Developmental models are in general agreement that human beings, from birth,
go through a series of stages or waves of growth and development. The lower,
earlier, junior stages are initial, partial, and fragmented views of the world,
whereas the upper stages are integrated, comprehensive, and genuinely holistic.
– Ken Wilber, Terry Patten, Adam Leonard & Marco Morelli
Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory of reality tells us where we are, and how we got here. For me, being introduced to Wilber’s theory provided me with a very helpful schema for understanding our present moment within the creative, evolutionary process through which we achieve both individual and cultural consciousness and transformation. To understand this schema – and find ourselves in it – let’s begin by looking at its component parts.
In Wilber’s view, all of reality manifests in four basic dimensions, which he illustrates using an “Integral Map.” I have included a simple rendition of the map here. The four dimensions include the inner and the outer, and the individual and the collective. This insight alone is profound in its corrective to what Wilber calls “the curse” of modernity, which put its emphasis, drawn from science and industry, on only external reality (e.g., products and results) to the exclusion of the interior, invisible dimensions of reality (e.g., values and processes).
As a result of being born under this curse of modernity, Wilber suggests, it is necessary for each of us to reclaim in our time the knowledge and tools associated with the interior dimensions of our human existence. I will say more about this later, but first it is necessary to look more closely at Wilber’s view of reality.
Wilber refers to the reality in which we find ourselves as the Kosmos. In his integral, four-quadrant design for all of reality, the two top-level quadrants represent the inner dimension of the Kosmos. In the upper left quadrant, Wilver places the our individual inner, invisible experience; what Wilber calls the “I” experience of reality (e.g., our beliefs and thought processes). The upper right quadrant holds our personal external, visible dimensions (e.g., our body and our behaviors).
In other words, while we cannot “see” our mental processes (left quadrant), we can see our brain (right quadrant). While we cannot “see” a decision made (left quadrant), we can “see” the results of that decision in our behavior (right quadrant). But just because we cannot “see” the inner dimensions of ourselves, they are no less important than those aspects of ourselves we can see.
The same is true for the bottom two quadrants of Wilber’s four-quadrant Kosmos, except these two represent the collective dimensions of reality. The lower left quadrant holds the inner collective or cultural dimension; what Wilber calls the “WE” dimension. The lower right quadrant holds the outer dimension of the collective; what Wilber calls the “ITS.”
Wilber’s outer dimension, for both the individual (UR) and the collective (LR), is the one with which we are most familiar, because it is accessible to observation by the human senses, or what Wilber calls the “Eye of the Flesh.” It is the domain of science. It consists of all “physical” and “material” reality. It is all the things to which one can point, and in so doing ask another to confirm the “reality”of its existence. This includes, for example, all of the physical dimensions of our reality related to the collective, such as our institutions, buildings, technologies, and systems of production.
Wilber stresses that the inner dimension of reality is more difficult to know and affirm because it is invisible to the physical eye and accessible only to the “Eye of the Mind.” It is just as “real” (and Wilber would argue measurable) as the physical dimensions of reality, but exists only within one’s own and the collective consciousness. Access to requires not observation but dialogue. As I said in the earlier example, in the individual, it is the “mind” as apart from the “brain.” It is the essence of who we are when we consider the “I”: our values, our experiences, our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our memories, our personalities.
What is important to note here is that others can only know this interior dimension of who we are through the telling of our own story. The same is true for the collective, cultural consciousness. It, too, is only accessible through the stories and myths that recall the group’s values, ideas and beliefs.
Wilber summarizes all four quadrants as the trinity of “I” (UL) “WE” (LL), and the “ITS” (UR,LR) of reality. Wilber also calls these “The Big Three.” They represent for him “Consciousness,” “Culture,” and “Nature,” respectively.
The last element of Wilber’s description of reality necessary to hold in mind is that all four quadrants, or the trinitarian I, WE and ITS of reality, have reached their present form and condition through an interconnected evolutionary process throughout the history of our Universe. My aid for recalling this important aspect of Wilber’s four-quadrant schema of reality is the image of the spiral, perhaps the most ancient of human symbols.
To begin to grasp the full picture of Wilber’s vision of reality, one must visually overlay a spiral upon the four quadrants image, indicating that a single process of evolution has carried forward each dimension – inner and outer, individual and collective – through numerous stages of development. Most importantly, this spiral image tells us, too, that a change in one quadrant can have an impact on the others. In other words, one person’s action truly can make a difference in our entire Universe.
Wilber, K., Patten, T., Leonard, A., & Morelli, M. (2008). Integral Life Practice. Boston: Integral Books.