Integral theory (Ken Wilber)
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Integral theory is Ken Wilber's attempt to place a wide diversity of theories and thinkers into one single framework. It is portrayed as a "theory of everything" ("the living Totality of matter, body, mind, soul, and spirit"), trying "to draw together an already existing number of separate paradigms into an interrelated network of approaches that are mutually enriching."
Wilber's integral theory has been applied by some in a limited range of domains. The Integral Institute publishes the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice.
Origins and background
Ken Wilber's "Integral Theory" started as early as the 1970s, with the publication of The Spectrum of Consciousness, that attempted to synthesize eastern religious traditions with western structural stage theory, models of psychology development that describe human development as following a set course of stages of development.
Wilber's ideas have grown more and more inclusive over the years, incorporating ontology, epistemology, and methodology. Wilber, drawing on both Aurobindo's and Gebser's theories, as well as on the writings of many other authors, created a theory which he calls AQAL, "All Quadrants All Levels".
The adjective integral was first used in a spiritual context by Sri Aurobindo (1872–1950) from 1914 onward to describe his own spiritual teachings, which he referred to as Purna (Skt: "Full") Yoga. It appeared in The Synthesis of Yoga, a book that was first published in serial form in the journal Arya and was revised several times since.
Sri Aurobindo's work has been described as Integral Vedanta  and Integral psychology, as well (the term coined by Indra Sen) and the psychotherapy that emerges from it. His writings influenced others who used the term "integral" in more philosophical or psychological contexts.
In the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, integral yoga refers to the process of the union of all the parts of one's being with the Divine, and the transmutation of all of their jarring elements into a harmonious state of higher divine consciousness and existence.
As described by Sri Aurobindo and his co-worker The Mother (1878–1973), this spiritual teaching involves an integral divine transformation of the entire being, rather than the liberation of only a single faculty such as the intellect or the emotions or the body. According to Sri Aurobindo,
(T)he Divine is in his essence infinite and his manifestation too is multitudinously infinite. If that is so, it is not likely that our true integral perfection in being and in nature can come by one kind of realisation alone; it must combine many different strands of divine experience. It cannot be reached by the exclusive pursuit of a single line of identity till that is raised to its absolute; it must harmonise many aspects of the Infinite. An integral consciousness with a multiform dynamic experience is essential for the complete transformation of our nature. — Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 114
Aurobindo's ideas were further explored by Indra Sen (1903–1994) in the 1940s and 1950s, a psychologist, and devotee of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. He was the first to coin the term "Integral psychology" to describe the psychological observations he found in Sri Aurobindo's writings (which he contrasted with those of Western Psychology), and developed themes of "Integral Culture" and "Integral Man".
The word integral was independently suggested by Jean Gebser (1905–1973), a Swiss phenomenologist and interdisciplinary scholar, in 1939 to describe his own intuition regarding the next structure of human consciousness. Gebser was the author of The Ever-Present Origin, which describes human history as a series of mutations in consciousness. He only afterwards discovered the similarity between his own ideas and those of Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin. In his book The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser distinguished between five structures of consciousness: archaic, magic, mythical, mental, and integral. Gebser wrote that he was unaware of Sri Aurobindo's prior usage of the term "integral", which coincides to some extent with his own.
The German indologist Georg Feuerstein first wrote about Integralism in "Wholeness or Transcendence? Ancient Lessons for the Emerging Global Civilization" (1992). Feuerstein used this term to refer to a particular outlook on spirituality which he saw present in the Indian tantric traditions. Feuerstein outlined three major approaches to life in Indian spirituality: nivritti-marga (path of cessation), pravritti-marga (path of activity) and purna-marga (path of wholeness). The path of cessation is the traditional path of renunciation and asceticism practiced by sanyasins with the goal of liberation from this world, while the path of activity is the pursuit of worldly goods and happiness. Feuerstein ties this integral approach to nondual Indian philosophy and the tantric tradition. According to Feuerstein the integral or wholeness approach: "implies a total cognitive shift by which the phenomenal world is rendered transparent through superior wisdom. No longer are things seen as being strictly separated from one another, as if they were insular realities in themselves, but everything is seen together, understood together, and lived together. Whatever distinctions there may be, these are variations or manifestations of and within the selfsame Being." An integral worldview also leads to body and sex positivism and an absence of asceticism. Even negative experiences such as pain and disgust are seen as integral to our life and world and thus are not rejected by the integral approach, but used skillfully.
Clare W. Graves and Don Beck
Ken Wilber referenced Clare W. Graves's emergent cyclical levels of existence theory (ECLET) in 1995's Sex, Ecology, Spirituality at the same time as he was introducing his quadrant model. Nicholas Reitter notes that Wilber treated Graves "as a respected predecessor, though typically as only one among a group of recent, relevant developmental thinkers."
The following year, Don Beck and Christopher Cowan published their application and extension of Graves's work in Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change. Wilber began to incorporate Spiral Dynamics in the "Integral Psychology" section of The Collected Works of Ken Wilber, Vol. 4 in 1999, and gave it a prominent place in 2000's A Theory of Everything. Wilber and Beck (who had split from Cowan in 1999) began to collaborate, with Beck announcing "Spiral Dynamics integral" (SDi) at the very end of 2001.
Wilber and Beck developed the concept of the "Mean Green Meme" (MGM) regarding the Green level of Spiral Dynamics, which they associated with postmodernism. Wilber further developed this idea into the "Boomeritis" concept, devoting a chapter to each in A Theory of Everything. As Beck explained:
Ken and I asked: How do we uncap GREEN? How do we keep it moving? Because so much of it has become a stagnant pond, in our view. So we said, let’s invent the Mean Green Meme. Let’s shame it a bit. Let’s hold up a mirror and show it what it’s doing, with the hope that it will separate the Mean Green Meme from legitimate healthy GREEN. Let’s expose enough people to the duplicity and artificiality and self-serving nature of their own belief systems around political correctness to finally get the word out that there’s something beyond that.
Cowan and his business partner Natasha Todorovic disagreed with this view, leading Todorovic to publish a paper refuting it based on psychological trait mapping research. Todorovic charged that when the Mean Green Meme concept is used to criticize a person making an argument, it "usurps arguments by undermining an individual before the debate has begun."
Wilber and Beck put a strong emphasis on the distinctions between the 1st tier (Green and earlier) vs 2nd tier (Yellow and later) levels, associating integral thinking with the 2nd tier.
By 2006, Wilber and Beck had diverged in their interpretations of the Spiral Dynamics model, with Beck positioning the spiral of levels at the center of the quadrants, while Wilber placed it solely in the lower left quadrant. Beck saw Wilber's modifications as distortions of the model, and expressed frustration with what he saw as Wilber's exclusive focus on spirituality, while Wilber declared Spiral Dynamics to be incomplete as those who study only Spiral Dynamics "will never have a satori." Beck continued to use the SDi name along with the 4Q/8L (four quadrants/eight levels) system from A Theory of Everything, while Wilber went on to criticize both Beck and Cowan.
In his 2006 book Integral Spirituality, Wilber created the AQAL "altitudes," the first eight of which parallel Spiral Dynamics, as a more comprehensive, integrated system. The altitudes use a color system based on rainbow correlations with chakras, replacing the spiraling alternation of warm and cool colors that is a fundamental property in SDi with a linear progression. In place of the six-levels-per-tier structure of SDi, Wilber truncated the 2nd tier after only two levels, and added a 3rd tier of four levels derived from the work of Sri Aurobindo and other spiritual traditions. Wilber further elaborated on this expanded and recolored system in 2017's The Religion of Tomorrow.
All Quadrants All Levels
Ken Wilber's AQAL, pronounced "ah-qwul", is the basic framework of Integral Theory. It suggests that all human knowledge and experience can be placed in a four-quadrant grid, along the axes of "interior-exterior" and "individual-collective". According to Wilber, it is one of the most comprehensive approaches to reality, a metatheory that attempts to explain how academic disciplines and every form of knowledge and experience fit together coherently.
AQAL is based on four fundamental concepts and a rest-category: four quadrants, several levels and lines of development, several states of consciousness, and "types", topics which don't fit into these four concepts. "Levels" are the stages of development, from pre-personal through personal to transpersonal. "Lines" are lines of development, the several domains of development, which may process uneven, with several stages of development in place at the various domains.[note 1] "States" are states of consciousness; according to Wilber persons may have a terminal experience of a higher developmental stage.[note 2] "Types" is a rest-category, for phenomena which don't fit in the other four concepts. In order for an account of the Kosmos to be complete, Wilber believes that it must include each of these five categories. For Wilber, only such an account can be accurately called "integral". In the essay, "Excerpt C: The Ways We Are in This Together", Wilber describes AQAL as "one suggested architecture of the Kosmos".
The model is topped with formless awareness, "the simple feeling of being," which is equated with a range of "ultimates" from a variety of eastern traditions. This formless awareness transcends the phenomenal world, which is ultimately only an appearance of some transcendental reality. According to Wilber, the AQAL categories—quadrants, lines, levels, states, and types—describe the relative truth of the two truths doctrine of Buddhism.[note 3]
Holons are the individual building blocks of Wilber's model. Wilber borrowed the concept of holons from Arthur Koestler's description of the great chain of being, a mediaeval description of levels of being. "Holon" means that every entity and concept is both an entity on its own, and a hierarchical part of a larger whole. For example, a cell in an organism is both a whole as a cell, and at the same time a part of another whole, the organism. Likewise a letter is a self-existing entity and simultaneously an integral part of a word, which then is part of a sentence, which is part of a paragraph, which is part of a page; and so on. Everything from quarks to matter to energy to ideas can be looked at in this way. The relation between individuals and society is not the same as between cells and organisms though, because individual holons can be members but not parts of social holons.
In his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, Wilber outlines twenty fundamental properties, called "tenets", that characterize all holons. For example, they must be able to maintain their "wholeness" and also their "part-ness;" a holon that cannot maintain its wholeness will cease to exist and will break up into its constituent parts.
Each of the four approaches has a valid perspective to offer. The subjective emotional pain of a person who suffers a tragedy is one perspective; the social statistics about such tragedies are different perspectives on the same matter. According to Wilber all are needed for real appreciation of a matter.
Wilber uses this grid to categorize the perspectives of various theories and scholars, for example:
- Interior individual perspective (upper-left quadrant) include Freudian psychoanalysis, which interprets people's interior experiences and focuses on "I"
- Interior plural perspective (lower-left) include Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics which seeks to interpret the collective consciousness of a society, or plurality of people and focuses on "We"
- Exterior individual perspective (upper-right) include B. F. Skinner's behaviorism, which limits itself to the observation of the behavior of organisms and treats the internal experience, decision making or volition of the subject as a black box, and which with the fourth perspective emphasizes the subject as a specimen to examine, or "It".
- Exterior plural perspective (lower-right) include Marxist economic theory which focuses upon the behavior of a society (i.e. a plurality of people) as functional entities seen from outside, e.g. "They".
According to Wilber, all four perspectives offer complementary, rather than contradictory, perspectives. It is possible for all to be correct, and all are necessary for a complete account of human existence. According to Wilber, each by itself offers only a partial view of reality.
According to Wilber modern western society has a pathological focus on the exterior or objective perspective. Such perspectives value that which can be externally measured and tested in a laboratory, but tend to deny or marginalize the left sides (subjectivity, individual experience, feelings, values) as unproven or having no meaning. Wilber identifies this as a fundamental cause of society's malaise, and names the situation resulting from such perspectives, "flatland".
Levels or stages
Wilber discerns various structural stages of development, following several structural stage theories of developmental psychology.[note 4] According to Wilber, these stages can be grouped in pre-personal (subconscious motivations), personal (conscious mental processes), and transpersonal (integrative and mystical structures) stages.[note 5]
All of these mental structures are considered to be complementary and legitimate, rather than mutual exclusive. Wilber's equates the levels in psychological and cultural development, with the hierarchical nature of matter itself.
|Levels of Being||Development|
|Overall||Outer Being||Inner Being||Psychic Being|
|-||-||Supermind||Supermind||Gnostic Man||-||-||6. Universalizing||45+ years?|
|Personal||Centaur (Vision-logic)||Higher Mind|
|Evolution||Rational||4. Individual-reflexive||21+ years?|
|Rule/role mind||Mythic-rational||Concrete operational||2. Mythic-
|undifferentiated or primary matrix||Inconscient||Inconscient|
Lines, streams, or intelligences
According to Wilber, various domains or lines of development, or intelligences can be discerned. They include cognitive, ethical, aesthetic, spiritual, kinesthetic, affective, musical, spatial, logical-mathematical, karmic, etc. For example, one can be highly developed cognitively (cerebrally smart) without being highly developed morally (as in the case of Nazi doctors).
States are temporary states of consciousness, such as waking, dreaming and sleeping, bodily sensations, and drug-induced and meditation-induced states. Some states are interpreted as temporary intimations of higher stages of development. Wilber's formulation is: "States are free but structures are earned." A person has to build or earn structure; it cannot be peak-experienced for free. What can be peak-experienced, however, are higher states of freedom from the stage a person is habituated to, so these deeper or higher states can be experienced at any level.[note 7]
These are models and theories that don't fit into Wilber’s other categorizations. Masculine/feminine, the nine Enneagram categories, and Jung's archetypes and typologies, among innumerable others, are all valid types in Wilber's schema. Wilber makes types part of his model in order to point out that these distinctions are different from the already mentioned distinctions: quadrants, lines, levels and states.
Bonnitta Roy has introduced a "Process Model" of integral theory, combining Western process philosophy, Dzogchen ideas, and Wilberian theory. She distinguishes between Wilber's concept of perspective and the Dzogchen concept of view, arguing that Wilber's view is situated within a framework or structural enfoldment which constrains it, in contrast to the Dzogchen intention of being mindful of view.
Wendelin Küpers, a German scholar specializing in phenomenological research, has proposed that an "integral pheno-practice" based on aspects of the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty can provide the basis of an "adequate phenomenology" useful in integral research. His proposed approach claims to offer a more inclusive and coherent approach than classical phenomenology, including procedures and techniques called epoché, bracketing, reduction, and free variation.
Sean Esbjörn-Hargens has proposed a new approach to climate change called Integral Pluralism, which builds on Wilber's recent work but emphasizes elements such as Ontological Pluralism that are understated or absent in Wilber's own writings.
Some individuals affiliated with Ken Wilber have claimed that there exists a loosely defined "Integral movement". Others, however, have disagreed. Whatever its status as a "movement", there are a variety of religious organizations, think tanks, conferences, workshops, and publications in the US and internationally that use the term integral.
According to John Bothwell and David Geier, among the top thinkers in the integral movement are Stanislav Grof, Fred Kofman, George Leonard, Michael Murphy, Jenny Wade, Roger Walsh, Ken Wilber, and Michael E. Zimmerman. In 2007, Steve McIntosh pointed to Henri Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin as pre-figuring Wilber as integral thinkers. While in the same year, the editors of What Is Enlightenment? listed as contemporary Integralists Don Edward Beck, Allan Combs, Robert Godwin, Sally Goerner, George Leonard, Michael Murphy, William Irwin Thompson, and Wilber.
Gary Hampson suggested that there are six intertwined genealogical branches of Integral, based on those who first used the term: those aligned with Aurobindo, Gebser, Wilber, Gangadean, László and Steiner (noting that the Steiner branch is via the conduit of Gidley).
"Integral leadership" is presented as a style of leadership that attempts to integrate major styles of leadership. Don Beck, Lawrence Chickering, Jack Crittenden, David Sprecher, and Ken Wilber have applied the AQAL-model to issues in political philosophy and applications in government, calling it "integral politics". Sen has called the Yoga psychology of Sri Aurobindo "Integral psychology." For Wilber, "integral psychology" is psychology that is inclusive or holistic rather than exclusivist or reductive, and values and integrates multiple explanations and methodologies. Marilyn Hamilton used the term "integral city", describing the city as a living human system, using an integral lens. Integral Life Practice (ILP) applies Ken Wilber's Integral model through nine modules of personal practice. Examples of "integral practice" not associated with Ken Wilber, and derived from alternate approaches, are Integral Transformative Practice (ITP), Holistic Integration, and Integral Lifework.
Reception in mainstream academia
Integral Theory is widely ignored at mainstream academic institutions, and has been sharply contested by critics. The independent scholar Frank Visser says that there is a problematic relation between Wilber and academia for several reasons, including a "self-referential discourse" wherein Wilber tends to describe his work as being at the forefront of science. Visser has compiled a bibliography of online criticism of Wilber's Integral Theory and produced an overview of their objections. Another Wilber critic, the independent scholar Andrew P. Smith, observes that most of Wilber's work has not been published by university presses, a fact that discourages some academics from taking his ideas seriously. Wilber's failure to respond to critics of Integral Theory is also said to contribute to the field's chilly reception in some quarters.
Forman and Esbjörn-Hargens have countered criticisms regarding the academic standing of integral studies in part by claiming that the divide between Integral Theory and academia is exaggerated by critics who themselves lack academic credentials or standing. They also said that participants at the first Integral Theory Conference in 2008 had largely mainstream academic credentials and pointed to existing programs in alternative universities like John F. Kennedy University or Fielding Graduate University as an indication of the field's emergence.
The AQAL system has been critiqued for not taking into account the lack of change in the biological structure of the brain at the human level (complex neocortex), this role being taken instead by human-made artifacts.
- Multidisciplinary approach
- Systems science
- Ken Wilber
- This interpretation is at odds with structural stage theory, which posits an overall follow-up of stages, instead of variations over several domains.
- This too is wildly at odds with structural stage theory, but in line with Wilber's philosophical idealism, which sees the phenomenal world as a concretisation, or immanation, of a "higher," transcendental reality, which can be "realized" in "religious experience."
- The Madhyamaka Two Truths Doctrine discerns two epistemological truths, namely conventional and ultimate. Conventional truth is the truth of phenomenal appearances and causal relations, our daily common-sense world. Ultimate truth is the recognition that no-"thing" exists inherently; every"thing" is empty, sunyata of an unchanging "essence." It also means that there is no unchanging transcendental reality underlying phenomenal existence. "Formless awareness" belongs to another strand of Indian thinking, namely Advaita and Buddha-nature, which are ontological approaches, and do posit such a transcendental, unchanging reality, namely "awareness" or "consciousness." Wilber seems to be mixing, or confusing, these two different approaches freely, in his attempt to integrate "everything" into one conceptual scheme.
- Piaget's theory of cognitive development, Kohlberg's stages of moral development, Erikson's stages of psychosocial development, and Jane Loevinger's stages of ego development.
- For example:
- Note that Wilber presents Aurobindo's level of Being as developmental stages, whereas Aurobindo describes higher development as a Triple Transformation, which includes "psychicisation" (Wilber's psychic stage), the turn inward and the discovery of the psychic being; spiritualisation, the transformation of the lower being through the realisation of the psychic being, and involves the Higher Mind; and "supramentalisation," the realisation of Supermind, itself the intermediary between Spirit or Satcitananda and creation. A correct table would include Aurobindo's Triple Transformation and the Three Beings:
- In his book Integral Spirituality, Wilber identifies a few varieties of states:
- The three daily cycling natural states: waking, dreaming, and sleeping.
- Phenomenal states such as bodily sensations, emotions, mental ideas, memories, or inspirations, or from exterior sources such as our sensorimotor inputs, seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting.
- Altered states, is divided into two groups:
- Exogenous or induced states: psychedelic and other drug-induced states; hypnosis and hypnotherapy; psycho-therapeutic techniques; gestalt therapy; psychodrama; voice dialogue techniques; biofeedback states; forms of guided imagery;
- Endogenous or trained states: performance enhancement techniques in sports therapy; meditative training which work on calming, relaxation, equanimity states; and mental imaging and visualization such as tonglen meditation.
- Some techniques, such as Neuro-linguistic Programming, work with both endogenous and exogenous types.
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