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What lies at the core of Pattern Language, and why should we care?

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.

Editorial Notes: Several writers have been struggling to convey the place of spirituality and the sacred within movements like Transition. Carolyn tries in this article and so has Michael Brownlee. They've met resistance -- spirituality is not an easy sell in our skeptical, rationalist age. I wonder if the discussion might go more smoothly if it were couched in more traditional terms. Talk about spirituality makes me uneasy. Not because I disagree with it, but because I've seen how destructive it can be when misused (e.g., in cults). I feel much more comfortable when spirituality is discussed within existing traditions, whether Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or humanism. In the course of the centuries, most religions have developed a set of checks and balances. For example both Buddhism and Christianity have learned to balance mysticism with pragmatism in their monastic tradition. My background is with the Quakers, and there I look towards the example of John Woolman, the early anti-slavery activist and proponent of simplicity. Writer Sharon Astyk draws upon the Jewish tradition (The challenges of being a Jewish farmer). No matter what one's tradition, there are almost always precedents in history for what one is searching for. The Dalai Lama, for example, discourages converts to Buddhism, suggesting instead that people try to work within their own tradition. -BA UPDATE (Dec 28) Carolyn Baker responds: "I concur with you that untold damage has been done by humans in the name of spirituality and religion. That is why in my work I take great pains to distinguish between religion and the sacred. For me, religion is precisely what makes spirituality dangerous, and unlike you, I find the possibility of "spiritual abuse" more likely IN the confines of religious traditions. I also concur that outside of traditions, it CAN become cult-like, but it certainly does not have to. When I speak of the sacred, I am speaking of something so vast and uncontainable that it cannot be confined in a religious tradition, and the moment people form cults, they are no longer participating in the sacred because the cult by definition is yet another attempt to confine the infinite. "I for one find the "resistance" you say I'm meeting both refreshing and healthy. Also, I do not wish to "sell" anything but rather invite readers and Transitioners to move beyond their assumptions and expand their ontological and ecological horizons. I notice that this is increasingly occurring, attested to by the popularity of my book Sacred Demise. "

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