Patterns in Process: Transdisciplinarity as a Background for Working with the Elemental Cycle of Transformation

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The Elemental Cycle, by its very nature, seems to align itself with this kind of view, and my own passion for the inquiry stems in its greater part simply from a fascination with how my concept of the Elemental Cycle, over time, has changed me.  I have been changed through work with the Elemental Cycle, and the Elemental Cycle has reciprocally and recursively been changed through my work.  I have the benefit of being quite aware of my relationship to it from the very beginning, almost exactly ten years ago, and have consciously traced my successively deeper and more thorough understanding of its subtleties and complexities over that time.  Therefore I am very sensitive to the different ways in which the Elemental Cycle can present itself, and recognize that—like any process—it takes time to ripen.  Part of my interest is in pointing out and helping to engender this very ripening for its own sake, as a way of keeping us organically embedded in a process of ongoing discovery, whatever the topic.  One reason the Elemental Cycle is so exciting to me is because its own actual content points towards this same insight: understanding the Elemental Cycle, in a very real sense, requires its own enactment.  Indeed, as Montuori, citing Tarthang Tulku, states, “the attitudes we adopt in carrying out our investigation shape the attributes we find in the world we investigate” (Montuori, 1998, p. 27).  This is an insight that the alchemists knew well, which Dennis Klocek phrases in a direct and succinct manner: “how you get there is what you get” (Klocek, personal communication).

The dominant ways of talking about transformation are generally not so subtle.  Often, transformation is described as occurring in a linear fashion, from A to B.  Sometimes transformation is presented in cyclical fashion (as when connected to seasons), but then often this cycle becomes simply a repeated pattern which is itself static.  Sometimes stages of transformation are elucidated, but almost invariably these stages are taken from or applied to a very particular context.  Thus, the process of transformation for an addict attempting to get clean may not seem (on the surface at least) very connected to the process of transformation connected to a change of heart as a result of seeing, for example, a beggar on the street.  Moreover most studies on transformation tend to focus on transformations that are highly significant or connected to circumstances which, when placed alongside life as a whole, stand out in some significant way.

All of this is to say that most work concerning transformation has occurred within disciplinary boundaries (psychology, education, economics, etc.), and doesn’t thereby benefit from what Montuori calls “the promise of transdisciplinarity” (Montuori, 2005).  Montuori (2005) cites five cornerstones of the transdisciplinary project.  Transdisciplinarity is:

  • inquiry-driven rather than exclusively discipline-driven
  • meta-paradigmatic rather than exclusively intra-paradigmatic
  • informed by a kind of thinking that is creative, contextualizing, and connective (Morin’s “complex thought”)
  • inquiry as a creative process that combines rigor and imagination (Montuori, 2005, p. 154)

Certainly working with the Elemental Cycle does not fit into any disciplinary lines.  What discipline would it be?  It’s not strictly psychology, nor is it strictly alchemy (as if that were an accepted discipline anyway).  It isn’t even strictly anthroposophical, despite this being the most likely arena for its ready reception.  The inquiry is meta-paradigmatic in that the topic, and my approach to the topic, do not prescribe to a singular, absolute point of view or way of knowing, but rather includes, even requires, multiple ways of knowing.  At the same time, the inquiry attempts to span some of the boundaries of the dominant paradigm by explicitly and repeatedly crossing between the material and non-material worlds, but in such a way as to lessen, through the development of a new way of seeing, the potentially assumed differences between these realms.  As such, my approach calls for constant connection and re-connection, as well as contextualization and re-contextualization.  My goal is, in part, to contextualize the Elemental Cycle in such a way that others can re-contextualize it in new ways, to connect it to specific phenomena so that others can connect it to completely different phenomena.  The process therefore has to walk the creative edge between rigor and imagination, between sclerosis and inflammation, between center and periphery.


In order to help achieve this goal, I think it will be important to approach the Elemental Cycle with the language and concepts provided by cybernetics (particularly second-order cybernetics) and complexity.  The alchemical background of the Elemental Cycle provides a very rich language for the soul (as Jung pointed out to the psychologists), but generally speaking keeps those who fall into the currently dominant paradigm of objectivity provided by material science at bay.  This is an unfortunate tragedy, and I think that a marriage between alchemy and cybernetics will produce great fruit for psychologists as well as natural scientists—not to mention many others, such as teachers, contemplatives, doctors, etc.

Take for example the following principle of cybernetics, explicated by Bradford Keeney, a student of both von Foerster and Bateson: “Cybernetics proposes that change cannot be found without a roof of stability over its head.  Similarly, stability will always be rooted to underlying processes of change” (Keeney, 1983, p. 70).  This is precisely the kind of insight produced by working with the Elemental Cycle, which in alchemical language would be expressed by relating the qualities of the elements to each other: Earth always has a Fire inside it, and every Fire process leads to a New Earth.  For most people, it is much easier to understand the former, precisely because we generally do not develop the capacity to think in metaphorical images.  The dreaming process shows us that image production is a foundational capacity of the mind; the modern alchemist simply develops this process into a conscious art in connection with the nature of the world and the nature of the soul.  Nevertheless, cybernetics can offer alchemy a more accessibly rigorous formulation, while alchemy can offer cybernetics a more direct connection with soul-processes (an impulse that would have greatly benefitted cybernetics researchers who attempted to use its principles in a purely mechanistic way, i.e. to create artificial intelligence).

Ultimately, what I am aiming at is a transformation of human consciousness, very much in line with the goal of transdisciplinarity, so that when faced with transformation—that is, when faced with itself, and with life itself—it finds the capacity to be robust, flexible, adaptive, connected, connecting, contextual, and able to hold and work with and through paradox without collapsing into dichotomous formulations or fundamentalism of any sort.  Further work with higher-order cybernetics, general systems theory, and complexity science will help re-contextualize my understanding of the Elemental Cycle in a way that will make it much more robust and presentable, in a way that actually helps to foster a transformation of consciousness.  In particular cybernetics seems to be useful for this task because it can deal with both material and non-material realms equally.  Keeney cites one of the founders of cybernetics, Ross Ashby, in this connection:

Cybernetics started by being closely associated in many ways with physics, but it depends in no essential way on the laws of physics or on the properties of matter.  Cybernetics deals with all forms of behavior….The materiality is irrelevant, and so is the holding or not of the ordinary laws of physics.  The truths of cybernetics are not conditional on their being derived from some other branch of science.Cybernetics has its own foundations.” (Keeney, 1983, p. 62, original italics)

Suffice it to say that this kind of approach, informed by the concepts and language of cybernetics, is not easy to find in the discourse around transformation.  Keeney’s (1983) work Aesthetics of Change is one place where a cybernetic epistemology is thoroughly applied to transformation—in this case in the context of family therapy.  Luckily I am not the first person to explicitly notice a connection between complex thought, alchemy, and depth psychology: John S. Uubersax (2006) has written a short document entitled “On the Relevance of Alchemical Literature for a Systems Theory Approach to Depth Psychology”, which—significantly—includes the statement that “a literature search has failed to identify existing articles on this subject” (Uebersax, 2006).  I hope that more such resources will be forthcoming, but part of my purpose is to help fill this gap.

Clearly cybernetics and alchemy need to get together at a bar and strike up a conversation. They’ve met before, actually, in a kind of timid way; the alchemical symbol of the Ouroboros, the snake which eats its own tail, repeatedly appears in cybernetic works as a way of representing the key principle of recursion.  (“Hello Recursion, nice to see you again, here at the end of the beginning!”)  Nevertheless, a more formal introduction seems like a good idea, and if they don’t have the nerves to do it themselves, it seems like I’ll have to make the attempt as a third party matchmaker.



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