Form and content – two levels of change
Form and Content
Understanding change is a very difficult task. No aspect of our world, either experienced outwardly through our senses or inwardly through our feelings and thoughts, seems exempt from the paradoxical rule that the only constant is change. It is possible to examine the way change occurs at many levels. At the “lowest” level of examining change, we generally tend to focus on what can be called the “content.” The particular identified content (we’ll see in a minute why it is important to note that this content is “identified”) depends upon the arena in which the transformation is being studied. Generally, however, the content is the “thing” that is undergoing change, and is usually the overt focus of our attention. For example, in a chemical situation, the content would be the physical elements, such as hydrogen and oxygen in electrolysis. In a therapeutic setting, the “thing” might be one’s thoughts and feelings (in psychology), one’s bones (in chiropractics), or a family system (in family therapy).
The content level is always present; it is always a part of the way that we encounter change. Yet in addition to looking at the content-level, we can also examine change in a different way: we can examine patterns of change. That is, we can place our attention on the way that changes in content unfold, and seek to identify similarities and differences in such patterns in order to get a deeper understanding of the “rules” that inform what happens at the content level. Paying attention to this level of change is paying attention to the process of change, rather than just its results.
This way of examining change takes place one level removed from the content level, and can thus be understood as a “higher” level. It is more abstract than the first, and because it provides the contextual rules that inform the unfolding of the processes as they appear at the content level, we can call this second level that of “Form”, or even better, “Forming”. This is spelled with a capital “F” to distinguish it from “form”, in the sense of a static outer shape or configuration. A given quadrilateral has a definite individual form, and there are an infinite number of quadrilaterals, such as the square and trapezoid. But every possible quadrilateral shares the same Form. This is the same relation between a set and an element in formal logic. The Form is a way of indicating patterns of becoming shared by forms.
When examining the facts of change, we are talking about the content level; when examining the how of change (the process), we are talking about the Form(ing) level. In daily life, it is usually much easier to become aware of the content level than the Form level; we must actually practice to become awake to the context and patterns that operate on the level of Form. There is an important reason for this, but it takes a little unraveling, having to do with thinking and feeling.