Essential Integral, Lesson Two: Quadrants

Essential Integral, Lesson Two—Quadrants

1.  Introduction

Ken Wilber came up with his quadrant model for categorizing the four dimensions of all phenomena within the universe, or what he refers to as the Kosmos.  This was not an invention of his, but rather a synthesis of the contributions of those that came before.

These four dimensions are irreducible, meaning that there is no way to reduce them to a single dimension, and they are co-arising, meaning that beings evolution not just in one dimension of the universe, but in all four dimensions at once.

This is not just an abstract concept, but something you can have direct experience of.  At this very moment, you can get in touch with your

  • Feelings, thoughts, and emotions (Intentional)
  • Behaviors and physical characteristics (Behavioral)
  • Sense of shared meaning with those you care about (Cultural)
  • Various social groups that you are enmeshed in, such as your family or your company (Social)

These are the quadrants of your life and experience.  They are also perspectives through which you can approach any issue in a more holistic way, such as “why has religion been the source of so much violence?”  If you focus on just one perspective, and exclude the other three, you are engaging in a partial, rather than an integral, discourse.  If you engage in an integral discourse, on the other hand, you give yourself the tools for weaving simplicity out of complexity.

One of the reasons why the first portion of the AQAL model to be taught in Integral Theory is that dealing with the quadrants is because quadrants

  • Keep you honest, in that they hold you to a standard of integrity, and help you recognize your tendency toward taking a partial way.
  • They encourage wholeness and discourage fragmentation, helping you to always see the forest for the trees.

The other elements of the Integral Model, the lines, levels, states, and types, occur in every quadrant.

2.  Interior vs. Exterior

The first distinction one can make to understand the quadrant model is that between interior and exterior.    Graphically this distinction is made between the left side of a square and the right side of a square, with the interior being represented on the left side and the exterior being represented on the right side.   These two regions of the square represent two different dimensions of reality.    Interior refers to phenomena that have no simple spatial location, like √-1, the mathematical quantity known as i, the so-called imaginary number, or the shared feeling of happiness.   None of these exists out there, but rather in one’s mind or one’s awareness.    Rather than looking for them outwardly with one’s senses, you need to look inwardly through your mind’s eye in order to perceive them.   You access interior phenomena through interpretation.

Exterior on the other hand refers to phenomena that do have a spatial location and can be perceived through our senses.    An atom, the behavior of social systems, and brain wave patterns are all observable through our senses or through instruments that extend our senses.   You access exterior phenomena through observations or facts.

So your brain is observable, although it is within your head, and is therefore part of the exterior, whereas the contents of your mind, such as thoughts, cannot be observed directly but instead must be felt or interpreted, and therefore your mind is part of the interior.

A scientist looking at the brain of someone experiencing an interior emotion of happiness may see indicators that are observable such as increased levels of dopamine, and an increase in alpha brain waves.   On the other hand, if you had never personally experienced the emotion of happiness, just knowing that someone had increased levels of dopamine and an increase in alpha brain waves, would you really be able to understand what “happiness” was?     Those data that you were observing would be the biological and chemical processes associated with happiness, the exterior of the phenomenon of happiness.   You would not be able to understand the interior of the phenomenon of happiness except through direct, personal experience of the emotion.


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