There are three aspects to the symposium. I can’t say much about 21st century spirituality, but I am a 21st century person with an interest in spirituality and so that should count for something. As for integral theory, even though I’ve studied it off and on for years, I can’t say I’m an expert — just another one of my many interests. Now for the last… I hadn’t even heard about enactivism until a couple of weeks ago. Researching about it, I realized that I already understood the basic concept and had a passing familiarity with some of the authors who came up.
Others have already given useful intros to all of this, and so I’ll skip the basics. Instead, I’m going to try to connect these ideas to my own understandings.
I was reading Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. In it, they describe basic-level categories which seem quite similar to some explanations of archetypes. What enactivism seems to bring to the table is a deeper understanding of biology. Jung saw archetypes as having an instinctual component, but biological understanding was pretty limited at that time. Some more recent theoreticians have looked at archetypes in terms of science and there does seem to be an evolutionary component to archetypes (e.g. Anthony Stevens). The ideas of enactivism and autopoiesis seem particularly relevant to understanding archetypes.
Related to archetypes are Jung’s personality types which were systematized with the MBTI. Several different theories have been put forth in how typology correlates to brain function. Furthermore, MBTI has been correlated with the Five Factor Model (FFM) which is a traits theory (i.e. behavioral). Traits theory has been shown to be partly based on genetics. All in all, this seems to fit into the whole body-mind viewpoint, that evolution created these basic structures of the mind which determine how we perceive and relate to external reality.
A recent discovery of mine is research showing that the MBTI correlates with Ernest Hartmann’s boundary types. Let me go into more detail here because this is an important part of my viewpoint. There are four components to the MBTI: Introversion vs Extraversion (E/I), Sensation vs Intuition (S/N), Thinking vs Feeling (T/F), Judging vs Perceiving (J/P).
(1) Introversion and Extroversion seem to have the least correlation to boundary types, but there were some aspects to it that seemed to fit. Introverts tend to have more of an ability to focus intensely and for long periods of time, and they tend to be more territorial about personal space. Extraverts, on the other hand, are drawn outwards and so are more easily distracted by their environment. Here is a relevant quote from Hartmann’s book Dreams and Nightmares:
“Those who have taken psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, report that under the drug’s influence they have thinner boundaries in a number of senses. On the other hand, taking stimulants such as amphetamines, or for some people, antidepressants, definitely produces a thickening of boundaries. In the most extreme case, people given large doses of amphetamines first become intensely focused; they are the opposite of distractible, keeping their thoughts entire on one line of thought.”
(2) Sensation and Intuition have the highest correlation to boundary types according to the studies. Simply put, you can think of the difference here being between those who tend towards the concrete and those who tend towards the abstract, but there are many other dimensions to it. Another interesting aspect is that Sensors tend to be more conservative basing their decisions on past experience, whereas Intuitives are more innovative because they can more easily see future possibilities. Obviously, Sensors (and in particular the SJ temperament) are the practical sort of person who sees reality for what it is (based on what it was). Some Intuitives, on the other hand, may seem like daydreamers, but Intuives also tend to be the innovators.
The concrete preference of Sensors is what makes them thick boundary types. Things are clearly what they are and each thing is clearly distinct from other things. Sensors have commonsense. The abstract preference of Intuitives lends them to thin boundaries. Distinctions are more blurred. Because they can more easily shift distinctions, they can see new relationships between things.
In this symposium, I’ve definitely noticed the contrast between the practical-minded realists and those drawn to more theoretical understandings and far-reaching (or over-reaching if you prefer) possibilities. As I believe, its not a matter of either style being more correct. To speak from a green vmeme perspective, it takes all types.
(3) Thinking and Feeling are slightly less correlated to boundary types, but there are some important connections. Thinking is about principles and rules with a focus on autonomy. Feeling is about values and morality with a focus on relationships.
There is a fairly strong split with most Thinking types being male and most Feeling types being female. This same division comes up with boundary types. Thick boundary types tend to be male and thin boundary types tend to be female. To understand this archetypally, this relates to the animus and the anima. To understand this in the real world, this relates to the conflict between Integralists and New Agers. It has been pointed by others how the Integral movement is dominated by men. Also, you could think of this division in terms of Ken Wilber’s Grace and Grit or the movie The Fountain.
(4) Judging and Perceiving are an interesting division that was origial to Jung’s typology. Studies have shown that J/P doesn’t test as separate from S/N with young children, and so there is some developmental aspect to this (whether biological or psychological). In MBTI, J/P simply determines which function you Extravert, but it can be looked at as its own category and there is some correlation to boundary types. Judging types like order and conclusiveness. Perceiving types are more about creative chaos and they prefer to keep their options open.
With J/P, I sense a similarity to a division between two kinds of thinkers which brings me back closer to this symposium. I’ve seen distinctions (here and here) made between Ken Wilber and William Irwin Thompson. This partly seems like a difference between a systematizer and a bricoleur. Interestingly, William Irwin Thompson’s son (Evan Thompson) co-wrote some books with the enactivist crowd. So, this made me think of the possible differences between enactivism and tetra-enactivism. From what I’ve read, Varela seems to have intentionally avoided systematizing his ideas, but then Wilber took Varela’s ideas and systematized them for him.
The bricoleur is a term I’m using in its relationship to the George P. Hansen’s book The Trickster and the Paranormal(2001). Hansen uses the term bricoleur as one way of describing the Trickster archetype. Hansen also brings up Victor Turner’s ideas of liminality, anti-structure, and communitas. Enactivism questions the traditional assumptions of science and so blurs the boundaries somewhat. Varela was influenced by phenomenology, and Hansen says that ethnomethodology was similarly influenced. Ethnomethodology (along with sociology of scientific knowledge and studies of experiment expectancy effects) puts the scientific endeavor into a very different context.
p. 280: “Ethnomethodologists took as their subject matter the interactions of everyday social life and how people make sense of them. That sounds innocuous enough, but ethnomethodologists probed foundations. They recognized that for orderly common activity, people must share a large body of assumptions, meanings, and expectations, though these are not consciously recognized. In order to make them explicit (i.e., bring them to conscious awareness), breaching experiments were invented, and those involved violating, in some way, typical patterns of behavior.” … “These breaching experiments have commonalities with anti-structure and the trickster; they all violate boundaries that frame experience.”
p. 281: “Ethnomethodologists pointed out that one is part of that which one observes, i.e., one participates in processes of observation. The issue of participation has some intriguing connections. At least since Levy-Bruhl’s How Natives Think (1910) it has been associated with the non-rational.”
p.282: “Mehan and Wood say that their theoretical perspective “within ethnomethodology commits me to the study of concrete scenes and to the recognition that I am always a part of those scenes. Social science is committed to avoiding both of those involvements.” They are correct, but few social scientists wish to acknowledge the consequences. The abstraction and distancing found in all science endow a certain status and privilege from which to judge and comment on others. In order to maintain that position, scientists must not get too “dirty,” too closely associated with their objects of study. Ethnomethodologists understand they necessarily participate in the phenomena they observe. Mehan and Wood comment that “Ethnomethodology can be seen as an activity of destratification.” This destratification is a leveling of status, and that is also associated with limimal conditions (a.k.a., anti-structure). Thus social leveling via participation and reflexivity has been recognized by theorists from entirely separate disciplines, demonstrating its validity.”
The last part about the leveling of status directly relates to the Trickster archetype, and status relates to hierarchy. Scientists often are seen as final arbiters in many matters, and traditionally science saw itself opposed to nature, above the object it studied. This, of course, relates to the problematic relationship of body and mind in Western thought. Varela mentions Cartesian anxiety, a desire for a clear ground to our knowledge. Cartesian anxiety is a condition that most of us have experienced, but it would be felt most acutely by a thick boundary type.
Where did this Cartesian anxiety originate? I think its part of Max Weber’s theory about rationalization and the disenchantment of the world. My knowledge of Weber is limited, but I suspect his theory relates to Karl Jasper’s theory on the Axial Age. Several centuries before Christianity, the oral tradition was in decline and alphabetic literacy was becoming more common. This created an increased ability of reflexivity by allowing someone to see words objectively on a page and also it gave people the ability to think abstractly (become more conscious of basic-level categories?).
The oral tradition was based on specific memorized sayings that were connected to whole systems of mythology, and mythology itself was grounded in the specific places in the world. This brings to mind Julian Jayne’s theory that early myths show that man didn’t have a single sense of self, but that the self was more fluid and embedded in the culture. An ancient person didn’t just remember what a mythological character said but actually heard that character speaking. The world was alive with mythology.
Animism is no longer a respectable philosophy, but there is something to the animistic experience of the world. From a phenomenological standpoint, there is an animistic sense to our relationship with the world which isn’t just our mind projecting (maybe something more like the imaginal). We are a part of the world in a very fundamental way. In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram says:
P. 56: “Merleau-Ponty writes of the prereived things as entities, of sensible qualities as powers , and of the sensible itself as a field of animate presences, in order to acknowledge and underscore their active, dynamic contribution to perceptual experience. To describe the animate life of particular things is simply the most precise and parsimonious way to articulate the things as we spontaneously experience them, prior to all our conceptualizations and definitions.
Our most immediate experience of things, according to Merleau-Ponty, is necessarily an experience of reciprocal encounter — of tension, communication, and commingling. From within the depths of this encounter, we know the thing or phenomenon only as our interlocutor — as a dynamic presence that confronts us and draws us into relation. We conceptually immobilize or objectify the phenomenon only by mentally absenting ourselves form this relation, by forgetting or repressing our sensuous involvement. To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us an to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies”
This participatory relationship to the world one is immersed in can be carried forward when we consider how the earth is a co-evolution rather than species being separate groups fighting for their respective niches. For instance, plants form a very tightly woven community such that plants of different species communicate with one another through chemicals given off in the air and in the soil. Research has shown that other plants will respond when something happens to a plant nearby (such as it being eaten). Even though we don’t see it, plants respond to us. Also, plants have a very powerful influence on us as they are the chemical factories of nature. There is some truth to the notion that we are what we eat. The chemicals that we take in through plants (or through animals that ate plants) effects our minds and our perception.
There are many more subtle examples, but the most well known examples are psychedelics. A chemical in many ritually-used plants is DMT and its very common in nature. What is interesting is that our brains produce this in small doses. Our brains are designed to make use of this chemical, and people under the influence of higher doses of DMT have very similar experiences. DMT is a component of the co-evolution of life on earth.
Psychedelics, along with other methods, have been used by humans longer than recorded history. In fact, animals also are drawn to consuming psychedelics and they show signs of being similarly effected (Animals and Psychedelics, Giorgio Samorino). Why is their a biological drive to alter consciousness? Possibly its because it thins boundaries and thus opens the mind to new possibilities which might translate into real-world advantages for survival. How might this thinning occur? One possibility is that the brain structures used to categorize our experience are altered or even suppressed.
Of course, there are many different ways of altering the mind and modern man has become quite adept at this. We have a whole field that is dedicated to researching how chemicals effect people’s minds. A very large portion of people nowadays are on some psychiatric drug or another, and certainly plenty more people are self-medicated in various ways. On top of this, we’ve begun to do more direct alterations of our biology by putting technology into the body (such as for heart conditions or for epilepsy). We’ve learned a lot about the body-mind by messing around with it, but in the process the questioning of our sense of self-identity has become more pertinent.
The issues of the body-mind became more personal to Varela towards the end of his life after he had a liver transplant. In a paper he wrote about his experiences, he confronted his own mortaliy but in a very peculiar light. My sense is that he was trying to bridge the gap between his personal experience and the ideas he spent his whole life writing about. In the last paragraph, he spoke of the future but ends in saying: “Somewhere we need to give death back its rights.” What did he mean by this? What are the rights of death?
I can’t speak for him, but I’ll add some of my own thoughts. Its at boundaries that we find the liminal, where things become unclear, where new possibilities present themselves. This symposium is partly about enactivism which speaks to the boundary of body and mind. The body-mind is this life we know… even if only imperfectly. We strive in life to understand, to make a difference. Yet, we all shall face death, the final boundary which science can’t probe beyond.
To contemplate our place in the larger world is to come face to face with the closeness of life and death. We are embodied in a world where life arises (autopoietically one could say) out of seemingly inanimate matter and then returns to it just as easily. That is an insight I often catch hold of when I’m walking alone through the woods. Life and death seem to blend into each other… plants luxuriously growing out of billions of years worth of decay. Even dead matter is dynamically animate.