Ken Wilber and Integral Theory

Ken Wilber

Last week we had the first of two lectures on the transpersonal ideas of Ken Wilber, author of the Spectrum of Consciousness.  This week we heard all about his integral theories of consciousness.

To recap, for Wilber there are three stages of development.

Pre personal

This is the primitive (unconscious) stage, before we know who we are.


There is a sense of self.  We work through our own personal material to get a better idea of our real nature.  We are not just an extension of our parents but we begin to have our own sense of being.


We go beyond the limited sense of being and we start to get experience of connection.

For Wilber there is the risk of the Pre trans fallacy: Children do not have a conscious relationship with spirit. If we are only dealing with two categories and all we have is the personal and the transpersonal then the mistake is to see everything that is not personal as transpersonal.

There is also a risk of spiritual by-pass if you fail to adequately deal with your messy personal material.  You need to have developed a healthy ego in order to be able to transcend it.

In the development of his philosophy Wilber borrowed the concept of the holon from Arthur Koestler. The idea of a holon is that everything is not only a whole, but also part of a larger whole, so a “part/whole” or “hol-on”. That is true for atoms, molecules, organisms, human being, but also for letters in a word, words in a sentence, sentences on a page, pages in a book, etc. — as the familiar holistic sequence goes.

For example, love can be an earthly love in the romantic sense but also be love in the spiritual way. Everything is connected to everything else, nothing is in isolation.  Wilber was very much into ecology

Wilber outlines “twenty tenets” of holons that are common to evolving or growing systems wherever we find them.  The 20 tenets of holon theory is of course, only one part of:the practice of emrgnc.

Reality consists of helons, nothing exists in isolation.

The four fundamental capacities of helons:

1 Self preservation: Every holon wants to survive.

2. Self adaption: Every holon adapts itself in order to survive (evolution).

3. Self transcendence: Every holon wants to be the best it can be  (evolution).

4. Self disillusion: Once it has realised itself then it is done.

Holons emerge.  We can’t make them happen.  It is an organic process. Albert Einstein once said “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. In therapy, how many times do we hear clients fail to take action or to change behaviour?

Each emergent holon transcends and includes its predecessor.  Like in therapy we are not jettisoning our inner child.  We can become playful with our inner child but we are not living from that place anymore. We have transcended and included the previous evolutionary steps. The lower sets the possibilities for the higher. In therapy this is where a client learns to build a healthy ego before more advanced spiritual work can take place.

Remember that Wilber is a Zen Buddhist and, therefore, claims a science of spiritual growth. There is increasing telos as we achieve more alignment with our divine selves.

Integral World

Integral theory is a philosophy promoted by Wilber that seeks a synthesis of the best of pre-modern, modern and postmodern reality. Integral theory initially started as a theoretical transpersonal psychology that attempted to synthesize Western and non-Western understandings of consciousness with notions of biological, mental, and divine evolution.

As Wilber has demonstrated in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, human consciousness can be seen as a holon, with four aspects or quadrants:

1. inner-individual (upper left): introspective consciousness. What is going on in me?

2. outer-individual (Upper right): observable behaviour, the outer individual. What am I doing in the world?

3. inner-collective (lower left): our cultural beliefs, how does this affect the community I am a part of. This relates to Jung’s collective unconscious. Witness the ecology movement.

4. outer-collective (Lower right): the society we live in.  This is what broadly is studied by sociology.

Each quadrant consists of nine levels/stages. Combining quadrants with levels gives the “all quadrants, all levels” approach of Integral Philosophy. It is not enough to have awareness, we need to make a difference in the world.  Have you ever sat in a therapy room and listened to a client talk endlessly about themselves with great insight but their world never changes? For Wilber, we need to take action.

According  to Springer in “Transpersonal Psychology” Wilber has since distanced himself from transpersonal psychology.   As Sean Esbjörn-Hargens says in the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, Integral Theory has turned into an emerging field of academic discourse and research focused on the complex interactions of ontology, epistemology, and methodology. However, there is on-going discussion surrounding its standing in academia. The Theory is relatively new as the first interdisciplinary academic conference on Integral Theory took place in 2008.

Overall, I see the usefulness of Wilber’s ideas as a template for long term psychotherapeutic work.  I like his metaphor of Chinese boxes in how we can move through stages of consciousness, one stage fits into the next.  Wilber brings an academic dimension to the transpersonal world of psychotherapy and is certainly worth a read.