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Transformation, Enlightenment & The Games We Play- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Transformation, Enlightenment & The Games We Play- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Transformation, Enlightenment & The Games We Play


Nancy and I are embarking on an adventure, starting tomorrow. We will hike a 25-mile stretch of what is known as “The Lost Coast,” the only stretch of California coastline that engineers deemed too challenging to put a road along, a wild arc of seashore and mountains about 200 miles north of San Francisco.


Lost Coast of California

Even the extreme verticality of Big Sur succumbed to Highway One, though it washes out about every other year.

We will be on the trail three days and three nights, camping on beaches and along creeks wending their way to the sea, lulled to sleep by surf and wind. It has been seven years since we last hoisted packs for overnight backpacking, so we have set an easy schedule. Adventures have a way of bringing up memories of other adventures, and this is no exception.

Of Bicycles and the Buddha


Some years ago, I undertook a strenuous and beautiful mountain biking trip for a week, cycling between huts on a 210-mile route between Telluride, Colorado and Moab, Utah. Fall color flamed the hillsides and snow already dusted the peaks in late September as we made our way on old US Forest Service dirt roads, gravelly and rutty, the thin autumn air shockingly blue and clear. 

I never knew what the hut provisioners might leave for us beyond the basics of canned and freeze-dried food, as there was no refrigeration. But if you were lucky, the hut tenders had been there recently and left some cold beers on ice in a plastic bucket.


Benjamin Franklin


I had occasion to remember Benjamin Franklin’s quote,


Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

-Benjamin Franklin


The first cold stinging carbonated quaff engulfing one’s tonsils after hours of dust, wind, and sun fostered an almost uncontainable joy. If my legs hadn’t hurt so much I would’ve danced a jig.

On the fifth day, we stayed at a hut by a desert river snaking its way through canyons and sandbars, the lowest altitude point of the trip.  But the joy of having rolled down into that camp with gravity’s kinematic blessing was short-lived.


Desert river

The next day presented us with a stultifying knee-wrecking climb of over a vertical mile, back into the cool country of aspens and mountain creeks. The road was so steep that the front wheel kept trying to lift off the ground as if recoiling in distaste.


Stephen Jay Gould


Since I am both a compulsive scientist and a compulsive reader, of course I had reading material along in the form of a book by the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who has often been quoted in these blogs. This particular book was Full House : The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin.

Gould’s book proposed an alternate way of looking at evolutionary history of natural and human systems by calling into question the idea that systems evolve towards an externally measurable perfection and that averages of system behavior are enough to have a good picture of what is going on.


Striving, Perfection & Platonic Ideals


Among other things, it was a new way of thinking about striving and perfection and it shone a new light on the concept of Platonic ideals. The take-away was that evolution is not necessarily “going anywhere” in particular, but endlessly adapting and never finishing like the El Farol problem we discussed in Ides of March blog when the pandemic reared its ugly head in March 2020.

This little book by Stephen Jay Gould changed my life.

As a physicist, I am biased towards objectivity. Energy is the same in the Andromeda Galaxy as it is in Peoria.

In living systems, energy is also the same for every creature and it obeys the same laws, but there are many aspects of natural and human evolution that are not universal-rather they depend on context.

I realized that no evolution happens in a vacuum, it all happens in context with other things that are evolving, and that means co-evolution. Your measuring yardstick depends on what is around you and what it is doing.

When you do well, you do well in the game that you are playing, but there are many different games going on simultaneously, with new ones appearing and old ones dying out.


A Difficult Choice


But that morning by the desert river I faced a difficult choice.

We were going to have to heave our quivering protoplasm on the groaning frames and lunge for the sky, and we needed to be rid of whatever weight we could leave behind. We were ready to saw off the handles of our toothbrushes.

Stephen Jay Gould stayed in camp, lurking on a bookshelf in a cabin to ambush some other unsuspecting camper with intellectual upheaval.


Life Writ Large


I was undertaking a move both ecological and evolutionary. I was jettisoning the book so I could live to think another day and to thereby increase the probability that my being and thoughts would live on and become part of the story of life writ large. 

There are critical moments when ecology and evolution meet, when one action instead of another means that your memes and genes live on. We were living what was described in Gould’s book.

I’m sure if I had brought the book along on the ascent, I would still be alive today, so there’s some over-dramatization at work here, but the connection of that day’s events to scientific theories was too rich to ignore.

This experience reminded me of a saying from Buddhist friends, “If you are cold, throw the statue of the Buddha in the fireplace.”

Like a statue of the Buddha, the book was a guide to an intellectual and emotional transformation, but it was not the transformation itself.

The transformation had to be internalized, to be incorporated into my world and my being. That did not get left behind on the shelf in the cabin.


Climbing Towards Enlightenment


The metaphor was also too rich to ignore. We were literally climbing towards enlightenment, in that we were lightening our load so as to be able to climb.

In one’s creative life, one encounters many inspirations and teachers. But none of it matters unless they become part of your life, part of your being. And though they may no longer be part of your day-to-day life, they are with you nonetheless and cannot be taken away.


Autumn Alpine Landscape-Colorado


The Game of Art Criticism


Art criticism is yet another context-dependent game.

But games lose their relevance in evolving systems, new rules and new games appear.


Cultivating the idea of the adjacent possible is a way of freeing oneself from an undesirable context, of being the author of a new paradigm and transcending the prison of other people’s rules.


It is the way of living things.

As a conscious being, you have a choice of playing an old game or creating a new one.

What will you choose?


With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. Speaking of books- our forthcoming book, The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories of Artistic Transformation is getting closer to being published. Meanwhile, we’re still running the cover contest and we’d love your help selecting the cover!

Here are the 3 contenders. Which do you prefer? What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below.

The Adjacent Possible Book Cover Contest




Meanwhile, we found out this week the first Adjacent Possible book in the series won an award! The Book Excellence Award in Art! Find out why. Nab your copy of the first book in The Adjacent Possible series- you can get the eBook for only 2.99 for a limited time. 

The Adjacent Possible won a Book Excellence Award in Art

The Adjacent Possible won a Book Excellence Award in Art


The Adjacent Possible by Nancy Hillis MD

The Adjacent Possible by Nancy Hillis MD

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