Unique Self Institute

Sean Esbjörn-Hargens
on Unique Self

In this excerpt from “Executive Editor’s Note,” published in the March 2011 issue of Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, Sean Esbjörn-Hargens explores the spiritual themes of Unique Self from an academic perspective within the context of integral discourse. He holds that it provides “a powerful way of integrating the enlightenment traditions of the pre-modern East and the modern West.”

By Sean Esbjörn-Hargens

As an ardent promoter of Integral Theory as a form of liberating discourse, I am very excited about the contents of this issue of JITP. This issue is the first in a series of special issues focused on themes and topics in Integral Spirituality. This series is timely in that “Integral Spirituality” was the top special issue request of respondents to our recent JITP reader survey.

In January 2010, I asked Marc Gafni to serve as Guest Editor of this issue. Given his foundational role in the development of the field of Integral Spirituality and his recent initiative (in collaboration with his partner Mariana Caplan) to create a Center for World Spirituality, he is not only qualified but he is the best person for the job. So it is a real honor to have Marc serve in this role. He is a rare combination of someone who as a rabbi is deeply grounded in a specific religious tradition (Kabbalah), is birthing emergent new forms of evolutionary spirituality, is an expert in Integral Theory, and is an accomplished academic, as his articles in this issue and forthcoming volume from SUNY Press amply illustrate (Gafni, In press).

Unique Self Institute


Marc and I envisioned this series as providing an important scholarly grounding for the emergent field of Integral Spirituality. We also wanted JITP to serve as a link between the annual Integral Spiritual Experience (ISE) event and the biennial Integral Theory Conference (ITC) by inspiring practitioners to write about and then present on integral approaches to religious studies (e.g., theology, enlightenment, soteriology, post-metaphysics). Likewise, we want attendees of ISE to be versed in scholastic presentations of issues relevant to their spiritual inquiries. It feels crucial to create dialogue between the practitioners who attend ISE and the academics who attend ITC — not surprisingly, they are often the same individuals. However, each gathering has its own first-person experiential or third-person academic bias. Thus, we would like to foster both an academic sensibility at ISE and a transcendental orientation at ITC. In doing so, we hope to forge a new Kosmic groove wherein the spiritual and the academic mutually support each other’s integral aims.
The JITP series in Integral Spirituality will contribute to this evolutionary endeavor by exploring spiritual content from an academic perspective within the context of integral discourse. In this issue, this triple commitment is achieved, as you will see, through a dynamic combination of content. Academia has tended to approach spirituality and religion through third-person methods and perspectives, thus reducing Spirit to materiality. When scholars have ventured beyond the confines of an objective framing, there has been a propensity to take a first-person phenomenological or a second-person anthropological approach in isolation from “empirical” methods. In other words, while there are first-, second-, and obviously third-person traditions of academic inquiry in religious studies, rarely have all three major perspectives been brought together in one conversation. These varied approaches are too often literally housed in different buildings on university campuses. Thus, our aim is to articulate how integral frameworks and distinctions can foster new kinds of inquiry, practice, and research into our relationship with Divinity.

In alignment with the theme of the first ISE, we decided to have the inaugural issue in this series showcase the Unique Self. Opening the series with the Unique Self is also appropriate in that these teachings, as developed and presented by Marc, represent a truly worldcentric and planetcentric mysticism that provides a powerful way of integrating the enlightenment traditions of the pre-modern East and the modern West. It has been easy for spiritual traditions to embody a states-based Kosmocentrism, but too often it has been a partial embrace that does not fully include a mature stage-based emancipatory worldcentric articulation. I believe this is best explained by the integral distinction of Kosmic state-stages and vision-logic structure-stages. The Unique Self gives equal attention to both. This is another reason why it is fitting to start this series with the Unique Self. One of the defining characteristics of Integral Spirituality, as presented by Ken Wilber (2006) in his book of the same title, is the notion of “dual enlightenment” (i.e., vertical and horizontal enlightenment). Marc’s articulation of Unique Self provides the first sophisticated and mature expression of this “unique” integral position.

About Dr. Sean Esbjörn-Hargens

Sean is a global leader in the application of integrative thinking to leader development, organizational design, and mixed-methods design. In 2011 he founded MetaIntegral a social impact network that supports change leaders around the world in applying integrative principles. Sean’s passion lies at the intersection of design, integral theory, and embodiment. He has published and edited numerous articles, chapters, and books. His most recent book is Metatheory for the Twenty-first Century.