Coherence is the quality of making a unified whole, which makes sense to us. We like coherence. It feels right. We get a sense of satisfactory completeness and consistency, when something is coherent. Intuitively, we know these things belong together. It resonates with us. It feels right.
Have you ever wondered why we experience this special feeling, when we experience coherence? Is it telling us something important about ourselves, our aesthetic senses and our place in the universe. I believe that it is. I also believe it is the very basis of our aesthetic sense and consequently, has an intimate (dare I say coherent?) relationship with art and our need to create.
Recognise the importance of knowing something, not just through the intellect but throughout the entire mind-body organism. Thinking isn’t enough. We have to experience it bodily. It has to feel right, not just seem rational. Coherent thought means our rational intellect and our emotional feelings are aligned. Too often, our thoughts or our emotions dominate. Our thoughts are frequently at odds with what we feel. Similarly, our emotional responses are in conflict with rationality. These are incoherent states.
Cheating, lying, manipulating, misrepresenting, abusing, conquering, preying on others, being a parasite on the environment – these are all incoherent actions, in stark conflict with the well-being of other people and the rest of the living world. Aesthetically speaking, we experience it as ugliness. Conversely, beauty is the feeling of being at one with the universe, in peace.
The deep sense of integration arising from this harmonisation of cognition and feeling could lead to a realisation of one’s own nature, in harmony with the entire universe. Coherency is the well spring of integrity and authenticity. Transparency, honesty, generosity and gratitude are all manifestations of a coherent existence. We can choose coherency.
War is incoherent. War for profit is incoherent. Monopolisation and kleptocratic corruption are incoherent. Dealing in bad faith, duplicitously, is incoherent. Becoming the richest person in a devestated, denuded wasteland, surrounded by collateral damage and people you have beggared into penury is the ultimate incoherent aim, yet one that our billionaire oligarchs aspire to.
Despite their opulent, pampered lives, they live in paranoid fear of reprisal, surrounded by body guards and security cordons. They know if they fail to continually appease their protectors, they will turn on them viciously, deposing them or worse. It’s an utterly incoherent existence. Are they all-powerful, or strangely, pathetically captive and at the mercy of those they rely on for their privileged existence? It’s surprising how many people have to contribute to the elevation of a so-called self-made man, isn’t it?
The Chinese culture historically contemplated these questions for a very long time. Their philosophers and teachers articulated the components of coherency. For example, there is
the spontaneous faculty of liang zhi—that intuitive “gut feeling” of right and wrong, which tells you how to act in a given situation. When you direct your thought and intention, your liang zhi knows that right is right and wrong is wrong. You cannot conceal anything from it. In other words, we have an innate sense of coherence. How many people, today, conduct their lives in open contradiction to their liang zhi? I’m sure they’re legion. Some of our most prominent world leaders certainly number among them.
The manifestations of living in conflict with your intuitive gut feelings of coherent right and wrong are highly visible, as pronounced facial ticks and vocal affectations, when speaking in opposition to your inner sense of coherence. Dry mouths, constricted throats, uncontrollable coughing fits are all tell-tale symptoms that can be readily observed. We’re afraid of being found out and exposed as frauds. Failing to make eye contact, avoiding engaging empathically with other people, stiff, stilted and shrinking body language all signify inner incoherence.
You can see their shame, desperately masked by outrageous arrogance, fantastic hyperbole, bravado and braggadocio. Others will take on absurd, anachronistic characterisations, playing the impossibly matey man down the pub, with pint and smoke in hand, or comport themselves as foppish, scatterbrained pseudo intellectuals. The most incoherent will adopt the faux manners and mannerisms of an eighteenth century upper class gent, to conceal their extreme inauthenticity. It’s all split personality play acting in an attempt to quell the inescapable inner feeling that they’re living lives bereft of coherence. They’re trying to be something, instead of simply being someone.
Jargon and buzzword laden management speak is totally incoherent and it rankles, but why? We eschew it because it signifies we’re being addressed by an inauthentic person, mouthing trite platitudes in an an attempt to cloak an incoherent system of organising and rewarding human creativity, that’s why. We know it, for fact, but we fail to act on the sensation.
It has been observed, again by Chinese thinkers, that to extend liang zhi requires special efforts, which include self-examination, self-transformation, self-discipline, self-reflection, and most important, the sincerity [cheng] of one’s will. Too many people fail to engage in these processes of self-improvement. They require courage. If all you have is fear, shame and cowardice, you are doomed to live a life of chaotic incoherence.
In Neo-Confucian thought, living according to cheng [sincerity] was a path to achieving spiritual fulfillment. Conducting one’s life with cheng required harmonising intellectual understanding, ethical engagement, and emotional intelligence into one integrated whole. Someone who could accomplish this was able to feel connected with the integrity of the entire natural universe. Living sincerely is the route toward coherence.
Artists tend to have a better grasp of sincerity, integrity and authenticity, at least in the art they make. Paradoxically, their lives can be highly incoherent, even as what they produce is perfectly coherent. Making coherent art can be a mask to conceal an incoherent person. Ideally, though, the artist and their art are consistent, expressing beauty through sincerity.
Is a rock concert really a form of religious gathering, designed to create coherent cooperation of its adherents? Does it cause collective action, or does it merely get everybody to agree to take none? The answer depends on the intentions of the artists. Coherent musicians will galvanise coherent audiences. Incoherent ones will cause incoherence to spread, like a mind virus.
The modern world we live in has become dissonantly incoherent and it disturbs us greatly. As zealous as neoconservatives are in telling us there is no alternative, our sense of coherence tells us otherwise. They know it, too, in their deeply repressed psyches, but they push it down with dogma, pride, greed and shame.
We know, deeply and intuitively, that better is possible and that we must find it, or perish. We feel, in our deepest consciousnesses, that what’s going on economically, environmentally, politically, ethically and corporately isn’t right and that it’s slowly killing us all (but that this is accelerating rapidly). Our very beings are hungering for a collective shift in mind set, toward higher quality thoughts that are more coherent. We know it, but we don’t act on it.
It’s as if each of us is waging war with ourselves, internally. The games we play daily, the conventions we observe and the orthodoxies we parrot – we know these lack coherence. We also know we cannot sustain this disjunction between our sense of coherence and how we behave. We know we can’t believe in externalities, claiming our toxic waste is “gone”, when we throw it away. It’s not gone; it’s over there, where we threw it. We believe that making the poor suffer makes us richer, even as we observe the terrible shared consequences, which impact us all. Each individual knows with certainty that remaining divorced from our communities and our universe is omnicidal.
We know it, but we don’t act on it.
We are incoherent.
A reverence for coherence is perhaps a first step in healing ourselves, thereby allowing us to heal the world. Let go of our incoherent, dogmatic ideologies, trust our guts and remake our future, in harmony with one another and our world. It’s not hard and we’ll feel better.