“… when confronted with unusual life situations… A warrior acts as if nothing had ever happened, because he doesn’t believe in anything, yet he accepts everything at its face value.”
Carlos Castaneda

Tales of Power

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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Christopher Alexander – Liking from the Heart

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“… contemporary ideas about what is likable are extremely confused. It is a current dogma that you may like what you wish, and that it is an essential part of democratic freedom to like whatever you decide to like. This occurs at a time when the mass media have taken over our ideas of what is likable to an extent unknown in human history. Thus if one were pessimistic, one might even say that there is very little authentic liking in our time. What people like can often not be trusted, because it does not come from the heart.

On the other hand, real liking, which does come from the heart, is profoundly linked to the idea of life in things. Liking something from the heart means that it makes us more whole in ourselves. It has a healing effect on us. It makes us more human. It even increases the life in us. Further, I believe that this liking from the heart is connected to perception of real structures in the world, that it goes to the very root of the way things are, and that is the only wat in which we can structures as they really are.

  1. The things we like … make us feel wholesome
  2. We also feel wholesome when we are making them
  3. The more accurate we are about what we really like … the more we find out that we agree with other people about which these things are.
  4. … As we get to know the ‘it’ which we like … we begin to see that this is the deepest thing there is. It applies to all judgements …
  5. … it is not easy to find what we really like, and it is by no means automatic to be in touch with it …
  6. The reasons for the existence of this deep liking are mysterious … [and] empirical … It is not a private matter.
  7. … the experience of real liking has to do with self.
  8. When we find out the things we really like, we are also more in touch with all that is.

… The main breakthrough in understanding will come when we are able to distinguish the everyday kind of liking (where we obviously do not agree about what we like) from the deeper kind of liking, where we agree, that forms the basis for good judgement …”

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

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Christopher Alexander – A Universal Personal

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The picture in this excerpt is one of mine.

“In our present world-view, the word ‘personal’ is often taken to mean ‘idiosyncratic.’ Something is personal if it reflects the peculiarities of a given individual …

To my mind, this is a very shallow interpretation of what ‘personal’ really means. A thing is truly personal when it touches us in our humanity.

… from the point of view of the world picture in this book, ‘personal’ is a profound objective quality which inheres in something, It is not idiosyncratic but universal. It refers to something true and fundamental in a thing itself.

… When we deal with the field of centers, we are dealing with a realm of personal feeling in which feeling is a fact – as much a fact as the radiation from the sun, or the swinging of a pendulum.

When the field of centers is authentic, it is always personal. It if appears to have the right structure but is not personal, it is empty structure, only masquerading as life – and, in every case lke this, it will turn out that we have misjudged it structurally.

… Few things in the world are quite as moving as a meadow full of wildflowers  … why? … A flower is one of the most perfect fields of centers that occur in nature. And flowers in groups create highly complex living fields of centers, perhaps among the most beautiful in nature …

… The field of centers exists in a thing to that degree to which the thing has personal feeling …

Perhaps we are beginning to see that life – because of its structure, the field of centers – is inextricably connected with human feeling … This deep feeling is indeed a mark of life in things ..

Although within the canon of normal contemporary science we cannot imagine a kind of objective truth which is also personal in nature, thsi combination if sone of the most extraordinary and important aspects of the new structure which I call the wholeness. As the centers deepen, the personal feeling of the structure increases. It its personal feeling does not increase, its structure is not really getting deeper.

… we become happy in the presence of deep wholeness …

This theme … can in no way be regarded as proven … I merely take a first few steps toward the possibility that it may be so, and that it may oen day be recognized …

I believe the personal feeling I have touched on in this cahpter, which si directly connected to order and life, is a mobilization in which my vulnerable inner self becomes connected to the world. In increases my feeling of connection and participation in all things. It is feeling, not emotion. It does not – directly – have to do with happiness, or sadness, or anger.

… The external phenomenon we call wholeness or life in the world and the internal experience of personal feeling and wholeness within ourselves are connected. They are, at some level, one and the same.

… The ultimate criterion for whether something works in nature, just as in buildings, therefore also depends on the extent to which it resmebles the healthy human self.

… Wholeness and feeling are two sides of a single reality. Within the modern era, we have become used to the idea that feeling is something we experience subjectively – while life, it it exists, is something that exists objectively out there in the world of mechanics. In such a mental framework, the idea that feeling and wholeness are two sides of a single thing can hardly even be understood.

But as we study the phenomenon of wholeness, as I am trying to do, it teaches us to change our understanding, and to reach a reorganization of our ideas about the world in which this equivalence of living structure and deep personal feeling is not only makes sense but is also the most fundamental fact of our experience. “

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

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Christopher Alexander – Value as a Matter of Fact

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“The concept of wholeness as structure depends on the idea that different centers have different degrees of life, and therefore the idea that the existence of these varying degrees of life throughout space is a fact about the world …

If we consider … the interplanetary space between Jupiter and Saturn … we cannot help being impressed by the relatively featureless character of this space … compared with the structure of a rock, or a birch tree, or a meadow. The articulation and complexity of the field of centers is less developed in the interplanetary space.

The traditional scientific view has been that, in spite of this obvious difference … as scientists we should be committed to a view where each of these structures are equal in value.

A world view based on the existence of wholeness comes out rather different … there is a crucial objective sense in which there is less value in the empty space, somewhat more value in the rock, and still more value in the birch tree.

In this objective sense, the relative degree of value, or relative degree of life, in different parts of matter, must then be a fundamental and objective feature of reality. Not all nature is equally beautiful. Not all of it equally deep in its wholeness …

… one of the most fundamental tenets of contemporary science – that value is not part of science and that all matter is, from a scientific point of view, equally value free – can no longer be sustained.

… In the new viewpoint, the harmony of nature is not something automatic, but something to be marvelled at – something to be treasured, sustained, harvested, cultivated, and sought actively …

Most human actions are governed by concepts and visions. These may be – but may easily not be – congruent with the wholeness which exists … Often our actions … are at odds with our own wholeness, and at odds with the wholeness of the world. The gradual emergence of value is then drastically threatened.

… The activity of building – what we call architecture, and with it also the disciplines we call planning, ecology, agriculture, forestry, road building, engineering – may reach deeper levels of value by increasing wholeness, or they may break down value by destroying wholeness … If what I have argued is true, this is a matter of fact …”

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

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Christopher Alexander – The Character of Living Structure

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” … the repeated appearance of the fifteen properties in natural systems is a profound result … it suggests a new view of all nature as living structure … In some sense the same morphological character occurs in mountains, rivers, ocean waves, blown sand, galaxies, thunderstorms, lightning …

… Within the terms of my definitions, then, nature as a whole – all of it – is made of living structure … all of it – inorganic as well as organic … the living character of these structures is different from the character of other conceivable structures that could arise, and it is this character which we may call the living character of nature.

… Among natural phenomena, the fifteen properties seem to appear, pervasively, in almost everything. Yet among human artifacts, the fifteen properties appear only in the good ones … What is it about nature that always makes its structures ‘good’?

… in nature all of the configurations that do occur belong to a relatively small subset of all the configuration that could possibly occur …

First, is the domain C … contains all the possible three dimensional arrangements that might exist. It is almost unimaginably large, but nevertheless (in principle) it is a finite set of possible configurations. Second is the domain L, of all configurations which have living structure as I have defined it. L, too, is very large, but smaller than C …

It may well be that all naturally occurring configurations lie in L while, on the other hand, not all man-made configurations lie in L.

For this to be true, we merely need to show that for some reason nature, when left to its own devices, generates configurations in L, but that human being are able, for some reason, to jump outside L, into the larger part of C. That is, human beings … are able to be un-natural.

In nature the principle of unfolding wholeness … creates living structure nearly all the time. Human designers, who are not constrained by this unfolding, can violate the wholeness if they wish to, and can therefore create non-living structure as often as they choose. “

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

 

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Christopher Alexander – The Fifteen Properties in Nature

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I chose to do a brief summary of this section, giving preference to the wholeness of the theme of the properties in nature (over giving more attention to each property). It was a journey, first reading through it, not knowing how/what to extract. By the time I read through, certain excerpts popped out of the latter properties and gave shape to this whole summary. All the images are inspired by the text though collected from the vastness of the internet (so inspired by and similar, but not the same as those in the book).

“If we are to use the theory of centers – and the concept of life – as the basis of all architecture, it would be reassuring to know that wholeness, together with the properties which bring centers to life, is a necessary feature of material reality, not merely a psychological aspect of things which arises during perception of works of art.

… According to a ‘cognitive’ interpretation, the centers could merely exist in the mind’s eye … and the fifteen properties … could also exist merely as artifacts of cognition …

… I shall argue that nature too is understandable in terms of wholeness … I shall try to show that the structure of centers I call wholeness goes deeper than mere cognition, is linked to the functional and practical behavior of the natural world … and is as much at the foundation of physics and biology as it is of architecture.

1: Levels of Scale

… in any system where there is good functional order it is necessary that there be functional coherence at different levels, hence necessary that there are recognizable hierarchies in the organization of these functional systems.

electrical discharge

 

mud cracks

2: Strong Centers

Many natural processes have centers of action. The action, or development, of force-field radiates outwards from some system of centers … In physics we hae the fact that electric, magnetic, gravitational, and nuclear forces are created by spatially symmetrical fields, thus often creating centrally and bilaterally symmetrical structures.

 

common spotted orchid

 

coral

3: Boundaries

In nature, we see many systems with powerful, thick boundaries. The thick boundaries evolve as a result of the need for functional separations and transitions between different systems. They occur essentially because wherever two very different phenomena interact, there is also a ‘zone of interaction’ which is a thin in itself, as important as the things which it separates.

the sun’s corona

 

Rio Negro joins the Amazon

4: Alternating Repetition

In nature most of the repetitions which occur are alternating … Repetition itself of course occurs simply because there are only a limited number of archetypal forms available, and the same ones repeat over and over again, whenever the same conditions occur … In most of these cases of natural repetition, the repeating units do alternate with a second structure, which also repeats … The defining feature for alternating repetition lies in the fact that the secondary centers are coherent in their own right, are not left over.

fern leaf

 

muscle fiber

5: Positive Space

In the majority of naturally developed wholes, the wholes and the spaces between wholes form an unbroken continuum. This arises because wholes from ‘from the inside’ according to their specific functional organization … the positiveness of the space – what we might also call the convexity and compactness of the centers which form – is the outward manifestation of internal coherence in the physical system.

crazing in porcelain glaze

 

soap bubbles

6: Good Shape

Good shape is a geometrical figure – often curved – which has in it some major center that is intensified by various minor centers.

Tulip leaf

 

Chladni figures

7: Local Symmetries

In general these symmetries occur in nature because there is no reason for asymmetry; an asymmetry only occurs when it is forced … In addition, the existence of local symmetries in nature corresponds to the existence of minimum energy and least-action principles. In the majority of these cases, it is also the presence of layer upon layer of subsymmetry at smaller scales which is important.

crystal growth

 

Dwarf Dogwood

8: Deep Interlock and Ambiguity

Deep interlock comes about in many natural systems because neighboring systems interact most easily along extended or enlarged surfaces, where the surface area is large compared with the volume … Ambiguity, a similar phenomenon, comes about when a subsystem belongs to two different overlapping larger systems. One of the most important and dramatic example … exists in the case of the molecule … the molecule is given its structure by the overlap of the electrons in the outer electron shells of the component atoms … the stability of the molecule … is determined by the depth of overlap or interpenetration of the electron shells.

cross section of a cerebellum

 

magnetic domain

 

a giraffe’s coat

9: Contrast

Many – perhaps all – natural systems obtain their organization and energy from the interaction of opposites … It would be extremely hard to show, from first principles, why contrast must arise, necessarily, as a property of any naturally occurring system, and one wonders whether the matter is not merely cognitive. We read contrast; our cognition depends on it; therefore we think its important. And yet, the fundamental contrast of dark and light, positive and negative, can hardly be an artifact of our cognition.

Purple Emperor butterfly

10: Gradients

… Any time that a quantity varies systematically, through space, a gradient is established … The idea of regular gradient-like variation is fundamental to the whole integral and differential calculus, and it is the fact that these mathematical tools are closely mirrored in many phenomena of nature that is essentially responsible to the success mathematical physics has had.

Spider Web

 

Nautilus Shell

11: Roughness

An irregular world struggling to be regular always achieves a certain level of regularity which is interrupted by unusual configurations created by the very forces that produce the regularity as they act against a framework of three-dimensional constraints inherent in space … Roughness, far from being caused by inaccuracy … occurs where there is a partial misfit between a very well defined order and the space or configuration where it occurs. This forces an apparent irregularity, not for its own sake but to create a greater regularity.

A raft of bubbles, representing crystal dislocations, shows that roughness is inevitable in crystal growth under natural conditions

 

zebra stripes

12: Echoes

In all natural systems, deep-lying fundamental processes ultimately give geometric forms to the static structure of the system. These processes repeat certain typical angles and proportions over and over again, and it is the statistical character of these angles and proportions which determines the morphological character of the system and its parts – even within parts which seem superficially different.

x-ray of a lily

 

Everest – North Ridge

13: The Void

The void corresponds to the fact that differentiation of minor systems almost always occur in relation to the ‘quiet’ of some larger and more stable system. Thus smaller structures tend to appear around the edge of larger and more homogeneous structures.

eye of storm

 

Void in river valley

14: Simplicity and Inner Calm

Simplicity and inner calm is the Occam’s razor of any natural system: each configuration occurring in nature is the simplest one consistent with its conditions.

ginko leaf x-ray

15: Not-Separateness

Not-separateness corresponds to the fact that there is no perfect isolation of any system , and that each part of every system is always part of the larger system in the world around it and is connected to them deeply in its behavior.

edge of a lake

Summary

From the examples in this chapter, we see that the fifteen properties appear again and again throughout nature. They occur and recur at every scale … Virtually always, the specific structure of centers in a given case can be explained as a result of forces and processes which are mechanical in the conventional sense … However, such mechanical explanations do not explain why the properties themselves keep showing up.

… The reason that a human blood cell has a thick boundary is that it ‘needs’ a processing zone, where inputs to the cell are filtered and distributed before reaching the nucleus … The reason that the Rio Tapajos has an immense boundary when it enters the water of the Amazon is that the silt deposits which come down the river are hurled out into the water of the larger river, creating a chain of islands along both sides of the stream, for nearly one hundred miles … the reason that the sun has a thick boundary – the corona … is a temperature gradient from the hot interior of the sun to the cold of outer space … It does not seem possible to dismiss the appearance of thick boundaries as meaningless or as a coincidence. One guesses that there must be some higher order explanation …

… One wonders, then, if there might be a more general language for talking about function than the one we are used to …”

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

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Christopher Alexander – The Family of Living Systems

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“Together, the fifteen properties identify the character of living systems…

The things and systems in the world which are most dead – the most image-laden buildings and artifacts, the most sterile housing projects, the most damaged ecological systems, the most poisoned streams – will have these properties to the least degree.

Thus, although these properties define a vast family of possible placed and objects amd systems, all the member of this family have life in some degree … the fifteen properties define the enormous family of systems, among all possible systems, which have life in them.

The fact that it is possible to characterize this family at all is surprising. The family which is so defined is very complex morphologically…

… It is not too much to say that any building which has life in it, must be a recognizable member of this family. Any doorknow whichhas life, any window, any garden path, which has life in it, must be a recognizable member of this family.”

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

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 15: Not-Separateness

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… this one touched me personally. As I collected  it I sensed a poignant self-critical voice rising up “this so describes, separate from the world” … but I didn’t like or resonate with the “egocentric” implication. As the initial impact passed, I came to realize that “no, this does not describe me” … that my feeling separate is not just about me but about the surroundings in which I reside. There are settings that make me feel separate, but there are settings that make me feel integrated. Granted, there seems to be in my life more of the former than the latter … but that very difference is a testament to non-separateness … there is no “me” without a context.

… I wonder how Christopher Alexander felt when he was trying to work true to his approach in a professional environment that resisted living structures … and what it was like for him to fight for the right to teach this to students … did he experience being separate in these hostile environments?

“… What not-separateness means, quite simply, is that we experience a living whole as being at one with the world, and not separate from it …

In a center which is deeply coherent there is a lack of separation … between that center and the other centers which surround it, so that the various centers melt into one another and become inseparable …

… when a thing lacks life, is not whole, we experience it as being separate from the world and from itself. It stands out … This house is utterly isolated. It is intended to stand out. And it does stand out as an awkward triumph of egocentricity. It fails, thoroughly, to be not-separate.

The “X” house, New York. Not-separateness entirely missing: separate and ego-filled

This is, finally, perhaps the most important property of all. In my experiments with shapes and buildings, I have discovered that the other fourteen ways in which centers come to life will make a center which is compact, beautiful, determined, subtle – but which, without this fifteenth property, can still often somehow be strangely separate, cut off from what lies around it, lonely, awkward in its loneliness, too brittle, too sharp, perhaps too well delineated – above all too egocentric, because it shouts ‘look at me, look at me, look at how beautiful I am.’

Those unusual things which have the power to heal, the depth and inner light of real wholeness, are never like this. They are never separate, always connected. With them, usually, you cannot really tell where one thins breaks off and the next begins, because the thing is smokily drawn into the world around it, and softly draws this world into itself. It connects. It asserts the continuity of space, the continuity of all of us …

Not-separateness in an ancient English wheat barn

… The correct connection to the world will only be made if you are conscious, willing, that the thing you make be indistinguishable from its surroundings, that, truly, you cannot tell where one ends and the next begins, and you do not even want to be able to do so.

The sophisticated version of this rule, which comes about when we apply the rule recursively to its own products … which ties the whole together inside itself, which never allows one part to be too proud, to stand out too sharp against the next, but assures that each part melts into its neighbors, just as the whole melts into its neighbors, too.

A path which is connected to the earth

… This quality, geometrically, depends especially on the state of the boundary. In things which have not-separateness, there is often a fragmented boundary, an incomplete edge, which destroys the hard line … Often, too, there is a gradient at the boundary, a soft edge caused by a gradient in which scale decreases … this is why things get smaller at the edge – it destroys the hard edge. Finally, the actual boundary is sometimes rather careless, deliberately placed to avoid any simple complete sharp cutting off of the thing from its surroundings … “

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

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Yoga Practice Reflection – Sping 2018

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It’s been a while since I’ve posted a practice review. I am not much inclined to doing so. I am in a period of relative silence, not inclined to talking too much (especially if not asked to). So this is mostly note-taking for myself.

This is what my current practice looks like this (this is a short-hand anotation that presumes familiarity with this style of practice):

It’s built around the same skeleten is has been for ~3 years. A couple of new ideas were introduced last year when I met with Paul face-to-face. It has been through continuous unfolding.

Last year was a hectic year and felt very disruptful to my practice: my trip to Hawaii, my yearly allergy, Iulia injuring herself, my attempt to be involved in Ceptr/Holochain … and other “life happenings”. Whenin fall, I felt settled into practice I felt like I had a long journey of recovery ahead of me. I chose to skip my yearly visit to Israel to meet my teachers, preferring to enter a prolonged period of undisturbed practice. Sometime in early January I felt that I “caught up with myself” – that I reconnected with an experience of stable containment and vitality.

Gradually I felt I was able to inhabit a full practice (as described above) and it too has been continuously unfolding. In the initial phase (first half of winter) I felt a return to presence-in-body. Then I felt a return to a beath-development cycle. When I felt vitality returning I re-introduced back-bends. I then gradually extended seated forward bends to include stays in maha-mudra (initially staying for 2 breaths, then 4) until maha-mudra became its own place.

The last piece added to the puzzle was the seated-twist. Though I already had a relationship with it last year, I felt that I did not have the vitality to hold it, that it drained me. When I finally felt welcome to bring it in, the meeting was soft and welcoming.

During this time I also did a 1-on-1 training with Paul around chanting. I’ve been familiar with chanting from my years of training with Paul, but I never studied it officially. Now I have, and I feel drawn in. I feel softness and spaciousness at the notion of softening my grip on my physical body and acquainting myself with my vibrational body. In chanting Paul has invited me to focus less on the meaning of the words and more on an experience of sustained vibration generated through subtle aspects of sounded-sanskrit.

The practice is now about two hours long. It occupies the first part of my day (unless life diverts my attention elsewhere).

Pranayama

When I met Paul 14 months ago I received 4 practice variations:

  1. 10.0.10.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    12.0.12.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    15.0.15.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    8.0.8.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    4.0.4.0 x4br ujjayi
  2. 10.0.10.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    12.0.12.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    12.4.12.4 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    8.0.8.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    4.0.4.0 x4br ujjayi
  3. 8.0.12.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    12.0.12.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    12.4.12.4 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    8.0.8.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    4.0.4.0 x4br ujjayi
  4. 12.0.12.0 x16br pratiloma ujjayi
    6.0.6.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    4.0.4.0 x4br ujjayi

I explored almost the entire set last winter/early spring. After settling back into practice I started over. I started with variant 3 and then moved to variant 2. By mid-January I felt that I was ready to move onto variant 1, but then experienced blockage coming and going mostly in my right nostril. I was able to hold variant 2, but not to move on. I feel I’ve learned something about my blocked nasal passages (its subtle and I may try to go into more detail in a separate post). I am now transitioning to variant 1. It is my default practice, though on days where I feel blocked, I may still revert to variant 2.

I feel that I have an increased breathing capacity (that I could softly transition also to variant 4), but that the nasal blockage is holding me back.

 

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 14: Simplicity and Inner Calm

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“Wholeness, life, has a way of being always simple …

It has to do with a certain slowness, majesty, quietness, which I think of as inner calm. It is present in this Shaker cabinet … but is almost totally missing from the peculir stylized Italian chairs from the 1920’s.

The quality comes about when everything unnecessary is removed. All centers that are not actively supporting other centers are stripped out, cut out, excised. What is left, when boiled away, is the structuer in a state of inner calm. It is essential that the great beauty and intricacy of ornament go only just far enough to bring this calm into being, and not so far that it destroys it …

Simplicity and inner calm is not only to be produced by simplicity … the wild Norwegian dragon … has inner calm even though it is so complex … So it is not true that outward simplicity creates inner calm; it is only inner simplicity, true simplicity of heart, which creates it.”

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

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 13: The Void

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The rug pictured below is “similar” (not identical) to the one shown in the book … I chose it for its void quality over some of the other finer qualities in the sample shown in the book.

“In the most profound centers which have perfect wholeness, there is at the heart a void which is like water, infinite in depth, surrounded by and contrasted with the clutter of the stuff and fabric all around it …

In the Ghiordes prayer rug … this takes the form of the deep blue emptiness at the center. It connects with the infinite void, and also the the center of oneself.

… the altar in a church … it is the silence, at the heart

To understand the quality of the void clearly, a contrast between two examples is helpful once again: the plan of the mosque of Baybard in Cairo, contrasted with the plan of a typical American office building  of the 1970s. In the center of the mosque we experience the void. In the office building, there is merely an endless clutter and buzz. Nothing is still …

the Cairo Mosque of Baybars

 

Typical office building

This emptiness is needed, in some form, by every center … It is the quiet that draws the center’s energy of itself, gives it the basis of its strength …

A living structure can’t be all detail. The buzz finally diffuses itself, and destroys its own structure.”

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

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Living in Darkness

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A … I don’t quite know how to describe it … softly meandering … through … it all???? … tale of circles, light, dark, change, war, peace, love, pain, death … and deep surrender … and Jennifer.

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 12: Echoes

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” … there is a deep underlying similarity – a family resemblance – among the elements, so deep that everything seems to be related, and yet one doesn’t quite know why, or what causes it. That is what I mean by ‘echoes.’ Echoes, as far as I can tell, depend o the angles, and families of angles, which are prevalent in the design.

… This family resemblance can be illustrated most easily by a negative example: the building by Michelangelo … is, of all the building I know, the most hopeless hodgepodge. It is a salad of motifs and elements. Squares, circles, broken circles, triangles, are pasted together in a riot of disharmony …

… in the Himalayan monastery all the parts – stones, caps, doors, and steps – are heavily square with a line and a shallow angle … In Thyangboche, the monastery in the foothills of Everest, we feel in some profound and subtle way that this building is part of the mountains: part of the Himalayas themselves. The angles of the roofs, the way the small roof sits on the larger roof, the ‘peak’ on the largest roof, the band below the roof edge – all reflect or echo one another, and echo the structural feeling of the mountains themselves.

… in the houses from Alberabello all the motifs are cone-like …

… If something has been made without some echoes of this type, the chances are that ertain deep requirements have been ignored, and the variety of non-echoing forms will cause various functional failures …”

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

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 11: Roughness

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This is one of the patterns that resonate deeply with me. It makes me feel at ease, relaxed, it gives me permission to do what I feel needs to be done without having to know in advance how everything will come together. It invites me to trust my choices and to trust that tending to well to what is before me now is the best thing I can do “in the grand scheme of things.”

“Things which have real life always have a certain ease, a morphological roughness. This is not an accidental property. It is not a residue of technically inferior culture, or the result of hand-craft or inaccuracy. It is an essential structural feature without which a thing cannot be whole.

The Persian bowl … is covered by mall designs (sinekli) made of two blows and two strokes … They are rough, in the sense that the size of the individual brush strokes, their exact spacing, and the exact shape and length of stroke all vary from one to the next …

It is intuitively clear that this subtle variation is partly responsible for the charm and harmony of this bowl … we probably attribute this charm to the fact that the bowl is handmade … trace of human hand … we know therefore that it is personal, full of human error.

This interpretation is fallacious., and has entirely the wrong emphasis. The reason that this roughness in the design contributes so greatly to the wholeness of the bowl is that a perfect triangular grid of the kind used here, cannot be made to fill a spherical surface properly …

Indeed, throughout the design the subtle variation of the brush strokes and their spacing, are done in such a way … each one is placed, by eye, just exactly where it needs to be … When the painter painted the strokes, he could do this almost without thinking … it is this which makes the bowl so perfect …

Often the border of ancient carpet is ‘irregular’ where it goes round the corner, that is the design breaks, and the corner seems ‘patched together.’ This does not happen through carelessness or inaccuracy. On the contrary, it happens because the weaver is paying close attention to the the positive and negative, to the alternating repetition of the border, to the good shape of each compartment …  To keep all of them just right along the length of the border, some loose and makeshift composition must be done at the corner.

If the weaver wanted to calculate or plot our a so called ‘perfect’ solution to the corner … these would all be determined mechanistically by outside considerations, i.e., by the grid of the border … The corner design would then dominate the design in a way which would destroy the weaver’s ability to do what is just right at each point. The life of the design would be destroyed.

… The seemingly rough arrangement is more precise because it comes from a much more careful guarding of the essential centers in the design.

… Roughness can never be consciously or deliberately created. Then it is merely contrived. To make a thing live, its roughness must be the product of endlessness, the product of no will … Roughness is always the product of abandon – it is created whenever a person is truly free, and doing only what is essential

… Roughness does not seek to superimpose an arbitrary order over a design, but instead lets the larger order be relaxed, modified according to the demands and constraints which happen locally in different parts of the design.”

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

 

 

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Some good clay advice: stop for just a moment

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Beautiful work and heart. Hearing about narratives in his works made me look inside and wonder what would my narratives be? I (still) cannot see them … I felt naked.

via Iulia 🙂

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 10: Gradients

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“… Gradients must arise in the world when the world is in harmony with itself simply because conditions vary. Qualities vary, so centers which are adapted to them respond by varying in size, spacing, intensity and character. Daylight varies from the top floor of an urban building to the bottom floor: both windows and ceiling heights will probably have to vary to adapt to these conditions …

… These gradients will also form centers because the field-like character which is needed to make every strong center is precisely that oriented, changing conditions which ‘points’ towards the center of the center …

Buildings and artifacts without gradients are more mechanical. They have less life to them, because there is no slow variation which reveals the inner wholeness …

… although gradients are commonplace in nature … and in much traditional folk art, they are nearly non-existent in much of the modern environment. That is, I think, because the naive forms of standardization, mass production … and regulation of sizes … all work against the formation of gradients, and almost do not allow them to occur.

… In the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge there is a fine gradation of cell size, member size, ad plate thickness, from the top of the tower, to the bottom, to economize on steel, and place the most material where it is needed most by stresses.”

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

see also: Paul Krafel: Gradients and Edges

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 9: Contrast

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“… Life cannot occur without differentiation. Unity can only be created from distinctness. This means that every center is made from discernible opposites, and intensified when the not-center, against which it is opposed, is clarified, and itself becomes a center … in order for the thing to be truly whole, the contrast has to be pronounced … the most important contrasts do not merely show variety of form … but represent true opposites, which essentially annihilate each other when they are superimposed … awareness of silence created by a hand-clap …

In the case of the Shaker classroom … the two bands of wood above shoulder level, because of contrast, form a definite center which would not be there or felt strongly – if the wood were pale … The center which is so formed helps the room to become one, unified …

In the glaring lobby staircase … the contrast – between dark stair and bright window – does not unify … It is not contrast created in order to help centers become alive. IT is either a mistake, or an eye-catching device.

I use this rule to help people understand the fifteen properties: ‘Draw diagrams … sketch something, which has the property in it. But it is not enough to catch the property as you believe it is defined. To succeed, you must make a thing which has the property, and which gains deeper feeling because of the presence of the property. Only when you have managed that, can you be sure that the meaning of the property has not eluded you.’ … only when you … make the thing have deeper feeling, can you say you have grasped the property.

… contrast is also practically necessary: the shop in the neighborhood is different from the houses next to it. The front door is different from the back door … The light i the bedroom is different from the light in the passage. In case after case evidence suggests that the sharp extended and visible differences between things which are different allows each center to make its proper nature. It permits more intensive attention to individual functions. And it creates a feeling of distinction which relaxes people, because it acknowledges and permits different dimensions of experience.”

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

I’ve done a bit of editing to demonstrate the simulation for the Shaker Schoolroom:

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 8: Deep Interlock and Ambiguity

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Images selected by me inspired by the ones shown in the book.

“In a surprisingly large number of cases, living structures contain some form of interlock: situations where centers are ‘hooked’ into their surroundings. This has the effect of making it difficult to disentangle the center from its surroundings.

… a similar unification is accomplished through the creation of spatial ambiguity … a common example … is the house with a gallery or arcade round it … the space in the gallery belongs to the outside world and yet simultaneously belongs to the building.”

Profound interlock in Inca stonework

Dovetail as an example of deep interlock

Tile-work and brick in the 16th centur Tabriz Mosque

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

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 7: Local Symmetries

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“… Where a living center forms, it is often necessary to have some local symmetry.

… Living things, though often symmetrical, rarely have perfect symmetry. Indeed, perfect symmetry is often a mark of death in things, rather than life. I believe the lack of clarity on the subject has arisen because of a failure to distinguish overall symmetry from local symmetries.

… The Rorschach ink-blot, for instance, is a rather weak whole; it has relatively little life as a structure; its centers are poorly developed. The one large symmetry it has, by itself, gets you very little.

… over simplified symmetry in a building is mot often naive and even brutal … Albert Speer’s design for Zeppelinfeld … is [an] example …

In general, a large symmetry of the simplified neoclassicist type rarely contributes to the life of a thing, because in any complex whole in the world, there are nearly always complex, asymmetrical forces at work – matter of location, and context, and function – which require that symmetry be broken.

We see this clearly in the Alhambra … a marvel of living wholeness. It has no overall symmetry at all, but an amazing number of minor symmetries, which hold within limited pieces of the design, leaving the whole to be organic, flexible, adapted to the site.

… the real binding force which symmetry contributes to the formation of life is … in the binding together and local symmetry of smaller centers within the whole.

… an experiment I did … at Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies … I compared a number of black and white paper strips, and measured their coherence as felt, experienced, perceived, remembered, by different subjects.

… The experiments were performed with 35 black-and-white strips seen on a neutral gray background. Each strip was 7 squares long, and was composed of 3 black squares and 4 white squares, arranged in different arrangements …

First, we established that the relative coherence of the different patterns … is not an idiosyncratic subjective feature of the patterns seen differently by different people. It is an objective measure of cognitive processing, roughly the same for everyone.

Second, we were then able to identify the structural feature of these patterns which caused this perceived ‘coherence.’ It turned out that [it] … depends on the number of local symmetries present in the pattern. However since most of the symmetries are hidden, this feature is far from obvious …

… For three of four years after completing the experiment, I worked almost continuously to find some structural feature of the 35 black and white patterns which would explain the rank order of coherence of the different patterns …

… it was quite unclear how to unite the idea of symmetry with the idea of large lumps. It was this that finally gave me the key, when I realized that both overall symmetries and large lumps actually contain more local symmetries inside them.

.. the strips which are most coherent experimentally also have the highest number of subsymmetries to within a high degree of correlation … The number of local symmetries the pattern contains essentially predicts how ‘good’ it is.

… It is as if the symmetrical segments act as a kind of glue … which holds the space together. The more glue there is, the more the space is one, solid, unified, coherent. And … for the glue to be effective, it seems that many of the symmetrical segments must overlap.

… the local symmetries … though hidden from view … essentially control the way the pattern is seen and the way it works.”

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

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 6: Good Shape

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Reading this section while thinking about creating the excerpt made me tense. I feel this property is tricky because it is so obvious and yet also so subtle and hard to pin down. When I create these excerpts I choose to share parts which feel clear and resonate for me (in the hope that my sense of clarity adds something to the being-ness of excerpt). This one was sticky. It was challenging for me (the first time around, the second time easier) and I expect it may be challenging for you. It demands that we look examine our likes (and dislikes). It is confrontational in that it dares to suggest that we’ve learned to like futuristic chairs; that they are empirically bad; and that if we want to learn to make living structures we are going to have to acknowledge this, reflect on these likes and we are going to have to unlearn them, to see past them, to restore a deeper, more subtle form of seeing. It is a tough ask.

The Copenhagen Police Headquarters was the only image specific enough to seek out and find on my own, the others felt too subtle and I could not find substitutes that felt good enough for me, so I scanned them from the book.

“When I began looking for living structures … I became aware of a special quality that I began to think of as good shape, but could not very easily explain it, or define it …

It took me a long time to see that good shape itself is also related to the centers … a shape we see as good it a shape which it itself, as a shape, made up from multiple coherent centers …

It it easiest to understand good shape as a recursive rule … the elements of any good shape are always good shapes themselves …

… the simplest and most elementary good shapes are from elementary figures … the good shape, no matter how complex, is built up from the simplest elementary figures. The teapot stand can be seen to be built up from the illustrated simple shapes, each of which has good shape …

On the other hand, the amorphous mass of the futuristic chair cannot be understood as being composed of elementary shapes at all.

… what seems like complex centers are made of simple centers which are also alive – and it is these centers above all which give the complex ones their life …

… The good shape is an attribute of the whole configuration, not of the parts; but it comes about when the whole is made of parts that are themselves whole in this rather simple geometric sense …

All in all, in my experience, in the build-up of a good shape the following elements are the most common: square, line, segment, arrowhead hook, triangle, row of dots, circle, rosette, diamond, S-shape, half-circle, star, steps, cross, waves, spiral …

All of this is subtle when we try to apply it. Take the circle, for instance … [it] has great problems. The space next to it is not easily made positive, not easily made into centers – and the circle, when used in a design can easily then not be good shape at all. We see such an example in the courtyard of the Copenhagen Police Headquarters: a ridiculous plan, which is trivial because the space next to the circle is formless, and therefore meaningless.

The high degree of sophistication needed to make a circle have good shape is seen in the fabulous Ottoman velvet … where the two systems of circles are drawn slightly distorted so that the moon shapes, the space between the circles, and the small circles and large circles all work as centers.

Although it may seem surprising to someone raised in the mechanist-functionalist tradition, good shape … is not only making things more beautiful; it also makes them work more profoundly, more effectively.

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

 

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