What if we were more than we thought we were?

This article was published in IntrepidEd News on 13 March 2023 under the title “Where do we begin and where do we end?”

Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilisation. —Mahatma Gandhi

Shortly after the birth of my daughter, I picked up one of those habits that today I can’t imagine living without. For the past 12 years, I have (on most days) woken up naturally, well before the sun, and carefully slinked to the living room. With a cup of coffee on a side table, I wallow on the couch to read. These mornings are my nourishment, when I absorb, connect, and feel inspired by the many worlds that capture my imagination. It makes me realize how we have to carve out these quiet moments in our artificially busy lives. Yet when I explore that space away from others, I am never away from others. My cats too have developed a habit.

We have four rescued cats in our home and at least one of them jumps on the couch to visit me every morning. They mostly take turns, which allows me to connect with their different personalities. On cold days, Snowball likes to burrow under the blanket. Bungee never quite lays on my lap, but she does walk over me a few times before settling on the arm rest. Clementine plops wherever she likes. Chutney just asks to go outside. I guess I can’t be greedy. 

Donna Haraway begins her book When Species Meet with a question that I will alter slightly to make it appropriate for my context: “Whom and what do I touch when I touch my [cat]1?” I think about this question and another arises: Where do we begin and where do we end?

Why does this last question matter for schools, for organizations, for the building of an ecological civilization? Because the infinite number of possible responses do away with separation, individual achievement, and competition. The beautiful thing is that we all respond to it and contribute together.

Where do we begin and where do we end? This is a question that itself has trouble finding its beginning and its end. Where involves the notion of space or of location. Looking for that point from which we can draw the permanent boundary between what we are and what we are not is not so easy. How do you draw a boundary around the electron cloud of an atom? Where could refer to a point on a timeline or, if we want to think in non-linear ways, on a circle. Where could also be where we are in the world now, or perhaps where in the past we have left our marks on others, through friendship, work, and love. 

The notion of begin is also troublesome as it suggests that there was a before-beginning. The atoms that constitute “us” have been bumping around the universe for 13.8 billion years. They are in particular configurations at this moment and, by the time you finish reading this article, they will be in different configurations. In fact, these configurations themselves are illusions, as the Quantum Theory tells us that electrons are in superposition, that is, in several places at once. Lastly, and you know where I am going, end poses the same problems as begin

Where do we begin and where do we end? could also be the story of our lives. It could be that we begin when we are born and end when we die, making it about the dates that we use to keep records of events. This might be a useful way to periodize, but it assumes that we no longer exist the moment our hearts physically stop pumping blood in our bodies. This opens up the question of what it means to be alive because when we die, our bodies decompose and the matter that constituted them physically spreads into the air, the water, the land… some parts of us will end up as rabbit food as the matter in the soil is absorbed by plants, and this keeps the rabbits alive. We might live through the rabbit.

Where do we begin and where do we end? This is a question of spacetimemattering2.

Then there is the pronoun we. How do we decide who we are? Does we refer to us as individuals? a collective? Does we refer to the people who are reading this article? to humanity? to the bio-collective? Is it a question of nationalities or cultures, of political leanings or affinity groups, of close or extended families? Perhaps all of these at once if we too are in superposition. Who are we is a critical question, and Charlotte Hankin would begin by asking, How are we?

We is indeterminate because it is the first person plural pronoun and it is neuter. It necessarily involves a flexibility in quantity and quality. But is it different from I, that first person singular pronoun? Is I the human that we believe we are, with a name, a birthday, a family, a set of hobbies, limbs, and consciousness? Is it something else, beyond these labels? How can we call ourselves individuals (literally meaning “cannot be divided”) when our DNA contains viral genes that may keep us alive, when 50 to 90 percent of what you call your body when you look in the mirror is actually little critters? These critters live on and in us, with us in a symbiotic relationship and without them you could not survive. Where do our bodies begin and where do they end when we have trillions of bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa, living on and in our skins that help repel the threats to the body? We are microbiomes ourselves3. Where is our fixed border? We might mean you and all those critters you carry around your day.

Ok, I can tell you have that nagging sense that I am avoiding the elephant in the room: the idea that consciousness is where we begin and we end and what creates our sense of self. My attempts so far to avoid the issue were in vain because we cannot avoid the self4. But let us not be trapped by the idea that consciousness is limited to the “person.” Collective consciousness is noticeable everywhere in the natural world, in our societies (first highlighted academically by Emile Durkheim in the 19th century), and when we “click” with someone. 

Self comes from the Proto-Indo-European s(w)e-, which is a reflexive third person pronoun (it refers back to the subject of the sentence). There is technically (linguistically and ontologically) no reason the self should be limited to what we call the “person” or the “thing.” More to the point, if consciousness is what makes us, us, then we have to grapple with the separation this creates with the non-human world. That, or we would have to re-consider what is consciousness, beyond self-awareness, making room for plant consciousness, for instance, or we go back to treating non-humans like machines. Re-considering what consciousness might be is coherent with plants existing inseparably from their ecosystem, and it would all the more make the case for collective consciousness. 

If we are talking about collective consciousness or collective anything, what then is the self?

Philosophers and spiritual leaders have warned us for thousands of years about the dangers of seeing the self as fixed. The Buddha spoke of the emptiness of the self, and how our suffering largely comes from our belief that it is real, that it is permanent. Sigmund Freud wrote of the gradual (yet rapid!) detachment of the I from the external world, that can be reconciled through love. The Quantum Theory tells us that we are/can be connected and communicate instantly with phenomena billions of light years away (entanglement, and we have already discussed superposition). This is the challenge to the European narrative that has told us for the past 500 years that the mind and the body are separate (though Plato and Aristotle made the first and deepest cuts), that has described the universe as a machine, that has painted Nature as a place that provides resources for humans. 

When we abandon this narrative, the self loses its fixedness. It is free to breathe in and breathe out.

The self is a circle drawn with a pencil, constantly erased and re-drawn, enveloping different parts that are wholes in themselves. The self is a never-ending negotiation and re-negotiation, a perpetual extension and a retraction of the circle to envelop different parts into the whole. The self is one temporary iteration of an infinite number of possibilities.

Where we begin and where we end is a constant re-negotiation of the boundaries we draw. When we consider our-selves as the relationships of parts that make us whole, we expand the self beyond the reductionist individualism that separates. We appreciate that there is a boundary between our-selves and the outside, but that boundary is not permanent. We become both open and porous, but never closed.

This is what Joanna Macy refers to this as the holonic shift. This is not about creating uniformity or subsuming life into one. This is about nurturing thriving relationships between the parts that make us whole. This is about caring [with/for] everything inside the re-drawable and porous circle. The holonic shift “does not sacrifice, but rather requires, the uniqueness of each part and of its point of view.” The bio-collective—all living things that have an interest in the healthfulness of the planet—is not one uniform whole. Monism is just as dangerous as dualism. Rather, the bio-collective is “all, but not two.” There is both unity and diversity, but there is no separation. All, but not two. 

In a living system, all wholes are parts of a larger whole, nested within each other like a Russian doll5. When we know we are entangled in the web of life, we extend our selves beyond ourselves.

This is love: a re-drawing of the circle to make one self of different selves, connected through the relationships between each part. This self is unity and diversity. 

This is the oceanic feeling: we are drops in the ocean of life, yet where does the drop begin and where does it end?

This is not easy. This will require us to cultivate participative consciousness; the awareness that everything is connected with everything else. We are in the whole, we are the whole, and our relational responses participate in the unfolding of events6. We are actors within a network that is created, uncreated, and re-created through dynamic relationships. Participative consciousness resolves separation by appreciating that we can re-draw the circle, re-negotiate the self, because there is no fixedness. Participative consciousness is collective consciousness that responds as wholes made of parts. (Yes, perhaps there is also an element of self-awareness that is not shared with everyone in the more-than-human world. This is something to consider.)

Why does the question where do we begin and where do we end matter for schools? Because when we extend the self beyond the “person,” we appreciate that we are all in this together, this being the space inside the circle we draw, erase, and re-draw constantly. We appreciate that we can extend our-selves beyond our selves and retract the circle too if that is what will help all life thrive.

In schools, this means we re-consider individual assessments and achievement, we re-think ranking and sorting, we re-conceptualize “personalization” and outcomes. This means we explore measuring collective impact on the community in quantitative, qualitative, and post-qualitative ways. This means opening up to the possibilities for cooperation, or better yet communion. We create the spaces for all life to thrive because life is a relational network, not an assortment of individuals. What would it take to spend more time exploring these relationships, richly, no longer treating beings and things as other?

What would it take to cultivate this appreciation, this participative consciousness? What would it take to re-draw the circle around where we begin and where we end?

Perhaps we start by co-designing learning experiences that contribute to the thriving of the community, the (bio-)collective however large or small. Perhaps we consider the nurturing of the conditions for thriving as fertile ground for learning, for growth: an emergent process of inter-connections, not a linear one of separation. 

Might this allow us to cultivate generosity by attributing “success” to others, recognizing the contributions of the collective for the collective? Might this cultivate loving-kindness?

Isn’t that what Nature does when Nature nurtures the conditions and the relationship for life to thrive?

Where we begin and end matters and yet doesn’t matter. We find grace in the circles we draw, but we know they are temporary. 

As the cat sits on me, her presence alters my body, flooding it with oxytocin. Skin follicles deposit on fur and fur on skin. I hope she looks forward to the morning as much as I do. We mark each other’s lives and we take that with us. 

1 Thank you Charlotte Hankin for making aware of this. Donna Haraway refers to her dog, not her cat.

2 To borrow from Karen Barad.

3 Add to this rapid replacements of almost all cells in your body and you might ask yourself if you are the Ship of Theseus

4 I choose deliberately not to use the word ego because it is a word that is full of dangers and confusion. Ego is the Latin word for I, but it has also taken on different meanings, not least the Freudian concept as a system of perception. It should be noted that ego is how the word the original translator of Sigmund Freud’s chose for the German das Ich, which is closer to “the I.” When it does not refer to conceit, today ego most often refers to the ability to self-reflect or to create an identity. This wreaks of anthropocentrism as we separate the human from other living beings, assuming that the human way of self-reflection is exceptional. This concept of ego cuts us off from the natural world. It is the ineffaceable line that we draw around our species.

5 Thus they are holons.

6 Since we ourselves are wholes made of parts, the parts that make our wholeness participate in the unfolding of events. We are events too, not fixed entities.

2 thoughts on “What if we were more than we thought we were?

  1. Your thoughts are much too advanced for me to follow, but I can appreciate one thing: the silent moments in the morning that we have to ourselves, with a cup of coffee in hand. Sometimes I need to adjust the time, and have to wake up earlier as other people in the house do the same, and it’s worth it to have that short solitude, when the world is still asleep, to be able to truly be with myself. Anyway, thanks for this post!


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