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Play it again, Sam: Iteration and Implicit Properties

Last fall, in one of those irregular spasms of self-inflicted self-improvement, I picked up Howard Bloom’s tome entitled The God Problem.  Bloom—polymath and paradigm shifter—rolls out the Big Bang, riffs on the formation of matter, molecules and planets, and slams into and out of the intellectual history of the world with an emphasis on mathematics, philosophy, and physics before he closes with God.

Or, more accurately, not God.  Bloom scavenges through the past 13 billion years to argue that the magnificent complexity of the universe is the result of the continued iteration of a few simple axioms.  To his way of thinking, this proves there is no God.  This is, at least in part, because he has an amazingly limited definition of God: God is “the old guy in the bathrobe.”  (Why do so many smart people cling to concepts that would embarrass a pre-teen fundamentalist?  It beggars understanding.  But that is a different article.)

Irritation with Bloom’s jejune theology aside, the book made some stunning points.  Two in particular stuck with me: the impact of iteration and its relationship to implicit properties.  When a behaviour is repeated—I place a brick on top of another brick, over and over and over and over again—quantum change can occur.  Bricks can become skyscrapers.  Subatomic particles can become stars.  One-celled animals can become antelopes.  When some rule like “brick on brick” is reiterated incessantly, something entirely new may come about, something not in the least obvious when I look at the singular brick.

This is more than just piling things up.  When repetition comes into play, it has the capacity to birth something absolutely unexpected—an implicit property that had hitherto been hidden.  Like when you increase the temperature of H20 by one degree, over and over and it changes from a solid to a liquid to a gas.  Who could have predicted that the liquid I drink would expand into a solid I could hand you, or simply disappear into vapour?  We don’t see that with other simple compounds, like carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide.  (It happens, but not at temperatures where we live…)

What’s fascinating about implicit properties is that we humans are capable of using them before they register in our conscious, intellectual understanding.  This is important.  If I am attacked by a polar bear,  I  will want to know to what’s handy for whacking purposes.  I don’t need to understand molecular properties to know that a chunk of ice is preferable to a handful of fog or even a bucket of water.  (Although the bucket itself could be nice.)  In the same manner the ancient Babylonians, to assure building stability, used a number sequence to measure the adjoining sides of a building and the distance between them.  That sequence was 3:4:5.  Essentially, they measured off a right angle; but they never articulated the concept of angles, much less right angles.  That came centuries later.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning asserted that …Earth’s crammed with Heaven,/ And every common bush afire with God.  Bloom might say that the stuff of this world is crammed with implicit properties, most of which we simply don’t recognize.  Yet.

I’m writing about iteration and implicit properties because I’ve needed them lately.

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For several weeks, there’s been something bubbling just below consciousness.  I can answer emails, cook dinner, do research, attend meetings, even listen pretty well in spiritual direction.  But my writing is shit and I can’t really pray or meditate with any depth.  When I would sneak glances at that writhing darkness, it stopped me dead with fear.  It looked like despair, and I haven’t had the moxie to stare it down.

I do know what to do; I just didn’t have the courage to do it.  So instead I screwed around with cultivating curiosity (but not too much) or trying to frame this as part of a bigger picture (but not with much commitment) or remembering (but not very regularly) the saints who dealt with despair, like Mother Teresa, who said that our job is not to be successful but to be faithful.

All this can be helpful, but used too soon—shoved into the gap to staunch the wound before I let myself feel—it’s just mental sleight of hand, a do-it-yourself project designed to cover over something that really needs to be torn down before it’s rebuilt.

So the tearing down part finally started last Wednesday.  It could have had any trigger—deaths in the Ukraine or Nigeria or the latest typhoon victims—but this time it was the environment.

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Here in Canada we’ve been experiencing what feels like the Inquisition combined with book burning and a slanging match.  The Harper government has muzzled environmental scientists, closed ocean and freshwater research centres, gutted environmental legislation, and tossed seven libraries of water research into dumpsters.  Environmentalists are being labelled terrorists and investigated by Canada Revenue.  Steven Harper has been bashing Neil Young for supporting First Nations resistance to tar sands expansion onto tribal lands.  We even have our own nasty little media person who specializes in vicious, inaccurate innuendo and whose favourite target is environmentalist David Suzuki

Sitting in the doctor’s office on Wednesday afternoon—the day after learning that a lake protection plan I’ve been working on for seven years was still years away—I picked up a recent Maclean’s with Suzuki’s picture on the front.  In the accompanying article, he says that the environmental movement has failed.  What with the relentlessness of the cuts, the escalating impacts of climate change and the personal attacks, it’s no wonder he feels that way.  I did too

When I’m assaulted by despair and denial, they often combine to make me begin believing that praying for the world is ineffectual, recycling is a waste of time, political action is futile and my lake advocacy hopeless.  Despair tells me that nothing can change.  Because I can’t imagine the solution, I begin to believe that there is none.

That’s where I was Thursday morning when it was time to meditate. I simply couldn’t hold off the despair any longer.  So it was necessity, not virtue, which forced me to dive in, to let the blood flow freely.  And necessity taught me once again that what lies deepest within is not despair at all.  It is grief, and when I am willing to feel grief, I will discover that it is simply the surface layer of a bottomless ocean of love.

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Prayer and meditation are exercises in iteration—the re- in religion signifies repetition, after all—and deeply spiritual people have always asserted that this repetition changes reality.  Chanting short prayers, observing recurrent times of silence and surrender, the daily exercise of generosity and restraint and fidelity: these shape us, and they shape life around us.  Sometimes these practices bring miniscule change.  Sometimes they birth inconceivable healing.  And sometimes we simply gain the grace to love that which is dark and seemingly beyond repair.  Whatever the result, the work serves to bind us to this clement world.  Spiritual practices don’t guarantee that we get the future we want.  They simply open, in us and in the world around us, possibility and relationship.

Last Thursday, when I let down the wall that I had built against my grief, I found myself swimming in an ocean of love.  That would have been enough, frankly.  But the writing of Howard Bloom, self-professed atheist, gave me even more.  I saw the iteration.  All across the world, I could see hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—of people praying, meditating, working to love and cherish every being, every rock, every plant, every drop of water.  I could see the energy of our care connecting, growing, flashing in arcs, blazing around the planet like lightning.  I saw our small actions adding up to more than the sum of the parts, creating a web of light, a net of energy, an ocean of possibility.

I felt hopeful.  I felt joy.  I felt like I could go on, even if I can’t imagine how healing might occur.

And I realized, right then, that the implicit property of prayer revealed by iteration is the same as the implicit property at the heart of the universe: Love.


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