“The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.” —Thomas Merton
We often talk about putting process in praxis and try to explain what that would look like. Can process philosophy be a practice? How do you practice process, and how is it distinct from other practices? At the Cobb Institute it is even in our name: The Cobb Institute: A Community for Process and Practice.
Increasingly I have come to understand process not so much as things to do, but, rather, as an awareness. Process philosophy is not just a field of study or a theological approach. It is about seeing the world in a process way.
Our worldview and our ethics are often drawn from our religion and culture. Imagine walking on a narrow mountain cliff with a steep drop. Without a guardrail you might feel as if you would fall off. Our worldview is the guardrail. Our brains create that guardrail, because without it we would be frozen with fear.
“When you touch one moment with deep awareness, you touch all moments.” —Thich Nhat Hanh
Yet in our culture, religion is a label more than a practice. Maybe it is because our language focuses on nouns rather than verbs. Religion exists as an object to me as the subject. I am a Jew, or a Christian, or a Buddhist…Pagan, Daoist, Sikh. This allows religion to exist separate from myself. Process thought is the same. It is a noun. It is outside and separate. How can we bring it in? How can we change it into a verb?
In Japan, the word Shinto had to be created for Western visitors to label practices that were just part of Japanese life. Likewise, a process-relational life is just life. It is our existence, but one we seldom recognize as being in process and in relation with all the world. There are neuroscientific reasons for this that have to do with the way our brain fills in our world for us to navigate it. This is the function of the hippocampus, and it is useful and necessary in practical ways. That means that we must train our brains into a process-relational awareness, or we default to a culturally determined automatic pilot.
The problem that I have is explaining what this awareness is. Awareness and process are both nouns, but if I speak of process-ing, I can’t convey my intended meaning. There is no verb form of awareness. I need to create a verb: Awaring.
What would “Awaring” look like?
Awaring is falling in love. Awaring is looking at a bee and knowing without thinking the importance of the bee in the world. It is falling in love with that bee and the process of pollination. I wonder if this is what the mystics experience? It is an intensity of feeling and awareness of the great dance of the universe. Awaring is feeling the presence of the sacred in the rock, leaf, and soil. It is looking at both salamander and elephant and finding them exquisite.
I am curious if it is possible to attempt to shift the hippocampus’s focus away from future mapping based on past data, to a beautiful mandala of prehensions to be cherished. I am the sound of my flute as I play for the birds in my garden. I am the scent of cedar from the pews of my childhood church. Part of my universal dance includes the scent of ocean air, mingled with perfume of burning fire pits, and the fragrance of tall eucalyptus trees that brings tears to my eyes as I remember my childhood camping trips. I take that into myself again and again as part of my awaring. I can conjure up my falling in love with the world as I strengthen my awaring muscle. Why not celebrate your becoming with every sunrise? I love to wake up in time to welcome the sun. It is also a welcoming of my becoming self.
My hippocampus needs to map my world, but I want to see my possibilities spread out like a banquet with dishes of my “not yets” and “could bes.” In Religion in the Making, Alfred North Whitehead said, “In its solitariness the spirit asks, What, in the way of value, is the attainment of life? And it can find no such value till it has merged its individual claim with that of the objective universe. Religion is world-loyalty.” But how do we do world-loyalty? Awaring can help.
Awaring informs us of the impact of every action. If I buy a plastic gadget from a third world country, my actions have consequences. An awareness of those consequences would make me think differently about my actions. This awareness is of my impact on my world but also my constant personal transformation. But awaring changes everything.
This is a more difficult way of life, to know that all my actions have consequences, yet there is a beauty in it. Suddenly I am not insignificant, nor am I helpless. This awaring is empowering, and even comforting. I can contribute to the beauty of the world. Writing poetry, painting, and creating music all contribute but so do little acts of kindness and compassion. Every beautiful act transforms the world by adding to the beauty of the world. This is not only something I want to do, but I want to be aware of this as process unfolding.
“I am going to make everything around me beautiful - that will be my life.” ―Elsie de Wolfe
Many people ask why process philosophy matters if everything is process? Why bother? My answer: it’s a new way to experience our world. The process way is healing rather than destructive. Sure, I can recycle just because I should, and I do not need process philosophy to inform me. In fact, I can be informed of the need for recycling from many other places.
But a process awaring asks you to look deeper into the origins of the container you are recycling. What impact did it have as it came into being? The manufacturing process of plastic water bottles alone releases tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. As a result, the surrounding oxygen becomes contaminated, making it harder to breathe, and, in some regions, even making the residents near the manufacturing plant sick.
Process does not just focus on that one aspect, though, and that is the difference. It considers the impact of manufacturing the bottle from every angle from beginning to end. Awaring means that I might no longer drink bottled water. I might have come to that conclusion anyway, but awareness with a process point of view gives me more information about my place in the chain of events as well as the chain of events itself. In awaring I go deeper.
As I learn about the world in process, I can't un-see it, but sometimes I live with less awareness. Trying to live with process awareness is as challenging as Zen meditation, because it involves focus and mindfulness. If I start to go on automatic-pilot, I can think about process and bring it back to my awareness. But the goal is to also feel it.
My conclusion is that process praxis is awareness, especially a feeling type of awareness. Awaring requires a Zen-like mindfulness. This is where praxis comes in: meditation. I can see an awaring meditation that helps us train our minds out of the automatic-pilot state. For me the goal of awaring will always be to strive to keep in the forefront of my mind that every action of mine has an effect. But also, to appreciate the gifts of beauty and novelty that the creativity of the world has to offer, and to live more deeply in the world. I hope to contribute my own brand of beauty.