Ken Wilber on Spiritual Growth: A Christian Perspective

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Twenty-two years ago I stumbled upon a life changing book. It was “Stages of Faith” by James Fowler. Fowler taught a form of developmental psychology to seminary students at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His vision was to train future pastors to recognize that any given congregation will include a variety of people with differing faith-structures. The idea was to equip the church to accommodate as well as challenge each type of faith. Fowler’s academic work is based on meticulously categorized interviews with hundreds of people, each describing his or her own spiritual journey, and answering specific survey questions. The result is that Fowler identifies six distinct stages of faith that are universally applicable, as it turns out, to any faith tradition.

Here in America we prefer to choose our beliefs from a menu, but the fact that faith develops in stages is not something you can simply choose to believe or not. It’s one of those things like gravity that is not optional. Anyone actively engaged in his or her own spiritual growth will inevitably grow upward through at least some of the six stages in a very specific order that will never vary. And while the direction and order of the faith-stages are inviolable, one may not necessarily ever grow beyond a particular level. Take a snapshot at any given church and you will find representatives of every stage. Even a sample of people at the same point in life, say, all 40 year-olds, will represent different stages. It was stunning to read the book because I was reading my own biography in a sense. It was unequivocally clear to me at the time that I was in Fowler’s fifth stage. I had experienced a number of “dark nights of the soul” on the way to that stage and for the first time I fully understood the underlying process.

Ten years later I discovered Ken Wilber. I had heard of Wilber long before that but finally decided to read some of his books. Wilber is something the world hasn’t seen since the ancient Greeks—a full-time self-supporting philosopher who achieved a categorical breakthrough. Like Fowler, Wilber sees life unfolding in stages but expands stage theory to a cosmic scale. There is actually a direct connection between the two men as Wilber often cites Fowler in his own work. Wilber covers a universe of topics in his opus but we will focus here on what he has to say about spiritual growth. He goes well beyond Fowler in this line of thought.

Wilber may copyright his books but not his philosophy. He works in collaboration with many others. He acknowledges that his role is that of a compiler of the work and thought of hundreds of others from Tibetan gurus, to German philosophers, to Harvard researchers. Wilber's 10% contribution has been to provide the glue that pulls together the history of the twin human quests for truth and for meaning into a single unified vision; a “philosophy of everything.” Yes, I know…we’ve all tried to do that! But Wilber does seem to have made a major breakthrough in unifying diverse fields of thought. The scope of his writing is vast and there is much we could say regarding his social and political thought, his philosophy of science, and his taxonomy of the entire universe, but my purpose here will be limited to presenting a brief but clear introduction to Wilber as spiritual guide. I believe there are three key concepts involved: quadrants, stages, and states.


From the beginning Wilber collected hundreds of bits of truth, wisdom, and theory from every imaginable source and struggled to make sense of it all. Many of the concepts in his collection were mutually contradictory. Then one day he was struck with a sudden flash of insight. The result was a map of reality he calls “AQAL“ (all quadrants, all levels) which I will attempt to illustrate below. Basically, the idea is that all existential reality lies in four coterminous dimensions even though we typically remain unconscious of those dimensions in the same way that a fish remains unaware of water. For present purposes I will limit this discussion to the quadrants as they relate to human consciousness-events. These are the quadrants:

Quad 1.jpg


One way to look at this chart is in terms of the classic subject/object problem. On the left hand side you see subjectivity. Individual subjectivity is on the top left and collective subjectivity on the bottom left. The right hand side represents objectivity. Individual objectivity is on top right and collective objectivity on bottom right. In Wilberian shorthand these are referred to as :

UL (upper left)

UR (upper right)

LL (lower left)

LR (lower right)

Let’s take several tours through the AQAL by way of illustration. Imagine a visit to the US capitol building. Here's how one might experience it:

UL — I feel awed by a sense of history.

UR — It's swelteringly hot, and the glare off this white marble is giving me a headache.

LL — Society believes in representative government.

LR — This building is Greco-Roman style. It's not only an architectural expression of representative democracy, but a shelter filled with actual representatives.

Now let's go shop for groceries at Wal-Mart:

UL — I'm hungry. I need food. I hate Wal-Mart but I like their prices.

UR — The 150 pound organism known as "I" is using muscle contraction to self-propel through this eclectic landscape of edible substances.

LL — Our society believes in specialization and division of labor. Thus instead of each having our own farm, we consolidate our food gathering efforts. This brings economy of scale and affordability.

LR — This large building was built cheaply (to support economy of scale). It holds a ton of stuff under one roof (supporting the ideal of consolidation).

Next let's go fishing:

UL — I’m happy to be doing my favorite activity. Life seems worthwhile and satisfying.

UR — The sun is warm but flies are irritating me.

LL — The love of fishing and the skills it requires are both socially transmitted. My Grandpa taught me to fish, and his grandpa taught him.

LR — This rod and reel have a very precise feel and they were made in Taiwan. Many people working together must have had the idea that research and engineering would pay off if it resulted in products that enhance the sport of fishing.

I’m sure you get the idea now, but so what? Well, the important thing to note for the moment is that no subjective state stands alone. Every subjective state (UL) coexists within three other interdependent dimensions, two of which are quite objective. This has tremendous implications for, say, Christian contemplative prayer or Buddhist meditation which are typically regarded as involving only interior states of consciousness. But every inner spiritual state includes an outer "state of body" (UR) as well as a set of guiding concepts (LL) that come largely from the influence of others (LR) including teachers, churches, priests, parents, books, friends, TV, and society at large.


The Premodern Paradigm

Wilber describes at some length how the four quadrants evolved through the history of culture. Back in pre-modern, or pre-rational times, all four quadrants were undifferentiated. In other words, there was a magical sort of thinking that one's inner state (UL) directly influenced outer events (UR). For example, there is the belief that sticking pins in a doll will cause someone else to feel pain. Or one may pray for rain and when rain finally comes (maybe weeks later) one then claims that the prayer was responsible. Alchemists believed that lead could become gold so they kept experimenting, expecting gold eventually to appear. Pre-modern thinking did not end in modern times—it persists everywhere. To give a familiar example, one may "believe in the Bible" and based on that belief, attempt to change or manipulate one's circumstances by quoting from the Bible.

The Modern Paradigm

The Enlightenment and the scientific revolution led to modern times with a powerful new way of understanding the right hand side of reality. This new understanding was basically that objective (RH) reality simply obeys laws of nature and is completely independent of what we may believe. A good example is modern medical practice. When you are sick the doctor is not concerned with your inner consciousness but rather with the mechanics and chemistry of your body (UR). He or she likely does not even want to talk to you other than possibly to ask where it hurts. Typically you will be given a pill which is a chemical designed to alter your body chemistry. This is a radical right-hand approach to reality which assumes that the LH side is immaterial to the cause and cure of your symptoms. A right-hand approach to religion can be seen in studies where researchers have gone to prayer meetings and connected electrodes to participants’ brains (UR). They discovered that certain brain waves (UR) activate during prayer (UL) and that endorphins (UR) are released in the brain (UR), thus creating the feeling of having a religious experience (UL). They conclude therefore that nothing is happening except chemistry (UR). So the modern paradigm involves promoting the right hand side to the status of being verifiably real, while the left hand side is often merely delusional.

Let's use the Bible again as another example of how the right hand approach can be applied to faith. German scholars came along in the late 19th century and said "the Bible is an historical artifact that can be examined with the same critical scrutiny as a rock, a viral disease, or Shakespeare's Hamlet." They ignored what faith had to say about the Bible and studied it purely on its own terms. It subsequently proved to be an ordinary classifiable human document and a product of its times. Scholars could only conclude that if God did have any influence over the Bible it was indirect at best. So the Germans, for the first time, began to examine only the right-hand side of faith (the Bible in this case) and found that it was completely independent of the left-hand side (inner belief) and could thus be treated as a separate object of study. As a result, some Christians ("conservatives") merely denounced this scholarship, and others ("liberals") agreed with the critics but then compartmentalized faith itself in the LH side where it would be immune from further RH critical scrutiny.

Wilber strongly asserts that when modernism differentiated the subjective (LH) side from the objective (RH) side, that was a very positive thing for the most part. It gave us almost miraculous mastery of our world, including medical knowledge, electricity, automobiles, and other amazing benefits, and freed us from myth and the magical thinking of alchemy, voodoo, etc. But it came with a price tag: it demoted the states of inner consciousness to a place of relative unimportance.

The Postmodern Paradigm

Next came postmodernism which was basically a reaction against the radical objectivity of modernism. It insisted that subjectivity is really at the heart of knowing. Subjectivity, however, proved to be a subversive foundation for knowledge because if anything it tended to debunk any kind of certainty. In the hands of postmodernism subjectivity became a two-edged sword, cutting both right and left, even carrying the potential seeds of its own self-destruction. On the RH side postmodernism challenged the foundations of science itself, which it saw as a series of subjective mental models, expressed in relativistic language, and ever subject to revision. Science may have successfully manipulated nature but it delivered no truth. While science never experienced a crisis of self-doubt because of this line of reasoning, it certainly demonstrated that subjectivity is an important component of any kind of knowing, even scientific knowing.

The sword of postmodernism did far more damage when it turned its attention to the LH side, deconstructing everything in its path including the arts, cultural values, society, and religion. We saw above how modernism separated the LH side from the RH side. Postmodernism had a similar effect except that when it focused on the LH side it managed to separate UL from LL. This was devastating to inner faith because it meant that inner states of religious consciousness were now separated from their interpretations. To illustrate exactly how this works let’s look again at the "liberal" Protestants who shifted their faith to the LH side in the wake of modernist biblical criticism. What postmodernism did, in the form of “sociology of religion” was to ask these people a simple question: “Why are you still interpreting your inner religious experience in the language of Christianity?” It cannot be overstated the degree to which this particular question is both stunning in its simplicity and devastating in its consequences. Prior to this point these Protestants assumed that inner consciousness and its interpretation were a package deal that could not be split up. Obviously sociologists were not experts on consciousness but they were experts on the social construction of all possible interpretations of consciousness, and indeed, the social construction of all knowledge. They insisted that the interpretation of one's faith is not only socially constructed but is only one of many possible social constructions all of which spring forth from flukes of history and accidents of birth. We could rephrase the sociologist’s question more rudely: “Why are you sitting there in Peoria, Illinois interpreting your religious experience in terms of the petty genocidal God of an ancient Mesopotamian tribe?” The implication, of course, is that there is absolutely nothing in your direct experience of life in Peoria that would remotely lead you to believe in such a God, and yet you do. Quite obviously then, your theology comes from another time and another place. For all you know it is an elaborate fiction dreamed up by some psychotic tribal shaman from the Iron Age. In short, it is not "your faith." It is socially derived. This is the most devastating attack on conventional faith that one could imagine.

The important point we want to make here is that neither the typical sociologist nor the Christian reacting to his question are particularly aware of quadrants. Both assume that the theology and the inner faith fall together because they are in the same box. But in Wilber's AQAL model that is not the case—inner consciousness is clearly in UL, and any given theology or interpretation is in LL. Just as he does with the modernist critique of faith, Wilber puts a positive spin on the postmodernist critique. The sociologists (and other postmodernist voices) have actually done us a favor. They have clarified the issues and shown us what is solid and what is illusory. And that, of course, is a giant step of spiritual growth. If you happen to be observing this conversation from an AQAL perspective you can see that while postmodernism appears to have debunked both LL and UL, in reality it has merely divided them. The ironic result is that it actually establishes our inner consciousness as a truly solid component of our spirituality while at the same time liberating it from the interpretations that hinder spiritual growth.

  • Keep in mind that while we have used a Protestant Christian setting to illustrate these points, anyone that is growing in consciousness will necessarily have to deal with these same questions in the context of his/her own native faith.

Let’s stop and summarize this cultural history of the quadrants:

PREMODERN: LH & RH are together (undifferentiated)

MODERNISM: LH & RH are differentiated

POSTMODERNISM: UL is differentiated from LL

Wilber’s solution is:

INTEGRAL PHILOSOPHY: all quadrants differentiated but reintegrated

Wilber’s whole purpose is to create an “integral philosophy“ and now we are equipped to see what that is. In spite of all the pain involved, Wilber is quite happy that all these quadrants have become dissociated. We are far more conscious of the terms and conditions of reality. And now the job of integral philosophy is simply to “reintegrate,” that is, put the quadrants back together but in such a way that we are no longer naïve about how they fit together. We do this not by simply reattaching them but rather by spanning all quadrants in our work of consciousness and, of course, by ceasing to confuse them with one another.

CRITICAL WILBER CONCEPT: Here’s one way to consider reintegration between RH and LH: in the previous example of monitoring subjects’ brains with electrodes during prayer, Wilber would say there is reality happening in every quadrant. He holds that mind is real, and therefore some sort of genuine growth, change, or expansion of consciousness is happening in the context of prayer. At the same time he also asserts that the body is real and so endorphins are indeed more active during prayer, and are possibly even the sole cause of our devout feelings of inner peace. It’s simply built into reality that everything is a two sided coin (actually a four-sided coin!) and therefore it doesn’t really matter if scientists find dopamine or even pink elephants in the brain; neither constitutes evidence that consciousness isn’t real* or isn’t growing in the context of prayer. Dopamine, serotonin, or other brain chemicals do not negate spiritual growth. However, if we remain unaware (or in denial) of the reality of both RH & LH sides of our experience, then we are forced to choose in a false dualism. One choice is to hold the infantile prerational and prescientific view that our prayer caused our inner religious experience (sometimes leveraged into a proof that God exists). The other choice is to accept the modern critical (RH) view that we live in a colorless, flat, and demystified world in which we are just a collection of neuron-charged chemicals that generate an illusion of free will (sometimes leveraged into a proof that God does not exist). Wilber, by contrast, would maintain that Spirit is the ground of all being, and that includes brain chemicals as well as consciousness. We could say that the inner experience and the corresponding body processes taken together constitute a “spirit-event.”

  • [You may ask, what critic would suggest consciousness is not real? I refer you to Edward Wilson, a Harvard biologist who argues that everything can be explained in terms of its smallest components. Wilson says consciousness is simply the particle physics that ultimately underlie the molecules, cells, and neurons of the brain. Consciousness is essentially a quantum field following natural laws, therefore it has no free will, it just generates the illusion of one. Wilson claims we don’t know enough yet to explain the physics, but soon we will. This begs the question…..who is this “we” that will soon understand how the illusion of consciousness is generated? A quantum field that learns how to comprehend itself….isn’t that called….self-transcendence?! It‘s hard to see how that‘s not the same thing as “real” consciousness. We‘re obviously in the realm of semantics here. Click this link for more on consciousness and physics].

Now let’s take another tour through AQAL consciousness. This time we will fill in with more detail than with the examples we used earlier. Let’s consider a contemplative prayer group at a weekend Catholic retreat as an example.

Quad 2.jpg

Here’s the AQAL chart for our Catholic experience:

Now let’s have a number of observers comment on the prayer group:

Father Luigi: “Those people are experiencing the peace of God that passes all understanding.”

Dr. Moreau: “Those people are entering altered brain states. Quick, get the EEG monitor!”

Sigmund Freud: “Those infantile people are trying to return to the womb.”

Carl Jung: “No Sigmund, those people are purposely embracing their inner infant and thus coming into contact with Original Spirit.”

Emile Durkheim: “Those people are interpreting their experience through the language of Western medieval contemplative literature. They are having an experience to be sure, but their understanding of that experience is purely a social construction. It could readily be interpreted through other social language. Any possible language about this experience is necessarily fiction including the interpretations of my colleagues, Freud, Jung, etc.”

Margaret Mead: “Those people are practicing a 13th century Euro-Catholic ritual. They seek to center themselves in the spiritual world by moving from a profane space to a sacred space.”

Michel Foucault: “These people are programming their experience by bringing a preselected interpretation to the event.”

Obviously we have many different viewpoints here. The unique position of Wilber is that every one of these people is correct! But we must understand that each observer in this scenario is looking only at one quadrant and they are doing so from a specific observation point. Each comment on the given quadrant is correct relative to the perspective of the speaker. Here’s how we can map these perspectives:

Chart 4.jpg

The point here is that not one of these observers is spanning all quadrants. Wilber’s claim is that in order to have full consciousness we must be able to see all these viewpoints simultaneously by transcending them. In other words, we must move from perspectival consciousness to universal consciousness. This is what we mean by recognizing and spanning all quadrants. The move to this level of consciousness is a much greater leap of spiritual growth than any possible result of the contemplative prayer exercise itself!


The second key concept is stages. A stage is essentially a paradigm. It is a well established mode of being through which we interpret reality. The time we spend in a given stage is typically measured in years. Over time stages eventually collapse into a new stage. This collapse is a slow process but may appear sudden when the final shift occurs, or it may not be consciously noticed at all. Two (or more) stages will often overlap for a period of time before the new stage becomes fully established.


I already mentioned that Wilber, like Fowler, is a faith-stage theorist. But Wilber deals with stages in a much broader and more generalized way. He draws heavily on many specialties within the field of developmental psychology, including Fowler‘s work. Over the last hundred years there has been a lot of psychological research devoted to the stages of human development. The interesting thing about this research which is coming from many different places and many different angles, is that it all has in common the view that human development unfolds in distinct stages, and these stages occur in a set and predictable order, just as we mentioned with Fowler. The number of named stages, and the labels assigned them may differ, but in general all follow one scheme which can be simplified to three phases: egocentric to ethnocentric to world-centric (it’s all about me, it’s all about my group, it’s all about all of us). Of course, there can be many identified and named stages in between, but this is the general directional flow—away from ego and toward global identity. As we said earlier, it is entirely possible to fail to ever grow beyond a given stage. However, assuming one is progressing, it is impossible to skip around in these stages because each one is necessarily built on the foundation of the previous stage. So the order of progression never changes.

With the more recent recognition of “varieties of intelligence” (the cognitive, the emotional, the artistic, the moral, etc) more research has focused on the independent growth stages of these different dimensions. A “psychograph” might reveal that your different dimensions are all over the map. For example, a brilliant scientist with advanced cognitive development might only have the emotional development of a ten year old, and throw tantrums in the lab. Ideally, one reaches full mental/emotional adulthood when all the dimensions of consciousness have made reasonable progress toward the top. Wilber and Fowler would both agree that there is a very close connection between the process of becoming a responsible, functioning adult and growing spiritually.

While Fowler provides a chart of six stages of faith, Wilber offers a chart of seven stages that we could more accurately call the “stages of spiritual consciousness.” For the most part the two charts line up in a comparable manner. The extra stage in the Wilber scheme is a relatively recent development which I will explain later. For now I will lay out the stages and do so using Fowler’s scheme. I use Fowler’s stages because I presume most readers will readily identify with that model. I present them in the order in which they unfold in a life, going from lowest to highest.

1. Intuitive/Projective Faith — This is basically a 3 year old’s imaginative and magical thinking. It sometimes involves the idea that thoughts projected onto the world will cause things to happen, good or bad, depending on the thoughts. Some elements can persist into adulthood.

2. Mythic/Literal Faith — This is generally a 6 year old child’s understanding of the family’s faith; religious symbols are assigned quite literal meaning. Again, some elements can persist into adulthood.

3. Conventional Faith — One typically joins an institutional religion and accepts its definition of reality. Both institution and individual have replaced many literal understandings from the earlier stage with symbolic ones.

4. Individualizing Faith — This is the process of ejecting a socially derived faith and the corresponding process of constructing a more authentic self-defined faith. One may or may not abandon institutional membership. (Note: if one fails to complete the self-constructed faith project, he/she never really completes this stage and typically snaps back to the third stage and finds permanent equilibrium there as an adult).

5. Conjunctive Faith - This is the recognition that every truth seems to have an equally true opposite. Everything in life involves holding both sides of a paradox in balance, a process which one has more or less mastered. One’s religion as well as it’s detractors somehow both ring true. One may return to an institutional faith after quitting one in stage four, but does so on a new level (and most often in a new institution) and begins to understand most dogma as metaphor for one side of the paradox.

6. Universalizing Faith — This is a stage where all the opposites and paradoxes of the fifth stage come together in an intuitively grasped grand unity in which one feels absorbed by something bigger. Fowler maintains that this stage is very rare, and includes those people who completely lose ego-self (and sometimes their lives through martyrdom) in a larger cause, concept, or mystical union with God, or “oneness with the universe.”

  • [Readers at Fowler’s second and third stages will interpret the later stages as the process of loss of faith. But it should be emphatically stated that in Fowler’s model these stages actually represent upward growth into full and appropriate adult faith].


I was in my early thirties when I discovered that I was practically a poster child for Fowler’s fifth (Conjunctive) stage of faith. The discovery that I was not lost but could be identified and located on a map was accompanied by a symphony of feelings; relief, liberation, empowerment, but also isolation and absence of community. It seemed that everyone I knew and still kept up with from school days had also arrived in this stage, and along the way I met many others who told the story of a similar journey. But If one spends enough years in the fifth stage a strange thing begins to happen. What starts out as liberation begins to feel like stagnation. The spirit longs for something else. Interestingly, many fifth stage people I know have eventually become…Buddhists! I know some that are merely curious, others that are dabblers, a few that are joiners, and at least one monastic postulate. Another acquaintance is into no-brand mystical cosmic consciousness. There is an explosion of interest in various Eastern wisdom traditions among a whole range of middle-aged Americans. You can walk into any bookstore and find a myriad of books on Eastern religions and spiritual techniques. Every trendy neighborhood offers meditation classes. In general, there is a strong trend among fifth stage individuals to abandon their religious upbringing and turn to some other form of spirituality, and Buddhism seems to be the path of choice.

My own experience of stagnation was very much connected to my awareness of Fowler who perhaps sabotages his own sixth stage with a self-fulfilling prophecy inherent in his language: “This stage is extremely rare, you won’t get in. And some of those who do may be martyred for the extreme causes into which they may become absorbed” (my paraphrase). Put like that, the sixth stage of faith sounds both unattainable and undesirable! This left me with the distinct feeling that both Buddhist and Christian “enlightenment” were statistically unavailable. Nonetheless, I read dozens of Buddhist books and for about a year read a Buddhist magazine published in America, but found myself having an adverse reaction to the markedly culture-bound assimilation of Buddhism among American converts. They confuse Sanskrit-speak with enlightenment, and with their Japanese and Tibetan pretensions most seem unable to get beyond faux Buddhism. An important part of spiritual growth is that you discard your prerational use of symbols. Most American Buddhists have, of course, discarded the prerational use of their own symbols but only to adopt the prerational use of someone else‘s symbols. My preference has always been to keep my own indigenous symbols and attempt to distill the essence, if any, underlying those symbols. So I have found much greater connection with esoteric Christianity under a number of labels: Coptic, Celtic, the mystical element of Eastern Orthodoxy, the Zen-like quality of the early desert fathers and the Russian hermits, and then there‘s that strange bastion of mystical religion: the Episcopal Church. In any case, my quest for a more mystical faith mirrored the path of my Buddhist friends.

I hope I can be forgiven for this self-absorbed excursion into the autobiographical, but the pattern is the point. Why are untold numbers of Americans in Fowler’s fifth stage now dabbling in or practicing Zen or Tibetan Buddhism or other mystical alternatives? The answer has already been given: (1) all stages collapse under the weight of their own stagnation combined with the pressure of an emerging paradigm, and (2) mystical union is the very essence of the sixth stage, a concept which translates nicely, but not exclusively, into Buddhist language. If, following Fowler and Wilber, we understand the spiritual growth stages to be laws of nature then we innately move in the direction of universal consciousness, an idea readily found in Buddhism.


When I first began reading Wilber I easily followed the tour through his version of the stages but came to a roadblock at the point where he expounded his version of the fifth stage, a condition he characterized as the “green” or “pluralistic” stage. My main issue was that Wilber’s green stage did not describe me as well as Fowler‘s conjunctive stage. Beyond the fifth stage Wilber spoke of a “second tier” of transcendent stages. This higher tier of stages sounded very much like a compound version of Fowler’s sixth stage. On the plus side, Wilber had much more of an “open door policy” on enlightenment than did Fowler. Wilber seemed to be saying that anyone with discipline and practice and awareness of the issues could enter the sixth stage, which he labeled “transpersonal” (implying that the ego-self becomes absorbed into something bigger). I also liked Wilber’s seeming interchangeability as he spoke the language of esoteric Christianity as easily as the language of Buddhism. With Wilber, Buddhism seemed more a way of talking about the real subject—consciousness growth—and not so much an official prerequisite for attainment. He did, however, prescribe Buddhist meditation techniques as a consciousness building exercise for the transpersonal stages. After digesting Wilber for a few years I continued to be stuck. Wilber left me stranded in his green stage where I didn‘t quite belong and Fowler left me skeptical about the power of Wilber’s meditation as a way forward.

However, Wilber has changed his mind about some things since my first reading. It turns out that he had been stumped by a problem in his own model of spiritual growth. Wilber and some of his collaborators knew there was a problem in the model but for a while could not quite put their finger on it. The problem was located within one of the most celebrated points of Wilber’s philosophy which is sometimes known as “the marriage of Freud and Buddha.” Unpacked, this phrase simply means that Wilber originally saw the stages of human growth and development mapped out by Western psychology as representing a “first tier” of consciousness, and the stages mapped out by Eastern wisdom traditions as representing a “second tier” of consciousness. Moreover, he saw the two maps as forming a single unbroken continuum of stages with the second tier stacked right on top of the first. In summary, this scheme says that one must fully complete all dimensions (cognitive, emotional, moral, etc.) through the lower tier stages as understood in the West before continuing along the unbroken path leading to the higher stages as understood in the East. If this path is broken at any point (say, failure of emotional growth) then spiritual pathology results. This is as true for Tibetans as it is for Americans. Thus we have the “marriage of Freud and Buddha.”

The issue that stumped Wilber is the fact we are virtually surrounded by examples of people who are clearly not evolved beyond lower level Western stages but who are experiencing transpersonal states of consciousness through various means. Examples range from the exotic (tribal shamans at stage-one magic entering dream-states) to the domestic (your stage-three conventional neighbor looking at the stars). This would seem to contradict the rule that one cannot reach transpersonal without completing all previous stages. Eventually this problem led to the collapse of the “Freud and Buddha“ model, at least as originally conceived (the model still survives in modified form). Wilber’s breakthrough insight on this problem was the eventual realization that he and his collaborators had confused states and stages. Given our earlier definition of “stage,” Wilber’s “transpersonal stages” should have been populated with paradigms. Instead, they were populated with states.


State means “state of consciousness.” There are ordinary everyday states of consciousness, and special states of consciousness that Wilber calls "transpersonal." In spite of the mystical sound of the word, there is nothing magical about a transpersonal state. It simply refers to a temporary suspension of your normal mode of experiencing everything exclusively through the lens of your individual self. We all have such moments. For example, a transpersonal state could arise while interacting with an animal, say your cat, and you have a transforming experience in which you realize that you and the cat are co-participants in an identical existence—a common quest for food, sex, companionship, shelter—and suddenly you are sharing consciousness and your normal sense of separate identity seems to dissolve as you are absorbed into the other for a brief moment. In this case you have transcended the merely personal which is all that “transpersonal” means.

When Wilber talks about transpersonal states he is usually referring to a conscious attempt to cultivate just such an experience, typically through meditation, and generally in a context larger than your cat. A transpersonal state may involve a feeling of bliss, transcendence, closeness to God, or just emptiness. We easily stereotype meditation as a mystical Eastern path to secret knowledge and power but it’s really little more than an exercise designed to help you practice seeing things from outside the “merely personal” perspective. Like any exercise, its purpose is to strengthen something. In this case it strengthens your awareness that you are part of something bigger than yourself. It thus reinforces your growth from egocentric to world-centric.

Wilber, drawing on Buddhism, identifies four distinct transpersonal states that one may seek and experience through various meditation techniques. Because these four states advance in a natural progression, Wilber’s original scheme was to identify each one as its own stage and claim that together these stages form the “second tier” of consciousness. But Wilber now recognizes that the mistake was to identify these states as stages. They are simply states of consciousness and therefore they are available to anyone who is conscious, at any stage. So Wilber’s second tier has now evaporated, or at least its original manifestation. And by implication, Fowler’s sixth stage also necessarily disappears, does it not? If mystical union is a state, it cannot be a stage of faith. So now the question is, what exactly is the next stage? What comes after pluralistic/green/conjunctive, the stage where so many of us have been stuck?


The answer for many, of course, has been simply to move from stages to states. Stage five people are breaking out of stuckness by jumping off the cliff edge of stage five into the bottomless abyss of Buddhist meditative states. But the problem with this is that you cannot be stageless. These people are just carrying the fifth stage with them into Buddhist meditation. Recall AQAL which says that every inner state (UL) has a corresponding socially constructed explanation (LL) and corresponding infrastructure of support (LR). Applying this to our cliff jumpers we see that one of the ordinary inner states for their fifth stage is a feeling of not-belonging. This means, for example, we may not belong with either democrats or republicans because both are right and both are wrong. Or we may not belong with either theists or atheists because both are right and both are wrong. And along with the feeling (UL) of non-belonging we have socially constructed explanations (LL). One such explanation is French existentialism which tells us we are “alienated.” Another such explanation is, of course, the theories of Fowler who tells us its hard to truly belong to one thing when we believe the truth of its opposite. When fifth stage people “jump off the cliff” and start practicing Buddhist meditation they may suddenly find themselves experiencing a state of “oneness with everything” and yet they continue to carry the (LL) baggage of the fifth stage. If that baggage happens to be dominated by feelings of alienation in a particular individual, then that becomes the interpretive paradigm for the experience of oneness. “Wow, in meditation I feel oneness with all as opposed to my usual oneness with nothing in the mundane world!“ The success of the meditation thus has the effect of reinforcing the mistakes of the underlying paradigm, resulting in a vicious circle of non-growth. Wilber sees this condition as another form of spiritual pathology.

We can perhaps better illustrate this spiritual pathology with some clearer examples. Let’s modulate back a couple of stages and revisit our Catholic contemplative prayer retreat. Among the attendees, there will inevitably be one member of the hosting parish who signs up for the weekend retreat fully expecting to experience a personal visitation from the Virgin Mary. We’ll say this person is a middle aged female who is obviously still straddling the second and third stages of faith even at her mature age. Predictably, midway through the second session she enters a deep state of bliss which she interprets as the immediate presence of the Blessed Virgin who has come personally to inspire and bless her (it’s all about me). The power of this experience now has the effect of reinforcing the lowest of the two stages she straddles (stage two: Mythic/Literal). Thus by practicing this Catholic form of meditation she locks herself into a vicious circle of paradigm reinforcement which obstructs her spiritual growth. Spiritually, she would have been better off drinking with her friends that weekend than praying!

Wilber often talks about a very common form of this meditative pathology that he calls “boomeritis.” This particular pathology occurs when a person is in Wilber‘s “green“ stage cognitively speaking, but has moral and emotional baggage left over from an earlier narcissistic stage. So let‘s use for an example a 45 year old divorced man. For a while he attended the Methodist Church because of his wife, but dropped out after the divorce. Personally, he strongly believes in global pluralism, hires ethnic minorities in his business, recycles trash to help save the planet, and believes that no religion is an exclusive path to salvation. He has lost the social stability of marriage and feels spiritually empty after trying to meet women in bars. So he joins a Buddhist meditation group for two different sets of reasons that are linked to his two (split) stages of consciousness. First of all, his pluralism directs him to a religion that emphasizes universal consciousness. Secondly, he chooses Buddhism specifically because TV shows make it look sexy (self-mastery plus martial arts equals superhero). Thirdly, a meditation group will be a great place to pick up women without looking like a lecherous bar-hopper. It is pure narcissism behind these last two motives for meditation. So let’s say our friend attends the group regularly, experiences some bliss, and meets a new trophy girlfriend. Obviously, the meditation serves to powerfully reinforce the lower narcissistic stage. “I am a cool hero of self-mastery and a babe magnet.” In Wilber’s view, this is the ultimate in meditation-based spiritual pathology.

PARADIGM, PLEASE (The Real Sixth Stage)

Wilber’s new breakthrough says that the sixth stage as originally conceived (as four “second tier” stages) is simply missing a paradigm. People are seeking transpersonal states and because they have no sixth stage paradigm they are bringing with them the only paradigm they have, which is the wrong one, and so their meditation is working only to reinforce their old paradigm; their old stage. Many meditation teachers including authentic ones from, say, Tibet, would challenge Wilber at this point, saying that the whole point of meditation is to dump paradigms and concepts and seek emptiness instead. This is a watershed issue, and a point where Wilber departs from much of standard Eastern consciousness training. He agrees that emptiness is indeed a desirable meditative state to be attained but maintains that it is impossible not to interpret any and all states, including emptiness! UL may be empty, but LL cannot be.

  • [Here we have another important perspective on what integral means. It means we bring a bit of good old western rationalism to the whole process of Eastern wisdom. So far we have not looked at it from this angle, but Wilber does not let the Eastern sages off the hook any easier than he lets Westerners off. Wilber asserts that much of indigenous Eastern practice is every bit as non-integral as its Western counterpart. Without the input of the West, the East faces two weaknesses. One is that much of its practice is prerational, and the other is that is lacks the psychoanalytical acumen to identify growth blockages in the first tier stages].

And now Wilber announces the real sixth stage...the Integral Stage. This is the point where the all-encompassing (quadrant spanning) integral philosophy meets spiritual growth, and integral philosophy itself becomes a stage of faith! But how do you get to this stage? By now it should be obvious that you cannot pole vault yourself into this stage with meditation. You get there the old fashioned way, through cognitive, rational paradigm shift, the same way you made it to all the other stages. An important point about the integral stage is that, yes, it is a stage of mystical union as we always suspected, but it does not come from the effort of invoking mystical feelings. It’s just an ordinary cognitive paradigm. It’s a conglomeration of concepts which are readily available to us, and now we finally pull them all together in a pattern. It involves no magic; it’s just another stage. And it happens to be the first stage that correctly supports transpersonal states and now allows those states to actually advance your consciousness instead of holding it back. It is a stage which says that because LL is a construction you are responsible for what you plug into it. Knowing this, you can plug Buddhism in if you want to—but you don’t have to. Because you are AQAL you can plug your own native symbols back in, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or whatever, and they can no longer block your growth in that old pathological feedback loop because instead of controlling and limiting your inner consciousness, they are now understood as languages in its service. You are now practicing integral Christianity, integral Judaism, integral Buddhism. Even integral atheism is a potential language of faith!


In a bit of unfinished business, where does this leave Fowler? Do we dismiss his sixth stage as being only a state? To answer that we need to introduce Wilber’s next (and final) stage: the Super Integral stage. It now seems apparent to me that Fowler’s sixth stage closely matches Wilber’s seventh stage. It is a stage where the (UL) inner experience of transpersonal states has reinforced the (LL) integral paradigm to the point that the paradigm is now reinforcing the inner experience. Let’s look at it another way—if we recall the earlier discussion that states are not stages, then we can now consider that the distinction between states and stages begins to dissolve at this level and the transpersonal states actually begin to move into the stage. They become part of the “well established mode of being through which we interpret reality.” Whereas in the sixth stage you know that all is One, in the seventh stage you more or less live it, as an ongoing habit of being. This description seems to fit the rare inhabitants of Fowler’s sixth stage. We could thus make a case that Fowler has it right but is missing a stage. He jumps to the all-consuming existential stage of unity, but he skips the simple paradigmatic stage of unity.


If we could distill this whole discussion into a single principle it would be: The value of states increases in direct proportion to advancement through the stages. A lot of American Buddhism has the cart before the horse—it is seeking the instant gratification of states instead of the long-term investment of stages. It has often consisted of little more than the idea that meditation leads to mystical experiences that will result in "enlightenment." But mystical states can be just another yuppie achievement in this context. Transpersonal states of mind are to be thought of as neither an achievement nor an attainment. They are a tool that, when combined with right thinking, will help us dump achievement, dump attainment, and dump ego. The idea that "meditation causes enlightenment" is a classic example of prerational magical thinking. While Wilber promotes Buddhism, seemingly because of its advantage of having a more straightforward spiritual language than other religious options, he also clearly argues that the mystical states of mind often popularly associated with Buddhism have little value unless they occur in an advanced stage of faith and that is something that can occur within (or without) any religion. His message to us is simple: "Grow up!" meaning grow though the stages of faith. That's where our spirituality should be focused—right thinking; right interpretation; right paradigm. If "enlightenment" itself has any meaning, then we saw it in the seventh stage: the right paradigm combined with the right [sustainable] state of mind.

A Final Question: Is Wilber “elitist”?

If you have read this far it has likely occurred to you to wonder how some of the great spiritual luminaries from centuries past—St. John-of-the-Cross, for example—could be considered spiritually advanced when they utterly lacked the clarifying power that according to Wilber came only in the wake of modernism and postmodernism. Is it true that only those of us on this side of history have any hope of being spiritually awakened? In a sense, yes, Wilber is elitist concerning this question. He would say that we are indeed at a spiritual advantage today. Not that St. John, Jesus, or Siddhartha did not represent pinnacles of spiritual genius by any standards, but their spirituality derived primarily from a direct ability to attain and sustain states of mystical union, or non-dual consciousness, as opposed to an ascent through the vertical stages as we have discussed. Disadvantaged?—yes, but still more enlightened than most people will ever be.

By his own admission Wilber is somewhat of an elitist where consciousness is concerned. But he explains that this simply means that some things have more value than others. Looking at an example of cultural values, we could say that it’s probably better to allow every citizen to vote in elections than to throw citizens into volcanoes to appease the gods. For those who are still in the pluralistic/green stage, that is a politically incorrect position because one of the paramount principles of that stage is that “all cultural values are equally valid.” For Wilber, this pluralistic lack of discernment is simply wrong-headed. Many green-stage people will tout Native American spirituality as being superior because it calls for "honoring the land" in contradistinction to the exploitation of the land perpetrated by the modern rationalist paradigm. Wilber would dispute this position, arguing that Native American spirituality is a low level form of consciousness being prerational as well as magical/mythic. According to Wilber we should indeed honor the land, but do so from a [post-postmodern] integral perspective. Why unnecessarily set your spirituality back two or three hundred years just to be ecologically responsible? While this approach makes Wlber sound like a 1950’s conservative and a Sierra Club liberal all rolled into one, the fact is that he is post-conservative and post-liberal. Wilber has no interest in anything but truth and in that pursuit he often takes positions that appear in turn regressively conservative and boldly liberal from our contemporary perspective.

Wilber’s tendency to place cultures, ideas, and consciousness stages in a hierarchy of importance and value is rooted not so much in pure elitism as in his strong connection to German Idealism as represented by philosophers such as Hegel, and especially Schelling, who hold that evolution is driving history toward a cosmic goal . This idealism sees history as an upward evolutionary spiral in which Spirit, as the underpinning of nature, is animating all of Being toward the goal of complete Self-Consciousness. Assuming the correctness of the metaphysics of idealism, it logically follows that the further along in history we are the more advanced we are in consciousness growth, collectively speaking, and thus we have greater potential overall for spiritual enlightenment than those from past centuries. If this philosophy constitutes “elitism” then Wilber is guilty as charged.


  1. Integral Spirituality, by Ken Wilber ISBN 978-1590303467 Shambhala Publications, 2006.
  2. The Origins Of Religion in Universal Consciousness