De-powered dialogue

Photo by Beth Macdonald on Unsplash

The smallest unit of learning is a feedback loop. Power is the privilege of not needing to learn. The dynamic process of life is best understood in relational terms. At human scale, all healthy relationships, independently of the level of intimacy, are characterised by the maintenance of de-powered dialogue – by a mutual deep desire to understand a precious living being.


The smallest unit of learning is a feedback loop. In the physical world feedback loops exist between particles and waves, in the chemical world feedback loops exist between atoms and molecules, and the in the biological world, feedback loops exist between cells, and also at all larger levels of scale – and then there are feedback loops between all these levels of scale.

Many non-trivial systems of feedback loops, in no way limited to neural networks, include more or less simplified representations of themselves. When neuroscientists attempt to talk about consciousness, they tend to miss the many smaller and bigger – spatial and temporal – pictures as well as a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of emergence. Restricting the possibilities of consciousness to entities that are comprehensible to humans is a form of anthropocentric hubris, and believing that feeding data to human created artificially “intelligent” systems will result in some kind of superior form of consciousness that makes other forms of consciousness obsolete, is yet another form of anthropocentric hubris.

We have no idea of the many kinds of life giving consciousnesses that exist at bioregional and planetary scale, operating across decades, millennia and millions of years, and yet our modern global mono-cult has the audacity to destroy biodiversity at unprecedented rates, not realising that the living planet won’t let this anthropocentric trajectory continue for much longer.

Evolution of relationships

Persistent feedback loops that endure across the life spans of one or more generations of living organisms gives rise to relationships between living beings. In fact, the dynamic process of life is better understood in relational terms rather than in terms of the modern WEIRDT notion of competitive individual “selves”. All ecologies depicted in the above diagram are networks of relationships between living beings. Ecologies are nested within each other, with the connecting lines between ecologies in the diagram representing inclusion, e.g. the human ecology includes household ecologies and the cellular ecologies that make up individual humans etc. In the visual notation used, the open-circle end of connecting lines always denotes a conceptual container.

Culture is co-created one trusted relationship at a time – this is the essence of fully appreciating diversity.


At human scale, all healthy relationships, independently of the level of intimacy, are characterised by the maintenance of de-powered dialogue – by a mutual deep desire to understand a precious living being, and by a conscious commitment to refrain from the use of coercive techniques, i.e. the absence of persistent social power gradients. De-powered dialogue is the atomic building block for the emergence of healthy relationships:

  • Over the short-term, continuous de-powered dialogue allows us to learn more about each other.
  • Over the mid-term, this results in a convergence towards shared understanding, and genuine appreciation of commonalities and differences.
  • Over the long-term, it results in organic deepening of shared understanding based on growing numbers of shared lived experiences.

Levels of intimacy

Human wellbeing is only possible to the extent that we are embedded in healthy ecologies or care across all levels of scale – our wellbeing depends on the health of the living planet. Life at human scale is characterised by the bound of human cognitive and emotional limits, which become visible in the circles of intimacy that characterise our relationships.

Living together in:

  1. A household over extended periods depends on compatible sensitivities. This allows us to survive, support each other in healing from trauma, and thrive – even in the context of harsh social and physical environments.
  2. A human scale cultural organism of up to around 50 people depends on shared values and a shared understanding of our cognitive and emotional limits. This allows us to bring our gifts to life, to give and receive mutual aid, as part of a small number complementary households that offer a diversity of essential life skills – this is the smallest viable human survival unity.
  3. An ecology of human scale cultural organisms, i.e. indigenous / local communities, depends on a small essential number of shared cultural practices that provide collaborative bridges between cultural organisms – this extends the geographic reach of our social networks to the spatial scale of the bioregional ecology.
  4. A bioregional ecology depends on substantial number of essential shared cultural practices that are specifically adapted to maintain the diversity of the local bioregional ecology – this equips us with the collective knowledge and wisdom needed to remain deeply familiar and interdependent with the indigenous / local bioregional ecology.
  5. The planetary ecology depends a small number of foundational and life affirming shared values – this connects us to the consciousness of the living planet that is beyond human comprehensibility, it helps to to stay clear of anthropocentric hubris, and it compels us to maintain a global knowledge ecology and the collective memory of the unavoidable life destroying consequences of all attempts of anthropocentric empire building.

Humans have navigated into an unknowable future throughout our evolutionary history. To minimise the suffering that lies ahead, and to avoid being eaten up by cognitive dissonance, we need to let go of the delusion of being able to transcend human scale limitations, and relearn to trust our ability to collectively nurture shared understanding at human scale, framing life in terms of ecologies of care.

Ignoring the limitations of human scale

By ignoring the limitations of human scale, even in a de-powered culture, due to human cognitive limits – we can only genuinely understand the contexts and needs of a small number of other people, shared understanding will inevitably erode, and eventually misunderstandings will cause harm. How long it takes for severe harm to materialise depends on many factors, but the result is always the emergence of a culture in which mutual trust erodes, and in which the caring relationships that form the fabric of society are strained and increasingly disrupted.

In super human scale societies culture is increasingly experienced as a set of social practices and constraints that shape experienced “reality” beyond the local community, practices and constraints that are not questioned because they seem to be as “real” or even more “real” than the non-human living world, i.e. the plants, animals, and fungi, and all the other creatures that are part of our lives.

In such a social world beyond human comprehensibility, at some point our bodyminds start to manifest cognitive dissonance between the needs and constraints defined by our biological evolutionary heritage and the cultural environment. At the same time, culturally, the inmates of such a society have lost the lived experience and the ability to (re)imagine and adapt cultural practices in a way that realigns with our biological evolutionary heritage and with the local non-human environment.

From within a traumatising super human scale society those who dare to imagine alternative, human scale – and much less traumatising – cultural practices are easily dismissed as delusional dreamers who ignore “reality” and the dominant degraded understanding of “human nature”. Whether creative dreamers are able to establish alternative “realities” depends on their numbers, and on the extent to which the local culture has degraded into a powered-up cult that actively clamps down on such attempts.

Allowing powered-up relationships

Good things happen in spite of the institutional landscape and the brutality of “civilisation”, and not thanks to it. Ecologies of care at a human scale level between sober inmates and those on the social margins can’t be stopped.

Faith in “leaders” and “leadership” is a lost cause, a dangerous waste of precious time. It’s a bad idea for the exact same reason that it would be a bad idea to allow drunk people to drive buses or pilot airliners or ships. Paradigmatic change always emerges from the undergrowth, from within the cognitive blindspots of the dominant culture, from the vast non-commoditisable space that economists dismiss as insignificant “externalities”. There are growing cracks in the futile attempts to commoditise all hours of our existence, but these remain invisible to the many loudly yelling drunks who are addicted to one or more flavours of social power.

The culture of small human scale cultural organisms can also be powered-up. There is no shortage of examples of powered-up human scale cultural species. However, such cultural species can only sustain themselves in environments that offer an abundance of food and sheltered living conditions, which enable cultural organisms to spend time and energy on inter- and intra-group conflict.

Depending on the level of conflict, eventually, either the environment gets overexploited and some groups are forced to migrate, or the growing number of cultural organisms consciously adopt a less powered-up culture, to have more time available to pay attention to the essential life sustaining and life giving non-human relationships within the environment.

Power is the privilege of not needing to learn.

The less food and sheltered living conditions are available locally, the more any locally viable human culture has to be consciously maintained in a de-powered state. Powered-up cultures inevitably degrade into a learning disabled culture that is preoccupied with wasteful life destroying conflicts.

The advantage shared by all human scale cultural organisms, irrespective of culture, is the ubiquitous lived experience that culture is a conscious agreed set of values and cultural practices that can be adapted as needed between the participating human and non-human living beings.

Indigenous cultures also teach us about the human capabilities and limits of consciously maintaining caring relationships over time, with an intimate awareness of the last 7 generations and a deep concern for the next 7 generations. Nothing prevents these cultures from also preserving cultural wisdom that is much older, but there is also the recognition that the world and culture are dynamic processes. Any culture needs stay intimately connected to, woven into, and responsive to the dynamic context of the local bioregional ecosystem in order to remain viable.

Contrast such conscious awareness of the level of interdependence between all living beings with the modern delusional belief in the technological progress narrative powered-up by the invisible hand of the market. All powered-up cultures are learning disabled, and super-human scale powered-up cultures have to be understood as life destroying, i.e. biodiversity destroying and cultural diversity destroying death cults.

The invitation that life is extending to us

In the book The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale I explain how the development of electronic and eventually digital communication technologies within the context of the powered-up diversity destroying cult of industrialised “civilisation” has resulted in a global technological mono-cult with a deadly level of paradigmatic inertia.

Honouring our gift of life within the global mono-cult is impossible.

What we can do is to (re)discover the beauty of life at human scale that is at our fingertips when we consciously choose to (re)conceptualise life as a dynamic process of evolving caring relationships that encompass the entire planet, far beyond the limits of human comprehension, and when we become consciously aware of the enormous possibilities that open up when we start living with a deep commitment to de-powered caring relationships, extending seven generations into our past and into our future, within the limits of our human scale existence.

For systematic education, we are curating timeless concepts for nurturing and describing ecologies of care. This is not a journey that we can undertake as isolated individuals. This is the invitation that the living planet is extending to us if we honour our gifts and consciously recognise our timeless human scale limitations.


Nurturing ecologies of care, healing, and wellbeing

Social power is best understood as a highly addictive and socially corrosive drug. Meaningful education in the era of the sixth mass extinction event has to focus on the majority of the human population that is not power drunk, and on the humane treatment of those who are ready to confront their addiction to power head-on.

Much of the distress and many of the diseases we experience in modernity are the downstream symptoms of toxic cultural environments. As long as healthcare is focused on individual health, which is the model of health that dominates Western medicine, even in so-called developed countries with public health systems, people are conceived of as health consumers.

Our socially constructed “reality” creates a frame in which health and wellbeing become busyness opportunities for commoditised services. This frame depends on the false god of normality that underpins industrialised civilisation. In this frame the role of relationships is reduced to the simplistic cookie cutter templates that define the modern nuclear family and the powered-up relationships between workers and employers, i.e. organisations that are conceptualised as abstract machines that are classified into four broad categories: industry, government, education, and global, non-government organisations. Our lived experiences, especially when we live on the margins of society, continuously remind us of the cognitive dissonance between the toxic cultural expectations of industrialised cookie cutters and the biological and ecological origins from which the capacity for human culture emerged.

Within this “reality” the best we can ever hope for is an existence in bare survival mode.

The neurodiversity movement is a civil rights movement that addresses the upstream cultural pathology of toxic and dehumanising social environments, which manifest in the life-denying abstract machines that shape the institutional landscape of “normality”. However, the inmates of this institutional landscape are traumatised humans, who have lost their connection to most of the living world, especially the non-human living world, which has largely been pushed out of sight and out of mind. In the this process modern humans are literally losing their minds, becoming disoriented, and unsure about their place in a seemingly hostile world.

To achieve levels of care, healing, and wellbeing that allow humans to feel alive, and part of an ecology of care, requires us to collectively apply our capacity for culture to (re)imagine an existence beyond survival mode, and to collectively take concrete steps in this direction. By definition this involves questioning and as needed rejecting the institutional landscape of “normality”, drawing on the uniquely valuable perspectives and lived experiences of those who occupy vantage points on the margins of society.

What do we know about the biological and ecological origins from which the capacity for human culture emerged? What cultural principles are incompatible with (re)generating healthy local and planetary ecosystems? What cultural principles are capable of (re)generate ecologies of care, healing, and wellbeing? Who needs to learn? From whom can we learn?

Treating the modern industrialised addiction to social power

What cultural principles are incompatible with (re)generating healthy local and planetary ecosystems? What do we know about the biological and ecological origins from which the capacity for human culture emerged?

So far all socially powered-up (hierarchically organised) civilisations have collapsed, with a perfect track record. Today all the scientific evidence we have is telling us that we are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction on this planet. This extinction event is the direct result of several thousand years of powered-up empire building endeavours, and especially of the last 500 years of modern colonialism and neo colonialism, including 200 years of industrialised empire building. The rapid loss of species we are seeing today is estimated to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the background extinction rate.

The current extinction rate of mammals is likely the largest extinction event since the end of the dinosaur era, according to the researchers. Using computer-based simulations they predict that these rates will continue to rise rapidly—possibly reaching up to 30,000-fold above the natural level by the year 2100. This is if current trends in human behavior and biodiversity loss continue.

From Humans, not climate, have driven rapidly rising mammal extinction rate (2020)

It is time to acknowledge that all cultures that normalise and cult-ivate the emergence of social power hierarchies are doomed. They consistently result in a collective learning disability and in an inability to recognise and adapt to changes in environmental conditions in a timely manner.

Humans share the latent capacity for establishing social hierarchies with other primates. However, the human capacity for culture and symbolic thought also allows us to understand the harm caused by maintaining social hierarchies and the possibilities that open up by co-creating cultures that consistently clamp down on emergent social hierarchies.

Available archaeological and anthropological evidence points towards highly egalitarian social norms within human scale (i.e. small) pre-civilised societies. In such societies social norms against wielding power over others will have allowed the unique talents and domain specific knowledge of Autistic people be recognised as valuable contributions. 

In a psychologically safe environment at human scale (up to Dunbar’s number of around 150 people) the inability to maintain hidden agendas becomes a genuine strength that creates a collaborative advantage for the entire group. In fact Autistic honesty will also have made Autistic people prime candidates for maintaining trusted collaborative relationships with other groups.

From Autistic people – The cultural immune system of human societies (2020)

Furthermore, from the track record of powered-up empire building attempts, and from the roles and well documented behaviours of “great leaders” in such attempts, we can reach the conclusion that social power is best understood as a highly addictive drug, possibly the most dangerous and destructive drug for the human species.

Instead of recognising the dangers of social power, industrialisation and the use of fossil fuel has amplified social power gradients by at least two orders of magnitude. The many powered-up super-human scale institutions within our society have turned at least several hundred million humans into social ladder climbing addicts.

Power, especially absolute and unchecked power, is intoxicating. Its effects occur at the cellular and neurochemical level. They are manifested behaviourally in a variety of ways, ranging from heightened cognitive functions to lack of inhibition, poor judgement, extreme narcissism, perverted behaviour, and gruesome cruelty.

The primary neurochemical involved in the reward of power that is known today is dopamine, the same chemical transmitter responsible for producing a sense of pleasure. Power activates the very same reward circuitry in the brain and creates an addictive “high” in much the same way as drug addiction. Like addicts, most people in positions of power will seek to maintain the high they get from power, sometimes at all costs. When withheld, power – like any highly addictive agent – produces cravings at the cellular level that generate strong behavioural opposition to giving it up.

From The neurochemistry of power has implications for political change (2014)

Those who know how to abstain from the drug of social power are the ones who have a social conscience – refusing to engage in the game, those who are still deeply embedded in the local ecology beyond the human, and those who consciously choose to stay on the margins of society.

Taken together, these groups constitute the majority of the human population. This fact is conveniently overlooked by the powered-up elites. This denial is symptomatic of addiction, and it provides us with a clue about what we have to do.

The addicts will only admit their addiction when they feel safe enough to do so, and if suitable humane treatment options are available. Of course, even with available treatments, only some addicts will admit that they have a problem, and others will remain in denial. No one should be subjected to forced treatment, but at the same time, no one on this planet should be exposed to the untold harms caused by the “great ideas” of “leaders” who are addicted to social power.

Conceptualising social power as an addiction provides the majority of the human population with a highly effective bullshit detection tool, capable of eroding the social licence of the toxic institutions and social paradigms that are holding entire societies hostage to decisions made by power drunk addicts.

Meaningful education in the era of the sixth mass extinction event has to focus on the majority of the human population that is not addicted to social power, and on the humane treatment of those who are ready to confront their addiction to social power head-on.

Holistic learning journeys

What cultural principles are capable of (re)generate ecologies of care, healing, and wellbeing?

The journey towards a healthier relationship with the ecosystems which we are part of starts with the most powerful tool at our disposal, the introduction and consistent use of new language and new semantics. We are curating timeless concepts for nurturing and describing ecologies of care. Many of the concepts of the new language are linked to related articles, each of which link to further sources and related research.

The learning journeys below refer to an overarching three time horizon framework that attempts to be universally inclusive, whilst at the same time recognising the level of trauma amongst the growing numbers of marginalised people.

  1. Survival tools for everyone; appreciation of:
    • human scale
    • local collaboration
    • indigenous wisdom
  2. Survival tools for the marginalised; all of the above – plus appreciation of:
    • intersectional solidarity
    • mutual aid
    • cognitive and emotional limits
    • chosen whānau
  3. Transformation; appreciation of:
    • solidarity beyond species boundaries
    • plant based diets
  4. Overall direction of travel; all of the above – plus appreciation of the wonder of life

All four streams taken together can be framed as the project of unWEIRDing society and appreciating the beauty of collaboration at human scale. The concepts of ecology and care are at the core of all journeys, reflecting an appreciation of diversity and interdependence as core values.

Marginalised people all around the world are (re)discovering human scale and the relational nature of life by unlearning the WEIRD culturally constructed notion of “self”.

  1. Visibly extend trust to people, to release the handbrake to collaboration.
  2. Unlock valuable tacit knowledge within a group.
  3. Provide a space for creative freedom.
  4. Help repair frayed relationships.
  5. Replace fear with courage.

People have known about these principles for millennia. Some of the principles have been rediscovered many times, by different groups of people in various geographies and in different cultural contexts. Culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time – this is the essence of fully appreciating diversity.

A recent conversation between Joe Brewer and Daniel Wahl on bioregional pathways to planetary health relates to networks of human scale ecologies of care, and to the important topic of collaboration between human scale groups. It also relates to the weaving of global and local intersectional alliances, shifting the focus from national and international power politics to local, bioregional, and global collaborations on ecological topics. The specific idea of establishing bioregional centres of learning relates to our intent of catalysing the establishment of local centres of Autistic culture.

Dr. B. Educated courses

Who needs to learn? From whom can we learn?

The objectives of the Autistic and neurodiversity civil rights movements overlap significantly with the interests of those who advocate for greater levels of cultural and psychological safety in the workplace and in society in general. In the workplace the topics of cultural and psychological safety are relevant to all industries and sectors. 

Committed allies of the neurodiversity movement such as Dr. Zoe Raos (Te Āti Awa), a gastroenterologist in Waitematā, Tāmaki Makaurau, are speaking up about the lack of cultural and psychological safety for Autistic patients and colleagues.

Education on these topics is essential for addressing entrenched problems of lacking cultural and psychological safety in the workplace, and corresponding problems of lacking cultural and psychological safety in local communities.

The Autistic Collaboration Trust in collaboration with S23M Healthcare Solutions is offering a comprehensive range of professional education courses for medical doctors and allied health professionals based on our unique database of lived experiences.

This course is an interactive “deep dive” into neurodiversity and autistic culture. It is creative, collaborative, and goes beyond the usual medical and workplace neurodiversity ideas. Very refreshing to take part in CPD catering to different learning and communication styles. It was the most fun I’ve had in CPD this year! The course book is beautiful.

Dr Sarah Bernard FRACP, Australia

Informative and tied all of my focused interests (Neurodiversity, anthropology) together. Would love to learn more!

Brittney Geary, School Psychologist, USA

The course content was excellent. It provided a really comprehensive introduction to the wider cultural and political context which impact on neurodivergent experience. The written/video materials were excellent and it was helpful to be able to review these well in advance. I think the group discussion was extremely useful as we were able to share views and lived experience.

Amber Lane, NHS, Physiotherapist, UK

The course provided a really comprehensive introduction to the wider cultural and political context which impact on neurodivergent experience. The written/video materials were excellent and it was helpful to be able to review these well in advance. I think the group discussion was extremely useful as we were able to share views and lived experience.

Participant feedback on the delivery format of our courses

Applied education – learning by doing

We are all in this together

We all thrive when being given the opportunity to work with our most trusted peers. In a genuinely safe environment everyone is acutely aware of all the collective intelligence and capability that is available in the form of trusted colleagues, friends, and family.

Learning how to feel genuinely safe, learning how to push back and delegitimise entrenched social power gradients, and learning how to trust the wisdom of those on the margins of society is not something that can be achieved in a 1-day education course or even in a week-long education course. Like learning how to ride a bike it takes practice, and like mastering a craft, a profession, or a scientific discipline, as noted in the guidelines from the WHO framework for meaningful engagement, it takes extensive guidance from those with relevant lived experience.

Regular immersion in Open Space that is facilitated by members of marginalised communities is a way of providing training wheels in cultural and psychological safety, allowing organisations to rediscover collective learning, and to incrementally become familiar with the thinking tools for creative collaboration. It provides an avenue out of the deadly lock-in to paradigmatic cultural inertia, and this in turn may shift how humans will treat each other and our non-human contemporaries on the journey towards being composted and recycled as part of the big cycle of life.

Safe environments allow organisations and individuals to find their niches and thrive in the world. We invite you to collaborate with the Autistic community and other marginalised communities to discover deeper forms of collaboration. This applies to organisations in all sectors and industries, and to organisations of all sizes.

Our unique intersectional community-powered employee wellbeing service enables a holistic, multi-dimensional approach to cultural and psychological safety, by centring those who are marginalised, and by harnessing intersectional solidarity to clamp down on toxic social power dynamics.

NZNO is a bicultural organisation that embraces Te Tiriti o Waitangi, best demonstrated through the partnership of NZNO and Te Rūnanga, the bicultural arm that seeks to achieve the aspirations of Māori health professionals. The commitment to improving the workplace culture across the healthcare sector in Aotearoa New Zealand, is paramount.

To demonstrate a genuine commitment to cultural safety and psychological safety, and to better understand the daily lived experience of employees in your organisation, we recommend a subscription to S23M’s community-powered Employee Wellbeing service to all employers.

Kerri Nuku | Kaiwhakahaere
Mairi Lucas | Acting Chief Executive
New Zealand Nurses Organisation | Tōpūtanga Tapuhi Kaitiaki o Aotearoa

Transdisciplinary collaboration hinges on psychological safety, cultural safety, and inclusiveness. These and other human factors determine the inherent social value of a company, the wellbeing of employees, and the quality of care delivered to patients.

To date the quality of social interactions and culture have been difficult to evaluate, but the emergence of their importance demands an ability to measure and evaluate these factors. The independently administered Employee Wellbeing surveys operated by S23M represent an excellent tool to assist your organisation to meet this challenge head-on.

Visiting Faculty Australian Institute of Health Innovation, Macquarie University
International Academy of Health Sciences Informatics

unWEIRDing Autistic ways of being

In the cult of busyness the simplistic logic of finance acts as a universal linguistic and psychological security blanket.

The world of finance feels comfortable because it conjures up the illusion that all eventualities can be calculated and quantified, satisfying the human need for certainty. The more obscure the financial tools, the more layers are added to the cake of financial instruments, the more complex the algorithms, the greater the feeling of being in control for those who benefit from the simplistic logic of finance, and the greater the level of detachment from the biophysical and ecological world that we are part of.

The delusion of continuous technological progress, which is baked into the foundations of the religion of the invisible hand in the form of universal fungibility adds another layer to the linguistic and psychological security blanket.

The cult-ivation of cognitive dissonance

The self-preservation instinct of powered-up institutions is a virtual guarantee for persistent cognitive dissonance between published statements of intent, priorities and commitments, and executive summaries of results and the actions undertaken and the results achieved.

Like “maturity” and “reality” and “progress”, the word “technology” has an agenda for your behavior: usually what is being referred to as “technology” is something that somebody wants you to submit to.  “Technology” often implicitly refers to something you are expected to turn over to “the guys who understand it.” This is actually almost always a political move.  Somebody wants you to give certain things to them to design and decide. Perhaps you should, but perhaps not.

– TedNelson’s Computer Paradigm, Expressed as One-Liners, 1999

Andreas Malm provides us with an excellent overview of “Climate Politics When It’s Too Late” from a European perspective. Our institutions have become the drug of choice for people addicted to social power.

While lying is an attempt to conceal the truth, bullshit is to talk without reference to the truth. ‘It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as the essence of bullshit’. Underpinning this is a ‘motive guiding and controlling’ the bullshitter meaning they are ‘unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are’. Recent psychological research considers the targets of bullshit by examining how some people with an ‘uncritical open mind’ are particularly receptive to bullshit. More sociologically oriented research has pointed out that in some social settings ‘bullshit’ is expected, enthusiastically embraced or silently tolerated.

Bullshit is a form of linguistic interaction. It involves characteristic patterns of communication such as evasiveness or not being held to account for one’s claims. Bringing these three aspects together, I define bullshit as empty and misleading communication. A more substantive definition of bullshit is that it consists of evasive and/or persuasive communication involving an indifference to the truth or attempts to pursue the truth which are driven by epistemically maligned intentions.

The bullshitter falls short of lying because they make use of insincere and misleading statements rather than outright falsehoods. Recent psychological work has found that established measures of everyday lying are sufficiently distinct from bullshitting.

The most intuitive explanation for why bullshit exists is the individual bullshitter. Many philosophical accounts assume that particular individuals have questionable motives or moral flaws which predispose them to bullshitting. For instance, Frankfurt points towards questionable motives of bullshitters such as intention to mislead their audience for personal gain. Others point out that bullshitters are driven by Machiavellian motives like deceiving their audience to gain power and resources. More recently, Cassam has argued that bullshitters are plagued by ‘epistemological vices’ such as carelessness, negligence, dogmatism and prejudice. Perhaps the most important of these is ‘epistemic insouciance’. This entails ‘a casual lack of concern about the facts or an indifference to whether their political statements have any basis in reality’. Some have argued that bullshitters suffer from cognitive failures. Finally, a recent study of school children found that bullshitters shared demographic characteristics; they were more likely to be males from better-off socioeconomic background.

Mats Alvesson argued that wider socio-cultural concerns with ‘imagology’ (looks and appearance) has encouraged organizations and individuals to generate clichés and bullshit. In my own book on the topic, I explored how the changing nature of bureaucracy created ideal conditions for bullshit. The rise of ‘neocracies’ which are obsessed with constant change and novelty has led organizations as well as people working within them to produce a large stream of bullshit.

– André Spicer, Playing the Bullshit Game: How Empty and Misleading Communication Takes Over Organizations, 2020

How did we get here?

The old Daoist thinkers can teach us a lot about how we’ve ended up in this situation.

71. 1. To know and yet (think) we do not know is the highest (attainment); not to know (and yet think) we do know is a disease. 

2. It is simply by being pained at (the thought of) having this disease that we are preserved from it. The sage has not the disease. He knows the pain that would be inseparable from it, and therefore he does not have it.

72. 1. When the people do not fear what they ought to fear, that which is their great dread will come on them. 

2. Let them not thoughtlessly indulge themselves in their ordinary life; let them not act as if weary of what that life depends on. 

3. It is by avoiding such indulgence that such weariness does not arise. 

4. Therefore the sage knows (these things) of himself, but does not parade (his knowledge); loves, but does not (appear to set a) value on, himself. And thus he puts the latter alternative away and makes choice of the former.

Nate Hagens does a good job of explaining the implications for our immediate future to people in WEIRD societies. To understand the specific role of our modern global digital media and communication environments in the social construction of modern culture, the theory of media and society developed by Niklas Luhmann has a lot to offer. Hans-Georg Moeller provides an excellent introduction:

Luhmann argues that the system of mass media is a set of recursive, self-referential programs of communication, whose functions are not determined by the external values of truthfulness, objectivity, or knowledge, nor by specific social interests or political directives. Rather, he contends that the system of mass media is regulated by the internal code information/noninformation, which enables the system to select its information (news) from its own environment and to communicate this information in accordance with its own reflexive criteria.

Despite its self-referential quality, Luhmann describes the mass media as one of the key cognitive systems of modern society, by means of which society constructs the illusion of its own reality.

Life is no longer experienced as an ecological process, it is transformed into a performance before an audience that is measured and rated according to social expectations that are increasingly codified in and evaluated by abstract algorithms owned by technofeudal lords.

Luhmann’s theory is a framework that allows us to articulate how global corporations in the digital era have not only seized the means of production, but also the means of communication, as well as large parts of the means of education, turning much of education into a form of corporate obedience training.

The open question is how humans will treat each other and our non-human contemporaries on the journey towards being composted and recycled. 

We live in WEIRD times – Autistic people don’t belong here

Autistic people are amongst the canaries in the life denying coal mine of WEIRD societies.

The acronym WEIRD—Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic—aims to raise people’s consciousness about psychological differences and to emphasize that WEIRD people are but one unusual slice of humanity’s cultural diversity. WEIRD highlights the sampling bias present in studies conducted in cognitive science, behavioral economics, and psychology.

WEIRD people are highly individualistic, which means we are overconfident, self-obsessed and even more suicide-prone. WEIRD people also tend to be highly analytical in their thinking. That is, we focus on individuals and their properties at the expense of relationships and backgrounds. But, of course, sometimes mending a friendship or spotting a problem requires attending to the contexts and to the social ties involved. Similarly, WEIRD people are, relative to many other populations, less willing to help their family and friends at a cost to themselves or strangers. WEIRD people also have some irrational decision-making biases—such as what’s called “the endowment effect,” which explains why sellers are so often disappointed in how much their home is worth—we overvalue our own stuff.

The original academic definition W.E.I.R.D. referenced above stays clear of a deeper critique of the religion of the invisible hand and the delusion of technological progress. I use the term as a shorthand reference to the group of societies that think of themselves as Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic, and to the associated cultural bias that is baked into Western cognitive science, behavioral economics, and psychology.

In my writing I highlight how the collective behaviour of WEIRD societies is best understood as WEIRDT : Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic Theatre. Everything in this theatre is about perception – there is no substance or connection to the biophysical and ecological context outside the theatre. Niklas Luhmann’s theory of society is consistent with this notion of WEIRDT, and already the Daoists perfectly understood the critical importance of theatrical perception management in all powered-up empire building endeavours.

The effects of living in a hypernormative performance-oriented culture are profound, affecting everyone to varying degrees in terms of:

  1. Lack of trustworthy human scale social agreements
  2. Lack of confidence in first hand experience
  3. Lack of education in critical thinking and reasoning
  4. Lack of experience with creative forms of collaboration in genuinely safe environments

None of this is new.

Whilst many organisations give lip service to the benefits of diversity, a number of marginalised and vulnerable groups still experience discrimination. The disabled and particularly those considered ‘mentally disabled’ are amongst the most disadvantaged groups despite attempts to use policies to change social attitudes and behaviours.

Diane Babak, Management of People Weird and Feared, 2013

In contrast to culturally “well-adjusted” people, Autistic people are consciously aware of these ubiquitously present factors. We have openly talked about them since the earliest days of the internet, we don’t tolerate the cognitive dissonance, we feel dehumanised, we refuse to be assimilated, we withdraw from bad company, we collaborate in atypical – Autistic – ways to co-create good company.

The mental health crisis, which is best understood as a crisis of pervasive cognitive dissonance, and which affects large parts of the population, creates plenty of profitable opportunities for ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approaches. The second order social effects of performance-oriented societies that cult-ivate and reward bullshit manifest in terms of a serious learning disability:

  • Inability to discern valuable scientific insights from pseudoscience and scientism
  • Vulnerability to being influenced by arbitrary opinions, a trend that is being amplified by mega scale social media platforms as well as by the propaganda machines of corporations and governments
  • Indiscriminate lack of confidence in the reliability of any beliefs, resignation to relativism – anything could be true and anything could be false, the feeling of being lost in a world of illusions
  • Loss of imagination, as all confidence in collective action and possibility of community co-creation is lost
  • Increasing levels of detachment from most of the human and non-human living world, the entire world seems unsafe and unreliable
  • Inability to understand the world
  • Paralysis, loss of agency

The inmates are locked into a system of busyness as usual that feels deeply familiar, where deviation from absurd performance expectations is associated with a fear of the unknown, where the dread of being seen as a deviant routinely gets in the way of exploring the unknown territory that lies beyond the culturally impaired capacity for imagination and creative collaboration at human scale.

In concrete terms, the suicidal collective learning disability of our powered-up society manifests as a ten to twenty year lag between the time when specific social and ecological problems become obvious to those on the margins of society who are educated in critical thinking tools and who are close to the problems at hand, and the acknowledgement of these problems in the public media. By the time social and ecological problems become part of public discourse, often unimaginable harm has already been done, and further, even more severe problems have emerged, which are not yet deemed acceptable for public discourse.

This state of affairs suits the cult of busyness just fine. Devoted disciples who have mastered the art of bullshit like to reframe the obsession with busyness as a continuous drive for efficiency. In such an environment it is easy to pathologise Autistic people who refuse to pretend that everything is fine, who refuse to go along with the flow, who dare to question conventional “wisdom” and perpetual techno-optimism.

The norms of our society can be understood as a projection of social ills onto neurodivergent people, including the emergence of an Autism Industrial Complex, and a proliferation of pathologising autism research. A society that systematically desensitises all its people to social inequality and that instead celebrates individual success based on material wealth and social vanity metrics creates a sick social environment that disables society as a whole. 

Autistic people don’t play social games, instead we actively resist them. We are primarily guided by our principles, our egalitarian sense of fairness, and are less prone to being corrupted by monetary rewards. And for this we are pathologised and vilified. It is not an accident that Greta Thunberg is Autistic. A growing literature suggests that Autists display reduced susceptibility to cognitive biases and exhibit more rational and bias-free processing of information.

The enhanced rationality of Autistic people has valuable implications for the understanding of human rationality and for understanding the role of neurodiversity in cultural evolution. Within the bigger picture of cultural evolution Autistic traits have obvious mid and long-term benefits to society, but these benefits are associated with short-term costs for social status seeking individuals within the local social environments of Autistic people. In the digital sphere enshitification of platforms is one of the glaringly obvious symptoms of catabolic capitalism.

Reactivating the reservoir of human imagination

Neurological and cultural diversity is the reservoir of imagination of the human species. In a time of existential crises the collective creative potential of neurodivergent people and marginalised cultures has become more important than ever.

Marginalised people have a conception of life essentials that differs from the WEIRDT mainstream. Letting go of spurious, i.e. non-essential complexity will only be devastating for the few who need to be weaned off their addiction to social power. It is well known that all major social change originates on the margins of society.

We have to realise that in our hypernormalised global consumer culture transformational change can only emanate from indigenous cultures, from systemically marginalised and sometimes criminalised groups, and from pathologised neurodivergent people. The implications for co-creating good company are profound.

The only way to reactivate the reservoir of human imagination is by fully re-humanising all neurodivergent and otherwise marginalised people. The WEIRDT world has a lot to learn from those who are non-compliant, from those who refuse to be trained in the art of bullshit, and from those who prefer to educate themselves in creative collaboration and critical thinking tools.

Surviving + De-powering + Thriving

Many people are stuck in survival mode. We need to slow down, to the relational speed of life. By definition no one is able to do this in isolation. It also can not be achieved by training. It requires lived experience, imagining alternative de-powered social operating models, and educating ourselves in critical thinking tools and de-powered forms of transdisciplinary collaboration.

A thought experiment: Think about everything you have learned about the organisations and institutions of our civilisation, not from what you were taught, but based on what you have encountered and observed first hand – based on your own lived experience. Now take this personal wisdom about how specific corporations, industries, and governments actually operate, and extrapolate it to all the organisations and institutions of our civilisation with which you don’t have any first hand experience. Then reflect on whether this increases or decreases your level of trust in the institutions of modern civilisation, your confidence in the abilities of these institutions to learn and improve, and your overall outlook on the human predicament.

If we all do this thought experiment, some of us may lose all faith in humanity, others will extrapolate from a mix of positive and negative examples, and a few would be quite optimistic, but the statistical averages of all our assessments, across all of us, would actually provide an accurate picture.

I recommend this experiment because over the course of many years of working as a knowledge archaeologist in the digital sphere, I have seen the operational logic of many industries from the inside, in terms of the way in which

  • new services and products are developed,
  • pricing models are developed,
  • corporate customer segments are routinely subsidised by individual consumers,
  • regulation is developed and implemented,
  • contracts are engineered.

For more than ten years I actually resisted the above thought experiment, assuming that surely things are not quite as bad in the sectors and industries that I had not yet seen from the inside. But you can only do this for so many years before having to conclude that actually the dominant economic paradigm consistently plays out in predictable ways across the operational models found in virtually all sectors and industries.

The common underlying themes that emerge as the main problems across all sectors are the corrupting influence of social power dynamics, the blindness to human individual and collective cognitive limits, and the delusional belief in technological progress that is baked into the simplistic and misguided neoliberal economic paradigm.

For bare survival we need to become pain-fully aware of our collective cognitive limits and the context in which we find ourselves.

For basic human wellbeing we need to identify and clamp down on all established and emerging social power gradients.

To thrive, we need to replace the delusional belief in technological progress with humility and with comprehensible local ecologies of care beyond the human.

To embark on this path of discovery and collective (un)learning requires us to simultaneously pay attention to three complementary time horizons. This article provides a synopsis of important ingredients, but it does not provide a recipe. The most appropriate recipe(s) vary greatly between contexts, and need to be discovered and refined through lived experiences in good company at human scale:


Focus on the here and now


  • Cope on a daily basis
  • Mask and perform within the current social operating model

Arguably the answer to the question of why the mental health and suicide statistics for Autistic people are what they are is staring us in the face – because many of us quickly realise that the best we can ever hope for in this hypernormative civilisation is acceptance of our existence in bare survival mode, performing the function of a mindless busy cog and consumer in the sensory hell of the industrial machine.

More and more people today, and especially intersectionally marginalised people, including traumatised Autistic people, are stuck in survival mode. We all need adequate support to survive, but this is far from adequate for maintaining human wellbeing, healthy communities, and a thriving planetary ecosystem. The need for coping strategies won’t ever go away completely, but if we also collectively find the spoons to work on the other two time horizons, the need for coping strategies will substantially reduce over the coming years and decades.

The following interview of Sheldon Solomon by Ashar Khan does a beautiful job of explaining how the disciplines of a performance oriented culture train us and lock us into operating in survival mode.

Core ingredients for survival:

Peer support – to cope with trauma

Mutual aid – to meet basic needs

Access to healthcare – to recover from illness

Important disciplines

  • The neurodiversity paradigm – to nurture a non-pathologising and re-humanising language
  • Meditative practices – to reconnect our mental and sensory capabilities with our local context
  • Physical exercise – to maintain our physical capabilities
  • Nutrition – to recharge our physical and mental capabilities
  • Sleep hygiene – to recharge our mental and emotional capabilities
  • Biology – to understanding our basic needs as well as cognitive and physical limitations
  • Psychology – to assist our minds to cope with and survive emotional stressors
  • Medicine – to assist our bodies to cope with and survive biological stressors
  • Economics – to become street wise and become aware of systems of oppression
  • Training – to develop skills to perform jobs that allows us to survive within the system


Focus on the year(s) ahead


  • Rediscover the beauty of collaboration at human scale
  • Rediscover timeless patterns of human limitations

To exit survival mode, we need to slow down, to the relational speed of life that is compatible with our evolutionary history. This is hard. By definition no one is able to do so in isolation. It requires us to extend our sphere of discourse. It requires imagination and creative collaboration. It is highly context dependent. It can not be achieved by training. It requires the courage to ask better questions, and to leave behind discipline-specific best practices. Life is not a performance, it is the active participation in an ecology of mutual care.

Some of us have many years of experience with the art of de-powering. Collectively we need to scale up these efforts substantially via education as part of the neurodiversity movement and intersectional solidarity on the margins of society. Even over the long-term, the timeless art of de-powering will remain relevant, to clamp down on social power gradients wherever they start to (re)emerge.

The current level of cultural inertia in neuronormative society can be understood as a profound crisis of imagination. This discussion with David Graeber can serve as a starting point for imagining alternative de-powered social operating models, and for educating ourselves in critical thinking tools and de-powered forms of transdisciplinary collaboration.

The arrow of progress is broken beyond repair. Instead of rearranging the seating order in a powered-up bus, it is time to board a de-powered lifeboat. The chances of survival in a powered-up bus driving over a cliff are slim, and the chances of having fun along the way are zero.

Core ingredients for de-powering:

Open Space – to provide training wheels for developing safe spaces and relationships

NeurodiVentures and Neurodivergent whānau

Sharing the burden of interfacing with the powered-up external social world – to reduce the time spent masking and performing

Nurturing depowered cultural organisms & species into existence – to reduce the need for coping skills

Important disciplines

  • Depowered dialogue – to nurture genuinely safe relationships into existence
  • Daoism – to understand timeless patterns of social power dynamics
  • Buddhism – to practice compassion and non-violence
  • Anthropology – to expand our sphere of cultural possibilities
  • The neurodiversity movement and Autistic culture – to genuinely appreciate the diversity of human ways of being
  • The arts and humanities – to catalyse our imagination and to nurture creative collaborations
  • Sociology – to diagnose and address social diseases
  • Political science – to analyse current systems of oppression
  • Evolutionary theory – to understand life and culture as dynamic processes
  • Ecology – to understand the complexity of life beyond species boundaries
  • Education – to learn how to think, ask better questions, and to develop thinking tools


Focus on the 7 generations ahead


  • Participate in comprehensible local ecologies of care beyond the human
  • Live meaningfully, compassionately, and courageously no matter what

The more communities are gaining experience with de-powered forms of collaboration at human scale as the only viable survival strategy to climate chaos and ecological challenges, the more the training in masking and performing will fade intro the background, giving way to timeless Daoist, Buddhist, and indigenous wisdom about about the diversity of life, and about the suicidal consequences of tolerating, normalising, and cult-ivating social power games.

At this point in time it is hard to imagine a world where de-powered forms of collaboration are as ubiquitous as powered-up forms of competition are in today’s world. But in good company our sense of humour goes a long way in terms of rediscovering how to thrive whilst continuously eroding the support base of powered-up systems of oppression.

It is time to slam on the brakes, stop at the cliff, and get out the climbing gear, and to have some fun along the way. As the old system is dying, new systems are being birthed as part of the big cycle of life. We can learn a lot from the Congolese forest people and from the life affirming philosophy of Michael Dowd.

Core ingredients for thriving:

Remember who we are and how we got here – to stay clear of anthropocentric hubris

Accept the inevitable, honor our grief – to become part of the big cycle of life

Prioritise what is soul-nourishing

  • to heal from trauma
  • to experience the joy of life

A fierce and fearless reverence for life and expansive gratitude – to be grateful for every day in good company

Important disciplines

  • Humour
  • Indigenous cultures – to build on ancient knowledge and wisdom
  • Non-human cultures – to reduce anthropocentrism
  • Interspecies communication – to nurture compassion beyond the human
  • The art of niche construction – to frame cultural evolution as a creative and collaborative process
  • Earth systems science – to integrate the global knowledge commons

Bringing our gifts to life

In energetically and socially powered-up societies, the public is governed by the opinions of those who are addicted to wielding social powers rather than by local collective intelligence. In powered-up societies paradigms change incrementally, if at all, one funeral at a time. Our institutions have become the drug of choice for addicts. We have replaced the rich relational web of life beyond the human with a transactional Web of abstract collective delusions.

The illusions of being in control & being controlled

From Fitness interdependence as indexed by shared fate: Factor structure and validity of a new measure (2023):

Our analyses indicated that, even when controlling for other measures of interdependence, positive and negative affect in response to a target’s outcomes (i.e., emotional shared fate) was the primary predictor across five of the six measures of helping we investigated (behind relatedness for welfare tradeoff ratio in Study 2), while perceptions of Shared Fate only had a weak positive effect (Study 1) or no effect (Study 2) on helping after controlling for other measures of interdependence.

The fact that we found that perceived shared fate (at the between-person level) negatively predicted willingness to help in the absence of reciprocity, as well as negatively predicted willingness to help an enemy in the absence of reciprocity, but emotional shared fate positively predicted willingness to help in the absence of reciprocity (and other measures of help) across targets supports the notion that perceived shared fate may be more akin to instrumentality than emotional shared fate. However, this hunch will need to be investigated in future studies.

In large-scale postindustrial societies with high mobility and a complex division of labor, individuals may be highly fitness interdependent in reality, but they may not receive cues that they are interdependent (perhaps because market transactions cue interchangeability and replaceability rather than interdependence).

In contrast, in smaller-scale societies, interdependence in subsistence activities and risk management may provide consistent cues that lead individuals to perceive themselves as more interdependent with those around them.

The WEIRD way of busyness as usual is over, but many are still going through the motions of deeply engrained habits. We can’t predict the sequence in which the so-called economy is going to unravel, i.e. the unraveling of deeply engrained expectations and habits, but simply from an ecological and climate chaos perspective, we can expect major transformations in the next 5 to 10 years. We’re in the middle of the collapse of the house of cards of perception management.

The slow motion train wreck of the collapsing financial vortex is only one aspect of crumbling perception management. Neither the collapse nor the rebirth of biologically diverse ecosystems is observable as a “Big Bang” at the very short time scales comprehensible to modern humans.

We are witnessing obscene, nauseating, explicitly life destroying displays of mega scale institutionalised power within an imploding system of empires. Collapse is an inevitable, liberating, life affirming process of de-powering, both in terms of energy use and social power gradients.

The collapse of trust between ordinary people in the WEIRD world is as profound as the collapse of trust in WEIRD institutions. Less WEIRD societies are several steps ahead in their understanding of the dysfunction of mega scale institutions, and have much more experience in nurturing and maintaining mutual trust and ecologies of care outside of abstract mega scale institutions. David Graeber understood this very well.

No matter how various local cultures evolve, the unavoidable suffering will be greater the longer the inertia of established institutions prevails, as it only deepens the level of destruction of the biosphere and the remaining human habitat. We have entered uncharted territory.

Humour is the ultimate weapon. It is time to have a good laugh, and to show power addicted capitalists the immediate exit – without any further returns. At the same time, we can offer education that guides those who feel trapped towards safe exit paths into emergent alternative human scale realities.

Going forward – Big is Bad. Small is Beautiful. Less is More. Slow is Healthy.

We have a unique opportunity to catalyse and nurture non-financialised human scale ecologies of care (back) into existence. In good company, at human scale, this is the journey we can commit to, one day at a time, and with a good dose of humour. If you replace the toxic language of busyness, think long-term, enjoy interdependence, clamp down on meritocracy, avoid distractions, and share knowledge, you can relax. No one is in control. 

Energetically powered up societies

After spending a few days with building noise around me, I am reminded how much quietness, a state of non-busyness or ‘non-doing’ in Daoist terminology, is essential for our wellbeing.

How long it would take to manually do all the work that diggers and tucks do in our noisy world? Only a very small fraction of such work would even be considered possible or worthwhile, and some worthwhile labour intensive projects would simply take many generation. And yet, imagine the health benefits of WEIRD people doing manual work instead of spending their working days inventing and filling in forms on the internet.

This presentation on (re)learning about sustainable and human-powered machines from Kris de Decker from Low Tech Magazine is a great example of knowledge archaeology, including many astute and timely observations from times before the modern industrial era.

Socially powered up societies

To understand the absurdity of socially powered up societies, I can recommend this talk by David Graeber on the connections between bureaucracy, power, and systemic discrimination & violence, delivered in his unique humorous style.

Why are institutions obsessed about measuring performance? So we can pretend that economic models relate to the so-called “real” world of performance – the civilised world of “genuine pretending” as Hans-Georg Moeller would describe it.

We learn to perform and compete against externally imposed performance standards at school, because otherwise we would simply be following our intrinsic motivations, and that would make us “uncontrollable” – and apparently that’s dangerous.

This means we are taught to pretend, deceive, and lie at school. When performance is quantified, the “best” performance is the the one that exploits loop holes in performance metrics and rules of governance, to cut-corners, to generate the “winning” numbers. We are taught that legal corner-cutting is equivalent to rational, intelligent behaviour.

And we are also taught that humans are replaceable cogs in the industrial machine. We can no longer even conceptualise a way of being and a way of living that does not cult-ivate and sanctify “performance”. Economic “performance” in particular, is explicitly framed as a competitive game that is motivated entirely by the external incentive of maximising profit, an abstract metric. Creative collaboration and imaginative collaborative games are no longer part of the cultural substrate.

Modern medicine is training hyper-specialised doctors in the diagnostics of diseases and disorders of individual humans, without much consideration of the role of the cultural environment in generating dis-ease, distress, and severe illness. Instead of examining the cultural environment through a critical lens, individuals are measured against the abstract performance metrics of the needs of the industrialised machine.

Matt Kennard provides an astute analysis of the social construction of global corporate power,  including the way in which the existential fear of the inmates of government bureaucracies compels them to outsource key responsibilities to corporate entities, including examples that illustrate some of the functions that are best mapped out and understood visually as follows:

Zooming into the feedback loops between capitalised busyness, capitalised banks, and governments:

In the diagrams above I did not include NGOs. They don’t wield much direct financial power, but of course they have a role in corporate perception management, as outlined by Matt Kennard. We can observe it in action in the way the Autism Industrial Complex operates, which  can be visualised as follows:

All of this can be understood without bizarre conspiracy theories. The overall system works as a cult of busyness and technological “progress”, which pathologies the beautiful diversity of life. This system has no appreciation for diversity, and zero tolerance for nuance.

Our education system thoroughly brainwashes people into believing that financial “wealth management” in an abstract world of interest bearing debt, as well as the related obsession with social status and perception management, are somehow benign, and not inherently unethical and fundamentally corrosive and corrupting factors in human societies. 

Demand avoidance in a transactionalised world

We did not evolve for a transactional world. We evolved to share our gifts with the world.

Today, if we are lucky, if we have a one or more genuinely safe relationships in our ecology of mutual care, we can share our gifts with the people who are closest to us, and otherwise everything is transactionalised. If we are less lucky, the toxic culture around us actively prevents us from sharing our gifts.

When hypersensitive, i.e. more sensitive than “normal” people attempt to engage in a transactionalised world, sooner rather than later our bodies and minds refuse to cooperate, and our health suffers in tangible and sometimes life-threatening ways.

Surviving, yet alone thriving in a transactionalised world is an impossibility for some people. Those who convince themselves that “they can make it”, that they can endure the cognitive dissonance generated by a toxic culture, are on track for burnout and worse further down the track.

The dangers of “education bypass”

Specifically what is getting to me is not the depressing state of the planetary ecosystem, which is something we can cope with in good company, but well-intentioned people who are less aware of the depth to which virtually all aspects of our civilisation are actively contributing to human and non-human suffering. Reading from people who genuinely believe they are doing good by using the master’s tools “for the good” is painful.

As if there is not enough to be concerned about with the rise in right-wing political agendas, now even some scientists and climate activists are jumping on the bandwagon of bypassing education, resorting to behaviourist techniques. As if the ends justify the means, and as if this kind of approach won’t have disastrous unforeseen consequences. The article World scientists’ warning: The behavioural crisis driving ecological overshoot has been co-authored by a young entrepreneur, by scientists concerned about the climate, and by an advertising agency!

The approach seems terribly naive, lacking deeper transdisciplinary integration. My concerns centre around the blindness to human scale and the blindness to human cognitive limits – and a corresponding desire to somehow “control” the destiny of humanity at super human scale. The old, timeless understanding that all forms of powered-up relationships – this includes all forms of competition for social status of any kind, ultimately end up in disaster, seems to have been lost in our busy hyper-powered-up world. Nothing seems to have been learned from the nuclear arms race or from earlier civilisations.

There is a very important distinction between arguing to “win” and bi-directional sharing of knowledge and experiences to learn from each other.

It is helpful to distinguish five basic categories of beliefs and related knowledge:

  1. Scientific theories backed by empirical evidence that we are intimately familiar with. Only a small minority of our beliefs fall into this category.
  2. Scientific theories backed by empirical evidence that we are not intimately familiar with. If we are “educated”, a sizeable minority of our beliefs fall into this category.
  3. Beliefs based on personal experiences and observations. For those who identify as Autistic, a significant number of beliefs held fall into this category.
  4. Explicit social agreements between specific people regarding communication and collaboration. For those who identify as Autistic, a significant number of beliefs held fall into this category, especially agreements with family, friends, and colleagues.
  5. Opinions based on what others have told us and what we have been encouraged to believe by parents, teachers, and friends, … and politicians and advertisers, etc. For those who do not identify as Autistic, the majority of beliefs held fall into this category.

All categories of human beliefs are associated with some level of uncertainty regarding the validity and applicability to a specific context at hand.

When people argue to “win”, they mostly rely on opinions. Such arguments are about dominance, not facts.

The use of propaganda, in all its forms and regardless of intent, ignores that the human capacity for culture and belief formation is not limited to the social transmission of opinions, and thereby it limits the evolution of beliefs to a competitive game of winning vs losing.

Yes, propaganda does “work” in the sense of shaping opinions, but it has many side effects – generating cognitive dissonance, inciting a never ending arms race of manipulation, of continuous perception management, of outcompeting each other in order to “win”, and many other effects produced by the naive assumption that all beliefs are opinions.  

In the modern industrialised world educated people also entertain scientific beliefs. But due to the way our institutional landscape is shaped, due to the powers granted to capital as a result of the dominant ideology of neoliberalism, they entertain many more opinions. The tools of propaganda only have the power they have because of this institutional landscape. 

The simplistic argument that the only theoretical alternative to propaganda as a way of changing human collective behaviour is to spend decades educating people in various sciences, as claimed in the article referenced above, is simply not true. This argument ignores the human capacity for forming beliefs based on personal experiences and observations, and beliefs that represent explicit social agreements between specific people regarding communication and collaboration. These categories of beliefs can play a huge role at human scale, and I would argue, they play a huge role in the lives of Autistic people – and we get traumatised when our lived experiences and our social agreements are routinely ignored or violated by culturally “well-adjusted” people in our society. 

I firmly believe in the unescapable biological fact of human cognitive limitations. Maybe “Dunning-Kruger societies” would be a better name for all so-called civilisations. Economics, physics, and the medical sciences are good examples of disciplines that are prone to the Dunning-Kruger effect. In the coming years the planet is well equipped to teach people – unfortunately this will learning the hard way – to trust ecological evolutionary forces more than powered-up human institutions. 

Emergence and self-organisation

I discovered a wonderful interview of Robert Sapolsky by Hans Georg Moeller on emergence and self-organisation within living systems. Hans Georg Moeller asks all the questions that I would have asked and a few more. The interview is a beautiful call for transdisciplinarity, an acknowledgement of human limitations, and an antidote to anthropocentric hubris. It is also interesting because I do differentiate between the myth of “free will” and agency, which the dictionary defines as: 

agency : the ability to take action or to choose what action to take

“The protest gave us a sense of agency, a sense of our own power to make a difference.”

In my conception agency is not “free will”, it is the human ability to deliberate, it is a mental feedback loop that we sometimes – or often – run in internal or external dialogue before taking action. I think especially Autistic people, more often than not, have no choice but to consciously deliberate before taking action. How much deliberation we engage in, either internally, or in dialogue with others, is one of these complex factors that is shaped by our neurological and sensitivity profile. Agency involves the intent and commitment to action, and it activates the physical energy we have. 

We know what we’re doing

It is time to stop trying harder to fit in. We have already done so all our life. We need to slow down, to the relational speed of life that is compatible with our evolutionary history. Life is not a performance, it is the active participation in an ecology of mutual care.

This is well understood by many indigenous cultures in different parts of the world, but this knowledge, this deep wisdom has been actively suppressed.

I recommend the beautiful podcast Understanding Suffering and Knowing Our Place with Galina Angarova from the Lake Baikal region of Siberia. The language for co-creating ecologies of care beyond the human is universal, it is sacred, transcultural, timeless – alive, not life denying. The podcast includes an important message from indigenous women to powered-up governments and corporations, the same message that Autistic activists have for the Autism Industrial Complex: Leave us alone, we know what we’re doing.

Power can be understood as a learning disability. The WHO framework for meaningful engagement of people living with noncommunicable diseases, and mental health and neurological conditions illustrates that global NGOs can do really good work, brilliant work; and at the same time, it illustrates how financially “under-powered” organisations are easily ignored and by more powered-up actors, i.e. by national governments, whenever that is convenient. In a financialised world, money is the privilege of not needing to listen and learn. Often there is a chasm between the simplistic executive summaries that NGOs are forced to produce as a result of political pressure exerted by powerful funders and the in-depth analyses and guidelines developed by those who work with marginalised groups on a daily basis.

The in-depth guidelines from the WHO framework for meaningful engagement are an important tool that healthcare service providers can reference when adopting Autistic community insights and recommendations gained from Dr. B. Educated courses for healthcare professionals.

An extract from the WHO framework illustrates the alignment with the goals of the neurodiversity movement, and perhaps also the effect that the neurodiversity movement has already had on global NGOs. It is up to us – collectively – to ensure that these guidelines are not ignored by our governments, who are part of the WHO:

Participatory approaches can be either induced and/or organic. Induced participation is initiated by those in power, often a Member State or governing organization, whereas organic participation covers various civic activities linked to social movements, with bottom–up approaches that empower groups that are marginalized.

A technical tool (such as this framework) that can be used by WHO and Member States is an example of induced participation. Induced participation can also support organic participation as it can strengthen the capacities of individuals and communities, leading to further empowerment, greater autonomy and mobilizing community action. Organic participation, such as social movements like Black Lives Matter and MeToo, can place pressure on those in power to initiate new or additional actions and commitments that result in induced participation.

The decolonization of global health has regained prominence over a half a century later in parallel with social movements for anti- racism and anti-discrimination, with the explicit aim of dismantling systems of dominance and power to improve population health and ensuring that lived experience is considered. Participatory approaches can support redistribution of power from institutions, policy- makers, health providers and health workers to people with lived experience, aligned with work to decolonize global health.

Ensuring the participation and meaningful engagement of individuals with lived experience requires a review of historical power differentials, which may not be evident because of natural implicit or explicit biases and underlying structural drivers. If these factors are not addressed, they can result in the opposite of empowerment – powerlessness and cynicism. This especially applies for individuals with lived experience in groups that are marginalized who experience discrimination that results in health inequities.

Neoliberal influences on health should be considered a central structural driver of health inequality. Neoliberalism promotes economic restructuring, deregulation, free markets and privatization, limits public expenditure and promotes individual responsibility. Since the 1980s, this has led to increased inequalities in income and service failure due to austerity measures, leading to further inequality and poverty. Social determinants of health are driven by neoliberal policies that directly exacerbate NCDs, and mental health and neurological conditions.

Asymmetrical power, oppression, discrimination and other forms of social categorization are omnipresent and associated with the concepts of hierarchical power and separation. “Hierarchical power” refers to a system in which society is stratified according to constructed categories, whereby those at the top are actively afforded privilege, capability and capital in all domains of life, while others are actively disadvantaged. These structures were created and maintained for the purpose of retaining power. Understanding how these structures still result in dominance is key to reducing health inequities.

Hierarchical power is ingrained in the global health architecture and rooted in asymmetrical power and relations. Power differentials operate through colonialism and neocolonialism, imperialism, patriarchal norms and practices, and neoliberal influences on health, including its commodification and emphasis on the free market rather than the right to health.

Through “separation”, humans view themselves as different from other animals and species and also different from other humans. Thus, some humans categorize people according to social constructs, resulting in “othering”, including within health systems. In global public health, individuals with lived experience are separated from other stakeholders, such as health professionals, academics and policy-makers.

The toxic combination of separation (resulting in categorization) and maintenance of power structures leads to and is due to discrimination. Separation and hierarchical power remain the common denominator, regardless of the type of discrimination and the level at which it is imposed.

Racial discrimination is a relevant, tangible link between health equity and power in this context. Discrimination is, however, intersectional, and “othering” can be seen in various dimensions and due to various grounds. For groups that are marginalized, discrimination according to social categories such as gender identity and sexual orientation, religion, language, legal status, disability, age, migrant or refugee status, class or other status, can interact, intersect and exacerbate disadvantages and health inequity.

Discrimination, racism and xenophobia exist in every society and are expressed in individual behavioural, physiological and psychological responses, resulting in preventable health conditions and mortality in groups that are already marginalized. The health inequities that affect populations that face discrimination are rooted in racism shaped by the legacies of colonialism, slavery, imperialism and xenophobia. These inequities are reflected and result in persistent, multigenerational social and economic disadvantages.

Discrimination and racism affect every institution and system of social governance, many of which uphold and exacerbate power imbalances. Racial discrimination, racism or exclusion on the basis of characteristics or identity results in unequal power relations, which lead to establishment of unequal policies, programmes and services. Racism and racial discrimination therefore remain fundamental social determinants of health. It is essential to address these health inequities to ensure that “no one is left behind” and to achieve SDG 10, to “reduce inequality within and among countries”.

The failure of health systems and global governance has contributed to and perpetuated such imbalances, resulting in long-standing challenges. Health systems play a vital role in reducing health inequity but can also exacerbate or extend them. Health systems can thus influence and be influenced by racial discrimination. Many populations that experience racialization have suffered discrimination within health systems and are affected by intergenerational racial trauma. The same is true for social inequality associated with sexism, heterosexism, ableism, discrimination by religious belief, education, income and other social determinants, resulting in unequal health outcomes. 

The concept of “participation” is deeply rooted in human rights, power, social justice and social action. The right to the highest attainable standard of health as codified in Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 14  includes “the participation of the population in all health-related decision-making at the community, national and international levels”. 

Meaningful engagement of individuals with lived experience of NCDs, and mental health and neurological conditions has been championed by many civil society organizations, and sustained advocacy and community mobilization has influenced those in power in shaping health-related policies, programmes and services. Today, participatory approaches are recognized as a core component of the prevention and control of NCDs and in promotion, protection and care in mental health.

Recent examples include the scaling-up of the WHO QualityRights initiative to support governments and policy-makers in transforming mental health systems so that they are based on recovery, rights and inclusion. In addition, a WHO handbook on social participation for UHC provides guidance for governments on meaningful engagement with populations, communities and civil society in making national decisions about health. Meaningful engagement should be seen as a core strength on which to build evidence and experience and to further operationalize, standardize and institutionalize these practices and approaches for NCDs, mental health and global public health.

A similar transformative change is the participation of individuals with lived experience in movements for disability and mental health. The disability rights movement has made progress in reducing health inequity through the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified in 2006, which requires States Parties to recognize that people with disabilities have the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health without discrimination on the basis of disability. States Parties are also committed to provide people with disabilities with the same range, quality and standard of free or affordable health care and programmes as are provided to other people, including sexual and reproductive health services and population-based health programmes. Similarly, the WHO QualityRights initiative engages people with psychosocial disabilities and their representative organizations in the design and delivery of training. Training is also provided for health workers, policy-makers, carers, community members and people with lived experience of disability in advocating for a human rights-based approach to mental health and to support people with disabilities in advocating for their rights.

The human right to health is also integrated into international human rights treaties, regional instruments and more than 100 constitutions around the world.

Creation of an environment conducive to participation that is representative, inclusive, impactful and sustainable is resource intensive. While gaps exist, the evidence will evolve and become stronger through practice and implementation, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. 

Individuals with lived experience must be treated with dignity and respect. Participation is a human right. Their lived experience should be considered a form of expertise, alongside and on a par with traditional forms of evidence and data in global public health policy and practice.

Health systems and global governance are built on systems of oppression. They perpetuate discrimination and exacerbate health inequity. Participatory approaches require acknowledgement of and action to remove systemic and structural challenges, neutralization of power imbalances, and elimination of all forms of stigmatization and discrimination.

Lived experience is heterogeneous, complex and varied, often intersecting with other health conditions and diverse social factors. Meaningful engagement should account for intersecting identities, strive to be inclusive and accessible, and take into consideration the broad social context of being an individual with lived experience.

Lived experiences of NCDs, and mental health and neurological conditions often includes environmental, behavioural, commercial and other social determinants of health. Individuals with lived experience thus have diverse expertise, experience and views of a number of health conditions, which can be captured by meaningful engagement. All engagements should thus be as inclusive as possible, through active, transparent recruitment of individuals with diverse backgrounds, especially from groups that are underrepresented or marginalized. The individuals should include those living in poverty, in rural or under-resourced communities, Indigenous and First Nation populations, ethnic and minority groups, people living with disabilities, and people of different ages, such as adolescents, children and older adults. Such inclusivity will avoid overrepresentation of individuals with advantaged or privileged backgrounds or participation of the same individuals in several engagements. This should include more communities that are marginalized, enhancing discourse, and improving the relevance and effectiveness of co-created solutions to meet the needs of the wider population and addressing health inequities.

Meaningful engagement of individuals with lived experience should comprise a community-centred approach. Members of local communities provide essential, sustained, daily support to individuals with lived experience; they include families, formal and informal caregivers, support groups and organizations, religious leaders, and community health workers.

The principle of intersectionality, defined in the glossary as the interconnected nature of identity, relationships and social categorizations, encourages a shift from the over-medicalized clinical approaches of biomedical models to a broader bio- psycho-social model for global public health. Individuals with diverse lived experiences often have priorities and insights that transcend health conditions, geographical borders and socioeconomic factors. Consideration of intersectionality is essential, while also acknowledging individual contexts and the lived experience of specific health challenges. Such consideration will avoid perpetuation of the siloed approach in global public health. Member States, as duty bearers, must uphold their populations’ right to influence policies, programmes and services. 

To avoid tokenistic engagements and to ensure inclusiveness and intersectionality, engagements with individuals with lived experience must be systematic and intentional through mapping and tracking all activities, building trust in communities and leveraging their networks to ensure diversity and representation. When there is limited capacity to recruit or include individuals with lived experience, priority should be given to those who were least represented in previous engagements. Inclusion only of individuals considered to be relevant by people in positions of power and influence should be avoided. Environmental barriers may impede or prevent meaningful engagement with some individuals with lived experience; therefore, the accessibility of consultations and participation must be considered and actions taken to reduce barriers to all engagements.

Meaningful engagement must be formally integrated and embedded into institutional and organizational practice and culture. Additional work is required to contextualize and adapt such work at regional and local levels to support implementation.

Meaningful engagement should be supported by sustainable financing for all engagements with individuals with lived experience remunerated at a rate equivalent to that for technical experts.

Lived experience is a form of expertise, and individuals with lived experience should be remunerated accordingly. The remuneration of technical experts and external consultants for participation in engagements should be applied on equal terms for individuals with lived experience. Funding should also be made available to improve access to both digital and in-person engagements and remove barriers to participation, such as facilitating child or dependant care. The funds should be provided to individuals without constraining conditions and allow for independent inputs within multistakeholder settings.

Financing should also be allocated for recruitment, engagement, capacity-building and related activities. Funding should be provided directly by the organization or institution within an established resource mobilization plan or as part of existing donor agreements.

WHO and Member States should explore expansion or inclusion of individuals with lived experience in relevant staff roles, aligned with measures to ensure diversity, equity and inclusion in their working environments.

In view of the lack of investment globally in NCDs and mental health, application of lived experience through meaningful engagement and other participatory approaches may be seen as a catalyst for finding additional resources. Sustained financing from a range of sources is essential to achieve the vision of the framework and the wider global goals for NCDs and mental health.

To address unequal power structures and systems, power must be redistributed and shared with people with lived experience. This can be achieved by creating more opportunities for participation, establishing safe spaces, and ensuring respect, inclusiveness and diversity in all roles, while establishing new models and systems.

To address systemic and structural power dynamics, which are barriers to engagement, WHO and Member States should create more equitable, inclusive, empowering opportunities for the participation of individuals with lived experience. Empowering individuals with lived experience to make decisions about their own health and well-being will respect the inherent right of individuals to do so and thereby reorient the balance of power in health systems and governance. This will require acknowledgement and a commitment to address long-standing economic, environmental, racial and gender inequalities that are reinforced by the structural, institutional, cultural, political and behavioural dimensions of power and oppression. By using participatory approaches, WHO and Member States can also address power asymmetries by promoting and practising critical “allyship” and taking stances on racism, oppression, colonialism and discrimination, with a rights-based, equitable approach to engagement.

Representation of individuals with lived experience is essential, especially of those who are marginalized, oppressed and disadvantaged. This does not necessarily mean only ensuring individuals with lived experience have “a seat at the table” but bringing the “table” to those who are most marginalized, such as by organizing additional engagements in local settings, rather than only at organizational headquarters or urban centres. This will ensure that individuals with lived experience can fully participate and take advantage of inclusive opportunities to shape agendas, priorities, strategies and decisions. While power redistribution may be difficult at first for those in power, it is fundamental to ensure that individuals with lived experience are empowered to participate fully.

The principles of inclusiveness and intersectionality will ensure representation of diverse individuals and an equitable balance of power for individuals with lived experience. Too few individuals with lived experience or too many from one demographic or with the same health condition could also create a power imbalance. When there are too few seats, more seats should be provided for individuals with lived experience with wider diversity according to gender, sexuality, disability, religious beliefs, ethnicity and other social factors to ensure a balanced power environment.

Stigmatization and discrimination take many forms and are major barriers to meaningful engagement. In all engagements, all forms of stigmatization and discrimination should be acknowledged, addressed and eventually eliminated to promote health equity.

An integrated approach can bring together lessons from several lived experiences and related health areas to address determinants of health inequity. This approach can strengthen areas such as primary health care and achieve UHC.

WHO and Member States should support capacity-building for individuals with lived experience in health literacy, provide access to relevant information and establish networks for data collection and knowledge exchange. WHO and Member States should also build their own capacity-building to support meaningful engagement, rights-based participatory approaches and address health inequity.

Meaningful engagement must be formally integrated and embedded into all relevant programme areas and processes of WHO and Member States to ensure sustained action and impact.

The human predicament

The current human predicament is a result of the cultural disease of super-human scale powered-up civilisation building endeavours, the origins of which can be traced back to the beginnings of modern human history and toxic social power dynamics.

The open question is how humans will treat each other and our non-human contemporaries on the journey towards being composted and recycled. Experiences may vary depending on the human scale cultures we co-create on the margins.

Onwards – Together!

Life is not a performance

Life is an ecological process. This is the case for all living organisms. In a healthy habitat, organisms experience life as being part of an ecology of care. This is the case irrespective of the scale of the organism.

Ecologies of care

An ecology of care is a local mutual aid network that transcends many species boundaries and that extends over multiple levels of scale.

Humans evolved to live in networks of small and highly collaborative groups, where interactions within the group are experienced as relational, between parties that live with each other on a daily basis. The most adaptive and flexible cultures are those that don’t tolerate significant social power gradients between individuals, and especially those that also maintain highly collaborative relationships with other groups.

Within ecological processes, adaptive evolution is primarily an energy conserving long-term phenomenon that occurs over the course of many generations, rather than an energy intensive form of head to head competition. Human cultural practices of course can evolve and adapt much faster, but in healthy societies cultural evolution is a collaborative rather than a competitive process.

In a healthy society, care and mutual aid extends to all members of the group, and across multiple generations, up to 150 to 200 years into the future – far beyond individual lifespans and the lifespan of the next generation. Cultural intolerance for significant social power gradients and concerns for communal wellbeing across seven generations creates a safe space for creative collaboration, and it leaves no room for individual competitive social power games to escalate into permanent command and control hierarchies. It is easy to imagine that the evolution of the capacity for abstract symbolic human language has been fuelled by the evolutionary benefits that emerge from conscious social agreements to clamp down on individual competitive social power games.

All of this changed only recently between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, with the development of agriculture, the emergence of large cities – especially settlements that are occupied all year round, linear written language, and the invention of interest bearing debt. These developments created large scale anonymous social environments, and opened the door for competitive social power games to become established and “normalised”.

Performing instead of living

Fast forward a few thousand years to the industrial era, and we find ourselves in a hypernormative global civilisation, with an anthropocentric performance-oriented culture and deep hierarchical structures of social power.

It is revealing that the English language uses one word – perform – to refer to two different actions:

  1. To begin and carry through to completion; do. To take action in accordance with the requirements of; fulfill.
  2. To enact (a feat or role) before an audience.

The more competitive social power games a society allows, the more the meanings of these concepts converge. Performance becomes an obsession to conform to externally evaluated criteria. A few even start to see related problems in parenting, but lack the imagination to address the underlying problems in education and in wider society, which are amplified by digital media technologies.

In a highly competitive social environment in which some people are celebrated in terms of their “net worth”, and in which more and more experiences are commodified, mediated by purchasing power, life is no longer experienced as an ecological process, it is transformed into a performance before an audience that is measured and rated according to social expectations that are increasingly codified in and evaluated by abstract algorithms.

Powering-up human relationships makes us stupid

In a performance-oriented culture “getting ahead” is what matters most. Finding ways of meeting the numbers is what matters, being perceived in the “right” way is what counts.

Our society has increasingly cult-ivated performance, technological progress, and the “art” of perception management.

Pay for merit, pay for what you get, reward performance. Sounds great, can’t be done. Unfortunately it can not be done, on short range. After 10 years perhaps, 20 years, yes. The effect is devastating. People must have something to show, something to count. In other words, the merit system nourishes short-term performance. It annihilates long-term planning. It annihilates teamwork. People can not work together. To get promotion you’ve got to get ahead. By working with a team, you help other people. You may help yourself equally, but you don’t get ahead by being equal, you get ahead by being ahead. Produce something more, have more to show, more to count. Teamwork means work together, hear everybody’s ideas, fill in for other people’s weaknesses, acknowledge their strengths. Work together. This is impossible under the merit rating / review of performance system. People are afraid. They are in fear. They work in fear. They can not contribute to the company as they would wish to contribute. This holds at all levels. But there is something worse than all of that. When the annual ratings are given out, people are bitter. They can not understand why they are not rated high. And there is a good reason not to understand. Because I could show you with a bit of time that it is purely a lottery. 

W Edwards Deming, 1984

No one’s life has yet been simplified by a computer. 

– Ted Nelson, Computer Lib, 1974

In 1974, computers were oppressive devices in far-off airconditioned places. Now you can be oppressed by computers in your own living room.

– Ted Nelson, Computer Lib, 1987 edition

The Myth of “Technology”. A frying-pan is technology.  All human artifacts are technology.  But beware anybody who uses this term.  Like “maturity” and “reality” and “progress”, the word “technology” has an agenda for your behavior: usually what is being referred to as “technology” is something that somebody wants you to submit to.  “Technology” often implicitly refers to something you are expected to turn over to “the guys who understand it.”

This is actually almost always a political move.  Somebody wants you to give certain things to them to design and decide. Perhaps you should, but perhaps not.

– TedNelson’s Computer Paradigm, Expressed as One-Liners, 1999

We do not deal properly with the issue of climate change. We do not deal properly with the issues of peace, war, immigration, food resources, water resources, public health, and all these important issues. We became incompetent because society as a whole began to focus on how to deceive and trick people. 

– Jaron Lanier, 2019

Successful bullshitting enhances the image of bullshitters. This happens when bullshitters are able to more or less convincingly present themselves as more grandiose than they actually are. External audiences are more likely to make positive judgements about them and be more willing to invest resources in them. Organizations often use trendy but misleading names to attract resources (particularly from the uninformed). In recent years, firms have gained a boost in valuation by adopting a name invoking blockchain technology.

As well as enhancing one’s image, bullshitting can also help to enhance self-identity. This is because bullshit can enable bullshitters to conjure a kind of ‘self-confidence trick’. This happens when bullshitters mislead themselves into believing their own bullshit. Self-deception enables individuals to present themselves as much more self-confident than they would otherwise seem if they had to engage in cognitively taxing processes of dual processing (holding in one’s mind both the deceptive statement as well as the truth). The self-confidence which comes from self-deception can aid resource acquisition. For instance, entrepreneurs are encouraged to ignore their objective chances of failure so they can appear self-confident in their search for resources to support their venture.

When bullshit has become part of the formal organization for some time, it can slowly start to seem valuable in and of itself. When this happens, bullshit can be treated as sacred. Sanctification happens when an element of secular life (such as bullshitting) is elevated, a sense of higher meaning is projected into it, and deep existential significance is invested in it.

André Spicer, Playing the Bullshit Game: How Empty and Misleading Communication Takes Over Organizations, 2020

The beauty of collaborating at human scale

Collective decision making, by equipping a group with democratic rule making tools – granting the group decision making powers over what others can or can’t do leads to a limitation of diversity within the group by definition, but it does not prevent other groups from developing different social operating models.

But if the group is too large for everyone to observe first-hand the impact of specific decisions on all members of the group and to learn from these observations, then democratic rule making can easily result in the tyranny of the majority and in marginalisation and dehumanisation of minorities. Super-human-scale groups are learning disabled by design.

Powered-up super-human-scale societies like ours equate growing in scale and growing in measurable performance with “progress”. The industrialised notion of technological progress is inversely correlated with our collective ability to learn and adapt. 

Collective decision making, by equipping a small (sub) human-scale group with egalitarian democratic rule making tools – granting the group decision making powers over what others can or can’t do leads to a limitation of diversity within the group by definition, but the group is small enough to allow everyone to observe first-hand the impact of specific decisions on all members of the group, and to learn from these observations. Sub human-scale groups are learning enabled by design, and human-scale groups are optimised for learning by design.

Collective decision making and egalitarian democratic rule making tools can be scaled by imposing a human-scale group size limit, for example via a cultural convention to split up a group into two smaller collaborating groups before the limits of human-scale are reached.

Collective decision making at human-scale, making use of tools such as Open Space, in combination de-powered social relationships between individuals and a human-scale group size limit, without any further assumptions about cultural conventions and rules, over time allows for a huge diversity of cultures to emerge that are all optimised for learning within their respective local contexts.

My energy is focused on supporting people and communities in de-powering, and in relearning to trust ecological evolutionary forces at super-human scale rather than to trust the attempts of benevolent “control” by powered-up super-human scale institutions.

Harrison Owen is incredibly skilled at communicating the benefits of Open Space. If we focus on giving people training wheels in Open Space, i.e. training wheels in de-powering, and in rediscovering collective learning at human scale, we incrementally re-acquaint them with the thinking tools for creative collaboration – and this provides an avenue out of the deadly lock-in to paradigmatic cultural inertia. This in turn may shift how humans will treat each other and our non-human contemporaries on the journey towards being composted and recycled as part of the big cycle of life. 

Sadly, a few days ago Michael Dowd died. His philosophy has a lot to offer. His two basic definitions:


  1. A normal feeling of disgust or dread upon realizing that technological progress and economic growth and development are the root of our predicament, not our way out.
  2. A name for the anxiety and fear called forth when living in a corrupt, dysfunctional civilization causing a mass extinction.
  3. The mid-point between denial and regeneration . . .  with or without us. 


  1. What opens up when we remember who we are and how we got here, accept the inevitable, honor our grief, and prioritize what is  pro-future and soul-nourishing.
  2. A fierce and fearless reverence for life and expansive gratitude — even in the midst of abrupt climate mayhem and the runaway collapse of societal harmony, the health of the biosphere, and business as usual.
  3. Living meaningfully,  compassionately, and courageously no matter what.

The goal of minimising human and non-human suffering by de-powering is culturally ambitious, and it is life affirming, but it neither requires a long academic learning curve, nor does it have any anthropocentric ambitions in terms of attempting to “save” humanity from the evolutionary forces we have unleashed via the industrialised myth of perpetual technological “progress” and the cult of busyness.

Humans won’t ever be “in control”, but at human scale, in a healthy cultural environment, at least we are optimally equipped to adapt and respond in meaningful ways to rapid ecological changes in our local environment.

Life without the false God of Normality

If you are culturally well adjusted to modern society, your sense of “normality” is shaped by the things you don’t notice and by the things that you take for granted. “Normality” is like the air you breathe as a mammal, or the water that you’d be swimming in if you were a fish. The hump of the bell curve is the God of Normality.

Life under the hump of the bell curve

Culturally well adjusted people live their entire life under the bell curve, without noticing the complex constellation of data points that must be aligned to qualify for “normality”. If you live under the hump of the bell curve, the God of Normality has granted you:

  1. A relatively happy childhood that you possibly look back to with fond memories
  2. The ability to easily make friends within the culture you grew up in
  3. Relationships that conform to the powered-up social templates prescribed by the God of Normality
  4. The desire to seek, and the ability to find and maintain employment in a system that worships the religion of the bell curve
  5. The desire to be managed by a good “leader”
  6. The latent capacity to become addicted to the experience of wielding social power over others

The neurodiversity movement is a human rights struggle

The complex constellation of lived experiences of neurodivergent people does not conform to the God of Normality. If you are neurodivergent, your sense of “normality” is shaped by the things you can’t help notice on a daily basis, and by the many things that you can’t take for granted. “Normality” is experienced as a continuous energy drain, as all the many things that demand conscious attention, which actively need to be pushed and held in place to fit under the bell curve – ultimately a futile endeavour. Rather sooner than later, you crash and burn, under circumstances that are considered “normal” within the religion of the bell curve.

For of hypersensitive Autistic people, even for those who seem to be able to “hold it together” on the surface, with minimal externally visible support needs, having access to a safe space to retreat, and access to a community that does not believe in or pretend to believe in the God of Normality is a foundational prerequisite for human wellbeing. There are many ways of being human that do not fit under the bell curve, and many ways of collaborative niche construction that don’t require “leaders” or routine use of coercive techniques.

Our best chance of being heard is if we are recognised as a community and as a culture. Our struggle for human rights is made difficult in a healthcare system that only looks for sickness and disease at the level of individuals, and not within the institutions of our society. We need systemic change. We are all in this together. Our “civilisation” is not providing anyone with a healthy and nurturing environment. The institutionalised (“normal”) avenues for effecting change are fundamentally broken.

All powered-up “civilisations” have characteristics of a cult. This realisation is frightening for culturally well adjusted people. But neurodivergent, culturally maladapted people are in good company. The cultural incoherences, paradoxes, cognitive dissonance, and collective traumas of powered-up “civilisations” have been understood for over at least 2,000 years:

“The way most people nowadays go about governing their bodies and ordering their hearts and minds is like what the Border-guard described: they hide from what is Heavenly in them, separate themselves from their inborn natures, destroy their true dispositions, kill their own imponderable spirits. Because it is what everybody else does, they leave the clumps of their inborn natures unsmoothed, so that their desires and hatreds, those bastard children of the inborn nature, become its overgrowth of reeds and bushes. At their first sproutings these do provide support for our bodies, but eventually they tug at and finally uproot the inborn nature itself, until it leaks and oozes and spurts, its juices flowing indiscriminately out, erupting with scabs and sores and tumors, burning with fever and pissing out grease.”

– Zhuangzi – The Complete Writings

Normality is a socially constructed illusion. Autistic people are biologically incapable of maintaining the cognitive dissonance associated with culturally prescribed powered-up “normality”. Not only do powered-up “civilisations” suffer from the learning disabling characteristics of a cult, they also routinely spawn smaller cults and gangs that seem to defy and oppose the dominant cult[ure], which actually manifest equally or even more oppressive pyramidal social power structures, offering new recruits an “escape route” out of the frying pan into the fire.

The emergence of neurodivergent cultures

Understanding the emergence of Autistic and neurodivergent cultures requires leaving behind the God of Normality, and imagining the possibility of de-powered forms of creative collaboration.

The de-powered Open Space format was first explicitly described by Harrison Owen. He started to make use of Open Space in the mid 1970s in the healthcare sector, and observes that Open Space regularly catalyses paradigm shifting collective learning outcomes that are not achievable with other formats. If we replace the toxic language of busyness, think long-term, enjoy interdependence, clamp down on meritocracy, avoid distractions, and share knowledge, we can relax. No one is in control. Mistakes happen on this planet all the time.

The definition of normality in the industrial era is based on the metaphor of society as a factory and on the metaphor of people as machines. Our laws and social norms have been shaped by these metaphors, and the corresponding illusion of control to a far greater extent than most people realise.

Life denying industrialised monocultures are hell bent on replacing the beautiful diversity of life with the machine metaphor. In a recent interview on “The Brain, Determinism, and Cultural Implications” Robert Sapolsky takes aim at the illusion of “normality”, and comments on human biological diversity towards the end. A timely interview on one level, but in terms of framing, I just wish Robert Sapolsky would not use the anthropocentric metaphor of “biological machines”. Instead he could simply talk about biological organisms, to acknowledge the orders of magnitude in complexity differences that lie between biological entities and human constructed machines, and the corresponding complexity of emergent phenomena that lie far beyond human comprehensibility. This would steer away from the incorrect conclusion that lack of free will equates to complete predictability of human behaviour.

Lack of free will does not imply lack of imagination. In fact, in the absence of free will, the capacity for imagination is continuously put to use – this is cultural evolution – continuously working around attempts of control – continuously spawning diversity at the margins.

Once events obviously beyond human control force us to pay attention to the much richer metaphors of living systems, humans will rediscover that co-creating beautiful works of art is the ultimate antidote against the emergence of social power dynamics and the competitive logic of hate and violence. On this note, here is a good interview with Pat Kane, a writer, musician, activist, and futurist.

The machine metaphor is no match for the big cycle of life, for the love of life that resides in all living beings. The machine metaphor will fade away as the world de-powers, and as the era of fossil fuels comes to an end.

We are documenting Autistic culture in our articles, and we are centring Autistic lived experiences via participatory Autistic research, by actively supporting Autistic research projects, by coordinating Autistic peer support, by catalysing the co-creation of NeurodiVentures, and by curating useful tools developed by neurodivergent people for neurodivergent people.

Coherent theories of human ways of being

Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people have been comparing notes on the diversity of human ways of being via the internet for over twenty years. Lessons from the social model of disability and the disability rights movement apply. Neurodivergent people have come to realise that we live in hypernormative societies.


Neurodiversity is the diversity of human brains and embodied minds – the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species. Members of the neurodiversity movement adopt a position of diversity that encompasses a kaleidoscope of identities that intersects with the LGBTQIA+ kaleidoscope by recognising neurodivergent traits as natural variations of cognition, motivations, and patterns of behaviour within the human species.

Pathologising growing numbers of human ways of being is a social power game that removes agency from neurodivergent people. Social progress is overdue.

In the broadest sense, the social model of disability is about nothing more complicated than a clear focus on the economic, environmental and cultural barriers encountered by people who are viewed by others as having some form of impairment – whether physical, sensory or intellectual.

– Mike Oliver, 2004

The concept of neurodiversity can be traced to the discussions Autistic people were having in online forums in the 1990’s. It was elaborated into an inclusive paradigm in the early 2000’s by Kassiane Asasumasu, a multiply neurodivergent neurodiversity activist, who coined the terms neurodivergence and neurodivergent, to push back against the dehumanising aspects of hypernormative societies. Design justice rethinks design processes, centers people who are normally marginalized by design, and uses collaborative, creative practices to address the deepest challenges our communities face.

Principle 1 : We use design to sustain, heal, and empower our communities, as well as to seek liberation from exploitative and oppressive systems.

Principle 6 : We believe that everyone is an expert based on their own lived experience, and that we all have unique and brilliant contributions to bring to a design process.

Principle 9 : We work towards non-exploitative solutions that reconnect us to the earth and to each other.

Design Justice Network, 2018

Discrimination against Autistic people in particular is comparable to the level of discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people 50 years ago. Within such a highly discriminatory cultural environment, many services from the autism industry must be considered unethical, and obtaining a “diagnosis” can be an invitation for potential abuse and exploitation. The pathologisation of Autistic ways of being has led to what some critical researchers refer to as the Autism Industrial Complex.

The notion of disability in our society is underscored by a bizarre conception of “independence”. Autists depend on assistance from others in ways that differ from the cultural norm – and that is pathologised. However, the many ways in which non-autistic people depend on others is considered “normal”.

The cultural bias and stigmatising language in the DSM has long been identified as problematic far beyond the Autistic community. The inherently exploitative nature of our “civilised” cultures is top of mind for many neurodivergent people. Sadly, and from an Autistic perspective alarming, many culturally well adjusted people seem to deal with the trauma via denial, resulting in profound levels of cognitive dissonance.

Re-humanising theories of ways of being

In mainstream industrialised societies people don’t understand how Autistic people support each other, love each other, and care for each other in ways that go far beyond the culturally impaired neuronormative imagination.

It is time to remind the so-called “civilised” world about non-pathologising and coherent theories of human ways of being that are integrated into ecologies of care and the evolutionary flows of life in-formation that have been jointly developed within communities of Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people:


Monotropism offers an alternative to both medical and social models of disability, as it assumes that autistic differences have an embodied material basis that relates to resource allocation, and that those differences are not usually a medical matter. Like the social model, it sees the environment as often disabling. It locates both strengths and issues within an interest model of mind (and society) that amplifies the narrative about intense interests which threads through every set of diagnostic criteria that has ever been proposed.  It proposes that flow, force, direction and distribution of energy are essential features and that this directed force can be thought of as emotional.

Dr Dinah Murray, 2020

Related current research and introduction.


We’ve found monotropic theory to be a very helpful paradigm for a major swath of autistic experience, and the theory is supported by considering its own wellspring. Synthesising monotropic theory with deep ecology and holistic anatomy, we feel we have found a multi-dimensional, spacious, edgeless terrain under the monotropism map. We are calling it holotropism. This perspective may elucidate the high co-occurrences of synaesthesia, mirror-touch, dyspraxia, and hypermobility among us autistic people.

To be holotropic is to have wide open sensory gates. To participate in/as the immense world without becoming overwhelmed, we holotropes have two central methods: in, by hyperfocusing our attention on one sensory or cognitive path, and as, through synthesising our experience into coherence. A sense of wholeness occurs through both of these processes — less consciously in hyperfocus, more consciously in coherence.

Hendl Mirra, 2023

Related work and thoughts on the integration of holotropic minds into synthropic cultural organisms.

Macro Level Cultural Evolution

All human attempts of control at large scale are futile. We can build on this insight, co-creating small scale environments for nurturing collective human intelligence. We know how to let go of the illusion of control

If we want to find our way back to human scale and to the level of collective intelligence and cultural adaptive capability that is needed to navigate existential threats, we need to develop a language that enables us to imagine potential paths into a future that looks very different from the industrialised world that we were born into.

Collaborative niche construction, 2023

Cultural Immune Systems

The following quote nicely sums up the our globalised civilisation:

We do not deal properly with the issue of climate change. We do not deal properly with the issues of peace, war, immigration, food resources, water resources, public health, and all these important issues. We became incompetent because society as a whole began to focus on how to deceive and trick people.

– Jaron Lanier, 2019

Autistic people are best understood as the agents of a well functioning cultural immune system within human society:

The benefits of Autistic traits such as Autistic levels of hypersensitivity, hyperfocus, perseverance, lack of interest in social status, and inability to maintain hidden agendas mostly do not materialise at an individual level but at the level of the local social environment that an Autistic person is embedded in.

Within “civilisation” Autistic people tend to be highly concerned about social justice and tend to be the ones who point out toxic in-group competitive behaviours.

Autistic people – the cultural immune system of human societies, 2020

Micro Level Cultural Evolution

Collaborative niche construction at human scale:

We all thrive when being given the opportunity to live and work with our most trusted peers. In good company everyone is acutely aware of all the collective intelligence and capability that is available in the form of trusted colleagues, friends, and family.

Evolutionary design allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and to integrate their knowledge into a living system that includes humans, non-humans, and human designed systems. In evolutionary design the moniker of design is replaced by the concept of evolution. Cultural evolution entails not only the evolution of collaborative relationships and supporting tools within a group, but also the evolution of collaborative relationships between groups with many cultural commonalities and also between groups with few cultural commonalities.

Evolutionary Design, 2021


  1. The current collective human predicament
  2. Muddling through, from a synthropic perspective
  3. The entanglement between broken trust, trauma, and healing
  4. Co-creating centres of Autistic culture

None of this is new

  1. Daoist philosophy
  2. The life and ideas of David Bohm
  3. Towards replacing the DSM with a life affirming paradigm 

Weaving it all together

Hendl Mirra writes:

“The holotropic mind, when acting syntropically, tends to expect one thing to follow from another like fractals, or a jacob’s ladder toy: each thing is experienced like a step, whether forwards or backwards from, or sideways to, the last thing. Close, and shifting. This expectation rests on a somatic understanding that consciousness is cellular. When we are fully at ease, we can feel the synapses of our thoughts. When we experience cognitive-sensory dissonance it can feel like the whole infinite pattern, that we are a part of, gets erased.”

This gets to the core of lived Autistic experience. 

We live in an era of prescribed cognitive dissonance. This explains the link between holotropic ways of being and being traumatised, especially by what we observe and experience in the human social world. Our sensory experience of consciousness at all levels of scale and awareness of the interconnectedness of all life significantly reduce our capacity for maintaining cognitive dissonance.

Cultures in which it is a taboo to draw attention to culturally prescribed cognitive dissonance, or to withdraw from situations that contribute to cognitive dissonance, are life denying cultures. Literally sick cultures. In healthy cultures our capacity to detect cognitive dissonance catalyses collaborative niche construction, and contributes to the co-creation of ecologies of care.

When we attempt to express all the interconnections that we feel, see, and experience, we quickly notice that linear language is a poor medium. Metaphors are one way of expanding the sphere of discourse, but like all technology, in a powered-up society, i.e. a society that is learning disabled by institutionalised social and physical power gradients, metaphors can be weaponised. 

Collaborative niche construction is the evolutionary process of reducing cognitive dissonance, a process of omni-directional sensing and learning, which can only emerge in an adequately de-powered, non-overwhelming, and life affirming, i.e. holotropic and syntropic environment.

Cultural norms can either actively encourage collaborative niche construction – these would be syntropic cultural norms, or they can actively discourage collaborative niche construction by weaponising monotropism – the parasitic anthropocentric cultural norms that underpin the life denying monocultures known as “civilisations”. 

Institutionalised social power gradients between people are best understood as a form of parasitism. They emerge and thrive in environments where the cultural immune system is compromised. Norms can either actively power-up relationships or they can actively de-power relationships. A healthy culture is omni-directionally sensitive, not anthropocentric, it is adaptive, not hyper-normative, it is aware of human scale and limits, not scale blind.

To make ‘The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale’ widely available to members of the Autistic community, you can download a copy of the book free of charge. All our allies who visibly and openly support banning all forms of conversion therapies are also welcome to download a copy of the book free of charge.

Autistic survival tools – Daoist philosophy

Spoon conservation strategies within hypernormative societies

The Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi are the primary foundations of Daoist philosophy and religions based on this philosophy. The former book contains a timeless collection of critical thinking tools, and the latter book elaborates these tools in terms of concrete examples based on the experiences of living in powered-up societies, providing readers with a rich set of tools for exploring the predicament that plagues all attempts of empire building.

The writings of Zhuangzi can also be understood as an in-depth exploration of the social model of disability. This turns the book into a tool for understanding and articulating the human rights violations that arise from the pathologisation and marginalisation faced by Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people.

Both books explicitly warn about the dangers of dogmatic principles or rules to follow. They teach readers how to ask questions instead of specific ways of going about life, and they do this in a humorous way that is largely lacking in Western philosophies, religions, and science.

The topics covered also make it obvious that the paradoxes, cognitive dissonance, and suffering thrown up by powered-up civilisations are as old as the oldest empires, and that people have always found ways of being that minimise the harm inflicted by rigid and oppressive structures, making the Dao De Jing relevant to our era of hypernormative industrialised and post-industrialised societies. Daoist analysis offers a refreshing contrast to the simplistic and polarising left/right debates that dominate WEIRD politics, which only serve to perpetuate fear, hate, violence, and paradigmatic inertia.

Please note that apart from limited exposure to elements that much later made it into Zen Buddhism, I am new to Daoist philosophy, and have not read any further books on the topic. Learning that there are around 1,500 related texts and non-exclusive religious sects is an encouraging sign of cultural diversity that seems to be lacking in many in many modern societies. Unsurprisingly, none of this is part of Western school education systems. 

Rather than rephrasing what more than 1,500 authors have thought and written about, I have compiled an extensive selection of quotes from the two foundational texts below, which illustrate, from my perspective – grouped into specific themes, how the texts relate to our times, and in particular to the lived experiences of Autistic people.

In case you prefer listening to a scholar who has studied Daoist philosophy for many years, I can recommend the following lecture and Q&A by Hans-Georg Moeller, who teaches in Macau.

The philosophical insight into genuine pretending i think allows us to understand and to practice Xiao Yao You and to understand and to practice some form of Ān Míng, being kind of okay with your fate. The two are complementary like the insight into genuine pretending which provides the basis for achieving this state of Xiao Yao You or this state of ease when you’re already in a state of civilization. Let me put it in a different way, when you’re a child and you do child play, you do not need philosophy. You are in – you can achieve – a state of Xiao Yao You or Ān just by luck, a lot of the time, simply when you’re playing. Now when we go through this civilization process, which everyone goes through, no matter in the West or in the East, they’re just different kinds of civilization process. I think again, that’s what the Zhuangzi reflects when we grow up.

This also in the Dao De Jing, right, the childishness, the childhood is always seen as a place where we’re kind of naturally in the state of Xiao Yao You. But through civilization we become more and more Bù Ān, because we always have to identify with these roles and so forth. So to understand this kind of childish condition is something that, at least momentarily, may allow us – now as as grown-ups we need the philosophy of genuine pretending, as children we don’t need it – but as as adults, we need – under the pressures of society – we need philosophy. Again, I think that’s the Daoist approach to philosophy. It’s a medicinal, a therapeutic approach. I think the core for Zhuangzi is that philosophy allows us to achieve this kind of childlike state of Ān under condition of the pressures of civilization, by understanding the existential condition of genuine pretending that we all exist under.

I am curious about how many have already read at least one of these books and how these texts relate to your lived experience. You can use the table of content below to navigate to specific theme(s). Please comment below!

Dao De Jing

Language and words

78. 1. There is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water, and yet for attacking things that are firm and strong there is nothing that can take precedence of it;—for there is nothing (so effectual) for which it can be changed.

2. Every one in the world knows that the soft overcomes the hard, and the weak the strong, but no one is able to carry it out in practice. 

3. Therefore a sage has said, ‘He who accepts his state’s reproach, Is hailed therefore its altars’ lord; To him who bears men’s direful woes They all the name of King accord.’ 

4. Words that are strictly true seem to be paradoxical.

81. 1. Sincere words are not fine; fine words are not sincere. Those who are skilled (in the Tao) do not dispute (about it); the disputatious are not skilled in it. Those who know (the Tao) are not extensively learned; the extensively learned do not know it. 

Knowledge and understanding

52. 1. (The Tao) which originated all under the sky is to be considered as the mother of them all. 

2. When the mother is found, we know what her children should be. When one knows that he is his mother’s child, and proceeds to guard (the qualities of) the mother that belong to him, to the end of his life he will be free from all peril. 

3. Let him keep his mouth closed, and shut up the portals (of his nostrils), and all his life he will be exempt from laborious exertion. Let him keep his mouth open, and (spend his breath) in the promotion of his affairs, and all his life there will be no safety for him. 

4. The perception of what is small is (the secret of) clear-sightedness; the guarding of what is soft and tender is (the secret of) strength.

71. 1. To know and yet (think) we do not know is the highest (attainment); not to know (and yet think) we do know is a disease. 

2. It is simply by being pained at (the thought of) having this disease that we are preserved from it. The sage has not the disease. He knows the pain that would be inseparable from it, and therefore he does not have it.

72. 1. When the people do not fear what they ought to fear, that which is their great dread will come on them. 

2. Let them not thoughtlessly indulge themselves in their ordinary life; let them not act as if weary of what that life depends on. 

3. It is by avoiding such indulgence that such weariness does not arise. 

4. Therefore the sage knows (these things) of himself, but does not parade (his knowledge); loves, but does not (appear to set a) value on, himself. And thus he puts the latter alternative away and makes choice of the former.

Life and agency

3. Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear. Who can secure the condition of rest? Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise.

16. 1. The (state of) vacancy should be brought to the utmost degree, and that of stillness guarded with unwearying vigour. All things alike go through their processes of activity, and (then) we see them return (to their original state). When things (in the vegetable world) have displayed their luxuriant growth, we see each of them return to its root. This returning to their root is what we call the state of stillness; and that stillness may be called a reporting that they have fulfilled their appointed end.

63. 1. (It is the way of the Tao) to act without (thinking of) acting; to conduct affairs without (feeling the) trouble of them; to taste without discerning any flavour; to consider what is small as great, and a few as many; and to recompense injury with kindness. 

2. (The master of it) anticipates things that are difficult while they are easy, and does things that would become great while they are small. All difficult things in the world are sure to arise from a previous state in which they were easy, and all great things from one in which they were small. Therefore the sage, while he never does what is great, is able on that account to accomplish the greatest things. 

3. He who lightly promises is sure to keep but little faith; he who is continually thinking things easy is sure to find them difficult. Therefore the sage sees difficulty even in what seems easy, and so never has any difficulties. 

64. 1. That which is at rest is easily kept hold of; before a thing has given indications of its presence, it is easy to take measures against it; that which is brittle is easily broken; that which is very small is easily dispersed. Action should be taken before a thing has made its appearance; order should be secured before disorder has begun. 

2. The tree which fills the arms grew from the tiniest sprout; the tower of nine storeys rose from a (small) heap of earth; the journey of a thousand li commenced with a single step. 

3. He who acts (with an ulterior purpose) does harm; he who takes hold of a thing (in the same way) loses his hold. The sage does not act (so), and therefore does no harm; he does not lay hold (so), and therefore does not lose his hold. (But) people in their conduct of affairs are constantly ruining them when they are on the eve of success. If they were careful at the end, as (they should be) at the beginning, they would not so ruin them. 

4. Therefore the sage desires what (other men) do not desire, and does not prize things difficult to get; he learns what (other men) do not learn, and turns back to what the multitude of men have passed by. Thus he helps the natural development of all things, and does not dare to act (with an ulterior purpose of his own).

67. 1. All the world says that, while my Tao is great, it yet appears to be inferior (to other systems of teaching). Now it is just its greatness that makes it seem to be inferior. If it were like any other (system), for long would its smallness have been known! 

2. But I have three precious things which I prize and hold fast. The first is gentleness; the second is economy; and the third is shrinking from taking precedence of others. 

3. With that gentleness I can be bold; with that economy I can be liberal; shrinking from taking precedence of others, I can become a vessel of the highest honour. Now-a-days they give up gentleness and are all for being bold; economy, and are all for being liberal; the hindmost place, and seek only to be foremost;—( of all which the end is) death. 

4. Gentleness is sure to be victorious even in battle, and firmly to maintain its ground. Heaven will save its possessor, by his (very) gentleness protecting him.

76. 1. Man at his birth is supple and weak; at his death, firm and strong. (So it is with) all things. Trees and plants, in their early growth, are soft and brittle; at their death, dry and withered. 

2. Thus it is that firmness and strength are the concomitants of death; softness and weakness, the concomitants of life. 

3. Hence he who (relies on) the strength of his forces does not conquer; and a tree which is strong will fill the out-stretched arms, (and thereby invites the feller.) 

4. Therefore the place of what is firm and strong is below, and that of what is soft and weak is above.

Powered-up empires

57. 1. A state may be ruled by (measures of) correction; weapons of war may be used with crafty dexterity; (but) the kingdom is made one’s own (only) by freedom from action and purpose.

2. How do I know that it is so? By these facts:—In the kingdom the multiplication of prohibitive enactments increases the poverty of the people; the more implements to add to their profit that the people have, the greater disorder is there in the state and clan; the more acts of crafty dexterity that men possess, the more do strange contrivances appear; the more display there is of legislation, the more thieves and robbers there are. 

3. Therefore a sage has said, ‘I will do nothing (of purpose), and the people will be transformed of themselves; I will be fond of keeping still, and the people will of themselves become correct. I will take no trouble about it, and the people will of themselves become rich; I will manifest no ambition, and the people will of themselves attain to the primitive simplicity.’

77. 1. May not the Way (or Tao) of Heaven be compared to the (method of) bending a bow? The (part of the bow) which was high is brought low, and what was low is raised up. (So Heaven) diminishes where there is superabundance, and supplements where there is deficiency. 

2. It is the Way of Heaven to diminish superabundance, and to supplement deficiency. It is not so with the way of man. He takes away from those who have not enough to add to his own superabundance. 

3. Who can take his own superabundance and therewith serve all under heaven? Only he who is in possession of the Tao! 

4. Therefore the (ruling) sage acts without claiming the results as his; he achieves his merit and does not rest (arrogantly) in it:—he does not wish to display his superiority.



Convergence of apparently contradictory identities that make Zhuangzi so fascinating: acerbic mystic, subtle rustic, bottom-dweller and high-flyer, unassuming rebel, abstruse jester, frivolous sage. Funny philosophers have always been hard {xxii} to come by; profound comedians perhaps even more so.these three heady torques seem to erupt in this work all at once: it is precisely Zhuangzi’s humor that is beautiful, his beauty that is profound, his profundity that is comical. This work defies the dreary but prevalent notion that the serious is the important, that the playful is the inconsequential, and above all that we are under some obligation to draw conclusions about ourselves and our world, and then stick to them. Zhuangzi refuses to let himself be completely known; indeed he seems to deny the possibility and even desirability of total understanding, of himself, or of anything else. But at the same time he shows himself to us, an unignorable and unforgettable presence that is all the more vivid and evocative for his staunch evasion of ultimate knowability or definitive identity. Encountering Zhuangzi opens a window into a world of enlivening confusions, taunting misdirections, surreal grotesqueries, cutting satire, virtuoso reasonings, insouciant despair, mischievous fallacies, morbid exuberances, impudent jokes, and jolting non-sequiturs, which nonetheless has the most profoundly consequential things to say about the gravest human problems of living, dying, and knowing.

Zhuang Zhou was born into a time of great political and philosophical upheaval and ferment, known as the Warring States Period (575–221 BCE).

The political situation emerging from the collapse of the Western Zhou empire (1122–770 BCE) and its aftermath, in which a number of de facto independent principalities cropped up, vying for supremacy, each attempting to unify the other states under its own aegis. This provided a kind of open marketplace of potential sponsors for a new class of intellectuals, as all of these rulers were looking for an ideology and set of policies that would both establish their legitimacy as heirs to the Zhou dynasty and allow them to accomplish political unification under their own hegemony.

The earliest of these private reformers and educators, putting forth a doctrine independent of any particular political power but marketed to various contenders, was Confucius(孔丘 Kong Qiu, ca. 551–479 BCE).

The work of Confucius was opposed by Mozi,(墨翟 Mo Di) (ca. 450–390 BCE?). Mozi rejected the primacy of the family, and the spontaneous but biased affections that come with it, as a model for social organization. Instead, he proposed a more abstract notion of moral obligation rooted in a utilitarian calculation of maximized material benefits for all, justified not by human fellow-feeling but by the will of an anthropomorphic deity, Heaven, to benefit all equally, and the punishments and rewards enforced by this deity and many lesser ghosts and spirits.

The development of Confucian thought was continued by Mencius(孟軻 Meng Ke, ca. 372–289 BCE), a contemporary of Zhuangzi’s (although neither explicitly mentions the other). Mencius defends the Confucian virtues against the Mohist attack by asserting that their seeds are in some sense built into the human person at birth,

The Mohists and the Confucians each have their own “Course”(道 dao). The term dao is cognate with the term for “to lead or guide”(導) and can also mean “to speak.”

The term dao (“ course,” “way,” “method,” “path,”) is thus initially used by both the Confucians and Mohists to denote their “way” of doing things, their particular tradition of values and behaviors, including the exemplary deeds of a teacher and the guiding discourse prescribing a course of study and emulation, and the resulting set of practices (e.g., the system of traditional ritual), which lead to the attainment of the preconceived {xxiv} value.

Developing a new and profoundly different, ironic meaning of the term dao. 3 In this context, Dao is precisely what is free of purpose and specific guidelines, the exact opposite of the traditional meaning of dao. Yet it is still called a dao. Why? Because it does in fact do what the traditional daos promised to do: generate the things we see, know, and want.

Indeed, central to the Daoist idea is a critique of conscious knowledge and moral ideals as such. Our attention is directed away from the foreground purposes of human activity and toward the background, that is, what normally escapes our awareness. This move reorients our focus toward the spontaneous and purposeless processes in nature and man that undergird and produce things, begin things, end things, compose the stuff of things, and guide things along their courses by not deliberately guiding them at all. This can be viewed as a new stress on Nature as opposed to Man, but only if “nature” is understood precisely as {xxv} “spontaneity,” that is, what is so without conscious planning or purpose, not nature understood as a product of a purposeful creator that abides by the laws He imposes upon it and reveals thereby the glory of His intelligence and goodness.

The questions Zhuangzi faces are indeed among the most fundamental human problems: How should I live my life? Which of the alternate courses should I take as my guide? And how is it that I come to choose one course over another? Given that there are alternate ways of seeing things, why do I, and why should I, see things the way I do rather than another way, and thus follow one path rather than another? Zhuangzi’s response to this problem, simply stated, is this: this question can never be answered in the terms in which it has been put, because our understanding consciousness can never know why it sees things one way rather than another, can never ultimately ground its own judgments, and is actually in no position to serve as a guide for living. To consciously weigh alternatives, apply your understanding to making a decision about what is best and then deliberately follow the course you have decided on—this is the fundamental structure of all purposive activity and conscious knowledge, the basis of all ethics, all philosophy, all politics, all human endeavors at improvement, and this is precisely what Zhuangzi seems to consider ridiculous and impossible. Knowledge is unreliable; Will is unreliable; Tradition is unreliable; Society is unreliable; Intuition is unreliable; Logic is unreliable; Faith is unreliable. But what else is there?

There are places where Zhuangzi speaks as if he were a mystic in the traditional sense, or a skeptic, or a monist, a dualist, an intuitionist, a theist, a deist, an agnostic, a relativist, and so on. The reader would do well to note as she proceeds through the text the passages that, taken on their own, might lead to these conclusions. Like a mystic, Zhuangzi often seems to speak of a state that transports one beyond ordinary reason and sensation and puts one in touch with an alternate, life-changing realm of experience. Like a skeptic, he has many cutting observations to make about the limits of all possible forms of knowledge and ridicules the dogmatism of anyone who claims to know anything conclusively. Like a monist, we find in his work the repeated assertion that “all things are one.” Like a spirit-matter dualist, we find him telling stories of the negligibility of the physical body, however deformed it may be, in favor of “what moves the body.” Like an intuitionist, his dismissal of rational knowledge sometimes seems to point to some alternate type of knowing which can escape the skeptical objections he presents. Like a theist, we find him presenting characters who speak piously of submitting to the will of an anthropomorphized “Creator of Things.” Like a deist, we find a softer version of this trope that severely limits what can be known of this creator, even its personal character and relationship to human beings. Like an agnostic, we finally find him questioning even his ability to know what the Heavenly is, whether the Heavenly is not really the Human or vice versa. Like a relativist, he asserts that all words are acceptable, all courses right, in relation to the perspective from which they are pronounced. Like a fatalist, he speaks of Fate as something about which nothing can be done, which is simply to be accepted as unavoidable. Like a nihilist, he denies the distinction between right and wrong, and even whether we can know whether knowing is knowing or not-knowing. Like a philosopher of language, he presents devastating insights into the character of discourse and its effect on our beliefs about the world and about values. Like an existentialist, he seems to conceive the range of human transformation to be unbounded, and the values that guide it to lie in the hands of each individual and to be renewed moment by moment. This list could be extended. But it is obvious that many of these positions seem to be starkly opposed or at least incompatible. Does Zhuangzi somehow really combine them all?

Conclusions are perhaps the least important thing to be gained from reading the Zhuangzi, and it is hoped that the delicious experience of grappling with and being jostled about by this text will allow readers to come to their own conclusions about it—and then perhaps to question those conclusions, and try out some others.


Language and words

For courses have never had any sealed boundaries between them, and words have never had any constant range. It is by establishing definitions of what is “this,” what is “right,” that boundaries are made. Let me explain what I mean by boundaries: there are right and left, then there are roles and duties, then there are divisions and disputes, then there are competitions and struggles. (And this is the kind of thing they call the Eight Virtues!) 25 As for the sage, he may admit that something exists beyond the six limits of the known world, but he does not make any further assessments26 about it. As for what is within the known world, he may assess it but will not express his own opinion. As for historical events, he will give an opinion but not debate it. For wherever a division is made, something is left undivided. Wherever debate shows one of two alternatives to be right, something remains undistinguished and unshown.U What is it? The sage hides it in his embrace, while the masses of people debate it, trying to demonstrate it to one another. Thus I say that demonstration by debate always leaves something unshown.

The greatest Course is thus always unproclaimed. Greatest argument is that which uses no words. Greatest humankindness is that which is neither human nor kind. Greatest integrity is that which declines nothing. Greatest courage is that {18} which is unaggressive. For when the guidance of a course becomes explicit, when it becomes clearly and manifestly a course, it ceases to be the Course. When words make an argument, they fail to reach everywhere. When humankindness is constant it cannot be all-encompassing. 27 When integrity is pure it cannot be trusted. When courage is aggressive it cannot reach completion. 28 These five are rounded on all sides, but people are always trying to make them square.

“What this age values and takes as its guide, its course, is written text. But written texts are no more than words. Words do have something valuable about them: their meanings and ideas. But those meanings and ideas come from something else, and what they come from cannot be transmitted in words. And yet the people of this age, due to the high value they put on words, transmit only the writings. Though this age so esteems them, I do not regard them as worthy of esteem. What these people value about them is not what is really valuable about them. For whatever we can see by looking is only shapes and forms. Whatever we can hear by listening is only names and sounds. Alas! This age takes shapes, forms, names, and sounds as sufficient to attain the reality of that something else. But shapes, forms, names and sounds are ultimately not sufficient to get at what is real there. Thus ‘those who know do not speak, and those who speak do not know.’ 7 But how could the present age understand this!”

For ‘he who knows does not speak, and he who speaks does not know. Hence the sage practices the teaching of no words.’ 3 The Course cannot be given, and its intrinsic powers cannot be received. But humankindness can be deliberately faked, responsible conduct can do harm, and ritual is just a mutual swindle. Hence it is said, {175} ‘When the Course is lost, there are the intrinsic powers; when the intrinsic powers are lost, there is humankindness; when the humankindness is lost, there is ritual. Ritual is the fruitless flower of the Course, and the beginning of disorder.’ 4 And also, ‘To practice the Course requires daily diminishment. Diminish again and yet again, until you reach non-doing, doing nothing and yet leaving nothing undone.’

Heaven and earth possess vast beauties but speak no words. The four seasons have their unconcealed regularities but offer no opinions. Each of the ten thousand things is perfectly coherent7 but gives no explanations. The sage traces back to the beauties of heaven and earth and thereby reaches through to the coherence of the ten thousand things.

“If words were completely adequate, one could speak all day and all of it would be the Course. If words were completely inadequate, one could speak all day and all of it would concern only particular beings. The ultimate reaches both of the Course and of beings cannot be conveyed by either speech or silence. Only where there is neither speech nor silence does discussion really come to its ultimate end.”

When nothing is said, everything is equal. But the saying and this original equality are then not equal to one another. Thus it is that I speak only nonspeech. When you speak nonspeech, you can talk all your life without ever having said a word, or never {226} utter a word without ever failing to say something. There is some place from which each saying is acceptable, and some place from which it is unacceptable. There is some place from which it is so, and some place from which it is not so. Whence so? From being affirmed as so. Whence not so? From being denied to be so. Whence acceptable? From someone’s accepting of it. Whence unacceptable? From someone’s nonacceptance of it. There is necessarily some perspective from which each thing is right and acceptable. Thus all things are right, all things are acceptable. 4 So what words other than spillover-goblet words, harmonizing through their Heavenly Transitions, could remain in force for very long?


In the great beginning, what there was was nothing—devoid of definite being, unnameable by any name. There arose from this continuity a unity but without yet any definite form. Accessing this, making it their own, things come to life; their appropriation of it is what is known as their intrinsic virtuosities. When definite shapes have not yet emerged, but in the undivided continuity certain tentatively distinct portions appear, this is called their individual allotments of life. As motion that also stays and maintains itself, distinct living beings emerge, and when these beings become complete, each producing its own distinct structural coherence, this is called their physical bodies. Those physical bodies become protective preservers of imponderable spirit, in each case with its own specific styles and laws, which we call their specific inborn natures. When the inborn nature is cultivated, it can be brought back to the intrinsic virtuosity until it becomes just as it was in the beginning. Being the same as it was, it is open like space, and being open like space, it is vast, joining in the chirpings of all beaks. When one joins in the chirpings of all beaks, it is with all of heaven and earth that one has joined. This joining is a merging into oblivion, as if stupid, as if swooning. This is called the Obscure Virtuosity, 10 none other than the Vast Accord.

Ordinary people of the world are always pleased when others agree with them and displeased when others differ with them. The reason they want people to agree with them and don’t want people to differ with them is because of their ambition to be someone, to go beyond the ordinary multitude. But precisely because they have this desire to go beyond the ordinary multitude, they fail to go beyond the ordinary multitude! They depend on the multitude to settle themselves into a position they have derived from it, but that is never a match for the real multitude of skills possessed by the multitudeH! And thus when these people try to manage a state for someone, they merely canvas what was profitable to the Three Dynasties, without seeing the havoc this brings. The chances of preserving the state are then not even one in ten thousand: it becomes more than ten thousand times more likely for them to lose the state than to save it.

There are five ways to thus lose one’s inborn nature. First, the five esteemed colors mess up the eyes so that they can no longer see well. Second, the five esteemed tones mess up the ears so that they can no longer hear well. Third, the five esteemed fragrances infiltrate the nose, besieging and irritating the brow. Fourth, the five esteemed flavors sully the mouth, diseasing and impairing it. Fifth, preferences and dislikes unsettle the heart and mind, making the inborn nature flighty and unstable. All these five things are harmful to the life in us.

Confucius said, “Yes, they are. Without humankindness the noble man cannot complete himself, and without responsible conduct he cannot live. Humankindness {114} and responsible conduct are thus the inborn nature of the Genuine Human. What further could he engage himself in?” Lao Dan said, “Tell me, what do you mean by humankindness and responsible conduct?” Confucius said, “To concern oneself about the happiness of all living things in the depths of one’s heart, to love and care for everyone all-inclusively and without bias, this is the true character of humankindness and responsible conduct.” Lao Dan said, “Ach! That’s pretty much what all you latter-day people say. 6 To love and care for everyone all-inclusively, isn’t that rather far-fetched? And to be without bias—that is itself a bias! You, sir, seem to desire that all in the world are never devoid of your shepherding! Well, heaven and earth have their own inherent regularity, just as the sun and moon have their own inherent brightness, the stars and constellations have their own inherent arrangement, the birds and beasts have their own inherent ways of flocking together, the trees and plants have their own inherent ways of standing themselves in place. You, sir, must release each to its own intrinsic powers and let them proceed accordingly, push each forward only on its own course, for that is already perfection, already a kind of arrival. What use is there then to go on with this militant advocacy of humankindness and responsible conduct, avidly pounding a drum for battle with the vehemence of a man ‘seeking his lost son’B? Ach! You, sir, are just disordering the inborn natures of human beings!

Similarly, the rituals and principles and standards and measures used by the Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors are not esteemed because they were all the same, but because of the good governance they produced in each case. They are like hawthorns, pears, oranges, and grapefruits—their flavors are completely different and opposed to each other, but all of them are pleasing to the tongue. Thus rituals, principles, standards, and codes must change in response to the times. If you dress up a monkey in the robes of the Duke of Zhou, it will surely bite and gnaw and rip at them, not satisfied until it has torn them completely off of its body. If we really look at the difference between the past and the future, we see that it is as great as the difference between the monkey and the Duke of Zhou.

“The way most people nowadays go about governing their bodies and ordering their hearts and minds is like what the Border-guard described: they hide from what is Heavenly in them, separate themselves from their inborn natures, destroy their true dispositions, kill their own imponderable spirits. Because it is what everybody else does, they leave the clumps of their inborn natures unsmoothed, so that their desires and hatreds, those bastard children of the inborn nature, become its overgrowth of reeds and bushes. At their first sproutings these do provide support for our bodies, but eventually they tug at and finally uproot the inborn nature itself, until it leaks and oozes and spurts, its juices flowing indiscriminately out, erupting with scabs and sores and tumors, burning with fever and pissing out grease.”

Knowledge and understanding

Hence when understanding comes to stop at what it does not understand, when consciousness comes to rest there where it has no consciousness, it has arrived at the utmost. The demonstration that uses no words, the Course that gives no guidance, the Course that is not a course—who “understands” these things, what could know them?

Gnawgap asked Baby Sovereign “Do you know what all things agree in considering right?” Baby Sovereign said, “How could I know that?” Gnawgap said, “Do you know that you don’t know?” Baby Sovereign said, “How could I know that?” Gnawgap said, “Then are all things devoid of knowledge?” Baby Sovereign said, “How could I know that? Still, let me try to say something about this. How could I know that what I call ‘knowing’ is not really ‘not-knowing’? How could I know that what I call ‘not-knowing’ is not really ‘knowing’?

When everyone keeps his bright vision to himself, the world will no longer be light-blinded. When everyone keeps his keen hearing to himself, the world will no longer be fettered. When everyone keeps his wisdom to himself, the world will no longer be confused. When everyone keeps his intrinsic virtuosities to himself, the world will no longer go awry. Zeng Shen, Shi Yu, Yang Zhu, Mo Di, Master {87} Kuang, Carpenter Chui, and Li Zhu all put their virtuosities on display outside themselves, using their radiance to disorder the world—but these are things for which standards are of no use. Do you know how things were in the times when virtuosity was fully realized? In the olden days of the clans of Rongcheng, Da’ting, Bohuang, Zhongyang, Lilu, Lixu, Xuanyuan, Hexu, Zuntu, Zhurong, Fuxi, and Shennong, 9 the people knotted ropes as their only records, 10 delighting in their food and clothes and enjoying their own customs and dwellings. Neighboring countries could see each other in the distance, their dogbarks and cockcrows were audible to one another, but all their lives the people had no occasion to travel from one to the other. 11 This was the time of perfect order. But nowadays it has gotten to the point where they make the people crane their necks and stand on tiptoe, saying, “In such and such a place there is a worthy man!” They pack their provisions and head out to find him, abandoning their own parents and dropping their service to their own rulers, their footprints littering the territories of various feudal lords and their carriage tracks crisscrossing for thousands of miles. This is all because the people in high places have such a love of wisdom. It is precisely the sincerity of their love of wisdom, coupled with constant lack of the Course, that throws the world into such disorder.

Much wisdom in the use of crossbows and arrows, traps and nets, plots and schemes, throws the birds of the sky into disorder. Much wisdom in the use of hooks, bait, nets, poles, and lures throws the fish of the waters into disorder. Much wisdom in the use of traps, nets, snares, and lattices throws the beast of the woodlands into disorder. The wiles of wisdom become like a kind of gradual poisoning, rigidifying and unmooring “hard” and “white,” disjoining and muddying “sameness” and “difference,” and end up casting the people into a muddle of disputation. Thus it is that each and every great disorder of the world is caused by the love of wisdom. Everyone in the world knows enough to find out about what they don’t know, but none knows enough to find out about what they already know. 12 Everyone knows enough to disapprove of what they consider bad, but none knows enough to disapprove of what they have come to consider good. 13 This is the reason for the great disorder, which violates the brightness of the sun and moon above and melts away the kernel of vitality14 within the mountains and rivers below, toppling the ordered succession of the four seasons in between. All creatures, down to the {88} smallest wriggling and fluttering insects, have thus lost touch with their inborn natures—that is how profoundly the love of wisdom disrupts the world! Abandoning all the many types of generative impulse within them, 15 they instead insist on laborious subservience. Letting go of the peaceful blandness of non-doing, 16 they instead delight in ideas and plans full of tsk-tsk jibber-jabber. And it is this tsk-tsk jibber-jabber that has thrown the world into its present disorder!

The ancients who practiced the Course used their tranquility as nutriment for their conscious understanding. Conscious understanding did arise for them, but it was not employed in the service of any deliberate doings. Thus they can be said also to have used their conscious understanding as nutriment for their tranquility. When conscious understanding and tranquility can come together and nourish one another in this way, a harmonious coherence2 of the two emerges from the inborn nature. Inherent virtuosity is just this harmony, and the Course is just this coherence. Their inherent virtuosity came to contain everything in itself—and just this is real humankindness. Their Course came to arrange all things into mutual coherence one with another—and just this is truly responsible conduct. Their responsible conduct shone brightly so that other beings come to feel kinship with them—and just this is real loyalty. They were pure and genuine within and reverted to this even in their emotional dispositions—and just this is real music, real joy. The sincerity of their conduct showed even in their faces and bodies, and accorded with the elegant patterns of culture—and just this is real ritual. And yet, when practiced universally, 3 ritual and music disorder all the world. For when the correctness belonging to another is applied to oneself, it only beclouds one’s intrinsic virtuosities. These must not venture outward to impose upon {132} others, for whenever they are made to venture outward, imposing on other beings, the inborn natures of those other beings will be in every case lost. These ancients, in this state of undivided obliviousness, remained in communion with everything in the world and yet found a tranquil solitude there. At that time yin and yang were in harmonious stillness, the ghosts and spirits brought no disturbances, the four seasons found their right measures, the ten thousand things remained unharmed, so no living thing met with a premature death. Although people did have some conscious understanding, they had no use for it. This is what is called utmost unity. At this time no one did anything deliberately; whatever happened always happened spontaneously, not done by anyone. 4 But then such intrinsic virtuosities went into decline, and it was then that people like Suiren and Fuxi5 started to manage the world and do things with it. The people of the world complied but were no longer in unity.

Thereafter they dismissed their inborn natures and followed their minds instead. Minds then came to know and recognize only other minds, interacting only through their understandings, which can never be enough to bring stability to the world. Then they supplemented it with elegant patterns of culture, and augmented it with erudition. But the elegant cultural patterns ended up destroying the materials they embellished, and the erudition ended up drowning the mind. And then the people started to become really confused and disordered, with no means by which to restore their inborn natures and dispositions, no way to return to their initial state. Looking at it this way, the world has lost the Course and the Course has lost the world. The world and the Course, in their interaction, have lost each other.

The Course surely does not proceed through petty practices, nor is intrinsic virtuosity made manifest through petty knowledge. Petty knowledge harms intrinsic virtuosity, and petty practices harm the Course. Thus we may say that all they did was get their own selves into balanced alignment, nothing more. Delighting in completeness, in remaining intact, is what they called fulfilled aspiration. It meant simply that nothing could further augment their happiness. But nowadays when people speak of fulfilled aspiration, they just mean getting the carriages and the caps of rank and wealth.

When a sage is born, great robbers arise. So it is only when you destroy the sages and pardon all the thieves and robbers that the world can become well ordered! When the streams dry up, the valleys empty; when the hills are leveled, the reservoirs are filled; and once the sages die, great robbers will no longer arise. Then the world will be at peace and without trouble! But if the sages do not die, great robbers will never stop. To try to govern the world by doubling the number of sages would merely double the profits of the great robbers. If you create pounds and ounces to measure them with, they’ll steal the pounds and ounces and use them to rob you further. If you make scales and balances to regulate them with, they’ll steal the scales and balances and use them to rob you more. If you create tallies and seals to enforce their reliability, they’ll steal the tallies and seals and use them to rob you too. If you create ideals of humankindness and responsible conduct to regulate them {86} with, why, they’ll just steal humankindness and responsible conduct and use them to rob you all the more.

The sages are the sharpest of all the world’s weapons, and should not be displayed. Hence only when sagacity is destroyed and wisdom abandoned will the great robbers disappear.

If we consider something to be worthy because it achieves something, there is no thing that is not worthy. If we consider it to be unworthy because it fails to achieve something, there is no thing that is not unworthy. When you understand the sense in which east and west are opposed to each other and yet indispensable to one another, you have determined what divides the allotments of their achievements. From the point of view of the inclinations of various beings, if we judge something to be right because there is some way to view it as right, then no thing is not right. If we judge it to be wrong because there is some way to view it as wrong, then no thing is not wrong.

So if someone says, ‘Why don’t we make only rightness our master and eliminate wrongness, make only order our master and eliminate disorder?’ this is someone who has not yet understood the coherence of heaven and earth10 and the realities of the ten thousand things. That would be like taking heaven alone as your master and eliminating earth, or taking yin alone as your master and eliminating yang—an obvious impossibility.

What is right and what is wrong have never yet been stably determined in this world. But though this is so, non-doing can stably determinate what is right and what is wrong. The reaching of happiness, keeping the body alive—it is only nondoing that comes close to maintaining this. Let me try to explain what I mean. It is by non-doing that the sky is clear. It is by non-doing that the earth is tranquil. When these non-doings join together, there occur the transformations by which all things are generated. So oblivious, so unheeding, emerging from nowhere! So unheeding, so oblivious, devoid of any likeness! All things busily working their works emerge from the root of this non-doing! Thus it is said, “Heaven and earth do nothing, and yet there is nothing they do not do.” 3 But as for human beings, who among them can attain to this non-doing?

“Learning does not necessarily make one knowledgeable, 13 and skill in debate does not necessarily make one wise. This is why the sage eliminates them. What he keeps, what keeps him, 14 is only what is not increased or diminished however one tries to increase or diminish it. So deep and unfathomable—like the ocean! So lofty and towering—it ends and then begins again!

“If someone answers when asked about the Course, he does not know the Course. Though one may ask about the Course, this does not mean one has heard of the Course. The Course is not susceptible to questions, and any questions about it have no answers. To ask after it by asking no questions is to be through with all questions. To answer by giving no answers is to be free from harboring anything within. 23 And to confront the ending of all questions with nothing harbored within—such a one externally sees no time and space and internally is without knowledge of any primordial beginning.

“The Course is the full array of intrinsic powers.F The life in us is the radiance of these intrinsic powers shining forth. The inborn nature is a concrete form taken by the life in us. The motion of the inborn nature is a kind of activity, but when activity becomes deliberate and artificial, it can be called the loss [of that inborn nature]. Similarly, awareness25 is originally an interface with the world, but as understanding26 it comes to be a kind of scheming. What understanding does not know is like what is in one’s peripheral vision, seen out of the corner of the eye. For when all your actions are what you cannot help doing, outside of your deliberate control, it is called intrinsic virtuosity. Conversely, when all your actions come from yourself alone, we call that being completely in control. These two descriptions are directly opposed, but the facts they describe actually agree.

‘The Ten Thousand Things’—this is just to use one of the larger numbers as a nickname by which to pronounce a provisional designation for them due to their great quantity. So ‘Heaven and Earth’ just means the vastest among forms, ‘yin and yang’ just means the vastest among energies, 22 and ‘the Course’ just means what is most unbiased among all doings. 23 To use [the word “Course”] as a nickname for the vastness involved, as a way to bespeak it, is permissible; but once we have this word there is a tendency to take the Course as being comparable and contrastable to something. To dispute and distinguish on this basis is to compare the Course to a class outside itself, like we do with the species of dogs as opposed to horses. This misses it by a wide margin.”

But even if one person is lord and another is servant, this is only a matter of the times; in another age, neither would be lower than the other. Hence it is said that an Utmost Person does not remain walking on any one road, does not stick to any one practice. The scholarly types esteem antiquity and disparage the present—and to be sure—when you look at people of today against the {223} likes of old Mr. Hoghide, 9 who could fail to be swept away in the flow of such waves? But it is only the Utmost Person who can wander through this world without going awry, following along with others without losing himself, not imitating the teachings of others, receiving ideas from them without becoming one of them.

The seven-tenths or so that are presented as citations from weighty ancient authorities are meant to defuse garrulous fault-finding, eliciting agreement with the words of these “venerable elders” instead. But in fact some of those who come before us in years, if they have not gone through the warp and the woof of things in a way befitting their age, from the root to the tip, do not have any real priority over us. A man [of advanced years] with nothing to give him priority over others has not fulfilled the course of a human being, and a human being devoid of the course of human being should really just be a called a stale, obsolete oldster.

Zhuangzi said to Huizi, “Confucius went along for sixty years and transformed sixty times. What he first considered right he later considered wrong. He could never know if what he presently considered right were not fifty-nine times wrong.”

Master Liezi4 had fallen into extreme poverty, to the point where his hunger showed itself on his face. A visitor mentioned it to Ziyang of Zheng, saying, “Lie Yukou is what you might call a distinguished man who has the Course. Now what {232} is the reason that a distinguished man who has the Course dwells in your land, my lord, and yet has been allowed to fall into such extreme poverty? Can it be that my lord has no liking for distinguished men?” Ziyang then immediately ordered an officer to send a gift of grain to Liezi. Liezi welcomed the messenger, but then bowed twice and declined the gift. The messenger departed and Liezi went back into his house. His wife glared at him and pounded her breast with her fist, saying, “I was told that to be the wife of a man of the Course would be a life of ease and joy. But here we are, the starvation showing on our faces. The ruler was in error, but now he has sent food to you to correct it, and yet you refuse it. Alas, that such must be my fate!” Liezi laughed and said, “The ruler does not know me personally. He has sent this grain to me on the basis of what someone else has told him about me. So if someone else were to speak ill of me, he would perhaps also go by that person’s words. That’s why I didn’t accept the gift.” As it happens, the people later rebelled against Ziyang of Zheng and put him to death.

The knowledge of petty persons never amounts to more than gift wrapping and greeting cards, shredding the pure kernel of spirit in them by limping through the shallows. And yet they aspire to benefit all equally and guide all beings, to make a grand unity of form and void! But this is just getting lost and confused in the limitless continuum of spaces and times, becoming so bound to forms that they know nothing of the Great Beginning. Those others, the Utmost Persons, revert the pure kernel of spirit in them to the beginninglessness, vanishingly napping their way to the homeland of not-even-anything—fluidly flowing into the formlessness, expansively releasing into the vast clarity. How sad it is indeed to busy yourself with knowledge of trivialities, the tiny hairs at the end of things, knowing nothing of this Great Tranquility!

But the world is presently in great disorder. People no longer understand real sagehood and worthiness. The Course and its intrinsic powers are no longer unified. Many in the world congratulate themselves complacently for their insight into some single aspect of it. It is as if the ears, eyes, nose, and mouth each had their own understanding, without being able to interconnect. Thus do the skills of the various schools each excel in some part of it, each of which is useful at a certain time. But they are partial and incomplete, nook and corner scholars only. They may try to judge the beauties of heaven and earth, analyze the coherence5 of all things and investigate the comprehensiveness of the ancients. But how rarely can any of them fully encompass the beauty of heaven and earth or take the measure of the richness both of imponderable spirit and of clear illumination.

Each man in the world now fashions his own technique out of whatever part of it happens to suit his own desires. How sad! The various schools go off without returning, making it impossible for them ever to come together. If these latter-day scholars are unable to perceive the purity of heaven and earth, or the vast system of the ancients, the art of the {268} Course will be torn to pieces by the world—and this will be what ends up tearing the world to pieces.A

Life and agency

Thus it is said that in the dimmest antiquity, rulership of the world was accomplished simply through non-doing. 1 That means relying only on the Heavenly and on the intrinsic virtuosities, nothing more.
Hence the intrinsic virtuosities are what can bring unobstructed success everywhere between Heaven and Earth, and the Course is what proceeds through all the ten thousand things.
“Here is how the ancients tamed the world: having no desires, all in the world had all they needed. Non-doing, all in the world was transformed. Being still as an abyss, all the people settled into stability.” As the Record says, “Penetrating to the one continuity, all the myriad tasks are completed. Free of any intention for gain, attaining only freedom from any intention, A all the ghosts and spirits yield.”

The various expressions of non-doing: that is what is meant by the intrinsic virtuosities. Cherishing other people and creating benefit for all beings: that is what is meant by humankindness. Seeing commonalities in what is different: that is what is meant by vastness. Proceeding in one’s deeds without embanking oneself against what is different: that is what is meant by capaciousness. Possession of all the ten thousand differences: 2 that is what is meant by wealth. Thus, holding fast to one’s intrinsic virtuosities is called maintaining the strand, and bringing them to completion is called taking one’s place in the world. Following the Course is called lacking nothing, and not letting external things blunt one’s aspiration is called being undamaged.

“When noble people are clear on these ten things, how encompassing they are in their service to the vastness of their own minds! How fluid and fecund they are, being the passing on of all things! Such people leave the gold hidden in the mountains, leave the pearls hidden in the depths of the sea, see no profit in goods and riches, stay away from rank and wealth. Taking no joy in long life and finding no sorrow in early death, they feel no glory in success and no shame in failure. Forgetting both long life and early death, success and failure are to them not even worth mentioning. They do not try to snap up all the profits of the era as their private share, or to exert sovereignty over the world as a way to reach a position of shining prominence. What shines for them is rather to understand that all things comprise a single treasury, that life and death comprise a single shape.”

Someone who can maintain his body, fully develop the life in him, firmly establish his intrinsic virtuosities and make manifest the Course—is he not a person of kingly virtuosity? Vastly he gushes forth, and yet all things follow along with him in his every sudden emergence and surging action. Such is what is called a person of kingly virtuosity. He peers into the darkest dark, he listens where there is no sound. Within the darkest dark alone he sees daybreak. Within the soundless alone he hears harmony. Thus even in the depths below the deep, he can discern a something definitely present, and even in the more imponderable {100} than the imponderable, he can discern a certain subtle quintessence. Hence, in his contact with all things, though utterly lacking anything to give, he somehow provides what they seek, and though galloping forth on the instant, he somehow tracks where they are coming from, providing something for each and all—large or small, long or short, far or near.” B

But this man alone says no. One who holds to the Course keeps his intrinsic virtuosities whole, and when these are whole, the body is also whole, and thus the imponderable spirit is also whole. The wholeness of the spirit is the way of the sage. That means to throw your life in with the ordinary people, moving together with them and never knowing where you’re going. So complete in obliviousness, in purity! Accomplishment, profit, machinations, skill—all these are forgotten in this man’s mind. This man does not go where he has no will to go, does not do what he has no mind to do. Though all in the world may praise him, getting exactly what he means, he would disregard it without a second thought. Though all the world may blame him, not getting what he means, he would obliviously ignore it. Neither {105} praise nor blame can add to or subtract from him in the least. This is what is called a person whose intrinsic virtuosities are whole and intact! As for me, I am just someone tossed about on the wind and waves.”

To follow others, going along with their ideas of right and wrong, and yet claim not to be one of the crowd—that is the height of foolishness. But someone who knows he is a fool is not the biggest fool, just as someone who knows he is confused is not so greatly confused. The greatly confused are those who will never get free of confusion to the end of their days, and the biggest fools are those who never become aware of their foolishness. When three people are walking together and one of them is lost, they can still reach their destination. This is a small confusion. But if two of them are lost, they will just exhaust themselves without ever getting anywhere, because the majority are confused. At the present time, the whole world is confused, and though I may earnestly wish and pray otherwise, it would do no good. Is it not tragic?

Non-doing, one simply makes use of whatever the world offers and still always has more than enough. Doing, one is used by the world and never has enough. This is why the ancients esteemed non-doing above all.

Thus it is said that tranquility and placidity, silence and solitude, open space and non-doing, these comprise the even level of heaven and earth, the very stuff of the Course and its intrinsic powers. And thus is it said that what sages do is simply leave off everything and take their rest there.

It is when the heart and mind are without sorrow or happiness that their inherent powers reach perfection; it is when they are unified and unchanging that their stillness reaches perfection; it is when they oppose nothing that their openness reaches perfection, it is when they associate themselves with nothing that their placidity reaches perfection, it is when they are in conflict with nothing that their purity reaches perfection.

{111} But when those above are non-doing and those below are non-doing as well, those below exert the same intrinsic powers as those above. If those below exert the intrinsic powers of those above, they cannot be their subjects. And if those below engage in doing, but those above also engage in doing, those above share in the same course as those below, and if they are sharing in the same course as those below, they cannot be their lords. So those above must be non-doing, served by what the world offers, while those below must engage in doing, being of service to the world. This is their unchanging course, allowing no replacement. Thus those who ruled the world in ancient times did not make any plans for themselves, even when their understanding encompassed all of heaven and earth. They did not explain themselves, even when their rhetorical skill was capable of minutely carving out the ten thousand things. They did not do anything themselves, even when their abilities outstripped all within the four seas.

Having thus seen my own insignificance, what conceit could I have? For are not the four seas, calculated against the space between heaven and earth, like a swirling hollow on the surface of a vast lake? Are not the central states, calculated against all the known world, like grains of rice lost in a granary? We number the types of creatures at ten thousand, and man is but one of them. And even in the nine regions crowded with humans, where they are able to grow their crops and ride their boats and carriages, a single person is just one among the throng. Among the ten thousand things, is not the human realm like the tip of a hair on the body of a horse?

“No, I have no Course,” said the old man. “It all starts out in the given, grows through the inborn nature, and comes to perfection in the fated. I enter into the navels of the whirlpools and emerge with the surging eddies. I just follow the Course of the water itself, without making any private one of my own. This is how I tread the waters.” Confucius said, “What do you mean by starting out in the given, growing through the inborn nature, and coming to perfection in the fated?” “Born among the hills, I first came to feel safely at home there among the hills—that’s the given. Gravitating toward the water as I grew up, I then came to feel safely at home in the water—that was my inborn nature. And to be thus and so without knowing how or why I am thus and so—that’s the fated.”

For life is the follower of death, and death is the beginning of life; who understands the thread that connects them? The birth of man is just a convergence of energy. 6 When it converges, he lives. When it scatters, he dies. Since life and death follow one another, what is there to worry about? It is in this way that all things are one. People take what they consider beautiful to be sacred and wonderful, and take what they dislike to be odious and rotten. But the odious and rotten transform into the sacred and wonderful, and the sacred and wonderful transform into the odious and rotten. Hence it is said, ‘Just open yourself into the single energy that is the world.’ It is for the sake of this that the sage values oneness.”

Things die, are born, go round, go square, and no one knows the root of it all. But it is spread out everywhere, and through it the ten thousand things have maintained themselves since time out of mind.

Mr. Hoghide24 wandered this way in his park, the Yellow Emperor in his garden, Mr. Youyu25 in his palace, and the emperors Tang and Wu merely in their own chambers. If even noble men like these, once they took Confucians and Mohists for their teachers, were made to grind away at each other with right and wrong, how much worse will be the men of the present age! The sage dwells among things without harming them. Because he doesn’t harm them, they cannot harm him either. Because there is no harm either way, he can both welcome them in and usher them out. “The mountain forests, the great open plains! Shall they make me joyful, shall they fill me with happiness? But even before my joy is done, sorrow has come to take its place. When joy and sorrow come I cannot stop them from coming, and when they go I cannot keep them from going. How sad it is! The people of the world these days are nothing more than lodging houses for external things. {182} They know all about what they encounter but not about what is never encountered. They know how to deftly deploy their abilities, but they don’t know how to deftly deploy their non-abilities.

It is impossible to escape from non-knowing and non-ability! Is it not tragic to try to escape from what cannot be escaped? Perfect words eliminate all words. Perfect action eliminates all action. But merely to put what your knowing knows into some kind of order—that is just shallowness.”

“To go along with other beings all the way to the end is to accept them into yourself. Temporarily putting up with other beings for whatever advantage you can wrest from them, on the other hand, means that even your own body is something you do not accept and shelter—how then can you accept and shelter others? If you cannot accept and shelter others, you will have no intimates, and for one without intimates, everyone—including himself—is just ‘other people,’ complete strangers.

Vast Unbiased Harmony said, “Yin and yang shine on one another, injureM one another, heal one another. The four seasons replace one another, give birth to one another, slaughter one another. Bridged between them there arise all sorts of desires and aversions, rejections and attractions. The joining of male and female like paired fragments becomes a regular presence in their midst. Safety and danger replace one another, disaster and prosperity give birth to one another, leisure and hurry grind against one another, aggregation and dispersal complete one another. This is the realm of which names and objects can be recorded, of which even the finest subtlety can be registered. The mutual ordering of beings as they follow in succession, the bridgelike circulation of beings as they move each other around, reverting when they reach exhaustion, beginning again when they come to an end—this is what belongs to the realm of beings, what words can exhaust, what understanding24 can reach. It remains within the limit of the realm of beings and goes no further. He who sees the Course doesn’t follow after them when they perish nor trace them back to whence they arise. This is where speculation comes to an end.”

Yuan Xian said, “I have heard that to be without money is called poverty, but to be unable to put into practice what one has learned is called a malady. I am poor, but I have no malady.” Zigong stepped back, looking quite ashamed. Yuan Xian smiled and said, “What I really could not bear would be things like trying to please the present generation in all my actions, forming cliques by making friends on all sides, learning for the sake of others and teaching for the sake of myself, hiding in humankindness and responsible conduct, showing off with chariots and horses, that kind of thing!”

The ancients who had found the Course were happy whether they succeeded or failed, for what brought them happiness was not success or failure. As long as the Course and its intrinsic powers are there, failure and success are nothing more than a passing sequence of cold and heat and wind and rain.

Greed and incorruptibility are really not forced on one by external circumstances; the standards ruling these behaviors come from examining what’s really happening within oneself.

“Instead you should be looking into the eight typical flaws people are prone to and the four troublemakers in the handling of affairs. The first of the eight flaws is meddling: concerning yourself with what is none of your concern. The second is smooth-talking: advancing your own agenda when no one has shown any interest in it. The third is sycophancy: scanning the listener’s intentions and shaping your words accordingly. The fourth is flattery: not caring whether what you say is true or false. The fifth is tale-bearing: a liking for speaking of the faults of others. The sixth is maliciousness: to break up friendships and cause divisions among kinfolk. The seventh is scheming: to use deceitful praise in order to bring about the downfall of your enemies. 3 The eighth is slipperiness: facing in two directions to suit everyone, the good as well as the bad, sneakily excavating what would please them. These eight flaws externally wreak chaos among others and internally harm one’s own self. Noble people avoid friends who have these traits and wise rulers avoid such ministers.

“The four troublemakers are, first, pushiness: to have a taste for managing big projects and replacing accepted practices in order to win credit and fame for oneself. The second is greed: to insist that yours is the only way to understand things and your projects the only things to be done, raiding what others have for your own use. 4 The third is obstinacy: not correcting one’s errors even when clearly seeing them, doubling down when called out. The fourth is conceit: approving whoever is the same as oneself and disapproving whoever is different from oneself, disallowing any good in them. These are the four troublemakers. You are not even really teachable until after you get rid of these eight flaws and abandon these four troublemakers.”

“The genuine is whatever is most unmixed and unfaked. For nothing that is done when one is faking it or of two minds about it can be persuasively moving to others. Thus someone who forces himself to cry, however sad it may sound, inspires no sorrow; someone who forces himself to be angry, however severe he may seem, inspires no awe; someone who forces affection, however he may smile, fails to get along with others. But genuine sadness, even when silent, evokes sorrow in others; genuine anger, even if unexpressed, inspires awe; genuine affection, even without a smile, fosters harmony. Whatever is genuine within has an imponderable spiritlike power to move external things. That is why we value the genuine.

Confucius again bowed twice, and said after straightening, “I am very fortunate to have met you, sir; such good fortune is like a gift from Heaven. If you are not ashamed to receive me, may I beg to accompany you as a servant so that I can accept your personal instruction? May I ask where you stay, so that I may receive your teachings and complete my study of the Great Course?” The stranger said, “I have heard that if you meet someone you can really set off with, you can together reach all the way to the Wondrous Course; but as for those you cannot really set off with, not knowing their course, the only way to avoid serious error is by not joining up with them at all. Make your own efforts, sir! I must leave you, I must go!” He then pushed his boat from the shore and departed, threading his way into the green thickets of the marsh.

Whenever people believe that on the contrary it is they themselves who possess some power to change others, it becomes a pretext to disrespect the people closest to them.


Zigong had traveled south to Chu and was passing over the northern bank of the Han River on his way back to Jin when he saw an old man working on his vegetable garden. The man had dug tunnels that led into the well, and was bearing jars of water to pour into them, exerting himself mightily but accomplishing very little. Zigong said to him, “There is a machine for this, which can irrigate one hundred plots of earth in a single day. It produces enormous results with very little effort. Wouldn’t you like to have one, sir?” The gardener looked up at him and said, “How does it work?” {104} Zigong said, “A piece of wood is carved into a lever, heavy in the back and light in the front, which raises the water as if hand-pulled, as quick and abundant as if it were boiling over. It is called a well-sweep.” The gardener’s face showed some anger, but then he smiled and said, “I have heard my teacher say, ‘Where there are clever machines, there will necessarily be clever machinations, and where there are clever machinations, there will necessarily be mechanical hearts and minds.’ Once the mechanical heart is lodged in your breast, purity and simplicity are no longer complete in you. When purity and simplicity are no longer complete, the imponderable spirit and life in you will become unsettled. When the spirit and life in you are unsettled, the Course cannot carry or be carriedE by them.’ It’s not that I didn’t know about this thing: it’s that I would be ashamed to use it.” Zigong squinted at the man, then lowered his head in shame, making no reply.

For traveling on water, there is nothing better than a boat. But for traveling on land, there is nothing better than a carriage. If you tried your {122} whole life long to push a boat along on dry land because it’s a good vehicle for the water, you would not get it to budge even a few feet. Are not the past and the present as different as water and land? Are not the ways of Zhou and Lu like the boat and the carriage? Now he tries to practice the ways of Zhou in the state of Lu—that is like pushing a boat over dry land: a lot of toilsome labor with no result, which will surely bring calamitous harm to his own person. He has not learned the methodless tradition, which responds to all things without being thwarted by any of them.

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“Something is allowed because some allowing of it has happened. Something is disallowed because some disallowing of it has happened. Courses are formed20 by walking them. Things are so by being called so. Whence ‘thus and so’? From thus and so being affirmed of them. Whence ‘not thus and so’? From thus and so being denied of them. Each thing necessarily has someplace from which it can be affirmed as thus and so, and someplace from which it can be affirmed as acceptable. So no thing is not right, no thing is not acceptable. For whatever we may define as a beam as opposed to a pillar, as a leper as opposed to the great beauty Xishi, or whatever might be from some perspective strange, grotesque, uncanny, or deceptive, there is a course that opens them into one another, connecting them to form a oneness. Their divisions are formations, their formations are destructions. 21 Thus all things are also free of formation and destruction, for these also open into one another, connecting to form a oneness.P It is only someone who really gets all the way through them who can see how the two sides open into one another, connecting them to form a oneness. Such a person would not deploy any one particular way of defining rightness, but would instead entrust it to the everyday function of each being. Their everyday function is what works for them, and ‘working’ just means this opening up into one another, their way of connecting. Opening to form a connection just means getting what you get: go as far as whatever you happen to get to, and leave it at that. It is all just a matter of going along with all that is entailed in thisness, going by the rightness of the present ‘this.’ The sense in which everything and everyone is always already doing precisely that, but without knowing it, and without knowing it to be right, is just what we mean by the Course. 22

Thus the Radiance of Drift and Doubt is the sage’s only map. He deploys no single definition of what is right, but instead entrusts it to the everyday function of each thing. This is what was meant by “using the Illumination of the Obvious.”

To protect your trunks, your sacks, your cabinets from thieves who would break into them, rifle through them, bust them open, no doubt you will bind them tightly with seals and ropes, secure them firmly with latches and locks. This is what common sense calls wisdom. 1 But when a great thief arrives, he will take the cabinet on his back, haul off the trunk, shoulder the sack, and make off with it—fearing nothing more than that the seals, ropes, latches, and locks are not secure enough. So this thing you’ve been calling “wisdom”—is it anything more than the piling up of loot for the really great thieves? Let me try to explain this further. Is there anything at all that the conventional world calls “wisdom” that is not really just piling up loot for the great thieves? Are there any so-called sages who are not just guards in the service of the great thieves?Once Robber Zhi’s disciple asked him, “Do robbers also have the Course?” Zhi said, “Where can one go without the Course? To guess where the treasure is hidden is sagacity. To be the first to go in is courage. To be the last to leave is responsible conduct. To judge whether a job can succeed or not is wisdom. To distribute the loot equally is humankindness. No one can become a great robber without these five virtues!” From this we can see that, while it is true that the good man cannot stand without the Course of the sage, Robber Zhi could not operate without it either.

Being there, letting the people be—I have heard of such things. Or releasing others from your custody, giving them some room. But I have never heard of anyone actually governing other people, ordering them. You just let them be for fear that otherwise their inborn natures will get flooded away. You just release them and give them room for fear that otherwise their intrinsic virtuosities1 will get displaced. And as long as their inborn natures are not flooded away and their intrinsic virtuosities are not displaced, what further order need there be? But when Yao2 “ordered” the world in ancient times, everyone got so jubilant about it, the propensities of their inborn naturesB were so pleased by it, that they lost their tranquility. When Jie3 “ordered” the world, on the other hand, everyone got so broken up about it, the propensities of their own natures4 so embittered by it, that they lost their contentment. But whatever is devoid of tranquility and contentment cannot be an intrinsic virtuosity, and whatever is not an intrinsic virtuosity can never be sustained for long. Are people overjoyed? That is an overdevelopment of yang. Are people outraged? That is an overdevelopment of yin.
And in the end this comes back to harm the people’s own bodies, knocking their joy and their anger out of their proper positions so they drift randomly here and there. Then they lose control of their own calculations and plans, with no middle course taking shape between the extremes. That’s when everyone gets caught up in high-handed self-discipline or nitpicking blame or ostentatious independence or fierce aggressions, C and from there you get things like the criminal behavior of a Robber Zhi or the moralistic conduct of a Zeng Shen or a Shi Yu. People get so good that even the whole world is insufficient to reward their goodness, or so bad that even the whole world is inadequate to punish {90} their evil. Even the vastness of the whole world is no longer enough for their punishment or their reward! And so, from the Three Dynasties on down, all anyone has really been doing is madly laboring to devise more and more punishments and rewards. How then could they have any leisure to rest content in the dispositions of their inborn natures and allotments of life?
Do you perchance delight in your keen vision? That just means you are flooding them5 away with sights. Do you delight in your keen hearing? You’re flooding them away with sounds. Do you delight in humankindness? You are thereby disordering the intrinsic virtuosities. 6 Do you delight in responsible conduct? You are contravening the unwrought structures. 7 Do you delight in ritual? You’re fostering contrivance. In music? You’re fostering debauchery. In sagacity? You’re fostering artifice. In wisdom? You’re fostering fault-finding. If everyone were to rest content in the dispositions of their own inborn nature and allotment of life, it would be quite all right to preserve all eight of these delights, or equally all right to let them go. But when no one rests content in the dispositions of his own inborn nature and allotment of life, people start getting all chopped up and bound down and backed up and tied in by them, D and it is thus that the world becomes disordered.
So if a noble man cannot escape having to oversee the world, there is no better option than non-doing. 8 For it is only by non-doing that one can rest content in the dispositions of one’s own inborn nature and allotment of life.

Towering Eagleye asked Lao Dan, “But if you don’t order the world, how can you improve the human heart?” {91} Lao Dan said, “Be careful not to meddle with the human heart! The human heart is something that springs up when pushed down, sometimes ascending and sometimes descending, sometimes the prisoner and sometimes the executioner. How soft and restrained and pliable it is, yet how firmly and roughly and sharply and severely it chisels and cuts. So hot it smolders to fire, so cold it freezes to ice, so swift that in the interval between glancing up and glancing down it has already twice touched points beyond the four seas. It dwells still like an abyss, it moves like the overhanging heavens—stampeding and haughty, allowing nothing to tie it down. Such is the human heart!

They worried their five internal organs trying to be humane and responsible, tasking their blood and breath to conform to laws and standards. But even with all their efforts, there was something there that could never be subdued. It was for this reason that Yao exiled Huan Dou to Chong Hill and cast the Three Miao Chiefs out to Sanwei, banished the Minister of Works to the City of Darkness9—that is how little they were able to subdue the world! And the same kind of thing went on all through the Three Dynasties, until the whole world was living in a constant state of terror. Below there were Jie and Robber Zhi, above there were Zeng Shen and Shi Yu, and from there finally arose the Confucians and Mohists. Thereafter the joyful and the angry doubted one another, the wise deceived the fools and the fools deceived the wise, the good and the bad condemned each other, the devious and the trustworthy ridiculed one another, and thus has the world gone further into decline. Discordant in the greatest of their intrinsic virtuosities, their inborn natures and allotments of life either rotted or overflowed. Everyone became eager for wisdom, until even the ordinary people of the world exhausted themselves in their search for it. And then saw and ax were applied to shape and control them, ropes and marking cords were used to lay waste to them, hammer and gouge were used to cut them into shape. Thus was everyone in the world forced to pile on and clamber over each other, in total chaos, and the crime that caused it all was this attempt to meddle with the human heart.
That is why worthy men keep themselves hidden in the caves and crags at the foot of great mountains, while lords of states commanding ten thousand chariots tremble with dread in their ancestral temples.

What are ignoble, and yet must be depended upon? Things. Who are of low status, and yet must be followed? The people. What are unseen, and yet must be dealt with? Tasks. What are coarse, and yet must be set forth? Laws. What is far from one’s heart, and yet must be taken on personally? Responsible conduct. What is most near to oneself, and yet must be widely extended? Humankindness. What is restrictive, and yet must be accumulated? Ritual. What is down in the very center of oneself but must be exalted? Intrinsic virtuosities. 24 What is a single continuity and yet must constantly change? The Course. What is imponderably spiritlike and yet always requires our actionI? The Heavenly. Thus the sages contemplate the Heavenly but do not try to assist it, find completion in intrinsic virtuosity but tie nothing to it, go forth along their Course but make no plans. They associate with others through humankindness but do not rely on it, cleave closely to responsible conduct but do not accumulate it, respond with ritual but observe no taboos. They take on tasks without declining them, equalize all before the law without disordering their relations, rely on the people without making light of them, follow the lead of all things without discarding them. For though things, all things, are precisely what are never worth doing anything about, one can nevertheless never avoid doing something about them. Those who do not understand the Heavenly cannot purify their intrinsic virtuosities. Those who are obstructed in their Course go wrong wherever they go. How sad it is not to understand one’s Course!

“Back when Yao ruled the world, the people were encouraged even without rewards, and stood in awe even without penalties. Now you employ penalties and rewards, and the people have become inhumane. From there the efficacy of their intrinsic virtuosity decays and even corporal punishments come {102} into use. The chaos to come in future times begins from this. Get out of here, why don’t you? Do not disturb my work!”

Whether governing by punishments or through the influence emanating from one’s intrinsic virtuosities, whether exuding humankindness or practicing responsible conduct, all are mere derivative branches of the imponderable spirit. So who but an Utmost Person can settle any of it in some definite place? The Utmost Person possesses all the world—is it not vast? And yet it is not enough to bind him. Though all the people of the world may be struggling over the handles of power, he does not join in; he discerns what alone is unborrowed, so he is not swept away by the hunt for profit. By developing to the utmost the genuineness of things, he is able to hold to their root. Thus he puts heaven and earth outside himself, casts off the ten thousand things, his imponderable spirit forever unconfined.

Those who consider wealth to be a definite good are unable to give up their salaries. Those who consider distinction to be a definite good are unable to give up their fame. Those who love power are unable to give control over to others; they are frightened while they hold onto it and grieved when they let it go. And yet they refuse to reflect even fleetingly on what it is that makes them so unable to give it up. These people are the casualties of Heaven.

Lao Dan said, “Come a little closer, child! I will tell you how the Three Emperors and Five Sovereigns ‘ordered the world.’ The Yellow Emperor ordered the world by making the hearts and minds of the people focus on unity, so that when someone didn’t cry at the death of his parents, nobody blamed him. Yao ordered the world by making the people’s hearts and minds all focus on kinship affection, so that when someone killed the killer of his parents, no one blamed him. Shun ordered the world by making the people’s minds focus on competition, {125} so that the women would give birth after ten months, but five months later each one of those babies could already speak and before the age of three each had already become a full-on somebody. It was then that people began to die young. Yu ordered the world by causing the people’s hearts and minds to focus on making changes, so that leaders had definite intentions and armies obeyed whatever orders they were given, saying that ‘to kill a thief is not really murdering a person.’ 18 People divided themselves into different types, and each considered his own type the whole world. Thus the world was gripped in great terror, and the Confucians and Mohists arose. It was with their rise that there first came to be the whole idea of ethical roles and relationships, the result being that now men have to take daughters as their wives. 19 What can I say? I tell you, the Three Emperors and Five Sovereigns sure did ‘order the world’—well, that is what people call it, but in reality there is no greater disorder than what they brought about.

The so-called wisdom20 of the Three Emperors violated the brightness of the sun and moon above and clashed with the pure energy of the mountains and streams below, and brought everything presented by the four seasons crashing down in between. Their wisdom is crueler than a scorpion’s tail. Even rarely-sighted beasts in the field have thus become unable to find rest in their own inborn natures and allotments of life. And yet these people regarded themselves as sages. Such shamelessness—is it not shameful?” Zigong just stood there, unsteady on his feet as if jolted by a kick.

There is a folk saying about this: “The multitude care about profit, the incorruptible men of distinction value fame, the worthy men esteem their aspirations—but the sages value only the pure kernel of vitality.” “Plainness” means mixing nothing extraneous in, and “purity” means keeping the imponderable, the spirit, undiminished. It is those who can embody such purity and plainness that are called the Genuine-Human.

Zhuangzi was once fishing beside the Pu River when two emissaries brought him a message from the King of Chu: “The king would like to trouble you with the control of his realm.” Zhuangzi, holding fast to his fishing pole, without so much as turning his head, said, “I have heard there is a sacred turtle in Chu, already dead for three thousand years, which the king keeps in a bamboo chest high in his shrine. Do you think this turtle would prefer to be dead and having his carcass exalted, or alive and dragging his tail through the mud?” The emissaries said, “Alive and dragging his tail through the mud.” Zhuangzi said, “Away with you then! I too will drag my tail through the mud!”

What everyone in the world honors is wealth, high rank, long life, and others thinking well of them. What they delight in is physical security and comfort, rich flavors, lovely clothes, alluring forms, fine tones, and music. What they despise are poverty, low status, early death, and others thinking ill of them. What they suffer from are a body unable to obtain ease and comfort, a mouth unable to obtain rich flavors, a figure unadorned by lovely clothes, eyes unable to see alluring forms, ears unable to hear fine tones and music. If they cannot obtain these things, how worried and terrified they become! But this is a really foolish way to treat one’s own body. The wealthy torture their bodies, frenzied by work, accumulating so much wealth that they are unable to use it all. This is treating one’s own body as an outsider. The people of high status worry all day and then into the night about how well or poorly they are doing. This is treating one’s own body as a stranger. Anxiety is born the moment a human being is born, and when the long-lived become stupid and benighted, this anxiety lasting on and on and refusing to die—what suffering this is! This is treating one’s own body as a distant outsider.

Yan He11 encountered the carriages on the road, and then entered the palace to see the duke, saying, “Ji’s horses are going to collapse.” The duke remained silent. After a while more, the horses did indeed collapse. The duke asked, “How did you know?” Yan He said, “His horses had {155} come to the end of their strength but he kept making demands on them. That is why I said they would collapse.”

Zhuangzi was wearing a patched garment of coarse cloth, with his shoes tied together by strings, when he traveled past the King of Wei. The king asked, “Why are you so worn out, sir?” Zhuangzi said, “I am not worn out; I am just poor! When a scholar has coursing in him the intrinsic powers of the Course but cannot put them into practice, that really wears him out. The fact that I am dressed in tattered clothes and crumbling shoes is due to poverty, not weariness! It is just a case of what is called ‘not meeting the right time.’ Can you have never seen one of those bounding monkeys? When they can find catalpas and camphor trees or towering cedars, they pull and swing themselves off the branches, dominating the area like a sovereign, and even the eyes of archers like Yi or Peng Meng would be unable to track them. But if they always find themselves only among thorny aspens and brambly bushes, they {162} move cautiously, constantly glancing over their shoulders, shaking with apprehension and trembling with fear. This is not because their bones and tendons have suddenly become stiff and no longer supple; it’s just that they are in a situation that is unsuitable to them, and thus have no opportunity to display their abilities. Now to live in the midst of benighted rulers and unruly prime ministers, is there any way not to be worn out, however dearly one might want not to be? Wasn’t this clear enough when Bi Gan9 had his heart cut out?”

Duke Ai said, “Everyone in the whole country is going around dressed in Confucian garb! How can you say there are very few of them?” Zhuangzi said, “I have heard that Confucians wear a round cap to show their understanding of the seasons of heaven, and walk in square shoes to show their awareness of the shape of the earth, that they dangle jade blades at their waists to show that they are decisive in rendering judgments and cutting off alternatives when tasks come to them. A noble man may practice this course without wearing its uniform, and not everyone who wears a certain uniform necessarily knows its corresponding course. If you are so certain that this is not so, why not issue an edict throughout the state saying, ‘Anyone who wears this garb without practicing this course will be held guilty of a capital offense and summarily executed”? The duke thereupon issued such an edict, and after five days there was no one in all the state of Lu who dared wear the Confucian garments, with the exception of one old fellow who stood in his full Confucian outfit at the duke’s gate. The duke called him in and questioned him about the affairs of state; he was able to turn it a thousand ways, transform it ten thousand times, and still he was never stumped. Zhuangzi said, “So in all the state of Lu there is only this one Confucian—can you call that a great many?”

What benefit does all this meticulous scheming really bring to the world? Elevating the worthy only makes the people compete with each other. Putting the understanding4 in charge just makes the people loot one another. Such things can do nothing to enhance the lives of the people. Once they become diligent about their own advantage, the sons will end up killing their fathers and the ministers their rulers, burrowing through walls to rob each other in broad daylight. Mark my words, the root of the truly great disorder lies in people like Yao and Shun, and its branches reach down for a thousand generations. A thousand generations of this and I guarantee it will end up with human beings eating one another for dinner!” Nanrong ChuC straightened up on his mat with a jolt, saying, “What then can someone like me, advanced in age, do to live up to what you are saying?” Gengsang Chu said, “Keep your body whole, hold fast to the life in you, don’t let your thoughts get lost in busy calculations, and in three years you will have lived up to it.”

Intellectual people are unhappy when deprived of the constant transmutation of ideas; debaters are unhappy when deprived of the orderly progression of arguments; critics are unhappy when deprived of the task of berating and nitpicking. These are people who pen themselves in with mere things. Men who can solicit the attention of the age become rising stars at court; those who can satisfy the populace are honored with official positions; those with physical strength are proud of difficult feats. Those who are brave and daring are spurred on by calamity. Those skilled in handling weaponry delight in combat; the dried-out and depleted rest on their reputations; the wielders of law and statute make much of expanding governance; the masters of ritual instruction revere proper demeanor; the men of humankindness and responsible conduct cherish the interfaces of human relationships. When farmers have no work to do with their crops and weeds, they fall to pieces, B as do merchants deprived of their markets; when the common people are given work to do morning and night, they become diligent; when craftsmen are skilled in handling their tools and machines, they become vigorous. Without an accumulation of wealth, the greedy get anxious; without expanding power and influence, the ambitious get depressed. This is the only way these slaves to circumstances and external things delight in the process of transformation: when they meet with a time that can make use {199} of something about them, they are unable to resist doing their thing, unable to practice non-doing. 10 Thus do they comply and align themselves with whatever is brought by every passing year, instead of letting change be their very thinghoodC! Thus do they drive their bodies and inborn natures about, sinking beneath the ten thousand things, never turning back for their entire lives. How sad!

But those who freely dispense humankindness and responsible conduct are few, while those who see profit to be gained from practicing humankindness and responsible conduct are many. If there is even the slightest moment of faking21 in one’s humankindness and responsible conduct, they instantly become weapons in the hands of brutish greed. Thus for any one man to benefit the world with his decisions and institutions22 can be likened to trying to carve out the shapes of all things with a single slash of the knife. 23 Yao understands how worthy people profit the world, but he doesn’t understand how they plunder {204} the world. For only those who have ousted all worthiness from themselves can understand this!”

People say, ‘Don’t rob, don’t kill!’ But then they set up ideas of glory and disgrace, and right away people start seeing certain things as defective. They accumulate wealth and property, and right away people start seeing certain things as worth fighting over. Now if you set up something for people to shun as defective and accumulate something for people to fight over, trapping and impoverishing people so that they have not a moment’s respite, and yet you don’t want to arrive at this kind of a result, is that possible? The rulers of olden times credited success to the people and blamed failure on themselves, attributed the right to the {213} people and the wrong to themselves, so that if even a single body lost any of its own shape, G they would resign and blame themselves. These days it is totally different: they mask the way things are and then call whoever cannot see it a fool, they enlarge difficulties and then condemn whoever dare not take them on, they load up duties and then punish whoever cannot fulfill them, they lengthen the roads to be traveled and then execute whoever cannot complete the journey. In response, knowing their powers will be insufficient, the people can only have recourse to fraud. With these new frauds coming at them every day, how could the people of either high or low rank do without some fraudulence of their own? Those with insufficient power fake it, those with insufficient knowledge cheat, those with insufficient wealth steal. If they take up banditry and thievery, where should we put the blame?”

Confucius bowed and was on his way out when suddenly his expression changed with a jolt, and he asked, “Can some progress then be made in my work?” Lao Laizi said, “Because you are unable to endure the suffering of this single present era, you drive ten thousand eras into disaster.B Are you deliberately trying to put them in such straits, or have you just failed to think it throughC? That you take such pride in pleasing others with your kindnesses is in fact your lifelong disgrace. For what you thus promote is no more than the typical activity of mediocrities, leading each other along with promises of fame and tying each other down with threats of obscurity. But praising Yao and condemning Jie is not as good as forgetting both and shutting off entirely all that praises or is praised. 6 For praise is something that never fails both to harm the praiser and to corrupt the praised.D When sages take up any endeavor they dawdle and hesitate, and that is why they always succeed. What can be done with someone who carries himself like you do? In the end you are just showing off.”

“The genuineness of the Course applies only to the management of the person himself, to taking care of one’s own body. Only whatever is left over after that may be used for the local community and the family, while whatever dust and chaff are further left after that may be used to govern the empire.” From this it can be seen that the accomplishments of emperors and kings are just the leftover deeds of the sages, not that by which they keep their bodies undamaged and nourish the life in them. But most of the conventional “noble men” of the present day just endanger their bodies and abandon the life in them, martyring themselves to external things. Is it not sad?

“Wow! Outrageous! This is not what we call the Course! Long ago when Shennong16 possessed the empire, he did the sacrifices at the proper times and with the utmost reverence, but he prayed for no blessings in return. With respect to human beings, he was loyal and trustworthy, making sure all their affairs were put into good order, but sought nothing from them in return. Those who enjoyed partaking in governance did the governing with him, those who enjoyed partaking in orderliness did the ordering with him. 17 {237} He did not build his own success on the ruin of others nor elevate himself by lowering others. He did not take advantage of the times he happened to have found himself in to reap personal gain. But now the house of Zhou sees the disorder of the Shang and suddenly decides to manage the governance of the world, strategizing with those above and bribing those below, relying on an army to guard their authority, using the blood of sacrificial victims for covenants as a proof of good faith, advertising their lofty conduct to appease the masses, engaging in murderous ‘punitive’ military expeditions for their own profit—all this is just overthrowing disorder and replacing it with violence.

Co-creating comprehensible ecologies of care beyond the human

Nurturing bioregional and planetary health

The moon is greeting the Matariki sunrise

Today is Matariki, the start of the Māori new year. The days are getting longer again in the Southern Hemisphere.

Traditionally, Matariki was a time to acknowledge the dead and to release their spirits to become stars. It was also a time to reflect, to be thankful to the gods for the harvest, to feast and to share the bounty of the harvest with family and friends.


This is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of how an understanding of human scale is an integral part of the social fabric in Māori societies, and how this maps to the concepts of scale in evolutionary design.

Understanding culture as a dynamic evolutionary process

Evolutionary design allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and to integrate their knowledge into a living system that includes humans, non-humans, and human designed systems.

Cultural organisms (whānau) act as the primary economic units for equitable resource sharing.

Before Māori came into contact with Europeans, whānau comprised the elders, the pākeke (senior adults such as parents, uncles and aunts), and the sons and daughters together with their spouses and children. A whānau generally numbered between 20 and 30 people. Depending on size, they could occupy one or more sleeping houses, known as wharepuni. Large whānau had their own clearly defined compound in the papakāinga (village settlement) or fortified . Whānau also had their own plot in the kūmara field, and their own fishing and hunting places, eel weirs and berry trees. The small size of the whānau and the close nature of its internal ties made it an efficient group for subsistence activities. The whānau was self-sufficient in most matters except defence, when it usually depended on the iwi (tribe) or hapū (sub-tribe).


Cultural species (hapū) act as the primary political units, upholding and evolving the shared social operating model of the species. 

Iwi and hapū descended from the same canoe would sometimes act in opposition to each other. But if tribes from another waka region invaded their domain, the waka bond would be used to form an alliance against the intruders.

Reasons why new iwi and hapū formed

New groups also continuously split off as populations increased. Pressure on such resources as crops, forests, rivers, lakes and sea fisheries was an especially important factor causing larger hapū to break into smaller ones. New groups could also form through forced migration, defeat in war or other disagreements such as breaches of custom, loss of mana (status) or land, and family infighting.

Sometimes separate groups merged with each other to form new groups. Alternatively, very large and strong whānau (extended families) might develop into hapū in their own right. Recognition by other groups as a separate and new hapū was important. New sub-tribes were recognised if, for example, they had a leader with mana and skill in diplomacy, if they were able to strengthen the identity of the hapū by political marriages, or if they were known for their fighting prowess.


The use of Māori terminology illustrates that we can draw on many centuries of lived experience with human scale, which we can understand in terms of cultural species and cultural organisms from an evolutionary perspective. The following diagram shows the ingredients for cultural evolution in terms of sets of human and non-human relationships:

  • Households include the relationships between 5 +/-3 people (11 +/-9 people in traditional wharepuni)
  • Cultural organisms include the relationships between 50 +/-30 people (25 +/-5 people in traditional whānau)
  • Cultural species (hapū) include the relationships between larger numbers of people and whānau
  • The global knowledge commons is abstract, it belongs to all humans

The global knowledge commons is a shared repository of collective wisdom and scientific knowledge that evolves organically via contributions from across all cultures.

All of the above can be related to the way human biological diversity manifests, and to the specific roles played by Autistic ways of being within cultural evolution. As agents of the cultural immune system, and as part of the relational nervous system of open knowledge flows between human societies, collectively, holotropic people play an essential role in de-powering relationships, creating a counter-balance against all attempts of “controlling” or “managing” cultural evolution at super-human scales, i.e. at the level of Iwi or states. De-powering, as still practiced by some egalitarian hunter gatherer societies, is needed to minimise the suffering on a finite planet that has been subjected to increasing levels of powered-up anthropocentric hubris for the last 10,000 years.

Note that the scale of a Māori whānau is such that all whānau include multiple people who we tend to label as neurodivergent in WEIRD societies, who amongst other things, are available as mentors for neurodivergent children. Also note that with the whānau acting as the primary economic unit, no household needs to worry about survival. Survival and collaborative niche construction are collective concerns at the level of whānau and hapū, where social contracts are consciously shaped and updated as needed. Similarly collaborative social dynamics are achievable in other contexts with the help of de-powered creative collaboration

In de-powered mode, conscious collective intelligence is constrained to and optimised at the scale of cultural organisms. We now know that all attempts to scale up collective intelligence by powering-up relationships are doomed attempts of wishful thinking by power drunk aspiring “leaders” that consistently and predictably reduce collective intelligence far below human scale. That’s why today, often individual intelligence surpases institutional collective intelligence.

The average person often has a good handle on knowing when our super-human scale institutions can’t be trusted, when they have become dysfunctional. But knowing that something no longer works is not enough for driving cultural evolution towards de-powered ecologies of care. This is where we need to distill wisdom from the global knowledge commons, to identify principles that optimise for cultural adaptiveness, and I would argue, exactly those are the principles that minimise overall suffering.

At human scale, we nurture good company one trusted relationship at a time.

Super-human collective intelligence evolves organically, beyond human control, in terms of the evolution, growth and decline of cultural species, over multiple generations. By definition, it is beyond human comprehension. No one is “in power” at the steering wheel. In fact a powered-up steering wheel compromises cultural adaptability and collective intelligence.

Social construction

Philosopher Hans-Georg Moeller has written an excellent book on the predicament that plaques all super-human scale societies, You and Your Profile: Identity After Authenticity, in which he describes the evolution and limitations of identity technologies. Specifically Hans-Georg Moeller elaborates the notions of sincerity – which was dominant in pre-industrialised societies, authenticity – which was dominant during the era of mass media, and profilicity – now dominant, catalysed by the emergence of social media. 

The book offers an astute analysis of the “civilised”, i.e. neuronormative human social realm. It accurately describes the paradoxes that affect all identity technologies when society is constructed from an anthropocentric perspective, i.e. as independent of the bigger ecological context of the non-human world, and in ignorance of the limits of human scale cognition and human biological diversity.

It turns out that the factors that make the neuronormative world so confusing for Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people can be effectively conceptualised in terms of the paradoxes thrown up by the identity technologies of sincerity, authenticity, and profilicity, and it becomes clear why, from the perspective of the institutions of a hypernormative society, Autistic people ought to be pathologised. 

Interestingly, the paradoxes thrown up by sincerityauthenticity, and profilicity – which are very real in the modern world – can’t take hold in the same way in de-powered human scale societies, in which people relate to each other based on joint experiences over extended stretches of time and mutual trust. I can recommend Hans-Georg Moeller’s book to anyone who is struggling with unmasking. The topic relates to the motivation that led to the AutCollab website, which is summarised in the first AutCollab blog post: Social – The big misunderstanding.

Our hypernormative civilisation has become fully decoupled from the non-human world, everything that matters in our super human scale civilisation is social construction, from all perspectives, from top to bottom and from the very bottom to to the top. There is no more room for non-socially-constructed sensory experiences in the physical realm, or for the biological needs that we share with other forms of life. 

The two things missing from the above roundtable, which is otherwise excellent, is awareness of how human scale and human biological and cultural diversity at human scale determine the parameters that define and shape healthy human cultures, diverse and small scale indigenous cultures.

In the case of the Australian continent indigenous cultures have allowed humans to carve out ecological niches that avoided the trappings of super human scale and the complete destruction of local ecosystems for 70,000 years – until WEIRD people turned up, who were not only dismissive of diversity but also scale blind.

Unmasked human life

Unmasked human life is an impossibility at super human scale. 

I would also add that unmasked human life is not about discovering your true WEIRD “self”, which is a modern social construction, but about understanding our lived experience, agency, and purpose in terms of an ecology of care. Our life is best understood in terms of the life-long relationships with humans, non-humans, mountains, oceans, and other super human ecological sources of life, that we co-create and nurture throughout our lives – yet all of these are compromised within hypernormative cultures. The anthropocentric hubris of powered-up civilisations is immediately and intuitively obvious from a holotropic or indigenous perspective.

Human wellbeing can only be understood in terms of the health of comprehensible (i.e. human scale) ecologies of care. It can neither be understood in terms of “self”, which is what most Western medicine and psychology is about, nor in terms of what Hans-Gerog Moeller describes as the abstract super human scale public peer, which is what the modern digital sphere of corporations, social media, and governments is all about.

Ecological blindness

Destruction of the oceans

What is out of sight, is largely out of mind. Sadly, during my lifetime I have witnessed the impoverishment of marine ecosystems in multiple geographies. The Pacific Ocean is my home. The oceans are the source of all life, and they connect all the ecosystems on this planet. The talk on Ocean Apocalypse by Jeremy Jackson about the state of the world’s oceans from 10 years ago offers an accurate introduction that remains valid. The Last Ocean documentary about the Southern Ocean shows where we are today, and how the socially constructed logic of profit trumps everything else.

The limits of comprehensibility

Anthropocentric hubris is not limited to the subordination or dismissal of all other forms of life. When we attempt to apply the scientific method in complex domains and transdisciplinary contexts, we run into the limits of science and into cultural paradigmatic bias within science.

Becoming conscious of human cognitive limits and recognising that these limits are just as real, immutable, and relevant for our survival as the laws of physics may allow us to avoid the fate of earlier civilisations, and to embark on a path of radical energy descent.

Being able to design, build, and use technology does not equate to understanding all the implications. The language systems that we create with the help of software can either amplify the unique human capacity for compassion and creative collaboration or they can amplify social competition and the brutal power politics that characterise primate dominance hierarchies, resulting in a powered-up collective learning disability.

We live in a techno-cult in which technology corporations have taken on the role of sacred places of worship, and CEOs are the high priests, praising the divine qualities of artificially intelligent technologies. In the emerging technoverse, biological life is perceived as becoming irrelevant.

Social movements

The levels of success of social movements can be illustrated in terms of the abolition of slavery, women rights, and gay rights. All these movements have granted additional powers to previously marginalised groups, but within a framework of established powered-up institutions. The effect is similar to the effect of an arms race where the focus lies on ensuring everyone is armed / powered-up to comparable levels. We are already aware of the dangers of such an approach from the Cold War, and current armed conflicts between some of the most powered-up nations on Earth illustrate that the dangers have remained and if anything, they have increased.

Instead of further social movements based on powering up or empowerment, all those who are seriously committed to non-violence are well advised to frame their goals in terms of de-powering the many established super human scale institutions that are wrecking the rapidly dwindling remains of the Earth’s biosphere.

Eventually all powered-up relationships corrupt

Yes, change from the bottom up is possible. But as long as we are framing our goals in terms of powering-up further parties, instead of de-powering massively over-powered parties, all gains will be short-lived, and will ultimately be absorbed into the death cult of industrialised busyness. This week the American Medical Association announced the withdrawal of explicit support for Applied Behaviour Analysis

This is a big positive development for the Autistic human rights movement, but it does not protect Autistic people from abuse and exploitation going forward.

Instead of explicit slavery, industrialised countries and global corporations continue to stoke deadly economic wars internationally, and locally, many societies have become highly stratified by the abstract logic of the invisible hand, rolling back the improvements achieved by various civil rights movements for large parts of the population. All social operating models that tolerate institutions that cult-ivate – i.e. “normalise” permanent social power gradients, by design endorse and generate social stratification.

The differences between powered-up cultures are best understood as differences in the social dimensions that drive stratification. De-powering is the only path out of the death spiral of structural violence that all powered-up civilisations inflict on the less-powered-up majority of the living planet.

Continued belief in empowerment is only possible by ignoring an entire century of neocolonialism, the growth in stratified societies over the last 10,000 years, and now the amplification of socially constructed identity technologies with the help of artificially powered-up digital tools.

Nurturing shared understanding

At this stage in human cultural evolution, we have reached the limits of the linear format of human spoken and written language.

The human lens is a small non-linear modelling language for human social behaviour that allows us to understand living systems and to reason about such systems in terms of evolutionary processes. It consists of thirteen categories that are invariant across cultures, space, and time. The human lens allows us to make sense of the world from a human perspective, to evolve our value systems, and to structure and adapt human endeavours accordingly.

Ecologies of care beyond the human

Collaborative niche construction

The main difference between modern emergent human scale cultural species and prehistoric human scale cultural species lies in the language systems and communication technologies that are being used to coordinate activities and to record and transmit knowledge within cultural organisms, between cultural organisms, and between cultural species.

Colllaborative niche construction at human scale primarily relies on a critical lens and on environmental (re)engineering practices that result in new adaptive paradigmatic frameworks that are tailored around the unique needs of the members of a specific ecology of care and that are embedded in the local non-human ecology. 

Holistic bioregional ecosystems

In his excellent book How Forests Think – Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human Eduardo Kohn elaborates how humans are not only part of an ecology of care, and capable of nurturing relationships that extend far beyond humans, but he also reveals the fundamental patterns of semiosis and thought that are inherent to all forms of life, at all levels of scale.

The European conceptualisation of the individual human ego is a product of the misguided metaphor of society as a profit generating machine. A shift to ecosystems of human scale groups reduces the spurious complexity needed to support a monoculture, and it retains and even grows adaptive cultural complexity, i.e. the diversity that emerges when the human ecological footprint is aligned with bioregional ecosystem functions. Adaptive complexity saves energy – it is the result of humans engaging in collaborative niche construction as a part of biological ecosystems.

Faith in the diversity of human natures

Prof Agustín Fuentes uses the concepts of creative and collaborative niche construction to push back against the naive and misleading concept of “human nature” and presents a compelling case for a diversity of human natures, without resorting to any pathologising medical model.

Distinctively human characteristics that develop, in combination with one another, over the course of the Pleistocene history of the genus Homo that are of interest in assessing human (not primate or hominin) natures …

While components of many of these patterns can be seen in other organisms, their combination, interconnections and the ratcheting-up in complexity of their ecological impacts across the Pleistocene represents the development of a particular human niche. This niche is the context in which we can glean distinctively human patterns that might be considered components of human natures.

Fuentes Agustin. 2017. Human niche, human behaviour, human nature. Interface Focus. 7: 20160136.

Between 2.5 and 3 million years ago, the first evidence of members of our own genus, Homo, show up in the fossil record. At this point we know they inherited not only our primate capacities for complex and interconnected social lives, and possibly for an aesthetic sense and the experience of awe, but also the hominin patterns of bipedality and a greater use of their hands. In the hominins, the relations between morphology, behavior, and intense group cohesion were greater than in most other primates. In addition, shortly before we see the first sign of the distinctive human lineage, evidence suggests that our deep ancestors developed the ability to see stones as potential tools and to actively reshape rocks into new forms.

To this day, stone toolmaking is a feat that no other lineage on the planet has ever mastered. Today, after an 8- to 10-million-year run, we have emerged from great diversity as the only hominin left standing. We are the strangest primate and the strangest hominin. Just looking around ourselves (wherever on the planet we might be) and taking in all that surrounds us—thinking about the amazing buildings and histories, our diverse lives, wondrous discoveries, theoretical contributions, and marvelous prose and scholarly insight that has been and is being produced, it is absolutely clear we are more than simply a clever and complex bipedal primate.

From the book Why We Believe by Agustín Fuentes

Awe – falling in love with the diversity of life

Many others have arrived at a similar conclusion regarding the relevance of the experience of awe in the context of human lives and human wellbeing.

If we allow our capacity for awe to extend beyond the human social sphere, which is the default amongst holotropic people, we to relate to all of life across space and time. Pathologising the non-social interests of Autistic people is a really bad idea.

To be holotropic is to have naturally wide open sensory gates. To participate in/as the immense world without becoming overwhelmed, we holotropes have two central methods: in, by hyperfocusing our attention on one sensory or cognitive path, and as, through synthesising our experience into coherence. A sense of wholeness occurs through both of these processes – less consciously in hyperfocus, more consciously in coherence. 

To be syntropic is to be immersed and perhaps inventive. While autistic people are not the only ones capable of absorption, it is the signature of a holotropic life. Embodied coherence is arguably our true gift, that we can both receive and give. When we are able to abide in receptive open awareness, we find we are wholeness itself.

Helen Mirra (2023)

De-powered dialogue

The physical, relational, and internal dimensions of our existence are not disconnected, they exist within the context of the ecology that we are part of. De-powered dialogue with other living creatures connects our relational and internal presence, it allows for the unfiltered flows of lived experiences, thoughts, and feelings; it constitutes the foundation for lifetime relationships, including dialogues beyond species boundaries.

In Autistic dialogues we also need each other as co-pilots, to remind each other of the need to attend to essential routines and potential sensory overload.


1 in 5 people are considered neurodivergent from the hypernormative perspective of our industrialised society! Neurodivergent people and teams:

  • Adhere to idiosyncratic moral value systems rather than social norms
  • Are okay with exploring ideas that upset the “social order”
  • Spend much more time experimenting and implementing ideas that others would consider crazy or a waste of time
  • Have untypical life goals: new forms of understanding, making a positive impact, translating ideas into artistic expression
  • Autists in particular have unusually developed pattern recognition abilities and an unusual ability to persevere

Once more and more events far beyond human control force us to pay attention to the much richer metaphors of living systems, humans will rediscover the beauty of collaborating at human scale, and that co-creating beautiful works of art is the ultimate antidote against the emergence of social power dynamics and the competitive logic of hate and violence.

How then, given the current human predicament, do we engage with all the many super human scale institutions that are paralysed by paradigmatic inertia, stuck on a life destroying path, without further amplifying human and non-human suffering? A bit of neurodivergent human imagination allows us to reframe and creatively restrict the mode of engagement to one that is compatible with the dual commitment of de-powering and collaborative niche construction.

We can all contribute to de-powering and engage in collaborative niche construction by offering palliative care to abstract super human scale institutions, whilst at the same time working towards viable non-profit oriented human scale exit paths for the human and non-human inmates.

Marginalised populations have decades of lived experience with mutual aid, and are well equipped to offer both palliative care to institutions as well as non-profit oriented human scale exit paths for traumatised humans.

Life has learned to create conditions conducive to life

– Janine Benyus

Simple linguistic tools

Useful small tools developed by neurodivergent people for neurodivergent people.

A language for mutual aid in the small

Ecology of care – the journey towards a healthier relationship with the ecosystems which we are part of starts with the most powerful tool at our disposal, the introduction and consistent use of new language and new semantics.

Interfacing with a hypernormative world at large is a collection of small, simple, single-task tools, mostly designed to help neurodivergent people with tasks they find overwhelming or difficult. Most tools will use AI technologies in the back-end to achieve their goals. Currently this includes OpenAI’s models. As the tools and backend improve, the intent is to move to an open source alternative. The AI models used are general purpose models, and so the accuracy of their output can vary. Nothing returned by any of the tools should be taken as a statement of truth, only guesswork. Please use your own knowledge and experience to judge whether the result you get is valid.