Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development


Wilber traces human development from infancy into adulthood and beyond, into those states described by mystics and spiritual adepts. The spiritual evolution of such extraordinary individuals as the Buddha and Jesus hints at the direction human beings will take in their continuing growth toward transcendence.
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Wilber traces human development from infancy into adulthood and beyond, into those states described by mystics and spiritual adepts. The spiritual evolution of such extraordinary individuals as the Buddha and Jesus hints at the direction human beings will take in their continuing growth toward transcendence.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780835607308
  • Publisher: Quest Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/1980
  • Edition description: Subsequent
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 700,416
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.03 (h) x 0.59 (d)

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The Atman Project

A Transpersonal View of Human Development

By Ken Wilber

Theosophical Publishing House

Copyright © 1996 Ken Wilber
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8356-0730-8



Everywhere we look in nature, said the philosopher Jan Smuts, we see nothing but wholes. And not just simple wholes, but hierarchical ones: each whole is a part of a larger whole which is itself a part of a larger whole. Fields within fields within fields, stretching through the cosmos, interlacing each and every thing with each and every other.

Further, said Smuts, the universe is not a thoughtlessly static and inert whole—the cosmos is not lazy, but energetically dynamic and even creative. It tends (we would now say teleonomically, not teleologically) to produce higher- and higher-level wholes, evermore inclusive and organized. This overall cosmic process, as it unfolds in time, is nothing other than evolution. And the drive to ever-higher unities, Smuts called holism.

If we continued this line of thinking, we might say that because the human mind or psyche is an aspect of the cosmos, we would expect to find, in the psyche itself, the same hierarchical arrangement of wholes within wholes, reaching from the simplest and most rudimentary to the most complex and inclusive. In general, such is exactly the discovery of modern psychology. As Werner put it, "Wherever development occurs it proceeds from a state of relative globality and lack of differentiation to a state of increasing differentiation, articulation, and hierarchical integration." Jakobson speaks of "those stratified phenomena which modern psychology uncovers in the different areas of the realm of the mind," where each stratified layer is more integrated and more encompassing than its predecessor. Bateson points out that even learning itself is hierarchical, involving several major levels, each of which is "meta-" to its predecessors. As a general approximation, then, we may conclude that the psyche—like the cosmos at large—is many-layered ("pluridimensional"), composed of successively higher-order wholes and unities and integrations.

The holistic evolution of nature—which produces everywhere higher and higher wholes—shows up in the human psyche as development or growth. The same force that produced humans from amoebas produces adults from infants. That is, a person's growth, from infancy to adulthood, is simply a miniature version of cosmic evolution. Or, we might say, psychological growth or development in humans is simply a microcosmic reflection of universal growth on the whole, and has the same goal: the unfolding of ever higher-order unities and integrations. And this is one of the major reasons that the psyche is, indeed, stratified. Very like the geological formation of the earth, psychological development proceeds, stratum by stratum, level by level, stage by stage, with each successive level superimposed upon its predecessor in such a way that it includes but transcends it ("envelops it," as Werner would say).

Now in psychological development, the whole of any level becomes merely a part of the whole of the next level, which in turn becomes a part of the next whole, and so on throughout the evolution of consciousness. Take, as but one example, the development of language: the child first learns babbling sounds, then wider vowel and consonant sounds, then simple words, then small phrases, then simple sentences, and then extended sentences. At each stage, simple parts (e.g., words) are integrated into higher wholes (e.g., sentences), and, as Jakobson points out, "new additions are superimposed on earlier ones and dissolution begins with the higher strata."

Modern developmental psychology has, on the whole, simply devoted itself to the exploration and explanation of the various levels, stages, and strata of the human constitution—mind, personality, psychosexuality, character, consciousness. The cognitive studies of Piaget and Werner,, the works of Loevinger and Arieti7 and Maslow and Jakobson, the moral development studies of Kohlberg—all subscribe, in whole or part, to the concept of stratified stages of increasing differentiation, integration, and unity.

Having said that much, we are at once entitled to ask, "What, then, is the highest stage of unity to which one may aspire?" Or perhaps we should not phrase the question in such ultimate terms, but simply ask instead, "What is the nature of some of the higher and highest stages of development? What forms of unity are disclosed in the most developed souls of the human species?"

We all know what the "lower" stages and levels of the psyche are like (I am speaking in simple, general terms): they are instinctual, impulsive, libidinous, id-ish, animal, apelike. And we all know what some of the "middle" stages are like: socially adapted, mentally adjusted, egoically integrated, syntaxically organized, conceptually advanced. But are there no higher stages? Is an "integrated ego" or "autonomous individual" the highest reach of consciousness in human beings? The individual ego is a marvelously high-order unity, but compared with the Unity of the cosmos at large, it is a pitiful slice of holistic reality. Has nature labored these billions of years just to bring forth this egoic mouse?

The problem with that type of question lies in finding examples of truly higher-order personalities—and in deciding exactly what constitutes a higher-order personality in the first place. My own feeling is that as humanity continues its collective evolution, this will become very easy to decide, because more and more "enlightened" personalities will show up in data populations, and psychologists will be forced, by their statistical analyses, to include higher-order profiles in their developmental stages. In the meantime, one's idea of "higher-order" or "highly developed" remains rather philosophic. Nonetheless, those few gifted souls who have bothered to look at this problem have suggested that the world's great mystics and sages represent some of the very highest, if not the highest, of all stages of human development. Bergson said exactly that; and so did Toynbee, and Tolstoy and James and Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Maslow.

The point is that we might have an excellent population of extremely evolved and developed personalities in the form of the world's great mystic-sages (a point which is supported by Maslow's studies). Let us, then, simply assume that the authentic mysticsage represents the very highest stages of human development—as far beyond normal and average humanity as humanity itself is beyond apes. This, in effect, would give us a sample which approximates "the highest state of consciousness"—a type of "superconscious state." Furthermore, most of the mystic-sages have left rather detailed records of the stages and steps of their own transformations into the superconscious realms. That is, they tell us not only of the highest level of consciousness and superconsciousness, but also of all the intermediate levels leading up to it. If we take all these higher stages and add them to the lower and middle stages/levels which have been so carefully described and studied by Western psychology, we would then arrive at a fairly well-balanced and comprehensive model of the spectrum of consciousness. That, exactly, is the nature and aim of this volume.


Once we put all the stages and levels of consciousness evolution together, we arrive at something that resembles an overall life cycle. Further, we will find that—if all the higher stages reported by the mystics are real—this life cycle moves from subconsciousness (instinctual, impulsive, id-ish) to self-consciousness (egoic, conceptual, syntaxical) to superconsciousness (transcendent, transpersonal, transtemporal), as shown in Fig. 1. Further, we can divide this cycle, for convenience, into two halves: the Outward Arc, or the movement from subconsciousness to self-consciousness, and the Inward Arc, or movement from self-consciousness to superconsciousness (see Fig. 1). The overall cycle is nicely described by Ananda Coomaraswamy-.

The life or lives of man may be regarded as constituting a curve—an arc of timeexperience subtended by the duration of the individual Will to Life. The outward movement of this curve ... —the Path of Pursuit—the Pravritti Marga—is characterized by selfassertion. The inward movement— ... the Path of Return—the Nivritti Marga—is characterized by increasing Self-realization. The religion of men on the outward path is the Religion of Time; the religion of those who return is the Religion of Eternity.

The story of the Outward Arc is the story of the Hero—the story of the terrible battle to break free of the sleep in the subconscious, the immersion in the primal matrix of predifferentiation. The story of the Outward Arc is also the story of the ego, for the ego is the Hero; the story of its emergence from unconsciousness—the conflicts, the growths, the terrors, the rewards, the anxieties. It occurs in the arena of differentiation, separation, and possible alienation; of growth, individuation, and emergence.

But the Outward Arc, the move from subconsciousness to self-consciousness, is only half of the story of the evolution of consciousness—a necessary half to be sure, but a half nonetheless. Beyond the self-conscious ego, according to mystic-sages, lies the path of return and the psychology of eternity—the Inward Arc. Our job, then, is to try to set forth the entire story of the evolution of consciousness, including not only the Outward swing from sub- to self-consciousness, but also the Inward swing from self- to superconsciousness (a complete map of which is offered in Fig. 2 for future reference). We will find that the subconscious is a type of prepersonal unity; the superconscious is a transpersonal unity—and the incredible voyage between these two terminals is the story of this volume.


The psychological evolution of men and women from infancy to adulthood—that is, the whole process of ontogeny—has generally been investigated in the West under the very broad heading of "developmental psychology." Historically, the field as a whole has included such diverse elements as cognitive development, moral maturation, learning theory, psychosexual stages, motivational and affective and intellectual development, role appropriation—all of it, however, being more-or-less confined to just the Outward Arc.

But even that study of the Outward Arc alone is today so vast, and embodies so many different theoretical and methodological approaches, that only the broadest and most general conclusions can, at this time, be drawn. We have, at the very least, the major works of Baldwin, Dewey, Tufts, G. H. Mead, Broughton, Jung, Piaget, Sullivan, Freud, Ferenczi, Erikson, Werner, Hartmann, Arieti, Loevinger, Kohlberg, etc. I mention all those names only so I can say that it is not my intention to argue the merits of any of them over the others, but merely to discuss the significance of the Outward Arc as a whole in light of the Inward Arc. Thus, I will simply present a working outline of some of the generally accepted stages of the development of the self-sense, drawing freely from the major developmental schools in what might appear at times a rather indiscriminate fashion.

Further, I will not absolutely distinguish the different lines of development, such as cognitive, moral, affective, conative, motivational, emotional, and intellectual, since whether any or all of these sequences are parallel, independent, or equivalent, or whether they represent one source or many cannot yet be decided in all cases, and I wish from the start to avoid such intricate debate.

The same thing holds, in essence, for the Inward Arc as well: I will take the same type of general overview approach, drawing freely from the mystical schools East and West, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism, Christianity, Platonism, etc. I am aware that in assuming this friendly and neutral approach to each of the various schools, high or low, psychological or religious, I am apt to be disowned by them all—but no other approach will give us the necessary data for a well-rounded and completed model.

We begin, then, at the beginning. Or rather, at the moment of birth....




By almost all accounts, neither the fetus in the womb nor the infant at birth possesses a developed self-sense. For the neonate there is no real separation whatsoever between inside and outside, subject and object, body and environment. It is not exactly that the baby is born into a world of material objects which he cannot recognize, but that—from the infant's view—there literally are as yet no objects whatsoever. Events, yes; objective events, no. That is, the infant is indeed aware of certain events, but not as "objective," not as separate from himself. The objective world and the infant's subjective awareness are largely undifferentiated—the neonate cannot differentiate the material world from his actions on it. And thus, in a special sense, his self and his physical environment are one and the same.

The self is "pleromatic," as the alchemists and gnostics would put it, which essentially means that the self and the material cosmos are undifferentiated. Piaget himself says precisely as much: "During the early stages the world and the self are one; neither term is distinguished from the other ... the self is material, so to speak," (my italics). The self is embedded in the materia prima, which is both the primal chaos of physical matter and the maternal matrix or Prakriti from whence all creation was fashioned.

"The baby at birth," concludes Loevinger, "cannot be said to have an ego. His first task is to learn to differentiate himself from his surroundings." Or, as von Bertalanffy puts it, "The most primitive stage [of consciousness] apparently is one where a difference between outside world and ego is not experienced.... The baby does not yet distinguish between himself and things outside; only slowly does he learn to do so." And Koestler summarizes it all very nicely: "Freud and Piaget, among others, have emphasized the fact that the new-born infant does not differentiate between ego and environment. It is aware of events, but not of itself as a separate entity.... The universe is focused on the self, and the self is the universe—a condition which Piaget called 'protoplasmic' or 'symbiotic' consciousness."

Because this stage is one of adualism, oceanic and autistic, it also tends to be prespatial and pretemporal. There is no real space for the neonate in the sense that there is no gap, distance, or separation between the pleromatic self and the enviromnent. And thus, there is likewise no time, since a succession of objects in space cannot be recognized. The neonate's awareness is spaceless, timeless, objectless (but not eventless). And for all these reasons, analysts (such as Ferenczi) are fond of referring to this stage as one of "unconditional omnipotence," which "persists as long as no conception of objects exists" (Fenichel). That is, since there is no real conception of space, time, and objects, there are no perceived limitations. Hence, the omnipotence of ignorance. As the Jungian researcher Neumann put it, this is "the pleromatic stage of paradisal perfection in the unborn, the embryonic stage of the ego, which a later consciousness will contrast with the sufferings of the nonautarchic ego in the world."

Notice that this is a prepersonal perfection, not a transpersonal one. It is indeed a type of primal paradise, but a paradise of innocence and ignorance, the state before the Fall into self-consciousness. And, as we will see, it should not be confused with the transpersonal paradise of superconsciousness. The one is pre-, the other trans-, and the difference between them is simply the entire life cycle of consciousness.


One of the first tasks of the infant is to construct some sort of objective world apart from himself, an act which simultaneously begins to structure his subjective self-sense. But this task is by no means an immediate success, and between the stage of complete adualism and that of a rudimentary self-sense localized as the individual body, the infant's awareness floats in what Neumann called an "extrapersonal, uroboric realm." As he words it, "I think of this stratum of the archetypal field as something 'extra-personal,' as well as 'beyond' the opposites of psychical and physical determined by consciousness." I would prefer "prepersonal," wherein psychical and physical have not yet been differentiated, but the point is that in the "development of the individual there is an initial preponderance of [uroboric] factors, [prepersonal or extrapersonal], and only in the course of development does the personal realm come into view and achieve independence." The uroboros is collective, archaic, still mostly oceanic: the word "uroboros" itself is taken from the mythical serpent that, eating its own tail, forms a self-contained, predifferentiated mass, "in the round," ignorant unto itself.


Excerpted from The Atman Project by Ken Wilber. Copyright © 1996 Ken Wilber. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1 Prologue,
2 The Primitive Roots of Awareness,
3 The Typhonic Self,
4 The Membership Self,
5 Mental-Egoic Realms,
6 Symbols of Transformation,
7 Centauric Realms,
8 Subtle Realms,
9 Causal and Ultimate Realms,
10 The Form of Development,
11 Types of the Unconscious,
12 Meditation and the Unconscious,
13 The Atman Project,
14 Evolution Through the Lower Levels,
15 Evolution Through the Egoic Levels,
16 Higher-Order Evolution,
17 Schizophrenia and Mysticism,
18 Involution,

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2003

    Tremendous work on human development!

    This book is perhaps the one of the best pieces of work on human development that I have ever read. The only problem with books on lifespan development is that it is only understandable up to the stages where we ourselves are at. But to this date, I have found no way around this problem and there may be no good solution to it. I did find a a book, however, that is more simplistic but explains development in a way people understand perhaps slightly beyond their own level of development (if that is possible). It is called "Rhythm, Relationships, and Transcendence" by Toru Sato. Try and see. You might like it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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