By David Spangler
Holarchy is not necessarily the opposite of hierarchy. They are two different perspectives, each capturing a truth. Hierarchy often describes structural and functional relationships: how a system operates and how responsibility, power, and energy are distributed and dispersed throughout that system. For example, at Microsoft, Bill Gates was the head of the company and directed its operations; vision and decisions flowed from him through a traditional business hierarchy throughout the organization down to the lowliest janitor cleaning up the offices at night. Gates’s responsibility was for the whole company and its success while the janitor’s was just for the rooms he was cleaning.
Holarchy, on the other hand, describes how information and such qualities as love and caring are distributed within a system. In the early days of Microsoft, for instance, using intraorganizational email, a janitor could contact and dialogue with Bill Gates directly and offer suggestions and insights for the good of the company. Information flowed in non-hierarchical ways in that useful and important ideas could come from any level, and a janitor could have just as much love, creativity, and caring for the company as the CEO. Holarchy is the system—or the attitude—that allows information, love, caring, and creative energy to flow between levels of a system without regard for rank or position. The janitor and the CEO occupy different structural and functional positions within Microsoft, but each can be equally filled with and part of the spirit of the organization.
In a holarchy, there is no “higher” or “lower.” There is difference and the creative value that such difference can provide. In a hierarchy, the structure itself imposes clear rules on communication and evaluation; information flows in a regularized way up and down a chain of command. A hierarchy imposes order. In a holarchy, order and integration are co-created in the moment at the boundaries between people; rules are often made up in the moment based on the conditions and requirements of the unique relationships that are present at the time. It can appear chaotic, though in fact it is not. Negotiation and openness rather than position provide organizing factors.
Love – the Primary Organizing Principle
I would go further to say that in a fully functioning holarchy love is the primary organizing principle. This is not necessarily affection or even any form of emotional attachment or response but rather a respect and honoring for each individual as a source of sacredness. The basic premise is that each being has something to offer that is unique, that every being is potentially a teacher, and that I can learn from anyone or any situation. Certainly, as both a teacher and a parent, I experience this all the time. I may be the authority in a class and have knowledge the students do not, but this doesn’t mean that learning is a one-way street from me to them. Learning is much more than just the passing on of information; it is the co-creation together of a relationship in which new perspectives and insights emerge for everyone concerned.
In working with beings that are, by every standard I have, more evolved spiritually than I am, I have discovered again and again the grace and love with which they engage with me and their openness to what I have to contribute, small though it may be. I recognize that they honor the Sacred in me, which is beyond all rank and position, and do what they can to lift me up and acknowledge our equality before God. Indeed, when I encounter a being that does not do that and insists upon its allegedly “higher” position, its “adeptship” or exalted state of evolution, I can be pretty sure that it is not a reputable source. A sure way to discern that a particular entity is not very highly evolved is its reliance upon some claimed position in a hierarchy as a sign of its authority. Over the years, I have found that the more evolved the being, the more it proves the saying that the greatest of all shall be the servant of the least.
For several thousands of years, humanity has constructed its cultures and civilizations largely around hierarchical models, so much so that they seem to be part of the way things are, as natural a part of creation as gravity and sunlight. But the study of holism and ecology shows that this is not necessarily the case, that there are other, more holistic, models of organization and relationship. While hierarchy can be and often is a useful and efficient tool for getting things done, it can fail at the deeper need to establish a rich, co-creative field of mutuality and partnership. This is a critical failing in our time when there is a need for humanity to cease seeing the world in hierarchical terms, with itself at the evolutionary peak, and begin relating to the various visible and invisible kingdoms of nature as partners.
Likewise, a hierarchical view of the spiritual worlds, particularly one that elevates the Sacred to the top of an imagined pyramid of authority and power, can blind us to the sacredness that is within ourselves and within all things, disempowering us at a time when our loving and creative spirit is urgently needed.
The implementation of holarchy is not difficult. It is the loving application of the idea that each person, being, or object I encounter has something to offer and can be, however momentarily, a partner in mutual evolution. It is the idea that we are dependent on each other, whatever our status or rank, for our well being, and that we are all co-creators in the processes of cosmic emergence. It is an application of openness, a respect and honoring for the least as well as the greatest with an understanding that the one can well be the other depending on the situation. It is the realization that good ideas, love, spiritual energy, grace and goodness can come from anywhere and are not dependent on age, rank, position, status, evolution or form.
Mostly it is an understanding that when it comes to creating wholeness—to being part of a holistic universe—we are all partners together and we each have something important to contribute.
From the Archives” features essays and book excerpts by David Spangler that are out of print or not readily available. The first part of this essay (digitally published by Seven Pillars House of Wisdom in 2008) appeared last week. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.