Embracing the Overall Spiral of Development: A Possible Philosophical Underpinning for Integrative Psychotherapy Practice?

by David Murphy

Ken Wilber is working on a Theory of Everything, an Integral Theory. Such a theory, to merit the name, needs to be able to account for all phenomena, whether natural, super-natural, mental, emotional, physical, biological, spiritual, psychological or under any other heading. It needs to understand inner experience, and outer manifestations, it needs to consider ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ both for individual beings, and for the collective.

Wilber’s developing model seeks to contain and inter-relate insights and contributions to shared human knowledge coming from a very broad, perhaps from a full spectrum of human endeavour, exploration, and experience, across history, across continents and civilisations, across disciplines and across knowledge traditions. This article will give a basic reading of the core elements of this model. It will consider what kind of consciousness development in the therapist might underpin an Integral or Integrative practice in the therapy room, as well as an Integral stance for the practice in the wider society and culture. It will describe some experience of working from this perspective, address some limitations of models, and draw some conclusions.

Things develop, so this model goes. From matter, to life, to mind, to soul, to spirit, following an evolutionary process. He describes how object, entity or being has all the qualities of a holon (Wilber 1995). Basically holons are whole in their own right, as well as always being part of other wholes. Early in evolution, only matter exists, atoms & molecules; transcending matter – and yet including all the properties of matter – biological life emerges, with emergent characteristics specific to living organisms. Life forms develop in complexity, and mind emerges. Holons with mental capacity include all the basic qualities of living organisms, but transcend those with new, specifically mental ones. And so the development continues, continually transcending, new properties emerging, including all along the already-emerged properties, potentially towards soul and Spirit.  Furthermore, all of the development is happening in a Ground of Non-Dual Spirit, Formless Awareness.

If this effort begins to succeed in it’s vast ambition, it must have an inclusive psychology, incorporating a vision of mental/psychological health, psycho-pathology, and therapy covering the full spectrum of human existence. But more than this, it would be capable of locating psychology and therapy in relation to society, culture, politics, economics, education, art, science, medicine, spirituality, religion and all other disciplines and endeavours. Were this achieved, a rational basis would be provided upon which the psychotherapist might intentionally and strategically develop it’s relationship with all such other disciplines, with the wider world.

Core Elements

There are four aspects of being that apply to every stage of evolution & development for every being. They are first – the interior of the individual being, being-as-subject; second – the exterior of that being, being-as-object; third – what is internally shared and known between beings, subject-among-subjects or inter-subjectivity, and fourth -what can be observed to occur between beings, objects-among-objects, inter-objectivity.

These are depicted as four quadrants, as below (Wilber 1996):

To meet the other in a whole way, according to this model, I need to hold in mind who they are in all of their four-quadrant aspects. I can also pay attention to what I know of the other through each and any of the four quadrants, as distinct ways of knowing the other. So one fundamental is an All-Quadrant view.

I further need, within this model, to consider what stage/state/level/wave of development is the person ‘at’ so to speak. This is not simple; if I’m working with a client in relation to a psycho-sexual issue, for example, I need to realise that their development in this specific area may vary significantly from their cognitive, aesthetic or moral capacity. Development is uneven, and ‘non-linear’.  There are many ‘lines‘ of development that can proceed relatively independently of each other. Therefore, I find that I am working with multiple levels of development within any one person. The complexity is captured well in the following (Graves, C.1981):

“Briefly, what I am proposing is that the psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiralling process marked by progressive sub-ordination of older, lower order systems to newer, higher-order systems as an individual’s existential problems change. Each successive stage, wave or level of existence is a state through which people pass on their way to other states of being. When the human is centralised in one state of existence, he or she has a psychology which is particular to that state. His or her feelings, motivations, ethics and values, biochemistry, degree of neurological activation, learning system, belief systems, conception of mental health, ideas as to what mental illness is and how it should be treated, conceptions of and preferences for management, education, economics and political theory and practice are all appropriate to that state”

So a second fundamental becomes clear: in this model I need to work with all levels of development, as well as all quadrants, hence Wilber’s use of AQAL (all quadrants, all levels).

Spiral Dynamics

Of the many theories of development that Wilber now draws upon, a more recent inclusion is called Spiral Dynamics, and it uses colours to identify stages, getting away from numbering and it’s associated linearity. The summary below ascribes a colour to each world-view, names it’s predominant theme, and provides some key descriptive text. The colours are presented in the order of emergence, from beige onwards, as follows (Wilber 2000 (a)):

beige –    Survival Sense; “sharpen instincts & innate senses”

purple – Kin Spirits; “seek harmony & safety in a mysterious world”

red –       Power Gods; “express impulsively, break free, be strong”

blue –     Truth Force: “find purpose, bring order, insure future”

orange – Strive Drive; “analyse & strategise to prosper”

green –   Human Bond; “explore inner self, equalise others”

yellow –  Flex Flow; “integrate & align systems”

turquoise – Whole View; “synergise & macromanage”

coral –    Integral-Holonic: (is slowly emerging)

Most of the well-recognised stages of development belong to what is referred to as ‘First-Tier’ consciousness. The defining characteristic of first–tier states is that when someone is centralised in one such state, he or she will privilege their world-view over all others, preferring their conceptions, preferences, ideas, ethics, values etc. over those with a different world-view. In Spiral Dynamics, beige to green inclusive are seen as first-tier stages.

An Integral vision becomes possible with the emergence of ‘Second-Tier’ consciousness; the defining characteristic of second-tier is the capacity to hold in mind the validity and worth of all other states, without unduly privileging any. Effectively, I begin to realise that I only got to where I am now by travelling through the previous stages. Hitherto, if for example I had held an ordered, conservative view, my claim would have been that I had never been driven to dominate, to be powerful because I simply could. In other words, Blue denying Red. The first-emerging second-tier state is referred to as Vision-Logic (Wilber 2000 (b)); not privileging one particular perspective on life yields the term aperspectival, leading to ‘Integral-Aperspectival’ consciousness, for which the associated colour is Yellow.

And so finally, a third fundamental: I need to be able to acknowledge and embrace the road I have travelled – which can be called the Spiral of Development – to work from this Integrative or Integral perspective.


When I can embody Vision-Logic, embrace the spiral of development as my own experience, I can accept the world-view of the other. World-view will change, develop, gradually and unevenly over lifetime. When I encounter the beliefs, attitudes, behaviours and so forth of the other, I can infer something about their world-view on the given subject. I also witness & experience my own reactions and emotions in response, while holding my own inner dialogue about the said behaviour and attitudes. I can hold open the space to be with whatever is happening, able to think with some clarity about that. I can consciously choose and decide upon my responses and interventions, able to regulate my participation in the dialogue with the other, embracing them in an overall way without indiscriminately accepting all. I can follow my intuition to open to the other person, and within this model, I can also make some adequate working sense of the difference between us. My beginning intuition has been that what is happening – in the therapy room for example – makes sense, but that I simply don’t, and maybe can’t and won’t know about it fully, in all it’s dimensions. So that’s a starting point, maybe the seed for a therapeutic disposition, but my need to have some ways of describing the nature of being to myself, to be able to think about what I’m doing, is met in important ways by Integral theory. An example: When a client wants to be violent with another person, and believes that is the correct thing to do, I have a clear basis in mind as to how that person can believe that violence is right or appropriate, this is a characteristic Red attitude. Further, I am not completely immersed in, subject to, identified with my reactions and emotions arising, and I can think about what alternatives the client may have to violence – if any, and consider discussing them. I might ask the other to consider the consequences to self in the face of possible counter-violence, or facing legal prosecution. I might discuss the impact of the violence on the threatened third party, perhaps using a Gestalt method whereby the client gets to speak both as violator and violated. I might explore the body experience of the client, and how that might get expressed in a range of ways other than inter-personal violence. I can face and accept the possibility that the other might still be violent, and yet be clear that I don’t want that.

Practice vis-à-vis Society

The model allows the possibility that the therapist could take Integral stances on many issues, e.g. if asked for a media comment. If responding to racist attitudes and behaviour that incites racial hatred, it can accept individuals holding such views in the privacy of their own minds, but also accept that openly inciting racial hatred, which clearly infringes the rights of others, can be subject to legal penalty. Similarly, if wanting to take an Integral position, protesting against the invasion of a sovereign state, it will not suffice to simply criticise the intention to invade without also addressing the violations perpetrated within that state. It may happen that all non-violent alternatives, carried out openly, and rooted in the most widely accepted international treaties, still fail to curtail violations. In this event, an Integral stance seems to require including the possibility of military action, invasion perhaps. Again this would need to be based on broadest international agreement.

Limitations of Maps and Models

Whenever I feel like I risk giving too much credence to theory, I try to remember a comparison that Stanislav Grof attributes to Gregory Bateson. Grof is discussing the distinction between a map and reality. Grof warns that reality is too ramified, layered and complex to be fully described, to hold in mind. Bateson illustrates by saying that if we really believe that our way of describing the nature of reality to ourselves is True, then one equivalent would be to go to our restaurant of choice, read through the menu and rather than order and eat the food, to eat the menu! So my alternative to trying metaphorically to digest paper and ink is to understand what I can, and to wonder about the rest, while tolerating not knowing.


Hopefully the above gives a beginning taste of Wilber’s work in a way that’s relevant to Integrative Psychotherapy. I do see it as a powerful tool, within which I can locate what I have learned in becoming a psychotherapist. I can use it to make sense of myriad differences and apparent conflicts between different theories and schools of thought. I experience it as a rich and satisfying structure for further growth of my own understanding, while ever keeping an eye for alternatives. I won’t say it succeeds in meriting being called a Theory of Everything – not because I think it fails, but because I simply don’t claim to know enough to be conclusive. But as far as I know it, it goes a long way in that direction. I expect my view will evolve as I continue to read, and work with people, learning as I go.

David Murphy is an integrative psychotherapist in private practice, also a member of the psychotherapy staff team at the Institute of Creative Counselling & Psychotherapy in Dun Laoghaire; he maintains an active interest in Transpersonal Psychology and Integral Theory, and teaches in these areas.

Respondents may e-mail to: david.murphy59@ntlworld.ie


Graves, C. (1981) ‘Summary Statement: The Emergent, Cyclical, Double-Helix Model of the Adult Human Biopsychosocial Systems’

Wilber, K. (1995) ‘Sex, Ecology & Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution’

Wilber, K. (1996) ‘A Brief History of Everything’

Wilber, K. (2000 (a)) ‘A Theory of Everything’

Wilber, K. (2000 (b)) ‘Integral Psychology’