Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Joseph DillardDr. Joseph Dillard is a psychotherapist with over forty year's clinical experience treating individual, couple, and family issues. Dr. Dillard also has extensive experience with pain management and meditation training. The creator of Integral Deep Listening (IDL), Dr. Dillard is the author of over ten books on IDL, dreaming, nightmares, and meditation. He lives in Berlin, Germany. See: and his YouTube channel.


Is Integral Spiritual?

Joseph Dillard

Is being cautious, clear, and limited in how we use “spirit” and “spirituality” a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

If there is any word that is fundamental to the writings of Ken Wilber and Integral AQAL it is “spirit” and its variations. Can one not use it and still be integral? It is indeed strange to consider that a word synonymous with enlightenment would itself not be conducive to it, but there are good reasons to conclude that this is indeed the case.

The problem with the word “spirit” is that its meaning is over-determined. It means so many different things to so many different people that we can use it to mean whatever we want. We can switch from one meaning to another depending on what point we want to make or what we think our listeners will best respond to.

Therefore, when people use the words “spirit” or “spiritual,” I commit the unpardonable sin of asking myself, “What do they mean?” If someone says, “S/he is a very spiritual person,” what exactly do they mean? After all, Wilber gives four different possible meanings. In Integral Spirituality we find the following very thoughtful and profound explanation:

If you analyze the way that people use the world “spiritual”—both scholars and laypeople alike—you will find at least 4 major meanings given to that word. Although individuals themselves do not use these technical terms, it is apparent that “spiritual” is being used to mean: (1) the highest levels in any of the lines [self, cognition, empathy, morality, etc.]; (2) a separate line itself; (3) an extraordinary peak experience or state; (4) a particular attitude. My point is all of those are legitimate uses (and I think all of them point to actual realities), but we absolutely MUST identify which of those we mean, or the conversation goes nowhere fast, with the added burden that one thinks ground has actually been covered. In my entire life, I personally have never heard more people utter more words with less meaning.”

“1. If you take any developmental line—cognitive to affective/emotional to needs to values—people do not usually think of the lower or middle levels in those lines as spiritual, but they do describe the higher and highest levels as spiritual… The word “transpersonal,” for example, was adopted with that usage in mind: spiritual is not usually thought of as pre-rational or pre-personal, and it is not usually thought of as personal or rational, it is thought of profoundly trans-rational and transpersonal—it is the highest levels in any of the lines."

2. Sometimes people speak of something like “spiritual intelligence,” which is available not only at the highest levels in any of the lines, but is its own developmental line, going all the way down to the earliest of years. James Fowler is one example of this. Put similarly, this spiritual line has its own prepersonal, personal, and transpersonal levels/stages. This is one of the reasons you have to follow usage extremely closely, because juxtaposing usage #2 and #1, we would say that only the highest levels of the spiritual line are spiritual. This, needless to say, has caused enormous confusion. (The AQAL position is that both usages—actually, all 4 usages—are correct, you just have to specify which or you get endlessly lost.)"

3. Sometimes people speak of spirituality in the sense of a religious or spiritual experience, meditative experience, or peak experience (which may, or may not, involve stages). Virtually the entire corpus of shamanic traditions fit in this category. William James, Daniel P. Brown, Evelyn Underhill, and Daniel Goleman are also examples of spirituality as a state experience (often trained). State experience is another important usage…

4. Sometimes people simply speak of “spiritual” as involving a special attitude that can be present at any stage or state: perhaps love, or compassion, or wisdom (i.e., it is a type). This is a very common usage, but in fine detail, it usually reverts to one of the first three usages, because there are actually stages of love, compassion, and wisdom.” (Integral Spirituality, p.121-3)

When we use “spirit,” “spirituality,” or “spiritual,” are we referring to a culmination of development in non-dual enlightenment? A feeling of bliss and rapture? A “spiritual” attitude? A particular line of development (spiritual intelligence)? A specific level of development, as in unity with nature, or devotion, or formlessness, or the non-dual? The highest level of development on any line? Or are we referring to a state that is accessible to most anyone at any time? Are we emphasizing an experience rather than a feeling or a state, as in a near death experience that was profoundly “spiritual?” Perhaps we mean the ground of being, the substrate of all life? Or are we referring to life itself? Then again, perhaps we are referring to some sort of absolutist, unconditioned, metaphysical totality, like the Buddhist paramartha satya? Or perhaps some state related to quantum physics?

In most of these usages “spirit” not only does not differentiate between prepersonal spirit and transpersonal spirit: it confuses consciousness that is unaware of itself and exists in a state of unaware oneness, with consciousness that is aware of itself and exists in a state of conscious oneness. This failure to differentiate between prepersonal and transpersonal spirit is what Wilber refers to as the “pre-trans fallacy.” It also implies that the intermediate, personal levels of development are relatively “non-spiritual.” Are they? If so, why? How do we know that to be true? The implication that personal levels of development are less spiritual or non-spiritual separates reason from spirit, setting up an intrinsic duality that moves happiness, integration, and completion either farther and farther into some utopian future or into some romanticized Garden of Eden past.

Most people who hear and use the words “spirit” and “spiritual” are not familiar with Wilber's four different meanings, nor with the pre-trans fallacy, but still assume they know what usage of “spirit” the speaker intends, when they may well not share the same meanings for the same words. In any case, the speaker or writer knows what they mean, and they are confident in their particular understanding of “spirit.” They are also generally confident that we know what they mean, because “spirit” is so obvious that it requires no explanation. We are supposed to understand due to the context in which these words are used.

But alas, due to all these possible meanings, as well as others I have not listed, unless a meaning is specified, I often end up asking, “What are they talking about?” In time a sneaking suspicion arises that the lack of clarity, of specificity, serves the purpose of generating agreement, when the speaker means one thing and I think they are talking about something else. Even worse, I may conclude that they don't know what they only think they know. Perhaps conviction is replacing knowledge and clarity, or are they purposefully attempting to be vague in order to generate the illusion of agreement. While such conclusions can bring charges of cynicism and insult, to what extent do users of these terms bring that upon themselves?

A study by Stanford University and the University of Chicago published in Current Anthropology has shown how culture impacts how people experience spirituality. Christians generate different kinds of spiritual experiences than Buddhists because their cultural understandings of both mental events and bodily sensations are different.[1] Both have different meanings in different spiritual traditions. One person may feel a damp coldness and believe that a demon is present. Another person may shake uncontrollably and attribute this to the Holy Spirit. A third feels a light, floating sensation and associates it with a meditative state. These conclusions are those of Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropology professor at Stanford University. Her research examines how the presence of a specific cultural name for a mental or bodily sensation may affect that sensation within a specific cultural and social setting. The research findings reveal the importance of local culture on spiritual perceptions. “Americans were more likely than Thai to report cataplexy (loss of muscular function), adrenaline rushes, and overwhelming emotion as spiritual experiences, and they were more likely to report everyday encounters with demons,”

“…if a spiritual experience has a specific name in the local religion, then the physiological sensation that is understood to be the sign of that experience is more likely to be reported to the researchers. For example, the adrenaline rush of a “Holy Spirit” experience is inherent to the evangelical Christian belief system. For a Buddhist, such a sensation is understood to be contrary to spiritual goals.” The research showed that different religions value different kinds of experiences. “Buddhism has no divinity, no omniscient presence. The goal for a Thai Buddhist is to detach and feel untethered from the cycle of suffering.” “Thai subjects were more likely to use an idiom of “weight” to describe their feelings of lightness and calm, which is often connected with meditation. “A mind that is concentrated (as it should be in meditation) is a mind and body that is light.” In contrast, evangelical spirituality in the United States is focused on encountering a specific being who touches followers through “presence.” “Overwhelming emotions that feel uncontrolled become signs of that divine being because the controlling agency is attributed to God.”

Luhrmann says that the way people think about spiritual experiences shape the spiritual experiences they remember and report. “Yet some bodies, either because of trauma or genetic inheritance, may be more likely to experience certain striking anomalous events often thought to be spiritual, like out-of-body experiences, or sleep paralysis, than others,” she says. All of this points to the importance of the words and concepts that we use, as part of our cultural context, in framing what is conducive or not conducive to enlightenment, and how common it is to project our understandings of spirit onto the experiences and meanings of others in entirely inappropriate ways.

There is, however, even a more fundamental and profound reason to be extremely cautious in how we use “spirit,” “spirituality,” and “spiritual.” It is almost impossible to refer to spirit or spirituality without implying morality. After all, what do these words mean to most of us apart from positive values such as goodness, harmony, virtue, and compassion? Certainly there are definitions of spirit that include evil as well, or that define spirit as so objective that it transcends such human concerns. However, while such definitions may well be considered legitimate aspects or faces of spirit, spirituality without the assumption or idea of goodness and morality immediately loses the majority of its practical relevance for most people. Consequently, when we use these words we immediately imply some degree of moral authority and personal virtue. Is it deserved? Is it legitimate? These questions are rarely asked; the legitimacy of moral authority is simply assumed, because “spirit” itself implies virtue in the minds of most people.

However, we have learned, whether we have wanted to or not, that the assumption that morality and virtue accompany spirituality is not only dangerous, but misleading. People we assumed were spiritual turned out to not be moral. People who claimed to be spiritual or to represent spirit turned out to be seriously compromised in the realm of virtue. While all of us understand that no one is moral all the time and that virtue is a tenuous commodity, when we use the words “spirit” and “spirituality” we are asking the listener to hold us up to a higher standard. Subsequently, we should not be shocked when we are therefore held to a higher standard than those who do not cloak themselves in the language of spirit.

It is not realistic to expect people to decouple their understanding of spirit from our personal moral failings and to simply trust that our intention is spiritual, particularly when they are believe they are victims of abuse by us. When we act or speak disrespectfully, immorally, or amorally in the eyes of others we may not care what others think, because we know our own intention. However, the greater damage is that trust in “spirit” and “spirituality” are thereby undermined.


Integral Deep Listening (IDL) interviews dream characters and the personifications of life issues in order to move from the map of cognitive multi-perspectivalism to the territory of experiential multi-perspectivalism, in the process thinning, broadening, and awakening awareness. The process often challenges some of our traditional assumptions about what spirituality is and how it presents itself, leading to understandings of both the sacredness of life and its integral nature, without needing to resort to problematic and ambiguous references to spirituality.

Interviewing a Chronic Cough

This interview is a good example of why the traditional concept of spirituality does not necessarily produce clarity, or understanding, much less enlightenment. What we have here is healing through cosmic humor and the antithesis to common definitions of spirituality. While one can of course broaden the definition of spirituality to cover such things, it so broadens and weakens the meaning of “spirit” and “spirituality” as to render them near meaningless.

Have you ever had a cough so bad it wouldn’t stop for weeks? Linda had one for FIVE weeks when we did this interview. The cough wasn’t constant, but it was persistent and woke her up at night. What to do? Integral Deep Listening (IDL), the phenomenologically-based approach to experiential multi-perspectivalism that I use, treats physical symptoms as if they are wake-up calls. What will this cough have to say if we listen to it?

Cough, would you please tell me about yourself and what you are doing?

Cough: "I’m a strong cough with a deep voice. I’m mostly dry. I start at the neck and spread all over the lungs. I’m very noisy. Everybody has to listen to me. Linda can’t ignore me. If she tries, I make her throw up. I did that twice."

What is it that you are trying to say to her?

Cough:"Stay in bed! Calm down! Do nothing! Because she’s doing too much! She’s working all the time! She’s working too hard. No days off. Always a bad conscience about not working if she doesn’t work for half an hour! She’s becoming addicted to work! She thinks she has to do many things before going to the dog school on the 8th of July for three months. She has a very bad conscience about that! It’s always the same old story: not working is not allowed; having fun is not allowed."

What do you think about that, cough!

Cough:"BBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBB!!!!! Fuck that!"

What do you dislike most about yourself? Do you have weaknesses? What are they?

Cough:"I am kind of a prisoner."

Linda thinks that she’s a prisoner of YOU. But you think you’re a prisoner of her! How come? Who’s the real victim and who’s the real persecutor here?

Cough:"I can’t hop in a car and drive away! After about five weeks it’s becoming boring!"

What would you like to have different?

Cough:"Maybe I could become one of those little tornadoes for cleaning and other things in the temple. It sounds like freedom!"

Cough, Linda created you, right? What aspect of Linda do you represent or most closely personify?

Cough:"Imprisoned power and anger!"

Cough, if you could be anywhere you wanted to be and take any form you desired, would you change? If so, how?

Cough:"I want to become one of those tornados and go to the temple and figure out what sort of tornado I want to be."

OK. So imagine your are a tornado in the temple...

Cough:"I am with other little tornados. I am free! We are playing together! We can destroy things! We can play with human beings and make them angry - give them a bad hair day. We can even irritate dogs and horses and cows!"

It sounds like you have fun being a pest! If Linda let you play and terrorize whatever you wanted, what would happen to her imprisoned power and anger?

Cough: "I’m powerful! When I’m angry I can piss people off! As a cough I can only piss Linda off. That becomes boring."

Tornado, how would you score yourself 0-10, in each of the following six qualities: confidence, compassion, wisdom, acceptance, inner peace, and witnessing? Why?

Cough:" I am a nine in confidence. Compassion? Silly question!!!! Forget about it! Ha Ha Ha!!!! I am an eight in wisdom, a ten or more in acceptance! Inner Peace? Another silly question!!! Ha Ha Ha!!! Witnessing? Another silly question! It’s too much fun to be a pest!!!

Tornado, if you scored tens in all six of these qualities, would you be different? If so, how?

I don’t want to change! I’m having too much fun as it is!!!

How would Linda’s life be different if she naturally scored like you do in all six of these qualities all the time?

More confidence. Less bad conscience, and more fun about fighting. She takes fighting too seriously. She feels too hurt too soon, like everything is personal. She needs to see a fight more as a pissing contest. If she had been like me when she was fighting with the painter she would have known more nasty answers. She would have been able to piss him off so that he would never come back to her apartment! It would have made me happy and Linda too! A pissing contest won’t hurt her. She’s thought way too much about it instead of doing it. With my energy she would do it, close the door and it would be done. She would be able to drop it and do other things in another mood. No waste of energy. Instead, what she does is carry the bad feelings with her and have a bad day!

If you could live Linda’s life for her, how would you live it differently?

This is one of the most important things. To do it and be done with it. Not to hang on to these old angers. I don’t have a bad conscience!

If Linda were able to live her life without a bad conscience how would it be different?

Freedom, freedom, freedom, and FREEDOM!!!!

What three life issues would you focus on if you were in charge of Linda’s life?

I would become even more selfish! No compassion! Self-confidence! She would be able to tell the world to FUCK OFF! She wouldn’t worry about what other people thought, including her parents! Animals! She works too much with human beings. Too much about this compassion bullshit. Animals don’t care about human bad conscience things. She needs to do something brand new.

In what life situations would it be most beneficial for Linda to imagine that she is you and act as you would?

Painters, taxi drivers, bus drivers, ugly acting and speaking people, unfriendly people...all the people who need to be given the finger immediately!!

Character, do you do drama? If not, why not?

Yes! I do it and I enjoy drama.

What is your secret for staying out of drama?

I am able to be persecutor without eventually becoming the rescuer or victim, which is what eventually happens for humans. I can fly away when it’s enough. I can leave. I’m free! I can be a pest and get out before anything bad can happen to me.

Why do you think that you are in Linda’s life?

I told you, she needs to have more freedom, more power, more of a “fuck you” attitude. Much more! Maybe even middle toes to go with nine out of ten middle fingers!!!

How is Linda most likely to ignore what you are saying to her?

She will go back to her old bad habit of being afraid and not very self-confident with a bad conscience.

What would you recommend that they do about that?

She needs to show these things her middle finger!

If she follows your recommendations what do you think would happen to her cough, tornado?

NO MORE COUGH!!!! Instead of getting pissed on or pissing on herself she would get it out of her system!

Linda, what have you heard yourself say?

My new mantra: “Middle finger..middle finger...middle finger!! I think this tornado is pretty right about it: that I not stay in my anger: Give it away! No bad conscience. My life would be easier.

I like this tornado! He’s such a cool, confident, free, pest! No one can make him really angry. Wow! I’m envious!

If this experience were a wake-up call from your life compass, what do you think it would be saying to you?

More middle finger! And forgetting about it! Close the door on it! If I piss off people I should REALLY piss them off! And not have a bad conscience because I did it.

What do you want to take on for homework between now and next time?

Strengthen the muscles of my middle fingers! And my inner middle fingers! It’s nasty but I’m REALLY enjoying it!

What do you want to be able to report back on the next time we get together?

That I can more easily leave my anger behind me. I can close the door on it. Not to think and think about bad people. If bad things happen, they will happen anyway because jerks will think, “She’s a weak person.” If I fight with more self confidence instead of as a concerned little girl, other people will see me differently. I need to fight out of power, not fight out of fear! I’m fighting out of fear so often it belittles me. It makes me small. It’s like whining instead of fighting! If I piss you off, I piss you off, dammit!


How “spiritual” is this interview? Are we simply dealing with Linda’s “shadow” issues? I don’t think so, unless we want to define “shadow” as any and all ways that we sabotage our own happiness and development.

Notice a couple of things about this interview. The tornado is plenty smart and aware, but somehow it has managed to evade all those years of social programming that our parents taught us so that we would go to school and make good grades so we could eventually get a job, not fart in public, so we could find a mate someday, and generally do all those things designed to get us accepted by the world while avoiding those things that would cause the world to reject us.

At its extreme, these good intentions amount to repression and brainwashing. The appropriate response is anger, if not fury, and rebellion. If this is not possible, then the desire to be accepted for who we are smolders like the deep heat of a compost pile. Given the right circumstances, it will burst into flame.

Also notice that the solution for Linda is not scoring high in all six core qualities. That would be phony and artificial. What Linda needs first, according to the perspective of the tornado, is its profile: emphasis on confidence, wisdom, and self-acceptance, and the ignoring of compassion, acceptance of others, and inner peace.

Another way of framing this would be to point out that until we have compassion for ourselves, in the sense that we stand up for our own needs in an assertive fashion, how can we exhibit authentic compassion toward others? By “authentic,” we mean something other than rescuing, “should” based compassion. Can we have real acceptance of others when we are unaccepting of ourselves? How can we have inner peace if we aren’t confident, wise, and self-accepting?

Low scoring self-aspects and wildly polarized scores such as demonstrated by Tornado are very important. They tell us where and how we are stuck and what they think we need to do to get unstuck. In this case, this Tornado is telling Linda why it thinks she has a chronic cough and what she needs to do to get rid of it.

Escaping once and for all from drama is not very realistic. Sometimes what we need to do is first admit that we are addicted to drama, as this Tornado does, so that we can live an honest and authentic life in our addiction. This increases the likelihood that we will more quickly outgrow it, because instead of pretending it is not a problem or doesn't exist, we are accepting it.

To call this interview “spiritual” is to so completely include the mundane, ridiculous, secular, and profane in the sacred as to make spirituality undifferentiated from any aspect of life, rendering the term relatively useless. However, there is indeed something sacred about honoring our worst impulses and expressions, and when we do so we incorporate them into a broader, expanded sense of who we are that is wiser, more in balance, and at peace.

Is being cautious, clear, and limited in how we use “spirit” and “spirituality” a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Wilber seems to think so, judging by how he uses these terms in his, The Religion of Tomorrow and regarding evolution, as “Eros as spirit-in-action.” All of these factors combine to give us pause about when and how we use these words. I am not advocating for their non-use, but only that we consider these multiple usages as well as the moral implications of associating ourselves with them. Is there room in Integral for a conception of the sacred that avoids use of the words “spirit,” “spiritual,” and “spirituality?” You decide.


[1] Julia L. Cassaniti and Tanya Marie Luhrmann, "The Cultural Kindling of Spiritual Experiences", Current Anthropology, Vol. 55, No. S10, The Anthropology of Christianity: Unity, Diversity, New Directions ( December 2014), pp. S333-S343 (11 pages).

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