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).



How We Develop to the Non-Dual

Andrew P. Smith

Evolution or development is one of our most important and indispensable concepts. Though its modern form originated with Darwin's theory, which has been called the central organizing principle of biology, today it is widely applied to phenomena in the social as well as the natural sciences. We speak of individuals, societies, and all manner of social institutions growing, developing or evolving. A natural question to ask is, where does it all end? Is there anything that can't be understood as a developmental process?

In a recent blog[1] that I highly recommend to readers at this site, Conrad Goehausen draws a line at spirituality, and specifically at a non-dual understanding of spirituality. “Non-dualism,” he insists, “is not a developmental process.” The essence of his argument is contained in this passage:

The great exponents of non-dualism argue, and quite persuasively I might add, that the entire cosmos is a dream, an illusion of mind, manufactured out of fear and desire, and nothing more. They do not advocate a developmental process within the dream that ends up at enlightenment. They advocate immediate awakening. They do not tell people to go about a long developmental process, looking at all their developmental shortcomings as part of a process of balancing themselves, becoming Centauric, and then moving up through the great ladder of being to the top. They tell people to jump off the ladder… They don't say, climb a little further, come to a nice clearing, make a nice little house, then jump off the ladder. They say jump off now, right away, don't waste another moment. They point out that trying to climb the ladder further before you jump will just enmesh you in more karmas, more attachments, more attainments, all of which simply lead to death and decay over time. Some people are going up the ladder, they acknowledge, but they also point out that some people are going down, and whatever goes up must come down some day…One can grow for only so long before things fall apart and die. Growth does not lead to enlightenment, it leads to death. The human potential movement is an attempt to stave off death, but that is all it leads to, as does every other human enterprise.

Goehausen's argument, which he goes on to defend with authority and conviction in dialog with several respondents at the Lightmind Forum, is directed primarily at Ken Wilber's AQAL model, with a few shots also taken at Adi Da, with whom Goehausen apparently formerly had a guru/disciple relationship. But it seems to me that he is intending to address just about anyone else who has described spirituality as a developmental process—Gurdjieff, Aurobindo, Teilhard de Chardin, even Hegel, I suppose—as well as many older sources that theorists like these have drawn from. I also think this discussion of non-dualism is highly relevant to the integral community, especially those of us who are, following Wilber's now infamous rant, distancing ourselves from his Integral Institute. There has been a lot of recent soul-searching within this group as to what we do and do not stand for. In this light, I see Goehausen's essay as a very timely reminder to keep our eyes on the ball.[2] To his credit, he does not deny that development has any role to play in the spiritual process. His point, and I think he has it exactly right here, is that we develop by being spiritual, not the other way around:

If you practice enquiry and surrender, you will find yourself naturally moved to do all kinds of sensible and appropriate things that assist your practice of enquiry.

Instead of trying to define and practice all manner of physically, emotionally and mentally healthy activities in our life, the idea is to let “enquiry” (I prefer to call it meditation) teach us what we do and don't need. What is the right diet? Well, as one becomes more aware of one's body, one begins to learn what the body needs and doesn't need. Why do I become frustrated when I'm around certain people? Well, follow in detail the train of thoughts and emotions that occur in their presence. And so on, and so on.[3]

The mistake that Wilber and other developmentalists make, in Goehausen's view, is that they begin with the spiritual approach, but then reverse it:

They notice that a little bit of non-dual practice actually jumpstarts the whole developmental process, but then instead of keeping the focus on the non-dual process itself, they leap onto the developmental possibilities released…they don't comprehend that the root of their problem isn't uneven development, it's choosing developmental practice over non-dual practice, and making developmentalism a form of the search rather than simply a natural and homely outgrowth of non-dual practice…

If one looks at the non-dual realizers, from Buddha and Shankara to Ramana and Nisargadatta, they seem fairly unanimous in their advice: don't go down the developmental path, it's a trap that only deludes you further. They certainly didn't take that path. They didn't bother developing themselves in any exceptional ways. Many of them were very ordinary people with unexceptional talents.

Observing Wilber and his Integral Institute, which seems to be turning into a vast exercise in marketing, the product being advancement from orange to green to yellow to turquoise, it's hard not to see a lot of truth in what Goehausen says. It is a very old story, of course. One begins with a genuine spiritual practice, one creates some outer rules and forms to facilitate that practice, and those forms and rules become increasingly important until at some point they take over completely. All or most of the world's major religions have gone down that path, and by elevating development to supreme importance, Goehausen fears, Wilber and his followers will, too. Integral will become another religion, divorced from its mystical roots.

Yet just because Wilber—and before him, Da—has preached a developmental philosophy, and in the process has seemed, to some of us, to move further and further from his original spiritual message, doesn't prove that a developmental view is incompatible with spirituality. There have been teachers, such as Gurdjieff, who have held a very strong developmental view and yet—so I would say, at any rate—never lost sight of the essence of meditation. While I agree with Goehausen that those holding such a view are vulnerable to losing the fundamental aim in a pursuit to become simply a “better person”, those who deny development completely, it seems to me, run a potentially more serious risk. They are prone to see the process of realization as much faster and simpler than it really is, as easy as just “jumping off a ladder”. Thus Goehausen, writing about Nisargadatta, whom I assume he probably never even met, uncritically accepts not only the claim that he was realized, but that the process “was astonishingly simple and to the point. It took him a few years from start to finish.”

Goehausen's major reason for rejecting development as a spiritual worldview is that he sees it as a cyclical, rather than progressive process:

nothing lasts, not even our wisdom. We grow old and die. We lose what we have gained, completely, including our levels and typologies and understandings. ..Yes, the developmental model is a good one, for a part of the cycle of life, but only for a part of it, the upward cycle. It fails for the downward cycle.

What this understanding ignores is that development is not simply an individual process, involving particular forms of life. It's also a social process, one involving all forms of life. In that guise, of course, we refer to it as evolution. And while all individual forms of life must die, Life does go on and on and on. Maybe not forever, if you take the Second Law of Thermodynamics seriously, but if that's actually the case, we are all ultimately doomed, mystics included.

What I will argue here is that it is the evolution of life, rather than simply the development of the individual, that holds the key to the realization of the non-dual. Transcendence, the process of becoming realized, involves the social—a very large group of individuals that survives any one of them--as much as the individual. We could define transcendence as the act by which an individual, by first becoming the social, becomes a far more enduring individual. The social is the indispensable conduit that allows the individual to escape the developmental process that, as Goehausen correctly notes, inevitably will fail him.

Zero-dimensional experience

I think if asked, Goehausen would say, as would any advocate of non-dualism, that this state of realization is something radically new and different under the sun, completely outside the natural order of things. It's obviously true that of all creatures on earth, only Homo sapiens has the possibility of realizing enlightenment, and by anyone's count, very few of us. But non-dualism is not the same thing as enlightenment. Non-dualism simply refers to a perspective which does not distinguish self from other. A major lesson of evolution is that non-dualism is not limited to mystics. Other forms of life have this perspective.

One of these “other” forms of life, in fact, is our own species. At birth, and for some time afterwards, a human being makes very little distinction between itself and the world. The infant's worldview may not be purely non-dual, Even at birth it is beginning to separate itself from the great world it has so suddenly been thrust into. But its perspective certainly approaches the non-dual ideal; it is far closer to it than the ordinary perspective of a human adult.

I am not saying, let me emphasize, that a newborn child has realized a form of enlightenment (which it then loses as it matures). To claim this would be to adopt what Wilber—perceptively, I think—referred to as the pre/trans fallacy. As Wilber pointed out, there are states of existence that have some resemblance to the enlightened state, and such states tend to manifest in members of our species who have not yet reached the ordinary state (hence “pre”), as opposed to those who have (“trans”).[4]

Yet while the perspective of a newborn is not at all on a par with that of a mystic, it's still a genuine form of non-dualism. It does fulfill the main criterion for this state, which is simply an absence of distinction between self and other. This begs a question, actually two questions, that Wilber never addressed: why? Why are we born with a nondualist perspective, and why does it gradually transform into dualism as we mature? Developmentally, what's going on here?

We are born with a non-dual perspective because, at that moment, we have just completed a transition—a genuine transcendence—to a higher level of existence. We began life as a single cell. Over a period of nine months, that cell, through processes of proliferation and differentiation, became many billions of cells, all organized into an emergent, higher form of life. That process of transcendence was so intense, so resource-hungry, so driven toward its ultimate goal, that there was no place in it for recognition of other forms of life. During gestation, all the reserves of the growing, developing organism were directed to designing and executing the plans for its tissues, organs and organ systems. Everything had to be devoted to that sole purpose of creating a new organism.

Consequently, what emerged from the womb was a higher self—far, far higher than the cell it derived from—but a self with no awareness of anything but itself. A self aware of its heart, its lungs, its stomach, its appetites, its pleasures and pains, and for which all of that was a single experience. An experience that was rich in variety, but nonetheless unitary in its source.

That self, though, has been equipped with the potential for recognizing other. This is a simple matter of survival. In a world where there are many selves, all of which depend to some degree on some of the others, it is essential for each self to be able to distinguish itself from all the others. And so this process begins from birth on. As the infant's newly developed sense organs become bombarded by stimuli, the sense of self began to separate from the sense of other. With its sense of self as an organism firmly grounded, and its basic needs satisfied by its progenitor, the new form of life can at last turn its attention and its resources to recognizing and exploring the great other surrounding it. Thus does dualism emerge.

Just because a dualistic view is so essential to survival, most adult organisms have it. Other organisms, of course, do not have as highly developed a sense of self as we do. But some sense of self runs throughout most of the animal kingdom.[5] Like us, the higher vertebrates —mammals and birds—recognize both themselves and others of their species as distinct individuals. Lower vertebrates and probably some invertebrates can also distinguish themselves and some other members of their species. Still other invertebrates, such as the social insects, may not distinguish other individuals as unique, but recognize them as members of other classes or groups: male or female, worker or drone, kin or non-kin. Still lower invertebrates may not recognize or distinguish other forms of life, but they still maintain a sense of a boundary separating themselves from everything else.

At the bottom of the evolutionary scale of organisms, however, where we find the most primitive invertebrates and other rudimentary multicellular forms of life, the sense of a separate self is virtually absent. Simple forms of life such as green plants, fungi, cell aggregates (Volvox, slime molds), sponges, Cnidaria (corals, sea anemones, jellyfish) and Echinoderms (starfish, sea urchins), live a largely sessile, passive life, anchored to a fixed position in the environment and taking in nutrients through photosynthesis and/or a process of passive absorption. They have very little need to be aware of others, because there is little or no way that they can interact with others. They don't prey on other organisms, and though sometimes preyed upon, that is usually not fatal to them. Reproduction is usually asexual, and when it is sexual, involves simple release of gametes into the air or water. Some of these lifeforms have sense organs and very simple nervous systems, allowing interaction with the outside world, but these allow them only to experience such basic modalities as light, gravity and touch. As a result, to the extent that that they have any perspective or experience at all, they—some more than others, but all to fairly large degree—can be said to have a non-dualist view of the world.

I also call this perspective zero-dimensional, because awareness is concentrated at a dimensionless point. No distinction between self and other means that there is no awareness of size, limits or boundaries, any of the parameters that in our experience create dimensions. The world, in all its splendor, just is. We cannot even say that such lifeforms have a self or don't have a self, because as we ordinarily understand self, it is defined in contrast to an other.

Notice that this unique perspective, like that of the child, is associated with a new level of existence. A newborn child represents the development or reproduction of that level: the completion of a nine month process in which a single cell, through proliferation and differentiation, becomes a multicellular organism. The most primitive invertebrates represent the evolution of that level: their ancestors were among the first multicellular organisms to appear on earth. As with the newborn, this new level is initially associated with a non-dual or zero-dimensional perspective because the new form of life must be basically completed, as an organization combining lower forms of life (cells), before it can begin to develop the capacity to interact with its environment, and in particular, with other organisms.

A question we might ask at this point is: why are there other organisms? We saw that the child must learn to distinguish between self and other because it is born in a world where there are other forms of life like itself. But the very first organisms did not emerge in such a world. Why, then, did they need to evolve beyond their non-dual view? The simple answer is that all living things grow—they can't help themselves, that's just what they do in order to stay alive—and reproduction is one type of growth. Growth can be of size, as when an organism develops or evolves into a larger organism, or it can be of number, which is reproduction, but it always carries on. Organisms, as I will discuss later, represent a limit to size growth, which having been reached, can only be exceeded by reproduction.

As the first primitive organisms began to populate the ocean environment where this form of life was born, they changed the conditions for survival. Organisms that could distinguish self from other had a major advantage. They could, for example, feed on other, less perceptive forms of life. Those preyed upon, of course, were more likely to survive if they could distinguish predators. And so selection favored an “arms race”, where the ability to prey and avoid being preyed upon became vital to survival. This is a very familiar theme to evolutionary biologists, of course, but the relevant point here is that this selection process favored an increasingly dualistic form of perception. The specific adaptations that have evolved over hundreds of millions of years have been highly varied, but one theme that has remained constant throughout the entire evolutionary history of organisms is the increasing need to discriminate self from other. Generally speaking, what we consider more highly evolved organisms have a greater ability to do this.[6]

This evolutionary play, however, is not limited to organisms. If we consider the level below the organism, that of the cell, we can again find examples of non-dual or zero-dimensional perspective. Here, of course, even more than with primitive organisms, talk of any awareness or experience is highly speculative. What we can observe, though, as with primitive organisms, is signs of a non-dual existence in the lifeform's behavior. The most primitive cells known today are prokaryotes (now generally referred to as Monera) such as bacteria. Some of these cells, the most purely zero-dimensional, live an essentially passive existence, unable to move and synthesizing food through photosynthesis. Others can move through the environment and respond to stimuli such as certain chemicals (chemotaxis). But all members of this main branch of the Animal Kingdom interact minimally with their environment and generally show little evidence of distinguishing themselves from others.

I pointed out earlier that the first, non-dual organisms evolved into higher forms of life with dualistic perspectives. They same is true for cells. Following prokaryotes, eukaryotic or nucleated cells emerged. Many of these cells are like miniature organisms, moving through the environment and preying on other cells by means of surprisingly sophisticated adaptations. The distinction between self and other begins here. The most profound and far-reaching effect of making this distinction, however, was the ability of these cells to associate into societies. Primitive cell societies offered the same kind of advantages to their individual members as do primitive societies of organisms: protection from predators, for example, and a greater ability to exploit energy sources in the environment. To become a member of such a society, a cell of course had not only to distinguish itself from other cells, but to recognize other cells that were somewhat similar to itself. Each cell probably played a more or less equal role in the earliest of these societies, but later ones began to specialize, with some cells devoted to obtaining food, some to movement, some to reproduction, and so on. Again, the advantages of specialization for cell societies are much the same as those for societies of organisms—a specialist can do one thing faster and more efficiently than a generalist--and again, for specialization to occur, cells had to make further advances in their ability to discriminate themselves from other cells.[7]

In telling this story, we have, of course, come full circle, because it was from such primitive cell societies that the first organisms evolved. As soon as cells began to specialize in their interactions with other cells, organisms were already in the making. Organisms are not simply assemblies of one kind of cell (a pure hierarchy or holarchy), but many different kinds of such assemblies, all interacting with one another in complex ways (a mixed hierarchy). The most highly evolved organisms today, ourselves, represent the ultimate outcome of this process. We now contain billions of highly specialized cells, many of which, particularly those in the brain, are capable of distinguishing themselves and other cells as unique individuals. The perspective of such cells is profoundly dual, as much so on their level, I would say, as that of humans on our level.

We are now in a position to answer more fully the second half of the question we originally raised. We have seen that non-dual forms of life became dual because it was essential in a highly populated world for selves to discriminate among one another. Why, however, did such dual lifeforms then form a new, higher, non-dual form of existence? Why did cell societies eventually evolve into organisms, which are not simply societies of cells—a social holon--but a new and higher form of individual holon? The most likely answer is that societies of largely independent and undifferentiated cells can only grow so large in size before they began to lose their competitive advantages. The more individual members in a society, the more difficult it becomes to coordinate all their interactions, and to hold all of them together. In very large societies, no one member can know what all the other members are doing, and so it becomes increasingly more difficult to avoid conflicts between members. By evolving into a higher, individual holon, a society in effect puts a limit on its growth. It says, we will grow to this point, and no further.[8]

But while society limits its growth in this manner, Life does not. The new, higher holon, by reproducing as a single unit, can continue that growth. And so this is how, I claim, levels of existence are formed. An initially non-dual lifeform creates more of its own kind, which compete with each other for resources. This competition requires that these individual holons learn to distinguish themselves from other holons. As the competition intensifies, a survival value accrues in cooperation, so some individual holons associate into social holons. This requires an intensification of the process of discriminating self from other. Finally, the growth of the social holon reaches its practical limits, and its further evolution can only occur through a transition to a higher form of life, which is a new individual holon. Because that holon is initially unique, it has no need to distinguish self from other, and emerges with a new, higher, non-dual perspective.

We might consider this same process at a still lower level, that of atoms. The simplest atoms are inert, that is, for the most part do not interact with other atoms.[9] So if we could imagine their possessing any experience at all, it would be of a nearly pure non-dual form. They do not need to distinguish themselves from other atoms, because they generally don't confront them. Most atoms, however, are capable of interacting with others atoms, through chemical bonds. Atoms that form chemical bonds do so only with specific kinds of other atoms, so they must recognize these atoms, distinguishing them from other kinds. The most interactive or “social” atoms are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. These are the so-called building blocks of life, the essential ingredients of very large, complex organic molecules. These are in effect societies of atoms, and just as societies of cells were the evolutionary precursors of organisms, societies of atoms, and indeed, societies of these societies, particularly nucleic acids and proteins, were almost certainly the precursors of cells.

The Otherness within Self

To summarize the discussion so far, a great lesson of evolution is that non-dualism is not new. It was not discovered by some mystic in the past several thousand years. Other forms of life experience it. In fact, it appears to be a recurring theme on every level of existence. Just how far down the evolutionary scale it may take place depends on how far down we are willing to entertain the possibility of any consciousness or experience of the world. What we can say is that the conditions for non-dualism present themselves on every emergent new level. To the extent that life has awareness at that level, that awareness must be non-dual.

Yet obviously, the non-dualism of a primitive organism or cell is quite different in some respects from that possible for a human being. While all three forms of life experience no distinction between self and other, for realized human beings the self is vastly more profound and encompassing. How are we to understand the difference? I think Wilber has it right here again. Each level of existence transcends and includes the level below it. An organism transcends and includes the cell, which means for an organism, both self and other are far beyond what self and other can be for a cell. Indeed, for an organism, self is at the outer limits of what other could possibly be for a cell. Likewise, when a human being realizes non-dualism, it is on a new level of existence that transcends and includes the organism.

Let's compare the non-dual experiences of a newly formed organism and a realized human. Consider a cell in the brain. It is in contact with many other cells, recognizes and distinguishes them from other cells, and so has a dualist view. It experiences itself as something that is separate from, though interacting with, other forms of life very much like itself.[10] So it knows of a self, consisting of the cell, and an other, consisting of other cells, maybe, for some cells, a very large number of other cells, maybe even most of the brain.

Now consider the organism, that transcends that cell. Its sense of self begins, at birth, at about the outer possible limits of the “other” of that cell. That is, the entire “other” of the cell becomes a new self. That former other consists of all the interactions of that cell and of all the other cells it was associated with. The resulting new self, initially, also includes the organism's immediate environment, because it does not distinguish that environment from itself. As the organism develops, however, it gradually makes this distinction, becoming aware of a larger self that is distinct from a much larger—and growing—other. As the organism continues to develop—and I mean this now either in the sense of the biological development of a particular organism, or the evolutionary development of all organisms—the definition or distinction of self generally becomes more intense and more complex, while the other that contrasts with that self likewise becomes more complex and extensive.

The first part of the process I just described occurs, as I envision it, when an individual human realizes a non-dual view. Awareness/identification shifts from the individual[11] to a new level of existence that includes what that individual previously experienced as other. In this case, I would say that the new self thus emerges from the interactions of all people on earth, with each other and with their non-human environment. All of this becomes a single self which, because it is newly emerging, does not distinguish itself from any environment. It is very much like an infant, except that it is an infant on a higher level of existence.

If this view of the non-dual is correct—and it certainly is in the case of the human infant, while remaining speculative for a mystic—then the non-dual becomes so by a process of transcending and including what was dual before it. The mystic's vision is very much part of an evolutionary/developmental process.

Goehausen, however, takes strong exception to this view:

The non-dual perspective has no perspective, it sees no objects, it sees no bodies existing in their own right, it sees no levels to include or transcend, it sees that all of that is simply an illusion of mind.

The non-dualist realizer doesn't include the dualistic, either, because he can't find anything that is dualistic. ..It's not as if he sees objects, but excludes them somehow. ..The dualistic vision isn't something real which can be excluded, it's a dream which simply evaporates, like the snake mistakenly seen in the rope. Are people who see only the rope, and not the snake, excluding the snake from their consciousness? Of course not. There's nothing to exclude. The snake never existed. Likewise, the dualistic world never existed.

My initial response is to agree with Goehausen completely. The analogy I have described, based as it is on evolutionary phenomena, is made from a dualistic perspective. Just because the non-dual can be described from that perspective doesn't mean that the non-dual experiences it that way. A newborn baby most likely isn't aware of levels or transcending or including. Even adults, and then only a relative handful off them, learned to see it that way only quite recently in our history. So while I can describe evolution as a process in which new, non-dual forms of life repeatedly transcend and include older, dual forms of life, that doesn't mean that any of these non-dual forms actually see the process in those terms.

On the other hand, if we consider the implications of the evolutionary view more closely, that response doesn't seem quite satisfactory. If dual and non-dual alternate throughout evolution, at least up to us, who is to say that the non-dual realization of humans is the end of it? If non-dual enlightenment is, as I suggest, identification with a form of existence that transcends and includes all of humanity, why should that form of existence not go on to develop into a (higher) dualistic form? Just as primordial cells, by associating with each other, developed higher-dimensional perspectives of themselves and their environment, and the same with humans, why shouldn't a non-dual realizer, a vastly higher form of life, not reproduce itself, and eventually form a vast society of dualistic realizers? Is it possible that this is what intelligent life in the universe is all about? Entire noospheric planets that function as individuals, and begin to interact socially with each other?

I'm not saying that this dualistic view would be anything recognizable or understandable by us—any more than a single neuron in our brain can fully comprehend human concepts. But it would still be dualism, fundamentally based on interactions between this higher form of life and others like it. And just as we have the ability of understanding the dualistic interactions among neurons—albeit in a very different way from that by which they themselves must understand them—so could these higher duals have some understanding of human interactions.

Goehausen's response, I am fairly sure, would be that this simply is not possible. Non-dual realization is it, there is nowhere further to go. There is no further, period. “The Self doesn't exist in time and space, “ he says. “Time and space exist in the Self.” But how can he be sure, and more important, how can even a fully realized being be sure? Can a newborn baby imagine an other beyond itself? Doesn't it seem to exist in a world beyond time and space? From the perspective of the single cell it developed from, hasn't it become immortal, freed from the swift and certain death that is the fate of individual cells in the body? In fact, any form of life with a non-dual perspective has by definition no awareness of other, of time and space, nor of its mortality. So just how is any non-dual realization a guarantee that there is no time, space or other somewhere beyond, not yet known through further evolution?

In other words, there are two ways of looking at dualism vs. non-dualism. We can argue that non-dualism, being realized by a higher form of life, is the more real, indeed the only real, perspective. Or we can argue that since both dualism and non-dualism apparently alternate throughout the evolutionary process, neither is absolutely higher than the other, but only relatively higher. Our dualism is relatively higher than the non-dualism of a human infant, while the non-dualism of a realized being is relatively, but not absolutely, higher than our dualism. The non-dualist will argue that this entire argument is framed in dualist terms, while the dualist can respond that there are no other grounds for arguing about the matter.

This issue is not simply academic. It has very serious practical implications. On it hinges the whole Boddhisattva view, that not only assumes that realized beings can understand the plight of mortals, but charges them with helping them. Goehausen wants to reject this:

It is simply a subtle form of bondage to think that one must, or even could, embrace illusion. The truth is that there is no manifestation, there is only mind. The bodhisattva ideal is not a genuinely enlightened perspective. There is no world to return to, once one has realized non-dualism. There is no world to leave either.

In the statement, “there is no manifestation, there is only mind”, Goehausen seems to adopt an unapologetic idealism. Let's consider this more closely. The non-dualist view that Goehausen is advocating, I think it's fair to say, claims that the experience or perspective of non-dualism is totally incompatible with the perspective of dualism. This incompatibility is commonly illustrated by an extremely well-known analogy: dreaming. When we are asleep and dream, we experience a world that seems real. When we awaken, though, we realize the dream world was not real. It is not, we would say, that there are two realities, the awakened one and the dream one. Only the awakened one is real. In the same way, suggests the non-dualist, only the non-dual perspective is real:

We can certainly talk about the perspective of the body-mind as if it were real, just as we can talk about what you dreamt last night if it were real, but that doesn't make it so. It's just story-telling. At least it is if non-dualism is true…if the perspective of the body-mind is true, then non-dualism is false. But there's no perspective from which both are true.

The reason why this dream analogy is so often referred to is obvious. We all know what dreams are like, and how what seems so real becomes unreal when we awaken. It is a simple and powerful way to give a dualist some sense of what enlightenment is like. However, simple and powerful analogies are frequently oversimplified and—pushed too far--misleading, and I believe that is the case here. There are in fact several not insignificant differences between the relationship of dreaming to our ordinary waking state, on the one hand, and the relationship of the latter to the enlightened state.

First, when we awaken from a dream, everything in that world disappears. To the best of our knowledge, no one else is dreaming that dream, experiencing that world. Whatever happened at that time is no longer happening. In contrast, when one realizes the enlightened state, there are still others dreaming. The enlightened one may not distinguish “others”, but he/she is still very much aware—more so than ever, I would say—that sleep is going on. Indeed, there could hardly be teachers if this were not the case. This is a tricky point, but Goehausen endorses it:

When they teach others, they are not aware of those people being “other”. They seem to be themselves. They are teaching themselves to recognize themselves.

A second critical difference between the two relationships is that when we dream during sleep, whatever happens at that time generally has no consequences when we awaken. Sometimes, to be sure, an especially vivid dream is remembered long after, and there are rare occasions when a dream may even have historical significance—one thinks of Kekule's discovery of the benzene ring structure, for example.[12] But many dreams are not even recalled, and even in the case of those that are, it is generally only a few details that remain with us. The reverse is also largely true, that is, what we do and experience when we awake has relatively little effect on our dreams. Again, there are definite exceptions to this rule, but again we can say that most of the time there is very little relationship between what goes on in one world and what happens in the other. Most of what happens to us while awake is never reflected in any dream, and most of what we dream has no effect on our waking existence. There is a barrier—not impermeable, but nonetheless fairly solid—between the two.

In contrast, there is constant interaction between the world of ordinary consciousness and the world of the enlightened. This interaction is captured in the phrase “in the world but not of it”. Enlightened individuals may be free of the consequences of their own behavior as well as of the behavior of others, but they are still aware of the behavior of others. How else could they “teach themselves to recognize themselves”? Moreover, their behavior definitely has consequences for others. Every act of theirs “in this world” has effects that reverberate throughout that world.

With these differences in mind, let's return to the example I presented earlier, that of a single cell becoming aware of itself as an entire organism. Recall that it was this kind of analogy, this kind of non-dual experience, that led me to claim that even enlightenment may be the outcome of an evolutionary process. Notice that this kind of relationship is much closer to that enlightenment has to ordinary consciousness than the awake/dream analogy. A newborn infant may not be aware of its individual cells, but it is very much aware of multicellular interactions that are far below the whole organism level. As adults, we lose much of this awareness—a consequence, I would say, of our becoming increasingly incorporated into the social world—but we are still aware of many events within our bodies. Moreover, through the great power of science, we can verify that events at this level do have a reality that is quite connected and relevant to our own reality. Assuming that individual cells do have some awareness or experience, I think we have to conclude that this awareness is real in the sense that it continues to exist just as our much greater awareness does. Even more significant, it is critical to our awareness. If all the lights went out in our individual cells, so would the light of our consciousness go out.

That said, there is a sense in which I can agree with the traditional dreaming analogy. I think the two forms of awareness—that of a cell and that of an organism—are incompatible, in the sense that they can't be experienced simultaneously. By definition, if you have the awareness of an organism, you don't have the awareness of a cell. You can't be in these two different states of awareness at once. But I don't agree that this incompatibility is sufficient grounds for saying that one form is not real. If the higher form depends for its existence on the lower, the lower must in some sense be real.

To conclude, I think that dualistic discussions and descriptions of non-dualism have been handicapped because the nearest thing to realizing this state that we traditionally have had has been to point to is the process of waking up from a dream. My claim is that our understanding of evolution gives us access to a much more appropriate analogy. It is more appropriate because it better captures the relationship of enlightenment to ordinary consciousness as we know it; and also because it makes use of analogies to lower level processes that we know or have good reason to believe are also non-dual.


My claim has been that a non-dual perspective evolves with every new emerging level of existence—with atoms, with cells, with organisms, and with a still higher form of life we call enlightenment. In every case, the shift from a dual to a non-dual—what I also refer to as a zero-dimensional—view is associated with a very large social organization, composed of a great many individual holons—atoms, cells, organisms—creating a still higher individual holon. The process is known as transcendence, and as I use the term, it can be defined quite specifically. It is characterized, for example, by the complete independence of the higher individual holon from any particular lower individual holon (thus an organism is independent of any of its individual cells); a much longer lifetime than any of its individual holons (an organism lives much longer than any of its cells); and a greatly expanded sense of time and space (an organism experiences life over periods of time far greater than those of cells). Some of these relationships may be capable of mathematical expression.[13]

Though I have described this process as movement from individual to social to a still higher individual, the first stage—individual to social—has largely been completed by the time that what we traditionally call the spiritual process begins. An ordinary, dualistic human being is already a profoundly social creature. This in fact is what dualism means—we see the world in dualistic terms only insofar as we are members of some social holon that demands we recognize differences between ourselves and the other members. So we are not beginning this process of transcending societies from scratch, by any means. Enlightenment is a process that completes, then transcends, our identification with societies, by breaking or transcending that which bonds us—or as postmoderns say, contextualizes us—to them: our thoughts. These thoughts create what postmodernists call the intersubjective matrix, enmeshing us all in society, and the goal of meditation is simply to transcend thought, thus dissolving these links and freeing ourselves from this matrix.

Is this a fast and simple process? Not in my experience, and not in my understanding. Human societies, including the process by which newborns develop to adults, are the product of tens of thousands of years of evolution. There are extremely powerful forces, honed by this evolutionary process, that compel individuals to grow and recreate the intersubjective bonds that hold society together, just as there are powerful forces that compel us to eat, drink and breathe, to care for our young, and to flee danger. Society, which is vastly larger and more complex than any of its individual members, would face a threat to its survival if individuals could quickly and easily opt out—not simply withdraw to a lonely countryside, but cease entirely to recreate society in their minds.[14] Without these bonds, in fact, societies would disintegrate.

While a higher form of life may be evolving, therefore, meditation is not a natural process. Evolution has made it extremely difficult for it to happen. It is often described as a struggle with oneself, but that is vast understatement. Meditation is a struggle with all of society, against enormous odds. Society almost always wins.

Yet the game is open to all individuals, at any stage of social development. One of the important differences between my developmental model and Wilber's is that he sees higher consciousness as realized only after numerous lower human developmental stages have been transcended. This creates many problems for him. For example, he has to explain how individuals in earlier eras, who in his system are at a lower stage of development, could nevertheless realize very high levels of consciousness. To do this, he created his awkward states/stages model, which is still inconsistent with many well known observations (see The Stage-Skipping Problem; The Intersubjective Meditator). He also has to explain why the relationship of higher consciousness to any one of his lower stages of ordinary human consciousness seems so different from that of any of the latter stages to each other. To do this, he has had to create a new term, “tier”, which implies, without actually openly confessing, that not all acts of transcendence, relationships between levels, are the same.

These problems are avoided in my model by recognizing that humans and their societies may exist on different stages, but all of these stages are within the same major level of existence. Anyone within this level has potential access to the next level. Thus I agree very much with Goehausen's description of non-dual realizers as “very ordinary people with unexceptional talents.” If you are a human being and a member of society, you don't have to develop to further stages. Maybe you will and maybe you won't, but they aren't an essential part of the process.

Nevertheless, all realizers, according to this understanding, are completely dependent on the continued survival and well-being of society. A mystic may in a profound sense leave society behind, yet he/she realizes the non-dual state only at the continued pleasure of that society. This may seem counter-intuitive, and certainly at odds with the conventional view of the seeker, yet how could it be otherwise? Wilber argues—and here I agree with him—that there is no such thing as a free-floating, disembodied consciousness. Consciousness is always associated with something physical (and at higher levels, biological and mental). This is just another way of saying that interiors and exteriors always appear together, as two faces of the same phenomenon. Just as Wilber argues that even the simplest form of existence, such as atoms, must have some rudimentary experience or consciousness, so the highest, most complex forms of consciousness must have some form of exterior.

The reason the enlightened being can realize a new vision, and free himself from Goehausen's downward cycle of individual existence is not because he identifies with something immaterial and therefore outside the laws of physics.[15] It's because he identifies with a higher form of materiality. He makes the jump to a form of existence that, if not genuinely immortal, completely beyond the cycle of life and death, is nevertheless much more enduring than a single individual human. Identification with a higher holon, I claim, does not buy us absolute immortality, but it does greatly extend our life. Free from individual mortality, we are allowed to stay in the game for another round—to continue developing, perhaps, to a still higher and even more enduring level. The day of reckoning is postponed.


1. Goehausen's website is at Some of the quotes used here are taken from his dialogue (his onscreen name is Broken Yogi) in the World of Ken Wilber forum at Lightmind (

2. When I was asked, like the others, to provide a working definition of “integral”, my response made heavy reference to a higher state of consciousness. I was told that this was not a good idea, because it might turn away many people from joining. The new, non-Wilber form of integral, it seems, may be politer, more comprehensive and more self-critical, but will it be any more spiritual?

3. This is not to say that we shouldn't seek help from others. Wilber, in his soon to be released Integral Spirituality, argues that meditation, being what he calls a monological or zone-1 approach (in his eight zone Integral Methodological Pluralism), is incapable of accessing, by itself, certain kinds of knowledge, namely, that which is acquired through dialogical or social processes. While I think Wilber greatly mischaracterizes meditation by lumping it with very different processes such as phenomenology (See The Intersubjective Meditator), it is undeniably true that individuals acting alone, no matter how spiritually, cannot possibly obtain the wealth of information about our bodies, emotions and minds that society has acquired. Of course we should make use of it. But the meditative practice can “naturally move” us to seek out the most appropriate sources of this information.

4. In addition to newborns, the example is commonly given of people of earlier cultures, or indigenous people living today. While the degree to which such adult humans do not distinguish between themselves and the rest of the world I think tends to be exaggerated—to survive as an adult of nearly any species one has to make such a distinction—it is probably true that their perspective is closer to non-dual than that of most people living in modern, developed nations.

5. The reader may ask, how can we speak so authoritatively about another organism's experience or self? And in particular, how can we say that it doesn't distinguish between itself and its environment? Of course we can't know exactly what another organism experiences, but we can get some very important clues by studying its morphology, physiology and behavior. These are some of the questions that animal physiologists and behaviorists ask (e.g., Hauser 2000; Griffin 2001; see also my The Dimensions of Experience):

  1. Is the organism capable of locomotion, and if so, can it move in a coordinated, directed manner from one place to another?
  2. Does it have sense organs, or cells or tissues that are sensitive to such environmental stimuli such as light, gravity, temperature or certain chemical substances?
  3. Does it have a nervous system, that allows it to respond to move or respond to stimuli in a somewhat coordinated manner?
  4. Does the organism actively prey on other organisms?
  5. How does the organism reproduce? If it reproduces sexually, or can do so, does mating occur?
  6. Is the organism capable of learning, that is, of modifying its behavior in response to changes in its environment?
  7. How much differentiation does the organism exhibit, that is, does it contain specialized cells or tissues for such activities as feeding, respiration, excretion, movement, and reproduction? A high degree of differentiation does not necessarily presuppose a higher stage of dimensionality. On the other hand, the simpler the organization of a lifeform, the closer it must be to a pure assembly of cells, with no awareness of anything beyond itself.

6. I in fact classify the perception or experience of higher forms of life as one-, two-, three- and even four- or five-dimensional (see The Dimensions of Experience). One dimensional experience distinguishes solely between self and other. Two dimensional experience can distinguish different groups of others, and is also associated with a two-dimensional or planar view of the environment. Three-dimensional experience is where the sense of individuality emerges, and is closely associated with a three-dimensional view of the environment. Organisms at this stage, which include higher invertebrates and the vertebrates, can distinguish different members of their species from each other. Four-dimensional experience allows the organism to distinguish different individuals over time, and features a significantly enhanced memory. It is also associated with behavior patterns, stereotyped ways of acting that are critical to aggression, courtship and child-rearing, and thus family structures. Five-dimensional perception, largely limited to our own species, allows individuals to maintain their view of other individuals in their absence, and even to perform operations on these thoughts and images.

Though each of these perspectives differs as much from the others as any of them do from the zero-dimensional perspective, all of these perspectives are dualistic, in the sense that they distinguish self from other. We can say that they differ in the extent to which they distinguish different kinds of self and different kinds of others.

7. As with organisms, cells and even atoms can also be said to have higher-dimensional forms of experience. These are associated with the existence of these holons in what I regard as social arrangements. For example, cells in tissues, organs and organ systems must have awareness of other cells, in the most complex cases, of the identities of individual cells, in order to function properly. This is quite analogous to the situation with organisms, because in my understanding, the higher dimensions capable of being perceived by organisms are a direct consequence of their being members of increasingly more complex societies of organisms. These higher dimensional perspectives are really properties that emerge with the society—they are adaptations that help a society strengthen its internal organization--but they manifest themselves as individual properties as well.

8. One of the key problems any large society faces is reproduction. A society does not reproduce as a unit. It depends on reproduction of its individual holons; indeed, this is one of the ways I distinguish between individual and social holons (see The Spectrum of Holons). Since a society cannot reproduce itself as a unit, but can only expand through reproduction of its individual members, its growth can become erratic and uncontrolled. While a society originally evolves as a form of cooperation among its members, these members always remain to some extent competitors as well, and in a very large society, it becomes increasingly difficult to restrain this competition. Emergence of a higher holon restores control to the growth and competitive processes. It ensures that every “society” will grow in the same manner, and that any independent or competitive drives of its members will not be allowed to increase to the extent that they could threaten the survival or even the organization of the society.

9. Inert atoms do not form covalent bonds with other atoms, but they are capable of other, weaker types of interactions. As with contemporary cells, examples of primitive atoms point to but do not actually completely fulfill, an ideal state in which there is no interaction with other.

10. See endnote 6. Cells, like organisms, can have multi-dimensional perspectives. In my understanding, cells in the brain are the most complex type possible, and have very highly dimensional perspectives, 3, 4 or 5.

11. The individual, like the cell in my example, has a perspective of a very high dimensionality, in fact, the highest, 5. While this means it has a highly developed sense of distinction of self vs. other, it also means, seemingly paradoxically, that it is a highly social perspective. I will return to this point later.

12. Kekule's record of the event actually suggests he was not so much dreaming as in a half-asleep state where his mind was very relaxed.

13. Ouspenksy (1961), for example, observed that every holon as he defined them had a characteristic period of time over which several key cyclical processes occurred. These processes included impressions, respiration, the day-night cycle and lifetime. The time over which these processes occurred was progressively longer by a number that he claimed was roughly constant, and which he estimated at about 28,000. For example, a respiratory cycle occurs over a period of time about 28,000 times as long as that of an impression, a day-night cycle is about 28,000 times as long as a respiratory cycle, and a lifetime is about 28,000 times as long as a day-night cycle. Still further, Ouspensky believed that a cycle on one level was equivalent to an adjacent cycle on an adjacent level. Thus the lifetime of a cell is about the same period as the day-night cycle of a human, and the day-night cycle of a human represent the respiratory cycle of the earth.

More recently, and more precisely, network theorists have shown how holons within a social network can have a repeating hierarchical structure that is characterizable with mathematical precision (Ravasz et al. 2002; Rasvasz and Barabasi 2003).

14. Withdrawal from society is of course a time-honored approach to the spiritual path. The success of this approach—assuming that it does work—is that in the absence of direct, day-to-day encounters with others, we have the possibility of seeing more clearly the true nature of these interactions—as thoughts that constantly recreate the vast web of society, what Wilber and the postmodernists call the intersubjective matrix.

15. Wilber might argue that since all levels of existence are originally created by an involutionary process, the highest “level that isn't a level” preceded all physical, material manifestation, and is therefore independent of it. As far as I can tell, this is his view of the origins of existence. But this involutionary model, if he does believe it, appears to conflict directly with his rule that no form of consciousness is disembodied. If the universe began as—more precisely, always was—the highest level, it must also have always been composed of the highest physical manifestations.


Griffin, D.R. (2001) Animal Minds (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Hauser, M.D. (2000) Wild Minds (New York: Henry Holt & Co.)

Ouspensky, P.D. (1961) In Search of the Miraculous (New York: Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich)

Ravasz, E., Somera, A.L., Mongru, D.A., Oltvai, Z.N.,and Barabasi, A.-L. (2002) Hierarchical organization of modularity in metabolic networks. Science, 297, 1551-1555.

Rasvasz, E. and Barabasi, A.-L. (2003) Hierarchical organization in complex networks. Phys Rev E Stat Nonlin Soft Matter Phys 67: 026112

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