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In This World or Out of It?


27 Aug 2003
Integral Transformative Practice: In This World or Out of It?
by Ken Wilber


Andrew Cohen (founder of What Is Enlightenment?) has asked me to say a few words about the main topic of this issue, namely, being in the world but not of it. And further, how the "new" spiritual practice of Integral Transformative Practice relates to this issue. Andrew has some concerns about these issues, concerns that I share, and I am glad to contribute what I can to this discussion. Let's start with Integral Transformative Practice (ITP)--what it is, and more important, what it is not.

Ever-Present Enlightenment

The great wisdom traditions generally maintain that reality consists of at least three major realms: the gross, the subtle, and the causal (e.g. Nirmamakaya, the Sambhogakaya and the Dharmakaya). The gross realm is the realm of the material body and the sensory motor world--the world you can see with your physical senses in the waking state. The subtle realm is the realm of the mind and its displays, which you can see in a vivid form in the dream state, in certain states of meditation, and in (it is said) in the afterlife bardo realms. All of these are subtle states of consciousness. The causal realm is the realm of pure formless consciousness, unlimited and unbounded, radically free and radically full. The causal realm is experienced by everybody in deep dreamless sleep (which is pure formlessness without an object), but it yields its final secrets only when it is entered with full consciousness, which happens with certain profound meditative states, various types of satori or initial awakening and vastly expanded states of boundless consciousness.

But the traditions also maintain that, beyond those three great realms and states, there is a fourth state (turiya), the state of the ever-present Witness or pure Self, the great mirror-mind that impartially witnesses the waking, dreaming, and deep sleep states but is not itself a separate state: it is the Witness of all those states, and itself neither comes nor goes. (Technically, there is a fifth state, turiyatita, which occurs when the Witness itself dissolves into everything that is witnessed, and there is the pure nondual realization of One Taste. For this simple introduction, I will treat them together as the ever-present nondual Self or pure Witness.)

The waking state comes and goes, but the Witness is ever-present. The dreaming state comes and goes, but the Witness is ever-present. The deep sleep state comes and goes, but the Witness is ever-present. Extraordinary and remarkable states of consciousness can be reached and practiced and attained in the gross, subtle, and causal realms. But the Witness cannot be attained, because it is ever-present. The Witness cannot be practiced, because it is ever-present. The Witness cannot be reached, because it is ever-present. As Sri Ramana Maharshi often said, "There is no reaching the Self. If Self were to be reached, it would mean that the Self is not here and now but that it has yet to be obtained. What is got afresh will also be lost. So it will be impermanent. What is not permanent is not worth striving for. So I say the Self is not reached. You are the Self;you are already That." Or the great Zen Master Huang Po, " That there is no reaching enlightenment is not idle talk, it is the truth. Hard is the meaning of this saying!" You can no more reach enlightenment or attain the Self than you can attain your feet or acquire your lungs.

Notice: the clouds float by in your awareness, thoughts float by in your mind, feelings arise in the body, and you are the Witness of all of those. The Witness is already fully functioning, fully present, fully awake. The enlightened Self is one hundred percent present in your very perception of this page. Enlightened Spirit is that which is reading these words right now: how much closer can you possibly get? Why go out and start looking for the Looker? The great search for enlightenment is not just a waste of time; it is a colossal impossibility because the enlightened Self is ever-present, as the Witness of this and every moment.

This is why there is, in strictest truth, no reaching enlightenment, no finding the Self. And yet, of course, it certainly appears that there are those who are more awake to this fact than others--we call them "enlightened"--and in a sense that is true. But what actually happens in these cases is not the discovery of enlightenment but a profound recognition of something that is already present. It is like looking into a store window and seeing a hazy figure looking at you. You move your head around until you can see who it is, and with a sudden shock you realize that it is your own reflection in the window: you are looking at your self.

Just so with realization or awakening. It appears that you are looking at the world "out there," which seems very real and very separate from you, but then suddenly there is the realization--the simple recognition--that you are simply looking at your Self, and your Self is the entire World as it is arising moment to moment, right now and right now and right now. When the world impartially, the world arises in the Witness, and you and the world are one. You do not see the sky; you are the sky. You do not hear the birds singing you Witness; you are the birds singing. You do not feel the earth; you are the earth. All of this comes in a sudden, spontaneous, uncaused, tacit recognition, the recognition of nondual One Taste, your very own Self, the Original Face you had before your parents were born, the Self you had before the universe was born; this pure, ever-present, nondual Self, spaceless and therefore infinite, timeless and therefore eternal--and yet it is the only thing you have ever really known. You already know that you are you; and that you is, in deepest truth, pure and nondual Spirit.

That realization or recognition--which seems to have a beginning in time--actually carries one other recognition: there has never been a time that you did not know the Self. You have always known, in the deepest center of your awareness--in what Ramana Maharshi called the I-I (because it is the Witness of the little I or ego--in the deepest center of your own pure awareness, you have always known that you will never really die (because the Self is timeless), and you already know that you have always been here (because the Self is ever-present). You already know all this, way in the back of your mind. You are perfectly aware that you are the Witness of this moment. You know that you are the absolute; you know that you are God; you know that you are Goddess; you know that you are Spirit, and you know that every sentient being in the entire Kosmos can make that simple statement: when I abide as the pure Self, I-I am God. I have always known this; you have always known this. And you have always known this because the Self is ever-present.

This tacit recognition seems to have a beginning in time, until it occurs, whereupon it becomes clear that it has always been completely obvious. "Oh, That!" This profound realization never began because it never ended. There is the recognition "I am That," and the simultaneous recognition that I have always known this. Zen calls it the gateless gate. On this side of the gate that "separates" us from enlightenment, the gate seems to be real--until we pass through it, turn around, and see that it was never really there: thus, gateless in truth. But it is much simpler than that. You are the Self, you are the Witness, you know it now, and you have known it always.

This ever-present recognition is often called "enlightenment." It is a simple, profound, irreversible recognition, just like looking in the window and recognizing yourself, whereupon you also realize that it has always been so. A wonderful description of such an awakening can be found in Andrew's My Master Is My Self. Simply upon seeing his Master, Andrew recognized his own Self--just like that--and there is only one Self in the entire Kosmos, hence the title.

Strictly speaking, this awakening or realization was not caused by anything. It was not caused by his teacher H.W.L. Poonja, not caused by Andrew, not caused by meditation, not caused by anything--because, in fact, it is ever-present. You cannot cause something that is already here.

Still, on this side of the gateless gate, there are certain factors that seem to facilitate this awakening. Of these, satsang--or simply sitting in the Presence of those whose realization is brilliant, clear, and radiant--is probably the most profound. But there are countless other facilitating factors, including meditation, the many yogas (raja, jnana, bhakti, karma, kriya, laya) and--as we will see--ITP. But none of them can actually cause you to awaken because the awakened Self is already ever-present, and you already know it. So when enlightenment occurs, it almost appears as an "accident." As Baker Roshi put it, "Enlightenment is an accident. Meditation makes you accident prone."

Truth be told, nobody really understands all the factors that can help facilitate enlightenment. If they did, we would all be enlightened by now. Moreover, many of the states taken to be "enlightened" are actually states of the subtle or causal realm. That is, they are extraordinary experiences--luminosities, interior sounds, states of formlessness, bliss, and ecstatic--all have a beginning in time. But the Witness does not have a beginning in time, because it is ever-present. That which has a beginning in time is merely finite and temporal; it comes, it stays a bit, and it goes. But the enlightened Witness does not have a beginning in time; it is ever-present and you know it is ever-present (you are aware of the Witness right now, as that which is reading this page). Enlightenment, in fact, is the only thing that never begins (for it is always ever-present).

In short, you do not become enlightened; you simply wake up one morning and confess that you always already are, and that you have been playing the great game of hide-and-seek with your Self. And if that is the game you are playing, then certain "facilitating factors--from meditation to ITP--can be engaged as part of the game, until you tire of their worthlessness, grow weary of the great search, admit the impossibility of becoming enlightened, and realize that you are already so, abiding then as the timeless Self that you have always been, smiling with the sudden shock that my Master is my Self, and I have been looking into the Kosmic window at my own reflection.

Absolute and Relative Truth

The great traditions generally make a distinction between absolute truth and relative truth. Relative truth deals with the manifest, ordinary, dualistic world---the world of samsara--and absolute truth deals with the infinite, unbounded, unqualifiable, ultimate truth--the truth of nirvana. Now ultimately these two worlds, samsara and nirvana, are not-two, or nondual, but this is a useful distinction.

The relative world of samsara includes the gross, subtle, and causal realms. All of those are dualistic,for they embody some form of the subject-object dualism. Even the causal or formless realm is dualistic because it is set apart from the world of form. So all of the extraordinary states of consciousness that can be achieved or attained or practiced--all of them really only deal with the relative, dualistic world, however otherwise wonderful they might be.

But the absolute truth is the truth of the ever-present Self, the nondual, unqualifiable, omnipresent Spirit, where my Master is my Self, and that Self is timelessly and eternally present in all that arises in this and any world. And while you can reach and attain relative states, you cannot reach the absolute, for it is ever-present.

Now, all forms of spiritual practice--including Integral Transformative Practice--deal with the relative truth. They all involve paths, roads, techniques, and practices that can very effectively help get you into gross, subtle, and causal states, and those states can be very beneficial in themselves. But enlightenment deals with the absolute truth, and there is no road, no practice, and no path that can reach that which is already the case. Relative practices can be very useful--meditation makes you accident prone--but they cannot, in and of themselves, produce or cause enlightenment (because enlightenment is already ever-present).

Here is what I believe is Andrew's first major concern that he conveyed to me about spiritual practices in general and Integral Transformative Practice in particular, namely: these paths often confuse relative practices with absolute enlightenment. In other words, they offer various types of subtle egoic consolations and translations instead of radical transformation and pure recognition of the Self. And that, further, all of these relative practices are just subtle (or not so subtle) ways for the ego to keep playing its game of taking control of the universe, and thus these practices can at times actually hurt more than help.

I think Andrew is quite right on this point, and it is a concern I share. In fact, I dealt with this topic in a previous essay in WIE, "A Spirituality That Transforms." But before we get to that, let's note that the fact that practices such as ITP deal only with the relative realm doesn't mean that they can have no benefits at all. So let's look a little more closely at what relative practices such as ITP can--and cannot--do.

Integral Transformative Practice

The idea behind ITP is simple: in an attempt to become more "accident prone," the more dimensions of the human bodymind that are exercised, then the more transparent to the Divine they become, and thus the more accident prone the individual is. ITP therefore attempts to simultaneously exercise many of the major aspects of the gross, subtle, and causal dimensions. Put differently, ITP attempts to exercise the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual dimensions of the self, and to do so in relationships with others and with the larger world (including community and nature).

You can think of this as a modular type of setup. Think of, say, six columns. These columns represent the physical, the emotional-sexual (prana or chi), the mental or psychological, the contemplative or meditative, the community, and nature. Each column has the many practices that have proven beneficial for that dimension. For example, column one--the physical--might have things like aerobic exercise, weight lifting, healthy diet, swimming, and so on. Column two--prana or chi--might have hatha yoga, qi gong, tai chi chuan, etc. Column three--psychological--might have things like visualization, affirmations, and various types of psychotherapy. Column four--the contemplativ--have zazen, vipassana, self-inquiry, centering prayer, etc. Column five--community--might have various types of community service, hospice, helping the homeless, or any sort of relational, compassionate care and engagement with others. And column six--nature--might have recycling, nature hikes and nature celebration, and so on. The idea of ITP is simple: pick at least one practice from each column and practice them concurrently. The more dimensions you practice, the more effective they all become, the more you become one big accident-prone soul.

But remember, those are still practices in the relative realms, and they yield only relative truths. Andrew's second major concern is that these practices will again simply become a new playground for the ego. And there is no doubt that such indeed can happen. But then, what else is new? The ego will take anything, including satsang with a perfect master, and screw it up royally, just in order to extend its own power and its own reach. Welcome to samsara. But Andrew is quite right to blow the whistle on this, and I support him wholeheartedly in that. Andrew has always been a strong voice reminding us of absolute Freedom and Emptiness, not just relative safety and release, and I stand firmly with him on that crucial issue.

Andrew had just finished reading a book manuscript of mine called Boomeritis. It is a chronicle of the ways that the ego will take virtually anything--from physics to systems theory to the great wisdom traditions to meditation--and turn it into a game of one-upmanship: "I've got the new paradigm that will be the greatest transformation in the history of the world; I've got the greatest spiritual path that has ever been devised; I'm part of a new integral culture that is so much better than anything that has come before; I've got . . ." Well, you know how it goes. Andrew points out that the "new" approaches to spirituality--including transpersonal psychology and ITP--are often nothing much more than new forms of boomeritis. And again, I could not agree more. (You can see a brief description of "boomeritis" in Chapter 2 of the modestly entitled A Theory of Everything, just out from Shambala.)

The emotional attitude of boomeritis tends to be, "Nobody tells me what to do!" And there is no question that the "pick and choose" nature of ITP can play directly into the hands of boomeritis. Spirituality then degenerates into the cafeteria model so prevalent in our culture: "Let's see, I'll take a little of this, a little of that, a little of the new physics, a little breathwork, some indigenous tribal goodies, toss in a little systems theory, some Goddess rituals, and, ooooh, let's see, gimme some shamanism for good measure and two cups of ayahuasca. Great! I am soooo f--ing enlightened I can't stand it."

Needless to say, Andrew is not impressed. Me neither. Neither are you, I am guessing.

But remember that all those egoic games are simply a misuse of the relative paths in general and of ITP in particular. One of the things that ITP is truly good at is simply making the relative bodymind more healthy in its own terms. We already have considerable scientific evidence that practices such as ITP can turn back the physiological aging process by over a decade and significantly reduce the incidence of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and most degenerative diseases. Again, this will not cause enlightenment! But it will do two things: it will help your relative bodymind become much healthier in its own terms, and it will help to make you a little more accident prone. And then, in the presence of a true Master, you might be just a little more likely to confess and admit your enlightenment, and simply but directly recognize that my Master is my Self.

(If you would like to investigate further some forms of ITP, you might begin with Michael Murphy and George Leonard's Integral Transformative Practice or my own One Taste. The actual phrase "integral transformative practice" can be used to apply strictly to Murphy and Leonard's approach, or it can be used to mean any balanced practice that includes the many levels and dimensions of human potentials. In this essay, usually I mean the latter unless specifically indicated. But I very much appreciate the work Murphy and Leonard have done, and they are the first to point out that their ITP can also involve working with an acknowledged spiritual Master. Keep in mind, too, that there are many different forms of ITP, and new forms will continue to evolve as this experiment unfolds.)

As I said, one of the reasons that I recommend ITP to people is simply what it does for the relative vehicle--it makes body and mind healthier. It's very hard to do satsang from a wheelchair, or with a stroke, or confined to a hospital bed. ITP only covers the relative realm, but it makes that realm more healthy and thus easier to release--easier to fall into the recognition that your real Self is "bodymind dropped." When the relative vehicle is unhealthy, or in pain, or uncomfortable, it is the squeaky wheel that demands the oil of attention; but when it is functioning smoothly, it is that much easier for the self to let go of its attachment to the individual bodymind and uncoil in the vast expanse of All Space, where it will find its ever-present home.

At the same time, when you awaken to the absolute truth, that does nothing much to help the relative vehicle. You can perfectly awaken to radical Spirit and pure Self, but that will not allow you to perform graceful athletics with your body; it will not allow you to understand quantum mechanics with your mind; it will not turn your personality from a nerd into a sophisticate; it will not get you a new job. One Taste simply bypasses all of those relative vehicles and leaves them much as it finds them. Those relative vehicles, in order to be improved, have to be engaged in their own terms. And if we want our relative vehicles to be a bright and transparent window of the enlightened Self, we need to polish and practice those vehicles on the relative level. Would you rather be enlightened and have a heart attack, or be enlightened and not have a heart attack? The enlightened Self does not care which (for it embraces all that arises equally and impartially), but your relative self will definitely care! And that is where ITP can help considerably:it will polish the relative vehicle, lighten its density, make it more transparent to the Divine.

Andrew's concern, again, is that all this fussing around with the relative vehicles can detract from the radical, absolute, nondual Truth--and again I agree with him. But if the teacher is alive to this danger, and the teacher has confessed his or her own ever-present Recognition and Realization, then there is no reason that the teacher cannot recommend both relative and absolute, for both can be useful, even though only one is ultimate. The problem, Andrew would say, is that too many approaches are offering only relative practices and forgetting the absolute, and that is very true and very sad.

This caution applies to stages in the relative realm as well. Extensive cross-cultural research has demonstrated that in the relative realms (gross, subtle, and causal), individuals tend to progress through various types of stages (including cognitive, affective, and moral stages). These stages do not apply to the absolute truth, only to the relative, but on that level, there is an enormous amount of evidence for them. But nobody, and certainly not me, wants to confuse these relative stages with absolute truth--and thus confuse finite stages with infinite release. (And, for those of you who have asked: Kaisa Puhakka did not "single-handedly transcend and include" my work in this area; she presented no alternative to it, she simply reminded people that both she and I believe this research needs to be set in pure Emptiness or pure nondual Spirit and not made into a fixed and rigid system, and Kaisa is certainly right about that.)*

So the point about ITP and about spiritual practices in general--all of which attempt to attain certain states or achieve certain goals--is that they are all of the relative realm. You can indeed attain various gross, subtle, and causal states, and ITP is clearly one of the most effective means of doing so. And while those practices will also make you more accident prone, they nonetheless have nothing to do with absolute truth and final enlightenment, for enlightenment can neither be attained nor achieved, but only confessed here and now, usually in the good company or satsang of those who have already admitted the ever-present Truth.

Andrew-I to Andrew-II

In "A Spirituality That Transforms," I suggested that many enlightened teachers--teachers truly alive to ever-present One Taste in all states, high and low--tend to go through two phases, as it were, of their own teaching work. The first phase is a pure offering of nothing but One Taste--a blast of pure consciousness and absolute truth--and a neglect of any of the relative vehicles and relative practices. However, because (1) this is often ineffective (it's just too much for many practitioners to confess at the beginning), and (2) even if it does work, it often produces a lopsided result (with people alive to pure consciousness who can't even hold a job), these teachers then move into a second phase, where they employ, in effect, some sort of ITP, or some sort of practice that includes both absolute and relative vehicles. In "A Spirituality That Transforms," I gave as examples Adi Da and Chogyam Trungpa, both of whom started out teaching "only God" (or "only Ati") and then ended up teaching the Seven Stages and the Nine Vehicles, respectively--in other words, a more integral practice involving both absolute and relative.

Andrew tells me that he has also done something quite similar, and I think he puts the case for this more balanced approach beautifully. "My position on all relative approaches to the unapproachable has evolved significantly and even dramatically since the early days of my teaching career." (I have divided my written work into several phases, pompously called "Wilber-I," "Wilber-II," etc., and Andrew then uses that scheme to humorously refer to his own evolution--half-kidding, but also quite serious.) "The ?only-the-absolute' approach that you describe could be called ?Andrew-I,' and now, almost fifteen years later, I could say my teaching has evolved into ?Andrew-II' or even ?Andrew-III'--a balance of absolute and relative. "I began to notice that nondual blasts rarely transformed the entire being. It became glaringly obvious that practice, i.e., meditation, contemplation, confrontation, self-study, and engagement on all levels of our human potential needed to be energetically undertaken if the result was going to be a complete transformation."

Given that more balanced and comprehensive approach, Andrew's criticism then applies to those paths that err to one side or the other. For those paths that get so involved in relative practices that they forget the absolute Goal and Ground (and that can include approaches from ITP to vipassana), Andrew said, "Radical liberation just isn't in the picture at all, and without it, the all-important evolutionary tension that makes all things possible obviously isn't there either." On the other hand, there are the approaches that center only on the absolute, such as the "neo-Advaitist" movement. "With the neo-Advaitist explosion that we seem to be in the midst of, I almost always take the opposite position. Their insistence that only consciousness is real usually results not in genuine liberation, but rather tends to provide the easiest (and scariest) escape from real life and the ever-challenging real implications of being a fully human being.

"In fact," Andrew continued, "this was what led to the dissolution of my relationship with Poonja. Anyway, it becomes such a subtle matter in the end--the relationship between enlightenment and human development and evolution. So simple on one hand, so complex and delicate on the other."

Indeed, so simple yet so complex. What I find so encouraging about this is that all of us--all of us teachers and students of enlightenment--are at this time in history involved in a truly grand experiment. Never have all of the world's "growth technologies" been fully available to a single culture: we have access not only to all of the forms of Western psychotherapy and human potential techniques, we have access to virtually all of the world's great wisdom traditions as well. And we are all now engaged in this "simple yet complex" experiment in how best to balance all of these approaches, including the relative and absolute, and thus find the best ways to both awaken to our ever-present Self--awaken to the absolute--and then skillfully and compassionately express that ultimate Reality in the relative world, balancing nirvana and samsara in each and every gesture we make. We are involved in this grand experiment, this gesture of balance, this graceful acknowledgment that we are both the One and the Many in every move we make.

And when you acknowledge that simple recognition, then you will indeed be in the world but not of it, because the world will be in you. Your ego is in the world, but the world is in your Self. Abide as the Self right here and now, and notice: The clouds float by in your awareness, and you are all of that. The sun is shining in your consciousness, and you are all of that. The birds are flying through your Big Mind, and you are all of that. The earth arises in your awareness, and you are all of that. You--the real you--is not in the world at all, but the world flows through you, within you, and you embrace it all. Within your being the world arises, and you are one with its every inhabitant, fiercely with compassion and gently with one gesture, this single Self that is only you, timelessly and forever. You are that Self, here and now, watching the world arise within you, radiant to infinity. It has always been so, and you have always known this. It is so even now, and even now you already know it.

Ken Wilber is the first psychologist-philosopher to have his Collected Works published while still alive (seventeen books in eight volumes, available from Shambhala.com). His most recent book is Integral Psychology--Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Reference:WIE Issue 12, " A Spirituality That Transforms ," 1997, p.22. *see WIE Issue 17, "The Transpersonal Ego: Is There a New Formation?"

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