Integral Theory and Celebration of Life

In Integral Theory, founded in the 1970s by Ken Wilbur, human development was described as a series of developmental stages. He drew from Eastern traditions and blended them with Western ideas of structural theory and psychological development, explaining the importance of integrating the stages of development and growing into a global “we.” He claimed that levels of consciousness such as the archaic, magical, mythic, mental, and integral, as developed by Jean Gebser, could not be ignored, and must be integrated into our personal and social understanding of development. It may sound a little optimistic, given the situation we find ourselves in, but we all tend to slide up and down the scale during our lives, depending on circumstances.

Looking back in history, in the “we-centred” but authoritarian Greek society, mythology was used as a basis for a large system of ritualised annual processes, which were largely based on seasonal changes and astrological observances. Some of these rituals still have meaning in some areas of the world, and are celebrated in a modified way, but their original purpose was to promote social cohesion. The Romans, with their power structures, also adopted many of these rites and enforced them because they believed that observance of the rituals was important for the permanence of their empire. This was a collectivist attitude that valued cohesion among individuals and the primacy of the group over the individual. Individuals who endangered the collective in any way were punished, and the moral imperative was to preserve society. Today in the West we see this in the form of patriotism or loyalty to groups, but we also have an individualistic attitude, and the two sometimes get in each other’s way in certain situations. In other parts of the world, especially where society tends to ritualize life, collectivism is still an expression of a religious commitment to a particular form of faith and a belief that this will protect society from malevolent forces.

This was also the case in the West for a long time, until the spread of individualism, a doctrine that states that the interests of the individual are or should be ethically paramount. The term individualism was coined in the 19th century, first in French around 1820, and then quickly spread to other European languages, showing how young this way of thinking is. Initially, it was seen as barely distinguishable from anarchy, and indeed it was the starting point of many subversive movements. However, in Germany, England, and the United States, the negative connotation was soon eliminated. In Germany, individualism became closely associated with the aspirations of Romanticism; in England, with utilitarianism and laissez-faire economics; and in America, with the basic political and social values of democracy and capitalism. It was also the time when a more materialist view of the world took over.

It is around this time that the Christian church in Europe was going through a critical phase, with the 19th century witnessing the rise of biblical criticism, the spread of religious diversity from other continents, and above all the growth of science. This led many Christians to emphasize the brotherhood, to seeing miracles as myths, and to emphasize a moral approach with religion as lifestyle rather than revealed truth. However, another characteristic of Christianity in the 19th century were Evangelical revivals in some largely Protestant countries, especially America, promoting a fundamentalist and literal interpretation of the Bible to preserve the tradition. Since the church was the main custodian of ritual tradition in the West, social cohesion changed, despite a general turn towards the importance of consensus and feelings, nationalistic ideologies took the place of religious ritual, which was utilised, but no longer central.

It led, of course, to the worst century for armed conflict in history, and millions died. Added to this, in Russia and China, displaced or killed even more people during their communistic revolutions. The twentieth century is an example of a regressive development, primarily because of the influence of destructive philosophies which placed ideological group identity above previous alliances, like family, neighbourhood, or nationality. Emerging from the turmoil of the world wars, the West split into two factions, with America turning in substantial numbers to fundamentalist Christianity, despite a large minority remaining sceptical, and Europe generally turning away, even though the principle of religious freedom remained, and protestant theology incorporated historical criticism.

Of course, rituals still have a place in the West, but they are mainly those that are entertaining. There are still traditional rituals, such as wedding ceremonies, coming-of-age rituals, and funerals, that provide structure to the complicated emotions and dramatic social changes that accompany these moments of profound transition. Rituals, though often short-lived, express a sense of belonging to a group, such as family, friends, and neighbours, as well as clubs and countries-especially at sporting events. Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, USA, has attracted many tens of thousands of visitors since 1986. People also flock to the changing of the guard in Athens, London, Denmark, and Norway, as well as other countries. A lot of pagan rituals have become popular in recent decades, as have the rituals of indigenous peoples.

The problem with these examples is that they no longer have the broader impact on society but are individual preferences. Even the faith-based examples of ritual have limited audiences in the West, and evangelical communities even contradictorily speak out against issues of social cohesion, climate change, and ritual-based religions, including Catholicism, and push for freedom in terms of individualism. The lack of cohesion is evident in politics, where the electorate is in many cases divided among multiple candidates, and especially in social media, a true bastion of individualism where bullying and abuse are rife. At times like these, when the West faces Russian militancy, there is a willingness to help and give out of the surplus we have, but whether that conviction will hold up under the threat of war will hopefully not be put to the test.

I don’t want to make the mistake of saying that things were better in the past, but we must ask ourselves where this relatively new individualistic attitude is taking us. The rituals of early societies and even indigenous traditions, which some call “primitive,” had a holistic approach and included the environment in their considerations, which has at least as much impact on our well-being as being able to express our opinions or do things we want to do. We need to consider the interaction between individualism and collectivism, because our habits show that both play a role when it suits us. At this point I come back to Ken Wilbur’s Integral Theory and the effort to inspire humanity to move up the scale.

There are people in the world who are currently in “survival mode,” which is practically a throwback to pre-civilization times; others live in a kind of “tribal order,” with strong religious feelings or superstitions. Then there are those who live in an “exploitative society” that promotes fears and anxieties, where it matters who your friends are, and where the people who live in an “authoritarian state” have a small advantage over them and enjoy a certain material security. Only when we reach the “capitalist stage,” when more people can develop strategies for their lives and set goals, can they gain material security at the expense of consumption. It would be hoped that human societies can evolve to the next stage of “social consensus,” where the caring dimensions of society are explored, and the inner needs of individuals are met. Unfortunately, the latter stage is viewed critically by many conservative politicians, who prefer the previous capitalist stage. The next stage to an “integral self”, which can integrate the development stages as learning phases in life but is also integrative in the sense that it accepts the diversity of humanity but with a discernment of what is harmful. Very few people have been able to achieve the “holistic self”, which is effectively a collective individualism, in which these opposites can be incorporated and used effectively.

The way to this development, should people want to pursue it, which is debatable at present, is to find a common understanding of the nature of our existence – our being. It may have different names, and different cultural backgrounds, but a consensus would help us forward. Only if we share a basic idea of who and what we are, will we seek a way ahead together, instead of competing against each other for our limited resources.

Thomas Merton found that common to all, love and friendship are part of our encounter with Being which includes a “…metaphysical intuition of Being . . . an intuition of a ground of openness, indeed of a kind of ontological openness and an infinite generosity which communicates itself to everything that is. ‘The good is diffusive of itself,’ or ‘God is love.’ Openness is not something to be acquired, but a radical gift.”

This is a feeling shared by many so-called “mystical” traditions around the world that acknowledge the ongoing mystery of existence itself, and especially our conscious perception of it. There are many people, including scientists, who believe that consciousness is the grounding foundation of existence, and that matter and energy are manifestations of it. It seems that without this metaphysical perspective, we run into a dead-end. With it, we could perhaps find a way to celebrate life together and find ways to share this planet with each other, without destroying it.