To turn, to turn it will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right…
Ah. visions. What are they but the magic of our imagination orienting us to the tentative direction of our unplanned journey? My life is enriched by three kinds of visions these days. The first are fantasy or sci-fi type of stories that focus on a particular puzzle worked out within an interesting, well-crafted world. Reading Door into Ocean showed me that it is possible for a smallish, peaceable population to prevail over a large conquering army. Just like Verne’s captain Nemo convinced many a 19th century reader that submarines were the wave of the future.
The second kind of vision comes to me largely unbidden. Every so often, it’s in the writings of a fellow uncivver that such sweet fancy comes alive. And for the last year or two, as I’ve carried inside me the dream of living outside Babylon, vivid, unexpected reveries have enlivened my quotidian at odd times, often just before sleep. They gift me with a sliver of another, unbabylonish, world as if I were walking it already.
This night, I find myself in a world without doctors. After all, “we” (the unbabylonians) are equals – the very concept of a “doctor” jars one’s sensibility! Instead, we have healers. Some have degrees, some don’t. What matters among us is particular expertise, personal experience with the disorder, and carefully tracked reputation.
But I need to be clearer. We don’t just “have” healers. We all are healers. If you join us, someone’s sure to be asking you about your healing gifts, and plugging them into our grapevine. We are always learning from one another, sharing new discoveries, and the young people learn basic healing skills when still little tykes. Oh, we do visit a doctor in Babylon, here and there. They tend to be good with diagnosis, acute illnesses and injuries. We feel sorry for them — they are compelled to hoard their knowledge, and have no time to listen or to learn from their patients. Here, we have full access to each other’s healing skills. We practice lifelong peer-to-peer medicine. In Babylon, such behavior is illegal. To us, it’s common sense.
Athletes often visualize or otherwise sense themselves into jumping higher or twisting into a yet more complex and daring high dive. So I too invite in visions of what living outside of Babylon may be like, feel like. I can now stand on the threshold and peer in, catching a fleeting glimpse. These sensings will grow stronger over time as we walk out of Babylon, step by step. The lay of the land will grow clearer before us, the people more real, the direction more sure. What has begun as a collection of jumbled beads, of fuzzy tentative vignettes, will become a radiant necklace of stories that increasingly become our own true stories. The world we are coming to inhabit will gain color, heft, and taste as we go through the cycles of visioning, walking and changing.
And third, I am now focusing on the pattern Christopher Alexander describes and uses. This vision arises out of feeling and experience. But I’ll let him tell it. (When he talks of “life” he means places and objects that generate a deep feeling in the person who encounters them.)
Feeling must be the clue to wholeness. I once had an interesting discussion with Sim Van der Ryn. He was arguing that feeling was not enough. In his view it was too emotional. For instance, he said: “In making a sustainable fishpond that works, you just have to concentrate on the facts about fish life, water, plants, and so on, ecological facts about a healthy pond.” I told him: “It is true that these ecological facts are a necessary part of our knowledge, our understanding of how to make a pond. And it is true that many of us know too little about what it requires to make the world sustainable, harmonious in its biological and chemical detail, and so on.
But suppose, indeed, that we are trying to build a fishpond. The facts about the ecology of the pond — no matter how detailed themselves — will not tell us how to make that pond good. Even if we have theories and facts about sustainability, edge plants, fish breeding, water temperature, types of weed, types of insect, and so on — even with all of this we will not succeed in making the pond have life unless we also have a clear inner feeling — a subliminal perception, and awareness, and anticipation — of what life in the pond will be like.” That means we must have a dim awareness within us, of what a pond with life is like, as a whole and in its feeling. If we do have that feeling of life clear (for the fishpond), we can then use it to guide us. It will help us move towards a pond which does have life. But if we do not have such a feeling clear in us, no amount of knowledge about ecology and sustainability will get us to a pond that has life in the sense I am discussing. We shall just be left scrambling mentally, churning about, marshaling our facts, making experiments perhaps — but still not clarified by an inner vision of what to do. Building the pond, stocking it, putting weeds in it, placing bushes around it, we need to be guided by an inner vision of good life in this pond. We must have a feeling in us, which will reliably tell us when we are going in the right direction, and when we are going in the wrong direction. It is ultimately this inner feeling, this inner vision of feeling, which is our only reliable (and necessary) guide.
In short, we must be able to imagine the pond — not as a copy of another pond, or with detailed factual vision about dimension, depth, plants. We must be able to summon up, inside us, an inner sensation of the feeling of a healthy pond, which makes us remember or create the kind of feeling which a good fishpond has: the slow movement of the fish, the light on the water, the kinds of things that may be present at the edge — all this, not in biological or architectural detail — but as a morphological feeling which allows me, in my inner eye, with my eyes closed, to remember, breathe, the kind of soft and subtle feeling of life which such a pond requires. It is that vision of feeling which, above all, must guide me.
One of the important things Alexander stresses is the vagueness of the initial vision. In “creative visualization” exercises people are urged to focus on great many details clearly portrayed. The planning mindset assumes that the better present will emerge out of a future carefully articulated. Alexander advocates the opposite. He speaks of the “dimly held vision of emotional substance.” I find his appeal to fuzzy logic meaningful because as I have been learning more about complexity and journey-focused lifepaths, initial clarity now seems to do violence to something that needs to begin where we are: unclear, seeing as in a glass, darkly, making tentative first steps in response to a faint sound in the fog. I find Alexander’s way very intriguing at this stage in my life, because I have become convinced that it is a certain feeling that must lead us, obviating the lure of instrumental rationality that has so long held us in its thrall.
I am no longer drawn to formal visioning exercises along with the various efforts to craft vision and mission statements. Yet I recognize that all sorts of visionings work and can be of use in particular situations, as long as they are brief interludes within a larger, never-ending, spiraling creative wisdom process. Perhaps we need to use visioning tools in a more discerning fashion, looking for the right tool for a particular situation, leery of over-determined rational visions that can lead astray.
Many groups as well as budding entrepreneurs make the mistake of pouring their energies into a massive visioning/planning effort. (Been there, done that.) When they finally come to implementation, they choke and fall off a cliff. Why? Because the vision has become too big, too grandiose, too imagination-heavy, and to jump into such an ambitious implementation is far far riskier than starting with an itty bitty fuzzy vision and trying it out in itty bitty chunks.
I confess to have grown skeptical of the value of visions that project many years ahead, and then try to figure out how to get there. I don’t want to say it never works. If you live in Florida and want to live in London a year from now, such a process can come in handy. But suppose you are one of those young men with the wonderful flapping flying machines in, what? 1890s?, would it do you any good to imagine what airplanes might be like in 1920, and then back-cast? Would a toddler profit by visioning exercises showing what her walking might be like when she is an adult? Would I gain by imagining my life when I am 80 and base my decisions on that today?!
An interesting conundrum, this. If you are 30 years old, is it helpful to imagine what you want your life to be when you are 60? In some respects, it may be. Perhaps it will get you to save for retirement. But overall, it seems to me that the person you’ll be at 40, 50 and 60 deserves to make her own choices rather than follow the vision you crafted for her at 30. Nobody wants to live a pre-thought life! (Here I am invariably reminded of the Saturday Night Live skit featuring a restaurant that serves pre-chewed steak. ;))
A true vision wells up. If it’s not already in the heart, no amount of clever exercises will bring it forth. Oftentimes, the vision is already carried by those who “show up.” The young man walking up into the hills to join the partisans need not spend any time visioning. He already knows, deep inside, regardless of whether he has ever articulated it, that he is there because he wants to take the land back from the Nazis. Budding permies or Transitioners carry their own vision to the very first project or workshop. If I ever join a gathering Transition group, I would like to begin by sharing the visions each of us brings to the undertaking. Like telling stories around the fire…. letting the visions flutter in the flickering darkness and stir we-know-not-what distant whirlpools of energy that will draw us thither. And then, we move right into doing.
An Alexandrian meditation on visions wraps it up…
In the course of using this method, we shall also find, from time to time, that as we move forward, before we take an action, we can grasp the latent structure as an emotional substance, we may feel it as a vision — a dimly held feeling which describes where we are going, but is not yet concrete, in physical and geometrical terms. This means we can sense, ahead of time, the quality of the completed whole, even when we cannot yet visualize it. We then keep this quality alive in our minds and use it as the basic guiding light, which steers us towards our target. The final target, then, has the feeling which we anticipated much earlier, but often has an unexpected, unfamiliar geometry.
The feeling which steers us in this fashion is a vision — but it is not an arbitrarily invented vision. It is a vision of something we may call the emotional substance of the coming work, a feeling which arises in us, as a response to the wholeness which exists. It is therefore reasonably accurate, reliable, and stable. We can get it, and then keep on coming back to it. It evolves, as the project does, and as our concrete understanding evolves. Thus, as the geometry develops, the feeling is kept intact, but becomes more and more solid provided we do not depart from the feeling that existed in us at the beginning. So, this feeling which guides us is our response to the wholeness — first to that wholeness which existed at the beginning. Subsequently it is our response to the wholeness as it evolves and emerges from our actions. It is our knowledge of what kind of thing is needed to complete that wholeness, and make it more alive.
I have previously described wholeness in mathematical detail so that we understand the wholeness as a real structure. It is something real and substantial in the world. But even though it can be described as a mathematical structure, it is too complex to take in by purely analytical means. In order to get the whole, to grasp it, one must feel it. Its wholeness can be felt. Using our own feeling as a way of grasping the whole, we can put ourselves in a receptive mode in which we grasp, and respond to, the existing wholeness together with its latent structure. This is not an emotional move away from precision. It is, rather, a move towards precision.
The feeling we seek is a condition in which the artist, builder, or participant opens himself to the whole, allows the whole to appear within him, and allows it to act within him: It is, then, the feeling which arises from the work itself. Above all, that which is latent, the structure just below the surface that is “trying” to appear, can be felt. And this is the core of what must be observed, felt, and perceived in order to make structure-preserving transformations feasible. Thus, during a living process, feeling is being used as the surest and most reliable way for the artist or builder to receive the wholeness, nourish it, and respond to it, preserve it, and enhance it.