by Karen Speerstra,
Written June 30, 2008; commissioned by the Powers of Place Initiative and funded by the Fetzer Institute.
Christopher Alexander, architect, builder, mathematician and scientist, is also a philosopher for our time. His writing has profoundly affected many of us, often at levels we are only beginning to access. Many of us believe, as he does, that we are on “the threshold of a new era when the proper understanding of deep questions of space, as they are embodied in architecture,” (and we suggest, anything worth building), “will play a revolutionary role in the way we see the world and will do for the world view of the 21st and 22nd centuries, what physics did for the 19th and 20th.” (From the book jacket, Book Four in The Nature of Order: The Luminous Ground. The insights represented here are generally drawn from Alexander’s writing and all specific citations are from the above.)
As sentient, knowing people, seeking a perspective based on beauty and grace, (as Alexander so eloquently states our purpose) we pose this question:
Form, Structure and “I”
Each of us is an individual living center, an “I,” and we connect with other living centers. When that happens, a voice awakens, enlivens, and reverberates through us. Then, together we can create a new “form.” That form might be a building, a work of art, a community or a group coming into awareness. This new form is “at once enormous in extent and infinitely intimate and personal.” (p. 7)
The structure of a “living building” awakens these connections, one with another, just as the “structure of a group” calls all our centers into being. In applying Alexander’s concepts to collective consciousness/wisdom work, let us agree that people engaged in this work are, in fact, co-creating and what is begging to come forth are “living structures.” Just as in building communities or actual buildings, this process encompasses both art and science. A living structure is expression of a sacred relationship: one to another; one to all; all to the universe.
Alexander describes this living structure in all four books in his The Nature of Order series. But it is in his fourth book he acknowledges “Knowledge of this structure…gives you a key to unlock your own heart.” (p. 268) When we are personal, when we put our humanness into everything we create, it is at that moment, we reach “the ground.”
Moving Alexander’s concepts from art and architecture to collective consciousness work, each person in the group must maintain that something important is going on. When we realize that, we begin to recognize “the ground,” as the mystics describe it, “the Void,” the Blazing One, as intensely personal, yet nameless, without substance or form, but nevertheless essential to make “living structures.” “The I which lies behind or inside all matter is an underlying substance, or “original substance”…partially reunites us, part of the way, not all the way, towards a world of spirit. It does not make a separation between spirit and matter.” (p. 152)
Ground is not distant; it is immediate. “It is generally assumed to be here where we are, and even more real, more authentic, than the reality we normally experience…It is ‘the ground’ beneath our feet, the ultimate ground of substance on which all things stand.” (p. 233.)
The “something” Alexander says residing in each of us is eternal. “The fact that this is nameless, without substance, without form—and yet is also intensely personal—is one of the great mysteries at the source of art.” (p. 39) And dare we say of all life? This “void,” Alexander insists, “does contain all that is in us; it gives primacy to the fact that this void is already in us; that it is a part of the human being which exists already, and is available to us…It is that which makes it powerful, which makes it useful.” (p. 40)
After thirty-seven years of observing and struggling, Alexander admits at the end of his series of four books on “The Nature of Order” that he wants to believe this, he cannot believe it, but “I believe it must be true.” (p. 344)
Wholeness and Unity
When we realize we are whole within ourselves, we can, in turn, create wholeness. We are all subject to the inner laws of wholeness, which create real beauty and real life. These life-centered beliefs are not superficial or merely “decorative.” They are essential and must lead to practical behaviors. “To make something which is really whole, we play and play, and try and try until we catch a being shining through.” (p. 132)
This wholeness we seek, transcends structure. “It seems to spring from the very ground of things directly to our consciousness.” (p. 233)
To create true living structures, we must understand the deepest origins of our own experience. “To really make living structures, it seems almost as though somehow, we are charged, for our time, with finding a new form of God, a new way of understanding the deepest origins of our experience, of the matter in the universe so that we, too, when lucky, with devotion might find it possible to reveal this “something’ and its blinding light.”(p. 42)
When we create something beautiful, Alexander’s research proves, we are deeply nourished. The process of creating wholeness makes us come alive. We are filled with inner light. Alexander uses the analogy of inner light for color as it also applies to us. Inner light reveals to us a bit of reality, more profound than the one we experience every day. All wholeness, he says, is a kind of light and it “helps us to communicate with the transcendent realm where pure unity exists. (p. 236)
We are united by joy, happiness, and laughter as well as by tears, loss, death and betrayal.
“Unity comes from the fact that the various centers are harmoniously connected and that every center helps every other center. (p. 257) As in architecture, when this happens, we see only “one I” rather than many. It shines out from every part.
Alexander maintains there is a “direct connection between the living structure of the world and the achieved person-ness we experience in ourselves.” (p. 264) Living people are composed of fields of centers, profoundly linked to fields of intensity and wholeness of other centers. Therefore, we feel healed, whole, and alive when we are with others also focused on creating living structures. He poses this question to his students, one we might apply to our group work: “Does the thing which you have made, make you feel more whole within yourself?” (p. 265) And when we are in touch with our inner landscape, “the ground” we become a more “rounded, more satisfied, more satisfactory being.” (p. 267)
Why is it important to co-create living centers? It seems we live in a reciprocal universe. By creating wholeness, we, in turn, become more whole. The effects are far-reaching, indeed. Alexander says, “Just as the centers in one part of the world nourish the other living centers near them, so the person, who is also a center, is nourished by this appearance of wholeness.” (p. 269)
How can we create profound “works”?
Few truly profound works of art exist, according to Alexander. Most are governed by style and image. They are form without substance, effect without content, appearance instead of satisfying emotional reality. Gathered groups, also, can be unsatisfying emotionally for these same reasons. We don’t always strive for the “profound level” because, as Alexander claims is the trap of most artists: we don’t try; we don’t see the challenge; and, quite frankly, we just don’t know how.
Christopher Alexander claims profound levels of any creation are reached with great devotion and humility. We must focus “on the reality as it is—in other words on the structure of the wholeness as it is.” (p. 36) Not as we may imagine it to be. Not as we think it is. But as it is.
The value of what we create lies in our own vulnerability, or as Alexander puts it, “to be vulnerable to all the world,” our own willingness to draw from what is personal. “When you really put your humanness into the things you make, that you genuinely reach the wholeness we are striving for in the external structure we call order…it is at that moment that we reach the ground.” (p. 268)
First, we must come to the assurance that each of us is an “eternal self.” A deep self. A “best” self. This is not easy because we are “not always comfortable with that true self that lies deep within us.” (p. 297) It’s easier for us to deny our “grounded” state. But in order to “create living structure, we must please ourselves.” (p. 171.) Children understand this. This state is the pure essence of childhood. Alexander calls it a “heart-stopping quality.” It is what the Zen call “No mind.” And the Sufis call it being “drunk in God.” Each of us has an “I” that goes beyond what we normally see. And this “I” is connected to all the other “I’s.” It allows us to see and interact with the “living centers” in others. It is our childlike simplicity that allows us to “recognize that God is in us already.” (p. 299) Pleasing ourselves and doing what is right, Alexander says, are one in the same. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he taught us to become as little children.
When Alexander speaks of this child-like state in relation to art and architecture, he uses expressions such as “deep interlock,” “mutual embedding,” ‘boundaries,” “echoes,” “inner calm” and “nonseparateness.” Future discoveries on how these concepts relate, not just to creating living art reflecting undivided wholeness, but to creating similar communities, will be useful and enriching. This wholeness is experienced as an undivided already existing quality that transcends structure. Our structures merely release it. This is an insight worthy of serious contemplation. Wholeness already exists. By our efforts, we merely help to release it.
Each step in this slow unfolding process is to do the next thing which is most consistent with the wholeness that already exists. Everything must be profoundly connected to the “self” or in the case of group work, to the “group self,” the composite unfolding.
Relationship to others and to place
Each of us, as we are, is connected to the world. (p 52) This is an important point for it also means that each group already has that connectedness. It already exists. We only need acknowledge it. We usually can’t see it, however, because our real relatedness exists underneath the skin.
To what degree do we feel connected to a particular place? Places which carry the spirit or soul are numinous. Alexander claims that when we feel those connections most strongly, we are connected to the universe. When we can sense the field of centers, “this is spirit.” Alexander is so bold as to say, “this quality it appears in things, people, in a moment, in an event, is God…spirit made manifest.” (p. 302) When we realize everything belongs to God, then we realize it is not ours, but rather, everything we make is a gift to God. Without this understanding, “it is not possible to reach the purity of structure needed to create a living thing.” (p. 304) This is the light behind all things.
The key to creating living structures is to feel the quality in the ground, and have “a genuine desire for all things to be one... “Any trace of a desire for separateness will destroy completely my ability to hear the one, whispering through…” (p. 308)
Alexander shares with us his philosophical connection to the cosmos. “This is, perhaps, the central mystery of the universe: that as things become more unified, less separate, so also they become more individual and most precious.” (p. 309) This wholeness no only already exists, but it “influences, guides, and determines what happens, where things go.” (p. 320) Things grow and unfold out of wholeness.
In this new view of matter-space, “each spatial region, at every scale, has a relative value and a relative degree of life.” We now encounter a modified view of physics and a new picture of the world. Space is not fixed. It is not mechanical. Instead, space evolves locally, changing as our fields of centers are developed. What is important is “the degree of connectedness a given place, or thing or event has with the ground.” (p. 328) Our task as builders filled with awe, because we understand the structure of the universe to be connected to all “our selves,” is to make the matter of the universe reveal itself more fully.
More than three hundred years ago, Descartres told us to observe the world and we would then be able to find out how the world works. We are now at the stage of our human development where we go far beyond observation, to beginning to understand our world through, as Alexander says, “wholeness, feeling and experience.” (p. 340) The universe is not a machine. Instead, life is inherent in space itself. And everything is filled with its living spirit.
Alexander draws his book to a close with eleven assumptions. (pp. 330-340) They are worth reviewing and absorbing in totality, but for the purposes of this abbreviated study, here they are in a somewhat condensed form:
- Matter and space exist on a continuum—it’s all here, all the time.
- In any portion of space, we experience varying degrees of aliveness and wholeness.
- By building, co-creating, we can make the world more or less alive.
- Everything matters.
- Each action we take is valuable (or not.)
- Because of our wholeness, ornament and function are one in the same.
- Matter has a soul-like quality we call “self.”
- Matter is personal—we protect, preserve and nourish it.
- The more whole and transparent space-matter becomes, the more it releases its inner reality.
- Art goes to the core of our cosmology; the task of building and shaping things is fundamental to our own spiritual development as well as the spiritual condition of the world.
- The unfolding of the field of centers, and the unfolding of the self, is the most fundamental awakening of matter. (p. 331)
We have come to a place in our own development where our relatedness and understanding of self have a primary place. Christopher Alexander believes our view of matter has been flawed. Therefore, we can assume our views of what and how a group functions have also been flawed. The following questions may help us find new ways of being together, of understanding and influencing matter-space as well as our consciousness building and group work.
- What is the “felt reality” of the gathered people?
- When we meet other people, to what degree do we feel connected to them?
- Can groups model an improved “world picture”—one of already existing wholeness?
- How can a group of people be led to appreciate remarkable new results that embrace and foster unexpected and complex behaviors?
- How can each person in the group be more like their “eternal selves”?
- Are mental events connected with physical phenomena?
- How do we experience the unfolding of our centers?
- How can each person feel more “related” to the gathering place and to each other?
- What is the spiritual depth of what is achieved in “the work”?