Eric: I’m here with Sean Esbjörn-Hargens. Thank you for joining me today.
Sean: Yeah. Definitely. Thanks, Eric. It is good to connect and I’m looking forward to chatting with you today.
Eric: I’m here to talk to you about MetaIntegral, the state of Integral Theory and the upcoming Integral Theory Conference. I’m wondering, maybe let’s start with an introduction of who you are and go from there?
Sean: Ok – let me take a few minutes to just set the stage a bit and provide some background context for both me and the Integral Theory Conference. Then we can see where the conversation takes us.
Where did it start? Hmm. I think one place where the integral impulse really came forward in me was as an undergraduate. I wanted to study animal consciousness and as a result I tried to triple major in philosophy, psychology, and biology because those were the three main disciplines I needed to have a certain level of expertise within in order to really engage the key questions around animal consciousness. My specific focus was exploring to what extent we can say animals have moral agency.
So I’ve always been interested in consciousness, initially only animal consciousness. When I was living in Africa with the Peace Corps I discovered Ken Wilber’s work and my interest expanded from an exclusive focus on animal consciousness to consciousness in general. At that point I became more interested in human consciousness and the evolution of consciousness.
When I was in Africa, I was reading a ton of books because I sitting in my mud hut for long periods of time (because the work schedule there is quite different). Suffice it to say I had a lot of time on my hands. I read over 200 books during the course of my two and a half years there. I read across many categories including poetry, literature, religious studies, psychology, intellectual history, environmental studies, and philosophy. I had a veracious reading appetite to say the least.
When I read “A Brief History of Everything” which was sent to me by a friend, it was like all of that material that I had read for the prior two years all of a sudden got organized in my mind and I had what I call an “intellectual satori.” I had this profound altered state where all of a sudden all that material that I had read came together in kind of a unified, coherent way. It literally was mind-blowing.
I still recall the day the Peace Corp truck pulled up to my hut and delivered a ton of mail (the truck came every few months). Among the packages was a copy of A Brief History of Everything. I devoured it in two days. I remember writing in my journal after I read it something like “This is it! I found what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life. I’m going to be engaged with this integral vision and dedicate my life to it.” I felt this profound “moment of clarity” and had a sense of encountering what Wilber in Grace and Grit describes as one’s daimon – the God within.
So, basically, since that moment, I have dedicated my life entirely to Integral Theory, the development of it, the critique of it, the expansion of it, the operationalization of it, and the application of it. At that point I changed from wanting to get a PhD in Philosophy of Biology and decided to get on in Integral Theory.
So I went to the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) and got a PhD in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness which was about as integral as you could get at the time. I focused on creating the field Integral Ecology – 40 of the 45 papers I wrote for my degree were on Integral Ecology. After I graduated I teamed up with Michael Zimmerman and expanded my dissertation to produce the book Integral Ecology. Also after graduating from CIIS I began teaching at JFK University. During my time at JFKU I was dedicated to building the academic basis for Integral Theory. I was the chair of both the on-campus Integral Psychology program and the online Integral Theory program. During this period I also had launched the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, launched the Integral Research Center, and co-launched the conference with Mark Forman. I wanted to create academic entities that would support the development of integral discourse and help legitimize Integral Theory, give it some feet to stand on. During my seven years at JFKU I had a lot of success in the academic landscape promoting Integral Theory and integral approaches in general.
After the second Integral Theory Conference in 2010, I had a very profound multi-day experience expanded consciousness – I don’t know how to describe it as is often the challenge with these moments but what I took away from it was the sense that I had more to give the world via the vehicle of Integral Theory and the academic space wasn’t the most powerful vehicle for what I had to offer. It was essentially at that point that I decided to leave the university and try and develop a set of organizations which are now called MetaIntegral to take on the mandate to support Integral Theory at a global level, support the top scholar practitioners worldwide to apply integral principles be they Wilberian or Bhaskarian or Morinian or Torbertian and so forth – to support these Pioneers to have more effectiveness and efficiency with the application of these principles.
This fourth conference is truly a MetaIntegral conference, the third was hosted by MetaIntegral Foundation but we were such a young organization at the time we were still landing on our feet. I feel MetaIntegral is really trying to do something in an integral space that I don’t see anyone else trying to do so there’s a way in which there’s a kind of ambition with MetaIntegral and with this conference that I think is different than the prior conferences. Part of that ambition I think shows up in the theme of the conference, which is around “Integral Impacts” which is simultaneously a statement and a question aimed at exploring the issue of whether integral approaches are more impactful than other non-integral approaches?
The narrative that we tell ourselves in the integral community is that it is. It logically has to be. And yet there aren’t a lot of examples that really make that case. If push comes to shove, I think we as a community are hard-pressed to actually demonstrate that. I feel that we as a community would be well-served by getting more articulate and more clear about the ways in which we do and don’t have impact and on what grounds might we justify an integral approach over a non-integral approach or an interdisciplinary approach or some other kind of holistic approach.
There’s a way in which this conference in particular is kind of trying to bring heaven down to earth. How do we take the beauty of Integral Theory with all of these distinctions and actually have it have traction in the world in real time where it’s actually transforming not just the hearts and minds of those practitioners who love an integral approach but are actually transforming the communities, the organizations, the systems, the actions, and the cultures that are experiencing the value of integral approaches used across any number of contexts.
I might summarize this as “Can integral get real?” In other words, what does it need to do to accomplish impact? Or what are the conversations we need to have as a community? Or what are the methods we need to be more cognizant of? What are the different types of impact reporting that we might make use of so that we can be better ambassadors on behalf of the exquisite vision of a more integral world?
Each conference has always taken upon itself the task of creating a space for the conversation that the conference leadership feels is the most germane conversation for where the integral community is at right now. The first conference was focused more on just getting together and having a big party as this was the first global gathering of the integral tribe. So the first conversation was essentially can we make the integral community object to itself?
The second conference raised the issue of how do we as a community differentiate from Ken Wilber? What does that mean? What does that look like? Is that worthwhile? This was a background theme of the first conference but it wasn’t till the second one that this topic really took center stage. I often joke that the first conference was a bit of a love fest.
Sean: The second conference was kind of like the honeymoon’s over so now what is our relationship to Ken Wilber? How do we honor him? And how do we build on what he’s provided but then how do we also draw on other important figures in the space whether it’s Bill Torbert or Don Beck or Robert Kegan?
The third conference was bringing into the space two global integrative giants: Roy Bhaskar and Edgar Morin who I feel have integral approaches equal to Integral Theory though each of them are very different and have their strengths and limitations.
Now that those three conversations/conferences have taken place, we’re asking ourselves: What is the impact that integral has? It feels like we are now ready as an integral community to explore that together. After all, Integral Theory was born in 1995 with the publication of “Sex, Ecology, Spirituality” so we’ve been around for 20 years though it really took about five years before people started applying Integral Theory in a systematic way.
So depending on how you look at it, we have between 15 and 20 years of on-the-ground experience of Integral Theory-in-action. So it’s time for us to look back and assess ourselves, and identify what are the good examples of it working and what are the examples of it not working so well, especially when we thought it would? How can we build in that self-reflexivity as a community of practice? In short, can we just get more clear about what is impact and how we are having it, how might we have more of it?
That’s a very long-winded response to your initial question so let me pause there so that we can have more dialogue and engagement.
Eric: Sure. That’s I think an experience you’re relating that a lot of us in integral have had. One of the things that kind of caught me about your story was starting with consciousness studies in animals and then going to Integral Theory and consciousness in general and kind of wondering if the kind of academic push back might have been similar to try and talk about consciousness in animals.
Sean: Yeah. It’s a good point. I think you’re right that the resistance scientifically and academically to the issue of what can we say legitimately about the qualities of awareness and consciousness in animals or even plants. The study of non-human consciousness is a marginalized domain and so I think it did serve me well because there’s a very similar dynamic with Integral Theory. So that’s a great observation. I guess I’m drawn to academic fields that are on the periphery.
Eric: I’m curious. You talked about the themes of the conferences and a little bit about community. Since both MetaIntegral and Sonoma State University are located in Sonoma County I’d love to hear how that is integrated with doing the conference.
Sean: Yeah. Yeah, great. Thank you. The conference has always been in the Bay Area. I often tease Ken [Wilber] that the San Francisco Bay Area for many years has been the dominant center of integral thinking with Boulder and Denver being relegated to position number two. I think in the early days of Integral Institute in the 2000s, Boulder and Denver were very much the epicenter. But I’ve teased Ken since maybe around 2005 that that shifted at some point over to San Francisco. So it’s always been the Bay Area and I think the conference helps contribute to my claim that this is where a lot of the good action is happening.
I’ve lived in the San Francisco area since ’99. The conference originally was housed at JFK University in the East Bay as it was part of the academic programs there. The conference took place at the university campus and at a hotel nearby for both the 2008 and 2010 conferences. But then I left JFK in 2011 to launch MetaIntegral at the same time JFKU was bought by a larger institution and the academic landscape began changing dramatically, including the slow and painful demise of all the integral programs there. So Mark Forman and I were looking for a new spot to land the conference and we ended up at the Marriott hotel near the San Francisco Airport, which I think was a great spot for many reasons.
But I have to say I feel really excited about Sonoma State University being our new home. It feels like it’s the best location we’ve had. It’s closer to my house than any of the other three, which is an added bonus for my wife and kids. But the campus is extremely beautiful as you know being a local here yourself, Eric.
Mark Fabionar’s work with The HUB has always caught my attention as an example of a really grounded practitioner who’s found a way to institutionalize integral ideas into a university setting. I know from my time at JFK and elsewhere that that’s not an easy feat to do. So given his success of getting his integral foot in the door of a mainstream California-based state university he was on my radar so to speak. I really respect what Mark has been able to accomplish here at SSU I have a sense of what’s involved with accomplishing that.
At some point, when I was thinking of the location of the next conference – should we do it at the Marriott again or find a new place? – Mark and I started talking. He suggested SSU and because there was this new student center that had just been built a few years ago, which also houses the HUB – his center – it seemed like a great location and partnership.
Immediately I was excited because it felt like this context actually supports the quality of community that we’ve often experienced in the conference but, to use Integral Theory language, the lower right hasn’t always supported that as fully as it could have.
Sean: So now it feels like we actually have a lower-right structure to support the lower-left culture and community of the global integral tribe. Thus, to take advantage of this new configuration we’ve created a very different event this time to more fully support the community – which has always been at the heart of the event. So not only does the physical layout of Sonoma State – the close proximity of the Student Center with the village-style lodging, the Recreation Center, etc. support community but we’ve actually changed the structure of the conference in major ways to support a much deeper encounter between ourselves.
In one of the email blasts that we sent out for a previous conference Mark Forman talked about where the conference really happens is in the halls. That was our experience and I know other event organizers know that experience as well.
Eric: Yeah. Those personal connections…
Sean: Yeah. So we started thinking, in a sense all of the conference presentations, which ostensibly are the focus of the event, are just a great excuse to get people together so they can talk and connect in the halls.
Sean: So after running the event successfully three times we became very interested in how can we adjust the structure so it actually supports those interactions more explicitly? So we’ve changed our keynotes from the evenings to the mornings to free up the evenings for socializing and some wonderful cultural performances we have lined up. We’re having a poetry slam one night. We’re having a one-person play one night. We’re having a band another night. We’re also having the first integral art exhibit with over a dozen notable artists from around the world who were shipping their artwork here to put on display in an official gallery. So there’s that. There’s also the recreation center at SSU where people can work out. There’s a rock climbing wall available.
All of these features and elements including the village lodging will allow everyone to be together in a deep and rich way. It’s actually why we’ve built the lodging into the single price point for the event. We wanted to really support and encourage everyone who’s at the conference to actually be staying on site because at the last three events 50% of the participants were staying at that various locations in the area. So we asked ourselves – wouldn’t it be amazing if we were all staying on the same site. Of course even with this event people can choose to stay offsite but we wanted make it easy for them to stay on campus.
So when we saw the opportunity to build in the village-style lodging into our price point in a way that still kept the total price for the event lower than what people had been paying in the past we jumped at the chance to create a more intimate event that ultimately cost less for participants. We were really excited because we just felt the village-style lodging along with the cultural performances in the evenings along with the beautiful campus and along with the new student center is an amazing combination. All of these elements are really collaborating to create a community experience that’s going to amplify the quality of community that’s been present from the very beginning of the conferences and take it to a new level.
One of the things that I feel most proud of with respect to the conference is not the success of each event in and of itself though I feel good that we’ve done a successful job as a team and the community has helped us make this an amazing event each time. What I’m most proud of is all the divine sparks that this event has thrown out – the book projects that have emerged, the community development projects, the consulting work, the coaching work, the educational programs, the ways in which this event has helped network the integral scholar practitioners worldwide. The conferences have done a lot to connect people together who otherwise would have never met each other. Ironically, the conferences have helped integrate the integral community.
There’s a story that still stays with me from the second conference. We accepted two presentations from the same university – the University of New York in Rochester – Janet Lewis and Andre Marquis. They were on the same campus teaching at the same university and they didn’t know about each other until they bumped into each other at the conference. They saw each other’s bios and realized – because they were both doing integral work in psychology but they were in different schools within their university so they never knew of each other.
It is so amazing to me that it took the Integral Theory Conference for them to fly from New York to California to discover that they were colleagues teaching in the same university. Another example, is that Jordan Luftig, one of my right-hand men in all things MetaIntegral met his wife Paulette at the second Integral Theory Conference. It is these moments that I just think are incredible.
So there’s all these kinds of magical stories and moments that I think are really what the conference is about and I feel that what we’ve created for this next conference has consciously incorporated the possibility of those moments into our design, into our intentionality, and into kind of the structure that we have created to support the event.
Eric: For sure. Yeah. You get a brand-new conference center and it’s kind of a California retreat center.
Eric: Just like the first integral conference and retreat.
Sean: Yeah. Well, it’s funny you say that because today we met as a conference team earlier before the interview. I was joking with the team that we needed to rename this the Integral Theory Conference Spa and Retreat. In fact, there is a pool and a hot tub here that folks can use! Not to mention the Recreation Center that will be open to participants. In fact, there are going to be a lot of these kinds of fun elements at ITC 2015 that give the participants the opportunity for those conversations that just can’t happen otherwise.
Eric: Absolutely. Not to mention our California weather.
Sean: Yeah, yeah. In July it’ll be hot but beautiful.
Eric: So that kind of actually leads me into a different question. I’m curious about the state of the integral field and how you see it. I know you’ve spoken to it a little bit and it sounds like you have kind of a high hope and clear intention that MetaIntegral is part of knitting that wider vision together.
Sean: Yeah indeed.
Eric: The conference sounds like a place to really bring that together in community so I’m curious about more of your thoughts on that.
Sean: Yeah, yeah. Thank you, Eric. It’s an area that I think a lot about both as an academic and as a business owner with MetaIntegral and what we’re trying to do there. I probably think about this question and this issue almost daily because it’s just so crucial to what I’m trying to accomplish as a leader in the integral space, trying to understand where are we at as a community, where are examples of integral being embraced, what are the challenges we are facing to bring a more integral vision to the world.
At each of the prior conferences we’ve often given a kind of a State of the Union address where we speak to this topic in various ways and share with the community the perspective of the conference organizers. I haven’t yet started to reflect on those potential comments for ITC in July. So I’ll just share what comes.
Let me start with the arc of the conferences because I think it’ll help me speak into this. As for the second conference, I feel the integral community is much more differentiated from Ken Wilber than we have ever been and in a good, healthy way while seeing some of the limits. At the same time we are embracing Ken and all he brings which is a lot.
Because of his illness Ken hasn’t been as available to the integral space as we would like and so for better or worse I think that has lent itself to a quality of differentiation from Ken. With that has come a deeper exploration of additional integral visions be they Critical Realism or Complex Thought or Action Inquiry or Spiral Dynamics.
There’s a way in which Wilber always looms large but there’s no longer a singular focus on Wilber. I think we’re much better situated as a community to draw on the strengths of multiple integral frameworks and approaches. I think we’re much more seasoned because we’ve had our leadership out there for over a decade as we were talking about before, rolling their sleeves up and trying this and that. We have been piloting and iterating many integral initiatives.
I think as a global community we’re in a sense finally starting to get serious, finally starting to translate what we do in ways that are more available to both progressive and mainstream contexts. I think the integral bubble in a sense has burst and that there’s kind of a dysphoria. The value of an integral approach I think is starting to flow in a lot more directions and new ways so I think there’s a delightful diversity, a maturing diversity that’s present. Following Mark Edwards’ lead I like to label this integrative pluralism.
Now, in a way, we’re three generations in because there was Wilber and his colleagues that were integral generation one. And then there was integral generation two: me and my colleagues who were lovingly referred to as “integral kids” when Integral Institute began in 2000 because we were all in graduate school. We’d come to these meetings and hear luminaries like Bob Kegan and Alex Grey talking about integral psychology or integral art. Most of these folks from generation one already had their careers established, already had their professional trajectories set up and so they embraced integral but they weren’t really applying it much in their context at least not in an explicit way.
But then you have my generation of integralists were young grad students who were just studying it, learning directly from Ken and his peers. We were getting our degrees and entering our jobs for the first time. So we, much more than ever before, we’re the first to create integral jobs that were through and through informed by an integral approach. Now we have the next generation – generation three – that is now benefiting from that second generation of integralists who have been successful in taking the vision out into these different domains.
The fact that there’s these three layers of integral engagement and application I think supports the community and helps us understand our moment. Now I see the millennials coming into the integral space and they have access to dozens of amazing integral books with great examples. They have access to a ton of material online with Integral Leadership Review, Integral Review, JITP, and so forth. There are now a number of professional integral certification programs to support people to go really deep. So the amount of material that’s been produced by generation two creates a lot of opportunity for the next generation to just build on that and take it farther, which is why I think impact is a very powerful way to frame up our moment.
Basically, Integral Theory started in the upper left – psychology and spirituality – and then slowly moved down to the lower left in terms of kind of religion and cultural studies and some of the humanities and social sciences. More recently, it’s moved over to the lower right and is being applied to political systems and economic systems and educational systems. Only now is it starting to move into the upper right in terms of the hard sciences.
Maybe it won’t really ever go into the hard sciences because those sciences are kind of a different animal entirely. Nevertheless, Integral Theory no longer is confined to just the psychology and spirituality – it has much relevance in the collective domains and is gaining increasing amounts of traction there. So finally have kind of come into the cultural and systems realities and are using integral approaches to have influence and impact there. Thus, I think the conversation around impact is really timely. We have a chance to really show professionals in many different disciplines that a more integral approach is actually going to support what they are trying to do.
It’s like we have their attention. They are looking out, they are interested because they are dealing with complexity beyond what they really can navigate. So we have their attention but if we don’t —
Eric: Follow through.
Sean: Yeah. If we’re not able to talk about the impact and how we measure it or why might we not be able to measure it and generally talk about these different kinds of issues, then we’re going to lose them. It’s going to take another kind of cycle of momentum to build likely. For me that’s why the conference team landed on the theme of impact – it encapsulates many of the key aspects of our current moment as a global integral community.
One of the cool things we are doing with the conference design is we have changed the panels where half of the panels are actually going to be a debate where we’re going to lovingly force people to take a partial position, argue it and defend it. Because too often as integralists, we get over identified with the whole or the synthetic outcome and as a result we end up not being as comfortable with the partiality that might need to be engaged more deeply for us to actually make key integrative moves.
So this is an example of how the design of the new conference is supporting an inquiry into impact: how can we as a community get better about arguing partiality so that we then can be more skillful in how we move towards integration? We’re trying to model that with this new design for the panels which I think is a very exciting part of ITC 2015.
Eric: It sounds like it. I’m super excited to be there!
Sean: Oh, great. Yeah. Well, we’re excited to have you. We’re excited that Integral Leadership Review is one of our sponsors so thank you and Russ for supporting us in that way.
Eric: Likewise. I don’t have anything specifically that’s coming to me at the moment to ask. Do you have anything to add?
Eric: Certainly for me it’s an exciting time to be active in the field of Integral Theory because, as you’ve said, there have been a couple of generations now of people who have done such amazing work around the world that is measurable and then being part of this generation now that’s almost a millennial. I can’t quite claim that but –
Sean: Yeah, yeah.
Eric: We are at a place where the rubber is meeting the road and it’s actually a time where there’s much more ability to prove this because there are programs that need the complexity or need the perspective rather and understanding there is just a need for – I lost my train of thought there.
Sean: Yeah? Yeah, I know. I really resonate with what you’re saying, Eric. I think the only other thing I would add to our conversation is one of the crown jewels of the conference is going to be what’s called the Impact Showcase where we’re going to showcase the eight projects that MetaIntegral Foundation funded entirely or in part. We are going to have the project leaders of those eight initiatives present the impact that their projects have had in all four quadrants. We refer to the four quadrants in this context as Clear Impact for the upper right, High Impact for the lower right, Deep Impact for the upper left, and Wide Impact for the lower left.
So we’re making the claim that an integral approach has notable and measurable impact in all four domains. It has Clear Impact, High Impact, Deep Impact, and Wide Impact. What the Foundation is doing is supporting the pioneers of integration around the planet, the pioneers out there who are breaking new ground with using integral approaches and we are supporting them to have even more impact – in all four domains.
These first eight projects that we funded last year are a signal to the entire integral community and the world showing the kind of work the MetaIntegral Foundation is committed to. We gave away over $50,000 last year. Our goal is to double that and give away $100,000 in the beginning of 2016 and so we’re actually using this conference as our major fundraising event to support that.
By showcasing these amazing eight projects and the impact they’ve had I think people are going to be really excited and impressed and inspired by what they’re accomplishing. When you see the kind of impact they’re having in each quadrant along the lines of what I just mapped out, it helps change the conversation around “What is impact?” Impact is typically defined in terms of behavioral and systemic indicators i.e., Clear Impact and High Impact respectively. We obviously embrace those but we’re also bringing to the table what integral is so good at bringing, which is the interiors, the ways in which we are having Deep Impact, transforming hearts and minds and having Wide Impact, transforming relationships.
This is where integral really has something to offer I believe and can actually change the conversation around “What is impact?” and “How do we measure it?” because when you start to include the impact in the upper left and in the lower left, you really start to see how valuable that kind of impact is and in some ways it’s even more important than the more typical forms of impact that we tend to include in our metrics.
So it’s my hope that this Impact Showcase is going to play a real pivotal role for the whole community to start to see some new possibilities for their own projects, their own initiatives and really help us to have this conversation around impact with some really thoughtful examples of what that really looks like.
The Foundation is going to give away grants next year and we’re going to build on the momentum and just keep going for it and continue building the case that an integral approach actually is more impactful and this is how we know it and this is how you actually design an initiative to have more impact in those four areas of impact.
Eric: Great. Very excited to see those presentations.
Sean: Yeah, yeah. Me too.
Eric: Well, thank you, Sean, for your time.
Sean: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you, Eric. Give my regards to Russ. It’s been too long since I’ve seen him. I’m excited to see him at the conference and, yeah, we’ll be in touch.
Eric: Will do.