from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Friday, 25 January 2013

a little matter of relationship

One of the things about living near Totnes is the astonishing amount of cutting-edge stuff going on here in the fields of ecology, spirituality, psychology, holistic science, politics and the arts. It's only a little town but, per capita, I imagine its density of people espousing the holistic model is off the scale compared with almost anywhere else.

I posted this photo a few months ago. (I'm impressed that the 'powers that be' let this remain for so long before restoring the name of Vire, the Normandy town with which it's usually twinned. Helps to have liberal Greens on the councils, no doubt.) Says a lot!

I rather take what we have for granted, having lived here before, in my 20s, and having espoused the holistic model myself via the counter-culture that I encountered as an A-level student in the early 70s, and most of my friends and the people I work with share these views, to one extent or another. It's easy to be blasé.

Sometimes it takes an 'outsider' to remind us how unusual Totnes is, how lucky we are here: ever since the Elmhirsts bought Dartington estate early in the C20th, we've had an exceptional culture of vision – the arts, ideas of sustainability and new ways of relating to spirituality flourished; and still do.

It helps that both Resurgence magazine and Kindred Spirit were embedded in our area. Both have brought many fine and well-known speakers and thinkers here, carrying on the tradition that the Elmhirsts began.

Satish Kumar, the founder editor of Resurgence, set up Schumacher College, too, in – what – perhaps the early 90s. It has a worldclass reputation for bridging the arts/science divide that the Enlightenment bequeathed us, and it seems is one of the few, if not the only, place/s where one might read Holistic Science at degree level.

One of the interesting events in the town is the monthly Consciousness Café, set up by Max Velmans, Professor of Consciousness Studies at Goldsmiths, who lives here.

Last night he brought to us Dr Claudius van Wyk, to speak on 'Complexity, holism and consciousness'. Dr van Wyk is co-founder of the new Holism and Leadership course to be offered at Schumacher next year, and is a passionate advocate of the holistic approach to science (as opposed to the usual mechanistic model).

His own particular interest lies in the science of complexity and emergence, which he sees as being a way of facilitating, among other things, a 'new holistic world economic order': one that includes and transcends diversity to find unitive consciousness.

I understand, just about, the basic concept of complexity and emergence, but as a non-scientist I'm not in any way qualified to speak on it. Some of you readers will know more than I do about it anyway, probably. One thing he said in relation to this stuck with me, though: 'Complexity theory says that if one starts with deep engagement, the process too deepens, and transformation becomes possible.'

Apart from van Wyk's interest in holistic science – or rather I should of course say 'part of his interest in holistic science' –  (he) incorporates applied ethics, sustainability and NLP ('neuro-linguistic programming' which, if you don't know this discipline, is not the frightening brainwashing model that the title might suggest, but a psychology – a profound form of learning to intervene with one's own habituated negative ways of viewing ourselves and the world by 'reframing' our experience, based – as all holistic thinking is – on an understanding of the fact that mind and matter are not really separate, and influence each other deeply).

His talk was inspiring, warm and engaging. I can't start to do him justice here, but there are a few paraphrased quotes I'd like to post, below.

A key concept in the holistic view that Van Wyk expressed well is something along the lines of 'The basic building block of the universe is not matter, but relationship, and the actions that promotes.'

We could say that that is the core idea at the heart of most spiritual systems, albeit expressed slightly differently. Arguably, 'relationship' and associated actions can be seen as an exchange of energy; again, this is a core concept in 'alternative' approaches to our view of the world.

Mechanistic science, of course, assumes a different picture: that, although energy clearly exists, matter is what's actually real, and to what one returns. Matter, says van Wyk (as I understood him), is a means of organisation of underlying relationships into recognisable outward patterns from their underpinning move towards patterning and form.

Simplistically speaking (this is me, the non-scientist, articulating my impression and paraphrasing van Wyk's elegant proposition), we could say that 'mind' is what starts to shape responses in relation to matter.

I'm reminded of Jungian James Hillman's comments on the dissociated views that we have adopted as part of our reductionist thinking, unaware as we are of the great underlying and subtle forces that shape our universe: 'Because of our neglect' (of the soul, of the spiritual dimensions of being – in other words our inability to see the universe as it really is, an interconnected and whole manifestation of Mind) 'the world is strewn with unrelated objects.'

V W opened the talk with a humorous quote from Sophia Loren, speaking on herself: 'What you see is all spaghetti.'

Van Wyk used this striking image to deliver a core thought: 'Mechanistic science cannot account for the transformation of pasta to Sophia Loren, nor of grass to horse. Holistic science can.' (I'm not sure whether that's his own thought, or whether it came from Jan Smuts, the founding father, as he sees it, of the holistic approach to the scientific worldview.)

So we moved towards the inescapable impression that the only thing that can really change the world is our transformed viewpoint.

There is much more to say, but here I will end with a beautiful closing quote: 'Mind is the eye of the universe beholding itself and knowing itself to be divine.'

Thank you, Dr van Wyk.


  1. Interesting post Roselle. I live quite near Forest Row in Sussex which I think is a similar sort of community as you describe Totnes as being, albeit probably smaller. I've read quite a bit about Totnes and its Transition Town status and how it fought off the coffee chain (Costa?)

  2. Hi Angie - Oh! I taught on the poetry summer school at Emerson for many years! Am v fond of Forest Row, and miss those days; and yes, like Stroud, there are similarities...

    Yes, Rob Hopkins who founded TT lives here (my partner's involved), and we did indeed fight off Costa - who say they admired our stance!


Blog Archive