10 Things I learned from Ken Wilber, the great philosopher (1/3)

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Ken Wilber is one of my favourite philosophers of all times. He has been referred to as “the Einstein of Consciousness studies, and Jack Crittenden has said:

“The twenty-first century literally has three choices: Aristotle, Nietzsche, or Ken Wilber.”

I was first introduced to him during a trip to South Africa. I was talking with my aunt, who is a psychiatrist and a therapist, and I wanted to learn more about psychology. I didn’t want to spend a whole lot of time studying dozens of books on the topic, I just wanted an overview of what the field looked like, and get a good general grasp and general sense of the field. So I asked her:

“Would you have one or two books to recommend to get a good intro to psychology?”

She said:

“Yes, there is an author you might enjoy, he wrote this book, Integral Psychology. You might enjoy it, as it covers a broad base of topics from psychology, to politics, to religions, to ecology, social sciences, …” She pulled out the volume, and I wrote down the reference and forgot about it.

A few weeks or months later, when I was back in Paris, I ordered it on my kindle, and started reading…

That book changed my life. There was a before Ken Wilber, and an after…

I devoured the book, and had probably never read anything as captivating nor comprehensive, with such analytical precision, depth, and breadth. This book set my life on a totally new course.

I became obsessed with Ken and his writings, and started watching every video I could about him. For my birthday, I asked for his Collected Works (part of my favourite books in my collection):

I wanted to share this knowledge and wisdom so much, that I got in touch with Laurent Bibard, the head of the Edgar Morin Chair of Complexity at ESSEC Business School, and he kindly invited me to give a talk on Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory (full talk available here).

My obsession didn’t stop there. I flew to the U.S., for a road trip, which I started in Boulder, Colorado. I had never been to Boulder, but I thought that Ken Wilber lived there (he actually lived in Denver). I stalked houses secretly wishing to meet him !

I continued my road trip, to San Francisco, and once there, I remembered Ken mentioning a California Institute of Integral Studies, which I googled, visited, and fell in love with. I ended up signing up for a year of studies in the M.A. of East-West Psychology. This program had been founded to explore the vision based on Ken Wilber’s works, and took it even further with the works of several researchers including Jorge Ferrer, who became my academic advisor and later a friend. Jorge critiqued Wilber’s Integral View a lot, and offered an alternative model called the Participatory Worldview. This could be the topic of another article.

In this article, I would like to share 10 things I learned from Ken Wilber.

  1. Transcend and Include

Wilber’s theory explains not only the Evolution of the human species, but the whole Evolution of the Kosmos. (If you would like to know why it is spelled with a “K”, read Sex, Ecology and Spirituality.) One of the key principles is that evolution happens thanks to transcendence. Transcendence is the movement that happens by going beyond. For example, when a child grows into a teenager, she goes beyond her childish way of being to become something else (a teenager), with a new set of values, behaviours, aspirations, … In that way, the teenager is no longer a child. Yet, to insure healthy development, the teenager must include the childish elements in their development, such as spontaneity, the desire to play, to marvel at the world, etc… If the inclusion doesn’t happen, or is repressed, it will lead to unhealthy development, unhappiness and unfulfillment.

This principle is visible at the physical level as well. Atoms transcend particles, but include them (the particles are included in the atom). Molecules transcend and include atoms. Cells transcend and include molecules. Organic tissue transcends and includes cells, etc… ad infinitum.

The universe is made of parts that transcend and include other parts. Wilber calls them holons (based on Arthur Koestler’s work):

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2. Stages of development

Transcend and include is the process through which humanity evolves through various Stages of Development. This idea was revolutionary for me, and helped me connect many dots of what I had learned over the years. It put together many missing links. I had not been taught this kind of knowledge at school.

In my article on Integrity vs. Morality, I explained stages of moral development. Ken Wilber went much further and explained the overarching stages of development of humanity. You can find more on stages in his books A Brief History of Everything, and in his Magnum Opus Sex Ecology and Spirituality (S.E.S.), among others.

3. Quadrants

One of the great tools of Wilber’s Integral Theory is called Quadrants. Quadrants help us see the world more completely and fully. Indeed, until we have integrated the quadrants fully into our worldview (the glasses through which we see the world), our view is true but partial. It is like seeing only some pieced of the puzzle, and not the whole picture. One of Wilber’s axioms is that every worldview is true, but partial. To see the whole picture, we need to put the quadrants back together:

(Source: The Daily Evolver)

When we look at a situation, we might analyse it under the scope of a single quadrant. For instance:

I see my neighbour’s car that has broken down on the side of the street, with fumes coming out of the engine. I might analyse it thinking: “Oh, he simply didn’t put enough oil in the engine.” That is true, but partial.

If I use the quadrant model, I might find out that there are other aspects to look at in addition to what I just said:

I might add, using the upper-left quadrant that my neighbour was distracted and absent minded (and thus did not pay attention to the flashing light of his oil gauge).

Using the lower-left quadrant, I might notice the social relationships we have. If we are in a good relationship, or in a culture where helping one’s neighbour is a natural thing to do, I might go and give him a hand. If we are in a highly individualistic culture, or in a bad relationship, I might just hope that he gets it fixed, or even secretly feel schadenfreude that his car has broken down! (If you ever feel schadenfreude, you need to practice and develop compassion.)

With the lower-right quadrant, I will inquire into the environment in which we are. Oh the car is right in the middle of a city, close to a repair shop. Thank God it is not in the middle of nowhere ! Also, the lower-right deals with the systems in place. For instance, my neighbour has an insurance that he can call, and they will provide him with instructions and advice on what to do.

Using these four quadrants help us see the situation from different perspectives, which are all true and valid.

In a way, they are like the proverbial story of the four blind men touching an elephant:

One touches the tail, one touches the left side, the other the trunk, and the fourth touches the right side, and each think that they only are in touch with the Truth.

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The Quadrants help see and be aware of the existence of the whole elephant.

Quadrants can also be very useful to reconcile different disciplines and ways of knowing, and recognize that each has their own strand of validity:

(Excellent article as the source)

More to come… Next week !

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