My study of psychosynthesis over the last 30 years ago has shaped the philosophical foundation of my life. When I encountered systems thinking (also known as General Systems Theory or GST) ten years ago, I welcomed this scientifically based explanation for understandings I already held. I rejoiced in how perfectly congruent psychosynthesis seemed with the systems perspective. Yet somehow in the intervening years, I have kept these two disciplines fairly separate in my teaching and writing. It seems high time to address their integration.
In one of the classes I took in systems thinking, a student spoke of the need for a systems-based psychology. I believe we have one in psychosynthesis, a psychology firmly based in an understanding of our essential relatedness. Psychosynthesis studies the relationships among the various dimensions and structures of the personality; between the personality and Self; between the individual and the society; within groups, families, and communities; among nations; between humans and the natural world. So although they may be articulated in different languages, the same principles inform psychosynthesis and General Systems Theory. In this paper, I hope to explicate those similarities, and explore how each school of thought supports and augments the other.
General Systems Theory arose out of the biological sciences. It attempts to map general principles for how all systems work, especially living systems. Instead of examining phenomena by attempting to break things down into component parts, GST explores phenomena in terms of dynamic patterns of relationship. This shift in focus– from things frozen in time to dynamic relationships– underlies systems thinking.
What do we mean by a “system”? We could use the term “system” for any pattern of relationship, from an atom to a galaxy, from a cell to an ecosystem, from an organ to a human being. As a system, I function through relationships within and around “me.” These words flow onto this page through a myriad of complex interrelationships within this “body-mind.” As you read them, the words create a relationship between you and me, as you process them within the intricacies of relationships within your body/mind. My words are intelligible to you through the complex of relationships that form the language and cultural systems we share.
Certain patterns of relationship and information flow seem to inhere in all living systems, in plants, animals, ecosystems, social groupings, communities, and organizations. Out of these patterns, our very universe forms itself, and all life within it.
I. Every living system functions as a whole, manifesting properties that are not evident in its parts. As the old saw tells us, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. A human being is something more than just a conglomerate of carbon, oxygen, and water, mixed in with a few other minerals, and more than a conglomerate of cells and tissues. How these elements, or cells and tissues, are organized makes for humanness, and for the distinctiveness of each individual human system as well. So at each new level of systemic organization, a new “whole” or “ holon” emerges, with new properties and capacities beyond anything we humans might predict. I believe that psychosynthesis concept of “self” points to the same phenomenon: the organizing pattern of any living being.
Science has often tried to describe or define a system by enumerating the properties of its parts, tried and ultimately failed. Describing electrons, photons, neutrons, and so forth doesn’t give us a complete picture of an atom. Even if we try to include the relationship of the electron to the nucleus, the protons to the neutrons, and so on, we fall short. Similarly, in the macrocosm, we cannot define a nation by enumerating its citizens and their characteristics, its laws, its institutional structures, and so on. A nation is a “whole” comprised of all its parts and all their interrelationships, and the irreducible properties that emerge from this dynamic process. Each person is a whole or “holon”–a self, more than the sum of his or her characteristics, gifts and skills, wounds and complexes, subpersonalities, family or nation of origin, language, religion, sexual preference, and so on.
II. Remarkably, the parts of each whole are also wholes. Every living system is made up of subsystems and in turn holds membership in one or more larger systems, forming a kind of “nested hierarchy” or “holonarchy”– systems within systems, fields within fields. For example, our bodies are made up of a respiratory system, a digestive system, a reproductive system, and so on. Our bodies even contain tiny ecosystems for various symbiotic microbes that help us digest our food and keep the proper chemical balance in various fluids. At the same time, our bodies are part of larger systems: families, communities, and ecosystems that provide them with food, air, water, and other life necessities. Our biological waste in turn provides food, air, water and other life necessities to other parts of these larger systems. We are “nested” within these larger systems, and “nest” other (sub)systems within us.
These holonarchies are of a totally different structure than the kind of hierarchy of power so familiar to human societies. No one individual rules at the top; instead, in a sense, the collective membership of a system governs the whole by the magic of synergy. Mutual benefit and cooperation among the parts, and between the parts and the larger whole guide the relationships.
A subsystem may specialize to perform needed functions of coordination, but we would hardly say the nervous system is the “boss” of our body. It simply carries messages around about what is happening elsewhere and what responses are required. In psychosynthesis, we might see the self and the will as the “boss” of the system, but I believe this is a distortion arising from our cultural bias towards hierarchy. The self is the system and the system is the self; it is not some distinct part of us that rules the rest.
III. Marvelously and miraculously, living systems respond to change; they survive and thrive within constantly changing environmental conditions, and with the constant flow through them of energy, substances, and information. This in-and-out flow would result in the immediate demise of a system if it could not maintain its structure, its essential pattern over time. But living systems can do this; they maintain their form in a kind of fluctuating, dynamic balance. Warm-blooded animals, for example, maintain a body temperature within a certain range; all living creatures take in nourishment in some form, and manage to carry out the necessary responses to receive that nourishment, whether by absorbing sunlight (and leaning towards the light) or by hunting, gathering, and consuming other organisms. Although we can see changes over time in the faces of our friends, we still recognize them; they maintain a coherency in the pattern of their facial structure, as old skin cells die and slough off and new ones are created, as muscle tone changes, and through variable weather conditions and life stresses.
IV. At the same time, living systems adapt themselves to changes in their environment they learn, grow, develop, evolve. When the mouse population in a region suddenly declines because of an epidemic, the predators who adapt to a new prey survive; those who remain determined “mouse-avores” starve. Life events affect us and change us, and we can see these changes reflected in the nevertheless familiar faces of our friends. The ability of living systems to adapt and self-organize allows them to defy the second law of thermodynamics, which insists that everything runs down and returns to a state of disorganization and homogeneity. Not so for living systems! They continuously reorganize themselves into ever more complex patterns and interrelationships.
These two dynamics of self-maintenance/regulation and self-organization/adaptation must work in balance with one another. Psychologically, inflexible self-maintenance can lead to egotism and rigidity, and to behavior that reacts out of habit instead of responding appropriately to the changing situation. Problematic subpersonalities may be subsystems within the personality that are too tightly maintained, and do not adapt adequately to me situations. The opposite tendency—inadequate self-maintenance or over-adaptation– might cause a person to take on the perceived attitudes, values, and behaviors of others, unable to maintain any sense of personal integrity or identity. (Even this complex, however, may actually come from the self-maintenance of a codependent subpersonality created to defend against primal wounding. [see Firman & Gila, 2002]).
To self-regulate, systems respond in ways that counteract any deviation from their established patterns of interaction. Systems thinkers call this interchange between system and environment “negative feedback” because it reduces deviation. Such responses change the system’s relationship to the environment to restore conditions to a tolerable range. When we become overheated, for example, negative feedback loops within our body create perspiration, the evaporation of which cools our bodies back to within our optimal temperature range, reducing the deviation of our temperature from this norm. Negative feedback regulates every aspect of systemic functioning; it essentially defines and delimits every system, in complex and interpenetrating webs.
However, as wise ones have taught us through the ages, things change in large ways as well as small. Changes in the inner or outer environment may be such that the established patterns of response cannot accommodate them. Systems must adapt themselves, must find new responses. They must deviate from their established patterns; they must seek responses that will bring them back into harmony with their environment. A response that formerly reduced deviation fails to do so under the new conditions; the deviation goes unchecked and even amplifies, becomes greater. Systems theorists call this process “positive feedback.” If this amplification continues long enough, it becomes “runaway positive feedback” which eventually–or quickly–destroys the system. For the system to survive, it must quickly establish new response patterns adapted to the new demands of the environment and supported by negative feedback once again.
It’s difficult to give examples of positive feedback loops in living systems, because they are usually very short-lived. Some systems thinkers resist associating learning with positive feedback for this reason. They would say that learning is essentially the creation of new negative feedback loops. And indeed it is. It may be that positive feedback only delivers the “kick” that moves a system into new patterns of response.
Positive and negative feedback operate together in living systems. If a system only maintained itself according to established patterns (as most mechanical systems do), it would be unable to adapt to changing conditions in the environment and eventually wear out, or blow up, or collapse. This is why we humans must constantly tinker with our machines to keep them functioning. If a system only experienced positive feedback, it would have no “integrity,” it would maintain no pattern and instantly cease to exist as a coherent whole. So while adapting to changing conditions when incited by positive feedback, all living systems maintain themselves through negative feedback, and reduce deviation around new response patterns as soon as possible.
Positive feedback may not occur in nature by design unless it is pre-ordained to be part of a more inclusive negative feedback loop (e.g. birth process). Within social systems, however, positive feedback can be deliberately induced or prolonged by inputting a “kick” at some point in an existing loop, or by suppressing negative feedback. And here we humans consistently get ourselves into trouble, because we suppress feedback deliberately through lies and cover-ups, and unconsciously through denial and self-deception. Feedback from the natural environment might slow our industrial jihad; feedback from those impoverished by our economic system might diminish corporate profits.
On a personal level, feedback might contradict a carefully constructed self-image, or call into question the way we are handling critical aspects of our lives: job, marriage, child-rearing, etc. Such feedback demands that we change, and rather than doing so, we may ignore or suppress the feedback itself and go right on behaving in the same unhealthy way (often with the help of one addiction or another). We may spin into a run-away positive feedback loop.
Because we do not understand that we are each a subsystem within larger systems, we often make choices as if our self-interest was separate from the welfare of the whole, be it family, community, or the natural world. When I try to assert my idea of my own self-interest without regard to the effects of my actions on the larger systems of which I am a part, my actions set up perturbations in those larger systems. Much of the time, the larger systems are able to self-maintain around these perturbations, and I will receive feedback that causes me to change my actions accordingly. But I may also react competitively and intensify my behavior. I may continue to do more of what is not working—yelling at my spouse, punishing my children, buying more stuff I don’t need. My spouse will become angrier and more alienated from me, my children more rebellious and resentful, and my credit card bill will mount while my house fills up with stuff that brings me no satisfaction. Yet I may continue to resist this increasingly intense feedback, escalating my futile struggle to “win.” I have set up runaway positive feedback loop by my careless and ignorant action, with damaging reverberations throughout the larger systems of family and community, and within my own psyche.
In one example of this on a socio-economic scale, we continue to manufacture bigger and less efficient automobiles, requiring more and more oil to fuel them, depleting natural resources and requiring the search for ever new sources, destroying more and more delicate ecosystems, driving up prices, forcing Third World peoples off their lands, increasing poverty for many and wealth for a few, creating wars, and on and on. We ignore the signs that resource depletion, pollution, and social effects are reaching lethal limits. When those limits are reached, negative feedback will finally bring the larger ecosystem back into balance—but without thousands of other species and possibly without us humans.
Helping people to open up to feedback enables them to move towards greater health and creativity. Most psychosynthesis techniques facilitate this essential process. Awareness exercises, guided imagery, inner dialogue, and free drawing all help people access information (feedback) in a safe context, often without activating the usual defense mechanisms. Once the feedback is unblocked, the person (system) can self-organize with new, more responsive patterns. When we dialogue with a subpersonality, for example, and learn what it needs and what it is trying to do for us, we can meet its needs and give it a new job description to work more effectively within our personality and our current life situation. The subpersonality system can then self-maintain according to this new, healthier norm.
Psychosynthesis teachers that we cannot “get rid of” any pattern or subpersonality—we can only heal and transform them as we reintegrate them into our self-system. Systems thinking offers a similar notion: there is no “away” to throw things to. Because everything is related to everything else, we cannot disentangle any system enough to throw it somewhere, and every somewhere is connected to here. We are stuck with ourselves and all our parts and dimensions, so we had better find a way to live more harmoniously within and with others. We had better get to know ourselves—allow the feedback—so the magic of mutual self-regulation and adaptation can occur. (Consider, if you will, how this simple understanding about how life systems work would affect the relationship of our nation to, say, Iraq.)
Food for thought: what understandings in systems thinking might correspond to the concept of will, so central to psychosynthesis? Although I have not read any direct references to anything resembling the will, I do see an underlying perception among systems thinkers that living systems do move to self-regulate and self-organize themselves. When faced with novel circumstances, they don’t just curl up and die. They attempt to deal with the situation first by utilizing self-regulatory responses, and when those fail, they try new ones, apparently through trial and error. I have wondered, however, how random this trial-and-error process is. I think there must be some sort of intelligence at play that selects among the possible responses and tries the more likely ones first. (This attempt to find new responses that work doesn’t always succeed. Organisms die when their basic structure cannot adapt enough to accommodate changes. That doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t die trying!) The fact that this process invariably takes place speaks to me of some sort of inherent drive towards life—could this phenomenon correspond to what we call the will in psychosynthesis? Clearly this question requires more reflection and dialogue.
A “systems” understanding of will would be similar to our understanding of Self; the motive power for each holon or system could be called its “will.” And just as we have an holonarchy of systems, we would have an holonarchy of will: personal will, Transpersonal Will, perhaps Gaian Will, and Universal Will. To the degree that our personal will aligns with or acts in harmony with Transpersonal Will, we move toward optimal harmony and health within and in relationship to our world.
In psychosynthesis we often speak of tuning into our inner wisdom. The Quakers have their “still small voice within.” It has seemed paradoxical (although congruent with my own experience) that when we go deeply within, we also connect more completely with the world around us—not so much the human world as the whole enchilada: the human world and the natural world that contains the human. In this way we align our personal will with Transpersonal Will and Universal Will. I believe that we are all deeply attuned to the whole as systems within a larger system; we receive and send information constantly along the strands of the living web that holds us all. We merely need to take time to quiet the noise of our daily lives and to pay attention to this attunement with patience and serenity. Moment to moment as conditions change and evolve, feedback from the larger system will guide us in responding powerfully and harmoniously, in ways that benefit not only ourselves, but also the larger whole.
Firman, John & Ann Gila. 2002. Psychosynthesis: A Psychology of the Spirit. Albany NY: SUNY.