Embodied Spiritual Inquiry: The Nature of Human Boundaries

Embodied spiritual inquiry (ESI) is a radical approach to integral and transpersonal education and research offered as a graduate course at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). Inspired by elements of participatory research and cooperative inquiry, ESI applies interactive embodied meditations to access multiple ways of knowing (e.g., somatic, vital, emotional, mental, contemplative) and mindfully inquire into collaboratively decided questions. This article presents the learning outcomes of an inquiry into the nature of human boundaries within and between co-inquirers, providing an example of how ESI is implemented in the classroom and can be used to study transpersonal subject matter. In particular, the study found that boundaries were experienced in terms of their dynamic effects rather than as static qualities, with a relationship between dissociation and overly firm boundaries, as well as a relationship between integration/merging and more varied combinations of firm and permeable boundaries. Other notable inquiry outcomes include the identification of (a) experiential qualities of the states of dissociation, merging, and integration; (b) a recursive relationship between fear and trust in the modulation of optimal interpersonal boundaries; and (c) the phenomenon of shared emergent experience between practitioners, which suggests the existence of an intersubjective transpersonal field.

Sohmer, O. R., Baumann, R., & Ferrer, J. N. (2020). An embodied spiritual inquiry into the nature of human boundaries: Outcomes of a participatory approach to transpersonal education and research. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies. Advance online publication. https://digitalcommons.ciis.edu/advance-archive/21/

Integral and transpersonal education faces the great challenge and opportunity of engaging the multidimensional totality of human experience. As holistic educators Ferrer et al. (2005) stated, integral education needs to cultivate the epistemic potential of the body, vital world (i.e., the sexual, instinctive, and creative domain), heart, and consciousness in addition to the type of intellectual mind that has been typically privileged in modern education. This article presents an example of embodied spiritual inquiry (ESI) as an approach to integral and transpersonal education and research that radically acknowledges multiple human faculties as sources of creative knowledge in both content and method.

ESI is both a unique approach to education and a novel research methodology that has been designed and offered as a graduate course at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), in San Francisco, California, USA, by core faculty Jorge Ferrer since 2003. ESI applies elements of Albareda and Romero’s integral transformative practice involving mindful physical contact between practitioners that allows access to the creative potential of multiple human faculties including body, vital center (i.e., the lower abdomen, associated with vitality and creativity), heart, mind, and consciousness (Ferrer, 2003; Malkemus & Romero, 2012; Romero & Albareda, 2001), to facilitate a learning experience for the whole person, inspired by elements of cooperative inquiry, a collaborative, experiential approach to research and learning about the human condition (see Heron, 1996; 1998; Heron & Reason, 1997). More specifically, ESI seeks to foster access to multiple ways of knowing (e.g., somatic, vital, emotional, mental, contemplative) to explore a variety of psychological and transpersonal inquiry domains. Grounded in the paradigm of participatory philosophy (e.g., Ferrer, 2002, 2011, 2017; Ferrer & Sherman, 2008a; Hartelius & Ferrer, 2013; Heron, 1998, 2006; Tarnas, 1991), ESI holds transpersonal knowing as relational, embodied, enactive, and inquiry-driven (see Ferrer, 2000, 2008, 2017; Malkemus, 2012).

In this context, ESI invites new perspectives on the human condition through a collaborative, experiential process using Albareda and Romero’s interactive embodied meditations (IEMs; Ferrer, 2003). Mindful physical contact, an attitude of unconditional presence, and deep listening to the diverse human faculties activated by IEMs seek to facilitate access to the intersubjective and transpersonal domains potentially emerging in experience between persons—domains that have been mostly overlooked in transpersonal and contemplative education to date (see Ferrer & Sohmer, 2017; Gunnlaugson, 2009, 2011; Heron & Lahood, 2008).

In addition, rather than being passive consumers of knowledge, students are engaged as co-researchers. To this end, students select an inquiry topic or domain, actively elucidate the inquiry domain through their own multidimensional experiences, retrospectively assess the merits and shortcomings of the inquiry process, and optionally participate or even take a leadership role in the analysis and discussion of the inquiry outcomes. This case study presents an example of the applied impact of ESI in the classroom and the rich learning outcomes generated by this approach. Since the theoretical pedagogy, epistemology, and methodology of ESI has been presented in detail elsewhere (Ferrer & Sohmer, 2017; Osterhold et al., 2007; Sohmer, 2018), here we provide a brief overview of the course, as well as the theoretical and methodological context within which inquiry outcomes are generated, while focusing on the discussion of the inquiry outcomes. By discussing these outcomes, our aim is to illustrate the experience of ESI participants and provide concrete examples of the fruits of this integral education and transpersonal research approach.

Methodological Overview: Course and Study Background

The ESI into the nature of human boundaries within and between co-inquirers (i.e., intrapersonal and interpersonal boundaries) was facilitated at CIIS in 2013 by core faculty Jorge Ferrer and teaching assistant Michael Anderson. In addition to the facilitator and assistant, the group was comprised of 12 graduate students (hereafter referred to as co-researchers or participants), including the first two authors of this article. The class began with a three-hour introductory session at CIIS, followed by three weekend intensives that met every other weekend at an off-campus studio. The first weekend focused on introducing the IEMs (Ferrer, 2003) and cooperative inquiry (Heron, 1996), building a sense of community amongst participants, and identifying the inquiry focus. The following two weekends then used IEMs to explore the inquiry domain. Other class activities included multidimensional meditations (e.g., sensory exploration of space, mindful movement) and games at the start of each session, as well as integration activities after the meditations, including drawing, creative writing, symbolic movement, critical discussion in dyads and small groups, and whole group sharing. Audio recordings of group sharing, drawings, and final reflection papers were collected by the authors for data analysis, which was conducted after termination of the course. While all co-researchers were invited to offer their input on the final draft of this report, the first author conducted most of the data analysis and writing.

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