Posts Tagged ‘consciousness’

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly.

Vincent to Theo – March 1884 (Letters of Vincent van Gogh page 272)


Last Monday was not my best meditation day.

I was doing quite well till my mind got hooked by my shirt. I found myself suddenly remembering how I thought twice before letting its red corduroy comfort go to the charity shop as part of our current declutter. Red shirt led to blue shirt, which led to blue jacket, blue trousers and Crewe Station. I was there again. Just as I was boarding the train, one foot on the platform and one foot in the air above the step, carrying luggage that should have made it clear I was a passenger, someone tapped me on the shoulder thinking I was a guard and asked me what platform the Liverpool train was leaving from. I turned to look at them and put my foot down between the platform and the train, scraping the skin neatly off my shin as I did so. Fortunately I dropped my bags on the platform and not on the line. I used a tissue to staunch the blood between Crewe and Hereford. Rather than go straight home, I called in on a friend who got out the TCP and Elastoplast. I still remember the sting to this day. I remembered that this was the friend I’d called on once before 20 years earlier, when – and this came vividly back to me despite the span of time – driving home tired down the Callow at the end of a long week, I was overtaking (legally at the time) in the middle lane (they’ve blocked that option since for downhill traffic), when I saw a car coming up the hill doing the same thing. The long lorry I was halfway past was picking up speed. All I could do was brake. As I tried to pull in slightly too soon, I caught the Lada on the back end of the truck. Fortunately the Lada was made of sterner stuff than most cars at the time and didn’t completely cave in or get derailed, but it was pulled out of shape and the near side front tyre was blown. I pulled into the side of the road and, with the help of the lorry driver who had stopped to check I was OK, changed the tyre. The car was slightly wobbly as I drove off and I knew it was not a good idea to drive it all the way home. I was amazed to pass a parked police car on the way with no interest shown on their part. So, I drove to my friend’s and parked the car on his front lawn, the only safe space off the road. He had a bit of a shock when he got home from work. At this point I snapped out of my trance of associations and brought my mind back to the focus of my meditations, shaking of my irritation with myself and my slight reactivation of the Lada-on-the-lawn stress as best I could.

Incidentally, I don’t wear blue anymore when I’m travelling.


For this and other reasons I am revisiting an all-too familiar theme: reflection. To bring on board those who might not have read all my earlier posts on this issue I’ll pull in now a brief quotation from some time ago. It comes from a book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Hayes et al. It is attempting to explain that transient states of mind and mere self-descriptions are all too often mistaken for our true self. To help people step back from such identifications the authors liken the mind to a chessboard. We mistakenly identify with the pieces, not realising we are also, perhaps more truly the board (page 192):

The point is that thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, memories and so on are pieces: they are not you.

Peter Koestenbaum makes essentially the same point more abstractly in his excellent book The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy. Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

Personally, while I find the ACT analogy helpful, I prefer the idea of a mirror and its reflections, partly I suppose because it uses the same word in a different but helpful sense. Our mind or consciousness is the mirror and all our experiences, inside and out, are simply reflections in that mirror: they are not who we are, not even the most intense feelings, our most important plans, or the strongest sense of self. We have to learn to see them as simply the contents of consciousness. Only that way can we tune into deeper and wiser levels of our being. Mindfulness at its best can enable us to identify with pure awareness rather than with whatever transient trigger has grabbed our attention.

I have been working fairly hard (not hard enough probably, as the derailed meditation at the start of this post suggests) to put the insights explored in that sequence of posts into action.

Virginia Woolf in 1902 (for source of image see link)

Capturing Consciousness

It has led into me into some interesting territory.

While I was exploring the concept of transliminality even further back in time I came across A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf edited by her husband Leonard after her death by suicide. I was drawn to examine what she wrote in case it shed light on my attempt to link creativity, thresholds of consciousness and so-called psychotic experiences together.

Long before I could integrate what I found there into my model, my focus of interest had typically moved on: my mind is still more of a butterfly than a bee, despite my best efforts so far.

However, the Woolf issue was still stalking the door of my consciousness, whether I was aware of it or not.

As part of my decluttering, I am in the process, as I have mentioned elsewhere, of checking whether I still need all the books I have bought over the years. I take a book off its shelf at random from time to time, open it and see if I have read it or not. Sometimes there are highlighter pen marks within and I put it back, at least for the time being. Sometimes there aren’t and occasionally it’s not even got my name signed on the flyleaf. In which case I dip into it and read a few random pages. I reported on having done that recently with a biography of Hardy. I repeated the same process with Julia Briggs’ account of the creative life of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf: an inner life.

Same outcome: no way that was going to the Oxfam bookshop.

Why not?

Basically her book was a brilliant tour of the writer’s mind. Within that there were a host of insights into aspects of the creative process related to mental health and reflection, or perhaps more accurately in Woolf’s case, creative introspection. Whatever the right term is, part of her genius lies in her capacity to capture in words the subtleties and complexity of consciousness, including the rambling associative networks that can hijack attention at any moment.

Before we tackle that head on, in the next post I’m going to make a detour via some paintings.


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To download the complete materials click this link Upholders of His Oneness v2.

Each day we drove into Strathallan from Dundee. This was because my health issues meant that I needed to make sure I had enough rest each day. Being a resident at summer school means that you have the benefit of more activities but with that goes a greater expenditure of energy that I couldn’t afford this time round.

So, after the long ribbon of the bridge over the shining waters of the Firth of Tay and the 17 miles of dual carriageway under alternating showers and sunshine, we arrived back at the school in time for prayers and Khazeh Fananapazir’s engaging exploration of the significance of this year. Two hundred years ago Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was born in Tehran. This year therefore Bahá’ís are taking every opportunity to remember His life and connect with Him spiritually, as well as to deepen our understanding of the spiritual connection between Bahá’u’lláh as the Manifestation of God for this day and the Báb as His Herald .

After that, and a cup of coffee and a cake, we headed for our workshop.

Consensus Consciousness

It might help if we begin more or less where we left off. Charles Tart in his book Waking Up.’ begins his analysis of social reality and its impact on the individual by contending (page 9) that ‘Consciousness, particularly its perceptual aspects, creates an internal representation of the outside world, such that we have a good quality “map” of the world and our place in it.’ He doesn’t mince words when he describes what he feels is an important correlative of this (page 11): ‘Our ordinary consciousness is not “natural,” but an acquired product. This has given us both many useful skills and many insane sources of useless suffering.’

He chooses to introduce a phrase that captures this (ibid):

. . . [For the phrase ordinary consciousness] I shall substitute a technical term I introduced some years ago, consensus consciousness, as a reminder of how much everyday consciousness has been shaped by the consensus of belief in our particular culture.

He continues (page 59):

. . . . one of our greatest human abilities, and greatest curses, is our ability to create simulations of the world . . . . These simulations, whether or not they accurately reflect the world, can then trigger emotions. Emotions are a kind of energy, a source of power.

In the workshop at Strathallan School we delved deeply into this down side and its costs from a spiritual point of view. In a mystical work of poetic power and great beauty Bahá’u’lláh writes (Seven Valleys – pages 19-20):

Thus it is that certain invalid souls have confined the lands of knowledge within the wall of self and passion, and clouded them with ignorance and blindness, and have been veiled from the light of the mystic sun and the mysteries of the Eternal Beloved; they have strayed afar from the jewelled wisdom of the lucid Faith of the Lord of Messengers, have been shut out of the sanctuary of the All-Beauteous One, and banished from the Ka’bih of splendour. Such is the worth of the people of this age! . . . . .

Clearly, this kind of tunnel vision is more than enough to account for why Bahá’u’lláh can dismiss much of what we think as superstition, illusion, delusion and ‘vain imaginings.’ There was some discussion in the workshop as to whether invalid should be taken to mean ‘sick’ or ‘unconfirmed/inauthentic.’ Fortunately we had the chance to check out with Khazeh, the presenter of the plenary sessions and a reader of both Arabic and Persian, what the word in the original text meant: he said without the slightest hesitation, ‘sick’.

Also, what we see is still very much in the eye of the beholder. In an exploration which compares reality at the spiritual level to the sun, whose pure light is white, Bahá’u’lláh illustrates how different what we observe is from the light itself (pages 19-20):

In sum, the differences in objects have now been made plain. Thus when the wayfarer gazeth only upon the place of appearance–that is, when he seeth only the many-colored globes –he beholdeth yellow and red and white; hence it is that conflict hath prevailed among the creatures, and a darksome dust from limited souls hath hid the world. And some do gaze upon the effulgence of the light; and some have drunk of the wine of oneness and these see nothing but the sun itself.

It cannot be emphasised too strongly that these subjective differences, which result from the imperfections of our vision, can give rise to utterly toxic conflicts, conflicts whose origins are in essence delusional.

Cleansing the Mirror

As individuals, brainwashed by flawed worldviews, what can we do to transcend the resulting limitations?

In exploring this angle on the issue I am not discounting that steps also need to be taken to address the limitations of our culture, but, in seeking to capture the flow of consultation around the quotations we were considering, it’s easiest to start from here and deal with the wider issues later.

Bahá’u’lláh writes (Gleanings – XXVII):

. . . These energies with which the Day Star of Divine bounty and Source of heavenly guidance hath endowed the reality of man lie, however, latent within him, even as the flame is hidden within the candle and the rays of light are potentially present in the lamp. The radiance of these energies may be obscured by worldly desires even as the light of the sun can be concealed beneath the dust and dross which cover the mirror. Neither the candle nor the lamp can be lighted through their own unaided efforts, nor can it ever be possible for the mirror to free itself from its dross. It is clear and evident that until a fire is kindled the lamp will never be ignited, and unless the dross is blotted out from the face of the mirror it can never represent the image of the sun nor reflect its light and glory.

I have dealt at length elsewhere on this blog with the idea of the human heart as a mirror that needs to be burnished if it is to reflect the light of spiritual reality and that we also need to be sure that we do not mistake what is reflected there for the mirror itself. It is enough at this point simply to quote a writer whose insights, along with my experience of Buddhist meditation, helped prepare me to understand Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation sufficiently to choose the path He reveals to us. What this writer says covers what our consultation on the day disclosed to us about the power and challenges of separating consciousness from its contents, a process he calls reflection.

In his brilliant book on existentialism The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy, Peter Koestenbaum states that (page 69):

[a]nxiety and physical pain are often our experience of the resistances against the act of reflection.

By reflection, amongst other things, he means unhooking ourselves from our ideas.

An example he gives from the clinical context illustrates what he means:

. . . to resist in psychotherapy means to deny the possibility of dissociating consciousness from its object at one particular point . . . To overcome the resistance means success in expanding the field of consciousness and therewith to accrue increased flexibility . . .’

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? In therapy it is the feeling of trust and safety we develop towards the therapist that helps us begin to let go of maladaptive world views, self-concepts and opinions.

This process of reflection, and the detachment it creates and upon which the growth of a deeper capacity to reflect depends, are more a process than an end-state at least in this life.

Koestenbaum explains this (page 73):

The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’

By reflection he means something closely related to meditation.

Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

I feel this brings us in psychotherapeutic terms close to the exact place ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is describing in Paris Talks. These are the quotes we wrestled with at the Summer School, striving to understand the role of silence more fully (page 174-176):

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time — he cannot both speak and meditate.

It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed. . . .

Through the faculty of meditation man attains to eternal life; through it he receives the breath of the Holy Spirit — the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation. . .

Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves. To illustrate this, think of man as endowed with two kinds of sight; when the power of insight is being used the outward power of vision does not see.

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.

. . . Through this faculty man enters into the very Kingdom of God. . . .

The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror; if you put it before earthly objects it will reflect them. Therefore if the spirit of man is contemplating earthly subjects he will be informed of these. . . .

Therefore let us keep this faculty rightly directed — turning it to the heavenly Sun and not to earthly objects — so that we may discover the secrets of the Kingdom, and comprehend the allegories of the Bible and the mysteries of the spirit.

May we indeed become mirrors reflecting the heavenly realities, and may we become so pure as to reflect the stars of heaven.

Bronze mirror, New Kingdom of Egypt, Eighteenth Dynasty, 1540–1296 BC. For source of image see link.

This paved the way for our attempt to understand the relationship between achieving oneness and cleansing the mirror of the heart, which Bahá’u’lláh describes as burnishing, a process of intense friction involving metal against metal, not just picking up a duster and some polish to bring the shine back to a modern glass mirror. Once again a quick confab with Khazeh confirmed that the original word implied effort and friction. This suggests that Bahá’u’lláh may have had the early metal mirrors in mind when He wished to convey how difficult, even painful, the polishing process would be for the heart’s mirror. A Wikipedia article states:

. . . . stone and metal mirrors could be made in very large sizes, but were difficult to polish and get perfectly flat; a process that became more difficult with increased size; so they often produced warped or blurred images. Stone mirrors often had poor reflectivity compared to metals, yet metals scratch or tarnish easily, so they frequently needed polishing. Depending upon the color, both often yielded reflections with poor color rendering.[6] The poor image quality of ancient mirrors explains 1 Corinthians 13‘s reference to seeing “as in a mirror, darkly.”

The art of making glass mirrors was not perfected until the 16th Century.

If we become capable of polishing the mirror of our hearts, then we can potentially become capable of reflecting the pure undivided light of spiritual reality, thus transcending both our inner conflicts and our conflicts with others.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes this possibility in the following words (Selected Writing of ‘Abdul-Baha 1978 – page 76):

For now have the rays of reality from the Sun of the world of existence, united in adoration all the worshippers of this light; and these rays have, through infinite grace, gathered all peoples together within this wide-spreading shelter; therefore must all souls become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

This then will remedy our current conflicted state, wherein we are at war with ourselves as well as with others. This is Bahá’u’lláh’s description of the challenge we face compared with the reality most of us are blind to (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh = CXII):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union. The Great Being saith: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.

He is unequivocal about the role of religion in this healing process (ibid. – CXXVIII):

The religion of God is for love and unity; make it not the cause of enmity and dissension. . . . Conflict and contention are categorically forbidden in His Book. This is a decree of God in this Most Great Revelation.

And now we come to a cusp where we move from looking mainly at the individual to where we look at the community. And here it is that we will see where words can change from misleading labels or names, corrupted by misguided worldviews, to lamps of guidance.

That needs to wait for the next post.

When we got back to Dundee that evening, from the window of the flat where we were staying we could see the lights of a cruiser docked at the harbour side. Though purely material, it had a beauty of its own.

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KW Diag 5 v2I haven’t republished this sequence since 2015. Given my brief look on Monday at Koestenbaum’s levels of consciousness, it seemed worthwhile repeating this sequence which contains an explanation of Wilber’s model.

After re-posting the sequence of articles about Jenny Wade’s theory of the levels of consciousness, I finally got round to reading a book by Ken Wilber that has been lurking on my shelves for 10 years at least, I suspect. It is modestly titled A Theory of Everything: an integral vision for business, politics, science and spirituality.

This is the second of three posts attempting to capture some of the key points which excite me the most about it.

The first post tackled the basic four quadrant model, its concept of holarchy and the possible levels of consciousness development.

Now we look at some of the insights derived from this model, which give it its value.

The final post examines another way the model enriches our understanding of current problems and also outlines what we can do as individuals to lift our own level of consciousness.

What are the potentially testable advantages of thinking this way?

From the BBC's 'America's Left-Right Divide.'

From the BBC’s ‘America’s Left-Right Divide.’

1. Politics

It enables us to see beyond the fractured perspectives of our divisive political system, e.g. that both liberals and conservatives have each grasped a fraction of the truth, but the whole truth will only be available when their confrontational perspectives are integrated and a new and higher standpoint is achieved. He explains this clearly (page 84):

When it comes to the cause of human suffering, liberals tend to believe in exterior causes, whereas conservatives tend to believe in interior causes. That is, if an individual is suffering, the typical liberal tends to blame external social institutions (if you are poor it is because you are oppressed by society), whereas the typical conservative tends to blame internal factors (you are poor because you are lazy).

. . . . The important point is that the first step toward an integralpolitics that unites the best of liberal and conservative is to recognise that both the interior quadrants and the exterior quadrants are equally real and important. We consequently must address both interior factors (values, meaning, morals, the development of consciousness) and exterior factors (economic conditions, material well-being, technological advance, social safety net, environment) – in short, a truly integral politics would emphasise both interior development and exterior development.

2. Balancing the Material with the Spiritualmiracle

This leads onto a major issue that certainly resonates with the Bahá’í perspective, with its strong emphasis on the spiritual as well as the practical education of children. Wilber makes clear that we have to develop our understanding of consciousness as well as of matter if we are to truly develop as individuals and as a society (page 88):

So here is the truly odd political choice that we are given today: a sick version of a higher level versus a healthy version of a lower level – liberalism versus conservatism.

The point is that a truly integral politics would embrace a healthy version of the higher level – namely, grounded in the postconventional/world centric waves of development, it would encourage both interior development and exterior development – the growth and development of consciousness and subjective well-being, as well as the growth and development of economic, social, and material well-being.

Why does he describe liberalism as a sick version of a higher level and conservatism as a healthy version of a lower level? This is where the depth issue comes into play.

To cut to the core of his point he feels that conservatism is healthily rooted in the socio-centric conventional level of development (page 85: the blue level as he defines it – a very appropriate colour for the UK). Its problem derives from the relatively incomplete perspective available to that level.

With the Enlightenment, came a major shift from blue to orange and liberalism emerged from the shadows.

There was a problem though, in Wilber’s view (page 86):

Now had liberalism been just that… the product of an evolutionary advance from ethnocentric to world centric, it would have won the day, pure and simple. But, in fact, liberalism arose in a climate that I have called flatland. Flatland – or scientific materialism – is the belief that only matter is real, and that only narrow science has any claim to truth. Narrow science… is the science of any right-hand domain, whether that be atomistic science of the Upper Right or systems science of the Lower Right. Flatland, in other words, is the belief that only the Right-Hand quadrants are real.

Wilber argues (his italics) that ‘liberalism became the political champion of flatland.’ Furthermore, liberalism, given the primacy it awarded to material exterior forces, dismissed interiors as equivalent and irrelevant. He feels this leads to an inherent contradiction. He states (page 87):

Liberalism was itself the product of a whole series of interior stages of consciousness development – from egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric – whereupon it turned around and denied the importance or even the existence of those interior levels of development! Liberalism, in championing only exterior causation (i.e. flat land), denied the interior path that produced liberalism. The liberal stance itself is the product of stages that it then denies – and there is the inherent contradiction.

He claims that liberalism holds that ‘all interiors are equal – no stance is better than another. There are no waves, stages, or levels of consciousness, for that would make a ranking judgement, and ranking is very, very bad.’

The antagonism liberals will clearly express towards conservatives presumably derives from the conservative’s judgemental and patronising stance towards other perspectives and life choices than their own. This prejudice against a legitimate evaluation of the relative strengths and weaknesses of all perspectives blinkers them to the developmental implications of levels of consciousness and our need to progress through all lower ones to reach any of the higher levels.

Wilber discusses the possibility of seeing levels as different in terms of their relative maturity, but accepting them wholeheartedly as necessary and inevitable stages through which we all need to progress as individuals and societies (page 56):

Even if every society on earth was established fully at second tier [the highest], nonetheless every infant born in every society still has to start at level 1, at beige, at sensorimotor instincts and perceptions, and then must grow and evolve through purple magic, red and blue myth, orange rationalism, green sensitivity, and into yellow and turquoise second tier (on the way to the transpersonal). All of those waves have important tasks and functions; all of them are taken up and included in subsequent waves; none of them can be bypassed; and none of them can be demeaned without grave consequences to self and society.

Medina in his book, Faith, Physics & Psychology, takes issue with what he feels is Wilber’s arrogant implication that it is impossible for someone in a lower level society to leap to a higher level of consciousness (page 136):

. . . integral theorists actually support the idea that, out of the entire human population in the world, only an elite cadre of Westerners presently has the capacity to achieve the highest levels of human development.

For reasons I explain in the next post I am not sure his criticism is entirely warranted though I can see why he came to the conclusion he did.

Also Michelle Mairesse picks up on an issue that indicates how careful we need to be before leaping to any conclusions. She is basing her point on two of Wilber’s earlier books – The Marriage of Sense and Soul and A Brief History of Everything – but it none the less applies here as well, I feel.

Although he does lip service to all the perennial traditions, Wilber sees the severe Eastern Zen tradition as the summit of mysticism, a rather elitist view for one who lauds the Western democratic tradition. We can’t help wondering why China and Japan, the countries where the majority of Zen meditators have lived and attained Enlightenment, have not experienced a trickle-down effect.

There is, of course, a pragmatic aspect to Zen that has meant, rather as is the case with mindfulness practice now, that it was prone to be placed in the service of activities, such as the waging of war, far removed from the value system Zen was rooted in.

Rifkin’s position is closer to Wilber’s in some respects but built on very different non-transcendent foundations (page 451):

The key finding, according to the researchers, is that “individual security increases empathy.”

. . . .

Empathy exists in every culture. The issue is always how extended or restricted it is. In survival societies, empathic bonds are less developed, meager, and reserved for a narrow category of relationships. . . .

As energy/communications revolutions establish more complex social structures and extend the human domain over time and space, new cosmologies serve like a giant overarching frame for enlarging the imaginative bonds and empathy. Theological consciousness allowed individuals to identify with non-kin and anonymous others and, by way of religious affiliation, to incorporate them into the empathic fold. . . . Ideological consciousness extended the empathic borders geographically to nation states.

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Two Important Insights

This brings us to two extremely important ways that this model for me enriches our analyses of current problems: the problems are firstly, “In a global world how do we understand the risks that come from technological advances especially in terms of weaponry being relatively easily available to world views that are essentially narrower than the cultures that created the advances?” This issue will be discussed today.

Secondly “Why is pluralism so testing and potentially self-destructive?” That will have to wait for the last post in this series.

Weapons and Levels:

This issue is quite simple to explain. He clarifies it on page 103:

One of the greatest problems and constant dangers faced by humanity is simply this: the Right-Hand quadrants are all material, and once a material entity has been produced, it can be used by individuals who are at virtually any level of interior development. . . . Nobody at a worldcentric level of moral consciousness would happily unleash the atom bomb, but somebody at a preconventional, red-meme, egocentric level would quite cheerily bomb the hell [out] of pretty much anybody who got in its way.

Jeremy Rifkin in his thought-provoking 2009 book The Empathic Civilization makes essentially the same point from a different perspective (page 487):

Weapons of mass destruction, once the preserve of elites, are becoming more democratised with each passing day.  A growing number of security experts believe that it is no longer even possible to keep weapons of mass destruction locked up and out of the hands of rogue governments, terrorist groups, or just deranged individuals.

What Wilber goes on to say resonates strongly with the Bahá’í position, which asserts that science and religion are like the wings of a bird, and both must develop in tandem if we are to fly.

Speaking of religion and science, the two great wings with which the bird of human kind is able to soar, He said: “Scientific discoveries have increased material civilization. There is in existence a stupendous force, as yet, happily undiscovered by man. Let us supplicate God, the Beloved, that this force be not discovered by science until spiritual civilization shall dominate the human mind. In the hands of men of lower nature, this power would be able to destroy the whole earth.”

(From Lady Blomfield quoting ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in The Chosen Highway – page 52)

Wilber expresses almost the same idea (page 103-104):

Until the modern era, this problem was limited in its means because the technologies themselves were quite limited. You can only inflict so much damage on the biosphere, and on other human beings, with a bow and arrow. But with the emergence of modernity and the orange meme and its sweeping scientific capacities, humanity began producing orange-level technology when most of humanity were still at red or blue levels of moral consciousness. . . . . Global catastrophes, for the first time in history, became possible and even likely. From atomic holocaust to ecological suicide, humanity began facing on a massive scale its single most fundamental problem: lack of integral development. . . . The lack of integral growth might signal the end of humanity itself.

He makes another telling point, which resonates strongly with me, who grew up in the shadow of the Second World War (page 117):

The same sort of cross-level access could occur within a given culture: Auschwitz was the product of a rational-technological capacity (orange) pressed into the hands of intensely pre-rational (red/blue) ethnocentric aggression.

This means that the destructiveness of this kind of asymmetry kicks in whether we are talking about the atom bomb or about trolling on the internet. The damage an individual or group operating ethno- or egocentrically can inflict has been massively magnified with the appearance of high order technology.

Some possible complications:

In his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology, John Fitzgerald Medina raises a crucial issue that makes it clear that the ways that levels operate is more complex than perhaps Wilber’s analysis clarifies. I will be returning to Medina’s book in a later sequence of posts so for now I will put his point simply in my own words.

He argues that when the technologically advanced but morally limited English invaders arrived in America, they ruthlessly purged the Native Americans from their inconvenient occupation of land the English wanted to exploit. This combination of robbery and genocide was made possible by the superiority of the rifle over the bow and arrow.

The English disparaged the complex but apparently haphazard agricultural system of the Native Americans and assumed that because there was no evidence of monoculture they were not using the land so, under their version of Christianity, it could therefore be expropriated. Their monotheistic Christianity, with its powerful old Testament inheritance, also failed to see any value in the idea of interconnectedness and the Great Spirit, so they dismissed the Native Americans as primitive, superstitious and backward.

When it came to setting up a federated system of their own, however, the fathers of the United States plagiarised the Native American sophisticated democratic system of the Iroquois Confederacy later to become the Six Nations, without, unfortunately, building in any trace of their respect for woman.

All this seems to demonstrate that homegrown technological development is no guarantee at all of moral advancement. The former can outstrip the latter within a culture with devastating consequences, either for that culture or for others with which it comes into contact. The modern world, according to the Bahá’í World Centre, is in the grip of a similar delusional script: the power brokers of the industrialised technically advanced Western world are convinced that their version of reality is also more highly developed morally than that found anywhere else.

Richard Schweder’s compelling account of his reexamination of Kohlberg’s comparison of American and Hindu moral development is an interesting example of where this can lead an expert research team. Kohlberg originally concluded that Hinduism lagged far behind the far more morally sophisticated Americans.

Schweder describes his findings in his book Thinking Through Cultures. His very different findings hinge upon his recognition that Westerners confidently and accurately code Western moral thinking as expressed by study subjects because they understand the implicit subtext, and they confidently and inaccurately code the moral thinking as expressed by subjects from other cultures because they haven’t a clue about the implicit subtext. He explains (page 225):

From expanding the Babaji interview text and identifying its implicit argument structure it seems apparent that the interview gives articulate expression to an alternative form of postconventional reasoning that has no place in Kohlberg’s stage scheme. In a sense the stage scheme is exploded by its own inability to classify adequately the moral reasoning of the Babaji. One may begin to wonder how many other moral development interviews coded as stage 3/4 would turn out to be alternative forms of postconventional reasoning, if we only permitted ourselves to move from what is said to what is unsaid, to expand the interview text and identify its implicit argument structure.

The argument about what happens when advanced technology falls into the hands of the morally handicapped extends a fortiori to current terrors such as from ISIL even though the book came out before this particular variation of the problem existed (ibid.):

Today, almost any ethnic tribe or feudal order can gain access to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons that historically they would never have been able to produce themselves, and the results are literally explosive.

The issue of pluralism will have to wait until next time along with what we can do as individuals.

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I haven’t republished this sequence since 2015. Given my brief look on Monday at Koestenbaum’s levels of consciousness, it seemed worthwhile repeating this sequence which contains an explanation of Wilber’s model. 

After re-posting the sequence of articles about Jenny Wade’s theory of the levels of consciousness, I finally got round to reading a book by Ken Wilber that has been lurking on my shelves for 10 years at least, I suspect. It is modestly titled A Theory of Everything: an integral vision for business, politics, science and spirituality. (This is not to be confused with a Bahá’í book by Robert Parry with a slightly more unassuming title, A Theory of Almost Everything, which had come out seven years earlier in 1993 or with Stephen Hawking’s unauthorised The Theory of Everything, which came out in 2007.) The title, of course, is partly tongue in cheek but not entirely. The book does have an ambitious agenda and one that understandably excites me given my attempts to organise my experience and thinking around the idea of interconnectedness (see diagram above).

Hang on a moment though. While reading Wilber’s book and drafting the review, in rapid succession I gobbled up two other tomes.

First, after something like four years, I finally finished reading The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin. Such a time span is not unusual for me as I read books on rather the same principle as they make Russian dolls. Each book I start triggers me to start reading another until I have several books in progress nested one within the other. Often the one I started last is finished first before I trace my steps back to its predecessor (or not, as the case may be). You can see elements of this pattern as I describe my process now with these three books.

I very much want to record my response to this massive survey of the current state of our civilisation and its origins but I am aware that it overlaps with Wilber’s thesis in some of it themes.

As if that were not complicated enough, a friend left a comment on my blog recommending I look at John Fitzgerald Medina’s book, Faith, Physics & Psychology. Not only does this book contain a detailed critique of Wilber, and cannot be ignored for that reason alone, but it also torpedoed some of my blindly accepted assumptions about the Native American civilisation and if they sink completely upon further investigation of the facts they were clearly prejudices. His book also caused me to rehabilitate Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from my relatively low opinion of it.

There is no way I can do justice to the combined 1000 plus pages of these two books and Wilber’s theory all in one sequence of posts without driving you all nuts. So, I have decided to go ahead and publish this sequence on Wilber, with some acknowledgement of Medina’s caveats and Rifkin’s perspectives, before then exploring in appropriate depth the other two books at greater leisure over a longer time span.

Did I hear a sigh of relief?

The Quadrants

While I particularly want to focus on certain aspects of Wilber’s model in detail, especially where he deals with how his way of looking at things helps us analyse current challenges (the second post) and how we might focus our energies better on progressing our own personal development (the third post), I do need to give a sense of the overview first, I think.

KW 4 Quadrants brief

The best place to start the overview is with a series of diagrams. The first is a very simple schematic (page 71).

First of all we need to understand the distinctions he is making which will be located in four quadrants. The left hand quadrants are what he terms ‘subjective,’ by which he means experiential i.e. located within our consciousness. Consciousness can be either individual and concerned with our thoughts, feelings and decisions (Upper Left), or collective and concerned with our shared understanding of the world and what we derive from that (Lower Left). The right hand quadrants focus on the external, material and objectively observable and measurable. The Upper Right focuses on the individual, for example studying the brain, and the Lower Right focuses on the collective, for example social structures.

The next diagram goes into more detail about the individual in relation to his model of reality. It is important to hold these in mind as an aid to understanding the eventual full complexity of what he goes on to unpack in terms of all the implications of the quadrants. The Lower Right terrestrial or earthly, which includes social structures and systems in the observable world, correlates with the body/brain. The Mind-Soul-Spirit hierarchy at the individual level is an Upper Left system and as a culture is at the bottom left. The latter two obviously interpenetrate. I will say more about that later. Reality is the ground on which all this stands.

Finally, we need to take a closer look at this more complicated diagram in order to see how different levels are at work in each quadrant.

KW 4 Quadrants full

It is best not to get too concerned about some of the detail in the diagram above, especially when terms such as ‘uroboric’ (cyclical, self-devouring) will probably mean nothing at all without a dictionary at hand and even with one the exact implications will still not be clear.

His theory of quadrants is not without its critics, among them Michelle Mairesse. She feels they are ‘rather Procrustean.’ She also takes issue with specifics. She quotes, for example, A Brief History of Everything – page 99):

Wilber goes on to adduce many things from his display of nests. “Whereas everything in the Right Hand has simple location, nothing in the Left Hand path has simple location. This doesn’t mean that value, consciousness, pride, desire aren’t real, and this is where interpretation comes in. Surfaces can be seen, but depth must be interpreted.” . . . .

Unfortunately, his Quadrants appear to be skewed to favor his interpretations. His upper Right-Hand Quadrant, for example, begins at the atomic level. Why not the sub-atomic level? Is it because not all sub-atomic particles have simple location?

Levels and Holons

What most needs to be understood for present purposes is that each quadrant contains its own form of development. This is perhaps easier to see in the right quadrants. Atoms are, perhaps misleadingly, the simplest form in the Upper Right and the sequence from there is easy to track until SF1 arrives.

I don’t plan to deal with those conceptual challenges in detail as they are not core issues for present purposes. What is important though is to understand one of his main points: that every lower stage in all quadrants is contained in the next one above. This constitutes a ‘holarchy’ in his terminology. He explains as follows (page 40):

The ingredients of these hierarchies are holons. A holon is part of a whole that is a part of other wholes. For example, a whole atom is part of a whole molecule; a whole molecule is part of a whole-cell; a whole cell is part of a whole organism. . . . . Reality is composed of neither holes nor parts, but wholes/parts, or holons. Reality in all domains is basically composed of holons.

An acceptance of the reality of holons, as per this model, is what for Wilber constitutes second tier thinking, a higher level than the far more prevalent first tier thinking.

He is very keen that we should understand the power of the Left Hand Quadrants, which he feels have been underexplored and undervalued in current materialistic narrow science paradigms. A key point for him is that this means we have failed to understand fully the depth effects at work on the consciousness side of the diagram: this, combined with a failure to understand the way this kind of nested hierarchy works, accounts for many of our problems and our blindness to their possible solutions.

Levels of Consciousness

We need next to look at his analysis of the different levels of development in the two left hand quadrants by means of one of his more user friendly diagrams. His model is similar but not identical to that of Jenny Wade, already explored on this blog (see links in the opening sentence of this post).

We’ll start with his diagram, hopefully made easier to digest by the numbering and colours I have added. From a Bahá’í point of view, that he as well as Wade has nine levels is a bonus.

KW Diag 5 v2

1. Level of basic survival (Archaic-Instinctual): Seen in first human societies and in new born infants. Approximately 0.1% of the world’s population.

2. Level of animistic thinking, good-bad dichotomies (Magical-Animistic): Seen in magical ethnic beliefs, gangs and corporate ‘tribes.’ Approximately 10% of the world’s population.

3. Level of the self as distinct from the tribe: egocentric (Power Gods): Seen in feudal kingdoms, gang leaders, and New-Age Narcissism. 20% of the population: 5% of the power.

4. Level of meaning, direction and purpose (Mythic Order): based on a ruler and rules. Seen in codes of chivalry, totalitarianism and religious fundamentalism. 40% of the population: 30% of the power.[1]

5. At this level or ‘wave’ the self seeks truth and meaning in individualistic terms (Scientific Achievement): highly achievement-oriented. Seen in the Enlightenment, Wall Street, secular humanism and liberal self-interest. 30% of the world’s population: 50% of the power.

6. The level of communitarian bonding, ecological sensitivity and networking (The Sensitive Self): Seen in postmodernism, humanistic psychology, liberation theology, Greenpeace etc. 10% of the population, 15% of the power.

You can see from what he describes that the level of development in the individual can be closely paralleled by the social/cultural level and vice versa. A person functioning at the same level as the social culture (s)he inhabits will be more comfortable than someone who is not.

From there it gets even more interesting for me.

With the completion of the green meme, human consciousness is poised for a quantum jump into ‘second-tier thinking.’

(I will ignore the fact that a quantum jump for a physicist is tiny. As the BBC put it, when talking about the Bond series ‘most of us are familiar with the term quantum leap, to describe a sudden and large-scale-shift in something. Physicists however also use this in the opposite sense, a typical quantum leap being the smallest possible change in the energy level of an electron.’ So, I’ll see this as a metaphor of the qualitative difference between the two tiers.)

He quotes Clare Graves (page 11) as describing it as a ‘momentous leap’ where ‘a chasm of unbelievable depth of meaning is crossed.’ We can then think ‘bothvertically and horizontally.’ We ‘vividly grasp the entire spectrum of interior development.’ We see how important ‘each level, each meme, each wave’ is and that ‘each wave goes beyond . . . its predecessor, and yet it includes or embraces it in its own makeup.’ He gives the example of the cell again, which ‘transcends but includes molecules, which transcend but include atoms.’

He contends (page 12) that ‘none of the first tier memes… can fully appreciate the existence of the other memes.’ They each think their own world-view is correct and attack if it is challenged. On the other hand, ‘second-tier thinking appreciates the necessary role which all of the various memes play.’ It is ‘instrumental in moving from relativism to holism, or from pluralism to integralism.’

We’ll be looking at aspects of that in more detail later.

He then goes on to complete his description, at least as far as he can.

7. At this integrative level life is seen as a kaleidoscope of natural hierarchies. 1% of the population: 5% of the power.[2]

8. At this holistic level energies unite feeling with knowledge. It sometimes involves the emergence of a new spirituality and detects mystical forces. 0.1% of the population: 1% of the power.

Second tier thinking is, in his view, the ‘leading edge’ of ‘collective human evolution.’

He gives no detailed description of level 9, probably because he feels no one alive is there yet.

Getting Bogged down in Green

A problem he is acutely aware of is that level 6 (green) gets stuck.

He gives it credit for its tolerant pluralism. It has protected human rights and the environment. It has rightly criticized the ‘often exclusionary, patriarchal, sexist, and colonialistic agendas’ of the blue and orange levels below it. But, ‘it has also turned its guns on all post green stages as well, with the most unfortunate results.’ It is highly ‘subjectivist.’ Individual preferences largely determine truth values, if no harm is being done: ‘what is right is simply what individuals and cultures have agreed upon at any given moment; there are no universal claims for knowledge or truth; each person is free to find his or her own values . . .’

In his view, and he goes on to explore this in a whole chapter to itself, ‘because pluralistic relativism has such an intensely subjectivistic stance, it is especially prey to narcissism.’ This attraction is so strong (page 28) people get ‘fixated to the green meme’ and will not let it go so they can move onwards and upwards.

Rifkin has much to say about this trap of narcissism to which I will be returning in far more detail in a separate sequence of posts. A brief quote will have to do for now (page 417):

The countercultural movement of the 1960s and early 1970s was not without its own shortcomings. More than a few observers looked into the eyes of the young free spirits and saw not a new level of empathic sensibility but only a rampant, carefree narcissism.

He also quotes an American sociologist, Philip Rieff (page 418):

Comparing theological consciousness with the new psychological consciousness, Rieff snorted that while ‘religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased.’ . . . . [T]he evocation of feelings becomes the ultimate “turn on” and being a person of good character, accountable to immutable truths is replaced by an actor playing out various identities while engaged in pleasurable mind games.

In the interests of brevity and moving onto other key areas I have simplified his argument here and anyone interested in grasping his full meaning should read chapter 2 –  ‘Boomeritis’  – for themselves.

We will need to wait till the next post to explore some of the implications of all this. Hopefully things will become a bit less technical then.


[1] It is perhaps worth adding that, in Wade’s view expressed in Changes of Mind,conformist awareness (page 117) ‘is thought to represent the mainstream consciousness in civilised cultures, and it is tellingly labelled institutional, conventional, traditional, and conformist – the designation used here.’ The implication is that a huge proportion of people will currently live their whole life at this level in our culture. Studies such as those by Pettigrew of discrimination under apartheid in South Africa and discrimination in the American south of the 60s, strongly suggest that as much as 60% of any population could be in the conformist category. Stanley Milgram’s and Philip Zimbardo’s separate but equally disturbing findings point in the same direction.

For a recent discussion of where this desire to conform can lead us see the Guardian article on whistle blowing. This is why people who blow the whistle on powerful organisations are all too often left isolated, deserted even by those who said they would stand by them. Andrew Smith in the Guardian piece explains: ‘. . . even the strongest-willed individuals find the burden of standing out from the crowd unbearable over time . . . .  and we have a clear picture of ourselves as social creatures who, for the most part, would rather be wrong than isolated.’

[2] I have found it helpful to bear in mind Wade’s views on those levels, which in her hierarchy precede this one and in my view correspond to Wilber’s fairly closely. Her affiliative consciousness (his ‘communitarian’) is seen by Wade as one of two possible developments from her conformist level (his ‘mythic’). To simplify somewhat, if a developing self is inclined towards right-brain functioning with an emphasis on intuition and affect, the next stage will be affiliative. A left-brain bias, with a greater interest in rules than feelings, will move a developing self towards Achievement mode (Wilber’s ‘individualistic/scientific’). People may shift between these two levels before moving higher, if they ever do.

In this and many other ways I have found her model both subtler and more flexible than I understand his to be, and therefore more convincing. Rather than repeat hers here instead of his, as I was initially tempted to do, I thought it only fair (as well as less confusing) to quote his model and his colours. There are also other theories about levels of consciousness, Dabrowski’s for instance whose ideas I will be posting about later this week, and Maslow’s whose perspective I will be looking at when I come to consider John Fitzgerald Medina’s book Faith, Physics & Psychology.

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The world’s population currently consumes the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year, according to analysis by the Global Footprint Network. Photograph: NASA (For source see link)

. . . .even as the human body in this world, which is outwardly composed of different limbs and organs, is in reality a closely integrated, coherent entity, similarly the structure of the physical world is like unto a single being whose limbs and members are inseparably linked together.

(Abdu’l-Bahá, from a previously untranslated Tablet quoted in part in a statement from the Bahá’í International Community Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Baha’i Faith)

The Moral Imagination

As I explained in the previous posts, in his long and enthralling book on altruism, Ricard has used reason brilliantly to advocate altruism as the solution to our personal and global problems. That in itself makes it an essential read for those of us engaged in understanding these issues more deeply.

He would be the first to agree, I hope, that an intellectual conviction in altruism is not going to be sufficient to motivate enough people to rise to the level of sacrifice required for long enough to achieve the necessary effect. In fact, his long examination of the power of Buddhist meditation within its spiritual context shows that it produces greater levels of compassion and altruism than do shorter experiences of meditation divorced from its roots. The necessary devotion to meditate for the periods of time required to achieve this effect would be impossible to sustain, in my view, without the faith in the discipline that goes with it.

He ends his book, it seems to me, rather in the same trap as Rifkin did. And I’m afraid I have the same response, despite my admiration and respect for the compelling case he marshals in the seven hundred pages it took him five years to write.

I understand the strength of Rifkin’s sense that humanity’s progress has put us within reach of Ricard’s hope of a sufficiently widespread altruism. Robert Wright puts the same hope in slightly different terms in his book The Evolution of God.

He states (page 428):

The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that (page 428-429):

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

He rescues this from cliché by pointing out that the idea of common humanity may be a self-evident point when we read or hear it, but it’s far from obvious if you look at the way we act. This is because we are under the illusion that we are special (page 429):

We all base our daily lives on this premise – that our welfare is more important than the welfare of pretty much anyone else, with the possible exception of close kin. . . . We see our own resentments as bona fide grievances and we see the grievances of others as mere resentments.

He links the progress of humanity with the application of the unifying insight in daily life (page 429):

. . . . the salvation of the global social system entails moral progress not just in the sense of human welfare; there has to be as a prerequisite for that growth, a closer encounter by individual human beings with moral truth.

He feels that it is inevitable that we will either move closer to moral truth or descend into chaos. He feels that (ibid):

. . . history has driven us closer and closer to moral truth, and now our moving still closer to moral truth is the only path to salvation . . .

by which he means salvation of the social structure. He feels (page 430) that religions that have ‘failed to align individual salvation with social salvation have not, in the end, fared well.’

However, I realise that just as it is impossible for Rifkin conclusively to prove that any hope of empathic rescue from our current predicament must come from our material nature because that is all there is, or for Ricard to prove that an intellectual conviction in the value of altruism is the best hope we have, I cannot conclusively prove to everyone’s satisfaction that

(a) these in themselves could never be sufficient, and

(b) that is OK because we can draw upon transcendent powers.

That though is what I believe.

While Bahá’ís have a model for how this task might be accomplished, it is not a task for Bahá’ís alone. It would be impossible. All people of good will across the planet need to play their part according to their sense of what is required of them.

Moving to a Higher Level

While I accept that the capacity for a high degree of empathy is wired into our brains, I also strongly believe that a higher level again can be reached, with proportionately more leverage in terms of sustained action, if we also can internalise a sense of what the Quakers term ‘That of God’ which is in all of us. Then we will not only have a strong sense of our links to one another but we will also have the confidence to act against apparently overwhelming odds that comes from the knowledge that we human beings are not alone. Bahá’u’lláh says (Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

Only when we have such a sense of powerful support and shared humanity does it seem to me that we can reach that tipping point, when most of the world of humanity will be prepared and able to put their weight effectively against the wheel of redemptive change, and only then will disaster be averted.

Though I sympathised with Rifkin’s and Ricard’s perspective then as I do now with Klein’s, I am not convinced it will be enough. The changes that need to be made are major, effortful, and must be sustained over decades if not centuries. Possibly, without something extra, we would be like the Hero of Haarlem, trying to save the village by putting our finger in the dike of humanity’s crisis, only this time it is leaking in too many places: we would lack the capacity to fully understand what to do, to take effective action or to endure the necessary strain for the time required.

Perhaps we need to acknowledge that there are spiritual powers upon which we should be prepared to draw to meet the challenges of our complex global industrialised empire – I’d rather not use the word civilisation. Perhaps we need to access the wisdom of a collective Mind or Soul if we are to understand the problems we face in the first place and draw on the strength of a spiritual dimension before we can even dream of implementing the solutions for the required amount of time.

The Importance of Detachment

I have referred throughout this sequence to the importance of reflection for the individual and consultation for communities as trance and pattern breakers that can free us from the shackles of convention and the veils of illusion. What I have not spelled out until now is that for these two disciplines to work for us at their most powerful there has to be a third element present: detachment. Detachment is the essential catalyst. If there is no such detachment then neither reflection nor consultation would achieve more for us outside this spiritual context than would borrowing meditation alone from the Buddhists, as I described earlier.

The translations of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s comments in Paris Talks use the terms reflection, contemplation and meditation almost interchangeably. The full context strongly suggests that reflection depends upon detachment and that detachment connects us with God.

Through the faculty of meditation man attains to eternal life; through it he receives the breath of the Holy Spirit—the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation. . . .

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.

The existentialist philosopher, Peter Koestenbaum, comes to a similar conclusion concerning the end result of stepping back from our programmed identifications through the process of reflection.

He explains this in his seminal book The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy (page 73):

The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’

By reflection he means something closely related to meditation.

Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

Similarly ‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes clear in his writings that one of the key prerequisites for consultation is detachment:

The prime requisites for them that take counsel together are purity of motive, radiance of spirit, detachment from all else save God, attraction to His Divine Fragrances, humility and lowliness amongst His loved ones, patience and long-suffering in difficulties and servitude to His exalted Threshold.

It is possible to argue that detachment is achievable without any belief in a transcendent dimension or in any power beyond those of the natural world. I would have to agree that a degree of detachment is indeed possible within those constraints.

However, from a Bahá’í point of view, there are two quotations of particular relevance here.

The first is from the Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh (Arabic no. 68):

O Children of Men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.

And the second from the Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh (page 155):

The essence of detachment is for man to turn his face towards the courts of the Lord, to enter His Presence, behold His Countenance, and stand as witness before Him.

These clearly suggest that the realisation of the highest degree of detachment is dependent upon an acceptance of and obedience to a spiritual power greater than ourselves.


I have explored at length on this blog from where the motivation can be derived to persevere in the necessary remedial actions for sufficiently long to create a major and enduring paradigm and action pattern shift and why that is necessary not only for our personal wellbeing but also for our collective survival. We need to realise how much we disown and to accept that this disowning in all its forms has to be transcended.

But we need more than that. We need a sense of how best to transcend our disowning.

I have used disowning as my catchword for the ways we blind ourselves to what we do not want to know. Part of the reason for using this word is that it also implies that we are refusing to own up to our neglect. When we own up to it and fully experience the necessary shock and revulsion at our own failures we will then have taken the first step on the road to remedying our defects. I have also argued that we need to not only exert ourselves to put into effect the individual and group skills that will generate viable solutions to the problems that confront us, but we will also have to keep up our efforts at an extremely high level for very long periods of time, over centuries if necessary.

The Universal House of Justice describes it in a letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran dated 2 March 2013:

Yet, however promising the rise in collective consciousness may be, it should be seen as only the first step of a process that will take decades—nay, centuries—to unfold.

This therefore for me entails also recognising that we have to have faith in some form of transcendent power to enhance all we do, to motivate us to persist for as long as necessary, and to lift our endeavours to the necessary heights of creativity and healing. It seems to me that everything we love depends upon our acting in this way from now on and indefinitely.

If not, the chances are we will give up too soon or fail to do as much as we are able.

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O SON OF SPIRIT! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside Me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words No. 13)

Rings of Self True self v2

In the past I have made various attempts to articulate what I mean by reflection and why it matters. This is one that seems worth re-publishing at this point. This is the last in the sequence of four.


I have to be honest. The main benefits of meditation that I have achieved so far are a calm state of consciousness, a steady groundedness and an intermittent connection with my subliminal mind. No mystical moments or experience of my Soul – so far as I’m aware at least. I could’ve been bathing in bliss, I suppose, and just not realised it. In any case it wouldn’t count for present purposes if I didn’t know it.

In fact, it seems that nothing much has changed since May 1982, when I wrote in my diary, after about a year of consistent meditation:

I have been astonished at the power of meditation to help me bring about fundamental changes in my thinking and orientation…, and all that without any dramatic experiences within the period of meditation. In fact, even the simplest aspects of meditation are a hard struggle – maintaining the posture, following the breath, passive watchfulness and not fidgeting. It takes all my concentration to achieve any one of those for the briefest period.

I think I might have been selling myself short a bit there.

There seemed to have been a flicker of something more significant a few days later when I commented:

I finally achieved an experience unlike any other. I felt my being forced open by something which dissolved my boundaries, physical and mental. There was, for a brief moment, neither inside nor outside. My self as I knew it shrank to a few fragments clinging to the edges of this something which ‘I’ had become or which had become me or which I always am deep down. I was frightened. I dared not quite let the experience be.

Although there was a repeat of that some weeks later, I came to feel that it was probably an artefact of the way my breathing slowed as my meditation got deeper, and I have never been able to entice any such experience without reducing my breathing in a way that creates a blending sort of buzz in my brain that goes nowhere and probably means nothing.

So, when it comes to writing about the True Self I’m going to have to rely on the testimony of others even though perhaps the main purpose of meditation for me is to achieve contact with that part of me which is really all that matters about me, if it exists as I believe it does.

Not exactly brimming with confidence, am I?

The ‘No Self’ Issue

I am aware that I have already posted at some length on the ‘No Self’ position so I’ll rehash that quickly now before moving onto slightly different ground. Last December I posted on this issue, looking at Sam Harris’s argument in An Atheist’s Guide to Spirituality that there is no ‘real self,’ and concluded:

To explore this further with some hope of clarity I need to go back to something Harris says: ‘The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows.’

He may have disposed of the self in a way that preserves his atheism intact. What he skates over are the implications of the consciousness with which he is left. I can see that we are close to Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the self as it merges back into the ground of being – blending its drop into the ocean once more.

But there’s a catch, isn’t there? There is still some kind of consciousness albeit without the usual boundaries. There is still an awareness with which he is connected and whose experience he remembers even if he cannot sustain that kind of awareness for long.

Setting aside my sense, which I have explored at length elsewhere, that the mere existence of consciousness warrants a transcendent explanation, where does this leave me now?


For source of image see link.

NDEs and OBEs

In that post I launched into a consideration of the evidence that suggests the mind is not reducible to the body/brain and it may even survive bodily extinction. Elsewhere I have explored at length the evidence Near-Death-Experiences (NDEs) provide to support the idea that the mind or consciousness is not dependent upon or reducible to the brain.

There are also examples in the NDE literature that in those states of consciousness people have access to levels of understanding far beyond those accessible in ordinary consciousness. For example, a respondent to Raymond Moody wrote (quoted in Ken Ring’s Lessons from the Light – page 177):

One big thing I learned when I died was that we are all part of one big, living universe. If we think we can hurt another person or another living thing without hurting ourselves, we are sadly mistaken. I look at a forest are a flower or a bird now, and say, ‘That is me, part of me.’ We are connected with all things and if we send love along these connections, then we are happy.

Right now in this post, though, I am looking for any evidence that suggests there are people who have connected with that transcendent aspect of themselves outside the NDE context and that this is something the rest of us might be able to achieve at least momentarily and possibly at will in our ordinary lives. I also would like to examine evidence that might indicate that by experiencing this Mind we can access levels of wiser understanding than are available in ordinary consciousness.

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, out-of-body experiences, while sometimes giving access to factual information at least anecdotally, do not seem to bring moments of deep insight. Experimentation is largely focused on seeking examples that will point towards mind/brain independence but not I think towards wisdom and ‘illumination.’


For source of adapted image see link


The lives and experiences of the great mystics provide inspiring examples of direct access to a transcendent realm and the wisdom it enshrines. Evelyn Underhill, in her book Mysticism, summarises it as follows (page 23-24):

Of all those forms of life and thought with which humanity has fed its craving for truth, mysticism alone postulates, and in the persons of its great initiates proves, the existence of the Absolute, but also this link: this possibility first of knowing, finally of attaining it. It denies that possible knowledge is to be limited (a) to sense impressions, (b) to any process of intellection, and (c) to the unfolding of the content of normal consciousness. The mystics find the basis of their method not in logic but in life: in the existence of a discoverable ‘real,’ a spark of true being, within the seeking subject, which can, in that ineffable experience which they call ‘the act of union,’ fuse itself with and thus apprehend the reality of the sought Object. In theological language, their theory of knowledge is that the spirit of man, itself essentially divine, is capable of immediate communion with God, the One Reality.

The quote from the Bahá’í Writings at the head of this post suggests that something like this is possible, though Bahá’í Scripture also points out that the Great Being we refer to as ‘God’ is not in fact reducible to what we can experience, no matter how advanced we are spiritually, even though that experience can give us a sense of what the Great Being is like – the attributes, to use a Bahá’í expression.

Unfortunately, systematic scientifically acceptable studies confirming the objective validity of such mystical moments are as rare as hen’s teeth. Even when claims are made for replicable brain changes that correlate, for example, with deeply stable and focused attention, it’s usually on the back of something like 19,000 hours of practice (see Matthieu Ricard’s Altruism – page 251). Such a person is described as ‘relatively experienced.’ To be really good at effortlessly sustaining such focused attention an average of 44,000 hours is required.

As I generally manage to meditate for something like 20-30 minutes only each day, to reach those larger numbers would take me 241 years. So, it’s a relief to read (pages 252-53) that even ‘eight weeks of meditation on altruistic love, at a rate of thirty minutes per day, increased positive emotions and one’s degree of satisfaction with existence.’

Silence participants

Participants in ‘The Big Silence‘ (see my comment)


At this late stage of an imperfect life, I consider my chances of attaining anything remotely close to that kind of effortless attention, let alone contact with the divine within, to be vanishingly small, so I think it more realistic to focus on a more modest objective.

A good and accessible source of guidance for me is to be found in books about Psychosynthesis – take Piero Ferrucci for example. In Chapter 20 of his book What We May Be, in a discussion of Silence (pages 217-226) there are many useful insights that confirm my own experience so far, make me feel less guilty about my interrupted meditations and perhaps point a way further forwards. He writes about the ‘state of intense and at the same time relaxed alertness,’ which comes with silence. He speaks of how ‘insights flow into this receptive space we have created.’ He goes onto explain what might be going on here:

While the mind [in my terms intellect] grasps knowledge in a mediated way . . . and analytically, intuition seizes truth in a more immediate and global manner. For this to happen, the mind becomes at least temporarily silent. As the intuition is activated, the mind is gradually transformed . . . .

He unpacks the kinds of intuition to which we may come to have access: about people and about problems, but beyond that also at ‘the superconscious level’ we can have ‘a direct intuitive realisation of a psychological quality, of a universal law, of the interconnectedness of everything with everything else, of the oneness of all reality, of eternity, and so on.’

Then he makes a key point, which resonates strongly with Iain McGilchrist’s position in The Master & his Emissary, which I touched on in the second post:

Intuition perceives wholes, while our everyday analytical mind is used to dealing with parts and therefore finds the synthesising grasp of the intuition unfamiliar

Intuitions are ‘surprisingly wider than the mental categories [we] would usually like to capture them with.’

He provides a useful list of facilitators of intuition over and above the role of silence. We need to give it attention, as I have already discovered in my own experience. Intuitions often come in symbolic form, as I have found in both dreamwork and in poetry. We have to be prepared to learn the code or language of our intuitive mind and there are no manuals for this: everybody’s intuitive self speaks a different dialect. Last of all we have to keep ‘an intuition workbook.’ Writing an insight down facilitates the emergence of others, and insights often come in clusters if we encourage them in this way.

There is one more priceless potential outcome of this kind of process:

There is, however, one higher goal – higher even then the flower of intuition – to which the cultivation of silence can bring us. While it is rarely reached, it is of such importance that no discussion of silence can be complete without it. I refer to illumination. While intuition can be thought of as giving us a glimpse of the world in which the Self lives, illumination can best be conceived as a complete view of that world. In fact, illumination is the act of reaching the Self and contacting it fully.

So, maybe I am on the right track after all, just not very consistent in my treading of it. I’m encouraged enough by all this to persist and hope that one day, before I move on from this body, I will connect with my true Self and deepen my felt understanding of my purpose here before it’s too late, of what interconnectedness is, and of how to develop a greater depth of more consistent altruism than has been in my power so far.

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The world’s population currently consumes the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year, according to analysis by the Global Footprint Network. Photograph: NASA (For source see link)

Were one to observe with an eye that discovereth the realities of all things, it would become clear that the greatest relationship that bindeth the world of being together lieth in the range of created things themselves, and that co-operation, mutual aid and reciprocity are essential characteristics in the unified body of the world of being, inasmuch as all created things are closely related together and each is influenced by the other or deriveth benefit therefrom, either directly or indirectly.

(Abdu’l-Bahá, from a previously untranslated Tablet quoted in part in a statement from the Bahá’í International Community Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Baha’i Faith)

Post-truth politics also poses a problem for scepticism. A healthy democracy needs to leave plenty of room for doubt. There are lots of good reasons to be doubtful about what the reality of climate change will entail: though there is scientific agreement about the fact of global warming and its source in human activity, the ultimate risks are very uncertain and so are the long-term consequences. There is plenty of scope for disagreement about the most effective next steps. The existence of a very strong scientific consensus does not mean there should be a consensus about the correct political response. But the fact of the scientific consensus has produced an equal and opposite reaction that squeezes the room for reasonable doubt. The certainty among the scientists has engendered the most intolerant kind of scepticism among the doubters.

(From How climate scepticism turned into something more dangerous by David Runciman – Guardian Friday 7 July 2017)

At the end of the last post I shared the hope that my helicopter survey of a vast field has done enough to convey clearly my sense that as individuals and communities we are locked into unconsciously determined and potentially destructive patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour, until we discover the keys of reflection for individuals and consultation for groups.

What we might do next is the focus of the final two posts.

When people resist therapy the personal price can be high. When cultures resist change the social and environmental costs can be even greater.

At whatever level we consider the matter, counteracting our default patterns requires significant effort, and the more complicated the problem, as in the case of climate change, the greater the effort. Even a simple puzzle can defeat even the best brains if the necessary effort is not taken to solve it. And often no effort is made because no failure in problem-solving is detected. Take this beautiful illustration of the point from Daniel Khaneman’s excellent treatment of what he calls System 1 (rapid fire reaction) and System 2 (careful effortful thinking) in Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow.I have dealt at length elsewhere with my distaste for the use of the word ‘intuitive’ in this context: I prefer ‘instinctive.’ Now though is not the time to delve into that problem: I’m currently republishing some of the posts dealing with that question.

The main point and its relevance is hopefully clear.

Biosphere Consciousness

Taking on the difficult problems is clearly going to be a challenge when we don’t even recognise or admit that our default reponses are so wide of the mark.

We need to reach at least a basic level of interactive understanding on a global scale if we are to successfully address the problems of our age. But we need more than that.

Rifkin, in his excellent book The Empathic Civilisation argues the case eloquently. He recognizes that to motivate us to make the necessary sacrifices to allow our civilization to survive its entropic processes we need something larger than ourselves to hold onto. By entropic he means all the waste and excessive consumption a growing population generates.

He doesn’t think religion will do the trick though.

For example, he sees the Golden Rule, a central tenant of all the great world religions, as self-interested because, by observing it, according to his version of religion, we buy paradise when we die. Kant, in his view, almost rescued it but not quite (page 175):

Immanuel Kant make the rational case for the Golden Rule in the modern age in his famous categorical imperative. . . . . First, “Act only on that maxim that can at the same time be willed to become a universal law.” Second, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” Although Kant eliminated the self-interested aspect of doing good that was so much a part of most religious experiences, he also eliminated the “felt” experience that makes compassion so powerful and compelling.

Rifkin does acknowledge that Judaism endorses the universal application of the Golden Rule (page 214):

Lest some infer that the Golden Rule applies literally to only one’s neighbours and blood kin, the Bible makes clear that it is to be regarded as a universal law. In Leviticus it is written: “[T]he stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve (1808), version from the “Butts set” (for source of image see link)

He acknowledges that the Axial Age (page 216) was ‘the first budding of empathic consciousness.’ He feels Christianity has warped this ideal, especially in respect of the existence of Satan, the Fall of man, and the resultant denigration of the body. He is aware that other religious teachings do not fall into what would be for him the same trap. However, he dates from the time of the Enlightenment the demise of religion as an effective force in society.

He feels that he can now locate our redemption in that same physical nature he is convinced that religion is revolted by (page 349):

After deconstructing Kant’s categorical imperative, Schopenhauer offers a detailed description of moral behaviour that he argues is embedded in the very sinew of human nature – with the qualification that it needs to be brought out and nurtured by society if it is to be fully realised. He argues that “compassion” is at the core of human nature.

The question is whether we agree that the way evolution has shaped the brain is also a sufficient condition to produce the necessary levels of self-mastery and altruism and spread them widely and deeply enough across humanity to preserve us in the longer term.

He clearly hopes it does. He describes the exact nature of the challenge our situation creates (page 593):

The challenge before us is how to bring forward all of these historical stages of consciousness that still exist across the human spectrum to a new level of biosphere consciousness in time to break the lock that shackles increasing empathy to increasing entropy. . . .

And he concludes (ibid.):

In a world characterised by increasing individuation and made up of human beings at different stages of consciousness, the biosphere itself maybe the only context encompassing enough to unite the human race as a species.

This position is perhaps an inevitable consequence of his unwillingness to admit the possibility of a theological inspiration. I am astonished even more by a subsequent claim, which is imbued with the same blinkering assumption that Western materialist models of the world have basically got it right. He blurts out, in surprise (page 593-4):

While the new distributed communications technologies – and, soon, distributed renewable energies – are connecting the human race, what is so shocking is that no one has offered much of a reason as to why we ought to be connected. . . .

Does he have no awareness of current trends in holistic thinking, which assert that we are already and have always been interconnected at the deepest possible levels, not simply in terms of these recently emerged material factors? Is he ignoring long-standing spiritual systems such as that of the Native Americans whose foundation stone is this concept of interconnectedness? Does he not know of the empirical evidence being generated by near-death experiences, many of which include reports of just such a sense of nonmaterial interconnectedness? Has he not heard even a whisper of the Bahá’í position, admittedly recently emerged but with a longer history than the roots of holism in physics, that humanity is one and needs to recognise its essential unity if we are to be able to act together to solve the global problems that confront us? The problem is not that no one is offering a reason ‘why we ought to be connected’: the problem is that too few people are accepting the idea, expressed by millions of our fellow human beings in many complementary models of the world, that we are already deeply connected at a spiritual level, not just with each other but with the earth that sustains our material existence.

Naomi Klein makes a powerful case for hoping that the shock of climate change will have just the kind of positive effect that Rifkin looks for in Gaia, though she also is fully aware that shock often narrows our capacity to think, feel and relate and we end up in the tunnel-vision of fight and flight. She is aligned with Rifkin in his hope that identification on our part with the plight of the planet will be a sufficient catalyst to produce the desired shift.


Matthieu Ricard takes on these issues from a different angle.

There are major obstacles to addressing our challenges effectively and Ricard is not blind to them (page 580):

. . . . . in a world where politicians aim only to be elected or re-elected, where financial interest groups wield a disproportionate influence on policy makers, where the well-being of future generations is often ignored since their representatives do not have a seat at the negotiating table, where governments pursue national economic policies that are to the detriment of the global interest, decision-makers have barely any inclination to create institutions whose goal would be to encourage citizens to contribute to collective wealth, which would serve to eradicate poverty.

Snower contends, and Ricard agrees with him and so do I, that reason alone will never get us beyond this point (page 581):

. . . . no one has been able to show that reason alone, without the help of some prosocial motivation, is enough to persuade individuals to widen their sphere of responsibility to include all those who are affected by their actions.

Because he is a Buddhist, in his book Ricard chooses to advocate altruism (ibid):

Combined with the voice of reason, the voice of care can fundamentally change our will to contribute to collective goods. Such ideas echo the Buddhist teachings on uniting wisdom and compassion: without wisdom, compassion can be blind without compassion, wisdom becomes sterile.

Ricard (page 611) raises the issue of ‘altruism for the sake of future generations.’ If we accept the reality of climate change, as most of us now do, our behaviour will unarguably affect our descendants for the worse if we do not change it. Given that evolution has produced a human brain that privileges short term costs and benefits over long-term ones, such that a smoker does not even empathise with his future self sufficiently strongly to overcome in many cases the powerful allure of nicotine addiction, what chance has altruism in itself got of producing the desired effect?

Ricard to his credit faces this head on and quotes the research of Kurzban and Houser (page 631-32). They conclude from their research that:

20% of people are altruists who bear the fortunes of future generations in mind and are disposed to altering their ways of consumption to avoid destroying the environment. . . . . .

[However], around 60% of people follow prevailing trends and opinion leaders, something that highlights the power of the herd instinct in humans. These ‘followers’ are also ‘conditional cooperators:’ they are ready to contribute to the public good on the condition that everyone else does likewise.

The final 20% are not at all inclined to cooperate and want more than anything to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them. They are not opposed to other people’s happiness in principle, but it is not their business.

Shades of Pettigrew again! This clearly indicates that reaching the tipping point, where most people have widened out their unempathic tunnel vision to embrace the whole of humanity and future generations in a wide-angled embrace, is some way off still. He goes on to outline the many practical steps that lie within our reach, such as recycling more of our waste metals and moving to hydrogen powered cars. Enough of us have to want to bring those steps into reality before change will occur at a fast enough rate.

According to Ricard, we must move (page 682) from ‘community engagement to global responsibility.’ To do this it is necessary ‘to realise that all things are interdependent, and to assimilate that world view in such a way that it influences our every action.’ He sees altruism as the key to this transition.

The last post will take a closer look at that amongst other possibilities.

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