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What is Integral?

Welcome to the Integral Approach

During the last 30 years, we have witnessed a historical first: all of the world’s cultures are available to us. Increased globalization and the rise of the information age have placed the sum total of human knowledge at our fingertips—the experience, wisdom, and reflection of all major human civilizations—premodern, modern, and postmodern—are open to study by basically anyone with an internet connection.

What if we took literally everything that all the various cultures have to tell us about human potential—about spiritual growth, psychological growth, social growth—and put it all on the table? What if we attempted to find the critically essential keys to human growth, based on the sum total of human knowledge and experience? What if we attempted, based on extensive cross-cultural study, to use all of the world’s great traditions to create a composite map, a comprehensive map, an all-inclusive, or integral map, that included the best elements from all of them?

Over the last 30 years, Ken Wilber has created the detailed outlines of such a map. What he generally calls Integral Theory has emerged as a truly 21st century world philosophy. Its core theoretical framework—called AQAL (ah-qwul)—integrates the fundamental truths of nearly every human endeavor—from science to spirituality and developmental studies to systems theory—into a cohesive and actionable model of human experience, understanding, and growth.

While it may seem daunting and complex, the beauty of the Integral approach lies in its simplicity. The theory identifies just a handful of fundamental distinctions about reality itself—called quadrants, levels, lines, states, and types. These distinctions are not just abstract; they can be located in your direct experience and concern the way you make sense of your life and world. So, what at first seems to be merely theoretical turns out to be a new way of looking at and living in your world. The result is a radical shift in the way you relate to yourself, others, and the world—and an increase in your effectiveness, understanding, and happiness. In essence, learning Integral Theory, or what is often called the Integral Approach, propels you onto a path of integration. How can I find more balance in my busy life? How can I better understand and relate more deeply to other people? How can I make sense of all the issues facing our world? Why do I do the things that I do? Learning the Integral Approach can help you answer all of these questions and many more.

How is Integral Applied?

Integral theory began with modest roots in a few texts published by Ken in his early 20’s. Currently, he has 25 volumes published in over 32 languages, each of which is still in print.

Ken is considered one of the most influential philosophers alive today, and has even been called the “Einstein of Consciousness.” Over the last few decades, the theory and its application have expanded in both reach and applicability. Ken’s book sales, in excess of several hundred thousand copies, have led to a community of global Integral practitioners who have applied the Integral approach to over 42 distinct disciplines at doctoral and post-doctoral levels. These include: business, leadership, science, politics, ecology, sustainability, criminology, architecture, feminist studies, future studies, climate change, economics, addiction recovery, spirituality, personal growth, and dozens more.

Who is Using Integral Theory?

Demand for the Integral approach has kept pace with its expansion into the disciplines mentioned above. It is being actively utilized by businesses, universities, and over one hundred thousand individuals in several dozen countries. Some of the more notable thought leaders utilizing an Integral approach include: spiritual leaders such as Father Thomas Keating, Hollywood producers such as Larry Wachowski of The Matrix Trilogy fame, business leaders like Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey, personal growth gurus such as Tony Robbins and even world leaders such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Integral 101: The Quadrants

Some time around 1995, 15 billion years of evolution conspired to make sense of itself, and it was indeed successful. In the end one piece of paper, upon which was drawn a pair of intersecting lines was all it took to capture the radical and ever expanding complexity of our universe in a simple map. To be sure, this was no ordinary map. It was, in fact, incredibly unique not just for its simplicity but for what that simplicity represented. This pair of lines elegantly demarcated the four corners of the Kosmos, the central dimensions of your life and your world, which for many millennia had eluded other cosmic mapmakers, but not for their lack of effort. The four dimensions outlined in this map are called the quadrants and their discovery was not an invention but rather a recognition: a deep recognition that the complexity of nearly everything from global terrorism, to the nature of one’s self is elegantly arranged in an irreducible and co-arising pattern of four. Consider yourself. In this very moment you can touch in with various thoughts, feelings, and emotions (Upper Left or UL Quadrant). You can observe your behaviors and physical characteristics (Upper Right or UR Quadrant). You can feel a sense of shared meaning with those you care about (Lower Left or LL Quadrant). And you are enmeshed in the structure of various social groups such as your family or your company (Lower Right or LR Quadrant). Put simply, these are the quadrants. The intentional (UL), behavioral (UR), cultural (LL) and social (LR) or the very real dimensions of the territory of your life and experience.

The quadrants are also perspectives through which we can make sense of virtually any issue in a more holistic and less partial way. Consider religion. Why is it that religion has been at the heart of so much human violence? To answer this question, we need to answer at least four questions that enact the phenomenon called “religion.” Through one quadrant, we see a vast range of individual beliefs and experiences (UL), through another we see that these beliefs have motivated an equally vast range of behaviors from compassion to violence (UR). Through another, we see different cultures with different shared meanings (LL) spread across the globe, and through the last quadrant we can see that each has culture has different practices, social structures, rules and codes of law (LR). In other words, focusing on just a single perspective such as individual behaviors (UR), leaves out the other three perspectives without which we will never arrive at a full answer.

The quadrants help us weave a whole out of topics that otherwise seem fragmented and overly complex. The four corners of the Kosmos are the four dimensions of you and four lenses or perspectives through which you understand your world. They are the elemental tapestry of your experience, and they form the basis of our AQAL map.

As simple as the quadrants may seem, let’s not forget that it was only 15 years ago that these dimensions were first articulated in this manner–for their simplicity truly lies on the other side of complexity. Fortunately for us, the quadrants have been built into a beautiful map, an Integral map to guide us on our journey away from fragmentation and towards the freedom and fullness of a life alive with the integral vision.

Clint Fuhs is a leading authority in the field of Integral Theory and application and has been a senior student of its progenitor, Ken Wilber, for the past 9 years. Clint served in several leadership positions in the areas of operations and curriculum at Integral Institute and Integral Life since 2003. Currently, he is the founder of Core Integral, Inc., which he created with Ken in early 2009 as a platform to expand the accessibility and ensure the integrity of a comprehensive Integral understanding. Clint currently serves as adjunct faculty in the Integral Studies programs at both JFK University and Fielding Graduate University. Clint completed his MA in Organizational Management and Development at Fielding and is currently completing a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems also at Fielding. His research focuses on the nature of human perspective-taking, its role in decision making and human development, along with the creation of methods to scaffold that growth toward higher levels of complexity.

Integral Chicks Note: Stay tuned to Integral Chicks over the next few months as we tell you more about the core principles of the theory, and why we think it’s important to actually learn them. It’s a lifelong endeavor, to be sure, but just like any map, the theory can serve as an important tool, one which helps you navigate your life with greater ease and more compassion. The cool thing about learning Integral Theory is that it goes from being a very objective system of symbols and characters, to something you don’t leave home without having in your back pocket, and eventually becomes your inner RPS (reality positioning system), guiding you moment-to-moment toward greater holism and embrace. This requires learning over time, and is simply a critical endeavor that humans, mired in the increasingly complex territory of life, can’t afford not to undertake. More soon!