Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Leading from "Whole" Visions

I like to share with you a clip from an article entitled Awakening Faith in an Alternative Future, A Consideration of Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, which was published in Reflections, the journal of the Society of Oranizational Learning. It introduces us to a new way of thinking about things, especially how we conceive of and organize life; or more appropritaely how life organizes itself.
"Presence offers a theory of profound change that is both radical and simple, based first on understanding the nature of wholes, and how parts and wholes are interrelated. Our normal way of thinking cheats us. It leads us to think of wholes as made up of many parts, the way a car is made up of wheels, a chassis, and a drive train. In this way of thinking, the whole is assembled from the parts and depends upon them to work effectively. If a part is broken, it must be repaired or replaced. This is a very logical way of thinking about machines. But living systems are different.

Unlike machines, living systems, such as your body or a tree, create themselves. They are not mere assemblages of their parts but are continually growing and changing along with their elements. Almost 200 years ago, Goethe, the German writer and scientist, argued that this meant we had to think very differently about wholes and parts.

For Goethe, the whole was something dynamic and living that continually comes into being “in concrete manifestations.”2 A part, in turn, was a manifestation of the whole, rather than just a component of it. Neither exists without the other. The whole exists through con­tinually manifesting in the parts, and the parts exist as embodiments of the whole. The inventor Buckminster Fuller was fond of holding up his hand and asking peo­ple, “What is this?” Invariably, they would respond, “It’s a hand.” He would then point out that the cells that made up that hand were continually dying and regenerat­ing themselves. What seems tangible is continually changing: in fact, a hand is completely re-created within a year or so. So when we see a hand – or an entire body or any living system – as a static “thing,” we are mis­taken. “What you see is not a hand,” Fuller would say. “It’s a ‘pattern integrity,’ the universe’s capability to cre­ate hands."

For Fuller, this “pattern integrity” was the whole of which each particular hand is a “concrete manifesta­tion.” Biologist Rupert Sheldrake calls the underlying organizing pattern the formative field of the organism. “In self-organizing systems at all levels of complexity,” says Sheldrake, “there is a wholeness that depends on a characteristic organizing field of that system, its morphic field.” Moreover, Sheldrake says, the generative field of a living system extends into its environment and connects the two. For example, every cell contains identical DNA information for the larger organism, yet cells also differ­entiate as they mature – into eye, heart, or kidney cells, for example. This happens because cells develop a kind of social identity according to their immediate context and what is needed for the health of the larger organism. When a cell’s morphic field deteriorates, its awareness of the larger whole deteriorates. A cell that loses its social identity reverts to blind, undifferentiated cell division, which can ultimately threaten the life of the larger organism. It is what we know as cancer.

To appreciate the relationship between parts and wholes in living systems, we do not need to study nature at the microscopic level. If you gaze up at the nighttime sky, you see all of the sky visible from where you stand. Yet the pupil of your eye, fully open, is less than a centimeter across. Somehow, light from the whole of the sky must be present in the small space of your eye. And if your pupil were only half as large, or only one quarter as large, this would still be so. Light from the entirety of the nighttime sky is present in every space – no matter how small. This is exactly the same phenomenon evident in a hologram. The three-dimensional image created by interacting laser beams can be cut in half indefinitely, and each piece, no matter how small, will still contain the entire image. This reveals what is perhaps the most mysterious aspect of parts and wholes: as physicist Henri Bortoft says, “Everything is in everything."

When we eventually grasp the wholeness of nature, it can be shocking. In nature, as Bortoft puts it, “The part is a place for the presencing of the whole.” This is the awareness that is stolen from us when we accept the “machine” worldview of wholes assembled from replaceable parts.

Source: Reflections (Society of Learning Journal)
As we think about leading local economies and communities, how can we apply these concepts to ensure that we cultivate their learning and growth in the proper directions?

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