So, something happened at the Integral Theory Conference.
Four weeks now since it ended and its still happening. Not with quite the same intensity, but intense enough that it feels like one of those things where once the experience has been had, the power of it means that things are never really going to be the same again.
I’ve been thinking this over–a lot–and feeling deeply the quality of it. I’ve also been reading many of your posts and reflections to make sure I’m not imagining things. I don’t think I am. Or, maybe it’s more like this. I am imaging things, and if you are a part of this community, so are you. It feels like we have imagined ourselves into that happening–that it had a distinctly imaginal quality–and for that moment in our history, at least, we fulfilled our promise. It was surprising, and beautiful, and it was intense, and we could tell ourselves, of course, that it was just a conference. You can get that sort of effect at a good one.
With all the hyperbole previously heaped on the Integral project it would be easy to let this moment slip by, to be too cautious, to be sceptical, or too careful to name that something quite profound actually did happen. But I don’t want that. I think something very special and important came to full bloom for the first time, and I want to talk about it. Just what that ‘special’ is, is going to take some un-packing. That’s a big part of my intention here, and the direction I want to lead. Not so much to chronicle the conference events–others have done an excellent job of that–but to start a conversation for participants who want to undertake the reflective sense making around just what did happen at ITC. And, also to help people who weren’t there to get a felt sense of what it was like and what this might mean for us all.
Before I launch in, I’ll give a little context and try to disclose some of the framing I’m bringing to this conversation. I have not always felt so optimistic. In fact, I’ve been critical of many of the social dynamics in the main stream of the Integral community in the past.1 My main critique was that it was not at all obvious that we were having the kind of positive effect on our own community that we purported we could have on the world. I consider myself part of (what I think of) as the second wave of entrants to the Integral community. Not the initial group of people who helped Ken establish Integral Institute and who knew him before that, but the cohort who came in off the back of those initial II events. I attended the first Integral Ecology and Sustainability Seminar in 2004 and encountered folks like Gail Hochachcka, Sean, Barrett Brown, Nicole Kieler Fegley, Clint Fuhs, Kelly Sosan Bearer, and Dustin Diperna . That seems like a long time ago now. In the intervening years I have met the most extraordinary people in my journeys in this community. You have become my friends, mentors, enterprise partners, my colleges, and my lovers. For over 10 years now you all have been my home tribe, and Integral has been one of the most central aspects of my life and of my career. Our commitment to the world gives me Purpose. So, this stuff matters to me. I know it matters like that to many of you.
The other thing is that I need to declare something–to be transparent. I want to keep this as clean as I’m able. I think that’s a big requirement now. What I want to do here, or, rather, what feels like is being called forth to be undertaken, isn’t necessarily the kind of thing that you might expect in a set of Notes from the Field. That’s what I was originally asked to do, but this piece has become something different. I think it’s more about notes–as in ‘notes from the field’. Or, to tie it back to the title, ‘notes on the field’. Like those enchanting notes wandering out of Ed Sarath’s horn, drifting, calling through the bacchanalian conference nights. Those notes, for me, are the main themes of the conference, of which I think there were quite a few. And, I think it’s the arrangement of these themes, perhaps even the spontaneous symphony, as it were, of these subtle and not so subtle integrators of us, that set the very palpable, powerful, and beautiful field at the conference–what my partner, Gaby McDonald, so cannily described as ‘the exquisitely regulated oxytocin drip that was ITC’. This is the story I want to tell.
My declaration, then, is that in the world of the field that bloomed at ITC, this kind of story telling is a political act.
Political acts can be risky. Collectively and personally. I get anxious, sometimes a little nauseous; I don’t sleep very well when I do this sort of thing. Just so you know. I do it because I feel like when it doesn’t get done, when these things are allowed to be invisible, at least for my own self, its more difficult to bring health to the system. That’s my central commitment. I don’t want you to think I’m getting hugely heavy and melodramatic about it though. There was a light-ness and a sense of creativity and fun to the conference. I want to reflect that as well.
The quality and intensity of ‘the field’ and the nature of how politics was done are the first two themes I’d like to reflect on. Before I really get started though, I just need to add one more thing. The disclaimer. I hope it’s clear that I’m not trying to tell you definitively how it is, or how it was, or what it should be, or even what it means. I’m genuinely interested in the wider conversation about the conference, and I can’t show up to that if I’m not ready to have my mind changed, or at least to learn something. My interpretation of this stuff could be way off, or really just a personal journey. The field effect at ITC this year could be obvious, but uninteresting to you–notable, but not really that important. Maybe you didn’t sense it the way many of us did. People might have gone through this revelation before at other events I missed. I could be being a little clueless (it’s happened before). But, I’m feeling it and I’m going to let it ride. I’m prepared to play The Fool. Might even have to evoke a little Hunter S.–we’ll just have to see. I think part of what I sensed during the conference was a certain spontaneousness and playfulness and artistic intensity. In that spirit I’m going to take those same risks in the interest of that kind of art–another of my themes. More on that one later.
I want to give you my view, and as I have intimated, I have an agenda. But of course you know its just my view, and so do I. I’m still going to do my best to convince you that I have a good story and that it means something you should notice, but I want you to do the same, and I know that whatever comes out of that encounter will most likely be better. Ok, I’m done with the setup. I’m giving you a limited perspective. It’s kind of hilarious just how many hoops I feel like I need to jump through before I can even really start to tell anything to folks as discerning as us.
To politics and power. While in the past power and politics in the Integral community have been what I would call ordinary at best, and at their worst, actually quite appalling, this conference seemed to herald a new, much healthier way of organising ourselves. I don’t really know what went on behind the scenes regarding the organisation of the event–I’m sure there were politics and some conflicts as well as whatever social magic allowed the conference to pop like that. But what I’m talking about is how the politics and power relationships showed up in that conference ‘setting’. This is especially clear if I contrast it to my experience at the 2010 ITC. That was the second one, but my first. There, I was kind of astonished at the lack of grace, through a kind of rugged, unabashed positioning, I encountered in some characters around the social hierarchy dynamics. It felt like, for some people, real leverage only came by demonstrating a closeness to Ken and that authority came from attempting the same kind of blatant ‘vertical’ positioning. I’ve written about this before in the article footnoted above. These folks were only a minority, but this attitude seemed dominant. Most people were more gracious and held this space with more care. What struck me though was that the behaviour of this minority was generally accepted. It was markedly different at this ITC. Political dynamics, social positioning, and the power and authority garnered thereof were all going on, of course. It might even have been the subtext that took up the most social energy, which I think is pretty normal at these sorts of gatherings. On one level it’s what they’re for. How this positioning happened this time, however, felt very different. There was a certain graciousness and generosity practiced, appreciated and, I think, expected from our leaders. It felt very much like this was a primary aspect of how they were now being selected and evaluated. For me this was very much ‘in the field’, but I’m sensitive to this sort of thing, so I’m wondering how many of you felt the same, or differently?
This more elegant, caring, and skilful leadership seemed to have become much more the norm. A certain unselfconscious humility, real skill, and persistent application that creates demonstrated pragmatic value in the world seemed to matter more. This fits with the strong theme of ‘integral impact’ promoted by the conference itself. I think the organisers did a great job of exemplifying this sort of leadership too. Sean, Jordan Luftig and previously Mark Forman have led the way on this move. Mark Fabionar does it beautifully too. I want to acknowledge you guys for that. Those more grasping plays at recognition and authority I saw in the past just didn’t seem to happen. At least I didn’t really notice any. They were no longer accepted, because they were clearly no longer a substantial part of our accepted norms.
I’m going to talk more about norms, our norms, or more properly what I think of as our ‘normative commitments’. I’m pretty sure the first time I encountered that term it was through Zak Stein at ITC 2010. It was a very powerful naming for me. Like word magic. I suddenly realised I was, in fact, very committed to a whole set of things that were so ‘normal’ in my life I didn’t even see them. Most of us are. The rhythm of those six syllables foregrounded a deep feeling I had about how the world really worked. That insight has made for a much more explicit foundation to my work ever since. A good part of the story I’m telling is about connecting the themes of the conference to our evolving collective normative commitments. The later begets the former. And, like I said, I think it was the integration of a number of emergent themes, some of which we have touched on already, that created the powerful field effect within the conference ecosystem.
This is significant. It points to something deeper. For me, it reveals that our normative commitments are changing, shifting from a prioritising of hierarchical development and a certain UL vertically orientated masculine approach to a more mature, horizontal/ecosystemic, feminine approach grounded in the embodied LR. I think this is leading to a more robust appreciation for something very like a commitment to generative health. Theoretically I morph the Quadrants and put the LL around these respectively more subjective and more objective views as a dynamic complexity of inter-subjective/objective semiotic process. This view prioritises the co-creation of our normative commitments as the greater soteriological force. It’s related to this conversation, but perhaps for another time. Some things I’ve published previously flesh this out in depth.2,3
If one important aspect of social systems (all systems in fact) is that they are composed of ‘loosely constrained’ agents, then these loose constraints are what we mostly, silently agree will be the norms that constrain and shape our behaviours. I think they give us certain forms of order and organisation as social beings. Their various integrations give us types of culture. They turn up as patterns of organisation that reveal that the agents are not so ‘agentic’ and separate as we may suppose–that the other side of this uniqueness is a seamless integrated and distinctly ordered coherence. That’s a strong element of how I’m thinking about ‘the field’. There was a seamlessness not diminished, but enhanced, by our uniquenesses–Uniqueness, that capital ‘U’ kind of uniqueness, being another strong theme. In fact the theme, or maybe it’s more like the normative principle of Uniqueness, is one of my all time favourites. It has a certain exquisiteness and equity that’s deeply attractive. The seamlessness was palpable in a variety of ways. I could feel it resonate in my heart–there was a deep caring quality just under the surface, born of love. It was visual too. Sometimes, if I just stopped for a moment and looked around, it was kind of like we were underwater in a sunshine Jacques Cousteau film with 100m viz. A liquid crystal technicolor display of a veritable tropical reef of extraordinarily Unique integral creatures. No, I did not take any psychedelics. The whole thing was more than a little mind creating though.
Here’s an anecdote related by Trevor Malkinson about something Olen Gunnlaughson said that illustrates my point. He posted it in a public social media group, so I don’t think either of them will mind if I relate it here. I was standing right there when it happened, just nodding my head. Gaby and I were rooming in a dormitory pod with Chris Dierkes, Trevor Malkinson, Jeremy Johnson, and David McLeod. David, despite his mild mannered appearance, masterminded this somewhat raucous den of sleep deprivation and uninhibited nocturnal dialogics. There were different pockets of this nighttime revelry, inside pods and out in the court yards–some more serious and philosophical, some for playing music, some seemed to act loosely as centres of gravity for people associated with various groups, disciplines and organisations. There seems to be a lot more of all of those now. There was lots of mixing and a lot of very funny and very erudite conversation. This looser, nightly socialising was a big feature of the conference. It is another of our themes. Personally I loved this part. I didn’t have any official duties this time. I was there to enjoy and experience, meet new people, connect deeper with old friends and just to have some fun. Much beer was drunk. Personally I think the existence of good beer for this sort of occasion is all the proof we need that Goddess really does loves us. It gave the whole thing a more grounded, almost carnival, very earthy feel. It was the flip side–the underworld dimension–of the more serious daytime activities. The instantiation of this more imaginal, darker, underworldly dimension–also seen in the strong arts presence and even in the activist attitude that was cultivated and that showed up (big time)–felt like a balancing of a long time Solar disposition in our community. I think that the emergence of this Polarity was a part of what charged the field. Our collective embodiment at the conference acting like the axis mundi of our world–a fat bundled trunk through which the bio/psycho/social-current of our collective consciousness flowed.
In any event, our pod was a hotspot for this sort of action. Alicante 1109 was party central. Here’s a section from Trevor’s post that I reckon illustrates what many of us were feeling:
On Saturday the people of our quad were beat, but there was momentum building for another party in that space with the field spread wider, so we forged on. J Another incredible din of noise happened again that evening, and I had conversations with many people who I’d never met, and don’t now know many of their names. It was just fierce, flowing conversations, one after another, and again so much laughter. Near the end of the night, with things still hopping, Olen Gunnlaughson came in, dead sober, but on fire. He said to me with wild alive eyes “something has gone down here this time brother [at the conference], something has gone down. there’s a field here…”. He sounded like a dude tripping on mushrooms, he was so high, but again, was dead sober. Although I was bleary eyed and beat by that point, I knew that success had been had, that in the wider field something had happened, and I felt happy that I could play a small part. We then stayed up till 4am again.
This is a good segue to my next theme. Actually it’s more like a related cluster of themes. Other than the emergence of the field itself, this was the most prominent feature of the conference for me. The place to start with this one is Chris Dierkes paper: “Searching for the Centaur: Retrieving Integral’s Lost Self-Identity.” His presentation partner Eric Towle’s paper, ‘Uprising of the Integral Spirit’, with its Gebserian exhortation to reconnect to and integrate the archaic, magic, and mythic with rational consciousness, is the cultural complement to Chris’s Centaric theme re the individual. Energetically the conference had a distinctly naturalistic feel. Maybe it was the beautiful campus setting. Cultivated and landscaped as it was, there was also the presence of wilderness. Lauren Tenney and I even managed to get lost at one stage. In my view Chris has articulated something very powerful in his call to circle back and look at Wilber’s early work on the Centauric (feminine expression ‘Mermaidic’) level of consciousness. Somehow Chris was ahead of the game on this one, or leading it, predicting the re-emergence of ‘integral consciousness through the symbol of the centaur–an integrated bodymind…’4 This conference was not so dominated by highly theoretical themes valorising an orientation to more masculine, philosophically dense, Causal, UL oriented topics. The feel was closer to earth–more of the Subtle capacities that come from deep integration with our mytho-biological selves, personal and natural. Red, juicy–the Pomegranate. Like we emerged as an ecology of selves, deeply connected under the Ground, and that we were becoming aware of our collective aliveness through the field effect.
The prominence of what I’ll call a Neo-Shamanistic sensibility plays a role here too. Roger Walsh’s book, The World of Shamanism, was like a talisman emanating this theme. As was Roger’s somewhat quiet, but powerful presence. I’ve just finished his book and I highly recommend it–especially if this story resonates with you. I had more than a few conversations about this shamanistic theme and the sense that ‘the soul’ had re-emerged as a part of the enactment of our more Mermaidic consciousness. The conference had a heart sense–it felt very soul-full, very connected in a distinctly organic, embodied way. For some time now I’ve had this feeling that we really might be like some of the characters in Chris’s old Beams and Struts piece ‘Shamanism in Once Upon a Time and Grimm’ 4, who are asleep to their true nature, stuck in this world, only half aware that they are from an other world where they have known each other before. Perhaps the field effect is the herald of the realisation that we are what Chris has related to me as a ‘soul tribe’–however we might interpret that in our contemporary setting. Interestingly, during the Integral Facilitator workshop on Thursday, Dianne Hamilton mentioned a kind of neo-shamanic element to the way she worked with energy in her facilitation. I’ve noticed this before. I asked her about it and connected it to Steve Shein’s work on the ecological self. Her reply oriented around the importance of distinguishing what I think she referred to as pre-personal shamanism from trans (or maybe ‘post’) personal shamanism. I took this to mean that we should interpret what it means to work with archetypal energy patterns in our own more Integral way. As you may be beginning to see, I’m interested in this conversation. I think these patterns have something to do with the themes and norms that shape our collective field, and form our cultures. They are in fact how we imagine our world into being.
Even what I’ll call the rise of the neo-Piagetians fits in with our more naturalistic, Centauric turn. Its like previously we had naively tried to extend too far and that now we are reaping the benefits of the Piaget/Fischer/Dawson lineage’s view that we should learn like living systems and iterate only to the next half step in our developmental journey. Then re-evaluate our goals. The psychoactive nature of our community is clearly working for us. I’ve seen really quite amazing changes in the folks I’ve practiced with over the years. It appears we are leaning better how to get real results from this be using a more naturalistic model. I’ll mention David McLeod’s paper, “Patterns for Navigating the Transition to a World of Energy Descent” here too. It brings a much-needed naturalistic, systemic/energetic literacy from the LR more prominently to the Integral conversation.
All of this seems to be part of a generational shift. The psychoactive developmental commitment of the first Boomer dominated Integral generation has paid real dividends for the Gen X dominated second who took it up. What we saw at ITC is the first full manifestation of what this generation can do on a pragmatically embodied level. May it not be the last.
Finally, before I try and conclude my reflections into a coherent recommendation, I want to mention the power and impact that the art and the artists had on the field. This cannot be overstated. It was enormous. Others have commented beautifully on the quality and impact of the poetry, music, dance, and performance at the conference. It’s worth noting, if fact its really, really important, to recognise that people of color were overly represented in leading this charge, and in bringing the kickass impact activist attitude with it. (I’m thinking of you here too Lakia Green). Thank you! The effect of this cannot be underestimated. We must learn from this. It was all of it amazing, and for many of us transformative. How it potentiated the field so fully is laid out in Michael Schwartz’s tour de force presentation of his own paper, “Prolegomena to Art’s Transdisciplinarity’. It changed my perception of art completely. Listen to the recording if you can. The intensification of what is important in our field through the aesthetic act, is what amplifies the field. Art is not a nice-to-have extra in the emergence of an Integral world–it must lead the way. At the conference it very much did so.
We’ve covered a lot of ground. I’m not going to list the themes I’ve discussed as a summary. I’m on an airplane and it’s about to land, then I have to work. I’m struggling to bring this to a coherent conclusion, but I’m going to have to wrap this up. I’ll have to leave you with the Gestalt. And this is my final point. My agenda is to recommend that we stick with a commitment to nurturing the whole. The present process of collective integrative inquiry is what gave us the conditions for the wonderful blooming that was ITC. The emergence of this kind of space in the world is truly profound. It is a powerful act, and where there is power there will be politics. I’m recommending a commitment to an integrative ecosystemic generativity as how we move forward with our politics. What I mean by that is that a wholistic/systemic health–not evolution, nor any other principle–should be our central normative commitment. If we can build out horizontal health in our world, there is less likelihood that the ends can be used to justify the means–the means is the end. If we focus on increasing the more horizontal richness of connectivity and functionality in our communities, evolution will happen naturally.
Dierkes, Chris. Shamanism in Once Upon a Time and Grimm. Sited at http://beamsandstruts.com/articles/item/888-shamanism-in-once-upon-a-time-and-grimm
Winton, T. (2012). Ken, II, MI and the state of my integral enterprise. Sited at:
Winton, T. (2010b). PatternDynamics™: creating cultures of sustainability. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 5(1)
Winton, T. (2013). The Meaning of Planetary Civilization: Integral Rational Spirituality and the Semiotic Universe. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 8(3,4).
About the Author
TIM WINTON works in organizational development and applied sustainability as an integral practitioner, educator, consultant, and designer. He is founder and managing director of PatternDynamics Pty Ltd, which is developing an integral sustainability pattern language –PatternDynamics™ – as both a community resource for not-for-profit organizations, communities, and individuals and as an organizational development tool for corporate and institutional sectors. See www.patterndynamics.net to download charts and stay informed of the latest developments with regard to PatternDynamics™. Tim holds a BA in English Literature from the University of Western Ontario.