Integral Psychology: defining the eco-bio-psycho-social-spiritual approach and why we need it in psychology

Integral Psychology: defining the eco-bio-psycho-social-spiritual approach and why we need it in psychology

The Integral model is extremely useful in making sense of the world: ourselves, others, the environment, in fact any topic we focus on. In this article I explore its utility in psychology and psychotherapy.

By Ben Bruce

Last time I checked there were over 400 different types of psychotherapy available to people who needed psychological help or performance enhancement. This list is clearly growing all the time and I think we have become dazzled by its complexity to the point of confusion and frustration. It’s hard enough working in the field and keeping up with the latest trends and ideas of ‘how to help people better’; and I only imagine what it must be like for consumers of the system. A full awareness of who, what, how and why someone is as they are can help us naturally select the best-fit approach to working with the client in clinical psychological therapy.

Conversely there has also been a reductionism of what is deemed ‘empirically-based interventions’ largely due to the scientific structure of the psychology discipline at universities and also due to the Medicare rebate system which kicked in around 2004 to address the ‘mental health crisis’ in this country. Patients if referred by their doctor could receive a rebate for seeing a psychologist; so long as the psychologist claimed to use certain scientifically based methods. The problem with this is that one size does not fit all people, and so clients have often been squeezed into this box of treatment based on a reductionistic paradigm, typically Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Now, I don’t mind using this method myself as it can be very useful, but it simply is not appropriate at times on its own or for all patients. We need to utilize a method or series of interventions to suit the patient him or her self.  Therapy is more about the ‘way’ that any model is utilized. The connection and rapport between clinician and client is essential; helping the client feel safe and validated. The therapist also needs to continually work on him/her self in order to be a truly authentic and genuine human being: you cannot take the baby from the bathwater or you risk losing the ‘spark’ which feeds the fire behind the intervention. The therapist needs to be a decent human being with good intentions, respectful and mindful, a scholar within an integral understanding of the world and everything therein. For example, I have spoken to some very good clinicians and a lot of what they do and how they work is based on learnings from other disciplines, from English literature to engineering, philosophy and spirituality. The psychology discipline on its own is the meat of the intervention, but the tone and the style is grounded in an appreciation of all that makes us truly human. We can also draw upon aspects of the world deemed ‘primitive’ or pre-modern, mythic and unscientific, but the way we need to do so is efficiently, carefully and parsimoniously. Taoism, for example, is about the ebb and flow of ‘chi’, ‘yin and yang’ and ‘the Way’. This is an ineffable style which brings spontaneity and even helpful and healthful surprise to the interaction between human beings. The clinician must be wise and growthful, as wise as humanly possible, and this relies on self-awareness and insight regarding self and other as well as the context that any event occurs within. This is a humbling appreciation of complexity; we don’t bypass it simply because it is inconvenient or deemed ‘unscientific’ by the status quo knowledge pool.

I have spoken to a lot of people who have previously seen another psychologist complaining that the way they were treated was ‘childish’ and ‘patronizing’. What I see here is a reduction of the person into a simplistic self, using a simplistic model: ‘do this and it will all be fine…just change your thinking and change your life!’ I for one wish it was that simple, but often it is not. People are inherently complex and come from a multitude of backgrounds. Each clinical ‘diagnosis’ is within a context of Being. It is this context that I aim to address with utilizing Integral Psychology (as per theorists like Ken Wilber and others), and particularly an integration of the 5 main factors that I have factor analyzed as distinct, minimally separate yet connected (as per factor analysis: efficient separation of underlying key components without overlap and without losing holistic clarity): ecology, biology, psychology/ the mind, sociology and spirituality all unfolding and interacting within a developmental pathway of regression and progression/evolution resulting in the flux of the self in contextual /situational moment in time. Neglecting this is to advocate a ‘flatland psychology’ that is rather depressing in itself (because it fails to fully grasp the integral essence of the human being), and especially if a person has come to a clinician for help, we don’t want to add to their depression and malaise. Much of this pre-existing malaise is the sense of isolation and alienation, compartmentalization and dis-integration of misunderstood and overlooked aspects of being. The person does not need to be misunderstood even more when accessing help – rather, they need room to move and unfold and be ‘grasped’ by the wise clinician (in so far as this is humanly possible). In many ways, just a good grasp of the human being alone is enough to make positive/constructive changes within the person, even by observing, sharing and interacting with them in this way.

In truth, what we see is a ‘constellation of self’ whenever we address a person and his/her issues. Savvy clinicians pick this up as a ‘gist’ of understanding the person before them and naturally modify their dealings with that person accordingly, and so you can’t necessarily ‘learn’ an intervention from a textbook ‘canned’ therapy method, as it needs to be applied with a full understanding and wisdom of humanity. A great start to this is self-awareness, and so any clinician needs to do his or her own ‘work’ to be effective (a very overlooked aspect of contemporary applied psychology). Self-awareness is the key to genuine empowerment and addresses some of the ‘black holes’ of self, like the distorted ego and unresolved issues (which may ‘pollute’ the intervention if we are not aware of them: this is called transference and counter-transference or projection within the psychodynamic model; it is not to be feared or rejected but needs to be worked through to inform the situation). Neglecting any of these main factors in our understanding of a person’s presentation and their treatment intervention is an irresponsible way to do psychology and psychotherapy.

In addition to this we also need a model, a way of understanding ourselves that actually works and fleshes out the full meat on the skeleton of humanity. We need to see what we are looking at in its full context or we risk disregarding its true ‘essence’. In factor analysis of what works in therapy, we see that the main requirement for change and understanding to help the afflicted person move through their suffering impasse and live his/her life to their true potential is warmth and understanding: a need for heart-felt connection to the therapist, primarily. I gather this is because we are fundamentally social beings and loving kindness and positive regard is so reassuring: we are an animal that is so dependent on parenting and community for more time (and thus vulnerability) than any other as we grow toward the basics of being self sufficient. We need to ‘connect’ to the person in order to help them, and this mean we need to grasp and demonstrate that we have done so in our interventions. This ‘warmth’ is somewhat unquantifiable using typical scientific approaches, and so we see that an ‘artfulness’ alongside a scientific approach is required. Putting this into the mix with the clinician’s own inner work, we see science, art and personal awareness and responsibility within an overall integral vision of humanity to facilitate this connection. ‘Integral’ is all about integrating all relevant aspects of the human being, or any subject of study. A failure to do so will always result in an artificial and compartmentalized view of the subject. Accordingly, we need a fully appreciative view of the human being which I think is well encapsulated in a 5-factor model: the Eco-bio-psycho-social-spiritual approach to contain and inform any applied intervention.

So lets review what is required in this integral approach to psychology and psychotherapy; an understanding of the holistic essence of a human being:

-       Eco: we all live in a natural world with complex and interconnecting eco-systems. You cannot and should not view the human being in isolation from his environment. Everything within an eco-system affects everything else within that ecosystem.  This includes the mindful use of findings from environmental medicine, toxicology, climate systems, animal, vegetable and mineral. A human being cannot be separated from nature, as we are born of nature and exist in nature. We also see environmental and seasonal cycles that the body can tie in with congruently or incongruently, like the circadian rhythm and menstrual cycle. Sometimes the body and mind is at odds with these cycles or an environmental pollutant is distorting it.

-       Bio: We all have brains and bodies that operate with complex chemistry via hormones and neurotransmitters; electro-chemical changes in the brain and body as well as endocrine and metabolic imbalances affect the mind that is connected to this brain and body. This includes health and wellness as well as understanding injury, fatigue, and chemical imbalance resulting from and affected by changes in the mind and emotional/heart systems. The principle of neuro-plasticity is very helpful here, where we see the brain changing in structure and function as a result of therapeutic interventions (validated by MRI, SPECT and other scans). We need not simply suppress, block, inhibit or enhance chemical secretions via medications. Whilst medication are necessary tools, a bias here will also render harm and overlooks the natural ability of the brain and body to change and heal; to work more efficiently with the right input, which includes information from the environment in other domains besides pharmacology. That is, everything we experiences affects chemistry in the body, so indirect methods like ‘talking therapy’ and experiential learning will change the brain and body accordingly, and often without so many side effects.

-       Psycho: Obviously the mind, the psyche (the soul was the original translation of ‘psyche’ in the ancient Greek language), the way that we think and mindfulness of this thinking and believing is crucially involved in understanding and changing a person’s impasse. We need a developmental understanding of the mind and paradigmatic representation of the world that we are in. These are ‘schemata’, the unconscious scaffolding of how the world is filtered, interpreted and rendered into an internal subjective representation. In this way, we all have different internal representations and thus a different experience of reality with its own self-fulfilling interactions. We spot this in recurring themes and patterns that the person experiences.

-       Social: the social system of interacting people(s) at different levels of access, privilege and power are hugely involved in a person’s presentation; how much we are connected or disconnected to meaningful social and community systems affects how we think, feel and behave. We affect others and they affect us. Once again, our social interactions also occur in a developmentally unfolding way, as we learn and interact, reflect and interact some more. Meaningful connection to others is a cornerstone of health and well being, and conversely abuse and violence occurs in this field and brings about dysfunction, ill-health, disorder and disease.

-       Spirituality: This is not a ‘scientifically rational’ component of the human being, yet the vast majority of people we come across will be deeply involved in some way to some kind of spiritual tenet, whether this be (broadly) theism, atheism, agnosticism, naturism/Gaia beliefs or formal religious practice and membership of a group belief system/ doctrine (logocentrism: those who center their beliefs around a sacred text), or an open mindedness to ‘spirit’ as a personal connection to the universe. Even a scientific mind-set has its own dogma.

Science is albeit still a limited dogma (even though it’s probably one of the best approaches we have in finding out how things work), as empirical knowledge cannot be ‘proven’: in fact ‘good science’ is based on its ability to be made up of ‘falsifiable’ hypotheses that are continually put to the test of experience, and so if scientists and scientific rationalists do not do this they are effectively making assumptions and appealing to a dogmatic meta-model overview. Either way, any scientific finding needs to be interpreted and applied if it is to be of any use. The scientific rationalist will often stop questioning the status quo in scientific findings and make assumptions with a pool of knowledge that they are faithful to. The approach also excludes the ‘unscientific’ even if these features are very real but they do not lend themselves well to measurement, so they are overlooked and even disbelieved (without falsifiable experimentation to do so). Rather, science is a method and not a belief system, and should be treated accordingly.

Whether we are consciously aware of our spiritual framework that we operate by, or it goes unnoticed, it is still affecting a person’s sense of self and interaction in the world. If we have a meaningful life and a sense of how and why we are here, being, doing and knowing, a sense of security emerges and this is constantly being affected by the new experiences that we have, again within a developmentally unfolding way of accommodation or assimilation within our world-view and the self’s representation and embodiment of it.

These components together also affect each other within a ‘constellation of self’ and within a developmentally unfolding (progressing and regressing) integral manner. That is, as we move through ‘levels’ of development and the unfolding self as we grow and learn and experience, we retain features from each level within a ‘holarchical’ embrace. This is why we can all regress at times to previous levels of behavior, especially when we are compromised at the leading edge of our development with threat and fear, and we lack the energy to sustain that cutting-edge of personal development. This is often why ‘holier-than-thou’ gurus are ripped down from pedestals: they failed to recognize that they of course harbor underlying features from prior levels of development that are otherwise suppressed by being incommensurate with their self-portrayal as a guru or ‘mystic’. Thus, the major litmus test of a guru-claimant is their ability to be humble and self observant, so that the ego with all its falsehoods and denial of integral self is kept in check.

Once we have the above in mind, this impacts our interventions. In my point of view, a lack of understanding the above will hinder or even damage any intervention, and may cause a sense of disillusionment about the therapeutic process. The patient/client simply won’t believe it can help them, and as a result, without faith it simply will not – they will lose heart and exit the process prematurely. Therapeutic change itself can occur just by being in a room with someone and ‘grasping’ their true essence across the developmental integral awareness of who, what, why and how they are the way that they are. It’s all about truly understanding the client and then seeking their permission to travel the quest out of that impasse or maladaptive pattern, whatever it is. This is a deep respect and colours everything we say and do to the client from then on.


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