Use of Wilber’s AQAL in “Service, Society, and the Sacred”

Christien walkDuring one class period students in “Service, Society, and the Sacred” did a walking meditation on a cloth labyrinth, an experience students found unique and utterly absorbing.  The labyrinth is a symbol of wholeness, and students welcome this kind of big-picture exploration. Wilber’s AQAL theory is another tool to investigate the concept of wholeness, which I also used in this class.

Introduction of  “Service, Society, and the Sacred”

In 2000 a colleague and myself established a new course at our school entitled, “Service, Society, and the Sacred” (hereafter, SSS), a semester-length elective primarily chosen by senior-level students.  The goal of the course, as we initially conceptualized it, was to help students find a connection between their inner work and their outer work.

Since the curriculum varies according to student interest and the availability of guest speakers every year, I will use examples from this year’s most recent class to illustrate the general direction of the curriculum.  As the overarching goal of SSS is to help students personally consider questions concerning identity and purpose, the first course reading this year was an excerpt from Beck’s Finding Your North Star (2001).  The book’s central concept is introduced in chapter one in which differences between the essential self, one’s true self-identity, and the social self, those influences, values, and opinions brought to bear by society upon the individual, are explored.  Students found this distinction useful and frequently employed these terms throughout the course to describe the process of navigating life in and beyond high school.

A variety of topics, often tied to guest speakers, were explored during the first half of this one-semester course: searching for life purpose, social entrepreneurship, Centering Prayer, walking a labyrinth as a tool for meditation, and cultural identity. In the first 22 class sessions, the class heard seven guest speakers and made two field trips. Most of the guest speakers and field trips involved professionals who were using their skills to make a positive social impact.  Some typical examples were: two former businesswomen who started a tutorial service that includes social issues in their curriculum, a human rights lawyer, a recent alumnus who is prototyping and distributing computers for the poor in Asia, an environmental activist, and a businessman engaged in corporate social responsibility.

Use of Wilber’s AQAL Theory in SSS

As the first quarter was coming to a close, I wanted to bring some overall coherence to the stimulating, but wide-arranging list of activities that we had studied in the first half of the course.  It was at this point, then, that I introduced Wilber’s AQAL theory.  To introduce the concept, I asked the class to sit on the carpet in a circle with the floor space divided into four quadrants.  Then I read a script I had written to introduce the concept in relatively simple terms to the class:

“In the 1980’s American philosopher Ken Wilber took maps of spiritual growth from many different religious traditions and put them on the floor of his home to try to make sense of them all.  What he noticed was that all of these maps, and therefore all of our life experiences, can be represented by four different quadrants.

His philosophy uses very basic ideas.  The top half of his map describes the self and the bottom half represents groups of people.  The left hand side explains the interior world of the self and groups, and the right hand side describes the exterior world of self and groups.  With these basic parameters in mind, we can detail each of the 4 quadrants.

Quadrant 1 is your true self or your essential self.  It is your intuitions, your belief system, your worldview.  It is who you are when no one is watching.  It may be called your inner life or your soul.  Quadrant one states, “To thine own self be true.”

Quadrant 2 is your behavior and actions.  It involves how you look, what you wear, your body language, and how you speak with others.  It’s also includes all the multitude of activities here at school.  Not just homework and tests, but choir rehearsal, rugby practice, MUN conferences, etc.  Quadrant 2 reminds you, “Your actions matter.”

Quadrant 3 may be the hardest to understand.  It is about culture and community.  It is your group identity with family and friends.  It may involve values and beliefs from Chinese, American or Korean culture, or it may be that you are a Third Culture Kid.  Quadrant 3 asks, “What does my community value?”

Quadrant 4 is like the movie, “The Matrix:” all the invisible systems that govern our lives, such school rules, government laws or corporate trade practices that affect us.   Oftentimes this is the sociopolitical world outside of our school bubble.  Quadrant 4 asks, “How can we create justice for everyone?”

If you want to lead a fulfilling life, Ken Wilbur suggests that you need to be active in all four quadrants.  Each of us has areas of strengths and weaknesses, but if we want to be psychologically whole people, all four quadrants need to be in sync.   The name he’s given to this system is  “AQAL” – “all quadrants, all levels.”  Today we are going to practice using AQAL in search of a life of wholeness.” (Blue indicates the subjective aspect of self and group identity, while red represents the objective dimension of reality.)

Q1 = Who am I?Why am I here?Personal reflection, self- expression, worldview. Q2 = School activities(music, clubs, sports, drama), academic skills, service as a charity activity.
Q3 = Conversations with family, friends; class spirit, cultural identity and values (being Chinese, being American). Q4 = The environment, social systems, political issues, corporations, service as justice, effecting change in structure.

Student Responses to AQAL

Following this short introduction, I asked a series of questions to the students and asked them to move to the quadrant that represents their answer.  The list of questions included the following:

  1. Which quadrant do you think is your parents’ strongest area?
  2. Which quadrant do your parents emphasize most with you?
  3. Which quadrant do you feel you have improved in most during your high school career?
  4. Which quadrant do you feel is your most confused or conflicted area?
  5. Which quadrant do you hope to grow in most during your college experience?

After each question, we paused to first view the general pattern of responses, and then discussed responses by various students.  The discussion proved to be engaging, so I asked the students to individually prepare an AQAL “story” for the next period. I suggested that each student choose something they personally believed to be true in quadrant 1 and comment on the development of this theme in each quadrant.

During the next class period students individually walked through a simple AQAL grid on the classroom carpet, and shared their stories. One Caucasian boy commented:

Q1: I believe that the earth is not invincible to our destruction and that if humans keep living the way they do with a constant consumption of natural resources that the planet will cease to exist.

Q2: I must live this philosophy by practicing environmentally friendly behaviors and living a life that is healthy for me and the earth upon which I live. This includes supporting organic farming, using public or eco-friendly transportation, investing in alternative energy sources and eventually working for a company that upholds these same values.

Q3: I have to impose my views on my friends and family and help them to understand the urgency of this crisis. It is my responsibility to enact changes in the community and they way people view our Earth.

Q4: It is my duty as an informed citizen to press my beliefs and those of many others upon lawmakers so that change can be enabled. I must fight for what I know is right. I will participate in the growing movement to change the existing “social systems” that result in this environmental disaster.

A Chinese girl, who attended local schools until grade nine, described her desire to bring change to the Hong Kong educational system:

Q1: I believe students should learn and care about the world. The world is a lot bigger than just our lives, our grades, or our circle of friends and families.

Q2: I reach out, read the newspaper, and go to various places to do service.  I try to care and do more than just focusing on my grades of my school life – to keep my fire burning.

Q3: Often times, local school students do service for “hours”, and they don’t see the purpose in doing service. I try to tell my local school friends about my international school education. I tell them what I learn, the service I do and why I’m doing it. I also try to bring out different issues to discuss.

Q4: To be honest, right now, I don’t know what I should do to help education reform in Hong Kong. However, I would try to spread the message and talk to everyone about it. Perhaps in the future, when there’s a chance for me to voice my opinions through government surveys or others, I would do so.

A Chinese boy born and raised in Hong Kong wrote about his desire to give back to community:

So far, my collective High School experience has opened my eyes tovarious worlds. My answers to these questions a few years ago would definitely have been completely different.

Q1: I have discovered that I, compared to many other people in the world, am extremely fortunate. I live in a comfortable, functional apartment with two very loving parents and have all the resources that I will ever need. I attend an amazing school and am receiving the best education possible. In a sense, my life is perfect, and I need to further acknowledge and appreciate that fact.

Q2: Because I understand that my life situation, in comparison to many others, is basically perfect, I need to take action and try to better the lives of others by doing service. I have done this by trying to be as involved as I can – participating in service clubs within school, going to different countries such as South Africa to teach students, and reaching out to the local Hong Kong community by providing “new learning” education to students in underprivileged neighborhoods. I need to continue exhibiting this type of behavior and try to make a positive impact on the world.

Q3: I must tell my friends that we are extremely lucky students and should be appreciative of what we have, instead of always striving for new things in superficial forms. I have to impose the notion on my friends and family that “the grass is NOT greener on the other side”, and we must actually try to make the other side “greener” by participating in activities such as service. Specifically, I have brought in friends to teach with me to Tin Shui Wai [a poor area in Hong Kong] and am planning on expanding the program to expose more students.

Q4: As I mentioned above, my work in the area of Tin Shui Wai is of great importance to me. I (through my parents) have so many connections to all sorts of people – people in the government, finance, medicine, law etc.- and I could potentially call upon these resources and spread the message about the conditions of the people living the area of Tin Shui Wai. I have written an article on microfinance in the newspaper, and I could potentially write about the people of Tin Shui Wai in another one. As for my future, I dream of being an entrepreneur who invests in ventures targeted at improving the conditions of other people. There is so much that I can do to make an impact on thegreater community – the possibilities are endless.

I feel that these four quadrants are, in a sense, linked. If I can start by altering the first quadrant – the “intentional” quadrant – I believe that I will be able to achieve all the goals and realize all of the aspirations that I have set for myself.

One Chinese girl who has had a long-term interest in medicine prefaced her story by commenting on a recent trip that she took to Vietnam to observe the work of ORBIS in rural areas:

Going on a trip to Vietnam with ORBIS made me realize:

Q1: How strongly I feel about universal health care – it is a human right. I hate seeing how diseases that could have been easily prevented or easily treated are not done so because of the social system’s lack of resources.

Q2: I read a lot of newspapers to update myself. I also like looking up thenew cost-effective cures or preventive treatment that are being discovered.  Many of these cures, if properly implemented and integrated within a country, could make a huge impact even at a low cost.

Q3: Although this is not an issue in Hong Kong (Hong Kong has a beautifully working health care system), I like to discuss what I’ve read or what I think about certain issues with family and friends, so people are more aware of the problems in other countries.

Q4: In the future, I would like to work with something that is related tohealth care and services. I’ve become increasingly unsure of how I cando that, but I realize there are so many options. Becoming a doctor to work with “Doctors Without Borders” is just one of many options. But if the door closes on that, I’m sure there are other things I can pursue.

A final example illustrates how a mixed Chinese-Western girl who has been meditating regularly in the preceding several months integrates this spiritual practice into her AQAL story:

Q1: All people, especially children, deserve unconditional love.

Q2: I need to become more compassionate, tolerant, and patient with others.  I won’t criticize or judge or get involved with an individual’s personal life, including their decisions, their behavior, and their beliefs. Instead, I will embrace people and let them be who they are by giving unconditional love and care. I will practice centering prayer to open another part of my brain and broaden my awareness to see others’ lives rather than just my own.

Q3: For now, I will help those around me that need someone to talk to and understand dissatisfaction with their lives and social relationships.

Q4: In the future, I could perhaps host parent/teenager workshops/group discussions which incorporate meditation to help mend and/or strengthen the relationship between parent(s) and the child.

I was very encouraged by the quality of responses, especially since I had spent only about ten minutes explaining Wilber’s AQAL theory before moving to the questions.  They seemed to easily apprehend this philosophical model. In terms of the course objectives, I was pleased that the activity enabled students to bring some coherence to the broad range of topics, guest speakers, and activities that we had considered in the first half of the course.


What makes holistic courses like “Service, Society, and the Sacred” work is this full-spectrum approach that links the subjective to the objective, the personal to the social, the physical to the spiritual. It’s the sense of wholeness and oneness, as explicated in Wilber’s AQAQ theory, that students hunger to explore in classes and in their lives.  For this reason, Wilber’s framework is a useful tool for teachers of social conscience.

SSS in circle[Author’s Note: This entry served as the basis for an article published in the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice (Volume 7, Issue 1, March, 2012).]

Full article citation:

Schmidt, M. E. (2012). Educating the essential self: The AQAL model in socially conscious curriculum. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 7, 1.]


About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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2 Responses to Use of Wilber’s AQAL in “Service, Society, and the Sacred”

  1. Pingback: Seeking Wisdom Through Service-Learning: A Week at Yaowawit School | Social Conscience Education

  2. Pingback: “I Feel Myself Radiating with Life:” One Student’s Journey of Awakening through Holistic Education Courses | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

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