Integral Theory, as I understand it, is a developmental framework for integrating all kinds of knowledge. It is a transdisciplinary space, a sort of memetic scaffolding where the complex, emergent reality that IS can be mapped, navigated, and ultimately consciously co-created by interested parties coming from a multitude of different perspectives. In other words, Integral Theory as proposed by Ken Wilber is not just a theory, but also an integration of living perspectives, which by definition needs to be open to evolution.
It seems like the makings are here. One might argue that the evolutionary viability of a theory can be measured by how likely its adherents are to incorporate different points of view. This year’s conference stretched beyond the Wilberian realms of integral thought by hosting Edgar Morin and Roy Bhaskar, the originators of Complex Thought and Creative Realism, respectively. By reaching beyond the usual framework, the “Wilberian” crowd is signaling that they are not just ready for this evolution, but are actively seeking it.
My interest in the field, like so many who are drawn to Integral Theory, is as a tool for bringing together various modes of knowledge for the purpose of understanding and fostering bio-socio-technological development in and amongst all levels of society. As such, I am specifically drawn to Integral Leadership, which, paraphrasing Russ Volkmann in a Jan 2013 discussion with Mark McCaslin, can be defined as follows. Integral Leadership IS, it isn’t a thing or a place to be or something to achieve, it’s a way of embracing the level of complexity required to live in this world and address the challenges we face. It is an ongoing developmental becoming and engaging with changing reality.
I use this definition as a litmus test for the “usefulness” of the conference sessions. In other words, what I am looking for is whether Integral, and by association the Conference, can lead to a deeper knowledge and experience of self and the environment, whether it can contribute to the emergence of an evolved social reality.
With roughly one hundred sessions to choose from over a three-day period, my choices for presentations and panels clearly reflect my personal interests in the field. My greatest passion is to contribute as best I can to the understanding of this seemingly ephemeral yet universally pervasive “thing” referred to as consciousness, and applying that knowledge to the here and now, to the generative unfolding of life. Here are some of the gems I received from this conference towards the flowering of this great work.
Terry Patten – Enacting an Integral Revolution: An Evolution of Integral Rhetoric
It was a pleasure beginning my conference experience with Terry. He began his talk with a stirring intro about the state of the world, a pre-apocalyptic summary of the meta-systemic imbalance of the interlocking systems that contribute to life on the planet during the 6th largest (#5 was the dinosaurs) die-off of life on the planet. I love listening to Terry as he brings a high form of poetic rhetoric to current reality. This was part of the beauty of Terry’s presentation. At its core is what he called “an attempt to take rhetoric where it can’t go”. His solution for this is quite simple, and yet profoundly expansive. He offered his 3-1-2 dance as a framework to transcend the individualistic trappings of egoic rhetoric and delve into what wants to emerge in the WE space of the collective field.
Simply put, one begins a dialogue utilizing 3rd person framing of the topic. The next step, which is perhaps the most difficult in practice, is to then bear one’s soul in the 1st person. Finally, after reaching this vulnerable subjective space, one delves into the 2nd person, “speaking more intimately than is polite”. This is, of course, one of the techniques drawn from Integral Life Practice.
Terry asserts that by doing so, by attending to the dialogic dance in this way, once enough intensity has been reached, something happens in the subtle field. What then emerges in the WE space has cross quadrant effects. The dialogue becomes generative, and the WE space becomes antennae for the strange attractor of noetic emergence, double and triple loop learning in the LL quadrant.
For me this means by beginning with a wider, 3rd person perspective of a situation, embodying vulnerability, and then speaking openly to those in the room, magic can happen.
Venita Ramirez, Geoff Fitch, & Terri O’Fallon – Causal Leadership: A Natural Emergence from Later Stages of Awareness
This was my favorite session. Ultimately, the ability to map the development of states and stages of various lines of development is only useful if it can be applied in facilitating greater awareness and coherence amongst the various lines and levels. After all, a map is ultimately for navigating, not explaining.
The premise was simple: that a causal individual is a witness, a person with an embodied awareness of awareness; a person so empty and clear that they are awake to what is happening all around, not just in body or room, but everywhere. By opening to the source of WE that is moving through ME one moves beyond ego and we come to place where our egos can play.
By making the distinction between states and stages of causal awareness, we have permission to tap into a state of being that all have access to and all have experienced. There are many spiritual technologies that teach how we can open ourselves to awareness of awareness, and through practice, make this state a stage. By doing so we reclaim the subtle energy we are leaking due to habitual tendencies.
My greatest take-away from this presentation was the experience itself, the skill and subtlety with which these facilitators gave the group a guided tour through the experience of causal leadership. They didn’t tell us about it, they expertly brought us into the experience. It gave me hope that there is hope. As facilitators of life, we are all here to play a part, moment by moment with our entire selves. By doing exactly that, Venita, Geoff, and Terri gave those lucky enough to have attended a visceral experience. A deep appreciation that facilitation is not about applying a framework to our work, it’s about using frameworks to open us to our work.
Alfonso Montuori – The Epistemology of Complexity
As a person who is all too happy to geek out on the intricacies of complexity theory, I was eager to attend this talk. I was definitely not disappointed, though I got something a little different than expected. Alfonso brought complexity down to earth, and offered the following to frame it.
First, he reminded those of us who work primarily in English that there are worlds of thought evolving in other languages. Regardless how comprehensive an academic we may be, it is important to remember the global context within which we are working – the grander our vision, the greater our need for humility and an awareness of our limitations.
In order to live our lives, we need livable knowledge. Life doesn’t fit into hyper-specializations. In “real life” all the disciplines come together. He asked the question, “How do you think about all these different elements together without it being just facts or a purely subjective narrative?”
Not, it would seem, through theory alone. Indeed, as Allan Combs weighed in, complexity isn’t an alternative theory; it is emerging out of everything. Complexity is about physical reality, about being realistic. It is a way of thinking, not a theory.
To this Alfonso added that there is a tendency to think of complexity as something that is complicated. It isn’t complicated, so much as it is an understanding of life. It doesn’t require a complicated framework, but it does require attention. We’ve been trained in binary oppositions and taking things apart. Complex thought is a perspective that fosters creativity by attending to the paradox of what is right in front of us, instead of trying to explain away what is. Complex thought, ultimately, is generative thought.
Panel – Third Tier Spirituality: Moderated by Mark Schmanko with Bruce Alderman, Nev Kelly, Doshin Michael Nelson, Terri O’Fallon, Venita Ramierez and Michael Schwartz
It’s an interesting dilemma. How does a panel of representatives of a state and stage of human consciousness that is by definition rare, more complex, and deeper than all the rest, address the curiosity and concerns of an audience that is statistically likely to be at a “lower” stage. I’m sure most of us in the audience came into the talk with some form of this question. What would this panel of practitioners who had purportedly attained advanced stages of consciousness have to offer?
For my part, I was absolutely tickled by the interaction. There is often a distrust of overly “spiritual” people, those claiming to see things others cannot. For me, the difference between those who make the claim based on limited experience and development and those who have attained a stable stage of development is night and day.
What I got out of the experience is the ability to witness a group of practitioners who had attained such a stage of consciousness through an array of varied modalities and life paths and could speak to the experience with heartwarming practicality. And in one respect they were unanimous. To arrive at this level was not a destination, but the beginning of a deeper responsibility, both to themselves, and to all of creation.
Third tier consciousness, at its core, is not a stage of being raised above the vagaries of life. It’s a diving in, an intricate, infinite, embodied knowing that all of life matters, from the ego to the ONE. Instead of eschewing the lowly concrete and subtle levels of existence for causal bliss, they showed us that higher stages of consciousness become solidified, and hence practical, by descending into the day to day with all of one’s body, mind and spirit.
And yes, they still have an ego to deal with. They’ve just come to enjoy interacting with this old friend for generative dialogue, instead of letting him take the helm and crash the boat!
Terri O’Fallon – The Senses: Demystifying Individual and Collective Awakening
Here Terri went beyond the experiential, though there is always a strong element of it in her presence. Listening to her, one goes on an experiential arc of consciousness. For many, the idea of higher states of consciousness is just that, an ephemeral idea that is the purview of mystics. Who has the time to meditate all day for a spiritual high, and what is the point anyway?
Terri, in her delightfully playful way, reminded us that we’ve all been in higher states, though we’ve not been used to thinking in those terms. The difference between those who are at a more developed stage is that they have stabilized these experiences, instead of just being overtaken momentarily with awe by them.
Through her talk we were taken on an experiential ride up the developmental ladder with a growing understanding that each stage of development requires an iterative journey through the concrete, subtle, and causal realms of existence. We are given to understand that these realms aren’t simply metaphysical classifications; they are different levels of sensory perception. “Sensory capacities are developmental…The senses will be defined as any channel through which distinctions are made, from prehension (concrete matter), to sensation (subtle life) to awareness (mind)”.
This was a lot of fun, and deeply informative! However, the truly inspirational piece is that her StAGES model has been statistically proven to be highly replicable and correlated with the well known Sentence Completion Test. People have been talking about this stuff since the first Axial Age and now Western science is on the cusp of being able to prove it!
I say the first Axial Age, because she ends by wondering if we might be entering the second.
Edgar Morin – Complex Thinking is Integrative Thinking. Integrative Thinking Can Only Be Complex.
It was an honor to listen to Edgar Morin, founder of Complex Thought. I’ve heard many times (as I strive to embody it) that a person’s understanding of something complicated can be measured by their ability to communicate it in simple terms. Morin has clearly achieved such an understanding, and Complex Thought is the result. Less a theory than a way of thinking, Complex Thought seeks to reintegrate the differentiation that reductionist thought has achieved in its attempt to find meaning through specialization.
While there is value in differentiation, it is a fallacy of thought to assume that a viewpoint from a single discipline can explain the multidimensional reality that is life. Unfortunately, this fallacy is the norm, and as such, limited perspectives take over one’s thinking. This is because humans are by nature both wise and irrational, and if this fact is ignored, then fallacious thinking is the result.
However, by adopting a mode of thought which is “always self-reflective and self-critical, always open and creative, always eager to challenge the fundamental assumptions underlying a system of thought” (Montuori, 2013, p. 4) one begins to develop a relationship with the ways in which unexamined beliefs shape our very existence. As this relationship is developed, we gain “an awareness of our ‘lenses’, our own biases and interests and the often implicit matrices with which we construct our knowing” (Montuori, 2013, p.4). This awareness, and the resulting cognitive dissonance, opens one up to the deeper ontological patterns which transcend and include all epistemologies.
Ultimately, Complex Thinking honors the messiness of life, brings the subject into the equation, and doesn’t try to explain away reality simply because it has aspects which seem to defy explanation.
Roy Bhaskar – The Revindication of Ontology in Integrative Metatheories
Listening to Roy Bhaskar was an experiential delight. I am a lover of rhetoric, the long sentence and linguistic accuracy. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if the greatest challenge to a deeper understanding of ourselves and world lies less in our limitations as observers or in the fog of habitual behaviors than in our system of communication. Ultimately, who could truly deny the existence of ontological realities if it weren’t for the limited means that we have to communicate them?
The depth of Bhaskar’s theory is of course too vast to outline here. However, what excites me about what I heard from him is as follows. Philosophers have been debating since the clash between Heraclites and Plato regarding the changing nature of reality vs. its inherent unity and timelessness. This debate seemed to be won by rationality as Kant and Hume pronounced, in Bhaskar’s words, “Thou shalt not do ontology”. This stance, however, was based on a shadow ontology which was not just ignored, but denied.
What Bhaskar has been able to do is bring this prejudice out into the open, to develop an integral philosophy which is based in the standard epistemological logic of western thought. In doing so, he can prove, in the lingua franca of the social scientific world, that there is an ontological basis to reality which does not preclude the standard epistemologies, but rather is illuminated through them.
Marc Gafni – Integral God: Wake Up, Grow Up, Show Up, Lighten Up: Sacred Activism and Falling in Love with the Divine
Marc Gafni’s presentation was a powerful mix of spiritual teaching and academic rigor delivered with delightful precision. He presents a perspective on concepts such as God and enlightenment that includes and transcends current mainstream interpretations of sacred texts, giving a contemporary translation of ancient wisdom.
Essentially, he posits that Enlightenment = Sanity. Sanity, in turn, is to know one’s true identity. Classical interpretations of enlightenment sought to transcend the transient for the eternal, to negate the personal while vaunting the impersonal, while Gafni shows that the deeper reading does not stop there. Knowledge of the personal, of one’s egoic self, once acknowledged, put’s one in deeper communion with the impersonal, or true self, the transcendent identification with the eternal self beyond the incarnate personality.
However, by stopping here, one negates the essence of reality, the meaning of life, which Gafni defines as evolution. By resting in this transcendent space and allowing the ego personality to languish (because it cannot be vanquished), we miss out on the ultimate value of life, which is active participation in the evolution of the cosmos.
As Marc reminds us, our ultimate value, the highest meaning we can have for ourselves and within the collective, is to awaken to what he terms the Unique Self. The Unique Self is the unique perspective brought by the personal perspective which is lit up by the true self, by the fire of outrageous love, which is a generative expression of evolutionary teleology, the essence of reality. By awakening to and honoring our own unique expression of the divine, and by recognizing it in the other, we become active agents in the ultimate pleasure in life, individually and collectively.
This stuff works! And we’re starting to have metrics to “prove it”! There is plenty of good research showing that our cognitive filters “color” our perception, and “attract” an experience that matches the parameters of these filters. However, the question of a deeper consciousness, of Self that is aware of Self before and beyond the field of mind, of Self that is both individual and universal, is one that has been eschewed by the scientific mainstream, labeled metaphysics, and assumed to have nothing to do with the actual workings of the Cosmos. And yet, there is a growing body of researchers across all fields who find it difficult to assume that quantum realities don’t hold across the macro, that the – on a cosmological scale – relatively massive and intricately complex nature of a single human, let alone humanity and the world of which it is a part, does not have a direct, intimate role to play in the further evolution of our Selves, the World, and the Cosmos.
I believe that Integral has the potential to become much more than a theory. Indeed, as the existence of “higher” stages of consciousness and the evolution through them might imply, there is potential for this movement to become a general understanding, the basis of a planetary consciousness. There is the understanding and the will and the embodied practice and knowledge amongst the practitioners in this field that is the potential, and also the work.
About the Author
Eric Reynolds received his MA in Transformative Leadership from the California Institute of Integral Studies and is currently researching the concept of Next Stage organizations for his PhD in Organizational Leadership and Transformation (OLT) at Saybrook University. He is a transdisciplinary scholar with deep fondness for all knowledge, a deeply passionate bridge for the many silos of human knowing, being, doing and relating.