Wilber’s Integral View: My Introduction

 The infant experiences the same developmental pattern and
value systems that the human family as a whole experienced.
In other words, each human being is a microcosm of where
the human race has been – and where it might be headed.

– Thomas Keating
Growth occurs through taking on wider and wider perspectives.
Eventually, we learn to take perspectives on our own perspective-taking!
And so proceeds the evolution of consciousness.
– Ken Wilber, Terry Patten, Adam Leonard
& Marco Morelli

It was in a course at Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) during my doctoral studies that I first read Ken Wilber, considered by some to be the premier philosopher to emerge in the late 20th Century. The introduction to his “Integral Theory” on worldviews, outlined in his book, The Marriage of Sense and Soul, was profoundly freeing for me.

Wilber’s theory attempts to depict both the history of and the relationship between personal and cultural transformation, and to me it has significant implications for leadership and organizational life. I now include Wilber’s integral vision in much of my own teaching, and by doing so, try to share the relief and hope it has offered to me. The theory provides an underlying vision and motivation for the creation of this blog site.

Wilber’s overall theory is quite complex, and I am still learning how to understand and apply many aspects of it to my own life. I do hope, though, that my brief attempt at explaining the theory in the posts related to my own journey will provide you with enough information to energize your own efforts at personal transformation.

A 4-Quadrant View of Everything



One aspect of Wilber’s theory is his 4-Quadrant, presentation of reality and its evolution, also known as the “Integral Map” (see illustration). I say more about this in another post. Here I just want to say that this aspect of the theory alone was extremely beneficial to me. It helped me see the relationship between interior and exterior evolution as it occurs in time for both individuals (I/IT) and the human community (WE/ITS).  This process of evolution has occurred, in Wilber’s view, through the inherent dynamic in our Universe he calls “self-transcendence.” That is, the “amazing capacity of the Universe to go beyond what was before.”

This capacity for self-transcendence drives transformation in all four quadrants and at all “levels” of reality.  In other words, it was this process of self-transcendence that produced matter out of energy, life out of matter, mind out of life – and it still continues today, in our Universe as a whole and in each one of us individually.

The  4-Quadrant layout of the Integral Map is just one of five elements in Wilber’s Integral Theory. The other four include: levels, lines, states and types, all present in each quadrant. Together, these five elements offer us a holistic view of reality. I deal with these four elements in additional posts. Here I want to focus mainly on the process of personal and cultural evolution captured in Wilber’s the 4-Quadrant design (see illustration). For the key importance of Wilber’s theory for me is that it helps us address the spiritual questions we encounter in life.

Life Is About Growth

One of the most profound spiritual questions lying at the back of minds and deep in our hearts is: Why are we here? My study of Wilber’s theory has helped me to settle on at least one answer to that question: to grow. We humans have emerged within a Universe that itself is growing; we emerged within its growth process (that’s the most fundamental reason why we are here) and somehow our own growth process can and does contribute to the ongoing growth of our Universe. Admittedly, as an answer, that’s more challenging than comforting, but at least it’s a good place to start and can be freeing as we learn that we can trust the process that brought it all – including us – about.

It is comforting to me, at least, to realize that our new understanding of evolution reveals to us that growth takes place over time, through an irreversible process of new events and experiences. While we are more often familiar with how this process of growth happens on a physical level (e.g., how acorns turn into oak trees), this process also can take place on a less visible, interior level for both individuals and groups. One message to me in this realization is that growing demands new experiences. If you are stuck in a rut, you are not growing, and you are not helping the process.

We are all in this together

An important implication to draw from Wilber’s framework is that the external and internal aspects of the individual and the collective are linked in their development.  In fact, they have influence on each other.  They can also be out of sync with one another, which can cause personal and organizational conflict. This was one of the most freeing realizations for me in facilitating groups trying to make collective decisions.

An example that came immediately to mind when I was first studying Wilber is the effect of the feminist movement on personal and collective transformation. In the early days of the feminist movement, many women and men experienced a change in consciousness (I/UL) which resulted in a change in their own values and behaviors (IT/UR). In other words, they changed their mind about women’s identity and purpose in society. Then they began to want to behave individually (IT/UR), but also collectively (ITS/LR) in ways that were more empowering of women and more inclusive in group processes.

What these men and women frustratingly discovered, however, was that the collective body of which they were a part (WE/LL) had not made the same “leap” yet in consciousness.  They became annoyed, dismayed, and even angry at not being able to implement changes in how decisions were made, or who was included in the decision-making process, for example.

The good news in Wilber’s theory is that eventually, on a large enough scale, individual changes in consciousness (I/UL) and behavior (IT/UR) can result in a change in the collective’s thinking and culture (WE/LL), which in turn helps the society adopt new laws and regulations that treat women with more equality (ITS/LR).

Stages of Individual and Cultural Development

According to Wilber, the changes in individual and collective consciousness, behavior and culture have interplayed throughout human history to give us radically different stages of cultural development. Today, we are gaining a painful awareness that this process not only has occurred throughout human history, but it presently has resulted (as in the example of the feminists) with cultures with different levels of conscious awareness and cultural practices existing side-by-side on our planet. Summarizing the work of many, Wilber explains these stages of human cultural development, and notes that they seem to correspond to the stages now known to encompass the development of individual human consciousness, with similar implications. So, before I look at cultural development, I will briefly summarize the stages of individual human consciousness.

The stages of the development of individual human consciousness are agreed upon, according to Wilber, by most traditional, classic and modern developmental psychologists. Wilber refers to them as “levels” or “altitudes” of conscious awareness. The word “altitude” implies a sense of reaching a “higher” stage of consciousness, a term Wilber often uses. As an ecofeminist, I am aware of the power and misuse of language, so I prefer not to use the designation “higher.” For me, the word “higher” seems to carry a cultural bias that associates it with “better,” perhaps as a result of patriarchal influences.Would we, for example, want to say that the oak is at a “higher” stage of development and therefore “better” than the acorn? I have never heard anyone suggest that. Yet, I am not sure we even have a way to “language” the relationship of the oak to the acorn in evolutionary terms that address the acorn’s growth and self-transcendence. In part, I suppose, because the whole process is still steeped in a mystery we have yet to fully comprehend.



Nevertheless, Wilber says the evolutionary stages of individual consciousness (UL) begin with the element of prehension in the earliest “conscious” life forms. It then initially advances through subsequent stages to the irritability witnessed in protoplasm, and on to further experiences of sensation, perception, impulse.  Further development allows the ability to experience emotion. (These developments correspond with physical changes in the organism and its nervous system and brain, which are correspondingly noted in the Upper Right (UR) quadrant of Wilber’s schema.)

In humans, consciousness eventually moves to a stage in which the individual thinks “magically,” understanding reality in terms of symbols and images.

Further along in the growth cycle, the individual human is able to begin to grasp concrete rules and concepts. Usually between the ages of seven and eleven, the child then begins to have the ability to understand abstract concepts and universal principles, in other words to think rationally.

Finally, as children move through adolescence into adulthood, some of them, depending on their circumstances, are able to move beyond mere rational thinking to embrace broader, even opposing perspectives, thus transcending logic.  Marion (2000) notes that this is the level of the fully “integrated” human personality recognized by standard psychological personality tests.  This is the individual who has successfully integrated body, emotions, and mind (p. 64).

Growth for the Collective

Wilber has synthesized the work of many  scholars and researchers to illustrate how these stages of the development of consciousness for individual humans also occur in the collective consciousness of a human society, and are reflected in its cultural development (LL). This cultural development correlates with social and technological development (LR).

Using the work of Wilber and others, I attempted some years ago to create a chart showing the interrelationship among the various stages of human and cultural evolution and certain concepts such our images of God, and our understandings of authority and leadership. Viewing the chart may help in comprehending what follows. To view a PDF of this chart, click on the link here: HUMANCON.CHT.rv

The first stage of cultural development in Wilber’s schema encompasses the time of human development prior and up to some 2 million years ago.  It is a period about which modern science still knows very little, but concludes that the human level of consciousness (LL) was limited at this stage to a sensorimotor capacity only.  Socially and technologically (LR), humans most probably foraged for their food and were concerned with their own individual needs.

Many generations and thousands of years later, human consciousness had developed a capacity for images and symbols.  Humans entered a stage marked (as with the child) by the propensity to attribute magical behavior to objects and events outside of one’s self, though the main focus of concern is still on oneself (“It thunders because the sky is angry at me.”).  Socially, humans began to interact with and identify with their own tribe, forming into groups for hunting and gathering of food sources.

A third cultural stage, labeled Mythic, emerged some 10,000 years ago as human consciousness progressed still further in its development.  This stage is marked by the realization that events and objects outside oneself operate independently, but still are under the control of someone or something, i.e., various gods, goddesses, demons and/or fairies.  Concern extends to the group as humans begin to live in farming villages and later to develop cities.

A fourth cultural stage, labeled Rational, began to emerge some 300 years ago as human consciousness reached yet another level of development. Concern began to extend beyond the individual village or city as humans began to think more universally, and to be concerned with what is fair and right for all humans.  This period is marked by political and social revolutions as well as the development of industrial technology and the creation of great urban centers. We recognize this stage as the predominant one for much of the current world community.

According to Wilber (1996), each stage of both individual and collective development transcends and includes aspects of the prior stage.  In other words, in the process of evolution, each level of development “incorporates what went before and then adds incredibly new components” (p. 23).  Furthermore, each stage of development gives way to its successor because certain limitations in the early stage become apparent. These limitations are overcome only by the changes that precipitate the jump to the next stage. (p. 64-67).

Wilber points out that there is yet another stage of individual and human cultural development to be achieved, the signs of which are presently emerging.  Collectively this is the hopeful, unitive stage that may help us truly create a global village, a unity in our diversity.

However, Wilber also cautions that the “real nightmare” is that even with a more advanced culture available to them, all human beings, without exception, must grow and evolve individually through all the lower stages successfully in order to reach the new and higher stage made available through the evolution of culture (p. 326).

For me, Wilber’s argument that individual interior growth and development must proceed through all of the available stages, coupled with the corresponding relation of individual development to cultural development is key. The good news here is that there is hope for all of us in the realization that the process of our own conscious evolution may lead to a transformation in human culture itself of old values, attitudes, and viewpoints, leading to new behaviors. In other words, as Gandhi suggested, to change our present reality we must first learn to be the change we wish to see in the world.

For an index of other posts within this current Click Here.

To read the introduction to my next current Click Here

Marion, J. (2000) Putting on the mind of christ: The inner work of christian spirituality. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads.

Wilber, K. (1996) A brief history of everything. Boston, MA: Shambala.

Wilber, K. (1998) The marriage of sense and soul: Integrating science and religion. NY: Random House.

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