Becoming Strange Attractor

Wed, Nov 18, 2020 8-minute read

According to Wikipedia, a strange attractor is “a value toward which a system tends to evolve, for a wide variety of starting conditions of the system.” These strange attractors are emergent patterns that arise out of chaotic systems, recurring fractal vibrations in the unpredictable cacophony of the void.

When I open up X’s book to the chapter on strange attractors, (coincidently, he is a computer scientist studying fractals), it opens with this quote:

“Never in the annals of science and engineering has there been a phenomenon so ubiquitous, a paradigm so universal, or a discipline so multidisciplinary as that of chaos. Yet chaos represents only the tip of an awesome iceberg, for beneath it lies a much finer structure of immense complexity, a geometric labyrinth of endless convolutions, and a surreal landscape of enchanting beauty. The bedrock which anchors these local and global bifurcation terrains is the omnipresent nonlinearity that was once wantonly linearized by the engineers and applied scientists of yore, thereby forfeiting their only chance to grapple with reality." 

I am attracted to the strange attractor, but maybe less for the math-y bits, and more towards the “surreal landscape of enchanting beauty”. I feel drawn to the word strange, which reminds me of the Strange Stranger, a term from Timothy Morton that “names an uncanny, radically unpredictable quality of life-forms. Life-forms recede into strangeness the more we think about them, and whenever they encounter one another—the strangeness is irreducible.”

The strangeness is the irreducible gap between what we try to pin down and map, and the constantly shifting territory. It’s the space of divine mystery. For some reason, out of fear, we’ve sought to stamp out this enchanting complexity, to assimilate it into the territory of the known and the controllable. I think that we need to fall in love with this strangeness, this always receding mystery of the “other”. It reminds me of Esther Perel’s description of the paradox of love, which rests on the pillars of surrender (our need for togetherness) and autonomy (our need for separateness). Connection requires some degree of separation, of “strangeness” : 

“With too much distance, there can be no connection. But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter. When people become fused — when two become one — connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.

And then the experience of “attraction”, in the sense of being pulled towards. I’ve never really been into the new-agey “Law of Attraction” of “The Secret” theories – actually, I’m a little bit creeped out by them (but then again, I enjoy being creeped out). Maybe it’s because I don’t believe in mind over matter – for me, mind is matter, and we need to embrace a more entangled understanding of matter and meaning (in the New Materialist sense of Karen Barad). 

For me, attraction is vibing.

I think all matter vibrates, all things resonate. We swim in an ocean of frequencies. When the vibe that I put out interacts with another vibe, sometimes there is resonance, other times, dissonance. Sometimes the vibes are cacophonous waves, sometimes they sway with quiet tenderness. In fact, I enjoy it when vibes clash, most of my favourite songs contain dissonance, my favourite conversations include disagreement. Beauty transcends the binaries of right/wrong, good/bad – something ugly can be beautiful and move you. 

And in this world of vibrations matter-ing and matter vibing, what is my role as a designer (in the purest sense of design: to have intention) in complex systems? Artists are great at vibes, and the diversity of artworks created reveal the plurality of different vibes in the world. I’m sensing that I can create a vibe, but I can also tune in, modulate, and attenuate.

I’m starting to wonder if the role as designer/facilitator is to tune into different vibes and attenuate towards collective emergence – to figure out how to improvise and “jam” to make beautiful music together. What if instead of trying to pick up a thread in the entangled mass of “wicked” problems, I pluck at the thread like an instrument? What if my job is not to find the perfect intervention points to untangle the system, but to vibe at a different frequency, and then trust the cascading vibrations of the butterfly effect

That way, we are called to what Donella Meadows describes as “dancing with systems.” 

In practice, I sense that designing vibes is about unfurling the mystery behind a question, and not chasing an outcome. At a High Pitch session, Bonnie described that choice-making is “the will asking and investigating into a very interesting question of life!” What a fun and wonder-filled path of committed exploration into the unknown! And then what makes a good question? Nora Bateson, in her “Hallway of Hallways” sensemaking session describes that it is in the tone of the question: “Can your question change the tonality of what is possible?” 

Absolutely. Sometimes, I’m in sessions and workshops with people and it feels awkward at the beginning, but at some point (usually invited through an unexpected moment of vulnerability), we hit a certain generative pitch and conversation flows in this powerful natural current. In these moments, I briefly touch the Tao. 

Similarly, I’ve been noticing a lot of synchronicity in my life, where different threads, with no obvious causal relationship, weave together into a river of “meaningful coincidences” (in fact, I met someone last week with an “strange attractor” email). So what is the source of this vibrational pull to this ephemeral dance? I’ve been circling around the idea of a strange attractor being synonymous with a soul’s calling. 

Sometimes, I see my “self” as sovereign bounded identities: I am “Cheryl” and I am “Chinese-Canadian” and I am a “Woman” who is a “Systemic Designer”. Other times, I pull away the human skin and these boundaries osmose into fluid, shifting gatherings of relationships, and I see myself as a wild, chaotic and vibrating dance of particles, atoms, stardust, bacteria, and other life forms, gathered together through some mysterious gravitational pull for a short period of time – basically my “life time” – before my wave returns to the ocean. I am this strange microbiome teeming with “the uncanny, radically unpredictable quality of life forms”, a gathering of oscillating, interpenetrating waves of vibration. 

At the beginning of the summer, I decided to walk away from a hugely significant position in my life, a national systems change project that seemed to be right for me in all the ways on paper: an amazing team, values-aligned mission, a truly innovative theory of change. And it was right for me for the first two years that I worked on it – it changed me profoundly, and took me to new learning edges that overlooked beautiful vistas of potentiality. But the truth is, at some point, me and this role stopped vibing with each other. It started feeling heavy and discordant, but I was so attached to the idea of it that I held on, even though it didn’t make me want to dance anymore.  

Choosing to step back was difficult, but also one of the most resonant decisions I’ve made. It breathed life back into an important friendship, and I followed my intuition toward the unknown. I gave myself permission to not fill the gap with the next thing. Instead I was called to a question, a “receptor space”, a “Hollow”, this self-directed Masters – that has invited welcome contamination of alien vibrations and strange attractors. This was my choice.

But is it just my choice? In the queer quiet of this time, I’m listening to and noticing something different. I’m learning how to use the resonance of my body to know who or what I am attracting towards. And to know who or what is attracting me.

Bayo Akomolafe joined a session with my kinship group, and he told a story about a cetologist studying orcas:

“Studying whales was her life’s passion. She knew her way around. She knew the rituals, the technologies, the tools, the jargons, the prompts, the data. She knew what to do. But one day, quite suddenly, she didn’t. She had a session with the beasts, but quickly found out that all her prompts and expectations weren’t going according to plan. She issued a command, but there was no usual response. They didn’t push the floating ball or do whatever she had requested. Puzzled, she left for the day – only to return to the same confusing phenomenon the next day. And the day after that. She worried about them. However, she did notice that the objects of her lifelong fascination seemed to be making advances towards her in ways that didn’t seem remarkable at first, and that they seemed to be conferencing among themselves. One day, it suddenly hit her: they were studying her. Somehow, they had turned the researcher’s gaze back on her. The cetologist was now the object of cetacean scrutiny."

This story sends shivers down my spine (am I creeped out?).

A human-centred cosmology sees the human as the actor who knows her object of study. But when is the scientist being studied back? A human-centred cosmology sees the human as “finding her calling”, but who - or what - is calling her? This question at the heart of this is the strange attractor.