Integral Changed Everything: How Studying Ken Wilber's Integral Theory Changed My Life – Patheos

A stretched mind will not return to its original form. I learned that the hard way when I dove headfirst into Integral Theory. In 2005, I bought an audio program called Kosmic Consciousness with Ken Wilber and Tami Simon. The program was in an interview format where Tami questioned Ken about his ideas and consisted of ten seventy-minute CDs.
I had never heard of Ken Wilber before, even though he’d been writing books since 1977. What caught my attention when I listened to a snippet from his program before buying it was his promise to explain why spiritual teachers could be in a state of enlightenment one moment and then behave like complete a**holes the next.
That sounded like something I had experienced and needed an explanation for.
I listened to the entire seven hundred plus minutes within one week. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. The pure breadth of ideas was staggering. Wilber’s intellect was well beyond anything I’d encountered in spiritual circles. He provided countless ideas that explained everything from my culturally Christian upbringing to my time in the New-Age movement to my love for all things Eastern and my fascination with motivational techniques and emotional intelligence.
Once the program was over, I felt like a two-year-old who had just watched his first Disney movie.
That was all I could think. I needed to get this.
The integral framework offered me an amazing opportunity to think in big-picture terms and assimilate ideas and theories from academic and spiritual disciplines across the board. Over the next four months, I listened to the program ten times in a row and got a better grasp of what I was hearing each time.
Even though Wilber advised against it in the interviews (yes, he really did that), I bought several of his books and started reading. As warned, the books were much more difficult to comprehend than the dialogues. I had to push myself to grasp the vocabulary and follow his train of thought to its logical conclusion, but the process was so rewarding that my difficulties became nothing short of joyous.
Over the next few years, I read Wilber’s most notable books, including:
I could not get enough of the intricacies and implications of integral theory. More, more, more. I listened to interviews, watched every video I could find, and read various articles in addition to studying his books.
Still, unlike some of his followers, who called themselves Wilberites and Integralists, I never viewed his theories as a new religion or something to be followed. Wilber’s models were tools for thinking and fantastic ones at that.
One of the first ideas that captured my attention was Wilber’s description of a simplified version of Carol Gilligan’s theory of moral development. The model progressed from (i) selfish to (ii) care to (iii) world-care, never in the opposite direction.
According to the research, people on the selfish stage claimed that they could do whatever they wanted to, people on the care stage conformed to traditional and societal norms, and people on the world care stage claimed that there were always other things to consider, that moral decisions depended on context. Selfishness was egocentric, caring was ethnocentric, and world-care was pluralistic.
Although eye-opening, this wasn’t entirely new for me. In my early twenties, M. Scott Peck had introduced a similar growth model in his book, Further Along the Road Less Travelled. There, Peck had simplified James Fowler’s stages of faith into:
I remember finding it tremendously helpful when Peck compared this faith progression to the growth of a child. From ages two to five, the child was at stage one, completely egocentric, trying to control the world with temper tantrums and orders. With proper socialization, the child reached stage two, usually between the ages of five and twelve, and conformed to social norms while gradually accepting the limits of its powers. This stage was marked with deference to authority and preoccupation with rules. The rebellious teenage years corresponded with stage three and consisted of claiming individuality, exploring the world, and being skeptical of authority. Finally, if all three stages were navigated successfully, a healthy adult would emerge at stage four, able to care for others, employ rationality, remain humble, and be open to alternative perspectives.
Of course, Wilber took these ideas about human development much farther in his integrated paradigm. He incorporated complex theories, including models by Kohlberg, Piaget, Loevinger, Erikson, Steiner, Graves, Houston, and many others. His book, Integral Psychology, has dozens of models set up in chart format for comparison.
In Wilber’s conversations with Tami Simon, I noticed that he often switched between theories. It was confusing at first but came to signify the vastness of his approach.
The two growth models that he seemed to be the most comfortable with were the aforementioned ‘selfish, care, and world care’ model by Gilligan and the ‘magic, mythic, rational, pluralistic, and integral’ model, which was his shorthand for Habermas’s epochs. Here is how I understood the more complex model.
In addition, the epoch model referred to historical context. Magical beliefs were closely tied to hunter/gatherer societies, mythical beliefs emerged during the agrarian age, rational views coincided with the industrial revolution, and pluralistic and integral views became more prevalent during the information age. This connection between social types and internal levels of consciousness made it clear that the two evolved on a parallel track.
When it came to answering the question of why people were more or less advanced, Wilber maintained that everyone was born at square one and had to evolve through these stages or levels of growth on their own. He added that societies usually pulled people up to the communal center of gravity.
If true, that would explain why rural areas that rely heavily on natural elements tend to value mythical beliefs, while urban areas, with their focus on technology and close human proximity, tend to be more rational and pluralistic.
It may not be quite as simple as the story of the country mouse and the city mouse, but having lived in a Texas suburb that straddles the urban-rural divide for several years, I can say that there is something to it.
But… there is more to consider.
That was one of the caveats that Wilber added to nearly every one of his ideas. Don’t accept the black and white explanation. Everything exists on a gradient scale and is more complex than it appears to be at first.
For one, he ascribed a great deal of nuance to these models of growth. Instead of being firm stages of development, he pointed out that there was fluidity between them. Someone at a rational stage of development, for instance, would express a quarter of opinions from the preceding mythic worldview, half from the rational worldview, and another quarter from the pluralistic worldview.
This was a definite ‘aha!’ moment for me that explained several confusing conversations I’d had over the years. An acquaintance of mine came to mind, a medical doctor who could be rational in one sentence, ascribe unquestioning validity to mythical religious beliefs in the next, and be entirely pluralistic in the third.
While learning about growth was instructive, the two concepts that best explained the guru-contradictions I had experienced were lines of development and states of consciousness.
Lines of development referred to Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory. Instead of one line of growth that applied to all of life—which would be hierarchical and terrible, signifying that once a person had grown to the highest level, then he or she would be better than everyone else—people could be more or less psychologically advanced in different areas of life.
Wilber referred to the mad scientist as a great example, someone who was intellectually brilliant but had no qualms about conducting human experiments. The cognitive line of development had reached its peak, but the moral line was in shambles.
On the guru front, I had noticed that mismatches between lines of development could be subtler. The spiritual line, for instance, could reach a stage of maturation, while emotional intelligence could be lacking. This underscored Jack Kornfield’s description of being “enlightened from the neck up,” being able to enter deep states of nondual meditation while being unable to function in personal relationships for which interpersonal intelligence was needed.
The more I thought about the differences between lines, the more it explained.
I recalled meeting a guru who had spent twelve years in a cave in complete silence. He had recently returned to the world when he visited Iceland, and I was excited to see him. It turned out to be quite the spectacle.
There was no doubt about his nondual capability. He could transcend his body and mind, reach deep states of meditation, and had no trouble being in silence. Congregating with other people was another matter. While he was lecturing, he got into a heated argument with his fellow guru, blew his top, and rushed off stage. He had to be brought back, cajoled like a toddler. The two men then tried to take questions from the crowd, but the silent guru was so rude in his interactions with attendees that the event was cut short.
In hindsight, lines of development explained that encounter. Being good at one thing did not translate into all other things.
This mismatch between lines also tied into what I came to call the infallible-guru-paradigm, an itch between my shoulder blades that I could never quite scratch. Over the years, many of my friends had spoken about their gurus as enlightened beings who knew everything about everything. Therefore, those same friends had sought advice about health, money, relationships, and more from said gurus, instead of limiting themselves to meditation and compassion inquiries. In too many instances, the gurus played along and gave bad advice.
I remember a very public exception to this rule. It happened when I went to see the Dalai Lama speak in Iceland in 2009. There were about five thousand people in attendance, and, after giving a talk for an hour or so, he accepted questions from the audience.
One man walked up to the microphone and spent two minutes asking a question about his romantic relationships. What should he do? What was the best way to keep a marriage intact? How could he keep love alive?
The Dalai Lama responded: “I don’t know. I am a monk.”
The auditorium exploded in laughter.
That kind of refreshing honesty is exactly what is needed from spiritual teachers. There are lines of development, and people are more or less developed for various reasons. Mentors should pass on their strengths and leave other areas of development to more qualified counselors or, at the very least, admit to their shortcomings.
Wilber explained another guru-contradiction with states of consciousness. Whereas stages of growth were earned through time and signified lasting development, everyone had access to states of consciousness, from toddlers to octogenarians, crooks to holy men.
States referred to (i) waking, (ii) dreaming, (iii) deep dreamless sleep, and (iv) the meditative state, which Wilber skillfully defined as “deep, dreamless sleep while awake.”
To me, this concept explained why some gurus could reach deep states of meditation but could then be selfish pricks (rare) or fundamentalist religious zealots (more common) when they returned to waking consciousness and inhabited their dominant level of psychological growth. There were clear differences between temporary states and permanent traits.
The linchpin, the thing that held the integral approach together, was the ability to think in more ways than one. Wilber offered four major perspectives to consider when thinking about the known world. They were:
This deceptively simple four-quadrant model, labeled with personal pronouns, turned out to have momentous implications.
’ I’ referred to the domain of internal concerns and included aesthetics, meaning, psychology, spirituality, and subjectivity.
‘We’ referred to the domain of culture and included language, ethics, customs, and tradition, plus all the written and unwritten rules of social interactions.
‘It’ and ‘Its’ referred to the exterior world and covered the measurable material universe.
To put it another way, ‘I’ was the sphere of beauty (subjective analysis and meaning). ‘We’ was the sphere of morals (how we treat each other in society). ‘It’ and ‘Its’ were the singular and plural spheres of empirical truth (scientific facts).
Wilber often used the following example for illustration.
Someone says, “It’s raining outside.” To establish whether or not that is true, we can simply go outside and check. That is the power of objective truth. We can measure it. However, when someone asks, “How do you feel about the rain?” we enter the domain of individual subjectivity. One person may say that the rain is beautiful while another may say that they hate the rain. Finally, someone says, “Hey, there is someone out there in the rain. What should we do?” Then we enter the domain of morality. Should we help that person? Wait for someone else to do it? Not care either way? That depends on our moral structure and ability to act justly. The story illustrates that objective truth (It/Its), truthfulness (I), and morality (We) do not follow the same rules.
Applying these four perspectives to all manner of human endeavors, from science to politics to education and spirituality, presented a genuinely mind-expanding way to think. The model underlined Maslow’s famous line, “if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” All perspectives were present at all times. Excluding one or more could create some real problems.
Having thought about this for several months, I created a simplified version of the four quadrants for my stress management courses by imagining that a generic company had decided to hire four consultants to help employees cope with stress. They brought in a motivational speaker (I), a physical therapist (It), a social scientist (We), and a systems analyst (Its).
The motivational speaker insisted that stress was created from the inside out. According to him, all problems (not just stress) originated in the mind, meaning that all solutions came from there as well. He encouraged employees to change their mindsets, let go of resentments, and develop a positive outlook. Attitude was king. If employees brought up other factors, such as workload or faulty systems, the motivational speaker glossed over them as hogwash and said that they would not get anywhere with such negativity.
I knew this approach all too well. Positive thinking had become the iodine of self-help when I was in my role as a public speaker in the late nineties and early two-thousands, and I applied it to all ailments equally, often without examining other perspectives.
The physical therapist said that stress was purely physical in nature. She prescribed exercises, massage therapy, stretching, and relaxation, and spent hours helping people adjust their working environment for optimal posture.
I also related to that point of view, having advocated for the use of postures, breathing, and relaxation as solutions to many problems when I operated my yoga studio.
The social scientist specialized in emotional intelligence and work culture. He focused on the communal lay of the land and made sure that everyone went through cultural sensitivity training and learned how to improve communication skills. The company needed to create a supportive culture to lessen stress.
I never advocated for that point of view myself, but I understood how comprehensive it could appear.
The systems analyst didn’t spend any time talking to the people but rather focused on scrutinizing the productivity data and streamlining all work processes to eliminate stress from the system.
So, which one of these four was right?
That depended on what the problem was in the first place.
Was it attitude? Then the motivational speaker was right.
Physical tension or work posture? Then the speaker was wrong, and the physical therapist was right.
And if it was work culture, then the social scientist was right, and everyone else was wrong… and so on.
All of them were right, depending on circumstances, which meant that all of them could also be wrong. The most important thing was to look at all domains during the diagnosis phase and then apply integral solutions as needed.
The better I understood these four major perspectives, the more my eyes were opened to how specialization had influenced spiritual teachings. For instance, some teachers had spent all their energy on the internal domain (I) with practices such as imagery, stories, poetry, meaning, and contemplation. Others had focused on external practices (It) such as physical postures, cleansing, diet, and the like. Still others had relied heavily on the communal aspect (We) through rituals, chanting, prayer, service, and so on.
Paradoxically, many had insisted that their path was right, and the others were wrong.
That never made sense to me.
How could meditation replace psychotherapy or postures oust prayer?
Seeing Wilber’s all-quadrant model affirmed that all of these approaches had something valuable to offer. Psychology was equally beneficial as moments of peace. Physical postures fulfilled another need than prayer. There was no need to choose one over the other.
Naturally, Wilber suggested an integral approach to spirituality. As was his way, though, he added more by pointing out that his map of consciousness was a depiction of the temporary world (which I knew as Maya from yoga) and did not represent the nondual ground of being from which everything emerged (which I knew as Brahman).
The fact that Wilber was so deeply rooted in Eastern traditions—a Zen student and meditator for more than forty years—was probably one reason why I liked him so much. He recognized the spiritual underpinnings of the universe about as well as anyone. By making a distinction between the dualistic world and the underlying oneness, Wilber created room for nondual meditation practices along with the four-quadrant spiritual approaches.
In addition to these core integral ideas, I found several other notions in Wilber’s writings and programs that were just as enlightening.
A definite favorite was the difference between ascending and descending approaches to spirituality.
The ascending approach was transcendental in nature, aimed at either unveiling the everlasting essence (the goal of nondualism) or being granted access into the spiritual realm (for instance, getting into Heaven). Whether the seeker was petitioning an external God or becoming aware of the divine within, the ascending path was always presented in a celestial or otherworldly context.
In contrast, the descending approach sought to bring Spirit into the flesh and see it reflected in the world, corresponding with the essence of most pagan worship rituals.
Wilber acknowledged that the ascending and descending paths had been at odds for centuries—that was true—but, if we wanted to be integral in our approach to spirituality, we needed to do both. First, ascend through the practice of meditation to unveil Spirit, and then bring Spirit into everything we did. In the age of climate destruction, he said, spirituality could no longer be focused exclusively on Heaven or nondualism. Spirit needed to be brought back to Earth.
One of the things I did in response to this idea was to switch out the word illusion, which had been used in nearly all English forms of mystical literature, for the word temporary. Making that meager transition presented a meaningful change for me.
If the world was an illusion, like I had been told by so many Eastern teachers over the years, it felt like I was always being fooled, like every time I attached myself to something the universe said, “Ha, ha, you fell for it again,” and, poof, made it disappear. Seeing the world as an illusion also created a sense of materialistic apathy, as in, it didn’t matter what I did in the world because it wasn’t real anyway.
Conversely, when I thought of the world as temporary, it made all the difference. I could enjoy every aspect of its temporariness—just like I enjoyed a sunrise, the smell of a flower, the sensation of cold water on a hot day, or hugs from my children—knowing that it would change and that I shouldn’t hold on too tightly. Furthermore, I could bring spiritual awareness, that little bit of the peace I had acquired from my meditation practice, into my life by showing more compassion and investing in the fleeting nature of the world by helping people as much as I could.
Making these changes to my perspective, I could both ascend and descend.
Another treasured idea was the pre-trans fallacy. Wilber had noticed that people who were pre-rational and post-rational were both labeled as irrational, yet there was a big difference between them.
For instance, those who believed in magical powers or mythical creatures were clearly pre-rational, while those who believed in some form of cosmic consciousness or had encountered spiritual states firsthand could be labeled as post-rational (that is, rational plus). Pre-rational thinkers would dismiss rationality altogether while post-rational thinkers would add nuance to their rational understanding, for example, by admitting to the existence of something that defied logic. Yet, both were labeled as equally irrational by those who were purely rational in their thinking.
Wilber posited that Freud had been prone to demoting every experience to pre-rationality while Jung had been more likely to promote all experiences to post-rationality.
In the context of spirituality, Wilber offered an ingenious approach to test whether or not someone had a pre- or post-rational worldview. According to him, pre-rational spiritualists usually talked of magic and myths as if they were real, speaking of both in literal terms, whereas post-rational spiritualists used the same language in an ‘as if’ manner, for example, to represent hidden meaning in spiritual texts.
I wish I’d had access to this way of discerning before I entered the New-Age community back in the nineties. When I think about it, the group I belonged to was probably split fifty-fifty between pre- and post-rationality. Post-rationalists spoke in ‘as if’ language and applied intellectually sound reasoning and insights to everything from astrology to UFO discussions. Pre-rationalists talked about magic and myths as if they were true.
Being able to discern between these pre- and post- ways of thinking has been invaluable in my interactions with people since I first came across these ideas. Frustrating? Sometimes. Insightful? Always.
One of the funniest insights Wilber presented came in the form of a story. He was at a cocktail party with a bunch of forty-something spiritual seekers who were wondering romantically: “What would be doing if we were in a hunter-gatherer society right now?”
He answered: “If we consider the medium age at that time, you’d probably be dead.”
His humorous retort hit at the heart of what I had noticed time and time again in spiritual circles, an irrational idealizing of the past. Sure, there were some great things about the past, but it was never quite as glamorous as people imagined it to be.
In hunter-gatherer societies, for instance, more than fifty percent of men under the age of twenty died in combat and slavery was rampant. Agrarian societies, with their need for plenty of bodies to work in the fields, took slavery and warfare to new heights. It took the industrial revolution, which is abhorred by many in the spiritual community, to abolish slavery and usher in equal rights for women, to name a few positives.
What Wilber lobbied for in place of spiritual romanticism was a balanced view of the promises and perils of modernity. Instead of painting it all black—like so many spiritual teachers had done and continue to do—he encouraged seekers to applaud the glacial evolutionary march towards decreased violence, equal rights, spiritual advancements, psychological development, and technological progress (to name a few) while working against greed and natural destruction (and all other downsides of modernity) at the same time.
An equally humorous and insightful observation emerged when Wilber diagnosed a certain type of spiritual malady as the Darth Vader syndrome. What a fantastic pop-culture reference.
The syndrome referred to degrees of complexity. For instance, the more complex mechanical and biological creations became, the more can go wrong. If single-cell organisms cannot get cancer, but dogs can, then a similar principle can be applied to all forms of growth, including psychological and spiritual growth. Ergo, the further along the spiritual path that people go, the more things could go wrong (hence, Darth Vader).
I immediately thought of examples where good-intentioned spiritual teachers had lost their way and fallen prey to their own dark side.
The final notion that I kept coming back to was Wilber’s explanation of the difference between depth and span. He argued that if we sincerely believed that we should do what was best for the most number of living beings, then we should probably defer to the biomass of bacteria. The reason we didn’t do that, he explained, was because we also placed value on depth. For instance, most people believe that dolphins have more depth than goldfish, that Siberian tigers have more depth than cows, and that some humans have more depth than others.
And it matters. I am not going to get into the hypothetical moral question of ‘if we had ten people on a lifeboat and had to throw three off the boat or we would all die,’ but all of us make decisions about span and depth all the time, most of them unconsciously, both through our purchase-power and our voting habits.
For me, that is quite something to think about.
Altogether, the value of these integral-thinking tools was evident. They helped me understand what had happened to me on the spiritual path, where I was, and what my potential was for the future. Nevertheless, as with everything in this dualistic world, those same tools came with real downsides and caused me new types of distress.
To begin with, I was no longer satisfied with some of the simple ideas and solutions that had served me well in the past, even ones I had built my speaking business around. No. Once I understood the integral model, I became obsessed with depth and trans-rationality. Everything needed to be put through the wringer of the integral model to see how comprehensive it was. I continually asked myself what level of growth my ideas, beliefs, and actions came from and how many perspectives I was including. This caused me to try and improve upon my workshops and courses, often to their detriment.
In hindsight, I was trying to do too much and often became frustrated when people didn’t show the same interest in these modes of thinking as I did. Unsurprisingly, my obsession with depth was also bad for business because more depth equaled less span (fewer attendees). And I was as lonely as I’d ever been because I had no one to talk to about this stuff.
Even though I knew that pushing into the boundaries of my previous worldviews was a precursor to growth… I had no idea how painful it could be. For instance, grappling with the limits of my beloved pluralism was often gut-wrenching. Yes, the ability to include more and more perspectives was beautiful, but pluralism had a tendency to become too sensitive (partly explaining PC culture) and sometimes made the mistake of claiming that because all perspectives were to be honored, then no perspective was better or worse than any other; an erroneous view that all but obliterated centuries of moral thought.
The longer I wrestled with that concept, the more I realized how much damage had been done. Claiming that nothing was better or worse was pure anarchism. No wonder fundamentalist-mythic believers had stopped trusting pluralists. In their eyes, we had erased morals.
Thankfully, humor helped me ease the discomfort of seeing these limits. For instance, I couldn’t help but chuckle when Wilber pointed out that pluralists were usually happy when they’d had a meeting where everyone got a chance to express their points of view, but no decisions were made. I had been to several of those in the yoga community, and my friends in academia told me that the trend was rampant there. We, pluralists, placed such an emphasis on compassion that we hesitated to make decisions that might hurt someone’s feelings.
An unexpected downside of studying integral theory was an internal rise in intellectualism, an approach to life that had been promptly dismissed in my household growing up. As I read and listened to Wilber’s vast references to philosophers, scientists, and highbrow thinkers, my vocabulary expanded, and new parts of my brain were opened up. The cognitive stimulation was intoxicating. All of a sudden, I could not only hold my own in dialogue with public intellectuals, I even surpassed some of them in understanding. As a result, I developed intellectual pride for the first time in my life. It took a while, but having an understanding of levels and lines—how some people can be more or less advanced in different areas in life—helped me climb off that haughty horse.
The most challenging thing I experienced in relation to integral theory was utter exasperation over the fact that most of Earth’s inhabitants—about seventy percent of them according to Wilber—were at the magic-mythic, mythic, or mythic-rational levels of growth in the areas of religion, morality, and spirituality. They were thusly unable to see perspectives that were readily available to pluralists and those at the integral level.
The more I thought about what this seventy percent number meant, the more despondent and gloomy I became. It was like the human race was waging a losing battle. How were we going to solve our climate crisis and get people to live together in peace and harmony when most of humanity was still stuck at an ‘us vs. them’ paradigm filled with a righteous sense of tribalism?
I never did find an answer to that one.
It still causes waves of sadness to wash over me from time to time.
I dedicated seven years of my life to an intense study of integral theory. My wife will tell anybody who will listen that it took most of my attention and that I wasn’t always easy to live with as a result. She has even categorized our marriage as ‘before Wilber’ and ‘after Wilber.’ I understand why.
The exposure caused me to fluctuate between:
Of course, the latter was impossible. There was no turning back. My mind had been stretched and would not return to its original form. Like I always tell my kids, “What has been seen cannot be unseen.”
On balance, though, I am thankful to Ken. Seeing things integrally has been challenging, yes, and made me an outlier in many respects, but my spiritual life is fuller as a result.
Gudjon Bergmann
Author and Columnist
Picture: CC0 License
This article is an excerpt from my memoir titled, Spiritual in My Own Way


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