Cultivating the Theory of the Tree in the Knower

Gregg Henriques
Unified Theory of Knowledge
14 min readMar 4, 2024


This is Part III in a four-part blog series by Dr. Baron Short, exploring how to bridge one’s experience of being in the world to UTOK, the Unified Theory of Knowledge. The first two blogs elaborated how folks can reflect on their philosophical worldview (Part I) and get practice framing their conscious experiences of being (Part II) to develop a clearer sense of their personal theory of knowledge (PTOK).

In this blog, we extend PTOK into UTIK. To accomplish this, Dr. Short uses the metaphor of a tree to frame the ontology of the self. Of course, with its Tree of Knowledge System and the Tree of Life that sits in the center of the Garden, the tree archetype is prominent in UTOK. The bridge that Dr. Short is building, then, is between the self and the UTOK trees, with the result being a ‘unified theory of the tree in the knower’ (UTIK) that can be thought of as a mirror to the unified theory of knowledge, only anchored from the vantage point of the subject. Thus, what is emerging in the blog series is the UTIK pathway into UTOK.

Moving From PTOK to the UTIK Path

This blog builds on the previous two (see here and here), with the goal of bridging the reflections and practices more directly into UTOK via the binding, flowering metaphor of the tree. As those who are familiar with UTOK know, trees figure prominently in the system. According to Gregg, UTOK can be legitimately considered to have its “birthday” back in August of 1997, when he first drew out the Tree of Knowledge System.

Although some did not like the name, Gregg chose it deliberately for several reasons. First, as the Christmas Tree of Knowledge makes clear, it does look a lot like a tree, especially if you flip it upside down.

The Christmas Tree of Knowledge

Second, many prominent scholars, from the Greek scholar Porphyry to the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, have represented our knowledge of the world in the form of trees. Third, even though it would be a long time until the Tree would flower in to the full Garden, Gregg knew it was a conception that bridged science with the collective wisdom traditions.

Gregg developed the Garden conception in 2016. As this blog on the UTOK Tree of Life makes clear, it was not until several years after he constructed the depiction that the central tree warranted being named the UTOK Tree of Life. However, once that “clicked” for him, he realized that structure of the two trees represented an old, archetypal relation between a “horizontal tree” that represented knowledge about the natural world and a “vertical tree” that nourished life and oriented one toward the transcendent.

When you learn the “insider language” of UTOK, you realize all of this is embedded in its architecture. Consider the mantra in UTOK: “Rotate and flip the Coin!” This means that you rotate your perspective to align what is subjectively the case (framed by the iQuad Symbol) with what is objectively the case (which is framed by the ToK System), and then you flip the coin to see the Tree Life and thus be oriented toward wisdom.

UTIK, the Unified Theory of the Tree in the Knower, is my attempt to deepen this rotating and flipping by developing a more detailed path that connects the person to the UTOK frame. Specifically, we can think of the first two blogs as representing the process by which you can start to “rotate” your coin (i.e., your sense of self and being in the world) to get a clearer frame on both your PTOK worldview (Part I) and your felt experiences via multimodal mindfulness pathways (Part II). In this blog, I want to shape and enrich that ontology using the metaphor of the tree, so that when we flip the Coin, we will be in direct proximity of the wisdom of the Tree of Life.

Mapping the Tree in the Knower

Bridging from the map I laid out in Parts I and II, here I transform the key elements into parts of a tree. Specifically, I will frame the ontology of the self in terms of the ground, the roots of the tree, the tree trunk and its rings, its branches, and it leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds, along with its connection to other trees and its location in a forest.

The UTIK Map of the Tree in the Knower

The Embodied Ground of Being (Pure Awareness-Aliveness)

To begin, let’s consider the ground from which the tree of your self emerges. The ground homes the tree and provides the foundation from which the tree grows in complexity. The ground, here, is akin to the base of your embodied aliveness in the world. It is the source and context for us as minded beings. And it is the ground from which the tree of self is rooted in. Through awareness mindfulness practices that originate in world religions, we can contact “awareness itself” and come to know who we are experientially at the ground that is this “pure” awareness. For many people, understanding the ground of being in this way results in a subsequent experience of a deep sense of freedom, peace, and love. This is because when we deconstruct all that we think we are and come to rest in a sense of being, we find a “deep centerless center” from which to subsequently reconstruct who we are.

The Roots (Attention to the Inner and Outer Worlds)

The roots connect the tree to the ground. And so here we extend that metaphor to our sensory experiences. If we attend to Gregg’s four doors of perception, the roots are both sensory awareness and inner feelings. Our interoception and proprioception are ways of feeling our roots, and sensory awareness refers to how we see and hear and taste and smell the world around us (i.e., the ground of being).

Shifting back to part II of this blog series, these roots are examined in detail as part of attentional mindfulness practices. In brief, at our roots, we can observe the ongoing flow of the five senses as we “see-hear-feel” out and “see-hear-feel” in. This gets extended as our emotions, mental imagery, and inner speech grip these experiences with thought, narration, and judgment. Our roots experientially grow from the ground of awareness and these roots coalesce into the trunk, which metaphorically serves as the constructive layers of the self. Importantly, the way we attend to the roots will activate and ultimately generate different layers of the self. Perhaps most importantly, we can participate in the deconstruction of the self, back to the roots and the ground and subsequently reconstruct our self-sense. This means, crucially, we play an active role in who we experience ourselves to be.

The Trunk of the Tree (The Layers of the Self)

The trunk of the tree is a layered structure that forms the core of the tree. In our unified theory of the tree in the knower (UTIK), the trunk corresponds to the self, and the rings around it correspond to the layers of the self.

At the heart of the tree is what UTOK calls the experiential self. As Gregg details with John Vervaeke and Christopher Maistropetro in their series on “The Elusive ‘I’”, this self emerges when animals have the capacity to extend their thoughts over time and project themselves into different kinds of environments. When they can do that, they need a representation of the self that is fairly constant and referenced against different backgrounds.

For social primates, like humans, this self is very much a relational entity. UTOK’s Influence Matrix blends attachment theory and the Interpersonal Circumplex, along with much research in social psychology, to frame the “primate heart”. This represents the core, nonverbal felt sense of the self in the world. It grips incoming perceptual information based on motives and emotions.

In addition to theoretical, third person features of the experiential self, it’s important to make first person, direct contact with the experiential self. The roots connect to the domains of the self via pure awareness, which refers to the perceptual awareness in moment-to-moment experience of dynamic self in a world.

Empirically, we are connecting with the experiential self when we step out of incessant thinking, and attend to our moment-to-moment experience at rest or during activity. Rather than being lost in thought about the past or future, we shift into present moment experience. Some of us seek this in physical exercise, being in nature, or mindfulness practices. However we get here, this is an important capacity to contact the experiential self as a place of embodied-relational aliveness that serves as an experiential course correction to overthinking.

The experiential self is an important core layer to the trunk and acknowledging and accessing it daily brings experiential value. We are not encumbered with the psychological narrative of a self when in this mode of embodied awareness. People may find themselves inadvertently doing activities to shift into a flow state of the experiential self. We can call consciously shift into this self-understanding by engaging in attentional mindfulness practices. A side effect of regular contact with the experiential self is a sense of embodied and relational aliveness felt within yourself and between others. What a great gift to yourself and others to cultivate!

The layer around the core experiential primate self is the egoic, narrating self. This is the portion of human self-consciousness that comes online as we learn language and learn to talk to ourselves via inner speech. This is what most of us believe we are when we think or are asked about who we are. We start to relay a story about ourselves and various features of prior experience and imaginal aims we have for our personal future. UTIK does not deny the ego, rather it aims to bring the ego in right relationship to the rest of the tree in the knower.

The outer layer of the self is the persona. This blends into the bark of the tree and represents the public facing portion of the person’s identity; specifically, it is what they plan to share with others and how they attempt to manage their reputations and the impressions and reactions of others.

The Trunk Represents the Major Layers of the Self

The self “technologies” of ego and persona have extended what is possible for us living as social animals. We can simulate into the future and adjust our activities today in order to more likely reach our goals. With any new capacity, there are downsides and in a sense we, as the total tree, can become hijacked by an ego and persona programs that in extremes can lead to maladaptive behaviors and substantial suffering for our self and others.

Applying a psychological mindfulness found in the unified approach to psychotherapy employs the CALM-MO method, to more accurately and compassionately explore this dimension of ourselves. Our goal is to integrate parts and heal the ego while generating a persona that aligns with an authentic ego while providing social adaptation. We know we’ve contacted an authentic ego when we find adaptive self-compassion and love, while making sense of past and constructing a personal, imaginal future worth working towards today.

UTIK is about learning to see oneself in a healthy rich way in relationship to UTOK

The Branches of the Tree (The Extended Domains of the Self)

What constitutes the self? What are the portions of the self that are extending outward into the world across development? These are the branches of the self. One helpful way to frame the branches is to use UTOK’s Wheel of Development. It maps the key domains of individual difference, starting with your personality traits, and then moving into your identity development, values and virtues, abilities and talents and finally, challenges and/or pathologies.

The Wheel of Development Identifies Key Domains of Individual Difference

The branches can also symbolically represent your extension in three broad domains, that of your (intra)personal, interpersonal, and extrapersonal. In broad terms, the personal could include your private or individual needs or expressions. The interpersonal involves your friends, family, professional, and civil relationships. The extrapersonal includes our relationship to work, being a local to global citizen, technology, life, and the Earth. So, in the exploration of your branches, you can look at your unique features, through the wheel of development, and how they play out in personal, interpersonal, and extrapersonal expressions.

The Leaves of the Tree: Symbolizing the Nourishment You Need

Take a minute and think about what you need to live. You need air, water, and food and protection from the elements. Now consider what you need as a minded primate. You need exercise, good sleep, love and care. Finally, consider what you need as a person, which includes a sense of purpose and meaning, and how you matter to the world. Leaves on the tree bring in nourishment in the form of sunlight. Thus, in our unified theory of the tree in the knower, they serve as the symbol for what you need to thrive as a living organism, a minded primate, and a cultured person.

The Fruits, Flowers, and Seeds: Symbols for Doing, Being, and Becoming

In this excellent video exploring the concept of Dharma, Daniel Schmachtenberger frames what he calls the minimum viable conception of Dharma as consisting of doing, being, and becoming. That is, to engage in the world in right relation, one must engaged in aspects of doing, being, and becoming. We align these concepts with the fruits, flowers, and seeds of the tree. Specifically, the fruits refer to the products and changes that emerge from your doing. The fruits are what you produce when you clean the house or successfully complete a job and get paid for it. The flowers of the tree are often the most beautiful aspect of the tree. At its finest, being in the world is about appreciating the miracle and beauty of existence, with a sense of wonder and awe. Finally, there is the future and our potential to impact others going forward. This frames the question of what are we becoming and what are we helping bring forth. This orientation is, of course, symbolized by the seeds of the Tree. UTOK has a core value that states, “I shall seek a path to Dharma in my doing, being, and becoming.” Placed in the context of UTIK, this is about putting our fruits, flowers, and seeds in right relation.

The Place of the Tree in the Forest

To exist, trees require parents and live in an ecosystem. We also require parents and live in a social system. Here we put the tree in context to help see ourselves in context. We can zoom out and see the forest where the tree is located in and align that with the large-scale cultural context in which we live. We can also place it in an ecology and frame the general material environment it resides in terms of richness, diversity, and vitality (or the reverse). We can then zoom in on where the tree is located and see what other trees it is connected to, including what trees its canopy touches or how its roots communicate with other trees. This refers to the relational network of the tree, and thus corresponds to your relational network, including your family, friends, romantic partner(s), and the groups to which you belong.

The Tree from Above becomes another Tree Ring (Building a transjective self layer)

Finally, there is a fully zoomed out view of the Tree from above. This is seeing not just the forest, but the forest in the context of the world across time and into the possible future. Initial exploration of deep time, space, and complexity can start as something outside of us and metaphorically above the tree of self, but with deep contemplation, insights become incorporated into our self, metaphorically as another layer of the tree trunk.

This transition of the world outside us is also within us aligns with the metacontextual-recursive-transjective mindfulness discussed in Part 2 of this blog series. From a metacontextual frame of time, we can know ourselves in 3 big epochs: deep time, humanities time, and our lifetime as an expression of the frothy edge of a cosmic journey. From a metacontextual frame of space, we recognize our material human form is midway/mid-sized on the spectrum of the tiniest of Planck space to largest of the observable universe. From the metacontextual frame of complexity, drawing on UTOK’s Tree of Knowledge, we are an energy-information wave of behavioral complexity emerging through matter, life, mind, and culture. From a recursive frame, we are awareness recursively generating a wave of experiential self complexity that grows as an experiential self, an ego/persona, and metacontextual-recursive-transjective self. Awareness can recursive upon itself and the self structures that arise as experiences within awareness. From a transjective frame, we weave 1st person recursive awareness with 3rd person metacontexual framing to know ourselves more completely. We come to know we are a person in a world, that as a matter of experience, is arising within a mind that is emerging from a living organism composed of matter emerging from an energy-information field.

This transjective view of self dynamically includes highly examined first and third person elements. This can seem highly abstract. How would we know we have contacted this transjective self? In my current estimation, we would recognize we are a focal embodiment of the cosmos; we are enmattered, enlivened, enminded, and encultured. We feel compelled to align with the cosmic movement to exist, evolve, and transform that includes us but is beyond this lifetime as well. While this could seem beyond most humans, I believe this to be the beginnings of a healthy mutation within ourselves to adaptively include big picture scientific reflections and humanity’s wisdom to address the complexity we collectively face today. We probably need a self that connects to the cosmos, to life, to humanity for us to collectively align behaviors for sustainable existence. As this transjective self becomes another layer of our tree, it informs but doesn’t replace lower orders of self complexity: ego/persona, experiential self, and awareness. Rather we if have not continually worked on these other layers, then the transjective self can not emerge and would stay only as potential. Thus like a tree, we want all the parts functioning and integrating for the best life of the tree.


We have moved in this blog from the outline of PTOK into how we can frame the ontology of the self through the metaphor of a tree, making the move into UTIK.

Each element of the tree represents aspects of the self and their potential optimization. The ground represents awareness, which when contacted, brings deep freedom, peace, and love. The roots represent our perceptual streams that coalesce into the deepest layer of the tree trunk, the experiential self, which when freed feels like an embodied-relational aliveness. The ego/persona represents our outer layer of the tree trunk, and when psychologically integrated, feels a healthy sense of self-love with a self-story worth living for. The leaves, fruits, and seeds represent our doing, being, and becoming. The big picture of the cosmos and minded recursivity becomes incorporated as another layer of self, another layer to our metaphorical trunk, as an emerging adaptation to the complexity of our times. This UTIK self ontology can serve as a shorthand for tracking an enormous amount of complexity within us, where we are habitually conditioned in, and the opportunity to discover and integrate the range of what we are. That is, it gives us a new frame for our PTOK.

And UTIK tracks with UTOK. As we better understand our self-complexity, we may want to track the complexity of mindedness and the behavioral complexity in our world, which UTOK so beautifully and comprehensively addresses. So, rotate and flip your coin!

Part IV of this blog series will round out your metaphysical-empirical framework through discussion of axiology and eschatology. As you recognize you have a personal philosophy, epistemic ways of knowing who you are, and a rich self ontology, then how do you choose to live this life knowing that it doesn’t last forever?



Gregg Henriques
Unified Theory of Knowledge

Professor Henriques is a scholar, clinician and theorist at James Madison University.