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Wholesome Power

"Weaving the polarities of order and chaos, individual and collective"

by Tom Atlee


In times of scarcity, conflict and crisis, what kind of power do we need and where shall we get it?

We are surrounded by potential resources, companions, and capacities which—to the extent we recognize, welcome them, work with and appreciate them—become actual resources, partners and capacities, generating an expanded power to have positive impact in the world by helping it partner with itself.

I call this kind of power wholesome power—accessing the wisdom and capacities of the whole on behalf of the whole.

When we exercise wholesome power, it is not us as individuals or groups that make the difference. It is the living whole of which we have become a catalytic part, evoking and empowering the resources of the whole, which is having impact.

The theory and practice of wholesome power is an emerging field that embraces many models, approaches, and phenomena, few of which consciously see themselves as manifesting wholesome power. This essay is not a blueprint for wholesome power but rather an invitation to explore what wholesome power is and could be and how it could be practiced and enhanced in myriad ways by myriad people dealing with myriad situations and possibilities at all levels all over the world.

If wholesome power accesses the wisdom and capacities of the whole on behalf of the whole, what is “the whole”? It can be a whole person or relationship, a whole situation, a whole community or country, the whole world, the whole of transcendent unitary reality—whatever whole or wholes we are dealing with.

Wholesome power involves welcoming, invoking, catalyzing, balancing, and midwifing whatever new aliveness is trying to emerge. In service to the life of the whole, wholesome power skillfully treats disturbance, disruption, and crisis as doorways for learning and possibility. From the perspective of wholesome power, quality information, interconnection and conversation become the whole getting more in touch with more of itself and evolving into its next forms of wholeness.

Although individuals and groups can exercise wholesome power, wholesome power fundamentally lives within all living systems and can be called forth to do its work and then left to self-organize. Practitioners of wholesome power design and establish social and natural systems to enhance that self-organizing capacity in which participants serve the whole and the whole serves the participants.

Here are some questions I see practitioners of wholesome power asking in their work. They generate abundant answers and approaches, all grist for the mill of this new field. They hint at the new directions this vision of power is taking us. I've sorted them into six interrelated categories as follows, covering different aspects of wholeness:

Questions about RELEVANT PERSPECTIVES: How broad is our tally of who is involved with the situation and who should be included in awareness, conversations, and decisions about it? Are we trying to engage the whole community and/or a whole spectrum of stakeholders, or are we excluding certain people or perspectives because of our biases and shortcomings? Do we filter based on logistical and resource limitations or do dynamics of culture, power and privilege play a role? How shall we overcome limitations that bias relevant inclusion? When we can't include everyone or everything involved, do we thoughtfully develop fair microcosms and articulations to give them voice, with links to the larger wholes they represent?

Questions about THE WHOLE PICTURE: To what extent are we taking into account the whole picture of what's relevant here? Are we considering the history of the situation, the current dynamics and needs, the likely long term consequences of various actions? Are we thinking holistically and systemically—clarifying not only feedback loops, stocks and flows involved but honestly facing our own role and truly honoring and tapping into the interconnectedness and unity of all things—especially the kinship and shared destiny of all life? When we exclude factors from consideration or people from participation, are we excluding them because they are truly irrelevant or because our own narrow interests, perspectives, awareness, or comfort level limit our capacity to see, feel, know and relate?

Questions about INTEGRAL DIVERSITY: How well do we make positive use of the diversity we are trying to include? Do we ground our work in shared realities, needs, and aspirations? Do we create the best possible contexts and interactive processes to help people benefit from both their differences and their commonalities? Do we try to optimize the gifts of both leadership and self-organization in leaderful groups? Do we integrate order and chaos to promote emergence? Do we support both advocacy and inquiry to generate learning? Do we balance individual and collective energies and resources to create vibrant communities? Do we productively tap and creatively manage such polarities, rather than siding too strongly with one side or the other?

Questions about WHOLE PEOPLE: Are our whole selves fully engaged? Can we and others readily bring our minds and hearts, bodies and spirits, guts and passions into our work and relationships? Are things set up to encourage that? Is there ample room for play and fun, for rest and relaxation, for undirected conversation and interaction, for creativity and randomness, for self-care and generosity—both for their own sakes and to make a space that invites unexpected possibilities?

Questions about EVOLUTION: Do we courageously face and facilitate change, growth, and transformation? Do disturbances and crises inspire our inquiry and energy towards learning and breakthrough? Are we self-aware enough that our limitations and leading edges generate humility, vulnerability, and a sense of personal adventure? Do we realistically discern where people, groups, and systems are in their own developmental journeys, engaging with them at or slightly above their current level of consciousness and capacity, providing both fellowship and challenge? Do we design and promote systems that support learning and emergence in both individuals and collectives—to promote resilience and sustain ongoing fitness in the face of changes and challenges as the whole evolves?

Questions about NATURAL ORDER: Do our efforts, technologies, and systems apply lessons from nature and align with natural realities and processes to generate success, good lives, and collective resilience? Do we honor and treat ecosystems as whole living entities and not just collections of separate plants, animals, and land that constitute resources or obstacles? Do we recognize our role in natural cycles and follow nature's dictum that waste equals food, engaging creatively with what life offers and making sure that what we pass on is readily useful for other parts of life? Do we recognize the human need for naturalness in our living spaces, sustenance, and lifestyles? Do we ground ourselves, our innovations, and our institutions in local places—in what is needed, real, and good in and for the unique life, culture, and conditions of a bioregion—informed but not determined by global realities, universal dynamics, and similarities among locales?

These and many other inquiries can shape how we apply wholesome power in a given circumstance, as well as guiding our articulations of the entire field.


Wholesome power involves power arising from engagement with and consciousness of wholeness. Wholeness can be viewed as having two seemingly opposite but thoroughly interrelated vectors—one towards increasing inclusion and integration and the other towards exclusion and disintegration. The interaction between these two generates the health and evolution of living systems. Understanding and working with these vectors enables conscious evolution which, done effectively, constitutes wholesome power.

Wholesome power is most readily seen in efforts to increase wholeness, as in being inclusive, supporting good relationships, facilitating constructive interactions, creating nurturing environments, stimulating integration, healing, and growth towards greater integrity and communion. It is less readily recognized in the dynamics of breakdown—in problems, disease, death, waste, conflict, disturbance, crisis, and collapse. But all these are dimensions of wholeness since wholeness ultimately includes all phenomena. So wholesome power is most whole when it engages both “positive” and “negative” phenomena with a spirit of co-creative responsiveness.

Let's summarize the dissonant, harder-to-accept vector of wholeness as disturbance. Ranging from risks and problems to disruption and collapse, disturbance always signals a nascent new or renewed state “trying to emerge”. We may resist disturbance, being attached to the old order, but disturbance is vital to the ongoing maintenance and evolution of natural and human systems. Old or dysfunctional things naturally tend to get unsettled and break down—a process which, especially when handled well, contributes energies, material and guidance for what comes next.

Here are some examples:

  • Old ideas are shaken up by new evidence and perspectives. The resulting cognitive disturbance fuels the birth of new worldviews, driven by our hunger for a coherent story.
  • Societies are shaken up by revolutions or technologies: old privileges, products, and professions fade as new ones emerge and millions of people struggle to adapt as their lives, expectations, and support systems are disrupted.
  • A multi-million year reptilian regime gets blasted into global winter by a giant meteor, freeing rodents to emerge from their hiding holes as the precursors of a new world order of mammals which, over eons, produces the mammalian mega-organism of human civilization.
  • An organizational crisis motivates a freewheeling conversation no longer constrained by the old ways and perspectives, generating innovations in the organization's purpose, structure, and culture.
  • During composting, dead plants and animals get broken down by microorganisms and bugs into organic matter usable by other plants and animals to build themselves, a process of breakdown vital to the natural world.

So the disturbing phenomena we see and treat as death and waste actually constitute processes generating new resources, conditions, and energies for the next arrangement of things. “Breakdown” often produces diversity or the possibility of greater diversity. Diverse entities and factors interact in shared contexts, co-evolving their relationships and collective forms. How well they do that determines the wholesomeness of their emerging whole and the level of suffering and vitality involved in its formation. Human use of wholesome power can bring consciousness and choice to the process.

Consciousness, intelligence, and wisdom help create the conditions that then shape the re-creative processes that occur as disturbance moves through its cycle to new or renewed wholeness. We have an opportunity to be aware of the creative potential and dynamics involved at such times and to work with those dynamics to serve life and the positive evolution of all involved. This kind of working-creatively-with-what-is is a big part of what I mean by wholesome power.


A “practitioner” of wholesome power can be an individual or a group who exhibits the following characteristics of wholeness or qualities that serve wholeness. But, significantly, it can also be a system, process or culture—a context or field that evokes these qualities in those who occupy it.

  • Integrity: honesty, sincerity, reliability; congruence between internal self and presented self; congruence of word and deed
  • Presence: awareness, mindfulness, centered consciousness, being fully awake and attentive
  • Equanimity and capacitance: ability to comfortably face intensity, confusion, emotion, and disturbance
  • Ability to embrace and transcend opposites, to hold them in dynamic tension, to promote their respective gifts and mutuality
  • Positivity without denial: possibility orientation, appreciative attitude, abundance perspective
  • A power-with approach that's open, collaborative, generous, invitational, responsive
  • Wisdom and enlightened knowledge: practical awareness of whole systems, of deep time, of fundamental dynamics; seeking the whole story from multiple viewpoints
  • Motivational vitality: attending to, evoking, and tapping into life energy—deep needs, values, passions, exuberance, spirit
  • Humility and curiosity: a healthy relationship with uncertainty and mystery

These qualities arise from—and then contribute to—the wholeness of lived reality. They are qualities worth living into and nurturing in relationships, activities, and social systems. They radically increase the likelihood of wholesome power manifesting.


The list below gives just a few of the hundreds of approaches and models that manifest wholesome power or help us use it. They don't yet constitute a formal field but should soon, in order to weave their diverse gifts into a more potent whole. They have all arisen naturally and in parallel from a widely shared sense that narrow-minded, short-term, linear, controlling or dominating forms of power are seriously dysfunctional for complex dynamic systems—both human and natural. We increasingly need a different, more organic and vital form of power as our social and natural systems complexify and display increasing signs of disequilibrium and collapse.

In their views on and applications of power, all these diverse approaches rest on the reality and dynamics of wholeness.

Spiral Dynamics Integral (Sdi). Don Beck and Ken Wilber's approach to holistic developmental theory. Integral applications of power involve understanding the values and developmental stages of the people you are engaging, as exemplified by the SDi spiral model of human development and Wilber's “four quadrants” exploring the internal and external dimensions of individual and collective experience.

Polarity integration. Polarities are not just opposites, but intrinsic and seemingly divergent principles that are, in fact, intimately interdependent or complementary—such as order/chaos, centralization/decentralization, mind/body, equality/freedom, and so on. Wholesome power favors approaches that see polarities as doorways into greater wholeness rather than as a battleground. Examples include the Taoist philosophy of yin-and-yang (stressing appreciation of the interdependence of opposites), the variety of dialectics I learned from psychologist Charles Johnston (instead of morally judging a polarity, proposition, person, or thing, seeking to understand its strengths and limitations and where it fits in the larger whole), and especially Barry Johnson's Polarity Management (moderating the tendency of a system to oscillate unproductively between poles by helping people, organizations, and communities sustain the best of both poles while ameliorating the downsides of each).

Dimensions of wholeness model. We can view dozens of dimensions of wholeness in a coherent model covering inclusion, relationship, contribution, interaction, integration, oneness, interiority, context, non-duality and whole-part dynamics. Guidance for wholesome power is available from both the vector towards greater wholeness (e.g., inclusion and healing) and the vector towards fragmentation (judgment and composting).

Power-over/Power-with. While wholesome power embraces both controlling and partnering modes of operation, it definitely has a bias towards co-operation, working with rather than against (or ignoring) the realities, energies, potential resources, and natural inclinations within a given situation. See The Dance of Power-over and Power-with. Central to power-with in human systems are advanced forms of dialogue such as Open Space Technology, World Cafe, Dynamic Facilitation, Nonviolent Communication, Principled Negotiation, and Future Search as chronicled by such groups as the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation.

Emergence/self-organization. Chaos and complexity theories, evolutionary science, networking theory, biology, and other sciences suggest that natural systems organize themselves without outside direction, generating novel and higher-order phenomena in the process and providing guidance for wholesome power in human systems. This is particularly useful in times of disruption when top-down approaches evolved in stable times become dysfunctional. Resources for this include Engaging Emergence by Peggy Holman and emergent group processes like Open Space and Dynamic Facilitation.

Systems thinking. We can work with, empower, and transform whole living systems by understanding and addressing their specific internal dynamics of interaction, like feedback loops, synergies, and interdependencies. Some useful approaches to systems thinking can be found at

Evolutionary activism. Wholeness evolves, using challenge and disruption creatively for novel development. We can take responsibility for being—and learning how to be—the evolutionary force consciously acting in the human realm, consciously guided by the change dynamics that evolution has been using for millions of years more or less unconsciously.

Wise democracy. Wholesome power can be generated in politics and governance using randomly selected microcosms of the public, high quality deliberative processes, networking, mass media, and crowdsourcing—combined with various forms of systems thinking—to generate wise public policy using ordinary citizens.

Again, this is just a taste of the ancient and emerging thinking and practice that constitute the nascent field of wholesome power.

The world we live in is a whole and so, of course, are we—individually and collectively. So are every environment and situation we face. When we act as if we and they are separate from each other, wholeness creates “side effects” that can be undesirable and ultimately catastrophic. On the other hand, when our exercise of power is in harmony with the reality of wholeness, wholeness evolves in harmony with us, including and supporting us. This is key to creating the kind of lives and societies that are an ongoing delight to belong in.


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