Alan Watts appeared on my YouTube feed the other day. Probably because I’ve been watching Eckhart Tolle videos lately. While I don’t listen to Watts much, I’m somewhat familiar with his work and admire his vast knowledge of Eastern philosophies and spiritual practices.

The episode was titled Just Trust the Universe. Watts’s style moves quickly from one topic and analogy to another: he discussed evolutionary biology and democracy, Eastern traditions and Western symbolism (from the Upanishads to Greek mythology), folk tales and esoteric spiritual texts. I found myself rewinding frequently to catch stuff I kept missing. 

In this episode, Watts spoke about letting go of control – or the illusion of it – by going with the flow, trusting the process of life, and allowing Nature to take its course. He described Eastern practices where the practitioner allows whatever is happening to just be.  He touched on a variety of themes including utopia, making decisions, delegating authority, and taking risks.

Creative intelligence

But it was his brief discussion of synergy that really caught my attention. I’ve always loved the word “synergy”, as well as other similar snazzy words like “syzygy” that I learned from Carl Jung’s Collective Works. (In Volume 8, Jung  describes syzygy as a universal motif of the divine couple that is found in mythologies across the world, as well as in Jung’s own concepts of anima and animus – a fascinating topic for another day. I also found out that syzygy is a concept used in astronomy.)

Watts described synergy as “the intelligence of a highly complex system, the nature of which is always unknown to the individual members.” The Oxford dictionary defines it as “the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.” 

I like both definitions because they point to a creative intelligence that oversees the natural order of things. This is comforting to me. It means that I don’t have to try to orchestrate everything on my own or worry about all the many moving parts (though this doesn’t always stop me from doing so anyway).

It also means that when I’m in a synergistic system, every small action I perform is critical to the functioning of the whole system. My input matters, and so does everyone else’s. So when other actors in different parts of the system add to an action, it is compounded, and this transforms the entire endeavor into something so much more powerful and effective. 

Watts went on to describe how biological evolution is possible because of the synergy contained in the “constant delegation of authority”. He explains that when an organism encounters a new environment, the delegation of authority in the form of instructions given to its different parts allows the organism to survive the new conditions. In fact, this process happens so naturally that the organism is unaware of this higher organization until the adaptation has already occurred.

That’s synergy.

According to Watts, democracy is also an example of synergy. Which gives me hope that our struggling democracies may yet survive ongoing threats, as long as we can sustain the synergy that gives the democratic machine its momentum.

Everyday synergy

Listening to Watts makes me marvel at the synergy in my daily life, both natural and human made.  This human body, which, through an astonishing exchange of synergistic cellular intelligence and complex biochemical interactions, keeps me alive – and sane –  even in extreme conditions. Ideas and conversations with others that unfold and dovetail in such satisfying and productive ways that they turn out to be way more impactful than imagined. Airplanes and vehicles that convey me through the skies and on land to arrive safely and precisely at my destination. Goods delivered from China and Australia that arrive miraculously on time at my doorstep on the other side of the planet.  And the ability to connect with people and information no matter where I am or where they are. All made possible because of synergy.

I’m gradually learning to trust Nature, flow with life and become a cooperative component of the synergistic systems that sustain me and sustain life. 

Photo by Guillermo Ferla on Unsplash