Family systems therapists are a rare breed, for we see the world from a different angle. Simply put, our particular slant is that we look for the interconnections and relationships between people instead of seeing people as separate independent individuals. And for teaching us this unique way of seeing the world, family therapists are indebted in large part to Gregory Bateson.
A giant among twentieth century thinkers, Bateson was at once biologist, ecologist, anthropologist, cyberneticist, family therapist, and creative thinker. As ecologist, he taught us that human beings act in ways that are destructive to fragile ecological systems because we do not see the interdependencies between natural systems and our own lives. As anthropologist, he taught us that behaviors and words have no meaning outside of cultural contexts. As cyberneticist, he taught us that change in one part of a system can be manifested in an entirely different part of the system in unexpected different ways. As family therapist, he taught us that pathologies reside not in individuals but in the patterns of relationships between individuals. As creative thinker, he taught us that the language of complex systems, including family systems, is metaphor.
Nora Bateson, Gregory's daughter, has made an exquisite film that is at once a tribute to her remarkable father and an elegant expression of his ideas. It also educates us that there is a connection between therapy, which deals with mind, and ecology, which deals with nature. An Ecology of Mind, the title of both the film and one of Gregory Bateson's books, is a film about mind and nature, which Bateson believed were a unity even though our language and culture leads us to believe that they are separate. It is a film about the relationships between living things told tenderly through a metaphor of a relationship-Nora's relationship with her father.
The narrative leads us on a journey past a series of "roadmaps" in Gregory's career: relationships, difference, epistemology, cybernetics, changeability, patterns, and of course that enigmatic cornerstone of family systems thinking, the double bind. The film conveys these complex ideas in such a way as to take us right inside them so that we see them as clearly as pebbles in a crystalline mountain stream. That the film accomplishes this is a testament to the filmmaker's artistry and her grasp of her father's subtle and unique style of thinking.
Perhaps the deepest idea that the film tackles is the pressing problem of our global double bind. Civilization, Gregory Bateson believed, is on the road to destruction unless we give up thinking in linear and material ways. The double bind that we now face is this: on the one hand, we want to preserve our natural environment; on the other, everything we do to grow our economy and preserve our standard of living disrupts the natural environment and our relationships with it. Nora, like her father, suggests that we must raise our consciousness and learn to think in new ways to escape our pathology of wrong thinking. She quotes Einstein: "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it." We must give up making arbitrary distinctions between human beings and the rest of nature and start thinking instead in terms of the interconnections among all living beings.
The film suggests that we face not only an ecological double bind, but a social one as well-voiced in the film by California Governor Jerry Brown. Brown says that we now find ourselves in a situation of social inequality. The proposed solution is to grow the economy. However, the result of growing the economy is more inequality (the rich get richer). Somehow we must break out of the level of consciousness that contains this contradiction. Nora Bateson suggests that we must question authority and mainstream thought patterns in order to think ourselves out of this pathological situation. Although the film predates the Wall Street protesters, their attempt to raise our consciousness about the social double bind seems like an important first step along the road to a healthier society.
An Ecology of Mind is a beautiful and important film, and has been deservedly showing to sold-out audiences around the world since its premier at the Vancouver International Film Festival last year. Nora Bateson presents viewers not only with an intellectually challenging and inspiring work of art, but also with a glimpse of evanescent hope.