“Ordinarily, if an average man comes face to face with the nagual the shock would be so great that he would die. The goal of a warrior’s training is not to teach him to hex or to charm, but to prepare his tonal not to crap out ... You call it explaining. I call it a sterile and boring insistence of the tonal to have everything under it’s control. Whenever it doesn’t succeed, there is a moment of bafflement and then the tonal opens itself to death. What a prick! It would rather kill itself than relinquish control. And yet there is very little we can do to change that condition.”
Carlos Castaneda

Tales of Power

Harmony in Architecture


As part of my followup inquiry into Alexander’s work (after completing a reading of his work The Nature of Order) I came across this transcript of a debate between him and a supposedly (now) famous architect Peter Eisenman. I was looking forward to reading but was quickly disappointed because I could hardly follow Eisenman’s words – he felt theoretical, abstract, alienating and trapped in a quasi-intellectual world of his own. I did very much enjoy Alexander’s responses which basically called him out for using a lot words to say very little.

For me the essence of this debate is summed up in these (selected and highlighted by me) words:

ALEXANDER: Of course, harmony is a product not only of yourself, but of the surroundings. In other words, what is harmonious in one place will not be in another. So, it is very, very much a question of what application creates harmony in that place. It is a simple objective matter. At least my experience tells me, that when a group of different people set out to try and find out what is harmonious, what feels most comfortable in such and such a situation, their opinions about it will tend to converge, if they are mocking up full-scale, real stuff. Of course, if they’re making sketches or throwing out ideas, they won’t agree. But if you start making the real thing, one tends to reach agreement. My only concern is to produce that kind of harmony. The things that I was talking about last night — I was doing empirical observation about — as a matter of fact, it turns out that these certain structures need to be in there to produce that harmony.

The thing that strikes me about your friend’s building — if I understood you correctly — is that somehow in some intentional way it is not harmonious. That is, Moneo intentionally wants to produce an effect of disharmony. Maybe even of incongruity.

EISENMAN: That is correct.

ALEXANDER: I find that incomprehensible. I find it very irresponsible. I find it nutty. I feel sorry for the man. I also feel incredibly angry because he is fucking up the world.

EISENMAN: I would like to suggest that if I were not here agitating nobody would know what Chris’s idea of harmony is, and you all would not realize how much you agree with him … Walter Benjamin talks about “the destructive character”, which, he says, is reliability itself, because it is always constant. If you repress the destructive nature, it is going to come out in some way. If you are only searching for harmony, the disharmonies and incongruencies which define harmony and make it understandable will never be seen. A world of total harmony is no harmony at all. Because I exist, you can go along and understand your need for harmony, but do not say that I am being irresponsible or make a moral judgement that I am screwing up the world, because I would not want to have to defend myself as a moral imperative for you.


EISENMAN: I think you should just feel this harmony is something that the majority of the people need and want. But equally there must be people out there like myself who feel the need for incongruity, disharmony, etc.

ALEXANDER: If you were an unimportant person, I would feel quite comfortable letting you go your own way. But the fact is that people who believe as you do are really fucking up the whole profession of architecture right now by propagating these beliefs. Excuse me, I’m sorry, but I feel very, very strongly about this. It’s all very well to say: “Look, harmony here, disharmony there, harmony here — it’s all fine”. But the fact is that we as architects are entrusted with the creation of that harmony in the world. And if a group of very powerful people, yourself and others …

… then I inquired some more into Peter Eisenman and his work and on his Wikipedia page found this:

His focus on “liberating” architectural form was notable from an academic and theoretical standpoint but resulted in structures that were both badly built and hostile to users. The Wexner Center, hotly anticipated as the first major public deconstructivist building, has required extensive and expensive retrofitting because of elementary design flaws (such as incompetent material specifications, and fine art exhibition space exposed to direct sunlight). It was frequently repeated that the Wexner’s colliding planes tended to make its users disoriented to the point of physical nausea; in 1997 researcher Michael Pollan tracked the source of this rumor back to Eisenman himself. In the words of Andrew Ballantyne, “By some scale of values he was actually enhancing the reputation of his building by letting it be known that it was hostile to humanity.”

As I write these words Eisenman seems to be an architecture celebrity while the work of Alexander seems to have been marginalized. The part of me that still resonates with celebrity rebels at this, but the more substantial part of me that recognizes that substantial change in society comes from its marginal proponents is comforted.


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Ryan Singer on Christopher Alexander Applied in Software User Experience Design


I have been thinking a lot about software as I’ve been reading Alexander’s work for the last year and I don’t know if the future will hold an opportunity for me to apply any of these ideas. So … it was sweet to discover that Ryan Singer made a connection between Alexander’s work and user experience design. His talk  frames software design as a reactive process to external forces (which represent activities of the world which software is supposed to support).

I feel it is a subtle and yet substantial reframing of the typical “requirements” modality which was dominant in software when I was involved in it. However I feel that Alexander’s process thinking has much more potential to affect how software is created … and that is not a part of this talk. Still, a good presentation and a pleasant presenter:


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Christopher Alexander – OOPSLA Keynote 1996


Chritsopher Alexander talking to software people on the potential of software. I especially enjoyed the last part of the talk where he highlights the immense potential of software in reshaping our world AND his warning about how that potential may be compromised when software engineers become hired mercenaries and in doing placing their personal potential in the hands of others.

Transcript of this talk

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Bush / Blair / Iraq / Chilcot


The Bush/Blair mindset that left them so confident about their right to rearrange other people’s political furniture in a country far removed from their own is a mindset that has not gone away: and it needs to. We would all be horrified if some outside power turned up in either Washington or London, set on using military force to change the entire political order. Indeed, the British celebrate their resistance to Hitler in 1940 on precisely those grounds, as do the Americans do in relation to the British themselves, on every 4th of July. It is surely time, therefore, for all of us to break decisively with the double standards that sit at the center of the imperial mindset that produced the invasion of Iraq, and seek instead a world order built on the principle of doing unto others only what you would have them do unto you.”

source via Dan Carlin

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“I feel surrounded and blessed by love – not only do I bask in my husband’s but in Emma’s too. Our baby son and dog also adore her.

The sad fact is, however, that I feel I can never tell you – my family and friends – about her. About how happy she makes me and the rest of my family, how she’s strengthened the bond between my husband and me and given me a new zest for life and love.

Would there be fewer affairs, divorce and broken families if it were deemed acceptable to live in happy tribes of multiple partners?


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Robert Pirsig on Writing


The basic unit of that particular process is a comparison. You take two slips and you say: “Which one comes first?”. And I don’t know of any rational way in which you can pass a rule as to which one comes first but it seems like you always know. And now you get two slips and that’s the beginning of your story. Next, you take your next slip and you compare it with the first one. And you say: “Which one comes first?”. And you get an answer and if it’s behind the first one you compare it with the second one. And pretty soon you have a three-slip story. And this was the basic process.

… I learned that the most important process is: never try to sort your slips out at the same time you’re collecting them. That’s very interesting, that as soon as you try to organise your thoughts the creative process dies…

The ideas seem to come in flights. All of a sudden there’s a pile of them coming you can hardly write them down fast enough … Other times you just get complete emptiness, this void. And then I say, this is a time I better start organising. And sometimes in the process of organising all of a sudden that flight will start up again of new slips because something in the problem of organisation will get these new slips going.

You can only do one thing at a time and whatever is the top slip is the thing to do. And then having this box and having these slips I was able, at that time, to use the same structure to construct the book ZMM. It started with slips.

First there was an essay. And then I said, “Boy, I’m never going to get this in an essay, maybe I ought to write a story.” So I wrote a long story and I said: “This story is too dull, it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s just a lot of philosophy that nobody is going to read.” So I had just taken a trip with my son to California and I said: “Why don’t I put this essay inside this trip I took with my son to California?” And I did that. And then I looked at it and said “There are too many ‘I’s in this book. It’s all about me. What I need is a character called ‘he’.” So this character called Phædrus came in and he kind of got up and ran away with the book, you see? But if I’d started out with that book saying what I was going to have in the beginning it never would have occurred. It never would have occurred. It was a process of living myself, of having a static structure in the box of slips and in the outlines I kept reformulating, but ultimately say: “If I see something better, I’ll do it”.

Robert Pirsig – Source

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“The Zen master, he doesn’t have any particular teaching. He just sets you a good example. He just lives his own life as best he can. The most Dynamic, the most good high quality way he can and it kind of radiates out.”

Robert Pirsig – Source

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Everyone’s just about out of gumption


“My personal feeling is that this is how any further improvement of the world will be done: by individuals making Quality decisions and that’s all. God I don’t want to have any more enthusiasm for big programs full of social planning for big masses of people that leave individual Quality out. These can be left alone for a while. There’s place for them but they’ve got to be built on a foundation of Quality withn the individual involved. We’ve had that individual Quality in the past, exploited it as a natural resource without knowing it, and now it’s just about depleted. Everyone’s just about out of gumption. And I think it’s about time to return to the rebuilding pof this … resource … individual worth.”

Robert Pirsig – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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David Graeber on Creating Each Other


imagining economies in which we primarily create each other … and along the way some “things”:

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Vortex – Bladeless Wind Turbines


I remember seeing this a while back … nice to them making concrete progress and speaking of commercial version:


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Poor Decisions


Scarcity impinges on your mind. People behave differently when they perceive a thing to be scarce.

… Scarcity narrows your focus to your immediate lack, to the meeting that’s starting in five minutes or the bills that need to be paid tomorrow. The long-term perspective goes out the window.

… Compare it to a new computer that’s running ten heavy programs at once. It gets slower and slower, making errors, and eventually it freezes — not because it’s a bad computer, but because it has to do too much at once. Poor people have an analogous problem. They’re not making dumb decisions because they are dumb, but because they’re living in a context in which anyone would make dumb decisions.

… There’s a key distinction though between people with busy lives and those living in poverty: You can’t take a break from poverty.

… It all started a few years ago with a series of experiments conducted at a typical American mall. Shoppers were stopped to ask what they would do if they had to pay to get their car fixed. Some were presented with a $150 repair job, others with one costing $1,500. Would they pay it all in one go, get a loan, work overtime, or put off the repairs? While the mall-goers were mulling it over, they were subjected to a series of cognitive tests. In the case of the less expensive repairs, people with a low income scored about the same as those with a high income. But faced with a $1,500 repair job, poor people scored considerably lower. The mere thought of a major financial setback impaired their cognitive ability.

… in addition to measuring our gross domestic product, maybe it’s time we also started considering our gross domestic mental bandwidth.

poverty is not a lack of character. It’s a lack of cash.

source via James Wallbank

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Artificial Intelligence: Game Kills Players


A bug in Elite Dangerous caused the game’s AI to create super weapons and start to hunt down the game’s players. Developer Frontier has had to strip out the feature at the heart of the problem, engineers’ weaponry, until the issue is fixed.

… The AI was crafting super weapons that the designers had never intended.

Players would be pulled into fights against ships armed with ridiculous weapons that would cut them to pieces.

… weapons have been removed from the game, giving the dev team time to investigate what’s been causing the bug.


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Christopher Alexander on Despair


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Christopher Alexander on Essential Awe


“… In this conception, value is not something merely grafted onto space, as a passenger might be who carries no weight and does no work. It is part of the same nearly mechanical picture of space that we have come to believe in, and respect and trust. Yet, at the same time, in a most subtle way, it is also not mechanical. After all, what we observe is life emerging from space …

It is a structure, we can (tentatively) calculate with it, and it fits our structural understanding of space and matter. Yet it carries a bridge to life, feeling, and to our own experience of what it is to be a person: the self, which all of us contain, and are connected to …

I believe that one day it will be possible to demonstrate an experimental connection, where it will be shown exactly how the field of centers does open a door between space and self, and how, ultimately then, self and matter are permanently intertwined through the construction of this mechanism.

… Even today, we continue underestimating the degree to which we are prisoners of the present mechanistic cosmology; we have a strong tendency to underestimate the effect that this interior mechanistic view can have on us.

Consider, for example, three elementary facts: (1) in our immediate world, at normal temperature and pressure, nearly everything is made of atoms; (2) atoms are little whirling mechanisms which are spinning constantly; (3) people are largely made of atoms too.

Nearly every schoolchild learns these facts in school. We all learnt them. They are, by now, virtually a part of us … As a result, in the western world at least, there are few people alive who do not believe (‘know’) that they are mechanisms made up of millions of tiny whirling mechanisms.

… But if you believe … [this] mechanized reduction is accurate, how can you take seriously the kinds of ideas which I have described about the life of buildings, and walls, and rooms, and streets? The answer is you cannot. You cannot, because if you believe the three elementary-school facts, then mentally, you are still living in a universe in which nothing matters, and in which you do not matter. And then the life of the environment is not real either.

Ideas about the personal or spiritual nature of reality, no matter how desirable they seem, cannot affect you deeply, even if you think they do, until they can be embodied in some new picture which leaves the facts of physics intact, and also paves the way to a more spiritual understanding of the world

The whole point of the concept which I have described – of wholeness seen as a calculable, recursive, bootstrap field of centers with the consequences that follow from this view – is that within the framework this concept creates, things really are different, and the differences are visible as new aspects of the structure of space and matter. This newly seen structure not only says that things are different. It shows, through the properties of the structure, exactly how things are different.

… we can reconcile the face of being a mechanism of whirling mechanisms, because we know that each atom it itself a field of centers, and that in the emergence of these fields, the self comes into view. We … you … I … are this instances of the field of centers

Armed with this view, we can unite our personal intuition of religious awe with our sensible scientific understanding of the world … And in this view, the work of building takes on entirely new meaning … we … realize … [that] When we make something, its selfness, its possible soul, is part and parcel of our own self.

There is, then, something very like a religious obligation to allow this self to reveal itself … It arises as a supreme spiritual obligation, which is our obligation to the matter/spirit we ourselves are made of …  it arises now, not as a religious or superstitious belief, but as a result of a new understanding of the structure of the universe.

A few years ago I went to mass in Salzburg’s great cathedral. It was at that time, one of the only places left where Mozart and Haydn’s masses were still sung every sunday. There was a Haydn mass. The church was filled with people thronging, crowding, pushing, to be there while the great mass was sung.

The high point of this mass was the sanctus. Full choir, slowly increasing rhythm, deep sound of the organ and the basses … the air became tense with the presence of this mass … At the most awe-inspiring moment, a young man pushed forward to a telephone mounted on one of the columns of the nave. He picked it up and listened. The telephone was tied to a tape-recording, giving interesting dates and facts for tourists. He listened to the tape-recording of dates and facts, while the Sanctus blazed around him.

This man became a symbol for me of the loss of awe and of our loss of sense. Unable to immerse himself … unaware of the size and importance of the sounds that he was hearing … For a while, during the 20th century, this had become our world: a place where the difference between awe and casual interest had been sanded down to nothing.

… All the efforts I have made have, at their heart, just this one intention: to bring back our awe … and to allow us to being to make things in the world which can intensify this awe.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 4: The Luminous Ground

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Summer 2016 Allergy continued: disturbanced, sleep, tick


After the first few days there was a drop in my sense of well-being. An initial blow came when I allowed a disturbance to take places – a visit to the city. I came back feeling tired, with a slight head-ache and agitation. The next day I was somewhat contained, I was able to get on the mat, but my breathing compromised. I adjusted my practice to accommodate this state of being.

Shortly after that came another disturbance – a first jam making of the season. The preparations (cleaning and cutting strawberries) were made during an evening and the next morning (usually my time of being and practicing) we got on with preparation. I thought to practice later in the day but that did not work out. The cooking, though spacious, was agitating, lighting and keeping the rockets going for a few hours added some smoke … practice did not find me after that. However I was able to settle … and the next day I was able to engage my practice fully and pleasantly.

Shortly after that (a day or two later) there was a sudden change in my sleep. I woke up around 2:30am and had to leave bed to keep my breathing from deteriorating. That effort required (as it has in the past) two main ingredients: warm tea and alertness / attention (being awake). After that nights continued to be disrupted. It seemed that as long as I was awake I could somehow keep my breathing together (sometimes with relative ease, sometimes with difficulty) … but lying down and fading to sleep seemed to lead to deterioration. 2:30 soon felt like a regular thing. I was able to find some rest in the night, but almost no sleep.

For a couple of days, despite the sleeplessness, I was, to my surprise, still able to be with my practice with quality. I was surprised at being able to engage the new pranayama ratios (and I was very grateful that the technique was anuloma ujjayi instead of pratiloma). It took quite some hours until I could approach practice (usually not before 1pm). My appetite was also affected by all this, I wasn’t eating much before practice and I was (still am) drinking a lot of tea and that too reduces my appetite for food.

At some point (fortunately early in the unfolding) I recognized that tea may also be effecting my sleep. Iulia made for a me a mix with about 10 supportive plants … however some of them, I believe, were detrimental to my sleep … so while I still drink it, I drink less of it and only in the first half of the day.

Then a few days ago a last disturbance kicked in. During the night I felt a nausea coming on … the next morning my bowels emptied completely … and for the next 36 hours I ate almost nothing … only teas. I had no appetite for food at all. This completely drained me. A couple of days later I found a tick attached to me (not sure how long it was there)! I don’t know if the nausea is related to the tick (it may be) … but when I think of the tick … the most prominent feeling I have is that its presence is of a healing intention! Strange, I know!

Anyways the nausea knocked me completely off the mat. Only today (its been 4 or 5 days), after a gradual return of my appetite and some sense of physical strength (at the peak of this cleansing walking was a challenge) and a couple of night with some sleep I am curious about re-engaging the mat.

This year, it has been a strange meeting with allergy. Overall, I feel that my allergy symptoms are lesser. But still I feel like I’ve been through a storm … and I don’t feel it is over. A qualitative change which has not yet revealed its narrative to me.

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Christopher Alexander on an Extended Physics


“… In physics, the effort has always been to take the geometry of a material system and to derive from it, predictions about the dynamic behavior, forces, and causal interactions … which follow from a particular configuration.

In art and building … Again we have geometry, but here we seek especially to derive from it, or predict from it, the harmony, gracefulness, and quality of life, which different geometries may have.

Further, still, in the study of living systems – ecosystems and organisms – we have yet a third problem. Here we have geometric structures, and we seek to derive from their geometry both the behavior of the systems (in that regards it is like physics) and the health or degree of life and coherence of the systems (in that regard it is like art and architecture).

In what follows now, I am taking the view that all three cases are to be included in a single view of matter … our picture of the matter-space of the universe must be modified in a way that is consistent with the insights of 20th-century physics … matter-space must have certain additional features, not provided for by contemporary physics, which allow us to see the wholeness as it occurs in space, thus forming an extension of the present picture.

The existence of centers and wholeness

… wholeness – a pervasive multi-level structure created by centers throughout space, together with the idea that different centers have different degrees of life and centeredness…

Value and life as part of space itself

… each spatial region, at every scale, has a relative value, and a relative degree of life.

Time asymmetry: Structure preserving transformations as the origin of the laws of physics and biology

One of the most unsatisfactory aspects of Cartesian physics has been the so-called symmetry of time: the fact that classical equations do not, for the most part, distinguish between forward and backwards. Like a clock mechanism, the mechanistic universe can run backwards and forwards equally well … However, our world picture would be far more satisfactory if there is an overall and natural sense in which ‘forwards’ and ‘backwards’ are essentially different.

The world picture which I have been describing provides such an asymmetry in a natural way. In the physics contemplated for a world picture based on wholeness and its transformations, all laws will (I believe) fall out as natural consequences of the principle of unfolding wholeness … That principle will say, only, that the next step after a given configuration will be the one which does most to preserve and extend the structure … for the first time the possibility occurs of a natural way for understanding time-asymmetric laws as the foundation of all physical processes.

The personal quality of space

… a personal link with our own self is connected to each region of space, in that degree to which that region of the space has life or is centered … feeling – also appears in space.

The Ultimate I

To reconcile the vision of matter with the experience of personal relatedness we feel when in touch with living structure, I have, in addition, introduced the conception that living centers open some kind of window or tunnel to a ground and to an ultimate I which constitutes this ground … as the matter-space becomes organized it becomes more and more strongly linked to this ultimate ground which lies beneath it, or inside it, or throughout it.

… this … would incorporate most present-day physics as it is. However, it would add essential new features making it capable of allowing our world-picture to include both contemporary physics and crucial issues of value, feeling, and mystical experience … [it] might have the capacity to contribute substantial insights to the biologists’ long standing search to find a coherent and deep of what life really is when it arises in organic nature. It would, furthermore, provide a new basis for discussion of the profound question: Why does consciousness occur in some living systems?

In order to move our discussion away from abstract speculation, and towards experience, I would like the read to consider an experiment. Dwell briefly – and for the sake of experiment only – on the possibly that you are indeed, part of some greater I. In this frame of mind, try, next time you are playing with a favorite animal, to consider this: I have found that if I look at a cat, a favorite cat, and imagine that this cat is part of the very same I that I am made of, then the cat seems entirely different, and my relationship to it, even its relationship to me, seems entirely different … the sense of wonder I feel in the cat’s presence, is enormously multiplied, and I begin to see the cat, its beauty, its familiarity, and its strangeness, almost as not cat at all, but rather as something wondrous to which I have the cherished relationship that endears me to it, and makes it part of me. One can do the same with any beloved creature … One can do it, of course, with another person (oddly, this is harder). And one can do it with a plant or a flower. It is most poignant with an animal.

I shall try complete my sketch of this difference by writing down some new cosmological assumptions somewhat analogous to the ten ‘bad’ and tacit assumptions described in chapter I, but consistent with the view of matter I have put forward.

NEW ASSUMPTION #1.  Matter space is an unbroken continuum which includes everything, both matter and the so-called space around it, all at the same time.

NEW ASSUMPTION #2. In varying degrees, any given portion of space may be more whole or less whole, more alive or less alive, more healed or less healed, connected or broken, separated or not separate.

This assumption implies that the relative degrees of life of different buildings, neighborhoods, paintings … woodlands, part of the ocean’s edge, mountains, fields, gardens, streets, chairs and spoons – is largely fact.

NEW ASSUMPTION #3. Whenever we undertake an act of construction we have the ability to make the world more alive or less alive, more harmonious or less harmonious.

… No action, and no act of building, no matter how small, is exempt from this fundamental aspect of our existence. It is there when we paint the front door. It is there when we lay out the plates for breakfast. Is is there when we choose a location for a new freeway, and it is there we when decide to pick a single flower.

NEW ASSUMPTION #4.  Everything matters.

… Our present cosmology has built into it a definite refusal to assert the importance of anything, a refusal to define any value, a refusal to define any human reality. It is value-free.

… in this [alternate] picture, portions of the world can be less alive or more alive, and because the life of a given center has a transcendent quality in which the I of the universe becomes manifested, the degree to which living self occurs in our actions then becomes a matter of immense importance.

In this world everything matters.

NEW ASSUMPTION #5. Value is a definite and fundamental part of the universe, and of the scheme of things.

… Each action is valuable, or not, according to the extent that it preserves, and extends, and enhances the wholeness which exists, or does not do so.

… different values which exist in different human cultures … appear different because each one tries to create wholeness in the context of different conditions (including those created by culture, people and society) … At root, though, what is valuable is always the same thing: is it that which does most to enhance the structure of what is.

NEW ASSUMPTION #6. Ornament and function are indistinguishable.

Once we understand that wholeness is the most essential structural feature of the world, there is no room for a narrow distinction between legitimate and non-legitimate forms of wholeness, and there is no moral or practical distinction between the ornamental and the functional …

NEW ASSUMPTION #7. Matter itself is not a mechanism: It is a potentially soul-like materiality which is essentially what we call self.

… Although this may seem to be the most fantastic of these new cosmological assumptions, it is this assumption which, in the long run, has the greatest capacity to stimulate experiment … The world is emphatically different it if is true, and if it is not true …

NEW ASSUMPTION #8. If self or I is woken up whenever living structure appears in matter, what we think of as value may then be described as the protection, preservation, nourishment, of the precious self of the universe.

… We then treat all creation … as the protection of the personal which resides in matter, and which, through our actions, may see the light of day.

NEW ASSUMPTION #9. The nature of space-matter, being soul-like, is such that the more whole it becomes, the more transparent, the more it seems to melt, the more it realizes itself, releases its own inner reality, the more transparent it becomes, the more transcendent.

If it is true that the ground of the universe reveals itself whenever order is produced  … then this … is the single most important thing that is at stake, whenever anything is being made.

NEW ASSUMPTION #10. Thus art is not merely pleasant or interesting. It has an importance that goes to the very core of the cosmology.

… the task of buildings things and shaping things is fundamental to the spiritual condition of the world, and to our own spiritual development …

NEW ASSUMPTION #11. The unfolding of the field of centers, and the unfolding of the self, is the most fundamental awakening of matter.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 4: The Luminous Ground

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Christopher Alexander on A Gift from Art to Science


What is, truly, the ultimate nature of matter? … I have expressed my conviction that architecture cannot be good so long as we try to to do it within a mechanical conception of matter … I have argued … that we must have a vision of the world in which life, as the foundation of all architecture, is understood as something objective and inspiring … But it cannot be understood, or used, successfully, I think, without making changes in our concept of the matter from which the world is made.

The fact that such a modified world-picture might arise in part from architecture, not only from physics, is significant. Our present picture of the universe, which does come mainly from physics, is hamstring by the unavoidable narrowness of physical investigations. The character of wholeness, one of the major unsolved problems in 20th-century physics, is more easily revealed by consideration of architectural problems than by consideration of problems of physics.

Thus, architecture, previously the recipient of cosmological conceptions that originated in physics, might perhaps itself now become a contributor to cosmology.

… We now believe that the world is made of an extended material which we call the matter-space continuum …The detailed structure of the matter-space is under daily investigation, and is not certainly or completely known. Some physicists use models in which this stuff is mathematically continuous; others use models in which it is discrete – hence string-like or granular …

In contemporary cosmological theory, the matter-space continuum is assumed to be inert … It is above all dead.

Even the matter-space of quantum mechanics – which assumes that most events are influenced by the whole, perhaps even by the act of observation, and where events can interact without strictly Newtonian causal interactions – even this quantum matter-space is still conceived as mechanical in nature … any life which appears in it is held to be created only be assemblages and configurations of the inert material. Scientifically speaking, the inertness of the matter-space is the most essential part of its nature, and of its definition in the current physical scheme. Being inert is an essential feature of the Cartesian and mechanistic picture, and it must be inert – because the basic idea of our Cartesian model of science is that you pretend that it is inert in order to understand how it works

Can we create a picture of matter which will one day become adequate to give us a world not only profound in its mechanical successes, but which also explains our nature, our agony, our relationship to matter, and the existence of the soul?

An idea that has recently begun to appear in physics is that wholeness itself is a real structure, something geometrically concrete, not merely a general appreciation for the unity and connectedness which exists in things. It is rather, nearly a substance, a definite structure, which appears all around us.

We have all had the experience of remembering a human face. We may have experienced sometimes the fact that we can remember the feeling of this person’s face, its gestalt, its effect on us, its kindness or its ferocity, without being able to summon up, in memory, the detailed features that generate this gestalt. Even in such a memory lapse, it is plain that we do remember the most essential thing, the overall feeling quality of the face, which allows us later to say, unhesitatingly, ‘There he is,’ or ‘He’s the one,’ if shown a picture … that is the wholeness.

… Possibly the most important discovery of the 20th century was that in physics, too, the behavior of matter depends on the wholeness, not merely on point by point phenomena … That was the essence of quantum mechanics … for this reason it was necessary to attempt mathematical descriptions of this wholeness. And, indeed, in the case of quantum mechanics, the gestalt or wholeness was successfully described by a variety of mathematical formalisms: formalisms so powerful that they predict accurately to many decimal places, the detailed behavior of quantum mechanical systems.

However, although the mathematics of quantum mechanics works, it is, even to this day, almost impossible to understand … how it works or what it means. For seventy or eighty years, a struggle has gone on to find a way of looking at these phenomena and their mathematical representations which makes them understandable. But the mathematics has outstripped our cognitive grasp of what is happening … Indirectly the wholeness has been described by mathematics but what this gestalt really is is still not grasped …

I believe … Quantum mechanics has appeared undecipherable because, altogether, people alive in the 20th century had the greatest difficulty coming to terms with the idea that it is indeed the wholeness – just the very same structural gestalt-as-aspect of the experimental apparatus which in another case determines the kindliness of ferocity of a human face – that determines where the electron is going to go.

This hurdle to comprehension has occurred because we have not had an adequate way of depicting, in our minds, what – in general – wholeness is like, and how it might be depicted …The actual meaning of these mathematical descriptions seemed (and I emphasize ‘seemed’) to lead to paradoxes so great that it became common to speak of cats that were both dead and yet not dead, of multiple universes spawned from each even and going forward indefinitely into the future in parallel, and so forth. These strange interpretations, seeming to defy reality, came about in my view, because it was just too difficult to create workable pictures of just the wholeness itself. In cases of art or buildings, we can feel the wholeness sometimes, intuit it sometimes, grasp it with an artistic eye, but up until now we have had no concrete language for it in the world of everyday phenomena.

Recently, a few adventurous physicists began to see that the ‘meaningless’ mathematical interpretations of quantum mechanics could be given up and replaced by a more realistic picture of the wholeness which makes sense in a more ordinary meaning … they gave the wholeness itself a different role and started with the assumption that the mysterious phenomena of quantum mechanics come about because of interactions between things which are extended wholes in the world of space and matter

For an artist or an architect the task is a little easier. For us, it is more everyday, more commonsense to experience wholeness, easier to see it, and perfectly clear that the phenomenon of wholeness is real … in this context, talk of disappearing cats, multiple worlds existing in parallel, and collapsing wave functions, though typical of the physics of recent decades, makes no useful sense, and makes no contribution to the solution of real architectural problems.

… Towards the end of the 20th century, once a new picture of matter began to come under consideration … for the first time clues began to form that somehow the matter, the space-time continuum, might after all be made of animate material, not just inert stuff

George Wald … Professor of Biology at Harvard … and winner of the Nobel Prize … wrote in 198415:

‘It takes no great imagination to conceive of other possible universes, each stable and workable in itself, yet lifeless. How is it that, with so many other apparent options, we are in a universe that possesses just that peculiar nexus of properties that breeds life? It has occurred to me lately – I must confess with some shock at first to my scientific sensibilities – that both questions might be brought into some degree of congruence. This is with the assumption that mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always as the matrix, the source and condition of physical reality – that the stuff of which physical reality is composed of is mind-stuff.’

… in 1955 the physicist Wolfgang Pauli16 wrote:

‘It would be most satisfactory of all if matter and mind could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality’

… in 1959, Erwin Schrödinger gave a brief argument … demonstrating what he considered as rather conclusive proof that there must, somewhere in our universe, be a single ‘One mind’17  in which we are all participants.

The identity hypothesis formulated in 1980 by C.F. von Weizsacker18 says:

‘Consciousness and matter are different aspects of the same reality’

David Bohm … explicitly came to believe about 1980 that the universe is close to being made of a non-material ground which he called a plenum, and that both matter and consciousness arise from that ground.19, 20

… in 1985, Brian Josephson, the discoverer of quantum tunneling, speaking of new physics said21:

‘… we might hope that appropriate mathematical tools will be developed, so that in not too many years from now we’ll have a new paradigm in which God and religion will be right in the middle of the picture …’

John Bell, the originator of Bell’s theorem, wrote in 198622:

‘As regards to mind, I am fully convinced that it has a central place in the ultimate nature of reality’

And in 1994 Roger Penrose published a book arguing (for nearly the first time in the literature of physics) the necessity (his word) of accepting that consciousness is materially different from the other entities of physics – and cannot be viewed as emergent from them.23

… But in spite of this growing consensus, nevertheless a huge problem remains. We do not yet know how to make sense of this idea. Just having this idea, by itself does not really solve any problem … How can a relationship of mind and matter make a useful and testable contribution to physics itself? How can such a picture enlarge our understanding practically and change, for the better, our view of how matter works?

Here I may have made a small but useful contribution. I have shown how the existence of centers in matter-space … has a recursive character … The intensity of centers and wholes arises within the wholeness, purely, as a results of the mathematics of the space itself, as new centers proliferate and concentrate themselves … the intensity of these centers … can be recognized empirically when the observer appeals to feelings of wholeness within himself. And the degree of organization can also be calculated by systematic measurement of the symmetries and subsymmetries appearing in space …

The conclusion that there is some actual relatedness between the observer’s self and the centers which arise in the field is reasonable … But to make fullest sense of such arguments we need to know the ultimate substratum, the ultimate material out of which the space-matter is made … this … would be that ground of I which has been described throughout Book 4. It would be the source of the power we experience in works of art, and would be the same thing which has at different times in history variously been called the great self, or the ultimate source of being, or the void. But it would enter the picture now, as a graspable component, with a clear function, and a clear way of helping the generation of life.

  1. Professor George Wald, ‘Life and Mind in the Universe,’  INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF QUANTUM CHEMISTRY: QUANTUM BIOLOGY SYMPOSIUM 11 (1984), 1-15, abstracted in Margenau and Verghese, COSMOS, BIOS, THEOS, p. 219,
  2. Woflgang Pauli … in Carl Gustav Jung and Wolfgang Pauli, eds., THE INTERPRETATION OF NATURE AND THE PSYCHE (New York: Bollingen, 1955), pp. 08-10.
  3. … Erwin Schrodinger, MIND AND MATTER (Camrbidge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), pp. 52-68 and 88-104.
  4. … C.F. von Weizsacker, THE UNITY OF NATURE, (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1980), p. 252.
  5. … David Bohm WHOLENESS AND THE IMPLICIT ORDER (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980) pp. 192-213, and D. Bohm and B.J. Hiley,  THE UNDIVIDED UNIVERSE (London, Routledge, 1993), pp. 381 – 390.
  6. Bohm and I met, originally, because he had been told that I had some special ability to see wholeness. Based on that, in 1986, he and I spent two days together at the Krishnamurti Center in Ojai California, in public discussion …
  7. Brian Josephson, in THE REACH OF THE MIND, NOBEL PRIZE CONVERSATIONS (Dallas: Saybrook Publishing Company, 1985) p.178.
  8. J.S. Bell, ‘Six possible World of Quantum Mechanics,’ PROCEEDINGS OF THE NOBEL SYMPOSIUM 65: POSSIBLE WORLDS IN ARTS AND SCIENCES (Stockholm: August 11-15, 1986). reprinted in SPEAKABLE AND UNSPEAKABLE IN QUANTUM MECHANICS (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 194.
  9. Roger Penrose, SHADOWS OF THE MIND (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 4: The Luminous Ground

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Christopher Alexander on a Gift to God


This felt like a demanding excerpt to put together.

“When the field of centers appears in something, its deep feeling appears and it is … spirit made actual, spirit made manifest … It is not an indication of God living behind all things, but it is actually God itself … As we understand this more, we recognize that a building, or a building detail, or a painting, is, to some degree or other, spirit …

Once I accept that what is happening is actual spirit, it helps me to make a whole thing … a necessary state of mind. The core of this necessary state of mind is that you make each building in a way which is a gift to God … It is not a pious extra. I believe it is a necessary state of mind without which it is not possible to reach the purity of structure needed to create a living thing …

The essence of this state of mind is that the building must not shout. Emotionally, it must be completely quiet. It is very hard to allow the wholeness to unfold. To do it, we must pay attention, all the time, only to the wholeness which exists in what we are doing. That is hard, very hard. If we allow ourselves the luxury of paying attention to our own ideas, we shall certainly fail. The things which can and do most easily get in the way, are my own idea, my thoughts about what to do, my desires about what the building ‘ought’ to be, or ”might’ be, my striving to make it great, my concern with my own thoughts about it, or my exaggerated attention to other people’s thoughts …

The reason why I must try and make the building as a gift to God, is that this state of mind is the only one which reliably keeps me concentrated on what is, and keeps my away from my own vainglorious and foolish thoughts … This problem potentially affects every single one of the 100,000 steps which I go through to make the building … the effect is tiny but the impact is enormous …

In order to get it right … I must be truly concerned to make it more whole, I must truly abandon my own desire to make a good impression or to make a vivid impression on the other people in the world.

It is certain that life is not something local … it is a relation between the thing where it occurs and the world beyond. It is a phenomenon which depends on the whole universe, and the extent to which the larger order of the universe penetrates and soothes, the order of the part whose order we are looking at. In such a world, the order springs fundamentally, and ultimately, from the connection of each part to its surroundings

This state of non-separateness … is a state in which the world is melted … The more any portion of space is unified, the more inseparable it becomes from all the rest. So in the end, the intricacy and richness of a beautiful thing does not arise from the desire to make something rich or intricate, it only arises from the particular desire to make it perfectly one in itself, and with the world.

It is perhaps surprising, but necessary to recognize, that I cannot make a thing which has this not-separateness, unless I honestly want it … For this, I must lose my preoccupation with myself and keep it only with the thing … there must be no desire at all for separateness …

Thus, to make a thing which is one, I struggle – myself, the maker – to become one with the world. … I have to catch each flash of ‘wouldn’t this little detail be great’ and kill it … I must genuinely seek, and want, and open my arms to begin not separate. Most of the time I fail. I fail because, to do it, I must honestly give up every last trace of wanting to be distinct, separate, identifiable

This is why, from a practical point of view, there is a connection between building and religion. The connection is not historical. It is empirical, because the religious disciplines are just those which have taught people how, practically speaking, to lose themselves. Not only how to become not-separate but – far harder – how to become willing to become non-separate

This idea cannot be realized in a building without a change, a quietness, in the maker. It requires absolute removal of the individual ego, because what is created can no longer stand out and be separated from everything else, and therefore loses its personal identity. And yet, paradoxically, in the moment where this absolute identity and non-separateness is attained in a thing, and it truly become one with the things which surround it, it stands out shining with an extraordinary power which could never be reached under any other circumstances.

This is, perhaps, the central mystery of the universe: that as things become more unified, less separate, so also they become most individual, and most precious.

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 4: The Luminous Ground

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Christopher Alexander on Never Truly Beautiful


“What kind of beauty could go so deep that a person would be afraid of creating it? …

Working with architects, I have experienced it again and again. Many traditional shapes, especially the most profound shapes with deep and serious centers in them, for some reason trouble modern architects profoundly. Even when an architect does want to borrow a traditional shape for a building … he often feels he has to make the shape ‘modern’ in order to feel comfortable with it …

The history of the 20th century has been one in which people do not want to see God, nor, therefore, true beauty either. The role of religion has, for many, become uncomfortable. Many people want no part of it … And for that reason, they also do not (cannot) want, in their lives, any kind of true beauty – the beauty which brings something in touch with the I – is, in effect, something in which we cannot avoid, in some part, seeing God. For this reason the underlying vocabulary of the 20th century … asserted that designers would create structures which are ‘interesting,’ ‘pleasing’, ‘fantastic,’ ‘exhilarating,’ … anything but beautiful – indeed never truly beautiful. That word has unalterable meaning, cannot be contaminated, and during the temporary insanity of the 20th century, struck a nerve which people could not tolerate.

Is it even permissible, today, to please yourself? … Much of the 20th century difficulty occurred because the vast changes that have occurred in society led ultimately to one conclusion: a person was not allowed to be comfortable with his own self. And it is this which makes wholeness so hard to achieve.

… To do that thing which comes only from the heart is so hard not only because others may laugh at us when we do it, but because we may even sneer at ourselves, and wince when we see it, and cannot face the depth and ordinariness which it encompasses. For the sense of that … feeling, when expressed in its true form, is the I which faces us.

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 4: The Luminous Ground


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Christopher Alexander on Gauguin’s Cow


After reading this, I invite you to repeat an experiment I did: do an online search for both pictures and see what you get!

“The cow is more basic still. This one is less knowing that Gauguin’s other works. When I saw it at Christie’s, the junior auctioneer told me it was a ‘very nice minor Gauguin,’ it will go below the estimate. Such a patronizing tone.


Paul Guaguin – Kneeling Cow

If we compare this picture with a great picture by Gauguin – Parahi te Marae, for example (The Sacred Mountain) … we find that the cow is more direct. The Sacred Mountain took work, it was a considered construction, carefully done, reaching a profound effect … But, to some tiny degree, Gauguin, without a doubt I think, was aware when he made Parahi te Marae, aware what he was trying to do, aware of the gallery in Paris where he was sending the painting …


Paul Gauguin: Parahi te Marae (The Sacred Mountain)

But the cow is more innocent, perhaps more truly something that Gauguin liked … in this picture he was, I think, only trying to please himself. He drew and painted this cow for his own pleasure. It was what he saw, what he wanted, not so knowing – constructed, yes, but far more innocent.

It is even possible, I think, that Gauguin himself was slightly ashamed of this picture, just as my students were sometimes ashamed  of their greatest works, because they were too naive, too direct, too innocent … In my mind, this cow is a greater work, because it penetrates deeper, it has more grace, it is more that ultimate thing which Gauguin did to please himself.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 4: The Luminous Ground

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