It is two minutes to midnight on Friday 20th July 2007; I am standing in line with about 70,000 other individuals in Diagon Alley awaiting the culmination of the publishing event of the century, maybe of all time. Of course those of you who are up to speed with the antics of the young wizard Harry Potter and his pals know that I am not really standing in Diagon Alley but on Main Street in Naperville, Illinois. But as for the 70,000 other people? That is probably an underestimate!
To celebrate the launch of the seventh and final episode of J.K. Rowling’s heptalogy about the orphaned boy wizard and his fight against evil, the merchants and good citizens of Naperville (population c. 150,000) decided to turn their downtown into a facsimile of the imaginary town created by Rowling. In a town best known as one of the best places in America to both retire and bring up children, about 10 city blocks have been turned into a pedestrian area where wizards, witches and an assortment of other characters from the books came to life for one day.
Robes were the fashion of the day, and in temperatures approaching 90° F it took real dedication to wear them all day. Pointed hats were de rigueur, and it did one’s credibility no harm to have a wand to point and wave at regular intervals. There were street-entertainers and attractions throughout the day as the expectation and anticipation for the new book rose palpably. Heated discussions took place on street corners as connoisseurs of the tales argued, mostly with good humor and occasionally heatedly, over such topics, as to whether Snape was really good or evil; or who would or should die in the latest episode and whether Dumbledore was right and that there were manythings worse than death.
Hotel rooms were in short supply in Naperville and the surrounding environs suggesting that the crowds roaming the streets on this hot and humid evening came not just from the local populace, but from some great distances, 4,500 miles in the case of my daughter. The passion that filled this quiet Illinois town could be felt on every street corner. As one minute past midnight on the 21st arrived and the books that everybody had been waiting for were made available, the response from some bordered on orgasmic.
I have to confess that I have never read a single word from any of the Harry Potter books. My standing in line with so many Hogwarts zealots was payback for insisting eight years ago that my then 8-year-old daughter read this new book that I had on good authority was the best thing to have been published since Lord of the Rings! After much resistance, she made it past the first couple of chapters and was as hooked as the average crack-addict but on literature rather than narcotics. For the past eight years Harry Potter has guided and influenced her life probably more than anything, including my half-assed attempts at integrally informed parenting.
That said, I am not completely ignorant of the unfolding tale; I have been allowed to take my daughter and her elder sister (who was introduced into this nether world by her younger sibling) to see the movies when they came out. But only on the condition that I asked no questions during the movies and was told afterwards that to fully understand what I had experienced I needed to read the books. Nothing compared to the books in their opinion.
The anticipation of each new book over the years has been a ritual worthy of study by any anthropologist. The weeks of preparation reaching a chaotic frenzy as the book arrives is followed by all night contemplative sessions where the devotee inhales the words as they leap off of the page. Many a Church, Temple, Mosque and Ashram can only wish that they could achieve a tenth of such devotion.
But it doesn’t end there! In a manner akin to a Guru studying the Sutras or a Kabbalist exploring the Zohar the text is examined in minute detail. The use of language is explored looking for insights and deeper understanding; the plots and the sub-plots are dissected and reconstructed as further meaning emerges. Finally, exhaustive participation in on-line discussions with fellow readers in all four corners of the planet seems to never end.
As I have watched this unfolding of a story that at first glance appears to be mired in magic and myth, and have discussed with other parents the impact of Harry Potter on their children, it is apparent that the story that Joanne Rowling conceived when she was penniless striving to bring up her child as a single mother goes far beyond magic and the myth. This is just a vehicle for catching the attention. The Harry Potter Story helps its readers to come to terms with the paradox of good and evil and how the two are not so easily differentiated.
Although I have not undertaken a deep analysis of the practice of reading Harry Potter, I am sure that a case can be made for it having most of the elements necessary for an Integral Life Practice! Just walking around with the books is enough to give a practitioner a good dose of their physical exercise for the day. All four quadrants of the AQAL model are covered by devotees. In the Upper Right, nothing has done more to bring children back to reading and away from the modern day opiates of the masses, TV and game consoles. In the UL the reader is faced with the same conundrums and paradoxes that the classical writers used to challenge the individual’s personal growth.
In the Lower Right a complex set of systems and processes have emerged ranging from the issues faced with printing over 10 million copies of the book, distributing it and ensuring that it remains under wraps until the appropriate moment. The emergence of social sites such as Leaky-Cauldron and Mugglenet has allowed a community to emerge with tens of thousands regularly joining pod-casts on specific aspects of the world of HP. Finally, a Lower Left Quadrant of shared meaning amongst adherents is open to all who are prepared to do the practice of reading the books.
In short, Harry Potter reaches and influences far more people than probably all of the books on Integral Theory and Integral Leadership have ever done and are likely to do so. Ken Wilber is wont to say that in a hundred years time 10-year-old children will have a grasp of today’s understanding of Integral Theory and how to put it into practice. Ten year olds will understand and comprehend that which is taking us baby-boomers a lifetime of struggle to understand!
The truth of the matter is that if this is to occur, and I am not going to argue that Mr. Wilber is incorrect, then it requires a vehicle more akin to the Potter Heptalogy than the Kosmos Trilogy (especially when two legs of this three legged stool are still “in production”). Integral Theory and Integral Leadership are still the preserve of an elitist and mostly academic community. As Robb Smith the CEO of Integral Institute pointed out when I spoke with him, part of his mission is to turn Integral Institute into a vehicle that doesn’t require you to read a number of books before you can start to derive value from the wisdom that lays therein.
This is a start; a good start at that. But as I stood in the midst of the Harry Potter Community in Naperville on that special night it seemed obvious to me that we have a long way to go. The “We Space” created by Rowling/Bloomsbury/Scholastic and others was started about the same time as the Integral Institute. It affects more than half the people on the planet, whereas Integral hits possibly less than 5%. We might have come a long way but there is a heck of a big mountain that we still need to climb.
The question that I have is, “Are we prepared to learn from the phenomenon that is Harry Potter to take the Integral message forward? Or are we too proud to think a trainee magician has anything to teach us?”