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The root cause of our dis-ease is how we engage with life

March 1, 2013

Those of us who are members of the BCI network strongly believe that many of the solutions to the problems we are facing today can be found in nature. It is why we talk about ‘business inspired by nature’. When we study ecosystems, we begin to realise how nature has already solved the intricate problems of diversity that we humans seem to struggle so much with, such as creating a global financial system and currencies that are truly sustainable. Simon Robinson of BCI: Biomimicry for Creative Innovation is also editor of Transition Consciousness and a sustainability expert based in Sao Paulo writes a guest blog for The Nature of Business on this here.


In Brazil I consult and teach people in business about complexity and chaos. People are always keen to learn about new business models, and a profound understanding of these business models such as Kyocera’s Amoeba Management System can come from studying complex systems in nature. But there is a hurdle to overcome.

Nature’s systems, the cells, plants, immune systems, DNA and every other organic system do not function in the same way as technology. We cannot use the same mental models we use to build technology for the comprehension of an organic system such as a plant, which not only are dynamic, but which require a complete rethinking of the relationship between the parts and the whole.

simon Jung's mandala

I use Jung’s four ways of knowing to help guide people into a new dynamic way of thinking. These four ways of knowing are thinking, sensing, feeling and intuition. Thinking is the rational use of abstract symbols and logic, and it sometimes characterised as left-brain thinking, mechanistic thinking or reductionist thinking, where we break problems down into manageable parts.

left brain right brainThe brain is incredibly good at this, perhaps as a result of this way of thinking being the only one which is currently valued in western societies. A famous video shows that if you are asked to count the number of jugglers, you will miss the huge pink gorilla in the background. As Raph Koster puts it “the brain is actively hiding the real world from us” which is a great summary of the cognitive concept of chunking – where whole routines in our daily lives are “chunked” into patterns which we constantly run unconsciously.

Sensing refers to the sensory realm, that realm of our human experience in which our senses connect us to the world around us, and which we can become disconnected from when we are lost in thinking. Opposite to thinking is Feeling, not to be confused with our emotions. If we only think about nature, and do not have a sense of connection in our hearts to nature, and if we do not feel the dynamic complexity then it is far more unlikely that we will be motivated to change our behaviour to one which is less destructive to the environment.

And finally opposite sensing is intuition. We often use the word intuition when we want to say that we have a feeling about something which will happen, but cannot explain in any rational way. I sometimes use the phrase scientific intuition to show that this use of intuition in the framework is not about feelings, but the comprehension of an idea which cannot be represented symbolically in our thinking minds.

Over 200 years ago the great poet, writer and scientific thinker Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832) developed a complementary way of science which utilised all four ways of knowing to understand the complex dynamic processes of nature. Although much of his life was dedicated to science with his study of light and colour being the most comprehensive ever to have been carried out, his delicate empiricism as he called it was widely rejected. It was rejected by scientists who were operating only in the realm of thinking, and as such his deep and profound way of knowing nature was lost on them. I feel that this is still the picture in our educational system today, which is reflected in society with our fragmentary way of comprehending complexity, which through our rational minds keeps us disconnected from nature which we are destroying more and more of each day.

simon Four ways of knowing

In the late 60s and early 70s General Systems Theory was becoming a fashionable trend in business thinking. At this same time Goethian philosopher Henri Bortoft was warning of the trap which could lead us into a form of totalitarianism:

 I tried to express the difference between this and the systems approach in a paper which I gave at a conference at the beginning of the 1970s. What I wanted to do in this paper was to find a way of talking about wholeness that would avoid the ‘totalitarian’ tendency of systems theory – as a result of which the whole is reified and separated from the parts which it then dominates. The aim is to avoid reductionism without replacing it by holism.

 The hermeneutic circle gives us a different way of thinking, in which the parts depend upon the whole, but equally the whole depends on the parts. I found the language I was looking for in Heidegger’s notion of ‘presence’ (not to be confused with ‘present’), ‘presencing’, ‘coming-to-presence’, and so on. This enabled me to say that the whole presences within the parts, which is intended to convey the sense that it is always implicit and can never become explicit as such – if it did it would become ‘present’ as an object (it would come ‘outside’) and hence separate from the parts. If the whole presences within the parts, then the only way to encounter the whole is within the parts through which it presences, and not by standing back from the parts to try and get an ‘overview’ of the whole.

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, 2012, Floris Books

Note how Henri talks about not stepping back from the whole, but sensing how we have to comprehend the whole in an entirely new way. I will entirely understand if this new way of discussing a dynamic system sounds strange, since it a way of using language that is not taught in the vast majority of educational establishments. Notable pioneers of teaching this way of thinking are Schumacher College via its philosophy of transformative learning, The Nature Institute in New York state, and Pishwanton, a Goethian Science centre run by Goethian Scientist Margaret Colquhoun.

 simon Margaret Colquhoun

 It is no simple matter to make this profound shift to a more balanced way of knowing the world, where our thinking is in harmony with sensing, feeling and intuition. This shift cannot be made as a result of reading, or indeed thinking. We have to go on a deeply transformative journey. This journey, which follows the teachings of Goethe, is characterised by Margaret in four stages, relating to the four elements of earth, water, air and fire.

simon Four qualities of thinking

 I was taken on this journey by Margaret Colquhoun, along with Henri Bortoft, Stephan Harding and Philip Frances while undertaking my year-long Master’s degree in Holistic Science at Schumacher College, and while in reality it is a lifetimes endeavour, this way of thinking about the four qualities of knowing has some very practical uses when trying to understand the challenges of taking people in our own organisations through a process of profound change.

The earth way of thinking is our everyday way of thinking, where objects are solid, distinct and separate from us. Margaret showed us how to observe nature in this mode of thinking, paying attention to every detail we could see and draw in the plants and trees around us. This is a quite humbling exercise, simply drawing a branch from a tree, since it is humbling to realise just how much detail we miss when not actively observing that which is around us.

When we move into the next stage, water, our thinking becomes more fluid. We begin to focus on the relationships between the objects around us, and just like water flowing along a river, we begin to notice the more dynamic and temporal aspect of nature. If we are not conscious of our mode of thinking, we can pass each day not having any connection to the nature which is around us, our brains only acknowledging the concept ‘tree’ and not a living, individual and life-giving entity. The impact of doing these simple observational exercises with one holly plant began to awake within me a much deeper sense of the livingness of the plants I was studying and I really began to experience what Goethe described as the growing of a new “organ of perception”.

simon Holly - New eyes for plants

It is interesting that the word inspiration relates to both artistic creativity as well as the inhalation of air. In this stage we really start to open ourselves to a much deeper encounter with the phenomena we are studying. My friend and fellow Goethian practitioner Emma Kidd describes her own encounter with a nettle plant in terms of encountering the “gesture”:

After having spent time observing various Nettles, going to and from them, eventually I was returning to them and feeling like I was meeting an old friend. One day I sat down with a particular nettle, sat in a patch of many others, and I felt a really strong ‘star’-like quality. It is very hard to describe but it felt like this enormous spreading, shining sensation – like an expanding force of intense energy. I intuited it as a gesture of the wholeness of the plant. A wholeness that I could then recognise in parts of the plant such as the force of the ‘sting’ that you feel when touching the small syringe like ‘stinging hairs’; the shape and expression of the thousands of tiny hairs seemingly bursting out of the plant with this immense energy; the pattern of ‘spikes’ on the leaf edges which feel like they are dynamically spreading outward with purpose. The whole plant felt like a star that was ‘shining’. A wonderful experience to participate in. So, as opposed to actively working your way around what you are seeing and describing it, you remain with a still, open mind that is receptive to what the phenomena has to say to you, rather than what you have to say to it.

The final stage is that of fire, of personal transformation. I am loathe to even attempt to characterise this, since the experience is so profound and so personal, perhaps the experience is far beyond the ability of language to convey. In this stage transformation is only possible when we let go of our egos, and this is I think the hardest thing we as humans can attempt to do.


There is a difference between those people who may claim to have gone through this level of thinking and experience, and that much smaller group of people who really have done so. Many people talk the talk but their actions and approach to life show that they are not living their philosophy, not walking the walk. It is thanks to teaching establishments such as Schumacher College who not only provide the teachings, but also the incredible support network for those students like myself who must undergo the emotional roller coaster of this transformation.


Not everyone of course has the opportunity to immerse themselves so deeply in the way that the students do at Schumacher College, but there are many activities we can do to start to take us into these other qualities of thinking. My wife Maria and I for example have run workshops where we blindfold business executives and ask them to work in clay and create a model which best expresses their relationship with nature.

simon Workshop in clay

Another exercise Maria does in her courses on change management and business strategy is to ask people to meditate on a video of the murmuration of starlings. The video is used to inspired people to think about what an organic organisation could look like, and they are encouraged to write down words which come to mind on notes on boards and walls. After one workshop where she facilitated this exercise she told me the following:

 One person wrote ‘beauty’ and ‘divine movement’ and this is exactly what we feel, the beauty and the intelligence which exists in nature. Unfortunately we are so far from nature that we have forgotten this very strong intelligence which exists. So when you see something like starlings, it is possible to reconnect with this kind of inner intelligence.

What Goethe can do is to teach people in business to be more mindful of the whole situation, as opposed to accidentally thinking that you have, when you have only comprehended a part. He can help us to become better listeners. When we have our rational aspect dominating ourselves, normally we try to find answers quickly. We jump to conclusions. As Maria says that if we can quieten our minds and our pre-conceptions we are able to listen better and have an active listening process. So I can really listen to what you are saying but to pay attention in your movements, to pay attention to the environment, to the whole.interconnected nature

 Simon Robinson is a consultant and lecturer in chaos and complexity theory, innovation, creativity and sustainability. He is the editor of, a member of BCI (Biomimicry for Creative Innovation) and lives in São Paulo, Brazil.

 To explore business inspired by nature and a new business paradigm further, join the Face Book community here


Re-cognition and the dynamics of thinking

Dialogue on Leadership: Maria Auxiliadora’s Meditation on Starlings

Emma Kidd – Turning a New Leaf

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2013 2:49 am

    Hi, Simon,
    You wrote: “Nature’s systems, the cells, plants, immune systems, DNA and every other organic system do not function in the same way as technology. We cannot use the same mental models we use to build technology for the comprehension of an organic system such as a plant, which not only are dynamic, but which require a complete rethinking of the relationship between the parts and the whole.”

    First, we have to distinguish between natural and artificial objects. Let’s begin with natural objects. Minerals are either crystal-like or amorphous. Now look at any living being: it has some “organic” form. Goethe said that plants reach their pinnacle in their form. This means that plants have to surpass, to sublimate the physical forces they have to follow, in order to produce their physical expression. Whenever we see a plant, we should think that what we see is the physical expression of something that is not physical and gives its form. The forms of plants are expressions of something minerals don’t have: all life processes, such as inner growth (by cell subdivision), reproduction, etc.

    Animals have more than just form, so they can move, have desires, instincts, feelings etc. Goethe called it “typus”, using a Latin expression – but he didn’t have a clear idea what this was. Animals have to have something that sublimate not just their physical form, but also their life processes, otherwise they would not be able to move, have desires etc.

    Humans must sublimate their physical form, their life processes and also their feelings, instincts etc. Whenever we encounter a human being, we should immediately imagine that there is a higher self acting upon what we see. As with plants and animals, what we see is just appearance. This higher self, which we don’t see with our physical senses, is responsible for our erect, vertical position (if we get asleep, we fall down, so this position is not a consequence of our form) and also for speech.

    So if we want to understand plants, animals and humans, we have, as you said, to use other types of thinking than those that are solely based upon our senses, because with the latter one perceives just the appearances, the outside (even when examining the inside of beings). Through them, and reasoning based upon them, we never get to the essence of living beings. Modern science uses only our senses, or better, machines that physically extend our senses. This way it never gets to the whole of beings, as you mentioned.
    Now for artificial objects. In some sense, they are under-natural. Any stone is the result of millions of years of transformations; it is infinitely richer than any artificial artifact. Using artifacts for our research, we never get to the essence of living beings. Worst still, measuring instruments transform everything in numbers, and cannot reveal something that is qualitative and is not in the theory with which they were constructed. Curiously, using instruments we are not able to understand what an electron is. And we cannot understand what 95% of the universe is (dark matter and energy). So, using instruments, we cannot know even what physical matter is! Goethe proposed that we return to direct observations and interpret what instruments reveal – as in the case of his accurate observations with prisms – based on what we can directly observe.
    Best rregards, Val.


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