Robert Augustus Masters

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What Does “Integral” Mean?

  • October 15, 2016
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“Integral” has become a loosely applied term, supplying a bit of respectable heft to otherwise pedestrian nouns, while sliding toward the once-was-fashionable cultural bin that has all but swallowed up and dumbed down such terms as “holistic.” However, this does not mean that we ought to dump “integral” as a term, but instead, for starters, define it as clearly as possible, both directly and through comparison with related terms.


And why? Because what it points to plays a very important role in dealing with and making significant sense, level upon level, out of the rampant self-fragmentation, divisiveness, and developmental dysfunction of our times.


As I use it, “integral” basically means inclusive in a consciously embodied, multi-dimensional, radically comprehensive manner.


I say “radically” for three reasons:


(1) The things and qualities being considered together and brought together — with an already clearly established sense of their uniqueness — constitute not just parts of an acknowledged totality, but also are dealt with in ways that reflect that totality’s presence.


(2) This bringing-together is much more than just an assembly or reunion or conference of partially connected things and qualities.


(3) The process of inclusion is as expansive as it is conscious, both illuminating and deepening the connections between all the things and qualities being brought together, integrating them without any requisite homogenization or dilution of individual differences.


“Holistic” (and “wholistic”) was the post-hippyish ancestor of “integral” (even though Aurobindo was using “integral” long before the 1960s), as full of New Age optimism as it was lacking in genuine practicality. “Holistic” meant well, but generally didn’t have enough ground to take serious root, suffering from the kind of sloppy/fluffy thinking and metaphysical quicksand that made it an easy target for probing minds that didn’t give a damn about spiritualized cognition.


“Integral” is a more sober term than “holistic,” more imbued with a sense of true inclusiveness, but nevertheless remains in danger of getting shipwrecked on overly intellectual reefs, especially when it comes to theorizing about theorizing. Where “holistic” had an anti-intellectual quality to it, “integral” can tend to lean too far the other way — in both cases, however, there’s a lack of real embodiment.


“Integral” is an increasingly popular adjective. Placing it before words like “parenting” or “cooking” or “dog-grooming” tends to give them a touch more respectability. It’s easy to stick “integral” in places where it may not belong. So use it sparingly. Don’t trivialize it. It’s a word deserving of a better fate.


An integral approach is not just sophisticated eclecticism or a neatly mapped mixture of applied methodologies. We may be meditating, working out, doing a bit of psychotherapy, and keeping up with the latest in integral theory, but this does not necessarily mean that we are actually being integral.


We can only say that we’re being integral if our various practices and ways of being are functioning together — and not just in our eyes! — as well-illuminated parts of a consistently embodied, more-than-adequately functioning whole. We may not have fully arrived yet, but clearly are on our way, having the momentum to back this up, along with an integrity that runs more and more deeply through all that we do.


Being truly integral means, among other things, developing intimacy with everything — everything! — that we are. (The more intimate we are with a particular quality in us, the more lucidly differentiated it is, which makes its integration all the easier.) A genuinely integral approach lives such intimacy both conceptually and non-conceptually, without getting self-conscious about being integral.


Such an approach works with our physical, mental, emotional, sexual, energetic, spiritual, and social dimensions, level upon level, consistently taking all of it into account, without losing touch with the totality that includes and pervades it all.


Overly intellectual approaches to being integral pay insufficient attention to emotions, in part perhaps because emotions are just too messy and too nonlinearly inclusive of the rest of our dimensions to be able to be neatly mapped. Emotions implicate us as a totality: they involve feeling, cognition, social factors, related action tendencies, and perspectival capacity, all of which interact and operate together. Any integral approach that only superficially deals with emotions is only superficially integral.


An integral approach is not going to be much of a reality for us if we ourselves are not already living, to a significant degree, in an integral fashion. Part of what is needed is a clear recognition of where we are not integral, not in healthy relationship to some aspect of ourselves, not in integrity.


Facing our fragmentation and internal warfare rather than trying to rise above it or only superficially deal with it is a step toward integrity. The intention to be integral is not in itself integral, but can aim us in that direction. Our task is not only to align ourselves with this, but to take the leap, and keep taking it, especially with regard to what is weakest or least developed in us.


Let’s dive into doing what is needed to make “integral” a fitting term for how we are actually living. The more we align ourselves with what-really-matters in every area of our life, the more that “integral” becomes not something we believe in, but something that we cannot help but live.