By the time my first child, John-Michael, was born in 1983, I had already been a spiritual teacher for nearly twenty years. A major perennial topic in my lectures and workshops was love, and I felt I reasonably understood what love was about. But the first time I held my son in my arms, I realized how incomplete my knowledge was. I knew immediately that this new person was going to teach me things about love that I had never known before. And he has, along with another son and two daughters who came to join him as my teachers over the years….

By the time my first child, John-Michael, was born in 1983, I had already been a spiritual teacher for nearly twenty years. A major perennial topic in my lectures and workshops was love, and I felt I reasonably understood what love was about. But the first time I held my son in my arms, I realized how incomplete my knowledge was. I knew immediately that this new person was going to teach me things about love that I had never known before. And he has, along with another son and two daughters who came to join him as my teachers over the years.

When we think of the relationship of parents and children, it’s common and natural to think of what parents do for their offspring. We are responsible for them. There would appear to be a natural hierarchical relationship here with knowledge, love, wisdom, power, and authority flowing down from the parent to the child. But as any parent knows, the relationship is not so clear-cut; love and knowledge flow back from the child and as he or she grows older, wisdom and authority do as well. Parents and children may not be equal, but they can be partners each enriching the other in ways that neither could do for themselves.

Colliding spiral galaxies of Arp 271, 90 million miles distant, toward Virgo
Gemini Observatory/Aural; APOD 07-21-2008

Holarchy and Holism
This relationship in which different and unequal participants nevertheless enhance each other and co-creatively make a larger wholeness possible is what I call holarchy. It honors each participant and looks not to their relative ranking as in a hierarchy, but to what they can contribute by virtue of their differences. Thus in a hierarchy, participants can be compared and evaluated on the basis of position, rank, relative power, seniority and the like. But in a holarchy each person’s value comes from his or her individuality and uniqueness and the capacity to engage and interact with others to make the fruits of that uniqueness available.

The idea of holarchy conceptually grows out of the larger idea of holism. The word itself was coined by the South African statesman, general, and scientist Jan Smuts in his 1926 book, Holism and Evolution. After reading it, Albert Einstein said that the concept of holism was one of two paradigms that would govern human thinking in the 21st century (the second, he claimed, was his own theory of relativity). As in many things, Einstein has proven prescient. While no one would claim that politics, commerce, and social development as yet follow holistic models, the need to develop and implement such models is becoming increasingly apparent.

Smuts defined holism as “the tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution.” This idea found fertile soil in the science of ecology, which studies the patterns of interrelationship and wholeness that make up an environment. Consequently, the word has come to mean a condition of interdependency and interconnectedness such as characterizes the web of life on earth. In human society, it represents an attitude and lifestyle that perceives and fosters that condition in all areas of our personal and collective life.

Inner Worlds or Supersensible Realities
For me, the idea of holarchy comes from my experiences with the non-physical dimensions of life, what Rudolf Steiner called the “supersensible realities,” or simply the “Inner Worlds.” I have had a form of clairvoyant access to these worlds since early childhood. As a young man in my late teens and early twenties, I became familiar with theosophically related cosmologies that described these non-physical worlds in terms of layers, planes, and hierarchies, rather like a wedding cake with the physical realm at or near the bottom. Beings of greater spiritual presence and power occupied the upper realms and passed their wisdom and creative energies down the levels to us, rather like parents passing their knowledge and care down to their children. But when on occasion I would find myself in the presence of such a higher being, I did not feel any sense of hierarchy or ranking any more than I felt my own children to be “below” me. Instead, what I felt was a sense of embrace and love, of honoring and attentiveness from this being to me. I recognized that while it might be more powerful energetically than I and possessed of greater insight, this being and I both shared a universal life. We were different in capacity—in what we could do—but we were equal in value and in a shared sacredness.
{pagebreak}Over the years, I have experienced the inner worlds more like a vast ecology whose various levels function less like ranks in a hierarchy and more like biomes, each with its own unique characteristics and dominant forms of life, energy and consciousness. Rather than flowing in one direction from the top to the bottom, creative energy, inspiration, and spirit flows between these regions in patterns of mutual co-creation and support. The Sacred—the Generative Mystery—is everywhere present, the force of life and presence within the entire ecology, rather than being centered in one part of it.

The Physical World as a Radiant Presence
In particular, I find the physical world itself to be a radiant presence, a “star” of life. It imposes unique characteristics upon consciousness due to the nature of matter, but it is hardly the “densest” or lowest of places. Rather than simply receiving inspiration and guidance from above, it is a source of spiritual energy in its own right, and makes its own important contribution to the co-creative process of the evolutionary whole of which all the dimensions are a part. While one world or level may indeed emanate from another, once it comes into being it begins to radiate and unfold in its own unique way, becoming a member of the larger planetary and cosmic spiritual and energetic ecology. It becomes a partner, not a dependent.

Holarchy is not necessarily the opposite of hierarchy. They are two different perspectives, each capturing a truth. Hierarchy often describes structural and functional relationships: how a system operates and how responsibility, power, and energy are distributed and dispersed throughout that system. For example, at Microsoft, Bill Gates was the head of the company and directed its operations; vision and decisions flowed from him through a traditional business hierarchy throughout the organization down to the lowliest janitor cleaning up the offices at night. Gates’s responsibility was for the whole company and its success while the janitor’s was just for the rooms he was cleaning.

Coral reef biome, Iolanda Reef, Ras Muhammad nature park, Egypt
Coral reef biome. Mikhail Rogov, Wikimedia Commons

Holarchy, on the other hand, describes how information and such qualities as love and caring are distributed within a system. In the early days of Microsoft, for instance, using intraorganizational email, a janitor could contact and dialogue with Bill Gates directly and offer suggestions and insights for the good of the company. Information flowed in non-hierarchical ways in that useful and important ideas could come from any level, and a janitor could have just as much love, creativity, and caring for the company as the CEO. Holarchy is the system—or the attitude—that allows information, love, caring, and creative energy to flow between levels of a system without regard for rank or position. The janitor and the CEO occupy different structural and functional positions within Microsoft, but each can be equally filled with and part of the spirit of the organization.

In a holarchy, there is no “higher” or “lower.” There is difference and the creative value that such difference can provide. In a hierarchy, the structure itself imposes clear rules on communication and evaluation; information flows in a regularized way up and down a chain of command. A hierarchy imposes order. In a holarchy, order and integration are co-created in the moment at the boundaries between people; rules are often made up in the moment based on the conditions and requirements of the unique relationships that are present at the time. It can appear chaotic, though in fact it is not. Negotiation and openness rather than position provide organizing factors.

Love – the Primary Organizing Principle
I would go further to say that in a fully functioning holarchy love is the primary organizing principle. This is not necessarily affection or even any form of emotional attachment or response but rather a respect and honoring for each individual as a source of sacredness. The basic premise is that each being has something to offer that is unique, that every being is potentially a teacher, and that I can learn from anyone or any situation. Certainly, as both a teacher and a parent, I experience this all the time. I may be the authority in a class and have knowledge the students do not, but this doesn’t mean that learning is a one-way street from me to them. Learning is much more than just the passing on of information; it is the co-creation together of a relationship in which new perspectives and insights emerge for everyone concerned.

In working with beings that are, by every standard I have, more evolved spiritually than I am, I have discovered again and again the grace and love with which they engage with me and their openness to what I have to contribute, small though it may be. I recognize that they honor the Sacred in me, which is beyond all rank and position, and do what they can to lift me up and acknowledge our equality before God. Indeed, when I encounter a being that does not do that and insists upon its allegedly “higher” position, its “adeptship” or exalted state of evolution, I can be pretty sure that it is not a reputable source. A sure way to discern that a particular entity is not very highly evolved is its reliance upon some claimed position in a hierarchy as a sign of its authority. Over the years, I have found that the more evolved the being, the more it proves the saying that the greatest of all shall be the servant of the least.

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For several thousands of years, humanity has constructed its cultures and civilizations largely around hierarchical models, so much so that they seem to be part of the way things are, as natural a part of creation as gravity and sunlight. But the study of holism and ecology shows that this is not necessarily the case, that there are other, more holistic, models of organization and relationship. While hierarchy can be and often is a useful and efficient tool for getting things done, it can fail at the deeper need to establish a rich, co-creative field of mutuality and partnership. This is a critical failing in our time when there is a need for humanity to cease seeing the world in hierarchical terms, with itself at the evolutionary peak, and begin relating to the various visible and invisible kingdoms of nature as partners.

Likewise, a hierarchical view of the spiritual worlds, particularly one that elevates the Sacred to the top of an imagined pyramid of authority and power, can blind us to the sacredness that is within ourselves and within all things, disempowering us at a time when our loving and creative spirit is urgently needed.

Rain forest biome, Hoh River, Washington State
Rain forest biome. © 2005 Walter Siegmund; Wikimedia Commons

The implementation of holarchy is not difficult. It is the loving application of the idea that each person, being, or object I encounter has something to offer and can be, however momentarily, a partner in mutual evolution. It is the idea that we are dependent on each other, whatever our status or rank, for our well being, and that we are all co-creators in the processes of cosmic emergence. It is an application of openness, a respect and honoring for the least as well as the greatest with an understanding that the one can well be the other depending on the situation. It is the realization that good ideas, love, spiritual energy, grace and goodness can come from anywhere and are not dependent on age, rank, position, status, evolution or form.

Mostly it is an understanding that when it comes to creating wholeness—to being part of a holistic universe—we are all partners together and we each have something important to contribute.

David Spangler



David Spangler
Vision of Holarachy