Friday, December 17, 2010

Context is the matrix of meaning

Thread:       Context
context n. 1. The part of a written or spoken statement in which a word or passage at issue occurs; that which leads up to and follows and often specifies the meaning of a particular expression. 2. The circumstances in which a particular event occurs; a situation.  
         The American Heritage Dictionary, 1981, p. 288

Water: “Water is water.” Zen master Dogen might respond, “Not quite right….” To the fish, it is home. It is what drowns, or quenches thirst, or nourishes the garden. It is what cleans and washes; it spills, it wets, it floods; it creates drought by omission. It depends on the context.
            from S. Suzuki (2002), "Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen" p. 95

The relationship between context, the meaning we make, and how we respond is the foundation that supports my work as a therapist. For me, this is an ideaand is itself a context—that I find useful in making meaning of how we experience what we experience; how we respond/behave the way we do; and how we come to change ourselves (and how I might support change in another).

To be clear, here and throughout this blog: It is not my intention to present some truth about how we function, but rather to offer a way of thinking that broadens our sense of options for enlivening change.

Let’s define “context” so it is more relevant to thinking about the way we function—taken from Gregory Bateson (1972), “Steps to an Ecology of Mind.” This involves first defining an “event”: 
What is an event? From among all the various signal changes an organism’s senses bring to it, “events” are the patterns that the organism recognizes in those signals. 

What is context? Context consists of all the events that tell the organism from which set of response-alternatives he or she must choose.
 In other words, the meaning we make arises from within a context… and then we choose a response according to the meaning we make. My mentors, Paul Lounsbury and Nancy Winston, introduced me to this idea in 1997 when they told me
“Context is the matrix of meaning.”
Let me illustrate. The diagrammed example below portrays the verbal message “Take your clothes off” occurring in four different contexts.

The meaning we make of the message “Take off your clothes” is different in each of the four contexts. Within earshot of the stranger shouting in a mall, it’s weird and maybe a little scary; best to steer clear of that person (unless your job is mall security). With a lover, one might respond with enjoyable anticipation. As a lead in to a physical exam, another set of responses arise. So to with the child facing bath time (factoring in the particular child’s take on whether bath time is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing right now). Again, the context provides the ground on which we make meaning; and the meaning we make determines the possibilities for our responses.

Just like our breathing, our heartbeat, our blood flow, our thinking, our actions… we are the contexts out of which we make meaning and respond. We are the contexts out of which we selectively notice what we notice, while not noticing what we don’t. We are the context out of which we provide ourselves experience and through which we make meaning and understand our experience.

Consider: When our context changes, the meaning we make—and the actions we take—change. When the contexts out of which we habitually and unawarely make meaning and 
take actions change, then what has been habitual about us—and what had functioned without conscious awareness—changes.

When we change any part of the contexts out of which we live, we change who we are: how we experience, how we make meaning, and how we act.
How we can come to such change is one of the significant threads in this blog.

Bateson, Gregory (1987). Steps to an ecology of mind. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc.

Suzuki Shunryu (2002). Not always so: Practicing the true spirit of Zen, p. 95.  New York, NY: Harper Collins.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New College Edition. (1981). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

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