Who Am I? – An enquiry into identity

There is something that we all share…..

We all want to exist, to BE

To exist means to be something, defined and fixed, that continues through time (ie: it is in some way permanent).

In order to ‘be something’ we are compelled to define ourselves. That ‘something’ as defined is our identity.

Our identity is the primary factor that drives all of our psychological existence; who we believe ourselves to be. We all have a set of scripts, beliefs, maps and assumptions about what is ‘me’ at this present moment. For example:

I am an individual person defined in space by my skin boundary, who has thoughts, emotions, desires and dreams

I am known by such and such name

I am a son, brother, husband and uncle

I was born on such and such date

I am such and such nationality

I am a follower of such and such a religion

I am a success

I am highly competitive

I am a kind person

I am a good person

I am friendly and popular

I am not very good at maths

I am shy and introverted

I am good in a crisis

I am dependable

I am not selfish

I am not very pretty

I am pretty useless

I am damaged and repugnant

etc. etc.

Beliefs such as these make up our current self-identity. We can also include all our likes and dislikes, preferences and tastes as ‘junior’ aspects of our self-identity. The unique constellation of these identifications has been shaped by our particular life experiences and the meanings and interpretations we have taken from significant events in our lives. They are carried into the present moment by the wonderful mystery that is memory.

*(Let us note from the above list that these beliefs are not all equally accessible to being consciously articulated. Our scripts about who we are lie on a continuum of consciousness ranging from immediately accessible(‘my name is such and such’) to deeply unconscious and hidden (perhaps ‘I am damaged and repugnant’). Likewise the events and experiences that led to these identifications also lie on a continuum of conscious memory (ranging from fully remembered through simple forgetting to full on dynamic repression. The importance of these ideas will become apparent as we progress.)

So, we have an identity that we want to be permanent, so we EXIST.

This leads to inevitable consequences which seem to unfold as follows:

1. Everything that arises in our lives is perceived as either:

    • a potential threat to our identity that might undermine, contradict or dissolve who we are.
    • a potential support to our identity that might enhance, affirm or reinforce who we are.
    • rather uninteresting and dull that is simply neutral as it neither threatens or supports our ongoing ‘survival’.

2. We experience threats as painful and supports as pleasurable, that which is neutral as boring.

3. We therefore fear threats and desire supports, while generally ignoring that which is neutral.

4. Furthermore we defend ourselves from threats while enjoying supports.

5. We also try to reject threats and cling to supports.

6. If we are to grow (i.e. expand what is included within our self-identity) we must be able to feel safe enough to perceive potential threats as challenges and not let too many enjoyable supports lead to stagnation.

Such are the deep dynamics that I believe drive our lives. All fear is ultimately the fear of death, as having ones identity dissolved in any way is experienced as the agony of death. Likewise all desire is ultimately ‘selfish’ in that it aims at the pleasure of promoting, enhancing and ennobling the self (as currently identified).

Consider again our list of possible beliefs about what is ‘me’. Let us note that we could generate a mirrored list alongside the one above that contained all the opposites or the ‘not me’. It is a universal law that as soon as anything is defined as ‘X’, it is defined in contrast to ‘not X’. It is this ‘not me’ that we inevitably find so frightening and threatening, especially when it seems to arise within us and contradict who we believe ourselves to be. For example if I hold (identify with) the belief that ‘I am a nice person, nice people don’t get angry’ and I experience anger then this is experienced as a direct threat to my very survival and leads to the activation of psychological defence mechanisms (– which we shall be examining in depth as we progress).

This leads us into a crucial topic which deserves its own section – the Law of Opposites.

Before this we should make a brief digression: It may be objected at this point that, hang on, what you say may be so but we are not only selfish. We do genuinely care for and feel compassion and concern for others. Indeed this is true, and it in no way contradicts what has just been outlined. Lets follow it carefully.

We can see from our list of possible identifications of who we are that a number of them refer to being members of certain groups of people. We can note a simple point and that is that we can only be a member of a group that actually exists itself. Therefore we inevitably care about what happens to that group, which means caring about the other members of that group. Using the terminology of identification we can say:

  • I identify myself as a member of this group (family, community, ethnic, national, global).
  • I therefore identify myself with that group.
  • Hence To ensure my ‘survival’ I am compelled to promote and defend that group.
  • Which results in caring for and being concerned for the welfare of other members of that group (without whom there would be no group!).

The breadth and reach of our compassion is the breadth and reach of our identifications. This is one of the most useful ways to characterize psychological growth. We start life with a very narrow ‘egocentric’ identity (just us and close family). As what we include within our self-boundary grows and expands we identify with wider and wider groups of people (tribe, nationality, religion) and we grow to what can be termed an ‘ethnocentric’ identity. This can (unusually at this time in our collective history unfortunately) grow to a ‘worldcentric’ identity where we identify with all of humanity, as a global citizen. With every expansion of what is included inside our self-boundary there comes a corresponding expansion and widening of our circle of compassion. It is true that we are always selfish but the crucial point is that the self that we are ‘selfishly’ trying to promote, enhance and defend expands to include those with whom we identify.

It may seem awkward terminology but in a very real sense ‘I am a member of this community’ really means ‘I am this community’.

After this slight digression we can now return to examine a philosophical idea that is of profound significance:


Nothing exists by itself!

This statement may appear bold and radical but consider: Anything perceived, conceptualised, observed, defined or imagined can only exist in contrast to what it is not. As Nisargadatta states: “… to be is to be distinguishable, to be here and not there, to be now and not then, to be thus and not otherwise”.

A black picture on a black background is imperceivable. To exist it must be backgrounded with a contrasting colour. And the picture and the background are inseparable, they coexist as a single entity.

There can be no peaks without troughs, there can be no up without down, there can be no calm without turbulence, rough without smooth, wealth without poverty, good without bad, pain without pleasure and most fundamentally of all no I, me and mine without not I, not me and not mine.

This is the law of opposites and it implies that the observable universe (there is no other!) manifests in a state of profound duality and relativity. A corollary law is the law of balance which states that the opposites are always in a state of perfect balance, more of one – more of the other. The higher the peak the lower the trough. We can also note that if we add time into this law we generate the idea of cycles. This is simply the observation that the pairs of opposites cycle between each other. Pain ends in pleasure, pleasure ends in pain – endlessly. The circular Yin Yang symbol represents this beautifully and is at the heart of Daoist philosophy. When the black colour reaches its maximum breadth it contains the seed of the white, which then grows until it to turns back to black.

Furthermore the inevitable corollary from the cyclical nature of things is that all things are impermanent. They begin, last a while and then end. Nothing perceivable is permanent, for to be permanent is to be imperceivable.

Now if we recall the idea that our fundamental aim in life is to exist, to be a permanent ‘thing’ then we can start to get a glimpse of the fundamental bind that we are in.

Returning to our list of ‘I am this’ (and its implied counterpart: ‘I am not that’. The potential problems from these distinctions is not so much in acknowledging the contrast between the opposites (with no contrast nothing would or could be perceived at all!). The problem lies when we try to separate the opposites, when we try to cling to and promote a preferred ‘this’ and deny, refute and reject a despised ‘that’.

The implications of the law of opposites is far reaching and beyond this brief introduction. It will perhaps be a good start to a deeper investigation if we can start to see that many of our struggles to live a meaningful and fulfilling live are thwarted from the start as we are, in effect trying to create a beautiful wave that consists of all peaks and no troughs- an impossible task.

Our discussion can proceed in two direction from here. We can expand these fundamentals and explore how the great Wisdom traditions taught of the possibility of awakening to the fundamentally non-dual nature of reality (The ancient Hindu Upanishads describe Enlightenment as being ‘free of the pairs’). All fully developed spiritual paths of meditation and contemplation aim at this goal. Alternatively we can remain on a more mundane level and apply these ideas to an understanding of personal growth and psycho-therapy. It is always best to start a journey from where you are so we will focus on the latter. The fact is that, here and now, we believe ourselves to be a person, separate from the rest of the universe, and we must begin here. The lessons learnt will all help in understanding the non-dual teachings when we return to them by looking at what the great sages from all the different traditions have said on these matters at the end of this essay.

To this end I propose to now present an extended piece of writing from Ken Wilber. It is a chapter from the book Integral Spirituality and it is the clearest, most useful articulation of his model of psychological growth that I know. Implicit in his model are the ideas about identity that I have attempted to outline above and hopefully that introduction will provide a useful context for what follows. He has been developing these ideas throughout his thirty year career and in my view they find there most impressive formulation in this book. Wilber examines the implications of his model for psychotherapy and mindfulness meditation. I believe this is a very necessary analysis as these two worlds are increasingly drawing together as ‘mindfulness’ gains traction within Western psychology.

I have edited the chapter somewhat to ensure it stands alone (Wilber’s Integral terminology can be a little obscure to those who are unfamiliar with it) and added my own explanatory notes (in smaller font within the piece. If they disrupt the flow please just ignore them, they are meant to help not hinder!).



The Shadow and the Disowned Self:

(based on Chapter 6 of Ken Wilbers Integral Spirituality, 2006)

It’s astonishing that I can deny I. That I can take parts of my self, my I-ness, and push them on the other side of my self-boundary, attempting to deny ownership of those aspects of myself that are perhaps too negative, or perhaps too positive, to accept. Yet pushing them away does not actually get rid of them, but simply converts them into painful neurotic symptoms, shadows of a disowned self that come back to haunt me. As I look in the mirror of that which most disturbs me about the world out there, I see only the shadow of my disowned self…

This chapter is about that shadow, what it is, how it got started, and how to take it back. But one thing is certain: the great wisdom traditions, for all their wisdom, have absolutely nothing like this (the wisdom traditions refer to the meditative and contemplative paths present in all the great religions that aim at awakening the individual to a state of non-dual enlightenment. It includes Esoteric Christianity, the core teachings of the Buddha, Hindu Advaita, Sufi Islamic teachings and Jewish Kaballah to name a prominent few). I know, I’ve spent thirty years checking with students and teachers, and the conclusion is unanimous: an understanding of psycho-dynamic repression, as well as ways to cure it, is something contributed exclusively by modern Western psychology. Many meditation teachers claim that they offer something similar, but when you look closely at what they mean, it really isn’t this. Consequently even advanced meditators and spiritual teachers are often haunted by psychopathology, as their shadows chase them to Enlightenment and back, leaving road-kill all along the way.

The good news is that this is fairly easily remedied.

The Shadow: Dynamically Dissociated 1st -Person Impulses

One of the great discoveries of modern Western psychology is the fact that, under certain circumstances, 1st-person impulses, feelings, and qualities can become repressed, disowned, or dissociated, and when they do, they appear as 2nd-person or even 3rd-person events in my own 1st-person awareness. This is on of the half-dozen truly great discoveries of all time in psychology, East or West, ancient or modern.


To give a highly stylized example – and for this example ,understand that 1st-person is defined as the person speaking (e.g. “I”); 2nd-person is the person being spoken to (e.g. “you); and 3rd-person is the person being spoken about (e.g. “him”, “her”, “it”). There is also “case”, such as subjective, objective and possessive case, so that, for example, 1st-person subjective is “I”, 1st-person objective is “me”, and 1st-person possessive is “my” “mine” (try to get as familiar as you can with this terminology, as it is crucial to the following discussion). So here’s the stylized example of how repression or dissociation occurs:

If I become angry at my boss, but that feeling of anger is a threat to my self-sense or self-identity (I’m a nice person; nice people don’t get angry”), then I might dissociate or repress the anger. But simply denying the anger doesn’t get rid of it, it merely makes the angry feelings appear alien in my own awareness: I might be feeling anger, but it is not my anger. The angry feelings are put on the other side of the self-boundary (on the other side of the I-boundary, “not I”), at which point they appear as alien or foreign events in my own awareness, in my own self.

I might, for example, project my anger. The anger continues to arise, but since it cannot be me who is angry, it must be someone else. All of a sudden, the world appears full of people who seem to be very angry…, and usually at me! In fact, I think my boss wants to fire me. And this completely depresses me. Through the projection of my own anger “mad” has become “sad”. And I’m never going to get over that depression without first owning that anger.

Whenever I disown and project my own qualities, they appear “out there”, where they frighten me, irritate me, depress me, obsess me. And conversely in 9 out of 10 cases, those things in the world that most disturb and upset me about others are actually my own shadow qualities, which are now perceived as “out there”.

You might have seen the recent studies where men who were anti-gay-porn crusaders, and who had dedicated a large portion of their lives to aggressively fighting homosexual porn, were tested for their levels of sexual arousal when showed photos of gay sexual scenes. The crusaders evidenced substantially more sexual arousal than other males. In other words, they themselves were attracted to gay sex but, finding that unacceptable in themselves, spent their lives trying to eradicate it in others, while claiming they had no such nasty desires themselves. Yet all they were really doing was projecting their own despised shadows onto others, then scapegoating them (Shakespeare, as usual neatly captured this dynamic in “the lady doth protest too much methinks”).

This is why we are upset by those things, and only those things, that are reflections of our own shadows. This doesn’t mean that others do not possess the qualities that I happen to despise. My neighbour really is a control freak! But why does it bother me? It doesn’t seem to drive my wife nuts, or my other neighbours. Ah but if they could just see what a total control freak he is, they would loathe him too, like I do! But it’s my own shadow I loathe, my own shadow I crusade against. I myself am a little bit more of a control freak than I care to admit, and not acknowledging this despised quality in myself, I deny it and project it onto my neighbour – or any other hook I can find. I know somebody is a control freak, and since it simply cannot be me, it must be him, or her, or them, or it. If the despised person happens to actually possess the projected quality or drive, then that will act as a “hook” for my projected shadow, an inviting receptacle for my own similar, projected shadow (also known as “projecting into reality”). I’m saying that if you project your own shadow onto them, you will have two things you hate.

It’s that double dose of hatred that shows up as neurotic symptoms, the shadows of a disowned self. If the negative qualities of another person merely inform me, that’s one thing; but if they obsess me, infuriate me, inflame me, disturb me, then the chances are that I am caught in a serious case of shadow-boxing, pure and simple.

Those shadow elements can be positive as well as negative. We are not only a little bit nastier, but a little bit greater, than we often allow, and projecting our own positive virtues, potentials, and capacities onto others, we shadow-hug ourselves through life (where we typically admire, idolize and hero-worship those that embody our disowned positive qualities).

So here is what is happening when I dissociate and alienate my own shadow, such as my own anger. The moment I push the anger away from me, the moment I push the anger on the other side of my I-boundary, it becomes a 2nd-person occasion in my own 1st-person. That is, as I actively push the anger away from me, I am aware of the anger, but it has become a type of “you” in my own self. (As we said, 2nd-person means the person I am talking to, so 2nd -person anger means anger that I am still on speaking terms with, but it is no longer I or me or mine, it is no longer 1st-person). I might sense the angry feelings arising, but they arise in my awareness as if an angry neighbour were knocking on my door. I feel the anger, but in effect say to the anger: “what do you want?” – not “I am angry” but “Somebody else is angry, not me”.

If I continue to deny my anger, it can be completely dissociated or repressed into a 3rd-person occasion, which means I am no longer on speaking terms with it: my anger has finally become an “it” or a complete stranger in my own awareness, perhaps arising as the symptom of depression, perhaps displaced onto other people, perhaps projected onto my boss himself. My own “I”-anger has become a disowned “it”, haunting the halls of my own interiors, the ghost in the machine of my contracted self.

In short, in the course of a typical dissociation, when my angry feelings arise, they are converted from my 1st-person anger into a 2nd-or even 3rd person other in my own awareness: aspects of my “I” now appear as an “it” in my own “I”, and these “it” feelings and objects completely baffle me: this depression, IT just comes over me. This anxiety IT’s driving me crazy. These headaches, I don’t know where THEY come from, but I get them when I’m around my boss. Anything except “I am very angry”, because this anger, it is no longer mine. I am a nice person, I would never have anger – but these headaches are killing me.

That highly stylized example is meant to highlight a phenomenological train of events: certain “I-subjects” can arise in awareness (“I am f**king angry!”), be pushed away or denied, and the alienated feelings, impulses or qualities put on the other side of the I-boundary: I now feel them as other (“I’m a nice person, I’m not angry, but I know somebody is angry, and since it can’t be me, it must be him!”). Once that happens, the feeling or quality does not cease to exist, but ownership of it does. These dis-owned feelings or qualities can then appear as painful and baffling neurotic symptoms – as “shadow” elements in my own awareness.

The goal of psychotherapy, in this case, is to convert these “it feelings” into “I feelings”, and thus re-own the shadow. The act of re-owning the shadow (converting 3rd-person to 1st-person) removes the root cause of the painful symptoms (I.e: expanding one’s self-identity, “I am…”, to include that which was formerly deemed not I). The goal of psychotherapy, if you will, is to convert “it” into “I”


The entire notion of the psycho-dynamic unconscious actually comes from this type of experiential evidence and enquiry. It is not usually remembered that Freud, for example, was a brilliant phenomenologist who, in many of works, was doing exactly this type of interior phenomenology and hermeneutics (phenomenology in my own 1st-person and hermeneutics when my own 1st– person impulses become 2nd or 3rd -person impulses and symbols in my own awareness that require hermeneutic interpretation as if I were talking to someone else: These symptoms, what do they mean?).

This is not a far-fetched reading of Freud, but it is a reading obscured by the standard James Strachey English translation of Freud. Not many people know that Freud never – not once – used the terms “ego” or “id”. When Freud wrote he used the actual pronouns “the I” (das Ich) and “the it” (das Es). Strachey decided to use the Latin words, ego and id, to make Freud sound more scientific. In the Strachey translation, a sentence might be: “Thus looking into awareness, I see that the ego has certain id impulses that distress and upset it”. Translated that way, it sounds like a bunch of theoretical speculation. But Freud’s actual sentence is: “Looking into my awareness, I find that my I has certain it impulses that distress and upset the I”. As I said Strachey uses the Latin terms because he thought it made Freud look more scientific, whereas all it did is completely obscure Freud, the brilliant phenomenologist of the dis-owned self.

Perhaps Freud’s best known summary of the goal of psychotherapy is: “Where id was, there ego shall become”. What Freud actually said was: “Where it was, there I shall become”.

Isn’t that beautiful? “Where it was, there I shall become”. I must find the alienated parts f myself – the its – and re-own them into I. It’s hard to find a better summary, even to this day, of what psychotherapeutic shadow work is all about.

The approach we use in Integral Training (Wilber is here referring to the practices and therapeutic tools developed by the Integral Community, a term used to describe the researchers and practitioners who affiliate themselves with the general inclusive approach to consciousness studies pioneered by Ken Wilber) is not specifically Freudian or Jungian – we don’t use “psycho-dynamic” exactly as Freud did, and we don’t use “shadow” the way that Jung did – but I want to briefly touch bases with what that original psycho-dynamic research was doing, because that methodology itself is still as valid today as ever, even more so, now that it is rapidly being forgotten in the rush to take a pill instead (referring to the colonization of this field by the medical model of mental health), or try to meditate (by mindfully detaching) the shadow away, neither of which will get at it.

So let’s take a quick tour here, and I’ll share with you how we have updated this absolutely essential practice of finding, facing and re-owning the most feared and resisted aspects of ourselves…


There are a million interesting ways to go with the discussion, but I would like to emphasize just a few short summary points.

The essential discovery of Freud and an entire lineage of what might be called psycho-dynamic phenomenology is that certain experiential I-occasions can become you, he, she, them, it or its within my own I-space. Certain I-impulses can be dis-owned, and there is a felt resistance to re-owning these feelings (“All of psychoanalysis is built upon the fact of resistance”). In other words, feelings and resistance to feelings are the central realities here – they are 1st-person experiential realities about “I” and “it”, not theoretical speculations about egos and ids, whatever those are!

The discovery of this specific type of resistance to certain present feelings of my I-sense is indeed one of the great discoveries of the modern West. As we will continue to see, there really is nothing like this particular shadow-understanding anywhere else.

Around those experiential phenomena, various theoretical scaffoldings can be built. Freud of course, had his own theories about why his patients resisted their feelings. Today not many of his theoretical speculations hold up well (especially unfortunate being perhaps Freud’s emphasis on the causal role of sexual impulses and his woeful mis-understanding of female sexuality), but his theoretical speculations should not obscure the central experiential issue, which Freud absolutely nailed: I can deny my own feelings, impulses, thoughts and desires. There is a phenomenology about all of that – about how I resist my own feelings and deny my own self – a phenomenology that needs to be continually refined and included in any integral psychology.


“Not through introspection but only through history do we come to know ourselves”. This quote from Dilthey is a superb summary of the West’s second great contribution to self-understanding – namely; Genealogy (or historical consciousness), by whatever name. Freud is also in this general lineage. He points out that although we may discover shadow-resistance by introspecting in a certain way our own present experience, this gives way very soon to the further secrets unmasked by genealogy (i.e. the secrets of the memory of our life experiences to date).

Freud is only one of a very large number of Western researchers who attempted not only a phenomenology of present I-symptoms, but a rather extraordinary type of phenomenology of the early stages of I-development – the first weeks, months, and years of life. These investigators were looking at how these early stages of I-development might be conceptualized and researched from without, but also what they might feel like from within: how, in the early stages of the I, various aspects of my felt-I might actually be pushed away and denied – alienated, dissociated, broken, and fractured – leaving an entire developmental trail of tears. Viewed from without this is the standard, psycho-dynamic, developmental hierarchy of defences, which is certainly important (I have found the wonderful book Why Do I Do That by Joseph Burgo to be a fantastic practical introduction to the range of defence mechanisms that we all use in everyday life). But viewed from within, it is also the story of the self’s journey – the felt story of my I’s journey – it’s hopes and fears and self-contractions during the course of my I’s growth and development. To expand on that somewhat – from without, defences can indeed be conceptualized as a hierarchy of defences, running developmentally from fusion to splitting to dispacement to repression to inauthenticity to systematization and so on. But from within, this is felt as a threat zone, a defensive boundary that is experienced as fear, not as a hierarchy of defenses (this refers directly back to the fundamentals outlined in the opening section of this presentation). From within, the hierarchy of defences is just the many ways that fear can be felt, the many ways that I can contract in the face of that fear, and the many aspects of my felt-self that I can consequently deny, displace, repress, project, and alienate, resulting in psychological miscarriages, malformations, pain, and suffering.

Both of these views – from within and without – need to be kept in mind for an integral approach, and although few theorists would see it in exactly those terms, that development includes the essential inside story of the growth – and dysfunctions – of my “I”. The essential point here is that, especially in it’s early stages, the 1st-person I can be damaged, showing up later as 3rd-person symptoms and shadows within my 1st-person awareness.

This view of the early stages of I formation – this phenomenological history of the damaged-I (especially during the first few years of life) – is part of the entire movement to understand the shadow, to understand the shadow, to understand false consciousness in its many forms (and in this case, it is the shadow that is created in the history or the genealogy of my own self). This overall shadow-understanding is indeed one of the great contributions of Western psychology, a specific contribution we find nowhere else in the world.


Here is where the story collides with meditation and contemplation (specifically Wilber is referring largely to the various schools of mindfulness meditation where a stance of detached witnessing is taken as the key formal practice. The following discussion equally applies to the rapidly developing field of generic ‘mindfulness practices’ being applied by modern Western therapeutic practitioners). What those Western “shadow researchers” discovered, as we began to note, is that in the early stages of development, parts of the self (parts of the “I”) can be split off or dissociated, whereupon parts of the self appear as shadow and symptom, both of which are “its” (i.e. aspects of I appear as it). Once the repression occurs, it is still possible to experience the anger, but no longer the ownership of the anger.

The anger, starting as an “I”, is now an “it” in my awareness, and I can practice vipassana meditation (or any generic detached witnessing mindfulness meditation) on that it-anger as long as I want, where I use “bare attention” in my meditation and simply note that “there is anger arising, there is anger arising” – but all that will do is refine and heighten my awareness of anger as an it. Meditative and contemplative endeavours simply do not get at the original problem, which is that there is a fundamental ownership-boundary problem. Getting rid of the boundary, as meditation might, simply denies and suspends the problem on the plane that it is real. Painful experience has demonstrated time and again that meditation simply will not get at the original shadow, and can, in fact often exacerbate it.

Amidst all the wonderful benefits of meditation and contemplation, it is still hard to miss the fact that even long-time meditators still have considerable shadow elements (or put another way: deeply neurotic personalities!). And after 20 years of meditation, they still have those shadow elements. Maybe it is, as they claim, that they just haven’t meditated long enough. Perhaps another 20 years? Maybe it’s that meditation just doesn’t get at this problem…

Here is how general developmental theory conceptualises this important issue. Start with normal or healthy development. Robert Kegan, echoing developmentalists in general, has pointed out that the fundamental process of psychological development (or growth) itself can be stated as: the subject of one stage becomes the object of the subject of the next stage.

Thus, for example (and to speak in very generalized terms), if I am at a certain stage of development (Wilber has written extensively on what these ‘stages’ are and how they can be understood and defined. For the purpose of this piece standing alone I am not going to use standard Integral terminology here as it will confuse and obscure the main theme), that means my I – that my subject – is completely identified with that level (call it level 1 for simplicity), so much so that I cannot see the structures of level 1 as object, but instead use it as subject with which and through which I see the world. But when I move to the next stage (say level 2) then level 1 becomes an object in my awareness, which itself is now identified with the structures of level 2 – thus my level 2-subject now sees level 1-objects, but cannot itself be seen (i.e. level 2 is now the embedded unconscious of the self, as opposed to the submerged unconscious which refers to the denied and repressed material. The identification of these two distinct types of unconscious process are one of Wilbers great contributions: see The Atman Project)). If level 1 thoughts or impulses arise in my I-space, I will see them as the objects of my (now level 2) self. Thus, the subject of one stage becomes the object of the subject of the next stage, and that is indeed the fundamental process of developmental growth. As Gebser puts it, the self of one stage becomes the tool of the next.

As generically true as that is, it doesn’t yet tell the full story. That is a 3rd– person way of conceptualizing the process; but in direct 1st– person terms, it is not simply that the subject of one stage becomes the object of the subject at the next stage, but that the I of one stage becomes the me of the I of the next stage.

That is, with each stage of healthy I-development, 1st-person subjective becomes 1st-person objective (or possessive) in my I-space: “I” becomes “me” (or “mine”). The “level 1” subject becomes the object of the “level 2” subject, which in turn becomes the object of the “leve 3” subject and so on – but objects that are owned – not just “objects of a subject” but my objects of my subject (i.e., I becomes me or mine).

Thus for example, a person might say, “I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts, I have feelings but am not my feelings” – the person is no longer identified with them as a subject, but still owns them as an object – which is indeed healthy, because they are still owned as my “my thoughts”. That ownership is crucial. If I actually thought that the thoughts in my head were somebody else’s thoughts, that is not transcendence, but severe pathology. So healthy development is the conversion of 1st-person subjective (“I”) to 1st-person objective or possessive (“me” or “mine”) within the I-stream. This is the very form of healthy transcendence and transformation: the I of one stage becomes the me of the I of the next.


(This section is probably the most important of this whole chapter)

Whereas healthy development converts I into me, unhealthy development converts I into it. This is one of the most significant disclosures of this Integral approach. Those studying the psychology of meditation (again, including all mindfulness based paths) have long been aware of two important facts that appear completely contradictory. The first is that in meditation, the goal is to detach or dis-identify from whatever arises (this is indeed the very definition of mindfulness practice). Transcendence has long been defined as a process of dis-identification. And meditation students were actually taught to dis-identify with any I or me or mine that showed up.

But the second fact is that in pathology, there is a dis-identification or dissociation of parts of the self, so dis-identify is the problem, not the cure. So, should I identify with my anger, or dis-identify with it? (this is the million dollar question that Wilber has been driving towards!).

BOTH, but timing is crucial – developmental timing in this case. If my anger arises in awareness, and it is authentically experienced and owned as my anger, then the goal is to continue dis-identification (let go of the anger and the self experiencing it – thus converting that “I” into a “me”, which is healthy). But if my anger arises in awareness and is experienced as your anger or his anger or an it anger – but not my anger – the goal is to first identify with and re-own the anger (converting that 3rd-person “it anger” or “his anger” or “her anger” to 1st-person “my anger” – and REALLY own the bloody anger) – and then one can dis-identify with the anger and the self experiencing it (converting 1st-person subjective “I” into 1st-person objective “me” – which is the definition of healthy “transcend and include”). But if that re-ownership of the shadow is not first undertaken, then meditation on anger simply increases the alienation – meditation becomes “transcend and deny”, which is exactly the definition of pathological development.

This is why indeed even advanced meditators often have so much shadow material that just won’t seem to go away. And absolutely everyone can see it except them. The recent twist in the Oprahization of America is that meditation teachers get together and talk endlessly about all their shadow issues, demonstrating that they can bring enormous mindfulness to their shadows, just not cure them! (for more juicy polemic on the topic of what is going a bit wrong in the Western meditation culture I highly recommend Daniel Ingram’s “Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha”).

The point is that these two facts about “detachment” or “dis-identification” that were so puzzling can now be stated fairly succinctly: Healthy development converts I into me; pathological development converts I into it. The former is healthy dis-identification or healthy detachment or healthy transcendence, the latter is unhealthy dis-identification or pathological dissociation or pathological transcendence or repression.

It thus appears – if we may summarize the discussion this way – that healthy development and healthy transcendence are the same thing, since development is “transcend and include”. The subject of one stage becomes the object of the subject of the next , thus owning but transcending that subject, until – in an idealized sequence – all relative subjects and selves (i’e. all limited self-identifications) have been transcended and there is only the Pure Witness or the Pure Self, the empty opening in which Spirit speaks. (We will return to this more “spiritual” approach to the question of “who we really are” in the next section after we have finished Wilber’s presentation).

More specifically, we saw that in each stage of self development, the I of one stage becomes the me of the I of the next stage. As each I becomes the me, a new and higher I takes its place (for those sensitive to any mention of “higher” anything, the term higher is used simply to indicate that it is a more inclusive I), until there is only I-I, or the pure Witness, pure Self, Pure Spirit or Big Mind. When all the I’s have been converted to me’s experientially nothing but “I-I” remains (as Ramana Maharshi called it – the I that is aware of the I), the pure Witness that is never a seen object but always the pure Seer, the pure Atman that is no-atman, the pure self that is no-self. I becomes me until there is only I-I, and the entire manifest world is “mine” in I-I. (again many of these terms are from the Wisdom traditions and are used to point out what is meant by liberation, enlightenment, self-realization, god-consciousness etc., which are the end states of all the great meditative paths throughout human history, Wilber is attempting to demonstrate that the same fundamental framework applies to both Western conceptions of psychological growth and that found in the teachings of Enlightenment – This will be expanded on after we have finished Wilber’s chapter).

But at any point in that development, if aspects of the I are denied ownership, they appear as an it, and that is not transcendence, that is pathology. Denying ownership is not dis-identification but denial. It is trying to dis-identify with an impulse BEFORE ownership is acknowledged and felt, and that dis-ownership produces neurotic symptoms, not liberation. And once that prior dis-ownership has occurred, the dis-identification and detachment process of meditation will likely make it worse, but in any event will not get at the root cause.


Meditation, for all its wonders, cannot get directly at the original shadow damage, which is a boundary ownership problem (in terms of our fundamentals the boundary is the one between that which is identified as “I” and that which is “not I”, hopefully one can now see how crucial the issue of identity or “who am I?” is). In the course of development and transcendence, when the I of one stage becomes the me of the I of the next stage, if at any point in that ongoing sequence, aspects of the I are dis-identified with prematurely – as a defensive denial and dis-ownership and dissociation (which happens in the I before they become me, or truly transcended) -then they are split off from the I and appear as a “you” or even an “it” in my awareness (not as a me/mine in my awareness). Thus my object world contains two entirely different types of objects: those that were once owned correctly and those that were not.

And these two objects are phenomenologically indistinguishable. But one of these objects is actually a hidden subject, a hidden I, a sub-agency (or in progressed cases, a sub-personality) that was split off from my I, and thus that hidden-I can never be truly transcended because it is an unconscious identification or an unconscious attachment (it can never be truly transcended because it cannot become a me of my I, because my I no longer owns it). Thus when I witness this anger, it is your anger, or it-anger or his anger, but not my anger. This shadow-anger, which arises as an object like any other object in my awareness, is actually a hidden-subject that was split off, and simply witnessing it as an object again and again and again only reinforces the dissociation.

This shadow-anger is therefore a fixation that I will never be able to properly transcend. In order to transcend shadow-anger, that “it must first be made into an “I”, and then that “I” can become “me/mine”, or truly and actually dis-identified with, let go of, and transcended. Getting at this damage, and re-owning the dis-owned facets of the self, is the crux of therapy, and is a central part of any integral approach to psychology and spirituality.

This can be summarized very succinctly: dis-identifying with an owned self is transcendence, dis-identifying with a dis-owned self is double dissociation.

Meditation does both.


By way of a summary, I will walk through the dis-owning process one more time. If this is already clear to you, please forgive the repetition.

We began with anger as a sample shadow-impulse. The anger starts out as a 1st-person reality (my anger; I am angry, I have anger). For various reasons – fear, self-restrictions, super-ego judgements, past trauma, etc – I contract away from my anger and push it on the other side of the I-boundary, hoping thereby not to get punished for having this horrible emotion. “My anger” has now become “anger that I am looking at, or talking to, or experiencing, but it is not my anger!” In that moment of pushing away – that moment of resisting or contracting – in that moment of pushing away, 1st-person anger has become a 2nd-person presence in my own 1sr-person I-stream. If I push further, that anger becomes 3rd-person: I am no longer even on speaking terms with my own anger. I might still feel this anger somehow – I know somebody is angry as hell, but since it cannot be me, it must be you, or him, or her, or it. Come to think of it, John is always mad at me! Which is such a shame, since I myself never get angry at him, or at anybody really.

When I push the anger on the other side of my I-boundary, it appears as a 2nd– or 3rd-person feeling that is nonetheless still within my I-stream. I can still feel “his anger” or “her anger” or the “it anger”. If the projection actually worked, after all, I would never feel it again and I would not have any problems. I would throw the anger out, and that would be that. It would be like amputating a leg – it would be totally gone, and it would really work – painful as it might be, I’d actually get rid of the leg-anger. But I am connected to my projection by the secret ownership of the anger (it is not really an object but my own hidden subject). It would be like not cutting my leg off, just claiming that it is really your leg. It’s not my leg, it’s your leg! It’s not my anger it’s your anger! (now that’s a major dysfunction isn’t it?).

So the hidden attachment or hidden-subjective identity of the “other’s feeling” always connects the projection to its owner by a series of painful neurotic symptoms. Every time I push the anger on the other side of my I-boundary, what remains in its place on this side of the I-boundary is a painful symptom, a pretend lack of the alienated feeling that leaves, in its place, psychological pain. Subject has become shadow has become symptom.

So now we have dissociated or dis-owned anger within my own I-stream. This anger might indeed be projected onto others “out there”. Or it might be dissociated and projected into parts of my own psyche, or perhaps showing up as a monster in my dreams, a monster that always hates me and wants to kill me. And I wake up sweating from these nightmares.

Lets say that I’m doing a very sophisticated meditation practice such as Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana Buddhism), and I am working with “transmuting emotions”. This is a very powerful technique in which one contacts a present negative emotion, feels into it with ever present non-dual awareness and brilliant clarity (read: sustained and comprehensive mindfulness), and then allow the negative emotion to transmute into its corresponding transcendental wisdom.

So I start with my nightmare, and I notice that I have fear because of this monster. In the face of this monster, I feel a great deal of fear. So to transmute this emotion, I am instructed to feel into the fear, relax into the fear, and then let it uncoil and self-liberate into its corresponding wisdom of transparency.

Fine. Except that the fear itself is an inauthentic and false emotion (i.e. the product of repression), and transmuting inauthentic emotions not only presumes and reinforces the inauthenticity, it converts it into what might be called inauthentic wisdom, which is wisdom resting on a false base. And the repression is still in place! You haven’t done a thing for that. So each time you experience anger, it will be projected to create monsters all around you, which will bring up fear in you (which is really fear of your own anger, not fear of that monster), and you will get in touch with that fear and transmute that fear – NEVER getting at the real and authentic emotion of anger. You will own the inauthentic emotion of anger, not the authentic emotion of anger.


The therapeutic “3-2-1” process that Integral Institute has developed to help in these cases consists in turning those 3rd-person monsters (or “its”) back into 2nd-person dialogue voices (“you”) – which is very important – and then going even further and re-identifying with those voices as 1st-person realities that you re-own and re-inhabit using, at that point, “I” monologues not voice dialogues. You end up with, “I am a very angry monster that wants to kill you!!”

Doing so you are now in touch with an authentic emotion, and it is anger, not fear. Now you can practice transmuting emotions, and you will be transmuting authentic emotions, not inauthentic emotions (transmuting can be simply understood as the liberating insight of detached mindfulness “I have anger, but I am not that anger”). You will be moving 1st-person subjective into 1st-person objective/possessive – NOT into 2nd– or 3rd-person – and then you can let go of it, transmute it, or self-liberate it – and that is now true non-attachment and healthy dis-identification.

Doing so, you will have worked with the repression barrier that first converts anger into fear – and you will not simply do vipassana on fear, or witness fear, or dialogue with fear, or transmute fear, or take the role of fear, or directly experience fear – all of which seal the shadow and ensure that it will remain with you all the way to Enlightenment and beyond. Failing to work with the actual mechanism of dissociation (1 to 2 to 3) and therapeutic ownership (3 to 2 to 1), meditation becomes a way to get in touch with your infinite Self, while reinforcing inauthenticity in your everyday finite self, which has broken itself into fragments and projected some of them onto others, where there the disowned fragments hide, even from the sun of mindfulness, shadow-weeds in the basement that will sabotage every move you make from here to eternity….

That concludes Ken Wilber’s chapter on the Shadow and the Dis-owned Self. Plenty of food for thought I hope you’ll agree!

As promised within the above text we must now return to tie up how our analysis dovetails with the great Wisdom traditions. The following section is on the one hand ultra mystical, while simultaneously being almost too simple to grasp. It is absolutely not necessary to engage with the following ideas to benefit from the insights into identity and psychotherapeutic work that we have been focussing on thus far. Also, although mindfulness meditation practices were originally designed to lead to ultimate insights into the nature of reality, the myriad secondary benefits of engaging in these practices should not be dismissed. However for those who are interested in these things, please read on…


We began with the fundamental issue of who we think we are. We have traced, with Ken Wilber, the twists and turns, the pitfalls and triumphs of how we grow and develop by, on the one hand, realistically including more of our experience within our self-identity, and on the other hand, seeing that the very fact of ‘having’ it means that we cannot ‘be’ it.

Where does this all lead? Wilber’s work gives us a tantalising glimpse of a more radical solution to our identity issues, a view we mentioned in the opening section on fundamentals. A radically non-dual solution to the problems of a dualistic universe.

Returning to our list of ‘I am….’ that we started this essay with, we can see that the very first, primary thought which all the rest rely on is: ‘I am a body, in the world’. Do we dare to challenge this? Do we dare to consider the possibility that this too may be simply a thought and not a pre-given fact? And, pushing even further can we even challenge the root of it all – the thought ‘I AM’ itself? Who says ‘I am’? Must I not be already present to know ‘I am’. Who is it that knows ‘I am’? – Indeed WHO AM I?

Not just ‘What sort of person am I?’ which is what most people assume this question means but ‘Who or what is it that identifies myself as being a person.?’ – What makes me say ‘I am?’.

This line of enquiry is the one that all the great Sages of the worlds Wisdom traditions have taken. And they are in universal agreement as to what the answer to our question is. All of them in their own way, and rooted in their own traditions, when asked the question Who am I?, throw us back on ourselves with: ‘Find out to whom the question arises‘. Indeed one could say that this is the ultimate answer to any serious question. I do not want to make a long drawn out philosophical argument for this so let’s just let them speak for themselves and try to feel our way into what they are trying to tell us, and remember, although these words are attributed to various long dead, exotic sounding persons, they are actually words that you yourself wrote, to yourself, to remind you of who you really are…..

From Christianity:

Be still and know that I AM God

The Bible

I am that I AM

The Bible

As long as I am this or that, I am not all things


From Islam:

You are like a mirage in the desert, which the thirsty man thinks is water, but when he comes up to it he finds nothing. And where he thought he was, there he finds God.

The Koran

When a man is awakened, he melts and perishes


From Buddhism:

With the removal of the ‘I’ illusion…this one will act with utmost freedom, with fearlessness, like the Buddha himself, indeed as the One.

D.T. Suzuki

From Hinduism:

Where there are two there is fear


The trouble arises when one says, ‘I am this or that’. Be yourself, that is all

Ramana Maharshi

There is no one who does not say ‘I am’. The wrong knowledge of ‘I am the body’ is the cause of all the mischief. This wrong knowledge must go. That is realisation. Realisation is not the acquisition of anything new nor is it a new faculty. It is only removal of all camouflage. The ultimate truth is so simple. It is nothing more that being in the supreme state. This is all that needs to be said.

Ramana Maharshi

Arranging thoughts in the order of value, the ‘I-thought’ is the all important thought. Personality-idea or thought is also the root or stem of all other thoughts, since each idea or thought arises only as someone’s thought and is not known to exist independently of the ego. The ego therefore exhibits thought activity. The 2nd– and 3rd-persons do not appear except to the 1st-person. Therefore they arise only after the 1st-person appears. Trace then the ultimate cause of the ‘I’ or personality.

Ramana Maharshi

The final word goes to Nisargadatta, whose words awakened me to the possibility of the truth of all this…

You cannot possibly say that you are what you believe yourself to be! Your ideas about yourself change from day to day and from moment to moment. Your self-image is the most changeful thing you have. It is utterly vulnerable, at the mercy of a passer-by. A bereavement, the loss of a job, an insult, and your image of yourself, which you call your person, changes deeply. To know what you are, you must first investigate what you are not, you must watch yourself carefully, rejecting all that does not necessarily go with the basic fact ‘I am’. The ideas: I am born at a given place, at a given time, from my parents and now I am so-and-so, living at, married to, father of, employed by, and so on, are not inherent in the sense ‘I am’. Our usual attitude is of ‘I am this’. Separate consistently and perseveringly the ‘I am’ from ‘this’ or ‘that’ and try to feel what it means to BE, just to BE, without being ‘this’ or ‘that’. All our habits go against it and the task of fighting them is long and hard sometimes, but clear understanding helps a lot. The clearer you understand that on the level of mind you can be described in negative terms only, the quicker you will come to the end of your search and realize your limitless being.

Nisargadatta Maharaj

Socio-Cultural Evolution 2 – worldviews

The table below was introduced in the first blog in this series socio-cultural evolution 1. It suggests that there are clearly identifiable stages of development of deep cultural value systems.


courtesy of ICE
Explaining the rich complexity of these conceptions is beyond our scope here. I will make a few points that hopefully start to clarify some of the key ideas:
  1. These worldviews appear in individuals as ‘mind-sets’ that underpin behaviour. When they coalesce in societies as dominant modes of thinking and being they can be identified as forming the basis of that communities organizing principles and norms of law and behaviour (ie: the centre of gravity of the ‘culture’ of that society).
  2. Each worldview provides a framework for meaning, an idea of what ‘the good life’ is and a distinct identity for the individual or community that identifies with that structure.
  3. These worldviews unfold developmentally in both individual lives and the bigger sweep of socio-cultural development. Each structure transcends and includes the previous one. A good way of visualising this for an individual is that our compound individuality consists of a number of ‘sub-selves’ much like a nest of Russian dolls. It is the interaction of this ‘committee’ of selves, each with their own worldview that makes up the richness of our character.russian-dolls
  4. This means we have to be very careful and sensitive when correlating individual stages of life such as infancy, childhood, adolescence and adulthood with cultural phases of development such as pre-traditional, traditional, modern etc. Although it can be demonstrated that these structures share similar cognitive foundations, they are obviously very different in many ways. (I have lost count of the number of times I have lost people on this when I crassly refer to entire communities as ‘adolescent’!!)
  5. A person or community is never ‘at’ a level. All the levels up to and including the highest stage realised is available as a crucial component in ones compound individuality and the key enduring competencies of any structure can be activated by suitable life conditions. Often the more stressful and threatening the situation, the more the foundational ‘survival’ structures are activated.
  6. It is meaningful however to identify the highest structure that has stably emerged in a society or individual. This will be the structure that is active when we are ‘at our best’ or, conversely, if we fail to act from our most inclusive and wise self we feel we have ‘let ourselves down’.


I would like to quote Wilber, to reinforce the inclusiveness of these models:
An Integral Synthesis, to be truly integral, must find a way that all of the major worldviews are basically true (even though partial). It is not that the higher levels are giving more accurate views, and that the lower levels are giving falsity, superstition or primitive nonsense. There must be a sense in which even ‘childish’ magic and Santa Claus myths are true. For those worldviews are simply the way the world looks at that level, or from that wave, and all the waves are crucial ingredients of the Kosmos….
….It will do no good to say “Well we have evolved beyond that stage, and so we now know that Santa Claus is not real,” because if that is true – and all stages are shown to be primitive and false in light of further evolution – then we will have to admit that our own views, right now, are also false. It is not that there is one level of reality, and those other views are all primitive and incorrect versions of that one level. Each of these views is a correct view of a lower yet fundamentally important level of reality, not an incorrect view of the one real level. The notion of development allows us to recognize nested truths, not primitive superstitions.    Wilber, A Theory of Everything

I like this passage as it really emphasises the inclusive aim of the integral project. The next post in this series will try and flesh out some of the contours and characteristics of the major worldviews.

I would also like to highly recommend the system of worldview analysis that is Spiral Dynamics. It is a very elegant system that uses colour codings to identify at least 8 distinct ‘Value Meme’s’. It is one of the most useful models in that the terminology facilitates very precise analysis and diagnosis of the complex multi-dimensional meshing of these systems and how they play out in the real world.

Some links to follow:
SDi home website:         Spiral Dynamics.net
An excellent book review:  Spiral Dynamics book review Esalen
Ken Wilber’s summary of the model:  Ken Wilber on SD




Socio-Cultural Evolution 1- surface/deep culture

I want to launch into the controversial topic of socio-cultural evolution. This is the idea that there can be identified certain cross-cultural stages of development that appear to be universal.

Firstly we need to make an important distinction. We can distinguish between two aspects of any culture:

exterior/surface culture

Surface culture includes all the superficial expressions of a culture. Whether we wear a sari or a suit, wear a bowler hat or a headscarf, eat curry or fish and chips, pray in a church or a mosque, listen to reggae or bangra, drive on the left or the right, celebrate Eid or Christmas. These are the things that make life vibrant, interesting and colourful. They are what most people mean when talking of the joys of multi-culturalism, diversity and tolerance. They are the aspects of culture where there is no better or worse or higher and lower. There is simply personal preference, historical familiarity and sentimental attachment. Although we need to be sensitive to peoples preferences and fear of the unfamiliar there is no question of legitimately ranking these aspects of culture in terms of ‘more evolved’ or ‘less evolved’.

interior/deep culture

Deep culture refers to the hidden value systems and world-views that lie behind the surface expressions. Whether we believe in gender equality or misogyny, whether we believe in individual freedom or subservience to a theocratic dogma. Is truth handed down from the king, an omnipotent deity or do we need to use reason to struggle towards understanding the universe? Is our primary allegiance to elders and the clan, our nation state or all of humanity? How do we understand concepts like honour, freedom, guilt and duty?

These are the aspects of cultures that can legitimately be studied and examined for patterns and stages. We can attempt to outline how these stages could be related in a holonic way, with each stage transcending and including the last. Perhaps to see how modern, progressive and inclusive worldviews are a result of building on successive stages of previous development. This will enable us to honour and respect the contributions of all worldviews whilst negating the negative effects of their partiality.

We may then have a framework for trying to discuss and untangle some of the enormous cultural dynamics that the globalised world is facing today.

An organisation at the forefront of developing these ideas is the Institute for Cultural Evolution.

This excellent paper on their site explores the philosophy underpinning this approach:

Premises and Principles of an Evolutionary Worldview

The next post on this topic will introduce some of the cultural worldviews that have been identified in these types of models. As a taster here is an excellent diagram from the ICE that illustrates the sort of information that can be organized using this approach. I will be using this diagram extensively!

1_X5JZveA4ZcOkFQvCDYbK-A[1]courtesy of Institute for Cultural Evolution


Beyond Left and Right 1

A large amount of political discourse and commentary is dominated by the categorization of views and perspectives as either left wing or right wing (or left leaning or right leaning). What do people really mean by these labels? In my experience if you ask most people this question they will come up with a list of policy examples that they think typify each stance. For example they might say that a belief in the free market is right wing or that a belief in the welfare state is left wing. People typically struggle to generalise and come up with a coherent general definition. If pushed people often come out with some version of:

‘left wingers are kind and caring and right wingers are really selfish’ (from a left winger!)

‘left wingers are fluffy dreamers and right wingers are realistic and practical’ (from a right winger!)

neither of these positions give much credit to the alternative view and it is little wonder that dialogue and mutual understanding is so difficult with these attitudes.

Ken Wilber and the Integral approach seeks, no surprise, to find a way to reconcile and integrate these two perspectives.  We must start with a more precise way of understanding what is meant by these concepts.

Firstly what is politics all about? At its most fundamental it is an attempt to make people in society less miserable. It asks the question: Why do people suffer and what can we do about it?

The pure right wing thinker may answer: people suffer because they lack the personal qualities of endeavour, hard work and motivation, ‘they suffer because they are lazy’.

The pure left wing thinker may answer: people suffer because they are oppressed, marginalised and persecuted, ‘they suffer because they are victims’.

We can note then that the right wingers tend to see the causation of suffering as interior to the individual and left wingers see the causation of suffering to be exterior to the individual. As Ken Wilber puts it:

Thus the liberal recommends exterior social interventions: redistribute the wealth, change social institutions so that they produce fairer outcomes, evenly slice the economic pie, aim for equality for all. The typical conservative recommends that we instil family values, demand that individuals assume more responsibility for themselves, tighten up slack moral standards (often by embracing traditional religious values), encouraging a work ethic, reward achievement and so on…

Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything

(Note that liberal and conservative is the same as left and right for the purpose of this analysis)

Now I would like to think that, given these definitions, most sensible people would say: Of course, the cause of most problems is a combination of these factors, we can see that difficult exterior circumstances could make someone lack confidence and motivation. Likewise someone’s personal inadequacy could make their life situation miserable despite a very benign and supportive exterior environment.

What I think happens however, in most political debates that polarise around these issues, is that people differ on which aspect of causation needs emphasising in any given situation. It is the legitimacy of the emphasis on interior/exterior factors that is often questioned. These types of arguments often descend into interminable rounds of whataboutery!

We can see that a more integral approach would be to recognize that in most real life policy debates there are both interior and exterior factors at play. Which factors are the most pressing and need to be focussed on and solved is what any mature debate should be about. (Of course we need to trust one another that we are all trying to make society less miserable and not scheming to further the interests of a special group).

When people get very attached to an identity of being either a liberal or a conservative they become unable to objectively assess these factors. They habitually emphasise their preferred side of the argument and thus render true dialogue extremely difficult.

To finish this introductory post it should be noted that this division of the interior consciousness of the individual vs the exterior objective environment is a really key concept in the Integral approach. These two dimensions of existence co-exist and co-evolve together, mutually interacting with and enacting one another.


Hierachy 2: Basic Holonic Theory

The last post introduced the idea of natural or healthy hierarchy. Let us look again at the developmental sequence:

particles, atoms, molecules, cells, organisms

We can see that every entity at each level has simultaneously two characteristics. It is both a coherent whole in its own right and a part of entities higher up the scale. It is a whole/part. These whole/parts are called Holons (a term coined by Arthur Koestler) and natural hierarchies that have a holonic nature are termed Holarchies. (unfortunately this terminology is not commonly used and its use in general discourse is limited, which is a shame as it clearly distinguishes natural hierarchies from unhealthy hierarchies).

Furthermore we can see that as wholes all holons have rights. and as parts all holons have responsibilities. (maybe you can start to get an inkling of the usefulness of this framework!)

We can also note that the more junior a level is in a holarchy; the more fundamental it is. The more senior a level is; the more significant it is.

We can always do a quick test if we are not sure which level is more senior. If we destroy all holons on one level level all senior level holons disappear and all junior level holons remain. For example if we destroy all cells in the universe, all organisms disappear but all particles, atoms and molecules remain.

As holarchies evolve the number of holons at the more senior levels reduces. As depth increases, span decreases. There will always be more atoms in the universe than cells.

When I first came across the idea of holarchies it transformed the way I thought of development. I came to see that all normal development, evolution, growth and maturation is best understood within this framework. From individual personal maturation to large scale socio-cultural development. That is not to say that everything can be understood holarchically. There are vast realms of life that are not arranged holarchically. In human life at any level there are rainbows of diversity of equally depthed holons where any attempt to force a ranking is deeply suspicious (technically, equally depthed holons relate heterachically – ie: without ranking distinctions). In any discourse and analysis keeping all rankings strictly limited to those aspects that are related holarchically is of critical importance.

Of course development does not always proceed healthily. Senior levels in a holarchy can, instead of transcending and including junior levels in a compassionate embrace, dissociate and repress them. We humans seem particularly prone to this pathology in our psychological development. We split off, deny, suppress and generally treat pretty badly fundamental parts of ourselves which results in myriad forms of psychological and social problems for ourselves and others. Trying to untangle these types of  issues as they present themselves in modern life will be a major aim of this Blog.

For further reading on Holonic theory try the following:

Sex, Ecology, Spirituality  by Ken Wilber, especially the ‘twenty tenets’

A Guide for the Perplexed by EF Schumacher

Hierachy 1: healthy and natural or unhealthy and oppressive?

Consider your reaction to the following statements:

X is better than Y

X deeper than Y

X is more mature than Y

X is higher than Y

X is more evolved than Y

X is more valuable than Y

These are all statements that imply some kind of ranking or hierarchy of value between X and Y. They suggest that X in some sense holds a more senior position in that hierarchy than Y.

In my experience these type of statements make a great many modern educated people deeply uneasy especially when applied to human affairs. The suspicion is that they represent an attempt to legitimize the oppression, marginalisation or exploitation of X on Y. This reaction is very healthy as there are a great many rankings and hierarchies that have been used to justify the domination and subjugation of one group over another.

However if we reject all such ranking systems we are left with no way to build an integrated whole in any field and are left simply with a heap of isolated fragments of knowledge .

There is a way of understanding hierarchy that dismantles this danger. All the statements at the start of this Blog are legitimate if and only if: X is more inclusive than Y.  Let me explain:

consider the following hierarchy:

level 1: A

level 2: A+B

level 3: A+B+C

level 4: A+B+C+D

We can say that, for example, level 3 is ‘higher’ than level 2 because it contains all the elements of level 2  (A and B) and adds something new (C). We could say that level 3 transcends and includes level 2, or that level 3 is more inclusive than level 2. A couple of examples may bring this to life:

letters, words, paragraphs, chapters, books

particles, atoms, molecules, cells, organisms

individual, family, tribe, nation, humanity

These three hierarchies follow the pattern outlined above. Each more senior level includes all the junior levels and adds something new. These types of hierarchies are known as natural hierarchies (or more technically holarchies).

Any value ranking system that does not have this pattern of transcend and include is illegitimate and is simply a cover for some form of oppression or exploitation.

This is a fundamental rule and throughout this Blog any valuing, promotion or encouragement towards one viewpoint or perspective over another should be tested against this principle.

The next post will continue this theme.

What is the ‘Integral Approach?’


‘Integral’, as used in this Blog refers to the vision, or map, of reality developed by American philosopher Ken Wilber over many years and many books.

Ken Wilber starts from the premise that ‘everybody is  right’:

‘In this Theory of Everything, I have one major rule: Everybody is right. More specifically; everybody – including me – has some important piece of truth, and all of those pieces need to be honoured, cherished, and included in a more gracious, spacious, and compassionate embrace, a genuine theory of everything…..

To Freudians I say have you looked at Buddhism? to Buddhists I say, Have you studied Freud? To liberals I say, Have you thought about how important some conservative ideas are? To conservatives I say, Can you perhaps include a more liberal perspective? And so on and so on…..’ 

Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything

The challenge becomes then: How and in what way can all these important truths about the world be put together in a conceptual framework that demonstrates how they all fit together. If we can do this we can start to untangle and resolve some of the intractable disputes, conflicts and disagreements that so plague our current intellectual discourse.

The core concept that is used to start to build such a comprehensive map is that of natural hierarchy. It is the misunderstanding of this idea that, in my experience, is the main barrier to building acceptance and understanding of the integral approach. The next post will lay out the precise way that the notion of hierarchy is to be understood.