Engaging with “the whole” involves perspectives and understandings that come from delving into the nature of wholeness itself.
Most mainstream definitions of wholeness are variants of “nothing missing and everything complete,
unbroken, uncut, perfectly healthy, free of any defect or impairment, having all its proper parts” – which are all fine as far as they go.
Definitions like that reflect the previously noted holistic bias towards inclusiveness. That is a good starting place but tends to focus on (including) the parts. Such definitions barely hint at the dynamic nature and “more-ness” of wholeness, such as the principle that “a whole is greater than (or different from) the sum of its parts.” In other words there is more to a whole than its parts, especially the novel qualities that emerge from the interrelationships and interactions of the parts. Consider, for example, the liquidity of water at room temperature that cannot be derived from the respective natures of hydrogen and oxygen separately – or the strength of triangles that cannot be replicated in any other arrangement of three lines. A whole is thus irreducible to its parts, which is perhaps the most fundamental principle of wholeness.
What sort of factors make a whole MORE than its parts? This question can guide us as we seek to tap the wisdom and capacities of the whole.
The following list offers a number of significant factors we can consider on this journey:
Synergy. This dynamic is what makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. As noted, synergy includes the idea of “emergence”, the appearance of new phenomena not readily derived from the parts alone, often generated by their arrangements, relationships or interactions.
Holergy. This is the dynamic through which an entity or phenomenon is a whole in its own right and is thus greater than its role in any larger whole of which it is a part. For example, let us consider the many gifts and connections possessed by each individual member of a group which – if recognized, supported and used – could constitute a rich resource for the group. (A related concept, holon, conceives of every entity as both a whole, itself, and as a part of one or more larger wholes.)
Thrival. Health, healing, wholesomeness, resilience, regenerativity, sustainability – these all refer to states of being whole, becoming whole, or regaining or sustaining wholeness in the face of challenges. It embraces factors that facilitate these capacities, usually involving some sort of harmonious or responsive relationships among parts of the whole that support their ongoing collective functionality and well-being in that dynamic arrangement.
Co-creativity. Co-creativity is not just a group dynamic. In its larger sense, the word refers to the participatory, interdependent, co-evolutionary, intersubjective nature of all life and reality. To the extent we realize and apply the idea of this intrinsic ubiquitous co-creativity, we transcend blame and powerlessness since causality is variously and broadly shared. Since we are all involved (and not just as victims), we can reclaim our agency, especially in partnership with others to co-create new understandings and realities. Acknowledging and supporting co-creativity highlights the value of good process, and of attending to history and to what is emerging among us and from us. Major among co- creative dynamics is this:
Dynamic balance. People often equate wholeness with balance. The balance that characterizes most wholes is not homeostatic, but rather a feedback-rich dance of diverse and often seemingly opposed factors. In polarities like Unity/Diversity or Order/Chaos, the two phenomena are ubiquitous, complementary, and even mutually dependent. While each can be toxic by itself, together in wholesome (whole-supporting) relationship they generate much of the “more-ness” that characterizes wholeness.
Uniqueness. Everyone, everything and every moment is its own full being with its own immense and vibrant wholeness that can be encountered, appreciated, supported, and tapped into. In recognizing this uniqueness we can participate in releasing its special gifts into the world. (Note that integrity is a special form of this, highlighting the worthiness and dependability of a person’s or thing’s uniqueness.)
Life energy. This manifests in most of the other forms of wholeness as well as through people’s needs, interests, passions, and values. Yet the more diverse life energies get released, the more disturbance usually results. However, to the extent we can engage with that disturbance creatively, life energy drives situations towards greater or newer forms of wholeness, adding to the wisdom and resourcefulness available.
Whole-in-the-Part. A whole not only contains its parts but each of the parts can contain the whole, as exemplified by holograms, fractals, microcosms, archetypes, genes, cultures, holopticism, etc., enabling fractions of a whole to comprehend, manifest and/or generate that whole. This includes the idea that there can be greater synergy between parts and wholes, such that they serve each other’s wellbeing and potential, bringing us full circle in this list back to Synergy.
Phenomena like these can teach us to get beyond wholeness as a static concept of unity or harmony and realize that diversities and disturbances within any whole evoke life energies that push towards healing, emergence and transformation. We realize that all wholes and patterns of wholeness constantly evolve and that we are part of that unfolding. To the extent we are awake to this, we will find ourselves challenged and/or inspired to be more conscious and choiceful regarding how we play our roles in that great evolutionary story.
All the above aspects of wholeness are, in a sense, freebies – freely available resources requiring minimal investment beyond depth of appreciation and insightful design and arrangement. Understanding wholeness can therefore be particularly important when the usual forms of resources (time, money, power, knowledge, etc.) seem scarce. There is therefore very practical value in exploring how these phenomena can play a role in evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole.
For further perspective on wholeness, see my essays on the subject.