Nonduality in the Architectural Theory of Christopher Alexander

The purpose is to show how some of the writings of architect Christopher Alexander bear on nonduality.

The fundamental message is that architects who work from realization of their true nature could build structures that inspire realization of true nature.

Nonduality means non-separation, which refers to all things being the same at some level of understanding, while retaining their individuality. A  classic metaphor pointing to nondual reality is that of the wave and ocean. Though each wave is unique, each one is the substance of the ocean and not separate from the ocean itself: Nonduality, non-separation.

16may2017martbeach3770 3photo by Jerry Katz

What is the “I”?

Christopher Alexander’s term for what is the same and unchanging in reality, is the “I”. The “I” is Christopher Alexander’s most common term for one’s essential being or true nature, although he also uses other terms, such as
“eternal self” (Alexander, 2004, p. 40),
“ground of all things” (Alexander, 2004, p. 47),
“Self” (Alexander, 2004),
“substrate of the universe . . . the origin of who and what we are” (Alexander, 2016), “true childish heart” (Alexander, 2004, p. 5),
“true self” (Alexander, 2004, p. 52),
“ground of the universe” (Alexander, 2004, p. 35),
“the Void, the great Self, maha-Atman, God, the Friend” (Alexander, 2004, p. 35),
“‘a something’ which lies in me and beyond me” (Alexander, 2004, p. 37).

The term “I” has been given terms by prominent teachers, for example, “awareness of being aware” (Spira, 2015), “essential being” (Spira, 2015), “God” (Ramana Maharshi, 1989, p. 550), “I am” (Nisargadatta Maharaj, 1993, p. 13).


The need to experience the “I.” The role of nonduality

Christopher Alexander’s work is characterized by persistently and passionately speaking about the need to experience in one’s self what he calls the “I” (Alexander, 2004) and to intentionally create buildings and structures that are founded in the realization of the “I” and which in turn inspire the realization, or at least the sense, intuition, or feeling of the “I” in those who experience the built structures.

[The “I”] is a part of the human being which exists already, and is available to us. . . . It is that which makes [art and architecture] powerful, which makes it useful. And this self — or “I” — is the core of every living structure (Alexander, 2004, p. 40).

Speaking to people in today’s world, Alexander says, “Our own way of making a connection to the “I,” must be … rooted in truth consistent with the 21st century”   (Alexander, 2004, p. 44) . . . “Something that would virtually have to be a new faith for our time must be found: some modern way in which we can make — for our time — a realistic and satisfying connection with the I” (Alexander, 2004, p. 45).

The True Meaning of Science and Spirituality: The existence of  this entity I call the “I” can be confirmed by experience, and it will — I believe — one day become part of physics, part of our understanding of the material universe, which reunites self and matter, ourselves with the world (Alexander, 2004, p. 44)

Sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, is the offering that the teachings of nonduality, as known experientially and via an unfolding, process, path, or way that is unique for each individual, are a modern way of making that connection to the “I.”

Yet, since there is no central authority for the teachings of nonduality, no specific path can be recommended. The curious one simply has to start searching, looking within, doing whatever seems to be the next obvious step. Many, many paths and teachers could be recommended, and some will be noted, however the author recommends no one and nothing. The reader must find out for him- or herself.


As far as those who doubt that the “I” really exists in the first place, Christopher Alexander provides an intellectual argument over the course of the four volumes of  The Nature of Order. Christopher writes, “[A] difficult intellectual path lies before us in this book.” (Alexander, 2004, p. 8). While some feel they require a well-marked path to walk, Matthew Arnold’s words from Human Life, could be considered:

Ah! let us make no claim
On life’s incognizable sea
To too exact a steering of our way!

I shall not present an argument. I write more for those who already have no doubt about the reality of the “I” and the importance of living from their true nature as “I,” and who find value in hearing the variety of expressions regarding the “I,” hearing it from all conceivable sources, whether a book, a dance, or a rock.


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A rock. Photo by Jerry Katz

A note regarding what lies beyond the “I” 

As for those who have even seen the “I” evaporate into an is-ness which neither is nor is not, these quotations may provide some enjoyment. Although I would not demand there is such a thing as an “I,” expressions about the “I” help me focus on my artistic objective; they serve as a muse.

“Expressions about the “I” help me focus on my artistic objective; they serve as a muse.” Photo by Mary-Jean Doyle


Christopher Alexander

Christopher Alexander was born in Vienna, Austria and raised in Oxford and Chichester, England. He studied at Trinity College in Cambridge, at Cambridge University, and at Harvard University where he received Harvard’s first Ph.D. in architecture. In 1963, Alexander became Professor of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught for 38 years, becoming Professor Emeritus in 2001. He has published hundreds of papers and built over 300 buildings globally (Christopher Alexander, 2011).

Some quotations from the YouTube video: Every step you take … has to increase or deepen the part of the enivornment you are working in. . . . Where does the whole come into play and what is it we need to do to deepen that wholeness … and what are the means one could use or should use to make this happen? . . . You can’t say something is beautiful unless it actually produces in you the emotion of beauty.

Christopher Alexander currently lives and works in England, where he has been since 2002. For nearly 50 years he has promoted an architectural hypothesis which values the “I” or essential self. His work arises out of refined observation and testing, and the totality of his works bears not only on the design of buildings but on computer science, transportation science, art in general, and cognitive science (Christopher Alexander, 2011).

Alexander’s groundbreaking works including A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (Oxford University Press, 1977), The Timeless Way of Building (OUP, 1977), and the four-volume book set, The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe (Center for Environmental Structure, 2004), from which Volume Four is the source for most of the material in this essay (Christopher Alexander, 2011).

The nature of order: An essay on the art of building and the nature of the universe. Book four: The luminous ground, by Christopher Alexander. The book upon which this paper is based

Alexander’s most recent book is The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World-Systems, authored with Hansjoachim Neis and Maggie Moore Alexander, and published in 2012 by Oxford University Press in New York.

When in 1958 Christopher Alexander began to study for his Ph.D. in architecture at Harvard, he was seeking “the smallest particles of fact that I could be certain of . . . small enough and solid enough that I could be sure that they were true” (Alexander, 2016).

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“…the smallest particles of fact that I could be certain of.” Photo by Jerry Katz

In this search, he came upon an awakening experience when he realized that some of the small details of architecture touched people in beneficial ways. They had the potential to inspire and support mental and emotional well-being: “. . . a shelf beside the door where one could put a packet down while searching for one’s keys, for instance, or the possibility of a sunbeam coming into a room and falling on the floor” (Alexander, 2016).

“…the possibility of a sunbeam coming into a room and falling on the floor.”
Photo by Jerry Katz

He elaborates on this awakening experience:

I was able to see how buildings support human ­well-being — not so much mechanical or material well-­being, but rather the emotional well-being that makes a person feel comfortable in himself. And as I studied these small effects carefully, gradually I was led to a conception of the wholeness and wellness that might, under ideal circumstances, arise between buildings and human beings (Alexander, 2016).

This and likely other such awakening experiences fueled an inquiry into the fundamental nature of architectural elements. Through this inquiry he ultimately recognized his fundamental self: the “I,” his own true self, or his “true childish heart” (Alexander, 2004, p. 5), about which he observed,

. . . is something vast, existing outside myself and inside myself, as if it were a contact with the eternal, something everlasting existing before me, in me, around me. I recognized, too, that my most lucid moments occur when I am swept up in this void, and fully conscious of it, as if it were a blinding light (Alexander, 2004, p. 7).

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“I am swept up in this void, and fully conscious of it, as if it were a blinding light.”
Photo by Jerry Katz

Alexander’s architectural theories began to emerge. They were based on imparting a deep feeling — psychologically and emotionally — of being human (Alexander, 2016).
Now, for nearly sixty years, Alexander has worked “to provide a basis for architecture that can sustain human feeling and the human spirit” (Alexander, 2016).

chartres-cathedral-1021517Chartres Cathedral, a well-discussed example by Alexander of “Architecture that can sustain human feeling and the human spirit.”


Christopher Alexander’s work is characterized by persistently and passionately speaking about the need to experience in one’s self their true nature or what he calls the “I” (Alexander, 2004), and to intentionally create buildings and structures that are founded in the realization of the “I,” which in turn inspire the emotion of beauty and the realization, or at least the sense, intuition, or feeling of the “I” within the one experiencing the built structures.


Alexander, C. (2004). The nature of order: An essay on the art of building and the       nature of the universe. Book four: The luminous ground. Berkeley, California: The Center for Environmental Structure.

Alexander, Christopher. (2016) “Making the Garden.” First Things. Retrieved from

Christopher Alexander: The Battle To Bring Life and Beauty to the Earth. (2011, May). Retrieved from

Nisargadatta Maharaj. (1992). I am that: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.         Durham, NC: The Acorn Press.

Ramana Maharshi. (1989). Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi. India: Sri Ramanasramam.

Spira, Rupert. (2015). “Meditation: Being Aware of Being Aware is the Highest      Meditation.” Rupert Spira: The Essence of Non-Duality. Accessed 14 Mar. 2017.

The Timeless Way of Educating Architects: A New Master in ‘Building Beauty’ in Naples, Italy. (2016, October). Retrieved from

Cigar Satsang

José Orlando Padrón, the founder of the Padrón Cigar brand, died early this morning. The legendary cigarmaker, who had run Padrón Cigars Inc. for 53 years, was surrounded by his family. He was 91 years old.

“He died peacefully, he didn’t suffer,” said his son Jorge, who has worked alongside his father since he was a young man.

“He was a true icon,” said Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado magazine. “A much loved leader and devoted family man who was uncompromising in his passion for cigars.”

Born in 1926 in Consolación del Sur, in Pinar del Río, Cuba, José Orlando Padrón was raised on his family’s tobacco farm. “My grandmother had a little table in her house where she would make cigars for my grandfather, and for the entire family,” Padrón said during an interview with Cigar Aficionado in 2014. “Two things they were never without—wine and cigars. As a young boy, I saw that in my house. My grandfather every day would wake up, and every time I saw him he was looking at a cigar. Rolling it in his hand. Always touching tobacco.”

Oneness and the Embracing of Opposites in Some Songs of Grace Vanderwaal

[All song lyrics are from]

Grace Vanderwaal is a 13-year old singer, musician, and songwriter who won America’s Got Talent (AGT) in 2016 at age 12 I want to look at lyrics which, in my opinion, contain themes of oneness and of authentic living in the midst of ordinary, everyday life.

These are only my interpretations of some of her songs, set forth for the reader’s consideration. I accept that there are multiple valid interpretations.

I have no idea what Grace was actually trying to say in any of these songs. She has said she believes in Jesus and is a Methodist, Thus I have quoted the Bible. However, I have also quoted from other spiritual and religious traditions.

Unifying opposites

From an assessment of her lyrics and interview comments, it appears that Grace’s world view is unifying and transcendent.  When asked how it feels, looking back at winning AGT: “It feels like it was twenty minutes and it also feels like it’s fifteen years ago at the same time” (1:56 – 2:29). She easily and comfortably embraces opposites.

On being happy

The point of transcendent religious and spiritual teachings is to be happy. Grace was asked about her vision for her future. She said, “To just be happy and enjoy what I’m doing, no matter what it is. Too many people in the [show biz] industry lose sight of that and I think that’s why a lot of people have a tough time in this type of business and I never want to get caught up in that” (17:50 – 18:16).

Perhaps she aligns with this passage from Psalms:  “So my heart rejoices and I am happy; My life is safe” Grace has spoken of writing songs that come from her heart (1:35 – 1:39). One might imagine that she knows the connection between the heart and happiness and is unlikely to compromise it.

An old soul

I’ve heard people talk about Grace being “an old soul.” (18:52 – 18:58). The Bible says, “Whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never get into it at all” I wish to offer that she is more of a “young soul,” in the spirit of the Bible.

Grace radiates a universal appeal. Her world view and values resonate with teachings of other religious traditions. I am not saying she believes in other religions or in anyone other than Jesus. I am only suggesting that her world view, her attitude and beliefs, are not dissimilar from those expressed by other religions and traditions.

For example, Zen Buddhism speaks of “beginner’s mind,” which, seems to me, is freshly born every moment, the opposite of old. In the classic book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the opening sentence is, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few” Suzuki, S. (1995). Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. New York, NY: Weatherhill. My sense is that the freshness of artistry and spirit that Grace brings is based in beginner’s mind, or upon the spirit of the little child of which the Bible speaks.

A relationship with darkness and light

Yet Grace does not write from superficial happiness. She is contemplative and richly authentic. In Darkness Keeps Chasing Me, she writes

God ​I ​want ​to ​be ​different ​but ​I’m ​not ​sure ​if ​i ​can ​do ​it ​on ​my ​own
‘Cause Every ​now ​and ​then ​the ​darkness ​tries ​to ​chase ​me
And ​my ​legs ​are ​getting ​tired ​of ​running
No no no no
Please ​don’t Please ​don’t Let ​it ​get ​to ​me, oohh
I ​don’t ​want ​to ​give ​up ​that ​easily
But ​the ​darkness ​keeps ​chasing ​me, ​me, ​me, ​me

The resolution to this song lies in the way she sings, “Me, me, me, me,” in a way that is somewhat light and fanciful as though graciously surrendering to God’s way, thus balancing the dominant tone of darkness, and as though saying, “Oh well, this ‘me’ runs from the darkness and knows the pain of it, yet I also see a profound playfulness in this darkness.”

Darkness as light

And why not? In Psalms we read, “He made darkness His secret place, His tent round about Him” The higher darkness chases Grace and she runs perhaps because the power of God is too awesome to totally surrender to, but part of her already sees light within the darkness, and maybe even she would acknowledge that the darkness is light. The following passage is from the Christian mystical tradition:

At first the Supreme Reality appears to the inner eye as darkness. This apparent darkness is, however in itself light, dazzling and blinding in its splendour, and it gradually becomes visible as such, when the spiritual vision is purged and strengthened and renewed by the stripping off of all love for the relative, the dependent, the phenomenal, and by the assiduous practice of all moral virtues. – W.S. Lilly, The Great Enigma, p. 267 Quoted in Dictionary of all Scriptures and Myths., p. 200. G.A. Gaskell, editor. The Julian Press, New York, 1977. 

The song reveals a mature insight into the human condition and in its way delivers a spiritual/religious teaching.

It could also be said that on another level she’s talking about those times a person feels tired, exhausted, a little depressed, and just wants to give everything up, but of course we don’t. Oh well, I gave the song a more dimensional meaning! When a person can see a lot of meaning in a song it might mean it’s a great song.

“So I heard you are my sister’s friend.”

Grace Vanderwaal excels at artistic abruptness. She brings the listener back and forth between poetical, possibly mystical and transcendent states and feelings, to the most down to earth.

This abruptness was memorably illustrated within the first few seconds of singing her first song on AGT

I don’t know my name,
I don’t play by the rules of the game
So you say I’m just trying
Just trying

So I heard you are my sister’s friend you get along quite nicely
You ask me why I cut my hair and changed myself completely.

What an abrupt change from a personal and poetic take on her life to talking about her sister’s friend. In this second verse she steps right into the muck of the small world and in that way appears to be telling her audience something like, “I’m gonna tell you the way I see the big world but I will not dismiss, deny, or disregard the pettiness of the small world. I’ll address them both together. They are inseparable. Love ties them together.” (I may have put words into Grace’s mouth, but they’re good words!)

With those few lines she was at once identified as an artist of originality and power. She takes you for a ride and cuts around corners and thrusts you into the starry sky and then into her house and back to the sky and you love it all.

Knowing the better life

Grace Vanderwaal plays with opposites of feeling and happiness, and she knows which is the lower or temporary happiness, and which is the higher, the more permanent and solid.

You found a lighter
On the street
And suddenly everything just
Seems so happy
My honey it’s all temporary

Just close your eyes
And create yourself a better life
Let the wind blow through your hair
Let the music take you there
And make a better life

Again we see that abrupt transition between the street and the sky, between the ordinary and the transcendent. It is a most agreeable transition delivered with the ripened innocence of the child within or with what I am guessing Grace calls her “heart.”

My understanding is that Grace is saying to enjoy the pleasure of finding the lighter. She is not denying anyone that pleasure. Just realize, she is saying, that this kind of happiness is temporary and will fade in a short while.

Living from small happiness to small happiness only makes you seem happy. Grace is saying to look beyond to find deeper, more solid, more permanent, more real happiness.

She says to close your eyes (turn away from the everyday world of temporary happiness), feel the beauty of nature and music, and try to live your life from the more solid and real places of true beauty. In this way your life will be better.

I feel that Grace is telling us that life is better when the more solid happiness is far more important to you than all the temporary happinesses that show up like a lighter on the sidewalk.

This shedding of the temporary happiness finds resonance with the earlier quote by Lilly in which he speaks of the “stripping off of all love for the relative, the dependent, the phenomenal,” in order to know the Supreme Reality, or the “better life.”

We’re brighter than fireflies

The same message is delivered in Light The Sky. Grace again admits we are individual, ordinary people, yet each of us shines with a certain light that lights up the world.

The first line tells the point of view of the song: “Stars . . . they got nothing on us.” The message is echoed later on: “The stars are dull when they’re compared to you and I.” She declares, “And yeah, I think we were born to shine.”

“We’re not the same and we don’t have to try / ‘Cause we’re brighter than fireflies we’re gonna light the sky.

You and me we stand out of the crowd / ‘Cause we aren’t afraid to let our light out

In my view, Grace seems to be saying: We don’t have to be the same. We are individuals. We are fireflies. We are stars. Yet we are brighter than stars and fireflies. We contain a light that is brighter than our individual light. That greater light is our birth right: “We were born to shine.” In this way we light the sky and reveal the world beyond the everyday, the nondual world. There’s a transcendent light. We are not the same and at the same time we are this one light that lights up the sky.

Bob Dylan, a Saint, and Taylor Swift? Sure, why not

These qualities — unifying opposites, being happy, coming from the heart or child within, — and the artistic ways she presents them, give her songs an anthem-like quality and a depth, as well as a joy, perhaps unmatched among singers of her generation.

Grace Vanderwaal is like Bob Dylan with regard to her literary capacity and potential to change the music scene and industry; like a Saint for her ability to embrace light and darkness and to see both the flawed individual and the unflawed perfection of a person at the same time; and like — hey why not? — like Taylor Swift for her pop presence.

Of course these comparisons break down once you look closely at them. In reality Grace is only herself.

Or is she?

Is Grace “only herself”? Or is she — are we — something else? Grace pointed to the illusory quality of this life and personhood in a recent video apparently shot on her phone while at Universal Studios in California with her mom. Walking past fake storefronts brightly lit with Christmas decorations, Grace noted, “They only thing that bothers me … it looks like there’s all these great stores … and they’re fake stores … they’re just an illusion. Everything’s an illusion. Am I an illusion? Are you an illusion?” (4:33 – 4:57).

Though it seems she was talking in an off-handed, fun way, there’s a sense that behind it is a serious consideration. The sense is that Grace questions everything, even the nature of her own existence and that of others. It seems likely that her world view will be further elaborated in future songs and projects and that she will take millions along on her journey.
copyright©2017 by Jerry Katz. All rights reserved. Contact: halifaxjerrykatz at