Holding paradox

A quote I’m pondering —

“Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, ‘What else could this mean?”

― Shannon L. Alder

What if we were to hold paradox and complexity, and pause - without feeling the need to jump to conclusions, to have the "right" answer.

What if our education system rewarded this sort of behaviour - instead of breeding people who thrive off competition, one-upping, and getting the answer before anybody else?

What if we asked the question: "What does it feel like to be you?"

Da Vinci, Biomimicry, and the Right-side of the Brain

Walking through the Da Vinci museum in Rome, I was filled with awe and admiration at the prolific inventions, designs, drawings, and totally different ways of thinking so characteristic to Da Vinci. He has been a mentor-beyond-the-grave for me throughout my life, starting from when I was very young and used to sketch anatomical drawings from a huge book filled with sketches from Da Vinci. I always loved how in the presence of his work, I felt comfortable about the lack of distinction between 'Art' or 'Science' - both fed each other for him, as they have for me. 
 

This time round studying his works, I was also struck by how strong the practise of Biomimicry was in his works and way of thinking. He, too, also looked to Nature and her mechanisms for inspiration in his inventions, and would obsessively study the human body and intricate workings in a hope to build better machines. 
 

It also reminded me of my decidedly left-handedness since a young age. I have been independently researching some of the studies of the 20th century that led us to understand the complex functions of the right-side of the brain. While the left-side of the brain which controls the right hand, and promotes rational, sequential, logical and 'time-based' thinking, the right is the majority contributor to our intuitive thinking, holistic thought and understanding, subjective and 'space-based' thinking. The left hemisphere (right side) is also the verbal processor - which often makes it difficult for the right side of the brain to translate its realisations and intuitions into words - and some say has even had consequences in the language we use to describe 'left' and 'right'.


'Left' in French is 'gauche', meaning 'awkward'; in Italian 'sinistre', meaning sinister, dark, or bad. It's quite a chicken-and-egg situation, but we now have evolved as a society into one that promotes left-brain thinking in the way we provide education, test our students, and expect people to behave in organisations, even making some of the left-brain characteristic synonymous with what it means to be 'professional'. 
 

I found it impossibly difficult to leave Art behind when having to choose between Art and Science at university - it felt like being severed in two. Luckily there was also a lot of space for creativity within the field of Molecular Biology and even learning about the neural underpinnings in Neuroscience, but still - it often felt like my right-brain self was not totally at home in our left-brain world. 
 

Hand preference is the most visible outward sign of how an individual's brain is organised. Swapping hands in writing and other tasks can also help stimulate and strengthen different sides of the brain. Even better is to engage in activities that different sides of the brain 'win' at, and doing exercises that tease out your less-dominant side. I'm currently developing some workshop exercises around this topic, and creativity - if this is something that interests you or you know about, please get in touch!
 

When I first started writing as a child, I wrote with my left hand, refusing to change to the right (although I had family members who tried to nudge me!) and alarming my parents by writing right-to-left, in mirror writing - they were worried about whether I'd ever learn! What made me grin was seeing Da Vinci's intricate notes alongside his drawings, in secret 'back-to-front' mirror writing code - to keep his genius ideas and plans private! It's got me thinking... Maybe it's time to revive the mirror cursive scrawl!

Preparing a talk about the Enspiral network...

I will be in Sweden next week teaching and facilitating around the formation of projects and communities that will serve the emerging future. One of the networks I am part of, with increasing involvement, is the Enspiral network. It is a thing I draw huge amounts of inspiration from, and feel committed to serving and growing through this next period of my life.

Some snippets:

When asked, “What is Enspiral, and what does it mean to you?” the most common answer I receive is along the line: “It depends who you are talking to, and the answer you will get will be different each time you ask that question.”
Part of the intention of Enspiral is to model a "company of the future" - illustrating the possible "future of work" meshing the "more beautiful world" and our economic reality — into a really practical alternative to our mainstream way of working. I think these networks are the future, in being our best selves, unlocking our collective intelligence and potential.
How do we use our tools and new forms of viral communication to unlock our co-intelligence, do things in collaboration, outside of the system? 
Enspiral, to me, is a RELATIONSHIP of RELATIONSHIPS.

When we look to Nature, how does Nature organise these things? How does Nature do governance? How does Nature do decision-making? How does Nature do finances? Communication? This is part of what is so exciting to me, as a biologist and systems thinker, about the network. This is what happens when a group of nodes collect together, and listen to what wants to evolve and emerge.

What I am enjoying about this work... The combination of biology, social alchemy and social organisation... A version of my heaven!

This diagram, from Aaron Sachs and Anupam Kundu of the Thoughtworks network, captures a nice dimension of what Enspiral is too:

 

 

If you want to find out more about the network, visit:

Entering a full-bodied meditation practise

"People often say about mystics, that they're holding some kind of repressed sexuality. But maybe it's the exact opposite. I think society's obsession with the erotic is due to a suppressed mysticism." - words recently told to me by a Buddhist monk, who is teaching me once a week.

In reality, meditation is a hugely sensual practise. Not sexual, sensual. And the intimacy possible between us human beings is vast, deep and unbounded, of which sex is just one dimension.

One way to keep meditation practise alive is to show up with the whole self, experience the deep intimacy, sensuality and tingling aliveness of meditation. Training the brain is a huge part of what happens, but if you treat the practise as simply 'brain-training', it's unlikely to be a sustainable practise, lasting long into life. I am learning to jump, full-bodied, into my contemplative practise.

Part of this is seeing the practise as deep and intimate time with the being you are closest to: yourself. Every biological system needs feedback to remain evolving, alive, flexible and adaptive. I think so often we cut off the feedback coming from our own very selves: How does it feel to be you right now? What is your intuition telling you? What are the signs something is wrong? What are the subtleties that you have failed to notice? Who's there?

These were part of my teachings and learnings yesterday. And part of these teachings, is sharing them onwards. Facebook, blogs, the internet are all part of our modern day sangha! I am being taught weekly by an ordained Buddhist monk. Grateful for the ancient wisdom peppered into modern day life.

On the side of all this doing and building, I am working to reverse the effects of suppressed mysticism. And I have a feeling the two may work together...

A word from Tagore

“India’s best ideas have come where man was in communion with trees and rivers and lakes, away from the crowds. The peace of the forest has helped the intellectual evolution of man. The culture of the forest has fueled the culture of Indian society. The culture that has arisen from the forest has been influenced by the diverse processes of renewal of life, which are always at play in the forest, varying from species to species, from season to season, in sight and sound and smell. The unifying principle of life in diversity, of democratic pluralism, thus became the principle of Indian civilization.”

- Rabindranath Tagore, infamous unschool-er, and inspiration to start Schumacher College.

The friendship shared with those who share a vision

I am recently returned from a series of transformational gatherings in New Zealand, where I had the privilege and joy of dreaming, playing and planning with a bunch of world-wide change-makers. All different ages, and from a huge range of spectrums, we collided for 5 days. Among us were space scientists, technology activists, Singularity University teachers, radical self-love and intersectionality poets, consciousness gurus, farm innovators, food innovators, alternative education specialists, organisational innovators... the list goes on.

Over the 5 days, a new space beyond the ordinary mechanics of bringing a group of people together began to emerge. People would start to finish each others' sentences -- and beyond that, speak to each others' thoughts before anyone had even spoken. In circles, I felt a great ease noticing thoughts or realisations bubble up in my mind, only to have someone else do the sharing for me! Ideas of new collaborations and projects were coming to people, as if from the land. The collective intelligence of the group began to emerge, and with that, the self-organising, swarming, stigmergy behaviour that is associated with it. It was remarkable.

I'm very aware of what a huge privilege it is to be able to have the time, funds, and just general - privilege - to be attending such events on the other side of the world. It makes it feel even more imperative that the time is spent wisely, and productively, while also leaving time to just "be" and allow whatever needs to emerge between us to do so. And also has a certain responsibility that comes with it to think: how do we best serve the greater whole by our gathering together like this?

Apart from the inspiration we all received from spending time amongst other dreamers, story-weavers, innovators and doers (and on a piece of land that has magical qualities of its own), I got to experience something I haven't felt renewed in a while -- the relationship and space that forms between two or more of you, when you share a vision and see each other (truly 'see' each other) in your abilities and commitment to work towards achieving it. It's a flavour of love that I'd like to find the word for. A platonic but electric love for the possibility you hold between you.

And it's also more than that. It's a totally different kind of commitment to each other, and each other's personal growth and transformation. Because you each know that your collective ability to act and deliver on that vision and work depends on all of your potential to be the best version of yourselves. It's a commitment to building each other up, and unlocking the potential in the parts and the whole.

As I sat down to write today, I was directed by a few clues to the website of the Co-Intelligence Institute, where I found this recurring quotation by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:
 

"There is almost a sensual longing for communion with others who have a large vision. The immense fulfilment of the friendship between those engaged in furthering the evolution of consciousness has a quality impossible to describe."


This certainly comes close to describing the communion I spoke of... and touches on a large part. But some of it is also seeing the possibility of what is possible in the eyes of the other, and the feeling of commitment to do the work.

It's tough that many of us are flung around the globe... But I have a feeling we'll meet soon again, and by training that 'recognition' muscle, I am already noticing the quality of my relationships, both new and old, as I recognise what is possible in that person's evolution, our evolution together, and the evolution of the collective human race.
 

 

Google's interlingua

Incase you missed this: earlier this year, Google's translation services was changed to a machine learning system, and invented its very own language in the process.

Google has done something quite impressive behind the scenes - it's switched its translation system from "phrase based translation" to "Google Neural Machine Translation" (GNMT).

"Phrase based translation" is essentially the equivalent of translating word-by-word - like you thumbing through a Lonely planet dictionary, but super fast. It's limited by its vocabulary, and has no understanding of linguistic structures. It maps words and phrases from one language to another.

GNMT, on the other hand, got smart. It is able to learn from the people that use it. It can transfer the "translation knowledge" from language to language, and so able to translate phrases and languages it may never have seen before.

What's more, when Google engineers looked under the 'bonnet' of the system, they found something pretty amazing: it had created its own language termed "interlingua" - as the most efficient way to solve the problem of translation.

The system encodes the patterning behind the semantics of the language, instead of memorising phrase-to-phrase translations.

Tuesday morning #TechForHumanity geek-out. What does this say about the way our own brains codify and translate languages...

 

Quakers and the New Story

Profound changes in our understanding of matter and of the earth offer an opportunity to heal the largely unconscious, dangerous Western estrangement from the earth. Within the “New Story” our deepest spiritual aspirations and many central Christian insights can find a vast, full expression enabling us to embrace a deep belonging within the Earth community, and a caring, loving relationship with our home.

—Mary Coelho

Finding truth in paradox... The poem "IF" by Rudyard Kipling

IF you can keep your head when all about you

  Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

  But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,        5

  Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated don’t give way to hating,

  And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

 

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

  If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,        10

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

  And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

  Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,        15

  And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

 

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

  And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

  And never breathe a word about your loss;        20

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

  To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

  Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

 

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,        25

  Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

  If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

  With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,        30

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

  And—which is more—you’ll be a (wo)Man, my son!

"[Current] economics is a form of brain damage"

It's funny how economics puts 'value' on things.

If a non-Earth human came to our world and saw humanity, perhaps they would estimate the 'price' of one of us to be around £3. This is the approximate value of the carbon, water, air, chalk - and trace minerals like zinc, phosphorus and iron that make up our bodies.

This is essentially what economists do to rainforests when they make estimates of the value of the wood- and decide whether or not to clearcut the forest.

One day we will look back on this in disbelief that we could be so narrow sighted and ignorant.

How do you put value on relationships? How do you estimate the net 'worth' of climate regulating networks of living beings? Or roots that protect the soil, and converse with underground fungi? How can you put a price on the life of an ancient being, itself home to many, and its worth far beyond the weight of its wood? 

Radical relationships: from symbioses to community

"If we wanted to survive the ecological and social crisis which we have caused, we would have to engage in radically new and dramatic community enterprises."

-- Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis is one of my all-time scientific role models and has greatly influenced my way of thinking - both scientific and outside of science. Her major work was in cell evolution and the events that led to the appearance of eukaryotic cell (a cell with a nucleus - as opposed to cells without a nucleus, such as bacteria) 4 billion years ago. Fifty years ago, she argued that it was thanks to a special kind of very intimate biological relationship, and was at first was ignored or ridiculed by the scientific community. She imagined that these internal organelles - such as chloroplasts, mitochondria - arose from a symbiotic origin: i.e. by associations of different kinds of bacteria, being engulfed by the then existent proto-cells. Symbiosis in cell evolution is now considered one of the great scientific breakthroughs.

It is profound to me, that Margulis commented on the radically new kinds of relationships that will be necessary to survive our current crises. It was thanks to the new way of co-existing of two previously 'separate' organisms, fusing to become one, that gave rise to the stepping stone towards the next level of evolution. Mitochondria paved the way for aerobic life, and later, multi-cellular organisms. Chloroplasts... Well, without photosynthetic organisms to convert the sun's energy into chemical bonds, none of us would be around, and Popeye wouldn't have his spinach.

Perhaps it is the same kind of revolutionary thinking behind that discovery and radical co-existing that led to that jump in development that we need in order to reimagine how we live on this planet together... And ultimately, survive on to the next evolutionary 'jump'. But what could these new ways of relating, co-existing and co-habiting look like? And what is the synergy that may come out of that new, currently unfathomable way of living?

 

Living

“It is not uncommon for people to spend their whole life waiting to start living.”

-- Eckhart Tolle

This has been something on my mind these last couple of days. What limits us from following our 'bliss' as Joseph Campbell called it? It feels as though many of us are dulled to being receptive to our own intuitions, which tell us what is wrong or right for us - and only us. At the same time, the culture of fear and scarcity abounds, and keeps us from joyously taking courageous risks.

The full quote from Joseph Campbell, which speaks so loudly for me right now is as follows:

“Follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be.” 

Epigenetic robotics

I've been reading about something called epigenetic robotics - I couldn't resist seeing as the term combines two of my scientific fascinations. 

But epigenetic robotics is not (really) anything to do with DNA (slight disappointment). Instead, it focusses on studying the mechanisms by which robots could be made to learn like children - i.e. lifelong and open-ended learning. 

Imagining engineering a robot so that on leaving the factory, it is programmed ready to learn, adapt, and evolve, is mind-blowing. Just like a human, you would never get the same robot twice.

Perhaps more exciting still is the possibility to offer the robot learning of ethical codes and morals before anything else - just like the development of super-ego in children is built upon their grasping of what is 'right' and 'wrong'...

Could it help solve our fears around the existential risk of developing powerful A.I. which may in turn destroy us all?