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Life/Work – Issue 39

“Taken together, the quadrants create a map of a complete life.”

For nearly a decade, I have believed that when it comes to the subject of human development, my friend and mentor Ken Wilber is the most comprehensive thinker alive. Happily, the word finally seems to be getting around. Wilber now has devoted fans ranging from Al Gore to Michael Crichton, Daniel Yankelovich to Deepak Chopra, Huston Smith to Warren Bennis.

In a confusing and complex era, when nothing seems connected to anything else, Wilber, 51, has managed to pull together under one capacious umbrella a vast amount of data from ordinarily warring worldviews, contradictory developmental theories, and disparate academic disciplines. Not content to synthesize the work of leading thinkers from more than a dozen fields, Wilber has laid out a genuinely new school of thought, creating an original formulation out of ideas that had long seemed irreconcilable. His goal has been to create an “integral” vision, which he describes as “finding a more comprehensive view . . . that makes legitimate room for art, morals, science, and religion, and doesn’t merely attempt to reduce them all to one’s favorite slice of the cosmic pie.”

After more than 25 years of writing a stream of books for a passionate but narrow audience, while living reclusively in Boulder, Colorado, Wilber is now beginning to raise his public profile. His newest book, audaciously titled A Theory of Everything (Shambhala Publications, 2000) will be released this fall. In the past two years, he has published four other books, each one advancing some aspect of the “integral” vision that he is creating. During the past year, Shambhala Publications has published an eight-volume set of Wilber’s collected works, with more volumes on the way.

Wilber also recently launched the Integral Institute, which aims to bring together broad thinkers from a wide range of fields. So far, there are nine branches: art, business, ecology, education, law, medicine, politics, psychology, and religion. Most of them have a minimum of 40 members so far.

Wilber has spent many of the past 28 years trying to create new maps of human development, not by privileging or dismissing a particular school of thinking, but by connecting them all to a bigger and more inclusive vision. His early work, for example, sought to find common ground between developmental psychology and the meditative/contemplative traditions. Wilber wrote his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness, when he was 23 years old and had just dropped out of graduate school, where he had been studying biochemistry. The book made the case that our growth and development unfolds in stages that have the potential to extend beyond those that are ordinarily recognized by Western psychology.

Expanding on maps drawn by such psychologists as Erik Erikson and Jane Loevinger, Wilber argued that it was possible not just to reach a healthy state of individuality but ultimately to develop a broader spiritual identity that includes — and transcends — the personal self. Echoing psychologist Howard Gardner’s view that “the whole course of human development can be viewed as a continuing decline in egocentrism,” Wilber extended his own map to the highest levels of spiritual development. In those domains, he argued, egocentricity finally dissolves. The experience of the self as the center of the universe gives way to a palpable sense of oneness.

Although Wilber got almost no mainstream recognition for his early work, he continued to apply his approach to fields ranging from physics to biology, anthropology to sociology, art to aesthetics. Over time, he began to wonder how the apparently contradictory “truths” in each of those fields fit together. “At one point,” Wilber writes in A Theory of Everything, “I had over 200 hierarchies written out on legal pads lying all over the floor, trying to figure out how to fit them together.” Ultimately, it dawned on him that the various developmental hierarchies fell into four categories, or “quadrants.”

Any comprehensive approach to development, Wilber posits, recognizes an interior dimension that is subjective and dependent on introspection. It also recognizes an exterior dimension, which can be quantified objectively and measured empirically. At the same time, development takes place not just at an individual level but also within a social or cultural context. Thus, Wilber’s four quadrants are composed of “individual interior” (upper left); “individual exterior” (upper right); “collective interior” (lower left); and “collective exterior” (lower right). For simplicity’s sake, Wilber often condenses the four quadrants into what he calls “the big three”: “I” (upper left), “We” (lower left), and “It” (right).

Even as theory, this is exhilarating stuff, simply because it organizes and explains so much. Over the years, I have found myself returning to Wilber and his work whenever I feel confused about how contradictory ideas or systems relate to one another.

Consider something as basic as how we understand and treat depression. Psychotherapy typically focuses on the upper-left dimension: how sadness is felt and experienced, as well as its underlying causes. Prozac represents an upper-right quadrant intervention — ignoring cause and focusing instead on the symptom and its underlying physiological basis. Family therapy focuses on the lower-left quadrant, trying to understand the social context in which depression arises. Finally, a lower-right approach might address whatever environmental factors accounts for the depression — poverty, for example. Wilber recognizes that each of those methods of intervention represents a form of truth, a piece of the puzzle, but that none of them offers a complete answer on its own.

As for the levels of development, Wilber has combed through hundreds of maps in disciplines ranging from the cognitive to the affective to the moral, as part of his effort to understand the broad pattern of growth from body to mind to spirit. The vast majority of people, says Wilber, don’t advance beyond “first-tier thinking,” which is characterized by a belief that one’s own values and own worldview are the only correct ones. Second-tier thinking, on the other hand, reflects the capacity of a person to understand the entire spectrum of interior development and the recognition that each level plays a critical role within the larger whole. “The advantage of second-tier integral awareness is that it more creatively helps with the solutions to pressing problems,” Wilber writes in A Theory of Everything. “In grasping big pictures, it can help suggest more cogent solutions.”

Taken together, the quadrants create a map of a complete life. Wilber, for example, lives his own life on multiple planes. At the physical level, he is a very careful eater (high protein, low carbohydrates), a proponent of vitamins and supplements, and a reluctant-but-dedicated weight lifter: During the past decade, he has added 30 pounds of muscle to his once-spindly 6-foot-4-inch frame. His spiritual practice for the past 30 years has included two hours of meditation each day — from 3 AM to 5 AM.

Wilber’s intellectual interests are wide-ranging. In a house already filled with thousands of books, Wilber still orders as many as 20 new ones each week from Amazon.com with titles like The Morals of Modernity and Why We Are Not Nietzschians. He typically skims at least two or three books each morning, as part of his ongoing research for his next book, and he leaves his TV on the whole time. At night, he relaxes with his girlfriend by watching movies, by reading such magazines as Elle and ID (Industrial Design), and by listening to the music of bands like The Crystal Method, Garbage, and No Doubt. “If I’m going to write about the zeitgeist,” he says, “I’ve got to know what the zeit is geisting.”

At its most practical level, Wilber’s work aims to define the nature of a more complete and integrated life. The implications are evident in many spheres, including how to envision a more productive and more humane workplace. Most theories of management, for example, focus only on one or two of Wilber’s quadrants. Behavioral (upper right) and systems (lower right) approaches to management tend to discount the importance of people’s emotions and values (upper left), as well as of the subjective impact of the cultures in which they work (lower left). Upper-left interventions, such as emotional-intelligence training, tend to pay little attention to the role of the external environment.

“You can refract a lot of business problems through the prism of the four quadrants,” says Warren Bennis, 75, the noted author and business-administration professor at the University of Southern California. “Wilber has created a unifying system for this chaotic age we’re living in. What he has to say should give a lot of thought leaders and businesspeople pause to reflect on the monochromatic way that they see the world.”

Or, as Wilber himself puts it: “We are working with demonstrably broken maps — ones that are partial, fragmented, disjoined, and inadequate. What I’ve tried to do is create new maps using orienting generalizations for which there is incontrovertible evidence. More-accurate maps of the terrain help you get around more effectively.”

Fred Kofman, now a business consultant and formerly a professor who cofounded the Learning Center at MIT with Peter Senge, believes that Wilber offers a more embracing perspective on the subject than the more-renowned Senge does. “Ken sees the full picture — not just systems theory but also philosophy, psychology, even states of consciousness. He is the scientist who has created the principles of physics. Now we need engineers to apply his principles to build airplanes.”

Wilber has so far failed to attract the large mainstream audience that his ideas deserve — in part because his writing is so often abstract and theoretical. “Ken makes you come to his mountain,” says Bennis. “He is ahead of us, and he doesn’t reach out enough to resonate with readers.”

Wilber doesn’t disagree entirely, but he hopes that the Integral Institute may help spread his message to mainstream audiences. Bringing together several hundred integral thinkers is Wilber’s bid to see that integral principles begin to get translated into practical action across many fields. Once or twice a month now, several dozen very smart people troop out to Wilber’s hillside home in Boulder to hash out ways to bring integral thinking into their varied disciplines. “The basic idea,” Wilber says, “is that the more quadrants and the more levels of development that we can find ways to address simultaneously, the more likely transformation will occur. If all else fails, I’m getting very good at hosting big parties.”

Tony Schwartz (tschwartz@fastcompany.com) is the author of What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America (Bantam books, 1996). Contact Ken Wilber by email (kwilber@shambhala.com).

About the author

Tony Schwartz is President and CEO of The Energy Project, a company that helps individuals and organizations fuel energy, engagement, focus and productivity by harnessing the science of high performance. Tony’s most recent book, "Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live?" is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller.