What Next Conference: Integrating the Future

Michael Stern

 Michael Stern

Michael Stern

Hooray! The world did not end on December 21, 2012, and thus I had the privilege of attending the What Next conference and ringing in the New Year with the international integral tribe. I spent five days at the lovely Omni Interlocken Resort with around 400 incredibly smart, loving, passionate people. The conference loosely continued the tradition of the Integral Spiritual Experience gatherings in previous years. But the theme this year was the Future of Consciousness, Culture, and Technology, and the conference was held outside of Denver so Ken Wilber could be there in person for a keynote address and his Lifetime Achievement Award Tribute Dinner. The excitement buzzed throughout the five days and continues to resonate with me more than a month later.

It was my first time at a large integral gathering and I was really touched by the experience. After making the tough decision to miss ISE3 last year, when I heard about this year’s conference and the plan for Ken to be there in person, I knew this was the right time to go. What I did not anticipate was the energetic effect of the conference dates aligning with the 2012 Winter Solstice and my 28th birthday on December 27. The theme of the conference gave the event a quality like a coming of age ceremony, and I found that it had a powerful impact on my own process of becoming an independent young man. I remain very grateful to have been able to connect with so many amazing people in such a beautiful space, and I am happy to share with you some of my experience.

Opening Sessions

The conference was co-hosted by integral favorites Jeff Salzman, Diane Hamilton, and Terry Patten. We kicked off the event by listening to Jeff give some context for the event by describing how we can track evolution through multiple dimensions. Our focus would be on three familiar perspectives in particular: first person–consciousness and the question of “what can you see?;” second person–the realm of culture that asks “how do we see each other?;” and third person–technology and the question of “what is happening?” These questions would frame our explorations of everything from money and politics, to relationships and spirituality, to Hollywood and the Muppets.

After the introduction Terry brought the element of ritual into the space, asking us to pair up and witness each other in consciously setting an intention for the next five days. My intention was “to open myself fully, with vulnerability and devotion, to whatever guidance I may receive from the richness of this field.” My partner’s intention was inspiring to me, and it was a wonderfully supportive experience to track each other over the course of the next five days.

Diane then elucidated the defining characteristics of the integral movement as non-dual awareness (first person), a community of practice (second person), and the evolutionary perspective (third person). Diane led us through a sentence-stem completion exercise in small groups, where we explored our experience from the perspective of the egocentric, ethnocentric, worldcentric, and Kosmic-centric self. We noticed that for many of us that there was a collective shadow around the ethnocentric perspective and that it was hard to fully embody that worldview from a place of authentic healthy pride. But we also acknowledged that in order to work with this energy and perspective in others and in the world, we need to find it within ourselves, become familiar with it, and integrate it. This process helped reveal some of the golden shadow as well.

The Future of Spirituality

Chart Pad Notes: The Future of Spirituality

At the end of the conference we circled back around to explore the same practices again with Terry and Diane, except Diane led us in reverse order through the perspective of each level of self as informed by its awakening to the next higher level. The experience was dramatically different, with much less fear and anxiety and much more patience and love. When Terry invited us to set an intention for 2013, what came for me was (1) “to cultivate a life devoted to practice as the foundation for my commitment to myself, my life, and my purpose;” and (2) “to step into my role as a leader with courage, confidence, humility and curiosity and with clarity and an open heart.”

The final component of the opening session was a brilliant talk given by Roger Walsh, showing how the integral worldview can most effectively interact with other theories of reality and belief systems, which often operate on unrecognized assumptions (which is not to say that integral does not do this). Roger went on to describe the dynamics of what happens when two differing belief systems interact, and suggested some useful perspectives we could take when we encounter someone whose belief system clashes with our own: we could be wrong; there’s always something to learn; and theories matter (in other words, a person’s worldview is important to them and they may be sensitive to being vulnerable about it). Roger also explained how we can apply Integral theory appropriately to work with our cultural values, particularly our currently very unhealthy understanding of love, at a deep and systemic level by treating virtues as a skill that can be cultivated through specific practices and techniques. Finally, he looked at the essential qualities of highly successful integral leaders: theoretical and professional expertise, communication through translation and transmission, and a lifetime of inner work and maturation in the spirit of karma yoga.

Entertainment and Practice Sessions

Every morning we began our day with some form of integral practice that included movement, meditation, and energy work. There were also opportunities to dive deeper into several types of practice: yoga with Sofia Diaz, Strength Training with Rob McNamara, Aikido with Miles Kessler, Heart Practice with Doshin Michael Nelson, Shadow Practice with Cindy Lou Golin, Circling with Robert MacNaughton, Nature with Diane Hamilton, and Meditation with Michael Mugaku Zimmerman.

In the evenings we had a dance party with DJ recluse (Corey deVos) and DJ Sosan (Kelly Sosan Bearer), Integral Games night with Robert MacNaughton and Decker Cunov from Authentic World, and a piano concert with Arni Karlsson and Ed Sarath accompanied by Jeff Salzman reading a series of pointing out instructions written by Ken. For New Year’s Eve we welcomed the awesome Paa Kow and his By All Means band, who kept the rhythms flowing into 2013.

Spotlight Talks

Modeled on the now famous TEDTalks, several pioneering integral thinkers took the stage for brief rapid-fire presentations of their work. I found myself surprised to learn about so many different areas where the integral model was already being applied successfully to create meaningful change in the world. It was truly inspiring to see how the integral perspective can make such a huge difference in areas such as parenting, international development, and addiction recovery.

Steve McIntosh spoke eloquently about evolution’s purpose of perfecting the universe through beauty, truth and goodness, while Michael Schwartz invited the integral movement to consciously adopt the virtues of integrity, maturity, and openness. Cindy Wigglesworth presented her latest work on spiritual intelligence, and Allan Combs gave us a hilarious tour of the Wilber-Combs Matrix.

Some of my favorite presentations were from Keith Witt and Zachary Feder. Keith demonstrated mastery of his field as well as a brilliant sense of humor and deep compassion for the human condition.  Zachary spoke of “Spiritual Singularity” in which a generation of awakened beings would bring the “death of spirituality” and the convergence of consciousness and technology would usher in an integral age of transparency and a god-like collective conscience.

Breakout Sessions

Much of our exploration of the future of integral was done in the context of breakout sessions with panels of experts having focused discussions on specific topics. There were many interesting choices: politics, our “many bodies” (gross, subtle, casual, etc.), the multi-generational and international aspects of the integral movement, social media, relationships, and more. Unfortunately, all of these sessions were occurring during only two time slots, so we were forced to choose. I attended two panels addressing two areas that are of primary concern for me right now: money and spirituality.

The panelists for the Future of Money, Marketing, and Making a Living were Brett Thomas, who has worked for many years to bring integral leadership into corporate America; Bill Harris, the President and Director of Centerpointe Research Institute (producer of the Holosync programs); and Cindy Wigglesworth, President of Deep Change, Inc. and author of SQ21: The Twenty-One Skills of Spiritual Intelligence. We also saw a short video of John Mackey talking about his new book, Conscious Capitalism.

Much of the discussion was regarding reframing the idea of marketing: considering it not so much as an attempt to sell something to someone, but as a form of leadership and advocacy that empowers us to share our perspective and be of service by providing value. We also looked at the difference between marketing integral theory and marketing quality products and services that use the integral perspective to solve real problems and meet real needs. If we also think of marketing as building meaningful relationships, we can use the guiding question “what would love do?”

We also touched on some of the shadow issues around money. One was the vMeme Green’s allergy to unhealthy vMeme Orange, which has created a form of capitalism that is currently more like an addict going through withdrawal than John Mackey’s vision of a voluntary and mutually beneficial exchange of value. Another was the insidious self-doubt that tells us that we don’t deserve to make a lot of money. Third was the famous idea that compassionate services should be free, and that charging for those services indicates a lack of integrity.

There were a number of people in the room who were clearly looking for a more radical approach to the topic of money, myself included. I left the panel feeling disappointed that most of the time was spent discussing a more conscious form of capitalism and hardly any time was spent looking at post-capitalist economic models. I believe that the integral movement and the conscious business movement have a lot to learn from each other and that the success of each depends in part on their collaborating. But I also believe that for the so-called leading edge of evolution, the integral community, has been alarmingly silent when it comes to the apparently imminent collapse of our economic system. The transition and resilience movements are preparing for a radically different world; and while we do not know what the future will bring, it seems that much of the integral community is doing more thinking and talking than acting.

The Future of Spirituality had many panel members including co-hosts Terry Patten and Diane Hamilton, Doshin Michael Nelson (Hollow Bones Zen Master), Vincent Horn (Buddhist Geeks), and Cindy Lou Golin (Life Coach). We saw video clips from Lama Surya Das and Andrew Cohen. Dustin DiPerna and Christina Sophie, who facilitate the WE-Practice group in San Francsico, led us in a powerful inter-subjective practice of seeing each other with Deep Time Eyes (seeing each other as the evolutionary process itself, beginning with the Big Bang) and Golden Shadow Eyes (seeing each other as our future potential).

This panel also covered a wide range of topics, including “trans-lineage” spiritual practice; the end of the guru model; and spiritual teachers’ reliance on young tech-savvy practitioners to help spread the dharma through social media. In fact, much of the conversation revolved around the relationship between consciousness, technology, and spiritual practice. Vincent Horn discussed the increasing variety and availability of “techno boosts” that can help practitioners attain meditative states more easily, which raised questions about the significance of developing spiritual muscles over time and whether using these performance enhancing methods was akin to cheating. The conversation also turned to the possibility of developing technology that would help individuals evolve through structure-stages. Almost nobody had yet come across such technology that had been shown to be effective, but the room seemed to agree that this was only a matter of time.

General Sessions

In addition to the spotlight talks and breakout sessions, there were several occasions for the community to gather as a large group for longer presentations. We heard from Jocelyn Stevenson, an integralist who has worked in children’s television for almost 40 years, and Steve Whitmire, who inherited the role of Kermit the Frog upon Jim Henson’s death in 1990. Jocelyn and Steve talked about the challenges and rewards of trying to bring about a more integral world through children’s media, and I found it very encouraging to know that they embodied their roles with such care and integrity. We also received a special treat when Steve brought Kermit out to dialogue with the audience and Ken Wilber. The children in the crowd rushed to the front of the room, and sat in front of the stage, mesmerized. Kermit’s wisdom and humor really touched my inner Muppet, and the child in everyone came alive for a sing-along of “It Ain’t Easy Being Green.”

Another of the more entertaining sessions, led by David Riordan, Michael Zimmerman, Bert Parlee, and Corey deVos, invited us to look at our cultural stories about the future as they are portrayed through film and TV. We identified four major themes that show up often: post-apocalyptic dystopias, a highly centralized global community of haves and have-nots, the singularity and the emergence of a trans-human (or non-human) intelligence, and transformational stories with spiritual undertones and messages of karma, reincarnation, and complex adaptive systems. Film and TV are major vehicles for the expression of the human condition, and the stories we tell through film often influence as well as reflect our deepest hopes and fears.

A keynote address was given by Helen Palmer on the narrative tradition of the Enneagram. Her teaching was masterful as she described the narrative tradition’s historical roots in the Desert Fathers of the Middle East, the astrological significance of the Enneagram, and the great power of the Enneagram as a tool for awakening through being able to see the patterns of your own cognitive and emotional structures. She also modeled an interview process for us by inviting Diane Hamilton, Jeff Salzman, and her husband on stage to represent the Enneatype triad of 2, 5, and 8 (respectively). It was fascinating to watch Helen bring awareness to the deep patterns each of the participants, who recognized themselves immediately in her descriptions of their type. Perhaps her most important point, one that she hammered repeatedly (including once to me), was that the Enneagram is not just a typology.

Ken Wilber Keynote and Tribute

Of course, the highlight of the conference was having Ken live on stage for a  question and answer session with Terry Patten. Terry’s first question was the obvious one: how is your health? Ken informed us that after two years of dealing with a severe flare-up he was finally starting to regain his strength. He said he had started writing again, was working on finishing volume two of the Kosmos trilogy saying he had already written 200 pages. He also remarked on how happy it made him to be able to join us at the conference. Everyone was palpably relieved to hear this good news and excited for this special occasion.

KW Tribute Dinner

KW Tribute Dinner

After Terry’s next question Ken launched into his unique blend of intellectual discourse and spiritual transmission, identifying key contributions of integral to the future of humanity. For example, the recognition of adult stages of development and their role in culture wars, as well as higher structures of consciousness and the distinction between “waking up” and “growing up,” which then allows us to understand religion in terms of both a narrative tradition and a psycho-technology. Other examples included the return of “big picture” thinking after the decline of postmodernism, a focus on explicitly growth-based relationships, and a framework for multi-zone research.

Ken also shared with us some of the ideas from his new book, which looks at the relationship between the effects of our habits and past structures on the future as well as our ability to create something new in every moment. Referencing Whitehead, Ken explained that in each moment the new subject feels the object of the previous moment in a “prehensive embrace” that includes and transcends the previous moment in a creative advance towards novelty. The creative principle is built in to the evolutionary process, and creativity produces more complex holons (which then have higher creativity) in all four quadrants. The dynamics linking the past with creative effects on the future can be understood in terms of morphic fields, which compel us to behave as if every thought, word, and action is laying down the structures through which the future will unfold.

Finally, Ken gave a brief history of futurism and described a more integral approach to how we imagine the future. He explained how futurism began as a reaction to modernity and initially gave birth to two basic schools: the positive, which projected unbridled progress due to the scientific conquest of nature; and the negative, which projected a dystopian descent to hell at the hands of scientific materialism. Eventually a third school emerged, called the transformational school, which looked at both possibilities and came to the conclusion that the world would undergo a major shift in consciousness that would herald both the collapse of the old structures and the birth of a golden era. Many of the thinkers in these schools were narrowly focused on one dimension of evolution, such as biology, the economy, or technology; whereas taking a more integral view would of course take into account all four quadrants.

Ken’s vision of a possible integral future looked something like this: mass stabilization of non-dual awareness (UL), genetic and bio-technology reducing disease and extending lifespan (UR), transpersonal spirituality elevated to a valid cultural pursuit (LL), and a post-scarcity reputation-based economy driven by technological advances such as 3D printing and robotics. While this is certainly a lofty vision, Ken was clear that it was by no means a guarantee. He acknowledged that there is an important difference between the integral level of consciousness, which is descending/emerging through more and more individuals all the time; the integral movement, which needs to be vigilantly kept healthy by its members; integral organizations, which act to bring the integral worldview out into the world; and integral models, such as Integral Methodological Pluralism and AQAL.

Although still weak physically, Ken’s energy increased over the course of the presentation; and by the end he was speaking very powerfully about an integral approach to futurism and the future of the integral movement. When he returned the next day for his tribute dinner he was visibly moved by the love that poured out from so many of his closest friends. Stuart Davis hosted the ceremony, and one after another luminaries from the integral world and beyond took a few minutes to express their deep love, gratitude, and appreciation for Ken and his work. In addition to many of the teachers and presenters who were at the conference, we saw recorded tributes from Deepak Chopra, Alex and Allyson Grey, Father Thomas Keating, Tony Robbins, Lana Wachowski, Genpo Roshi, and many more. A clear theme emerged–that even though Ken is renowned for his brilliant mind, it is his huge heart that has often most profoundly touched those closest to him. Ken’s final speech was likewise filled with love and appreciation, and he conveyed the urgent imperative for everyone in the room to treat our movement with the care and respect it deserves.

The bottom line was that the evolutionary process is under tremendous pressure in all four quadrants, and as stewards of that process we need to cultivate creative intentionality from the highest self in all four quadrants. Our future LR systems will be the institutionalization of our LL values and the crystallization our UL intentionality. So we must practice conscious creativity and intentionality, relate to our commitments with a humorous seriousness, and step into our role and responsibility to care for ourselves, each other, our planet, and our Kosmos.

 About the Author

Michael Stern is the lead organizer of Integral Alignment, a community of integral evolutionary spiritual practitioners and change-agents in New York City. Their mission is to co-create a conscious culture in New York City.

Graphic Recording by Mathias Weitbrecht,