Integral North: Teaching to Potential

Column / March 2013

Creativity, Empowerment, Inspiration and other Acts of Human Courage

Mark McCaslin

…the isolation that prevails everywhere… has not fully developed, not reached its limit yet. For every one strives to keep his individuality as apart as possible, wishes to secure the greatest possible fullness of life for himself; but meantime all his efforts result not in attaining fullness of life but self-destruction, for instead of self-realisation he ends by arriving at complete solitude.

~Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Mark McCaslin

Mark McCaslin

Hope and fear, possibility and defeat, wonder and solitude, the peaks and the valleys—these are just a few of the dichotomies to be found within the lives of those who are dedicated to teaching and learning. For those holding leader roles this terrain may seem equally familiar. Upon deeper introspection, the distance between an individual as a teacher and those holding leader roles may seem minuscule. Coach, facilitator, mentor, advisor, trainer, guide… leader; where are we able to draw crisp lines of distinction? The commonality of these roles is held by the way in which we engage teaching and learning within the Integral Space (a living dynamic existing within a community of practice). Considering questions of attraction like: What is it that draws individuals to these roles of mentor, coach, advisor, facilitator, teacher or leader? The answer, at least in part, springs from the growing complexities found within the organization, school, community or any human dynamic where problems and opportunities are engaged. To connect well (with “well” being no idle figure of speech) in this human dynamic requires an understanding of teaching and learning practices, principles, and philosophies.  

The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open and these very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.

~ Parker Palmer p. 11.[i]

Other questions, equally effulgent, emerge radiantly from the Integral Space. Given the nature of the attraction, the fullness of the desire to solve incipient problems and to meet emerging opportunities, why does it seem so difficult to share our collected wisdoms fully and freely towards forming a more complete, more engaged, and more notable integral approach to curiosity, creativity, inquiry, and learning? If we are, as David Abrams asserts, “tuned for relationship[ii]”, why do we stumble so often into isolation? Why is it that we remain so “effective” at talking past each other? Perhaps we are missing a common language or, perhaps we simply need a welcome and warm space to meet. Maybe we need new rules of engagement.

I believe, along with many others who have followed this path, which is generally referred to as teaching (although I prefer calling it potentiating wonder), that there are multiple ways of advancing personal excellences. The human growth path towards the actualization of an individual’s greatest potential would seem to be multiply varied across cultures, economies, and ecologies. We seem able to theoretically recognize and understand the critical elements of multiple intelligences and, therefore, embrace the possibility of holding multiple ways to approach any problem.

Still, Dostoyevsky’s lament remains present—remains with us. In some ways this enterprise called teaching is a lonely occupation. We speak, often generously, to the power of integral approaches towards solving perennial problems, or its ability to embrace emerging purposes or opportunities. And yet, too often in the teaching enterprise we attempt to engage this whole, this Integral Space, alone. Certainly, in our roles as mentors, coaches, and teachers we have at our disposal our vessel of knowledge and experience gained through our investigations across disciplines given to us by liberal education. These underpinnings keep us in the game—the lonely, and too often isolated, game of teaching. As integral educators, it would seem quite pragmatic to begin a conscious effort to not only approach problems and opportunities across disciplines, cultures, economies, and ecologies, but also to build the integral structures and networks through our interrelationships with one another. To connect to others within this Integral Space. To connect, dear reader, with you.

Without this engagement, we may find that our teachings, our efforts, may result in nothing.  While we might hold fast the notion that multiple approaches and multiple disciplines bring us fully into this Integral Space, we are just as easily ejected by the singularity of our voice and/or clinging to our individual experiences. “Knowledge is by its nature transdisciplinary and, therefore, so is meta-analysis of transdisciplinary: we must investigate the concept itself through variety of lenses. No single voice can provide closure to the questions raised.”[iii] Teaching and learning, within this Integral Space, requires opening the aperture of our awareness to include others; other teachers, leaders, mentors…others like ourselves. This also evokes a prerequisite within our understanding. We must come to understand that leader, teacher, mentor… are simply roles we play within the Integral Space. Equally important roles would include associate, learner, and protégé. This understanding grants us the flexibility to elegantly move in and out of these roles without defense and without causing offense. We would have fluidity rather than hierarchy. Violence in the Integral Space diminishes as a result. With this opening awareness, we will discover that the gifts of potential we hold within our own being are likely well suited for those that we engage, peers and learners, in our learning enterprise. I am heartened by the support I find from a multitude of human growth path theorists who, without exception, define our need for interdependence as critical for gaining access to the farther reaches of our collective potentials. Within the Integral Space, notions of power become less about position and more about potential.

Teaching and learning, then, is not a person, it’s about people. It’s as much about the products of our efforts as it is the nature of our relationships. Leadership concerns itself with what is, what could be, and who we are in relationship to whatever Eco we are engaging. Leadership is about inspiration, innovation and implementation. Leadership is about creating a responsive democracy and a community of potential; it’s about citizens working towards some collective purpose all the while championing individually held potentials. It’s about discovering unity through diversity. Leadership is about the freedom to rise and meet our own personal destiny and it’s about service to others — our communities, families, and organizations. Leadership is about ecology — a deep human ecology found when we adapt ourselves to the world and accommodate the ever opening nature of human potential. And deep within the sacred habitat of humanity we will discover an extraordinary and uncommonly beautiful diversity of human potentials seeking opportunities to relate — Synergy. Deep within this ever unfolding human ecology we will discover the fruit of life—the harvest of wisdom. And in that moment we will realize that we are all connected and furthered for that connection.

Human life will never be understood unless its highest aspirations are taken into account. Growth, self-actualization, the striving toward health, the quest for identity and autonomy, the yearning for excellence (and other ways of phrasing the striving ‘upward’) must by now be accepted beyond question as a widespread and perhaps universal human tendency.

              ~ Abraham Maslow[iv]

I take this wisdom, this striving upward, as a signal that the quest for our highest potential is the true nature of being human. While it is far too easy to locate exception after exception of people, even whole societies, who have missed the mark of this upward transformation, it remains impossible to dismiss the ideal of limitless human potential. It leads me to ask, in the backdrop of such a powerfully potentiating statement, “How then do I actualize my own potential? How do I find myself upon the upward way?” I have made a study of being lost, but no matter how far I push myself away from my path towards my greatest potential, life always seems to find me and nudge me back toward center, towards health, towards the upward way.  Periodically this has left me hopeless and helpless in the shadow phase of the journey, and yet, each time I have surfaced into the light of possibility having been transformed. Struggle is an ally. Possibility is a beacon.

I will speak to the essence of this journey towards our highest possibilities as people and as society. Know that I find it impossible for a social animal like the human being to go deep enough alone to reach the heights of the upward way. As in the pictorial journey of the 12th century Ox Herding[v] stage 7 (of 10) [Astride the ox, I reach home. I am serene. The ox too can rest. The dawn has come. In blissful repose, within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and ropes.] Self-discipline, self-direction – the self alone on the journey towards our greatest possibility – remains a limited exercise. It can take us to the threshold of our personal excellences [The dawn has come], but seldom can it take us further along the upward way. That task requires a deeper introspection and a connection to another.

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Along the upward way we come face to face with our fears and our greatest possibilities. We discover, quite by necessity, that our own personal excellences need, by design, another. Our value is tuned to another’s. And for us to actualize beyond the common mean we come to realize that our value must be shared, must be announced else it fails to actualize, or worse, corrupts toward evil. Along the upward way we find delight in the emergent reality that all people have value.

I believe most of us, perhaps all of us (I have yet to find an exception), seek to grow to the heights of our possible selves. Metaphorically speaking, our possible selves are very much like a garden. Given proper cultivation and care we produce an amazing array of fruits. The more dedication given the more fruits are produced. But even in the tangled snarls of an unkempt garden, starved of water, nutrients and care, possibilities will sprout yet seldom will they  bear fruit. This lack of care produces more weeds than purposeful possibilities and slowly the garden of life is strangled and a strange mix of thorns and nettles takes hold. Our garden becomes barren and corrupted.

Freedom to engage my own possibilities, along with the possibilities of others, is what I find so often valuable in my creative endeavors. After clumsy starts and fits of romantic idealism I find myself always back at the need for shared exploration and freedom. And yet, just inside that mutuality, I find a peace of an unexplainable quality. Yes, that is it, there is a bridge between freedom and a sort of self-empathy that shared creativity spans. Maslow speaks to this span of creativity as, “My feeling is that the concept of creativeness and the concept of healthy, self-actualizing, fully human person seem to be coming closer and closer together, and may perhaps turn out to be the same thing (1971, p. 55). Natalie Rogers (1997) places the same healthy hope on creative expression as a force for therapeutic aims stating that the creative is often therapeutic and that the therapeutic is often creative[vi]. And it becomes a short leap, pleasantly so, to find an enduring sense of freedom, of a deep and personal kind, emerging from such shared endeavors.

A Prevailing Goodness

As I experience the full measure of my own creativity and the creative endeavors of others what immediately crashes into my soul is its spontaneity, delightfulness, and its wonderfully unpredictable qualities. These qualities seem to guide us towards health, wholeness and communion with others. There is a bridge between the full actualization of human potential and a self-empathy that creativity spans. This span of creativity urges us toward each other generating health and wholeness illuminating our truest potentials emanating from the deepest recesses of our psyche (soul).

We have a deeply embedded need to share the products of our creativity. When this sharing is given a receptive understanding psychic (soul) growth and expansion become pronounced. A shared learning emerges and each person in the relationship forms a more complete understanding of the other. In this way are the bonds of synergism formed. Non-aggression becomes prevalent, prejudices evaporate, and our fear of each other melts away.

When this sharing is treated harshly, rudely, in the fashion of judgment and prejudgment then psychic death becomes more and more likely. Treated thusly, all good learning ceases, defenses (on both sides) go up, armoring occurs, and understanding wilts away. In this way is a culture of psychic violence is generated. Aggression multiplies, fear becomes pronounced, and human potential perishes.

Returning to our choice for prevailing goodness made possible by this potentiating way of being on any human community is profound. This potentiating approach to the whole person embraces within its purpose and possibilities an intricate complex of quality catalysts held by the therapeutic potentials of a creative way of being and by the spiritual potentials that flow from that will to create. These potentials, the therapeutic and the spiritual, become key building blocks and may well serve as binding agents in further potentiating processes designed to integrate the potentials of the learner into a more holistic form – i.e. the integration of body, mind, heart and spirit. This integration yields one critical quality often found wanting in most organizations and classrooms – the will to create and/or be creative. The potentiator, by simply preparing themselves to learn, greets this ‘will to create’ creatively thus empowering a therapeutic and spiritual intention. When we are greeted creatively goodness flows endlessly and purposefully.

The Will to Create

As a consequence of this integration, I began to understand that this small will to create, and it always appears small and tentative in the beginning although it may grow to an omnipotent possibility, as the way of human potential. I began recognizing the creative as the seedling of potential struggling and searching for light, in search of faith.  I began saying to myself, “The magic is in the mix.” This mixture of creative potentials differing showed me the way of the naturalist – the way of appreciation, and so I came to respect the nature of things. It showed me the way of the gardener, and so I came to know the way of cultivation and the need for nurturing and patience. It showed me the way of the alchemist, and so I came to know the possibilities of integration and evolution. When I saw this way of integration and evolution I knew this was the way of potential. The magic, the blending of potentials towards a holistic fusion of our personal destinies in an effort to collectively create a synergistic society, is indeed in the mix.

In that spirit of creativity, I had to uncover a way to encourage a sense of belongingness for each individual as well as open my own being to the multiple pathways towards our personal excellences – to the farther reaches of our own potential. Having faith in these bricks of potential I became a community builder. I felt that it was only through this recognition (and appreciation) that we would come to celebrate the diversity of our own ethical individuality and the power held by our convergence towards an ecology of human potential. By following these simple yet elegant ethics it was my hope that we, all of us, would find ourselves coming full circle and recognize the sanity held by the simple philosophy of “all people have value”. I had hoped that this would become a unified pathway towards our multifarious and higher possibilities. I put my faith in the beauty of the actualizing soul and the elegance of a synergistic society. I began to see as the gardener sees – with wonder and expectation.

Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse.  As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together.  …We teach who we are.

~ Parker Palmer[vii], p.2


[i] Parker Palmer, (1998) The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life.  Jossey-Bass.

[ii] David Abrams, (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous. Vintage.

[iii] Beyond the boundaries: a transdisciplinary approach to learning and teaching. (2003) ED. Douglas Coffman, David  Moss, and Terry Osborne. Praeger.

[iv] Maslow, A. H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking Press.

[v] The original drawings and the commentary that accompanied them are both attributed to Kakuan Shien (Kou-an Shih-yuan), a Chinese Zen master of the Twelfth Century.

[vi] Rogers, N. (1997). The creative connection: Expressive arts as healing. New York:

Science & Behavior Books Inc.

[vii] Parker Palmer, p.2.

 About the Author

Mark McCaslin, PhD, is a professor at Sofia University (formerly Institute for Transpersonal Psychology) and is the Editor of Integral Leadership Review.