An Uncommon Education: What is Integral education?

Paper for “Integral Visions and Scholarship” with Professors Arisika Razak and Bahman Shirazi at California Institute of Integral Studies

What people think when I tell them I go to school at California Institute of Integral Studies…

“California (surfing, cool)

Institute (oh, something technical, boooring)

of Integral (Inte- whu?)

Studies” I’ve never heard of it, so it’s probably not worth my time, but I’ll ask anyhow

“What does that mean?”

And I’ll proceed to explain how most graduate schools narrow in on a very small subject, picking reality apart without thinking about how to put it back together. But at CIIS we try to balance that, integrating the findings of various fields, looking for where they validate each other and where they conflict, trying to get back to a whole picture, a more inclusive truth. (I’ll leave my explanation of Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness for another time, heh heh.)

This much I expected. I had the intellectual framework and the intuition drive to synthesize already in place. What I did not expect were the ways I would fill out that framework. I formulated my understanding of the world by seeking similarities between diverse occasions and pulling these out as general truths, always seeking greater simplicity. I find that now I have to put flesh back on the bare bones skeleton.

Because my philosophical tenets of interconnectedness, self-similarity[1] (the essential identity of each individual part is the whole in which it participates) and enatiodromia[2] (truth of paradox) are constantly reaffirmed I don’t tend to seek out the diversity and complexity of the world to test and affirm them as much as I did in the past.   But the process of finding the meaning, truth and connectedness in each part of immediate experience is always necessary and challenging. I must continually remind myself that just because I recognize some larger guiding principles does not mean I know or understand all the intricacies of how they play out today or in history. As Metzger reminded me, “Not information, not knowledge, but the understanding of how things are and how one lives accordingly.” (Metzger, 1992) It is easy to get caught in the intellectual trap, failing to see the broader contexts of these smaller lessons.

These intricacies of play are what I did not expect from my experience at CIIS because I had limited my expectations to an intellectual context, where I would receive and create information and direction. I’ve found an abundance of challenging information, but very little direction beyond my own intuitions and the instruction, “here, struggle with this.” I did not expect to be asked to learn from my body. I did not expect to become aware of the role of Eros in learning.

<blockquote>For the erotic is not a question of only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we feel in the doing. Once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction and completion, we can then observe which of our various life endeavors bring us closest to that fullness. (Lorde, 1989) </blockquote>

To bring this wisdom to this level of awareness allows it to come into it’s own full power.

I did not expect to find the natural inequity and hierarchy inherent in the mind/body relationship, in the myth of objective reality, how science cannot account for that which cannot be measured, and capitalism for that beyond monetary value, or even English for that which is beyond words. The yin/yang of enatiodromia preaches balance, but it is only in connection with experience that one sees that by focusing on one thing you naturally subjugate its complement.

An integral perspective basically levels the playing field. Value judgments are no longer applicable as the only way to see something. In looking for similarities between things, in addition to differences one can no longer be dogmatic in one’s beliefs. If you allow yourself to truly encounter a person from another way of being, whether it be alternative sexuality, a different religion or ethnicity, it becomes difficult to propagate the harmful stereotypes that one can often fall prey to. When you know the complexity of a person or religion it is no longer possible to pigeon hole them and move on. Complexity of identity requires complexity of relationship.   The boundaries between “things” blur and their interconnections are illuminated.   Everything has equal inherent value by virtue of the space it holds in the whole. We’ve tried before to level the playing field with the “value neutrality” of objectivity, science, democracy and capitalism. But these systems, in which we currently function, have had the reverse effect, producing oppression in their desire for power and control.   Our current ways of functioning are all are based on labels, measurement and monetary value. Consequently all things beyond quantification, like love, culture or the value of a functioning ecosystem, fail to register in the system of knowledge and fall away into obscure illegitimacy. The only way we can aim at true objectivity is through continual openness.

Knowing the Unknown

One specific enlightening bit of knowledge, along these lines, was brought to our class in Matthew Bronson’s lecture on Dan Moonhawk Alford’s work on the differences between the English and Algonquin languages. He shed light on the knowledge limitations inherent in our own language by illustrating the differences in thought between Indo-European and Native American languages. He pointed out that in English things must be expressed in order to exist. Even our own presence and reality depends on our ability to express. The language traditions of the Native America and Japan are considered high content languages. Expression is loaded. One only says what needs to be said for the good of the people. For this way of thinking the prolific “I love you’s” of this country are scary. Why would you have to say something like that? It’s like there is a need to bring into being that which is not. There we go again trying to control things. “Fake it till you make,” is one of my favorite expressions. I guess that is characteristic of our language and culture, you talk the talk to walk the walk, whereas elsewhere the walking comes before the talking. Nouns make it easy to think we have the whole story, which is never really possible.

Luckily the reality beyond that which we recognize a such, refuses to be swept aside for too long, and asserts itself in the form of problems which stump our intellect – quantum mechanics, the elusiveness of holistic health, love, community relationships and decision making. By acknowledging our limitations we can address these issues and perhaps prevent them from becoming problematic through acknowledgment. For instance in group psychology there is the beauty of self censorship which keeps the group process focused on the process at hand and not the individual. But perhaps there is something to be said for making the unmanifest manifest. It is often to the benefit of the group to bring forward and resolve underlying issues when those issues might manifest themselves in unhealthy ways later. The tricky part is to know what will manifest as a more difficult problem and what will take care of itself if simply left alone. People have different thresholds for this, so there can be no general rule established aside from taking each circumstance as individual, allowing space to work out the kinks and trusting that what needs to be addressed will arise and allowing it ti arise by trusting your intuition.

This dilemma extends to individual health as well. Cells manifesting themselves in unhealthy ways cause our current cancer epidemic. We now seek to unfold that which we paved over, bringing that hidden wisdom to consciousness for our understanding and use. We sought to make our lives simpler, easier, by greater understanding through science and language only to discover that any movement, is always a movement away from something else – which only serves to make our lives more complicated by having to figure out how to regain that which we lost. The faster we move, striving toward knowledge, the greater our challenge to regain balance. This is how I gain from movement exercises, not through the movement alone, but from the intellectual processing it inspires in me – the seeking to balance this experience with others.

Another of the main points made by Moonhawk via Matthew, which is especially pertinent to this area of discussion, is that while English is largely visual, Native language are kinesthetic.   To talk about riding a horse in English generates an image of such, whereas in Algonquin you feel yourself riding the horse in the words. The separation of body and mind cannot be easily distinguished. One’s connection to their body is impossible to lose when it is ingrained in one’s language. The Algonquins also maintain the animacy of all things, whereas in English if a thing isn’t gendered, it’s rarely animate. Animate and inanimate things are filed in completely different parts of the brain, so it’s a hard distinction to overcome. Overcoming that distinction is valuable for recognizing not only the wisdom of our cells but of all of reality surrounding us.

English tends to limit things more than native languages, in that we’re overly noun happy. We like to label everything in sight to imagine we’ve got it pinned down and know what it is. Algonquin, on the other hand uses nouns only as circumstantially necessary and then discards them, preferring verbs and adjectives as more opened ended descriptions of things allowing there to be more to it than the limits we impose. This is evidenced in our differing conceptions of God and time. We like to think of God as a gendered person and of time as cut up into the nice neat packages of past, present and future, tangible and definite. Yet it truly seems a perversion of the true nature of these huge metaphysically incomprehensible topics to slap a label on them and easily forget that they are more than that.

Similarly, we ourselves hate to be labeled because of the limitations involved. The Algonquin, however, have an openness to their language, referring to God as a , “big mysterious(ing)” and to time as simply manifest and unmanifest. Perhaps this is the understanding which allowed for ancient people to learn from that which we see as inanimate, our cells, plants, water. They didn’t impose limits. So what we have to work to “believe” as counterintuitive to the common sense our language constructs, for them simply is common sense. Wow. Must be nice.


Integral Education comes with several challenges of its own. It must hold the Algonquin language way of knowing, somehow, within the English language. Because it includes both the measurable and immeasurable, there is no simple system which can hold them both. One must live with the complexity and abandon certainty[3]. Lets appreciate that for a second: abandon certainty. The more you learn the less you know. This isn’t such a comfortable place for someone accustomed to answering questions. But if you can let go, you’re not really responsible for having the answers, and that relieves quite a bit of pressure. An integral perspective expects you to do what you can, but relinquish attachment to the results. A bit of Buddhist wisdom shining through.

Unfortunately the “doing what you can” bit isn’t all that easy. The struggle is continual. Opposing forces normally relegated to their separate spheres of life now must somehow dynamically reconcile themselves. For me the dichotomies of personal/societal, and practical/intellectual have been especially slippery.   The very nature of integral education is that it permeates your existence. Every aspect of your life is involved. There is no escaping. If you’ve got imbalances in your personal history, they’ll come up and need to be resolved. And as if your immediate self wasn’t enough to work on, there is this certain responsibility to the global society to which we are so intimately caught up in these days. Good Luck with that.

The awareness of the larger picture prevents the abuse of power. Thus an integral education is an education in ethics in that it opens one’s eyes to the larger and larger stories in which one participates. Through increasing knowledge of interconnections, one cannot help but see the effects of their agency on the entire web, thereby leading to careful deliberation over behaviors.   And with that process, conscious participation in born.

As much as my mind naturally tends toward acquiring and synthesizing information, it also has quite a strong propensity for conscience. It seems the two are not unrelated. Though my ethical intuition is quick to speak up and determine my actions in every situation, I often find myself questioning and digging for the deeper meaning to the impulse. I can normally find sufficient reason for my own satisfaction, but when explaining to others I often require different information depending on what is meaningful for them. This is where the complexity and big picture nature of an integral education comes in. I am currently confronting such a dilemma. A friend of mine, from a very different world view, makes regular use of things like dry cleaning, taxis and maid services. I have a slight internal recoil response of not wanting to have anything to do with these activities. What is that all about?

In light of my CIIS education this semester I find I can look at it in two ways. On one hand, its participating in a system of division of labor which lacks accountability to the whole. If I’m not cleaning up after myself, it doesn’t have to matter to me how much of a mess I make. If I’m not the one working with the toxic chemicals, I don’t have to care how those might affect someone’s health or the delicate environmental balance. In a monetary culture, I think all my responsibility is taken care of when I pay for whatever service it is I have received. On the other hand the only way to really facilitate a great deal of control over your effects in the world is to isolate yourself, take responsibility only for yourself, become a self sustaining unit. But this severs community connections essential to a healthy self, understanding of interconnection, healthy community and is really, really hard to do in this world these days.

So what’s the best way to participate in this sort of world? Consciously. Consciousness is naturally integrative, but to consciously integrate is to kick it up a gear. Be aware of your role in the system and continually reflect on what you want your role to be and work to actively create that. Since most people don’t have time to do all that, simply simplify. That, I think, was my initial resistance to the complex lifestyle, was the unconsciousness participation in it. I prefer simplicity because its easier to keep track of.   But perhaps this is not a luxury available to everyone. At any rate, being able to explain my reasoning allows for others to entertain those thoughts, whereas an intuition doesn’t do much to influence another’s intuitive feel for their responsibility to a situation.   By choosing your simplicity you make a conscious decision on what to leave out. But in the abandoning certainty, we recognize that even our conscious decisions will be flawed.

So is it really any better to decide consciously as opposed to just going with the flow? I guess that’s one of those decisions that one must answer for themselves. Or perhaps, the when truly integrated, both come together. As Haridas Chaudhuri put it,

<blockquote>a self-integrated person is beyond good and evil, in the sense in the sense that he has transcended all conflicts and tensions within his own nature…the conflict of good and evil is transcended into a unitary functioning of the total self. (Chaudhuri, 1981) </blockquote>

So this perspective adds another tricky bit. I feel I can say I truly work toward integration, and do a fairly decent job, but am having a hard time comprehending what it would be like to live as Chaudhuri described. I do firmly believe that value judgments are completely relative, but have trouble when trying to apply this concept because it ends up hurting people, which I still have a hard time not trying to avoid because
I’m not fully convinced I should.

So we’ve seen that the integration of various perspectives adds dimensionality, illumination, complexity and uncertainty to the world in which we live. It facilitates a more ethical approach by entertaining a diversity of perspectives and thereby decreasing the likelihood of offending based on lack of understanding.


Bronson, Matthew C. “God is not a Noun in Native America: Claiming the Legacy of Dan Moonhawk Alford (1946-2002) for a Post-Colonial Anthropology.” CIIS Integral Visions, guest lecture Fall 2002.

Chaudhuri, Haridas. Integral Yoga: A Concept of Harmonious and Creative Living. Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1981.

Lorde, A. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

Metzger, D. “Writing as a Spiritual Practice” Writing For your Life. San Francisco: Harper, 1992.

[1]Self-similarity: a principle illustrated in fractals and holograms; the macrocosmic pattern is the same as the microcosmic pattern

[2]Enatiodromia: Greek. Process by which something turns into or is revealed to be the same as its opposite, very yin/yang

[3]Uncertainty: a principle of physics; We could predict everything if we knew every particles position and momentum, unfortunately the more accurately we know one of these values the less accurately we know the other; uncertainty is inherent in the system


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