Category Archives: perception as gateway

beauty is participatory

“People argue about beauty. Is it in the eye of the beholder or is it a property of the beholden? From a relational perspective, the question is clearly dualistic, cast in either/or terms. If there is an answer, it is clearly both. Beauty is in the thing seen, and we grant beauty, making that with which we identify, in some resonant way, beautiful. Beauty is the experience of a shared vibration resonating between the thing seen and the one who sees … Beauty, then, might best be named in terms of resonance, a vibration that moves us, that makes us see and do differently. We bow, cry, or give thanks. We want more and soften in order to get it. We participate. Beauty becomes a call for engagement.”


*text from: Sewall, Laura. Sight and Sensibility: the Ecopsychology of Perception.

The Livingness of Things

(This is a repost of an article that first appeared on my old site.)

Stephen Harrod Buhner’s The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature leaves a trail of tidbits to coax the intellect along on the path to heart-centeredness. Here are excerpts showing some of the landmarks. Food for the brain, if you will.

From subatomic particles to atoms and from atoms to molecules meeting, mixing and cohering into compounds, a profound ability to self-organize is present in all matter.


When a large number of molecules congregate in close proximity, the random motions of the billions and billions of molecules will at some point show a sudden alteration in behavior; all of them will start to spontaneously synchronize. They begin to move and vibrate together. They begin acting in concert, actively cooperating and become tightly coupled together into one, interacting whole exhibiting a collective, macroscopically ordered state of being. They become a unique living system of which the smaller subunits (the molecules) are now only a part. (36)


These systems of organized matter are given the descriptor “living” because they exhibit the tendency to seek out and maintain balance between states of organization/reorganization.

At the moment this threshold is crossed, at the moment when self-organization occurs, the new living system enters a state of dynamic equilibrium. And to maintain self-organization, the system constantly works to maintain that state of dynamic equilibrium… (40)


In our culture we usually find the notion of inert matter having “life” so foreign that I even have to put quotes around it here, as though it is can only be conceived as a sub-category of alive-ness. But matter engages in behavior that cannot by accounted for by chance or randomness – it has an intelligence (an ability to sense and respond to information) and a preference.

In that moment of self-organization, the system begins to display something other than synchronicity as well. It begins to act as a unit, to have behaviors. The whole, tightly coupled system begins to act upon its microscopic parts to stimulate further, often much more complex, synchronizations. A continuous stream of information begins flowing back and forth, extremely rapidly, between the macroscopic, ordered whole to smaller microscopic subunits and back again so that the self-organizing structure is stabilized, its newly acquired dynamic equilibrium actively maintained. (37)

In the case of the image below, some of the information being processed by the system includes temperature fluctuation.

In self-organized systems, the information from the smaller subunit – which travels to the larger whole as chemical cues, electromagnetic fluxes, pressure waves and so on – creates a response in the larger system, which is fed back to the initial site as a new informational pulse. This informational waveform travels through the system affecting and altering everything it touches. And these informational pulses travel back and forth extremely rapidly, for as long as the system itself remains self-organized. (38)


Self-organized systems are living identities that engage in continual communication, both internal and external. They are not isolated, static units that can be understood in isolation. To examine them in isolation kills the living entity itself, and paying attention to the thing and not its communications – its balance-initiated information exchange – reveals very little about the true nature of what is being studied. (41)

From here Buhner continues to explore the ways self-organized systems (of all scales) are designed for interaction (inter-action, it’s not one-directional). Surfaces are complex and extensive (just look at that mitochondria) to allow for greater contact.

That fractal geometry is found in the surfaces of self-organized systems is important, for it is actually a highly sophisticated and crucial aspect of maintaining stability. The folding and fracturing that occurs along and between dimensions in living organisms allows them to couple with – to touch- the world around them at a nearly infinite number of points, a great many more than if their edges were merely straight lines. For when any organism wrinkles its exterior (or any interior) surface, it tremendously increases the area of that surface and the length of its edges. This increase significantly expands the organism’s ability to gather information from its external and internal environments. And when it wrinkles its functioning, it tremendously increases the number of possible behavioral responses available to it. Having a nearly infinite number of responses allows an organism to maximize its behavioral options for any potential internal or external environmental flux that its nearly infinite touching reveals to it.(41)


When an organism or system has a repertoire of behaviors, ways it can respond to change (inputs and losses), the more resilient it is. This resiliency is behind the strength of diversity. Mere diversity (an agglomeration of differences) is of little use unless it can provide new paths and patterns of behavior to turn to. Again, this relates to self-organized systems’ constant dance of balance in which new balances can be found and maintained – never is this static.


Anything a self-organized, living system detects – anything that touches it – affects its balance. And this stimulates the system to shift its functioning, however minutely, in order to maintain its dynamic equilibrium. All nonlinear systems – all living organisms – are like this. And what facilitates their ability to respond to the minute touches of the world upon them is that they are not in a permanent equilibrium, not in a static state of being. They are poised, powerfully balanced, held in dynamic tension from one tiny fractal moment to the next. There is no one state to which they return when they are disturbed. They are always shifting, altering themselves, always about to fall into disequilibrium from environmental perturbations and always reorganizing – reestablishing a dynamic equilibrium – in new ways.(42)

This is why, in spite of a certain predictability or regularity to the form and structure of such systems, there is still vast difference. A cypress tree looks like a cypress tree (and not a sycamore), but every cypress tree is different for having lived its own life (which was informed by its parent material) with an immense amount of informational input.


… it is the information, the meaning encoded within the perturbation, that is important, not the form in which it is delivered. The form is merely one possible language of communication out of myriad possibilities. In the end it is the meaning inside the behavior that is significant, not the behavior itself. It is not the chemical released, nor the movement of the body, nor the electromagnetic field that is important, but the information, the meaning that it carries. And for too long scientists have assumed that there is no meaning in Nature. As a result they have spent their time studying static, dead forms, when the communications of meaning themselves are the essential thing. (It is no wonder then, that after years of schooling, so many of us now believe that life is meaningless, or that scientists have made Prozac to help us not notice how we feel.) (43-44, emphasis added)

774 - Neuron Connection - Pattern

All self-organized systems are, in fact, intelligent. They have to be. For they must continually monitor their environments, internal and external; detect perturbations; decide on the basis of those perturbations what the likely effect will be; and respond to them in order to maintain self-organization. (45)

All the millions upon millions of signals or perturbations that impact cells affect their equilibrium. They process the information encoded in the stimulus that pushed them back into disequilibrium and use it to generate behaviors that restore equilibrium. (46)

If you suspect that we only obliquely made it from the intellect to the heart (if we made it at all) keep in mind (ha!) that the heart of course is a self-organized system (made of other self-organizing systems) in dynamic equilibrium that is constantly “updated” with meaning generated from everything around it. It is, in fact, a meaning-making generator and a meaning-perceiving receiver. We just tend to propagate the notion that it’s a pump and only a pump.
Image credits: First two images display results found in a bubble chamber used to track the paths of subatomic particles. Numerous copies exist online and I was unable to find the original sources, though the second is available here.

The third is from The Encyclopedia Britannica.

The fourth, the dual image, includes the caption:  Electron diffraction patterns observed from rapidly cooled (a) and slowly cooled (b) Al70Ni20Ru10 alloys. Image source: Ordered structures in decagonal quasicrystals with simple and body-centered hypercubic lattices, by Hiraga, K. et al, published by Elsevier on Science Direct.

Next is a picture of a mitochondria – an organism in a cellular universe. But a cell is also an organism, in its own universe (like an organ, say) and an organ is an organism in its own world or habitat as well (that can be kept alive outside the body in some cases), and what we conceive of as the individual is also an organism in its own universe… ad infinitum? Image found in several locations, including here (Science Illustrated – Australia – and they cite it as a Shutterstock image. In which case I probably shouldn’t post it, but it IS pretty!).

The sea anemone is from National Geographic.

The meandering river (the Williams River in Alaska) appears here, with credit given to N.D. Smith.

The 106 year old Mendocino Cypress shown here looks different from its relatives in Mendocino because of the efforts of a member of the Redwood Empire Bonsai Society  (I had trouble finding a good, unlicensed, photo of the massive trees in their native place. Next time I go I’ll see what I can do – though it may be a while).

Illustration of a neuron/connection by Patrick Hoesly