"... nothing ever really dies, it only disorganizes and then takes on new forms... "

Playing by Nature's Paradigm:
Systems Science and the Grateful Dead

A thematic essay for the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
By Christopher Chase
1997 Fukuoka, Japan
(The opinions expressed are those of the author, not of the University of California.)

Copyright notice


It was a beautiful Friday afternoon, and I had just finished teaching my last class of the day. The sun was shining. Bees were gliding softly upon the air. Cherry blossom petals lay beneath the green-leafed trees from which they had fallen.

As I started home from my University, I turned on my Walkman and was greeted by the Grateful Dead, and these familiar words, from "Box of Rain":

Look out of any window
any morning, any evening, any day
Maybe the sun is shining, birds are winging or
rain is falling from a heavy sky -
Listening to the music, I smiled. My shoulders relaxed and I looked up at the natural beauty unfolding all around me, here in Southern Japan. I thought back, accessing my memories from Grateful Dead concerts I'd attended over the last 15 years-- in California, Connecticut and New York. I wondered-- what is it about the Dead and their music that made them so special? Why were the Dead's concerts always so very different from shows put on by anyone else? As I moved through the gentle crowds inside (and outside) shows-- why did I always feel so comfortable and at home? Also, why did the cryptic lyrics of the Dead always seem so meaningful?

I'm one of those people who have been inspired by the Dead mostly from a distance. I've seen the band only a few dozen times since 1980. I never followed a tour or (until recently) even considered myself to be a Deadhead. My friends are all thirty-something professionals like myself, many into the Dead, but not exclusively.

Now, as I get older I find that the Grateful Dead continue to inspire me-- that I still listen to them while a lot of other music no longer maintains my interest. Above all, I hold memories of Dead shows as unique and profound experiences. Looking back, it seems as if something bordering on the magical happened there.

Walk into splintered sunlight
Inch your way through dead dreams
to another land....
Clearly, the Grateful Dead were no ordinary rock 'n' roll group. As entertainers, the Dead lived (and played) by very different rules. They frequently experimented with their music and took creative risks during concerts. The band was famous for performing live without a song list, with members deciding what songs to play as they went along. The Dead also allowed fans to tape their shows and encouraged small-scale entrepreneurs to vend wares at outdoor sites.

While the sixties ended long ago, the Dead helped to maintain the creative values and social ideals of that era for almost three decades. By touring from city to city, year after year, they gave several generations of young people the chance to experience themselves as a part of the "Woodstock" tribe, as the newest members of a thriving and enduring subculture.

What was it that made the Grateful Dead experience so different? How did the band stay successful for so long? Are there any lessons that the Dead can teach us? While I may not be able to answer any of these questions with certainty, I hope to provide readers with some ideas that might shed a little light, "in the strangest of places if you look at it right."

This essay looks at some of the ways in which the Grateful Dead exemplified the fundamental principles of Nature. It is my belief that the band (and others of their generation) did their best to live less by the laws of Western civilization and more by the natural ways of the Universe-- what we might call Nature's Paradigm. To support this claim I will outline some of the key ideas of the systems sciences-- a broad term used to cover fields such as systems theory, deep ecology, chaos theory, ecopsychology, cybernetics and the emerging science of complexity.

Most readers are probably already familiar with many of the ideas I'll be presenting here, if not explicitly at least intuitively. When people talk or write about the Dead they sometimes use terms like synergy, entropy, fractals, and interdependence. There are also other systems properties which are less well known (which the Dead represented), such as self-organization, complexity, and organic centrality. These terms do not refer to the Grateful Dead alone, of course. They are characteristics which apply to all of Nature's systems, from atoms and galaxies to forests, jellyfish, church choirs and the Internet! Systems theories describe the way the different structures in our universe are related to one another, work together in unison and change over time.

Actually, many of the ideas and concepts presented here did not originate with twentieth century systems science. Nature's principles have been expressed (and understood) throughout human history, in all cultures and in many different fields of experience. These ideas can be found (among other places) in Taoist philosophy, Jewish mysticism, gestalt psychology, paganism, Hindu mythology, creation spirituality, Native American world-views, transcendental poetry, evolutionary psychology, process philosophy, and the teachings of the Buddha.

While systems ideas have been around for quite some time, they have often been expressed most eloquently by artists, philosophers and poets at the edge of mainstream societies. From Lao Tsu to Henry David Thoreau, a steady current of voices has long warned that civilization's ways are at odds with those of Nature. Since the modern industrial era began, the situation seems to have gotten even worse. By ignoring the way Nature's creations live and develop together, we have created a host of problems for ourselves-- from poverty, drug abuse and alcoholism to water pollution, global warming and genocide. Fortunately, things may be changing now. Humanity's guiding paradigm may be shifting, returning us to a way of thinking that is more in tune with the ways of the natural world. As we approach the next millenium these ideas are beginning to exert a powerful influence outside the world of science, challenging the status quo in areas such as education, medicine, economics, business, theology and psychology. Like scattered flowers bursting forth in a field, Nature's paradigm seems to be arising everywhere at the same time.

What's fascinating is how this emerging worldview brings us closer to a perspective that is (for lack of a better world) rather "psychedelic." It allows us to center our awareness in that space where science, art and mysticism meet, where artificial boundaries dissolve and there is a sense of great wonder, organized patterns, creative relationships, unified beauty and incredible freedom. As Alan Watts describes it (in The Joyous Cosmology, 1962; p. 55):

"A journey into this new mode of consciousness gives one a marvelously enhanced appreciation of patterning in nature, a fascination deeper than ever with the structure of ferns, the formation of crystals, the markings upon sea shells... More and more it seems that the ordering of nature is an art akin to music-- fugues in shell and cartilage, counterpoint in fibers and capillaries, throbbing rhythm in waves of sound, light, and nerve. And oneself is connected with it... [an] interweaving of paths, circuits, and impulses that stretch and hum through the whole of time and space. The entire pattern swirls in its complexity like smoke in sunbeams or the rippling networks of sunlight in shallow water. Transforming itself endlessly into itself, the pattern alone remains."
While systems theory, deep ecology, and related movements in science provide a more "conservative" path than those offered by schools of mysticism (or psychedelics), I believe that they have the power to help move our global civilization toward a similar mode of consciousness. They can help us to shift the way we think, moving from a dominantly conceptual and linear view of reality to a mode of awareness that is more ecological and holistic. While humans will always have the capacity to think in linear ways, we are now becoming aware that this mode of consciousness is relative, not real.

Whatever road one takes, a more complete understanding of natural patterns and processes can have profound implications for our planetary society in the future.

Once enough of us begin to understand and (more importantly) live by these principles, the boundaries that now separate people from Nature may begin to fade. In time, the human world may once again begin to move in sync with the rest of the Universe.

To make this shift, it's important to remember that none of the concepts presented here are absolute truths or "facts." They are only words and ideas; symbolic human constructions that attempt to describe complex and dynamic multi-dimensional processes in the natural world. The words themselves are not important, it's what they make us aware of that matters. As Lao Tsu put it: "The Tao that can be described is not the eternal Tao."

That's why it can be helpful to look closely at the natural world, or at exemplary individuals and organizations (like the Grateful Dead) to see what they have to teach us. The Dead were unusual in that they were able to succeed in society's games, while still refusing to play by all of its rules. This essay tries to describe some of the principles they did live by, the ways in which they reflected the codes of Nature, how they hinted at many of these ideas in their lyrics and did their best to play by Nature's paradigm. I hope you find something of value here.

A box of rain will ease the pain
and love will see you through
Just a box of rain , wind and water -
Believe it if you need it,
if you don't just pass it on

Part I:

A Band Beyond Description

Most stable forms in our universe are SYSTEMS, complex and organized structures which exist as a part of other systems, great and small. Your physical body is a natural system composed of various internal organ systems, each maintained by "communities" of cells, molecules and atoms. At the same time you participate locally in various social groups, each part of an interconnected web of complex systems-- economic systems, societies, ecosystems, the biosphere, the solar system, our galaxy and the universe.

Some of Nature's Systems do outstanding things, helping to maintain other structures and weave new creations. These CREATIVE SYSTEMS do much more then simply exist as structural wholes; through their coordinated activities they have brought everything that exists into being.

The Grateful Dead provide an excellent example of a creative system. As already mentioned, their innovative concerts helped to sustain and renew the "Summer of Love" community for decades. They produced records, songs and films. They started a successful line of merchandising and also set up the Rex Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting musicians and the arts.

Each of the members also engaged in creative projects outside the band. Guitarist Jerry Garcia was especially prolific. He produced several solo albums, headed another band, played on the albums of other musicians, painted outstanding watercolors and even started a popular line of neckties!

While the members of the Dead may seem unusually productive, they were only doing what Nature does best. Creative systems surround us everywhere. Our Universe is a creative system, as are rain forests, religious communities, pairs of lovers, galaxies, solar systems and tribes of birds. The continuous activities of creative systems are what give birth to new forms and expressions of NOVELTY throughout the Cosmos.

Systems scientists sometimes call this creative process NON-LINEAR DYNAMICS, a technical term which means that when several things come together they often defy the laws of linear mathematics. In linear systems 2 + 2 always equals 4, but the natural world is not a linear system. A sperm and an egg come together and then start to divide and multiply simultaneously. Two cells quickly become twenty billion or more!

SYNERGY is another word that describes the way creative systems work, where autonomous entities cooperate together to make something new. Many athletic teams, families, scientific organizations (like NASA), and groups of musicians provide excellent examples of non-linear dynamics and synergy. They show us how human creativity often involves many separate individuals working together as one. As Jerry Garcia put it: "I had originally been an art student and was wavering between one-man/one-work or being involved in something that was dynamic and ongoing and didn't necessarily stay any one way. And also, something in which you weren't the only contributing factor. I decided to go with what was dynamic and with what more than one mind was involved with."

In their creative relationships the members of the Grateful Dead exhibited important HOLISTIC properties, such as INTERDEPENDENCE and UNITY. The members of the band depended upon one another when they performed. Each musician brought something different to the band, and could never fully represent the group when he played alone. Only by playing together as one could the Grateful Dead "entity" be brought into being. Also supporting the band's success were the talented staff who worked for Grateful Dead Productions, "perhaps the most high-tech, tightly run, fan-service-oriented operation in rock." (Mary Huhn, 1995: p. 26). The Dead's production company maintained two tour-info hotlines, an efficient mail-order ticket distribution system, several Internet web sites and a newsletter (with a mailing list of over 100,000 people!).

Like other bands, the Grateful Dead wove essential relationships with many other people outside their immediate surroundings. This web of interdependence spread outward ECOLOGICALLY, connecting the band to their fans (who attended shows and supported the group financially), road crew members, poster artists, craftspeople (who built the band's instruments), other musicians (like David Crosby and Bob Dylan), album companies, concert site staff, head shops, record shops and radio stations. In each case there was a relationship of mutual support and exchange, where each party was servicing the other in a way that benefited all.

Intricate WEBS OF RELATIONSHIP (like this) are what give rise to the natural systems characteristic of COMPLEXITY. For many of us, to experience a Grateful Dead concert was to feel oneself to be a part of something extremely complicated, and yet also exquisitely harmonious and unified. These complex NETWORKS and relationships are what enable Nature's systems to maintain themselves over time, and to function together as wholes.

Related to this are the ideas of UNIVERSALITY and EMBEDDEDNESS. Each of us is embedded in a wide variety of structured environments, such as our nations, families, educational systems, work places, cities, and the global economy. At the same time, we are each a part of the Earth and it is a part of us. All the molecules, atoms and energy currently forming our bodies are composed of elements we have received from plants, animals, rivers, mountains, oceans and the sun. As Alan Watts continuously emphasized: our social and cultural identities mask this reality. They blind us to the fact that each person on this planet is connected to everything else-- is in fact a unique expression of Nature's creativity.

Wake up to find out
That you are the Eyes of the World.
Why have modern Western cultures ignored this reality? Part of the problem may reside in our cultural beliefs and the linear system of logic we've employed since the time of Aristotle (Fromm, 1960). Aristotle emphasized the idea that objects in the Universe exist separate from one another. They can then be categorized and placed in mutually exclusive categories or sets, such as artists and non-artists, humans and nature, allies and enemies or the "saved" and the "damned." A similar way of thinking also arose in ancient China, over 2,500 years ago. The Tao Te Ching offered a critique of this reductionistic mode of categorical reasoning (Watts, 1961). As Lao Tsu wrote:
Once the whole is divided, the parts need names.
There are already enough names.
One must know when to stop.
Knowing when to stop averts trouble.
Dualistic linear logic has led complex societies to emphasize how things are different from one another, instead of the webs of relationship that connect everything together (Watts, 1961). It's a way of thinking that has provided a foundation for the beliefs and attitudes of modern governments and civilizations, providing the dominant conceptual framework for our approaches to politics, religion, science, education, mathematics and warfare.

Systems thinking challenges this reductionistic reasoning. It recognizes the ecological and holistic nature of reality (Capra, 1992, 1996). In Nature there is no such thing as absolute good and evil, winners and losers, or us and them. Likewise, individual creatures do not exist separate from the natural world or one another. They are always intimately connected to their surrounding social and physical environments. When we look at the world from Nature's perspective we begin to see how things are related to one another, focusing on ecological relationships and wholes, rather than separated parts.

This holistic idea is expressed visually by the Taoist symbol for yin and yang, where a light and dark shape combine to create a unified whole. The light present in the dark (and the dark present in the light) symbolize the idea that everything contains a bit of its polar opposite. A technical term for this concept is NONDUALITY, meaning that nothing exists completely separate or independent of anything else.

An awareness of this relatedness between separate objects (and polar opposites) is one of the central insights that psychedelic travelers often bring home from their chemical "excursions." Yet, as Andrew Weil (1972, 1986) points out, this way of seeing is not something people necessarily need drugs to experience. Anyone can learn (or unlearn?) how to access this "natural mind" consciously. This is one of the central premises underlying Taoism and Zen. As Shunryu Suzuki (1970; p. 114) put it: "One whole being is an accumulation of everything. It is impossible to divide one whole existence into parts. It is always here and always working. This is enlightenment."

The Grateful Dead consistently emphasized the paradoxical way all things are related, beginning with their name and the band's symbol of a skull and rose. By pairing together the seemingly opposite images of life and death they express a nondualistic vision of reality. In their songs we can hear this perspective expressed in lines such as, "he who leads must follow," or "when life looks like easy street there is danger at your door."

In one of his essays David Dodd (1995) describes how the band's lyrics (especially those of Robert Hunter) continuously stress a philosophical stance of ambiguity. The truth is something unkown, something not easily put into words. Nothing is certain, and yet there is still a sense that everything is as it should be, and will turn out well in the end. As key members of the Woodstock generation, the Dead tried to live by this philosophy. They played together for almost 30 years, were an economic success, yet did their best not to "sell out." By their example the Dead modeled an approach to life that was integrative, nonjudgemental, optimistic, creative, openminded and inclusive.

Some men trust to reason, others trust to might
I don't trust to nothing , but I know it'll turn out right

Part II:

Sleep in the Stars

On the day that Jerry Garcia passed away, spontaneous gatherings occured in parks and other outdoor settings all over the United States (as well as at "virtual" sites on the Internet). From San Francisco to New York, people came together because they wanted to be with others who had shared their experiences with the Grateful Dead, and their feelings for Jerry. Like the drum circles which often arose in parking lots outside Dead concerts, no one planned these events, they just "happened." This spontaneous "coming together" process is what systems scientists call SELF-ORGANIZATION. Planets, animals, galaxies, ecosystems, villages, and the Deadhead community are all examples of self-organizing systems. In each case, the different members (or elements) of these groups arrange themselves into coherent patterns, activities and forms.

Self-organization processes play an essential role throughout the Universe, both maintaining the old and creating the new. Every form that exists is an organized pattern of activity. Here on our planet Nature sustains elaborate forms through CYCLIC MOVEMENT and complex SELF-RENEWAL processes. The moon rotates around the earth, while weather patterns circulate heat, water and air all over our planet's surface. Old cells in your body die, as new ones are created. A university takes in new students, graduates others, and moves everyone from class to class.

The Grateful Dead lost and adopted new members over the years. They also kept the self-renewal processes of their community going at the same time, by staying on the road, truckin' continuously from city to city every year.

Small wheel turn by the fire and rod
Big wheel turn by the grace of God
Everytime that wheel turn round
bound to cover just a little more ground
In the late 1970's scientists Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock (1979) put forth the idea that our planet functions as a self-organizing self-renewing system. Their "Gaia hypothesis" provides theoretical support for a point of view expressed throughout the ages, the idea of the Earth as a creative living entity.

From an evolutionary/ecological point-of-view, we humans are children of Gaia, members of a living Earth community. From a broader cosmological perspective we are each a part of a larger Universal Being, an expression of dynamic organizing forces, one face of a SHAPE-SHIFTING Cosmos. There is no "you" who exists separate from the rest of this planet or the universe. Rather there is only One Universe, now expressing itself locally as flowers, mountains, rivers and people. (This perspective puts a bit of a cosmic spin on the popular Deadhead saying, "We Are Everywhere." )

Wake now, discover that you
are the song that the morning brings
A similar idea can be found in the Chinese idea of the Tao, which represents the Universe as a CONTINUOUSLY CHANGING and water-like FLOW. When organized in stable patterns or cycles this universal MOVEMENT takes temporary forms (such as atoms, cells, stars, dolphins, civilizations, etc.). When these break apart we observe disorganization, until elements are reorganized again into a new pattern, or are absorbed as part of another system.

In systems science this never-ending creative process has been described as ORGANIZATION-> DISORGANIZATION-> REORGANIZATION (Ford, 1987). It is the fundamental pattern of change in our Universe. It's also a theme that's expressed in the lyrics of quite a few Dead songs, such as "Black-Throated Wind", "The Wheel", "Wharf Rat", "Broke-down Palace" and the perennial classic "Truckin'"...

You sick of hanging around, you wanna travel
Get tired of traveling, you wanna settle down
Each of us moves through this pattern of cyclic change every day, continuously shifting from one experiential state into another (with a less organized state often serving as the connecting bridge). We move from sleep to wakefulness, from home to work, take coffee breaks at work, daydream between tasks, travel back from work to home, eat, talk, fight, laugh, listen to music, make love and eventually move back into sleep again.

We can also see this "Org-Disorg-Reorg" process being explored in many popular novels, movies, myths and TV "situation comedies." A central character (or group of people) is thrown into a chaotic state (or grows tired of a limiting situation) and then spends the rest of the story seeking transformation, change, resolution, to return home or simply to get back to how things once were (or should be).

The Grateful Dead frequently explored this universal change pattern in their lengthy jams, where they would begin with a well-structured tune, dissolve into anorganic space and then return to the same song (or a new one). That was one of the things that made Dead shows so special (see Jurgen Fauth's essay). Each concert offered a unique experience, a collective trip with the band, as they explored the creative process. An essential part of this was the willingness of the band members to take risks, to let go of established forms, seek adventure and journey into the unknown (Jerry Garcia; Rolling Stone, 1995; p. 52).

Another example of this change process can be found in the way the surviving members of the Grateful Dead have reorganized themselves, spawning new groups and activities after Jerry Garcia died. As I write this essay bass player Phil Lesh is spending more time with his kids and focusing on numerous projects, including the release of old concert tapes and the creation of Terrapin Station, an interactive historical site in San Francisco. Mickey Hart and Bob Weir continue to express their creativity on the road, with their bands Mystery Box and Ratdog and with the Furthur Tours (where the spirit and values of the Deadhead "tribe" live on in a completely new form).

Meanwhile, lyricists Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow are each spinning their magic in unique ways, both actively helping to weave a new kind of community on the Internet. Finally, we have drummer Bill Kreutzmann, who has turned his creative juices away from complex projects, resting and rediscovering the more subtle joys of life (surfing and drumming on the beaches of Hawaii). As always, Bill is maintaining that grounding beat, reminding us all of what it means to be truly "grateful."

What the former members of the Dead continue to celebrate (and teach us) is that nothing ever really dies, it only disorganizes and then takes on new forms. From civilizations to atoms this is the reality which rules the Universe, the process that underlies all evolution and change. When seen from this perspective, our Universe looks more like a moving process or an event then a "thing." One writer of the Jewish Kabbalah put it this way (see Matt, 1996; p.99):

"An epiphany enables you to sense creation not as something completed, but as constantly becoming, evolving, ascending. This transports you from a place where there is nothing new to a place where there is nothing old, where everything renews itself, where heaven and earth rejoice as at the moment of Creation."
The current paradigm dominant in science often ignores this creative renewal process, focusing instead on ENTROPY and CHAOS, the disorganizing forces and states which allow our Universe to continuously shift itself into new forms. The Dead tip their hat to this process with lines such as:
Talk about your plenty, talk about your ills
One man gathers what another man spills
While violence and chaos clearly exist in Nature they don't necessarily dominate . These disorganizing forces simply play a part in the creative evolutionary processes of our Universe. Think about it. The atoms currently forming your body have been around a long time, way before they joined up as part of the plants or animals you have eaten. Each of us is composed of ancient elements released in the stellar explosions of stars which seeded this sector of our galaxy long long ago. As Joni Mitchell points out (in the song Woodstock) "We are star dust, we are golden." The carbon, oxygen and iron coursing through your body once drifted in clouds of star dust, the solar ashes out of which our planet was formed...

Dark Star crashes, pouring its light into ashes...
Mirror shatters in formless reflections of matter...
Shall we go, you and I while we can...
Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds....
In fact, we could even say that the Universe (and all its creations) are continuously dancing. Everything is moving and changing all the time. The Grateful Dead seemed to realize this, consistently stressing the journey theme and encouraging fans to follow the band around on a tour. Their music and shows sought to remind us that each of us is a cosmic traveller, a unique and dynamic expression of the entire Universe.

"It's the trip that's interesting, not the culmination, not the arrival. It's not an arrival thing. It's a process." (Jerry Garcia, 1995, ABC Nightline)

Part III:

Ripples, Fields and Unbroken Chains

While the Universal Journey may be characterized by endless change and reformation, why is it that a certain consistency and order always remains? How do complex forms maintain and reinvent themselves? One answer lies in the self-organizing processes already mentioned. Another can be found in the complex RIPPLE EFFECTS and REVERBERATION processes through which successful approaches and structural patterns are repeatedly reflected or re-echoed through space and time.

The Grateful Dead were embedded in a creative matrix of influences stretching outward to other sixties musicians (and the Haight-Ashbury/Acid Test scenes) and backward to the Beat generation, folk, jazz, bluegrass, 19th century transcendental poetry and European pagan traditions. The themes they worked with are ancient, synergistically recreated by the band in a new form. This is a characteristic we see everywhere in Nature. Your body relies on genetic information that's rooted in millions of years of experimentation and experience. Likewise, human languages and ideas are passed on by societies, changing and evolving in UNBROKEN CHAINS across time. All of this depends upon the phenomenon of INFORMATIONAL FLOW, the way complex information connects evolving forms in our Universe. While we humans have taken this capability to a new level (with our books, televisions, computers and complex language systems) it is something that did not originate with us. Complex information is circulating within nature all the time.

Flowers COMMUNICATE genetic information (DNA) through pollen. Animals are calling to community members, gathering together to locate food, hunt and learn. The cells in your body are constantly sending information to one another. Thousands of insects are communicating below the grass with chemical signals you cannot see or smell. In the world around (and within) us, nature's creations are "talking" all the time.

To maintain the coherent functioning of a complex system it is often essential that information flows in FEEDBACK LOOPS. This means that information is cycling back and forth from one area to another, allowing parts of systems to adjust themselves to each other and to their surroundings. A company research team conducts consumer tests and then reworks its product. The organs in your body communicate with each other constantly. Baseball pitchers and catchers communicate back and forth almost instantaneously in subtle gestures and moves. Lovers respond to one another as they make love.

Dead concerts were famous for their blending of the line between audience and band. As the band played the audiences responded, providing a mood or vibe that then effected the way the band performed and the songs that they chose. The event was then something collaboratively created, a dynamic work in which everyone played a part.

Feedback processes were also absolutely essential within the band. The Dead were famous for the way they could segue spontaneously from one song into the next. They sometimes functioned more like a basketball team than a rock group. The band's innovativemusical excursions were a synchronized flow of complex sounds, whose creation depended on the concentrated attention and participation of each member. To play with the Dead was to be in the moment, to be actively tuned in to one's experience of the present.

"We don't do a show. So its not one of those things that you can put yourself on automatic pilot and just do. For us you have to be there. You have to pay attention." (Jerry Garcia, 1995, ABC Nightline)
While biologists, ecologists and psychologists recognize the essential organizing role information plays in living systems, physicists are usually much more concerned with the FIELDS and FORCES that help maintain patterns of order in our Universe. Planets spin around stars because of gravity. Molecules and atoms are held together by electromagnetism, along with the strong and weak nuclear forces. In recent years, biologist Rupert Sheldrake (1991,1994) has proposed that all self-organizing structures (from atoms to rock groups) are maintained by unseen MORPHOGENETIC FIELDS. He believes that these fields play an informing role, connecting related structures to one another across space and time. His idea bothers many scientists, because it sounds a little too metaphysical. This could mean that some mysterious force is guiding us and linking all of us together. Don't the Grateful Dead sometimes hint at that?

Walk out of any doorway
feel your way, feel your way
like the day before.
Maybe you'll find direction
around some corner
where it's been waiting to meet you -
Sheldrake's theory fits in neatly with Carl Jung's idea of SYNCHRONICITY and the collective unconscious. It is also aligned with some of the holistic ideas of Eastern cultures. In Taoism, the Universe is thought to be organized by the principle of hsiang sheng, or MUTUAL ARISING (Watts, 1975). All things are connected and are arising together. No one individual is "causing" anything, there's only One of us here, the Universe, peeking out from countless corners, yet all linked together.

Buddhism has a similar idea, describing the world as the dharmadhatu, a UNIFIED FIELD OF RELATED FUNCTIONS (Watts, 1962). Other traditions talk about the mind of God, the Great Spirit or the unifying power of Love. In each case, the basic idea is that an unseen conscious realm guides and connects all activities unfolding in the Universe. The 12th century Sufi poet Rumi put it this way:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
For the members and lyricists of the Dead, such mystical ideas were more than just poetry. With the help of psychedelics they had personally experienced this realm, developing a new awareness of both the temporality and the unity of all things. As Bill Barich explained in Rolling Stone magazine (1995, p. 77-78):
"I asked Garcia why psychedelics were so potent for him. He said they had allowed him to get beyond ordinary reality and into a reality he had "always thought existed but had never been able to find." Everything on the other side was really OK, he discovered and even fun... He was sure he'd "received direct instruction" about his life while high and swore that once he had ridden up into the heavens and had been shown the face of God, "close enough to see the pimples." His final "fat trip" took place in California in the late 1960's... He developed 360-degree vision, died a few thousand times and unraveled every strand of DNA in his body. The word ALL scrolled into the sky, and "Bringing in the Sheaves" was the soundtrack. In the end he turned into a field of wheat."

Some Folks Trust to Reason

While metaphysical ideas such as these remain far out beyond the edge of science, there are a number of more "grounded" concepts currently taking hold in areas such as economics, education, and ecology. Both business people and ecologists are now using the concept of OPEN SYSTEMS to describe dynamic self-organizing systems which constantly exchange energy, materials and information with their surroundings.

Our planet's biosphere provides a good example of an open system. It is able to support the long-term evolutionary processes of life because of a constant influx of energy from the sun. It also makes use of materials that rain down on the earth from comets and meteors. (Some scientists even suspect that organic molecules have their origins in space).

Communities, companies, and organisms are all open systems, continuously renewing themselves by allowing a steady circulation of resources--maintaining a continuous state of HOMEOSTASIS or DYNAMIC STABILITY. Your body provides an exquisite example of this process, keeping you stable and alive by obtaining new molecules and energy for you. At the level of your atoms and cells, you are always moving and recreating yourself. You don't even have to think about it, as the natural forces of the Universe keep you stable and alive.

One reason chaos and entropy do not "rule" our bodies is that we are open to these outer influences. The second law of thermodynamics (which states that the overall orderliness of the universe is always decreasing) refers only to closed systems (Capra, 1996). This "law" ignores the change patterns mentioned earlier. It also overlooks the ENERGY UTILIZATION processes of creative self-organizing systems, how they use chaos and energy, working with it as a sailboat rides with the wind.

Organic life-forms like ourselves exist thanks to the energy produced by our sun (which releases photons of free energy as it builds heavier elements in its core). The plants and microbes on our planet form an interdependent network of systems which capture this energy and utilize it to animate all life on our planet. Living creatures are solar-powered, thriving on the energy that plants provide. By constantly moving and recreating themselves, Nature's systems are able to perpetuate their structural patterns across space and time.

Didn't Grateful Dead concerts also work in this way, with the band recreating a complex self-organizing live experience over and over again? Each night fans, workers and band members traveled from their present habitats, arriving at a concert site by their own volition (thanks to the energy they'd absorbed from their food and pumped into their vehicles). The Dead were unique among rock groups in that (whenever possible) they sought to provide general admission seating for their concerts. What this meant was that fans were not restricted to specific seats. We were able to dance and move about within concert sites. To attend a "general admission" Grateful Dead show was to experience oneself as a part of an organic freely moving community.

Strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hands
Everybody playing in the heart of gold band

This brings us to the next systems concept-- ORGANIC CENTRALITY. Natural systems are often centered on unified groups of individuals engaged in common activities. Rock concerts are centered on the playing of songs and the experiences of band and audience members. Soccer teams center on team members (and the intention of scoring a goal). Groups of friends and pairs of lovers center upon one another. At one level your body is centered on your central nervous system. At a deeper level every physical organism is centered on its cells. Living systems are organized organically, where "centers" exists in a plural sense. We live in what William James (1977) called a Pluralistic Universe.

This idea is beautifully represented by the visual forms of FRACTALS. Here we see how complex patterns can spin off and recreate themselves into infinity. On our planet the earliest forms of life gave rise to trillions and trillions of creatures, each branching off and evolving into countless other beings. This process is probably happening on other planets, in other galaxies, as well. Over and over again individuals rise up, live their lives, and then return to the universal ground from which they came. Each sentient being (be it human, dog, extraterrestrial or flea) then becomes a central point of awareness for the Universe, providing a unique perspective and experience of the Cosmos.

While this idea might seem like common sense to a biologist (or a Deadhead) it is an idea that has been overlooked by the dominant institutions of modern Western societies. Mainstream ideas about "the center" are strongly influenced by the paradigms of mathematics and geometry, where each structure or circle contains only one "true" center. Our factories and classrooms are often organized around the agenda of a few managers or teachers, rather than the creative ideas, activities and interests of workers or students. This is because many modern social institutions were designed to function mechanistically, as closed systems, rigidly controlled structures ruled by a few individuals, not by the creative ideas and interests of an interdependent community.

The Grateful Dead and other sixties musicians (like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues, Jefferson Airplane, etc.) have sought to remind us of this through their music. When singing about modern society the Dead used the imagery of "walls made of canon balls" and the "ship of fools." Pink Floyd also used the metaphor of a wall, as well as a solar eclipse and a machine. The core 60s message: human societies and institutions need not function as fortresses or machines, they can become creative self-organizing communities which center upon and empower all of their members equally. Likewise, individuals are not cogs in the machine, or empty vessels into which we can pour fixed ideas and information from the past.

To realize this deeply and completely is to awaken from civilization's spell, to release outmoded and mechanistic illusions.

Gone are the broken eyes we saw through in dreams
Gone - both dream and lie

Part IV:

If I Knew the Way...

One of the fundamental things mechanistic institutions ignore is the organic process of SELF-CONSTRUCTION, the way in which living systems grow and develop themselves. A more technical word for this is AUTOPOIESIS. Your body is a self-constructing autopoietic system that has built and maintained its own physical structure completely from scratch! (Since that wonderful day when your parents conceived you.)

Human learning is also a process of self-construction and autopoiesis. Have you ever watched a child learn to walk and talk? Family and community members must support and encourage children, but the skills of language and locomotion are something each individual must practice and self-construct on their own. Likewise, each member of the Grateful Dead developed his musical abilities through the slow and time-consuming process of self-construction.

Jerry Garcia actually experienced this twice! While he initially spent decades developing his musical skills, he later had to painstakingly reconstruct his abilities step by step (after suffering severe memory loss during a coma in 1986). As Merle Saunders described it:

"It was very weird... because he literally didn't know how to play anymore... It was rough going at first, but everything builds on everything else... It came back in little blocks, because we could never practice for more then ten minutes at first... we would stop and go for a walk and then come back and play again. We'd do that for eight or nine hours a day, and it started coming back." (see Troy, 1994: p. 210).
Unfortunately, many teachers and schools do not nurture (or value) all children equally, or support the self-constructive processes which lead to learning and skill development. It isn't their fault actually. I'm a teacher myself, and I know that most of my colleagues are doing their best with the "authority-centered" approach our civilization has come up with. But learning is something that happens naturally in human communities, and does not always need schools, teachers or direct instruction.

Many of the complex skills and understandings people acquire (in areas like art, athletics, language or music) are developed outside of school. This does not mean that learning is something that occurs anywhere, regardless of a person's environmental conditions. Education is an INTERACTIVE process, requiring participation and interest on the part of learners, as well as challenges and support from individuals' surroundings. Humans and their environments are equal partners in education, for learning centers on the depth and strength of the relationship woven between the two. This brings us to another important idea, the concept of STRUCTURED SPACE. All around us natural systems provide opportunities and room for other systems within them. The Earth's surface provides a warm environment, ideally suited for the evolution of life.

Ecosystems provide niches for many different species of creatures. Healthy families provide a space for nurturing children and helping them to self-construct new skills. Thriving cities supply sports arenas, concert halls, cathedrals and movie theaters-- structured spaces where people can gather together for cultural events. Schools begin to function as creative learning communities when they provide their students with structured experiences that connect with children's interests, abilities and real lives.

The idea of structured space is something that appears frequently in Zen and Taoist thought. I sometimes like to call it THE EMPTY CUP PRINCIPLE. It gives us a way of thinking about space and emptiness that is quite different from the negative way they are usually visualized in Western Cultures-- as vacant holes or voids we should try to eliminate, avoid or fill. Grateful Dead concerts provided an excellent example of a structured space, facilitating an interactive experience that lay somewhere between a community festival and a religious gathering. As Mickey Hart describes:

"It's an interactive event, the Grateful Dead [concert]. We become one entity, tied at the heart. That's what it's all about. We're not the whole event but we're an important part. We are what the event sounds like and we offer a space-- to ritualize."

Picture a Bright Blue Ball

There are a lot of interesting ideas out there in the systems sciences (which seem relevant to this essay), but I'll try to wind things up with short descriptions of a few more essential ones. Two natural properties that seem worth discussing are AUTONOMY and PARTICIPATION. Complex systems often exhibit a mix of both freedom and interdependence. Individuals are autonomous and yet must fit into their surroundings, supporting the larger systems in which they play a part. The human digestive system and reproductive system function separately, but both support and participate in the life of a single creature.

Individual animals have a great deal of autonomy, but also participate in social groups and ecosystems. What we call "cancer" refers to groups of cells that are functioning autonomously, without participating responsibly in the life of their larger community, the body of the organism of which they are a part. From an ecological perspective, our mechanistic civilization could be visualized as a kind of global cancer, a network of autonomous cells behaving irresponsibly in the body of Gaia.

While the Woodstock generation wasn't perfect, they have at least tried to act responsibly and get us all on the right path. The Grateful Dead (and the culture they emerged from) tried to live these principles (of autonomy and participation) in a way that was unheard of in the American mainstream. People involved in the sixties subculture were highly tolerant of one another, valuing personal freedom and independence in areas of personal consciousness, sexual activity, political thought and creative expression. At its best, the scene was characterized by both responsibility and caring. People were conscious and supportive of one another, valuing each person's creative contribution and participation-- in both the human world and the larger Earth community.

One of the Grateful Dead's greatest legacies was that they did much more than sing about peace and love. As already mentioned, the Dead maintained a cultural scene that allowed others to experience the things they believed in. While sixties values quickly fell apart in large "hippie" communities (like in the Haight-Ashbury district) the Grateful Dead were able to help spread and sustain them-- for almost three decades. By touring continuously around the United States, the band played a role much like chemical messages from the brain circulating through the body's bloodstream. Through their music and live concerts they provided a creative (and celebratory) space for their audiences, one that offered an alternative way of living and participating in the world.

"There's no way to put that idea "save the world" into music, you can only be that idea." (Jerry Garcia, Rolling Stone, 1995, p.58)
This brings us to the concept of POTENTIAL. Most of nature's creations possess an inherent potential for optimal balance, performance, or functioning. Gaia's biosphere has the potential for evolving and supporting life. The physical bodies of animals have what Andrew Weil (1995) calls a healing system, with the potential for health and freedom from disease. Most people have the potential for mastering complex skills in art, music, mathematics and languages. When these potentials are not actualized it is often because we have not taken the time to care for them. Like seeds in a garden, Nature's potentials need careful support and attention. All over the world now there are innovative groups, projects and programs that show potential in various areas of society. In San Francisco there is a group called Delancy Street, a community of ex-cons and former drug abusers who live together, tutor one another and run several successful businesses. In the late 1980's the members reconstructed an entire city block, building a movie theater, restaurant and apartment complex completely from scratch.

In other cities throughout the United States educational programs like the Accelerated Schools Project are seeking to liberate the potential that all children have for learning. I worked with the project's core research team for four years and saw the systems principles being discussed here applied in some truly creative ways. One teacher taught her third graders about Native American culture by having them pretend to be a Sioux community for a year-- creating a simulated village, adoptingnew names, studying the culture, building a museum, and participating in a real powwow (Hopfenberg et al, 1993). Another teacher taught math and economics to her second graders by creating a simulated economy in her classroom. Kids learned how to write checks, balance accounts, barter items and became responsible for paying classroom rent, utilities and taxes. These kinds of creative child-centered approaches are flourishing in Accelerated Schools and elsewhere. By weaving real (or simulated) experiences for children, teachers are building on the natural potential kids have for understanding complex systems, developing essential skills and values, and enjoying the collaborative process of learning.

As for the Grateful Dead, they showed that rock groups have the potential to nurture and sustain a cultural community. The Beatles tried to do this in the mid-sixties, but the time probably wasn't right. [Compare video clips of the screaming fans at their Shea Stadium show with the more centered and connected "post-psychedelic" audiences in the Grateful Dead Movie]. Today bands like Phish, the Indigo Girls and Blues Traveler seem to be taking their lessons from sixties' survivors like the Dead, focusing more on exploring their music and maintaining their communities than on creating hits.

The Grateful Dead also celebrated (and supported) the spiritual needs and creative potential of their fans. They challenged the idea that artists are special or rare. By taking risks before live audiences they showed how the creative process works, how it requires experimentation, collaboration and occasional failure. They were important role models, engaging in creative activities for the joy, spiritual satisfaction and shared discovery they yielded, not for money or fame. Creativity for a higher sake was the ethic they lived. Phil Lesh (1997) put it this way:

"Painting and drawing, music, poetry, drama, literature, dance - all have the capability of awakening the higher faculties of the soul. To hear great music or see great art is a wonderful thing, but to create of oneself can truly transform and heal.... I believe that if everyone cultivated creativity in their lives - whether it be painting with watercolor; singing old familiar songs at holiday seasons with one's family; writing little poems to one's children - there would not only be much less stress in our lives, but we would all be more aware of the spiritually oriented levels of our existence."
The Dead provided us with an example of the economic, spiritual and artistic potential inherent in popular forms of culture. As Matthew Fox has eloquently explained (in Creation Spirituality Magazine, 1996), these may all have to be brought together synergistically in order to weave a new world-view, a more enlightened way of living and thinking on our planet.

Wouldn't it be great if environmental groups like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth got involved in sponsoring live concerts or Renaissance festival type celebrations? Such events could provide an economic niche for crafts people and entrepreneurs with ecofriendly items to sell. As the Dead have shown, innovative groups and communities can find ways to be both economically successful and environmentally responsible, both prosperous and caring. The possibility and potential are there.

Picture a bright blue ball,
Just spinnin', spinnin, free.
Dizzy with the possibilities.

What more and more of us are coming to understand is that all creative forms and systems in our universe have the capacity for SELF-TRANSFORMATION-- for moving beyond their current patterns or situations. The Grateful Dead have gone through various incarnations and continue to change. Our entire Universe has gone through countless stages of transformation. Caterpillars become butterflies, embryos become people.

I wonder, what transformation potential do our world's prison systems hold, if we take Malcolm X's case as an example? He was able to use the abundant time and limited resources available there in order to transform himself both spiritually and intellectually. He emerged from prison a completely different man. What might happen if more universities and colleges started to link up with and support prison schools and libraries? What effect will the Internet have on prison life in the future?

This brings us to the last systems concept to be presented here, what Donald Ford (1987) calls EQUIFINALITY. This term refers to the process whereby different systems or individuals can reach the same final state through different means. Malcolm X was able to grow and develop himself in a prison, rather than a university. One person gains wisdom through war, another through compassion and love. There's no one right way to learn anything. Eastern mysticism, systems science and psychedelics may all have the potential to bring people to a greater understanding of Nature's Ways.

Now that Jerry Garcia is no longer with us, each member of the Grateful Dead community is being challenged to transform himself or herself. What lessons have the Dead taught us? How can we develop ourselves and bring something special to the rest of the world? There's a different answer for each individual, but I like to visualize our present situation as being like a scene from the song "Franklin's Tower":

Wildflower seed in the sand and wind
May the four winds blow you home again

Part V:

Who Can Stop What Must Arrive Now?

There's a whole planet out there, dominated by an antiquated mechanistic pattern that's rapidly losing its power and authority. The various fields of civilization (science, medicine, education, politics, economics, etc.) are restless and fertile. The old ways no longer work. Creative ideas and approaches are emerging in every corner of the world.

In America's cities Police Athletic Leagues and the Guardian Angels may be doing more to stabilize communities than the courts or the prisons. In the field of education the Accelerated Schools Project is just one part of a growing reform movement working to help schools transform themselves from authoritarian institutions into self-governing learner-centered communities. In Hollywood, movies like Lorenzo's Oil, Apollo 13 and Dead Poets Society are showing cinematically how synergy and creativity work in the human world. Elsewhere, Internet activists around the planet are weaving an organically centered global communications network and community. Holistic medicine is stepping in where aggressive medical technologies and procedures have failed. Meanwhile, Alcoholics Anonymous, Montessori Schools and the Boy Scouts may have applied many of the natural principles mentioned here for decades! All the answers we've been looking for are already here. We simply need to open our eyes and see them.

What I have tried to show in this essay is that in the world of science something really beautiful is now being born. The ideas and findings of different fields all seem to fit together, like pieces of a puzzle. The connections between astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, ecology and psychology are becoming clearer. The history of our Universe is now something we can visualize. A coherent and harmonious world view seems to be forming. A Grand Unified Theory of Everything is beginning to come up over the horizon. While this might sound exciting (or perhaps frightening), it's important for us to remember that science's theories and formulas mean nothing on their own.

From Gaia's perspective, truly helpful ideas are those that allow Homo sapiens to access the natural wisdom that's been within us all along. New concepts and theories will be useful if they can help us to still the materialistic ego chatter that too often clutters our minds, and eclipses our souls. As our perspective shifts we then start to notice the recurring patterns and processes that we had been ignoring in the world around us. We begin to relax, and remember...

"It is well past time for us to come home, to return to the matrix from which we came, to recover what we have lost, to remember again the wisdom and balance of the natural world." (Chellis Glendinning, 1994; p. x )

Like Dorothy clicking her slippers' heels together, we each have the power to release civilization's lies, to roll away the dew, and rediscover the wisdom that surrounds us-- the "primal matrix" from which we were born. Notice how you breathe in molecules of Gaia every moment, experience her miracles every day. If you listen carefully you can hear Nature's wisdom flowing everywhere, in poetry, music, mountain ranges, forest streams and the laughter of children.

It's as if Nature's message were breaking through the rusted dreams of centuries. If so, there's no way anyone can stop this trend. Moreover, there's nothing any one of us "has" to do to make things change. To think that any one of us "causes" anything is to live under society's spell. The Universe is simply doing what it has always been doing, unfolding another complex and outstanding creation.

Who can stop what must arrive now.
Something new is waiting to be born.

Day by day, more and more of us are beginning to remember that it is the World who awakens here-- that we are the Universe itself, opening its eyes and throwing off sleep. We are the "I"s of the World, unique expressions of one planet, a world poised and polished, graced with beauty and possibility. Here in this sector of our galaxy, Gaia's children are learning to dance with joy, recognizing with new-found clarity what a long strange trip it's been.

What was it that Ken Kesey said after Jerry died? Something to the effect that if we've learned our lessons well we'll know what to do, how to keep the show alive, pass it on, and take it all further..

Goin home, goin home
by the waterside I will rest my bones
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
to rock my soul

Essay Copyright 1997 by Christopher Chase. All rights reserved. The author can be contacted at the following addresses: Email: chase@seinan-gu.ac.jp. Japan: Watanabe Coop #303, Takatori 1-27-27, Sawara-ku, Fukuoka City, 814, Japan. Feedback is gratefully appreciated!!


This essay has improved and developed over the past year thanks to the suggestions, comments and ideas of the following people: Ken Montal, Jason Leuthje, Nicholas Warren, David Gans, and Adrian Wurr. Many others have contributed in one way or another, including: Les Loschky, Lloyd Rosler, Wayne Cutler, David Dodd, Martin Ford, Annie Shibata, and Steven Silberman. Also, a special thank you to everybody involved with the Grateful Dead and their community. Thanks for the music and the memories, all built to last!!