An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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Andy SmithAndrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).


The Stage-Skipping Problem

How Did Our Ancestors Realize Higher Consciousness?

By Andrew P. Smith

Suppose you knew you were going to be reborn after you died, and you could choose the time and place of your next birth—any time in human history up to the present day. Would you like to be born in the 21st century, or during some earlier period? Current societies are more complex and technologically advanced than previous ones, of course, but if you are reading this article, chances are you interested in growing spiritually, rather than (or at least in addition to) materially. Given that purpose, when would you want to be born? If you accept Ken Wilber's four-quadrant model, you should unhesitatingly choose to be born now. For according to this model, modern societies, and their members, are at a higher level of not simply material existence, but also of consciousness. Building on the work of Jean Gebser and others, Wilber sees humanity as having evolved—and progressed—from earlier forms of consciousness such as the magic and mythic to an age of reason, and beyond that to vision logic and still higher states. A similar progression of consciousness has been postulated by Spiral Dynamics (Beck 2000), a theory of social change which has become increasingly more closely allied with Wilber's ideas in recent years.

This view of the evolution of consciousness has an apparent problem, however. According to Wilber, levels of the holarchy always emerge in the same order, in a developmental sequence. Thus all societies, and their individual members, must go through all the stages or levels, without skipping any of them. One can't go from the magic level, for example, directly to the modern rational level—let alone to vision-logic beyond that—without first passing through the intervening stage of mythic. If this is indeed so, how could such great sages and mystics of the past—Jesus, Buddha, and so many more—have realized these higher states? If they lived in an era that had not yet realized the modern, so-called rational level of consciousness, how could they experience a level beyond this?

Wilber has an answer to this problem, of course, but I don't think his answer works. Here I will present and criticize Wilber's attempt to evade the stage-skipping dilemma, then suggest a different way to look at the problem. I will argue that there are two kinds of hierarchical relationships, one of which characterizes the historical stages of human consciousness, while the other comes into play when we realize higher, spiritual states. I will further discuss just what sort of development of Homo sapiens is necessary to provide the potential for realization of a higher level of existence.

Structures and States

Wilber begins his reply to the stage-skipping criticism by drawing a distinction between structures of consciousness and states of consciousness. Structures of consciousness are more or less equated with holarchical levels in his model. For example, the preop, conop and formop stages of human development are all considered examples of structures of consciousness by Wilber. They appear in a certain order, and can't be skipped:

It appears that all structures of consciousness generally unfold in a developmental or stage-like sequence, and, as virtually all developmentalists agree, true stages cannot be skipped…A person at preoperational cannot have a peak experience of formal operational. A person at Kohlberg's moral-stage 1 cannot have a peak experience of moral-stage 5. A person at Graves's animistic stage cannot have a peak experience of the integrated stage, and so on.[1]

States of consciousness, on the other hand, according to Wilber, include waking, dreaming and deep sleep; certain drug-induced states; as well as the higher states accessible through spiritual practices. These do not necessarily appear in a stage- or level like sequence. Furthermore, any one state, he says, may be associated, at one time or another, with more than one kind of structure:

states of consciousness (with their correlative bodies or realms) contain various structures of consciousness. For example, the waking state can contain the preoperational structure, the concrete operational structure, the formal operational structure, and so on…States themselves rarely show development, and their occurrence is often random; yet they seem to be some of the most profound experiences human beings ever encounter. Clearly, those important aspects of spirituality that involve altered states do not follow any sort of linear, sequential, or stage-like unfolding.

Having made this distinction, Wilber then goes on to explain how it is that people at lower developmental levels can nevertheless experience higher states of consciousness:

Evidence strongly suggests that a person at virtually any stage or level of development can have an altered state or peak experience--including a spiritual experience…Thus, the idea that spiritual experiences are available only at the higher stages of development is incorrect…However, the ways in which individuals experience and interpret these higher states and realms will depend largely on the level (or structure) of their own development…individuals at, for example, the magic, mythic, and rational stages can all have a peak experience of a subtle realm, but how that subtle realm is experienced and interpreted depends in large measure on the structures of consciousness that are available to unpack the experience.

However, this view of structures and states has several problems, some of which I have discussed at length elsewhere (Smith 2000a). One problem is that the definition of states is so broad as to be in some cases virtually meaningless. Consider the waking state. According to Wilber, all human beings, whatever their structure of consciousness, access the waking state. But so do many animals. Certainly most of us accept that mammals and birds are awake. Some animal behaviorists would argue that lower organisms, including rather primitive invertebrates, are also in this sense awake (Griffin 2001). Perhaps even single cells like bacteria are awake. Wilber, who claims that all forms of existence, even down to atoms and subatomic particles, have some form of consciousness or interiority, is hardly in a position to disagree. So the question becomes, where—and how--do we draw the line? If the waking state can contain the very different structures of consciousness that characterize the archaic, magic, mythic and rational forms of consciousness, or the very different stages of consciousness that every developing human child passes through, why can it not also encompass all the structures of consciousness of lower forms of existence? Without a clear and unequivocal rule to define the waking state, it must apply to a truly vast spectrum of interiorities, encompassing many levels of the holarchy, which surely can't be Wilber's intention. States as Wilber defines them, after all, do have a level-like or holarchical appearance. He may say that they show no development or stage-like unfolding, but we all talk of higher states and lower states. This being the case, we can hardly argue that some state can be manifested throughout virtually the entire holarchy.

Wilber might try to counter this objection by saying that we can rather arbitrarily limit the definition of the waking state to just members of our species, and the several levels that they occupy in his model. However, to do this is basically to tie the definition of the waking state to a definition of structure. That is, if the waking state can only be realized by organisms or holons on a relatively small group of levels, then the state is being viewed, in effect, as a close correlate of a structure itself, or perhaps of a super-structure, one comprising several different structures. For whenever we use the term waking state in this way, we could just as easily substitute for it the term "interiority associated with these particular structures". And once we do this, we are admitting that it does have developmental or stage-like features, for in Wilber's model, interiors as much as exteriors all do have these features.

To get around this problem in turn, Wilber might argue that not only can several different structures be associated with a single state, but also the converse: that several different states can be associated with a single structure. Sometimes he seems to imply this position. Consider the statement in the previous quote: "a person at virtually any stage or level of development can have an altered state or peak experience". Isn't he saying here that one structure can be associated with more than one state, such as waking and altered? If this is the case, then Wilber can now correctly claim that he is not defining states in a way that links them directly to particular structures. For while the waking state may in fact be associated only with a particular group of structures, so are at least some of the other states. Thus something other than their association with particular structures must distinguish the various conscious states from another.

However, elsewhere Wilber makes it quite clear that he does not accept this position. In an online debate he held with Allan Combs several years ago, he in fact went to great pains to emphasize that he believed this view of the structure/state relationship was a major flaw in Combs' view of consciousness:

Combs presents his version of states and structures by, in my opinion, getting the definitions of states and structures backwards. Instead of seeing that a given state (such as drug, waking, dreaming) can contain many different structures (e.g., the waking state can contain magic, mythic, and rational structures), Combs says that a given structure supports many different states (which is rarely true: the rational structure, for example, does not usually support the drunken state, the dream state, the meditative state, etc.)[2]

It seems, therefore, that Wilber believes that a given structure can be associated with only one conscious state.[3] So when individuals of any historical era, whatever brain structure they possessed, realized a higher state of consciousness—even temporarily--they did so by undergoing some change in the structure of their brains. I agree with this conclusion completely, as do most investigators of higher consciousness. After all, it's the basis of the idea that there are physiological correlates of higher consciousness which can be subjected to scientific study. However, having come to this conclusion, Wilber again confronts the problem that his definition of conscious states is closely tied to structures. The waking state may be associated with the archaic, magic, mythical and rational structures. What he calls the subtle state may be associated with one or more other structures, and still higher states of consciousness may be associated with still other structures. This being the case, these states are firmly embedded in the holarchy, and should only be accessible in a developmental sequence. It should not be possible, for example, for someone with a mythical structure to realize the subtle state, because to do this the brain must adopt the structure corresponding to this state, and this structure is different from, and higher than, the rational structure.[4]

This problem becomes particularly obvious when we ask what happens when an individual realizes a higher state permanently. Wilber now leaves no room for doubt that a new and higher structure emerges:

Evidence suggests that, under conditions generally of prolonged contemplative practice, a person can convert these temporary states into permanent traits or structures, which means that they [sic] have access to these great realms on a more-or-less continuous and conscious basis… In each of those cases, those great realms (psychic, subtle, causal, nondual) are no longer experienced merely as states, but have instead become permanently available patterns or structures of consciousness.

Making it very clear that he means by "structures" in this context exactly what he means when he refers to archaic, magic, mythic and rational structures, Wilber adds:

do those four states, as they become permanent structures, show stage-like unfolding? Are they then actually levels of consciousness? In many ways, the answer appears to be "yes"

So here Wilber himself admits that we have structures beyond those of the rational brain, and the problem of skipping stages re-emerges. How could a mystic of two eons ago permanently realize what Wilber calls the subtle structure, for example, without skipping the rational structure? [5]

Finally, states as Wilber seems to want to define them have a very peculiar position in his holarchy—which is to say, no position. According to Wilber, everything is a holon, except maybe artifacts (which I do classify as holons; see Smith 2001a). But Wilber's states clearly are not holons. They not only do not emerge in a stage-like sequence, but "their occurrence is often random". What sort of creatures are they, then? Mostly, I would say, just an ad hoc invention in order to provide a quick fix to a serious problem.[6]

In conclusion, Wilber's structure/state distinction, as he appears to mean it, will not solve the problem of how earlier people realized higher states of consciousness without skipping certain lower stages or structures of consciousness. There is, and must be, a very close relationship between structures and states of consciousness. As I have argued elsewhere (Smith 2000a), the simplest way to express this relationship is to say that every state of consciousness is associated with a distinct structure, and vice-versa. Wilber's definition of states in broader terms, so that they encompass more than one structure, is acceptable, but there can be no overlap in the structures associated with different states. When we are in the ordinary, so-called waking state, we have—or more precisely, we identify with—one brain structure (or one of a small group of possible brains structures). When we are dreaming or in deep sleep, we identify with others. When we experience a higher state, we identify with still others.[7]

In fact, I believe "state" is one of those terms that may be fine for loose, everyday usage, but which is probably better left out of more rigorous discussions, which this article is pretending to engage in. We all know what we mean by waking state when we talk about ourselves, because we are restricting the discussion to humans, and those of one particular era at that. But as I noted earlier, when the entire holarchy is under consideration, the term waking state becomes very difficult to delimit; what we call waking is obviously somewhat arbitrary. Nor is the problem limited to the waking state. The same fuzziness surrounds a definition of drug-altered state, since many lower organisms, and even individual cells, can also be profoundly affected by certain drugs. For this reason, it seems to me that the term "interior" is to be preferred.

Different Paths to Different Places

To summarize the discussion so far, we have seen that Wilber's four-quadrant model implies that people of earlier cultures were able to skip stages of development to realize higher, spiritual states. In an attempt to get around this problem, Wilber has argued that what they realized were not higher levels or structures, but higher states. Yet when we examine closely the concept of a state, we see that it must correspond to a particular structure or exterior, or at best, to a particular exclusive group of such structures. This being the case, there is no apparent way, within the current framework of Wilber's model, to define conscious states in such a manner that they do not appear in a developmental sequence.

How, then, do we account for the spiritual experiences of earlier people? There are at least three possible explanations. I will discuss each of them briefly, then argue for a solution to the problem that involves all of them to some extent.

First, we can deny that humans historically have passed through several distinct levels or structures of consciousness, as Wilber (and others, like Gebser) have claimed. Some anthropologists and psychologists have in fact argued that people of earlier or less developed cultures were or are just as capable of rational thought, and other characteristics of the modern mentality, as we are (Pinker 1997; DiZerega 1999; Edwards 2001). In support of this view, they can point to the fact, noted earlier, that there are no scientifically detectable differences in brain structures between modern humans and the earliest members of our species. So without denying that people of earlier cultures experienced the world very differently from the way we do, one could argue that these differences do not amount to genuine differences in levels or stages of consciousness. Certainly these differences are not nearly as great as those between the stages that all children pass through during normal development, nor are they as great as the differences between any human of any time or place and any other organism on earth. As I have pointed out before (Smith 2001f), this is a major inconsistency in the four quadrant model. When Wilber claims that humans of different eras occupy different levels of existence, he is using the term "level" in a very different sense from the way he applies it to other parts of the holarchy.

A second way to respond to the stage-skipping problem is to deny that people of lower stages ever have or can access higher spiritual states. This is not necessarily to claim that there have never been any genuine mystics in the past, but only to insist that any who did appear first had in fact reached the same level of rational consciousness that Wilber attributes to moderns. While this scenario has seemed hopelessly unrealistic to most people considering this problem, it becomes much easier to entertain it if, as just discussed, the differences between Wilber's lower levels of human consciousness are much less than they are usually considered to be. We don't have to assume that Jesus or Buddha, before they began their spiritual journeys, experienced the world just as moderns do. We only have to assume they were just as capable of thinking rationally as we are. That is to say, they had passed through all the major stages of cognitive (and emotional, moral, etc.) development that modern children do.[8]

Finally, the most direct way to confront the problem of how earlier people realized higher, spiritual states is just to bite the bullet and concede that, yes, stages can be skipped, or at least bypassed. This is the position taken by a writer I know only as Avyorth, who has discussed the problem in a recent series of postings to the Integral-ION Forum:

I don't believe that one has to go from structures of conop to formop to vision-logic before Psychic to Subtle, etc. The states or structures of conop ----- vision-logic are Gross Mind and are neither closer nor further away from the Subtle or Very Subtle realms. Thus one might be developmentally at a conop level with a very developed relation to the 'Transcendental' whilst another might be developmentally at a vision-logic level with a poor relation to the 'Transcendental'. My claim would be that there were/are people living within Agrarian/Mythic worldviews/spaces who have had a much more developed relation with the 'Transcendental' than many who live within the emerging Integral worldview/space. I'd cite Siddhartha Gautama aka 'the Buddha' or Tsongkhapa or Mipham as examples - I'm sure others will have their own examples.[ 9]

Notice that as with the other two approaches just discussed, this tactic, in Avyorth's hands, is not as drastic as it might seem it would have to be. He is not saying that any stages can be skipped willy-nilly. In fact, in a sense he's not saying that any stages can be skipped. When someone at a mythic level experiences what Wilber calls the subtle level, she does not skip the rational level, because, in Avyorth's view, the path leading from mythic to subtle is an entirely different path from the one leading from rational to subtle. To make a very crude analogy, if you were to drive from New York to San Francisco, you might pass through a number of large cities, such as Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver and Salt Lake. Upon arriving in San Francisco, you might take a plane to Japan. But you could also fly to Japan directly from New York, and if you did, no one would say that you had skipped all those other cities, or that you were taking a shortcut. From the point of view of modern air travel, New York is not much further from Tokyo than San Francisco is, and the routes for the most part do not overlap.

Avyorth, then, is claiming that there are two kinds of stages or developmental pathways. He refers to one of these as the gross and the other as the transcendental:

  • the evolutionary or developmental which covers the physiosphere, biosphere and noosphere levels of being, all the way to the Holonic/holistic/Informational. This is the Buddhist Gross Mind level/realm, Wilber's world of holons and fulcrums, and is a 'horizontal' stream as it were;
  • the 'transcendental' which links the ggross (world of holons) with the Subtle and Nondual. This is the Buddhist Subtle and Very Subtle Mind levels/realms and is a 'vertical' stream as it were.

As I've said before, I believe Wilber conflates these two streams into one stream that flows from Spirit via Involution to Matter and then, via Evolution, back to Spirit. I believe this conflation to be problematic.

I completely agree with Avyorth that a distinction has to be made between two kinds of states of consciousness, those that humanity is now experiencing or has experienced in the past, on the one hand, and higher, transcending states, on the other. The two types of consciousness are sufficiently different from each other that they can't be viewed as forming a simple hierarchical ladder or chain, as they are depicted in the Wilber model. I believe, however, that Avyorth is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It's not only not necessary, but not possible, to make a distinction between gross and transcendental states. In attempting to do so, I think Avyorth is falling into the trap—one of which Wilber is very much aware—of believing that there can be disembodied conscious states or experiences. As emphasized earlier, every conscious state is associated with some structure or exterior, so that no level of existence either consists entirely of, or is entirely devoid of, a gross or physical nature. Even God is associated with the physical universe. And even the most primitive organisms, and perhaps even cells and molecules, have an interior, which (another important point emphasized by Wilber) is just as transcendental or ineffable as the experience of an advanced meditator.

Nor is it necessary to argue that some forms of consciousness are not holarchical or do not follow the laws or tenets of holons. It's only necessary to recognize two different kinds of hierarchical organization, one of which characterizes or describes the relationships between the ordinary states of consciousness, and the other which characterizes the relationships between ordinary states and spiritual states. Both are higher/lower relationships, but they differ significantly in several ways.

Ironically, Ken Wilber also recognizes—unconsciously, one is tempted to say—that there are different kinds of holarchical relationships. As is very well known, Wilber in recent years has integrated his four-quadrant model with Spiral Dynamics, arguing that the levels of social development postulated by the latter correspond closely to those of his own holarchy. In addition to postulating a dozen or so levels of historical, current or potential human social development, however, Spiral Dynamics makes a distinction between what it calls first and second tiers. The first tier composes all levels, or memes, up to and including the green. The second tier begins with the yellow meme, just above the green, and continues upward through higher levels. Wilber fully embraces this view, and in the process makes a significant—but unannounced, and generally uncommented upon—revision to his four-quadrant model. He is conceding that not all higher/lower relationships are the same. The yellow meme in the second tier is higher than the green meme in the first tier, but higher in a different sense from the relationship between the green meme and the lower orange meme, which is also in the first tier. As I have pointed out earlier, and elsewhere (Smith 2001a,b,f), there are many inconsistencies in the way in which Wilber defines levels, a point other critics have also made (Grof 1993; Washburn 1999; O'Connor 2001). This is apparently the first time, however, that Wilber has gone so far as to admit into his model—if not into his mind, or to his critics—a distinction among level-to-level relationships.

What Wilber does not do, however, is explain just how or why 2d/1st tier relationships differ from level/level relationships within any single tier. In light of the stage-skipping problem, and responses to it like that of Avyorth, addressing this issue is critical. It ought to be obvious to everyone that the distinction between the first and second tiers is not an arbitrary one, where we decide just for convenience to lump a certain group of levels apart from another group. The boundary is very close to, if not coincidental with, the line between ordinary human states and higher spiritual states, between what Avyorth calls--understandably if I would say incorrectly--the gross world and the transcendental world. To put it as bluntly as possible, Wilber and all his critics now agree that when we realize higher states of consciousness, we are going beyond our ordinary state in a way very different from the way humanity has progressed through the archaic, magic, mythic and rational states. I have been saying this all along. So now let's look at how my model addresses this issue.

Transformation and Transcendence

In my model, a distinction is made between two kinds of hierarchical relationships or processes. I have discussed these distinctions in detail elsewhere (Smith 2000a; 2001a,b,f), and will only summarize this discussion briefly here. In a transformative relationship, all lower-order holons are included within all higher-order holons in a nested hierarchy or pure holarchy. This arrangement can be illustrated schematically by a series of Chinese boxes or Russian dolls, one within another (as shown in Fig. 1A in O'Connor 2001). Examples of this kind of relationship include molecules, which contain atoms; tissues, which contain cells; and societies, which contain organisms. In all of these examples, there may be several layers, or what I call stages, of holarchy. For example, a protein molecule contains amino acids, each of which in turn contains atoms. Many tissues and organs are composed of smaller multicellular units, which in turn contain individual cells. Complex societies exhibit units such as states, cities, tribes and families, each nested within a higher unit and ending with the individual.

In a transcendent relationship, on the other hand, not all hierarchy is nested or holarchical. In a cell, for example, not all atoms are found within molecules, not all small molecules are found within larger molecules, and so on. In an organism, not all cells are found within tissues, not all tissues are found within organs, and so on. This kind of arrangement is called mixed (nested and non-nested) hierarchy, and is illustrated by a single box which contains within itself several smaller boxes, each of which exhibits nested hierarchy or holarchy (shown in Fig. 1B in the O'Connor reference).

In my model, one level of existence is completed, and a new level begun, by a process of transcendence. Thus a cell completes the physical level and begins the biological level. An organism completes the biological level and begins the mental or behavioral level. Holons like cells and organisms, which are formed by transcendent processes, I call individual or fundamental holons, while holons like molecules and tissues which are formed through transformative processes I call social or intermediate holons. The emergence of the latter creates stages within a level. Thus the relationship of an individual holon to its component holons (individual and social) is transcendent, while the relationship of a social holon to its component holons (individual and social) is transformative.

Since both transformation and transcendence are hierarchical relationships, social holons are higher than their component holons, just as individual holons are. Because the two relationships are structurally different, though, they are higher in different ways. In a transcendent relationship, the properties of lower holons can be preserved, because not all the latter are embedded in social holons. Free, unbonded atoms within a cell (such as sodium ions) have properties essentially identical to the same atoms found outside of cells. Unassociated cells within an organism (such as white blood cells) have essentially the same properties that they have outside cells (or would have if they were cultured in a sustaining medium).

In a transformative relationship, in contrast, properties are not preserved. Atoms, upon association into molecules, lose some of their original properties; the same is true for cells that associate into tissues. At the same time, however, holons within transformative relationships gain new properties; thus atoms in molecules exhibit properties not shown by unbonded atoms, and likewise for cells within tissues. These new properties are higher than the original ones they have lost. In fact, these individual holons, by virtue of their membership in social holons, participate in or experience some of the emergent properties of the social holon. So atoms within molecules can be said to be higher than atoms outside of molecules, and again, cells within tissues are higher than cells outside of tissues.

In light of these relationships, let's now consider our own level of existence. The social holons on our level are of course represented by societies of organisms, particularly human societies. These form transformative or pure holarchical relationships. Thus individuals are embedded in families, which in turn are contained within still larger forms of social organization. As with other levels of existence, individuals lose some of their original properties when they become part of a social holon, but they gain higher, emergent properties. In fact, most of our higher, mental faculties that most distinguish us from other organisms—language, reason, abstract thought, and so on—derive from our participation in societies. In my model, all these properties are social ones, belonging to the society; individuals only experience them by virtue of being members of the society, and tapping into them, so to speak. This is why the stages of human mentality, including interiority or consciousness, parallel the stages of social development. The higher and more complex the society, the higher its emergent properties which its members can participate in.

What about higher, spiritual states? In my model, these are associated with a higher holon (or holons) that transcends life on earth in much the same way that cells transcend atoms and molecules, and organisms transcend cells and tissues. Like any other holon, this global holon as I call it must have an interiority associated with it, and this interiority or consciousness is a higher level—not simply a higher stage—than any of the interiorities associated with humans at various social stages. However, humans do not apparently experience or realize this higher level of consciousness simply by virtue of their participation or membership in this global holon. This is consistent with the observation that on lower levels of existence, there is no evidence that individual holons, such as atoms or cells, can realize the properties of the individual holon transcending them (cells and organisms, respectively). There appears to be a limit to such participation, and this limit is reached at or perhaps before the highest stage, prior to transcendence. Instead, to realize a higher, transcending level of consciousness, one must completely transcend one's identity as an individual, shifting it to the higher holon. This, it seems to me, is the crucial difference between the stages of consciousness that Wilber calls waking (and Avyorth calls gross) and the higher spiritual states. One can and generally will experience the waking state as an individual participating in some form of social organization.[10] Waking consciousness requires communication. In contrast, one experiences the higher state as a higher-order individual holon that does not distinguish self from other and is therefore not participating in any kind of society.[11]

Because the process of transcendence viewed through my model does not involve participation in a series of stages, there is no obvious reason why people of lower stages should not be just as capable of transcendence as people of higher stages. This shift in identity does not involve passage through any of the social stages that may be above the one in which the individual is situated. However, this conclusion needs to be qualified in one important respect. As Wilber has emphasized, in order to achieve transcendence, there has to be something to transcend. A young child can't realize transcendence (so I would insist), because it has not yet developed the brain structures, and associated consciousness, that are to be transcended. So some development of stages is necessary—in other words, no process can skip an entire level.

How much development is necessary, that is, what stages of human consciousness are sufficiently developed to realize higher consciousness? I claim that full biological and mental development of the human organism is required, that is, one must reach the highest or higher operational stages of thinking manifested in all normal human adults. Before discussing why this is so, however, I want to re-emphasize that this view does not imply that people of earlier periods could not have realized higher states of consciousness. I contend, as do others (Pinker 1997; Dizerega 1999), that they were as capable of this thinking as we are.

This point is generally not recognized by Wilber and his followers, because in his model, the stages of biological development and historical evolution of our species often are assumed to be essentially identical, with ontogeny recapitulating, or at least closely paralleling, phylogeny. Wilber implies as much when he applies the same terms to both processes, for example, referring to the magical view of both children and of adult humans of a certain earlier period. In a similar vein, note that Avyorth, in the first of his quotes above, assumes that the developmental stages of conop and formop correspond to particular historical stages. If one adopts this view, then one is forced to the conclusion that the higher forms of thinking found today were absent from our ancestors.

I find this assumption highly problematical, however. Evolutionists recognize that ontogeny follows phylogeny only in certain relatively gross features or approximate ways. Furthermore, much of human ontogeny, that is, early child development, is concerned with the creation and functioning of structures that evolved long before the emergence of our species, for example, the visual and motor systems. So to say that we can see, in the development of children, the same evolutionary steps taken by our ancestors, is a gross oversimplification.

Consider our earliest ancestors, the prototypical cavemen living 30-50,000 years ago. In addition to mating and raising families, these people could make fire, fashion tools, hunt game, defend themselves from predators, and create some surprisingly sophisticated art. Developing individual humans must advance well into childhood before they can match such accomplishments. Moving forward in history to the period between 10,000 and 5000 years ago, when the first great civilizations apparently emerged, we find our ancestors now capable of agriculture, building cities, forming governments and writing historical records. At this point, they are surely barely distinguishable from today's adults.

In conclusion, I am claiming that a) any human capable of rational thought, or the higher operational faculties, has the potential to realize higher consciousness; and b) our earlier, if not earliest, ancestors, satisfied this criterion. But why should the ability to think be necessary? Meditation, the process by which we realize transcendence, involves stopping or transcending our thoughts, so it might seem ironic to say that thought is necessary for transcendence. Yet we also know that all or virtually all non-human organisms do not think, yet we don't regard them as existing in a higher state of consciousness. Clearly what is important to achieving transcendence is not simply the absence of thought, but the process of making thought absent. We need to think before we can reach a state where we don't think. To understand why, we need to look at the process of thinking in a novel way. We need to ask why it is that we think in the first place, how thought evolved.

Why Do We Think?

The standard scientific view is that thought evolved because, like every other feature of organisms, it had adaptive value. It provided our ancestors with immense advantages over other organisms in the struggle for survival. Because humans could think, they could devise elaborate ways of hunting for food, defending themselves against predators, and raising their young. Natural selection, in this view, resulted in the evolution of an increasingly larger and more complex brain that became increasingly better at enabling individuals to cope with various environmental challenges.

There is an apparent problem with this view, however. Anyone who meditates regularly—that is, who struggles daily to still her mind—acutely understands that an enormous amount of our thoughts are wasteful, having no obvious utility or purpose. Our mind is constantly churning out fantasies, memories, idle plans, thoughts about other people and things, and so on, and so on. These are the demons that the meditator must confront and conquer, moment after moment, hour after hour, day after day, all of her life. We are normally unaware of most of these thoughts; they only become conscious through the process of meditation, which reveals them gradually, layer after layer. In fact, the notion that most of our thinking occurs unconsciously is now well recognized by scientists as well (Hunt 1983; Minsky 1985; Dennett 1991), though scientists in general do not understand that most of these thoughts are not productive. For it is true that much useful thinking also occurs unconsciously, such as the processes by which we use language (Pinker 2000). But as any meditator should understand, the useful portion of our unconscious thoughts is only the tip of a very large iceberg.

The human brain, then, is apparently highly inefficient, spending enormous quantities of energy to generate useless activity. How could such an organ have evolved? Keep in mind that natural selection, according to the standard scientific view, operates mostly on individuals of one species, not of different species. That is, when the human brain was evolving, any new adaptive feature would have given its possessor a competitive advantage over other human beings. Surely this would have created tremendous selection pressure for a more streamlined brain, one in which nonproductive thinking was minimized. Why did this not occur?

One possible answer, favored by some mystics, is that the human brain resulted from some error or mistake during the evolutionary process (deRopp 1968). Gurdjieff's tale of the kundabuffer (Gurdjieff 1999) can be read as an elaborate myth recounting the origins and consequences of this mistake. Put in modern scientific terms, however, there is nothing really mysterious about what might have happened. Evolution is often and mistakenly believed to be a highly efficient process, creating adaptations that are the perfect solution to some problem confronting a species struggling for survival. As examples, we can point to insect camouflage, the bird's wings, the vertebrate eye. But adaptations are never perfect; they are, and only need to be, a little bit better, more adaptive, than what preceded them. Furthermore, all evolutionary adaptations are subjected to certain structural constraints; that is, there is a limit to what can be created given a certain body type and composition (Thompson 1992). Once evolution has committed itself to a certain path, these constraints become increasingly more restrictive. That is, once a structure of a certain degree of complexity has evolved to fulfill some function, it is often not possible for evolution to discard that structure and start over, moving in a new direction. Even if it were theoretically possible to create, by natural selection, a more adaptive structure, evolution on this alternate path could not initially compete with what has already been created. So it is stuck with what it has created, and must find ways to modify it in order to make further adaptations. Philosopher Daniel Dennett (1995) compares evolution to a mechanic tinkering with a machine, rather than with a inventor designing a new machine from scratch.

As a result, evolution can and often does produce structures or other adaptations that seem, from our point of view, to be highly inefficient. Perhaps the best known example is the introns or "junk DNA" sequences that intervene between the coding regions of genes. About 90% of the human genome consists of these noncoding sequences. While research is beginning to suggest that these introns have some important functions (Flam 1994), there is little doubt that these functions could have been fulfilled just as easily with much smaller stretches of non-coding DNA. The evolutionary origin of introns is the subject of some controversy (Gilbert 1987), but it seems that they have survived because they don't seriously compromise the function of the cell. It's easier for evolution to carry this excess baggage than to start over on a path that might have led to a more streamlined genome.

The human brain—which in fact in my model is analogous in function and holarchical position, on its level, to the genome on its level (Smith 2000a)—may be another example of inefficient evolution. It presumably evolved because only very large networks of highly interconnected neurons were capable of manifesting complex forms of thinking. But such large networks apparently evolved in such a way as to generate a large amount of useless or unnecessary activity. Given the complexity of the brain, which we are still not close to comprehending, this is hardly surprising. That evolution could generate even an inefficient thinking organ is a rather astonishing achievement. In any case, many hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago, it became too late for evolution to start over. It had to work with what it had created so far, and as long as this brain had adaptive advantages relative to the competition, it persisted.

This, then, is one possible explanation for the inefficiency of the human brain. It's the explanation most scientists would give, were they more aware of this inefficiency. However, there is another possible explanation, consistent with my holarchical model. To appreciate it, we have to adopt a very different view of the adaptive role of the brain from the conventional one.

Let's return to the question I posed before: what the evolutionary purpose of the human brain was and is. That is, what exactly was the adaptive value of thinking to our species? The standard answer, as I alluded to earlier, is that thinking allows us to represent the environment to ourselves and perform manipulations on those representations. Thus we can imagine the consequences of some intended action; consider possible events in the past that led to a current situation; understand or empathize with what others are thinking or feeling; and so on.

This is the kind of answer a scientist would give to the question, Why did the human brain evolve?, because most scientists accept that natural selection operates on individual organisms. From this point of view, every individual organism is in competition with other individuals of the same species[12], and those adaptations that emerge are those that permit certain individuals to win this competition. I have no quarrel with the concept of natural selection, but as others have pointed out (Sober and Wilson 1998), it is not always a competitive process. It can also enhance cooperation among members of a single species, or even of more than one species. Some adaptations result in greater social interactions between individuals, and thus strengthen certain forms of social organization in both human and animal populations. The members of such populations are no longer in competition with each other. As Sober and Wilson have shown, under certain circumstances it is even possible for altruistic forms of behavior to evolve, in which individuals put themselves at risk for the benefit of other members of the society. [13]

This does not mean that there is no competition occurring. Organisms that live in societies frequently have important adaptive advantages over similar organisms that do not live in such societies, or that live in less well-developed societies. So in this sense, the ability to form a society is just another adaptive advantage that favors some individuals over others. But the critical point is that the level of competition has shifted. It no longer makes much sense to say that individuals are competing with each other. The competition is between societies.[14] If one society enhances the survival of its members more than another society, then natural selection will favor the survival of that society. This will occur even if the genetic composition of its members changes over time, as long as the kind of social interactions they maintain remain the same, or become even more adaptive.

This provides a new answer to the question of why thinking evolved. It should be obvious that a major consequence of most kinds of thinking is to increase social cohesion. Simple observation reveals that a great deal of thoughts are about events—past, present or future, real, possible or imagined—involving interactions with other people. Through this kind of thinking, we in effect constantly recreate society, remind ourselves of its existence. In fact, even when particular individuals or social interactions are not present directly in our thoughts, we are still involved in social interactions, because almost all thinking involves the use of language, and language is a social phenomenon. Merely by virtue of using language we are immersing ourselves in a social structure or what Wilber calls an intersubjective matrix that presupposes our awareness and acceptance of our membership in society (Hargens 2001). Thinking is what creates and maintains this matrix.[15]

Given this intimate relationship between thinking and social bonding, we can argue that the real evolutionary purpose, or consequence, of thinking was and is to strengthen particular forms of social organization. Blackmore (2000) describes the human brain as a "meme machine", an organ highly proficient at receiving from other brains, copying and transmitting to other brains various forms of behavior or ideas or concepts called memes, which in this manner rapidly spread throughout a society. As I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2000a), memes are in fact units of social interaction, and play a somewhat analogous role in the reproduction of social holons that genes do in the reproduction of individual holons.

Taking this point of view, it is no longer necessary to regard the human brain as inefficient, or most of its activity as wasted.[16] It may in fact be highly efficient—though to repeat, no evolutionary adaptation is perfectly efficient, or the best conceivable solution to some problem—at promoting certain kinds of social interactions and thereby enhancing the survival of certain kinds of societies. For while much of our thinking is unconscious, it may be no less effective for that in shaping our behavior. Again, simple observation reveals that we are continually, thoughout our entire waking existence, acting in certain ways that are adapted to or constrained by certain social rules—and most of this behavior is carried out unconsciously.

What Enslaves Us Can Free Us

To summarize the discussion so far, I have argued that the major evolutionary purpose of thought—speaking more precisely, its adaptive value—has been to strengthen social interactions between individuals. This in turn enhances the survival or adaptive fitness of certain kinds of societies. While societies are of course composed of individuals, survival of which ultimately determines whether the societies will survive17, natural selection is operating on social interactions, not on individuals. Not only are individuals within any particular society not competing with each other, but in today's world, where memes may cross national borders and circle the globe in little more than the blink of an eye, individuals in different societies are not competing with each other, either. All competition is at the social level. To repeat, because it is such a critical point, individuals are not the unit of selection. The only roles they play in the evolutionary process are 1) to receive, copy and spread memes; and 2) to reproduce themselves physically, thus allowing the basic structural unit or individual holon composing the society to be preserved.

So one way to look at the brain is as an organ designed to carry out processes that strengthen certain kinds of societies. That, I claim, is why the higher features that make the human brain unique among all animals evolved. Our real purpose, from an evolutionary point of view, is not to survive, grow and reproduce as individuals, though this may be a side effect of the process. Our real purpose is just to churn away at generating memes, creating new kinds of social interactions which allow a society to grow, change and survive. Societies, in my model, are higher than their individual members, and constrain them in certain ways to ensure their (the societies') survival.

Every genuine sage or mystic has taught that the human condition is one of slavery, or sleep. All holons are in fact subject to certain rules, constrained by their relationships to higher order holons. Were we not members of societies, we would not be free or freer; in fact, we would be less free (Smith 2000a). But our social membership is the source of bonds we most immediately experience, the bonds we must sever to become freer.

And the spiritual path does offer a way out of this trap. The meditator's message is very simple: we don't have to play this game; we don't have to think. Thinking is what bonds us to others in social interactions, but is also what keeps us forever playing the role of very small units in a much larger holon.

Now at last we are in a position to return to the question I posed earlier: Why is thinking necessary to realize transcendence to a level beyond all thought? Why must we think before we can transcend thought? Thinking, like any other process or function, requires energy. Though the brain comprises only about 1-2% of the total body mass in an adult human being, it uses about 20% of the body's total metabolic energy (in the resting state). It follows that if we stop thinking, this energy becomes available for other purposes. As I have discussed elsewhere in detail (Smith 2000b), it is this energy that the meditator uses to to transcend our level of existence and realize a higher level. Whenever we stop a thought, we gain a very small amount of energy. It's the accumulation of this energy, through decades of practice, that allows us to move higher. That same energy that binds and constrains us can also be used to liberate us.

This is why only Homo sapiens, of all species on earth, has the possiblity of realizing a higher state of consciousness. It's also why only fully-developed adult humans can achieve this realization. And it's why this higher state was potentially just as accessible to our ancestors as it is to us.

Summary and Conclusion

What I have called the stage-skipping problem arises in the Wilber model because this model asserts that people of different historical periods experienced different levels of consciousness. Even the highest of these levels, however, is below the level of spiritual states of consciousness. To realize such states, therefore, people of earlier eras apparently had to skip those levels experienced by people of later periods. Wilber tries to avoid this problem by claiming a distinction between structures and states of consciousness, with people of lower levels just as capable as people of higher levels of accessing a particular state. However, this distinction does not work, because states must correspond to structures in a one-to-one fashion, or at least in an exclusive fashion (that is, two or more different states can't be realized by a single structure). This being the case, states, like structures, must be hierarchically arranged.

The solution to the stage-skipping problem that I propose is to recognize that there are two different kinds of hierarchical relationships, transformation and transcendence. The first kind of relationship characterizes that between humans of different historical periods, while the latter that between higher, spiritual states and the waking consciousness of people of any era. Transformative relationships do follow a stage-like developmental process, with no skipping under normal circumstances, but transcendent relationships are available to holons on any of several stages. It is only necessary that a human being think at a certain level of complexity to have the potential for realizing a higher, transcendent level of consciousness.

The potential is not the actual, of course. Whether people of earlier eras found it easier or more difficult to realize higher consciousness than we do –to return to the question that began this article—might depend on many other factors. One that I believe was and is particularly significant is the degree of development of the higher level holon or holons with which spiritual states are associated. There is no reason to believe this holon was fully evolved thousands of years ago, or that it is yet. I believe it is still in the process of emerging. From this it follows that what our ancestors could have identified with may have been less developed than what we can identify with, which in turn may be less developed than what individuals of the future may identify with. Wilber (1981) has argued that people of earlier times, while capable of realizing spiritual states, could not attain the highest states possible for some individuals today. While this is a highly debatable position, if it is true, it might be accounted for by the fact that the higher states are still emerging.

There may be other advantages or disadvantages to being at one particular stage rather than another. For example, while I believe people of fairly early periods, certainly as far back as 10,000-5000 years ago, were capable of the highest stages of thinking generally recognized by developmental psychologists, I also believe that the thinking of modern people is in some respects more complex, as we are engaged in a greater number and complexity of social interactions (Smith 2001c,f). This greater complexity might make the process of stopping thought more difficult, but it also might make it more powerful.

I don't believe, though, that the very real advances our era has made over previous ages in science, technology, medicine, philosophy and so on have much if any influence on the prospects of individuals for realizing higher consciousness. It may be possible to understand higher levels, intellectually, a little better today than it was yesterday, to relate them to other, more conventional forms of knowledge, as Wilber and others including myself are trying to do. It may also be that as people find more and more of their ordinary needs and desires satisfied by modern technology, and as national borders dissolve and people grow closer and more aware of world unity, that more individuals will be attracted to the possibility of realizing a higher level. But in my experience, none of these factors makes the process of meditation any easier, or brings higher consciousness any closer. Awakening is not a matter of standing on the shoulders of giants. All the giants in the world cannot reach to where we seek. Everyone who permanently awakes does something that has never been done before, and which will never be done again.


  1. Unless otherwise indicated, all Wilber quotes are taken from "A Summary of My Psychological Model", available at
  2. See "Discussion of Ken Wilber with Alan Combs", and combs2.html, combs3.html
  3. Suppose Wilber wished to contradict the position he took when debating Combs, and argue that one structure can, after all, be associated with more than one conscious state. As I noted earlier, by doing this, he could uncouple his definition of states from that of structures. However, this position creates a new problem, reflected in what I have called the "one brain, many minds" view of existence. I have previously discussed this problem in connection with Wilber's structures of consciousness, as they appear in his four-quadrant model (Smith 2000d). According to his model, humans at different levels of existence—archaic, magic, mythic, rational—have both different interiors or levels of consciousness, as well as different exteriors or brain structures. In fact, though, the differences in brain structures are purely hypothetical; though they undoubtedly do exist, they are too small to be detected by current scientific methods, though they may eventually become detectable through future technological advances. So what is basically one brain structure is being asked to support a wide range of interiorities, so different that Wilber places them on entirely different levels. This is inconsistent with the way he treats lower levels of existence, where distinctly different interiors are associated with distinctly different exteriors.
    To say that one structure can be associated with more than one conscious state greatly exacerbates this problem. This is to claim that just one of his hypothetical different structures, such as the modern rational brain, can be associated with several different experiences of consciousness. How can this be? Don't Wilber's own rules dictate that every interior must be associated with a different exterior? If this is not the case, if one and the same structure can be associated with several different interiors, how could this possibly be expressed in any consistent relationship between exterior and interior? According to Wilber (and I agree), holons, and their exteriors and interiors, are all there is. What, then, is left to determine when a particular exterior is associated with one interior, and when it's associated with another interior?
  4. To be sure, I'm using the term "structure" here in a very broad sense. It does not (necessarily) refer to a distinct anatomical structure, as a scientist would apply the word. The difference may be much more subtle, a matter of different patterns of nervous activity within the same set of anatomical structures. But Wilber himself defines exteriors or structures in an equally subtle manner, when he claims, for example, that the modern human brain is different from that of earlier humans (see the previous footnote). There really is no reason, from a scientific or philosophical point of view, why structure can't be defined in this way. The only limitation in our definition is that such brain differences must be qualitatively distinguishable from those differences that underlie changes that occur within what we consider the same state. For example, when we think different thoughts, experience different emotions or act in different ways, different patterns of nervous activity occur in our brains. These patterns must be of a different order from those that we associate with different states like waking, sleeping and so on. In the case of dreaming and deep sleep, we know this is the case. The case remains to be made with respect to higher spiritual states.
  5. Of course, the brain structures associated with permanent realization of a higher state of consciousness can't be the same as those associated with temporary experience, but they surely must bear some resemblance to each other. The differences would most likely be of the kind that would strengthen the formation of some pattern (or its absence). So if, as Wilber asserts, a higher structure bears a holarchical relationship to a lower one, so should any structure associated with temporary realization of a higher state.
  6. I think Wilber very seriously overestimates the "random occurrence" of states. Most of what he calls major states, most of the time, do not occur randomly. We do not awaken or go to sleep randomly. We do not fall under the influence of drugs randomly. All of these states appear as a result of well-defined and reproducible causes. It may happen occasionally that someone experiences a spiritual state through no obvious cause, but I believe even this happens quite rarely. For one thing, many of the states people claim as higher states are probably not. For another, genuine spiritual states usually result after much effort. They may be precipitated by unusual circumstances, such as a shocking or unexpected event, but this does not make their occurrence random.
  7. I do not accept Wilber's claim that the states of sleep are actually higher than the waking state, rather than lower. See Smith (2001e).
  8. To accept this premise is to deny, however, that young children, who clearly are at lower developmental stages than that of an adult, can experience genuinely higher states of consciousness.
  9. Avyorth, Integral-Ion Forum, message #446. The following quote is from the same source. This Forum is accessible only to those who have previously signed up.
  10. Even very primitive organisms have some kind of social structure, composed either of other members of their species (such as invertebrate colonies), or their relationships with other species. As I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2001g; Smith in progress), the ability of these organisms to experience themselves and their environment in certain ways results directly from their participation in these societies.
  11. It may be that as evolution proceeds, the higher level individual holon becomes part of a still higher social holon, composed of many such individual holons. My point is only that the next evolutionary step is identification with the individual holon. In the same way, during earlier evolutionary periods, identification began with individual holons. Thus the very earliest organisms had very little social organization, and made little or no distinction between self and other (Smith 2000f).
  12. Speaking more precisely, every member of a particular species is in competition with every other member of a particular population of that species (Stebbins 1982).
  13. This kind of altruism has a different evolutionary origin from the kin selection process originally developed by Hamilton (1964a,b). The latter can be explained strictly in terms of the dynamics of interaction among genetically related members of a society. It is most commonly observed in the social insects, such as bees.
  14. Strictly speaking, the competition is not between societies, as the term is usually used, but between social interactions. Thus competition can and generally does occur within societies, between one kind of social interaction and another. For example, when one kind of idea or belief gains widespread acceptance in a society over another idea or belief, the first idea has been selected. So there can be an enormous amount of competition occurring within any society, and as a result, the society itself can change dramatically. But to reemphasize, this competition is not between individuals, but between processes that always involve multiple individuals, and which therefore occur on a different level from the individual.
  15. More precisely, thinking, as we experience it, is how we participate in the emergent properties of this intersubjective matrix. See the earlier discussion on how individual holons participate in the higher properties of social holons they are members of.
  16. It isn't necessary to propose that evolution of the human brain was from the very beginning driven by its ability to spread memes and enahance social interactions. It may have served a different, more individual purpose originally. At some later time, however, the ability of the brain to spread memes would have emerged as the major force on which selection acted. The ability of the evolutionary process to find new uses for adaptations is a common theme.
  17. This is just Wilber's criterion of asymmetry, in which some holons are defined as higher than others when the first class is eliminated by elimination the second class (Wilber 1995). As I have argued at length, Wilber does not see that this criterion clearly makes societies higher than their individual members.


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