This post is taken from an article written as part of a series for the World Future Society. It is more theoretical than most in the series. Like it or not, to grasp ideas that follow from Creative Systems Theory—such as the concept of Cultural Maturity—at all deeply, we have, at least a bit, to roll up our sleeves and get dirty conceptually. This piece provides a start. It concludes by addressing a question presented to me early on with the series: Are there approaches we can use to foster culturally mature understanding?
Cultural Maturity is much more than just a helpful metaphor for what the future asks of us. I’ve described how it involves critical changes not just in what we think, but how we think. Cultural Maturity is the product of a necessary—and developmentally predicted—cognitive reordering. Creative Systems Theory has an ungainly (but precise) term for this result: Integrative Meta-perspective. Even just a beginning sense of it provides important insight.
We aren’t used to thinking of social/cultural change in cognitive terms. That I might, I’m sure comes in part from the fact that I am a psychiatrist as well as a futurist. In work with individuals, I’m used to thinking about change not just in terms of behavior, but in relationship to psychological development. I am also used to thinking about critical points in psychological development in terms of underlying cognitive changes. It was not a major leap for me to start thinking about large scale societal changes in developmental/cognitive terms.
I introduced Creative Systems Theory’s developmental framework with my first book The Creative Imperative over thirty years ago. The theory describes history—from our tribal beginnings to modern times—in terms of historical chapters. Each chapter is ushered in by developmentally-predicted cognitive changes. Of particular importance for our topic with this series of articles, the theory proposes that we can understand our time in a similar way. Today’s cognitive changes give us Integrative Meta-perspective’s new vantage for understanding.
Arguably the changes that produce culturally mature perspective have particular significance. Creative Systems Theory describes how thinking with each previous chapter in culture’s evolution has been organized around specific aspects of cognition (a topic we will return to shortly). In contrast, Integrative Meta-perspective engages and draws on the whole of our cognitive complexity. It involves both more fully stepping back from that complexity and more deeply engaging it. Integrative Meta-perspective makes it possible to understand in ways that are fundamentally more encompassing than in times past. We could say more systemic—or simply, more complete.
Our task with this article might seem pretty straightforward. If Integrative Meta-perspective provides the answer to the future that I suggest it does, then we need only define it and describe it. But making sense of just what it entails is not as simple as we might wish. We face a “Catch 22” dilemma that follows inescapably from what we are wanting to accomplish. We need Integrative Meta-perspective to fully grasp what our “cognitive complexity” involves, much less hold it in a culturally mature way. Our explanations can work only if they can help us make this conceptual leap.
To help get around this dilemma, I will here do a couple of things. I will draw more specifically on the ideas of Creative Systems Theory than I have with previous articles. Because Creative Systems Theory is itself a product of culturally mature perspective, its ideas have already made the necessary leap. I will also come at the task from a handful of different directions. This means a longer article than might be ideal, but the time and attention are well-rewarded.
I will first describe Cultural Maturity’s cognitive reordering in terms of two of the most helpful ways of thinking about our cognitive complexity— intelligence’s multiple aspects and what happens when we step beyond our historical tendency to think in the language of polarity. I will then tie these changes to the needed new skills and capacities that I’ve touched on in previous articles. Finally, I will turn to ways Cultural Maturity’s changes can be facilitated. I will describe more “hands-on” approaches that relate directly to understanding’s underlying mechanisms.
There is a particularly significant implication of the fact that we can understand Cultural Maturity in terms of cognitive changes that is important to mention before we dive in. This fact supports being legitimately hopeful about what may lie ahead. I’ve argued that without Cultural Maturity’s changes, it is hard to imagine an ultimately positive—or even simply survivable—human future. If Cultural Maturity is a product of cognitive changes that as potential are built into who we are, the likelihood that we can thrive and prosper in times ahead increases significantly. And if this is a cognitive reordering that we can actively facilitate, that likelihood increases further.
Integrative Meta-perspective and Intelligence’s Multiplicity
Our first way of approaching Cultural Maturity’ cognitive changes turns to how human intelligence has multiple parts. Besides our rationality—in which we take appropriate pride—intelligence has other aspects, some more emotional or symbolic, others more sensory. This simple recognition by itself is for many people new. We are more accustomed to thinking of intelligence and reason as one and the same. Integrative Meta-perspective alerts us to the fact that more is necessarily involved. It also makes it possible to apply our multiple intelligences in newly conscious and integrated ways (see Rethinking How We Think: The Critical Role of Multiple Intelligences).
Most of what Creative Systems Theory has to say about our diverse ways of knowing is beyond our scope, but some general observations are important to note. Particularly significant is how Creative Systems Theory provides an explanation for why we have multiple intelligences in the first place. Creative Systems Theory proposes that what most makes us human is our audacious tool-making, meaning-making—we could say simply “creative”—natures. It goes on to describe how we can understand human formative processes of all sorts—invention, individual development, and even the evolution of culture—in creative terms. Intelligence’s multiplicity is key to how this works. Creative Systems Theory delineates how our multiple intelligences work together to support and drive creative/formative process.
A further observation provides more detail. It turns out that different aspects of intelligence and different relationships between intelligences become most dominant at different creative stages. Creative Systems Theory describes how we find a related intelligence-specific progression with every kind of human formative process (see Intelligence and Creative Change). In my book Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future, I use changes in our relationship to intelligence’s multiple aspects to introduce the idea of Integrative Meta-perspective: “Integrative Meta-perspective involves two, almost opposite processes. We see both of them, simply at different scales of significance, with personal maturity and Cultural Maturity. The first produces greater awareness, a more complete kind of stepping back. The second produces the new depth of engagement needed if the result is to be not just further abstraction, but the deeply embodied kind of understanding that is needed for mature—wise—decision-making. Each kind of process is new, the first certainly in its implications, the second more fundamentally.
“The first process, that more complete stepping back, at least differs from what we have seen in times past in all it involves. With Cultural Maturity we become newly able to step back from ourselves as cultural beings. We also step back from dimensions of ourselves that in times past did not allow such perspective.
“How we come to relate to intelligence’s various aspects provides good illustration of this first aspect of Integrative Meta-perspective. Enlightenment thought similarly had its origins in a new kind of cognitive orientation. Stepping back from previous ways of knowing was a big part of it. We came better able to step back from the more mystical sensibilities that had given us the beliefs of the Middle Ages.
“Along with this more general stepping back, rationality came to have a newly central significance. The rational now stood clearly separate from the subjective aspects of experience and became specifically allied with conscious awareness. The resulting, as-if-from-a-balcony sense of clarity and objectivity, along with the new belief in the individual as logical choice-maker that came as a consequence, produced all the great advances of the Modern Age.
“But while Enlightenment perspective was a grand achievement, Integrative Meta-perspective’s stepping back represents a different sort of accomplishment. With Cultural Maturity, awareness comes to stand more fully separate from the whole of our intelligence’s systemic complexity—including the rational.
“Integrative Meta-perspective offers that we might step back equally from aspects of ourselves that before we might have treated as objective and those that we before thought of as subjective. In the process it offers that we might better step back from the whole systemic ball of wax whatever our concern.
“The second kind of process is not just different from what we have known, it finds no parallel at all in earlier developmental changes. Along with stepping back, Integrative Meta-perspective engages who we are with a new depth and completeness. It involves a newly possible connectedness with the full complexity of human experience. The result is Integrative Meta-perspective’s more complete, more embodied engagement with experience.
“We appropriately ask just what we newly engage with. Ultimately what we newly engage is the whole of ourselves as systems. Again, this has multiple aspects, but for our purposes it works to keep things simple and continue to focus on intelligence’s multiplicity. What we more deeply draw on is the whole of intelligence—all the diverse aspects of how we make sense of things.
“Culturally mature understanding involves the conscious involvement of more aspects of intelligence—more of our diverse ways of knowing—than before we’ve applied in one place. This requires not just that we be aware that intelligence has multiple aspects, but that in a new sense we engage, indeed embody each of these aspects. Put in the language of systems, systemic perspective of a culturally mature sort requires that we consciously draw on the whole of ourselves as cognitive systems. Culturally mature understanding requires thinking in a rational sense—indeed, it expands rationality’s role. But just as much it requires that we more directly plumb the more feeling, imagining, and sensing aspects of who we are. And this is so just as much for the most rigorous of hard theory as when our concerns are more personal.”
Framing Integrative Meta-perspective in terms of intelligence’s multiplicity provides a particularly powerful way to appreciate its importance. In a more limited sense we have always drawn on all aspects of intelligence. In doing a math problem, talking with a friend, or painting a picture, we tap very different parts of our neurology. Integrative Meta-perspective produces both a more aware relationship to our multiple ways of knowing and the ability to apply them in newly sophisticated and integrated ways. These results will be more and more critical in times ahead. Making sense of most anything about us—the values we hold, the nature of identity, what it means to have human relationship—increasingly requires this more encompassing kind of understanding.
An important outcome when we frame Cultural Maturity in this way might at first seem contradictory. On one hand, because culturally mature perspective draws on multiple, often conflicting aspects of who we are, its conclusions are less absolute and once-and-for-all than those we are used to. But at the same time, we can appropriately argue that culturally mature understanding is more objective than what it replaces. Certainly it is more complete. Enlightenment thought might have claimed ultimate objectivity, but this was in fact objectivity of most limited sort. Besides leaving culture’s parental status untouched, it left experience as a whole divided—objective (in the old sense) set apposed to subjective, mind set apposed to body, thoughts set apposed to feelings (and anything else that does not conform to modernity’s rationalist/materialist worldview). We cannot ultimately claim to be objective if we have left out half of the evidence. Culturally mature “objectivity” is of a more specifically whole-ball-of-wax sort.
We can use this framing of Integrative Meta-perspective in terms of intelligence’s multiplicity to help us distinguish culturally mature thought from more familiar ways of understanding. This application is most obvious with historical differences like those I described in contrasting Integrative Meta-perspective with Modern Age rational/objective understanding. But we can also use intelligence’s role to make more here-and-now compare-and-contrast distinctions. For example, in the previous article I made reference to postmodern thought. I described how it helps us begin to get beyond the ideological assumptions of times past. But I also emphasized how it ultimately leaves us short. Drawing on intelligence’s role helps us understand why this is the case.
Postmodern thought successfully takes on the first half of Integrative Meta-perspective’s two-part process—the stepping back part. Where it fails is that stops yet short of engaging the more integrative dynamics that produce the needed new, more complete ways of understanding. The circumstance I described—how postmodern thought ultimately leaves us wandering with only vague relativities to guide us—is what we would expect. If we are to make the discernments necessary to effectively making our way, we need, in addition, that new and deeper engagement with intelligence’s multiplicity. (In the next article in this series, I will make related compare-and-contrast distinctions with other ways of thinking about the future—such as techno-utopian beliefs and ideas that frame the future in specifically spiritual terms.)
I hinted at our second approach for making sense of Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes in noting how thinking of times past has left cognition’s complexity divided. We can similarly think of Integrative Meta-perspective’s two part process in terms of polarity. With each stage in culture to this point, we’ve understood in terms of qualities set in polar juxtaposition (us versus them, mind versus body, science versus religion). With Cultural Maturity’s cognitive reordering we both step back from and more deeply engage such juxtaposed elements. In the process, we become able to appreciate them as aspects of larger system realities.
Creative Systems Theory can again help us understand what we see. It describes how the fact that we think in polar terms in the first place is, again, a product of cognition’s “creative” mechanisms (see Polarity and Formative Process). Formative processes begin with a newly created aspect budding off from its original context. With each succeeding stage in formative process’s first half, polar aspects become even separate, juxtaposing in evolving, creatively-predicted ways. With the second, more mature half of any formative process, polarities reconcile to create a new and larger whole. The fact that Integrative Meta-perspective helps us get our minds around apparent polar opposites—here at the largest of scales—is a predicted consequence of our time in the human story (see Patterning in Time).
But we don’t need Creative Systems Theory’s detailed formulations to appreciate the basic relationship between polarity, complexity, and Integrative Meta-perspective. I describe a more basic way to think about polarity’s changing significance in my 1991 book, Necessary Wisdom:
“F. Scott Fitzgerald proposed that the sign of a first-rate intelligence (we might say a mature intelligence) is the ability to hold two contradictory truths simultaneously in mind without going mad. His reference was to personal maturity. But this capacity is such an inescapable part of culturally mature perspective that we could almost say it defines it. One of the most useful ways to think about how culturally mature perspective changes how we understand draws on a basic observation: Needed new understandings of every sort require that our thinking create links, “bridges”—and not just between phenomena we’ve regarded as different, but often between things that before now we’ve treated as complete opposites—as polarities.”
I put the work “bridging” in quotes because of the Catch 22 dilemma noted earlier. If the relationship between “bridging” and complexity is to make ultimately useful sense, we must avoid confusing this result with a couple more familiar outcomes. “Bridging” as I am using the term is wholly different from averaging or compromise, walking the middle of the road. And just as much it is different from simple oneness, the collapsing of one pole into the other as we commonly see with more spiritual interpretations. “Bridging” in this sense is about consciously engaging the larger whole-ball-of-wax picture.
We can think of Cultural Maturity’s point of departure as itself a “bridging” dynamic. We step back and see the relationship of culture and the individual in more encompassing terms. Cultural Maturity bridges ourselves and our societal contexts (or put another way, ourselves and final truth). It is through this most fundamental bridging that we leave behind society’s past parental function.
Importantly, Cultural Maturity is not about culture’s role disappearing. Rather it is about a new and deeper recognition of how individual and culture relate—about how, through our thoughts and actions, we create culture, and how personal and cultural realities each inform the other. It is also about making our understanding of both being an individual, and being an individual who lives in an interpersonal context, more dynamic and complete (see Beyond Culture As Parent).
This most encompassing linkage holds within it a multitude of more local “bridgings.” Nothing more characterized the last century’s defining conceptual advances than how their thinking linked previously unquestioned polar truths. Physics’ new picture provocatively circumscribed the realities of matter and energy, space and time, and object with its observer. New understandings in biology linked humankind with the natural world, and by reopening timeless questions about life’s origins, joined the purely physical with the organic. And the ideas of modern psychology, neurology, and sociology have provided an increasingly integrated picture of the workings of conscious with unconscious, mind with body, self with society, and more.
It is important to appreciate that thinking in the language of polarity is not by itself a problem. The fact that today it has very much become a problem is an expression of where we now reside in the story of understanding. In times past, polarity worked. The polar tensions between church and crown in the Middle Ages, for example, were tied intimately to that time’s experience of meaning. With the Modern Age—and just as right and timely in their contributions—we saw Descartes’ cleaving of truth into separate objective and subjective realities, along with the competing arguments of positivist and romantic worldviews. And while I strongly emphasize the outmodedness of petty ideological squabbles between political left and political right, I am just as comfortable proposing that such squabbles, in their time, were creative and essential. They drove the important conversations. The problem is not with polarity itself, but with its inability in our current time to effectively generate truth and meaning.
“Bridging” in the sense I have described expands understanding in essential ways. We can put the result specifically in terms of complexity. Bridgings of any sort take an either/or world and replace it with a picture that is more multi-hued and rich in its implications than we could have understood in times past. The result is understanding of just the “idea whose time has come” sort needed for a vital and healthy future.
A good place to recognize such bridging’s fundamental newness is the way culturally mature conclusions can on first encounter seem paradoxical. Such apparent paradox is most obvious with ideas that are not so much about us—for example, how cutting-edge notions in physics are perfectly comfortable with something being at once a particle and a wave. But it is just as inescapably present with explicitly human concerns. Mature love makes us both more separate and more deeply connected; mature leadership is both more powerful and more humble than what it replaces.
Culturally mature perspective makes clear that this paradoxical appearance is nothing mysterious. It simply reflects polarity’s necessary role in how we think. Blindness to polarity constrains us within a world of absolutes (and projections). Cultural Maturity’s threshold highlights the existence of polarity and alerts us to the fact that a polar picture is inadequate. Step over that threshold and into culturally mature territory and things become more of a whole—a more dynamic and multifaceted kind of whole than we are used to, but also one in which the opposites of paradox are not ultimately at odds.
Culturally Mature Skills and Capacities
In first introducing the concept of Cultural Maturity, I proposed that one of the ways it most assists us is that it helps clarify the new skills and capacities that we will need if we are to effectively address future challenges. These reflections on the cognitive reordering that gives us culturally mature perspective take us the essential further step of helping us understand what makes these needed new skills and capacities possible. Below I’ve briefly outlined how this is the case for each of the needed new abilities mentioned in the earlier article.
Learning to Better Tolerate Complexity and Uncertainty: We can’t escape that we live in an increasingly complex and often uncertain world. Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes help us both better tolerate complexity and think in ways that better take uncertainty into account.
With regard to complexity, we’ve seen how Integrative Meta-perspective makes it newly possible to consciously hold cognition’s multiple aspects. Because culturally mature understanding more directly draws on our own systemic complexity, it helps us more effectively make sense of and tolerate complexity in the world around us.
For a related reason, Cultural Maturity’s changes make us more comfortable in uncertainty’s presence. Uncertainty is inherent to cognition’s new, more multi-faceted picture. Ideas become ideological—and thus expressions of last-word truth—when we make one part of a larger complexity the whole of understanding. Engage understanding as a whole and uncertainty, rather than some enemy of truth, becomes intrinsic to any deep understanding of truth. Creative Systems Theory goes further to describe how uncertainty is a necessary ingredient in cognition’s “creative” workings.
Getting Beyond the Us-Versus-Them Assumptions of Times Past: In previous articles, I’ve described the importance of leaving behind “chosen people/evil other” polarizations—those that have defined relationships between nations and also those that have separated groups that advocate for particular ideological positions. I’ve also described how both love and leadership are challenging us to relate not as halves that together make a whole, but as whole beings. Integrative Meta-perspective’s systemic vantage helps us re-own the projections that before have produced mythologized perceptions of both the idealized and demonized sort. We become better able to act in the world as whole systems and to engage other systems as whole systems.
Better Appreciating the Fact of Real Limits: I’ve similarly emphasized the importance of better acknowledging real limits of every sort—limits to what we can often do, limits to what we can know and predict, and limits to what we can be for one another. The article on death addressed life’s ultimate limit. Ideological beliefs, notions that take one part of our systemic complexity and make it the whole of truth, by their nature make claims for limitlessness. That they do is a major part of their appeal. Integrative Meta-perspective’s more encompassing vantage reveals the limits inherent to any partial perspective. It also makes clear that whatever our concern, in the end limits come with the territory.
Learning to Think About What Matters in More Systemically Complete Ways: I touched on this new capacity in looking at the future of morality (where we saw that moral choices are ultimately between competing goods), at the future of love (where we examined how Whole-Person love requires that we more directly discern when a human connection is life-enhancing), and with our modern Crisis of Purpose (with our look at the need to define wealth and progress in more encompassing ways). With Integrative Meta-perspective we become newly able to “measure” significance in ways that reflect the whole of who we are and the whole of anything we might wish to consider.
Better Understanding How Events Happen In a Context—Here Particularly In the Context of Our Time in Culture’s Story. Critical to needed new approaches to understanding is the ability to think in ways that are not just more encompassing, but that also let us make more nuanced distinctions. These are necessarily distinctions of a new sort. Observations made from Modern Age thought’s rationalist perspective describe difference in this-versus-that, mechanistic, gears-and-pulleys terms. Integrative Meta-perspective lets us discern in ways that better reflect that we are living systems—and more specifically, human systems. One important characteristic of this new, more encompassing and dynamic kind of systemic thinking is that we become more attentive to context. With culturally mature truth, the when and the where is always as important as the what. We can think of Creative Systems Theory’s framework for understanding purpose, change, and interrelationship in human systems as a set of tools for teasing apart such contextual relativities.
Facilitating Integrative Meta-perspective
If Cultural Maturity is a product of specific cognitive changes, it follows that there should then be ways to facilitate the stretch these changes require. I think of this series of articles as one attempt to do just that. Here the method I’ve most drawn on is to examine critical issues and identify both changes that are happening and capacities needed if further changes are to be realized. Practicing any of the new capacities I’ve mentioned helps generate the needed stretch.
When I work with groups I often use approaches that more specifically draw on cognition’s complexity. For example, I may describe intelligence’s multiple aspects and engage the group in practicing each aspect’s conscious application. Or I may describe particular polarities embedded in how we think and have the group brainstorm what larger ways of understanding might look like.
Some of the approaches I find most powerful draw on culturally mature truth’s relativity in cultural time. For example, once each year for many years I did an eight hour presentation I called “An Evolutionary History of Music.” The presentation explored how music (along with visual art and movement) has evolved over human time (an edited version can be found at An Evolutionary History of Music). Because music, art, and movement utilize different intelligences than we customarily bring to understanding history, their evolutionary stories make great ways to learn about holding the whole of our complexity.
I also often make use of approaches that draw on more here-and-now relativities—for example, how truth looks different when perceived through the eyes of people with different personality styles. Creative Systems Theory’s framework for understanding temperament proposes that personality differences have their roots in the fact that different people draw more or less strongly on different aspects of cognition’s complexity. I often select groups so that the whole of temperament diversity is reflect in the group’s makeup. Actively—and consciously—working with others who embody these differences offers a provocative way to begin making the needed stretch (see The Creative Systems Personality Typology.)
One particular approach that I draw on both in trainings and as a therapist with individuals has special significance because it promotes Integrative Meta-perspective in an especially direct way. I call it simply Parts Work.” As long as a person is ready to deal with Cultural Maturity’s demands, when Parts Work is done skillfully, culturally mature perspective is an almost inescapable result. Parts Work draws on a way of understanding our cognitive complexity that might at first seem only metaphorical. In fact it could not be more precise. Parts Work treats the various aspects of our cognitive complexity like characters in a play or crayons in a box.
Parts Work engages people in learning to hold and creatively manage the whole of themselves—to effectively draw on all the characters in the play/crayons in the box. We can think of Parts Work as providing not just a powerful way to facilitate needed changes, but also a hands-on definition for Integrative Meta-perspective.
The best way to understand Parts Work is to imagine doing it. Start by thinking of yourself sitting in a chair (this is the Whole-Person, Integrative Meta-perspective identity chair). Then imagine placing your most important parts around you in other chairs (perhaps an intellectual part, an angry part, a scared part, a sensitive part, a sexual part).
Your first task with Parts Work is to learn to distinguish yourself from your parts. In our everyday lives, it is common for one or more parts to take over, relate to the world as if they are who we are. The first cardinal rule in Parts Work is that parts don’t get to be in charge. The second cardinal rule is that parts only get to communicate with the Whole-person identity chair—not with each other and not with the world. In a culturally mature reality, only the Whole-Person chair has a relationship with the world.
If you have a question you wish to explore, I may have you begin by articulating the question as best you can to your parts. I may also have you tell them where you have gotten to so far in answering the question. I then might invite you to get the input of each part, in turn going to each chair and seeing what it has to say. At the end, I might suggest that you make a “leadership statement” to the parts summarizing how your thinking has evolved through your engagement with them.
The cardinal rules I’ve described, besides being imbedded in the technique, are also modeled in the room in my relationship with the person I am working with. I take care to relate only to you in the Whole-Person identity chair. If parts attempt to talk to me, I direct their attention back to where it belongs.
Notice that there are two kinds of processes implied in this simple description. Each is key to Integrative Meta-perspective’s changes. First is learning to know the difference between yourself when you are in the Whole-Person identity chair and when you are in a part. This first kind of process involves separation and distinction. We see the second kind of process in the ensuing conversations. It involves a new and deeper kind of engagement with parts. Using the box-of-crayons metaphor, the first is about not confusing yourself with particular crayons. The second is about learning to appreciate the whole box and creatively apply all the various crayons.
This dual process helps a person arrive at more systemic answers to particular questions. But with time, applied to many questions, and not just personal questions, but also questions of a more social/cultural sort, it brings about a more important result—Cultural Maturity’s needed cognitive reordering. We can think if this outcome as a kind of “rewiring” (see Cultural Maturity’s Cognitive Rewiring).
The following excerpt adapted from Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future presents an example of Parts Work. The example comes from individual therapy done with a respected biologist and environmentalist. It starts with work at a personal level, but then transitions to address perspective needed more broadly for effective culturally mature leadership:
“Bill’s father had died. The immediate reason Bill had come to me was the depression that the loss had evoked. But with time, along with addressing grief, he recognized a further concern—what he described as a war within himself.
“Bill’s father had left him a beautiful piece of land that had been in the family for generations. Bill loved the place and planned to construct a cabin and move there when he retired. But new zoning regulations had made the land unbuildable. Suddenly, his plans were on hold. He felt deeply sad—and angry. The particular situation disturbed him, but even more disturbing to him ultimately was the way his response to it had left him torn from the comfortable moorings of a once-unquestioned set of beliefs. He was known for banging heads with property rights proponents and more often than not emerging victorious. Now disparate internal voices were advocating not just different social policies, but two very different—and contradictory—views of the world. Bill found distress and confusion in this conflict and asked if we could somehow explore it.
“I agreed. But I recognized that such work would present some difficulties. Bill was an exceptionally intelligent man with well-thought-out beliefs that were not easily questioned. We would have to do more than just talk if I was to be of help. I began by having Bill imagine that the warring parts were like two characters on a stage. I asked him to describe everything he could about each character—what it wore, its age, the expression on its face. Then I had him invite them into the room. The environmentalist sat stage left, sensitive features, longish hair. The property rights advocate stood more distant, stage right, stockier in build, baseball cap tucked between his crossed arms. After a bit, he too sat down.
“I instructed Bill to turn to the two figures and describe the issue he wanted to address. After a bit of initial self-consciousness, Bill proceeded to talk with them about the land, the new regulations, the deep conflict he felt. Then I suggested that he go over to each chair and speak as that character—become it and give voice to what it felt about the questions at hand. I had him return to his own chair when each character had said its piece and from there to respond to the chair that had spoken and follow up with any further questions he might have. I instructed him to let himself be surprised by what each character might say.
“This back and forth went through several iterations, first Bill speaking, then in turn, each of the parts. The character in the left chair spoke of the importance of protecting the environment in its natural state. The character on the right argued that government had no right to dictate what a person did with private property. Both expressed a longing to live in such a beautiful place. As the dialogue progressed, Bill’s relationships with each of them deepened. He became increasingly able to find a place in himself where he could both respect what each character had to say and see limits to its helpfulness.
“After some time, Bill again turned to me. He said he felt a bit disoriented, but that the conversation had helped. He commented that much of what the two characters said had indeed surprised him—and moved him. He found it particularly enlightening that each character seemed essentially well-intentioned. Before he had framed the environmental/property rights conflict as a battle between good and ignorance (if not worse). The work showed him that it was more accurately a battle between competing goods. Initially, it had been hard for him not to identify with the environmentalist, but, with time, he recognized that in fact each group had important things to say.
“The brief piece of work hadn’t given Bill a final answer for how to approach the property issue. But it had given him a more solid place to stand for making needed decisions. He had begun to see a more full and creative picture.
“Later I asked Bill what broader implications the exercise might have for his professional efforts. We decided to continue with the hands-on approach. I tossed him particularly thorny questions that pitted environmental concerns against property rights concerns. His task was to hold his Whole-Person chair, and from there to use his two “consultants” to help him determine the most effective and fair approach. The result in each case was a deeper understanding of the dilemmas involved and, in several instances, novel solutions.
This example is highly simplified. Such work most often involves more parts than just two, and it may take several months of work before a person can sit solidly in the Whole-Person—whole-box-of-crayons, Integrative Meta-perspective—chair. But the example illustrates a general type of method that is both straightforward and highly effective.
As a therapist, I draw frequently on this kind of approach. I don’t know of other techniques that apply all of intelligence’s multiple aspects so simply and unobtrusively. I also don’t know of other ways of working that so directly support culturally mature perspective. It does so not just through what is said, but through every aspect of the approach, even the layout of the room. Of particular importance, the fact that I as a therapist speak only to the Whole-Person chair (one of those rules) means that my relationship with the client directly models and affirms Whole-Person relationship. Through the work, culturally mature perspective and responsibility become directly acted out and embodied.
Ongoing work with this kind of approach alters not just how a person engages specific issues, but also how he or she engages reality more broadly. The work becomes like lifting weights to build the “muscles” of culturally mature capacity. One of the litmus tests for success with this way of working is the appearance of culturally mature shifts with regard to questions that have not been directly discussed.
This same general kind of approach can also be used with more than one person. I often apply related methods when assisting groups where contentious issues have become polarized, or with groups where people wish to address many-sided questions that require careful, in-depth inquiry. When working in this way, I place individuals or small subgroups around the room to represent the various systemic aspects of the question at hand (the various characters/crayons). Another subgroup, seated in a circle around the smaller groups, is assigned two tasks—first to engage these subgroups in conversation to clarify their positions, and then to articulate a larger systemic perspective and explain how that perspective could be translated into right and timely action.
These various Parts Work techniques might seem to represent a specifically psychological kind of methodology. But in potential, they have much broader application. Because of the particular ways they are structured and the Whole-Person relationship the facilitator maintains with the individual or group doing the work, such approaches could ultimately be used anywhere engendering culturally mature capacities is an appropriate objective. I think most immediately of educational settings. While today we are not at the place where people would be comfortable utilizing these kinds of approaches in schools, it could be powerful to do so. Such methods would be most obviously a good fit where the task was interdisciplinary learning. But in the end they could be just as useful with education that focuses on particular kinds of knowing, such as religious education or the education of scientists.