the most radical word

My candidate is interdependence.

The Beatles, in tune with the later 1960s as a whole, sang that all we need is love, but what “love” are we talking about? Clearly not that espoused by, say, the Westboro Baptist Church, or other fundamentalist groups. The trouble is that it’s been a highly amorphous word for a long, long time. We could say we mean something like “selfless, unconditional, universal compassion,” but most of the time in our culture the word is tied to the realm of romantic relationship, which itself tends to manifest in a definitely un-radical, however desirable, direction (cf. D.H. Lawrence calling the cult of the Couple “égoïsme à deux”). In any case, it’s simply not going to wash calling the subject of one of the silliest major holidays of the year – ie Valentine’s Day – the “most radical word!” We must try again.

Others might opt for justice, but I think we’re moving even further away here. For one thing, the concept is still so steeped in a retributive mindset, and the notion of punishment seems precisely one of the most literally reactionary impulses we have. Even were we able to move more fully in the direction of a restorative approach, I believe by that stage the word “justice” itself would probably have dropped off. In fact, this is already occurring within the field, which has been evolving into the more expansive notion of “restorative practices” – see here, here, and here for further information on one of the most enlightened developments going on today. (And take a look at this wonderful interview with the founder of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg, which fully complements these approaches.)

Still others might say freedom is the most radical word. I have a little more sympathy with this choice, because it is said of the fully realized state that it’s one of complete freedom: no sense of compulsion, no anxiety, no personal concerns, no agonizing over decisions, no regret or fear. But again, in our culture the dominant meanings of “freedom” are nowhere near so radical, tending to be confined to the political realm. And here we see the same lack of clarity and degree of contestation too: both “left” and “right” employ the word often and centrally, but in some exceptionally divergent ways.

Shifting gears, I can imagine that some of those who are religiously identified might claim God for the most radical word. Or perhaps a buddhist might nominate the dharma, meaning roughly “the way it all is/the nature of reality itself.” A taoist might prefer the tao, meaning the same thing although emphasizing the notion and practice of “nature’s way” specifically. But it doesn’t take more than a moment of gazing at our world to realize that the word “God” in its various translations has also helped bring about an awful lot of disharmony and violence. The God of Pat Robertson or of his counterparts in the Jewish and Muslim worlds bears almost no resemblance to the God of Rumi or Hafiz, say, or Thomas Merton, or Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

shapeimage_2Photo credit: “Reb Zalman greeting the Dalai Lama at the Naropa Institute” (Foto di Vita, 1997) – from The Yesod Foundation’s Reb Zalman Legacy Project

Interdependence has a number of things in its favor as a nominee for “most radical word.” For one, it is both a “wisdom” word (pointing to the nature of reality) and a “practice” word (directly indicating how we might actually see and live our lives). It’s also an inherently non-sectarian word, one which anyone can use. Most especially – as would befit a truly radical word – as we delve more and more deeply into it, it affects our relationship with everything. With:

our bodies and understanding of health
our minds, each other, animals, and the natural world
business and the economy
all the institutions we create
the building of community
the communal/political process
situations of conflict and harm
other cultures
climate change and other urgent global challenges

climate change: an elemental view

Brendan Kelly, an acupuncturist and herbalist, also writes on Chinese medicine and is completing a book on climate change from this perspective. His approach demonstrates how necessary an elemental/energetic view is in confronting the multi-faceted challenges we face.


Our culture looks to science-technology to solve more-or-less everything, but the very expectations and attitudes we bring to problem-solving can also contribute to the mess. What Chinese medicine brings is an ancient and deep way of seeing, one which recognizes complete interdependence at all levels of our experience, inner and outer. So normally we think: climate, ah, “outer,” and ask technology to fix all such “external” problems. Isolate something we can improve, and pretty much ignore everything else.

The trouble is that this “everything else” is always, inherently, inseparable from what we’ve extracted from it, and there’s nothing we can do about that. So solving deep-rooted problems means solving them, well, deep-rootedly, and with big vision.

Western medicine, too, has a strong reductionist tendency. It thinks in terms of disease – analyzing down to symptoms deemed treatable (often succeeding in doing so very powerfully). Chinese medicine on the other hand always sees through the lens of health, health as an ever-fluctuating harmony subject to various kinds of imbalance. The body has an innate kind of intelligence, and so do ecosystems. They are always seeking balance, and our intentions and actions can either help or hinder this process.


So generally speaking Western medicine treats conditions discretely, whereas the Chinese approach is to look for the deeper level of energetic or elemental imbalance which is the true origin. It thus is always relating to causes and conditions as well as symptoms, and treating in such a way as to avoid the creation of further imbalances in the future (the “side effects” that pretty much inherently bedevil Western-style pharmacology).

Brendan’s approach in this article is to look at climate change as a symptom of our collective body in the same way he looks at symptoms of the individual body in the clinic. One of the things he sees, on multiple levels, is heightened yang energy and a depletion of yin. We are overheated internally – individually and collectively – and now our earth too is quite literally overheating.

We value speed, power, novelty, and frenetic activity. We devalue simplicity, stillness, nourishment, contemplation and openness. Our minds and bodies are frantically multitasking and all the media we are immersed in has made it much harder to contact space in our lives.

In Chinese thought when a situation is out of balance too far and for too long there comes a point when it begins to right itself, one way or another. Our choice is whether that way will be directed by us, or imposed upon us.

The aspect here that interests me the most is the understanding that in attempting to reverse our course we cannot rely on the same basic energetic approach that got us here in the first place. We haven’t learned this lesson, however. We still think cleverer technology – one magic bullet after another – can do it all for us, that we won’t have to change our basic orientation to the physical world, the elements, ourselves, each other. But we will. Among other things, we’re really, truly, going to have to learn how to sloooooow … dowwwnnnn…