And long may it wave

The 16th Karmapa’s “Flag of the Buddha’s Wisdom”

Sitting in the hot tub watching the afternoon wind whip a flag flying atop a 40-foot bamboo pole in my garden, I thought about waves. Flags wave in the wind, a convergence of weight, length, wind speed, and air turbulence. If the right proportions of these conditions exist, a wave-form oscillation is visible moving across the surface of the flag and the corner of the flag literally “snaps” as it reaches maximum amplitude at the peak of the wave.

Flags, of course, are banners that contain symbols, shapes occasionally combined with words or  numbers. Flags send messages about those who fly flags to those who see flags flying, messages about personal values, affiliations and allegiances. Often such messages are laden with emotion and meaning, accordingly flag flying itself assumes symbolic meaning as well. A flag flown upside down, for example, can be interpreted as insulting. A raised flag symbolizes endurance and prevailing against great forces; think WWII’s Iwo Jima.

But watching the oscillation ripple across its surface, I saw something more in the waving of my flag; I saw the oscillation of society and politics.

Society exhibits the non-linear behavior of a highly complex adaptive system, one that responds and adjusts and to turbulence and change. Change can arise spontaneously within society as the result of an idea, or it can arise spontaneously from natural forces outside of society, such as drought or flood. Change results in turbulence, which in a complex adaptive system generates a feedback loop that propagates and ripples across society, transforming everything. Think Apple’s iPhone.

There is a natural oscillation in society, of course, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, as the winds of change blow across its political body. The current waves of change in Egypt are happening quickly compared to the period of Mubarak, who enforced a prolonged period of slower change, for example.

In America, waves of political change oscillate between two main parties as they vie for power. These parties also oscillate internally from one philosophical extreme to the other, even reversing direction. Democrats were once the party of segregation and obstruction of voters and now it is the Republicans, once the slave-ending party of Lincoln. Think Nixon’s EPA.

As technology enhances our interconnectedness, the pace of change and oscillation is increasing. Technology is always disruptive, and the more advanced the more it disrupts. Caught up as we are within rapid waves of change, we cling tighter to symbols and ideas that comfort us, but the forces at play are too powerful to resist. We flap and flutter, snap and fray as the oscillations increase. If we get desperate, depression or anxiety begin to manifest alongside its antidotes. Think Lilly’s Prozac.

If string theory is correct, all of existence is nothing more than oscillation, the continuous vibration of change. We may not like change, but resistance is futile; change is immutable and is the only thing that doesn’t change. Might as well relax.

This brings me back to the flag flapping on that bamboo pole above my garden; this particular flag appeared in a dream of the great Lama Rangjung Dorje (1924-1981), the Sixteenth Karmapa of Tibet. He named it “Flag of the Buddha’s Wisdom.” It displays two intermingled symmetrically curved forms — blue and yellow waves.

Political winds are always blowing, the body politic always oscillating between extremes; a fine contemplation for election day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *