Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality (Notes)

Just read Integral Spirituality which is excellent. I suspect the casual writing, poor editing and poor branding (name and cover) get in the way of Wilber’s monumental achievement. It is overbrimming with insight, rich in depth and packed with structural insights into the nature of knowing and being that kept having me repeatedly going “oh yes, now that makes sense.” Once you’ve got it you never go back. Below I summarize some of the main points.

Summary and Excerpts

AQAL (all quadrants, all lines)

AQAL (all quadrants, all lines) model with 4 quadrants and its lines of development within.

                Interior  |  Exterior

      Singular      I     |    It
      Plural       We     |    Its

For me, distinguishing, say, the interiority of the contemplative / meditative vs the exteriority of say neuroscience was really useful. And simply, labelling all of this is very helpful (how many debates arise out of poor term definition):

  • I = subjective, lived experience (of the individual)
  • It = individual external i.e. behaviour, neuroscience, atoms etc
  • We = culture (subjective group experience, shared meaning etc)
  • Its = systems (economies, group dynamics etc)

He also has inside and outside on each of these to give 8 zones (I’m still working this one out fully).

Wilber-Coombs lattice

Wilber-Coombs lattice. Another useful distinction of states vs stages. States = states of “consciousness/awareness” from egoic out to full non-duality whilst stages correspond to value paradigms. Seeing these as two independent, orthogonal axes of development was like “Oh yeah” and helps clear up a lot of confusion e.g. enlightenment being used for states but not stages (so it explains why you can have people who are very advanced in e.g. meditation but who are not advanced in stages). This allows Wilber to define “full” enlightenment as all states, all stages.

3S = stages, states, shadows

3S = stages, states, shadows

Distinction of shadows. A shadow is something like trauma, psychological dysfunction due to disidentification (suppression, repression, othering) of self with some part of oneself – the turning of an I into an it. Makes clear why you can have people advanced in contemplation who still have a lot of sh** to deal with.


Here’s the best summary I’ve found online:


Confusion of states with stages and unawareness of stage. Turning contemplative development into an ego trip and a justification for onanism: I get to do whatever I want, there are no rules (no “right actions”, no “right views”). It also gives rise to trivial pluralism / relativism.

Modernity and Post-modernity

His explanation of modernity and postmodernity was the first time i really got postmodernity and especially what was useful in it (intersubjectivity, understanding culture, the importance of perspectives) and what was flawed in it (“I’m the whole map” rather than just one quadrant; the performance paradox: there is no univeral truth except that there is no universal truth etc).

Missing role of Spirituality

An explanation of the (missing) role of spirituality – crudely in transition to orange we dumped spirituality and because individual evolution goes through stages that is a real block to healthy reintroduction even at higher stages (e.g. reintroduction in green often turns into new-ageism)

  • 4 judgments / dimensions of: spirituality, morals, aesthetics and science
  • Why missing spirituality is such a big deal and is causing such friction: “amber” crashing into “orange” and “green”. “Level-line” dysfunction: in orange spirituality has been eliminated and science has taken over everything.

Plural parallels singular and society is not a super-organism

That plural parallels singular rather than extending it. Put simply: societies are not the next level up from organisms (in the way organisms are the next level up from cells). So leviathan style metaphors are misleading. And “Gaia” style paradigms: atom => molecule => … => cell => organism => family => tribe => society are fundamentally flawed. Plurals parallels I but they are not extensions. Basic argument is that I items (e.g. atom, molecule, cell, organism) have a “dominant monad” – the thing moves together e.g. if i walk over there every cell in my body walks over there. This is not generally true of collections of organisms e.g. human societies.

Cultural Trauma and Blind Spots

He has the cultural trauma idea (western orange (i.e. enlightenment) repression of spirituality is due to incomplete trauma of religion – Voltaire’s “remember the millions”)


Asides/improvements (mainly of communication):

  • is the colour spectrum the best communication model for stages (which I think comes from Graves and spiral dynamics)
  • reduce the chattiness
  • reduce the critique of other models (often spot on but unnecessary and somehow diminishing even if correct)
  • so many ideas in one place (with a lot of notation and abbreviations!)
  • more examples / stories
  • reduce / replace the perspective algebra (though maybe once I get that better I’ll appreciate it)

Particularly valuable to the Life Itself agenda

  • Stages: help us identify ourselves (mixing stages in the community will be tough). My belief is that we are teal or up on the spectrum (we aren’t green – we constantly beef against millenial greenness with its naive anti-hierarchy (“who are you to tell me what to do”), its indulgent egoism (lack of work ethic), consumerist spirituality (“burning man” and drugs), lack of analytical rigour (“science is so oppressive”, “my crystals work”)
  • Conceptual clarity that will reduce petty arguments over category errors or inter-quadrant fights e.g. analytical rigour (science), contemplative depth (meditation) and cultural interdependence and perspective (views) can all coexist together.
  • Role of spirituality (and its current absence). Clearly sets out the missing and why its importance. Also distinguishes multiple meanings of “spirituality” in discourse.

Personally it helps frame and extend my current focus on culture. I’m currently obsessed with culture. Culture is the study of collective being – the analogy of ontology for the group. I’ve been starting to get ontology for myself particularly in the gestalt moment of landmark, and, in that, realising that I’d been engaged in practical ontology via meditation and reflection for a long time and this was a major interest of mine (for a long time I’d sort of thought ontology was too grand for me – it was Heidegger and I’d never made it past p.35 of Sein und Zeit).

This then combined with my long-term interest in history, economics, politics etc which is all about group. In addition, i grokked that individual being is fundamentally intertwined with collective being i.e. culture.

Meanwhile my long-running interest and ambitions around social/political change had, for some time, been running up against the reality that we aren’t all perfect rational beings (“dad and his newspapers”, “X and the iraq war”, evidence from endless discussions with others, the news, open knowledge is not much without open minds etc). I’d already been grounding / getting major insights on that at the individual psychological level out of Buddhism (“non-attachment to views”) and modern cog-sci but I always felt there was something missing about the group (“GDP is not a just a view it is a co-created view of the group”).

And finally this linked up with my interest in group both for the practicality and richness of community and community living in my own life (it’s something about upbringing – look at my sister and me both living in community!) but also for its importance in group coordination to solve collective action problems and to ground awakening (“you need a sangha”, “the tiger that goes to the lowlands dies”, my own struggles to meditate on my own etc).

To summarize, all roads led to culture:

  • Ontology (own well-being and phenomenology, meditation, landmark etc) => we don’t exist in a vacuum, our “being” (and esp views) come from our ancestors, friends, school … => culture
  • History, economics, anthropology etc (my attraction to deep, simple explanations (e.g. plate tectonics) of human phenomena a la Annales school, evolutionary psych, what are the possible orderings of a society and e.g. why does patriarchy happen so much etc) => culture
  • Politics and social change => collective action and collective view problems (why do people believe the things they do? Well, it is socially co-created …) => culture (values, shared assumptions, ways of working, sense of identity “imagined communities”)
  • Practical community building => why do people struggle to live and align together => culture (esp values and practices)
  • Practical business building => why do companies succeed / fail => economic niche (monopolies are great however you are) + culture + strategy. But economic niches are hard to find (everyone is looking for them and often only obvious in retrospect and culture dominates strategy so in any semi-competitive environment (not an economic niche) culture is probably decisive over the longer run => culture

There is a danger here that culture is just a convenient totalising label – a nice name for my tendency to seek theories of everything. There is some truth to this and the integral theory is useful here too: I haven’t really distinguished culture from systems theory – for me its sort of been both (though with more of an emphasis on lived experience). The integral stuff suggests distinguishing these two is helpful: crudely economics is distinguished from culture and history informs both (and much, much more).

It might also help to set out some of the key questions i have and their priority.

  • Performant vs dysfunctional group dynamics? How are these created and/or transformed (e.g. can you transform a dysfunctional culture, how can you create a great culture and how do cultures happen generally)
  • Performant at what? (i.e. what are your values) Is it about material production (output, innovation)? Spiritual production (wisdom, contemplative realistion)? Collective action and team energy? Is is about aesthetic production (artworks, creativity, self-expression)? Is it about morality (goodness etc)?
  • What possible values constellations are there? What possible cultures are there? (e.g. is it possible to have a culture that is both highly materially productive, highly joyful and fun-loving and with deep contemplation?)
  • How can one use cultural understanding to improve the quality and effectiveness of my own and others interactions right now?
  • What is the inter-relation of politics and governance (i.e. semi-formalized decision-making) and implicit cultural assumptions and practices. (My contention is that culture is the foundation without which governance become an empty and dysfunctional shell).

More intellectually (i.e. of less immediate practical importance)

  • How did we come to be the way we are? And how contingent vs inevitable was that (markov chains theorm). Specifically, around our political, social and economic institutions and, at the personal level, our being. cf Albion’s Seed.
  • How do ontology and culturology interact? How does individual being come from group and (of lesser interest actually) the group from the individual (though this latter is important when it comes to collective action problems)
  • Is the limit of the consensual state the imagined community and how has (and how can) that grow over time and are their limits to that? And can we alter them by our own efforts either via psycho-spiritual means e.g. meditation, spiritual development; social means e.g. institutions or technological means e.g. trust metrics (on these latter i am super sceptical). Practically, this relates to my current hypothesis that the limits of the social democratic state is in the low tens of millions and that ultra-large “democratic” states such as the US, Brazil or the EU are necessarily dysfunctional at our current state of psycho-social development and group identification.