At first, language appears to us to be fixed and rigid. When we write, we seek the correct word to use. Over time, we realize that there are shades of gray: many words will work, but some have will add a particular color that we like.

One day, we realize that both the meaning and the emotional coloration of words are up for grabs. Language itself is fluid (or maybe viscous), and various individuals and tribes are constantly striving to alter both the meaning and connotation of words. Here are three of those skirmishes:

Tensegrity or Tensegrity™

Buckminster Fuller created the word “tensegrity”. Its definition is documented in his 1975 book Synergetics:

700.011 The word tensegrity is an invention: it is a contraction of tensional integrity. Tensegrity describes a structural-relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviors of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviors. Tensegrity provides the ability to yield increasingly without ultimately breaking or coming asunder.

Words rarely come into existence with a more precise definition than this! All was good, or was it?

Some time later, new-age visionary and writer Carlos Castaneda decided he liked Mr. Fuller’s new word:

Tensegrity is the name given to the modern version of the magical passes: positions and movements of body and breath that were dreamt and stalked by men and women seers who lived in Mexico in ancient times [...] The word Tensegrity is borrowed from an architect, engineer, scientist and dreamer whom Carlos Castaneda admired: R. Buckminster Fuller [...]

I do not know if Castaneda got Fuller’s permission to use the word for this very different purpose. In the tapestry of language, “borrowed” is a euphemism; the odds of the word ever being returned are remote. In the mid-1990s, Cleargreen, Incorporated, publisher of Castaneda’s videos, received a trademark on the word for the purpose of educational videos about patterns of physical movement.

I have never seen Castaneda’s dances. I’m certain they’re a viable body/mind discipline. Few may appreciate the irony of the two meanings: Castaneda’s dances are probably quite effective at developing the springiness/resiliency of our musculoskeletal system, which is a tensegrity. Was Castaneda early in making this brilliant insight, or did he latch onto Fuller’s word because it sounded sexy?

What impact did this “borrowing” have on Fuller’s precise definition? It’s difficult to know. Earlier this the year, I asked a German publisher of a physics textbook why he hadn’t included the word in his updated edition; I included technical explanations of Fuller’s tensegrity. He replied:

I had never heard about this! It seems interesting, though the word ‘tensegrity’ is very unserious, and is typical for terms used by crackpots.

I appreciated the publisher’s straightforward answer. Often, when we have a negative connotation for a word has, we’re unwilling to share it. The word will never be returned to a single definition; the best that can be done now is to note the two meanings. Also, the Wikipedia notes the ambiguity.


This summer, I saw the movie “The Living Matrix: A Film on the New Science of Healing

This movie claims to deliver a “viable scientific theory” linking a quantum physics “field” to our health and healing. As I note in my review and follow-up, no scientific theory linking these two things is ever stated. None of the steps of the scientific method are followed.

“The Living Matrix” delivers a long series of speculations that our health and healing is determined by quantum physics “field”. Why are those speculations called science? Viewers unfamiliar with the rigor of research and documentation required to call something science may be impressed with the claim. On the other hand, those who understand the scientific method will be mystified when they notice that the science doesn’t exist.

In this discussion on facebook I asked The Living Matrix producer Harry Massey to resolve this disconnect between what the movie claims and what it delivers. I fondly hope that will happen in the next few days.

Spatial Medicine

Anatomy expert Tom Myers, author of the book Anatomy Trains, wrote a fabulous essay “Spatial Medicine” several years ago. This essay is not science; Myers is suggesting a powerful way to think about body/mind disciplines, healing, and our health:

In Spatial Medicine, nothing is added but information; nothing is taken away but strain. We do not mean to imply that Material Medicine – nutrition or drugs – have no effect on structure – sometimes they very much can and do. And the practice of Temporal Medicine – e.g. psychotherapy – can sometimes affect posture, as when a mental or emotional burden is relieved, and the body straightens in response.

Spatial Medicine is working from a different premise from either of the other two: get the spatial order of the elements right, and you will contribute to health. Align the bones, free the glued fabric, balance muscle tonus – and watch the changes to chemical and mental health, as well as seeing the structure and movement itself improve. All the therapists working in the fields above can attest to stacks of anecdotal evidence for the kinds of mental, spiritual, and physiological changes that proceed from interventions to the structure and movement of the client / patient.

Spatial Medicine is a way to notice both the limitations and the possibility of language. It’s a fabulous name and a fabulous essay.