Wisdom for an Integral Age
by Copthorne Macdonald
An essay in the inaugural issue of Integralis:
Journal of Integral Consciousness, Culture, and Science, Vol. 1,
No. 0 that was later re-published
in The Journal of Conscious Evolution
(The Internet links in the text below have been brought up to date.)
Paul Ray’s values survey (1996) revealed that some 20 to 45 million Americans
are attracted to integral values, Ken Wilber recently pointed out (2000,
Introduction) that this is not the same as possessing fully-developed
integral consciousness. Citing “the extensive research of Graves, Beck
and Cowan,” Wilber said that only 1 percent of the population has developed
“Integrative” and 0.1 percent “Holistic” thinking. Thus, although millions
of us are now pointed in the direction of an integral society and culture,
a much smaller number have developed their understanding to the degree
that is needed for the most effective kinds of transformational activity.
Many of us who resonate
with integral values and the integral agenda would like to become effective
agents of transformational change and help actualize the vision of an
integral society and culture. Yet, at some point, we begin to see that
the quality of our doing can only reflect the quality of our understanding.
We begin to see that to accomplish what we would like to accomplish we
need to move toward those higher levels of psychological/spiritual development
by broadening and deepening our understanding on many fronts.
My interest in the
nature and development of wisdom (Macdonald, 1995; Macdonald, 1996 ,
Macdonald 1995-2000) has led me to think about this movement toward integrative
and holistic thinking in terms of wisdom and its further development.
Wisdom, in all its varieties, strikes me as inherently
integrative because it involves assessing the IT aspects
of reality (the exterior-individual and exterior-collective)
from especially helpful I-grounded (interior-individual) and WE-grounded
(interior-collective) perspectives.  Wisdom also leads to an upleveling of the I,
WE, and IT realms. This happens because the way that wise people see
the world and process the data of life leads them to exhibit a whole array
of better-than-ordinary ways of being, living, and dealing with the world.
In this essay I will
discuss a variation on the wisdom theme that seems especially important
as we attempt to transform the institutions and practices of the industrial
age into those of an integral age. I call it deep understanding.
Several Kinds of Wisdom
Because wisdom is
a widely misunderstood concept, it may be useful to begin with a few general
observations about it. First of all, “words of wisdom” are not wisdom;
they are words about wisdom, pointers at wisdom. Wisdom
is internal, embodied by persons — and in a somewhat different sense,
by cultures. Wise actions are external. Thus, even wise actions are
not wisdom; they are effects of wisdom. Wisdom is multifaceted, and because
no two people develop all facets in the same way and to the same degree,
there are many flavors of wisdom. That said, in all its modalities wisdom
is a perspective-based, interpretation-based, evaluative mode of cognition.
Wisdom is not about facts per se, it is about the context-linked meaning
of facts. It is about the significance of facts and their implications.
I have written in
the past about two general types of wisdom. In Getting a Life
(Macdonald, 1995) I wrote about practical or life-centered
wisdom — the kind of wisdom that Coleridge called “common
sense in an uncommon degree.” Today, I see life-centered wisdom
as an information-processing modality in which situations are evaluated
from multiple perspectives, multiple contextual points of view. Common
evaluative contexts include the pragmatic will-this-work? context;
the what-are-the-consequences? context; the does-this-fit-with-my-goals?
context; a variety of contexts related to ethics, morality and justice;
the is-this-part-of-the-problem-or-part-of the-solution? context;
the does-this-represent-excellence? context; the is-action-needed-or-not-needed?
context; and many others.
This type of wisdom
is developed inductively from personal experience and the experience of
others, and it incorporates insights derived from experience. In people
skilled at observing life experience and making sense of it, their situation-evaluation
process comes to discern and incorporate many of the laws, rules, and
regularities which underlie everyday situations. By seeing clearly what
is going on in a multitude of specific situations, the evaluation process
acquires insight into how things usually work, and it develops a sense
of relevant probabilities. Over time, experience enriches and “educates”
this process, leading to more insights, greater wisdom, and wiser decisions.
is applied deductively. When the wisdom process brings its context-linked
perspectives to bear on novel data sets and life situations, its previously-cognized
generalities illuminate the immediate particulars. The result is better-than-ordinary
analysis of situations and more-appropriate responsive actions.
In Toward Wisdom
(Macdonald, 1996 ) I wrote about the big-picture, existential,
meaning-of-life variety of wisdom. This is the kind of wisdom that
Eastern spiritual practices help to develop. Rational/intellectual evaluation
plays a subordinate role in this form of wisdom. Because the goal of
Eastern practices is to develop insight into the non-informational aspect
of reality (being, spirit, energy, awareness, Brahman) and its relationship
to the informational (form, appearance, maya), these practices focus on
developing and harnessing the psychological modalities of intuition
and identification. They do this in ways that allow the eternal/transient,
Brahman/maya, carrier/information  nature of existence to be more
clearly seen and deeply internalized than is possible through rational
This essay focuses
on the development of a third type of wisdom: deep understanding.
Deep understanding’s special “flavor” is a product of two components:
1.) Integral understanding of the general type exemplified in Beck and
Cowan’s second-tier Integrative and Holistic “waves” of consciousness
and Wilber’s “mature vision-logic.” 2.) Additional intellectual knowledge
that helps us understand and deal with the specifics of humanity’s present
situation. In the discussion that follows, the emphasis is not on the
detailed nature of the end result. That will unfold in ways that we cannot
now determine, and will, to some extent, be unique to each individual.
Rather, the emphasis is on a practical strategy for developing this variety
When we think about
transforming today’s economic, political, social, cultural, and personal
realities into the new realities needed for a sustainable, equitable,
and highly enjoyable world, it is easy to get discouraged. The task seems
overwhelming. Where do we begin?
Abraham Maslow told
us where. We begin by understanding the reality that presently exists
— very deeply, very completely. Maslow noted that for self-actualizing
people (and others during self-actualizing moments) facts were value-laden.
They had a certain “oughtness” and called for certain actions. As he
When anything is
clear enough or certain enough, true enough, real enough, beyond the
point of doubt, than that something raises within itself its own requiredness,
its own demand-character, its own suitabilities. It ‘calls for’ certain
kinds of action rather than others. If we define ethics, morals, and
values as guides to action, then the easiest and best guides to the
most decisive actions are very facty facts; the more facty they are,
the better guides to action they are. …the facts themselves carry,
within their own nature, suggestions about what ought to be done
If we wish to permit
the facts to tell us their oughtness we must learn to listen to them
in a very specific way which can be called Taoistic—silently, hushed,
quietly, fully listening, noninterfering, receptive, patient, respectful
of the matter-in-hand, courteous to the matter-in-hand. (Maslow, 1971,
pp. 121, 124.)
Maslow is telling
us three important things: 1.) When we understand the present reality
with great clarity and depth, we will also sense the kind of action that
is needed. 2.) In order to understand reality in that deep way, we need
relevant, totally convincing facts. 3.) To receive the subtle value messages
inherent in those facts, we must approach them with a quiet, receptive,
To follow Maslow’s
prescription in the context of societal transformation, we face two serious
problems. The first concerns a prior education that, for most of us,
has not given us a sufficiently complete, sufficiently relevant set of
“very facty facts.” Some of us were educated in the sciences. Others
were educated in the humanities. Those educated in either of these “two
cultures” often know little about the other,  and few in either
one understand much about economic realities. (Unfortunately, the education
of most economists appears even more narrowly focused.)
This is not a satisfactory
situation. To be able to deal effectively with the major biospheric,
social, and economic problems of our day, we need to become more holistic
knowers. We must acquire a deep and comprehensive understanding of the
context in which those problems are set. We need to develop a broadly-based
intellectual understanding of systems and the system hierarchy that pervades
cosmos; the evolutionary process in its most general sense; consciousness;
human cultures; economic systems; and various key principles, laws, and
regularities which underlie functioning in all of these areas. Robert
Ornstein and Paul Erlich summarized our task (1990, p. 12): “We need to
be ‘literate’ in entirely new disciplines.”
The second problem
is that few of us encounter the reality around and within us with a quiet,
receptive, patient mind. We don’t listen to what is in that Taoistic,
fully listening, non-interfering way. To correct this problem we need
a very different kind of mental development — not intellectual this time,
but intuitive — the kind of development facilitated by quiet-minded Eastern
practices such as meditation. The exploration of one’s own psyche in
this way leads not only to a quiet, receptive mind, but also to an appreciation
of the laws by which our inner, subjective lives operate; ethical understanding;
moral behavior; and even insights into the nature of primal reality.
Each of the problems
mentioned above has its rather obvious solution. Each “calls for” the
particular course of action just mentioned. Together, these courses of
action constitute a two-element strategy for developing deep understanding:
On the one hand, go outward and acquire relevant intellectual knowledge.
On the other, go inward and find self-knowledge and a quiet mind.
Some day, a future integral society/culture will have programs and institutions
dedicated to helping people do this. Today, however, it is likely to
happen only through self-motivation and self-direction.
either kind of knowledge is not trivially easy, for most people the acquisition
of intellectual knowledge is the more familiar, more comfortable of the
two processes. For many, the exploration of “new disciplines” will begin
with the sciences of energy, complexity, and information; systems and
the evolutionary process; consciousness and the workings of the human
brain/mind system; human cultures; and economic systems. If, in addition,
we want to actually change what needs to be changed, we also need to understand
ethics and techniques for changing ethical perspectives; probability as
a decision-making tool; the techniques of conflict resolution and effective
persuasion; and what people are proposing — and already doing —to solve
the problems that the world faces.
literate in new areas of knowledge does not mean that we need to be experts
in them. What is very much needed — and what we already have in some
of these areas — are books, audio and video tapes, multimedia CD-ROMs,
Internet sites, online courses, and other resources that can help people
grasp a discipline’s key ideas with a reasonable expenditure of time and
effort. We also need high-relevancy cross-disciplinary maps of reality
that, by pulling together material from many disciplines, can help us
deal with the overwhelming complexity of the human situation. Some potential
aids to this kind of exploration are suggested online at http://www.wisdompage.com/outward.html.
Paul Ray’s “cultural
creatives” espouse values which indicate development to the early vision-logic
stage in Wilber’s schema and the Sensitive Self “wave” in
the Beck and Cowan schema. This level of personal development is characterized
by egalitarianism, ecological sensitivity, emphasis on dialogue and relationship,
affective warmth and sensitivity, the enrichment of human potential, and
more (Wilber, 2000, Introduction). Wilber pointed out long ago (1977,
1981) that the psychological and the spiritual are just locations on one
expansive spectrum of consciousness. Deficiencies at the less-developed
end are addressed through psychological therapies. Deficiencies at the
more-developed end are addressed through spiritual practices. Beck and
Cowan identify eight locations on this spectrum: 1.) Archaic-Instinctual,
2.) Magical-Animistic, 3.) Power Gods, 4.) Conformist Rule, 5.) Scientific
Achievement, 6.) The Sensitive Self, 7.) Integrative, and 8.) Holistic.
Thus, the task faced by the typical cultural creative — who currently
hovers around location six — is that of further developing Integrative
and Holistic characteristics. And, since all three of these locations
reside at the highly-developed end of the spectrum, the developmental
tool of choice will be one or more spiritual practices. A variety of
practices from Eastern and Western mystical traditions would be suitable.
Here I mention two that have proven especially effective for Western practitioners.
The first goes by the names mindfulness, Vipassana, and
Insight meditation. The second is the Tibetan nondual practice
is a practice devoted to the development of attentiveness and the exploration
of mind content and function. Initially, one watches physical sensations
in a narrowly-focused way — usually sensations connected with breathing.
Attempting to pay continuous attention to these subtle sensations settles
the mind and develops concentration. This practice is continued until
attention is able to remain on the chosen object for a reasonable period.
At that point, the focus of attention is widened to include other mental
objects: physical sensations, feelings, sounds, incipient thoughts — and
ultimately, whatever arises in the mind.
The benefits associated
with this type of meditation are many: insight into how the human mind
works; insight into our own values and behavior (seeing things that we
may have previously denied or repressed); the development of our intuitive
process; enhanced access to the subconscious; enhanced creativity; a quieting
of the mind that can become quite profound in retreat situations and during
long periods of solitude; skill at dealing with reactive emotions; and
increased levels of patience, acceptance, and inner peace. I have gone
into this in some detail in Toward Wisdom (Macdonald, 1996 ),
and there are many excellent books that deal exclusively with this type
of meditation. You might wish to check out the list of books and other
resources at http://www.wisdompage.com/inward.html.
The farthest reaches
of inner development involve internalization of the nondual view. Those
who have developed attentiveness/mindfulness to a fairly advanced degree
sometimes move on to practices that specifically promote cognizance of
the absolute reality and identification with it: nondual practices.
Ken Wilber’s “favorite meditation on nondual awareness” — and one of mine
— is Chapter 12 of his book The Eye of Spirit, entitled “Always
Ready: The Brilliant Clarity of Ever-Present Awareness” (Wilber, 1997;
and 2000, Introduction). Wilber’s words give the reader an excellent
sense of the goal of nondual practice, and can be a useful tool for developing
it. Dzogchen is an effective nondual practice that today has a growing
English language literature. As with Wilber’s meditation, the aim of
Dzogchen practice is to relax, just BE, become cognizant of Spirit (the
ever-present absolute aspect of mind, the ever-present absolute aspect
of everything), and realize that your deepest, truest self is nothing
other than this primal sentient-active oneness. Again, check out the
resource list at http://www.wisdompage.com/inward.html.
In line with Maslow’s
contention that deeply understanding what is reveals what needs
to be done, this paper suggests a two-pronged developmental strategy:
Go outward and acquire relevant intellectual knowledge. Go
inward and find self-knowledge and a quiet mind. It is suggested
that we intellectually acquire knowledge of the sciences of energy, complexity,
and information; systems and the evolutionary process; consciousness and
the workings of the human brain/mind system; human cultures; economic
systems; ethics and techniques for changing ethical perspectives; probability
as a decision-making tool; the techniques of conflict resolution and effective
persuasion; and what people are proposing and doing to solve the problems
that the world faces. Regarding self-knowledge and the development of
a quiet, receptive, Taoistic approach, it is suggested that we involve
ourselves with mindfulness meditation and, at some point, Dzogchen practice.
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wise activities, and listserv groups concerned with aspects of wisdom.)
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