Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Michael Winkelman Dr. Michael Winkelman’s teaching and research interests focus on shamanism and psychedelic medicine, applied medical anthropology, and cross-cultural relations. His research on shamanism includes cross-cultural studies, investigations into the origins of shamanism, and contemporary applications of shamanic healing in substance abuse rehabilitation. He has pioneered perspectives on shamanism as humanity’s original neurotheology and studies on the biological bases of religion. See:
Reposted with permission of the author. Originally written in 1994 for Anthropology of Consciousness, 4(3).

The Evolution of Consciousness?

Transpersonal Theories in Light of Cultural Relativism

Michael Winkelman


These notions of inherently superior states or levels of the evolution of consciousness conflicts with some anthropological perspectives.

This paper examines some of the principal theories in transpersonal psychology on the nature of the evolution of human consciousness within the context of anthropological perspectives of ecological and neoevolutionary adaptation and cultural relativism. New perspectives on the evolution of consciousness are provided by the work of transpersonal psychologists. These transpersonal perspectives are particularly important because they depart from traditional western psychology in important ways. In contrast to the psychiatric view that altered states of consciousness are pathological, regressive, or infantile, transpersonal perspectives consider altered states of consciousness to be more highly evolved forms of consciousness. These transpersonal perspectives on human development transcend the limitations of the Piagetian formal operational stage in proposing transrational and translogical forms of thought. The transpersonal approaches also provide new cultural perspectives on consciousness by borrowing from or basing themselves upon the philosophical and psychological perspectives of the contemplative mystical traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism and other Eastern religions. These transpersonal psychology perspectives (e.g., Wilber, Walsh) also incorporate traditional Western views about the hierarchical stages in the evolution of human consciousness.

The Spirit of Shamanism

The typical model proposes a series of fixed linear steps in the evolution of consciousness, an evolutionary hierarchy with their own preferred states at the apex of the path of evolution. These notions of inherently superior states or levels of the evolution of consciousness conflicts with some anthropological perspectives. The notion of superior stages is incompatible with many anthropological findings and perspectives, including: the realizations of cultural relativism, the characterizations of general and specific evolution as manifested in levels of sociocultural evolution of political integration, the principles of ecological adaptation, and the recognition of a lack of directionality in the domain of physical evolution. While many contemporary transpersonal evolutionary perspectives appear to lack an understanding of the problems of unilinear and directional evolution, some of their original sources of inspiration (e.g., Schuon, Smith) develop perspectives which incorporate concerns of cultural relativism. The founding perspectives of transpersonal psychology illustrate that a major aspect of the development of human cognition and consciousness involves a recognition of cultural relativism.

This paper examines some of the contemporary transpersonal contributions to understanding the evolution of human consciousness, but with a critical application of the perspectives of cultural relativism in understanding the nature of cross-cultural differences in consciousness. Certain transpersonal insights can be incorporated without accepting all of the assumptions of contemporary spokespeople. One issue addressed is how shamans' states of consciousness are related to the transpersonalists' stages of the evolution of human consciousness and those of the contemplative traditions. This paper calls into question the transpersonalist perspective that shamans and their states of consciousness should be considered less evolved than those of the Eastern mystical traditions. We can concede that some mystical states of consciousness may be more difficult to access and assess than typical shamanic states. But cultural relativism and culturally and ecologically specific adaptations preclude considering any particular adaptation superior to all others in all circumstances. The questions of what evolves, and what set of criteria allow us to place some levels as superior to others, are assessed from the perspective of cultural relativism as a constraint in evaluating the nature of differences. Future directions for theories of human cognitive and consciousness evolution are suggested by an examination of different understandings of meaning, and its potential as a basis for evolutionary stages.

The Transpersonal Model of Consciousness Evolution

This critique of the transpersonal perspectives focuses specifically upon the work of Ken Wilber and Roger Walsh because they are considered among the most prominent spokespeople in the field of transpersonal studies, and deal directly with issues related to the evolution of consciousness, shamanism (e.g., Walsh 1991) and phylogenetic evolution (Wilber 1980). Wilber (1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1990) provides what are widely considered to be the most encompassing syntheses of transpersonal perspectives. He bases his theories of the evolution of human consciousness on the classic works of Teilhard de Chardin and Jean Gebser, as well as on the ideas of a perennial universal philosophy and psychology underlying all religions (e.g., Schuon and Smith). These transpersonal perspectives are derived from the perennial religion, philosophy and psychology (Smith 1976; Wilber 1977) and argue for a universal and cross-culturally valid hierarchical sequence of levels of consciousness. These universal levels of consciousness are presented as having the same underlying deep structures (levels) which are manifested in culturally variant manners (translations). Wilber's theory is that the deep structures of conscious awareness emerge in a specific sequence in human development, providing the basis for a universal hierarchy of development. These transpersonal states encompass the universal truths manifested in many different religious traditions (Walsh 1990). The universality of these stages and principles has been argued by Wilber and colleagues (Wilber, Engler and Brown 1986). Persistent cross-cultural themes found in the nature and development of consciousness in diverse traditions are used as the basis for a transpersonal evolutionary schema of the development of consciousness. Nonetheless, their own analyses indicate multiple pathways for development and different end states in development (Winkelman 1987). This mitigates against their universalist perspectives and notions of an inherent hierarchy in the development of consciousness.

Wilber argues that because people of today who go through spiritual development in contemplative traditions follow ordered sequences in their development (subtle, causal, absolute), that prehistorically the same stages must have emerged in the same order. Consequently they represent a hierarchy in achievement, valid for evaluation of the level of development and authenticity of all religious traditions. But what remains unaddressed is the question of "what evolves?" Rather than addressing the question of what changes in the meditative traditions to make them more evolved, they consider the shaman to be less evolved because their practices lacked certain activities and practices typical of the meditative traditions. The position of shamans in the evolution of consciousness is assessed by placing their practices in the context of the levels derived from the contemplative traditions of the East, which are presumed to represent a universal evolutionary sequence, both from ontogenetic and phylogenetic developmental perspectives.

Wilber's three major stages of transpersonal states, hierarchically ordered from the subtle to causal and absolute realms, are characterized as:

  • Subtle—including both archetypal structures and formless experiences, being the realms of pseudonirvana, illumination and transcendental insight;
  • Causal—the unmanifest realm or void, the transcendent ground of lower structures, manifested as consciousness without objects in the field of awareness and a sense of the cosmic experience of he universal self; and
  • Absolute—the ultimate ground of all other phenomena, where phenomena appear and are recognized as creations of consciousness, and consciousness re-awakens to a complete integration of identity across all levels.

Wilber associates the emergence of the causal states around 2000-2500 years B.P. as represented in the works of the Upanishads, the Taoists, Buddha and Jesus. He attributes the absolute stage with the realizations and practices associated with Bodhidharma and Padmasambhava before 600 A.D. The transpersonal perspectives place the practices of shamanism much further back in antiquity, where the shaman was humanity's "first mystic."

The transpersonal perspectives consider shamans to be the progenitors of the technologies and mythologies which advanced human consciousness towards transpersonal states but have considered the shaman to have been limited by times and techniques available. This places their accomplishments at the psychic and subtle levels, which are considered inferior to the traditions of the causal and absolute realms. Walsh and Wilber consider shamans' technologies and traditions to have been the precursors of "ethical, emotional, attentional, and wisdom trainings" which distinguish the subsequent stages of evolution, but they do not consider the shaman to have systematically entered the subsequent evolutionary stages of the causal and absolute realms. The visions and archetypal elements of the shamans' world and out-of-body experiences (soul journeying) are used as evidence that the shaman was operating at the subtle levels of experiences. But the evaluation of development on the basis of content, rather than process, is invalid for inference about levels (types) of functioning.

The criteria Wilber used to evaluate differences are what he referred to as "authentic" traditions. The authentic causal and absolute spiritual traditions are seen as embodying four elements: ethics, emotional transformation, training of attention and concentration, and cultivation of wisdom. Walsh points out that the precursors of these elements are found in shamanism. He nonetheless suggests that since the advanced concentration practices of Buddhism are relatively more difficult to achieve than those such as shamanic journeying, this illustrates that the latter is at a lower developmental stage. Walsh compares shamanistic with Buddhist traditions, using 10 broad dimensions for a phenomenological mapping of the raw experiences of shamanic, yogic and Buddhist traditions. This contrasts Buddhist practices with those of the shaman in terms of more self control and concentration, lower arousal, a loss of sense of self, no out-of-body experiences, and contentless experience. While these differences do correspond to what Buddhist traditions value, Walsh's differentiation between the Buddhist and shaman do not indicate inherent reasons as to why the characteristics of Buddhists' states of consciousness should be considered inherently superior. The admittedly earlier historical emergence of shamanism does not resolve the question of "what evolves" in the subsequent developments of the subtle, causal and absolute levels. Whatever the subsequent changes, improvements, or development are, there remains the question of whether the subsequent or higher is actually "better" or more evolved.

A Critique of Transpersonal Assumptions

The transpersonal models of Walsh and Wilber consider temporally later consciousness traditions to be more advanced than the earlier ones, and more evolved in terms of a hierarchy of evolution. While accepting that Buddhist states may be subsequent to the emergence of shamanistic states, and more difficult to access than shamanic ones, we can still reject the notion that shamanic states are qualitatively less evolved or developed than, or inferior to the Buddhistic states. Stalin and Hitler "evolved" after Jesus Christ and Buddha, but few would consider the former to be superior or "more evolved." Clearly something besides the more recent or historically prior emergence of practices must be used for ranking levels of achievement and differences. This raises the question of what criteria or values are to be used to assess levels of difference. A long standing assumption of Western thought is that technological superiority provides the basis for evaluating ranking societies. This was manifested in the 19th century evolutionist, and in Darwinian notions of "the survival of the fittest," which held that the physically and technologically superior species (or groups) were destined by nature to dominate others as a consequence of their more evolved status. But physical dominance and technological superiority certainly does not confer what most would agree was an inherent superiority or more evolved standing. Hitler and Nazi Germany held military and political superiority in Europe in the early phases of World War II, but few would consider that to be evidence of their greater evolution of moral superiority. The nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia are technologically superior to the military armament of Switzerland. The capacity to militarily destroy an opponent (or the whole world in the case of nuclear weapons) does not, however, provide a basis for any absolute claims to moral superiority. Technological or technical superiority is not the only criterion for superiority and not self-evidently the ultimate criterion of evaluation.

Claims of hierarchical evolution must address the question of what is evolving. What are the changes in form or function of consciousness which provide better adaptation, more effective solutions to problems, and a greater likelihood of survival? What is it about accomplished Buddhist meditators that make them more advanced than a shaman? The notion that the Buddhist meditator is more evolved and superior to the shaman requires that the Buddhist meditator serves cultural needs in a better way than the shaman. The idea of a hermit monk serving the shamans society more effectively than the shaman, who functions as a social leader, guides the hunters to game, ritually balances the psychosocial needs of the group, heals the sick, and serves as a mediator with the supernatural, would seem patently false. How could a Buddhist meditator be superior to a shaman in meeting these needs? Has it, or can it be demonstrated? This view suggests that if a Buddhist meditator were to serve a shaman's society as well as the shaman, he would have to adopt the behaviors of a shaman to meet existing needs and expectations.

To assess the notion that some states are developmentally superior to others, we must use some scale. Not surprisingly, the scales of Buddhism and other Eastern mystical traditions place their own aspired states at the highest levels. Cultural relativism lies at the core of this issue. Anthropologists have long recognized that it is not possible to objectively place one culture as superior to another. Such an evaluation requires that we assume a cultural frame of reference as to what is objective and what is superior. Because there are no culture-free frames of reference, there are no absolutely objective criteria for comparing cultures and their traditions with respect to levels of development. Buddhism and shamanism aspire to different states of consciousness. Buddhism and classic yoga value concentration practice with attention on inner experience, and aim to understand the workings of the mind and to gain complete control over thought and mental processes. In the highest developments, attention is fixed upon consciousness itself, and the yogi experiences pure consciousness beyond time or space—and totally isolated from cultural context. Would such a state in the shaman be superior to the shamanic journeying and healing of the patient? Assessed from the view of the shamanic culture, and the behaviors valued in that cultural context, the answer must be no. Buddhist and yogic states of consciousness would not serve the shamans' and communities' needs. These contemplative states would therefore be unnecessary, not superior to shamanic altered states of consciousness, which do serve community needs.

The placement of Buddhistic states of consciousness at the apex of evolution by the transpersonal theorists represents a recurrent phenomenon. The 19th century evolutionists placed their own civilization at the apex of evolution. In a similar vein, contemporary scientists of developmental psychology place the construct of formal operations, characteristic of the thought processes they assign to scientists, at the apex of their cognitive development sequences. In denying this level of achievement to the masses of humanity, they base their confirmation on the dismal performance of people from other cultures on Western academic tests of cognitive development. While Western psychological and cognitive tests misapplied in other cultures may indicate that the adults operate at the level of children in our own culture, anthropologists' culturally relevant approaches and observations of everyday life and activities provide indisputable evidence of the abstract, logical cognitive processes utilized by all people. The transpersonal theories have repeated the practice of assigning their forms a superior level of development, while discounting the legitimacy and equality of achievements in other cultures.

Anthropological Perspectives

These ethnocentric views, abandoned by most anthropologists as field work and cross-cultural data, led to the development of the perspectives and understandings of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism reflects the understanding that a culture's behavior makes sense in light of its own beliefs and resources, and establishes that there is no culture-free point of view to evaluate which cultural form is more highly evolved in a cultural, moral or spiritual sense. All points of view are cultural, and there is no culture-free reference point for a totally objective evaluation of differences. This leads to the realization of cultural relativity and relative objectivity in contrast to the traditional positivist beliefs of absolute objectivity (Wagner 1986). The 19th century Western ethnocentric linear evolutionary perspectives gave way within anthropology to the neoevolutionary and cultural ecology perspectives which embodied different assumptions about the meaning of the differences of various stages. The neoevolutionary school, based upon the realization that cultural strategies for energy production fueled the social organization, focused investigations on the relationship between the type of energy production strategies and character of the associated social organization. A conceptual framework was provided by the notion of techno-environmental advantage, the amount of energy returned per unit of energy input (ratio of energy output:energy input). While measurable energy production was the underlying concept, absent was the assumption that a strategy that produced more energy was necessarily superior to a strategy that produced less energy. For instance, while agriculture can generally produce more energy than hunting and gathering, agriculture is not inherently superior to hunting and gathering. Cultures occupying ecozones in the Arctic tundra, in deserts, or in tropical rain forests will find that the productive capacity of modern agriculture does not exceed that of hunting and gathering. Agriculture is not an adaptive strategy in all ecozones, making other energy production strategies superior in those contexts. As ecological conditions change, what is more adaptive and promotes long term viability may be a less productive energy strategy.

This realization is embodied in the differentiation of evolution into two processes, general and specific evolution. General evolution concerns itself with the typical patterns of changes that occur in societies as they adopt energy production strategies with larger technoenvironmental advantages. Specific evolution traces the specific stages or steps in an individual culture's energy adaptations, recognizing that the steps may not follow some unilineal sequence from simpler to more productive strategies. Some less productive strategies such as pastoralism emerge/evolve after more productive strategies like agriculture, rejecting the notion of an underlying continuity of direction or constantly increasing productivity in the evolution from one adaptation to another.

The implications of this ecological perspective for assessing the evolution of human consciousness require that we address two issues: what is evolving—that is, what changes from shamans to mystics?; and second, how can we comparatively assess the relative advantages of different world views and cultures? Necessary to any theory of evolution" is a concept of what is evolving. Analysis of the different patterns of physical evolution indicates that there is no underlying principle or goal other than selection for better adaptation under current environmental conditions. Substantiation of the idea of a single chain of events leading purposively to a superior goal is lacking in the data from physical evolution. Evolution is what happens as populations of a species make adaptations, and what is adaptive changes across time. The notion of a teleologically inherent and superior goal is a primary assumption of the transpersonal approaches. From the transpersonal perspectives nature and the cosmos are viewed as having an inherent meaning, with a teleological objective in the evolution of all life. This is often expressed as "union with god." Anthropological perspectives which view meaning as necessarily derived from cultural life find empirical difficulties with the notion that there is inherent meaning in the universe.

This is not to deny the possibility of the evolution of consciousness involving meaning. Evolution can involve meaning if meaning, or different kinds of meanings, are more adaptive. The three transpersonal stages which are the focus of Wilber's work can be seen as involving different types of relationships to meanings or understandings of the nature of consciousness. The stages suggest a progression from an embeddedness in the culturally given nature of experiences to the development of the ability to have awareness without cultural content, the "void." Subsequent developments to the absolute level involve a recognition that the phenomena of experience are creations of consciousness. Provisionally accepting that this may represent a perennial truth, an aspect of human experience subjected to cross-cultural intersubjective consensual validation, questions remain. What does it mean that understanding increases? Why are absolute levels of perception "better adapted" or "more evolved" than causal levels? What are the relationships between "understanding" and experiencing these transpersonal truths, between tacit and explicit knowledge? While the transpersonal evolution of consciousness may involve new understandings of and knowledge about the nature of perception, meaning, and human information-processing capacities, these perspectives are not articulated in contemporary transpersonal psychology. The possibility of modern human consciousness and cognitive capabilities evolving is not inherently false or contradictory from an anthropological or culturally relativistic point of view. Rather, the problem is what perspectives can be used to assess whether one state, stage or characteristic is superior to another in achieving some pan human goal. Anthropological perspectives provide some tools for addressing these questions. The transpersonal traditions themselves also provide perspectives on the relative advantages of different strategies for understanding the nature of human consciousness and transcendent truths. The convergence of anthropological and transpersonal understandings suggest that cultural relativism is one of those transcendent truths.

The anthropological approaches of emic and etic studies provide frameworks for assessing relationships between different cultural perspectives. The linguistic origins of the terms emic and etic in phonemic (sound systems of one particular language) and phonetic (a universal system of sound representations) provide one perspective on the different approaches to knowing about and representing the world. The emic perspectives are the views of specific cultures as to what is "out there." Etic perspectives are those of the investigator, who attempts to construct models which substruct and subsume the various emic cultural models into a cross-cultural framework. In departing from positivist and materialist traditions, etic perspectives are not absolute. Rather, they are cultural and disciplinary perspectives which reflect the limits of our understanding at the present time. Cultural relativism is inherent is such etic perspectives. It recognizes that each cultural (language) system is correct in its own right and for its own purposes, and that the etic global perspective will not be more efficient in serving the needs or representing the perspectives of people in individual cultures. The cross-cultural approach has advantages in providing multiple perspectives which are more encompassing and complete. Cross-cultural observations and multi-method approaches provide a basis with which to identify the invariant underlying structural properties of the human knowledge system (neurognosis), independent of the variant patterns of human and cultural behavior through which they are manifested. In order to determine the invariant underlying transcendent phenomena of consciousness, we must systematically compare cross-cultural observations to find recurrent patterns which identify the invariant modes of perception. Laughlin, et al., discuss the application of synchronic methods to the determination of neurognostic structures. Examination of conditioned perception requires the formulation of state-specific sciences (e.g., Tart 1975). Perception can be separated from interpretation only by understanding the neurognostic aspects of the symbolic processes. The integration of science and contemplative traditions requires an elevation of the normally unconscious observation procedures of science, which is then integrated with a multimethod cross-cultural approach to the verification of transcendental truths. The synchronic structural approaches are the essence of the ethnological, holocultural or cross-cultural approach. They involve the observations of systematically sampled cases across time and space in order to determine the universal, real, knowable, observable structures that underlie culturally variant manifestations. Thus the diverse cultural manifestations of "white light" or "soul flight experiences" are culturally framed and described in variant ways, while the similarity in such experiences provide the basis for inferring the common underlying neurognostic structures derived from the visual and mental systems. Differences in transpersonal experiences may be systematically compared in the cross-cultural context as well. For example, "white light" and "soul flight" experiences both differ from one another and are found cross-culturally because they reflect different neurognostic structures. Nonetheless, each cultural tradition attributes to these experiences certain characteristics and meanings which derive from their specific culture. The widely intuited universality of shamanism in hunting and gathering societies was substantiated in a synchronic cross-cultural study (Winkelman 1992). This methodology permits identification of universal features which reflect the biosocial basis of the shaman's practice.

Understanding specific cultural traditions requires that they be analyzed in their own cultural context. Assessing differences between traditions of different cultures requires systematic methods for cross-cultural comparisons among traditions, an explicit understanding of the dimension of difference being assessed, and a relativization of the value of the dimension. The transpersonalist's assumption that Buddhistic states of consciousness are superior to shamanic or other cultural states in the linear and hierarchical evolution of human consciousness can only be established as a cross-cultural truth through agreement on: 1) what shamans do for their cultures; and 2) demonstration that the Buddhist adepts could have done so better. The broad objection to the contemporary transpersonalist theories are their absolute claims to superiority of certain practices or stages, rather than recognizing the cultural relativity of knowledge, social and technological systems. The limitations of the current transpersonal theories lie in their naive assumptions of the validity of a unilineal approach, ignoring or overlooking basic epistemological problems about the meaning and nature of differences and the implications of trying to evaluate them. While contemporary popularizers of the transpersonal science have ethnocentric perspectives embedded in their assumptions about the stages and characteristics of the evolution of human consciousness, this is not consistent with the foundations of the transpersonal perspective in the works of Schuon and Smith, which incorporate the implications of cultural relativism. Cultural Relativism and the Transcendental Realm The methodological applications of cultural relativism in the transcendental realm are elaborated by Schuon in his discussion of "speculative formulation," an intellectually unlimited conception which is "the sum of all possible views of the object in question" (Schuon 1975:5). Speculative formulation admits to apparent contradictions because each statement can only be part of the whole truth, which is denied in an adherence to the notion of an exhaustive and exclusive truthfulness of any single statement, which can only be part of the whole truth. "[Speculative understanding [is] comparable to the infinite series of possible views of the object, views that are realized through indefinitely multiple changes of point of view... so the different aspects of truth, however contradictory they may appear and notwithstanding their indefinite multiplicity, describe the Integral truth that surpasses and determines them" (Schuon 1975:5). Exoteric truths cannot be exclusive expressions of unique truth, because the expression assumes a form, and no form can be the only possible way of expressing the truth. "Pure and absolute truth can be found only beyond all its possible expressions; these expressions, as such, cannot claim the attributes of this Truth" (Schuon 1975:19). "[I]n speculative doctrines it is the point of view on the one hand and the aspect on the other hand that determine the form of the affirmation" (Schuon 1975:6). The recognition of the centrality of the point of view illustrates the realization of the reality of cultural relativism which is embodied in the metaphysical realm, and supersedes the limitations of the strictly rational mind. This perspective of cultural relativism and culturally specific truths is illustrated in Schuon's discussion of the dogmatic forms and traditions. "The truth is, however, that every religious form is superior to the others in a particular respect" (Schuon 1975:33). The "dogmatic character is perfectly legitimate since the individual viewpoint to which this limitation corresponds is a reality at its own level of existence. It is.. .relative reality" (Schuon 1975:8).

The esoteric traditions recognize the manifestations of aspects of the absolute transcendent truths in the relative truths of each individual cultural tradition. This provides a basis from which to build more general models about the universal truths which are embedded in the forms, symbols and traditions of specific languages and cultures. The esoteric doctrines have a particular view of "evil" which illustrates the fundamental understanding of cultural relativism. Esoterism seems to deny evil, espousing a nonmoral conception in viewing both good and evil as having a common basis. This perspective embodies the recognitions of cultural relativism, which sees that good and evil are values held from cultural, not a universal point of view. This reflects fundamental notions underlying anthropological understandings of the nature of cultures, that their values make sense in their own frame of reference. Understanding another culture and discerning its sense, logic and rationality requires that we understand the culture and the behavior of its members on their own particular terms—in the context of the system of beliefs and assumptions created by the culture. The recognition that culture frames all aspects of human knowledge and experience, and that there is no frame of reference which is not culturally influenced, forces us to the conclusion that there can be no absolute objectivity, only relative objectivities, relative to the subjectivities created by culture. Understanding other cultures as participant observers and acquiring the point of view of those studied was key to the recognition of cultural relativism within anthropology. Schuon suggests a similar process is necessary for any esoteric individual with transcendental understanding to recognize the truth in any particular exoteric tradition. The nature of cross-cultural understanding as a basis for universalism and transcendent perspectives is discussed in the context of explaining how the esoteric Catholic St. Bernard preached in favor of the Crusades, ignorant of the true nature esoteric and spiritual nature of Islam. Schuon tells us that spiritual and esoteric nature and knowledge is independent of "knowledge of a historical or geographical kind or on any other kind of 'scientific' information.... [T]he universalism of esoterists...only becomes effective when circumstances permit or impose a determined application. In other words, it is only after contact with another civilization that this universalism is actualized.... [T]he factors that will determine the acceptance by an esoterist of any particular alien form may vary greatly according to the case; it is clearly impossible to define exactly what constitutes a contact with an alien form that will be sufficient to bring about understanding of such a form" (Schuon 1975:34).

The necessity of cultural relativism and the participant's perspective in evaluating levels of consciousness is illustrated in the different perspectives on the meaning of different types of altered states of consciousness (ASC). In comparing shamanic ASC with those of possessed mediums, who are believed to have been taken over by a spirit entity, one can find reason to consider the shamanistic activity more evolved since it involves a conscious control and experience in the altered state, rather than domination by an external or dissociated aspect. However, a possessed person, rather than accepting the interpretation of loss of control, might suggest that they had voluntarily allowed the higher spiritual being to enter into and take over their body in order to manifest a higher spiritual level or consciousness. This possession phenomena is generally in the context of healing others, a "selfless service" which corresponds to one of the advanced paths of meditative development. Furthermore, possession itself can be viewed as subsuming several different types of spiritual relations and influences, including obsession and irradiation, where varying degrees of spiritual influence or possession are recognized. The nature of possession experience and its level of consciousness development is not determined by the global characteristics of the category "possession," but by the individual intentionalities and understandings and cultural meanings. Different perspectives on shamanism would also call into question the deliberate and conscious control of the shaman. The shaman's control of spirit allies can be interpreted as the shaman being unconscious of the dissociated aspects of their own psyche. The Buddhists' technically more difficult "void" or samadhi states of consciousness can be viewed as elevated achievements—or a refusal to address the everyday realities which frame cultural existence and survival. What is valued, how it is valued, and the meaning and relevance of practices and beliefs are determined by cultural context which requires we adopt perspectives of cultural relativism.


Cultural relativism is a perspective required for transpersonal understandings. Simplistic deterministic mechanical views of the physical universe were replaced with relativity theory and indeterminacy. The rationalistic perspectives of logical positivism were superseded by a recognition of the interpretative and hermeneutical nature of human knowledge. Transpersonal perspectives moved from the common sense culturally given understandings of reality to a series of deconstructions of the nature of human's constructive, perceptual, and conceptual processes. In the process of the deconstruct ion of the given human and cultural processes for creating meaning and understanding, the contemplative traditions have developed "natural epistemologies." These reflect transcendental understandings of the nature of human knowledge, understanding and meaning. The "universal" and transcendental truths this understanding represents is attested to by the cross-cultural manifestations of homologous understandings (e.g. Smith 1976; Wilber, et al. 1986). But Wilber's claims to provide universal criteria for the authenticity of spiritual or consciousness development are insensitive to culturally specific notions, the multiple dimension of human adaptation, the implications of cultural relativism, and the requirements of specific ecological contexts. Models of human consciousness must incorporate the understanding that any model is necessarily a culturally specific expression. Reliance on a single cultural tradition will lack the cross-cultural and multiple perspectives necessary for understanding what constitutes a universal truth and how it is manifested in different cultural translations.

The contemplative, mystical and transpersonal traditions represent important advancements in the development of human consciousness and cognition. Their advantages included a recognition of cultural relativism, that knowledge is expressed in culturally specific forms which are both true and limited. I propose that the evolution of consciousness be conceived as steps in an epistemological inquiry into the nature of human knowledge about the world. Cultural relativism was a step achieved in moving beyond culturally specific and limited frames of reference to understand cross-cultural and transcendental truths. Cultural relativism is a necessary, but not final, step in understanding the nature of human knowledge and its validity. Subsequent levels of Buddhistic contemplative development move beyond a recognition that knowledge is a function of human categories and perspectives and seek a "void consciousness" without cultural content. This can be followed by an awareness of the external or operational environment without the interpretations normally provided by perceptual, cultural and cognitive conditioning and categorizations. While we may be able to substantiate that Buddhist traditions have more developed epistemological understandings of the nature of human knowledge and meaning, we must still relativize the superiority of the Buddhist monk with respect to the shaman of hunting and gathering societies. The "superiority" of the Buddhist perspectives for the shaman's society would require that the contemplatives' perspectives have greater adaptive advantages for the shamans' societies. But the relatively greater advantages of samadhi or void consciousness for shamans and their hunting and gathering societies have yet to be articulated and substantiated. The realizations of cultural relativism and culturally specific evolutionary sequences force an acceptance of the greater adaptive advantage of the shamans for their own societies. Greater technical or technological superiority does not necessarily constitute a more evolved state. A cigarette lighter is superior technology to a piece of flint, but the latter has a superior long term advantage in hunting and gathering societies.


Acknowledgements. This paper is based on presentations with similar titles made at the 1992 meetings of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness and the American Anthropological Association. I wish to thank Marsha Schweitzer for her assistance in the preparation of this manuscript and Walter Adams for his editorial comments.

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