The Sympoiesis of Life Life-ing
I’ve been on a documentary kick lately, watching films from “The Symbiotic Earth” about the biologist Lynn Margulis, “Storytelling for Earthly Survival” about Donna Haraway, Nora Bateson’s “An Ecology of the Mind” about her father, Gregory Bateson, and “Infinite Potential” about David Bohm. They were all beautiful pieces of the same puzzle, telling stories about the way life and reality relate, evolve, and co-produce in deep, warm, vibrating, sympoiesis together.
Sympoiesis is my favourite Haraway word (response-ability is a close second): it means “making-with”. We don’t make ourselves starting with a blank slate, instead, we are thrown into a world of radical interdependence. Lynn Margulis would say that life arises in mutual co-evolution, starting from the smallest units of life where our single-cell organisms are in fact not so “single”. When Margulis was studying cell biology, she noticed that the various organelles inside of cells – like mitochondria, were descended from free-living bacteria that came to live with eukaryotes inside each other in endosymbiosis. Cells are not single-organisms, but are sexy, living ecologies.
Margulis argues for an evolutionary theory of symbiosis, of understanding life as “living-together”. She challenges the Neo-Darwinist position that the process of life is inherently competitive and selfish. But what I appreciate about Margulis’s position is that she doesn’t claim that nature is mutually beneficial in this feel-good collaborative way. Perhaps sacred ecologists can paint too optimistically naive and nurturing a picture of “Mother Earth”. Both are anthropomorphic projections of human value systems that don’t capture the deep mystery and contradictions of Life. Yes, Life is trees communicating with each other. But it’s also nature being metal.
So the container of “I” exists constitutive of the atoms, bacteria, funghi and lifeforms within the ecology of my body; my identity is constitutive of a plural pantheon of contradictory selves, always forming and evolving in relationship with larger cultural bodies that I relate with; our collective bodies of culture and society exists constitutive of all of these vibrating identities and selves. If we take Bohm’s idea of infinite interconnectedness on a quantum level: I am a tiny part – a drop of water in the vast ocean – of the cosmos, yet I also create the whole of reality within me.
Biology, Physics, and Anthropology entangles with the Eastern wisdoms, relating to the Buddhist concept of Pratītyasamutpāda: dependent co-arising. “If this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist” Or as Keiji Nishitani puts it:
“All things that are in the world are linked together, one way or the other. Not a single thing comes into being without some relationship to every other thing.”
These ways of thinking and becoming radically challenges the tenets of human exceptionalism and Western hyper-individualism in which I am encultured, where the basis of my actions is sourced from this egoic belief that “I am sovereign, independent agent.” Of course, self-sovereignty is critical. Sovereignty relates to one’s capacity to relate to, make sense of, and enact conscious choices in the world. I aspire towards the conditions (e.g. healing traumas, meeting the satisfiers of Max-Neef’s fundamental needs) that enable my independent and discerning choice-making as an expression of my existential freedom – to make meaning in a groundless world. When we advocate for the indigenous sovereignty, or community food sovereignty, it relates to a community’s power and capacity to make self-determining, self-actuating decisions around how they choose to live in the world – in its teeming plural diversity!
But thrown into the chaotic world of interdependence, I am also not in control of my destiny. No matter how attached I am to a specific outcome, chaos prevails… but perhaps with an implicate order, the mysterious evolution of metaphysical strange attractors, that is beyond my prediction and knowing.
So how to act? The non-dual nature of simultaneously surrendering and leaping makes my head spin and my heart race in the most delicious way. The tension and beauty of this radically entangled freedom is that I don’t act and make meaning (and die) alone – I make-with in community, in sympoiesis.
I am not alone.
Holding back from generosity
Gregory Bateson and Nora Bateson have this concept of schismogenesis, which literally means “creation of division.” It relates to destructive patterns of behaviour in social dynamics such as systems hold-back: “mutually aggregating spirals which lead people to hold back contributions they could make because others hold back contributions they could make.” I’m not going to give what I believe I can give because I don’t believe that others will give what they can give.
There is another, perhaps more pernicious kind of systems hold-back that I may be more guilty of: the habit of not contributing what I can because I don’t think it’s good enough.
So I’m left with the question: What leads me to hold back?
In the past, I used the innocuous excuse of shyness. Growing up, I became painfully shy when I first immigrated to Toronto from Hong Kong. I was terrified speaking to waiters or classmates and to hear the excruciating accent in my voice. I would have panic attacks before class presentations and need to be excused. My shyness was sourced from internalized shame – I was so insecure about looking stupid, saying the wrong thing, of being awkward and uncool that I was determined to retreat behind this character trait of shyness. It also gave me the protective shield to tell myself – in the playback of my fantasies – that I would and could say the perfect thing, create the perfect thing, if only I wasn’t so shy.
Shyness was the sheep’s clothing of my ego. It still lurks in the shadow of any choice I made out of fear, and most harmfully, in the subconscious projections that lead to how I cringe at and judge others. Sometimes I’m in a meeting with a group of people and I’m suddenly paralyzed by the thought of asking a question. Or I see someone who needs help on the street, but I feel too shy to intervene in case I accidentally do the wrong thing. I deflect to shyness as a convenient excuse to hold back and protect the fragility of my ego, and there is something deeply ungenerous about this.
Nora Bateson shared in the Stoa session “Deep Code Dialogues” a definition of generosity that resonates deeply:
“You talk about virtue, but it’s a very generous integrity. And generous not in the sense of “I’m going to give you one of these because I’ve got four.” But generous on the level of “This is how my heart pumps my blood to my toes.” It’s not one that makes me altruistic. It’s just life making life. It’s just Life Life-ing. And that is a generous process.”
I love this invocation of generosity, not as a decision to give something to be kind or to be a “good person”, but as a part of the greater flow of how we collectively make meaning and generate life together. By holding back from being generous, I’m not participating in the sympoiesis of the life force.
Act, when moved
Last year, I often came back to something that Russell Brand said in a podcast: “Your authentic self trumps imposter syndrome.” Hearing these words was like a heavy weight was lifted off my shoulders. I don’t need to sound smart or cool, and pre-destine this script of a “perfect self” that I must follow. I don’t need to worry about the performance of an aspirational ideal of “good Cheryl”. Perhaps we can agonize philosophically over what an “authentic self” even means (a family system of multiple selves, an underlying wise self?) but the Truth of it reveals for me in the abundance of emptiness, with the open porous container of how I receive and the implicit faith I place into words that pour out of my mouth, when I don’t know what I’m about to say.
One of the deepest spaces that I have been cultivating this generous integrity is through Collective Presencing. For an hour and a half on a weekly basis, I sit in open reception and deep listening with a group of people, intimate strangers. I breathe slowly and notice how this concept of “separate self” attached to my ego, the chatter of my mind, dissolves with every outbreath. I settle into deep attunement with my body, and focus on how waves of sensation move and crash through my body when others speak. From here, I trust this gradual build up of intense senseful energy – the quickening of a heart rate, a growing fullness in my chest, my body trembling at brighter frequencies – as the signals of arriving to participation. From this place, I speak.
When I contribute to Collective Presencing, shyness and the imposter-sense of scripting no longer holds me back. I follow the current with ease and lightness. For a while, I thought that Collective Presencing made me brave. But what feels more true is that it makes me generous in letting my authentic self flow with the wider, deeper current of the collective “We”. The aliveness of this practice makes me feel sovereign and surrendered, simultaneously.
The philosopher Paul Tillich wrote about the tension between Power, which he defines as “the drive of everything living to realize itself with increasing intensity and extensity” and Love, which is “the drive towards the unity of the separated.” As I connect more deeply with my inner knowing, I’m realizing that there is a non-duality – a complementarity – to Love and Power, and to being whole and part simultaneously.
I sense that we’re at a critical choice point: do I follow the absencing onslaught of a media cycle that reinforces and profits off fear, separation, scarcity, shame, and holding back? Or do I follow this deep primordial hunger in my body towards sympoiesis, towards making-together more enlivening ways of becoming? Because when I do, my whole self feels abundant and fulfilled – and it invites me to be generously involved with people and the more-than-human. How do we design towards this simple, elegant step of taking a deep breath and taking a Leap of Faith into the mysterious current, the Implicate Order, of the Tao?
Tillich also describes justice as “the form in which and through which love performs its work”. Perhaps a pathway towards creative justice is the distributive capacity for everyone to become self-sovereign, so that they might choose to expand it beyond the self, and make an empowered leap towards Love.