Reflections on the Livingness of Life

Photo: Simon Robinson

Photo: Simon Robinson

Dee Hock, the founder of VISA wrote a wonderful definition of life in his book Birth of the Chaordic Age:

Life is uncertainty, surprise, hate, wonder, speculation, love, joy, pity, pain, mystery, beauty, and a thousand other things we can’t yet imagine. Life is not about controlling. It’s not about getting. It’s not about having. It’s not about knowing. And it’s not even about being.

Life is eternal, perpetual becoming, or it is nothing. Becoming is not a thing to be known or controlled. It is magnificent, mysterious odyssey to be experienced.

I liked this passage so much I hacked the quote to become one about branding, which I have shared in recent presentations:

Brands are a perpetual becoming, or they are nothing.

Brands are not a thing to be known or controlled. They are a magnificent, mysterious odyssey to be experienced.

This is a hermeneutic approach to understanding the phenomenon of life, whereby we seek to have a direct experience of the phenomenon itself. The above quote from Hock can be compared to this excellent quote from the late Ron Brady:

The forms of life are not ‘finished work’ but always forms becoming, and their ‘potency to be otherwise’ is an immediate aspect of their internal constitution – i.e. of their representative function – and not something to be added to them. Their ‘potency’ is ‘self-derived,’ in that it is inherent in their identity with the whole. The becoming that belongs to this constitution is not a process that finishes when it reaches a certain goal but a condition of existence – a necessity to change in order to remain the same.

These quotes are drawing our attention to the quality of livingness, which is the organism’s own “potency to be otherwise”. Sometimes we think of organisms as responding in a mechanical-like manner to the influences of the environment. But the living organism does not just adapt to external circumstances in a passive way. It’s not that the environment causes the form of the plant, but the plant is challenged by the environment and responds out of its potency to be otherwise, a dynamic understanding in which the plant is actively determining itself, rather than being conditioned passively.

Hans-Georg Gadamer in his opus Truth and Method wrote extensively about the nature of time in relation to periodic festivals. Gadamer wrote that:

The dimension of time and its experience permit us to see the return of the festival only as something historical: something that is one and the same changes from time to time. But in fact a festival is not one and the same thing; it exists by being always something different. An entity that exists only in always being something else is temporal in a radical sense; it has its being in its becoming.

For Gadamer, however much a work of art is stretched and transformed, and distorted in its performance, it still remains the same. There is therefore One festival, and many festivals.


In our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, we discuss this dynamic conception of wholeness, which we discover was present as far back as Plato. It is for this reason we quote from Plato’s Parmenides:

Then the one if it has being is one and many, whole and parts, having limits and yet unlimited in number?

To understand wholeness in systems is to understand the dynamic relationship between the whole and the parts. In order to reach this level of understanding, we have to understand the coming-into-being of phenomena, be the phenomena organisms, brands, works of art, written texts, of business organisations. Once we have a deeper experience of meaning, then our level of consciousness changes and we become more alive and responsive to all that is alive and responsive in our environment.

Photo: Simon Robinson

Photo: Simon Robinson

There was a wonderful reflection from a participant on a recent course on Holonomics that Maria and I gave. In Portuguese, coming-into-being translates as “vir a ser”. The Portuguese for service is “servir” and so vir a ser contains within it the notion of servir, or service.

This is co-creation. This is allowing meaning to emerge, and not controlling, as Dee Hock warned about. If we are to enjoy our lives on this planet, we need to awaken to all that is alive around us. This is the shock and beauty of Holonomics. It is the move from the static to the dynamic, the surface to the depth, the abstract to the concrete and the dead to the alive.

One response to “Reflections on the Livingness of Life

  1. Pingback: Pathways Through Holonomics: Part Two | Transition Consciousness·

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