The final volume, The Luminous Ground, is more fundamental, more basic, in a mystical way. It’s explicit about relations, about direct connections, about “the eternal self”:
This relatedness that occurs is something between you and the bit of blue in the painting. You do not, I think, experience the bit of blue as if it were your self. I believe rather, that you experience something stretching between yourself and the blue hill, something that seems to mobilize your self, stretch it out towards the bit of blue, connect with it. The thing which comes into play, is the something stretching between you as you stand there, and the bit of blue. That is the relationship I am referring to.
What happens? You look at the blue hill and something, stretching between you and the blue hill, then comes into existence. But it is a very important thing that comes into existence. It is not the mundane, everyday self, which is being mobilized. It is as if the eternal you, the eternal part of you, your eternal self, is somehow being mobilized—and has been mobilized—simply because you are looking at that bit of blue.
So I asked again, “Where is your I, exactly, in this case, when you are looking at the red cushion?” Remarkably, then, he said to me, “It seems to go out toward the cushion. Somehow, for some reason, I feel my I exists beyond my body, it includes the cushion … or (he corrected himself), at least it goes out toward the cushion; when I look at the red cushion my I seems larger than before, and it tends to expand toward the cushion, includes it.”
Since I read those sections, I’ve been looking around more, and noticing where my gaze expands. When I’m looking out the window at work, it often goes into the distance, at mountains and clouds. And part of that fits what I read in Alexander: my self really does move in that direction. But part of me wonders how much is just a trick of the circumstances: maybe if I were focusing on anything in the distance, I would naturally feel like I was moving that way? It’s not just that, though: the mountains and clouds really do have life that the buildings, streets, trees up close don’t.
A bit further on, getting at the core of his fifteen properties, he says:
I believe the following sentence expresses the kind of thing they might have carried, mentally, with them:
Whatever you make must be a being.
Stated at slightly greater length, it could be stated thus:
While you are making something you must always arrange things, or work things out, in such a way that all the elements you make are self-like beings, and the elements from which the elements are made are beings, and the spaces between these elements are beings, and the largest structures are beings, too. Thus your effort is directed toward the goal that everything, every portion of space, must be made a being.
Such a short rule could easily have been carried about consciously by a 14th-century craftsman as the secret of his art.
I was reading this at while attending Agile Open California; the book and the conference both raised the question of what craftsmanship means to me, and what it would mean to take it seriously.
And then there’s this:
At first it may seem funny that I could write four volumes, nearly two thousand pages, and that it would all come down to this: that you must, and each person must please yourself, herself, himself fully. Then the structure of the environment will be a living structure, and everything will be all right.
But you may turn this funny-seeming statement around, and view it backwards. Imagine me saying something like this: The two thousand pages I have written about living structures are — I think — true. But they are to be understood in such a way that every line, every specific structural detail, can be rephrased to say: people will make living structure only when they truly please themselves. If there is any detail about the structure that is not clear, you should understand this fact clearly: What pleasing yourself truly IS, is the process in which we create living structure.
Our biggest problem in the world, the absence of living structure, the choked difficulty of finding true freedom, true art, all comes from this: that people do not know — emotionally — how to please themselves. In part, they are prevented by society. And in part, they are prevented by themselves, by their inner thought police.
Creating living structure is to be attained, in the end, by the greatest and most sublime process which can happen: that each person lives, works, exists, in such a fashion that they truly please themselves.
Then we may say, if we wish, that we are close to God.
Listen to yourself, listen to what really makes you happy, and as part of that you’ll be part of something much bigger.
That last quote, about truly pleasing yourself, dovetails with another book I was reading at about the same time: Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It sounds like a book about cleaning, organizing, and throwing away, and of course it is, but I really was not prepared for the approach that the author takes.
When I woke up, I knew immediately what that voice in my head had meant. Look more closely at what is there. I had been so focused on what to discard, on attacking the unwanted obstacles around me, that I had forgotten to cherish the things that I loved, the things I wanted to keep. Through this experience, I came to the conclusion that the best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it. This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.
This is so similar to Alexander’s recommendation to look at items and designs, and to ask yourself: what is a model of your self, what pleases yourself, what causes a real connection. And the section “Appreciate your possessions and gain strong allies” begins with this:
One of the homework assignments I give my clients is to appreciate their belongings. For example, I urge them to try saying, “Thank you for keeping me warm all day,” when they hang up their clothes after returning home. Or, when removing their accessories, I suggest they say, “Thank you for making me beautiful,” and when putting their bag in the closet, to say, “It’s thanks to you that I got so much work done today.” Express your appreciate to every item that supported you during the day. If you find this hard to do daily, then at least do it whenever you can.
I began to treat me belongings as if they were alive when I was a high scool student.
That paragraph continues, in a way that again has me connect Kondo with Alexander: taking completely seriously the notion that objects are alive, and that that matters.
So: I should pay attention to myself, to my reactions. (To, as Kondo says, what truly brings joy.) I should pay attention to other objects: what is my connection to them, but also what life inheres in them.
Paying attention to myself at a direct level is not something I’ve always been good at. I’ve been taking Tai Chi classes for a month and a half now, and that’s being very helpful and very interesting: I’m spending much more time paying attention to what my body is doing, and I think that’s also translating into paying attention to other parts of myself.
I need to figure myself out more; and I need to figure out the external facing aspects of myself. Interacting with the world, interacting with objects as craft, art, and life. And starting to take more seriously creating objects as craft, art, and life.
This post has not been revised since publication.