The mindset of the populations of Siberian origin (part 1)

Part of the series Perceiving complexity

In this series of articles I write about some mindset features that I notice at the populations of Siberian origin. Let me start with the psychological aspect I remarked at the Altaic populations and from there I will keep unfolding.

First a bit of clarification about what I mean by populations with Altaic mindset. These populations have a linguistic connection, but there is an ongoing debate about which of them could be included in the Altaic language family or whether this family of languages is real after all. Initially the proposal of this macro-family of languages included the Turkic, Mongolian and Tungusic families, later the Korean and Japonic families were also considered. More recently, the study of old Turkic and Mongolic languages appears to show that they converged rather than diverged in time. This raises questions about them really having a common ancestor, it may have been what is called a Sprachbund, a group of languages with similarities deriving from borrowings rather than from a common origin.

However, some linguistic connection exists there, whether by common origin or by borrowing. And I also notice some cultural similarities, with local variations. I notice these cultural aspects also at populations whose languages are known to be only influenced by languages from the presumed Altaic language family, like the Hungarians and the Russians. Some of the languages from this presumed Altaic family may be in the same situation.

All the populations from the presumed family and some others known to be influenced culturally in history, like the Hungarians and the Russians, exhibit some cultural similarities (with local variations). Hence I write about an Altaic mindset among these populations, it is about cultural Altaic aspects.

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about these cultural aspects is what I call the ebru point of view in thinking. I name it after the Turkish ebru technique of painting on a liquid surface (part of the family of what is known in English as paper marbling techniques, they suppose painting on a liquid surface, then a piece of paper or fabric is laid on top of the liquid and the painting is thus transferred on the sheet). The ebru technique supposes an increased viscosity of the liquid it is painted on, which permits an increased control in creating the design. Usually, the other techniques of painting on a liquid let the liquid rather naturally fluid and they are focused on the randomness of the pattern, with some involvement of the painter in directing the result.

The ebru has the fluidity and the randomness allowed by the liquid environment and also the possibility to create patterns and representations recognizable by the human mind. Painting by random splashing is called battal. An ebru painting can consist only in a battal, like in this example, Battal Ebru nasıl yapılır? (How to make a battal ebru?), in a battal with some degree of organized patternization like in this Düzgünman Battalı (Patternized Battal), or in a painting of recognizable figures over the battal (traditionally, they tend to be flowers), like in this Gelincik Buketi Ebrusu (Poppy Bouquet Ebru) or this Gül Ebrusu (Rose Ebru). On this page, you can see various classical ebru designs.

This painting technique is a good example of a way of thinking that is not entirely based on the accumulated mental structures of the past, it uses what is already accumulated, but it is also taking in consideration the randomness of the real life outside of these structures. The way a painter applies those regular patterns on the battal or paints a figure recognizable by the human mind is like the search for a rational understanding of a context while taking in consideration its real life unknown and randomness. The way a flower slowly takes shape in the middle of the ebru is like the development of an increasing rational perception of the situation after immersing in the fluidity of its unknown and randomness.

Of course, this may not necessarily be a linear psychological progression from unknown and randomness to rational perception, this would just mean to continue classical human thinking of pursuing a supposed pre-existing order in the world (an order that may exist only in your mind, based on the classical masculine control of the situation). You may need to let unfold the patterns in your mind to see what shape they take and then let your mind fluid again to see how those patterns relate to the fluidity of the raw reality, a process that you may need to repeat many times until you feel you have an authentic understanding of the situation.

The classical human way to understand something tends to be a fast-track recognition of already existing patterns in the mind, as I got into detail in the general parts of the series Perceiving complexity. It takes in consideration the unknown and randomness of real life, the people are conditioned by that, but they are focused on a fast-track recognition of already existing patterns. This is the classical masculine way of understanding the world, which is also used by women to the extent they are involved in the social power structure and they partake in classical masculine mindset. There is also a classical feminine way of understanding what to do in a context, which lacks the presumption of social power and supposes an immersion in the unknown of the raw reality and deep pondering by taking in consideration its unpatternized randomness.

It can take some time until a conclusion appears, like in the meaning of the word merkeln, a recently created verb in the German language to describe a behavior like that of Angela Merkel, by avoiding for long periods of time to make clear statements in important matters. In such matters a classical masculine mind would have drawn rather quickly conclusions based on already existing mental structures. Thus these mental structures tend to reproduce themselves, without taking in consideration the raw reality. The classical feminine way of thinking has the advantage that it is less conditioned in drawing conclusions by the already existing mental structures, but it may be slow in reaching a clear conclusion.

The ebru point of view has an obvious influence from the classical feminine experience accumulated in the long human and prehuman history, in the way it takes in consideration the unknown outside of the limitations of the already existing mental patterns. But it also has an influence from the classical masculine experience (also accumulated in the long human and prehuman history) in its search for patterns, recognizable shapes and figures. Both of these influences need to undergo some limitations in order to be able to work together. The classical feminine influence is limited because of the increased viscosity necessary for enabling the work with patterns and mental structures. The classical masculine influence is limited in developing an ego that feels in control of the situation.

This awareness of the unknown and of the diachronic changes outside of the classical human mental structures determines some specific dynamics between the fluid point of view and the static point of view at the Altaic populations. The static point of view of the patterns and mental structures is considered as the “normal” one. About the fluid point of view… there is a suspension of rational thinking about it specifically, like the pause that occurred in my mind when I thought about it, noted with the previous ellipsis. It is something different from the classical rational thinking and it is left unconceptualized, you just live and experience its point of view.

A practical example that comes quickly to my mind is the way it was organized in the countryside my grandparents’ household. It was divided in two parts by an inner fence: the part in front of this fence towards the main gate, which had the main and the secondary houses and the part behind that fence, with the rest of the household. The front side was prioritized in investments in looking good, with painting in vibrant colors, with flowers and fruit trees in the space left unbuilt (also some legumes that are perceived as very “humanized”, like peppers, tomatoes). The back side continued with the buildings and spaces for the animals, an open air kitchen stove where we used to make food in the warm weather and land cultivated with the rest of the plants that would not look good in the front side, mostly maize and vineyard. This part of the household received only utilitarian investments, only if it was something useful, no concern about looking good.

It may look like a superficial organization of classical feminine inspiration, geared towards appearances. However, you have to take in consideration that it is not easy to conceptualize the fluid point of view (experienced in this household behind that inner fence), hence this separation between the rationally understandable frontside and the fluid backside. The backside part may have looked uninteresting, but it was a space where I was able to let unfold this fluid point of view, no matter how complicated it would be to conceptualize what you think in such moments. It was a sought after space.

And it was a dynamic between these two sides of the household, the experience of the fluid thought in the uninteresting backside was translating in experiencing new approaches to the patterns and mental structures on the frontside. And putting in application these new approaches in the frontside is an experience in itself, you see how it works, you sense what needs to be revised or only tweaked and then return to the backside to let the fluid point of view unfold to see what you can do with the newly remarked issues.

Many times it is a never-ending movement to and fro, but it feels rewarding because the background fluid thought is a constant source of freshness, it is not a Sisyphean work (revising again and again the same mental structures), you feel you are doing something with your life. I am not aware if people with this mindset really tend to organize their households like this, in my ancestry it may have been the fact of living among people with other mindset and along generations they increasingly clarified at a rather subconscious level how they think compared to how others think and thus they reached this household organization. I also imagine that there may be people organizing their household like this, but they do not necessarily perceive it through ebru thinking processes. I should also add that, if I had a countryside household of my own, most likely I would not entirely organize it like this, as with all the pondering about these cultural aspects and with other cultural influences now things are not so much in terms of an uninteresting fluid backside for me.

So, something like this I see the ebru point of view in thinking. In a fluid environment you let unfold the randomness of the unknown from the real life and you try all kind of patterns and mental structures, you are not stuck in the mental structures you already have. A problem is when you have real life responsibilities in social organization beyond your private space, when you need to project among the other people a rational, understanding and understandable self. This can create stiff mental structures, depending on the stiffness and staleness in the mental entanglements with other people. And if you have the awareness of the fluid point of view, you can also sense when you lose the real control of the situation. The pursuit of the consistency of the mental structures you projected some time in the past in public may make you slide into losing the real control of the situation.

Thus, in terms of wielding political power, there is a tendency among these populations to pay attention to the extent they really exert real power also from the fluid diachronic point of view. This point of view is the one that notices the real changes that intervene in time in social structures, from this point of view you are not blocked in believing in the accumulations of synchronic mental structures.

Some leadership structures found a solution in a dual leadership, with a spiritual leader who thinks from the fluid point of view and keeps the leadership structure fresh and a leader involved in the practicalities of the real life that can create mental entanglement. In other cases, a leader had a better understanding of how this ebru mindset works and could fulfill a leadership role with minimal entanglement, like in the case of the Ottoman and Japanese imperial dynasties. In both cases, they had originally a wise, meaningful perception of the ebru way of thinking that assured them a much more authentic spiritual position, which limited the possibility to develop a classical human ego. This made them resourceful in practical administration without getting stale for some centuries.

In time, they still became stale, but the authentic spiritual position that limited the creation of a public ego made their leadership structure hard to dislodge. There was not much ego structure to attack, while the new powerful people had to face these two dynasties’ immersion in the diachronic fluid flow. Can you match this? If not, you just develop a real life administrative power structure on the side of this spiritual leadership. At the Ottomans it was more informal, with the Ottoman dynasty keeping the appearances of the apex of power. At the Japanese it appeared a suite of codified official power structures, which in time were getting stale themselves, only to become the pawns of other new power structures.

This kind of leadership that makes the distinction between the mental structures of the public ego and the real power conferred by the immersion in the fluidity of the diachronic point of view is not necessarily stuck in its own mental structures and it is much more open to import whole batches of useful concepts it notices at other people. In history, the Japanese, Hungarian, Mongol/Tatar, Russian, Ottoman rulers were much more than usually open to borrow useful ideas, innovations and mental structures they noticed at other people.

There are times when it appears a feeling that no matter how you try to tweak the current accumulated social and administrative structures you are stuck in a loser position. Other people may not notice when they are stuck in such situations because they have a classical synchronic stiff ego. The ebru mindset makes you question if you are in control of the situation and if you have real power form the fluid diachronic point of view.

And, if you don’t have it anymore, the immersion in this fluid thinking permits you to envisage a major overhaul of all that structural scaffolding. Usually, this overhaul supposes to take in consideration the valuable ideas, innovations and mental structures that other people employ to keep them ahead. But in those situations in which you feel things are not going forward and you are on the loser side, it is not anymore just about taking useful aspects they notice at other people and adding them just to tweak the already existing organization style.

It is about a major identity overhaul, like the reforms of Peter the Great and the Communist reforms at the Russians, the Jadidism at the Tatars, the Meiji reforms (preceded by the Bakumatsu reforms) at the Japanese, Atatürk’s Reforms (preceded by the Tanzimat reforms) at the Turks. In all these cases (excepting the Tatar Jadidism, which was too stifled by the Russians), the reforms were so thorough that they also involved the change of the capital. In terms of my grandparents’ household, it would mean retreating mentally in that “uninteresting” backside, from there you envisage what to do about the celebrated frontside, abandon mentally what has to be abandoned and change what has to be changed.

What could be the origin of this ebru mindset? The direct immersion in the fluidity of the raw reality made me think about the Siberian shamanism. Upon further investigation, I remarked that in general the populations of Siberian origin have an increased awareness of the fluid raw reality behind the classical human mental structures. The Altaic ebru is only one of the ways to deal with this increased awareness, there is a variety of other streaks besides it and usually it is about a specific way to accommodate the freshness and sense of raw reality from the fluid diachronic point of view with the social organization enabled by the synchronic point of view of the mental structures.

There is, for example, what I call the suminagashi point of view in thinking, which I notice at the Finno-Ugric and Japanese populations (the Hungarians and the Japanese have both the suminagashi and the ebru mindsets in their culture, as I will get into more detail later on). I call it after the Japanese suminagashi technique of painting on a liquid surface. Unlike the Turkish ebru, in this case the water is left at its normal viscosity, thus the fluidity of the moving colors is much closer to the speed of the fluidity in the raw reality (a short suminagashi lesson in English).

The other important consequence (when you see this after you experience first the ebru technique) is that you cannot work with patterns and shapes recognizable by a human mind. See in this example of a suminagashi painting how each slightly different move of the hand creates different ripples (and then, with only a bit of air movement from a fan, you create an unique unrepeatable visual experience). At most, you can direct the placing of colors, but, once you splash them on the liquid surface, they have too much a life of their own.

In other words, thinking from a suminagashi point of view follows to a greater extent how real life aspects get a life of their own beyond the classical human mental structures. With this perspective, you are much more immersed in the freshness of the raw reality. On the other hand, the possibilities offered by ebru to think rationally in the fluid environment are much reduced here.

What I notice at the Hungarians and Japanese is that they like to immerse in the suminagashi point of view in environments where they already feel in control of the situation, an environment where there is no pressure to take real life decisions on topics you don’t have deep knowledge of. If such pressure is there, you experience a dissociation between the synchronic point of view of the mental structures and the diachronic point of view that pays attention to the fluid flow of real life. In this piece of Japanese Nō theater you can see how it feels like when you are on the cusp of losing the rational control of the situation, when your rational side feels how the diachronic point of view gets a life of its own. Or the ninibaori type of Japanese comedy, with two people, one hidden in the back of the other with only the hands visible and the other one in the front with only the head visible, both wearing a single coat and pretending to be a single person. An example of this kind of comedy, the source of humor being the lack of coordination between the hands and the head.

Another streak that I notice at the populations of Siberian origin is the Amerindian one. This one has further local variations with significant differences, I am writing here what I notice as general Amerindian features. Here the reliance is on the fluid point of view, this is the base, it is a much more direct reliance on it, hence the mental structures are conditioned by it. They develop mental structures, they rely on them, but these structures can crumble easily because of the awareness of the fluid point of view. The more complex societies like the Mezoamerican one, registered the crumbling of the social structure (which happened several times in history) as the death of the Sun, followed by the birth of a new Sun. This is not a simple death and rebirth of the Sun like in the Osiris myth, with a transmission of mental structures through Isis, when about the same old thing is revived.

Ebru and suminagashi take in consideration the mental structures as if they were reality by themselves, probably because they were historically in interactions with other people who think like this and they relied mentally on the confidence of those people in the “reality” of these structures. At the ebru, the fluid point of view is in the uninteresting background, where you can get freshness and fluidity to reshape the celebrated mental structures of the front side. At the suminagashi, the fluid point of view is seen from the perspective of the celebrated mental structures and it is seen as rewarding and valuable when it is kept in the confines understandable by the mental structures, while it is seen as dangerous and destructive when the mental structures cannot cope with creating a sense of being in control of the situation.

The Amerindians created mental structures on top of a psychologically liquid surface, but they were by themselves, they did not rely mentally on other people who really believe in the “reality” of these structures. When things began to go awry in the coherence of the mental structures they created on the liquid surface, the whole mental edifice utterly crumbled, and they perceived it as the death of the Sun. When they started to develop a new web of mental structures, it was felt like a entirely new Sun. After the European conquest, the Amerindians have too similar dilemmas as the Asian populations of Siberian origin about relying mentally on other people who believe in the “reality” of the mental structures.

The mindset of the populations of Siberian origin (part 2)