The integral theory

Here is an article written by Stephen Kiesling about the integral theory.

Give Us Ten Minutes…We’ll Give You the Kosmos
Stephen Kiesling

Go ahead. Check your watch. Let’s see if we can pull this off. The next 10 minutes may change the way you think about evolution, psychology, ecology, even God.

The cosmos is merely the physical universe. Here, were talking The Big K… everything from matter to mind to Spirit. We hope you’ll come away feeling that the half of the Kosmos that tends to get crushed flat by modern science — your emotions, your dreams, your spirituality — actually provides the high ground we need to make sense of our lives.

But first let us give the credit to Ken Wilber (author of such monumental works as Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality, The Marriage of Sense and Soul (one of Al Gore’s new favorites), and, with Tony Schwartz, A Brief History of Everything. Wilber, a former biochemist, lives in a mountain aerie outside Boulder, Colorado, where he rises each morning around four o’clock to meditate for hours in advance of his heavy thinking. But he’s not a guru. Instead, he’s a voracious reader and disciplined thinker who is attempting to synthesize all that is known about science and religion. Each of his books is well worth delving into over a long weekend. In fact, several scholars and volunteer think tanks are devoted full-time to his works. Think of what you’re about to read as Wilber Lite.

There’s a bit of a climb before the view gets exciting. It’ll be worth it.

So get ready, get set…Go!

The story of our universe can be viewed as 14 billion years of encompassing or enveloping. Wilber calls it nesting. Acorns nested into molecules, which nested into the first living cells, which nested into more and more complex organisms all the way up to the highest functions of the brain. Each level envelops all the ones before it and then adds its own qualities. There are no molecules without acorns, no cells without molecules, and no complex neocortex at the top of the brain without a reptilian stem at the base. Each item in an additional level is more complex, but there are also fewer of them. Thus, there are more atoms than molecules, more molecules than cells, and more cells than people.

(Okay, pause, take a deep breath, and glance at these nesting levels in the Upper Right quadrant of the map. These are the exteriors of individual objects that can be measured and manipulated so successfully by modern science. Notice, too, the progression of the nests: From physical matter to life to brain. Got it? Good!)

Now notice that for each Exterior on the Upper Right, there’s a corresponding Interior on the Upper Left. Atoms have physical interactions, living cells excite one another, more complex organisms sense one another, act on impulse, have perceptions and then emotions — nesting toward more and more complex brains that use symbols, form concepts, and use creative reason. Once again, each Interior level envelops all the ones before and adds its own qualities. There can be no perception without sensation, no opinions without emotion, no creative reason without every nest below.

(Lets pause again — just long enough for a hard-nosed scientist to pipe up that Interior stuff isn’t important because we can’t measure it — we can only interpret it. But, frankly, that’s silly. Humankind has spent thousands of years figuring out how to separate good interpretations from bad ones. Interpretation, Wilber points out, is part of the process that makes possible our understanding of hard-nosed science.)

Which brings us to the next big push: the Lower Left. Like it or not, every truth that we can know, says Wilber, exists within a context or culture with its own corresponding nestings. Atoms and molecules have physical cultures that nest into the vegetative culture of the first plants, which nest, in turn, into the locomotive culture of the first critters. These nestings start to get interesting when we reach the instinctual worldview of reptiles, the emotional bonds of mammals, and the archaic worldview of primates (in which the mind is largely undifferentiated from nature). With the arrival of the human brain comes a gradual separation from nature, from the magic and mythic levels (in which the bush Moses saw literally burned but was not burned) to the rational (in which we wonder critically about such beliefs), to the integration of mind and body and spirit. Once again, each level incorporates the ones before and adds its own qualities. We can engage in sign language with apes, we can empathize emotionally with dogs, and we fall at the same speed as pet rock all because these cultural levels exist within us.

(Oh my! The air is getting thin up here! And, to be perfectly frank, this next push was for us like Mt. Everest’s Dead Zone. We could feel brain cells exploding like popcorn. But go ahead. Take a peek at the Lower Right — social systems — and ask yourself, “How does a galaxy nest into a planet?” The answer: Well… Um… Okay. We confess. Even after several phone calls to Wilber’s mountain aerie, we’re not exactly sure. But here’s what we think:)

Galaxies, all those millions of stars, are actually social groups of individual ions and atoms. (Our sun, for example, is a hot singles’ club of ionic plasma. No molecules allowed.) Planets, on the other hand, are social groups of cool, collected molecules. So planets are more complex than galaxies, because they incorporate the elements of stars. By the same token, the first social networks of living cells are more complex than merely physical planets. And so it goes: A division of labor among animals creates a more complex social order, which nest into families, which nest into tribes — all the way to our emerging global village.

Whew! That’s the hardest part. Now we can play!

Looking at this map, the first thing that jumps out is what Wilber calls the “self-transcending drive of the Kosmos,” the drive to both include and go beyond what came before. Whatever you choose to call this drive — spirit or consciousness or depth — the point is that the universe is clearly going somewhere. And, says Wilber, “because the universe has direction, we ourselves have direction. We are part and parcel of this immense intelligence, this spirit in action, this God in the making.”

Also notice that Wilber’s map not only traces the evolution of the universe and of human beings, but also the life cycle of each person. We each start as a single cell, which is encompassed or enfolded or nested until we pick up a body and brain. We are then born into an archaic world in which there is little separation between the self and the world. Then, around age two, our world becomes magic, when it seems to be an extension of us. Next, about age six, comes the mythic stage as we discover the roles given to us by society. And next, around age twelve, comes the increasing rational stage as we learn to question those roles and beliefs. Many of us also catch glimpses of a higher level, where mind and body and all of creation are experienced as one.

Wilber points out that neither every person nor every culture reaches the same level of consciousness. There remain tribes with predominately magic worldviews, as well as countries such as Iraq that can be best thought of as mythic. And, at the same time, some rare individuals from all cultures — the mystics and saints and sages — live in the higher state, pointing the way.

Says Wilber, these mystics all tell a variation of the same story: “The story of awakening one morning and discovering that we are one with the all, in a way that’s timeless and eternal and infinite.” And yet those descriptions illustrate a profound irony: The experience of the oneness is relatively rare. Wilber goes on to explain how some folks, having briefly experienced this state of oneness, come to think that no truth is better or higher than any other. But that’s nonsense, he says. The experience of oneness is truth at the highest level we know. There are countless lesser truths below that — not to mention an infinite supply of ideas that are just plain false.

A Brief History of Psychology

Not much can go wrong with a rock, but as we move toward life and consciousness and mystical experience, the likelihood of problems increases exponentially. Freud was among the first to notice that trauma at the emotional and sexual levels of human development could create problems at every subsequent stage of life — so that to move forward truthfully, one first had to go back. Cognitive therapists then identified how problems at higher, rational levels of development could, for example, immobilize us with depression. More recently, transpersonal therapists have addressed feelings of isolation at an even higher, spiritual level. And yet, as the Left side of the map makes clear, to understand ourselves fully we have to finish the daunting task of exploring all our Interior levels.

So truly understanding the root cause of depression, for example, means becoming transparent to ourselves — bottom to top. But, if we’re short of time, we can also pop a Prozac. Why? We have to remember that sinking deeper through all chose Interior levels is just one kind of solution, working with one kind of truth. There’s also Exterior truth. For example, the brain scientist may see depression as too little serotonin in the brain. Pop the Prozac, balance the serotonin, and the depression goes away.

The problem with Prozac is that it won’t help you to understand or to interpret your interior pain. Worse, the quick Exterior fix creates the impression that Interior depths — our thoughts, emotions and spirituality — are not real and don’t matter. So, if you think about it, such scientific fixes risk taking half the Kosmos away. Wilber calls this the creation of’ “Flatland.” Unless our interiors matter, we become like shadows projected on a wall. We can remain depression-free while killing one another and raping our planet because we are profoundly disconnected from our Interior selves.

The goal, suggests Wilber, is not to deny either the Internal or the External, but to incorporate both. After all, we want our outsides to reflect our insides, our behaviors to match our intentions. When that happens we stop lying to ourselves or to anyone else.

Environmental Ethics

Even a glance at the map reveals a simple hierarchy in consciousness that suggests, for example, that it is better to eat plants rather than animals, or cows rather than gorillas. But we can also see in the map a more comprehensive statement of our responsibility for maintaining our environment — a responsibility that has to do with the fact that each level encompasses all the ones before. Wilber points out that humans are made of all kinds of atoms and molecules and strange cells — all the nests that together create what we know as life and consciousness. That means the biosphere is literally internal to us, is a part of our very being, so harming it is suicidal, both from the inside and the outside.

A Brief History of God

As human brains and society have evolved toward greater depth and complexity, so has our concept of spirit. In the archaic world, when men and women divided into hunters and gatherers, the gods were both male and female. In the magic world, where women farmed with hoes, the gods were mostly female. In the mythic world of empire building, when man’s strength was required to handle a plow, the gods became male — and so remained in the rational world of nation states. Today, in our increasingly integrated and informational global village, we can equitably balance gender roles. We can also take on the task of Finding the true expressions of spirit both within our wisdom traditions and outside of them, so that we can share and appreciate and learn from our differing experiences of the sacred.

According to Wilber, the biggest challenge facing our world is not the income gap between rich and poor but the gap in levels of consciousness. The world is peopled with mythic folks killing in their gods name, with rational folks crying to conquer the environment, and even with people who have moved beyond those levels of consciousness only to be immobilized by the mistaken notion that all truths are equal. Says Wilber, “Only by honoring and acknowledging all the various levels in all four quadrants can a more generous and inclusive vision be found.”

The integral theory

Moshe Cohen

Joined March 2008

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