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Ken Wilber

Integral Transformation

Ken WilberTami Simon speaks with Ken Wilber, in the first of a two-part series. Ken is one of the most influential and widely read American philosophers of our time. He is the founder of the Integral Institute and has published over 25 books, including A Brief History of Everything, and The Simple Feeling of Being.

Ken discusses, “What is genuine transformation?”.

(18.3 MB | 40 minutes)

Ken Wilber: Part 1 [Transcript]

Today I speak with Ken Wilber in the first of a two-part series. Whenever I speak with Ken, it seems that our conversation goes on and on in an engaging and illuminating way. So here we go, the first of two parts.

I spoke with Ken about a topic that is very dear to me here at Sounds True: what is genuine transformation? Well, first Ken, thank you. Thank you for coming on “Insights at the Edge” with me.

Ken Wilber: My pleasure. As I have said many times, you’re one of my favorite people in the whole wide world, and I’m delighted to be here with you.


Tami Simon: Thank you, Ken. I know it’s your generosity to show up and spend this time with me, so thank you.

Ken Wilber: You bet.


I want to talk to you about genuine transformation, this whole idea, what is genuine transformation? And I know in your work you’ve made this interesting distinction between transformation and translation.

Ken Wilber: Yes.


Can you explain what that is, the distinction?

Ken Wilber: Sure. Basically human beings consist of several components, including body, including mind, including spirit. And the mental dimension is the dimension that we interpret the world from, the dimension that we create meaning with, that we create values with, and generally our self-identity on the relative plane. And one of the interesting things about the mind of course is that it develops, and it develops through several stages or levels of development. And each level has a different need, a different motivation, a different value structure—generally a different worldview. And these worldviews have been investigated by Western developmental psychologists.

And to give one simple example, because the wording is so easy to understand, is the pioneering genius Gene Gebser, and he found these levels of development to move from archaic to magic to mythic to rational to pluralistic to integral. So mythic is the basis of traditional value systems, particularly fundamentalist views on literal Biblical values, and they take the mythic events of the Bible to be concrete, literal realities. So Moses really did part the Red Sea, God really did rain locusts on the pharaoh, and so on. But that’s the source of traditional values.

And then the next level, the rational, is the source of modern values. And this includes individual achievement and scientific truth and business and entrepreneurship, and generally speaking individual achievement and accomplishment.

And then the next stage or level, the pluralistic, is the basis of postmodern values. And so they are so-called cultural creatives and have to do with multiple realities and multiple cultural realities, the idea that there are no major universals, that reality sort of varies from culture to culture, and no one culture is better or worse than another. And that value structure is relatively recent, but has predominated the leading edge at universities and liberal politics and social services for the last twenty, almost thirty years now.

And then the next and the highest level to date is just emerging, and that’s referred to as the integral. And the thing about the integral level is all of the previous levels believe that their truths and their values alone are real. The integral level understands that all of the previous levels have some degree of truth, that there’s some important values in all of the previous structures; that individuals are born at square one, everyone’s born at archaic, and moves through the magic to the mythic to the rational to the pluralistic to the integral.

And so that is one of the main definitions of transformation, is this vertical movement through these structures or levels of consciousness, so there’s a genuine change in values, a genuine change in worldview, a genuine change in the way the world is perceived and experienced and felt.

So for example, if we look at the traditional value structure, it tends to be ethnocentric. It believes that there’s one true way, one and only one true way, and all the other approaches are those of infidel, basically are wrong or blasphemous. And so that ethnocentric value structure is the way that individuals at that stage are going to view the world. But when they move to the next stage, the rational stage, that’s the first that is world-centric. And that includes the notion that all men and women are created equal, regardless of race, color, sex, or creed. So that’s a very different shift; that transformation from traditional to modern is a very profound transformation, and it is indeed a transformation, a move upward.

And that is contrasted with translation. Translation is the moves that you make on any particular level. So if we think of these stages as, say, a ten-story building, then moving furniture around on one floor is translation, whereas moving from one floor to another floor entirely is transformation. And that’s generally one of the things that we want to do when we get into personal growth and development, is we want to transform. We don’t want to just continue translating from the level we’re at; we want to move to a higher, broader, deeper, wider level of awareness, level of care, level of consciousness, level of concern. And so that is indeed a transformation. And it’s essentially different from translation.


Now, I can imagine the person listening to “Insights at the Edge” is thinking, “Well, you know, I’m probably an integral person. Maybe I’m pluralistic moving into integral.” How does somebody know the difference, whether they’re at the pluralistic stage of development or the integral stage? What is that transformation?

Ken Wilber: The pluralistic stage is still part of what’s called first-tier stages. And this was based on the research of Abraham Maslow and Clare Graves among others, and what they found is that as development continued, when it got to the pluralistic stage, then the next stage of development into the integral was what Clare Graves called “a momentous leap in meaning.” And Abe Maslow found that it was a jump entirely from being motivated by deficiency needs to being motivated by being needs.

Now, deficiency needs means that I’m motivated by I lack something, I need it, I get it, I’m fulfilled. So I lack food, I get it, I’m satisfied; I lack sex, I get it, I’m satisfied. All of these—I lack self-esteem, I get it, I’m satisfied. But then all of a sudden, with the integral level or the being level, one’s motivation becomes that of abundance, becomes that of overflowing. You are motivated to do something not because you lack something, but because you are full. There’s a superabundant overflowing of motivation. And it’s sort of as if somebody gave you a million dollars or even a billion dollars, and so instead of operating from a scarcity drive, you are operating from an abundance, and the first thing you do is share this money with all your friends.

So that’s sort of the emotional difference between pluralistic and integral, but it comes down to the essential definition between first tier and this second tier or integral tier, and that is that as, still being part of first tier, the pluralistic value structure thinks that its values are truly the only real and believable values in the world. And so the pluralistic stage is antimodernity, antienlightenment, antirationalism, it’s anti-traditional-values, and doesn’t have quite a big enough mind-space to allow there to be some truth to all of these value structures.

And so there’s still, if you’re at the pluralistic stage, there’s the beginnings of an integral move in that there is an attempt to not marginalize individuals, there’s an attempt to overcome oppression, an attempt to overcome repression and social injustice, but it still doesn’t include all the other value structures. Whereas when you get to the integral level, all of a sudden the mind expands, and there’s a place for everything, there’s room for everything. There’s a sense that everybody’s right, although some truths are more right than others.


Can you explain that? What do you mean, Ken, how can some truths be more— If everybody’s right, but some are more right. I don’t get that.

Ken Wilber: Right. The idea is that each level simply transcends and includes its predecessor. So we can take a simple developmental sequence, from atoms to molecules to cells to organisms. So when we’re at the molecule stage, if that’s the highest stage of development we’re at, then the world is full of molecules. And that’s the only truth there is, that’s the highest truth. Molecules also contain atoms, so atoms are included in molecules. So there’s a partial truth of atoms, and then the total, highest truth of molecules.

Then when cells emerge, molecules are taken up into cells. So cells now transcend and include molecules. So the particular molecular truth is now a partial truth; it’s part of cellular complexity. It’s part of a cellular existence, it’s part of a cellular worldview.

And cells at that point in time are then the highest truth that there is, until organisms emerge that contain many cells. And so then organisms become a higher truth, but it doesn’t deny the existence of atoms; it doesn’t deny the existence of molecules; it doesn’t deny the existence of cells. There’s a partial truth in all of those. All of those are necessary to create an organism, but each level is more complex, more inclusive, more transcendental.

And when we see that in mental structures, it shows up as each stage of development has more consciousness, takes on more perspectives; doesn’t deny the perspective of that level, it just adds new perspectives. So there is an increase in capacity for love, increase in capacity for care, increase in capacity for concern and compassion and inclusiveness. So in that sense, every level contributes something is partially true, but each higher level is more true, more inclusive, and encompassing.


Now, let’s say I want to know if I’m a pluralistic or an integral person, and I’m listening to this and I think, “Well, at the emotional level, you know a lot of times I feel a sense of overflowing fullness and the limitlessness of my life and capacities, but then other times, you now, I definitely feel a lack.

Ken Wilber: Right. Right.


You said, you know, “Have sex, have—” Yeah, I know exactly what that feels like, a sense of lack. And then the— So how do I know internally which of these levels I’m truly at?

Ken Wilber: It’s a combination of looking at your overall sense of value structures, of how you relate to traditional values, how you relate to modern values, how you relate to postmodern values. If you’re at an integral level, there’s an intuitive kind of OK-ness with all of these values. It doesn’t mean you necessarily like them, but you understand that there’s a fundamental place for them. You understand that somebody coming from a traditional value system is coming from a level that is true at that stage; there’s a relative amount of truth to that. And they are simply in the process of accruing and developing. And so there’s a sense of commonality with all of humanity, a sense of fundamental OK-ness with the value structures that you see running around out there. And even though ultimately the value structure you have, which is the one that is inclusive of all of those, is itself a fairly rare achievement. The integral level itself is just emerging over the last couple of decades. There’s probably only about 4 or 5 percent of the world’s population at integral.

But you’re right. People listening to this podcast are most likely have a good deal of integral in them, or they wouldn’t be interested in all of these kinds of ideas. And the integral level is behind this sort of enormous interest in various cultures and different types of mediation and the truths that come from mediation and contemplation, as well as their traditional modern and postmodern values. So individuals even sort of asking themselves “What stage am I at?” are probably have a fair amount of integral awareness in them, and that’s driving this interest in all of these things. And particularly driving an interest in how to see all of these things fitting together, how to find a worldview that is inclusive, a worldview that makes room for everything and finds place for everything. Like room for atoms and molecules and cells and organisms. And that’s one of the exciting things that’s happening over the last couple of decades is the increasing emergence of this integral level of understanding.


Now what about the sense of identity, one’s own personal sense of identity, moving through these different stages of transformation?

Ken Wilber: Right. That sense of identity gets bigger and bigger and broader and broader, and more and more inclusive. So when we’re at the magic or egocentric level of development, one’s identity is essentially just that, egocentric. I’m identified with myself, my own narcissistic powers, and don’t have an identity that extends much beyond that. When I move up to the next level, the traditional value structure, it’s ethnocentric. So it moves from egocentric to ethnocentric. And ethnocentric means that my identity expands from just me to my family, my tribe, possibly my nation. But it’s a more expansive sense of identity with a broader group of people. And that sense of identity is very real, and it can be felt, you know, right through to the bones, and is an essential expansion of the size of your identity, if you will.

And this is headed in a particular direction. The next stage, the modern stage, is world-centric. And that means an identity, a fundamental self-identity with all of humanity, regardless of race, color, sex, or creed. So we’ve gone from egocentric to ethnocentric to world-centric. And that means going from first-person perspective to second-person perspective to third-person perspective. So each of these is an expansion of identity, and that continues into the postmodern stage, which for all of the world-centric nature of the modern stage, it still can tend to exclude other cultures, whereas the postmodern stage is very, very careful to be multiculturally sensitive and to find an identity with all cultures, regardless of whether they’re east or west or north or south, or premodern, modern, or postmodern. So that’s an expansion again into a fuller world–centric identity.

And then with the leap into integral, one’s identity starts to expand even beyond humanity to all sentient beings, and that’s called cosmos-centric. And so that’s an identity where you literally start to feel one with all of life, one with all of nature, one with the Divine, one with Spirit, and an identity that therefore at times you will actually feel one with everything that’s arising. You feel one with the entire manifest world, and that’s a very powerful state of one taste or oneness, is often experienced in cases of flow states where individuals get involved in a flow state that takes them beyond themselves to a oneness with everything that’s arising. And that’s a very powerful experience, and it’s essentially a peak experience of an integral, cosmos-centric state. And so what we see is a continuing growth and evolution of consciousness, with each stage transcending and including the previous stage. So that each stage gets bigger, bigger, bigger, deeper, wider, higher, more inclusive.

And that has brought us to this present stage of the emergence of integral, which for the first time in history is a stage that self-consciously includes all previous stages. And that is indeed a transformation that is unheard of. All of the previous stages were very important, each one was wider, deeper, more inclusive, but each previous stage still believed that its values are the only real values in existence. And so postmodernity disagrees with modernity’s values, it disagrees with traditional values, it disagrees with tribal values. Likewise modernity itself disagrees with postmodernity, it disagrees with traditional values, and so on. Whereas the integral level finds some degree of truth and value to all of them.

So for the first time in history, we’re coming upon an evolution of consciousness that is dramatically more inclusive than anything that we’ve seen in history, and this is going to have, and is starting to have, profound impact on all human activity, and will increasingly show up as a demand for integral medicine, integral education, integral politics, and so on. And we’re right at the verge, starting to see these integral movements emerge, and it’s really quite extraordinary.


Can you give me one example so I’m sure people are tracking with you when you say something like “integral medicine.” What makes that type of medicine integral?

Ken Wilber: What we find as we’re at an integral stage and looking at the worldview that the integral stage creates is that many, many more dimensions of being become obvious. And so in simplified terms, and these really are simplified, but we can say that an integral worldview definitely includes body and mind and spirit. And in all of them in important proportions. And that in itself is unlike any previous structure. The modern structure, for example, believes in mind but not spirit, and the traditional structure believes in spirit but not mind, and so on. So actually having a worldview that wants to include body and mind and spirit is itself something fairly unheard of.

But that will change the way that we look at every discipline that we get involved with, and medicine is one of them. Medicine right now, is as it’s practiced, was created during the modern era, the rational era, and believes essentially in scientific materialism. So it believes in medicine that looks only at the material body. So medicine does not look at your mind, your interior, your mental values, or any personal values that you hold and that can be contributing to the illness. Nor does it look at all at spiritual components to illness, and spiritual components to cure.

So a truly integral medicine accepts all of the truths of material medicine; it accepts all the truths of modern medicine and the importance of physical body and physical cures. But it also looks at mind and mental values and motivations and techniques that can help cure illness from the mind, including visualization techniques and motivation techniques. And it also looks at [the] spiritual component of illness, and helps individuals get in touch with the Ground of Being—however they wish to conceive it, Spirit, by whatever name—that can help play an important role, not only in the cause of illness, but certainly in the cure of illness.

And so we’re starting to see an increasing demand for integrative medicine. And there actually is a movement called integrative medicine, and that’s a start in that direction. It’s not quite integral; it’s not really fully, fully, fully taking into account all of these dimensions, but it’s a very, very powerful move in that direction. And it is now of course the third major movement in medicine: we have orthodox medicine, we have alternative medicine, and now we have integrative medicine. Integrative medicine takes into account both of the other two. So we see again the transcend-and-include nature of these more integral movements.

And we see the same thing in politics, a desire to instead of having constant battle between Democrats and Republicans, to find a third way of politics that understands the strengths and weaknesses of both parties, both of their values, and both of what they’re doing. We see the same things starting in education, which is instead of educating just for the modern view of education, which is just cognitive-mental, that there are many multiple intelligences—musical, kinesthetic, emotional intelligence—and all of these need to be addressed, and are addressed in integral views. So those are just some examples of the types of human disciplines that are starting to be redone because individuals are moving into these integral levels.


Now Ken, you’re one of the hardest working, most productive, and most passionate writers and teachers that I know. For real; I’m not blowing smoke here.

Ken Wilber: Thank you.


You’ve been working your tushy [off] for decades.

Ken Wilber: Yes.


And all your work seems to focus in one way or another about this momentous leap into integral, the integral vision.

Ken Wilber: Right.


Why is this such a passion for you? What’s fueling your own commitment to the integral vision?

Ken Wilber: Well, the only thing I can guess is that it’s my own— You know, not to pat myself on the back, but it would be my own integral awareness. I think I stumbled, transformed into this stage rather early in this. Wrote my first book twenty-three years old called The Spectrum of Consciousness, and it was an integrative view of all the psychotherapy systems that were out there, East and West, and showed how they could all be brought together into one comprehensive, truly holistic system. My same consciousness has a spectrum consisting of indeed different levels, and with different psychotherapies being correct in addressing a particular level that they were created for. So the six or so major schools of psychotherapy in the world, it wasn’t just that one was right and all the others were wrong; it’s that they were all right when dealing with their own level.

And from that early book through some twenty-five books, it’s been the same kind of theme. Looking in different disciplines, looking in anthropology, sociology, philosophy, psychology, science, and looking for this integral, more comprehensive worldview. And how that could create a view of the world that was not fragmented, not partial, not broken, not piecemeal, but it was indeed whole and united and one and harmonious. And that that is indeed the direction that evolution is moving. So for better or worse, I just appear to be one of the early surfers on that evolutionary wave.

And I kind of stayed with it ever since, and have been very delighted to see the influence of integral views slowly spread, but indelibly get more and more influential year by year, until now where it’s really kind of a worldwide awareness, and people from all over the world are starting to wake up to their integral possibilities. And that ultimately is what is required for our worldwide problems, whether we’re looking at climate control or economic meltdown or culture wars. We’re either going to approach those from a truly holistic, comprehensive stance and find ways to approach this in a whole fashion, or we’re going to continue to approach them in piecemeal, fragmented, broken terms, in which case we’re not going to solve them at all. So it’s not only a time that integral is growing, it’s a time that we desperately need it. So it seems to be kind of coming along, sort of more or less, right when it was needed.


I’m curious. Here you’ve been working on bringing the integral vision forward for three-plus decades, what do you think has changed in your own thinking over this period of time? What thoughts did you have three decades ago that you say, “You know, actually I really have to change that; that’s not correct.” Over this period when you look back, what’s potentially disappointed you in how the integral vision has been brought into the world? So changes and potentially disappointments—or surprises.

Ken Wilber: Right. As for changes, I have to say that I’ve been fairly lucky. When I was asked to do my collected works, I went back through and read everything that I had written to edit it for the collected works, and I was happily surprised to find that I still believed in about 95 percent of what I had written. What I noticed is that each book covered a particular area, and then when it got to an area that at that time I really didn’t know something about, I tended just not to say anything. So I never overextended my own integral vision, and so it always stayed within limits that were accurate, and are still accurate today. I still stand behind virtually all of the major books and statements that I’ve made over the years. So in that regard, I’ve been fortunate. And for some reason my mind just won’t make comments about things that it doesn’t have a lot of evidence for, and I think perhaps that’s maybe one of the reasons that people trust my books, and one of the reasons that all of them are still in print is that there is an enduring kind of truth quality to them.

But now as for surprises and disappointments, ups and downs, those have been many. And many of them have been positive as well as negative. You can sort of, depending on kind of what angle you look at it, you can see the spread of integral ideas as either happening at an extraordinarily fast pace, and sometimes I see it that way. And other times I feel like it’s just dragging its ass along the ground and it’s just going so slow. And it’s such a disappointment not to see it grow faster or wider or larger.

But in terms of the positive, the number of people that have increasingly become attracted to an integral view, are creating their own integral views, are using mine, or in some way or other are becoming integral themselves—this has in some ways been really astonishing. Five years ago, I would never have guessed that both a sitting president and vice-president would publicly endorse my work. And yet both Clinton and Gore did so. Clinton at a recent world economic forum said that what the world needs now is integral consciousness as described by Ken Wilber in his book The Marriage of Sense and Soul, and then he went on to lament the fact that there were relatively so few people at that stage, and he worried about that because it clearly had something to offer the world, and yet with only 4 or 5 percent of the world there, that was cause for concern. Al Gore called The Marriage of Sense and Soul his favorite new book. This is all utterly surprising, and something that I say five, six years ago would not have thought possible. But the spread of integral ideas, looked at from that angle, has been surprisingly positive and widespread.

I still— Today I’m on one of the days where I think it’s going too slow. And that’s disappointing and irritating and it’s just sort of, you know, all you can do is kind of take a breath and get meditative and let what is arise. So there have been some real ups and downs in terms of how I view the movement itself.

*Re-blogged by permission from the Sounds True Insights at the Edge site.