Habits of Mind

We have these habits of mind in the West where we think along lines that are linear… simple cause and effect. But, the world (outside of simple physical, nonliving events) does not work that way. We must think about the complexity of multiple systems interacting and where the “blame” is in the relationships, which is not with individuals, with groups, or with other entities.

The same holds true for all levels of relationship. From those with our lovers and families to those among nations. It’s all about the relationships and intricate interconnections within and among different systems (we can think of each individual as a system, in addition to larger systems with fuzzy boundaries, such as nations, social groups, ecosystems, economies, religions, etc.).‬‬

As individuals, we are the result of our relationships. These relationship range from the molecular (e.g., DNA is all about the relationships between the base pairs) to those with family, friends, teachers, and others and to those with our environments. The relationships within the contexts in which we have lived contribute to a great extent who we are and how we manifest. That’s part of our humanity. We are social beings, who learn socially. And, this learning is mostly not the learning we do in schools. We are learning systems… and the systems in which we live are learning systems. According to Nora Bateson (2015), this kind of learning is called “symmathesy” or mutual learning in contexts. Murderers and criminals of all kinds are the product of symmathesy as are the highly regarded political leaders, spiritual leaders, and all the rest of us, including bacteria, protists, plants, fish, birds, and so on. All living systems, social systems, and ecological systems, are examples of symmathesy. This learning is “in” and “about” relationship. But, this learning is not value laden, it is just the way living systems learn. So, the learning can be pathological in relation to social norms. Or, the learning can be grounded and sane within the social contexts.

We can fall into a trap in just thinking that “I am the way I am because of my relationships and the contexts within which I was raised. And, that is just the way it is. So, tough.” But, this is a cop-out. We have the ability as complex systems to transcend our typical ways of thinking and behaving. In fact, that self-transcendent ability is one of the characteristics of autopoietic systems (Capra, 1982). Autopoietic systems are also known as complex systems or systems that are self-generating, self-maintaining, self-regulating, self-transcendent, and so forth (“auto” = self & “poiesis” = to make OR “autopoiesis” = self-making). And, all living systems are autopoietic. So, the “mutual learning in contexts” of such self-maintaining systems is known by the word created by Nora Bateson, “symmathesy” (“sym” = together; “mathesi” = to learn or “symmathesy” = learning together, mutual learning; which also is the basis of the notion of co-evolution).

In fact, our only hope lies in this potential for self-transcendence. We all have to work at not thinking in simple cause and effect ways. We desperately need to begin thinking in ways that see how multiple systems are interacting and how these system are learning together, for better or for worse. So, while the U.S. may start manipulating some political entity somewhere else in the world, that “U.S. system” is learning about and reinforcing the notion of manipulation, at the same time, the entity being manipulated is learning about how to be manipulated and how to resist being manipulated, etc. The alternative to such negative or pathological learning is to begin to transcend this level of functioning. How can we relate in ways that are more direct, more reciprocal, and mutually beneficial? This example is at the scale of nations, but the same holds true for all of our personal relationships. We can understand others as bundles of relationships, but instead of relating in ways that are based on our old assumptions (whatever they may be), we can take a fresh look, with great empathy and mutual understanding of our shared humanity, and proceed to relate in ways that transcend our old habits of mind. In attempting to think in this way, we can transcend our own habitual patterns and ways of thinking and relating. We make the jump and begin to influence others. The more us who can begin trying to do this, the greater the chances of making a big difference.


Bateson, N. (2015). Symmathesy — A word in progress: Proposing a new word that refers to living systems. A manuscript in review for publication.

Capra, F. (1982). The turning point: Science, society, and the rising culture. New York: Bantam.

About Jeff Bloom

I’m a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.

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