Leaders in the Integral community have been hosting a number of events featuring a theme of "The We" or "We Space"—exploring it, nurturing it, envisioning it. Ken Wilber recently posted a video titled "The State of the We" in which he discussed the status and future of the integral movement, and invites us to "Occupy Integral," echoing the call put out by Terry Patten and Marco Morelli in their February 9, 2012, Beams & Struts article. When I started writing this article, others were attending the What Next conference (follow-up of the Integral Spiritual Experience series of years past), the next major event for the community, described as a place to live into and deepen that We Space. Riding on this wave, in December 2012, the Boston Integral Commons hosted a panel-discussion event titled "The State of the 'We' (in the Greater Boston Area)" in which I was delighted to participate, along with John Churchill, Kenzo An, and Gibrán Rivera (Ted Saad hosting). Wilber's online oration on “The State of the We” was played as the launching point. Preparing for and participating in this panel inspired a flock of thoughts about this "Integral We" which I offer up here, perhaps to seed some conversation after What Next. My appreciation goes out to my fellow panel members and others who came to the Boston event, some of whose ideas are echoed below.
So, what's all the excitement about? Are (we) integralists exploring the leading edge of collective intelligence? If the Integral movement is more of a movement than a trend or a loosely knit tribe, what can or should be done to nurture it towards its full potential? What do we mean by We?
The reference to Kimo Sabe in the title refers to an old partially remembered joke about the Lone Ranger and his trusty Native American side-kick Tonto, who calls the Ranger "Kimo Sabe," which means faithful friend. They found themselves surrounded by hostile "indians." The Lone Ranger says "What should we do, Tonto?" And Tonto, slyly edging over to join the other natives, says "Who is this 'we' Kimo Sabe?" In this article I'm not really asking "who is this we" or questioning whether a "we" exists in the integral community, but rather I am asking "what is this we," a concept that receives a lot of attention in the community.
Like most groups the integral community (understood as the Integral community or the broader integrally informed community) is a group, a fuzzy-boundaried we, because of a shared sense of identity among its members. A combination of shared knowledge, values, language, intentions, and history draws us together. If that sense of identity or alignment is strong, there are natural biological and social desires to come together, to build, maintain, and celebrate solidarity, and to drawn others in to join. So yes, let We flourish and be nourished, and let’s generate increasing opportunities to find each other, learn from each other, and co-create the future. But as we do so, let’s take a few perspectives on our relationship to We.
First I will say that my aim is not to get into the phenomena of collective intelligence or we-space per se, but to support self-reflection about how integralists are using the term and what might motivate interest in it. (The phenomena itself is a vast subject that others have explored more deeply than I could. For example the folks at What is Enlightenment? did a great job of covering collective consciousness in the May 2004 issue; and Ria Baeck and Helen Titchen Beeth offer counsel on creating we spaces in the article "Collective Presencing: A New Human Capacity" in Kosmos Journal, Spring 2012 issue.) I'll reveal my bias up front and say that what motivates me to write is that we-space is receiving a lot of attention but the term is tossed around too loosely to do justice to what it might point to.
I will start with an exploration of meanings for "we," for surely there is a range of interpretations for this concept and having a serious community conversation about it demands some meaning clarification. First, we must acknowledge that "the We" is a jargon term or idiom integralists use to refer to something (or things) that others speak about or experience using their own language. I'm not sure that there is anything unique about the integralist interpretation of "we" (or intersubjectivity)—except that one of its functions is to point to a quadrant in the AQAL model, which then confers a particular meaning upon it, and links it to a large community text and discourse. When used in this way its meaning is more specific, but not necessarily unique or special, as the quadrant model can be seen as no more than a (very) handy mnemonic for organizing ideas that exist elsewhere (I/we/it or I/we/it/its). (An internet search, or just a conversation with friends, will reveal that, at least in progressive or new-age-spiritual communities, the talk about "we space" has existed well beyond and before integralists' veneration of the term.) It is useful to us, and also satisfying to the herd-animal in us (and in me), to have a specialized shared language. Later we'll explore possible down-sides to group-specific meanings.
Despite the shared terminology, it can be hard to know if we're talking about the same We. First, the AQAL quadrant model, like all conceptual models, has indeterminate boundaries that marginalize and confound realities and objects that are not aligned well with the prototypical meanings of the categories. That is, there are things or ideas that are between I and We, or I and It, that are not well-considered within this framework. For example, "we" refers to us as a group of individuals, but in the Quadrant model it also covers You (or I/thou) —two distinct spaces of possibility that are collapsed into the LL quadrant (somewhat awkward alternative models have been suggested to account for this, but the point here is that all models have such limitations, and are tools to be used with discretion). So We is a "metaphorical pluralism" or "ontological pluralism" pointing to a plethora of things. [Editor's note: Tom has written other pieces on this theme, which are available here.]
Integralists will easily see the developmentally related differences in conceptions and experiences of We or group. I will not take the time here to flesh it out, but only hint at these differences with examples: "We do as our ancestors have done," "Go Tigers! (boo Bobcats!)", "infidels must die!", "I can't live without you, please don't go", "I love you I love you I love you!", "Together we can!", "We did it!", "we are all one," "I am deeply moved by a palpable sense of our collective presence in this moment." Though some differences in the meanings of "we" can be attributed to Spiral Dynamics or Cook-Greuter developmental models, I'd like to call attention to other types of differences in how people use and interpret We.
One talks about "we space" or says "let’s explore the We," but it would be strange to talk about "I space" or "exploring the I" (or the subjective)—the concept (or the upper left quadrant) covers feelings, memories, intentions, experience, reason, intuition, unconscious, etc. It’s a huge complex space and usually we specify a particular aspect to investigate (e.g. ego, character, or cognition). There is just as much complexity and multiplicity going on in what the lower left quadrant points to (i.e. "we") as in the upper left (i.e. "I"), so that we risk not talking about the same thing when we refer to We or we-space. As I'm sure Wilber would agree, any action-inquiry into we-phenomena is a "full quadrant affair" that has subjective, objective, singular, and collective facets; yet our understanding of intersubjectivity pales in comparison to our understanding of subjectivity and cognitive processes. So it's not surprising that our vocabulary for we-phenomena is meager.
I will unpack "we" into several meanings that will serve to organize what follows. In addition to We (or we space) pointing somewhat abstractly to the intersubjective quadrant in the AQAL model, integralists use "we" in a number of ways, including:
1. We points to feelings, emotional drives or intentions such as compassion, respect, love, care, and friendship. Fostering the We can mean coming together in care or comradely, presumably in way that feels good.
2. We can be about group shared meaning and values, and can point to one's group or a community of like-minded—i.e. "us". In this sense an "us" usually implies a corresponding "them" (which is not necessarily a negative thing). Fostering the We can mean building a stronger sense of solidarity and group identity, and perhaps expanding the circle of inclusion.
3. We points to a state, experience, or phenomenology of group-sense. There can be a type of felt sense of the group—when participating in a Bohm dialogue, a mediation retreat, a dance ensemble, a sports team in a flow state, or even a rave or a raging mob (though not quite the same felt sense for each)—that can be used as a measure of intersubjectively or a target state when designing a structured activity. This is more of a perceptual experience than an emotional one (#1 above).
4. We points to a posited emergent entity at a hierarchical (Wilber would say holarchical) level above the individual person; or a collective consciousness that has its own power and knowing. For example, duets speak of that "third- being" which emerges from the relationship between the two. This "we" can come with a sense of the mystical or metaphysical. It can point to a collective being that exists within and around, but also distinct from any individual. This we is an idea, a conception, not a feeling, experience, or identity (though, like each of these five items, the occurrence usually includes an aspect of some of the other four items).
5. Calls to a stronger, wider, or deeper "we" sometimes enjoin collective action. In this sense We can be about the capacity for collective intention. One is motivated to expand or deepen we-space, not from wanting an experience, feeling, common beliefs, or shared identity, but to be able to do more in the world.
Though these senses of "we" are all closely related and interwoven, they are distinct, and it seems to me that underneath any passionate reference to the We or we-space is one or a subset of these meaning senses. Conversations within the Integral community vary widely on which of these senses (or others I may have omitted) are most prominent, and it would serve us to be more specific on why each of us is drawn to foster the We. The value and importance of each of each of these senses of we-ness are easy to appreciate, but the downsides may not be so easily acknowledged. I offer this five-part distinction for several reasons. The first is to support a more nuanced and differentiated conversation about the we-spaces and the we-entities that are envisioned. (Which sense was closest to your meaning the last time you had a conversation about "we space"?) The second, is to provide a framework for more expansive exploration. (If you identify a conversation as focusing on one of the senses, can something be gained by considering the other senses?) Third, it provides support for a self-critical approach to we-valorization. (How does your preferred sense of "we" influence and limit how you evaluate and co-create we-spaces?) Finally, I distinguish these senses to more specifically articulate some cautions as we valorize we spaces. Taking a devils' advocate stance for just a moment, here are some problematic (imbalanced, pathological, etc.) phenomena to consider for each of the five senses of We listed above:
1. Feelings: The desire to create feelings of love and connection, if followed unskillfully, can lead to an "idiot compassion" that risks longer or wider goodness for more immediate or ready-at-hand good feelings. For example, a seminar that tries to create a sense of camaraderie and group excitement might deny or avoid important differences and difficult conversations. Focusing on feelings of love and connection, as opposed to expressing or acting out of it, can be part of a slippery slope toward narcissism, as in Wibler's Boomeritus phenomena. One can ask whether the gatherings that we create support difficult conversations taking place.
2. Shared meaning: It is well known that group-mind, i.e. identifying strongly with a group and its beliefs, can result in collective stupidity as well as collective intelligence. Mob mentality is one example. As another example, consider the information and spin echo-chamber created by leaders in the Republican party in the last decade. For many years the Republican strategy of flooding the mass media with repetitions of an idea in order to "make it true" in the minds of the public seemed to succeed. But in the recent elections Republicans experienced the down-side of this strategy—that the echo-chamber had hypnotized their own belief-system to such an extent that Republican leadership was literally unable to conceive of losing the election, and was put completely off-balance.
Roger Walsh, in his article "The Integral Movement: Past, Present, And Future" mentions several "traps" to watch out for, including a social closure that limits engagement with a wider community and leaves one hanging out with, and open to the influence of, only the like-minded. One can ask, what are the negative potentials in the collective identity, shared world-view, and group agendas developed by Integralists? (We must also note the numerous critics of the integral community and its most illustrious member, Wilber, which contend that there are tendencies toward intellectual hegemony, elitism, and top-down grandiosity at work in the community. Are there more than projections and hyperbole there to be considered?)
3. State experiences: The we-space experience of enlightened connection is wonderful—and can be like a direct perception of truth/goodness/beauty. I have felt that sense of merging within a group working in focused open awareness—in circle-dialogue, in dance, in creative collaboration, in contemplative service washing dishes—sensing a higher voice speaking through us all, feeling the excitement of generative potentials. One can ask: is there an addictive possibility in desiring this state? Are these states attractors that leave us stuck there and pull us back from continuing the exploration of something that might come next?
4. Emergent collective entity: The concept of collective intelligence is useful and powerful, and gives meaning to and might explain certain real (observable) phenomena, but we must ask whether we are engaged in "misplaced concreteness" (for more see the paper- Towards Post-metaphysical Enactments) when we assume that an abstract idea like group-mind exists as a quasi-energetic (or subtle) entity. Like the constructs "heaven" and "ego," it points usefully to some idea or phenomena for which one might, less usefully, replace abstraction and fluidity with concreteness and stasis. If one looks closely, there is no ego, no I. Heaven is not a place in the concrete sense. For example, when one uses statements such as "we are not being loving with each other" or "we are responsible for cleaning up" the "we" is sometimes a misplaced concreteness or problematic invention—better to address what each one is doing or responsible for.
In addition, technically, in the quadrant model the intersubjective (we) is at a holonic level above the individual. Just as molecules cannot be wet, each higher emergent holarchical level has entirely new properties. If we attribute individual-level phenomena like love or intelligence to collective-mind or emergent being we may be making a category error. (The collective can have properties we choose to call love or intelligence, but we must be careful not to define these properties in terms of their meaning for individuals.)
5. The use of "we" to point towards collective action contains the same positive and negative potentials as its use to refer to shared identity, as in #2 above, so I will not say much more about this item, except that one can ask whether any orientation toward action is too exclusively external and denies the (interior) psychological and socio-cultural aspects of an issue. (Of course the opposite caution stands, and integralists have been criticized as being too theoretical and not sufficiently engaged in action.)
Even if one does not commit any of the "errors of we" noted above, and one sticks with the productive aspects of We, is the call for integralists to come together a sound one? I believe that there's great merit and potential in collective action taken by those drawn to or inspired by Integralism. Pacific Integral and the EnlightenNext community are among those exploring new developmental territory in we-space, and their lessons-learned will be of great value to all. Wilber suggested that the inter-community factions, "partial discourses," and differences should be put aside so that we can create the alignment necessary for more substantial service to the world. I'm not privy to much of what goes on behind the scenes "politically" in the broader community, but it seems to me that, other than the snafus and ethical hot spots surrounding certain leaders in the community, integralists don't have a turf-war type of problem. The models, values, and skill sets available within the integral community should allow it to operate in a healthier way than others (while of course there is still plenty of room for improvement and growth). Though top-down and bottom-up strategies are both important, I see more value in bottom-up emergent outcomes. Rather than trying to come together under one banner or shared set of principles, resources might be better spent creating more containers and toolboxes that support the right people finding each other in taking generative actions in fluid response to what's mutually alive. (There are some nascent projects to support bottom-up organization of integralists, for example, see Integral Swarm and Integrales Forum.)
This is in part because the clarion call that we "should" come together in deeper solidarity begs the question of "why should we?" Of course there's the thorny question of who sets the collective agenda. Most might agree that it should be democratic and quasi-consensual, and not through any sort of edict. Putting the logistical complexity of a fully "integral" decision-making model aside (we will see what enduring models Holacracy, the Occupy movement, and many other systems facilitate), we must ask the more concrete practical question: What would motivate integrally-oriented individuals, leaders, or subgroups to come together under a common purpose or banner?
To invent a concrete example, what would motivate Pacific Integral, Integral Leadership Review, and the Boston Integral Commons to come together within a common framework and agenda—beyond what they already share as integrally informed collectives? Is there some higher purpose in integralism, some potential to better the world, or some inspirational homily from Wilber or another leader, that would motivate these groups to set aside a portion of their limited time and resources to collaborate deeply? I can't easily imagine it coming to be. Most groups already have deeply considered missions and processes that allocate their resources. External global "the shit has hit the fan" types of situations might provide the motivation to come together "top down" so to speak. But I believe that it's only the emergent, bottom-up processes of individuals meeting and inspiring each other that will sometimes, chaotically, allow us to find enough common ground and complementarity to create synergistic efforts and true collaborations. The top-down or systemic opportunity here is to help create systems, tools, or protocols that enable the synergy. And groups probably would band together if new resources were added to the mix. A generous grant could certainly bring the three organizations mentioned above together to do something worthwhile. This will lead me, eventually, to my thoughts about meta-sangha below.
It must be said that, though the integral community may have a sophisticated understanding of "we," and perhaps a cutting-edge vision of what its potential is, there are many other groups and communities that are more developed in terms of the capability to create or experience we-ness. For example, the National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation community holds a wealth of knowledge about group processes at all scales and depths.
Having been to many integrally-oriented events and having had many conversations with others involved in such events, it would seem that the Integral community gets a solid "B" (acceptable with much room for improvement) in its efforts to foster rich intersubjective experiences. These events are often worthwhile but sometimes disappointing in terms of their ability to intentionally structure we-experiences. Certainly the integral community cannot be said to be at the leading edge in terms of we practice, despite the fact that many individuals and leaders in the integral community operate at that edge. Most integralists, including Wilber in his "State of the We" talk, easily acknowledge that we have a good deal of work to do in creating a more integrated community and in reliably creating deep we-experiences. Still we see ourselves perennially as being at the leading edge. We probably are at some leading edge in terms of theories and ideas about intersubjectivity and human systems. Perhaps our practice falls behind our vision because those drawn to integral theories tend to have an abundantly cognitive orientation.
So, Integralists may have a lot to learn from other communities. And, our role just might be to offer our unique capacities to other groups that are more developed in the ways that we are not. So here's an idea that I had during the Boston panel—admittedly grandiose but offered to instigate conversation. What if, rather than coming together to spread integral consciousness, or even to apply integral awareness to solve the worlds problems (both noble goals), we came together to support highly developed organizations (I will avoid Wilber's somewhat problematic term "Second-tier" organizations in this article) wherever we can find them? What if, rather than trying to come together as a coherent sangha, our mission was to support other sanghas?—those that we judge as having great potential or transformative capacity to make a difference (regardless of whether they explicitly use an integral model). This would be an Integral Meta-sangha.
Rather than entering with an agenda to offer specific tools or models, we would, in service, ask them what they needed to fulfill their mission and do whatever we could to help (offering resources and putting them in touch with other sanghas for synergy). Our mission would be to identify and support groups with the greatest potential to do transformative work in the world (locally or globally). Once a group is selected (assuming some probationary period for good fit on both sides) we would trust them to articulate their needs and take wise action. What selection criteria would we use? I believe that the combination of models and principles held within the integral community regarding dynamic systems, adult development, and the integration of spiritual and contemplative principles into many facets of life, sets the stage for a unique offering. The integral community may have a superlative ability to identify organizations that have the structure, personnel, resources, mission, intelligence, heart and spirit, self-reflective capacity, and resilience to make real differences in a complex and rapidly changing world.
Though I, like most integralists, love the prefix "meta-", in this case it carries with it a sense of being overarching or hierarchically superior. So I would rather call it an "Integral Infra-sangha" to emphasize the bottom-up, behind-the-scenes type of support I'm envisioning. How seriously do I take this idea? I think it's not particularly practical or likely to happen, but I share it as a brainstorming move to broaden our ideas of what it might mean for "the integral community" to be of service to the world.
One final thought that arose in the Boston panel, coming back to the question of what single vision, purpose, or inquiry might possibly form a rallying point for many diverse integrally informed groups. I propose the question "What serves life"? (I borrow this phrase from many others. For example, a quick Google search shows that Starhawk wrote "What serves life will stand, What does not will fall.") I like this framing for action-inquiry because a fascinating complexity can be seen beneath the simplicity of the terms. I would guess that only certain individuals or organizations would be drawn to this inquiry, because of what it pre-supposes, and that it serves as both a filtering device for higher or deeper consciousness and a serviceable focus, in the following ways:
- It makes life into an object, and the object worthy of highest value. "What serves spirit" and "what serves evolution" are alternatives, but the term "spirit" is susceptible to both a diversity of loaded interpretations and an ungrounded vision, and "evolution" as a singular focus risks jargonization within the integral community, falls too easily into hegemony, and leaves out too much of the "now."
- Those drawn strongly to "what serves life?" would understand life in its complexity and depth—if one does not, the question seems simplistic or banal—not particularly interesting. Life has chaos and structure; it is dynamic and emergent; it evolves and develops. It transcends and includes matter. It is what Obi-Wan Kenobi points to in "may the force be with you." Those who resonate with these themes may be drawn in to the inquiry.
- "What serves life?" invites open awareness, flexibility, and post-rational thinking. It is a question, not an answer; nor is it a specific value like freedom or sustainability. Life is everywhere, it is wanting to happen, and one can be in its service. It is a mystery that we are a part of, that one can orient to and support, and that comes through us. The question invites us to feel into this moment for what flows with rather than moves against life.
- Each person or group might answer "what serves life?" in a different way. Holding and acting collectively within such an open-ended inquiry presupposes a certain complexity or development of consciousness. One must be open to multiple perspectives, ambiguity and paradox. Those wanting linear or well-defined visions may not be drawn to it.
- Given all of the above, "what serves life?" is a focus for inquiry and action that calls the right people together and supports the expansion of skillfulness and highly developed communities, as opposed to a calling that rallies around a particular belief system (see my paper that compares supporting beliefs with supporting capacities).
As I think about how to conclude this piece I am thinking about we—you the reader and I, and, and we—all who may read this and also the community of integrally-informed comrades. I love being associated with you (well, most of you). I desire more collaborations and action-inquiries with you. Lets not let the above musings teasing apart the many senses of We bog us down in "paralysis by analysis." Despite the problems of imprecise and confusing use of the term "we" that call for more differentiation, there can also be a "you just know it when you feel it" integrated sense of we-ness that draws us into union and action-inquiry. Yet I also believe that this integrated sensibility for We is stronger if it follows a certain capacity for the differentiation of its facets.
Do we need to come together under a common mission or vision? Do we need to stop the in-fighting and fractioning within the integral community? Perhaps not. Maybe nothing needs to be done at all. Maybe Wilber's AQAL model (and his whole incredible body of work) is a super-generative seed that has spawned, and will continue to spawn for some time, a wide diversity of new ideas, groupings, and activities that are so diverse and fast-evolving that to try to tie many of them together under one umbrella is impossible or even counter-productive. Perhaps those drawn to the integral vision will naturally tend to move and organize according to efficient, flexible self-organizing principles, such that any top-down organization is futile and wrong-headed. I think what we do need to do, we being those called to an integral, evolutionary, or post-postmodern vision, is to continue to grow, continue to grow up, and build up our capacity to serve life. That would include increasing our capacity to: take perspectives; notice, balance and transcend polarities (contemplation and action, local and global, agentic and communal; stability and emergence; etc.); understand life in terms of increasingly complex systems; feel into deeper and wider circles of compassion; and to incessantly ask ourselves the hard questions about our beliefs, intentions, and limitations. Finally, we can offer support for each other's growth and vitality, and celebrate the amazingly fertile ideas and relationships that our community affords us.
[Editors note: Once the Comments feature on the Beams and Struts site is de-activiated, please see and add your comments to Tom's article at this link- http://integralreviewofbooks.com/2013/03/03/infrasangha].
Editors- Chris Dierkes and Trevor Malkinson