What we can learn from patterns to build a more successful future
Jeremy Lent is a bestselling author who writes about the patterns of thought and meaning that have led our civilization to its current crisis. He is also the founder of the Liology Institute which promotes an integrated, embodied and connected worldview in order to help humanity thrive sustainably on earth.
I had the chance to interview Jeremy for our nexxworks Innovation talks podcast about his book ‘The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity's Search for Meaning’, the Western divided way of thinking and the Eastern, more holistic one and what we have to change to get out of our current crisis. What follows are some of the highlights of our conversation, but do listen to the entire conversation here. It’s worth it:
Jeremy coined the term the “patterning instinct” when he realized that humans – thanks to the more developed prefrontal cortex in our brains – have this instinct to pattern meaning and sense into everything around us, based on core metaphors. This deeply seated human urge for meaning lies at the origin of our language, and is much more highly developed in humans than in other mammals.
Our values drive history
“Hunter gatherers, for instance, would look at nature as a relative, as a giving parent”, Jeremy explained. “Their lives revolved around their extended families and tribes and so it’s only natural that they regarded nature and other natural beings as relatives too. And just like that, each shift in the human experience, from the hunter gatherer times onwards, has led to different core metaphors that mirror how their lives, their environment and their knowledge have changed.”
Patterns => Meaning => Values => History
“What's so fascinating here is that those ways in which cultures make sense of the universe leads to a value system and those values are what actually drive history”, said Jeremy. That may seem obvious, but it’s quite the opposite. We tend to see history as an - often geographically structured - timeline filled with events and actions. But history is not neutral. It is driven by how we attribute meaning to the universe. Had we had different ways of seeing the world in earlier periods, we might have lived in very different times.
In fact, according to Jeremy, the roots of the current environmental crisis can be traced back to how the ancient Greeks started to perceive the universe. To understand that, we need to circle back. Hunter gatherers around the world - whether in a rainforest in Africa or in the Tundra in the far North - had a fundamentally similar way of making sense of the universe. And correspondingly, when early agrarian civilizations first arose, they fundamentally saw the universe the same sort of way: a hierarchy of the gods that obliged active human participation through sacrifice, priesthood and ritual.
The great divide
But about 2,500 years ago, a rift appears between the ways of thinking in East Asian cultures and those in the West. In East Asia, the underlying metaphor was that of nature as a kind of a harmonic connected web of life, where everyone’s actions ripple through the rest of the cosmos and impact one another. The consequence was that humans tried to harmonize as much as they could to resonate with those connected “vibrations” in the most successful way. This was a logical and similar continuation from the hunter gatherers perspective who saw nature as a complex web, where everything was related to everything else. Incidentally, this connected and holistic view has since then been endorsed by modern scientific theories like systems thinking, evolutionary biology and network science. (This is actually part of the premise of Jeremy’s upcoming book, the Web of Meaning, Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe.)
But in the West, the ancient Greeks started to view the cosmos as split in two parts. One the one hand there was a perfect, unchanging and eternal heaven up above, where God resided. And on the other, we had a polluted earth down below where everything was always changing. The best you could do in this kind of polluted area down below was to simulate, as close as you could, that perfection from up above. Even humans were seen as being split in the same sort of way, with a soul and a body: the body was polluted and the soul was this kind of seat of reason that connected us with divinity. And this dualistic way in the West versus the more harmonic way in East Asia, triggered a very different path in both of their histories.
The biggest difference though, according to Jeremy, is that the Western dualistic thinking, has some very destructive traits. “It resulted in humans being regarded as separate from nature. It led to anthropocentrism or human supremacy: this belief that the rest of nature just exists as a resource to be exploited by humans. Ultimately, it caused a sense of humans as being, not just separate from nature, but separate from each other. And this core, divided way of making sense out of things prompted hyperindividualism and capitalism as an economic system which hasn't just led to the vast destruction of our environment but also resulted in a terrible alienation between modern humans.”
A more balanced and integrated worldview
In response to this fragmentation and alienation of society, Jeremy advocates a more integrated worldview, one that balances somewhere between the Western and the East Asian view. Because he does acknowledge that our dualistic way of thinking has had a positive impact, too: it produced the scientific revolution which brought about some incredible technologies and all kinds of meaning making and philosophies that we can all be grateful for. But at the same time, he advocates that we have to complement it with a more connected systems way of perceiving the world if we want to resolve some incredibly wicked problems like climate change or the loneliness pandemic.
For me, the most powerful part of Jeremy’s theory is that a worldview is not the truth, but an ever evolving metaphor. It’s a social construct. Even if it has resonated for centuries throughout a culture, and in people’s minds, it is not endless and unchanging. And as the current worldview no longer proves to be successful - lying at the root of growing inequality, alienation and climate destruction - the time has come to ‘unlearn’ this disconnected, dualistic and unbalanced way of seeing the world.
And to replace it with a more connected and holistic one.
The interview above is of course the highly simplified version of Jeremy’s complex vision. If you want to learn how this rift between the East and West came about or how Asian countries like China - that harbour the connected and holistic view of the world – still ended up with huge environmental problems, listen to the podcast here. While you’re at it, order his book the Patterning Instinct, as you’re waiting for his new book ‘Web of Meaning’ that will be published in Spring 2021.
Patterns of meaning for companies
Some of you may ask yourselves why I would include this almost philosophical narrative on the nexxworks blog, where we mostly talk about technology, business and innovation. Well, here are just a few of the takeaways that could be important for the way that you manage your organisations:
- Values aren’t fluffy stuff. They have a huge impact. And they drive the history of your company, that of its employees and everything that it is connected to. I am not talking about the nice slogans that you may have put on your wall, but about the values that you and your employees or co-workers live by. The latter steer your company culture and that steers how employees and customers are treated. If one of them is done badly and if distrust, fear and unhealthy competition rule your company, it will eventually collapse. Think hard about the values you and your employees live by, and ask yourself if they contribute to a healthy environment. If not, ask yourself how you can change them, by changing your own behaviour first.
- What works for the universe on a macro level, is true for your company on a micro-level: it is in itself a complex and highly interconnected web. If you treat it as a siloed and divided environment and if you push inequality (through hierarchies and unhealthy systems of power), you will end up with a toxic and self-destructive system. Just as a small example, think of how the core metaphor of “human resources” is wrong on a fundamental level: we see our employees and colleagues not as equals to us, but as resources to be mined for the greater good of the company. Companies who think about their staff that way, will definitely not win the war for talent.
- Your company does not do business into a void, either. Each and every last one of your actions, solutions and services resonates into our natural and social system and will – as you are a part of that system – eventually come back to you. Maybe not to you as a person, but to the company that you helped build for all these years and to your children or grandchildren. I’m not talking about karma, I’m talking about how, if your company is stimulating global warming, your extended network (be it your company or your (future) family) will eventually feel the impact of rising temperatures, water shortage, rising sea levels, destructive fires, storms etc. etc. etc. I want you to really think about that next time that you, let’s say, make a decision about enterprise mobility or choose a material for your solutions. You are always more than you. Your company is always more than your company. And that’s a wonderful thing if you act according to it.