Joseph Hakim Anderson

Soul Cartography: the Patterns of Our Lives

Patterns in Nature is a beautiful book by the wonderfully lucid and insightful science writer Philip Ball. He explores the many ways the natural world, both organic and inorganic, manifests principles of order that derive from fundamental physical properties. While it is not an explicitly spiritual book, there are many spiritual insights lurking under the surface. In the Soul Cartography class last week we looked at these design principles and used them to further explore the patterns and structures of meaning in our personal stories. I share below a few thoughts from the class, including some questions we considered along the way.

  • Symmetry - if an object looks the same in every direction (such as a crystal sphere), then it has perfect symmetry, but no pattern. Pattern breaks perfect symmetry and introduces structure. In nature as in our lives, not everything is like everything else, and in living things especially one of the fundamental patterns is a balanced symmetry, either in radial form (like a starfish) or bilateral form (like a peacock). We can usefully consider these symmetrical patterns as reflecting the characteristics of our lives. In what ways can you see your life as having five (or three, or seven) aspects that need to be kept in balance with each other, like the radial symmetry of a starfish? How might you see your life as having two halves that need to be integrated and woven together, like the bilateral symmetry of most land creatures?
  • Spiral - The shells of the snail and the chambered nautilus express a pattern of growth according to an algorithm. The creature does not plan to create a spiral, but rather keeps generating the same shape over and over again, at increasing scale, following a curve, and the spiral is the result. What are the formulas at work in the construction of your life? What patterns are being created, possibly without you realizing it, as you grow?
  • Foam and Bubbles - Honey bees create perfectly symmetrical six-sided cells in their honeycombs-how do they do that? Part of the answer is in the physics of bubbles. When a semi-viscous foamy film is stretched out so that a single layer of bubbles is formed, the bubbles adhere to each other and form a raft of polygonic shapes. Bees take advantage of this propensity toward order in liquid beeswax as they craft their combs - they do not build them from scratch. The substance of our lives (our karma, our genetic materials, our experience) has its own tendencies toward order. If we work with those tendencies then harmonious development is the result, a partnership between ourselves and the underlying principles at work in our lives. What are the innter patterns of your life, calling you to work in harmony with them in the unfolding of your purpose?
  • Fractals - as you zoom the view of many natural objects in and out, the same patterns recur. Think of fern fronds, coastlines, trees, or clouds: at whatever scale you view them, the patterns are similar. This self-similarity is a fundamental design principle throughout the natural world. We can see it at work in our own lives too. We see the small reflecting the large in our lives through symbols and metaphors. Tiny things, the details of living, connect to larger patterns, and the larger patterns resonate with the details.
  • Crystals - snowflakes are water crystals, and their six-sided form mirrors the structure of the water molecule (about 105 degrees). This same principle applies to all crystals: their molecular structure determines their form. When you look at the shape of your life, what inner structure is revealed? How does that inner structure govern the creation of your life's surface manifestations?
  • Cracks - when a sheet of mud begins to dry, shrink, and break apart, the patterns that form follow the lines of least resistance. Cracks are therefore an expression of the graceful resolution of a field of tension. This shows up in many mediums, from paint or wood drying and shrinking to lightning seeking out the most efficient way to release built+up electrical tension. What are the forces of stress in your life? What patterns appear as that stress is released, forming a lovely network of cracks?
  • Flow and Chaos - the movement of fluid through space creates patterns of greater complexity the faster the fluid moves. A lazy undulating river is a representation of flow, but so is the mad chaos of a waterfall. But even the boiling intensity at the bottom of a waterfall is governed by the principles of the motion of fluid. It take patience to look carefully, slow things down, and analyze the motion into its component parts: then the underlying order can become visible. For most of us, much of the time, the surface of our life feels like an incomprehensibly complex movement driven by too many factors, as though we are staring at churning waters that will not give up the secrets of their motion. But there are patterns to be found - complicated and overlapping, interacting with each other in all sorts of ways, but surely accessible to us. There is always a remainder of mystery, but in the flow we can discover a coherent story to help stabilize us, and give us guidance along the way. What are the patterns discernible in the swirling waters of your life?