I am the kind of person who likes to first comprehend the Whole, in order to best know how to engage with it: the Whole of the human psyche, with the full range of subjective states that humans experience; the Whole story of humanity’s existence on the planet; the Whole of life and its hidden secrets of vitality; the Whole of the cosmos and its essential principles and processes. Undeniably, this need to know, to discover the secrets of the Whole, stems from the radical shattering of Being that occurred at my beginnings. The scattering of myself at birth into so many shards in turn gave birth to a longing to gather the fragments back into a Whole.
With this bit of autobiographical context, let me affirm that the foundation for my hope resides in this relentless search for holistic understanding, together with the intention of aligning my personal existence with the greater Whole. So here, I take the reader on a journey to Hope, via the winding path of seeking to comprehend the Whole, along with sharing my method for placing my own existence in alignment with the greater Whole. For surely there is no better lifejacket in this outrageous adventure of life than orienting one’s being toward the greater Whole. Life is something akin to a river-rafting trip, with calm spaces of floating and gliding, interspersed by dangerous white water rapids, when moment-to-moment survival can become uncertain.
Since the journey to comprehend the Whole is an ambitious undertaking, with meandering tributaries diverging from yet leading back to the main current of Wholeness, let me share the final destination of this expedition. Simply put, our hope dwells in loving life. And loving life means aligning our personal lives with the dynamic principles of vitality and creative energy that flow equally through the cosmos and the vessels of our own bodies.
Yet our human predicament on this planet today is so dire that objective, scientific touchstones are needed to guide our personal and collective journey forward. Living systems theory can guide us in knowing, in an objective and practical sense, how to love life.
Karen Jaenke, Ph.D. has served as Chair of the Consciousness & Transformative Studies Masters degree program at National University (formerly John F. Kennedy University) since 2013. In 2016, she launched and built the online modality for the Consciousness & Transformative Studies program, giving this cutting-edge program global reach. In 2021, she added to this leading-edge curriculum a Coach Training Program certified by the International Coaching Federation. Formerly, she served as Director of the Ecotherapy Certificate at JFKU (2011-14) and Dissertation Director at the Institute of Imaginal Studies in Petaluma, CA (2001-2008). An Executive Editor of ReVision: Journal of Consciousness and Transformation, she has edited journals and published articles on the topics of Imaginal Psychology, Shamanism and the Wounded West, Earth Dreaming, and Places of Hope, well as numerous articles on dreams and consciousness. A repeat presenter at the International Association for the Study of Dreams, Society for the Study of Shamanism, and Science and Nonduality conferences, her creative vision synthesizes dreamwork, indigenous ways of knowing, subtle body awareness, living systems theory, and flow states.
Let me begin with a personal story of how I arrived at adopting living systems theory as a personal practice. A number of years ago, while working as director of an Ecotherapy graduate program, I was actively imbibing, as a steady diet, the latest news of ecological devastation. This news, now so ubiquitous, continuously cast forth dire statistics, such as:
- Since 1970, humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles, an annihilation of wildlife that threatens civilization itself.
- Since the Paris agreement was signed in 2016, the world has seen the five hottest years on record. The vast and growing consumption of food and resources by the global human population is destroying the web of life.
Ingesting this cataclysmic news as a regular meal can quickly submerge one in depression, despair and apathy, tinged by fear and guilt. And if we know one thing about ourselves as a species, we are rarely inspired or energized towards creative action by the darker emotions. Humanity will only find motivation for sustained meaningful action through positive emotional states, like joy and pleasure. We need access to natural sources of joy and pleasure that support and empower us to live and act in alignment with the needs of the planet. For humanity to make sacrifices and adopt sustainable lifeways that accord with planetary wellbeing, our innate constitutional need for pleasure must be tapped. The intersection of human well-being with planetary well-being is the sweet spot.
Amidst my depressive dilemma of drinking in the doomsday news of impending ecological collapse, a new thought suddenly appeared. “The Earth is a living system, and so am I. If I desire planetary wellbeing, then my own wellbeing as a living system surely must receive equal attention. By attending to my own balance as a living system, I learn about the requirements for planetary balance.” Human microcosm and planetary macrocosm, intrinsically intertwined as living systems, together thrive or fail according to an underlying set of dynamic principles. In this simple formula, I found an initial ray of hope.
Amidst our planetary crisis, with the COVID-10 pandemic as a symptom and warning of civilizational imbalances, I found a new way forward by orienting myself according to the principles of living systems theory, which inform us about the vitality and dynamism of all living systems—from the tiniest cell to the cosmos as a whole. Within this unifying framework of self and Earth, co-joined as living systems, my first obligation became balancing myself as a living system. This self-balancing could then serve as a touchstone for my attitude and actions towards all other living systems, including the Earth. Thus a personal inquiry was born: what does it mean to relate to oneself as a living system?
The approach of aligning my own life with the principles of living systems, bestowed hope and bore early fruits. I applied the living systems approach in the workplace, in my position as a program chair in the university setting. Understanding the academic program that I was overseeing as a living system, with an eye to the health of the Whole, I sought to welcome feedback from all parts of the system—especially students and the larger university system. Over a number of years, this led to the dramatic growth in student enrollments at a time when many programs at the university were shrinking and disappearing. The takeaway lesson was that applying living systems theory to immediate contexts can guide a pathway towards growth and well-being.
Typically, living systems theory is not applied to the individual human life, nor to the processes of human subjectivity, nor has it been considered as the basis for a spiritual or transformative practice. My turn towards living systems theory as a guide for living parallels a disturbing sense that the trajectory of human civilization as a whole is dangerously distant from the mark of sustainability. Most current human systems, largely rooted in egoic consciousness rather than a thoughtful surrender to the principles of balance, cannot be relied upon to generate well-being across the planet. My despair about the course of human systems and civilization prompted this turn towards the intelligence of nature.
The intersection of human well-being with planetary well-being is the sweet spot.
A recent dream depicts my desire to approach the thoughts of nature. In the dream, I am visiting a handsome, articulate man who is a successful architect, designing tiny homes for compacted spaces. While he aspires to an Ivy League MBA, he lives in an underground grotto with a waterfall, and has befriended a bear who visits him there. Seeing their congenial relationship, I am not afraid. Then the bear transforms into a bear-man, with hybrid features of both.
The intimate contact with the bear in this earthy underground space, the friendly, non-fearful, non-otherizing attitude between man and bear, and the interchangeable features of bear and man, all together suggest an intimacy with nature, a human capacity for instinctual knowing and comfortability within nature. I awoke from the dream in a most blessed place, encompassed by a vitalizing fountain of energy, pleasantly percolating throughout my mind and body. With the dream is a sense of an animate, creative intelligence infusing my entire body. The intelligence of nature is like this, infused into every particle of being, while perpetually generating aliveness.
Mergansers on the bay
While the man in the dream possessed the upper world markings of success and status, what intrigued me was his deep unconventional ties to the underworld. Translating the constructs of the upper world and underworld onto the plane of the human body, the upperworld corresponds to the upper body, while the underworld corresponds to lower body. This underworld is accessed as human consciousness descends into and circulates through the lower recesses of the body. I shall return to this notion of consciousness circulating throughout the entire body, and its role in bestowing natural pleasure, towards the end of this piece.
While the dream conveys the feeling tone of what I am seeking, in this article I draw mostly upon rational, upper world understandings of the intelligent design of nature, since today, humanity lives and thinks largely in the categories of the upper world. With the narrowing timeframe for correcting our human maladaptation to the ecology of the planet, the rigor of a scientifically-grounded approach is sorely needed. Comprehending the basic principles of living systems offers an initial step, preceding a second step of rigorously applying these principles to the individual human life.
A living system is defined as an integrated Whole whose essential properties cannot be reduced to those of its parts; the properties of the system arise from the interactions and relationships between the parts. Furthermore, in the systems view, the world is an integrated Whole rather than merely a collection of separate entities, with recognition of the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena. A main premise is that each individual component of a system impacts and is impacted by every other component of the system. Thus, change at any one point eventually influences the total system, along with its component parts.
Why Living Systems Theory?
Beyond my personal experience, there are any number of objective reasons why living systems theory offers a beacon of hope to humanity at this time. In the words of Fritjof Capra:
In the coming decades, the survival of humanity will literally depend on our ecological literacy, on our ability to understand the basic principles of ecology and to live accordingly. None of our global problems—energy shortages, environmental degradation, climate change, economic inequality, violence and war—can be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, interconnected and interdependent. What we need is system solutions… The systems approach is a powerful tool that can make all the difference. This is a lesson we can learn from nature” (2019).
Capra then asks, “If we have all the knowledge and technology to build a sustainable world, why don’t we do it?” The answer to this question very much depends on appreciating the deeper sources of human motivation, which cannot just entail an appeal to rationality and morality, but must tap deeper into the wellspring of imagination and affect, especially joy and pleasure. Neither the darker emotions of fear, despair, and guilt, nor a purely rational or moral approach to doing the “right thing” are sufficient motivating drivers for human beings. The sustained motivation and action now needed to turn the tide of our current societal and ecological crises can be derived from contacting natural wellsprings of vitality, the cascade of positive emotions that personal wellbeing generates, as well as the energizing potential of shadow work.
Living systems theory is above all, a life science, discerning the hidden laws of vitality, while being grounded in the scientific enterprise that aspires to objectivity. The living systems framework has been tested and fruitfully applied to a wide range of scientific disciplines. The emergence of systems thinking in the early 20th century catalyzed its progressive spread across scientific disciplines—from ecology, to biology, to cybernetics, to computer science, to mathematics. Simultaneous to these developments, the new physics of the 20th century ushered in a complementary worldview. Overturning the earlier Newtonian focus on solid material particles, quantum physics discovered that at the subatomic level, nature does not show us any isolated building blocks, but rather a complex web of relationships among the various parts of a unified whole. Subatomic particles display dynamism, continually changing into one another, in a continuous, fluid dance of energy. Moreover, subatomic particles turn out to be not discrete grains of matter but probability patterns and interconnections, in an inseparable cosmic web that includes the human observer and his or her consciousness (Capra, 2014).
In the 20th century, systems theory emerged as a coherent theoretical framework uniting the various scientific disciplines, by describing the dynamic principles of all living systems as well as the basic operations of the universe at all levels of organization from the micro to the macro. With all the major biological, physical and social sciences fruitfully adopting living systems theory, the elevation of systems theory to the status of a comprehensive scientific framework is justified through its unique capacity to integrate disparate disciplines—in comprehension of the Whole. Living systems theory offers a unique coherent framework, providing a unifying scientific theory and comprehensive approach to all sciences (Capra, 2014).
Yet consciously embracing living systems theory necessitates overturning our standard view of the world. The mechanistic metaphor that dominated the scientific worldview throughout the last four centuries of the modern era today is being replaced by this holistic and ecological worldview, with a change from seeing the world as a machine to seeing the world and life as a network. The former Newtonian focus on substance and matter is giving way to a living systems emphasis on pattern, form, and relationship, leading to notions of order, organization, relationship, interdependence, and balance (Capra, 2014).
Any authentic hope must come to terms with the dark history our species, our destructive propensity accompanying our planetary conquest.
When cracks appear in the edifice of manmade institutions, and in times of escalating societal turbulence, reassurance and stability can be discovered by remembering our elemental roots in nature, the enduring foundations of life. The primordial features and functions of natural living systems, as distinct from the scaffolding of human civilization built atop it, offers a ground of hope in the substrate that governs life itself. Since the human body belongs to nature, cultivating intimacy with the dynamics of our own bodies offers a portal to kinship with the natural world and the deep intelligence coded into billions of years of evolutionary history.
Contemporary living systems is also heir to an ancient tradition, the time-honored wisdom of indigenous peoples. Both living systems theory and indigenous knowledge are anchored in the core principle of balance. Other terms signifying balance are equilibrium, coherence, sustainability, vitality, well-being, and harmony.
Oneida elder Apela Colorado introduces the term indigenous science to highlight the life science of balance practiced by indigenous peoples. “Just like western science, indigenous science relies upon direct observation; there are tests to ensure validity and data are used for forecasting and generating predictions…. Unlike western science, the data from indigenous science are not used to control the forces of nature, instead, the data tell us ways and means of accommodating nature” (Colorado, 1994).
Colorado identifies nine tenets of indigenous science.
- The indigenous scientist is an integral part of the research process and there is a defined process for insuring this integrity.
- All of nature is considered to be intelligent and alive, thus an active research partner.
- The purpose of indigenous science is to maintain balance.
- Compared to western time/space notions, indigenous science collapses time and space with the result that our fields of inquiry and participation extend into and overlap with past and present.
- Indigenous science is concerned with relationships, we try to understand and complete our relationships with all living things.
- Indigenous science is holistic, drawing on all the senses including the spiritual and psychic.
- The end point of an indigenous scientific process is a known and recognized place. This point of balance, referred to by my own tribe as the Great Peace, is both peaceful and electrifyingly alive. In the joy of exact balance, creativity occurs, which is why we can think of our way of knowing as a life science.
- When we reach the moment/place of balance we do not believe that we have transcended — we say that we are normal! Always we remain embodied in the natural world.
- Humor is a critical ingredient of all truth seeking, even in the most powerful rituals. This is true because humor balances gravity. (Colorado, 1994.)
It is worth noting that humanity’s oldest science, indigenous science, indicates that the attainment of balance confers positive subjective states—vitality, peace, joy and creativity.
Living systems theory, along with its ancient predecessor, indigenous science, are sciences of balance. Yet before delving deeper into the underlying principles of balance, let’s consider humanity’s long departure from shared lifeways that sustain balance, producing today’s ecological predicament, our greatest impediment to hope.
A Brief Tour of History: The Human Transgression of Law of Life
Any authentic hope requires a holistic assessment and reckoning with our species’ history, inclusive of its shadow aspects. Grappling with the shadow—the part of ourselves that we don’t readily see, acknowledge, or admit into consciousness—leads towards a holistic comprehension of our species, rather than a partial one. So before reviewing the basic elements of living systems theory, I wish to step back, and take stock our species history as a Whole, undertaking a fearless inventory of our human transgressions against the web of life, leading to today’s ecological calamities.
Confronting the shadow side of humanity is not without pain; it’s much easier to divert our attention and focus solely on the many extraordinary things human beings have accomplished. But at this critical juncture in history, we need a complete, rather than partial, story about our species. The dark side that we don’t admit into consciousness holds tremendous power over us. Only by consciously confronting the full impact of our species’ history on the planet can we hope to shift its trajectory into a hopeful future for all.
Many scientists believe the Earth is entering a sixth mass extinction, the first to be caused by a single species – ours. Recent analyses indicate that Homo sapiens has destroyed 83% of all mammals and half of plants since the dawn of civilization. Moreover, even if the destruction were to end now, it would take 5-7 million years for the natural world to recover (Carrington, 2018).
Mass extinction is not new news; but what may be new is how long human ecological destruction has been going on. According to evidence amassed by Uval Noah Harari, the First Wave Extinction began not a few hundred years ago in the industrial revolution, nor even 12,000 years ago with the agricultural revolution, but 70,000 years ago with our hunter-gatherer ancestors, as part of the Cognitive Revolution—a dramatic growth in the human brain. (2015).
As our manmade institutions and lifeways fall into disarray, breakdown or outright collapse, a trustworthy place for hope rests in orienting ourselves to the primordial design of nature, with its 14-billion year generative track-record.
According to Harari, the human alteration of habitats and the extinction of other species has come in three waves. The First Wave Extinction began with the Cognitive Revolution—a stunning emergence of new ways of thinking and communicating between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago (Harari, 2015). This dramatic increase in our cognitive abilities brought a revolutionary explosion of inventiveness. Around 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens began inventing boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows, needles, art, religion, commerce and social stratification (Harari, 2015). The boost in cognitive ability brought increased technological innovation, accompanied by new levels of environmental impact. These three developments—cognitive ability, technological innovation, and ecological destruction—appeared together in quick succession.
The “genetic mutations of 70,000 years ago changed the inner wiring of the [Sapiens brain, enabling us] to think in unprecedented ways, to invent unparalleled tools and technologies, and to communicate using altogether new type of language.” (Harari, 2015, p. 21). The Cognitive Revolution, a defining moment in our species history, conferred three new types of communicative abilities, along a continuum from concrete to abstract thinking:
- the ability to transmit larger quantities of information about the surrounding natural world, which allows for planning and carrying out complex coordinated actions, such as hunting
- the ability to transmit larger quantities of information about Sapiens’ social relationships – in a word, gossip – allowing for cohesive social groups up to 150 individuals and social cooperation on a scale far surpassing any other species
- the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist in physical reality, such as art, tribal spirits, nations, human rights, legends, myths, gods, religions – in other words, the ability to imagine. Sharing myths enables large numbers of strangers to psychically bond and cooperate, inducing rapid innovation of social behavior, while accounting for why Sapiens rule the world (Harari 2015, p. 37).
Myths or shared imagined realities function like social glue, binding together large numbers of individuals, thus allowing for unprecedented social cooperation, well beyond the prior wandering bands of 150 individuals (Harari, 2015). The creation of social constructs or imagined realities gave rise to the dual reality of humans – objective physical reality and the imagined reality of culture, allowing Sapiens to rapidly transform their social networks to now include strangers, to coordinate wide-scale economic activities, and to modify behaviors, within the short span of merely a decade or two. This ability to invent fiction enables Sapiens to fabricate more complex realities, further elaborated by each new generation (Harari, 2015).
With the birth of these new cognitive capacities 70,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers began completely reshaping the ecology of our planet—long before the first agricultural village was ever built. “The wandering bands of storytelling Sapiens were the most important and most destructive force the animal kingdom had ever produced” (Harari, 2015, p. 62). Long before the industrial and agricultural revolutions, “Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to extinction…[with] the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology” (Harari, 2015, p. 74).
Prior to 70,000 BC, all human species lived exclusively on the Afro-Asian landmass. But “following the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens acquired the technology, organizational skills and… vision to break out of Afro-Asia and settle the remaining Outer World” (Harari, 2015, p. 63). The first remote place to be settled was Australia about 45,000 years ago. Until then, humans’ effect on their environment had been negligible. But within a few thousand years, “The settlers of Australia… transformed the Australian ecosystem beyond recognition” (Harari, 2015, p. 65). Across the continent primordial food chains were broken and rearranged, and 23/24 Australian large animal species soon went extinct, along with a large number of small species (Harari, 2015).
Wherever “people settled another part of the Outer World” (beyond the Afro-Asian land mass), it was followed by large scale ecological disaster, with a long list of victims. Everywhere the first to go extinct were the large mammals.
At the time of the Cognitive Revolution, the planet was home to about 200 genera of large terrestrial mammals weighing over 100 pounds. By the time of the Agricultural Revolution, only about half remained. Homo sapiens drove to extinction about half of the planet’s big beasts, long before we invented the wheel, writing or iron tools (Harari, 2015, p. 72).
Everywhere humans went, the large mammals were wiped out in a short time, followed by many smaller species. Harari refutes the common counter-argument that climatic factors were responsible for the rapid demise of species, rather than homo sapiens, since the same pattern of devastation occurred over and over again each time humans migrated into a new habitat. The historical record points painfully to the destructive impact of our species, making “Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer” (Harari, 2015, p. 67).
This now all too familiar ecological tragedy replays across the entire planet. The tragedy opens with a scene showing a rich and varied population of large animals, without any trace of humans. In scene two, Sapiens appear, evidenced by a human bone, spear point, or perhaps a potsherd. Scene three quickly follows, in which men and women occupy center stage and most large animals, along with many smaller ones, are gone (Harari, 2015, p. 72).
Sapiens unrivaled cognitive abilities enabled us to conquer the world. Yet this is just the familiar half of the human story, widely told and celebrated. The fact that our damage to the web of life began not 12,000 years ago but 70,000 years ago, calls for a serious reassessment of Homo sapiens. Our desecration of species and habitats has been with us for most of the history of our species and constitutes our species shadow. With each increase in human abilities and inventiveness came a parallel increase in calamitous effect.
Any authentic hope must come to terms with the dark history our species, our destructive propensity accompanying our planetary conquest. In our generation, this long history of ecological destruction culminates in an unsustainable future. But to change course, we must first consciously confront this species shadow—our radically destructive propensity.
The dire situation of our present world means that everything we do now must be done with great awareness or we could all be gone. It is not enough that a small segment of the human race takes up the challenges. Collectively we must wake up together, initiating a radical transformation of the destructive impetus of our species. We must now learn to live in harmony with the planet.
Livings Systems Basics
As our manmade institutions and lifeways fall into disarray, breakdown or outright collapse, a trustworthy place for hope rests in orienting ourselves to the primordial designs of nature, with their 14-billion year generative track-record. Moreover, our collective straying from these natural laws to impose a manmade world on top of the natural one, constitutes a direct causal line to our present predicaments. But we can turn to nature’s systemic intelligence as a guide for restoring alignment with the codes of creativity and vitality inlaid within the deep structures of the universe.
We inhabit a universe filled with structures that display self-organizing dynamics. “Form-producing powers are latent everywhere in the universe,” according to Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry (1992, p. 70). The systems that compose the organization of the universe are “cosmological orderings of the creative display of energy” (Swimme & Berry, 1992, p. 72).
We can observe these elemental patterns that allow life to arise and thrive. As a code of life, living systems theory offers a trustworthy path to correct our human misalignment with the larger web of life. Since the dynamics of living systems precede and supersede the manmade edifice of human civilization, turning to the fundamental operations of living systems provides a path to re-align our human habits with the Law of Life.
Every system within the universe participates, in nested fashion, within larger more encompassing systems. The web of life consists of networks within networks, an elegant fractal of nested relationships. This nesting of systems implies that systems exist in a dynamic, interactive relationship with their surrounding environment. Indeed, all structures in the universe are dependent upon the conditions of their encompassing systems for their birth, and thereafter on the continuing exchange of energy and information, known as inputs and outputs.
It is easy to grasp that the “existence of any structured thing requires [the input of] energy… both for its formation and for its perdurability. [Physicists] refer to this fact as the second law of thermodynamics… Any physical system closed off from new energy will eventually decay” (Swimme and Berry, 1992, p. 52).
Additionally, systems entail the interplay of two opposite tendencies – an integrative tendency to function as part of a larger whole (the afore-mentioned nesting of systems), and an internal self-assertive or self-organizing tendency to preserve individual autonomy. “Things in the universe resist all efforts to reduce their presence in the world. Even at the level of elementary particles, we find this irreducible reality of the individual” (Swimme and Berry, 1992, p. 52). Once a new dynamic center is born from the matrix of other pre-existing systems, its sustenance depends on its own self-organizing powers that resist encounters that might push it towards extinction. Each living system faces the challenge of balancing “itself in the midst of generative and degenerative processes” (Swimme and Berry, 1992, p. 283).
Alongside an impetus towards self-preservation, there is a “tendency in all things towards the fulfillment of their inner nature” (Swimme and Berry, 1992, p. 53). There is no way to understand the unfolding of an organism in interaction with its environment and its own genetic inheritance without taking into account this internal template, or developmental tendency, towards fulfillment of innate potential (Swimme and Berry, 1992). In living systems theory, this impetus towards self-realization is called autopoesis, literally self-making, while in human beings it is called individuation. All things in the universe, in their own subjectivity, are pervaded by inherent tendencies toward the fulfillment of their potential” (Swimme and Berry, 1992, p. 53). Autopoiesis then refers to the interiority and unifying principle of an organism or system, designating the living qualities of “subjectivity, self-manifestation, sentience, inner principle of being, voice and interiority” (Swimme and Berry, p. 72).
Participating receptively in feedback loops shifts the central metaphor of the human enterprise—from imposing human will onto reality—to entering into deep conversation with reality.
Additionally, a prerequisite for the continuance of a system is its ability to maintain a steady state or steadily oscillating state, known as equilbrium (Kuhn, 1974). The parts of a system are coordinated to maintain the balance of the whole, while the properties of the parts derive their purpose from the organization of the whole. Participation in feedback loops, or information processing, is what enables a system to maintain equilibrium.
Feedback loops are the foundation of systems, controlling the behavior of a system over time, and influencing systems in one of two directions, either magnifying changes or buffering against them. Negative feedback loops, which serve to diminish the direction of change, enable a system to maintain its present equilibrium, making it more stable. Positive feedback loops, on the other hand, amplify changes in a system, driving a system from its initial baseline, making it more unstable, potentially leading either to runaway exponential growth or decline and demise.
A key concern with climate change is that a rapid succession of environmental changes can activate multiple reinforcing feedback loops, resulting in a runaway situation, making the planet no longer inhabitable in a short amount of time; i.e., greenhouse gases generate warming temperatures leading to melting ice, resulting in less reflection of the sun’s heat back into the atmosphere plus rising sea levels, along with extreme weather events that further destroy habitats.
Finally, while systems can be either open or closed, the health and longevity of a system requires openness, that is accepting input from the environment, and using this input to create output, thus acting on the environment. While closed systems only maintain or decline in organization, open systems tend toward higher levels of organization. Open systems are inherently adaptive, learning and growing from their interactions with the environment, thereby readjusting to environmental changes in order to survive, or even thrive. Thus, a heightened degree of interactive participation in feedback loops can propel a system into an optimal state of functioning, vitality and wellbeing.
The Information Processing of Living Systems
As noted, open systems engage in exchanges of energy and information with their environment, leading to flourishing. Miller defined information as “the degrees of freedom that exist in a given situation to choose among signals, symbols, messages, or patterns to be transmitted” (1978). Living systems theory leads to the radical notion that matter itself participates in information-processing. It is intrinsic to the very nature of matter to process information.
Information exchanges and information processing are radically fundamental to the universe. Everything in the universe, from the simplest particle, to complex molecules, through the plant world, the animal kingdom, and finally the human being, participates in the interactive exchanges of information-processing. Information processing includes everything that happens, or changes, in the universe.
With the evolutionary emergence of neural structures in the animal kingdom, information-processing receives a tremendous boost in capacity and complexity. And the subsequent development of the large human brain and finely-articulated nervous system bestows a further quantum leap upon information processing. Human information-processing is so highly developed and unique that it confers the name of our species, homo sapiens, the knowing or conscious ones.
Along with the steady stream of stimuli coming in from the environment, our nervous systems are constantly streaming a flow of internal information, transmitted from the sophisticated inner workings of our mind-body circuitry. Through disciplined mindfulness and meditation practices, we can develop heightened awareness of these subliminal signals, or internal feedback loops, thereby enhancing our functioning as living systems.
Within the animal kingdom, humans possess a super upgraded consciousness potential, inclusive of self-reflective consciousness—the capacity to observe ourselves and our inner subjective processes.
Kelly Bulkeley elaborates on the meaning of the human capacity for metacognition, or self-reflection:
thinking about thinking, awareness of awareness, knowing that one is knowing. In other words, metacognition involves the mind considering itself, stretching out the time between perception and action, taking its own processes as objects of thought. It also includes pondering one’s options (“should I do this or that?”), making plans for future action, monitoring one’s inner feelings, and regulating the expression of desires and wishes (2008, p. 79).
Today’s looming challenges call for the actualization of this meta-cognitive capacity for self-observation, both as a realization of a latent species potential, but also to avert the dire consequences of unconscious human behavior.
Attunement to one’s internal stream of information-processing allows for vital awareness of the implicit dynamic processes that potentiate the animate world. Cultivating heightened awareness of the subliminal subtle signals infusing one’s own living system transforms a human being into a refined instrument, capable of sensing and adjusting to the delicate balances that sustain wider living ecologies. From a place of inner discrimination, our meeting and greeting the world—which is a composition of living systems—is informed by the primary reference point of self-as-living-system.
At the heart of relating to self-as-living-system is the practice of increasing one’s participation in the information-processing of feedback loops, both external and internal. Intentional engagement with feedback loops generates increased adaptability, vitality and wellbeing. By refining the practice of self-reflective consciousness, and participating in external and internal feedback loops, humans can become optimally thriving living systems, attuned to and living in harmony with the natural environment.
Participating receptively in feedback loops shifts the central metaphor of the human enterprise—from imposing human will onto reality—to entering into deep conversation with reality. Simultaneously, by attending to all available feedback loops, active and receptive modes of being come into a balanced relationship. Humans can relate to the environment as an information-rich, communicative intelligence. Respecting the world as a living, communicative partner shifts one’s fundamental mode of relating from an objectifying I-It stance—so damaging to the planet—to an honoring I-Thou.
The energy body or subtle body is the human faculty that mediates the perception of seamless interconnectedness between self and world.
Humans not only possess a capacity for self-reflection, but according to today’s necessities, an ecological imperative to do so, in order to avoid the hyper-destructive tendencies made possible by our large human brain. If the powers of our extraordinary information-handling abilities do not include self-observation, mindfulness and inwardly-directed attention, and instead are entirely outwardly-directed towards outer conquest of the physical world, we risk, as the ecological record indicates, becoming a collective monstrosity ravaging the planet, callous and impervious to the subtle, intangible dynamics that actually animate life.
The practice of balancing one’s own living system generates a sensitizing, self-regulatory restraint that reduces blind action and violence towards other living systems. Developing the know-how to balance my own living system brings more awareness to the dynamics of balance generally, attenuating humanity’s otherwise vastly destructive propensity.
My approach follows a Confucian logic regarding the primacy of engaging with self-as-living- system, as a precursor for relating respectfully and mindfully to other living systems: “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must cultivate our personal life; and to cultivate our personal life, we must first set our hearts right” (Confucius, n.d.).
Internal Feedback Loops
One of the few critiques leveled against living systems theory concerns its omission of the analysis of subjective phenomena” (“Living Systems”, n.d.). Here I wish to address this gap in living systems theory, by applying living systems theory to subjective human processes. So I pose the question: what does it mean to adopt living systems theory as a personal framework for living?
Conscious participation in feedback loops, along with the discipline of self-observation, balances the human self, with the concomitant blessing states of flow, harmony and joy. I highlight three specific internal feedback loops that humans can choose to actively engage with, leading to a refined balancing of self-as-living-system. Engagement with the internal feedback loops of affect regulation, dreams and bodily signals reveals how the framework of living systems theory can be applied to subjective phenomena, thereby countering the main critique of living systems theory.
Emotions are a gift of evolution bestowed upon mammals to increase our responsiveness to our environment, with the fullest repertoire found in humans. Emotions operate as an internal signal system designed to alert us to changes in our immediate environment, in order to increase our survival responsiveness and adaptability. For example, fear alerts us to potential danger; anger alerts us to perceived injustice; grief to loss; shame to violations of personal integrity.
Affect regulation refers to the ability to modulate one’s emotional experience, thereby steering clear of the twin challenges of repression on the one hand and explosive reactivity on the other. Affect regulation entails the ability to modulate one’s emotional state while adaptively meeting the demands of the environment and the necessities of the moment. High affect regulation involves a capacity to flexibly adapt to a range of stressful situations and draws on executive and cognitive functions. Executive functioning refers to a set of cognitive processes necessary for the intentional directing of one’s behavior and actions.
By contrast, dysregulation occurs when we are triggered and overwhelmed by our emotions, leading to either over-reactions or going numb. With dysregulation, we are unable to remain present to the current moment. Typically, our unintegrated emotional history is the culprit behind these states of emotional overwhelm. Excessive emotional reactions offer clues to unprocessed experiences from the past.
Mindfulness meditation is extremely helpful in improving affect regulation. A broad array of research over the past two decades supports the claim that mindfulness meditation confers beneficial effects on physical and mental health, enhancing cognitive performance and self-regulation, including attention control, emotion regulation and self-awareness (Tang, et al., 2015). As a metacognition skill, mindfulness practices cultivate a neutral observer of our subjective states. This “witness consciousness” allows us to create a space or pause between our emotional reactions and our responses, thereby opening the possibility of redirecting negative emotions in positive ways that are creatively responsive, rather than inimical, to the needs of the moment.
Affect regulation is a self-regulatory capacity that draws upon a subset of skills: a) learning to be aware of and accurately identify our various emotional states; b) allowing our emotions to inform us of the present situation and our internal responses; and c) channeling the affective energy behind our emotions so as to act in socially appropriate or even creative ways.
Mammals have been dreaming for 80 million years, making dreaming another evolutionary invention with a self-regulating and survival function. In addition to the value of affect regulation for the waking state, our dreams provide an additional internal feedback loop that seeks to harmonize the conscious and unconscious sides of the personality. According to depth psychology, the typical personality development of modern persons undergoes a fundamental bifurcation between the conscious side of the personality—those aspects we are aware of and readily identify with—and a deeper stratum of unconscious material that is at once personal and collectively-shared. The personal unconscious, acquired during one’s lifetime, includes unacknowledged psychological material that is unique to the individual, while the collective unconscious includes ancestral and cultural memories, along with instinctual patterns and universal archetypes common to all of humanity. According to Carl Jung, our dreams oscillate in the fecund space between the conscious and unconscious sides of the personality, seeking to bring about a reconciliation and balancing between the two.
Jung describes the regulating and compensatory function of dreams in terminology akin to the language of living systems theory. The psyche is a self-regulating system that maintains its equilibrium through the activity of dreaming. For Jung, the chief function of dreaming is psychological compensation, in that dreams correct and compensate the excesses of the ego’s waking standpoint. When the waking ego becomes too one-sided, or represses unconscious material, dreams emerge to highlight the imbalance and guide the individual towards wholeness and integration. For example, when a person becomes narcissistically over-inflated, dreams compensate by offering humbling self-portraits. When we are too impressed with our own goodness and moral righteousness, our dreams surface our darker impulses. So when Jung talks about the compensatory function of dreams, it’s a system’s attempt to establish better flow, better integration between the conscious and unconscious sides of the modern personality.
While dreams seek to maintain a dynamic balance between the conscious and unconscious, for this function to be fully actualized, the waking self also needs to participate by consciously processing dream contents, thereby allowing this balancing and integrating function to be realized. When engaging with a dream, we can ask: What conscious attitude does this dream compensate? By listening to our dreams, and learning the symbolic language that dreams speak, we bridge conscious and unconscious sides of our personality, resulting in greater internal coherence. Conversely, if we ignore significant dream messages, the dream symbolism and accompanying emotions tend to intensify, becoming more extreme, as the unconscious psyche escalates its efforts to gain our attention.
Through the highly-articulated human nervous system, human bodies are exquisitely-refined instruments that can sensitize us to the embodiment of other life forms. According to Arnold Mindell, the body is replete with luminous signals and meaningful information waiting to be apprehended and unfolded (1985). Mindell maintains that the body communicates information through multiple channels, including bodily feelings, visual imagery, auditory voices, and kinesthetic movement. A profound reservoir of subtle sensation and subliminal perception is available through the body’s various modes of knowing, allowing us to refine our body awareness and responsiveness to life.
Body signals communicate information about the internal environment of the body as well as the external environment. Bodily sensations like discomfort, tension, nausea, and constriction, offer signs of stress or perturbation. Listening to and heeding these signals, as a subtle feedback loop, can lead to a harmonization between mind and body, with increased inner coherence. In contrast, when body awareness remains undeveloped, and in the absence of the full discriminating potential of the body, our interactions with the world can. become obtuse, even reckless.
Bodily intelligence is an integral dimension of our being, a conduit for all our experiences, yet in the Western context, we are often encouraged to ignore or override the body, numbing physical sensations, and leaving the mind-body connection undeveloped. Numbing is a default strategy used to defend against the overwhelming experience of trauma. In trauma, our consciousness tends to dissociate from the depths of bodily knowing, instead perching on the surface of the body. The habits of Western culture in turn reinforce this superficial surface perception, rather than the depth perception of true embodiment.
A proper state of balance with life, attained through conscious participation in internal and external feedback loops, bestows a natural delight, the celebrated joie de vivre.
So it is important to distinguish between the traumatized body and the natural body. The traumatized body suffers from dissociation and zones of numbness, conveying an armored and mentalized version of the person. The natural body is touch with the streaming of internal sensations and energy and is generally open to new experience. The consciousness associated with the trauma body, also called the pain body by Eckhart Tolle (1999), lives on the surface, cut off from the deeper built-in, natural sources of pleasure that full embodiment confers. Thus, the trauma body tends to seek outward sources of pleasure, being prone to dysfunctional addictions, pursuing immediate pleasure where it can get it. Unhealed trauma and widespread fixation on external sources of pleasure by billions of people collectively tax the natural resources of the planet.
Shifting from the trauma body to the natural body requires attending to the energy body, a subtle source of internal feedback. The notion of the energy body derives from a worldview that apprehends the energetic basis of reality, as attested to by indigenous peoples, mystics and contemporary physicists alike. If one accepts that energy is the underlying essence of the cosmos—that the objects we see and interact with are actually energy posing in different forms—then logically, the human body is also, by extension, most fundamentally energy.
The energy body or subtle body is the human faculty that mediates the perception of seamless interconnectedness between self and world. The subtle body, recognized in esoteric spiritual teachings around the world, refers to the psycho-spiritual proclivities arising from a subtle anatomy, loosely associated with the anatomy of the gross physical body. The subtle body is composed of energy centers and channels, which can exist either in an open, flowing state or a contracted, blocked, knotted state. The underlying openness or blockages within the energy body significantly influence our perceptions of the world.
By attending to the patterns of contraction and expansion within the subtle body, we tap into the most refined feedback loop available to our species. Constrictions in the body indicate frozen, numb processes, while open flows of energy signal an optimal state of aliveness and vitality. Tracking the contractions and expansions in the subtle body enables the mind to transmute frozen energy into flowing energy and to align at the deepest level with the movements of life force energy.
The quality of subtle attention required for tracking shifts within the energy body is akin to noticing the movement of air across one’s skin. Yet since the standard orientation of Western consciousness is towards physically-observable phenomena, consciousness must undergo a radical reorienting and training in order to observe the micro level of reality. Subtle reality is a significant blind spot for most modern people. Our general lack of awareness of subtle reality means that we fail to notice initial signs and incipient processes of disturbance and imbalance.
To briefly recap: intentionally cultivating awareness of one’s emotional life, dream life, and energy body brings engagement with internal feedback loops, leading to a more refined attunement to self and world. Balancing the primary living system of self enables us to relate to other living systems from a balanced center. Conversely, neglecting these internal feedback channels leads to imbalances and disturbances that cloud our consciousness, burdening our interactions with projection, entanglement, and unnecessary conflict.
External Feedback Loops
In addition to cultivating awareness of internal feedback processes such as affect regulation, dreams, and the energy body, we can approach the world-at-large as a feedback loop, as a living, communicative partner. Rather than objectifying the world as an entity. to be willfully subdued, or a resource to be extracted for our own pleasure, the world can be engaged from a stance of respectful listening. World phenomena provide a potential source of feedback that clarifies our participation in the larger life process.
Arnold Mindell (2015) regards the world-at-large as a living channel of meaningful information and source of wisdom, a view also held by Native American traditions. The material world emanates non-verbal communications, picked by those who are attentive. We can recognize and respect the Earth and environment as wise teachers that send messages and lessons through its rivers, stones, and stars. In addition, we can attend to incongruities, discord in relationships, and social conflicts, considering these clash points as places of imbalance calling for a different kind of response—an imaginative response of largess—in order to restore balance and harmony.
By listening to the natural and manmade environments, we voluntarily participate in feedback loops that redress and rebuff our egocentrism, making possible a refinement in our way of being. The world responds differently to interactions conducted from a balanced psyche versus an imbalanced one. Whereas stances of dissociation and dysregulation tend to activate clash points with the world, balance naturally generates openings into connection and flow.
Attending to internal and external feedback loops admittedly requires a disciplined approach to life, while fostering to a high degree of self-possession, inner coherence and self-intimacy, along with a harmonizing movement in one’s outward relations. Feedback loops are living communications, and respectful mutual communication forms the heart of intimacy. Possessing oneself internally brings freedom from a need to possess externally—people, objects, the fruits of the Earth. Moreover, this disciplined path of balance generates surprising openings to hidden, secret forms of pleasure, intimacy, and joy.
The Pleasurable Future of Humanity
To briefly recap, living systems are open self-organizing life forms that interact with their environment. Living systems are sustained by flows of information and matter-energy. According to the originator of living systems, Miller, matter-energy and information always flow together. The more integrated a system is, the more feedbacks and information flow occurs among its parts. Conversely, if any of these flows are blocked, a system’s vitality will decline precipitously.
Thus, since every living system’s very sustenance depends on participating in exchanges or flows of information and energy-matter with its environment, we can affirm that flow is an overarching quality of living systems and indeed, of the universe itself. Restated, flow is a continuous, ongoing process of all living systems. By contrast, in dying systems, flow of matter-energy and information is decreasing. In other words, flow emerges as an intrinsic property of living systems.
Flow facilitates ongoing systemic integration, internal balance, and balance between internal and external dimensions. Systems have a natural impetus towards flow, balance and integration, three interconnected processes. Flow states and systemic integration in living systems are subjectively satisfying and objectively insure survival and well-being.
Now let’s consider the specific way that flow manifests among humans. In humans, the tendency towards flow, balance and integration is named by Rogers and Maslow as self-actualization. Yet self-actualization does not occur automatically; it requires our active participation. Intentional participation is required to integrate conscious and unconscious sides of the self. Notably, what disrupts this natural tendency towards flow in humans is trauma. So whenever trauma has occurred, healing, integrative processes and practices must be engaged in order to re-establish flow. When human systems are open, in balance, and free of (unresolved) trauma, they tend towards flow.
It is worth recognizing that the modern human condition tends to be a traumatized condition, and an unexamined traumatized condition, in which access to and awareness of flow has been severely disrupted. Due to trauma’s pervasiveness, it is often assumed to be normative, rather than a distorted, aberrant condition. Addictive tendencies then commonly take over to offer quick, temporary relief to the constrictions of trauma and deprivation from natural flow. By contrast, in Apela Colorado’s description of systemic integration and interconnectivity within indigenous cultures, the joy of balance and flow arises a normative feature of intact native lifeways.
Flow states in humans have been extensively researched and discussed in positive psychology, yet the larger context of flow within all living systems has not been made (Jurgen Kremer, personal communication, May 28, 2020). Human flow states offer a specific example of the wider quality of flow within all living systems.
Our bodies contain a natural, built-in self-gratification system that is activated during high degrees of internal and external synchronization, known as flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1975) first introduced the term “flow”, defining it as “the holistic experience that people feel when they act with total involvement.” Flow occurs when one is totally absorbed in and focused on the task at hand, engaging with confidence in meeting a challenge that entails a modest stretch of one’s abilities.
People in a flow state typically feel that they are performing at the best of their ability with effortless control and ease (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, p. 29). Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears and the sense of time is altered. Flow states are extremely enjoyable and gratifying, carrying their own intrinsic motivation and fulfillment, independent of external reward. While human consciousness naturally undergoes fluctuations, this state of optimal performance accompanied by euphoria can potentially be cultivated by anyone in any situation, wherever there is deep absorption in meeting a challenge and intrinsic enjoyment of the activity.
Flow includes nine main elements:
- there are clear goals every step of the way;
- there is immediate feedback to one’s actions;
- there is a balance between challenges and skills;
- action and awareness are merged;
- through deep concentration, distractions are excluded from consciousness;
- there is no worry of failure;
- self-consciousness disappears;
- the sense of time is modified;
- the activity becomes autotelic, carrying intrinsic motivation and purpose (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, p. 111).
States of flow occur in the presence of high inner coherence and harmony between internal and external dimensions. They also tend to catalyze further integration of the self, “because in that state of deep concentration consciousness is unusually well ordered. Thoughts, intentions, feelings, and all the senses are focused on the same goal. Experience is harmony” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, p. 41). Flow, known by athletes as “being in the zone,” enhances life-satisfaction, performance, and well-being.
Learning how to access flow states bestows physical and cognitive benefits. Consciousness plays a role in facilitating these states, functioning “as a clearinghouse for sensations, perceptions, feelings, and ideas, establishing priorities among all the diverse information” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 24). As conscious beings, we can direct conscious events such as thoughts, sensations and intentions, giving us the power to organize our consciousness towards the coherence that is conducive to flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 40). “The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 6).
In addition to experiencing flow through high-level performance activity, another more mysterious possibility exists, experiencing internal flow states. Internal flow occurs when awareness joins with the subliminal flow of life energy through the body. This pleasurable unity between conscious awareness and the underground stream of life force energy becomes possible through a high degree of conscious attunement and synchronization with internal and external feedback loops.
Akin to the underground water tables and water flows deep within the earth, the human body contains a little-known underground stream, attested by esoteric spiritual and scientific traditions alike. Spiritual traditions recognize a stream of energy flowing through the human nervous system, detectable in certain non-ordinary states of consciousness and through the cultivation of mindfulness and spiritual practices focused on the body. In the Indian Tantric spiritual tradition, this channel of subtle energy, called kundalini, refers to a spiritual energy or life force closely associated with the spinal column. Western science identifies an anatomical parallel, a clear, colorless fluid found in the brain and spinal column known as the cerebrospinal fluid, involved in experiences of internal flow. While ordinary consciousness is oblivious to this underground river of energy, consciousness can be trained to perceive and experience these subtle pleasurable sensations of vitality.
Kundalini experiences, which are internal flow states, signal optimal functioning of the human living system, with heightened experiences of vitality. This optimal state of thriving is intrinsically pleasurable, in sharp contrast to survival-oriented, defensive modes of consciousness that accompany egocentric states. The emergence of internal flow states suggests a mind-body system in optimal balance.
Internal flow states arise as the conscious personality becomes aligned and synchronized with the life force energy, during high levels of inner and outer coherence. As the conscious mind surrenders its defensive and restrictive egoic patterns, it can mindfully merge with the deep energy streams that circulate throughout the human nervous system. Awareness drops into the interior channels of vibrational energy that bestow a subtle yet tangible pleasure in simply being alive. Conscious harmonization with one’s personal share of cosmic energy, as it flows through one’s own bodily being, confers profound attunement and intimacy with the vital essence of life.
A proper state of balance with life, attained through conscious participation in internal and external feedback loops, bestows natural pleasure and delight, the celebrated joie de vivre. The learned capacity to harmonize oneself—through actively attending to internal and external feedback loops—generates more frequent access to this optimal, hopeful state of being. Flow states arise in situations of thriving and flourishing (as distinct from being in survival mode).
An ancient spiritual tradition that resonates with the path of flow and my own approach to hope—the practice of synchronizing one’s personal life force with the universal creative energy—is Taoism. The Tao, distinct from the countless “named” things, denotes the essential underlying order and energy of the Universe that gives rise to the countless “named” things. The Tao refers variously to the ultimate principle and natural order of the universe; the way, path or proper way of existence; to ongoing practices of attainment; and the state of enlightenment or fullness of being that is the outcome of such practices. This way of “life,” ungraspable by the mind, is instead realized through the lived daily experience of attuning to the flow of energy within and without. According to the Tao Te Ching, Verse 21, “The Master keeps her mind always at one with the Tao; that is what gives her her radiance.” (Lao Tze, n.d.).
Photography by Karen Jaenke