Don Sanderson: Wandering, Wondering…


“By themselves they won’t bring about the penetrating changes in human culture that we need for people to live in true harmony and balance with one another and the earth. The next great opening of an ecological worldview will have to be an internal one.” – activist ecologist John Milton, when referring to the usual approaches to dealing with our increasingly appalling  predicament

A cardboard box, perhaps 12” by 15”, 3” deep, lay in my mailbox. I’d expected a couple of books, but this? When it was opened, I discovered a thick volume stretch-wrapped and padded with foam bubbles. What had I ordered, I wondered? Some sort of sacred scripture? This the tale of what I discovered.

We find ourselves on the horns of an horrendous dilemma: A world-wide earth and society-destroying financial bubble is raging; this is resulting in an increasingly calamitous global heating. The bubble, as all do, must collapse, but whether in time to avoid the world burning up remains to be seen. In either case, humanity’s future is at dire risk and the chasm edge is nearing.

While most of us continue to fiddle, some few are exploring possible transition strategies that will save at least some of humankind. Much of their guidances I’ve surveyed depend upon those rational piecemeal approaches that have, as applied in other directions, gotten us in our present quandaries. By following such, we chance losing sight of the forest for the trees, if we ever had it, and will likely find, as all the evidence indicates everywhere we look, that the overlooked side effects will very likely negate success. What to do?

Earlier, I wrote about architect Christopher Alexander efforts to understand how to consistently design beautiful buildings and urban areas, which he found to be almost entirely lacking in twentieth century America, that it is in “an atrocious muddle intellectually”. If you view his completed creations, it is clear that he has been successful in overcoming this. We personally live surrounded by nature, by natural beauty. The contrast is stunning. Alexander early recognized this and asked how it is that we distinguish this beauty, how we might plan beautiful architectures. He noted that we humans recognize the difference between beauty and ugliness. How so remains part of that great mystery, but he proposed to use humans as scientific instruments to determine goodness, fitness, of designs.

Somehow, I had the gut feeling that Alexander’s approach was somehow key to breaking the transition hurdle, but how so escaped me. He had also asked if anyone was using this approach in organizational design and was told that, yes, Peter M. Seng had been attempting to do so, but hadn’t been successful in implementing his ideas. I didn’t follow up on Seng’s work, since it appeared to primarily address business organizations. So, there my further explorations in this direction came to rest.

The “new” sciences of systems theory, chaos theory, emergent systems, and their approaches to understanding ecology and other complex systems such as our bodies have been among my leading interests for many decades. Increasingly in my reading I found Johan Wolfgang Goethe taking center stage. Goethe is considered to have been Germany’s premier playwright and poet. Two centuries ago, he dared to challenge positivistic, materialistic, science and provide an alternate approach. Since he had no academic trappings as a scientist, his work was ridiculed and ignored. A century later, Rudolf Steiner, he of biodynamic agriculture and Waldorf schooling, edited Goethe’s complete works and brought his scientific approach back to light. The subsequent successes of quantum theory and phenomenological philosophy countered classical science’s methods and kept Goethe in mind if not mainstream. Increasingly in my reading in “new” science areas, Goethe has been featured, so I went exploring.

The best review I’ve found is “Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature” edited by David Seamon and Arthur Zalone. Along the way, I found that quantum physicist Zalone wrote another excellent book, “Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry: When Knowing becomes Love”, which is based to an extent on Goethe’s and Steiner’s approach – he writes of such meditation groups being formed by science faculty in many colleges. I’ve taken John Milton’s quote with which I began this essay from there. Zalone, in turn, had excerpted it from Peter Seng, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flower’s “Presence” as he indicted in a page note – the complete title as I subsequently learned is “Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future”. Seng’s name reappeared! My curiosity roused, I ordered “Presence” (2004) together with “Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges” (2009), by C. Otto Scharmer. This second book is the one that arrived in the box, which I’ve discovered is well deserved.

Seng, Scharmer, Jaworski, and Flowers have been notable for their work with giant corporations. Surely, these two books appear on bookstore business shelves and I would never normally have seen them. But, wait. They are all about designing, constructing, and evolving resilient, innovative, and environmentally and socially sensitive organizations. Among those whose insights are featured are Johan Wolfgang Goethe, Rupert Steiner, Christopher Alexander, Buckminster Fuller, Walt Whitman, Mother Teresa, Martin Buber, C.G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, Maya Angelou, Jon Kabat-Zinn, W.H, Auden, Masaro Emoto, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Krishnamurti, David Bohm, Richard Bach, Margaret Mead, Rupert Sheldrake, Paul Gauguin, Thomas Berry, David Quinn, Dibashish Chattergie, Fritjof Capra, Francisco Varela, and Chinese Chan and Taoist master and Confucian scholar Nan Huai Chin. On the other hand, almost no business authorities are mentioned.

“Theory U” is a massive book, 540 numbered pages, and surely would require long term dedication and practice to comprehend – I’m inclined to use it as a source. Once I started reading “Presence”, I could hardly interrupt the flow; several times tears came to my eyes. Here, I conclude, is a key to solving the transition problem. Much of it centers around each of us jointly personally enacting in our own lives and organizations, as Gandhi recommended, the resolution we desire for humankind’s and the earth’s great problem.

Many of you would be able to appreciate this material if it is thrown at you. Still, it is peppered with assumptions and intuitive understanding gained from personal meditative/contemplative practices that may not be familiar to you. One reason I find these two books so engrossing is that they cap explorations on which I’ve been ever more focused in the past few years, indeed to an extent, looking back, for much of my life. They arrived in my life serendipitously when I was prepared to receive them; I find similar some-how directing events happening all the time. To further capture your attention, allow me to sketch some of those precursors, most especially Goethe’s inspirations.

In 1961, Owen Barfield wrote an earth-shaking book or it would have if it had been widely read and understood. The title, “Saving Appearances: A Study in Idolatry”, probably would have attracted few and his erudite, educated English phrasing didn’t make the book easy to understand. Barfield’s subject is the evolution of consciousness. He saw four phases, which to an extent blend together at the boundaries. The first is that experienced by pre-civilized, indigenous, so-called primitive tribes. As described by anthropologists, tribal members experienced the natural world as alive, ever changing, and enmeshed and their personal lives inseparable from it. Studies have found that their languages typically had no nouns and might be said rely on vowels, except distinct words as such didn’t exist. What we might consider to be words were more simply expressive components of often long phrases. Present tense was unknown, since nothing stood still long enough to so trap. They utilized a wide variety of plants for foods, medicines focused on specific disorders, hallucinogenics, basketry and clothing, dyes, and other purposes. Not unusually, these plants were quite poisonous if taken internally without elaborate preparation. The mystery is how they discovered those preparations and applications, given that many would have had to suffer and die in the process of experimentation, which seems far-fetched. They often told the story that the plants informed them. Immediate perception of phenomena with little rational discrimination ruled their consciousness.

The next phase is what Barfield called alpha-thinking. Here, recurring patterns are recognized and remembered – of course, “recurring pattern” is an oxymoron, which I shall not further explore. Most especially, when one pattern is seen often preceding another, what have come to call “cause and effect” patterns in time appear. Individuals remember these so-called rules of thumb or heuristics and use them make decisions. Eighteenth century philosopher Robert Hume asserted that this was the only solid ground we have for rationality and few have been able to dispute his arguments. Certainly, primitive tribal members and, in fact, cats, dogs, and maybe all birds and mammals experience forms of alpha-thinking, but Barfield claimed such was normally unconscious.

Several of those studying ancient languages tell us that words as we think of them and nouns naming “things” were Greek inventions. Syriac languages, Syrian, Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic, more closely resemble those ancient tribal languages than European ones. Nonetheless, as Barfield describes, from Aristotle to Aquinas and centuries after words were inextricable linked to alpha-thinking patterns, closely tied to perceptions if often muddled by beliefs, i.e. heuristics stretched beyond immediate perception. For example, astronomic calculations from the Greeks to Copernicus were heuristics, often stretched with astrological beliefs. Two cardinals urged Copernicus to publish his findings. The Church was wedded to other elaborate heuristics such as that expressed in the mass.

This phase blew up with Galileo’s arrival. He concluded from his experiments that “any” “object” having “mass” will “always” maintain its momentum in a “vacuum” unless perturbed by some “force”. This was abstraction beyond abstraction. Can you perceive every possible “object”, whatever they may be, or a vacuum? Clearly, these were mental constructs seemingly independent of anyone’s perception, could only remotely be called heuristics, and were out of reach of all the Pope’s ministrations. Barfield calls this beta-thinking. The Church could find no precursors to such ideas in their ways of thinking, their dogmas, and took offense. Galileo’s approach was to carry the day in a few decades. Positivistic, materialistic science was born. It was an easy step for us to view the universe as a machine, which is a very difficult mindset to escape if only because it doesn’t require much thought.

Very crudely stated, this now traditional approach to a scientific study has several steps: 1. A phenomenological context is somehow subjected to measurement; 2. the scientist then attempts to discover an hypothetical mathematic description of what is occurring; 3. the scientist contrives a simplified experimental situation to test whether his hypothesis matches these measured observations; 4. if so, he publishes; if not he returns to phase 1.

This approach to understanding the world depends entirely on “objective” measurements that supposedly anyone can duplicate; any other data is declared subjective and worthless, any such perceptions are “unreal” and to be carefully ignored. Though this is seldom mentioned, descriptive hypotheses are gleaned from the scientist’s personal prior experience without any claims to a rational approach – try ideas until one is found that somehow works. If an idea doesn’t quite work, hypothesize that the pattern observed is somehow subject to randomness, which is a concept that doesn’t withstand examination other than as an indication of ignorance, and wheel out statistics. As a result, the world isn’t experienced except through a numbers glass darkly. Barfield saw us as unquestioningly so idolizing this materialist science viewpoint, likely I add because of the wonderful technical toys it provides. These toys included business management methods and we soon discovered we had become cogs in corporate and government machines that were grinding up our world; we find it nearly impossible to step off because this has been imprinted in our minds since childhood.

Most of our world is not measurable, which confounds philosophers and scientists alike, though we on the street seldom notice. For instance, our sense of beauty and empathy escapes their grasp as does our very consciousness. As Goethe described in great detail, even our sense of colors is out beyond; scientists wheeled out electromagnetic frequencies, to which Goethe replied with his color wheel. It has been wisely said, I believe, that the universe is not only more complex than we understand, it is more complex than we can understand, surely so if we restrict what we’re willing to see through a narrow positivist scientific lens.

In a complex situation what variables do you measure out of the plethora available? For example, many thousands of carbon-based chemicals have been poured into our environment, many of which have hormonal effects. Should not each have been tested prior to release to ascertain what negative results might occur, some of which surely do? The problems resulting from the spraying of DDT are well known, but most of these other chemicals are never tested because hormones are involved in so many of the body’s processes and not all those exposed will display symptoms. Testing would be enormously expensive and would stop the wheels of industry and the economy. Anyhow, it is too late. Anyhow, how do you find volunteers on which to run tests? The conclusion reached by the EPA and industry is to let what happens happen unless some situation becomes clearly unacceptable such as the DDT event was. Science can’t deal with it. This example is not at all unusual; in fact, it is the more normal situation that science faces when attempting to confront so-called “unexpected” side effects.

This whole approach to ascertaining “truth” fell apart when quantum effects were observed. It is true that classical materialistic science has discovered some amazing heuristics such as those underlying our technical age. But as quantum physicists and “new” scientists have discovered, the classical approach ties one’s hands. They are finding ways around. Another example: Our bodies are incredibly complex. Thousands of research papers are published each year describing aspects that had not previously been understood or even observed. It is incredibly hard to observe and measure chemical processes occurring in that cellular soup consisting of many thousands of different types of molecules reacting in billions of combinations every second. Even after describing some such, what effects it might have on our body’s overt operation remains even more intimidating. Still, given a disorder, physicians choose among a multitude of tests and attempt to pin down a cause and cure, which is often a shot in the dark. Yet, there are those astonishingly skilled diagnosticians that can somehow find amazing solutions simply by observing patients.

Goethe ridiculed scientists’ reliance on measurements and declared that each human is an amazing instrument for observing and understanding the world, incredibly more powerful than any of the scientists’. Available instruments are of course much more sensitive today than in his. Just as is true of eyeglasses, he would likely say that these are tools and mustn’t tie one’s hands. Thus, the expert medical diagnostician surely would use what tests are available, but without letting their results dictate his conclusions.

Owen Barfield saw beta-thinking as a dead end that is the crux of our great environment-economic quandary. He, however, proposed that consciousness is capable of evolving to a more healthy level and Goethe described how so. This phase 4 is somewhat like the primitive phase 1 in that we must get back in intimate touch with the phenomenal world, preferably the wilder, the more untouched by human hands, the better, but with much increased conscious awareness we are doing so.

Since complex situations are so intimidating to the scientific method, scientists learned early to focus on simple ones. They then made a huge theoretical leap to assume that “the whole was the sum of its parts”, that they need only master the simple parts and the whole would fall into place. As exemplified above, this is clearly nonsense. Goethe took the opposite tack. He began with the whole.

Goethe’s typical target was a plant. In step 1, after dropping all presumptions he would examine the plant from all viewpoints. He would periodically close his eyes in order to visualize it with all his senses until the image was as bright and concise as the original to be certain he had seized the whole in his mind. Then, in step 2, he dropped the effort and silently, expectantly, awaited inspiration to arrive. When it did so, he examined the insight and perhaps attempted to capture it in communicable form in step 3. It is vital to note that insights may include more than understandings; they may direct appropriate responsive actions.

Materialist scientists certainly scream that the second step just won’t happen, indeed can’t happen. Any supposed insight that appears will be illusory, delusory. Yet, remarkable, endless stories are related of how scientists’ hypotheses, sometimes beta-thinking theories such as Einstein’s, came to mind seemingly out of nowhere. That this is increasingly recognized is beginning to break down the defenses of many. Instead of crossing his fingers that insights might happen, Goethe cultivated them.

The three segments of the “U” in “Theory U” correspond to Goethe’s three steps, in this case performed by groups to address common problems or realize common visions. The third step consists not just about understanding, but about taking actions. Seng, Scharmer, Jaworski, and Flowers provide many pages of guidance and illustrate with a multitude of successes – and failures. Failures usually happen, it appears to me, because participants refuse to drop their presumptions, in effect close their minds to insights that don’t ratify their beliefs. Explanations for such approaches can be prey to metaphysics, which these authors avoid as did Goethe – this is not religion, but as Alexander found, a thoroughly pragmatic approach. We, of course, can surmise endlessly from whence these insights are arriving, but this wouldn’t change the approach a whit.

I rephrase: Theory U is about building resilient, creative, sustainable, and environmentally and socially sensitive communities as wholes, while avoiding getting stuck in beta-thinking details with all those unexpected side effects. Theory U is most assertively not about training leaders, but about communally planting seeds and about practicing stewardship as they germinate and grow. The Theory U process, while seemingly introduced by Goethe, anciently appears in many versions often with cultural trappings that may or may not be useful. It appears to be descriptive of the creative process. It is an every day way of life in one form or another for many individuals. As Krishnamurti, Ramana, and others have pointed out, mastery doesn’t require a guru; indeed the inspiration source is each our personal guru.

When asked, Master Nan listed the three questions we must answer: What is human nature? Where does life come from? What is life for? Our machine culture has an answer to all and its all about cogs. If this is yours, I’m sad for you, humankind, and the earth. Alternately, we may say that life, creative evolution, is bubbling up within us and will flow through if we, our little egos, get out of the way or, better, assist it. Aurobindo, Steiner, and several others with similar credentials argue that this is the next phase in human consciousness evolution, if there is to be such. In fact, It (may I capitalize it?) can’t accomplish Its purpose without our human assistance. Indeed, we can carelessly defeat It. Such is the inspiration received by many.

My challenge to you. Let us form groups practicing U theory with the intention of planting the seeds and becoming the stewards of our future community as a whole, our future local culture as a whole, without weighting the effort down with spending precious time searching for technical patches to the present one in response to those approaching monster exigencies – which doesn’t mean that I don’t urge back to the earth grounding in every way. On the contrary, I propose that the first exercise address place in all its richness, its meaning, and its future. Let us get in the flow, so to speak. What future do you desire? If the number of publications is indicative, manifesting is a big deal. Let us manifest a better future for us and for the earth.

If you are interested in exploring this further, please contact me at with “Theory U” as the subject.

However, one request:  I ask you to read the first hundred pages of “Presence” before responding.