The Integral Map: States and Stages of Consciousness

Where states of consciousness are temporary,
stages of consciousness are permanent.
– Ken Wilber

In this post, I want to begin to explore more deeply Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, beginning to walk thoughtfully through its terrain of quadrants, states, levels, lines, and types. It has been extremely helpful to me on my life journey to encounter Wilber’s theory, depicted visually in the Integral Map (see illustration below). Here I will begin by focusing on the first three of the maps five elements, traveling briefly through the four quadrants and then explaining states and levels. This, I hope, will begin to help portray the rich and complex persons we are, and the unique evolutionary journey we each travel.

The mega-structure of Wilber’s Integral Map is four squares, each one holding the evolutionary story of a particular dimension of reality. The upper two quadrants hold the story of the development of the individual, both subjectively (on the inside) and objectively (on the outside). In these two quadrants, we can chronicle the steps and changes of our life journey as it has and does take place for us on the inside – within our mind and spirit – and on the outside – for our body and as expressed in our behaviors. On the other two quadrants, appearing at the bottom of the map, we can chronicle the interior and exterior changes as they have taken place for humanity as a total collective, or for a particular group (e.g., a tribe, a society, an organization). The other elements (states, levels, lines and types) lie within the four quadrants.

Slide1As Ken Wilber (2007) suggests, the five elements of his Integral Map are all present – in a sense “alive” – within each of us in the story of our experience (p. 27). Some of the individual features of these elements are present within our own interior, visible only to us. These include, for example, the memories, motivations and moods of our own interior (UL), and what we have absorbed in terms of attitudes, beliefs and values from the various cultures in which we live, whether that be family, ethnic group, or nationality (LL). Because all of these features (memories, motivations, moods, attitudes, beliefs, values) live in our own unique interior, we must work to bring them to our own conscious awareness first. Only then can we understand them and, if we wish, learn to communicate them to others through dialogue. That is why interpersonal awareness and skills are also so important to this journey.

On the other hand, features of some of the other elements on the Integral Map, for example our behaviors (UR), are quite easily visible to us and to others. Yet, some of these features may be so common or ordinary they are unconscious, so much so that we fail to “see” them. These features may include, for example, the cultural practices that we take for granted, or our personal habits that have become so automatic that we fail to be consciously aware of them (p. 28).

I describe the quadrants more thoroughly in another post. Here, as I said, having briefly addressed – and I hope adequately, addressed the significance of the four quadrants, I want to look more closely at what Wilber means by “states” and “levels”of consciousness, beginning first with a brief exploration of the states of consciousness we experience as individuals.

Human states of consciousness

Wilber uses the term “states” to refer to personal experiences of conscious awareness.  He notes that references to these states of consciousness have been a part of human history for a very long time. They are mentioned in many of the great wisdom traditions, such as Christian mysticism, Vedanta Hinduism, Vayoyance Buddhism, and Jewish Kabbalah (p. 28).

Every day we experience routine states of consciousness such as waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. Occasionally, we might experience so-called “peak” experiences of awareness that are passing. One example of this is the kind of unitive experience I describe from my own journey in a post in the Awareness step on this site.

We also might experience states of awareness marked by intense creativity or innovation, the kind of “aha” moment when thoughts or ideas merge into a new pattern of insight. You already may be familiar with meditation practice and the state of meditative consciousness it is possible for some people to arrive at during that practice. I am not a jogger, but I have heard that runners often enter a pleasant state of consciousness if they run for long periods.

If you have had any of these experiences of a state of consciousness that differs from normal waking, dreaming or deep sleep, the good news is that with the Integral Map you have a place to put them down as part of your evolutionary journey. Wilber’s theory helps us to see that such experiences “fit” with who we are. They have a place on the map (UL) and are not left hanging awkwardly outside of the story of who we are (p 28-30). That is what is so helpful to me in discovering Wilber’s Integral Theory. It helps me “make sense” of all of my inner experiences.

These states of awareness differ, however, from the next but related element in Wilber’s theory, which he calls “stages” of conscious development

Stages: our evolving journey of consciousness

Just as our physical body (UR) passes through various stages of development from the womb to the tomb, so, too, does our interior self grow and develop (UL). Stages, says Wilber, are labels that help us to identify or measure our inner growth and development, both for individuals and for the collective.

While states of consciousness come and go, and perhaps may never return, stages of consciousness are permanent milestones we achieve. More importantly, once we arrive at a stage, it is impossible to go backward. Oliver Wendell Holmes captures this idea in his statement, “A mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions.”

The stages are not permanent, however, in the sense that we never again grow beyond a particular stage. Instead, arrival at a particular stage signals a new kind of awareness that may or may not be only temporary.

The research into human psychological and spiritual growth of recent decades now provides us with a number of models from which to choose to talk about these stages. Western psychologists have proposed theories that contain as many as 8, 12 and even more such stages or levels of development (p. 32).

To offer an Integral Map on which to begin to plot our own inner journey, Wilber suggests a simple model containing only 3 of the stages identified by researchers. We begin life at the first stage, which is labeled “egocentric.” As an infant, who has not yet developed the capacity of awareness of others and a sense of self apart from others, our focus is completely on “me.”  Our awareness, in other words, is largely self-absorbed.

If as an infant, we receive “good enough” care and mentoring, we will move into the second stage of conscious awareness, labeled “ethnocentric.” At this stage, we are able to begin to develop a sense of self apart from our parents, caregivers, and other very close relatives, and to identify strongly with members of our extended family, tribe, group or ethnic clan. Our center of focus expands from “me” to “us.”

If all goes well for us in life, we may reach the next stage of conscious development. At this stage we once again expand our sense of identity beyond the original circle of people who cared for us and us for them, and the tribe, group or clan with whom we identify. Our expanded experiences help us begin to identify with and carry concern for all peoples, regardless of race, color, sex, or creed. Wilber labels this third stage “worldcentric.” At this stage, our center of focus expands from “us” to “all of us” (p. 34).

Evolving into freedom

Amazingly, thanks in our time to the images of the Hubble telescope and other technologies, scientists are able now to tell us how our Universe itself has passed through many stages in arriving at how we perceive it today. That is the truly remarkable gift to us of the story of evolution arrived at in the 20th Century. We now know how our Universe has evolved from atoms to molecules to cells to organisms, and from hydrogen to stars to planets to life to us. This is hugely significant because for the first time in human history, we are beginning to see that “all of us” includes a Universe of unimaginable size and astounding creativity and innovation (p.31).

Wilber prefers to speak of the stages of conscious development in terms of “lower” and “higher” stages of evolution. I believe our Western patriarchal cultural baggage tends to make us think of “higher” as “better.” I prefer to think of the process of evolution the way Barbara Marx Hubbard does. She speaks of the impulse of evolution as always moving toward greater complexity and freedom (2012, p. 93). The question then becomes, not who is “better,” but who is “more free”? In fact, I belong to a community of women who express their “mission” in life as “being freed and helping others enjoy freedom in God’s steadfast love.”

If you think about it, an acorn and an oak tree represent different stages of physical development for a single organism. To me, acorns, with their smooth round bodies and pointed tips and tiny caps, are extraordinary, so magical and beautiful in their simplicity, and potential. An oak, with its gnarled, expansive branches silhouetted against the sky also has its own awesome beauty. I do not think that I have or would ever label an oak tree as more “highly” evolved than an acorn. Clearly, however, the oak is far more complex in its structure than the acorn, and one could suggest that even despite its being rooted in place, it is freer to contribute new life to our world in ways a single acorn alone cannot.

oak treeThe potential for an acorn to develop into the complexity of an oak suggests to me a better way to speak about the human potential to produce fruit in the world as development occurs.  Initially, we are only like the acorn, full of potential, but dependent on our surroundings. If we receive the right nurture from our environment, we grow to be able to offer our fruit. Initially, that is to our own family, tribe or nation. However, as we age and grow, with adequate support and nurturing, we are able to spread our branches even more widely because, unlike the oak, we are not rooted in one place, but have a greater capacity for freedom. We can travel. We can come to know people outside our own limited circle. We can transcend our original space and learn to offer our gifts to an ever-widening circle of influence.

There is much more territory to cover on the stages of conscious development. I hope what I have shared in this post at least helps you to reflect on and map your own growth, development, and freedom to this point in your life.

Marx Hubbard, B. (2012). Birth 2012 and beyond: Humanity’s great shift to the age of conscious evolution. Shiftbooks.

Wilber, K. (2007). The integral vision: A very short introduction to the revolutionary integral approach to life, god, the universe, and everything. Boston: Shambala. [Opening quote, p. 31].

Wilber, K., Patten, T., Leonard, A., & Morelli, M. (2008). Integral Life Practice. Boston: Integral Books.

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