Searching for a Unified Vision: Exploring Different Maps of the World   


Philosophers have long sought to understand how we make sense of the world.  Each have brought forth their own ‘maps’ or ‘lenses’ of how they comprehend reality. Some focus their analysis on the individual while others seek to dissect the patterns of the collective (e.g., society and culture).

As social animals, humans are always embedded in larger structures. We interact with others and the natural world in a myriad of different systems. Therefore, any theory which exclusively focuses on either the individual or collective is missing out on a key aspect of the human experience.

The philosopher Ken Wilber aimed to weave together the different aspects of reality to attain a degree of harmony and balance between the interior and exterior world. He proposes that there are four different quadrants which explain our relationship to different aspects of reality. Of note, Wilber isn’t stating that one quadrant or perspective is superior to another. Rather, each viewpoint is a piece of the puzzle in trying to understand the dynamics of the greater whole.

The Four Quadrants of Integral Theory

Interior Individual (“I”)
Mind/human consciousness
Exterior Individual (“It”)
Interior Collective (“We”)
Cultural norms/values
Exterior Collective (“Its”)
Human systems/the environment
Source: Wikipedia

1.Interior Individual: Firstly, there is the subjective experience of the individual – our ‘inner world.’ This category aims to understand what it is like to be ‘you.’  Theorists in this quadrant include Sigmund Freud and the Buddha who sought to explore and alter our inner awareness through methods such as psychoanalysis and meditation.

2. Exterior Individual: Individuals can also be viewed from a scientific lens. The “I” of the Interior Individual becomes an “It” when viewed though a detached, objective and third-person view. Like a doctor examining their patient, our biology, body and brain can be rigorously examined to better understand the forces impacting human health and behaviour.

Wilber applies the same framework to the collective.

3.Interior Collective:  The Interior Collective refers to the shared values and norms shared by group and by society at large. This web of tightly knit beliefs shared by a group of people is ultimately what makes up culture.

4. Exterior Collective: The last quadrant looks at social systems and the environment from an impartial perspective. For instance, disciplines such as economics try to understand what forces that shape the allocation of scarce resources amongst individuals, businesses or governments.

Wilber’s integral framework aims to puncture dualistic thinking. That is, it offers us an alternative way forward beyond what initially seems separate – body and mind, individual and the collective, humans and the environment etc.

In his book a Theory of Everything, Wilber uses applies his integral framework to several real-world issues.

Let’s look at one example he provides in medicine and human health to assess the value of his model.

Integral Health

The medical field primarily focuses on treating illness through a host of physical interventions, namely through surgery, drugs and medication (exterior individual). However, there is an increased awareness on the role that interior mental states, emotions and attitudes play in affecting one’s physical health. The mind and body are inherently linked. For instance, studies have demonstrated that stress can increase the risk of several medical ailments including heart disease, diabetes and asthma (interior individual).

On a collective level, cultural norms and values influence how we perceive and treat a particular condition. Recently, societal views on mental health care are gradually shifting, reducing the stigma that such conditions used to carry. Society is becoming more accepting of those with mental health issues and supportive for those individuals who wish to seek treatment (interior collective).

Lastly, the exterior material, social and economic conditions one lives in has a significant impact on one’s health. That is, our income and financial security affect our ability seek the appropriate treatment for our medical conditions. Those living in poverty not only lack access to adequate healthcare but live in conditions which heighten the risk of adverse health conditions (exterior collective).

Holistic Thinking

Wilber’s integral model helps us avoid the pitfalls of overly simplistic thinking and stereotypes that we often attribute to societal problems. The four-quadrant approach enables us to think deeper of how issues are deeply interconnected at the individual and collective level. Each quadrant offers a partial but complementary way of understanding the world.

Further, this way of thinking can get society beyond the ‘us vs. them’ mentality which has become so corrosive in our public discourse. Instead of being antagonistic to those we disagree with, we can begin to empathize with others or at least attempt to understand their point of view.

Holistic thinking requires us to broaden our horizons embracing a multitude of different perspectives so we can begin to live in harmony with others, and the natural world.

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Albert Einstein

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Indigenous Knowledge: A Roadmap to Belonging Again

What can we learn from Indigenous cultures about being better stewards to the natural world? After all, Indigenous Peoples were the original caretakers of the land thriving in complex societies long before the arrival of European settlers.

As a Canadian citizen, my country along with the rest of the world, has been slowly learning about the violence inflicted on Indigenous Peoples and the horrors of the residential school system. As we collectively come to terms with our past, I think it is important to look at the insights and lessons from Indigenous cultures. Looking at Indigenous ways of being can inform a shift towards healthier and more sustainable modern societies.

The core tenet of Indigenous knowledge systems is the need to cultivate a sense of kinship with others and the environment. Relationships are the core aspect of existence. We are shaped and molded through our connections to our family, friends and place. Humans are not viewed separate or isolated individuals but intertwined in a vast array of different living systems. Thus, we are just one component of the greater whole.  As the Indigenous academic of the Apalech clan in Australia Tyson Yunkaporta writes,

Nothing exists outside of relationships to something else. There are no isolated variables…. The relationships between the knower and the other knowers, places and senior knowledge keepers is paramount. It facilitates shared memory and sustainable knowledge systems.

Tyson Yunkaporta, Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World

Traditions serve to bind us to a collective identity and unite us to something larger than ourselves. They aim to answer the most fundamental questions of existence, namely who am I and how should I live my life? For Indigenous Peoples, as well as other cultures, the answers can be found in cultural stories.

Various Indigenous Peoples in North America carved totem poles to capture their ancestry, identity and beliefs. The duty of each generation is pass on their unique cultural knowledge and wisdom to enable those who come after us to live a good life. Our obligation is not only to respect the insights of our ancestors, but to ensure that we take care of the environment so we can offer a sustainable future. Narcissism and egocentrism is contrary to this spirit. This ethos is reflected in the ancient philosophy of the Iroquos’ seventh generation principle which states that decisions made today should take into account its impact seven generations into the future.

The aim isn’t to forego one’s individuality in service of the collective. Rather it is to value the important role each person plays in enhancing the greater good of the whole. As Tyson Yunkaporta notes,

There is a balance between self-determination and group identity. These two are not contradictory but entwined, and there are names for all the roles you occupy as an agent of complexity in Aboriginal society….Our languages are expressions of land-based networks and facilitate communication across all of these individual nodes and collectives of nodes within and between systems.

Tyson Yunkaporta, Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World

What resonates with me when I reflect on Indigenous ways of being in the world is the yearning for a sense of belonging.  I am indeed grateful for the benefits and comforts of modern society. However, the excesses of individualism and its tendency towards atomization push one to the emptiness of self-gratification.

What Indigenous cultures understood is that the importance of a developing a sense of reverence for the gifts provided by nature.  Indigenous Peoples aim to maintain a sense of balance and harmony with the natural world.  Natural resources and other species are not to be exploited but respected and carefully preserved. For instance, Indigenous hunting practices carefully observe health of other species by restricting overconsumption through setting limits on how much wild game can be caught and controlling what lands can be accessed. The goal is to establish a healthy and reciprocal relationship between us humans and the world around us.  

We are part of the environment and therefore our wellbeing is directly correlated with the health of other living systems.

The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore; if a river is one of the veins of the land, not potential irrigation water; if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber; if other species are biological kin, not resources; or if the planet is our mother, not an opportunity — then we will treat each other with greater respect. Thus is the challenge, to look at the world from a different perspective

David Suzuki

As I walk through the forest on a vibrant fall afternoon, I am enthralled by the kaleidoscope of bright colours of leaves gently gliding to the ground. The beauty of the world never ceases to astonish me. There is so much more to life than the narrow demands of my own selfish ego.

What matters to me now is being a good steward and preserving the gifts and beauty of the earth for others and for our future ancestors.

I continue my hike forward and earnestly try to follow the wisdom that Indigenous Peoples offer as a roadmap to a healthier more sustainable life.

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East Versus West: A Look at Two Minds  


The paradigms, world views and ideas which we inhabit shape how we perceive and interact with the world. They impact our ideals, relationships, and values. That is, who we are and who we aspire to be.

It is the task of philosophy to step back and critically examine the dominant frames and driving forces that influence culture. Exploring other value systems can open ourselves up to different ways of being in the world.

It is not my intention to argue that a certain worldview is superior to another. Rather, this analysis aims to make us aware of the benefits as well drawbacks of a particular mode of thought. In this article I want to compare the dominant ideas in the West with those prevalent in Eastern philosophy. This requires me to make broad generalizations, but the objective nonetheless is to provide a broad overview of the different traditions on a macro level.

Our Place in the Cosmos

The Western tradition places a high degree of significance on the importance of the individual.  The ‘good life’ is one in which strengthens one’s self-determination and control over the external environment. It is concerned with realizing one’s potential and talents as a human being.

Further Western thought emphasizes the separateness and superiority of human beings from the natural world. It grants us the jurisdiction to manipulate and control the environment. This way of thinking is embodied in the Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes who claimed that science and technological advancements could make us “masters and possessors of nature.” In Tao: The Watercourse Way, Alan Watts reflects on the negative consequences that result from the excesses of individualism,

Western science has stressed the attitude of objectivity—a cold, calculating, and detached attitude through which it appears that natural phenomena, including the human
organism, are nothing but mechanisms…… We feel justified in exploiting it ruthlessly, but now we are belatedly realizing that the ill-treatment of the environment is damage to ourselves

In contrast, Eastern cultures emphasize the need to live in balance with the natural world. According to this view, we should strive to live in accordance with the rhythms and flows of the environment. Human beings, like all other living beings, are a part of nature. We are deeply connected to the world around us. Our wellbeing is contingent on that of the welfare of other species and their respective ecosystems. Despite our tendency of boasting our self-importance, the East views the human being as just one component in the natural order of things. The goal is therefore to live in harmony with nature.

In addition, Eastern thought claims that the ‘self’ is an illusion. Who we are both on a biological level as well our temperament, beliefs and character is in constant flux throughout life.  Spiritual practices in the East seek to transcend the self. As life is characterized by constant change, clinging onto our egos is bound to leave us dissatisfied. Freedom and peace can be found through rising above the self-centeredness of our personal identity.


In the West, our ideas of happiness are based on satisfying the desires of the individual. Happiness is associated with the attainment of external things – status, trendy purchases and luxury products etc. Subjective wellbeing, pleasure and personal fulfillment are the main priorities for the individual.

Eastern philosophy encourages us to engage in spiritual practice to attain a sense tranquility and freedom. The goal is not to satisfy desires or obtain more things, but rather to attain inner peace. This is achieved through attaining a degree of detachment from the impact that external pleasures have on our wellbeing. As the Zen scholar D.T Suzuki writes,

The basic idea of Zen is to come in touch with the inner workings of our being, and to do so in the most direct way possible, without resorting to anything external

In this view, pleasure is temporary and the constant craving for more is the source of our unhappiness.

Balancing the Two Worldviews

Comparing and contrasting these two different worldviews, we can identify the benefits and shortcomings of each. While the ideas of the West have encouraged rapid technological advancement, the excesses of individualism have alienated us from our connection with others and from the natural world.

On the contrary, Eastern ways of thinking help us find peace and freedom within, but neglect to make any progress on advancing our material wellbeing.

It therefore may not be a matter of choosing one way of thinking over the other, but rather finding balance and avoiding the excesses of each worldview.  The philosophies of both the West as well as the East can help us make improvements in different aspects of human existence – namely our external and inner life.

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