A Simple Exercise

8 May 2010

This post is a short entry addressing one main reason why I care so much about Christopher Alexander’s way of describing the world. This reason is also one of Alexander’s fundamental concerns: The role of the heart in looking at (and building) the world.

Alexander’s vision resonates deeply with much of contemplative/mystical spirituality. It bears, for instance, an astounding similarity to certain spiritual exercises of the Christian mystic and founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola. I hope to better describe the specific exercises of these two men in some later post(s), but for now I’m just interested in the simple instinct that unites them.

We all, both Alexander and Ignatius say, live days full of many different tasks, many distractions, many problems to be solved, many different relationships with many different kinds of people and places and things, to the point of feeling overwhelmed, lost, wondering where our life is taking us.

Yet – both note – throughout these days there are times when, and places within which, we feel more alive than at others, more awake, less obsessed with the opinions of others, more at peace. We may barely notice them, but most days there is something there which you can pick out and say, in some degree or other, This consoled me today, or This enhanced my life today. Similarly (and often more easily, unfortunately) we can point out something that stole life from us, made it hard for us, took the wind out of our sails. (Ignatius used the word desolation.)

It is the special kind of attention involved in this exercise of “picking out” those consolations/desolations which is the primary key to the insights of Ignatius and Alexander. They both advise the same thing: Pay attention to what moves in the depths of your heart — your heart’s memory, your heart’s insight — and trust what your heart brings to your attention from the stuff of your life.

First and foremost, Alexander and Ignatius believe, it is the heart which is attuned to true life. It is the heart which is the doorkeeper to the gifts of true life.

It is this simple exercise — of looking back over the stuff of today and asking your heart which places or events felt like a gift (however small) of true life, and then, trusting the heart, to ask why this? and what is it about this which gave me life? — it is this simple exercise which is at the heart of what I value, and trust, in Alexander’s vision for a living world.


Simone Weil (1909-1943) has been a bewildering and beautiful companion to my thoughts for over a decade now. I used to walk around the streets of Abbotsford, British Columbia, after painting spec houses all day, reading from beaten up copies of her works. The following is a good example of an instance where, perhaps, what is bewildering and what is beautiful work together.  Like a lever, the bewildering tips us up into the beautiful.

These selections from her notebooks can be found under the heading “Beauty” in her posthumous book, Gravity and Grace (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952; 136-137*):

“The attitude of looking and waiting is the attitude which corresponds with the beautiful. As long as one can go on conceiving, wishing, longing, the beautiful does not appear. That is why in all beauty we find contradiction, bitterness and absence which are irreducible.”

“A work of art has an author and yet, when it is perfect, it has something which is essentially anonymous about it. It imitates the anonymity of divine art. In the same way the beauty of the world proves there to be a God who is personal and impersonal at the same time and is neither one nor the other separately.”

“The beautiful is the experimental proof that the incarnation is possible.”

*In the bibliography I link to the GoogleBooks page for the Routledge 2002 edition of this book; the quote above is not on the same page in that edition. Also, a warning: the cover of the 2002 edition is impossibly bad.


One Response to “A Simple Exercise”

  1. mom said

    “the attitude of looking and waiting is the attitude which corresponds with the beautiful.” HOW TRUE… “be still” (better, “cease striving”), and know that I am God.”

    thanks for all this , mike. a lot of thinking—-helps us all think !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! love to you

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