perceiving a complex whole

comprehensive ways of knowing

How can we understand a complex whole when it is more than the sum of it’s parts? I would say this calls for a comprehensive way of seeing, but you could also call it holistic. Most people think this involves understanding all aspects of something (in the example of healthcare, people think of not only physical, but also emotional and spiritual aspects of a person’s health). Many people also think of an understanding that includes the context that the thing is in (the person’s environment in the case of healthcare). However, not many people think in the Goethean sense of holism where you are looking to also become aware of the potential that an entity has in how it can respond in different contexts by getting a sense of it’s core essence. The Goethean method may seem counter intuitive at first, because rather than panning back to see the ‘bigger picture’, a Goethean exploration involves diving into each part and trying to sense how the whole is manifesting there. I find this to be a meditative, intuitive and deeply intimate experience, where if you sit long enough with each part of a complex whole, you can eventually ‘grok’ the essential nature of the whole in a broader sense. Whilst the other two forms of comprehensive seeing can be achieved using abstracted, rational methodologies, the Goethean way of seeing is essentially participatory and intuitive in nature.

logical versus intuitive knowing

The late Goethean scholar Henri Bortoft identified two main ways of ‘seeing’, each associated with a different hemisphere of the brain. He describes the right hemisphere as “concerned with the immediacy of lived experience”1 (the Goethean way of seeing) whilst the left “mediates the verbal-intellectual representation of experience.”2 The use of logic and analysis falls to the left hemisphere and tends to work well when thinking of fixed concepts or working with dead materials. When we encounter a living system where multiple things are happening at once and everything keeps changing, we do better to also employ the right hemisphere which works intuitively. Whilst it is not so clear cut that we have a separate rational and intuitive mode of seeing, I find this a useful metaphor which I would like to expand further upon. The intuitive mode of seeing can handle simultaneous, dynamic, realtime input of information, whereas the analytical mode works more with abstractions and the subsequent application of reason. The intuitive mode deals with live experience, the analytical mode deals with reflections on live experience. A useful analogy is analog versus digital modes of dealing with information. Analog works with continuous and integrated flows of information, more like an organic system. By contrast digital information is discrete, it is packaged into independent parcels of information. If you can package knowledge into parcels then it is easier to use it in abstracted ways. A continual stream of information requires you to be more present to the experience. Both of these ways of working with information are useful and I would assert that both are required to be able to see comprehensively.

achieving comprehensive knowing

Most cultures are very good at developing rational and intellectual skills and capacities, however, many are lacking when it comes to intuitive skills and capacities. So, what kind of practices can help develop an intuitive way of seeing? Qualitative and holistic approaches to seeing and understanding such as those used by Craig Holdredge of the Nature Institute3 lead one into a deep process of direct observation, where an intuitive sense of the whole is achieved through patient observational practice. In addition to these kinds of practices, there are of course other methods can help us to see more intuitively. In my experience, both body-based practices and arts-based practices give us access to non-literal ways of knowing that can be highly relevant when trying to understand a complex whole. The way that your body responds to a situation can offer up a plethora of useful and sometimes surprising insights, as can a process of creative expression. The playful practice of InterPlay4 (which I use a lot in my own practice) is both body-based and creative, and these are two of the reasons I find it so perfect for cultivating an intuitive way of seeing.

1Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, Floris Books, 2012, p 60

2Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, Floris Books, 2012, p 60