Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Ken Wilber wrote the essay "To See a World -- Art and the I of the Beholder" for an exhibition of Anselm Kiefer (see the October 21 entry in One Taste, pp. 260-269). The November 12 entry contained some technical points related to that essay, which were deleted from the final version of One Taste. For the interested reader those points are published below for the first time, with permission of the author).

To See A World

Some technical points

Ken Wilber

"To See a World," which I wrote for the Anselm Kiefer exhibit, reminds me how difficult it is, at this point, to write short pieces. If I have anything new or fresh to say, it is because of the overall "big picture" that I have tried to develop; and yet, in order to use that big picture, I have to introduce it to the reader first. So I have to find short, simple ways to summarize what is, after all, rather complex material, and this is a very dicey game. I find that often I am forced to use not just simple, but simplistic, summaries—not just short and accurate but short and slightly inaccurate. In the Kiefer piece, for example, I say that each individual has available the entire spectrum of worldviews. That is fine as a simplistic summary, but technically, each individual has available the entire spectrum of basic structures (or the basic levels in the overall spectrum of consciousness, matter to body to mind to soul to spirit); but worldviews are collectively shared perceptions, and these do not reside in individuals alone; moreover, the surface features necessary to flesh out the deep features of the basic structures are provided only by cultural contexts, and those do not reside in individuals either. Nonetheless, each basic structure carries with it the main cognitive ingredients that will under-grid a particular worldview, and since I did not have the space to go into all these details, as a shortcut I simply said all individuals have available to them the entire spectrum of worldviews.

What often happens is that, when somebody in our culture has a transpersonal peak experience, they will clothe that experience in the surface structures of our non-transpersonal culture, often with strange or sad results. This is why we await the new symbols of a future transpersonal religion, and this is where artists can—and will—help immeasurably. In the meantime, individuals still have access to these higher levels of the spectrum of consciousness, but they find little support for them in the culture at large, so their worldviews are usually shaped by various micro-communities in which they find themselves, and these micro-communities (such as the avant-garde) are almost always alienated from the larger culture (precisely because, at their best, they are tapping into higher domains not officially recognized by conventional reality). So the general points of the essay are still accurate and the conclusion is still sound (I wouldn't have used the simplistic summary otherwise); but it does point up the difficulty of getting these ideas across in a short space.

The Kiefer essay is based on the theory of integral semiotics that I outlined in The Eye of Spirit [chapter 3, note 12]. In linguistics, it is common to speak of signifiers, signifieds, referents, semantics, and syntax. For example, the word "dog." The written or material word "dog" is the signifier. What comes to your mind when you read the word "dog" is the signified. The actual dog is the referent. The semantics of the word "dog" is its meaning, its referent, or what the word actually "points to." The grammatical structure that the linguistic word "dog" exists in is the syntax.

One of the main controversies in semiotics (or the overall meaning of a word) is how to relate these various symbolic entities. And my point is that these four main entities (signifier, signified, semantic, and syntax) are actually, precisely, the four quadrants of any sign. If this is true, then we will have, arguably for the first time, an "integral semiotics" that explicates these four ingredients, which are essential in creating all meaning and significance. Thus, signifiers are Upper Right quadrant (the exterior words and written symbols); signifieds are Upper Left (the interior ideas and psychological states evoked by signifiers); syntax is Lower Right (the formal linguistic system and its grammatical structures); and semantics is Lower Left (collective cultural meaning, values, referents, and worldviews).

All referents exist in a particular worldview or worldspace (Lower Left), and artists can paint, depict, or otherwise express those worldspaces (this is what I meant by "magic objects," "mythic objects," "existential objects," etc.). In other words, the semantics (the referent or meaning) of a painting depends upon the worldview to which the artist has access. By and large, an artist in a magical worldview will paint magical objects, an artist in the mythic worldview will paint mythic objects, and so on. This is because there is not a single pregiven world, but rather a spectrum of enacted (or co-created) worldviews, in which different perceptions, and therefore different objects, exist. And artists, just like everybody else, generally exist within a particular worldview, and by painting or depicting those worldviews, they render them more visible, one of their great services.

This also means that, in order for artists to paint higher worldspaces, they have to develop to those higher dimensions in their own being. As Kandinsky said, "Construction on a purely spiritual basis is a slow business. The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul." This happens only as we transcend individuality, as Mondrian knew: "Through our intuition, the universal in us can become so active that it pushes aside our individuality. Then art can reveal itself." Or, as Malevich put it, true art can begin "only if the superconscious were accorded the privilege of directing creation."

If we look specifically at the psychic, subtle, causal, and nondual worldspaces, the idea is that perceptions in those domains can be depicted by artists who are alive to those domains in their own being. That gives us at least four levels of transpersonal art. Further, within those levels there are different types or ways of doing art. There are different horizontal styles possible at each of those vertical levels. We have already looked at the vertical levels (psychic, subtle, causal, and nondual); here are a few of the most important styles:

Transpersonal realism—this involves depicting the transpersonal terrain exactly as one sees it, more or less. Alex Grey, for example, often draws the transpersonal realms precisely as he sees them, in a very realistic fashion (as well as doing numerous painting of a more symbolic nature). Ernst Fuchs and the Fantastic Realists attempt to paint inner spiritual visions exactly as they perceive them. Likewise the Surrealists attempted to depict inner realities graphically (some, but by no means all, of which were transpersonal). The acupuncture meridian lines, depicted on acupuncture charts, are an example of a realistic map of the etheric energy systems (which exist at the pranic level but tend to be more easily perceived at the psychic level). Much of Tibetan Buddhist art, which looks symbolic or metaphorical, is actually a realistic depiction of certain transpersonal realities (such as archetypal yidam or spiritual forms) that become directly seen and experienced in advanced meditation (particularly at the subtle level).

Transpersonal impressionism—this is based on a direct transpersonal perception, but depicted in softer tones, easier lines, than the starker realism. Nonetheless, impressionism is still related in a somewhat realistic fashion to the event or perception it is depicting. Zen paintings—in which bamboo trees, birds, lakes are depicted as soft, foggy, and misty—are not so much nature realism as transpersonal impressionism—the soft impression of the world no longer seen dualistically. But before we can truly understand impressionism, we need to contrast it with:

Transpersonal expressionism—the conventional distinction between impressionism and expressionism is that the former is based on an external perception (e.g., a landscape), the latter on an internal perception (e.g., an emotional state). While there is some truth to that, the unfortunate implication is that the former is "real" or "realistic" and the latter is "merely subjective" and "not really real." But, stated as such, that is a completely misleading distinction. All perceptions exist in specific worldviews: a physical landscape exists in the sensorimotor worldspace, emotions exist in the pranic (or emotional-sexual) worldspace—or levels 1 and 2 in the Great Chain. Both are equally real. So typical impressionism and typical expressionism are both depicting real states, one external, one internal. To say that impressionism is realistic (and thus based on something "really real") but expressionism is "merely subjective" (and not based on something that is "really real"), is simply to value the sensorimotor worldspace and deny the emotional worldspace, whereas in fact they are both equally real and equally existing levels in the Great Holarchy of Being. (In fact, the Great Nest theorists are unanimous that the pranic level, level 2, is actually more real than the physical level, level 1, because it has more depth and thus is closer to Spirit as transcendental Goal. Only in flatland, only in the modern wasteland, is the sensorimotor world—the world of scientific materialism and bodyism—made the only and ultimate reality. This is a reductionistic nightmare we need not share.)

Likewise, the common distinction nature versus abstract—which is made by virtually all art critics—is completely mistaken in its implication, which is that nature painting is "representational," whereas abstract painting is "nonrepresentational." That's very incorrect. A landscape painting represents or depicts states of nature, an abstract painting represents or depicts states of mind. Both are, in that sense, representational, because both the sensorimotor worldspace and the mental worldspace are real and existing landscapes.

Nonetheless, the distinction is useful in this sense: impressionism (both conventional and transpersonal) is depicting states that are relatively objective to the painter's consciousness, while expressionism (both conventional and transpersonal) is depicting states that are relatively subjective to the painter's consciousness.

That is true for both conventional and transpersonal art. To focus on the latter: In all cases of genuine transpersonal art—whether realist, impressionist, or expressionist—the artist is attempting to depict or convey some spiritual, transrational, supraindividual state, feeling, awareness, or insight, through the chosen medium (music, painting, dance, poetry, etc.). But with transpersonal expressionism, these states are still "too close" to be seen more objectively or realistically, and thus artists often feel they are trying to convey something for which they don't quite have the vocabulary. Unlike transpersonal impressionism and realism, where the events or states are seen fairly clearly, transpersonal expressionism always has a sense of a struggle to convey. Occasionally, transpersonal expressionism simply communicates states that intrinsically do not lend themselves to objective, impressionistic, or realistic modes. Much of Rumi's poetry; some of the painting of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, and Rothko; and many spiritual hymns are good examples of transpersonal expressionism.

Technical point: the reason this has always been an incredibly slippery distinction—impressionism versus expressionism, the former being objective and the latter being subjective—is that in the growth and development of consciousness, what is subject at one stage becomes object at the next. Thus, the infant starts out identified with his body; his subjective self is his sensory body; he cannot "objectify" the body or see it as an object. But when the mind emerges, the child identifies with it: the mind becomes the new subject, which can then witness the body as an object. When the soul emerges, it becomes the new self or subject, which can then witness both the mind and the body. Finally, with the emergence of I-I, or the pure empty Witness—which is the primordial Self or Absolute Subjectivity—the soul, the mind, and the body can all be impartially witnessed: one has ceased identifying exclusively with any of them, so that—with One Taste—one can identify as well with the entire world. In each case, we dis-identify with a lower level (which becomes an object of awareness), identify with a higher level (which becomes the new self or subject of awareness), only to eventually dis-identify with that. Thus, what is subject at one stage becomes object at the next, until both subject and object are exhausted and One Taste alone shines. (This is just another example of Whitehead's dynamic of prehension, which I consider fundamental: the subject of this moment becomes the object of the next moment's subject. Human macro development—the broad stages of human growth and development—follow Whitehead's micro development—the moment-to-moment unfolding of experience—as we would expect, since both are simply examples of the major dynamic of evolution itself, which is to holarchically transcend and include.)
But this means that what artists might render expressionistically (or subjectively) at one stage of their development, they might render more realistically or impressionistically (or objectively) at the next stage—precisely because their subjective world has now become more objective: they have transcended the earlier worldspace—dis-identified with it, detached from it to some degree—and thus they can see it more clearly. They are no longer expressing a lower subject, but realistically looking at it as an object. At the same time, they are now identified with the next higher worldview—the next higher self or subject—which, being "too close" to see clearly, they will most likely have to express in subjective, expressionistic tones. This is why the line between expressionism and impressionism is always sliding: the line between subjective and objective is likewise sliding (the subject of one stage is the object of the next). Still, it is a useful distinction, and one I will retain

Traditionally, an artist wishing to depict the transpersonal domain first enters the appropriate state of consciousness—psychic, subtle, causal, or nondual—and then simply depicts what he or she sees (using the chosen medium—poetry, music, dance, narrative, painting, etc.—and according to a chosen style). This results in transpersonal realism, transpersonal impressionism, or transpersonal expressionism—in poetry, music, dance, narrative, painting, and so on—across the transpersonal spectrum. But in all cases of genuine transpersonal art, the artist enters the appropriate higher state and then attempts to convey that state artistically.

The main point of doing so is not merely or even especially self-expression, but to help elicit or evoke these higher states in the viewers of the art. This is why all magnificent art has a moral depth to it: it talks to us from our own higher possibilities, it pulls us to our own greater destinies, it calls to us from what we can become.

Transpersonal realism, impressionism, and expressionism are the three main styles of authentic transpersonal art (whether expressed in poetry, music, dance, narrative, painting, etc.). What renders them authentic is not the content per se, but the depth of the artist conveying them. To be authentic, the artist must be speaking, in whatever style, directly from the higher state itself (psychic, subtle, causal, or nondual). And a critic can judge this if and only if the critic is alive to these higher domains as well.

That gives us a grid of three styles across four levels, or twelve distinctive types of authentic transpersonal art. But before I give examples of each, there is one other major style, less profound but much more common, that needs to be discussed, and that is transpersonal symbolism.

A transpersonal symbol is a symbol whose actual referent is in any of the transpersonal levels or realms. Words like "spirit," "buddha-nature," "deity," and "emptiness" are written symbols (or signifiers) of actual realities (or referents) that can be known directly in the transpersonal realms of development. But until those realities are experienced, the words remain symbols only.

It is often said that mystical experiences are ineffable. Absolutely not true. Or rather, no more true than for any other experience. Sex is ineffable, the taste of a cake is ineffable, listening to Bach music is ineffable, watching a sunset is ineffable. You know the actual meaning of those words, not by listening to the words, but by having the experiences to which they refer. If I say "orgasm," and you've had that experience, then you will know what the word means. If not, not. Likewise with "spirit," "godhead," "cessation," "interior luminosity"—if you have had those experiences, you will know what those words mean. If not, not. Words are just as adequate, or inadequate, for mysticism as for sex or any other experience; it's just that mystical experiences are rarer than orgasms and sunsets, so people say you can't "talk" about them at all, which is silly—of course you can, if you've had the experience. Zen masters talk about Emptiness all the time!, and they know exactly what they mean by the words (and the words are quite adequate), because they have had the experience.

So we can say: all experiences are equally ineffable, in the sense that words will never substitute for the experience itself (in sex, sunsets, or satori); but if you've had the particular experience, words do just fine in symbolically representing them (in sex, sunsets, and satori). The key is: you must have the experience to know what the words actually mean (technically, you need the developmental signified in order to know the corresponding referent of the particular signifier). A symbol or sign, in all cases, simply represents an experience in some domain (gross, subtle, or causal).

Thus, for example, the word "sunset" represents an experience in the sensorimotor worldspace. "Anger" represents an experience in the pranic or emotional-sexual worldspace. "The Virgin Mary" represents an experience in the mythic worldspace. The mathematical symbol "negative one" represents an experience in the rational worldspace. "Kundalini" is an experience in the psychic worldspace. The words "complete mental cessation" represent an experience in the causal worldspace. And so on.

Thus, "transpersonal symbolism" means any symbol or sign whose referent is in the transpersonal domains (psychic, subtle, causal, or nondual).

Now, it is in the nature of all symbols (conventional and transpersonal) that they do not actually look like that which they symbolize. The symbol "dog" does not look like a real dog. The word "Spirit " does not look like Spirit. Symbols, remember, stand for (or represent) a direct experience, and as such, they themselves do not look like, nor can they substitute for, that experience.

In art, this leads to several important distinctions. Let's say that I wish to paint a picture that protests human aggression. If I do this realistically, I might actually paint, say, a firing squad shooting a man (as Goya did). The painting looks more or less like the real scene. It is not symbolic, it is realist (or impressionist). But I can also do a symbolic painting, which will use other images in a symbolic fashion—perhaps doves falling to their death, or hearts with swords pushed through them, and so on. These symbols do not look like the real situation I am protesting, but they stand for, or symbolically represent, what I have in mind, namely, the horrors of human aggression.

The same is true for transpersonal realism and transpersonal symbolism. The former looks like what it depicts, the latter does not. Thus, the painting of a luminous tunnel of vibrant light extending above and beyond the crown of the head is an example of transpersonal realism, because that is a more-or-less direct depiction of a common experience in the subtle domain. But the hermetic drawings of Robert Fludd, for example, are merely a transpersonal symbolism—the drawings look like nothing in the actual transpersonal domains; they are merely mental symbols representing the fact that higher domains exist, but they do not themselves necessarily stem directly or immediately from those higher domains.

This distinction between realism and symbolism is important in transpersonal art, because 1) the meaning of a symbol is the experience it stands for, 2) transpersonal symbols stand for experiences in the transpersonal domains, 3) few people have those experiences. That means that most transpersonal art remains merely symbolic for most people—they know only the symbols, not the experiences that give the actual meaning.

So transpersonal symbolism is, as it were, a diluted, weaker form of transpersonal art. It symbolizes higher realms, but does not itself directly depict those realms, because it looks like nothing in those higher realms. It is a mental symbol that reminds people that there are higher realms, but it gives no indication what those higher realms are actually like. For this reason, transpersonal symbolism (unlike realism, impressionism, and expressionism) does not, generally speaking, have the power to elicit those higher realms in viewers. It is forged in the mental domain and remains confined to the mental domain, but at least it points to higher and deeper occasions, and to that extent is a valid, useful form of transpersonal art.

Each of those four styles (realism, impressionism, expressionism, symbolism) can be applied to each of the four major transpersonal realms (psychic, subtle, causal, nondual). This gives us a grid of sixteen types of transpersonal (TP) art. Here are a few quick examples from several of them:

Symbolic—Most typical transpersonal art, myths, parables, and narratives are symbolic only; they are not direct depictions (realist or impressionist) of the transpersonal domains, but merely symbols that suggest or hint at the transpersonal domains. This is also true for many Jungian archetypes and common mythological motifs. Of course, not all myths and archetypes are even symbolic of the transrational realms; most, in fact, are symbolic of the prerational realms (a confusion of which is still rampant in spiritual circles), and they exert not a transgressive but a regressive pull in consciousness. Much "religious symbolism" (Moses parting the Red Sea, the Virgin birth, the earth resting on a Hindu serpent, etc.) has its referent in the magic and mythic—not psychic and subtle—worldviews.

Nonetheless, authentic transpersonal symbolism can be found in many of the Tantras (East and West), where extensive symbolism is used to represent higher stages of transpersonal development. Likewise, the "empty circle" drawn by Zen calligraphers is TP symbolic of the causal (or pure cessation; the circle does not look like Emptiness, it merely represents it). Similarly, "One Stroke" in Tibetan calligraphy (a single, bold, downward mark on the paper) is TP symbolic of Ati or the nondual.

Impressionist—Many mandalas are a TP impressionism of the subtle dimension (in contemplation, the inward eye often perceives symmetrical, billowing, luminous patterns—in other words, mandalas; usually these are impressionistic, but in Vajrayana they are rendered in an extremely realist fashion, with minutely detailed aspects, as can be seen in most thangka paintings; these are not symbolic, they are realist, for they depict inner realities that can be directly perceived in meditation). The blue-black background of many Tibetan thangkas is a TP impressionism of the causal (in states of pure cessation or unmanifest absorption, one is directly immersed in a vast, infinite sea of unmanifest or "black" unborn reality, which is often impressionistically rendered as a blue-black color in thangkas; similarly, Samantabhadra, the "Ati-Buddha," is always painted blue-black, shorn of all ornaments or manifest qualities, giving the impression of naked awareness). The best of Zen landscapes are a TP impressionism of nondual Suchness (Suchness is not a reality apart from other realities but the "isness" or "thusness" of any and all domains; Zen artists often depict nature in its suchness, and they do so in impressionistic, not harsh realist, terms, because nature itself is not Spirit but a manifestation of Spirit; specifically, nature is the Nirmanakaya, not the Dharmakaya, but the former is a manifestation of the latter and thus a fitting object of a "Suchness painting").

Expressionist—Mondrian, Kandinsky, Malevich, Brancusi, and Rothko are often a TP expressionism of the mental-to-psychic dimension (as these artists themselves made clear, they were attempting to express internal mental states or ideas, particularly as they verged on transpersonal, spiritual, or universal themes). Some of Bach, Mozart, and later Beethoven are a TP expressionism of the subtle (the "music of the spheres"). There is a dual emotional tone in many Zen landscapes (called sabi and wabi) that is a TP expressionism of Emptiness (which is vaguely intuited and given amorphous expression in these dual tones).

Realist—The chakra meridian maps are a TP realism of the psychic dimension. A painting of the "blue pearl" is a TP realism of the subtle (i.e., the blue pearl is a direct and unmistakable perception in certain subtle stages of kundalini meditation). Alex Grey, Ernst Fuchs, and Fantastic Realists are TP realists in many instances. Most meditative texts and sutras are a TP realism (descriptive phenomenology) of the transpersonal realms—they are not symbolic, they are realist! And here's a superb TP realism of nondual Suchness (from Basho):

Still pond,
A frog jumps in,

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