Civilization Bloom, Part I
When I speak of organic emergence, what I mean is the process of a thing coming into being out of its own nature, finding its course through existence through no obedience to external force or pressure, but being allowed to grow and form and change in harmony with its unique state of balance.
This part focuses on the organic emergence of the self.
To begin, what is the Self?
In understanding how the self can organically emerge, it’s first important to talk about what the self actually is. Unsurprisingly, there isn’t an easy answer, and much of what interests me here is less what the self is, and more what the self does. When we speak of action emerging organically out of nature, what a thing is and what a thing does are not separate.
In a lecture that still amuses me, I once heard Tibetan Buddhism scholar Robert Thurman philosophize the existence of the nose as a metaphor for the self. We know we have a nose, we can all say more or less what the nose is, but the precise boundaries and nature of the nose remain vague. Which cells comprise the nose? What happens when those cells die and are replaced? What about the air that enters the nose, that leaves it, that entered it and left it before? Where does the nose become the face? What makes the nose different from the mouth? How much of our understanding of the nose is defined by its function, and can that be separated from what the nose is?
Even the nose is a fluid construction, an idea, a heuristic, a decision. The self, though perhaps more complex, is no different.
Our physical bodies are the product of other bodies, of food, of water, of air. They grow and change, their cells emerge and are flushed out, they move through space and time, they die. And yet, they have clearly defined boundaries despite their internal character being forever in flux. Our mental and emotional selves are the product of our experience, our circumstances, our innate drives and our choices. Everything that makes us up came from somewhere else, and yet, we still cannot experience the world as anything but ourselves. We draw boundaries around ourselves, we define ourselves with preferences and actions and habits, ideas and labels and understandings and identities. And all of these selves (physical, mental, emotional) still exist as us, perhaps distinct, but never separate.
The self cannot be truly understood as a stagnant thing. It is fluid, unfixed, inseparable from the things that make it up, eternally shaped by and shaping the world around it. It is an idea we construct, and reconstruct, define and dissolve.
The self is not rigid.
In fact, the self is always already in a constant process of organic emergence out of its own nature. Its boundaries are vague and complex, renegotiated depending on circumstance. There is little that can be said universally of the self, except one basic point:
The self feels.
Feelings and Needs
Feelings are our only interface with existence. Our sensations, physical and emotional, are what happens when our self touches the world outside of us. Our thoughts are a means of relating to those feelings, and relating those feelings to each other, but the thing that the self absolutely cannot be separated from is its feeling.
Feelings arise in response to anything and everything. We experience the blowing of a cold wind, and thus we feel cold. We experience hearing a hurtful comment, and thus we feel anger or sadness or shame.
The feelings we experience are inseparable from our circumstances, and likewise inseparable from the things they guide us towards: our needs.
Feelings and needs are the universal language of all beings in existence, and they are inextricably interlinked. We need warmth because we feel cold, we feel cold because we need warmth. Feelings are the messages of external existence colliding with us and into us, guiding us forward into life by inclining us to satisfy our needs.
And, depending on circumstances, feelings change. Needs change with them. Our selves, experiencing these feelings and needs, change with them.
The flux of feeling and need is the root of allowing the self to emerge. Following need and embracing feeling are the crux of tapping into the authentic self, the self that experiences existence without any external parameters for what it means to be.
Feelings and needs arise and subside, progress and change. So too does the self.
This means that allowing the self to emerge is not a stagnant thing. The self is not decided upon and then remains rigid; rather, it continues to arise out of the arising of its feelings and the movement towards satisfying its needs.
Allowing the self to emerge means allowing needs and feelings to change, and continuing to envision the self only as the entity that feels, needs, and that arises out of those feelings and needs.
Allowance is Not Automatic
However, this does not mean that truly allowing the self to emerge is as easy as just doing what one usually does in each moment, without thought. To be automatic about one’s actions is the opposite of allowing oneself to bloom — organic emergence requires deep awareness and profound acceptance of our needs and feelings. Simply following one’s typical patterns without conscious thought towards the self is not at all the same as allowing action to emerge out of nature.
Understanding what our needs and feelings truly are can be a difficult and counterintuitive process. This is because our selves are heavily, heavily conditioned. In fact, beyond biology, we are made up of nothing but our conditioning. Our experiences, our cultures, our families, our lives regularly condition our behavior from the clothes we wear to the language we speak to the way we use that language to engage with others.
Not all conditioning can be unlearned; a native English speaker can’t just choose to stop understanding English. But to truly allow the self to emerge organically, conditioning must be engaged with from a place of awareness.
There is so much we do, and so much we believe about ourselves and the world, that has nothing to do with the thing that it is. To allow the self to emerge involves resisting the conditioning that tells us that we are a thing we are not. This also includes resisting the conditioning that seeks to define, categorize and judge the self as though it were a particular, stagnant thing.
The self is in constant process; to judge the self is a category mistake that applies rigid identities and values to the self, things are simply not applicable to a process.
Non-Coercion of the Self
To allow the self to emerge without coercion is to resist the impulse to coerce the self into being or acting in any particular way. To allow is to resist, in some respects. Paradoxical, I know, but bear with me.
Ours is a conditioning brought forward by a world steeped in figuring out what to do with self-awareness. We suddenly became able not only to act, but to be aware that we are acting, that we have agency to act or not act, that we can make choices, and that we are the ones making them.
Whenever we use the word “should” with ourselves, we are breaking the ability of ourselves to be allowed to emerge. We are taking the external pressures of the world, the forces beyond the force of our own feelings and needs, and internalizing them as though they were rules we must follow in order to be ourselves.
These external pressures, internalized, have a profound limit on our ability to allow our selves to emerge organically out of our feelings and needs, and allow our understandings of our identities to be fluid and ever-changing.
When we allow external force and pressure to limit our actions towards our feelings and needs, we have not stepped into a space of freedom. Thus, the choices we make are not, in truth, freely made. They are not consent.
Consenting to the Self
To consent to the self requires looking at the self from a space of freedom, and making decisions from that place.
What does it mean to allow the self to be free? It means, to take it on its own terms. To seek not to define it, limit it, force it, regulate it, control it, but rather to simply regard it and see what it happens to do depending on what it feels and needs.
Most of us spend a tremendous amount of time judging ourselves, and trying to control ourselves accordingly. Nothing could be more anathema to the process of organic emergence of the self than judgment. Self-control is a strange phenomenon — we seek to use our force to limit the ability of our self to use its force. We divide ourselves, as though the self were a thing fundamentally different from us, that can be viewed and decided for as though from the outside.
That self that we’re looking at? It isn’t free. It’s caged by our thoughts about it, our judgments and our efforts to push it in a particular direction. To truly set it free, all we can do is simply allow it to be as it is.
We use our choice, our agency, to choose to allow the self to be. We consent to it.
The Paradox of Allowance
So, resist all of your conditioning to be any particular way, follow your base impulses, and thus, the self will emerge in harmony with the universe?
Ah, if only it were that easy. But there’s a paradox to allowance, and that is this: if one is rigid about allowance, rigid about resisting conditioning, rigid in any way, one has sought to limit one’s own freedom.
The freest we can possibly be is when we have the greatest ability to make the greatest number of possible choices.
There is something to be said for growing as comfortable breaking conditioning as you are obeying it. In choosing to disobey what you have been told to be, how you have been told to act, how you have been told to view yourself and relate to yourself, you are opening your options wider and expanding your comfort zone beyond what it has been relegated to by conditioning.
However, rigid obedience to a particular idea of allowance is still that: rigid obedience. That, too, is not allowing the self to emerge.
Allowing emergence of the self means stepping into the utmost possible freedom to make choices, and following the choices that arise organically out of one’s own nature. In breaking conditioning, we learn quickly what conditioning serves us and feels true to us. The process is not to rigidly do the opposite, but to become comfortable with the opposite so that one’s unique path through extremes can emerge out of the continued following of needs and feelings.
The Self Blooms in Acting Authentically
Because the self is a non-stagnant process of emergence, to emerge into ourselves is to act authentically: to apply no pressure to deter ourselves from feeling the things we feel and needing the things we need, and act accordingly. Some needs are easy to understand and satisfy (e.g. I feel hunger, thus I need nourishment.) But some are not. How does one satisfy the need for self-worth? For connection? For balance?
The truest action of the self does not lie in acting on impulse or “base” needs alone, but in acting in harmony with one’s feelings from a place of freedom to make choices for oneself.
The less we try to regulate what that authenticity looks like, and simply allow it to happen based on the conditions that give rise to our feelings, the more authentic we can become. The less we seek to control, including controlling what allowance means, the more we allow to emerge.
Why would anyone do this?
Doesn’t this sound like a hedonistic, pleasure-seeking diatribe rooted in selfish desire to have whatever one wants? Perhaps it could sound like that, but what I speak of has a wholly different character.
First, any judgment of pleasure-seeking is just that: a judgment, an externalized condition of value, rooted in rigid conceptions, which has no bearing on the nature of pleasure itself. Second, needs and desires are not one in the same. Desires are constructed, and can overlap with needs; needs are innate and intrinsic.
What could be wrong about a world of everyone satisfying their needs, as long as those needs could be met in harmony, without force and coercion used to control and harm others?
Existence is made up of everything in it and the relationships between those things. Because we have the capacity for self-awareness, we have a relationship with ourselves.
The more harmony that relationship can be in, the more harmony there is that exists. The less force, the less energy and weight in this world we can direct towards pushing our selves into some sort of rigid category or defined idea, the more energy and force we can direct into allowing ourselves to flourish. To bloom.
I am a firm believer in the principle “as above, so below,” or more to the point, “as within, so without.”
Our internal structures mirror our external structures, and each influences the other in a feedback loop (see this essay on self-awareness and systems of domination). Allowing the self to emerge organically, and harmonizing our relationship with ourselves through non-coercion, is a crucial step in allowing external relationships and societal structures to likewise emerge organically through non-coercion and in harmony.
I’ll get into that process next, in Part II: Organic Emergence of Relationships.