Confessions of a Cybernetic Epistemologist, Bradford P. Keeney, Ph.D.

I begin with an adolescent memory:  as a seventh grade science student my imagination was captured by an essay in a popular science magazine that discussed what was called a “myoelectric controlled prosthetic device.” An Italian researcher named Professor Horn had attached electrodes to the human body, connected them to a bioelectric amplifier and a network of relays, which in turn, controlled a mechanical arm.  The bioelectric signals from the person’s body were used to control the exterior device.  I was fascinated by the way the boundaries of the human body could be extended into a bioelectric loop that included an exterior mechanical device.  I set out to build such a circuit and although it technically failed, my efforts were rewarded by theKansas Cityregional science fair.  I took the cash prize and purchased a copy of Ross Ashby’s book on cybernetics along with the classic works of Norbert Wiener.  That was my baptism into cybernetic thinking.

Feedback is a method of controlling a system by reinserting into it the results of its past performance.  If these results are merely used as numerical data for the criticism of the system and its regulation, we have the simple feedback of the control engineers.  If, however, the information which proceeds backward from the performance is able to change the general method and pattern of performance, we have a process which may be called learning.  (Wiener, 1967)

The following year I left the myoelectric control device to construct a perfusion apparatus that enabled isolated organs to be physiologically maintained and studied in an outside-the-body circulatory system, something that could potentially contribute to the preservation of organs awaiting transplantation.  I spent my high school days studying the effects of various drugs on the carbohydrate metabolism of hepatic tissues perfused in vitro.  This investigation won a first place award at the International Science Fair and a scholarship from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Upon arriving at MIT I quickly went to the library and requested the archival papers of Norbert Wiener.  There I perused his academic work and examined his personal correspondence, delighting in the eccentricites of a radically ethical as well as absent minded professor who helped change the nature of science and engineering.  I found myself more interested in the personal life of Wiener than in his mathematics.  Impressed by how he refused to give copies of his papers to those who worked in the defense industry,  my interest in bioelectric and physiological control devices waned as I began attending to the peculiarities of how people behave and interact with one another.  I turned to the humanities, browsing philosophy, theology, and literature, and began tinkering with music, opening the door to improvisational expression.

I dropped out of MIT and after a very brief career as a lounge pianist, I followed a winding path that took me to the doorsteps of the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, a full-time master of observation and part-time essayist who had been inspired by two mentors who had resided at MIT – Norbert Wiener and Warren McCulloch.  Gregory was the mentor I had been looking for because he took notions of systems thinking and cybernetics and applied them to observing social interaction.  I followed his lead and became first a theorist and then a practitioner of brief family therapy, a discipline that his ideas had helped inspire.

I was most moved by his paper, Cybernetics of Self:  A Theory of Alcoholism.  He demonstrated how the pattern of interaction an alcoholic has with drinking is related to his or her relationship with a greater Other, arguing that cybernetic ideas were implicitly embodied by the theology of Alcoholics Anonymous.  It was a bold and imaginative contribution, showing how existential situations could be elucidated with interactional, systemic, and cybernetic metaphors.  I became a card carrying cybernetic epistemologist.

Bateson depicts an alcoholic as engaged in a battle arising from a false separation between mind and body, which is sometimes expressed as “My ‘will’ can resist my body’s ‘hunger’ to drink.”  . . . The symmetrical relation between mind and body helps construct . . . the idea that one part of the system can have unilateral control over other parts.  Although an alcoholic’s challenge of self-control provides the motivation to attain sobriety, achievement of sobriety destroys the very challenge that generated his sobriety.  In other words, the more he tries to stay sober, the more likely he is to get drunk, and vice versa.  (Keeney, 1983, pp. 163-164)

Bateson was always an outsider, even rejecting an offer from the Nobel laureate, C. H. Waddington to hold an endowed chair atEdinburghand, instead, finished his career as a resident sage at the Esalen Institute, an experimental context devoted to exploring and advancing human potential.  He invited me to think of myself as a communications espionage officer, a post he actually held inSoutheast Asiaduring the second world war.  There he insisted that the Allied forces develop a propoganda campaign based on feeding back to the enemy whatever the enemy believed, only exaggerating it just enough to make it neither acceptable or deniable.  I believe that he continued this tactic for the rest of his career – feeding theories to psychotherapists, anthropologists, and educators that placed the respective disciplines in a therapeutic double bind.  In this way, a little creative thinking might be inspired.

One of my first contributions to family therapy was entitled, Ecosystemic Epistemology:  An Alternative Paradigm for Diagnosis.  In Batesonian rhetorical fashion, I took aim at one of the most troublesome beasts in psychotherapy and psychiatry – the practice of diagnosis.  I argued that diagnosis was simply a way of referring to one’s epistemology or knowing the client’s situation and argued for a way of interacting with clients that threw out the whole psychological mindset, along with its medieval (and barbaric) labeling practice.  The paper was required reading at many doctoral programs and prestigious clinical training programs and a follow-up paper ended up in a book on the philosophy of psychology published by the American Psychological Association.  I had been successful in throwing not one, but two, Batesonian-inspired grenades into the rhetorical quagmire of psychology.

Bateson was one of the muses of cybernetics, making it softer and more poetic and existential.  He related it to such topics as the levels of learning in zen buddhism, humor, madness, and the play of otters.   He redefined mind as part of an ecology of cybernetic circuits, patterns that connected and corrected themselves.  His orienting question was, “What difference can elicit subsequent differences and thereby organize a circular chain of interaction?”  His preference for collecting patterns rathern than specimens of nature made him an advocate for the aesthetic view, preferring beauty over control and mystery over understanding.  His contributions of not-to-be-counted-measured-or-weighed descriptions of pattern frustrated his critics and delighted his admirers.  The muse tickled our imagination and frustrated anyone who tried to cut the natural webs of living process into simple trains of causal relationship, whether they be in the helping professions, education, agribusiness, or the tunneled visions of medical science and pharmacology.

A graduate student at Yale in the days when they were all running rats in mazes said, “Why do we run rats?  Why don’t we get an animal which lives in a maze?  Like a ferret.”  A ferret is a small pole cat, a weasel type which is a parasite on rabbits.  It lives underground most of the time in rabbit quarters which are mazes.  And it bites like hell!  So he got himself a couple of ferrets, some gloves and a sack.  And he built what seemed to him a suitable maze for ferrets.  He put a piece of rabbit in the reward chamber and started the ferret off from the entrance.  The ferret systematically went down every blind alley until he got to the reward chamber where he ate the rabbit.  He was put back to the beginning and the experimenter put another piece of rabbit in the reward chamber.  The ferret systematically went down every blind alley until he came to the one going to the reward chamber which he did not go down, because he had eaten that rabbit.  The experiment was never published.  It was seen as a failure (Keeney, 1979).

Before he died, I asked him who he thought was the most important thinker of our time.  Without hesitation he replied, “Francisco Varela.”  I immediately hunted Varela’s work and found his invention of “star cybernetics” to be one of the most useful tools for my mental tool kit.  Varela brought a Buddhist monk’s temperament to seeing living processes, proposing that the sides of some (if not all) conceptual relationships were not reducible to either one integration or two distinct contraries.  Instead, a recursive complementarity better described the interaction across and between the sides of distinctions of different logical levels of abstraction such as health/pathology, good/evil, wisdom/ignorance, and circular/lineal.  In a way, Varela gave spirited life to G. Spencer Brown’s calculus of forms, enabling it to breathe and move through the most important distinctions we use in everyday life.  I transposed these ideas of recursive process into a way of looking at communication in psychotherapy, publishing numerous works including Aesthetics of Change and Mind in Therapy: Constructing Systemic Family Therapies (Keeney, 1985).

Cybernetic complementarities, therefore, are reframings in terms of recursive process of the distinctions people draw.  For example, Varela’s basic form, “the it/the process leading to it,” can be used to frame the pattern “stability/change.”  Cybernetics, as we have defined it is, in fact, the study of this complementary relation…

Regarding the distinction between aesthetics and pragmatics, a complementary view helps us avoid being split between the choice of free-associative muddle and technique untempered by wisdom…The aesthetic quest necessarily involves a recursive dance between rigor and imagination.  We need to use our whole brain – not right, not left.  (Keeney, 1985, p.94)

When I investigated what contexts and individuals had fostered the ideas of Varela, one of the people I found happened to be an originator of cybernetics, the man I believe is most deserving of being called a genius – Heinz Von Foerster.  Heinz was the hidden creative force behind many scholars who went on to influence their disciplines in a significant way.  His enthusiasm for life as well as his clear thinking constitute being a natural wonder of the world.   Heinz turned the world upside down for me with his invitation to first act (and subsequently interact) so as to know the other, and, in turn, better know oneself.  Seeing interaction (and its established invariants) as the construction of knowledge is an insight that helps transform us into ethical beings.  When we see how our actions help construct a reality, our participation in life becomes more visible and thereby more accountable and responsible for the perceptions and understandings that we breed.

How would it be possible to make a description in the first place if the observer were not to have the properties that allow him to generate such description? …the claim for objectivity is just nonsense!  (Von Foerster, 1976, p.12)

It is syntactically and semantically correct to say that subjective statements are made by subjects.  Thus, correspondingly, we may say that objective statements are made by objects.  It is only too bad that these damned things don’t make any statements.”  (Heinz Von Foerster, 1976, p. 16)

This “interactional ethics” puts to rest once and for all the whole business of psychiatry with its sequence of first diagnosing mental illness and then prescribing medications.  It requires that the therapist examine how he or she is interacting so as to help bring forth what is observed in one’s relationship with a client.  The interactional view prescribes that if you don’t like what you observe, then change your conduct or more precisely, change your way of being with the other.  Here it makes as much sense to medicate the therapist as the client.  After all, the diagnosed anxiety of the client makes the therapist uncomfortable and the subsequent prescribing of medicine to the client eases the discomfort and anxiety of the therapist.  The same result can be achieved by the therapist taking the pill.   This is one example of how Heinz’s magical incantations of higher order cybernetics helped turn my world upside down.

In the world of psychotherapy, I had the opportunity to work, observe, and dialogue with many of the world’s most revered psychotherapists.  As I look back on those days in therapy, I must confess that although I met numerous creative therapists who were therapeutic presences for their clients, the theories of psychotherapy that have been offered through the decades have, more often than not, tapped into what Bateson regarded as ideas indistinguishable from “medieval metaphysics.”  If I were to teach therapy today, I would advise my students to read very little about psychotherapy, with a few exceptions.  Some of the most useful texts written about interaction in the therapeutic situation include Pragmatics of Human Communication (Watzlawick et al, 1967) andChange:  Principles of Problem Formation and  Problem Resolution (Watzlawick et al  1974). I am also still happy with Aesthetics of Change which was my effort to loosley pin down the ideas of cybernetics for psychotherapists (and was cited by Heinz Von Foerster as a general reference in his entry on “Cybernetics” in the Encyclopedia of Artificial Intelligence (Von Foerster, 1987).

Following those theoretical works, I would recommend anecdotal clinical material that exemplifies the wide range of possibilities for how imaginative therapists can interact with their clients.  Here the clinical work of Milton H. Erickson, Don Jackson, Virginia Satir, Olga Silverstein, Salvador Minuchin, and Carl Whitaker, among others, take on a clear sense of performative mastery.  I confess that I am bored with the nonsense and arrogance that have been generated with some of the contemporary therapies that describe themselves as “postmodern” or “narrative.”  Imagination and creative interaction are being exorcised at the altar of a feigned political correctness that apologizes for any effort to take responsibility for changing the client’s situation.  Today, therapy must re-invent itself to be an active agent of change, unembarrased to first intervene in order to know the situation at hand.

It is worth asking whether psychotherapy has lived its course.  It is, after all, a living organism, as are all cultures and civilizations, and its life may simply have come to an end.  We find ourselves living in a different context than the world that existed during the heydays of the many schools of psychotherapy.  We have moved out of a world dominated by metaphors of energy and into a world(s) of information (and dis-information).  Today people are beginning to complain less about running out of steam (or self esteem).  They talk more about feeling overloaded with information and how they need to push their personal reset button.  Cybernetics and systems thinking, with its concomitant computer technology and internets, have quietly taken over everyday life.  We await seeing how the people-helping professions will be redefined and recreated.

Even though the grand architects and theorists who changed our everyday world may not be known to the popular masses, everyone is aware that we live in a cyber-universe.  This universe, I believe, sets the stage for moving past simple cause-and-effect psychology and social science.  In addition to the cybernetic reframing of popular culture, the emergent healthcare management system is essentially moving toward outlawing the talking cure.  Psychotherapy has given way to the administration of convenient diagnostic labels and the corresponding prescription of pills.   The great rhetorical traditions of psychotherapy  are slipping away from our memories.  Psychiatrists no longer are taught talk therapy in medical school and clinical psychologists are successfully lobbying for the legal right to prescribe medications.  And in the midst of this overthrow, the muddled rhetorics of so-called postmodern therapies sit impotently on the sidelines offering no significant protest to the ongoing deconstruction of all professionalized therapeutic discourses, a slaughter that is being engineered by the profit-driven pharmacology corporations.  It’s time to stop the denial and word games and simply say:  Psychotherapy has been critically wounded and has reached its final hour.  (Arguably the same is in store for our institutions of education.)

I would like to see the birth or rebirth of a social movement that provides an alternative to the psychotherapeutic and psychiatric enterprises of the past.  Without apology, I propose that this movement base itself on five eternal verities, all inspired by cybernetic thinking:

1.  Make a difference that perpetuates the making of difference.

2.  Simultaneously hold onto multiple views in order to get interactional and relational views.

3.  Think, see, and act within the contemplative frame of “not one, not two.”

4.  Act in order to know.

5.  Act so as to increase your number of choices.

The first and second directives are from Gregory Bateson, the third from Francisco Varela, and the fourth and fifth from Heinz von Foerster.  All five directives are, in fact, different ways of pointing to the same thing. They constitute the credo of being an improvisationalist, a tinkerer who works in the flow of the moment.   Said simply:  start by doing anything and then modify what you do in relation to what you observe happening around you.  This is feedback, an idea simple to understand, but not so easy to master as a flexible operative in everyday interaction.

Being an effective agent of change has little and perhaps nothing to do with understanding the other person or group being treated.  It is best to assume that you can never understand your client and that your client will never understand himself or herself.  Moments of temporary illusion may punctuate one’s life, but all in all, any grand understanding or narrative structure of a human being’s existence implies absurdity.

Setting aside understanding (and doing so in a culture addicted to the myth of understanding, particularly psychological explanation), leaves us with the freedom to act.  We take more responsibility for our action when we accept that what happens around us will be intimately related to how we act.  Giving a client a psychological exam constructs pathology more than it identifies it.   Such action needs to be judged as to whether it is the most ethical way to commune with another human being.  As an alternative, acting so as to help spring forth surprise, joy, absurdity, or just plain difference, is a more responsible way of being with others.

In my academic career, I abandoned the scientized contexts of psyhotherapy well over a decade ago and invented a kind of non-therapy called “improvisational therapy.”  Using the performing arts as a contextual frame rather than psychology or medical science, I encouraged therapists to perform a theatrical encounter with their clients, with the goal of moving both the client and themselves into being more resourceful to one another.  With my colleagues, I quickly reframed this approach, “resource focused therapy,” to accentuate the positive orientation that this nonpathologizing approach tried to emphasize.

Imagine psychotherapy being contextualized in an academy of performing arts as a discipline comfortably related to theater, music, dance, and the rhetorical arts.  In this setting, therapists would speak of their craft as professional conversation, strategic rhetoric, or even as a genre of interactional theater. . . The therapist, like an improvisational actor, would strive to be ready to respond resourcefully to any possible situation.  (Keeney, 1990,  p.1)

Resource focused therapy (RFT) is a practical approach to working with people who complain of difficulties, dilemmas, impasses, and problems.  It is based on paying the least amount of attention to problems that have become pathologized.  RFT strictly focuses on bringing forth the natural resources of both clients and therapists.  By “resource” is meant any experience, belief, understanding, attitude, event, conduct, or interpersonal habit that contributes to the positive contextualization and realization of one’s being.  In it’s ideal form, RFT does not even appear as therapy; it aims to appear more as the performance of a conversation that engages both therapist and client in transforming their situation from one that is impoverishing to one that is resourceful (Ray and Keeney, 1993, p.1).

As I saw the therapist as less a therapist and more an improvisational performer, it became clearer that the skills necessary to help others had more to do with tinkering, experimenting, and performing.  It also  became more obvious that the very idea of therapy was not therapeutic and that the context of therapy was nonresourceful by definition.  Therapist and therapy require problems, pathologies, and mental, psychological and social illnesses to exist.  I made the choice to walk into another context that simply (but not so simple to perform) emphasized resourceful interaction with those who ask for help.

I stepped into the tradition of experimental theater and performance art, writing books that prescribed absurd ways of interacting with the world.  These included, The Lunatic Guide to the David Letterman Show:  101 Wacky Ways to Go All the Way with Dave (Keeney, 1994).  Viewers were invited to create bizarre, ridiculous, and absurd interactions with their television set.  It was a “pataphysical” (from the French playwright, Jaffe) recipe book for intervening into the habitual structure of the recreational patterns of pop culture.  This book was followed by Crazy Wisdom Tales:  A Shamanic Guide to the Grateful Dead (Keeney, 1996a) , again more recipes for weird, strange, and surprising things to do in the world, that when performed help free people from redundant interactional patterns, whatever they may be.  I created these works, among others, moving toward an alternative to psychotherapy that was characterized as change without psychological understanding, intervention without taxonomic diagnosis, liberation without narrative cause, and wisdom without generalized knowledge.

Write your life story up to the present point.  Allow yourself the necessary time to do this job.  Do not write a psychological analysis of any part of your life experiences.  Tell your story from the perspective of someone who is becoming enlightened.  Assume you will be enlightened in the future and that future readers will be interested in the events in your past that may have contributed to this enlightenment.

When you are caught up to the present time, make up the rest of your life story.  Create a future specifiying the way you want to be enlightened and the difference this makes in how you live . . . (Keeney, 1996a, p.92)

When I taught, my classes and workshops resembled mini-theaters of the absurd.  Students were told to not read their texts.  Instead, they were given surprising tasks like opening a book and reading only one sentence.  Then they were asked to write a letter to the author based on their understanding of that singular statement.  Lectures and assignments became theatrical exercises in improvising with the questions at hand, showing different views that interpenetrated and gave birth to new ideas, questions, fantasy realities and reality fantasies.

Make a personal inventory of your everyday routines and determine which ones are the least important.  Do they include taking out the trash, dusting your furniture, reading junk mail, throwing your pen into the air and catching it, placing your dirty clothes in a special place, filling your car with gas, purchasing a soft drink, taking the dog for a walk, or removing lint from your clothes?  When you have identified several of these routines, make some plans to tinker, experiment, and fool around with them in order to help bring forth some surprise and wonder.

If you choose the routine of taking out the trash, consider how you can alter this activity.  You could change the time you do it, perhaps shifting it from being a morning task to being a late-night outing.  Or you could alter the place where you keep the trash, or make a difference in how you carry it, release it, look at it, and feel about it.  What if you recited a special limerick to your trash before throwing it away or gave it a parting gift.  Imagine asking your trash if it had any last request before it left your house and then free-associate on what it might say if it were able to talk.  Would it ask to have another night inside the house or be fed a final meal? (Keeney, 1996b, pp. 63-64)

These musings of the cybernetic aesthetic, that is, attempts to perform interactional, recursive magic, eventually took me straight to the heart of shamanism (and the work of sacred tricksters).  For the shaman, the entire mythological universe is the playground, not a clinical office with fixed times and rigidified standards of professional conduct.  Shamans deal with the mythopoetic themes that therapists seldom get a hold of, helping clients existentially die and transform themselves and their relationships into rebirthed beings, dancing and dreaming underneath an infinite canopy of imaginary sky, grounded to a living earth filled with recycled dirt and waste.  Therapy, from the shaman’s view, is a failed effort to transform human beings.  It strips away soul and spirit or worse, psychologizes them and limits their reach toward mystery.

Please take note that I have introduced soul and spirit into our discussion.  Strange words for a cybernetic epistemologist?  Not necessarily, because the cybernetic epistemology rooted to Bateson, Varela, and Von Foerster, among numerous others, easily makes itself at home with these metaphors.  The greater complexities of mind, the  networks of patterns that can be called an ecology of mind, brings us to Greater Mind.  This is how Bateson approached the sacred and holy.  By evoking the name God, we point toward the most embracing patterns that connect.  God, in this view, becomes a universal mind embodying all other orders of mind.  Here we rest inside God’s eternal Being and are held by sacred webs of life.

The cybernetic epistemology which I have offered you would suggest a new approach.  The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body.  It is immanent also in pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a subsyetm.  This larger Mind is comparable to God and is perhaps what some people mean by “God,” but it is still immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology (Bateson, 1972, p. 461).

The shaman or traditional healer of an indigenous culture seeks to address and make relationship with patterns of mental process that are more encompassing than the dyadic interactions of therapist and client.  As higher orders of connectivity and pattern are brought into play, the sacred becomes more easily revealed and experienced.  Here dreams direct healing rituals and provide vision for one’s life.  This is the realm of the active divine, where interactions can be hurled like lightning bolts to shake up a person’s life.

I have studied the traditional healing practices of shamans and medicine people throughout the world for several decades.  Armed with the premises of cybernetic epistemology, I am highly immune to the temptation to psychologize or anthropologize what they experience and perform.  As a cybernetic epistemologist, I act and interact in order to know them.  To know the Bushman experiential universe, for instance, I dance all night with their traditional doctors, allowing the ecstatic interactions to vibrate and shake my body into synesthetic (combined sensory) experience.  In that heightened state of awareness, one can see what is felt and hear what is touched.  The shaman’s world reveals not an inner world of private hallucinations, but an opening into more encompassing circuits of mental process.  This connection with sacred mind is healing and transformative.  It moves the locus of mind to the heart and whole body rather than to the inside of one’s computational brain.  This whole body knowing is relational, allowing for the other to be felt in a more intimate and expressive way.  Sacred mind touches, awakens, and deepens our connection with one another and brings us inside the mind of nature.

The most powerful experience shared by all Bushmen healers is the deep bond and love of relationships among all people.  This ecstatic bliss arises when you throw yourself into the spirit of shaking and dancing, which opens your heart to the whole of life . . . You must tell everyone about our medicine.  That’s why we were brought together.  Please teach them to dance, shake, and touch.  Everyone needs to meet God through this experience.  It teaches us to forgive and love everyone.  Go and touch everyone as a Bushman.  Go and love everyone as a Bushman.  Let the dance show that we are truly one people, one family, one love.” (Keeney, 1999, p.125.)

In the context of sacred mind, the whole ecology is naturally self-corrective.  Like a redwood forest, nature as a whole, if left alone by human intervention, takes care of itself.  The processes that generate life also sustain it.  When shamans bring a community into the mind of ecology, every member becomes linked within an unbroken circle, the organizational closure required for healing.  The actions of the shaman are not directed toward curing a specific symptom, but are meant to bring everyone together with a joined realization of greater mind.  When this one mind prays in harmonic resonance, the whole system reverbrates with the pulse of life.  It is life that heals.  Stated differently, the solution to life (when it is assumed to be a problem) is being fully in life.  It doesn’t necessarily follow that everyone’s symptoms disappear.  Sometimes a symptom or even death is required to keep the ecosystem vibrant and appropriately alive.  We, too, must sometimes be ill (and sin) in order to exercise the processes that keep us alive (and redeemed).  Individual death (and the various forms of social crucifixion) provide the whole ecology with an opportunity to exert its capacity for supporting life (as well as human transformation).

Cybernetic epistemology provides a way of appreciating the shaman’s presence.  Attuned to an appreciation of mystery (complexity) and beauty (pattern), the language of recursive process acknowledges and respects the holy as something distinct from the holistic.  The latter is too easily cognized as a summation or organizational gathering of individual parts, while the holy is that which is too complex for any words to adequately specify.  Systemic metaphors, ecological parables,  and second order cybernetics make room for the mystery of unexplained miracles, those processes of complex interaction that are beyond the grasp of both understanding and imagination.

As an agent of change, the shaman attempts to break open circuits of psychological mind, the arbitrarily drawn lines that bound our skin, and re-connect us to larger patterns of circular process.  Whether it be the inclusion of an exterior other, imagined or material, or the relational dance of a family, or the choreography of a pulsing ecology, shamans open and connect the sacred circles of mind.  Doing so facilitates the self-corrective natural healing of whole systems.

As the cybernetician climbs the sacred ladder toward what some dare to call spiritual realizations, we find more and more paradoxes, absurdities, and expressions of the heart.  The experiences that come to us when we stand inside the circle of sacred mind evoke the ancient riddles of relationship.   From this vantage point, recursive complementarities spew forth innumerable teases and tensions.   Love is found to be a companion to hate.  As any mature therapist knows, loving someone necessarily includes the freedom to periodically experience hating the significant other.  And effective communication necessarily includes not having shared meanings and understandings.  The shit of relationship is necessary to fertilize its garden of delights.  Teaching effective parenting, communication, therapy, and the like is more often a training program for relational terrorism of the most ignorant kind.

In the highest spiritual realms, approaching the holy of holies, reside the secrets seldom discussed by anyone other than the highest priests and priestesses.  Here we find the sacred in bed with the profane.  God’s bearded face is found on the same body that has the hooves of Satan, as William Blake once depicted it in one of his illustrations for the Bibilical Book of Job.  In God’s court, fools hold the holiest powers and wisdom.  To enter and stand still in this locale requires that one not over indulge in either good or evil.  Judgment must be absolutely stilled to maintain balance in the middle of this whirlwind.  The middle place of intersecting contraries is the source of spiritual power and calm.  It gives birth to the wind and circular movement of spirit, the very breath of life.  This is the view on high which, in turn, is mirrored in the view from way below.  As in heaven, as it is in hell.

The flat plained world of legal judgment and psychological explanation is removed from the greater minds of knowing.  Attorneys and therapists are not asked to seek sacred visions to help their communities.  They extract a slice of the ecology of human interaction and set up simplistic punctuations that mark victims and villians, and then set themselves up to punish and reward.  Maximizing or minimizing any variable in an ecosystem as a way of trying to fulfill the greater good is antithetical to cybernetic wisdom.  In the greater ecology of being, we should not take any event out of its whole context.  Correction does not involve judgement (or diagnosis) and singular attention to any particular part (or person, or group, or nation).  Rather it involves facilitating a calibration of whole patterns of interaction.

“The truth which is important is not a truth of preference, it’s a truth of complexity . . .of a total eco-interactive on-going web. . . in which we dance, which is the dance of Shiva” (Gregory Bateson, cited in Brand, 1974, p. 32)

Similarly, wisdom traditions teach forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and love for one’s enemies.  In the most important matters of our lives, cybernetic epistemology joins hands with the spiritual truths of the world’s great religions.  It must be immediately said, however, that all religions as well as theoretical and pragmatic approaches to complex systems and circular processes also fall prey to the knives of reductionism where crusades and militant campaigns are initiated on the basis of someone’s reductionistic interpretation of a sacred or scientific text.  When psychological, medical, educational, and legal agencies encourage this kind of overly simplistic cause and effect punctuation, they become agents of harm, in opposition to the more sacred ways of being with and for one another.  In a divine ecology, the agents of evil would foster and maintain a dance with the saints.  It is the dance that is divine, not either partner of the interaction.  However, when “do gooders,” liberal and conservative alike, ban the dance or limit the sacred alternatives, the whole ecology suffers and we are assaulted by the devastating consequences of those who march for the general good.

Where do I take my stand in the midst of the complexities and paradoxes of existence?  I believe that cybernetic epistemology joins us with the sacred traditions and helps us be oriented in everyday life.  We can make a difference and hold multiple views of the world that become neither integrated or separated.  And we can act in order to appreciate and heartfully interact with one another.  Our ancestors, the wisdom teachers of the ancient past along with the more recent architects of cybernetics, left us advice for walking this road.   First, we must avoid maximizing or minimizing any belief, conduct, or system of practice.  Permit a diversity of all things and all forms.  Secondly, good can only be practiced in the particular.  When good is defined as a general strategy for different situations, it paradoxically breeds evil.  This is the tragedy of morality.  Ethics, on the other hand, calls us to arrive at every situation with a beginner’s mind and a readiness to risk action that is fully human(e).  It is my hope that I have juxtaposed and circulated enough distinctions, contradictions, paradoxes, and absurdities to help awaken a brief moment of clarity:  a humble clearing  for recognizing that our interactions with one another always hold the possibility of creating a small flicker of light in the vast darkness of the eternal void.

“You must speak so that the hearer is dancing with you . . . You have to dance with somebody else to recognize who you are.”  (Heinz von Foerster in Waters, 1999)


Bateson, Gregory (1972), Steps to an Ecology of Mind,Ballantine,New York

Brand, Stewart (1974), Two Cybernetic Frontiers, Random House,New York

Keeney,Bradford(1979), Glimpses of Gregory Bateson, The Journal of Existential Psychology,  pp. 23-24

Keeney, Bradford (1983),  Aesthetics of Change, TheGuilfordPress,New York

Keeney, Bradford (1985), Aesthetics of Change and Mind in Therapy: Constructing Systemic Family Therapies, Basic Books,New York

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Bradford Keeney, Ph.D., is Vice President of Cultural Affairs, Ringing Rocks Foundation, Philadelphia, and Cultural Anthropologist, Mental Research Institute, Palo Alto,California.  He has worked at some of the most respected psychotherapy centers in the United States including the Ackerman Institute inNew York City, theKarlMenningerCenter inTopeka, and thePhiladelphia Child Guidance Clinic, and was  director of several clinical doctoral programs.  The author of numerous classics in the field of family therapy, including Aesthetics of Change, Mind in Therapy, and Improvisational Therapy, he has also written numerous titles for the popular press, such as Everyday Soul, The Energy Break,and Shaking Out the Spirits. As an improvisational performer, he has toured the world from New York City to Rio de Janeiro, including an outrageous performance with jazz guitarist Al Di Meola at the Miami Arena.  His creative approach to psychotherapy is featured in the clinical videotape series,Brief Therapy Inside Out, produced by Zeig, Tucker & Thiesen.   He is the editor of the critically acclaimed book series, Profiles of Healing and the archival series (with Nancy Connor), Classics of Cultural Healing.  In April, 2002, he produced a major museum program at the Smithsonian’sNationalMuseum of the American Indian.  He is presently working with the Emmy-award winning producer, Tony Labriola, on a documentary about his work with global healing traditions.


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