Integral Psychology and Systems Thinking in Clinical Psychology

This paper represents a very brief overview of Integral Psychology and Systems Thinking as two theoretical and practical systems which attempt to define a relationship between the natural sciences and human sciences. Each system was designed to reflect a basic aspect of the natural world; that polarization, compartmentalization, and fragmentation often indicate something sub- optimal in their aspect. Both represent a human, and possibly universal, “demand to ‘see things whole’” (Laszlo, 1971/2003, p. 112).

The first section will describe a few notable aspects of Integral Theory. The second section will describe a few notable aspects of Bowen theory. The third section will discuss similarities and differences of these approaches in the context of psychotherapy, and the fourth and final section is an integrative personal discussion and reflection on the summative world view provided by these traditions.

Integral-Transpersonal Psychology

Integral/Transpersonal Psychology (Gilot, 2003) and the field of Integral Studies (Saiter, 2005) represent a philosophical attempt to reconcile the unprecedented precision of the Western/Judeo- Christian contribution of analysis with the synthetic/holistic ethnic traditions of the East and the pre-Christian West. Integral Psychology reflects one trend of synthetic thought emerging in the post-industrial West during the period most notably following the World Wars of the 20th century. Ultimately humanistic in its aim, Integral Psychology is oriented towards achieving the highest human potential without ignoring or marginalizing the range of benefits of pre-Integral thinking. At the most basic level it is an attempt to unify disparate opposites in the human phenomenon, including but not limited to the inner and outer, subjective and objective, natural sciences and human sciences. Saiter (2005) describes this integrative function as “a ‘grand unifying theory’ as opposed to a ‘grand unified theory,’ the latter of which suggests a summation of all knowledge, an absolute, an end, which is absurd and unrealistic” (p. 2).

Along with Clare Graves, Don Beck, and Jean Gebster, Ken Wilber is one of the most foremost theorists in this field (Saiter, 2005). Wilber (1999) organizes Integral Psychology on continuum of positivistic development he calls “waves of existence,” a term he borrows from Clare Graves (p. 111). These “waves” are meant to describe the full spectrum of human existence as demarcated by the way in which a person and/or society organizes “consciousness” in response to adversity. Usage of the relatively subjective term “consciousness” as opposed to objective-external terms such as “societal organization” tie this framework to what is uniquely human. These waves range from mostly biological but remaining distinctly human to the absolute spiritually transcendent while remaining an embodied human in the world.

The waves of existence are divided into two tiers, the first primarily cognitive and the second transcending the cognitive/non-cognitive duality. The first tier of six waves is 1) Archaic-instinctual, 2) Magical Animistic, 3) Gods, 4) Mythic, 5) Scientific-Achievement, 6) The Sensitive Self (Wilber, 1999, pp. 112-114). The second tier of the remaining two waves is 7) Integrative, and 8) Holistic (p. 115). Though the precise meanings of these terms are not self-evident in the titles provided here, Wilber’s descriptions of these waves are intuitive to the reader and so easy to comprehend. This is particularly true as the first tier effectively describes distinct phases of the consciousness of collective and individual life which are easily observed in the recorded history of mankind, including the development of self-awareness of animalistic reflexivity, to abstract axiomatic structures such as theistic frameworks, to the development of science and emergence of the sovereignty of the individual, to a responsiveness with the material environment on a peer-to-peer basis. The average student of history and/or philosophy may accept these phases as self-evident in recorded history.

Wilber’s two waves in the second tier propose the optimal path of future evolutionary progress for humanity. Most notably, they appear to involve the emergence of a kind of fluidity and plurality, marked by a particular brand of relativism proposed as inherent to nature itself (Wilber, 1999). These waves may be more difficult to grasp for the average student of history and philosophy as they mark the abstract unknown future of the human species and their relationship to the rest of living speciation itself.

Wilber argues that a marginal few begin to develop each higher wave ahead of the society at large, and that society will eventually take up the new mode of consciousness through what Beck & Cowan (1996) called a “spiral” path of progress. That is, that progress is not always linear, but is best represented as a combination of linear and circular movement. At times it will appear as though things are getting worse, and then progress may appear to jump to a new mode which the society’s axiomatic framework considers to be progress. In the objective sphere, these sorts of qualitative jumps are akin to the sudden phase transitions that complex systems are known to exhibit as they increase in complexity. Because one of the goals of Integral philosophy is to be able to scale from the microcosm to the macrocosm, this framework is presumed to apply to an extent to varying levels of analysis, from the cellular, to the individual, to the collective, national, etc. Therefore, if psychoneurosis is a product of a lower level of consciousness, then progress in psychotherapy and in life must be a product of moving up the hierarchy of consciousness.

Subsequent revisions and augmentations of Integral theory for the purposes of professional psychotherapy reflect the distinctly humanistic goals of holistic, person-centered psychotherapy which account for the “whole person.” That is to say, the individual, social, and spiritual. Gilot (1997) describe Integral psychotherapy as a modality closely associated to its psychoanalytic roots,

In the integral approach, the scope of psychotherapy includes, along with the clinical problems that are usually dealt with in psychotherapy, also the narcissism of normality, that is, the state of the ego separated from the soul—a suffering that expresses itself in the materialistic identifications, in object-attachments, fear, egoism, and the lack of value and spiritual meaning of life.

(Boggio & Gilot, 1997 as cited in Gilot, 2003, p.78)

Although not far from the classical existential views on the relation between the individual and collective, the Integral view is perhaps most unique in its inclusion of a “spiritual” dimension to human wellbeing and potential (Gilot, 2003, p. 79). Though the precise meaning of “spiritual” remains elusive, the relativism of this human sciences camp in general does not require technical terms to be objectively, or even consensually, “known” in order for discourse to proceed. Though Integral theory is in its infancy and empirical verification and practical applications have not yet been developed, contemporary Integral literature utilizes frameworks from Integral theory to promote transformation in psychotherapy (Gilot, 2003; Teodorescu, 2003).

Teodorescu (2003) writes that integral psycholgy aims to become the glue which defines how all aspects of the person, bio-psycho-social-spiritual, relate to one another. He writes that the individual has four components, the inner and outer individual, and the inner and outer of the collective. The inner aspect is the subjective, the phenomenological, the soul, and spiritual. The outer individual is the objective exterior, which is the domain of natural science. The inner aspect of the collective is the intersubjective of peoples and nations. Similar to the outer-individual, the outer- collective is the realm of natural science, politics, etc (p. 106). In his paper on an Integral etiology and treatment for depression, Teodorescu describes depression as an imbalance or poorly sophisticated integration of these aspects of the person.

Cortirght, Kahn, and Hess (2003), describe the development of the “Integral T-Group” as an important part of their masters-level psychotherapist training program. Like classical encounter groups, the presence of living members of the group as emotional sounding boards and co-creators of an interpersonal, interemotional space provide a crucible for developing a authentic and non-

defensive mode of being with others. However, unlike the classical encounter group, the Integral T- group puts a premium on developing “empathy and compassion,” does not focus on “group dynamics,” and does not focus on “power and authority issues” (p. 129). The authors write from the perspective of Sri Aurobindo’s integral yoga which generally maintains a reference to a kind of transcendent human potential in the form of a theoretical ultimate attainment of individual development.

What Wilber and subsequent commentators of his work have in common are the desire to develop a more sophisticated philosophy of human functioning and development which is not overly biased toward the pathological. While rooted in psychoanalytic theory, Integral Psychology maintains the assumption that each aspect of life has its opposite or many opposites, and that any kind of progress is marked by an increase in the maturity or integrative capacity of these opposites. Many Integral theorists, including Cortright and his colleagues, draw this point in part from once- psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1960), who’s analytical psychology radically change the way subsequent psychologists viewed the relationship between science, religion, and the role of our primordial biological roots in the generation of human values. This philosophical stance then generates theoretical concepts which most fundamentally pertain to the relationship between related parts, most specifically of the human individual, as opposed to the parts themselves. Though Wilber (1999) was careful to leave the door open to the role of the natural sciences in his new philosophical framework, the practical manifestations of this set of assumptions and language used in this literature remains more closely associated with what is distinctly human and abstract, i.e. subjective, than what is non-human and natural, i.e. objective.

During the same post-industrial phase that Integral theory was emerging to unite the subjective and human sciences, the orthodox systems theorists, who were more inclined to the objective realm, were developing a sibling set of presuppositions meant to unite the natural sciences in particular. Though sometimes cited in literature on Integral Theory, there are purely philosophical manifestations of systems thinking in general and other more concrete manifestations designed for precise measurement and prediction. The next section will explore some of these assumptions and traditions.

Systems Thinking and Systems Philosophy

Similar to Integral Theory, “Systems thinking” (Midgley, 2004) emerged from the collision of Western analysis with Eastern and indigenous synthesis in the post-industrial West. Modern systems philosophy first arose as a critique of the limits of reductionism for problems of complexity such as organismic theory (Bertalanffy, 1968/2015) and a call for organizational unity in the natural sciences. Counter to the mainstream humanistic movement, the philosophy of the systems theorists are best represented by the first principles of the early Enlightenment as moving toward a “unity of knowledge” (Wilson, 1998). A common aim of the early systems thinkers was the development of an overarching multidisciplinary framework that could organize and coordinate knowledge from the vast array of the analytical disciplines. This required a radical augmentation of the existing philosophy of reductionistic science. As with Wilson (1998), many of these philosopher-researchers were interested in answering the most difficult human problems like overpopulation, ecological crisis, and war, by integrating research from many domains (Bertalanffy, 1968/2015).

While the modern paradigm of systems philosophy can be credited to “Integral theorist” Ervin Laszlo (1973), the origin of systems thinking in the West might be traced back to Thales and Democritus of Ionia and eventually Aristotle, who wrote his Metaphysics to reconcile the rationality of Plato’s Theory of Forms with common observations in nature (Aristotle, 2004). Late 19th and early 20th century Russian physician and philosopher Alexander Bodganov (1912-1917/2003) wrote

of unifying the sciences through Tektology as a discipline of relationships and processes instead of an elementistic view of static things. Bodganov saw the natural world as one of organization, where forces either composed or decomposed material aggregates according to their nature. Bodganov (1912-1917/2003) writes of pervasive organization, even in apparent “deorganization,”

And yet we are left with destructive activity. On direct and isolated consideration this function is de-organizing. However, a deeper analysis shows that even this form is an outcome of competition between different organizing processes. When a man kills and eats an animal, he deorganizes some living system to organize its elements according to his physical constitution. (p. 2)

This view contributed to systems thinking through a focus on the processes of nature as opposed to merely studying the elements and constituents of nature.

Though the unification of knowledge was the philosophical goal, there are many different approaches to systems thinking today. That is, systems thinking as a discipline is still in development. Of these, the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968/2015) was a seminal philosophical starting point for the special theorists to follow. A biologist, Bertalanffy laid the framework for what science might look like united under the banner of systems philosophy. He provided key concepts such as the open and the closed system which define much of the vernacular adopted by systems theorists, including Bowen (Papero, 1990). Bertalanffy’s open-system theory eventually became the basis of what is known today as General Systems Theory, which is a philosophical loom through which to weave the fabric of an integrative theory of all of nature. Bertalanffy adopted the organismic perspective in his theory of open systems such as living beings, which are less predictable and more adaptive than closed systems such as machines or classic physics experiments.

Together with Bertalanffy, Hungarian philosopher and integral theorist Ervin Laszlo defined the systems paradigm in Introduction to Systems Philosophy: Toward a New Paradigm of Contemporary Thought (1973) as a philosophy of science, calling it “Systems Philosophy.” This work is probably the most general of the systems literature, outlining the most fundamental purpose of the specialized theories which are to follow. In a previous article with the same title, Laszlo (1971/2003) critiques an overfocus on reductionistic thinking in science and called for scientific generalists to synthesize the analytic data of reductionistic science. He argues that reductionism has provided for the feats of engineering of the industrial revolution but has left the cognate disciplines a scattered and uncoordinated array of increasing specialization, that “the fields of knowledge are worked in patches, each man concerned with no more than his own territory, ‘cultivating his own garden’” (1971/2003, p. 111). The lack of generalists in science has restricted increasing knowledge from increasing meaning in human life, creating an “existential vacuum” in the West which has contributed to the rising interest in Eastern synthetic thought.

Bookstores are crammed with Eastern sacred texts, studies of astrology, reincarnation, states of consciousness, and the like. Students from across the country are demanding courses in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Mysticism. . . . Psychiatrists, psychologists, and clergymen of all faiths are joining the younger generation in this pursuit. . . . The demand to see things whole.

(Laszlo, 1971/2003, pp. 12-13)

Laszlo suggests though specialization is as important as generalization, that between “atomism” and “holism” it is holism that marks a “healthy, self-actualizing person,” and that “Insistence on the atomistic mode is in itself a form of psychoneurosis” (p. 112).

Laszlo’s systems philosophy primarily presumes that the world exists, and “is, at least in some respects, intelligibly ordered” (1971/2003, p. 113). He distinguishes two secondary presuppositions which define the specialist and the generalist; that “the world is intelligibly ordered in special domains; the world is intelligibly ordered as a whole” (p. 114). However, the second presupposition, that of the generalist, is more often assumed to require demonstration while the first, that of the specialist, is taken as fact. He argues that specialists tend to ignore the second

presupposition and assume that special observations alone reflect facts of nature, that results in special domains are easily validated but results in general domains can also be validated through corroborating evidence across multiple special domains. The second presupposition points to Wilson’s (1998) argument that consilience, findings from disparate domains supporting one another, is one of the most important criteria of science.

Systems philosophy, as it was once called, is now manifest most evidently in complex systems science. This multidisciplinary area studies complexity as the emergent behavior of one or more reciprocal relationships between related components. In the living world, this is most visible in Systems Biology (Kitano, 2002) and most recently in computerized research on collective behavior (Schaerf, 2017) and collective intelligence (Couzin, 2009; Wolley, Chabris, Pentland, Hashmi, & Malone, 2010). However, while these research methods represent the state of the art for philosophical holism in the natural sciences, most of this research pertains to non-human species.

The most substantive research leading to predictive natural theory of human behavior from the perspective of systems thinking was led by Murray Bowen in the late 1950’s at NIMH, and continuing into the 1960’s and 70’s at the Georgetown family center. Similar to Couzin’s research in modeling the collective behavior of fish species (Couzin, 2009), Bowen housed entire families on a psychiatric ward and observed them over a period of one to two years to understand the relationship between what was predictable in families and the expression of symptoms in the individuals. Bowen practiced a unique mix of iterative qualitative research and development of refutable hypotheses which explained and also predicted the majority of outcomes in therapy (Bowen, 1978, 2015). The result was a predictive theory grounded in evolutionary and behavioral biology which accounts for a greater degree of the totality of the human phenomenon. It proposes that the majority of the variance in human behavior and health outcomes is accountable at the level of the whole of the

person’s most intense relationships, i.e. the family, and that this “whole” should be the unit of systematic analysis in therapy or organizational consulting (Kerr & Bowen, 1988).

Landing somewhere between action research, grounded theory, and complex systems science, Bowen’s empirical methodology avoided “averaging out” the complexity of the phenomenon by maintaining a close connection to Johannes Kepler’s example of scientific rigor to develop a predictive and holistic theory which eventually predicted the motion of all of the planets as they interact together in reciprocal relationship (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. 158). Though the development of an accepted science of human behavior remains the aim of contemporary Bowen scholars (Noone & Papero, 2015), the scientific theory of the human family has produced a therapeutic method which adheres to the highest goals of the humanistic movement while remaining firmly in the realm of objective natural science. This is accomplished through the coach’s own ability to “think systems” while participating in the emotional system itself, as well as a careful integration of scientific principles without overstepping what can be interpreted through observations and leaving the direction of the work entirely up to the client. Similar to psychoanalysis, a Bowen coach serves only as a resource but with the benefit of an additional set of facts about the human phenomenon and predictive and refutable scientific theory (Noone & Papero, 2015).

Supervision and consultation in Bowen theory focuses mainly on each individual’s work in their own family, where their efforts at “differentiation of self” automatically propagate to their ability to work with their clients under technical premise defined in the theory. Thus, the therapist/coach, supervisor, and client are all taking on the same “research attitude” (Titelman, 2014) which simultaneously which develops a peer-like relationship between therapist/coach and client that is automatically relatable on a human level by both sides.

A Systems-Integral Perspective for Humanistic Psychotherapy

As Kerr (1988) writes, “We demonstrate against war as if we understand the causes of war. We could just as easily demonstrate against schizophrenia” (p. 27). This simple quote is meant to point out the [understandable] absurdity of reducing our important human problems to oversimplified understandings of them. This then leads to oversimplified solutions which may only account for a fraction of the totality of the problem.

While many clinicians have long recognized the importance of assessing variables from many levels of observation, it has been difficult to do this in the absence of an integrative theory. An integrative theory would provide a systematic way of collecting, organizing and integrating information from all levels of observation. In the absence of such a theory, there is a strong tendency in all clinicians to compartmentalize knowledge and to focus treatment on a particular compartment. Clinicians become knowledgeable about and develop therapeutic expertise in specific areas, but frequently attach too little importance to areas outside their knowledge and expertise.

(Kerr, 1988, p. viii)

The humanistic movement represents a reaction to the nihilism of reductionistic science and an increasingly rational Western worldview (Laszlo, 1971/2003; Moss, 2015). Largely influenced by the Romantic thinkers of Europe, the movement was intended to fill the gaps left by the slow crawl of scientific progress and emphasis on pathology over the realization of human potential (Peterson, 2015). So far as recorded history is concerned, this divide has existed since the time of 19th century scholar Wilhelm Dilthey, the sciences have been divided into “natural-scientific and human-scientific disciplines” (Walsh, Teo, & Baydala, 2014, p. 254).

However, both the integral theorists and the systems thinkers hold that the presence of wide polarities can often be an indicator of some dialectical tension that would be resolved through a more “differentiated” (Bowen, 1978) or “Integral” (Wilber, 1999) perspective. That is, that just as with a couple that argues (Papero, 2014) or an individual facing a major depressive episode (Gilot, 2003), poor adaptation, for lack of a better term, stems from poor coordination between pertinent

aspects of the whole and not simply a dysfunctional component or components of the whole. Both the Integral and the systems traditions aim to develop a holistic worldview which does not ignore crucial aspects of our most complicated problems but increases our capacity to take in more of the important aspects of the problem in order to devises better solutions for them.

A natural empiricist to the core, Jung (1960) suggested that polarities in nature arise and persist as a consequence of each other. That is to say that their relationship is reciprocal and interlinked, and function as a whole by virtue of counterbalancing each other’s function. Differentiating himself from the pathologizing perspective, Jung (1966) wrote that, “The reductive method of Freud is a purely medical one. . . . The golden gleam of artistic creation is extinguished” (pp. 68–69, as cited in Greening, 2015, p. 181). Generally speaking, reductionistic science and the “pathologizing” of medicine are products of linear-causal, analytic thinking which inherently ignores aspects of the phenomenon residing outside the reduced scope.

Both the humanistic movement and the scientific mainstream are vulnerable to falling into a reductive formulation of complex phenomena. This requires no elaboration in the context of the natural sciences as the Keplerian model is fundamentally one of humility and refutation; it claims to “know” no more than the statistical evidence supports and it is possible to reveal a scientist’s mistake using logical argument supported by evidence. But as humanistic methodologies explicitly aim to account for the totality of their chosen phenomenon from the outset, they are more vulnerable to erroneous formulations, for example in rejecting the crucial contribution of objective, refutable scientific investigation through extreme relativistic ideologies (Peterson, 2017).

Integral theory and Bowen theory represent relatively sophisticated attempts to produce a Western holism which ignores as little as possible of their chosen phenomenon. They appear to represent two counterbalancing sides of the same coin, with Integral Theory focusing on the distinctly human and biasing toward the subjective, for example through the use of psychoanalytic concepts, and Bowen theory focusing on the distinctly non-human and biasing toward the objective and what homo sapiens has in common with all of life. While each tradition has their respective biases, both contain coherent arguments for the vital contribution of natural science alongside human subjectivity and may actually exist within the same paradigm.

Personal Discussion and Reflection

As a budding psychotherapist, philosopher, and scientist, I am aware of the current philosophical trend toward integration and interconnection in the sciences and clinical psychology. The terms “holism,” “interdependence,” “integration,” etc. are now common vernacular and inform my perception of a zeitgeist defined by the inevitability of globalization. I am mostly informed by Bowen and then Jung who were two theorists more interested in the oldest part of man as the most sophisticated rather than the newest parts of man, and perhaps uniquely so. I am sensitive to our limited capacity to mentalize many aspects of a problem simultaneously, let alone our limited capacity to observe the behavioral interactions of these complexities while define these “wholes” in real time regardless of how predictable and universal these processes may be (Kerr & Bowen, 1988).

I can attest that the problem of observing these emotional wholes as interactive complexity in phenomena in which I participate, whether a normal interaction in my family of origin or normal client interaction or client crisis, is exponentially more difficult the more I invest myself emotionally in that phenomena. What I have taken from the humanistic literature, including the literature of Integral theory, is the important role of subjective material and the importance of aiming for the highest potential among efforts to attend to the crises of pathology. After all, I entered the field after attaining a few key insights on the potential of our species from a serious practice of vipassanā meditation. On the other hand, what I have taken from Bowen theory is the necessity of the

scientific attitude discerning real threats from false threats, learning to observe emotional processes and my part in them more objectively, and remembering that much of what occurs within the human phenomenon is counterintuitive to my subjectivity and requires some kind of external verification relatively free of that subjectivity.

It seems to me that there is room for the reconciliation of these opposing schools of human behavior and health within each individual. I am convinced from my life experience that the more developed a person is, the more they can move freely within all dichotomies in a manner more amenable to their axiomatic structure. My hope is that my own professional research will promote the relevance of the natural sciences in humanism and contribute to a professional psychology which ignores progressively less of the factors influencing our most complex and pressing challenges.


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