What is “Integral Life”?

Since I shared this blog with the world, a number of people have asked me what exactly “Integral Life” is, and why I chose it as part of this blog’s name. This goes back a bit to college, where my first deep engagement with the contemporary academic fields began.

I attended NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, in which all of the students had the opportunity (or yoke) of designing their own major. Students were able to form their concentrations through study across all of NYU’s schools and departments, and while some came to the program because they had an esoteric interest but clear direction, others in the program simply had no idea what they wanted to study discipline wise, but wanted the freedom to explore.

I fell into both categories. My fundamental interest in school was this idea I had in my head that there was a certain way that people operated in the world, some principle that governed human behavior that was discoverable if I just delved deep into the question. I jokingly called my major “How People Tick” when describing it to others, though this was always a tongue in cheek way of pointing to what I felt was a much deeper concept.

In pursuing my study of how people ticked, I didn’t really have a good sense of where to begin, so started in the most obvious of places: Psychology. And then I moved onto Sociology. And then to social work. Then Politics. Theology. Mysticism. Quantum Philosophy. Photography. Culinary Arts. International Development. Pretty soon I found myself out of credits and sitting in a Buddhist monastery in India writing my senior paper, though thankfully by that time I’d come to a pretty good sense of what I was looking for.

What had happened when I engaged with each of these disciplines was this experience of touching partial truths. Psychology dealt beautifully with the inner life of the mind, but often in explaining behavior failed to take into account the ways that systems impacted choices, something that politics excelled in. Politics, though, failed to touch on the richness of cultural expression, and so I turned towards the arts. And so on. In each discipline I found a piece of my puzzle, though none contained the whole picture.

And that brought me back to my dark and candlelit monastery room in India, writing out my ideas about how in looking for a comprehensive view of how people tick, the only way to effectively deal with the question was to take a interdependently minded holistic approach, one that integrated the core insights of the academic disciplines. I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing, I had some fancy Buddhist logic to back up my ideas, and out of my hodgepodge of seemingly random coursework I’d whipped together an at least semi-coherent theory for understanding human behavior.

And then, one night as I was discussing some of these ideas, my friend Kevin turns to me and says, “Oh yeah, that’s totally like Ken Wilber.” Who? “Ken Wilber. He came up with this thing called Integral Theory.” Apparently, unbeknownst to me, there was a whole burgeoning academic practice out there that lined up perfectly with so many of the ideas that I’d been formulating on my own. (It even had an institute to go along with it!). And while this was somewhat frustrating on one level (I wish I had about it before I got to my senior year) it was also incredibly validating. I finally had someone else’s work to draw on, particularly someone smarter than me.

integral-quadrents1Wilbur provided a disciplined lens for my basic idea of holistic perspectives. He put forth the idea that there are four perspectives through which the world can be viewed; subjective, intersubjective, objective, and interobjective. He broke up these perspectives into four quadrants which exist on spectra, with one axis running from the interior to the exterior and another from the individual to the collective. The subjective quadrant dealt with things like thoughts, emotions and intentions, the objective world things like atoms and anything scientifically observable, the intersubjective with things like culture, language, shared values, and the interobjective with the level of networks, systems and institutions.

In the end, I titled my major and final paper How People Tick: Integral Approaches to Understanding the Mind, and since then have been working towards living what I call an integral life; one that takes into account all the ways that the world can be looked at and perceived. Integral living for me is an ever shifting goal, one that changes with my continued learning about the world and myself, and with the eternal returning to the awareness of whatever is happening to me and the world in the present moment.

Graphic from the Integral Institute.
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3 Responses to “What is “Integral Life”?”


  1. 1 Jake Palmer July 12, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    Hey Rafi – very interesting to read about how you came to assemble your concept of an integrated study, and to understand the concept of Integral Theory. I think the quadrants of the Integral Theory offer a great logical breakdown of ideas and institutions – but do you believe they integrate rather than separate these into categories to be looked into independently? Is an integral life one that brings all of these together, or one that analyzes each individually?

    • 2 Rafi Santo August 9, 2010 at 3:14 pm

      My sense is that the four quadrants are a way of classifying the many and various fields of study, so that once ideas are tagged in this way, it might be easier to figure out how a synthesis would look. For me, integral study has always been about this synthesis – larger truths to be gleaned through combining or using the strengths of smaller ones.


  1. 1 Delfest, Participatory Culture, and Life as Data « Empathetics: Integral Life Trackback on June 1, 2010 at 1:00 pm
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Rafi in thailand, smiling

If you're reading this, then you've reached the web log of Rafi Santo. This is my little slice of the internet where I can share my passion (or whatever) with the world.

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