In this blog entry I claim that systems thinking and spirituality go together well. I present evidence for this, using comments by Eckhart Tolle as a starting point and foundation. I also discuss the science/spirit debate, and wrap up with quotes on this topic from three systems thinking luminaries.
Some worldviews are jealous. They don’t let other worldviews in readily, or even register as a worldview to the person holding that set of beliefs and reference points.
Systems thinking is a worldview that lends itself well to a plurality of worldviews. Perhaps it is for this reason that many systems thinkers are a) working to make the world a better place, and b) have a spiritual perspective.
In the first case, the helping-the-world systems thinker develops a facility for feeling into a diversity of perspectives or worldviews. We invite to the table a multiplicity of points of view, knowing that the more points of view shared, the more detailed the picture. The image below illustrates this. (The illustration is massively oversimplified; complexity is holographic!)
It is the second case, however, that is the focus of this blog.
Eckhart Tolle’s Video
I recently heard a talk by Eckhart Tolle in which he illuminates what intelligence from a spiritual perspective looks like, and how this translates into thinking. Tolle doesn’t use the term “systems thinking,” rather, he uses the term “wisdom.” His talk can be accessed in this video series, video #2, “Calling In the Light of Consciousness.” The third part of the black and white illustration above stands for the wise perspective: the person who is able to step back, take in a diversity of viewpoints, and consider the big picture sees the light bulb emerge from the mass of information.
The Danger of the Developed Mind
The first point Tolle makes in reference to our topic is the following: “You can have a very developed mind but no wisdom.” He goes on to say why this is a potential problem, using language that any systems thinker would immediately recognize. (The following is transcribed from the video noted above, starting around 09:30.)
The more developed your mind becomes–which means your mind is separate, it sees isolated problems and tries to tackle isolated problems here and there…At first it looks great. But because there is lack of wisdom, they have not looked at the problem in its totality. And so you have completely ignored the repercussions of what you are going to do to solve this problem because you focused only on this problem…And why have you not looked at the totality–because you were trapped in your mind. The mind can only focus on the particular, it cannot see the whole.
The One and the Many
In the systems thinking mini-course I name “the ability to hold the one and the many” as one of the hallmarks of a systems approach. With the addition of Eckhart’s perspective here, we can start to see that the ability to hold the one and the many is a facility beyond what I sometimes call the “thinkie-thinkie” mind. (The meditation school of which I am a long-term student has a phrase, “centered and peripheral awareness,” which also applies here.) Tolle says, “you focused only on this problem,” failing to look at the big picture. But it’s not only a forgetting, its worse than that; he says the mind “cannot see the whole.” (That is, “mind” in the way he uses the term.)
Eckhart goes on to say, “…without wisdom, every action we take to solve a particular problem will actually make it worse. Even if it solves that problem, we will have created two or three or four even bigger problems.” Tolle’s brief statement summarizes the well-known problems of, for example, international aid programs creating more problems than they solve, or short-term funding cycles that leave nonprofits and community groups (and the people they serve) bereft after two or three years of funding. If you are involved in charitable work, you can, I’m sure, come up with plenty of your own examples.
Most See Just the Faces, Not the Lightbulb
You can easily imagine how taking action from the perspective of any one of the faces in the black and white image can be problematic if you haven’t first stepped back far enough to see patterns over time. Who do you know that has a regular practice of taking this larger perspective? Of doing their homework to illuminate the long-term, wide, and deep picture when addressing complex challenges?
The thinkie-thinkie mind prefers to attend to as few faces as possible because it is quickly overwhelmed by complexity. That’s where Eckhart’s “wisdom” imperative comes in.
What I find fascinating about this particular talk is that Eckhart is very precisely defining what systems thinking looks or feels like, and using the term “wisdom” instead. I think it should be clear that not every person versed in systems thinking can claim to be wise. Yet, based on his description, it is in fact wisdom to which us as systems thinkers are aspiring.
Many of us nevertheless get caught in the ego-based impulse to be the wise(st) person in the room. But the point and the essence of systems thinking is to bring out the wisdom of the collective. This works really well when not only individuals, but whole groups rise above what Tolle calls “the mind.” To quote from the video referenced above again:
Wisdom can see the whole but in order to see the whole of a situation, for a moment you need to come to a cessation of thinking, so that you have an awareness. And then you look at…the awareness looks at the problem. And then you suddenly see things, first non-conceptually, you see how everything is interrelated. […] …wisdom emanates from that place of the realization of yourself as that spacious…that space of awareness, of presence. Thought subsides.
Much of what falls under the general rubric of “systems thinking” is very thinkie-thinkie. Complexity science, systems dynamics, cybernetics, and much of ecological science can be painfully-strictly intellectual. But does it have to be?
This higher order of intelligence–what Tolle is calling “wisdom”–can enter into any field or discipline or moment of your life. To get to “a cessation of thinking” requires opening, at least a little bit! From this more open perspective you can see, as he points out, the reality of our interrelatedness. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT. An ego-driven mind just cannot stop long enough, and therefore the space of silence wisdom can’t descend. Only when the ego–the need to be right and figure it all out–is set aside–at least for a moment–can the opening happen.
He says, “The mind can only focus on the particular, it cannot see the whole,” as quoted above. This is a profound insight. If it’s true, then it means that by definition, when we take this larger, interrelated perspective, we are outside of the function Tolle labels “mind” (and that I am additionally calling “thinkie-thinkie”).
You can almost say that to be a systems thinker you have to stop thinking, though, this is an oversimplification. Elsewhere Tolle discusses “rising above” thought as opposed to “sinking below” it. (This second condition is exemplified with the use of substances, or simply spacing out.)
The Awareness Looks
So, then how do you actually do systems thinking? If you can’t think your way there, then what?
There is plenty of room in systems thinking for the mind-based approach. But when you are working with people, it is a bit different. This includes organizational development and community organizing. As the person facilitating a systems approach, you help the group to identify emergent patterns; what some call “sense-making” out of the pile of input. As a systems thinker gathering input from diverse perspectives, you want those myriad thoughts and ideas to be included in the “rich picture.” (I learned that term from Bruce McKenzie, who, by the way, is a practicing Buddhist.)
When it comes down to it, however, the mind needs to step back. This is where Tolle says, “the awareness looks.” This may not make any sense to you if you haven’t developed at least a glimmer of a relationship to that part of yourself that has the capacity for awareness behind and around thought. We are talking about getting in touch with a larger intelligence at work in the creation that you are not responsible for, but that you can access…when you shut-up.
There are ways to develop the faculty of accessing this much higher order intelligence as a regular practice. I’m afraid these methods are beyond the scope of this blog entry. I will just mention that if you happen to have a particular curiosity about this direction, one place to start is by investigating the Greek word “nous” or “noetic intelligence.” Note, however, that there is a danger of inadvertently sliding back into the thinkie-thinkie and remaining trapped there if you stay with theory and don’t practice and cultivate plenty of experience.
One more pointer: Sri Aurobindo. Here is a brief quote that captures this same basic principle: that linear, reductionist thinking is in line with ego-based awareness, and systems thinking is more compatible with a spiritual perspective.
The lower Nature, that which we know and are and must remain so long as the faith in us is not changed, acts through limitation and division, is of the nature of Ignorance and culminates in the life of the ego; but the higher Nature, that to which we aspire, acts by unification and transcendence of limitation, is of the nature of Knowledge and culminates in the life divine. (Pg. 44, The Synthesis of Yoga)
If this quote seems judgy, note that Aurobindo qualifies his comments, saying, “The distinction exists indeed for practical purposes only; for there is nothing that is not divine…” (pg 44) Aurobindo’s work is largely geared toward super consciousness, which is why I bring him up in this passage relating to nous and higher intelligence.
Ego vs Eco
Theory U has a tagline, “From ego to eco-system awareness.” This aligns beautifully with the majority of Eckhart’s message, across books and talks. We won’t go down the rabbit hole of exposing the root of these words, but in short, “ego” refers to, as Tolle calls it, “the little me in the head.” “Ecosystem” refers to the context, or system.
We’re very heavy on “ego” and light on “eco” in our modern Western capitalist society. As systems thinkers working for a better world, we don’t want to throw out ego. We want balance (which in practice is not stasis in the middle, but rather, something more cyclical). Similarly, as systems thinkers we don’t intend to throw out the linear approach; we want options; flexibility of mind to navigate ever-changing conditions.
Science vs Spirit
The “ego vs eco” question helps inform this false dichotomy between science and spirit. The polarity is only possible from the linear/reductionist/conventional mind space. It comes from a mind that can’t stop thinking; that is run by thinkie-thinkie exclusively, or almost exclusively. It’s the same mind that can’t handle paradox or seeming contradiction.
Strangely, there is significant cross-over between the mind space above–those who can’t take off the linear/reductionist worldview–and those who cry “fake news!” (while at the same time believing ludicrous fabrications) as in the phenomenon of the more extreme Trump supporters. How is this cross-over possible? On the one hand you have scientific-only minds who claim to be totally fact-based. On the other, extreme Trump supporters see “facts” as optional.
The overlap is this: both are abstracted–detached–from life and lived experience. In short, a dogma is set up. Dogma has a particular flavor. Watch for it in others, and especially, yourself. It is the very picture of non-opening. It filters the world through the lens of a specific worldview (check out the word “scientistic”), and denies legitimacy to other worldviews, precisely because it doesn’t recognize it is, in fact, a worldview itself, and a closed one at that.
Examples of Systems Thinking and Spirituality
The dogma-mind view will say something like, “Oh, so you think evidence and facts are stupid and useless, huh? Good luck with that.” (By the way, we all suffer from some sort of fundamentalist’s dogma-voice-in-the-head at times.) The systems thinker will say, “And what facts support or refute or otherwise illuminate whatever claim we happen to be making? And what blinders might I or we be wearing that may undermine our ability to recognize that information?”
In the case of this blog, I will note below a few bits of evidence that I am not alone here. I am suppling some material from big thinkers along these lines. (Note that my use of the term “spirituality” is extremely general, and the following examples often use terms that fall in this rubric, yet are more specific.)
Theory U, Rudolph Steiner
Otto Scharmer notes in Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges, second edition, “Among the philosophical sources, perhaps most influential [to the concept of the U] was the work of the educator and social innovator Rudolf Steiner, whose synthesis of science, consciousness, and social innovation continues to inspire my work and whose methodological grounding in Goethe’s phenomenological view of science has left the most significant imprint on Theory U.” (Page 30) Rudolph Steiner was a giant in the world of Western esotericism. The diversity of his topics and works are extreme. While Otto’s books are typically categorized under the “business” category, a deep current of spirituality runs throughout his work, and that of the Presencing Institute. One segment of this particular book is titled, “The Rise of a New Consciousness,” in which he reflects on the presence of mindfulness programs in the world of business.
Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics, The Systems View of Life, etc.
Aside from being the author of the famed The Tao of Physics, Fritjof more recently co-authored The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision. (This is the only systems thinking text book I have yet run across.) In a section titled “Physicists and mystics” the authors make a statement that is quite helpful here: “The systems view of life is an ecological view that is grounded, ultimately, in spiritual awareness. Connectedness, relationship, and community are fundamental concepts of ecology; and connectedness, relationship, and belonging are the essence of spiritual experience. Thus it is not surprising that the emerging systemic and ecological paradigm is in harmony with many ideas in spiritual traditions.” (Page 70)
In a later section, “Spirit and spirituality,” they note the no-mind space of consciousness that characterizes the essential spiritual experience:
Spirituality, or the spiritual life, is usually understood as a way of being that flows from a certain profound experience of reality, which is known as “mystical,” “religious,” or “spiritual” experiences. There are numerous descriptions of this experience in the literature of the world’s religions, which tend to agree that it is a direct, nonintellectual experience of reality with some fundamental characteristics that are independent of cultural and historical contexts. (Page 277)
The point made in the quote above about the experience being “nonintellectual” echoes Tolle’s point above about “a cessation of thinking.”
Donella “Dana” Meadows
In Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Donella does not explicitly address religion and spirituality. However, she provides a careful look at the nature of caring in relationship to systems thinking:
Living successfully in a world of complex systems means expanding not only time horizons and thought horizons; above all, it means expanding the horizons of caring. There are moral reasons for doing that, of course. And if moral arguments are not sufficient, then systems thinking provides the practical reasons to back up the moral ones…No part of the human race is separate either from other human beings or from the global ecosystem. (Page 184)
It is remarkable that Meadows says, “above all, it means expanding the horizons of caring.” She was, after all, an intellectual teaching and working primarily in academia. But this wording points to a core value that is, as I’m interpreting it, spiritual in nature.
In a 1993 speech she made a beautiful statement about her vision for a better world:
“I call the transformed world toward which we can move ‘sustainable,’ by which I mean a great deal more than a world that merely sustains itself unchanged. I mean a world that evolves, as life on earth has evolved for three billion years, toward ever greater diversity, elegance, beauty, self-awareness, interrelationship, and spiritual realization.” (“Beyond the Limits”, speech given in Spain, Fall 1993 Ref)
Into the Light
In April of 2017 I completed a dissertation titled Sustainability & Spirituality: Common Threads and Common Threats. (I included systems thinking in this work.) One of the arguments I made in that study was urging readers to come out of the spiritual closet; to bring their spiritual lives into the open.
In this blog article I am advocating for an immediate and pervasive experience of vast interconnectedness; I am advocating subtly, but it’s there. The ability to actually speak out loud from this place is another level of skill. People like Eckhart Tolle specialize in this. In any case, experience must come first.
That is what systems thinking is for: connecting the temporal thinkie-thinkie to the vast beyond-the-mind intelligence and offering the beginnings of a language to link the mundane and the sacred, and to make this link overtly and out loud. You don’t have to be a “spiritual person” to begin to learn to think in systems. Past a certain point, however, if you pair your systems ability with a desire to make the world a better place, and apply systems thinking to this goal, you find yourself at the bottom of the U (as in Theory U), in a space of collective opening and silence.
It’s only a matter of time before you become open to intelligence far beyond the little human mind.
In addition to the resources noted above, you may want to check out the work of other thinkers and mystics to cultivate both knowledge and experience in this realm. I’ve included those covered in this blog, plus a few additional references below.
“Calling In the Light of Consciousness,” Eckhart Tolle video #2
Systems Thinking Mini-Course, Systems Thinking Marin
Bruce McKenzie, Be Systemics (Thank you, Bruce, for offering your insights prior to this blog post going live.)
Theory U – From Ego to Eco
Theory U – Leading From the Future as it Emerges
Fritjof Capra, Pier Luigi Luisi – The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision
Donella Meadows – Thinking In Systems: A Primer
The Donella Meadows Project – Academy for Systems Change
Felicia I. Chavez, dissertation – Sustainability and Spirituality: Common Threads and Common Threats
Joanna Macy, The Work that Reconnects
Samuel Sagan, “Contextualizing Vision” talk re: nous