"Did you see the sloth?" Eric and I were on a steep path to a beach in Costa Rica. "Where?" I asked looking up from the ground. For next five minutes I sighted down Eric's arm as he pointed into the jumble of trees and vines next to us. My urban eyes are good for spotting cafes, bargains, bus stops, and public restrooms, so it took awhile to see the sloth in a tree. It was looking right at me.
We humans are pattern seekers; it is how we make sense of the world. We see, taste, hear, feel, and smell the things for which we have mental models. By grouping our experiences into meaningful clumps we navigate the complexity of life with minimal mental effort. Without these mind maps, life is a morass of undifferentiated data, and we can't see the sloth right in front of us.
Want to experience the world in a new way? Learn a new pattern. Our bodies and brains are wired for patterns right out of the womb, and this process continues as we are exposed to family, culture, and education. By the time you're old enough to read this essay you have built up a lush tapestry of psychological, sociological, physical, emotional, and mental templates that together shape your worldview and perception.
Becoming a top notch pattern detective is not only fun, it's very handy for designing things, like a better mouse trap, or, say, your life. For example, what if you are habitually late and this is jeopardizing your relationships and your self image as a cool operator. Begin by looking at your patterns of behavior and thought. Are you always late, or just sometimes? What do you do to causes your tardiness? Are you thinking: "I have important things to do first," "It's no big deal if I'm not there at the beginning," or "Why did I say 'yes' to this?" Brave souls may want to ask others to help them with their sleuthing and probe beyond "You're late again!"
When it comes to describing patterns of human thought and behavior, there are lots of systems to guide you. We describe some of our favorites on our Tools page including the Enneagram for looking at personality and Spiral Dynamics for consciousness development. These systems enable us to perceive beyond our individual experience and to expand our comprehension. Without them, we have a tendency to see others as better or worse variations of ourselves, as in "She's doing a very good version of me, but I really don't understand what he's up to."
There is an important caution to being a pattern detective: the map is not the territory! While patterns are handy tools, they are not reality. Our models are rarely as complex and nuanced as the world. "True as far as it goes" is a good caveat to keep in mind when observing life through a system lens.
Looking for patterns is equally valuable as you try to fathom the world and events around you. A classic exercise from Permaculture Design is to observe and learn the properties of natural patterns like branching, spirals, radial, or meandering (think rivers and streams). Patterns found in nature are breathtakingly elegant and ingenious and have influenced human design for eons. Today this is sometimes referred to as Biomimicry, and recent fruits of this approach include cooling systems for buildings patterned on ant hills, non-toxic glues that mimic how mussels stick to rocks, and display screens which reflect light like butterfly wings.
As with all good detective work, the first step is observation. For this we need to slow down to the speed of noticing, often slower than the speed of doing. This allows time for reflecting, turning thoughts and sensations over in the mind like a candy in the mouth. In this way, being a Pattern Detective is a perfect Slow Life activity. As with other Slow Living activities (e.g. preparing and eating good food, developing close friendships, taking care of your home and the land, etc.), it's a twofer: intrinsically enjoyable and valuable. Looking for patterns expands our understanding and connection to the world, and it can offer clues and strategies for how to re-organize our life for greater well being. When we simply take the time to notice, we sometimes discover that the answer, like the sloth, is looking right at us.
The branching pattern collects and distributes resources and exists at all scales in nature and life. What are the largest and smallest examples of branching you can find in the natural world? What are examples of this in the human body? Where you work? Where you live? For more, see this short video on patterns in nature.
Next time you have a problem you want to solve, start by looking for patterns. By making time for observation and reflection, you may uncover new information or understandings from which a better solution emerges. It might also help structure your conversation about an issue with others.
Your fellow sloths sleuths,
Beth and Eric
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
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