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Who Is Ken Wilber?

I’m guessing you’re curious to learn about Ken Wilber and his contributions to spirituality and consciousness development.

Instead of looking at a standard biography of Wilber, I think it’s best we cover his most enduring and insightful observations. To look at Ken Wilber’s most crucial insights into human psychology, I’ve cherry picked five of his best concepts to give you a solid introduction to his work.

After that, you can explore my videos and articles on Integral Theory and Ken Wilber to go deeper and start grasping his complex, nuanced work.

Without further ado, let’s get to those five crucial Ken Wilber insights.

1. Ladder, Climber, View: A Key Analogy From Ken Wilber

Let’s start with Ladder, Climber, View. This is an analogy Ken Wilber created to describe the process of development. As you develop and grow as a person, you expand and change. In general our growth takes an upward trend through several major stages of development, and this analogy neatlly sums up that process.


So, first of all, what does the ladder represent?

The rungs in the ladder represent the fundamental steps or stages in the growth hierarchy.

Wilber claims that these stages are enduring structures – once we sufficiently download a stage of development, we’ll have access to it forever. They are just like rungs in a ladder – lower rungs remain when you climb up to later ones. The upper stages actually include and englobe lower stages, just like upper rungs rely on lower rungs. This is similar to how cells contain molecules, which contain atoms, which contain quarks, and so on.

At each stage we develop or download different fundamental aspects of the human being. Like rungs in a ladder, these happen at discrete times in a predetermined order. While development is actually much messier than a step-by-step, linear process, there is a definite order to it.

For the sake of providing a quick overview of these fundamental rungs of development, Ken Wilber usually calls them Archaic, Magic, Magic-Mythic, Mythic, Rational, Pluralistic, Integral and Super Integral.

As you might guess from the names, rungs increase in complexity and consciousness – we expand, we get higher. And there are actually multiple ladders for all of the developmental lines, but we won’t go there today.


Now onto the climber.

While the ladder is absolutely crucial, we can’t actually see it. We can’t see the fundamental stages of development in ourselves or in others – they’re abstract. We can, of course, intuit them and perform studies to discover them, but they’re operating ‘under the surface’, and we ‘download’ them as we develop.

Nevertheless, growth does happen, and it happens in the individual. So let’s look at the Climber analogy a little.

First of all, if we climb a ladder, we can only stand on one rung at once. In development and growth, we temporarily and exclusively identify with our current stage.

Well, that isn’t quite true. A rule of thumb professionals in the field use is that we are 50% identified with our predominant stage and 25% identified with each stage either side of it.

But you’ll be surprised at how easily you can identify these stages in others once you know the theory well enough.

And another thing about climbing ladders? We can get hurt. When we are growing and developing, we can get injured on the way, developing pathologies.

As we’re moving along this growth path, in which we disidentify with our previous dominant stage, identify with the next stage and live through it, and so on, we can slip and fall.

In his words, we create shadows during this process: parts of our personality that are addicted to aspects of previous stages and that we can’t let go of, or parts that are allergic to them and that we can’t integrate properly. The scar tissue from those injuries will carry an imprint of the view of the world from that level.

There is a hierarchy of pathologies. Typically, the earlier we create a pathology in the growth process, the more serious.

How we negotiate these fundamental steps is crucial to our future development. We need to truly go through the stages.

We’ve looked at the Ladder and the Climber, let’s look at View.


As we climb a ladder, we get a different view of the world with each step we take. The world looks different to us. In just the same way, as we grow and develop, we view the world through eyes of our stage (or stages – remember 25-50-25?) and its characteristics.

Each of the steps on the ladder give us a different view of the world, of ourselves and of others. We actually see a new world at each stage of our development. Isn’t it funny how we often ask in disbelief: “how can they see the world like that? What’s wrong with them?!” Well, take this point to heart and it may change your view on life. Doesn’t this beautifully explain why there are so many ideas of what the world is and what life is about?

And as we step to the next rung on a ladder, we see a new world – we lose our previous view. It’s the same with human development and growth. Once we move beyond a stage, we no longer see the world through that stage. The rung itself – the stage itself – doesn’t disappear, however.

Check out my video introducing the AQAL framework.

2. Transcend and Include: A Key Principle Of Ken Wilber

The concept of transcend and include is one of his greatest contributions. He has included it in not only in his work on human development – the topic we’re discussing here – but to create a new integral philosophy and his theory of holons. Those are more fundamental topics which we may cover in future.

This concept of transcend and include is closely linked to ladder, climber, view and shadow work. Inadequate transcending and including during the developmental process is a recipe for shadows, and the ladder, climber, view metaphor shows us how to incorporate earlier stages of development.

Let’s say we get to Green Postmodern, for example. A common issue in this stage is to reject all of our desires for individuality, success, progress and materialistic achievement and become sensitive and egalitarian.

Well, this is a recipe for disaster. We have to transcend and include what’s come before.

This deeply informs the GU articles. You’ll notice in the articles in the Culture, Society and Politics section that we make a deliberate effort to both incorporate all stages of development (include) but see their downsides (transcend).

Transcending and including is especially important when we move into Integral consciousness. At Integral, we make a deliberate effort to build an integrated identity by revisiting our growth process and reviving parts of ourselves that we’d left behind. It’s also likely we’ve at least glimpsed the possibility of transpersonal development – the highest levels of human development – and therefore have to juggle transcend with include constantly.

To master the major stages of human development, check out my Ultimate Stages of Human Development Online Course.

photo of the founder of The Great Updraft

3. Ken Wilber Brings East And West Together

Many Western researchers have investigated human development, and there is a wide consensus about the general process of development. This general process appears in all developmental lines – different areas in which we develop.

Also numerous are the maps describing the stages of meditative growth, particularly Eastern ones. Ken Wilber himself has compared at least thirty of these models and unearthed commonalities.

These are both acknowledged as being two of the most fundamental aspects of human growth by experts in each of the fields, but rarely are they both taken into account. Only in recent years have people integrated both together.

Doshin Roshi’s organisation Integral Zen has practitioners work on developmental stage growth, meditative growth and shadow work. Doshin has both deeply studied Integral Theory and mastered Zen Buddhism. Paul Smith’s Integral Christianity looks at the Christian religion within an Integral framework.

I’m be willing to bet that one of Ken Wilber’s legacies will be his integration of states and stages. His perspective is that contemplative growth (Waking Up) and stages of development (Growing Up) are largely independent, except at 3rd tier levels of development, as we touch on below.

We can, therefore, be at low levels of Growing Up and high in Waking Up. This is common among Buddhist masters from the East who have come to the West to teach. Practitioners have been left utterly confused: ‘how can they be a master in meditation in spirituality yet be immoral, racist and sexist?’

Conversely, we can be at relatively high levels of Growing Up, but have done no Waking Up at all. This is actually the situation in the West. While we’re sitting at around late 1st-tier, early 2nd-tier in Growing Up, and we (unknowingly) pay a lot of attention to it, we don’t take Waking Up seriously.

Furthermore, we interpret all experience from our stage of Growing Up, meaning by extension that we interpret any Waking Up according to our level of development. This has some remarkable consequences.

He, therefore, calls for spiritual leaders to create teachings tailored for all levels of development and for people at all levels of Waking Up.

photograph of Ken Wilber

If states generally determine what it is that we can experience, structures determine how we experience those objects – the very meaning, interpretation, experience, and value of those objects.

Ken Wilber

4. A Comprehensive Theory of Shadow Work

Ken Wilber’s approach to shadow work is the most comprehensive I’ve come across.

In short, a shadow is a repressed, disowned subpersonality that we deny or are unconscious of. It’s actually a trait or emotion or quality that we ourselves have but that we don’t acknowledge. Instead of it forming part of our sense of identity, it is splintered off and repressed, and once repressed we see it as being ‘out there’.

We often see our shadow in other people who exhibit the qualities in ourselves that we deny. Dreams can also point us to our shadows.

Shadow work is psychological work we do to re-own our shadows. Freud described shadow work beautifully when he said: “where ‘it’ was, there ‘I’ shall become.”

Ken Wilber has weaved his deep understanding of human development and growth with shadow work, and in his work he beautifully lays out the shadows we develop at each level in the developmental process.

Freud is a master of the shadow, but his conception of it is centred around certain stages of development and repression issues that aren’t so relevant for grown adults in the West today. This is where Ken Wilber comes in.

Ken Wilber extends Freud’s conception of the shadow. He claims that shadow material can be created at all levels of development. This is simply because human development is a transcend-and-include process, and if we transcend aspects of ourselves too aggressively or don’t adequately include them, that aspect of ourselves will become shadow.

He has created a kind of shadow encyclopaedia – a guide to the typical shadow issues that arise at different stages of human development and growth, both in Growing Up and in Waking Up.

Importantly, he also claims that Growing Up work – meditative practice – doesn’t address the shadow, and that it can actually worsen it.

Shadow work is simply a dimension of the human being that is almost entirely separate from any Growing Up or Waking Up – it has its own dynamic, its own patterns, and its own unique paths of healing the broken material.

Ken Wilber

5. Third-Tier Human Development and Growth

He also beautifully maps out the highest reaches of human development. These are stages of development that very few people reach and are unknown to the vast majority of humans.

To give some context, most human beings spend their lives in 1st-tier levels of development. All of these levels are characterised by a sense of deficiency and being mono-perspectival.

The cutting edge of human development – stages that would revolutionise humanity if we reached them on a large scale – is the 2nd tier of development. For where humanity is on the whole in its development, 2nd tier stages are radically different. Here, we make an attempt to integrate all previous development and are multiperspectival. Graves claimed that this is where we become truly human.

But there’s more.

1st-tier and 2nd-tier stages appear in many developmental models and are well documented. Less commonly found are stages beyond 2nd tier. But they do exist, and the post-2nd-tier stages found by researchers such as Susanne Cook-Greuter, Abraham Maslow and Sri Aurobindo all have shared characteristics.

Ken Wilber has put together research into stages beyond the Integral/Centaur/Multiperspectival/2nd-tier stages and has come up with four 3rd-tier stages.

…models that continue further almost unanimously see any higher stages as being variations on “universal/mystical” or “self-transcending” or “transpersonal” stages.

Ken Wilber

As Ken Wilber alludes to, what makes 3rd-tier stages unique is that we (at deeper and deeper levels) transcend our sense of identity and become identified with transpersonal realities.

And while at 2nd tier stages of development we can think holistically – in terms of whole, in terms of everything being intrinsically connected – at 3rd tier we actually live and perceive that wholeness.

3rd tier is a union of states with stages: states are intrinsically part of structures. They are spiritual structures.

While I can’t go into the details of the 3rd-tier stages here, I have to mention their importance.

Quite simply, these represent the future of humanity. Some rare pioneers have charted the territory of these transpersonal stages. And there are small amounts of human beings marking out this distant land right now in the hope that future humans follow their lead.

Our destiny is ultimately not to colonise Mars (sorry, Elon). It’s not to become super intelligent, to become immortal, or to download our consciousness into a computer. It’s to embody these levels of development, levels which we could call superhuman.

The fact these stages have been uncovered by hard-nosed researchers shows us that transpersonal states of development are the future of humanity

So, there we have it. Ladder, climber, view. Transcend and include. States and stages. Shadow work. And 3rd-tier stages of development.

These are just some of the gems that Ken Wilber has contributed to our understanding of human development and growth.

Ken Wilber has been called the Einstein of consciousness. His contributions are having an impact in certain circles, but his name is still unknown to the general public.

I think it will take centuries until a significant chunk of humanity sees the importance of Ken Wilber’s theories. One of the missions of The Great Updraft is to do just that.

My ebook Integral Metatheory Condensed eases your learning of Ken Wilber’s key contributions: Integral Metatheory and the AQAL model.

Gain solid knowledge of the theory while bypassing a lot of superfluous information found in other sources.

Not only can this theory provide you with a new operating system for life, it offers you practical tools for solving the perennial problems of humankind.

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