It’s common for us to experience loss, break down, destruction and disintegration.
In the middle of it, it can become hard to see the wood for the trees, and it can feel like this falling apart is not just inevitable but permanent.
As the leaves fall from the trees in the autumn, the bare branches of the winter woodland give the appearance of life being over for those trees.
Human beings know they don’t live forever, and although some have a belief in reincarnation, or lives of different forms from this life, nobody expects they are not going to experience loss, degeneration and death.
If the course of Life could be summarised as destruction and decline, then what kind of Life would that be? Is that really what we believe? That the direction of Life, the direction of the Universe even, is towards destruction and disintegration? Having begun with a Big Bang, are we heading for the final whimper (as T S Eliot wrote?)
But look again at the photo above. What do you see? Death and destruction? Loss and endings? Life and growth? Change and diversity?
The old mechanical, materialist view of the world teaches the idea that we try hard to resist destruction. “Entropy” is the term used to describe the inevitable run down of a system. But this view is more relevant to machines (which are “closed” systems), than it is to Nature (which is full of interconnected “open” systems).
Prigogine coined the term “dissipative structures” to better describe the reality of Nature and living organisms. He found that complex adaptive systems used dissipation to renew themselves, and in this renewal they grew, developed and adapted to changes in their environment. Indeed, Varela and others coined the term “autopoiesis” (self-making capacity) to describe the essential characteristic of a living system.
All living systems, ourselves included, are continuously breaking down existing structures and elements in order to create ourselves anew – in order to not just adapt, but to flourish. Not a single cell in our bodies lives as long as we live. In fact cells live between a few days and few months on average. It’s not the material, or the “stuff” of which we are made which makes us who we are. In that sense, we are much more like a river than we are like a machine.
I find this idea thrilling. Partly because I work every day with people who are experiencing loss and breakdown, people whose lives are falling apart. When a loved one dies, when your relationship or your job ends, when disease appears suddenly, or slowly in your life, it can all become quite overwhelming and it can be hard to see how any good can come of this experience. But here’s the key point, such continual change, such cycles of breaking down and destruction are not just inevitable but they are a necessary part of growth and renewal. These special times are times of renewal.
Spring time (not quite managing to appear yet here in the UK) is a good time to reflect on this. I’ve mentioned before how the Japanese celebrate transience through the cherry blossom festivals.
Renewal occurs through adaptation. As our lives change, if we take the time to become more aware, and we learn not to cling to current forms, we can see that in the midst of dissipation we discover the vast potential for creativity and growth. Just think of the universe story for a moment. Is it one of era after era of decline and destruction? No. It’s one of ever increasing diversity and complexity. It’s a story of cycles of joining together, breaking apart and forming new connections. It’s a story reflected in every single living being. Here’s the miraculous truth. The universe is not a closed machine heading day by day towards destruction. It’s a vast interconnected web of open systems producing the most elaborate, most complex and most amazing phenomena day after day after day.