I blog, therefore I interact (part 5 of 5)

This is the final installment in a five-part series on why I blog.

Five. I experiment. I speculate. I follow a beat. I lie. And I am doing all of this before some sort of audience of readers. But who are they? What do they want? Why do any of them keep coming back? As I’ve said before, I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll get more clarity in the next year once my blog officially launches. But for now, consider this: you are part of the experiment, a fellow voyager on the integral beat, and a co-conspirator in the lies.

I don’t know who you are, but here’s what I imagine about this blog’s audience. You are probably among the 20 to 25 percent of the US population that falls into one of these three categories: pluralist, integralist, or higher. I do not consider hard core atheists and anti-spiritual secular humanists part of my target audience, though I believe many of them are open enough to find some value in the contents of this blog.

(And if you aren’t in my target audience–trust me, it’s often flamingly obvious in your interactions–well, you’re definitely welcome to visit. I may not even delete the Bible verses about the abomination of homosex you sometimes sprinkle in my comment boxes, but only because I think it can be educational for my actual audience to be reminded by your ignorance of the pathos of the world. But just so we’re all clear, I’m not writing for you. I may choose to listen to your feedback if you care to share any, or I may not, but I almost certainly won’t respond. Every publication has an audience, a target market, a home base. You’re not mine, so read quietly or you might hear me saying a little lie: “Go away please.”)

I check my blog site stats regularly, and I admit to enjoying positive trends in my traffic and fretting when I seem to be losing readers. When I first started blogging, I went through a phase of checking on my traffic daily and obsessing over who was linking to me and plotting strategies for getting more links so as to rise in the blogging ecosystem. My first blog got several tens of thousands of visitors over about a year. This blog has received just over 50,000 page views in its beta period (since May 2005). Now I’m pursuing the opposite strategy: I actually prefer to fly “under the radar screen” and do not actively promote the visibility of this blog. Perhaps in the future, when my book is published, I will take a different approach. But for now it suits me. I’m naturally quite shy. It’s easier for me to speak authentically and be more experimental when I know that my readership is in the dozens, or low hundreds, and not in the thousands.

I am envisioning that the audience for Rising Upwill consist of two distinct groups: (1) persons familiar with Ken Wilber’s integral theory and possibly the work of other integral writers, and (2) persons who are curious about integral, not turned off at first sight by a little jargon, and are willing to check this blog out enough to see if there’s anything worthwhile they can take away. And that’s it. In the past, I’ve thought that liberal religionists or political progressives who are not familiar with integral theory might be interested enough to become regular readers, but that idea has never materialized so far as I can tell. For whatever reason, they just haven’t connected with my writing. They’re definitely in my target audience so I hope that changes, but the fact is that at this point in time, they’re not my actual audience. Therefore, I won’t change the way I write this blog in an effort to appeal to them and I don’t seek out links on their blogs.

Perhaps I use too much jargon for their taste. Some critics have suggested that integral writers should always refrain from using jargon and should speak instead in “everyday language.” To such critics, I say “good luck with that” and “when you start taking your own advice, let me know.” I’ve previously explained why that’s not wise. More importantly, it’s just not much fun as a writer. And why blog if it’s tedium and not fun? It would be horribly irritating to have to censor myself or refrain from discussing integral concepts in order to try to “convert the masses,” no matter what the cost in intelligibility by the uninitiated. It doesn’t take long to learn the basis of all the jargon I use on this blog. I’ve summarized everything in six blog posts of under a thousand words each. If a reader is too lazy to spend five to ten minutes learning about STEAM, they need to go back to their Beavis and Buttheadre-runs. They really do. Neutering my writing is simply not an option.

You’re my audience. If I had zero audience, I wouldn’t blog (I’d write a private journal.) But I blog so I can interact, share, commune, build friendships, engage in the sort of interactions that makes life more meaningful and fulfilling. If what I’ve said about my intentions for Rising Up in 2006 appeals to you, do come and check this blog out to see what emerges. And until I blog again, Happy New Year… and most especially, Happy Bridge of Light.

I blog, therefore I lie (part 4 of 5)

This is the fourth in a five-part series on why I blog.

Four. Bloggers can be way too self-righteous and serious about what they do. Certainly anyone reading the last three posts in this series could get the impression that I have donned my shining armour, have received the blessing of the Lord and Lady of the kingdom, and am getting ready to set forth on a dragon-slaying adventure. I suppose I probably deserve that. So now let’s turn to the dark underbelly, the unconscious world of shadow motivations: I blog, therefore I lie.

I wish it weren’t so, but it really is. There is nothing I can write that doesn’t contain the seeds of deception and error within. In fact, there may be something about the integral and higher levels of consciousness that is particularly keen at cloak and dagger games (I like to think that it’s greater awareness of the limits of language and the duplicity that exists all around us, rather than any particular malevolence that springs to life among the integrally inclined.) I don’t mean to say that I intentionally deceive so much as that I often make conscious decisions to withhold beliefs and judgments that aren’t particularly useful in a given context.

For example, I’ve learned over the past two years of blogging that it is rarely worth my time to engage in dialogue with conservative religionists on homosexuality or other highly emotional subjects. I can point these folks to archives of my writings, but I simply have no interest in ongoing communications with them for more reasons than I care to divulge except in these brief remarks. Nor do I have a particular interest in being polite or friendly with these folks, except for a desire to avoid the bad karma of causing suffering in another sentient being. So you see, when I do engage in back-and-forth with conservative religionists, I do so for no other motivation than self-expression and enjoyment. (An exception is when I read a genuinely interesting argument that I’ve never heard before, then I may respond with seriousness.) Usually my responses appear to others as as gleeful mockery, mischievous antagonism, or impudent rudeness. Terry Mattingly once called me the “heckler” of the GetReligion blog. Fine. I have no problem with being a heckler. I have no desire to persuade or engage in debate of any sort with most of these traditionalists (as I said previously, if they want argument, they can read my writings and respond with an essay).

In this example, my “lie” is that I may communicate unintentionally that I actually have more respect for a person’s religious beliefs than I really do. I may have great respect for a person’s intellect, eloquence, and achievements in life, but have zero respect for her particular religious convictions about homosexuality. In fact, I might judge that she’s an idiot or a bigot, though I would never say so publicly unless it was plain obvious. Often, the most honest response I could muster would be, “Go away and come back in ten years when you’ve evolved to the point where we can actually have meaningful discourse.” But that’s considered a mean thing to say in our culture, so instead of speaking the truth I tend to let Mr. Nice Guy say something more ambiguously dismissive, something like, “Go away please.”

(Too often people speak about the need to respect religion. I think that’s ridiculous. Religion is not a good thing in itself, it is a bearer of traditions that range from respectable to horrible. Respect people. Tolerate religion. Respect religion only if it deserves respect. Many of the religionists–including some prominent religion bloggers who have scads of readers–have a religiosity that I don’t respect, and don’t pretend to.)

Here’s another example. Ken Wilber has stated that the central presupposition of his philosophy is that “Everyone is right.” That’s a lie. He usually follows immediately by saying that “To be precise, everyone is partially right.” Ah, that seems to be closer to the truth (but it’s not really). Then he proceeds to say something like, “Now here’s how everyone else is limited but true.” Which then enters the ears of a listener as a particular vibration that actually sounds like, “Now here’s how everyone but me is wrong.”

I like this example of Wilber’s writing not because I think it’s true, but because it’s darn clever. As I see it, Wilber is making a statement that appears to be a fact of some sort (“Everyone is right,”) but he is actually doing something quite different. He is introducing a thought like a Zen koan, a paradox like the lying Cretan, an invitation to wonder. He is stating something as some sort of fact that couldn’t possibly be true, unless Truth itself is different than you have conceived.

That’s why I read “Everyone is right” not as a statement of fact, but as an injunction that goes like this: “Consider the possibility that everyone in the world is right. What sort of world would have to exist in order to allow for this possibility?” (And if you don’t know the answer to that question, consider reading Wilber’s A Brief History of Everything or another book to hear a very interesting story.)

“Everyone is right,” could very well be a mantra for this blog in 2006. Not because of its truth, but because it’s a useful lie. If I engage other bloggers in challenging argument, I do not need to explain to them how terribly they are wrong. I can critique in a new way, not the old fashion of critique that displays the usual sort of intellectual arrogance of setting one’s self on a pedestal and explaining how everyone else isn’t reasoning well enough, is committing atrocious logical fallacies, and so forth. (Well, that sort of diatribe has its place in certain contexts. I think it’s often a good way of responding to rationalists by speaking their own tongue.)

What’s the alternative to the old sort of blogging-as-critique that shoves down everyone’s throat how wrong they are? Well, we can follow Wilber’s injunction and see where it leads us. We can assume the truth of someone’s vision of reality, and then explicate (as best we can) just what they’re missing in their picture of the world, where they are more blind than they need be, where they are partial in their apprehension of truth, where they are less comprehensive than they could be, and how they could begin to a few steps down the path of greater integration from whatever point they’re at. And if it takes a lie–basically an antithesis in a dialectic–to do the trick, so be it.

I blog, therefore I follow a beat (part 3 of 5)

This is the third in a five-part series on why I blog.

Three. Although I’ve edited and written for many student and corporate publications, and even founded a few publications, I’ve never received a paycheck for journalism. My college degree is in comparative religion and philosophy; my graduate studies are in the psychology and sociology of religion; I have no formal journalism training. So it seems more than a little odd to me to find myself wearing the journalist’s hat as I set the editorial calendar for Rising Up in 2006. The most pressing question: What’s my beat?

Starting on January 1, 2006, I’m calling my blog’s beat “the integral beat.” What’s that? I’m not exactly sure. There are very few role models. There are other integral bloggers, but few are doing the sort of writing that I’m envisioning. To be frank, nobody’s written the sort of beat that I want to cover before. I know that I certainly haven’t, and I’ve been blogging for two years. By “integral beat,” I don’t mean to imply that I’m going to be looking inward at controversies and developments in whatever might be called the emerging “integral community.” While I don’t intend to overlook such things as the spring launch of Integral University, I expect writing on such matters will be a very small part of the integral beat.

As I see it, following the integral beat means taking a look at the intersection between individual perspectives, cultural values, religious beliefs, and social development. Within that broad territory, there are certain stories that are more interesting than others. The most interesting stories, at least from an integral standpoint, are often those stories where there are suprisingly overlooked perspectives, conflict arising from misunderstandings across different developmental stages, and dynamic elements of fusion and integration of surprisingly disparate elements.

Covering the integral beat, even as an unpaid blogger, requires a certain sort of detachment that is able to hold the tension between “letting the world be,” and making a proactive effort to advocate change. My view is that an integral approach doesn’t require me to take a supposedly objective stance; rather, integral describes a way of looking at issues that reveals a hidden or unconscious unity, synergy, and potential for integration. What I hope to do by following the integral beat is to bring those sorts of insights to fruition in the wide open territories of self, culture, and nature.

When talking about abortion, let’s not overlook the individual and collective interiors

I’ve written previously on the importance of rising above the fray on the issue of abortion. Not a middle ground, but a higher ground. This means affirming the fetus’s value as a sentient life form (i.e., the ground value, or its worth from the point of view of Spirit) as an absolutely beautiful, unique, and precious aspect of Spirit. From this absolute perspective, all sentient life is equally valuable.

But it’s not enough to stop there. At the same time, my STEAM-based perspective doesn’t lock anyone into a rigid belief that equates abortion with murder. There are also intrisic and relative perspectives that are important to take to gain a full appreciation of the value of life. From these perspectives, we can recognize that there is a hierarchy of value when it comes to sentient life (a human being is worth more than an ape, an ape is worth more than a snake, a snake is worth more than a bacterium, and so forth). These perspectives also lead us to consider the need to balance competing values, including respect for the autonomy of individuals as moral agents to make decisions related to their bodies with minimal interference from the state. (This balancing, by the way, leads me to advocate policies that permit safe and legal abortion only during the first trimester of pregnancy; under other circumstances, I would see abortion banned except to save the mother’s life or severe, permanent injury to her health.)

Although I’ve blogged on the topic of abortion previously, the issue rarely catches my notice. In contrast, many conservative religion bloggers talk about abortion constantly. To them, it’s an issue with the moral weight of genocide. And progressive bloggers are generally in a reactive stance. Their concern is mostly with beating back legal efforts to re-criminalize abortion or with the fate of the Supreme Court. I’ve been wondering lately if perhaps I’m not talking enough about abortion and similar issues as a legitimate ethical concern. Perhaps my lack of volume on this issue has led some readers to wrongly assume that I am unequivocally “pro choice,” (actually I resist both the “pro choice” and “pro life” labels as meaningless propaganda).

If I were to make new year’s resolutions related to my blogging, perhaps “talk more about abortion” should be one of them. For starters, I would resist the temptation to snicker at the “Insane Religious Fanatic [Who] Subverts Dominant Paragdigm” (to quote a Mark Shea headline). When I read headlines that say the pope is preaching that “God loves every embryo,” I can’t help but wince. I think of a classic Monty Python skit (you know the one). It’s true that the pope’s rhetoric badly obscures the distinctions between ground, intrinsic, and relative perspectives on value. It’s also true that the pope talks about God’s love for every “creature,” but when’s the last time you heard the Vatican calling the killing of animals equivalent to the crime of murder or genocide? Still, the pope’s basic moral intuition that life has dignity that must ultimately be grounded on a transcendent basis is a sound one.

One of the most important things to say about abortion, it seems to me, is that to reduce abortions we need to address the relevant issues of the interior dimension (the subjective, personal angle and the objective, cultural angle). We need to talk about how to best develop the individual psychological structures that are able to perceive a transcendental value of life and are capable of exercising the sort of responsibility necessary to avoid the dilemmas the result in abortions. But above all, we must find ways to grow an awareness that all sentient life forms should be respected, nurtured, and valued as part of an interconnected whole. That includes unborn children, but it also includes greater respect for animals and the environment.

In this report, Evelyn Nieves of The Washington Post describes how South Dakota has made abortion rare: doctors there are too afraid of social stigma to actually offer abortions (Even though abortion is legal, South Dakotans have to travel outside the state to get one.) This is an excellent example of the key role that both personal and collective interiority can play in reducing abortions. The personal interior dimension: even doctors who support abortion rights are choosing that when it comes to their career, the costs of performing abortions are greater than the costs of not performing them. The collective interior dimension: stigma in the form of backlash against “baby killers” has contributed to a cultural environment hostile to abortion.

Of course, there will be those on the left who will decry the situation in South Dakota. And others who could raise the legitimate question of whether South Dakota has really reduced abortion demand or simply burdened women with the need to travel to neighboring states. But for the purposes of keeping this blog post reasonably concise, let me just say that the article highlights often neglected aspects of the abortion debate. Individual choices and our collective cultural mores often have a far greater impact on how we value life than the votes we cast in our elections or the judges on our courts.

Conservativism, integral, and political methodological pluralism

Matthew Dallman has recently written on conservativism and integral. Here’s the money quote:

…much of what I perceive as the integral worldview has to do with stewardship, respect for the institutions that foster development (including religious institutions and religious practice), the necessity of clear thinking and reasoned debate, and a rebirth of interest in history through a planet-centric moral lens, this all has the sounds of conservatism, to me. And it importantly suggests that “integral conservatism” isn’t quite right (as in, “integral conservatism” and “integral liberalism”, two sides of the integral coin). Rather, I see conservatism as the overall ethos of integral, within which there are preferences, dispositions, and types of variation. Integral, as I now see it, offers new kind of conservatism, one that is planet-centric, concerned for the health and development of all peoples, and is able to diagnose and see through the wads of false reasoning presented falsely in the name of “post conventional”.

CJ Smith offers some important criticism of Dallman’s post here. Like Smith, I’m not inclined to say that the word that best describes the “overall ethos of integral” is “conservative.” My impression in reading Dallman’s post is that he somehow came up with a list of attributes (respect for institutions, the need for rigorous debate, a rebirth of interest in history, etc.), proclaimed that the items on the list are important both to integral and to conservativism, and therefore concluded that the essential ethos of integral and conservativism is virtually identical. There’s some truth in there, and I certainly have no qualms with any of the items in the list as being linked to some degree with integral thinking, but it hardly proves an identity between integral and conservativism. One could just as easily come up with an alternate list of attributes and argue that integral is really liberalism or Marxism or something else entirely.

One important truth about Dallman’s point that I see is that the development of consciousness from the pluralistic stage to the integral stage involves an expansion of consciousness that frequently includes ownership of all that has been previously hidden, repressed, and denied about relativistic pluralism. For most people, this means that they may get a healthy dose of religion, conservative philosophy, and respect for the institutions of society… whether they want to, or not. And if they’re deeply ingrained in the left-leaning pluralistic variety of thinking, they’re probably going to need to take a hard right turn. (On the other hand, some rationalist-stageconservatives may find something of value in integral philosophy, and so they use its intellectual edifice to try to turn the tables on the left. However, they may be limiting their own development. They can hardly transcend that which they have not yet fully embraced. They need to take, not merely a left turn, but a U-turn.)

I have other objections to calling conservativism the guiding ethos of integral as well. As I and others have previously argued (here among other places), the essence of an integral approach to politics is something that must be described as a methodological pluralism. Practical change is supported on the basis of divergent rationales grounded in an overarching moral and spiritual framework of values, even rationales that appear to be logically incoherent and practically inconsistent. For example, it’s possible to argue for gay marriage on the basis of (1) classical liberal tolerance, (2) a positive view of gay marriage as benefiting the common good and welfare of a communitarian society, (3) supported by Bible ethics, properly understood, and (4) the common sense view that if I want it and it doesn’t hurt anybody else, I should have it. The integral approach isn’t to say that some of these arguments are right or wrong, good or bad, so much as it is to identify them when they take form, coordinate their beneficial impacts in society, and mitigate their deleterious effects. When it comes to politics, I understand integral methodological pluralism to demand tolerance for, if not outright advocacy of, a variety of different and sometimes contradictory approaches (not unlike the way some politicians skillfully address different values and use different language before different audiences).

Therefore, in light of this framework of understanding, I would respond to Dallman by saying that to specify the dominant ethos of integral in language that privileges the values of a particular first-tier value sphere (in this case, the traditionalist/rationalist set) is not a good idea, even if there are important truths that are illuminated by so doing. Why privilege, say, the notion that integral places a value on institutions as bearers of development (quite true) over say, the notion that integral places a value on transforming institutions to bring their values into harmony with worldcentric over ethnocentric concerns. Stressing the former makes integral sound conservative, while emphasizing the latter makes integral sound progressive. Perhaps this is a case where it really is important to say that integral can certainly be made out to sound very different depending on the context, and for what it’s worth that’s the curse and blessing of our predicament.

Speaking of conservativism, there’s an interesting new opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal by Jeffrey Hart. Hart sets forth a conservative manifesto or “my assessment of the ideas held in balance in the American Conservative Mind today.” Among these are his unusual notions of a new role for religion in the conservative mind:

Religion is an integral part of the distinctive identity of Western civilization. But this recognition is only manifest in traditional forms of religion–repeat, traditional, or intellectually and institutionally developed, not dependent upon spasms of emotion. This meant religion in its magisterial forms. What the time calls for is a recovery of the great structure of metaphysics, with the Resurrection as its fulcrum, established as history, and interpreted through Greek philosophy…

Now it would be a mistake to equate Hart’s essay with conservativism as such. But it strikes me as an important representation not of integralism or proto-integralism (as Dallman might hold), but instead as a striking alternative to integralism. In its nostalgic yearning for a discredited Thomism, and in its typically dramatic MacIntyrianfashion, it seeks to return our political discourse to premodern forms. Instead of looking at Christian revelation as of a piece with the best trans-rational revelations of all the world religions, it seeks to privilege one tradition’s mythic heritage as definitive. (It puts God in a box circumscribed by medieval metaphysics updated for the times, presumably with a papal imprimatur.)

Hart’s is a sort of thinking that can be quite intellectually rigorous. But no thank you. Integral provides an alternative to this sort of conservativism, a world philosophy grounded in spiritual evolution and the mystical core of the world’s wisdom traditions. Our worldviews can probably benefit greatly from mutual dialogue. And in the spirit of integral methodological pluralism, there’s no reason why we should not encourage conservative neo-Thomists to pursue their quixotic quest for a new metaphysics based on Christ’s resurrection. The Thomists’ work in developing a new metaphysics could have salutary consequences that they, and we, cannot anticipate in advance.

It would be foolish to try to deny that Spirit could be expressing itself among conservatives, even when their ideas sometimes strike some of us as off base. But let’s be very careful when defining the integral ethos in sweeping generalizations. To tie the emerging philosophy too closely to conservativism or any other intellectual or political movement is inaccurate, unwise and unnecessary.

Kwanzaa deserves respect, not ignorant attacks

At LaShawn Barber’s Corner, the conservative black blogger re-posts her essay criticizing Kwanzaa from a Christian perspective. She also bemoans the difficulty in persuading others to her point of view. Here’s part of what she has to say:

Here’s the most irritating thing about running a blog with commenting. Sometimes it’s difficult to express oneself clearly to people of varying cognitive abilities. Some process information better than others. Some are able to reason better than others. The less bright may miss the subtlety and nuance. Certain readers may know a bit of the history behind a particular subject; others may be completely ignorant of it. The intellectually curious may do some independent research in an effort to support or dispute my arguments, while others just want to get in their 2 cents regardless. A few may lack common sense altogether, and still others want to be contrary just for the sake of being contrary.

(Thanks to Kathy Shaidle for the link.)

Hell, I can say Amen to that! The part about speaking to idiots resonates with me today, so that’s what I want to write a little bit about. I got three or four really good remarks in my comment boxes, but then I got another one from a real dick wad. Why just a few hours ago I responded to a comment on my other blog from a man calling himself Roger Wray. Roger said: “Homosexuality is condemned by God’s word as an abomination; therefore, anything that is written on this site about God is irrelevant.” It’s hard to muster civility when responding to people who are both idiots and assholes at the same time. When I first started blogging, I tried to be so civil and sensitive and polite. Now I just either tell them to fuck off or I delete the comment or try to ignore it. As a general rule of thumb, I’ll return civil responses with civil responses, though I’m fairly picky about who I carry on a conversation with. Bible quoters who tell me that they are praying for my soul probably won’t get more than a single polite brush off, if that. The longer I blog, the more crotchety I find myself becoming.

But back to Kwanzaa and Barber’s tirade against it. You can read her piece and decide for yourself. I think it’s a smartly written case derived from fairly standard traditionalist/rationalist modes of analysis. There’s a very good reason Barber’s not reaching the unconverted with her attacks on Kwanzaa. Her reasons, purported to be universally valid, only apply if you first adopt good, plain old fashioned (that is, twentieth century fundamentalist-oriented) Christianity with more than a hint of ethnocentrism and Xenophobia. As much as Barber would like to place the blame for disagreements over Kwanzaa on the lack of Biblical training in public schools or the cognitive abilities of her dialogue partners, it’s much more likely that the sources for the divide are deeper, wider, and more complex than she imagines.

Kwanzaa is a week-long holiday honoring African-American heritage, observed from December 26 to January 1. Kwanzaa is a cultural celebration, not a religious holiday. Unfortunately, the difference between the two is lost on Barber, who assails Kwanzaa as a “pagan” tradition because it borrows rituals from some traditional African cultures. Barber says that it’s unfair that public schools can discuss Kwanzaa but cannot teach about Jesus Christ.

The problem with such reasoning isn’t that it’s dumb; Barber makes a fine, coherent case. The problem is that critical distinctions between religion and culture simply haven’t been well differentiated at the traditionalist/rationalist stage of development. At Barber’s level of analysis, all religions and cultures are to be weighed against the One True Myth. Surprise, it just happens to be HERS! Yes, HER Myths. HER Church. HER Sacred Books. HER Country. HER Culture. What is reasonable is that which is in conformity with the One True Myth… and surprise! It’s okay to celebrate Christmas, but not Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is bad because it’s a “made-up, anti-Christian observance.” And Christmas is good because it’s a “deep-rooted, historical, [and] true observance.”

The notion that it’s possible to deeply separate religion and culture (or science, philosophy, and art, for that matter) does not enter consciousness in anything except a superficial manner until the pluralistic stage of development. Why is this important? At higher levels of development, it’s possible to hold a greater number of perspectives, even perspectives that seem paradoxically to be irreconcilable or opposite. It is possible to admire greater cultural, artistic, and linguistic diversity without constantly striving to fit everything into a narrow box of orthodoxy. A religious holiday derives from one particular religious tradition, and observance of such holiday is generally taken to be practicing a particular religion; a cultural celebration does not derive exclusively from one religion, nor does its celebration indicate a religious preference. To celebrate Ramadan, you pretty much have to be Muslim; to celebrate Groundhog Day or Mother’s Day or Arbor Day or Kwanzaa, there is no religious aspect.

As a celebration of culture and diversity within a context of affirming both traditional values and development to a greater stage of Unity, Kwanzaa is a premiere holiday of the multicultural pluralistic historical stage… and derives from a truly integralexpression of wisdom. In this sense, Kwanzaa is an elite cultural holiday: it’s based on a vision that simply could not have arisen until the arrival of modern and postmodern intellectual expressions in the African-American community in the mid 1960s. And it is a vision that has succeeded where so many other pie in the sky ideas have failed: it has become part of the cultural mainstream. By some reckoning, Kwanzaa has been celebrated by as many as 60 million individuals. Kwanzaa-related segments are regularly featured on Oprah, Martha Stewart Living, and the HGTV cable channel.

This cultural infiltration makes Kwanzaa very threatening to cultual conservatives of all stripes and especially black conservatives who have not risen up to the pluralistic stage or higher. Barber’s analysis of Kwanzaa is such a reactionary stand, a frightened plea to forgo new traditions in favor of the old ways and a paranoid attack that misjudges and distorts the facts surrounding the holiday. There is no need to choose between Christmas and Kwanzaa, for there is no conflict in theory or practice, except in the realm of delusion. Simply because Barber doesn’t recognize the difference between a cultural tradition and a religious tradition doesn’t mean that such distinctions aren’t useful or real. It’s just that such distinctions have not yet arisen in her dominant mythic-based mode of analysis. This new winter festival does not take anything away from other traditions; it simply adds a new way of being together and honoring the heritage of black Americans of African descent.

Happy Kwanzaa to all!

What does integral look like in practice?

Here’s part of another response in an online forum to my post on defining integral. This one makes an excellent observation about the diversity of approaches to integral:

I guess that is what has been irritating me about Ken [Wilber] and the various institutions that he has put together. It’s that Ken’s work is presented as “the” integral or “the most comprehensive” integral. Not necessarily by him but by those around him. He doesn’t claim ownership of his version of integral but it is presented as “the integral.” Not always, but often.

However, those of [us] that found Ken were already putting together our own version of an integral practice without any need for some sort of grand unifying ‘meta-theory.’ For example, I have a degree in biochemistry, I meditate, I practice 2 kinds of martial arts, I play music, I aspire to be a filmmaker, I keep a journal, I read voraciously in philosophy,psychology, nutrition, eastern philosophy, science, popular culture, etc, etc, etc. [My] version of integral had body, mind, soul/spirit, individiual, social.

This is [my] version of “integral” even though it never had any grand unifying theory behind it. It never had 3-2-1 shadow work, Big Mind Meditation, 3-Kata practice tm, tm, tm. It never had 4 quadrants. It’s just what I observed as the facets of life that I wanted to improve on and expand.

If it’s difficult enough to define integral in theory, things get really tough when it comes to spotting what integral looks like in practice. If someone meditates and does yoga and reads books, are they second-tier by definition because their practice ranges from spirit to body to mind? If someone is seeking to live holistically, do they need to have a “grand unifying ‘meta-theory'” in order to count as post-postmodern? What about the case of a person whose center of gravity is clearly at a first-tier stage who is doing practices that involve a blend of body, mind, spirit, self, culture, and nature?

I don’t intend to answer these thorny questions in this post. But I will say that getting clear about language is a very important step in getting clear about such potentially confusing matters. If we are clear about what integral looks like in practice and what it doesn’t, then it’s much easier to provide answers to these issues. I’ll offer three specific observations to help provide greater clarity.

First, to articulate what integral looks like in practice, look to exemplars. Wilber’s books, DVDs, and other materials and trainings offered by the Integral Institute are helpful in this regard. Connect with people locally who are striving to put integral theory into practice, and learn what you can from them. Integral is taking shape in many places in this world, but nowhere with greater theoretical sophistication than among people informed by cutting edge integral theory.

Second, bear in mind that just about any specific physical, mental, or spiritual injunction can be part of a more comprehensive integral practice. But simply because somebody is combining a range of disciplines doesn’t make their approach integral. It could just be a very confusing, eclectic assortment of practices thrown together without an overarching vision (that is, mental map). Eclecticism does not equal integral.

Third, if you have to boil it down to its barest essentials, STEAM-powered living comes down to two prime injunctions: practices to aid in the ascension to transcendent Unity of Being and practices to help in descending deeper to embodied form. If you are not at a minimum devoting attention to both sides of the coin–say, meditation for Ascent and psychodynamic group shadow work for Descent–then there is absolutely no way what you’re doing can be called integral.

Must we choose between being systematic and original in our thought and deeds?

Here’s a reader’s comment related to my post on defining integral:

Joe, I applaud your independent STEAM streak .. Orienting consciousness maps are a good thing… and – but :) I think following any ‘leaders’ methodology to a ‘t’ restricts one’s own flow of creative juices…

Ah, that’s the rub, isn’t it? In a modern, American culture that places a high premium on having an “independent streak,” and being “leaders (not followers),” and above all not restricting the flow of “one’s own creative juices,” then how the hell do you become a truly systematicthinker? Are we so tied to narcissistic notions of creativity and independence that we are incapable of merging into a more encompassing and ego-shattering whole? Is “that sounds like group think” or “he’s just another Ken Wilber ditto-head” the worst insult we can hurl at something new? Must originality be limited to how we resist something greater than ourselves, and never describe how we surrender?

I think it is possible to be both integral and original, independent and systematic. One way is to latch on to the broad movement called integral and claim that your version of integral is the most correct version, or at least a better version, and point out how other versions leave something important out. If you’re right and persuasive, then perhaps your ideas will have an influence in shaping what counts as truly integral. And then you have demonstrated that you’re both an independent thinker and a systematic thinker. You haven’t erected a new system or demolished the old system; you’ve strengthened the value of the system by correcting its shortcomings.

I imagine that pretty much all good internal criticism of integral would have to look something like that. (By distinguishing between internal and external criticism, I am talking about criticism launched from within a second-tier stage versus criticism launched from a lower stage. An example of second-tier critique is: “This model of reality leaves something important out, obscures valuable distinctions, or fails to incorporate the ideal number of contexts to be truly useful.”) In contrast are criticisms such as “It doesn’t make central to its paradigm the act of listening to marginalized or oppressed minority voices,” or “There’s no rational proof for the supposedly trans-rational benefits of meditation,”which are perfectly valid concerns derived from a first-tier level of analysis. However, even if all first-tier criticisms are granted, a second-tier system remains standing.)

As useful as it is to think about criticism in helping one to develop a sense of distance, originality, and independence of thought, it’s not the only valid approach to life. That would be like saying that the only way to be a creative, integral thinker is to continually search for weaknesses and faults in the foundation of one’s own consciousness. I suspect that such a sentiment is more a holdover from first-tier rationalistic philosophy than truly a second-tier mode of being. Transcending rationalism means finding ways of being appropriately critical in the right time, for the right reasons, and to the right degree, without spending inordinate, unnatural amounts of one’s time and energy in the smashing idols and gods. In other words, as we ascend in stages of concsciousness and incorporate more angles in our life-maps, we become more fully rational, not rationalists.

So I think the sentiment that “following any ‘leaders’ methodology to a ‘t’ restricts one’s own flow of creative juices” is a perfectly understandable and ordinary sort of view. And it may be right or it may be wrong, but it’s a recipie for narcissistic abandonment to the self. There’s nothing wrong with a little first-tier “I want what I want and damn anyone who says they’re a leader worth following, this is my life, I’m doing it my way” sort of thinking. I’ve got a healthy “red streak” myself, even as it doesn’t define me. The challenge with STEAM-powered living, as I see it, is to think about the world in a comprehensive and systematic way that defines the proper place and relation of self, other, world, and the Divine, in the context of an evolving world… and to live from that vision as deeply and graciously as possible. If that isn’t being original in this culture and age, then what is?

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.