Navigating the Meaning Crisis


John Vervaeke, PhD is an award-winning lecturer at the University of Toronto in the departments of psychology, cognitive science and Buddhist psychology. His work involves constructing a bridge between science and spirituality in order to understand the experience of meaningfulness and the cultivation of wisdom so as to afford awakening from what is often experienced by members of society as “the meaning crisis.”

In 2022, Nomali Perera facilitated a study group at Integral Life using the teachings of John Vervaeke from his Awakening from the Meaning Crisis YouTube video series. This video is from Mr. Vervaeke’s visit with study group participants for a lively Q&A.

In the first half of this very rich discussion, John talks with Nomali, Jeff, and the rest of the group about his three major concerns about stage models, and why he doesn’t emphasize them in his own work:

  1. Psychometric skepticism – uncertainty around how we are measuring and validating these measurements ,
  2. The problem of the “monolithic mind” — the idea that the mind is a “whole”, which wholly moves from one stage to the next,
  3. Underlying founders’ bias — stage models often bias the model-maker, who tend to represent themselves as the highest stage(s) in the model.
Whether we agree with John’s criticisms of stage models, or we see these criticisms already being addressed by other elements of Integral metatheory, these nonetheless offer some exceptionally important guardrails around how we wield and communicate these ideas. Integral theory in many ways represents a “simplicity on the other side of complexity” — but if we are being overly simplistic with these ideas, then we begin to lose some much-needed resolution, and are left only with a blurry map that can be misread and misapplied in all sorts of ineffective or even abusive ways.


3:58 - The issue developmental stages which is a popular meaning-making lens in the Integral world, but not so much in Vervaeke’s material.

18:09 - Jeff Salzman’s thoughts on the use of Stages in Integral

29:56 - Question about martial arts as a spiritual practice

39:00 - Navigating the meaning crisis in the era of a highly complex digital environment

45:08 - What would you do differently if you were create the Awakening from the Meaning Crisis course in 2022?

51:01 - A comment on Agape

54:04 - How can we exapt A.I to be a relevance engine in these times of information overload?

1:00:01 - Wellbeing, positive processing and moral injury


To stage or not to stage? That question was treated in this talk with John Vervaeke. It also came up in a live event earlier today with Daniel Görtz. Görtz was responding to some fairly blunt criticisms of stage theory from Nora Bateson. (Jeff Salzman shared his earlier podcast on that exchange. See that one here:

Görtz today shared a stage theory about the making of stage theories. That scale ran from fairly crude acceptance or rejection of the idea of stages to sophisticated metamodern ironic belief in stages. (Stages are somehow true and false at the same time). Vervaeke’s critique of stages appears to land fairly high on the Görtz scale. I did not come away with the impression that Vervaeke hates the idea of stages as such, just that he sees many empirical problems with how stage theories have been expounded. Also, that his personal research interests lie more in other directions.

Given that crisis of meaning is one of Vervaeke’s core themes, it’s hard to imagine that a complete absence of evolutionary trajectory would do much to add meaning to our lives or that a denial of evolutionary frameworks would be really consistent with his general views about how we came to see the world the way we do. Various stage theories may be rigid, misapplied, empirically refutable, etc., but the general sense of humanity having evolved culturally over the past thousands of years is hard to escape. As far as being intellectually modest about what may come next - on that point the stage theory critics are certainly worthy of attention.


I agree. Developmental understanding and frameworks would be crucial for solving the current meaning crisis, given that we are trying to move past the stage of pluralistic relativism and our next stage is where different perspectives are integrated and psychological development is understood for the first time. Without developmental stage frameworks, it seems impossible for people to fully make sense of the multitude of perspectives currently at war and realize the possibility of a united direction.

But I can also understand Vervaeke’s skepticism about stage models due to conceptual and methodological issues. Especially the lack of clarity about what each developmental line represents and how developmental lines relate to each other has led many people to confuse different kinds of development and create false instances of regression that seem to invalidate an invariant sequence of stages.

As for his criticism that stage models lack punctuated equilibrium, this seems to come from his limited familiarity with stage models. For example, Loevinger’s model has intervening stages that are characterized by the weakening of the previous structure and an emerging new structure, which she used to describe as transitional levels rather than stages. Also, there have been efforts to integrate stage models with a dynamic systems framework (e.g., Kunnen & Bosma, 2000), though the efforts were short-lived. Several years ago I asked Kunnen and her colleague why they did not follow through this line of work, and they told me it was mainly due to difficulty with getting research funding. It usually takes years for people to develop from one stage to the next, and in academia where fast and constant research output is demanded, it is difficult to get funding for such long-term research. So the reason stage models are not particularly popular among academics may be because of the limitations of the models but also because the current academic environment hinders long-term developmental research.


I have to add here that allowing his criticisms to prevent his using stage theory seems a little precipitous. All models have their limitations, but we use them, anyway. As for the criticisms, I believe not only does integral theory deal with these in other ways, but the model makers and users also do so. I haven’t listened to the talk yet, but here are some comments about them:

  1. Psychometric skepticism – uncertainty around how we are measuring and validating these measurements , The model I know best is Terri O’Fallon’s and there a great deal of attention is paid to how to measure and validate the measurements. I think we would need more specific criticisms.
  2. The problem of the “monolithic mind” — the idea that the mind is a “whole”, which wholly moves from one stage to the next, Again, no one says that the whole mind moves from one stage to the next. In fact, test takers will find that their responses cover multiple stages.
  3. Underlying founders’ bias — stage models often bias the model-maker, who tend to represent themselves as the highest stage(s) in the model. It is likely that the model makers will be at or near the highest stages simply because they will understand them. Most, however, posit higher stages than those outlined.

I have to admit I feel a little annoyed by blanket criticisms like this.


Hey @Lynn_Royster!

I agree that all of these criticisms are, essentially, already covered elsewhere in the theory (as Jeff Salzman points out in the video). And Vervaeke plainly admits that he does not yet have enough familiarity with the nuances of Integral theory, and that some of these criticisms may be coming from some degree of ignorance. And yet, I thought it was still important to publish Vervaeke’s criticisms here, because even if these points are already addressed by integral metatheory, I think we still see some fairly common “sub-integral” or “incomplete” enactments of stage theory that can often fall into one of these fallacies. So it’s sort of an opportunity to do some myth-busting around these stages, and I think criticisms like these can be held as a set of “guardrails” to help make sure we are thinking more deeply about our own enactment of the theory.

Of all his criticisms, I think the first is probably the most important to consider, at least for the map-makers in the community. Methodology is everything, and when it comes to this particular terrain, these methodologies will constantly be tested and further refined as we go. In fact, I think it is this attending to methodology that makes these ideas so valuable in the first place — these aren’t imaginary lines in the sand that we are drawing, but actual data that is being uncovered by these increasingly-sophisticated methodologies. And the more sophisticated the methodology, the more useful the data!

The second is a common misunderstanding that I continue to see circulating in integral circles — basically an oversimplification of the material, which can result in applications that can look and/or feel somewhat colonialist. So it’s nice to have an opportunity to confront that one head on.

The third is also something that we want to consider, because obviously a map-maker is only going to be able to map the territory that they are capable of seeing, which can result in artifacts that, to the uninitiated, can look something like “all roads lead to me”. Which, of course, is another 18th-19th-century colonialist remnant that we want to keep an eye out for (“Whig history”, for example, which had its own versions of “stage theories of increasing complexity”, which inevitably led to the singular example of the British Empire as the evolutionary pinnacle of all these stages.)

I’ll be curious what Vervaeke thinks of all this after he gets a chance to read Religion of Tomorrow!

And I am curious what you think of my comments above :slight_smile: Big Love!


Vervaeke certainly has a lot to say, and over the course of what will likely be quite a long bit of time, I hope to explore more of it. But in the interests of this discussion, a few shortcuts are offered, simply so we can engage Vervaeke’s thought on the themes of history, stages, and periodization.

First - Veraeke on the Meaning Crisis:

I’m OK with the general sense we are “drowning in BS” and that a deeper historical, cultural, and cognitive diagnosis is warranted. Problems with that?

Second, here is a “Cliff Notes” style summary to Vervaeke’s 50 hour podcast on historical, cultural, and cognitive topics.

My observation: I find Vervaeke’s periodization idiosyncratic and not readily comprehensible. Vervaeke is a complex thinker with many compelling insights. But it’s unclear to me how his 50-lesson sequence rescues us from the “drowning in BS” situation. It’s more like throwing massive boulders at the drowning - most likely to drag them under even further.

When it comes to meaning making, there is a lot to be said for the idea of “simple enough to understand”. Granted, reality is going to turn out more complicated than our simplifying models make it out to be. So don’t take your models too seriously! Nevertheless, for educational purposes at least something like the 5 stage Gebser model or the 6 stage Hanzi Freinacht model work well from my POV. Why not Spiral Dynamics (classic or Integral)? Because the transition from historical (through Green roughly) to future-oriented (Teal and beyond) conflates two different themes. So if I were teaching a class in how to not drown in BS, I’d want to start with something that motivates the needed transition to whatever the next level is, but avoid too much speculation about whatever levels may be beyond the next level. I guest this may be the beginnings of a stage theory about how to teach stage theories …