STAGES OF MEDITATION
Wilber, whose The Spectrum of
Consciousness was the principal catalyst in launching the transpersonal
psychology revolution, has been at work these last few years on a major new
project, a three-volume series tentatively titled Sex,
an earlier interview on the new project (The
Quest, Summer 1991) Wilber discussed “Sex, Gender, and Transcendence,”
which was followed in our pages by an exchange of views on the subject between
Wilber and Wendlyn Alter and others (The
Quest, Letters, Winter 1991).
time he shares with us his description of the stages of meditation. He also
tackles the “experience” of meditation, which he declares is misleading,
because the non-dual state of meditation is really also non-experiential.
Meanwhile, Wilber’s first book, which remains a classic in the field, has been published in a new edition (1993) by Quest Books. A comprehensive study of consciousness, Spectrum shows how the psychological systems of the West could be integrated with the contemplative spiritual traditions of the East.
An interview with Ken Wilber
Q: We would like you to
describe the experiences of the several stages. of meditation. But first, tell
us about meditation itself—the different types and how they work.
A: It is common among scholars
to divide meditation into two broad categories, called “concentrative” and
“awareness”—or “insight”—meditation. Or, actually, “opened” and
“closed.” For example, let’s say you are looking at a wall that has
hundreds of dots painted on it. In concentrative meditation, you look at just
one dot, and you look at it so fiercely that you don’t even see the other
dots. This develops your powers of concentration. In awareness training, or
insight meditation, on the other hand, you try to be as aware of all the dots as
you can be. This increases your sensitivity, awareness, and wisdom, in that
concentrative meditation, you put your attention on one object—a rock, a
candle flame, your breathing, a mantra, the
heart prayer, and so on. By intensely concentrating on a single object, you as
subject gradually become “identified” with that object. You start to
undercut subject! object dualism, which is the basis of all suffering and
illusion. Gradually, higher and higher realms of existence, leading towards the
ultimate or non-dual dimension, are all made obvious to you. You transcend your
ordinary self or ego, and find the higher and subtler dimensions of
existence—the spiritual and transcendental.
this is reaching the higher dimensions by “brute force,” so to speak. And
although concentrative meditation is said to be very important, by itself it
doesn’t uproot our initial tendencies to create dualism in the first place. In
fact, it just ignores them, it tries to bypass them. It focuses on one dot and
ignores all the others. Concentrative meditation can definitely show us some of
the higher realms, but it can’t permanently install us at those higher
realms. For that, you have to look at all the dots. You have to investigate all
of experience, with detachment, nonjudgmentalism, equanimity, and crystal
Q: That’s insight
concentration, or awareness meditation.
that’s right. The Buddhists call concentrative meditation shamatha and awareness meditation vipassana, or dhyana and prajna.
The former leads to samadhi, or
one-pointed concentration, the
latter to satori, or transcendental
awareness and wisdom.
the point about any of these meditation practices—and there are others, such
as visualization, koan, contemplative
prayer, and so on—the point is that they are all actually doing two important
things. One, they are helping to still the discursive, rational-existential
mind, the mind that has to think all the time, the mind that has to chatter to
itself all the time and verbalize everything. It helps us quiet that “monkey
mind.” And once the monkey mind quiets down a bit, it allows the subtler and
higher dimensions of awareness to emerge—first the psychic, then subtle,
then causal, then ultimate or non-dual. That is the essence of genuine
meditation. It is simply a way to continue evolution, to continue our growth
and development. It is, in a nutshell, the highest form and highest stage of a
scientific developmental psychology. That’s meditation.
Q: Could you describe the
levels of meditation, and how they are experienced? What actually happens at
you practice meditation, one of the first things you realize is that your
mind—and your life, for that matter—is dominated by largely subconscious
verbal chatter. You are always talking to yourself. And so, as they start to
meditate, many people are stunned by how much junk starts running through their
awareness. They find that thoughts, images, fantasies, notions, ideas,
concepts virtually dominate their awareness. They realize that these notions
have had a much more profound influence on their lives than they ever thought.
What’s more, many of those notions are simply wrong.
any case, initial meditation experiences are like being at the movies. You sit
and watch all these fantasies and concepts parade by, in front of your
awareness. But the whole point is that you are finally becoming aware of them.
You are looking at them impartially and without judgment. You just watch them
go by, the same as you watch clouds float by in the sky. They come, they go. No
big deal. No praise, no condemnation, no judgment—just “bare witnessing.”
If you judge your thoughts, if you get caught up in them, then you can’t
transcend them. You can’t find higher or subtler dimensions of your own
being. So you sit in meditation, and you simply “witness” what is going on
in your mind. You let the monkey mind do what it wants, and you simply watch.
what happens is, because you impartially witness these thoughts, fantasies,
notions, and images, you start to become free of their unconscious influence.
You are looking at them, but you are not using them to look at the world.
Therefore you become, to a certain extent, free of them. And you become free of
the separate-self sense that depended on them. In other words, you start to
become free of the ego. This is the psychic level, the initial spiritual dimension,
where the conventional ego “dies” and higher structures of awareness are
“resurrected.” Your sense of identity naturally begins to expand and
embrace the cosmos, or all of nature. You rise above the isolated mind and body,
which might include finding a larger identity, such as with nature or the cosmos—“cosmic consciousness,” as R. M.
Bucke called it. It’s a very concrete and unmistakable experience.
I don’t have to tell you, this is an extraordinary relief! This is the
beginning of transcendence, of finding your way back home. You realize that you
are one with the fabric of the universe, eternally. Your fear of death begins
to subside, and you actually begin to feel, in a concrete and palpable way, the
transcendental nature of your own being.
of gratitude and devotion arise in you—devotion to Spirit, in the form of the
Christ, or Buddha, or Krishna; or devotion to your actual spiritual master; even
devotion in general, and certainly devotion to all other sentient beings. The bodhisattva
vow, in whatever form, arises from the depths of your being, in a very
powerful way—almost like a volcano erupting. You realize you simply have to do
whatever you can to help all sentient beings, and for the precise reason, as
Schopenhauer said, that you realize that we all share the same non-dual Self or
Spirit or Absolute Mind. All of this starts to become obvious—as obvious as
rain on the roof—at the psychic level. It is real
and it is concrete.
So what about the next level, the subtle level?
A: As your identity begins to
transcend the isolated and individual body-mind, you start to intuit that there
is a Ground of Being or genuine Divinity, beyond ego, and beyond appeals to
mythic god figures or rationalistic scientism or existential bravery. And this
Deity form can actually be seen, approached, or intuited. The more you develop
beyond the isolated and existential body-mind, the more you develop toward
Spirit, which, at the subtle level, is often experienced as Deity Form or
archetypal Self. By that I mean, for example, very concrete experiences of
profound Light, of either a Being of Light, or just of extreme clarity and brilliance
point is that you are seeing something beyond nature, beyond the existential,
beyond the psychic, beyond even cosmic identity. You are starting to see the
hidden or esoteric dimension, the dimension outside the ordinary cosmos, the
dimension that transcends nature. You see the Light, and sometimes this light
literally shines like the light of a thousand suns. It overwhelms you, empowers
you, energizes you, remakes you, drenches you. This is what scholars have called
the “numinous” nature of subtle spirit. Numinous and luminous. This
is, no doubt, why saints are universally depicted with halos of light around
their heads. That is actually what they see. Divine Light. My favorite reading
Fixing my gaze upon the Eternal Light
saw within its depths,
up with love together in one volume,
scattered leaves of all the universe.
the luminous profound subsistence
Of that Exalted Light saw I three circles
three colors yet of one dimension
by the second seemed the first reflected
rainbow is by rainbow, and the third
fire that equally from both is breathed.
is not mere poetry. That is an almost mathematical description of one type of
experience of the subtle level. That is not just art, that is science. Anyway,
you can also experience this level as a discovery of your own higher self,
your soul, the Holy Spirit. “He who knows himself knows God,” said Saint
Q: And the actual experience
A: The actual experience is..
. well, it’s sort of like this. Say you are walking downtown, looking in
shop windows. You’re looking at some of the merchandise, and all of a sudden
you see a vague image dance in front of your eyes, the image of a person. Then
all at once you realize that it is your own reflection in the shop window. You
suddenly recognize yourself. You recognize your Self, your higher Self. You
suddenly recognize your original Self or mind, you recognize who you are. And
who you are is—a luminous spark of the Divine. But it has that shock of
recognition—“Oh, that’s me!”
a very concrete realization, and usually brings much laughter or much tears.
The subtle Deity form or Light or Higher Self— those are all just archetypes
of your own Being. You are encountering, via meditative development, and
beginning a direct encounter with Spirit, with your own essence. So it shows up
as light, as a being of light, as nada, as
shabd, as clarity, numinosity, and so
on. And sometimes it just shows up as a simple and clear awareness of what
is—very simple, very clear.
point is that it is aware of all the dots on the wall. It is clearly aware of
what is happening moment to moment, and therefore transcends the moment. It
transcends this world, and starts to partake of the Divine. It has sacred
outlook, however it might be expressed. That’s the subtle—a face to face
introduction to the Divine. You actually participate in Divinity, and in the
awareness and wisdom of Divinity. It is a practice. It can be done. It has been
done, many times.
Q: That’s very clear. So
what about the next level, the causal?
A: You’re sitting there,
just witnessing everything that arises in the mind, or in your present
experience. You are trying to witness, equally, all the dots on the wall of your
awareness. If you become proficient at this, eventually rational and
existential dots die down, and psychic dots start to come into focus. Then,
after a while, you get better at witnessing, so subtler objects or dots start to
show up. These include lights and audible illuminations and subtle Deity forms
and so on. If you continue simply witnessing—which helps you disidentify
from lower and grosser forms, and become aware of the higher and subtler forms—even subtle objects or subtle dots themselves cease to arise. You enter a
profound state of non-manifestation, which is experienced like, say, an autumn
night with a full moon. There is an eerie and beautiful numinosity to it all,
but it’s a "silent” or “black” numinosity. You can’t really see
anything except a kind of silvery fullness, filling all space. But because
you’re not actually seeing any particular object, it is also a type of Radical
Emptiness. As Zen says, “stop the sound of that stream.” This is variously
known as shunyata, as the Cloud of Unknowing, Divine Ignorance, Radical
Mystery, nirguna (“unqualifiable”)
Brahman, and so on. Brilliant, silvery
radiance, with no objects detracting from it.
has an overwhelming spiritual feel. It becomes perfectly obvious that you are
absolutely one with this Fullness, which transcends all worlds and all planes
and all time and all history. You are perfectly full, and therefore you are
perfectly empty. “It is all things, and it is no things,” said the Christian
gives way to certainty. Of course, that’s who you are, prior to all
manifestation, prior to all worlds. It is called “seeing your Original
Face,” the “face you had even before your parents were born.” In other
words, it is seeing who or what you are eternally.
the causal level; that’s jnana samadhi,
that’s ninvikalpa samadhi, and
so on. The soul, or separate-self sense, disappears, and God or separate Deity
form disappears, because both—soul and God —collapse into Godhead. Both soul
and God disappear into the supreme identity. You experience a profound
release, you realize the highest summit of your own being, which is radically
one with Godhead. This is a direct and extraordinary experience, an altogether
unmistakable experience, whether it occurs in Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or
whatever form. Unmistakable.
So that leaves the ultimate level, the non-dual level.
A: Yes. In the previous causal
level, you are so absorbed in the unmanifest dimension that you don’t even
notice the manifest world. You are discovering Emptiness, and so you ignore
Form. But at the ultimate or non-dual level, you integrate the two. You see that
Emptiness appears or manifests itself as Form, and that Form has as its
essence Emptiness. In more concrete terms, what you are is all things that
arise. All manifestation arises, moment by moment, as a play of Emptiness. If
the causal was like a radiant moonlit night, this is like a radiant autumn day.
other words, what appear as hard or solid objects “out there” are really
transparent and translucent manifestations of the Divine. They are not obstacles
to God, only expressions of God. They are therefore empty in the sense of not
being an obstruction or impediment. They are a free expression of the Divine.
As the Mahamudra tradition succinctly puts it, “All is Mind. Mind is Empty.
Empty is freely-manifesting. Freely-manifesting is self-liberating.”
freedom that you found at the causal level—the freedom of Fullness and
Emptiness—that freedom is found to extend to all things, even to this
“fallen” world of sin or samsara. Therefore, all things become
self-liberated. And this extraordinary freedom, or absence of restriction, or total
release—this clear bright autumn day—this is what you actually experience
at this point. But then “experience” is the wrong word altogether. This
realization is actually of the non-experiential nature of Spirit. Experiences
come and go. They all have a beginning in time, and an end in time. Even subtle
experiences come and go. They are all wonderful, glorious, extraordinary. And
they come, and they go.
this non-dual “state” is not itself another experience. It is simply the
opening or clearing in which all experiences arise and fall. It is the bright
autumn sky through which the clouds come and go—it is not itself another
cloud, another experience, another object, another manifestation. This
realization is actually of the utter fruitlessness of experience, the utter
futility of trying to experience release or liberation. All experiences lose
their taste entirely—these passing clouds.
are not the one who experiences liberation; you are the clearing, the opening,
the emptiness, in which any experience comes and goes, like reflections on the
mirror. And you are the mirror, the mirror mind, and not any experienced
reflection. But you are not apart from the reflections, standing back and watching.
You can swallow the whole cosmos in one gulp, it is so small, and you can taste
the entire sky without moving an inch.
is why, in Zen, it is said that you cannot enter the Great Samadhi: it is
actually the opening or clearing that is ever-present, and in which all
experience—and all manifestation—arises moment to moment. It seems like you
“enter” this state, except that once there, you realize there was never a
time that this state wasn’t fully present and fully recognized—“the
gateless gate.” And so you deeply understand that you never entered this
state; nor did the Buddhas, past or future, ever enter this state.
Dzong Chen, this is the recognition of mind’s true nature. All things, in all
worlds, are self-liberated as they arise. All things are like sunlight on the
water of a pond. It all shimmers. It is all empty. It is all light. It is all
full, and it is all fulfilled.
BOOKS BY KEN WILBER
Wilber, The Spectrum of Consciousness (1977). Quest Books, Wheaton, Ill.,
1996 (2nd ed.).
No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth (1979)
Shambhala Publications, Boston, 1985.
The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development (1980).
Quest Books, Wheaton, Ill., 1996.
Up from Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution (1981). Quest
Books, Wheaton, Ill., 1996.
The Holographic Paradigm and Other Paradoxes: Exploring the Leading Edge of
Science (1982). Shambhala Publications, Boston, 1985.
A Sociable God: Toward a New Understanding of Religion (1982). Shambhala
Publications, Boston, 1984.
Eye to Eye: The Quest for the New Paradigm (1983). Shambhala
Publications, Boston, 1996 (3rd ed.).
Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World’s Great Physicists
(1984). Shambhala Publications, Boston, 1985.
Jack Engler & Daniel P. Brown, Transformations of Consciousness:
Conventional and Contemplative Perspectives on Development (1986). Shambhala
Publications, Boston, 1986.
Dick Anthony & Bruce Ecker (Editors), Spiritual Choices: The Problems of
Recognizing Authentic Paths to Inner Transformation (1987). Paragon House,
New York, 1987.
Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya
Killam Wilber (1991). Shambhala Publications, Boston, 1983.
Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution (1995). Shambhala
Publications, Boston, 1995.
A Brief History of Everything (1996). Shambhala Publications, Boston,
The Eye of Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad
(1997). Shambhala Publications, Boston, 1998.
The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion (1998).
Random House, New York, 1998.
The Essential Ken Wilber: An Introductory Reader (1998). Shambhala
Publications, Boston, 1998.
One Taste: The Journals of Ken Wilber (1999). Shambhala Publications,
--------------, Integral Psychology (2000). Shambhala Publications, Boston, 2000.