Part One – Introduction


How I ‘met’ Nietzsche and Wieman

In this essay I’ll treat some concepts of two philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche and Henry Nelson Wieman, who both have influenced my thinking.

Let me start by stating that I’m not a philosopher myself. During the publication process of my latest book I liked to call myself a ‘thought philosopher’, but my publisher refused to put this into print on the back cover of ‘Cruciale dialogen’. This because, to him, I had no right to call myself a philosopher (having not done the proper studies); so I switched to the label: ‘thought engineer’ (being a civil engineer twice and doing a lot of thinking, I assumed I could do that)[i]. So, I’m not a philosopher and did not study philosophy at all; nevertheless I have been intrigued by Friedrich Nietzsche and strongly influenced by Henry Nelson Wieman.

I was introduced to Friedrich Nietzsche through reading Milan Kundera’s bestseller ‘The unbearable lightness of being’[ii] in which he quotes Friedrich Nietzsche and uses the German proverb: “Einmal ist keinmal’. Gallimard first published this book in 1984, although originally written in Czech two years before, in French: ‘L’insoutenable légèreté de l’être’. I bought this French edition in Paris in the fall of that year and I enjoyed it that much that I read it in one sitting.

The phrase “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is Kundera’s own, but to understand it one actually has to start with Friedrich Nietzsche and the idea of eternal return. Eternal return is the idea that our universe and our existence has occurred an infinite number of times in the past, and will continue to occur ad infinitum. In this theory, time is cyclical rather than linear. The idea of eternal return is an ancient one, but Nietzsche popularized it for modern times. That’s why the narrator of Unbearable Lightness refers to it as Nietzsche’s concept. Nietzsche explored what the consequences of such eternal return would be. In his eyes, eternal return was das schwerste Gewicht, or “the heaviest weight.” It was a petrifying concept to imagine that our lives have been and will continue to be repeated endlessly. But one could learn, through philosophy, to love the idea. The proper mind can embrace this weight, rather than be terrified by it. Nietzsche seems to conclude in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that we must live and act as though our lives functioned in eternal return, suggesting that we give our own lives meaning and weight by behaving this way. Kundera argues that Nietzche was wrong and states: “Human time does not turn in a circle,” he argues; “it runs ahead in a straight line”. This is where Kundera’s use of the phrase einmal ist keinmal comes into the picture. And Tomas, one of the main characters of the book, translates this for us: “What happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all”. Nietzsche said that eternal return gives our lives the heaviest weight. So if our lives only occur once, it must mean – according to Kundera – that they are filled with lightness.

For what it’s worth, let me express my view on Kundera’s argument. I agree: ‘Einmal ist Keinmal’; you simply cannot live two lives in parallel. I cannot, at the same time, be married to Rita and be single. The consequence of this fact is that I cannot compare those two ‘lives’ the moment of the decision and throughout my whole married life, neither can Rita. Regarding Kundera’s question: “Is ‘being’ light or unbearable?” the only right answer is, as I learned from my mentor Charlie Palmgren, since the question is a ‘or’ question: YES![iii] Finally I really can’t say Amen to Kundera’s statement “that because we cannot judge we are not responsible for the consequences of our decisions.” To me we definitely are responsible for those consequences and what’s more they become bearable if we live Creative Interchange from within. In other words we should stay aware of the unfolding of our lives and take the right measures and decisions when needed. Let me be clear: we are responsible for our actions, period.

Beginning this year, 2018, I enrolled in a MOOC course: “Introduction à la Philosophie de Friedrich Nietzsche” proposed by the University of Sorbonne (Paris). During this course it struck me that Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy made me almost continuously think of Henry Nelson Wieman’s Creative Interchange. At the end of the course I got the idea to write this essay.

I was introduced to Henry Nelson Wieman in the early nineties of last century through my mentor Charlie Palmgren. At that time Charlie was one of the two senior consultants of Daryl Conner’s ODR. It happened during a five day course in the fall of 1992 in Atlanta’s Swissotell. Charlie labeled Wieman’s Creative Interchange process in those years the Synergistic Process, although he called it, ‘off the record’, by its genuine name: Creative Interchange and disclosed at the same time the name of its discoverer: Henry Nelson Wieman, who had been his mentor. I became a follower of Charlie Palmgren in 1994 and learned more about Creative Interchange and slowly started to live it. In January 1995 I attended a conference “From Drift to Direction’ (as the title of chapter 2 of Henry Nelson Wieman’s book ‘Man’s Ultimate Commitment’[iii]) and learned more about the Religious Philosopher Henry Nelson Wieman. I did not dig deep in the overall philosophy of Henry Nelson though; appreciatively understanding and living Creative Interchange from within stayed my focus. So the Wieman part of this essay is essentially built on my actual understanding and living of Creative Interchange thanks to my mentor Charlie Palmgren, whith whom I still have regularly Skype meetings around Creative Interchange.


Philosophers of Religion

The two philosophers had a particular relation towards religion. Friedrich Nietzsche(1844-1900), the German philosopher, is still famous for his attempts to unmask the motives that underlie Western religion, crystalized by his observation: “God is dead”[iv].

Henry Nelson Wieman (1884-1975), the American philosopher of Religion, is known for discovering and coining the unique living process of transformation we’re all born with: “Creative Interchange”[v], which rings to me as “God is alive and kicking”. Indeed, Wieman’s God is transpersonal but not supernatural, it’s a process within the universe rather than the universal creator.  So for Wieman, God is the character of the universe – creating, integrating, transforming into greater wholes of greater value.

Friedrich Nietzsche taught philology at the University of Basel (1869-1877) and had to take leave due to serious health problems.  Most of his work at the university was in philology although he was very interested in philosophy. Nevertheless, his plan to pursue a (second) ph. D. in philosophy was cancelled due to his unforeseen appointment at the University of Basel. 

Henry Nelson Wieman taught at many universities: philosophy at Occidental College in Los Angeles (1917-1927), professor of philosophy and religion at the Divinity School of University of Chicago (1927-1947) and philosophy at Southern Illinois University (1956-1966).

Friedrich Nietzsche’s father was a Lutheran minister and Friedrich himself published during his leave from university of Basel ‘Human, All too Human’ (1878) introducing his readers to corrosive attacks on Western Religion for which he became famous.

Henry Nelson Wieman’s father was a Presbyterian minister and Henry Nelson planned for a career in journalism, but in 1907 he had an epiphany that sealed his new vocation and he became first minister himself and later professor in philosophy.

So both young man were raised in a clerical atmosphere and family and social intercourse compelled both to religious practices and the pursuit of theological studies. Nietzsche detached himself being a young adult and left the Burschenschaft and switched from the study of theology to philology, while Wieman continued troughout his whole life what he called his “Religious Inquiry”.


Their Epiphany Experiences  

Friedrich Nietzsche had his ‘epiphany experience’ in August 1881 in Sils-Maria, in the Swiss Alps. In ‘the middle of life’, like Dante, he walked down the wooded Alpine slope and entered his own Inferno. On the anniversary of long-buried loss and pain, his psyche was temporarily flooded by archetypal imagery. From the turbulent and frightful experience, a symbol of transfiguration emerged in the shape of Eternal Return. To Nietzsche an Epiphany is to be understood as a ‘monumental’ great moment that leave a lasting impression and are striking for their perfection:

That the great moments in the struggle of the human individual constitute a chain, that this chain unites mankind across the millennia like a range of human mountain peaks, that the summit of such a long-ago moment shall be for me still living, bright and great – that is the fundamental idea of faith in humanity which finds expression in the demand for a monumental history.[vi]

Henry Nelson Wieman enrolled in Park College, as both his parents before him, intending to become a journalist and right before graduation in 1907, he had an epiphany that would shape the rest of his life:

“I came to my room after the evening meal and sat alone looking at the sunset over the Missouri River. Suddenly it came over me that I should devote my life to the problems of religious inquiry. I never had a more ecstatic experience. I could not sleep all night and walked in that ecstasy for days.”[vii]

Although he had little interest in becoming a minister, he then enrolled in San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, California, and later attended Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D. and started his quest to solve the problems of religious inquiry, which ultimately brought him to discover Creative Interchange.


[i]Roels Johan, Cruciale dialogen, Het dagdagelijks beleven van ‘Creatieve wisselwerking’[Crucial dialogues, the daily living of creative interchange]. Antwerpen-Apeldoorn: Garant, 2012.  Back cover.

[ii]Kundera Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New York NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1984.

[iii]Wieman, Henry Nelson. Man’s Ultimate Commitment, Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America ®, Inc. Reprint, Originally published: Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1958, pp. 36-55.

[iv]Nietzsche first used the term ‘God is dead’ in the Madman, aphorism 125 of the Gay Science [Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science.Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 119-120].

Haven’t you not heard of that madman who in the bright morning lit a lantern hours and ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I’m looking for God! I’m looking for God!”… “Where is God?” he cried; “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are all his murderers.”… “ God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

[v]Wieman’s doctoral thesis ‘The Organization of Interests’can be seen as the seedbed for the basic principle of his naturalistic metaphysics – the creative event – as exemplified in creativity as creative interchange. Wieman analyzed creative interchange brilliantly in important books as The Source of Human Good, Man’s Ultimate Commitmentand Religious Inquiry: Some explorations [Wieman, Henry Nelson. The Organization of Interests, Originally presented as the author’s thesis (Ph. D. – Harvard University, Department of Philosophy, 1917), Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.; Edited by Hepler, Cedric Lambeth, 1985, pp. iii-iv].





In these series of columns I’m using a lot of paragraphs of “Beyond The Self’[i] and add comments regarding the links I see with the Creative Interchange process. To me, Creative Interchange, is a process of inner transformation – and after reading this book I add – not only through dialogue, also through meditation. I’ve put my comments between vertical brackets and in italic. These series will give you a good insight of the content of the book and I recommend you to read and comment this brilliant book yourself.






What is the unconscious? For the Buddhist monk the most profound aspect of consciousness is alert presence. In Buddhism there is the concept of habitual tendencies that are opaque to our awareness. For Buddhism, the deepest, most fundamental aspect of consciousness is this sun-like awareness, not the murky unconsciousness. [I’m always distinguishing awareness and consciousness as follows: awareness is crystal clear consciousness, while what here is called unconsciousness is, to me, colored consciousness – i.e. coloring or interpreting of what is observed through crystal clear consciousness or sun-like awareness.]

Usually we are not aware of the rules that govern the interpretation of sensory signals, the construction of our percepts, or the logic according to which we learn, decide, associate, and act. [This logic is using my Crucial Dialogue Model: observe and interpret (i.e. learn), feel, associate and imagine (i.e. create), decide and finally act… followed by … starting all over again; and indeed we are usually not aware of what I call the Crucial Dialogue Model.]

Abundant evidence indicates that attentional mechanisms play a crucial role in controlling access to consciousness. When attended to, most signals from our senses can reach the level of conscious awareness. It cannot be emphasized enough, however, that signals permanently excluded from conscious processing as well as transitorily excluded signals such as nonattended sensory stimuli still have a massive impact on our behavior. In addition, these unconscious signals can control attentional mechanisms and thereby determine which of the stored memories or sensory signals will be attended and transferred to the level of conscious processing.

The phenomenon of change blindness, the inability to detect local changes in two images presented in quick succession, demonstrates impressively our inability to attend to and consciously process all features of an image simultaneously.

Perception is actually not as holistic as it appears to be. We scan complex scenes serially, and actually much of what we seem to perceive we are in fact reconstructing from memory. It appears also that we are not always capable of controlling which contents enter consciousness.

Wolf considers the workspace of consciousness as the highest and most integrated level of brain function. Access to this workspace is privileged and controlled by attention. Moreover, the rules governing conscious deliberations such as consciously made decisions most likely differ from those of subconscious processes. The former are based mainly on rational, logical or syntactic rules, and the search for solutions is essentially a serial process. Arguments and facts are scrutinized one by one and possible outcomes investigated. [Makes me think of a tool I’ve used a zillion times in my Safety years: Root Cause Analysis] Hence conscious processing takes time. Subconscious mechanisms seem to rely more on parallel processing, whereby a large number of neuronal assemblies, each which represents a particular solution, enter into competition with one another. Then a “winner-takes-all” algorithm leads to the stabilization of the assembly that fits the actual context of distributed activity patterns. [Which makes me think of a phenomenon I disliked a zillion times in my Safety years: Jump to Conclusion or Groupthink] Thus, the conscious mechanism is suited best to circumstances in which no time pressure exists, when not too many variables have to be considered, and when the variables are defined with sufficient precision to be subjected to rational analysis. The domains of subconscious processing are situations requiring fast responses or conditions where large numbers of undetermined variables have to be considered simultaneously and weighed against variables that have no or only limited access to conscious processing, such as the wealth of implicit knowledge and heuristics, vague feelings, and hidden motives or drives.

The outcome of such subconscious processes manifests itself in either immediate behavioral responses or what are called “gut feelings”. [The “problem” with Jump to Conclusion or Groupthink is that the “solution” or behavioral response is at first sight the “right” one and after a while – humans being lazy – Jump to conclusion becomes a habit… until…]

What is said above corresponds with what Daniel Kahneman explains in his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’.[ii]Although we are generally convinced that we are rational, our decisions, economic or otherwise, are often irrational and strongly influenced by our immediate gut feelings, emotions and situations to which we have been exposed immediately before taken a decision. Intuition is a highly adaptable faculty that allows us to make fast decisions in complex situations, but it also lures us into thinking that we have made a rational choice, which actually takes more time and deliberation.

By dwelling in the clarity of the present moment, you are free from all ruminations, upsetting emotions, frustrations, and other inner conflicts. If you learn to deal, moment after moment, with the arising of thoughts, than you can preserve your inner freedom, which is the desired goal of such training.



In the end what we need is to be freed from inner conflicts, one way or the other. If you become an expert in meditation methods, the so-called afflicted thoughts no longer have the power to afflict you because they undo themselves the moment they arise. But that is not all. Experience shows that by repeatedly doing so, you not only deal successfully with each individual arising of afflictive thoughts but you also slowly erode the tendencies for such thoughts to arise. So in the end, you are free of them entirely.

To openly confront our differences can be a way to pacify a conflict, but it is not the only way. To begin with, a conflict requires two protagonists confronting each other in antagonistic ways. As the Tibetan saying goes “One cannot clap with one hand only.” In fact, if one of the persons involved disarms his or her own antagonistic mind, then it will contribute greatly to reduction the conflict with the other person. [This is done through living Creative Interchange from within due to postponing an insight or your ‘conclusion’ and starting to appreciatively understand the point of view of the other person. “Oh Master grant me … that I understand before being understood” – The Song of Saint Francis.]

As far as your own inner conflicts are concerned, if you use meditation simply as a quick fix to superficially appease your emotions, you temporarily enjoy a pleasant deferral of these inner conflicts. Unfortunately, these cosmetic changes have not reached the root of the problem.

True meditation is not just taking a break. It is not simply closing one’s eyes to the problem for a while. Meditation goes to the root of the problem. You need to become aware of the destructive aspect of compulsive attachment and all of the conflictive mental states that conflicts create. They are destructive in the sense of undermining your happiness and that of others, and to counteract them you need more than just a calming pill. Meditation practice offers many kinds of antidotes [cf. Creative Interchange practice]

One of the antidotes is to be aware of desire or anger, instead of identifying with it. Then the part of our mind that is aware of the anger is not angry, it is simply aware. In other words, awareness is not affected by the emotion it is observing. Understanding this makes it possible to step back and realize that the emotion is actually devoid of solidity. We need to provide an open space of inner freedom, and the internal affliction will dissolve by itself.



As for romantic love, there is usually a strong component of grasping and self-centeredness that will most often turn into a cause of torment. In this kind of love, one often loves oneself through the guise of loving someone else. To be a source of mutual happiness, genuine love has to be altruistic. This does not mean at all that one will not flourish oneself. Altruistic love is win-win, whereas selfish love soon turns into a lose-lose situation. [This part makes me strongly think of the love between Tereza, one of the main characters of Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ and her dog Karenin. Milan writes extensively about the love between Man and Dog. In chapter 4 one can read:

It is a completely selfless love: Tereza did not want anything of Karenin; she did not ever ask him to love her back. Nor had she ever asked herself the questions that plague human couples: Does he love me? Does he love anyone more than me? Does he love me more than I love him? Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him demand-free and asking for nothing but his company.
And something else: Tereza accepted Karenin for what he was; she did not try to make him over in her image; she agreed from the outset with his dog’s life, did not wish to deprive him of it, did not envy him his secret intrigues. The reason she trained him was not to transform him (as a husband tries to reform his wife and a wife her husband), but to provide him with the elementary language that enabled them to communicate and live together.
Then too: No one forced her to love Karenin; love for dogs is voluntary.
But most of all: No one can give anyone else the gift of the idyll; only an animal can do so, because only animals were not expelled from Paradise. The love between dog and man is idyllic. It knows no conflicts, no hair-raising scenes; it knows no development.”]

The universal nature of extended altruism does not mean that it becomes a vague, abstract feeling, disconnected from reality. It should be applied spontaneously and pragmatically to every being who presents him or herself in the field of our attention. [i.e. Living Creative Interchange from within]

You give your full, undiminished love to those who are close to you; those for whom you are responsible, andyou also reserve a complete openness and readiness to extend that altruism to whoever crosses your path in life.

Unconditional altruism is a state of benevolence for all sentient beings, a state of mind in which hatred has no place.

The aspiration of the bodhisattva: “May I transform myself and achieve enlightenment so that I become able to free all things from suffering.”



Having inner peace and equanimity does not mean that you cease to experience things with depth and brilliance, nor does it necessitate a reduction in the quality of your love, affection, vivid openness to others, or joy. In fact, you can be all the more present to others and to the world because you are remaining in the freshness of the present moment instead of being carried away by wandering thoughts.

Researchers in positive psychology, such as Barbara Frederickson, have concluded that love is the “supreme emotion” because, more than any other mental state, it opens your mind and allows us to view situations with a vaster perspective, be more receptive to others, and adopt flexible and creative attitudes and behavior.[iii]



Figuring among the similarities Aaron Beck noticed was elimination the “six main mental afflictions: attachment, anger and hostility, arrogance [i.e. pride], [ignorance, doubt] and mental confusion [i.e. afflicted views]”, which are to be slowly replaced by serenity, compassion and inner freedom. He also noted similarities in the application of procedures and meditation techniques aiming to reduce the mental fabrications leading to these afflictions: in particular being absorbed in intransigent egocentricity.

Beck notes that people suffering from psychotic problems experience intensified self-focalization: They relate everything to themselves and are exclusively concerned with the fulfillment of their own wants and needs. It must also be said that “normal” people often display the same type of egocentricity but to a lesser extent and in a more subtle way. Buddhism tries to diminish these characteristics.

We need to be more skillful in paying attention to all the nuances of what is actually happening in our mind and in successfully freeing ourselves from being enslaved by our own thoughts. This is how we can gain inner freedom.

If we are able to transform the way we perceive things, then we will transform at the same time the quality of our lives. [Makes me think of what my friend Carol Lischalck used to say:Change Management IS Perception Management.”]

Society and its institutions influence and condition individuals, but those individuals can in turn make society and institutions evolve as well. As this interaction continuous over the course of generations, culture and individuals keep on shaping each other. [To me, society can’t transform if the individuals do not. W. Edwards Deming once stated: “There is no change without personal transformation.”]







Can we understand reality as it is? On the level of ordinary perception, the neuroscientist and the Buddhist thinker say no: We never stop interpreting sensorial insights and construction ‘our’ reality.

Is there an objective reality independent from our perception? In this chapter the first-person approach will be distinguished from the second- and third-person exterior approaches.

We have two different sources of knowledge to call on. The primary and most important source is our subjective experience because it results from introspection or our interactions with the world around us. The second source is science, which attempts to understand the world and our condition by extending our senses with instruments, applying the tools of rational reasoning to interpreting observed phenomena, developing predictive models, and verifying our predictions through experiments.

Emanuel Kant distinguished between a hypothetical Ding an sich– literally the ‘thing in itself’, or the essence of an object of cognition that cannot be reduced further to anything else – and the phenomenological appearance of that object, which is accessible to our senses.

Objectivity of perception (i.e., the ability to recognize the hypothetical Ding an sich) has never been a selection criterion. We know today that we only perceive a narrow spectrum of the physical and chemical properties of this world. We use those few signals to construct our perceptions, and our naïve intuition is that these provide us with a complete and coherent view of the world. We trust our cognitive faculties; we experience our perceptions as reflecting reality and cannot feel otherwise. In other words, our primary perceptions, whether mediated by introspection or sensory experience, appear to us as evident. They have the status of convictions.

We believe that we experience reality as it is, without realizing how much we interpret and distort it. Indeed, a gap exists between the way things appear and the way they are.

Neither our sensors nor our cognitive functions have been adapted by evolution to cope with these aspects of the world because they were irrelevant for survival at the time when our cognitions evolved.

For example, it is quite difficult to imagine something that appears either as a wave, which is not localized, or a particle, which is localized depending on the way we look at it.

When Buddhism speaks of apprehending ‘reality as it is,’ it does not refer to mere perceptions but to the logical assessment of the ultimate nature of reality. Buddha himself called the proper investigation of the ultimate nature of reality: the sublime path.

 Our basic cognitive functions were initially selected to help us cope with the conditions of a pre-social world. At later stages of biological evolution, there was with all likelihood some coevolution between the emerging social environment and our brains, a coevolution that endowed our brains with certain social skills, such as the ability to perceive, emit and interpret social signals. These abilities were then further complemented and refined by epigenetic modifications of brain architectures that occur during the development of individuals and are guided by experience and education.[Cf. Henry Nelson Wieman’s basic question: ”What can transform the mind since the mind cannot transform itself?” and the answer he gave to his question: “The Creative Interchange Process!”].

Epigenetics refers to the fact that we inherited a set of genes, but the expression of these genes can be modulated by influences that we encounter during our lifetime.

Our brains are the product of both biological and cultural evolution and exist in these two dimensions.

The possibility needs to be considered that, not only our perceptions, motivations, and behavioral responses, but also our way of reasoning and drawing inferences are adapted to the particular conditions of the world in which we evolved, including the world of social realities that emerged during cultural evolution.



We consider perception as an active, constructive process, whereby the brain uses its a priori knowledge about the world to interpret the signals provided by the sense organs.

Brains harbor a huge amount of knowledge about the world. The use of this knowledge is implemented in and determined by the functional architecture of the neural network This functional architectureis the way in which neurons are connected to each other, which particular neurons are actually connected, whether these connections are excitatory or inhibitory, and whether they are strong or weak. When a brain learns something new, a change in the functional architecture occurs: Certain connections are strengthened, whereas others are weakened. Hence, all the knowledge a brain has at its disposal, as well as the programs according to which this knowledge is used to interpret sensory signals and structure behavioral responses, resides in the specific layout of its functional architecture.

This leads to the identification of the three major sources of knowledge about the world. The first, and certainly not the least important, is evolution because genes determine a substantial part of the brain’s functional architecture. This knowledge resides in the newborn’s brain and is implicit – we are not aware of having it. Still we use it to interpret the signals provided by our sense organs.

Extensive epigenetic shaping of the brain’s neuronal architecture, which adapts the developing brain to the actual conditions in which the individual lives, subsequently complements this inborn knowledge. Because after birth neuronal activity is modulated with the environment, the development of the brain architectures is thus determined by a host of epigenetic factors derived form the natural and social worlds.

Although young children learn efficiently and store contents in a robust way through structural modification of their brain architecture, they often have no recollection of the source of this knowledge. Because of this apparent lack of causation, knowledge acquired in this way is implicit, just as evolutionary acquired knowledge is, and often assumes the status of conviction – that is, the truth is taken for granted.

Like innate knowledge, this acquired knowledge is used to shape cognitive processes and structure our perceptions. Yet we are not aware that what we perceive is actually the result of such a knowledge-based interpretation. This has far-reaching consequences: The genetic dispositions and, even more important, the epigenetic, culture-specific shaping of different brains introduce profound interindividual variability. Thus, it is not surprising that different persons, particularly those raised in different cultural environments, are likely to perceive the same reality differently. Because we are not aware of the fact that our perceptions are constructions, we are bound to take what we perceive as the only truth and do not question its objective status.

According to two American researchers, Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, two evolutions occur in parallel: the slow evolution of genes and the relatively fast evolution of cultures, which allows psychological faculties to appear that could never have evolved under the influence of genes alone – hence the title of their book ‘Not by Genes Alone.’ They think of culture as a collection of ideas, knowledge, beliefs, values, abilities, and attitudes acquired during teaching, initiation, and every other kind of socially transmitted information.[iv]

For normal human perception, assume linearity is a well-adapted strategy. As a consequence, we seem to have difficulty imagining processes that have nonlinear dynamics and drawing the right conclusion about these processes. For example, because we intuitively assume linearity, we misperceive the complex dynamics of economic or ecologic systems, nurture the illusion that we can forecast and hence control the future trajectories of these systems, and then are surprised when the outcome of our interventions differs radically form what we had expected. Given these evolutionary limitations of our cognitive abilities and intuitions, we are left with the burning question of which source of knowledge we should trust. Especially when we are confronted with contradictions among our intuitions, primary perceptions, scientific statements and collectively acquired social convictions.

Buddhism also emphasizes the fact that a correct understanding of the phenomenal world acknowledges the fact that all phenomena arise through almost numberless interdependent causes and conditions that interact outside of a linear causality.



Consciousness associated with sensory experiences never directly experiences reality as it is. What we perceive are images of past stages of a phenomenon that are already devoid of intrinsic properties. On a macroscopic level, we know, for instance, that when we look at a star, we are looking at what that star was many years ago because it has taken that many years for the light emitted by the star to reach our eyes. In fact, this is true of all perceptions. We are never looking directly at phenomena in real time, and we always distort them in some way

What’s more, the mental image of a particular flower (or any other object) is also deceptive because we generally perceive that flower as being an autonomous entity and believe that the attributes of beauty or ugliness belong intrinsically to the flower. All this proceeds from what Buddhism calls ignoranceor lack of awareness. This basic ignorance is not just a mere lack of information (re. the flower for instance), ignorancehere refers to a distorted and mistaken way of apprehending reality at a deeper level.

Someone with insight will understand that the world we perceive is defined by a relational process taken place between the consciousness of the observer and a set of phenomena. It is therefor misleading to ascribe intrinsic properties to outer phenomena, such as beauty, ugliness, desirability, or repulsiveness. This insight has a therapeutic effect: It will disrupt the mechanism of compulsive attraction and repulsion that usually results in suffering. [cf. Anthony de Mello – Awareness: Labeling]

It is possible to transcend the deluded perception and achieve a valid understanding of the nature of the phenomenon (for instance the flower) as being impermanent and devoid of intrinsic, autonomous existence, as being devoid of any inherent qualities. Achieving this understanding is not dependent on our sensory perceptions or past habits. It comes from a proper analytical investigation of the nature of the phenomenal world, culminating in what is known in Buddhism as all-discriminating wisdom, an insight that apprehends the ultimate nature of phenomena without superimposing mental constructs on them.

Evidence from psychophysical investigation of perception and neurophysiological studies on perceptions underlying neuronal processes suggests that perceiving is essential reconstruction. The brain compares the sparse signals provided by our eclectic sense organs with the vast basis of knowledge about the world that is stored in its architecture and generates what appears to us as a percept of reality.

When we perceive the outer world, we first arrive at a coarse match between sensory signals and knowledge-based hypotheses about the world, and then we usually enter an iterative process to obtain approximations that gradually converge to the optimal solution – a state with a minimal number of unresolved ambiguities. In other words, we perform an active search for the best matches between signals and hypotheses until we obtain results with the desired clarity. This latter process of active search-and-match requires the investment of attentional resources, takes time, and is interpretative in nature. What is actually perceived is the result of that comparative process. It appears that this scientific scenario is fully compatible with Buddhist views! It suffices to replace what science addresses as ‘a priori knowledge’ with the Buddhist term ‘consciousness’.

So, there are two different ways of phrasing that: one from the third-person perspective, in the language of neuroscience, and the other from the first-person perspective, based on introspective experience. The first described how our perception of the world is shaped by evolution and the increasing complexity of the nervous system. From a Buddhist perspective, one would say that our world, at least the world we perceive, is intimately intertwined with the way our consciousness functions.

Buddhism says that our phenomenological world, the only one we perceive, depends on the particular configuration of the consciousness we have and is shaped by our past experiences and habits.



Perceiving is always interpreting and hence attributing properties to sensory signals. In this sense, perceptions are always mental constructs.

However, when we think, “This is truly beautiful” or “This is intrinsically desirable or detestable” we are not aware that we project these concepts onto outer phenomena and then believe that they are intrinsically belong to them. This gives rise to all kinds of mental reactions and emotions that are not attuned to reality and will therefor result in frustration.

Buddhism calls phenomena events. The literal meaning of samskara, the Sanskrit word for ‘things’ or ‘aggregates’ is ‘event’ or ‘action’. In quantum mechanics, too, the notion of object is subordinate to a measurement, hence an event. To believe the objects of our perception are endowed with intrinsic properties and autonomous existence is, to take again a comparison with quantum physics, like attributing local properties to particles that are entangled and belong to a global reality.

The problem is that in the case of the perception of social realities, there are no ‘objective’ measurement devices. There are only different perceptions: there is no right or wrong. This has far-reaching consequences for our concepts of tolerance. Solving such problems with majority votes is clearly no fair solution. What we therefor should do is grant everybody that her or his perceptions are correct and assume that this attitude will be reciprocated. Only if this agreement on reciprocity is violated have the dissenting parties the ‘right to exert sanctions’.

One must be fully aware of people’s ingrained beliefs and moral values and take them into consideration. This being said, social and cultural perceptions can be as deceptive as cognitive delusions, and they are built up in similar ways. From our mental fabrications arise many of our human-made problems.

The purpose of the Buddhist approach is not to confront people’s views head on by imposing another view that one considers to be superior but to help people see that all such views can be misleading and that we should not casually take them for granted. The idea is not to coerce people into seeing things as we see them or adopt our own aesthetic and moral values and judgments, but to help them reach a correct view of the ultimate nature of things as being devoid of intrinsic reality.

In truth, people from different cultures are all superimposing their particular mental fabrications on reality. The problem can be solved if these people investigate reality through logical reasoning and realize that they are simply distorting reality and that neither the object they are looking at nor the subject who perceives it exists as independent, truly existing entity.

Let’s remember that the goal of Buddhism is to put an end to the root cause of suffering. As long as the mind is under the influence of delusion and of any afflictive mental state such as hatred, craving or jealousy, suffering is always ready to manifest itself at any time.

To take the example of impermanence, at each moment everything changes, from the change of seasons and of youth at old age, to the subtlest aspects of impermanence that that take place in the shortest conceivable period of time. Once we have recognized that the universe is made not of solid, distinct entities, but of a dynamic flow of interactions among countless fleeting phenomena, it has major consequences in weakening our grasping onto reality we see before us. A proper understanding of impermanence helps us to close some of the gap between appearances and reality. [And helps us to continue to stay in Creative Interchange with everything and everyone, or in other words, in constant dialogue with our surroundings. All this means to me: Continuous Improvement in closing the gap between our perceptions and realities through Creative Interchange.]



There is no way to prove that a reality exists out there behind the screen of appearances, a reality that exists in and of itself, independent of us and the rest of the world. Even before the advent of the quantum physics, the mathematician Henri Poincaré said, “A reality completely independent from the mind that things, sees or feels is impossible. Even if it did exist, such a world would be utterly inaccessible to us.”[v]

We all keep on assigning an element of truth in our superimpositions on the world. What Buddhism does is deconstruct ordinary perceptions by conducting an in-depth investigation of the nature of what people see to make them understand that they are all distorting reality in different ways. One should not say, “distorting” because if there is no objectivity, you can’t distort anything – there is nothing objective to distort. People simply give different interpretations.



Objective is not just one of the many versions of what various people perceive but the irrefutable understanding that all phenomena are impermanent and devoid of intrinsic characteristics. This applies to all appearances, all perceptions, and all phenomena. Distortions, therefore, is not defined in comparison with a true, self-existing reality. Distortion is to attribute any kind of intrinsic reality, permanence or autonomy to phenomena.

The realization that the phenomenal world is a dynamic, interdependent flow of events and the knowledge that what we perceive is the result of the interactions of our consciousness with these phenomena is, in fact, the understanding of the process of delusion. That understanding is correct in all situations.



In Buddhism, absolute truthrefers to the recognition that phenomena are ultimately devoid of intrinsic experience. Relative truthis to acknowledge that these phenomena arise not in haphazard ways but according to the laws of causality.

There is a difference between apparent, relative, conditioned properties and intrinsic ones, but typically we ignore it. This not a mere intellectual distinction – ignoring its causes us to act in ways that stands at odds with reality and are, therefore, dysfunctional.

To conclude that phenomena are impermanent and interdependent is the only outcome of a careful, logical investigation.

Conclusion, if you think, “Phenomena appear as interdependent events devoid of autonomous, inherent characteristics and existence,” since such understanding is congruent with reality, you are much less likely to relate to objects in ways that lead to disappointment and suffering.



Brains construct their views of the world on the basis of inherited and acquired knowledge. Because different brains have different knowledge bases, they may arrive at different views. We perceive the world as we do because our brains are the way they are. Because the genetically and culturally transmitted cognitive schemata (priors) are quite similar, we tend to perceive the world in a similar way [if we are ‘member’ of the same culture].

The goal is not to agree on sensory perceptions but to understand that these perceptions result from constructing a fictitious reality [we call this Appreciative Understanding, the goal of this is not to agree on what the other ‘sees’ but to appreciatively understand that what one sees is constructed and not the ‘reality’]. All parties can free themselves from cognitively deluded ways of apprehending reality. In other words, one would continue to see what one sees, but one would become aware that this not the only way that it can be seen. And it doesn’t stop there. One would further acknowledge that one’s way of seeing is fabricated. Analytical meditation and mental training would allow one to recognize that one’s habitual tendencies causes one to attach various qualities to objects even though these qualities are not invariable attributes of the objects.

When all mental fabrications are unmasked, you perceive the world as a dynamic flow of events, and you stop freezing reality in various deluded ways. And if we don’t freeze reality, we will not be caught in reifying it as something solid, endowed with true, intrinsic existence, and we will not be deluded. [Makes me think of the ‘Change Model’ of Kurt Lewin vs the ‘Change Model’ of Charlie Palmgren; the first uses stages as ‘unfreezing’ – ‘changing’ and ‘refreezing’ and the second sees ‘Change’ as a continuous process – see Part I, chapter 3: ‘Change is a Process’ of my book ‘Creatieve wisselwerking’ [vi]]



Therefor you need to make the mind’s telescope more focused, clear and stable. Introspection has long been discredited because the subjects who were asked to engage in it in laboratory studies did so with minds that were distracted most of the time. Distraction creates an unsteady mind. In addition, an untrained mind lacks the limpid clarity that allows one to see vividly what is happening within oneself. So whether the mind is carried away by distractions or sinks into a cognitive opacity, it will not be able to pursue proper introspection.

A clear and stable mind brings inner peace and deeper insights into the nature of reality and the mind itself.

Your experience is your world.



The second-person perspective involves an in-depth properly dialogue between the subject and an expert who leads the dialogue, asking appropriate questions and allowing the subject to describe his or her experience inall its minute details.

Meditation is not mathematics but rather a science of the mind, and it is conducted with rigor, perseverance, and discipline. [vii][as is living Creative Interchange from within]

The Buddha encouraged contemplatives to practice assiduously by saying: “I’ve shown you the path, and it’s up to you to travel it by yourself. Don’t believe what I say simply out of respect for me, but examine the truth of it very thoroughly, as when examining the purity of a piece of gold by rubbing it on a flat gold, beating it and melting it.” We should take not things for granted without verifying them for ourselves.

What is not clear to you can become completely clear in the future through investigation and training.

A trained contemplative will be highly aware of his cognitive processes, of the way thoughts unfold, and of the way emotions arise and how they can be balanced and controlled. The meditator will also have some experience of what is known as pure awareness, which is a clear and lucid state of consciousness devoid of mental constructs and automatic thought processes. The meditator may also understand that there is not such thing in the mind as a central, autonomous self, which I think fits quite well with the views of neuroscience.



It is the reality of recognizing the nature of pure awareness, as well as the nature of suffering and its causes – the mental toxins – and the possibility of getting rid of these causes through cultivating wisdom. And it is also apprehending outer reality in a more correct way, as interdependent events devoid of intrinsic existence.

Not all information is equally useful. It also depends on your purpose. Valid knowledge about the process of cognitive delusion is immensely useful if one falls prey to compulsive attachment or hatred because this will help dispel suffering.



Knowledge obtained through scientific inquiry has no moral value on its own. It is the way we make use of such knowledge that morality comes in.

In Buddhism, which invokes no divine authority, ethics is a set of guidelines from empirical experience and wisdom to avoid afflicting suffering on others and yourself. The Buddha is not a prophet, a God, or a saint but rather an awakened one. Ethics is really a science of happiness and suffering, not a set of rules proclaimed by a divine entity or dogma thinkers. Because ethics is all about avoiding inflicting suffering on others, having more wisdom and compassion, together with gaining a better understanding of the mechanics of happiness and suffering and the laws of cause and effect, [meditation] will foster ethical systems and practices that are more likely to fulfill their purpose.



One is the philosophical, epistemic position of Buddhism, which is clearly a rather radical, constructivist position that declares that most of what we perceive outside of our own mind, and for untrained, naïve humans, also most of what one experiences with one’s inner eye, as delusive.

The second aspect is the conviction that it is possible to fine-tune one’s inner eye through practice to experience what one’s mind and reality is all about.

Thirdly – and this seems the most important point and consequence of the first two – if the goal is to purify one’s mind is achieved and perception is no longer contaminated by false beliefs, then one changes basic traits of one’s personality and thus becomes a better person who can contribute more effectively to the reduction of suffering.

Once again, in Buddhism knowledge is used to relieve suffering. So one needs to distinguish the kinds of actions, words, and thoughts that will cause suffering from those that will bring fulfillment and flourishing.

Values can also be related to a correct understanding of reality. Understanding the interdependence of all beings and phenomena is the logical ground for growing altruism and compassion.[viii]

Reality is neither good nor bad, but valid and invalid ways of apprehending reality exist. These various ways have consequences: A mind that does not distort reality will naturally experience inner freedom and compassion, instead of craving and hatred.

If you recognize that reality is interdependent and impermanent, you will adopt the right attitude and be much more likely to flourish. Otherwise, as Rabindranath Tagore wrote: “We read the world wrong and say that it deceives us.”[ix]

The brain can impose on itself a training process that induces lasting changing in its own cognitive structures [We call this process, the Creative Interchange process]. And this is more than mere theoretical understanding. Training implies cultivation, repetition that leads to slowly remodeling your way of being, which will be correlated with a remodeling of your brain. You need to acquire correct understanding and then cultivate that understanding until it becomes fully part of yourself [Thus not only understanding the Creative Interchange process, one has to live it fully from within until it becomes fully part of oneself].

The internal drive [to live the Creative Interchange process from within] arises from a deep aspiration to free oneself from suffering [i.e.from the counter process, the Vicious Circle]. This aspiration, in turn, reflects the potential that we have for change and flourishing. A qualified teacher plays a crucial role in showing and explaining us the means to achieve that change. [In order to learn the skills of the Creative Interchange process a role model plays a crucial role].



Clinging and attachment act like distorting filters on one’s perceptions that prevent us from perceiving the real world – and should therefor be avoided. [Clinging and attachment are elements of the Vicious Circle]

Mental practice, introspection, and cultivation of the mind are used to attain more objectivity. In addition, this ‘science of the mind’ can serve as the basis of an ethical system. [cf., once again; the Creative Interchange process, the process that transforms the mind, whilst the mind cannot do this on its own].

We have to understand ethics as a science of happiness and suffering, not as a dogma disconnected from lived experience.

The premise is that mental practice leads to the construction of realistic models of oneself and the world. These novel insights, together with the effects of the practice, would then entrain changes in attitude, which, if shared with many in the long run, could improve the human condition [in and through the new Creative Interchange paradigm].

This will arise from a way of being that has become free of those biases and mental entanglements, and therefore naturally expresses itself as altruism, compassion and genuine concern for others.

If you maintain proper understanding or perspective, proper view, proper motivation, proper effort, and proper conduct, then it will certainly work in the best possible way. Even if life events and circumstances are unpredictable and beyond our control, we can always (try to) maintain our direction using our inner compass of right view and right motivation [i.e. using our Intrinsic Worth]. This is the best way to achieve the goal of freedom from suffering for oneself and others.

A correct understanding of reality leads to a correct mental attitude and moment-by-moment behavior that is attuned to that understanding. This in turns leads to a win-win situation of flourishing oneself while acting in a way that is also beneficial to others. Such an optimal way of being will have positive effects first in the family and then in the village or local community and gradually in society at large. As Ghandi said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Unless a substantial fraction of individuals follow the path of individual transformation, the danger remain that those clinging to power and selfishness will usurp the benevolence of a peaceful minority for their interests.


[i]M. Ricard and W. Singer, Beyond the Self: conversations between Buddhism and neuroscience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.

[ii]D. Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011.

[iii]B. Frederickson, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do and Become.New York NY: Hudson Street Press, 2013.

[iv]R. Boye and P. J. Richerson, Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution.Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 5.

[v]H. Poincaré, La Valeur de la science.Paris: Flammarion,1990.

[vi]J. Roels, Creatieve wisselwerking, Apeldoorn-Leuven: Garant, 2001, pp 117-147.

[vii]M. Ricard, Why Meditate? New York, NY: Hay House, 2010.

[viii]M. Ricard, Altruism:The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. New York, NY. Little, Brown and Company. 2015.

[ix]R. Tagore, Stray Birds. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1916, LXXV.


Henry Nelson Wieman suggests in his book Man’s Ultimate Commitment that we have a natural need to achieve in our lives the infinite potentialities present in us at birth. He goes on stressing the importance of our commitment to a life-long process that enables us to live our lives to the fullest. In order to have the Greatest Human Good he argues one has to commit to live Creative Interchange from within.

This special human interchange that Henry Nelson Wieman coined Creative Interchange is our ability to learn what others have learned, to appreciate what others appreciate, to feel what others feel, imagine what others imagine and to creatively integrate all this with what we have already acquired and form this way our true individuality. This Creative Interchange uniquely distinguishes the human mind from everything else.

The choice to commit oneself to live Creative Interchange from within is in fact a big decision that involves a choice to have experiences that teach us things we cannot know about from any other source but the experience itself. Someone who has never been fully aware of being in genuine Creative Interchange with another person can only know what contemporary science can tell him or her about the experience of Creative Interchange and/or what friends can describe to him or her, as best they can, what it is like to engage in Creative Interchange. Before engaging in Creative Interchange one might imagine undergoing some sort of experience that is surprising and intense and emotional. As it turns out, many of life’s big decisions involve choices to have experiences that teach things that we cannot really know from any other source but the experience itself.

When we face the choice whether or not to commit oneself to Creative Interchange, we can’t know what our lives will be unlike we’ve undergone the new experience, and if we don’t undergo the experience, we won’t know what we are missing. I know from experience that committing oneself to Creative Interchange is life changing, thus personally transformative. In the case of commitment to Creative Interchange you make the choice without knowing what it will be like if you choose to have that new experience, but the choice is big, and you know it is big. You know that undergoing the experience will change what it is like for you to live your live, and even change what it is to be you, deeply and fundamentally.

What makes it even more fundamental, that it is not just a one-time choice committing oneself to live Creative Interchange from within and not just a commitment to one person, like a marriage; it is a life-time commitment to every person you’ll meet from the moment you commit yourself to live Creative Interchange from within. And the outcome of this commitment is far from sure. While committing to live CI from within is a personal life-changing decision – for after all, your decision concerns mainly your personal future – we find ourselves confronted with the brutal fact about how little we can know about our futures, just when it is most important to us – speaking rationally – that we do know. The choice for Creative Interchange is no different as for many other big life choices, where we only learn what we need to know after we’ve done it, and we change ourselves in the process of doing it. To me, in the end, the best response to this situation is to choose based on whether we want to discover who we’ll become, what our beyond the actual, created self will be.

When a person has a new and different experience that teaches her something she could not have learned without having that kind of experience, she has an epistemic transformation. Her subjective point of view, her knowledge of what something is like, changes. With this new experience, she gains new abilities to cognitively understand certain contents, she learns to understand things in a new way, and she may even identify new information.

I had such an experience in 1977 during the start up of a Sulfuric Acid Plant in Visag (India). I was the start up engineer and thus overall responsible for the success of the start up of the new facility. During that start up an Indian engineer was heavenly burnt having been splashed with hot sulfuric acid when the valve he was opening on the sulfuric acid circuit suddenly burst open, while his body was just protected by a cotton work overall. This experience changed completely my mindset regarding safety, which ultimately changed completely my professional life. It was indeed the starting point of what I called later my second professional life. Safety became in one split second one of my values, a subjective personal value grounded by what it is like to have lived that particular experience.

The sorts of experiences that can change who you are, in the sense of radically changing your point of view, are experiences that are personally transformative. In my life those experiences included: experiencing a traumatic accident (as described above), having a daughter (Daphne 1972), experiencing the death of a parent (father Richard 1982 and mother Donatine 1987), fundamentally changing my career path (1988 and 1995), having a career setback (losing the ISRS rights in 1992), becoming grand father (Eloïse 2002, Edward 2004 and Elvire 2008), living through a deep depression (2008 – 2010), undergoing radiation and chemical therapy and a major surgery (colon cancer 2013), to name the most important ones. Those experiences were life changing in that they changed what it is like for me to be me. In other words, those experiences can change your mindset, and by extension, your personal preferences, and perhaps even your values and thus even change the kind of person that you are, or at least take yourself to be. In my case each of those experiences turned out to be a personally transformative experience.

So, such experiences are very important from a personal perspective, for transformative experiences can play a significant role in one’s life, involving options, that, metaphorically speaking, function as crossroads in one’s path towards self-realization. The path you choose determines where you take your life, what you will become, and thus by extension, your subjective future. While some of those experiences happen to you without you having chosen them, I learned through the years than you can have your own choices involving transformative experiences. Those transformative choices allow you to causally form what it will be like to be you in your future. In this sense you own your future (Peter Senge would say, you create your future), because it is you who made the choice to bring this future – your very own future self – into being.

The problem is that when you face a transformative choice, that is, a choice of whether to undergo an epistemically and personally transformative experience, you cannot rationally make this choice based on what you think the transformative experience will be like. Consider, for instance, the transformative choice of marrying ‘The One’. When you decide to marry someone, you are not deciding to be married at that time or for just a couple of weeks. It is not as deciding where you will spend your holidays: at the coast side or in the mountains. In fact you are deciding whether you want to commit yourself to an extended life event. This extended life event is in fact a continuous relationship between your future self and the future self of another person. You’re about to marry someone not just for the here and now, you are marrying this person for a long term. You are marrying to be part of each other’s life as you grow and transform, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

Is the decision regarding getting married rational? In my personal case I dare to doubt this. We both made our decision by attempting to project forward our subjective future, to see what it would be for us to make a life with each other. Since we were the last of the Mohican’s (a metaphor I often use since we were both virgins when we got married) and thus did not live with each other for many years, like young people do nowadays, we did not know what being married really meant, let alone having an extended marriage. So we did not marry based on knowing what our future life would be like; we married based on a commitment to discover our future life together. This meant that we took on commitments that involved providing mutual support even though we knew that unexpected events and other kinds of events that life brings – for instance having a child – would happen. We committed ourselves that we would face these new experiences as one unit, a couple, not as a single person. While we knew some things before we got married, such as our current dispositions and inclinations, we could not know what it would be like to have the marriage that we would actually have. The only thing we knew was that our marriage would be an extended transformative experience.

Milan Kundera described beautifully what such a transformative experience is in his bestseller ‘The unbearable lightness of being’ in which he quotes Friedrich Nietzsche and uses the German proverb: “Einmal ist keinmal’. Gallimard first published this book, although originally written in Czech two years before, in French: ‘L’insoutenable légèreté de l’être’ in 1984. I bought this French edition in Paris in the fall of that same year and I enjoyed it so much that I read it all in one sitting.

The phrase “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is Kundera’s own, but to understand it we actually have to start with Friedrich Nietzsche and the idea of eternal return. Eternal return is the idea that our universe and our existence has occurred an infinite number of times in the past, and will continue to occur ad infinitum. In this theory, time is cyclical rather than linear. The idea of eternal return is an ancient one, but Nietzsche, a 19th century German philosopher, popularized it for modern times. That’s why the narrator of Unbearable Lightness refers to it as Nietzsche’s concept. Nietzsche explored what the consequences of such eternal return would be. In his eyes, eternal return was das schwerste Gewicht, or “the heaviest weight.” It was a petrifying concept to imagine that our lives have been and will continue to be repeated endlessly. But one could learn, through philosophy, to love the idea. The proper mind can embrace this weight, rather than be terrified by it. Nietzsche seems to conclude in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that we must live and act as though our lives functioned in eternal return, suggesting that we give our own lives meaning and weight by behaving this way.

Kundera argues that Nietzche was wrong and states: “Human time does not turn in a circle,” he argues; “it runs ahead in a straight line”. Nietzsche said that eternal return gives our lives the heaviest weight. So if our lives only occur once, it must mean – according to Kundera – that they are filled with lightness. This is where Kundera’s phrase einmal ist keinmal comes into the picture. And Tomas, one of the main characters of the book, translates this for us: “What happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all”

The point which is interesting in our context is that if we live only once, then we can never compare the decisions we make to any alternatives. And if we can never compare different outcomes, we can never know if the decisions we made are correct or not, which means – according to Kundera – we can never judge them properly or take responsibility for them. Hence, Kundera suggests that to live only once is to live with lightness.

The question then becomes: “Do we want lightness, or do we want weight?” Which do we choose? Kundera takes a look at Parmenides, a Greek philosopher in the 5th century B.C. who considered the same question. Parmenides argued that lightness was positive and to be desired, while weight was negative. The narrator of The Unbearable Lightness of Being isn’t so sure about this. “The heaviest of burdens is […] simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment,” he says. “The heavier the burden, […] the more real and truthful [our lives] become”.

During the course of the novel, the narrator refers to the lightness of being in two different ways: the sweet lightness of being, and the unbearable lightness of being. Kundera argues that lightness is unbearable, but it is up to us as readers to understand the reasons behind his argument. The lightness may seem at first to be a sweet deal – no responsibility, no judgment, no meaning. Sounds like fun – at first. But eventually, as I’ve argued in my previous column[ii], we desperately would like for our lives to mean something. We want them to have weight and significance, because we want them to matter. The problem is then, still according to Kundera, try as we might to give our lives weight…we cannot. Our lives are fundamentally light precisely because they occur only once. So Kundera’s argument is two-fold:

  1. Nietzsche was wrong; there is no eternal return; our lives occur only once, and that makes them light.
  2. Parmenides was wrong; such lightness is not sweet, it is unbearable.

Notice that both these arguments are established right in the title of the novel and it takes (Kundera) the entire novel for the argument behind these ideas to unfold. By the way, as I’ve argued in my last book ‘Cruciale dialogen’, the title is a metaphor.

For what it’s worth, let me express my view on Kundera’s argument. I agree: ‘Einmal ist Keinmal’; you simply cannot live two lives in parallel. I cannot, at the same time, be married to Rita and be single. The consequence of that is that I cannot compare those two ‘lives’ the moment of the decision and throughout my whole married life, neither can Rita. Regarding Kundera’s question: “Is ‘being’ light or unbearable?” the only right answer is, as I learned from my mentor Charlie Palmgren, since the question is a ‘or’ question: YES![iii] Finally I really can’t say Amen to Kundera’s statement that because we cannot judge we are not responsible for the consequences of our decisions. To me we definitely are responsible for those consequences and what’s more they become bearable if we live Creative Interchange from within. In other words we should stay aware of the unfolding of our lives and take the right measures and decisions when needed. We are responsible for our actions, period.

Personally, I adhere to Wieman’s two-fold commitment, which keeps the “old” from obstructing the emergence of the “new” and keeps the “new” from abandoning and discarding the value of the “old.” Wieman’s said this requires following two-fold commitment: “A commitment to act on the current best we know and a commitment to remain open to what in truth can transform our current best to what is better.” Through living this two-fold commitment from within we will continually transform our mind as it cannot transform itself. The language surrounding the death of the old self and the creation of a new self takes on a new kind of significance. For Wieman, such a person is able to have the old self transformed in a way that takes on a wider world, a wider range of concerns, experiences, and valuations. For him, the greatest barrier to emergence of the new is the convulsive clinging to present beliefs, values, and habits giving them the loyalty and commitment that should be given to the Creative Good (i.e. Creative Interchange). Wieman’s central theme is self-commitment to growth and transformation through Creative Interchange; in other words, a self-commitment to the Creative Interchange process that transforms human life toward the Greatest Human Good.[iv]

So, Creative Interchange changes the mind in ways that the mind cannot do this by itself. The challenge of life is not to realize goods that we can now imagine but to undergo a change in consciousness in which there will arise possibilities of value that we cannot imagine on basis of our present awareness. This transformation of the mindset cannot be imagined before it arises and therefor cannot be planned or controlled, neither from the outside nor from the inside. One must cultivate a willingness to set aside present held values and open oneself to a creativity that leads the mind toward a wider awareness and a new consciousness. The human task is not to contrive a better form of living based on present understanding but rather to set the conditions under which creative interchange may operate to expand our awareness. The good of human life increases, as the mind becomes a more richly interconnected network of meanings.

Charlie Palmgren took the challenge of continuing the search for the conditions necessary for Creative Interchange to thrive. One of his first contributions was to make the barriers within ourselves to Creative Interchange visible by discovering the counter productive process: the Vicious Circle, his articulation of Wieman’s greatest barrier to the emergence of the new. The Vicious Circle is Palmgren’s view of how humans become disconnected from their innate Worth. He believes that human worth is the capacity to participate in transforming creativity. Worth is innate, in other words Worth is the innate need for creative transformation. He drives home his point clearly: “Our need for creative transformaton is to our psychological and spiritual survival what oxygen, water, food, exercise, and sleep is to physical well-being.”[v]

Concluding note: Man’s Ultimate Commitment – i.e. providing for the conditions for and living Creative Interchange from within in an awareness way – leads to a continuous transformative experience.


[i] This column is based on three books:

  1. H.N. Wieman. Man’s Ultimate Commitment. University Press of America®, Inc., Lanham, Maryland, 1991
  2. L.A. Paul. Transformative Experience. Oxford University Press. Oxford UK – New York NY, 2014
  3. M. Kundera. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. New York NY, 1984.




[v] Stacie Hagan and Charlie Palmgren, The Chicken Conspiracy: Breaking The Cycle of Personal Stress and Organizational Mediocrity. Baltimore, MA: Recovery Communications, Inc. 1998. p. 21.