The Architect and the Therapist
Here’s Christopher Alexander, near the end of The Luminous Ground, the fourth and final book of 📙 The Nature of Order:
Often, as I work on a thing, I am consciously aware of the ground, the second domain, the “realm beyond." While I work, I am consciously looking for a glimpse of this ground to reveal itself. I wait to catch it. I can see that what I have so far doesn't yet have that thing, and I wait for it, hoping that a little bit of it will shine through.
This is conscious and explicit. I can feel dimly what the ground is like, I have a continual awareness of what it is ... even though I don't know it in the particular case before me ... and I wait to try and move what I am doing in that direction.
I try to sense it. I allow my dim feeling of this ground, this heaven, to unfold in my mind's eye. I try to imagine what I would be looking at if I were looking into heaven, and then ask myself what that thing would be in this particular case. *
In this final book he’s allowing himself to express the metaphysical aspects of his theory, the deeper spirituality of his way of working that he only implied in the first three books. We get to see that he’s guided by a dim feeling of a realm beyond, a heaven that’s also a ground.
There’s a particular structure to the activity he describes.
He’s paying attention to something that’s hard to see clearly. Since it’s not immediately present to his consciousness, he has to wait and allow it to unfold in his mind’s eye. That unfolding into presence depends on his continual awareness of it, despite its dimness.
He orients himself with a question: if heaven shone through here, how would that look? What he’s looking for isn’t a neutral fact. He will recognize it when it guides him towards the right thing to do, towards wholeness, towards a releasing of tension and an ability to get to work and set things straight.
It all takes time and dedication. It requires a certain mood of silence and attunement. Even though he’s looking for something personal and intimate, he needs to step aside from habitual entanglement, to become impersonal in a certain way.
The thing can’t be described, it’s as much outside the realm of language and opinion as the taste of tea, but working with it will involve bringing it into contact with concepts, Patterns, and blueprints, though it will always exceed those forms.
This isn’t something that Christopher Alexander alone has invented. He’s always talked about it as part of a “timeless way” that comes naturally to people when they get to nurture the capacity. If you look at a person going about their day, whatever they’re doing, it’s likely that they will sometimes stop to do something that resembles this Alexandrian activity of attuning to a dimly perceived phenomenon on the border of intelligibility.
Artists have to do this kind of thing all the time. Writing is also suffused with it. There’s something I’m trying to resolve, some problem I perceive not just as a logical puzzle but as a murky hopeful confusion in my whole being. I can’t just look at it and take notes as if I were examining a train schedule. I have to orbit around it and let it affect me. I have to allow my own confusion as I rub against the thing to make sparks. Often nothing happens, my proud ambition runs up against a wall of cold despair, the glowing nexus of fascination I had felt seems like a mirage. Words fail to make contact with the alien entity that flits around in the outer atmosphere of my intellect making scintillating noises of obscure significance.
Eugene Gendlin examined a corpus of therapy sessions to look for indications of good outcomes, not in what the therapist says but in the activity of the client. In an occasional session, it seemed that the client was able to gain some insight about themselves that worked to let them grow and heal in some clear and significant way. They would come out from the session with a clarity about what was going on in their lives, and even if this didn’t instantly solve their issues, it put them on a viable path.
The specific phenomenon Gendlin saw in these sessions was that the client would turn inward, slow down, hesitate, and then start to try different words or images, continually referring back to something within themselves until they found some phrase that seemed to snap into place. In these moments they weren’t just going on and on conversationally about their thoughts and speculations. It’s like language breaks down, the river of words becomes impeded by some boulder of unfamiliar sensation.
Small talk is the opposite: a conversational ping-pong within a habitual linguistic repertoire with the purpose of making everyone feel comfortable and normal in the banality of everyday life. When you ask me How are you? you don’t usually expect me to stop what I’m doing and introspect hesitantly for several minutes to gain insight into the subtle gestalt of my mood. This would in fact be unbearable. You just want me to say __Great!__ so we can move on in the flow of mundane activity.
Gendlin labelled this process “focusing” and developed it into a teachable practice and a philosophy that extends beyond the therapeutic setting:
That which is not yet verbalized, Gendlin calls the *felt sense*:
Why the body? He’s not proposing a mind–body dualism; instead, “a felt sense is body and mind before they are split apart.” When he talks about the body, he means the whole being, the whole process of biological life:
This vastness is larger than the conceptual intellect. Mystics who talk about nonconceptual awareness and reality beyond language often seem to be describing some special, extraordinary realm, but Gendlin’s “body” is just the way life is experienced, all day long. A felt sense is not unreachable or entirely transcendental; it’s there to be approached.
There seems to be a neglected twilight zone between language and experience, polarizing our view of an intelligible daylight set against a mystical transcendence. Philosophers seem to either analyze ordinary language with dry sterility or speculate fervently about language’s ultimate futility in capturing the ineffable essence of reality’s flux. Gendlin takes this excluded middle as his topic.
The body has intentions and desires. In a broad and general sense, it wants to go somewhere. It wants to set things straight. It has a directionality, some rudimentary Telos, an urge to cohere, persist, and flourish. Therapy ought to assist this innate yearning rather than impose some external schema. We need to learn to listen to our own perceptions.
Your body, with its sense of rightness, knows what would feel right. *
It knows the direction. It knows this just as surely as you know which way to move a crooked picture. *
The moral and ethical values we think about and try to control may be relative and various, but the values by which our bodies move away from bad feelings are much more objective. *
The body knows what its own right state feels like and is constantly checking and adjusting its processes to stay as close to that state as possible. *
Your body knows the direction of healing and life. *
Christopher Alexander’s basic approach to architecture is to work with this kind of bodily wisdom and intentionality, to learn to follow “the direction of healing and life.” Contact with felt senses then allows for explication, unfolding, and formulating conceptual Patterns that can be shared with others in the practice of building. From The Timeless Way of Building:
Suppose that we are in a place. We have a general sense that something is “right” there; something is working; something feels good; and we want to identify this “something” concretely so that we can share it with someone else, and use it over and over again.
He gives an evocative description of the image of a felt sense in architecture:
A pulsating, fluid, but nonetheless definite entity swims in your mind’s eye. It is a geometrical image, it is far more than the knowledge of the problem; it is the knowledge of the problem, coupled with the knowledge of the kinds of geometrics which will solve the problem, and coupled with the feeling which is created by that kind of geometry solving that problem. It is, above all, a feeling—a morphological feeling. This morphological feeling, which cannot be exactly stated, but can only be crudely hinted at by any one precise formulation, is at the heart of every Pattern.
If we can attune to this felt sense of rightness, this bodily understanding that something here is harmonious, wise, correct—or, perhaps, that something is wrong—then we can begin to illuminate it with words, just like in Gendlin’s therapeutic process we search for anchoring words and phrases. Alexander writes:
The search for a name is a fundamental part of the process of inventing or discovering a Pattern. So long as a Pattern has a weak name, it means that it is not a clear concept, and you cannot clearly tell me to make “one” [...] But it is very hard to be precise. Even once you are determined to do it it is terribly hard to make precise statements which really get to the heart of the matter.
Alexander’s practice revolves around feeling good and whole, moving things around until something clicks, until tensions are resolved and the body feels that the environment is becoming better, more joyful, more free. His work is building but he thinks of it as fundamentally a process of “repairing” the world, iteratively healing the site with structure-preserving transformations that enhance its wholeness. In a similar spirit, Gendlin reports from his therapeutic experience:
Another major discovery is that the process of actually changing feels good. Effective working on one’s problems is not self-torture. The change process we have discovered is natural to the body, and it feels that way in the body [...] It feels like inhaling fresh air after having been in a stuffy room for a long time [...] It is invariably a pleasant sensation: a feeling of something coming unstuck or uncramped.
Juxtaposing Eugene Gendlin and Christopher Alexander, I had an initial felt sense that they had something in common, and I think I got a handle on why. They’re both “healers” who see the body as a source of teleological wisdom. They think the world will be better when we learn to heal ourselves and our environments, making continual reference to dimly perceived signals of goodness and beauty, allowing ourselves to attend quietly and sensitively to the knots and errors we feel in our bodies and in the world, learning to craft new Patterns to resolve these tensions and share these in communities of practice. And they see the world as it is today as lacking in this kind of sensitivity, leading to a dullness and deadness in the social and built environments.
In the last pages of Gendlin’s short book 📙 Focusing, he writes:
Our structured institutions today offer little opportunity for personal living and speaking. The real living of people is mostly dulled and silent, inside them, alone [...] Nonconformity has always been possible, of course. But those who rejected traditional Patterns often found themselves adrift, lost, without values and standards [...] If we are busily discarding old forms and Patterns, what will replace them? New forms that are equally fixed and painful? [...] Focusing is only a piece of an answer. It lets people find their own inner source of direction. It can be a source of new Patterns, devised freshly by each individual [...] Instead of static structures we need structure-making [...] A society of Pattern-makers is coming. It cannot help but be a society in which people are also more sensitive to, and intolerant of, social brutalities and oppressions, and more able to act to change them.
And Alexander, in The Process of Creating Life, the second book of 📙 The Nature of Order, writes:
For the most part, the necessary freedom of action cannot be provided within the context we came to know in the 20th century as totalitarian democracy. By totalitarian democracy I mean the system of thought and action which is prescribed by the rules, procedures, lock-step processes of the modern democratic state, which attempts to create buildings by social routines that are military and regimented, not free and organic. In virtually every walk of life, as we have come to know the processes of planning and construction from the 20th-century heritage, freedom of the kind necessary to create profound wholeness is hampered by our instititutional norms and by the normal processes of our society.
This is strange, and not easy to get used to. In modern democracy we have come to believe in the freedom of our own society, and we look with intellectual detachment (touched with a smug feeling of superiority) at the great literature of George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Eugene Zamiatin’s We, as if these works describe caricatures of something which may have occurred in other societies—in Communism, in Totalitarianism, in Fascism—but never in our own. Rarely have we understood that our own society, too, our own democracy, though originating in the ideal of freedom, has nevertheless created a system of thought and action, in the sphere of architecture, which makes living structure all but unattainable—at best barely attainable.
The problem creates a new kind of challenge for democracy. To create living structure, we need a kind of freedom which the founding fathers of the American constitution (for example) did not dream of, because the issues involved in the creation of life in the environment simply were not visible to them. To create living structure in the environment of our age, and in the future age which stretches before us, we must now find ways of turning society beyond its too-regimented path, and towards paths of design and planning and construction which allow the life of every whole and the life of every part to emerge freely from the processes by which we make the world.
Composing this conclusion, then, leaves me with the realization that both Eugene Gendlin and Christopher Alexander are political thinkers, and that they seem to have erected a gate for us to pass through, to carry on a creative project of infinite scale, to understand ourselves and build the future.
Focusing applies to more than personal problems. Creativity, originality and depth require something like focusing in any field: the capacity to attend to what is not yet verbalized. *
A felt sense is the body’s sense of a particular problem or situation [...] A felt sense is something you do not at first recognize—it is vague and murky. It feels meaningful, but not known. It is a body-sense of meaning. *
When I use the word “body,” I mean much more than the physical machine. Not only do you physically live the circumstances around you, but also those you only think of in your mind. [...] This sense of being bodily alive in a vast system is the body as it is felt from inside. *
One must go to that place where there are not words but only feeling. At first there may be nothing there until a felt sense forms. Then when it forms, it feels pregnant. The felt sense has in it a meaning you can feel, but usually it is not immediately open. *
Experience can never be equated with concepts. But experience is not “undefined” either. It is more organized, more finely faceted by far, than any concepts can be. And yet it is always again able to be lived further in a new creation of meaning that takes account of, and also shifts, all the earlier meanings. *