have a reason to cross the room, like the famous chicken who crossed the road, but also perception both visual and tactile are in use, as are memory, balance, rhythm, language and more. Likewise our tree in the forest above calibrates the placement of its branches, the direction of the wind and sun, the pathways of its roots, and the context of the forest it lives in. These will be influential on the tree at every level, and even be visible to us in its shape. Learning is the process we are referring to here as calibration within variables of interrelationship.

3. Bias: The bias of the calibrating entity at every scale is the particular momentary integration of the multiple variables of interrelating information –of the person, the organ, the tree, the forest, or even of the culture. The bias forms differences. The bias could be thought of in terms of the “epistemology” or the “Umvelt” of the symmathesy. As an aside, in the beginning of the field of Biosemiotics the term “Umvelt” was introduced by Jakob von Uexküll as part of a theory that proposed that each organism in an environment has its own perspective, The perspective of the particular symmathesy gives it an outline, an interface and an aesthetic through which to filter and frame, on an ongoing basis, the information it calibrates. Imagine there is a bowl of blueberries provided for a table of friends. It is our habit to assume that blueberries, are blueberries; that the numeric nutritional values and knowable recipes for serving blueberries are obvious. However, the bias of each person at the table presents a collection of understandings and filters through which the blueberries are ‘known’. For one person at the table blueberries may be a reminder of summer, a family activity of picking the small blue orbs for pie from the forest bushes in Scandinavia, a social sweet spot. For another the fruit is a smoothie ingredient to eat after a workout, a symbol of health, a super-food, a virtue. For another person at the same table the blueberries are a visceral trigger of memories of a smell of blueberry pie being baked during a traumatic experience of being raped by a relative. These three associations and physical, epistemological understandings of blueberries describe the informational bias in the perception of the beholder. The numerical nutritional values of the blueberries are altered by this bias. The digestive system, the nervous system, the seasons, the conversation at the table… all of these alter the way in which each person incorporates the blueberries into their luncheon. So what are blueberries?

4. Stochastic process: While learning is a process of evolution existing in patterns that appear stable, the random inputs and the implicit variables between the vitae of a symmathesy are unpredictable. There is pattern, and there is also the random. There is structure, and there is process. My children, for example, are not born puppies, they are human and share the similar physical characteristics with me, but they are also nothing like me. They live in another context. The paradox that this combination forms is inherent, and unsolvable. The contingency for life and therefore learning is that the tangles of relation, communication, and information between all the vitae of a symmathesy are simultaneous. Both in pattern and in process.

5. Play: Practice, repetition and experimentation in communication and behavior around the edges of a bias are the frontiers of learning, evolution and change. The boundaries are “played with” when the kitten play fights with the other kittens, discovering the process, practicing the communication, and finding the edges of the game. Play is the combined discovery and opportunity to embody new ideas. As Jeff Bloom says, ““acquisition of knowledge” is really just a lower level learning, which has been raised to the top in our positivist/mechanist/boxist/quantitativist society. Acquisition of knowledge is a by-product of deeper learning.” In other words, play is a process of learning to learn. It may look like games, humor, art, experimenting, fighting, attempting, re-organizing and more.

6. Boundaries: the interfaces of learning. In the discussion of contextual learning it is indeed a challenge to decipher for our studies and for our communication about our studies, where is the edge of the context? The boundaries: what separates me from you, or us from a forest, or the forest from a school—are seemingly real and true. The fact of their separateness is a fact of vitality even in the interaction required for life. A body needs a heart and lungs and a nervous system, the difference in these is as necessary as the unity of them. But, it should be noted that boundaries disappear, and at a wider view are non-existent. From the vista of the society, the functioning of one individual’s heart is eclipsed by larger contextual patterns.In hopes of clarifying this confusion there is an impulse to diagram the contexts within contexts as a set of concentric circles. This diagram, however tempting it might to be to illustrate in this way, would be frought with errors. Why? Because the boundaries are the differences, the areas of interaction, the communication interfaces that provide the contact, dependency and bias of the process of ecology. They are not static. As above, the boundaries present paradox. Such a diagram is a freeze frame, and lacks the inclusion of time. The inclusion of time will blur the lines; the contexts are interactive, and learning.

7. Time: Any living organism, or vitae of a living organism is revealed as existing within a context of mutual learning when time is considered. Time reveals that order is not static. A quest for the organization of life’s process has been at the heart of the natural sciences since the beginning. Why are we here? Where are we going? How does evolution work? As the natural sciences have increased the ability to see the smallest details of our world, the mapping of life has become possible in new ways. The discovery of DNA, and the genome, and colliding particles has opened wide horizons of possible new research. However, with a shove in the direction of the quest for mutual learning in life, the organization of the pieces falls from the front of our studies, and instead the study finds information located most profoundly in how interrelationality moves though time. Learning together. Communication, for example, is often described as an interaction; a process of signal and response between parts of a system. Semiotic process, in this simplistic view which is not typical of advanced semiotic thinking, is mere transference of information. But add time to that process and the interaction becomes mutual learning.

Order and Symmetry in a learning world.

Given these early criteria for learning and change in a living context, it is also important to acknowledge order and form. Surely, there is order and symmetry in the world. Anyone noticing a daisy or a language or in fact their own hand will perceive that there is structure in the world we live in. Our impression of order is embedded to the extent that it is often difficult with some forms of order to keep in mind the constant, if very slow, transformation.

The ‘Pattern that Connects” – A phrase that my father Gregory Bateson used, is considered to be enigmatic in its multiple meanings. For some the pattern is “findable”. It is a code that can be discovered and understood. But for others the ‘Pattern that Connects’ is taken as a permission to contemplate a world in constant change which takes place in ways that can elude our culture’s customary styles of reasoning. This paradox of considering “The Pattern which Connects” as both process and form requires that we, as observers, expand our capacity to think about what order is. This is a paradox that we are not trained to accommodate in our thinking process, let alone in our research.

No matter how slow the movement, both form and process are in constant play in the living world. An accessible example of this is that a child may resemble their parents, but will not be a duplicate of them. Some patterns transfer and appear to repeat, while others do not. The form in this case provides recognizable similarities, like hair color or even facial expressions. But the context in which the child is raised is not the same as the parents. Siblings who grow up in the same house even occupy different contexts and patterns of communication. They are alike, and different due to a combination of heredity and contextual responses.

An observer who takes the time to admire the structure of a daisy or a language or their hand might begin to see that these forms inform. What do they inform?

If we are able to see an organism, or a living ecology at any scale in its interrelationships our study of that particular “vitae”, or symmathesy, will begin to include the relations. Let us look at the example of the hand, and take note that we might be tempted to think of the hand as a part of the body, but the hand is better understood in this study as a ‘vitae’ as discussed earlier in the paper.

The hand is an interface of human interaction. We cannot, I would argue, know the spectrum of this interfacing. My children’s use of the iPhone is testament to applications, purposes, and processes I would not have considered 20 years ago. But let’s start by saying the hand offers ways of interacting. Touch, signals, tools, skills, and countless other “uses” of the hand are relational processes that the form of the hand provides. Likewise, a daisy’s petals are messaging interfaces with ecology that the plant inhabits. Language too, is a form, and a process of interaction, it is a structure to find symmetry and definition within… but with variables and changeability. The outlines blur. The forms exist in time, and over time they change.

The shapes and characteristics that are recognizable and seem to repeat are languaging a sort of conversation – or contributing messages to a larger ecological conversation. This conversation is one we might call ‘order’. As a ‘vitae’ the hand is an interface in multiple contexts. The observer’s ability to hold simultaneous contextual descriptions of the hand will offer deeper and more complex understanding. The definition therefore of the hand is more valuable if the contexts or sets of relationships are brought into the description. Within the form is the communicative and information processes that enjoin contextual ecologies and provide the fodder for symmathesy.

Part IV

The Word In the Belly

This transition in thinking is a personal, cultural, political, and academic dilemma. 

 To provide a credible account of the thinking shift here, I have given this issue its voice in formal prose, but it does not live there. The dilemma of how we change our thinking about “systems” is one which should be addressed at all its levels simultaneously. In the description below I have veered from the language of formal prose. To address the depth of these mechanistic habits of thinking is to go downstairs, and that requires other language. We give prose seriousness and credibility and consider this form of communication to be rational and precise. Words in prosaic syntax have gravitas in our culture. And while they appear to offer firm conceptual stability, this is an impossibility that scientific and non-fictional discourse cannot account for. Descriptions in this form are still stuffed with metaphors, still wound around invisible narratives. In fact it is reasonable and responsible to ask whether life, love or culture can really be described with words. To discuss the patterns and processes of the living world we will need to open the form, open the genres of our communication.

Can we describe life? Can we even describe ourselves? When we try what are the cultural lenses that filter our perception?

We will not find the symmathesy if we do not name it. The word matters. Words are what we have. They are the best means we have to paint our thoughts into pages, and to house the resonance of voice in the horizons of conversation. They are the script we speak within, or perhaps step out of. Either way the playbook is always there as a pivot. What we say is measure of what we have not said. Words have salt. They are wise. They nourish and poison. They are our vehicles and our bindings. They are not located. They lie and in lying show us the edges of our honesty. A child’s tantrum is a tone and stomp and twenty repeating words that roughly say, “don’t tell me what to do”. A lover’s exit is too many words that try too hard to buy smooth departure and fail. Words are there for so many logistics, so much weather, a lot of “nice to meet you”… and sometimes the unspeakable pops through.

Patterns of industry are hardwired into us at a deeply personal level:

Again, this matters. We cannot adopt a professional voice as researchers, artists or philosophers without an (industrial) underlying understanding of the world leaking into our inquiry.

Deep inside, below the level I can monitor, my life is charted like a mechanistic production factory. The metaphor is ubiquitous; it is in our education system, our medical system, our economic system, our political system… even our ideas of birth, life and death. This is a personal, cultural and academic dilemma. There is a great need to point to this underlying lens we are taught to see though, so I offer a metaphor:

Jam-jargon; the world of mechanism has influenced my personal identity.

Somewhere deep down, I see myself as a jam jar.

On the flickering screen of my life-plan I am haunted by an unnamed story: I am an empty glass bottle, cruising on a motorized belt. I get a dollop of raspberry preserves, then a label, then and a twist-on top. As I move along the assembly line of life, I am worked, and I am in the works, I am working. The “system” is working. I am packaged, trucked, and delivered to adulthood. And at each transition the more sophisticated jam-jars ask, “ What are your plans?” I feel I should have an answer to this question so I point to the next slot along the clunking belt.

 The jam-jar phenomenon is a repeating story. We are all jam-jars in one way or another. I have been discussing this invisible sub-story, with groups around the world for a few years now. Enough to know that while the subjectivity of my own description is just that — my own, the over all experience is a shared one. The mechanical metaphors are so deep that without realizing it I place the contours of my own life on the factory belt. I wish I wasn’t a jam-jar. I wish I were able to place a patterned lens on my perception of the world that did not revert to a grid. Everything is gridded… and only sometimes can I see the symmathesy — the learning context.

We find what we are looking for:

The difficulty of catching ourselves when we begin to apply mechanistic logic to living systems is not to be underestimated. I get lost. I can only occasionally see the edges. So intrinsic is this habit of assembling the blocks of life, and deciphering the cogs of its architecture, that the way I set out to make sense of things, anything—is to begin to figure out how it works.

The danger is that if I look at life in the natural world — a forest or family, a person or an organization — and I am trying to find an arrangement of parts and wholes within it, I will find it. I can probably put names to the parts and wholes, and even diagram them in a model. We find what we are trained to see; we find what we have named.

What I won’t find with that lens is the interrelational communication, learning and contextual timbre.

 What I won’t find with that lens is what is holding the systems together through time and into its evolution.

Here it is, on the front page of our way forward. The term “system” sits like a shiny hood ornament catching the sparkle of the sun, and bug guts of this moment in history. Arguably, the fate of humanity is a measurement of our capacity to evolve beyond the destructive patterns we are now engaged in. I would suggest that this evolution rests in the possibility that we might see our world differently — as a living process, not a mechanism.

We need an emblematic term for this idea base; something to share, to hold, to refer to – a tag so that we don’t have to explain the whole of the living world’s interactions every time we want to refer to them. But not “System.” It has been shaped now by time and by its users. The word “system” is ironically as bound in thinking errors as the system to which we are referring. Perhaps not explicitly, but implicitly the term has come to mean a mechanism. It means something over there, observable from here. It means something we can chart, graph, and diagram. It means boxes and arrows.

The more complex the realm of mechanism becomes, the more imperative it is that we define life differently. The jam-jar metaphor is arcane, even by industrial standards, but still, it scoops us all in.

I grew up in a household in which a system was a living thing… alive in its swirl of interrelationships and intercommunications. A system was something I was always inside of. I am one; I live in one that is inside a bigger one, inside a bigger one – inside a bigger one. But there are not really draw-able boundaries between them, it’s messier than that. There are too many variables that are varying their course. A system is hard to keep alive in this languaging. A forest is not diagrammable. Neither is a family. An ecosystem, a love affair, an organization, none of these are really “systems”.

But in my household, unusually, a system was a warm thing.

“Warm Systems.” As a terminology, that wording is perhaps an improvement. In my own work I began to use this term. Warm Systems. To show that there is difference that makes a difference, as someone once said, in the way we use the term. I wanted so much to reclaim the word “system”; to give it back the dignity of its own complexity. A warm system is a thing of elegance, and grace, it should be noble. But still, I felt the lack of movement.

For me, the word “system” and its accompanying entourage of boxy models, cannot hold the gooey ecology of what the biosemiotics experts call the “semiosphere”…. Without this aspect of communication and mutual learning we cannot grasp the idea of the living world and the nature of life. The spicy richness of real inter-subjectivity is both flattened and bleached by the terminology.

I found myself with a mouthful of dry systemic language. Pasty jargon that is stuck to power points I have seen at conferences and snatched up into the audiences’ attention. The appetite to get hold of these “systemic” things is a phenomenon in itself.

Google the word “systems”, look under images… and you will not see photographs of living things. There is no art there. Not a single illustration of something in “relationship”. Instead: You will see squares and triangles, and arrows and circles – all sharp with educated and earnest attempts to code-crack life. These graphics seem to me to be maps that lead us right back to the school of engineering from which the culture we live in first found footing. Gregory Bateson was suspicious of using metaphors from physics to describe the living world. The other way around is not so bad, he suggested. Without doing much harm one can pat a car’s dashboard and praise its performance. But to attribute the language of physics to a living system is more toxic, because it infers “control”… it infers parts and wholes.

As systems research develops we find ourselves increasingly at a junction of what is disparagingly referred to as “linear thinking”, and ‘non-linear’ thinking. While this is a step in the right direction it is important to recognize that non-linear thinking in a world that mechanizes our imagination often leads to a tricky masking of linear thinking dressed up as non-linear thinking. Additionally some of the early work focused heavily on models that were an improvement to the linear model, but have revealed their own limits. One such model is the circle as a visual analogy of ecology.

More than circular:

Circles have come to be the branded motto of recycling, ecology, and the cycles of living things. But for our work the model of circles is not enough. The cybernetic notion of circular communication, interaction and cyclical behavior was a big step forward from pre-cybernetic, linear descriptions of these processes. The value of that progress in our thinking is not to be underestimated. With respect for the fact that conceptual models provide potent impressions to our comprehension, metaphors matter. While circles are a popular visual metaphor for life, the limits of the circle as metaphor are overcome in the concept of symmathesy. The notion of a symmathesy and a learning context within other contexts does not define a field of variables in interaction that is two dimensional, nor does it return to where it began. A better visual might be the double helix, as the model of a learning system must have at least three dimensions. Four if you count time.

Gregory writes: “First, there is humility, and I propose this not as a moral principle, distasteful to a large number of people, but simply as an item of a scientific philosophy. In the period of the Industrial Revolution, perhaps the most important disaster was the enormous increase of scientific arrogance. We had discovered how to make trains and other machines. We knew how to put one box on top of the other to get that apple, and Occidental man saw himself as an autocrat with complete power over a universe, which was made of physics and chemistry. And the biological phenomena were in the end to be controlled like processes in a test tube. Evolution was the history of how organisms learned more tricks for controlling the environment; and man had better tricks than any other creature.

But that arrogant scientific philosophy is now obsolete, and in its place there is the discovery that man is only a part of larger systems and that the part can never control the whole.”-Gregory Bateson, Steps To an Ecology of Mind [pp 443-444 University of Chicago edition]

Given that the tricks we have developed to “control the environment” have reeled into consequences beyond our wildest dreams, we would do well to humbly think about how we are thinking. The trouble is NOT that the world has gone to hell, or that we have no idea how to save the future for our children. The trouble is at another level. The trouble is that even do-gooders, by that I refer to the advocates for peace and justice, the ecologists, and the dedicated teachers, the therapists and the philanthropists, are still thinking in terms of parts and wholes. Even the ones that use the language of “systems.”

People who have devoted themselves to the deeper practice of “systems thinking” will say this criticism is unfair, and they are probably correct. For a few, a system does not primarily refer to something arranged. But only for a few. So pervasive is the habit of applying the problem solving methods of the engineer that now the language of the entire body of “systems theory” and “complexity theory” has become a container for slightly higher order reductionist thinking. At least that is my experience. For several years now I have been a traveler into the groups of “system thinkers” around the world. Some have been psychologists, artists, ecologists, economists, politicians, doctors, biologists, educators, and coaches.

I will share with you my water test.

Ask the question: Does this thinker seek to make a plan? Employ a strategy? Find a solution?… Or interact with a context?

One type of thinker plots a trajectory into the future that can be controlled. Or, maybe, to be softer, manipulated. The other does not consider control, but is sensitive to the aesthetic. Attempting a multilayered ecological shift at the level of context. This requires a rigor of intellectual, perceptual, and emotional multiplicity and sensitivity. Developing rigor to hold variables in focus is not the same as romanticizing the blurry unknown. There is enough borderline new age material out there now to require that in this document I address the issue of the “unknown” and “unknowable”. This concept has unfortunately become a catch all for a lack of rigor. Instead I would argue that the complexity inherent in living processes requires that we employ more rigor, not less. To take into account the larger consequences of our “actions” is to better understand the many facets of our interactions.

I am not suggesting that action cannot be taken in acute situations to address the emergencies quickly. To relieve pain, to avert a suicide, to eschew bankruptcy… Of course this is necessary. But the larger, longer, wider response is to be scrutinized at another level. Not either or, but both. Why is one way of looking “linear” and the other “systemic”? What if linear was not linear at all… just over-planned, and what if “systemic” was something more than an organic Swiss watch?

Delivery from the dilapidated state of the world now is not the providence of the mechanic. There are no parts to fix. No particular manuals to write, or scripts to edit. The poverty of our description of these living things we call “systems” will starve us from a future of juicy life. This concerns me. And seems so unnecessary. Perhaps a better description, inaugurated by the new term symmathesy, will give us the missing understanding we require to hold present in our thoughts the mutual learning processes of all living systems.

Do we reinterpret history and the knowledge of the past through the same grid/lens through which we interpret the institutions of knowledge now? What is the plumbing blueprint for the piping up of knowledge? What is information that has been through the jam-jar factory, stripped of its contexts, labeled, categorized and parceled into jargons?

Symmathesy. I am one, you are one, we are within them. Learning together in context, at all scales.

“Now I a fourfold vision see

And a fourfold vision is given to me

Tis fourfold in my supreme delight

And three fold in soft Beulahs night

And twofold Always. May God us keep

From Single vision & Newtons sleep”

-William Blake

Part V

Implications and Applications of Symmathesy.

Education, therapy, medicine, social infrastructure, interaction with the living environment, and personal life, are all premised upon our understanding of the world we live in. If that world is a world defined through mutual learning or symmathesy, here are some shifts in perception we might notice:

(Let it first be recognized that with symmathesy in mind—we will be disinclined to draw the distinctions of this question as I have done above. To define a separation between education, therapy, social infrastructure and personal life is a misleading fracturing of context. As a means of providing a glimpse into the possible benefits of this idea, I have listed these entities as separate because that is how they are depicted by our culture. But by no means do I see them as isolated facets of our lives. )

Education: an education in the world as a mutual learning process would look at the interconnections between what we now call “disciplines” or subjects. Forests are interactions, food is culture, and so on. The ability to study both the details (existing disciplines) and the relationships of learning between them will increase our students’ ability to see and interact with a level of complexity that is necessary for future generations’ survival. As it stands our “knowledge” often prevents us from seeing the interdependencies in our complex world, which we therefore disrupt — to the detriment of our wellbeing and that of the biosphere we live within.

Therapy: If a living context is a mutual learning context then the way we approach a notion of “pathology” is radically altered. A symmathesy, as a person, or a family, is learning to make sense of its world. As their bodies, emotional, mental and interactional processes would all be included in their ways of calibrating their world (not necessarily consciously) — all pathology is also learning.

The way a symmathesy makes sense of its world is a learning process at multiple levels. But that learning is not necessarily positive or progressive in the orthodox understanding of learning. We can learn to be sick. A tree learns from its context that it needs to grow crooked. Remove the value judgment from that process and we will instead see a remarkable feat of life to survive in whatever tangle it perceives. Think of an alcoholic’s body: his skin, his metabolism, his liver, his family, his history, his communication with his friends are all revealing a mutual process of manifesting the way he makes sense of his world. Where is the pathology? And toward a response to that question:

Where is the healing? In the learning.

Healing: If pathology is learning, then healing is also learning. The person, or family or other symmathesy, will make sense of their contextual existence in another set of calibrations to heal. What if healing and pathology are both expressions and possibilities of mutual learning? The approach then to our notion of health would be geared toward providing circumstances for calibration of multiple aspects of life to be cultivated for an individual, a family or perhaps even a society to generate combined realms of learning in order to shift. In our work with the IBI at Villa Miari in Italy we observed the work at the center for rehabilitation of paralysis and terminal pain.

The work being done at the Centro Studi di Riabilitazione Neurocognitiva in Italy (the CSRN), is a remarkable testament to another way of thinking in contrast to a world where the “solution” of a problem involves singular and direct treatment. In medicine, politics, education, economy and even our personal lives we measure our productivity in terms of action and reaction. It almost seems as though we have a script that runs through our culture that instructs us how to address trouble, which reads, “where is the problem and how do we fix it?” This linear questioning leads to a set of responses, which can only treat the problem directly, with therapies that focus specifically on the details of the symptoms as presented. At CSRN the therapies are designed to reach behind the visible manifestation of the crisis the patient is in and ask another sort of question. Their question is this: “How is this system making sense of its world?” The order of information and influences that the clinicians at CSRN find in the pursuit of their question is both qualitatively and quantitatively at another level.

The question being posed at CSRN, “How is this system making sense of its world?” reveals something like a stew of slow cooked cognitive, cultural, and relational processes that need to relearn. The “treatment” then stems from a recognition that the whole person/system has to find their way to re-understanding the world they are in. This involves the enormity of the neurocognitive system, as well as the patients’ interaction with their environment and community.

( ** for more information on this please see the research with International Bateson Institute, “How do Systems get Unstuck?”).

Medicine in this sense can potentially shift in its modus operandi toward becoming more a function of cultivating a learning context in which reorganization is possible and less of a tool kit for tweaking the parts of a system. Obviously both are necessary. There are moments when the short view is vital, but even emergency situations might be seen differently through this lens. What is the symmathesy calibrating?

An umbrella concept that addresses the living world as a learning context offers another window though which to see, analyze and interact with the complexity of life. This conceptual frame furthers our research agenda, offering a wider basis of relational interaction into our notion of “subject” for study. The interactions within living systems and between them are many — so many in fact, that it is a daunting task of the research team to draw an outline around what might be the focus of study. But is this rigor a hindrance? Or is it perhaps the next frontier of inquiry? The multiplicity of these interactions demands an inclusion of the crossover between multiple contexts in which new methods of inquiry can approach the rigor of zooming our lenses of study in and out on combined processes of continual learning.

Ecology of Institutions:

Much like the body in paralysis whose many systems for making sense of the world are interrupted and disorganized, the institutions of our civilization appear to be equally entwined in a holding pattern of dysfunction involving immeasurable interweaving. So interwoven are our institutions that instigating change, even for the survival of our species, seems to get stymied by a collective body of institutions that are self-preserving. There is, like in the patients’ cognition systems, a pattern of permeated operational interactions within and between the institutions of our world. Together we have a context of economic, social and cultural institutions that have learned to accommodate us as they do today even as we have learned to accommodate to them. If the question is shifted from “how do we fix the institutions?” to “how have we learned to interact with these institutions as a context?”—we may find that our set of “solutions” is significantly more productive.

The education system needs desperately to change to provide coming generations with support for their future, but the job market needs professionals that have individual skills, specialized in fragmented subjects. The economic viability of our global marketplace is hinged on an increase in production and a constant growth rate, which ties perfectly into the thrusting technological rush to invent and innovate new tools. In turn, the hurry created by these imperatives increases imbalances in the social realm that feed the need for more technology, whether this takes the form of apps for an iphone or advances in medicine. The political system must conduct itself to serve the tempo and demands of the market, leading inevitably (though not always intentionally) to the upsurge we can see in fundamentalism, economic inequality, and the privatization of social services. Meanwhile to support this ecology of institutions the ecology of our biosphere is being exploited. Alongside the precious diversity of our planet, the basics of our living needs like air, water and food are in danger of destruction. It is at least worthwhile to explore the approach that looking at this in terms of symmathesy may provide.

More research is needed, from another angle, with another methodology.

What if we look at the interlocking, interdependency of our institutions as an ecology in and of itself? Ecology can be loosely defined as a totality of patterns of interrelationship that form interdependencies. In this sense our institutions function very much like a forest or an ocean. The infrastructures of our institutions reinforce and balance each other, and our socio-economic system develops in patterns that fit the characteristics of any ecology. Are we not, in that case, contributing perfectly to an ecology that we live within? Perhaps humanity is not so un-ecological after all. The difficulty we face is in the fact that the larger ecology of biosphere is at odds with the ecology of our institutions, and right now we believe we need both to survive.

How can this idea of contextual rehabilitation serve us to address the dysfunctional and stuck interrelationships within the ecology of institutions? As an approach, how can we address the context of these institutions instead of attempting to chase down the crises as separate issues?

This is team research. Many vocabularies are needed to begin to grasp the multiple contexts of knowledge within a single living organism, (including a thought). For this reason the approach to such research is best done with multiple minds in collaboration. Our work with the International Bateson Institute has been particularly illuminating. The unexpected gem of this group, its surprising outcome, is our shared language with which to discuss patterns, relationship, and learning. This language is the result of our individual studies of Gregory Bateson’s work,(among others). Our respective professions give us depth in a diversity of fields, which is then articulated in integration with the language of our roots in Bateson. The jargon of our fields is then trumped by the shared overarching discourse of interconnection, interdependency, and interaction through relationship. We do not tend toward the subject fragmentation that many “interdisciplinary” studies funnel into, which is refreshing to say the least. Our projects have enjoyed remarkable leverage with this contrast and collaboration.


Bateson G. (1972), Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Ballantine Books, New York, 1972.

Bateson G. (1979), Mind and Nature, Hampton press, Cresskill, New Jersey, 2002.

Bateson G. (1991), A Sacred Unity, edited by Donaldson R. E., Estate of Gregory Bateson, New York, 1991.

Bateson G. and Bateson M.C. (1987), Angels Fear, Estate of Gregory Bateson, New York, 1987.

von Uexküll, Jakob (1926), Theoretical Biology New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co

Path of the Spiritual Warrior, Four Dignities - The Garuda

This is the third of four posts on the Spiritual Warrior. The Tiger of meekness has laid the ground for the path. The Lion of perky has brought forth the discipline and energy for walking the path itself. 

Warrior of Outrageous

The garuda is said to be the king of birds. It is said to hatch full-grown from the egg, stretch it's wings and soar into outer space. So the state of mind here is vast and spacious. From a conventional point of view, we are always limited by hope and fear. But the warrior of outrageous has gone beyond these, does not compare or measure his behavior in any way, so his action is free and fearless. His is a wisdom with no reference point. 

Truth of Impermanence

For the warrior of outrageous, change is not simply an intellectual concept but a deep truth at the heart of the human experience. So the warrior of outrageous is free from the fear of dying. The Buddha said, "You may be in a good situation, but it won't last. Everything you see is impermanent. Everybody experiences birth, aging, sickness, death." Coming to terms with impermanence frees you from the grip of hope and fear. When you don't fight reality, you find within yourself enormous resources of richness for working with yourself and others. 

Letting Go

The biggest obstacle to freedom is our attachment to "me". Our self-referential fabrication of ourselves is based on fear. The warrior of outrageous sees through the hypocrisy of ego's game and gives birth to a vast and spacious awareness. He has no territory to defend since he trusts a non-referential intelligence that cuts through the conventional notions of self and other. 


The warrior of outrageous is free from negative emotions so he is able to face whatever arises skillfully and fearlessly. This kind of confidence operates on an even-keel. Equanimity is free from picking and choosing and treats everyone with respect and care. The warrior trusts in the basic goodness of human beings which is unconditional and free of hope and fear. 

Roshi Robert Althouse