Layering is how many things grow organically—from the inside out. Metaphorically, when we want to understand an object, system or process we “peel away” the layers so we can see what’s inside or what’s happening. It’s the basis for analysis, taking things apart to look “under the surface” in order to discover the “underlying truth” of whatever is being examined. Due to the onion’s obvious layering, it has become a metaphor in a variety of fields.

In “social penetration theory” interpersonal relationships develop from a relatively shallow, non-intimate level to deeper, more intimate ones. In this area psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor advanced the “onion theory” to illustrate how personality is like a multi-layered onion where the public Self is the outer layer and the private self resides at the core of the person. They observe that as time passes and intimacy grows with the disclosure of more personal information and shared experiences, the layers of one’s personality begin to unfold and reveal the core.

In the field of organizational development, “peeling the onion” refers to searching for  the underlying causes of breakdowns within a company’s many departments or branches. It’s a learning process that seeks more data by penetrating the layers of interaction and engagement, interpretation and meaning. Even feelings. It asks “Why?” and “What else is going on?” in order to discover the authentic needs, wants and interests of employees and clients. Perhaps most important for administrators and managers, the peeling back of their individual layers can help identify or examine their personal purpose and seek increased alignment with the corporate or company mission. The periodic process of defining and updating a company’s mission and vision statements is, in fact, a matter of peeling the onion in order to reconstruct it as a renewed and vitalized whole system.

Peeling the onion in government asks if and how the current layers of bureaucracy relate to the values and ideals of the founders. Likewise it calls religious organizations to examine whether or not  policies and practices reflect the values and example of the founder. Individually, it amounts to an examination of conscience. Am I spending my time on the layers of my life that matter most? Are they an outgrowth of my purpose? And as a person, am I growing from that core?

My Maya guide in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala (who had a doctorate in Anthropology from Harvard University) told me that “everything and everyone in the village is seen to be at a different layer of development. You’re considered an asset to the community if you speak well in your layer. And you’re not expected to talk like or behave like someone in a higher layer. Child development, building construction, farming, the life of the family and the attainment of wisdom all happen in layers.” According to Anthropologists Jennifer Mathews and James Garber, “Vertical layering is a fundamental part of Maya ideology that arranges everything from the heavens to simple features.”

The modern perception of layers and the processes of layering—learning and growing— derives from the ancient Maya conception of the cosmos as a flat expanse of land, resting on the back of a gigantic turtle floating on an enormous tropical pond full of water lilies. In the middle stands a great tree, symbolized by the giant ceibas that rise above the canopy in the jungles of Central America. The cosmic tree, seen by the ancients as the Milky Way, connected the three worlds—upper, middle and under world—with its starry buttresses rooted in the south. With their penchant for modeling the cosmos in every aspect of daily life, Maya kings associated the layering of trees with everything that grows, particularly human beings. “Great Tree” was one of their titles, signifying the role of world grower and sustainer. In the inscriptions and on works of art, the World Tree was referred to as “First Tree Precious.” We refer to it as “the tree of life.”

Trees and onions, animals and people grow from the inside out. Small to big, whether we’re talking about food, money, businesses, artworks, architecture, communities or nations, the process is one of accretion—adding not just a duplicate layer, but an expanded expression of the previous reality. Entrepreneurs, artists, politicians, venture capitalists and scientists all know that big things come from little beginnings—seeds that are nurtured. Giant leaps may occur occasionally, but it’s usually the small steps that lead to it. The haste to accomplish has to be tempered with the realization that an onion grows one layer at a time. It’s the same with ideas. Every invention and innovation we can name began with a seed.

What’s so special about this pattern of growth? Why has layer building upon layer become one of the most common patterns in organic growth and development? The science is complex, but more generally and for the purpose of contemplation, I think it has to do with life’s determination to expand, particularly to expand from a center or core. The lesson for me is to begin every new endeavor by building the seed.

From the movie “Shrek”—

Shrek: For your information, there’s a lot more to ogres than people think.

Donkey: Example?

Shrek: Uh—ogres are like onions!

[He holds up an onion, which Donkey sniffs]

Donkey: They stink?

Shrek: Yes—No!

Donkey: Oh, they make you cry?

Shrek: No!

Donkey: Oh, you leave ‘em out in the sun, they get all brown, start sproutin’ little white hairs.

Shrek: [peels an onion] NO! Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. You get it? We both have layers.

Donkey: Oh, you both have LAYERS. Oh. You know, not everybody likes onions. CAKE! Everybody loves cake! Cakes have layers!

Shrek: I don’t care what everyone likes! Ogres are not like cakes.

Donkey: You know what ELSE everybody likes? Parfaits! Have you ever met a person, you say, “Let’s get some parfait,” they say, “Hell no, I don’t like no parfait.” Parfaits are delicious!

Shrek: NO! You dense, irritating, miniature beast of burden! Ogres are like onions! End of story! Bye-bye! See ya later.

Donkey: Parfait’s gotta be the most delicious thing on the whole damn planet!


Title: Onion

File: CDF711

Sometimes I take a camera with me when we’re shopping in produce markets. This was taken on one such occasion, in an indoor market. Because the quality (color) of the lighting was florescent and therefore impossible to know, I asked the camera’s electronics to “read” the color balance as “incandescent.” As it happened, the image was very orange. I did what I could to modify the color, but I never got to the subtle beige of an onion. So I converted the image to black and white and darkened the top left corner so the luminance would match the other areas. All I needed to do then was to add some contrast to the dark lines in the predominant onion. The image was shot with a closeup prime lens.


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