Sunday, March 26, 2006

Introduction to Integral Theory and Practice

The Integral movement seeks to unify all of human knowledge under a single theoretical model, providing a map that enables people to reach their full potential on all levels and lines of human development. From a spiritual standpoint, the Integral movement sees itself as supplementing a person's spiritual growth by focusing on knowledge areas and human technologies not found within his chosen tradition. In other words, Integral works with your native spiritual beliefs, not against them.

The Integral Institute has produced a document outlining the basics of the theory and how it's implemented in the real world. What I find most useful about this theory is the way it distinguishes between states and stages of consciousness. States can take the form of peak experiences: an insight during meditation, a glimpse of truth while walking through nature, the ecstatic union attained through spiritual dance or blissful orgasm during sex. But states are temporary: after you have a peak experience, it fades. It's only when you move to a new stage of consciousness that a higher mode of operation in daily experience becomes possible. It's the difference, in Buddhist lingo, between having a moment of heartbreak over the plight of all sentient beings, and establishing that constant heartache as the ground from which all your other actions stem.

But here's the kicker: repeated states of higher consciousness can open the door to achieving a higher stage. Money quote:
However, with repeated practice of contacting higher states, your own stages of
development will tend to unfold in a much faster and easier way. There is, in fact, considerable experimental evidence demonstrating exactly that. The more you are plunged into authentic higher states of consciousness—such as meditative states—then the faster you will grow and develop through any of the stages of consciousness. It is as if higher-states training acts as a lubricant on the spiral of development, helping you to disidentify with a lower stage so that the
next higher stage can emerge, until you can stably remain at higher levels of awareness on an ongoing basis, whereupon a passing state has become a permanent trait. These types of higher states training, such as meditation, are a part of any integral approach to transformation.
This is an accurate description of the role of Tantra in Vajrayana Buddhism. With practices such as Chenrezi and White Tara, you generate the image of yourself as the Deity - in effect, you become the Deity. This eliminates obscurations, and brings you more rapidly to an understanding of the nature of your ever-existing, clear-natured mind.

What does an Integral framework add to Vajrayana? First, it integrates all other fields of human knowledge and experience into the same model, without sacrificing or ignoring the great contributions that the West and other cultures have made to human knowledge. As the Integral paper points out, we have unprecedented access in our day and age to all of the cultures of the world. What a shame if any of the immense knowledge from all of these wonderful traditions is wasted!

Integral attempts to do more than just lump all of these theories together. In the paper's own words, it aims "to spot the patterns that actually connect all the pieces". Integral accomplishes this with the four quadrants approach, which unites all possible asppects of the self into a single model: I (personal experience), It (objective science), We (cultural development), and Its (social organization). Integral emphasizes always looking at every event from every perspective, so as not to get lost in one or the other.

Integral also adds a greater respect for a wide variety of state experiences, particularly as regards sex. The Tibetans are ultra-conservative about sex; HH The Dalai Lama has gone so far as to declare oral and anal sex as faux pas for Buddhists. Needless to say, these opinions don't set well with most Westerners, particularly those of us who are gay or bisexual. There are sexual Tantric practices, but most committed Vajrayana practitioners will recommend you stay the hell away from them. Integral theorists and practitioners like David Deida take a more open view. They recognize the variety of sexual experience, and the benefit of converting what many people regard as a mere physical activity into an ecstatic union of body, speech and mind.

Certainly it's a danger to become attached to physical pleasure, and forget one's spiritual goals. I've fallen into that trap throughout most of my adult life, and am very cautious about getting snared again. But it's a waste to discard the spiritual potential in sex and similar state experiences, simply because they don't square with the medieval mores of your religion's source culture.

The Integral model also explains why some cultures can develop wonderfully in some areas, but show limited development in others. Tibet had a wonderful spiritual system for personal growth and realization; in other words, it ruled the First Quadrant, the I. But it fell on its face in the Second, Third, and Fourth Quadrants, lagging behind the West in scientific, cultural, and socio-political development.

There's much more to Integral theory than this. I hope to explore more within these pages in the coming weeks.

This is a wonderful, beautifully-written post on the Integral Theory!

I can't write as well as you can, but what you write and the way it is written reminds me precisely of how I felt about Integral Psychology [as it was called then] when I was learning all about it.

I am impressed and very happy that you are finding the system interesting and valuable.

-- Tom
Thanks for the compliments. But, dude, I'm just glad I UNDERSTAND the damn thing. ;-) Wilber et. al. can be a lot to cut through. I first tackled this stuff several years ago, and found it hard to gather up all of Wilber's various trains of thought across all of his books. (And I LIKE deep philosophy.)

They seem to be more aggressive now about keeping the core theory up to date, and conveying it in language that measly mortals can understand. More importantly, there's more of a focus on what the theories mean in PRACTICE. I haven't purchased the Integral Life Practice Starter Kit yet, but it seems to be exactly what the doctor ordered.
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