Engaging with the Evolving Whole

What this message is about: Everything in the world is part of an evolving whole. Learning – once again, newly – how to be contributing members of that larger community is essential for human survival and will itself be a contribution to the ongoing story of evolution. In order to do that, we have to raise our awareness of the importance of diversity, disturbance, generative conversation, wisdom-consciousness and more….

From my co-intelligence worldview, I sometimes say our ultimate goal would be to understand and become attuned to and aligned with the wholeness of reality – including especially our intrinsic, dynamic relatedness with each other and all of life. Also, since the whole of reality is constantly evolving, our goal would involve understanding, attending to and aligning with the dynamics of EVOLVING wholeness, in all its forms.

But it makes sense here to note at least two perspectives on wholeness – a harmonious version where everything fits exactly as it is, and an ever-changing one where something can be dissonant or broken and calls forth energies for healing or transformation.

This helps us see that in one sense the world is already whole, already harmonious and cooperative, already tightly woven with interconnections, interactivity and interdependence, already united in fundamental Oneness.

On the other hand, in another sense, we can view the world as filled with separate objects, with forces and violence, with competition, brokenness, illness and death. And that world, too, is whole – and it all fits together amazingly, partly through its ongoing dynamics of fixing, healing, transforming, recycling, teaching, developing, and so much else….

Let’s take a closer look….

Violence and Destruction

I remember learning about the violence of the universe’s deep creativity. Out of the Big Bang came hydrogen and helium. Out of the bellies of red giant stars come the most basic elements – like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sodium, magnesium, sulfur, chlorine, potassium, calcium and iron – the building blocks of life, trapped within the roiling super-heat of the stars’ interiors. And then there’s the greatest violence in the universe – a supernova, an exploding star: As this dying star gets shredded out of existence by its own unimaginable forces, its vast energies fuse trillions of those basic atoms into heavier, more complex elements – from cobalt, copper and zinc, to silver, platinum, gold and lead. And as it does all this, as it violently tears itself apart, it flings all these newly minted atoms into the far reaches of space, where some of them gravitationally congeal into new objects like new suns and planets.

Without the violent deaths of stars, we would not have the complex building blocks – those ethereal, potent clouds of stardust – needed to form planets, life and all of us. Stars need to die – and die violently – in order for us to even come into existence.

In this same way we can see today how death and destruction in nature create building blocks and contexts for new lives and new living systems to come into being. As essential parts of this process, we and most other organisms consume other lives to sustain and renew ourselves over and over.

So that which is whole comes apart – and in coming apart, creates contexts for the next forms of wholeness. This is the fecund matrix out of which life emerges and emerges and continues to emerge, in an ongoing process of evolving wholeness that has been going on since long before we appeared in the evolutionary drama.

Consciousness and Choice

As the evolutionary dynamic has unfolded over more than 13 billion years, it has generated – among so many other miracles – the capacity for awareness and preference. Even many single-celled organisms show signs of such responsiveness.

In the midst of this natural evolutionary dynamic, we humans showed up with our own human versions of evolving consciousness and its natural, evolving, joyful, and problematic companion – CHOICE.

Some have viewed this as God giving us free will and the opportunity to step aside from the primal patterns of nature to do things which seem to be outside of Nature, even giving us dominion over nature.

Of course our human consciousness and behaviors aren’t actually unnatural. They are not separate from the cosmic unfolding of evolving wholeness. They just constitute a newly emergent property of nature, an experiment that Evolution is checking out, to see how it works. We – individually and collectively – ARE that experiment.

And its not necessarily working out well for us. So far, it seems that our experiment in conscious choice is generating terminal dynamics through which we will very possibly join the majority of Life’s other experiments in the annals of extinction.

But nothing is guaranteed. The nature-given curse of technology-supported and often manipulated and constrained conscious choice that is destroying our world is ALSO the divine blessing of wisdom-supported conscious choice that could weave new and old ways into a more fit and vibrant community of Life where humans truly belong, a new experiment in wholesomeness.

Bringing Wisdom to Consciousness

So the question before us is how do we apply our human consciousness as a wise, life-enhancing, integral part of this process of evolving wholeness. How might we do this in ways that allow us to thrive and evolve in the midst of a thriving, evolving wholesome living earth?

These are real, challenging questions, because evolution and nature are not particularly biased in our favor. Their bias is simply towards evolving wholeness. Our survival and thrival in this process depend on our alignment with and contribution to this process of evolving wholeness in ways that continue to nurture us as part of it. To what extent can we accomplish that?

Let’s look at how that works and where we enter into that cosmic unfolding here on Earth.

Diversity, Disturbance, and Creativity

Consider how the irreducible uniqueness of everything generates diversity.

Actually stop for a minute, read that sentence over again, and notice its obvious truth: the more uniqueness there is, the more diversity there is. Uniqueness and diversity are two sides of the same coin.

Now take a moment to think about how often diversity generates disturbance.

And now, as you reflect on what you’ve read so far, think about how the evolutionary process uses disturbance to create new things – which would not come forth if the old things had not been disturbed.

Through such reflection, we may realize that diversity and disturbance are fundamental not only to what exists now but to creating what’s new, what’s next, what’s needed.

So one of our most basic challenges – as CONSCIOUS agents of evolving wholeness – is learning how to use diversity and disturbance creatively.

And with that realization we arrive at two of the main realms in which we address our diversity and disturbance – the realms of politics and governance. These social realms are contexts through which we go about addressing our collective affairs – and they’re fraught with diversity and disturbance! They seldom respond to our utopian cries of PRESTO! to suddenly bring about harmonious, life-serving resolutions and unity.

Instead, as we do the work of politics and governance, we inevitably and repeatedly encounter our differences and the disturbances that show up as conflicts. We find such challenges embedded in every issue we face. This is what the exercise of politics and governance are all about… from the most enlightened forms to the most degraded.

So as we seek to become more conscious agents of evolving wholeness, we need to learn how we – as groups, communities, and societies – can USE our differences and disturbances as raw materials for creating new possibilities, new and renewed relationships, new levels of awareness. Those are our true challenge as agents of evolving wholeness.

And So….?

When I think about the many specific, unprecedented challenges of our times, I sense a growing need to imagine ways we can guide ourselves and others to create and operate new political cultures and governing institutions and processes which can “metabolize” all our diversity, conflicts, problems, and challenges into improved lives for all involved – and for the greater evolving whole we all live in.

So how shall we think about that?

My wise democracy framework highlights power, participation and wisdom. Inspired by Abraham Lincoln and our desire to align with the evolving wholeness of life, I like to imagine us clarifying and applying three new realms of study and practice::

  • Power of, by and for the whole
  • Participation of, by and for the whole
  • Wisdom of, by and for the whole.

Another way I often think of this is that we want to become more competent at evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole.

The Whole

“The whole” in this case is most often the whole group, network, community, country, or living system we’re dealing with. But it can also refer to the whole situation – all the human and nonhuman lives and forces involved in generating and sustaining the whole situation. As a corollary, we can also think in terms of all the perspectives, information, interests, etc., involved in the situation or issue. How do we include all of them – at least, all that are relevant?

But there’s an important challenge here: since we want to involve all the parties and parts of the whole situation, we need, first of all, to practice a strong bias towards inclusivity. We need to ask, “Who else should be part of this?” and “What else do we need to know or learn?” and “What is possible now?”

There are no absolute, final answers to any of this – and if we keep asking these things forever, we’ll never get anything done. So we might learn to practice what could be called “permeable relevance” – i.e., we want to include everything that is obviously relevant, while at the same time knowing that there’s probably more to the situation than we can know and include at any given point – or even ever – and be open to that. There’s definitely humility, openness, curiosity and courage involved when we’re dealing with evolving wholeness.

Now, what do we want all these included people, perspectives and lives to do with each other and with the information and questions we’re trying to pull together to evoke the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole?

Wholeness includes unity and diversity, separateness and interconnection, harmony and disturbance, individual and collective, and every other polarity we can think of. And it is through the generative interactions between or among those differences that we become able to bring forth the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole.


So our bottom line here is CONVERSATION. The word conversation derives from the Latin for “to turn together” (versare = turn, con = with).

First, we want to provide contexts in which people can become more aware of their common ground – their humanity, their children, their shared problems and aspirations, their shared world, their shared interconnectedness and interdependence (whether physical, spiritual, ecological, evolutionary, social, genetic, or even quantum). And on that common ground we want them to undertake a generative dance of conversation, exploring their differences, using their different voices, experiences, perspectives, information and ways of knowing and creating to find shared paths that work for all of them and the world – in other words, for “the whole”.

There are many approaches, methods, tools and examples for how to do that. Some of the most popular lately are called Citizen Assemblies, Citizens Juries or Citizens Councils for which a few dozen or a few hundred citizens are chosen at random in a way that ensures they embody the diversity of the population from which they were chosen. Convened and briefed on a public issue, they are then facilitated in deliberations to deepen their understanding of that issue and each other so they can produce recommendations for governments, stakeholders and/or their fellow citizens.

Additionally or alternatively, we find approaches that convene people who are intimately involved with a situation, issue or domain – across sectors and scales. These may be people who are fighting each other, who have power, who are impacted, who know a lot about the topic, who have (or lack) relevant resources – all the people who are known as “stakeholders”, i.e., those whose lives are influenced one way or another by decisions that are made about what goes on in that realm. If they can all come to shared understandings about what’s needed, A LOT can be accomplished in a very short time.

Variations of such citizen and/or stakeholder councils have been done hundreds of times around the world in the last several decades. More are constantly being done and more powerful versions are emerging all the time – it’s evolution again! – including ones that require governments or stakeholders to take action on the recommendations. I see these as prime examples of new paradigm political institutions.


Into such conversations we can bring experts about systems thinking, ecological interconnectedness, spiritually inspired ethics, complexity science and so much more – including people speaking for nature, for future generations, and from the habitually ignored margins of society and life. Such possibilities increase the capacity of citizen and stakeholder deliberators to embrace the whole and, in the process, to enable the people and places where they live to become increasingly aware, humbly embedded, wisely engaged participants in co-creating the evolving whole of the greater Life we all share.

There’s much to be addressed in the process of learning how to do this well, of creating conditions that facilitate its emergence, and of getting it actually happening. But the first step is to realize that it IS possible and that it offers a more potent, life-affirming approach, generally, than what we tend to see – and be involved with – in our existing forms of politics and governance. The more often and productively we break through into that more expansive worldview, the more possible its remarkable vision becomes in the real, everyday world of evolving wholeness….


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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

Evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

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