Tom Atlee: Six Faces of Wholeness

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Tom Atlee

Six faces of wholeness

I offer here a framework for understanding what I might call “big” wholeness – a sensibility I have about wholeness that I can never articulate but which continually demands that I try. This framework attempts to embrace the manifestations of that inarticulable “wholeness” that I find myself sensing into and out of as my work emerges or as I evaluate each new idea, initiative, possibility, etc., that comes to my attention as I do my work.

In this model I am calling the overall categories of such manifestations “faces of wholeness”, as that is the way they present themselves – in the same sense that many mystical traditions see every person, thing, or phenomenon as “a face of God”. Beneath each overall category, I list “facets” or ways that wholeness manifests itself as parts or aspects of that larger face of wholeness.

Many faces and facets overlap, contextualize, include, and can even colonize some or all of the others. When I say “colonize”, I mean that certain holistic advocates may assert that a favorite face or facet is what wholeness is all about and that the other faces and facets are at best subsidiary phenomena. This is why I call wholeness that manifests through ALL the faces and facets “big wholeness”.

One of the future tasks in making this framework useful is to identify important applications of each face and facet. I sense that most if not all of people’s efforts to make the world better – from art to politics, from education to medicine, from religion to science – are (or at least originally were) grounded in one or another aspect of wholeness. My co-intelligence work is definitely driven by a sense of wholeness and its potent, even sacred value.

So I offer this framework in my belief that the more we can understand about the nature of wholeness, the more able we will be in our work for the world. I especially hope it will help us co-create a world that works, as William McDonough says, for the children of all species for all time.

Of course, this framework is, itself, an example of the kind of wholeness it talks about. That is, it is only one tentative effort to weave diverse phenomena into a coherent whole which is inherently limited and will undoubtedly evolve. So feel free to do with it what you will.

Now here are the faces that I see so far:


Some facets of the whole/part face (which may be presented in a “holonic” spiral of increasing complexity in which each identified entity is made up of “parts” which, as they interactively weave themselves into more intense community, increasingly manifest the “wholeness” of that entity until it becomes clearly one distinct thing, at which point it can be seen to be a “part” of a larger “whole”.) (Examples are in parentheses following each facet.)

* Identity – Defining an entity, a potential whole. (uniqueness, differentiation, naming, sovereignty)
* Inclusion – Making sure the parts are present (openness, both/and, respect, diversity, assembly)
* Interconnectedness – How are its parts related? (communication, networks, ethics, kinship)
* Interactivity – How do its parts interact? (mutuality, power, dissonance, conversation)
* Participation – What is the role of the parts in the whole? (purpose, engagement, “fit”, choice)
* Context – What influential larger whole surrounds the whole? (environment, freedom, field, history)
* Integration – How do the parts become/make up the whole? (agreement, completion, meaning, self-organization)
* Oneness – What is the nature of the whole’s integrity? (unity, coherence, character)
* Systemic impact – How does the whole influence and shape its parts? (culture, regulation, sociology, infrastructure)
* Whole-in-Part – How does the whole show up in each part? (holographics, fractals, flow, belief)

Some facets of the process face:

* Evolution / Development / Transformation – the generation of new more complex wholes out of old simpler forms
* Emergence – the way novel wholeness arises from interactivity, generating unpredictable qualities
* Conversation – new meanings, relationships and possibilities emerging from interaction
* Co-incarnation – the dynamics through which all things bring all things into being
* Grace – moving from wholeness through disturbance to wholeness
* Dialectic nature – the dance of seeming opposites generating (or manifesting as) more inclusive wholes
* Healing – the return to wholeness from brokenness and illness
* Conservatism, sustainability, preservation
* Liberation – freeing that which is trapped to make something new
* Living systems – the unfolding dynamics of interrelationship

Some facets of the cognition face, organized in three sub-categories:

– How our knowing is limited by “there’s more to it” (the whole is always more than any map of it)

* Mystery: Indescribable reality of the Tao and mystical insights and realities
* Intrinsic uncertainty: Chaos and complexity dynamics, quantum mechanics, neuro-cognitive limitations
* Reality relative to consciousness, beliefs, culture, experience, observation (quantum mechanics, postmodernism, Jainism)
* Every viewpoint is partial: “The map is not the territory”, “the wise men and the elephant”

– Ways we seek to know directly

* Consciousness, itself / interiority / subjectivity
* Silence / spaciousness / meditation
* Direct sense experience (and its technological extensions)
* Empathy, compassion
* Intuition, insight
* Universal intelligence

– Holistic ways we seek to compensate for limitations and biased tendencies in our knowing

* Collective intelligence and intersubjectivity: e.g., citizen deliberative councils
* Inquiry: questions, curiosity, learning, scientific method, testing hypotheses
* Clarifying a person’s or thing’s gifts, its limitations, and its place in the larger picture
* Suspension or deconstruction of assumptions
* Dialectic discourse: finding greater commonalities beyond dichotomies and polarities
* Inclusive models: spectrums, bell curves, infinite-valued logic, integral models
* Multi-modal intelligences: head, heart, spirit, aesthetic, somatic, etc.
* Wisdom: big picture understanding – deep inclusive long-term thinking
* Holistic design: permaculture, pattern languages, biomimicry (following nature’s patterns)
* Capacitance / Humility / Respect for nuance, paradox, complexity, uncertainty, contradiction, ambiguity
* Honoring incompleteness, brokenness, transience, Mystery: “the holes in wholeness”, wabi-sabi
* Dynamic models: systems thinking and mythic stories based on acute observation
* Feedback and answerability systems, including in social power relations


Some facets of the transcendent (beyond normal physicality) face:

* Non-duality
* Synchronicity
* Communion
* Supreme Being
* Infinity
* Spirit
* Emptiness
* Higher Power / Calling
* Eternal Now
* All that is sacred and “holy”

Some facets of the quality face:

* Truth – alignment with what is
* Beauty – aesthetic sensing of wholeness
* Health – systemic coherence, harmony, balance, intactness, wholesomeness
* Goodness – wholeness sensed through values sensibilities, especially moral
* Integrity – self-congruence, alignment between appearance and reality; coherence; sense
* Tao – consistency with the nature of things, and the wisdom of that nature
* Presence / Centeredness – fully witnessing and companioning the present moment


Some facets of the power face (note that many of these can provide “freebie” resources simply by how things are arranged or treated, with little additional resource inputs needed):

* Power with / Synergy / Co-creativity – the power of collaboration (from aikido to barn-raising to crowdsourcing) or, seen from the other direction, the power available when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (e.g, networks); synergistic design (from triangles for strength to self-organizing permaculture eco-gardens)

* Power from within – the power that arises naturally from the qualities, character and integrity of an entity and its connection to “higher powers” (when that connection is internal rather than external) (e.g., the power of belief, choice, intention)

* Membergy – the power a part gets simply by being part of a whole (e.g., the member of a union)

* Holergy – the ways a part is greater than its role in any particular whole, by being a whole in its own right and part of many wholes that can serve each other (e.g., when a teacher taps the expertise of her students parents for class lessons)

* Facilitative or evolutionary leadership – the power to help other entities tap their indigenous forms of power and become more whole in and among themselves