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The Holonic Shift and How to Take Part in It

All living systems--be they organic like a cell or human body, or supra-organic like a society or ecosystem--are holons. That means they have a dual nature: As both systems and subsystems, they are wholes in themselves and, simultaneously, integral parts of larger wholes.

In this step-wise organization of living systems, emergence is a universal and striking feature. At each holonic level new properties and new possibilities emerge, which could not have been predicted. From the respective qualities of oxygen and hydrogen, for example, one could never have anticipated the properties that emerge when these elements interact and make water.

From the systems perspective, mind or consciousness arises by virtue of feedback loops that permit living systems to self-correct, adapt and evolve. Self-reflexive consciousness seems to emerge only at the level of humans and some other large-brained mammals. Here the system's internal complexity is so great that it can no longer meet its needs by trial and error. It needs to evolve another level of awareness in order to weigh different courses of action; it needs, in other words, to make choices. Decision-making brings about self-reflexivity.

Self-reflexive consciousness does not characterize the next holonic level, the level of social systems. In tightly-knit organizations with strong allegiances, one can sense an "esprit de corps" or group mind, but this mentality is still too weak and too loose for direct response on its own behalf. The locus of decision-making remains within the individual, susceptible to all the vagaries of what that individual considers to be of "self-interest". Yet might not survival pressures engender a collective level of self-interest in choice-making--in other words self-reflexivity on the next holonic level?

Fearful of fascism, we might reject any idea of collective consciousness. It is important, therefore, to remember that self-organization of open systems requires diversity of parts. A monolith of uniformity has no internal intelligence. Healthy social systems require a plurality of views and the free circulation of information. The holonic shift does not sacrifice, but instead requires, the uniqueness of each part, the distinctiveness of its functioning and its perspective.

It would seem that such a holonic shift is necessary for our survival. Since Earth's carrying capacity is limited, and since the ecosystems supporting us are threatened with collapse, we must learn to think together in an integrated, synergistic fashion, rather than in fragmented and competitive ways. Present modes of collective decision-making, like the ballot-box or consensus circles, are simply too corruptible and too slow for the swift, responsive self-guidance that we as societies need now.

In what ways can we help? How can we as individuals promote a holonic shift and take part in it? The following guidelines are composed in collaboration with my colleagues in the Work That Reconnects, and offered to invite further reflection.

1. Attune to a common intention. Intention is not a goal or plan you can formulate with precision. It is an open-ended aim: May we meet common needs and collaborate in new ways.

2. Welcome diversity. Self-organization of the whole requires differentiation of the parts. Each one's role in this unfolding journey is unique.

3. Know that only the whole can repair itself. You cannot "fix" the world, but you can take part in its self-healing. Healing wounded relationships within you and between you is integral to the healing of our world.

4. You are only a small part of a much larger process, like a nerve cell in a neural net. So learn trust. Trust means taking part and taking risks, when you cannot control, or even see, the outcome.

5. Open to flows of information from the larger system. Do not resist painful information about the condition of your world, but understand that the pain you feel for the world springs from interconnectedness, and your willingness to experience it unblocks feedback that is important to the well-being of the whole.

6. Speak the truth of your experience of this world. If you have persistent responses to present conditions, assume that they are shared by others. Willing to drop old answers and old roles, give voice to the questions that arise in you.

7. Believe no one who claims to have the final answer. Such claims are a sign of ignorance and limited self-interest.

8. Work increasingly in teams or joint projects serving common intentions. Build community through shared tasks and rituals.

9. Be generous with your strengths and skills, they are not your private property. They grow from being shared. They include both your knowing and your unknowing, and the gifts you accept from the ancestors and all beings.

10. Draw forth the strengths of others by your own acknowledgment of them. Never prejudge what a person can contribute, but be ready for surprise and fresh forms of synergy.

11. You do not need to see the results of your work. Your actions have unanticipated and far-reaching effects that are not likely to be visible to you in your lifetime.

12. Putting forth great effort, let there also be serenity in all your doing; for you are held within the web of life, within flows of energy and intelligence far exceeding your own.

(World Business Academy, 1994)