Consciousness, Education

The Integral Creative Cycle: A Participatory Model of Integral Education

by Jorge N. Ferrer, Marina T. Romero, Ramon V. Albareda

Whether in nature or in human reality, a creative process usually unfolds through several general stages that correspond roughly the seasonal cycle of nature: action (Autumn, preparing the terrain and planting the seeds; the body, studying what is already known about a subject matter, i.e., the body of literature); germination/gestation (Winter, rooting and nourishment of the seed inside the earth; the vital, conception of novel developments in contact with unconscious transpersonal and archetypal sources); blooming (Spring, emerging toward the light of buds, leaves, and flowers; the heart, first conscious feelings and rough ideas); and harvest (Summer, selection of mature fruits and shared celebration; the mind, intellectual selection, elaboration, and offering of the fruits of the creative process). Let us briefly look at each of these seasons and how they can be appropriately supported in the context of academic work.

Autumn: The body, planting, action

Autumn | Carr Clifton
Autumn | Carr Clifton

In many lands across the globe, Autumn is the time to prepare the soil for the new harvesting cycle. The soil is scrabbled, cleansed of old roots and stones, and, if necessary, fertilized. Then the new seeds are planted in the soil. In the human creative cycle, Autumn is the time for preparing the physical body to be a solid and porous receptacle for the germination of new vital seeds. It is important to release the body from accumulated tensions to make it more open and permeable. It is also essential to relate to the body as a living organic reality that holds meaningful contents that cannot be intentionally accessed through the mind or consciousness.

Academically, this is the time to take actions such as enrolling in stimulating courses, attending lectures, and reviewing the body of the literature—which can be approached as a set of potentially seminal works with the power to impregnate the vital seeds of many individuals. During lectures, dialogues, and readings, it is crucial to cultivate an attitude of receptivity, as if one were planting seeds in one’s inner soil. This is also the time to prepare the physical space in which the creative process will take place; for example, cleaning and organizing the office space and, as Deena Metzger beautifully puts it, preparing the desk as an altar—as the bride chamber for the beloved (i.e., the muse, the daimon, or the creative wellspring within).

The task of the mind at this stage is to support appropriate action by engaging behaviors such as those that create optimum conditions for listening to the body, actualize physical structures, and search out new resources. This is also a time for the mind to let go of old ways of thinking so that it can support and recognize the novel fruits of the new creative cycle. During Autumn, the mind can stagnate the creative process if it spends too much time wondering about the ultimate outcome of the inquiry, tries to predetermine its development, or arrive at its own answers before the stages of the creative process have had the chance to unfold. Autumn is the season to trust the body, to support the structural dimension of reality, and to rely on the power of action.

Winter: The vital, rooting, gestation

Winter | Michael Quinton
Winter | Michael Quinton

Once the seeds have been planted, there is not much else for a cultivator to do. Winter is essentially a time of waiting, of darkness, of silence, and, most important, of gestation. It is imperative to stop the activity of Autumn so that the planted seeds can do their own autonomous work: splitting open, rooting in the soil, and getting fed by earth’s essential nutrients.

In the same way that a germinated seed first grows toward the darkness of the soil to be nourished and to develop roots that are the necessary base for the upward growth of the plant toward the light, in the human being an activated vital seed first plunges into the depths of the personal and collective unconscious. Like the roots of the trees in a forest, human vital depths are interconnected in the unconscious, where they can be nurtured not only by the collective wisdom of human heritage but also by the generative, immanent dimension of the Mystery. This contact between the vital world and immanent Mystery makes Winter an especially sacred season that needs to be properly honored. As with the dormant appearance of nature in Winter, it may appear to the conscious mind that ‘nothing is happening’ at this juncture of the creative process, but it is important to remember that tremendously powerful and creative forces are actually at play in the darkness – forces that will eventually catalyze in Spring not only the regeneration and blooming of life in nature but also the emergence of the creative impulses in the human soil.

In academia, Winter is a time in which it may be important to stop reading or assimilating further information in any other way. The process of creative gestation requires its own inner space, which is facilitated by silence, interiorization, and stillness. Not knowing how to accompany appropriately this stage of gestation, too often students—especially at their dissertation stage—paralyze the creative process by their inability to stop reading. (This obviously has implications for the sequence of readings required in academic courses.) The conscious mind, not able to ‘see’ in the darkness of this stage, can easily believe that in order to move ahead it has to continue incorporating new theories and ideas. Obviously, there will always be important essays or books to be read, but in the same way that we need to stop eating to facilitate an effective and nourishing digestion, it is necessary to stop reading in Winter for an adequate gestation of the creative impulse. Appropriate activities during this season are not those seeking to find immediate answers but those that support the alignment of the mind/consciousness with the process of gestation. It is crucial to cultivate a sense of trust in the natural processes that are taking place within our creative matrix during this season, much as a pregnant woman must trust the gestation of a fetus. Some examples of supporting activities include keeping a dream journal; taking nature walks; working with special states of consciousness; practicing receptive forms of meditation such as vipassana, wu-wei (‘without doing’), or shinkan taza (‘sitting only’); cultivating visionary imagination; doing symbolic work; paying attention to synchronicities in everyday life (including ‘that book that fell from the shelf ’); and engaging practices that facilitate an embodied contact with the vital center or hara as the physical/ energetic container of the creative pregnancy.

In Winter the mind needs to cultivate an attitude of patient receptivity, not-knowing, and humble respect. It is important to develop patience and receptivity toward stages of the creative process whose rhythm and
unfolding elude the mind’s intentional control. Respect and not-knowing naturally emerge from the mind’s recognition that ‘something’ is happening beyond what it can see directly. And humility is borne out of the awareness that, although the mind can be present to the process, the creative dynamism has no need of its powers at this stage. During Winter, the mind can abort the creative cycle if—out of ignorance, impatience, or mistrust—it attempts to take control of the process and/or get to know prematurely the nature of the still embryonic creative drive. It is as if a farmer, not trusting the chthonic process of the seed, anxiously digs the soil to ‘see’ what is happening or to actively help the seed to grow. Winter is the season to cultivate a patient receptivity toward the unknown and to trust in those aspects and stages of life that transcend the intentionality of the human mind and consciousness.

Spring: The heart, blooming, diversity

Spring | Konrad Wothe
Spring | Konrad Wothe

Spring is the season for the shameless blossoming of newly regenerated life. It is a time of spontaneity, contrasts, and celebration of diversity; a time for the sprouting of buds and the blooming of flowers; a time of tremendous fragility and intensity and, if the conditions are appropriate, of countless surprises.

In the creative process, Spring is the season to open the heart, breathe deeply and widely, listen to one’s affective world, and make room within so that the raw sensations associated with the upwelling creative energy emerging out of the gestation process can be organically incorporated as emotions and feelings. This is the stage of first contact with and embodiment of those creative impulses gestated in Winter. This can be a time of joyful exhilaration in the wake of the fresh contents emerging from within—a time in which it is crucial to avoid the mental temptation to prematurely assess what is emerging. At the end of the season, it is important to let go of those developments which, like Spring flowers, were temporary manifestations of the creative process and start contemplating those that remain and may become fruits in the Summer.

In academic work, the first part of Spring calls for activities that support the embodied magnification of those first creative energetic blossoms, including physical games that involve movement and dance (like ‘dancing one’s research question’) and sensual/sexual explorations to awaken and integrate the erotic power of life into the inquiry process. The importance of Eros and sexuality in a genuinely creative process cannot be overstated. Eros is the creative power of Life in its primordial, undifferentiated state, and sexuality is one of the first soils for the organization and creative development of such primary energy in human reality. That is why it is so important that sexuality is an ‘open’ soil based on natural evolutionary principles and not on fears, conflicts, or artificial impositions dictated by the mind, culture, or spiritual ideologies. The second part of Spring calls for activities such as somatic expression, verbalization of feelings, embodied practices that facilitate listening to emotions and feelings and artistic expression (music, painting, sculpture, plastic arts, poetry, singing, etc.) Peer-group work becomes central at this stage, because it provides a social context for nonjudgmental contrasts and cross-fertilization among incipient creative expressions.

Two qualities are essential for the mind to cultivate in Spring. The first is an attitude of genuine curiosity by which the mind looks at the emerging contents as if it were the first time that it sees them, avoiding their codification through previously learned conceptual schemes or theories. The second is an attitude of unconditional acceptance and support of all the budding contents. At this stage, the creative process can be aborted if the mind projects its previously learned schemes or theories onto what is emerging or if it prematurely judges their value. Spring is not the season of the mind but a time to trust the heart and unconditionally support its processes.

Summer: The mind, harvest, celebration

Summer | Jim Brandenburg
Summer | Jim Brandenburg

In Summer, some flowers have matured into fruits and some of those fruits become ripe. It is the season of harvest, celebration, sharing, and gratitude. It is also a time to rest, to peacefully contemplate the new seeds contained in the fruits, and to plan another cycle for the following Autumn.

In the creative process, the ‘fruits’ represent the ideas or expressions selected for further elaboration and refinement. If the mind has accompanied the entire process with the appropriate stage-specific attitudes of a sensitive farmer, it will easily discern at this stage those fruits that are mature and deserve further consideration. Summer is the season of the mind—a time for the intellectual/ aesthetic elaboration of ideas. It is also an auspicious time to open oneself to the transcendent dimension of the Mystery, which can now illuminate the mind with insights that may enrich the refinement of the creative fruits.

In the academic system, Summer is the season to focus on the articulation of ideas with clarity, beauty, elegance, precision, and sophistication. It is also the time to dialog with others about one’s ideas in order to polish them in both substance and verbal/nonverbal expression. Putting those ideas into writing or other expressive means is a further step in the materialization of the creative process. Ideally, the writing style should be coherent with the original creative impulse so that the words embody the message without distortions. This is the season to contrast one’s fruits with already existing developments and ideas: that is, with the fruits of the creative process of others. (In mainstream education, those contrasts occur long before the creative process has delivered mature fruits, and although this may be helpful at times, it may also endanger the process, leaving students feeling a lack of confidence that can lead to a compensatory mental reformulation of already existent ideas). It is also the time for the sharing of refined ideas through class presentations, written papers, or other creative projects—and it may be important to explore different modalities to convey those ideas (visual, aesthetic, dramatic, etc.) A further stage in this process could be the publication of the fruits of the season in magazines or journals and/or their presentation at professional conferences or public events.

Finally, this is the time to raise new questions, plan a new research cycle, and explore avenues for further inquiry that may awaken new vital seeds within ourselves and others.

In Summer we reach at last the season of the mind. If the mind has been in contact with the multidimensional nature of the creative process, the attitude that it will naturally display in the presentations of the fruits will be one of passionate humbleness. It will be passionate because the ideas will be grounded in somatic, vital, and emotional experience. And it will be humble out of the recognition that the ultimate sources of the creative process transcend both mental structures and personal individuality; in other words, they are both transcendent and transpersonal. Learners can then feel that they have been both the gardener and the soil of the creative process while simultaneously being aware of the many participating elements that have collaborated in the unfolding of that process (body, vital, heart, mind, and consciousness; the personal and the collective unconscious; the immanent and transcendent Mystery). Passion without humbleness can become arrogance, and arrogance may be a sign that the person is only aware of the personal dimension of the process. Humbleness without passion can become weak and even boring and may be a sign that the person is overlooking the personal grounding of the process. An attitude of passionate humbleness honors both the personal and transpersonal dimensions of the creative process.

Before closing this section, we should stress the very general nature of the integral creative cycle outlined here. Although we believe that it can serve as an orientation for integral pedagogical practice, it should not be made paradigmatic in any strict sense for all individuals. There are many dispositions and associated dynamics in the unfolding of the creative process. (Incidentally, a serious consideration of the diverse individual rhythms in the gestation and maturation of creative fruits may lead to the revision of standard academic practices such as predetermined timeframes for academic accomplishment or collective deadlines for the delivery of inquiry outcomes.) Furthermore, there can be an indefinite number of seasonal subcycles (Autumn–Winter–Spring–Summer) in the context of a larger creative project. Finally, and perhaps most important, our suggestion of a rough correspondence between creative stages and specific human attributes should be taken as a didactic orientation and not in rigid fashion. A human being is a multidimensional unity: body, vital, heart, mind, and consciousness are petals of the human flower. All human attributes are present and operative to some extent at all stages of the creative cycle. This fact does not preclude, however, that as in the early stages of human development—from organic matter and vital impulse to proto-emotions and differentiated feelings to thoughts and formal cognition—certain attributes may have greater preeminence than others at certain stages. For these and other reasons, the sequence sketched here, although we believe it accurately reflects deep dynamics of the creative cycle, admits an indefinite number of possible variations and should not be viewed in a strictly linear fashion.

Integration of Feminine and Masculine Principles

In this expanded educational context, we can easily recognize that modern academia, both mainstream and alternative, focuses on the Autumn and the Summer phases—action and harvest, the more ‘masculine’ aspects of the process—and tends to overlook the facilitation of spaces for the Winter and the Spring: germination, gestation, and giving birth—the more ‘feminine’ aspects of the process. Students spend most of their time both inside and outside the classroom reading, studying, and discussing knowledge already elaborated by others (Autumn), after which they are usually expected to ‘produce’ new and original contributions in their final presentations and papers (Summer). In other words, the deep structure of modern education tends to skip the more feminine and more deeply generative stages of the creative process (Winter and Spring). Seen in this context, the scarcity of genuinely creative developments in academia should not be surprising. There is much ‘second-order’ creativity or smart mental permutation of already known ideas, but very little ‘firstorder’ creativity or organic, multidimensional emergence of truly innovative developments. Given the innumerable ‘abortions’ of the creative process that these dynamics cause in the Western educational process almost from day one, it is understandable (perhaps inevitable) that so many students develop a lack of confidence in their own creative potential.

We strongly suspect that this deeply masculinized pedagogical container may also be behind the intense (and also masculinized) reactivity of the feminine sensibility (of both men and women) that faculty and students often witness in the classroom, even in those courses where the ‘feminine’ is honored and included in content and/or more superficial process (e.g., inclusion of a feminine ritual in a masculinized pedagogical process). The true feminine is understandably in a state of paralyzing despair that can easily burst into anger because it cannot understand why it still feels profoundly dishonored when it is apparently attended to and even explicitly championed.

In future years, it is likely that integral education will gradually restructure the pedagogical process in ways that truly and deeply integrate the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ dimensions of the inquiry process. This may involve the facilitation of spaces not only for the intellectual discussion and production of knowledge but for the vital germination and gestation of the creative seeds of the individual.

Note: This article is a shorter version of an article originally published in The Journal of Transformative Education 3(4), 306-330, 2005.