Feeling with the organism

barbara_mcclintock_1902-1992_shown_in_her_laboratory_in_1947Using subjective feelings while you are investigating and empirically analysing at the same time? Surely that’s bad science. Or is it?

This blog series is exploring integral quadrants – how these open a world of opportunity on complex issues, as well as ourselves, through considering subjective as well as objective perspectives.  A hard edge for some, however, might be the systems world of physical sciences. Integral argues that this system world is enriched by being aware of subjective parts. That challenges conventionality, regardless of the (Nobel) prizes that have been won. Could we really make advances through looking as the object of our investigation – in geology as a rock or a crystal, in biology as a plant or a cell?

In this blog series based on a tetra-dynamics course (tetra-dynamics – four dynamic perspectives and viewpoints ), the course is seeing a lively and ongoing discussion around the clarity and distinction of looking “at” or “as” a phenomena, entity or thing – see repeating patterns, the previous post.

There are different ways of seeing something – from its perspective (looking as) or viewing it (looking at). As we do this, the oddness of looking as a thing strikes us. Are we really saying we can look as, as if we are a rock, plant or a landscape?! On one level, if we’re looking as a plant we’re imagining and projecting some extended scenes. However, don’t dismiss this out of hand.

Barbra McClintock (pictured) is a renowned Nobel prize winner in the field of genetics. One of her key abilities, she said, that set her apart, allowed her to see further and deeper into the mysteries of genetics than her colleagues, was to develop a particular feeling for organisms.

Over and over again, she tells us one must have the time to look, the patience to “hear what the material has to say to you,” the openness to”let it come to you.” Above all, one must have a “feeling for the organism.” One must understand “how it grows, understand its parts, understand when something is going wrong with it. [An organism] isn’t just a piece of plastic, it’s something that is constantly being affected by the environment, constantly showing attributes or disabilities and its growth. You have to be aware of all that… you need to know those plants well enough so that if anything changes, … you [can] look at the plant and right away you know what this damage you see is from – something that is scraped across it or something that bit it or something that the winds did.” You need to have a feeling for every individual plant.

In tetra-dynamics terms, Barbara seems to be describing looking as the plant developing a feeling for plants. If you look as the plant, in the upper left integral quadrant (individual, subjective) you can imagine how the plant ‘feels’-  the feeling of the plant as it changes.

Sounds strange? Barbara’s insights were stellar work. Her advances in genetics won a Nobel prize “for her discovery of mobile genetic elements.”

One of the continuous beauties of this four quadrant (tetra) model is that it applies across multiple scales – reflecting our own self understanding, analysing other entities and experiencing the interplay between these approaches or dynamics. Moreover this  seems to be quite catalytic – enabling significant advances – ah-ha moments if you like.

That’s very encouraging when so many of our challenges today are highly volatiles, uncertain, complex and ambiguous! Here’s a system that’s helping to shift ourselves and science – more than a little hopeful for the future. And, perhaps in using this we’ll all end up with some of Barbara’s ‘knowing’:

McClintock has pushed her special blend of observational and cognitive skills so far that few can follow her. She herself cannot quite say how she “knows” what she knows. She talks about the limits of verbally explicit reasoning; she stresses the importance of her “feeling for the organism” in terms that sound like those of mysticism. But like all good mystics, she insists on the utmost critical rigor, and, like all good scientists, her under- standing emerges from a thorough absorption in, even identification with, her material


Picture: Smithsonian Institution/Science Service; Restored by Adam Cuerden – FlickrBarbara McClintock (1902-1992)

Quotes: Feeling with the organism: A blueprint for an empirical philosophy of science, Erika Mansnerus and Susann Wagenknecht in Empirical Philosophy of Science: Introducing Qualitative Methods into Philosophy of Science, 2015, edited by Susann Wagenknecht, Nancy J. Nersessian and Hanne Andersen (see pages 42 & 43 – original cited  from Evelyn Fox Keller’s Biography of Barbara McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism, 1983)

Repeating patterns

crystal-wallpaper-11One of the compelling beauties of Integral Theory are repeating patterns, the fractal nature of quadrants, repeating patterns are observable at every scale. This is fundamental and creates a wonderful window onto ourselves, our biases and preferences. It is powerful – working with the integral quadrants becomes a way of differentiating our awareness and learning how to identify ourselves and others from these perspectives – through this  differentiating practice, real integration becomes possible.

We’re exploring Integral Theory’s quadrants* as this opens greater potential for impact and agency on difficult, stuck and complex problems that are inherent to fields such as sustainability, health and  business futures – see last week’s post, Beyond the boxes, about this blog series.

A key distinction that assists seeing and working with the quadrants is the screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-3-05-26-pmconcept of looking at and looking as. We can look at ourselves or anything – e.g. a group of people or a collection of objects – or we could adopt a perspective of seeing such quadrants as ourselves or others.

Try a simple example. Imagine you are looking at another person, someone you’re emotionally close to. Obviously, you can see that person, the contexts and surroundings they are in. You may identify what you think are their emotional states (happy, sad, angry etc.) and the cultural influences (e.g. are they in a fun social situation) at play for them – you’re looking at them. Next, think about and imagine their experience. What are they seeing at the moment, experiencing physically from the environment around them? How do you think they would describe their cultural context at the moment or emotional state? In doing this you’re looking as them.

The reflective or contemplative nature of this is important. For example, as Sean Esbjörn Hargens illustrates, a therapist has an emotional dimension of themselves and that enables them to see the emotional dimension of a client – they can look at the client and see the emotional dimension of the client. They can only do this as they have this emotional dimension built  into themselves. They could not see the emotional dimension without this (or if they could it would be much more conceptual).

Encouragingly, as this theory holds, you can’t reduce these four quadrant dimensions – any sentient being has these four dimensions. This opens a window onto the groups, things, objects and problems we seek to have impact with. Sean highlights, the fact that I have these four dimensions in my own embodied selfness enables me to take these four [integral quadrant] perspectives. I can [consequently] look at the world through these for windows … that is similar and slightly different from those four dimension that are part of myself.

This is an important embodied piece. When we’re working with complex situations and many moving variables – such as considering effective and sustainable future business opportunities – there are an exponential number of parts, influences and perspectives. Quadrants are a way of reflecting ourselves back at ourselves that helps to bring around, as an object of awareness, our own preconceptions so that we can then operate in an enhanced way of being. In essence, we are taking what is subjective and becoming more aware of our biases, seeing our tendencies reflected back to us as our unit of analysis, to become more conscious. In doing so, we can shift what we were subject to to be objective.

Working with quadrants in this way helps us start to see the fractal nature of our world – systems within systems. But, before we disappear down the rabbit hole (that’s next week!) is this practical and what comes from such consideration for the things and outcomes we care about?

There are some real advantages. Looking as, for example an object, does stretch our thinking and it helps to design the object better. From the earlier example, try differentiating which of your perspectives are looking at a person and which are looking as that person, how they may consider that same outlook for themselves. No doubt you already do this when thinking about people you are close to but I find this distinction creates subtle (and sometime not so subtle) insight. That’s a very valuable thing.

*  For an Overview to Integral Theory see Sean Esbjörn Hargens pdf here>>>

** Looking at and as perspectives diagram from Sean Esbjörn Hargens, TetraDynamics (2014).

Beyond the boxes

NOX_Textures_177_5When people first come across integral theory* they are often stunned, enticed, surprised and excited by its simple beauty and explanatory power. I certainly was! Suddenly, through accessibly integrating global knowledge, many tensions in ourselves, families and society come into clear illuminated focus. Sustainability and health are great examples – integral’s mapping power illuminates stuck situations**. It creates hope for changes that are perversely hard to implement.

Excited, we apply it to everything around us. Then we look for greater traction and impact.

If you are like me, you’ll have seen some wonderful shifts. Just working with one prominent piece of integral, its quadrants, can be highly revealing, catalysing transformations. Groups, clients and friends quickly get the quadrants and love the clarity this brings to discussions. This occurs if the structure is being used explicitly – we’re talking integral theory and its application to others – and delightfully it still works if it is simply informing the design of an interaction, project or program.

Yet, our experience with this clear integrating model is uneven. Sometimes it flies powerfully. Sometimes it seems it could do so much more. Seemingly, how to best apply the quadrants is largely uncharted territory.

Enter TetraDynamics. I’m privileged to be observing the latest application of this -approaches like integral seem fundamental to managing and dealing with many of the environmental and social imperatives we face today – the sold out program is a wonderfully exciting thing. But, what is TetraDynamics?

The Four Quadrants are deceptively simple. They are comprised from the intersection of two of our life’s most fundamental polarities: insides and outsides; parts and wholes…

TetraDynamics highlights the many different kinds of relationships (Dynamics) that are possible between each of the four quadrants (Tetra).

Over the next 12 weeks this blog series touches, very lightly, on some program highlights. By its very nature, a short blog is a lot less than a whole course or two hours of discussion and application. However, as a first step, think about how quadrants can be used to understand integral theory itself. We can:

  1. Look at ourselves and discover the reflections of integral quadrants in ourselves – the “I” piece, if you like – self understanding.
  2. Greatly deepen our understanding in discussion and interaction with others – a “we” piece – impact and action with others.
  3. Get busy creating a better methodology for using these integral quadrants  – an “it piece” – as they are so powerful.

One of the astonishing strengths of this model is the reflections, our own embodied understanding. Part one above, if you like, is a key to change.  Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, TetraDynamics creator and program leader says:

When I activate these dimensions in my own being [it becomes] not just a head trip of boxes for interesting insight… I can feel it, I can experience it, for me this is what makes integral analysis so delicious. While, even as a strong mental type I can dissociate from this which is why I work on the embodiment to try and bring it down and stay related.

Before I lose the more cognitive folks, consider how this reflected insight, of understanding felt within your own body, may assist during challenging situations. At the very least, the clearer and more connected we are, the more likely others are to engage.

Or try it for yourself, take Sean’s walking integral meditation on a 25 minute walk:

  • Spend the first 5 minutes walking noticing your own subjective awareness, what is arising in your experience, your feelings and emotional states
  • The next 5 minutes focus on the intersubjective dimensions – birds, hikers, the dynamics of your relationships with other beings
  • For the third 5 minutes pay attention to the objective data coming through your senses – what you see, hear, taste, touch and smell.
  • Then look for patterns –  the systems that support you being and walking in this place – for 5 more minutes.
  • Finally, spend 5 minutes brining it all together – experiencing  (gets easier over time…) all four of the elements simultaneously

There are a cascade of similar reflections, reaching out into the systems and circumstances and societies you care about, that the next blogs looking at TetraDynamics will touch on.

Series index

Beyond the boxes (this post)

Repeating patterns (post 2)

Feeling with the organism (post 3)

Opposites attract (post 4)

Out of the box elegance (post 5)


*An integral quadrant introduction is here …The quadrants represent lenses with which to better understand any occurrence; they reveal dynamics and forces in the interiors and exteriors of individuals and collectives. Together, they offer a map of psychology, behavior, culture, and systems.” (pdf)

** Just a few limited large group applications include Energy shifts in Peru, Integral and climate change, Integral and chaos emerging from the middle east