'Autos' to 'Oikos'

For a living idea to take root, a paradox is needed. Seeds require insularity, while soil requires complexity. At first glance, these are mutually incompatible states; insularity is characterized by autarky—the state of being economically "closed"—whereas complexity is characterized by ecology, the state of being economically open.

Note the etymology of these words; 'autarky' comes from the Greek autos (self) and arkein (sufficient; also, "to ward off"), whereas 'ecology' comes from the Greek oikos (habitation, home). The first concerns itself with particularity; the latter, with multiplicity.

So how does a seed transform from one into the other? How can a potent and impactful idea be nurtured until it is ready to participate and make changes in a wider context?

Let's think for a moment about what makes things appear separate and distinct from each other. Human beings do this by identifying or agreeing upon the limits of something, whether physical or theoretical. This is the true definition of definition: to bring down (de-) and limit (finire) something from a wider field of focus.

We traditionally tend to think mechanically about this process; computers are founded on the concept and language of binary: true or false; or, it either exists or it doesn't. In the organic world, however, it's a bit more complicated.

Living novelty (e.g. a seed) must first be fed and protected by a membrane, which initially draws nutrients from an essentially cosmopolitan soil, before eventually contributing back to the soil through the form and expressions of an organism.

The dynamic role of the membrane is crucial. In the early stages of a seed’s development, its membrane must be firm, secretive, and unyielding. By way of metaphor, Russian poet Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev addresses this well in his poem, 'Silentium' (trans. Vladimir Nabokov):

Speak not, lie hidden, and conceal
the way you dream, the things you feel.
Deep in your spirit let them rise
akin to stars in crystal skies
that set before the night is blurred:
delight in them and speak no word.
How can a heart expression find?
How should another know your mind?
Will he discern what quickens you?
A thought once uttered is untrue.
Dimmed is the fountainhead when stirred:
drink at the source and speak no word.
Live in your inner self alone
within your soul a world has grown,
the magic of veiled thoughts that might
be blinded by the outer light,
drowned in the noise of day, unheard...
take in their song and speak no word.

However, if the young seed is to germinate, i.e. mature into an organism, its membrane must assume the responsibility of operating as a Mind: a receptive, discerning, dialogical intermediary focused both on protecting the organism and interacting with its environment.

Let's put this another way. An organism is the result of a dynamic relationship between seed and soil. The seed—a blueprint for something living—remains dormant until it can meet the complex, cosmopolitan nature of the soil, within which it can express itself in terms of

  • a) its inherent idea or “eidos,” and
  • b) its coherent identity co-arising with that soil.

A helpful analogy is the idea of positive space (inherent) and negative space (coherent), or simply "text" vs "context". Both are valid ways of perceiving something, both valid ways of being something.

This capacity for multiplicity is what transforms seed into organism, from potential life to active life, and the key to this is the dynamic nature of its membrane: the ability to translate between part and whole.

This metaphor provides many lessons within the human context—for creativity, for business, for leadership, for relationship—and the ‘membrane’ unique to human beings could be understood as attention. What do we allow to penetrate, and permeate, our attention? Are we discerning towards stimuli; do we allow most things in, or do we shut most things out? What ‘seed’ requires our nurturance, and what ‘soil’ is available to us?

Perhaps the greatest question is around activation and transformation; specifically, how—through modulating our attention from intrinsic ‘seeds’ to extrinsic ‘soils’—we may change our Mind in order to realize the dream of an ancient idea within us, and in the process, become greater than ourselves.