Quadrants & Perspectives
Two Fundamental Distinctions about Reality
Quadrants are based on four broad categories into which we can place all phenomena. To get the four quadrants we make two fundamental distinctions about reality:
1. The distinction between interiors and exteriors.
We can see that some academic disciplines primarily study the left-hand or interior side of reality, and others primarily study the right-hand or exterior side.
Some disciplines study the relationship between these two sides. For example, psychoneuroimmunology is the study of the interaction between psychological processes and the body’s nervous and immune systems.
There is a correlation between the level of interior consciousness of an organism on the left-hand side, and the complexity of the physical structure that houses it on the right-hand side. For example, in the evolution from reptiles to mammals, each new level that emerges has both a higher interior level of consciousness on the left-hand side, and a more complex neural structure on the right-hand side.
The second fundamental distinction the integral model makes is the distinction between the individual and the collective.
When we combine these two fundamental distinctions (interior/exterior and individual/collective) we get the four quadrants.
These four aspects of reality are interdependent. Each exists in relation to the others in every moment. If it is helpful, we could think of reality as “four-sided,” in a certain sense, because we can see each moment and event in our lives from any one of these four perspectives.
Wilber gives this illustration of how all four quadrants are present in each moment:
Let’s say I have a thought of going to the grocery store. When I have that thought, what I actually experience is the thought itself, the interior thought and its meaning – the symbols, the images, the idea of going to the grocery store. That’s Upper Left.
While I am having this thought, there are, of course, correlative changes occurring in my brain – dopamine increases, acetylcholine jumps the synapses, beta brainwaves increase, or whatnot. Those are observable behaviors in my brain. They can be empirically observed, scientifically registered. And that is Upper Right.
Now the internal thought itself only makes sense in terms of my cultural background. If I spoke a different language, the thought would be composed of different symbols and have different meanings. If I existed in a primal society a million years ago, I would never even have the thought, “going to the grocery store.” It might be, “Time to kill a bear.” The point is that my thoughts themselves arise in a cultural background that gives texture and meaning and context to my individual thoughts, and indeed, I would not even be able to “talk to myself” if I did not exist in a community of individuals who also talk to me . . .
In short, my individual thoughts only exist against a vast background of cultural practices and languages and meanings, without which I could form virtually no individual thoughts at all. And this vast background is my culture . . . which is the Lower Left.
But my culture itself is not simply disembodied, hanging in idealistic midair. It has material components, much as my own individual thoughts have material brain components. All cultural events have social correlates. These concrete social components include types of technologies, forces of production (horticultural, agrarian, industrial, etc.) . . . and so on. And these material, social, empirically observable components – the actual social system [the Lower Right, which includes the actual physical grocery store I am thinking about] – are crucial in helping to determine the . . . cultural worldview.
Consciously considering all four quadrants in any situation can give us a more complete understanding of the situation. And consciously paying attention to all four quadrants is important to living a balanced, healthy life. For example, do I focus so much of my time and attention on my job (the lower right quadrant), that my physical health (the upper right quadrant), mental health (the upper left quadrant), and relationships (the lower left quadrant) suffer?
Sometimes people take the position that only phenomena in one or two of the quadrants are ultimately "real," and that all phenomenon in the other quadrants are derived from the one or two they consider "real." For example:
When scientists assert that all of reality is reducible to nothing but physical matter, they are reducing all quadrants to the upper and/or lower right quadrants.
When some new age authors make the claim that my individual thoughts create the entire physical world and all of the conditions in it, they are reducing all quadrants to the upper left.
When extreme post-modernists assert that all knowledge is nothing but a cultural construction, they are reducing all quadrants to the lower left.
Integral theory calls this phenomena “quadrant absolutism,” and asserts that all of these views are mistaken – that each of the four quadrants represents a fundamental aspect of reality which co-exists with and is not reducible to any of the others.
The four quadrants can also be understood as different perspectives we can take. Human language recognizes three general perspectives:
First person perspective. This is the perspective of the person who is speaking – the perspective of my own internal “me” or “I”.
Second person perspective. This is the person I am speaking to – the “you” that I am in conversation or relationship with.
Third person perspective. This is the person or thing that I, or we, are speaking about – the “she,” “he,” “they,” or “it” that "I", or "we", might speak about.
If we apply these perspectives to the four quadrants, it looks like this:
In other words, the upper left quadrant deals with the interior of the individual – with my own internal awareness, thoughts, feelings, etc. So this quadrant represents the 1st person or “I” perspective (the perspective of the person speaking). The lower left quadrant includes both the 2nd person perspective ("you," or the person “I” am speaking to), and the 1st person plural perspective (“we,” or the shared interior thoughts, feelings, etc. of more than one “I”). “You “ and “we” are both included in the lower left quadrant because without more than one “I” – without both an “I” (a person speaking) and a “you” (a person being spoken to) – there can be no “we,” no shared interiors. The two right quadrants both represent the 3rd person or “it” perspective, because they include all of the individual and collective physical or material “its” that either “I” or “we” can take a 3rd person perspective on, which means we can objectively observe them and talk about them.
Because both of the right hand quadrants represent the 3rd person perspective, if we temporarily combine these two quadrants, then the resulting three “quadrants” show us three perspectives we can take on anything.
These three perspectives turn out to be similar to other broad categorizes of human knowledge and experience. For example, Plato's the good, the true, and the beautiful. Or art, morals, and science.
Art, or “The Beautiful” – this is determined by the interior of the individual – by my own internal feelings and ideas about what is truly beautiful (the upper left quadrant).
Morals, or “The Good” – this is determined by our shared interior understanding of how we should treat each other (the lower left quadrant).
Science, or “The True” – this is determined by our 3rd person observation and study of external reality (the two right quadrants).
Application to Integral Spirituality: The Three Faces of Spirit
The integral model can be applied to any discipline -- education, politics, law, etc. Wilber has applied them to spirituality and created a model he calls integral spirituality.1 Below is one way the idea of quadrants and perspectives can inform an integral approach to spirituality.
We each have a Godview, a way of conceiving of God or Ultimate Reality, just as we each have a worldview that defines how we conceive of the world. In early stages of development our understanding of God is based primarily on unexamined assumptions. These assumptions are based on the teachings of our particular religous tradition, our family, and our culture. As we mature, hopefully our understanding of God is shaped by our own direct first-hand experiences.
We can use the four quadrants to help us better understand different people’s experiences of Ultimate Reality, whether we call that reality God, Spirit, Formlessness, Buddha Nature, Christ Consciousness, the Ground of Being, or some other name.
These three perspectives appear in the worlds' major spiritual traditions as three different experiences of Spirit or Ultimate Reality. Buddhism and Taoism primarily understand and experience Spirit as our own 1st person Witnessing Awareness or True Self. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam primarily understand and experience Spirit as a 2nd person Thou with whom we can be in relationship (although mystics in these traditions, including Jesus, have also described experiences of Spirit in 1st person as “I Am.”) Hinduism includes both 1st person and 2nd person approaches to Spirit. And pantheistic traditions as well as modern science primarily understand and experience Spirit or Ultimate Reality as Nature or the Web of Life, a 3rd person perspective.
In the integral view this doesn't mean that there are three different Ultimate Realities. It means there are three different perspectives we can take, and thus three different experiences we can have, of the one Spirit or Ultimate Reality. In the integral view no one of these perspectives is seen as the only “right” one. Each perspective makes important contributions to our understanding and experience of Spirit, and without all three our understanding is incomplete.
When Emptiness manifests, it does so as subject and object, each of which can be singular or plural. And that gives us the four quadrants, or simply the Big Three. So Spirit can be described – and must be described – with all three languages, I, we, and it. – The Simple Feeling of Being, pg. 83
Spirit Experienced in Spirit Experienced in Spirit Experienced in
1st Person, as "I Am" 2nd Person, as "Thou" 3rd Person, as "It"
Understanding the possibility of experiencing Spirit from these three different perspectives can help us see the commonality underlying different spiritual experiences. For example, when people who take a 1st person approach to Spirit describe experiencing their True Self as pure Witnessing Awareness, and when people who take a 2nd person approach to Spirit describe feeling God’s presence and love, and when people who take a 3rd person approach to Spirit describe the peace and joy of being at one with Nature, the characteristics of these experiences are very similar – deep peace, unity, unconditional acceptance and love, comfort, freedom, and joy. These seem to be the characteristics of communion with Ultimate Reality, whether that Ultimate Reality is understood to be my own deepest Self, God, or the Life Force in Nature.
1. Wilber, K. (2007.) Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World. Shambhala.
Reflections: A Personal Journal