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Dustin DiPernaDustin DiPerna is founder of Bright Alliance ( and Co-Founder of Synergy Forum ( He is an entrepreneur, thought leader, group facilitator, and meditation instructor. For the past decade he has been a student of Integral Theory and has practiced in the spiritual lineages of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. Dustin received a Bachelor of Science degree from Cornell University and a Master of Liberal Arts degree in Religion from Harvard University. His released his first two books, The Coming Waves and Streams of Wisdom, earlier this year. He lives in California with his wife, Amanda, and daughter, Jaya.



Spiritual Experience

The Infinite Ladder: An Introduction to
Integral Religious Studies, Chapter 5

Dustin DiPerna

We diverge from classical Integral Theory and call this state Complete Union or Complete Mysticism rather than Nondual Mysticism.

Prior to giving detailed descriptions of each rung on our ladder of religious orientation, several more elements of the I sphere need to be included. The last chapter explored various lines of development needed to determine an individual's religious orientation. We also introduced several stages of human development within each of those lines. To reiterate Wilber's integral theory, we technically call the stages within a line of development, structure-stages[1]. Wilber explains that structure-stages are unique because they are not an element of awareness that can be "seen" from the inside. Often an individual at a particular stage is completely unaware what stage they are at. As Wilber puts it, you can sit on a meditation mat for years and never see a thought that says post-conventional morals or synthetic-conventional faith development.[2] All of those stages can only be seen from the outside by academic studies and research projects. Because research into stages depends upon modern scientific research and techniques and because the world's great religious traditions were all born in the pre-modern times, no tradition had anything that resembled an understanding of structure- stages. [3]

Our world's traditions did, however, have an intricate understanding of an equally important aspect of consciousness. They understood phenomenology, the felt first-hand experience of the practitioner. Again borrowing the term from Wilber, we call these felt experiences states of consciousness. When states occur in a religious context, they are called spiritual or peak experiences. Because access to these spiritual experiences also tends to unfold in a sequential order, Wilber calls their progression state-stages.

Structure-stages as discussed in the last chapter are comparable to a vertical spectrum of development just as we have seen. State-stages, or the stages of access to spiritual experience, can occur at any structure-stage of development and are therefore often placed on a horizontal spectrum at every stage.[4]

It is vitally important to acknowledge that although access to spiritual experience might be permanent and the result of developing to a particular state-stage, the experiences themselves come and go. To say it another way, state-stages represent permanent access to states, but the states themselves are temporary. This can be directly contrasted with structure-stages. Structure-stages represent a permanent transformation in consciousness. Once earned, structure-stages represent the new lens through which the individual views the world. In the rare exception of serious mental distress (regression), structure-stages are permanent acquisitions of consciousness. If ever confused between the terms just remember: structure-stages and permanent access to states (state-stages) are earned over time; states (or spiritual experiences) are spontaneous and free. [5]

The Witness

Our description of spiritual experiences requires we include an additional term: the Witness. Although sometimes carelessly categorized as a state, the Witness (or as Hindus call it turiya), is in fact not a state at all, but the ever-present awareness existing throughout all states.[6] The Witness is simply the objective observer within every individual. The Witness is sometimes referred to as the transcendent Self, as opposed to the individual self.

The best way to understand the concept of the Witness is to guide the reader through an experiential that will allow him or her to directly access it within him/herself. From that place of departure we will be able to explain each type of spiritual experience more precisely:

Take a moment to relax. Allow your eyes to soften as the page of this book softly sits in front of you. Relax your shoulders and the muscles of your face.

Now, notice the sounds all around you. Notice your thoughts passing by in your mind. Notice that in this space in your awareness time is marching slowly forward, never ending. Perhaps now there are new sounds and new thoughts; moment to moment new things arise. This process is continuous.

Now take a moment to notice that even as new thoughts and sounds arise, there is a part of you that never changes. There is a part of you that is perfectly still in the midst of all the turmoil around you. Sounds arise and you are still, unchanging. You are the hearer. Thoughts arise again and again but You do not change. You are not the thoughts but the Witness of those thoughts.

Notice that this has always been the case. You, the Witness of all things that arise and fall, have never changed. You are completely still. You have always been You.

It is this unchanging part of you that we call the Witness. The Witness simply rests and without any effort at all, is always aware of all things that arise.

While awake, the Witness (or Self) is aware of the gross realm. The gross realm simply means this physical environment that we live in; nature, cars, trees, buildings, other people. When we sleep, the very same Witness is aware of our dreams; images, dramas, and thoughts, full of light and emotions that dance in our awareness in the night. This is what we call the subtle realm. The Witness is aware of all of these things and is simultaneously not identified with any one of them. The Witness never changes, the Witness is always still; always the observer and never the observed. As our sleep cycle continues the objects and forms that our Witness observes, all fall silent. In deep dreamless sleep no forms arise; no images, no thoughts, no emotions, just vast emptiness. We call this the causal realm.

Then, with time, just as it always occurs, naturally and without effort, forms begin to take shape again. Once again, the subtle realm begins to manifest. The Witness effortlessly watches dreams and thoughts rise to the surface of awareness. Thoughts and dreams grow just as a seed grows into a tree. Finally, one wakes up from sleep completely; the gross realm reappears. The physical environment emerges and the Witness takes notice of the sounds and presence of one's immediate surroundings.

States of Consciousness

In our exploration of spiritual experiences we will examine three generic states of mysticism associated with our three realms gross, subtle, and causal. They are: Nature Mysticism, Deity Mysticism, and Formless Mysticism, respectively. We add to these three states, a forth state which we call Complete Union. In each of the aforementioned peak experiences the subject (or the Witness) either communes or actually unites with the object(s) of awareness. We'll look at each of them each one at a time.

Nature Mysticism: Nature Mysticism refers to two types of peak experiences in the Gross realm: Gross Communion and Gross Union. (1) In Gross Communion the subject experiences a deep connection with the physical environment. Often accompanied by a sense of peace and love for the earth. (2) In Gross Union, the subject (Witness) and the object(s) (buildings, mountains, the ocean, a sunset) suddenly merge. There is no distinction between the Witness and that which is witnessed. Wilber associates Nature mysticism is associated with Shamans.

Deity Mysticism: Deity Mysticism refers to two types of peak experiences in the Subtle realm: Subtle Communion and Subtle Union. (1) In Subtle Communion the subject experiences a profound encounter with the divine. This may be experienced as light, love, energy or even visions of the personified form of a deity. (2) In Subtle Union, the subject and object suddenly merge. The object in this case may be a personal/relational God, Jesus, The Buddha of Compassion, or Shiva, etc. In Subtle Union there is no distinction between the Witness and that thought form which is witnessed.

Wilber associates Deity Mysticism with Saints and Prophets. In the West, Moses, Mohammad, and Abraham are all connected with this level of spiritual experience.

Formless Mysticism: Formless Mysticism refers to two types of peak experiences in the Causal realm: Causal Communion and Causal Union. (1) In Causal Communion the subject is confronted with a complete void. Nothing arises whatsoever. There is only pure space. The Witness is aware of emptiness. (2) In Causal Union the subject (Witness) and the formless (causal) suddenly merge. There is no distinction between the Witness and the formless. They are recognized as not two. In the West this is often called an impersonal God (or Godhead). In the East this state is referred to as Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Sages like the Buddha, Lao Tzu[7], and Christ are all associated with this state-stage of spiritual experience.

To these first three state experiences (gross, subtle, and causal) we can also add a fourth peak experience called Complete Union (or what Wilber calls Nondual Mysticism).[8]

Complete Union: In Complete Union all that is arising (gross, subtle), and the formlessness of the causal, is recognized as none other than the Witness. This is beautifully stated in the Hindu tradition as:

Brahman alone is real

The world is illusionary

Brahman is the world

Or as we would translate:

The Witness alone is the only unchanging reality. The perception that the Witness is separate from that which is witnessed, in gross, subtle and causal realms, is illusionary. True insight discloses that the Witness and the world are not two.

Because Complete Union requires a merging with gross, subtle, and causal realities, it can only occur in the waking state while living in the world. (This is the case because the subtle by itself is missing the gross realm; the causal by itself is missing the gross and the subtle realm.) And because the gross realm is evolving, this experience of compete union is a dynamic state of increasing joy and ecstasy. Because of evolution, in each moment there is more of the world with which to merge.

Wilber calls those advanced souls who realize the Complete Union (or what he calls the nondual), Siddhas. According to Wilber, spiritual leaders of the East like Nagarjuna and Shankara, and leaders in the West like Plotinus were some of the first to connect with this type of recognition.

The graph below shows the four states of consciousness just discussed in the center row (nature, deity, formless mysticism, as well as complete union) and the three corresponding realms of existence in the right column. On the left hand side of the page we show the ever-present Witness, perceiving the world from behind the veil of illusionary separateness (maya). As a peak experience unfolds in each realm the veil of maya is temporarily removed, showing the identity of the Witness and the Realm as not separate (i.e. In Nature Mysticism or Gross Union, the Witness and the gross realm are recognized as not separate). Finally, in a peak experience of complete union, the veil of maya lifts off of all three realms and the Witness exists in a state of absolute purity; Identified as both all things that arise and formlessness itself. This state is experienced as a dynamic, ever increasing sensation of ecstasy and fullness. Because the gross realm is evolving, and in each moment there is more and more with which to be one, this state is like riding a wave of bliss as it intensifies moment to moment. (See the distinctions between States of Consciousness and Liberations of Consciousness, as well as "Teasing Apart the Nondual" below for further explanation.)

Human beings pass through the realms of gross, subtle, and causal each night as they sleep. In other words, humans access the three realms in normal states of consciousness to help reinforce the contours of each realm every sleep cycle. Just the same, all individuals born today have access to these four types of peak experience, regardless of their stage of religious orientation. As we will explore in our next chapter, we strongly argue that this was not always the case. Pioneering individuals first accessed these states in a sequential order as history unfolded. True, the counters of gross, subtle, and causal existed as a direct result of involution[9] and the fact that all individuals pass through waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. However, we suggest that conscious, willed access to each realm unfolded over time. That is to say, at one point in history Nature Mysticism (gross) was the highest spiritual experience available. Then with time, state experiences of Deity Mysticism (subtle) began to emerge. This process of progressive state-stage realization is one of the greatest contributions brought to us by our world's wisdom traditions.

In the most profound liberation of consciousness, mystics the world over have realized (to paraphrase Meister Eckhart) the I with which I see God, is none other than the I with which God sees me. The one and only Witness (the Self) is none other than God. It is with this single recognition that limitation and suffering are dismantled at their root.

States vs. Liberations of Consciousness

Diverging from Wilber's classical Integral Theory (AQAL), we divide spiritual experience into two categories: States of Consciousness and Liberations in Consciousness.

As we learned in the opening of this chapter, states of consciousness are temporary. As Wilber often notes, "they come stay a bit then pass". States can indeed be learned, cultivated, and trained. As we saw above, states include gross experiences, subtle experiences, causal experiences. States also include complete union, or the union of the evolving gross, subtle, and causal simultaneously. The category of states also includes other temporary peak experiences such as constant consciousness, the ability to maintain unbroken identification with the Witness through the natural cycles of waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. All humans born today, regardless of their stage of orientation, have access to these states of consciousness precisely because the shamans, saints, and sages of the past have already pierced each realm (gross, subtle, and causal) with conscious awareness.

All that we learned about States of Consciousness can be directly contrasted with what we call Liberations in Consciousness. Liberations in consciousness, unlike states, are not temporary. Once realized, each liberation creates a permanent shift in awareness. Currently, we point out two stages of liberation. The first of which we have already familiarized ourselves with: The Witness. The Witness or what we call the first liberation is also called Turiya or Self-realization in some traditions. The second liberation we call Natural Enlightenment (Sahaj Samadhi or Ordinary Mind). Contrasted with states of consciousness, both of these liberations in awareness are ever present. This has two implications. First, both stages of liberations are always already the case. Second, prior to realization of each, we fail to recognize them. These can be tricky points to realize until one actually experiences waking up to both. However, we cannot stress enough the importance of these two liberations. It is through such realizations that endless suffering subsides once and for all. These represent true Liberation.

The important distinction between states of consciousness and liberations of consciousness allows us to avoid the unwanted error of categorizing the Witness as a state, as is so often the case in current integral theory. To be specific, the act of witnessing is a state but the Witness itself is the unchanging awareness that observes all states. To repeat, waking up to the Witness is not a state but rather the recognition of the ever-present, first liberation into I-Am-ness.

For proper understanding, we must consider our two liberations of consciousness as one coin with two sides. The coin, when taken as a whole, is called the Self. On one side of the coin is what we have been calling the Witness. On the other side of the coin is the Pure Self.

In first liberation, one recognizes the source and center of awareness, the Witness. Along with this realization comes liberation from 99.9% of all suffering; one's identity shifts from a lower self to a higher Self (or more precisely awareness recognizes that it has always been the higher Self). This frees the individual from exclusive identity with a separate self-sense, providing the realizer with a type of salvation; a protective abode in awareness free from the tortures of the world. Again we note that this realization is a recognition of something that is already the case. Self-identification prior to this realization was falsely associated with the individual ego instead of the Witness.

First liberation, or the recognition of the Witness, in time gives way to the other side of the coin; what we call a second liberation in consciousness. We call this second liberation final liberation or true Nondual realization. This side of the coin is the recognition of the Pure Nondual Self, unavoidable from the start. This differs only slightly from recognition of the Witness and results in complete and radical freedom from the last trace of suffering.

How is 2nd liberation different than 1st liberation? Lets take a closer look. -- Recognition of the Witness (1st liberation) allows the systematic dissolution of all desire and suffering, except for the desire to permanently ‘remember' the Witness. For example, although one is always already the Witness one can be in a contracted state of awareness in which the Witness is not recognized, and suffering endures. In this contracted mode of awareness, even through the Witness is ever-present, one has forgotten that it is always already the case. In this situation, the practitioner often makes a slight effort to bring awareness back to proper recognition of the Witness. This subtle effort -- effort to rest in the Witness rather than the individual ego -- is the last, and most subtle form of struggle.

With the recognition of Sahaj, or second liberation, all struggle subsides. No longer is one concerned with identifying with the Witness or being contracted in a separate self-sense. Both are completely acceptable and recognized as none other then perfect nondual mind. Enlightenment is finally impossible to avoid, whether it is remembered or forgotten. Perfect self-liberating awareness includes both the Witness remembered and the Witness forgotten.

Final liberation is not to be confused with the blissful state experience of Complete Union (Turiyatita). Turiyatita, also called One Taste, is a temporary state that comes and goes. Final Liberation is a permanent recognition; ever-present and impossible to avoid.

With this second liberation or recognition of the Pure Nondual Self, awareness, just how it is, and without changing a thing, is truly Nondual. Nondual awareness is impossible to avoid. Anger, pain, contraction into a egoic identity, liberation into Turiya, the bliss and total ecstasy of Turiyatita, the rapture of subtle union/communion, hatred, joy, jealousy; all of this is the Nondual Self. It cannot be otherwise. This is natural enlightenment...right now, without changing a thing. This is freedom from suffering and freedom from desire, freedom from the need to change anything; Yet simultaneously, this Self is free to change anything; completely engaged in suffering, completely engaged in desire. Whether the mind has remembered its identity as the Self or if it has forgotten, this is Sahaj. This and every other state, this and every other liberation, regardless of ones stage of development-this is the Nondual. As Zen discovered with its simplicity and beauty, "ordinary mind is the way".

To reiterate, we believe the distinction between liberation-stages, state-stages, and structure-stages is of great significance. We also contend that it offers a new insight into current integral theory. A few more points of clarification are needed to drive the point home before moving on.

We have already mentioned that liberations in consciousness should not be confused with states of consciousness. States are temporary and liberations are permanent. However we should also note that liberations in consciousness should not be confused with structure-stages either (magic, mythic, rational... etc). Although both structures and liberations are permanent, structures must be earned over time whereas, liberations, like states, are free and have no prerequisites whatsoever.

The above diagram shows state-stages, liberation-stages, and structure-stages and the characteristics of each. Notice both states and liberations share two characteristics. Both have no pre-requisites and both are free. In addition Liberations and stages share a similar characteristic yet neither can be reduced to the other. Both liberations and stages are permanent once actualized.

One last diagram that might be helpful is pictured below. States of consciousness and liberations of consciousness have varying names within different traditions. The following chart is a simplified version of several of these terms for easy reference.

Teasing Apart the Confusion with the Nondual

In various traditions and theories, the term nondual has been used to describe two of the states mentioned above and both types of liberation. More precisely, the term nondual has been used to describe states of causal union, and complete union (One taste), and nondual has also been used to describe First Liberation (the Witness) and Second Liberation, Natural Enlightenment. It is important that Integral Religious Scholars have clear distinctions and proper definitions of all the above terms. We hope this summary helps to clarify some of the confusion. Lets take each term one at a time.

Causal Union and the Nondual

In the experience of causal union. The Witness and formless emptiness are recognized as not separate. The causal is beyond both space and time. Nothing arises here to be an object of awareness. For all basic purposes, there is only vast emptiness and this could easily be confused as being one without a second (a common description of the nondual) because literally there are no forms arising.

This is not, however, the Nondual. If we want to be technical, the Causal is the pre-dual; the prior ground of all that arises; the source of manifestation; Godhead; or as we like to call it First God. Causal Union is a temporary state. However, by definition the Nondual cannot come and go. It is ever present.

Turiyatita and the Nondual

In the experience of Turiyatita or complete union, the Witness recognizes all manifest form in the gross realm, all thoughts, emotions, and energies in the subtle realm, and vast emptiness of the causal realm as none other then itself (if Union with the causal Realm is union with First God, this state can be experienced as union with Evolving God; ever increasing in joy and bliss, moment to moment. If union with the causal is static this realization is dynamic). Again for all practical purposes, this state appears to be without duality (one without a second) and could easily be dubbed nondual. This remains the case until, of course, one realizes that this state too comes and goes. Even Turiyatita is temporary. At one moment one experiences complete union and in the next, one does not. Despite the ecstatic union of this state, there is still a sliver of duality. We diverge from classical Integral Theory and call this state Complete Union or Complete Mysticism rather than Nondual Mysticism, in order to avoid this confusion.

Turiya and the Nondual

In some Vedanta texts, recognition of the Witness (Turiya) has been incorrectly dubbed the nondual. Often the logic of an individual confusing the Witness with the nondual runs as follows:

  1. The nondual is by necessity, ever-present.
  2. Because the Witness, or Turiya, is ever-present, then it indeed must be the nondual

We disagree with this logic. As contemplation deepens, one realizes that identification with the Witness alone cannot be nondual. The Witness only includes one side of the liberation coin. The Witness includes the side free from suffering but not the side that is contracted and caught in Samsara. There are times when one is identified with the Witness, spacious, and open, and there are times that one is contracted into the smaller egoic-self. Although the Witness is ever-present, lack of identification with the Witness or the desire to maintain awareness of the Witness results in subtle suffering. Even the recognition of Turiyatita (the state experience that discloses that the Witness is not separate from all that is witnessed), is plagued by subtle duality. As we saw above, even Turiyatita comes stays a but then passes.

Nondual and Ordinary Mind

Finally, for some after much effort, for some instantaneously, and for others by accident, we realize that there is absolutely nowhere to go. The "Way" is unavoidable. In second liberation, one recognizes that ever-present awareness, whether contracted or spacious, is the perfectly enlightened mind. The struggle dissolves. One finds Final Liberation.

Enlightenment Revisited

The term nondual is often directly associated with the term enlightenment. This marriage has caused the term enlightenment to be defined in at least five different ways. We explore all five uses below (E1 stands for Enlightenment Version 1, E2 stands for Enlightenment Version 2 etc.):

E1) Causal Union: In some traditions, enlightenment means causal union, recognition of emptiness. This state is also called Nirvikalpa Samadhi. (To make matters more confusing, with this state often comes a simultaneous recognition of the Witness, E2 due to the fact that the witness is alone with nothing arising)

E2) Self-Realization: Enlightenment can mean Self-realization or the recognition of the Witness (Turiya). E2 is synonymous with what we call first liberation. It often arrives in awareness upon a state experience of E1, though neither can be reduced to the other as we saw above. E2 results in freedom from the suffering caused as a result of identifying with a separate self.

E3) Complete Union: Enlightenment has been used to refer to the state of complete union or Turiyatita. The recognition that the Self (Witness) is the Self of the entire universe. This temporary state is also described as the recognition of emptiness as form. (Adding to the confusion among scholars, this state is often accompanied by a simultaneous recognition of 2nd liberation, natural enlightenment (E5). However, neither can be reduced to the other: the state of complete union is temporary and the final liberation of Natural Enlightenment is permanent because it is ever-present)

E4) Integral Enlightenment: In classical Integral Theory, enlightenment is defined as both Horizontal and Vertical Enlightenment. Horizontal Enlightenment means having permenent access to all states of consciousness (gross, subtle, causal, and nondual mysticism). Here, in the case of classical Integral theory, nondual means ambiguously either complete union (E3) or Natural Enlightenment/ 2nd Liberation (E5). Vertical Enlightenment means that one's center of gravity has stabilized at the highest stage of development that has unfolded to date. If enlightenment is union with everything arising, Wilber explains, than someone at a higher altitude is aware of more and can therefore unite with more of the available world.

E5) Natural Enlightenment: In some contexts, enlightenment is used strictly to mean Sahaj Samadhi or ever present self-liberating awareness. This is what we call second liberation. It moves beyond simple transcendent witnessing, to include every state imaginable, including a complete loss of witnessing and identifying as the contracted separate self-sense. This is what Zen calls Ordinary Mind. Awareness, just as it is, is the great perfection. There is "just this".

With enlightenment as defined by definition E2 (Self-realization) and E5 (Natural Enlightenment) above, absolutely no state experiences are necessary for its acquisition. We call both E2 and E5 liberations of consciousness. Recognition can be immediate and spontaneous because both are already the case.

With enlightenment definitions E1 (Causal Union), E3 (Complete Union), E4 (Integral Enlightenment) particular spiritual experiences are necessary because all require specific states of consciousness. As Wilber points out, if enlightenment is defined as E1 (Causal Union) than the Buddha's enlightenment is the same as someone entering nirvikalpa Samadhi today. Both the Buddha and the meditator today unite with an unchanging emptiness. But, Wilber goes on to point out, formless enlightenment is union with only half of the street. There is still the side of manifest form. A full enlightenment must include both the manifest and unmanifest;1 Which brings us to E3 complete union.

If enlightenment is defined as E3 (Complete Union) than the Buddha's enlightenment is less than someone who is enlightened today precisely because there is more form to become one with today than there was during the Buddha's life; more evolution has occurred; there is now more to transcend and include. But, as many would argue, the Buddha was as enlightened as possible while he was alive. How can we maintain the Buddha's integrity while simultaneously acknowledging that the world is evolving? Wilber's version of Classical Integral Theory concludes, E4 (Integral Enlightenment) is the most accurate description: In order for enlightenment to have meaning today and for the Buddha in history, as Wilber suggests, one must be as enlightened as possible in their own time period. That is to say, one must have both vertical and horizontal enlightenment; all states and all stages have been transcended and included. (To which we might add horizontal enlightenment would then include recognition of both the four states of consciousness and the two liberations of consciousness).

In the end we are left with five separate definitions that could all be used to describe enlightenment. We believe the term enlightenment can be used in any of the above ways as long as one specifies which definition they are using.

We propose a challenge classical Integral theory, however. Due to the ambiguous fusion of complete union (E3) and natural enlightenment (E5) into the single category of nondual mysticism (or we could say, due to the lack of distinction between the temporary state of Turiyatita and the ever-present existence of Final Liberation) we place the final goal as the latter rather than the former. We believe Enlightenment with a capital "E" is the ever-present recognition of natural enlightenment and not the evolving temporarily union of gross, subtle, and causal, in One Taste.

Wilber-Combs Matrix + Cultural Filter

Ken Wilber and Alan Combs came up with a revolutionary concept relating the states of consciousness we describe in this chapter, to stages of consciousness we explored in previous chapters. They discovered that the individual having a peak experience has no choice but to interpret that experience using their own particular psychograph and stage of religious orientation. In order to graphically represent their findings, they developed a grid of state-stages and structure-stages, that represents the assortment of interpretations available to every individual alive today. They called their grid the Wilber-Combs Matrix (shown below).[10]

Each box above represent a unique interpretation of a spiritual experience. As the graphic above shows, because of the five different stages of religious orientation, there are at least five different ways that one might interpret a gross realm experience, five different ways to interpret a subtle realm experience, etc. Multiplying the five stages of religious orientation with the four different states of consciousness, leaves us with over 20 different, all equally valid, interpretations of a religious experience. [11] (Also note that we use Compelte Union in the graph above instead of Wilber's original Nondual)

This lattice becomes even more complicated when we take into account the influence that personal belief and culture have on the experience. As a result of such influences, we are left with deep structures of the experience (gross, subtle, causal) as described above, and surface features of an experience (what actually appears) that are in part culturally constructed.[12]

Religious Scholar John Hick agrees as he points out:

It was well stated centuries ago by Thomas Aquinas in his dictum that 'Things known are in the knower according to the mode of the knower' (Summa Theologica, II/II, Q. 1, art 2). In ordinary sense perception the mode of the human knower is much the same throughout the world. But in religious awareness the mode of the knower differs significantly among the different religious traditions, which have been formed and developed within different historical and cultural situations. So my hypothesis is that the world religions are oriented towards the same Ultimate Reality, which is however manifested within their different thought-worlds and forms of experience in different ways. This is the model that seems to me best to make sense of the total situation." [13]

Hick's quote above not only affirms the basis for pluralistic and integral thought, it also sheds important light on the concept adding cultural influence to the Wilber-Combs matrix above.

In the pioneering work of Daniel P. Brown, Jack Engler, and Ken Wilber, we find the discovery that most religious traditions have records of religious experiences. When taken at face value (surface features), it appears that religious experiences across traditions are very different. However, with a little more insight, studies showed that although surface features tend to vary, their deep structures are strikingly similar. All of the spiritual experiences in deep structure are variations on gross, subtle, causal and non-dual (complete union) states. Further inquiry leads the researcher's to conclude that surface features were directly correlated to the individuals expectations as generated by the culture and religious traditions in which the person is embedded. A Westerner might see a two armed figure, and perhaps an Easterner a deity half-man, half-elephant (Ganesh). All of this is another way of pointing out that interpretation of spiritual experience will be influenced by ones culture. [14]

At the very least an integral scholar would make sure to add a third dimension to the Wilber-Combs matrix. We call this third dimension a cultural filter. For example, a person at myhic level of orientation, might have a subtle realm state experience (subtle communion) and might also be embedded in a Buddhist/Asian culture. This experience might be drastically different than the person at the same level (mythic) having the same type of experience (subtle communion) but embedded in a Western European culture. Adding a cultural filter to the Wilber-Combs matrix verifies that we are as accurate as possible in our description and analysis of spiritual experience.[15]

For now, this introduction to spiritual experience allows us to move into heart of our presentation. In the next chapter, "The Infinite Ladder", we examine the contours of each rung on the Infinite Ladder of religious orientation.


[1] Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality : A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World, 1st ed ed., Boston: Integral Books, 20062006.

[2] Wilber, 2006.

[3] Wilber, 2006.

[4] Wilber, 2006. Specifically speaking when states are place on a horizontal axis they should be referred to as state-stages. (Or we could say the horizontal axis represents the sequential order of which access to states unfolds both through out history and in an individual).

[5] This elaborate distinction between states, state-stages, and structure-stages is a reiteration of the work of Wilber. Integral Spirituality. 2006.

[6] The Witness is confused as a state because awareness passes through phases in which it is aware as the Witness and others when it thinks it is not aware as it. Regardless, the Witness is ever-present and even when awareness is contracted and thinks that it has forgotten the Witness, that very "I-am-ness" that thinks it has forgotten the Witness is the Witness itself. The Witness is not a temporary state but the unchanging awareness of all states.

[7] Although it is now commonly accepted that there was not a true living individual named LaoTzu, we use his name here to represent those sages who might have authored significant Daoist texts.

[8] See the distinction below "Teasing Apart the Nondual" regarding why we label this complete union and not the nondual.

[9] See appendix 1: Involution and Evolutions Revisited for further discusion.

[10] Wilber, 2006.

[11] Wilber, 2006.

[12] Wilber, 2006.

[13] . Hick, John. Lecture: Religious Pluralism and Islam. Institute for Islamic Culture and Thought. Tehran, Iran. February 2005. (accessed 10/25/06:

[14] Wilber, 2006.

[15] This use of a cultural filter is a rearrangement of Wilber's all quadrant approach. In this case in particular, one using Wilber's version of AQAL, would be sure to include the Lower Left quadrant in order to include and acknowledging the unavoidable influence of culture.

© Dustin DiPerna 2007

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