Creation and transformation

If the natural world is ‘the primary revelation of the divine’ or ‘primary scripture’ as Thomas Berry says (1988, 105), then language is the secondary scripture (and written/printed texts are tertiary). However, many of the mystical branches of scripture-based religions have seen this order in reverse.

In the Kabbalistic view, the Torah existed before the physical world, which was created by means of the Word. The Qur’án has been likewise regarded by Muslims as ‘uncreated,’ giving it metaphysical priority over the created world. For Sufis such as Baha al-Din (father of Jalal al-Din Rumi), ‘all creation came into being with God’s command, “Be,” so that the universe is speech, created by a single word’ (Lewis 2000, 90). Consequently it makes sense to organize one’s whole life around reading and meditating on the Qur’án or Torah, as the case may be. ‘Always busy yourself with the word of the Koran and know that the meaning of the whole world is in that one word of the Koran,’ advised Baha al-Din (Lewis 2000, 87). Kabbalists like Abraham Abulafia took the compression of meaning even further, ‘focusing on the pure forms of the letters of the alphabet, or on the name of God’ (Matt 1995, 12). This for them was the way of renewal or recreation, of reunion with the creative power.

Today we could read this practice as metaphorically affirming the semiotic nature of the universe. Spirit is significance itself; and as Peirce put it, physical matter is ‘effete mind’ (CP 6.25) – a portion of original Minding which has fallen so far into habitual patterns that its original spontaneity is almost completely exhausted. Human mentality, with its symbolic media and extensions enabling foresight, planning and conscious decision-making, is a specific refinement in concentrated form of more universal (larger-scale, slower, vaguer) mental processes such as evolution (Bateson 1979) or development (Salthe 1993).

The cosmic mind impersonates itself in each of us, and we return the favor by personifying it as God, who is Author of the universe just as we author our own conceptions. The danger here is that we may wrap ourselves up in our own creations, be they conceptual or technological, and thus cut ourselves off from the more-than-human reality around us. The glories of the biosphere itself may come to seem a mere distraction, which we shut out with an artificial cocoon – an ‘Abominable Corruption’ of our nature, as Thomas Traherne put it (First Century, 31).

Leaving the cocoon is becoming homeless in the sense honored by religious traditions (especially Buddhism: Snyder 1990, 103 ff.) – leaving behind the temptations and complications of social life, especially urban life, and thus becoming free to venture into the more-than-human world. ‘“Homeless” is here coming to mean “being at home in the whole universe”’ (Snyder 1990, 104).

Can such a metamorphosis take place at the higher scale of a human community? Elisabet Sahtouris argued in EarthDance that the process is already under way, as bioregionalism begins to replace the global culture of extractive capitalism:

Bioregionalism is consistent with grassroots democratic movements that are cropping up all over the world, creating new local self-sufficiency systems with their own currencies. From huge housewives cooperatives in Japan to sustainability movements in the hi-tech Silicon Valley world, ordinary people are taking control over their lives into their own hands and practicing local democracy.

Many people wonder how long we have to turn things around. It is really not a question of some critical turning point, but of nurturing more viable systems even as the old ones decay. One metaphor for our changing world is Norie Huddle’s story of a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly. After consuming hundreds of times its own weight daily as it munches its way through its ecosystem, the bloated caterpillar forms its chrysalis. Inside its body, new biological entities called imaginal discs arise, at first destroyed by its immune system. But as they grow more in number and begin to link up, they begin to survive. Eventually the caterpillar’s immune system fails, its body goes into meltdown and the imaginal discs become the cells that build the butterfly from the spent materials that had held the blueprint for the butterfly all along. In just this way, a healthy new world, based on the principles of living systems, can emerge through today’s chaotic transformation.
Sahtouris 1999 (Kindle edition)

(This is a transformation of a post originally published in September 2015.)

Good for

The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places people reject and so is like the Tao.

Tao Te Ching 8 (Feng/English)

The same text translated by Red Pine:

The best are like water
bringing help to all
without competing

A comment on this text by Wang Pi (included in Red Pine’s edition, p. 17):

The Tao does not exist, but water does. Hence, it only approaches the Tao.

Does the flow of water exist? Does energy flow exist? We can say it does when we see work being done, some purpose being served. But what determines which product or service exists or occurs as a result of the process? The Way it works.

Charles S. Peirce would agree with Wang Pi that the highest good (or God) does not exist, but is real, because it ‘determines the suchness of that which may come into existence, when it does come into existence’ (Peirce, EP2:269). Who or what is that good for?

Autumnal equinox edition

While taking a break from blogging this summer, i’ve been working my way through the chapters of Turning Signs, checking and inserting links, rephrasing or rewriting a bit here and there, updating some factual details and so on. This has taken me though 2/3 of the chapters now, so i’m calling this version TS 2.3 (downloadable from here). It’s come a long way from the original (2015) version.

I caught Covid two weeks ago, and the symptoms are still very much with me, so i don’t have much else to say at this point, even if i had the energy to say it. Covid seems to be at least a temporary cure for the disease of ambition. On the longer and less personal time scale, no global cure is in sight for the disease of vaulting human ambition to dominate and consume the planet. Maybe some local ecosystems and communities will learn something from the hyperactive history of the Anthropocene. Whether Turning Signs could make some minute contribution to that learning, i really don’t know, but it’s all i have to offer.

Summer solstice edition

Today is the summer solstice here in the Northern hemisphere. The sun is “standing still,” as the name of the day says. It has climbed as high into the sky at midday as it ever gets at this latitude, and that meridian height appears to stay the same for a few days, along with the places where it rises and sets. Of course this is an illusion: nothing is standing still. The only permanent “thing” in the universe is the flow of time. When we try to measure the “length” of time, what we actually measure is the rate of change of observable “things.” Time itself eludes our measurements.

I’ve been blogging about “the transition” in recent years, because many of us have noticed that the rate of change of things and systems in our world has itself changed, relative to the scale of a human lifetime. But in recent months my rate of posting has dropped off, as i’ve seen the folly of trying to keep up with the Great Acceleration, and have devoted more of “my” time to other follies. Turning Signs is one of them.

With the help of my colleagues in our weekly Study Circle (over Zoom), i’m revising some parts of the netbook to make (i hope) better sense of semiosis. Version 2.2.3 is now available for download, for those who want to read it offline.

There are other distractions these spring/summer days. We’ve just taken delivery of a trailerload of composted goat manure from our neighbour up the road. Moving it (by shovel and wheelbarrow) to the places in the gardens where it’s most needed will take a few days, using an hour or two in the morning and another in the evening when it’s not too hot to work. Such physical tasks make up the meditative part of my day, when i keep eyes and ears open while “opening the hand of thought” (as Uchiyama Roshi puts it). We’re also “spending” more time conversing with our neighbours and other networks. That leaves little time for writing things down, remarkable as life is these days.

Sorry, no time today to insert links as i usually do. Maybe i’ll post again when the equinox rolls around. Anyway, where there’s life, there’s semiosis, and some of its depths remain unexplored …

Easter edition

Turning Signs 2.2.2 is now ready for download. I call it the Easter edition because I’ve just finished revisiting/revising Chapter 4, which only contains a little of the traditional Easter story, but leads up to the resurrection of the body. And the TStudy circle is meeting tomorrow morning to spring into that chapter. May all readers flourish.