An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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Martin Erdmann is a German writer, poet, retired lecturer of Heidelberg University. He completed studies of English, French, and of legal science, both at the University of Heidelberg. He wrote several books in German focusing on the illusion of the I or Ego. As a cofounder of the German Spiritual Emergence Network (S. E. N) he provided counseling to people undergoing spiritual crises. For several years now he has conducted seminars on Advaita-Vedanta. (email: firstname.lastname@example.org Homepage: www.satsa.de)
What for science cannot Be
Is the emptiness of consciousness
For you as life full-filled to See
Our scientists who are struggling to seek out the nature of consciousness remind me of the story of the blind men, who try to determine what an elephant looks like by touching different parts of the animal's body. What the blind men observe is not the elephant, but the elephant exposed to their method of inquiry. What the scientists detect is not consciousness but consciousness exposed to their method of questioning. Consciousness cannot be seen with the eye of mind as employed by science, for consciousness is not some-thing. It is no-thing. It is emptiness to be seen with the eye of contemplation disclosed. With the eye unveiled emptiness of consciousness is realized as life full-filled. For this to be seen there are numerous methods of meditation, of self-exploration to select from. So emptiness can be blissfully witnessed by the seeker of truth - beyond all science.
To begin with let us look into a state of mind we are all acquainted with. This is the normal waking state of consciousness. It is a mental disposition, in which we are always conscious of some-thing, which can be an external object or a sensation we experience within ourselves. So there is no doubt in our mind that consciousness exists.
This makes consciousness a most familiar affair. We do not, however, see consciousness as such, like we see an object of perception, a tree, the earth underneath, the sky spreading above. Nor do we experience consciousness like we experience a sensation, an inner feeling of joy, of anger or grief. Thus consciousness, which is a most familiar phenomenon, is at the same time a most mysterious affair.
This has led science to come up with a wide range of questions, which all tried to explore the essence of consciousness. However no answer has been found, which we can conclusively rely on. Thus the enigma of consciousness remains unsolved. So science keeps on asking the same old question: What is the nature of consciousness?
Rightly considered it is not at all surprising that the essence of consciousness has not been revealed to us. In the normal waking state the true core of consciousness cannot disclose itself, because this is a frame of mind, in which consciousness as such is not seen. This is so, because consciousness is not an outer object of perception, nor is it an inner sensation to be experienced. So for the normal waking state there is, as far as consciousness is concerned, nothing to be seen, to be observed.
As we are always conscious of something we are convinced that consciousness exists. This makes consciousness a most intimate affair. Consciousness as such, however, has never been seen. This makes the most intimate affair a most perplexing occurrence.
2. The blind scientists exploring a consciousness they cannot see
This is why Western philosophers, since the time of Descartes and Locke, have struggled to disclose the nature of consciousness. In doing so they kept on trying to reveal to mankind what they themselves did not see. Painstakingly they exerted themselves to identify the essential properties of a phenomenon which for them remained unseen. What applies to philosophy holds true for psychology, neuropsychology and neuroscience, which in their turn have made consciousness a primary topic of research within the past few decades.
It is an endeavor, in which a variety of solutions have been proposed, which can be divided broadly into two categories. First there are the dualist solutions that maintain Descartes' distinction between the realm of consciousness and the realm of matter, while giving different answers as to how the two domains relate to each other.
Next there are the monist solutions that uphold that there is really only one realm of being, of which consciousness and matter are both aspects. Also in this category a diversity of solutions has been presented with no final answer to be found. Thus consciousness, which is a most familiar phenomenon, continues to be a most mysterious condition in the normal waking state.
There is nothing mysterious about a chair or a table standing in front of us in a living-room. This is so because chair and table, like all other objects of perception, can be seen with what Wilber calls the eye of flesh. It can also be seen with what Wilber qualifies as the eye of mind. A mental seeing that is, which is aware of a sensory perception in the light of the respective concept attached to it. So what is seen by the infant in a non-conceptual world reveals itself to an adult person as a chair or a table, as another object forming part of a conceptual realm.
A concept designates an object, which is perceived as existing in the world. If it did not exist as such the concept would have nothing to refer to. Thus it would be void of all meaning. In a culture, in which tables do not exist, the concept of a table has no-thing to relate to, which makes it a meaningless notion.
There is no consciousness to be seen with the eye of flesh. You can travel through the whole wide world, nowhere will there be a consciousness to be found, to be seen. Thus the designation of consciousness as employed in the normal waking state has no-thing to relate to. This makes it an abstraction devoid of all meaning. Thus science in its endeavor to explore the nature of consciousness is circling around a meaningless notion. It is trying to seek out the attributes of something that cannot be found, not be seen. This way philosophy and science from the very beginning have been engaged in a futile inquiry. They have become immersed in a fruitless pursuit, in which they have persevered for centuries now.
A concept void of all meaning dissolves in itself. So nothing remains to be looked for, to be inquired about. This is what philosophy, what science does not realize. In seeking out a consciousness it continues to be engaged in an endeavor, to see with the eye of mind what by its inherent nature cannot be viewed this way.
3. The blind men examining an elephant they cannot see
This reminds me of the story of the blind men and an elephant, in which a group of blind men try to determine what an elephant looks like by touching different parts of the animal's body. The blind man who grabs the tail says the elephant is like a rope, the one who gets hold of the leg states that the elephant is like a pillar; the man who touches the trunk asserts it is like a tree branch; the blind man who touches the ear states it is like a hand fan; and the one who gets hold of the tusk proclaims the elephant is like a solid pipe.
They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement. In the parable as employed in this article the elephant stands for consciousness, the blind men for the (research) scientists who try to determine the nature of consciousness without ever having seen consciousness. What the blind men observe is not the elephant, but the elephant exposed to their method of inquiry. What the scientists observe is not consciousness but consciousness exposed to their method of questioning.
Consciousness cannot be seen with the eye of flesh. Thus the eye of mind has nothing to relate to. So there is no way for the eye of mind to view consciousness. It can only be seen with the eye of contemplation, to use a term again employed by Ken Wilber. In the normal waking state consciousness cannot be discovered. A table, a chair can be seen as such, because there is consciousness of the table, of the chair. An anger, a fear can be experienced in itself, because there is consciousness of the anger, of the fear. Consciousness as such cannot be seen, experienced, as there is no consciousness of consciousness.
It can only be seen when consciousness becomes conscious of itself. Only then consciousness is seen in its true essence, which is Emptiness. It is an Emptiness which can see itself as the Emptiness which It is. This is an awakening from the normal waking state, in which the eye of contemplation has opened up.
It is a state of consciousness, so the recorded history, which was first realized by Gautama Buddha. It came to be known as nirvana, the literal meaning of which is “blowing out” or “becoming extinguished”. What has become extinguished is all thoughts and concepts. What remains is consciousness emptied of all thought. So consciousness was seen by Buddha as the emptiness, which It is.
To get more closely in touch with what has been experienced by Buddha as the emptiness of consciousness I would like to invite the reader to partake in the following contemplative exercise. For this let us focus on a living-room with a cupboard, a table, an armchair to be found in it. The pieces of furniture can be seen with the eye of flesh. So they can be described as a cupboard, a table, an armchair, as seen with the eye of mind. The space between the pieces of furniture is not seen with the eye of flesh. So there is no way to describe the space in an affirming, in a positive way. Through the medium of the eye of mind it can only be portrayed in a denying, in a negative sense. It can only be seen as what the pieces of furniture, as what the walls, the floor below, the ceiling above, are not.
With all the furnishing removed, with the walls, floor, ceiling of the living-room eliminated what had been defined as the space (in between) is gone. It has evaporated for the mind's eye, because the space can only be thought of in a denying sense. It cannot be portrayed in an affirmative way. This is so, because the space is an emptiness, which cannot be seen with the eye of flesh. Thus it cannot be positively viewed with the eye of mind.
With the eye of contemplation opened up this is a different affair. What has now revealed itself is an emptiness to be seen. This is like seeing our space with all objects of perception eliminated.
“The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon”, says an old Zen adage. The finger stands for the concepts employed, as seen with the eye of mind, the moon, metaphorically speaking now, represents the emptiness as seen with the eye of contemplation. So let us not mistake the finger for the moon. Let us not confuse the concepts employed above with the emptiness, which can only be seen with the eye of contemplation. Only this way emptiness can become a reality to be witnessed, as happened in the case of Buddha.
5. A blinded science turning around in a vicious circle
An enlightened Buddha did not invent emptiness, for emptiness is not some-thing. So there is no-thing to be invented. It is a primordial revelation, which had opened up to him. Now Buddha in his compassion was moved to pass his vision on to his disciples. The message to be conveyed was meant to be an eye-opener. What Buddha tried to unveil is the eye of contemplation, for his disciples to partake in the blissful insight, which had been bestowed upon him. So he set out to convey his contemplative eyesight to his followers. His ongoing discourses eventually became part of a teaching, which came to be known as Theravadan Buddhism.
Consciousness, which is pure emptiness, can only be seen with the eye of contemplation disclosed. It cannot be seen with the eye of mind, which is active in the normal waking state. It is a state, in which emptiness is not seen, as it is overshadowed by an incessant stream of thoughts flooding through our minds. A thought, whatever its content may be, is some-thing. So consciousness is permanently covered up by some-thing. Thus consciousness, which is no-thing, cannot be seen.
Thus with the eye of mind consciousness, which is pure emptiness, will never be seen. The eye of mind can, however, be employed to show that consciousness must be pure emptiness, as I have tried to do in my article Consciousness seen as Emptiness. There I argued that you can only be conscious of one thing at a time. You can be either aware of the earth underneath or the sky spreading above. You cannot be conscious of the sky and the earth simultaneously. This is so, because the one thing excludes the other. For consciousness of the earth to arise consciousness of the sky must disappear first. If you remain aware of the sky there is no way for another object of thought to enter consciousness.
The mind's eye cannot view two things simultaneously. Consciousness must first be emptied of the one thing it is occupied with for another thing to enter consciousness. If consciousness were always filled with some-thing, no-thing else could arise in consciousness. To be filled with an object of thought, be it a flower, a tree or the world at large, consciousness must be pure emptiness. So, by relying on the mere eye of mind, which is the eye of reason, one must arrive at the conclusion that consciousness as such is pure emptiness.
Scientific research investigating the nature of consciousness is built on the assumption that consciousness is some-thing. If it were not some-thing there would be no-thing to be explored. Consciousness as such, however, is emptiness. If it were always filled with some-thing there would be no way for some-thing else to enter consciousness. If it were not emptiness it could not be filled with the alternating thoughts flowing in. This way it could not be filled with the very thoughts science is occupied with in its ongoing exploration of consciousness.
So consciousness must be emptiness, must be the great void. It is an emptiness, which is devoid of all thought. So by its very nature it cannot be captured by way of thought. Being beyond all thought it evades all scientific inquiry, which feeds on thought as its very life-blood. So science in its ongoing exploration is engaged in a self-defeating enterprise, in which every step approaching the cherished goal is a step away from it. In its exploration of the nature of consciousness it turns around in a vicious circle like a dog trying to bite its own tail.
6. Emptiness of consciousness realized as life full-filled
Emptiness seen as such is the fullness of life. This is what the Sanskrit term sunyata means, which stands for emptiness and fullness combined. They are like the two sides of a coin reflecting each other. In the American language, in other Western languages, only fullness is seen in a positive, in an affirmative way. Emptiness is understood in a negative, in a nihilistic sense only. Thus for the true meaning of sunyata to be conveyed we would have to invent a neologism, like fullemptiness or emptyfullness.
For consciousness of sunyata to be realized one can engage in one of the methods of meditation, of contemplation, which have been developed in Theravadan Buddhism, in later spiritual schools and lineages. One of the most popular methods applied in our time is the technique of Transcendental Meditation (TM), which refers to a specific form of mantra meditation. This is called the Transcendental Meditation technique. It also relates to the organizations that constitute the Transcendental Meditation movement.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918-2008) introduced the TM technique and TM movement in India in the mid-1950s. A few years later he spread it in the West to be surrounded by a rapidly increasing number of followers. According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, the organization was estimated to have 900,000 participants worldwide in 1977, a million by the 1980s, and 5 million in more recent years, including some notable practitioners. So TM is a widely spread method of meditation these days.
Let us look more closely now into the process of TM, which quite naturally can lead to the lighting up of Emptiness. In the normal waking state consciousness is not seen, as It is overshadowed by an incessant stream of thoughts flowing in. A thought, whatever its content may be, is some-thing. So consciousness is permanently covered up by some-thing. Thus consciousness, which is no-thing, cannot be seen.
In the practice of TM you sit down to repeat a mantra like I had received when initiated into TM in 1969. This was the mantra Aing Namah, given to me as a personal mantra, which was perfectly attuned to my own individual being. So I was told. I was also instructed to keep the mantra secret. Otherwise it would lose its inherent power, its force.
A few years later, however, all TM mantras were publicly disclosed, listed according to sex, age, date of initiation. These are arbitrary classifications, which have nothing to do with the individual core of the practitioner. So I feel free to reveal on this page the Aing Namah (google), which I had been given, to be freely used by the reader of this article maybe. I would like to add, however, that a teacher can be very helpful in properly supervising the process of meditation. So it may be wise to contact a teacher of TM, of some other school or lineage, to be properly guided in the process of meditation.
For the TM meditator the mantra, which is given to him in a ceremony of initiation, has no thought content. So while repeating the mantra consciousness becomes liberated from the process of thought. During meditation the mantra may disappear. There are two possibilities now, which may occur. Consciousness may turn again towards a thought. It may also happen that consciousness turns towards itself. So consciousness becomes conscious of consciousness, which is pure emptiness. Being conscious of itself the emptiness can see itself as the emptiness, which It is.
There are numerous other methods of meditation which can help us to rise above all thought for blissful emptiness of consciousness to light up. So to realize the true nature of consciousness it is not a good idea to turn to scientific research. Instead the reader is advised to engage in a method of meditation, in a process of self-exploration. For this he may have to experiment for a while to find the method which is best in tune with his inner disposition, with his individual nature. So blissful sunyata, which is the fullness of emptiness, can reveal itself - beyond all scientific exploration.
7. The emptiness of the (true) Subject by Ken Wilber unseen
The emptiness of consciousness is what I AM. This is the Absolute Self which can see itself as the emptiness, which IT IS. Ken Wilber, however, affirms:
“As for the real Perceiver, the true Self, the Absolute Self, the Absolute Subjectivity it cannot be seen because it is doing the seeing; it cannot be known for it is the Knower. My true Self can no more see itself as an object than fire can burn itself or a knife can cut itself.”
A knife cannot cut itself, a fire cannot burn itself, but I can see myself. The nature of knife and fire, which are objects, does not tell me anything about the essence of myself, which is the Subject. I cannot see myself as an object. I can see myself though. This is the self-reflective nature of the Subject, which is not found in an object. Wilber, however, wants to derive the nature of the true Subject from the nature of an object, like a cutting knife or a burning fire.
In “Alan Watts - Creating Who You Are (Video)” Watts declares:
“You don't know yourself, because you never can. The Godhead is never an object of its own knowledge. Just as a knife doesn't cut itself, fire doesn't burn itself.”
So Ken Wilber, who in his [early] writing greatly relied on Alan W. Watts, now affirms (italics added):
“You will never, never, never see God, because God is the Seer, not any finite, mortal object, bounded object that can be seen.”
Here is Meister Eckhart's most famous single quote, which says: “The Eye with which I see God is the same Eye with which God sees me.” This is equal to saying: “The Eye with which God sees me is the same Eye with which I see God.” God's eye is my own eye. While God sees me he sees himself. While I see God I see myself.
This is Meister Eckhart's contemplative seeing round which his sermons are built. So this quote is greatly cited by representatives of eastern traditions and Christian mysticism as a point of contact between the two traditions. For Wilber, however, who wished to see East and West united in his all-encompassing integral scheme, God cannot see himself, nor can I see God.
I also cannot see myself. This I cannot do, as a knife cannot cut itself. I always see myself, though. Immersed in the state of the false Subject the true Subject has become identified with an object of thought. So the Subject sees itself as intelligent, as dumb, as honest, as mischievous. This way it sees itself as what it is not. As the true Subject it sees itself beyond all thought. So It sees itself as what IT IS. No matter whether it sees itself as what it is or as what it is not, it always sees itself. For Wilber, however, the Subject cannot see itself, because a knife cannot cut itself, because fire cannot burn itself. So the nature of consciousness, of the (true) Subject, has been misconceived by a deluded Ken Wilber.
 Ken Wilber, The Spectrum of Consciousness, The Theosophical Publishing House, 1977, page 278
 Ken Wilber, The Simple Feeling of Being, Embracing Your True Nature, Shambhala, Boston & London, 2004, page 7