I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of the universe.
R. Buckminster Fuller (1970)
Ask yourself: who am I? Am I just this body? Am I a thing, a noun, an object? Or am I a process of constantly transforming interactions and connections that define self and world as temporary expressions of my being in relationship?
Allan Watts referred to the separate self as the “skin-encapsulated ego”. In biology classes we are taught to collapse the important question about the identity of our being into a conditioned answer that would read something like this: ‘I am a biological being of the species Homo sapiens sapiens; a product of evolution based on random genetic mutation and the struggle for survival in the face of competition and scarcity, possibly with the predisposition to project meaning into a fundamentally meaningless universe.’ Does this sound like a rational scientific hypothesis or an extremely limiting dogma to you?
The question ‘who or what am I?’ takes us to the core of culture and the way we understand the relationship between self and world, as well as culture and nature. Our answer affects not only our personal experience of life, but also how we are related to other human beings and the community of life. Culture transforms once we understand ourselves as ‘processes’ that define ‘self-identity’ through being in and (made) of relationships.
Through thousands of years of anthropocentric conditioning […] we have inherited shallow, fictitious selves, and created a pervasive illusion of separation from nature. […] As long as the environment is ‘out there,’ we may leave it to some special interest group like environmentalists to protect while we look after our ‘selves.’ The matter changes when we deeply realize that the nature ‘out there’ and the nature ‘in here’ are one and the same, that the sense of separation no matter how pervasive is nonetheless totally illusory. I would call the need for such realisation the central psychological or spiritual challenge of our age.
John Seed (2002)
Paradoxically we are ‘self’ and we are ‘world’. The two emerge in our experience of being through the relationships we participate in. From a participatory understanding of the wholeness of nature, the whole of life is not a thing but a process that comes into being through all living beings and their relationships.
We can describe life as the sum total of trillions of ‘individuals’ of a breathtaking diversity of species, and it is equally valid to understand life as the transformative process that weaves all of these temporary manifestations of being alive through and in relationships into an underlying unity. Focusing on separation reveals competition, while focusing on interbeing reveals collaboration as the basis of all life. Gregory Bateson saw the “false reification of the self” — the idea of a separate self rather than one emerging out of and sustained by relationships — as a root-cause of our “planetary ecological crises”. He argued:
We have imagined that we are a unit of survival and we have to see to our own survival, and we imagine that the unit of survival is the separate individual or a separate species, whereas in reality, through the history of evolution it is the individual plus the environment, the species plus the environment, for they are essentially symbiotic.
Gregory Bateson in Joanna Macy (1994)
Bateson’s ‘ecology of mind’ was an attempt to invite people into a relational way of seeing. He understood that we live in a world entirely made of relationships and used to quip “there are days when I catch myself believing that there is such a thing as something, which is separate from something else”. For Bateson, experiencing our own relational existence — the way we continuously bring forth the world and ourselves through relationships — could help us “unify and thereby sanctify the total natural world, of which we are” (Nora Bateson, 2010).
Bateson’s unifying view of the natural world (life) is not collapsing life and our experience of it into the bottom right quadrant of the integral framework. He did not reduce ‘what is’ to the exterior collective of systems, of ‘ITS’, of material objects. His ‘ecology of mind’ referred to the “the ocean of mind” that we find ourselves in when we shift from seeing the world as a collection of objects to experiencing the coming into being of perspectives and identity through the act of relating itself.
Conceiving of ourselves as verbs rather than nouns, as processes rather than isolated individuals, facilitates this shift in perspective that makes us see the world and ourselves as coming into being through relationships. Maturana and Varela later referred to it as structural coupling and autopoiesis, the self-making by which we are ‘bringing forth a world’.
Bateson believed that “the major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think”. He referred to the shift in thinking we are exploring here as the “difference that makes a difference”. When Bateson asked his students “What pattern connects the crab to the lobster, and the orchid to the primrose and all four of them to me? And me to you?”, he was not really looking for an answer. He was inviting people to notice the act of questioning itself and in doing so making them aware of the fact that everything changes if we change the way we think about ‘self’ and ‘world’ (2015).
David Abram beautifully describes how our human identity is born out of our relationship to the rest of the community of life.
Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth — our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of the wolves and the honking of the geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.
David Abram (1996: 22)
I believe that at the core of the cultural shift that will lead to the emergence of regenerative cultures everywhere is the realization that we are a process of relating in ‘delicate reciprocity’ with a living planet, and that our individual and collective success depend on the health of the whole and the community of life.
This article originally appeared in Medium.