Integral Flexibility: How to Flow Between Visions of the World

By Adam J. Pearson


Introduction: Freedom Through Deep and Varied Experience

Every perspective (way of seeing/thinking about the world) offers us an experience. If you can enter into a perspective, you can have the experience it offers. The more perspectives you can enter, the wider the range of your experience. The more perspectives you can flow in and out of, the greater your inner freedom. We can learn to do this. It is not something we are either born with or can never learn. The ability to flow in and out of perspectives is a gift open to all who care to explore its power to expand our minds and deepen our lives. 1

However, in order to learn to shift in and out of perspectives, it’s necessary to begin to loosen up our attachment to the perspective in which we spend most of our time and through which we see all the other perspectives. For instance, if we are deeply attached to the modern scientific worldview, it can be hard to see things as an animistic shaman or a devout Christian does. Conversely, if we are deeply attached to a literalist reading of the Bible, it can be hard to see the eyes through the eyes of the evidence-driven rational scientist who lays aside tradition in favour of research.


Rene Magritte’s “Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe” (This is Not a Pipe) reminds us that perspectives are only lenses or maps through which we see the universe; representations are not the things they represent, just as a picture of a pipe is not a pipe itself.

I know how it feels to cling to a perspective and see it as the only “true” view, as the “best and only way” to see things. My life until I discovered integral flexibility was a series of clingings to perspectives. I have variously worn the hats of the Christian, the Zen Buddhist, the Muslim, the nondualist Hindu, the ceremonial magician, the animistic shaman, the atheistic scientific modernist, the critical postmodernist, and so on. In each of these perspectives, I found a great deal of value. At the same time, I found that each perspective excluded certain things that other perspectives embraced (for instance, the shamanic perspective was unable to reveal to me the power and workings of the scientific method). Each perspective, by its very nature and the values that drive it, simultaneously reveals and conceals aspects of the grandeur of reality.

The vastness of life and the expansive diversity of the universe are always greater than what any one perspective can show us, however. The world beyond the picture frame is always greater than the vision of the world within its borders. The map is not the territory it helps us navigate. There are more angles, more lenses, and more views outside of any single perspective that disclose dimensions of reality to which the other ones are blind. Each perspective contains valid partial truths. Each has its strengths and its weaknesses, its ability to highlight certain things with great clarity and eclipse other aspects of reality in total darkness. If we want to integrate as much of reality as possible into our way of seeing, our global worldview, then it is worth exploring what the other views have to offer.


This brings us to the powerful practice of integral flexibility.

Integral flexibility is the ability to enter a perspective, see the world through its lens as if you were a believer in its vision of the world, and then flow out of it into another perspective at will.

Instead of permanently inhabiting a perspective, you instead become a ‘visitor’ of the perspective. You can flow into it, see the world as its adherents see, and then flow out of it. This is the ‘flexibility‘ part. The ‘integral’ part refers to the fact that we are willing to shift into any perspective at any stage of development (e.g. the spiral dynamics stages, or the integral theory stages, or Kohlberg’s stages, or Gilligan’s ages, etc.). We are willing to see through subjective individual perspectives, intersubjective group perspectives, and objective and interobjective scientific perspectives. We are free to explore artistic, scientific, spiritual, and philosophical perspectives at will. Each perspective is like a rabbit hole that we can jump into, see the world through its lens, and then jump out again and into another rabbit hole. As Robert Anton Wilson put it, each perspective offers a “reality tunnel,” or a way of seeing the universe that emphasizes certain features and excludes other features through its perspectival tunnel vision. If we want to see the most of reality as possible, it helps to spend some me in many different reality tunnels, or be a traveler of perspectives.


What does the experience of flowing between perspectives look like?

Here’s an example. Let’s say I’m looking at a tree. How can I see it? There are literally infinite ways. But here are a few:

– I can shift into the modern scientific lens and look at the properties of the tree: its molecular structure; its carbon-based elemental makeup; the physics of how the water molecules continuously form and break hydrogen bonds to draw water up through its roots into its leaves; its cellular structure; its embededness in an ecosystem embedded in a biosphere embedded in a planetary system embedded in a solar system all the way up to a galaxy filament in a universe, and so on. Drawing on experimental and observational evidence from chemistry, ecology, biology, astronomy, botany, and many other sciences, I can learn to see the tree’s objective and interobjective properties. As these properties reveal themselves, I feel a great sense of wonder and awe. Moreover, I can draw on findings from psychology and cognitive neuroscience to understand how my experience of the tree is shaped by the psychological dynamics of my cognitive, affective, and perceptual systems and the structure of my brain. 2


– I can shift into the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim perspective and see the tree as a creation of the Divine, and feel the sense of faith, presence, and warmth that arises when seen in this way. I can shift into a Hindu perspective and see the tree as an extension of saguna Brahman: the Divine expressing itself in form. I can see it through Buddhist eyes as an interdependent arising embedded in complex chains of interdependence, marked by impermanence, empty of separate existence, and united with my true nature beyond the shifting conditions of the universe. When I was learning each of these traditional perspectives, I had a tendency to cling to it and see it as the only truth. Over time, however, I learned that I can shift into the perspective, enjoy the view and experiences it offers, and then shift out. I need not stay in any of these; I can visit and embody them all; this is the great gift of integral flexibility. 3

Banyan Tree

– I can shift into the postmodern philosophical lens and see how the tree is embedded in contexts of interpretation that shape how I see it. The language that arises when I see it, the symbolic connections that Canadian culture associates with it (e.g. growth, interconnectedness of life, strength, seasonal flow, etc.), and the values we give or do not give to it shape how I experience it. I can shift the context of interpretation and see how it looks through another culture’s lens. For example, the maple tree evokes certain symbols as an emblem of Canada; through the Thai lens, the tree reminds us of the bodhi tree under which the Buddha sat and where he attained enlightenment.

Through the postmodern lens, I see that my subjective experience of the tree is intersubjectively ‘nested’ in these contexts and can’t be extricated from them. There is no tree just ‘given’ to me. It appears to the mind already situated within these contexts that give it meaning. However, we are not bound into stationary stagnation by these contexts; we can play with them, shift them, make the unconscious ones visible, and deconstruct the interpretations that seem to give one and only one meaning to the things we say (i.e. monolithic metanarratives). The postmodern vision helps us to play with contexts that give meaning to the tree and shape the contours of meaning that it takes on when it arises in human consciousness. As we shift the contexts of interpretation, we can shift the vision of the interpreted tree. Or, in semiotics terms, as we slide the scale of signifiers (words, symbols, cultural contexts that shape how we see the tree), we can change the vision of the signified (the tree itself). 4

Deconstructed Tree Rings by Cheryl Sorg.

Deconstructed Tree Rings by Cheryl Sorg.

– I can shift into the trans-subjective, trans-objective nondual view of the mystic and sit with the tree in silence. I can focus on it so deeply that its boundaries and my boundaries become blurry and then seem to vanish and feel, first, my Oneness with the tree, and then our shared Oneness with all beings in the nonduality of Being. I can abide here in the awareness in which the human being named Adam and the tree arises. And I can experience the deep peace, joy, and inner completeness that this perspective discloses. At the same time, I can shift out of this perspective to avoid the trap of becoming ‘attached to emptiness’ (see Seung Sahn’s Dropping Ashes on the Buddha) or ‘lost in the absolute.’  5

– As a final example, I can shift into the eyes of the animistic shaman and see the tree as a spirit inhabited by spirits, a gateway to the astral world where dreams have reality and archetypal forms abide and spirits drift and symbols imprint themselves upon the world we see. I can see the tree as a plant teacher offering healing medicine through its presence; if I am very aware and very sensitive and present, I can open my intuition to the lessons that the tree is offering me. For example, it might teach me that I can be at once rooted to the Earth, and still growing beyond it up to the Heavens of the sky. It might teach me that my human being depends deeply on the natural world around me. It might teach me to be kind to nature and tread softly. From the magical-animistic view, I can intuitively feel the life-force or energy of the tree and see that it is one with my own; I can feel the subtle flows of energy between me and the tree. I can feel the deep reverence for life that the shaman feels. 6


Learning to flow with Integral Flexibility

Which of these perspectives offers the complete truth? None of them. Each has its strengths and its limitations. Each offers different views of the world that disclose unique experiences, visions, and insights. Therefore, each has value in contributing to our global perspective and repertoire of experiences.

Step 1: Study the Perspective Deeply

Before we can learn to temporarily visit or inhabit a perspective, we have to first study it deeply and speak to people who are experts in it. We need to deeply understand it to ensure that we are not inhabiting some fake version of it, some strawman distortion, but rather, really are seeing as they see, in the authentic fullness of the tradition.

There is freedom in flowing. It is not tokenistic. It is not an empty nod to another person’s point of view; it is a willingness to deeply dive into it and see as they see. Flexible perspective flowing does not belittle any of the perspectives through which it flows. Instead, it honours each. When you have spent time in a perspective, you can deeply respect all of those who see through its lens.

Not all are called to flow through the perspectives and integrate what they find in each and we must respect that as well. Some people are content to see the world only as a Christian, or an atheistic scientist, or a magical-animistic shaman, or a postmodern deconstructionist for the entirety of their life. Each perspective has its own dignity and value. There is no need to look down on anyone; every person carries something of value and is expert in the unique experiences that are disclosed by their chosen perspective.


Step 2: Loosen Up Your Attachment To Your Own Favoured Perspective via Inquiry

If we are willing to be curious, open, and adventurous, then our yearning for ultimate freedom can stir us from the comfort of clinging to one perspective and excluding all the others. However, in order to be able to flow from one perspective to another, I need to relax my attachment to it. How do I do that? By questioning it honestly and openly. By asking if you can absolutely know that all of its assumptions about reality are true and that all other perspectives are wrong.

Every perspective makes certain assumptions. For example, the scientific worldview assumes that only empirical evidence supplies evidence of reality. In integral theory terms, it reduces reality to the objective and interobjective dimensions. However, can I absolutely know that there is nothing more to reality than its objective and interobjective dimensions, the realms of the evidence that researchers and experimenters are able to quantify and statistically analyze? If I am honest, I must say that I cannot. There is more to reality. There are my own subjective experiences, associations, symbolic connections, artistic visions, imaginative explorations, etc. Each of these is shaped by factors that can be studied (e.g. by psychology, neurobiology, cognitive neuroscience, etc.).

However, the subjective cannot be reduced to the objective. The subjective has value unto itself. The same is true for the intersubjective, the dimension of the interior of a ‘we’, the realm of culture, language, and relationships. I believe that the scientific passion for truth and inquiry can motivate me to be open to exploring other perspectives beyond the scientific. If I am too attached to the scientific worldview, I become closed off from the vision of the shaman, or the Christian believer, or the postmodern deconstructionist. Therefore, I can deeply value the scientific method and all of its findings, principles, and insights, while also loosening my attachment to it just enough to allow me to flow into other perspectives beyond the scientific.


Step 3: Temporarily Adopt the Perspective

Now that I deeply understand the perspective I wish to explore and have loosened my attachment to my own prevailing or orienting point of view, I can now temporarily adopt the perspective (or, as science theorists like Thomas Kuhn and chaos magicians like Peter Carroll might say, ‘paradigm shift’ into it).

When I adopt the perspective, I temporarily take it on. I temporarily believe its assumptions and hold them as true. I temporarily adopt its values. I imagine myself to be a true believer in its way of seeing the world. And then I consider something (e.g a tree, or a social issue, or a person) from this point of view. I take note of the insights and experiences that arise. I can note them mentally or, better yet, write them down. I can talk to other people who share the perspective and see if their views are in harmony with my own when I’m looking through their perspective.


Step 4: Shift Out of the Perspective and Reflect

When you have seen all you wanted to see from the perspective you were exploring, shift out of it. Return to your baseline frame of reference. Return to your basic core values (e.g. for me, these are things like vulnerability, authenticity, integration, detachment from any one perspective). For example, in my case at the moment, my baseline frame of reference is the Integral point of view, which sees the value in all perspectives without equalizing them (e.g. it is mindful of strengths and weaknesses, partial truths and limitations in all perspectives). However, if your baseline worldview is different, then return to that instead. For example, if you are most comfortable with the rational scientific point of view, you might shift back into that frame. Or back into your relativistic pluralistic perspective if you are comfortable with the postmodern point of view.

Now, reflect on what you learned while immersed in the other perspective. If you took notes, read them over. Look for valid partial truths in what you wrote. Are there things you see as valuable beyond the perspective? Are there unique insights it offered that you couldn’t have reached from your ‘home’ perspective (or asperspectival framework like Integral Theory)? What unique experiences did you have while in the other perspective? What are the strengths of what you found? What are the limitations?

Whatever you found to be limiting, drop and transcend it. Whatever you found to be valuable and to have elements of truth, integrate it. I find it helpful to explore these insights through writing and meditation. However, you might have your own preferred ways (e.g. maybe you’ll want to write a song or create a painting or compose a poem), and those are all perfectly valid as well.


Total and Partial Perspective Immersion

In this example, we have been talking about a total immersion in a point of view in which you temporarily take on all of its values and assumptions in order to fully see the world through its eyes. This is one way to flow into a perspective. Another way is partial immersion. In partial immersion, you don’t fully zoom into the perspective, but do it a little more distantly as a thought experiment. For instance, I might ask myself “how would a typical Orthodox Sunni Muslim see this issue?” Then I could reason a little more distantly based on my understanding of the perspective.

Partial immersion is less demanding on our emotional and cognitive system and gives us a quick sense of what another perspective would contribute to a view of a topic. However, if we want a really deep understanding of the other perspective’s viewpoint and we want to experience it from within rather than see it from without, total immersion can be more helpful. The wonderful thing is that we are free to choose the form of paradigm or perspective immersion that best suits our purposes in the moment.


Conclusion: Traveling the Realms of Perspectives

In my experience, being an adventurer through the perspectives deepens my love and appreciation for each of the perspectives I explore. At the same time, it makes me aware of how each could be taken to a pathological extreme that results in harm, as in the case of the beautiful Christian teachings of love being distorted into a doctrine of hate. Or scientific modernism becoming so objectively cold that it loses touch with the subjective warmth in us that loves animals, appreciates art, thinks in vision-symbols, opens us to leaps of pure imagination into fantasy realms, and so on.

If you feel called to this way of navigating visions of the world, I welcome you to listen to that Call of Adventure, as Joseph Campbell called it, and explore freely. Gather gems from each perspective and carry them with you, such as the scientist’s scientific method, the animist’s felt connectedness with nature, or the Christian’s vision of a love beyond prejudice.

Find out how yourself, like Alice in Wonderland or Neo in The Matrix, just how deep each rabbit hole goes. Once you have reached the depth of any one of them, pierce the veil that divides its perspective from other perspectives, and dive into another one. As you find co-travelers who hold each perspective dear along the way, meet them with love and respect rather than talking down to them or judging them. When you are a lover of perspectives drawn by the nectar of absolute inner freedom, you will see that each person is your teacher, and their perspective is your lesson, your vehicle for further exploration. Everyone is right, just partially so. And the adventure is in finding the wonderful, inspiring, illuminating, and profound things that each person has to share. Happy travels!


End Notes:
[For technical readers who are versed in Spiral Dynamics and Integral Theory]

1. In Spiral Dynamics, the Flex-Flow ability or ability to flow in and out of perspectives without being bound to any one of them becomes available in the yellow-integrative stage of values development; in Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, it becomes available at the teal-integral stage of consciousness evolution. If this note means nothing to you, simply ignore it. Or study the amazing systems that are Spiral Dynamics and Integral Theory and see what they have to offer (in my experience, a great deal!).

2. These perspectives correspond to viewpoints at the orange stage of Spiral Dynamics and the amber stage in Integral theory.

3. These perspectives correspond to viewpoints at the blue stage of Spiral Dynamics and the amber stage in Integral theory.

4. These perspectives correspond to viewpoints at the green stage of Spiral Dynamics and Integral theory.

5. These perspectives correspond to viewpoints involving consciously shifting into the nondual state in Integral Theory.

6. These perspectives correspond to viewpoints at the purple stage of Spiral Dynamics and the magenta stage in Integral theory.