8/19 – Contemplative Dialogue Practices: An inquiry into deep interiority, shadow work, and insight

Tom Murray

Tom Murray


Introduction: Dialogue and the Pulse of Freedom

Tom Murray

Tom Murray

Dialogue invokes ideals of equality, participation, freedom, collaboration, responsibility, diversity, creativity, and adaptation. A central theme in the advancement of human society is the movement from rigid and authoritarian to more responsive, democratic, and thus dialogic social practices. Open, free, authentic, rich, and reciprocal communication is seen as essential to generating acceptable life conditions in our world of dizzying complexity, rapid change, global interconnectedness (Habermas, 1999; Latour, 2014; Gastil, 1993). Dialogue is not only about talking—it is a central component in problem solving and decision-making, and is a metaphor for a respectful and interactive way of being with others and with the natural world. To be in dialogue is to listen deeply and respond in integrity. However, as practitioners in fields as diverse as family therapy, management consulting, environment activism, and geopolitics are well aware, high quality dialogue and deliberation can be a very difficult thing to foster. The ideal of open, free, authentic communication includes assumptions about human nature that, it turns out, are not easily realized.

Shadow” forces at varying levels come into play that are at odds with our ideals, including thought forms based in histories of fear, scarcity, or trauma; and oppressive social structures and power dynamics.[1] The sheer complexity of dealing with multi-faceted situations and diverse human needs and perspectives also strains human capacities and thwarts productive interactions. Deep dialogue is seen as a structure that might support people in bringing the best of themselves to the table by mitigating these problematic aspects of the lifeworld, and creating engagement contexts that support more generative and ethical collective reasoning. It is also seen as a curative and evolutionary practice for transforming people and social dynamics. Many have been envisioning and experimenting with new dialogue, problem solving, and decision making models that might support fuller access to the abundant intelligence, compassion, and creativity latent in the human condition (we review many of these later).

One leading branch of thought draws strongly from psychological and spiritual (or transpersonal) principles to suggest that what is needed are dialogue structures that support people in putting aside preconceptions, assumptions, biases, and mental filters to achieve states of more open awareness and “higher consciousness.” These models share much with traditions of contemplative practice, which use deep listening, stillness, equanimity, and inner reflection as tools of insight and growth. These contemplatively-oriented dialogue practices are also called “we-space practices” (though the term is also used more generally for any group structure). Contemplative dialogue practices aim for a radical depth in authenticity, group field coherence, and insight generation.

Clearly, this type of dialogue practice is not for everyone or every situation, but contemplative dialogue does seem to contain important pieces of the overall puzzle of generative dialogue processes. Addressing challenging problems requires more than small or medium sized groups of people sitting in a circle (actually or metaphorically) and “diving deeply” together—it requires action coordination, accurate information, extended commitment, etc. But it does seem that so much of the strife, folly, and missed opportunities of the human condition are caused by bias, negative emotion, and ignorance that could be lessened using principles borrowed from both contemplative practices and dialogic principles, and that the call to raise awareness and consciousness is well-founded, as it is about building human capacity in ways that are sorely needed in this era.

For the purposes of this article “we-space practices” are characterized by having strong dialogic and contemplative components, and can also involve action-inquiry cycles. Thus, unlike purely contemplative or purely dialogical practices, they offer the hope to support transformative development through their attention to the inter-development (tetra-emergence) of whole systems (I-we-it-its).[2]

As we will see, we-space practices can take a variety of forms and serve a variety of purposes. What they have in common is that they offer group process structures that support participants moving into states of deep interiority (“causal awareness”) and deep authentic participation and inter-listening. These states (and related developmental stages) are said to support capacities for working beneath and beyond status quo belief systems, habitual thought patterns, and routine forms of interaction. Many believe that visiting the sometimes unsettling, sometimes exhilarating, depths of these transformative territories is necessary for the creative processes of the real insight, evolutionary human development, and cultural/systems transformations that are needed to address the complex problems of the post-modern human condition. These practices promise to have exciting potential for individuals to gain deeper growth and liberation, and for groups and cultures to imagine and execute workable solutions to pressing complex problems.[3]

Integrally-informed we-space practice

Within the community of integrally-informed theory and practice[4] (the intended audience of this article) there is increasing interest and discovery regarding contemplative dialogue (we-space) practices (see Gunnlaugson & Brabant, in process; and descriptions of many projects in the section below on “Other Contemporary Contemplative Dialogue Projects”). This community has the potential to make unique inroads because it brings together models of human psycho-social development; systems theories of wholeness, emergence, and complexity; and insights from contemplative spiritual and transpersonal practices.

Integral theory has its roots in transpersonal psychology and contemplative orientations to spirituality and is stronger in its explanations of individual phenomena vs. its explanations of collective or intersubjective phenomena (though of course both are covered in Wilber’s AQAL model). Though the integral lens adds significant value to the study of intersubjective phenomena, the community as a whole is still in an early stage of assimilating work from other communities and disciplines, experimentation with novel forms, and building theory and vocabulary around these phenomena. We are in a state of great enthusiasm but relatively little theory or clarity, and the conversations can appear a bit muddled as we feel our way into increasing competence.

Integral theory has the potential to, and already has, contributed significantly to exploration at the leading edge of we-space practices, primarily through its quadrant model for holism, its developmental model of human capacities, and its unique articulation of interior and ontological depth (e.g. ground of being and causal phenomena). However one danger at this phase of exploration is jumping too quickly to conceptualization, categorization, modeling, and metaphysics, and creating a false veneer of understanding that belies the real complexity, nuance, and deep phenomenology we face in this area. This is one reason that my emphasis is on experience (phenomenology), processes, and potential practical outcomes, and I eschew or bracket more metaphysical concepts such as collective consciousness, “higher we,” “circle being,” omega point, Authentic Self, and spirit/soul—except as they refer simply to a type of experience or (fallible) intuition. This is in keeping with a post-metaphysical orientation that frames metaphysical ideas as important meaning-generative and pragmatic tools, yet sees them as problematic when used to make claims about reality (see the Appendix for a discussion on the (post-) metaphysics of we-space, and Murray (2011, 2015) on post-metaphysics and integral theory).

For integralists, the ultimate motivation of we-space practices (and all practices) is the moral/ethical imperatives of liberation, sustained happiness, and/or (Kosmic) evolution. Bhaskar formulates liberation (self-emancipation and social justice) in terms of the elimination of the demi-real—ideas and thought patterns that cause harm because they do not sufficiently match reality (Bhaskar, 1975, 1991). This line of reasoning is reflected in many themes of spirituality, human potential, and social justice. That is, the most effective emancipatory actions and systems require forms of individual and collective “shadow work,” stripping the mind/ego of systematic biases that occlude experiencing the deeper nature of things and the deeper connections between beings. In the later sections of this paper I will frame we-space practices in terms of this type of shadow work and the insights that come from exposing the demi-real to the cleansing sunlight of individual or collective awareness. Thus in addition to approaching intersubjective practices from an embodied and experiential perspective, I will describe them in terms of revealing or absenting (ablative) processes rather than as additive (sublative or transcending and including) developmental processes of increasing complexity.


This paper is written primarily for those who are first-hand explorers of we-space practices and those interested in curating or facilitating we-space encounters—and there are increasingly many of us. I want to explore this territory with you from the inside as we inquire more deeply into the nature and purposes of these practices, trying to makes sense of our experiences and intentions. Thus the paper is grounded in embodiment, pragmatics, and phenomenology (i.e. experience, not the academics of Phenomenology) as a way to guide participatory action inquiry.[5]

In lieu of “expectation management” for the reader, I will note that the purpose of this article is to survey related literature and practice in an interdisciplinary range of fields, draw conceptual distinctions and connections, and craft a few guiding theoretical principles. Though I emphasize embodiment, the treatment is more theoretical and speculative than about praxis: there are no “how to” descriptions of practices and no case study applications described. The article will probably make the most sense to those in communities of practice that use contemplative dialogue practices and have an experiential understanding of what is possible when it goes well, and who are interested in how these relatively circumscribed activities relate to larger themes.

Though this paper frames contemplative practices mostly in terms of cognitive capacities such as awareness and insight, we should not loose sight of the fact that “coming together” for any virtuous purpose is substantially a matter of the heart. Gathering, even if for a moment, with intention and vulnerable enthusiasm in the service of a higher calling is a thing of hopeful solidarity, joy, and wonder. In answering a call to embrace and dive deeply one joins hands with countless others around the globe who choose to listen to the imperatives of the heart and attune to the collective “pulse of freedom.”

The contents of this paper proceed as follows. In Part I my goal is to clarify the concept of contemplative dialogue, because, as mentioned, its theoretical treatment has been a bit muddy thus far within the community of integrally-informed theory and practice. I explore the goals, skills, and experiential elements of contemplative dialogue by decomposing it into three overlapping phenomena. I look at (1) (individual) contemplative practices, and (2) group and deliberative dialogue processes to allow us to ask What does contemplative dialogue practice add over and above these modalities? That is, why would we turn to we-space practice instead of using these more common practices?

For me, a full understanding of contemplative dialogue requires a serious focus on the phenomenology of the experience itself, and not only that but a focus on its embodied or non-linguistic, non-symbolic elements. Thus, before exploring contemplative practice and group practices I explore a third area, (3) somatic or movement-based group structures and flow-states (using ensemble improvisational dance as an example)—and I do this first because the non-linguistic non-symbolic aspects underpin the more cognitive and linguistic ones. I characterize contemplative dialogue in terms of any form of dialogue that includes an invitation into the deep interiority found in meditation and flow-inducing group somatic activities. This is how contemplative dialogue differs from group processes such as brainstorming and “conversation café’s,” that also use the power of the collective mind to support creative reasoning. Practices of deep interiority are thought to support the skills of awareness, self-understanding, and tolerance for uncertainty and paradox that are necessary for reasoning about complex multi-perspectival life conditions.

Next, I discuss the most well-known (within the integral community) contemplative dialogue practices: Bohm Dialogue and Scharmer’s U-Practice. I use these examples to explore central themes: deep interiority, sensing and presence, group process dynamics, vision logic; collective intelligence, creativity and insight. At the end of Part I I survey over a dozen contemplative we-space projects, to complete the discussion of the state of the art.

In Part II I attempt to extend the state of the art with new, if speculative, ideas, many of these building upon Bonnitta Roy’s Collective Insight model. First I propose (following Roy) that the central goal of contemplative dialogue is insight-generation that illuminates aspects of collective shadow. Next I frame insight-generation in terms of subtractive (ablative) processes of peeling away or illuminating collective biases, habits, and shadow elements (this follows Bohm’s lead). Then I more deeply discuss shadow work, first at the individual level, then at the collective level. Finally, I describe a developmental/evolutionary model of shadow work, which can be used as a framework for understanding and designing contemplative dialogue practices. This model differentiates layers of shadow material related to the stratified layers of human being: matter, life, animal, the socialized human, the rational human, and the trans-rational human. I suggest that contemplative dialogue practices can be informed by considering how shadow material is illuminated at successive layers, from the “middle out.” These are preliminary sketches of models needing further elaboration through application.

A rudimentary cultural/historical contextualization

As a preliminary contextualization of our topic, I will frame we-space practice in this historical moment (for the developed Western world) using AQAL’s I/we/it/its model.

After some decades eyeing each other suspiciously from a distance, two arms of progressive culture, (I-focused) contemplatives and spiritualists and (it-focused) activists for social justice and environmental sustainability entered into a sustained dialogue and integration—which has been ongoing now for several decades. Activists are looking more contemplatively within themselves to clean up projections and other forms of systematic bias, and to build personal capacity, presence, and integrity. On the other hand, contemplatives see the need to “come down off the mountain into the marketplace” and align with the Bodhisattva vow to become more engaged in the world.

Meanwhile, new-age spirituality is weaning itself from a mid-20th century overemphasis on narcissistic interpretations of self-liberation (“spiritual materialism”) and a reliance on charismatic teachers. There is a swelling of interest in more collective and democratic (we-focused) approaches to spirituality. In parallel, activism is also deepening its appreciation of intersubjective phenomena, developing increased empathy for both the others that it wants to help (as opposed to seeing them as oppressed others or projecting their needs upon them) and the others that it fights against (as opposed to demonizing them and denying shared vulnerabilities of the human condition). And it is developing more sophisticated approaches to group process (e.g. the Occupy Movement).

Within spirituality and religion the importance of community, care, service, and sangha has been emphasized for thousands of years, but they have been framed by conventional concrete and mythic narratives. And political activism has always emphasized the importance of grass-roots community-based approaches. But in the 21st century both spirituality and activism are increasingly informed by (“second tier”) emergent trends including: network and meshwork theory, peer-to-peer culture, deep democracy, de-centering philosophies, social networking technologies, evolutionary/developmental theories, deep phenomenology, and dynamic systems theory. These emergent trends include a more adequate understanding of participation, interaction, complexity, chaos, emergence, and transformation.[6]

Integral studies of we-space practice are very much at the forefront of these trends. Thus, we-space practices emerge at this historical moment from the integration of contemplative/spiritual (I), activist/action-oriented (it), and collectivist/participatory (we) threads in cultural evolution; informed by newly emerging metaphors for consciousness, evolution, and dynamic systems. It is an exciting time to be inquiring in this area.

2. Dance with me (us): contemplative somatics

Author’s Background

Because part of this paper takes a phenomenological approach and speaks to the experience of we-space practices, I should mention the breadth, depth, and limitations of my own experience (for example, you would not want to listen to a lecture on the topic of love from someone who clearly had little, or mostly tragic, experiences in that life-domain). Like many readers I have had numerous experiences with collective state-inducing practices including contemplative dialogue (e.g. Bohmian, Insight, and Quaker dialogues) and new-age drumming or chanting rituals inspired by native peoples and spiritual gurus; and also have experience with individualized practices that can produce unitive and sublime experiences such as meditation retreats and psychedelics (and intoxicants).[7] I consider myself still a student and journeyman in all of these things.

I have participated in we-space-practices associated with the integral community (including the EnlightenNext community’s Enlightened Communication), U-Theory activities inspired by Otto Scharmer’s work, Big-Mind activities (with Genpo Roshi, Dianne Hamilton, and John Kesler), Bonnitta Roy’s Collective Insight practice, and various on-line collective and contemplative sessions inspired by integral themes.[8] After such experiences I sometimes ask myself: what is unique, or uniquely integral or second tier, about this experience?[9] These “integral” we-space experiences have much in common phenomenologically with my other experiences in movement, contemplative dialogue, mediation, etc. And they also have something in common with more mundane collective experiences such as music concerts, brainstorming, team sports, or political rallies, in those rare moments when the more mundane activities produce expansive feelings of flow, insight, and unity. We-space-practices are indeed different than all the other types of experiences and activities I have mentioned—but describing exactly how is not easy.[10] I will first compare them to contemplative ensemble dance, because there is so much about both contemplative practice and group-consciousness experience that is somatic.

I am fortunate that my life has led me to practices and communities related to improvisational dance, where collective consciousness, we-practices, and we-states are deeply and unmistakably embodied. Through over 30 years of participation in Contact Improvisation and freestyle dancing (yes you can still find those nouveau-hippy, drug- and alcohol-free barefoot boogies in most major cities), and living in an area that is a socio-cultural hot-bed for such activities, I have been blessed with many opportunities to experience a variety of somatic practices. I will describe an idealized version of one of many improvisational movement “scores” of the type typically lead by a teacher during a workshop. Movement scores are simple rule sets that constrain options and in so doing can create a type of group coherence and flow. They also unleash creative potential through constraint (Amabile & Pillemer, 2012; Sternberg, 2006).[11] Imagine, if you can, that you are participating in the idealized movement score described below.

The Dance

We are with about 50 participants standing in a large room, having been asked by the workshop facilitator to distribute ourselves randomly in space and to settle into silent attentiveness. We are instructed to face the front wall at all times. We are told that we can move only forward, backwards, or 90-degrees to either side (i.e. moving in the four compass directions, always facing forward), and are to remain in a standing pose and not intentionally make contact with others (though it may happen accidentally sometimes). The leader instructs the group to begin with a warm-up period, asking us to move slowly, maintain awareness of safety issues and avoid bumping into others, and to take responsibility for our own safety. We are coached to use soft visual focus and heightened peripheral vision; to let our bodies be relaxed yet alert. We are like parts in a biological machine that must be well-tuned and responsive to allow the whole to function well.

Imagine that all participants are skilled movers and that this type of activity is not new for them. Through the warm-up the rules become more automatic and embodied. The leader, who is in a sense a choreographer, may add a few more suggestions or refine the rules until she is satisfied that the correct foundation has been established. The structure is then set free and no further instruction is given for a 15 to 60 minute movement score (the leader may slip in as a participant at this point). Note that this is not a serious dance activity, it is all play. Yet, as in all games played well, we hold a type of serious commitment to the form.

As the score progresses, a multiverse of events unfolds. Varied phenomena blossom in different parts of the room, and each participant has a unique perspective on the whole. Sometimes the entire room seems to be in coordinated motion—a hive or flock; and at other times the whole is composed of pockets of very different activity—an pond or forest ecology. As experienced improvisational movers, each has a finely tuned capacity to navigate the dimensions of individuality and collectivity, of leading and following. Like jazz musicians improvising, all are listening openly, responding to individuals next to them and to the whole as it manifests larger flows of movement energy. Each is responding yet also initiating, making clear decisions every moment. You experience what it might be like to be in a flock of birds or a school of fish. It is pure play and enjoyment, flow and focus.

During one period you are in a long line where bodies are moving forward and backwards like automobile traffic that pulses between being bunched up and spread out. Participants remain curious about the emergent pattern for some time, remaining focused within this sandbox in the midst of the larger playground. Because the participants in this emergent sub-collection are having fun exploring the nuances and variations of this sort of movement, no one moves sideways out of the line for a while. At another point you find yourself in the back corner of the room beside another mover, and decide to follow and mirror them as they move rather randomly through the space (while keeping with the structure, facing forward and moving front, back, left, and right). At another time you decide to remain completely still as others flow around you doing whatever they do, and you assume a panoptic kind of focus on the whole room as it flows around you. Within the full score there are a medley of temporal and spatial flow patterns containing rapid movement and very slow movement; synchronous movement and chaotic movement; mirroring movements and contrasting/oppositional movements; and both large group and small group (or duet) coordination of movement.

When the activity is complete, exhausted and blissful, you sit against a side wall and let the energy run through you until normalcy begins to return.

Though the movers in this particular score are not touching each other, this work grew out of the dance form called Contact Improvisation (enacting such scores are often part of weekend-long workshops including other movement and dance activities). Contact Improvisation is a post-modern dance form invented in the 1970’s though generative exchanges among martial artists, gymnasts, and professional dancers—with a strong influence from Eastern contemplative and mindfulness practices. Its best-known founder, Steve Paxton, has commented that “If you’re dancing physics, you’re dancing Contact. If you’re dancing chemistry, you’re doing something else.” This points to the impersonal, even transpersonal, nature of the activity. The focus of each individual is on movement and sensation, not on social relations, roles, expectations, or niceties. The pleasure derived from the flow state of collective attunement is physical and unlike the pleasure of social interaction (though social-pleasures can arise; as can both physical and social frustrations and distresses).[12]

Somatic We-spaces and Facets of Collective Embodiment

Let us now relate this experience to integrally informed we-space-practices that are not movement-based, but are instead verbal-contemplative. There is much about we-space-practices and experiences that is “embodied”—originating in pre-verbal aspects of experience as opposed to the content of discursive thought. We can draw from the movement example above both for metaphor and for precise comparison.[13] Many of the important themes are identical in the two domains, and focusing first on a somatic practice allows us to ground the investigation, to separate the embodied experience from the social elements of the experience and from the cognitive elements of the experience; and to gain some clarity where spiritual and metaphysical themes enter into considerations of we-space. Here are some of the themes that arise in collective somatic practice, which I will call “Facets of Collective Embodiment:”

· Autonomy and communion. The example illustrates the nuanced interplay between the individual and the collective; leading and following; listening and acting. One can be completely autonomous, yet still fully immersed in and participating with the whole. One is leading and following simultaneously, and experiencing the play of or dissolution of this polarity. More fully autonomous or self-authoring participants create more productive and/or flexible group outcomes.[14]·      Interiors and exteriors. One can discover a similar interplay and interpenetration between interiors and exteriors—a loosening of the normal separation of self and world or self and other. Attention zooms in and out fluidly between micro and macro contexts. Events can obtain a type of enchantment or deeper meaning.·      Awareness and sensitivity. The desired state is one of openness and attention. There is an attunement, sensitivity, responsiveness, and non-clinging quality to attention and intention. This quality is also called deep listening, and involves an ability to focus or direct attention as needed, while not fixating on any object. IT includes the capacity to zoom in with discernment while remaining open to taking in everything panoptically out to the periphery.· Egolessness and the transpersonal. If one is fully in a flow state in such movement scores, one’s pre-rational body-mind is making most of the decisions; there is no conscious or verbal thought involved, and no self-judgment or self-consciousness. One is not attached to or overly identified with one’s position or socially constructed relationship relative to others. This could be called a transpersonal state in which participants are coherently engaged through their raw sense of being. While not being driven by such ego-related impulses, the participant might still notice them arising in the self.[15]

· Equanimity and trust. The flow states associated with group practices require high levels of trust and surrender: trust in self, in other individuals (including the facilitator), and in the process (and, some might say, the larger whole or “the universe”). This involves a belief, or perhaps a stance forged of suspended judgment, that: I am OK—my errors and limitations are natural and acceptable (and perhaps even unwitting contributions to the whole); others are all acting in good faith; and there is, in a sense, no right or wrong, good or bad, in what happens here—it is all just “what is” as it flows from who we are. This can be as much a practice as a decision or effortless result. The trust in self supports trust in others, and vice versa; and each person’s trust adds to the overall field allowing others to drop deeply into mutual trust.

· Will and intention. Within play and improvisation there is commitment to the form and to one’s colleagues; a sense of responsibility and seriousness helps form the container within which freedoms manifest. Within the container of the structure, letting both unconscious body-intelligence and the field of the collective influence one’s choice, one can experience a kind of choice-less choice. The meaning of agency/free-will becomes problematized or paradoxical. One experiences action and decision as “just happening,” as coming through one, perhaps from within and perhaps from outside, yet not through intention and volition.

· Deep time and space. The experiences of time and space can become altered and/or heightened. The mind, no longer perseverating on past and future, roams the wide space of the now; attuned to moment-to-moment arising. One can experience emptiness yet fullness, movement within stillness and stillness within movement, and expansiveness yet one-pointedness.

· Expansive bliss. As indicated in several items above, collective somatic activities can arouse peak states of rapture, expansiveness, unity, and focus—which are characteristics of what are called “flow states” as applied to a collective activity.[16]

· Emergence, coherence, and synchronicity. Group-level patterns and phenomena emerge and dissolve at many levels (in time and in space). In such activities one can be frequently confronted with the unexpected and the improbable. There can be a sense of participating in or witnessing the magical, even the sacred. Participants can tune into the “inter-becoming” of their “inter-being” (Wight, 2013).

Importantly, there is much about peak experiences in meditation and in we-space practices that overlaps with the experience of somatic flow described above.[17] There are of course significant differences in the texture and details of, say, ecstatic dance or surfing the big wave, vs. sitting on one’s cushion to meditate or siting in a chair during a Bohmian dialogue. But all of the themes described above apply to both ensemble somatic flow states and group dialogic flow states (as both involve collectivity—not all of the themes apply to individual meditation practice).

In addition to the movement score above, one can find other group movement or embodiment activities (including Contemplative Dance, Authentic Movement, or drumming or chanting rituals) that are structured quite differently but can induce most of the phenomena listed above.

Implications of Ensemble Somatic Practices for Dialogue

What does this show us? First, as mentioned, even though dialogue is central to we-space practices, much about the experience of we-space practice is about embodiment and is pre-language (or non-linguistic). Second, I want to suggest that much of the non-ordinary or “peak” experiences of we-space practice draws on our (“lower”) animal nature, as opposed to, or in addition to, a higher or spiritual nature or a meta-cognitive capacity. Certain elements of these practices are shared, albeit in a primitive form, with social (including herding, schooling, and flocking) animals. The above elements of flow, trust, emergence, awareness, etc. are embedded potentials in the neurological structures and somatic experiences of many animal species.

Current theories of evo-socio-biology teach us that human emotional and somatic experiences are higher order or higher octave manifestations of animal-level phenomena (Panksepp, 2005; Trivers, 2002; Wilson, 1998; Pinker, 1997). That is, human phenomena such as love, problem solving, jealousy, camaraderie, gluttony…are built up from primitive animal-level phenomena. The implication is that, though human experience and capacity is not equivalent to or as simple as that of other animals, there is much to be gained by exploring how much of human nature draws upon our animal nature. What we interpret as sublime, divine, transpersonal, or esoteric experience may in part be what happens when one disengages the discursive or symbolic mind and allows more embodied pre-linguistic and pre-conscious aspects of the mind-body to predominate—embracing a birth-right that is culturally suppressed to the extent that one rejects “primitive” animal drives and experiences.

As integral and developmental theories teach us, how one makes meaning of these experiences depends in part on developmental factors. Indeed, human cognition includes layers of reflection or meta-thought that operate upon lower level phenomena, so that our experience of more primitive layers can include an awareness, reflection, or witnessing of those lower layers, and a focusing of these energies toward “higher” goals. But, as each experience is a unitary whole, it is possible to conflate higher capacities such as awareness or witnessing with the lower-level phenomena that they are aware of. I am proposing, for example, that the open sense of alert awareness and the boundary-less sense of merging with others involves taping into animal-level cognition. Regardless of whether other animals experience something only slightly similar, or strongly similar, to what we experience, the invitation is to focus on the experience at the bodily level. Awareness that one is having these experiences, or reflecting on the qualities or purposes of these experiences, constitute higher level functions. This is an important distinction in understanding we-space phenomena. As a related example, we can distinguish being or operating from a developmental level, e.g. construct-aware, from seeing and reflecting upon one’s experiences at that level, which happens at a higher level.[18]

3. Contemplative Practices and Group Processes

We-space-practices are group dialogic practices with strong contemplative elements. So, in a simple sense, we-space-practices are what you get when you add (1) contemplative practice to (2) collective/group practice and (3) dialogic practice. That is, we-space practice exists at the overlap of these three categories.[19] In this section we separately consider (1) individual contemplative practices and (2/3) non-contemplative group practices—in much less detail that our exploration of collective somatics above. These are of course very broad areas of practice and theory, and our goal here is not to cover them in any way, but to contrast them with we-space-practices to refine our understanding of the later.

Meditative Practices

I will attempt a summary of common goals among contemplative (meditation) practices as commonly understood in the West. This rough summary of a complex field is given simply as a heuristic for comparing we-space to meditative practices. The goals or outcomes of mediation practices can include the following, which I will refer to as “Facets of Contemplative Practice:”

  1. At a minimum a state of relaxation, and perhaps physical and psychological healing or relief from suffering (Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, for example), as a result of simply stopping the ongoing reinforcement and reproduction of patterned thought activity. At this “Meditation 101” level, the support of pro-social or productive behavior is also a common goal.
  2. A set of peak experiences and refined capacities—Shinzen Young (2011) frames these capacities in terms of concentration, clarity, and equanimity. Others speak of advanced states or feelings of bliss, one-pointedness, expansiveness, emptiness, oneness, or openness; still others speak of powers or siddhis. Almost all traditions warn that all of these experiences and capacities are only markers along the way, not to be clung to. (The AQAL model contains a particular interpretation of experiences and capacities, i.e. states and stages.)
  3. The development of love, care, connection, empathy and compassion, which are sometimes described as natural outcomes of contemplative practice, and sometimes described as capacities to intentionally develop through contemplative practice. In many systems, the love, empathy, etc. one aspires to are objectless, open, undirected, and transpersonal.
  4. The liberation from or healing of mental/psychological/cultural habits, wounds, or conditioning—this includes shadow work and sometimes catharsis as a goal. (Shadow work will be discussed in later sections.)
  5. A deepening understanding of the nature of the self (or ego)—which ultimately includes a realization that the self, as usually understood, does not exist. It may also include insight into the nature of human suffering.
  6. A deepening understanding of the nature of reality and/or being (and the relationship between self and reality)—including: the realization that much or all of what we experience as real is constructed by the mind; and the realization that all phenomena are impermanent (which might mean changing, vibratory, emergent, or ephemeral).
  7. An experience of, understanding of, or merging with, a non-dual source—which might be interpreted as god, complete emptiness, the source of all being, etc.

There are of course other goals of contemplative practices—goals that merge with general goals of spirituality and religion—that are not as relevant to this conversation, in which I set aside metaphysical themes. These include concepts such as salvation, karma and rebirth and metaphysical theories about ultimate reality.

The point of delimiting these goals for meditative practices is the following. I propose that these are not the essential goals of we-space-practices—otherwise why not just meditate (or meditate within a sangha)? I propose that the relationship between contemplative meditation practice and we-space practice is: (1) we-space practices builds upon the Facets of Contemplative Practice; the deeper one’s experience or capacity in these facets, the more capacity one has for we-space-practices. Conversely (2) (dialogic, contemplative) we-space-practices do tend to support all of the above goals and outcomes of meditative practices, though that is not their primary aim or significance. And, importantly, there are certain aspects of the self, the ego, the shadow, and reality that are specific to social reality and interpersonal relationship, such that we-space-practices can add significantly to healing, learning, shadow-work, and capacity-building in these areas. But, as I will discuss later, even that may not be the most important outcome of we-space-practices.

Group Processes

Next I will describe what is in common among non-contemplative group practices. What group process adds that is mostly missing from both the somatic and the contemplative practices mentioned above are the social and cognitive layers that come with language and social interaction (for our purposes verbal communication is a central component of group processes/practices, though there are exceptions such as Systemic Constellation work[20]). Whereas the facets of collective embodiment and the facets of contemplative practice are found within we-space practices, and in a sense underpin them, group process can be thought of as constellationally containing we-space practice. That is, a we-space practice can be a component within, or an approach to, a larger group practice frame that sets the context and the purpose for the we-space practice.

Group practices is an even broader theory/practice field than meditation. The interdisciplinary study of group processes (and group dynamics) covers both intra (within) and inter (across) group processes; and covers all scales, e.g. two-party mediations, small group brainstorming, organizational change, large scale civic engagement, and social change methodologies.

The National Coalition for Dialog and Deliberation (NCDD, of which I am a participating member) sponsors gatherings and resources for practitioners and academics interested in a wide variety of group practices. One reason for including an overview of group-processes/practices here is to facilitate the integration of we-space practices and principles into the larger world of dialogue practice. NCDD differentiates debate, dialogue, and deliberation as in Table 1. Here “dialogue” has a rather specific meaning (in a wider sense “dialogue” includes all three categories).

Murray Table 1

Table 1: Styles of Communication

encapsulates the critique of status-quo communication, with its emphasis on competition, persuasion, and zero-sum assumptions. Dialogue points to more egalitarian forms of listening and inquiry. Dialogue can signal a move from (what is believed to be) objective, detached, logical reasoning to more intimate, authentic, and vulnerable conversation. One critique is that this style of dialogue can be conflict-avoidant and may aim more to make people feel good than to produce lasting effects. Deliberation in this context emphasizes situations in which a group decision needs to be made, common ground found, or stable knowledge built among participants with diverse perspectives. It requires an ability to weigh perspectives, illicit deeper truths, and make difficult decisions as a group. (Integralists will note a developmental sequence of Blue/Orange, Green, and Yellow ego development levels in these categories.) We-space practice is certainly not debate, and is mostly dialogue, but it might be used within a process that includes deliberation (as U-Practice does).Table 1: Styles of Communication

NCDD frames the space of methods as having four types of goals (visit for explanations of the specific methods listed):

  • Exploration—People learn more about themselves, their community, or an issue and perhaps also come up with innovative ideas. (Approaches include World Café, Open Space, Bohm Dialogue, brainstorming methods.)
  • Conflict transformation—Poor relations or a specific conflict among individuals or groups is tackled. (Includes Sustained Dialogue, mediation, Issues Based Bargaining, compassionate listening.)
  • Decision making—a decision or policy is impacted and/or public knowledge of an issue is improved. (Includes Citizens Jury, Deliberative Polling, Formal Consensus process.)
  • Collaborative action—people tackle complex problems and take responsibility for the solutions they design. (Includes Study Circles, Appreciative Inquiry, Future Search.)

We-space practice itself is mostly oriented around exploration, and can be included as a component of a larger process aimed at conflict transformation, decision-making, or collaborative action. Another NCDD frame organizes the goals of dialogue and deliberation as follows (slightly adapted, and in rough order of increasing depth/breadth/complexity): (1st order) Issue learning, improved deliberation attitudes and skills, improved relationships; (2nd order) Conflict transformation, individual and collective action, improved institutional (or collective) decision-making (one could add knowledge building and design outcomes); (3rd order) Improved community/ organizational problem solving, increased civic/organizational capacity.

Again, we-space practices are oriented to the first, but can be used in the service of the others. NCDD is a fairly practice-oriented community with some theoretical threads, and we could mention other fields of group process outside its scope, e.g. psychotherapeutic group processes, including Encounter Groups; Psychodrama, and the large body of theory and practice on collaborative learning and collaborative work.

In addition there is a vast expanse of academic and theoretical work related to group process in sociology and social psychology, which I will barely mention here, but which may be quite relevant to we-space practices. For example, readers will be familiar with group-dynamics concepts such as forming-storming-norming-performing (Tuckman, 1965). In Paradoxes of Group Life, Smith & Berg (1987) describe many of the classic group dynamics themes. They discuss belonging and scapegoating; hierarchy and power; identity and group-think in terms of interpenetrating polarities (such as autonomy and communion). Studies of “the psychology of peace and conflict” and “intergroup dynamics” may have some application to social-change orientations of we-space practices (Cohrs & Boehnke, 2008; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2013). The emerging field of contemplative neuroscience includes studies of contemplative practitioners that have implications for we-space practice (see Thompson, 2014).

We-space-practitioners and process designers can learn much from research and best practice in all of the (non-contemplative) group practice areas mentioned above, and in fact have in many instances. We-space-practices explored within the integrally informed community might have any combination of all of the goals and methods mentioned above. They might be used to support self-reflection or healing (unlearning), skill building, relationship building, mutual understanding, and idea and insight generation—all of which can later lead to actions, decision making, transformation, or large scale capacity building.

We-space-practices are usually short engagements for within-group or open-group situations, though a few practitioners, including Thomas Hübl, are using them for extended encounters, inter-group situations, and conflict transformation. Terry Patten sees we-space-practices as a vehicle for cultural change (as did Bohm, see below) and political activism, and includes the goals of uplifting and inspiring passion and commitment (Patten, 2013).[21] Steve McIntosh, Carter Phipps, and others at the integrally-oriented Institute for Cultural Evolution ( also focus on cultural change.

Sara Ross and Jan Inglis’ TIP framework (Integral Process For Working On Complex Issues) is a “system for comprehensive social change that citizens, officials, and public, private, & nonprofit organizations can learn to use for complex decisions and comprehensive social change” by making “complexity [and underlying assumptions] visible and manageable” (Ross, 2005; Inglis, 2007). Thomas Jordan uses developmental and integral lenses to evaluate and coordinate methodologies from across the field of deliberative methods, and has created resources and tools that organizations and citizens can use to address complex issues (Jordan, 2014). He evaluates these methods in terms of how they: focus participant’s attention, build trusting relationships, support attitudes of commitment and care, deepen understanding and perspective taking, mobilize creativity and empowerment; and lead to clear decisions and grounded actions.

These projects invoke the concept of “we space” in terms of collective action, decision making, and cultural consciousness, but are more facilitator/leader-centered than the we-space practices we concern ourselves with here. However, we can note that practices can range in a spectrum from completely egalitarian and de-centered practices (e.g. Bohm Dialogue) to more facilitated ones.

What is specific to we-space practice vs. other group processes is the movement into what I will call “deep interior space” (related to what Andrew Venezia (2013) calls “inter-subjective self-reflexivity”; and what Dustin DiPerna (2014) calls transpersonal “inter-being”). Deep interior space is the psychological and somatic space opened up in contemplative practices as applied to groups (though one can gain access to it through other means). At a group level, deep interior space has all of the elements described in the Facets of Collective Embodiment above. The group process frameworks mentioned above do not normally venture into the silent, spacious territory of deep interior space, but they can be modified with elements of we-space practice to do so. Thus the study and development of we-space practice in part involves the study and development of deep interior space in dialogic group practices. Framed in this way, practitioners have only begun to explore the vast array of possible we-space-practices.[22] One can start with any type of group process described in this section and redesign it to include experiences of collective deep interior spaces. We are just beginning to understand how to do this in a general sense, based on the most well-known we-space practices, as described next.

4. We-space Practices: Bohm Dialogue, U-Theory, and Deep Interior Space

I will start the more direct investigation of we-space-practices by summarizing two of the most well-known frameworks: Bohm Dialogue and U-Theory (or U-Process). As the reader will note from my descriptions, these serve as typical examples having key features common among most we-space-practices. Both invite participants to access deep interior space. Bohm dialogue explicitly has no outcome goals for its process, though it is designed to uncover and remediate conditioned, “incoherent,” and limiting aspects of thought and belief. U-Theory is designed to source deep interior space and then produce insights that lead to action.

Bohm Dialogue

As described by renowned physicist David Bohm in his texts On Dialog and Dialogue: A Proposal, Dialogue is a process for countering the fragmentation, incoherence, and conditioning of thought (Bohm, 1980, 1986; Bohm et al., 1991).[23] Participants sit a circular formation with no explicit roles or hierarchy, no rules per se, and no given topic or agenda. The convener notes the start and end of the period (3 hours in my experiences) as their only official actions. Though there are ‘no rules’ there is a definite structure, and a few guidelines, which new participants are introduced to before the official session start. Though the process is open and emergent, there are certain things that it is explicitly not: it is described as not being a debate (or even “discussion”), therapy group, or conflict resolution session. The primary principles are:

  • Proprioception of thought — an attention to the feeling-tone and somatic aspects of thought; an embodied awareness of thoughts, thoughts-precursors and feelings as they arise.
  • Inquiry — An ongoing inquiry into one’s own assumptions and biases (and what today we would call shadow elements) that might be influencing one’s own thoughts, beliefs, feelings, desires, and aversions.
  • Suspension — suspension of speech and reactions (i.e. to reflect on thoughts and impulses before deciding to manifest them to the group); suspension of certainty of one’s ideas; and suspension of judgment or assumptions (suspension of disbelief or certainty), in the service of wider or clearer understanding. (Also suspension of one’s usual patterns, which might mean speaking more than usual if one is shy, or less if on is extroverted.)

Other guiding principles and suggestions might be offered, such as relaxation and acceptance of what arises; using observation of the breath or a body scan for somatic awareness; or the suggestion that one should talk to the group or to the center and not become engaged in back-and-forth discussion between two individuals. It might be noted that there may be long silences and that these can be experienced as rich rather than tense moments; and that displaying trust and positive vulnerability help create a container of deep intention.

Bohm dialogues have much in common with traditional Quaker Meeting circles and also with Native American Council formats, within which there is an invitation to “speak from the heart,” to speak what is most deeply True in the moment, or to let Spirit speak through one. Bohm spoke of “impersonal fellowship,” an early framing of what we might now call transpersonal space. While some related group process formats may be more interested in creating compassionate connection or en-spirited flow states, Bohm was specifically interested in generating insights—about self but more importantly about cultural conditioning. He saw Dialogue as a method for teasing out, observing, and gaining wisdom about mental conditioning that distorts our personal and collective understanding of reality:

“Dialogue, as we are choosing to use the word, is a way of exploring the roots of the many crises that face humanity today. It enables inquiry into, and understanding of, the sorts of processes that fragment and interfere with real communication between individuals, nations and even different parts of the same organization.” (Bohm et al., 1991)

Bohm saw Dialogue as a microcosm of society, therefore diversity within the group was important, and conflict was not to be avoided (nor resolved, but just observed). He suggested that “pervasive incoherence in the process of human thought is the essential cause of the endless crises affecting mankind” and he was looking for methods to create coherence of thought within and between individuals:

Dialogue is a powerful means of understanding how thought functions…In Dialogue, a group of people can explore the individual and collective presuppositions, ideas, beliefs, and feelings that subtly control their interactions…It can reveal the often puzzling patterns of incoherence that lead the group to avoid certain issues or, on the other hand, to insist, against all reason, on standing and defending opinions about particular issues…Dialogue is a way of observing, collectively, how…unnoticed cultural differences can clash without our realizing…It can therefore be seen as an arena in which collective learning takes place and out of which a sense of increased harmony, fellowship and creativity can arise. (IBID)

As phenomena that emerge out of chaos and indeterminacy, each dialogue takes on a unique character. A three hour dialogue can be like a mediation retreat in that one observes phases of contrasting engagement, boredom, inward focus, outward focus, confusion, frustration, and excitement. The experience of each participant is unique, though at times it appears that many in the room experience very similar or resonant states. A group’s journey of speech interlaced with silent presence can move through choppy rapids, meandering discursions, rapid sprints, and open still waters; with bursts, swings, and pulsations emerging from different areas of the circle. A strong sense of the group as a unit, or a feeling of collective energetic vibration, can emerge. One can feel like an organ within a larger living whole; or like one’s speech is one of the many voices within the head of a collective being. These are not metaphysical claims, but attempts to describe the phenomenology as I (and others) have experienced it.

I cannot find that Bohm explicitly references Eastern contemplative practices much in his description of the process (though his dialogues with Krishnamurti show that there was indeed influence), but his Dialogue process was perhaps the first to apply many of the concepts found in meditation to group dialogic settings. Our Facets of Contemplative Practice are echoed in Bohm’s work. Parallels with the Facets of Collective Embodiment are also readily apparent. The themes of: individual and the collective, awareness and sensitivity, egolessness and the transpersonal, equanimity and trust, emergence, coherence, and synchronicity, phenomenology and flow—all are clearly present in Bohm Dialogue experience (or in a peak Bohm Dialogue experience). “Proprioception” of thought is a direct pointer to embodiment.

Gunnlaugson (2014) offers a “critical retrospective” of Bohm’s approach, and notes that in practice it often does not live up to its potential. It can “produce disorienting dilemmas and confusion for groups” and dialogues can be prone to “obscure forms of philosophizing…[and participants can] get tangled up in their meta-processes” (p. 32. I have witnessed these phenomena myself in Bohm dialogues on many occasions). He says that Bohm’s model also has an “underdeveloped awareness of how to work with creative emergence in conversation” (especially as compared to U-Theory). I believe that all of these problems are the result of that fact that Bohm developed his model several decades ago, with little related theory to build upon; and also that the process works more as intended when participants are at higher ego developmental levels, which Bohm did not anticipate.


Otto Scharmer’s U-Process/U-Theory is perhaps the most well-known group-process framework within the greater integral community (also called Generative Dialogue, Scharmer, 2007; and see Senge’s et al.’s related Presencing model, 2004). U-theory updates Bohm’s work in several ways, as it (1) was birthed within a milieu of more sophisticated understanding of contemplative and intersubjective practice and benefits from a few decades of cultural learning in these areas; and (2) is oriented to grounded pragmatic applications in organizational development/learning, servant leadership, and spiritual activism (overlapping with trends toward contemplative practice and “spirit in the workplace;” and also including the dynamic systems approaches to leadership).

U-Theory situates the space of contemplative dialogue explored by Bohm in terms of a wider model that moves in a “U” from everyday (often problematic or limiting) dialog and reasoning, into the deeper spaces of awareness explored by Bohm, and finally back up to harvest the emergent insights and capacities in experimental (“prototyping”) participatory action. As with contemporary cybernetic metaphors, the model includes ongoing feedback cycles bringing information from the “real world” into the mind/spirit spaces of contemplation. The entire process is seen as periodic, moving between surface level action/dialogue and deep contemplative presencing as each influences the other. The model can be used recursively or fractally, as individual hours-long U-Process meetings can exist within a larger U-based processes that move a group into more open, unknown, and exploratory territory and back out into harvesting insights over a period of weeks or months (even possibly at more than two nested levels; and the fractal nesting can include relational/group nesting as well as temporal nesting).


Figure 1: Scharmer’s U-Theory

U-Theory is illustrated in Figure 1, which illustrates successive moves toward depth or involution (seeing, sensing, presencing) and emergence or evolution (crystalizing, prototyping, performing). U-Theory is discussed in depth in Gunnlaugson (2007), and Reams (2007), and we give only a cursory overview here. Quoting from Reams (p. 242):

…This creates a total of seven cognitive spaces: downloading, seeing, sensing, presencing, crystallizing, prototyping, performing/ embodying. From this Scharmer calls for “a new type of social technology that is based on three instruments that each of us already has—an open mind [IQ], and open heart [social/emotional intelligence], and an open will [spiritual intelligence]—and to cultivate these capacities not only on an individual but also on a collective level” [Scharmer, 2007, p. 40]. The essence of presencing is described as our two selves (past and future) talking to each other.

Thus, in terms of this paper, we arrive at our first truly integral/integrative practice. The above descriptions of somatic group practices, meditation, and Bohm dialogue were isolated activities focusing on I and We experiences that were disconnected from any larger context (i.e. from any concrete actual larger context, though they do frame the work in terms of more global human phenomena). U-Theory encompasses I/We/It/Its aspects of reality, has a quasi-developmental (depth-oriented) model of process that deals with both time (process phases) and depth; and incorporates both reflection and action at individual and collective levels.[24] All this makes it an integral or second tier practice (though its incorporation of developmental levels is weak—see Reams, 2007).

U-Theory shapes a narrative explanation of the path from surface encounters and preconditioned modes of being into ever deeper modes of reflection and release, arriving at a still point, and emerging with insight and transformed presence into the world of action. This narrative matches perennial archetypes of the transformative journey, yet frames them in terms modern organizations can assimilate, and includes levels of depth consistent with contemplative and spiritual practices. In this paper we are primarily concerned with what happens at the bottom of the U, as we focus on contemplative dialogue practices rather than larger principles of prototyping and systems change.

Letting Go, Be, and Come; and Sensing the Future

U-theory frames its process in terms of letting go and letting come; and some also add “letting be” to point to the bottom of the U. Letting go and letting be point to processes and states of opening, release, trust, and surrender referred to in meditation and in Bohm Dialogue. The letting be is not a state of bored or laissez-faire emptiness but rather a vibrant alive open presence. Letting come is the emergence of content from deep interior space that can manifest as creativity, vision, new intentions, enthusiasm, insight, etc. It is only through experimental and playful interactions with the world, setting up feedback loops and learning from mistakes, that we learn and increase capacity (in what has been called “failing forward”)

In (always non-facilitated) Bohm Dialogue one experiences waves of relative stillness and activity arising chaotically (though the group takes some time at the beginning to settle in). In U-Process, there is an intention (and facilitation support) to systematically move from “normal” types of thought and dialogue, through ever-deeper levels of letting go and presencing, and then back up into more enactive ordinary states. The quality of we-space experience seems to depend on the depth of the letting go/letting be/presencing. The most fruitful processes will spend enough time at enough depth, as opposed to dipping into it briefly and occasionally.

U-theory has a particular way of situating time (which, roughly, it shares with integral theory, especially its “Evolutionaries” branch). Scharmer: “sensing shifts the place of perception to the current whole while presencing shifts the place of perception to the source of an emerging future—to a future possibility that is seeking to emerge” (Scharmer, 2007, p. 163).

This is an advance over Bohm’s framing, which focuses on the experience of the now and vaguely suggests that the process should lead to transformation. Scharmer’s injunction to “act from the future that is seeking to emerge” (p. 8) activates a search space within the empty but alert mind (see “seeking” and “still-hunting” in Roy, 2014) that primes for possibilities that are both possible (as opposed to fanciful) and associated with one’s moral instincts. It “facilitates the surfacing of a living imagination of the future whole” (Scharmer, 2007, p. 195). Scharmer says

every human being [has two selves:] the person we have become through the journey of the past [and the] dormant being of the future we could become…our highest or best future possibility…[We] can evoke an active resonance with either field…The essence of presencing is to get these two selves…to talk and listen to each other, to resonate, both individually and collectively. (Scharmer, 2007, p. 196)

Causal Collective States and Vision-Logic

As mentioned, we can assume that deeper traversals into the bottom of the U engender more powerful insights and actions. The deep interior spaces opened up in practices such as Bohm dialogue and U-Process can involve all of the Facets of Collective Embodiment above, including experiences of transpersonal autonomy-within-communion, deep trust and equanimity, choice-less choosing, euphoria, and enchantment. We-space phenomena can be described in terms of the “gross, subtle, and causal” categories of experience or “states” used by Wilber (2006) and elaborated upon by O’Fallon (2015). In collective somatic (i.e. group physical) experiences these phenomena arise mostly in relation to gross or concrete modes of interaction. When people are engaged in linguistic/symbolic modes of participation such as dialogue they are called upon to reflect on more subtle modes of being, such as thought processes, assumptions, social emotions, and shadow—as they arise in the moment. Furthermore, in deep interior space one becomes aware of the contours of awareness itself, and of the meaning-making process itself—which is called causal awareness.[25]

Thus, in we-space practices the phenomenological aspects of the Facets of Collective Embodiment relate to subtle and causal object of awareness, as well as gross objects. The felt-sense of the state experience is not necessarily different, however. As Wilber (2006) notes, a given state of consciousness can be experienced from different developmental levels, while additional objects of awareness and interpretations are available at each successive level.

Venezia distinguishes the “subtle we space” as operating “on the inter- and intra-personal subtle boundaries that make up our personalities,” from the “causal we space [of] shared awareness and ‘compassion as awareness’ [which includes an] interpenetration and mutual emptiness of boundaries and categories” (2013, p 11-12, 23).[26] Venezia’s continues with “it may even be fair to say that awareness, love, and presence are the mind, heart, and body of causal realization” (p. 24).

Drawing from O’Fallon’s (2015) and Kesler’s (2012) work I would propose that the causal state can be described as objectless awareness, objectless seeking, and objectless compassion—in terms of the body, mind, and heart (and the it/I/we of sacred presence). Roy’s notion of still-hunting captures the states of objectless awareness and objectless seeking, and within contemplative studies one can find descriptions of objectless compassion (loving kindness with no single recipient) as a general state experience. Casual level We-space practice might be described in terms of establishing the conditions for the senses, the mind, and the heart to roam with super-fluidity through the widest and deepest spaces of possibility that a group can muster.

The causal realm is one where paradoxes emerge and negative capability and construct-aware reasoning are needed to make meaning of the variety of perspectives one becomes aware of (O’Fallon, 2013). In the description of collective somatics, it was clear that the experience itself could only be described with paradoxical language such as autonomy-within-communion, the interpenetration of interiors and exteriors, and choice-less choice (action within surrender). Because this type of paradox is an outcome of the discursive mind’s attempt to make sense of experience, there is no problem here for the dancer in movement.

But causal we-state practices involve collective insight and meaning-making—shared through language. At the causal level conceptual boundaries become more fluid and one becomes more aware of the metaphorical limits of language. For example, a thing or idea can seem both inside (or contained by) and outside (or containing) another. The experiences can include a profound sense of both emptiness and fullness; detachment that co-exists with compassion; awareness that blends laser-like focus with wide-angle panopticism; everywhere is here, the past and future are now; and boundaries between the conscious and unconscious become more fluid. Making sense of these experiences and ideas requires that one use construct-aware (vision-logic) capacities.[27]

Roy (2014) describes the phenomenology of advanced practice (or “ritualized inquiry”) within the causal realm using evocative terms such sensory clarity, the aesthetic experience of rightness (or gnostic truth-sense), authentic chaos, participatory lucidity, and multi-paradigmatic play. Not all (and not many) we-space encounters will have these properties, and in the final section we describe an involutionary model that suggests some developmental prerequisites.[28]

Other Contemporary Contemplative Dialogue Projects

A number of contemporary experiments and models of contemplative dialogue practice have emerged (many independent of the integral community), inspired by ideas from Bohm-dialogue, U-Theory, spiritual activism, and theories of collective consciousness. These are depth-treatments of group process that aim for personal and collective transformation by including dissonance-producing deconstructive/ reconstructive phases that challenge egoic patterning and cultural norms. For example, M. Scott Peck uses concepts such as discipline, chaos, emptiness, and contemplation in his transformative model of True Community and spiritual development (1987, 1997). Arnold Mindell’s Process Work and World Work use dialogue and facilitated group encounter to access “primary process,” the “dream body,” “spiritual power,” and “sentient essence” through powerful chaotic group work that exposes sources of pathology, shadow, privilege, and oppression (Mindell, 1995, 2002). Thomas Hübl uses the terms “transparent presencing,” “transparent communication,” and “radical honesty” in describing the modes of vulnerable, authentic, contemplative dialogue he facilitates to support personal and cultural evolution (2011). In Saniel Bonder’s Walking Down in Mutuality framework for relationship-activated self-realization includes a dialogic “green lighting” processes that brings “profound compassion and radical acceptance” to contemplative encounters (Bonder, 2005).

Gary Steinberg and Gregory Kramer’s Insight Dialogue (, and see O’Fallon & Kramer, 2008) is an extension of Buddhist insight meditation into intersubjective space. Its focus is on the “unfolding wisdom” arising from tranquil mind and heart, right-speech, and compassionate mutual inquiry. Though it is not described in terms of development, evolution, or spirit (and thus has a non-metaphysical bent), its injunctions and principles have significant overlap with other we-space practices. These injunctions include: Commit, pause-relax-open; listen deeply and trust emergence (i.e. non-attachment); notice inter-reactivity and judgments and surface assumptions; and share background thinking and speak the (your) truth.

Ria Baek and Helen Titchen Beeth’s Collective Presencing model (2012) is a circle practice that invokes many of the themes mentioned above, including: opening up the senses, the mind, the heart, and the will; observing and honoring what is; surrender to the future potential; listening to the soul’s calling; embodiment of the authentic self; growing awareness of complexity and interrelatedness; discerning intuitions through subtle sensing and deep listening; integrating shadow; suspending judgment and embracing diversity; impersonal love; and “sense and act form Source on behalf of the whole.”

Probably the most extensive study of we-space practices to date is Andrew Venezia’s (2013) thesis. He describes we-space practices as historically new forms of “inter-subjective self-reflexivity,” that are needed because, as a species “we must grow up [and find ways] of coming together…without compromising our uniqueness [in] full autonomous participation in deep community” (p. 4). He speaks to the importance of “establish[ing] environment[s] of earnestness, trust, sincerity, intimacy, and vulnerability between participants” (p. 36). Included in his research is a analysis of interviews with leaders within the community of we-space practitioners. His analysis reveals themes that substantially overlap with those described above, authenticated through the illuminating first-hand descriptions of experienced practitioners and teachers.

We-space inquiry is moving beyond the work of individual theories/leaders into community-based movements and structural (fourth quadrant) support systems. Dustin DiPerna and the WePractice community are building a type of spiritual community of practice for “relational-spiritual practice” and “co-mindfulness” (see and DiPerna, 2014). From the web site: “we support each other’s awakening and development by bringing intense and welcoming awareness to the way we relate. We focus on what is happening now: inside us, between us, and around us.” These processes draw from what was learned in Andrew Cohen’s community using a process they call Enlightened Communication (Cohen, 2004; also “intersubjective enlightenment”).[29]

Two of the longest standing programs to deeply incorporate concepts from we-space practice are the trainings and workshops offered by Next Step Integral (Stefan and Miriam Martineau at and Pacific Integral ( Pacific Integral’s Generating Transformative Change (GTC) program has an “emphasis on the qualities emerging at later stages of development.” GTC workshops are multi-year trainings that build “transformative containers” that “integrate various practices of state development, including meditation, awareness practices, and subtle energy work. [They] work with polarity and paradox in a variety of contexts [and use] various psychological and interpersonal practices to develop capacity to work with shadow, projection, and relationship dynamics.” (Fitch, Ramirez, & O’Fallon, 2010; and see Ramirez, Fitch, & O’Fallon, 2013).[30]


5. Emerging Themes in We-Space Practice

I have offered a multi-perspectival exploration of the phenomenology and facets of we-space-practices, and discussed how they are described and used in contemporary contexts and communities. Let us go deeper into the questions of “what are the intended goals and outcomes of these practices?” and “what do we know about the factors that contribute to success?” Above I discussed two emerging themes: sensing into the future, and causal we-states. Below I will discuss several additional themes in contemplative dialogue practice: collective intelligence, insight generation, shadow work, heart-based wisdom development, and eliminative/ablative vs. additive/developmental models of spiritual growth.

Some practical metaphors for thought processes.

It can be useful to use science-oriented and brain-oriented metaphors to investigate we-space practice, as these metaphors are accessible to a larger segment of progressive culture vs. more metaphysical or spiritual framings. Thought processes and ideas (including, information, knowledge, meaning, and creativity) can be described in terms of connections (relationships or associations). What is connected can be as small as a neuron or as large as a paradigm; and we can use this framing to speak about individual thought and collective thought at various scales.

Thought and perception can be understood in terms of the momentary “firing” or activation of neurons, concepts, or ideas. Belief, habit, and skill can be understood in terms of “wiring” or stable connections between things in the mind (or body-mind-soul). Experience is about firing. Learning and development are about wiring. In terms of AQAL theory, states involve firing and stages involve wiring. Both firing and wiring are about associations between things (nodes, ideas, neurons, etc.), and, according to common parlance “nodes that fire together wire together” (strengthening associations through repeated use) and nodes that are wired together (i.e. are associated in the mind) will fire together (in cascades of association and patterns of reinforcement).

As we elaborate on in the section below on shadow, the mind/body also contains blockages or inhibitions that prohibit or obstruct connections between ideas (or nodes). Discussions of shadow usually focus on problematic obstructions that are the result of painful or traumatic experiences (that the mind resists revisiting). However, the mind/brain can be thought of as having two major functions: connecting/associating information, and filtering information. One could not function if one had to process the massive amounts of sensory information available at every moment; and the massive set of possible connections that the mind might make among that information and between that information and memory. So reducing and filtering information/connections is an important mental function.

Some of the filtering is related to shadow processes, which may have had an adaptive function in the past but now is maladaptive to a thriving life. Also, information can be filtered to reduce complexity, for example, when first learning to drive a car one can not coordinate conversation and tuning the radio which focusing on driving, but after mastery one no longer needs to filter these externalities and desires out. At a deeper level we could say that certain types of filtering are built into cognition and even genetics, for example, humans can only perceive certain frequencies of light and sound.

Because occlusions and filters can be diminished or removed, and detrimental ideas can be inhibited, there is the important potential for un-learning. Growth (cognitive, emotional, and spiritual) thus involves both learning and unlearning. Most models of development, such as Hierarchical Complexity Theory and subject-object theory, involve creating higher level meta-connections that transcend and include. Processes of reflection and witnessing also involve the growth of such meta-level processes. In contrast, some aspects of development involve unlearning and the removal of either connections (e.g. beliefs and habit patterns) or obstructions. These relate to modes of letting go, freeing of awareness, allowing what is, and the opening of perception and compassion that are referred to in our descriptions of contemplative and we-space practices.[31] We will extend these principles to the level of the collective in a later section.

Collective Intelligence, and Creativity

Participation and Resonance

Collective intelligence and collective consciousness are common goals of we-space practice. In studying collective-intelligence (and collective: -wisdom, -creativity, -consciousness) theorists invoke concepts such as resonance, synergy, entrainment, and coherence. When a group of interacting people shares a worldview, an idea, a goal, an emotion, or a state of consciousness, synergistic amplification is possible. More connections are made available to each and to all. Resonance—the amplification or multiplication of affects in interacting systems that are tuned to or sensitive to the same frequency—is a phenomenon applicable to all systems (holons)—physical, chemical, biological, social, noetic, etc.

Participation is a major theme in contemporary models of collaboration, decision making, knowledge building, and socio-cultural transformation (Ferrer & Sherman 2008; Bauwens, 2010; Atlee, 2010). Participation points to full involvement, complete interconnection, and minimal restriction in the flow of information. Full participation means not only that all are sharing their perspectives with all, but that all are open to and curious about the perspectives of all (i.e. skilled in perspective taking and perspective seeking). Full participation implies the establishment of stable networks of empathy and ongoing exchange and feedback.

Full participation thus supports the phenomena of resonance and synergy. resources include methods that aim to release “collective intelligence” and “the wisdom of crowds.” For example Dynamic Facilitation (Zubizarreta, 2014) aims to “maximize creative tension” and “minimize social anxiety” to allow creativity to flow. In The Wisdom of Crowds, Surowiecki (2004) gives four preconditions of collective intelligence (i.e. large group aggregation that produces better outcomes than a small group of experts): (1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions. In the work on group creativity there are indications that similar principles apply to small and medium sized groups as well. (See more at Tom Atlee’s Co-Intelligence Institute,[32]

Importantly, resonant amplification is also at work in mob or hive mind that leads to forms of group-think, group narcissism, and “collective stupidity.” So there is nothing spiritual, evolutionary, or laudable about the resonant effects of group-mind in itself (see Berreby, 2005).[33] Both developmental and shadow-work factors contribute to whether collective mind has increased or decreased quality vs. individual participants (I go deeper into this in the final section).


Though resonance speaks to something shared among participants, diversity is also important in collective intelligence and in we-space work in general. The whole usually benefits when individuals have a wide range of perspectives, experiences, and skills. Clearly, creativity is enhanced through greater degrees of freedom and greater readily-available fields of possibility. Diversity of knowledge and style allows for the “mutual stimulation of associations” (Paulus, 2000) that feeds creativity.[34]

Research indicates that creativity in groups is harmed by social inhibitions and cognitive interference and is supported by social and cognitive forms of stimulation and support (such as accountability and incubation; Paulus, 2000). Too much diversity, or certain types of diversity, can diminish the coherence that supports synergy—so there are design tradeoffs involved in balancing diversity vs. homogeneity along various dimensions.

Roy (2015) differentiates between cohesion and coherence, where cohesion is a conventional-level drive for group-belonging which “foregrounds sameness and backgrounds difference;” and coherence reflects the need for diversity, decentralization, and independence to produce “emergent, non-linear” resonance effects that are generative and novel.

Habermasian scholar Hans Kögler’s (1999) theory of critical hermeneutics (in which he tries to coordinate the perspectives of Gadamer and Foucault) speaks to the double-edged power of dialogue, which can be use to perpetuate structures of power and oppression and yet also provides the necessary resources of “self-distanciation” and “de-familiarization” that lead to liberation and innovation. He says that one must invite the unsettling encounters with and disclosures of other perspectives that challenge one’s pre-understanding. “The self…abandons itself…to a process of understanding whose results and challenges it cannot foresee or determine” (p. 272). Not rational analysis but the other “becomes the point of departure for critical insight into self.”[35]

In designing group processes, the question of what should be diverse or divergent, and what should be similar or resonant, will depend on goals of a process and the developmental or interior depth participants are capable of. Individuals can differ in terms of expertise; temperament and styles (personality, social, and learning); gender, class, and cultural identity; and ego development, to name just some of the dimensions. In general, individuals with higher levels of ego development can ignore surface-level differences and resonate on deeper levels, allowing them to work on dilemmas and tensions that arise from even deeper levels. The amount of time available and the type of facilitation are also important factors in establishing a container that can hold the dissonance and higher levels of energy and chaos that can arise from difference and conflict.


Most of the we-space processes mentioned in this paper value creative (or generative) outcomes, and we can draw from the literature on creativity. Much has been written on intuition, creativity, and insight, that could be applied to we-space practices (see Dunbar, 1997; Meyers, 2002; Gilovich, 1993; Gadwell, 2002). All of the theories point to the unconscious and non-rational mind as the source of insight. What is exceptional about we-space practices is the invitation (and in part methodology) for going into particularly deep interior spaces as a group, and there accessing the generative creativity and “breakthrough” insight available at those more causal and implicit levels of being.

Creative insights are birthed through processes that can be both fragile and incendiary. Insights in gestation can be lost through premature application of analysis (which can shatter) or critique (which can smother). Research on creativity and intuition shows that the suspension of judgment, as suggested by Bohm, is a critical element (Sternberg, 2006; Paulus, 2000). Basseches notes that creativity is achieved by not resolving contradiction, but by exercising the capacity to remain open and maintain conflicting alternatives (2005, p xii).[36] Other note how providing constraints, such as the guidelines given in Bohm dialogue, can unleash creative potential (Amabile & Pillemer, 2012; Sternberg, 2006).

In the end, though many problems are certainly the results of “failures of imagination,” in most processes the final goal is to produce transformative, accurate, and actionable insights, not simply creative or novel ideas based on hunch and instinct. The journey through “letting come” and into prototyping and change-work benefits from expertise in a field, and requires a commitment to being grounded in and curious about the facts and pragmatics of reality. Research into cognitive biases and “thinking fast vs. thinking slow” shows that “intuition leads us astray because it is not very good at picking up the flaws in evidence” and is prone to biases such as confirmation bias (Gilovich, 1993; and see Khaneman 2011). Thus processes need to balance intuition vs. reason, and beginners-mind vs. robust knowledge, in a creative tension that is characteristic of later stage development (see Cook-Greuter 2005; Wilber, 2000).

We-space practice requires deep participation within spaces of deep interiority. This implies a radical opening and participation not only with the ideas of others, but also to (1) the interior parts and layers of one’s own being; and (2) the beings (objects and processes) in the world “speaking” to one at any given moment, From Roy (2014): “To participate, means to enjoy movement and reciprocity within the generative ground of our universalized becoming and the foregrounding of our being…to act and to be acted upon, to affect and effect…to be ‘in the soup,’ not somehow above, beneath, behind the action….as Whitehead would have it, to be in a relationship of feeling among a society of all other entities, human and nonhuman, biotic and a-biotic, within a nexus of shared history.”

Next we ask: What are the purposes for enacting these spaces of deep interiority?

Insight, Ablation—and other we-space goals

Collective intelligence and collective consciousness are intermediate goals for we-space practice, but what about the final goals? We-space practices include more than meditation practices and more than collective somatic practices because of the added element of dialogue. Thus, what is unique about we-space-practice in this context relates to the meaning-making aspects of being human together. I will suggest, following Roy (2015), that the most important goal of we-space-practices is the generation of insight. The term insight is related to creativity and intuition, but includes an emphasis on depth that I am exploring in this paper. Though I will claim that insight generation is the primary goal, there are many other valid goals for we space practices. I list them below, including in most items a relationship to insight generation.

  • Action outcomes—The final goal of generating insight is often transformative action (including prototyping, service, and social change);
  • Community-Building—The generation of social capital; shared identity, mutual understanding and regard; trust, etc. may be outcome goals or even perquisites to dialogues, but these are outside of our scope here (but see the section on compassion below);
  • Transformation—Ego/social/emotional/dialectic/spiritual development is a precondition for we-space-practices (and thus for insight); yet developmental growth and increased capacity are also outcomes (that is why it is a “practice”) at both individual and group levels. Those who identify with the community of “Evolutionaries” may see we-space practices as aimed at a universal “ecstatic impulse” to develop spiritually.
  • Uplifting—Patten (2013) reminds us that one possible goal of intersubjective activities is the emotional, moral, or spiritual uplifting of participants. The generation of hope and positive life narrative is an important outcome of some processes; and insights (from oneself or others) can provide the hope and meaning so desperately needed in chaotic and challenging times.
  • Morality and metta—love, kindness, and compassion for both self and other are preconditions and developmental outcomes of we-space practices; and the insights generated are often about these moral themes.

Bohm’s description of Dialogue and Scharmer’s description of U-Process also locate insight as the central purpose of we-space practice. The goal in Bohm Dialogue is insight into the nature of thought processes, including cultural or collective shadow, and the creation of more coherent thought. As was mentioned, Bohm Dialogues are not debates, therapy groups, social gatherings, or conflict resolution sessions—the goal is the transformation of thought and belief patterns within individuals and groups. For U-Process, the goal is to generate insights that lead to action-reflection cycles.

Insight can be understood in two complimentary yet very different ways. The first uses an additive or integrative model. This model is used in group brainstorming, visioning, and problem solving work. Many ideas are put on the table and the insights are the new configurations or pathways that emerge from creative thought and synergy.[37] Most of the research to date on creativity uses this model, and measures the productivity and/or novelty of idea generation—but not its depth or level of penetration. In contrast, we will emphasize an ablative (eliminative) model for insight. In this sense insight involves the revelation of that which was hidden, suppressed, or occluded—the removal of barriers and the untying of knots. In this sense insight (and thus we-space practice) is closely tied to shadow work. According to Kegan and Lahey, research has shown that deep transformation involves “[making] the invisible visible [as the] driver of increasing mental complexity—moving mental structures from Subject to Object, from Master to Tool” (2009, p xii).

We-space-dialogues are about the playful (even if sometimes painful) generation of ideas and insights. The deeper the interior space, the greater the potential for radical ideas and profound insights. In our definition insights do not come simply from additive or gestalt combinations of ideas, nor from creatively brainstormed ideas. They come from the lifting of a veil of ignorance from a concealed, suppressed or denied truth. For example: “Oh! My relationship with that person was mostly a projection of my relationship with my dad.” “OMG— Everything I’ve been saying in the last half hour was trying to protect my fear of being seen as incompetent.” “Aha! I was just able to let go of my assumptions enough to really get what you were saying.” In a sense, these things “were known all along” at some level of the mind, or were readily available to perception if not for the occlusions that were then removed or seen through. These are examples of personal-level disclosures, but group-level insights are also possible, in which what is revealed relates to more universal themes. “Wow. I just got a deep sense of how connected I am to everyone in this room.” “…And to the trees out there.” “I’m sensing how we are all like puppets being manipulated by our pasts.” “I’m thinking that reality has no meaning or purpose of itself to be found. We have to generate our entire storehouse of meaning—Oh no!”

In a sense there is nothing truly new to discover within the depths of wisdom, but so much to be recovered. This includes modes of awareness and being, lost to most of us in modernity, that were perfected by developmentally more “primitive” cultures. Though, in another sense, in the “upward” direction of developmental complexity, completely new and novel forms of awareness, creative expression, and emergent power do await us (as do novel opportunities for pathology and folly, as Wilber points out (Wilber, 2000; and see Forman, 2010).[38]


We-space practice is oriented toward insight, which in turn is based to the ablation or integration of so-called shadow material. Much has been said of the nature and healing of shadow material within fields related to psychotherapy and transpersonal psychology, starting of course with Freud and Jung (see Jung, 1968; Bly, 1988; Zweig & Abrams, 1991; Campbell, 1988). We can draw from this, but the insights we are after in we-space practices involve the ablation of collective shadow, not individual personal shadow (though personal transformation can happen as a side-effect of a group session). Bohm made this clear in his description of Dialogue as uncovering cultural bias, irrationality, and incoherence through the “collective proprioception or immediate mirroring back of both the content of thought and the less apparent, dynamic structures that govern it” (Bohm et al., 1991). What do we mean, then, by shadow and collective shadow? I will start with individual shadow and extend this concept to collective shadow.

As mentioned above, thoughts and beliefs can be thought of in terms of connections. Through various processes, including painful experiences and cultural conditioning, some ideas and some pathways become occluded. I will use the word occlusion to stand for the many metaphors that can be used for shadow or the dynamic it creates, including: bias, distortion, blind-spot, lacuna, rigidity, knot, obstacle, barrier, wound, trauma, baggage, fog, and numbing. Related words used in psychotherapy include: pathology, dysfunction, repression, suppression, defense, neurosis, resistance, and denial; and related words from contemplative traditions include: contraction, fear, attachment, illusion, ignorance, and conditioning. Related processes and outcomes include: oppression, projection, dis-identification, alienation, and regression.

Similarly, the absenting of shadow material might be described in terms of revealing, untying, healing, unblocking, deactivating, purifying, deconstructing, unlearning, re-integration, liberation, emancipation, transformation, transmutation, etc. Bhaskar uses the term demi-real to stand for all thought-forms that do not correspond well with reality, and shadow is one aspect of the demi-real.[39]

This barrage of terms and metaphors attributes to the scope of what we mean by shadow, and attests to the complexity and breadth of the topic, yet there is a single basic notion underlying it all. That is of pernicious stuff lodged within the mind/body system that hampers the process of making connections between ideas or information that could potentially be related, or has hampered the perceiving of something that would otherwise be available to perception.[40] These occlusions are part of the unconscious (though in the process of resolving them they can become seen and seen through). While being inaccessible to conscious thought and awareness they are nevertheless active parts of the unconscious mind, which, in one approximation, constitutes 95% of what the brain is doing. Shadow material can thus “possess” one’s thoughts and actions.

In most theories of shadow, it is believed that the occlusions hide things that would bring psychological pain if they were to arise (or re-arise) in consciousness.[41] This includes that which threatens one’s image of oneself, and that which, if revealed, would cause shame or disorientation. Thus the occlusions are in a sense active, vigorously preventing one not only from painful memories or ideas, but preventing one from noticing how these unconscious parts of the mind are influencing the rest of one’s behavior and thinking. These parts of our being are disowned and split off from the self-system or ego—one can deny the hidden truth or the distorted action even as it stares one in the face. Material can be actively projected onto objects in the external world. Thus “complexes” develop—as the full extent of a given shadow pattern can reach into many areas and layers of the mind/body system.

Though pushing aspects of the self into shadow may constitute a successful adaptive strategy for avoiding pain at one point in life, usually shadow material is seen as something to be undone, healed, and reintegrated on the path of realizing full human potential. The defenses, pathologies, and lacuna of shadow can also hinder mature ego development. In addition, under conditions of stress or complexity, shadow can cause one to show up embodying a regressed stage of development. Importantly, in work or relationship contexts the performative capacity of an individual or group may be more determined by shadow processes than by the developmental “center of gravity” (or developmental “competence” or optimum capacity).

Two recent research reports in Integral Review’s special issue on wisdom (Krafic, 2015; Spano, 2015) support these ideas by suggesting that wisdom is not necessarily correlated with ego development, as one might think. Though the articles do not mention “shadow work,” these studies are compatible with the idea that wisdom abides in the healthy expressions of consciousness, un-distorted by dysfunction and internal conflict, regardless of the sophistication or developmental level of consciousness.

Due to its active nature, much human energy and potential gets bound up in the maintenance of shadow patterns. When and as shadow is freed up and made transparent (when the implicit is made explicit) not only are the occluded ideas or aspects of self revealed, but they are suddenly made available to make new connections throughout the mind, in a flood of reorganization, unlearning, insight, and freed up energy. New modes of perception may also be freed up, deepening the quality of awareness.

Reorganization happens quite naturally and this has important implications. First, it supports our notion that insight is mostly about the ablative processes of unlearning or habit-breaking. The “work” of insight is in the often-demanding process of trying various strategies to release the stubborn knots of shadow material or reveal what has been hidden as a matter of habit.[42] Once occlusions are removed, new connections and perceptions are available for the rather automatic processes of cognitive (re-) organization that produces insight. Therapeutic, reflective, and critical forms of dialogue and personal process usually bear fruit only through substantial motivation and skillful means. But it often appears that once the knot is untied or the dam is broken, what follows is an automatic flow of new information, energy, and possibility (which, again through effort, must be integrated into the life-world).

Shadow Work Methods: on safety and dissonance

The methods and theories for doing shadow work are many and outside the scope of this paper (and largely outside of my field of practical expertise). Shadow work can take on both rigorous and mundane forms. Small realizations, revelations, and unlearnings can happen through simple spontaneous means—hearing a new framing of an idea, a letting down of one’s defenses, an opening of one’s heart, an opportunity created by a long moment of silent stillness—and other minor miracles and graces of daily life. One of the main principles in shadow work is presenting the mind with something—a fact, an idea, a person, a set of feelings, a conundrum, etc. —that challenges or contradicts one’s usual beliefs or patterns. This was alluded to above in discussing self-distanciation and dissonance. If one can tolerate and even “lean into” the dissonance created in such situations, one has a better chance at insight and transformation.

Contemplative dialogue practice is not usually understood as a place for serious personal shadow work, but participants are invited to work their personal edges. Accessing spaces of collective deep interiority is not so much a process of permanent healing or ablation of personal shadow material (like cutting through a thicket to reach a goal), as it is of creating temporary environments that support participants in bracketing (rendering unimportant, semi-transparent, or non-hindering) those elements of their personal shadow that might disrupt the process or prohibit them from fully participating.[43] (Though it is also true that there may be gold to be mined for the collective when one publicly struggles with personal shadow.) What is most important is that the group as a whole functions at a particular level for the duration of the process. Through group process structures and agreements, individuals can be supported to bring the best of themselves to a gathering, orienting to the benefit of the whole.

And, lest all the talk of dissonance make shadow work or insight generation sound too arduous, it can also look and feel very much like play, which often assumes risk taking, learning through splendid failure, and the excitement of the challenge. Groups with higher average levels of ego development will have higher tolerance for, and even develop an appetite for, states of uncertainty, dissonance, and “free fall.”

One of the main benefits of group work is the diversity of perspectives and skills that are made available. Diversity increases the possibilities that new ideas or challenging dilemmas will lead to insight. Above we discussed how full participation supports resonance and synergy. The goal in most groups is to find a level of challenge, dissonance, and chaos that is strong enough to generate insight but weak enough to allow (most) participants to maintain sufficient presence and trust to “make it out the other side” of the dissonance. Stronger process and facilitation “containers,” and having more time available, allow for deeper dives and for journeys across more chaotic waters, with greater risk enabling greater potential gains. The middle phase in “forming, storming, and norming” referenced in group theory requires particular skill for participants and/or facilitators, and, like the various levels of “dark nights” referenced in contemplative theory, groups can encounter and clear out multiple “archeological” layers of shadow material in extended engagements—with relatively smooth sailing punctuated by chaotic segments.

These processes can differ radically on their understanding of “the container” and the creation of “safe space,” and where one finds the “zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch, 1984) that balances support and challenge. In his World Work Mindell notes how creating safe space for mainstream groups usually amounts to unsafe or oppressive space for marginalized groups. Feelings of insecurity and threat are often intermediate goal states in such processes. In such situations one might invoke the concept of courage rather than that of safety. Roy, in her process, also downplays the concept of safe spaces, describing the desire for everyone to feel happy and be nice to each other as “the shadow of postmodern humanism.” This contrasts with Zubizarreta’s (2014) principle to “minimize social anxiety” (while maximizing creative tension). Related themes arise in the context of ensemble improvisational dance. Instructors will commonly ask participants to maintain an awareness of how they impact others, but also to take full responsibility for their own safety, and develop a strong sense of their own (self-authoring) boundaries and “no.” In movement improvisation, where one expects the unexpected, safety is said to come from openness, flexibility, and responsiveness, and not from self-protection as such.[44]

Collective Shadow

What was said above about individual shadow can be said about “collective shadow.” By collective shadow I mean either the occlusions (un-seen truths, connections, or data) shared by most or all individuals in a group, or the structural (socio-cultural) aspects of group interactions that result in systemic occlusions. Above we noted how shadow can be thought of in terms of occlusions or inhibitions among various types of connections. As Wilber notes (Wilber, 1995, building on Koestler), the important elements of collective (social) holons are the relationships between them—the connections, structures, and modes of communication among members. The structural and emergent properties of collectives are very different than that of individuals, and one must be careful of using principles and metaphors appropriate to the first to describe the second (see the Appendix on metaphysics).[45] Just as water is wet and can have color while molecules can have neither of these properties, holons that emerge out of lower level holons have completely different properties than the lower level holons.

As noted by Schwartz (2013) we can describe collectives two ways: in terms of wholes and their emergent properties, and in terms of statistical summaries of the properties aggregating over members (averages, sums, spans, etc.). Thus we can talk about the developmental level, intelligence, compassion, or beliefs, of a collective as an aggregated over its members (average, center of gravity, ideal max potential, etc.), rather than attributing these properties to a single metaphysical object at a higher level of being. At the level of the single collective object one can attribute properties and patterns such as diversity, language games, clusters, family systems, roles, norms, power dynamics, stratification, etc., that properly apply to collectives and make no sense for individuals.

Whatever might emerge at a higher level from individuals in a group would not have properties such as compassion, intelligence, or creativity in the way that they exist for humans.[46] Thus, in referring to a collective shadow or higher we we risk the error and conceit of anthropomorphizing the emergent level that we are trying to access and understand. Metaphysical ideas such as “the higher we” do have value, but it is important to be aware of the limitations of these notions (also, invoking mythical/magical/enchanted/metaphoric modes of consciousness is an important aspect of group work and social meaning-making).

At the individual level shadow is about what cannot be thought about consciously, while at the group or social holon level, shadow is simply what is not talked about (or communicated, explicitly represented, or enacted). To ablate collective shadow is to speak (or demonstrate or represent in some way) a truth (or apparent truth) not previously consciously known to oneself and the rest of the group (or the majority). This might be in the form of “now I understand that I...”—a revelation about self that others can relate to; and it might be of the form “I now understand that we…” (as a group, culture, or species). Note however that we are focusing on revealed intuitive insight, not intellectualizing analysis (not that these are mutually exclusive categories).[47]

Though the concept of individual shadow (and related concepts of ego and “baggage”) is well assimilated into modern, and especially postmodern, culture, theories, and practices, the concept of collective shadow is much less seen and not well understood or researched (there is a common understanding of social and cultural oppressions and bias, but it is rarely framed in terms of shadow work or similar processes looking at deep interiority). But understanding and doing collective shadow work seems of the utmost importance in addressing contemporary social issues.

Above we mentioned the work of Thomas Hübl and Arnold Mindell, contemporary pioneers in large group work on collective shadow. Another project worth mentioning is Kegan and Lahey’s Change Process, a structured individual or collective self-diagnostic process (2001, 2009). This work helps participants understand and overcome their “immunity to change,” the unconscious beliefs that are enacted to thwart one’s espoused goals and create resistance (cognitive immune responses) to change that threatens the self-construct (individual or collective). Though it is one of the few models that brings shadow work into traditional cultural and organizational contexts, it is a fairly analytical process which does not include an invitation into deep interior space, and is thus a bit outside of our frame (though this lack does make it more accessible to certain audiences).

Additive vs. Ablative Development: on being born in the middle

In the integral theory community discussions of development are sometimes confusing around the downward movements into evolutionarily prior (earlier, pre-human) capacities vs. upwards (later) movements into evolutionarily advanced (post-rational) capacities. In the section on contemplative somatics (dance) I touched on this theme by noting the difference between tapping into what I called “the open sense of alert awareness and the boundary-less sense of merging with others,” which are lower level (primitive or primal) capacities, while awareness, witnessing, and meta-thought use higher level functions. Lower level functions are available to us from birth, though accessing or experiencing them is often occluded or repressed (and they, like all capacities, can be refined with practice). As we have said, shadow work (and thus also spiritual/ego development) largely involves dealing with the occlusions and their ablation (through eliminative/revelatory movements). Such freeings can open up spaces of open awareness, senses of unity, connection, and vitality that are closely linked with our, one could say pristine, animal nature.[48] This is not to equate the totality of non-ordinary or flow experiences with the primitive levels of mind/body, but to frame such experiences as centrally emanating from a primal level, rather than framing them in (less embodied) spiritual, esoteric, or trans-human terms.[49] [50]

Development, on the other hand, as usually understood, is a process of accumulation and complexification. Each developmental change operates upon lower level capacities through differentiation to create wider fields of nuance, or through integration to create higher gestalts of unity. Kegan’s “subject-to-object” is one such move, in which an aspect of mind-body that one operates from (unawares) becomes an object of awareness that thought can reflect upon (we move from “it having us” to “us having it”). As theorists including Fischer, Commons, and Dawson have taught us, development, in any area or line, is about increasing hierarchical complexity (Fischer, 1980; Commons & Richards, 1984; Dawson, 2004). In integral theory individuals attain capacities to take additional types of perspectives with each succeeding developmental level.

In spiritual discourse we speak of the deeper authentic Self, which seems to point metaphorically down towards elimination, and the higher, more conscious, or future Self, which points more upward (Soul points down, Spirit points up). Gunnlaugson, O. & Moze, M. (2012) boil down the essence of we-space practices to surrendering and witnessing. In our model, surrendering is the downward and ablative move into experiencing parts of the self that are primitive or in shadow, and witnessing is more of an upward move that turns subject (experience) in to object (reflective awareness).

Disentangling the upwards vs. downwards aspects of spiritual/ego growth is a delicate operation in metaphor-space. As mentioned, upwards is more about developmental or evolutionarily later phases, and downwards about earlier phases. Yet, in terms of shadow work, the “earlier” aspects might be those revealed the latest, being the most difficult to uncover. Also, metaphorically, upwards/later/higher modes might be thought of as pointing to more unity (but, as we will see, this unity can be more conceptual than embodied); yet the downward/earlier/lower levels point to a different, more primordial, type of unity and an original or shared condition.

It might be useful to reference Wilber’s differentiation between Witness and Non-dual levels of awareness because pointing to the two extremes in the spectrum may help to clarify the territory. My interpretation of Witness and Non-dual awareness will be slightly different than Wilber’s however, following closer to the Dzogchen model.[51] Though Wilber describes the Non-dual as a state/stage that is developmentally above Witness, I will describe Non-dual and Witness as parallel capacities that can each range from more basic application to advanced skill. Witnessing refers to a level of recognition of self that includes an in-the-moment awareness of one’s thinking, feeling, and being. Ultimately it includes an awareness of awareness itself, which has been described as feeling as if god is looking through one’s eyes out into the world; or an identification with sentience itself, beyond identification with any specific contents of the mind-body. As a type of awareness it operates upon something and is thus developmental in nature.

But, as mentioned above, what the witness is aware of is often lower level functionality. If one is aware of one’s thought then one is aware of a human-level (higher) phenomena. But in many contemplative practices the discursive mind is silenced, and what one is aware of is the animal-level (or one could say the infant child-level) consciousness prior to language and free of the layers of distraction and occlusion usually present in the mind. This awareness is deeply body-based—one becomes like the poised lion, the soaring eagle, or the perhaps like a tree, resting in “pure being.”

Thus non-duality is more about the journey down than the journey up. Again, the journey down is eliminative. Though there are various interpretations of non-duality, one meaning is to perceive reality without the usual sense of duality. The experience of duality is largely an outcome of the language function of mind (or how we use it).[52] When one silences the discursive mind and the “symbolic impulse” that compels one to categorize experience, one experiences a type of non-duality. Again, this accesses evolutionarily lower level capacities.[53] Once one gains access to lower level phenomena, one has an additional set of experiences with which one can build up higher level concepts, ideas, refection, witnessing, etc. Thus there are several ways that the lower and higher interplay.

The confusion between lower-level and higher-level functions comes in part because, as Roy, puts it “we are born in the middle.” Born into a pre-given life-world of culture and language, surrounded by various forms of oppression and ignorance, one cannot help but develop the occlusions, neurosis, biases, etc. that are characteristic of the human condition. Development up to the culture’s (or family’s) center of gravity happens through effortless assimilation of the habit patterns that surrounded one. Development beyond this requires personal motivation, unusual experiences, or life stressors that propel one to build higher level skills and capacities. Thus, to reveal that which has been occluded or distorted by social conditioning (or by personal injury or habit) one must usually step outside of status-quo processes to (a) become aware that something is wrong or that there is an opportunity for improvement, (b) be motivated to apply effort to reveal, erase, or heal it, and (c) have the knowledge and/or support to use skillful means to do something. Accessing and rebuilding lower level occluded capacities does not usually happen by itself or easily—doing so requires higher level capacities such as reflective awareness and self-understanding. As Roy puts it:

Only the post-conventional mind can begin to deconstruct all these implicit biases and blind spots. When we are ready to begin again, from that place we interpret as origin…something curious happens. We find we will need to become more and more sophisticated, cognitively, to sufficiently de-couple ourselves from all those conditioned patterns in order to witness them as objects in awareness. We find that we need to create higher and higher levels of abstractions and meta-abstractions to get at the deeper and deeper kernels of reality. (2015, p. 192).

Thus one must often reach developmentally up into greater hierarchical complexity to build the motivation or skill to gain access to developmentally lower capacities whose occlusion has thus far limited one’s “human potential.” Note however, that to some degree, the resources of motivation and skillful means can be provided by the group or systemic structure, and thus individuals do not each need to autonomously achieve a developmental level that would allow them to see over and oversee the generative process.

The spiritual or developmental journey is sometimes described with an upward metaphorical arc, and sometimes described with a downward arc of emptying and letting go—the above describes how both metaphors are apt. The downward arc is, in part, an arc of embodiment. Intuitions arise primordially as felt-sense before they bubble up into symbolic thought (Brown, 2002). Begin aware of mental process at this level is Bohm’s “proprioception of thought.” Awareness of feeling itself is access to a type of knowledge and wisdom. As Roy quips: “the illiterate of the future will be those who cannot feel.”

Anther important relationship between the lower and higher arcs of development is that shadow material, specifically pathologies related to lower developmental levels, can both hinder and distort the development of higher levels (As described in Wilber, 2000). This leads to the widely acknowledged injunctions that shadow work and embodiment should be a prerequisite and companion to meditation and other practices aimed at boosting developmental levels or producing advanced state experiences.

Thematizing Negation and Emancipation

Roy Bhaskar’s critical realism has recently influenced the integral theory community and in particular has supported the thematization of negation (Bhaskar, 1991, 1993). This supports our ablative model of development, shadow-work, and insight. Both critical realism, through its dialectic turn, and integral theory, through its inclusion of shadow work, highlight the eliminative movements within human liberation—freedom from cultural conditioning, oppressive forces, illusion, pathology, ego, etc.

While integral theory valorizes the force of Eros that creates an evolutionary pull “up” the developmental spectrum toward non-dual enlightenment (with increasing simplicity and complexity), critical realism situates the non-dual in the mundane. Critical realism’s concept of “ground-state” is associated with the elimination of thought, judgment, and complexity—as a sort of return to simplicity within the essential being which can be easily found (if one knows how to look) in everyday activities and all people (Bhaskar, 2002). This is part of the “pulse of freedom” within all sentient beings, always already there, a constant driver of unreflective (including animal-level) behavior and a whisper of the non-dual reality that awaits anyone who can drop the habits of analytical and symbolic mind functions.

As noted above, both the upward and downward arcs are important. First, the downward arc is the elimination of shadow and the demi-real, and points toward the unleashing of human potential that was bound up in internal conflict and incoherence. But for the vast majority, deep liberation and spiritual attainment are not naturally occurring processes, but require the additive and upward motivational forces of human development, a path that does not come naturally or easily to most, and must be supported and nurtured using skillful means. To ignore developmental principles is to take on an overly Romantic view of human nature.[54] Being born in the middle, progress along the spiritual path to increasing liberation, awareness, compassion, and wisdom is a “middle-out” rather than a top-down or bottom-up process.

Second, the downward arc releases new insights, information, perspectives, and questions that call to be (upwardly) integrated, usually in trans-rational ways.

Heart-based Development and Wisdom

The above discussions help clarify a question summarized in the title of my 2009 article “Intuiting the Cognitive Line in Developmental Assessment: Do Heart and Ego Develop Through Hierarchical Integration?” I’ve said relatively little thus far about love, compassion, and (non-dual) one-ness, which are central goals in some models of individual or group contemplative practice.

In the standard AQAL interpretation, morality develops along a separate developmental lines—vs. cognition, ego, spirit, and emotional/social skill. These lines are assumed to influence each other but their relationship is underspecified (indeed it must be quite complex). However, spiritual, ego, and social-emotional skill development are all aspects of what we might be called Wisdom Skills, which combine cognitive (post-rational) development and heart-based capacities related to compassion, empathy, care, and feelings of mutuality and union. While the (cognitive) reflective reasoning and perspective-taking skills associated with wisdom-skill clearly involve advances in hierarchical complexity, the expansion of the heart-space that comes with increasing wisdom and spiritual development seems to have a very different developmental topology or “math.” (And see references to the Integral Review issue on wisdom above.)

We can use our upward vs. downward arcs of development to investigate this. I propose that the heart-based aspect of development is ablative (downward toward embodiment). Through the negation or transmutation of shadow material there can be an opening to an underlying or primal sense of unity and oceanic love that has been occluded through conditioning, but is available to the infant and at the mammalian levels of human being. We don’t learn to love so much as unlearn our fears and alienation.

However, as described above, the upward developmental arc is usually needed in tandem with the ablative side, both to produce the motivation and skillful means to navigate the deep dive, and also in how the insights and new capacities that are uncovered are integrated, interpreted, and put to use. This helps explain the reason why late stage ego development seems to lead to profound commitments to compassion and service across ever wider extensions of time and space.

The developmental progress of an increasing circle of care from self to family to tribe to humanity, a widening scope of who we identify with as “we,” moves involutionary down the layers of self. To experience others with empathy is to know our common humanity. This is the level of human emotional and embodied experience that all have in common; despite any differences in beliefs or values. The experiences of anger, frustration, joy, creative expression, jealousy, fear of otherness, maternal care, gluttony, awe, curiosity, etc. are universal to the species (Panksepp, 2005; Ekman, 1999; Rosenberg, 2003).[55] If one meets another human being anywhere on the globe in one of these emotional states, one can establish at least a basic level of empathy. To feel deep oneness with another or all humans is to be in touch with that within oneself that is shared in common with them.

Still deeper involutionary revelation creates a sense of commonality, unity, and care for animals (the Mammalian Self), and then for all life forms (Biotic Self). It is when insight begins to reveal truths at the deepest level of the Material Self that one feels a real (not a metaphorical, symbolic, or meta-theoretical) unity with all of existence—a deep intuition of one’s solidarity with the sun, the rock, and the atom.

In contrast to the realm of emotion and embodiment, where all humans share the basic ingredients of experience, in the realm of beliefs and abstract ideas people can diverge radically, sometimes with little hope of reconciliation or unity (Rosenberg, 2003). There is no guarantee that one can fully understand, never mind agree with, a belief of idea of another (for example, the other may have been socialized in another culture; or may have spent a lifetime studying in a field one is ignorant of).[56] This is why I frame the goals of contemplative practice in terms of downward embodiment and ablation. The call is not to take what we already know and build upon it or mix it creatively or synergistically—as what we already “know,” in common as a species, is, in a sense, deeply flawed and tainted by shadow material. The types of messes humanity has gotten itself into (global warming, economic inequality, obesity, market collapses, high rates of depression, etc.) are not primarily because we lack intelligence (in the IQ sense) or data, but because we lack wisdom and insight into collective shadow material. In contemplative dialogue we access these insights through processes that support the dance of many ideas, grounded in a deep interiority, surrender, and openness. There is no forced attempt to build ideas intellectually, gain agreement or “buy-in,” or search for abstract or encompassing meta-views (though these phenomena may naturally arise). This is in part because, as described above, insights lie in those deeper (downward) aspects of human being that we have in common—where realities, in a sense, converge; while rationally constructed ideas and symbolic abstractions move into spaces where individuals tend to naturally diverge.

Here we can reiterate that, though some descriptions of we-space practices focus on meta, compassion, and service (for example, Insight Meditation), we are proposing that these things, while being important preconditions and outcomes, are not as central to defining we-space practice as insight generation. Within this model an insight is a realization about love or unity that emerges when we roam the spaces of experience and possibility made available when shadow is negated.

6. An Evo/invo-lutionary Model for Group Shadow-Work and Insight Generation

We have postulated that insight is the key outcome of we-space practice, and that this insight involves removing or seeing through occlusions, usually from evolutionarily/involutionarily lower layers of the self. In this section I propose a specific layered model for the downward involutionary arc (and the middle-out process of development) that has already been hinted at above.

In recent years I have been inspired and influenced by Bonnitta Roy’s work on Collective Insight.[57] An emerging model being developed by Roy in collaboration with others situates shadow work within a stratified evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) framework. Different sources of shadow are associated with each phase of evolution as recapitulated in development: from matter to life to animals to early and then late human cognition. Related to each layer are truths that can be pressed into the demi-real of shadow through denial, resistance, pathology, etc. Liberation and insight for each layer involves revealing what was occluded at that layer.

There are numerous possible models of evolution/development at different levels of granularity. Here I will present one that is simpler that that used by Roy.[58] The basic premises outlined here can be used for any such model, and multiple models of varying degrees of nuance, specificity, perhaps grounded in different specific evo-devo (or Evolutionary Psychology, see Panksepp, 2005; Trivers, 2002; Pinker, 1997) theories, may be needed to fit a plethora of application contexts.[59] Such models that add a structure to shadow-work can be used both diagnostically and prescriptively in we-space group work. Knowing the layer of shadow that a group is struggling with or producing insight from can inform process design and leadership decisions; and can help we-space practice groups auto-reflect and self-regulate to deepen insight.

Note that Wilber, since his early work in transpersonal psychology (Spectrum of Consciousness, 1993), has proposed a related evolutionary/developmental model for shadow work. The proposed model has similarities. The evo-devo model covers similar ground and produces many similar principles as the Spectrum of Consciousness model (and more recent models of Ego-development and Spiral Dynamics) and it takes all of these as important influences. Often the differences are a matter of emphasis rather than disagreement. But Wilber’s model, inspired by Perennial Philosophies and Wisdom-traditions, emphasizes the additive and transcendent arc upwards toward an absolute Spirit. The evo-devo model grounds in a different explanatory narratives and sometimes leads to different conclusions that the Spectrum model.[60] It emphasizes the downward and ablative arc defined by the more embodied and non-metaphysical frame of biologically grounded models of evolution, which are increasingly being supported by scientific work in cognitive neuroscience (Thompson, 2014).

The table below organizes information about these involutionary layers of being and shadow, starting with the most advanced level and working backwards/down in evolutionary history. It is important to distinguish between awareness as vs. awareness of each of these levels (Kegan’s subject-to-object move). For each level I give (1) an “explanation” of the capacities that emerge at that level (awareness as), and the aspects of those capacities that can be reflected upon (awareness of); (2) a pointer to theories or scholarship related to the awareness of capacities at this level; and (3) a description of truths about the capacities at that level that can be “driven into shadow”—i.e. that we can be unaware of, through simple ignorance or unconscious fears.

Layer: The Rational/Symbolic Self
  Explanation: The layer of formal operations, logic, and concepts. Developing awareness at this layer involves construct-aware and vision-logic capacities that comprehend the limitations of language and formal reasoning.
  Relevant theories: E.g., see Cook-Greuter on construct aware; Gebser on vision logic; Laske on Dialectical thinking; Roy on post-dialectical thinking.
  What can be driven into shadow: Humans have “epistemic drives” (Murray, 2015, 2011) that bias us toward certainty, self-confirmation; black-and-white categories and dualistic thinking; and elegant-feeling models and explanations. One may fear dissonance, uncertainty, paradox, and the unknown. One is influenced by shadow to the extent that one’s language and concepts construct one’s reality in ways that one is not aware of, denies, or unconsciously resists releasing.
Layer: The (abstract/subtle) Socio-cultural Self
  Explanation: The layer of shared world views and values. Becoming aware at this layer involves post-conventional thinking, reflecting upon one’s culturally conditioned beliefs and values, and the limitations imposed by one’s socio-cultural context (“consensus trance”). This includes reflecting on personas—the faces one puts forward to manipulate or cope with complex social situations.
  Relevant theories: E.g., see sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers from Mead to Webber to Vygotsky who discuss socialization and the reproduction of culture and the maintenance of identity.
  What can be driven into shadow: We have inherited beliefs and values that are difficult to see, and difficult to suspend or change (at post-conventional levels). We are attached to identity associations and narratives that bias and distort reasoning and decision making, especially as we are unaware of them.
Layer: The Adult Self (concrete Socio-cultural self)
  Explanation: The layer of basic formal thought and adult ego formation. Awareness at this layer is the ability to see and reflect upon the concrete facts of one’s actions and one’s context as a participant in a physical group. To be unaware at this level is to become a slave, so to speak, to one’s emotions and reactions.[61]
  Relevant theories: This is the domain of conventional injunctions about being respectful and reasonable, whether from religious texts, self-help books on parenting, etc.
  What can be driven into shadow: Awareness within this layer is of concrete realities and situations, and developing awareness at this level is not shadow-work per-se, as intentional shadow work requires a critical reflection on one’s own interior (i.e. on subtle, not concrete, objects). To the extent that one is not aware of their gross behavior, speech, or social context, perhaps due to stress or complexity, we could say that these aspects of self and reality are in shadow.
Layer: The Mammalian Self
  Explanation: This is the layer of animal-level social instincts and drives including: to belong and commune; to nurture and protect; to guard and extend territory and possession; to dominate, control, lead, and seduce; to submit, follow and fit in; to play, inquire, and learn.
  Relevant theories: E.g., see theories by Panksepp (2005) and Damasio (1999) on the social-emotional aspects of cognition. (Much of this applies to higher animals other than mammals, including birds.) Freud was one of the first to map out the psychological repression of our basic animal nature. He describes how enculturation into “civilized” society requires one to suppress and repress much of one’s animal/mammalian self—and chains one with double-bind injunctions against discussing or thinking about these aspects of self.
  What can be driven into shadow: We are influenced by shadow elements to the extent we are unaware of, deny, or unconsciously resist our animal nature. When emotions such as jealousy, pride, shame, fear of being judged, anxiety, gluttony, etc. control us and we cannot reflect on them, we are operating from shadow. To the extent that the self-system cannot integrate these aspects of our being, we remain in shadow and inner conflict.


Layer: The Biotic Self
  Explanation: This is the layer of life and life-force, shared with non-social life forms, roughly those lower than mammals. It includes processes related to survival and reproduction such as eating, fight/flight/freeze responses and sex-drive, and low-level processes of assimilation and accommodation in the face of unpredictable environmental changes. It is also the layer of raw processes of perception. Contemplative awareness of the raw experience of seeing, hearing, etc. can reveal truths and uncover shadow at this level; as can contemplate ones relationship to decay and life-force.
  Relevant theories: Many of the above references speaking to our resistance or repression of the mammalian or higher animal levels also speak to these more primitive biotic phenomena.
  What can be driven into shadow: Repression, resistance, or pathology related to the more primitive elements of life create shadow at this layer. These include pathologies related to eliminative digestive functions, hunger (gluttony and anorexia), and reproductive drives. The inability to be aware of or control the forces of sleep and torpor, referred to in meditation teachings, are also at this layer; as are fears and pathologies related to our conceptualizations of death, decay, and disease.
Layer: The Material Self
  Explanation: As beings composed of matter/energy we are subject to physical and chemical laws. We take up space, are beholden to forces such as gravity; and risk annihilation through any number of physical processes.
  Relevant theories: E.g., see Thompson, 2014; Brown, 2006.
  What can be driven into shadow: At the layer of being/matter/energy, we may have deep uncertainties, confusions, attachments, or resistance around issues of existence, emptiness, physicality, or even the structure of time, space or causality.

The categories illustrated above are rough sketches that could (should) be refined and further researched. Of course, any such categorization scheme will be limited due to overlapping categories and the generally imprecise nature of describing complex life conditions using a linear sequence of classes.[62] But such models can be useful in understanding shadow work and we-space practices. More important than the specific categories (and see Roy’s (2015) more detailed model) is the differentiation (and integration) of the downward from upward arcs and the middle-out sequence of achieving awareness skill within the layers and levels (as described more below).

An existential crisis awaits the practitioner at each layer. A significant amount of what is hidden remains so because a truth revealed would threaten the self one is identified with.[63] For some of these layers, the occlusion is deeper than psychological in nature, and constitutes conditioning that stems quasi-universally from one’s basic humanity (or animal-ness), independent of cultural immersion or personal history.

According to Roy, an exploration into the lower involutionary levels of self (animal and matter) is necessary to allow for an authentic participation, in the deepest sense, with the world around us. She explains that it is the collective shadow of a deep disconnection with these aspects of our nature that has lead to the environmental and ecological disasters humans have perpetrated on the planet. Humanity (as a whole, and most individuals in Modern society) enacts conflicting agendas—we want to change behaviors and improve things yet our actions are at odds with those voices (an immunity to change). These sorts of binds point inevitably to shadow material. As long as our motivations stem from purely conceptual ideation about the world, nature will be perpetually “other,” and we will be unable to “release our anthropomorphism and open to a deeper participatory embrace of all sentient beings” as is necessary to reverse catastrophic trends (Roy, personal communication).

Figure 2 relates the evolutionary/involutionary layers described above with the cognitive developmental levels associated with the subject-to-object awareness of the nature of, and shadow within, each of the layers. In Figure 2 “involutionary” refers to the stratified layers of evolution that subsist within the individual, as echoes of historical evolution that produced the modern Homo Sapiens. I.E. there are aspect of one’s being and functioning that come from being a Homo Sapiens (i.e. that which differentiates us from other animals), aspects that come from being mammals (differentiating us from other life), etc. The Rational and Post-rational layers may not emerge in all individuals, depending upon one’s personal history and cultural surround, and whether there is support for reaching beyond cultural norms.

The “developmental levels” in the figure represent capacities to reflect on and consciously transform one’s capacities in increasingly sophisticated ways (through processes of hierarchical complexity, as described by Fischer, 1980; Commons et al., 1984). Through developmental processes increasingly more complex and/or subtle aspects of the self are transformed from “subject into object” (Kegan, 1994), as processes that compose the self are brought from shadow into awareness (as in meta-cognition, meta-affect, etc.). The involutionary layers are aspects of the subject or self, and the developmental levels indicate what has become object.[64] The arrows in the figure show the relationship between the involutionary layers and the developmental levels. Thinner lines represent emerging awareness and heavier lines represent fuller awareness.

Some of the involutionary layers are generally more difficult to gain awareness of than others, and certain layers usually need to be “cleaned up” or “opened up” before others can be worked on. It appears as though the order of re-integration (the shadow work of the healing of wounds, untying of knots, and exposing the occluded) has a “middle-out” ordering starting with Conventional consciousness, because of our “born in the middle” nature. We (in Western cultures at least) are naturally socialized to a conventional developmental level of behavior and cognition. At this level one has some capacity to reflect on and expose shadow material at the concrete sociocultural level of involution. At this level, though one possess rational through capacities one has little skill in reflecting on one’s thought process (as the figure shows, it is not until the Pluralist developmental level that reflection upon this aspect of self begins).

Development stems from reflection on not only the “higher” (later) aspects of self but also the “deeper” (earlier) aspects of self. And this also seems to follow a middle-out path. Awareness of one’s behavior as a social being tends to develop before awareness of one’s emotional state, which in turn tends to develop before one is aware of the generic limitations of knowledge and language (at construct aware). This map can help describe the shadow-work aspects of group processes.

What does it look and feel like for a group to gain awareness and see through the occlusions at each of these layers? I will sketch out some possibilities below in an approximate order of accessibility, from easier to more challenging, in a rough developmental sequence. Each developmental step illustrates the involutionary layers that can be seen or seen through, and the type of shadow work that might be most appropriate there. The descriptions make the simplifying assumption that most or all in a group are operating at the same level, which is often not the case, so the descriptions are rather schematic. Note that in this section I am using “layer” for the involutionary layers listed above, and “level” for developmental levels of consciousness being enacted by a participant in any given moment (which is not necessarily their stable center of gravity).

fig2Figure 2: The Middle-out relationship between involutionary layers and developmental levels

Pre-conventional level —any group work is difficult. At this level the individual, or the group on average, does not have awareness of the Adult Self (or any other layers). There is barely sufficient intelligence or cohesion to do any type of group or collaborative activity. Group processes may involve a fair degree of blaming, defensiveness, projection, posturing, or non-participation. (Note that these levels can be used to describe an individual, a group’s performative center of gravity, or a group’s ideal peak capacity. They can be used to describe a momentary state or a more established stage.)

Conventional level—stable social collaboration. With Adult Self (concrete socio-cultural self) awareness established, participants in a group activity can maintain basic levels of respect, composure, and awareness of the group context. Outbursts or actions that dominate group space, or withdrawals from group relationship, are possible at this level but are done from choice rather than impulse. As is described in various developmental theories, dialogue at the conventional level contains a fair amount of right vs. wrong and us vs. them language. A reachable goal for participants at this level might be to let go of posturing and personal story, gross defenses and neuroses, to create a basic level of trust and congruence of intent.

It is not uncommon for participants in Conventional (and Modernist) groups to at least occasionally drop into reactive or regressive (pre-conventional, child-like) modes of being, We are all vulnerable to such occasions, each having our own emotional or limbic trigger points.

Modernist levelproductive, efficient, rigorous, and/or creative collaborative outcomes. This is the level of awareness assumed (or hoped for) in most group processes including brainstorming, organizational meetings, citizen dialogues, group therapy, meditation retreats, etc. At this level participants are entering what Cook-Greuter (2000, 2005) calls “context aware”—they have a minimal understanding of how culturally reproduced ideas can bias thought. They have a post-conventional freedom to think independently, and they make good faith efforts to minimize personal and cultural bias as they engage. They are good listeners, logical and creative thinkers, somewhat in touch with their feelings, and can take the perspectives of others. Participants can reflect upon the quality of information and information sources, and the logical validity of claims. At this level one begins to gain awareness of the shadows of the Socio-Cultural Self, but insights are attached to specific ideas, cultures, or situations (as opposed to a phenomenon in general). All of the “group processes” described in the subsection with that title assume, and usually operate at, the Modernist level of consciousness.

It appears that, at least in western cultured, the fuller emergence of the rational mind creates two effects that work against collective deep interiority and must be worked out at higher levels: (1) a hyper individualization that inhibits full participation; and (2) an hyper rationalization and abstraction that inhibits awareness of the non-rational primal aspects of self.

Pluralist level (or post-modern level)—interest in and early capacity for we-space practices. We-space practices, as we have defined them as contemplative dialogue, begin to have relevance at this level. Participants can share curiosity about and deep inner exploration of, not only specific culturally biased content (as they do in the Modernist Level), but about the very nature of such systemic bias; observing how it arises inside one and within group contexts. Participants have moved from “I disagree” to “I see it another way.” A familiarity with contemplation and deep inner observation begins. Participants start to explore shadow within the layer of the Rational/Symbolic self through reflective practice guidelines such as those in Bohm Dialogue and U-Process which supports the apperception of the limitations of concepts and models. Insights about shadow related to the Mammalian Self may begin here also, as embodied practice leads to increased in-the-moment awareness of how instinct and emotion arise.

Because participants are not acting predominantly from the Socio-Cultural Self, interactions can be said to be impersonal or transpersonal. Yet deep feelings of compassion, connection, caring, and appreciation can and usually do arise. This is Bohm’s “impersonal fellowship.” They are able more fully able to enter into coherence, and leave behind the social needs for cohesion (i.e. “belonging, ordering relationships, [social sharing], and unifying narratives” Roy, 2015).

Vision Logic level (or second tier or integral level)—full capacity for we-space practices. This is the level that most we-space practice aims to achieve, and is usually experienced as a “peak experience” (until practitioners become physiologically accustomed to it). It contains the maturation of shadow-awareness begun in the Pluralist level, and begins exploration into the layers of the Biotic self and the Material Self. The Mammalian Self’s drives to impress, defend against, control, please, befriend, blame, take care of, or attract others in the group are seen through. They are enacted so minimally that they do not influence the flow. When these things do arise, there is no (or little) embarrassment or judgment—everyone understands that we are human (and animals) and the dialogue moves on without skipping a beat. When shadow material from the Social Self or Mammalian Self does manifest it is appreciated for its gifts, learned from, and/or compassionately chuckled at.

Participants are construct-aware and don’t let the limitations of language and concepts constrain them (or rather they minimize such constraints). They know words and concepts are sliding signifiers whose meaning cannot be nailed down precisely—they don’t get into arguments about definitions. They look for shared meaning and have moved from “I see it another way” to “what might she mean by that?” and “let’s play with that idea”) Each thing said is taken to be one perspective of many, and it is not assumed that the speaker of an idea is attached to it. Ideas and concepts are at play, not in competition. Participants have full “negative capability” (see Murray, 2013), i.e. a high tolerance for uncertainty, unknowing, and paradox. With the other involutionary levels seen through, deep insight at the levels of the Biotic self and Material Self are increasingly possible.[65]

Post-Vision-Logic levelthe future of we-space practices. I include this level for the sake of completeness, though I have only the barest glimpse of what group functioning at this level might be like, and don’t want to build models beyond my experience of the territory. I don’t even dare give it a more descriptive name, though, following models of Wilber, O’Fallon, or Cook-Greuter it could be called, Unitive, Third Tier, or Illumined. Roy points to the possibility of post-dialogical participation at this level. It is probably exceedingly rare (in Western society) to encounter group practice in which the participants have reached a mature level of awareness at the levels of the Biotic Self and Material Self (though it is likely that many individuals within the integral community have a post-vision-logic center of gravity, this does not translate directly into group work at that level).[66]

In group work these levels and layers can be used to monitor depth and presence. Facilitators may want to assess both the range and average for the group; and track how the interactions and verbalizations that arise track up and down levels (or layers), through periods of relative deepening and periods of relative chaos and challenge. Because many of the disclosures are at odds with established ego-defenses, each deepening step can bring a new phase of chaos and disequilibrium for individuals or the group. The model can also be used to assess the depth attained at the bottom of a U-Process. Presumably, deeper level processes produce more profound insights and emergent actions.

7. Conclusions

Martin Keogh, a movement teacher in the contact improvisation community writes: “When myriad possibilities appear in each moment, the opportunities for self-criticism go down…The pathway you end up taking is simply what you are contributing to the dance…How do we increase our capacity to live in the unresolved?…Let the animal brain and body have a stronger voice…letting the river flow [and as James Hillman suggests] ‘learn to accept a self that remains ambiguous no matter how closely it is scrutinized’ ” (Keogh, 2010, p. 15).

This is also a wonderful description of the openness, fluidity, trust, and panoramic simplicity-within-complexity that describe successful we-space practices. In this paper I have described we-space practices, and the causal spaces of deep interiority that they aim for, from embodied and phenomenological perspectives. I have also tried to put them in context with related practices in ensemble somatics, meditation, and dialogue-and-deliberation processes, to help us gain more clarity about what is unique about we-space practices, and to situate these other domains in a way that allows we-space practitioners to draw more from what the other domains can contribute. I have proposed that the core purpose of we-space practice is the collective generation of insight; that insight is primarily about ablation and shadow work; and that what is of deepest interest are insights that pertain to collective shadow, including insights about broad cultural and even species-level shadow material. Finally, I offer a layered involutionary model of shadow work (drawing from Roy’s work) that helps differentiate the downward arcs of ablation toward source, and the upward arcs of development. It can be used as a diagnostic tool assessing the states and types of content arising in a group practice, and as a guide for the most appropriate fulcrum points for process structures and interventions.

I have not given much about practical methods and formats here, except to outline how Bohm Dialogue works. A survey of the methods used in those projects listed in the “Other Contemporary Contemplative Dialogue Projects” section is beyond our scope. There are many methods, practiced and not yet discovered, for brining a group from everyday consciousness into deep listening, coherence, and luminosity. I have indicated what they are likely to have in common, and given what I think is more important that an exact method, but some (albeit tentative) indicators for assessing the depth and nature of a group’s journey.

One of the most important questions yet to be answered is the extent to which these methods can bring status-quo participants into new states of vibrancy and synergy “for the masses,” or whether the entry conditions for these types of processes limits them to relatively developed or skilled individuals, in which case the “average” participant may need preliminary processes that first (and slowly) build capacity.

My hope is that this paper will nudge us a bit further toward a type of clarity that will both accelerate the inquiry into we-space practices and, in taking a non-metaphysical tact, allow us to share what we learn with communities of theory and practice outside the integral community—and to better learn from them in the exchange. This cornucopia of perspectives on we-space practices is only a small part of “the story,” and, despite its attempt to use an embodied and phenomenological stance, it is still a rather theoretical one. What I have not covered in any detail are the practical questions in designing we-space practice groups and activities. A practical manual for process design might answer the following important questions:

  • What methods, principles, and structures support deeper dives into interior space, more collective resonance, and deeper collective insights?
  • What are the diagnostic markers of processes going well and going off track?
  • What are the difficult situations and choice points in we-space practices, and how can these be navigated?
  • How does one tailor invitations to we-space activities, and adjust we-space process structures based on considerations of:
  • Diversity (and homogeneity) of developmental level,
  • Diversity of worldview, culture, expertise, gender, intention, and prior familiarity and trust.
  • Scale of the interaction (number of participants; length of time).
  • Required commitment
  • What leadership style, from minimal and participant-centered, to more fully facilitated, is best for various process goals?
  • What additional factors are involved in creating we-space community within a dedicated community meeting regularly over an extended time period?
  • How do facilitators train and prepare themselves cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually for various types of engagement challenges?
  • When and how should we-space practices be used within larger projects of organizational development, action inquiry, and social change?
  • What does rigorous (or quasi-rigorous) research look like in this field—in terms of demonstrating outcomes and determining what preconditions and process structures produce desired results?
  • What are the pros and cons of virtual we-space practices?

Of course, the answers to all of these questions will vary based on the we-space practice context and underlying theory. Practitioners have developed answers to these questions within the fields of group processes, deliberation and communication theory, and/or collaborative education, but these are only just beginning to apply these to we-space practice. All of the pioneers mentioned in my overview of contemporary we-space practice projects are working hard at the leading edge of these questions, and many do have partial answers to some of these design questions.


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Appendix: The metaphysics of we-space practices

The study of we-space practices, as understood by the integrally informed, overlaps with ideas about spirituality, consciousness, and human evolutionary potential, and thus incorporates the types of metaphysical and mystical themes common to those areas.[67] Metaphysical, magical, mystical, and metaphorical concepts such as collective consciousness, sprit, soul, non-duality, Authentic Self, and Eros are used in attempts to describe and prescribe we-space practices. Though metaphysically placed objects have strong meaning-generative potential, they can also be problematic because they can encourage spurious inference, ideology, overconfidence, and even hubris.

Claims about the absolute, the infinite, the ultimate, and the primordial may help us make meaning within “the choir” of the integral community, but using such ideas can (1) make it more difficult to reach across in discussion with others, and (2) attract interest to integral theory for simplistic or misleading reasons. Enacting post-formal, second-tier, construct-aware, or integral approaches to we-space exploration should therefore include some skill in the dance of confident use vs. reflective critique of metaphysical concepts, and a more nuanced understanding of the (ontological) relationships between ideas and reality.[68] Recounting from the introduction, doing so constitutes the negation of the demi-real, and is thus a self-emancipatory move supporting development/evolution.

Many treatments of we-space practices invoke concepts such as a collective consciousness, “Higher We,” “we-object,” “Circle Being,” the “unity of human consciousness,” or an “intersubjective field” that emerges from the group. There is a danger of “misplaced concreteness” in posting an actual entity from what is essentially an abstract idea that captures into a conceptual gestalt the properties of a (perhaps mysterious or little-understood) process or system. Venezia uses the term “awakened we space” to refer to “the emergence of a shared self-aware and self-reflexive interpersonal mind” (p. 12), though he does so more cautiously than most because he is “wary of terms like ‘one mind’ [because] it is difficult to conceive of a ‘group mind consciousness’ that is not an abrogation of individual autonomy” (p. 60).

Above we noted how social holons and collectives have very different properties vs. individuals (and see Schwartz, 2013). Many popular concepts of the collective as an object borrow too much from the processes and metaphors used for individuals. As Lakoff and Johnson (1991) show, abstract concepts are built up from concrete level metaphors, and we often take these metaphors too seriously through forms of “reification.” This includes the tendency to imbue abstract concepts with the properties of concrete objects (such as having definitive and mutually exclusive boundaries), and the tendency to treat the creations of thought as if they constrained reality (rather than the other way around).[69] Through this misplaced concreteness we risk the “magical projection” of properties (such as agency, intention, and consciousness) of individual holons (with “dominant monads”) to collective holons that are emergent systems of relationships. They may have self-replicating tendencies, but are not individuals.

Positing metaphysical entities risks adding new but unsupported properties and overly weak explanatory mechanisms. In doing so we seem to know more than we do, and create additional levels of bias, illusion, and certainty rather than employing the skills of unknowing and holding paradox. For example the concept of “gravity” points to mechanisms underlying observed phenomena, but, correctly, does not add anything to those phenomena, while the concept of Gaia does more than point to an emergent system of systems within our planet, it imbues or associates the physical earth with additional properties and explanatory narratives that, while seductive and even meaningful, blur the distinction between facts and values, science and and imagination.

Perhaps we are susceptible to a “we materialism” comparable to the “spiritual materialism” critiqued by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In the later sections of the paper I note how deep interiority may be more about encountering our lower animal or material nature vs. a “higher” self. The experience of deep connectedness that is possible in we-space practices, through releasing the discursive mind and sinking into a resonance together, may be better described in terms of connecting as animal beings, vs. connecting as spiritual beings (at least both are equally apt metaphors).

In general, because integral theory draws heavily on ancient wisdom traditions it is susceptible to importing associations from magical or mystical modes of thinking that are less appropriate to (post-) modern forms of reason. In tandem with collective-level concepts such as Higher-We, integralists use metaphysical constructs related more to the individual, such as soul, True/Authentic/Higher Self, and Atman, and constructs related to omnipresent concrete universal spiritual objects and processes such as Agape, Eros (forces of evolutionary change), Omega Point, the non-dual source.[70] All such concepts should be used with caution and reflective humility. According to Cooke (1994, p. ix) unexamined personal or cultural assumptions about the nature of reality can lead to “repressive metaphysical projections” and ideology. Claims framed in absolute, totalizing, or foundational language are less rhetorically open and critical discourse, not to mention susceptible to modes of “ideaphoria.”

As described in Murray [2015a,b], thought process is rife with “epistemic drives” that pull us toward forms of abstraction, certainty, “patternicity,” magical thinking, self-affirming narratives, and projections. We sometimes use grand generalizations or overly tidy categorizations to reduce the dissonance of unknowing. We can thus be seduced into modes of reason at odds to our deeper moral imperatives. This is one reason I try to stick close phenomenology in this paper. If, for example, a contemplative experience feels infinite, unbounded, timeless, unitive, primordial, and radically true/good/beautiful, this does not necessarily imply anything about external realities.

Patten is quoted (in Venezia, 2013) as cautioning against rushing a group into deep interior or transpersonal spaces because “there is a potential…for a kind of exaltation and intensity that’s beautiful but that tends not to be sustainable.” The sense of exaltation is heightened and, perhaps, given too much meaning, if a participant is relatively new to the experience. But also, metaphysical narratives inculcated within the group can feed the potential for grandiosity.

Habermas’ uses the term post-metaphysics to point to approaches that avoid the traps of using foundational, totalizing, essentialist, absolute, or universalizing categories (Wilber, in recent books, references post-metaphysics heavily). The idea is not to avoid metaphysics altogether, because, as Bhaskar points out, all theories and all claims involve some metaphysical assumptions (often unreflectively), but rather to minimize and humble one’s metaphysics, allowing for the sources of fallibility and indeterminacy inherent within them; being explicit about one’s assumptions and their limitations when possible.

Metaphysical thinking is thus unavoidable, but it can be approached skillfully and ethically. Gaia is a useful concept for certain political and activist purposes—it associates a type of deep value and magical being to the planet that might motivate individuals toward deeper awareness, respect, and care-taking (especially individuals who’s reasoning is more concrete or magical than construct-aware or Centauric). Similarly, concepts such as “the miracle of the we” can have the benefit of engendering enthusiastic solidarity and care, and offering a (weak) explanatory narrative for the unusual and glowing states possible within we-space practices. In many situations these benefits might outweigh the downsides noted above. Certainly, concepts such as “a We without a They” are useful in how they point to transpersonal world-centric understandings.[71]

One cannot help but posit metaphysical entities in trying to answer the illusive questions of “ultimate concern” related to spirituality, consciousness, and morality that come up in discussing we-space practices. The experiences themselves can disclose interpenetrative polarities (interior within exterior; agency within communion; free will with abandon; etc.) that call for sublime or poetic language.[72] The “intersubjective field,” is tangible experientially, tempting us to posit a concrete entity on the other side of experience. As Venezia says “our implicit metaphysical categories are challenged, brought into a dynamic balance, and can eventually become transparent or empty” (2014, p. 60). Scientific materialism does indeed create a flat-land consciousness that we must endeavor to revitalize, re-enchant, and re-sacralize. But spaces of enchantment and the sacred can be found through shared experiences that are un-adorned with metaphysical and ideological interpretation.

It is an open question whether the metaphysical and conceptual framework one brings to these practices has a significant impact on outcomes. My own experience with various types of practices suggests that it does not—that the essential aspects of both the phenomenology and the outcomes are similar across we-space practices regardless of their framing. As Wilber notes, it is the injunctions of a practice, not the belief system, that is central to gaining access to the experiences and the knowledge revealed through the practice. One can have the deepest non-dual experiences and the most profound wisdoms that are pointed to by a metaphysical narrative, yet do so without holding metaphysical beliefs.[73] I hypothesize that the outcomes of we-space practices depend much more on developmental capacities than on the conceptual frameworks brought to a practice. Integrally-informed practice projects may well be exploring new frontiers of we-space practice, but I think that if this is so then it is because integral theory is an attracter for second tier individuals, while other frameworks speak more to “green” value systems.

In we-space inquiries there will naturally be conversations that try to locate the experiences of a group within some hierarchy of spiritual height or non-dual depth. Using metaphysical frameworks to do this may only lead to more confusion and division. I suggest that if we stick to describing and analyzing the (1) phenomenology, and (2) outcomes (insights generated, capacities built, and actions enabled) then we are on less problematic grounds. This can be done without rejecting the developmental lens.

Metaphysical narratives do have consequences. The conceptual or metaphysical framework brought to a practice will impact how the experience is interpreted, what types of things are noticed and discussed, and what people do with insights after a session. The influence of one’s metaphysics upon we-space-practice is an open question, and my primary inquiry here is to see how far we can go without introducing significant metaphysical “baggage.”

How can we engage playfully and flexibly with the ideas that seem of the utmost import to us? We can develop what Cook-Greuter calls a construct-aware approach that directly perceives the structural and embodied limitations and lacuna of language and conceptualization; turning our metaphysical “epistemic games” into objects of awareness.


[1] For a brief description of psychological shadow, see

[2] Awareness or contemplative practice being traditionally subjective (I) oriented, dialogue and group practice being intersubjectively (we) oriented, and action-inquiry adding an objective (it and its) components.

[3] Unlike the emerging field of studies of individual contemplative practices, there is little scientific research in the area of contemplative dialogue. However my own experience and that of many others tentatively confirms the assumptions made here. My goal here is not to address (argue for or critique) the effectiveness of we-space practices, but to explore what they are.

[4] It is assumed that readers have a least a slight familiarity with Integral Theory and Ken Wilber’s AQAL model—but such familiarity is by no means necessary to read the paper. For Wilber’s work see Wilber 1995, 2000, 2003, 2006.

[5] A shorter version of this paper appears in (tentative title of in-process book:) Cohering the Integral We Space: Developing Theory and Practice for Engaging Collective Emergence, Wisdom and Healing in Groups edited by Gunnlaugson & Brabant.

[6] To extend this historical narrative I will hypothesize an even further emerging focus of innovation, which, like the other phases mentioned, is underway well before it will be a recognizable “phase” of contemplative culture: a focus on social systems (“its“, to complete the framing in terms of Wilber’s AQAL quadrants). We will then be even more deeply involved in questions of how bio/nano/informational technologies, political/social/educational/economic systems, and modes of cultural reproduction, can further individual liberation (I), global suffering-reduction actions (it), and collective wisdom (we).

[7] I have also had extensive practice in various forms of personal work that I consider to be shadow work (New Warrior trainings; co-counseling; and Non-violent Communication). The point here is not to display an array of merit badges, but to: (1) establish a connection with those who have had similar experiences, and (2) contextualize my offering as being both informed and biased by concrete practices and lived theories.

[8] I have also led and designed various types of group-practices for non-profits, conflict-resolution contexts, contemplative dialogue, and improvisational dance for over 30 years (usually informally).

[9] This paper follows on from questions asked in my 2013 article “Meta-Sangha, Infra-Sangha: Or, Who Is This ‘We,’Kimo Sabe?” on the Beams and Struts blog,

[10] Andrew Venezia notes that “different intersubjective phenomena [are] happening under the general name of We Space, and what it seemed to have originally pointed at…had gotten watered down to include experiences of empathic community [and] hanging out” (2013, p. 3).

[11] Movement scores are related to cellular automata and other computational methods that produce complex patterns based on a small set of simple rules run over time.

[12] Dancing contact improvisation builds upon skills such as are described in the movement score above, but the experience is much more full-bodied and open-ended, including interactive leaning, lifting, rolling, spinning, and balancing movements that might be reminiscent of martial arts, ballroom dancing, gymnastics, or bear cubs playfully wrestling. During a “contact jam” dance, solo, duet, trio, small group, and sometimes whole-room ensembles spontaneously emerge and dissolve.

[13] I am using an idealized example of the movement activity, where everything happens rather perfectly and magically. Still, these types of experiences are quite routine among experienced improvisational dancers.

[14] On the other hand, blindly following others, or being in a hive-mind without self-awareness and awareness of the whole, can lead to mob mentality and collective stupidity rather than emergent creative capacity.

[15] For example, one may notice that following others is more comfortable than finding oneself as a leader that others are following; one may notice the feeling of annoyance at another who momentarily breaks the rules; one may notice compulsions to break the rules oneself; one may notice that they are paying disproportionate attention to a good friend or an attractive person in the room. Note that intentional or structured reflective “noting” is optional, and what is important is to act from the egoless place, however one learns to do this.

[16] Much has been written about somatic peak- or flow- states, and my experiences of dance (when at a peak) correspond well to these descriptions. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) describes flow as including absorption, focused awareness, agency, and rapture. And see Couzin (2009) and Salanova et al. (2014) for the application of flow to groups, called “co-flow”.

[17] And, based on much observation and conversation, I believe that my experience well-enough matches others to form a relevant base for this analysis.

[18] DiPerna refers to the “vantage point” of a level of development. This territory gets precarious however. It is all too easy to confuse the (intellectual) reflection upon an idea about a phenomena from an (embodied) reflective awareness on the experience itself.

[19] To clarify the connection between these three areas and the group somatic practices described above: the experience of all three of these includes embodied somatic elements. It is best not to confuse experiential understanding with abstract, metaphysical or explanatory layers of interpretation. However it is not until we combine these three into we-space practice that we are likely to experience the full set of Facets Of Collective Embodiment.


[21] Patten describes what he calls “integral trans-rhetorical praxis” that he is experimenting with in workshops that he leads. This form attempts to “break the stream of discourse to speak directly, passionately, and vulnerably to the audience” in “passionate inquiry [that] breaks the fourth wall” between speaker and audience. (p 15). He references Sufi forms of “ecstatic conversation” and Foucault’s explanation (from the Greeks) of courageous “parrhesia” in which a speaker “does not hide anything, but opens his heart and mind completely to other people.” It would be interesting to experiment with gatherings where all are doing this.

[22] Venezia (2013) quotes Terry Patten as saying “I’d suspect that there’s a spectrum of different locations in the possibilities of We Space.” Indeed, there is a vast multidimensional world of possibilities.

[23] Some of my understanding of Bohm dialogue comes from participation in numerous sessions organized by Herb Bernstein, physics professor at Hampshire College and a colleague of David Bohm, who has co-convened what is believed to be the longest running regular (monthly) program of Bohm dialogues.

[24] Bohm’s process was largely applied only to informal group gatherings; which Scharmer crafted his model to be applied to organizational contexts.

[25] See O’Fallon’s StAGES model (2013, 2015) for a good explanation of gross, subtle and causal modes of experience and development.

[26] Venizia describes a further “Awakened we space” as exhibiting an “emergence of a shared self-aware and self-reflexive interpersonal mind.” Though this description may be pointing to something important I will not use it because it spills into territory more speculative and metaphysical than our scope here.

[27] This does not require that one’s stable center of gravity is “at” construct aware, but that one can exercise construct aware skills in the dialogue context.

[28] It seems at this point in history that accessing causal space on a group level requires not only fairly advanced practitioners but also a good amount of silence and stillness. This contrasts with the robust level of physical activity described in the section on collective somatics. But it must be noted that the majority of the members of the referenced dance community have been practicing the form, perhaps multiple times per month, for 10 to 30 years (20 on average). I would hazard to guess that some of these activities actually constitute a causal group enactment at the “concrete tier” (in O’Fallon’s model). Regular practitioners of dialogic we-space practice might also develop “in-motion” or fully active forms of practice as the forms and practitioners develop in the future.

[29] Enlightened Communication begins with a focal idea to seed or prime contemplation. Though there is a release of any direct attachment to that seed, there is a trust that the seed’s influence continues, and some prompting questions are offered by the group leader throughout the session. The intentional community lead by Cohen created the deepest experiment with we-space practices known within the integral community. The participants were all practiced contemplatives who, living together in a spiritual community for many years, had built up a common world-view and a deep system of solidarity. Surely there have been communities of monks and nuns over the centuries who have gone to similar depths as a resonant contemplative collective, but none whom had access to the modern, postmodern, and integral perspectives that this community was immersed in. This experiment was modified and continued outside of the spiritual community by Jeff Carreira and Patricia Albere (, Craig Hamilton (, Dustin DiPerna (, and others.

[30] One unique aspect of Pacific Integral programs is that participant’s ego/leadership development is assessed periodically using a psychometrically validated instrument, allowing for quantitative research (thought the research evaluates the program as a whole, as opposed to specific we-space practices used within it).

[31] There is very little cognitive or brain research on unlearning (not even to mention shadow work). Thus we do not yet understand when and whether unlearning is a matter of actually removing things like blockages and inhibitions, vs. adding things like reinforcement of the new patterns, or adding an inhibition connection that, like a double-negative, reduces the effect of a blockage or shadow element.

[32] Note that here I avoid discussing metaphysical notions such as “collective-consciousness” and “higher we”—see the Appendix for more on the metaphysics of we-space.

[33] We can also speak to the synergistic effects possible when the thought processes within an individual’s mind are coherent (not working at odds with each other). The deep interior space of we-space practice involves a coherence among minds that are in themselves functioning coherently and in holistic integrity. In Murray (2011) I describe integrity in terms of coherence or congruence within and among several levels of the self. To be in integrity is for one’s actions to follow one’s words (e.g., one does what one says one will do); for words to follow conscious beliefs and thoughts (i.e., authenticity and transparency); and for conscious thoughts and beliefs align with unconscious ones (i.e. one is not operating from shadow or neurosis). (Integrity also implies congruence among the objects within any of the four levels.) And finally there is integrity between self and world—to not be against “what is,” in actions, thoughts, or unconscious tendencies.

[34] In the largest sense, creativity can be seen as the universal mode of novelty emerging from the interaction of prior events. Wilber, echoing Whiteheadian Process Theory in his “20 Tenets” for holons, defines “self-transcendence” as the “ability to go beyond the given, i.e. creativity” (Wilber, 1995).

[35] This theme can be applied to the power dynamics within a group, and also to the struggles for dominance among the different parts of the self (ideas, drives, needs, etc.).

[36] Einstein: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

[37] Roy suggests that this type of group work ends up only reshuffling known knowledge, as in Sharmer’s “downloading” phase. However, some brainstorming methods may create the conditions for truly new insights, though the depth of these insights may be limited by the depth of the interior spaces created.

[38] As noted in Stein, 2010, we must be careful not to conflate normative force of ideas with their theoretical or factual aspects (though they necessarily interrelate). “Upward” here means occurring developmentally or evolutionarily later, and does not imply better. Higher/later levels of capacity are “better” or more adequate only in situations or problems that require such capacities. And it is also true that such later capacities can lead to undue confusion, complexification, or unethical manipulation.

[39] Our meaning of shadow covers that which is actively hidden, and does not include all of the “dark knowledge” of what is simply unknown (or known to be unknown; see Fischer & Stein, 2008), nor does it involve all connections that could be made but have not yet been made. However, our meaning of shadow might beneficially be extended to include aspects of self that have become automatic and thus receded into the unconscious background (what Will Varey calls “sublimation and cognitive science calls proceduralization). Once we have learned how to ride a bike we are no longer conscious of the distinctions and decisions we needed to focus on at the time of learning. This is true of most skills that are routinized and not explicitly reflected upon—including the skills of language, leadership, or music—we are normally no longer conscious of them (see Collins (2010) for a nuanced treatment of tacit knowledge).

[40] Wilhelm Reich’s adage that “tension masks sensation” is referenced in the somatics work.

[41] As Jung pointed out, shadow material need not be negative. There may be positive ideas or aspects of our selves that stay hidden or become projected outwards because they bring one pain to acknowledge them (so-called “golden shadow”). Also, some have noted the positive role of shadow material in creativity.

[42] Of course, this only brings us out of the bottom of Scharmer’s U—the path into putting insights to action is demanding as well.

[43] Facilitators might also strengthen the container by limiting an invitation to those who have the necessary capacity.

[44] The question of how to balance the polarity of structure vs. freedom ubiquitous in group process design, and is largely a matter of art and skill. Roy (2015) uses the term “ritualized inquiry” to highlight the co-dependent aspect of structure and openness.

[45] New orders of objects emerge as wholes (holons) through the coordination of parts into something more than their sum. Yet, as Wilber has noted, groups do not “develop” or “evolve” in the same way that individuals and species do (See Wilber, 2003C ).

[46] The notion that collective emergent properties do not have meaning (or the same meaning) for individuals is a basic concept from social science and structuralism.

[47] For an individual to voice a realization of a deeper truth is a first step. A fuller ablation of shadow would involve most of the group understanding (and/or enacting) the insight.

[48] Roy (2015) draws from contemporary brain research to emphasize “affect energies” that “are deep, pre-operational processes…associated with the subcortical regions of the mammalian brain” (p. 5).

[49] In a sense the peak or flow states experienced in contemplative dialogues appear when everyday modes of thought are stripped away, indicating processes of release (or unlearning) rather than accumulation. However, research on human flow states (intrinsic motivation and concentrated absorption in an activity, Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) indicates that flow results from mastery obtained through many hours of practice. This might indicate processes of accumulation (learning). The apparent paradox is resolved if one considers that de-activating or suppressing everyday thought processes and distractions is a learned skill.

[50] Wilber coined the term “pre/trans fallacy” to describe how, to an individual at a particular developmental level behaviors stemming from more advanced levels may be indistinguishable from those stemming from lower levels (e.g. post-conventional behaviors and their justifications can appear narcissistic or pre-conventional to the conventional person). I suggest that we can also see a “trans/pre fallacy” in which more primal or animal-like aspects of self are elevated to the level of “spiritual” or post-rational.

[51] My limited understanding of Dzogchen comes from teaching sessions with Jim Valby, a senior teacher in the school of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu (Norbu, 2006). Wilber’s notion of non-duality is rather metaphysical, as it speaks to non-duality as a direct experience of the ultimate nature of reality. Without agreeing or disagreeing with this perspective, here I choose to skirt the metaphysics.

[52] Another aspect of nonduality is to move beyond the experience of self as distinct from non-self, so the other major source of duality is the ego or self-identification.

[53] This discussion is mostly about non-dual state experiences or momentarily applied skills. The Witness or Non-dual stages of development of consciousness constitute an ongoing permanent state of Witnessing and/or non-dual experience that has become so naturalized and practiced as to become normalized for an individual.

[54] Critical realism does not fully guilty of this, but it is open to such (mis)interpretations and does lean slightly toward this problem in its assessment of the dynamics of human potential.

[55] Or close enough—the extreme version of this argument does not need to be taken here, as our goal is to note fundamental differences between the worlds of thought/language and emotions/body). Paul Ekman’s well-known research posits the following basic emotions that humans inherited from their animal ancestors: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, amusement, contempt, contentment, embarrassment, excitement, guilt, pride in achievement, relief, satisfaction, sensory pleasure, and shame (from the Wikipedia page on Paul Ekman).

[56] Contrasting integral theory’s model of the convergent Omega Point at the end of human evolution, development, as increasing levels of complexity (differentiation and integration), reveals ever more diverse forms.

[57] I am indebted to Roy and those who have gathered under her leadership to inquire into and develop what she calls Collective Insight process (or CppEI , Collective participatory process for Emerging Insight). Our work has been to create or discover intersubjective spaces that allow for deep participation, field coherence, and creative insight to emerge. Some of the ideas presented here are my own variations on but a small segment of the expansive theoretical and conceptual territory that Bonnie is mapping out (see Roy, 2015a,b).

[58] Roy’s work incorporates elements from her process-oriented integral framework (Roy 2015a,b). Her theory draws on recent neuroscience showing how brain activity unfolds through these layers of being. Her structural model for shadow work includes layers for the Latent self (sub-personalities, etc.), Collective (cultural) unconscious (world-views), Myth-o-poeia (archetypal ideas, languages), Archetypes (norms, taboos), Animal realms (shamanism), Biotic realm, Abiotic realm (primordial elements), and Formless realm (energetic primes). .

[59] Note that unlike Roy’s model, which she has attempted to apply in group work over several years, the model I present has not been put to the test of practice. It is more a pragmatic summary of my understanding of this domain, and is offered as a simpler and less esoteric model vs. Roy’s, which has elements that I have yet to fully understand, and thus can not reliably represent. Also, Roy’s process is aimed at producing radically new insights at the level of paradigm shifts, including, in the extreme, the generation of ideas that might not have been realized thus far in the history of the species, and which point to potential futures and modes of collective being barely imagined yet.

[60] I do not further belabor the differences in this paper, but will note that my cursory treatment here could surely be more deeply informed by the details of Wilber’s work, especially as proposed in his Integral Psychology.

[61] I call this level Adult because it fits with the common sense conventional meaning of “lets all be adults here,” though exactly what this looks like varies by culture.

[62] The model is also problematic in that it glosses over the difference between (earlier) phases of biological evolution and (later) phases of cultural/cognitive evolution or development. This simplification is acceptable for our discussion, but may need to be nuanced in the future.

[63] It is not that all aspects of each layer are hidden or in shadow for everyone. At each layer there may be aspects of the self that one is acutely aware of, celebrates, or has fully integrated into one’s self-system.

[64] The figure illustrates an emerging model still being refined. One of its limitations is that it can be confusing that the post-socio-cultural involutionary layers point to higher developmental capacities. All humans share capacities below the socio-cultural level, and only more developed individuals have higher level involutionary layers.

[65] My only personal experience with a group operating stably this level has been two meetings with Bonnie Roy’s working group on Collective Insight.

[66] Note: perhaps here you are thinking “wouldn’t it be cool to get Ken Wilber, Andrew Cohen, Thomas Hübl, Adya Shanti, Almas, and a few other spiritually awake individuals together in a sustained we-space practice group.” Surely it would be something unprecedented and probably wildly interesting and productive. But the magic of the we-space is as much about participation as personal development, and it must be noted that individuals who find themselves in positions of high leadership (especially spiritual teachers) may not have developed their intersubjective capacities for full participation as much as, say, the cohort of their top students. Indeed, from the many stories of spiritual leaders removed from their pedestals, it seems one of the lessons of our times is that advanced spiritual development is not necessarily correlated with equally advanced moral or intersubjective development (and does not preclude the existence of shadow material). Its up to “us,” which is good news for all.

[67] Metaphysics concerns the fundamental, ultimate, or essential nature of reality, and mysticism is a type of metaphysical pursuit that draws its conclusions from (purported) direct experience with (or communion with) ultimate reality, and draws conclusions using intuition, instinct, or insight. (See Murray, 2013 for more discussion of mystical constructs used I the integral community.)

[68] See the “idea portability principle” in Murray 2015b.

[69] An example of this in an integral theory context would be the overly zealous force-fitting of some phenomena into one of the AQAL quadrants (or zones), or one of the AQAL lines. AQAL is an extremely useful model, and, though Wilber warns us not to confuse the map with the territory, it is easy to forget that, as a human construct reality does not need to conform to it. Objects and phenomena that exist at the fuzzy boundaries between the categories of a model, or outside the frame of a model, are too easily unseen or marginalized.

[70] I see the “two truths doctrine” of absolute/ultimate vs. relative truths as a kind of epistemological truce formed from the incommensurability of paradoxical ideas that was invented before a full maturation of construct-aware reasoning capacities was available. The idea itself contains the type of dualism that it is trying to transcend. This is not to say that those who use this frame are not construct aware, but that they are using an idea that is less useful the more construct aware the audience one is addressing.

[71] Metaphysical language can add a veneer of meaning, life-purpose, and magic. We can conjecture that it serves different purposes when targeted toward those who have experienced vs. those who have not experienced the phenomena they point to. For the inexperienced there is the positive possibility of attracting them to something of value, even if for misunderstood reasons. But the converse negative potential is that ideas will be substituted for experience. For the experienced metaphysical concepts can give the ineffable a linguistic handle to share and deepen meaning with others. A possible downside is in aggrandizing the experience.

[72] See John Kesler’s Integral Polarity Practice, 2012 and Barry Johnson’s Polarity Management (1996) for a deeper treatment of polarities.

[73] In Murray (2010) I emphasize the importance of differentiating belief systems (including models and metaphysics) from skills/capacities when we discuss development. For example, the post-modern or pluralistic level of ego development is associated with both capacities in self-reflection and systems thinking, and with beliefs and values related to environmentalism and social justice. Beliefs do not “develop” in the way capacities do. Capacities are key markers for development and beliefs are not, because once belief-memes are released into culture, individuals at any developmental level may be attracted to and espouse them (through different skill-dependent structural complexities).

About the Author

Tom Murray, Ed.D., is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Massachusetts School of Computer Science and is Chief Visionary and Instigator and Perspegrity Solutions.  His projects include an R&D project for virtual scoring of ego-development testing; and research on supporting “social deliberative skills” and deep reflective dialogue in online contexts.  He is an Associate Editor for Integral Review journal, and he has published many articles on integral theory as it relates to education, contemplative dialog, leadership, ethics, knowledge building communities, epistemology, and post-metaphysics. Email: Web:,


  1. Jenna on March 25, 2016 at 11:07 pm

    Wow thank you I had no idea that my various passions could be articulated and integrated this way, from authentic movement to ecstatic dance to public dialogue. Exciting.
    Some tangents I offer: check out Barbara Ehrenreich’s book: Dancing in the Streets about how ecstatic dance allowed human empathy to extend to a tribal level (evolutionarily advantageous) and the ensuring social complexity jumpstarted our cognitive development. To whit: hippie dancing is how our species became human.
    and Brian Eno on surrender.

  2. Jenna on March 26, 2016 at 2:25 am

    Ha, I figured out you had background with co-counseling in the section on “re-organization”, and then I saw the relevant footnote, and could see RC type thinking through the whole second half. Fun for me.

    You zero in on insight that moves both up & down. I might phrase that as liberating transformation that embodies & encompasses more of the up and more of the down. Richard Moss said transformation relies on a combo of 1) intensity of will (the dialogue aspect?), 2) accepting attentiveness (the meditative aspect?), and 3) fresh creativity (the group aspect?).

    For me, We-space practices are compelling because these things are more reliably vivid than any other arena of my experience:
    a) the whole is greater than the sum of the individuals (both upwards & downwards),
    b) that surrender to the whole is natural,
    c) that as individuals we find ourselves courageously bracketing our shadow in ways that are uplifting,
    d) and usually also the whole will uplift the individuals,
    e) that the U-process / hero’s journey is easier to complete, to appreciate and to rely on in its group manifestations,
    f) that acting collaboratively, participatively, AND contemplatively/non-discursively contradicts our middle-class WASP paradigm,
    g) which surfaces our grief / revulsion about lost opportunities for contribution & receiving on group levels,
    h) but also restores the tribal part of our birthright.

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