The history of science is the unfolding of people learning to ask better questions. As soon as one question seems answered, many more questions pop up. Advances in knowledge are seemingly met with an equal but opposite force: advances in ignorance. The wise know this and are humble.
Recently scientists asked the question, “Can you train an infant to improve her powers of attention, awareness, and concentration? And if so, what will be the impact on her later education?”
The answer they discovered, it happens, suggests that human nature is malleable and its evolution can be directed and re-directed by training in techniques for developing consciousness. None of this surprises meditators or contemplatives, naturally. But it’s news on ScienceDaily. Today the blog reports, “Infants Trained to Concentrate Show Added Benefits”:
“Research suggests that differences in attentional control abilities emerge early in development and that children with better attentional control subsequently learn better in academic settings,” said Sam Wass of the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development at Birkbeck, University of London….
The researchers trained 11-month-old infants to direct their gaze toward images they observed on a computer screen. For example, in one task, a butterfly flew only as long as the babies kept their eyes on it while other distracting elements appeared on screen. Infants visited the lab five times over the course of 15 days. Half of the 42 babies took part in training, while the other half watched TV. Each child was tested for cognitive abilities at the beginning and end of the study.
Trained infants rapidly improved their ability to focus their attention for longer periods and to shift their attention from one point to another. They also showed improvements in their ability to spot patterns and small but significant changes in their spontaneous looking behavior while playing with toys….
The fact that the babies’ improvements in concentration transferred to a range of tasks supports the notion that there is greater plasticity in the unspecialized infant brain.
By implication, nobody knows what leaps forward are possible in the human child’s capacity to be more aware. What one study learned in 15 days could be only the tip of the iceberg regarding our ability for focus. Regarding the nature of awareness, Ken Wilber once said,
The first fear of dealing with fear is not to avoid it. Bring it to attention. Awareness touches it, and all contact is love-based. So to the extent that you can bring awareness into any situation, you are also bringing Love into it because you’re touching it, aware of it. (Not an exact transcript.)
Of course, not everyone believes that all contact of awareness is love-based. But if you do, as I do, then it’s possible to recognize that enhancements in the human capacity for attention are capable of more than meets the eye. Maybe “changing the fabric of the universe” kind of stuff, if you are inclined to think metaphorically.
Paying attention to the fabric of the universe
An integral perspective sees the world as more harmonious than conventional thought suggests it is, woven together by underlying connective patterns. Even when those patterns are recognized as themselves a construct of reality, not a metaphysical glimpse into Reality itself, they are nonetheless still taken as useful signposts at the very least.
And so if you an improve an infant’s capacity to spot patterns and maintain their attention by 10%, you increase their ability to learn in school. But what else do you improve? Their capacity to meditate with 10% fewer distractions or, for Buddhists, to reach a state of Satori 10% faster? The ability for Christians to experience the presence of God, the Divine’s loving and omnipresent embrace, with 10% more lucidly or 10% more often?
These are great questions, but perhaps ones few of us would have been asking before the research results were published online today. We can ask questions at this level of specificity today, but tomorrow the questions will be more and more interesting as new possibilities for research arise. Consciousness research is surely one of the most exciting interdisciplinary fields to be watching these days.
Integral approaches to consciousness depart from the norm in a number of ways, but none so central as their indictment of the ideology of scientific materialism’s insistence that awareness must only be described in terms of brain states. Instead, an integral approach makes room for scientific, medical, spiritual, and philosophical perspectives without limitation.
Integral thought can do so because it recognizes both interior and exterior perspectives, as well as both individual and collective methodologies. Scientism offers merely exterior perspectives (so it’s sometimes called “flatland.”) Nothing about an integral approach invalidates the scientific findings into attention, but it tells us that reality is wider and deeper than is picturable only by what is measurable by the senses.
As I see it, integral perspectives suggest the possibility of transcendence, but not an ultimate and final realization of transcendence. Even Enlightenment is evolving. Even Salvation evolves. The Kingdom of God evolves. And so the merry-go-round of existence turns, leaving us to occasionally look around and ask, “Where did it all come from?” and “Where is it all going?”
Integral philosophy is not particular about the answers one might give to such questions, but it is generally concerned with the way in which we view the ways that the questions are asked and answered. In other words, an integral thinker notices something about Enlightenment or God that other perspectives have missed: that there are different ways in which people conceive of the worldviews in which we talk about such things, and those ways arise in a developmental trajectory.
Part of an integral orientation’s distinctiveness is its ability to make room even for perspectives which refuse to sanction its own inclusive and comprehensive vision. Don’t believe in a telos to evolution? Don’t believe in God? Don’t believe in Enlightenment? Well, that’s fine and good. There is plenty of room for rational discussion about the merits of different philosophies and worldviews. But all that discussion takes place in different worldviews corresponding to various states, types, and structures of consciousness.
William James saw part of this picture: he saw the importance of recognizing different “types” or “forms” of consciousness, and the way that they determine our understanding of what is real. In an often-quoted passage of The Varieties of Religious Experience, he writes:
One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question,–for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.
William James seems here to be talking mainly about altered states of consciousness, but integral perspectives generally include room for developmental structures (Piaget, etc.) as well as psychological types (Jung, etc.) And so when someone say they disbelieve in God or Enlightenment, an integral perspective wants to know what that statement means relative to its “coordinate” in a matrix of evolving consciousness.
By taking a big picture view that allows for some skeptics to be modern, other skeptics to be postmodern, and still others to be integral, etc., the nature of skepticism begins to emerge as a developmental phenomenon. And then something else becomes clear: as one maps the ways of being skeptical from egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric perspectives, one sees that Doubt itself becomes more flexible, more tolerant, and more inclusive.
Polarities of faith and doubt
At late stages of development, indeed it can be difficult to distinguish between doubt and faith, because both are part of a polarity rooted in the fabric of the universe. One organizational consulting firm describes polarities in this way:
Polarities go by a variety of names: paradoxes, dilemmas, or wicked problems. High performance leaders and organizations have developed a tacit wisdom about managing polarities. Their experience and intuition has led to a natural ability, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, to “… hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
No polarity is excluded from consideration in an integral worldview, not even the polarity between evolutionary and cyclical worldviews. On the one hand, the integral worldview is the first to understand that consciousness is evolving in ways that are bringing about greater levels of complexity and integration; and on the other hand, it begins to become aware that its own perspective is relative to its own partiality.
In order to integrate this insight, an integral awareness begins to doubt its former focus on growth. It makes space for staying still, refusing growth, and even relishing in the exact coordinate you are at and desiring nothing to be different. It insists that “more developed” is not necessarily “better,” and evolution is not necessarily taking us to “Utopia.”
In short, a mature integral worldview appreciates a developmental diversity, including a stage of its earlier growth which recognized the fact of evolution but which had not yet recognized a timeless and essential and cyclical quality to the fundamental polarities of existence.
The dissolution of evolution itself
And then … there can be yet a further signpost along the highway of consciousness: a falling away of the polarities themselves, relaxing into the awareness that even Self v. Other, Masculine v. Feminine, or Creator v. Creation are all simply facets of something universal which unites the apparent opposites. It is from a place not unlike this, I suspect, that Ken Wilber’s statement, “all contact is love-based” must be situated.
Knowledge (if it can be called that instead of Knowledge/Doubt) that awareness is based in love is not an orthodox or heretical belief as a traditionalist might say, senseless as a modernist might say, a “myth to be taken ‘as if'” as a postmodernist might say, a High Level of Conscioiusness as an early-stage integralist might say, or an unbalanced polarity as a late-stage integralist might mistakenly believe.
Love and awareness are what is, what was, and what will be … and little else can be said without taking a perspective situated in a worldview seemingly less involved in the immediacy of the Knowledge/Doubt. Indeed, even the phrase “Love is,” is two words too many to be without constructs, contexts, and intentions.
There are many other ways of looking at all of these matters, but this is one overview of what an integral worldview looks like. It is in itself emerging out of postmodernism bit by bit, showing itself more clearly every day. Integral is in its infancy.
Today, we discover that the brains of infants are more plastic than we thought, capable of being trained to higher stages of awareness. How much more can we learn about the potential for humanity by asking new questions and conducting more studies? At some level, we all already know the answer to the question: we are becoming more aware, we are becoming more loving, we are becoming more God-like, and we are becoming more fully who we are.