Systemic Thinking (R9)

Making a Heap into a System

You can have a heap of ideas—most people, including myself, do—this one, that one & several others all higgledy-piggledy; it’s possible that they may be connected in some way—everything is sub specie aeternitatis—but when they are in a heap all the possible connections are difficult, if not impossible, to discern. Then more & more things get added to the heap and when there’s no system it’s not possible to put them in the right place. The heap remains a heap pretty much like the contents of a dustcart—all over the place.

The alternative to being the proud possessor of a heap is to sort it somehow—with rubber gloves, so as not to contaminate or be contaminated—to look for the pattern of what’s there and to derive some kind of at least provisional order from what you find; to fashion the bits of the heap into some kind of system or set of systems; to seek out their interconnectedness instead of constantly finding yourself flitting from one thing to another in a manner that is commonly described as ‘going round and round in circles’.

The irony is that, far from being the problem, going round in a circle is part of the solution: when we deliberately dispose things in circles, as it is the purpose of this essay to demonstrate, the connections begin to become at least a little more evident than they were before.

Chasing Tails

For example, here’s a person who says they are constantly ‘chasing their tail’; they can’t keep up with all the things they have to do; they have ‘too much on their plate’; they can’t decide what to do next; it’s driving them crazy; no sooner do they imagine that they’ve sorted out one problem when another one crops up; they don’t know how to say NO; their available hours are always contaminated by the thought that they should be doing something else; it begins to affect their relationships; they soon confirm the problem by giving it a name—they call it ‘stress’ and go off to the doctor’s consulting-room about it; they are now dealing with an abstraction and when they get to the doctor she might help them to add another abstraction just to provide their condition with some credibility in discussions round the dinner table—‘depression’.

Sounds like a heap of things going on for them. To call the result ‘stress + depression’ is to bury the heap very effectively under a compound abstraction. Abstractions always bury concrete particulars.

It might be possible to discern the pattern in this heap of ideas; it would not solve the problem in the same way that a pill from the doctor might appear to do but it might unpick the bits from the heap, put them into some kind of order and point up some possible interventions leading to a different plan of action.

We could look at things systemically. A system is always basically circular; it consists of a series of self-reinforcing events:-

Systems can always be made to throw up ‘emergent properties’ (EP) which can sometimes offer creative possibilities but which at other times, as here, may simply bury the real issues.  A system is always designed by an individual and an emergent property will be whatever the individual decides: in this case, you might not opt for ‘stress’ as the emergent property from this system…

The More the More…

The more one continues to go round and round in a circuit the more the steps become part of what one chooses to call one’s ‘reality’. Each stage in the system becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“ I am the sort of person who is constantly under pressure…” “I am a workaholic…” It has become a problem of identity rather than being about ‘things that happen’… This is another way of burying things—under the abstraction of ‘I am’.

The implication is that if that’s the way you are then there’s nothing further to consider—it must be in the genes or something like that. There arises a tendency to look for further evidence to support a pre-existing model: “Look, here comes another bit of stuff that will add to the pressure I’m constantly under… the story of my life…” We become comfortable with this way of being, awful as that may seem.

The Things that Happen Are Never Inevitable

Once a heap has been made into a sensible system, it becomes possible to investigate its constituent bits.

The grid is a useful tool from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits. It requires that you consider all activities from four points of view asking these questions:-

  • Is it Urgent or Non-urgent?
  • Is it Important or Non-important?

All activities can be classified according to the resulting combinations:-

Quadrant 1 – those things which are both urgent and important: crises, needed next day etc
Quadrant 2 – those things which are important but not urgent – planning which is often postponed indefinitely
Quadrant 3 – those things which are urgent to somebody else but not important to you – interrupting what you’re doing
Quadrant 4 – those things which neither urgent nor important and could be dispensed with

This obviously requires more subtle investigation but that’s the general idea…

Having devised a system the question then becomes how to break the vicious circle which one has been caught in, how to undo what, in the pressure of events, has seemed inevitable?

Systems create systems…

And so on…

The Advent of the Computer

Not wishing to add to my function as a machine, for many years I was resistant to the idea of having a computer and I continued to write with a fountain pen on smooth notebook paper for the sheer kinaesthetic joy of finding the pages filling with scribbled writing, ink flowing pleasantly on to paper.

When I did succumb to the lure of the computer it did not take me long to realise that it had powerful systemic benefits: whereas previously writing had seemed to be a one-way process—a struggle between pen and words—I suddenly found that the words began to flow; it was no longer much of a struggle. The system I found myself in that helped me along was this:-

All Centres, whole brain & body, engaged in a constant feedback process. Depicting the process as a system enabled me to understand how to forge connections with my whole being.

The ultimate irony is that having practised ‘flow’ with a computer I now find my facility in writing with fountain pen on paper is much more easy!

Gurdjieff’s Equivalent in World Creation

In Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, Gurdjieff expounds a Creation Myth of which this process is a microcosm.

In the beginning, of course nothing existed except empty space, the Sun Absolute, the ‘prime cosmic substance ethernokrilno’ and some great creative force that got things moving somehow. There was a perceived danger that the Merciless Heropass (ordinary passing time) would gradually wear down the Sun Absolute leading to the total extinction of the universe. So the question was how to arrange things in order to ‘attain immunity from the maleficent action of the Merciless Heropass’—a continuing problem for us all!

According to Objective Science (as opposed to the activities of ‘sorry scientists’ who can’t help what they do) there already existed two laws that kept things going prior to this: the Law of Seven and the Law of Three.

The Law of Seven governed the progress of everything up the musical octave. In human terms this could be sung thus:-

Doh     Hear at another level
Transformation of Negative Emotion
Si    Do/ make happen
Lah    Will it
Sol     Make aim
Fah    Understand
Mi     Acknowledge
Re    Know
Doh    Hear

It’s not enough to hear something at bottom Doh; one must feel it in the muscle and know it at Re; then acknowledge the knowing at Mi. The difficulty is to go beyond Mi towards Understanding—for that one must be in the present, self-remember; hardly anybody really gets beyond Mi.

The Law of Three—thesis, antithesis and synthesis—can be expressed as the Law of the Pendulum (see and subsequent posts…

Full consciousness of these processes leads to semooniranoos or impartiality, acknowledgement and full awareness without the burden of opinion and conjecture about the way things happen.

Consistent application of all this introduced a way of combating the degrading operation of the Merciless Heropass and there came about the self-sustaining ‘universal exchange of substances’ (the common-cosmic process Iraniranumange), ‘a reciprocal feeding of everything existing’ and a ‘common cosmic harmonious equilibrium’.

The subsquent creation of various levels of cosmoses resulted in the common-cosmic Ansanbaluiazar—‘everything issuing from everything and again entering into everything…’

Got It?

In ordinary everyday terms it seems to me this boils down to the idea that when a heap is made into a system everything in it relates to everything else in the system—the system falls if you pull one bit of it out. In a system there is a universal exchange of substances, Iraniranumange; everything issues from everything and enters once more into everything else.

In my simple coming-to-terms-with-the-computer example, mind-stuff feeds through by means of a certain internal something-or-other into fingerwork & hand movement which is guided by what the eye sees on the screen which enters again into mind-stuff to shift words and phrases about which feeds back into mental shuffling of ideas and so on round and round. It is a feedback loop.

It pleases me to think of Gurdjieff as one of the first system thinkers.

A Fourth Way Heap

This is a heap of things that people in Fourth Way circles, clubs & schools push around:-

The question is how could this heap be ordered into an Iraniranumange system, everything connected up together?

One could talk about it thus:-

The way the human system develops seems to be something like this: we start off in a certain way, pristine & unsullied by life; during the course of our First (or conventional) Education many influences (both flippant (A) and serious (B)) come to bear on us; we choose some and resist others; we develop beliefs some of which (but not all) can be verified; something or the other occurs in us that helps us to fortify a different way of looking at the world; we work at elements of ourselves that stop us from getting what we want from life; we begin to recognise the many different parts of ourselves, rise above some, focus on others, learn gradually to ‘be here now’…

Or else we learn nothing and work hard and very successfully at being mechanical and sleeping deeply, secure from the danger of having to face up to things about ourselves which we might find unpalatable.

Otherwise, in Second Education, the aim is to return to the beginning, retaining everything that we’ve learned that’s positive, and make a valiant attempt to be pristine & unsullied in Essence again, if you can imagine that.

It will clarify things a little to express this not in prose but as something rather more dynamic:-

(Double-click to make visible)


A Influences: sport, money politics, ordinary religion, career, making a living, distractions from how life should be
B Influences: books & writing that take us beyond ordinary life, The Upanishads, The Bible, Tao te Ching and so on
Magnetic Centre: a something-or-other that forms in us that attracts ‘higher things’ to our being
Kundabuffer: a mythical something-or-other that was once implanted in us to cause us to view the world upside-down, that is, contrary to how it actually is
Chief Feature: a something-or-other that prevents us from getting what we want from life


The Enneagram as a System of Systems

Here is what Gurdjieff said about the Enneagram (In Search of the Miraculous) :-

Speaking in general it must be understood that the enneagram is a universal symbol. All knowledge can be included in the enneagram and with its help it can be interpreted. And in this connection only what a person is able to put into the enneagram do they actually know, that is, understand. What you cannot put into the enneagram you do not understand. Anybody who is able to make use of it, the enneagram makes books and libraries entirely unnecessary. Everything can be included and read in the enneagram. You could be quite alone in the desert, trace the enneagram in the sand and in it read the eternal laws of the universe. And every time you can learn something new, something you did not know before.

If two people who have been in different schools meet, they will draw the enneagram and with its help they will be able at once to establish which of them knows more and which, consequently, stands upon which step, that is to say, which is the elder, which is the teacher and which the pupil. The enneagram is the fundamental hieroglyph of a universal language which has as many different meanings as there are levels of people.
The enneagram is perpetual motion, the same perpetual motion that people have sought since the remotest antiquity and could never find. And it is clear why they could not find perpetual motion. They sought outside themselves that which was within them; and they attempted to construct perpetual motion as a machine is constructed, whereas real perpetual motion is a part of another perpetual motion and cannot be created apart from it. The enneagram is a schematic diagram of perpetual motion, that is, of a machine of eternal movement. But of course it is necessary to know how to read this diagram. The understanding of this symbol and the ability to make use of it gives you very great power. It is perpetual motion and it is also the philosopher’s stone of the alchemists.

If the Enneagram as a system of systems can be applied to anything then this has to be tested…

Here’s an Enneagram version of how I once wrote a book. I based the analysis on JGBennett’s description of a Kitchen at Work in his brilliant & practical Enneagram Studies.

(Double-click to make visible)

The temporal process is depicted around the edge of the Enneagram 1 to 9a. The inner dynamic of the Enneagram provides the perpetual motion that Gurdjieff talks about.

Points 9, 3 and 6 are key to the whole thing. So context, concept and audience form the basic structure of the system. Context would determine whether the concept of the book was worth bothering with at all and both would be related to a possible audience

Using the internal dynamic enables one to consider the process of writing the book from different perspectives. Ideally the Enneagram would be depicted on the floor and one would activate the whole of one’s being by walking from point to point to make the process come alive. For instance, while standing at 4, collecting material would be done in the light of 1, the initial idea, and with an eye to 7, final adjustments which would take on board what had been done at 5 in the way of getting things into order. At the same time one might be thinking about the final design of the book (8). And so on… Every part of the writing of the book would be looked at from all points of view.

The Figure of Eight

The Figure of Eight is a double-system modelling how the things of the Other-than-conscious mind (which some refer to as the ‘unconscious’ or ‘subconscious’—unnecessary concepts to my way of thinking) emerge into relative consciousness.

(Double-click to make visible)

I derived this double-system from a close reading of, and tussle with, Antonio Damasio’s stunning book The Feeling of What Happens. It started life as a way of understanding the book’s argument itself; as a diagram it brought the book alive for me. As I refined it, it took on a life of its own and became an independent way of thinking about the relationship between the things that happen in us pre-verbally and what we find to talk about, imagining that we have nailed something down with our words.

This illustrates the way in which a diagrammatic systemic analysis can work as an aid to thinking about a complex exposition buried under a ton of prose. I often find that a writer is elaborating a systemic analysis which would be better presented as a diagram.

This will get you to my original post on the subject of the Figure of Eight:-



Systems thinking is a vital tool for clarifying heaps of ideas. It needs to become a habit! Try it with a small fairly trivial topic first like going shopping for food:-

This is an ‘essay’ in the original meaning of the word: an ‘attempt’ to describe a tool to assist thinking.

5 thoughts on “Systemic Thinking (R9)

  1. I found your post interesting on many levels. I am very organized. It seems the older I get, the more I organize purposefully. I am not in a rush, and do not enjoy being part of the multi-tasking crowd. I enjoy quality instead of quantity in what I do each day.

    After reading your post, I surfed the web to see what others are saying about systems and disorganization. I found an interesting article on “neuro diversity.” It was interesting.


  2. An enlightened way to convert old tired energy or inertia into an uptempo flow of positive reciprocal dynamics. There is an intrinsic rhythm to these diagrams with the Enneagram’s incontrovertible light blazing in the centre. Thanks Colin


  3. When I was a practicing professional coach a few years ago, the formal model I trained in – called “Integral Coaching” – featured a circular diagram similar to (but much simpler than) the one you use above to illustrate the concept of “Second Education”, which is itself a perfectly apt description for the process of being coached. The Integral Coaching diagram represents the dysfunctional circular pattern of the adult individual acting upon his/her “world” with the (now inappropriate) behavioral habits learned in childhood, which results (as we would expect) in unsatisfactory outcomes coming back to the individual from the world, causing the individual – now frustrated by the unwanted results – to act upon the world with even more inappropriate patterns of behavior, leading to more frustrating outcomes, and so on and so on. In the model, this circle of futility can be expanded to a more felicitous circle by the coach’s offering the client what is termed a “distinction” – a new way of engaging with the situation that (hopefully) produces a more desirable outcome. Once the circle has been expanded enough to break the old cycle of dysfunction, additional coaching can lead to more distinctions and an ever-expanding circle of effective engagement with the world. What I particularly like about your diagram is the “dead end” branch, which usefully describes what happens in an unsuccessful coaching relationship, where either the coach fails to offer a useful enough distinction or the client fails to act on the distinction that has been offered.

    Thanks as always, Colin, for the stimulating intellectual work-out!



    1. Tom – Somehow or other I missed your comment. That’s really interesting and, in following your detailed description, I know I could make it into a circular systemic process as I do quite often when reading solid prose. In fact the Figure of Eight that I’ve often referred to in these Globs started life as a double system based on the whole of Antonio Damasio’s ‘The Feeling of What Happens’.

      What you say about intervention is also part of the point of the habit I’ve developed – until you make a process into a systemic circle it’s not entirely clear where an intervention can be made to break what can be a vicious circle.

      Once I started seriously on this way of thinking nearly twenty years ago – I did a course! – I varied it, added the dead-end spurs, had circles coming off individual stopping points, on and on. Systems produce systems.

      Need to break the vicious circle that keeps getting my ‘office’ so cluttered!


      1. …. and I need to break the vicious circle in which I keep falling behind in reading your blog posts! Think I have three to catch up on at the moment …. hopefully this weekend!!


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