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Response to Allan Combs

Ken Wilber

In 1995, Professor of Psychology in North Carolina Allan Combs published his book The radiance of Being: Complexity, chaos and the evolution of consciousness. In this volume, Combs discusses the nature and origins of consciousness, seen within an evolutionary perspective. A key concept is "states of consciousness". He reviews the work of evolutionary theorists such as Teilhard de Chardin, Ken Wilber, Jean Gebser and Sri Aurobindo. In the response below, taken from a yet to be published book called Integral Psychology, Ken Wilber answers to points raised by Combs about his work. This fragment is posted with permission of Ken Wilber (FV).

The following are endnotes and text that discuss Wilber's response to Allan Combs's interpretation of Wilber's model in The Radiance of Being. These notes and texts are taken from Wilber's Integral Psychology, which will be published in volume 4 of his Collected Works due out later this coming Fall. For a fuller understanding of these notes, the reader should consult the full text of Integral Psychology.

Note 10. As Huston Smith points out in Forgotten Truth (see fig. 2a), in the great traditions, the levels of consciousness (or levels of selfhood) are sometimes distinguished from the levels of reality (or planes of reality), and I also follow that distinction (see notes 12, 16, 17, 75, 76, 113, 166). However, for many purposes they can be treated together, as the being and knowing aspects of each of the levels in the Great Nest. In other words, the basic structures of knowing (the levels of consciousness/selfhood) and the basic structures of being (the planes/realms of reality) are intimately connected, and unless otherwise specified, both of these are indicated by the terms basic structures or basic levels of the Great Nest. (Huston Smith indicates this by using the same figure of concentric circles to cover both levels of reality and levels of selfhood.) But the reason it is necessary to distinguish them is that a given level of selfhood can encounter a different level of reality, as we will see in subsequent discussions, and thus these need to be preserved as two independent variables. Nonetheless, there are advantages, in modern discourse, to emphasizing the epistemological component over the ontological, as I will point out in the following discussion. See notes 12, 16, 17, 75, 76, 113, 166.

From the text:
        An altered state of consciousness is a "non-normal" or a "non-ordinary" state of consciousness, including everything from drug-induced states to near-death experiences to meditative states. In a peak experience (a temporary altered state), a person can briefly experience, while awake, any of the natural states of psychic, subtle, causal, or nondual awareness, and these often result in direct spiritual experiences (see below). Peak experiences can occur to individuals at almost any stage of development. The notion, then, that spiritual and transpersonal states are available only at the higher stages of development is quite incorrect.

Nonetheless, although the major states of gross, subtle, causal, and nondual are available to human beings at virtually any stage of growth, the way in which those states or realms are experienced and interpreted depends to some degree on the stage of development of the person having the peak experience. This means, as I suggested in A Sociable God, that we can create a grid of the types of spiritual experiences that are generally available to individuals at different stages of growth.

For example, let us simply call the earlier stages archaic, magic, mythic, and rational. A person at any of those stages can have a temporary peak experience of the psychic, subtle, causal, or nondual. A person at the magic stage of development (which cannot easily take the role of other) might have a subtle-level peak experience (of, say, a radiant God-union), in which case that person will tend to experience God-union as applying only to himself (since he cannot take the role of other and thus realize that all people—in fact, all sentient beings—are equally one with God). He will thus tend to suffer massive ego-inflation, perhaps even psychotic in its dimensions. On the other hand, a person at the mythic level (which has expanded identity from egocentric to sociocentric, but which is very concrete-literal and fundamentalist) will experience subtle God-union as being a salvation that is given, not exclusively to him (as the egocentric does), but exclusively to those who embrace the particular myths ("If you want to be saved, you must believe in my God/dess, which is the one and only true Divinity"); thus this person might become a born-again fundamentalist, set upon converting the entire world to his or her version of a revealed God. The subtle-level experience is very real and genuine, but it has to be carried somewhere, and it is carried, in this case, in an ethnocentric, fundamentalist, mythic-membership mind, which dramatically limits and ultimately distorts the contours of the subtle domain (as did, even more so, the previous egocentric stage). A person at the formal-reflexive level would tend to experience subtle God-union in more reason-based terms, perhaps as rational Deism, or as a demythologized Ground of Being, and so on.

In other words, a given peak experience (or temporary state of consciousness) is usually interpreted according to the general stage of development of the individual having the experience. This gives us a grid of around sixteen very general types of spiritual experience: psychic, subtle, causal, and nondual states poured into archaic, magic, mythic, and rational structures. In A Sociable God I gave examples of all of these, and pointed out their importance.16

Note 16. Of course, if we use around 20 basic structures, and four major states, we would have up to 80 different types of spiritual experience, and that is still very crude, since there are many different types (or subtypes) of states. Of course, the basic structures available to a person depends on his or her own developmental level (someone at the magic level can peak experience psychic, subtle, causal, or nondual, but will interpret them only in archaic or magical terms, not in mythic, rational, or centauric terms). As for the states, a person can peak experience any higher state that has not yet become a permanent structure—e.g., when individuals develop to the psychic level, they no longer have psychic peak experiences because the psychic is permanently available to them (but they can peak experience subtle, causal, and nondual). For further discussion of structures and states, see Wilber, "Paths beyond Ego in the Coming Decade" (in Walsh and Vaughan, Paths beyond Ego); numerous endnotes in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, such as chapter 14, note 17; A Sociable God; and notes 10, 12, 17, 75, 76, 113, 166.

But all of those peak experiences, no matter how profound, are merely temporary, passing, transient states. In order for higher development to occur, those temporary states must become permanent traits. Higher development involves, in part, the conversion of altered states into permanent realizations. In other words, in the upper reaches of evolution, the transpersonal potentials that were only available in temporary states of consciousness are increasingly converted into enduring structures of consciousness (states into traits). This is where meditative states become increasingly important. Unlike natural states (which access psychic, subtle, and causal states in the natural sleep cycle, but rarely while awake or fully conscious) and unlike spontaneous peak experiences (which are fleeting), meditative states access these higher realms in a deliberate and prolonged fashion. As such, they more stably disclose the higher levels of the Great Nest, higher levels that eventually become, with practice, permanent realizations. (note 17)

Note 17. A person at almost any stage of development can spontaneously in peak experiences (or naturally in the cycle of sleep) experience the psychic, subtle, causal, or nondual states; but those states/realms must be carried in, and interpreted by, the stage of development of the individual having the experience. Even if the peak experience itself is a "pure glimpse" of one of these transpersonal realms, it is either simultaneously, or soon thereafter, picked up and clothed in the subjective and intersubjective structures of the individual (i.e., it is carried in the archaic, magic, mythic, or mental structure). As such, the full contours of the transpersonal realm are filtered, diluted, and sometimes distorted by the limitations of the lower structure (e.g., magic: its narcissism and egocentrism, its inability to take the role of others; mythic: its concrete-literal mind, fundamentalistic and ethnocentric; formal: its tendency to rationally distance itself from nature and world).

It is only as a person permanently develops to the psychic level (i.e., has a permanent psychic basic structure) that the psychic realm is no longer of necessity distorted during its experience (and likewise with the subtle, causal, and nondual realms: only as they become basic structures, or realized patterns in consciousness, can they be experienced authentically). A person permanently awake to the psychic domain no longer has peak experiences of the psychic, just as we do not say of average adults, "They are having a verbal peak experience"—for they are permanently adapted to the verbal realm. Likewise, all the higher realms can become realizations that are just as permanent. Of course, a person at the psychic level could still have peak experiences of even higher realms—the subtle, causal, and nondual—but those will likewise be limited and distorted to some degree (until permanent growth to those higher levels occurs). At person at the subtle level (i.e., where the subtle realm has become not a passing peak experience but a permanent basic structure, or realized pattern in full consciousness) can have peak experiences of the causal and nondual. And so on—until "subject permanence," which is a continuous and permanent realization of that which Witnesses the gross, subtle, and causal domains, at which point all of the higher realms—previously available to consciousness only as temporary peak experiences and nonordinary states—have become permanently available traits and structures. An enlightened being still has access to subtle and causal levels (since he or she still sleeps and dreams), which is why subtle and causal are also correctly referred to as enduring basic structures, but they are constantly Witnessed even as they continue to arise. See notes 10, 12, 16, 75, 76, 113, 166.

In other words, psychic, subtle, causal, and nondual states can all become enduring adaptations in one's own makeup, which is why those labels (psychic, subtle, causal, and nondual) are also used to refer to the highest of the basic structures in the Great Nest of Being. As they emerge permanently in an individual's development, their potentials, once available only in passing states, become enduring contours of an enlightened mind.

Note 76. In my view, the basic structures in the Great Nest are simultaneously levels of both knowing and being, epistemology and ontology. For reasons discussed in the text (namely, modernity rejected most ontology and allowed only epistemology), I usually refer to the basic structures as "the basic structures of consciousness" (or "the basic levels of consciousness"); but their ontological status should not be overlooked. Generally, the perennial philosophy refers to the former as levels of consciousness (or levels of selfhood), and the latter as realms or planes of existence (or levels of reality), with the understanding that they are inextricably interwoven (see note 10). Thus, as Huston Smith pointed out (Forgotten Truth), the body level of consciousness corresponds with the terrestrial realm or plane of existence; the mind level of consciousness corresponds with the intermediate realm or plane of existence; the soul level of consciousness corresponds with the celestial plane of existence; and the spirit level of consciousness corresponds with the infinite plane of existence (see fig. 2a). Since these are correlative structures (levels of consciousness and planes of existence), I include both of them in the idea of basic structures or basic levels of the Great Nest.

However, on occasion it is useful to distinguish them, because a given level of self can experience a different level or plane of reality. I have often made this distinction when analyzing modes of knowing (see Eye to Eye, chapters 2 and 6; A Sociable God, chapter 8), and I will do the same in the text when we discuss modes of art. Moreover, in ontogeny, the structures develop but the planes do not (the self develops through the already-given planes or levels of reality); however, in both involution and Kosmic evolution/phylogeny, the planes/realms also develop, or unfold from Source and enfold to Source (so we cannot say that planes show no development at all: they involve and evolve from Spirit; see note 12 for the ways in which the planes themselves coevolve). But a given level of self, generally, can interact with different levels of reality, to various degrees, so that we need to keep these two (structures and realms) as independent variables.

Thus, for example, as I pointed out in Eye to Eye, consciousness can turn its attention to the material plane (using its epistemological eye of flesh), the intermediate plane (using its epistemological eye of mind), or the celestial plane (using its epistemological eye of contemplation). The material, intermediate, and celestial planes are the ontological levels; in Eye to Eye I refer to them using the terms sensibilia, intelligibilia, and transcendelia (i.e., the real objects in those real planes or realms). The eyes of flesh, mind, and contemplation are the epistemological levels correlated with (and disclosing) those ontological planes of sensibilia, intelligibilia, and transcendelia. (Of course, this is just using a simple three-level version of the Great Nest; if we use five levels, there are then five planes of existence and five correlative levels of consciousness, and so on. In my scheme, since I often use 7 to 9 general levels of consciousness, there are likewise 7 to 9 general realms or planes of reality.)

But notice: you can make essentially the same points using only the levels of consciousness (since being and knowing are two sides of the same levels). You can say that the mind can investigate the intermediate realm, or you can simply say the mind can investigate other minds. You can say the mind can investigate the celestial realm, or you can simply say the mind can investigate the subtle level. They are essentially saying the same thing, as long as you realize that any given level of selfhood (or consciousness) can turn its attention to any level of existence (or plane of reality). These two independent scales, in other words, can be stated as "level of consciousness investigates planes of existence"; but they can also be stated as "level of consciousness investigates other levels of consciousness," as long as we understand the correlations involved.

I often use the latter formulation, simply because, as I said, it avoids the ontological speculations that modernity finds so questionable. Premodern philosophy was unabashedly metaphysical (i.e., it assumed the nonproblematic ontological existence of all the various planes, levels, and realms of transcendental reality); whereas modern philosophy was primarily critical (it investigated the structures of the subject of thinking, and called into question the ontological status of the objects of thought), and thus modernity brought a much needed critical attitude to bear on the topic (even if it went overboard in its critical zeal and eventually erased all objects of knowledge except the empirical and sensorimotor).

A crippling problem with the perennial traditions (and the merely metaphysical approaches) is that they tend to discuss ontological levels (planes or axes) as if they were completely pregiven, totally independent of the perceiver of those domains, thus overlooking the massive amount of modern and postmodern research showing that cultural backgrounds and social structures profoundly mold perceptions in all domains (i.e., the perennial philosophy did not sufficiently differentiate the four quadrants). For all these reasons, simply talking about "planes" as completely independent ontological realities is extremely problematic—yet another reason I have tended to emphasize the epistemological facets over the merely ontological ones.
This has led some critics to claim that I completely ignore planes of existence, but that is obviously incorrect. As we just saw, I often explicitly refer to the planes as "realms," "spheres," or "domains," and I have named the phenomena in the three major planes of terrestrial, intermediate, and celestial as sensibilia, intelligibilia, and transcendelia (I also refer to them as the physio/biosphere, noosphere, and theosphere; although, again, those realms can be subdivided into at least a dozen levels). It is true that I usually focus on the structures/levels of consciousness, but I preserve these two independent scales by saying that one level can interact with other levels. Thus, for example, in the charts in Eye to Eye and A Sociable God (which present five major modes of knowing: sensory, empiric-analytic, historic-hermeneutic, mandalic, and spiritual), the structures/levels of consciousness are on the left, and the structures/levels of existence (or planes/realms of reality) are on the right, so that these two scales are clearly differentiated. I will do the same thing in the text when we discuss modes of art.

Combined with an understanding of states of consciousness, the notions of levels of consciousness and planes of reality gives us a three-dimensional model (i.e., with three independent scales). I have been presenting this three-variable model since A Sociable God (1983). Recently, Allan Combs has offered a similar model, which has much to recommend it, but also has some fundamental problems, in my view. See note 166.
        Most often, when it is not necessary to distinguish levels of consciousness and planes of existence, I try to use terms that can cover both (such as body, mind, soul, and spirit), and I implicitly use the basic structures or basic levels as referring to both, so as to avoid intricate discussions such as this. When it is important to distinguish them, I usually refer to the planes as "realms," "domains," or "spheres," although in each case the context will tell. See notes 10, 12, 16, 17, 75, 113, 166.

Note 113. Thus, to the standard three-variable (or "three-dimensional") model of individual subjective structures, states, and realms, we need to add different brain states (UR), types and levels of cultural values (LL), and modes of social institutions (LR). This gives us six independent variables, any one of which can be distorted or pathological, with concomitant reverberations throughout the others. The three-variable model marked phase-2 and phase-3; the six-variable model marked phase-4 (the four quadrants). See notes 10, 12, 16, 17, 75, 76, 166.

Note 166. Combs maintains that, in Up from Eden, I allow stages to be skipped, overlooking the fact that I presented each epoch as an average, not an absolute; and overlooking the fact that numerous altered states (or peak experiences) are available at all stages (both of those points are explained in the text and in note 168; see also the introduction to volume 2).

Combs then presents a three-dimensional model of consciousness that is in many ways indistinguishable from my three-variable model of structures, states, and realms, which Combs calls "structures, states, and planes." He claims that his model takes these three variables into account, and that my model does not, and thus he offers his model to "correct the liabilities" in mine, whereas in many ways he has simply restated my model. I am not accusing Combs of borrowing my model; I believe he arrived at it in a largely independent fashion. What I find lamentable is that Combs strongly claims that I do not deal with structures, states, and realms; this is an egregious misrepresentation of my work.

As for the version of this three-variable model that Combs presents, I believe it has some drawbacks, although I appreciate the care he has obviously given it. To begin with, Combs presents his version of states and structures by, in my opinion, getting the definitions of states and structures backwards. Instead of seeing that a given state (such as drug, waking, dreaming) can contain many different structures (e.g., the waking state can contain magic, mythic, and rational structures), Combs says that a given structure supports many different states (which is rarely true: the rational structure, for example, does not usually support the drunken state, the dream state, the meditative state, etc.). But once Combs gets locked into these definitions, he has to keep adding epicycles to his model to overcome the problems generated by the original confusion, in my opinion.

This confusion of states and structures leads him to likewise misrepresent both the Vedanta and Mahayana systems because it forces him to confuse sheaths/levels with body/states. For example, in his Table 1 in chapter 6, he presents the Vedanta as giving five levels and a corresponding five bodies, but the Vedanta actually gives five levels and only three bodies, because the subtle body (corresponding with the dream state) actually supports three of the levels (or structures), as I explained in the text. In other words, because Combs believes that one structure can house many states (when it is mostly the other way around), he does not see that in Vedanta one state supports several levels/structures/sheaths, so he is forced to misread the Vedanta as giving five bodies instead of three. For instance, he says "Next is the subtle body, termed the vijnanamaya kosha…." But the subtle body is termed sukshma-sharira, and it supports the vijanamayakosha, the manomayakosha, and the pranamayakosha—in other words, three levels/structures supported by one state/body. The sukshma-sharira is the vehicle of, for example, the dream state and the bardo state. Thus the correct view is that one state can support several levels or structures or sheaths, and not the other way around, as Combs has it. This confusion is confirmed when Combs compares the Vedanta with the Mahayana Buddhist system of the Trikaya (Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya). He says, "The highest is the dharmakaya or the 'body of the great order.' This 'body' is identical with transcendental reality and seems to correspond to the level of the Self in Vedanta. The second is the sambhogakaya or 'body of delight' which seems analogous to the causal level, the sheath of bliss of Vedanta. The third body is the nirmanakaya or 'body of transformation,' which corresponds to the physical body itself. Comparing this three-part system to Vedanta discloses several of the levels or sheaths to be missing" (p. 125). Actually, nothing is missing. Combs has again confused body/states with levels/structures. As the discussion on Highest Yoga Tantra makes clear, the Mahayana/Vajrayana system has 9 levels/structures of consciousness (the five senses, the manovijnana, the manas, the alayavijnana, and the pure alaya); treating the five senses as one level gives us five levels, just like the Vedanta. Further, the Three Bodies of Buddha are similar to the three bodies of Vedanta—gross, subtle, and causal, and they are all explicitly correlated with waking, dreaming, and deep sleep states, respectively. Again, by confusing levels/structures and states/bodies, Combs compares the three bodies of Mahayana with the five levels of Vedanta, and finds the Mahayana is "missing" levels; instead of comparing the five levels with the five levels, and the three bodies with the three bodies, and actually finding them in general agreement with each other as to both levels/structures and bodies/states.

Of course, one is free to define "state" and "structure" any way one wishes, as long as one is consistent, and Combs has given considerable care in doing so; and he is grappling with some very important issues in what I found a refreshing way. But I believe this general confusion haunts his model, and thus in my opinion his treatment, within his model, of my work, Gebser's, and Aurobindo's suffers. With my model, he ends up equating the basic structures and the separate development lines running through them (including worldviews). He thus collapses Gebser's structures (which are essentially worldviews) with my basic structures, and he fails to differentiate the separate developmental lines involved with each. Among other things, this means that his "structures" stop at Gebser's integral level, so that, as far as I can tell, there are no genuinely transpersonal structures in Combs's model (he only has states for the higher realms), making it impossible to account for permanent structural development into any of the transpersonal levels or sheaths.

Combs says he needs to do this, in part, because my "linear" model doesn't account for cross experiences (such as mythic level experience of subtle states), overlooking the extensive discussion I gave of just that phenomenon in A Sociable God (1983), where I outlined a grid (which is discussed in the text as: psychic, subtle, causal, or nondual states interpreted by archaic, magic, mythic, or mental structures) that is quite similar to the one he presents in Table 4 of chapter 9, which is his "new model," but is actually quite similar to the three-variable model I have presented since 1983. Those two dimensions or variables (structures and states), when combined with the fact that the subject of one level can take an object from another level (realm or plane)—as happens with different modes of knowing, art, etc. (see notes 10, 12, 16, 17, 75, 76, 113)—gives us three largely independent variables that have been part of my model starting with phase-2 in 1983 (and those three variables have remained intrinsic in phase-2, phase-3, and phase-4). I do not in least mind the fact that Combs is using a similar model with these three variables to account for the many facets of consciousness and its evolution, for he is addressing many important issues; I regret the fact that he has to portray my model as lacking them.

In short, I believe that working with the basic structures, streams, states, self, and the realms/planes of the Great Nest of Being, gives us a multidimensional model that already accounts for all of the items that drove Combs to postulate his model, and it does so without his occasional misrepresentation of the Eastern systems and what seems to be confusions about states and structures. Moreover, my full model sets all of these variables in the context of the four quadrants (see note 113), which Combs seems to disregard completely, although he references Sex, Ecology, Spirituality.

Let me repeat, however, that Combs is grappling with some very important issues in his approach, and I believe we share much common ground. He does not, however, treat my work in a very comprehensive fashion, so his pronouncements on my material should be taken with caution. See notes 10, 12, 16, 17, 75, 76, 113.

© 1999 Ken Wilber

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