Mandala Principle: Biosphere, Humanity & the Web of Life

A mandala has its origins in the Buddhist and Hindu religions where it is a geometric pattern that symbolises the universe. In Jungian psychology it is a symbol in a dream, representing the dreamer’s search for completeness.  For these reasons it seemed to me to be a most appropriate metaphor for the biosphere’s web if life and our dream of one day understanding our place in it. A Principle is a fundamental proposition that serves as a foundation for a system of understanding. There we have our title and the objective of our journey.

An image of a mandala of how the hydrosphere, lithosphere and the atmospere interact

Mandalas display positions and elegant patterns and relationships. Each one of the multitude of species, including the human species, operates from within their own mandala. The elements in any mandala interact with each other and with the mandalas of other species.  This view of the world helps us appreciate the complexity of the interdependent relationships that exist all around us in the biosphere – the zone within which life occurs on planet Earth.

The idea of a biosphere and the concept of ecology have developed from the application of systems theory and process thinking to the natural world. If for a moment we stop looking at the world as populated by independent physical entities and just perceive the relationships between those entities, a wondrous mandala unfolds before our eyes.

Quantum physics has shown us that the mechanistic view of the world has been superseded by superior understanding. In the search for the ultimate building block of our material world, scientists have encountered the unimaginable. The sub-atomic structure of all matter is not made up of anything solid or tangible. It is made up, if one can use this term at all, of particles of no substance which have a propensity to be. These non-particles are not defined by their size or colour or any other characteristic but by their relationships and their manifestation of a probable outcome, which in turn depends largely on the observer.

The carpet has been pulled from under our feet. In order to have any measure of understanding we find ourselves now having to relate to our environment, not by focussing on that which is defined and absolute but by paying attention to processes and interactions. The inner workings of matter are indeed reflected in the external phenomena it produces. The biosphere, like our own bodies, strives to maintain a state of homeostasis – which is how self-organising organisms maintain an overall state of equilibrium that allows continuity of life. This in spite of the of the constantly changing relationships (homeo-dynamics). In the millisecond it takes for images and sensations to reach our brain, and for our brain to present us with reasonably accurate predictions, the outside object of our perception has already changed. Our present is essentially the past by the time we see it. This does not make it less real of course. I do however find that it is extremely useful to know how life works. If we are informed we can make better choices.

An image of a mandala of the hydrosphere, lithosphere, ecosphere and the atmospere

This also does not mean that we should abandon principles and moral or ethical standpoints but rather that these should be re-interpreted to be more relevant to the process rather than a particular outcome. The mandala principle is one way of looking at our situation on planet Earth that takes into account the dynamic nature of reality.

The web of life that is the biosphere is intricate and diverse. Diverse are its millions of species and intricate is the way in which they relate to each other and to the whole. It is impossible for an individual to grasp the mechanics of the entire biosphere. I believe that this is unknowable. The good news is that we do not need to. We just need to understand the principles that underlie the interactions.

Looking through mandala eyes we could begin to recognise our place in the scheme of things within the life support system we call the biosphere. We could understand our mode of interaction with the rest of life on Earth. We could then easily see that all other life forms are like us and that we are the way we are because they are the way they are.

Our own body can be seen as a string of interdependencies. We breathe in air in order to oxygenate the blood which is pumped by the heart to every corner of the body, the blood interacts with the digestive system on its way absorbing nutrients and carrying them to different parts of the body. The complexity of the interdependent relationships that exists in our bodies is the realm of the medical profession. Much is known about the physical structure of what makes us up. Much less is known about the relationships between the vast number of self-organising biological systems we call our body. It is in this latter field that breakthroughs usually occur that bring great benefit.

An image of a mandala of the Earth's natural environments

Our experience may also be seen as a string of interdependencies. Experience is conditioned by the environment within which is occurs, by the object of the experience and by the other living beings with whom we are sharing it. The weight and value our predictive brain has given to any particular experience is influenced by similar or related experiences we may have had in the past and their impact on us, blended with the probability of possible outcomes we have learnt about. Suppose we were to remove all these components, what would happen to the experience? It would appear that there would then be no experience that could be had.

Although this evaluation of the interdependent relationships which exist in our bodies and personal experience is necessarily simplistic, it is sufficient to demonstrate that we are mostly about patterns and relationships rather than objects with finite defined characteristics. If we can understand ourselves as interweaving patterns why not apply this insight to the entire biosphere and life within it.

The migrating bird lives in an ecosystem in the Northern hemisphere where it has evolved to successfully exist in relation to the trees, the rivers, the food, other species, the landscape and climate, thereby defining and being defined by the ecosystem. It then travels South across numerous other ecosystems and interacts with each one of them. Each ecosystem touches, overlaps and relates to surrounding ecosystems. Remote ecosystems also affect each other through weather and ocean movements. One could go as far as to say that each ecosystem is defined by this world wide web of interdependent relationships.

These mandala patterns would appear to be the organising principle behind existence and experience and the ground out of which the myriad threads of interdependence arise. Humans have been messing with these life giving ecosystems. We are tearing away at the entire web of interdependent relationships. The accelerated extinction of species and degradation of Earth’s life support system is glaring evidence of the intricate interdependence of all life on Earth.

Image of an earth mandala

Looking at the biosphere from the point of view of the Earth, all species interact with the Earth in a mandala (pattern of relationships) where the Earth is at the centre. However if we view the biosphere from the standpoint of human beings, the Earth and all other species interact with human beings in a mandala where humans are at the centre. This principle can be applied to individuals and communities in different species. It can be applied to ecosystems and solar systems. It can be applied to all life. The truth of the matter is that we have our own mandala but we are also intimately part of countless other mandalas that do not have us at the centre.

Our human mandala is nothing more than a web of relationships with other species and the Earth within the biosphere that allows us to live. The health of our own mandala depends on the health of all the other mandalas.  If we degrade the mandalas that have other living beings at their centre we will bring them to extinction and that takes them out of our mandala. We destroy enough of these relationships in our own mandala and we will become extinct.