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  • Writer's pictureRobertson Work

Three Nested Systems: Self, Society, Planet

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

This is an excerpt from my essay "Orchestrating Organizational Energy within a Whole System Transition of Self, Society, and Planet" found on pages 47 - 52 in my book Society, Spirit, Self: Essays on the One Dance.

In looking at holistic consciousness, I want us to get inside the reality and the inter-relationships of three systems: self, society, and the planet.

In the center is the self or the individual as a system of body, mind, spirit. The next system is the society which can be viewed being composed of the dynamics of the economic, the political, and the cultural. The third and final system which we will explore is the planetary, with the dimensions of the physical environment of the Earth, the noosphere, and the Gaian Mythos. As you see each of the dynamics on the lower left are of a similar nature: the body, the economic, and the physical environment. In the same way, the mind, the political, and noosphere are closely related. And finally, the spirit, cultural, and the Gaian mythos are related. This model helps us see the inter-relationships of three nested or interlocking systems, each one reflecting the other. What we will be concerned with as we analyze each of these and their inter­relationships is the crisis which we experience when these systems are out of phase with one another and the real possibility of their moving into harmony or sync with one another.

The Individual System.

Ken Wilber has developed a comprehensive model of consciousness. The first stage of consciousness of the self is that of the body. This is the pre­ rational or sub-conscious realm and includes the archaic, magic, and the mythic. The second stage of consciousness is that of the mind. This is rational and self-conscious. The third and final stage of consciousness is that of the spirit. This is transrational or superconscious and includes the psychic, the subtle, and the causal. Let us go through the model again at more depth and in more detail.

The Self as Body. Archaic consciousness includes the material body, sensations, perceptions, and emotions. Magic consciousness includes simple images, symbols, and the first rudimentary concepts. Mythic consciousness includes concrete operational thinking, conformist behavior, and a sense of belonging.

The Self as Mind. Rational consciousness includes formal operational thinking, and propositional or hypothetico-deductive reasoning.

The Self as Spirit. Psychic consciousness includes the merging of the psychological and physical, the psyche, vision logic, integrative logic, and self-actualization. Subtle consciousness includes the archetypal level, the level of the “illumined mind”, a truly trans-rational structure, intuition in its highest and most sober sense, Platonic forms, and self­ transcendence. And finally, causal consciousness includes the unmanifest ground and suchness of all levels, the limit of growth and development, Spirit in the highest sense, the Ground of Being (Tillich), Eternal Substance (Spinoza), and Geist (Hegel). Elsewhere, Wilber outlines additional sub-structures. What is important is not whether there is this or that structure but that the human self is seen as a complex system of evolving and inter­ related dimensions. In our modern industrial society, we acknowledge that we have a body (rather than that we are our body) which we must keep under control, and that we ought to be rational (rather than that that is our very nature to be realized). And there we stop. In a secularized society, there is no acknowledgment of the self as spirit. This is relegated to the specialized and separate realm of formal religion.

The self is a body-mind-spirit system. What we see and experience is that often these three dynamics conflict with each other. We also see and experience that our societies are often not structured to acknowledge and develop the fullest manifestation of the self in each person. In fact, we have defined and structured our societies and our organizations to exclude the full participation of every person in his or her own self development. We have assumed that the economic pie is too small to share with everyone, that the political structures are too unresponsive and unaccountable, and that the cultural milieu is too negative to honor and celebrate the unique gift that each person is within the society. This brings us to the next system in which the self is nested – the societal.

The Societal System.

Social process can be seen as being comprised of three inter-locking dynamics: economic commonality, political commonality, and cultural commonality. This model is well known, but the one to which I am referring was developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) in 1971 in an international research conference.

Social phenomena are a result of what Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, two Chileno biologists, have called "third-order structural couplings". This means that human society is not simply a collection of organisms with individual nervous systems, or even simply the structural coupling of these organisms, but that because of the recurrent, mutual, and reciprocal nature of these interactions a third-order structural coupling occurs. This phenomenon is experienced in the realm of culture, through the creation of language and the consequent behavioral coordination through communication. This sets up transgenerational stability of behavioral patterns acquired in the communicative dynamics of a social environment. This takes place because as we have seen the very essence of the human phenomenon is consciousness. We not only know, but we know that we know, and we can know how and what we know. In addition, we manifest will, volition, and vision which together operate on the material world through our actions and our technology, which is an extension of our body and mind.

Economic processes are the foundation or body of society. Here, we have the dynamics of resources, production, and trade. The economy feeds and nourishes the society. The economic processes are found in the natural, technological, and human resource identification and development, industry, manufacturing, product development, marketing, financial institutions, and trade.

Political processes are the organizational or mental aspects of society. Here, we have structures and processes of order, justice, and welfare. Political processes organize the functioning of the society. The political dynamics are found in the courts, the police, the hospitals, the governmental structures of society.

Cultural processes are the meaning giving or spiritual aspects of society. Culture has to do with the symbols, the rites, and the myths or stories of the society which make transparent the significance of the activities of the society. Cultural processes illuminate the profound or universal dimension of being a human society. The cultural dynamics are found in the family, the educational structures, the arts, and in religious and spiritual activities.

Usually, a society is in imbalance, that one of the three dynamics is overpowering the others. It is possible to re-balance a society by strengthening and growing up the weaker dynamics. Also, often a society is not in harmony with the nature of the individual selves that constitute the society. People's bodies, minds, and spirits are not nurtured and developed adequately by the structures of society. In fact, people are often crushed or left out altogether in many of the social processes. It is possible to create increased harmony between the essential nature of the individual and the essential nature of sociality.

The Planetary System.

The next larger system in which human society finds itself is the planetary system. This can be seen as the physical environment, the noosphere, and the Gaian mythos.

The Physical Environment. The physical environment is constituted by the crust and atmosphere of our planet, that is the land, water, plants, animals, and the air of our planet. This is the skin of the body of the planet. We are all growing increasingly conscious of how human activity can damage this skin and thereby damage the biosphere which sustains human life. There are many new efforts which must be intensified to care for the environment, to make for sustainable development. This means that aspects of industrial society which are destroying our physical habitat must be substituted for with alternative activities.

The Noosphere. This word comes to us from the French priest/paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The noosphere is the thin envelope of consciousness that covers the planet as the atmosphere does. This has included culture and language, and now it includes the electronic technologies of mass communication and transportation – satellites, tv, radio, fax, computer networks, jet airplanes, space shuttles, etc. that are linking the entire human race in one global city. This film of consciousness acts as a global brain for the Earth. I recommend that you watch the film “The Global Brain” to explore this further: ( This is related to the political dynamic of society and the mental dynamic of the individual, but on a planetary level.

The Gaian Mythos. The Gaia hypothesis was developed a few years ago by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. This hypothesis is that the Earth is alive as a single organism. This understanding is transforming our understanding of the role and place of humans on this planet. The video I mentioned talks more about this. All I will say is that this global myth or story that is emerging is corelated with the cultural dynamic of society and with the spiritual dynamic of the individual. Of course, there are many competing stories about our planet. We used to think that the Earth was flat. The photograph of the Earth from space has forever changed the way we see and think and feel about our planet. More and more, we do not say we live in a world but on a planet. This is a fundamental shift from being bound in a social reality to being part of a cosmic reality, for the word planet makes of think of the sun, which is a star and of our galaxy, the Milky Way, and eventually of the entire Cosmos. This new story provides a profound connection with the history of the cosmos, the history of planet Earth, and the history of life on this planet. We are a star's way of looking at a star. Constituted of atoms and elements which were created in starry furnaces, we are now self ­reflective consciousness which sees and knows who and what we are. These three nested systems constitute our consciousness, our essence. The more we can create harmony between and among these three systems, the more fulfilling human life will be. This is our destiny. This is our possibility.

[The book Society, Spirit, Self: Essays on the One Dance is available online and in local bookshops. Here it is online for more information:]

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