Notes from the Field: Integral Without Borders Conference: Self-as-instrument

Notes from the Field / June 2011

Integral Without Borders Conference:  Self-as-instrument

Integral International Development Center
March 25 – 27, 2011
Vancouver, BC


Susan Wright



Integral Without Borders (IWB) is a learning center of the Integral Institute whose purpose is to bring together practitioners and organizations to develop greater clarity, depth, and rigor in their global development efforts. IWB began in 2005 and has since held global meetings bi-annually in France (2006) and Istanbul (2008/2010) as well as some smaller regional meetings in between.

A group of about twenty gathered on Thursday evening March 24th, 2011 in downtown Vancouver for a celebration of the Flavours of Integral International Development, a wine and cheese evening of connection and discussion to begin the next in the series of IWB weekend workshops.  The group included weekend leaders and participants plus members of the local integral community in spirited conversation.

After an informal social time, Mike Simpson, President of One Sky and the evening’s host, gathered the group together for more formal introductions.  Mike gave some background on One Sky and its sustainability projects in Peru and Nigeria.  Then Gail Hochachka provided an historical perspective on integral international development as part of the Integral Institute and the emergence of Integral Without Borders as a network for social change in international settings.  The third member of the IWB leadership team, Emine Kiray, gave an overview of the weekend’s activities.  Then each person present gave a short background on their integral connections and interests, reflecting the varied trans-disciplinary texture of integral groups.

The participant group then convened on Friday afternoon to begin the process of inquiry into using ourselves as the instruments of social change. Participants each brought a symbol of what ‘self-as-instrument’ meant to them, placing it in the center of the group as they spoke about its meaning in relation to their background and interests.  As each person contributed, their stories created a community space to frame the collective exploration.

Rather than trying to create a common definition of self-as-instrument, we were asked to move beyond the basics and challenge ourselves to examine the question: What is the deep edge of your inquiry into self-as-instrument?  The responses arose from each participant’s developmental edge, including the need for surrender, the vulnerability to trust our unique voice, the courage to step into the fear of letting go, the possibility of resting in not knowing our true self.  The need to be, see and do all at once in the widest space we can inhabit was seen as key to self-as-instrument.  Another critical aspect was removing our own barriers to allow self-as-instrument as a natural process to emerge.  Several additional questions were added: Who is playing me (as in music)?  What do we not know about our self-as-instrument (the shadow)?  Which self (each stage/state has an edge)?  We agreed that as we are able to be transparent to our selves, our Authentic Self emerges.  We are in integrity.  We also agreed that what we are vibrates in the universe.  And what is out there in the world – the tension and turbulence – is also in here.  We live in the binary.  We ended as we had begun with a question: How am I an instrument in this moment? And how am I not?

To further deepen our understanding of self-as-instrument, we entered a World Café in four groups to explore the integral dimensions of applying self-as-instrument, sharing practices and techniques.  After spending time in each small group, we had a dinner break at local restaurants and then reconvened to share what had emerged from the dialogues.  Following are a sample of the practices in each of the quadrants.

Upper Left:

  • Listen with openness and intention – have an open heart
  • Hold ‘unconditional positive regard’ for the other(s)
  • Meet people in faith
  • Be aware of our shadows and negative self-talk

Upper Right:

  • Read the energy of individuals and groups; use body/mind awareness
  • Make space for individuals to show up – practice non-attachment
  • Use humour, creativity, play

Lower Left:

  • Be part of the community and also stand outside it (Zones 3 and 4)
  • Share stories to create intimacy and depth in conversations
  • Make personal connections – be vulnerable, willing to share edges
  • Notice that powerful questions come from the emergent social field

Lower Right:

  • Include larger systems levels in self and other understanding
  • Look for the tipping point for a change in group perspective
  • Identify leaders, risk-takers, innovators and empower them
  • Listen for the language of different altitudes and speak to them.

To close the evening, each person in the large circle was asked for two words, one to express what they were here to bring and the other to express what they hoped to take away from the event.

Saturday began with optional meditation and coffee.  As the group formally convened in our new weekend location, Gail opened the space by encouraging us to reflect on our gratitude to our beloveds, now and in the past, all the way back to distant times.  We then listened to an audio clip from Ken Wilber on the New Bodhisattva Vow. Ken reminded us that enlightenment grows in stages; form evolves although emptiness does not.  He challenged us to awaken to the part of us unfolding in the manifest realm, noting that the higher our stage of development, the longer we can hold Big Mind.  The new bodhisattva vow therefore includes not only awakening all sentient beings but supporting their growth and development in capacity.

For the remainder of the morning, we engaged in an experiential exercise of embodying self-as-instrument.  We spent an hour outside in the distinctive neighbourhoods around our workshop location in a one-hour self-awareness walk.  The communities around us included the poorest part of the city, the high-end commercial district, Chinatown, and a government area to name a few. The questions we were to hold during the walk through the various areas were: What do you see?  How do you feel about the relationship between you and others?  What do you do?

The discussion of our reactions to the walk when we returned brought home our many ways of knowing.  Some of the words used to describe the experience were: elation, sadness, wonder, curiosity, affinity, connection, contraction, familiarity, openness.  Some focused on the people, making personal connections and interacting with those in the different districts.  Others focused on the architecture, the socio-technical workings of the city, and the different presenting cultures.  Several participants noticed their comfort level being quite different in the poorest area known for its drugs and crime than in the bustling weekend commercial areas.  We noted the dichotomies and contrasts in what we had seen and our different reactions to it.  We again returned to our many selves, both light and shadow, and how this experience had foregrounded these distinctions.

After lunch in the neighbourhood, we were privileged to hear Terri O’Fallon present her latest research on the interpenetration of state and structure stages with the quadrants.  She described how waking up and growing up relate and why this matters for social change work.  She pointed to the patterns she has noticed in her work with later-stage participants in the Pacific Integral program Generating Transformative Change, including person perspectives, time and space dimensions, distinctive qualities, passive/active patterns, and quadrant floors.  With examples of each of these patterns, we were introduced to the concrete, subtle, and causal stages embedded in concrete, subtle and causal quadrants, through the use of a storybook, where moving from one quadrant into the next one is like turning over a new leaf, with polar pairs folding over and connecting to the next stage.  Terri emphasized that as we access new states, earlier states of consciousness become ‘ordinary’.

We then moved to the next phase of Terri’s research, interpenetrating the developmental structure stages with the eight perspectives in each of the concrete, subtle and causal quadrants  (four inside perspectives and four outside perspectives).  Here, she noted that as we enter a new stage, we are swimming inside a new perspective, an unknown interior territory that seems ambiguous and uncertain – we are subject to it.  As we develop more capacity we are able to stand outside of the perspective, to examine and understand its patterns.  Through a card game demonstration, we were able to actually experience this ambiguity and discuss how its embodiment influenced our thinking and action.

We ended the afternoon with a Big Mind exercise facilitated by Lisa Gibson.  Lisa led us through the process of fully owning and embodying the many voices that arise in international development – the fixer, the saviour, the one who suffers, the collaborator, the one who doesn’t give a —-, as well as Big Mind and Big Heart.  This powerful experience allowed us to touch many of those parts of ourselves that impact our social change work in the world, and to see their benefits and limitations.  Through owning both the bright and the shadow of our agency, we were able to reflect on how our service might bring greater clarity and effectiveness.  We ended with Big Heart, standing in our largest Self-As-Instrument for positive change.

We gathered for a group dinner at Boneta, a neighbourhood eatery where we continued to share stories over delectable food and drinks.  We reconvened back in our workshop space for a short integration circle.  We were asked, given all that had happened this day:  What is the implication for your practice?  What is your biggest insight?  What is the edge for your continuing growth?  We separated into triads and considered the questions one at a time, grounding our experience and sharing our learning.

Sunday morning began again with optional meditation and coffee.  Mike then facilitated a shadow work exercise in which we were challenged to ‘tune our instrument’ through considering how we give and receive feedback on how we are showing up.  The purpose was to examine our subjective experience and make it the object of our inquiry.  After a pairs process in silence, we discussed our personal, cultural and historical shadows, particularly important in international development interventions.  We asked each other questions, such as: When it is appropriate to give feedback?  When is it invasive, given that we are all tender souls?  We noted that our interiors are sacred spaces that need to be honoured.  However, we also felt that conflict is often a necessity to disrupt the status quo – the challenge is one of motivation and discrimination. The session included a number of best practices for feedback:

  • Give feedback after three arisings in your own consciousness – be sure it is worthy of communication
  • Think through the variety of skillful means at your disposal and choose the most appropriate
  • Consider feedback in the subtle realm – how does it work without words?
  • Notice that feedback happens continuously whether we call it that or not – it is part of the ‘miracle of we’.
  • Take responsibility for what happens as a result of your feedback – follow through to ensure learning and growth rather than hurt or harm.

We concluded the conversation over a light lunch brought into the workshop so that we could be ready for our Q&A with Ken Wilber.  Gail and Emine connected with Ken by skype and introduced our group and the context of our workshop.  We then had a two-hour conversation where Ken began by noting that in using self as instrument, we resonate with others who are at and below our own level of development.  For levels above, we may be able to read and see in third person but not feel into the first and second person perspectives.  Thus, we are effective up to our own level of development, meaning that the better we understand, the better we resonate with individuals and cultures in the settings in which we are engaged.  He suggested that before beginning a change process, we need a shared understanding and the power to move within a self-identified group.  At this moment in the evolution of consciousness, there are many people who don’t know they are integral and feel isolated as a result.  When they encounter integral perspectives, they will immediately resonate and can then self-identify.  These are the leaders who will build consensus.

Asked about integral education, Ken commented that multiple intelligences are necessary, not just the cognitive but physical, aesthetic, moral and emotional intelligences as well.  Each student can then find a talent and contribution to build self-esteem.  He lamented the ‘green meme’ blunting of accomplishment by de-emphasizing ranking and testing.  He suggested faculty and administrators need to be at second tier so there is an “integral atmosphere”, an inclusive awareness even if it is subtle at the lower grades.

Asked about environmental sustainability, Ken noted that the environmental movement at post-conventional levels of development (about 30% of the population) is like a fundamentalist religion, emphasizing how we have offended and will die unless we repent, confess our sins and change our ways.  The focus is on the global commons,  the stakes and emotions run high and any consensus is difficult.  At integral levels, we gain some distance and balance in our views.

Ken ended the call with a return to the New Bodhisattva Vow, reminding us that waking up and growing up are relatively independent.  The traditional vow referred only to states development but using self as instrument in international development requires growth in both states and stages.

Our closing ritual was an opportunity to honour and connect with each person in silence, recognizing the deep selves we had come to love and respect over the past few days.  I personally left with a fuller, more open heart and a strong resolve to intensify my tuning of ‘self-as-instrument’ in all aspects of my life.  The conversation continues after the event with email reflections on the experience, one of which captures its essence… “Thank you so much for a rich, provocative and important weekend. Rich because of the depth, provocative because of the teachings and important because one does wake up from a theoretical sleep (again and again) when hearing this message.  It feels as if I received an integral shower that was long overdue.”

About the Author

Dr. Susan Wright, PhD is President of The Coaching Project Inc., a Canadian firm specializing in leadership development, coach education and organization change. She has practiced leadership from many perspectives. She has been a strategic leader in corporations, a catalyst for social change, a coach and consultant on leadership and organization development, taught post-graduate leadership courses and written books on leadership in turbulent times. Her book, Leadership Alchemy: The Magic of the Leader Coach is a business bestseller. Susan has done extensive international work in Australia, Malaysia, Africa, Peru and the Caribbean.  She now applies her experience using an integral lens.