A Whiteheadian Wheel of Life
Eighteen Forms of Rich Experience
How can the wheel of life be used?
It can be used as an invitation to mindfulness, a context for cross-cultural dialogue, a rubric for appreciating experiences evoked by the arts, an introduction to various forms of wisdom, a springboard for philosophical explorations, and a resource for constructive spiritual practice. The wheel as a whole is a reminder that different kinds of experience are relevant in different contexts, and that the house of rich experience contains many rooms. Life is fluid and variegated, calling for different responses by different people at different times. We best be gentle with one another.
What is richness of experience?
Whitehead suggests that, at every moment of our lives, we are seeking satisfaction. We are influenced by the past actual world in ways both tragic and fulfilling, and as we are influenced by our past actual worlds we simultaneously seek to become fully alive in the present.
The Tibetan Wheel of Life
The Tibetan Wheel of Life is perhaps the most common of all pictures in Buddhist art and is seen on the walls of monasteries and painted scrolls all over Tibet, Nepal and other Himalayan countries. The 23 parts of the painting represent in visual terms some of the more fundamental teachings in Buddhism such as the 12 steps of dependent origination, the karmic laws of cause and effect, and the three kleshas of ignorance, greed and hatred.
The third circle is divided into six segments that represent the six realms of mind and existence - gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell beings. Rebirth in the higher realms occurs if skillful actions predominated in previous lives, while unskillful actions mean the lower realms. The six segments can also represent six states of mind which we can experience here and now, in our present human existence. Sometimes we can experience these states of mind so strongly that for the time being we seem actually to be living in another world - in heaven, hell, or among the hungry ghosts. Buddha appears in each of the six segments standing upright, offering something needed by the beings of each realm.
The Tibetan Wheel of Life depicts six realms of existence in which humans can be born and six states of mind which people can experience in this life and the next. The idea is that states of mind are harmonious and intense in their own right and simultaneously tell us something about the universe.
The Whiteheadian Wheel of Life offered above builds upon this idea and in no way replaces the Tibetan Wheel of Life. The Tibetan Wheel contains forms of wisdom that are not found in Whitehead's philosophy and that are a gift to the world. Nevertheless the Whiteheadian wheel may contain forms of wisdom, too. The Whiteheadian wheel can be understood as:
Different people and groups of people will find some more important than others; but all reveal some kind of truth about the universe. They have their precedents and analogues in the lives of other living beings, too. Not humans alone, but animals as well, delight in beauty and enjoy the wisdom of play. As Buddhists put it, all living beings have the Buddha-Nature. As Whiteheadians put it, all living beings have their modes of beauty.
The modes of beauty listed above are not spiritual alone; they are also biological and psychological. Thus they are not really supernatural but rather deeply natural. They emerge within, not apart from, the evolving web of life as forms of wisdom and strategies for survival. If, as is likely, there are living beings on other planets or in other dimensions of the universe the chances are good that they, too, partake of these modes in their ways. There is no need to think that delight in beauty and creative transformation are found only on planet Earth alone. In a universe with many dimensions, there are other forms of existence that also partake of some of these ways. If there happen to be hell realms, there will be a need for true grit; and if there happen to be heaven realms, there will be a need to reclaim the wisdom of ordinary life, with its struggles and trials.
The modes are theological, too. Even the soul of the universe -- even God -- may well partake of some of these forms of beauty, albeit in ways magnified by infinity. Thus, for those who believe in God, the eighteen forms can be understood as ways of participating in the divine life.
Cosmology and Ecological Civilizations
The philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead offers conceptual support for the wheel. If you learn about Whitehead's philosophy, perhaps with help from the online course offered on this website, you will be introduced to a way of thinking about yourself and the universe that stretches the mind and opens the heart. We live in a multidimensional universe in which everything is connected to everything else; everything is evolving through time; all living beings are worthy of respect and care; empathy is the key to life; and always there is a potential for creative transformation, no matter what hell is faced. Our vocation in life is to grow in wisdom, compassion, and creativity as best we can and help build communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, and ecologically wise, with no one left behind. These communities are what we call "sustainable" communities.
Sustainable communities are the building blocks of Ecological Civilizations. They are the best hope for our time, given the realities of climate change, the ongoing threat of nuclear war, the violence we see around us and within us, obscene gaps between rich and poor, the denial of human rights, and wholesale assault on the planet by petroleum-based economies, and the greed of consumer culture.
Use the wheel of life as you will. We hope it will help you understand your own distinctive way of living in the world and appreciate the ways of living that are important to others. There is no need to know a lot about the philosophy of Whitehead to use it. And there are other philosophies, complementary to that of Whitehead, which can deepen and enrich an understanding of any and all of the eighteen invitations to mindfulness. Enjoy.
-- Jay McDaniel
A very special thanks to Cheri Devol (graphic designer) and Vivian Dong (web manager for JJB) for the Wheel of Life Diagram.