Contexting: a challenging perspective
And the underexplored art of coherent contexting

This is an essay that explores an idea on which I have been ruminating for about ten years and that finally got (re)written in 02020. It was recently reworked to be published in Pari Perspectives (If you are interested in science, religion, spirituality, society, psychology, language, and the arts, consider subscribing to this enlightening, independent and international magazine: ).
Many thanks to Kristina Alexandra Janavicius for the rigorous editing
This version is slightly altered with videos and additional images, and some extra paragraphs at the end. (NL vertaling: link)

The limitations of text and the explicate

We are living in challenging times, with a plethora of ongoing crises threatening the natural world, human rights, democracies, economies. This is also an era in which ‘the explicate’—a term coined by David Bohm [1] to refer to all that is explicit, manifest, quantifiable, material, measurable, in focus and literal, textual—consumes most of our attention.

The predominance of ‘text’ or the ‘explicate’ in red, within a context (in blue) (on right side: focus on chronos time, economic profits, material interactions and mechanistic interpretation )

Science is still predominantly occupied with a materialist and reductionist agenda, backed by spectacular technological advancements; yet it fails to solve many of the environmental problems it has created. The so-called ‘natural world,’ or what is left of it, is being further reduced, controlled, depleted and destroyed for the sake of short-term profits.
Equally serious is the fact that people are basically treated as resources, numbers, labels; as consumers, discrete, independent individuals, with little appreciation shown for their personal background, their struggles and living circumstances. It is as if all the invisible contingencies that constrain us are non-existent. “Work hard enough and you’ll get what you desire” remains the common adage.

While all that is manifest, explicit and measurable has reigned in most human domains for quite some time now, some cracks have been developing in this predominant paradigm of what we will call ‘text.’ For example, local initiatives regarding food production and attempts to repair the social fabric are on the rise. Developing scientific domains such as contextual psychology, personalized medicine and epigenetics are also gaining traction. Ideas such as plant communication [2] and sustainable economics [3] are being popularized, as is the revolutionary (!) notion that most people are actually good and decent, provided that you accommodate them with sufficient conditions to prosper [4].

The renewed interest in David Bohm’s physics theories might also prove a hopeful sign. There is also a growing movement towards cross-disciplinary research, nowadays backed by computer systems capable of processing enormous chunks of experimental data. This can be seen, e.g., in the progress made in comprehending the workings of immune systems, microbiomes, cancers, climate change etc. For the first time in history, science is able to take into account a vast number of contextual factors, taking baby steps towards a better understanding of the vast complexity of everything.

Context as a process

Caught in the aforementioned paradigm of ‘text’, when faced with a certain issue, we tend to overlook the importance of context [5]. This is especially true in western industrialized societies (though far less so in China, Japan, native American cultures [6], for example), regardless of what the subject matter or problem is. Usually only a small number of visible and immediate aspects of the issue are addressed, and all the rest is left aside and regarded insignificant.
Enter the world of contexting. Etymologically, con-texting means ‘weaving together, joining together.’ Context as a verb, which can also be named ‘active context’. By zooming out, taking fully into account context as an active, undivided, ongoing process and naming it ‘contexting,’ the emphasis is put on relation (togetherness) and process (becoming) rather than on individuality (separateness) and identity (being). In fact, one could say that the larger view obtained becomes rather vague and unfocused, thus better enabling us to discern the nature and workings of the evolving whole.

Weather patterns, the water cycle, climate change, etc. are all dynamic processes that we only experience and observe partially – they are enormously complex contextings to grasp

This perspective proves relevant in many areas.
On the quantum level, one could say that the contexting process of the experimental setup informs the quantum processes within, and that these processes feed back into this changing background [7]. (For the Bohm-Hiley adepts, notice the similarities between the notions of ‘active information’ and contexting = ‘active context’.)

‘Pilot-wave’ dynamics at a macroscopic level (water droplet), demonstrating the continuous interaction between the droplet and the oscillating water surface.
This touching story illustrates the intricate relations between the environment and its fauna and flora – contextings mutually influencing other contextings. Here the landscape can be quite literally seen as a living context instead of a passive background.

Organism-environment theory [8] is another example. It takes into account many contextual parameters (in space and time) that would otherwise be omitted in a traditional scientific inquiry. From the broadly observed contexting, both the behavior of the organism in question and the relevant environmental factors can be abstracted.

One of the most prominent limiting contexts shaping our reality is language. If we don’t have a word for some phenomenon, it is as if it barely exists; it barely enters our culture and personal consciousness, sometimes not at all. In fact, language can itself be viewed as a contexting process, continually changing, syntactically and semantically. Interacting with what happens in the world, it assigns significance where it will, to some features but not to others. Language is alive. This is why we think it is indispensable to explicitly point, in as far as this is possible, to all that is unnamed, invisible, fleeting and unfathomable with our newly introduced concept.
Contexting comprises all that cannot be measured, all that is hidden between the lines, enfolded, out of focus. Consequently, when our attention is shifted to this complex and infinitely rich process, we transcend the limited energy of our abstractions, interpretations and incomplete knowledge

Contexting, by definition, expands, like a whirling vortex reaching out to its outer edges, at the same time revolving by infinitesimal degrees around its evolving center(s). Contexting might even reach beyond time and space, i.e. weaving/interconnecting non-locally, synchronically, who knows…!
By recognizing contexting as primordial, or as being at least as important as the manifest world, we reintroduce the religious into the equation—religion untethered, secular, without any dogmas or beliefs. To avoid any misunderstandings, here we consider religion in its radical, holistic sense of ‘relating, binding together.’ By acknowledging the complexity of ourselves and the other, by looking beyond what is on the surface, beyond the things we know and presume, our relations become much more lively, with more room for compassion and understanding, and a fresh outlook on what is actually taking place from moment to moment.
Analogous to context—as opposed to text—there are two ancient concepts of time: Kairos and Chronos. We are all familiar with Chronos, that chronological, clock time which has been another determining factor in the reign of the explicate, with its ever-more-precise measurement of practically all phenomena. Yet there is also Kairos or contextual time—the right time. It depends not on mechanics but rather on chance, opportunity, intuition, natural cycles [9].

Move the arrows to see the differences with fig. 1: an envisaged proposal of contexting (in green) with the old ‘textual’ parts (in red) (on the right, more focus on kairos time, sustainable economics, fuzzy and fluid processes, and a more organic view of things)

Contexting is a never halting movement of intertwined processes, of which human consciousness is a part. There is always some mental activity going on, and our conscious minds never start from a static square one—you always wake up riding a horse that is moving somewhere, so to speak. The same goes for bodily processes.
To fully inhabit contexting requires a degree of questioning, of looking further—an activity that animates, breathes life into what we already know and see; it’s an activity that precludes certainties.
To put it another way, the world and the universe are constantly in flux; they are the totality of contexting, and each of us temporarily participates in that subtle dance [10]. You could also say the universe is ‘uni-verting’ (literally turning around as one, into one whole), the world is ‘worlding,’ with us as part of that process.
Worlding is us, and we are worlding; all is contexting. Deep down there is no separation: it is one movement, with movements within movements, ad infinitum.

“Free will illustrated, essay #2 (surfing the stream of consciousness – the surfer is the wave)” – Sky02019

By considering ourselves ‘human contextings,’ we recognize our changing subtleties and tendencies, our being and becoming, our origins and our constantly changing relationships with the rest of the world, which does not remain unchanged either.
As human contextings, we find much more fulfillment in our lively, reciprocal relations; in meaningful exchanges, rather than in distant identifications. Ideas and images can be tremendously exciting, but only for so long, as they do not nourish the soul.
Our private minds and bodies are arbitrary limits or abstractions of the larger contexting process they participate in, no matter how large our scope on contexting is—from the personal to the interpersonal to the universal.

Reminder of the larger contexting we are moving in/with: the Milky Way process

The art of coherent contexting

As explained thus far, contexting can be seen as the general activity of every-thing and no-thing (the explicate and the implicate), and at first glance this renders a rather passive and deterministic outlook, especially in the light of the dominant worldviews. This is misleading though.
Conscious attention and sensitivity are the best means we have at our disposal by far to somewhat calibrate the contexting process that we are all part of. Without them, we are unwittingly dragged into going the way of the masses, escaping from our responsibilities [11]. They are the ‘tools’ of awareness which make it possible to root out incoherences and move toward ‘coherent contexting,’ which means, simply put, living more coherently, through our thinking, actions and relationships.
By incoherence we mean ill-fitted human contexting (repeated patterns in the brain and/or the culture, from simple to very complex), generated by incoherent thought, or memory. This incoherence can be stored patterns in the brain and in culture (traditions, books, movies, language, to name but a few), in practices and systems that are no longer (or never were) suitable for what is actually required.

David Bohm (polymath and advocate of dialogue) and the Dalai Lama (spiritual leader) at an interdisciplinary conference “Art Meets Science & Spirituality in a Changing Economy” (01990)

What is needed foremost to facilitate this is a broad dialogue, with deep, actual listening; an inner dialogue, in mind and body, not looking away from what is ugly, rigid and painful, but rather examining it all and allowing it to exist, to potentially having it loosen up and evolve.
It requires an outer dialogue, not just with people we know or that we have a natural affinity with, but also those we do not know, those who have different habits and beliefs. A collective effort with each participant trying to understand the issues involved and the different viewpoints, looking further than the verbal narratives, taking into account not only each other’s personal histories and shortcomings, but also trying to address the whole context at hand, in its full complexity.
Additionally, and equally importantly, a dialogue with the totality of our surroundings, with the air we breathe, the trees, the animals, the pollution, the destruction—all of it. And all of it without fear or judgment, but rather with as much openness, sensitivity and creativity as we can muster.
Out of all this, meaningful action will emerge.
Let us now go into some detail on possible ways to get there. This involves three main principles: awareness of actuality, coherent knowledge and coherent action.

1. Awareness of actuality

Firstly, ‘ontoscopy,’ the term conceived for ‘looking at what is, not knowing’—bare observation and awareness, attained through no-nonsense meditation and/or mindfulness practices. It is essential to get rid of mental distortions and to obtain a sufficiently objective perspective.

The main concern is to cultivate trustworthy proprioception of the mind’s movements, in the same way that we naturally possess proprioceptive capabilities for moving the body in space, i.e. most people can sufficiently sense their bodily movements, but hardly any level of their mental activity in time.
This improved self-awareness can greatly facilitate our ability to detect, feel out and think through incoherences. Over time it becomes possible to pierce through many illusions, to go upstream in consciousness, deeper inwardly, to observe parts of the unconscious or what is called ‘tacit infrastructure’ of thought, and to acquire more inner freedom [12]. As this area is largely unexplored (some traditions have, but the descriptions tend to be rather cryptic), the final possibilities are yet to be discovered and scientifically charted.
This process of and towards non-judgmental awareness of actuality calls into question what is happening before the senses (with which we create and anticipate our model of reality), and compels us to perceive the ever-changing actuality, thus becoming more fully and deeply aware that there is more activity present, beyond appearances. In this way we develop an eye for the particular, for the actual contexting observed, from moment to moment, not generalizing or falling back on existing knowledge (images, labels, etc.) but responding adequately, intelligently. Of course we cannot take in all contexting information present but that is not necessary either, as what is relevant will become clear through experience. Intuition and sensitivity become the guiding force to know what to do (or not do).
We do not refrain from pointing out useful methods to facilitate this mental clarity, as long as we keep in mind that methods are always a means, not an end: mindfulness [13] and meditation [14], self-observation & self-remembering (Gurdjieff) [15], zazen [16], focusing [17], psychosynthesis [18], transpersonal psychology [19], and centering [20].

Equanimity is part approaching life in a healthy, coherent way (“Equanimity” – Sky02019)

Although attaining accurate perception, self-knowledge and wisdom is an arduous challenge, it can be achieved. Through mindful introspection and psychological investigation (with or without help from experts), we can arrive at considerable insight.

2. Coherent knowledge

Ontology—in its sense of ‘knowing, categorizing of what is’, human knowledge as a whole (personal and cultural)—is perhaps as important as living consciously. The reality we each create as a model for what is out there and inside of us seemingly originates from our own observations, while in fact it is constructed to a large extent from the culture we grow up in.
With respect to our inner workings, we are largely able to observe and find out on our own, as explained in the previous section.
As for our understanding of the world, we are largely dependent on the input of others to construct a coherent worldview. In everyday life, it is hard to obtain objective facts, because of unintentional illusions, deliberate misinformation, personal biases and the like. Vigilance and a healthy amount of skepticism are necessary at all times.
Even with the assistance of science and trustworthy authorities it is a tricky endeavor to remain open to new information and to simultaneously develop a robust frame of reference to navigate one’s way through life. If only we had better ways to share coherent knowledge with others, without censorship! Humanity could advance substantially.

Important to note: ontoscopy and ontology cannot be totally separated [21]. They are two aspects of the same flowing movement of mental activity, constantly interacting. Both activities can be cultivated by each of us and they largely determine all that society produces and holds dear. Relying too much on one or the other is not a healthy approach. If you are attentive only to your observations, without having some solid framework based on a set of ideas and principles, you become an empty vessel susceptible to any and every ideology. This can result in your actions causing great harm, as history has shown [22].

Finding your car in a parking tower takes some observation and knowledge to take the right action… (still from “The Parking Garage” – Seinfeld 01991)

Similarly, if you become intellectually stuck in a particular ‘-ism,’ and are no longer receptive to what is actually taking place around and inside you, your rigidity will block you from thinking, talking and acting adequately and creatively.

3. Coherent action

Coherent, meaningful action naturally arises from a coherent mind and coherent knowledge. If you have a clear perception of yourself and you are presented with the right information about the external world, there will be very few choices left to take, and right action will take place accordingly in the flow of coherent contexting. It might not be perfect, but it will be meaningful, with most likely minimal harm to all that is related.

Coherent action as envisioned in picture n° 10 of ‘The ox-herding’ zen parable: Return to Society (painting traditionally attributed to Tenshō Shūbun (1414-1463))

Incoherence is unavoidable, something which it is important to keep in mind: people make mistakes, disturbances arise, disease, damage occurs. These glitches are an inherent part of the healthy tensions and non-equilibrium that life and evolution bring forth. Sustained incoherence, however, is immensely problematic. Unhealthy patterns that have become personal or cultural habits are the real issues to be fixed!
Paradoxically, coherent contexting can be a messy and discontinuous, incoherent process: there can be shedding of unhealthy thoughts and habits through insight, reorganizing the whole at a single instance, without time. In most cases, and certainly for groups, it takes considerable time and effort to remove the blockages and allow those shifts to happen, and to adopt new patterns in thinking and conduct.

Change can be instigated by very subtle means. Gentle action [23] is a good example of active, coherent contexting: by means of subtle change(s), attuned to a problematic situation, a significant impact can be achieved, softly nudging a system into a healthier movement. Anyone that practices some form of holistic exercise (yoga, qi gong, tai chi, Feldenkrais, etc.) will recognize that the greatest difficulty lies in applying subtler movements and articulations, which are also the most effective and powerful. Correspondingly, dialogue, in the end, has a lot to do with connecting through subtlety. What is being said is of great importance, but even more important is the potential for finding common ground, instigating insight through the shared meaning of the rich contexting exchanges (e.g., verbally, non-verbally, emotionally, intellectually, historically).
Every action has an actual impact on the world, however small or insignificant it may seem. Any ripple (or deliberate non-ripple) somewhere in the flowing fabric of contexting potentially affects every process it is connected with, both now and in the near or distant future.

soldier planting a tree
Soldiers planting trees

To summarize

Contexting is the proposed term to describe the actual processes at play in a certain context, within larger contingencies.
In general, it refers to the universal movement of processes within processes. Because of the advanced cognitive capabilities of human contextings, we have an enormous impact on each other and on earth’s ecosystems.
Contexting is not an answer or a solution, it is an integrative perspective. More than anything else, it is an attitude, a shift away from current, mainstream thinking and doing.
Furthermore, coherent contexting is an inquiring practice and theory, personally and culturally. To effectively engage in this creative art of living, we insist on the need for clarity of mind and thinking, right knowledge and right action.
As the title suggests, this text is a basic outline of the contexting approach, and an open invitation to explore further and more deeply.

EXTRA: Possible implications & applications

The paradigm of contexting opens up new possibilities of thinking and organizing human activity on earth.
Overall, all efforts towards coherence would infuse meaning into many parts of society, whether it involves businesses, school systems, social services, development cooperation, you name it.
Social welfare could become more consistent and provide truly individual, heartfelt support, taking into account people’s entire background and circumstances, i.e. as full human contextings, at the same time defragmenting the many separate offices and agencies existing today, introducing much needed coherence and humanity into the machine of bureaucracy.
Gardening is perhaps the most fitting metaphor to illustrate contexting in action: the emphasis shifts to wholeness, cultivation, cooperation, trust, a balance between tending and letting go instead of manipulation, intrusion, mistrust, fear, domination and control.
As gardeners of our inner and outer garden we could have necessity and contingency as our guiding questions, within the limits of planet earth, taking into account many next generations instead of the next couple of days, months or years.
Politics could stop focusing on identity and eternal economic growth and move on to long-term, global and environmental health, people’s well-being, sustainability, etc.
Businesses, especially large corporations, could adapt similar policies.

a comic strip page containing a living context, dialectic and embodied dialogue, insight, etc. (“Wind Sun Clouds” – Sky02019)

Art could make further explorations into perspectives (new forms of cubism?), imagine new configurations of contexting, reality, space and time.
Contextual architecture could become more widespread, with buildings that fit the urban and natural environment, do not deplete resources and enhance the well-being of its occupants and visitors.

We can only sketch some potential applications, and leave it up to the reader to envision better and more advanced ones.

Surveillance capitalism thrives on capturing “residual data” from your phone apps to predict and influence human behavior

We also note that the current practices of surveillance capitalism [24] are a malicious form of contexting, invisibly profiling and manipulating people in their respective digital and real life contexts. This is accomplished with commercial and political advertisements and through far more subtle nudges on mobile apps, appliances and websites.
Silicon Valley and the advertisers are way ahead when it comes to targeting and manipulating context, except that it is aimed at gaining profits, typically inducing more incoherence in society.

Post scriptum

The global Covid-19 pandemic and climate change are huge challenges for human contextings who are largely stuck in rigid systems that are no longer fitting for what is actually necessary (read: an incoherent global contexting).
Systemic racism is clearly still here, embedded in society, and it can only be measured indirectly. To eradicate it we will have to grow awareness, listen and find/create coherent contexting habits and views.
The year 02020 has everything in it to be a the most horrible year since long but it could also be the opportunity to reorganize and tend our garden in many regards, taking the right actions needed for the generations to come.

“The contexting that can be named is not the ultimate contexting”


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[3] Raworth, K. (02017) Doughnut Economics. London: Random House Business.
[4] Bregman, R. (02020) Humankind: A Hopeful History. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
[5] Sommers, S. (02011) Situations Matter: Understanding how context transforms your world. New York: Riverhead Books.
[6] Peat, F. D. (01995) Blackfoot Physics. Boston: Weiser Books.
[7] Hiley, B.J. (02008) Quantum Reality unveiled through Process and the Implicate Order ( paper).
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[10] Lao Tzu (01995) Hua Hu Ching (translated by Walker, B.). New York: HarperCollins.
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[12] Bohm, D. & Krishnamurti, J. (01998) The Limits of Thought. London, New York: Routledge.
[13] Tart, C.T. (02000) Mind Science – Meditation training for practical people. Napa, CA: Fearless Books.
[14] Young, S. (02016) The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
[15] Tart, C.T. (01987) Waking Up: Overcoming the obstacles to human potential. Lincoln, NE:, Inc.
[16] Suzuki, S. (01970) Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Boston: Weatherhill.
[17] Gendlin, E. (01978) Focusing. New York: Bantam Dell.
[18] Young Brown, M. (02004) Unfolding Self : The Practice of Psychosynthesis. New York: Allworth Press.
[19] Welwood, J. (02000) Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, psychotherapy, and the path of personal and spiritual transformation. Boston: Shambala Publications, Inc.
[20] Richards , (01966) Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person.
[21] Bohm, D. (01992) Thought as a System. London: Routledge.
[22] Jalon, A.M. (02003) Meditating On War And Guilt, Zen Says It’s Sorry, New York Times
[23] Peat, F.D. (02008) Gentle Action: Bringing Creative Change to a Turbulent World. Pari, Italy: Pari Publishing Sas.
[24] Zuboff, S. (02018) Surveillance Capitalism, PublicAffairs.

More media & sources

Shoshana Zuboff on the unseen dangers of surveillance capitalism (02019)
Art Meets Science & Spirituality in a Changing Economy (01990)

Want to learn more about David Bohm? Check these events:

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And the underexplored art of coherent contexting

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