Ah Ha! Discovering Likeness Everywhere
Human Hand and Sand Crab: Finding Similarities Rather Than Differences
Posted Aug 16, 2010
Join me for a festive mix of philosophy, photography, music, science, poetry, math...all coming together to celebrate the patterns and sameness found in the natural world. Taking a long breath at summer's almost end, observe closely and experience the thrill of spotting more and still more similarity coursing throughout the universe. This awareness of pervading resemblance amazes as it comforts. Human hand and sand crab...the uncoiling of repetitive layers of a fern...whiskers on catfish and cat and Carl.... Look! From your front stoop, in any city park, at the farmer's market, beside the creek: Look!
Ancient and modern, eastern and western, philosophers delve into the heart of this seeming similarity. One of the most fascinating likenesses for me is that between Lao Tzu from long ago China and Baruch Spinoza from 17th century Amsterdam. At first glance their views of reality could not be more different. Lao Tzu's intuitive approach, sprinkled by mysticism, defies rational analysis: "The Tao that can be understood is not the real Tao" (Tao Te Ching). Spinoza serves as the philosophical model for deductive reasoning, his Ethics reading much like a geometry text with its axioms and proofs, yet his conclusion matches Lao Tzu's belief in one underlying source from which everything springs. Spinoza deduces that nature is but one substance with an infinite variety of manifestations: "Matter is everywhere the same," he claims, differing only in appearance. Lao Tzu senses that "Each separate thing in the universe returns to the common source." My excitement at the realization of the philosophers' similarities came only after much study of them separately: they took completely different paths and arrived at the same vision! Both paint a picture of reality that speaks to an abiding unity, a common ground that gives rise to everything. It is no surprise, then, that likeness permeates the world. But what a surprise to uncover this sameness, over and over, under and above!
Behold the daisies, captured admiringly by my cousin in Olympia, Washington: Each petal a silhouette of the others, a tiny pattern discernible in each yellow center, daisy look-a-likes in a cluster, the clusters repeating in the distance, all backed by green foliage in a spray of unified trim.
Mary Oliver salutes them in her poem "Daisies," included in her collection titled Why I Wake Early. Look from Oliver's daisies in a field to the clouds above and discover another good reason to wake early. Pick out the swirls repeating themselves, changing and rearranging, an assortment of figures exhibiting what mathematicians call "self-similarity." Tiny shapes within the cloud, known as fractals, repeat, repeat, repeat... and as they gradually enlarge we can see that these shapes are miniature versions of the one whole cloud; they create the cloud.
Self-similarity: Look at the wintry pond, the "different" ice cracks splintering in the same way, a similar intricate pattern observable when concentrating on just one crack at your snow boot's end as well as the many splits marking the whole pond when viewed from a window in a cozy room lit by a fire. Wow - look at the flames, mesmerizing in self-similarity small and large. Snowflakes...one and the same and a million of them.... What? Different and the same! Self-similarity: Let's dive underwater when summer beckons. Wait! It's happening again.... The gorgeous repetitive patterns so startling in both the mustard sea fan and the branching fire coral attached to it. Oh, the perfect spiral after spiral of the nautilus, spinning ever outward. As I come ashore, a sea shell catches my eye. Or is it my ear? Is it my ear?!
Whew. Resting on a park bench, I notice the lichen's design. I now discern the pattern of moss on the nearby statue, giving the rider on horseback a neatly trimmed beard. The stretches of the yoga instructor mimic my awakening dog's movements. What expert knitter wove the perfectly-crafted squirrel's and bird's nests? Look. The veins in the leaf serve as models for the veins in my hand. Awe: The unifying force of all life, Lao Tzu's "Tao" and Spinoza's "Substance," meet again. Small patterns emerge within coral and nest. On the largest scale, ungraspable by mind or senses in its vastness, everything surely mirrors the whole. Resemblance shimmers throughout the universe. Lao Tzu and Spinoza agree: the common denominator shared by all is ONE. Unity arches over the splendor of nature's infinite variety. Everything is in relationship.
Similar thinking comes to mind. Walking into my college course in Physical Chemistry, I was greeted by a Beethoven Symphony painstakingly mapped out by the professor on the chalk board wrapping around the room. For a semester he made the elements of the physical world come alive to the beat of Beethoven. The world danced! Listening to a friend play the sitar, a musician with doctorates in physics and engineering, his immediate answer to a perplexed query as to how he could master such disparate disciplines takes on new meaning: "They're the same." Of course, the child philosophers delight as they discover resemblance, speaking more quickly as awareness grows: mountains look like pieces of broccoli...and pieces of broccoli look like big and little pieces of the same broccoli...muscles and emotions feel the same... tulips smell like pancakes... the fish backbone left on the plate looks a lot like my spine... the sky looks like the ocean...I look like my great-grandmother...Simon's hair looks like a porcupine....
In a recent article, "Mind Meld' Enables Good Conversation" Michael Balter showcases the similarity between the brain activity of both speaker and listener when engaged in attentive dialogue. MRI testing displays neural likenesses in the two brains that reflect each other. Good communication sparks synchronicity! Even syntax and body positioning begin to coincide between communicants, Balter reports. Hmmmm.... Though this "new" finding excites researchers, how could it be otherwise, Lao Tzu and Spinoza wonder? Another mirror imaging catches my breath every time I look at it. A physician friend gave me a photo of what looks to be two different trees placed side by side. What about these two trees? One is a tree; the other is the human lung stretched out to its full capacity. Both branch out in a repeated pattern that they share. What a world.
Einstein sums it up: "Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better." What would we understand better if we looked deep? Isn't it exciting to find similarity in previously unexpected places? And isn't it alluring to keep uncovering it? Difference is so easy to notice. What if we focused more on likeness? How would we feel? What if we made a big deal out of similarity rather than highlighting difference? How would we live?
A friend snapped these two photos while visiting Jamaica. Look. LOOK.