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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Jakob PossertJakob Possert is an education visionary, book addict and impact driven learner and writer. Although he has been born and raised in Austria, he considers himself a global citizen living in several countries and speaking several languages. He has been familiar with Integral Theory for a few years now and actively uses these maps on a constant basis.

Reposted from with permission of the author.

Stages of Comprehension

Distinction Internal and External

Jakob Possert

All too often we are hasty in our conviction to have comprehended something. Let’s imagine a conversation in which one person is trying to convey a deep emotion or a profound understanding. Although upon asking whether the other person got it, he or she insists that they comprehend what the other person means to say, in the course of the conversation it becomes clear that this is actually not the case.

What the following paragraphs want to show is that it might well be that the listener sincerely comprehended whatever has been laid out – however only to a degree. Thus I would argue there are different shades of comprehension. These might be analyzed and maybe summarized in the meaningful categories which are discussed in this post.

I am by far not the first or the only person who has come up with a model of degrees of comprehension. For example, Tony Robbin’s distinguishes between “3 Levels of Business Mastery”, namely knowledge, emotion and physical.

Furthermore, in a previous blog post (which is linked here) I have already discussed a possible version of the three levels of understanding. However it seemed to me upon revisiting it that it does a very poor job at making a crucial distinction between the internal and external side of comprehending something.

Overall the distinction between internal and external would roughly correlate to subjective realization and objective knowledge. We could speak of a kind of emotional understanding and a factual understanding. The first one is concerned with what goes one inside of us and what goes on inside other people – it is internal. The second is concerned with what is happening outside of the mind, in the external world and thus within the objective physical reality.

These two sides go very well, or actually are, the two sides of the four quadrants (which are explained in this post). The left being the subjective-internal one and the right being the objective-external one. Both halves are important parts to the picture of understanding subjects and it is important to understand the difference in how they operate. That is, how they constitute truth or in this case how they form comprehension of something.

Four Quadrant model of Ken Wilber

So what is meant when he or others talk about different levels of understanding? I find it very necessary to differentiate most importantly between understanding something mentally-imaginatively and understanding something intuitively.This is the major distinction between a shallow and profound understanding of something. Whereas the first is something rather abstract to us, which only exists as a blank/colorless concept so to speak, the second is full with a deeper level of comprehension and is a rich concept with a lot of experience and translative knowledge attached to it.

Although the most important difference might be drawn between whether something is generally only mental or also intuitive, there is also a distinction between a fleeting experience and a permanent awareness which I see as vital. There is clearly a difference between having shortly realized something or basically understood a concept and actually living or implicitly applying the concept. This is the minor distinction between the second and the third level.

So how do we decline/conjugate those levels on the subjective/internal and the objective/external side respectively? What do these differentiations mean in detail?

Let’s start with the left side, which is concerned with the internal thus emotional and feeling side.

The first level of comprehension is referred to as grasped for it describes an imaginative, colorless, even cold understanding of the issue. Here we only have words and precepts without implications, without meaning. It is mental speculation of what is actually happening. Mathematically minded people will probably include numbers and probabilities in trying to comprehend it.

For example, it is possible to say that “love is the most beautiful thing” but if there is no experience tied to this statement such knowledge is of only little use. Many wise sayings are of a similar nature. They are virtually useless without one’s own experiences. Thus one might be reading about Abundance Mindset and getting the idea or concept but not realizing it.

To illustrate this stage one might think of smart person explaining how rationally the fear of a terrorist attack is completely absurd. Explaining to a person, who is afraid to visit a certain area because many incidents happened there, that statistically the chances are close to zero that something will happen to him or her is not enough. While what is said might be factually true it leaves out levels of emotions and does not reach intuitive understanding.

The second level is called realized. For whatever was the content of the message, which primarily has only been words hit home now. Not only the words but the meaning behind them has been understood. Furthermore, it is here that a listener is actually able to put him- or herself in the protagonist’s shoes. It is possible to comprehend what an individual is talking about because one has made the same or a very similar experience. One has realized it and made the understanding one’s own.

Thus for instance when somebody is talking about the death of a loved when one can truly say “I feel you” when a loved one has died in one’s own life. Or having realized the true value of being able to come home, which is generally only the case when this home, a house or a place, is not there or at least not easily accessible anymore. Generally, exchange students and expats can empathize with this feeling for example.

What is striking is that this kind of comprehension seems to be possible to a sensitive and mindful individual even without experiencing something on one’s own body. Thus through seeing a documentary or making a close observation of something, and consciously putting oneself in the other person’s shoes, it might be possible to intuitively comprehend a thing, although one has not made the experience directly.s

The third level might be referred to as integrated for it is here that this comprehension, which might only have been momentary or fleeting, is stable in one’s awareness. The comprehension now is virtually a part of oneself. This means that the understanding shows itself implicitly in one’s actions and thoughts – though maybe not in all situations.

Living in Israel-Palestine as an expat one becomes acutely aware of actual existential angst that is embedded in the identity of a people. Likewise it might be possible to be compassionate with everybody for a short time without a lot of difficulty, however actually being a compassionate person or, more poetically, being a living expression of compassion is something quite different.

Here the shallowness of understanding of something merely perceived but not actually felt on one’s own skin, like watching a documentary, becomes apparent. But also only a short experience will often be not enough to make the intuitive realization permanent. For these might offer access to empathy but are as such too distant and too short lived to integrate them.

I have seen the value of distinguishing between those three levels on the internal side most crucial when it comes to spiritual-mystical matters. For it is one thing

  • to read about a peak-experience or a permanent state of realization (grasped – 1st level)
  • and something completely different to experience it oneself (realized – 2nd level) .
  • Furthermore, that there is an important distinction between a fleeting state and a permanent stage. The latter being a fully integrated ( – 3rd level) realization. An in-depth clarification of this distinction – as well as a non-fancy non-whacky-sounding discussion of spirituality – might be found in this post.

Now on to the external-right side of the 4 Quadrants, where we talk about intellectual and platonic things.

First there is the level of knowing. This is a certain kind of factual, numerical-abstract understanding. It is largely colorless because it is without context. The connections to other fields of knowledge have not been made and it remains rather isolated in comprehension.

The example which comes most easily to mind is when reading historical dates and what happened in a chronological manner without any context. Afterwards one knows that a certain battle has taken place in a certain year or that a certain revolution happened in a country in a certain year but that is largely it. The circumstances of these times, about the ideals and reasons of the individuals, of their thoughts and motivations nothing is comprehended.

The same is of course true for other areas of knowledge. It is completely possible to be able to list the components of a eucaryote-cell without knowing their function and reason of design, or to know a chemical formula without understanding the intricacies of its composition. Thus, this kind of knowledge is simply a blind recounting of facts without seeing the bigger picture.

The second level then is where we understand things and are able to see precisely this bigger picture that is missing beforehand. The reasons behind things are seen and give it meaning. The topic is understood and placed within a web of related things and analogies become apparent.

Within the historical example this means that to know the societal struggles of a time before the revolution can color it in important respects. Within literature the hidden intentions behind the words become apparent and within the sciences the origins and consequences of a certain thing become clear.

On the third level this knowledge is internalized. The comprehension has moved to a more subtle level, which is marked by the effortless application and awareness of contextual interactions of something. In working on anything this piece of understanding is implicit in one’s considerations and actions. Furthermore, this it is not seen in isolation but rather in an environment of several other things and forces which influence it.

On a business-related level, here we talk about the human resources people who apply personality profiles implicitly to match new employees with existing teams. Similarly any engineer who is constructing something effortlessly applies the relevant physical laws and the understanding of how the different parts of his or her design fit into each other.

Furthermore, on this level is also the member of the board of directors who comprehends the importance of different branches of the company and how they compare to the competition. The understanding of how this part interacts with other agents is intuitive – both as in relation to other parts of the company and beyond.

The importance of this third level understand may also be seen in the way that every accomplished fiction author dives deep into the subject area they will situate their story in. If there is a certain technical or historical setting they first devote large amounts of time to become fluent within that area to seamlessly integrate this knowledge into the story. It may seem that only reading about certain facts, which are later added to the story might be enough, but the difference in quality can be felt upon reading the book- or so book lovers say.

A particular critical area for the distinction between different levels of comprehension is working with elaborate and complex models, or any models at all. For example, one might learn about societal groups grouped into Sinus Milieus.

  • On the first level (known) one might know thus be able to list them and name their special criteria.
  • On the second level (understood) one is intuitively able to understand what each part is about and how they are in relation.
  • However, only on the third level (internalized) is this comprehension so effortless that working with the model as a tool does not cause any mental strain. One might be able to approach an issue and noticing a particular pattern this model then comes to mind and is identified with the pattern.

Stages of Comprehension, Jakob Possert

A final note which might be very important to people who are familiar with Integral Theory: One might be asking oneself where the all levels of the AQAL model fits in here. I would suggest that each understanding is qualitatively different according to its developmental levels (which are briefly explained in this post) – at the very least this is true for the left side. Thus, one might find these three levels of comprehension on every developmental stage – though with higher stages it might be easier to reach higher levels of comprehension.

This model may hopefully be useful as a means of clarification what we mean when say that we got it. At the very least I daresay that it makes one more aware of the vital distinctions between different kinds of comprehension.

I use it by myself on a regular basis and especially when it comes to assessing for myself how well I have comprehended something I have found this model to be extremely helpful.

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