““You’re chained to you reason … Understanding is only a very small affair, so very small.”
Carlos Castaneda

A Separate Reality

Christopher Alexander – The Stress Reservoir

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“Broadly speaking, the reaction to each unsolved problem, or annoyance, or conflict that is encountered creates in the individual some level of stress. Stress is initially functional and productive. Its purpose is to mobilize the body in such a way that problems get solved … But there is a limited capacity for stress in every human individual. Varying from person to person, it is nevertheless quite finite in all of us.

There is, in effect, a stress reservoir in the body … as the stress reaches the top of the reservoir, the organism’s ability to deal effectively with the stress decreases. This then gives rise to the ‘stress,’ as used in its popular meaning. The organism is overloaded … creative functioning is impaired. Sometimes it finally breaks down altogether …

… this stress is cumulative, because it is all in one currency. Stress from money worries … physical pain … unresolved argument … light shining in one’s eyes … it is all … one kind of stress.

… look at the case of a wall outside the University Art Museum in Berkeley. This wall has sloping sides … I suppose the architect thought this would be fun or exciting – or perhaps just ‘different.’ But what it actually does is to create very tiny amounts of stress. A person walking along cannot quite tell where the sloping part starts, so there is a chance of tripping. One has to walk away from the wall, minding one’s feet, and has to give up what one is thinking in order to concentrate on not bumping into the wall. And if you were inclined to sit on the wall, you could not … So, this wall … is actually a little expensive in needless stress and discomfort.

… Let us now consider a rather more troublesome example from architecture. This concerns the life of families with small children on the fifth or sixth floor, or higher, in apartment buildings .. the mother with small children, the apartment usually small. Naturally the children … want to go out to play with their friends, on the ground, six stories below. The mother wants them to be able to play there. But she cannot easily keep an eye on them, and she can’t get to them quickly if something happens. But she can’t keep them in the apartment … So the children go down. She worries constantly … But there is no alternative. If she finds it too stressful, she keeps them in the apartment, but after an hour … she gives up and goes back to the inevitable. She lives with this stress day in, day out.

… Each example adds to the total reservoir of stress people must contend with. It makes everything else more difficult, and a meaningful life just that little bit harder to attain.

… the apparently small trace-like conflicts in the environment all cause stress. But they go much further. They cause a separation of people from reality … We easily recreate, in our hearts, the sense of hopelessness and despair, the confining reality of a sterile world, that are summarized by these illustrations. And we know, from our own walks through the empty office building, through the still, despairing upstairs mall of shops, or through the empty motel room, devoid of all but bed and bathroom and small window and plywood door, how real this despair can be, and how little this atmosphere does to sustain us – how, rather, it can bring us nearly to the brink of hopelessness.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

 

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Christopher Alexander – Freedom of the Spirit

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A discussion of svatantra

“Can it really be true that something as elusive as freedom – and perhaps the even deeper capacity to be human – depends in some way on the environment? Is it possible that the rude form of walls, windows, and roads could affect something so subtle and precious as the freedom, or the wholeness, of a person?

The effect I suggest is large, but subtle, and resembles the effect of trace elements in the human body … certain vitamins … and … even certain rare metals – have a disproportionate impact on the health of a human body … they are necessary in tiny quantities, since they make possible the construction of crucial enzymes, which themselves catalyze crucial and highly repetitive components of protein synthesis …

… They are used again and again and again in reactions which happen millions of times per day. Without this catalysis, the major and more gross processes of the body simply break down. The impact of the geometry of our environment … has a similar, nearly trace like effect on our emotional, social, spiritual, and physical well-being.

A healthy human being is able, essentially, to solve problems, to develop, to move towards objects of desire, to contribute to the well-being of others in society, to create value in the world, and to love, to be exhilarated, to enjoy. The capacity to do these many positive things, to do them well, and to do the freely, is natural. It arises by itself. It cannot be created artificially in a person, but it needs to be released, given room. It does need to be supported. It depends, simply, on the degree to which a person is able to concentrate on these things, not on others. And this steady-mindedness, even in joy, is damaged by the extent to which other unresolved or unresolvable conflicts take up mental and physical space in the person’s daily life.

Such damaging interference from extraneous factors can take many forms … hunger … disease … physical danger … dysfunctional family … More subtle issues can also create preoccupation, hence damage, to the individual … conflict in the workplace … personal tragedy … family problems … money problems … And still more subtle … a chance remark can throw off a person’s functioning for a day or two; a badly fitting shoe, a headache … irritating noise …

Of course, it is often said that challenge makes us more alive … The nature of interference caused by hardship and conflict must therefore be very well understood … before we can say that we have a clear picture of its effects – either negative or positive.

… It will be accepted, I think, that the best environment would be one in which each person can become as alive as possible – that is as vibrant intellectually, physically and morally …

The psychologist Max Wetheimer once wrote a short article called ‘A Story of Three Days,’ in which he proposed a simple, and extraordinary definition of freedom … true freedom lies in the ability a person has to react appropriately to any given circumstance … anything which causes a blockage of this ability … causes a loss of freedom.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

 

 

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Christopher Alexander – More of a Person

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For the last months, I have been reflecting about this phenomenon from a slightly different perspective – using erosion/nourishment as a metaphor (I thought I had written something about this on the blog, but I couldn’t find it, so it could be that I spoke it out but didn’t put it in writing). I feel that some life experiences nourish me and that some erode me. Some experiences may generate both nourishment and erosion … but there is a sum experience … overall did it nourish me more or erode me more.

I tend to stay at home at Bhudeva because the overall experience here is nourishing for me. When I leave, even though I may go to something pleasurable and nourishing, the overall experience is usually one of erosion – I end up lesser (and requires a period of healing). I believe that this process is accumulative – that there is a sum experience of nourishment or erosion (which can express itself in many ways). I feel that unless I am attentive and caring with my life, erosion will dominate. Reading Alexander’s words (below) validates my experience.

Another interesting observation for me about this excerpt is that the integrated experience Alexander talks about of expansion/contraction is, as I was taught about Yoga, inverted. The feeling of expansion comes from a collected/contracted energy field while the feeling of contraction comes from a diffused (expanded) energy field.

” … the extent to which the observer experiences his or her own humanity rising or falling, expanding or contracting … If I pay careful attention to own state, from instant to instant during the day, I can notice that at different times I am more humane, or less: at one instant lethargic, at another filled with loving kindness and appreciation of the world; at another I am a son-of-a-bitch; at another loving  … I can watch, in myself, the continuing expanding and contracting of my own humanity.

For example … I was … on my way to a record store. I Stopped on the street to speak to a homeless man who often sits there. I sat down on the sidewalk with him … Something hard had happened to him just before – I could feel it in him; we sat and talked about it. Then, all of a sudden he put his hand on mine, pressed three fingers into the back of my hand. He left them there for a few seconds, without speaking. Then, slowly, he took his hand away. During those moments, I felt in my a great expanding of my humanity,,, For a few moments of silent communication, I was more than I usually am: more of a person.

Of course, it didn’t last. When I left him, as I walked away, my humanity started dropping down again. I went into the store. A few minutes later, I bought a record and went to the front desk to pay for it. I had a few words with the clerk. He took my credit card. Chit chat. Nice guy. Nothing out of the ordinary. But it was a mechanical transaction. The credit card. It was OK. But, very slightly, my own humanity was diminishing, just a little bit, while I went through the motions of paying with that card.

These things are happening in each of us all the time. At each instant, as I go through the world, because of what happens to me, and because of what I do, my humanity is expanding and diminishing all the time; sometimes for a an instant it is a little greater, sometimes for an instant it is a little smaller.

… So, the life in things that I have been writing about has a direct effect o me.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

 

 

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Christopher Alexander – Experience Beyond Descartes

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“The factual character of modern science – what we call its objective nature – arises chiefly from the fact that its results can be shared …

What is vital, then, about any objective phenomenon is that the observation of its essential points lead to shared results …

To see the phenomenon of life as it really is, the methods used cannot be tied to the crutch of mechanism as the basis for the sharing of observations and results …

For example, when I was working out, and observing, issues of wholeness and life in a thing … I did not try to observe things as if I myself did not exist. Instead, again and again I tried to discern which of two objects was more like a mirror of my own self, which one had more feeling, which one seemed to have more life, which one made one experience greater wholeness in myself … then tried to find out what was correlated with the thing that I observed …

Thus it is not a question of opening the door to subjective fantasy. The matters in this book … extend and supplement the arena of permissible scientific observation in such a way tha the self of the observer is allowed to come into the picture in an objective way …

Yet the facts of experience that I have shown and used to build up my new picture of space/matter are available to anyone. I refer especially to the fact that different parts of space are seen to have different degrees of life. But precisely because the observational method of Descartes forbids us from seeing these facts  – or indeed these kinds of facts – these observations and these observed facts have dropped out of awareness in the modern era. That is essentially how our defective and anti-life view came into being in the modern era.

… I used a method of observation that allowed me to check the relative life of any given work as an objective matter … this method of observation, like the method of Descartes, still refers always to experience. It is empirical in nature. It dismisses fantasy and seeks constantly to avoid speculation … But where Descartes only allowed observation to focus on the outer reality of mechanisms in the world, my method requires that we focus on the inner reality of feeling as well.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

 

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Christopher Alexander – The Mirror of the Self Test

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This section includes many visual examples (not shown in this excerpt) of applications of the methodology described in this excerpt

“To decide objectively which centers have more life and which ones have less life, we need an experimental method that allows people toe escape from the trap of subjective preference, and to concentrate instead on the real liking they feel

The methods I propose make use of the fact that each one of us, as an observer, is directly tuned to the phenomenon of wholeness … It accomplishes this awareness of wholeness, by asking people for a judgement which comes directly from their own feeling. I do not mean by this that we ask someone ‘Which one do you feel is best?’ I mean that we ask, specifically, which of the two things generates, in the observer, the most wholesome feeling? … to what degree each of the two things we are trying to judge is, or is not, a picture of the self …

As far as I have been able to discover, we can apply this question to virtually any two things whose degree of wholeness we are trying to compare …

… The question forces a kind of internal development and growth in the observer, so that he or she gradually comes face to face with what wholeness really is, and is able, step by step, slowly to give up his or her own idiosyncratic ideas about what is beautiful, and replace them with a lasting accuracy of judgement.

… A thing about which we choose to say … ‘That looks just the way I feel’ is always one-sided, has our peculiarity in it. It will be in no sense universal and this is because, in our immaturity, we try to forget the so-called bad things about our selves … But when we look for a thing which reflects everything, both our weakness and our happiness, our vulnerability and our strength, then we enter an entirely different domain. The question takes on a different meaning, and we find that different people do usually choose the same things.

… I assert, as a matter of fact, that the things which people truly and deeply like are precisely these things which have the mirror-of-the-self property to a very high degree …

… it is not so easy to find out what we really like. It is a skill and an art to become sensitive enough to living structure so that we see it accurately …

… It can take years and years to learn to perform this test correctly. Also in the process of learning it, one is forced to learn more and more about one’s own self. Thus even one’s understanding of one’s own self is changed by the task of learning to perform this test.

… the experiment is real and legitimate, but it is taking place within an immensely complex process in which you are both finding out about the relative degree of life in different things in the world and, at the same time, also finding out about your own wholeness and your own self …

… It is deep and difficult. The confusion, the gradual separation of preference from living structure, the difficulty of comparing notes and sorting out cultural bias and opinions foisted on us by others – getting through this maze does pay off in the end. There is a real quality which gradually emerges as the true thing which can be identified and relied upon.

… This is an arduous task.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

 

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