Soul Train: The Novel


Coming on the heels of my posting on “Fiction And Empathy,” the novel I’ve been working on for three years went live on last week. In Soul Train an African American railroad worker reflects on conversations he had with passengers, significant happenings including tragedies and his exceptional family life. His wife refers to his story as a “spiritual journey,” but he thinks of it as a life spent in “soulful investigation.”

The book is available in paperback and on kindle. Story details are provided on the back cover. Click here.

Fiction And Empathy

I recently came across some insightful statistics on reading. They vary somewhat by state, but here’s an overview.

  • Women read more than men.
  • Most Americans don’t read fiction.
  • Between 1982 and 2012 fiction reading declined from 56% to 46%
  • Men mostly read nonfiction.
  • Women mostly read fiction.
  • Executives far outpace the general population in the number of books read per month.
  • The biggest driver of literary reading is education; the higher, the more books read
  • The genres that make the most money in order: romance/erotica, crime/mystery, religious/inspirational, science fiction/fantasy, and horror.
  • A 2018 survey asked why people read fiction. In order, the reasons included: For entertainment, to appreciate other places and people in the world, to understand the circumstances of others, to escape the everyday world, to learn, to pass the time. 
  • The sale of print books is declining. Only 54% of Americans cracked open a book of any kind last year—print or digital, fiction or nonfiction. Fiction suffered most.
  • In the past decade, poetry suffered the steepest decline. Only 6.7% of American adults read poetry last year, versus 12% in 2002. 
  • 28% of adults read an e-book in 2013, up from 23% the year before.

In 2013, MarketWatch published an explanation for the overall decline in reading. Now, six years later, especially considering the popularity of selfies, their perspective is worthy of consideration. It’s narcissism the author said. “Americans may be more fascinated with their own lives than with those featured in great works of literary fiction: Some 56% of Internet users have searched for themselves online, such as by typing their own name into Google, according to the Pew Research Center. Studies also show that people’s attention spans are getting shorter, in part because “adults have been presented with a tidal wave of easily accessible and affordable entertainment.”

Further, “Students have been abandoning the humanities in favor of the sciences: The number of students taking bachelor degrees in humanities hovers at around 8%, less than half the number four decades earlier, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And in a study released in 2013, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked Americans just 16 out of 23 industrialized countries in literacy.”  

I cite this data because I think it relates to empathy, the loss thereof, which is being reflected in public policy here and abroad. In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman defines empathy as “the ability to know how another feels…. to perceive the subjective experience of another person.” In that same book, Martin Hoffman argues that “the roots of morality are to be found in empathy because empathizing with someone in pain, danger, or deprivation moves people to act.” It leads me to wonder if the systems responsible for managing immigrants—worldwide—would be more humane if their administrators sat down and had a conversation with those detained.     

I’m not alone in believing that reading works of poetry and fiction can awaken and activate empathy. A recent article in Trends in Cognitive Sciences observed that “fiction is the simulation of selves in interaction. People who read it improve their understanding of others. This effect is especially marked with literary fiction, which also enables people to change themselves. These effects are due partly to the process of engagement in stories, which includes making inferences and becoming emotionally involved, and partly to the contents of fiction, which include complex characters and circumstances that we might not encounter in daily life. Fiction can be thought of as a form of consciousness of selves and others that can be passed from an author to a reader or spectator, and can be internalized to augment everyday cognition.” That’s key: reading fiction can contribute to how we think and perceive the world. I’d like to see some savy journalist ask our political leaders in both parties if they read poetry or fiction.

Unfortunately, “Empathy levels have been declining over the past 30 years.” Research led by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University. I was particularly fascinated by the methodology that Dr. Konrath used—the Interpersonal Reactivity Index which measures empathy by asking whether responders agree to statements such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.” And “I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.”

I was almost an exclusive reader of nonfiction until I married Linda. Even for a long time afterward, I mostly read to supplement my work, projects or worldview. Browsing her bookshelf somewhere in the early ’80s, I picked up John Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath, and I was hooked. The journey was fascinating and the ending shocking, nothing I could have imagined. Being emersed in a time, place, people’s lives and circumstances that were totally foreign to me—and based in historical fact—was a wakeup call. I didn’t know my general empathy for human beings could be so poignantly activated by reading. 

From then on, I became a regular reader—and eventually a writer—of fiction. Because of my interests and work, I never stopped reading nonfiction, but it was works of fiction that stirred my capacity to empathize and approach an understanding of how other people think and respond to challenges. When I observe what’s going on in the news these days, I’m reminded of a Daniel Goleman quote. He said, “Lacking a sense of another’s need or despair, there is no caring.” Empathy then is real caring based on understanding someone else’s perspective and circumstances. Importantly, he explained that “rapists, child molesters, and many perpetrators of family violence alike are incapable of empathy.” It speaks to cause. “They’re emotionally handicapped, incapable of understanding what their victim is feeling in the situation. These and other crimes are pursued as though the victim has no feeling of their own.” This appears to be a mental health issue that isn’t even being talked about.

There’s an opportunity here. Encouraging and promoting the reading of fiction and poetry meant to enlighten—humanities publications in general—could be an easy way to awaken empathy and ease social decline due to mental health. This isn’t the whole answer, of course. But the lack of empathy is a serious problem, evidenced by the worldwide trend toward pulling in (nationalism) which suggests self-serving motivations, fear and a lack of trust. The strategy of a person lacking empathy is exactly that, pulling in and drawing lines in the sand—“I don’t need you.” “Keep out.” “I can go it alone.” It’s an illusion. It has been proven that human beings and human societies can’t go it alone. They become dysfunctional and then die because living systems are, by definition, interdependent networks of functioning relationships. As the ancient Maya and other civilizations have demonstrated, building protective walls—physical or psychological—around cities cuts them off from the great and necessary advantage of diversity, an essential evolutionary component that creates resiliency. Creative works that awaken empathy help us to respect and value diversity, and in doing so make us resilient. 

We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know. 

Carl Rogers (Psychologist)

About The Photograph

This has been a favorite photograph of mine since it was taken in the early ’70s. It beautifully records Linda’s love of literature—poetry in this instance. And it expresses the sensibility of peace of mind that both of us cherish. The shot wasn’t posed. You see her here in a quiet moment. I just happened to have a camera with me. Often, having a camera at hand has resulted in unexpected gems.

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IX. Order (Whole Systems Context)

This is the 9th in a series of postings on whole systems thinking.

In nature and in the world of man-made objects, geometric order evidences the interrelatedness of all things. Using the above image as a model, humanity may be said to consist of a single string within the spacetime continuum. Rather than forming a straight line—the way we experience time—the process of human evolution has been an ever-unfolding and ordering spiral. For the most part, we have not yet realized or accepted that order, novelty, expansion and complexity are ultimately unifying forces. But even conflicts over diversity can be seen as drivers, urging us to realize and accommodate to the reality that we are one, interrelated and interdependent species.

In the above image, if one of the segments of string represents a lifetime, we can see how it overlaps and aligns with many others. With a little consideration, we can see the process of ordering at work. And we can see that an individual life is just a small segment of an unfathomably long string, one that’s shaped by an enfolded and fundamental order—the core—characterized by infinite potential, patterning and exquisite beauty. Notice how the mind’s eye sees a star in one place and then another. As in certain geometries considered “sacred,” the pattern in this ball of string is dynamic. It seems to move.

Contemplating Order In Personal And Social Contexts

Socially we find examples of this dynamic in the messy domains of business and politics, where over time, conflicting perspectives, goals and methods eventually produce more ordered systems and solutions. A crowning example of this is the founding of the United States of America. Because the founders—and we today—differ in perception, values, goals and desires, there was and will always be conflict, argumentation and debate. In the messy process of sorting things out, an order emerges that overcomes psychic entropy—negative thoughts, ideas and ideologies that, if held long enough by a system’s members, leads to dis-integration and eventually the system’s demise. Order then, along with information, is negentropic. It overcomes entropy, at least temporarily.

As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes, “Psychic negentropy refers to an ordered state of energy or knowledge, a state in which work can be carried out with the least waste and effort. A negentropic system, whether physical, informational, or mental, is one in which the parts function together in synergy, with minimal friction or disorder.” In his book, Being Adolescent: Conflict and Growth in the Teenage Years, co-authored with Reed Larson, Mihali identifies the specific traits that carry the highest negentropic potential. These include positive feelings toward self and others, happiness, friendliness, joy, meaning, a sense of energy, competence and intrinsic motivation to be involved with people moving toward constructive goals. Projected to adults, I can easily see how these would be the forces, among others, that are urging us toward alignment and synergistic engagement. In this way, on each turn of the evolutionary spiral, the invisible hand of Nature winds the string around a core, albeit one that imposes a design that is in process—and one that we are not yet privileged to see.

Writing about traumatic events experienced by adults—such as occur in family life as well as in business and politics—Csikszentmihalyi goes further to say in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, that the ability to draw order from disorder is what transforms negative experiences into meaningful challenges. Paul Cézanne famously said it was the artist’s task to become “concentric” with nature, to align with it. I see that happening in this image. I also see how the center—the core of an object or idea—determines the pattern that will emerge as time goes on. For instance, if the string here pictured were wound around a cube or a triangle a very different pattern would result. The same with an idea or ideology. The core of a belief system shapes thinking, which produces patterns of behavior. It’s the reason for the biblical injunction “By their fruit, you shall recognize them.” (Matthew 7:16). Others know us by what we do.

In the above photograph, the winding of a string around a round core results in a star pattern with concentric circles. Standing back, it resembles an eye. Computer scientist, Christopher Langton, and others in the field of artificial life observe that the essence of living systems is in their organization, not the involved molecules. It couldn’t be otherwise, because at the atomic level it’s the organization of atoms that determines and discriminates one element from another.

At the heart of the most random or chaotic event lies order, pattern, and causality, if only we can learn to see it in large enough context.

Corinne McLaughlin

It is the natural tendency of life to organize — to seek greater levels of complexity and diversity.

Margaret Wheatley

When driven into far-from-equilibrium conditions, systems do not just break down, they generate new structures that pull higher forms of order out of the surrounding chaos. It is as if nature reaches into herself and draws forth structures that reflect the inherent potential of the system for higher orders of self-organization.

Duane Elgin

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VIII. Emergent Properties (In Systems)

This is the eighth in a series of postings on whole systems thinking.


I invite you to check out my new blog on the ancient Maya. A description follows at the end of this posting.


Life is an emergent property—a property that is not present in the parts and originates only when the parts are assembled together.

Fritjof Capra

When individual parts—such as these boards—are integrated, a feature emerges and a process takes place that’s greater than the sum of the parts. None of the individual parts of a house constitute a home. Likewise, the parts of a smartphone are not smart. But put them together in a coherent manner—according to their design—and an array of advanced capabilities emerge.

When it comes to non-living systems such as books, computers, cars, tools and appliances, it’s the hoped-for or intended emergent properties that first motivated their existence. Initially, they were expressed as an imagined need, and the fulfillment of that need motivates the owner to keep it functioning through maintenance. In living but non-human systems, the emergent property is autopoeisis, the capacity to make more of itself—reproduce. In addition to this, the emergent properties of human systems include self-reflexion, inner and outer awareness, creativity, the ability to manage change and do work. What’s important to note, in all systems, is that properties emerge from the integration and coherence (functional relationship) of their component parts.

Because living systems are dynamic, constantly changing due to the capacity of their members to make choices, the established ordered arrangement at any time can break down when something new is introduced or when something happens to alter the functionality of the whole or its parts—like climate change. Whatever the source, to manage change effectively, rigidity has to give way to the more complex emerging order. The name we give to the continuous process of emergence is “evolution.” The simpler name is “growth.” 

Because living systems experience and adapt to change they grow—or they don’t. One of my earliest introductions to this idea was Grow Or Die: The Unifying Principle of Transformation by George Ainsworth-Land. It’s an expensive book now because it became a cornerstone in strategic planning and corporate transformation. I highly recommend a check to see if your library has or could order a copy. Particularly insightful, Dr. Land explains why species don’t adapt to their environments nearly so much as they adapt environments to themselves. It’s the mantra of successful entrepreneurship: “Find and need and fill it.” Facilitating emerging—higher-order—properties is how civilizations grow. If not, they die.

Contemplating Personal And Social Emerging Properties
The universe is not a place, it’s a story or an irreversible sequence of emergent events. It’s an ongoing creative event. The universe as a whole, and each being within it, is permeated with the power of emergence.  
Brian Swimme (Evolutionary Cosmologist)

Higher-order properties lie within us individually and collectively as potentials. As authors of our experience, we have the capacity to identify and realize them. The quest begins with an assessment of existing talents and motivations, and a close look at what gives us joy. The process of specifying these, can give us a sense of what we have yet to do. What unrealized potential is waiting to emerge? Size and social acceptability don’t matter. It can be as simple as choosing a different frame of mind, like deciding to do an odious job well instead of just getting it done.  It could be a change of perspective from negative to positive, or a change of a mood pattern from irritable to allowing. What emerges in instances such as these, is a more loveable self-image and confidence in the ability to change for the better. And it can transform the lives of those around us. A prominent example of this was when First Lady Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” That was an emergent moment for her, and for us—a call to rise above name-calling and blaming.

Within the image of the clouds above, barely visible on the left-hand side and seeming to connect the clouds, there’s a tiny jet-trail. Whenever I see those, I think of the many people aboard the plane, each of whom is living a story of emergence from childhood to adulthood, from having little to having much—knowledge, status, relationships or wealth. And they’re on their way to realizing more of that potential in a different place. Whether it’s to spend more time with a loved one, consider or assume a new position, build a new relationship or accept an invitation to walk on a beach, the emerging potential will likely be growthful.

Change the story and you change perception; change perception and you change the world.

Jean Houston (Visionary, Human Potentials Scholar)

From an evolutionary perspective, the individual human lifespan is so short as to appear insignificant. But from a personal perspective, it’s quite the opposite. Every individual is unique and precious, here to live and by their emerging story, ideally, advance their own higher-order being, thinking and doing. We live and breathe in an atmosphere of stories. And each of us, like the dust and water particles that form clouds, contributes to the quality and movement of our collective atmosphere. Sometimes it’s calm; other times turbulent. Always, it’s vibrant and alive.

Social innovators are people who specialize in emergent properties. They have been referred to as “emergents,” “positive change agents,” “social engineers” and “activists.” They’re in the business of moving beyond the dysfunction of the status quo, of dreaming better ways to live and work, and as soon as possible live the dream. Beyond a paycheck, wealth, status or celebrity, they want their lives to matter. They are their own people, authentic to the core, the modern-day equivalents of the “rugged individualists” who settled the American West. 

In business and industry, the emergents are developing and promoting alternatives to carbon-based energy, sustaining and improving ecosystems, preserving and managing forests, conserving wildlife and habitat, improving health and law enforcement systems, promoting nutrition, discovering applications of nanotechnology, testing energy-efficient transportation systems, and exploring the potentials of space travel. These and others like them are the visionaries, authors, life-coaches, globally conscious motivational speakers and teachers who champion improvements in every field. Emergents are easy to identify because they live principled and disciplined lives.

Less dramatic but equally deserving of the adjective “emergent,” are family members and neighbors, everyday people who are quietly living moral and ethical lives, people actively looking for ways to work more creatively, smarter and kinder with consideration for those around them. They do a good job and take pride in it, no matter how menial the work may seem to others. Opting out of popular culture, they prefer the more peaceful and substantive values of personal enrichment, fulfillment and service.

Because the contributions of emergents have survival value for the planet and all its inhabitants, I see them as paving the way toward a positive and more sustainable future. For this reason alone, they deserve to be acknowledged, encouraged, and supported—by all. 

Transcendence, emergence, and integration of the components are the very pattern of the cosmic movement.

Beatrice Bruteau

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I recently launched another weekly blog, entitled “Ancient Maya Cultural Traits.” After decades of researching and organizing information from the fields of anthropology, archaeology, ethnography, and epigraphy, I began to experience the ancient Maya lifeways and worldview in my imagination. Every day. They became so potently familiar, I felt like I’d entered their world and taken on a second identity.

In June of 1998, I spent an entire night and morning imagining, then outlining The Path Of The Jaguar, a series of stories that would feature these people, their places and history. Literally overnight, I found a use for my databases and set out to learn how to tell a compelling story. Twelve years later, I self-published Jaguar Rising. Then came Jaguar Wind And Waves and Jaguar Sun.

The guideline I set for myself in writing these stories, was that every scene and situation had to pass the test of plausibility. The historical information had to be accurate, based on the latest scholarship, and the characterizations needed to be reasonable and representative of the times and patterns of ancient Maya thought customs and behavior. Also, I wanted to immerse readers in the jungle and the cities when they were new. Rather than depict the culture as the “mysterious” Maya, I present them as real people confronting universal human challenges.

I invite you to check out Ancient Maya Cultural Traits. Categories include food, trade, customs, costumes, worldview, rituals, warfare and weapons, prophecy, marriage alliances and more. Gods, goddesses and underworld demons come to life as each posting includes a related excerpt from the novels. The first topic is “blood.”   

VII. Part-Whole Relationship

This is the 7th in a series of postings on whole systems thinking.

Systems thinking involves a shift of perspective from parts to whole. The properties of a whole cannot be reduced to its parts because none of them have the capacity of the whole. A wristwatch keeps time and a smartphone has many functions because their parts have been specified and organized according to a particular purpose and design. A watch’s flywheel can’t keep time and a computer chip can’t make phone calls. Likewise, neither a violin player nor an entire assembly of accomplished musicians can produce a Mozart symphony without the specified design—the score—and a conductor to interpret it. System’s thinking then is about purpose and design in the first place. With the parts or members in place according to a design, the key to successful performance lies in the pattern of relationships.

Purpose is the reason for a system’s existence. In mechanical systems, such as a wind turbine, a person with a challenge and an idea envisioned an assembly of parts that would operate together to perform a function and provide a solution to his problem. The desired function is the system’s purpose. Physically speaking, in Nature everything lives to grow and reproduce. That’s the purpose of a cell, cedar tree, caterpillar, cat and the human body. As noted in a previous posting, one of the defining characteristics of life is autopoeisis, it makes more of itself.   

In The Systems View Of Life: A Unifying Vision, Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luise observe that  “What we call a part is merely a pattern in an inseparable web of relationships. Therefore, the shift of perspective from the parts to the whole can also be seen as a shift from objects to relationships. For the system’s thinker, the relationships are primary.” And consideration of relationships requires a shift from quantity to quality.

Everything speaks its purpose through patterns. 

Michael Schneider 

An orchestra consisting of a large number of musicians does not guarantee a successful performance. One or more mistakes or a poorly tuned instrument can dampen the system’s outcome. In systems composed of living beings, where there’s a continuous exchange of matter and energy with the environment—and thought in this example—the dynamism of change requires attention to process in order for the system to function according to its design. It’s why the creation of any kind of performance requires lots of practice. I think of gymnasts and ice skaters who perform seemingly impossible feats, and how much time and energy they invested in the process of skill development and responding to feedback in order to produce a performance that lasts a few minutes. And where one misstep—system’s malfunction—can result in a breakdown.   

Contemplating The Personal and Social Aspects of  Whole-Part Relationships 

Questions regarding a “purposer” or original “designer” of life are best left to philosophers of science and religion. In the context of the whole-part relationship, we can observe that the capacity of the whole human being—that’s greater than the sum of its parts—is self-reflecting consciousness. And along with it comes self-determination to some extent. Being individual perceivers and thinkers, some of us will undergo some soul-searching to try and understand our reason for being, and others won’t give it a thought. 

As noted above, the key to a system’s successful performance lies in the pattern of relationships among the parts and other whole systems. In this instance, we’re talking about people. Having a purpose in life is like having a rudder. Rather than submit to the “currents” in life—the values and expectations of other people and society—a course is charted toward a given destination. In addition to giving life meaning, a purposeful life specifies a trajectory which is an aid to navigation and course-correction.

As a counselor of students, I would sometimes recommend a “gifts inventory” as the place to begin their discovery of purpose. As quickly as possible, without much thought, they would list their core competencies, their natural born gifts. After that, they listed the things that gave them joy. Not what made them happy or excited, activities that made them feel good about themselves, content, fulfilled. Those moments when time stood still and they were “in the flow.” Then they listed the issues, personal or social, that concerned them most, areas where they would like to make a difference. 

By prioritizing each of these areas they created a perspective that “seeded” the intellect so the inner voice (I prefer “soul”) would be primed to divulge the reason for incarnating. (All of this was an assignment, done in private and in a meditative state). The final and crucial step was to get quiet, connect with the deepest part of Self and ask: Why am I here? What am I here to do? They were to write whatever came and refine it into a concise “Purpose Statement.” Because the statement is deeply personal, they were never to share it with anyone. Insights that come from the core of our being should never invite feedback or comment. 

We noted above that in systems thinking relationships are primary. When we operate from purpose, we’re more selective in choosing our significant relationships and maintaining them. And because we want to surround ourselves with those who encourage and support us in realizing our purpose, there’s a commensurate shift from having many friends (as we did in high school) to having quality friends, those on the same or similar wavelength.

The purpose of existence as we have seen is growth, expansion… so the purpose of existing together is evolving together, progressing together, and the goal of this growth is fulfillment. 

            Ramana Maharishi

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VI. Equifinality

Alphabet Letters


This is the 6th  in a series of postings on the theme of whole systems thinking.

The whole system’s principle of “equifinality,” a term coined by the father of systems theory, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, holds that in open systems, for those that have external interactions, a given end state can be reached by many potential means. To lock on to a single pathway, observation or solution can overlook a simpler or better way to reach a goal. The advice then is to reserve judgment and keep an open mind.

Beyond ideas and perspectives, equifinality has implications for individuals within social systems, suggesting that each member has equal opportunity to affect the outcome of the whole—by paying attention to potential solutions and staying open to alternative pathways to reach a goal—noting that any change will affect the output or outcome. Change any element, person or function, however slightly, and the system will perform differently than it otherwise would. Stated positively, no matter how small, invisible or seemingly insignificant a person’s function within a system, they exert an influence on its performance and outcome.

A rock group is an open system composed of interacting members. As such, it performs differently each time the performers take the stage. Things happen. One musician substitutes for another. A guitar is not properly tuned. The drummer is trying out new sticks. The lead singer is depressed. An amplifier is replaced and now the sound is different. Likewise, corporate cultures change when an employee begins to eat lunch at his desk, when a mother brings her toddler to work and when an executive begins wearing jeans. It’s the reason we can’t step into the same river twice. Every millisecond, the water molecules are exchanged; stones move; leaves fall in; the wind and fish contribute to turbulence. The example I cited for my students has to do with film and television production considered as a social system. Change one word in a script, decide not to stop for lunch, swap out a microphone or a light—every decision alters the outcome. We see it in television series, where success in the first season generates more money, more expensive talent and new writers who have their own ideas about what will succeed in the next season. Time and larger budgets bring about changes and suddenly The Good Wife isn’t so “good” anymore, Sherlock’s cases become more complicated and are anything but Elementary and Person Of Interest shifts from stories about people to cyber warfare.

Contemplating The Personal And Social Consequences of Equifinality

In the above photograph, each chip is a bit of data. Displayed as they are, the whole represents a field of potential, meaning the letters and numbers could be put together in a staggering number of ways. Like magnetic letters on a refrigerator door, a child could use them to spell the word “dog.” Another child could come along and use the same three letters to spell the word “god.” And within the whole system in everything we see, there’s equal opportunity to affect an infinite variety of changes.

Personally, equifinality gives us a reason to appreciate that everyday choices and behaviors make a difference, whether intended or not. Linda’s switch from merely “fresh” to “organic” head lettuce affected changes—in our bodies and in the local supplier, farming systems and health systems, even the economy. Slight, yes. But nonetheless real. And little things add up. Every time we turn on the radio or television or engage in social media, we contribute to the sustainability of the medium and cast a vote for more of its content. Recently, we’re beginning to see the marketers behind the curtain, quantifying every decision we make, and modifying their systems accordingly. There’s big money in monitoring our choices and behaviors. And the principle of equifinality can be used to affect change. For instance, Linda and I are telling restaurant employees why we bring along our own paper straws and cloth napkins—we want them to know that it cuts down on plastic and paper. Again, a small thing, but in every instance, people understand and appreciate our choice.

Knowing that my choices and behaviors are affecting change, I can be more aware and deliberate in my communication and interactions. What message do I want to send? Do I really want to sustain this activity? Do I want to cast a vote for more of this product to be produced? Is this information, service or philosophy in alignment with my values? Does this situation lift me up or inspire me? Do I want to support a company that isn’t socially responsible?

It occurs to me that this sounds like a lot of self-regulating introspection. Editing this post, I hesitated and observed that the individual words, ideas, and questions I’m expressing are affecting my readers, and who knows what else. I paused. Do I really want to put this information and these self-regulating questions out there? Indeed, I do, because I’m advocating that we dig deep into our authentic selves before making choices and engaging others. Doing so with more awareness of the consequences, however small, seems to me to be a contribution to the greater whole systems—holons—in which I participate.

I have to admit that there are times when I go against the voice of my authentic self, as when I consume more sugar and television than I know I should. Sometimes we just want what we want—and we accept the consequences. On balance, however, I find comfort in the act of making “a good faith effort.”

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

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V. Feedback

This is the 5th in a series of postings on whole systems thinking.

A system is maintained, often within specified limits, by providing information about how well or poorly the system is performing relative to its purpose. Since systems exist for a reason, it’s important to know whether or not, how well or how poorly, that reason is being actualized. 

Feedback comes in two forms, positive and negative. Both are necessary. The soldier tying knots receives positive or negative feedback depending on the outcome of each trial. When a stand-up comedian gets a laugh, she knows that her delivery was effective. That’s positive feedback. If she repeats her performance exactly, she’s likely to get a similar result. If the laugh doesn’t happen, the negative feedback tells her something didn’t work and more attention needs to be given to the parts of her presentation. Without feedback from the audience, she would have no way of knowing whether or not her intention was realized. 

In living systems, feedback is syntropic. It overcomes entropy by providing information that produces learning, which can bring about positive or growthful adjustments to change within the system or its environment. The more feedback, the better the learning. And the better the quality of the feedback, the better the quality of learning, which translates to better performance. In the 50s, door-to-door interviews about television viewing patterns were conducted to measure audience size but they did a poor job of providing networks with quality information. Studies showed that people often reported watching programs they thought they should be watching, or programs their neighbors were talking about, rather than the ones they actually watched. This was variously attributed to poor memory, a desire to impress or avoid being embarrassed in front of the interviewer and outright lying. Poor sampling information yields poor learning. 

The challenge, of course, is getting feedback that is both robust and accurate. In any kind of polling, there are so many variables, companies that provide that service include a caveat saying the sample size is “representative” of a group within plus or minus margins. Science is never perfect; everything is relative and even the best results are approximations. But often that’s enough to satisfy a company, organization or government office because some feedback is better than none at all. And over time, adjustments to change based on feedback can demonstrate a pattern of success or failure. “We added an odorless tissue to our product line and found that customers preferred it over the ones with odor. So let’s do a better job of promoting the odorless product.” 

For an organism, business or social entity to survive and grow, it must have feedback. A critical component in evolution, feedback from changes in the environment urge the process of species adaptation. The lesson for human evolution is to design, incorporate and manage mechanisms at every level that provide the most accurate feedback possible. Aside from ethical issues, this is why truth in media reporting is critically important. 

Contemplating Global And Social Feedback Mechanisms

How do we know if a given society or even the earth as a whole, is functioning properly? Always, when assessing the functionality of a system, the place to begin is with clarity about its purpose, understanding its reason for being—how it should be functioning. 

For example, the earth is the largest whole and living system that most directly affects our lives. The question is: What is the purpose of the Earth? To gain a working appreciation, we can examine function. Since it came into being, what has it been continuously doing? As noted in a previous posting, the prime identifying mark of a living system is autopoeisis—it propagates more life and it does so on its own, without anyone “pulling the strings.” Part of the “doing,” is increasing the diversity, complexity, and consciousness of its forms. Earth isn’t just “home” to life, it generates, maintains, proliferates and advances it. Systemically speaking, the purpose of our planet is to continuously produce diverse and viable sub-systems—all living entities—viable in that they will reproduce in ways that propagate even more and more varieties of life. Imagine, all this from—our best guess—a sprinkling of “potentials” deposited from space in a chemical soup at just the right time and place. I marvel at that.

Currently, the most complex living “emergent,” human beings, has been increasingly interfering with the Earth’s natural processes to the point where dramatic adjustments are being made throughout the system in order to overcome our consumptive, life-diminishing behaviors. Suffering under the ancient and destructive idea that we’re separate from God, nature, the soil and each other, we are fouling, and in many cases destroying, the elements that sustain and contribute to the quality and continuation of life—atmosphere, water, soils, and forests. Because we in the “developed” world don’t experience the degradation personally, we tend to ignore the information—negative feedback—as too technical to understand, pass it off as remote or somebody else’s problem, assume nothing can be done to curb the human appetite for more, better, faster or cheaper, or hope that some genius or technology will rescue us before the quality of life diminishes to the point where survival is at stake. 

The paradigm of separation and greed is a virus that has infected human consciousness at all levels, globally. We see it trending in the mentality of fundamentalism, where there is only one right way to think, in nationalism, where we want our group to be the sole makers of our destiny,  in prejudice, where one “type” matters more than others, in unregulated capitalism where the privileged few can make the rules governing wealth and the use of resources, in corporations that enjoy the benefits of personal identity while executive actions are only accountable to stockholders and in industrial development where the earth is treated as a “thing” rather than a living body. For many years now and increasingly, the earth has been providing feedback in the form of dramatic weather fluctuations, desertification, water and air pollution, deforestation, melting ice in the poles and mountain glaciers, increases in the frequency and severity of floods and storms, species extinctions, decimation of coral reefs and sea life, extermination of predators, disruption of the carbon cycle and so on. The feedback is impossible to ignore. The earth is not a machine, it’s THE LIVING BODY that sustains and determines the quality of all life for every life form, cockroach to king, and every social group, family to nation.  

Rather than enumerate our social dysfunctions and make this posting even more depressing, suffice to say the cause is the same—the erroneous perception that we are separate from God, the planet and each other. It’s a perspective that encourages self-centeredness, inordinate consumption, greed, segregation and discrimination, hate crimes, corruption, war and treating Earth as a resource rather than a living body. Through these, the world is providing feedback. It says to me, “The virus of separation has metastasized to the extent that vital organs are in jeopardy. As quickly as possible, change your thinking! Regard the planet as your greater body, the source of your life—because it is. Amend your lifestyle. Examine everything you do through the lens of quality rather than quantity, giving rather than taking, loving rather than ignoring.  Experience the joy in living lightly on the planet, look for opportunities to reuse and recycle and read about “deep ecology,” the shift in consciousness that views Nature and humanity as one, interconnected and interdependent system.”  

Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, made a distinction between “shallow” and “deep” ecology. He observes that shallow ecology is anthropocentric, human-centered, viewing our species as above and outside of nature, as the source of all value, considering it as something to be used. The root of the separation paradigm derives from Genesis 1: 28: (King James Version) “And God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” 

Considering the current level of the world population and that the planet’s resources are finite,  the continuation of this injunction is a recipe for species extinction. In contrast, according to Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Lusisi in The Systems View of Life, “Deep ecology does not separate humans—or anything else—from the natural environment. It sees the world not as a collection of isolated objects but as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. Deep ecology recognizes the intrinsic value of all living beings and views humans as just one particular strand in the web of life… It questions the very foundations of our modern, scientific, industrial, growth-oriented, materialistic worldview and way of life.”

Feedback is a method of controlling a system by reinserting into it the results of past performance. If feedback can change the pattern of performance, then we have a process which may very well be called learning.

Norbert Weiner 

My hope lies in the education of children, in introducing them to the state of the earth and showing them the way through—the perception and understanding of personal and global interconnection and interdependence that encourage ethics, sharing, collaboration, and love.         

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IV. The Weak Link

This is the 4th in a series of postings on whole systems thinking. 

A system is as strong as its weakest link. The link that breaks when a chain is stressed, is the part within the whole, person within the group and nation within the global community that is—or becomes—dysfunctional under stress. 

To counteract the “weak link” principle, we assemble the strongest, most competent, collaborative, creative… people possible, get the best information we can, maintain or replace old equipment, invest time, money or energy in building for the future and elect officials who have demonstrated competence and ethical and principled decision-making abilities when under pressure.

Contemplating The Weak Link

My contemplation on this subject is perfectly summarized in the following quotes.

If it is true that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, isn’t it also true a society is only as healthy as its sickest citizen and only as wealthy as its most deprived? 

Maya Angelou

A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and life is after all a chain.

William James

When we believe that the world makes us, that it determines what we can and cannot do, then we see ourselves as small and weak. But when we understand that we make the world—individually and together—then we become formidable and strong.

Lewis Richmond


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III. Holons And Hierarchy

This is the 3rd in a series of postings on whole systems thinking.

A holon is a discrete, living system composed of sub-systems, and is itself a sub-system of larger whole systems—simultaneously a whole and a part. The word isn’t one you’re likely to use or even hear, but because it points to the nestedness of networks, it is one of the cornerstone ideas in systems thinking. An example is the human body, which resides somewhere in the middle between the atoms of its composition and the “world” within which it is a member. In ancient Hindu philosophy, there was a mythological idea of a World Turtle that supports the world on its back, and that turtle was supported by “turtles all the way down.” From the perspective of whole systems, they got it half right—there would also be turtles all the way “up” as well. Fundamentally, to speak of a holon is to reference nested hierarchies, systems within systems, wheels within wheels. Holons are represented in Buddhist mandalas, Russian dolls, fractal geometry and among other things, the universe and the photograph above.

A sampling of holons provides some perspective on their diversity and suggests their application in systems management. Humans and other living creatures are obviously holons, and Nature manages it’s organic systems intrinsically, but not so obvious are higher order systems, those that are managed by human consciousness. These include corporations and businesses, religions and churches, sports and entertainment entities, mass media and medical systems, households, hardware and software manufacturers, farms, educational institutions and more. It also includes natural systems that involve human decision-making including ecosystems, forests, gardens, dams and water processing facilities, cattle ranches and dairy farms, parks, forestry and wildlife management systems. And much more.

So what? Is there any practical benefit to thinking of living systems as holons? Systems thinking is all about relationship. In a nested network, each individual system is dependent upon the functioning of its components. Breakdowns in cell structure or functioning in a body result in dis-integration of the body as a whole. And the successful creation of an initiative—project, business, special interest group, etc.—is determined by the consciousness, competence and responsibility of its constituent human holons. Bottom line: An awareness of systems as holons helps in the design, analysis and management of living systems by helping us to see, appreciate and create functional relations between the members.

It is inappropriate in the extreme, to think of any holon as either inferior or superior to any other holon. Each member, at every level, contributes consciousness, energy and activity to the whole. More to the point, it’s the relationship between functioning holons that determines the condition of the whole. One great basketball player does not make a winning team. It’s the quality of the relationship, the interactions between and among the players that lead to winning. It’s a fundamental principle in systems thinking: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” In The Web of Life, Fritjof Capra used the example: “Sugar is made up of three molecules—oxygen, hydrogen and carbon. Where is the sweetness? The sweetness is in the relationship. It is not a quality in any element of sugar. It is an emergent quality that resides only in the system as a whole.” Anyone who cooks understands this—a satisfying meal is greater than the sum of it parts.

I’m reminded of three innovative and successful corporations that operationalized the holon perspective: 3M, MTV and Proctor & Gamble. They each mastered the art of “semipermeability,” being with their customers and building long-term relationships with them in order to constantly understand their needs before their competitors even know they exist. Rather than leaders directing the development and course of products, they began with the customer. It’s simple, but it requires a shift from a top-down administrative structure to one of bottom-up customer satisfaction. And it requires extra effort: Sit face-to-face with as many customers as possible and ask, “What do you want? What do you like and don’t like?. What, in the area of our product line, would be ideal? What’s “cool” and “not cool? And how much would you pay for it?” And then, “As we develop this product, we want you in on it; we want to know if you like it. If you don’t, we’ll go back to the drawing board. Further, we’re going to reward you with some “perks” in appreciation for your time and feedback.” Thinking holistically is good business. 

Contemplating the Social Implications of Holons and Hierarchies

A social holon is any entity that can refer to itself as “we,” a collective. “We the people…” The challenge in any collective is the creation of a structure that benefits both its members and the whole system—society. Always both. Human evolution has largely been a process of trial and error, largely unconscious experiments with a variety of structures including tribes, kingships, peasant societies, monarchies, socialism, communism, capitalism and democracy. And the experiments continue.  

As noted above, from a whole systems perspective, the key to managing a nested network so it functions for the good of the whole as well as its members lies in the relationships and quality of interaction between and among its members. Globally, humanity is still in the experimental stage because we have yet to get diverse and distant relationships right. In my opinion, the reason has to do with operating under the false conception that individuals are separate and independent. We come by this assumption naturally. Everyday observation and experience demonstrate that there’s space that separates us, and I make decisions independently from you. Our experience is not of the “flock” or “school,” as it is with birds and fish. I am me; everything and everyone else is not me. 

What is not apparent in this calculus—and requires substantial education and experience to realize—is that as a holon, the “I” that is me is legion within a web of interrelated and interacting networks. And while it feels like I think independently, much of what I think about has been culturally prescribed. Systemically, when a strand in the web of life is vibrated, the entire web vibrates. Subtly, but nonetheless. Every action, every decision, ripples influences throughout the web. Although we can behave as units of consciousness without regard to other such units, the compounding of these influences and consequences ultimately manifests as breakdowns in the collective system. The “problem” lies in the areas of belief and perception. Beliefs drive perception and perception drives action. The correction lies in a shift in belief from “We are separate and independent.” To “We are interconnected and interdependent.” All wars and personal tragedies can be viewed as evolution’s way of moving us, individually and collectively, toward the accomplishment of this shift. 

Okay, so what does it take to affect that shift? I place my bets in four areas: “responsible parenting,” “whole-person education,” “socially responsible business,.” and “socially responsible media.” Top-down political systems can’t do it. A whole body, including government, grows as a consequence of individual holons relating and interacting in ways that benefit themselves and the more complex holons within which they move and have their being as members. 

In the novel I’m working on, the protagonist, a railroad conductor, engages in a conversation with a passenger who says, “The basis of all our problems—we don’t know who we are.” Indeed, most of us are operating as individuals digging for nuggets of gold in the hills, when the greater treasure can be found by becoming friends and collaborators with the other miners. Relationship builds awareness and increased awareness affects a shift in perception, which in turn creates the desire to seek the good of holons up and down the system’s hierarchy of complexity. 

Who I am depends on who you are. The world is part of me, just as I am part of it. What happens to the world is in some way happening to me. The state of the cultural climate or political climate affects the condition of the geo-climate. When one thing changes, everything else must change too. The qualities of a self (sentience, agency, purpose, and experience of being) are not confined to humans alone. And the results of our actions will come back to affect ourselves, inescapably.

Charles Eisenstein (Author, Social Philosopher)

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II. Autopoiesis (Self-Making)

This is the 2nd in a series of postings on whole systems thinking. In the coming weeks, after the topic is introduced, I’ll offer a contemplation that relates the information to our personal lives and higher order systems.


Living systems are cognitive systems, and living is a process of cognition. The statement is valid for all organisms, with and without a nervous system.

                                                                        Humberto Maturana (Chilean neuroscientist)

This statement led Maturana and his colleague, Francisco Varela, a neuroscientist at the University of Santiago, to conclude that a fundamental characteristic of biological systems, is that they are self-making. The word they coined for it is “autopoiesis.” Auto means “self, and poiesis is Greek for “making.” Living systems are individual and interdependent. Unlike machines, which are closed systems, they don’t have an external regulator. They operate on their own.

These researchers observed that “the function of each component is to participate in the production or transformation of other components in the network.” It’s how the system makes itself. In closed, mechanical systems the component is referred to as a “part.” In open, living systems that exchange and express within their environment, the term for the component is “member.” A part is an independent and interchangeable singularity, like an engine part or circuit board. A member participates in a network of interactions where discrete individuals are continuously being produced by its components and in turn contribute to the production of the network’s components.

It’s important to note that autopoiesis is Nature’s way of constructing, maintaining and renewing living organisms. The temptation is to apply it in total to social systems, but human beings are more than their biology. The challenge of managing human social systems is compounded by the facts that their members are intelligent, and no two are alike. Each is an independent decision-maker, and the larger systems within which they are a component are themselves intelligent, decision-making wholes.

What I think we can safely borrow from the phenomenon of autopoiesis, is that the character and functionality of a human social system, whether it works or not, is a function of how it is organized and the quality of interaction among the members. Because these systems are open and not determined or controlled, there’s a need for continuous self-assessment in order to produce feedback on performance. Further, when human systems are unable or unwilling to self-regulate—by merging their needs with the needs of the whole systems above and below it—as we have seen in some corporations—a higher order social system, for instance, a government, can and needs to impose regulations to bring the system into optimal performance according to its design or purpose.


Contemplation on Autopoiesis (Self-Making) 

A personal example of this is a lesson I learned early on in the process of long-term film production. Members of the crew were showing up late or at the wrong location, were too tired to work, weren’t appropriately dressed, forgot a prop or didn’t call to say they couldn’t make it to the shoot. They were not self-regulating, so I imposed regulations, one of which was for the production manager to make a “courtesy call” to everyone involved the night before a shoot, to ensure that they would show up, on time, at the right place, have their sleep and food needs met and have the proper equipment, props or costume.

One of the principles of closed system management that applies equally to social systems in the context of autopoiesis advises: “Attend to the parts and the whole takes care of itself.” It’s one of the points made in the novel, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig. When a mechanical system breaks down, the way to get it working again is to locate the dysfunctioning part and attend to it—ascertain what it takes to repair or replace it, then follow through appropriately. When all the parts function according to their design and work together, the whole system will operate as was intended. Systems thinking encourages us to understand relationships. And autopoiesis provides a model from Nature, suggesting that there is wisdom in allowing her to take her course, more often letting life guide relationships and interactions, as opposed to trying to manage or force them.

A benefit of age is hindsight regarding a phenomenon we all experience. Why, when we get a good idea and follow it through with a passion, it doesn’t work out? If only I’d known that ahead of time! Why does the Universe let me invest hours, a day, week or years trying to accomplish something when it doesn’t or can’t happen? Sometimes I’ll drive around to several stores before I find the object I’m looking for. It seems like a waste of time. Why doesn’t my mind—or the Universe—direct me to the one right place? I’m convinced there’s no way to avoid situations like that. And when I think about it, nothing is really a waste of time. Learning occurs. And patience. And those are real values, even an investment that pays dividends in the process of future decision-making.

From the living systems point of view, human beings are self-making, autopoietic. But there’s a paradox. On the one hand, the human body is continuously and automatically maintaining and renewing itself. We can and do influence its health, but it’s largely operating on its own. On the other hand, and sometimes interfering with the body’s natural functioning, we “make” ourselves as “persons”—an integration of body, mind, spirit—based on the assumption that we are in control, that we know what’s best for us. We know what we want, and we generally know what we want to make of ourselves. Nature, or life, wants us to go one way, while the mind or ego inclines us to go another. The net result—conflict. And when conflict becomes acute we experience pain—a signal that indicates system breakdown.

There are two routes to choose from in order to repair human breakdowns—allow Nature or life to move in the direction it will, or continue on the path of willful self-making. As conscious creatures, there’s a fundamental question to be addressed as life unfolds: Am I in charge? Or is life in charge? What I’ve found, operating under both assumptions, is that the latter brings more comfort, joy, confidence and peace. I love the following quote. It’s an expression of complete trust that life, the Universe, the soul—whatever word you prefer—is working out and all is well.

When we stop searching, we start finding. By looking less, we see more. When we allow the light within us to merge with the light that guides us, we experience oneness. Without any effort, we relax into a state where we have no decisions to make. There is no confusion, second-guessing, thinking, or searching for answers. There is just beingness—acceptance of life as it is.

Jacob Israel Liberman

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