Integral: The “New” Human Potential Movement

Coda / August 2012

I am old enough to have lived and worked through most of the years of the Human Potential Movement. This was a period that saw the establishment of the Esalen Institute, the rising popularity of a wide range of therapies from gestalt to transactional analysis, to neoReichian body therapies and Rolfing, to sensory awareness and primal scream, to name just a few. This was a time that saw humanistic psychology programs in higher education at the Humanist Psychology Institute (now Saybrook University), Sonoma State University and somewhere in Georgia that I can’t remember.

This was a time of new spiritual movements and the rise of gurus. Some people were flocking to Reverend Moon, to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh with his Rolls Royces or to cultists like Jim Jones.

This was also the time of Timothy Leary and experimentation with hallucinogenics. It was a time of the Civil Rights Movement, the Free Speech Movement, the antiwar movement with its protests against the war. It was also a time of folk music with people like Hoyt Axton singing about their friends whose lives had been destroyed by drugs “found upon the wall of some ungodly hall.” This was a time that saw the rise of the feminist movement and hippies and alternative lifestyles with tools like the Whole Earth Catalogue. And this was a time when American young people were killed by National Guards and police in Berkeley, Kent State and elsewhere.

The Human Potential was being realized in many of its dimensions, some not what we (or I) aspired to. These were interesting times.

When I look at what has been emphasized on “official” integral websites it has historically been focused on vertical development, particularly spiritual development. I haven’t done a count, but I would guess that the number of items, interviews and blogs dealing with spirituality in one of its manifestations or another would outnumber all of the others combined. Recently that could be changing.

This does not mean there has not been attention to leadership, business, relationships, coaching, health, sustainability and other fields. But I do believe that the spiritual has been at the heart of what has attracted most followers of integral. Now this is not an either or. For most it is about applying spiritual in their own lives in service of their own development. For some others it has been about applying integral frameworks, including spirituality, in their area of study, work and interest. There have even been some successful examples of virtual and local networks such as those in London, New York, Sydney and Seattle. Online conferences, meet ups and other collective efforts have been showing up with some degree of success, and some not.

The integral movement, like the Human Potential Movement, has a significant developmental emphasis. The primary thing they share is the development of the individual. Integral Life Practice owes so much to those working innovatively n the 60s and 70s. Back then, most developmental experiences—workshops, retreats—were focused in one area. For example, there were sensory awareness workshops, encounter groups, gestalt groups, EST, and more. ILP, not unlike the work based in Esalen in recent years with Michael Murphy and George Leonard, is attending more to the whole person in multiple dimensions. This is a step in the right direction.

So what’s the point? This will not be the first time that a [integral] movement has begun from a spiritual base or orientation. I was listening to an NPR report on Aung San Suu Kyi in the UK. The report included some comments from someone in Myanmar (who I cannot identify) who was noting that Suu Kyi’s politics have been based on a nonviolent spiritual movement. Furthermore, she would need to shift her approach to working within the Burmese constitution, as though these are two different things. I am sure the historians among us can come up with many more examples, from Gandhi to King and on and on. Even today there are such movements among Palestinians and elsewhere.

So when we look back at this history, still within the memory of some of us, and even further back to the labor movement, the suffragettes, independence movements in British, French, Italian, German, Dutch and American colonies (think Philippines or any of those parts of the world under US control, involving the dominance of an American government on a local population), what can we learn from them?

For one thing we can learn that many of these movements took many decades to realize initial successes, only to see political, economic and cultural recidivism dash the hopes of those who still held cherished memories of those who died or were destroyed in other ways by their passion, their convictions, their intentions to bring about a better world. Two steps forward, one back? Sometimes. Other times it seemed like all the steps were backward. In a few cases we can see evidence of real development and progress. This includes in countries like India and many former African colonies.

So we have learned that repression and aggrandizement and greed have continued to play active roles, no matter what the movement. And what of the integral movement? Why do I feel that I am at risk for even asking such a question?

My hopes—and I believe the hopes of many more—are that those in the integral world who are promoting a movement really understand what they are doing and how to perpetuate its progress without the backward steps so many have faced. Perhaps this movement will not just focus on individual development or political change, but will address it all. Certainly there are voices in all four quadrants. Today it all seems very fragmented.

This fragmentation includes those 21,000 people who hold many trillions of dollars in tax-protected accounts. As noted in a story on TribLive (

From Switzerland and a couple of Caribbean islands, the black holes are in 70 or more countries. Christensen said studies by several organizations, including the International Monetary Fund, put the total stash at as much as $25 trillion.

In contrast, the Commerce Department pegs the gross national product of the United States at more than $15 trillion.

The fragmentation includes political systems funded by money predominantly from the wealthy, the protected classes. And it includes the hope that people like Don Beck have it right and will be heard and attended to. Otherwise, our renewed movement of hope is likely to see the fate of so many earlier movements, one step forward, two steps back. Or like others which have seen many steps backward.

Another thing that we have learned is that as movements grow they become even more vulnerable to the oppression of money and ideology. They become the object of police investigations and trashing press. Part of growing such a movement is preparing those who participate in working with how they are challenged by these responses.

Or maybe the integral movement is different? There have been movements that have been “headless”, in the sense of there being no headquarters or singular leader to assassinate and destroy. Coxey’s Army and Kelly’s Army, with its many elements all over the United States in the 1890s, had no single leader, but raised protests against unemployment under conditions not unlike today. Unemployment shot up as a result of the Wall Street Panic of 1893. They marched across the country, only to be oppressed through arrests. The Tea Party seems to be another such movement. Nowhere to cut off its head. And then there is Occupy.

All of these movements did have organizers, individuals who could be picked off, killed, intimidated, arrested and imprisoned. How is the Integral Movement going to be different. Will it focus on what most in this society think of as “woo-woo” nonsense? Will it draw tight boundaries around itself with admission only possible if one is assessed as second tier?

We do have the advantage of having learned from folks like Edgar Morin and Ken Wilber and Don Beck. We cannot build a movement that does not attend to the context. Rather, we must build a movement that is transdisciplinary and strategic. As Morin has noted, strategy has come from the art of war. It requires being sensitive to changing conditions and variables that we could not plan for. And it requires the discipline of collective learning, strategy development, feedback and action. To achieve that means bridging the edges of integral. Nothing else will do.

After all, take a look at what happened with the Human Potential Movement. It made its contributions to disparate individuals, contributed to self-promotion and attempts at collective withdrawal. It faded, leaving many advocates with diminished audiences and fragmented attempts to implement what was learned. It influenced the helping professions, like organization development and, more recently, coaching. And even now it is being repressed through actions by organizations like the American Psychological Association which has established accreditation criteria for psychology PhD programs that exclude the humanistic and much of the human potential approaches. For example, the PsyD program in psychology at Saybrook University, the original Humanistic Psychology Institute, has been discontinued because they are unwilling to meet the requirements of the APA that would force them to stop teaching the humanistic approach.

An integral movement? I hope so. And I hope we can learn from history and the experiences of many other movements from the past. Are you seeing evidence of that anywhere?



3 thoughts on “Integral: The “New” Human Potential Movement

  1. Kevin Leinbach

    You’re right. We can learn from history. Human development has always been a messy affair. There is no reason to think that this one will be any different, IF we act in the same manner as we have throughout the part.

    I think any ‘integral movement’ that includes the war motif is un-Integral and ultimately doomed. It’s a divisive and destructive mode of thinking. [Managing complex environments within the Cynefin framework might be a more productive analogy]. If we are to transcend the current systems and include all aspects of world issues, we must create a new paradigm where disparate groups of unequal power can co-exist and work together towards both individual and mutual gain.

    Direct militant protests result in Red power struggles, as you noted history has shown. That’s the setback realized by the Occupy movement with their noble ideas and dated methods. A 2012 movement should not look like 1969. Where is the Integral in all this? If we meet each group where they are at and then show them a new way of operating still within their own framework, there is a chance of project adoption, implementation, and completion.

    An integral movement should not have anything to fight. If it does, then it’s not doing it right. That is not to say that it won’t be challenging. Any change is challenging. Just that, if it is so threatening that it needs to be taken out by the powerbrokers, then we didn’t include everything that was necessary to address.

    What does that look like? No idea. Whoever does it will be picking up some bling in Stockholm for their efforts. But it makes me nervous when I read of people calling for ‘integral action’ in the wake of Occupy when a new method has not yet been realized. Old methods have had their place in history, but I suspect that the most effective one in the future won’t look anything like what we’ve seen in the past.

  2. Jana

    There is no such thing as an “integral movement” persay…but a bunch of maps, codes, precepts and axioms. Integral philosophy’s impact on human evolution is only as effective as the lives of the individuals that it touches. The integral lifeboat may seem like a safe arc in a collapsing cultural paradigm and for sure it does offer a sense of surety and stability in times of chaos. However the bubble of civility created within an integral community that speak the same language, with the same speech patterns, the same self-congradulatory niceities within a buffered internal socioeconomy…may ultimately lead to integral being ineffectual in the world and the brute push of human evolution as a whole. The science and art of integralness is too important to waste on cults and institutions…we need to move beyond these arcane models all together, forget about spiritual clans, teachers, workshops etc…and roll up our sleeves, throw off our shoes and get to work.

Comments are closed.