Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Mystery Teachings by J. M. Greer

Ecology, complexity, and other interdisciplinary fields can easily slip into woo. Initially I expected this book to suffer from this problem, but luckily there were no dizzying invocations of Deepak Chiopra™ style quantum physics. Instead, Greer presents a grounded worldview, rejecting spiritual stereotypes and "half truths that you create your own reality".

The bulk of Greer's book features seven laws, which may be better described as perspectives or lenses. The first three are foundational, the fourth is a bridge, and the last three are somewhat derived from the first. Many of these so-called laws overlap with one another. Law of Planes and Law of Evolution are highly interrelated. Why are there seven laws? For relatively unconvincing reasons resembling gematria. I found these "laws" unevenly resonant, with the Law of Cause and Effect quite uninspiring, but others much more evocative.

(The Seven Fundamental Laws of Spiritual Ecology are well documented, so rather than enumerating them I'll just focus on the ideas across the laws that I found compelling.)

An alternative entry point to complex systems Greer's first three laws can be cleanly mapped to the canon of complexity science. Wholeness is all about the world consisting of complex adaptive systems. Flow is about stocks and flows. Finally, balance is about balancing feedback loops.

Everything flows at different rates. Flow rates vary, often moving at a pace far slower or faster than humans are capable of perceiving:

the boulder left by a glacier on one corner of the meadow during the last ice age fifteen thousand years ago is slowly being weathered away by rain, wind, and the slow action of lichens, and fifteen thousand years from now, it will be a fraction of its present size. Solid as it seems, the stone is also flowing.

Perhaps there is a general scaling law that the smaller, the faster, and the higher the frequency? (Also see Small animals perceive time more quickly and Smaller objects move faster)

Accumulation is poison because it effectively stops the natural flow of things. My initial reaction to this was one of skepticism: some accumulations seem alright. Organisms need a store of energy to survive. Accumulation also afford freedom. Freedom to consider something other than just constant toil for the purpose of survival.

Greer seems less judgmental about accumulation in the human realm, especially when this is for the future of one’s own life. He explicitly rejects that material wealth is an evil thing and the only right path is one of abject poverty. Instead, in the spirit of seeking a middle way (see Middle way in Buddhism), Greer suggests something that resonates with me:

If material wealth is flowing into your life, material wealth in some form should be flowing out of it at an equal rate.

Goldilocks zones and balance: The opposite of thirst is not too much water, it’s just enough water. By default, people seek extremes and this intuition is often wrong. This section evoked a lot of related ideas for me:

Principle of rebound: Intriguingly, Greer writes about a practical application of his Law of Balance. Deliberately push a balanced system one way, and you will make it swing back the other way with redoubled force. Fast so that you enjoy food more during the next days. This is a sort of synthesized delayed gratification. Related to Manufactured suffering for resilience, antifragility and happiness.

Constraints are a source of power and elegance: Like the flow of water through a thinning tube, as the tube thins, the flow will become more and more powerful.

Power is born when a flow of energy encounters firm limits, and the more narrow the outlet left open by those limits, the greater the power will be.

This resonated with me, and reminded me of the benefit of constraints:

I found that reframing beauty as "elegance" is generative, and fits well with Greer's example of bird flight, in which nature "engineered" or "designed" an elegant system:

To achieve the power of flight, sparrows and most other birds accept strict and inflexible limits that prevent them from engaging in many activities that other living things can do. These limits are anything but arbitrary; rather, they are the other side of the power of flight itself.

Every manifestation in the real world is limited. If you break through these limits, you don't thrive, you die.

When a cell ignores the limits placed on it by the body as a whole system and instead grows in an unlimited way, doctors call that condition "cancer." Freed from all limits, the human body would not become something superhuman; it would simply turn into a puddle of red slush, powerless, ugly, and dead.

Overlapping planes of mind and body: Greer's notion of planes is very abstract: "Everything exists and functions on one of several planes of being." The most concrete and interesting planes are the mind and the body plane. These planes interact, but only in very specific ways.

Ecosystem lifecycles: One intriguing idea in this chapter and the next was about the lifecycle of ecosystems:

Just as every creature begins with a single cell and passes through its life cycle, every ecosystem begins with bare, nonliving elements and passes through stages, called "sers." Those stages reach from the first or pioneer sere that forms on bare ground right up to the final relatively stable sere, which ecologists call "the climax community."

(Also see the excellent Wikipedia article on this topic. Climax community and Seral community).

A seral community is an intermediate stage found in ecological succession in an ecosystem advancing towards its climax community

Placeholders in ecosystems: I found powerful the idea that individuals in an ecosystem can be seen as placeholders. The organism may die, but its immediate life wasn't that important for the whole system. The individual was playing a role that many had played in the past, and many will play in the future.

The meadow in which the mouse and the grass thrive, in other words, is simply one phase of a greater process of change that began long before either one was born, and that meadow will continue long after both have died.

Furthermore, this role can be played by a variety of creatures that evolve, but are still fundamentally of the same lineage.

Ten million years ago, some other species of small rodent filled the same role in meadow ecologies in the same region that the field house fills today, and ten million years from now, todays field mouse will likely be replaced by another species of rodent or some other creature not too different.

Magic is about the mind: Greer has a very hard boiled, realist take on magic. It mainly operates on the “plane of the mind”, and affects other planes only insofar as they overlap to the mind one. He talks lucidly of real limits when it comes to what you can expect magic to be able to achieve.

Societal lifecycles: Greer compares societies to ecosystems and suggests that they too have lifecycle. But what are the seres, and what is the climax community for societies? Perhaps the notion of progress is less clear.

Each human society arises out of the chaos left behind by some previous society and it takes shape in response to whatever challenge the old society couldn’t meet.

This reminds me of Turchin (Fathers-and-sons cycles) as well as Tainter (Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter). But there is less of a clear sense of progress from one society to the next. This rhymes with the nonlinearity of moral progress (see Moral progress is a cycle, technological progress is an arrow).

It is unfortunately common for the people of one society to ignore the hard won wisdom of older societies and suffer as a result.

Technological lifecycles? Greer goes further. He wouldn’t be surprised if at the end of our industrial society in several decades, many of today’s tech will become the stuff of legend. Atlantis, an advanced but lost civilization is a common trope in mystery schools. All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.

The people of Atlantis ignored the laws of spiritual ecology and by the time those laws finished with them, nothing remained of Atlantis but gray waves rolling across empty ocean.

Dealing with higher ideals vs. disappointing realities: paraphrasing Greer, there are a few options:

  1. Settle for the world as it is, optimizing for pleasure and profit.
  2. Turn to ordinary religion with the hope of a better world after death.
  3. Join social movements or political activism to make the world a better place.
  4. Convince yourselves that changing your own thinking will scale up.
  5. Sit and wait for some apocalyptic event to make the world live up to our expectations.

Yet there is also another way: the way of the mysteries. This way starts by realizing that our everyday life in the world of manifestation, here and now, exactly as it is, is a lesson to be studied and understood, rather than a trap to be escaped or an illusion to be ignored. It goes on to recognize that the same laws that shape our ecological relationships with the world around us also define our existence in the subtler realms of mind and spirit and that learning to live and act in harmony.

I like Greer's call to curiosity, but it seems to me that the mystery schools are just one of many different ways to study and understand the lessons from daily life. Still, I'm pleasantly surprised how neatly Greer's ideas map onto my existing canon of Complexity-related notes. Also, it's useful to find giant gaps in my understanding of ecology (e.g. sers, climax communities, etc) will surely make for an illuminating follow-up.