Feature Article: Learning Integral the Hard Way: An Autobiographical Account of Martial Arts, Peace and the Pieces of the Puzzle

Mark Walsh

Ken Bloody Wilber

Mark WalshIntegral theory irritates the hell out of me because I didn’t find it sooner and I had to make up a sketchy version of it myself. This article isn’t about all the great ways I use the Integral map now, but how I learnt what it was the hard way, out there in the big bad, non-theoretical world. Eggheads beware this is one messy omelette.

Before I knew what integral was I was interested in balance. I started studying psychology and martial arts at university at the same time. Psychology claimed to be the definitive discipline of mind and behaviours yet I was leaning as much if not more about people in the dojo as in the classroom. I found that these two things along with comparative religion and poetry provided a fuller picture than Cognitive Psychology alone. Later through studying the body I came across emotions, and as a young man I was always very interested in practical research into my sexual line of development, so I started to grow in a holistic way.

After some time seeing how mind, moods, emotion and spirit play out as children develop in outdoor education—like UK Summer Camps but for schools—I was offered my dream gig. I became Assistant Manager to a project that employed aikido with the United Nations on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. A non-profit organisation called Aiki Extensions was bringing together 100 people from conflicted countries to train aikido with each other in the no-man’s land between sides of the divided city of Nicosia. Now aikido is somewhat of a paradox—martial art based on love and harmony—mere theory this is not. In a way this project was the logical conclusion of the aikido ethos of uniting people and resolving conflict, and of my own academic and practical research up to that point. Of course, I had no idea what would happen when we crammed a room full of highly trained martial arts experts who had been taught tohate each other, and each other’s cultures from birth.

First we had to overcome the logistical challenges of languages (7 were widely used), visas (try taking 14 warring nationalities through Greek, Turkish then UN checkpoints just to have dinner) and transport (one group for example drove around two countries to get to an airport they could fly from). When we finally had everyone together in April 2005 there was a moment where the thought occurred to me and I’m guessing visionary organisers Donald Levine and Richard Strozzi Heckler too, “Oh shit, we’ve actually got everyone here; what happens next…”

Through the physical play of power and vulnerability that is aikido, as well as living, eating, laughing, doing somatic bodywork and a little talking together, what happened was extraordinary. We witnessed, in fact we were part of, an elevation of consciousness beyond what we could have imagined. In simple integral terms we all experienced a deep worldcentric orientation and many of us experienced altered states that were hard to express. Friendships were formed—even a cross border romance—bicommunal projects started and the future looked bright for all those involved. I was so profoundly affected that I knew I couldn’t go back to ”normal” work. With the help of the people at Cyprus I invented a new job travelling the world supporting AE’s projects.

Looking back, one might ask was what we did in Nicosia integrally informed? Yes, but using insufficient maps would be my answer. We knew that cognitive learning alone without practice and grounding in the body was not enough, we tested our hypothesis that people could be brought together quickly and powerfully using a more integrated approach and it worked. For a time! Most of those in the AE leadership are from a generation that fought hard against sexism, racism, class prejudice and homophobia. All these areas were potential minefields in Cyprus (among the actual mine fields) but were transcended temporarily. Because we had no model involving stages or structures of consciousness we were extremely surprised that within a year many of the projects and relationships that had started had fallen into difficulties. This seemed partly due to pressure from world events, partly due to lack of support from communities when people had returned (lower quadrants) and a personally “slip-back” that most of us had experienced (upper quadrants). Many of us involved with projects didn’t have all the capacities we needed. Even if we were in adequate states and stages, weaknesses along social, ethical, physical and cognitive lines became apparent in some cases. Continued organisation and funding, for example, could not be sustained by one peak experience alone. Only through heroic hard work, rapid learning and patience from did few key people hold things together. So we learnt; we leant to take account of internals and externals, culture and nature, individuals and the societies that exist within. This stuff is all relatively easy to learn form a text book—and in a way to wasn’t news to us—but to embody it under pressure, as friends became refugees, lives were threatened and funds were short, now that was a challenge!

In the three years after Cyprus I made mistake after mistake that a good integral map could have helped avoid. Let’s start with my experience of teaching aikido to a HIV awareness circus in Ethiopia. My main contacts there were two local gymnasts and budding aikido instructors (one of whom I’d met in Cyprus) and an American who ran the “Awassa Youth Campus.” This haven was to house the first “Peace Dojo” in East Africa. The Peace Dojo was designed to provide a positive way for young people to develop and to bring together potentially hostile ethnic groups. In Spiral Dynamics terms Ethiopia has a strong purple current (like Rwanda) with a basically red government leading a red-blue (Ethiopian Christian/Muslim orthodox) cultural elite and a small educated orange middle class. This is something that it would have been very difficult to say to me at the time; as a non-profit worker (green as it gets) I would have considered such talk of levels colonialist and possibly racist. In case any of my green colleagues are reading this I’d highlight that Ethiopia has many fine cultural and artistic traditions as a result of not being colonised except for a brief and unpleasant Italian occupation. Historically, they were the first Christian country and one of the first nations to reach a blue centre of gravity, before various tragedies challenged them in modern times. They also invented human beings (See Lucy—the proto human discovered there and named after Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds) so show some respect!

Mark Walsh and Friend in Ethiopia

Mark and Local Theatre Director Removing Automatic Weaponry from Ethiopian Children’s Organisation.

So in I waltzed into this cultural mix with my pluralistic, relativist green values and methods and tried to teach aikido. I had high levels of regard for the teachers I was working with there and no idea that they could (or myself) be fantastically developed on some lines but pretty basic on others. Cross culturally, I find lines of development become very obvious as you can be dealing with someone you know isn’t stupid, in fact far from it, but they won’t be able to grasp something that is simple to you, while simultaneously laughing at your own incompetency in other areas (dancing and social capital building for example in my case in Ethiopia). My green ideals were quickly upset as I realised that many of the students were red power orientated and just wanted to use aikido to beat each other up. I was actively challenged several times and I woke from a nap one day to find a student bloodying a local taekwondo instructor who had dropped in to see “if we were any good.” I started giving flashy red demonstrations—machete disarming was always a winner—and helping people up to blue with rules and boundaries—a real pain for my green values and Irish heritage! What I realised was that we were trying to help young people develop without really having a developmental model—and all his was before I had heard of Spiral Dynamics or any other similar system. I just found out the hard way.

In a way Ethiopia and the rest of the developing world is always a mishmash as we are so globalised. Football, hip-hop, porn, AK47s and all the rest produced by all memes, worldwide, are there to be used and abused. I’ve watched DVDs on plasma screens in shanty towns and “bounced” to 50 Cent (50 Birr in Ethiopia) and ancient tribal music cut with Jamaican Reggae in the same evening. Anyway, I survived learning to dance, riots, hyenas, corruption and a nasty tapeworm. The teachers from there have just finished a tour of the US, so I’m keen to see what they make of the “developed” world from up-close!

My experience of working through aikido with children from the favela slums of Brazil was a similar learning experience. Again, I sometimes failed to take account of physiological, cultural, societal and mental differences (in Brazil “English time” and “English kiss” are very specific things that aren’t necessarily good!) Cultural diversity became very apparent to me as an influence on people though, I found it hard to express, particularly in individualistic countries like the USA and UK, which were mean-green infested and called anything cultural racist on one hand and said everything was relative on the other. Blindness to lower right conditions led some I worked with to say class was irrelevant—in Brazil like Apartheid South Africa it is almost two countries living side by side.

This became a ludicrous notion—divisions between rich and poor were right there to see.

Another aspect of Integral that started to appear on my radar during these travels is the pre-post confusion. Aikido can be done integrally incorporating the best of pre-modern, modern and postmodern, it also contains a lot of pre-conventional irrational baggage that gets confused with the really juicy post conventional possibilities it contains. Again, I now have clarity of distinctions that I previously only had a vague sense of. I only became aware of the Integral model as espoused by Ken Bloody Wilber (KBW) and friends when I ceased travel and work for Aiki Extensions and set up a business in corporate training, becoming the UK’s leading embodied training provider—see I was looking for a framework to hold the holistic approach to business I find effective as AE stalwart Miles Kessler—one of the leaders of bi-communal Israeli/Palestinian training—introduced me to KBW. Ever since then the clarity around what went right and wrong in the projects I was involved with has massively increased (as did number of rows I had with pluralistic friends at first) and the success of my own work.

So bearing in mind how levels, quadrants, lines and the pre-post distinction has informed my understanding, has it been adopted by my past colleagues? Not really. Some are interested. Some have told me they find it dry and overly theoretical, and this I can understand. The cognitive line may lead in one sense, but I’ve found it tends not to inspire, which is necessary for leadership in the wider sense. Others are offended by what they perceive as a regression to judgemental thinking—a contradiction I understand but don’t agree with.

I’m left with the question of whether learning Integral the hard way was necessary to really embody it or was just being plain stupid? I’m clear that book learning alone isn’t enough and am glad to see ILP develop in the Integral world. I hope this will cure what one friend described as the “mental masturbation” that comes without grounded engagement. For a person to be integrally informed/educated, real world—preferably real edgy world—experience is needed, along with committed daily practices and the normal weekend comfortable trainings and retreats. The balancing point to this for me is that a good road map (to borrow a phrase from the Middle East) might not get you where you want to go, but sure makes things easier. As I look back with thanks to all those in The Middle East, Cyprus, USA, Ethiopia and Brazil and other conflicted countries that provided my first integral education, I’m also thankful I now have access to the Integral model in the conflicted times I find my business moving into. So, thanks to Aiki Extensions, thanks to KBW and to the fear polluters of the “global financial meltdown” or whatever it’s being called this week…bring in on. Bring it ALL on.

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Mark Walsh was born at a young age in England and has since studied psychology, aikidio, Non-Violent Communication, meditation and has worked/played in outdoor eduction, in the non-profit sector worldwide and now leads the UK’s embodied business specialist company—Integration Training. Aside from his “work” he enjoys tango, snowboarding, martial arts, blogging, poetry, walking, defectating and eating. He lives in Brighton with two mad cats and four enlightened goldfish.