What is Integral ?

When something is integral it is essential to the whole.  It is essential for a sense of completeness.  The process of integration occurs when things which were initially separate in some way join together to form a bigger, more cohesive entity.  Integration involves the relationship between parts and wholes.


As the philosopher Arthur Koestler points out, everything in the entire universe, including the universe itself,  is simultaneously both a whole unto itself and a part of something bigger.  ‘Holon’ is the term he uses to describe things involved in these whole/part relationships.  What

affects whether we see something at any given moment as a whole unto itself or a part of something bigger has to do with the context in which we are experiencing it.  

Atoms are wholes unto themselves while simultaneously being parts of molecules, which are wholes unto themselves while simultaneously being parts of cells which are parts of living tissue and organs and complex organisms such as human beings.  On another level, human beings are whole unto themselves while simultaneously being parts of families, which are parts of neighborhoods which are parts of bigger communities like cities, states, and nations, all the way up to being a part of a world community.  The limits are potentially endless.


Everything is made up of these holons.  And each whole provides a context for the smaller parts.  A classic example from linguistics helps to describe these holonic relationships.  The word “bark” is whole unto itself yet it is the bigger context of a sentence or paragraph that contextualizes the word and gives it meaning.  The bigger context lets us know if we are talking about the bark of a dog as opposed to

the bark of a tree.  It lets us know if we are talking about some menacing dog barking with bad intent or one’s beloved childhood pet barking to welcome them home after a long journey away.  It is the context that provides the definition to the holon.


These holonic or whole/part relationships occur in many different domains.   They occur physically within our bodies and the world around us.  They occur interpersonally within our social relationships and internally within our own consciousness, in the very way we think and feel and give meaning to our experience.  And they most definitely occur within the creation and appreciation of art. These whole/part relationships constitute the very foundation of our

experience of reality and meaning in the world.  

Integral Art

An integral approach to art attempts to acknowledge all the different whole/part relationships that contribute to the creation, appreciation, influence and ultimately the meaning of art.  To factor in all the variables that contribute to the meaning of art is a daunting task but it can be simplified by focusing on three different perspectives that are important in understanding art in an integral way.  These three perspectives are: 1) the perspective of the artist who creates the art; 2) the perspective of the viewer who gazes upon the work of art; 3) the perspective of the outside cultural context in which the work of art is a part.

Some of the artist’s attributes which influence the meaning of the art are artistic training and technical skill, aesthetic sense, creative style, personal interests, as well as the artist’s psychological make-up, present emotional state, values, beliefs, level of cognitive development, level of self development, and level of spiritual



While the artist obviously contributes a great deal to what a work of art ultimately means, an integral approach to art also takes into account the viewer's contribution to the meaning of a work of art, for it is very possible that what the artist intended and what the viewer derives are very different.  From an integral perspective the viewer’s interpretations are just as much a part of the ultimate meaning of the work of art as the artist’s intentions.  Just as with the artist, the viewer’s aesthetic sense, personal interests, as well as his or her psychological make up, present emotional state, values, beliefs, level of cognitive development, level of self development, and level of spiritual development, will all help to provide a context in which to determine the meaning of the art.  


Finally, the outside culture plays a large role in shaping the context in which the meaning of art is created. Some of the factors within this cultural perspective that would be influential to the meaning of a work of art are things like the present political currents in the world, the historical events that affect the present culture, the overall cultural values and definitions of what is beautiful and what is artistically

skillful, and the overall average level of emotional, cognitive, moral, self identity and spiritual development within the culture.  Even things like the success of the artist within a culture, the monetary value of his or her work and the galleries in which the work is exhibited will affect the overall meaning of the art.  

What Level of Consciousness Does a Work of Art Represent?

One of the factors which is of significant importance for understanding art in a more complete way is the level of consciousness of the creator and viewer of a work of art.   Consciousness can be divided up into a variety of different states and levels, and all of the great wisdom traditions of the world (i.e. Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, as well as Sufism, and Christian and Jewish mysticism) seem to differentiate levels of consciousness in a very similar way.


We can divide consciousness into five major levels: gross/physical,

mental/emotional, subtle/soulful, very subtle/casual and non-dual.  Gross awareness is awareness of the gross or physical level of being.  It is at this level of awareness that we all start out.  Little children are almost exclusively aware of the physical aspects of the world.  And their sense of identity is, for the most part,based on their physical being. This is the realm of the five senses, and a great deal

of art has the singular intention of representing only this very literal, concrete, physical level of being.       

As we develop we become more aware of the mental/emotional level of being. We realize that we have a mind and thoughts as well as a physical body and, while we may have had feelings before, it is at this level that we are more capable of contemplating and being truly conscious of the emotional aspects of ourselves.  At this level we begin to identify not only with our bodies but with the subjectivity of our minds and emotional hearts as well.  We transcend the physical identity while simultaneously including that physical identity into our emerging bigger sense of self.  Over the course of history art, like human beings, has evolved to express the more subjective mental and emotional aspects of being as well as the physical.  This can be seen in the progression from exclusively concrete and literal art to works that incorporate the figurative and symbolic.  


If one’s consciousness continues along the developmental path it eventually reaches beyond the personal domain of the physical body, rational mind and personality- dependent emotional heart.  It moves to the stage where it becomes more and more aware of the subtler, transpersonal aspects of being, traditionally depicted as soulfulness, subtle luminosity or transpersonal archetypes.  And beyond this level is the even subtler, Causal level of being which is often depicted as the emptiness from which all form arises.  The Causal level of being is the source or cause of all things, the backdrop on which the world of form resides and from which the world of form and contexts are born.  The Casual is the unmanifest, and Casual awareness involves a state of absorption in the pure, formless ground of all existence

which is Spirit or Godhead itself.  

Beyond the state of Causal absorption in which one is identified with the source from which all things arise, there is an even deeper level that transcends Causal absorption to hold both formlessness and form as inseparable.  At this level of awareness there is a deeper state of integration in which there is the realization that form and formlessness are ultimately one and the same.  There is the realization that the physical, mental, emotional, and soulful states of being are ultimately identical to the source from which all those states arise.  They are not two but one – Nondual.  

From this perspective the simplest and smallest of things is simultaneously the most expansive - the universe and beyond in a single atom, the totality of being in the coo of a infant, the deepest and most profound expression and realization of Spirit in the simple act of chopping wood and carrying water. The Nondual is the realization of the ultimate oneness and most complete quality of integration.  

Just as the basic rudimentary nature of physical form and gross awareness can be expressed through art (i.e. in the painting of a bowl of fruit) so can the depth of soulfulness, the emptiness of causation and the ultimate integration of the Nondual be expressed through the medium of art.  


There are many artists such as Alex Grey and Wassily Kandinsky who strive to express these higher realms in their creative endeavors and there are many terms used to describe such works of art. Some use the terms spiritual, transformative, meditative or visionary art.  Others describe it as mystical, astral, metaphysical or inspirational art.  Some may see this art as form of yoga or as a tool for meditation and spiritual growth.  And many spiritual traditions would label such higher art using the terminology of their traditions (i.e. Buddhist art, Hindu art, Tantric art, Christian mystic art,).   But no matter how you label it and what tradition you are coming from the essence is the same.  


The integral Ideal in Art

For me an integral approach to art attempts to acknowledge and represent how all of the levels of being exist simultaneously.  It tries to convey how all these levels are ultimately inseparable from one another.  It tries its best to celebrate the spirit of the Nondual and express that inexpressible state of profound integration.   

Art has the potential to help us realize our deeper nature if we allow ourselves to see how in its creative seeds there lies the birth, the source and the death of the entire universe.  Art can help us realize that the simple painting of a bowl of fruit is no different from the vast unfolding of Spirit in and as the cosmos.  It can help us realize that ultimately a speck of dust holds the same depth and breadth of magic, grace and beauty as a master’s painting, a symphony or the perfect poetic verse. The creation and appreciation of art from an integral perspective cannot help but transform us if we are open and willing to engage in the ongoing process of broadening our horizons.

Aspiring towards an integral vision

It is my personal aspiration as an artist and a human being to embody this type of integration to the best of my ability.  As an artist this means acknowledging that I am in a co- creative relationship not only with all who view my art but also with the present, modern day culture that the art exists within.  On a deeper, more personal level, my efforts to live this integral vision means doing my best to acknowledge not only

within my creative endeavors but within all aspects of life, the presence of all the levels of consciousness.  The physical, mental/emotional, soulful, and Casual aspects of being are all integral, all essential to the whole of existence. They are all aspects of our ultimate Nondual nature.  


In my art the photographs of physical form I use are representative of the physical aspects of being.  The concepts and feelings I attempt to express in my work represent the mental/emotional aspects of being.  The light and luminous aspects of my images represent the more subtle, soulful luminosity of being.  While the black backgrounds and shadows I use in many of my images are representative of the emptiness of the Causal ground from which all things are born.  And finally my attempt to integrate these elements in a cohesive whole is my way of expressing symbolically the ultimate integration of the Nondual.  


Whether or not my work or anyone’s work succeeds in expressing and conveying all these levels is not what is of greatest importance.  What is of importance, at least for me, is the striving to expand and integrate.  It is the journey towards that integral ideal which is most important.  And a journey towards wholeness certainly holds a very important quality of wholeness in and of itself regardless of whether or not the ultimate, idealized destination is every reached.  



For an in-depth analysis of art from an integral perspective see Ken Wilber's Integral Art and Literary Theory

For more on Integral theory in general click here to see Ken Wilber’s Introduction to Integral Theory