Introduction to Integral Consciousness

With my recent discoveries of Patrick White and Jean Gebser, I’ve been feeling a little bit like the children in the C.S. Lewis story “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”, although instead of going from a world that made sense into one full of magic and mystery it’s been the other way round and things that haven’t made sense (pretty much everything happening in western society these days) have started to become clear. I still haven’t quite finished off Gebser’s book The Ever Present Origin but, as I mentioned in a recent post, my experiences in linguistics, cognitive science, science and technology and more recently Jungian theory have all meant that I had reached almost identical conclusions to Gebser and so his concept of Integral Consciousness already made perfect sense to me. In this post I want to give my introductory outline of what I think Integral Consciousness is.

There are a couple of preliminary definitions to make at the start. First, by “consciousness” we are not just referring to waking life i.e. the set of things we are capable of being consciously aware of at any one time, but rather the set of all faculties available to individuals and societies. Within this model, there is no “unconscious” in the sense used by modern psychology. Rather, there are other faculties or forms of consciousness which are sublimated. These consciousnesses that are sublimated show a pattern that can be defined. That’s the discovery that Freud, Jung and others found in the early 20th century. They called it the unconscious, but actually there are multiple sublimated consciousnesses sitting beneath the dominant consciousness of the West: the Mental.

Gebser identifies 5 types of consciousness with the historical order in which they arose: 1) the Archaic; 2) the Magical; 3) the Mythical; 4) the Mental; 5) the Integral. This leads us to a second vital assumption. Just because these are placed in historical order, it does not mean that any linear progression or evolutionary “advancement” is implied. The chauvinism of European culture during the colonial period relegated societies practising the older forms of consciousness to inferior or less evolved status. As we will see, this makes sense within the Mental Consciousness of the modern West which views time as linear and progressive. Thus, anything old is by definition worse than anything new and history marches onwards towards utopia. That’s what most educated people in 19th and early 20th century western societies believed and that belief was tied in with a series of invalid ideas around race, fatherlands and soil. We all know what happened as a result of those ideas.

The assumption here is that each consciousness is universally available to an individual or culture but individuals and cultures display a dominant consciousness. Even if something “new” appeared at a historical juncture, that “new” consciousness must have been latent in human nature at prior periods. It follows that, in theory although not in practice, any human should be able to become proficient in a particular configuration of consciousness. We know this as a simple empirical fact in the modern west where immigration has shown that people from all parts of the world can become proficient in the dominant western consciousness which is the Mental. A Chinese friend of mine once told me that the Chinese call a Chinese person who moves to a western country and becomes like a westerner a “banana”; yellow on the outside and white on the inside. That “inside” is consciousness.

For our purposes here, we can summarise the basics of each consciousness as follows:-

Archaic: This is the domain of timeless non-duality. To speak of it breaks the non-duality. Therefore, we can’t speak of it. (Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent).

Magic: egoless, timeless, spaceless. Primary social organisation is tribal. Freudian psychology applies here. It’s the domain of instinct, emotion and sexual drive. In its highest form, it uses intricate and highly effective rituals to harness (magical) energy. Concepts for “energy” like qi, ki, mana belong here.

Mythical: cyclical thinking based on nature, the seasons, astronomy and cycles of life and death. Primary social structure is small scale agriculture. Jungian psychology of soul (psyche) belongs here especially as it relates to myths and the resultant “personality” archetypes like ruler, lover, warrior etc.

Mental: everything from the Dionysian rites, Plato and Aristotle up to quantum physics. The primary psychological development here is the Ego which reaches its apotheosis in Faust. An extreme separation of subject and object not seen in other consciousnesses (which finally collapsed with Quantum Mechanics). The idea of “progress” and linear time comes to dominate.

Assuming that all these are latent possibilities in us at any one time, the way to think about the emergence of different configurations is not an either/or divergence. We don’t completely “turn off” one type and “turn on” another. Rather, each type of consciousness is a kind of Focus of latent capabilities. We focus on and thereby become aware of the things that our consciousness determines are of high value. We defocus on other things but that does not mean they are not there. On the contrary, as we will see, modern western society is full of Magic and Myth even though we still think of ourselves as perfectly “rational” and “scientific”. Anybody who has lived through the last two and a half years doesn’t need any more evidence to be convinced of this fact.

One way to represent the idea of Focus is as follows:

The tribal societies that are based around the Magic Consciousness such as Indigenous Australian, Native American and Native South American have the Magic dominant while the other types of consciousness are latent. Some societies historically began to move from the Magic into the Mythic giving us something like the following which is a transition period between two types of consciousness. The Magical is still acknowledged as valid but the Mythical is coming to dominate:

Eventually, the Mythic gives way to the Mental. Ancient Greece is our paradigm example of that. By then, the Magical has become latent (although the Dionysian rites are a classic example of the Magical) while the Mythical way of thinking still has some influence:

Finally, we get to modern society which is the one we all know best. The ascendancy of the materialist philosophy in 19th century Europe represents an endpoint, the most extreme manifestation of the Mental. All remnants of the Magical and Mythical, which were by then exclusively embodied in the Church, are done away with, at least as far as educated people are concerned. This is the age of heroic materialism manifested in the external world in bridges, railroads, telegraph, tanks, machine guns and all the rest. It would look something like this:

But this picture is not quite true. As I noted in a previous post, European society had already begun exploring the “unconscious” from the beginning of the 1800s. But what Jung called the “Unconscious” is simply the Magical, the Mythical and the Archaic. Thus, the explosion of interest in Greek, Norse and other mythology in the 19th century represents the re-awakening of the Mythical. The interest in eastern philosophies and religions relates mostly to the Archaic. Meanwhile, the burst of interest in the “occult” represents a re-discovery of the Magic consciousness. These types of consciousness had been explicitly suppressed by the Church during the two millennia long development of the Mental Consciousness.

This leads to another important point. If this is all correct, then it follows that in order to manifest a particular type of consciousness in its “purest” form, we must suppress the others. Focus comes through Discipline and Detachment. We have to detach from the other types of consciousness and apply discipline to the one we are pursuing in order to manifest it in its purest form. Thus, the military-like discipline of scholars in the 19th century pursuing materialist philosophy led to a boom in new ideas. The same discipline among the engineers saw the construction of railways, bridges, skyscrapers etc.

But the discipline was not just confined to the intellectuals. The workers in the coal mines, in the factories, on the farms, and the soldiers in the military displayed extraordinary discipline relative to historical standards. But it was a discipline that came at a price and one of the prices to be paid was to detach oneself from the emotions (associated to the Magic consciousness). There is no room for emotion when you’re toiling away in a coal mine for 12 hours a day. It’s simply not possible to do that job without an extreme level of detachment and discipline. This suppression of the emotions was what came to characterise Victorian society. Its downside could be seen on the streets of London in the tolerance of rampant poverty and suffering (including child labor) or in the prisons of convict Australia where horrendous conditions held sway. The suppression of the emotions would later make Freud and Jung famous as they began to treat the various psychoses that resulted.

It was that same discipline and sublimation of emotions that enabled the trench warfare of World War 1 and saw millions of young men spend 4 years running into machine guns. The same discipline saw the development of the atomic bomb.

The 20th century was the end of the line for materialism not just for these obvious reasons but because the initial burst of new discovery had already ended from within science itself. Part of the motivation for systems thinking was to analyse why materialist science had stopped producing results.

For all these reasons, the end of WW2 was the end of the extreme materialist phase of the Mental Consciousness but also, according to Gebser, Spengler and others, the end of the dominant phase of that consciousness altogether. The difference between Gebser and Spengler is that the latter saw this development as the end of the West while the former saw it as the prefiguring of a new consciousness: the Integral.

In the post war years, what we see is a de-focusing of the Mental Consciousness and that de-focusing has been getting more intense in recent decades. We see this in the fact that there have been practically no major scientific or technological breakthroughs in the post war years. In the broader culture, there has occurred the loosening of social norms but these “loosenings” are the opposite of the discipline that I mentioned earlier. Focus = discipline + detachment. The detachment which enabled the Mental Consciousness to become hyper focused was detachment from the Magical and the Mythical. As the Mental has become de-focused, the Magical and Mythical have returned. I mentioned in a recent post the Mytho-Poetic Men’s Movement run by Robert Fry and James Hillman. This is just one of many examples of the Magical and Mythical being explored in the post war years giving us something like this:

In the last two and a half years of the corona debacle, it looks more like this:

Of course, we don’t call it Magic. We’ll call it a mass formation psychosis which has a nice scientific ring to it and sounds legitimate to our rational biases. But the corona hysteria fits perfectly within the technical definition of the Magical Consciousness. It was the unleashing of energy in a coordinated and focused manner. The fact that it was not done on purpose means it is a kind of black magic. Tribal societies that practised the high form of Magic Consciousness had their own strict discipline about the matter for this exact reason. When you loose magical energy without appropriate safeguards it bounces back on you. Even cheesy Hollywood movies know that much. Thus, corona can be seen as the result of western societies mucking around with magic (propaganda and advertising are two prime examples) without the appropriate safeguards.

When viewed this way, we can see that the postwar period has been a time of experimentation with Magic Consciousness in western society. But this experimentation was entirely accidental and “unconscious”. Nobody knew they were doing it because we don’t believe in magic.

One of the key components of the Magic Consciousness is a lack of ego. Another way to think of this would be an almost complete relaxation of the distinction between subject and object, one of the cornerstones of the Mental Consciousness. Obviously, tribal peoples knew the difference between themselves and the animals that they hunted. But the Magical Consciousness implies what we would think of as a radical lack of separation between the individual and the world.

Western society has been accidentally experimenting with this “egoless” state in the post war years mainly through music, sex and psychedelic drugs. Yep, that’s what sex, drugs and rock’n’roll was. It was Magic. Santana’s Black Magic Woman or Hendrix’s Voodoo Child performances at Woodstock were highlights, especially if you took the brown acid.

Even the clothing was Magic

Maybe you’ve been to a music concert and had the feeling of being “swept up in the music” in some kind of “out of body experience”. That feeling would have been a permanent state of affairs for those living in the Magic Consciousness. The borders between you and the world seem to dissolve and you’re “in the zone”.  

If sex, drugs and rock’n’roll can give us an insight into the Magical, why not combine all three? This is something you can do in the comfort of your own home. Get together with someone special, pour a couple of glasses of wine, turn down the lights and put some Barry White music on the stereo. If you don’t become one with the universe, you’ll be sure to at least have a pleasant evening. But be careful when dealing with this kind of Magic. Too much of a good thing and you’ll end up like Hunter Biden.

White magic
Black magic

The Biden connection here is no coincidence, by the way. The baby boomers indulged in the Magical but they did so from within the frame of the decadent Mental Consciousness. That decadence began in earnest with Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. The development of the Ego now became hypertrophic and it has continued to grow ever since. These days we see it in the ultra-decadent form of the rampant narcissism and self-aggrandisement that is everywhere in modern western societies. With the loss of the discipline that was present at the height of materialism, the Ego has become completely detached from reality.

The post war years has seen the decadent form of the Mental Consciousness combined with unstructured experimentation in the Magical and the Mythical. The problem with Magic, however, is that nothing comes for free. He who dances must pay the piper. The sex, drugs and rock’n’roll of the baby boomers was fun while it lasted but then the pendulum swung back the other way. The combination of ego-mania and indulgence in the Magical and Mythical without the proper precautions and understanding pertinent to those domains has left us with a society manifesting the negative Magical, Mythical and Mental all at the same time. That is where we are now in the modern West. The lack of scientific advancement in the post war years has now degraded to the point where we look like we’ll barely be able to keep the lights on much longer. We no longer have the Focus, the discipline and detachment, which were cornerstones of the Mental Consciousness.

All of this looks incredibly bleak and it’s tempting to agree with Spengler that the west is on the way to history’s garbage bin. However, it is Gebser’s contention that this is a necessary period of “exhaustion” prefacing the emergence of a new consciousness called the Integral. If this sounds wishy-washy to us, it’s because we are still the inheritors of the materialist assumptions of the 19th and early 20th century Mental Consciousness. So was Spengler. So was Jung (although he tried later in life to overcome them). For Spengler, might is right and the world of culture is the survival of the fittest. These make sense from within the materialist philosophy but we should by now be somewhat sceptical of that philosophy. From an Integral Consciousness point of view, these ideas are not wrong but they are context dependent. We need to be aware of the context rather than make blanket statements of “truth”.

For me, this is not a theoretical issue. My entire adult life has been spent in the science and technology fields where learning the limitations of the model you are using is a practical matter and not an exercise in armchair philosophy. Gebser’s idea of the Integral Consciousness resonates strongly with me based on empirical life experience and not on idealist philosophical grounds.

So, what might the Integral Consciousness look like and what would it mean in practice? Here is how I think it could look on the chart.

I have drawn the Archaic, Magical, Mythical and Mental in relatively high position relative to the Integral on purpose. The reason is that the Integral Consciousness does not deny the validity of the other types of consciousness. On the contrary, it accepts them all as valid within their own context and it tries to incorporates them into a broader understanding. The Integral is concerned with connection and context. The account I gave above is an Integral Consciousness account to the extent that it presents each of these in historical context and therefore makes time explicit. By making time explicit we also know that to view these as a linear progression is to view them from within the Mental Consciousness mode while to view them as part of a cycle would be to invoke the Mythical and to view them as timeless would be part of the Magical. The Integral doesn’t attempt to say which of these is “true”. In fact, it views them all as “true” within their own context. They become lenses through which to view the world.

The Focus of the Integral Consciousness is not to believe in eternal truths. That is the price that we pay to get to the Integral Consciousness and it is this that is one of the major stumbling blocks preventing us from moving on from the Mental. There are the people in our society who still believe that “the truth is out there” and the experts can find it and drive us forward to utopia. Then there are the postmodernists who believe there’s no such thing as truth and everything is a power game (a position that follows logically from Spengler and Nietzsche). Both of these are products of the materialist Mental Consciousness that we must transcend.

The Integral has a multi-dimensional attitude to “truth”. It follows systems thinking in looking for heuristics and connections. Gone are “eternal truths”. Truth is now in the integration of multiple perspectives. Truth itself must become multi-dimensional and break out of the dualistic either/or straightjacket of the Mental Consciousness. When that happens, you start to experience what Jung called synchronicities. Truths emerge for which you cannot trace cause and effect relationships. The cause and effect are still there but the chain of events is too complex to analyse rationally. This is what systems thinking referred to a medium number systems. It is in those medium number systems that the Integral Consciousness finds its home. It allows us to embrace complexity and uncertainty without the anxiety caused within the Mental Consciousness of not being able to analyse every single variable and outcome.

By making time concrete, we also transcend it and attain something like the timeless non-dualism of the Archaic. Meanwhile, the lack of singular truth gives us some sense of the Mythical where every polar concept also contains its opposite; a pattern which Jung followed in the anima/animus distinction. In short, the Integral, as the name suggests, integrates all the other consciousnesses but knows that it cannot become them. We can no longer attain the purest form of the Magical Consciousness, for example, without giving up the Ego which we have spent the last two thousand years developing. But we can learn to understand the Magical and to incorporate that understanding into a new consciousness.

This new consciousness will seem inefficient, wasteful and unfocused from within the Mental Consciousness. But the desire to do more things in less time and to achieve infinite growth on a finite planet has already passed. Our entire relation to time will have to change but this is a change that is already underway. Nobody believes in the economy anymore. Just one symptom of this is that companies can’t find people to work in western societies anymore.

You can write that off as decadence and laziness. How dare the millennials demand jobs that are actually meaningful. There’s no doubt that all this is currently manifesting as narcissism but that’s just the leftover egomania of the materialist phase of Mental Consciousness. That should go away pretty quickly now. The West will have plenty of opportunity to learn humility in the years ahead and maybe in that humility we can transcend the Ego and embrace the Integral.

11 thoughts on “Introduction to Integral Consciousness”

  1. This is great stuff, Simon! Most enjoyable. Re modern manifestations of magical consciousness… Seems to me that a lot of folk can’t distinguish between themselves & their online avatars… & what about all the fantasy gaming? Every time I google-search planetary references, I get game references. OK, there’s a mythic element there too. Which you’re saying.

    Integral consciousness sounds comparable to right-brain thinking, mental consciousness to left-brain thinking, as these modes are described by Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. He argues that the emissary, the left hemisphere, has gotten too big for its boots.

  2. Shane – I’ve joked before that if iPads/computer games/social media still exist in 30 years, we’ll look at a child using them the same way we would now look at a child smoking a cigarette. Ah, yes. McGilchrist is on my to-read list. Interestingly, the Mental Consciousness is very strongly associated with the right hand side which goes against the left brain idea. Although the left brain does control the right hand side of the body, so maybe that makes it fit.

  3. It seems like I am too deeply embedded into the materialist mindset, as this integral consciousness idea sounds very much wishy-washy to me. Which consciousness would be relevant in which situation?

    Nevertheless, thanks again for some food for thought. After reading “Tage der Entscheidung” by Spengler again, I would still think that there will be a long decline, but not only in the West. “Exhaustion phase” sounds like an euphemism compared to the real decline.

  4. Secretface – Spengler assumes culture follows biology (power). Gebser assumes it follows spirituality. Nobody in the modern west believes in spirituality anymore and so can’t take Gebser seriously. Prior to corona, I probably wouldn’t have either. But I can’t see any materialist explanation for corona that makes sense. On the other hand, through Jung, I think an “acausal” explanation does make sense. And once you start seeing things in acausal terms, this opens up the question of spiritual influence. By the way, quantum mechanics arrived at an almost identical conclusion (acausality/complementarity), so this isn’t just armchair philosophising.

  5. I didn’t want to critizise your work. It is really hard for me to follow as I lack the background knowledge of the relevant literature. Somehow, I still think that it was some kind of destiny that I came here (via JMG). To better follow your arguments I have started reading Guenon which I already had on my reading list for a long time. Since I failed to get into another traditionalist (Evola), I postponed getting into Guenon until now.

  6. Secretface – no worries. I can certainly recommend giving Gebser a try. The first 3 chapters will give you a good overview of the concept before he gets into the long comparative section. And you can read it in the original German too 😉

  7. At the risk of seeming naive, I’m not sure why the materialist & spiritual perspectives need to be mutually exclusive. Isn’t that the thing about Integral Consciousness – that it can span different levels of perception, encompass paradox? If McGilchrist is correct, the left brain is trapped in the materialist mindset, while the right brain just includes it. That’s why it’s supposed to be creative; like the best artists, it uses everything. Which reminds me, Simon – have you seen Charlie Kaufman’s latest (2020) film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things? Some might call it postmodern wankery, but Kaufman is a right-brain kind of guy.

    I’ve been watching an interesting doco series – How to Change Your Mind – on the therapeutic use of psychedelics, & it’s really refreshing to watch folks w/ scientific training facilitate other folks’ spiritual epiphanies. On the one hand, magic mushies, eccy etc. do certain materially measurable things to serotonin: brain chemistry. On the other, they plug users in to timelessness, transpersonal love, healing frequencies, cosmic consciousness. Which you can get to through meditation but it takes much longer & may be impossible for someone w/, say, serious PTSD.

    Also, an awakening can look like a decline from the outside.

  8. Shane – I think you’re right. Both Spengler and Gebser can be correct at the same time. The West can “decline” but in Gebser that is just the necessary suffering required to birth the new consciousness.

    I hadn’t heard of the latest Kaufman. Looks worth a look. Sometimes he hits and sometimes he misses but that’s the risk you take when pushing the boundaries.

  9. Love your work mate.
    Will have to reread it a couple of times and digest it.
    The question that popped into my mind spontaneously was “why did Greer never write anything like this?” I waited for more than 2 years for it but it never came.
    Maybe you should be the next Archdruid.

  10. Roland – that’s a very interesting question. The Ecosophia concept does sound very similar to Integral Consciousness. I think there’s two major differences between Greer and Gebser. Firstly, Gebser believes a return to the Magical would be a regression and would require a negation of the Mental. Secondly, Greer seems to be very firmly in the Spengler camp according to which the cycle of decline of the West is inevitable. If Spengler’s right, there will be a return to the Magical (pre-culture) at the start of the new cycle and so Greer’s focus on the Magical would be warranted.

  11. Roland – that is a good question. I must admit that I really enjoyed all the books that I have read from JMG but his current blog often sounds like a broken record playing the same song again and again.

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