Presenting a talk given at the at the fourth Cosmology of Love conference at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco on April 14, 2012.
A transcript of the talk follows, though it may diverge slightly from the video because of on-the-fly editing due to time constraints.
ABSTRACT: The cosmos is profoundly and fundamentally relational and the beauty of justice can perhaps be described in the symmetry of reciprocity, its loops and curves seeking to connect all beings and strike a dynamic balance. Balance does not reflect a static state, and so it is with reciprocity, the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit. Reciprocity is a process requiring our attention, our presence, our care and tending.
That we are all different from each other is a given. Where or how we intersect is quite another matter. Could our notions of and practice of justice reflect whether we perceive our differences as alienation or as an opportunity for communion? The unified field is broken—can we see only its dividing aspect and not its relational aspect?
Together we will explore a perspective on justice akin to philosopher Cornel West’s view that “justice is what love looks like in public.”
the ecology of justice: transforming the victim/perpetrator paradigm
We find ourselves in a universe which expresses itself in differentiated consciousness, bringing with it the divide we locate between self and other.
And yet differentiation is simultaneously a division and a connection. The cosmos is profoundly and fundamentally relational and I find the beauty of justice described in the symmetry of reciprocity, its loops and curves seeking to connect all beings and strike a dynamic balance. Dynamic because balance does not reflect a static state.
And so it is with reciprocity, the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit. Reciprocity is a process requiring our attention, our presence, our care and tending.
That we are all different from each other is a given. Where or how we intersect is quite another matter. Could our notions of and practice of justice reflect whether we perceive our differences as alienation or as an opportunity for communion? The unified field is broken—can we see only its dividing aspect and not its relational aspect? What is our imagination of relationship itself?
Philosopher Cornel West offers us the perspective that “Justice is what love looks like in public.” And does not justice live at the heart of a society, the great integrator able to hold the multiplicity within the unity at that precious intersection where our diverse experiences meet?
How can we practice a justice which is restorative of our relationships, which honors both diversity and unity? In answer to this question, I’ve made a study of restorative justice models, environmental ethics and a healing modality called family or systemic constellations; therefore, my stance is informed by a systemic view of the human being, and close attention to the relational aspects of our existence. Restorative justice can be defined as “a process whereby all the parties with a stake in a particular offense come together to resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offense and its implications for the future.” Environmental ethics is “the discipline in philosophy that studies the moral relationship of human beings to, and also the value and moral status of, the environment and its nonhuman contents.” And I believe that the modality of systemic constellations has the potential of uniting these two, because it reveals the hidden architecture of relationships and provides a means of communication through relational fields.
It’s funny—one uses the word “justice” and most people get the image of “vengeance.” Retribution. But vengeance and scapegoating are not on my agenda. I believe that justice fundamentally requires connection. As with most things, I view justice not as a static state to be achieved, but as a dynamic process which is ever occurring. Life is a verb, not a noun—and I admit that I am still developing a language adequate to its faithful rendition.
So, with this in mind…How can we practice a justice which is restorative of our relationships? The first place to start could be with curiosity…. Not-knowing…. The wisdom of not-knowing frees us from limiting prejudices, from casting the world in simple roles of “good” and “bad,” that blessed accursed binary which has carried the human species this far in our evolution. What is your capacity for holding paradox?
And for those who think this too saccharine, oh too sweet! Maybe a better starting point would be to acknowledge that we each live ethically compromised lives. No one is untouched by the basic ethical dilemma of being alive. For one, I don’t think it is possible to actually live on this Earth and not hurt another being in some way or other. But more to the point—when I use the cosmos as my reference point, rather than my specific human culture—I realize that I enter this world without a precise road map, without a wonderful list of “if-then” statements to guide my actions so that I remain “good” in relation to all others. Owing the omnicentric nature of reality—the infinite web of connections which interweave all life—there are no precisely correct ethical arguments; only better ones. I’m afraid that both as individuals and as collectives, we are called to develop ourselves, to grow our understanding of what it means to be human.
Not only does an individual face the challenge of the descent, of facing one’s own personal shadow in order to see the “other” more clearly and thus develop better ethical relations with the “other;” but all collectives are faced with this process at various points along the way. Life is in process, coming to consciousness: it’s happening all the time. And so we must challenge old moral codes as they no longer obtain. The capacity for empathy, the moral imagination is alive in all of us, somewhere. And on a planetary scale, we in industrialized societies exist within a particularly compromised ethical situation. From the perspective of environmental ethics one prejudice which operates across our modern human institutions—a structural prejudice, if you will—is speciesism. Speciesism is the widely held belief that the human species is inherently superior to other species and so has rights or privileges that are denied to others—in my view, this must be overcome if we are to survive as a species.
All of these considerations, for me, ultimately point toward vulnerability. What if we treat our own boundaries as things to be nourished and protected, rather than hoarded and defended? Boundaries form relationships, and I can imagine treating them not with fear and revulsion, but rather as the doorway to all which is, a doorway to unity through diversity, a doorway to moral regeneration.
When I think again of how we might practice a justice which is restorative of our relationships, a restorative justice, a justice which deepens our connections rather than deepening the old dividing lines between “victims” and “perpetrators,” the imaginal wisdom of the human heart begins to rise in me. The heart seems to me quite a bit more than just some kind of mechanical pump, as it is too often imagined, or as a source of weakness, irrationality and compromised judgment. The heart is the center of our feelings, our emotional response to life, and I also envision it in a more esoteric light: the heart is the seat of the imagination and a gateway to the soul—and the soul, as James Hillman has said, is what turns the mere events of life into experiences. This is no small role that the heart plays in our perception and cognition. The heart has been too long neglected and misunderstood—misused, even—by the mainstream of the culture in which I find myself. And given the amount of strife on the planet today, perhaps it is no coincidence that an important part of the capacity to develop an ethical orientation resides within the heart.
Plumbing the depths of the imagination requires us to listen deeply, because its territory is not a literal one; it doesn’t live in the daylit world of ego, which has all its fixed meanings set up in a nice framework—for example, the ego is quite confident of who is “good” and who is “bad,” and what feels nice and is attractive, and what is to be avoided. And this is well and good, and yet life doesn’t seem to be on a linear path. It is—as we are—filled with ambiguities, contradictions and ambivalences in our relationships to others. And within this messiness—which is often regarded as undesirable or something to be escaped—is incredible generative capacity.
But to see it, to interact with that enormous generative capacity takes imagination! To take the step outside of literalism and into the paradoxical is an invitation to enter into a more playful or flexible relationship with the cosmos, and with oneself. And I think that the heart, as the seat of the soul and the gateway to the imagination, uniquely understands that images do not, possibly cannot, mean only one thing, or have only one interpretation. The image points to a reality far beyond the everyday, more ordinary world of the narrating ego, and if we accept, as Carl Jung proposes, that image is the primary data of the psyche, we must recognize that this has far-reaching implications. Authentic engagement with the imagination brings us into contact with the autopoietic properties of nature and psyche, its mode of creativity.
If I wish to see the whole of a person, a family, a society, an entire worldview, I must see more deeply than its apparent exterior, and I must allow that neither an individual nor a collective can be reduced down to a single meaning which I assign it. For example, my father is a human being and is way more than just “my father,” as if he were my pet possession—or as if I were his pet possession, for these assignments of meaning go both ways. Our relationships serve to define us as much as the “other;” it seems that we are already connected, whether we want to be or not.
Now perhaps this pliancy of the heart is what can make room for multiple outcomes, or the unexpected positive consequence of what may have seemed like a bad turn. The wisdom of not-knowing…of being with uncertainties and doubts, yes? Of remaining curious and open to life as opposed to, say, being locked in a trauma response, repeating the same horrors over and over again in our lives, just finding new people to slot into pre-ordained roles. This particular wisdom of the heart—the wisdom of not-knowing—so evokes for me the multivalent nature of our reality and its capacity to shatter our fixed notions of good and bad, right and wrong, all the easy value judgments that we can make as individuals and as whole societies.
The division between us also connects us. What will fill the divide? Fear, paranoia, suspicion, the rehearsal of well-worn roles of “victim,” “persecutor,” and “rescuer?” Or the opportunity for all involved to promote moral regeneration, a restoration of relationships which have been marred by harms, or the building of new relationships of trust, reciprocity and respect?
I propose that a critical component for the existence of justice is a shared common ground. Now, this, in theory, is held by the context of our society—at least as far as the human world goes (as mentioned before, the nonhuman world is presently not given any moral consideration at all). Our social institutions supposedly hold this hallowed ground safely in secular hands. But a little investigation will reveal to any open-minded inquirer that social institutions are systematically less safe for and less just toward some than others. I’m speaking of all the various institutionalized and structural prejudices—all the –isms—which cut in so many directions, because our human identities aren’t actually reducible to one little facet, let alone our cosmic identities. But cut they do, and some people have violence forced on them (Trayvon Martin!), while others have a choice to avoid violence. Some unjustly live life permanently under suspicion of the law while those whose concentration of power threatens the very vitality of this planet occupy the highest offices of authority in the land. And this is the truth. The corruption runs deep—and I say this NOT with a hardened heart. I do not say these things as some dry analytical recitation of an intractable situation, with all those set roles: victim, perpetrator, rescuer.
I suppose this is because I occupy a world in process. It is characterized by change. And I therefore try to remain at least a little curious about “what happens next.” But who has the power to change things? How can deep, lasting social transformation towards justice, that is, right relationship, happen? I have been working with philosopher Rollo May’s concept of power as the ability to cause or prevent change. May is an existentialist and accordingly, I have been dissatisfied with that definition; it’s missing something. So, I amend May’s definition and propose that power is the ability to cause or prevent change which arises out of the fact of communion. I am referring to the communion which Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry describe in The Universe Story and elsewhere, as one of the three central ordering tendencies of the Universe. Communion here means interrelatedness, mutuality, kinship, complementarity—and it defines and shapes the universe. Nothing is itself except in relation to everything else. This definition of power is important, this distinction around communion, because it doesn’t say that power inheres within objects, it locates power in the relationship between entities. So, it’s not a matter of wresting power away from someone else, in order to “be powerful” or have power. It is more a matter of how one relates to the other. This definition of power—the ability to cause or prevent change which arises from the fact of communion—draws in the other two central ordering principles of the universe as identified by Swimme and Berry: differentiation (diversity, complexity, variation, disparity) and autopoiesis (subjectivity, sentience, identity, self-manifestation). It’s a rather different view of reality from the mainstream and sadly, I don’t have time to address this aspect more deeply here.
But my notion of power is important, because I do not place my faith in existing cultural forms and modes to accomplish an evolutionary task. I feel that the transition out of a victim/perpetrator paradigm of relationships with alienated parties warring over power (and usually under the banner of “justice”) will not be facilitated by continuing to operate within that mode. A new and a relevant cosmology is needed to co-create a new reality with the living Earth. But so many are so very invested in our existing cultural forms and institutions—and think, well, that’s all there is available to us. For example, believing that our only options are the legal system as it exists now or conducting warfare or violent campaigns of insurgency in order to bring change or stop change—without due regard for the cosmogenetic principle of communion.
I agree with Thomas Berry on the following:
“We must go far beyond any transformation of contemporary culture. We must go back to the genetic imperative from which human cultures emerge originally and from which they can never be separated without losing their integrity and their survival capacity. None of our existing cultures can deal with this situation out of its own resources. We must invent, or reinvent, a sustainable human culture by a descent into our pre-rational, our instinctive resources. Our cultural resources have lost their integrity. They cannot be trusted. What is needed is not transcendence but ‘inscendence,’ not the brain but the gene.”
“Our cultural resources have lost their integrity. They cannot be trusted.” “None of our existing cultures can deal with this situation out of its own resources. We must invent, or reinvent, a sustainable human culture by a descent into our pre-rational, our instinctive resources.”
And so (I hope to the satisfaction of my fellow student Vladimír Lobotka), I would like to propose the development of a relatively new cultural form which has been slowly taking shape in sites of conflict across the globe over the last few decades, in order to put into practice some of these “beautiful ideas.”
I mentioned earlier that the study of restorative justice models, environmental ethics and a healing modality called family or systemic constellations has informed this talk, and basically what is emerging for me is a synthesis of the principles of restorative justice with the modality of systemic constellations, which is set within the understandings of environmental ethics. This is still theoretical, but it’s an idea that has been thinking about itself for about eight years now. I just cannot imagine being able to transition to a new system of governance, a new and deeper iteration of democracy with the existence of all the institutionalized prejudices, all the structural hindrances to good decision-making by the collective. All the paranoia and the violence between various components of the collective—this all stands in the way, to my mind, of ever really building something different, something which approaches the beauty of justice: reciprocity.
I envision a highly localized process which might be similar to the truth and reconciliation commission model of restorative justice, which South Africa made famous, but with an added layer of aiming for a deeper form of democracy which includes the nonhuman world as well—we’ll call it biocracy for now. I think that we are called upon to form a new model of governance and that first creating an appropriate container for the transmutation of all of those—frankly—demonic energies could teach us so much about how to creatively respond to the evolutionary challenges facing human society today.
I definitely don’t have time today to elaborate on why systemic constellations seems to provide an evolutionary edge to a “truth and reconciliation” process , but I can say that it has shown me that it IS possible to directly access and interact with the “fields of information” that collectives generate and share—which includes all the ancestral wounds which we are carrying and mostly unconsciously re-enacting. Whether you think of it as Sheldrake’s morphogenetic field, or in terms of what systemic constellations calls “the Knowing Field” matters not; in fact, there is another system of working with this “field” effect in groups called “process work” developed by Arnold and Amy Mindell, and a specific variety called “worldwork.” Both of these modalities—which developed as therapeutic interventions—reveal the invisible architecture of relational fields. And systemic constellations show that each individual psyche holographically carries the informational content of the whole system to which it belongs. Ultimately, we each belong to the Earth and I hope that this more cosmic identity can be brought into play in the proceedings. With skilled facilitators it is possible to identify blockages and entanglements within systems of relationships and free these so that love can flow in the system. And this love does not have to be taught how to flow, or where to go, or what to do. Only the blocks need be removed.
And this is not an easy task. I think that I am drawn to this kind of work because I think it is where the war lives; the war between self and other which diminishes if not destroys our possibilities of communion with creation, of full participation. I feel a call to carry the war into the enemy’s camp, but in such a different way. Yet I don’t know quite how to draw people into such a difficult process, beyond the potential promise of providing us also with a new way forward. And I don’t think we can simply work to “heal wounds” anymore; we must grow through them, step into the present moment and accept the evolutionary challenge and thereby learn how to access our collective wisdom for decision-making, the species-level wisdom which does exist, I am quite sure of it. What is needed is not the brain, but the gene—going down into the depths, into the unknown and especially into the taboo. To break the rules of the victim/perpetrator paradigm of alienation. And of course, beyond addressing the social problems within the human family, I would have to include our social problems with the greater Earth Community and its nonhuman members. As my friend Delia Shargel reflected to me, perhaps exposure to the experience of others—to truly hear about all of the violation and privation within our own society—will open the human heart to the suffering of ALL beings, that it might help to open the moral imagination to include nonhuman life in our ethical frameworks and decisions.
The vulnerability of omnicentricity…shall we treat our boundaries as something to be nourished and protected, rather than hoarded and defended—for how else could we as humanity enter into life’s panentheophanic rhapsody? To know that unity is not antagonistic to diversity, that heterogeneity promises resiliency—if we but moved beyond the story of the estranged victim and perpetrator, finally beyond the confinement of an ego, of a culture
untempered by the strangely impersonal, personal Love
that binds you to me
in that infinite embrace of gravity