The Whole is More than the Sum of its Parts

As a young kid who didn’t attend formal school much till the age of 6, I had grave difficulty in learning alphabets and numbers, A child like me in today’s day will qualify to be on the spectrum of learning disorders. My mother understood my struggle early on and never encouraged me to learn the answers to questions or tables or sentences. She taught me to understand them. Like making me directly solve mathematics problems using peas and simple objects from the immediate environment, asking me to articulate what I understood and write rather than rote learning the answers. Understanding the meaning of a statement and then reconstructing it in my own way was appreciated in my early learning life. That became a foundation for learning subjects in my later life.

As an adult I still struggle in trainings where concepts are taught from understanding the most simple building blocks and gradually making them into complex concepts. My brain actually goes hazy in this model of learning where in it is assumed that the parts when put together
constitute the whole. Maybe it does for a lot of people but it is confusing for me to relate that with my own lived and learning experiences.

Whole In-Forms the Parts

This notion of over simplification leads me to question the very premise of therapeutic principles or frameworks where the personality is seen as a sum of parts that are trying to reach a Wholeness. What if that is not the only view? What if its the other way around? Lets go by the premise that we are whole in our current experience of reality, this wholeness determines the parts of our reality. This whole is not pre-determined or fixed but evolving, shifting through its interaction within the parts.

Like when I am creating a food recipe or writing a poem or envisioning a new project, even writing this article or when my painter or musician friend creates music we go from the idea, a source of inspiration, a piece that seems to be forming in the back of the mind then looking at the elements that create it, the small units of building blocks that are forming the Whole. Here, the whole is in-forming the parts and not the other way and by the very interactive and mutually impacting relating among the parts the whole experiences change. How (Wertheimer took the more radical position that “what is given me by the melody does not arise … as a secondary process from the sum of the pieces as such. Instead, what takes place in each single part already depends upon what the whole is”, (1925/1938) .

The questions that travel in my mind are :

What if we learn, experience life & love, understand the meaning of things from Wholeness, Complexity, Oneness which includes bifurcation, separation, simplification as part of the meaning making process?

A Wholesome Approach to Therapy

Taking this approach into Psychotherapy changes on how a therapist views a client’s
problem, the therapeutic relation and environment itself. Applying this approach to therapy, may begin with looking at both the Client and Therapist as Two Wholes in their own realities coming together in exploration of these varied realities and in the process entering into a shared space that arises in-between them. Here the concept of boundaries is not just a function of safety or protection but that of meeting. See Diagram 1: Interacting Wholes…

Diagram 1: Illustrates Interacting Wholes, Contact & Boundary & Expanding Wholes (Awareness expanding Reality)

The interacting field comprises of :

  • Us(The Therapist & The Client) as Who We Are in our present.
  • The environment in which we are living/meeting and the relational context, for example a therapeutic relating.

Here, you are in touch or in contact with the many aspects of inner self (feelings~thoughts~5 senses), environment or/and other (safety~threat~tentative~curious). You can also be in touch with what is not known yet, the unknown potential that you are in contact with but it is out of  awareness.

In this amalgamation we are met with our haunting fears of past and future, the hidden and unknown regressions of past events and their interference with our present, many anxieties that keep us in contact with what we are experiencing and blocking our awareness of the present experience. For example, You can have tears in your eyes, but not be aware of the underlying sadness. Once you can bring your sadness in the field of awareness, you can have a progressively new experience of your own self resulting in personal growth.

Similarly, in this liminal space, wherein you feel different, new but don’t know why. You can observe that you are in contact with something changing in you but it is not in your awareness yet. In this space, we begin to observe that change or learning is a function of awareness & growth.

Purposeful Therapy

Growth is inclusive of Death & Dying and many other anxieties that induce fear such as longing to be free, fear of being alone, disillusionment with life’s meaninglessness. Most of therapy work brings us in touch with our unacknowledged Grief. At the doorstep of grief we will find ourselves stuck and we are faced with enormous possibilities too. Here, it is a folly to consider that we choose one(fears) over the other(hopes) rather the choice is in how we begin to engage with both; the vagaries and virtues of life that determines our growth.

Therapy aims at bringing us in touch with various parts of us that may have been hidden from us for innumerable reasons (developmental/event based/inter-generational trauma, personality traits and adaptations that are detrimental but feel vital to survival) & many more. Here we can enter a phase of exploration with these parts of us and gradually bringing them into our field of awareness.

For example, as a kid I was very agile in gathering my peers, garnering resources from each house to look after our street pups and dog mothers and we(Me & my friends) would come up with solutions of shelter, food and safety for the harsh winter months. Even as a adolescent & an adult I have had an inbuilt knack for creatively engaging with what is available and what new can be integrated in usual life situations. Through this simple example, I can say that our ability to respond to the current scenario with all our faculties available in the moment is what life keeps inviting us to.

Awareness here is not the processing of past or information of the present, but an “Experiential Way of Being” which includes an integrated form of (rational but not ruminative, emotive but not flooded, subtle sensing of the body as against only gross level sensations) making it not pre-determined rather spontaneous.  Awareness is experienced when a person is deeply engaged in a responsive manner with the ever evolving present.

In my experience as a person and my role as a therapist, I see the value of these transitions towards fostering Awareness & Change:

  • Abstraction -> Experiential
  • Concepts -> Essence
  • Anxieties -> Existence & Possibilities 
  • Fears -> Curiosity
  • Understanding -> Exploring
  • Accomplished -> Loving  .

The stance of the therapist, the view of seeing ourselves, the other and our relationships as not just parts accumulated and discarded over life/lifetimes but rather as whole units that keep informing these parts changes how we engage and live with self, others & life force. It is the interconnectedness of the whole and its parts that brings us closer to living Life in Wholesome and Life affirming manner.


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