Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
David Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
Shabd Yoga 4.0
Magic, Myth, Logic, Explore
In this regard, shabd yoga, I suggest, may be better off if it could untangle itself from years of theological encrustations.
Ken Wilber has introduced a number of useful concepts over the years, particularly his understanding of the pre/trans fallacy and the hierarchical nature of spiritual aspirations. I am particularly fond of his 1984 book, A Sociable God, which introduced his scaffolding template for doing a “transcendental” sociology. Back in 1985 I gave one of the first academic papers on Wilber's model at the American Academy of Religion. Initially it was not well received because some scholars in attendance didn't like judging whether one religion was more authentic than another or possessed a lesser degree of legitimacy. Eventually, however, some researchers realized that Wilber's schema could be useful, particularly after the publication of Spiritual Choices in 1987 (co-edited by Dick Anthony, Ken Wilber, and Bruce Ecker) since it provided a series of checklists for determining whether a particular religion's beliefs were magical, mythical, rational, or potentially transcendent.
I have utilized Wilber's “Transcendental Sociology” in a number of my books, particularly The Radhasoami Tradition and The Making of a Spiritual Movement, and it has greatly clarified (at least for me) some of the outstanding issues confronting a critical, yet sympathetic, analysis of differing religious traditions. I am especially struck by how useful Wilber's template is when analyzing meditational techniques and how one's approach evolves over time.
In shabd yoga, for instance, we can see that it has magical, mythical, and rational elements to it, but much depends on precisely how the practitioner herself views the process. When the guru gives out a mantra for repetition (in the Agra schools of Radhasoami it is one name; in the Beas related schools it is five names), the neophyte may think it has magical power such that the name(s) itself carries ineffable numinous energy. Others in the tradition have argued for a more mythic, in-group/out-group approach, suggesting that only an “authorized” master can give out “charged” names and those who lack such authority will only give out a poor imitation. From a rational purview, the magical and mythical explanations seem antiquated since what gives a mantra its power is directly correlated to the meditator's capacity to focus her attention while sitting. Yet, it is undoubtedly true that if one actually believes that the mantra has transcendent vitality (even if this is an unrecognized projection on her part), it helps in concentration. The same holds true if one concludes in a legalistic fashion that their respective guru is a genuine lineage holder and that whatever he gives out is authorized by a long line of previously enlightened mystics. Whether this is actually accurate or not is secondary to the disciple's conviction that it is. In both the magical and mythical understandings of mantras, it is the disciple (and not the words themselves) that is fueling the proceedings. The caveat here, though, is that if the meditator fully realizes that it is her attention (and not necessarily the guru/lineage in question) that is doing the actual “charging” of the mantra then the magical and mythical elements lose both their efficacy and their supposed transformative power. The rational perspective upends the naïve believer and now the meditator must opt to employ the repetition of name/names with more logic and dispassion. Like the proverbial Ruby Slippers in the famous 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz, one realizes like Dorothy that she has the power to go home and that the so-called Wizard was himself impotent all along to accomplish what she herself must do alone.
The second stage in shabd yoga meditation is called dhyan. Here the meditator contemplates on the face of the initiating guru by attempting to recall what he/she looked like when giving darshan at satsang. Again, there are magical, mythical, and rational elements at play here. Underlying such dhyan is bhakti or devotion to the guru in question. This is an extraordinarily powerful force in helping one to meditate, so much so in fact that bhakti has been likened to rocket fuel since the more one feels love the greater the intensity of concentration can occur while meditating. What is not usually discussed is how fragile such love can be since much of this kind of bhakti depends on how the disciple views her teacher. If she convinces herself that the guru is god incarnate or something close, the amount of energy that such a belief generates can be truly overwhelming. The glitch, of course, is that it is again the disciple doing the projecting and says precious little about whether or not the master is truly what is claimed. Thus, much of guru devotion is grounded in magical and mythical cosmology and tends to sustain its hold by cultic means, whereby anything that casts doubt on the master's elevated status is viewed as suspect and subsequently discounted despite its facticity. Not surprisingly, guru dhyan is potentially fraught with difficulties, since so much depends on the disciple's own devotion. A more rational and seasoned approach, one where naivety gives way to a more reasoned approach to contemplation, accepts that focusing on the guru's form is more a concentrative technique and need not be intertwined with any theological supersystem. Here the meditator realizes that both simran (repetition of the mantra) and dhyan (focusing on the image within) are designed to still the mind so that it can become more acutely aware of what lies within.
One of the more instructive books on the efficacy of constant repetition of a prayer or mantra (or even a self- generated phrase) is found in the anonymously authored, The Way of a Pilgrim. In this narrative the author recounts how he learned that by repeating the Jesus prayer thousands of times a day his mind became inwardly centered and peaceful. In shabd yoga practice this mechanical repetition is a means by which one's attention begins to gravitate within. Concurrently with such repetition it has been advised to contemplate or focus one's visual faculty (nirat) at the proverbial third eye. To help facilitate this visual focusing (dhyan), some yogis have suggested contemplating on any sparking light that may arise and do not stress trying to reimagine the initiating guru's form. By doing simran and dhyan, the mind tends to get absorbed. The more this is done before listening to the inner sound (bhajan), the easier it becomes to blend one's self in subtler and subtler melodies. The first robust sensation that occurs which indicates that the meditation procedure is working is an overall numbness in the lower extremities. This sensation should not be confused with how one's foot or leg goes to sleep if positioned too long in one place. Rather, the feeling of numbness is distinguished by an emerging sense of withdrawal from the lower part of the body, such that a distinct pulling occurs from the top of the head and beyond. If the numbness rises to the chest and above, the meditator's internal concentration will be exponentially magnified and the particular sound of a tinkling bell or bells will become more and more refined.
This pealing of this inner sound has a dramatic effect on one's consciousness, so much so that an overwhelming feeling of leaving one's own body emerges. Indeed, the rush is such that it can literally make the meditator feel as if he or she is entering into a totally new realm of existence. Once this occurs, a deep tunneling sensation permeates the meditator's visual field. At the end of the tunnel is a brilliant light, which due to deeper and deeper levels of concentration alters in shading and intensity. Multiple lights can be seen to emerge out of this fulcrum. If followed closely to their inevitable descent and reabsorption the meditator can get so enthralled by what such lights produce that he or she can occupy a virtual play, not dissimilar to an exceedingly lucid dream. It can be argued that this electromagnetic fount (neurologically or mystically interpreted) is how astral worlds become projected by one's own awareness. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is psychologically illustrative on this point and that is perhaps one of the reasons that they instruct deep meditators to avoid chasing after such lights since they create worlds the like of which are difficult to awaken from. This is analogous, of course, to deeply enjoyable dreams we have at night, but which being so pleasurable are difficult to consciously extract ourselves from.
All this phenomena can be interpreted on varying levels and herein lies the danger, since if one retains a magical/mythical purview then what arises is seen as ontologically real and thus independent of the disciple's own projective arc. Because of this the meditator mistakenly transfers power onto images which in themselves are nothing more than vaporous apparitions. The neophyte gets entrapped within his own hallucinatory world, never realizing that it occupied by phantasms of his own mind.
According to shabd yoga, it is the sound that empowers or juices the inner journey. While the light may be radiantly attractive and allows for increased attention, it is the subtler sounds which energize and sweep the meditator into wholly unexpected regions of awareness. For instance, while a high definition film digitally projected at our local cinema can be exceedingly attractive, it is the powerful surround sound system that jolts one into the proceedings. Just as lightening from a distance can be quite attractive, it is the thunder, however, that involves our entire being particularly if it is nearby. Interestingly, in some yogic texts much is made of a thunder-like sound that allegedly transforms the wandering mind. In any case, the whole modus operandi in shabd yoga is to follow the sound current to its terminal source. The finer the sound, the more pulling it becomes and the more it leads to internal changes within one's own awareness. Just as the fountain of light when broken up into a spectrum causes varying illuminations and virtual worlds colored by such effects, the same holds true with higher internal sounds which when intensely caught carry one's consciousness into hitherto unexplored dimensions. The religious systems which have grown up around shabd and nad practice have developed a sophisticated cosmology which attempts to hierarchically arrange the inner sounds and lights into an ascending order from matter to mind to soul to God, utilizing a staircase of higher regions with such terms as Sahans-Dal-Kanwal, Trikuti, Daswan Dwar, Bhanwar Gupha, and Sach Khand.
The use of a five name mantra in varying Sant Mat and Radhasoami circles appears to be predicated upon this theological tier system, where greater and lesser deities occupy a great chain of being. While all of this is undoubtedly of great interest and importance to devotees of these guru traditions, it doesn't hold that such a cosmology is necessary or even important for one merely interested in following the simple technique of shabd yoga. In other words, it doesn't follow that the theology is a necessary prelude to the practice of the sound current. Simply put, hearing inner sounds and seeing inner lights precedes each and every theology that has wrapped itself around the natural and human practice of internalizing one's attention via meditation. Can shabd yoga be successfully practiced by a person who doesn't believe in Indian mystical theology? Yes, just as millions of people worldwide have benefitted from engaging hatha yoga regardless of whether they believe in kundalini, chakras, or Shiva. Understandably some long-time adherents may object to stripping down shabd yoga to its skeletal form since much of the philosophy that has evolved with it may be seen as a necessary component. However, because so much of shabd yoga has been encrusted with mystical musings the very simplicity of the practice has, ironically, been neglected by those who are its strongest advocates.
The technique, shorn of such theological cul-de-sacs, can be easily explained in one long sentence. Sitting still with one's eyes and ears closed (whether in a squatting position with elbows resting on one's knees or using a T stick for accomplishing the same), the meditator turns his or her attention within by an ancient algorithm of repetition and contemplation so that one can listen to finer and finer sounds which cause an elevation of one's consciousness into subtler and subtler forms of awareness and bliss.
As with almost all meditational disciplines, the magical, mythical, and rational options are available and each, depending on the time and the context, are powerful agencies in their own right. Yet, Wilber has longed argued (from The Atman Project to his latest book The Religion of Tomorrow) that there is a transpersonal realm that supersedes rationality which he identifies as subtle, causal, and beyond. The difficulty with Wilber's mandalic mapping is that a priori assumes that the transcendent exists and he has delineated with unfailing confidence a detailed sky map of what one should expect to find when entering into such exalted realms.
While Wilber may be correct in his superluminal schema, I personally think it is a premature scaffolding project that he is indulging in since we simply haven't explored such realms fully enough to make such absolutist mapping. Thus, we may be better off by being more open ended in our approach and not aligning what we uncover in meditation into a preset grid which may or may not be accurate. As I argued in The Projective Arc,
“This procedure creates within the disciple a persistent tendency to take his or her experiences and filter them within the interpretative nexus that is provided by his/her spiritual path. But in so doing the student all too often ends up trying to relate what transpires in meditation to the expectations or desired aims of the religious matrix in which he is grounded. And in other instances, the disciple begins to justify or legitimize a given spiritual paradigm by injecting it with his own internal elevations. Such a dyadic loop can literally tether the aspirant to a given theology and lock him or her into a set series of bounded interpretations. The danger, of course, is that this two-way intersection tends not to be open to alternative explanations (which might be more viable) and also prevents a more free form of exploration. Analogously this is akin to an ocean explorer like Columbus who consistently tries to conform new lands and new vistas with a prefigured map that he brought with him before his voyage. That he may be wholly mistaken in his conflations doesn't readily occur to him and thus whatever newness arises in his expeditions is refashioned to fit in with his preconceived model. This kind of habit can, if not checked, lead to one trying to substantiate the given map versus letting the newness or virginal state dictate a reformation.”
While I find Wilber's hierarchical map illuminating up until the rational and even psychic domains, I think it is too theologically tinged beyond that. Therefore, instead of employing such religious laden terms as “Buddha Mind” and “Christ Consciousness” perhaps we should opt for something more open-ended that underlines that we are “exploring” and “pioneering” not trying to confirm an already agreed upon philosophic or religious agenda.
To illustrate my thesis compactly, it may be stated that: shabd yoga 1.0 is magical; shabd yoga 2.0 is mythical; shabd yoga 3.0 is rational; and shabd yoga 4.0 is exploratory.
In this regard, shabd yoga, I suggest, may be better off if it could untangle itself from years of theological encrustations. As it is practiced today, there are far too many uninspected assumptions that detract the would-be meditator from the very simplicity of the technique: listening to the inner sound, seeing the inner light, and going within. Hopefully, after moving away from merely magical and mythical worldviews, we can fully take advantage of what our rationality unveils to us and begin anew in our explorations of that which lies beyond what we presently know and experience.