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Integral Consciousness: Knowing It vs BEING It

As I further embody integral consciousness and listen to others thinkers who discuss and apply Integral theory and developmental psychology, a curious phenomenon is becoming apparent to me.

I find people in the field poorly distinguish Integral theory and Integral consciousness. They equate them, mash them together, and confuse and conflate them.

This is a result of an unfortunate name clash. On one hand we have Integral consciousness, also called Teal consciousness. This is an entire level of human development, one that’s radically different from all preceding stages.

On the other hand, there’s Integral theory, the brainchild of Ken Wilber. This theory, in Ken’s words, is ‘a radically new theoretical framework for organizing the world and the activities in it’. It’s a theory, a framework, a map of human life. Like any theory, it can be memorised, understood and applied by anybody with a reasonable degree of cognition and a good dose of patience.

Integral theory and its application, and Integral consciousness, are two different things. Let’s distinguish the two and look at why doing so is important.

What is Integral Consciousness?

A crucial part of making this distinction is understanding what Integral consciousness is. Clare Graves describes the leap to the Teal, Integral altitude (Integral consciousness) as a ‘monumental leap in meaning’. For Spiral Dynamics enthusiasts, the Teal altitude of values development is Yellow.

Graves considered it unique from all previous levels of development (‘existential states’ in his terminology). So he conceptualised it as the first stage in an altogether new tier of development. He called it the first ‘being’ level, as opposed to earlier ‘subsistence’ levels. In Integral theory, this is the first ‘2nd-tier’ level.

One of its defining features is its all-inclusiveness. It’s the first truly all-inclusive altitude. The person at Teal Integral, for the first time in their life, is multiperspectival. They have Flex-Flow consciousness (a term from Spiral Dynamics). This means they can move freely among different perspectives and see the truth in each of them. They can value and understand perspectives that many would consider absurd, crazy, evil or just plain wrong. Leo Gura from describes this altitude beautifully when discussing Spiral Dynamics. “Yellow is now looking at the world… through a camera that uses multiple lenses.”

With Integral consciousness, we become aware of the evolution of humankind and the cosmos. We see all people as imbued in the evolution of the cosmos towards greater love and fullness, including ourselves. We are attuned the contributions and beauty, and the downsides and dark sides of all preceding levels of development. Cook-Greuter says: “Developmental thinking is now an aspect of cognition, of being able to look back and see how one evolved from a totally ego-centric and self-protective (sic), to an ethnocentric, to a global or world-centric perspective.”

The Integral individual grasps that people are where they should be in their development. They’re aware of just how developed human beings can become, but also recognise that people are often blocked from further development by themselves and/or their life conditions. They make room for all of those people.

None, not one, of the preceding altitudes of development, which are overwhelmingly dominant in human beings at this point in human history, allow us to do this.

People centred at Teal Integral see the world to be deeply interconnected and whole. They set out, therefore, not to dominate and take advantage of the world and other people. Rather, they strive to nourish and actively bring forth the flourishing of the world and its inhabitants. As Cook-Greuter says: ‘[they] want to hone themselves as instruments for change’.

Think of how different the person centred in the Teal Integral altitude is from the vast majority of humankind! They’re on the leading edge of human evolution. As Wilber himself says: “The emergence of the Integral mode is a monumental turning point in evolution itself, whose impact simply cannot be overemphasised.”

And, perhaps most importantly of all, none of this depends on Integral theory. Integral consciousness came along a long time before Integral theory. We don’t need Integral theory to operate from the Integral altitude. And being centre-of-gravity Integral doesn’t mean being a master of Integral theory. Many of the structures described in Integral theory (lines, levels, types, and so on) are inherent properties of cognition at the Teal Integral altitude.

What is Integral Theory?

As I mentioned earlier, Integral theory is a theory, just that. Integral theory is a metatheory which attempts to bring together many different theories in a deliberately integrative fashion and show how they complement and relate to each other. It’s a metamap of the world, the human being, and human knowledge.

While in all fields and walks of life, practitioners, theorists, professionals and Joe Bloggs tear reality apart and only give importance to certain interpretations of it, Integral theory attempts to have us acknowledge as many aspects in possible, in a coherent, effective way.

It’s a framework. Integral theory gives us an inclusive way to analyse complex problems that doesn’t exclude any perspectives which may be important for understanding the problem. Professionals have applied it in numerous fields such as medicine, business and environmental protection.

Among its many contributions towards a holistic framework for understanding humanity, Integral theory claims that all levels of the human being should be taken into account (this is the “AL” in “AQAL”).

And one of the 10 major levels included in the All Levels segment is the Teal Integral altitude itself. The language used is a source of confusion – one component of Integral theory is the Integral level of the human being.

Another potential confusion point is that holistic theories, such as this, come from people who can see the holistic, interconnected, tapestry-like nature of life. Without such perception, they would never have the motivation to create holistic theories.

Learning theories of this sort can push your development into these higher levels. They mark out the territory and ask you to step inside.

Here are four life practices for living integral consciousness in your day-to-day.

Integral Consciousness is Not About Knowing Integral Theory

It’s easy to fall in love with Wilber’s model. It has incredible explanatory power. Its complexity appeals to complex thinkers working in certain fields. It can become your go-to map for analysing problems and you may become proficient in the quadrants, levels and lines of development, and so on.

But here’s the crux with any theory. We can learn it, remember it, and start applying it as we like. And we’ll be doing all that under the veil of interpretations and meanings that we add to the mix.

No matter how well you know the map, you will still apply the model from your active levels of development. You could be applying it quite successfully but the awareness required to fully appreciate it could be over your head. Simply knowing the map doesn’t mean you’re at an Integral altitude. 

Integral theory could likely appeal to people centred at Orange because of its complexity. Cook-Greuter argues: “Achievers can create complex theories as well as learn about complex topics. However, this is done from an external point of view: they can learn to know everything there is to know about a theory without transfer of the conceptions to their interior life.”

Cook-Greuter also discusses the human tendency to misjudge our own development. “High intelligence and access to cognitive complex thought can seduce individuals to overestimate their ego-development.”

This is particularly appealing to people who embody Orange, since they’re often preoccupied with goals, achievement and progress. It’s certainly attractive to think of ourselves as Teal if we’re achievement oriented.

Integral Theory: Knowing The Map vs Living The Map

Learning and applying Integral theory for its own sake isn’t an issue per se. Its application has produced great results in many fields, and could do so without those applying it actually being at the Integral altitude. Given its all-inclusive disposition, designing solutions using the theory likely produces less backfiring mechanisms and leads to solutions which favour all parties.

But what is an issue is that Integral practitioners and teachers often clumsily refer to “Integral” and “Integral circles”, as though knowing Wilber’s maps and being at the Integral altitude were one and the same thing. Even people with years of experience using the theory, who often appear to have downloaded the Teal altitude and beyond, poorly distinguish between the two. 

It’s clumsy theoretical work, which is a shame given the complexity and nuance of Wilber’s theory. But more importantly it can have learners confuse the maps with the Integral altitude and may fool people into thinking they’re more developed than they are. People may think that all they need to embody the Integral altitude is a theoretical knowledge of Wilber’s maps, but that’s really the least of it. 

They may be centred at Orange, or even Red, but be mislead into thinking they’re at Integral and have a wonderful theory to back up their conviction. They may then use the map to be more effective in pursuing their selfish projects. What’s more important than how well the learner knows the theory is the learner themselves and their level of development.

The Best of Both

This isn’t to suggest we don’t learn the theory, apply it, teach it or talk about it. We absolutely should! Besides, a key component of being Integral is actually perceiving the elements of Integral Theory moment to moment. As an example, the person can perceive the levels of development in their moment-to-moment experience – in themselves and in others. Therefore, it’s natural for them to talk about these levels. It’s even better if they have a theoretical framework that underpins what they already perceive.

That’s not to mention that learning theories of this kind is itself transformational. As Wilber says: ‘A truly integral framework is not an inert map, it’s a psychoactive map. It is a psychoactive system that goes through your entire bodymind and begins to activate any potentials that are not presently being used.’

I can certainly vouch for this, as can others in the field. Without immersing myself in this theoretical work, I’d never have developed as much as I have.

So I’m not advocating throwing away the theory. I simply believe that we should speak of Integral theory and Integral consciousness with more care and nuance. Doing so will improve our efforts in the world and our ability to transmit Integral consciousness and Integral theory to others.                                                                

My ebook Integral Metatheory Condensed eases your learning of Ken Wilber’s key contributions: Integral Metatheory and the AQAL model.

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