Sunday, January 08, 2006

A gentle push

What is the effect that we have on one another?

I've just finished reading (the second time through, as a college professor insisted was the only way to really understand a book worth reading), Fritjof Capra's The Web of Life.

He's quite clear and persuasive that thinking about any organism -- including a human -- as an individual separate, apart, and sufficient from all others and from the world it exists in is not only artificial, but likely to lead to all sorts of misguided conclusions. Among the themes that he develops, the one that came across to me as most central is that life is, as the title suggests, a web, a network of processes and systems and interrelationships that are cycling, interacting, branching, and re-interacting again and again. In that entanglement, whether we're looking at a human immune system, a national economic structure, or Earth's carbon capture/release processes, the basic structure of multiple entities acting upon, shaping, and re-orienting one another is common.

So in that context, I'm wondering whether I've decided to pursue yoga teacher training because of my own decision, my own beliefs, my own desires, or because of a note handed me by a valued teacher quoting Alice in Wonderland's Queen of Hearts and Joseph Campbell.

The Capra in my head evaluates the question this way: in analyzing complex systems, one of the characteristics that arises again and again is the structure to the pattern of outcomes. Chaotic systems are defined as systems that will yield results that can't be reliably predicted. But, Capra reports, when mathetmaticians began plotting the results they obtained running and re-running models of chaotic systems, they didn't get a grey-screen of randomly distributed plots. Rather, they found the results clustering. To be sure, the results were still mathematically speaking specifically unpredictable, but they were not incomprehensible on a larger scale. I conceptualize that abstraction this way: if the complex system whose results are being plotted is where a particular ivory-billed woodpecker will be located tomorrow, the exact answer is unpredictable, as too many variables can affect the outcome, ranging from how many bugs it found in a particular kind of tree today, what the weather is tomorrow, what the breeding opportunities may be, and the like. But if I'm interested not only in tomorrow's exact location, but also in how much we can say about where it will be, the mathematician's plotting may start to be helpful despite the chaos -- because the plot will show that for ten thousand separate analyses, the results tend to cluster -- the bird will be located in the forests of the southeastern United States.

One of the more curious aspects of chaotic systems analysis, though, is that even a chaotic system that yields a clustered plot of outcomes given a particular set of initial values can develop a new and different set of plots, given a particular change in the values at a particular point in the process. Without a particular input at a particular stage in the calculation, that new cluster of potential outcomes would never occur. With the input, though, the system plot can create an entirely different "basin" of plots, like the second petal of a formerly one-petalled flower.

I think the note I received was just such a new input.

At times in my life, I've swung from more responsible and orthodox to more irresponsible and unorthodox, but I've always done so within a particular range of values. In other words, if you were to plot my life, you'd get a cluster of plots with the plots centering on obligations and desires that emphasize family, work, and an orthodox religious community. At any given time, were you to plot my position, I'd be within the cluster.

But a couple of weeks ago, when I received the note telling me to follow my bliss and that believing the impossible isn't all that difficult, I happened to be at one of the far edges of my usual cluster.

The note was not enough to move me out of my cluster-plot if I had been at the center of the cluster, or even if I'd been at one of a hundred other edges of that plot. But I was near a particular edge.

And so, even though I'd already thought about teacher training and had already decided not to do it because it would conflict too much with obligations I felt to my family, church, work, and others, the note kept asking me "why not ask?"

So I did.

My wife, bless her, responded to the effect that "if you need to do it, you should do it." Other conflicts worked themselves out reasonably enough.

And the day before yesterday, I paid the price of the training and committed myself to a path that will lead me somewhere that I haven't been before.