AQAL: An Introduction to Ken Wilber's Integral Psychology

AQAL: An Introduction to Ken Wilber's Integral Psychology

(from Consciousness Studies Online)

by Eric Thompson
Essential to the AQAL Framework (pronounced "aukwul," a shortened acronym for "All Quadrants, All Levels, All Lines, All States, All Types") of philosopher Ken Wilber is the concept of holarchy, a term borrowed from Arthur Koestler to explain the progression of complexity from quarks to atoms, to molecules, to cells, to organs, to organisms, to families of organisms, to societies of organisms, and so on. This progression is described as holarchical because each higher level of emergence embraces and enfolds its junior—transcending and including, so that each level is simultaneously a whole in itself while being a part that is also transcended, included, and embraced by levels of emergence higher than its own. This progression plays itself out ultimately as a sequential movement through what Arthur Lovejoy has called the Great Chain (or Levels) of Being: matter, body, mind, soul, and spirit, the latter of which is the ground or essential substrate from which all existence is said to arise.

There are four basic quadrants—hence, "All Quadrants"—through which each is expressed and evolves: objective individual, subjective individual, subjective collective (or inter-subjective), and objective collective (or inter-objective).

The Upper Right Quadrant:
Individual Objective

An individual human being is a perfect example of a holon: he or she lives in an individual body that can be measured and tested by science. Scientists can take an EEG measurement of a person's brain, take samples of the prevalent neurochemicals present within that brain during various moods and states, and even see what's going on in the brain while someone is experiencing a particularly disturbing dream. This example involves scientifically measurable data regarding the individual and adequately illustrates the domain of the Upper Right Quadrant. This quadrant deals with objectively verifiable information and observations regarding the exterior individual.

Various psychological practices—or practices clinically shown to enhance overall health—that are expressions of the UR include: sports training, neuro-feedback training, psychoneuroimmunology, sports psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, psychobiology, and nutritional supplementation.

The Upper Left Quadrant (UL): Individual Subjective

What conventional science is not presently able to do, however, is accurately measure an individual's interior experience of a particularly disturbing dream. It can reveal to us which parts of the brain are active, but it cannot measure the emotional, subjective, interior experience evoked by the dream, which is what certain branches of philosophy have attempted to do. Interestingly, science has often regarded philosophy as "unscientific," lacking in empirical, "irrefutable" evidence, whereas philosophy has often regarded science as rigid and limited in its scope. In fact, modern psychology, for example, is often embarrassed by its "philosophical" past (take, for example, the work of Freud, Jung, and Rogers, all of which have been scientifically critiqued) and insists on being taken seriously as a "hard," empirical science.

Yet science cannot deny that we as human beings do indeed have interior, subjective experiences that are difficult, if not impossible, to measure. We can measure your endorphins, but we can't measure your joy (other than through psychometric inventories which rely exclusively on individual subjective reports). We can measure your oxytocin, but we can't measure the bond you feel with your husband. These are subjective, interior experiences, none of which can be accurately measured scientifically. Why is that? It is because life is more than scientifically measurable exteriors. In fact, every observable, testable, measurable, and empirical "fact" is virtually always experienced and interpreted subjectively within the individual. This is the domain of existence that Wilber refers to as the Upper Left Quadrant, the individual interior. As such, Integral theory attempts to honor the individual exterior acknowledged by science, as well as the individual interior acknowledged by philosophy and the spiritual traditions.

Various psychological practices—or practices clinically shown to enhance psychological health—that are expressions of the UL include: meditation, visualization, heart-centered prayer, work with emotional dynamics, depth psychology, relaxation techniques, psychotherapy, transpersonal and humanistic psychology, religious training, dream psychology, and phenomenology.

The Lower Right Quadrant (LR): Inter-Objective

Though the Upper Quadrants attempt to represent the individual LACE w:st="on">holonLACE>, neither holons nor human beings live in isolation. Regardless of our various cultures, we all live in a particular ecology, a physical environment, and operate within a specific socio-economic system. The Western capitalist economy, highway systems, and the various LACE w:st="on">U.S.LACE> governmental information networks are all parts of the exterior, collective environment in which we Americans live. Integral Theory refers to this exterior collective aspect of a LACE w:st="on">holonLACE> as the Lower Right Quadrant because, just like the Upper Right Quadrant, it deals with measurable exteriors. However, whereas the Upper Quadrants deal with the individual, the Lower Quadrants deal with a holon's collective aspects.

Various psychological practices—or practices clinically shown to enhance overalll health—that are expressions of the LR include: recycling, volunteering, service-learning, environmental learning, civic engagement and social reform, organizational psychology, evolutionary psychology, chaos theory, nonlinear dynamics, systems theory, dissipative structures theory, deep ecology, social psychology, and complexity theory.

The Lower Left Quadrant (LL): Inter-Subjective

Just as with the individual aspects of a holon, not all of the collective aspects of a holon can be scientifically measured or spoken of in objective terms. The Collective aspect of a holon, in other words, also possesses a subjective interior. Wilber refers to this as the Lower Left Quadrant, or the Cultural aspect of holons. For example, we can take a picture of the U.S. Constitution (LR), but we can't take a picture of the sense of pride and gratefulness we experience as we recall the historical struggle our forefathers went through to give this great document expression. It is not possible to accurately measure, in purely scientific terms, the influence this cultural phenomenon has had upon us as Americans and all human beings collectively. It's very much an interior, subjective reality, but a reality nonetheless. Likewise, we can take a picture of the Bible, the Upanishads, or the Qur'an, but we can't take a picture of the inward experience a particular moral precept gives us as it governs our experience of the world. And because this interior space is something we can all share collectively, Wilber refers to this as the Cultural domain or Lower Left Quadrant.

Various psychological practices—or practices clinically shown to enhance psychological wellbeing—that are expressions of the LL include: work with interpersonal dynamics, transformational learning (as introduced by Jack Mezirow), cultural psychology, association with spiritually oriented communities, perspectival embrace, conflict resolution, communication skills, ethics, karma yoga (i.e., selfless service as spiritual worship and practice), couples counseling, group and family counseling, archetypal psychology, object-relations therapy, hermeneutics, family dynamics, parenting, and sportsmanship.

Levels or Stages

Development in the UL, according to research in developmental psychology, seems to unfold in stages. Various stage models like Don Beck's and Christopher Cowan's Spiral Dynamics (which they expanded from psychologist Clare Grave's groundbreaking work) and Jean Piaget's cognitive model have been empirically confirmed as self-existing potentials in thousands of individuals sampled from all over the world. Wilber's emphasis on such stages of development underscores the fact that each level brings with it an almost entirely different interior experience of the world. Thus, if the world's so-called problems are to be solved, such resolution will necessitate the evolution of consciousness itself upward and onward through these inherent stage potentials within the human psyche.

In essence, what all of these stages seem to depict—to borrow an expression from David R. Hawkins—are positions along an evolutionary learning curve with which individuals, cultures, and civilizations identify and through which they evolve.


To address the problems that often occur when attempting to explain developmental stage models, Wilber eventually expounded the idea of individual lines of development. Each line represents an intelligence—similar to Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences (e.g., linguistic, kinesthetic, logico-mathematical, and spatial)—that, for the most part, develops both linearly and vertically through the various stages, each intelligence developing more or less independently. Since the collective conglomeration of the intelligences make up the experienced "self," the overall growth and development of the "self" may be experienced in anything but a sequential, linear progression through the stages. It is just this non-linear characteristic of overall development that once puzzled proponents of developmental stage models. But Wilber's solution was to view each individual expression of intelligence as its own "line," a line of development that did indeed develop linearly through various stages (e.g., the pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional stages). And because each line of expressed intelligence, though loosely related, developed more or less independently from each of the other intelligences, their overall aggregate resulted in a developmental pattern that often seemed like it was anything but linear.

Research has repeatedly demonstrated the synergistic power of cross-training in multiple lines of intelligence, often leaving conventional rigid specialization trailing behind. For example, though basic moral-intensive training produces a measurable positive effect on moral development, such training alone falls short. Anyone who has known the difference between right and wrong yet still chose to engage in a less than favorable behavior knows as much from experience. Yet research demonstrates that when extensive training methods in specific lines of development are strategically combined, dramatic jumps in moral development are possible.

The importance of developing multiple-intelligence awareness is exemplified in the individual with an IQ of 150 who uses his "intelligence" to embezzle thousands of dollars. Sure, he possesses impressive cognitive intelligence, but where is his moral intelligence? Other interesting questions ensue: How has his development, or lack thereof, in the values, intrapersonal, and self-concept lines of intelligence influenced this outcome? How intelligent is such a person, in truth? What is the value of a highly educated psychiatrist, for example, with poorly developed interpersonal and emotional lines of intelligence? (Such psychiatrists do, in fact, exist, and many more obtain their licenses every year.) How would engaging the whole person supercharge the learning process and affect the average student's overall learning gestalt? Wilber's concepts of developmental lines and psycho-spiritual cross-training offer viable answers to these vital questions.


States of consciousness underlie much of what we experience in life every day. As you are reading these words, your brain is more than likely operating in the beta brainwave pattern, oscillating at roughly 13 to 18 cycles per second. Integral theory refers to this as gross waking consciousness, as do various wisdom traditions. This state of consciousness is often our mode of relating to the physical world, and is often regarded as the "normal," "only," or "optimal" state to be in by much of society. However, the brain is constantly producing varying degrees of different brainwave patterns, each associated with a particular state of consciousness, and many of these are more conducive to facilitating positive change than is the beta bandwidth alone.

As we dream, for example, our brainwave pattern is predominantly in the theta range (with periodic spikes in the beta and gamma bandwidths), bringing with it an interior experience (UL) of subtle phenomena, weightlessness, a certain degree of transcendence of time and space, and a sense of visionary experience. The various meditative disciplines from the wisdom traditions offer us dependable and scientifically proven avenues for inducing such states of consciousness while being fully awake. Such state-training in the theta and alpha brainwave bandwidths (4 to 12 cycles per second) has been proven to markedly improve accelerated learning, cognitive performance, long-term recall, and emotional wellbeing, among many other reported benefits.

When we reach deep, dreamless sleep, the brain is producing a predominantly delta brainwave pattern, the experience of which is one of extinction, formless expanse, and a complete lack of bodily awareness. Again, it is possible to experience such states while wide awake, and training in the capacity to do so produces many benefits such as profound states of meditation, increased threshold for stress, dramatic increases in interpersonal empathy, and the gradual dissolution of various dysfunctional behaviors. Wilber's integral theory refers to the delta-correlated, deep-sleep state as a "causal" state of consciousness, since it is often referenced as such in Buddhist and Hindu sacred texts.

The deep hemispheric synchronization that results from such prolonged training seems to contribute to an increased unifying of seemingly disparate information into a coherent whole. The result is an interior experience reported by seasoned meditators of increased wholeness and completeness. Some research has suggested that lateralization (i.e., the phenomenon of one brain hemisphere dominating the other) is predominant in most of humanity. British psychologist C. Maxwell Cade, however, discovered that exceptional individuals—yogis, monks, visionary artists and thinkers, and highly self-actualized people—exhibited a high degree of hemispheric synchronization, evidenced by a unique brainwave signature referred to by Cade as the "awakened mind" brainwave pattern. This pattern exhibited a significant balance between the delta, theta, alpha, and beta brainwave bandwidths. Cade believed that this harmonic balance represented an open communication between the conscious mind, the personal unconscious, and even the collective unconscious.


Types deal with modes of relating, mainly communal versus agentic, feminine versus masculine, relational versus individualistic, or the non-linear versus the linear. An understanding of types can be important in light of some of the common misinterpretations that have resulted from Carol Gilligan's published material on female moral development. For example, many scholars have mistakenly equated Gilligan's claim of a greater relational aspect to female development with a claim that females are naturally more spiritual than males. However, Gilligan stated that women, like men, also develop through specific stages: from selfish to care to universal care. In other words, neither gender is inherently more spiritual than the other, precisely because they both must develop through various stages in order to more profoundly embody and express genuine spiritual characteristics. As Wilber has decisively shown, what Gilligan was saying, however, is that the sexes tend to move through the stages differently: women tend to move through the stages while being faced toward the earth, arms outstretched in communal embrace, while men tend to move through the stages with their eyes firmly set on heaven. One type accentuates the immanent, communicative aspect of being, while the other expresses the transcendent aspect of being; and both are essential to psychological health.

As is probably quite evident by now, Wilber's integral developmental approach to psychology is not simply a theory, but a meta-theory that in essence attempts to unite all of the seemingly disparate grand theories of psychology (like psychoanalytic theory, behaviorism, and cognitive theory) into a single coherent organism. Today's complex world demands a meta-framework suitable for easily comprehending such complexity, and Wilber's AQAL Framework is currently one of the most innovative modi operandi available by which to facilitate such comprehension. It attempts to be as genuinely holistic as possible, being careful to incorporate the best aspects of the premodern, modern, and postmodern eras. As Einstein sought in his last days to develop a unified field theory of the physical world, likewise does integral psychology offer a kind of "Rosetta Stone" for deciphering the complexity of life experience into understandable and workable divisions which integrate with one another with remarkable ease and clarity.


Beck, Don Edward, and Christopher Cowan. Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change. New York: Wiley, 2005.

Cade, C. Maxwell and Nona Coxhead. The Awakened Mind: Biofeedback and the Development of Higher States of Awareness. Dorset, UK: Element, 1989.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1993.

Graves, Clare. The Never Ending Quest: Dr. Clare W. Graves Explores Human Nature: A Treatise on an emergent cyclical conception of adult behavioral systems and their development. Eds. Christopher Cowan and Natasha Todorova. Santa Barbara: ECLET, 2005.

Hawkins, David R. Power Vs Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior. Carlsbad: Hay, 2002.

Koestler, Arthur. A Ghost in the Machine. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1976.

Piaget, Jean. The Psychology of the Child. New York: Basic, 2000.

Wilber, Ken. A Brief history of Everything. Boston: Shambhala, 2001.

Wilber, Ken. The Essential Ken Wilber: An Introductory Reader. Boston: Shambhala, 1998.

Wilber, Ken. Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Boston: Shambhala, 2000.

Wilber, Ken. Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World. Boston: Shambhala, 2006.

Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston: Shambhala, 1995.

Wilber, Ken. A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality. Boston: Shambhala, 2001.

© Eric Thompson 2007

Consciousness Studies Online

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