Why We Need the Integral Approach
I believe the integral view, more cohesive than mere eclecticism and more expansive than holism, is our best hope for healing, both personally and collectively.
“Integral” is an interesting word. As an adjective it means “essential” or “necessary for completeness.” In that sense, when something is integral, it is a part that completes the whole or makes the whole work properly. The axle is an integral part of your car’s design. Without it, your wheels would have no connection to your motor. The axle is not the whole car, but without it the car has no means of movement. As a noun integral means “a complete unit” or “a whole.” In that sense, that axle must be a whole unto itself before it can be of any good to the car. If it is rusted out or broken in an accident, we would say that it lost its structural integrity, that it is no longer a complete, functional unit. Therefore it can no longer do its part in the car’s system of locomotion. Nothing less than a new axle that is whole unto itself will restore the car’s drivability.
In this car-wheel-axle analogy, we have an illustration of the key principle of integral philosophy: seeing essential parts in the context of the whole. Whether we’re looking at individual people, families, cultures, political and societal institutions, nations, or ecosystems, the integral approach is about tending to essential parts, but always in the context of the larger whole in which those parts participate.
On the personal level, integralism invites us to expand the body-mind-spirit integration of holism to include the group values we share with others and our activities through civic, commercial, recreational, and religious institutions (to name just a few) as parts of the whole that we think of as “me.” On a world geo-political level, the rise of nationalism is a call for more healthy “parts” (i.e., nations that have an integral completeness or healthy wholeness unto themselves) while the forces of globalism are a constant reminder that we are at a time in our collective evolution where nation-parts must also take responsibility for being healthy contributors to the global whole.
The integral vision is sweeping. It combines the wisdom of the East and West. It finds the intersection of psychology and spirituality while emphasizing the importance of both. It recognizes that there are interior and exterior dimensions to not only people but to cultures, institutions, the natural world and the greater cosmos as well. It embraces all developmental stages of life and sees them played out in both the lives of individuals and the evolving life of all humanity. The integral movement is interdisciplinary, embracing not only spirituality, but also the wider world of science, sociology, business, education, medicine, politics, economics, and art. As seminal integral thinker Ken Wilber describes the genesis of his ambitious integration of information from multiple fields of inquiry, he began with the premise that no one can be wrong 100% of the time. From that, he set out to find the unifying knowledge that seems to cross the turf lines of the various academic disciplines, schools of psychology and religious traditions. This comprehensive research forms the underpinnings of the contemporary integral movement, itself perhaps one of the most promising developmental models of the 21st Century.
To catch the essence of integralism, it’s important to keep in mind that it is far more cohesive than an eclectic mix of interests, traditions, and endeavors. There is an organic quality to integralism that arises from the conviction that we can no longer afford to deal with life in a fragmented fashion, for that is precisely the thinking that threatens to be the undoing of our world and our personal happiness, health, and well-being. Within the individual, the interior dimensions of thought and intention co-evolve with the physical organism. It follows, then, that both must be attended to if we hope to reach the highest levels of functioning. This means that the various “departments” of our lives – things like relationships, work, and the personal sense of self – are parts of an integrated whole right along with our attentions to nutrition, exercise, and other more standard aspects of personal health. Similarly, cultures, political structures and eco-systems are interdependent realities that find optimal states when taken in the larger context that ties them all together. In other words, each part is integral – essential – to the whole and every whole is a synergistic manifestation of its parts.
This is important to our personal and collective healing and well-being because we are meaning-making creatures. As Viktor Frankl famously pointed out, we can better manage the “how” to live when we have a “why.” And it is from the context of various wholes that we derive meaning and purpose to address those parts that are under our management. This is no small thing in a time when many of us feel politically disenfranchised, economically impotent, and maybe even spiritually frustrated. We can contribute to the wholeness of our nation and the world by tending to those things that make us more whole, whether those things take the form of spiritual disciplines, the ethic we bring to our transactions with others, or the way we plug into groups of various descriptions.
When we see lesions in the health of the whole, be it a family or a nation or the world, we can find the closest manifestation of that lesion that is under our control and work on it there rather than spin our wheels in ineffective despair. For example, if we find disregard for the truth to be a problem in the world but are powerless to change it at the top, we can clean up our lapses of truthfulness with ourselves or others. We can insist that we carefully vet new information for truthfulness before passing it on. (That means no more mindless sharing of social media posts without first checking their veracity!) We can feed our consciousness on truths that are uplifting. In ways like this, we leverage our “partness” into a greater wholeness that in turn contributes in a healthy way to the larger whole we cannot directly impact.
The integral viewpoint can illuminate virtually any aspect of life that we care to think of, because it invites us to stretch our perspective to consider wider contexts for our efforts at everything from personal wholeness to making a difference in the world. Awareness of those wider contexts welcomes fractured parts back into the whole and drives a deeper motivation to make those parts more whole unto themselves. That is how, in the integral embrace, our personal and collective healing become inextricably intertwined. This is how we really do have great impact on our lives and the world we live in.