Evolution in Response to Receptive Invitation
Here, as in the above short video presentation, I want to ask a simple but ultimately deep and far-reaching question:-
“Who or what is your neighbourhood?”
Why do I ask this question? Why does it deserve your special attention when you are already so bombarded with so many other concerns in your modern everyday life? What difference could seeking an answer to it make to your life, my life, human life, life on Earth?
What thoughts, feelings, sensations and intuitions are aroused in you as you contemplate this question? Does it arouse your curiosity? Does it puzzle you? Do you even want to contemplate it? What benefit could it bring you and your loved ones to do so?
To contemplate this question, I feel, helps us to develop and enhance what may be described as our ‘situational awareness’. This is the naturally inclusive humility of understanding that we are not solely responsible for what we think and do — and what really is, by way of our spatial and energetic circumstance, and how we need to relate to it.
I say this because the question helps us to explore the relationship between the uniqueness of our individual self-identity and situational context. Deep tensions arise whenever we think that the former either excludes the latter (as in Einstein’s view that ‘the environment is everything that isn’t me) or is indistinguishable from the latter (as in non-dual mysticism).
When I used this question to introduce a trans-disciplinary course on ‘life, environment and people’ at the University of Bath–An Education in Natural Inclusion, the initial responses I received from students generally fell into two distinct categories. They were either individual-focused (my neighbourhood is what locally surrounds but doesn’t necessarily include me) or group-focused (my neighbourhood is the local community of people of which I am one).
We were then able to explore together how and why such different views could arise and how the tension of being pulled in seemingly opposite ways by them could actually prove to be creative. I have been through this process myself, both emotionally and in my scientific research. I was attracted at first by the difference between seeking personal (individual) benefit and social benefit. Then I realized how and why each necessarily includes the other.
This is why the neighbourhood question is ultimately so deep and far-reaching in its implications. It invites us to reflect on the natural relationship between what physical science calls ‘space, time, energy and matter’, and where, if anywhere, ‘self’ and ‘neighbourhood’ are perceived to begin and end.
We were drawn into recognising what I call ‘natural inclusion’. One of the ways in which I summarize the meaning of natural inclusion is this: ‘the mutual inclusion of intangible spatial stillness and energetic motion in all material phenomena’. Another way is ‘evolution in response to receptive invitation’. A third is ‘the mutual inclusion of love in life and life in love’.
Have you ever thought about the crucial role of space everywhere as an invisible, frictionless presence in Nature? I didn’t until the turn of the millennium. Then I suddenly realized that although space is not a substance, it’s not possible for any material form, let alone any kind of life, to exist without it.
And with that simple realization, much naturally ‘fell into place’ (or, actually, fell into ‘place-time’) in a way that was new for me. Moreover, much that many of us human beings have, for millennia, assumed or been taught is definitively true fell out of place as inconsistent both with our actual life experience and realistic reasoning. This is because definitive thought isolates or equates matter from or with space instead of recognising that these two natural occurrences are distinct but mutually inclusive.
Did you, or do you notice what I am doing in the above video? You see me first of all in a ‘selfie’ view, speaking words. Then I stop speaking and spin myself around. You see me not just objectively ‘head on’, but at the centre of a panoramic circulation in which I am bodily included. Then I walk forward leaving the place where I was standing behind me. Now, I spin around again in the other direction. Finally, I speak words of gratitude.
What do you make of this? Why did I make this short video? Let me now try to explain, with the help of this illustration, entitled ‘Floral Awareness’:-
Please imagine being within a solitary Narcissus flower.
Are you finding this difficult? Are you questioning what’s the point, because, quite clearly, you are not a Narcissus flower? Many of us would, because we’ve become so used to looking AT what we see with our eyesight as being outside of our selves, separated from us by gaps of space and by both their own and our own bodily boundaries. Do you notice how this perspective view has the effect of excluding our selves from our neighbours and neighbourhood?
Those of us who, like me, have been trained as natural scientists have even been taught that this is the only way in which we can impartially view and understand reality. We are urged to view nature as ‘third persons’ situated outside what we are observing and to analyse it anatomically into its constituent ‘parts’.
And there’s no doubt that we have learned an enormous amount via this ‘reductive’ route. For example, we would first see a Narcissus flower from outside-inwards as a star-formation of six radiating tepals (a technical name for petal-like sepals). These surround a cup called a corona. Within this is a whorl of ‘male’ pollen-bearing stamens around a central ‘female’ ovary surmounted by a receptive stigma and style through which fertilization takes place leading to fruit and seed-formation. Then, focusing down further we would recognise the tissues and cells that make up these structures. Then we would recognise the organelles, molecules and ultimately atoms and subatomic ‘particles’ within these cells.
But how much can we learn this way concerning how it really is to be a Narcissus flower? And how much would we learn concerning how it really is to be human using this same analytical process on ourselves? What would we learn about our emotions, our relationships, our place in the world? And, when it comes right down to the ultimate depth of focus at subatomic scale, how can we understand the findings of quantum mechanics?
Clearly this third-person ‘distanced learning’ from outside-inwards is not as comprehensively impartial as it is often made out to be! In fact in some ways it is profoundly biased and can be very misleading. It can even be harmful to our health, through deliberately ignoring the most deeply personal aspects of our being. Here, by way of illustration, is what Charles Darwin had to say about it:-
“A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections, — a mere heart of stone.”
That is why I invite you — and invite myself — to imagine being within a solitary Narcissus flower.
I do this because it helps us to move from reductive to receptive awareness. Receptive awareness enables a radically different, more intimate kind of understanding to come into play. We can empathise with — not distance ourselves from — what we are observing. We can begin to appreciate what we are observing — and also appreciate our selves — from inside-outwards as well as from outside-inwards. And when we do that, our situational awareness expands. We include both ourselves and our neighbours dynamically within the common space of our natural neighbourhood.
But how can we do this? Here’s how I do it:-
I look at the flower shown at the top of ‘Floral Awareness’. Now I close my eyes and reach down imaginatively into the cavity of my heart. Here I feel, often achingly, my deepest joys and sorrows. I open my eyes and take another look at the flower. Now I allow the receptive, feeling awareness in my heart cavity to be present within the central corona, where the ovary is located (shown as a dark circle in the illustration). I retain that feeling awareness as I close my eyes again.
I notice how this feeling awareness radiates out in all directions from my receptive heart-centre into an endless open field of intangible spatial stillness. I reach out to a circular perimeter within this openness from within the inner sanctum of my grail-like corona to the tips of my tepals. But my awareness doesn’t stop at this perimeter. Instead it continues infinitely outwards. I have no immediate awareness of past or future. I am simply here, now, somewhere in communion with space everywhere. All is quiet. All is calm. Blissful. Unconditional. Loving.
This is my primary, first-person, receptive awareness. I can recall it from infancy. I experience it when deep in meditation or even whilst sunbathing or floating on still water with eyes closed. My intellect is at rest. I have no thoughts or sense of my individual self-identity. I am not aware of my external appearance, or even that I have an external appearance.
Please notice that this does not mean I have no awareness. It means that my awareness is of the very deepest, dreamiest and most far-reaching kind. It is pregnant with creative potential. But I can easily forget it. When I do forget it, or even deliberately ignore it like Darwin’s scientific man, I know from personal experience that the consequences are distressing. In itself it cannot sustain my life. But without it, my life becomes insufferable in many ways. I need to hold onto it, for dear life!
Suddenly, as in the second row of ‘Floral Awareness’, my blissful first-person awareness is interrupted some distance away by another Narcissus flower. How do I feel about it? Remember that at this stage I have no awareness of my individuality. So, what am I to make of this intruder? Is it real or illusory? Is it within or outside my awareness? Is it aware of me?
Now, please imagine with me that despite being a radiant expression of plant life, I am curious and I can move bodily from one locality to another. The other Narcissus intrigues me. I want to find out more ‘about’ it. All my first-person awareness may now be withdrawn as I focus my attention on its appearance from outside-inwards. I feel a desire to analyse it from third-person distance. Since I feel no affinity with it, I can harm it.
Now I find that if I touch it, it resists the pressure of my touch, as if it has a built-in inertia that wants to stay where it is. In that touching experience I realize that I too have a resistive bodily surface, even though I may not yet be fully aware of it. If the other flower moves, I realize that it can be no longer where it was and it could also be no longer where it currently is. It has both a historical ‘past’ and a yet-to-become ‘future’, as I do, too.
I wonder what makes it move. I perceive this as an external ‘force’ — a ‘pull’ or a ‘push’. This force accelerates it across a measurable distance within a measurable duration. I have entered into pure ‘third-person’ awareness. This is what led Isaac Newton to formulate his mechanical laws of motion. It has become idealized by the analytical science and logic that isolates the ‘observer’ from the ‘observed’, and ‘self’ from ‘neighbourhood’.
I notice a lurch in the cavity of my heart as my awareness shifts from inside-outwards all-round receptivity to ‘straightforward’, narrowly focused ‘tunnel vision’. My awareness has been hugely embellished by the knowledge of tangible material form, including my own body. I may catch fascinating sight of my body in a reflective surface or photograph. But I believe that it is quite separate from other bodies, even if, like the other Narcissus, they resemble my own.
It is, quite literally, a shattering transition, like falling out of love. I leave the idyll of my primary, uninterrupted, receptive first-person awareness behind and walk straight into the grip of a mental trap. This trap fixes the position of my own and other bodies in a static box-frame of distance and duration. The latter are divided up into standard lengths, such as metres and hours, as if they are tangible substances. Now I really do feel all alone, isolated from, not all at one with everywhere. I am simultaneously an independent agent and a boxed-in definitive singleness at odds with others and my surroundings. The other Narcissus is a competitor, who I am pitted against in a life-or-death struggle for existence. So the Darwinian story of evolution tells me.
This trap can be very difficult to get out of, especially if it is constantly reinforced by your peers and teachers. Yet there is a way out, and this becomes apparent to me as soon as I allow my first-person awareness to combine fluidly with my third-person awareness in a mutually inclusive rather than mutually exclusive way.
I begin to enter the increasing intimacy of ‘second-person’ awareness if I and the other Narcissus can recognise one another as having in common both a distinctive external form and a receptive awareness radiating from within into overlap with each other. Space no longer seems to distance us but is the continuous receptive, silent, frictionless stillness everywhere that includes both of us, and that we both include in our bodies. Our bodily boundaries no longer seem to isolate us, because they are freely permeable to space as a continuous immaterial presence that cannot be cut. And because this is so, they cannot be fixed in place. They can only be formed temporarily — ultimately, at subatomic scale, through the flow of energy around local receptive centres of space.
Notice how the third person view of material bodies as inert objects that are forced into motion from outside has been turned inside-out through its mutual inclusion with first person receptive awareness. Matter is now understood to be an energetic configuration of space somewhere within space everywhere, not a rigid exclusion of space. Receptive influence is the primary source of natural motivation, not executive force!
Holding the receptive openness of space dynamically within our hearts, I and the other Narcissus feel called reciprocally into one another’s awareness We each respond energetically to this calling of mutual attraction — the love in our hearts — by drawing closer. Then, if we can attune compatibly, a binding relationship begins to develop through the reciprocal flow of energy around and between us. We each feel enlivened by this flow as we become a ‘loving couple’! But if our energy flows are not compatible, we will dissociate.
Not every loving couple lives ‘happily ever after’, however! There is a possibility that in our second-person reciprocity, I and my partner may become so intimate that we withdraw our first-person awareness from the wider-world. As a couple, we now become just as isolated from our neighbourhood as might a single individual.
Another possibility is that as a single individual aware of my own bodily form, I may form a second-person bond exclusively with myself. This is a psychological condition known as ‘narcissism’, which can result in vanity and a will to power over others.
These possibilities for ‘self-isolation’ or ‘couple-isolation’ dissipate as soon as we regain first-person awareness. Now the possibility for second-person relationship extends to groups of three or more. But again, if first-person awareness is lost, cults and cliques may form as ‘bunches of Narcissi’. This is why I remarked earlier, ‘I need to hold onto it, for dear life!’
So what does this all mean with regard to my introductory question: who or what is your neighbourhood?
What I have sought to bring out is that first-person (subjective), third-person (objective) and second-person (reciprocal) awareness each reveal a distinct aspect of our contextual situation as dynamic local inclusions and expressions of our natural neighbourhood, in variable spatial and temporal proximity to one another:-
First-person awareness reveals the receptive continuity of our beingness, radiating from inside-outwards within the infinite, intangible stillness of space everywhere.
Third-person awareness reveals the occurrence of material form and movement, as sensed from outside-inwards
Second person awareness reveals the receptive-responsive relationship between spatial stillness and energetic motion that manifests in material forms and their association and dissociation.
None of these in isolation is sufficient to yield comprehensive situational awareness of our natural neighbourhood. Each is prone to be misleading in a different way. Comprehensive situational awareness — what might aptly be called ‘4th person awareness — requires the distinctive contribution of all three in mutual correspondence. This is what I have been seeking in my explorations and explications of natural inclusionality.
As a further illustration, here is how I might draw simultaneously on my first, second and third-person awareness as a first-aider attending you in an emergency. I would draw on my first person awareness to bring a feeling of calm. I would draw on my second-person awareness to treat you with compassionate consideration as a companion human being in need of care. I would draw on my third person awareness to identify what’s wrong and what’s needed to remedy it.
Now I want briefly to highlight some further implications of natural inclusionality for our human understanding and flourishing.
- With comprehensive situational awareness comes an understanding of the reality of the natural flow geometry of current time locally within and around the continuous stillness of openly receptive space everywhere. Intangible future possibility precedes and invites tangible current actuality, just as the tangible flow of a river both creates and follows spatial paths of least resistance through landscape under the receptive influence of gravity.
- To disregard intangible reality is to create the perception that material past mechanically causes material future. To disregard tangible reality is to create the perception that ‘all is one continuum’ and tangible phenomena exist only as ‘appearances’ in the mind. Both perceptions in different ways are unworkable.
- In Nature, mechanical causation is subsidiary to situational causation. Clockwork time is subsidiary to energetic current. Material distance is subsidiary to spatial omnipresence.
- Hence we can recognise that evolution occurs primarily in response to receptive invitation, not mechanical causation.
- With this comprehensive situational awareness comes true humility. Without it comes the arrogance or humiliation of situating one’s self-identity hierarchically above or beneath others in a ‘Great Chain of Being’. Alternatively all sense of the vitality of individual uniqueness and freedom of movement is lost in a web or sea of all-oneness. In other words, instead of being understood and appreciated in context, the vitality of our ‘ego’ as a centre of receptive-responsive awareness becomes either isolated from its natural situation or lost altogether in passive self-negation.
- With true humility comes the realization that all tangible content is contextually sourced. And so the influence of our contextual situation — our ‘natural neighbourhood’ — on our lives is so comprehensive that we have very little individual responsibility for what happens. We can only respond receptively to current circumstances in which we find ourselves in order to live, love and be loved as well as we can. If we individually or collectively seek to deny this reality one way or another, we make life personally and culturally difficult for our selves.
- This realization actually frees us from the propensity to take individual credit or shoulder blame for what is perceived to go well or badly, and instead to understand how it arises primarily from our contextual situation.
- Where we recognise that our contextual situation is adverse, we can recognise why this is and seek with others’ help collectively to change it and individually to cope with and not exacerbate it. To try to do this alone is a Sisyphean task.
- Not least, we can recognise how a lack of situational awareness in one way or another contributes to a hostile culture in which we truly do ‘struggle for life’.
- With comprehensive situational awareness, we can live in a more compassionate, caring, considerate and creative way than many of us currently do.
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Future calls to current; As current flows from past; In never-ending cycles. The river’s source is in the sky; Its sink is in the sea; With shifting earth and fierce fire; Betwixt, before and aft; The end is in the opening; The opening in the end; That never closes; Less than temporarily
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Acknowledgements: I thank Roy Reynolds and Ken Masters for their helpful comments and editorial advice made during the preparation of this short essay. I am also indebted to Doug Marman for his insights into first-person, second-person and third-person ‘lenses of perception’ and how these can be used in combination to understand the receptive-responsive relationships of ‘quantum mechanics’, which reside in the origin of matter itself.