CLIFF CREGO | The Triangle of Relationship

The Triangle of Relationship
On the road in the Northwest of America. [click photo for next . . . ]


In a room without echoes,
we quickly stop
our play.

The strength of the triangle of relationship, it seems to me, is that it
in a gentle yet forceful way lifts us out of the isolation of the linear,
fragmentary style of thinking which is so characteristic of Western
thought. The basic idea is that, for every thought, every action, and
every resource or artifact, there are always at least three sides, or three
questions we must ask: How is this thought or object related to myself;
How is it related to others (society or culture)? And how is it related to
the Earth, or the wider context? Here’s a rough sketch:

The key point is that these relationships co-exist in a movement of
relational resonance which, although they are normally implicit and
largely invisible, are at the same time, regardless of how we think
about them or act towards them, indivisible. That is, when we pick up
an isolated object, we are in actual fact picking up this triangle of rela-
tionship. We can easily imagine this in a visual way, say, like taking an
apple and mapping out the normally unseen relationships not just to my
own body as I eat the apple, but also to those who grew it, delivered it
to the store where I bought it, as well as perhaps the actual place—the
orchard—where it was grown. We might also imagine the triangle in
terms of sound, as for example a singing voice in a large reverberant
structure like a concert hall or cathedral. We have the sound of the voice
as it appears to the singer him- or herself, but also the sound of the
voice as it appears to others who listen to it in the same space. And, of
course, there is the acoustic space itself, the wider context of what for
the singer is the whole world, both literally and in the ritual sense.
Thus, we move naturally and easily from the top of the triangle, me, to
others, we, and to the world or Earth, all, and back again. Notice also
that this movement occurs both one-at-a-time (like musical melody),
and all-at-once (like musical chords), a feature which is very unlike
visual mirrors, but distinctive and natural to relational resonance as a

With this sonic image in mind, it is easy to see the distortional nature
of isolation and fragmentation. Think for a moment of the same singer,
but now in a space completely devoid of resonance. Musicians find
such spaces deeply disturbing. “There’s no echo!” they say. They call
such spaces ‘dry’ or ‘dead.’ In other words, the room or hall gives noth-
ing back to them. So, it comes as no surprise that, without the natural
sustaining resonance of echo, which both gives energy to the sound and
makes it possible to blend and tune with oneself and others, we very
quickly wish to stop singing altogether.

Now, if we go one step further and generalize this movement of
resonance and think not just of sound but also relationship in terms
of meaning and responsibility, we have, I think, the beginnings of a
strong model of ethical awareness. Here we have the image not of
sound, but of a woven fabric. I pick up a strand or thread—any thread,
it makes no difference—and simply follow it to its source. This natu-
rally reveals others connected to the same thread, as well as how the
thread is woven into the fabric of the larger whole. Take coffee, for
instance. In isolation, coffee is just a savory, pleasant, habit-forming
stimulant for which we as users naturally wish to pay the best pos-
sible price for the best quality. But if we begin thinking about coffee
with the relationship triangle in mind, a far richer story is revealed as
we follow the highlighted thread of a single pack. It leads us to those
who market, distribute, process the coffee, and most especially, those
who actually grow and harvest the beans. Ultimately, we are led to the
wider earth-bound ecological context which sustains both the growers
and the coffee plants themselves.

If we follow this path of relationship, notice first that there is in prin-
ciple no real fundamental difference between the ethical and environ-
mental dimensions of awareness. They are but two inseparable aspects
of the same movement, one which emphasizes responsibility, and the
other which emphasizes understanding. Second, notice that in the cur-
rent era, coming as we all do, including myself, from a state of radical
fragmentation, we pursue the thread, regardless of where it leads us, we
are unavoidably going to be in for some shocks and highly disturbing
information. The sweat shops and child labor behind my favorite running
shoes; the half-lives of all the toxins found in their soles. The flame retardants
in the laptop I love and depend on turning up in the breast milk of young
mothers in the far Arctic North; or a kid in India, or China, or Africa,
working barefoot atop a mountain of electronic waste, eking out a living
by stripping away the equally toxic metals of the same computer once
I’m forced to throw it away. Or, coming back to our first example, the
coffee farmer in the high-country of Ethiopia who explains that he gets
only 3 cents for each kilo of green beans he produces, and looks straight
into the lens of the camera as he tells us that he needs at least 8 or 10
cents just to survive.

So one sees that the beauty and the strength of the triangle of relation-
ship, just as with the musician with whom we began in the natural
world of relational resonance, is that—like it or not—both harmony and
disharmony are necessarily revealed. Both the good and the bad. One
can’t have one without the other. This is a fact. And perhaps this is why
the ethical awareness of the compassionate mind has evolved out of the
inherently self-destructive isolation of the brutish brain. Where does this
intelligence come from? Simply our genetic structure? Or from some
much deeper and more subtle source? As with all really fundamental
questions of existence, we find, I think, as we follow the triangle of
relationship far enough that we are led to a point where we can only say
with the honesty a small child demands, “I don’t know.” For here the
known world ends, and the uncharted land of the spiritual wilderness of
the extraordinary human mind begins.

An essay from my little book, THEATER OF THE NEW:
"On The Triangle of Relationship"
pdf [1.4Mb]

THE LITTLE CLAVIER please preview 150 of 631 pages
w/ my black & white photography [opens in new window]

NEW: To view / purchase high quality prints & matted frames
at the
Photoweek Northwest online store, SLIDESHOW

All Photographs & texts by Cliff Crego © 1999-2015
(created: III.3.2008)