21 February 2011

Emergence and Emegency

What is the difference between "emergence" and "emergency?" How do we distinguish such a difference and what effect does such a distinction have on our state and action?

The word itself is interesting. The base form is "merge" and has the sense of 'diving or sinking in.' In Sanskrit to 'dive under.' For something to 'emerge' is for it to arise out of the condition of being immersed in this way; it comes to the surface from having been under the surface. The connotation is that what emerges is not known prior to it's arising. It may be the case that what emerges was already existing, as a prior state or condition.

From this we also get the sense of 'emergency', which means something like 'an unexpected occurrence, requiring immediate attention.'

Perhaps we could consider emergence first. This seems a really amazing notion to me. For emergence to occur, immersion is required. Immersion in what? What sort of immersion? Immerse. Emerge. It is my feeling that when we loosely talk about emergence we often mean something more like an accidental or random course of events. Perhaps this is one of the things leading to emergence becoming emergency? We have a feeling that emergence means, left to itself, something will happen. Events occur and we may re-contextualize them in some way and call that emergence. We delete the process, disciplines, structures and act of immersion. This means that in order to consider 'emergence' we must first consider what it means to 'merge' or 'immersion.'

Adi Da Samraj often talks about Narcissus. Perhaps the teacher or realizer stirs the water. This is one of the things Adi Da said he was doing for a time. Narcissus does not then see the water. He does not immerse himself. He takes the ripples in the water as a glamorization of his own image and this deepens his obsession. No emergence is possible. The presence of emergency only calls for action from within the self-obsession. I only say this as my own condition, even in writing these things.

Perhaps we could consider this in a few simpler ways. What are your own experiences of being immersed? Think literally at first. For me it seems to almost always involve liquid. I immerse myself in the tub. Diving into the ocean, I am immersed. Birth is immersion and emergence. I might be immersed in my writing, a thought or feeling, some experience, a book, etc. When I consider these things I notice that in order to consider liquid in this way, I must consider containers, or context: the banks of a river, shores and bottom of a lake, pond or sea, a cup, bowl, cauldron, the mother, the ocean of being, attention, consciousness... We can only emerge, having been immersed and such immersion implies a container of some sort, whether recognized as such or not, from the point of view of imagining not already being immersed.

The other amazing quality to this for me is that we do not know what will emerge. This makes the occurrence a consideration of structural interdependence, rather than one of linear causality. The container might determine something about the qualities of that which emerges. The particulars are not determined beyond a kind of dynamic linkage or coupling with the entire reality of that container, taken as whole.

I have done a fair amount of 'free-diving.' 'Free diving' is diving to depth in a body of water on one breath. The recently set world record for an "unassisted" dive is 100m. No fins or weights. One breath. That process of record setting may be the same as or very different from my own experience. I have known a few record holders and their experience seems to match aspects of my own in some cases. Other 'competitive' free divers seem to have a more forceful approach than my own experience. As with most things I am not very good at it and enjoy it immensely. I have dived to 35m or so, but typically would dive and swim around at 20-25m. I used a mono-fin.

Typically, we dive into a body of water and we have some closely held idea of who will emerge out of that body of water. If we are accustomed to swimming perhaps we do not even think about the question. Free diving amplifies this a bit and the question is not as clear. It is not clear that I will emerge at all, though I have some intent about that. How am I in the immediate presence of that? How am I at the bottom of a dive? Impermanence becomes quite immediate, though it is always so.

Consider the process. I take a single breath and dive under the surface. What happens? Well, what we call Boyle's Law happens among other things. Every 10m the pressure doubles, proportionally decreasing the volume of the air in my body. The air in my lungs is compressed. As I surface, the process is reversed. I am not breathing. The experience for me is one of being breathed. The embrace of the ocean literally empties my lungs. As the oxygen that was in my lungs is redistributed in my body I experience a kind of euphoria. I am breathed by the ocean. I am breathed by the container. Relaxed in this, "I" emerge. Unless of course, I experience this as an emergency, in which case I do not relax. This is not euphoric, though the phenomena occurring may be identical.

Often an emergency is occurring in the context of some particular necessity. Free diving is an interesting exploration of this. We can live several weeks with no food; several days with no water; several minutes with no air under normal conditions. After a few minutes, the body will start to tell you that you need air. The mind will start telling you this long before the body. Under the condition of 'holding' your breath the body will start telling you this through diaphragmatic contractions. One of the interesting components of this is that you do not actually need air when the mind or the body determine that you do. If we are not 'immersed' we do not necessarily need to pay attention to any of those communications since the body will shut down waking consciousness and resume breathing. When immersed, that is not a good thing and I don't recommend it in either case. This whole conversation is taking place within the context of an assumed prioritization of 'survival,' of some particular self. There are a couple of other interesting things that happen in this particular case of immersion.

There is something that is called the 'mammalian diving response.' This is triggered by baroreceptors in the body, particularly the face and temperature differential between the head and the body. We are born with it, but most of us lose this capacity. It is also possible sometimes to retrain it. One of the things that the 'mammalian diving response' does is slooooow everything waaaaaay down. At the bottom of a dive, a trained free diver's heart is only beating a few times a minute. This is exactly the opposite of how we are in an emergency when the "fight or flight" dynamics of the amygdala have taken systemic priority.

Imagine a social or relational 'container' of some collaboration or team you are on. Consider the collaboration as the process within fluid. What is the fluid? What is the container? Often there is some asserted and unexamined necessity associated with this. There are structural dynamics to the container and the immersion. Are these aspects of the container conscious or unconscious for you? How are you with respect to those? Do you have an experience of being breathed by this container? Have you spent any time reflecting on these aspects, as such? Have you spent any time 'training' yourself to notice when the mind and body have started to communicate 'danger' and emergency? Are you intimate with what happens in such cases? Do you 'practice' for the immersion when not actually immersed? At what point is it immersion and when is it emergency? What is the difference for you, if any? In this moment of perceived threat, how do you respond? Do you tense? Do you relax?

Perhaps there is a kind of Boyle's Law to creative process, manifestation or collaboration. Consider a simple model of process that:
  • starts with a kind of focused moment, call to action, or felt need
  • has a period of expansion, exploration, etc.
  • contracts from that moment to specificity of form, action and result as defined by the process itself and the felt need.

Perhaps you could imagine time as depth, since in the presence of the felt need, time will increase the feeling of pressure. In this case what is the equivalent of the air which is being proportionally compressed and reduced in volume? In this metaphor, have you taken a sufficient breath (respiration, inspiration, aspiration, etc.)? What are you being breathed by in the process and what are the qualities of that?

I will say that for myself 'emergency' may require or seem to require some 'forceful' response. Emergence does not require it and it seems to prevent or limit the possibility of emergence. Only later we might say this or that emerged after the trauma of some force and violence has been healed. What is more interesting to me is the conscious process of emergence, emergent design, etc. This implies to me that the structural participatory aspects constituting the container, the fluid, the activity,etc. are all conscious. That does not mean they are insisted upon. The process might be one of revelation or discovery. What is also implied is that we cannot insist upon what emerges, or indeed that anything emerges at all. Well, we can insist, but such application of force usually violates the integrity of the container, fluid and participatory process. Such violence creates its own reinforcing necessity.

Finally I just wanted to gently point to 'mental models' and the habituation of our attention as a kind of produced immersion of which we are typically unaware. We are immersed in our own mythos of self. Sometimes, when threatened, this immersion can become an emergency. We can also learn, or perhaps simply remember to participate in a more benevolent form of emergence.



  1. I have thought about this post a lot in the last few days. Five years ago I focused on this felt need I had to somehow feel more connected, to life to love to others to the earth to my children. I have always struggled with creating a container, a practice to immerse myself in. i could not understand why i needed to do this. drawing is a practice for me, running i tried, stretching was good. then i just stop. it has become more urgent for me to find a practice somehow because my life has changed so dramatically in the space of a year and i am making attempts at processing that change (usually badly as roger always says). since reading this post it has dawned on my to just practice and see what happens. i have been practicing short 10 minute meditations (as long as i can stand) since reading it. i just breathe and nothing really comes to mind. when i am lying down at night though something seems to be happening. i feel an energy that i have never felt before and i do not know why. is it emerging from immersion? this has been a painful year and while i was practicing tonight, i thought of nothing really, but saw/felt these focused tendrils of light reaching from myself to all the people who have loved and supported me and my children this past year. my heart passed from person to person feeling the connection between us. it felt like a web that could hold anything, flexible and strong. it was there all along. that is all i know. roger, i dont really know how to thank you. thank you for being, writing and doing what you do.

  2. Hi Lisa - thank you for writing this. It is a lot in one paragraph. For me, it is fascinating, heartening and humbling to read. (I am really not kidding when I say I am doing things badly). I don't really need to add anything, but wanted to let you know I had read it. -r