Kanzeon Bodhisattva


Spirit in Action

Ken Wilber

It now seems apparent that there are at least four major inadequacies to the Great Chain of Being as it was traditionally conceived, and in order to bring it into the modern and postmodern world—and develop a truly integral approach—these shortcomings need to be carefully addressed.

The first inadequacy, as we saw, is that the four quadrants were very seldom differentiated on an adequate scale. Thus, the great traditions rarely understood that states of consciousness (Upper Left Quadrant) have correlates in the organic brain (Upper Right Quadrant), a fact that has revolutionized our understanding of psychopharmacology, psychiatry, and consciousness studies. Likewise, the traditions evidenced little understanding that individual awareness (Upper Left) is profoundly molded by both its background cultural worldviews (Lower Left) and the modes of techno-economic production (Lower Right) in which it finds itself. This left the Great Chain open to devastating critiques from the Enlightenment, from modern cognitive science, from neuropsychiatry, and from postmodern cultural and historical studies, among others, all of which demonstrated that consciousness is not merely a disembodied, transcendental noumenon, but is deeply embedded in contexts of objective facts, cultural backgrounds, and social structures. The Great Chain theorists had no believable response to these charges (precisely because they were deficient in these areas).

As we saw, each of the vertical levels of the Great Chain needs to be differentiated into at least four horizontal dimensions (intentional, behavioral, cultural, social). The Great Nest desperately needs to be modernized and postmodernized: it needs to recognize the importance of cultural background, relativistic surface structures and contexts, correlations with modern scientific discoveries, sensitivity to minorities that
the mythic-agrarian structure often marginalized, the importance of pluralistic voices, and so on. Only as body, mind, soul, and spirit are differentiated into the Big Three can these objections be handled.

The second inadequacy is that the level of mind itself needs to be subdivided in the light of its early development. Here the contributions of Western psychology are decisive. To put it in a nutshell, the mind itself has at least four major stages of growth:

  • magic (2-5 years),
  • mythic (6-11 years),
  • rational (11 onward), and
  • integral-aperspectival or vision-logic (adulthood, if then).

Precisely because the infantile and childish origins of the preformal levels of magic and mythic were not clearly understood, the traditions often confused them with the postformal states of psychic and subtle, and this pre/post fallacy haunts most of the perennial philosophy, injecting it not only with truly enlightened wisdom, but substantial stretches of superstition.

The third inadequacy: Because the traditional Great Chain theorists had a poor understanding of the early, infantile, prerational stages of human development, they likewise failed to grasp the types of psychopathologies that often stem from complications at these early stages. In particular,

  • psychosis,
  • borderline, and
  • neurotic diseases

often stem from problems at the early fulcrums of self-development, and can best be approached with an understanding of their developmental dimensions.

Meditation—which is a way to carry development forward into the transpersonal—will not, as a rule, cure these prepersonal lesions (as hosts of American practitioners found out the hard way).

The fourth inadequacy in the traditional Great Chain is its lack of understanding of evolution, an understanding that is also a rather exclusive contribution of the modern West. This is easily remedied, because, as many theorists have pointed out, if you tilt the Great Chain on its side and let it unfold in time—instead of being statically given all at once, as traditionally thought—you have the outlines of evolution itself. Plotinus temporalized = evolution.

In other words, evolution to date—starting with the Big Bang—has unfolded approximately three-fifths of the Great Chain—matter, sensation, perception, impulse, image, symbol, concept, rule, and formal, in essentially the order suggested by the Great Nest. All that is required is to see that the Great Chain does not exist fully given and statically unchanging, but rather evolves or develops over great periods of time. And the fact is, despite the bluff of Western biologists, nobody really understands how higher stages emerge in evolution—unless we assume it is via Eros, or Spirit-in-action.

This also means, as I have often pointed out, that what the perennial philosophy took to be eternally unchanging archetypes can better be understood as formative habits of evolution, “Kosmic memories,” as it were, and not pregiven molds into which the world is poured? This dynamic orientation can bring the Great Nest of Being more into accord with evolutionary thinkers from Peirce to Sheldrake to Kaufmann, and it is a view that is definitely implicit in Great Nest theorists from Plotinus to Asanga and Vasubandhu.

The point is that, once the Great Nest is plugged into an evolutionary and developmental view, it can happily coexist with much of the God of the modern West, namely, evolution. Moreover, it raises the stunning possibility: if evolution has thus far unfolded the first three-fifths of the Great Nest, isn't it likely that it will continue in the coming years and unfold the higher two-fifths? If that is so, God lies down the road, not up it; Spirit is found by going forward, not backward; the Garden of Eden lies in our future, not our past.


Ken Wilber
Integral Psychology:
Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy

Boston & London: Shambhala, 2000
Chapter 12: Sociocultural Evolution
Pp. 143-145

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