The Spectrum of Consciousness

The Spectrum of Consciousness

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by Ken Wilber

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Like radiation and light, consciousness, suggests Wilber, establishes a multiplicity of aspects as it 'steps down' into time and space. Thus, as a spectrum, it can be studied legitimately on one or more of its 'wavelengths.' Viewing consciousness in this way, we can see that seemingly disparate disciplines each speak to a different wavelength of awareness.


Like radiation and light, consciousness, suggests Wilber, establishes a multiplicity of aspects as it 'steps down' into time and space. Thus, as a spectrum, it can be studied legitimately on one or more of its 'wavelengths.' Viewing consciousness in this way, we can see that seemingly disparate disciplines each speak to a different wavelength of awareness.

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The Spectrum of Consciousness

By Ken Wilber

Theosophical Publishing House

Copyright © 1993 Ken Wilber
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8356-3017-7



Willam James, in an oft-quoted remark, has stated that

Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, while all about it parted from it by the filmiest of screens there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence, but apply the requisite stimulus and at a touch they are there in all their completeness....

No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question.... At any rate, they forbid our premature closing of accounts with reality.

This volume is an attempt to provide a framework for just such an account of the universe. Now this framework is, above all else, a synthesis of what are generally but nebulously referred to as "Eastern" and "Western" approaches to the understanding of consciousness; and due to the extraordinarily vast and complex nature of both of these approaches, this synthesis is—in at least some aspects—deliberately simplistic. An analogy from physics might prove helpful in explaining this approach.

Our environment is saturated with numerous kinds of radiation—besides the common visible light of various colors, there exist X-rays, gamma rays, infrared heat, ultraviolet light, radio waves, and cosmic rays. Except for that of visible light, the existence of these radiation waves was unknown until around 200 years ago, when William Herschel began the exploration of radiation by demonstrating the existence of "thermal radiation" — now called infrared — using for instruments nothing more than thermometers with blackened bulbs placed in various bands of a solar spectrum. Shortly after Herschel's discovery, Ritter and Wollaston, using photographic instruments, detected ultraviolet radiation, and by the end of the 19th century, the existence of X-rays, gamma rays, and radio waves had been experimentally proven using a variety of techniques and instruments.

All of these radiations are superficially quite different from one another. X-rays and gamma rays, for instance, have very short wavelengths and consequently are very powerful, capable of lethally damaging biological tissues; visible light, on the other hand, has a much longer wavelength, is less powerful, and thus rarely harms living tissue. From this point of view, they are indeed dissimilar. As another example, cosmic rays have a wavelength of less than a millionth of a millionth of an inch, while some radio waves have wavelengths of over a mile! Certainly, at first glance, these phenomena all seem to be radically different.

Oddly enough, however, all of these radiations are now viewed as different forms of an essentially characteristic electromagnetic wave, for all of these apparently different rays share a large set of common properties. In a vacuum they all travel at the speed of light; they are all composed of electric and magnetic vectors which are perpendicular to each other; they are all quantized as photons, and so on. Because these different forms of electromagnetic radiation — on this "simplistic" level — are fundamentally so similar, they are today commonly viewed as composing a single spectrum. That is, X-rays, visible light, radio waves, infrared, and ultraviolet are simply described as being different bands of one spectrum, in the same way that the different color bands of a rainbow form one visible spectrum. So what were once thought to be quite separate events are now seen as variations of one basic phenomenon, and the early scientists — because they were using different instruments — were simply "plugging in" at various different frequencies or vibratory levels of the spectrum, unaware of the fact that they were all studying the same basic process.

Electromagnetic radiation, therefore, consists of a spectrum of energy waves of various wavelengths, frequencies, and energies, ranging from the "finest" and the "most penetrating" cosmic rays to the "densest" and least energetic radio waves. Now compare this with Lama Govinda's description of a Tibetan Buddhistic view of consciousness. Speaking of consciousness as being composed of several shades, bands, or levels, Govinda states that these levels "are not separate layers ... but rather in the nature of mutually penetrating forms of energy, from the finest 'all-radiating,' all-pervading, luminous consciousness down to the densest form of 'materialized consciousness,' which appears before us as our visible, physical body." Consciousness, in other words, is here described very much like the electromagnetic spectrum, and several Western investigators — taking their cue from just such descriptions — have in fact suggested it might prove fruitful to view consciousness as a spectrum.

If, for the moment, we do consider consciousness as a spectrum, then we might expect that the different investigators of consciousness, especially those commonly termed "Eastern" and "Western", because they are using different instruments of language, methodology, and logic, would "plug in" at different bands or vibratory levels of the spectrum of consciousness, just as the early radiation scientists plugged in at different bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. We might also expect that the "Eastern" and "Western" investigators of consciousness would not suspect that they were all plugging in at various bands or levels of the very same spectrum, and consequently communication between investigators might be particularly difficult and occasionally hostile. Each investigator would be correct when speaking about his own level, and thus all other investigators—plugged in at different levels—would appear to be completely wrong. The controversy would not be cleared up by having all investigators agree with each other, but rather by realizing that all were talking about one spectrum seen from different levels. It would almost be like M. Curie arguing with William Herschel about the nature of radiation if each didn't understand that radiation is a spectrum. Curie, working only with gamma rays, would claim radiation affects photographic plates, is extremely powerful, and can prove lethal to organisms, while William Herschel, working only with infrared, would claim nothing of the kind! And of course, they would both be right, because each is working with a different band of the spectrum, and when they realized that, the argument would cease, and the phenomenon of radiation would then be understood through a synthesis of all of the information gained on each level, which is exactly the way physicists view it today.

Our expectation that if consciousness is a spectrum, then communication between Eastern and Western investigators would be difficult because each is working on a different vibratory level, is exactly what is happening today. Although there are numerous important exceptions, the general consensus of the Western scientific community is that the "Eastern" mind is regressive, primitive, or at best, just plain feeble, while the Eastern philosopher is apt to reply that Western scientific materialism represents the grossest form of illusion, ignorance, and spiritual deprivation. For example, Franz Alexander, representing a breed of Western investigation called psychoanalysis, states, "The obvious similarities between schizophrenic regressions and the practices of Yoga and Zen merely indicate that the general trend in Oriental cultures is to withdraw into the self from an overbearingly difficult physical and social reality." D. T. Suzuki, representing the Eastern approach, as if to reply, states, "Scientific knowledge of the Self is not real knowledge.... Self-knowledge is possible only ... when scientific studies come to an end, [and the scientists] lay down all their gadgets of experimentation, and confess that they cannot continue their researches any further...."

To continue the analogy, arguments like this abound because each explorer is speaking about and from a different band of the spectrum of consciousness, and should this be realized, the ground of these arguments would evaporate—for an argument can be legitimately sustained only if the participants are speaking about the same level. Argumentation would—for the most part—be replaced with something akin to Bohr's principle of complementarity. Information from and about the different vibratory levels of bands of consciousness—although being superficially as different as X-rays and radio waves—would be integrated and synthesized into one spectrum, one rainbow. That each approach, each level, each band is but one among several other bands should in no way compromise the integrity or the value of the individual levels or of the research done on these levels. On the contrary, each band or level, being a particular manifestation of the spectrum, is what it is only by virtue of the other bands. The color blue is no less beautiful because it exists along side the other colors of a rainbow, and "blueness" itself depends upon the existence of the other colors, for if there were no color but blue, we would never be able to see it. In this type of synthesis, no approach, be it Eastern or Western, has anything to lose—rather, they all gain a universal context.

Throughout this book, whenever consciousness is referred to as a spectrum, or as being composed of numerous bands or vibratory levels, the meaning remains strictly metaphorical. Consciousness is not, properly speaking, a spectrum—but it is useful, for purposes of communication and investigation, to treat it as one. We are creating, in other words, a model, in the scientific sense of the word, much like the Michaelis-Menton model of enzyme kinetics, the eight-fold way model of the atomic nucleus, or the model of visual excitation based on the photoisomerization of rhodopsin. To complete this introductory discussion of the spectrum of consciousness, there remains only a brief identification of the basic levels of consciousness that will be treated in this synthesis.

Out of an infinite number of possible levels made available to us through the revelations of psychoanalysis, Yogacara Buddhism, Jungian analysis, Vedanta Hindusism, Gestalt therapy, Vajrayana, Psychosynthesis, and the like, three major bands (and four minor ones to be described later) have been selected on the basis of their simplicity and their ease of identification. These three levels we call: 1) the Ego Level, 2) the Existential Level, and 3) the Level of Mind. (The minor bands being the Transpersonal, the Biosocial, the Philosophic, and the Shadow Levels). The nature of this synthesis will start to become clearer if we realize that numerous investigators of consciousness have studied some of these levels from slightly different viewpoints, and one of our tasks is thus to distill and coordinate their conclusions. For example, Dr. Hubert Benoit refers to these three major levels, respectively, as the level of objectal consciousness, the level of subjectal consciousness, and the level of Absolute Principle. Wei Wu Wei calls them the levels of object, of pseudo-subject, and of Absolute Subject. Yogacara Buddhism has the mano-vijnana, the manas, and the alaya. These levels have also been approached by such other renowned explorers as William James, D. T. Suzuki, Stanislav Grof, Roland Fischer, Carl Jung, Gurdjieff, Shankara, Assagioli, John Lilly, Edward Carpenter, Bucke—to name but a handful. Also of special interest to us is the fact that several psychologists have (albeit unwittingly) confined their investigations to one major level, and their conclusions are of immense importance in clarifying and characterizing each individual level. Foremost among these are the schools of psychoanalysis, existential psychology, Gestalt therapy, behaviorism, rational therapy, social psychology, and transactional analysis.

In other words, what will begin to emerge from our study of the Spectrum of Consciousness is not only a synthesis of Eastern and Western approaches to psychology and psychotherapy, but also a synthesis and integration of the various major Western approaches to psychology and psychotherapy. Now at this point, without going into any of the details and "giving the show away", let us only say that the various different schools of Western psychology, such as Freudian, existential, and Jungian, are also by-and-large addressing themselves to various different levels of the Spectrum of Consciousness, so that they, too, can be integrated into a truly encompassing "spectrum psychology". Indeed, the principal reason there exist in the West four or five major but different schools of psychology and psychotherapy is, I contend, that each school has zeroed-in on one major band or level of the Spectrum. It is not, let us say, four different schools forming four different theories about one level of consciousness, but four different schools each predominantly addressing a different level of the Spectrum (e.g., the Shadow, the Ego, the Biosocial, and the Existential Levels). These different schools therefore stand in a complementary relationship to one another, and not, as is generally assumed, in an antagonistic or contradictory one. This, I trust, will become amply apparent as this study proceeds.

Let it be rigorously stated that this synthesis in no way attempts to settle disputes that are now occurring on the same levels, as for instance, if on the Ego Level I have a phobic anxiety of speaking in public, should I go to a psychoanalyst or a behaviorist? Only with time and further experimentation will we be able to delineate the various merits of each approach. This synthesis does, however, attempt to answer a question such as, "I feel generally unhappy about life—should I pursue psychotherapy or Mahayana Buddhism?" with the answer, "You are perfectly free to pursue both, for these approaches refer to different levels, and thus are not fundamentally in conflict."

Now the Ego Level is that band of consciousness that comprises our role, our picture of ourself, our self-image, with both its conscious and unconscious aspects, as well as the analytical and discriminatory nature of the intellect, of our "mind." The second major level, the Existential Level, involves our total organism, our soma as well as our psyche, and thus comprises our basic sense of existence, of being, along with our cultural premises that in many ways mold this basic sensation of existence. Among other things, the Existential Level forms the sensory referent of our self-image: it's what you feel when you mentally evoke the symbol of your self-image. It forms, in short, the persistent and irreducible source of a separate I-awareness. The third basic level, here called Mind, is commonly termed mystical consciousness, and it entails the sensation that you are fundamentally one with the universe. So where the Ego Level includes the mind, and the Existential Level includes both the mind and the body, the Level of Mind includes the mind and the body and the rest of the universe. This sensation of being one with the universe is much more common than one might initially suspect, for—in a certain sense that we will try to explain—it is the very foundation of all other sensations. Briefly, then, the Ego Level is what you feel when you feel yourself to be a father, a mother, a lawyer, a businessman, an American, or any other particular role or image. The Existential Level is what you feel "beneath" your self-image; that is, it is that sensation of total organismic existence, the inner conviction that you exist as the separate subject of all your experiences. The Level of Mind is—as we shall try to demonstrate—exactly what you are feeling right now before you feel anything else—a sensation of being one with the cosmos.

The Ego Level and the Existential Level together constitute our general feeling of being a self-existent and separate individual, and it is to these levels that most Western approaches have addressed themselves. Eastern disciplines, on the other hand, are generally more concerned with the Level of Mind, and thus tend to completely by-pass the levels of egocentricity. In short, Western psychotherapies aim at "patching up" the individual self while Eastern approaches aim at transcending the self.


Excerpted from The Spectrum of Consciousness by Ken Wilber. Copyright © 1993 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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