Living In Layers – Part IV – Seeking Security and Stability

As holarchic1 beings in a hierarchic world, we live in a contradictory world. So, we seek security and stability through power and control, acceptance by others, aggression, avoidance, or filling up our lives with activities and goods. We want to be liked and loved. However, our living in a contradictory world dominated by hierarchies perpetuates a stratified view of life, where our approaches to achieving security and stability obscure our basic humanity, create confusion, and separate us from one another and from our worlds.

Although we desire to be loved, we tend not to love ourselves. The contradictions and expectations of our hierarchic worlds create a fundamental sense of inadequacy. We feel that we don’t have the expertise, the beautiful looks, a nice enough car or home, or the nicest belongings. Advertisements and other media representations set us up for failure and a basic sense that we lack adequate wealth, both psychologically and materially. The poor in this country are set-up from the get-go. The feelings of worthlessness lead to continued cycles of poverty and despair. Even for those with power and wealth, the struggle to maintain security and stability involves a constant sense of defensiveness and inadequacy. Always on guard, the powerful can never relax.

We live in what Gregory Bateson called “double binds.”2 The simplistic view of a double bind is that of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” or being caught in a “Catch-22.” However, this situation of being holarchic, but living in hierarchies is a kind of fundamental double bind from which any escape seems impossible. At a fundamental level, if we try to live as holarchic beings, where power is distributed among everyone and where there is a basic sense of equanimity, we immediately run up against the barriers that have been established by the social and political hierarchies. If we try to live in the hierarchic system, we are continually disappointed and frustrated, even if we climb the hierarchy. There is never enough power and control and there are always others trying to out-compete us and one another. These struggles also lead to our striving for security and stability in our lives.

Bottom of the Hierarchy.

From a Buddhist perspective, the patterns we use to maintain a seemingly secure and stable life arise from the three poisons of passion, aggression, and ignorance. These are poisons to our abilities to be open and compassionate, to be loved and to love, and to be completely in touch with our humanity. An interesting exercise is to walk down a busy street or through a crowded mall while watching how we initially react to others. To some, we feel attracted (passion). To others, we feel repulsed (aggression). And, to others, we may gloss over, avoid, or hardly notice. These patterns of reaction arise throughout all of our interactions with others, with our own thoughts, and with other situations or other creatures. We actively try to ignore or avoid, to seduce or indulge, or to push away certain thoughts or certain individuals. By using these deeply embedded and automatic patterns, we create an illusory sense of security, stability, and solidity in our lives. As teachers, we relate to children in the same way. We label children as those whom we do not like, those whom we like, and those whom we avoid or have no particular reaction. The supervisor or boss in the workplace relates to his or her employees through the same lenses. As a country, we manifest the same patterns with dire consequences. For those nations we do not like, we create sanctions or implement acts of aggression, both of which can result directly or indirectly in the death of human beings. Such national patterns of reactions are becoming dangerously apparent. At the same time, we try to seduce other nations for reasons not always clearly evident. And, for far too many nations, we simply ignore their existence. Throughout our history, we have seduced leaders and have drawn them into our fold. Then, when they outlive their usefulness, we implement acts of aggression against them. Noriega, bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein have all met with this “switcheroo” between passion and aggression. Just like young children and teenagers, we shout out that “I’m not going to play with you anymore!” or “I’ll get you back!” France and Germany in the spring of 2003 were at the receiving end of such proclamations from adolescent politicians and their adolescent media propaganda brokers. And, again in 2017, other nations are taking the brunt of mindless political rhetoric. Robert Bly’s contention in The Sibling Society3 that we are propagating a society of adolescents seems to apply at all levels of the hierarchy.

On the other hand, holarchic structures are founded on recognizing and appreciating one’s own and others’ humanity and on establishing and maintaining relationships among individuals and their worlds. Although the Buddhist notion of the three poisons will still manifest without efforts to expose them and to let go of our attachment to their seeming validity, holarchic structures offer the potential to create saner institutions. As we long for security and stability, holarchies can provide a sense of security and stability through negotiable relationships and a sharing of power and control.

A number of years ago, PBS aired a documentary called “The Creative Spirit.” One of the points of the series was that creativity manifests best when one feels reasonably secure, safe, and valued. In their examination of an architecture firm, the building was constructed so that no company directory existed, no offices had numbers or names attached, and the most important spaces in the building were created for social interaction. People who entered the building looking for someone in particular had to interact with another human being. No identifiers of status were ever used and a sense of equal status among all members of the business’ community was established. The contention that creativity does not arise on-call and is more likely to arise during social interactions led to the creation of social spaces where all members of the community could sit, drink coffee, and talk. As a corporate holarchy, all people were valued for their abilities and for whom they were as individuals.

For the Department of Homeland Security, its ability to create security seems rather unlikely. As we try to create a hierarchically-based approach to security, where other nations and its peoples are looked down upon from the top layer of the global hierarchy, dysfunctional binaries or relationships will continue to be propagated and lead to separation. As we continue on this path, threats to our security will continue. However, if we were to restructure our nation’s worldview in a global context and create a holarchically-based global community, we could achieve security without the need for a Department of Homeland Security. In such a holarchy, relationships would be based on negotiation and equitability. Concern for humanity and the well-being of others would take precedence over strivings for power and control. Although such a view may seem optimistic and unrealistic, I believe such a view could work. Many tribal societies that have maintained their culture and a number of corporate institutions are holarchic. And, after all, the whole notion of democracy in its purest form is holarchic, where power and control is distributed among citizens.


Bateson, G. (1972/2000). Steps to an ecology of mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bateson, G. (1991). Sacred unity: Further steps to an ecology of mind. (R. E. Donaldson, Ed.). New York: A Cornelia & Micahel Bessie Book/Harper Collins.

Bloom, J., & Volk, T. (2007). The use of metapatterns for research into complex systems of teaching, learning, and schooling. Part II: Applications. Complicity: an International Journal of Complexity and Education, 4(1), 45–68.

Bly, R. (1997). The Sibling Society. New York: Vintage.

Cullin, J. (2006). Double bind: much more than just a step “toward a theory of schizophrenia.” Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 27(3), 135–142.

Gibney, P. (2006). The double bind theory: Still crazy-making after all these years. Psychotherapy in Australia, 12(3), 48–55.

Sluzki, C. E., & Ransom, D. C. (Eds.). (1976). Double bind: The foundation of the communicational approach to the family. New York: Grune & Stratton.

Volk, T. (1995). Metapatterns: Across space, time, and mind. New York: Columbia University Press.

1 Holarchies are embedded layers where one layer has no more importance than any other layer. We can view our biological systems (circulatory, nervous, digestive, etc.) as being holarchic layers. No one system is more important than any other. Yet, all are important. A truly democratic community is more holarchic in that each person shares in the power and control of the community. (Bloom & Volk, 2007; Volk, 1995)

2 Bateson (1972/2000, 1991); Cullin (2006); Gibney (2006); Sluzki & Ransom (1976)

3 Bly (1997)

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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2 Responses to Living In Layers – Part IV – Seeking Security and Stability

  1. Aidan Ward says:

    Jeff, I wonder what you make of recent comments that social media are explicitly designed to prey on the dysfunctions of the social psychology you describe? While imagining the upside of holarchical relationships we are being sold down the river before we get there!

    • Jeff Bloom says:

      Aidan — I think you’re correct about social media being designed to prey on dysfunctions. Various social media outlets seem to be designed to enhance addiction. And, in general, social media and other forms of technology promote disconnects to self, others, and various other contexts. In addition, it’s easy to succumb to such disconnects and it’s very difficult not to succumb.

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