Living in Layers – Part II – Living in Layers

This blog entry explores the notion of layers – both hierarchies and holarchies – in the individual, communities, schools and classrooms, various natural phenomena, and cultural and societal structures. The fundamental characteristics of hierarchies involve top-down power and control, which in turn establish relationships based on distrust and fear and ultimately lead to separation. As such hierarchies become deeply entrenched and extreme as they are now in the United States, we see an exacerbation of disconnects and divisiveness. Fear not only is on the rise, but is used by those at the top of the hierarchy to control those at the bottom.

On the other hand, holarchies are embedded layers, where power and control tend to be distributed. In contrast, democracy in its purest form, many tribal cultures, and some business establishments are more characteristic of holarchies. However, the current manifestation of democratic governments, dictatorial governments, the institution of schooling, and most corporate and many scientific establishments tend to be entrenched as hierarchies. However, our basic nature as human beings tends to be holarchic, both biologically and psychologically. We are comprised of embedded layers of systems, where one system is not necessarily more important or more critical than the others. But, together they create a working whole. From such a view, however, the notion of parts and wholes becomes quite fuzzy. In fact, such a discrimination, which at one point in human history may have been convenient for understanding various aspects of our world, has now become problematic. In holarchies, everything works together, and parts—whole distinctions become awkward and unnecessary. Hierarchies are generally difficult to see, but the relationships between layers are quite obvious. However, holarchies are usually much easier to see, but the relationships are not.1 We can see the layers of rock in the Grand Canyon, but the relationships between these layers are not particularly evident. In contrast, we can observe a corporate office and the relationships between those at the top of the hierarchy and those at lower levels become obvious very quickly, although the layers themselves are not visible.

Psychologically, our learning and memory tend to be holarchic. Although some scholars argue for learning as hierarchic, others who have been investigating schema theory2 argue otherwise. In schema theory, the more critical prototypical images, defining features, and other aspects of particular concepts occupy more central positions or layers in our understandings of specific concepts. As individuals, we tend to construct ourselves, our ego, in layers of meaning, images, concepts, notions of identity, and other mental—emotional patterns. From a Buddhist perspective, the layering of ego is comprised of five skandhas, which are frequently referred to as five “heaps.” The use of “heaps” rather than some other term communicates a sense of basic disconnect rather than some cohesive functional component. These heaps are not and do not create a solid sense of self, although they trick us into thinking we are solid. For those of us who have had young children, we can witness the development of each skandha, and, if we examine ourselves (in Buddhism, such examinations are part of the meditative experience), we can see each of these heaps manifest in our everyday lives. The first is form, where we first recognize a sense of self or a fundamental sense of being. Then feeling moves in as the beginnings of a sense of separation. As we continue to develop a sense of separation, we come to perception, where we begin to discriminate between self and other. The sense of concept further refines our approach to creating a world of separation, as we pigeon-hole and categorize everything we experience. And, finally, the heap of consciousness coordinates the whole thing, bringing together a highly refined approach to maintaining an illusory sense of self and other. For parents, the “terrible twos” mark the child’s ability to put the whole process into action. An even more refined and intelligent manifestation of affirming a sense of identity, much to the chagrin of parents, reaches a pinnacle during adolescence, where the “terrible twos” re-emerge as the “terrible teens.”

Although the skandhas are described as heaps, they assume the characteristics of a holarchy, in much the same way as the nervous system, circulatory system, lymphatic system, digestive system, and endocrine system, all with separate, but interconnected, functions, work together to maintain the vertebrate body. In both cases, one system or one skandha is no more important than the other, but, at the same time, each “feeds” off the others in the processes of creating and maintaining the whole.

Such layering affects the way we relate to others and our world, the way we act, and the way we feel. We construct and maintain these layers to varying degrees of solidity and permeability. In saying that a particular person is very approachable, we are referring to a person with at least some permeable layers. In the presence of many politicians, among others, one may feel as though the layers are solid, impenetrable, even though the outer layer may appear to be soft and penetrable. Living in layers is our way of life.

A photo collage of a layered Chicago office building reflecting further layers, a Hopi painting of the holarchic layers of their life world (painting on display at the Museum of Northern Arizona), and the cliff dwellings at Montezuma’s Castle in Arizona’s Verde Valley.
A photo collage of a layered Chicago office building reflecting further layers, a Hopi painting of the holarchic layers of their life world (painting on display at the Museum of Northern Arizona), and the cliff dwellings at Montezuma’s Castle in Arizona’s Verde Valley.

The notion of living in layers, specifically holarchic layers, has been a fundamental aspect of the worldview of many Native American peoples. The Hopis have depicted such layering in paintings and earlier Anasazi people built cliff dwellings in canyons and valleys. As opposed to the popular notion depicted in the National Parks information plaques that they built cliff dwellings as protection from enemies, it seems more likely that they built their homes in cliffs to be closer to the life energy emanating from the center of the earth. With less developed medical treatments for physical injuries, fighting was not something to engage in on a regular basis, and building homes in cliffs does not seem particularly advantageous as a protective strategy. The imposition of hierarchical assumptions about life and culture creep into our interpretations of other cultures and ultimately lead to misunderstandings and a distancing or separation from others.

1 Volk (1995)
2 Meade & Cubey (2008); McVee, Dunsmore, & Gavelek (2005)


  • Volk, T. (1995). Metapatterns: Across space, time, and mind. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Meade, A., & Cubey, P. (2008). Thinking children: Learning about schemas. Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: Open University Press.
  • McVee, M. B., Dunsmore, K., & Gavelek, J. R. (2005). Schema theory revisited. Review of Educational Research, 75(4), 531–566. doi: 10.3102/00346543075004531

About Jeff Bloom

I'm a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.
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