postmodernism vs. integralism

The Role of Ego Development and Integral View in the Creation of Meaning

by Milena Braticevic

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million people, or approximately 18% of adult population. Meanwhile, major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability, affecting close to 7% of adult population. The Beck Depression Inventory outlines the common symptoms of depression, which include feeling sad and discouraged about the future, feeling disappointed in oneself, and experiencing a general lack of satisfaction in life. According to Livingston (2011), happiness is much more than the absence of sadness, as individuals suffering from anxiety and depression are starved for a sense of meaning. To understand what may be contributing to the high instance of anxiety and depression, and lack of a sense of meaning, it would be useful to examine the ontological and epistemological approach to life in modern society. This includes views regarding being, existence, and the nature of reality, as well as that of knowledge and belief. While the animistic, tribal consciousness in ancient societies was based on unity with nature, modern times brought differentiation of knowledge into different spheres, favoring analytical reason and a scientific approach over the experience of unity.

The post-modern worldview introduced the notion that perception creates reality, arguing in most extreme cases that perception is all there is, and negating objective reality. The individualized, fragmented, and achievement-oriented existence in modern society seems to negate the need for belonging and community, while denying a sense of unity with nature and other living beings. To better understand root causes of modern-day mental illness, it is useful to examine the cognitive paradigms, from pre-conventional (tribal), to conventional (modern), to post-conventional (integral and unitive). The role of personal identity and ego development plays an important part in the process of meaning-making. The ability to see life events from multiple perspectives, and act authentically, while being aware of one’s role in the larger context of the world, can bring wisdom and help in the creation of a sustainable, positive long-term worldview.

From the “Great Nest of Being” to Modernity and Post-modernity

According to Hiroshi Motoyama (1978), while the nature of consciousness is still a puzzle for scientists, “mystics insist that, to gain true understanding, it is necessary somehow to go beyond the dualism of the rational intellect and to unify with the thing itself, to experience it” (p. 25). In ancient times, wisdom was derived from the understanding of reality that was composed of various integrated “levels of existence – levels of being and knowing – ranging from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit” (Wilber, 2000, p. 5). This view, shared by most spiritual traditions, was named the “Great Chain of Being” or the “Great Nest of Being”, defined by Wilber (2000) as “the general morphogenetic field or developmental space… it represents some of the basic waves of reality that are available to individuals” (p. 5). During modern times, knowledge was differentiated into the spheres of Art, Morals, and Science. This differentiation encouraged the study of reality from the point of view of the individual, collective, internal, and external phenomena, all of which were considered equally important. Differentiation allowed for advancement of each of the spheres of knowledge, and resulted in valuable societal changes such as the rise of liberal democracy, end of slavery, scientific advances including medicine and physics, as well as development of art and philosophy. Unfortunately, differentiation and fragmentation of knowledge also brought a growing disassociation between the realms of being, separating the body from the mind, and from the spirit. Science, reason, and pursuit of material gains pervaded over the spheres of Art and Morality. The world became a “flat-land… collapsing all internal phenomena [in favor of the view that] only the external world is real” (Wilber, 2000, p. 70).

As a reaction to the overly scientific and rational position of modernity, in post-modern worldview, interpretation is recognized as having the key role in the creation of reality. According to post-modern thinkers, language is not just a representation of the world, but is an active agent in its creation and construction (Wilber, 2000, p. 164). While modernism differentiated between realms of being, post-modernism attempted to be all-inclusive, embracing all spheres of knowledge. When taken to the extreme, post-modern thinking leads to a belief that everything is simply a matter of perception or interpretation, and objective truth is denied. Being context-dependent, cognition cannot privilege any single perspective. Proponents of post-modernism reject rationality and realism, and believe that truth does not truly exist, that it is simply a worldview imposed by those in power. The insistence on honoring every perspective nurtures individualism and narcissism, while negation of objective truth leads towards nihilism. In effect, post-modern thinkers have reduced the world to another type of flat-land, one that favors internal experience and denies the external realms. Wilber (2000) explained the negative developments of post-modernism as follows: “From the very high developmental stance of post-conventional, pluralistic awareness… postmodernism has denied the importance of development altogether, denied that any stance is higher or deeper than another, denied in effect the claim that world-centric is better than ethno-centric… in short in completely denied its own stance” (p. 171). In undermining the role of development, extreme post-modernism has not only negated its own stance that creation of individual perspectives and multi-perspectival views are important, but also created an existential problem of negating purpose and meaning in life. Personal development and increase of awareness of the integral world-view may just be the driving forces in the pursuit of wisdom over knowledge, and creation of a sustainable worldview beyond gratification of personal needs.

Interpretation and Personal (Ego) Development

Being driven by internal perceptions, interpretation of the world can be highly volatile and prone to error. According to the ancient text Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Bryant, 2009), due to the negative effects of such volatility, the goal of life practice is to “still the changing states of the mind” (p. 10). When this is accomplished, “the seer abides in its own true nature” and realizes the errors stemming from incorrect perception (Bryant, 2009, p. 22-38). The ability to recognize one’s true nature and transcend erroneous apprehension of reality requires personal development and the ability to distinguish ego drives from true understanding.

According to Susan Cook Greuter (1985), human ego development ranges from gaining knowledge based on sensory perception and reasoning, to recognizing cultural conditioning, autonomy, and a sense of unity with the world. Acquiring wisdom requires going beyond the world of the senses, reason and intellect towards a true understanding of the complex, often paradoxical, and integrative nature of reality. Greuter (1985) explained that “Human development in general can be looked at as a progression of different ways of making sense of reality or different stages. The stages follow each other alternating between those that emphasize, on balance, differentiation over integration and those favoring integration over differentiation. The pattern of differentiation to integration can be observed both overall and from stage to stage” (p. 4).

The pre-conventional ego development includes impulsive and self-protective stages, in which individuals are concerned with survival, safety, and satisfaction of basic needs. At this level, there is cognitive undifferentiation and a lack of understanding of the complexities of reality. The self-protective individual has a tendency to blame others and not take responsibility for his or her actions. The conventional level of ego development includes conformist and conscientious stages. In the conformist stage, the individual forms his or her identity primarily through identification with the group, with a high need for acceptance and an obedient approach to life. The view of reality is linear, with clearly defined boundaries, and a belief that variables operate independently. The conformist individual does not yet have a healthy sense of a separate identity from the group, and tends to suppress any feelings or ideas that are at odds with those of the group. At the more advanced, conscientious stage, an individual is rationally competent and independent. He or she values science, reason, and an analytical approach, while developing a quality of introspection to examine whether his or her actions follow deeply held principles. A conscientious individual believes in the possibility that truth can be accessed through reason and the scientific method. The need to pursue facts, and take action to control outcomes are the key drivers towards progress and the realization of goals at this stage. The conscientious stage is typically the goal of personal development in modern society. The problem with this world-view is that the individual is not yet aware of the complex, paradoxical nature of reality, or the role of perspective and interpretation in the creation of that reality.

At the conventional developmental stage one is not able to be fully autonomous and authentic in decision-making. While accepting the external world, the internal aspects are denied, along with personal perspectives and beliefs. This changes at the post-conventional stage of development, which includes individualist, autonomous, construct-aware and unitive stages. At this level, the individual sees variables as inter-dependent, and becomes aware of the role of perception in the creation of reality. Instead of viewing events as linear, the individual recognizes the cyclical nature of reality, with flexible boundaries. At the individualist stage, one recognizes that things are often not what they seem, and that reality is shaped by personal interpretation. Therefore, one is increasingly interested in taking responsibility for interpreting the world in a way that will create a coherent and harmonious reality. Instead of trusting conventional wisdom, one is able to see imposed social constructs and conditioning. The individual increasingly questions his or her previously held beliefs and assumptions, and uses personal experience and knowledge to create a new and authentic worldview, liberated from social norms.

At the post-conventional stage of development, truth is not seen as existing “out there”, but as something that is being actively constructed. Post-modernism falls into the post-conventional worldview in that it deconstructs the truth and recognizes the value of multi-perspectival perception. Rather than stopping at the stage of deconstruction of truth and denial of objective reality, an individual can develop further, striving to recognize autonomy and use personal responsibility to create a positive, coherent reality. Rather than focusing on the individual perspective and denying the external world, resulting in obsession with the self and narcissism, the individual can develop further, making authentic contributions to society. According to Cook-Greuter (1985), “Autonomous persons consciously commit to actively create a meaningful life for themselves and for others through self-determination and self-actualization within constantly shifting contexts. They possess a strong, autonomous self that is both differentiated and well-integrated” (p. 25). At the post-conventional stage of development, limitations of analytical reason and scientific knowledge are recognized. Freed of social constructs, the individual can use imagination and intuitive knowledge, thereby releasing creativity. A creative approach to life allows for ambiguity, uncertainty, and paradox, while honoring authenticity and inner strength when addressing life’s challenges.

At the highest stage of post-conventional ego development, the unitive stage, the world is viewed from the universal or cosmic perspective. Cook-Greuter (1985) stated that “Unitive individuals experience themselves and others as part of ongoing humanity, embedded in the creative ground, fulfilling the destiny of evolution… Feelings of belongingness and of one’s separateness and uniqueness are experienced without undue tension as changing perceptions of many possibilities of being… They feel embedded in nature – birth, growth and death, joy and pain – are seen as natural occurrences – patterns of change in the flux of time” (p. 32). In other words, depending on the stage of personal development, an individual can experience the world as fragmented and meaningless, or unified and meaningful. Most importantly, at the highest stages of personal development, one can experience him or herself as an active agent in the creation of meaning, and construction of reality.

The Search for Meaning: Is Meaning Given or Created?

Psychiatrist Victor Frankl (2000) believed that a man’s ultimate need is that for meaning. A Holocaust survivor, Frankl (2000) believed that the “will to meaning” was the most human of all needs, regardless of the circumstance. Frankl believed that this need to find and fulfill meaning is frustrated by modern society. Due to the loss of traditions and values, one experiences addiction, depression, and aggression. Frankl (2000) wrote “Today, man’s will to meaning is frustrated on a global scale. People are increasingly haunted by feelings of meaninglessness and emptiness… ‘existential vacuum’, manifesting as boredom and apathy. Boredom shows a loss of interest in the world, apathy shows a lack of initiative to do something in the world, to change something” (p. 139). Frankl (2000) proposed that what is missing in the postmodern view is the desire to transcend self-interest, by pursuit of something bigger than oneself, stating that “Being human always relates and points to something or someone other than itself… man is oriented toward the world out there, and within this world, he is interested in meanings to fulfill, and in other human beings… This self-transcendence is the essence of human existence” (p. 138).

The field of positive psychology examines what makes life worth living, how various factors contribute to the quality of life, and how one can flourish in different aspects of life, including biological, personal, relational, and cultural. Research has shown that meaning is based on goal-directed behaviour, that it is linked to transcendental or spiritual concerns, and that it is derived from a sense of self-worth and self-justification (Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon, et al., 2016, p. 56). Further, meaning has a motivational or behavioural component, a cognitive component, and an emotional component (p. 57). It is motivational due to the active aspect, where an individual actively pursues actions and goals that are considered worthy. It is cognitive because it involves thinking and reasoning. And it is emotional, as pursuing meaningful activities creates a feeling of deep satisfaction, fulfilment, and a general positive emotional response. Positive psychology also recognizes the existence of the dark side of meaning in life, by recognizing the trials and challenges facing the individual in the process of establishing a sense of meaning. The dark side refers to “challenging experiences, thoughts, emotions and behaviours relating to meaning and purpose, which trigger discomfort in us. We tend to avoid such discomfort as it leads to an experience of confusion and distress which are involved with our search for meaning and purpose” (p. 55-56). These challenges can be at both the level of awareness and behaviour. In the process of discovering his or her authentic beliefs, an individual questions conventional norms and assumptions, facing uncertainty and paradox. “As you observe yourself to determine which beliefs and choices are in line with your deepest values, you have to extract your true beliefs from ‘false’ ones… This process tends to be painful and challenging, and as such it is an aspect of the ‘dark side’ of meaning in life” (p. 58).

Meaning also provides the reasons as to why something deserves attention. In his book The Path to a Meaningful Purpose, Louis Marrero (2011), the CEO of the Boston Institute for Meaningful Purpose, explained that “meanings derive from the conclusions and affirmations people make about themselves, others, and situations. These conclusions and affirmations are answers to questions intended to help us make sense of the world around us (i.e. “What is the meaning of this?”)” (p. 70). Once an individual can distinguish true beliefs from false ones, he or she needs to act with integrity and apply these beliefs to real-life situations. This is another challenging aspect of pursuing meaning, since life circumstances can make acting with integrity difficult. As a part of the human condition, beliefs will often be challenged in various circumstances, and the individual will struggle to reach a deeper truth that leads to more authentic action.

In the book Hardwiring Happiness, neuroscientist Rick Hanson (2013) explained that personal happiness depends on developing qualities of inner strength such as positive mood, common sense, integrity, inner peace, determination and compassion. Hanson (2013) stated that “unlike fleeting mental states, inner strengths are stable traits, an enduring source of well-being, wise and effective action, and contribution to others” (p. 5). Hanson (2013) explained that the brain has two modes of operation – a responsive and a reactive mode. When the brain is in responsive mode, the individual meets challenges without them becoming stressors. Hanson stated that “when the brain is not disturbed by threat, loss, or rejection, it settles into its resting state, its responsive mode… emotions in this mode remain generally positive (p. 38-39)”. When the brain is in a reactive mode, it experiences life challenges as emergencies, stress hormones are released, and the individual experiences a negative emotional reaction such as fear, frustration, and heartache. Hanson believed that modern life promotes a reactive mode due to the overwhelming amount of stressors experienced: “Whilst most people are no longer exposed to the intense pressures of predation, starvation, and lethal conflict, we do commonly face ongoing mild to moderate stressors…with little time for responsive recovery between them… We shouldn’t underestimate the growing impact of reactive experiences. Over time, they are risk factors for depression and other mental issues” (p. 47-49). Personal development, the ability to asses a situation from multiple angles, and grow one’s authentic response can contribute significantly to the ability to handle life’s stressors. Also, approaching life events in an integral way, by considering the internal and the external, as well as the individual and collective aspects of reality can contribute to a more unified worldview in the creation of meaning.

Wilber, Patten, Leonard & Morelli (2008) introduced the Integral Life Practice based on the AQAL Integral theory, proposing an approach to integrating the aspects of the body, mind, and spirit into a holarchy of experiential knowledge. AQAL (all-quadrant-all-level) paradigm represents “a map of consciousness, the Kosmos, and human development, at every dimension that presents itself” (p. 9-10). The AQAL paradigm defines four dimensions or quadrants of being as individual interior, individual exterior, collective interior and collective exterior. These dimensions correspond to the development in the physical or biological realm (It), socio-economic (Its), cultural (We), and development of individual consciousness (I). Experiences are viewed as arising in all four quadrants simultaneously, or “tetra-arising”, with none of the dimensions existing separately and independently from others (p. 36). In the creation of meaning, therefore, it is important to integrate all four aspects of experience. The AQAL Integral paradigm accounts for the dark side of human experience (the shadow), as ‘unacceptable drives and feelings [such as rage and anger] [that are] repressed from conscious awareness, where they surreptitiously shape [one’s] life’ (p. 42). These feelings need to be faced and owned in order to transform the shadow drives into authentic emotions. Similar to Cook-Greuter’s theory of ego development, according to the AQAL Integral paradigm, there are higher and lower structures of consciousness, and humans can develop towards higher stages in progressive steps. Wilber (2000) explained that “What this means for our personal evolution is that we can intentionally focus on harmonizing development across all four quadrants in order to reach higher waves of consciousness and compassion… overall development must occur in all 4 quadrants, [otherwise] it will tend to exert a downward pull on the other three…This is a primary function of Integral Life Practice” (p. 77).

In his book Trump and the Post-Truth World, Wilber (2017) explained that, when there are no guidelines for individual behaviour, one is “left with only his or her own self-promoting wants and desires to answer to - in short, narcissism” (p. 9). Wilber (2017) described post-modernism as a culture of “post-truth”, leading to a modern culture of “a-perspectival madness” (p. 9). Instead of believing that truth is a fabricated social construct created by the privileged few, the individual has the right to choose his or her own values, as well as the ability to see the universal aspects of traditional values such as equality, growth, freedom, and unity. Wilber (2017) acknowledged that “The major problem with the [post-modern] view is that it completely overlooks the actual data on the role of growth, development, and evolution. We’ve already seen that human moral identity grows from egocentric, to ethno-centric, to world-centric, to integral, and this is true individually as well as collectively/ historically” (p. 61). In other words, personal development is a crucial aspect of being able to see the world clearly, make sense of reality, and create meaning in life. To be truly integral, development and the process of creation of meaning needs to account for all aspects of reality, nurturing the internal, external, individual, and collective perspectives.


According to philosopher Rudolph Steiner (1916), “Our life is made up of free and unfree actions. We cannot, however, form a final and adequate concept of human nature without coming upon the free spirit as its purest expression. After all, we are men in the fullest sense only in so far as we are free” (section 9.9; para. 36). While modern life introduces many life stressors, it is the responsibility of the individual to exercise autonomy and personal freedom to generate an authentic and creative response to life’s challenges. Post-modern worldview tries to account for multiple perspectives and give equal chance to all individuals, however, in its extreme, it negates personal responsibility and denies objective reality, reducing the world to an a-perspectival flat-land. Unfortunately, this worldview does not allow for constructive and positive solutions to world problems, and contributes to feelings of anxiety and depression.

Personal (ego) development and the adoption of the integral world-view addresses narcissism and nihilism brought about by post-modern thinking. It promotes increased awareness of higher stages of consciousness that allow for multiple perspectives and complex world-views, while encouraging autonomous decision making and authentic action. Individuals have the right, and a responsibility, to create meaning in life, and contribute to a better society without destroying existing structures. Integral world-view ensures that all aspects of reality are considered, and that meaning is created in harmony with the way experience arises in nature. Through meaning and purpose developed in this way, individuals can fulfill the basic human need to experience unity and a sense of belonging to the world. Feelings of sadness, disappointment, separation, and lack of satisfaction are neutralized when one has authority over decisions, and life is lived with meaning. Ultimately, one can act according to his or her deepest values and beliefs. According to Steiner (1916), “To be free means, not that we can will what we will, but that we can do what we will” (section 1.7; para 12). Personal development and integral world-view account for the basic human need to act with integrity, and to be agents of real change in an increasingly complex world.


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