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Integral Studies

By 9th September 2010October 31st, 2020Aurobindo Ghose, CIIS, Therapy and Transformation

The subject of integral studies is associated with the Indian mystic Aurobindo Ghose, though substantially developed and elaborated by American enthusiasts. The idea of integralism originated in Aurobindo’s theme of “Integral Yoga,” favoured at Esalen. The concept was subsequently adopted, with various innovations, by exponents of transpersonal psychology.

Haridas Chaudhuri (1913-1975), a Bengali disciple of Aurobindo, became active and influential in America. He helped to establish the American Academy of Asian Studies, an alternative enterprise whose students included the two subsequent co-founders of the Esalen Institute (namely Michael Murphy and Richard Price).

In later years, Chaudhuri created the California Institute of Asian Studies, still strongly linked to Aurobindo teaching. After his death, in 1980 the name of that organisation was changed to the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). This  alteration is stated to signify the emerging globalism of outlook and a more extensive East-West synthesis. CIIS is a private institution in San Francisco.

CIIS advertises academic programmes, also dispensing degrees that include the PhD and MA. There are also public programmes featuring a wide array of “workshops,” the activities including yoga, also “self-discovery and healing.” In addition, an activity in therapy here encompasses what has been called Integral Counselling. A favoured theme is transformation.

Despite the promotionalism, criticisms have been lodged. Sceptics say that the “new age” orientation of CIIS is demonstrated by emphases on transformation, therapy, workshop activity, and other dimensions of the project. A formerly online Open Letter made the accusation: “It appears that at CIIS, faculty simply put on academic rank and titles similar to kindergartners donning academic regalia, with no need for actual promotion processes or scholarly achievement.”

Probably the two most famous names to date on the CIIS faculty are Stanislav Grof and Richard Tarnas. Dr. Grof is known for his controversial holotropic theories and “cartography of the human psyche,” based upon his activities in LSD psychotherapy. See Grof, Psychology of the Future (2000). Cf. Grof Therapy and MAPS (2007). Professor Tarnas is known for his book The Passion of the Western Mind (1991), and his more recent emphasis on astrology in Cosmos and Psyche (2006). Cf. Philosophy, Richard Tarnas, and Postmodernism.

The content of an East-West synthesis is in question. In some respects at least, CIIS has adapted the commercial Esalen model of “transformation” in a quasi-academic format. That model misses out too much of the Western heritage, also bypassing Eastern philosophy to a substantial extent. A recent online statement of CIIS refers to 25 academic programmes that “train healers and thought-leaders.” Popular workshop slogans are in evidence. “You are naturally already who you are.” Sex therapy was one of the attractions in 2018.

I have been asked what my own position is with regard to integral studies, in view of my citizen project of private research at Cambridge University Library (CUL) commencing in 1981. I will accordingly make some observations here.

My concept of intercultural and interdisciplinary study does not extend to “workshops” and therapy, which have been known to create serious confusion in the public mind, also amongst academics. My citizen version of anthropography, in the preliminary presentation Meaning in Anthropos (1991), adhered to annotation procedures of research and commentary, avoiding the distractions.

In some respects, I am allergic to words like transformation. Such words were incessant catchphrases at the Findhorn Foundation during the 1990s. As a neighbouring outsider to that organisation (living in Forres, Scotland), I had the long-term opportunity to observe how the Foundation therapists and “focalisers” maintained the stigma and suppression of my mother. See Kate Thomas and the Findhorn Foundation. The elite (and supposedly transformed) Foundation leaders entertained presumptions to numerous abilities, such as holistic expertise, counselling, conflict resolution, love in action, unconditional love, the alchemy of peace, feminism and rights for contemporary women, sex therapy, attunement, empowerment, forgiveness, and the game of transformation. All this merely comprised the facade for commercial roles and delusions of grandeur.

Aurobindo can be absolved of any responsibility for the transmission of American counselling and transformation pretensions to Britain. Even during the 1980s, there was very little of his teaching visible in the entrepreneurial industry catering for a new age clientele. Integral Yoga was of limited usage for any commercial operation. However, Aurobindo themes for long remained a preferred jargon in some transpersonal circles. A complication is that “he made an unfortunate prediction in The Life Divine about ‘a race of gnostic spiritual beings.’ ” See Aurobindo and Esalen (2008). The prediction confused Esalen “new spirituality.” See also Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, 2004, pp. 159-60.

One of the Esalen founders (Richard Price) discovered that the permissive ashram of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was far more ominous than he had been led to believe. This was in the late 1970s, when Esalen had become the breeding ground for so many fads and crazes. NeoReichian therapies could cause physical injuries, even while the deceptive presiding message was one of liberation and transformation. “Price himself is said to have suffered a broken arm while being locked up for an hour in a room with eight people armed with wooden weapons; even Esalen could become rational under severe stress” (ibid., p. 60).

The shocks and drawbacks could not prevent the integralist (and transpersonalist) Ken Wilber from eulogising the American gurus Adi Da Samraj and Andrew Cohen, entities who were viewed by critics as predatory. See Perennial Philosophy (2008). Wilber’s version of integral studies has come under fire from various critics and discontented former enthusiasts. I have presented some relevant arguments at Ken Wilber and Integralism (2009). Wilber has commenced his own Integral Institute, often regarded as a rival to CIIS. See Wilber, Integral Spirituality (2007).

My own format in Pointed Observations (2005) was substantially critical of the alternative trends represented by Jung, Grof, Wilber, Bache, the Findhorn Foundation, and others. Some readers noticed that I preferred David Hume, Spinoza, and the vintage Club of Rome phase to the contested trends. For many years I had been resistant to the sceptical philosophy of Hume (and still am in many basic respects). However, Hume was rational by comparison with problems of pseudo-transformation.

Having studied at CUL, I am sensitive to some of the concerns expressed by academics about bogus credentials, which have unfortunately existed in the new age. Because of such factors, I downgraded my career profile in the last chapter of Pointed Observations, which was entitled Citizen Initiative. “People often do look at the author data to be convinced of a scintillating career with due status honours. Do not buy this book, therefore, as you will be disappointed on that account” (page 351).

Some academics approved this gesture. The relevant passage was subsequently abused by an American sectarian blogger (allegedly paid by a Californian cult leader) as presumed proof that I am incapable of study, having left school at the age of fifteen. See Analysis of a Cultist Defamation. Perhaps only in America are there such extremes of sectarian hate campaign. See also Autobiographical Reflections.

In the face of controversial integral studies, new age “transformation,” cultweb, and other problems, I will here quote from the same chapter abovecited:

The incentive on the part of citizens to dispute or query official and public matters, and to extend educational horizons, might be described as a democratic prerogative. That incentive may involve supplying information frequently neglected. (Shepherd, Pointed Observations, p. 343 lines 3-6)

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
September 9th 2010, modified December 2018

ENTRY no. 31

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