Thursday, July 31, 2008

Buddhists, Biologists and Business Cards: Coming to terms with the stickiness of life

By Jeremy Sherman

David Belasco, the American theatrical producer, once said to an aspiring playwright, "If you can't write your idea on the back of my business card, you don't have a clear idea."

SEPTEMBER 1998- Many a prolific philosopher would disagree, but as anyone in marketing knows, succinct sells. Simple and direct is the way people want it, especially now that we're all so pressed for time.

Among the Buddha's many revelations was awareness of the mis-fit between subtle understanding and people's appetite for hearing it. He is quoted as having said, "I have penetrated this truth, deep, hard to perceive, hard to understand . . . But this is a race devoting itself to the things to which it clings . . . And if I were to teach the truth and other men [sic.] did not acknowledge it to me, that would be wearisome to me; that would be hurtful to me . . . This that through many toils I've won – enough! Why should I make it known?"

To our benefit, Buddha persevered, accommodating the race with simplifying parables and bullet points like the four Noble Truths. Buddha was certainly up to Belasco's challenge. Had he met the producer at a cocktail party, he'd have accepted his card and written something like this:

Interdependent Co-Arising is one of the two core teachings of all Buddhist schools. According to the Encyclopedia of Eastern Thought, "The doctrine of Interdependent Arising says that all psychological and physical phenomena constituting individual existence are interdependent, and mutually condition each other." We might think of causality starting with A, but the Encyclopedia continues: "Interdependent Co-Arising does not refer to a temporal succession, but rather to the essential interdependence of all things."

Some people – eager to encourage generosity in their fellow humans – will tell you that the point of Pattica Samuppada is that we are all one; that the web of life includes all of us, and that you really ought to behave as if you knew this. But Pattica Samuppada means something much more useful than this, even if you can distill it onto the back of a business card. Yes, we are one with everything, but as individuals we are one with some things more than others.

Now, were biologist and complexity theory pioneer Stuart Kauffman at the same cocktail party as Buddha, facing the same challenge, he would boil his voluminous thought down to the same A-through-C diagram. Kauffman is not a Buddhist and would have called Paticca Samuppada by a different name: autocatalytic sets.

Kauffman thinks about the origins of life. With Darwin we begin to know how life evolves, but how it began remains a mystery. Science's best hypothesis before Kauffman was a Darwinian one: the constituent parts of the first organic molecules found each other randomly and started replicating. Before life, these constituent parts were very sparse. Bumping into each other would have taken a long time, but then the universe's roughly six billion years before life was a long time. Time enough, say some, for the chance encounter.

Kauffman and many other theorists don't buy it. Some theologians agree – arguing that the hand of God must have been in it up to the elbow. Without resorting to inconceivable luck or an active God, Kauffman has come up with a new explanation. Or, I should say, old.

Kauffman's alternative can be simplified to this: suppose one of the constituent parts of organic molecules – call it A – works like a catalyst bringing together two common inorganic molecules that happen to make another molecule out of the constituent parts – call this one B. Suppose B then makes C out of more inorganics. Now suppose that C catalyzes more of A. What you get is a mutually supporting, mutually building, interdependently co-arising network of catalysts – an autocatalytic set – that grows until the constituent parts are populous enough that their chance encounter becomes more likely. Using computer models, Kauffman demonstrates that sets like these were not only possible, but likely to occur.

It's like the economy: in Economics 101, the story goes, the butcher buys hot dog buns from the baker who then buys candlesticks from the candlestick maker who, in turn, goes out for a hot dog with the money he's made. The money goes round and round. Everyone's dependent on everyone else in a self-supporting network. There's no saying which action comes first and it matters less once you recognize the co-arising.

To scientists like Kauffman, this resemblance between biology and economics is more than uncanny coincidence. Scientists have collected enough details about enough different kinds of living systems to draw a composite sketch of the general patterns of change and stability that emerge everywhere – from ecologies to economies, to cultures, to families, and even to our individual and personal psyches. They call these generic patterns "the behavior of complex adaptive systems." Hence the name for their area of research: complexity.

Here's an example from the movies. Hundreds of people arrive at a theater before show time. Some have big hair, some have hats. Some are tall; some are short. With lots of shifting and squirming – but no top-down or step-by-step maneuvering – each member of the audience finds a full view by the time the first preview rolls. Complex adaptive systems get even more complex than that. Most are more like a theater whose aisles of seats roll up and down like ocean waves throughout the movie.That is, the environment changes.

Changing environments, and human reactions to them, were how Buddha recognized interdependent co-arising in our psyches. We tend to resist change, and he wondered why. Our minds can be seen as autocatalytic sets of interdependently co-arising, self-perpetuating constellations of ideas, feelings, and impulses. The perpetuation provides us with both the continuity and reliability we need to survive – and the stubbornness that sometimes gets in the way of adapting to changes in our environment.

That stubbornness is the subject of Buddha's second noble bullet point: durga, translated as "suffering," arises from the sticky commitments to ideas and behaviors that we find ourselves in. As Buddha said, his truth was "hard to perceive, hard to understand." We talk about belief "systems," as if we recognize that our minds are interdependently co-arising complexes, but in other ways we forget.

We often say, "The reason I did B was A," as if we could discover the one causal strand leading sequentially from A to B, ignoring the way B and A are in a mutually-supporting relationship (to say nothing of C through Z++). We say: "I'll believe it when I see it," but the obverse is at least as true. We see it when we believe it.

We more easily absorb and retain information that reinforces expectations. We dismiss, ignore, and overlook what doesn't fit our expectations. We often act as though our beliefs cause our actions, like A causing B. But B also causes A. We act, and then construct wrap-around beliefs to encompass our actions.

I don't sit down to write as much as I would like because I have too many distractions. But conversely, I have too many distractions because I have an aversion to writing. We don't protest environmental degradation because we don't believe it’s a big issue, but conversely we don't think it’s a big issue because taking action is daunting. A smoker with his very first pack discovers that smoking induces relaxation. Once addicted, the need to relax makes us smoke.

Happiness in general is like cigarettes. Experiments suggest that happiness is relative. What's newly acquired makes us happy at first, but later, only its absence is felt. Necessity is the mother of invention, but invention is also the mother of necessity. No one knew they needed personal computers until they were available.

Our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors emerge together in mutually perpetuating networks – package deals. Someone with low self-esteem is compelled to invest enormous energy in bolstering themselves with fantasies and boasts. The more secure and confident a person is, the more willing they are to be questioned and doubted. The less secure, the more rigid. Harsh critics gain confidence by scorning the choices others make, but constrain their options in the process.

Increasingly, I see my beliefs and behaviors arising in a galactic sense. I'm like a planet pulled and repelled in relation to many other planets – consciously and unconsciously pulled into relationships by ideas, people, and things. I'm at one with all things, but my connection to most is negligible. The strong connections tug me in many different directions. Shifting in relation to one means shifting in relation to others. Responding costs. Thus, I'll never evaluate a new idea or behavior on an even playing field with my status quo. My mind is quite naturally closed. The older I get, the greater the degree of closure, since with time I accumulate commitments in my autocatalytic set. The longer you live in one place, the harder it is to pick up and leave, because you accumulate commitments over time.

I stake out a position, too. I seek stability and a sense of self, which I attain through having strong opinions. Like the critic, I opine, therefore I am, not remembering that every time I form an opinion, I also limit my options. Indeed, I opine so as to limit my options to a manageable number, but at the same time I constrain myself. My appetite for stability and for flexibility are in perpetual tension.

Buddhist/Taoist scholar Alan Watts once said, "The lifestyle of one who follows the Tao must be understood primarily as a form of intelligence – that is, of knowing the principles, structures, and trends of human and natural affairs so well that one uses the least amount of energy in dealing with them." This accords with what Buddha would say on the back of the business card. Notice autocatalytic stickiness is fundamental in nature. Just notice?

Zen Master Seng-ts'an said: "The great Way is not difficult if you don't cling to good and bad. Just let go of your preferences, and everything will be perfectly clear." Enlightenment is easy if you have no preferences. I see the old master winking at us. We, who prefer preferences.

Buddha – at least as quoted above – had preferences. Life science makes clear that for all living things, there's no escaping preference. We come by it honestly. Buddha's first great gift was insight into the systems of interdependent co-arising that give rise to our preferences. His second was ways of recognizing the structure of sticky systems. By recognizing, we gain an increment of flexibility within them. Paradoxically, by succumbing to our stickiness, we loosen its clawed grip on us. Using less energy adapting to the ever-roiling seats at the movie theater of life. That’s what lay scientists and spiritual thinkers want most of all.

It’s not enough that science and spirituality make peace with each other. It’s not enough that the hybrid species is viable. The hybrid, at its best, should be more adaptive than either science or spirit alone. Only then will this "race devoting itself to the things to which it clings" find the nexus useful, and attend to its subtleties.


Jeremy Sherman is president of Convergent Adaptive Solutions, a consulting firm in Berkeley, CA, USA, applying convergent ideas from eastern and evolutionary philosophy to personal and organizational decision-making processes. He is working on a doctoral degree at Union Institute and can be reached at .


Macy, Joanna, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems. New York: SUNY Press, 1991

Kauffman, Stuart, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.


At Friday, 01 August, 2008, Blogger Milton said...

Thanks for the post. I read it with interest as someone who is working out the implications of complex adaptive systems for organizational design and leadership. Though I haven't yet met Kauffman, we live in the same city part of the year and I have found his research and writing very useful.


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