Sunday, 18 October 2009

Centralisation vs Decentralisation

It is now many years since Andrew Smith proposed his one-scale model of holarchy as an alternative to Ken Wilber's quadrant model, yet few people in the integral movement still seem to appreciate the benefits that the former has over the latter. In an attempt to redress this imbalance I have, in a series of articles available on the Integral World website (, attempted to draw out the implications of Smith's model for our understanding of both individual and collective development, and to show how it is able to account for the major features of all other existing models.

In my view, one of the most simple yet important insights offered by Smith's model is the distinction between intermediate and autonomous holons. To put it simply, intermediate holons have an entirely holarchical structure, in which each stage is subsumed within a strict hierarchy of development, while autonomous holons have a "mixed" structure in which all stages from a particular level exist in both free and embedded forms.

One of the implications of this distinction that I believe Smith would agree with is that the most healthy society possible (often referred to as the "integral" society) would have such an autonomous form. It therefore becomes critical to consider how the concept of the autonomous holon applies to the social level and to discuss what types of social organisation it implies.

In my most recent article on Integral World I argue that this "ideal society" would be decentralised in nature and that viewing it thus we end up with a schema of development that is more coherent than Ken Wilber's entirely centralised approach. However, after further consideration of the matter, I would like to partially recant this heresy. It seems rather obvious to me now that when applied to collective development the mixed holarchical structure of the autonomous holon clearly implies that we endeavour to find a "middle-way" between centralisation and decentralisation.

So reconsidering my previous articles, it now seems to me that I had half the truth. As an antidote to Wilber's paradigm of centralisation, my argument that decentralisation was the preferred approach was much needed. However, I now believe that further thought and research will show that that ideal course of development actually lies somewhere between the two. There are, of course, obvious benefits to centralisation that no sensible person would deny. The ability to co-ordinate necessary action across the entire social sphere being the main one. Yet decentralisation is also needed in order to allow individuals to have power over their own lives and to attain authentic centauric awareness.

Applying this principle to the structure of spiritual communities and to the issue of spiritual development in general, I believe that the same conclusion also applies. As spiritual aspirants, it suggests that we should therefore endeavour to tread a middle-way between guru worship on the one hand and pathological self-reliance on the other. In other words, we should attempt to balance the virtues of respecting our teachers and practicing according to their instructions on one hand with those of attempting to find our own path and to express our individuality on the other. In our current age it is apparent that much of the guru system tends toward one extreme, while much of the new age and conspiracy scene tends toward the other. However, if my conclusion is correct, then optimum spiritual development is achieved by treading a middle-path between the two. How exactly this is to be done is a debate that I believe should be initiated.

Of course, all of the above may sound like nothing more than common sense, and in a sense, it may be. Yet by applying Smith's one-scale model to these issues we have a theoretical foundation on which to base our analysis of them, which is much to be desired, even if we should end up with nothing more than common-sense conclusions.

And as a final point, anyone reading this from a global-conspiracy angle may be wondering: what does this analysis of the ideal society mean for the issue of a world government? Well, while I have no fixed opinion on this matter, I would tentatively suggest the following: a world government that is married with appropriate decentralisation, that therefore does not have excessive power, which is in the hands of spiritually-developed, compassionate leaders and which is intent on allowing all of its subjects to attain authentic centauric awareness, may not necessarily be a bad thing. The problem we have is that the world government we are faced with has anything but these merits. The world government being manipulated into existence today is both authoritarian and, as demonstrated by David Icke, driven by a strain of consciousness that has anything but human well-being at its heart. Such a world government would obviously be undesirable. But in my tentative opinion, a world government that has the various virtues mentioned, could actually be a force for good.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

A Short Note on the Benefits of Tonglen


A Tibetan meditation that has become quite popular in recent years is Tonglen. In this practice the individual voluntarily takes upon herself the suffering of others and in return gives them all of her well-being and happiness. This exchange is usually coordinated with the breathing in such a way that suffering is taken in on the in-breath in the form of imagined thick black smoke and happiness given away on the out-breath in the form of a healing white light. (More detailed practice instructions can be found in Sogyal Rinpoche's Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Lama Surya Das's Awaken the Buddha Within and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's Eight Steps to Happiness).

In this short paper I would like to explore the effects of Tonglen and outline some of the benefits that I believe accrue from its practice. I will begin this exploration by explaining how I believe the practice of Tonglen allows the individual to traverse the essence of the Hinayana path.

Tonglen and the Essence of the Hinayana

The basic Hinayana model of the human predicament is outlined in the twelve steps of the cycle of conditioned co-production, and then condensed into the Four Noble Truths. Both of these teachings describe how human suffering and desire arise simultaneously in dependence upon one another, or how desire leads inevitably to suffering and suffering to desire.

In other words, they illustrate how the natural tendency of the human condition is to seek to move away from suffering and towards objects we believe will give us happiness and how it is this predisposition that leads to us becoming ensnared in samsara.

The path out of this circular dilema is explained by Bhikkhu Bodhi in his paper Transcendental Dependent Arising ( as a noble attempt to halt the forward spin of this "wheel of becoming" and a struggle to reverse its natural direction of movement. Bhikkhu Bodhi then goes on to describe how such an attempt eventually leads to the attainment of all the transcendental stages of development that form the basis of the Hinayana path to liberation.

Now, as far as Tonglen is concerned, it could be argued that by voluntarily taking upon herself suffering and renouncing her own well-being and happiness the practitioner is essentially attempting to perform just such a reversal. So if Bhikkhu Bodhi is correct in his analysis, then when carried out systematically over a period of time we would expect the practice of Tonglen to allow the individual to traverse the entire Hinayana path.

Tonglen and the Essence of the Mahayana

Although Tonglen can be demonstrated to accomplish the essence of the Hinayana path, it is originally a Mahayana practice. The basis of the Mahayana path is the relinquishing of self-grasping and the cultivation of universal compassion. Tonglen realises both of these objectives. By taking on the suffering of others and giving them his well-being and happiness the practitioner overcomes the tendency toward self-grasping and simultaneously cultivates compassion. Tonglen, therefore, is the quintessence of the Mahayana path.

Tonglen and Integrating the Shadow

In Western psychological terms the shadow consists of all the emotions and impulses that an individual has repressed into unconsciousness during the course of her lifetime. Until these aspects of the self are re-integrated into conscious awareness they will exert a pathological influence on the well-being of the individual and cause her to remain entrenched in confused patterns of behaviour. Re-owning the shadow is therefore an extremely important task for anyone aiming at the goal of psychological health. Ken Wilber has even assigned shadow work a prominent place in his own system of spiritual development, although the technique he uses to accomplish it is somewhat limited. A better technique, in my opinion, is the practice of Tonglen.

Shadow elements remain repressed essentially because they are too painful to be allowed into consciousness. Were this not the case then there would be no need to repress them in the first place. According to Wilber these repressed elements are then projected outwards onto other people in the environment.

By voluntarily taking upon himself the suffering of others the individual is therefore engaged in the process of re-owning his own unacknowledged (and therefore projected) suffering, or his own shadow.

Further to this, the thick black smoke that the practitioner imagines to be suffering could be said to be a direct representation of the shadow to his psyche. In breathing this in the individual is therefore "breathing in" his own shadow and allowing it into conscious awareness from where it can be integrated. Thus we would expect individuals engaged in long-term Tonglen practice to significantly integrate their shadow over time. I personally believe that Tonglen will effect a significantly deeper integration of the shadow than Wilber's 3-2-1 process.


In summary, the practice of Tonglen can be shown in theory to have many benefits. It accomplishes the essence of both the Hinayana and Mahayana paths; according to Geshe Kelsang Gyatso it purifies negative karma and accumulates merit; it integrates the shadow; and it works directly on the health of the collective consciousness.

When reports are carried out on the effects of "meditation" it is almost always mindfulness meditation that is studied, and when Wilber himself discusses the effects of meditation it is almost always mindfulness meditation that he means, yet there are many other contemplative practices with, presumably, many different effects. Tonglen is just one of them. It would be fascinating to see these other forms of meditation included in such studies, and for the benefits of their practice to be examined more systematically.


Bhikkhu Bodhi. Transcendental Dependent Arising. 1980.

Ken Wilber and the New World Order

Ken Wilber is a writer probably best described as being situated at the intellectual end of the new spirituality field - a self-proclaimed "pandit" and "defender of the dharma" - although not rigorous enough in his argumentation to be considered a serious philosopher. Over the course of several decades he has developed a big-picture "theory of everything" that attempts to integrate all existing fields of human knowledge into a grand unified system.

To put it simply, Wilber's thesis is that humanity is following a path of evolution upwards through a series of "structures of consciousness", beginning with primitive mental states, then progressing through more complex psychological structures, before eventually venturing into the "transpersonal", the higher states of consciousness previously experienced only by sages and mystics. Each of these stages of internal awareness, according to Wilber, correlates with the type of social organisation that the individual lives within. Wilber argues that as a society evolves through various stages, the consciousness of its members evolves with it, giving us a schema of development as follows:

society - structure of consciousness
hunter-gatherer       - archaic
tribal                      - magic
early nation-state   - mythic
nation-state            - rational
world government - integral
?                            - illumined mind
?                            - intuitive mind
?                            - overmind
?                            - supermind

While it is not my intention here to critique this model, it is immediately obvious that one problem with it is that Wilber has never attempted to describe the types of social organisation that correlate with each of the transpersonal stages. Indeed, it would appear that after the emergence of a world government, no further development is possible.

However, a more serious issue, in my opinion, is that Wilber takes it as given that collective development proceeds through the progressive centralisation of power. Yet to me this is far from obvious. In a series of essays available in the Reading Room of Integral World ( I argue that healthy social development actually proceeds through the progressive decentralisation of power, although I should say that my current thinking is that a middle way between centralisation and decenentralistion is the desired course. In my papers I have attempted to show that when we base our schema of development on such a premise, we end up with a model that is more coherent than is Wilber's, and which avoids many of the problems inherent in his approach.

A more seriously problem, in my opinion, is that to anyone who accepts the existence of a global conspiracy - the agenda to impose an authoritarian one-world government on the planet - Wilber's model could be seen as dangerously rationalising such a state of affairs. In fact one implication of Wilber's schema is that the emergence of a world government would positively further our collective evolution. Wilber could therefore be quite unintentionally leading his readers into the "new world order" that is the goal of the global conspiracy. Indeed, some of Wilber's followers are already openly calling for world government.

It should therefore come as no suprise to followers of global-conspiracy research that individuals such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore have lauded Wilber's work ( According to David Icke, Clinton and Gore are both front-men for the global conspiracy, and have been promoting the new world order agenda since they were in office.

Wilber clearly believes that his work is at the forefront of human evolution and has recently started an institute to promote his views in academia (, yet as the hundreds of critical essays available at Integral World demonstrate, his work is not as watertight as he would like us to believe.

While there is much to be said for any big picture model of reality that includes a spiritual dimension, I believe that in the age of the global conspiracy we need to be very wary of any paradigm that views a world government as representing a positive evolutionary advance.