Wilber’s Integral Spirituality – Part II: The Wilber-Combs Lattice

by editor

Wilber’s Integral Spirituality can be understood only if analyzed in depth. The Part II of this series of posts on Integral Spirituality will deal with the Wilber-Combs Lattice, the differences, similarities and the correspondence between the stages/structures and states of consciousness. Inspired from Frank Visser’s article (a review of the Integral Spirituality), “Lord, Give Us Integral, But Without the Hype” and Jan Brouwer’s writing titled, “The Wilber-Combs Lattice Revisited”, this post will explore in detail the core of the lattice and the propositions it arrives at.

What is the problem with spirituality? What exactly is the problem with spirituality? Why should one look forward to develop an integral spirituality? Our first post on Wilber’s Integral Spirituality: Postmetaphysical religion and primordial perspectives analyzed the problem with spirituality and its inconsistencies with modernity and postmodernity. Wilber, in his book, Integral Spirituality states that spirituality is doomed if it does not meet the demands of the current and future era. In which case, what are the problem areas of spirituality in the eyes of the current era or postmodern thinking? Metaphysics.

Yes, Wilber feels that metaphysics is the primary disagreement between spirituality and postmodernity. Though many modern philosophers and religious thinkers do not believe in a heaven or hell, religion can be saved from damnation only if it cleanses itself of “metaphysics”. A postmetaphysical religion is the need of the hour and that is what Wilber proposes in his theories in the Integral Spirituality. Seeing the world through the integral lens is also required, as only then, one can get a clear understanding of the relationship between development of consciousness and states of spirituality, that is, stages of psychological development and states of consciousness. Wilber-Combs lattice is an attempt to bridge the gap in the correlations between stages and states of consciousness.

The Wilber-Combs Lattice:

Wilber – From Wilber I to IV: Before one proceeds with the analysis of the higher stages/states of consciousness, one needs to know why there is this breach in understanding. In the very first stages of consciousness or psychological developmental studies, it was inferred that psychological stages of development are associated with the development of states of consciousness. In other words, mystics and spiritual yogis exhibited but higher stages of psychological development. The myth was dismantled with the discovery and research on childhood spirituality. Wilber’s I-II stages opined that children enjoyed an elevated state of consciousness compared to adults – the “trailing clouds of glory” was reiterated in Wilber’s The Spectrum of Consciousness. In Phases I and II, Wilber believed in the Jungian and Neo-romantic view that higher states of consciousness is but a return to the original state of being. That is, higher state is but all about finding the underlying unity in diversity and returning to the original state of bliss.

In Wilber III-IV, this Jungian theory of childhood’s innate spirituality was found to be wrong. With the research done by Piaget, Baldwin, Loevinger and others, it was revealed that there was a higher kind of realization than the supposed myth of innate childhood spirituality. As Jan Brouwer puts it, “The ‘trailing clouds of glory’ were proven to be rather chaotic meteorological phenomena, with archaic dark thunderstorms and sudden magical lightings, instead of enlightened celestial glory all of the time. Childhood was proven to be more of a tentative beginning within a gradual spiritual process than the acme of it.”

Wilber too grew out of his earlier theories and concluded that they were a result of what he himself called a “Pre-Trans Fallacy”. The Pre-Trans Fallacy is nothing but the confusion of the pre-personal states with that of the post-personal or trans-personal states. That is, in the linear development of consciousness, the psyche grows from pre to personal to trans personal stages. When a child is said to have innate spiritual experience, it means that one is engaging in the fallacy of confusing pre-personal stage with that of trans-personal stage. So, came Wilber III and IV, where developmental lines were added to the stages of consciousness growth and the AQAL model was unraveled, a model which proposed that one has to grow vertically, psychologically, to experience higher states of consciousness. In other words, Wilber III and IV were phases which believed in higher states “stacked on top” of lower structures of the psyche. It meant that one needs to be in a higher stage to experience a higher state of consciousness.

Wilber V and Integral Spirituality: However, there was a little uneasiness about this aspect of the integral theory. All was not well as the entire theory was weighed down by the element of linearity. This integral model will not explain the reason behind sudden mystical experiences and higher states of consciousness experienced by people in lower structures of psyche development or in pre-modern cultures. It meant that people had to cross through/outgrow all stages to experience higher states of development. In reality, this is not always the case. Many individuals come to experience higher states of consciousness right from the lower structure/stage of development. That is, a man from Red or Archaic stage could as well have a mystical experience equal to that of a man from the Green or Turquoise stage. How is this possible? Also, there was this question of should one cross through all 8 stages of Graves/Loevinger to attain higher states of consciousness? Then, what is the rational explanation of mystics and yogis of the pre-modern and archaic ages? Wilber came up with an answer for this in Wilber V.

Integral Spirituality identifies two important problems with the AQAL and the previous models of consciousness development and Wilber himself talks about it in the book, “Do you really have to progress through all of Loevinger’s stages to have a spiritual experience? If you have an illumination experience as described by St. John of the Cross, does that mean you have passed through all 8 Graves value levels? Doesn’t sound quite right?” An answer to this question would be – one can “sneak” or “peek” into higher states even from lower stages. But Wilber opined that such “peek” experiences can be fleeting and only when “states become traits” an individual is completely adapted to the higher stages/structures of development.

In that case, the second problem according to Wilber is, “If ‘enlightenment’ really meant going through all of those 8 stages, then how could somebody 2000 years ago be enlightened, since some of the stages, like systemic Global View, are recent emergents?” Answer: Mystics of particular eras had their own versions/equivalents of the recent stages – could be Indra’s Net, Bodhisattava’s Vow, implying the current global view and interdependency of all beings. But, what will the experience of individuals sneaking higher states from lower stages? What are the variables or factors that will affect the spiritual experiences of people? Integral Spirituality finds answers to all of these in the Wilber-Combs Lattice.

The Wilber-Combs Lattice – Explained:
The Wilber-Combs Lattice is a matrix compiled with 24 “stage interpreted, state experiences”. In the lattice, states of consciousness (gross, subtle, causal, non-dual) are placed horizontally to the stages of consciousness – Magic, Early Mythic, Mythic, Rational, Pluralistic, Integral etc. There are also supra-integral stages in Wilber’s lattice. The diagram indicates that states of consciousness can be achieved/experienced irrespective of stages of development. However, there is no guarantee that the state achieved can be a permanent one as reaching higher states can happen in even deep sleep and dreaming states.

According to the Wilber-Combs Lattice, mystical states of consciousness are now a variation of the natural states available to all beings – deep sleep, dreaming state and waking state. One can experience any level or state of consciousness during these stages and yet be unaware of it. Deep sleep state is associated with formless mysticism, dreaming state with theistic mysticism, while waking state is called nature mysticism. The Wilber-Combs lattice seeks to explain the question of childhood spirituality, along with the highly advanced world-view of mystics from the lower stages of development.

Wilber admits that the lattice is hypothetical and is nothing but an improvement of the previous models. He confesses in the book, “The correlations I am about to summarize are in themselves contentious and difficult to prove. But we will simply assume them for the moment.” Many have critiqued on the subject and Jan Brouwer’s “The Wilber-Combs Lattice Revisited” is one of them. His article presents the lattice in a different perspective, throwing insight into what variables influence the correspondence between stages and states.

Variables that influence spirituality: Several variables influence the relationship between stages of psychological development and states of consciousness. Some variables in stages/levels that affect an individual’s mystical experience:

1. Psychological Levels: The first and foremost of them is Psychological Levels/Stages. A general outcome of the lattice, the diagram intends to show that your stage of development actually influences your experience of any state of consciousness. Jan Brouwer talks about it in his article this way: “Since mystical experiences are open and empty as their referents and signifieds are concerned (and also to a certain degree as signifiers), they depend for their general meaning on the way they are interpreted by the knowing subject. So, suppose you are at an early egocentric, red, power driven level of development, you will then interpret your subtle or causal state experience differently from the way someone at, say, a green level does interpret the experience.” This variable does not just influence the interpretation of spiritual experiences but also has a strong effect on the ability to consciously achieve state experiences. The way a subject reacts to an experience depends on the level of psychological development of the subject. This is the primary reason why we have had fundamentalists, ethnocentric mystics. As Brouwer puts it, “If we have not come to a certain level of psychological ripeness, if we have not become familiar with higher state experiences and their meaning in our lives, it will not cross the threshold of our awareness that we are having any.” Hence, a young child who has a higher spiritual experience may not clearly understand it unless and until the child is psychologically advanced.

2. Age as a variable: The second variable is age. Age does have an influence on the states of consciousness. People at younger age who may experience sudden “peeks” into higher states may not completely relish or understand the experience, whereas people at older age would be able to do so without effort. Childhood spirituality is possible only if the subject is highly developed psychologically. If else, even the highest spiritual experience will appear like magic to the child. As discussed by Brouwer, “Later in life subtle, causal or non-dual experiences make more sense and are therefore more integrative, healing and transformative.” But the Wilber-Combs Lattice hardly gives importance to this variable. Neither do cultural factors play a role in the lattice.

Childhood is not the ideal age to enjoy spiritual experiences though there have been several mention of child mystics who are highly intellectual like Shankara or Christ. Since an ordinary child is not developed psychologically, a mystical experience would be “momentary, fleeting, unsubstantial, without profound meaning and spirituality”. Training and meditation can however improve the capacity for enlightenment. Adolescence is stable and cognitively advanced for state experiences. The world of the adolescent is thrilling and awe-inspiring in more ways than one. However, there is insecurity and failure in the world which is not conducive to pursue or receive a mystical experience properly. Adulthood and old age/mature age is by far the most favorable age for enlightenment to occur. With the self fully grown, and the neurological system conducive to receive the experience, one can seek enlightenment if one ignores or pushes aside the dangers/social pressures of the lower quadrants.

Old people of all stages are said to carry the same level of development. As Brouwer opines, “For an older person born and living in a magenta culture, with a general psychograph in accordance with his surroundings, may still be psychologically more advanced than a child, an adolescent or even an adult born and living in a green culture or higher. This problem is partly covered by Wilber’s theory about lines of development differing from stages/structures, but the contention of this paper is that the level and general wisdom of older persons is to a large degree irrespective of the color of their culture and general psychograph.”

Another problem is one tends to engage in color absolutism while dealing with the lattice. Color absolutism is “the fallacy of heaping all persons of the same psychological color on one stock pile. A magenta child in our Western culture may show characteristics that are comparable to the psychological structure of someone living in a tribal community (especially in its tendency to interpret life in a magical and animistic way), but that is not to say that a child is identical to such a person or that a tribalist or a pastoralist thinks and behaves as a child.”

3. Personal Excellence: Brouwer states that personal excellence of individuals are also important criteria in achieving spiritual enlightenment. Only exceptionally gifted individuals (down the line in history) were able to transcend the psychological status of their developmental stage and foresee things that individuals in advanced stages.

Jan Brouwer also lists several variables at the ’state’ level or consciousness level of the lattice. These include Sympathetic/Parasympathetic states of consciousness, Gender related states of consciousness, and altered states of consciousness. We can discuss them in detail in our next post.

Wilber’s Integral Spirituality is a series of posts on integral spirituality, Wilber-Combs Lattice and the postmetaphysical religion of the integral world. You can read the Part I of the post to know more.


1. Frank Visser’s “Lord, Give Us Integral, But Without the Hype: A Review of Integral Spirituality” here

2.  Thomas Maxwell’s “Integral Spirituality”

3. Jan Brouwer’s “The Wilber-Combs Lattice Revisited”

4. Wilber Revisited: From Wilber I to Wilber V – Wilber Phase V

5. Frank Visser: “My Take on Wilber-5”

6. Wilber’s Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World

Previous post:

Next post: