The Whole and its Parts: A Phenomenological Approach to Living Systems

We are clearly experiencing a time of transformative change. The ecological, political and societal changes that we are experiencing, aren’t minor deviations from business as usual, they exhibit deep systemic shifts. Inevitably, as our worldview starts to show cracks, new stories begin to emerge. In recent decades, concepts like holism, deep ecology, systems theory, complexity theory, and regenerative thinking have gained popularity, offering holistic perspectives on the world's challenges. These new ways of thinking offer a fresh outlook on our world and the issues we face, making this not just a time of change, but a change of times.

The Challenges of Embracing New Perspectives

However, embracing these new perspectives can be difficult. Our current way of looking at the world is linear and mechanical while the challenges we face are non-linear and systemic. The fact that the issues we face are systemic, explains why we find them hard to tackle. It’s also the reason why holistic movements have failed to establish a solid presence in mainstream society. They are often perceived to be hard to grasp, abstract, or even esoteric. The truth is, our analytical mind has great difficulty processing complex systems and their intricacies. Unless we acknowledge this, we'll continue to struggle with the complex issues that confront us.

In the previous century, Einstein's work on the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics represented the pinnacle of complexity. He once famously remarked that the mind is a splendid servant, but a miserable master. It was intuition, according to Einstein, that allowed him to make some of his most groundbreaking scientific discoveries. Human cognition far exceeds our reasoning abilities alone. We are intuitive creatures that continually make sense of the world around us through all of our senses.

Consider how we interact with the natural world. Do we understand it purely through intellectual analysis, or do we also have a deep, intuitive connection to the ecosystems and organisms that surround us? Similarly, how do we engage with our organizations and communities - through abstracted rationality or through lived experience? Our direct experiences is the only way to be attuned to our environment and make meaning out of it.

Our world operates as a complex and interconnected system, much like the human body, which is a living organism composed of organs, tissues, and cells. Emergent properties in living systems result in the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, and these properties give the system its aliveness and vitality. Also in social systems such as businesses, communities, and cities, emergent properties arise from the collective behavior of individual components in the system. The distinct character of a company, including its culture, innovation power, and resilience, arises from the collective efforts of its various departments and employees.

To maintain the vitality of any living system, it is crucial to recognize and acknowledge its wholeness and integrity. We recognize the power of unique essence when we speak about human potential, as our true potential lies in our unique individuality. And this is no different for the ecosystems, organizations or communities that we are a part of. This requires a direct experiential understanding, as every living system has a unique essence that cannot be fully captured through rational abstractions alone.

Recognizing the Vitality of Living Systems

Wholeness, or systemic integrity, are a hallmark of thriving cities, natural areas, companies, and communities. Think about your favourite places or brands, despite their imperfections, they probably have a distinct character and vitality that we can vividly sense. They continuously reinvent themselves and stay relevant and vibrant, thanks to their regenerative capacity.

Interestingly, the term "wholeness" shares the same etymological root as "health" and "holy". Embarking on a journey towards wholeness represents a healing process, hinting at the idea that whole systems are intrinsically healthy and full of life.

The opposite is also true. Recognizing the vitality of living systems also highlights the insufficiency of our modern fixation on efficiency. This phenomenon is evident in modern agriculture, but it really extends to almost all areas such as business and even government. Soulless office cubicles and generic architecture are prime examples of how efficiency-driven standardization can strip a system of its vitality and uniqueness. Efficiency often comes with a price tag - it breaks wholes into parts and reduces the liveliness and vitality of the systems in which it operates.

The current ecological crises, such as biodiversity loss, deforestation, and overfishing, are a result of our disconnection from the larger systems we are a part of. When we view the world as separate fragments available for exploitation, we initiate a destructive process. This also applies to human living systems humans. If we fail to acknowledge the inherent integrity of our cities, organizations, and communities, it invites a process of fragmentation that is ultimately detrimental to our own interests.

The regenerative potential of a company, community or institute is not just a feel-good add-on but is essential for its ability to adapt, innovate, and create value for the outside world. To operate at the level of the whole, we must cultivate a new level of awareness - one that is phenomenological and able to connect with the unique living essence and potential of that system. It is from a phenomenological perspective that we nurture wholeness and move toward healing.

This recognition brings us to the core challenge of our time. Our difficulties do not arise from a shortage of technical solutions or moral righteousness, but from a flaw in our perception. Our rational thinking, although a remarkable tool as Einstein well knew, can only grasp abstractions. The essential vitality of the living world we inhabit can only be experienced, and it is this aliveness and vitality, whether in the realm of ecology or sociology, that is currently at stake.

It is our participation in the process of life that gives our existence meaning, and it is through direct experience that we can learn to perceive and appreciate it.

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