The Way of Unfolding
A New Paradigm with Ancient Roots

A Brief Introduction to the Approach Developed by Jan Ardui and Peter Wrycza


When Jan Ardui and I began collaborating professionally in the early 1990s, we shared an interest in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).

While deeply appreciative of what we had learned in this new discipline, we found ourselves constrained by certain limitations in the NLP paradigm.

We wanted a way of approaching growth and development in individuals (where NLP had a lot of strengths) that meshed with what happens in groups and organizations (where the NLP paradigm was more limited).

Furthermore, we sensed that what happens in both individuals and larger systems reflects patterns of transformation present in the natural world as a whole. These patterns, we felt, were expressions of an evolutionary direction running through all levels of creation.

This evolutionary impetus we came to call the ‘Way of Unfolding’. The term ‘Way of Unfolding’ is simply a way of referring to ‘how things are’ or perhaps more precisely ‘how things become’.

The current of our lives is touched by the Way of Unfolding in two important ways.

  1. Firstly, our sensitivity to pattern means that we readily intuit recurring tendencies in our world, and, through them, a deeper coherence and unity running through all the diversity of life.
  2. Secondly, our sense of personal alignment provides ongoing feedback as to the extent we are in a coherent relationship with life’s unfolding pattern.

Sensitivity to patternand growing alignment with the deeper pattern of our lives help our personal unfolding to resonate with the process of Unfolding in life as a whole. When this happens, we enjoy and support fullness in life, both in ourselves and in others. We flow with the stream of life, and are able to accomplish much with minimum striving. Life supports us as we support life. This is in a nutshell is what we mean by ‘the Way of Unfolding’.

Pattern and Patterning

Pattern appears at every level of creation, from the sub-atomic to the galactic, from simple cells to whole societies. Our own minds are also peculiarly organized to perceive and handle pattern. Pattern, as such, we can define as partly present in the world and partly the expression of our own ‘punctuation’, to use Gregory Bateson’s term. Our punctuation in turn is a result of our existing patterning. We are, in effect, both the creators and the creation of our patterning.

In examining both the patterning of nature and the nature of our patterning, we find that pattern has the valuable function of simplifying yet enabling complexity. Simple patterns in nature appear to underlie surface complexity. And the patterning of our minds enables us to understand and manage the complexity of our world.

Ultimately, we sense that the patterning of nature and the patterning of our minds emerge from simple meta-patterns that are present in both mind and nature.

For Bateson and other perceptive thinkers, mind and nature are a ‘necessary unity’, complementary facets of ‘a pattern which connects’. If we speculate as to the nature of such a pattern, we can concur with Wallace Stevens that ‘it must be abstract’, but capable of imbuing the range of creation through to its most concrete expressions.

Examining the pattern to simple patterns we can get some ideas as to how to think about a connecting meta-pattern. Simple patterns can be described, as the British poet G. M. Hopkins did in the last century, as a configuration of ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’. But the notions of ‘stability’ and ‘change’ are probably more apposite for dynamic processes. It is possible to describe the range of processes in nature in terms of a continuing dynamic between tendencies toward differentiation or change and tendencies towards homogeneity or stability.

However, the relationship between stability and change factors alone could never account for the enormous wealth of self-evolving patterns present in nature. So much of the patterning we observe in the natural world carries the possibility of developing in surprising and creative ways that we propose a third characteristic immanent in nature’s patterning.

This we call ‘self-transcendence’. The patterns of nature have the capacity to transcend themselves, either by learning or by becoming part of larger ‘holons’ (to borrow Wilber’s term) that include them but manifest another order of possibilities.

Generative Patterns and Generative Patterning

Where nature’s patterning, and our own, display a tendency for new possibilities to emerge out of the tension between factors fostering stability and factors provoking change, we may talk about ‘Generative Patterns’.

Generative Patterns are patterns with a capacity for self-transcendence. They can change, learn, and grow. Living systems are Generative Patterns, as are social systems.

Modelling and Applied Epistemology

For human beings, this self-transcending relationship with the patterns of our lives has much to do with how we interact with our ‘models of the world’.

To perceive patterns in what we encounter is a first step to managing life’s complexity. To give meaning to those patterns and code how they relate to each other for future reference involves another deeper level of processing. In deep learning, the complexity of what is not yet understood or integrated crystallizes into a coherent form that becomes part of us. This new crystallization or ‘model’ enables us to us to manage the rich complexity of what we have been learning and apply it in our lives. This process of creating a mental coding of the patterns we encounter in our everyday experience, we call ‘modelling’.

Whereas pattern occupies an intermediate zone between ‘things as they are’ and our coding of them, models are primarily products of our mind. We create mental models when we attempt to understand and manage the pattern to the patterns we perceive. Compared with patterns, models are one step removed in the direction of pure mental constructs. Patterning is essential for modelling, while the latter is an integral part of deep learning.

Unfortunately, our mental models can be both a blessing and a curse. While they enable us to manage complexity, they also shape our responses to the world, reducing our ability to respond creatively and freely to the here and now in all its freshness and immediacy.

Our mental models determine our unconscious epistemology, our unconscious assumptions about the world and how we give meaning to experience. They can both support alignment with life’s pattern and obstruct it.

To flow with life’s unfolding pattern implies becoming more conscious of our unconscious epistemology. If we can recognize the patterning running through our models of the world, we can use our mental modelling to undo and update some of its earlier work.

The Way of Unfolding as it manifests in us humans thus invites us to give a lot of attention to how we know what we know. This attention to how our mental models are shaping our world forms an important part of an Applied Epistemology, of which Generative Patterning is a central element. Through Generative Patterning we can have a more conscious, fluid, flexible, and creative relationship with our own modelling process. This is essential if we are to support our development by unravelling the sometimes confused and confusing strands of our models of the world.

Ultimately, questions about our own knowing lead us to explore and fathom the nature of the knower. The Way of Unfolding invites curiosity about the ‘who’. Exploring our deep epistemology, brings us to an edge. What can we know of the knower? What is the structure of that which takes itself to be the knower? What is the pattern of development of the self? Is personal identity anything other than an artefact of our patterning and modelling? What is the eventual destination of that which we take to be ‘myself’?

Change, Learning, and Growth

A number of approaches to personal development, such as NLP, emphasize the importance of change in our lives. But change without reference to deeper learning and growth is likely to be either shallow or problematic.

Change is never without a dance with stability. We can perhaps better think of change as generally exterior to ourselves. Change primarily occurs at the environmental or behavioural levels. The world throws the challenge of change at us, and we can also initiate behavioural and contextual changes. We can change our partners, jobs, homes, life-styles, and so on.

Contextual changes in our circumstances constrain the patterns of our lives to new configurations. The economy goes sour, our company closes down, or we fall in love, and the knock-on effects in our lives are profound. These effects we can term ‘learning’ (rather than change), when they involve the acquisition of new capabilities or the realization of important new ways of framing our experience.

Learning enables us to manage increasingly complex patterns of similarity and difference in what we perceive. With its drive for simplicity and coherence, learning helps us accommodate complexity, boosting the connections and relationships available to our minds.

Paradoxically, learning is a fundamentally conservative process. In providing us with the means to manage the pressures of change, learning has the valuable function of supporting stability in our lives. Much of our learning serves to expand our ability to cope with new developments so that our personal selves remain secure.

Eventually, of course, our learning rubs up against the limits of our self-paradigm, and we find ourselves entering a period of profound revision of our sense of who and what we are. We may emerge from such periods of personal development different than before, but it is then more accurate to speak of ‘growth’ rather than either learning or change.

Because growth involves a significant outframing of our usual frames of reference, much of it happens at an unconscious level. We cannot really renew our old selves from within the old mould. The mould itself must expand. That implies a surrendering to larger processes than those that make for our usual selves. We cannot ‘do’ growth, but we can support it.

Generally, people do not change. Rather than trying to alter ourselves or others, we might be wiser to seek small behavioural changes that will indirectly engender new levels of learning and growth. This approach was widely practised by Milton Erickson, who gave many of his clients simple behavioural tasks that would inevitably lead to developments on other levels.



















The development and evolution of Generative Patterns is, in effect, the story of the Way of Unfolding. Unfolding happens in and through the Generative Patterns of the natural world.

Our own patterning becomes generative when we find we are learning about our learning in a way that fuels further learning and growth. We can thus think of ‘Generative Patterning’ as the exploration and description of how we manage the relationship between stability and change, sameness and difference in a way that is self-transcending for ourselves and for the self-context continuum. Generative Patterning is the process of having a self-transcending relationship with the patterns of our lives.


The hierarchical relationship between change, learning, and growth in our lives points to a larger pattern that only becomes apparent over time. It is as if the story of our lives gradually discloses a coherence and meaning as a whole that we recognize retrospectively. This trajectory of growth manifesting over a lifetime, we call ‘unfolding’. The notion of ‘unfolding’ implies that what we become is already in some sense implicit in what we are in the beginning, just as a tree is implicit in a seed. We cannot predict what specifically will happen in a person’s life. For the pattern of unfolding is constrained by the circumstances and events that happen around us. But when we consider our lives as a whole, we can appreciate a pattern that has been revealing itself all along. This larger pattern often makes some of the surprising choices that people make at particular moments in their lives understandable.

Unfolding in Action

In Bali, a sense of the deep unity of the pattern of unfolding running through different levels of creation pervades the culture. The Balinese invest a lot of time and energy in activities intended to harmonize the ‘buana alit’ (the small world of our personal selves) with the ‘buana agung’ (the big world of our social and natural environments).[1]

Ceremonies (yadnya) are widely used to promote such balance, both at the individual and collective levels. Ceremonies do not of themselves prevent the kind of ecological challenges to the environment that inevitably accompany modern technology. However, they do help preserve a fabric of unity and balance in Balinese society in spite of enormous pressures for change from international tourism, migration to an already crowded island, and the general push towards globalization.

At a time of national instability, Bali has remained relatively calm. When members of the dominant Islamic religion suggested that a Hindu president would not be acceptable, in spite of the supposed equality of religions nationally, the Balinese preferred to respond with a special yadnya.

When traditional values are appropriately invoked in Bali, they lead to rapid shifts in how people act. For example, when the government wanted to promote family planning with its ‘two children, enough’ campaign, compliance was fairly swift, in spite of a strong tradition of large families.

In Bali, the importance of the alignment of the personal, social, and natural worlds is reflected in the ubiquitous symbol of the eight-petal lotus. The latter provides a compact model of both the small and large worlds and the processes of transformation animating them both. Geographical orientation in space, the macrocosm, is reflected in the microcosm of the human body mind. The eight main directions of the compass originating from a central point suggest complementary energies, driving the processes of change both in nature and in our lives. These are reflected in the organization of our bodies, in the layout of homes, temples, and villages., even in the sacred geography of the island as a whole.

During our research into the Way of Unfolding, Jan Ardui and I found that the Balinese eight-petal lotus conceals a simple coding that is highly valuable for understanding and supporting the process of unfolding in our lives. We have tried to translate this ancient coding into modern language accessible to Westerners, under the rubric ‘Unfolding in Action’. This model inspires a series of personal development seminars which we offer periodically at Nirarta and elswhere.

The north-south axis of the lotus represents the deep structure of Generative Patterns. The north symbolizes the quality of stability, and the south, change. The centre represents the quality of ‘self-transcendence’, connecting the polarities and allowing higher levels of organization to emerge. In Bali, the centre is sometimes treated as the unifying source of diversity, and sometimes as the union of opposites, male and female, sky and earth, positive and negative, and so on. The centre is thus the source and expression of complementary qualities, which we may term ‘energy’ and ‘intelligence’, or, more poetically, ‘strength’ and ‘purity’. These are traditionally represented in the west and east of the lotus respectively.

The cardinal directions represent the deep structure of the dynamics of transformation both in our lives and in nature. The dance between the opposites of stability and change has direction, meaning, and power because of its intrinsic energy and intelligence. We are able to change, learn, and grow, because the forces of change and the forces of stability exist in a state of creative tension that invites the new without overwhelming it. Order and chaos coexist, allowing the precious and precarious miracle of life to emerge and evolve.

Out of the self-interacting dynamics of this simple set of relations, we find a more manifest layer of patterning emerging. The interaction of the four cardinal directions suggest four important tendencies, which are mapped symbolically in the north-west, north-east, south-east, and south-west. For example, the relationship between ‘energy’ and ‘stability’ in the north-west points to a purposefulness that we call ‘direction’. Without some kind of direction, nothing much happens either in nature or in our lives. But direction is blind if it ignores the wider context. So, opposite ‘direction’, in the south-east, between intelligence and change, we situate ‘connection’. For change presupposes time, and time implies both a ‘when’ and a ‘where’. In relation to intelligence, change thus implies in our lives the whole ecology of action – the right things happening at the right time. [2]

However, as we come into alignment with the pattern unfolding within us, we also come into harmony with the larger pattern of which we are part. We flow naturally with the current of life itself. There is no dissonance between our own evolution and that of the world around us. Such alignment is a long way from simple outcome specification. It has to do with a profound readjustment to our usual sense of self.

The call of growth, and the larger unfolding that drives it, require a way of working that is non-linear. A linear model of defining goals and then specifying the steps for reaching those goals is appropriate for behavioural changes or for specifying learning outcomes. It is an inadequate frame for supporting the mysterious subterranean processes of growth. For that, more circular and systemic models are appropriate. In our work with individuals and groups, we find we are often accompanying a process that is unfolding in its own way, without any clear ‘goal’, except the knowledge that we will recognize what we have been approaching when it emerges. Such exploration of deep patterns of belief and behaviour we call ‘Re•Patterning’.

Re•Patterning invites a collaborative process in which large measures of ‘not knowing’ allow us to spiral closer and closer to the heart of the mystery that we are. Such work is better represented by radiant rather than linear models. The rose or lotus has been a universal symbol for unfolding in the major spiritual and cultural traditions of the world and it is important to us, too.

Recognizing and contextualizing direction, are of course only possible when we draw on sources of inspiration within. In alignment with the Balinese model, between ‘stability’ and ‘intelligence’, we locate ‘inwardness’ or ‘inspiration’. This quadrant suggests the process of connecting with the grounding awareness which provides a backdrop and creative source to more active processes of the mind.

For transformation to become possible, such inwardness needs a counterbalancing expressiveness or passion, which we find opposite it in the eight-petal lotus, between ‘energy’ and ‘change’, in the south-west quadrant. Here we find the dynamism that makes the wheel of life turn.

These opposite qualities (inwardness and expression) work together and in conjunction with the other pair of qualities (direction and connection). Passionate expression makes for dynamic action in the world, but action is blind, without a counterbalancing inwardness, supporting ecology and wisdom in the choice of direction. So together, direction, inwardness, connection, and expression point to a dynamics of transformation. They suggest a systemic relation with each other in a way that can support the different levels of change, learning, and growth in our lives.

Transcontextual Skills

At a further level of specificity, these basic qualities operate in our lives through four important ‘Transcontextual Skills’, Transcontextual Skills enable us to function well in any situation. They help us manage the processes of change, learning, and growth in our own lives, and in our areas of responsibility as leaders, managers, coaches, or citizens.

The art of reflection, for instance, helps us connect with and draw on our inwardness. To read the runes of time, at any moment in the unfolding pattern requires the ability to reflect deeply, allowing life’s enigmas to yield new knowing from deep unknowing. Such inner responsiveness requires a profound attentiveness to the patterns present in and around us It also needs a discerning willingness to cut through the crap to the core issues. And lastly it needs the ability to commit wholeheartedly to action.

Reflection and attentiveness, thus, allow us to embrace the complexity of the present moment in a creative way. Discernment allows us to choose a direction, while commitment ensures passionate execution.

In consort, then, the four Transcontextual Skills, Discernment, Reflection, Attentiveness, and Commitment, ensure skill in action and a high level of personal and professional effectiveness. Together with patterning and modelling, they also provide the basic tools for an Applied Epistemology in daily life. Together they enable us to manage the complexity of life’s patterning and to grow in alignment with the pattern which connects.

When they are applied to the knower, they facilitate a process of self-discovery that leads to the heart of the mystery that we are, to the freedom beyond our self-definitions, in the simplicity of being that we call ‘Living Awareness’.

We could say that our own personal pattern of unfolding is actually part of a larger pattern that is also unfolding. Our societies and cultures also change, learn, and grow over time. They are part of an evolutionary process that has brought our world to where it is now. And the unfolding of life on our planet is part of a still larger process of unfolding that includes everything that occurs in the cosmos as a whole.

The ‘Way of Unfolding’ is thus a way of referring to the self-evolving processes of nature. It is also a way of referring to those same processes happening within us both as Generative Patterns in our own right, and as part of that larger pattern in nature.

Our own unfolding seems almost hard-wired within us. Given the chance, we are as if pre-programmed to grow and evolve towards the expression of higher values. Our deepest values appear to both drive and orient our unfolding, even when these values are apparently ill-expressed through some unfortunate behavioural choices. Life calls us to the best that we can at any particular moment in time. This tendency is well-recognized in the NLP paradigm with its presupposition that ‘every behaviour serves a positive intention’.

Of course, positive intention does not necessarily mean positive behaviour. Much learning and growth may be needed for our inbuilt yearning for the highest and the best to be able to express itself appropriately through action. But without that inherently life-affirming tendency within us, deep learning and growth would not be possible.

The Way of Unfolding thus invites us to become as sensitive as possible to the pattern unfolding in our lives. When we are able to align ourselves with this unfolding we find we come into harmony with ourselves. Of course, we may need to learn how to undo some of the particular conditioning that warps our personal predispositions, setting, say, head against heart, or belly against brain. That may also be part of our unfolding.

Such self-knowledge, such knowing in unknowing turns out to be both the destination and the way of all our unfolding. It is the source of both pattern and alignment, their origin, their guiding principle, and their eventual destination as we reawaken to that which we never ceased to be one with. It is the centre from which the processes of transformation emerge, the source of self-transcendence as the kaleidoscope of life unfolds, and the place in which the dynamics of transformation find their fulfilment, as we reawaken to what we have sought throughout our unfolding, but have actually never left.

Of course, all this is only a model, a mental map, an adjunct to things as they are. It points to a Way of Unfolding without being the Way of Unfolding itself. That is always happening by itself, in its own way, here and now. We can allude to it, try to talk about it, but it will always elude our names, definitions, and programmes to capture it. The dream is to live it. That is really what is unfolding anyway. Whether we like it or not.

A version of this article originally appeared in March 2001 in the international journal NLP World, published by Peter Winnington, in Switzerland.


[1] Of course, while such alignment is much sought after, it is not always fully understood intellectually, nor inevitably attained.

[2] Naturally, in the larger perspective, what else can happen anyway? The question is how our present degree of alignment is shaping the conditions for what unfolds tomorrow. Over that we may have some influence.