Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Bruce Alderman Bruce Alderman, M.A., .is adjunct faculty in the John F Kennedy School of Psychology at National University. He received his master's degree in Integral Psychology, with an emphasis on Transpersonal Counseling Psychology, from JFKU in 2005. He has published essays in the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice and Consciousness journal, as well as in several anthologies on Integral philosophy and spirituality. Recently, he contributed to and co-edited the January 2019 special issue of Integral Review journal on Integral Postmetaphysical Spirituality. Faculty Profile. Email: [email protected]

Originally posted on Aug 13th, 2008 by Balder (Bruce Alderman) on Zaadz

Enactivism, Integral Theory, and 21st Century Spirituality

Bruce Alderman


I sit in the coffee shop, the bass pulse of the radio beating like a second heart in my chest, the notes of the song skittering through the architecture of my limbs - warm pulses, limpid blooms of light behind my eyes as they close softly and I lift up word clusters in the resonant field of my attention. Enactivism. Integral Theory. 21st century spirituality. Each notion is a field in itself, and just sounding these words aloud calls up fleeting, complexly layered associations and images that flash momentarily like the jeweled sides of fish breaking the surface of a river, and then drop again into the invitingly deep and indeterminate bed of my body.

As I repeat the words of the title of this symposium to myself, trying to coax the jeweled sides of each to flash a moment in this morning's sun, wondering how the light from each will play with the others, I find myself engaged in an act that can only be called magical - an invocation of unruly presences, an unpredictable enactment. I am aware that whatever I write today will not be the "truth," in the sense of simple correspondence; it is not simply an uncovering of "what is there," but an evocation of "what can be." And the others in this symposium will be doing something similar throughout this week: a mapping that is not simple disclosure, but creative enactment, a movement which invites of us to ride, whole-bodied, on the burgeoning crest of the future infinitive.

Background (Structural Coupling)

I first learned about the enactive paradigm in July of 1995. I know this because a sticker on my copy of The Embodied Mind has the date of purchase printed on it. At the time, I had recently returned to the US after living in Asia for four years, and I recall the book calling out to me from its prominent display on a shelf at an Austin bookseller. It promised an integration between Western and Eastern knowledge that I had come to see as essential, after having spent a number of years studying and practicing at monasteries and meditation centers in Southeast Asia, India, and Nepal:

The Embodied Mind provides a unique, sophisticated treatment of the spontaneous and reflective dimension of human experience. The authors argue that only by having a sense of common ground between mind in science and mind in experience can our understanding of cognition be more complete. Toward that end, they develop a dialogue between cognitive science and Buddhist meditative psychology and situate it in relation to other traditions such as phenomenology and psychoanalysis.

This was music to my ears. Particularly inspired by the dialogues between Krishnamurti and Western thinkers such as David Bohm, Dr. David Shainberg, and others, I had become very interested in the potential for Western disciplines to be enriched by Eastern contemplative perspectives and practices. I also recalled having watched a dialogue between Krishnamurti and a young Francisco Varela, in which the latter seemed to run circles around K, so I was very interested to learn more about his views.

The Embodied Mind

When I first read the book, I did not yet fully appreciate its import, particularly in relation to postmodern epistemology, but it started me on a path of research that led eventually to Integral Theory and the works of Ken Wilber. This in turn led to an exploration of a number of the sources that informed his Integral vision - an exploration which, for me, is ongoing.

In this essay, I would like to look at some of the essential features of the enactive paradigm, including the Integral reformulation of enactive principles, and consider their implications for an embodied, transformative modern spirituality. Each of the topics in the title is rich and multi-faceted, as I mentioned above, so in these reflections, I will only be evoking a small portion of their potential for interaction and mutual enaction; I will rely on others to explore other potentials, with the aim not only to voice a plurality of perspectives, but to invite creative integration and embodiment of shared spiritual vision.

In particular, I plan to talk briefly about the enactive paradigm, and then to explore the themes of imagination, transformation, groundlessness, and integrative pluralism in relation to enactivism, Integral Theory, and 21st century spirituality.


What exactly is the enactive paradigm? In its original, narrower sense, it is a model of embodied cognition that was first articulated by Francisco Varela, Humberto Maturana, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. In the context of cognitive science, the notion of embodied cognition has been proposed as a "middle way" between what we might call the Myth of the Given (representationism) and the Myth of the Framework (solipsism or constructivism). According to the enactive paradigm, the representationist perspective is naïve and no longer can be sustained. Using the example of color perception research, for instance, Varela, Lakoff, and other cognitive scientists point out that color is not a quality that exists "out there" in the world; it is not an observer-independent, objective quality of things-in-themselves. Rather, it is a particular experiential domain that emerges through the interaction of our color cones, our neural circuitry, our embodied history of structural coupling (our particular evolutionary trajectory in time and co-determinative relationship with our environment), the reflective properties of objects, and electromagnetic radiation. Our words do not point to observer-independent, self-existing objects, unrelated to our activity in the world; our categories do not simply reflect what is already there. On the other hand, however, the enactive paradigm also rejects the extreme of constructivism or the Myth of the Framework - the idea that reality is entirely observer-generated, that it is wholly the product of our subjectivity. The experience of color cannot be accounted for simply on the basis of culture; while cultural elements may influence the experience of color, biological and environmental factors also come into play and cannot be meaningfully bracketed out of the picture.

According to the enactive paradigm, the world for any organism is best understood, not as a pre-given reality which the observer passively and more or less accurately reflects, but as an historically emergent domain of distinctions enacted by sensorimotor involvement with its wider environment.

To unpack this a little further, I will briefly describe four key points which Varela uses to summarize the major claims of the enactive paradigm.

  • Cognition is enactively embodied: co-determination of inner/outer
  • Cognition is enactively emergent: co-determination of neural elements (local) and cognitive subject (global)
  • Cognition is generatively enactive: co-determination of Me-Other
  • Consciousness is ontologically complex: co-determination of first- and third-person descriptions

In simple terms, Varela is pointing out that the mind is not simply in the head, but rather that cognition and cognitive worlds unfold through our sensorimotor involvement with our environments - that inside and outside, subjective and objective are co-determining and co-arising. Second, the mind, while inseparable from our neural architecture and our embodied action, is an emergent global process which not only depends on these local elements but which may, in turn, act on or affect these processes. Varela draws two corollaries from this point which will be relevant later, so I will quote him here:

If you put together key point one and key point two, embodiment and emergence, [the first corollary is that] the mind is fundamentally a matter of imagination and fantasy. In other words, it's the internal activity of these rich emergent properties, plus the fact that you have an ongoing coupling that forms the core of what the mind is. The mind is not about representing some kind of state of affairs. The mind is about constantly secreting this coherent reality that constitutes a world, the coherence of the organizing through the local-global transitions. Stated in other words, perception is as imaginary as imagination is perception-based.

The third point is essentially the point of intersubjectivity: cognition is not only embodied or emergent, it is intersubjectively generated. Drawing on the work of Daniel Stern and other researchers, Varela argues that this mind is that mind - that subject and object distinctions arise out of a pre-reflective, empathic-affective ground. An important consequence of this point is the recognition of the importance of loving care in the enactment of healthy neural architecture and subjective organization in young infants.

The last point, as Varela summarizes it, is that consciousness is a public affair. By this he means that consciousness is open, not only to external, third-person exploration via the methodologies of neuroscience and cognitive science, but also to careful, systematic first-person exploration via various contemplative disciplines. His proposal here is an approach he calls neurophenomenology: the integration of first- and third-person approaches to the study of consciousness.

The territory of concern covered by the above points is already suggestive of the Integral / AQAL framework, so I will turn to that model briefly before discussing the relevance of the enactive paradigm to modern spirituality.

Integral Theory

Sex, Ecology, Spirituality

In Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Wilber expresses his admiration for the enactive paradigm, recognizing it as a valid attempt to integrate left- and right-hand (subjective and objective) domains in a coherent scientific model. He agrees with the refutation of representationism or objectivism that it represents, and points out that he is therefore careful, when discussing the territory of the Integral map, to describe phenomena as being called forth or enacted by particular perspectives rather than simply disclosed.

However, he regards Varela's enactivism as a partial enactivism - functioning, for instance, with still somewhat of a biologistic bias, and failing to take full account of the dialogical understanding afforded by Lower Left, postmodern paradigms. While agreeing that the recognition of the sensorimotor enactment of cognition is indeed an important advancement in knowledge, he believes that Varela's model remains "mired in the sensorimotor."

Wilber's proposed amendment to the enactive paradigm is to extend it into the four quadrants, suggesting that subjective, objective, intersubjective, and interobjective domains tetra-enact - that they are co-determining and co-arising. It is debatable whether Varela truly fails to account for and incorporate a "four quadrant" orientation, but I think we can agree that such a multi-dimensional expression of enactivist insights is ideal.

In my view, the recognition of the tetra-enactivity of the four quadrants transforms Integral Theory from its Cartesian function as a rational, representational map to an enactive symbol-system, an embodied, psychoactive operator which awakens one to the co-presence and co-determination of these fields in his or her lived body. Just reflecting on this subject this morning had me inhabiting my body differently. There is a feeling of opening which does not erase boundaries or render them meaningless, but which nevertheless leaves them translucent and calls attention to the creative enactment of experience which echoes and embodies a particular lineage of appearance while also opening into the novel, the new. The horizons that this view opens may not be entirely clear yet, so I will return to this notion below when I discuss the promise of an integrative pluralism.

Imagination and Transformation

Philosophy in the Flesh

Drawing both on neuro-imaging studies and the implications of his enactive paradigm, Varela argues for the central role of imagination and metaphor in human cognition and perception. This perspective is echoed by Lakoff and Johnson, in their seminal work, Philosophy in the Flesh. According to the latter, cognition is not only embodied but rooted in metaphors of embodiment, in image schemas which derive from our sensorimotor engagement with an environment. One consequence of this view is that reason can no longer be envisioned as abstract, ethereal, or disembodied; it is, in fact, a subtle-level, higher order dance of the body in lived space. But the consequence that concerns me here is one explored in some depth by Francisco Varela and Natalie Depraz in the essay, "Imagining: Embodiment, Phenomenology, and Transformation". The argument that they develop is too involved for this essay, exploring the neurological and phenomenological dimensions of imagination in some depth, but the essential point is easy to state: imagination, as a shaper of perception and motor actions and the means by which we on-goingly (locally, evolutionarily) secrete worlds, exists at an important cross-roads and can serve as a powerful mediator of self-transformation.

As mentioned above, Varela argues that cognition, as a global, enactively emergent phenomenon, is capable of downward causative action and influence: "the large-scale integrative state that underlies a moment of nowness is capable of accessing any local neural processes." It is in this context that Varela and Depraz explore various meditative disciplines, particularly Vajrayana or Tantric practices which employ sophisticated imagery and imaginal processes in the service of self-transformation. Imagination, they argue, is a sort of mixed object which traverses material and experiential domains without boundary or gap; and in this context, Buddhist practices such as the ngondro, Tantric visualization, or tonglen, are both intelligible and powerful examples of mind-body know-how.

This is a rich topic, and I invite interested readers to explore it with me in the comments section below. For now, I will quote a relevant passage from TSK literature which I think speaks effectively to these concerns:

One way to make the transition from conceptual knowledge to knowledge active in our being is to draw on the power of imagination. Imagination engages us at the level of our experience. It allows us to conceive a different reality.
To imagine a world in which reality depends on constructs does not mean retreating into fantasy. Instead, it means entering that world, with its prevailing logic and its presupposed order, as fully as we can. Can we allow the governing vision of our present way of being to unfold within us? Can we savor its subtle blend of flavors? Can we explore from that perspective the ways in which we conduct our lives?

...From the moment we imagine our way into the heart of our own being, the limits on our knowledge begin to lose their hold. It is not a matter of discovering secret knowledge or arriving at revolutionary insights. We simply find it available to us to imagine that what has been constructed could be constructed differently. With that simple move, the past and its structures, the self and its identities, no longer bind us so tightly. The gateways of the possible open to a new way of knowing.

To imagine fully that we conduct our own reality into being is to imagine the power of imagination, and thus to multiply that power. Imagination discloses that we are free to shape appearance and to choose how we respond to what appears. Once we accept that we are already at home in this new world, and that we are actually exercising our creative freedom in each moment, we can take responsibility for a knowledge that has been available always. (Visions of Knowledge, Tarthang Tulku)


A recurrent theme in Varela's work is the discovery of groundlessness. Similarly, one of the implications of Integral post-metaphysics is that the Kosmos is, in an important way, groundless: that the given ground, at any given point, is still a perspective, and therefore not really given at all. At any stage in our development and understanding, we may work to "ground" ourselves in the knowledge available, mastering and masterfully employing the models at our disposal and the tools they provide, and this is indeed a wise use of our energy, but we should also recognize the inherent vulnerability and instability of the ground they establish. Other perspectives will always arise to challenge our own; the evolution of knowledge in time will eventually undermine or overturn our founding stories. If we mistake our beliefs and models and convictions for solid, inviolable ground, we will find ourselves called again and again to defend the territory we have claimed, and upon which our felt sense of identity rests.

As an alternative to this conventional definition of being grounded, I propose that a grounded approach is one which is intimate with the living knowledgeability of Being, the open-ended, indeterminate knowingness which is the creative ground for all particularized acts of knowledge and all individual knowledge claims, and which in its unfoundedness accommodates the multiplicity of perspectives which enact our self-world horizons.

Perhaps surprisingly, when one first enters deeply into this, the realization of this groundlessness is simultaneously a deepening in embodied presence - greater intimacy with its living field.

In terms of state training, this involves realizing and stabilizing in the spontaneous clarity of non-positioned knowing. In terms of philosophical perspectives, it may mean recognition of the postmodern truths of constructivism and contextualism, or a profound (AQAL) grasp of co-dependent origination. In terms of moral grounding, it may involve recognizing the wisdom of insecurity or growing comfortable with uncertainty (to borrow from two popular book titles which address the question of groundlessness).

Integrative Pluralism

The last point I wanted to make in relation to this topic - admittedly only sparsely explored in this essay - concerns the implications of the enactive paradigm for our understanding of religious traditions and the horizons of transformation and realization that they trace out.

In his book, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, Jorge Ferrer draws upon enactive and postmodern theory to articulate a participatory vision of spirituality. In many respects, his proposal is quite similar to Wilber's model, particularly as he has expressed it in his most recent writings. In Ferrer's view, the perennialist worldview is caught in the Myth of the Given, and the postmodern contextualist view is caught in the Myth of the Framework. It is appropriate neither to posit a pre-given, underlying spiritual reality waiting simply to be disclosed by independent observers, nor to argue that spiritual realities are wholly culturally or linguistically determined, without any objective basis.

I find this view to be generally consonant with Integral Post-metaphysics (though the details of his argument vary from it, stopping short of what Wilber believes is essential). But the point in common is this: to an important extent, the spiritual horizons traced by different traditions, the liberative potentials and the spiritual, transrational phenomena, are best understood as creative enactments, not simply as pre-existing spiritual domains or conditions "uncovered" by contemplation or other means.

As we explore the promise of the enactive paradigm for 21st century spirituality, both in this symposium but also more generally as an emerging culture, I believe this insight will have lasting value, allowing us to understand spiritual traditions and practices in terms of their enactive potential, rather than in terms of their propositional truth value or the validity of their metaphysical claims. No commitment to otherwordly realities is required; but neither should we cling blindly to, or simply accept as pre-given, our contemporary models of this world.

We are invited, instead, to step full bodied, open-eyed, into the burgeoning stream of our evolutionary unfolding, with all our faculties - body, senses, reason, imagination, and awareness—poised and awake.

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