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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Since 1990 Gary Stogsdill has been a faculty member at Prescott College where he currently teaches courses in humanistic mathematics, science appreciation, and wisdom studies. He has a blog called "Pursuing Wisdom Now", which features articles on contemporary spirituality.
Thoughts About a New Spiritual Paradigm
Life is a more fundamental unfolding of the universe than either mind or consciousness.
My last essay "U Up?" suggested that we might find inklings of a possible paradigm shift away from the classical spiritual view of enlightenment as embodied in the writings of Ken Wilber, and toward new views of spirituality as partially gleaned from the writings of Sam Harris and Steve Taylor. In this essay I want to offer further thoughts about a new spiritual paradigm, starting with the underlying assumption of the old paradigm as stated here: Consciousness is the ultimate reality, or Spirit, and we humans are the chosen ones who have a mind that can make us one with everything.
It's natural for humans to feel special. We've been doing it for as long as history allows us to peer into our past. And surely nothing is more special about humans than our minds, right? Here's the philosopher Daniel Dennett in From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds: “Our human minds are strikingly different from the minds of all other species, many times more powerful and more versatile” (p. 9). Dennett later admits that this sounds like human exceptionalism, and then without skipping a beat hammers the exceptionalism even stronger: “Of course our minds are orders of magnitude more powerful than the cleverest animal mind!” (p. 11). Why? Because “no animal creates art, writes poetry, derives scientific theories, builds spaceships, navigates the oceans, or even tames fire” (p. 11).
This means Dennett is claiming exceptionalism for the human mind because of its creative capacity and its rational intellect. Yes, we have definitely unfolded capacities of mind that other animals have not developed. But other species have minds that clearly show abilities our human mind lacks. I would like to invite anyone who feels compelled to gloat about their orders-of-magnitude superior mind to go into the habitat of any wild animal and survive there for one year with only their mind and nothing else, as the animals themselves do.
My point is to suggest that mind is a multifaceted expression that includes a wide variety of abilities and intelligences for a vast array of living beings. One set of abilities and intelligence allows humans to express spirituality. It's only natural that spiritual teachers would fall prey to human exceptionalism and declare first that our perception of consciousness must be the ultimate reality, or Spirit, and second that we must be the chosen ones who have a mind that can make us one with everything.
The hubris of this classical spiritual paradigm is revealed partly in the unquestioned assumption that life has reached its evolutionary endpoint in humans and that even the human mind itself will not in the future evolve to greater capacity and insight that may make the classical spiritual paradigm seem childish and silly. Almost without exception, we humans tend to think we are the best thing ever and that our current understanding has to be accurate and nearly complete. However, if we learn any lesson from history, it should be that human understanding is a work in progress that will always continue to evolve. And only a modest dose of objectivity reveals humans to be tragically flawed with tendencies toward selfishness, greed, prejudice, violence, and destruction. From the vantage point of the living beings that share our planet we may be the biggest nightmare ever.
And that's just on planet Earth. Astronomers estimate that “there could be as many as 40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of Sun-like stars and red dwarfs in [our galaxy]” (Wikipedia). Some of these exoplanets exhibit even better conditions for life than our own Earth does (CNET). Odds are that life has arisen on many of these planets and that some of these expressions of life have minds that make us seem like toddlers or worse.
When I use the word consciousness, I mean the awareness that all living beings possess to a greater or lesser extent. By mind, I mean how an individual living being cultivates consciousness to create a sense of self and understanding to a greater or lesser extent. And by spiritual or spirituality, I mean how we humans attempt to fulfill and express our inner need for deeper meaning and purpose beyond the essentials of survival.
The classical spiritual paradigm that Ken Wilber embodies is rooted in ancient teachings of India. In many cases, these teachings clearly distinguished ultimate reality (Brahman) from either consciousness (chit) or mind (manas, ahankara, chitta, buddhi). Yet Wilber's equating of consciousness with ultimate reality is the logical conclusion of the classical paradigm because if we can use meditation to go deep within our own mind to explore consciousness and arrive at what we believe to be actual oneness with the ultimate reality, then consciousness itself is the obvious candidate for that ultimate reality.
This is an impoverished view of an ultimate reality capable of bringing forth an entire universe, and it's reminiscent of the Ancient Greek philosopher Thales declaring that water must be the source of all that is. The classical spiritual paradigm is way too mind-heavy and meditation-heavy. It's no accident that this paradigm flourished in the 1960s and 70s because those decades were in part defined by pushing the frontiers of consciousness, seeking far-out experiences, and an influx of popular gurus from India teaching enlightenment as something we do with our mind in meditation. It's also no accident that these decades were the formative years of Wilber, whose teachings consummate the old paradigm.
Yet mind and consciousness are only detectable when something is alive. It seems reasonable, then, to conclude that life is more fundamental than either mind or consciousness. Take away consciousness and we have no mind; take away life and we have neither consciousness nor mind. Until maybe a couple hundred years ago, virtually all humans recognized that they were infused with lifeforce. More recently the materialistic interpretation of science, especially in the medical field, has tended to blind otherwise intelligent people to the obvious fact that the foundation of our being is life itself.
Awakening experiences themselves are almost always more about feeling alive than about something transpiring in our mind. Steve Taylor has been researching these experiences for many years, and he often makes note of this feeling of aliveness, even concluding that “awakening experiences...tell us...that everything—rocks, rivers...the whole Earth itself and even the sky—is alive” (Waking from Sleep, p. 31). As you'll see in a moment, I think the feeling that everything in the universe is alive is merely a projection of what the “awakener” is experiencing, but that's a subject for another essay. Even writers in general have noted for hundreds of years the connection between wakefulness and aliveness. For example, here's Henry David Thoreau in Walden: “To be awake is to be alive” (A Fully Annotated Edition, p. 66).
I'll share an experience of my own, not to talk about myself but to illustrate a couple of points. Almost 20 years ago after receiving a potent form of energy work, I walked out of the practitioner's office into a natural area and was surprised to powerfully feel lifeforce emanating from the plants and trees around me. My own lifeforce seemed to connect with every living thing I approached, and I felt a deep kinship and communion. This heightened sense of oneness took my breath away and brought tears of joy and love.
When I lifted my gaze to a distant mountain, I immediately felt the same communion; it seemed that the mountain was alive and we were one in the sharing of lifeforce. Then my eyes caught a nearly full moon rising next to the mountain, and I became transfixed by an even stronger feeling that the moon was alive and that we were sharing something deeply mysterious and connecting. The moon and I were one in the energy of lifeforce.
I waited quite awhile in that natural area absorbing the beauty of this experience until I thought I might be able to drive. As soon as I was on the road, I saw a person walking on the sidewalk who was wildly flaying his arms and talking into the air, as though he was either on drugs or having a manic episode. Immediately I seemed to become this person and felt an odd mixture of communion and alarm at being manic. I had to exercise strong will power to stop looking at anything except the road ahead of me in order to make it home.
My first point is to emphasize that this awakening experience was all about feeling more alive. At no point did it seem like this was an experience of sharing mind with other things; this was raw, powerful lifeforce. My mind seemed more like a witness and not otherwise involved in this experience at all. Perhaps this is why mystics often try to convey their experiences through poetry or art: it's impossible for the rational mind to fully capture these awakening experiences because they occur in something deeper than mind, which I believe is lifeforce.
My second point from this experience is to comment on Ken Wilber's assertion that we can literally become all that is. While I would have sworn during the above experience that I was one with everything I focused on, it became clear to me soon after that this didn't ontologically happen. I did not become a mountain, the moon, and a manic person; rather, I felt like these things were happening because of how powerfully my own lifeforce had awakened. I was projecting the aliveness I felt onto everything I saw, which made everything seem hyper-alive and brought a feeling of oneness that naturally included love and joy.
A final point illustrated by my experience above is that we would be pretty foolish to actually hope to achieve the old-paradigm enlightenment goal of permanent oneness with everything. I couldn't even operate a car safely, what to speak of functioning in the other daily ways that mature humans need to function. I recall a direct disciple of Yogananda who remarked that in his final years Yogananda often needed help functioning. For example, one time when this disciple had to physically support Yogananda to steady him on his feet, Yogananda commented that he had trouble remembering which specific body he was supposed to operate. Who in their right mind would want to live permanently in that state?
My Thoughts About a New Spiritual Paradigm
I began writing essays for Integral World four years ago because on the 35th anniversary of my brother's passing I felt that he would want me to be a voice of caution regarding the old spiritual paradigm which caused him to lose his life at the age of 34. I've written these essays not for those in the grips of the old paradigm, and not for those in the grips of materialism who don't believe spirituality is real, because neither of these groups is open to changing their belief systems. I've written these essays for those few who are still open to exploring the mysteries of life, who may be drawn to deeper meaning and purpose, and who can't help but hear the siren songs of a popular new-age media and self-help industry that lure us with the promise of enlightenment or awakening or Self-realization in the sense of becoming one with everything. Following are the thoughts I want to leave you with.
Consciousness and mind are rightfully understood as wonderful tools that allow us to be aware and function as humans on planet Earth. Consciousness and mind also allow other living beings to function in their ways, and we humans are not special in this regard. Reality is much greater than either mind or consciousness, and also much greater than anything we can conceive of or experience with our mind. If humans are lucky enough to survive for a few thousand more years, those future versions of ourselves will likely laugh at the folly of us primitive folk for thinking that consciousness is the ultimate reality and that our minds are so very special as to be capable of achieving actual cosmic oneness, just as we might chuckle now at our friend Thales for declaring water to be the source of everything some 2600 years ago.
Life is a more fundamental unfolding of the universe than either mind or consciousness. Life allows the experience of mind and consciousness, and because life is so immediate we seldom give thought to it, just as a fish takes for granted the water in which it swims. A new spiritual paradigm will focus more on life than on mind. That which is sacred will be that which honors life in all its expressions. Life itself will be recognized as a spiritual event. The measure of our spiritual development will be how we treat others, and ethical intelligence and behavior will be understood as far more important than whatever a meditator might experience within their own mind.
Meditation will be brought down to Earth as simply a helpful spiritual practice that bestows calmness, presence, and insight to the practitioner, not as the ultimate path to achieving literal oneness with all that is. Meditation is a subjective experience; no matter how many neuroscientists detect activated areas of a meditating brain, that says precisely nothing about the experiences in meditation being real beyond the meditator's mind. We do not gain the privilege from meditation of telling other people what reality really is. Perhaps more important to a life-centered spirituality will be movement-based practices like yoga, tai chi, qigong, and ordinary aerobic exercise because these practices embody the mind and work directly on lifeforce.
A new spiritual paradigm will focus less on what we can capture for our self (as in saintly attributes, old-paradigm enlightenment, or even just the cultivation of inner peace), and will focus more on the greater good of the society we live in and the natural world that makes human society possible. The problems of the 21st century—including climate change, income inequality, racial injustice, resurgent right-wing political extremism, environmental destruction, and at the moment a global pandemic—require spiritually inclined individuals to be part of the solution. It is spiritual to serve the well-being of others.
The spiritual teachers we admire and learn from will be those who are actually doing something to contribute to the well-being of others, both human and nonhuman. They will teach primarily through their example and through inspiration, not by amassing a following. They may also teach specific helpful techniques like yoga, meditation, etc., but they will avoid taking on a guru role. Gurus will be recognized as both perpetrators and victims in an outdated and inherently destructive system that operates on unbridled power and mind control.
Awakening experiences will be valued as nice reminders that life is a miracle according to our current understanding, but no one in their right mind would want to constantly live in the state of a full-blown awakening. Enlightenment will be viewed not as the goal of human life but as an ongoing process by which individual humans unfold their best understanding and behavior, a process that is never complete and is actually no big deal. New-paradigm references to being awake or enlightened will simply designate the very first toddler step on a lifelong journey of caring about others and exploring the positive potentials of being human.
Finally, prized qualities of a new spiritual paradigm will include humility, curiosity, and openness. Curiosity propels us to keep learning new things and to continually unfold our potential. Openness allows us to transcend our coveted belief systems that imprison us in materialism on one end of the belief spectrum and prepackaged spiritual paths and religions on the other end of the belief spectrum. Humility prevents the ever-present ego from overstepping its rightful role in our lives and blinding us to the wonder and mystery and sacredness of expressing the gift of life as humans on planet Earth within an awe-inspiring universe.
 See my essay "Perennialism and the Myth of Narcissus" for a discussion of how my brother lost his life and why I believe that was caused by the old spiritual paradigm.