An Ultimate injunction for fixing Integral's problem with Spirituality

I want to pen a few thoughts following the excellent debate/panel on the claim "Integral culture has to abandon its spirituality to have a mainstream impact" at ITC-2015. Sean Esbjorn-Hargens and Mark Fabionar argued for the motion, Terry Patten and Dustin Diperna argued against, and Rob McNamara moderated. The zero-sum "who is the winner?" Democracy-3D structure worked really well for this topic and group of participants.  It encouraged panelists to take a firm stand and resist multi-persectivalism—it generated spice and guts, as the participants danced playfully within the structure, clearly with deep love and respect for each other, even when they teased and taunted, or threw down a gauntlet. 

Just beneath the surface of that burlesque either-or debate structure were nuanced and complex questions that penetrate deep into the heart of the larger integral conversation. Its not simply a question, or even a choice, of "abandoning" spirituality, but rather one of identifying those aspects of Integral's take on spirituality that don't serve us well.

I bow deeply to the participants, who engaged with great authenticity and wisdom, even as they performed the roles assigned to them.  The panel enacted a rare form of collective shadow-work, and I'm proud to be part of a community that rises to the challenges of self-critique.  On the "yes abandon" side Sean and Mark pointed out many blood-smeared spiritual thorns in Integral's side—ghastly and sapping energy.  We heard how opportunities have been lost and collaborations rejected because potential collaborators, students, or clients are put off by what they see as new-age-yness, cultishness, hubris, or sloppy scholarship stemming from the more spiritual leaning aspects of Integral.  Do these critiques come only from blatant misunderstanding, under-developed cluelessness, or shadowy sour-grapes mysticism-envy? I don't think so—they point to very real issues and shadows of our own. 

On the "against abandoning" side Terry and Dustin easily showed that what spirituality is centrally about, deep connection with self/other/world, a focus on "that which is of ultimate concern," and normative questions of morality and human purpose—can never be "abandoned" by communities or individuals like us.  But by the end it was clear that, though spirituality was not to be abandoned from Integral's outward face or inward inquiries, certain aspects of it must be questioned and probably transformed or expunged. As all panelists agreed, we need to sacrifice some things to make space for the sacred to continue to emerge through us.

Sean was spot on in saying that we should not abandon Integral's emphasis on the "contemplative, the mystical, and the transpersonal," but that it is Integral's "current expression of spirituality" that needs to be questioned.  It is not difficult to view the results of our problem—it is clear to all of us who try to explain the Integral view to our friends and colleague—in the aspects of it we minimize or qualify, either because we know they sound off-putting or because they feel uncomfortable to us personally.  But what are the roots of the problem? I will suggest some here.

Some might boil it down to forms of hubris. This would include the misuse of Integral's grand meta-narratives and meta-models to colonize other dialogues (as Sean put it "running other traditions through the AQAL model"). It includes the flavors of superiority implied in how we position ourselves in developmental and evolutionary frameworks.  It includes excusing aggression and conceit by explaining it away as bringing our Orange and Red fully online.  We could also point to the spiritual teachers associated with Integral who, as Sean said, have "gone down in flames," hubris  presumably playing a large role.

These are all good targets for community soul-searching, but I wish to locate the problem in a more specific, if partial way. For all of the problematic phenomena mentioned above stem from the over-functioning of capacities that have positive outcomes as well.  Our meta-models and our theories of adult development can be highly generative and illuminating. The hubris of charismatics, spiritual teachers, and brilliant thinkers is commonplace (though not universal, as teachers including John Kesler and Thomas Hubl show). The unusual gifts of acclaimed teachers set up the conditions for both their unique offerings and their shadows, and the problems come more in how we surrender our individualization to them, over-identify with them, and project our baggage upon and them ("Guru Yoga" as Mark Forman put it in the panel Q&A).

So, in all of these problems, the injunction is simply to be more humble and self-reflective in navigating the polarities of skillful vs. unskillful approaches to the powerful spiritual ideas and individuals that we accept into our psyches. My suggestion here is more pointed—a "thou shalt not" that, it will be no surprise to those who familiar with my writings, stems from post-metaphysics. I will state it (and have titled this article) as an absolute injunction in playful acceptance of the Democracy 3D format used in the panel:

**Stop referring to "Ultimate Reality" in integral discourse about spirituality, metaphysics, or ontology.**

This one phrase, and others like it, can be both repellant and insulting to any reader not "in the club," and integral is, if anything, about having affecting the wide world outside of the club.  Wilber, Cohen, and other Integral leaders (perhaps Genpo Roshie) use totalizing concepts like this in part because these spiritual leaders draw strongly from the ancient wisdom traditions, where the post-metaphysical perspective is under-developed (or un-developed). (Post-metaphysics does not reject metaphysics, it supports deeper awareness of the inherent limitations of metaphysical claims.) They might be forgiven, and in any case, they are not part of my are.  You (we) don't have to follow suit.  (BTW, as far as I can tell, the panelists were, unusually, careful about terms such as Ultimate Reality within the debate, and I only detected one such use.)

Within philosophical or scholarly discourse one has the language tools of nuance and sophistication to speak of ultimates, essences, foundations, primordials, and infinities, while, as is necessary in modern times, communicating to the listener that one's perspective is always limited, subject to critique and evolution. But within spiritual discourse, which almost inevitably includes moral and normative discourse aimed at broader audiences, to claim that one has access to the truth about some "ultimate reality" is just asking for trouble. It positions one to declare that one's perceptions and claims are more privileged and valid than any reader, and more valid than the reader's teachers' (unless the author endorses a person or teacher as having adequate access to this ultimate reality).  It flies in the face of the key postmodern insight that all perspectives are partial. It smacks of ideology, esotericism, and unreflective mysticism that is guaranteed to disgust the scientific or modern instincts of potential collaborators and truth-seekers (Rob questioned its "colonialism and exceptionalism").

Note that I am not arguing against the idea that some perspectives are more adequate, and in that sense privileged over others. I am saying that any claim to an "ultimate" vantage point is untenable.  We in the Integral community all know this—what I am pointing to is a place where we don't practice what we know very well.

You might be thinking: "but spiritual Awakening does give access to ultimate truth."  If so you have drunk the Coolaid, or simply taken for granted the mystical/magical language of the ancient spiritual schools that surround us in the spiritual marketplace.  As far as I can tell from listening  to the field of spiritual adepts and mystics, ever deeper truths and realizations are always possible—there is no one ultimate truth or experience. And I have enough of a taste of mystical states and insights myself to know that that they can feel or seem to tap into the infinite, the ultimate, the essential foundation of being. We use terms such as "unbounded" and "oneness" to point to experiences that feel unbounded and all-inclusive, and are a long way toward these ideal concepts compared to "normal" modes of perception, but, if we want to be open to dialogue with others, how can we possibly claim that we, even those Awake, have reached any sort of complete terminus. Spiritual discourse needs to move beyond reliance on treating such terms literally and concretely (and beyond the misplaced concreteness of treating the particular abstract human concepts as objectively real in some way that does not apply to all abstract concepts). 

We just don't (yet) have good language to talk about these experiences in a post-modern milieu, and for many purposes, especially "within the choir," this type of language is the most accessible. It lights up the metaphorical mind with a powerful feeling of truthiness and thus-ness, but it also perpetuates the demi-real of false confidence. Playing the language game of hyperbole and ideology does not serve Integral ethical goals. The rhetoric of extremes may be appropriate for persuading, for seducing, for poetry, for giving voice to the ecstatic and, as I said, for in-choir exchange.  Hyperbole meets the needs of those who have the goal of persuading, or even inspiring or enlightening, others into a particular belief system called "Integral Spirituality." But if we see integral as more of a set of methods and principles, a type of inclusive awareness, as being more about dialogue, participation, and emergence than fixed truths—let us develop ways to speak of the contemplative, the mystical, and the transpersonal that don't sound like we our thumbs on the motherload of wisdom.

As Rob indicated in his concluding observations, spirituality is as much about the unknown as the known (and more about the unknown the more we develop).  Using terms like "Ultimate Reality" is not compatible with the vulnerable processes of letting go of knowing and certainty and opening up to the disorientating chaos within reality which are so important to the spiritual journey.  Rob said it well, that we are called to be "profoundly undecided."

There may be much that remains needed for Integral Theory (and any meta-theory) to serve globally, as the panelists put it, as a "polycentric" or "trans-lineage" mediator, convener, and provocateur—but one simple step is to clean up our language a bit. No need to abandon spirituality, just abandon a few terms.  Or, just as good, don't abandon these terms (yet), but simply observe deeply what arises in oneself and others as we use them.


--Tom Murray, July 21, 2015