The Density of the Other

I was sitting this afternoon in the coffee shop at Borders. There were about a dozen other people sitting in the shop with me, some of them talking on cell phones, reading, or just drinking coffee and talking to each other. I was reading Integral Psychology by Ken Wilber.

Wilber is an interesting read. His basic method and goal is to integrate the perennial philosophies of the pre-modern world with the psychological advances of the modern world. On balance I think he does an admirable job. I was reading his book today because I’m digging deeper into the ideas I started to mention a few days about reflection.

I believe one major problem humans face in today’s world is the inability to operate at the higher holistic levels described by Wilber. Wilber’s basic point is that there is a ‘great nest of being’ in the universe that moves from matter to biology, psychology, theology, and mysticism. Each of the succeeding levels encompasses and incorporates the lower levels in a holarchy. Wilber’s main project is to show how this evolutionary and developmental view of the world is reproduced and reaffirmed by spiritual, mystical, psychological, and scientific evidence.

I was thinking along similar lines earlier this month. I named my idea reflective practice and part of its core goal was to encourage people to expand the different levels at which they examine their lives and decisions. This grew out of research I was doing into different ethical frameworks people use to discuss copyright. I essentially recreated Wilber’s levels of consciousness but for groups instead of people: from the individual to the institutional, communal, professional, governmental, national, global, and universal.

Integral Psychology, at least what I’ve read so far, is focused on the individual. So far there hasn’t been much discussion of groups. But I think it is undeniable that individuals at different times and places operate at many different levels vis-a-vis the groups in which they participate. Here my ideas closely parallel Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, other inspiration could also be found in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Suppose that moving upward or forward through these levels is a good thing for people to do, that it makes them into better human beings, then what do we do to encourage it? What is the role of education, religion, or parenting?

I’m reminded of a game I used to play with my mother as a child in elementary school. We would sometimes sit on a bench at an amusement park or the mall and ‘people watch.’ As people walked by we would make up a story about their lives, where they were going, why they were headed that way, their occupations, their families. When I think of that game today I’m flabbergasted by the moral sophistication wrapped in a game to amuse myself. It is a lesson in empathy and understanding of other people that is too easy to forget.

Today in the coffee shop it hit me again - each one of these people sitting next to me is a being that’s as complex as myself. They all have their stories to tell.

A similar realization hit me when I was reading philosophy in college. A class on existentialism introduced me to Sartre’s bad faith and it underlined the way that we are and are not the roles we play in the world. There is always something more happening, we are free and deny our freedom at the same time. Goffman or Davidson could be read in similar ways.

So thanks mom for the lesson.