What do these issues — family-separation immigration policies, sexual harassment in business, and police brutality in our streets — have in common?

Consider that our evolving perceptions of these longstanding issues have created much uncertainty today.

We are experiencing a shift that expands societal systems to include cultural attitudes — a new lens through which to view everyday life. Ironically, the technology that connected us to real-time stories to expand our awareness also reveals a social-cultural awareness gap. We will dissect this gap in awareness later, specifically regarding police brutality.

To appreciate this shift, I recall a time when the term culture referred to more affluent interests such as a city’s symphony, museums, or literary scene. These structures promoted social cohesion without revealing the underlying community attitudes alive in the makeup of society.

Today, culture holds a rich significance in our complex social, political and work life.

Much of our shift in awareness involves old systems rubbing up against evolving attitudes. New perceptions confront our knowledge and historical contexts. Faster change with more variables requires larger contexts, or meta-theories, to make sense of our perceptions.

The next decade may become known as a time of meta-theories. Embracing integral (meta) theories will support us as we learn to learn again. As educators and learning specialists, we must become adept at thinking both as specialists and as generalists. Any integral theory that connects processes and paradigms rubs against our silo methods of doling out fragmented knowledge.

We’ll discuss this notion of meta-context in turn below.


One of the most powerful, potent, and predictive meta-theories is Integral Theory by Ken Wilber. Not the only meta-theory, Wilber’s Integral Theory has, over four decades, assembled a consortium of academics, intellectuals, activists, and community hubs.

As of 2014, the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, the major peer-reviewed journal in this field, included more than 50 disciplines using the integral model to reinterpret disciplines. Each employs this robust meta-framework to integrate all phenomena and find some truth in all views.

As Ken declares, “I have one major rule: Everybody is right. More specifically, everybody…has some important pieces of truth, and all of those pieces need to be honored, cherished, and included in a more gracious, spacious, and compassionate embrace.”

There are many aspects to Wilber’s Integral Theory, most fundamental is its AQAL model, which stands for All Quadrants, All Levels (lines, states and types). As a philosopher, Wilber is expansive; as a theorist, he is exacting. He entered the field of evolutionary theory in the ‘70s via the emerging field of transpersonal psychology, which integrates the transcendental (existential) aspects of the human experience with the framework of modern psychology.

I discovered his work in 2004 while researching more integral approaches to viewing paradigm shifts in evolution. An academic at the time, I found his work refreshing and sufficiently complex as a worthwhile critique for deep inquiry.

Of his dozens of books, Wilber’s thinking comes alive in Spectrum of Consciousness, Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, and recently in The Religion of Tomorrow: A Vision for the Future of the Great Traditions.

Integral Theory, Briefly

It is impossible to delve into this entire framework in a blog. My intention here is to quickly review the theory and focus on an emerging and critical awareness gap between culture and society. In my next blog (part 2), I will explore how Integral Theory can affect learning and leadership.

Briefly, Wilber’s Integral Theory integrates these elements:

1- Quadrants: The four quadrants includes four perspectives (interior and exterior, individual and collective) that all phenomena possess.

2- Levels involve stage development, which offers the “structures of awareness” or vertical development such as mindsets or attitudes. Each level embraces the previous level to expand structures to include more variables and complexity.

3Lines of development are corollary to stages, offering a horizontal perspective of development. Each level consists of multiple lines of aptitude, akin to Gardner’s multiple intelligences, such as emotions (EQ), spirituality (SQ), intuition, interpersonal, self-identity, creativity, cognitive, kinesthetics, moral, etc. 

4States (of consciousness) involves an unfolding “space of awareness” that is fluid—as in a dream, wake, or altered states of consciousness —and moves through levels of awareness, from gross, subtle, and causal to non-dual awareness.

  • NOTE: States and Stages sound the same but stages involve structures of focus (more stable) and states involve space of awareness (more fluid).  

5- Types involve typologies such as Meyer-Briggs, Keirsey, Enneagrams, the Big Five Personality test, etc.

Keys to Integral Theory

The brilliance of Wilber’s model is not its content but its context. He combines historical and contemporary Western theories and models from psychology, economics, and science with Eastern thought, from Buddhist precepts to Hinduism, Taoism and other mystic lineages. His work provides a new context for viewing and leveraging vast knowledge and wisdom, focusing on where each is most potent.

  1. Nothing is 100% right or wrong; Each theory or thinking model merely vary in their degree of incompleteness or potency. No one or nothing is 100% good or evil; they just vary in their degree of ignorance and disconnection. All knowledge is a work in progress.
  2. Leaps in evolution usually occur in a manner of “transcending and including,” not by wiping out what came before. For instance, the evolution of a single-cell organism did not wipe out molecules but included them in a greater order of complexity. Wilber asserts that this pattern of evolution occurs with all phenomena.
  3. Perception contains interior and exterior modalities, or Wilber’s solution to the mind-body problem in philosophy. You can cut open someone’s brain and track the neurons firing when they think about a cat, but which is real, the neurons firing or the thought about the cat? It depends on whom you ask.
  4. The problem arises when one conflates thoughts and behavior as controlled by exterior measures, such as neurons firing, implying that our minds are not autonomous. Wilber claims that both the interior and exterior modes of consciousness are not only equally real, but also reflections of one another. Indeed, research into neuroplasticity (the ability to change the brain’s physical configuration through changing thought patterns and behavior) supports this conclusion.

AQAL: Partial Perspectives

I’d like to focus on point four by illustrating Wilber’s four-quadrant model, the basic element of his Integral Theory.

Notice some of the influential modes of inquiry, based in each of the quadrants:

  • Upper Left: CONSCIOUSNESS: intention, phenomenology, ontology, psychotherapy, meditation, emotional intelligence, personal transformation
  • Upper Right: BEHAVIOR: epistemology, empiricism, scientific analysis, quality control, behavioral modification
  • Lower Left: CULTURE: multiculturalism, ideology, worldviews, corporate culture, collective values
  • Lower Right: SOCIETY: systems theory, social systems analysis, techno-economic modes, communication networks, systems analysis.

Which of these approaches is right? All of them, according to Integral Theory. The key here is to place models, theorists and methods in the quadrant where they have the most potential.

New Problems or Old Paradigms?

Businesses today are dealing not with new problems but with outmoded views of problems. And there’s the rub. The Information Age confuses perceptions, confounds meaning-making, questions our sensibilities, and drives isolation. Such anxiety, confusion and complexity confront right (exterior) side views of the quadrant longing for left (interior) side solutions.

With a faster pace of change, more complexity and greater uncertainty, issues of belonging (lower left) compete with issues of behavior (upper right), systems and even economics (lower right).

Consider this view from the annual Happiness Report, which asks: What makes nations rank happier on its index? University of British Columbia economist John Helliwell posits, “It’s the human things that matter. If the riches make it harder to have frequent and trustworthy relationships between people, what is it worth?” Helliwell also shares a now-familiar refrain: “The material (right side) can stand in the way of the human (left side).”

The U.S. is currently experiencing a low unemployment rate with greater anxiety. We have more technology and connectivity and less connection and belonging.

Happiness, belonging, and Integral Theory 

Yet with our faster rate of change, increases in complexity, and greater uncertainty, we also experience increases in isolation, anxiety, and meaninglessness. These existential conditions do not respond to right-side solutions such as increased pay and benefits packages or new technology.

What is required is a fuller view — a focus on belonging.

Back to the Happiness Report: The Nordic countries pay some of the highest taxes (right side) in the world, but there is wide public support for them because people perceive them as investments in quality of life for all (left side), such as high levels of mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity, (left side) with good governance (right side).

Much of our social tensions, according to researcher Jeffrey Sachs, result from America’s focus on Economic Renewal (right side) over Human Potential (left side). The United States, Sach’s concluded, is looking for happiness “in all the wrong places.”

Conflicts between right side priorities and left side concerns produce existential angst that requires fuller perceptions. Our challenges at becoming more (upper left) involve a deeper need for belonging (lower left).

L&D Focus on Quadrants …

The dilemma for learning and development (L&D) resides in shifting our focuses and attitudes: from the upper right “content” view that alters individual behavior to a lower left “context” view that shifts culture. That is, from fixing behavior to focusing on belonging. And here is where the gap magnifies.

When examining needs in the lower half of the quadrants, most business executives rely solely on lower-right solutions. They only understand measures such as behavior modification via skills and technology to increase performance: KPIs, ROI and productivity measures.

There is a leadership blind spot in the lower-left: Attitudes, mindsets, and values that inform and form culture beyond data and metrics. Much that lower left includes how we listen, learn, and collaborate to cultivate a shared understanding. For instance …

  • Leaders often diagnose a lack of team cohesion by focusing on skills to become productive (right side) rather than on a culture that promotes “belonging” or collaboration (left side).
  • Leadership often focuses on “behaving” instead, marked by achieving tasks, projects, and goals (right side) while ignoring the left that longs for “belonging.” 

As a public policy example, police departments across the nation opted to deal with left-side concerns about police brutality by…

… putting cameras on police officers (lower right solution)…

… to record and change behavior (upper right)…

… rather than dealing with the racial fears (upper left)…

… that form the culture (lower left) and drive actions/behavior (upper right).

… From Behaving to Belonging

Businesses are also being called to respond to issues emerging from the lower left quadrant:

  1. Within hours of a racist tweet by its star, Roseanne Barr, Disney canceled the popular show Rosanne —not for low performance, ratings, or revenues (right side), but for racist remarks (left side) made in another venue.
  2. In recent weeks, five airlines sacrificed profit to stand against the U.S. government’s family separation policy. Each refused dollars (right side) to transport separated, undocumented minors across our nation (left-side).
  3. Last year, the former CEO and co-founder of Uber, Travis Kalanick, was summarily dismissed and replaced by his board for sexist policies and culture (left-side).
  4. Last fall, the public revelation of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s conduct, an industry secret for decades, caused an internal revolt. That revelation dismantled the Weinstein Company, a once-powerful gatekeeper for many of Hollywood’s biggest projects (left-side).
  5. Weinstein’s conduct – revealed through personal stories (left-side)– has toppled dozens of other powerful icons once considered untouchable cash cows (right-side).

Each of these situations resulted not from poor revenue, bad ratings, low profit, or lack of productivity. These right-side issues were trumped by left-side values and concerns, catching boardrooms and executives off-guard.

Employees and other stakeholders didn’t want to belong to such brands. In a fast-paced, disruptive world, belonging is critical. Employees, customers, vendors, and executives do not want to be associated with brands that place profit and technology (lower right) above human values and belonging (lower left).

For leaders and businesses, the key is to distinguish and then integrate these two quadrants (lower left and right) in a new context. Both are critical to 21st-century brands. Both are critical for us in being human. I will approach this question and possible views for bridging these two quadrants in our next blog.

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.