Monday, December 24, 2007

Integral Transformative Practice - An Introduction

[NOTE: Long before Ken Wilber and the Integral Institute released their Integral Life Practice starter kit, Michael Murphy and George Leonard published The Life We Are Given, an introduction to Integral Transformative Practice. The text of this post was originally written as an introduction to an ITP workshop that (my ex) Kira and I wanted to teach a few years ago. Obviously, that never happened (we broke up more than a year ago). But for those readers who are new to integral practice, this should serve as a good introduction.]

Integral Transformative Practice
An Introduction

I should begin with the following disclaimer: throughout this post I will use words like transformation, growth, evolution, and many similar words -- but they are not really very accurate. The reality is that nothing you do in your daily lives, whether it's meditation, yoga, therapy, physical exercise, community service, or anything else, none of it -- not one thing you can possibly ever do will change who you are. Let me say that again, there is not a single thing you can ever do, no matter how pure or how lowly, that will change who you are in even the slightest way.

That said, why am I posting this? I am offering this post because I have learned what all the great teachers have taught -- from the Buddha to Lao Tzu, from Jesus to Mohammed -- what all these teachers and many of their followers have taught is that we are, in essence, manifestations of Spirit. "I and my Father are One," said Jesus. "All beings possess Buddha-nature," taught the Buddha. The goal of our lives is not to become something else, to transform ourselves -- the goal of our lives, and the purpose of this post, is to find tools that will allow us to uncover our true nature, the Spirit that resides within us. It's not about "becoming," it's about uncovering. The tools I will offer, and the tools you already possess, are simply ways that we can peel away the layers of confusion and ignorance that keep us from knowing our true, essential, Spirit-filled Selves.

So, that is my disclaimer.

Some thoughts on practice: this may be the most important aspect of this post, the idea that practice is crucial to transformation. It has become very common in our culture for those seeking change and growth to buy the most recent books, attend the most talked about retreats, and sample the many workshops available that promise to change our lives. The problem, however, is that once the book is read, the retreat ended, the workshop completed, we return to our daily lives and go about business as usual. All the lessons, insights, or tools learned are not employed -- transformation does not occur without practice.

Practice increases mastery, it ingrains the practiced skill, and the more effort we put into practice the greater our mastery of that skill. I come from a sports background, so let me use that as an analogy. When I decided to learn to play racquetball I had absolutely no skills, I didn't even know how to swing the racket correctly (the swing is much different than tennis, which I had played as a kid). But over a period of about three months, I learned the skills, practiced them regularly, and mastered the fundamentals of the game. Over a longer period of time, I became a good player, but not without hours of practice. I'm not talking professional athlete time commitments here, just three to six hours a week -- but that time, and a good teacher, made all the difference.

The same is true in our transformative practice. We won't develop good emotional skills if we don't practice them, study them, and work at improving our "emotional intelligence." Nor will we develop non-attachment if we don't study it, practice it, and work to improve our awareness of attachments in our lives.

Practice is crucial to growth.


There is a reason why practice is so crucial, why we don't develop skills simply by reading about them -- that reason is homeostasis.

Our bodies and minds are designed to favor homeostasis, which is literally a resistance to change, an impulse at the autonomic level to stay the same, to maintain equilibrium. When it comes to things like body temperature, blood sugar levels, or hormone secretion, this can be a good thing -- if our body temperature increases or decreases by 10 degrees, roughly 10%, we'll likely die.

The greater the change we wish to impose upon ourselves, the greater will be the resistance -- because of homeostasis. Anyone who has ever tried to lose a large amount of weight, or worse yet, tried to gain a large amount of fat-free weight knows all about homeostasis. I was once 155-160 pounds (for all of my teen and young adult years), now I am 190, and I have been as high as 225. The effort required to keep my body at 225 pounds was intense, not to mention the food costs. My body saw 160 pounds as its equilibrium, and so it required attention to diet and regular weight training to achieve the little bit of muscle mass I've gained over the years.

The same thing can be true in our spiritual lives. Many of us were raised in front of the television and have grown accustomed to spending a few hours each night in front of the "idiot box," as my father used to call it. So, when we begin to dedicate our lives to growth, to spending a few hours each week in meditation, or reading, or exercising -- whatever we choose to work on as our practice -- we will be fighting the temptation to watch television (or play video games, or whatever) instead. This, too, is a form of homeostasis.

Attachment to the things and desires of this world is also a kind of homeostasis, and working on non-attachment can be very difficult, especially if we aren't also working on lessening the ego's dominance in our consciousness.

However, as difficult as all this sounds, over time we can reset the homeostatic level. My body now sees 180 pounds as its homeostatic level, so that maintaining 190 isn't so difficult. Likewise, I watch only 4-6 hours of television each week in the evenings, and my equilibrium becomes unbalanced if I don't spend a few nights each week reading or writing.

As another example, for most of my life I thought having to get out of bed before 6am was torture, and even 6 seemed too early -- that was my equilibrium. I have since retrained myself to get up at 5:00 am each morning so that I will have time to read and write before work -- that feels natural to me now and I look forward to being up that early.

There are a few ways, as suggested by Murphy and Leonard, that we can work with our practice to face the challenges of homeostasis, because as we move forward each of us will confront some form of homeostasis that will threaten our progress and block our efforts at transformation.

1) Be aware of how homeostasis works

2) Be willing to negotiate with your resistance to change -- making incremental steps is one way to sneak around the homeostatic impulse

3) Develop a support system of friends or fellow ITP practitioners

4) Follow a regular practice, no matter how much you want to watch the Simpsons or Lost

5) Dedicate yourself to lifelong learning -- none of us is going to become enlightened in the next week, month or year -- transformation is not a goal, it is an ongoing process.

Integral Transformative Practice (ITP)

Foundations: Ken Wilber (latter books), Michael Murphy & George Leonard (The Life We are Given).

Integral Transformative Practice is an all-level, all-quadrant approach to personal growth and self-transformation based on Ken Wilber's map of the Kosmos (the graph below). The basic premise is that by engaging as many aspects of the self as possible in the transformation process that the synergistic effect will propel a more rapid transformational process.

The approach of ITP is to work with the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual waves in the self (upper left quadrant -- the realm of I), culture (lower left quadrant -- the realm of WE), and nature (interior nature of upper right, and exterior nature of lower right -- the realm of ITS). By "all-level, all-quadrant," what is meant is that personal growth is most productive when taking place in, or as part of, each of the quadrants -- a process that also gives value to each of the levels within each quadrant.

Stages and Streams

At its root, Wilber's model is based on the Great Chain of Being (the foundation of the Perennial Philosophy), a developmental hierarchy common to the world's great religious traditions. The basic levels are as follows:

Matter - Life - Mind - Soul - Spirit

This simplified structure is often expanded in the various religious/philosophical traditions to include as many as 108 levels and sub-levels, or reduced to as few as three (body, mind, spirit). A dozen levels seems to be standard among some of the more recognized philosophers (Plotinus and Aurobindo, for example).

Wilber now refers to these basic levels as "altitude," but for the sake of common understanding they will be referred to as stages, or levels, in this post.

In each of the human sciences, our attempt to understand our world is presented in stages of development. Because our interest here is in the development of the Self, much of our attention will be devoted to the top two quadrants of the map, the interior world, and to the bottom left, the exterior/personal world. An example of one of these maps would like this:

Upper Left (Interior Individual):

Upper Right (Exterior Individual):

This is an adaptation of Wilber's model for individual development, beginning with the most basic levels of awareness and moving forward through the various stages. This interior model ends with "vision-logic," which is equated with the end of "first-tier" (from Spiral Dynamics) consciousness. Second-tier consciousness is the beginning of the transpersonal realms, which are not common to most people at this time and, thus, are often not represented in maps of consciousness (unless the map is produced by one of the religious traditions that has extensive experience in the higher stages, such Buddhism, Taoism, Christian Mysticism, Sufism, Kabbalah, etc.).

As a human being develops through these stages, each stage transcends and includes the previous stage. In essence, it is a "value-laden hierarchy," but no one stage is valued as better or worse than another. Rather, each stage is important in its own right, and each successive stage simply adds to or expands upon the previous stage. For example, when a child reaches the level of the symbolic self, early in his/her development, she still has access to all the previous stages, and those stages will be employed as necessary to help her navigate the new stage and to reach higher stages later on. As a further example, it is impossible to form concepts without the ability to use symbols, such as words. So, each stage is crucial and one cannot skip a stage, they mostly unfold successively.

There are often problems at a given stage if everything is not perfect in the child's world, and no child grows up without some kind of problem. A boy may move through the emotional stage of growth being told that "boys don't cry," or "only girls show emotions," or "it's a sign of weakness to admit pain." This boy is going to have issues later in life, and if he is lucky he will seek a good therapist and learn to feel his emotions. As it turns out, many of the common therapeutic models address specific levels of development, and if one can pinpoint the level at which the disturbance occurred, one can choose a therapeutic model design to deal with that level. (In this example, the young man, encouraged to enter therapy by a girlfriend who is frustrated with is inability to communicate at the emotional level, might want to try an "uncovering" therapy, such as Script Analysis.)


If the stages of consciousness or personal evolution are seen as a vertical axis, then the horizontal axis would be composed of the various lines of consciousness. The lines of consciousness are where we will be focusing much of our attention. Although there are many possible lines (24 in total), and Wilber suggests 7 in his model of Integral Practice, we will be focusing on the basic four in this introduction:

· the physical -- nutrition & supplements, weight training, cardio-vascular work, yoga, akido, and so on.

· the emotional -- therapy, relationships, shadow work, the work of David Deida, and so on.

· the mental -- education, reading, Jnana yoga, and so on.

· the spiritual -- meditation, centering prayer, tai chi, Bhakti yoga, Sufi practice, and so on.

Wilber's model adds community service, relationships, and nature (these are best seen as culture and nature, while the first four that you will be working with are of the self). These last three may be considered supplemental, or advanced levels of practice to be taken up when one has established a firm foundation in personal ITP work.

Each of these lines, or "streams" in Wilber's terminology, moves through the various levels of consciousness in its development. It is important to note that the streams can, and most often do, develop independently of each other -- it is very possible to meet a person who is very highly developed in her spiritual stream, but is severely underdeveloped in her physical stream. In Jungian psychology there is the phrase "inferior function," which refers to that function that is least developed and most uncomfortable for a given person (part of Jung's theory of types that posits 8 possible types arranged in pairs, so that one is either mostly introverted or extroverted, as an example). We can also use that phrase here, where the woman's inferior function might be her physical stream.

Examples of other streams that have been developed would include Kohlberg's moral development, the chakra system, gender identity, Piaget's child development model, Erik Erikson's "psychosocial stages" (which changed the course of psychoanalytic theory), and Erich Neumann's mythological stages, to name just a few.

Setting Up Your practice

Murphy and Leonard recommend beginning with an intention. This can be anything from losing weight to improving relationships to finding a purpose form one's life. Once you have your intention, they then recommend using affirmations to keep us on track. Essentially, this serves to help us overcome the inertia of homeostasis.

Once this is accomplished, one should select the practices from the list (above) that are best suited to helping you achieve your intention. Any combination that can help you actualize your intention is appropriate. This will be different for each person, based on the intention, one's spiritual background, and/or one's predisposition.

Ideally, we should seek to work with each of the four realms (physical, emotions, mental, and spirit) each week. For the purposes of this project, it is often good to choose practices with which we are not familiar or comfortable. This will serve to help us progress faster -- if we choose practices we are already doing, the power of homeostasis might interfere.

Many of us are busy and this project might be challenging to fit into our schedules. This is OK. The goal is to do the best we can each week, and to not be hard on ourselves in those times when life interferes. If this happens, just pick up the practices again as soon as possible, without being overly critical of ourselves or feeling like we have failed.


While I am a big fan of the model Murphy and Leonard developed, others might prefer Wilber's ILP model, or Sri Aurbindo's Integral Yoga. It isn't so much important which model we use, even if we create our own. The idea is to work on multiple areas of our life simultaneously so that we can create the synergistic energy to propel our lives forward. Transformation isn't easy, but nothing in life worth having ever is.

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