Lake and mountains in Tasmania

Differences in linear and holistic thinking and operating

Differences in linear and holistic thinking and operating

A few months ago, Tom and I made a discovery. I am sure this knowledge is already out there, but I will share with you what we discovered nonetheless.

We live in a linear world. Everything needs to fit neatly in some sort of box, to be sorted and put under a certain “label” or other reference. Subjects of life and living are divided up and approached one by one, without any, or sometimes with very little, correlation. This already starts at a very young age, where the system puts children in a large physical box (a classroom) with children all the same age, and instructs them all on the same subjects. However, these subjects are divided. A child may do painting first, then reading, adding and then writing. Later in life things like biology, physics, science and other subjects may be added. After being boxed in at school we then get boxed in at work (offices etc) only to go home in a box on wheels (car) to another box (house). We identify ourselves as whatever label has been put on us (accountant, doctor, lawyer, builder, machine operator etc) and by location of these boxes we live and work in. Life these days is defined by boxes, labels and things being segregated in point form. And then we wonder why we are so disconnected.

West coast Tasmania
Nothing linear here!

Do you find straight lines, squares or cubes in nature? Does nature divide and separate everything into different subjects? It cannot. Have you ever wondered why nature cannot divide things into neatly labelled individualised items? Because in nature everything is connected. Everything is part of the whole. This is what holistic thinking is all about.

As a holistic thinker you approach everything as a part of the whole. Nothing stands alone and nothing is linear in time or in space. This means that things can happen at the same time, alternating, never independently but always as a reaction to some form of stimulation which is all part of the whole. It also means that what happens in one spot can have an effect on something in a totally different unrelated spot. Holistic thinking is incredibly hard for us humans as we have been so indoctrinated into linear thinking. Holistic thinking has so many different aspects that it is completely mind blowing. This is also why holistic thinkers are usually misunderstood.

Waterfall in Tasmanian forestPeople that live and practise permaculture on a daily basis become holistic thinkers over time. This then means that sometimes it is hard to understand how they think and how they approach things. They do not focus on just the one thing but assess the impact that one thing can have on all the systems around it. They cannot put this type of thinking in a linear format and still have the same impact, as the linear format can only function by constraining time and space.

Old tree in Tasmanian forest
Looking up from a hollow in a 400 year old tree

We must understand that time and space are a concept put into place by humans to make sense of things. But there is no time and space. There are no days, months or years, there are just revolutions of the planets that cause differences in light and thus warmth reaching us, creating days and nights and the seasons. There are no kilometres or even metres, these have again just been put into our minds to make sense of space and to try and define them. Nature doesn’t care about that, she just adjusts to whatever revolution the planet is on. How can there be space when we have found that for example mosquito spraying in swamps in South America cause mosquitoes on the other side of the planet to become immune to that particular pesticide? That it takes forever for someone to break a record (e.g. running), but once one person breaks that record, another will follow around the same time, and more will break that record soon after. And these people may not even know other people have broken the record!

Cave tree in Tassie
Cave tree in Tasmania

One thing that I am very aware of is how little we know. We build our knowledge upon those who came before us, but still we know nothing. Nature in its infinite wisdom is so far ahead of us, we are nothing but little specks of dust before her. We cannot put her in a box and stick a label on her! We cannot say: “Nature doesn’t know what she is doing, she is growing all these weeds here” and proceed to kill the weeds! For we have only been around for such a short time as a species, we do not understand what nature is trying to achieve as she stands outside of space and time. She will still be there long after we have gone.

Old forest in Tassie
Old forest in Tasmania with 400+ year old trees

We are masters of trying to control our environment as humans, to the detriment of our species. We are so linear, we have removed ourselves completely from the natural environment and label everything. We need more holistic thinkers, more people that can see the whole picture and the amazing interaction between all the elements in a system. It is only by changing to holistic thinking that we can change our relationship with this amazing, beautiful and robust planet to one that is mutually beneficial, instead of taking it all and giving nothing (but toxic rubbish) back. Permaculture is a wonderful method of achieving this, but as with all things permaculture, you will need patience. Slowly but surely you will start seeing the connections and the beautiful dance that is life all around us, and start to understand that this is not something you can describe in point form…

©2017 Zaia;, incorporating Permaculture Research Institute Sunshine Coast, simplicity, permaculture, self reliance, self sufficiency, sustainability, food, health and homesteading; the differences between Linear and Holistic thinking


  1. I enjoyed your writing and the subject matter intrigues me. I am so pleased to have stumbled onto this site.
    In 1954, Stuart Chase wrote an essay, “How Language Shapes Our Thoughts”. If you have not read it, you should. He writes that, in all the talk about talk and about a talker’s power over his language, little is mentioned of the reverse of that process, i.e. the power language exerts over the talker.
    Years ago, when I was searching to understand why I didn’t fit in this society into which I had been born, why I felt like a round peg trying to fit into a square hole, I discovered two things: 1. that I am of Native American ancestry and 2. the aforementioned essay.
    Chase references the research of Benjamin Lee Whorf, a linguist. Whorf put forth the question: Do our thoughts shape our language or does our language shape our thoughts? What follows is some incredible thought into this question.
    He speculates that “all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or in some way can be calibrated.”
    Whorf wrote of two distinct language groups. One of these is linear, involving time and space, with subject-predicate form of language. These are generally Indo-European language groups. The other language group is holistic and cannot be gauged by the same measures as Indo-European. These language groups include Native American, African, Chinese and many others. People born with genetic make up from these language groups are predetermined to see the world through that language make up.
    Take for instance, physics. A person of Native American genetics, who thinks holistically, has an intuitive understanding of physics. However, a person of Indo-European genetics, who thinks linearly, must have the language of mathematics to understand physics.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment Zande, I was unaware of the essay but will definitely look it up to read. I myself speak multiple languages fluently, although they are all European languages. However, I am also a musician. Music I believe is another language and is universal. It can be practised linearly, but it can also be practised holistically. Food or future thought! Thanks again for contributing your information!

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