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Open Reply
to Ken Wilber

A Response to his Commentary on The Radiance of Being

Alan Combs

Contrary to Ken Wilber's remarks in his forthcoming Integral Psychology, the essential difference between his approach to the understanding of consciousness and my own is that his emphasizes structure while mine emphasizes process. In line with this, his is based on abstract mappings while mine is based on immediate subjective experience. His method is to move upward from local maps found in psychological, philosophical, and traditional texts, while mine builds from experience towards a process understanding of human nature. He is a cartographer, while I am functionalist seeking working relationships between the many facets of consciousness and the mind. To make this clear I must tell you something of my own view. Then I can proceed to his criticisms.

The nature of consciousness.

Our immediate day to day experience is characterized by a flow of feelings, thoughts, memories, emotions, perceptions, and the like. Each of these is itself a process that is constantly changing, ebbing and flowing in a fashion that cannot be predicted in detail, but is unique for each of us as individuals. It was precisely this complex but uniquely individual pattern of activity that William James defined as the essence of one's personality. These many elements of our conscious life are continuously in flux, forming patterns that are characterized in the sciences of complexity as chaotic, meaning that they constantly change in an unpredictable but globally recognizable fashion, much as does the weather.[1] In fact, the weather provides an excellent metaphor for our inner lives. It is made up of many elements such as temperature, humidity, wind, and barometric pressure, each of which fluctuates in a seemingly random but yet familiar pattern. For example, if it is cool it will get warmer. If it is windy, it will eventually grow calm. If it is dry it will rain; and so on. The overall pattern of weather is unique and typical for each region of the world, but this does not mean that we can say what the temperature will be next Friday morning at 11:00 a.m., any more than we can say whether we will be in a good mood at that time. Nevertheless, our moods fluctuate in patterns that are unique to each of us and are as familiar as the weather.

So we can talk about a kind of inner weather. At any given moment we may be happy, sad, bored, enthusiastic, excited, calm, or awash in melancholy. These experiences can be thought of as moods, or states of mind [2]. This is not a technical phrase, but simply refers to the fact that every moment of our lives is characterized by a process fabric of which each thread is a psychological process such as thought, memory, and emotion at that instant. Of course, states of mind change throughout the day, so that we might experience a relaxed and optimistic morning only to encounter a stressful afternoon. But after a dinner with friends, a glass of wine, and good conversation, we might end the evening in a relaxed and contemplative state of mind.

States of mind play out their roles on larger stages which I call a states of consciousness. Ordinary waking consciousness, or consensus reality, is one such state, as are a variety of dream states, meditative states, shamanic trances, drug facilitated states, states of ecstasy, and so on. Each one represents an entire experience of reality that can change over time, but which tends to be more stable and lasting than states of mind. We may experience a dream [3], for example, in which an entire range of states of mind play out over the course of a few minutes, ranging from joy to deep sadness. Obviously, waking reality supports a wide range of states of mind as well, but certain others, such as deep meditative states, are tailored to limit the available states of consciousness to a desirable few.

Years ago Charles Tart observed that each state of consciousness is characterized by a unique pattern of psychological process which form a resilient pattern, or gestalt, within that state [4]. The state of marijuana intoxication, for instance, involves a reduced short-term memory combined with a fluid imagination and an enabled intuition. These, plus a heavy feeling in the body, heightened auditory sense, and increased pleasure from eating desirable foods, leads people to sit, listen to music, and make the kind of silly but intuitive jokes so typical of marijuana usage. Dream states, on the other hand, often carry no awareness of one's physical body whatsoever, and while logic may seem to be present, later examination often discloses patterns of thought that are nothing short of bizarre by waking standards. The point is that the various elements of feeling, thought, memory, and the like, conspire in each state of consciousness to form a connected pattern that works as a whole. Let us note, however, that each of these psychological elements, or functions to be more accurate, is in itself a process that ebbs and flows over time, so that a state of consciousness is not a structure like a table or even a machine, but is more like the weather, with each individual part contributing to the ongoing process of the whole. An even better metaphor is that of a living cell, in which a myriad chemical processes and metabolic cycles combine in cooperation to create an overall process fabric that is the essence of biological life itself.

Thus, my view of consciousness is an ecological one, in which each of the elements of consciousness, thoughts, feelings, memories, emotions, the flow of the imagination, and more, contribute to a living inner ecology. This is entirely consistent with William James' wonderful descriptions of consciousness written a hundred years ago, but he did not have the benefit of the modern sciences of complexity so he could not see these process as mutually supportive and catalyzing each other in the genesis of the resilient self-creating (autopoietic) and ever-changing event that is our own human consciousness. In technical terms, I refer to a state of consciousness as a chaotic attractor, that is, a stable pattern of ever-changing mental processes that braid together into the resilient process fabric of that state. This is my basic view of consciousness, which is laid out in much more detail in The Radiance of Being, where I also devote an entire chapter to the brain processes that undergird our ordinary experiences. It is also the subject of a variety of scientific papers by myself and Stanley Krippner [5].

Though more speculative, I find it fascinating to think about the overall development of human consciousness in larger historical and transpersonal frameworks. In this I am very indebted to the work of the celebrated European poet and philosopher Jean Gebser, who provided what I believe to be compelling evidence that human history has been characterized by a series of broadly overlapping epochs, each of which represented a particular style of understanding and experiencing reality [6]. Gebser referred to these as structures of consciousness. Most of the present readers will already be familiar with them, so I will only identify them briefly and refer to Gebser's own work, or Radiance, for more detailed discussions. They are the archaic, magic, mythic, mental, and integral structures of consciousness. Gebser saw them as appearing sequentially across history as increasingly complete projections of the Origin—his word for an illuminating spiritual principle that holds much in common with the Neoplatonic notion of the One, and the Buddhist idea of the Void. For each structure, up to the integral, Gebser identified an "adequate" and "inadequate" form. The point here, however, is that each of these structures of consciousness represents an entire way of understanding reality. Magical consciousness, for instance, experiences nature as richly populated with living spirits, while everything from a thunder clap to the pattern of cracks in dry earth is seen as pregnant with meaning. Consciousness is collective within primary groups, or tribes, and "magic" events such as omens, synchronicities, and telepathy are commonplace. Mythic consciousness, on the other hand, understands the world in terms of grand tales of great gods and goddesses. Here, the imagination flows through stories and poetry.

But rather than proceeding on with descriptions that can be read elsewhere, let me now make the basic point that I believe structures of consciousness, as they are discussed above, provide a platform for states of consciousness in much the same way that states of consciousness provide a platform for states of mind. Certainly a mythic minded inhabitant of the ancient world of, say, four or five thousand years ago, experienced ordinary waking states, dreaming, drug facilitated states of consciousness, and perhaps shamanic trances, much as do people today. Likewise, they must have felt moments of happiness and of sadness, known anticipation and dread, became melancholic, and experienced most if not all of the other states of mind that we do. One cannot think otherwise. Indeed, it is exactly this commonality of states of mind and states of consciousness that renders ancient epics such as the Iliad and the Odyssey so intelligible to us today. It is only upon closer examination that they reveal the underlying mythic structure which created such a different lifeworld than we experience in modern times.

Now, before turning to Wilber's criticisms let me make the final point that I regard structures of conscious to be process structures of the same general type as states of consciousness, but larger. So a more technically accurate description of the whole picture is that of a large hypercomplex chaotic attractor whose global pattern represents a structure of consciousness, and nested within it, as part of itself, appear the fluctuating chaotic patterns (or sub-attractors) that represent states of consciousness. Within the latter are seen even smaller and more rapidly changing but still prominent forms that are states of mind. These states of mind are, in fact, comprised of moving patterns of feelings, thoughts, images, memories, and the various other constituents of our mental lives. Thus, we can imagine the exquisitely hypercomplex, constantly changing, self-organizing and self-similar patterns that are the process layers of our own conscious experience. These patterns can be represented as chaotic attractors such as those seen in the turbulence waters of a stream, or in complex atmospheric currents. As I discuss in Radiance, patterns of this general type can also be recorded in the electrical activity of the brain itself, suggesting that the process nature of experience is supported from beneath by a process oriented brain. (Note that it is not my intention to reduce all experiences to the brain. Far from it. But reality dictates that some sort of harmonious correspondence must exist between the events in the nervous system and those of experience. Were it not so, neurological clinics would be out of business and so would pharmaceutical companies—perhaps for the better!)

In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, or consciousness, or of subjective life. William James [7]

Reply to Wilber.

With the above in mind I will now reply to Ken Wilber's criticisms of my work. In doing so let me state from the beginning that I will address these in the style in which Wilber himself has addressed his own critics, pulling no punches. He has made it clear, much to the amazement of many of his more genteel colleagues, that he not only aims to engage in this style of debate, but that in his view it is entirely defensible [8]. Moreover, let me say that I do not intend to be long winded. I am a firm believer in the notion that good ideas can be stated clearly and simply. I do not subscribe to proof by intimidation, that is, attempting to overwhelm the reader with jargon and obscurities, though I suspect much of Wilber's recent writing is so tinctured [9].

To begin with, let me say I am not surprised Ken Wilber began his criticism of Radiance suggesting that much of my thinking is to be found in his own pervious works. In recent years Wilber has acquired a remarkable gift for the discovery of the ideas of others in his own writing [10]. Why he works so hard to do this I cannot say. It is certainly not for want of good ideas of his own. What amazes me, however, is that he should then turn around and find so much at fault with these same ideas. Be that as it may, of the several points of criticism he raises I will address those that seem most essential.

Wilber's most basic criticism of my thinking is the idea that states of consciousness are supported by structures of consciousness rather than the other way around. I described my own notion of structures of consciousness above, one that is derived quite specifically from Gebser's work and is informed by the modern sciences of complexity. Wilber's notion of structures, by comparison, is much more abstract and also more complex. For example he makes a distinction between enduring structures and transitional structures. To get a feel for this I will quote from his recent The Eye of the Spirit:

In The Atman Project, I give seventeen basic levels or basic structures in the overall spectrum, including: matter, sensation, perception, impulse, image, symbol, concept, rule, formal, vision-logic, psychic, subtle, causal, and nondual. I usually simplify this to nine or ten. These are: sensorimotor, phantasmic-emotional, representational, rule/role, formal, vision-logic, psychic, subtle, causal, and nondual. …Some of the more important transitional structures include worldviews (e.g., archaic, magic, mythic, mental, existential, psychic, and so on; cf. Gebser); self-needs (e.g., safety, belongingness, self-esteem, self-actualization, self-transcendence; cf. Maslow); self-identity (e.g., uroborus, typhon, persona, ego, centaur, soul; cf. Loevinger); and moral stages (e.g., preconventional, conventional, postconventional, post-postconventional; cf. Nucci, Kohlberg, Gilligan)… (pp. 140-141)

I have read something like this before. Here:

[There is] a certain Chinese encyclopedia in which it is written that animals are divided into: a) belonging to the emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, l) et cetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies. (Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, 1973, p. xv)

One might think that these are rather labored categories. However, I do not object to this. If Wilber feels that something is to be gained by lumping everything together that has anything at all in common, then more power to him. I only note that it is no honor to original thinkers of the caliber of Plotinus, Sri Aurobindo, or Jean Gebser to lump them into a kind of jargon-laden transpersonal soup with Great Chain of Being as the stock, as if their original writings could really be geometrically compounded in some uncompromised fashion. Syncretism (the idea that all great religions and philosophies are the same at core) was popular in the late days of antiquity, and is again popular today. Perhaps it contains a serving of truth, but boiling everyone down into the same pot does not do justice to their all-important individual flavors. It gets worse. Carol Gilligan, for example, has written at length against Lawrence Kohlberg and the whole hierarchical notion in general, yet Wilber heaps the two together for good measure. One wonders if he has even read all these people.

In fact, I do not have a serious problem with the idea that states and structures might have a more fluid relationship than my original writing suggested. Wilber notes, perhaps rightly, that a state of consciousness, say a dream, might serve as the entry into a structure of consciousness, say the mythic structure. In this vein, my own reflections on consciousness have led me to think increasingly in terms of holographic metaphors in which different realities might appear depending upon the angle of view. Moreover, it is an easy matter to imagine states and structures changing places, as it were, in a grand attractor, without loss of definition, like tracing the sides of Klein Bottle [11]. So thinking along these lines is a good idea. I would note, however, that Wilber's habit of calling upon the Perennial Philosophy as if it were an authoritative reference in this discussion (or any other) is not very helpful. The term has a long and interesting history in the West [12], but is far from having any generally accepted definition, beyond in this instance, what Wilber has given it himself. There has been no Papal Council on the perennial philosophy.

Wilber also faults my use certain Buddhist terms such as dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya. Perhaps his criticism is justified. I certainly am no expert on Eastern texts, some of which are written in ancient languages. But then of course, neither is he. We both just read what we can in English translation, talk to colleagues and teachers, and do the best we can. In my case, friends such as Indologist Georg Feurstein and Buddhist scholar Herbert Guenther read my manuscript more than once before its publication and did not find these problems. Maybe Wilber is doing better than them.

Finally, Wilber criticizes my theory for "having no genuine transpersonal structures," but "only states for higher realms." Here he is absolutely right. I believe that fully developed integral consciousness is as close to unconditional consciousness or liberation as we can understand. This is not to deny higher states of consciousness, it is just that they are a different matter and not in themselves about liberation. Wilber and I have a fundamental difference in view here, perhaps the only one that I feel strongly about. His whole model for personal and social evolution depends on a series of stages (structures if you like) that start out as the Gebserian structures of consciousness, above, and somehow end up as the traditional subtle vehicles of Vedanta. Though Wilber makes the reasonable case that many other traditions have similar levels, which can be experienced as states of consciousness, these vehicles, subtle planes, or whatever one wishes to call them, simply are not structures of consciousness, at least not of the kind Gebser discovered or that I describe in Radiance. It is apples and oranges here—or structures and states of consciousness to be exact. And while some, though certainly not all types spiritual practices might "elevate" one's consciousness temporarily or even for longer periods of time into such levels, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the whole human race is headed that way. Or, for that matter, that most spiritually "accomplished" people are headed that way either, at least not as a final goal [13]. Pleasant states of experience are part of the work in some traditions, but are not necessarily part of the fruit of that work, which is unconditional consciousness.

This confusion comes in large part from a failure to fully appreciate the nature of integral consciousness. In The Eye of the Spirit Wilber comments that "Gebser vigorously attempted to include the spiritual domain in his work, but it soon became obvious that he simply was not aware of—or did not deeply understand—the contemplative traditions that alone penetrate to the core of the Divine" (p.71). To my mind this is like saying that Leonardo da Vinci did not understand perspective, though he tried vigorously to capture it in his art. In fact, as William Irwin Thompson recently observed while contrasting Gebser's writing with Wilber's own:

Gebser…is the genuine article, a grand European thinker with a grand vision…a true philosopher of art and culture who prophesied in the 1940s the shift to the new chaos dynamical mathematical understanding of nature, the new appreciation of matristic values in a dissolving of patriarchy, and the new spirituality beyond reactionary religious and deficient magical cults…Spiritual without being occult, Gebser also managed to avoid the psychic inflation of the self-elected guru… [14]

Just because Gebser did not postulate a series of "spiritual" structures of consciousness does not mean that he did not understand spirituality. Indeed, the integral structure of consciousness is the essence of spirituality, suffused with the very light of the Origin. It is an open spirituality, open both to the diaphanous light of the spirit and open to unrestrained human potential. Such consciousness cannot be contained by the linear models and mental abstractions that dominate the modern as opposed to the postmodern mind. Such models and abstractions permeate Wilber's writing from top to bottom and lie at the root of his complete failure to appreciate the postmodern experience. The integral can best be expressed through art, poetry, and music, but only clumsily in prose. This limitation is what Gebser actually struggled with, and how it is that he was a prominent poet before he was a philosopher. Gebser's own most intense experience of integral consciousness, which lasted for several days, was later certified by the great Zen Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuke as genuine satori.

The enlightenment experience, as seen in traditions such as the Tibetan rDzogs-chen, is unconditional—the mind is unfettered. In this sense integral consciousness is much closer to the state of natural realization than is any particular state of consciousness, and stands above and outside of any postulated system of states. I go to great pains to show this in Radiance, and it is why I do not postulate any "higher" structures of consciousness. They are simply beside the point. Wilber's effort to glue a stack of subtle planes of being on top of integral consciousness in order to make it more spiritual is like pouring sugar into spring water to make it more clear. This whole approach points to a confusion of spirituality with saccharine sweetness that can ultimately lead a total conflation of sweetness and beauty with the real nature of spirituality and even of art. It is out of this confusion that Wilber writes: "If you remain in the eye of Spirit, every object is an object of radiant Beauty. If the doors of perception are cleansed, the entire Kosmos is your lost and found Beloved, the Original Face of primordial Beauty, forever, and forever, and endlessly forever" (The Eye of the Spirit, p.138). As Wilber himself knows, but seems to have forgotten here, once one overcomes "the stench of enlightenment" in which mountains seem no longer to be mountains and flowers are no longer flowers, then the world becomes ordinary again, and things are seen just as they are, in their own natural suchness—nothing very special at all, only everything.

As a final note, I would like the reader to know that in the spirit of collegiality I offered to share my manuscript of Radiance with Ken Wilber prior to its publication, in hopes of talking out our differences ahead of time. He chose not to do this. Now, after the book has been endorsed by prominent transpersonal theorists such as Charles Tart and Michael Washburn, has shared the Scientific and Medical Network's Book of the Year Award with Noble laureate Roger Penrose, and has been favorably reviewed in the distinguished international Journal of Consciousness Studies, he has taken the time to write the several pages of criticism posted here, none of which he offered to share with me ahead of time. (Indeed, I did not even know it had been posted on the Internet until Frank Visser kindly extended an invitation for me to reply.) So there it is. Speaking about transpersonal theorist Michael Washburn, Wilber recently wrote, "It is therefore rather disappointing that he tends to misrepresent my overall model. Since this misunderstanding is fairly common, I will be as careful as I can in summarizing my view…" [15] In this fashion Wilber devaluates many thoughtful theorists who disagree with his system, rather than electing to honor what they have to say and allowing for honest differences of opinion. His own ideas, however, are not really very complex or difficult to understand, so those of us who choose a different path must say to you, "Ken, we do understand your model. We just disagree."


1. We have confirmed in our laboratory, as have other researchers, the chaotic nature of some of the elements of the inner life. This is explained in more detail in The Radiance of Being and in other publications.

2. Stanley Krippner and I have also termed these states of mindbody, in recognition of the fact that they involve physiological aspects—hormonal components, etc.—as well as mental aspects. Wilber has made similar observations.

3. Stanley Krippner and I argue that dreaming is a doorway into a whole range of potential states of consciousness. Thus, dreaming itself is not a singular state. (E.g.: Combs, A. & Krippner, S. (1998). Dream sleep and waking reality: A dynamical view of two states of consciousness. In S. Hameroff, A.W. Kaszniak, and A.C. Scott (Eds.). Toward a science of consciousness: The second Tucson discussions and debates. (pp. 487-493). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.)

4. See: Charles Tart, (1975). States of consciousness. New York: E.P. Dutton.

5. See: Footnote 3. Other papers are under review and in press. References to these will be regularly updated at my web site:

6. Jean Gebser; (1949/1986). The Ever-Present Origin. (N. Barstad and A. Mickunas, Trans.). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

7. William James; (1890/1981). The principles of psychology. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press; p. 233. The photograph is from Theodor Schwenk's classic 1976 book, Sensitive Chaos: The Creation of Flowing Forms in Water and Air. New York: Schocken Books.

8. E.g., See Wilber's comments in defense of himself in: Rothberg, D., & Kelly, S. (1996). Ken Wilber in dialogue: Conversations with leading transpersonal thinkers. Wheaton, Quest Books.

9. Perhaps not surprisingly, many college teachers who wish to use Wilber's work in their courses prefer his beautifully clear and still uninflated, No Boundary : Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth.

10. See, for example, Wilber's response to Michael Washburn in: "Two patterns of transcendence: A reply to Washburn." Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 30(3); and his replies to contributors in: Ken Wilber in Dialogue, above.

11. In this connection see Christine Hardy's excellent 1998 book: Networks of Meaning; A Bridge Between Mind and Matter. Westport: Greenwood Press.

12. E.g., see: Antoine Faivre, (1994). Access to Western Esotericism. Albany: State University of New York Press; also: Frithjof Schuon, (1986). Survey of Metaphysics and Esotericism. Bloomington: World Wisdom Books.

13. Wilber has rightly pointed out in many of his works that there are exceptions, traditions that do not seek an unconditional state as a goal.

14. William Irwin Thompson, (1996). Coming into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness. New York: St. Martin's Press; p.13.

15. The Eye of the Spirit, pages 139-140.

© 1999 Allan Combs

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