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Integral Theory: The Core Concepts

Keen to dive into Integral Theory and understand its implications for your personal life and your view of the world? In this article, we thoroughly introduce the core concepts in Integral Theory, and you’ll get access to tonnes more resources to deepen your knowledge.

Wilber’s Integral Theory and the AQAL model show us a radical way of looking at life. And beyond that, the theory predicts the ultimate significance and destination of humankind, one far grander and mysterious than you’ve ever considered.

Let’s start by seeing this work in a bigger context.

Ken Wilber’s Mission with Integral Theory

Integral Theory Unites Many Theories

Ken Wilber’s key contribution to philosophy, psychology and human understanding has been his uniting of a plethora of theories and fields into one integrative metatheory. He has aimed to illuminate how various strands of human knowledge can complement and support one another rather than existing in tension. Sadly, the latter is the dominant state of affairs in human life.

Human Potential

In addition, he has striven to shine a light on human potential. Standing on the shoulders of Freud, Jung, Aurobindo, and dozens of other prominent philosophers, academics, and spiritual masters, Ken Wilber has explored the higher territory of human nature and given us new maps that integrate East with West and old with new. His work provides an inspiring new vision of our individual and collective potential.

Ken Wilber Goes Beyond Theory

His work goes beyond philosophising and theorising. He has also immersed himself in deep spiritual practice, discovering profound spiritual truths while also realising the limitations of traditional spirituality. On this basis, through his integral theory and AQAL model he has shown how spirituality can coexist with psychology, human development, shadow work, and much more.

Long Time Horizon

It’s also crucial to note that Ken Wilber thinks past, present and future all at once. In my eyes, many philosophers, academics and writers are too short-sighted. They look back 100 years and forward 50, unable to make convincing, inspiring, long-term predictions on the trajectory of humankind. They get caught up in the now, in the same old “We’re all going to hell in a handbasket” mentality, in Darwinian evolution, in Newtonian physics.

While sometimes falling into nihilism or idealism, Ken Wilber mostly looks forward optimistically, weaving together numerous threads of human potential and transformation. In doing so, he empowers us to create a better tomorrow by refining ourselves, striving to unleash our full potential, and taking bold action.

Now, what is Integral Theory, and how does it relate to AQAL?

What Is Integral Theory?

Ken Wilber might correct me on this, but it seems that Integral Theory is a generic term for his entire philosophy. On the other hand, his AQAL model is just one theory that exemplifies his larger ideas.

I’m not a philosopher, so I’m not here to debate his ideas and put them into a larger philosophical context, but to relate Ken Wilber’s conclusions and provide some perspective on them.

So let’s look at some of Wilber’s core concepts before diving in to AQAL theory. These ideas will illuminate that framework and place it in a broader context. Think of the following four tenets as some of the pillars underlying his entire works.

Everybody is Right; Some Are More Right Than Others

As mentioned, Ken Wilber’s life mission has been to integrate many perspectives on human life, wellbeing, and philosophy into one metatheory. As such, one of his key tenets is that everyone has a piece of the truth, no matter how crazy they are. At very least, their perspective has a raison d’etre.

As such, Wilber strives to integrate East with West, new with old, science with spirituality, and more. This isn’t artifically mashing together perspectives for the sake of being holistic. Rather, it’s a search for how several can coexist and support one another without friction and tension.

That said, it doesn’t mean that all views on life are necessarily true just because they exist. Our conceptions of truth are continually being upgraded, altered, recontextualised and debunked. Also, our truth tends to expand in nuance and complexity over time, and some perspectives are more elaborate, nuanced and relevant than others.

And this goes beyond just theory and conceptualising – in everyday life, we should strive to embody with the view that everyone is right. Our tendency is to grab on to our little perspective on life and ignore the evidence that offers another view or contradicts our knowledge. Can we see everyone else as offering a precious piece of the truth that we might be missing? Integral theory and AQAL show us how.

Human Beings Are Evolving Towards Goodness, Truth, And Beauty

Another thread running through Integral Theory and AQAL is the idea that human beings (and the entire universe, in fact) are in evolution. And we’re not in evolution towards evermore optimised and adapted offsprings, as Darwinians might have you believe, but towards Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. This is, according to Ken Wilber, a fundamental fact of the universe. It’s baked into the way of things.

Goodness represents the interpersonal. In other words, we’re relating to each other in more conscious ways, upgrading our moral antennae, and creating a better world for all.

Truth is the set of objective knowledge that we collectively hold about life, its workings, and how we ought to live it. This isn’t only in a scientific sense. This is ever-expanding, and it contributes to our development of Goodness.

And Beauty represents our own development: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” We as individuals, though existing in a cultural context, go through extraordinary transformation. Over time, the higher levels of human functioning become increasingly accessible for us. It’s built into the system.

Yuval Noah Harari quote

Eros and Agape in Integral Theory

Though there is clearly a direction to evolution, a great updraft, Integral Theory and AQAL posit an opposite force: Agape. Think of this as the weight on the hot-air balloon that prevents it from floating endlessly upwards.

We see agape in the resistance to change both in ourselves and in collective human life. This has occurred in all historical eras in all areas that evolution touches – technology, morals, perspective-taking, politics, and much more.

We see Eros in protesters that fight for change and Agape in powerful people who put money, bureaucracy, position, and politics above the common good. We see Eros in family members who want an alcoholic to abandon their life-sucking addiction, and Agape in that same alcoholic, who clutches on to his wretched bottle at all costs.

Eros has an upward, expansive, creative, floaty, idealistic feel, while Agape is grounding, weighty, fiercely practical, obnoxiously stubborn.

Ken Wilber and De Chardin’s Law of Consciousness And Complexity

You can’t understand Ken Wilber and AQAL without realising that he is heavily influenced by Teilhard De Chardin and his Law of Consciousness and Complexity:

this law reflects the tendency in matter to become more complex over time and at the same time to become more conscious. Teilhard recognized that this tendency in material things toward higher levels of complexity leading to higher levels of consciousness is a pattern that seems to guide the evolution of the entire universe.


Integral Theory doesn’t reduce consciousness to brain activity. Rather, it deems first-person consciousness to have existed for as long as the universe itself. And Ken Wilber claims that the spectrum of awareness trickles right down to the most basic matter that exists: subatomic particles and the like. This is clearly a far cry from the “brain=consciousness” dogma that has overtaken modern thought.

Beyond that, he ultimately claims that consciousness has always been infinitely conscious, but that it has created this entire universe as a game, a dance, to know itself so ridiculously fully and deeply, to then collapse in on itself, and realise it had never truly ceased to be 100% conscious of itself.

Now let’s look at the AQAL model, which is part of Integral Theory.

What is The AQAL Model in Integral Theory?

The AQAL model is a metamodel of human life and reality that attempts to include all possible perspectives on them and show how these perspectives interrelate. It also addresses human growth and tries to forge a holistic framework on how we grow and change and how the many areas of human growth influence one another.

The AQAL model is built on five factors: All Quadrants, All Levels, All Lines, All States, and All Types. So let’s look at each of these types.

The Four Quadrants in AQAL: Full Article Here

Ken Wilber discovered the four quadrants by brainstorming all possible schools of thought and perspectives on reality and racking his brains to discover how they were interrelated. After weeks of searching for answers, he had a flash of inspiration: the four quadrants.

The basic idea is that each quadrant is a fundamental facet of reality. It has its own existence, its own rules, its own internal logic. Indeed, all modes of knowledge, perspectives, and schools of thought fall in to one or more of these quadrants.

Ken Wilber The Four Quadrants

In fact, Ken Wilber claims that reality itself is composed of four quadrants, and that the fundamental building blocks of reality all have four quadrants.

The Levels of Consciousness in AQAL: Full Article Here

Let’s talk about the levels of consciousness that Ken Wilber proposes in the AQAL model from Integral Theory. Think of these as levels of operation, of complexity, in human psychology, culture and affairs.

These basic levels repeatedly pop up whenever we uncover the levels of growth and complexity in human life. We see them in psychological growth, ego development, worldviews, moral growth, cognitive development, cultural development, values development, societal development, and more. In fact, they’re present in all four quadrants.

Here are the first eight levels of Wilber’s model (which contains 12):


To give one example of these altitudes in action, let’s look at how our worldview expands and complexifies as we pass through each level.

  1. Archaic Worldview: Unconscious fusion with the surrounding world and immediate caregivers; others are sources of survival. Common in archaic humans, babies and the elderly.
  2. Magical Worldview: Imagination and reality confused, inanimate objects alive and anthropomorphised, inadequate conception of complexity of world. Common in early civilisation, young children, and dependent adults.
  3. Magic-Mythic Worldview: World is threatening; might is right; me vs the rest of the world; world is a competition for power. Dominates in feudal states, teenagers, young children, dictators and criminals.
  4. Mythic Worldview: My people and our rules protect me from outsiders; order, rules and authority are primary; life is a struggle for good over evil. Dominates in early teenage years, religious societies, medieval times.
  5. Rational Worldview: World is knowable on its own terms, universe behaves according to discoverable laws; the world is a well-oiled physical machine; science will perfect humankind. Infiltrated Western culture in enlightenment, prevails in achievers and scientists.
  6. Postmodern Worldview: Competition, oppression, division and artificial boundaries prevent free love; life is for connection, love, and sensitivity; the world is a equal playing field; fear of conventionality. Came around in the 60s, active in Western democracies and priveleged segments of population.
  7. Integral Worldview: Humans and life are in evolution; the world is a multi-layered matrix of various levels of consciousness, a kaleidoscope of different views and perspectives, each of which is valid in its own context; sees unfolding of human evolution. Coming online.
  8. Mature Worldview: Beginning to see world as one conscious whole; people are who they are because of sets of interlocking invisible forces; appreciates completely different forms of living and sense-making. Coming online.

There is so much more to say on the altitudes in Integral Theory, so do use these resources to find out more:

The Fundamental Altitudes of Development Explained
The Highest Stages of Human Development: At The Cutting Edge

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The Lines of Intelligence in AQAL: Full Article Here

It turns out that rather than having intelligence, we have intelligences – many sets of aptitudes and areas of competence, of which intelligence in the traditional sense is just one. Isn’t that refreshing?

The power of the lines of development is how they frame intelligence itself. They have us think of intelligence as a series of somewhat separate areas that are always under construction, rather than as a single, fixed, binary aptitude.

In fact, intelligence comes in a plethora of modes that each uniquely influence our lives and define who we are.

We all have our characteristic deficiencies, too. Sorry, Albert. But those aren’t set in stone either. One of Integral Theory’s main points of interest is human growth, and it claims we can actually grow in all these modes of intelligence, if we choose.

Integral Theory Multiple Intelligences graph

The States of Consciousness in AQAL: Full Article Here

Each state is a unique way of experiencing your body, your mind and all the phenomena you are aware of. Each higher state not only recontexualises the previous one, it reveals new phenomena and insights, all the way to life-changing realisations about life and our place in it. So it’s no coincidence that psychedelic therapy, which takes people beyond their habitual state, is gaining traction.

The average person experiences all the major states of consciousness every day. As we work, cook and commute, we typically experience one state. As we dream, we experience another. When we’re in dreamless sleep, another. And perhaps we have the occasional peak experience of a state beyond that. These are but tastes, subsections of the major states of consciousness.

  • non-duality-description

This theoretical framework helps us better understand Enlightenment or Awakening and suggest we should see it as a process, rather than as an on-off switch. In fact, all forms of spirituality that track practictioners’ growth along the meditative path hit on these major stages. Despite the wide cultural variability among the maps from the major traditions, they describe the same journey. So look out for them acting behind the scenes in spirituality and human life at large.

The AQAL Personality Types: Full Article Here

There are hundreds or thousands of personality typology systems east and west, ancient and modern. They include: Masculine/Feminine, Myers–Briggs, The Enneagram, astrology, introvert and extrovert, DISC, Strengths Finder, The Human Design System, the Lover/Warrior/Magician/King profiles, even nationalities.

Profiling can get overwhelming, fast. Each of us has dozens or hundreds of types, and we likely have several within one system. For instance, I heavily embody Enneagram Types 3, 4, and 5, with marginal differences between the dominance of each. If I tried to understand myself using 20 different typologies, I’d probably end up more confused than I was to begin with.

So the key with typologies is to choose a few that resonate with you and explain your personality. In fact, you’ll find that certain personality profiles will jump out at you, bring almost instant self-knowledge, and clarify what was once confusing. Those are the typology systems you should favour.

People with different types see different worlds and have characteristic drives, needs, defenses and fears. So learning about them gives us deep empathy for ourselves and others, can reduce conflict and tension, and helps us deal with others more effectively.

Being A Fully Grown Human with Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory

To extend AQAL and Integral Theory further into the realm of personal transformation, which is my bread and butter, let’s look at the five areas of growth that Ken Wilber proposes.

This will seriously expand your view of what growth and development is. We tend to identify growth with only one of these areas, or even a subset of one. The good news, as far as I’m concerned, is that life constantly calls us to expand and grow by showing us our limitations. Life is full of lessons that signpost the way to a new self.

I don’t intend to cover these fully – this is an introduction. But I’ll include plenty of links and resources to further reading.

grow up: Developing Through The Levels

Growing Up might sound pejorative, but all it means is moving up the levels of development. Just how we do that is a little beyond this article, but check out my Spiral Dynamics Ebooks if you’re interested.

In Western civilisation, the Green, Yellow, and Turquoise altitudes are becoming increasingly necessary as we tackle global problems, attempt to create evermore peaceable societies, and continue wrestling with inequality in society. The problems that activate these levels are constantly knocking at the door, asking us to continue growing.

wake up: Developing Through The States

What you conventionally think of as You is really a contraction in your field of awareness. And the monkey mind makes sure you’re constantly distracted so that you don’t begin to question its games and trickery.

But it’s not the only state we experience. We can deliberately train ourselves to consciously contact higher states and transcend the Separate Self.

Though the knowledge of higher states is barely visible in science, medicine, or mainstream culture, these states have been the foundation of all spiritual practice for thousands of years. In fact, we have tried-and-tested methodologies for making it happen.

clean up: Shadow Work

We all have repressed and buried parts of our personality, wreckage from our long developmental journey, painful life experiences, and the need to be part of society. So part of developing a healthy self – and transcending it – is to functionally reincorporate these aspects of ourselves into our personality.

We often project the shadow on to other people. If we repress a trait, the best way to keep it that way is to magnify it in others. This is horrifying – we seem to be surrounded by the very trait we despise. Cleaning the shadow brings an enormous liberation of blocked energy and a fuller, more authentic self. We become like rainbow human beings – a curious blend of pleasant and blunt, considered and impulsive, kind and ruthless.

On the other hand, we can repress our positive traits too. Part of growing as a human is reclaiming our greatness and unashamedly stepping in to it.

open up: Developing In Multiple Lines

I love to talk about developmental stages, and those are crucial, but appreciating that we can at wildly different levels in the various developmental lines expands our idea of how developed we are, and is both humbling and reassuring.

Lines are where we actually grow. Our overall growth is an aggregate of our growth in all the lines. As mentioned before, we can have huge imbalances in our lines development, and this could have serious effects.

Integral Theory encourages Opening Up: deliberately identifying our weak lines and developing them, as well as taking advantage of our strong lines to excel in life.

show up: Making A Difference

And what do we do with all this development, you might ask. Well, this is when we remember the Bodhisattva vow: to come back into the world and help push it forward in service of God.

What is your contribution to the world? How do you help push evolution forward? Do you mump and moan about the state of the world, or do you bleed to death trying to put things right? This is Showing Up.

The Significance Of Ken Wilber, Integral Theory & AQAL

Let’s talk about why we should learn Integral Theory and AQAL and the effects it can have on our lives. The key to realise with this theory is that it’s calling us towards something. It’s not just a nice map that explains the world better and helps us win arguments, as so often philosophy is. Rather, it’s a map for our future – both our personal future and that of the species. It’s asking us to step into that bigger future and cocreate it.

I’ve found this work to give me a new sense of order and coherence. With its emphasis on evolution and levels of complexity, I’m now informed by these as I think about human affairs. Though I see Agape working, I also connect to the work of Eros, that relentless expansive force that brings better worlds into being.

My mental horizons have broadened too. Instead of seeking culprits and taking sides, I ask myself how is it that this moment came to be. What are all the factors involved? What are the levels of consciousness behind it? And ultimately I realise that we’re enfolded in this great evolving mystery that permits no simple answers. We’re all in it together, creating chaos and havoc, but also making love and beauty.


Studying Integral Theory has led me to researching the evolution of human beings in many guises: psychological, sociological, technological, moral, political, institutional, societal, and more. And the more I explore, the deeper my trust that we really are moving in the right direction.

Sure, Agape is relentless and ever-present, but Eros is doing a wonderful job with its grand evolutionary project. Instead of lamenting the fabled Fall From Eden, which persists in people as diverse as fundamentalists, rationalists, romanticists, and idealists, I celebrate what we’ve become and what we’re becoming.

On a personal level, Wilber’s work (with more than a little help from psychedelics, meditation, and my own personal growth) has shattered my previous ideas of what life is and why I’m here. It has opened up the doors to reveal a huge chasm of potential that I’ve yet to even peer into.

Life preserves its mystery, but there’s a new order in that mystery. We’re going somewhere, somewhere meaningful. And here I am, a little speck in that giant ray of light that’s slowly going from dim to dazzlingly bright.

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