Noah Webster – whose 1828 dictionary was a masterful blend of poetry and culture, noted that to be coherent was to cleave together, to have a “due agreement of parts,” all relating in either form or order to the whole. When something is coherent – be it a beam of light, a streaming river, or an idea – it naturally aligns with itself. Means and end do not diverge. Effects arrive predictably. Eternity, said Emily Dickinson, in another nineteenth reference to the wholeness that is implicate in the smallest details of our lives, is composed of nows.
We might add – in an enquiring sort of way – that coherence (or its opposite) is internal and radiates out, affecting all that with which it comes into contact. We first perceive internally and then – sort of like a self-aware film projector – witness (often incredulously) as the external world aligns accordingly with our inner vision. In other words, the self with which we identify is quite active in making the very circumstances it pretends to only observe and sometimes be affected by. It is akin to Albert Einstein’s famous observation that one cannot simultaneously prepare for and prevent war. If it’s out there – no matter how ugly, no matter how illogical – then it is inside as well.
That can be a painful truth, especially when it should be obvious even to a casual observer that we live in a world that is largely incoherent. We have the means to feed everyone on the planet – economically, technologically – but we do not. We have the intelligence and the means to live peacefully without war but we do not. Ostensibly – at least in certain countries and income brackets – we have amassed enough knowledge and psychological insight to lead productive, happy and meaningful lives but we apparently do not. Nuclear power plants are built and then fail. Having developed the capacity to destroy the world with bombs we have proceeded to build bigger and bigger bombs, and more of them, on the specious grounds that it is possible to destroy anything twice.
On a smaller scale, we design, build and aggressively market cars that go one hundred miles per hour and then we set speed limits of 65. And that’s not even to consider the consequences of sticking with fossil fuel engines when the technological means to do otherwise are readily available.
What are we to do? We’ve had twenty-five hundred years of Buddhism, two thousand years of Christ, three hundred fifty years of the enlightenment, two hundred some odd years of political democracy, fifty or so years of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King and what do we have to show for it? As Leonard Cohen once sang, “I’ve seen the future, brother. It is murder.”
Past, present and future. So what changes? Or maybe better to say, what can change?
Over the years – first as devout Christian in the Roman Catholic mode, then as a half-assed hippie Buddhist, then as a serious consumer of psychotherapy, then as an artist, then as a political activist and lawyer, then as a student of A Course in Miracles, then as a casual consumer of transpersonal psychology, then as a follower of Krishnamurti, then as devotee of scientists such as David Bohm and Douglas R. Hofstadter – I have tried to answer that question. Without always using the precise word – and with varying degrees of optimism and tenacity – I have struggled to be coherent, quite often – maybe almost always often – in ways that perpetuate and even exacerbate the existing incoherence.
On the other hand – in what is perhaps a distinctly admirable side effect of the biological imperative to survive – I don’t ever get around to giving up. On some level – usually well beyond my immediate capacity to realize or interact with – I insist on believing that it is possible to become coherent in a sustained and responsible way. Really, in a life-changing way – indeed, in a global-changing way. Maybe even a universal way – a cosmic way.
I have come to believe that the religionists – beautiful, poetic and sincere – are only getting a small part of the picture. Similarly, I think the scientists – brilliant, disciplined and sincere – are missing pretty big chunks as well. And don’t even get me started on the ones who think it’s possible or helpful to break the world into opposing camps of religion and science and call it a day. What the Buddha called enlightenment, Jesus called Heaven and what Bohm called the implicate order – is not really a mystery and it is not available only to a privileged few. It is entirely personal and is obtained through observation and attention. There is nothing that has to be done and we are the only ones who can do it.
I think that somehow, we have to come to terms with reality. We have to see it not as subjective – and certainly not as static – but as a sort of movement of which we are funcitonal component. As Krishnamurti frequently observed – and others before and after him, too – that which observes is also the observed.
To become coherent – both at the personal level and the broader social/political/cultural level – is not to solve a problem. There is no single permanent answer or insight which, once attained, removes us forever from the flux that we experience as life commingling with self. Yet if we can come to a place where we see the question not as a problem to be finally resolved but as a paradox to be experienced, then we may stand some chance of dissolving the incoherence that characterizes our existence – our discourse, our business models, our languages, our eating, our boundaries and all of it.
In a way that is both metaphysical and deeply physical, we are not fragmented beings navigating a hostile world but something like streams in a whole that is both fluid and evolving. We are one – but not because a separate God (or a bunch of smaller Gods) said so. It is a fact, like gravity or evolution and, like those laws, its reality – its isness – is not contingent on our accepting or even acknowledging it. As we disentangle ourselves from modes of thought that separate us and urge us to judge what is seemingly separate, and act and react often in violent and self-injurious ways, we begin to experience a wholeness in which conflict is not actually possible. How can what is one be at war with itself? What is there to fight? We can call this wholeness, this oneness love so long as we are careful not to conflate it with the hallmarks of specialness that characterize our (seemingly) fragmented lives. We aren’t talking about boxes of chocolate, long-stem roses and vows that explicitly worship the power of death (“till death do us part).
So what does all this mean exactly? How do we talk about it – whatever “it” is? How do we write about it? How do we become coherent without falling into the many traps the egoic self sets for us, slavish devotee of incoherence that it is?
Well, I don’t know. I am working on it myself, often in what seems like futile ways. Wordiness is not wisdom, as I know all too well. And yet and yet, as the poet said. We come back to that place where some still small voice – the molecules nudging us in what resembles an interior whisper – suggests that peace really is possible and that we can know ourselves and by extension one another in truth. If that sounds spiritual in a squishy way or psychologically wishy-washy or romantic or whatever term of disparagement you want to level . . . I share your concern.
In the end, perhaps all I can say is this: coherence matters. How we get there – whether we get there – I can’t say for certain. Which leads me, actually, to the other thing I can say: we’ll get there – if we do – together.