By Adam J. Pearson
When I was younger, I tended to think in a very limiting way. I didn’t realize just how limiting it was at the time because I simply didn’t know better. When I thought in this narrow way, I would first buy into one view of the world and cling to it as Truth with a capital T. I would then attack any other model that seemed to threaten or compete with my chosen belief system. The so-called ‘logic’ behind this way of thinking was something like “this model is the best and only way to see things, so logically, that means that your viewpoint is completely wrong.” Not exactly the friendliest way to open a dialogue, to say the least.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that this kind of exclusionary thinking went on for years and years as I moved from philosophy to philosophy and religion to religion, embracing one as ‘the Truth’ only to later completely reject it in favour of a new ‘Truth.’ I found myself embroiled in endless debate and fighting a draining war that could never be won. For every particular viewpoint is like a single star in a galaxy of billions upon billions of other models. They’re not all equally true, but they tend to think that they have the only Truth.
This futile process of defending my beloved model du jour against all competing alternative viewpoints continued until I realized just how draining, exhausting, and limiting this approach to knowledge really was. Instead of seeing the valuable insights offered by all of the perspectives and simultaneously acknowledging each of their limitations, I would cling to the insights of one model and blind myself, to deny, or try to rationalize, its limitations. In short, I would think in exclusionary terms (ie. either this viewpoint is fully true or that one is, and if one’s right then the other is absolutely wrong). It took me many years before I saw that exclusionary thinking wasn’t the only way to think. And what a relief that realization was.
Here’s the positive and liberating news. Another way, an alternative to exclusionary thinking, is open to us: integral thinking. This shift from exclusionary thinking to integral thinking marks what Dr. Clare Graves once called “a momentous leap in human consciousness.” This new approach, which I first began to encounter in Ken Wilber‘s Integral Meta-Theory and Dr. Graves, Cowan, and Beck’s Spiral Dynamics continues to feel fresh, new and exciting, and I benefit from it day after day. In this brief article, I’ll say a few words about what it means to study new perspectives or models with a focus on transcending their limitations and including and integrating the partial truths that they contain rather than pit models off in futile wars of “I’m right and you’re wrong.”
As I suggested earlier, when I held on to exclusionary ‘either/or’ thinking, I felt exhausted, often frustrated, and drained. This was no coincidence; it happened for good reason, namely, that desperately fighting to make one limited model of reality true and all others false is a futile waste of time and energy. For one thing, it is an expression of a false belief because no model, theory, or belief system is ever complete or final. It is the height of human arrogance to claim otherwise and a significant case of failing to see the bigger picture. I held on desperately to particular models because I wanted to have an absolute Truth I could cling to, like the French philosopher Rene Descartes in his Meditations, who tried to doubt nearly everything in order to come upon one absolutely certain truth on which he could rely. I wanted the security of a certain and exclusive truth. And it was this very tendency to blind myself to the idea that all models contain both partial truths and limitations that kept me stuck in exclusionary thinking.
The crucial fact that exclusionary thinking tends to ignore is that every belief system or model is like a picture frame and what is outside the picture frame is always far greater than what it is inside it.
The practical implication of this fact is that if I assume that my model is final and absolutely true while yours is not, then I am quite simply wrong. No model has a monopoly on truth, no singular model has the ‘final word’ on all topics or includes all possible valid insights or partial truths. The best models out there are works in progress. Indeed, the progress of all science rests on this idea, in fact, for the absolutizing of any given model and seeing it as final is literally the death of science. Science proceeds by transcending the limitations of prior models while including their valid, but partial truths into new, more powerful and inclusive theories. And our general ways of thinking about everything from spirituality to science to art to politics and beyond can follow this same wise trajectory.
Consider this: What if we were to use all of the time and energy we invest to make other perspectives ‘wrong’ to instead find out what’s right, true, and valuable within them and integrate that with what we already know to be true? What if we aim to acknowledge the valuable partial truths in the model, integrate them with the valid insights from all other perspectives, and transcend the limitations of all of the models?
This is the fundamental question at the heart of the integral vision in a nutshell. The goal of integral thinking is sweeping in scope, namely, to bring together the best of all premodern, modern, postmodern, and contemporary visions of reality and unify and integrate them to reveal their beautiful interconnections. In this way, instead of trying to pit one viewpoint against another, we aim to include the valid features of all viewpoints into the most-inclusive model of which can conceive.
Moreover, as we develop this ever-evolving, ever-expanding, and ever-dynamic integral model, we can jettison and transcend whatever is limiting, unhealthy, or false within all models. This is an ambitious way to think, but it’s also a supremely valuable one precisely because it aims to include the valuable features of all competing viewpoints. The integral approach does not relativize and equalize all viewpoints, and thus crush all of their differential strengths and weaknesses into a depth-less Flatland, but it does give every voice a fair hearing.
As my wise friend Eliot Bissey put this point, “the integral approach involves four components:
“Transcend and include and negate and destroy. Transcend the limitations. Include the healthy, valuable, or partially true aspects. Negate the unhealthy aspects. Destroy, break down, or move beyond the boundaries that limit our thinking. As we level up, we discover the next set of limitations, boundaries, healthy and unhealthy aspects. And the process begins again: transcend, include, negate, and destroy.”
Suppose that I am advocating one view of a particular subject is true and you are advocating a competing alternative view. We could, of course, waste valuable time and energy trying to prove ourselves right and each other wrong in closed-minded debate. Or we could engage in collaborative dialogue. Together, we can try to find out what are the valid, but partial truths within both of our viewpoints and what are the limitations of both of our ways of thinking. Then we could consider other models apart from the two we both espouse and do the same with them, identifying partial truths and limitations. Finally, we could integrate the truths we’ve discovered while trying to transcend the limitations of each individual view. Would this not be a more fruitful line of inquiry than trying to prove one limited model right and another limited model wrong?
By transcending the limitations and including the truths in our original viewpoints, we arrive at a more inclusive, more integral, more encompassing and much broader perspective. This new model is necessarily vaster and more encompassing than either of the models with which we we started. It literally includes more of reality and transcends more of the limitations of both previous perspectives. If we keep doing this with all knowledge we encounter, our understanding will necessarily grow richer, broader, and more-inclusive. And we will be empowered by this wider and more inclusive viewpoint.
As thinkers such as Ken Wilber have wisely pointed out, transcendence and inclusion are how all growth, development, and evolution proceed. Every new level of complexity both transcends the limitations of the earlier level and includes the less complex structure into itself. Molecules transcend and include atoms; tissues transcend and include molecules; organs transcend and include tissues; physiological systems transcend and include organs; organisms transcend and include systems; relationships transcend and include organisms; ecosystems transcend and include organisms and their environments and so on. This pattern of simultaneous transcendence and inclusion (integration) holds for every set of complex forms we consider in the universe. Our systems of thought are no exception.
We want our growth, development and education to proceed; we don’t want to be stuck in a stagnant and limiting perspective. Therefore, I find tremendous value in applying this idea of transcendence and inclusion to everything I learn and encounter in daily life. I like to ask: what valuable truths can I integrate from this, and what limitations can I transcend? How can I honour what’s valuable in this approach that I seem to disagree with?
These questions are helpful on an epistemological level (they help us refine our knowledge), but also on an interpersonal level. When you go into a conversation with the intent of proving the other person wrong, you will likely only anger, aggravate, and annoy them. You make them put their guard up and create a distance between you two. Exclusionary thinking literally begets conflict in this way. In contrast, when you talk to someone with a goal of discovering and valuing the truths and insights in the perspectives that they share, they get to feel validated and you get to learn from them. When everyone is at least partially right, everyone gets to feel heard and all valid truths get incorporated in an ever-expanding perspective with an integral focus.
In short, the more we transcend and include from all of the models and perspectives that are offered to us, the more comprehensively we’ll be able to tackle the challenges we encounter in daily life and the more empowered we’ll be to make more informed decisions.