For the last six months I have been exploring Integral Theory as articulated by philosopher Ken Wilber. Over the past 20 years Wilber has been attempting to create a framework in which all the major theories of human development, religions, and philosophical perspectives can be brought together in one matrix of thought. Wilber’s goal is not to somehow homogenize all these systems of thought, but rather to show their connections and relationships to one another and to highlight the similarities across disciplines, cultures, and religious perspectives. While Wilber is dealing with some pretty heady and esoteric ideas, he writes in very accessible language. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for him to make reference to ancient or medieval thinkers (think Plato, Plotinus or Aquinas), modern thinkers (think Hume, Kant and Hegel) and postmodern thinkers (think Focault or Derrida) in one sentence or paragraph. Likewise, he seeks to bring together insights from both Western and Eastern spiritual traditions. His assumption  is that truth can be discerned in all these writings and can correct and illumine insights in one another. In his work Wilber has developed a faithful following that is evidenced by a number of websites on Integral psychology, spirituality, medicine, teaching, Christianity and [fill in the blank].

While there is much that I fail to fully comprehend and other aspects of his theory that I still have serious questions or reservations about, I am very much impressed with his effort to bring a whole host of perspectives, disciplines and traditions together in one place. As a person who tends to think and act across disciplines, Wilber helps me with my sense of cultural and intellectual, and even spiritual schizophrenia. While in this picture he looks a bit like a cult leader with his shaved head and large glasses, his thinking really seems to be the stuff of genius.

One of the models that I have found most helpful is his AQAL framework (see at the top of the page), which attempts to create a grid through which one can look at one’s experiences and perceptions. AQAL stands for “All Quadrants, All Lines” and is a four box matrix that allows one to analyze his/her experiences and perspectives more holistically. The problem AQAL seeks to address is that too often we tend to look at an issue or an event thru only one lens or dimension. AQAL forces us to recognize that for any such event (which Wilber calls a holon) there are at least four lenses through one must look at the event.

In the upper left hand quadrant there is the personal/subjective frame (the “I” perspective). In this frame I attend to my personal thoughts, feelings, intuitions and responses to events. This “I” quadrant is my personal view of what I see, feel, hear, and think.

In the upper right quadrant is the objective/empirical frame (the “it” perspective). If the “I” frame” is internal and personal, the “it” frame is what the event appears to the outside observer. This is the realm of empirical proofs, theory, and observation. These two frames (“I” and “it”) help us understand how an event or experience can seem one way to me, and look  entirely different to an outside observer. The “it” perspective looks at the event from the outside, whereas the “I” perspective views it from the inside.

In the lower left quadrant is the perspective of culture, family and other significant reference groups in one’s life (tribe, race, nation, etc.). This is the “we” perspective. In this perspective we acknowledge that how we see and experience the world is influenced by the groups with whom we identify and the groups that have shaped us. For instance, this frame explains why making eye contact with an American conveys forthrightness, whereas to an Asian it is a sign of disrespect. The overt action is the same, but because of significant reference groups (in this case culture) the action carries different meanings.

Finally, the lower right quadrant is the systemic frame (the “its” perspective) in which one views the event in relationship to the systems and environmental forces that shape and direct society. This is the frame of politics, ecology, economics, and sociology. In this frame we recognize that our existence is not isolated but rather part of complex web of external relationships which limit our choices, determine our options and generally circumscribe our existence.

The value of the AQAL framework is that it forces and allows one to ask certain questions of any and all events in one’s life to get a fuller, more holistic perspective on what is actually going on. Let me illustrate with a personal example. On October 31, 2010 I woke up in the middle of the night and could not breathe. After my breathing problems persisted for another day, I went to a doctor and was diagnosed with asthma for the first time in my life at the age of 57. For the last 18 months I have been adjusting to life as a person with asthma. As a person who had been basically healthy all of his life and regularly engaged in physical activities requiring good cardio-vascular health, this was quite a blow. I not only dealt with shortness of breath but also the emotional struggle of not always being able to do the things physically I had been accustomed to doing. This was my personal (“I” frame) experience.

When I went to the doctor, they did a series of tests, put me on a range of medicines, and told me I had “mild, persistent asthma.” According to the charts and regimens determining the nature of one’s illness, that is the category I fell in. It didn’t matter to them how I was personally reacting to my condition, what I thought or what I sensed was going on; the doctor just said “Take these medicines and call me if you have a problem.” That is the “it” frame.

Significantly impacting my reaction to my condition was my cultural and family background. As an American I have become accustomed to the idea that if there is a medical problem, there must be a pill or a procedure that can resolve that problem. Living with sickness is not something that most people in the U.S. expect to have to do. However, as I have found out the medical profession has sold us a bill of goods and has far fewer “answers” than they have led us to believe. Moreover, I came from a family that was very active and universally healthy. The old ad line “If you have your health, you have everything” could have been written by my parents. I was raised to believe that if you took care of yourself physically, you would be rewarded with good health. So my “we” frame interpreted the experience thru this lens, and I alternately wondered what I had done wrong to get the asthma and cursed the gods of health care for deceiving me on how reliable they are.

Finally, while I have not given a great deal of thought to the “its” frame, the media is full of reports on how the rise in toxic chemicals in our air and water has created an increase in conditions like asthma, particularly in children. I know that as my allergies are activated my asthma gets worse, which points to the impact of the air quality and the environment. An allergist has talked to me about various influences in my home that may limit or exacerbate my asthma. I have even wondered if the five years I spent in the toxic chemical air of Jersey City, NJ has eventually caught up to me, as I know when I would go running in that community, I often would inhale everything from bus fumes to the invisible chemicals that cause so many in that community to die at an early age of cancer. Who knows but the seeds of asthma were planted in my lungs 20+ years ago.

Thus one can view my experience with asthma personally, empirically, culturally and systemically. The value of AQAL is that it does not preference one perspective over another, but rather affirms that all perspectives have some truth within them. Depending on one’s orientation and the issue one is dealing with, a person may emphasize one quadrant or frame over another, but at all times it is important to realize there are more than one way to look at any given event or issue.

While the AQAL framework does not provide easy answers, it does allows one to ask a range of questions to grasp the full meaning of any given issue or experience. As such I find it to be a helpful tool for reflection on experiences, as well as a framework for thinking about relationships, political actions or teaching courses. I feel like I have only begun to grasp the full use of AQAL, but what I have understood so far has expanded my perspective in ways that provide me a much wider and deeper view of this thing we call “reality.”