autonomy and autopoiesis – the difference a concept can make to mental health #recovery #mentalwellness

July 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

A brief word about the difference between autonomy and autopoiesis. The definition of autonomy is a concept of self-governing, whether it applies to government or individuals. Autonomy implies self-determination as separable from the environmental conditions within which this autonomous ability takes place.

The idea of autonomy is alluring, as it connotes the power to self-direct despite constraining environmental conditions. It would be interesting to see if there is actually any scientific support for this idea. My guess is that the idea of autonomy might be comforting because it suggests self-will is our ultimate strength to improve our lives or our living conditions. However, autonomy may be an anachronistic concept when we consider the survival of our human existence as wholly dependent on our environmental conditions. In fact, we do not exist as separable living entities from the environmental conditions that sustain us. Where does autonomy fit in an ecological system?

Autopoiesis posits self-will in relation to the environmental conditions that sustain us. We have autopoietic properties that allow us to re-structure our connection to ever changing environmental conditions. Whether we are connecting to basic biological realities like time of day, temperature and atmospheric conditions, or whether we are connecting to social situations with family, peers, colleagues and friends, we are constantly adjusting our autopoietic response to these relationships. In this sense, our self-will is only as empowered as we perceive ourselves to be in any given situation, and our self-actualization is only as inactive as our abilities to take action within any given situation.

For example, for the past couple of weeks I have been going to work in construction with an injured knee. I have been taking pain killers and anti-inflammatories to help keep the pain to a manageable level. I have been moving more slowly and carefully around the job site. I have been telling myself that I can’t miss a day of work. I have been feeling fearful about my future employment, and my future health, imagining I will have to have my knee replaced.

The thoughts and feelings that I have been using to guide my autopoietic response to my job security and my financial well-being have actually been self-destructive but I kept hoping the situation would improve if I just persevered.

Finally I accepted my husband’s advise and sought medical treatment for my knee. In an instant, as he explained the injury and the structures involved, and the care needed, my thoughts and feelings changed. My autopoietic response adapted to these changing environmental conditions – I had new information that broadened my perspective and deepened my understanding. This change informed my new autopoietic response to my work situation. First, I cancelled my offer to go back up the ladder in the evening to pain a window sill after dark to avoid a wasps nest. Second I booked off work for the day so I could have three days to aid the recovery of my knee. I knew that going to work today would set back my knee rather than move it forward, and I knew that I had to take the day off for recovery.

Before I visited the health professional, it seemed impossible that I would take time off work, in fact, I was offering to put in extra time to move the job project along. After I visited the health professional it was unthinkable that I would go to work that evening and I finally had the conviction to take a day off work to aid healing.

It might be said that I made an autonomous decision, to take the day off work. But in fact, my ability to make that decision was entirely informed by the environmental conditions that enabled me to perceive my situation in a new light and make new decisions based on that information. In the first case my self-will was making destructive decisions based on an imagined future that seemed real. In the second case my self-will was informed by external sources of data and capable of recalibrating beliefs, values, and decisions.

I would argue that autonomy is a false construct that perpetuates powerlessness and systemic poverty. If one is suffering in unsustainable conditions and one is led to believe they can change their suffering by their own individual self-will, they are going to remain stuck in the very conditions that sustain their suffering. On the other hand, if one is capable of perceiving their suffering as a symptom of systemic failure, they can engage with others in the system and work collectively to change the conditions that give rise to their collective suffering. For those whose comfort and power are derived from systemic suffering, it is very convenient to place the blame on those who suffer from systemic inequality. The false construct of autonomy actually perpetuates social systems that deprive whole classes of citizens of the capacity to perceive the constraints endemic in their environmental conditions, and the ability to act to better their conditions.

Autopoeisis validates the experience of the individual as an inseparable whole – the continuous movement of structurally coupling to changing environmental conditions. For those born in positions of privilege that take advantage of others’ suffering to maintain their comfort and consumption, there may never be an impetus to examine their autopoietic response to the conditions that sustain them. It is only when we suffer and seek to alleviate the pain that causes our suffering, that we are motivated to examine our internal and external conditions and make the necessary changes to improve our lives.

We do live in ecological systems that are expressed physically, psychologically, mentally, emotionally, politically, economically, chemically, and biologically. When we understand our autopoietic responses to these environmental conditions we are much better informed to make productive changes in our lives that actually influence the future formation of our environmental conditions.

We are all in this together, for the good of all concerned.


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