Curiosity vs Conformity

“Curiosity… is insubordination in it’s purest form.” – Vladamir Nabakov


It’s becoming increasingly common for leadership coaches and innovation experts to espouse the benefits, and even necessity, of curiosity. And yet we also know, as I explained in a previous post, that education systems and workplaces typically discourage curiosity.

Why is this? What is it about curiosity that is so repellent?

Curiosity, actually, has a very long history of being seen as dangerous; we all know the aphorism, “Curiosity killed the cat”. The Greek myth of Pandora is the classic tale of curiosity gone awry. Zeus commissions Haephaestus to design ‘Pandora’, the first woman, as a trap for Prometheus in revenge for his stealing fire. Zeus then gives Pandora a gift on her wedding day, a beautiful jar, but forbids her from opening it to see the contents. As we all know, Pandora’s curiosity gets the better of her, releasing all the evils known to humanity. Another even more familiar creation myth is also a tale of the danger of curiosity: the story of Paradise. Eve cannot resist the temptation to eat of the apple of the tree of knowledge, the result of which is humanity being expelled from Paradise by the angry God, to live and work ever after in toil and suffering.

The stories of Pandora and Paradise have quite a few things in common. In both cases curiosity is represented by the feminine, in both cases curiosity is related to contravening a masculine authority, in both cases there is a punishment for stealing a transformational power that only the gods can have (fire and knowledge), and in both cases the punishment is permanent and catastrophic.

Evidently, according to the myths, there can be a very high price to pay for curiosity.

What is the authority that would punish curiosity?

Mario Livio states it plainly in his TedTalk ‘The Case for Curiosity’: “Who is it that doesn’t want you to be curious? Totalitarian regimes. People who have something to hide.” Trump - Media the enemy of the peopleA powerful indictment against those who reject questions! What is that totalitarian regimes do the world over: claim that the Free Press – the questioning corps – is the enemy of the people.

Curiosity – the virtuous cycle of questions – is revelatory: it wants to know… its got to know. And so, where there is much to hide, it is most unwelcome, and so it is that this essay opened with Nabakov’s exclamation that “Curiosity… is insubordination in it’s purest form.” So curiosity, in the context of political oppression, can be a cognitive Molotov cocktail.

Curiosity is typically challenging to an insecure status quo. In classrooms and also boardrooms ‘the way things are done’ can prove to be immutably resistant to change. Curiosity may question ‘the way things are done’, and make those who benefit from the way things are done feel vulnerable. This feeling of vulnerability is rarely welcome. Furthermore we live in a culture in which teachers and managers are expected to have answers. Any really good question is hard to answer… but rather than provoking a thoughtful reflection, or discussion, or avenue of exploration, in an insecure culture it will provoke a fiercely defensive rebuke.

There are, however, much more subtle, and possibly more powerful, ways in which curiosity is suffocated. If – as we learned in a previous essay – anomalies, misfits and deviations heighten curiosity, we can also say that habit and conformity suppress it. And we are indeed creatures of conformity. The renowned and somewhat disturbing series of experiments done by Solomon Asch in 1951 demonstrated with great clarity the fact that a majority of people will literally deny the evidence of what they clearly see with their very own eyes if it risks social alienation, even amongst a group of strangers. Put in a room with a small group of actors who were instructed to all agree on a patently false statement about a chart they were shown test subjects would – despite evident discomfort – almost always agree with ‘the group’. Conformity can be a great silencer of questions than threats of imprisonment.

In Susan Engels’ book ‘The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood’ she discusses a complex and subtle array of cues by which adults – parents and teachers – encourage or discourage curiosity in children. She describes how “different avenues of influence converge and blend to create an overall environment that may be more or less conducive to children’s curiosity”. “Although curiosity leads to knowledge”, Engel writes, “it can stir up trouble, and schools too often have an incentive to squelch it in favor of compliance and discipline.” (1)

Cultures of conformity – whether in homes, classrooms, tribes or workplaces – are just such ‘overall environments’. Culture is made up of webs of significance, nests of commitments, cycles of behaviour and paths of influence which mesh and blend together to create an overall environment. Cultures also have, like any organism, an immune system which a poignant curiosity may provoke, releasing the antibodies of defensiveness, shunning, demotion, degrading, expulsion, aggression, etc.


(1) Excerpt from Susan Engels, ‘The Hungry Mind’ @ Salon.com

PopUp Solo Set

I now have a pop-up solo set which I can perform most anywhere.
Folk, blues , funk punk, ambient, sound art and just plain noise,
there’s even a couple-a a-cappella, and a long poem runs through it.
Visitations from Dorothy, Abe Lincoln & Jiminy Cricket,
Improvisations, train wrecks, I can’t quite predict
how it will go,
every piece has a life of its own,

and away it goes…

Change & Technology

Curiosity & Disruption Workshop

What is Translibrium?

 QUEST-IONING HOMEOSTASIS


The object of the pilgrimage turned out to be a pilgrim.

– Jorge Luis Borges


 

cloudstorm

In 1986 I was involved in a reconnaissance of evolutionary biology. I was doing an undergrad at Trent University with a focus on the origins of consciousness (!?). I had been buried in grand speculators on the history of civilisation; Oswald Spengler, Pitrim Sorokin and Arnold Toynbee, with a nascent sprinkling of Teilhard DeChardin.

Amongst the historians Toynbee stood out for me, in large part because he was reviewed in an obscure book called ‘Experiment in Depth: A Study of the Work of Jung, Eliot and Toynbee’ by a Quaker, PW Martin, which I had stumbled on in a second-hand bookstore. Martin’s premise from reading the three authors was that cultural transformation and renewal were realised by individuals going through a quest-like ‘creative withdrawal’ from society, initiated and guided (called out) by an intrinsic creative source that Martin called ‘the deep centre’, followed by a ‘return’ to society now informed and inspired by a rejuvenated and compelling symbolic language and imperative.

Toynbee’s contribution was through his encyclopaedic survey, briefed in ‘A Study of History’, of the rise and fall of multiple civilisations, by which he derived a theory of ‘challenge and response’ to explain how and why some societies thrive and others don’t. For Toynbee the success of a civilisations was dependent on its capacity to respond to grand challenges. Civilisations succeed “not as a result of superior biological endowment or geographical environment, but as a response to a challenge in a situation of special difficulty which raises [it] to make unprecedented effort.”

From the grand historical syntheses I drifted over to Systems Theory and Cybernetics, and then from there over to evolutionary biology. And it was a first reconnaissance of that field that turned up the central thesis and nom de plume for much of the field, ‘homeostasis’.

The concept of ‘homeostasis’ was first described by Claude Bernard in 1865. Bernard held that the basis of organic survival is ‘internal fixity’. Organisms respond to challenges by returning to their original state; the ‘fixity of the internal milieu’, as he called it.   “The constancy of the internal environment” wrote Bernard, “is the condition for free and independent life.” More than half a century later, following on Bernard, the American physiologist Walter Cannon coined the term ‘homeostasis’ in 1930 to describe the ‘steady-state’ that any system requires to “maintain a constancy necessary for survival.” Internal homeostatic processes resist external pressures to maintain internal fixity. This notion quickly spread out of biology to find applications in the world of social sciences in general, and particularly Systems Theory and Cybernetics.

I had a problem with this notion of ‘homeostasis’ as a description of health.  I was an etymology junky and knew that ‘homeo’ is from the Greek meaning ‘same’ or ‘similar’, and ‘stasis’ means, you guessed it, ‘stasis’.  There was nothing that I had ever observed that could survive by staying the same or static.  So from my perspective, the notion of ‘homeostasis’ – a return to an internal fixity – was an excellent descriptor for the conditions leading to death.

Philosopher/Biologist Henri Atlan provided me with an alternate model and language.  Atlan understood organisms to have the capacity for self-organization; for emergence and newness.  In the language of biology he called ‘challenges’ ‘perturbations’. ‘Random perturbations’ are temporary disturbances to which an organism can react, neutralise, and then return to it’s original state. ‘Structural perturbations’ however are persistent, even terminal, disturbances through which an organism can survive only by elaborating a new structure.  Returning to the original state would result in obliteration.

Organisms need to continuously evolve, and their evolution creates stresses – challenges – for surrounding organisms, which must also evolve. Challenges require responses which will normally require subtle shifts in behaviour.  Greater challenges will require significant modifications, permanent structural shifts, or even full-scale migrations of identity.  Health is not the maintenance of fixity: fixity, and fixation, are fatal.  Health is a dynamic feedback requiring constant alteration, and renovation as well as periodic bouts of drastic innovation and structural transformation to respond to potentially catastrophic disruption.

As Heraclitus (is said to have) said, “You never step into the same river twice.”
And, I would add, we are all rivers.

Translibrium’ is a word I invented as a counter to ‘homeostasis’.
Trans’ comes from the Greek ‘across’, and ‘librium’ is from the Greek ‘libra’ which connotes both balance (equilibrium) and freedom (‘libre’, liberty).  Whereas ‘homeostasis’ assumes a return to an initial state as a descriptor of health, ‘translibrium’ assumes continuous adaptation as a requisite for survival.  Whereas ‘homeostasis’ emphasises returning to ‘fixity’, ‘translibrium’ emphasises a perpetual path of transformation, in response to a basic milieu of emergence and feedback, requiring novel strategies frequently characterised by an increase in complexity.

 

Homeostasis, Change, Addiction & Love

This IGNITE Talk (5 mins, 15 secs per slide – GO!) was presented at the Web of Change Conference Sept. 2013, at Balcones Springs just outside of Austin, TX. Huge thanks to the WOCMob for welcoming this errant pitch!

In response to my opening statement “I’m curious why orgs and people fiercely protect outrageous poisonous bullshit that will kill them, while resisting change that is blatantly obviously healthy and liberating.”, I trace an origin of ‘Things’ – conceptual, biological, then psychological – asserting that ego is a ‘homeostatic’ entity. I propose that ego is built up by ‘habits’ cycling around core desires, and that addiction reifies into a ‘cyclostatic’ resistance to change. Addiction is self-generating and delusional, both of which are relatively good descriptions of many orgs resistant to, for example, climate change science. Addictive structures, functioning in denial, are also exceedingly resistant to love, whose nature is revelatory. Situations where love directly encounters addiction are typically ‘apocalyptic’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning to Dance with an Absolute: Treeplanting, Disappointment, Grind & Bliss

Me, planting in N Ontario...

Me, planting in N Ontario…

There is something of a tradition amongst some Canadian youth to go north in the summer months to replant large areas of land previously logged.

Requiring long days of straight piece-work labour in all weather, in very remote areas of Canada’s north, it is considered by many to be the most physically demanding work in the country.  Some time ago, over nine seasons, I planted more than a million trees in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.

Treeplanting as Dance

Treeplanting can be dance. Admittedly, the sight of a swearing, stinking, grunting human, picking its way across a terminal landscape of splintered wood, churned up dirt, and waist high vegetation, straining against the weight of a cumbersome bag of  seedlings, shovel plunging, is a far cry from, say, ballet. But if you broaden a description of dance into any form of communication that is achieved through physicality, then treeplanting can surely be included.

The communication is not from an expressive performer to an audience through symbolic gestures: there is no performer, no audience and no symbolism. The communication is between the planter and the earth through direct contact.  The dance is improvisational in that every planter is unique, and has their own unique way of proceeding through a landscape, and every inch of that landscape is unique, and every tree that is planted is unique, and every occurrence of a tree being planted is a unique and unrepeatable event.

The dance is, however, improvisational with the provision that the terrain ultimately dictates the context and ambience with which and in which the treeplanter improvises. The terrain doesn’t improvise. The terrain doesn’t accommodate the planter. The treeplanter improvises to the absolute of the terrain. The terrain rules.

The macro-geography of a region and the logging and reforestation practices of the local contractor will dictate in a general way the kind of landscape that planters find themselves in. In Revelstoke, you’ll be choppered onto a mind numbingly steep mountainside covered in rubble and huge splintered stumps, in north Alberta you might end up pounding a big flat bed of hard clay, in North Ontario you could follow machined trenches across rock and through swamp, and on Vancouver Island you’ll carefully and deliberately pick your way through a selectively logged rainforest.

A planter may stay in one section of land, areas of between maybe a hectare to ten hectares, anywhere from a couple of hours to days and days.

And during the time you’re in that piece of land it’s your world.

It’s truly, truly astonishing the degree to which that world, that little piece of land—a fragment of a clear-cut, which is a dot on a map of the region, a region which can’t even be found on a map of the province, a province which is a little block in a map of the world, a world which is a little dot on a map of its solar system, a system which disappears completely in the immensity of the universe—becomes your entire universe.

That little piece of land, your universe and dancing partner, can take you to an utterly enchanting, ecstatic, dopamine buzzed bliss, or to the most miserable, wretched, defeated low that you’ve ever experienced. That little piece of land—be it a way overpriced glorious clean clear loamy cream patch of joy,  or the most gnarly, bristling, skin ripping, stinging nettle, wrist zapping rock pile, slash heap of pain—that little piece of land can change your life.

I’ve seen people laughing uncontrollably, hysterically singing in utter gay abandonment, blissed out until years of worry drip off their glowing faces. I’ve seen people weeping inconsolably, screaming in uncontrollable rage, throwing their shovels into the bush, attacking other planters, foremen, supervisors… all over a little patch of land. 

Rhythm, Endorphins and Solitude: Ingredients for Bliss

An aerial view taken over a recent clearcut located within the last 4percent of valley bottom old-growth that remains on southern Vancouver Island. Photo by: T.J. Watt, Utopia Photo.Trance states rely heavily on rhythm as a means of regulating breathing, motion, and thought patterns. Rhythm is, as Tom Robbins once wrote, “everything pertaining to the duration of energy”, and so it is an absolutely essential component of a treeplanter’s daily performance. Any long distance athlete knows that significant changes in speed require way more energy than keeping your performance steady at the maximum speed kept up for the duration of the event. Go the same speed, keep the same rhythm from start to finish, and you save energy.

In treeplanting you have to climb over stuff, and under stuff, and push stuff out of the way, and find where the next tree should go. One tree might take you 30 seconds to plant or the next three minutes, so any rhythm is considerably influenced by the nature of the terrain. But overriding the nature of the terrain is the planter’s level of intensity: how hard are you pushing. Remember, it’s piece-work, you’re paid for how much you plant. Treeplanters will maintain a pulse rate of 120 all day, day after day, for months. It’s truly an ultimate marathon sport. The great piston of the planter’s heart is beating and beating and beating, insistently pulsing through the whole body. The body is stressed and, as any distance athlete knows, enough pain equals – god bless them, the gain of pain—endorphins: nothing better than a little home brewed morphine to get you through the night.

There’s also solitude. Whether you plant with someone else or by yourself (solo was more common), planting is something you do on your own. You don’t have to dig a hole for anyone else, or put the tree in for anyone else, or kick the hole shut for anyone else. You do it all by yourself and for yourself. Your quality is your quality, and the number of trees you put in, and how much bread you make, and how many cigarettes you take, and how long your breaks are, is, beyond a relatively minimal level, up to you. You’re alone, on your piece of land, with your own private thoughts, in your own private universe, for hours and hours for days and days.

It’s so quiet, all you’re hearing is the sound of your body and your shovel and the birds and the weather. You haven’t spoken a sentence in hours. No one and nothing has significantly distracted you from the wide ranging of your mind. Your heart rate’s been pounding away at a steady 120, stressing your body to a degree that the old endorphins are kicking in…

Rhythm, endorphins and solitude, for days and days, can certainly set the stage for moments of bliss.

The Dance: Blissful Communion vs. Circuits, and Expectations

There’s another factor that has to occur for the bliss to happen. It’s this factor which makes ‘bliss’—a really joyous feeling of hyper-energized unity—so rare: the dance has to be good. You’re always in contact with the terrain, always in a physical communication with it, and ‘bliss’ occurs where this communication between planter and earth becomes, even if only fleetingly, communion.

Engaging in good dance with terrain is not actually easy. It’s definitely easier in easy ground, but the nature of the terrain isn’t really the decisive factor in good dance. The decisive factor is what’s going on inside your head.

Hours and hours of solitude doesn’t necessarily result in mental relaxation or ease.  For a lot of us, it means that our poor little brains, unhinged from the normal conditions and limitations of other people, syntax and reality checks, go on lengthy and unbridled gallops through the future, the past, the possible, the impossible, the what ifs and the if-onlys of an entire lifetime and a life to come. The time you threw up in class, the girl you wished, the woman you miss, the book you’re writing, the land someone else has, why did he say, what did she mean by that, if only I could the time you threw up in class the girl that you wished… ad infinitum…

These little ‘reels’ have a kind of a circuit. On a good day, it is fairly expansive and on a bad day it is about as long as a breath of air—returning over and over and over to the same goddam problem that it didn’t resolve yesterday, or an hour ago, or a few minutes ago, or every second second for the last three hours. Such brain blathering, which can seem impossible to control, is hardly conducive to beautiful ‘blissful communion’ with the terrain… or with anything else for that matter.

Another thing that is not conducive to ‘blissful communion’ is expectation.

Every piece of land is different, and within one piece of land there can be a wide variety of terrain. Every place you step is like no other place. But what tends to happen is the old brain, while it’s haphazardly journeying around, accustoms itself to a certain kind of terrain.

The most extreme example of this is to send somebody who has been in a bit of a cream patch (really easy terrain where it’s easy to make really good coin) for a while into a pile of slash (extremely difficult terrain covered in piled up debris), or somebody whose accustomed to clear scarification—land prepared by machinery— into unscarified land. You end up bringing where you were, popping in trees at high speed, into where you are, which, as it turns out, is a place you can’t do that.

So there’s this conflict between what’s in your body and your head, and your desire and expectation for success, and the actual conditions you’re faced with. Fighting conditions through fits of expletives, or trashing your body in a rage against rocks, wood and dirt, has no effect on the terrain.

Expectations also play a huge role regardless of the terrain a planter’s been in. Everyone deserves to make decent coin for hard work. And everyone wants to feel that, if they’re working pretty hard, they should be able to plant roughly as much as everyone else, and most folks are a little competitive (and some are very competitive). You walk onto your turf with what may be a fairly fixed set of expectations in your head and in your body: a goal for the day, for the week, for the next few hours. But the terrain couldn’t give a shit what’s in your head, what hopes you have, or what desires you wish to realize. It’s just there, being what it is, wholly oblivious to your hyper-conscious machinations. And, to repeat, the terrain rules.

Disappointment and the Ground

Disappointment is the best chariot on the road of the dharma.”  So said Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist poet-scholar and artist and general crazy person now six-feet under. It’s a phrase which has recurred to me in planting probably more than any other phrase besides certain combinations of profanities.

Disappointment brings you down, in the most certain and concrete way, to where you really are. It’s the place where your expectations and desires get thoroughly trounced by the reality of your situation. In treeplanting, the terrain is the reality of your situation and the degree to which you adjust to it, maneuvering your own limitations into a relationship with it.

When you quit wishing the ground was something different—easier, faster—when you quit hoping for something else, when you accept the terrain for just what it is, then your feet, and your whole body, can touch and feel and make full contact with the ground. And when your feet are on the ground, loving gravity, the chattering and hoping anxiety evaporates. Then you’re really making contact and moving with the terrain, making no judgements of it, making no demands on it, just finding the best possible path through what’s there, moment to moment. And your body just knows what to do, flowing from plantable spot to plantable spot in a perfect fluid economy of movement that feels… fantastic!

You’re a wild thing, a mobile attribute of the terrain itself, inseparable from it, conforming perfectly to it…

And you know, when the dance is good, it’s really good: it’s not only a dance, it’s sex. After all, there you are, penetrating the good and great ground, rhythmically pumping your shovel into the earth, plunging your hands deep into its loins with freshly incubated seedlings. Day after day, grinding the ground, spreading seeds by the thousands, into the soil, into the clay, amongst the rocks, through the woods, into the slash, and deep into the primal, moist, wet swamp.

“Disappointment is the best chariot on the road of the dharma”

If, as Chogyam Trungpa wrote, “Disappointment is the best chariot on the road of the dharma”, does that mean that enlightenment is best defined as ‘ultimate disappointment’?

 

Disappointment

God & Science

GodEvolutionConsciousnessIf God is defined as the most fruitful relationship possible between consciousness and evolution:
Science is God’s sandbox.
Science is God’s workshop.
Science is God’s kitchen.

Consciousness procreates doubt.

Consciousness procreates doubt.