“People say what they are seeking is the meaning of life. I don’t think that is what we are really seeking. I think what we are seeking is an experience of being alive.” —Joseph Campbell
A few Aliveness questions: What are the most important current challenges/questions/issues/problems you face in your personal life (include challenges of all sorts—in relationships with others, with work, in your immediate community). What do you see as the important challenges/issues ahead for larger systems around you (your city or town, your profession, perhaps the species as a whole)? How do you know these challenges are important? How would you know when you or society more broadly had responded creatively—in a right and timely manner—to one or more of them?
The concept of Aliveness addresses the “crux,” Questions of Referent dimension of culturally mature truth at its most basic. Our personal task in life, in the end, is to discern what most enlivens us and to shape our lives from it. The task we face as social beings ultimately is the same, to enhance collective life.
Two things change in today’s world. Cultural dictates no longer make the larger portion of Aliveness’s discernments for us. And the referents we use need increasingly to be systemic—what Creative Systems Theory calls Integrative Referents. The concept of Aliveness can be applied both to understanding what underlies more traditional truths and delineating today’s more explicitly systemic truths.
The concept of Aliveness gets around the Dilemma of Differentiation by making the basis for distinction a measure that is already integrative—life itself. In purely biological systems, truth—in the sense of what works—concerns the degree an act is lenhancing of life. Aliveness measures the degree a particular thought, feeling, or action enhances who we are as conscious life.
Because Aliveness is a deep systemic concept, it is beyond fully logical definition or simple material measurement. However, we can define it quite directly using the language of formative process (what Creative Systems Theory proposes is what defines us as conscious life). Aliveness measures what at a specific time and place is most creative (most systemically generative). It asks about both the questions that might best occupy a system’s creative attention and the responses to those questions most likely to increase that system’s vitality and potential. An act or idea is true in the sense of Aliveness to the degree it serves to support or increase systemic (creative) health and vitality.
In an important sense, Aliveness is the feedback we’ve always used to make our way. Isaac Newton’s laws of motion were a right and timely response to right and timely cultural questions, as were the words of Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed with the rise of monotheism, the words of Churchill in England’s “darkest hour,” or the art of Kandinsky, Picasso, Klee, or Pollack to the existential contradictions of a post-modern world. But today’s challenges require us to be newly conscious of this fact. And when questions specifically demand culturally mature answers, they require that we be newly complete, more fully systemic, in what we measure.
What exactly makes love love? The answer is in one sense complicated and certainly different for different kinds of love. But we can also answer the question very simply—we experience love, or certainly relationship, when somehow, as I’ve suggested, “one plus one equals more than two.” When we ask what determines health beyond the mere absence of disease, what defines community beyond shared place and belief, or what, in a culturally mature world makes education successful, it is truth in this at once most direct and complete sense that becomes ultimately our measure. It is true also at a species level. This is the question we ask when we attempt to redefine progress in a way more in keeping with a global world with real limits.
When we say an act is timely, when we say something matters, when we say an encounter moves us, we are saying that it is true in this most essential sense. Attention to Aliveness involves both the discernment of where creative edges lie and the feedback that tells us we have successfully engaged those edges. Victor Hugo said: “An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.” Aliveness is about interactions, ideas, and ways of being whose time has come.
Addressing truth in such a bare-boned manner would in times past have seemed if not non-sensical, certainly dangerous. As we move beyond strict cultural dictates, it become suddenly not just pertinent but essential. We have no choice but to engage all sorts of truth more generically and directly. Such bare-boned discrimination would also have seemed impossible to achieve—an all-too-slippery enterprise at best. From a Culturally Mature perspective, it becomes truth at its most straightforward. Aliveness is what truth becomes when we remember to include everything involved. Such discernment could not be simpler, or at least more direct, if we are up to the task.
How much an act makes us “more” rather than particular behavior, thoughts or feelings becomes necessarily the bottom line for all actions in a culturally mature world—personal, social, with regard to cultural well-being, in relation to the future of the planet. A person might appropriately ask “more what,” as in conventional speech we would not use an adjective without an accompanying noun. There is nothing to which the word might not refer. The precise more depends on what is being creatively called for. With regard to personal choices, for example, it could translate to more assertive, more sensitive, more irreverent, more intelligent, more sexy, more playful, more skilled—whatever. More generically, we could say more Alive or more systemically creative—or simply more true
The shorthand term Aliveness, like the word creative, must be used with some care. Its most immediate associations—to excitement or enthusiasm—are not sufficiently inclusive. At a particular moment, the courage to grieve, doubt, or struggle might be as enhancing of life as joyfulness. No thought, act, or feeling exists that might not, given appropriate circumstances, represent the most alive—most creative in a systemic sense—response. The term’s meaning is perhaps closest to what we point toward when we say a piece of writing “comes alive.”
We can never fully separate Aliveness and other Whole-System Patterning Concepts from their more overtly differentiated kin. While Aliveness is a unitary concept, at once it comes in many flavors and colors; what is creative in one situation may be profoundly different in another. A system’s “creative edge” is going to be a product both of available Capacitance and every pertinent Patterning in Time and Patterning in Space variable.
Like with all Creative Systems patterning concepts, Aliveness increases simultaneously our appreciation for simplicity and for complexity. It argues that all truth reduces to a single question—what thought or action in a particular context will be most creative—and, at once, that the possible answers to that question are endless (which both offers new freedom of choice and demands, if choices are to be made effectively, ever more sensitive and sophisticated capacities for discernment.)
Aliveness is at once the guidance we use to make right choices and the feedback we use to know if our choices have proven successful. It is about how we know meaning and how we create it. In the end, personal truth has only one question: How do I make my life the greatest gift to myself and to others (meaning is always relational)? Aliveness describes the courage we bring to that question of what matters. The ultimate future of our collective human story will be defined by the courage—the life—we bring to civilization’s analogous question.
Rate the current Aliveness of different aspects of your life on a scale of one to 100 (your job, your family and friendships, your leisure, your spirituality, your social/political involvement). What did you draw on to arrive at your numbers? Now turn to your profession–teacher, plumber, doctor, police officer, lawyer. Rate the current Aliveness of that profession as a whole (not just your experience in it), the degree people in it are asking the important—Alive—questions and effectively contributing. Do the same for your community, your country, and for civilization as a whole. For each example, what one single act do you think would most contribute to Aliveness becoming greater