"Weaving the polarities of order and chaos, individual and
by Tom Atlee
In times of scarcity, conflict and crisis, what kind of power do
we need and where shall we get it?
We are surrounded by potential resources, companions, and capacities
which—to the extent we recognize, welcome them, work with
and appreciate them—become actual resources, partners and
capacities, generating an expanded power to have positive impact
in the world by helping it partner with itself.
I call this kind of power wholesome power—accessing the wisdom
and capacities of the whole on behalf of the whole.
When we exercise wholesome power, it is not us as individuals or
groups that make the difference. It is the living whole of which
we have become a catalytic part, evoking and empowering the resources
of the whole, which is having impact.
The theory and practice of wholesome power is an emerging field
that embraces many models, approaches, and phenomena, few of which
consciously see themselves as manifesting wholesome power. This
essay is not a blueprint for wholesome power but rather an invitation
to explore what wholesome power is and could be and how it could
be practiced and enhanced in myriad ways by myriad people dealing
with myriad situations and possibilities at all levels all over
If wholesome power accesses the wisdom and capacities of the whole
on behalf of the whole, what is “the whole”? It can
be a whole person or relationship, a whole situation, a whole community
or country, the whole world, the whole of transcendent unitary reality—whatever
whole or wholes we are dealing with.
Wholesome power involves welcoming, invoking, catalyzing, balancing,
and midwifing whatever new aliveness is trying to emerge. In service
to the life of the whole, wholesome power skillfully treats disturbance,
disruption, and crisis as doorways for learning and possibility.
From the perspective of wholesome power, quality information, interconnection
and conversation become the whole getting more in touch with more
of itself and evolving into its next forms of wholeness.
Although individuals and groups can exercise wholesome power, wholesome
power fundamentally lives within all living systems and can be called
forth to do its work and then left to self-organize. Practitioners
of wholesome power design and establish social and natural systems
to enhance that self-organizing capacity in which participants serve
the whole and the whole serves the participants.
Here are some questions I see practitioners of wholesome power
asking in their work. They generate abundant answers and approaches,
all grist for the mill of this new field. They hint at the new directions
this vision of power is taking us. I've sorted them into six interrelated
categories as follows, covering different aspects of wholeness:
Questions about RELEVANT PERSPECTIVES: How broad
is our tally of who is involved with the situation and who should
be included in awareness, conversations, and decisions about it?
Are we trying to engage the whole community and/or a whole spectrum
of stakeholders, or are we excluding certain people or perspectives
because of our biases and shortcomings? Do we filter based on logistical
and resource limitations or do dynamics of culture, power and privilege
play a role? How shall we overcome limitations that bias relevant
inclusion? When we can't include everyone or everything involved,
do we thoughtfully develop fair microcosms and articulations to
give them voice, with links to the larger wholes they represent?
Questions about THE WHOLE PICTURE: To what extent
are we taking into account the whole picture of what's relevant
here? Are we considering the history of the situation, the current
dynamics and needs, the likely long term consequences of various
actions? Are we thinking holistically and systemically—clarifying
not only feedback loops, stocks and flows involved but honestly
facing our own role and truly honoring and tapping into the interconnectedness
and unity of all things—especially the kinship and shared
destiny of all life? When we exclude factors from consideration
or people from participation, are we excluding them because they
are truly irrelevant or because our own narrow interests, perspectives,
awareness, or comfort level limit our capacity to see, feel, know
Questions about INTEGRAL DIVERSITY: How well do
we make positive use of the diversity we are trying to include?
Do we ground our work in shared realities, needs, and aspirations?
Do we create the best possible contexts and interactive processes
to help people benefit from both their differences and their commonalities?
Do we try to optimize the gifts of both leadership and self-organization
in leaderful groups? Do we integrate order and chaos to promote
emergence? Do we support both advocacy and inquiry to generate learning?
Do we balance individual and collective energies and resources to
create vibrant communities? Do we productively tap and creatively
manage such polarities, rather than siding too strongly with one
side or the other?
Questions about WHOLE PEOPLE: Are our whole selves
fully engaged? Can we and others readily bring our minds and hearts,
bodies and spirits, guts and passions into our work and relationships?
Are things set up to encourage that? Is there ample room for play
and fun, for rest and relaxation, for undirected conversation and
interaction, for creativity and randomness, for self-care and generosity—both
for their own sakes and to make a space that invites unexpected
Questions about EVOLUTION: Do we courageously
face and facilitate change, growth, and transformation? Do disturbances
and crises inspire our inquiry and energy towards learning and breakthrough?
Are we self-aware enough that our limitations and leading edges
generate humility, vulnerability, and a sense of personal adventure?
Do we realistically discern where people, groups, and systems are
in their own developmental journeys, engaging with them at or slightly
above their current level of consciousness and capacity, providing
both fellowship and challenge? Do we design and promote systems
that support learning and emergence in both individuals and collectives—to
promote resilience and sustain ongoing fitness in the face of changes
and challenges as the whole evolves?
Questions about NATURAL ORDER: Do our efforts,
technologies, and systems apply lessons from nature and align with
natural realities and processes to generate success, good lives,
and collective resilience? Do we honor and treat ecosystems as whole
living entities and not just collections of separate plants, animals,
and land that constitute resources or obstacles? Do we recognize
our role in natural cycles and follow nature's dictum that waste
equals food, engaging creatively with what life offers and making
sure that what we pass on is readily useful for other parts of life?
Do we recognize the human need for naturalness in our living spaces,
sustenance, and lifestyles? Do we ground ourselves, our innovations,
and our institutions in local places—in what is needed, real,
and good in and for the unique life, culture, and conditions of
a bioregion—informed but not determined by global realities,
universal dynamics, and similarities among locales?
These and many other inquiries can shape how we apply wholesome
power in a given circumstance, as well as guiding our articulations
of the entire field.
WHOLESOME POWER AND DISRUPTION
Wholesome power involves power arising from engagement with and
consciousness of wholeness. Wholeness can be viewed as having two
seemingly opposite but thoroughly interrelated vectors—one
towards increasing inclusion and integration and the other towards
exclusion and disintegration. The interaction between these two
generates the health and evolution of living systems. Understanding
and working with these vectors enables conscious evolution which,
done effectively, constitutes wholesome power.
Wholesome power is most readily seen in efforts to increase wholeness,
as in being inclusive, supporting good relationships, facilitating
constructive interactions, creating nurturing environments, stimulating
integration, healing, and growth towards greater integrity and communion.
It is less readily recognized in the dynamics of breakdown—in
problems, disease, death, waste, conflict, disturbance, crisis,
and collapse. But all these are dimensions of wholeness since wholeness
ultimately includes all phenomena. So wholesome power is most whole
when it engages both “positive” and “negative”
phenomena with a spirit of co-creative responsiveness.
Let's summarize the dissonant, harder-to-accept vector of wholeness
as disturbance. Ranging from risks and problems to disruption
and collapse, disturbance always signals a nascent new or renewed
state “trying to emerge”. We may resist disturbance,
being attached to the old order, but disturbance is vital to the
ongoing maintenance and evolution of natural and human systems.
Old or dysfunctional things naturally tend to get unsettled and
break down—a process which, especially when handled well,
contributes energies, material and guidance for what comes next.
Here are some examples:
- Old ideas are shaken up by new evidence and perspectives. The
resulting cognitive disturbance fuels the birth of new worldviews,
driven by our hunger for a coherent story.
- Societies are shaken up by revolutions or technologies: old
privileges, products, and professions fade as new ones emerge
and millions of people struggle to adapt as their lives, expectations,
and support systems are disrupted.
- A multi-million year reptilian regime gets blasted into global
winter by a giant meteor, freeing rodents to emerge from their
hiding holes as the precursors of a new world order of mammals
which, over eons, produces the mammalian mega-organism of human
- An organizational crisis motivates a freewheeling conversation
no longer constrained by the old ways and perspectives, generating
innovations in the organization's purpose, structure, and culture.
- During composting, dead plants and animals get broken down
by microorganisms and bugs into organic matter usable by other
plants and animals to build themselves, a process of breakdown
vital to the natural world.
So the disturbing phenomena we see and treat as death and waste
actually constitute processes generating new resources, conditions,
and energies for the next arrangement of things. “Breakdown”
often produces diversity or the possibility of greater diversity.
Diverse entities and factors interact in shared contexts, co-evolving
their relationships and collective forms. How well they do that
determines the wholesomeness of their emerging whole and the level
of suffering and vitality involved in its formation. Human use of
wholesome power can bring consciousness and choice to the process.
Consciousness, intelligence, and wisdom help create the conditions
that then shape the re-creative processes that occur as disturbance
moves through its cycle to new or renewed wholeness. We have an
opportunity to be aware of the creative potential and dynamics involved
at such times and to work with those dynamics to serve life and
the positive evolution of all involved. This kind of working-creatively-with-what-is
is a big part of what I mean by wholesome power.
CHARACTERISTICS OF A PRACTITIONER
A “practitioner” of wholesome power can be an individual
or a group who exhibits the following characteristics of wholeness
or qualities that serve wholeness. But, significantly, it can also
be a system, process or culture—a context or field that evokes
these qualities in those who occupy it.
- Integrity: honesty, sincerity, reliability; congruence
between internal self and presented self; congruence of word and
- Presence: awareness, mindfulness, centered consciousness,
being fully awake and attentive
- Equanimity and capacitance: ability to comfortably
face intensity, confusion, emotion, and disturbance
- Ability to embrace and transcend opposites, to hold
them in dynamic tension, to promote their respective gifts and
- Positivity without denial: possibility orientation,
appreciative attitude, abundance perspective
- A power-with approach that's open, collaborative,
generous, invitational, responsive
- Wisdom and enlightened knowledge: practical awareness
of whole systems, of deep time, of fundamental dynamics; seeking
the whole story from multiple viewpoints
- Motivational vitality: attending to, evoking, and
tapping into life energy—deep needs, values, passions, exuberance,
- Humility and curiosity: a healthy relationship with
uncertainty and mystery
These qualities arise from—and then contribute to—the
wholeness of lived reality. They are qualities worth living into
and nurturing in relationships, activities, and social systems.
They radically increase the likelihood of wholesome power manifesting.
SOME EXISTING APPROACHES TO WHOLESOME POWER
The list below gives just a few of the hundreds of approaches and
models that manifest wholesome power or help us use it. They don't
yet constitute a formal field but should soon, in order to weave
their diverse gifts into a more potent whole. They have all arisen
naturally and in parallel from a widely shared sense that narrow-minded,
short-term, linear, controlling or dominating forms of power are
seriously dysfunctional for complex dynamic systems—both human
and natural. We increasingly need a different, more organic and
vital form of power as our social and natural systems complexify
and display increasing signs of disequilibrium and collapse.
In their views on and applications of power, all these diverse
approaches rest on the reality and dynamics of wholeness.
Spiral Dynamics Integral (Sdi). Don Beck and Ken
Wilber's approach to holistic developmental theory. Integral applications
of power involve understanding the values and developmental stages
of the people you are engaging, as exemplified by the SDi spiral
model of human development and Wilber's “four quadrants”
exploring the internal and external dimensions of individual and
Polarity integration. Polarities are not just
opposites, but intrinsic and seemingly divergent principles that
are, in fact, intimately interdependent or complementary—such
as order/chaos, centralization/decentralization, mind/body, equality/freedom,
and so on. Wholesome power favors approaches that see polarities
as doorways into greater wholeness rather than as a battleground.
Examples include the Taoist philosophy of yin-and-yang
(stressing appreciation of the interdependence of opposites), the
variety of dialectics I learned from psychologist Charles Johnston
(instead of morally judging a polarity, proposition, person, or
thing, seeking to understand its strengths and limitations and where
it fits in the larger whole), and especially Barry Johnson's Polarity
Management (moderating the tendency of a system to oscillate unproductively
between poles by helping people, organizations, and communities
sustain the best of both poles while ameliorating the downsides
of each). http://westonatwood.com/uploads/2/8/4/4/2844368/polarity_management_-_summary.pdf.
Dimensions of wholeness model. We can view dozens
of dimensions of wholeness in a coherent model covering inclusion,
relationship, contribution, interaction, integration, oneness, interiority,
context, non-duality and whole-part dynamics. Guidance for wholesome
power is available from both the vector towards greater wholeness
(e.g., inclusion and healing) and the vector towards fragmentation
(judgment and composting). http://co-intelligence.org/DimensionsOfWholeness.html
Power-over/Power-with. While wholesome power embraces
both controlling and partnering modes of operation, it definitely
has a bias towards co-operation, working with rather than against
(or ignoring) the realities, energies, potential resources, and
natural inclinations within a given situation. See The
Dance of Power-over and Power-with. Central to power-with in
human systems are advanced forms of dialogue such as Open Space
Technology, World Cafe, Dynamic Facilitation, Nonviolent Communication,
Principled Negotiation, and Future Search as chronicled by such
groups as the National Coalition for Dialogue
Emergence/self-organization. Chaos and complexity
theories, evolutionary science, networking theory, biology, and
other sciences suggest that natural systems organize themselves
without outside direction, generating novel and higher-order phenomena
in the process and providing guidance for wholesome power in human
systems. This is particularly useful in times of disruption when
top-down approaches evolved in stable times become dysfunctional.
Resources for this include Engaging
Emergence by Peggy Holman and emergent group processes like
Open Space and Dynamic Facilitation.
Systems thinking. We can work with, empower, and
transform whole living systems by understanding and addressing their
specific internal dynamics of interaction, like feedback loops,
synergies, and interdependencies. Some useful approaches to systems
thinking can be found at http://www.tomatleeblog.com/?p=175326816
Evolutionary activism. Wholeness evolves, using
challenge and disruption creatively for novel development. We can
take responsibility for being—and learning how to be—the
evolutionary force consciously acting in the human realm, consciously
guided by the change dynamics that evolution has been using for
millions of years more or less unconsciously. http://evolutionaryactivism.com
Wise democracy. Wholesome power can be generated
in politics and governance using randomly selected microcosms of
the public, high quality deliberative processes, networking, mass
media, and crowdsourcing—combined with various forms of systems
thinking—to generate wise public policy using ordinary citizens.
Again, this is just a taste of the ancient and emerging thinking
and practice that constitute the nascent field of wholesome power.
The world we live in is a whole and so, of course, are we—individually
and collectively. So are every environment and situation we face.
When we act as if we and they are separate from each other, wholeness
creates “side effects” that can be undesirable and ultimately
catastrophic. On the other hand, when our exercise of power is in
harmony with the reality of wholeness, wholeness evolves in harmony
with us, including and supporting us. This is key to creating the
kind of lives and societies that are an ongoing delight to belong
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