By David Spangler
By the time my first child, John-Michael, was born in 1983, I had already been a spiritual teacher for nearly twenty years. A major perennial topic in my lectures and workshops was love, and I felt I reasonably understood what love was about. But the first time I held my son in my arms, I realized how incomplete my knowledge was. I knew immediately that this new person was going to teach me things about love that I had never known before. And he has, along with another son and two daughters who came to join him as my teachers over the years.
When we think of the relationship of parents and children, it’s common and natural to think of what parents do for their offspring. We are responsible for them. There would appear to be a natural hierarchical relationship here with knowledge, love, wisdom, power, and authority flowing down from the parent to the child. But as any parent knows, the relationship is not so clear-cut; love and knowledge flow back from the child and as he or she grows older, wisdom and authority do as well. Parents and children may not be equal, but they can be partners each enriching the other in ways that neither could do for themselves.
Holarchy and Holism
This relationship in which different and unequal participants nevertheless enhance each other and co-creatively make a larger wholeness possible is what I call holarchy. It honors each participant and looks not to their relative ranking as in a hierarchy, but to what they can contribute by virtue of their differences. Thus in a hierarchy, participants can be compared and evaluated on the basis of position, rank, relative power, seniority and the like. But in a holarchy each person’s value comes from his or her individuality and uniqueness and the capacity to engage and interact with others to make the fruits of that uniqueness available.
The idea of holarchy conceptually grows out of the larger idea of holism. The word itself was coined by the South African statesman, general, and scientist Jan Smuts in his 1926 book, Holism and Evolution. After reading it, Albert Einstein said that the concept of holism was one of two paradigms that would govern human thinking in the 21st century (the second, he claimed, was his own theory of relativity). As in many things, Einstein has proven prescient. While no one would claim that politics, commerce, and social development as yet follow holistic models, the need to develop and implement such models is becoming increasingly apparent.
Smuts defined holism as “the tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution.” This idea found fertile soil in the science of ecology, which studies the patterns of interrelationship and wholeness that make up an environment. Consequently, the word has come to mean a condition of interdependency and interconnectedness such as characterizes the web of life on earth. In human society, it represents an attitude and lifestyle that perceives and fosters that condition in all areas of our personal and collective life.
Inner Worlds or Supersensible Realities
For me, the idea of holarchy comes from my experiences with the non-physical dimensions of life, what Rudolf Steiner called the “supersensible realities,” or simply the “Inner Worlds.” I have had a form of clairvoyant access to these worlds since early childhood. As a young man in my late teens and early twenties, I became familiar with theosophically related cosmologies that described these non-physical worlds in terms of layers, planes, and hierarchies, rather like a wedding cake with the physical realm at or near the bottom. Beings of greater spiritual presence and power occupied the upper realms and passed their wisdom and creative energies down the levels to us, rather like parents passing their knowledge and care down to their children. But when on occasion I would find myself in the presence of such a higher being, I did not feel any sense of hierarchy or ranking any more than I felt my own children to be “below” me. Instead, what I felt was a sense of embrace and love, of honoring and attentiveness from this being to me. I recognized that while it might be more powerful energetically than I and possessed of greater insight, this being and I both shared a universal life. We were different in capacity—in what we could do—but we were equal in value and in a shared sacredness.
Over the years, I have experienced the inner worlds more like a vast ecology whose various levels function less like ranks in a hierarchy and more like biomes, each with its own unique characteristics and dominant forms of life, energy and consciousness. Rather than flowing in one direction from the top to the bottom, creative energy, inspiration, and spirit flows between these regions in patterns of mutual co-creation and support. The Sacred—the Generative Mystery—is everywhere present, the force of life and presence within the entire ecology, rather than being centered in one part of it.
The Physical World as a Radiant Presence
In particular, I find the physical world itself to be a radiant presence, a “star” of life. It imposes unique characteristics upon consciousness due to the nature of matter, but it is hardly the “densest” or lowest of places. Rather than simply receiving inspiration and guidance from above, it is a source of spiritual energy in its own right, and makes its own important contribution to the co-creative process of the evolutionary whole of which all the dimensions are a part. While one world or level may indeed emanate from another, once it comes into being it begins to radiate and unfold in its own unique way, becoming a member of the larger planetary and cosmic spiritual and energetic ecology. It becomes a partner, not a dependent.
“From the Archives” features essays and book excerpts by David Spangler that are out of print or not readily available. The last part of this essay (digitally published by Seven Pillars House of Wisdom in 2008) will appear next week. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.