Truth from a World Spirituality perspective

Photo Credit: koppdelaney

I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to have had a good education in philosophy, theology, comparative religion, psychology and sociology of religion, and so on. This has given me the chance to see how the brightest minds, past and present, have addressed the fundamental question in philosophy: “How am I to live?”

Those smart people haven’t always agreed. In fact, the study of these subjects in college is pretty much an exercise in learning the different schools of thought and how to argue one side against another. In ethics, there are consequentialists and Kantians. In psychoanalysis, there are Freudians and Jungians. And then there are about a million different views of religion.

It wasn’t really until over a decade after I finished my formal study of religion that I encountered the work of the philosopher, psychological theorist, and mystic Ken Wilber. His work was remarkably different because he didn’t care less how exactly one thinker disagreed with another thinker. He was only really interested in what they had in common. How were they looking at the world in such a way that he could understand that in a way they weren’t really disagreeing? He saw that they were only talking past each other, comparing apples to oranges.

For Ken Wilber, there really is something that you might as well call Truth with a capital “T,” to distinguish it from all of the various perspectives that people have about truth. He doesn’t think we ever really are able to talk about Truth or grasp it intellectually without diminishing it to truth with the lower-case “t.” There is Truth. And then there are perspectives on Truth. And we are always, everywhere, taking a perspective.

The most important thing Wilber helped me to realize is that just because we can’t know Truth without taking a perspective doesn’t mean we can’t know Truth fully and absolutely. We absolutely can know Truth, he assures us…and I believed him…because it was something I already knew. The Truth we know fully and completely and confidently is the Truth of our real nature. Ken Wilber sometimes calls this our Ultimate Identity, drawing on an important term from the Hindu spiritual masters and people they’ve influenced. Another important integral thinker, Marc Gafni, drawing on the Hebrew enlightenment tradition, calls this our True Self.

And one thing Ken Wilber, Marc Gafni, other integral thinkers, and the entire lineage of mystics and enlightened sages, points us to is the same Truth, each putting that Truth into perspectives…turning that Truth into truths. Because that Truth is something we know with our whole being integrally — body, mind, soul, and spirit — not just intellectually. And we can’t express Truth without taking a perspective because that Truth is always communicated with language in societies that are evolving — biologically, culturally, socially, spiritually — and so every religion and philosophy colors that truth in different and interesting and unique ways.

The Truth of enlightenment is that there is a True Self — our Ultimate Identity or Absolute Spirit — and that there is only one.

So it’s no wonder that Wilber’s integral worldview lacked an interest in dividing the world according to methodologies, philosophies, religions, ideologies, and so on. From the integral vantage point, such divisions could only tell us relative, partial truths…disguising the path to Truth. He saw that the deeper you looked at all of these divisions in thought, the more their boundaries began to blur and hidden patterns of unity began to emerge. Constructing a map of those common threads became his dharma, a pandit’s work that has already produced over 20 major books.

Sean Esbjörn-Hargens reviews Wilber’s dharmic path as follows:

In 1977 American philosopher Ken Wilber published his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness. This groundbreaking book integrated the major schools of psychology along a continuum of increasing complexity, with different schools focused on various levels within that spectrum. Over the next 30 years he continued with this integrative impulse, writing books in areas such as cultural anthropology, philosophy, sociology of religion, physics, healthcare, environmental studies, science and religion, and postmodernism. To date, Wilber has published over two dozen books and in the process has created integral theory. Wilber’s books have been translated into more than 24 languages, which gives you an idea as to the global reach and utility of integral theory. Since its inception by Wilber, integral theory has become one of the foremost approaches within the larger fields of integral studies and meta-theory. This prominent role is in large part the result of the wide range of applications that integral theory has proven itself efficacious in as well as the work of many scholar-practitioners who have and are contributing to the further development of integral theory.

(For a great concise overview of Integral Theory, see this paper.)

There are many potential uses of Integral theory in academic studies and practical applications for people working in a variety of fields (business, law, organizational development, coaching, psychotherapy, etc.) But what concerns me most in Awake, Aware & Alive is the application of integral principles in the realm of World Spirituality.

It is far too dangerous for our world to ignore the many difficult issues we face together. We’re all in this life, this world together…because we are all ultimately one. The root of the problems we face, I believe, is that far too few people know this truth, believe this, and put it into practice. We act as if we are separate beings, when the truth is that we are not.

As Ken Wilber, Marc Gafni, and many other people have taught me, an authentic World Spirituality needs to grow out of an integral worldview because no other worldview can do better the task that most needs to be done: show us how we are all really, truly connected and one at a time when vast billions of people act blindly as if we weren’t.

Are Big Ideas dead? Here’s one to watch out for

Photo Credit: QisurIf a philosopher announced a Theory of Everything in the forest, but nobody was around to hear it, would it still be a Theory of Everything? Just asking.

In “The Elusive Big Idea,” Neal Gabler tells us that if there were a Big Thinker alive in America today that it’s quite possible few people would even learn her or his name. He writes:

This isn’t to say that the successors of Rosenberg, Rawls and Keynes don’t exist, only that if they do, they are not likely to get traction in a culture that has so little use for ideas, especially big, exciting, dangerous ones, and that’s true whether the ideas come from academics or others who are not part of elite organizations and who challenge the conventional wisdom. All thinkers are victims of information glut, and the ideas of today’s thinkers are also victims of that glut.

But it is especially true of big thinkers in the social sciences like the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, who has theorized on everything from the source of language to the role of genetics in human nature, or the biologist Richard Dawkins, who has had big and controversial ideas on everything from selfishness to God, or the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has been analyzing different moral systems and drawing fascinating conclusions about the relationship of morality to political beliefs. But because they are scientists and empiricists rather than generalists in the humanities, the place from which ideas were customarily popularized, they suffer a double whammy: not only the whammy against ideas generally but the whammy against science, which is typically regarded in the media as mystifying at best, incomprehensible at worst. A generation ago, these men would have made their way into popular magazines and onto television screens. Now they are crowded out by informational effluvium….

We have become information narcissists, so uninterested in anything outside ourselves and our friendship circles or in any tidbit we cannot share with those friends that if a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention, certainly not the general media, which have learned to service our narcissism.

Gabler’s analysis is astute, but some say it may be just another example of narcissism.

Megan Garber on the narcissism of media elites

Megan Garber makes an excellent point: the article has an unstated premise about what constitutes a Big Idea. She writes:

In the Gablerian information environment, the Big Idea is a function of Big Media: The two both purify and amplify each other, entwined so tightly that it’s hard to tell where the one ends and the other begins.

In other words, duh-pocalypse is at hand.

Which would all be very alarming and unfortunate, were it not for the flaw in Gabler’s premise: Ideas don’t need the media any more than the media need ideas. They’ve relied on each other in the past, true enough — media as the gatekeepers, ideas as the floods — but the present media moment is characterized above all by the fact that ideas, Big and otherwise, can be amplified independently of traditional media filters. The public, online, is empowered to decide for itself which ideas are worthy of changing the world.

Doh! She had me until the end. She is correct that the measure of an idea’s importance is at least in part relative and subjective, and then she virtually replaces the arbiter of bigness from the New York Times to Digg, Twitter, and StumbleUpon. Hers like Garber’s is a point of view sharing some of the characteristics typical of postmodernism: a relativization of truth, a democratization of values (“Who needs ‘Big’ Ideas anyway?”), and a suspicion of elite knowledge.

These articles got me thinking today about proposing a different, more integral, definition of an idea’s bigness: what is its uptake by individuals at the highest levels of ego-development, leadership maturity, stage of faith, psychological structure, or altitude of consciousness that a culture has yet produced.

An alternative proposal for measuring the Big Ideas

In other words, let’s take all the developmental models that have ever been created from Aurobindo to James Mark Baldwin, Jean Piaget to Terri O’Fallon, Carol Gilligan to Ken Wilber, Abraham Maslow to Robert Kegan, James Fowler to Michael Lerner, Jane Loevinger to Susanne Cook-Greuter, and so on, and then ask the individuals scoring highest whose ideas have been the most influential? Which living thinker’s ideas have the most ability to transform not only what people think about, but how people think?

The answer they’d likely arrive at by majority if not consensus: the “most important living philosopher you’ve never heard of.”

Surely it is objectionable that this would be an obviously elitist measure of importance. Why not just measure, say, IQ, and get the ranking of importance according to the highest IQ individuals? Why not just poll tenured faculty at Ivy League universities? Those are perfectly fine measurements as well.

Let’s ask all those groups which thinkers qualify as having the Biggest Ideas … and compare the results from all of these avenues and Gabler’s index of thinkers frequently mentioned on page one of the New York Times and Garber’s list of thinkers with the most Twitter followers. If we did so, they would each tell us interesting data points about today’s intellectual climate.

However, I suspect only the survey of highly self-realized and evolved individuals would actually provide insights that could really transform culture … because only such a survey could shed light on how other individuals might evolve, and how our culture might evolve, and how our social systems might evolve.

Ideas with or without brands: thinking in a post-idea world

Now it may convincingly be objected that even if all these surveys of Big Idea Thinkers were conducted, the news would be a trending hashtag on Twitter for about 30 seconds (if that), hit page A8 of the New York Times, and just as quickly be forgotten.

Garber writes:

Ideas increasingly resist branding. The idea of the idea is evolving. We don’t treat Google like a Big Idea — though, of course, that’s most definitely what it is; we treat it like Google. Ditto Facebook, ditto Twitter, ditto Reddit and Wikipedia. Those new infrastructures merge idea and practice, ars and tecnica, so seamlessly that it’s easy to forget how big (and how Big) the ideas that inform them actually are. Increasingly, the ultimate upshot of the Big Idea — the changed world, the bettered world — is bypassing the idea stage altogether…. Far from living in a post-idea world, we’re creating a world so thoroughly saturated with new ideas that we’re shedding the need to distinguish them as ideas in the first place. Thought is everywhere…. Ideas don’t need to be branded as such to change the course of history.

She makes some interesting points, but I’m not at all convinced about her central one. She says that the idea of the idea is evolving, but she never says what idea it is evolving into. Instead, she points to Google and Wikipedia as if this answer were “most definitely” self-explanatory. But it is not.

Saying that Google is a Big Idea in the 21st century is no more convincing than saying that the toga and sandal were the Big Ideas of ancient Greece. She is confusing technology for the intellectual theory-and-practice that generates the technology. She acknowledges that Google is “informed by” big ideas, but what is she speaking of? C+? Java? The semiconductor? Or philosophers of modernity like Rene Descartes or American pragmatism like William James? It’s not clear.

I am also wondering why she lists mainly cool, fun social media technologies in a world rife with famine, disease, warfare, and poverty. She also doesn’t mention any poets, artists, or musicians as having Big Ideas. Hers is so partial and biased a list it’s worrisome. But then that’s the thing: when she doesn’t have any Big Ideas giving her a comprehensive framework of reference, she doesn’t seem to notice that the technologies dominating her awareness are just one part of a much bigger picture.

Big thoughts return in a post-post-idea world

I think there is a Big Idea in the air that isn’t mentioned in Neal Gabler’s short list of ideas from comprehensive thinkers. The idea of the idea is evolving into a complex set of interactions of ontology, epistemology, and methodology. It is this set of interwoven interactions that is capable of making sense of today’s complexity and diversity: how our world exists in many stratums of development in natural, cultural, sociological, and psychological levels, and how such development can be mapped in an integral view that can help us to manage the complexity.

Contra Garber, Google and so forth are not the Big Ideas. They are technological outputs largely created at the intersection of individuals at autonomous or post-autonomous levels of development in a substantially modern-to-postmodern culture in a post-industrial economy. The world is much bigger than Facebook and Reddit, requiring far more comprehensive and inclusive perspectives. What it needs are frameworks capable of grasping the interdisciplinary interactions of ideas and practices in as many domains of knowledge and practice possible.

That’s not exactly a message that’s easy to convey in 140 characters or less … but it does say something about our time that there are millions of people going about their business working on just such integral approaches as I’ve described without a lot of attention by the New York Times and never trending on Twitter.

I agree that ideas don’t need to be branded as such to change the course of history. Sometimes they can sneak up on you, great ideas that were there all along that you just didn’t pay attention to because they didn’t get the page A1 treatment by our media barons. One such brand to watch out for is Integral.

The four quadrants of your career

A career is a peculiar combination of something that you do and something that you are. And questions about what you are, how to live, the purpose of life, and how you derive meaning are inherently spiritual or religious.

The connection between career and spirituality is deep, and that’s why my own work as a career coach is influenced by Ken Wilber, one of today’s most widely read thinkers about spirituality (a man once called “the most important philosopher you’ve never heard of” by Wilber calls his approach to life “integral,” and so do I.

An integral perspective on careers includes four different perspectives: individual subjective, individual objective, intersubjective, and interobjective (corresponding basically to psychological, biological, cultural, and sociological perspectives). Consider this illustration (from

So when you think about your own career growth, there are essentially four different sorts of questions that you can ask, which are all variations on these themes: How do I think and feel about my career? How do I act in my career? What does our culture believe about careers? And how does our society structure the framework within which careers exist?

No consideration of a career is complete without looking at all these three angles. Accordingly, will incorporate perspectives from all these domains, and we hope the result will be a more comprehensive view than you will find on other career sites (which tend to limit themselves only to the individual side of things).

Getting clear on the definition for integral

Here’s the new template boilerplate for this blog:

STEAM is a systematic way of thinking, an interconnected mode of being, and a comprehensive model for transformations of self, culture, and world… it’s about being authentic to your life’s purpose, embracing the ineffable and ever-present Oneness of Being and realizing ever expanding degrees of compassion and love… some call this approach integral or AQAL; others call it second-tier or post-postmodernism… I call it STEAM-powered living, and this blog is all about rising up to realize our true nature.

A careful reader will notice that I’ve de-emphasized “integral” in this statement of my blog’s mission. Why? I’ve decided that integral is too vague for some of my needs, so I’m taking a closer look at the ways that I’m describing my approach to writing this blog.

Here are some common questions that arise as a result of the vagueness of integral talk, stated as generically as possible: Is such and such integral? Is this or that something an integral person would say or do? How do you know if such and such is really integral?

Defining integral is an important step in being able to have meaningful conversations about such questions. At least the dictionary definition is clear: integral means “composed of integral parts; lacking nothing essential.” If anything’s got the essentials, it’s integral.

Today integral is a word that’s getting a heavy burden placed on it by many people. As I see it, today there are a large and growing number of systematic and evolutionary thinkers in many disciplines whose work is pointing towards new ways of thinking that have many broad, overlapping similarities. Different thinkers describe those connections in different ways.

The most comprehensive thinker that I know who has charted those similarities and differences is Ken Wilber. But his theories (written in over twenty books) require a depth of study that few people have the time or inclination for; and even among those sympathetic to Wilber’s approach, there are differences of opinion about precisely what is and isn’t really integral. Integral is not only an intellectual position, it is an embodied movement in personal, cultural, and socio-political development. As such, it is embodied at many different levels of self-consciousness.

“Ken Wilber doesn’t own integral,” as someone recently said on an online forum. True enough, however that’s like saying that Hegel didn’t own German idealism or that Freud didn’t own psychoanalysis. It seems silly to have to rebut the notion that any individual can own such a vast movement as integral, and yet it is sometimes necessary. Wilber himself has made similar observations many times. However, Ken Wilber and Integral Institute have recently taken steps to protect the intellectual property associated with a particular variety of integral theory and practice techniques. Thus, they have been using the trademark symbol on such words as AQAL™, an acronym short for “all quadrants, all levels…” To me that sounds like it’s probably a prudent step. I’m not a lawyer, but from where I stand as a writer it’s actually quite helpful in distinguishing between flavors of integral. There’s generic integral or second-tier consciousness or post-postmodernism, and then there’s Ken Wilber’s version of integral: AQAL. (Actually, you can probably just say “Ken Wilber’s version of integral” and be generally understood.)

Every spiritual teacher, philosopher, or writer who is bold or stupid enough to call their work integral could have their own integral approach that says “this is how I’ve fleshed out the details,” and nobody need ever get confused. If a controversy arose as to whether Joe Blow’s work is integral, at the very least you’ve got a benchmark that allows you to say, “Well, it may or may not be integral, but it’s definitely AQAL-compliant.”

My own approach to integral has been to follow the AQAL model in a broad sort of way, and then fill in the details as they come to me out of my own life practice, observations, and writing. Since May 2005, I’ve been using the acronym STEAM to describe the contours of my approach (it’s short for stages, types, experiences, angles, and modes). If AQAL is like an operating system, then STEAM is intended to be an AQAL-compliant application.

Why bother making these sorts of fine distinctions? Just to get a little more clarity. If I write some juicy nugget such as “Integral means never having to say you’re sorry,” I don’t really want to get into back and forth about whether that’s really true about some mythical beast that somebody else is calling integral. Pretty soon nobody’s talking about the importance of apologies and everyone’s debating the definition of integral (and that gets way tiresome). I think it’s better to simply talk about my approach and ideas and relate them to a systematic model (that is, STEAM) in a way that lets readers separately consider the validity of both my point regarding the subject matter at hand and the systematic model. If I were to say, for example, “STEAM-powered living means never having to say you’re sorry,” then right or wrong, at least the conversation can stay focused on what I’m saying, not on the matter of defining integral.