Many individuals involved with Transition, including Rob Hopkins, have become fascinated with the work of Christopher Alexander and his development of pattern language. Long before there was a Transition model, Alexander was studying patterns and noticing that any built environment is like a language in that the patterns communicate problems we confront in our environments but also contain within them the solutions. The genius of pattern language is that it can be applied in myriad situations and models, the Transition model being one of millions.
Anyone drawn to the Transition or Permaculture models is likely to stand in awe of Alexander’s work and his capacity for envisioning the revolutionary potential in both models. Enchantment with Alexander’s discoveries and his writings about them is inevitable the more one grasps their profundity, but often overlooked is what Alexander calls the “luminous ground” on which the pattern language theory is built.
Vermont author, Karen Speerstra, has researched Alexander’s luminous ground concept which is described in depth in Book Four of his Nature of Order series. When one grasps the implications of Alexander’s understanding of luminous ground, one must also acknowledge that at its core, pattern language is a theory based on profoundly spiritual principles. In her article “Our Luminous Common Ground,” commissioned by the Fetzer Institute, Speerstra extracts from The Nature of Order a number of statements from Alexander indicative of the place the sacred holds in his world view.
The “ground” to which Alexander incessantly refers is, in his words, “The I which lies behind or inside all matter…an underlying substance, or ‘original substance’ [it] partially reunites us, part of the way, not all the way, towards a world of spirit. It does not make a separation between spirit and matter.”
This “I”, according to Alexander, resides within us and is eternal. In fact, he asserts that it “does contain all that is in us; it gives primacy to the fact that this void is already in us; that it is a part of the human being which exists already, and is available to us…It is that which makes it powerful, which makes it useful.”
But Alexander takes this further: “To really make living structures, it seems almost as though somehow, we are charged, for our time, with finding a new form of God, a new way of understanding the deepest origins of our experience, of the matter in the universe so that we, too, when lucky, with devotion might find it possible to reveal this ‘something’ and its blinding light.”
In creating something beautiful, he says, we are not only deeply nourished, but we come alive and are filled with inner light. We are most nurtured and feel healed and whole when we are joining with others in creating living structures. In fact, “When we are in touch with our inner landscape, ‘the ground,’ we become a more ‘rounded, more satisfied, more satisfactory being.’”
Alexander sees no duality between the “inner ground” and our outer human-ness: “When you really put your humanness into the things you make, then you genuinely reach the wholeness we are striving for in the external structure we call order…it is at that moment that we reach the ground.”
Christopher Alexander has been called an architect, a builder, a mathematician, and a scientist, but throughout the passages from The Nature of Order cited by Speerstra, not out of context but very much in context, what we are hearing is nothing less than the musings of a mystic. Alexander is telling us that each of us has an “I” that goes beyond what we normally see and that it is connected with all other “I’s.” Moreover, “Each of us is connected to the world.” In his mind and heart, the ultimate goal is wholeness—connectedness with ourselves, other “I’s”, and “a genuine desire for all things to be one….” In fact, he says, “Any trace of a desire for separateness will destroy completely my ability to hear the one, whispering through….” We might summarize all of his mysticism in just this one sentence offered by Speerstra: “Everything is filled with its living spirit.”
Why is a closer examination of Alexander’s world view important, particularly in relation to Transition? In recent months, a healthy and heated debate regarding the place of the sacred or what some call spirituality in the Transition model has been occurring alongside much fascination with pattern language and its application to Transition. Surely, if those who embrace the Transition model find themselves resonating with Alexander’s perspective on pattern language, then it seems imperative to understand the foundation on which it is built which happens to be unequivocally grounded in the sacred.
At the end of her article, Speerstra suggests a number of questions about our ways of being together and our work in groups which emerge directly from a pattern language perspective and which are exceedingly relevant to the functioning of Transition initiatives and projects:
- What is the “felt reality” of the gathered people?
- When we meet other people, to what degree do we feel connected to them?
- Can groups model an improved “world picture”—one of already existing wholeness?
- How can a group of people be led to appreciate remarkable new results that embrace and foster unexpected and complex behaviors?
- How can each person in the group be more like their “eternal selves”?
- Are mental events connected with physical phenomena?
- How do we experience the unfolding of our centers?
- How can each person feel more “related” to the gathering place and to each other?
- What is the spiritual depth of what is achieved in “the work”?
What are we to make of mysterious terms like “an ‘I’”, “the something”, “the luminous ground”, “the eternal self”, and oh dear, the word “God”? Above all, how do we relate such esoteric expressions to the nuts and bolts of the Transition model and other efforts to create sustainable communities? I would answer by saying that Alexander is showing us what the sacred looks like and that it is a thousand miles removed from organized religion, ideology, or some sort of New Age “grow, flow, and be” cultism. Furthermore, he is demonstrating that as we implement the Transition model, we stand together on luminous (sacred) ground and that knowing that in our bones may facilitate our capacity to experience unprecedented personal and collective transformation.
What is more, it appears that Alexander’s work serves to create not only sustainable communities, but sustainable people—individuals and groups that literally thrive on connectedness with each other and the earth community, for indeed, as he says, what really matters is “the degree of connectedness a given place, or thing or event has with the ground.”
In summary, we cannot consider pattern language and its application to any structure or group unless we are willing to open-mindedly engage with and integrate its sacred origins. Otherwise, we perpetuate a binary perspective which our species may soon discover is the root cause of the rise of an endless growth model and its current demise. The history of modern humanity has been a sorrowful saga of abdicating the sacred because we were unable to appreciate its presence in the material world. The current collapse and transition is and will be an onerous, but perhaps ultimately joyful journey, in rediscovering and re-embracing our luminous ground. Out of this return to the mysteries of which Alexander speaks, an opportunity for unprecedented patterns of wholeness and relationship offers itself to human egos weary of pretending that disconnected matter, people, and places are humanity’s final frontier.
I’ve been a great admirer of Alexander since the early ’80’s, when I was first exposed to his work at Tektronix’s Computer Research Lab. At Tek Labs, I had the great privilege of working with Ward Cunningham, inventor of the “Wiki Wiki Web” concept that has enabled sites like Wikipedia and WikiLeaks.
Ward and Glen Beck came across A Pattern Language, and got excited by the concept and contacted Alexander about it. At first, hearing they were computer scientists, he was turned off and uninterested, thinking they merely wanted to build some software around his seminal architecture work. But when Ward told him that no, he wanted to apply the concept of pattern languages to software, he became excited, and eventually visited Tek Labs.
That work grew into the Portland Pattern Repository, which I believe was not only the first wiki on the Internet, but also the first extension of Alexander’s pattern language concept to a new domain outside of architecture, as well as the first exposure of pattern languages to the World Wide Web.
I left the world of computer science over a decade ago, seeking deeper meaning in my life, and got involved with Permaculture. We’re now in the process of applying Permaculture and patterns to the building of an ecovillage, and even though I left high-tech employment for a simpler life, I am constantly rewarded for my early involvement with these visionary people. Our website is itself a wiki — thanks, Ward and Christopher!
Just thought some of you might be interested in this bit of history…
Carolyn, this is a magnificent article. I am so deeply happy to see you addressing this profound and, ultimately, critical issue.
Do hope that you are well and having a blast with your work.
In remembrance and vision for the future,
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