The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.
In July 2015 I attended the Fourth International Integral Theory Conference, a four-day event hosted by the MetaIntegral Foundation, held at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California—a congenial setting for a gathering of minds, though drought had parched the surrounding land of much of its green.
ITC is the premier academic conference for a global network of enthusiasts devoted to an intellectual framework called Integral Theory.
Most people don’t know what Integral Theory is—but even if you do—there’s no reason to flee if you don’t feel like geeking out with a treatise; this is not a theoretical paper. I’m not going to rehash the “four quadrants,” or “states and stages,” or the “eight methodological zones.” Nor will I examine MetaIntegral founder Sean Esbjorn-Hargen’s attempt to articulate an “Integral 2.0,” which proposes expanding the number of zones (to 24). I’m only mildly interested in the proper way of configuring the 2nd-person perspective (i.e., “you”) within an AQAL Matrix…although, not quite obliquely, this is precisely what my essay is about.
What follows is a story about the human dimension of ideas. It’s about the gifts—and limits—of a community founded upon a set of ideas. It’s about how our relationship to ideas can bring us together and rend us apart. In a way, it’s a simple love story. As a young man I fell in love with something called “integral.” Then I became disillusioned with that love. Then I found a deeper love, which had been there all along.
On the one year anniversary of the 2015 ITC—I reflect on what integral means to me now—and what I think is beyond integral, meta and otherwise.
I. Wine Country (2015)
I will resist indulging (but simply notice and observe) the impulse to gush. There is always a lovey-dovey feeling at these events where people who share a spiritual, creative, and intellectual passion for some conceptual object—in this case signified by the word “integral,” variously interpreted as an idea, a movement, a community, a brand, a meta-theory, a cultural ecosystem, a level of consciousness development within an onto-epistemological matrix by the same name…or just a signifier—where these almost-by-definition somewhat odd people get together in one place and interact; it feels good.
For me at least, there is a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood; of friendship, admiration, curiosity, desire, delight. There’s the presence of love. The event blossoms into a kind of metamorphic field or quasi-psychedelic state wherein, in all the quiet splendor of my weirdness, I can relax and “be myself”…with others. I empty and fill myself of interbeing. It’s an ecstatic experience, a feast of communion, and I end up falling in love with the people I get to have it with: in conversations over lunch, during academic presentations, or in the jubilance of bacchanal; modes of intercourse spill into each other. The event serves as an accelerant for a fermentation process that occurs between specific people, in specific ways, creating a density of hermeneutic pathways (ways of feeling one another) that become deeper, richer, sweeter, and more complex over time. The wine of intersubjectivity is glorious indeed.
While I prefer not to call it a “we space”—as if there’s precisely an us that agrees on who and what “we” (somewhat homogeneously) really are, and which would imply (however innocuously) a “them” outside ourselves—at the very least, swirling in the mix, there’s a tender, beautiful presence of that sense of I-Thou that Martin Buber inscribed into our discourse. I say “our discourse,” but I really just mean the space itself, before ‘I’s, ‘We’s, and ‘It’s get too defined….
Attending the conference was particularly significant for me, as it gave me an excuse to go on a three-week road-trip pilgrimage to the West Coast—visiting Idaho, Montana, Seattle, Vancouver (BC), the Oregon coast (with its gorgeous cliffs and breakers), Eugene and Ashland, Marin County, and the California Redwoods, before circling back home to my family in Colorado. Along the way, I reunited with old friends; met formerly only-Facebook friends; camped, hiked, swam in lakes, and wandered city streets; and finally, on the culminating night of my trip, had something of a religious experience, listening to old blues, folk, and country strummed on vintage guitars by a couple grizzled deadheads and libertarians I met (among twilight zone souls) in a bar in the dusty void of the Nevada desert.
Most of all I drove. I drove and I drove….
In a way, the whole journey was a return. I was reconnecting with a cast of characters, and revisiting a plane of conversation, I thought I might have left behind in my life. In fact I was sure I wasn’t interested in what “integral” had to say, even though the word itself, as a pure descriptor, still felt generally applicable to my work in the world. The reason I signed up for the conference was strictly for the people, I told myself. I had little if no interest in discussing theory. I wanted a chance to talk with individuals I could only encounter—in some practical, concentrated form—within the context of an explicitly “integral” event such as the ITC, octopusicly positioned between the worlds of philosophy, social science, business, the arts, academia, spirituality, political economy, and other relevant fields—an event whose underlying intention, as I understood it, was not merely to promote transdisciplinarity for transdisciplinarity’s sake, but to enact, through a principled combinatorics, a contribution to the meta-project of evolving the human experiment as such.
In the end, I couldn’t avoid re-engagement with the theory, which was embedded in the DNA of the whole gathering—a professional conference, after all, geared explicitly to practitioners engaged in learning, applying, and exploring a real conceptual thing called “Integral Theory.” But while most of the attendees I met were conversant with integral thinking, or at least attracted to the field of possibilities it opened up, I also experienced many as relatively free in relation to it: able, willing, and eager to move amongst other modes of discourse and human relating, without fixating exclusively on the Integral ideal. Fortunately, there was no shortage of such people, who could relate to each other first as people, and then as “integralists.”
It wasn’t all communal bliss, of course. Where there is light, there tends to be shadow—as Integral Theory itself points out. One could posit an entire “hauntology” (I’ve heard it said) of absences, elisions, frictions, tensions, constrictions, and other uneasy solidities that warp the space: entanglements of convergent and divergent histories, with their excesses and wounds. I felt these too. Moments of repulsion, self-doubt, chagrin. Curious little psychodramas. Ambiguous political disputes. It’s ultimately very personal (and political) to participate in collectivity, and I had my peculiar history (in fact, all kinds of history) to negotiate—like everybody else.
II. Viva la Revolución! (2012)
Before this ITC, it had been many years since I attended an Integral event, going back to when I left my job at Integral Institute (aka “I-I”) in 2007, where I had worked with Ken Wilber & co. on Integral Naked, Integral University, Integral Life Practice, and other integral-branded online media, educational, and networking projects. Since that time, I’ve worked for other Integral teachers, authors, nonprofits, and entrepreneurs—usually in the role of a web designer and copywriter—but have otherwise avoided being a consumer of capital-I Integral goods and services, or a participant in any collectivity that might refer to itself as an “integral community.” In general, within my personal and creative sphere, I tried to avoid identifying or associating with integral altogether—a term which, even before my departure from I-I, I had grown to regard with irritation.
I was not entirely successful, however. One exception to my withdrawal from integral involvement was the Integral Incubator workshop I signed up for in 2011, in Boulder, CO, which turned out to be an important event for me, personally and creatively, helping me break out of a writer’s block that had lasted five years (the poem I wrote was my cry of freedom). The other exception was an essay I wrote with Terry Patten in 2012 called “Occupy Integral,” published in the now-defunct Beams & Struts magazine. We intended the essay to be the opening salvo to a book we were co-authoring titled The Integral Revolution. In our collaboration, which Terry sponsored, we called for a more activist and politically engaged Integral movement to arise, proposing that integralists reclaim the word integral itself (“occupy” it) in service of a more radical (yet holistic) orientation in the face of global crisis.
This was during the time of the Occupy movement, and we wanted to give the moment an integral expression, while supporting and contributing to a conversation (which the editors at Beams & Struts were already pressing) that combined Integral Theory with progressive ideas on social justice, economics, democracy, art, and a more engaged form of spirituality than was typically expressed in the Wilber-inspired Integral world to that point. The essay got a splurge of attention and provoked a long scroll of commentary with some sharp debate, and perhaps we offered some support to others who felt frustrated, as we did, by a pattern of abstraction into overcomplexity and subtle insularity prevalent in the community, where we felt a bolder energy was needed; but we didn’t go on to complete the book. The writing hit a wall of inner resistance and outer complications, and it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to deliver a text Terry could work with.
And Terry wasn’t going to do it either. After completing first drafts of an Introduction and a couple chapters, which entailed me staring at my computer screen for obscene durations of time barely eeking a few words out of the stone of my heart, Terry and I came to the mutual understanding that it wasn’t going to work out. I was done. I had excavated a few good words out of rough ground. Even a couple diamonds in the rock. I felt that something wanted to come through, but that it couldn’t live in the integral box I had built around myself. The Integral Revolution was a dud.
When I did my post-mortem, I came to realize that the reason the writing process had broken down was that I couldn’t truly give myself—fully commit myself, unironically—to another Integral project. I sincerely tried—spent months working desperately on an early draft of the book. But ultimately, I had to admit that I was failing, merely hoping to fake it till I made it. In reality, at a soul level, I no longer felt the need or desire to identify with or be part of any kind of integral anything. Or any anything. I no longer saw the point of “occupying” an idea I couldn’t believe in—let alone be willing to live and die for, as a real revolutionary might. The very attempt to pretend that I would felt insidious and repellent.
Of course, I was grateful to Terry for the opportunity to write with him, and for his faith in me as a collaborator. After paying my dues over the years designing websites and writing marketing copy for Integral enterprises, I relished the chance to do more serious work—engage the world on a higher level, write a kick-ass intellectual barnstormer of a book, an activist and artistic tour de force that could make shit happen. Perhaps I simply wasn’t ready for it—developed enough as a writer and thinker for all the project demanded; or able, professionally, to act as a ghostwriter (which is truly what I would have been). But I know the source of my failure went deeper than that. It went back to the original “Integral Revolution” in which I had served as a gung-ho lieutenant a few years earlier, but which I hadn’t yet integrated within myself.
III: The Prequel (1996–2001)
I was one of the so-called ‘Integral kids’—in my early 20s when I discovered Ken Wilber. I remember seeing his bold bald head and bespectacled gaze glaring from a book cover in the Naropa University book store the first time I visited Boulder in 1996. The book’s title, A Brief History of Everything, intrigued me, and I thumbed the pages, briefly, feeling a strange lust for cosmic comprehension seize my brain. I didn’t purchase the book at the time—on a summer road trip and short on cash—but Wilber’s name (it sounded so very ordinary…not philosophical at all) stuck in my mind, and later that summer I came across an article in the Shambhala Sun where the same Wilber expressed an appreciation for certain postmodern thinkers I was studying at the time (Foucault, Derrida…) but then made the argument that what they lacked, and what postmodernism in general lacked, was a practical conception of radical emptiness—a direct experience of the “true nature of reality,” as described by various schools of Buddhist thought.
As a philosophy major with a fledgling meditation practice inspired by Zen and Vedanta, Ken’s words were music to my ears. My philosophy department at Binghamton University, while strong in both analytic and continental disciplines (of which I favored the latter—Nietzsche, Heidegger, the Germans were my crack), didn’t really know what to do with, or didn’t want to do anything with, anything sounding like spirituality or religion. And yet, the notion of radical emptiness was, to to my mind, profoundly philosophically significant. As Wilber argued: what this term, radical emptiness, pointed to could not be reduced to an effect of linguistic deconstruction, but rather could only truly be understood as an experience of self-deconstruction in one’s actual awareness and being—a state of consciousness achieved and stabilized, primarily, through contemplative practice. What most impressed me at the time was the fact that a writer so steeped in the world of Eastern spirituality (in fact, often stacked on the New Age shelf in bookstores for this reason) was conversant with contemporary Western philosophy as well. Indeed, he proposed to broadly reconcile these traditions. Further, to my mind, Ken’s writing style was compelling—sharp, deft, lucid, witty, refreshingly polemical, encyclopedic and visionary in scope.
It would take some time to germinate, but the seed was planted. I returned to Binghamton that fall and graduated a couple years later with a BA in philosophy and comparative literature. I had been an assiduous student, passionate about the life of the mind, but by graduation, I was tired of spending the best of my waking hours, and the cream of my youth, studying post-representational phenomenologies with professors who confessed to be merely spinning their wheels, going nowhere and accomplishing nothing. I had reached a limit of what the discourse could reveal to me, and craved a more intimate and immediate relationship with the world: less philosophy and more reality. I longed to interact with “real people,” outside the bubble of the university and my sheltered American life.
Then one day I noticed a flyer in the lecture hall (one of the countless ones stapled haphazardly to the sprawling bulletin board) advertising a volunteer program that involved traveling to Nicaragua and doing international development work. I ripped off one of the little paper tabs with a phone number on it, and when I got home immediately called to request more information.
The program, with a Scandinavian-based outfit called the International Institute for Cooperation and Development (IICD), turned into a nearly three-year engagement that profoundly shaped the course of my life, provoking a ‘leap in consciousness’ if there ever was one for me. I went from ivory tower to grassroots overnight, learning to work together with my fellow volunteers and our Nicaraguan counterparts, literally “getting our hands dirty.” We built a healthcare clinic in a remote mountain community—a coffee cooperative that was originally organized during the Sandinista revolution of the 1980s.
The history of that revolution (which violently overthrew a dictatorship but then itself was violently overthrown) was still present in all sorts of ways, and compelled me to think about my own country’s history and role—and by implication, my role—in the suffering I saw and felt around me. My new awareness entailed a political awakening to the actuality—in the most concrete human terms—of concepts in political theory such as U.S. imperialism and economic globalization. I talked to people from all walks of life, soaked in as much of the society and culture as I could, and in my spare time, traveled around the country seeking out writers and poets and working on my first book—a collection of translations of Nicaraguan poetry written by the post-revolutionary generation of writers and artists that emerged in 1990s.
Through my experiences, I fell in love with a depth of humanity I couldn’t even imagine before: the volunteers in my group who shared the same latrines and tropical diseases; the “campesinos” and ex-revolutionaries who told their stories and mocked us gringos; the everyday people bustling in the cities, on buses, on top of buses, going to work or to find work; the college students, as eager to master their studies as to take to the streets; the wizened old women living in shacks with dirt floors and chickens running free and barefoot children playing, laughing, begging, up at the rooster cry of dawn to pick sacks of green coffee beans before school; and last but not least, the poets, my lost tribe of brothers and sisters, with whom I shared books of verse and bottles of rum, and whose words gave me intimate access to the dreams and traumas of the people and the place.
All the while I kept meditating, trying to experience radical emptiness. I carried my trusty black zafu in my backpack wherever I went. It was ridiculous, actually, to carry such a bulky cushion everywhere; but I didn’t want to give up my practice. (I suspect my fellow volunteers regarded me with a mix of affection and amusement.) Every morning I’d wake up before sunrise, do a little yoga, then sit for 45 minutes under my mosquito net; then I’d write for 30 minutes or so while the others roused from their cots. I was sleep-deprived and exhausted most of the time, due to the daily physical labor (there was no machinery or power tools to speak of) and truncated sleep. But something was driving or pulling me forward. I needed to open up a space within myself where something bigger could emerge in me—I didn’t exactly know what. And though I hadn’t yet formally encountered the integral idea, I was making my way to it instinctively.
After completing my translations and returning to the U.S. from a second trip to Nicaragua, where I shared the book with the poets and celebrated with more rum, I was eager to move on. Yet I had fallen into an extended period of heartbreak, confusion, and despair as to what to do next with my life. I had no job and was living with my girlfriend in San Antonio, Texas, in a relationship that was entering its terminal phase. And, though I had finished college and even had some Real World Experience now to add to my résumé, my career prospects remained limited. I was thinking about grad school again, as I often did when I didn’t know what else to do with my life…but I still wasn’t feeling enraptured by the prospect of an academic life. Then one afternoon I was browsing the aisles of a Half Price Books, when I stumbled upon three volumes of Ken Wilber’s Collected Works along with a paperback of A Brief History of Everything—there it was again. This time I snatched it up—adding his magnum opus, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (which promised to be merely Volume I of a forthcoming series called The Kosmos Trilogy), to my pile—and, when I got back to the ranch, began reading Wilber for in earnest for the first time, diving into what was to become the deepest rabbit hole of my life.
IV: I-I & I (2002–2007)
I spent the fall and winter after 9/11 reading Wilber and diligently meditating in my parents’ home on Long Island, NY. The following spring, I moved into an apartment in Brooklyn with a friend whom I’d met at IICD, Mark Binet—who, it turned out, had also been bitten by the Wilber bug (independently, yet almost exactly at the same time I was). Like me, he was an artist and spiritual seeker. He was a kind of trickster, always haranguing for the nondual mystical experience. When we met, he was especially enamoured of the spiritual philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. He lectured on the nature of a whiffle ball bat as the divine incarnate. Once he almost went to fisticuffs with a member of a philosophy discussion group, when the other claimed to have attained permanent witnessing consciousness. Radical emptiness was everywhere. Mark was my kind of man. We became great friends and soul-brothers—seemingly going through parallel phases of spiritual development at the same time. That tiny Park Slope apartment became our ashram of the absurd, our madcap monastery, where we meditated, wrote poetry, read Wilber, Rumi, Kafka, Shakespeare, and other greats, and negotiated the energetic dynamics of two young human males jostling with the evolutionary impulse of an enormous Wilber-tinted Kosmos in less than 350 square feet of habitable space.
At some point in 2002, while we were still living in Brooklyn, the first Integral Institute website launched, announcing that Ken (who up to that point had been known as something of a recluse) was now looking for students and volunteers to be part of a new organization dedicated to promulgating his ideas. In January 2003, Mark and I moved to Boulder together. We had no connections with anyone working at I-I, but it seemed like “the place to be,” where the “next big thing” might be happening. As it turned out, within a couple months of arriving Mark fell in love with Argentine tango and left to Argentina to continue learning the dance. In the meantime, I had met some of Wilber’s foot soldiers, and in April 2003 got myself invited to an audience with the man himself, which was billed as a meeting of “integral youth” and was due to take place at Wilber’s loft in Denver, which turned out to be one of those LoDo industrial warehouses converted into a hip urban living space.
That meeting with Ken changed my life in ways that continue to surprise. I don’t remember what we discussed, but later that same night, I emailed him to clarify a couple things I had said. A quick sequence of events ensued. By early morning he had written back, thanking me for my note, and asking (curiously, I thought) about my living situation. I replied that I was staying with friends temporarily and had only a part-time job that I didn’t much care for. Hours later, he emailed back with an offer almost too good to be true: not only a job working for I-I, but also a room in his old house in Boulder, where the core I-I staff (three other “integral kids,” also young men) were staying.
Before proceeding with the rest of my story (which will dovetail with my thoughts about the conference, I promise), I feel it’s important to convey my state of mind at the time. I was 28 years old. I had been out of college for five years. My accomplishments during this time included two self-published books of poetry and a job history consisting of various low-wage stints. Yes, I had done the volunteer work, and had glowing recommendations from my professors—but academia felt like a spiritual dead end, and I was reluctant to devote myself to another activist cause that didn’t include a philosophical or aesthetic dimension. A corporate job was out of the question. Now I was living solo in Boulder, where in my first four months I had gotten fired from a restaurant in retaliation for an expression of dry humor, and relieved from duty in a bagel shop due to an excessively slow and mindful way of constructing breakfast sandwiches, and was now stuck doing mind-numbing medical billing (lackadaisically) in an urgent care center. My best buddy was gone, and I was still heartbroken from a relationship in Brooklyn that ended when I left. I’d written a couple poems since arriving in Boulder, which were indeed beautiful and felt like they were pushing into new artistic territory for me; but it was a lonely struggle, and I felt alone and irrelevant. I was beginning to feel desperate for that something, to happen….
Needless to say, I said yes to Ken. In fact, I kept on saying yes. I dove into the deep end. Anything that needed to be done for I-I, or for Ken, I said yes. It was a dream come true—not only an egoic validation (What philosophy major actually gets a job working for a real philosopher? Suck on it, all ye who doubted me), but also an opportunity to learn directly from one of my intellectual and spiritual heroes. And, it was an opening to a lofty world of interesting people doing fascinating things—scholars, filmmakers, spiritual teachers, visionaries, entrepreneurs. Ken was meeting and communicating with hundreds of culturally influential, powerful people, and I got to be right there at the center of it, in Boulder/Denver, Colorado—which we began referring to as the “Integral Epicenter.” For me, the chance to be at the “leading edge” (as we called it) of a transformational movement—a revolution in human consciousness, is what Ken’s version of Integral promised—was more than seductive: it was irresistible.
I could tell stories, but I neither want to romanticize nor indict the experience. I’ll just say that the best parts of I-I, for me, were the lucid philosophical discussions with Ken and the opportunities to interact with him directly, where I felt he was almost always generous with his energy and time. The events with spiritual teachers from various mystical traditions were also deeply affecting. I have particularly fond memories of rediscovering the Judaeo-Christian mystical lineages through Father Thomas Keating, Brother Wayne Teasdale, Brother David Steindl-Rast, and Rabbi Zalman Schacther-Shalomi. I also did retreats with Genpo Roshi and Diane Musho Hamilton in the Zen Buddhist tradition. And I had the chance to meet some truly visionary artists, such as Alex Grey, Saul Williams, and Lana Wachowski, not to mention the inimitable Stuart Davis, whose music fueled my early integral enthusiasm. The friendships I forged with my fellow “integral kids” (and Boomers too) became an especially important part of my life.
I relished going to meetings at the Loft. I would sit on the leather couch in a state of samadhi, sipping a Red Bull and eating lemon-flavored xylitol mints, while the Executive Committee (‘ExComm’) discussed I-I business. Occasionally I’d try to say something relevant and intelligent and/or make some deadpan joke (which Ken was sometimes kind enough to indulge, but admittedly didn’t always get). There were parties at the house—an architectural dream in the Boulder foothills with a view of the Colorado Front Range to the east and the Rockies to the west. There was always something uber-kool and bleeding-edge going on. There was always some new amazing project to work on. And I worked my ass off. The number of emails I processed daily was a point of pride. Breakfast burritos became my staple source of metabolic fuel. Late nights in front of a computer screen were the norm. I kept saying yes to Ken, taking on more responsibilities within the organization, to the point that I asked to be, and was made, the acting Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the Institute—a level of power I wanted; it felt so much needed to be done that I could do it; though in reality, I was thoroughly unqualified for the job, and already in quite over my head. I had “risen to the level of my incompetence,” as they say.
I-I was growing very quickly. Ken likened it to being on a runaway train while laying tracks at the same time. We were surfing the “frothy edge” of evolution. It was a “hyper-dance.” We were hurtling toward an Integral “tipping point,” where our Integral Vision would finally catch on in the mainstream and change the world. That was the big dream, the narrative we spun. The question was, how to get the ideas out there most effectively? And here, looking back, is where I believe we erred. We turned Integral Theory into something too much like a product—some kind of proprietary software for the mind, which one could buy into, and in so doing solve the big questions of life and the universe. For example, we advertised the idea that one could “download” an Integral Operating System (as Ken dubbed Integral Theory…the original “IOS” before the iPhone), “install” it in one’s brain, and suddenly improve everything about one’s life. It was a brilliant metaphor, but misleading. In our marketing, we used adverbs such as “staggeringly” and “literally” to modify the grandiose adjectives attributed to the theory. (The iOS connection with Steve Jobs and Apple’s inflated rhetoric is worth noting; Wilber could be a Jobs-like figure, with his own “reality distortion field.”)
The idea was simply to meet the market where it was at, and create a sense of coolness around our work: an integral “scene.” At the time, this felt like a refreshing change from the squishy, anti-modern New Age kind of image often associated with contemporary spirituality. But it resulted in a message which, while in many ways exciting and inspiring, in other ways merely recapitulated the dominant logic of the consumer paradigm. We were selling the idea, as I came to see it, that one could be special, part of a “leading-edge” movement in consciousness and culture, and by implication slightly more evolved than everyone else. This, simply by virtue of joining our tribe and consuming our products. There were certainly many highly intelligent and I would say “enlightened” people attracted to I-I. But our message was off-putting to many more who I would consider just as evolved, but looking for a more grounded, egalitarian, less self-aggrandizing kind of approach. Besides, being cool is tricky: trying too hard to be cool actually makes you un-cool. Though of course, being uncool can be cool in its own (dorky) way. And the geekiness of Integral Theory was cool all on its own, without our having to say it, which (the redundancy of saying it) made it less cool. And so it went….
I’m not saying I drank the kool-aid totally uncritically, or that anyone did. Of course, one also had to do the work—learn and practice—to truly be “integral.” That was part of what we were selling. But a self-conscious, awkward wanting to be cool became part of the ethos of our language, and I think began to overshadow other, more important values. While it may have been in the service of noble ideals, we embraced the communicative strategy of marketing buzz and hype. Ken was now a philosophical/spiritual rock star, and I and others treated him that way to some extent. He went along with it, perhaps even encouraged it, because it served the mission of “getting integral out into the world.”
And it worked. Thousands of people from across the world got involved: connected with the institute, and with each other. We cranked out hundreds of hours of audio and video; organized conferences and workshops; published books and journals; formed strategic partnerships; and were hard at work on the Big Idea, the Mother Ship—an online membership platform called the Integral Multiplex, which would link all the major areas of integral activity in the world into one interconnected, multidimensional whole. Business, art, medicine, ecology, spirituality, psychotherapy, international development, politics—we had identified “thirty or forty” distinct areas where people were doing Integral work, applying Wilber’s AQAL Integral Model (which we were working on trademarking, so as to be able to certify others in its correct usage) and the plan was to dock them all into the central hub which was I-I. Ken sketched a schematic drawing of the whole vision, which became iconic. It looked like Star Wars, so he called it (with more truth in jest than I realized at the time) “the Death Star.”
I won’t detail everything that went wrong, because then I’d have to write some kind of nauseating tell-all book, and I have better things to do before I die. Some have thrown around the “C” word; but if I-I was in any way a cult, it was a pretty lame cult—no murders or sex slaves or apocalyptic pronouncements or money laundering or fleets of Rolls Royces. The problems were human, all too human. In-group/out-group type stuff. An overly male-centric culture with no women in senior leadership. Mismanagement of limited funds and resources. Failure to distance the organization from abusive spiritual teachers. Suffice it to say, mistakes were made. We made mistakes. I made mistakes. It was a mistake, for example, to say nothing when people were derided as too “green” (i.e., un-integral, or less developed than us integral folks); or to keep my mouth shut when friends were banned from I-I events for committing perceived offenses that angered Ken; or to participate in pushing people out of the organization because they were complaining about unfair pay and had become difficult to work with, when there were actually real issues of compensation that needed to be resolved.
Which is to say that there was—as the theory itself pointed out and many of us acknowledged at the time—a shadow side to I-I. That was obvious and to be expected. But I think it’s worth making a connection between these internal issues we were experiencing and the commodification of Integral Theory, which I believe—in some subtle and not-so-subtle, unmistakable ways—corroded our integrity. I think it caused us to put our faith in a kind of dogma (a cognitively sophisticated, high-level dogma, to be sure) in place of actual thinking and critical inquiry. This seems to be what happens when one puts more energy into promoting an idea—which requires constantly reiterating a pre-established story or narrative, (which one easily becomes defensive around)—rather than questioning one’s ideas within the context of a broader intellectual debate. Ken’s public talks became increasingly repetitive, and it seemed he only engaged with critics who already agreed with him on most points, or were already operating within the terms of his AQAL Integral Framework. On a couple occasions, he lashed out at his more disagreeable critics. To be fair, some of these critics had themselves become redundant, and even creepy, in their ad-hominem obsession with him. (This is certainly not to say that there weren’t legitimate criticisms.) But Ken’s take-down of these critics, where he suggested, among other things, that they (metaphorically) fellate his manhood, became a fault line within the community. It was harsh, sarcastic, funny, one might even say brilliant from a certain literary perspective…but also unfair and unbecoming of a leader of a global institution purporting to address the big, serious problems of our time.
In our (I-I’s) defense, we did acknowledge some of the deeper issues; we did begin working on them; and we were beginning to make positive changes, culturally and systemically. We brought in new leadership (I was thankfully shifted from my role as COO to that of a writer with the media and marketing team); gave everyone raises and benefits; and instituted an “office ILP” (Integral Life Practice) program to bring our spiritual principles into our working environment. We recruited life and business coaches to mentor staff, held group process meetings, and so forth. But it was too late. By mid-2006, I-I’s own operating system had become chaotic and unstable; staff were speaking out, on the verge of revolt; finances were strained; and Ken’s health was deteriorating. In late 2006, the interior and exterior conflicts became too severe and Integral Institute…disintegrated. At an infamous meeting in Ken’s loft, a number of staff walked out in protest. It was dramatic. It was sad. It was pathetic. But it needed to happen. After the meeting, when I approached Ken, he put his arm around me, reassuringly. I expressed some words of loyalty and camaraderie, which were heartfelt…but false. In truth, I had already been planning my exit for some time.
I was burnt out. I had been going full speed, neglecting my health and my own “ILP.” I no longer read books. I wasn’t writing. No poetry. I was barely meditating. As toward the end my college career, I felt disconnected from “real people” in the “real world.” I wasn’t free to express myself without worrying about whether what I was saying was “integral” or not. In other words, I had stopped doing all the things that brought me to integral in the first place! Instead, I was focused merely on promoting an intellectual framework; essentially, as I was relating to it, an intellectual religion. My soul was dying. I had visions of my “subtle body” in a hospital bed, hooked up to waste tubes and life support machines. My entire world was integral integral integral. It was getting tiresome. And, though I was privileged to be given the opportunity to co-author a book with Wilber (written by Terry Patten, Adam Leonard, and myself, with Ken serving as the “meta-author”) called Integral Life Practice—and I remain proud of our work on that—by the end of the process, I was exhausted. I was done with integral. I loved Ken, and still do; but I needed to move on and do different things with my life. In January 2007, I composed an email to Ken and ExComm containing my resignation. I took a deep breath, preparing to face the unknown once again—and hit send.
Integral Institute meanwhile restructured and became Integral Life. Some stuck with Ken; others moved on to start new organizations and communities, become coaches and consultants, get PhDs, write books. New blood arrived. The Integral enterprise continued and became a proper business with a CEO, a business plan, a marketing strategy. Ken moved into a smaller loft and eventually sold his house in Boulder. I got married, bought a house, started a family, and began to work on my own writing again. After the integral earthquake, there occurred a kind of diaspora from the epicenter…which in retrospect turned out to be an amazingly fecund event. It hurt most everyone involved, but was part of a process of growth and differentiation. New structures were emerging; new cognitions and imaginings stirring. The integral kids were growing up.
V. Beyond Integral or: Going Meta—A Critical Appreciation (2015)
I tell my story because it explains both how deep as well as how limited (colored by my personal experience) my feelings about integral were before the Integral Theory conference. In truth, I had mixed feelings about even showing up. I chose to do so, however, because it seemed that MetaIntegral was staking out territory beyond, yet respectful and inclusive of, the “old school” integral I had both loved and grown sick of. I had not attended any previous conferences, nor been following happenings in the community more than peripherally; but from the promotional emails I received, I got the impression that the organizers were earnestly trying to be inclusive and self-critical in their approach, which I appreciated. I felt their enthusiasm for the larger project, without feeling that I was being sold a special experience or sense of identity with, or belonging to, some elitist group…which I would have had to politely (or dismissively) decline. I also reached out to one of the founders of Beams and Struts, Trevor Malkinson, who encouraged me to sign up, promising that it wouldn’t be the “orthodox” kind of experience that I feared.
I’ve come to believe that the problem with integral culture is not the marketing of it per se—but the bad marketing. Marketing that insults one’s intelligence. One of the features of integral discourse that unfortunately emerged with I-I and has continued for the last ten years (some of which I even helped write) involves a subtle flattery of the self in the attempt to define a psychographic market segment and attract it to one’s cause. A typical message goes something like this: “You’re Integral. Here are five things about you that are different and amazing…but you also feel pain: you feel alone in this incredibly fragmented world, and need to be connected to, and supported by, other integral people like you who long for greater wholeness, etc.” All of which might be true, of course; but the question I have is: So what? Who really cares? If I really care about you as a person, and am not merely interested in enrolling you in my integral community, then identifying you as “integral” is not going to be my priority. Rather, I want to know what you’re actually doing in the world—what you stand for, how you struggle—what your real experience is, how your mind works, and how you feel life. I shouldn’t just be trying to get you on my email list. I should want to know your story, the quality of your presence, your energetic flux. And, most importantly, I should want to know if we can work together, be friends and allies, peers and equals—learn from each other’s example. Not merely aggregate you to my larger project that remains, at some level, a capitalistic game.
The game of group self-flattery is ultimately self-flattening. Which is not to say that integral evolutionary ideas are not real, or that one might not authentically identify with, believe in, benefit from, and want to advocate for these ideas—even passionately so. But when the ideas are packaged into a worldview or lifestyle that describes a group and is meant to define me as an individual in the context of a marketing communication, I get suspicious. More often than not, the signal I’m receiving is too easy to interpret as saying: “We don’t expect you to think, or do real work, or deeply question yourself (or us) or the underlying order of things, or truly participate (as a peer and equal) in a larger, more meaningful and collaborative endeavor.” I’m being treated not as a real person but as a mere consumer—albeit a highly spiritually evolved consumer—and I can’t help but smell a very fragrant yet all the same execrable bullshit.
The feeling I got from MetaIntegral was different. Theirs felt more like an authentic invitation to engage in the project that defined their mission. For example, if I had wanted to, I could have submitted a paper for presentation at the conference, which could even have been highly critical of some aspect of Integral Theory or the Integral movement, as long as my argument was thoughtful and reasoned. I certainly felt free to interact with and question any of the presenters at the conference itself—there were no sacred teachers who disappeared behind the scenes after their piece was done. (Or, if these teachers were there, they were not the selling point.) I also appreciated that part of purpose of the conference was to promote and celebrate (through the grants and showcases) the work being done by other integralists who were not all part of MetaIntegral, but active in the wider integral community and working on real-world problems.
I found the overarching theme of the conference—impact—intriguing, and again, articulated in a spirit of genuine inquiry. Asking the question of how integral meta-theory is measurably and demonstrably making a positive difference in the world, and how it could do a better job moving forward—felt to me timely and honest. At the same time, I found myself musing on the linguistic and ideological implications of the word, “impact,” and wondering whether and how I resonated with it. Did I feel that I could really Be Impact (as the tagline enjoined) in my life? As Sean explained, the phrase is a clever synthesis of the “Be the change” mantra attributed to Ghandi and the “Just do it” swooshy spirit of Nike. Should that be taken as indicative of some kind of corporate spiritual activism, or activist spiritual capitalism; would that even make sense? I felt that the focus on “impact” could be interpreted as a sign of “selling out.” Or, could represent a form of “skillful means” in service of an overriding moral vision? Or both?
I wondered if the idea of Integral Impact might be expressing a “meta-mechanistic” or corporate bias (I imagined a 7-dimensional field of colliding billiard balls, fractals of nested supply chains criss-crossing the globe) in how one interacts with reality—suggesting that one must somehow hit, force, or manipulate the world in order to yield measurable results. What of other, perhaps more feminine-associated, modes of interaction, such as cultivation, nurturing, patience, letting-be…? To be sure, an integral practitioner would aim for comprehensive results, in all four integral quadrants and eight (or twenty-four) zones, using distinct measurement criteria depending on the dimension of impact being evaluated. The point of “integral impact,” as I understand it, is to be radically non-reductive—to include subjective and cultural factors equally with objective and systemic ones; to enfold, indeed, all of the modes, perspectives, dimensions that Integral Theory itself discloses, in judging the effectiveness and value of an action.
Yet what if a value can’t be measured in terms of impact? For example, as an artist, I might ask myself, “What kind of impact do I want my work to have?” And certainly, I might want it have total impact—high, deep, clear, wide—a full-court integral impact. But at the same time, I must remember that there’s a side to being an artist which literally (and crucially) needs not to be concerned with impact—in fact, needs to give not give a crap at all about how one’s work will affect the world or others, but rather focus completely on imparting radical integrity into the work itself—come what may. As an artist, my concern is that if I focus on “impact,” then that part of me that wants to feel important, or flattered, will seek to reassert itself—to be reassured that something about me is special and important; that what I’m doing is meaningful because it has impact. I know from experience that if I overly indulge that part of myself, it will infect and degrade my art—and potentially send me into a narcissistic spiral that defines the worst aspects of the integral landscape.
It’s quite possible I’m just nitpicking. I admit to being hypersensitive on this issue. For, however I might deconstruct it, at the end of the day, I still want to have an “impact.” If I care about the world, and I want to change it for the better, I must enter into an action-inquiry feedback loop whereby I look seriously at what my work is accomplishing, and let the information I receive inform what I do next and how I do it. Hard data could be a part of this. Marketing, too, might have an important role to play. That’s why ultimately, I was grateful for inquiry concerning impact. It actually got me questioning myself and those around me, and sparked a few substantial conversations.
Indeed, what I most appreciated about the conference was precisely the space to question—to feel ambiguous, self-critical, open, curious, and transparent about the space itself—and to realize that I wasn’t alone in the complexity or nuance of my feelings. And still, I could acknowledge that not everybody felt similarly or overlapped with my history or sentiments, or would even be aware of them…or give a crap if they were—and that was OK too.
What’s important is that the conference provided an open space for these kind of reflections and conversations to occur. In this regard, I was especially pleased to observe how the discourse itself (i.e., the actual conversation around and about Integral Theory) has become increasingly de-centralized, how the sense of a center itself has weakened, in favor of more a sense of a field. Of course, Ken Wilber still had a featured role and presence—he gave a talk on “pluralistic ontology” (his response to the interest among some in Critical Realism and questions surrounding the proper meta-theoretical relationship between epistemology and ontology, as distinctly conceived in Critical Realism and Integral Theory) on Sunday morning. But integral is now truly something bigger than Ken—that was palpable—even while his influence (and impact) was still pervasive, and his AQAL Integral Model still at the intellectual heart, as least as far as this particular conference was concerned.
As for the official program, I was admittedly a poor conference attendee. I missed more than a few presentations and talks. But, I took every opportunity to connect and dialogue with individuals. I let the spirit of the gathering—the “scenius”—guide me. I did make it a point to attend the formal debate (called a “Democracy 3D” panel) involving Zak Stein and Bonnitta Roy (for) and Michael McElhenie and Andrew Johnson (against) on the proposition: “It’s time for Integralists to stop catering to corporate interests and start fighting for social justice.” I rooted for the for side, expressed by Zak and Bonnitta as an argument for a post-capitalist form of integral activism; while the against side defended their approach of working with and within capitalism, to improve and indeed evolve it (i.e., arguing for “conscious capitalism”)—but I grew in sympathy for the “against” side as well, if not for their debating points then for the people making those points. (Jeremy Johnson, the official conference blogger—who I had previously known only online and was delighted to get a chance to meet—wrote a nice summary of the debate here.)
The evening poets and performers made my soul feel most alive and at home. Mark Fabionar (founder of The HUB: An Integral Center for Diversity, Vitality, and Creativity, at Sonoma State University) and Jordan Luftig (working with MetaIntegral at the time) deserve wicked props for bringing them in and adding an explosive mode of communication to the academic focus. I deeply felt with and profoundly enjoyed the performances of the Thursday night poets, including Mindy Nettifee, Jason Bayani, and Joshua Merchant in particular (though the others were also impressive). The Friday night solo show Wrestling Jerusalem, by Aaron Davidman—with the ‘invocation’ by Miriam Gabriel, (who I also had the great pleasure of meeting) and Robert Farid Karimi—was perhaps one of the most powerful artistic experiences of my life and deserves a whole consideration unto itself. For me, the “cultural performances” of the ITC recalled Wittgenstein’s phrase: Ethics and aesthetics are one.
I’ll lastly mention that it seemed a lot happened in terms of actual, “meta-theoretical” philosophical thinking, which I’m far from caught up on—particularly in the work of Bruce Alderman, Michael Schwartz, Bonnitta Roy, and Chris Dierkes that I interfaced with. Admittedly, there were many more presentations than I fully could take in. However, the nightly dorm suite symposia seemed to be where the real sparks flew.
VI: TransIntegral Futures (2016—…)
Where does this leave things, one year later, with me and Integral? What’s the future of the integral movement? Whither the meta-revolution from here?
I still feel that Integral, however interpreted, hasn’t quite figured out its next phase. There’s the “Integral 1.0,” one could say, of Ken Wilber’s AQAL model—which seems to me a solid foundation conceptually, but might still be burdened by the legacy of I-I. And MetaIntegral is working on Integral 2.0, moving toward a more decentralized (or distributed) global integral space. But the conference still probably only represented “Integral 1.5,” in my view. This would be a significant milestone (halfway there?) but still leave a lot of room for growth. There’s certainly much to commend and celebrate in the overall initiative, especially as expressed, for example, in the keynote presentation by Karen O’Brien on Integral approaches to climate change, describing her work with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCSS)—or in MetaIntegral’s budding partnership with the Nature Conservancy, which represents another huge opportunity for “impact”…one of many being pursued by integrally-informed practitioners around the world.
What I’d really love to see in a future MetaIntegral conference is a much stronger focus on social justice and especially the role of activism, art and engaged spirituality in facing our global crisis more directly. Overall, I didn’t feel a very powerful sense of focused urgency in the conference—and that was a shame. It was a smorgasbord of interesting (sometimes very interesting) ideas and reports from the field, but never reached the level of hardcore collaborative problem-solving and strategic action in a coordinated way. For example, I’d love to see a conference where every presentation focused on some aspect of enacting an “integral revolution”—inquiring into what that might really mean in the present moment, in the most concrete social and political terms, as well as in consciousness and culture.
At the same time, there is something beautiful and essential about metatheory. It’s an art as much as anything is art, and to practice theorizing for the sake of theorizing is no different, in the end, than poetry for the sake of poetry. It’s human beings pursuing a passionate embrace of the numinous. Past a certain point, I imagine theory bleeds into poetry, and poetry into theory. And both together could provide a spiritual language for (meta-)revolutionary change.
Because that’s what we working on, after all, yes? A revolution in the heart of being. A transformation of our concrete reality. What’s the point of a word if it doesn’t evoke a possible reality? What’s the reality that integral is evoking? Where is the art of integral being?
Personally, I prefer being an outsider to any particular theoretical framework at the same time that I welcome a diversity of metatheories in the field. I enjoy being conversant with Integral Theory, friendly with it—yet I don’t want to identify with or evangelize it anymore; nor am I working on developing it as an explicit system of thought, a community, or a movement. Yet I’m supportive of such efforts, generally speaking. The downside of occupying such a position might be that, as an outsider, I fail to have the kind of impact I could have as an insider, being part of a coherent, theoretically grounded community working together for a larger purpose. At the same time, my outsider status might serve the function—in a wider cultural ecosystem—of exploring areas of inquiry and creativity that would otherwise be ignored, but open a pathless path into the future for certain minds.
My current project—A Theory of Everybody—was obviously hugely inspired by my experience with Integral Theory and the Integral community. There is a lineage, a genetic inheritance, an in-spiration (breathing in)…as well as a rupture, a discontinuity, a differentiation. (Breathing out.) I’m grateful to Ken, to Terry, to all my colleagues at I-I, and to all the friends I’ve made and people I’ve met, for taking their various chances on me over the years and letting me be integral for a while.
I’m also wildly grateful to everyone I met and talked to on my great summer road trip; for all the graciousness and hospitality I was shown in my travels (I’m looking at you, C4Chaos, Trevor, and Dan). I’m especially thankful for all the history and that brought me to this strange, beautiful place; for being alive in a time when we could have an ‘meta’ conversation, and it could matter. I hope it does.