Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
D.B. Sleeth is a psychotherapist and devotee of the late Adi Da Samraj, who has written the book The Integral Ego: A New Understanding of the Whole Person that Includes All Ideas on the Nature of God (University Press of America, 2008). This chapter is printed with permission of the author. See also his website:

Integral Nondualism

The Integral Ego, Chapter Three

Daniel Sleeth

In recent years, spiritual metaphysics has come under considerable criticism, from charges of abstraction and reification to claims of being mere wispy, ephemeral epiphenomenon (see Dennett, 1991; Ferrer, 2002; McLaren, 2007). The ego is thought to be an abstraction simply because it is not “experience-near” (Arlow, 1991; Meissner, 2000). But this orientation to the ego, or any other psychic structure, has serious limitations, based on a false premise. The fact that some aspect of the psyche is not presently accessible to awareness, or experience-far, does not make it abstract. Even extremely concrete elements of cognition—say, memories of abuse—could simply be unconscious, and perhaps at that only for the time being. Why should mind and memory be thought of as any more abstract than attributes typically associated with subjectivity: awareness and experience? Or any less real, for that matter? They are all simply aspects of the psyche, regardless of their relative accessibility to awareness.

It is only because psychology has failed to provide a coherent account of psychic structure that the ego has fallen prey to concerns about reification (Frank, 1995). Reluctance to acknowledge the existence of self or ego, and their proper place in relation to other components of the psyche, is not due to the ephemeral or insubstantial nature of the phenomenon. Rather, it results from the vagary and ambiguity of the concept. In other words, the justification for concerns about reification do not exist within the phenomenon, but within scholars whose understanding of the phenomenon is inadequate. A far better assessment would determine not whether the phenomenon is real or not, but whether the depiction of it is accurate or not.

Nonetheless, in the face of this criticism, a particular conclusion has been drawn: “no system (spiritual or otherwise) that does not come to terms with modern Kantian and postmodern Heideggerian thought can hope to survive with any intellectual respectability…and that means all spirituality must be post-metaphysical in some sense” (Wilber, 2005b). According to postmodern precepts, the liability of traditional orientations to metaphysics can be summed up this way:

  1. metaphysical schemas are merely interpretations of spiritual experience—not fixed or rigid ontological truths; and
  2. metaphysical absolutes are at least partially culturally molded and conditioned, and, therefore, not entirely representative of reality.

Much of what we hold dear is determined by our own perspective, which consists not only of preexisting notions about reality, but preexisting objectives relative to reality. This tends to confirm the old adage that “no one has not found what they went out looking for,” a criticism attributable to improper research. For these reasons, the subject of metaphysics has fallen into some disrepute. Indeed, this indictment does not represent a recent trend. As Morris eloquently points out, existentialism has presaged the postmodern critique of metaphysics: “By the twentieth century, however, the Grand Designs began to collapse; like cardboard boxes in the rain, they quietly folded into grotesque shapes of irrelevance” (1990, p. 2). In a manner of speaking, postmodern slogans have simply been added to augment an existential banner already waving.

Yet, these critiques, as far as they go, are only half the truth. In fact, they are something of a tempest in a teapot, beside the point really, for a more fundamental issue lies elsewhere. In point of fact, nondualism is already post-metaphysical. However, nondualism is often misunderstood by the critics of spiritual metaphysics. For example, Ferrer (2002) equates nondualism with Perennial Philosophy, especially as espoused by Wilber early in his career, and believes the two violate postmodern precepts:

[T[he world…discloses itself in a variety of ways partially contingent on the dispositions, intentions, and modes of consciousness of the knower…. [The claim] that ultimate reality has universally pregiven features (e.g., nondual, impersonal, monistic) and that the perennial Truth reveals “things as they really are” reveal the residual objectivism of their approach. Herein lies the Cartesian roots of perennialism. (Ferrer, 2000, pp. 22-23)

This critique is based on the Myth of the Given, that internal representations of reality are at least partially constructed by the mind. But this claim is inappropriately applied to nondualism, where the “disposition, intentions, and modes of consciousness of the knower” are transcended and inapplicable at this level of reality. In other words, nondualism is the state of reality that exists when all modes of consciousness are finally, and fully, transcended. Wilber puts it this way: “according to the traditions, it is exactly (and only) by understanding the hierarchical nature of samsara that we can in fact climb out of it, a ladder discarded only after having served its extraordinary purpose” (1997, p. 45). Nondualism posits a ground of existence beyond the ladder of spiritual metaphysics, better said, the transcendental conditions within which the ladder occurs. Although not every account of nondualism supports Wilber's claim that you must ascend through a hierarchy of being in order to attain nondual realization, all versions of nondualism assert some form of post-metaphysics (see Koller, 1985; Loy, 1998). Generally, the difference between nondual post-metaphysics and metaphysics generally could be described this way: reality and illusion. The two are in no way the same.

For example, consider:

If the Separate “I” and its Separate “other” Are Most Perfectly Relinquished (or Most Perfectly Transcended), Such That The Complex Presumption Of Separate “I” and Separate “other” (or Of The Feeling Of Relatedness Itself) Is Transcended (and Is Not Superimposed On what Otherwise arises, or On What Is Otherwise perceived conditionally)—Then what arises?… All Of this arising Is (In Itself—or Separately) An Illusion… (Adi Da, 2006c, pp. 371, 375) (emphasis in the original)

In other words, the claim that metaphysics is culturally determined is true only relative to those attempting to make sense of it. But the reality that actually is that metaphysics exists as a state beyond those trying to make sense of it—and, more to the point, that reality is attempting to bridge the gap and communicate its living presence to them, primarily by means of altered states of consciousness, especially as transmitted by spiritual masters. In a sense, the postmodern critique of metaphysics is actually a linguistic and epistemological concern, not an ontological one. In fact, it appears to represent one side of the Imagery Amalgam: understanding, as opposed to experience.

As if to highlight this difference, there is an old story in the spiritual traditions of Buddhism involving an encounter between a Tibetan lama and a Zen monk, who had come to debate the dharma, or teaching, of their respective sects. Zen Buddhism maintains that epistemological difficulties ensue when one confuses the labels given to reality for reality itself. A common illustration involves one simply eating an orange, or perhaps drinking from a glass of water, during discourses in which the meaning of these objects is considered, in order to highlight the irrelevancy of conceptual categories. Therefore, during the celebrated encounter between these two, the monk thrust an orange toward the lama and challenged his spiritual understanding, by asking, “What is this?” Somewhat befuddled, the lama turned to his translator and requested that the question be repeated. Given the same translation, the lama turned to his aides and asked, “Doesn't he know what an orange is?”

The basic issue here is to not confuse the map for the terrain—or the understanding of the Imagery Amalgam for experience. Postmodern accounts often suggest that one's experience of reality is altered by language. For example, the fact that certain Eskimo tribes have a bevy of terms for different types of snow could enable them to literally perceive snow in a more elaborate and sophisticated manner than other people. Similarly, indigenous tribes people did not have words for the strange sights they saw when encountering Westerners for the first time, such as handling a camera, or seeing planes in the sky or ships out in the harbor. Consequently, they had no idea what they were seeing. Some theorists even assert that, lacking the requisite labels, these people couldn't acknowledge the existence of what was out there on the horizon, in full view. But this is an emperor's new clothes way of describing these events, as if one wouldn't know they were wet or cold when encountering snow for the first time if they didn't have a word for it. Despite any epistemological limitations or cultural idiosyncrasies, ontological reality remains the same either way.

This point can be pushed even further in nondualism. Ultimately, it is one's inherent, native state of being that is of interest to nondual accounts of reality—and which is their “pregiven” nature. The situation could be put like this: nondual reality is like a clear, radiant pool of water—in which someone washes their hands, thereby stirring up sediment from the bottom and muddying the water. In fact, the hands can even impart their own unique elements. For example, in some cases, there might be red clay on the hands, or brown dirt, or perhaps even green or yellow paint, all of which dispersed into the water as the hands are rinsed in different patterns—perhaps a figure-eight, or a circle, or a zig-zag. The introduction of these foreign elements and their various movements is what accounts for the plurality of the constructivism, contextualism, and perspectivism comprising the postmodern view.

As can be seen, the sediment stirred up in this fashion—although in the water—is not the water (i.e., intrinsic and pregiven). Indeed, if the hands are stilled or removed, as recommended by the spiritual practices of nondualism, not only do they no longer introduce their own corruptive elements, but the sediment that has been stirred up will eventually settle back to the bottom of the pool—leaving the clear, radiant water as pristine and undefiled as before. It is only because constructivist or contextual cognition has itself introduced sediment into the water that one can be fooled into thinking the sediment is actually an instance of the water (e.g., mistake a rope for a snake, as per Sankara, 1979). This is precisely the illusion that nondualism claims is the case, which only serves to misrepresent reality—a sentiment that nondualism shares with postmodern critiques, albeit at a far more profound level of being. In other words, the fact that illusion exists does not negate any possibility of an accurate encounter with reality; it's just that an enlightened state is required to do so—which can be imparted to you by one who is enlightened (by whatever degree).

As can be seen, nondualism places a different priority on reality and metaphysics: it is not the sediment that is ultimate, universal, or intrinsic—but the water. Whether the sediment that gets stirred up might possibly swirl or ebb and flow in a different manner under different cultural conditions is certainly true, but also trivial. In the bigger picture, the question of where the sediment comes from and how it gets stirred up in the first place is of far more pressing concern. Consequently, the principles of postmodernism are better applied this way: it is not that spiritual metaphysics are corrupt or illegitimate, but their only value is to point to a reality that exists beyond them. That is, the condition within which the sediment takes place—the water—is the most relevant, not the various currents or eddies that happen to be moving within it. These are indeed ephemeral, local, and culturally determined. To put it somewhat crudely, although it is certainly misguided to confuse the word “orange” for an actual orange, there actually is an orange.

Ferrer also employs a water metaphor to indicate ultimate reality, albeit in a decidedly different manner: “Although these spiritual ultimates may apparently share some qualities…they constitute independent religious aims…. In terms of our metaphor, we could say, then, that the Ocean of Emancipation has many shores” (2002, p. 146) (emphasis in the original). But this is to focus on the diversity of shores (i.e., illusion), rather than the unity of the ocean (i.e., reality). Like mice nibbling at the edges of the crust of an immense pie, the idea seems to recommend staying at the outskirts of reality, and not delve into the profound depths at the epicenter of the pie. In other words, the whole point of sojourning to the ocean is not to merely stand on the shoreline and marvel at the diversity, but this: actually enter the ocean, the water of which the same for all.

Nondualism is an extremely difficult doctrine to understand, especially for anyone who has not had a direct experience of the reality it represents. However, this is certainly understandable. After all, reading from a menu is in no way the same as actually having the meal. This difficulty is further exacerbated by a lack of consensus relative to the defining feature of nondualism—the complete absence of separation between self and other. Nondualism is typically defined this way: “Nondual wisdom refers to the understanding and direct experience of a fundamental consciousness that underlies the apparent distinction between perceiver and perceived” (Prendergast, et al., 2003, p. 2). The literal translation of the Sanskrit term advaita, from the ancient Indian spiritual tradition of Vedanta, is not-two, although more commonly referred to simply as Oneness (Greven, 2005; Katz, 2007). However, the water gets particularly murky at this point, for two very different types of Oneness are mentioned in the literature:

  1. Holism: one feels they are in some way connected to or intimately part of a larger spiritual reality, all the while retaining their own unique identity.
  2. Nondualism: they literally are this larger reality—so much so that their ordinary sense of being a separate self disappears completely.

As can be seen, one is more inclusive than the other. Humanistic and existential accounts of the psyche especially favor holism, certainly as it is expressed in terms of the whole person (see Bohart et al., 2003). Transpersonal accounts of the psyche also generally align with holism, although understood in far larger scope: “an individual's sense of identity appears to extend beyond its ordinary limits to encompass wider, broader, or deeper aspects of life or the cosmos—including divine elements of creation” (Krippner, 1998, p. ix). Maslow (1964, 1971) speaks of this state in terms of peak experiences, in which one's awareness of reality is suddenly heightened and ecstatic encounters with reality begin to appear, perhaps even including mystical states. Rogers feels that, at such moments, a transcendent intuition is awakened whereby a synergy occurs and one's capacity for healing is enhanced: “my presence is releasing and helpful to the other…it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other. Our relationship transcends itself and becomes a part of something larger” (1980, p. 129) (emphasis in the original).

However, the nondual position goes beyond even these extraordinary levels of experience. Indeed, it perhaps makes sense to augment transpersonal psychology with another field entirely: transcendental psychology. The difference between the two can be described this way:

This does not mean that the mystic lost all sense of separation from ultimate reality or was so united with ultimate reality as to feel dissolved into it. Some mystics have spoken in this way, claiming that all difference vanished; but other mystics have not… (Carmody & Carmody, 1996, p. 12)

In the case of nondualism, no sense of separation exists whatsoever between the person and every other part of reality. This has to be contrasted with the sense of connecting or uniting with some larger reality, that is, holism as opposed to nondualism. In the case of holism, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—requiring at least some compilation of parts. Nondualism, on the other hand, is the sense of literally being reality—without any separate parts at all. This is precisely why this spiritual realization is called nondualism, because reality is no longer experienced as being split up, or consisting of a duality of different pieces—such as self and other. There is only one single reality in nondualism, and this reality is literally who we are.

Postmodern critiques apply to holism, not nondualism. Ultimately, the whole person is One person, a single living presence shared by all—the very nature of nondual reality. But nondual reality is sometimes thought to be very remote from ordinary experience, indeed, perhaps even an abstract or impersonal state, as might be said of epiphenomena or reification. Yet, it can also be thought of in much more ordinary terms that are familiar to everyone: the sense of us. Anyone who has ever been involved in a close relationship has had the experience of us. Indeed, the sense of us is really nothing more than a way to say intimacy, or self love, an experience not only common to all but welcome by all.

One way to evoke the nature of this reality is to paraphrase the old story of Robinson Crusoe, who suddenly found himself shipwrecked on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere—not unlike the shocking realization that we have been unexpectedly thrown into the completely unknown world we call earth. Over time, Crusoe had to learn how to survive in this strange new world, setting up a shelter and developing the means to grow and catch food. However, one day, he noticed footsteps in the sand on the beach and became aware that he was not alone on the island. Soon, he noticed further signs of another presence on the island, and kept a close eye out for the impending encounter. Crusoe's finally meeting the other person, whom he named Friday, is analogous to the holistic position mentioned above—feeling part of some larger reality involving us.

In a very real sense, all intimate relationships can be understood as an instance of not-two, where me and you are transcended in a larger relationship involving the oneness of us. It is precisely for this reason that one experiences love in intimate relationships—as a result of overcoming the sense of separation between them and the other. Buber emphasizes the I and Thou relationship, which is actually a way of saying us: “The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You” (1970, p. 11). Again, this passage understands us in the manner of holism, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, in fact, transforming its parts into intimacy in the process.

In sum, whereas ego love is conditional and all about me, self love is unconditional or all about us—nevermind the state of either me or you. Consequently, us is transcendent to me and you, existing as a higher order holism. Even Freud acknowledged this extraordinary state, in which the boundary between self and other seems to melt away: “Against all the evidence of his senses, a man who is in love declares that 'I' and 'you' are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact” (1930, p. 66). Yet, even so, us still relies on me and you as constituent parts, operating in conjunction with us in the manner of figure and ground. That is, me and you are required for us, even serve as the context for us. But, at the same time, the reverse is just as true; us serves as the context for me and you. This latter situation is precisely its transcendent value. With us as context, me and you have to be understood in an entirely different and empathetic manner—one that values you as much as me.

However, nondualism goes beyond even this transcendent state. That is, us becomes so extensive and all-inclusive that me and you drop out of the picture entirely. Perhaps better said, the realization is made that you literally are me. As can be seen, in this case a slightly different outcome occurs in our paraphrase of the old story: looking out across the isolated expanse of sand and seeing another standing there, Crusoe makes an improbable discovery that utterly reverses the usual understanding—Friday is actually Crusoe; and so too is the island, and the ocean, and even the entire universe! And, more to the point, all of it is awash in the resplendent delight of love-bliss!

Obviously, this changes the meaning of the story entirely. These two orientations correlate with Integral Love as follows:

  1. Holism: ever larger sense of us:
    1. ego love: all about me—over against, in opposition to you; and
    2. self love: all about us—up against, in embrace of you.
  2. Nondualism: only us, and nothing else:
    1. God Love: all about us—no trace of me or you at all.

As can be seen, holism only approximates nondualism. Yet, the two are intimately related. Indeed, the reason holism and nondualism are easy to confuse is because there is a real connection between them: the sense of us. That is, holism and nondualism share a common process: the elimination of separation between me and you. They simply each do so in their own way—holism locally and partial (however immense), and nondualism ultimate and complete. It is just a matter of which us is meant in either case.

However, it must be remembered that in speaking of nondualism this way, “us” must be placed in quotes, for the word us is plural and, therefore, technically a misnomer for nondualism. Only if the special meaning of “us” is intended—devoid of me and you—can nondualism be applied. Interestingly, it is often observed that different spiritual traditions frequently claim ultimate reality as their own province. But the relationship between holism and nondualism provides a convenient means whereby the awkwardness of this situation can be sorted out: although there is an infinite array of holisms possible, even ever more inclusive of one another (see Wilber, 2000a, b), subsuming the various spiritual traditions, there can only be one only “us.” For this reason, nondualism is unique among other spiritual doctrines.

In a sense, holism could be thought of as the front-end to nondualism, a preliminary or transitional state to nondualism, perhaps even nascent nondualism. Yet, not because holism leads to nondualism but, rather, arises within nondualism, something like the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, the deeper one immerses into us, the more they come to realize they literally are “us.” Because all levels of being emerge from the very same consciousness, they all have immediate and direct access to this nondual ground. This arrangement provides context for the various aspects of Integral Love: whereas ego love is saturated with duality (me and you), self love is based on nondualism—first, in the sense of us and, ultimately, in the sense of “us.” Again, this is why people who fall in love feel love—while being us, their native state of nondual love-bliss is allowed into awareness, even if partially and conditionally based. When “us” is unfettered from the underlying moorings of me and you entirely, it can reside in its natural state, where the ecstatic rapture of love-bliss is felt freely and undiluted.

Clearly, this sense of “us” goes far beyond the holistic us. The two are not equal, no matter how immense the state of us might be. To reside in the nondual state, one must begin with transcendence from the finite and manifest realm, which is achieved by breaking through to the infinite and unmanifest source or origin: direct, formless awareness. The freedom inherent to this state is highly recommended in the traditions of nondualism:

When I still stood in my first cause, there I had no God and was cause of myself. There I willed nothing, I desired nothing, for I was a pure Being in delight of the truth. There I stood, free of God and of all things. But when I took leave from this state and received my created being, then I had a God…. Empty yourself of everything. That is to say, empty yourself of your ego and empty yourself of all things and of all that you are in yourself and consider yourself as what you are in God. God is a being beyond being and a nothingness beyond being. Therefore, be still and do not flinch from this emptiness. (Eckhart, as quoted in Wilber, 2000b, p. 311)

In this state of formless, pristine awareness, one does not see the Godhead, for one is the Godhead and knows it from within. The pure Witness cannot be seen because it is the Seer. Ramana Maharshi refers to the relationship between these two states as “I-I,” since the Self witnesses the ordinary sense of “I.” He admonishes others to locate the source of the mind, that which is aware of the mental or personal “I,” for that is the transcendental “I-I.” As one pursues this self-inquiry into the source of their thoughts, the source of “I” and the world, one enters a state of pure empty awareness, what Buddhism calls sunyata, or the Void (Koller, 1985). In this sublime awareness, there is perfect clarity, perfect consciousness, perfect love-bliss.

When devotees asked Sri Ramana for instruction, he would typically answer, “Everyone says 'I' without understanding the significance of that pronoun…. As often as an idea or thought rises, then and there the seeker should ask himself, 'To whom has this idea occurred?'…. The Sage declared that inquiry into “Who am I?” would liberate the seeker permanently from the trammels of the ego and that this quest was the easiest and most direct way to attain salvation. (Murthy, 1990, p. 61)

This level of existence can be thought of as a type of omega point. However, Wilber claims that this state is not the final word. Rather, the Formless and the entire world of manifest Form—pure Emptiness and the Kosmos—are not-two, or a nondual state beyond even the “I-I.” In other words, the Witness turns out to be that which is witnessed. When there is nothing but God, then there are no things—not even God—but only this. It is absolute and eternal, always already the case. It is the simple feeling of being, prior to the existence of all beings. Abiding as “I-I,” the world arises just as it did before, with one exception: there is now no one to witness it. It exists simply as it is, liberated at the moment of its very arising. It is always, only this.

But how could it possibly happen that such a state of reality, so foreign and unfamiliar, actually be our native state? The answer to this will be spelled out more fully as we go along. For now, it is important to understand that the difficulty is further exacerbated by the fact that the term nondualism is used in so many different, albeit related ways. Loy (1996, 1998) claims these meanings have never been fully clarified or integrated in the spiritual traditions and attempts to fashion such an integral theory in his work, drawing primarily on the concepts of nondualism present in Advaita Vedanta, Mahayana Buddhism, and Taoism. These concepts can be described according to certain features:

The following types of nonduality are discussed here: the negation of dualistic thinking, the nonplurality of the world, and the non-difference of subject and object…although there [are] two other nondualities which are also closely related: first, what has been called the identity of phenomena and Absolute, or the Mahayana equation of samsara and nirvana, which can also be expressed as “the nonduality of duality and nonduality;” second, the possibility of a mystical unity between God and man. (Loy, 1998, p. 17)

In other words, dualistic thinking divides the nonseparate unity of reality into parts or categories (i.e., dualistic perception). Consequently, reversing the process, by eliminating this separation, reverses the self/other dichotomy and returns the multitude of discrete objects to their primal state—the original unity of reality (as might be said of the mystical union between God and man)—which is always already the case to begin with. However, the claim is also made that this pristine unity is not only prior to ordinary apprehensions of reality, but superior. In this way, the concept of nondualism serves both an ontological and soteriological function: criticizes dualistic experience and understanding as delusive and unsatisfactory—in fact, the source of all suffering.

Loy claims that nonduality is an important concept within the three main traditions of Advaita Vedanta, Mahayana Buddhism, and Taoism, although there are differences in emphasis. For example, Buddhist texts contain more admonitions against dualistic thinking and fewer claims about the nonplurality of the world. Generally, explicit assertions of subject/object nonduality are less common in China than in India, the latter of which tending to be more metaphysical in its philosophical orientation. However, there are also many important parallels. Loy presents the thesis that if perception, behavior, and cognition are in themselves nondual, then the usual sense of duality can be understood as arising as a result of their superimposition and interaction. The general problem seems to be this: during the ordinary course of operation, these three modes of the whole person interfere with each other and thus serve to distort or obscure their respective nondual natures.

This arrangement of different nondual aspects provides an integral account of the psyche, which can be diagrammed as follows (adapted from Loy, 1998, p. 183, so as to align with more ordinary correlates, indicated in bold):

As can be seen, the self in Loy's integral model is thought of as existing as a function of the overlap between the various aspects of body and mind. However, this model is somewhat misleading, or at least inadequate to describe the state of nondualism. According to this diagram, self is depicted as somehow resulting from the overlap of the various aspects of the whole person. Further, this overlap is depicted exclusively in terms of mind and body. Not only is self better thought of as existing on the awareness side of the Integral Interface, the idea that any aspect of the psyche exists simply as an overlap of other parts is a decidedly vague way of indicating its nature. Better said, each aspect of the whole person simply inheres in nondualism, whether perception, thought, or action. Finally, in Loy's schema consciousness appears to be the odd man out, if not conflated into mind and cognition.

The One and the Many

Perhaps the first philosophical issue to impress ancient people was the problem of the One and the Many. As the secrets of astronomy and mathematics were slowly teased out from the natural world, and the outcomes based on them resulted in ever greater successes and profits, the need to find unifying principles behind the apparent diversity of the world quickly became a top priority for the people of antiquity. The problem of the One and the Many represented a desire to know the universe in a larger sense than simply being aware of the causal relations taking place here on earth. Knowing the underlying unity to reality promised to bring order to chaos, a state of certainty highly prized by the people of this era.

This concern, like the interest in astronomy or geometry, was bequeathed to the pre-Socratics from Mesopotamian and Egyptian thought. In the Bronze Age, under the influence of the increasing unification and organization of states, Near Eastern thinkers became increasingly concerned with questions of universal order…. What would emerge…was the birth of philosophy—and its first great topic was Oneness. (McEvilley, 2002, p. 24)

McEvilley goes on to observe that there are enormous similarities between the ways in which the civilizations of India and Greece went about the enterprise of philosophy. Although the arrival of philosophy is sometimes credited to the ancient Greeks, the Buddha was a contemporary thinker and his teaching occurred in reaction to philosophical beliefs in India that had been around for over a thousand years. In fact, McEvilley suggests that there must have been some interactions between the early civilizations of the Near East and India, allowing for considerable influence both ways. It is possible that the nondual ideas of India managed to make their way into the Near East along the existing trade routes, providing inspiration for the two main notions of Oneness that emerged there: monotheism and monism. The former notion first arose in Egypt but was quickly abandoned, only to be carried into the Fertile Crescent and embraced there by Moses and the Hebrews escaping to their homeland (Luckert, 1991). The latter, on the other hand, found favor among the Greeks, providing the impetus for Western philosophy, and was likewise a novel idea.

These notions solved the problem of the One and the Many in different ways. At this time, a subtle shift in perspective was moving throughout the ancient world, which included Egypt and Mesopotamia. A suspicion emerged among these people that reality was not all that it appeared to be, especially the ultimate reality of the divine. For example, in Egypt, Amon-Re was not only elevated to the position of supreme ruler among the Egyptian pantheon of gods and goddesses, but was claimed to be supreme in an altogether unprecedented manner: a mysterious and ineffable presence, hidden behind the manifestation of the other gods and goddesses, whose own existence occurred as an extension of this primordial form. In the manner of a plant sending out countless roots, each one of which sprouting into another plant like offspring, this supreme God generated all the other gods and goddesses from the very substance of its own being. In this way, the Many gods and goddesses turned out to be versions or derivations of a single divine presence: the One God.

While in captivity among the Egyptians, if not soon thereafter, the early Jews made an innovation to this idea that was disarmingly simple: their One God completed this absorption process such that no other gods or goddesses remained at all—just the One and Only God. This move had enormous ramifications for religious thought of the day. These early Jews were confronted with a dilemma common to conquered or enslaved people: their gods and religious beliefs were required to submit to the sovereign power, whoever that might happen to be, which was always felt as an intense effrontery. But with the idea of the One and Only God, the Jews were able to circumvent this policy. Simply put, they could now take their sovereign Lord with them wherever they went, no matter who might rule over them, which, indeed, proved indispensable during their diaspora to Babylonia. The supreme Deity was not only the One and Only God replacing their own pantheon of gods and goddesses—it was the One and Only God replacing all pantheons of gods and goddesses everywhere.

To appreciate this extraordinary development, one must remember not only the dominance of polytheism in the ancient world, but the brutal cruelty with which the patriarchal societies enforced it. For endless millennia, empires charged across the Mesopotamian and Egyptian landscape, imposing the law and order of their sovereignty. Usually, conquered people were either slaughtered in an ethnic cleansing or forced into slavery, depending on the potential advantage. Vicious, indulgent debauchery reached unprecedented proportions under the influence of these bloated aristocracies, far beyond anything that can be imagined today. To give a particularly graphic illustration, after putting down an insurgent uprising, Assyrian officials crucified thousands of their conquered enemies along the main road to the capital city—impaling each one with a pole up their spine. These decaying corpses amounted to a grisly procession of billboards, advertising to anyone traveling in the realm the advantages of obeying the reign of law and order.

The Judaic monotheistic conception of a One and Only God with universal authority over all was not only novel, but a notorious idea. That the Jews entered into Palestine at a point in time when Egypt and Mesopotamia happened to be taxed from prior expeditions and conquests was especially fortuitous—no massive empire was there to oppose them. Consequently, they were able to establish their rule at the western edge of the Fertile Crescent, at the crossroads between not only Egypt and Mesopotamia, but the up and coming third member of the cultural axes brokering power in the Mediterranean world: Greece. Indeed, it appears that the early Greek traders must have been especially impressed by the resiliency of their neighbor, for they soon introduced an unprecedented idea of their own depicting Oneness: monism.

Monotheism is not the same as monism. In fact, the Egyptian concept of the god Amon-Re has more in common with the Greek notion of monism than Jewish monotheism, for it retained the formula of particular interest to ancient people: a way to account for the One and the Many as somehow the same. This allows for a necessary ingredient of monism: extending Oneness beyond merely the gods and goddesses so as to include all humanity, not to say, the entire manifest universe of creation. Whereas monotheism eliminates all gods and goddesses, except for the One and Only God, monism extends in the opposite direction, so as to include all existing beings and things within this embrace. Indeed, the One and Only God effectively truncates the connection between the One and the Many—which is to say, between God and reality. Although the God Yahweh was thought to have created all of manifest existence, even enlivening the dust of creation with His own personal breath, the alienation of the One and Only God from the Many was acutely felt by the Jews, and required a strong faith to accept. The Book of Job is perhaps the most direct account of this dissatisfaction and challenge to faith, which the Jews who became early Christians felt needed to be augmented with an innovation of their own to overcome: the salvation of Christ.

The Greeks, on the other hand, addressed the idea of monotheism in a different manner—through subtraction, rather than addition. In their innovation of monotheism, the Greeks dropped the Judaic concept of “Only God” out of the equation—along with their own pantheon of deities as well—leaving only the One. However, for these early Greek philosophers, monism did not require the absence of a living divinity. Indeed, their monistic vision conceived of reality as a living presence, quite unlike the scientific view that subsequently emerged and culminated centuries later in the modern age: equating at least some portion of reality with inert and insentient objects whirling through space, mere lifeless debris. Whereas modern thinkers extended this ideal to its logical, if arid, conclusion, the early Greeks opted for a more interim position: equating God with manifest existence.

In a manner of speaking, the Greeks followed the Jews, placing the restrictive notion of monotheism over against their own polytheistic beliefs and squeezed, shucking the husk of polytheism, as it were, in the process. As a result, reality was shorn of deity—but not divinity. It would be left to thinkers of the modern era, some two millennia later, to shuck divinity into the bargain. Until then, the essence of divinity was retained, in fact, all that remained. For these innovators of religious thought, this underlying monistic divinity took many concrete forms—fire, air, or water—depending on the individual philosopher. But the fundamental nature of monism remained the same: reality may seem to consist of many different appearances, but they are all comprised of a single substance, and it is that unvarying substance that accounts for the Oneness of the Many (Cooper, 1996; McEvilley, 2002).

However, in India, the problem of the One and the Many was solved in an entirely different manner: nondualism. Unfortunately, this idea is often mistaken for monism. And the reason for this is not hard to understand, for nondualism also proposes that a single unity underlies all diversity. However, as opposed to their Greek counterparts, Indian philosophers proposed that this underlying unity was not simply a primordial substance out of which everything that exists emerges and is literally comprised, but a relationship taking place between the elements of manifest existence. In other words, the defining feature of nondualism is quite different from monism: no separation whatsoever exists between any of the things that exist.

Take for example a tray of fresh baked cookies. Although they have all been fashioned out of the very same cookie dough, and might even be identical in every respect, each individual cookie is still a separate and distinct entity from all the others. It is precisely for this reason that you can eat one after the other. But in nondualism the situation is different. It doesn't matter if monism happens to be the case—that each item consists of the exact same substance—the crucial issue of the Oneness is the not-two-ness, the utter lack of separation or differentiation between the various “things” that are thought to exist. In nondualism, there are no cookies, nor even the eating of cookies, nor even any eating at all—just what is the case, without any distinctions. This doesn't mean you stop eating cookies, or talking about cookies, or even affixing labels to things. Rather, you simply are whatever is the case—while it happens—and that's it.

Adi Da speaks of this state as Divine Ignorance:

You (as the conditional self, or the body-mind-self) Can (and Do) experience and know (Whether Directly Or Indirectly) All Kinds Of Details (Whether True Or False) About things, others, or conditional events—but You (as the conditional self, or the body-mind-self) Do Not and Cannot Ever (In Fact, or In Reality) experience or know What any thing, other, or conditional event Is…. Truly, Of All That Exists (Whether conditionally or Unconditionally), Only Existence (or Being) Itself, Consciousness Itself, and Love-Bliss (or Happiness) Itself Never Appear As Objects, and (Therefore) Can Never Be Observed or Inspected (or Even experienced or known) As They Are. (2004a, pp. 450-451) (emphasis in the original)

Something similar could be said about our presence on earth, coursing through space. If you take away the coordinates by which we are located—where are we!? We can only be located somewhere by virtue of relating our position to some fixed point. But if all fixed points are removed (as they are mere inventions in any case), where are we? Without fixed points of reference, we cannot be located. It is basically the same as being lost or not knowing where you are, except that, in this case, you have established your true situation.

The ultimate constituents of reality cannot be observed because these features do not exist as objects, and are not, therefore, observable. Rather, the ultimate constituents of reality are precisely that which does the observing. It is only by virtue of the repetition inherent to familiarity and convention that the impression of knowledge is created. Just as you cannot see your own face, at least without the interjection of a mirror, reality cannot observe itself. Indeed, reality could be thought of as the mirror, while our ordinary experiences and understanding are nothing more than the illusion appearing within its reflection (see Adi Da, 2006g).

Perhaps no spiritual tradition demands quite so much as nondualism, for it claims that at the heart of existence, nestled in its core and radiating outward through all levels of being, is a relentless, uncompromising paradox. In Mahayana Buddhism, the following claim is made: nirvana and samsara are the same. This essentially means that nondual enlightenment and ordinary awareness are the same. Yet, they cannot be the same, for clearly the ordinary individual is not enlightened.

Loy suggests this account to explain the paradox:

There is only one reality—this world, right here and now—but this world may be experienced in two different ways. Samsara is the relative, phenomenal world as usually experienced, which is delusively understood to consist of a collection of discrete objects (including “me”) that interact causally in space and time. Nirvana is that same world but as it is in itself, nondually incorporating both subject and object into a whole. (1998, p. 11)

In other words, the appearance of the world is different from the presence of the world. The appearance of the world makes up all the sizes and shapes, the heights, widths, and depths of objects interacting causally. The presence of the world, on the other hand, is the whole thing altogether, with no part left out or separate from any other. The nondual understanding of this circumstance means that the presence of the world is entirely connected, that no “space” exists between anything. Literally, everything touches everything else. The situation for spiritual masters is something like that of dog compared to humans, where the human is deficient in their perceptions and unaware of certain sounds and smells that are readily accessible to the dog. Nondual reality is literally your true state—even right now—despite its presence being generally unknown.

Yet, the converse is not true: samsara and nirvana are the same. Quite the opposite, in fact. Since samsara arises within and is literally comprised of nirvana, it is something like a subset of nirvana. In this sense, confusing the two commits a category error. The relationship between them is not one of equivalence. Indeed, samsara is the source of all suffering. If samsara is taken to be nirvana, a supreme irony, not to say, insidious futility is put into effect: enlightenment is sought among the very conditions whereby it is actually denied. A seemingly unlikely proponent of this approach is Wilber (2000a, b), who offers this way of understanding the paradox: hierarchy is the basic organizing principle of reality, which ultimately exists as a single whole. But this is holism and self-actualization, not nondualism and self-emancipation.

According to his view, it is not possible to have wholeness without hierarchy. If the parts are not organized into a larger whole whose “glue” is a principle higher than that possessed by the parts alone, then there are only heaps, but not wholes: “Even if the whole is a mutual interaction of parts, the wholeness cannot be on the same level as the partness or it would itself be merely another part, not a whole capable of embracing and integrating each and every part” (Wilber, 2000b, p. 24). A hierarchy is simply a ranking of orders of events according to their holistic capacity. Further, in any developmental sequence, wholes at one stage become part of a larger whole at the next stage. The individual structures comprising this nesting phenomenon are known as holons, a term borrowed from Koestler (1976).

These holons emerge along the lines of four continuums, each ensconced within its own respective quadrant. These lines of development, or evolution, proceed outward from a common center, the impetus of which even conceivable as the Big Bang (adapted from Wilber, 2006, p. 21):

Holons can be thought of as links in a chain, holding the various lines of development together: “Holons emerge holarchically…as a series of increasing whole/parts…but not vice versa…. Each emergent holon transcends but includes its predecessor(s)…. [I]t preserves the previous holons themselves but negates their separateness or isolatedness or aloneness” (Wilber, 2000b, pp. 56, 59) (emphasis in the original). As can be seen, holons do not comprise links within a single Chain of Being, however elaborate. As holons evolve, they do so according to four different chains, each of which intimately related to and dependent upon the others—but none of which reducible to the others. These four strands organize around a quadrant arrangement, all working in concert:

These interiors (UL) [upper left quadrant] are correlated, we saw, with specific exteriors (UR) [upper right quadrant], so that emotions “go with” limbic systems and concepts “go with” the neocortex of complex triune brains, and so forth (that is, every point on the right side has a correlate on the left side: every exterior has an interior).… But individuals only exist in relational exchanges with other holons of similar depth.… In other words, every point on the upper half of the diagram has a corresponding point on the lower half (so that all four quadrants have corresponding points with each other). (Ibid., p. 128)

What this means is that all points in each of the other quadrants that share a particular level of the spectrum are interlocked in an expansive web of connectedness, nevermind how unique their display and presentation might be within the confines of any given quadrant. In a word, the quadrants are coordinated continuums, sharing in a commonality of resources that exists between them on every level. Consequently, no individual exists simply in one or another quadrant. Rather, they possess all four quadrants—and at each level of being. As a result, each quadrant is intimately correlated with and dependent upon—but not reducible to—the others. Indeed, these quadrants are so thoroughly interconnected that any violence or impropriety done to one of them reverberates with grave consequences throughout them all.

Interestingly enough, despite the emphasis given to the quadrant structure in his work, Wilber acknowledges an essential feature of the Integral Interface: the self exists independently from mind. In other words, the self exists outside of the parameters of the quadrant system, as an auxiliary component. Wilber puts the relationship this way: “The basic structures [i.e., quadrants]…are devoid of a sense of self…. The basic structures are simply the waves of being and knowing that are available to the self as it develops toward its highest potentials” (2000a, p. 35). That is, self does not exist in any part of the overall system indicated by the quadrants, which can be more simply and ordinarily referred to this way: mind (UL), body (UR), world (LR), and memory (LL). This distinction is a trenchant one. None of the features or attributes of the four quadrants apply to the self at all. Consequently, the quadrant formation does not represent the whole person.

Wilber's depiction of the quadrants is like an immense grid, or matrix, constructed by the self from the ground up—providing the structure upon which the self is situated as it goes about its construction work. As a result, the manner in which the self exists relative to the quadrants could be described like this: a spider spinning a web, gingerly dancing upon the strands as it is, all the while, careful not to become ensnared by its own contraption. Consequently, “the real action involves the climber of the ladder…[which] has specific characteristics and capacities that are not found on the ladder itself” (Wilber, 1996, p. 142) (emphasis in the original). Yet, Wilber's emphasis on the quadrant structure betrays this insight. Indeed, according to his formulation, the situation for the individual is probably better put this way: one's center of gravity gets tossed around the construction site, depending on where the work of development happens to be currently done.

According to this view, reality can be catalogued along the arrows of the quadrants throughout all layers of being—from sub-atomic particles to the plants and animals of an eco-system, to the planets of the solar system, to the vast galaxies of the entire cosmos. All beings live in complex ecologies, each dependent for their very lives upon the maneuverings of perhaps even every single other element in that system. There are precarious balances and food-chains in these eco-systems, starting with simple single-celled amoebas, expanding into ever more complex life-forms, subsuming one another in increasingly more complex and sophisticated arrangements, continuing all the way up to your local supermarket store. It is an ecology of shared resources, spread out in interactions of ever more complex commerce.

For this reason…we say that the human being is a compound individual—compounded of all the past levels of development and capped by the present level itself…. The material body is exercised in labor with the physical-natural environment; the pranic (emotional) body is exercised in breath, sex, and feeling with other pranic bodies; the mind is exercised in linguistic communication with other minds; the soul, in psychic and subtle relationships; the spirit, in absolute relation to and as Godhead (or God-communion and God-identity). That is, each level of the compound human individual is exercised in a complex system of ideally unobstructed relationships with the corresponding levels of structural organization in the world process at large…. It thus appears that each level is intrinsically part of a sliding chain of relational exchanges and therefore is itself most fundamentally a society of exchanges, or social relationship… (Wilber, 1983, pp. 35-36) (emphasis in the original)

As can be seen, nondual reality resides at the end of the four continuums, when the integrative capacity of each continuum has exhausted its evolutionary climb and enfolded all preceding levels within a culminating embrace—as indicated by the arrowheads of each continuum in the above diagram. However, at the same time, nondual reality paradoxically represents the all-inclusive ground of existence out of which each continuum initially emerges. The evolution of human existence is like a ladder, therefore, along the rungs of which each level of development must traverse—with a notable exception: the wood of the ladder is already comprised of the very nondual reality waiting on human evolution, potentially residing at the top of the structure. Although Wilber is quick to point out that any particular point of development may “spiral, meander, wobble, and regress” (Wilber, 2000b, p. 768, n. 17) along the way, as might be said of a flowing river, development overall must inevitably progress through a linear course involving these specific levels of being—something like following a string of cities along the riverbank.

In this way, the One and the Many are thoroughly integrated. Yet, this integration is undermined by the very presentation of these quadrants. Indeed, those aspects of the individual referred to as quadrants are more typically thought of this way: bio-psycho-social (e.g., Dilts, 2001), or what existentialism refers to as umwelt, eigenwelt, and mitwelt, respectively (see May, Angel, & Ellenberger, 1958). As can be seen, others have not felt it necessary to put this aggregate into the form of quadrants, as based on interior/exterior and individual/collective axes. Simply put, the psyche does not present so neat and tidy. Rowan has indicated that the quadrant concept is “a plea to take into account a whole bunch of things…such as support systems, the intersubjective reality of the therapist-client relationship, racism, sexism, economic pressures, neurophysiology and so forth” (personal communication, 2007). Nonetheless, all of these items are specifically taken into account via the concept of bio-psycho-social. Nothing appears to be added with the quadrant depiction. Ockham's razor alone suggests the quadrants are not an elegant concept.

But there is more to object to relative to the quadrants than this. Foremost is the idea of the interior/exterior axis. To appreciate the problematic nature of Wilber's conception, it is necessary to revisit the proximate and distal self:

[D]uring psychological development, the “I” of one stage becomes a “me” at the next. That is, what you are identified with (or embedded in) at one stage of development (and what you therefore experience very intimately as an “I”) tends to become transcended, or disidentified with, or de-embedded at the next. In other words, the subject of one stage becomes an object of the next. (2000a, p. 34) (emphasis in the original)

Earlier in this work, Wilber's idea of proximate and distal self was used in a particular way: whereas proximate indicates one's center of awareness (i.e., self), the latter sense of distal indicates the memories of their abilities and attributes (i.e., “Apex” Paradox). Wilber gives good reasons for seeing the two this way: “one, there is some sort of observing self (an inner subject or watcher); and two, there is some sort of observed self (some objective things that you can see or know about yourself” (Ibid., p. 33). Indeed, it is inconsistent and untenable to use these terms otherwise, even though Wilber actually does so in the block quote above: the subject, or “I,” of one stage becomes an object, or “me,” of the next.

There are two problems with conceiving of the “I” and “me” in this fashion. First, even though one might identify with some aspect of their whole person—e.g., body, thoughts, experience—that does not make the identified aspect the self, or a subject. In this context, the term “subject” can be understood in two ways: either the locus of one's living presence or a topic of interest, as might be said of a school text. Wilber appears to conflate the two, for the proximate self is defined both as that which observes and that to which one is identified (i.e., topic of interest). Indeed, this conflation is precisely what defines the Ego/Self Amalgam, whereby the self collapses upon the mind: the self in this case being Wilber's observing proximate self, and the ego Wilber's identifying proximate self—which identifies with the distal self. Yet, no matter how similar, the two are not the same. Moreover, that toward which the self is identified is actually an object, not a subject (except in the sense of a school text).

The second difficulty with this conception is that the “I” and “me” change positions at each stage of development, with each “I” becoming a “me” along the way. Like Kegan (1982), Wilber uses the example of an infant growing into adulthood to illustrate the point. At first the infant is identified solely with the body, or upper right (UR) quadrant, which is experienced as an “I.” Already this depiction is curious, in that it makes more sense to say the first object of identification is the world, or one's lower right (LR) quadrant, as per symbiosis (see Mahler, 1968, 1975), or even Gaia (see Roszak, Kanner, & Gomes, 1995). Nonetheless, as the infant grows and develops through the various quadrants, they identify with each new level. After the bodily self comes the emotional self, after the emotional self come the mental self, and so on. At each point, the growing child is able to subjectively identify with a higher order of the whole person and, thereby, see the lower levels objectively. When the child's verbal and conceptual mind begins to emerge, they can see the lower levels—i.e., body and emotions—as objects to the mind.

Perhaps the most obviously inconsistent aspect of this arrangement is how the upper right (UR) quadrant can be defined as exterior and objective, generally speaking, but transformed to interior and subjective immediately following the initial level of development during infancy. In fact, even at this the body remains subjective for only a short time, quickly becoming objective again in turn. There is a zig-zagging quality to this view of development, like a stairway, in which subjectivity seemingly “slides over” from one quadrant to the other as development makes its way upwards. After just a few steps, all of the quadrants would go through this process, alternately being subjective, only to become objective in turn, loosing their interior or subjective status. However, what happens after the mental level? All of the quadrants have been used by then.

Even more quizzical for this process is how the emotions can “see” the body as they emerge during the developmental sequence, as an observer. Even regarding the mind to be capable of “seeing” either the emotions or body is stretching the point. It would be far better to put the situation this way: rather than somehow literally be the body, then the emotions, then the mind, the self is simply aware of the Imagery Amalgam at each juncture of development. In other words, the experience side of the amalgam is one's initial focus of attention—first as the exterior loop of sensation and perception (or body and world), second as the interior loop of emotion. Subsequent to this, focus turns toward the understanding aspect of the Imagery Amalgam—the ulterior loop of conception (i.e., perspective and identity, or “Apex” Paradox).

Simply put, the “I” does not become the “me,” for each exists within an entirely different domain of the psyche, and obligated to entirely different developmental processes (see Hewitt, 1994, for a similar understanding of “I” and “me”). The self never actually moves or otherwise shifts position. Rather, it simply identifies with the different aspects of the Imagery Amalgam that happen to be given salience in the display—and, in precisely this manner, collapses upon the mind, becoming ego. As can be seen, all aspects of the whole person are present throughout, simply processed according to different levels of sophistication along the way.

In recent writings on the internet, Wilber muses over an even more intrepid account of interior and exterior states for his quadrant system:

There are (at least) 4 major perspectives of being-in-the-world, which we are calling the four quadrants—I, we, it, its—each of which can be looked at from its own inside or outside…. These 8 native or primordial perspectives are the inside and outside of interiors and exteriors in singular and plural” (2005c).

Wilber acknowledges that this way of talking is a bit of a mouthful. What he appears to mean is that each quadrant is capable of its own perspective, all the way up and all the way down through the various levels of being. Indeed, two such perspectives appear per quadrant, one inside and the other outside (Wilber, 2006). Although it is beyond the scope of this work to consider the full ramifications of this orientation to the psyche, still, it seems unwarranted to imbue each quadrant with inside and outsides aspects, as if the quadrants were three-dimensional boxes (see McIntosh, 2007, for a further critique of Wilber's view on perspectives). If for no other reason, a homunculus problem is created, whereby an infinite series of boxes emerge along the continuums of the quadrants, each with its own set of perspectives.

Wilber goes on to say: “Thus, sentient beings and perspectives, not consciousness and phenomena, are the 'stuff' of the Kosmos” (2005d). It seems he has it part right and part wrong. Although the mind could rightly be thought to possess a perspective at every level of being, nonetheless, it is precisely consciousness that defines sentience. The situation for the psyche is better put this way: rather than positing an infinite number of different perspectives to accommodate the various quadrants along all the levels of being, there is a single mind processing perspective (and identity) at every level of being—and a single self aware of it.

Indeed, the homunculus problem can be put another way: although all levels of the spectrum of consciousness might well participate in each of the quadrants, that doesn't necessarily make the entire spectrum indicative of me. Consider this: even though a cell in my knee (or eukaryote, see quadrant diagram) may well be active in all four quadrants—i.e., have sentience of some kind, a perspective and identity to go with it, as well as some sort of sensori-motor capabilities by which it interacts with its environment—this is no more an instance of me than the same quadrants taking place in an ant crawling across the carpet. Even if it could be said that the cell in my knee somehow occurs at a lower level of my own being—it is not me! I take place within a very limited slice of the overall set of continuums—starting somewhere around birth and ending…well, wherever it ultimately ends (rational, personal self in most cases).

While Wilber is intent on fashioning an integral theory of everything, which is certainly laudable, his clinical model cannot be taken seriously so long as it fails to acknowledge the utterly disparate nature of the various levels of being he attempts to weave into the psychological datum of paramount concern: me. Only a very small selection within the stack is of any real interest to most people, much less pertinent to clinical practice. Perhaps better said, whereas the experiences and memories still existing in my repertoire of perspective and identity produced while a baby crawling across the floor are still of immense significance even now, those transpiring while the cells of my knees were first manufactured—or even these cells right now, for that matter—play no role in the sense of who I am at all. Even in the case of brain cells, whereby I am affected by medications, it is only in terms of an aggregate of cells that a similar influence occurs (e.g., frontal cortex, limbic system), but not any individual eukaryote. Indeed, this point perhaps applies most tellingly to the lower right (LR) quadrant: even if it were allowed that tribes exist in contemporary society (e.g., gangs, or even extended families), no collectives lower in the continuum are available for clinical intervention. The only possible exception would be ecological interventions directed toward the environment, as might be said of Gaia, not ordinarily thought to be the province of clinical practice.

Wilber's proliferation of perspectives ends up violating Ockham's razor. Yet, the real difficulty with his theory comes down to this: how do the quadrants communicate? There is no interface between them. This can be most clearly seen in the operation of memory and cognitive architecture, which consists of two parts overall: storage facility and items retained in storage. Although the items retained in memory are stored in a hierarchical fashion, as might be said of holons, the storage facility itself does not consist of a holon structure—implying that it must exist outside of the quadrants. But, if so, where does it exist, and in what way does it relate to the quadrants? Indeed, where is the “Apex” Paradox? Nothing like the reciprocity of the “Apex” Paradox exists in Wilber's theory, whereby culture and intersubjectivity might occur. It makes more sense to say that there is a single perspective (as well as identity) within memory, undergoing transformation at each level of development—as opposed to a set of perspectives for every quadrant (resulting in a homunculus).

Perhaps the most difficult part of Wilber's integral theory is his decision to organize the different lines of development into the shape of quadrants. The only possible reason for doing so is schematic convenience. Certainly, no living human being actually presents as a stack of cubes, as might be said of his quadrants. However, the idea that development involves a spectrum of consciousness has certain affinities to the presentation of human beings. After all, the bodily base does seem to reside essentially within the pelvic/navel region; while emotions seem centered a little higher up, emanating from the heart; and cognitive awareness seems to reside within the cranial vault, perched upon the neck and shoulders; and higher levels of awareness still seem to beckon from beyond this pinnacle. But where are the quadrants to be found? The graph is a strictly abstract rendering of the person that has no correlate to one's actual being.

The four continuums that comprise Wilber's quadrants could just as easily be laid out side by side, like the columns of a table. Likewise, they could be arranged in the manner of the Integral Interface—the lower right quadrant as the world, the upper right quadrant as the body, the upper left quadrant as the mind, and the lower left quadrant as the contents of memory, as can be seen:

The entire quadrant system taken altogether can be thought of as exterior to the consciousness (i.e., spider) that is aware of it. But nondualism doesn't allow any separation between self and other of any kind, as might be said of interior and exterior quadrants—not to say, insides and outsides for each quadrant. Indeed, the same critique could be made of the Integral Interface as presented thus far—precisely prompting the disillusionment required at this point. Indeed, the right hand quadrants are merely an illusion of embodiment, as will be seen. Perhaps more to the point, the difficulty lies in conceiving of consciousness as if comprised of various levels, such as a spectrum, when these levels are actually levels of mind taking place in consciousness, not as consciousness. Therefore, nondualism does not reside at the tips of the quadrant continuums. Rather, it exists in the absence (i.e., Void, or sunyata) of the quadrants. This dispels the illusion of any difference between self and quadrants. But no viable account of how such nonseparation might occur appears in Wilber's theory. Needless-to say, placing such emphasis on a dualistic schema while being an advocate of nondualism is certainly ironic.

In Wilber's account, a priority can be seen taking place among the various parts of the whole person: quadrants over self. As has also been said of Hegel's own integral theory, Wilber's quadrants can be compared to an impressive and elaborate mansion on a hill—while the self, meanwhile, lives in a hovel by the side of the road. Indeed, the quadrants are further compromised: because there is no interface between the quadrants, no connecting infrastructure provides the means by which the quadrants might operate together as a viable system. Despite its intricate and ornate trappings, the mansion is marred by a serious deficit: no stairs or doors by which one might actually move from room to room.

Finally, there is another curious omission in Wilber's account: no quadrant specifically for emotion, or love. This absence could perhaps be referred to as the “lost quadrant.” Wilber (2000a, b) typically presents the compound individual as comprised of five main levels of being: matter, body, mind, soul, and spirit. Yet, the Vedantic tradition that primarily represents this depiction speaks of the five koshas in the following sequence: vital (or gross), etheric (or pranic), mental, subtle, and causal (see Chatterji, 1992; Feuerstein, 2001). Indeed, Wilber occasionally does so too: “The material body is exercised in labor with the physical-natural environment; the pranic (emotional) body is exercised in breath, sex, and feeling with other pranic bodies…” (1983, p. 36). It would seem the only possible rationale for departing from the Vedantic tradition would be to justify his quadrant structure, for the emotions simply do not fit into his model otherwise. In fact, Wilber inserts emotion midway on the upper left quadrant, among other aspects of the psyche ordinarily thought of as cognitive in nature (e.g., concepts, symbols, perceptions), obviously an awkward and untenable juxtaposition. After all, emotions also undergo alterations and adaptations at every level of development, in exactly the same manner as the other quadrants (see de Quincey, 2000; Garber & Dodge, 2007).

Although Wilber's developmental model is profound and provocative, perhaps even representing the cutting edge of systems theory, his structural model is simplistic and inadequate, especially relative to those features of the psyche typically thought to be structural (e.g., cognitive architecture, tripartite assembly of agencies) (for a further account of his structural model, see Wilber, Engler, & Brown, 1986). Consequently, any clinical model based on his quadrant theory will be misguided, operating without a reliable anatomy of the psyche. Wilber says he long puzzled over how to best represent the myriad of developmental models, laying hundreds of sheets of paper out on the floor before himself. Looking over this imposing aggregate and getting an overview, it finally hit him: arrange the sheets of paper into four piles. Although, at first glance, this might appear to be a stroke of genius, the outcome actually comes down to no more than this: four heaps, instead of just one.

Apparently, Wilber did not include structural models among the papers strewn out upon the floor, thereby reducing the psyche merely to development. Unfortunately, as trenchant as his developmental model is, it only ends up truncating the psyche and must be situated within a larger structural model. It would appear that the graph at the core of Wilber's quadrants ends up being the Achilles' heel of his theory. These axes are the lynchpin of the quadrant system. However, if this lynchpin is removed, the various continuums are freed from their quadrant moorings, allowing them to reassemble in a manner more indicative of the actual configuration of the whole person: the Integral Interface. As can be seen, although the Integral Interface runs counter to Wilber's quadrant theory, it is not contrary to it. Rather, the two are completely compatible, one fitting within the other like hand in glove.

Reality and Illusion

The relationship between the One and the Many is often explained by way of an ingenious idea: the two-truths doctrine, which states that there is a different set of truth values for each level of reality. That is, whereas the One and nirvana reside at a level of reality that is governed by one particular kind of truth, the Many and samsara reside at an entirely different level of reality, governed by a kind of truth particular to that level. As a result, two ways of orienting to one's existence can be seen to occur: reality and illusion.

When the Buddha offered an analysis of the perceived world in the sutras, he was making a fundamental distinction between things as they appear (how things seem to be to the unenlightened) and what really is the case (how things really are…). This distinction issues forth in the Abhidharma as the distinction between the two truths: …conventional truth—the way things appear, and…the ultimate truth, which is the object of…knowing and seeing things as they really are. (Skilton, 1997, p. 89)

One way to put the situation is commonly seen in magic tricks. To illustrate, you could hold up a coin in one hand and pretend to take it into the other, all the while palming it in your original hand. As you open the other hand and reveal it to be empty, you have completed the illusion. Although the audience may have thought the coin was in the other hand, it really wasn't. As you can see, although the illusion actually exists (as an illusion), it isn't real. The same could be said of lies—even though the lie has certainly been told, that doesn't make it true.

To explain this way of apprehending reality, the Upanishads of ancient India make the following reference: “The jiva [individual] is to [atman] as a particular individual wave is to the abiding and deep ocean across which it moves” (Mahony, 1997, p. 381). The wave exists, as an illusion—precisely because it exists, in reality, as not other than water. This highlights a crucial distinction and suggests a sense of priority between epistemology and ontology: whereas epistemology represents truth on the level of the waves and illusion, ontology represents truth on the level of the water and reality. Not only is there a truth for both, the truth of ontology is superior to that of epistemology—i.e., more real. Perhaps even better said, at the level of ultimate reality epistemology and ontology are actually identical; after all, the principal evidence for the truth of something is it is really the case. Consequently, the idea that epistemology is the domain of philosophy devoted to arbitrating truth is only half true.

However, the metaphor of the wave and water can overstate the case. That is, this reference is usually interpreted to mean that because everything is made of water, then each individual wave must be made of water too. But this would be to understand the reference as a kind of monism. Unfortunately, this would miss the point of nondualism. The nondual interpretation does not focus on what each individual part is made of, but an entirely different orientation: there are no parts—only Oneness. Indeed, there is no whole either—only Oneness. What the parts and wholes happen to be made of is incidental to the Oneness.

Further, how the parts happen to configure in terms of their human manifestation is no less incidental:

[F]or Sankara the mind-body complex in its entirety is problematic because it is the source of limitation, of finitude…. The Self that is in truth infinite and unlimited appears to be limited by way of its (apparent) association with the mind-body complex. In this connection, Sankara employs one of his favorite illustrations, namely, the example of air in a pot. As air in a pot appears to be limited and distinct from air outside the pot or the air in other pots, so too the all-pervasive (sarvagata) Self appears to be limited by individual mind-body complexes. (Thatamanil, 2006, p. 43)

As can be seen, the fact that the air happens to be contorted into certain shapes or configurations is beside the point and not to be taken seriously. Rather, it is the state of being cut off and separate from itself by virtue of some intervening circumstance that underlies the nature of manifest being. But this does not alter reality: a single living presence…in the above metaphor, of air. Obviously, this is a way of understanding Oneness that is very different from that of monism, or even monotheism. In fact, in monotheism, an intractable dualism is instilled between God and creation—in the end, serving only to sever the connection between them. Despite the fact that creation is subordinate to God in the Judeo-Christian conception, especially in the case of individual creatures such as human beings, they are not thought to be illusory. Indeed, it is precisely because this spiritual orientation takes manifest reality so seriously that humans are thought to be subordinate to God, that is, a product of divine creation, rather than simply an illusion—in the end, not to be taken seriously at all.

This process is sometimes spoken of as a veil of ignorance being parted, revealing the sweet delight of ultimate reality. Not unlike the Buddhist concept of samsara, the Hindu nondualist tradition of Advaita Vedanta refers to the illusory nature of manifest existence as maya (Sankara, 1979). Indeed, the ancient scriptures of the Mandukya Upanishad contain some of the most highly sophisticated descriptions of the four states of human consciousness overall: waking, dreaming, sleeping, and turiya—a fourth state lying beyond the other three (Prabhavananda & Manchester, 1967). This last, nondual state is described as constant awareness, or Consciousness Itself. The remaining states of consciousness are something of which we are all at least somewhat familiar, for we all go through the cycle of waking, dreaming, and sleeping every day. Indeed, a further even more refined state, turiyita, is sometimes also postulated, highlighting the depth of being of traditional nondualism.

However, such views rely on a particular premise: an on-going external reality, even while the individual undergoes the mysterious transformations entailed by the suspension of normal embodiment during sleep. Indeed, as one slips from the waking state into dreams and deep sleep, the sloughing off of the body and perceptual/sensory awareness could be described this way: dream disembodiment. Yet, the maintenance of the familiar world of three-dimensional and objective causality while one sojourns deeply within their interior recesses is in no way necessary, or even tenable, as can be seen:

The first step in my core argument…was that the dream world and the life we lead in it is not a second-hand production composited together by some fantastic tinkerer, by the syntactical operations of a dream bricoleur, but is a continuous, spontaneous, formative production in which the dreaming life-world is constituted de novo. The second step…was to argue that dreaming and waking worlds, and the unreflective lives we live in those worlds, are essentially indiscernible. The third step…is to argue that the constitution of the dreaming life-world is anaclitic upon (leans on) the mechanisms that constitute the waking life-world. (Globus, 1987, p. 91)

The way to sort out the conundrum is as follows: there are two tiers of mind. Spiritual traditions from Hinduism to Buddhism to Taoism have posited different levels of mind (Conze, 1962; Sharma, 1974)—only the most sophisticated of which capable of influencing reality to any degree, operating at a level far beyond that determined by culture and postmodernism. That is, reality goes about its own business, regardless of what is happening in the lower mind—the mind of constructivism, contextualism, or perspectivism. In a manner of speaking, the situation could be put like this: reality has a mind of its own. In this way, mind could be said to be spread across all of these realms, underlying all reality. Vasubandhu, a proponent of the Yogacara school of Mahayana Buddhism, puts it this way: “The various consciousnesses are but transformations. That which discriminates and that which is discriminated are, because of this, both unreal. For this reason, everything is mind only” (Radhakrishnan & Moore, 1967, p. 336).

Perhaps the example par excellence of such an orientation to dream disembodiment is shamanism, where certain individuals are able to directly enter the dream state while still in the waking state. Shamans claim to be able to access spiritual realms that are not otherwise available to the remaining members of their community (Eliade, 1974; Krippner, 2000). Clearly, this is quite different than disengaging the body during sleep—much less sloughing off the body during death, for that matter. Nonetheless, these activities engage in very similar principles.

Adi Da puts it this way:

[W]hile you are alive, you make mind, and when you die, mind makes you…. [W]hen you die, the waking consciousness falls off, the physical falls off, and what was unconscious before you, which is outside the brain, is now who you are—and where you are. It is a place, you see. It is the mind-realm. This is what follows life. Death is by no means simply a doorway to heaven. What is on your mind now when you lose physical attention? What kinds of thoughts do you have, what kinds of dreams do you have, what kinds of fears do you have? Whatever they are, they make your experience after death… (1997a, p. 59)

It is this process of dream disembodiment occurring at death that accounts for the process of reincarnation. Simply put, after sleep, precisely because of the intimate connection that is still intact, you return to the same body the next morning when you awake. In death, the situation is essentially the same, but with a crucial difference: because the connection is terminally severed, it greatly increases the amount of time before you awaken—and when you do, you return to a different body (see McDonnell, 1997). Indeed, typically, you don't even have any memory of the dreams that took place during this stint of disembodiment, preparing you for your next incarnation.

Shamans engage in a number of spiritual practices that characterize their role as practitioners, which determine their privileged access to dream disembodiment: healer, priest or priestess, diviner or medium, and malevolent practitioner (i.e., witch or sorcerer) (Winkelman, 1992). However, these activities and experiences must be considered within a larger context, by way of which they might even be referred to as “decadent and crude technology,” as Krippner (2002) puts it in criticizing a comparison of shamanism and mysticism by Wilber. But, obviously, such an assessment possesses unsavory connotation, better spoken of in terms of innocence or incipience, as they relate to the more sophisticated technology of mysticism.

For example, although the shaman engages in dream disembodiment as they enter the spiritual realm, they do so by maintaining a clear sense of being a shaman, as they mingle among other spirit entities. In mysticism, especially nondual mysticism, this differentiation is absent. There is no separation within the fluid and surreal parameters of the dream state. Otherwise, shamanism and mysticism appear to be accounts of essentially the same spirit realm. Perhaps the simplest way to distinguish the two is this:

  1. whereas the shaman goes to the spiritual realm, the mystic does not, finding instead that they are already there; and
  2. whereas the shaman interacts with other beings when they get there, in manner similar to that of the earthly realm, the mystic has no need of interaction—precisely because there is no other with which to interact.

Of course, there are all kinds of permutations and shades in between, creating considerable overlap between them. Nonetheless, these distinctions offer a useful characterization of their fundamental differences.

Overall, the similarity of the two orientations can be seen in a fundamental operation of the psyche: imagery (see Achterberg, 1985). Imagery operates at the core of one's experience, giving the impression of objects while not actually being comprised of objects. This situation is easily seen in dreams, where the presence of objects is taken very seriously when, in fact, they do not actually exist at all—at least not as three-dimensional “things.” Why presume that waking reality is any different in this respect? It is commonly accepted that those who engage in prolonged contemplative practices are likely to have exactly this kind of encounter with reality (Walsh, 1990).

This is why existentialism focuses on the experiential impressions of the Imagery Amalgam. However, phenomenology pushes the point with what Husserl (1999) calls the phenomenological reduction, which strips away the overlay of interpretation and understanding entirely, revealing the pristine substrate of experience underneath. In fact, the commonsense understanding of the world composed of discrete, concrete objects is actually better thought of this way: the illusion of embodiment. For example, one's “body” can be thought of in two entirely different ways, each of which indicating a different point of interface, depending on which aspect is prominent:

Husserl (1952, p. 374) himself seems to indicate the same by speaking, as it were, of [different] levels: first I have my body in an immediate way (as phenomenal body, in our terms)…and, finally, I take the perceptual organs as causally related to the things (i.e., I have the body as science conceives it, the completely objective body). (Rojcewicz, 1987, p. 203)

In other words, the body can be understood as split in two: one physical, interacting with the causal environment of the object world (i.e., contact boundary); and one phenomenological, comprised of the experiences that emerge from such interactions and displayed to the self by the mind via imagery appearing on the grid (i.e., encounter boundary). It is precisely in this manner that one can focus attention on experience and, thereby, live in the here and now of existentialism. It is also in this way that the transcendence of the ego possesses therapeutic properties, and can be put this way: “This is what I believe is meant in spiritual practice when people talk about 'losing one's ego'…. It is a happy shift, a shift from an inside-out, 'me-focused' view to a cosmic or universal overview” (Boorstein, 1994, p. 104).

This has enormous implications for states of consciousness: dreaming and sleeping states can be engaged while one is awake. Shamans are capable of entering the spiritual realms of the dream state when they engage in vision quests, whereby they commune with spirit entities and engage in the process of shape-shifting, such that they assume certain animal forms and characteristics (Eliade, 1974; Krippner, 2000). This is the realm known in science as ESP, which includes such metaphysical abilities as astral projection, clairvoyance, and telekinesis (see Tart, Puthoff, & Targ, 2002). Ordinary mystics can also engage the dream world as part of their contemplative spiritual practices, although it is that portion of the dream world transitional to deep, dreamless sleep and farthest removed from dreams tied to physical embodiment, as in the case of shamanism.

Nondual mysticism, on the other hand, involves an even further dimension of reality—turiya—which is beyond waking, dreaming, or sleeping:

Waking, dream and sleep are mere phases of the mind, not of the Self. The Self is the witness of these states…. Though present in sleep, the Self is then not perceived. It cannot be known in sleep straightaway. It must first be realized in the waking state for it is our true nature underlying all three states. Effort must be made in the waking state and the Self realized here and now. It will then be understood to be the continuous Self uninterrupted by the alteration of waking, dream and deep sleep. (Osbourne, 1977, p. 25)

Put somewhat differently, the nondual Self is the conscious ground within which waking, dreaming, and sleeping arise and take place. This has a paradoxical implication: while one is awake, they are in a sense the furthest away from nondual enlightenment—and, therefore, the most deeply asleep! In other words, the illusory nature of the waking state means that it is itself a dream state; in fact, the most gross and crude form of dreaming. Indeed, it could be said that human beings are literally the same as ghosts, transient apparitions haunting this world. Conversely, the deep sleep state is potentially a highly awakened state. Even more so is turiya, where one is literally awake as their nondual Self and capable of witnessing all the other states. In this way, one does not so much wake up from dreams in the normal course of life as this: fall even more deeply asleep—more deeply into the illusion of embodiment—as they transition into the so-called waking state. In fact, it could be said one falls asleep at night simply because they can no longer sustain the effort of maintaining this illusory state.

It is precisely for this reason that one feels refreshed after deep sleep. They have actually sojourned to and been immersed in their most alive and awakened state. Consequently, the consciousness of spiritual practitioners could be defined according to the realization of their true situation, which is to say, whether their realization exists in the following manner:

  1. lucid: aware that they are actually asleep and dreaming, and that there is, therefore, a waking state different from their own; or
  2. awake: actually existing in that wakened state.

Simply put, the difference between spiritual aspirants and spiritual masters can be sorted out according to these two circumstances: whereas spiritual aspirants are aware that they are asleep and dreaming, spiritual masters are simply aware and awake. All else are merely asleep, perhaps even unaware that they are only dreaming.

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