Sunday, I was joined by author and “Integrator” Jeremy Lent, author of the recently released book The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. The book is a penetrating history of humanity’s patterns of thinking, explaining why some have come to dominate, and to lead human civilization to our current crises.
I am blown away by the rigor, depth and scope of The Patterning Instinct. He researched this profoundly edifying and elegantly written work for a decade. The result is an impressive exploration of many domains of scholarship and thought, and a tour through what he calls “cognitive history”.
During Sunday’s dialogue, Jeremy unpacked the basic ideas of his book, describing the “pattering instinct” as our universal human impulse to make sense of our world by using what we’ve already catalogued in our human experience. The human mind can’t conceive of abstract ideas without using some sort of scaffolding, which is why we routinely use metaphors to describe our world. At the level of culture and society, we develop “root metaphors” which come to shape our values, relationships, societies, and economies.
Jeremy says capitalism and consumerism are the result of root metaphors inherited from previous generations. They are extensions of deep cognitive scaffolding, extending (mostly European) metaphors that express a dualistic division of mind and body, spirit and matter: “the conquest of nature” and “nature as a machine”. And while this way of relating to the natural world produced remarkable progress, including global exploration, scientific and technological advances, and western medicine, these same patterns of thought now seem to be speeding us toward a great unraveling—either to collapse or, what Jeremy feels is more likely, a “techno-split.”
He uses the term “techno-split” to describe a future bifurcation of human society between a small number of wealthy genetically engineered and technologically augmented human beings with a privileged future, and the bulk of the human family, left behind in increasingly gritty, dystopian conditions.
But Jeremy believes a healthy holistic future is possible, but it will require a broad transformation of our very patterns of cognition. Cultures that did not conquer the world have something important to offer that project. We can consciously draw on ancient cognitive patterns, as well as contemporary systems thinking, to synthesize a radical shift in our very patterns of thought. He especially draws on the holistic worldview of Neo-Confucianism that emerged during the golden age of the Song Dynasty a thousand years ago. Jeremy’s own integrative framework, Liology, (“lee-ology”), integrates this ancient spiritually-informed model with the latest findings of western systems science, recognizing the interdependent and holistic nature of all natural systems.
My own years-long contemplation of what lies ahead for humanity points to our need to come out of denial and to face the terrible truth — that we’ve brought ourselves to the existential precipice where many of our cultural and environmental systems seem on the verge of collapse. I feel a kind of awe that in this moment of unraveling, we’re also participating in the beginning of enormously transformational breakthroughs on almost all levels of human culture — in both the natural and social sciences, in technology, in our understanding of human relationships and organizations and leadership, and in our understanding of our own brains and motivational systems.
Even as we’re heading toward an apocalypse, the greatest schools of wisdom of all human cultures throughout history are engaging vital and real conversations with one another in a culture of practice that’s informed by the rigor of the scientific method. This synchronicity is eerie and thrilling.
It’s a miraculously wonderful time and a terrifyingly perilous time. We face a multiplicity of tipping points, bifurcations and singularities — all of which are reaching critical mass simultaneously. What it is to be whole and coherent in integrity, and to be loved, to be wholeness in the age of fragmentation? How do we focus on one of these multiple bottom lines without myopically dissociating from all the others? These seem to be the core questions that all of us are up against right now.
And the outcome is far from certain. Toward the end of our dialogue, a listener posed a question that I know many of us have pondered. When faced with the mounting evidence that it may indeed be too late, we easily descend into hopelessness. And yet we are still here, alive and able-bodied. Is it possible to do “good work” from a place of hopelessness?
Jeremy invoked Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope in the Dark.” Hope is not prognostication—a prediction of good outcomes. He suggests neither optimism nor pessimism but rather a state of mind that’s open to the possibility that things can shift. He pointed to the “non-linearity of change”, and the idea that like all complex systems, human society operates in non-linear ways. In this non-linear space, each of us can have a significant, even exponential, impact merely by attending constructively to what is in front of us.
I added to Jeremy’s reflection, noting that human knowledge is tiny compared with the immense totality of this complex, non-linear system. We literally do not know enough to be pessimistic. What we do know with certainty is that we are co-creating the future.
A 1,000 year old poem from Jeremy’s book by neo-Confucian philosopher, Zhang Zai, beautifully expresses our embodied inseparability from our natural world:
Heaven is my father and earth is my mother,
and I, a small child, find myself placed intimately between them.
What fills the universe I regard as my body;
what directs the universe I regard as my nature.
All people are my brothers and sisters;
all things are my companions.
You can listen to the entire dialogue with Jeremy here.
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Purchase Jeremy’s book here.