Ken Wilber’s Mandalic Model of Reality
This is an introduction to one of Ken Wilber’s most versatile ideas: his model of what he calls the Four Quadrants. As a formal structure, the four quadrants display a striking resemblance to a mandala. Wilber also speaks of his philosophy as “weaving a mandala of the many faces of Spirit.” My approach, therefore, will use the mandala as a way to approach Wilber’s model, and I will then explore its significance and some of the many insights it can help you discern as well as some of the oversights it can help you avoid.
Mandala is a Sanskrit word meaning “circle,” and it denotes the circular, concentric pattern of images used in spiritual practices, such as meditation, as an object of concentration. Most mandalas express a fourfold pattern. Simply place a cross within a circle, dividing it into four equal facets, and you have the basic formal structure of a mandala.
The figure below is a template for the construction of a mandala. Note how the theme of “4” appears four times in this figure: 1) four circles, 2) a cross that makes a fourfold division, 3) the dark square, 4) a “flower” of four blossoms made by the intersecting arcs of the four circles.
This fourfold aspect of a mandala, this “squaring of the circle,” is one example of what the great psychologist C. G. Jung calls a quaternity: a symbolic expression containing four elements. This variation on a fourfold theme is so pervasive in myth and other sacred writings, that Jung calls it “the principle of four.”
Circles and quaternities: both are symbols of wholeness. Together, integrated into one figure—the mandala—they become an even deeper symbol: an archetype of wholeness.
Holons and Holarchies
First, notice the pattern in the following three series:
1) particles, atoms, molecules
2) cells, tissues, organs
3) letters, words, sentences
Each series is a natural hierarchy, that is, an arrangement of increasing complexity of order. The next thing to notice is how the members of each series are related in terms of part to whole. An atom, for example, is a part of a molecule; but it is also a whole that is made of parts: subatomic particles such as electrons and protons. Seen in this light, the atom, as a member of a natural hierarchy, is not a whole or a part, but both at the same time: an irreducible whole-part.
Arthur Koestler was the first to draw this distinction, and to designate this “whole-part” he coined the word holon. As Koestler wittily put it, holons “behave partly as wholes and wholly as parts.” Koestler showed true artistry and precision in the coining of this word. The prefix “hol-” derives from a Greek word holus that means “whole,” while the suffix “-on” means “part” or “particle,” as in words like electron or proton. The word itself exemplifies its meaning: whole-part.
There are many kinds of holons: behavioral, linguistic, social . . . Humans, along with every other critter in the animal kingdom, are biological holons.
Koestler also coined one other related word: holarchy. A holarchy is simply a hierarchy of holons. Most natural hierarchies, such as the three series listed above, are holarchies. These are called actualization holarchies because they show a pattern of growth: each higher level transcends but includes its predecessors. Molecules go beyond atoms, yes, but they are made of atoms. Holarchies are a basic formal pattern that is pervasive on all levels of reality.
The Four Quadrants
The idea of the Four Quadrants came to Wilber while he was researching and writing his 851-page magnum opus, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. For the purpose of contrast and comparison, he had summarized the hierarchies representing over 200 systems of thought. And then one day, as he was wondering how to fit them together, he suddenly saw that they all fell into four major categories. Those four categories he christened the Four Quadrants. These quadrants represent four fundamental features of every entity in the universe. To begin our exploration of this idea, take a look at the three pictures above that show stages in the construction of a mandala. Following the fourfold structure of Figure 1, I will introduce the Four Quadrants with four tables of increasing complexity. [Note: the tables in this essay are based on schematic figures that Wilber has presented in his writings, both online and in books.] The first table is simplicity itself:
Do you see the familiar fourfold or mandalic structure? Four quadrants: Upper Left, Upper Right, Lower Left, Lower Right. In human terms, they represent:
I: individual consciousness, mind, the inner reality
It: the outer physical reality of body and brain
We: culture or the inner realm of shared beliefs, values, language
Its: social systems and external environment
These are four basic aspects of all holons, and thus, all humans. Adding more detail, the table looks like this:
This simply shows that you have an inside and an outside, and you are, at the same time, both individual and communal. These are simple distinctions, but they are fundamental and important. Another way to put this is to say that you, like all holons, have intentional, behavioral, cultural, and social aspects.
With this in mind, let’s add some more detail to the table:
(self and consciousness)
(brain and organism)
System and Environment
In Wilber’s system, holons are the basic units of reality, and the universe is a vast holonic network: holons within holons within holons—all the way down, all the way up—to the ultimate Holon: God, or Spirit.
The four-quadrant model may be seen as an abstract “anatomy” of a holon. Take a few moments to observe this model and note the different elements in each of the four quadrants and how they correlate. Note once again the primary distinctions of the interior and exterior of the individual and the collective, and consider how minds (consciousness) actualize inner intentions, bodies display observable behaviors, cultures share interior worldviews, social systems display physical realities. Each quadrant has a distinctive language, and beauty is in the eye or “I” of the beholder, goodness is reflected by the ethics of the community, truth (objective truth) is ascertained by the empirical sciences.
The two Right-Hand quadrants can be thought of as the physical correlates of the two Left-Hand quadrants. Mental operations—no matter how high the level—are grounded in the physiology of the brain. Cultural life has its correlates in museums, libraries, universities, sports arenas . . .
Human reality is moment-to-moment: we are our experiences. If you stop for a moment and do a careful analysis of your own experience, you will find that all four quadrants play a fundamental part in making you what you are. To give some examples:
UL: In the domain of mind or spirit, Saint Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus (Acts 9: 1-22) is a dramatic example of how an event in the UL quadrant can cause a profound transformation.
UR: The power of the brain, body, and the physical world is revealed by the central practice of the Native American Church: ingestion of their “Medicine,” peyote, produces transformational mystical experiences. In this sacred context, peyote is not a drug, but an entheogen: a psychoactive sacramental taken to generate a primary religious experience.
LL: If we are of a religious persuasion, the system of beliefs we share is a part, indeed an essential part, of what makes us who we are. But beliefs can make for good or ill—as 9/11 has made clear, even “religious” beliefs can turn some people into cold-blooded murderers.
LR: Religious temples that we cherish, and the many concrete symbolic motifs that we absorb by simply being inside: this is a part of our individual identities. Ritual and liturgy—such as the Eucharist (or the Lord’s Supper)—this too contributes to what we are. And, as mentioned previously: museums, libraries .
To summarize: the whole of any momentary experience, or of any holon, is made of parts contributed by all four quadrants. Even the most simple thought is complexly quadratic. This is an intrinsic feature of the cosmos and any comprehensive model of reality, or any knowledge quest, will require that all quadrants be honored.
Why Is the Model Important?
One reason is that, by its integral perspective, it allows one to see how things can go wrong, or express only partial truths, when one or more of the quadrants is neglected.
Science has rightly and robustly staked its claim in the Right-Hand quadrants. And how can we but applaud the many accomplishments of science and technology? But when science becomes “scientism”—the claim is made that the only truths are the truths revealed by science, the only realities are the realities revealed by science. This leads to the rejection of the very existence of the Left-Hand quadrants and reality is thereby sliced in half and reduced to what Wilber calls Flatland: “the collapse of the richly textured Cosmos into a flat and faded one-dimensional world . . . a flat and faded world of drab and dreary surfaces.” Flatland is the reigning paradigm in contemporary science. This is not to say that science is totally wrong—far from it! Each of the four quadrants has important and essential truths to contribute, but, taken in isolation, or in exclusion of the other quadrants, these are partial truths. To get the whole picture, none of the intrinsic parts can be left out, that is, none of the four quadrants.
It is easy to find one quadrant so very cozy that you neglect the others. New Agers, for instance, have a tendency to cluster in the UL quadrant, resulting in an approach to life that can become “top-heavy.” An integral spiritual practice will involve work and development in all four quadrants.
Traditional medical practice in the United States operates largely in the UR quadrant. A more integral approach to the healing arts—a truly mandalic medicine—would discover, develop, and utilize resources in all four quadrants.
Although spiritual experiences are immediately given, they must always be interpreted,
and those interpretations can be good or bad, balanced or lopsided. Let’s say that someone experiences a truly profound spiritual experience or spiritual intuition, but he interprets this exclusively as a UL event—as finding his Higher Self. There is a tendency, then, to assume that this somehow solves everything and, as a result, all other problems will not only take care of themselves but will work themselves out in a most wonderful way. This allows one to conveniently ignore the other quadrants, that is, the behavioral, cultural, and social aspects. This is, as Wilber puts it, “a very narcissistic orientation—find your True Self, and the rest of the world will take care of itself.” Those in the “Higher Self” camp, Wilber adds, “are thus notoriously immune to social concerns. This is the totally disengaged Ego gone horribly amuck in omnipotent self-only fantasies.”
This can lead to nutty exaggerations of the notion that You create your own reality. “You don’t create your own reality,” Wilber says, “psychotics create their own reality.” What he means is that, although there is some truth in the idea that you (in consciousness) create your own reality—again, it is a partial truth. Reality is mandalic in the making: a four-quadrant process.
It is also important to notice that the model represents “Spirit in Action.” or a mandalic image of the Great Chain of Being. God, or Spirit, expresses in and as all four quadrants. No single quadrant is privileged above any of the others—all four taken together, as a unity-in-quaternity, are “the radiant glory of Spirit’s manifestation.”
The Great Chain of Being is, in Wilber’s words, the “nearly universal view, [that] reality is a rich tapestry of interwoven levels, reaching from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit.” Some early thinkers, such as Plotinus, saw the Chain of Being as having been given all at once. But, in one of the seminal insights of modernity, Leibniz was perhaps the first to see that the Great Chain was temporal and unfolded over vast stretches of time. As Wilber puts it, “Plotinus temporalized equals evolution.”
The Spirit of Evolution
Finally, here’s the fourth and final table, and a very impressive table it is, that Wilber offers for our contemplation And now seems the time to point out that mandalas are not only circular but are also like wheels, and wheels are not static—they turn. So let us now imagine the mandala below in motion so that it turns, or unfolds, in four ways from the center, and we can then behold the Spirit of evolution:
The Four Quadrants
That’s just what this table does—it adds evolution to the picture, but that’s quite an addition: 13.8 billion years, and still counting! It is not necessary to understand all the technical terms, only to notice the general contours, and that evolution has unfolded across all four quadrants.
The center of the table represents the Big Bang: the beginning of our universe.
The four lines of development proceed outward from this center; for example, in the UR quadrant, the order of development is atoms, molecules, living cells (prokaryotes) — all the way to SF1, SF2, SF3, terms that refer to structural functions of the human brain that correlate with advances in cognitive powers of the mind. For each step of development in one quadrant, there is a corresponding step in the other three. Evolution is thus a fourfold process, a mandalic process, with correlative advances in all four quadrants.
As the UR quadrant perhaps most clearly indicates, each developmental sequence is a holarchy: the journey outward is through holons that display ever increasing orders of complexity, organization, and autonomy. Holons evolve through holarchic advance: a process that builds on what has been achieved thus far. The first molecules didn’t just float in out of the blue from nowhere; rather, they emerged as higher-order entities through a synthesis of atoms. Each creative advance lays the foundation for what will come after. And so molecules would pave the way for their transcendence, and inclusion, by simple living cells. There is economy in this, but also elegance, and the beauty of ever increasing depth in each newly emerging holon.
The Way of Evolution is through a creative process that is both mandalic and holarchic, creating ever more depth with each advance. As Wilber has nicely put it, we humans, along with all other holons, have not only the horizontal history of our day-by-day existence, but also a vertical developmental archeology. This “developmental archeology” refers to our astonishing depths. Digging down we find:
Our bodies are an integration of all the basic physical and biological units that nature has evolved this far: subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, living cells . . . Underlying and potentiating the human mind is the entire spectrum of consciousness, as shown in the upper-left quadrant of the table. Compounded with this are the many centuries of contributions from the cultural and social spheres.
These four great holarchies constitute the vast infrastructure of the human self. In a very real sense, to look at this table is like looking in a mirror. It has taken all this—over a period of 13.8 billion years—to make you what you are. But these four are not separate streams; they mutually arise, interacting, intermeshing—they shape and are shaped by one another. They are a dynamic unity-in-quaternity: a mandala. The self is mandalic.
There are many ways to state our inner depth and spaciousness. Mystics have long told us that microcosm mirrors macrocosm: as above, so below. Freud wrote of our unconscious archaic heritage, and Jung, excavating even deeper, uncovered the inner realm of archetypes and the collective unconscious. Biological science says that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”—the development of a human embryo retraces the general contours of the evolution of life itself.
The microworld of quantum physics—the downward spiral of ever finer particles—is proving to be as vast as the universe explored by astronomy. In developmental psychology, the term “microgenesis” refers to the split-second developmental steps that lead to a single thought, feeling, or perception within the individual.
Each microgenesis recapitulates, in miniature and in milliseconds, the general contours of countless stages, innumerable steps, over eons of time and light-years of space, of an evolutionary process that has been 13.8 billion years in the making.
And so—turn within to explore light-years of inner space over eons of time. To designate this temporal dimension within, I’ll add an “-ic” suffix to “eon” to make the adjective eonic. Holonic, holarchic, mandalic, and eonic—the human self stands tall, casting a spatio-temporal fourfold shadow that stretches back all the way to the Big Bang.
If Wilber’s model is mandalic, and if mandalas embody both a fourfold and a circular theme—some of you may be wondering where the circles are in this final model of the Four Quadrants. As Wilber points out, the holarchies in each quadrant are to be thought of not as a linear sequence of stair steps, but as concentric circles or, better, as nested spheres with each successive sphere transcending but including its predecessors. As each new level unfolds, it also enfolds the preceding levels. To glimpse the dynamics of this, imagine a stone dropped in the center of a still pond and the waves rippling out in ever-widening concentric circles . . . ((((((( ))))))) . . .
Wilber believes that we are poised on the very edge of a profound transformation of the human species, and that this will involve changes in all four quadrants. As Wilber says, “It will involve a new worldview [LL], set in a new techno-economic base [LR], with a new mode of self-sense [UL], possessing new behavioral patterns [UR].” Wilber’s model can be of use in helping us to understand and attune with this.
Like the four points of a compass, the four quadrants can help us get our bearings, make us more aware of the creative currents flowing around and through us, and thus enable us to more ably navigate these transformational streams. Merely making a big splash in our favorite quadrant will no longer work; we must take an integral, a mandalic, approach and find ways to sail forward in all four. If we do not take this fourfold approach, we risk, as Wilber says, being left behind as driftwood on the shore as the great adventure sails on without us.
As the title of this section suggests (The Spirit of Evolution), Wilber sees God, or Spirit, as intimately involved in evolution. God is Alpha and Omega, both our source and our destiny. For those with eyes to see, the universe itself is transparent to Spirit. The workings of the universe, and the long saga of evolution—these are, as Wilber says, Spirit in Action.
Wilber’s model reveals that the way of creation proceeds, simultaneously and in unity, by a fourfold process: weaving everlastingly one Cosmic Mandala, inclusive of myriad upon myriad of holonic mandalas—mandalas within mandalas within mandalas—radiant, all of them, with truth, beauty, and goodness—shimmering, all of them, with the many faces of Spirit.
Four Quadrants Upgrade
Ken Wilber’s recent book, Integral Spirituality (2006), has some new insights to offer, including an upgrade of his four-quadrant model. Taking into account that a holon in any of the four quadrants can be seen from the outside, or experienced as, or as if, from within, this gives a total of eight perspectives or zones.
The Four Quadrants with eight primordial perspectives, or hori-zones of arising, and their respective methodologies
[“I” inside: zone #1]
outside: zone #2
[“it” inside: zone # 5]
outside: zone #6
[“we” inside: zone #3]
outside: zone #4
[“its” inside: zone #7]
outside: zone #8
Although there is some overlap in these zones, a point to notice is what all this reveals. Eight zones, each with its own methodology, yield eight supplementary perspectives which, when integrated, give a more comprehensive revelation about the complexity of human nature and the nature of all holons. A parallel could be drawn with quantum physics as it delves within the atom to discover the beauty and the complexities of the particulate subatomic realm.
A Precursor to the Four Quadrants?
In his book A Guide for the Perplexed (1977), E. F. Schumacher recognizes Four Great Truths that should be on any map, or guidebook, about how to live in the world:
1. The Great Truth about the world is that it is a hierarchic structure of at least four great “Levels of Being.”
2. The Great Truth about man’s ability to meet the world is the principle of adequateness.
3. The Great Truth about man’s learning concerns the “Four Fields of Knowledge.”
4. The Great Truth about living in this life, living in this world, relates to the distinction between two types of problem, “convergent” and “divergent.”
Drawing on the ancient tradition of the Great Chain of Being, he then goes on to identify a hierarchy of four levels of being: 1) mineral, 2) plant, 3) animal, 4)human.
That which distinguishes plant from mineral, or the organic from the inorganic world, is life; consciousness distinguishes animals from plants; and the feature that distinguishes humans from animals is self-awareness. If mineral be designated as “m,” life as “x,” consciousness as “y,” and self-awareness as “z,” the four levels of being can be summed up as:
Human can be written m + x + y + z
Animal can be written m + x + y
Plant can be written m + x
Mineral can be written m
Schumacher next observes that the world, for us humans, is divided into inner experience and outer appearance. Here I am, a living center of consciousness and self-awareness, and out there is everything else, including other humans. A notable aspect of this is that inner experiences are invisible whereas outer appearances are visible and, as we ascend the Great Chain of Being, it is the invisibilities, or intangibles, the will begin to play an increasingly important role. These four combinations can be stated as:
2. The world (you)—inner
4. The world (you)—outer
These, for Schumacher, are the Four Fields of Knowledge and there are four questions which lead to these fields:
1. What is really going on in my own inner world?
2. What is going on in the inner world of other beings?
3. What do I look like in the eyes of other beings?
4. What do I actually observe in the world around me?
Or, to simplify further, they can be put this way:
1. What do I feel like?
2. What do you feel like?
3. What do I look like?
4. What do you look like?
The importance of these four fields to Schumacher can be seen in that he devotes an entire chapter to the analysis of each field.
In conclusion, it is interesting to note, as Frank Visser was the first to point out in his insightful book on Ken Wilber,* that Schumacher’s Four Fields seem to be a precursor to Wilber’s Four Quadrants model. As the above discussion clearly shows, there can be little doubt, if any, that Schumacher was a serious quadratic thinker!
*Frank Visser, Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (2003)