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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Dr. Joseph Dillard is a psychotherapist with over forty year's clinical experience treating individual, couple, and family issues. Dr. Dillard also has extensive experience with pain management and meditation training. The creator of Integral Deep Listening (IDL), Dr. Dillard is the author of over ten books on IDL, dreaming, nightmares, and meditation. He lives in Berlin, Germany. See: integraldeeplistening.com and his YouTube channel.
Part 2: Three Fundamental Perspectives on Life
Our identity is formed and maintained largely by the different perspectives we encounter in life. These in turn generate our sense of control, life direction, meaning, and our relationships with others. This essay series explains varieties of this fundamental and adaptive ability and how limitations in how we approach perspectives can go wrong, creating undue personal suffering and, if widespread, societal collapse.
From early childhood our basic life project is to habitually assimilate multiple perspectives into one central executive waking identity. We organize experience and knowledge around our identity and worldview. This process may be understood as “psychological geocentrism,” a state analogous to Ptolemaic geocentrism, in which we are convinced we are multi-perspectival when we have simply incorporated multiple worldviews into our own, central, organizing and orienting identity.
As we develop and maintain psychological geocentrism, we are confident that our perspective is the correct, right, and true one, and that those that disagree with us are either ignorant, stupid, have serious psychological problems, or are threats. Such conclusions exist to maintain our sense of control within our psychological geocentrism. This is the normal state of socialized childhood and adult life, and it exists because it has major adaptive benefits. We use psychological geocentrism to not only develop and defend a core identity but to tell friend from foe, develop self-control, and find and pursue meaning in life. For example, we typically believe we are multi-perspectival, in an experiential and integral way, regarding the perspectives and worldviews of outgroups, such as those with different political and religious beliefs, or people in foreign societies, such as Russians, Chinese, Iranians, and Palestinians. However, the reality is that we are typically far less multi-perspectival than we believe that we are. While we often have a cognitive grasp of some aspects of the worldview of “the other” and assimilate it to our worldview in psychological geocentrism, we cannot conclude we are transpersonally multi-perspectival, that is, polycentric, until we get validation from the other that we accurately reflect their worldview, which is a functional definition of empathy. We rarely want feedback from outgroups like the Russians, Chinese, Iranians, Palestinians, Africans, or Latin Americans - in short, from some 80% of the world's population, because it is likely to disagree with and upset our worldview and cause cognitive dissonance which threatens our identity, our worldview, and fundamental sense of the meaning of why we are alive and do what we do. We might have to meaningly address the reality that some 5% of the world's population has appropriated to itself some 80% of the world's resources. Therefore, we typically insist that we are experientially and integrally multi-perspectival when in fact, we are mostly cognitively and prepersonally/personally multi-perspectival.
This confusion between understanding multiple worldviews and actually perceiving the world from non-self-centered perspectives is a blind spot that few people recognize. The best example of this blindness in someone who has a transpersonally-informed cognitive multi-perspectival worldview is Ken Wilber. His inability or refusal to adapt his teleologically-based worldview in the face of evolutionary science ignores or discounts naturalistic explanations that use much more parsimonious data to explain evolution. Because such research contradicts Wilber's basic worldview, he dismisses, minimizes, or distorts it. Another example, related to Ukraine and Russophobia, is provided by an intelligent, compassionate integralist who is a long-time student of Tibetan meditation:
I think it is entirely understandable that Integralists, along with much of the world, should be outraged by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the war there. It undoubtedly does have something to do with Ukraine's geostrategic position between Europe and Russia. It is the first time since World War II, nearly 80 years ago, that there has been a major war in or near Europe, with one country brutally invading another one and subjecting its people, including civilians, to horrendous suffering, destruction and death, in an attempt to dominate a free people who only want to live their lives in peace and self determination. It is good that the moral consciences of integrally minded people should be moved by this egregious injustice and that people want to show support and solidarity with the Ukrainian people. I think there is also a recognition that if this Russian aggression goes unchecked, it may expand into other parts of Europe. That said, there is also a degree of ethnocentrism in our responses. We all have some ethnocentrism in our moral constitution. It is easy to identify with Ukraine, as a modern, Europe-leaning, pro- Western country, with people who look and talk like Europeans, in a country with a largely Orange rational centre of gravity, although it has regressed during this war. It is fair to acknowledge and point that out. Many of us are on our way to becoming more worldcentric but most of us still have a long way to go.
This integralist recognizes and accepts racism as a legitimate justification for ignoring Western atrocities and corruption and for demanding sanctions on Russia. He also assumes Ukrainians share the prevalent current western worldview while Russians do not. He does not make a distinction between compassion for Ukrainian citizens and the competency and motives of the government of Ukraine. He bases his support for Ukraine and outrage toward Russia on moral grounds, a foundation which realists like John Mearsheimer question as an adequate way to explain the actions of nations, because it does not reflect their key motivation, their survival, particularly in the face of what they view as an existential threat. What is known about Ukraine and Russia has been assimilated to the worldview of this integralist. He is cognitively multi-perspectival and remains psychologically geocentric.
In my experience, these are misperceptions shared not only by many integralists, but by Westerners in general. I have written essays explaining how integralist thinkers, like Robb Smith and Edgar Morin, as well as many Westerners, progressives, liberals, and idealists, demonstrate many of the same assumptions expressed by the integralist cited above. All these sources believe they possess an accurate and inclusive perspective of Ukraine, Russia, and their relationship. For the most part, as we shall see, this is an example of cognitive multi-perspectivalism at best, not integrally-informed, transpersonal and experiential multi-perspectivalism.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong or mistaken about psychological geocentrism just as there is nothing intrinsically wrong or mistaken about geocentrism. Both provide essential adaptational capabilities and competencies necessary for growth and life orientation. Problems only arise when all one knows is psychological geocentrism, or supplements it with its big brother, psychological heliocentrism, imagining that identification with All is multi-perspectivalism.
Psychological geocentrism is disastrously exceptionalistic and elitist. For example, if we respect the worldview of Palestinians or Iranians we are likely to be accused of being anti-Semitic by those who imagine they adopt an egalitarian and pluralistic worldview while ostracizing those who disagree with them. If we respect the worldview of China or Russia, we are likely to be accused by Westerners holding exclusive psychologically geocentric worldviews of supporting authoritarianism and undercutting democracy. Such accusations are based on a failure to grasp the difference between experientially assuming a foreign perspective in order to understand and respect it, and actually adopting it. The working assumption is that you can't do one without the other, which is a form of black and white thinking, a cognitive distortion. That assumption is not only false but worse, it constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding that destroys relationships and blocks development
Recent and shockingly impactful examples of this are the squaring-off in polarized worldviews by smart, well-meaning people over Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine. This has resulted in name-calling, dismissal, disrespect, censorship, and ostracism. In contrast, stepping out of our own and taking on outgroup perspectives, whether or not we agree with them, is integral experiential multi-perspectivalism. And again, while we all think we do so, the proof is validation by the outgroup itself, when it agrees that yes, we do understand and respect its position, whether or not we agree with it.
Are mystical experiences experientially multi-perspectival? Are not they authentic examples of experiential multi-perspectivalism? Yes and no. Mystical and near death experiences are real, profound, and often life transformative. They are definitely experiential, and they most certainly open one up to alternative perspectives that are often authentically transpersonal. The problem is that through these experiences of oneness our identity expands in psychological heliocentrism. By analogy, we are one with the center of reality and reality itself as “All,” personified by the sun. We view life from its perspective, and the entirety of reality, personified by the solar system, orbiting around our grandiose self, which is now the SELF, united with truth, goodness, and beauty. We are one not only with the core of the galaxy but with all it contains. While radically experiential and expansive, psychological heliocentrism is tat avam asi, “Thou art that,” meaning the self as Self is identified with All, with everyone and everything. The result is a sense of knowing not just personal, but universal truth; we know not only what is good and true for ourselves, but for others as well. This is based on a deep and sincere belief that having been one with All, we really do know what others need to be thinking, doing, and believing. But do we? Could that deep conviction not instead be self-validating grandiosity?
Transpersonal and cognitive multi-perspectivalisms are not only constructed out of prepersonal experiential multi-perspectivalism, that is, by our socialized, scripted identity, but may be strengthened, validated, or radically expanded by transpersonal experiential multi-perspectivalism generated by psychotropic, mystical, and meditative experiences that expand our identity and worldview via experiences of oneness with nature, divinity, the formless or the non-dual. Psychologically, the heliocentric worldview has the advantage of putting us, our opinions, values, and behavior, beyond repute. This is the final and ultimate refuge of the insecure, those lacking genuine confidence, who are aliens to a feared unknown, who crave certainty and control.
This brings us to the second problem with mystical experiences as a form of transpersonal experiential multi-perspectivalism. In addition to generating massive self-inflation, these experiences are intrinsically abstract. Instead of identifying with the concrete circumstances of this or that person or perspective, they objectify everything and everybody. An abstract, generalized identification is believed to provide enlightenment that includes and then transcends all entities and perspectives.
As someone who has had mystical experiences, as well as decades of working with people who have had mystical and near death experiences, I have found that this is emphatically not the case. While mystical experiences are indeed forms of transpersonal experiential multi-perspectivalism, they tend to devolve into justifications, anchoring identity in a highly singular worldview with which one identifies as THE worldview which incorporates all other possible worldviews. This produces something that is no longer experientially multi-perspectival, but rather a Formica-hard dogma, a facsimile and simulacra of polycentrism. Decentralization of our controlling, orienting core identity is necessary if we want to see the elephant more as it actually is, rather than as we want or suppose it to be, and this is something that psychological geocentrism and heliocentrism does not want to do, does not think it needs to do, and does not know how to do. Wilber has laid down his worldview and taken up that disclosed by mysticism, and that is indeed transpersonal experiential multi-perspectivalism. Wilber's insistence that evolution is teleologically based as “Eros as spirit-in-action” and his conclusion that science simply has not caught up with this reality, grows out of both Wilber's mystical experiences and his acceptance of the collective conclusions of mystics in various world sacred traditions. The problem is that the result was the expansion of his psychological geocentrism to include the mystical perspective, in psychological heliocentrism, which is in fundamental variance from the worldview disclosed by evolutionary science. Empiricism is a process of doing experiments that embody possibilities that can very well lay outside one's worldview. As a personal form of experiential multi-perspectivalism, scientific research has shown that evolutionary processes can be fully accounted for by naturalistic explanations, without appeal to teleology or to consciousness that stands above or apart from nature, whether that consciousness is understood to be transcendent, immanent, or both.
We are constantly surrounded by different perspectives, not only while awake, but in our dreams. We recognize this reality cognitively regarding others - we know that other people have different perspectives from our own and that some of those can be extremely at variance. These differences may be due to gender, life circumstances, geographical context, language, religion, political persuasion, philosophies, training, stage of life, or any other number of other factors. We can generally recognize that other people are likely to have perspectives that differ significantly from our own due to the large number of factors that shape our perspective. However, this awareness is generally a conceptual abstraction. While we know people probably look at the world very differently from ourselves, like each Blind Man, we look at the elephant from our own psychologically geocentric point of view. The result is that our perception of the perspectives of other people is generally binary: “Are they similar to my worldview or different?” “If it is different, is it useful or a threat?” The result is that we don't experience alternative perspectives at all, because we are too busy distorting them to fit them into our cognitive map. To actually experience any different perspective, apart from our projections onto it, we have to stop comparing, analyzing, interpreting, and considering the usefulness of it and instead become it. To do so is not easy or natural; we have considerable genetic, social, and cultural reasons not to do so, as we shall see.
The tacit, intellectual recognition of other human perspectives describes the general realm of cognitive multi-perspectivalism. We recognize that other individuals, groups, belief systems, philosophies, realms of knowledge, and nations represent alternative perspectives, and we can compare and contrast these similarities and differences with our own in order to form cognitive maps called worldviews. Everyone has such a worldview; we even can grant that animals have worldviews, based on their experience of life, and we can also acknowledge the importance and uniqueness of the worldviews of the “other,” and by doing so expand and enhance our own. In fact, this is the general intent and function of cognitive multi-perspectivalisms, or maps of reality.
The reason these maps do not constitute polycentrism is that like the Blind Men, they do not actually take the perspective of the other. We do not actually become the “elephant” and experience life from its perspective. The closest we come are thought experiments in which we imagine what a dog might be thinking or what life as a bumblebee might be like. When we imagine what it would be like to be a homeless, starving African or an abused child we are doing what is commonly called “empathy,” and from it growing what we call “compassion.” But because these thought experiments do not inhabit the perspective of a starving African or an abused child, we are not actually empathetic; instead we are projecting our assumptions of what it is like to be them onto them. The result is that our compassion is generally something less, clouded by various motivations rooted in our psychological geocentrism. The “other” is less likely to feel respected and understood because we have not inhabited its worldview. We have not laid down our psychological geocentrism and inhabited some identity that is foreign to our own.
There was a best-selling book about this that came out in the 1961, Black Like Me, that demonstrated experiential polycentrism concretely and vividly. The author, John Howard Griffin, a Caucasian male, spent six weeks in the Deep South of the US with his skin temporarily darkened to pass as a black man, and then reported on his experience. One Christmas in New York, my wife Claudia and I were window shopping on Fifth Avenue with relatives and feeling bored, and so we sat down under a store window with a magnificent Christmas window display and pretended we were homeless beggars. We not only watched how passers-by threw us furtive glances and ignored us, but our own feelings about being ignored in a dependent, disparaging life context. The experience was wrenching, a radical, intense, practical, unforgettable, but short-lived dive into experiential, non-phenomenological polycentrism.
Characteristics of polycentrism
Polycentrism, in contrast to psychological geocentrism and heliocentrism, requires both disidentification with our worldview and identification with worldviews that are “not self,” and are not compatible with our sense of who we are. Encountering, becoming, and respecting initially unrecognized and typically discounted perspectives, even if they are not who we are, or are threatening, hated, or simply deemed inconsequential, is polycentrism, the radical decentralization of identity.
Polycentrism can vary in depth of disidentification/identification as well as in its duration. Failure to recognize these two aspects of polycentrism has led to the common conclusion that a radical decentralization of identity is synonymous with decompensation, the breakdown of identity, psychosis, and possession. Since the fundamental scripting we all received as children and teenagers was to “be in control and stay in control,” polycentrism is, on the surface, contrary to self-esteem, self-development, integration, and the learning and maintenance of important life competencies, like holding down a job and forming reliable relationships.
Disidentification from psychological geocentrism can be quite superficial, as in role play and acting, or it can be quite profound, if we don't know who we are, as in forms of amnesia. Similarly, identification can be superficial, as when we take on a role and know we are play acting, or it can, at the other extreme, involve full-blown possession, as in the descent of a classical Greek muse. In such cases we no longer are “ourselves” but become fully identified with a completely different and foreign identity. The fearful and threatening version of this is demonic possession. but polycentrism largely involves the ambiguous, largely ignored middle ground, an intermediate degree of identification, in which we become another perspective but at the same time remain ourselves as an abstract witnessing identity. This difference in depth of disidentification/identification can also be framed as the degree of immersion in an alternative state of consciousness, determined by how much self-awareness exists within it.
Duration of polycentric experiences varies from momentary to permanent, and the difference is important. Shorter experiences of polycentrism, such as most near death and mystical experiences, are less likely to become repeatedly accessible. This is because we naturally return to the stability of and habituation to our psychological geocentrism and its accompanying worldview, accompanied by its resistance to disorientation or destabilization. Everything in our normal waking experience supports and reinforces such a return. Short experiences of polycentrism are not only easily forgotten but difficult to assimilate; we don't learn much from them that can be integrated into who we are in our waking lives due to the vast chasm between mundane and sacred realities. Instead, there tends to remain an unbridgeable gulf between our identity and who we experienced ourselves to be in a mystical or near death experience. At the other extreme, experiences of long-duration or permanent polycentrism can be associated with major personality changes. This state can be represented by the mythology of “walk-ins,” like David Icke's promulgation of belief in the possession of politicians by extraterrestrial reptilians, is the idea that entities can take us over and we become them from then on. Because neither short-term or complete, long-term identity submergence in another, foreign perspective are likely to produce lasting constructive personal development, polycentrism is generally dismissed as unrealistic or undesirable. However, to do so ignores the possibility of a middle degree of duration, in which we disidentify with our normal waking identity and identify with multiple other perspectives repeatedly and intentionally, but for only fifteen minutes to half an hour at a time. The result is that we return to the “home base” of psychological geocentrism but that its ability to define us and frame our reality is diminished over time and with multiple immersions. The more practice that we have at this intermediate variety of polycentrism the more our psychologically geocentric identity thins and the less desirable the psychological heliocentric alternative becomes.
Why is polycentrism rare?
Why we typically not make such experiments? We will address that important issue in various ways, but the short answer is that staying in control is a life mandate and polycentrism threatens it. But before we do we need to get a fuller appreciation of just how radical polycentrism is. While it is difficult enough to put on blackface and live life as a black person, or to sit down on a curb and experience life as a beggar, consider our natural resistance to inhabiting the worldview of Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin. Consider our natural resistance to “wasting our time” becoming the perspective of a turtle, microwave oven, sewage pipe, or spit. In fact, we normally do not assume that inanimate objects even possess perspectives because they are not cognizant beings, but rather “things,” artifacts, or objects. Objects may have usefulness and we have relationships with many of them, but rarely do they possess, in our eyes, beingness, consciousness, or worldviews. Even if they did, so what?
Because we possess consciousness, it is impossible to become the “other,” even if it is some mundane object like a blender, or something disgusting, like spit, without imbuing it with our consciousness. The attempt to experience life from becoming and experiencing the world from its perspective inherently infuses that “other” with who and what we are. Even if we try our best, in a phenomenological experiment, to abandon all the features of our identity in order to experience spit as spit, we fail, because our perception is inherently rooted in our beingness. However, the attempt to radically disidentify from our beingness can be successful to a transformative degree because polycentrism inherently involves leaving our normal state of identification with what we might call our waking self, or psychological geocentrism, and experiencing a different identity, worldview, and state.
However, our identification with our waking self or psychological geocentrism is so profound that we rarely lay it down, even in our dreams, mystical, and near-death experiences. We experience these different states from the home base of our worldview. The dream monster is attacking us. We are becoming one with All. Rarely in a dream do we do Kafka's thought experiment and become the cockroach; we prefer to dream something else, go lucid, wake up, or not dream at all. The result is that we reinforce our psychological geocentrism and its differences from the “other.” They remain foreign and, to a greater or less degree, insignificant or threatening.
Polycentrism is uncharted territory for most people, because circumstances force them to focus on foundational relational exchanges and the psychological geocentrism of the vast majority of self-development. Polycentrism is foreign to intellectuals because they assume that because they have the cognitive multi-perspectival map that they know the territory. Both groups lack a methodology to sustain both disidentification with psychological geocentrism and heliocentrism, accompanied by identification/immersion in alternative perspectives. While mysticism is experientially polycentric, it provides immersion in highly abstract alternative perspectives, in an uncontrolled and unpredictable way, and rarely on a sustained basis. Shadow work or role playing, as in psychodrama, gestalt, or Wilber's 3-2-1 Shadow Work, is often mistaken for a polycentric, integrally-based experiential multi-perspectivalism. The problem is that the “other” is typically perceived as either a self-aspect, on the one hand, or as a shamanic autonomous totem animal or spirit, on the other, rather than something of indeterminate ontology that deserves to be shown a comparable degree of respect and autonomy to that we expect to be shown. Black and white, abstract extremes are substituted for a deep, ongoing experiential dive into genuine transpersonalism.
Polycentrism challenges lifelong scripting of staying in control. It is not encouraged by society because it has little to do with becoming socialized - a good parent, worker, and citizen. Psychology generally views polycentrism as a threat to the work of self-development, which is the fundamental project of not only psychology but Western humanism and religion. We are to “self-actualize,” become enlightened, access our full potentials, and in other ways become a balanced and whole “self.” Polycentrism, as the radical abandonment of that project, is generally viewed as decompensation, regressive, and a melting down into fractured depersonalization.
However, such an understanding of polycentrism is superficial and limited, designed to preserve psychological geocentrism. Psychological heliocentrism is allowed, to the extent that it implies that we remain who we are, but enlightened. In many traditions this conception is conveyed by the concept of soul - an underlying identity that is who we “really” are, that we need to find, refine, and glorify. Polycentrism views this as a less than mystical variety of psychological heliocentrism, one that does not cast off from safe shores, but remains comfortably anchored to the secure “realities” of self and some variety of universal consciousness.
While prepersonal experiential multi-perspectivalism is easy and natural, polycentrism is about as easy, natural, and intuitive as escaping the earth's gravity. For example, there is nothing easy, natural, or intuitive about comprehending why we have seasons. Winter, spring, summer, and fall do not exist because it gets colder or hotter, the earth turns on its axis, or even because Earth changes its “tilt.” Its axis remains the same as the earth travels around the sun, and that fact means that at different times of the year different hemispheres are exposed to more or less sun. To even understand this reality, one has to escape conceptual geocentrism and move to conceptual heliocentrism. But even if we understand why seasons occur, which is difficult enough, we are still not practicing polycentrism, because we have not taken the perspective of the Earth, Sun, Solar System, or Space itself. Instead, we have formed an accurate map and thereby assumed we know the territory.
It is important to recognize that taking the perspective of this or that astronomical body is not likely to reveal why seasons exist, from a scientific viewpoint. Just because we experience a different worldview does not mean that worldview is not subjective, mired in its own a priori assumptions. An understanding of why there are seasons requires putting several different perspectives together on a conceptual multi-perspectival level, and that reveals a different level of knowledge than does polycentrism. Polycentrism yields a transformed, thinned identity, and that does not translate into objective, scientific truth, something that is much more the realm of cognitive multi-perspectivalism. But conversely, cognitive multi-perspectivalism does not necessarily result in transformations in identity, reduced psychological geocentrism, or inner peace. However, if you have a scientific, cognitively multi-perspectival view of why seasons occur, that worldview becomes part of the experience of your interview of the Earth, Sun, Solar System, or Space itself. Therefore, the fundamental value of polycentrism remains: it takes your worldview and then adds to it another worldview, expanding, reframing, and thinning your own. Polycentrism includes and then transcends prepersonal, personal and cognitive multi-perspectivalisms.
Psychological geocentrism, like geocentrism itself, is essential for navigating the sensory world. It is a foundational worldview, essential for self-development. Psychological heliocentrism, while the source of transformational experiences regarding identity and the nature and purpose of life, is something of a detour and dead end, in that it too often leads to pointless self-validation and justification rather than to integration of self and the other. The proof of this statement is demonstrated by disagreement with those who are wedded to an interpretation of a mystical experience of enlightenment. Saul, who became Paul when he was blinded by his mystical encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the Road to Damascus, proclaimed all-embracing love while rejecting the Judaism that Jesus and his disciples actually represented and practiced. In psychological heliocentrism, ideology, dogma, and a set worldview all too often replace polycentrism.
While polycentrism can be attained through direct life immersions in “not-self” perspectives, such as in living among radically different cultures, that approach, although immensely valuable and often life-changing, is both haphazard and limited to available lived world alternatives. In the next essay we will differentiate experiential and phenomenologically-based polycentric multi-perspectivalisms and explain why that distinction is vital to understand and effectively respond to the critical problems that both individuals and societies face.