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Ken Wilber’s model of human consciousness

Ken Wilber (2000) proposed a model of human consciousness called Integral Theory, which integrates various levels, lines, states, and types of development, based on a synthesis of Eastern and Western philosophical and psychological traditions.

According to Wilber, the mind is not a fixed or static entity, but a dynamic and evolving process that mediates between the individual and the environment, and between the lower and higher aspects of consciousness.

He suggested that the ego/mind can be seen as a spectrum of development that ranges from pre-personal to personal to transpersonal stages, each with its own characteristics, challenges, and potentials. The mind can also be influenced by different domains of development, such as cognitive, moral, emotional, interpersonal, and spiritual.

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The spectrum of development

Wilber’s pre-personal to personal to transpersonal stages are a way of describing the development of human consciousness from its most basic to its most advanced levels.

According to Wilber (1981), the pre-personal stage consists of four levels: undifferentiated, sensory-physical, phantasmic-emotional, and representative mind. These levels correspond to the stages of infancy and early childhood, where the self is not yet fully formed and is mostly influenced by biological and psychological factors. The pre-personal level is the most primitive and includes the archaic, magic, and mythic stages.

The personal stage consists of three levels: rule-role mind, formal-reflexive mind, and vision-logic mind. These levels correspond to the stages of later childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, where the self is defined by social and cultural norms, rational and abstract thinking, and integrative and creative thinking. The personal level is the most common and includes the rational, existential, and pluralistic stages.

The transpersonal stage consists of three levels: psychic, subtle, and causal. These levels correspond to the stages of spiritual awakening, where the self transcends its ego boundaries and experiences higher states of consciousness (Wilber, 1995). The transpersonal level is the most advanced and includes the psychic, subtle, causal, and non-dual stages. The non-dual level is the ultimate and transcends all distinctions and dualities.

Wilbur (2000) argues that human consciousness evolves through these stages in a sequential and hierarchical manner, but also acknowledges that there are variations and exceptions depending on individual and cultural factors.

Some examples of these stages are as follows:

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  • A person at the undifferentiated level would have no sense of self or separation from the environment.
  • A person at the sensory-physical level would explore the world through their senses and physical actions.
  • A person at the phantasmic-emotional level would express their emotions and fantasies through symbols and images.
  • A person at the representative mind level would use language and logic to communicate and understand reality.
  • A person at the rule-role mind level would follow rules and roles imposed by society and authority figures.
  • A person at the formal-reflexive mind level would question and critique their own beliefs and assumptions.
  • A person at the vision-logic mind level would synthesize and create new perspectives and solutions.
  • A person at the psychic level would have intuitive insights and paranormal abilities.
  • A person at the subtle level would have mystical visions and encounters with divine beings.
  • A person at the causal level would have a direct experience of the ultimate reality or source of all existence (Wilber, 1996).

To illustrate these points further, here are some quotes from Wilber’s writings:

“The pre-personal stages are those modes of consciousness that are typical of infants and young children (and also various types of pathology, psychosis, or regression). The personal stages are those modes that are typical of average adults in this society (and also various types of therapy designed to produce such healthy modes). The transpersonal stages are those modes that are rarely seen in this society except in its mystics (and also various types of spiritual practice designed to produce such higher modes).” (Wilber, 1981, p. 9)

“Sex is an impulse that moves through all three major domains: pre-personal sex is largely a biological drive; personal sex is largely an emotional drive; transpersonal sex is largely a spiritual drive.” (Wilber, 1995, p. 484)

“The vision-logic structure is capable of networking all previous structures into one coherent whole; it can see how each structure fits with every other structure; it can see how each structure has its own validity claims; it can see how each structure has its own strengths and weaknesses; it can see how each structure has its own partial truth.” (Wilber, 1996, p. 113)

Wilber’s model is an example of how to create an integrated view of the mind that respects the diversity and complexity of human experience, while also recognizing the common patterns and principles that underlie it.

States of consciousness

In addition, he proposed that the mind can experience different states of consciousness, such as waking, dreaming, deep sleep, meditative, and mystical. The mind can also manifest different types or styles of personality, such as introvert or extrovert, rational or intuitive, masculine or feminine, and so on.

According to Wilber (1995), there are five major states of consciousness that humans can experience: gross, subtle, causal, witness, and non-dual. These states correspond to different ways of perceiving reality and oneself, and they can be accessed through various practices such as meditation, yoga, or psychedelics. Wilber (1995) argues that these states are not merely subjective or relative, but have objective and universal validity. He also claims that these states are developmental, meaning that they can be cultivated and refined over time, leading to higher levels of awareness and integration.

The gross state of consciousness is the most common and familiar one, as it is associated with the waking state and the physical body. In this state, we perceive the world through our five senses and their extensions (such as technology). We also identify ourselves with our ego, our personal history, and our social roles. The gross state is the realm of conventional science, rationality, and morality (Wilber, 1995).

The subtle state of consciousness is the next level, and it is usually experienced in dreams, visions, or altered states induced by drugs or meditation. In this state, we perceive the world through images, symbols, archetypes, and myths. We also identify ourselves with our soul, our higher self, or our personal deity. The subtle state is the realm of imagination, creativity, and spirituality (Wilber, 1995).

The causal state of consciousness is the third level, and it is usually experienced in deep sleep, trance, or mystical experiences. In this state, we perceive the world as pure emptiness, nothingness, or void. We also identify ourselves with the source of all existence, the ground of being, or Godhead. The causal state is the realm of transcendence, silence, and peace (Wilber, 1995).

The witness state of consciousness is the fourth level, and it is usually experienced in advanced meditation or contemplation. In this state, we perceive the world as a manifestation of our own awareness, which is separate from any content or object. We also identify ourselves with the pure witness, the observer, or the Self. The witness state is the realm of detachment, clarity, and freedom (Wilber, 1995).

The non-dual state of consciousness is the fifth and highest level, and it is usually experienced in rare moments of enlightenment or awakening. In this state, we perceive the world as identical with our own awareness, which is one with everything. We also identify ourselves with the ultimate reality, the supreme identity, or Brahman. The non-dual state is the realm of unity, love, and bliss (Wilber 1995).

Wilber’s states of consciousness are not static or fixed; they are dynamic and fluid. They can be accessed in different ways by different people at different times. They can also be integrated and harmonized into a more comprehensive and holistic view of reality and oneself. Wilber’s model offers a map for exploring the full spectrum of human potential and experience.

Wilbur’s model of human consciousness improves our understanding of human behaviour by providing a comprehensive and integrative perspective that accounts for the complexity and diversity of human experience across different domains and dimensions. By recognizing the different levels and stages of consciousness, Wilbur’s model helps us to appreciate the strengths and limitations of each stage, and to foster the growth and development of higher stages. Wilbur’s model also helps us to bridge the gap between psychology and spirituality, and to explore the connections between individual and collective aspects of consciousness.

Strengths and weaknesses of Wilbur’s model

One of the strengths of Wilbur’s model is that it provides a comprehensive framework that can accommodate a wide range of theories and models from different disciplines and traditions.

It also offers a developmental perspective that can explain how human consciousness grows and transforms through various stages of life.

Moreover, it acknowledges the importance of both interior and exterior dimensions of reality, as well as individual and collective aspects of experience (Wikipedia, 2021).

One of the weaknesses of Wilbur’s model is that it relies heavily on perceived analogies and correlations between disparate sources of knowledge, which may not be empirically or logically valid.

It also tends to present human development as a linear and hierarchical process that follows a predetermined course, which may not account for individual differences and contextual factors.

Furthermore, it may be criticized for being too abstract and complex for practical applications and empirical testing (Wikipedia, 2021).

Benefits of integral theory

Wilber’s model can be used for the benefit of individuals and wider society by providing a comprehensive map of human potential and a guide for personal growth and social transformation.

Some of the benefits of Wilber’s model are:

  • Integrates various perspectives from psychology, spirituality, philosophy, science, and art, creating a holistic vision of reality that honours the complexity and diversity of human experience (Wilber, 2001).
  • Acknowledges the importance of both interior and exterior dimensions of reality, as well as individual and collective aspects, using a four-quadrant grid that models human knowledge and experience (Wilber, 1995).
  • Recognizes the value of different stages of development and the challenges and opportunities that each stage presents for individual and collective evolution (Wilber, 1980).
  • Offers a framework for understanding and transcending the limitations of conventional modes of thinking and being, and for accessing higher levels of consciousness that can lead to greater wisdom, compassion, creativity, and integration (Wilber, 1999).
Integral theory and self-transcendence

According to Wilber, human development aims at restoring the primordial unity of human and transcendental consciousness, which is lost in the process of individuation. This seems to be at odds with Jung’s concept of individuation, which is the process of becoming a unique and integrated personality that expresses one’s true self. Jung (1953) saw individuation as a lifelong task that involves confronting and integrating the unconscious aspects of the psyche, such as the shadow, the anima/animus, and the self. Jung did not view individuation as a loss of unity, but rather as a way of achieving a higher level of wholeness that includes both conscious and unconscious elements. He also acknowledged the role of transcendence in individuation, but he did not equate it with a return to a primordial state of oneness. Rather, he understood transcendence as a dynamic relationship between the ego and the self, which is the archetype of totality and the source of meaning and guidance.

Therefore, one could say that Wilber and Jung have different perspectives on the nature and goal of human development. Wilber emphasizes the need to overcome the ego and its limitations, while Jung emphasizes the need to integrate the ego and its potentials. Wilber sees development as a linear progression from lower to higher stages, while Jung sees development as a circular movement around a centre. Wilber views transcendence as a dissolution of boundaries, while Jung views transcendence as a dialogue between opposites.

One quote that can confirm Wilber’s understanding of self-transcendence is from his book The Atman Project: “The Atman Project is the urge to perfect the self; it is the drive to find wholeness and unity in a world of apparent fragmentation; it is the desire to return to that original and fundamental identity which was lost when consciousness arose” (Wilber, 1980, p. 3).

This difference is often seen reflected in the attitudes of different transcendentalists, who often debate between a conceptual goal of “ego death”, as opposed to the idea of loving and nurturing the ego and, in the process, enabling it to support oneself to be true to the Self.

ego integration or Annihilation?

One of the main themes in transcendentalism is the nature and role of the ego, or the self, in relation to the transcendental reality. Some transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, argued that the ego should be integrated with the transcendental spirit, or the “Over-soul,” which is the source of all existence and knowledge. Emerson wrote, “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime, within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE” (Emerson, 1841/1982, p. 384). For Emerson, the ego is not an obstacle to transcendence, but a vehicle for it, as long as it recognizes its connection to the Over-soul and does not become isolated or self-centred.

Other transcendentalists, such as Henry David Thoreau, advocated a more radical approach to the ego, which involved a complete renunciation of worldly attachments and a pursuit of “ego death,” or the dissolution of the self into the transcendental reality. Thoreau wrote, “I wished to live deliberately … and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life … I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” (Thoreau, 1854/1982, p. 280). For Thoreau, the ego is a hindrance to transcendence, as it prevents one from experiencing the true essence of life and nature.

The debate between these two views of the ego can be seen as reflecting different interpretations of Kant’s notion of the transcendental ego, which is the self that is necessary for human knowledge and experience. Kant distinguished between the empirical ego, which is the self as it appears in experience, and the transcendental ego, which is the self as it conditions experience. The empirical ego is subject to change and variation, while the transcendental ego is constant and universal. Kant argued that nothing can be known of the transcendental ego, as it is not an object of knowledge, but a condition of knowledge (Kant, 1781/1998, p. 246).

Some transcendentalists, such as Emerson, may have seen the transcendental ego as identical or similar to the transcendental spirit, or the Over-soul, which is also constant and universal. In this view, the empirical ego can be integrated with the transcendental ego by recognizing its dependence on and participation in the Over-soul.

Other transcendentalists, such as Thoreau, may have seen the transcendental ego as distinct or opposed to the transcendental reality, which is beyond any human conception or condition. In this view, the empirical ego must be transcended or annihilated to reach the transcendental reality.

The debate between these two views of the ego has implications for human development and spirituality. According to Wilber (2000), human development aims at restoring the primordial unity of human and transcendental consciousness, which is lost in the process of individuation. Wilber distinguishes between two types of transcendence: translation and transformation. Translation involves integrating the ego with higher levels of consciousness within a given structure or stage of development. Transformation involves transcending the ego and moving to a new structure or stage of development. Wilber argues that both types of transcendence are necessary for human growth and evolution (Wilber, 2000, pp. 3-4).

The debate between integration and Annihilation of the ego can be seen as reflecting different preferences or emphases on translation or transformation. Emerson’s view of integration may favour translation over transformation, as it seeks to harmonize the ego with higher levels of consciousness without necessarily changing its structure or stage. Thoreau’s view of Annihilation may favour transformation over translation, as it seeks to overcome or dissolve the ego and move to a new structure or stage of consciousness.

Authors comment on ego death

From the perspective of the author, I suggest that this argument is taken back to basics. I know that the overall aim of self-actualisation is to come to a state of unconditional love of the self, the entire self. I also suggest that the ego, is a part of the self. Therefore, it should be obvious that the ego needs to be loved. We love ego by diligently teaching it to be true to the self. I also suggest that since the ego is an eternal part of the self, that failing to integrate it, means you don’t love all the self, and that this has implications regarding your own personal growth.

Most individuals would tend to interpret the concept of ego Death as a need to reject or confront and deny the ego. The ego will therefore tend to hide in the subconscious, also with the rest of our denials. This means we will lose control of that aspect of ourselves. Accordingly, I urge the reader to think deeply about their relationship with their ego, and remember; we will only get to the place we aspire, by loving all the self unconditionally. Here’s a basic guide to training the ego to be true to the self.

Other differences of opinion on transcendentalism

Wilber’s concept of self-transcendence is based on the idea that human beings have a potential to go beyond their ordinary ego and experience a higher state of consciousness that is in harmony with the ultimate reality. Wilber (2000) argues that this potential is innate in every human being, but it is usually obscured by the cultural and psychological conditioning that shapes our sense of self and reality.

Wilber (2000) proposes a model of human development that consists of several stages, each representing a different level of consciousness and a different mode of knowing. He claims that the goal of human development is to integrate all these levels and modes of knowing into a coherent and holistic vision of reality, which he calls integral or vision-logic.

Wilber’s concept of self-transcendence differs from that of the other transcendentalists in several ways.

First, Wilber (2000) acknowledges the importance of both the pre-rational and the rational stages of development, whereas the other transcendentalists tend to emphasize either the pre-rational or the rational aspects of human nature. For example, Emerson (1841) and Thoreau (1854) celebrate the intuitive and creative aspects of human nature, while Kant (1781) and Hegel (1807) stress the role of reason and logic in human cognition.

Wilber (2000) argues that both the pre-rational and the rational stages are necessary, but not sufficient, for achieving self-transcendence. He maintains that self-transcendence requires a post-rational stage of development, which he calls transpersonal or spiritual, where one transcends the limitations of both the pre-rational and the rational modes of knowing and attains a direct and immediate awareness of the ultimate reality.

Second, Wilber (2000) adopts a more pluralistic and inclusive approach to self-transcendence than the other transcendentalists. He recognizes that there are multiple paths and traditions that lead to self-transcendence, such as mysticism, meditation, yoga, psychotherapy, art, science, etc.

He does not privilege any one path or tradition over the others, but rather tries to integrate them into a comprehensive framework that respects their diversity and uniqueness. He also acknowledges that there are different levels and types of self-transcendence, such as personal, interpersonal, transpersonal, etc., and that each level and type has its own value and significance. He does not reduce self-transcendence to a single state or experience, but rather views it as a dynamic and ongoing process that involves multiple dimensions and aspects of human existence.

Third, Wilber (2000) situates his concept of self-transcendence within a broader evolutionary context than the other transcendentalists. He argues that self-transcendence is not only a personal or individual phenomenon, but also a collective and historical one.

Wilbur suggests that human history can be seen as a series of waves or movements of consciousness, each representing a higher level of complexity and integration than the previous one. He claims that we are currently in the midst of a major transition from the rational to the transpersonal stage of development, which he calls the integral or vision-logic wave.

He believes that this transition is essential for addressing the global challenges and crises that we face today, such as ecological degradation, social injustice, cultural conflict, etc. He asserts that self-transcendence is not only a desirable or optional goal for human beings, but also a necessary and inevitable one for the survival and flourishing of humanity as a whole.

Contrasting Wilbur to modern transcendental thinking

According to Wilber (1981), self-transcendence is the goal of human development and the highest expression of human potential. He suggested that self-transcendence can be facilitated by a supportive environment that encourages growth, openness, authenticity and diversity.

Other recent theorists have also explored the concept of self-transcendence from different perspectives. For example:

Frankl (1963) defined self-transcendence as the ability to go beyond oneself and find meaning in life. He claimed that self-transcendence is a fundamental human motivation and a source of resilience in the face of suffering. He advocated for a form of psychotherapy called logotherapy, which helps people discover their unique purpose and values in life.

Maslow (1971) described self-transcendence as the extension of oneself beyond the Self-actualization level in his hierarchy of needs. He claimed that self-transcendence is a natural tendency of human nature and a manifestation of peak experiences, which are moments of intense joy, wonder and ecstasy. He emphasized the importance of cultivating creativity, spirituality and altruism for achieving self-transcendence.

Reed (2008) conceptualized self-transcendence as a multidimensional construct that involves expanding one’s boundaries of self, connecting with others and nature, and expressing one’s values and beliefs. She developed a theory and a measure of self-transcendence for nursing practice, which aims to enhance wellbeing, coping and quality of life for patients and caregivers.

Cloninger (2004) proposed a biopsychosocial model of personality that includes self-transcendence as one of the four temperaments. He defined self-transcendence as the tendency to identify with everything that exists and to experience a sense of oneness, harmony and spiritual awareness. He argued that self-transcendence is influenced by genetic factors, brain functions and environmental factors.

This seeming difference in views as to what self-transcendence actually is may not be as significant as it first appears. If one conceives self-transcendence as a spectrum, much as Wilbur proposed. Then it’s possible to see that these descriptions reflect the commentators’ focus on a specific part of that spectrum, and that within that view all these views may well be describing the same thing.

How can Wilbur’s theory help self-transcendence

The theory can help someone to transcend self by providing a map of the different stages of consciousness and the challenges and opportunities they present. For example, Wilber identifies four main stages of transpersonal development: psychic, subtle, causal, and non-dual. Each stage involves a different type of experience and insight into the nature of reality and the self. By following Wilber’s integral approach, which incorporates insights from various disciplines and traditions, one can cultivate a more holistic and balanced view of oneself and the world (Wilber, 2001).

Putting Wilbur’s theory into practice

Wilber’s model has been practically adopted in various domains, such as education, health care, business, politics, ecology, and art. Some examples are:

Integral education: an approach to education that aims to foster the development of the whole person across multiple domains (cognitive, emotional, moral, spiritual, etc.) and levels (pre-personal, personal, transpersonal), using integrative methods and practices that address the needs and potentials of each student (Esbjörn-Hargens et al., 2010).

Integral health care: an approach to health care that incorporates conventional medicine with complementary and alternative medicine, as well as psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of health and healing, using an integral framework that considers the four quadrants of reality and the stages of development of patients and practitioners (Schlitz et al., 2008).

Integral business: an approach to business that applies integral principles and practices to organizational development, leadership, management, innovation, ethics, and sustainability, using a four-quadrant analysis and a developmental perspective to optimize the performance and well-being of individuals, teams, organizations, and stakeholders (Reams & Reams-Zimmerman, 2012).

Integral politics: an approach to politics that seeks to create more inclusive, balanced, and effective political systems and policies that reflect the diversity of values, perspectives, interests, and needs of citizens across different stages of development and quadrants of reality (Patten & Harris-Lacewell , 2014).

Integral ecology: an approach to ecology that integrates scientific knowledge with ethical values, cultural meanings, and spiritual insights into the nature and role of humans in relation to the environment, using an integral framework that accounts for the interdependence and co-evolution of all life forms across different levels of complexity and consciousness (Esbjörn-Hargens & Zimmerman, 2009).

Integral art: an approach to art that explores the creative expression of human consciousness across different stages of development and quadrants of reality, using various media and modalities to convey aesthetic beauty, emotional depth, intellectual clarity, moral vision, spiritual transcendence, or integral synthesis (Meyerhoff et al., 2013).


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