The Spectrum of Consciousness
Foreword by John White

In 1973, when I was working at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) in California as Director of Communications, a letter arrived inquiring about financial support for a project in noetic research. The writer was Ken Wilber. At the time Wilber was twenty-four and a graduate student in biochemistry at the Lincoln campus of the University of Nebraska. He was about to complete doctoral requirements, except for the dissertation, and hoped to find the means to take a year off from his scientific work so he could pursue in greater depth another line of research he had been engaged in for several years, both in theory and practice: the psychology of higher states of consciousness. (He had become a student of Zen Buddhism in 1972 and later was to study under several Zen and Tibetan Buddhist masters.)

Wilber's proposal for a theoretical study of Eastern and Western psychologies seemed to have much merit. But the economic tenor of the time was such that many worthy projects couldn't be funded by IONS. In fact, to be frank about it, IONS, which had been founded only a year earlier by astronaut Edgar Mitchell to study human consciousness, was in danger of going under because promised financial support hadn't come through. I regretfully informed Wilber that we couldn't provide the grant he sought. However, I encouraged him to go ahead as best he could with the research because it sounded worthwhile. About a year later, after I had left IONS and returned to Connecticut, a letter was forwarded to me. It was from Wilber. He had indeed been busy with his project. Despite lack of institutional funding, he had found the means--principally by working as a dishwasher at a local restaurant--to write a fairly long book, The Spectrum of Consciousness. Would I, he asked, help him find a publisher?

I was happy to help an aspiring young writer-researcher in noetics, especially after his manuscript arrived and I looked it over. As Dr. James Fadiman, former president of the Association of Transpersonal Psychology, was to describe it later, Wilber had written "the most sensible, comprehensive book about consciousness since William James." I, too, felt that way. Recognizing a moral duty to support the book, I took it under my wing, so to speak, and was able after many submissions--thirty-three, as I recall--to find a publisher for it. Rosemarie Stewart, senior editor of The Theosophical Publishing House, regarded Spectrum as publishable. Clarence Pederson, the publications manager, seconded her. Together they presented it to the Publications Board members, who agreed and accepted the book. It was published in 1977. Toward the end of the production process, after a long haul getting the book into print, Wilber dedicated it to me. I was surprized and deeply touched.

In the years since our first contact, I've watched Wilber produce a prodigious amount of extraordinary work, both as an author and as former editor-in-chief of ReVision journal, which has drawn widespread and highly favorable attention in religious, academic and intellectual circles. Currently, that work consists of twelve books and a variety of shorter pieces--essays, reviews, and commentaries. Altogether, it presents a major conceptual breakthrough in consciousness research which began with the book you are now about to read. Wilber puts the most difficult subject of all--the nature of consciousness--into an easily grasped presentation which is elegant yet simple. His approach is grounded in a profound understanding of the nature of enlightenment and is supported by incisive scholarship and graceful literary style. The dimensions of this achievement cannot be overstated. If I were to allegorize his explorations in consciousness, it seems to me they happened sort of like this:

One day as I was climbing the mountains of mind, struggling my way up a particularly tough peak in one of the intermediate ranges, I looked down and there, far across the plains, I saw Ken Wilber begin to lope toward the foothills. Then he picked up speed, broke into a trot and very quickly reached the lower elevations. But instead of slowing down on the upward slopes, he showed a rare talent for mountaineering. Not only did he not slow down, he actually went faster, leaping tremendous distances in a graceful fashion which left onlookers such as me amazed at his skill and achievement. Then, then, he turned on a meditational afterburner and launched himself into the spiritual stratosphere! And I just stood there, breathless and grinning with delight at the trail he was blazing.

The Spectrum of Consciousness is a unique approach to the study of human identity which synthesizes psychology, psychotherapy, mysticism and world religions. Using a concept drawn from physics--the electromagnetic spectrum--Wilber shows that human personality is a multileveled manifestation or expression of a single consciousness, just as the electromagnetic spectrum is a multi-banded expression of a single characteristic electromagnetic wave.

Like physicists dividing electromagnetism into different bands called radio waves, X rays, ultraviolet, infrared, etc., different psychological schools and systems "cut up" consciousness. Some are focused on more commonly experienced states of consciousness; others deal with the rarified atmosphere of spiritual experience. Nevertheless, when viewed from the perspective offered by Wilber, they all can be fitted together neatly into one seamless continuum. He brilliantly demonstrates that different approaches to the study of consciousness can be, in his words, "integrated and synthesized into one spectrum, one rainbow." Thus, his model of consciousness not only sensibly unites mysticism, Eastern and Western psychologies in general, it also clarifies various Western approaches to psychotherapy. And like enlightenment itself, it illuminates them all while transcending them all. Corresponding to what has been called the perennial philosophy, Wilber observes, is a perennial psychology--a view of human identity which sees it as ultimately identical with the All or Cosmic Wholeness. Spectrum delineates the major levels or structures of consciousness which humans pass through as they ascend in awareness to God-realization, to the Supreme Identity, to realization of the Self or godhead from which all creation springs.

Broadly speaking, Wilber says here, there are six major levels of consciousness: the Shadow level, the Ego level, the Biosocial bands, the Existential level, the Transpersonal bands and the level of Mind. He describes the nature of these levels, whose totality embraces the entire range of human experience, from the shadowy fragmentation of repressed psyche to the higher levels in which mind and body are organismically integrated, and beyond them to the transpersonal realms and the ultimate level which is not another level at all but rather is "what there is and all there is, spaceless and therefore infinite, timeless and therefore eternal, outside of which nothing exists."

Prior to awakening as the true nature of Self, human existence is characterized by duality and illusion. Each level has its particular dualities and illusions. They have been carefully explored by the various psychological schools of East and West, Wilber points out, and each has valuable insights and useful therapies for dealing with the disorders, pathologies and sufferings which arise on the various levels. But only when the levels are seen in an integrated fashion can one see the nondual nature of existence and make sense of the apparent contradictions which otherwise exist among the various psychologies.

For example, how can one reconcile the Freudian imperative to strengthen the ego with the yogic or Buddhist admonition to transcend the ego? Wilber demonstrates persuasively that these approaches can be understood to have equal validity, but only when the concept of pluridimensional consciousness is accepted. From that perspective, the Freudian approaches are indeed useful for assisting someone past the Shadow level. Beyond that point, however, they no longer are useful, and one must go to other psychologies because the situation is simply not Freudian in nature, just as Newtonian physics has little utility for explaining subatomic phenomena (which is why quantum physics was developed). It may be that the person has a mature ego and interacts healthily with family, society and environment, but is nevertheless not able to navigate the realms beyond ego very well. The transpersonal and spiritual psychologies--Jungian, psychosynthesis, the world's religious and esoteric traditions--are then best suited to deal with the distress and suffering which can beset the person.

Spectrum psychology elegantly unites body, mind and spirit in a transcendent perspective which contains all noetic studies and spiritual psychologies, shows their strengths and shortcomings, clarifies them where needed, corrects them where necessary. And to put the icing on the cake, Wilber does that with a style which is enjoyable to read.

Altogether, Wilber's spiritual understanding, creativity, scholarship and literary competence make him, as I said in an early review of his work, the much-needed Einstein of consciousness research. "Much-needed" because since the Psychedelic Sixties, there has been burgeoning interest in higher states of consciousness, Eastern religions and mysticism, psychotechnologies, noetics and allied subjects. The outpouring of articles, books, journals, lectures, courses and so forth includes a large number of theories and models of consciousness. Often, however, one theory contradicts another or approaches data in ways which are selective, incomplete or incompatible with other approaches.

So a Grand Unification Theory (GUT) is needed in consciousness research, just as physicists are searching for a GUT to enfold all the physical forces--gravitation, electromagnetism, the weak and strong nuclear forces and, lately, the hyperforce--into one neat package.

I'm happy to report that a noetic GUT exists, thanks to Ken Wilber. It began with the Spectrum of Consciousness and was elaborated with greater refinement and precision through his other works. Wilber shows in an intellectually rigorous and academically acceptable manner the truth of what sages, saints and saviours have told us throughout history. He offers a "unified field theory" of nature, culture, cosmos and consciousness which is utterly brilliant and compelling. The "fields" he unifies are fields of knowledge--psychology, philosophy, religion, sociology, parapsychology, anthropology, mythology, intellectual history, economics, biology and physics, to mention the principal ones. His theoretical formulations are fully equal in importance and insightfulness to Einstein's famous equation, and they both achieved their first major breakthrough at about the same young age. Wilber's writings offer the foundation of a new paradigm for science and society. He is being recognized as the originator of a worldview which will affect our psychological, social, medical, academic and religious institutions as profoundly as did those of Darwin, Freud and Einstein--and the world will never be the same.