Whenever life feels stuck, somehow not in flow, it can be helpful to understand the location and nature of the blockage before rushing to change random aspects or our life that may or may not be the cause for our unhappiness. Instead we can hit pause and inquire into where we experience the biggest gap between our current and our desired reality. If we were in possession of a map, we could even systematize our exploration and conduct a thorough diagnosis. Then, once we had identified where something appears to be stuck, we could proceed to investigate what seems to be stuck, and eventually create some ideas about how we might be able to fix it. With this deepened understanding of the situation, we could focus our efforts and energy in the right direction and identify the lever that would result in the biggest shift towards the desired direction. That all sounds wonderful.
Half of the time, we feel bad and either only have a vague idea about the origin of our unease, or we wrongly suspect the source in the wrong place. This is why buying a Ferrari and getting a 23-year-old girlfriend is a temporary fix at best for a midlife crisis. Now, I am not saying this couldn’t bring joy to your life on some levels, but it is unlikely to answer the questions that might be at the root of your unrest. The model I share with you in this chapter has proven to be a very useful map in understanding more about the territory I am interested in: the landscape of the human experience.
We human beings are social animals, each of us embedded in a number of different collectives or groups. A collective is hereby defined as any number of individuals who interact in order to form a whole and share an identity, whether temporarily or permanently. Some of the different collectives we belong to might include our relationship, our family, the team we work with, the team we do sports with, an interest group we attend, the organization we work for, the nation we were born into, and humanity at large.
The Dance between the Individual and The Collective
Human experience unfolds in the constant dance between the individual and the collective. As individuals, we are part of a nearly infinite number of more or less permanent collectives. For example; my family of origin, my religion, my nationality, the relationship I am in, my gender, whether I am a stamp collector, artist, or train conductor. In every moment, I am simultaneously separate (I am me, distinct from anyone else) and a part of different collectives/groups (me in interaction with one or more other individuals).
There are aspects about each perspective, the individual and the collective, which are observable, measurable, and/or quantifiable. Because we can observe them, let’s call them exterior. At the same time, the individual and collective perspective have aspects that are experiential (they are experienced internally) and mostly intangible. These aspects are much harder to observe, and we will call them interior. When we combine the individual/collective and exterior/interior perspective we get a Four-Quadrant Matrix (for those of you familiar with the integral-quadrant matrix, please read the footnote ).
The Four Quadrant Matrix
The top-left quadrant allows us to relate to what can be known of an individual through observation: their behaviour (what they do) and their physical body (their objective reality). The bottom-left quadrant encompasses what is mostly invisible to the outside observer, yet known to the individual: reality experienced and expressed through thoughts and feelings (their subjective reality).
The top-right quadrant relates to what can be seen or measured about a collective: its structure, systems, and processes (their social or interobjective reality). The bottom-right quadrant encompasses that which is experienced collectively: culturally shared values, norms, and ways of communicating (their intersubjective reality).
If you wanted to study me, Nadja, you could quantify and measure my body and physiology, track my behaviour and the results I produce, the skills I master and those I don’t. By doing so, you would create a report of my top-left quadrant (exterior-behavioural).
However, what happens inside of my consciousness, my feelings and thoughts (interior- intentional, bottom-left quadrant) is not directly accessible to you as an outside observer. What is going on in this quadrant determines how I experience others and myself. For me as an individual, the bottom-left quadrant is the centre of my subjective reality; what is created here is my concept of I, my thoughts and feelings — the way I experience the world.
If you now want to investigate any particular collective I am a part of, you could, for example, zoom in on a project team I work with. Through observation, you could quantify the top-right quadrant (exterior-social) of this project team: how are we structured, the systems and processes we use, and what the output of our combined actions appears to be.
To you as an observer, my team’s bottom-right quadrant (interior-cultural) is equally as elusive as my individual-interior quadrant. Within my team we experience a shared reality that is called culture. This culture is expressed through our shared norms and values and the way we communicate with each other.
If this explanation of the four quadrants felt a bit dry and theoretical, consider how each of the four perspectives allows you to explore another aspect of your own world. Every quadrant brings light to another fragment of your reality. The contents of each individual quadrant can also change depending on which of your different collectives you look at. For example, if you look at yourself in the context of your family you might see habitual ways of feeling, thinking, and behaving which are very different from those you experience when in the context of your organization.
Inquiring into the four quadrants within the specific context of one collective allows you to gain a different perspective on your life. You may feel stuck at work because you are lacking a skill that you need (upper-left, behavioural), or because you feel isolated in your team and at a loss how to create more meaningful connections with your co-workers (bottom-left, intentional). Or, possibly, you feel upset your team doesn’t have the right systems and processes in place to work effectively (upper-right, social) or because the culture of your team, the way you communicate, is lacking mutual appreciation and respect (bottom-right, cultural).
 The four quadrants depicted here are a simplified variation of the four quadrants developed by integral philosopher Ken Wilber (2001, 2007) Integral theory offers other highly valuable models that go beyond the scope of this book. To download a short introduction into integral theory, click here. A more extensive summary of integral theory by Ken Wilber himself can be found here.
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