A couple of issues ago I wrote a column called “Engaged Emergence,” about the presence required to witness emergence as it was happening. In that piece, I defined emergence as cause, condition, and effect. For those familiar with my particular Buddhist affliction—they say it should only last a lifetime or two—it might have been evident that the definition I used was also the common definition in Buddhist circles for Karma.
Karma is simply the effect that our actions create in the world we encounter. There is actually not too much here on the woo-woo-ometer that anyone would disagree with. What we do in the world, what we bring to each interaction, within a given environment, allows new things to emerge. What makes this connection between emergence and Karma interesting is that Karma isn’t an event that just happens, it is a causal chain.
Within Karma, all our previous actions build on one another. Every actualization within our individual possibility spaces is carried with us into our next interaction, and they all influence the possibilities that make themselves known to us and their next iteration. We tend to think of emergent interactions as singular events—two or more agents interact and what can emerge is greater than the sum of the parts—rather than seeing it as two fully-developed causal chains interacting, with the history of both influencing what emerges. When looking at the process of the emergent event, we have to take into account that both agents bring all of this into each encounter. That’s complexity.
Now for those long-time complexity arhats who have toiled and dallied in the world as it appears to show up, you may have thought in the back of your mind that delving into this soup of complex interactions would one day lead to enlightenment. Well, you just might be right.
In order to see emergence, as it emerges, requires presence. And to be present means that we aren’t distracted by iPods, twitter, text messages, Netflix, the baseball playoffs or the looming deadline that is rapidly pressing down on us because we have been watching the baseball playoffs. It is about being mindful. Now mindfulness is not a spiritual or religious term, it is simply our ability to focus our mind on the landscape in front of us. Whenever we find ourselves distracted by the pheromones arising next to us, the blue, cloud-spotted skies out the window, or the piece of tape stuck to the top of the table, it is our ability to bring our minds back to our focus that we call mindfulness. When the alluring scent catches us and pulls us away from the landscape before us, we immediately become mind-filled and our original focus is lost.
Now I can hear the call arising, “well sometimes distraction is needed, and must be paid its due attention, especially when the olfactory nerve is so stimulated.” And at that moment, it is our causal chain of experience that will ultimately determine if we follow that distraction, and then attempt to reapply our presence so that we might recognize what could be truly emerging from this new landscape, or return to our original focus.
It is at this instant, when the possible and actual are about to meet, that our ability to either recognize, or miss, the signposts telling us that something new and emergent is about to happen takes place. If we are present we see what is happening. If not, we miss it. Neither experience could have occurred independently of our causal chain of experience. However, we should be clear that Karma, like emergence, is not fate. Each of our possibility spaces is visible only to what we are able to see. How many of us have found ourselves in this position—that the possible was on the verge of actualizing and we didn’t see what was actually emerging until after the fact? “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.” If we had only been present enough to read the signs correctly, rather than being distracted and completely mind-filled by other things, we might have seen what was taking place right in front of us.
Suffice it to say, to be fully conscious of the impact of our causal chain of emergent experiences on our next interaction, requires a level of Buddhahood most of us have yet to attain. However, our ability to recognize this notion of ‘Engaged Emergence’—witnessing emergence as it is happening—can be developed through practice. Within this mindful practice, we are, in essence, influencing what we bring to the table. If we are simply building on our habitual causal chain of experience, we need to learn to change the pattern of the experiences. That is a learned operation and one that can be practiced. And like any such undertaking, whether it’s learning to play a guitar without either Rock Band or Guitar Hero, or painting a pastoral landscape, our first attempts usually suck. But if we continue to practice, we gain a level of mastery over that to which we are applying our focus.
In practicing this level of engagement, we discover that something rather unexpected happens. When we operate from a mindful image of the world we encounter, we see things we might previously have missed. We still bring our causal chain of experience with us, but as we break through the patterned behavior and habitual responses that have influenced it in the past, and add a new and more present way of looking at the world we encounter, the possibility space surrounding us enlarges and we see more within it with greater clarity, so that when something does appear that we hadn’t seen before, we recognize it before it hits us on the side of the head or passes us by.
It is at every moment of interaction between two or more agents that the causal chain of experience of each agent surfaces and their individual thinking becomes biased by it. We tend to discount this, attempting to sanitize it out of the equation for the sake of simplicity, but we cannot do that. How or if we react is always based on the complex mix of our joined experiences, and unless we can do things differently that will break this pattern of reactive thinking, we will invariably miss the opportunity to see what new might emerge as it emerges. In some cases, this may not be as critical. We have been looking back at what has emerged for much of our lives, and often late getting to the party because of it. But now, when our ability to act quickly may be essential to moving forward successfully, engaging in an interaction, with focused and mindful intent, aware of what we bring to the table, can be the difference between seeing the next great emergent opportunity or becoming an also-ran.
We can redirect our causal chain of experience, our karma if you will, by acting differently and being more present when we do. The first step in this emergent process, however, is recognizing that it is influencing us before we can do anything really differently. As the Buddhists say, “Karma, neh?”