I had planned to write a well-reasoned exposition of Ken Wilber’s ideas and concepts, based on the hypotheses that he puts forth in A Brief History of Everything. But something happened to me on the way to writing this, turning this discussion from what it was intended to be to something much more intensely personal.
What I have done instead is to blend and synthesize Wilber’s concepts with my own thoughts, based on the experiences I had. I do not attribute any ideas to Wilber, because I have used my own voice to articulate my feelings and thoughts, giving it a meaning that is indigenous to me. But in reading my essay, it will be obvious to the informed reader that Wilber’s ideas play a strong role.
It is not for a lack of depth and vision that I felt I had to lean on Wilber to find my voice. Instead what I found was that what Wilber had to say were things I had thought but had never truly articulated. Thus for me, his writings were like a call to come home to embrace the broad vision of a universal dynamic that spawns the individual and the collective, and the subjective and the objective, all moving together in one harmonious symphony.
Ken Wilber’s book had a tremendous impact on my thinking; yet an even greater impact on me was the profundity of the experience that I am about to outline. Ironically, his discussions were very relevant to what I went through and it was with great ease that I was able to blend his thoughts with my own heart-felt thoughts and feelings.
After reading Ken Wilber’s A Brief History of Everything, I was in awe. The breadth and depth of his writing and thinking was so visionary, radical and pioneering; and so clean, crisp and all-encompassing that I wondered: how was I ever to begin writing a paper; I mean, where do I start from?
And then it hit me. It hit me like a bolt of lightening, like a sledgehammer on top of my head. It hit me smack dab in the middle of the face. And it came out of left field, unexpected, uncalled for, and undesired. I had a personal experience with Spirit.
On Sunday, August 6th, 2000, at approximately 2:30 in the afternoon, I nearly died.
On that day, my wife, my son and myself, along with seven other friends, went on a hike that we had planned a few weeks earlier. We drove two hours, into the heart of the Adirondack Mountains of New York, where we landed at our destination. We were then to take a moderate 2 ½ mile hike that would end at the Hudson River. This northernmost section of the Hudson was narrow and wild, with the waterways swelled by the large amounts of rain that had been a constant of the summer; consequently the rapids were flowing at a steady rate.
When we ended our hike and got to the river, I immediately joined two friends who were out on some rocks that jutted into the river to survey the scene. Across from us were some severe looking cliffs that rose 300 feet straight up. One friend joked that he used to dive off those cliffs. Two whitewater-rafting expeditions went by, each raft filled with probably ten people, all attempting to negotiate the rapids. My friends and I checked the water temperature and pronounced the water fit for swimming. I brought a bathing suit; my two friends did not. They said they would go out in their underwear. There were a number of families with little kids around, so I don’t know if they were truly going to do that.
I changed into my bathing suit and went into the water. When I got up to my knees, my wife called me to take my picture. The ham in me obliged. And then, my obligations taken care of, I was ready to swim.
I love to swim and consider myself an excellent swimmer. I used to say in my younger days, half-jokingly, that I wanted to swim the English Channel. Whenever I get in a fresh body of water my custom is to look for a far-off landmark and swim to it. As was my wont, without thinking, I did this. I started swimming towards a rock 100 yards away.
I probably got about half way there when I heard my name being called. One of my friends was telling me to watch out for the rapids. It was too late. I had gotten caught up in the swell of the currents. I started trying to swim against the stream, furiously trying to push my body against the will of nature. But it was to no avail. I was getting nowhere and I was tiring. The rapids won out and started taking me downstream. I was moving along now, and all my friends, my wife and my son, and other people along the shore, stood by on the shore helplessly watching me. Everyone knew they could not jump in and attempt to save me; if they tried to do so, they would suffer the same fate as I.
And so I was being pushed along to an uncertain future that would surely climax very soon. I was taken under by the currents and quickly came back up. I went by a rock and tried to grasp it, but the rock was slippery and I couldn’t hold on. Again I went under and again came back up. Another rock in the water again proved to be a slippery target and again I went right by it.
At this point I was a few hundred yards from where I started. I was going by a boulder that emerged from the water to a height about twenty feet above the water. Three people, all whitewater kayakers, were sitting on top, eating lunch. As I went by I yelled “help.” One man immediately stood up. I could see him and wondered what he would do. He couldn’t jump in.
I went by them and saw two large rocks in the water near the shoreline, sitting at a right angle to each other. Their right angle created an alcove. Somehow I found myself being carried towards the alcove. When I reached it I braced my body against the alcove and held onto the rock. I was sheltered from the current and my body was stabilized. I hung onto the rock for what seemed like an eternity. I turned around and saw my friends at the distance watching me, holding out hope that I had survived. The man who had stood up asked me if I was ok. I weakly said yes.
When I felt I had recovered my strength, when my hyperventilating stopped and I could breathe normally again, I picked myself up onto the rock and climbed onto shore. Remarkably I emerged unscathed, save for some scratches and bruises on my chest and cuts and scrapes on my legs. Now the problem was that I was on the other side of the river from where I started, from where my friends all were. I walked over to where the kayakers were sitting, and the man who had stood up suggested I walk up the shore a little bit, and then he would kayak me across the river. I followed his directions and he met me at where he felt would be a safe place to traverse me back.
While he was kayaking me back, he told me how fortunate I was. He said that this was one of the toughest stretches of the river, and just a little bit beyond where I stopped was a section known as “The Narrows.” As the name implied, he said this part of the river was narrow and treacherous. The currents and rapids were fast. I said, “Oh, I probably would’ve gotten thrown against some rocks.” And he replied, “No, you probably would’ve drowned.”
I also asked him why he had stood up. Was he going to jump in? He said no, he had a 75-foot throw line. The problem was it was all coiled up and attached to his life jacket. He was uncoiling it while he was standing.
After letting me off, I returned to my wife, who was in tears, and my friends, who were in shock. My adrenaline was still pumping, so I was making light of the whole incident, and a couple of my friends followed suit. I sat for awhile, eating a sandwich and collecting my wits. Everyone was anxious to leave, so after I ate we packed up and headed back.
On the way back I was asked what went through my head as I was being swept away to an uncertain fate. I said I felt like I was watching one of those movies where you see someone being swept down rapids. I was then asked, did I have any kind of out-ofbody experience, or perhaps a near-death experience? All I could say was that I was so much in the moment, trying to find a way to survive, that the only thing remotely connected to that was the movie experience.
Afterwards we all went out to dinner. One friend said the experience had already caused her to look at her life. I asked her in what way; she said she wasn’t sure, that she would be processing it. A little later she stated that she knew the man standing hadn’t saved me, but she wondered if I had found comfort in the fact that they were sitting there. I told her I wasn’t sure, although I had yelled, “help” as I was passing them. Perhaps, I said, I saw them as my last bastion of security, because I knew if I went by them, I could be swept away.
That night, once I was home safe and sound, I climbed into the tub and took a warm bath. I reflected on the day and especially what my friend had wondered, if I had felt comfort in knowing those people were there. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if there was some sort of connection between them and me and especially the man standing. Somehow I had found a way to get my tired body into the alcove. Was it possible that when the man stood up, some sort of connection between him and myself had been forged, and that Spirit had been called into action? I even looked at it in more metaphysical terms and pondered that perhaps that man had been some sort of guardian angel and that Spirit had been led through him to save me.
I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of pouring rain. I was in a half conscious state, listening to the downpour. At that point, while lying there, I began to see the entire incident. I realized that was no movie I thought I was viewing; that was myself I saw, trying to stay afloat. I did have an out-of-body experience after all. I realized why I didn’t have a near-death experience, though: my body was too busy trying to negotiate the rapids.
Then I saw an alternative reality. I saw myself being swept further downstream to The Narrows. And I understood how I would have drowned. When the kayaker first told me that I would’ve drowned, I cognitively shook it off, thinking I was too good a swimmer and I would’ve survived it. But I thought back to when I first started getting swept away and went underwater twice. The current just took me under; there was no way to fight it. Fortunately a second later the current slowed down, allowing me to get back to the surface. In the case of The Narrows, I realized the currents would have been so strong that I never would’ve been able to counter being submerged by nature’s fury. And as I saw this alternative reality, and saw myself drowning, I envisioned my soul disengage from my body and head into the sky.
At this point, shuddering at these thoughts, I began to toss and turn in bed. My wife reached out and touched me and asked if I was alright. I said I was ok; she said she had just been dreaming of the river. Somehow, miraculously, we both quickly fell asleep and were relieved of any further torment.
The next morning I reflected on what I had seen while lying in bed. I had fallen into a quantum state, in which I had lived all possible outcomes; like Schrodinger’s cat, I was both dead and alive. The question was then, Who determined the outcome that I would live? Who made the measurement? Was it Spirit?
It certainly wasn’t nature that aided me, because nature reared its malevolent face that day. Nature’s realm can be a cruel world, a world in which the rule of thumb is often the survival of the fittest. Nature has a beauty as a crowning expression of Spirit, yet at the same time, nature can show no compassion. It can tear you apart and spit you out in a heartbeat, no questions asked.
When I was younger my credo was that we as a society, in order to live in a more balanced way, and in order to save our environment and ourselves, needed to get back to nature. Wasn’t it Joni Mitchell who penned the words in the song “Woodstock,” that,
We’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden?
It’s been awhile since back to nature was my credo, but even so, after having firsthand experienced the traumas and pitfalls of nature, I will never again look at nature as a purely benevolent force.
And so, while nature may be a stunning expression of Spirit, it is not Spirit itself. Spirit begins as pure Emptiness and manifests into Form, and nature is one of Spirit’s manifestations. The movement towards Form is a creative drive, an evolution, an unfolding of Spirit itself. And while this unfolding occurs, Spirit exudes wisdom and compassion. Yet, nature showed me no compassion as it swept me away. But Spirit showed me compassion by saving my life.
It is said that evolution is Spirit-in-action, and as Spirit evolves and unfolds, new forms creatively emerge. As the new forms emerge, they self-organize, leading to a new order being born, one that arises from the chaos of creativity. As this change occurs, it can lead us on the path of self-dissolution or self-transcendence. In my case my self-dissolution would have been my death. Instead I was given a new lease on life; perhaps this means I will self-transcend, and a new order will creatively emerge in my life, in my being and in my consciousness. And my friend who said the incident had led her to start looking at her own life may also go through some self-transcendence.
We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, as Emerson put it. The universe has a direction; there is an order to the universe. This immense intelligence is Spirit, or even more accurately, Spirit-in-action, the unfolding of awareness, of Spirit becoming more and more aware of itself.
Was the man standing up a guardian angel? Was it Spirit working its way through him to help me? Perhaps Spirit was working its immense intelligence through the rapids to guide me to the rocks? Or maybe Spirit moved with me as I used my own wisdom and compassion to find my way? Whatever the case is, I don’t believe this was just pure luck on my part.
Yet all the same, I need to remember I am just a small pebble in the ocean of the universe. If I don’t maintain that perspective, I will think in a more self-centered manner, as if it was by some Divine right that I lived, and that now I sit on the right hand of God, in a seat occupied by only the most special, the most blessed. I will be like the man in the old story from Vedanta Hinduism.
In the story the man is told by a Hindu sage that all is one with Godhead, including your very Self, and that this Godhead creates everything. The man interprets this to mean that the highest Self, which is God, creates all, leading him to surmise that you create your own reality. The man then goes off along his way and approaches a man riding an elephant. The self-deluded man stands in front of the elephant, convinced he couldn’t get hurt, since he is God. The elephant rider yells at him to get out of the way, but the man stands his ground and is flattened.
He returns to the sage, wondering what went wrong. The sage reminds him that, indeed, everything is God. So the man wonders then how could he have gotten hurt. The sage then says, “So why didn’t you listen when God told you to get out of the way?”
It is the worm’s eye view of a narcissist to think that Spirit centers on them. If this were the case, then why was nature so cruel as to threaten me with death? Oh yes! It was just testing me, to test my resolve, to show me that God loves me, because I am the center of the universe.
No, the reality is that although God does love me, God also equally loves the rapids that swept me up, the rocks that were all around me, and even the vultures that were licking their lips in anticipation of my potential demise. They are all expressions of Spirit.
In addition, Spirit also exists in commonsense rules, such as, don’t be so stupid as to go swimming by rapids. Spirit also exists in the community of friends and loved ones bound together by the fear and terror of seeing a friend and loved one potentially killed. And this community of Spirit is further bound intersubjectively by the depth of the inner feelings this experience stirs in them.
I consider myself a spiritual person, but I can’t say if it was because of my spirituality that I was saved. The immense intelligence of the universe saved me, Spirit-in-action saved me, allowing me to self-transcend, to evolve to a new level of consciousness.
Evolution does move forward, in a broad direction with a grand design. Yet there are always bumps and bruises along the way, with the hope that evolution learns from the mistakes of the past. Evolution will go beyond what went before, as its nature is to transcend and include. It has an inherent directionality, a secret impulse, toward increasing depth and increasing consciousness.
This increase in depth and consciousness is Spirit’s creative movement towards knowing itself. Spirit goes from a slumber in nature, to awakening in mind, to a final realization as Spirit itself.
If I were to solely believe that Spirit’s state of slumber in nature was the ultimate reality, then I would just believe in the randomness of life, that objective processes solely define everything. This understanding defines nature and the objective world as the supreme reality and leads to the belief that random processes of this objective world cause everything that happens in life – following the laws of thermodynamics which state that for every action you have an equal and opposite reaction.
If I negate Spirit, then I would see life purely in random, two-dimensional, linear terms. Unfortunately, this is the way the great majority of people think. They negate that there is a world of depth, a world of evolving consciousness, a world of complexity, a world of order out of chaos – in other words, a world of an evolving Spirit-in-action. By seeing the world in mere black and white terms, the entire spectrum of light is missed.
It might be that there are two great paradigms that rule our world; by this I don’t mean the Newtonian/atomistic and New Science/holistic ones, as many currently believe. No, I believe the two great paradigms are the paradigm of slumber and the paradigm of awakening.
In the paradigm of slumber, there is no sense of a Spirit-in-action; there is no belief of a world in creative evolutionary flux toward greater and greater awareness of itself. And in this paradigm of slumber there are different camps with different perspectives. Some would negate the concept of Spirit altogether, seeing life solely as random processes; others would see a world that centers around themselves with Spirit as something that talks to them exclusively. And some would see a world that Man has ruined by his wicked ways, with the answer being a return back to the Garden.
I don’t mean to be so general and simplistic, but the point is that to truly understand Spirit as the manifestation of Emptiness into Form, one must be aware that it is a two-way street, that Form is also working its way back towards Emptiness. And as Form works its way back, Spirit becomes aware of itself, leading to the paradigm of awakening. To get there takes an evolution of consciousness, a movement towards integration and transcendence. We are moving in an evolutionary spiral towards higher and higher awareness of our bodies, our minds, our souls, and our spirits.
As we move along in evolutionary space and time, we become more aware of ourselves rationally and cognitively. We manifest more of the applications of emotional intelligence, using our powers of higher reason. This is part of the context of evolution, to see things from a broader perspective, a worldcentric perspective. This is Spirit becoming aware of itself in mind: we are then on our way to becoming self-actualized beings.
As we evolve even more fully over time, this worldview will continue to be integrated and transcended. We will ultimately become transrational human beings, with greater self-actualized capabilities. At the outer reaches of this worldview, Spirit will become conscious of itself.
Perhaps this is the realm of those who get swept away by rapids, only to be saved from an untimely demise by Spirit’s self-awareness and ability to act swiftly to reach out and touch Itself.
A few days prior to my ordeal, a woman came to see me for the first time for acupuncture treatment. A chiropractor friend of mine referred her. She had been in a car accident and was seeing him and he thought acupuncture would help her.
Within ten minutes from the time she entered my office she laid out her story of her past, telling me that she had a history of abuse. When I inquired if that occurred when she was an infant, she replied that it happened when she was an adult. She went on to tell me the story that 15 years ago she had fallen under the “mind control” of her priest, that they had an affair which led to her becoming pregnant and having his child. Furthermore, she was already married and had three children.
She told me more about the incident and its repercussions and we spent most of the session talking about this. The woman clearly had mental and emotional scars from which she had not recovered to this day. And she was, as she would readily confess, not totally connected to her body – she was not grounded. I mentioned to her that she exhibited classic signs of dissociation, of which she agreed and stated that her therapist also had told her this.
Her state brought to mind Ken Wilber’s discussions about dissociation, and that modern society has dissociated the Big Three/I, We, It domains. We are too caught up in one domain or another, and are not capable of integrating them.
I contemplated his discussions in regard to this woman and came away with the conclusion that if we live in an era that suffers from a dissociated worldview, then it only follows suit that most humans would also suffer from dissociation. If consciousness is not connected to culture and neither is connected to science, then how can the threads that follow possibly be integrated? Thus the reality is that we live in a fragmented world in which living according to the currents of the time is to live in a dissociated manner, in one way or another.
My essay explored my personal story and how it related to my visions of Spirit. While I believe that the ultimate way to become connected again is to recapture the essence of Spirit in our lives, at the same time this recapturing has to take place on many levels. Ken Wilber talks about how Spirit flows equally through the four quadrants. These are the many levels that we have to learn to understand Spirit once again, in order to become more integrated.
Ken Wilber talks about an integral transformative practice as being at the heart of this integration. This is a way in which you engage Spirit in all four quadrants – the subjective and objective, in the individual and collective forms; and at the various levels of being that Spirit flows – through matter, body, mind, soul and spirit.
In other words, we need to develop our intellects and cognitive abilities, along with developing our physical attributes. And as we delve deeper we can incorporate our understandings into the quest for meaning at the soul and spiritual levels.
By doing so, we can more fully integrate our lives and allow Spirit to evolve in such a way that it can transcend and include and lead to a more deeper understanding of itself in mind, and to its own awakening as Spirit. In this way we will become transrational beings.
Furthermore, we have to find a way to integrate this knowledge into everyday reality, into the objective domain. We need to find a way to effect society’s mores, institutions, businesses, and overall practices; in essence, to change society’s paradigms.
It is not enough to change our health, to change our consciousness and to change our view of Spirit, because our own subjective lives are just one part of the puzzle – there is also an objective world out there.
This is obviously a tall order. It is a major challenge to all those who are willing to undertake it. Some may go at it piecemeal while others might bite off more than they can chew. But either way, once a person begins to become more cognizant of Spirit, there is no turning back.