Birds of Hope & Hopelessness
A bird with one wing can’t fly
Nor can a bird with no wings
Nor can a bird with no body
But a bird with two wings and a body
Can go places
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What kind of human community would you most hope to live and work in? What system of governance and administration do you think would best sustain such a community and ensure it to come into being? Do you think our current systems serve this purpose well? Or do they lack the wisdom that is so sorely needed?
In this short essay, I describe why I think a radically different approach to leadership — and follower-ship — is needed. Instead of that which most of us are habituated to expect, there’s a grounding now for us to bring our hopes and longings into a new reality. This approach requires a profound change of mind from one that seeks assertively to defeat or control another to one that brings others into mutually receptive and co-creative relationship, like a bird whose body brings its left and right wings jointly into flight.
I am imagining here that most of us would — like me — hope to inhabit communities in which we feel cared for and to which we can each contribute creatively with others to the common good while being valued as unique individuals. By the same token, we would hope not to inhabit a community in which we or others feel unsafe, neglected, unappreciated, helpless and/or required to behave in a way that does not match our values or competencies or needs.
This is why I have always felt ill at ease with hierarchical systems of administration that either impose conformity or promote conflict within a community. Regrettably, such systems are commonplace in modern human culture.
Just consider what would happen if any of the cells, tissues and organs of our human bodies took it upon themselves to exert power over or compete with others? We’d quickly perish from degenerative disease and cancer.
Precisely that fate ultimately awaits any kind of human organization whose administration doesn’t draw and distribute power equitably from and amongst its contributing members. It will either become fragmented into conflicting factions or will become monolithic. It will lack the evolutionary creativity needed to respond well to changing and changeable circumstances brought forth by either its own activities or by external factors beyond its current influence.
This has happened many times before. It will happen again in the rise and fall of human civilizations. It is the result of a failure in both leadership and follower-ship. This is unable to see beyond its own short term interests and hence promotes selfish and conflicting patterns of behaviour that are self-destructive in the long run. It is all too evident in our current political culture and global environmental crisis.
How and why does this failure keep recurring? How can it be avoided? Do we need a new way of leading and following? I think we do. Is some consideration missing from our current ways of leading and following, which results in incoherence or mass conformity? Yes, I think there is.
The way that is needed has been recognised and revealed throughout human history. Sadly, it is all too easily suppressed, whereupon it may take decades or even centuries to resurface, by which time circumstances may be different. Currently our global population is vast and growing and our scientific knowledge and technological prowess has hugely increased within just a few decades. Consequently, we are rapidly changing the circumstances in which we live in radical and unpredictable ways that have no precedent. But what we have not changed much is our minds: our habits and patterns of thought.
The fundamental problem we face has both psychological and philosophical roots. The psychological root resides in a deeply fearful attitude of mind that seeks power and control over our natural neighbours and neighbourhoods, reinforced by a restricted perception of reality. This perception either entirely cuts the observer off from the world he/she observes within, or it merges all entirely into one holistic unity, leaving no room for variability. The philosophical root arises from a way of thinking that issues from and reinforces the psychological root.
Two phrasings from William Blake identify this attitude of mind and its associated restrictive perception:-
For double the vision my eyes do see,
And a double vision is always with me:
With my inward eye ’tis an old man grey;
With my outward a thistle across my way.
’Tis fourfold in my supreme delight,
And threefold in soft Beulah’s night,
And twofold always. May God us keep
From single vision and Newton’s sleep!
In the first phrasing, Blake is observing both the thistle and his own body from outside, as in an instantaneous photographic snapshot or selfie. He is objectively seeing both the ‘other’s’ exterior as an object in his way, and his own bodily exterior as others see it. He becomes a ‘spectator’, standing outside lived experience. In the second phrasing he compares this reflexive, both-ways vision unfavourably with what he regards as Newton’s exclusive one-way objective scientific vision: entirely detached from what he is observing. So far, so good, but he is not in this mode sensing what resides inside his own body or the body of the thistle, nor, ostensibly is he doing so more than instantaneously. Only when he expands his imagination to take in his own and the other’s living subjective interior presence does he become feelingly aware of the delight and softness of fourfold and threefold vision that is both subjective and objective simultaneously. Even then, some boundary and/or distance intervenes between observer and observed, each of which has its own inside and outside.
We see readily here the danger of a bullying attitude of mind arising, which one-sidedly regards what is external to itself solely as an object. This attitude does not admit any feeling awareness for its interior presence. Such an insensitive, self-insulated attitude will entirely lack compassion for others and even for itself, while seeking to serve its own selfish purpose, regardless of cost. Place that limited vision in a leader and his/her followers and you have a prescription for autocratic tyranny. You create conflict with whoever or whatever is deemed not to be ‘me’ or ‘us’.
“A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections, — a mere heart of stone.”
“…natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life”
There is, however, a parallel danger of passivity and victimhood in a mind aware only of its subjective interior. Such a mind is unable adequately to recognise difference, serve its own needs and protect its individual identity. In a leader this would prove ineffectual and in a follower it would result in abject subservience.
The philosophical root arises from the assumption, due to exclusively objective or subjective perception, that material and immaterial presences are mutually exclusive — as in ‘dualism’ — or indistinguishable, or that one or other of them is non-existent — as in monism, holism and nihilism. This assumption goes at least as far back as Aristotle’s Laws of Contradiction and the Excluded Middle, which imply either that one thing cannot simultaneously be another thing or that all is One thing. Aristotle held that many cannot be One without contradiction. That thinking has given rise to whole systems of abstract, propositional and dialectic logics that have been incorporated into conventional mathematics, reductionism, holism and objective science. But it conflicts with our everyday experience of a world in which space and matter cannot realistically be isolated from or conflated with each other.
So, what is the remedy for these problems, and how does this relate to our understanding of leadership and follower-ship?
Take a look at the symbolism in my painting ‘How Compassion Fruits.’ There you will see reality viewed through a window divided into four separate quadrants. Through each quadrant can be seen one of the Four classical Elements of Earth, Water, Air and Fire. These respectively represent the solid, liquid and gaseous phases of Matter and heat and light of Energy. Each Element appears to be cut off from the others, and yet a living Passiflora vine enters bodily into and out from all of them, drawing sustenance and vitality from each. Pause and notice this elemental interplay of Nature.
Such is the wondrous way of a photosynthetic plant. It absorbs the energy of sunlight to convert gaseous carbon dioxide and liquid water into the organic substance that both supports its solid structure and can be burned by respiration in the presence of released gaseous oxygen. The burning releases energy and returns water and carbon dioxide to air. In the process of the plant’s life it produces leaves, entwining stems, grasping tendrils, buds, flowers and passion fruits in fulfilment of its seedling promise. Sense the movement of the Passiflora as it morphs. This is no still-life object. It is a current navigating its changing circumstances in flowing form.
None of this fluidity would be possible, however, without the presence within, throughout and beyond all others of an infinite, always present, intangible Fifth Element. This Central Element is acknowledged as such in Hindu philosophy and is fundamental to a variety of spiritual traditions, for example as the Tao, Ein Sof and Ungrund. It is no more and no less than the receptive Grace and Stillness of natural Space! Here — within the space of Grace — is the natural source of continuity between each and all that is excluded from consideration by dualistic logic. By excluding a material figure from its immaterial (spatial) ground this logic objectively severs self-identity from natural neighbourhood as a “one alone”, one side of a twofold or one quadrant of a fourfold. Aristotle could not imagine or perceive this!
Consider, for a moment, how the number 5 is represented on a cubical dice by two pairs of vertically and horizontally aligned dots on either side of a central dot. Compare this now with how the number 4 is represented only by the pairs of vertically and horizontally aligned dots. It is as though these pairs of dots are isolated into twofold or fourfold opposition with one another by what comes between them. There is no central point or better — opening — through which they can come into mutual dialogue and interplay.
I explore this situation symbolically in a slightly different way in another painting entitled ‘Channel №5’:
This painting was based on the traditional English song, ‘Green Grow the Rushes O’, in which 1 is one and all alone, 2 are lily-white boys and 3 are rivals. The words of the song describe vividly what happens when the invisible, intangible Fifth Element is axiomatically excluded from material figures: they become isolated into opposition with each other! This is the foundational error and source of paradox created by dualistic logic and conventional mathematics. It is evident in the fact that 2 multiplied by itself is not the same as the sum of two 1s multiplied by themselves. Space has been excluded from 1 leaving it all alone, an isolated singularity cut off from its natural neighbourhood. The paradox disappears when material figures and space are understood naturally to be mutually inclusive. We escape the restrictions of propositional (one or other) and dialectic (each and other in contradiction) logics. We re-enter the truly natural realm of mutually inclusive relationship (each in the other) and get back into the flow of life. As symbolized in the painting, swans at odds with one another as rivals are brought into loving relationship, and one is no longer alone.
Recognition of the pivotal, central vitality of the Fifth Element is the radical breakthrough in human understanding made possible by the philosophy of natural inclusion.
It is symbolized in ‘How Compassion Fruits’ by the intercommunicating black hole — the receptive point zero or centre of gravity — present in the intersection (the Place of Confluence) between the window’s longitudinal and horizontal partitions. This is the ‘cavity’ at the ‘heart’ of all natural material bodies, around which energy circulates and becomes form. This is what I symbolize further in my painting, ‘Holding Openness’:-
This is what goes missing from the hearts of bullying leaders and sycophantic followers alike. This is a receptive centre of Love — an inviting receptive openness — from which a way of relating arises and reaches out to neighbours and neighbourhood, calling from its midst into diverse confluence. It does not dominate into submissive conformity, nor does it align with one side against another. This Receptive Presence does not practice the kind of leadership or follower-ship that we have come to expect in adversarial cultures. It is more a humble form of good companionship or compassion-ship that naturally includes others within the reach of self. It is, quite literally a practice of ‘Ring-leadership’ around which coherent yet fluid and versatile organisations come to life.
Isn’t this the kind of receptive, responsive, co-creative leadership and follower-ship that our human communities so desperately need? Isn’t this the way to meet the uncertain circumstances — and times — in which we now find ourselves?
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Rev. Roy Reynolds for editorial help.
Gardiner, L (2020). Attending, Daring, Becoming: Making Boundary-Play Conscious