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Waking Up into Wholeness, Dialogue and Mystery

Tom Atlee's September 2003 commentary on Donald Michael's "Some Observations Regarding a Missing Elephant"

Donald Michael's essay "Some Observations Regarding a Missing Elephant" (see summary at the end of this article) offers a clear statement of the limits of our knowledge and provides usefully humbling advice about how to live with uncertainty, with compassion for our fellow humans immersed in the mystery of life.

Not everyone values that perspective. Some have been critical of Michael's assertion that "we do not know what we are talking about in the large when we try to deal with any of the human issues we face." They suggest that while our knowledge may be limited, in many circumstances we can still say we know enough about what we are talking about.

Still others have taken this critical analysis further, saying that the problems identified by Michael are characteristic of the linear Modernist worldview. Especially at this late stage of its evolution, Modernist/postmodern culture is becoming increasingly incapable of producing the wisdom we need to sustain life on earth -- wisdom that may well emerge into common knowledge as a new global culture is born. (For a good treatment of this, see Paul Ray's response to Michael )*

(See also "What is the relationship between not-knowing and taking action?")

I see wisdom in all these perspectives.

But I want to take a moment to note something common in such responses -- the tendency to accept or reject what someone says. The speaker must, in general, be either right or wrong, and we need to get clear about which it is and convince each other.

I would like to first challenge that assumption, and then take the discussion in a different direction.

Ordinary discrimination involves judging whether something is, in the large, right or wrong, so that we can get clear about whether to accept or reject it. This is very efficient, relieving us of the effort of thinking about it (or our own reactions) further, or needing to delve into its nuances, complexities or possible changes.

One of my great teachers of wholeness, Dr. Charles Johnston, suggested that all things, all situations, all people offer us both gifts and limitations. If this is true, he suggested, then our job is not so much to pass judgment, as to engage with the fullness of things, to "look at life from both sides now" and not close ourselves down.

We are called to practice "holistic discrimination" in which we learn to appreciate and make use of the evolving gifts life presents in each situation, while finding ways to transcend the limitations or problems we find in it. We might find in this practice an enlightening engagement of the sort that Rumi spoke of when he said "Out beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there."

So what would we find if we applied this to "Observations Regarding a Missing Elephant"?

I think the greatest gift in Michael's article is his articulate crystalization of the limits of human knowledge. No matter how far we extend human knowledge, we always come upon limits. There are things we either can't know, or can't know for certain, or cannot know in time, or cannot integrate adequately with other knowledge. At these limits we face choices about what to attend to, mediated by what we consider relevant -- or at least confrontable. We also face choices about our stance towards what we know and don't know.

The polarized archetypal stances are arrogance and humility. To the extent we are arrogant, we presume the validity of our certainties, ignoring contrary information and dismissing other views. To the extent we are humble, we presume that what we think we know is conditional, that it is only one of many possible ways to view things. Michael makes the case for humility, which can be a big help in a world where arrogance can be (and is) massively destructive.

But Michael's critics are also right. He is caught in a paradigm that equates knowledge with the accumulation and processing of information. But the wholes that await our knowing are greater than the sum of their informational parts. There are more holistic paradigms of knowledge than Michael seems aware of. For example, knowledge can arise as instantaneous insight or intuition, based on precious little "information" -- a direct encounter with the Whole, not the pieces. One can also set up systems that self-organize information so that the relevant pieces leap out of the whole, as they do in a Google search, or in the responses to an email sent to a dozen select friends asking about good restaurants (as contrasted with wading through a restaurant guide). In these cases, information doesn't "add up" to knowledge. The knowledge presents itself to us, already formed.

Quantum physicist and dialogue innovator David Bohm conceived the world as made up of the "implicate order" -- a realm of potential from which all phenomena arise -- and the "explicate order" -- the realm of experienced phenomena. He said that phenomena appear through "relevation" -- elevating (rising) into existence according to their relevance. In other words, things are called into being by everything else, because they are relevant or needed as a piece of what is happening next.

Understandings, decisions and actions often relevate, with or without informational support, often based on fields of "information" so subtle that people like Donald Michael wouldn't even recognize them as information. The fast, intricately appropriate actions of masters of Aikido , jazz improvisation and basketball are all unfolding in a holistic mode where each next move relevates in perfect harmony with what came before and with the larger context that calls it forth. There is nothing calculating about it.

Buddhists speak of "dependent co-arising" -- things coming into being together because of each other. The universe is in some essential way co-creative, co-evocative or, as David Spangler says, co-incarnational. The more attuned we are to realms in and around us, the more naturally we can move with that dance fluidly, instead of mechanically piecing together information to guide us.

That attunement can come from deep relationships with others or nature. It can come from deep insight and transcendent levels of spiritual development. It can come from systems thinking -- from computer modelling complex feedback loops, designing ecosystems using permaculture, seeing the Earth as our Mother worth of respect, not exploitation, and so on. And it can come from seeking and engaging creatively with diversity, as happens in well-facilitated dialogues and heartful conversations.

This latter point is what came up for me when I first read Donald Michael's article. In retelling the story of "the blind men and the elephant," he saw the blind men's diverse perspectives as a PROBLEM, as if he were wailing "How will we ever bring them together into one view?!" In contrast, I see their diverse perspectives as a resource for wisdom.

The fact is that an elephant IS like a snake and a tree and a giant leaf, depending on which part you are feeling. If the blind men RESPECT their differences as potentially valuable pieces of the puzzle, and talk together until they come to a shared understanding -- whether an exciting group "aha!" experience or a carefully crafted "working hypothesis" -- the chances are that what they come up with (for example: "It definitely seems like an elephant") will be more comprehensive, more useful, more wise than whatever they had when they started.

This is not to say that they will have escaped the limits of human knowledge. Not at all. After all, as Donald Michael says, it might not BE an elephant. But they will have advanced the frontier of their knowledge together and, to the extent they REMAIN in inquiry together and remain collectively humble instead of arrogant, they will learn more about the gifts and limitations of their discoveries as they proceed. Their emerging view of the world will become evermore accurate, useful and wise.

Useful because, ultimately, life's decisions and activities are not based on complete knowledge. They are based on approximations and playing with probabililties, probabilities that improve the more we learn about and sensitize ourselves to the situations we face. But they are probabilities, nevertheless, not certainties. We don't KNOW that our house or our economy will still be in its current operational form tomorrow. We act AS IF such things will be -- or AS IF they won't, depending on our inclinations. And out of our diverse collective dreams and assumptions, the events of our collective lives unfold.

Quantum physicists and complexity scientists remind us that the universe is constructed out of energetic fields of probability, not solid chunks of matter. There is a certain aliveness there, a responsiveness then, that not only makes tomorrow's outcomes uncertain, but increases the role we can play, depending on how creatively we engage with life. So we can choose to stay grounded both in Donald Michael's well-articulated humility about our limits AND in the deep holistic knowledge of the world given by elders, living systems science and Spirit, unattached to outcomes but intending the best, joining our hearts and minds in the planting, harvesting, feasting, digesting and composting of life's ever-changing discoveries about itself, through us.

So we find that Michael's gift of insight is deeply true and critically important, while at the same time being profoundly limited. I believe every one of his statements contains powerful truths that can nurture our humility and compassion. But I aslo think we can extend our knowing farther than he acknowledges before we reach our limits, and that those limits, respected and befriended, may be more benevolent than Micheal may have realized. Here are some of the relevant factors as I see them:

a) The limitations of linear knowledge and certainty do not constrain other forms of knowing. We can use more holistic forms of knowing -- intuition, systems thinking, story, spiritual insights that tap into the deep dynamics of life, etc. -- to complement, guide and extend the power of our linear reason and fact-based intelligence. The more we can integrate them all, the farther into life we can dependably extend our knowing.

b) Although our different perspectives are too often viewed as barriers to agreement, they can just as well be resources for deeper understanding of the complexities we face. It depends on how they are used. High quality dialogue has tremendous power to use diversity creatively, to bring the pieces of life's puzzles together into a Bigger Picture.

c) There is more to certainty than prediction and control. A different kind of certainty can arise from deep groundedness in universal truths about the relatedness of life, from plumbing the depths of our humanity and from living lives of integrity and open-hearted, open-minded, wide-ranging experience. This latter certainty is not hard and brittle, but receptive, compassionate and humble. It is usually called wisdom and it concerns itself with what is most essential for sustained quality of life, particularly compassion, partnership, synergy and other dimensions of healthy relationship with each other and with the whole of life.

d) The fact that we can't know and control everything, suggests that the Ultimate Mystery may contain a lesson for us: Life is not just about getting our way. It is about realizing and accepting what we can't or shouldn't control so that we can wake up to the freedom of dancing and co-creating with life in all its meandery ways. Perhaps life is at least as much about becoming fully alive as it is about getting things under control.

e) Finally, I want to highlight the problem of citizenship in a complex world, as so poignantly footnoted by Michael when he said, "Because it takes time and effort to dig and check and to deal with other people who have different value priorities... there are only a few things that you can be up on at any given time... {T]his is a very serious unsolved... challenge for effective participation in the democratic process." He is painfully right. There are hundreds of issues that we, as citizens, "should" be informed about. The fact that we can't be, makes a mockery of democracies grounded in individual citizenship via the vote.

The challenges of complexity makes it much easier for special interests to manipulate us, satisfying our info-hunger and short-circuiting our curiosity with only one side of the picture, heavily laden with carefully researched emotional imagery and language.

This is where randomly selected citizen deliberative councils like citizens juries and consensus conferences <> can play a powerful role in our political life. These temporary groups of ordinary citizens are specially convened to "dig and check and deal with other people who have different value priorities" so that they become, in effect, trustworthy citizen experts who can free us from dependence on (and vulnerability to) special interests of all kinds and all "sides". We could demand that such councils be convened for every issue -- not just once but repeatedly -- to provide us with ongoing holistic guidance -- insight that arises from the full spectrum of information being passed through the prism of our community's diverse collective values. This is precious information -- a kind of unprecedented information that exists nowhere else -- which We the People could produce whenever we wanted it.

The understandings and recommendations generated by citizen deliberative councils, distilled from the best thinking and dialogue of ordinary, fully diverse and well informed citizens, ultimately transcends the concept "information" and reflects the latent wisdom of the community. It provides us with a level of COLLECTIVE citizenship that can redeem the subversion of individual citizenship bemoaned by Donald Michael.

So in the end I think if we can face the intrinsic uncertainty of life, befriend the deepest Mystery, and learn to really hear each other in all our diversity, we WILL be able to know enough to decide and act and dance our way together into a better world, into tomorrows that make more and more sense, learning as we go.

The elephants we discover will live to the age they were meant to live. And when one day we discover they aren't elephants after all, they'll fly away....


_ _ _ _ _ _ _

SUMMARY OF Donald Michael's essay "Observations Regarding a Missing Elephant"<>

Using the tale of the blind men and the elephant,* Michael suggests that the storyteller only THINKS he knows that the blind men are feeling around an elephant, whereas in fact there is no elephant there. The storyteller thinks he's looking at an elephant, but he's as mistaken as the blind man who thinks he's feeling a tree trunk. Ultimately, we are all involved in a mystery of insurmountable proportions -- which, says Michael, should give us pause.

In detailing our condition, he makes the following points (which are stated largely, but not totally, in his words):

Our situation: We don't actually know what we're talking about in the large, when we face the great issues of our time.

1. We have too little -- and too much! -- information to reach knowledgeable consensus and interpretation within the time available for action.

2. There is no shared reliable set of value priorities in place that can be used to choose decisively among options.

3. In any situation, we face radical uncertainty about how much of the situation's context is relevant and vital to guide our thoughts and actions.

4. Our linear language cannot adequately map the complexity we face. It especially fails to engage multiple, highly interrelated factors simultaneously. It even obscures holistic simplicities by cutting up reality into ever-finer pieces, granting these false independence, and then linking them in complicated webs of falaciously linear relationships.

5. Thanks to cultural mixing, freedom of expression, scientific discovery, technological powers reaching beyond normalcy, postmodernism and many other factors, the boundaries that once defined the realities of our tribal everyday lives have begun to melt into relativity and ambiguity, radically undermining our ability to feel certain of anything.

6. We often act out our shadow -- our unconscious instincts, motives, conflicts and irrationality -- in ways that subvert the shared order needed to make sense of life together. The tendency of cultures to suppress and channel the shadow into patterns that make parochial sense no longer works so well in pluralistic postmodern mass cultures.

Michael offers a solution: Rediscover our humanity and humility by acknowledging the fact that none of us really knows what we are talking about in the large.

1. Recognize that, given our neurology, our shaping through evolutionary processes, we are, unavoidably, seekers of meaning. Each of us needs to be self-conscious about our deep need for there to be an elephant or for someone to tell us there really is an elephant -- even if we know there isn't.

2. Acknowledge the vulnerability, finiteness and relativity of ourselves and everything we know and do. Be less attached to outcomes, which are unpredictable and uncontrollable.

3. Be humble. Let go of pride and arrogance and the conviction that we uniquely know what is right and wrong, what must be done, and how to do it.

4. Act in the spirit of hope, doing what we can to make a difference in full awareness of our limitations and the ultimate mystery of life. Act as consciously as we can, knowing that not acting is also action.

5. Act with "tentative commitment" -- being willing to look at situations carefully enough, to risk enough, to contribute enough effort, to hope enough, to undertake our projects AND to be ready to change not only how we are doing it, but whether we do it at all.

6. Be "context alert" as a moral and operational necessity, mindful that we can only be deeply understanding of very few things. (Michael notes that "this is a very serious unsolved, indeed unformulated, challenge for effective participation in the democratic process" -- a problem well addressed by citizen deliberative councils, as noted above.)

7. Be a learner/teacher, a guide in the wilderness, dealing more with questions than answers.

8. Practice compassion. Given our remarkable ignorance and necessary illusion -- and our deep need for meaning -- facing life requires all the compassion we can muster for others and for ourselves. We all need help facing this reality.

* NOTE: A subscriber to our bulletins alerted me to the stereotype of blind people given in the story of the elephant. Blind people "are not less knowledgeable," she said, "they are not less capable, they do not, with proper training, fumble and bumble in the dark." There are many senses and forms of awareness that blind people tend to develop more fully than sighted people, that sight short-circuits. It would be enlightening to hear a fable in which sighted people, because of their sight, miss important information that blind people pick up. This would complement and detoxify the story of the blind men and the elephant. We need the ears of the blind and the eyes of the deaf to teach us. Ultimately, our diversity -- well used -- will heal our obliviousness far more than caricaturing each other's seeming limitations.


(See also "What is the relationship between not-knowing and taking action?"")

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