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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Brian van der HorstBrian Van der Horst has been an executive coach, trainer and consultant who co-founded the NLP Institute for Advanced Studies in San Francisco. After working with the Stanford Research Institute in 1984 he began to live in Paris, and founded the NLP institute, The Integral Perspectives Group, also founding a school of coaching around the idea of “Integral Vision” in 1996. He has designed and produced programs with John Grinder, Carmen Bostic, Robert Dilts and Timothy Gallwey; and was Chief Facilitator for Europe with Ken Wilber's Integral Institute. Specializing in NLP applications for business and intercultural communication, he has taught in numerous European MBA programs and privately in various leadership development programs for such organizations as Hewlett-Packard, The European Investment Bank, Siemens, Lufthansa, Apple, and BMW/Rover. Previously an editor or staff writer for New Realities, Practical Psychology, Playboy, and The Village Voice; his books include Folk Music in America, Rock Music, and The Outcome Strategy. See also:

A Modeler's Primer on Spirituality

Brian Van der Horst

“Spirit [fr. Latin spiritus, literally, breath]: an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms.” —Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary
I hope we can remember that one of the first steps of enlightenment is lightening up.

I've been in the Integral Movement for 35 years. A founding member of the Integral Institute, Ken Wilber had appointed me Chief Facilitator for Europe (when Frank Visser held a parallel position as “Devil's Advocate.”) Ironically, Frank had been charged with gathering all the counter-arguments, judgments, evaluations and analysis from inside and outside the integral movement he could find, so as to allow Ken to appreciate general criticism of his models, as well as professional and academic evaluation that might allow him to hone and evolve his work.

From my vantage point as an old hand in the Integral Movement, it seems to be leaning a little too far toward exploring spiritual disciplines and pursuits, rather than fulfilling the promise of the many institutes we founded in 2000.

So I thought I'd revive a little conversation I started in the 1990s about modeling spiritual experience, which is what I thought Wilber was going to be doing through his AQAL and Wilber to the Nth (Wilber 1, Wilber 2, etc. ) improvements.

The context from which the author speaks

When I began training in modeling subjective experience in l979, I asked many of my neuro-linguistic programming teachers the same question. Where does spiritual experience fit in NLP? We don't know, they all answered. We are studying the structure of subjective experience. And we haven't had any spiritual experiences to model.

NLP has changed a great deal since l979. Some of my teachers have had children—perhaps the fundamental human experience of our inherent spirituality. Some encountered healers, sages and saints; others had gifted clients that taught us about dimensions of the spirit that have resulted in a host of seminars addressing matters of the soul.

Now things are different.

  • When NLP co-founder John Grinder met healer Finbarr Nolan, the world soul crept into accounts of modelling sessions.
  • Major developer, and author of dozens of books on NLP, Robert Dilts began modelling Jesus of Nazareth, and the word spirituality heads his Bateson-inspired neurological levels model.
  • Leslie Cameron-Bandler created a model of personality that hovers around existential Virtual Questions.
  • Richard Clarke gives Zen-flavored seminars on NLP and spirituality.
  • Tad James teaches “The Lost Secrets of Ancient Hawaiian Huna.”
  • Connirae and Tamara Andreas identified five core states: being, inner peace, love, OKness, and oneness at the heart of the “Core Self, a universally known concept that goes by many names: our inner essence, our full potential, self-actualization our True Self, our Higher Self, the God within, and the Soul, to name a few.”

Practically all of the original founders and developers of NLP now address this realm.

It seems to me, the true NLP modeler's quest is to find the common structure of transcendent experience, be it Sufi, Buddhist, Platonic, Jewish, Taoist, Hindu, Zen, or Christianity. People like William James (The Varieties of Religious Experience), Huston Smith (The Religions of Man), Joseph Campbell (The Masks of God), Aldous Huxley (The Perennial Philosophy), Carl Jung (The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious), and Ken Wilber (Spectrum of Consciousness) have already contributed much in this direction.

This article is being written in support of this quest, and in appreciation of what our teachers are investigating today. Many models already exist for the structure of spiritual experience. It may aid us in our quest to know what has come before us.

The author's spiritual lineage

Dilettante? You bet. If you've got a new system of metaphysics, self-mastery, or developing human potential, I'm your boy.

Many of the NLP professionals above are now working within the orientations of certain spiritual lineages, i.e.: Zen, Christianity, Huna. So I feel beholden to avow my own orientations. During the 1970s, as a participating, investigative journalist, I published hundreds of articles about my spiritual experiences. As a staff writer for the Village Voice, I wrote about and interviewed many remarkable men and women, healers, psychics, parapsychologists, gurus, zen masters, and teachers of a host of spiritual approaches. As contributing editor to New Realities magazine and columnist for Practical Psychology and New Age Journal, I covered many spiritual conferences and events.

I had a few scoops along the way, such as the first articles on Findhorn, the Course in Miracles, and Rajneesh. In the late 70s, I even worked with various consciousness organizations, and have been involved in projects with people like Buckminster Fuller, George Leonard, Swami Muktananda, the scribe of The Course in Miracles, Werner Erhard, Marilyn Ferguson, and the Dalai Lama, among others.

The following is an excerpt from a column I wrote in the New Age Journal in1979. Later that same year, I first encountered NLP.

Hatha, bhakti, siddha and raja yoga, macrobiotics, tantra, Actualizations, est, aikido, karate, psychedelics, kundalini, mystical Christianity, Feldenkrais, Alexander, zazen, long-distance running, and Sufi dancing are but a few of the pursuits to which I've dedicated snatches or whole passages of my life.
This is not an invective against consumer comparison in the consciousness movement, mind you. Seminar junkie, master collector, discipline freak, guru whore—personally I must plead guilty to all these epithets. In fact, I recommend the method: I'd encourage people to shop around and sample everything they can.
Dilettante? You bet. If you've got a new system of metaphysics, self-mastery, or developing human potential, I'm your boy. Dilettantism is a much under-estimated avocation. Committing yourself to one discipline, you quickly realize how little you know, how much you have to learn. But the dilettante can never know too little. Beginner's mind? Compassion? Charity? The dedicated dilettante is in a perpetual state of grace.
Webster says the word derives from the latin, delectare, to delight. And have I been delighted! There isn't a single new age philosophy or technique that hasn't taught me something. Along the way, I've had some pretty wowie-zowie illuminations. One of the greatest lessons, for me, has been that there are no contradictions to be found among all these various approaches: they've all worked. The culmination of everything I've studied is to trust yourself, to listen to the great Self, the Cosmic Consciousness, the Way of Life—and to avoid the revolting tendency to capitalize silly words like these...
Many of the techniques I had learned seemed mutally exclusive at first. It was as if I had been given dozens of sets of sophisticated instruments, all of which could only be utilized one at a time. Why do you think they are called disciplines, in the first place? All of them are meant to be used regularly, as an all-inclusive set of rules, procedures and systems of ordering reality. What, I began to ask, did they have in common?

Obviously, I was ripe for NLP. It was also the end of my decade of divine dilettantism. I've now spent three decades as a certified NLP trainer, because NLP held the promise of becoming a meta-discipline. It appeared that with NLP, one could unpackage and understand any other discipline. I have not been disappointed.

NLP's responsibility about value judgements

Traditionally, one of the central aspirations of NLP has been that as a structural discipline, it would contain few value judgments. We in NLP try to be aware of our presuppositions, and to state them clearly.

Drawing on the mathematical philosophy of Logical Types, NLP makes the distinctions of the content of human experience, the processes between content, the structure of the processes, and the context of the event.

For example, take a problem, for which the context is identified as a “Traffic Jam.” There are the structures of the streets, the processes of traffic circulation, and the content of the cars. Changing the content, moving each car or talking with all the drivers takes a long time. Redirecting the processes—changing the communication within the structure—with a traffic signal or policeman is more effective. Create an underpass or tunnel—change the structure of the situation—and you can forget about the processes and the content; they will organize themselves. Change the context, call it a “Parking Lot,” and technically there is no longer a problem. Sounds silly, but that's what happens functionally, when you change context, or a model of the world, or a paradigm.

In NLP, we have been directed to the levels of process and structure for our interventions. Our teachers have told us that the content—all the little idiosyncratic “whats?” in our lives repeat in the same structures anyway. We have also been counselled to avoid the “Whys?” that frame, explain and give meaning to our lives. Nevertheless, we have often re-contextualized our clients with reframes, change histories, and now the frontier appears to be, what is the structure of content? What is the structure of context, or belief?

The Essential Dilemma

The essential dilemma of investigating belief with NLP is our investment in pragmatism, utility and verifiability: our basic tools of exploration and test of reality is the sensorium. This is a problem. In virtually all disciplines of the spirit, the spiritual experience is described as transcending what we can see, hear, feel, taste or smell in everyday life.

But when you examine such meditative disciplines as yoga, Zen, or Tibetan Buddhism, one does find precedents for working this same interface between ordinary and non-ordinary realities. Most speak of levels of reality.

If in NLP, we use an analogous model, the Theory of Logical Types, perhaps we should review the presuppositions of this model, most well-defined by anthropologist/philosopher/psychologist Gregory Bateson as The Logical Categories of Learning and Communication.

Bateson defined these as

  • Learning I—acquiring content, correcting errors within a set of alternatives.
  • Learning II—a change in the process of Learning I —acquiring the context of content, correcting errors by changing sets or sequences of sets of content alternatives.
  • Learning III—a change in the process of Learning II—generating the context of context. This is the level of enlightenment, satori, of sudden illumination.
  • Learning IV—a change in Learning III—generating the context of context of context. This for Bateson was the domain of the spirit, “Where Angels Fear to Tread.” He also said the most human beings accomplish this type of learning before they are born, as the foetus transforms from single-cell organism, to sponge, to coelenterate, to fish, to mammal, to baby homo sapiens. Or as they say in biology, “Ontology recapitulates phylogeny.”

Hence we have the precedent for Robert Dilts' Neurological Levels of development:



However, as Morris Berman has pointed out in The Reenchantment of the World, “The Theory of Logical Types, employed so brilliantly by Bateson... is a theory of hierarchical relationships, and it is conceivable that a logic of classes implied a class society, or at least one in which some groups have a higher social or theoretical status than others. Logical typing reflects and implies a top-down attitude toward power.” Furthermore, Warren McCulloch, one of the fathers of neuro-computing preferred a heterarchy of values rather than a hierarchy. You can establish a hierarchy of colors of the spectrum, but there is no physical way to say that red is better than blue. Hierarchies, he felt, are not validated by the natural world.

Hence, we might begin to re-think the model of neurological levels in terms of how much even the level of environment is imbued in spirituality, and perhaps spirituality enfolded in every aspect of one's life. Instead of assuming a hierarchy, how can we use this model to represent a holographic, inter-connected, heterarchical system? This would allow us to continue to use logical types, without having to make the value judgements inherent in the concept of logical levels.

In a marvelous book, Reality Isn't What It Used To Be, Walter Truett Anderson welcomes us to the postmodern world:

“If there is anything we have plenty of, it is belief systems. But we also have something else: a growing suspicion that all belief systems—all ideas about human reality—are social constructions. This is a story about stories, a belief about beliefs, and in time—probably a very short time—it will become a central part of the worldview of most people... It fills our daily lives with uncertainty and anxiety, renders us vulnerable to tyrants and cults, shakes religious faith, and divides society into groups contending with one another in a strange and unfamiliar kind of ideological conflict: not merely conflict between beliefs, but conflict about beliefs... The modern era brought us into a world with multiple and conflicting belief systems. Now the postmodern era is revealing a world in which different groups have different beliefs about belief itself.”

Anderson and Berman have done a lot of homework for us in the NLP community. They give evidence for the constructivist claim to reality through a survey of the evolution of the arts, philosophy, physics, linguistics, politics, anthropology, cognitive science and religious trends. They also demonstrate that the meta position, another of the fundamental cognitive instruments of NLP, now taken as practically a given in NLP training, has many historical precedents.

The Meta Position of NLP

The meta position that NLP offers its students is analogous to the witness, or not-being, egoless outcome frequently sought in meditative disciplines. While many teachers have pointed out that there is nothing more egotistical than thinking that you can be without an ego, it remains a common experience: moments of transcendence when people feel senior to their own experience, above and apart from the ordinary sensorium, and frequently identified with all humanity, rather than as single point of personality.

How can NLP deal with all the personal interpretations of such moments—and the beliefs that have been constructed to explain them? Because there are experiences behind those beliefs.

Leslie Cameron-Bandler developed a model of those experiences—among all the millions of experiences in a life—which can create belief. She called them personally compelling reference experiences. Structurally, when an experience has the following characteristics, a belief is formed.

  • Self Concept Criteria—highly held values that generate a strong internal state are involved in the experience.
  • Submodality of Eidetics— a person's reality strategy is engaged and satisfied.
  • Relevant Representational Systems—the sensory input of the experience matches the lead, prime representation, and reference systems of the subject.
  • External Reference —Some external trigger or interaction with the world marks out the experience.
  • Mis-Match—The experience itself is somehow different, novel, or a contradiction of past experiences.
  • The Unexpected—An element of surprise, or unpredictability.
  • Intensity—This is the idiosyncratic patterning of the individual: thresholds of intensity, repetition, frequency, interval, sequence or duration must be attained to launch conviction in a given belief.

In NLP we have traditionally used the model of the meta-program to represent how we structurally organize our criteria and values , as well as the other distinctions listed above into structures of belief. Meta-programming is the art of modelling a human being in real time. It could be said that one major difference between a discipline and a religion is that disciplines are usually committed to working with live people and religions deal with the deceased.

A meta program is defined as a model of the ongoing interactions of an individual's criteria with their experiential sorting principles, functional processes, and operational orientations within a given context and time format. It is the way experience is filtered and generated.

Meta programming is the process of creating a model of the structural patterns an individual uses to construct, maintain and reinforce their subjective reality. Persistent meta program patterns generate and maintain the continuing personal congruence of behavioral presuppositions one could call personality or identity.

Meta-program characteristics, while hovering around a fulcrum of personal coherence —a given “identity” zone—will change from context to context. Perhaps the best application of NLP to the task of mapping the spiritual experience would be in the appliciation of meta-programming. Rather than re-invent the wheel, as we have often done in NLP, what are some of the classic models of the spiritual experience?

Traditional models of the spiritual experience

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James, the father of American psychology, attempted in 1902, a “Summing up in the broadest possible way the characteristics of the religious life, as we have found them. It includes the following beliefs:

  1. That the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significances;
  2. That union or harmonious relations with that higher universe is our true end;
  3. That prayer or inner communion with the spirit ... is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world...

Religion includes also the following psychological characteristics:

  1. A new zest which adds itself like a gift to life, and takes the form either of lyrical enchantment or appeal to earnestness and heroism.
  2. An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.”

James was candid about his lack of familiarity with Eastern Traditions. In 1946, English novelist Aldous Huxley published his modelling project, The Perennial Philosophy, which was an overview of his research and practice of various spiritual disciplines, many of them Eastern:

Philosophia perennis—the phrase was coined by Leibniz; but the thing—the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man's final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being—the thing is immemorial and universal.

One of the best sources for an overview of global spiritual traditions is Huston Smith's The Religions of Man. Originally given as an educational TV series in the 1950's (the first in a long trend of TV to book efforts), this classic of comparative religions has been re-issued as well in an illustrated version. Harvard psychologist and meditation teacher Daniel Goleman, now psychology editor of the New York Times, went even further into the Eastern approaches when he wrote The Varieties of the Meditative Experience in 1977, complete with structural models of various practices.

That same year, psychologist Ken Wilber, who has been widely-hailed as the “Einstein of Consciousness,” published The Spectrum of Consciousness, which is an extraordinary model synthesizing Eastern and Western approaches of psychology and spirituality. The Atman Project, published in 1980 is a developmental model of self-evolution and transcendence:

The Basic Structures of Consciousness

Wilber defines these levels as:

  1. Sensoriphysical—realms of matter, sensation, and perception.
  2. Phantasmic-emotional—the emotional-sexual level, the image mind.
  3. Representational mind—Piaget's preoperational thinking... of symbols and concepts.
  4. Rule/role mind—concrete operational thinking.
  5. Formal/reflexive mind—formal operational thinking, the reasoning mind.
  6. Vision-logic—establishing networks of relationships.
  7. Psychic—transcendental, transpersonal visionary insight.
  8. Subtle—the seat of archetypes, the realm of illumination and rapture.
  9. Causal—The unmanifest sources of all the lesser structures... being who is in essence one with the Surpreme Self.
  10. Ultimate—the Supermind.

Those familiar with the oriental chakra model, which reappears again and again around the world, from Egypt to China, and throughout the Pacific Basin, will surely notice relations with Wilber's model (and Dilts' neurological levels):

Yogic Chakras:

  1. Physical world and instincts; hunger/thirst. Perineum.
  2. Emotional-sexual level. Mid-abdomen.
  3. Intentional mind; power. Navel.
  4. Community-mind; love. Heart.
  5. Rational-verbal mind; communication. Throat.
  6. “Third eye” psychic cognitions. Brow.
  7. Beginning of higher “chakras” enlightenment. Crown.

Another model and paradigm of use is Arthur M. Young's model of the science of consciousness, The Reflexive Universe offers a syntax of process and form/content/structure/context relationships that have been quite useful to a generation of West Coast cognitive scientists in the United States.

And for those interested in reading first-hand accounts, there is a series of edited by John White, such as What is Enlightenment? and Frontiers of Consciousness; and a treatment of personal accounts gathered by the Oxford University Religious Experience Research Unit, and a host of other sources in The Common Experience by J.M. Cohen and J.F. Phipps. For those interested in modelling, there is ample material of the experiences that have been identified as spiritual.

The conventional tools of NLP may be apt for exploring these experiences. During the late 1970s, Ron Siegel, and experimental psychologist at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute told me,

“We now have a map of all hallucinations in terms of form, color, and movement. While visual, our mapping techniques can be applied to auditory, olfactory, tactile and probably emotional states. We've just begun to see that the subjective world is just as worth of serious research as the objective world.”

In religious exaltations, such as satori and samadhi yoga, as well as in the study of hallucinogens, Siegel reported participants in altered-states experiments as first seeing organized, geometric patterns. Slowly they took on blue tints and begun pulsating. Next lattice and tunnel forms increased, along with kaleidoscopes. Colour shifts from red, orange to yellow. Explosive, rotating lattice tunnels predominated, overlaid by complex images drawn from the subjects' life. The scenes and forms all danced together around a bright light in the center of the image.

“Fever delirium, epilepsy, photostimulation, extreme hunger, cold or thirst, crystal gazing, swinging in the witches cradle, near-death experiences, hypoglycemia and a variety of drug intoxications all make the brain respond in patterns that are predictable, and explainable in terms of where they came from neurologically, and how they were produced,” stated Dr. Siegel. “There is a universal common denominator of behavior. It is something similar to what Jung called the collective unconscious, typified by symbols like the mandala. Whether you use that kind of labeling or choose to call it something else, the fact remains that given an infinite variety of stimulations, the brain seems to respond in finite ways.”

Of course this is only a phenomenological approach, most of us that have had spiritual experiences have derived far greater meaning from these events. But first, a question I have avoided until now. We have had a long conversation about spirituality without defining spirit.

What is spirit?

In my humble opinion, one of NLP's greatest discoveries was that the phenomenological baseline of experience operated in both directions: one could emit and well and receive through the sensory modalities. This was one of those classic water to the fish, air to the bird discoveries: Bandler and Grinder gave us the insight that the transparent, un-examined, invisible medium in which we lived was a function of volitional command. Stated simply, everyone has the same portals of perception. We could both explore and create our subjective reality by manipulating our sensory representations of subjective reality.

I submit the following equation: cognition may be to representational systems as spirit is to energy. It is the energy that passes from one human being to another to make a third. It is energy that animates our beings throughout our lifetimes, and certainly the interface between whatever we can explore and whatever the greater realm of the spirit may be. Thus whatever processes we find that generate experiences that produce more energy are spiritual. What kind of experiences are these?

The four spiritual experiences of life

I was thinking that if the kind of discoveries we expect people to make in NLP are possible, they must already occur in the natural chain of events in life... that they have to be something natural. People couldn't be seeking something that wasn't already a given in human experience.

Here then is my contribution to modelling spiritual discoveries—at least four spiritual events that are available to all human beings during their lifetimes:

  1. The experience of separation of self and other. This is the process of individualisation, which occurs around the second and third years of life. This is essential for the Self position in NLP models of referential index computations. It is the recognition of who one is not.
  2. The experience of separation of self and behavior. This is the experiential response to the question, “Who am I?” Recognizing that you have a personality usually happens around 7 to 8 years of life. One learns one performs good and bad acts, and the invitation is to learn that we are not our behaviors. This is a variety of meta position.
  3. The experience of separation of self and emotions. When one is overwhelmed with the cascade of emotions produced hormonally in adolescence, the invitation is to learn that we are not our emotions. This is the experiential answer to the question, “Who I can become?”—identity infused with mission. Obviously, not all people cross this threshold in their lifetime. This is what Dilts refers to as third position.
  4. The experience of separation of self and belief. Transpersonal experiences occur at times of Maslow's “peak experiences” The invitation is to learn that we are, after all, interconnected and share the same spiritual nature. Often called witness, or garden-variety enlightenment. In NLP terms this is the grail of simultaneous referential index, or the ability to associate and dissociate with self and others' models of the world in an simultaneous experience.

The phenomena of spirituality

What are the functional characteristics of these spiritual experiences? I have been playing with a model for several years. I call it my “R Model” because it is an attempt to create a structural, pragmatic, non-judgmental framework for describing the qualities of spiritual experience as simply as we describe, in America, the three “R's” of education: reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. Obviously spelling is indicated in the sub-text of this epigram. Once I had three, now I have six.

This is a model of criteria, but also one of the paradigms inherent in the basic structure of any discipline: be it science, art, religion or philosophy.

It is also a gesture towards a meta model of how it is possible that people put together disciplines, and what they are trying to teach.

A meta-model of human disciplines

    People are already, always related. We are all part of the same organism, entity, brotherhood of light, the Source, a unity beyond our ken. Presupposition: it's better to be identified with all humanity than with oneself. Love thy neighbor, be a Bodhisattva, the Atman, reality is a social construct.
    This is about the criteria cluster of integrity, honesty, and the interaction of people: what we do resonates in the world, creates interference waves, influences the human reality, makes a difference. Presupposition: right action, right livelihood works.
    We create our own universes. We're not guilty, just cause in our reality, and have the ability to alter our responses. Presupposition: reality is somewhere along the continuum of karma and freedom; objective and constructed; renaissance, or at least enlightenment is possible. It is possible to take a meta position.
    This is as structurally close as I can get to love. That gratitude for the privilege of being alive works. That reverence for life, and the miracle of ontology that is our reality works better than disdain. Presupposition: compassion rather than dispassion. Love rather than fear.
    Though beyond the value judgements of good and bad, the mastery of a discipline creates a positive state that blows away all our understandings of what it is to be happy/sad along the lines of the sensorium. Presupposition: transcendence is joy.
    This is why human beings invent disciplines. What good are the five points above, if you don't have a way to remember to use them? Presupposition: persevere and practice.

How can you tell if someone's had a spiritual experience?

My wise and lovely French wife asked me one day: “Why is it that once someone becomes recognized in NLP, the NLP community tends to accept their propositions so uncritically?”

I could only think of another comment I made some years ago:

Spontaneity, the lilt of laughter and tears, all the human qualities that so often seem to have been discarded by those who profess to have found the ultimate answers, may be the indisputable evidence that communication with the self is alive and open. You can't fake warmth, compassion, love. No matter how clever, structured or all-inclusive the dicta of separated disciplines may be, there is an élan, a brightness, a gaiety and joy of life that blossoms and radiates only from those who are truly in touch with themselves.

So please don't take all of the above too seriously. I hope it brought you a few smiles, and maybe some new avenues to explore. I believe this is still the dawn of modelling spiritual experience in the world of NLP, and certainly also in the Integral Movement. I hope we can remember that one of the first steps of enlightenment is lightening up.


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