Foundations of PatternDynamics – Tim Winton

Tim Winton recently posted an audio recording on his thepatternguy blog.

Click to listen to audio file:  Foundations of PatternDynamics

He writes, “This talk was recorded as part of the Certificate 4 and Diploma programs in Accredited Permaculture Training I taught at Permaforest Trust. This was recorded at the beginning of the second semester in 2006, probably in late July or August. It is interesting to go back and listen to how I was thinking about PD at the time now that it has developed into something more tangible 6 years later.”

As I was listening, I decided I wanted to transcribe a short section.  That short section got longer and longer.  I hope you find this as interesting as I do.

“…I am wholly uninterested now, after having witnessed lots of failures, in ‘sustainability’; because there was no attempt at working with self or culture. It was just a focus on nature – those failed. I don’t really have an interest in perpetuating that failure. I will not introduce you to that failure.

I would like to integrate acting on nature through Permaculture and other practices with acting in culture – that’s about storytelling, it’s about framing worldviews, it’s about collective understanding – that’s story and myth. And also introducing practices on self – that’s about developing awareness. Opening up this space where everything you thought was not you becomes you. The only way to do that is to sit in awareness and witness all this stuff. Then, all of a sudden, the boundary fades. That’s human development.

Integrating all those things is a very cool thing to do, and is very powerful. I think that’s what we can offer, and in developing PatternDynamics as a discipline or a modality, what I’m hoping to do is to give you a tool to develop your own integral capacity for sustainability. If you can understand the dynamics in integrated whole systems, you can understand where to intervene to create health where it will have the most effect – how to relieve disease, how to open up the flow. There’s no rational way to understand it- it’s too complex. You can’t understand this by learning ‘A’, learning ‘B’, learning ‘C’, learning ‘D’ and then coming out the other end. You don’t just have A,B,C, and D, you have the whole alphabet, and they’re all swirling around in this great interconnected dynamic play. There’s no way to comprehend that holistic dynamic one bit at a time. You have to develop the capacity to understand the dynamics.

The only way to do that is to stand back in awareness and see the patterns. Patterns are the only way to really understand fluid dynamic integral wholes. And that’s what the universe is, and that’s what we have to get a grasp on.

Both David Holmgren and Bill Mollison [co-founders of Permaculture] have keyed in on this. They know that patterns are how you understand wholes. Ken Wilber also keyed in on this. He calls Integral “The pattern that connects” [a phrase borrowed from Gregory Bateson – another pioneer of pattern literacy]. He’s just taken that natural step beyond ‘if everything’s connected,’ that means my awareness is connected to the awareness of the universe. There’s not such a separation between my experience and the experience full stop – you know, ‘out there’. It’s a natural extension.

So we’ve got a natural resonance between Integral and Permaculture through their understanding that patterns are important to understand integrated wholes.

…PatternDynamics is a base pattern set for understanding – it’s a tool, it’s not reality, it’s just a tool. It’s an educational discipline to help you gain an integral capacity for understanding integral dynamic systems.”


Tim Winton just finished a PatternDynamics™ One Day Workshop in San Francisco earlier today.  He’ll give an evening workshop in Bellingham, WA on Tuesday Jan. 29th, and another One Day Workshop in Vancouver, B.C. on Saturday, Feb. 2nd.

Lessons From the Ages for 2013, Part 2

Mayan Calendar

Read Part 1 here.

The Maya Civilization has earned a great deal of respect. Beginning sometime around 2000 B.C., they had a fully developed written language, as well as well developed art, architecture, mathematical, and astronomical systems. They seemed to be pretty danged smart and sophisticated.

And yet, they did themselves in by over-consuming their available resources. They had an amazing rainforest, and they cut it down. Why would they do such a thing?

If we look at human history in terms of the major stages of technological-economic development, we see periods moving from foraging to horticultural to agrarian to industrial, to informational.  American philosopher Ken Wilber sees each of these stages as signs of the advancing evolution of human consciousness, and he associates them with changes in worldview of the various epochs of human development, using terminology from Jean Gebser: archaic, magic, mythic, rational, and pluralistic.


The Mayans were firmly in the agrarian period, with the mythic worldview, and their accomplishments were quite amazing for their time. Having moved beyond foraging, and beyond horticulture (based on usage of a hoe), the agrarian period made use of heavy animal drawn plows. This advance provided other opportunities for some of the privileged men in these societies, due to a huge surplus of food that was made possible from the new technology. And so highly specialized classes arose, which made possible the development of things like mathematics and written language, and astronomy, and many cultural endeavors. Warring small tribes came together into larger wholes of social organization, beginning to pave the way for nation-states to eventually develop. Ken Wilber points out that it was during this agrarian period that a class of individuals arose that had enough time freed up to be able to contemplate in depth their own existence.  It was during this period that the great sages existed, including Gautama Buddha, Lao Tzu, Parmenides, Socrates, Plato, Patanjali, and Confucius.

The first point being, that the agrarian period brought some pretty major advances that I am quite thankful for. And the second point is that these advances were made possible by the conditions that had changed, and would be extremely unlikely if we had not moved beyond the foraging and horticultural stages.

Brief History

However…Ken Wilber also points out that every new stage always brings with it a new set of problems.

Q: You refer often to “the dialectic of progress.”
KW: Yes, the idea is that every stage of evolution eventually runs into its own inherent limitations, and these may act as triggers for the self-transcending drive. The inherent limitations create a type of turmoil, even chaos, and the system either breaks down (self-dissolution) or escapes this chaos by evolving to a higher degree of order (self-transcendence) – so called order out of chaos. This new and higher order escapes the limitations of its predecessor, but then introduces its own limitations and problems that cannot be solved on its own level.

In other words, there is a price to be paid for every evolutionary step forward. Old problems are solved or defused, only to introduce new and sometimes more complex difficulties.

…Wherever there is the possibility of transcendence, there is, by the very same token, the possibility of repression. The higher might not just transcend and include, it might transcend and repress, exclude, alienate, dissociate.

– Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything

Some of the inherent and complex difficulties that were quite common during the agrarian period include: dominator hierarchies, with Empires at the top of that hierarchy, and overshoot (exceeding the carrying capacity of the environment and resource base).

What about those Mayans? Where did they go wrong?  Again, Ken Wilber:

The Mayans had already moved from foraging to horticulture, and that meant not only that they could begin to bind various contentious tribes into a larger and solidified social structure -–and not only that they could, via farming, free a class of priests to begin developing mathematics and astronomy and a sophisticated calendar – but also that they, in a way foragers never could, begin to deplete the rain forests. They transcended mere foraging, only to go too far and dissociate themselves in certain crucial ways from the biosphere, which was altogether suicidal.

They didn’t differentiate and integrate, they dissociated and alienated. They didn’t transcend and include, they repressed and denied. Since the biosphere is an internal component of the human holon, they secured their own destruction.

So this theme – transcendence versus repression – is an altogether crucial theme of historical development, and we want to watch carefully for signs of repression at each stage of human evolution, individual and collective.

“Transcend and Include” is one of the mantras of Ken Wilber’s Integral model, and in this context it refers to the idea that as each period Transcends the previous period and moves to a higher level, if it does not Include the best aspects of the levels that came before it, there will be big problems. Foraging and horticulture had a closer symbiosis with the rhythms of the natural world, and as human society moved beyond those structures, we become more and more distant from those processes. And the replacement processes as technologies advance allow increasing amounts of destruction to our biosphere.

It is important to understand what Wilber is not saying here about the Mayans. When he says that they went too far and dissociated from the biosphere, that they “repressed and denied,”  he is NOT saying that this was a conscious decision, or that they somehow should have known better. He explains:

The primary cause of any ecological devastation is, as we were saying, simple ignorance. It is only with scientific knowledge of the biosphere, of the precise ways in which all holons in the biosphere are interrelated, including the biological holons of the human being – it is only with that knowledge that men and women can actually attune their actions with the biosphere. A simple or sacred respect for nature will not do. A sacred outlook on nature did not prevent numerous tribes from despoiling the environment out of simple and innocent ignorance, and did not prevent the Mayans from devastating the rain forests, and it will not prevent us from doing the same thing, again out of ignorance.

Roszak points out that it is modern science, and modern science alone – the ecological sciences and systems sciences, for example – that can directly show us how and why our actions are corroding the biosphere. If the primal tribes knew that by cut and burn they would ruin their habitat and endanger their own lives – if they actually knew that with a scientific certainty – then they would at least have thought about it a little more carefully before they began their bio-destruction. If the Mayans knew that in killing the rain forests they were killing themselves, they would have stopped immediately, or at least paused considerably. But ignorance is ignorance; whether innocent or greedy, sacred or profane, ignorance destroys the biosphere.

They know not what they do. As advanced as they were, they didn’t have systems ecology to give them the understanding that what they were doing was going to bring destruction in the long run….and neither did the preceding stages.

In fact, some argue that the earlier stages also had the tendency to over-consume resources. Ken Wilber makes a very important point: To dissociate with the biosphere is suicidal, because “the biosphere is an internal component of the human holon.”  However, in general Wilber  tends to put more emphasis on the “technological-economic” structural base behind the periods of human history than he does on the biosphere that supports and makes that technological-economic structure possible.

David Holmgren

David Holmgren

On the other hand, Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren brings more attention to the ecological framework that makes possible different technological-economic structures.

The broad processes of human history can be understood using an ecological framework that recognises primary energy sources as the strongest factors determining the general structure of human economy, politics and culture. The transition from a hunter-gatherer way of life to that of settled agriculture made possible the expansion of human numbers, denser settlement patterns and surplus resources. Those surplus resources were the foundations for what we call civilisation including the development of more advanced technologies, cities, social class structures, standing armies and written language. Archaeology records a series of civilisations that rose and fell as they depleted their bioregional resource base. Lower density simple agrarian and hunter-gatherer cultures took over the territory of collapsed civilisations and allowed the resources of forests, soils and water to regenerate. That in turn, gave rise to new cycles of growth in cultural complexity.

– David Holmgren, Future Scenarios

Future Scenarios

As populations grew, hunter-gatherers perhaps over-hunted some areas and over-gathered others, and thus found the need for domestication of plants and animals because of a now less abundant landscape. They had to develop the new technology of horticulture in order to maintain surplus resources, and so the “cycles of growth in cultural complexity” began. As mentioned above, each period had its problems. “Old problems are solved or defused, only to introduce new and sometimes more complex difficulties.” (Wilber)

In Part 3, we’ll be looking at the Industrial period with the rational worldview.

For more along the lines outlined in this post, see Permaculture teacher Graham Strouts  helpful series on “Back To Nature”. He discusses humans’ relationship to the natural world and explores the major periods in the evolution of human consciousness, as outlined by Wilber and Don Beck (Spiral Dynamics), but within the context of ecology:


Lessons From the Ages for 2013, Part 1

Brand Spanking New
Brand Spankin’ New (Zony Mash)

Well, here we are in the brand-spankin’ new year of 2013, with all of its rich possibilities before us, as well as all of the potential problems and risks.

The Mayan calendar was, of course, the subject of much discussion in 2012, especially so as the year wound down. Some used it to predict ‘the end of the world as we know it’, and others claimed it was about a huge leap in human consciousness and an entry into a glorious new age. I would argue that both of these statements are true…in some sense, but not as either a cataclysmic ending, nor a brilliant new beginning with a dramatic and immediate end to the evils that occur in the material world.

What we do know is that the Mayan calendar has completed its cycle. Dec. 21, 2012 marked the end of the “Long Count” calendar, a calendar system used by the Mayan civilization of Central America.

Things do end. And new beginnings are possible each and every day.

We have a tendency sometimes to fall under the illusion that our world is stable, and that the living arrangements we live under have a solid footing and are pretty much here to stay. And the more material possessions we accrue, we feel both more secure and more attached.

…it is not thinkable among us that our public institutions should collapse and we must engage in deception and self-deception about our alienation…Ultimately, we are incapable of facing our own death. All these denials about endings are necessary…because it is too costly to face and embrace them. It would suggest that we are not in charge, that things will not forever stay the manageable way they are, and that things will not finally work out.
– Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination

In our heart of hearts, however, we all know that nothing lasts forever. “No epoch is finally privileged,” Ken Wilber has written. “We are all tomorrow’s food. The process continues. And Spirit is found in the process itself, not in any particular epoch or time or place.”

One of the “funnies” circulating on the internet recently was this image:


Some have pointed out that the image on the left is not actually the Mayan calendar, but is instead the Aztec calendar – the Aztec civilization came after that of the Mayan.


Now, after having the laugh about the similarity of the Oreo cookie to the circular calendar, and after correctly identifying the calendar images, another thought came to me.

The Oreo Cookie actually is a tolerably good representation of our current consumer culture.  The Oreo has come to be known as the world’s favorite cookie, and is made by Nabisco, a division of Kraft Foods, Inc.  (which recently changed its name to Mondelēz International, Inc.)

Kraft is an international foods conglomerate, known for its highly processed and chemically laden foodstuffs, such as Oscar Mayar hotdogs, Velveeta Cheesefoods, as well as Oreo cookies.

And our consumer culture has an unhealthy addiction, which tends to devour as quickly as possible.  And so we have the Kooky Cookie Calendar as a reminder of where we are.  Consuming our resources at an ever expanding rate.


And the Mayans? Well, they do have a few lessons for us. More about that in Part 2.  Until then, this quote from James Howard Kunstler, written in 2007 (before the burst of the housing bubble):

The key to understanding the challenge we face is admitting that we have to comprehensively make other arrangements for all the normal activities of everyday life…

If you really want to understand the U.S. public’s penchant for wishful thinking, consider this: We invested most of our late twentieth-century wealth in a living arrangement with no future. American suburbia represents the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. The far-flung housing subdivisions, commercial highway strips, big-box stores, and all the other furnishings and accessories of extreme car dependence will function poorly, if at all, in an oil-scarce future. Period. This dilemma now entails a powerful psychology of previous investment, which is prompting us to defend our misinvestments desperately, or, at least, preventing us from letting go of our assumptions about their future value. Compounding the disaster is the unfortunate fact that the manic construction of ever more futureless suburbs (a.k.a. the “housing bubble”) has insidiously replaced manufacturing as the basis of our economy.

Meanwhile, the outsourcing of manufacturing to other nations has spurred the development of a “global economy,” which media opinion-leaders such as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman (author of The World Is Flat) say is a permanent state of affairs that we had better get used to. It is probably more accurate to say that the global economy is a set of transient economic relations that have come about because of two fundamental (and transient) conditions: a half century of relative peace between great powers and a half century of cheap and abundant fossil-fuel energy. These two mutually dependent conditions are now liable to come to an end as the great powers enter a bitter contest over the world’s remaining energy resources, and the world is actually apt to become a lot larger and less flat as these economic relations unravel.

– James Howard Kunstler, Making Other Arrangements