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Philosophy Talks: Pattern, Practices, and Wisdom

Freelance writer Sara Kaiser engages philosopher Nickolas Knightly in a conversation about the role of wisdom in conservation.

Does philosophy have a place in conservation? Philosophical inquiry can provide pathways to broader and clearer understandings of the daily efforts and deeper purposes of any pursuit, including conservation. The process of asking questions often gives rise to insight and new awareness even if the initial questions remain unanswered.

Sara Kaiser, freelance writer and editor, hopes to highlight the questions and unknowns that pervade conservation work, demonstrate the value of inquiry, and stimulate productive dialogue and action throughout the conservation sphere–all in support of the flourishing of life on Earth. This blog series is not intended to make a claim or endorse a particular ethical stance or opinion by Island Conservation

Nickolas Knightly is a philosopher at UC Santa Cruz. He is currently finishing his doctoral dissertation on philosophy as a way of life. His work arises at the intersection of ecology, art, and spirituality.

Sara: Okay, given what you have said so far, and given the present extinction crisis, how do we proceed?

Nickolas: Somehow we need to try and get people to stop some or much or even most of what they are doing. We probably shouldn’t give up the kind of protective actions that we are doing, because of course people are making a big difference in this work. They are helping a lot. But we need more. It seems to me that, among other things, we need to do what Gregory Bateson suggested, and what many philosophical traditions suggest, which is to find a way to tap into wisdom, and not to keep going along on the basis of ordinary human purposes and typical human thinking. Can we amplify the ordinary, narrow bandwidth of information we usually rely on to make our decisions and live our lives? That narrow bandwidth of information is what we usually call “consciousness?”

Can we amplify the ordinary, narrow bandwidth of information we usually rely on to make our decisions and live our lives?

I think Bateson and other scientists, systems thinkers, and philosophers might agree with me in suggesting that we are now operating on the basis of what we call “mind,” but it’s usually a rather small mind, and that has to be supplemented, deepened, or awakened in order for us to take wise action. We may be able to take what appears to be “rational” action, but reason is always based on some set of premises. Again, there are already a bunch of philosophical decisions that have been made before we apply reason, and much of what, from an ecological standpoint, seems totally irrational is in fact extremely rational from within the pattern of thinking that is destroying the conditions of life.

There is, then, a crucial difference between what is rational and what is wise. And this holds not only for the things that “they” do, but also for the things that “we” do when we think we are trying to help the situation. Many things that environmental groups do are reasonable and rational, but not necessarily wise.

How do we arrive at wisdom? How do we supplement the narrow bandwidth of human consciousness to put our thinking and our activity in accord with the conditions of life? Philosophy and art are the primary means. This was Bateson’s suggestion too. He wrote about how we need to look to religious traditions, philosophical traditions, and art in order to get past the limitations of ordinary consciousness and conscious human purposes.

How do we supplement the narrow bandwidth of human consciousness to put our thinking and our activity in accord with the conditions of life? Philosophy and art are the primary means.

The inclusion of religion is very important, and it’s worth noting again that Bateson was an atheist. I won’t go into all the nuances of his thinking on this, and in fact I wouldn’t presume to understand them, but at the very least he saw that there are sources of genuine wisdom in the world’s religious traditions (and I would add the philosophical and generally spiritual traditions as well, including Indigenous traditions), and he wanted to say to his fellow scientists and to other non-theistic thinkers that we should not make such a great divide between science and religion, and that scientists and others are being a bit foolish when they simply reject religion outright. We can instead respectfully engage with religious and philosophical traditions in order to tap into the kind of wisdom we need to live well. These traditions offer an array of practices that allow us to engage with much larger ecologies of mind than our ordinary consciousness can accommodate.

We can instead respectfully engage with religious and philosophical traditions in order to tap into the kind of wisdom we need to live well. These traditions offer an array of practices that allow us to engage with much larger ecologies of mind than our ordinary consciousness can accommodate.

Sara: That would be the experience of “visiting home” we discussed earlier.

Nickolas: Yes, when you engage in such practices, it is visiting home, or returning home. And these practices can be incorporated into our ordinary work, our day-to-day living. When we take up this kind of thinking, this kind of deeper practice of life, we cultivate insight and inspiration, and experiencing this is visiting home, at least for one precious moment. And then we can allow more and more of those moments to arise. We can begin living an inspired life, and a wiser, more skillful life. We can begin to live in that place that we at first can only visit.

Sara: Right. And so our actions can be better trusted if we have been communing in that space, and that’s informing our actions.

Nickolas: In-forming. That’s very good. That’s an important word, right? First of all, as far as trust, we can say that we don’t trust an idea or an action—rather, we trust a person. And so our work is to become a person of trust, a person who has become trustworthy by engaging in these ways of letting go of the narrow human purposes that we think we have and think we want. We let go of that and start saying, “Let me engage in a broader conversation. Let me try and tap into wisdom and compassion.” So even to have a genuine conversation is to become a person of trust, if that conversation is sincere and open. And this is how we arrive at transformative breakthroughs. A breakthrough can happen when people sit down and engage in real conversation.

A breakthrough can happen when people sit down and engage in real conversation.

And then this informing is very important for a variety of reasons. For instance, Bateson is talking about the pattern that connects, and when I’m following a narrow human purpose, it is as if I become resistant to being in-formed. You see? Think about someone who is caught in a destructive pattern, or who is being narrow, stubborn, or self-limiting in one way or another. It seems as if they will not listen to “information.” They will not listen to wisdom. They become rigid, which means they cannot be responsive, cannot be reshaped, in-formed, trans-formed to fit the situation.

To be philosophically or spiritually in-formed or trans-formed is to allow the real “pattern that connects” to shape and guide us. That is the Patterning of Life, the patterning that keeps things going, the patterning of genuine renewal, genuine innovation, genuine nourishment. If we are stuck in an incoherent pattern—and the evidence shows that human beings are stuck in an incoherent pattern or set of patterns—then we are forcing a pattern onto life, and this will not work. It will create misery. Instead, we need to attune ourselves to life’s patterning, allowing all the beings around us to in-form us, allowing what is needed in the moment to shape our thought, speech, and action.

To be philosophically or spiritually in-formed is to allow the real ‘pattern that connects’ to shape and guide us. That is the Patterning of Life, the patterning that keeps things going, the patterning of genuine renewal, genuine innovation, genuine nourishment.

If I were playing in a jazz ensemble and I just played whatever I wanted to at any moment, it would be horrible. Instead, playing in a jazz ensemble requires that we allow what the other musicians are doing to inform what we are doing. At that point we begin to touch something, we begin to go to places where insight and inspiration can inform us. In such cases, the artist naturally says, “How did I do that? Actually, I didn’t do that. I had to somehow let go of my ordinary sense of control. I had to get beyond my ordinary consciousness.” So, even though it at first sounds odd or even scary, this is what we want, because it is where we bring ourselves to fullest realization. This is how we experience the greatest meaning, and it is because we tap into deep sources of wisdom, love, and beauty.

It’s kind of funny. When someone points out this fact about ourselves, it can sound self-effacing or something—though I suspect that is actually a defense mechanism. For various reasons, talking about a more holistic way of thinking—a more realistic and skillful way of thinking and acting—this can sound like nonsense. But anyone who has experienced this knows how wondrous it is, and they tend to want more of it in their lives. The musician would love it if everything could feel more like jazz, or more like whatever their groove is. It’s not even about the style of the music, but about entering the space of inspiration, the space of insight and wonder. The scientist wants this too. Any scientist who has experienced inspiration has some feeling for the mystery of it, some sense of, “I don’t know where the idea came from really.” They can tell a story about it, but at the end of the day, we either let inspiration in, or we don’t.

It’s not even about the style of the music, but about entering the space of inspiration, the space of insight and wonder.

It’s not that we have to do that in some set manner. We can open ourselves to insight and inspiration in many authentic ways, as long as we do so responsibly and work in an ethical manner. But through artistic practice, spiritual practice, meditation, prayer, and so on, we can allow this informing—and transforming—to happen. Obviously we have to approach these things with discernment and creativity, because people all over the world meditate, pray, make art, and so on, and yet we still find ourselves in the midst of a mass extinction. So these practices have to be properly recontextualized and approached with intelligence. We have to understand them and work with them in a good way, and we would have to talk about that in detail another time, because this is the subject of a sophisticated “inner” science that is necessary to not only balance but to transform and revitalize the “outer” science we have focused on so much for the past few centuries in particular. When we work with these various practices for getting beyond the limited and limiting ways of thinking we are often caught up in, and which have captured the dominant culture, we will get in touch with deep currents of wisdom in us, and we will realize our purpose in life. That is why there is such a feeling of rightness in these practices and these experiences, and a joyfulness too. We touch the meaning of our lives in these moments of inspiration, and we begin to reshape and renew our whole way of living. We begin to renew the world.

That is why there is such a feeling of rightness in these practices and these experiences, and a joyfulness too. We touch the meaning of our lives in these moments of inspiration, and we begin to reshape and renew our whole way of living. We begin to renew the world.

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Featured photo: Wave patterns off of Alejandro Selkirk Island, Juan Fernández Archipelago. Credit: Paulina Stowhas/Island Conservation

About Sara Kaiser

Sara received a BA in anthropology from UC Santa Cruz in 2014. As a freelance writer and editor, she seeks to produce and highlight stories that support ecological responsibility, body awareness, emotional intelligence, and creative action, and reveal the connections between them.

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