Structures of consciousness

Briefly expanding on Ken Wilber’s structures of consciousness

From the perspective of the evolution of science and technology, for more than three centuries we have been absorbed by a steady climb towards more efficiency and more profit, and we forgot to wonder about the consequences of these rapid changes and how they affect our way of being, our lifestyle and our health. We think it would be wise not to take today’s orthodox thinking for granted, and remember that the prospects by which we interpret the world were and are constantly changing. To better highlight this, we will present is a classification of these perspectives in order to remind us that we are still in a process of development and to create a map by which we can study the progress towards our highest potential:

1. Archaic

Our transition from primates to humans – the legacy of instincts in animals: basic needs such as food, shelter and physiological needs

2. Magic

The first step toward today’s complexity, which begins 50,000 years ago – the magical structure, namely the emergence of the first major human societies – hunters and collectors, driven by impulsivity and held together by the ability to express more complex emotions, sensations and feelings, such as art, fantasy, and symbolic expression. People at this level understand the world through their 1st person perspective.

3. Magic / Mythic

The emergence of horticulture and, according to certain theories, matrifocal societies define a 3rd stage that begins 10,000 years ago, a structure with self-imputation, power expression and self-promotion capabilities, search for opportunity, awareness of boundaries, intentionality and basic conceptual thinking. People are able to understand a 2nd person perspective, that of their family or clan.

4. Mythic

This structure is behind all the great empires that have crossed the world since 5,000 years ago and is still a very common level today, comprising 60% of the population. It is defined by the ability to take the role of another (the perspective of a 2nd person), can understand and follow rules, fall into a group/clan and feel affiliation. It is characterized by nationalism and literary interpretation of scriptures and legends (hence “mythic”). People at this level are still at a 2nd person perspective, yet expand it to their nation, to their ‘kind’.

5. Rational

An important step is towards the rational structure that begins 300 years ago with the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment in the West. This structure can take the perspective of a third person, move from ethnocentric to world-centric and adopt objective thinking. The ability of introspection and hypothetical deductive reasoning appears. The problems of this structure are hyper-objectification, removal of emotion and irresponsible use of technology. (approximately 20-30% of the world population). People at this level are able to take a 3rd person perspective, and thus the fields of objective sciences and international relations emerged.

6. Pluralist

In response to this abuse of technology, indifference to human suffering and interest just for gain, the pluralist structure expressed through postmodernism and relativistic thinking (feminism, environmental protection and civil rights) starts to emerge in the 60s and 70s. It may reflect on the third person’s thinking, creating the perspective of a 4th person who can observe the different ways of being, understanding the relativity of each opinion, and can relate context to context, respecting cultural relativity. The problem is the rejection of hierarchies and hypersensitivity, which leads to a stagnation of progress. (approximately 10% of the world population).

7. Integral

The next step is called a “monumental leap” because the whole paradigm by which we define ourselves changes from an ego-based approach to a universal one. Having managed to discover the evolution of society in one’s own person, the integral structure understands that it was necessary to go through all the other stages to reach the complexity it is. For the first time the self is defined by accepting all other ways of being, and sees the value and purpose of all levels. The integral structure wants to transcend lower levels, and to include them – not to repress them or to exclude them. (about 1% of the world population)

– it is important to note that each structure transcends, but also includes previous structures, but usually the aspects of the other structures are fully and consciously included starting with the integral level. Until the  Integral level, evolving to a higher structure is usually done by repressing the so-called ‘shadow material’ (unsolved issues typical to lower structures), and tapping into the perspective of the integral structure, one can start a conscious process of reintegrating that shadow.

Characteristics of the most important structures (in terms of influence in society) and potential pathologies characteristic to each structure:

Structure (Mythic)

– identifies with the clan/nation/religion in which one is born and adopts the orthodox perspective in one’s community

– patriotic pride, which in a globalizing world can lead to xenophobia, racism, discrimination and stagnation if it is to underpin cognitive prejudices

– conservative attitude, reluctance to change

– literary interpretation of scriptures, legends, etc. without questioning a deeper meaning

– submission to a “superior” force, such as a God, a king, a political system

– keeping the tradition out of obligation, often forgetting the purpose or symbolism behind it (“we do this because that’s how it’s done”)

Modern Structure (Rational)

– the consequence of the separation of science from religion during the scientific and industrial revolution ~300 years ago, as a response to hyper-dogmatic religion based on fearing God which was imposed upon reason

– because of the trauma caused by this imposition, people have come to define as absurd or irrational everything that is not materially or objectively verifiable by the scientific method established at the time, hence the suppression of emotions in favor of progress and efficiency (war, colonization, atomic bombs) -> birth of the materialist-reductionist fallacy

– in spite of these events, the quality of material life and the amount of information accessible to the population grew noticeable – but due to the speed at which we progressed externally (objectively) we did not have time to analyze and adapt our inner (subjective) worlds, and people have come to idealize automation, industrialization and efficiency at the cost of exploiting the people, animals and the environment

Postmodern Structure (Pluralist)

– in response to hyper-objectivism and insensitivity expressed by modernity, postmodernism (pluralism) emerges through movements defined by the responsible use of the values of the modern era, such as feminism as a response to gender inequality, human rights and environmental protection in response to the abuses of industrialization and exploitation of lesser developed countries/regions or less privileged people.

– realizes the importance of the subjective experience and the relativity of each perspective, hence the sensitivity to cultural diversity and strive for inclusiveness and acceptance of every perspective

– trying to protect relativism given by contextuality, develops an allergy against authority and hierarchy, claiming that everyone is right in its own context, and no view is better than another -> risk for stagnation and chaos in societies which until now have functioned under hierarchical structures

The Integral Structure

– realizing that the hypersensitive and anti-hierarchical approach of postmodernism creates an endless field filled with isolated views in glass globes, the integral structure no longer wants to create a museum of reality, but to promote a desire for progress in each structure

– if the modernism judged traditionalism for the prohibition of a free individual arbitrary will independent of the imposed dogma, and postmodernism judged modernism for insensibility, the integral structure realizes that each step was and is necessary for evolution, and that this structure itself is a step towards a
more complex structure

– understands that evolution and change have always been happening, and defines its values accordingly, hence being prone for change and progress in an intended, controlled manner (as opposed to letting odds decide when a need for change appears in one’s life), thus fighting back against the tendency to preserve cultures just how they are in an ever-changing, globalizing world

– realizes that the structures coexist, and that in order to facilitate a conscious evolution the hierarchies must be reintroduced but also redefined: from the hierarchies defined by the imposed dominance to the holon-like hierarchies, which based on the principle “an atom is in a molecule, but a molecule is not in an atom ” – the hierarchs formed by experience and the desire to lead towards progress (basically we do not forget where we left from, promoting equality of opportunity and not equality of outcome, tending to each structures needs for progress)

Every man starts from the most basic structure, and not age determines the structure, but the degree of openness to change, the active working on oneself, the eagerness to take new opportunities, the wisdom gathered. Progress is not made suddenly from one structure to the other, and not one person is situated entirely in one structure. Rather, gradually, each person has different parts in different structures. We should rejoice that we have the opportunity to transcend our shortcomings and engage ourselves to actively develop ourselves towards our highest potential. If we are born in this world where we learn how to live and everything changes, why not embrace the nature of our world, instead of fighting against it?

References: Article based on the extensive work of Ken Wilber, which basically intends to unify into an integral theory of development all the work done in fields such as psychology, contemplative traditions, philosophy and exact sciences, trying to unite the sciences and the humanities. So credit should be given to all researchers, both Western and Eastern, which contributed to the still ongoing development of this view, and also to all those willing to contribute by becoming part of this movement based on understanding ourselves.

This article presented one of the several dimensions used to map this world that we live in – the structures of consciousness. Following articles will present the other dimensions, namely the states of consciousness, the vantage points, the multiple lines of intelligence, the 4-Quandrant model.

In the image above, the essence of the work of many researchers and pioneers in the study of consciousness is summarized, work used by Wilber in the development of more inclusive integral meta-theories. As he himself states, his work should not be viewed as an end product, but should be used for further research and ongoing development.

Read our article on the development of integral theory and transpersonal psychology here:



Wilber, K. (2017). The religion of tomorrow. Boston: Shambhala.

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