We talk a lot about individual stages of development in the Integral Life community but we don’t spend as much time talking about the stages of development of social movements themselves. This letter will begin to touch on the integral movement’s own maturity.
“Integral is amazing. Now what do I do with it?” Thus begins one of the most frequent conversations I have. Strange isn’t it? That on the one hand integral philosophy can be so profoundly and richly rewarding for so many people without them knowing exactly what to do with it on the other. Because we alleviate suffering any time we give voice to the what is of a situation, I’m going to venture to shed some light on why this is a vexing condition in the integral world. Let’s try to alleviate some suffering.
The short answer is this: your brain lives at one stage, your life at another.*
There is a gap that exists between the cognitive needs of people looking for an integral map and the daily reality of our lives. It’s a scale problem: The first seeks a metasystem like integral to answer hard big picture questions. The second seeks applications that can be put to use to address the concerns of daily life. This difference is a big deal.
People who find integral philosophy compelling are beginning to ask themselves really big picture questions at the leading edge of their own awareness. They are asking these questions because they have realized a stage of cognitive development at which this big picture understanding is becoming important to how they construct a meaningful picture of the world. These questions can span a wide range of skills and disciplines but they become increasingly existentially important as we grow up.
And Integral philosophy is a very unique meal that satiates the dawning hunger of this metasystemic awareness.
But here’s the kicker: when we ask what we can do with integral - that is, how do we apply it concretely in our lives on a daily basis - we have to immediately recognize that we’ve now moved down from the domain of metasystems and are looking for specific applications in a specific context with a specific goal. In other words, we’ve downshifted our perspective from meta to micro (or at least macro). We do this so quickly and naturally that we fail to notice that we’ve done so, and the result is we actually get frustrated at integral as a metasystem when it doesn’t present itself obviously as an application. It should be apparent that this is not what a metatheory does. And yet we conflate the two quite readily.
So in the simplest terms I can state it: we often expect integral philosophy to do something it was not designed to do.
And this expectation derives from an unrecognized gap between the questions we’re asking at the leading edge of our awareness and the applied conditions of our daily lives. Now, we do have a right to expect integral philosophy to spawn a universe of world-changing applications. Just not yet.
It is important to note that integral philosophy was not designed in any conventional sense. Design implies a process where a sought functional outcome is achieved through some process of engineering. On the contrary, integral philosophy has grown out of many theorists’ writing and philosophical exploration over many decades. It’s been a grand project of synoptic inquiry. At the beginning Ken Wilber asked the question “What kind of universe must we live in such that what humans have known and experienced can fit together coherently?” (As perhaps did Immanuel Kant, Charles Sanders Peirce and others.) He didn’t sit down and say, “I want to discover a metatheory that’s going to make your weightlifting more effective.” This difference, too, is a big deal. It has important ramifications on how we hold the aims and maturity of the global integral movement.
I’ve been surprised that we don't highlight more frequently the difference between the social function of basic research and theory development versus that of engineering and commercialization of application/products. There is a good reason that the government tends to be a primary funder of the former, because not all social goods have market appeal: think of all the basic research that was done to put a man on the moon and then the thousands of “space-age” products that were spawned in the ensuing decades. Now add to this intellectual supply chain metatheory at the front: metatheory -> theory -> engineering -> application. The point is that integral philosophy is at the front (and top) of that social goods supply chain; it will take some time for the best integral products and applications to reach your local Costco. You are supporting the blossoming of a very new stage of human consciousness as it finds its way into the minds and hearts of humankind. That is profoundly worthy of its own accord.
Now this does not mean that metatheory has no bearing on application. It does, and it is potentially immense. (Remember that integral philosophy is also a meta-methodology, too.) We are seeing evidence of this in every domain of theory and application where integral philosophy is being brought to bear: nursing, coaching, psychology, microfinance, medicine, leadership, film and dozens of others. But the engineering that is required to bridge metatheory and application is time-consuming, hard, complex and often underorganized. It proceeds by trial and error. It does not fit neatly into traditional research budgets (governments and foundations have not caught on to the fact that metatheory is required to match and navigate the complexity of humanity’s current global challenges). And in relative terms there are still just a handful of people who are able to combine the deep disciplinary expertise with the integrative metatheoretical framework necessary to engineer novel paradigm-changing applications.
I’d argue that this leaves us in a fantastic position because we can see (more or less) objectively the terrain we’re in. We can make conscious choices about the future direction and emphasis of integral efforts. We can hope to craft history rather than just be victims of fate. And if this kind of projective broad view is not one of the promises of integral consciousness, than I don’t know what is.
To close, I offer three possible stances toward integral philosophy's current role in the world (forgive the clumsy rhyming).
Marinate: Revel in integral philosophy for the unbelievable achievement that it is: a framework that by learning it will expand your awareness and the psychoactivity of its components will make your life richer, deeper and more alive than it has ever been. Join in the global renaissance of knowing, being and living that surrounds integral as a credible contender as an evolutionarily-fit and robust worldview. This is profound, and this freedom and fullness starts merely with the cognitive engagement of really big picture questions (at the appropriate time of mental development, of course).
Celebrate: Be patient. There are people working on the engineering needed to translate integral philosophy into applied solutions for living more effectively (and we see game-changing innovations ever month coming out of the integral movement). It will take time but it’s happening all around us. Stick with us. Support it. Don’t be shy about integral’s own stage of evolution. Innovation does take time, and yet integral is where the game will be played in the 21st century. Celebrate it.
Create: If you are someone who has become a domain expert in your own discipline and is ready to transcend the paradigm of that discipline, consider diving deeply into the integral operating system to do so. Learn about Integral Methodological Pluralism, AQAL metatheory, integral engineering and interdisciplinary work to create the paradigm-changing innovations in your field that can move the needle for humanity. Consider pursuing an advanced integral degree at one of our partner academic organizations John F. Kennedy University or Fielding Graduate University, both of which offer an extraordinary foundation for being an evolutionary leader.
Integral philosophy, AQAL metatheory and related metaparadigms are extraordinary evolutionary emergents. Let us honor them for what they are and continue to proceed humbly and courageously as we move repeatedly from mystery through heuristics to algorithms of the human knowledge creation funnel. But let us also recognize that we are only in the early stages of a long-term flowering of integrative consciousness in fields throughout the planet.
What an amazing time to be alive. What an incredible invitation for us to see how good we can make it. What a challenge worth meeting with everything we can become.
* This is a crude but effective way of stating the case. I am not trying to parse the nuances of the developmental implications. Though the ontological complexity of any moment exceeds any model’s reductionism, it is a useful description to say, for example, that the act of buying our groceries is less complex than an ethical discussion of how climate policy is influenced by power, politics, money and methodological exclusivism.