Introducing the Integral Vision
We have the intuition that everyone is at least partially right, that no human being is capable of being 100% wrong. But how do you tell just how right everyone is? Some are more right than others—how do you tell the difference? Integral theory is an attempt to answer that question.
The familiar Chinese proverb, “May you live in interesting times,” is no doubt fulfilled in our time. For the first time in history, we have access to all the world’s wisdom, to the musings of saints, sages, and scientists through the ages. That access is growing exponentially. Scarcely a century ago, the first trans-Atlantic wireless signal was transmitted; now, we venture out every day on the information superhighway. We are inundated with information, and today, more than ever, there is an impulse to make sense of it all.
Philosophy (literally, “love of wisdom”) might well be the oldest human pursuit. For as long as human beings have existed, we have questioned our existence. And whereas our close evolutionary relatives have demonstrated the ability to create tools and perhaps even display a sense of humor—traditional criteria for what makes us unique as humans—we have not yet observed in them the capacity to make meaning. Perhaps it is meaning itself, and the search for it, that sets us apart.
Every human age has its priceless contributions, its startling insights. Premodernity discerned, beneath the myriad forms of manifestation, “the Great Chain of Being,” a majestic progression from matter to body to mind to spirit. Modernity informs this view considerably; it tells us that we live in a universe that has evolved over roughly 14 billion years. Matter evolved to the point at which life emerged; life evolved to the point at which consciousness emerged. And postmodernity points out that each of us is embedded in a context, largely invisible to ourselves, from which we interpret our experience. Rather than a pregiven world, we enact a worldspace, the product of the phenomena we observe and the viewpoint from which we make the observation. We are, quite literally, viewing manifestation through a set of lenses, lenses that we never knew we were wearing. And in the process of development, we swap those lenses for new ones, viewing phenomena in increasingly more precise, nuanced, and sophisticated ways.
At the leading edge, most developmental theories posit a stage that might be called “integral,” for its hallmark attempt to make sense of everything, to find the pattern that connects. One such theory is “AQAL,” short for “all quadrants, all levels, all lines, all states, all types.” The AQAL model, proposed by American philosopher Ken Wilber, is perhaps the most comprehensive view ever taken of how all manifestation, all matter, all life, all thought, and all experience can fit together in a coherent whole. AQAL itself is content-less, which makes it infinitely applicable to any particular area of inquiry. Any field (e.g. business, medicine, politics) can be viewed through an AQAL lens. And this view can vastly enrich our understanding of the contours, limits, and possibilities of that field. Touching in on the five aspects of the model ensures that we have covered all of our bases. We can be sure that we are viewing a given situation from every conceivable angle, and can proceed with the best information possible.
There is a popular Buddhist story about a king who gathers six blind men to examine an elephant. Each blind man takes a turn feeling a different part of the elephant, after which the King asks each of them "Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is the elephant?"
The first blind man, having examined the elephant's head, says "sire, an elephant is like a pot." The second blind man, having observed the elephant's ear, replies that the elephant "is like a winnowing basket." The third blind man, after feeling the elephant's tusks, says that the elephant is like a plow's blade.
And on they go, describing the elephant according to the various parts they were investigating: one says the elephant is like a granary, another like a pillar, and yet another holds the elephant's tail and believes the beast to be a giant paintbrush. The argue about the true nature of the elephant, words growing into shouts, shouts erupting into fisticuffs, each blind man utterly convinced of his own perspective and experience of the animal.
"Just so," the fable tells us, "are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing.... In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus."
The Buddha (who is narrating the entire story) then offers the following reflection:
O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
We are all blind farmers, each with our hands on a different piece of reality—a reality so ridiculously immense, there is no possible way to view its totality in a single sitting, if even a single lifetime. For tens of thousands of years we have been laying our hands all over the elephant, entire lifetimes devoted to exploring individual features of the animal in exquisite detail. We have in fact amassed so much knowledge about the particulars of the elephant, we have nearly forgotten the elephant itself—that is, we have lost sight of the intrinsic wholeness of our knowledge, of all the ways our various arts, sciences, and schools of philosophy fit together into a coherent and comprehensive whole. In the 21st century, it can sometimes feel like there is no elephant at all—just a confusing jumble of body parts, each distinct in form and function, and apparently unrelated to all the other body parts.
But it doesn't take much more than a simple shift of perspective to remind ourselves that there is an elephant under there somewhere, and that each of these seemingly separate body parts are actually working in tandem as a single living entity.
The Integral vision represents this "elephant view" of reality; a simple yet elegant synthesis of all knowledge, all wisdom, and all experience that helps us make sense of the staggering complexity of our world—a world that is rapidly becoming more complex and more interconnected at every moment.
We suffer from an embarrassment of riches, surrounded by mountains of data from a wide range of inquiry: psychology, spirituality, sexuality, ecology, medicine, politics, natural sciences, hermeneutics, systems theory, phenomenology, anthropology, etc.—all focusing on some detailed piece of the puzzle with astonishing sophistication. The problem, however, occurs when these individual fields insist that their observations actually describe the full totality of reality, rather than just the tiny sliver they happen to be looking at—resulting in painful ruptures between knowledge and wisdom, endless debates between science and spirituality, and persistent squabbling among different schools, even within the same branch of knowledge.
"For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Just as we discover the nature of the elephant by asking ourselves "what kind of creature could possibly be composed of all these multifarious parts?", we discover the essential nature of life, the universe, and everything by asking ourselves "what kind of reality is this, in which all these approaches to knowledge are fundamentally true?"
It is a simple equation: by starting the game from a position of wholeness, we maximize the amount of personal freedom and fulfillment we can experience in our lives. If we take all of our accumulated knowledge, all of our shared experiences, all of our descriptions of reality from all over the world, and begin piecing them together, we begin to recognize the deepest patterns of reality—patterns that help us make sense of both the world out there as well as the one in here, without ever eclipsing the effortless Mystery at the core of this and every moment. Integral offers a comprehensive map to help make sense of these fundamental patterns—a genuine "theory of everything" where nothing and no one is left out.
But of course, a map is just a map. As Ken Wilber often says, it is one thing to look at a map of Bermuda, and another thing to actually go there and see it for yourself. The map is not the territory—you are. Your life is the territory; your friends and family are the territory; your whole world is the territory—and it can be easy to get lost every now and again. At Integral Life, we offer you not only the maps you need to understand your world, but the vehicles you need to take you wherever you want to go. The entire universe is at your fingertips—just don't confuse it for an elephant's tail.
Who is Ken Wilber?
With more than two dozen published books, Ken Wilber has created what is widely considered the first truly comprehensive Integral Map of human experience. By exploring and integrating the major insights and conclusions of nearly every human knowledge domain in existence, Ken created the AQAL Integral Framework, a framework that is both grounded in millennia of human understanding, and yet still grows and expands to embrace new information.
His many books, all of which are still in print, can be found at Amazon.com. Some of his more popular books include Integral Spirituality; No Boundary; Grace and Grit; Sex, Ecology, Spirituality; and the "everything" books: A Brief History of Everything (one of his largest selling books) and The Integral Vision (probably the shortest introduction to his work).
Ken Wilber is the founder of Integral Institute, Inc., the co-founder of Integral Life, Inc., and the Senior Fellow of Integral Life Spiritual Center.
The Origin of the Integral Vision
In this introduction to the Integral Vision, Ken is asked, "How would you define what you do?" As the leader in the field of Integral studies and application, Ken goes all the way back to the beginning: a medical student at Duke University who couldn't get any of the important questions answered from a traditional educational setting. What's the meaning of life? Why am I here? What's the good life? What is the Good, the True, the Beautiful? Fundamentally, what is important in human life? And so he set out on his own. Are these questions that you are asking yourself too?
Idiot-Savant, or Just an Idiot?
For anyone who has ever wondered how Ken does the work he does—work that has been compared with that of the true geniuses of humanity— this is a gem of a conversation. With a degree of humility that some might find surprising, Ken explains that his skill at pattern recognition and information synthesis is akin to that of an “idiot savant”: no one knows how it works, it’s not something one can take personal credit for, and all one can do is their utmost to communicate the truths of this gift as best as he or she can—with humor, and lightness, and freedom. As Ken jokes, “Is he special, or is he just weird? History will tell….” Truly, this is one of the most fascinating and revealing segments on Integral Life, and we invite you listen in….
Toward an Integral Understanding of Science and Religion
In this fascinating discussion, Ken and NPR's Steve Paulson talk about the rupture that exists between science and spirituality, exploring some of the primary sources of conflict and suggesting ways to move the entire discussion forward. If you’re new to the Integral Approach and AQAL Theory, this dialogue is a fantastic introduction. If you’re an AQAL veteran, this dialogue is an incredible lesson in how one can express the integral vision without relying on jargon.
"The integral approach does nothing less than offer a coherent integration of virtually every field of human knowledge."
"If ordinary people don’t perceive that our grand ideas are working in their lives then they can’t develop the higher level of consciousness, to use a term that American philosopher Ken Wilber wrote a whole book about. He said, you know, the problem is the world needs to be more integrated, but it requires a consciousness that’s way up here, and an ability to see beyond the differences among us.”
"Ken Wilber is a national treasure."
"Ken Wilber is one of the greatest philosophers of this century and arguably the greatest theoretical psychologist of all time."