The Great Chain of Being (R7)


There is a certain something-or-other one might call a Whole, a Great Chain of Being, a Grand Undifferentiation, everything connected up together while seeming to be separated, the step-on-a-butterfly-in-Outer-Mongolia-and-a -little-lad-in-Birmingham-falls-off-his-bicycle syndrome. You can easily get the feeling of the Great Unity of All Being by stepping outside of a spring night to gaze up at the stars. Marcus Aurelius suggested this and Walt Whitman recorded his own reaction:-

As I watch the bright stars shining—I think a thought of the clef of the universes, and of the future.
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets, comets, asteroids,
All the substances of the same, and all that is spiritual upon the same,
All distances of place, however wide,
All distances of time—all inanimate forms,
All Souls—all living bodies, though they be ever so different, or in different worlds,
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes—the fishes, the brutes,
All men and women—me also;
All nations, colours, barbarisms, civilizations, languages;
All identities that have existed, or may exist, on this globe, or any globe;
All lives and deaths—all of the past, present, future;
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d, and shall forever span them, and compactly hold them, and enclose them.

Maybe this kind of awareness is only open to poetic souls which includes scientists with a poetic sensibility like Michio Kaku. But since, as Keats asserts, everybody is a poet there’s always time to take charge and make a change now.

Now, of this Totality, we poor mortals only experience segments, little bits chopped out of the Whole by our limited and limiting perspectives. We have a limited life-segment for a start—100 years out of trillions of possible years, if we’re careful. There are role-segments—make a career choice (or a series of them) and other choices are closed to you—if a fireman, then not a hairdresser, other things being equal. We choose segments by imprisoning ourselves in a religion or set of political beliefs—choice limits the segments we visit. We let time segment our lives by celebrating birthdays & anniversaries, by stringing ourselves on Xmas, The Sales, Easter & a holiday—endless round. We choose to belong to one group rather than another—one segment against another. And so on.

The Map Ain’t the Territory

When we’re distracted by the flow of things, lodged in the 10,000 things of the daily Territory, over-concerned with the business of living, we often stop noticing the Map, the pattern of things—we just get on with the quick fix demanded by the Territory. Things keep changing but we choose not to notice them, not to take into account ‘the difference that always makes the difference’. It’s only by the conventional signs of the Map that the differences can be charted.

In The Dramatic Universe, JGBennett divides existence into working categories which can be mapped on to the Enneagram thus:-


Wholeness, Subsistence and Structure are at the three key places in the Enneagram 9, 3, & 6—these keep the whole process in place. Wholeness (9) persists backwards and forwards forever in time and space (3) and builds into structures of form & thought (6) but other events take place in between. Division & polarities come into being to break Wholeness when we take up opposing points of view (digital thinking) (1) but, making the effort, we can perceive relationships (both-and thinking) (2) on and on (3). When we are open to experience there is always new potential (4) and fortunately things repeat themselves so that we keep getting chances to pursue other options (5). We can build structures out of apparent chaos; there emerge Strange Attractors to form the hub of structures (6) which are thoroughly individual in nature—the result of the way the individual mind figures things out (7). But we can check our own findings against those of other people to form more and more consistent, reliable & comprehensive general patterns by dint of what Bennett calls ‘progressive approximation’ (8). Openness is the key to being able to build & recognise new Wholes which feed back endlessly into the continuing systemic process. Round and round…

The internal pattern of the Enneagram can be used to break the temporal sequence and demonstrate subtler possibilities: how can polarity contribute to potential? what has individuality to do with repetition? and so on.

Each place on the Enneagram is a segment; a different way of regarding Wholeness.

By simplifying the universe, segmenting both helps and hinders—it helps to get things clear but it also digs a rut which we easily fall into; it becomes a comfortable habit to accept one thing rather than another. It saves the brain from hurting.

In making decisions for-or-against instead of going for all possible factors we limit the possibility of understanding ‘the aesthetics of cosmic interrelation’… (Gregory Bateson): meaning does not reside in an individual segment but in its relationship to all other segments. ‘The mental characteristics of a system are immanent not in some part but in the system as a whole’… That’s the nature of a system.

Systemic Thinking

Systemic thinking reveals how every bit of a process, every segment, is ‘the difference that makes the difference’ and therefore needs to be considered…

‘Mind’, for instance, has no meaning in itself but is immanent in the circuitry of the brain-body system. A simple example: where is the ‘mind’ in the activity of cutting down a tree?

‘Mind’ is not a separable segment: it is an Emergent Property of this system, amongst many others. At every stage, some difference or other, some internal adjustment, changes the nature of the task and the mind brought to life by application to the it.

‘…if you want to understand anything in human behaviour you always have to deal with total circuits, completed circuits. This is the elementary cybernetic thought…’ (Gregory Bateson) It’s only in the map that differences become apparent. The difference that makes the difference is what’s important in a system, makes it work. ‘The mental world is only maps of maps of maps ad infinitum. All phenomena are literally appearances…’ (Bateson)

We start off in life with a very rich territory; all things are possible; the young baby is totally open to all experience; pretty quickly though its attention is directed towards some things rather than others; the prison-house of formal education makes things even worse when learning acquires (often negative) emotional tone;  in spite of the fact that society in reality spurns individuality we are then encouraged to grow individual strengths and Executive-I chooses one segment of reality rather than others—we specialise, to the detriment of other possibilities; things shut down & the field stops being so rich. We stop engaging in the ‘hundreds of millions of trillions of thinkable thoughts’ (Steven Pinker) and settle on mechanical formulaic repetitive utterances—we ‘sing the same old songs’ as Gurdjieff says. But we do kick off with a ‘rich field of impressions’ and end with a not-so-rich-field:-


Multiple-I’s are Segments of Experience

The previous diagram can be expressed in terms of Multiple-I’s:-


The irony is that the formal attempt to ‘educate’ more often than not closes down possibilities. The difference that operates at each stage in the systemic process serves to shut down options so the original rich field of impressions becomes less and less rich. Every time we go the circuit we take Having-a-more-limited-view-I with us. Unless we can learn not to do so.

The Whole, the Great Chain of Being, is lost sight of by us in our little tiny segments of reality that seem so familiar and comfortable to us.

How can are we to step beyond them? How do we break the circuit?

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