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The imperfect democratic Tao of pi

October 26, 2020
Pakua by Benoît Stella, modified.

Pi is the relationship between a circle and it’s diameter. Sounds simple. But it’s not really a simple fact that the diameter fits into the circumference 3.14 times — that will not quite do it, will it! — There’s a snag. All those decimals in a tangle: 3.141592653… and on and on and on, and will they ever let go! Murphy’s law of land and sea advises us that if something can snag, it will snag. A rope round a protrusion, even in calm weather, an electric lawnmower cord on a smooth rock, we have our favorites.

Something obtuse about natural law seems to invite things to snag on things. And so I will venture the thought that, in spite of the trouble, it might be a good thing. Without this unruly attraction, what could connect? Not that everything that connects need be called a “snag,” but the point is that the snag was not the destination. We had someplace in mind, some objective that was presumed more snag-less.

The surprising thing about pi is that we are alerted against thinking the circle is perfect, that it will come clean. The decimals of pi are a string of red warning lights. Endlessly imperfect! That the circle will not close absolutely is re-enumerated in all sorts of ways, no matter how we pull on it — but it does get our attention. It’s got traction.

In the absence of perfection, the circle connects with things; it snags many things in the real world and in the imagination. But it can be unsnagged if we find where it connects, so we can stop pulling on more decimals, stop counting pi and be aware of something else. How many decimals must we endure before we cave and admit that there are no absolutely perfectly symmetrical circles, no absolutes at all, in fact, in the absence of any perfectly straight lines for diameters? Pi calls out echoingly that infinity is a snag, mathematically as well as otherwise. It is snagging the loftiest physicists. Where the rubber meets the road, pi provides useful traction when viewed realistically. Experimental science has not found any pure symmetry in nature, at all. Walk outside and find me just one thing that does not imperfectly imply circularity.

Just when you think you can identify symmetry in a flower, in a leaf, there is a snag, one of the petals is askew, and that is a beautiful thing — nature’s true balance. Another beautiful aspect of pi is its call to democracy. We can share the democratic pi in a balanced way by getting inspired by nature’s gifts. How does the circle snag democracy? The number pi snags the mind into the natural world, in spite of our presumptions and with no need to be familiar with the snagger. Individuals are brought together, not into a monoculture of symmetrical banality, but into a potential flourishing of character, one and all.

This notion of a dancing, changing, balancing polarity in circles is of course not new, and is renewable in time. The ancient understanding of the polarities of the Tao have long been applied to relationships of a circle, where Yin and Yang move round each other. So do not be snagged by an illusion of some ideal symmetry in the famous Yin-Yang symbol! As the I Ching, the Book of Changes, foretells in the natural cycles of the lines of its well-weathered hexagrams, absolutes are overturned, preemptively snagged, I would add. The connections between the seasons and the livelihood of the people had deep and long-recognized roots in the planet, way before it was widely known to be round.

The vital questions of how to live and behave as humans among the forces of nature, what is right and wrong and what works and what fails in life; these issues have long focused the mind as it developed. Does nature have a moral compass? Should we follow it? If so, how? But these questions have begun to look dated, and we have become jaded. We need to be snagged by more democratic pi all round! Yoganomics opens up opportunities for further exploration, puns included.

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