Three Nows, the Future Infinitive, and Triple-Loop Awareness

Recently, a Buddhist teacher and friend of mine named Hokai posted a blog on stages and states of time awareness that invites us to take an integral perspective on what we mean by “the power of Now.”  Here is what he says:

    You know about present, right? While there are quite a few perspectives on present, including past present and future present, there are also developmental stages of presencing, simply conceivable as prereflective now, reflective now, and postreflective now. Everyone interested in the power of now, whether traditional Zen or Eckhart Tolle, would do well to distinguish between these three. Here’s an example of a prereflective now, and since we all seem to know what reflective now means, postreflective now would be that which goes beyond both of these.”

    Pre-trans fallacy” refers to the mistakes by the reflective in an attempt to identify the other two. It may be either elevation of pre- into post/trans or reduction of post/trans to pre-. To keep it simple, it’s a mess.

    But that ain’t all, however. In each of these there is nunc stans, eternal present (i.e. dharmakaya for you buddhist folks) and the nunc fluent, flowing present (i.e. rupakaya, whether gross or subtle). And the relationship of these two, their separation/difference and unity/ identity will have to be addressed from one of those three nows. Gets interesting, right?

As Hokai suggests, the question of what constitutes the “Now” is not a simple one, and it is easy to make pre/trans confusions between pre-reflective and post-reflective forms of it.  If you would like more information on the contours of the pre-reflective Now, check out the following videos on the tribe mentioned in the essay Hokai cited:  Out on a Limb over Language; Missionary Linguist Loses Faith (Part One and Part Two).  The latter videos make an interesting point:  the pre-conventional perspective of this tribe actually leads them to reject a reflective-level faith like Christianity as “superstition.”

What I’d like to explore in this entry is the contours of a post-reflective Now.  To do so, I’d like to take a brief detour and look first at the future infinitive, a distinct temporal mode (distinct from either “past-centered knowing” or “being in the now”) that is discussed in Time-Space Knowledge (TSK) literature — a view which I think is especially useful in the context of modern living and an evolutionary spirituality.  And then I will connect this temporal mode to an integral model of post-reflective presence.

The Future Infinitive

With the notion of the future infinitive, TSK challenges conventional understanding of the future as a continuation of the patterns and “prerecorded structures of the past.”  Instead, we are invited to relate to the future, not as something that will “eventually arrive” or as a space into which we will eventually move, but rather as the unfoundedness and indeterminacy of being that is always with us.  Here is how Tarthang Tulku puts it:

    When we refer our present situation to experiences that lie ‘ahead’ in the future, we are conforming to the structures of the past… But this constructed future has little to do with the future as time’s transitional indeterminacy: the future infinitive of time. The future as located ‘up ahead’, projected forward along linear lines of force, is not the same as the future that will never arrive and thus never restrict.  It is in this ‘never arriving’ of the future that the dynamic and power of time make themselves available (Dynamics of Time and Space, pp. 92-93).

Tarthang Tulku contrasts the future infinitive with the future as the projected past; in this sense, knowing the future is to be distinguished from reflective-level anticipation or prediction of particular outcomes.  Rather, knowing the future is a form of active presencing which “encompasses” and is sensitive to time’s creative vitality.  The future infinitive refers thus to the indeterminate aliveness of time, in which the “coming” but “never arriving” of the future presents “what is” as clear, vivid, precise, and yet also, in an important sense,  transparent and unfounded.

This indeterminacy finds expression in our knowledge, as an active not-knowing that allows for the new.  To engage the future infinitive is to embrace openness and the unknown in the midst of the familiar.  As Tarthang Tulku says:

    To engage the future directly, we can practice coming toward the future with a way of knowing suited to its ongoing becoming. This means coming to each moment with an active not-knowing, aware that there is nothing to be known. If we are truly confident that “anything can happen,” we will find that the future activates a powerful new dynamic for knowledge. Because it never comes to be, it opens immeasurable opportunities -- not for ‘later’, but ‘right now’, in the heart of a time that is no long conceived in linear terms (DTS, pp. 93-94).

Focusing on the creative indeterminacy of the future infinitive is not a repudiation of conventional structures of past and future, but a re-situation of them.  Tarthang Tulku suggests taking the infinity sign as a symbol for this dynamic, where the point at the center represents the present “crossing” of the shifting potentials and possibilities of the past and future.   In this image, we do not simply inhabit the center; rather, the ‘whole’ of time is equally at play at every ‘point,’ in the ongoing ‘transition’ the openness of the future infinitive makes possible.  Eventually, as our understanding of time deepens and matures, we may find that looking at time in terms of ‘moments’ and ‘transitions’ is no longer tenable.

This way of relating to and ‘opening’ time, which Tarthang Tulku explores more skillfully and in greater depth than I am able to here, is in my view well suited to an integral, evolutionary approach to spirituality or ‘being in the world,’ as I think the next example will make clear.

Triple-loop Awareness

In an essay published in Integral Review in 2005, Anne Starr and Bill Torbert attempt to explain and illustrate a transconceptual mode of experience which they call triple-loop awareness.  This mode of awareness appears to involve both post-reflective experience of the Now and creative participation in the future, and so is especially relevant to our concerns here.

To get a better grasp of what Starr and Torbert mean by triple-loop awareness, I recommend taking the time to read their whole article.  I will offer just a brief definition for now.

Triple-loop awareness or learning is conceived as a developmentally sophisticated, transconceptual mode of action and inquiry, incorporating and building on simpler modes of awareness (and temporal consciousness).   As first described by Gregory Bateson and later elaborated upon by Peter Senge, single-loop learning involves incremental learning and behavioral adjustment, whereby new skills and capabilities are gradually acquired over time.  Double-loop awareness and learning involve apprehension of and change in underlying patterns of organization, not just behaviors.  We perceive and work with process in addition to content.  And triple-loop learning, then, involves a transrational apprehension of all patterning or schemata – where conceptuality itself, with both its weaknesses and strengths, becomes an object of awareness.   As Starr and Torbert put it,

    [Triple-loop awareness] is the simultaneous awareness of all 4 territories of experience – of the outside world, one’s own behavior, one’s own feelings and thoughts, and at the same time, a kind of witnessing of all this. It can be called presencing (Senge et al, 2004). Triple-loop awareness occurs in any moment when there’s an attention distinct from the mental thinking, from the physical sensing, and from the objects of perception, infusing them all with an immediacy that is at once passionate, dispassionate, and compassionate.

This is clearly different from pre-reflective consciousness, where in one’s embeddedness in the present, one cannot step outside of one’s context to take in all of these rich territories of experience.  The temporal implications of this mode of awareness and learning are clear, as Starr and Torbert also recognize.

In discussing these issues, Starr and Torbert propose a multi-dimensional model of temporality.  Normally, they argue, humans operate with either a zero- or one-dimensional time consciousness: either we are oblivious to time, simply caught up unreflectively in our activities, or we are aware of the linear pressure of time – say, while waiting for an appointment or trying to make a deadline.  One-dimensional time consciousness, which apprehends time sequentially, allows for single-loop learning, in which we are able to ” identify a gap between act and intended outcome, then adjust one’s action, and [possibly] achieve one’s goal.”  As they point out, sophisticated versions of this mode of temporal consciousness inform certain historical models of evolution and development.

Two-dimensional time contrasts with the narrow moving point-instant of one-dimensional time, involving an expanded sense of open presence – the timeless Now or nunc stans of the mystics, within which functions such as memory or anticipation arise as ornaments or expressions of the overall field.  Starr and Torbert suggest visualizing it as a “line” which intersects linear, sequential time, creating a plane – an open state which does not foreclose and may include zero- or one-dimensional activities (sensory engagement, sequential reflection and anticipation).

And three-dimensional time, then, “can again be imagined as orthogonal (the Z axis) to the plane defined by chronological time (X axis) and eternity (Y axis). The three-dimensional ‘volume’ of time can be imagined as holding all possibilities, all the potentialities of the future and the still-hidden meanings of the past, some of which emerge into the present (become act-ualized) and then pass into linear, historical time… [This mode of time involves a] different quality of awareness that goes beyond a deepened sense of presence in the present to sensing oneself as a creative subject actively participating in midwifing an emerging future.”

This description, I believe, echoes the perspective explored in TSK as the future infinitive (as well as other perspectives not mentioned here), and clearly defines a post-reflective, integral mode of time-consciousness that should not be confused with the present-centered and exquisitely sensitive, but nevertheless still narrow prereflective temporality of the Pirahã.  It also appears to go beyond Tolle, in that it evokes a “Power of Now” that embraces rather than excludes – a temporal fullness in which thought, analysis, and evolutionary unfolding are accommodated, and the value of the past and future is not denied.

Towards the end of their essay, Starr and Torbert ask the following question:

    Is it even conceivable that there is a spiritual / political / scientific / business inquiry and practice aimed at generating an ongoing triple-loop awareness that transforms outcomes through changing the quality of one’s actions, of one’s action-logics, and of one’s very attention? To what degree can what kind of a spiritual community of inquiry support one’s efforts toward a trans-conceptual awareness that can host all three dimensions of time – 1) the ‘line’ of mundane, durational activity; 2) the archetypal, eternal, fractal “circles” of time that durational activity embodies; and 3) the ‘volume’ of possibilities, from which spontaneous, imp-possible, trickster-ish violations of past pattern are drawn?

I take this as a vital question for the integral spiritual community, and it is one to which I believe TSK can meaningfully contribute.

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Comment by DavidM58 on December 20, 2014 at 12:58pm

Very good. This helps me better understand and relate to Gebser's concept of time - as theurj refers to.

In regards to the vital question, I think process-relational philosophy and what Whitehead called "causal efficacy" can also contribute here.

Starr and Torbert quoted above: "Triple-loop awareness occurs in any moment when there’s an attention distinct from the mental thinking, from the physical sensing, and from the objects of perception, infusing them all with an immediacy that is at once passionate, dispassionate, and compassionate."

Nancy Frankenberry on Whitehead's Doctrine of Causal Efficacy:

"Prescinding from the more technical features of Whitehead's system, the main features of his philosophy of experience can be summarized in the broader, nonsystematic language he uses in developing a theory of nonsensuous perception or "perception in the mode of causal efficacy." According to this theory, the most basic mode of experience is not sense perception but sense reception, or the perception of process. Most modern schools of epistemology have confined their analysis of experience to sense-perception (what Whitehead calls "perception in the mode of presentational immediacy") as the only valid means of deriving and testing empirical knowledge. But underlying the sharp, precise, spatially located experience of contemporaneous sense perception, projected as presentationally immediate, is the receptive nonsensuous experience of causal efficacy with its dim and vague vector feeling-tones."

(Religion and Radical Empiricism, 1987, p. 160)

Frankenberry, p. 164:
"Attention to the primacy of causal efficacy involves an important shift in value theory as over against those philosophies and theologies which designate mind or substance or matter as primary categories. The doctrine of causal efficacy also provides an elemental base in human experience for designating the most deeply creative transformations associated with religion. It is an insistence on the centrality of the body and the fact that consciousness, even when dominant in human experience, is in organic association with bodily, visceral, affective processes which either enhance conscious attention or frustrate and attenuate it. It points also to the fact that images, concepts, and theories alone do not enlighten or liberate, redeem or destroy. More profoundly, lives are created and re-created in terms of organic physical energies of nature which are most intimately experienced with the body. The creativity of all existence originates in the realm of concrete relationality, present in physical feelings, for this constitutes the stream of experience, the qualitative flux in which and out of which events have their reality. This is the level of common creaturehood, a level more pervasive than that of mere sensation or refined intellectuality. As we shall see next, for the Buddhist process view, too, what is most real is the flow of experiencing."

Comment by Edward theurj Berge on May 12, 2014 at 10:02am

If interested we also have a thread on Torbert here. In particular, this post and several following discusses triple time loops. In this post Gidley criticizes the Lingam for not including the 3rd time loop, what she calls concretion after Gebser. And on p. 3 a discussion of how this missing piece plays into how the Lingam metaphysically formulates the Causal as distinct from the postmetaphysical withdrawn of Bryant or the khora of Derrida. And all of which determines how one formulates what an integral consciousness even means in the first place.

Comment by Balder on May 12, 2014 at 8:44am

(Posting this old blog here for archiving purposes.)

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