A Dialogue on Liminality, Wholeness and Collective Understanding

Photo:  Maia Garau

Credit: Maia Garau

I have recently connected with Dave Gray, the co-author of the best-selling Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers, which describes 80 games to help us break down barriers, communicate better, and generate new ideas, insights, and strategies. Dave most recent book is The Connected Company which examines how organisations need to change the way they engage with workers, partners, and customers, rethink how work is done, how success is measured, and how performance is rewarded.

What caught my attention this week was a video by Dave in which he lays out his most recent thinking on what he is calling ‘liminal thinking’. It is a 20 minute video but well worth watching. Dave created this video in order to help develop a dialogue and to collect feedback, as the video is the foundation of his new book which he is currently working on, which has as its working title ‘liminal thinking’.

Of course, as many of you know, Maria and I have developed the concept of holonomic thinking which captures the idea of the dynamic way of seeing and comprehending wholeness in systems. We describe holonomic thinking in our book Holonomics, and in chapter one we also include the powerful concept of liminality.

Credit: Simon Robinson

Credit: Simon Robinson

In Holonomics we say the following about our conceptualisation of ‘liminality’:

In Figure 1.6 there is a dotted line which represents a wall, a barrier beyond which many systems thinkers do not go. It represents their inability to break out of their mechanistic world views; it is ‘the point of liminality’. Liminality can be thought of as a human type of singularity point in a black hole, a halfway point in transition, where existing structures have broken down but new ones have not yet been built. The word comes from Victor Turner’s anthropological work on rites of passage and rituals.

In indigenous cultures, Turner identified three stages in a ritual process. The first is ‘separation’, where a youngster is taken from their familiar surroundings, their family, friends, and village, with a view to taking them out of all known cultural and social norms. The second phase is the ‘liminal state’, which has no attributes of either past or coming states. In the final phase of the rites of passage, the initiate achieves a new form of awareness, coming out of the ambiguous state to achieve a new sense of wholeness.

In first world countries – advanced technological countries – we have lost these ancient rites of passage, and unless we have gone through them, we cannot begin to understand the change of consciousness that they are designed to invoke. Instead, we may experience deep discomfort and frustration, and a lack of truly grasping the importance of what is being taught.

Source: Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson (2014) Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter

In the last few days there have been some excellent discussions on how different people think about liminality, especially now that Dave has set up a discussion group on Facebook to do so (see Liminal Thinking). I wanted to write this article though as I also posted the link to Dave’s video on my own Facebook timeline, which then generated some extremely interesting conversation with James Souttar, a communications consultant. James like me is a student of Henri Bortoft, and this is the Henri who James refers to in his commentary.

James: Gosh, to extend Henri’s (actually, rather significantly, originally Rumi’s) lovely metaphor, this is not so much about trying to get to the milk by way of the cheese, but trying to get to the Gorgonzola from the Cheddar!

Gray begins in a great place – with Rumi’s/Sana’i’s – story of the Elephant and the men who cannot see. And rightly connects this with ‘unknowable’ Reality. But somehow – by means of a staircase – he gets from this to Plato’s cave, and ‘self-sealing bubbles’ of thinking.

To go back to the Elephant, (because it connects so beautifully with what Henri Bortoft taught, and with some of the thinkers who inspired him), one of the things the story shows us is that the whole is wholly present in the part – and, indeed, *only comes to being through the parts*. The man who is palpating the trunk is touching The Elephant – just like the person who touches my arm is touching *me*. His problem is not that he is in a bubble, nor that he is in some way separated from Reality (he’s not: he’s touching it), but that he has mistaken the part for the whole. The whole is wholly present in the part, but it is not *exclusively* present in the part.

Amongst other things, what this means is that all ‘conflicts of beliefs’ are identical in principle, if not in practice. It’s not that we’re *limited* by the parts we’re touching (the person who has never left small-town America, in Gray’s example). Indeed, rather like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple – who could understand pretty much everything by analogy to her experience in the parochial world of St Mary Meade – our experience of Reality, however narrow its manifestations may seem, primes us for any possible experience of Reality. If you’ve touched an Elephant through its trunk, you’ve touched an Elephant. And if you realize from this that you’ve touched the Elephant, you’ll *recognise* the Elephant again if you touch its tail, or its ear, or its leg.

Our problem is that we’ve touched the Elephant, but we’ve convinced ourselves that we’ve only touched a rope, or a carpet, or a pillar. To put this in Goethe terms, we’ve experienced the Ürpflanze, but we think we’ve only seen a rose, or a violet, or a dandelion.

This is where Goethe’s and Rumi’s (and, indeed, Henri’s) perspectives overlap. And it’s no surprise that Goeth – like Hegel and Schlegel and others – read and appreciated Rumi through Rückert’s excellent translation of the Masnavi (where the story of the Elephant in the Dark, Rumi’s version of Sana’i’s earlier Blind Men and the Elephant, is found). Rumi’s message with this story is metaphysical – the relationship between the reality of the Elephant and the perceptions of those who experience it is the relationship between the absolute Oneness of God and the beliefs of the religious. In this sense it is the relationship of the Urphänomen of Urpänomene to the diversity of phenomena, which of course must be the intensive ‘multiplicity *in* Unity’ and not the extensive ‘Unity in multiplicity’. This is exactly how Hegel – following both Goethe and Rumi – saw it.

David: I see the message of Plato’s cave and the elephant story as substantially similar. I’m afraid the finer points of your distinction James will be lost on most people. Whether we mistake the part for the whole, or are trapped in a bubble of belief, in the end most people are mistaking their models for reality, are they not?

James: David, you’re undoubtedly right that the point of view I’m trying to express will be lost on most people. Fortunately not, though, on Simon or on some of his readers. But let’s see if I can make it a little clearer.

Let’s go back to the story of the elephant and see what it can tell us about *the coming into being of beliefs*. This may well be different from what most readers – certainly most contemporary readers – take from the story. But it will hopefully show us something of the subtlety and richness of this story, and how it can illuminate something that is a bigger and bigger problem for us.

In the first place we have an elephant, which you’ve rightly identified as ‘unknowable’. In fact it is unknowable in the sense that we usually conceive of knowledge – it’s hidden from us by the darkness of our epistemological capacity, but it is *experienceable*. That’s the first thing the story tells us.

Each of the men experiences the elephant through its parts – it’s not possible to experience it as a whole, but the experience of the trunk is an experience of the elephant, and *as complete an experience of the elephant* as the experience of it tail. To use another image to illustrate the same point here, my children’s experience of *me* as a father is as much an experience of the whole me as is my partner’s experience of me as a partner – I am wholly present as myself in both of those relationships, but they’re not the same. My children will never know what it’s like to be my lover, just as my partner will never know what it’s like to be my child. But they all know the same me.

There’s some difficult stuff here to grasp about the relationship of the whole and the part, but it’s also really simple. It’s difficult because we try to bring a certain kind of cognition to bear on it which just can’t get it. Nonetheless, if we but realised it, there are many things we do know in exactly this way – the example of the different relationships we have with people, which is a human universal, is a case in point.

Back to the story. Each man has an experience, which Rumi describes in terms of ‘touch’. This is something that Sufis like Rumi often do – to use sensory experience as a metaphor for a certain kind of experiential cognition. They call it ‘taste’ or ‘scent’ or, as here, ‘feeling’. This experience is clearly an experience of Reality, even if it is an experience of Reality through the part. However there’s nothing in this experience which limits it – to touch an elephant’s tail is to touch an elephant. “I touched an elephant, Dad!” “You surely did, son.”

The next stage of the coming into being of beliefs is the *interpretation* that the men make. “The hand of one fell on its trunk: he said ‘This creature is like a water pipe’. The hand of another touched its ear: to him it appeared to be like a fan. Since another handled its leg, he said, ‘I found the elephant’s shape to be like a pillar’. That’s how Rumi puts it, in Nicholson’s quite literal translation (Masnavi-ye Ma’anavi, Book III, verses 1262-4).

Now note carefully the way Rumi phrases this – none of the men grappling in the dark are making a claim that isn’t true. They’ve all described their experience of the elephant in terms of similes – the trunk is *like* a water pipe, the ear appeared to be *like* a fan, the leg is found to be *like* a pillar. And an elephant’s trunk *is* like a water pipe.

So where does it all go wrong? “On account of the place of view, their statements differed: one man entitled it ‘dal’ [the Arabic/Persian letter d], another ‘alit’ [a]. If there had been a candle in each one’s hand, the difference would have gone out of their words. The eye of sense perception is only like the palm of the hand; the palm hath not the power to reach the whole of him [the elephant]. The eye of the Sea is one thing, and the foam another: leave the foam and look with the eye of the Sea.

[And note here how different Rumi’s perception is from (the usual interpretation of) Plato’s cave – Rumi commands us to ‘look with the eye of the Sea’, knowing it to be possible for human beings; the Platonist, on the other hand, believes that humanity is inescabably trapped within the solipsism of the cave.]

So the situation we have can be described thus:

First, we have Reality which can’t be *perceived* or *known* in its totality. But it can be experienced as a whole – second – through each of its parts. This experience can be talked about – third – through metaphor. And yet we’ve still not taken leave of what is Real.

Where we fall into error is at the fourth point, where metaphor is taken for fact, and where the wholeness that is implicit in the part is lost, and we see just separate – different, distinct – parts (and a ‘whole’ becomes a composite of the parts, which is what many readers do with this story: “Jeez, these people are so stupid – why don’t they realise that an elephant is a trunk plus an ear plus four legs plus a tail…”) Iain McGilchrist might tell us that this is the point at which the left cerebral hemisphere has turned the whole thing into a conceptual scheme and convinced itself that this is its truth.

Be that as it may, the point here is that *we cannot reconcile* the insistence that ‘an elephant is a pillar’ with the insistence that ‘an elephant is a rug’. It’s *too late* at this point: the coming into being of beliefs as expressions of the diversity (which is inherent in the elephant’s unity) has solidified into something dead, fossilised, sclerotic – a belief. To use the phrase of Rumi’s which Henri Bortoft was very fond of quoting: “You cannot get to the milk by way of the cheese”.

If we want to find a reconciliation between different positions, we have to follow the coming into being of those beliefs *back upstream*, back through the process of their coming into being to the point at which they still connect to a *single fundamental Reality*. The first stage back is metaphor, next back from that is ‘touch’, beyond that is unknowable totality (but let’s not concern ourselves with that for the moment).

All this might sound incredibly abstruse, but a really good example of something that does take this kind of approach is Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’. Haidt is a social psychologist who has investigated why people hold the political and religious views they do, and whose work shows how the different political positions of, for instance, Right and Left, come from a common process of moral reasoning. The implication of this work is dynamite, because it challenges the whole way we see politics – it shows how people who hold quite contrary views to us have reached them in the same way we got to ours (just as the man who believes the elephant is a pillar got to his belief in the same way the man who believes it is a rug got to his). This is really only going back to a stage somewhere between metaphor (which is where George Lakoff had already traced back political beliefs) and ‘touch’. But it shows how powerful a view that doesn’t deal with the finished products, but looks at the process of coming in to being, can be.

David: Thank you James. I’ve read Haidt I’m happy to say! One book I don’t have to read to catch up. You’ve given me a lot to ponder here. I have a much better idea now of what you’re saying and I’m going to reflect on it. The blind men share an experience which has the potential to connect them. The poor souls in Plato’s cave are doomed to loneliness and solitude.

One response to “A Dialogue on Liminality, Wholeness and Collective Understanding

  1. Pingback: Creating Openness to Innovation | Transition Consciousness·

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