Saturday, December 11, 2010

An integral postmetaphysical definition of states

We're discussing this topic at the IPS forum. Following are some slightly edited excerpts:


Inspired in part by Mark Edwards' dissertation, in which he calls for clearer definition of key Integral terms, I would like to open a discussion on this important Integral term. In his work, Wilber obviously frequently uses the term, states, and discusses several types of states, but (to my knowledge) he does not give a clear, formal definition of this important concept. Because it is such a key component of AQAL, and also is held by Integralists to be such an important aspect of spiritual realization, I think it would be worthwhile to really look at what we mean by it, and possibly see if we can together craft a satisfactory "Integral postmetaphysical" definition. I ask specifically for an "Integral postmetaphysical" definition, rather than the definition, because obviously the term will be defined differently in different contexts, and at different stages.

To start, here are a few (relevant) definitions from

1. the condition of a person or thing, as with respect to circumstances or attributes: a state of health.
2. the condition of matter with respect to structure, form, constitution, phase, or the like: water in a gaseous state.
5. a particular condition of mind or feeling: to be in an excited state.
6. an abnormally tense, nervous, or perturbed condition: He's been in a state since hearing about his brother's death.

You can see right off that several "zones" are represented in these definitions. An Integral definition, or series of definitions, would include even more zone-perspectives, and IMP may suggest ways these various types of "states" can be correlated. But simple differentiation of zone-specific definitions will also be important, since I believe the failure to do this probably contributes not infrequently to conflicts and misunderstandings in Integral discussions.

As we discussed in an earlier series of threads (The Status of States), Wilber's use of certain states (particularly causal and nondual) seems still to involve certain metaphysical commitments, which we critiqued at length. But I don't recall that we really arrived at any workable, formal definition of states, or understanding of what is involved in "state training" and "state stabilization" in spiritual development or "realization," so I'd like to return to this question here, if you're interested.

One systems-theoretic, naturalistic definition of states has been attempted by Charles Tart:

"Now I shall formally define a discrete state of consciousness (d-SoC) for a given individual (and I emphasize for a given individual) as a unique configuration or system of psychological structures or subsystems. The structures or subsystems show some quantitative and minor qualitative variation in the way in which they process information or cope or have experiences, but the structures or subsystems and their energetic pattern of interactions comprise a 'system'. The operations of the components, the psychological structures,interact with each other and stabilize each other's functioning by means of feedback control such that the system, the discrete state of consciousness, maintains its overall patterning of functioning within a varying environment. That is, the parts of the system that comprise a discrete state of consciousness may vary over various ranges if we look at individual components, but the overall, general configuration, the overall pattern of the system remains recognizably the same. As an analogy, you can drive your car faster or slower, with a varying number of passengers in it, or change the color of the seat covers, but it retains its identity as the system we know as an automobile. So one may have variations in consciousness, such as being more or less activated, more or less aware of the environment, etc. that represent quantitative changes in certain subsystems or structures of the system, but they do not change the overall, recognizable configuration of the system as being that of our ordinary [waking] state of consciousness, or, for that matter, of any particular discrete state of consciousness. The way to understand a discrete state of consciousness, then, is not only to investigate the structure of the parts in a more and more molecular way, but also to be aware of the way in which the parts interact and the 'gestalt' system-properties of the configuration that arise that may not be predictable from a knowledge of the parts alone." (Tart, THE BASIC NATURE OF ALTERED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS: A SYSTEMS APPROACH)

One question that I bring to this (among many) is whether we can define states postmetaphysically, but in a way that still respects and accounts for the "profundity" and power of certain state realizations -- that still can serve, in a sense, as a horizon of aspiration, without the metaphysical trappings.


As you know this is one of my favorite topics. The link you have to the prior "status of states" thread only has the first thread. This link has all 3 threads in one document. It takes forever to load the 164 pages, if it will load at all. But if you click on the download link and open in a word document it takes only a few seconds.

This excerpt from the SOS threads is pertinent to Bonnie's inquiry in the "context transcending meaning" thread. From Feb 21, 2009, 8:42 AM I said:

"Here are some excerpts from New Developments in Consciousness Research by Vincent Fallio (Nova, 2007). For me it indicates that so-called “spiritual” states of consciousness probably arise in very early levels of consciousness and associated brain structures. Hence there is a very real sense in which “primordial” awareness is ancient, in that it arises from these early brain structures. But it is not timeless or absolute; it is grounded in our psychoneurophysiology.

'On a lower level can be found the state of alertness or of being conscious, which refers to a basic level of consciousness or matrix as a generalized state in which the system is receptive to information. This aspect of consciousness is clearly related to the concept of tonic attention, and is also related to neural mechanisms in the stimulatory reticular system, the thalamus, the limbic system, basal ganglia, and the prefrontal cortex' (81).

"And from the Feb 21, 2009, 3:11 PM post quoting Fallio some more:

'…a basic level of consciousness as a generalized state in which the system is receptive to information. In this sense awareness could be related to a tonic or basic attention; it is therefore important to realize that this type of consciousness should be understood as a 'condition for' and not so much as a function or cognitive process. As a result of this it can be affirmed that this notion of consciousness, this state of being aware, is a state that does not contain information'" (68).

And this post from Feb 22, 2009, 10:51 AM:

From The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness by Philip Zelazo et al. (Cambridge UP, 2007):

"A central goal of the practice of meditation is to transform the baseline state of experience and to obliterate the distinction between the meditative state and the post-meditative state…. Practitioners of Mindfulness/Awareness meditation aim to experience the present nowness, and this type of meditation affects the 'attentional baseline' by lessening distractions or daydream thoughts…. These qualities are thought to gradually evolve into lasting traits.

"From an empirical standpoint, one way to conceptualize these various meditative traits is to view them as developmental changes in physiological baselines in the organism" (528).


Roland Fischer's A Cartography of The Ecstatic and Mystical States might also be useful to bring in. He posits that nondual experiences of 'oneness' are related to integration of cortical and subcortical systems in the brain.


Indeed. And the cortical is the interpretative "I" and the subcortical "self" is ecstasy or samadhi. The latter is an "unlearning" and the former a cultural learning. What he doesn't discuss though is that this "self" experience of oneness requires the "I" to interpret it as part of the "integration." Those "self" experiences prior to the development of the "I" are pre-rational fusion, not trans-rational ecstasy or samadhi. He could use a good dose not of LSD but of Levin here, as well as Wilber.

I also appreciate his graph, with the "I" in the middle of both hyper and hypo scales, with the lemniscate at the bottom showing the inverse relation of ecstasy and samadhi. This is quite similar to my suggestion for the WC lattice, turning the "states" on top into a lemniscate mirror to the "stages" below, all with the "I" as the fulcrum.

And finally I like the notion that it requires dreaming or hallucinatory states, or metaphor or symbol as in art, for the "I" and "self" to communicate. Very much like what I was saying about the "bastard reason" required to apprehend khora.

Balder opens the SOS thread discussion noting that states are enacted as well, not apriori, absolute, or timeless givens. Now if we look at tonic attention described above it is pre-reflective, something naturally "given" by virtue of our embodiment and with which we are familiar long before language or the "I." In that sense it is apriori and given. It is also close to being a direct correspondence with the natural environment, mediated only by the senses, which are accurate enough to allow for pragmatic interaction (survival) with said environment. But this tonic attention, which we share with the animal world, is not ecstasy or samadhi; it requires an "I" (which is social to begin with) to differentiate and qualify experience as such. And unless you're a wolf baby you're going to get your "I" fairly quickly, only to be alienated from your tonic "self" by formal operations, more or less so depending on your culture. As Levin makes clear, while this "I" might be in part the differentiation from the "self" (and hence gets bad press as antithetical to it), without this "I" to look back and integrate the likes of the tonic "self"* an integrated body-mind is not feasible. Unless you're born a wolf baby and never interact with humans you'll never get this unadulterated tonic attention back. Or you obtain cortical brain damage maybe, which does seem the case upon entering certain integral institutions. And metaphysical interpretations of such state experiences don't help the matter, as if they are separate from stages, a point Balder also makes in his opening statement. (Which metaphysical belief is a symptom of said brain damage.)

* I put "self" in scare quotes because it is ludicrous to call it that prior to the ego, as if it is the type of inherent, timeless, metaphysical and pristine "state" we re-discover like an ultimate Self, a retro-romantic notion. This is part of what needs to change in a postmeta description.


Yes, I agree. If we want to be self-reflexive about our model-building, then we can acknowledge that the notions of "nondual states" or "pre-reflective modes of tonic attention" are themselves culture- and tradition-specific enactments. But within the model that we are trying to articulate, I am perfectly comfortable calling this form of attention an organismic (or holonic?) a priori.

He was writing before both of them, of course -- at least, before the publication of the books that make these distinctions -- but with the inclusion of these distinctions, I think his model might still be somewhat useful. Looking into this question this morning, I see that James Austin considers Fischer's view in his own reflections on the neurological bases or correlates of mystical state experiences, and he appears to consider Fischer's proposal helpful in some regards, but too simplistic in others.

Looking around the net this morning for more material from Austin, I found the following interview at Buddhist Geeks, which you can listen to at these links (Part 1, Part 2). He is arguing, in much more sophisticated fashion, something I believe I argued early on in a discussion with Julian and/or Kela on the Gaia website: that sustained meditation or spiritual practice has the capacity not only to allow us to "verbally" reconstruct or retranslate experience according to a school's particular doctrinal commitments, but to structurally transform both the organism (brain & body) and the (phenomenal) self-world gestalt.


His top-down and bottom-up attention are consistent with my understanding. However I question a couple of things. 1) He emphasizes the bottom-up as indicative of "awakening", of "perceiving the outside world as it really is," and 2) this prejudice misses the significance of an ego-allo integration. Both of these items are metaphysical interpretations in an otherwise accurate and useful phenomenological and psychoneurological perspective.

I've also been revisiting the thread on Epstein, Psychoanalysis and Buddhism.

Austin says this in an interview:

"When a person takes up the mystical path in a more formal manner, there is a sense of engagement in an ongoing practice which reestablishes, by the deepest of insights, some kind of direct relationship with the Ultimate Reality principle (however this may be defined)."

However this may be defined? Then why the metaphysical definition of a retro-romantic reestablishing with an original, ultimate given? I guess we have latitude in defining it within these metaphysical parameters? Sort of like Balder's ITC paper where one expression of this is that all religions are pointing to the same ontological given?


And not only pointing out instructions, but practices co-ordinating body energy and mind, such as directing prana, developing heat/sensation etc., which produce their own powerful and distinctive phenomonological experiences -- so a consideration needs to be given of the role/function of the "energy body" with regard to states.

Does/should an integral post-metaphysical definition of states allow at least for the possibility of the "natural state" of Dzogchen? Granted, if it's conceptualised as timeless and absolute then this is metaphysics -- but I'd like to make the point that just as the basic level of consciousness should be understood as a condition for cognitive process, so it and the corresponding neurophysiology could equally be seen as a condition for the presence of, and experience of, the "natural state".

Finally, I think the role of the heart and "head-heart interactions" bears consideration.


Absolutely (pun intended). That's part of what I was getting at above about a natural "given." As for head-heart interactions I agree here as well. Not only is there a top-down and bottom-up relationship in the brain but this applies to the body-brain relation as well, with influence going in both directions. Hence I am most appreciative of Buddhist compassion exercises (visualization or otherwise) and commitment to community service.

For me the "integral" in this is integration of all of our individual and collective aspects, not particular "states" of awareness. My guess is that said integration comes from a stage that can appreciate and integrate various discreet states and is more than the sum of states (or stages).

Since Mark Edwards is mentioned at the start of this thread, keep in mind his essay "An alternative view of states" at Integral World, Part 1 and Part 2.

More follows in the comments.


  1. theurj:

    For example this from part 1:

    "The current integral theory model of states is committing a category error, the Pre-trans Fallacy #2 to be precise, when it proposes that individuals access transpersonal states and/or realms when they enter into the natural states of dream sleep and deep sleep. This error has important implications for the whole of the Integral theory of states.

    "How on earth...could Ken...the great surveyor of this previously unknown territory of the PTF errors, lose sight of this core landmark on the AQAL map in his treatment of states? Well, I have a few suggestions. One is his unswerving reliance on some aspects of the pre-modern Vedantic view of states."

  2. Balder:

    Yes, thank you for posting that, Edward. I (re)read Part 1 last night (and agree with Edwards that the traditional conflation of dreaming and sleeping with transpersonal states is problematic -- not only "myth of the given," but PTF too). In Dzogchen teachings, according to some teachers, the experience of clear light is only dharmakaya when perceived with insight and in the right conditions, so deep sleep "in itself" can't be equated with it.

    I also saw he had a good definition of "state of consciousness" that will be useful to keep in mind:

    "A state of consciousness is the unitive status that characterises a subject's frame of phenomenal or experiential reference."

  3. theurj:

    Edwards notes near the end of Part I that there is indeed a "given" in the Atman is Brahman principle, "that God is present all his fullness." But this is a metaphysical given versus the kind of given I'm talking about above. While I agree with him that this given is not the same from a more developed perspective, that this state is not realized until later, this metaphysical remnant remains and will be expressed more in Part II.

    I appreciate Edwards' caution beginning Part II that pre-modern spiritual traditions were not aware of stages leading to egoic identity and hence made many pre-trans conflations. Even Vedanta and (Vedanta influenced) Vajrayana, while avoiding some of these PTFs, nonetheless is a "tangled mixture" still clinging to other conflations that Wilber retains. Edwards' worthy goal then is to differentiate between the pre-trans elements within these traditions, focusing on Vedanta.

  4. theurj:

    Edwards notes the PTF notion of a "return" to a primordial, nondual unity, which of course is only after a "fall" from grace, said fall caused by the dual (Devil) Ego. Hence we often find retro-romantic notions of returning to a pristine origin before the fall. Even Edwards' presentation of the "true" Maharshi, who apparently does not equate deep sleep with the causal realm, nevertheless maintains the metaphysical idea that there is a "true" causal realm that must overcome the "illusion" of maya. Ironically the Devil is quite tricky to be hiding in the midst of such supposed nonduality.

    Not surprisingly Wilber comes to our rescue in asserting that it is the self-system (aka ego) that integrates all of the various aspects of psyche. (See for example his "outline of an integral psychology," particularly page 4.*) And that a strong, healthy ego is prerequisite to take such a journey into transpersonal nonduality, lest the trip be into psychotic dissociation. But again, Wilber is a mixed bag here, often framing such transpersonal integration withing traditional views and their own confusions, particularly with reference to states.


  5. theurj:

    Now here's an interesting section from Part II, quoting Osborne on Maharshi:

    "In fact, one name for the true state of realised being is the Fourth State existing eternally behind the three states of waking, dream and deep sleep. It is compared with the state of deep sleep since, like this it is formless and non-dual; however, as the above quotation shows, it is far from being the same. In the Fourth State the ego emerges in Consciousness, as in sleep it does in unconsciousness."

    Aside from the metaphysical words like "true" and "eternal" it is significant in that the Fourth State (was that Virginia in the US?) "the ego emerges in consciousness." The ego, hmmm. Edwards' diagram following this quote are illuminating in showing the pre-personal states of deep sleep, dreaming, rational ego, and then transpersonal "structures of identity" which integrates all of them.

    And yet what does the integrating? What gets us past the ego? I.e., could it be done prior to the development of an ego? Can we ever go back to a state or stage that was before the ego once it emerges? Obviously we can enter nondual states of awareness where the ego is temporarily suspended, but is it the same state as before the ego came along?

  6. In section on the "ever present" in Part II Edwards acknowledges that it is so from an absolute perspective as an inherent, given potential but it takes development in the relative realm to become conscious of and integrate it. I agree with this but the "given" is not an absolute potential but rather a much more relative, human one based on our embodiment. Edwards is right about Wilber's (and Vedanta's) conflation of dreaming and deep sleep with the subtle and causal states (and bodies) but he still adheres to the traditional, metaphysical interpretation of them.

    His section on studies of meditators indeed comes to the correct conclusion that they become conscious of and integrate dreaming and deep sleep states. But we can interpret that integration as subtle and causal, even transrational, in a postmetaphysical way sans an ultimate or absolute realm.


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