…and some thoughts on Integral theory
Who am I? What should I do? What is the meaning of life?
Million dollar questions.
Nobody knows the right answers, or even if the questions have ‘right’ answers. Most people don’t ask. They follow the path their ancestors and the world pave without looking up to notice the chaos, madness, and near-infinite potential of life.
I am not one of those.
I ask, and then ask, and then ask again. Then I query, and then I probe. And then I wander rugged landscapes of abstract thought, sometimes devoid of any connection to my daily life.
In the course of my musings, I realized that any philosophy divorced from my day-to-day actions is useless. I may never find the answers to those million-dollar questions but, in the meantime, I have a life to live. At the very least, I ensure that I live well.
How I do so and how I recommend you do so is the subject of this article.
In this article, I will go on tangents and discuss barely relevant ideas. If this frustrates you, return here and click to the TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) for a summary.
I will divide this article into two main sections:
- The basics of an integral approach, and
- Practical ideas for improving personal wellness
Since my desire is to make this article more practical than theoretical, I will not focus much on the former. However, I also want to share the basics of my philosophy (which goes well beyond what I will share today) and gauge your interest in learning more about it.
If you are interested in Integral theory, express your interest in the comments and I will consider developing it fully in another essay.
What is an Integral Approach?
An integral approach is a holistic approach. It integrates as many perspectives as possible.
The Levels of Life
An integral approach encompasses the levels of human experience, which at minimum include:
- Body: The physical body
- Mind: The brain lies in the body, but the perception of the body lies in the brain. The mind contains the body and adds more to it. Its components include:
- The ego (sense of I)
- Psyche: You are not just a body and a mind. You are also a spirit (a psyche). The psyche includes all aspects of the mind, conscious and unconscious. If we take psychology to be the study of the psyche as its etymology suggests, psychology and spirituality become analogs.
These levels are not like rungs of a ladder but like peels of an onion. Mind includes body and adds to it; psyche includes mind and adds to it. The levels are interlinked. A change at one level reverberates through the entirety of your self.
Lines of Development
An integral approach also considers lines of development. Psychologists have mapped out multiple lines including cognition (Piaget), morality (Kohlberg), psycho-sexuality (Freud), psycho-sociality (Erikson), gender identity (Sroufe, Shaffer), emotion (Saarni), ego (Loevinger), and many others.
We embark on multiple (and possibly infinite) lines of development simultaneously. A person can be highly cognitively developed but have very low moral development. Generally, development in one line leads to development in many other lines. In other words, if you grow in one area, you will grow in many areas. If you become a better artist or writer or become more emotionally intelligent, these improvements will cascade to other parts of your life.
Improving Your Personal Wellness
As I mentioned earlier, theory means nothing if you can’t translate it to real life. While the previous section was all theory, the following section is almost entirely practical. It’s based on solid scientific research – you can always look at my references.
Science doesn’t define the perfect diet.
We know that a good diet involves maximizing plenty of fruits, vegetables, and proteins.
Minimize sugar, salt, and fats. Eat a balanced diet. Limit red meat consumption. Ensure you aren’t missing out on macronutrients. If you are vegan, take B12 supplements.
You don’t have to follow all of these strictly. Even if you follow them only as general rules, you will feel a lot better in your body. Considering that the body, mind, and psyche are linked, you will feel a lot better in your overall life.
You cannot live well if you are not sleeping enough, although ‘enough’ varies from person to person.
Sleep is the best meditation.
– Dalai Lama, 1979
The human organism restores itself during sleep. When you sleep, the brain removes metabolic waste that it builds up during waking hours.
Sleep improves both major types of memory: declarative memory, which remembers facts and procedural memory, which stores skills.
Humans sleep for about a third of their lives – if you cut your life into three time periods, one is spent asleep. That’s a lot of time. Take your sleep seriously, because it’s a major part of your life.
Sleep doesn’t require so much effort. Everybody does it, every day. But how do you get quality sleep?
- Set aside a ‘sleep’ area, where the only thing you do is sleep. Your mind associates this place with sleep and this association prevents distractions and allows you to drift off without issue.
- Have a consistent sleep schedule. Wake up at the same time every day, and you will soon start falling asleep at the same time every day.
- Get 6-8 hours of sleep. The exact number varies per person, so figure out how much you need and stick to that.
- Read or meditate before bed. These activities calm a racing mind and ease your passage into the land of sleep.
Remember, it is not important to follow any of the suggestions that I give above. The goal is to get enough quality sleep. The methods you use to achieve the goal are unimportant, so do not get caught up in figuring out the best tips and life hacks. Try different things, experiment with yourself, and make a decision that works for you.
Exercise and mobility are incredibly important for a healthy life.
Thirty minutes of aerobic exercise a day (such as jogging) leads to:
- Persistent improvements in specific cognitive functions such as focusing, solving problems, and making decisions, among other things.
- Increased neuroplasticity and behavioral plasticity. Your brain and behavior adapt more efficiently to different circumstances.
- Enhanced attention control.
- Improved declarative memory (facts-related), spatial memory (related to the physical space you live in and around), and working memory (where your brain temporarily holds information before deciding what to do with it).
- Improved stress coping.
- Improved mood and self-esteem.
Exercise has been clinically proven to help sufferers of major depressive disorder (clinical depression) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Emerging clinical evidence supports the use of exercise for the treatment of drug addictions. Regular exercise reduces the risk of developing neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
If you cannot work out in a gym, go for a jog. If you can not go for a jog, take a brisk walk. If you cannot take a brisk walk, stroll every day.
The human organism evolved to move and exert itself, and you ignore your evolutionary roots at your own peril.
Human beings are social animals. We have some of the most complex social networks in the animal kingdom, yet our modern lifestyle isolates us and hides the importance of our society.
When we eat food, we fail to see the farmers, middlemen, road builders, fertilizer manufacturers, construction workers, packagers, researchers and many more that get the food to our table. When we go to the hospital, we similarly fail to see the hundreds of years of science that go into our treatments, not to mention the actual physical processes that build our hospitals, manufacture our medicines, train our doctors, and so much more.
Our society is a global one, yet we feel ever more isolated.
Isolation leads to bigotry – we fail to see how certain groups of people contribute to the lifestyle we live and classify them as useless, allowing us to hate them.
How can a radical feminist blame all the bad in the world on the patriarchy without acknowledging its positive contributions? How can a foreigner living in an African country say “Africans are stupid” while living a life that would be impossible without the contribution of those same people at every level of the economy and society? How can a Kenyan say “Europeans are evil” without considering the European contributions to science, technology, and democracy that make their lifestyle possible? How can a radical male rights activist say all women are horrible, hypergamic creatures without acknowledging the integral role that women have played throughout human history?
To clarify: the patriarchy is problematic in its ignorance of minority perspectives; political and economic institutions in many African countries are often severely inadequate; neo-colonialism is a very real and dangerous issue; and some women are the horrible, solipsistic creatures that radical male-rights activists paint all women as.
The deeper point here is that polarisation of any sort prevents one from developing a realistic view of our complex world.
All the perspectives I attack above may be true to a certain extent, but they focus on only one aspect of the situation. The world is insanely complex, and groups of people can seldom be described in black and white terms. The world fades into shades of gray when you look at it qualitatively. Collapsing these shades of gray into polarised positions is self-defeating, incomplete, and generally harmful.
The easiest way to fight the polarisation problem is to talk to as many people as possible, while assuming that what they are saying is correct, at least from their perspective. Talk to people from different areas. Learn their stories. Ask about where they come from and how their lives are and were. You will learn an incredible amount about the differences in people.
I find older people most interesting because they come from a time so completely different from ours that my generation will never really understand it. It blows my mind to realize that 80 years from now, the world will be as different from today as today is from 1940
To give a brief summary of the world in 1940, the Internet didn’t exist, most of Africa and parts of Asia were colonies, World War II hadn’t happened, the US wasn’t a hegemon, man hadn’t been to space, women had only gotten the right to vote twenty years earlier, DNA hadn’t been discovered, HIV/AIDs hadn’t been documented, digital computers had just been discovered, etc.
The world will change so dramatically in the next 80 years that it would most probably be incomprehensible to us humans of today.
Let us connect with as many people as possible, and realize that everybody is ultimately a human being.
Growth lies outside your comfort zone. Your comfort zone is:
- The people you interact with daily
- The things you do daily
- The places you visit daily
Change those three things and you will not fail to grow.
Use your brain. Don’t throw yourself off a cliff (both literally and metaphorically) saying the ground is outside your comfort zone.
Reading changes you as a human being. It shows you the world through somebody’s mind. Movies, TV shows, and music do the same but are not as active as reading. You can zone out while watching a movie or listening to music but it is more difficult to dissociate when reading.
We are gods among animals, and our godliness is sustained in part because we can pass on information from generation to generation more efficiently than other animals. Every other animal passes on information through genes and imitation, but the human animal writes down its thoughts and ideas. Its contribution to human society lasts for thousands of years.
Earlier this year, I read Meditations, a private journal by Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius was a Roman emperor who ruled almost two thousand years ago. Incredibly, I share many struggles with this man who was born in 121AD. To put that in context, his great-grandfather was alive at the same time as Jesus Christ.
How lucky am I that I can read the words of an emperor’s private journal and apply them to my life?
Returning to the benefits of reading, the activity involves comprehension at three levels. The reader must:
- understand what each word means
- put words together in a sentence and parse meaning from the sentence
- combine meaning extracted from sentences and paragraphs to understand the whole text
Operating on these levels of understanding gives you a broader perspective of how things fit into a whole and allow you to understand your world better.
To summarize, reading is important because it:
- Gifts you knowledge from different sections of the human race
- Exposes you to new ideas and new ways of thinking
- Gives you practical knowledge on how to navigate the world
- Improves your vocabulary and general linguistic abilities
- Teaches you to understand abstractions. Our world today is run by abstractions. Economies, democracies, languages, memes, the Internet, etc. are abstractions that do not exist as physical objects.
- Improves your memory. You need to remember multiple things to understand the story. If you don’t remember the characters, the narrative flow, important plot points, etc., you won’t go very far with your book.
A large part of modern psychology focuses on curing problematic behavior. It focuses more on ‘fixing’ traumas and improving the negative conditions of the mind.
An integral approach to psychology also includes a positive psychology: a study of the mind that focuses on how to improve positivity, well-being, and happiness. The pioneers of positive psychology were the humanists: Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and many others.
In the early days of psychology, we had three main approaches to psychology. The behaviorists concentrated on how human behavior could be predicted and learned through experimentation. The psychoanalysts revealed that parts of the mind (the unconscious) were hidden in day to day life but operated as a part of a complete personality. The humanists studied the mind to enhance human creativity, wisdom, positivity, and happiness.
Too many people think psychology focuses only on mental illnesses.
Psychology is the study of mental processes and human behavior. Psychology lies behind political science, economics, and social sciences since all of these, when broken down, involve human beings.
Psychology is important in organizations and companies because they are made up of human beings. Psychology is important in relationships because relationships happen between human beings. Psychology is important in each and every science because human beings are the ones studying these sciences. Psychology is important in every field because human beings are the ones involved in these fields.
Now that I’m done waxing poetic about psychology, let’s get back to gratitude.
Martin Seligman is one of the most well-known positive psychologists. In 2005, with a colleague named Tracy Steen, he worked on a revelatory study at the University of Pennsylvania. They measured over 500 people’s depression and happiness levels, had them do a series of tasks, and measured the participants’ depression and happiness levels after the tasks.
Some tasks improved happiness levels and reduced depression levels. The two most effective tasks were:
- A gratitude visit. Participants had to write a letter of gratitude to someone who had been important to them but who they had never thanked.
The gratitude visit spiked happiness levels and tanked depression levels spectacularly. However, the effects faded. Both happiness and depression were back at pre-test levels six months down the line.
- Three good things. Participants had to write three things that went well every day for a week. This exercise made participants slightly happier at the end of the week. They continued getting happier, and their happiness peaked around six months after the test.
Participants also displayed lower depression after the week was over, and remained less depressed six months down the line.
Keep in mind that these results were caused by performing this exercise for a single week.
Gratitude is a powerful psychological tool.
As far back as 1986, Pennebaker and Beall found that college students who wrote about the most traumatic and upsetting experiences of their lives experienced significant improvements in their physical health.
When you write about your deepest thoughts and feelings, you bring them to life outside of yourselves. It is freeing to see what is inside of you unshackled from the chaos of your subjective experience.
When you write about deep issues, you will experience an immediate increase in stress and negative mood. In the long-term, you will experience less stress, improved immune system function, reduced blood pressure, improved lung function, improved liver function, improved mood, and a greater feeling of well-being.
Writing forces you to turn your thoughts into a coherent narrative. It is easy to bullshit yourself when you think in your head. It is slightly harder to paper over inconsistencies in your thoughts when you speak to other people. It is almost impossible to stick to logical inconsistencies when you see your thoughts appear in front of you in black and white.
Writing helps you formulate your thoughts into cogent arguments, which you can articulate to others.
If you are intelligent and have trouble articulating yourself, writing is the best solution to your ailment. In today’s society, an intelligent person who can clearly express themselves is a powerful person indeed.
Journaling is the oldest and most common form of writing therapy. Journaling involves recording thoughts, feelings, or experiences that strike you throughout your day. It puts the brakes on neurotic repetition, where you fall into an endless cycle of repeating a troubling thought. When you vomit your thoughts onto paper or a screen, you see them as more distinct from you. They lose power over you.
Journalling allows you to literally read your own mind.
Don’t deny yourself such an incredible superpower.
Meditation refers to a wide range of practices that involve training your awareness and attention. As a side-effect, many people achieve mental clarity and emotional stability. The earliest records of meditative practices come from ancient Hindu philosophies.
Let a man meditate on the syllable OmVerse 1, Chapter 1, Khandogya Upanishad
Unlike the rest of the practices I have covered in this article, scientific research is still inconclusive on the benefits of meditation. People who try it out report improvements in their lifestyle – they claim meditation makes them less reactive, stabilises their mood, and generally gives them greater control over how they live their lives.
The literature that we do have generally reports that meditation has an effect on reducing anxiety, increasing awareness, and reducing pain sensitivity.
Experienced meditators generally say that the effects felt after a week or a month of meditation are nothing compared to the effects felt after meditation for a year. If you do meditate, try to meditate continuously for at least two weeks before deciding whether to continue permanently.
Some avoid meditation because they are skeptics. It is easy to be wary when reading about “energy flowing through your body”, “chakras”, and “third eyes opening”. It seems very wishy-washy.
To those people, I say, try meditating for the simple reason that it will improve your attention. Forget all the woo-woo and focus on the practical benefits.
The simplest way of meditating is to sit down and focus on your breath. Set a timer before you begin. When your mind wanders, return it to your breath. Repeat until your timer buzzes.
Over time, as you grow as a meditator, you will find some forms of meditation more effective than others. Maybe you will decide to meditate while walking, a zazen practice called kinhin. Maybe you will find yourself unreasonably attracted to koans. Maybe you will decide you want more awareness of your body and take up tai chi. The options are endless.
Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?Zen Koan
I have personally meditated for over a month. When I look at my daily life, I see a noticeable difference. I am more aware of my actions and thoughts. I am more aware when I flinch and try to escape from the present. I am more aware of my emotions and can integrate them better into my life.
I do not feel any different. Meditation has changed my life, but it has not changed how I feel about my life. I am happier and more open than before. I can laugh and express myself more than I could before. But life seems to be the same, and if I wasn’t journaling I might not have noticed any differences.
Going back for a second, let’s talk more about the ‘flinch’. The flinch is when we disappear somewhere, dissociate from the present moment, and let ourselves deal with the present situation on autopilot.
Sometimes this dissociation is useful, like when we are brushing our teeth. Imagine having to decide the direction and force of every single brushstroke every time we brushed.
Other times, it is dangerous. When dealing with ourselves and other people, we often behave in ways that we would not like to. If we consciously think about it, our behavior does not make sense. These are flinches. Identifying these ‘flinches’ and facing the buried beliefs and traumas that cause them is an important part of growth.
Once again, I will divert and talk about another fashionable idea for many in my generation – that healing is an end-goal in itself. This is where you get ideas such as “being is enough” and “focus on healing, everything else will work out for you”.
I strongly disagree.
Communion with yourself is necessary and desirable, but it is not enough. The other side of the coin is agency. Human beings need to work to live. There is no escaping this. At the very least, you need to work to drink water. You need to breathe. You need to eat.
Denying that work is a requirement for life is a denial of reality.
How, then, do you develop agency? By doing, and by doing well. Whatever you do, however small or unimportant it seems, do it well.
The two opposing ideals are: always being content and at peace with yourself, and always doing things to the best of your ability. Coincidentally, these two are the healthy versions of stereotypically male and female ideals.
Remember that all of these ideals are aims. They are goals to work towards. You will not achieve them every day. You may never achieve them in your lifetime.
Keep striving, and make that journey your ‘being’.
If you made it to the end of this incredibly long article, congratulations!
You deserve it. Not many reached this far.
Hopefully, you learned something. Maybe you even learned a lot of things.
It’s now time to apply.
Knowledge is potential. Start using your newfound knowledge and your life will change. You may not notice it. Everything may seem the same. If you journal and measure where you are daily, you will see the progress.
Choosing an integral approach to self-improvement is a monumental task. The self is massive beyond comprehension, so improving the self is obviously a massive subject. You could write about it for years and not even scratch the surface.
If you’re interested in seeing a second installment to this article or just want to share your thoughts on my writing, let me know in the comments below.
I’ll be glad to hear from you.
- An integral approach looks at a subject from multiple angles and tries to gather insights from different perspectives.
- The levels of a human being are, at minimum, body, mind, and spirit (psyche). Wholistic self-improvement focuses on all three at once.
- Eating and sleeping well will improve your life incredibly.
- Exercise daily, since twenty minutes of aerobic activity can have an effect on your mood equivalent to anti-depressants.
- Connect with others with the understanding that their life is as important to them as yours is to you.
- Step out of your comfort zone to grow. Your comfort zone includes the people you interact with, the places you visit, and the activities you perform. Change them and you will grow.
- Read more books. They give you knowledge and knowledge is power.
- Write down three things that went well during your day every night to become happier and less depressed.
- Write about your ideas because it is difficult to lie to yourself in writing. Journal as much as possible because journaling allows you to read your own mind.
- Meditate. Focus on your breath for five minutes a day for two weeks.