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

Dare Drive

Normal-Rockwell-Boy-on-High-DiveBless the drive
that compels you over
the great divide.
The faith
by which you take
the great leap.

You don’t need to know how to fly.
You never dive into wide open sky.
You can’t see,
yet,
the unexpected
astonishing
weaving
that will emerge beneath and before you,
a net
work
of new openings
and surprising ways forward.

 

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.

 

Replacing the Sunrise

We crossed the water –
shed –
tears.
Now the river flows the other way,
the tide
turns
over
turns
our universe,
and the sun rises from another horizon.

– Indigenous Rights Circle, KAIROS Circle fest, May 2012
I overheard a fragment of a conversation, “…replacing the sunrise…” – moved me…

Notes on a ‘Sensory Processing Disorder’ Assessment

Which of these ‘symptoms’ are actually quite healthy behaviours?
If these behaviours are understood to be symptomatic of a ‘disorder’, what is the ‘order’ from which they ‘err’.
Is that order simply the Public School system?
And given that this list of symptoms includes so many into which most active boys would fall, to what extent is this book prescribing that healthy active boys are ‘disordered’ and ‘deficient’?
Is this sexist?

Energy and imagination are generally considered an asset to any organisation, and dynamic organisations attract and respond to energetic and imaginative people. Static organisations, naturally conservative, resist high energy, deflect it away, isolate and alienate it, because it naturally threatens the ‘status quo’ of its conservative functioning.

A Theo-Poetic Essay on Consciousness and Addiction

The essay below was the sub-text (literally, the essay ran beneath the lyrics as a kind of philosophical discourse on their origins) to the liner notes to an ‘indie-rock’ album called ‘NOD’ that I wrote and produced (but never released) in 1996.

 

————————————

 

Before the beginning
there is
no womb nor tomb
nor life nor way
no thing nor nothing
neither dual nor One
nor heaven nor earth
nor moon nor sun
Before the beginning.

———————-

Buried in the earth
the potential packed shell
the seed
awakens.
Enwrapped within,
confined walled in,
its expanding begins to crack and heave.
Kept and restricted,
trapped and constricted,
stretching and pushing,
shoving cleaving
wrenching groaning,
the racked need of the stored seed
at last bursts
blasts forth
potential freed
into kinetic force
into form.

———————

Form being the perpetual kindling of creation,
the language of creation manifested to sensation.
The mortal shell of immortal possibility.
The positions between which arises tension.

The form that is consciousness is the ultimate manipulator of forms.
The pattern that is consciousness is the ultimate manipulator of patterns.
Consciousness is the particularly human strategy of survival, the eco-niche of humanity.
It’s the mediator of the human immune system with its environment.
It’s the locus of personal identity.

 

Crothers Bridge - Lower Don River

 

The etymological roots of consciousness are from the French conscience (con + science) which traces back to the Latin con, meaning ‘with’, and scire, ‘to know’. The roots of scire are related to the idea of ‘cutting through’, of ‘distinguishing and separating’, and of ‘deciding’. Scire may have originated from the Sanskrit chyati, ‘he cuts’, and the Iranian scian, ‘a knife’.
The process of transformation and development described by Creation myths the world over (Brihadarinyaka Upanisad, Enuma Elish, Genesis, etc.), traced by psychoanalysts and child psychologists and termed “individuation” (Freud, Jung, Piaget, Kohlberg, etc.) and followed by the birth and rise of civilizations and technology (Toynbee, Sorokin, McLuhan, etc.) are parallel descriptions of the birth and intensification of consciousness. In every case there is a sense of primordial unity which is subsequently split or separated. Adam and Eve “decide” to eat from the tree of knowledge and are immediately barred, separated from the unity of Paradise (Paradise: Iranian para, around, and daeza, wall [Mary Daly: “Gyn-Ecology”]). Piaget argues that in the infant there is “no definite differentiation between the self and the external world” (Piaget, “Six Psychological Studies”) while Freud, Jung and Kohlberg describe an increasing level of “individuation” (individuation, in the most general way, is understood to be the development of the ego and personality. The delineation of a sense of self and identity, a coherent and integrated pattern and a way of life) and “autonomy” as the sine qua non of healthy ego development. Toynbee and McLuhan refer to the collapse of the unity of tribal societies as they move into the fragmented, specialist, analytical modes of civilized societies.

This journey from “innocence” into “experience” has been crucial for the survival of the human species in that humans, more than other organisms, are dependent on the separation, abstraction, of the psyche from the “here and now” as a means of developing strategies, techniques and tools for survival. However, in a seemingly insurmountable exponentially intensifying feedback loop these strategies, tools and techniques are increasingly developed to adapt to human constructions and extensions – culture and technology – and to the real or imagined threats of other conscious persons, nation-states or organizations. Thus consciousness – individuation, autonomy, fragmentation and analysis – spins, gyrates in an ever increasing build-up, identical to an arms race. Consciousness is, after all, a “winner.” The greater the consciousness, the greater to degree of power to manipulate, the greater the degree of security and control.

This degree of security and control is, naturally, bought at a certain price. This price is an equally exponentially increasing feeling of separation, alienation and isolation from that “primal unity” which can now be called “Being.” In fact, at a certain point, consciousness comes to definitively dread “Being” because it has become so foreign, and because experiencing it requires the relaxation of all the skills that consciousness has so arduously acquired. As the 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “For the more helpless and destitute the mind that turns to God for support can be, the deeper the person penetrates God and the more sensitive he is to God’s most valuable gifts.” (Eckhart, Talks of Instruction.)* The last thing that consciousness is or wishes to be is “helpless.”

It can be understood, then, that consciousness is in conflict with Being. The development and evolution of consciousness is precisely “original sin;” “the fall” and the guilt associated with it is precisely the separation from, and dread of, Being. As Chuang Tzu, one of the very earliest Taoists, wrote:

The knowledge of the ancients was perfect. How
perfect? At first they did not know that there were
things. This is the most perfect knowledge, nothing
can be added. Next they knew that there were
things, but they did not yet make distinctions
between them. Next they made distinctions between
them, but they did not yet pass judgments upon them.
When judgments were passed, Tao was destroyed.

________________________________________

The fall outs of the fall are manifold, as are the attributes of consciousness – individuation, a nostalgia for order and symmetry, the differentiation between good and evil, increasing strategic competence, abstraction, time consciousness (narratization, teleology), consciousness of choice, ‘duality,’ the power to deceive and the potential for delusion, guilt and dread, alienation and addiction – which emerge simultaneously, which mutually arise. Much of this list of attributes can be underpinned by the desire for security and control which, increasing beyond a certain level, becomes a psychosis. This psychosis is directly associated with that which absolutely limits all security and control, death. Extreme consciousness has a neurotic fear of death. Death is the absolute reminder of mortality and, as Buddhist philosophy has been reminding us for a very long time, it’s the delusory desire of the ego for its own immortality which is the source of ignorance and therefore suffering.

Which brings us to “apocalypse.” Apocalypse comes from the Greek apo, ‘away from’, and kaluptein, ‘to cover’, ‘to reveal’. ‘uncovering’ carries the implication of something hidden, that which is to be ‘uncovered’. It is the nature of people who are conscious to ‘cover’ certain aspects of themselves. This ‘covering’ may be conscious – a secret or conspiracy that one doesn’t wish to be revealed – or unconscious – a complete denial of a certain aspect of the self which is too uncomfortable to admit to. A true conspiracy, like an effective ideology, is unconscious because it has become encoded into a person or culture’s description of itself. It has been sublimated into a person or culture’s identity. As identity, it is assumed, presupposed, pre-reflective. As such, it can’t be “seen” without a transformation of identity, a “metanoia,” a conversion.
________________________________________

‘Revelation’ comes from the Latin reuelare, and reuelatio, words associated with the pulling back of a curtain or veil, and the disclosure of that which was previously hidden or unknown. Addiction is all about making and living in patterns and circles of evasion and denial and so, the fact is, the last thing the addict wants is revelation. We don’t want our evasive patterns to be shown up. We’ve built our identities, cultural and personal, with them. We cling to them and we don’t want to leave them. Revelation, apocalypse, then, is a challenge to our identity.

Where there is a strong resistance to disclosure, where there is addiction, that is, where there are conspiracies and denials and personal and cultural identities founded on those conspiracies and denials, “revelation” is naturally perceived of as cataclysmic. It’s not that “apocalypse” is in itself cataclysmic. It’s the encounter of a force of energy which is in essence revelatory with that which resists revelation that is cataclysmic. If there is no resistance to revelation – if there is no addiction, conspiracy, ideology, or denial – there is no cataclysm associated with apocalypse.

Love, real love, is essentially apocalyptic in nature. Resistance to revelation, then, can be comprehended as resistance to love. Apocalypse is the character of love when it eventually breaks through the resistance and denial. That is, we experience love as apocalyptic, as violent and cataclysmic, because it is overthrowing an order that we value and cling to. It exposes our weakness and our brokenness, it reveals our vulnerability, it deeply humbles us, and so we associate it with death.

________________________________________

Denial and love can’t cohabitate. Love incessantly seeks to compassionately reveal truth, denial despises such revelation and hence despises love. If a society is living in a state of denial then it inevitably seeks to ensure that love has no possibility of setting up its tent anywhere in the vicinity. If love endures and demonstrates the tenacity to persevere in being heard and felt it will be dealt with in a variety of more or less subtle ways; from being ignored, to being ridiculed, to banishment, to outright murder.

This situation has been repeated so frequently throughout history that, were it not genuinely tragic, it would be monotonous, This conflict, of love and denial, can in fact be understood to be a central dynamism in the progress of human civilization and consciousness. It can also be understood to be a central dynamism in the development of personal consciousness.

The great paradox of extreme consciousness is that its desire for security and control, and its fear of death, involves it in a kind of panic-stricken blind flight which leads it straight to disaster and death. Its flight from death leads to death. Fortunately love is something more sublime and powerful than death. Perhaps this is why we seem to fear love even more than we fear death.

Love struggles on.

No denying

________________________________________

Nik Beeson – 1996