An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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Graham Ross has been exploring Ken Wilber's ideas and approaches to personal integration for many years. Before retiring as a university lecturer, he taught various psychologies and skills within the post-graduate teacher education M Ed (TESOL) and M Social Science (Counselling) courses. His current activities include: convening a convivial Wilber discussion group, active since 2002; acting as educational adviser in some training programs for psychotherapists; coaching storytellers, and performing as an oral storyteller. Graham Ross lives in South Australia. 

The Integral Spirituality
of Ken Wilber

Some Reflections

Graham Ross


In this essay I have viewed some of the ideas and practices of Ken Wilber through the filters of several metaphors or metaphor-like images. My emphasis is on ideas which are grounded or connected with spirituality; and on appreciation rather than criticism, while acknowledging the abundance of critical perspectives available. The metaphorical filters used are: as a resonating reminder of spirit, as an integral spiritual vision, as a guide to spiritual practice, as a spiritual meta-system, interpretive maps of spiritual experience, and as a kosmic mandala. To enhance access to these ideas some personal examples and further sources are sprinkled throughout.

There were six blind men of Hindustan
Who came upon an elephant:
They each guessed variously
What it was.
Some there are who say there were
More than six men;
Some there are also who question
That it was an elephant
The men came upon.
Book of Apocryphal Aphorisms [in the spirit of Stanislaw Lem]


In late December 2007, over several days I happened to be shuttling between two contrasting activities: navigating Google Earth (as a novice) and intensive reading. The reading - on the ideas and practices associated with Ken Wilber (1949- ) - was for this paper; navigating Google maps was in search of the precise location of my wife who was visiting Prague at the time while I remained at home in Adelaide. As I zoomed in from an elevated satellite map of the world's continents, to the expanse of Europe, down to the Czech Republic, and finally close to the street where she was staying, Nerudova, it struck me that the design of Google maps offered a rich metaphor for the work of Ken Wilber. Happenstance led me to notice that both involved an elegant synthesis of numerous complex ideas - enough to leave me in awe and wonder. In addition, both were derived from the efforts and ideas of countless people. Much to my chagrin each seemed also to have distracting icons of commercialism embedded in them.

Reflecting on Wilber's spiritual ideas in any fair way presents a challenge. Many have tried to summarise[1] and evaluate them, but this has required understanding Wilber's demanding output of words and major shifts of position published over more than 35 years. Neither the metaphor of Google Earth nor any single metaphor used by Wilber himself - such as that of a map - seems adequate. Accordingly, in this discussion rather than using just one I will draw upon a series of metaphors to approach his work.

My intention in this chapter then is to focus on the work of Ken Wilber and aspects of spirituality in it, through the filters of a several metaphors or metaphor-like images[2]. Now sixty, Wilber has had many labels applied to him because of his prolific writing and striking presence in the world: transpersonal psychologist, mystic, new age cult leader, philosopher, pandit, and Einstein of consciousness – to list but some. My hope is that the metaphorical interpretations[3] I use will amplify and illuminate important features in his work, also that the personal experiences and examples I sprinkle throughout will make his ideas more accessible.

as a Resonating Reminder of Spirit

There are many writers whose themes and styles of writing provide resonating reminders of spirit. Some who come to mind who have nourished myself and countless others are: Krishnamurti, Eckhart Tolle, the Dalai Lama, Jack Kornfield, and Thich Nhat Hanh.. All of them point to spirit and give a grounded taste of being immersed in spirit, frequently with wisdom and added practical guidance in the form of meditations and visualisations.

Within the body of Ken Wilber's writings are many passages which share this inspiring capacity: reminding me of ways of being that I value and aspire to. They come from places of deep authoritative knowing in Wilber, and are identified variously in spiritual traditions as One Taste, Original Face, Emptiness, Suchness, Witness and ever-present awareness. Most striking are those written in a lyrical, at times languid, poetic style which alludes to ineffable qualities of transcendent spiritual experience.

Sometimes such passages remind me that my sensing of the immediate physical surroundings is contracted at the time - and point to richer possibilities. Frequently, the language is that of the direct first-person voice, like Wilber's first journal entry in One Taste.

Thursday, January 1997
Worked all morning, research and reading, while watching the sunlight play through the falling snow. The sun is not yellow today, it is white, like the snow, so I am surrounded by white on white, alone on alone. Sheer Emptiness, soft clear light, is what it all looks like, shimmering to itself in melancholy murmurs. I am released into Emptiness, and all is radiant on this clear light day. (Wilber, 2000b, page 1)

Other times the experience is expressed in a second-person voice which invites togetherness and inclusion, and are part of a cumulative sharing and ecstatic exclamation. I find such passages difficult to tune into without much more of the surrounding context. But still a resonating reminder of and pointer to spirit.

It is, truly, a game; what dream walkers we all are! Nothing ever really happens here, nothing moves in time or space, it is all so painfully obvious that I advert my eyes from the blinding truth. But here we are, You and I, and it is You-and-I that is the form of Spirit in this and all the worlds. For in the entire Kosmos, there is only One Self; in the entire Kosmos, there is only One Spirit--and thus the Self that is reading this page is the exactly the Self that wrote it.
Let us, then, You-and-I, recognize together who and what we are. And I will be with you until the ends of the world, and you will be with me, for there is only One Self, which is the miracle of Spirit. This is why we will be together forever, You-and-I, in the world of the Many-That-Are-One, and why we have never been separated. Just as Consciousness is singular, and the Self is One, and the Self neither comes nor goes, so You-and-I are that Self, forever and forever and endlessly forever. (Wilber, 2003a, pp 137-138)

Towards the end of most of his discursive and dense writing, Wilber turns to exalt the ecstatic transcendent in the third-person voice. Again, these are challenging to tune into out of context, yet serve as poignant reminders when I allow myself to be swept along from the flow of language before and after.

And there, hidden in the secret cave of the Heart, where God and Goddess finally unite, where Emptiness embraces all Form as the lost and found Beloved, where Eternity joyously sings the praises of noble Time, where Shiva uncontrollably swoons for luminescent Shakti, where ascending and descending erotically embrace in the sound of one hand clapping – there forever in the universe of One Taste, the Kosmos recognizes its own true nature, self-seen in a tacit recognition that leaves not even a single soul to tell the amazing tale. (Wilber, 1996 pp 338-339)

Undoubtedly, individuals who read Wilber will respond and resonate deeply, to different parts of Wilber's work because of their own life experiences. Many who have journeyed with cancer, for instance, have been moved to tears by Grace and Grit ( Wilber, 1991) but not anything else written by Wilber. In Grace and Grit Wilber narrates the life and death of Treya, his wife, juxtaposing her intimate journal entries with his own commentary. Personally, I have been touched profoundly by specific journal entries in One Taste which brought back significant memories. In the next extract, Wilber continues his experiences at a Christmas party with residents of a local Developmental Disabilities Centre where a friend of his worked.

Whenever I am with dear people who have been disadvantaged in their own growth and development – crippled in their own depth – I am so much more easily reminded of ground value, green emeralds each and all, perfect in their glory. I am reminded that intrinsic and extrinsic fall away in One Taste, where all Spirit's children equally shine in the infinity that they are. I know this for a fact, because last night I spent three hours dancing with buddhas, and who would dare deny that ? (Wilber,2000b page 324)

I tune in readily to this, for example, with memories singing in a community choir which often combined with a group of intellectually challenged adults, a precursor group to South Australia's Tutti Ensemble conducted by Pat Rix. Warmth, joyful spontaneity and a humbling sense of the one spirit found in all beings dominates my recollections( there were moments of anguish too !). Also, moments of grace given to me return now as I recall specific disadvantaged and disabled individuals I taught in the early years of my teaching career – 'all Spirit's children equally'.

as an Integral Spiritual Vision

From the perspective of experiencing Wilber's work as a resonating reminder of spirit, I move onto another. The expression 'Integral Vision' is one of several common ways Ken Wilber's ideas have been framed, most recently and visibly in the publication The Integral Vision (Wilber, 2007). In general terms, Wilber's integral vision is a spiritually-informed image which can be shaped in imagination. With a spiritual-tinge, it indicates particularly how things have been for humans in the past, are now, and might evolve in a positive future. Those who adopt this integral vision construct it from engaging with the appropriate integral discourse[4] - oral and written texts, interactions with people, diagrams, tabulated information, and suchlike. Above all else the vision which emerges at first is presented as being comprehensive, inclusive and balanced[5]. However, a definition of this brevity does not distinguish Wilber's integral vision from the claims of any other integral enterprise or holistic perspective. It is in the specific way Wilber's work reflects these features, particularly comprehensiveness, that make it unique.

The long subtitle of The Integral Vision flags that comprehensive might include a lot: A Very Short Introduction to the Revolutionary Integral Approach to Life, God, the Universe, and Everything'. Spin, seriousness and satire are sometimes hard to distinguish in Wilber's titles! As the vision unfolds, it soon becomes clear that it is not satire. On the first full page of written text Wilber declares the time we live in, the twenty-first century, unique:

… for the first time, the sum total of human knowledge is available to us the knowledge, experience, and wisdom, and reflection of all major civilizations – premodern, modern, and postmodern – are open to study by anyone. (Wilber, 2007, page 16)

Then he invites the reader to speculate:

What if we took literally everything that all the various cultures have to tell us about spiritual growth, psychological growth, social growth – and put it on the table ? … What if we attempted, based on extensive cross-cultural study, to use all of the world's great traditions to create a composite [vision]…that included the best elements from all of them? (Wilber, 2007, page 16)

Subsequently, Wilber reports that 'an extensive search' has led to the discovery of a comprehensive map, which draws upon ' …all the known systems and models of human growth – from the ancient shamans and sages to today's breakthroughs in cognitive science…' (Wilber, 2007, page 17). Overall at this point then, Wilber's vision incorporates many notions which are commonly linked with spirituality such as: God, wisdom, spiritual growth, and ancient shamans and sages. At the same time, he is clearly concerned with much more than spirituality as it is usually constructed, and thus far, more with knowledge about things and less about practical knowledge how to do things (eg meditate; enact a specific ritual).

Next, he announces that the core of his vision will consist of a comprehensive map, and that the most important features of this map in turn can be distilled into five simple factors[6]. This point is reminiscent of Arthur Denton discovering that the meaning of the universe is 42 in Douglas Adams' science fiction world: you may well wonder not only what the factors are but how they can be so significant in a spiritual vision. I will address the significance throughout the remainder of this paper in various ways. However, initially I will explain the five factors and how they assume a role in the framework which is reiterated so much in Wilber's work.

As Wilber continues, he emphasises that the five factors are not abstract theoretical concepts, remote from experience. Instead he points out they are accessible by anyone in his or her own awareness as 'contours of consciousness'. If we restrict our attention to humans, four of the five factors are quite familiar in our experience either introspectively or by inference from observation. These in turn are: states of consciousness (eg awake, sleeping, dreaming); developmental lines of development (eg cognitive line of development; interpersonal line of development); levels of development (eg pre-operational level/stage – Piaget; conventional stage of moral development - Kolberg); and, types of personality (eg extravert; masculine; intuiting – Myers-Briggs). The fifth factor, namely quadrants, is less familiar and is the most unique of Wilber's contributions in this set of five.

One of the ways to understand quadrants is to see them as four fundamental perspectives[7] which are accessible to a human consciousness, for any occasion[8]. Usually, Wilber introduces the four quadrants by explaining that they correspond to four[9] perspectives represented in all natural human languages. Using examples from the English language, he suggests they can be summarised as the I, We, It and Its perspectives[10] each arising within awareness assigned to particular quadrants. Their conventional relative positions can be seen in Figure 1.

Elaborating further what these can mean: the first person I perspective – includes the interior experience of thoughts and sensations ; the second person We perspective - includes understanding and valuing shared subjectively with others in relationship; and the third person singular It perspective - includes apprehending one's brain, skin, and fingernails objectively ; and, the third person plural Its perspective – includes apprehending patterns in one's immediate environment, systems and organisations viewed objectively. These elaborations are summarised in Figure 2 which also shows the combinations of attributes (eg Individual-Interior) which define each cell of the quadrant. Each quadrant is specified by combinations of the discrete values on each of two axes, namely Interior-Exterior (horizontal axis) and Individual–Collective (vertical axis) respectively.

Because of their central position in Wilber's work I have summarised definitions of the five factors in the Table 1 below, as they apply to humans.

Table 1. The five factors that can be discerned in a person's awareness
Quadrant One of four fundamental perspectives for being-in-the world. Each is characterised by the combination of the variables on the two axes Individual-Collective and Interior-Exterior respectively.
Level/Stage Level refers either to the altitude (higher or lower) of general development across several developmental lines or to the altitude of a specific developmental line.
Line Line usually refers to a discernible strand of development. A line is exemplified most commonly by any one of Howard Gardner's cluster of Multiple Intelligences such as interpersonal or kinesthetic lines of development respectively.
State State refers to a transitory aspect of consciousness in humans, contrasted particularly with the idea of a more enduring level/stage.
Type Type mainly refers to relatively stable style in individual humans, which are available at any developmental level. Often a personality type, trait, or cognitive style.

With this preliminary explanation of the five factors then, I'll turn to the slightly more complex framework which builds upon this understanding, and forms a bridge to many of Wilber's insights and applications.

This framework gets its name from its abbreviation, the acronym AQAL (pronounced Aw-qwul), and is often used to distinguish Wilber's integral approach from other integral approaches.[11] The earliest meaning assigned to AQAL was simply All Quadrants All Levels. However, the current meaning often includes, by convention, all five factors: All Quadrants, All Levels, All Lines, All States, and All Types. This expansion draws attention to the importance placed on extending ones attention from five discrete factors - contours of awareness or consciousness - to scanning All values of each factor if necessary. Needless to say, all values for these factors is an open-ended set. Psychologists, for example, have construed numerous schemes for articulating levels of development, aspects or lines of development, and psychological states. The boundaries of the AQAL framework expand endlessly when viewed in a straight-forward rational[12] way. Usually, the interpretive use of the framework is contained by purpose and remains an elusive art in my view, rather than a mechanical algorithm to apply.

The AQAL Framework has been applied to diverse fields. These include: disciplines of inquiry (eg Politics, Wilber, 2001; Art, Rentschler, 2006; Science, Koller, 2006), the traditional professions (eg Law, Fischler 2006; Education, Esbjorn-Hargens, 2007; Medicine, George, 2006), and areas of civic duty and global citizenship (Sustainable Development, Brown, 2006; International Development, Hochachka, 2007). At times people pursuing these applications argue that their value lies in improved interdisciplinary communication and complex problem-solving at a time when traditional boundaries must be crossed. However, in my view more can be claimed. The quests to apply the AQAL Framework are efforts to unify the prevalent fragmentation which dominates so many of these fields, the aspiration being towards the vision of making action-in-the-world comprehensive and for intellectual endeavours to strive for integrated wholes. In this sense applications of the AQAL Framework to these fields are intrinsically spiritual.

One way Wilber has used the AQAL framework is to make explicit some of the uses of the word spiritual by various people. He does this by specifying particular values for the abstract five factors and patterns of them embedded in AQAL which make sense of various uses of spirituality. I have found the distinctions he makes elegant and insightful, while recognising that they have inherent limitations being conceptual It/Its characterisations. They contrast with many detailed first-person accounts available[13]. Most people including myself find both kinds of approaches important to making sense of spirituality and the issues surrounding it.

Factor (s) used to define spirituality Clarification of spirituality given (my paraphrase drawing on several Wilber sources)
state Used in sense of: spirituality involves an altered state(s) of awareness. A transitory experience of the sacred, transcendent, numinous ( eg peak experience, flow experience, meditative state).
line Spirituality involves a specific line of development which has spiritual connotations (eg developmental lines like: care, compassion, love, ultimate concern)
level & line Spirituality involves a high or the highest level in a specific line of development (eg transpersonal level in self-identity – Loevinger/Cook-Greuter )
level Spirituality involves a high aggregated level in several developmental lines (eg high moral development & meditative level & cognitive level & ….; Or, clearlight broad wave of consciousness) Synonym for stage
quadrant Spirituality involves an experience (sic) or quality of the self which arises in the context of: witness and transcendent I-am (I quadrant); or, deep connection with another person/ other people (We-Thou in We quadrant); or, from engaging transcendently with Nature/physical world/systems (in the It/Its quadrants)

Table 2

as a Guide to Spiritual Practice

The work of Ken Wilber emphasises the centrality of individual spiritual practice or praxis. Nevertheless, it is possible to read a dozen or so Wilber's publications and conclude that Wilber's main spiritual praxis seems to be deep thinking using every one of his 160+ IQ points[14]. There is some truth (perhaps overstated) in this conclusion because purposefully following the principle of inclusion in his thinking is what he does most: and this is a practice. However, over the last five years he and members of the Integral Institute have assembled an array of traditional growth techniques, designed new practical methods, and have made an effort to rationalise and test[15] them. Resulting from this, a practical kit has been produced called Integral Life Practice - Starter Kit[16] and a substantial, purported more balanced overview of the integral practices Integral Life Practice has been published (Wilber et al, 2008). Despite the neutral-sounding life practice, this refers to a spiritual practice in my opinion. It is shaped to enhance individual evolution towards spirit (as levels) and involution towards ever-present awareness (spirit as ground of being).

From the perspective of the designers of the approach, the bottom line for anyone to say that he or she is doing Integral Life Practice is that the individual is doing practices which are Integrally informed[17]. This means minimally that the person: is familiar with the patterns and factors in the AQAL framework, accepts personal responsibility for gently assessing his or her own life practices, and gracefully commits to practices which enhance growth. Even this bottom line, is debatable, because practicing at all can be viewed as a paradox when any practice has spiritual intentions[18].

Using AQAL as a framework, the goal of Integral Life Practice can be expressed, as the cultivation of body, mind and spirit levels of oneself with practices which engage ones inner world (Individual Interior), ones shared social world (Collective Interior), and external natural and social world (Individual Exterior & Collective Exterior). Practices seldom neatly fit into the zones defined in this way, nor any other multiple of quadrants, levels, and other factors. Nevertheless, claims are sometimes made that more zones are addressed via an AQAL based scheme than any other. Enhanced authentic transformative development (moving up developmental levels) is claimed by doing practices which address more zones[19].

At a practical level anyone embarking on an Integral Life Practice program is faced with a menu of choices from which a personal integral practice can be devised. The menu presented in tabulated form displays groups of practices (each group being called a module). The two sets of modules, core and auxiliary ones, each contain an open-ended list of options. In Table 3 below the names of the four core modules Body, Mind, Spirit, and Shadow are displayed with some hint of what is in each. Noticeably, the module names match the upper two quadrants (mind and body), with some attention to levels (spirit and shadow work as a process). The five auxiliary (optional) modules are tabulated in a similar form with headings of Ethics, Sex, Work, Emotions, and Relationships (Wilber, 2007, pp 170-171). To a degree, they lean towards the coverage of the collective aspect of lower quadrants (eg work and relationship as contexts for practices).

Table 3 Core Modules (after Wilber, 2006b)

When used in conjunction with their Starting Kit this tabulation enables anyone to self-assess his or her existing practices and to organise a practice. The main guideline provided is to include one activity from each of the four core modules, and optionally one or more auxiliary modules. Overall, the emphasis is on shaping a practice which is integral and personalised. People using the kit are encouraged: to choose activities which balance and build upon what they already do; to schedule practices spaced to suit their lifestyles (morning/afternoon, daily, weekly); and, to allocate time realistically. With options of one-minute's duration available (designated exemplary) for all core modules, each billed 'a distillation…of the finest practices anywhere' (Patten et al, 2006, p.13), it is possible to begin from zero practices to assemble an integral practice which takes four minutes a day. To their credit, the designers encourage quality over quantity in a manner which is highly individualised for personal responsibility.

My subsequent comments, will sample some of the features which have impressed me among the practices, organisation, and design principles[20] promulgated by the Integral Institute. This shortchanges their presentation of Integral Practice both through my selectivity and because I am not a committed adherent, so I recommend Integral Life Practice (2008) if you would like a more direct overview.

The set of practices included in the groupings of the core modules I find insightful and open-ended. Scanning the Body group, I notice that it includes exercises to enhance gross, subtle and causal body[21]. By way of self-assessment: I recognise the erratic amount of aerobic exercise in my life style from time to time (depending on my fluctuating degree of cycling); I feel validated that I'm enjoying doing so much T'ai Chi Chuan and Chi Kung (30 minutes most days) which are linked with subtle body; and, I've experimented with the brief exercises (dedication) which invite a connection with causal body. The latter (four corners bowing and accompanying words) I've found an aesthetically pleasing ritual to do, invoking a grounded, balanced feeling – usually with some sensations of chi movement. Intuitively, I am attracted to the notion that it's possible to locate or design practices which will concurrently develop all three bodies[22]. Besides adding to the relative uniqueness of this Body module, this is consistent also with my hunch that almost any body-based activity (eg chopping wood) can be made a personal yoga which develops more than the gross body.

Initially with the Mind module I am pleased that thinking and the intellect as such are valued. I note, when scanning its scope, that it is more focused on perspective-taking than an unqualified use of the intellect and that this also is important to me. For example, I talk about the AQAL Framework often because I am fascinated by it and convene a Wilber discussion group. I also engage regularly with the practices of psychodrama and sociodrama which fit comfortably here; they are personal neverending activities which nurture my perspective-taking ability and flexibility. Honing perspective–taking and integrating an organisation of perspectives I find gratifying to adopt as higher order aims for my own Practice – and these constitute the main thrust of the Mind Module[23]. There are many other options which could be listed here, I think. It seems clear that reading good novels - which invite entering an imaginative world of rich characters and inner experiences[24], reading inspiring biographies, and watching accomplished standup comedy, all support its aims.

The Spirit module as it has evolved includes forms of meditation and prayer, both individually and in community. The version I have constructed in Table 3 does not include the more traditional practices of worship, singing, and being a member of a spiritual community which are more visible in the latest tabulations (Wilber et al 2008). Personally, I connect more with individual practices having no regular association with a religious community (though I have experienced Vipassana retreats in community settings). However, I have found it helpful to be reminded of the significance of community here, and renew my valuing of secular communities which have elevated my spirit over the years such as performing and conducting in Playback Theatre, where I've found myself functioning in unison with an improvisational troupe doing impossibly creative things no single person could do without the spark and synergy of the whole group.

Among the imported forms of meditations which fit the Spirit Module and worthy of special mention is the so-called Big Mind meditation developed by Merzel (2007). Undoubtedly, this is best experienced in a group setting and led by a skilled adept like Merzel himself, a western zen master. Apart from an analysis of its structure, my experience of it has been a one-day workshop, and some vicarious samplings of a DVD and CD with Merzel as facilitator. Essentially, it involves assuming various voices[25] (ie perspectives, subpersonalities, roles) and is derived from the Voice Dialogue methods of Hal and Sid Stone and Merzel's depth of experience with zen meditation practices. The meditator is guided to assume a series of carefully selected voices and encouraged to dialogue with the facilitator. These voices are meticulously (though intuitively) sequenced and include many voices of the self (eg the Protector, the Skeptic, the Seeking mind ), non-dual and transcendent voices (eg Great Joy, Great Gratitude & Appreciation), and voices of qualities linked with being awakened (eg Wisdom, Diligence). My general experience was one of excitement generally moving through the voices of self, with increasing difficulty and frustration moving fully into the non-dual voices, largely because of my concurrent interest in observing the process. I am optimistic about the power of this specific process and keen to engage with it more fully and appreciate Wilber's own enthusiasm for it. He says in the foreword to the independently published version that the Big Mind process 'is arguably the most important and original discovery in the last two centuries of Buddhism' (Merzel, 2007).

Of the uniquely designed meditations listed as exemplary practices in the Spirit Module, there is one I have trialed which appeals to me - the so-called 1-2-3 of Spirit (or 3-Faces of Spirit) one. Simplifying the explanation to a degree, it builds upon a common breath-following meditation, by randomly using one of three phrases which ground an experience of connection with spirit in each of the quadrants (simplified to three I, We, It(s)). So, with my own adaptation I use grounding phrases of 'I-am' (I quadrant), 'I-Thou in relationship' (We quadrant), and 'Spirited Nature' (It(s)) in place of the usual focus on breath. The grounded meaning of the specific phrases takes some time to develop. However, the resultant meditation is one which I can flexibly use for a minute or 30 minutes, depending on my schedule and self-discipline. As an indicator of the care put into the adaptation and shaping of new techniques, I am impressed.

The final core module, the Shadow one reflects the great contribution of western psychology to eastern spiritual practices from the designers' perspective. This contribution has been to draw attention to the necessity of taking a developmental perspective on the human psyche, and to find ways which bring blind spots in psychological functioning into awareness, so that energy is not diverted or blocked. It serves as a reminder that there is always plenty of personal psychological work to do, and that to address it is important. There are rich, diverse techniques which address shadow[26], repressed unconscious material, in most therapeutic and growth systems (eg Progoff, 1975; Mindell, 1989; Johnson, 1991). The Shadow module acknowledges this largely, yet also includes a relatively simple procedure which I've found easy to use from time to time with simple shadow material noticed in my ongoing daily life – the so-called 3-2-1 method.

as a spiritual metasystem

Wilber's work viewed as a spiritual metasystem is embedded to a degree in previous metaphors, like that of the Integral vision. However, here I want to enlarge upon certain features which may be helpful for those who like myself see an important place for big picture perspectives on everything. In my case I strive to balance perspectives based on well-contextualised close-up examples with helicopter perspectives based on more abstract patterns. This is Wilber's forte.

One point of departure for the spiritual qualifying aspect of metasystem here is the crucial distinction between absolute and relative truth. For Wilber, this is grounded in his lived experience[27]of the non-dual 'I–am' experience from considerable meditation and Buddhist traditions with Kalu Rinpoche[28] and others. Absolute truth is equated with the direct mystical apprehension of unmanifest Spirit (Emptiness); relative truth refers to manifest Spirit and can only be indirectly interpreted, usually mediated by language and concepts. So when Wilber devises his AQAL system of the quadrants, for example, he acknowledges that he is representing relative truth about manifest Spirit (and just pointing to absolute truth). Following others before him such as Schelling and Hegel, he uses spirit-in-action to summarise what's happened, is happening, and will happen in each quadrant as in Figure 3.

The meta-systemic nature of Wilber's work can be recognised in at least two important ways. The first way can be seen in Wilber's synthesis of many systems and theories to develop the AQAL framework. His initial discernment of the four quadrants pattern came from struggling with hundreds of hierarchical conceptual systems and theories from diverse traditions and disciplines. This was clearly meta-analysis. This can be appreciated in the summary diagram Figure 4. It makes explicit how phenomena explained by various theories of evolution and development can be located within the scope of each quadrant.

Noted in this same figure is the holarchical structure of the phenomena included in each quadrant. Wilber knew he had to construct a system using concepts and principles which avoided the objective naturalism of systems theory and yet was abstract enough to handle interior perspectives (Wilber, 1996) He found his solution in a set of tenets which enlarged upon Koestler's broad exploration of holarchies and their constituents, holons[29]. His new synthesis proposed among other things that each quadrant presented a different aspect of a given holon, not that there were separate holarchies in each quadrant[30]. Thus a given holon (H) has correspondences in each quadrant, or tetra-arises[31], as represented in Figure 5. Much more has been said by Wilber about the importance of holons. Suffice to say, a system of one or more holarchies embedded in AQAL is a metasystem, and holons continue endlessly in each quadrant.

The second way Wilber's work can be seen to be meta-systemic is in the recent refinement of his thinking in the pattern identified as Integral Methodological Pluralism. Quite early in his writing, Wilber had located specific disciplines of enquiry and associated theorists in each quadrant and also indicated that certain disciplines were aligned with some of his levels - those adapted from the perennial philosophy. However, it is only more recently in Integral Spirituality (Wilber, 2006b) that he has located families of major methodologies systematically in the eight zones of awareness formed by subdividing each quadrant into an inner and outer perspective, as in Figure 6. Each methodology as in Figure 7 becomes another of the activities that can happen in a given zone: each involves action (an injunction) to disclose phenomena through a perspective. Integral Methodological Pluralism produces the imperative that all eight methodologies be given equal attention, and is making claims which are beyond any single methodology, and therefore is inherently metasystemic. To complete this aspect of Wilber's current thought, the eight methodologies constitute eight primordial perspectives which collectively are known as Integral Perspectivism[32] (Wilber, 2006b chapter 1).

One of the most fascinating discussions emerging in the literature surrounding the Integral movement and Wilber's work arises from the perspective of seeing it as a spiritual metasystem. Critiques and appreciations of Wilber's work have raised a range of specific concerns[33] such as his representation of contemporary psychology (eg agreement about developmental trends), his inadequate grasp of contemporary theorising about biological evolution, and his misunderstandings of major environmental issues. However, many of these are inconsequential compared with some of the clarifications arising through the implications of identifying Wilber's work so explicitly as a spiritual meta-system. It has been no secret that Wilber holds a secular spiritual position and is also designing a meta-system. Once, other synonyms are used, as indeed Wilber does, like meta-theory and meta-model, he is visibly open to comments from academic philosophers and to the rigorous conventions of standard academic discourse. In simple terms, a core question being asked is: By what criteria is a meta-theory to be evaluated ? Among the contesting balance of criteria[34] are: comprehensiveness (the range of theories included), parsimony (simplicity and economy of ideas), formal rigor (eg explicit axioms and principles) coherence/unity (degree of interlocking parts), explanatory power (capacity to explain – and predict - specific phenomena), heuristic value (eg solve problems: theoretical and practical), and capacity to generate research.

Very recently several scholars have made some powerful, insightful reframings of the status of Wilber's work as meta-theory. These will doubtlessly bridge Wilber's developing, though peripheral status in the academic world (Esbjörn-Hargens, 2008a). On the one hand, there are analysts like Mark Edwards. He has argued cogently that Integral meta-theory needs to be supported by a community of scholars 'competent in the methods and techniques of metatheorising' and locates it both within what he coins 'The Integral Cycle of Learning' and 'Integral Meta-studies' respectively (Edwards, 2008). Mindfully, he emphasises rational validation of Integral Meta-theory. On the other hand, Forman and Esbjorn-Hargens (2008) while agreeing, see the additional need for evaluation which uses the full range of methodologies embedded in Integral Methodological Pluralism and the results of applied research. They recognise the need for meta-theorising to be taken more seriously, but equally they can see the danger of evaluating Wilber's work using criteria which are too parochial. Like them, I would like to see, minimally, first and second person perspectives being used to supplement the kind of third-person, rational algorithmic criteria proposed by Edwards.

as Interpretive maps of Spiritual Experiences

Wilber often refers to the core of his work as a map, particularly as a map to help navigate life and its spiritual concerns (eg Wilber, 2005b, DVD #5). However, I find his work more suggestive of many maps or an atlas of maps, given its range. Here I will restrict myself to two of the maps in his atlas, so to speak: the so-called Wilber-Combes Lattice and the Pre/Trans Fallacy. These are ones I have found particularly illuminating to interpret certain spiritual experiences, quasi spiritual experiences and spiritual issues. There are numerous other maps[35] embedded in Wilber's work from the perspective of a maps metaphor.

The Wilber-Combs Lattice is named transparently after the co-discoverers, Wilber himself and Allan Combs. In general terms this map differentiates and plots significant forms of spiritual experience, both one's own and other peoples. It is represented usually by a visual display which identifies 28 varieties of spiritual experience[36] - before introducing any qualitative nuances of imagery differences arising from specific religious worldview backgrounds of the experiencer (eg Christian vs Hindu vs Islamic). Essentially, the Lattice consists of a grid structure based on two of the five AQAL factors. It locates four states of consciousness on one axis (the horizontal): Gross (Nature), Subtle (Deity), Causal (Formless), and Nondual; and, usually seven stages/levels of worldview on an orthogonal axis (vertical): Archaic, Magic, Mythic, Rational, Pluralistic, Integral, and Superintegral. Thus it becomes an elegant interpretive device with 28 points of intersection, each representing the results of a particular transitory state of consciousness being interpreted from within one of the more enduring stages/levels of consciousness. They can distinguish and make sense of previous conflations among spiritual experiences, both for individuals reflecting on their own inner life and for researchers. Integral Spirituality (2006b) and The Integral Vision (2007) present greater details such as a more graphic representation of the Wilber-Combes grid and several phenomenological illustrations.

Turning to the second map, Pre/Post Fallacy presents a powerful conceptual clarification. This notion draws attention to how some significant people (eg Freud & some neurobiologists) have devalued post-rational (transpersonal) experiences by identifying them as pre-rational experiences or regressive experiences of little importance, conflating pre- and post- rational experiences on the basis of both being non-rational. Conversely, it draws attention to how some people (eg Jung at times and some positioned as New Age) have elevated certain images and myths arising in experience from a pre-rational worldview, to post-rational (transpersonal) status[37].

as a Kosmic Mandala

Mandalas have sometimes emerged from my psyche in surprising forms. In the course of reading many publications by Jung as background for teaching The Psychology of Visual Arts, I relished the thought of mandalas and other archetypal images bubbling up in my dreams. Nothing like being saturated by reproductions from diverse cultures in Man and his Myths (Jung, 1964) to do this: images for example, like certain cathedral windows, alchemical symbols, and the Hindu Wheel of Life all embed the characteristic circular and quaternal patterns. I recall being very surprised by having dreams which were quite archetypal, numinous in feeling tone, but unlike any mandala forms I anticipated. Eventually, I noticed the obvious that the images in my dreams were three dimensional and very fluid. For example, one was a grandstand stadium with lines of people moving around the edges, sections and interior of the grandstand, in quaternal and circular patterns about a central point.

I've described this personal experience because often people besides myself think of mandalas primarily as simple, two dimensional forms. This is understandable of course. External 2-D mandala forms are prevalent in world religious art (eg Christian crosses; a completed Tibetan sand mandala) and Jung's own mandala paintings monitoring his individuation (Jung,1959). It's likely you've also noticed by now that many of Wilber's diagrams include 2-D mandalas - quite humdrum ones – by virtue of their circular or quaternal pattern around a centre. However, in these same contexts rich 3-D or 4-D mandalas can also be discovered. The structure of medieval cathedrals can be interpreted as mandalas in geometric space, Tibetan meditations (yantras in wood, metal or the mind) get constructed in 3-D space and the imagination (Bryant, 1992) and Jung's Tower at Bollingen was built of stone and was directed emergently over time rather archetypically from his unconscious (Jung, 1965). And then we have another perspective on Wilber's works.

Wilber has often revised his theoretical position[38] and expressions of it in his work since his earliest efforts in The Spectrum of Consciousness. His current theoretical construction, position and activity has been likened to 'a Kosmic Mandala'[39], and it is this image which I seek to extend here. Although Wilber himself does not use the term to my knowledge, he uses the cognate terms 'mandalic maps' and 'mandalic sciences'[40] in the context of characterising contemplative sciences (Wilber,1998b).

The simpler part of the term Kosmic Mandala, namely Kosmic - which Wilber does use – may be may be helpful to comment on first. Acknowledging their usage by Pythagoras, he has introduced both Kosmic and Kosmos[41] into his discourse, and uses them frequently. He wants to emphasise that the scope of his imagination and concerns go well beyond the patterns found in the physical realm of the cosmos. More specifically, he wants his work to embrace in the patterned whole which includes the realms of all physical matter (Physiosphere), all life forms (Biosphere), all aspects of the mind (Noosphere), and all aspects of spirit (Theosphere). So the qualifying Kosmic accentuates the mind-boggling scope and complexity of what he expresses in his work. This in turn adds to the nuances of vision and metasystem. By virtue of the holarchic structure, the whole (sic) pattern of manifest reality is construed as holons which cascade open-endedly upwards to embrace more as new ones emerge, and downwards to embrace holons which are created in the moment of immediate experience.

Wilber's process of writing over time can be construed as mandala-like akin to Jung's building of the Tower and drawing of mandala ritual. Certainly, he has noted that most of his writing emerges fully formed from his unconscious, after a lot of hard study and incubation (Wilber, 2000b). He can be viewed as assembling a complex verbal mandala through his work which can mirror archetypal patterns of the Kosmos and his own consciousness. Clusters of concepts, the AQAL framework, streams of discourse, diagrams and charts, summate to this as a tangible, yet ongoing achievement. Concurrently, he reveals a certain sacred, Bhoddhisattva motivation (Reynolds, 2006) and inner being while doing this work, from time to time, close to a numinous experience. I sense this most in his poetic flourishes mentioned previously.

I have experienced engaging with Wilber's output of ideas as a Kosmic Mandala in my imagination, accumulating over time: I presume other people have too. These experiences are consistent with claims that the AQAL Framework can work psychoactively[42] and also that it supports diverse interpretations and analyses of phenomena, just as the operating system[43] of a computer can run many software programs. Sometimes I can visualise the waves and streams, moving neverendingly from a centre; sometimes I recognise aspects of myself to develop; other times, I experience delight as I have shuttled through a myriad interpretative possibilities with the AQAL framework, rather like changing De Bono's coloured hats or shoe types – if you are familiar with his lateral thinking tools; and other times I've noticed a satisfying sense of equanimity and balance coming from seeing the jigsaw cohere. Oftimes also, I have experienced brain overload and shutdown - as I have tried to rationally assemble the links between the multitude of ideas ! On these occasions I turn to do something else.


  1. Allan Combes (1995/2002), Len Howard ( 2005 ), Frank Visser (2003), and Brad Reynolds (2004, 2006) are the most comprehensive summaries - taking into account when they were published. Combes and Reynolds shine out among these. Wilber himself is moving towards summaries in opening chapters of recent books as in Integral Spirituality (2006b)( 32 pages); in addition, versions of his paper Introduction to Integral Theory and Practice (2006a) (40 pages) are available on line. His most popular, spin-laden visually and textually summary is: The Integral Vision (2007) (230 small pages). Among broad critical overviews and appreciations are: Steve McIntosh's book (2007), and Paul Helfrich's paper (c2006). Among critical papers available on Integral World website, Paul & Amalia Martin's ebooks (2008) purport to outline a more comprehensive framework for human development than Wilber; and, very cogent critiques include those of Jeff Meyerhoff (eg 2006) and Mark Edwards (eg 2008).
  2. Metaphors inherently overlap each other in their semantic implications (eg tacit –spatial, temporal, emotional, and conceptual meanings) as Lakoff and Johnson (1980) have made clear in ther analysis of common metaphors embedded in English language use. Mezner's analysis of several metaphors of transformation in The Unfolding Self (1998) makes this clear also.
  3. I have discarded several metaphors like Wilber's work interpreted 'as Escher-like architecture' and 'as a Kosmic joke'. Although they indicate Wilber's contradictions and playful use of paradox, and also capture some of my frustration and amusement with him, they have limited scope for novel insights.
  4. Several commentators like Frank Visser and other critics vocal on the Integral World website have pointed out that Wilber breaks many rules and conventions of academic discourse, impeding his acceptance among mainstream academic disciplines (eg his self citation rather than primary referencing in some publications)
  5. The website Integral Naked linked with the Integral Institute introduces integral under the question What is Integral ? with a pithy statement which includes: “ integral “ means comprehensive, inclusive, balanced, not leaving anything out. (Integral Naked, 2008)
  6. Other terms Wilber uses such as elements, components, and variables all have useful meanings yet also distracting contextual implications. Whatever term is used here brings its own baggage of associations and limitations.
  7. Wilber sometimes refers to them as primary perspectives, and other terms like zones, dimensions, realms, and domains are sometimes used. When each quadrant is subdivided into inner and outer, the 8 zones formed are referred to as primordial perspectives.
  8. Wilber borrows the term occasion from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.
  9. Wilber indicates that the number four merely constitutes a workable number among the many perspectives which are found in human languages (Simon, 2003, CD#1)
  10. He also points out the numerous correspondences with taxonomies articulated by philosophers taxonomies (eg Wilber, 1996, chapter 8), usually involving three rather than four categories (ie collapsing the It and Its quadrants into one). Among others: Immanuel Kant's three critiques (Aesthetics, I; Pure Reason, It; and, Practical Reason, Morals We); Karl Popper's three worlds (subjective, I; cultural, We; objective, It); Jürgen Habermas's three validity claims (subjective sincerity, I; intersubjective justness, We; and, objective, It).
  11. That AQAL is equated with Wilber's form of Integral can be seen in its frequent use in and citation in publications from the Integral Institute and other bodies about diverse integral topics. Interestingly, the original title of the flagship journal published by the Integral Institute was The AQAL Journal of Integral Theory and Practice. However, since 2008 it has changed quite strategically to the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice.
  12. The AQAL framework is explicitly based on a transrational/Integral worldview (in Gebser's sense) and correlated with the use of vision logic - which I sometimes find frustrating.
  13. Examples have been presented by William James in his classic compendium of religious experiences (James, 1960), Maslow's self-actualizers (Maslow,1968), or more recently in such investigations as that of Brymer (2005) who interviewed participants in extreme sports.
  14. Reynolds, 2004 page 5
  15. It appears the practices have been tested by practical trailing in the Institute programs and constant consistency-checking against the principles embedded in the AQAL framework. They have a diversity which builds upon other integral systems with a quasi spiritual dimension like that of Integral Transformative Practice (Murphy & Leonard, 1995) and the explicitly spiritual ones like The Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo.
  16. This includes a workbook, AQAL manual, and several CDs and DVDs. Like The Integral Vision it is targeting the under thirties and forms part of the packaging and product definition to help marketing.
  17. Here like the use of integral generally, there seems to me to be an ambiguity or tension surrounding the appropriation of meaning to a specific Wilber version, albeit a comprehensive meaning.
  18. Patten and others affiliated with the Integral Institute have written: 'The great practitioners relate that one of the secrets of practice is realizing that – in this very moment – we're already perfect. We don't need to practice, if we know who we really are. And yet … life kindly requests us to grow and evolve. Which means practice is a good idea – in fact indispensible. We hope this lends a sense of lightness and humor to the endeavor of Integral Life Practice [ … ] Always absolutely OK just as we are, we are nevertheless called to be more loving, more truthful, more in touch with beauty. '(Patten et al, 2006, p.8) The 'great practitioners' here are clearly masters of various esoteric traditions.
  19. The basis of this seems to be anecdotal case experience, deduction from principles like more is better, or by asserting the face validity of the AQAL framework's comprehensiveness.
  20. The latest volume Integral Life Practice (Wilber, 2008 chapter 1) discerns six Principles of Practice which are clear and profound I my opinion. They include (in brief) exhortations to: acknowledge that Integral Life Practice (ILP) provides no quick fix; make use of cross-training opportunities; recognise that it's a Post-Metaphysical approach; have a commitment to bring awareness, care & presence to every moment; and recognise that ILP is paradoxical; notice that your ILP keeps evolving. Other members of the Integral community, like Jackson (2006) and Leonard (2006) who have trialed ILP material & exercises, have also articulated principles underpinning ILP.
  21. Although I can make sense conceptually and phenomenologically of subtle and causal body, I am ambivalent about positioning these bodies, two energy bodies, in the Upper Right quadrant (External-Individual zone) as Wilber often does. On the one hand these bodies may indeed be seen by some esoterically gifted, people giving them an status of observable like the gross body; but they make more sense as energy fields correlated with gross body functioning as Wilber has also noted from time to time (Wilber, 2003b )
  22. The Integral Institute, the hub of Integral operations, has designed some like the 3-Body Workout, and located others like Focus Intensity Training which do this.
  23. Integral Life Practice (Wilber et al 2008) page 67 et seq
  24. This is similar to the status Karen Armstrong gives to novels as contemporary myths (Armstrong, 2005)
  25. Each movement to a different voice is signalled by an instruction to slightly shift body position during the total process. Anyone steeped in the methods of Morenian psychodrama will make sense of the voices as roles and interpret the process as a demanding director-led warm-up - with predictable inadequacy trying to lead the whole group to warm up concurrently to the same challenging roles. It is remarkable what Merzel achieves with a group, a mark of his own spiritual and psychological development, and presence. Understandably, the impact of the Big Mind process will deepen over time as an individual experiences it repeatedly. Opportunities deepen for warming up fully to the roles rather than role-playing at a superficial level.
  26. I'm using shadow to include both negative and positive affect and functioning which are out of awareness, in the unconscious.
  27. I take him on trust at this point, with only peeks and glimpses of such transcendence in my own experience.
  28. Wilber is keen to not be seen as a follower of any one teacher or religion, let alone a Buddhist of any school, acknowledging as he does the practical and wisdom truths which form part of all traditions.
  29. A holon is an entity which is both a part of a holon above in a holarchy and a whole which subsumes holons below in a holarchy. A common example holarchical sequence cited for the Individual-Exterior quadrant is: atoms > molecules> cells> organisms....
  30. My understanding is that whether the four quadrants function as one holarchy or four separate ones depends on the purpose and level of analysis at given time. Sometimes they are simply categories, for classifying phenomena.
  31. Wilber uses several terms synonymously: tetra-mesh, simul-track, and tetra-evolve.
  32. This paves the way for Wilber's Integral Post-Metaphysics which can specify and locate perspectives ('all embodied in bodies and embedded in cultures'). Thereby, the metaphysical assumptions behind various notions (eg pre-existing archetypes, Platonic ideals) are made explicit.
  33. These can be pursued readily on the website Integral World under Reading Room.
  34. Helfrich (c 2006) mentions for example: comprehensiveness, making metaphysical assumptions explicit, applying Occam's Razor, and avoiding the performative contradiction.
  35. Sampling a few further examples: Wilber's Integral Psychology (2000) can be said to provide developmental maps (tabulations) which support making sense of one's own spiritual development directly, in the sense of Tillich (changing ultimate concerns) or Fowler (Stages of Faith). Elsewhere in his work, particularly Integral Spirituality ( Wilber, 2006b), he uses AQAL factors to explore and interpret such matters as: the values and principles for ethical decision-making (ground values; intrinsic & extrinsic values; ); how religious institutions may legitimate spirituality and serve as 'a conveyor belt' for authentic spiritual development; and, how certain philosophical confusions and parochial (partial) views of reality can be navigated.
  36. Sometimes the Lattice is simplified to nine varieties of experience in a 3 X 3 grid as in Wilber et al, 2008, page 122.
  37. Further explanations of this map, the Pre-post Fallacy, with elaborations can be found in several sources, most readily in The Integral Vision (2007).
  38. To help people studying his ideas he himself has assigned at least five major shifts which are usually called Wilber I….V, or phases 1-5. See for example: summaries of these positions in Helfrich (2006) and Reynolds (2006)
  39. Reynolds ( 2006, page 155 ) Interestingly Reynolds has created one diagram himself which is more a mandorla (egg shaped pattern) (2006, page 73).
  40. Mandalic sciences use the mind to describe experiences of transcendence (eg non-dual experience of Suchness) while acknowledging the inadequacy of any attempt, because spirit will be paradoxical in conceptual terms.
  41. These terms are used often in his so-called Kosmos Trilogy which begins with Sex, Ecology and Spirituality; and, are prominent in A Brief History of Everything & A Theory of Everything.
  42. Most recently (Wilber 2008, page 125) Wilber asserts that 'the mind module [including largely AQAL Framework] cannot be reduced to intellectual study' and that the IOS 'functions as a psychoactive system that you can run through your entire body-mind to activate any potentials that you are not presently using or even aware of'. The attribute of being psychoactive has fascinating associations: on the one hand the context of dramatic and perspective-changing potency, and danger even, linked with some psychoactive drug use; on the other hand, the implication of profoundly and actively changing the soul, the whole psyche(body, mind and spirit).
  43. Wilber and others use the notion of operating system often as a metaphor to indicate the impact of the AQAL framework on cognition generally. The notion of Integral Operating System (IOS) which will enhance other cognitive software is common (eg Wilber, 2007).


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