Saturday, December 18, 2010

More on states of consciousness

Continuing the previous post on states, here's more from the IPS discussion:


It's time to return to Epstein, linked to previously. He says:

"The tendency of contemporary theorists has been to propose developmental schema in which meditation systems develop 'beyond the ego’ (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980), yet this approach has ignored aspects of the ego which are not abandoned and which are, in fact, developed through meditation practice itself.

"It recognizes the indispensability of the ego while at the same time revealing how meditation practice can uniquely modify it, producing an ego no longer obsessed with its own solidity.

"This synthetic function acts as an 'organ of equilibrium' within the internal world, promoting integration and organization of diverse and conflicting inputs and components.

"The 'I' is not identical with the ego but is more precisely a component. It is described as a self-representation as agent because it sees itself as the one capable of activity.... It is an idea, an abstraction, contained within the ego.

"At the core of the self-representation as agent lies the narcissistically invested ideal ego.... The ideal ego involves a sense of inherent perfection, a 'state of being' equivalent to the Tibetan description of the 'independent I under its own power.' It is an ideal that is not recognized as such, but is, instead, deeply felt to be real, denying all transience, insignificance and mortality.

"While concentration practices can temporarily suspend ego boundaries and provide a deep sense of ontological security through the merger of ego and ego ideal, insight practices operate within the ego system itself.

"The development of mindfulness, like that of evenly suspended attention, involves a 'therapeutic split in the ego', in which the ego becomes both subject and object, observer and observed. This capacity for observing the dynamic flow of psychic events is very much a synthetic function, maintaining equilibrium in the face of incessant change.

"It is the ego, primarily through its synthetic function, that permits integration of the experience of disintegration. In true egolessness, there could be only disintegration, and such a state would manifest as psychosis.

"The ego system is certainly a target of these meditation practices, but what results is more properly conceived of as an intrasystemic reequilibration rather than a progression beyond an outmoded structure. As the moment-to-moment nature of reality becomes more and more directly experienced, it is the synthetic function of the ego, as mindfulness, that must continuously re-establish contact with the object of awareness.

"Thus, mindfulness is not a means of forgetting the ego; it is a method of using the ego to observe its own manifestations."

kela responded the following in the Epstein thread, reminiscent of what was said recently in the "context-transcendent meaning" thread:

"The upshot is that the synthetic function does no reveal a 'truer' version of reality — the 'whole' — for the true nature of reality is that we do this; that reality is fragmented collage that we put together through the function of kalpana. The 'liberating insight' is the insight into the nature of this process, not some absolute, transcendental, Ultimate Non-dual Reality beyond time and space."

Epstein commented on the ideal ego above as involving an inherent, narcissistic sense of perfection. And that concentration practices lend themselves to a fusion of ego with the ideal. Further in the referenced thread E says:

"Concentration practices do indeed evoke the ego ideal and the oceanic feeling in a manner well described by generations of analytic commentators, but the mindfulness practices, which define the Buddhist approach, seek to dispel the 'illusory ontology of the self' encapsulated within the ideal ego."

The former seems to be the "state" of consciousness typically described as causal emptiness, cessation or nirodha, which is "nondual" because all sense of separation evaporates. Given E's description it is not surprising that it is associated with, i.e., interpreted as, perfection or enlightenment from a synthetic ego (level) perspective that might have "integrated" such experiences but is not yet interpreting them postmetaphysically. Something more is required of our synthetic ego, and it is here were general egoic levels come into play.

We discussed CG's levels of ego in Bonnie's thread but her highest level seems to be this fusion with the ego ideal, the latter a very ancient brain-consciousness state. Whereas I'd say that this interpretation is rather on the low end of the formal ego spectrum, maybe mythic-rational. But then my hypothesis is that all stages higher than formop are skewed due to this mix and match of states and stages. One can have and integrate transcendent state experiences at formop within a meditative tradition without ever going beyond that level. And one can have more complex worldviews beyond formop, including postmetaphysical, without ever integrating such (natural) state experiences via meditative or awareness training of some kind.


To further discussion of the nondual state in particular, I would like to juxtapose passages from two writers who directly explore the interface of nondual experience with constructivist and postmetaphysical epistemologies, Judith Blackstone and David Michael Levin.

First, Judith Blackstone:

"My descriptions of nondual realization, based primarily on my own experience, most closely resemble those found in the Mahamudra and Dzog-chen schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and the Hindu schools of Advaita Vedanta and Kashmir Shaivism. Although these different Asian philosophies disagree in their metaphysical conclusions about nondual consciousness, they all describe it as an innate, all-pervasive dimension of consciousness, more fundamental than one's cultural or psychological organization...

"For example, I may recognize a wooden structure with a flat horizontal surface and four vertical supports as a table. I may even feel a little hungry looking at this structure, as it looks like a place where I eat. Another person may come along who has never seen a table. Perhaps he has always eaten his meals on banana leaves on the ground. But he has seen wooden altars. So he may look at this same structure and see an altar, and even feel reverence, for it reminds him of other altars where he has worshipped. However, if both he and I have realized nondual consciousness, we will both have the same, or very similar experience of oneness with this structure. We will both experience clear, empty luminous consciousness pervading both the structure and our own body as a unity. And we will both experience an immediacy of perception, as if the structure emerged out of the pervasive space of our mind. We will both experience the structure's "suchness" or "rawness" (Trungpa, 1974). Now he and I can have a conversation about what that structure means to each of us, without disturbing our experience of unity.

"There is great enjoyment in this immediacy of perception. However, perceptual immediacy is not the only benefit of nondual realization. As I will describe, nondual realization is based on our opennes or availability for experience in all aspects of our being,including our capacity for emotion, understanding, and physical sensation... Although much of Asian philosophy conceives of nondual awareness as our "true nature," it largely ignores the qualitative experience of aliveness that emerges with nondual realization. It ignores, for the most part, how every aspect of our being, including our senses and our capacity for love, cognition, and physical sensation, becomes increasingly unfettered and responsive as we realize nonduality. Zen Buddhism describes the dissolution of the reified separate self as the "great death," but it is important to understand that it is also a great birth. I believe that the fear and the often shame-filled attempt to eradicate personal experience engendered by such Buddhist concepts as "ego annihilation" can be avoided if people know that the dissolution of their abstract self-representations results in a deepening of their human capacities" (Blackstone, The Empathic Ground: Intersubjectivity and Nonduality in the Psychotherapeutic Process)."

Next, David Michael Levin (from a phenomenological journal entry he wrote about his experience on a Dzogchen dark retreat):

"The fourth night and the following day, I began to feel somewhat different. I was in the process of developing a very different attitude: toward the practices I had been struggling with and myself in relationship to them, toward the darkness, and toward the interminable displays of light. And these changes in me were immediately reflected in corresponding changes in the environment. Briefly described, this environment was gradually beginning to feel less wrathful and more friendly -- more like a nurturing, gently encompassing presence. And, as I found myself able to put into practice the many meditative disciplines I had been learning for many years prior to the retreat (primariy the practice of zhi-gnas, calming and quieting the mind, and the practice of lhaktong, developing the deconstructive clarity of my insight into the ultimate emptiness of all passing forms), I began to see a decisive change in the phenomenal displays. The transformations of the lighting became slower, less violent; and in between the displays of forms, I saw more of a clear space. There were more frequent times when I was surrounded by large curtains, or regions, of relatively constant and uniform illumination, sometimes brownish red, sometimes pale green, sometimes a dull white. Sometimes, I found myself looking out into an infinite expanse of clear, dark blue space, punctuated here and there by tiny stars of intense white light.

"During the fourth day and fifth night, I gradually experienced the fact that there is a fifth attitude [other than seduction, resistance, disengagement that involves withdrawing into inner monologue, or disengagement that results in drowsiness]: a way out of the vicious cycle of suffering. The way out was to be found in the teachings and practices I had brought with me into the retreat. And finally, I knew this through direct experience, my own experience -- and not by a leap of faith. The calmness and relaxation I was beginning to achieve was reflected back to me by corresponding qualities in the luminous presencing of the darkness. This different lighting in turn helped me to deepen my state of calm and relaxation and continue developing a non-dual (dbyer-med) visionary presence.

"Beginning with the fifth day, then, it became progressively easier for me to experience what the Tibetans call rigpa: the simple presence of awareness. Staying in this nonduality, I could begin to experience my integration into the element of light. I felt the truth of the Dzogchen teaching that I am by nature a body of light: that I am light; that I and the phenomenal displays of light are really one. Correspondingly, the darkness became a warm, softly glowing sphere of light, an intimate space opening out into the unlimited. I felt bathed in its encompassing luminosity, an interplay of softly shimmering grey-white and blackish-red lights. I experienced a kind of erotic communion with the light, as if the light and I were entwined in a lover's embrace.

"With the development of more neutralized, non-dualistic awareness, my vision was less caught up in the antithesis of movement (gyu-ba) and non-movement (gnas-pa). With the development of my capacity for letting go and letting be [Gelassenheit], my gaze was less troubled by forms in movement. There was less need to withdraw into sleep, because rigpa is a restful aliveness. There was less need for painful staring, less need to stare the forms into fixity, because the greater tranquility of my gaze effortlessly stabilized the inevitable display of moving, changing forms. There was less visual jumping and darting about, because the gaze was not so readily seduced by the play of light into forming attachments to its transformations that would disturbed my becalmed presence. And there was less compulsion to withdraw into conceptual interpretation, because the gaze, more inwardly quiet, could let me begin to enjoy simply being in and with the lighting of the dark.

"[P]rimordial awareness ... flashes up like lightning, because it is an enlightened level of visual perception where the seer and seen meet in the lighting of Being, [a] pervasive continuum of illumination that constitutes the visual field as a whole... Seeing which issues from this level of perceptivity sees things in a way which feels well-articulated by the phrase, 'as they really are,' or by a phrase like 'in their isness'" (Levin, The Opening of Vision: Nihilism and the Postmodern Situation).


I guess what I find metaphysical about the above descriptions is the importance placed on this state. Rather than a natural state to be included and integrated within a healthy egoic frame it seems the epitome of some sort of "spiritual" realization beyond and superior to ego. It is certainly beyond the I-dominated aspect of ego but as Epstein makes clear not the entire ego, and I get this sense that such focus on and elevation of the nondual state of consciousness misses this broader integration. And ironically lends itself to the type of primary narcissism Epstein notes and the spiritual materialism Trungpa is infamous for pointing out. To wit, its rampant manifestation in kennilingus and related evolutionary spiritual community.

In some respects it is like elevating sexual orgasm to some sort of mystical or divine state, another popular and state-specific notion. And we all know that sex does not equal love or sustain a relationship over the long haul, great cums notwithstanding. And ingredient, of course, without which romantic love cannot be sustained either. But magical ingredient?

I am reminded of the previous IPS thread “evolution as metapysics and spiritual violence,” as well as the previous Gaia thread on “authentic enlightenment.”


  1. Balder:

    I see neither magic nor narcissism in either description, nor excessive elevationism. Esp. in Levin (but then, I have the book and am better able to appreciate the passage in context). I do think Blackstone's interpretations still "stick" for me in places as metaphysically framed (not necessarily in the passage above, but in her book), but then she is describing what constitutes, for her, a remarkable shift in perception and self-world gestalt (which involves more, and is more abiding (alas!) than, something like orgasm.)

    Beyond this, the state they are describing is not, in my view, the same as the fusion of ego and ego ideal through concentration which Epstein is describing, but much more properly a state which, while it does involve the stability developed in concentration, is primarily a "synthetic function" which allows the individual to observe "the dynamic flow of psychic events...[while] maintaining equilibrium in the face of incessant change." I think this is especially evident in Levin's description (who, as you should know already, does not endorse the "perennialist"/transpersonalist demonization of ego or emphasis on "ascent.")

  2. theurj:

    And I'm inclined to think it is indeed that fusion with the ego ideal. During that state there is no individual to observe or integrate; that seems to come after the temporary state with the contextualization. I am also inclined toward Levin's contextualization but still think he's giving this state undue importance. I also do not agree that the state itself is "abiding." What abides is our contextualization of it; the state like orgasm is fleeting. Or we could say the state is "ever present" in that it lies in potentia ready to be accessed, but if we were to abide in this state 24/7 we'd be catatonic. I know, enlightened folk might claim to such a constant abode but I think what's going on is that they've achieved easy and ready access through their machinations.*

    * With specific connotation to "deus ex machina." Granted the deus here is not God per se but some kind of savior or salvation nonetheless.

  3. Balder:

    Then you're misunderstanding it. You're confusing "causal" with nondual, perhaps (in this case inappropriately) bringing in Wilber's specific definition of nondual as "union of causal and gross." Neither author describes nondual in these terms, and Levin certainly doesn't posit some theistic / eternalistic "Emptiness." (Actually, Blackstone doesn't either).

    The reason I say you're misunderstanding it is because you say its continuation would amount to catatonia. I can only think you mean by that the causal state (fusion of ego and ego ideal) in which all distinctions vanish. That is NOT what either Blackstone or Levin are describing.

    I do think both Levin and Blackstone would agree that this state is, for human beings, "ever present" as a potential, though I think Levin better describes its emergence and integration in postmetaphysical terms (which we've discussed before).

    Beyond our disagreement here, I want to note that one reason I juxtaposed both passages was that I found both to offer a number of compelling parallels, in terms of the phenomenological description especially (by authors without any exposure to each other, to my knowledge).

  4. theurj:

    Perhaps so, but it does have the subtle flavor of the causal to me, despite it's apparent nonmetaphysical frame. And since both descriptions are coming from a traditional Buddhist frame the mixing of causal and nondual seems typical, Wilber perhaps being the more egregious example.

  5. Balder and I have had some continuing disagreement over the years on the above related to Buddhism. For those not familiar with them the most recent thread on Stephen Batchelor* highlights some of our past thoughts, also links therein to older Gaia threads.


  6. Re-reading the "letting daylight" thread I came upon this poem I wrote during the discussion. I still like it, sort of a whitebread, bastard, hybrid haiku-koan:

    I see a ghost on the horizon
    calling me to follow.
    When I get there
    loose rags on a tattered fence.

    Later addendum:

    I look up and he's still there on the horizon, beckoning.

  7. This is why I referenced the Epstein quote from Open to Desire earlier in the thread. Which is related to my last posts in the "context transcendent meaning" thread quoting Caputo. Batchelor in the above thread says that awakening is "not some kind of transcendental absorption" and that emptiness (aka nondual dependent origination) "does not in any way denote a...state. It is not something we 'realize' in a moment of mystical insight." This seems in distinction to the quotes above by Blackstone and Levin, where one experiences a state of awareness in the present moment that is described as nondual.*

    Whereas what I'm getting at is that nonduality is not a particular state experience that ever enters into present awareness, that it is always a yearning or desire for that type of present experience, but a desire that can never be fulfilled.** But like Nasruddin in Epstein's opening story, we go on desiring it nonetheless, so much so that with profound states we can experience, like orgasm or fusion, we cling to as substitutes for what we can never have. For me nondual emptiness can be a stable, present, open attitude to that ghost on the horizon that always vanishes as we approach, a "stage" perhaps (of the synthetic ego) but not any particular state of consciousness.

    * And perhaps I misunderstand them, as Balder suggests.

    ** It's what keeps us bound to the object in a not one, not two (nondual) relation but we are not fused with it.

  8. lol replied:

    With regard to your Batchelor quote, I don't see either Blackstone or Levin talking about their experience as being any kind of transcendental absorption.

    Blackstone's talk of "nondual realization" or a "[realized] nondual consciousness" doesn't land with me (and I find it somewhat tacky) so I'm sympathetic to your implying that whatever she might be referring to would not be "... something we 'realize' in a moment of mystical insight", if that's what you're (partly) intending with the Batchelor quote.

    I don't accept that what Levin is referring to with "Staying in this nonduality..." equates to "... emptiness (aka nondual dependent origination)".

    Likewise, I don't agree that what Levin is referring to is a nonduality characterised as "...a particular state experience that ... enters into present awareness, that it is always a yearning or desire for that type of present experience, but a desire that can never be fulfilled", and, understanding the context for his account, I don't think he would equate it with a "state of consciousness" either.

  9. I replied:

    Here are some of Levin's words with my commentary:

    “I was in the process of developing a very different attitude toward the practices."

    This is more like what I'm getting at, an attitude or orientation to state experiences. But then:

    “Briefly described, this environment was gradually beginning to feel less wrathful and more friendly -- more like a nurturing, gently encompassing presence."

    So here I start to get the feel for something within present experience, but then again he does use the word "like" so I might say it's a metaphor. But then:

    “I gradually experienced the fact that there is a fifth attitude...a way out of the vicious cycle of suffering. I knew this through direct experience, my own experience.... The calmness and relaxation I was beginning to achieve was reflected back to me by corresponding qualities in the luminous presencing of the darkness."

    This leaves no doubt about being a present, direct experience, both within and without.

    "Beginning with the fifth day, then, it became progressively easier for me to experience what the Tibetans call rigpa: the simple presence of awareness. Staying in this nonduality, I could begin to experience my integration into the element of light. … And there was less compulsion to withdraw into conceptual interpretation.”

    Here is the equation of a present experience being a nondual fusion, and that conceptual interpretation is a withdrawal from that nondual experience.

    "[P]rimordial awareness ... is an enlightened level of visual perception where the seer and seen meet in the lighting of Being.... Seeing which issues from this level of perceptivity sees things in a way which feels well-articulated by the phrase, 'as they really are.'

    Which speaks for itself to my points. And the entire description obviously comes from an eventual withdrawal from the state experience to put it down in conceptual interpretation. And I find much agreement with a lot of his interpretation as stated in previous threads. But in this particular regard he is still clinging to an actual (present) state experience instead of merely longing in an attitude of open expectation.

    And of course we can debate whether one is better or more accurate than the other in defining an integral postmetaphysical nonduality, and we will!

  10. I also missed an important Levin quote that follows "the luminous presence of darkness":

    " state of calm and relaxation...continue developing a non-dual visionary presence."


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