photo of Ken Wilber
Ken Wilber is known as one of the founders of ”integral psychology” which refers to an attempt to formulate a theory of the psyche that incorporates ideas from both psychology and spirituality.  Perhaps Wilber’s most well-known model of human development, or ”spectrum of consciousness” is rather simple, based as it is on three different levels:  pre-personal, personal, and transpersonal.  The pre-personal stage is usually accounted for by traditional developmental thinkers such as Piaget, Freud, Erikson, and Kohlberg.  The personal stage is generally described by ego psychologists such as Jane Loevinger as well as humanistic psychologists such as Abraham Maslow.  The transpersonal stage is examined generally speaking by Eastern mystic traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism.  Having laid this out, Wilber goes into greater detail in specifying stages within these three broad developmental categories.

  1. Undifferentiated or Primary Matrix:  At this stage the soul or being exists in an unconscious state.  This is best typified by the infant’s primal relationship to the mother (actual) or Mother (archetype), an account of which has been supplied by Jungian thinker Erich Neumann. Here the infant has no separate identity, but exists in a chthonic state of oneness with the collective unconscious.
  2. Sensori-Physical:  Here the young child is beginning to develop an identity in terms of sensing the world around him and engaging with it physically.  One strand of thinking that has articulated this level of being is the cognitive psychology of Jean Piaget, who spoke of the infant going through a sensory-motor stage of thinking where it explores the world directly and works out quasi-mental structures based on that activity.
  3. Phantasmic-Emotional:  This aspect of pre-personal development represents the growth of an imaginal and emotional life in the young child.  Psychoanalysis has probably done the best job of delineating this aspect of pre-personal development, especially via the psychosexual stages of Sigmund Freud (the oral, anal, and genital stages of young children).
  4. Representative Mind (Rep-Mind):  Here we see the beginnings of the formation of mental structures in the mind, which are still illogical when compared to conventional thinking.  This stage is best described by Jean Piaget as the ”pre-operational” stage of thinking, when the child is using magical thinking, animism, participation, and other basic schemas to make sense of the world.  This is the last stage of Wilber’s Pre-Personal category of development.
  5. Rule-Role Mind:  This stage corresponds most closely to Jean Piaget’s category of concrete operational thinking, where the child is beginning to use logically consistent mental structures in organizing its view of the world.  For example, a child will now understand concepts like one-to-one correspondence, reversibility thinking, and categorization in contemplating a set of objects. The child is also internalizing the rules of the society he lives in, and works at assuming an appropriate social role within his culture.
  6. Formal-Reflexive:  This stage most closely approximates Jean Piaget’s stage of formal operational thinking, which begins in late childhood/early adolescence.  Here the teen is able to leave concrete objects behind and simply think about thinking (he now, for example, can solve equations in algebra).  The teen is able to think reflexively (in other words, he can see himself thinking) and thus is able to entertain a pluralistic and critical way of dealing with life issues and topics.
  7. Centaur (Vision-Logic):  Here the soul or self begins to transcend the verbal ego-mind and integrate all aspects of previous stages including not only verbal, cognitive, and emotional ego states, but also the Jungian-derived ”shadow” (or the complementary aspects of unconscious processes).  This stage is characterized by autonomy, integration, authenticity, and/or self-actualization, and is the final stage belonging to the Personal category in Wilber’s theory.  Now begins the Transpersonal realms.
  8. Psychic:  Here the individual begins to transcend the egoic states of the previous levels.  This stage brings with it the possibility of psychic experiences such as clairvoyance, precognition, and other parapsychological phenomena, and also transcendent states of being related to gender identity (e.g. androgyny), ecological understanding (e.g. shamanism), identification with a World Soul (e.g. Gaia), and other holistic ways of thinking, seeing, and being.
  9.  Subtle:  Wilber defines this stage as follows:  ”you are seeing something beyond nature, beyond the existential, beyond the psychic, beyond even cosmic identity. You are starting to see the hidden or esoteric dimension, the dimension outside the ordinary cosmos, the dimension that transcends nature. You see the Light, and sometimes this Light literally shines like the light of a thou­sand suns.” (from an interview published in Quest Magazine, 1994 Spring , pp. 43-46).
  10. Causal:  Wilber describes this stage in this way:  ”This is total and utter transcendence and release into Formless Consciousness, Boundless Radiance. There is here no self, no God, no final-God, no subjects, and no thingness, apart from or other than consciousness as Such” (from his book The Atman Project, p. 84).
  11. Non-Dual:  Wilber explains this stage as follows: ”The entire World process then arises, moment to moment as one’s own Being, outside of which, and prior to which, nothing exists. That Being is totally beyond and prior to anything that arises, and yet no part of that Being is other than what arises.” (The Atman Project, p. 86).

In my mind, Wilber’s model is something like a Lego structure.  He begins by building a train of blocks based on traditional Western thinkers such as Piaget, Freud, and Erikson.  He then tacks onto this structure a train of blocks related to humanistic psychologists such as Maslow, Rogers, and Rollo May.  Finally, he adds to this structure the traditions of Eastern mysticism, including descriptions of the higher chakras, higher states of being, and transcendent experiences.  One can appreciate this theory as a triumph of integral thinking, or alternatively, criticize it as merely the conglomeration of widely disparate world views.  Nevertheless, it is an intriguing way of looking at human development, and like all good theories, provokes the mind into asking lots of questions and seeing coherence where before there was merely chaos.

(Note:  this blog post relates to Ken Wilber’s early formulation of the stages of consciousness – in a future post I will examine his later theories about them).


For more information about both traditional and spiritual/transpersonal models of human development, see my book Human Odyssey: Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life.

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I'm the author of 19 books including my latest: If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education - https://amzn.to/2KAxT8F.

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