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#3161 - Friday, May 9, 2008 - Editor: Jerry Katz
Nonduality Highlights


You are the river: An interview with Ken Wilber  

By Steve Paulson  

April 28, 2008

[The following consists of selections only. Read the full interview at]

Where do you think the scientific worldview falls short when dealing with religion?

Conventional science has correctly dismantled the pre-rational myths but it goes too far in dismantling the trans-rational. The mythic and magic approaches tend to be pre-rational and pre-verbal, but the meditative or contemplative practices tend to be trans-rational. They completely accept rationality and science. But they point out that there are deeper modes of awareness, which are scientific in their own way.

What do you mean by trans-rational?

People at these higher stages of spiritual development report a "nondual awareness," a type of awareness that transcends the dichotomy between subject and object. The mystical state is often beyond words. It is trans-rational because you have access to rationality but it's temporarily suspended. A 6-month-old infant, for instance, is in a pre-rational state, whereas the mystic is in a trans-rational state. Unfortunately, "pre" and "trans" get confused. So some theorists say the infant is in a mystical state.

Are you saying people with a rationalist orientation can't make these distinctions?

I'm saying that when people look at mystical states, they often confuse them with pre-rational states. People like Sigmund Freud take trans-rational, oceanic states of oneness and reduce them to infantile states of unity.

You are a longtime meditator. You've written about having sustained experiences of this nondual awareness. What does it feel like?

[Laughs] It's very simple. It's something that's already present in one's awareness but it's so simple and so obvious that it's not noticed. Zen refers to it as the "such-ness" of reality. [The Christian mystic] Meister Eckhart called it "thus-ness." These states of consciousness are temporary, peak experiences. There's no bliss. Rather, it's an absence of any constriction, including feelings of bliss. The feeling is vast openness and freedom and lightness. You don't have a sense that I'm in here and the world is out there.

What do you think of the New Age writers who see a link between mysticism and the weirdness of quantum physics? There have been popular books, like "The Tao of Physics" and "The Dancing Wu Li Masters," as well as the hit film "What the Bleep Do We Know." They point out that reality at the quantum level is inherently probabilistic. And they say that the act of observing a quantum phenomenon plays a critical role in actually creating that phenomenon. The lesson they draw is that consciousness itself can shape physical reality.

They are confused. Even people like Deepak Chopra say this. These are good people; I know them. But when they say consciousness can act to create matter, whose consciousness? Yours or mine? They never get to that. It's a very narcissistic view.

But the real problem is what's called "the measurement problem." And 95 percent of scientists do not think the measurement problem involves consciousness. It simply involves the fact that you can't tell where an electron is until you measure it. It's very different from saying it doesn't exist until you measure it. That's entirely different from saying human consciousness causes matter to come into existence. We have abundant evidence that the entire material universe existed before human beings evolved. So the whole notion that human consciousness is required -- it retroactively creates the universe -- is a much harder myth to believe than myths about God being a white-haired gentleman pulling strings up in the sky.

But you seem to have a dualistic view of how to look at reality. There's the material stuff and then there's this interior stuff, and the two have nothing to do with each other.

Well, that's simply a metaphorical way that I talk about it. Spirit is not some other item sitting over here, separate from the material world. It's the actual reality of each and every thing that's arising. The ocean and its waves are typically used as an example to describe this. The ocean is not something different from the waves. It's the wetness of all waves. So it's not a dualistic stance at all.

You've written that many of the great 20th century physicists -- Einstein, Bohr, Planck, Heisenberg -- were actually mystics, even though none of them thought science had any connection to religion.

I wouldn't say it quite that strongly. What happened is they investigated the physical realm so intensely in looking for answers, and when they didn't find these answers, they became metaphysical. I collected the writings of the 13 major founders of quantum mechanics. They were saying physics has been used since time immemorial to both prove and disprove God. Both views are fundamentally misguided. These physicists became deep mystics not because of physics, but because of the limitations of physics.

So understanding that physics can only go so far -- that there are many things it can't explain -- is ultimately a mystical position?

That's correct. These are brilliant writings. They're really quite extraordinary. Not many people realize that Erwin Schrödinger, the founder of quantum mechanics, had a deep satori experience. He found that the position that most matched his own was Vedantic Hinduism -- that pure awareness is aware of all objects but cannot itself become an object. It's the way into the door of realizing ultimate reality. Werner Heisenberg had similar experiences. And Sir Arthur Eddington was probably the most eloquent of the lot. All of them basically said that science neither proves nor disproves emptiness.

You have many admirers. You also have critics. One objection is that you are too full of yourself. The science writer John Horgan, in his book "Rational Mysticism," said the vibe he got from you was, "I'm enlightened. You're not." How do you respond to this charge of arrogance, the sense that you've unlocked the secrets of the universe and no one else has?

A lot of people see me as much more humble. I continue to change because I'm open to new ideas and I'm very open to criticism. Basically, I've taken the answers that have been given by the great sages, saints and philosophers and have worked them into this integral framework. If that vibe comes across as arrogant, then John would get that feeling. Of course, he was trying to do the same thing, so I would have brushed up against his own egoistic projections. But some people do agree with him and feel that my support for this integral framework comes across as arrogant.

All I've done is provide a map. We're always updating it, always revising it, based on criticism and feedback and new evidence. You see those maps that Columbus and the early explorers drew of North and South America, where Florida is the size of Greenland? That's how our maps are. What's surprising to me is the number of savvy people who've expressed support for my work.

About a year ago, you nearly died from a grand mal seizure, which triggered more seizures. From what I heard, you were on life support systems. You almost bit off your tongue. Weren't you unconscious for several days?

I did have 12 grand mal seizures in one evening. I was rushed to the E.R. comatose. I was in a coma for four days. During that time, I had electric paddles put on my heart three times. I was on dialysis because my kidneys had failed. I developed pneumonia. Ken Wilber was unconscious but Big Mind was conscious. Ken Wilber came to on the fourth day.

Are you saying some part of you was aware of what was going on, even though you were unconscious?

Yes. This is a very common experience of longtime meditators. There is an awareness during waking, dreaming and deep sleep states.

I'm having trouble understanding this. Some part of you was aware of the people moving around you?

There was a dim awareness of the room. It did include people moving in and out of the room and people sitting by the table. It did include certain procedures being done. But there wasn't a Ken Wilber as a subject relating to things that were happening. There was no separate self. Ken Wilber, if he were conscious, presumably would be upset or would be happy when the heart started beating again. But there were none of those reactions because there was just this Big Mind awareness, this nondual awareness.

The way you talk about this, it doesn't sound like such a bad experience! I would've thought this would be horrible.

[Laughs] Exactly. When you listen to more conventional near-death experiences, they don't sound so bad either. In any event, I was told that I would take quite a while to recover. But I walked out of the hospital two days later, with everything normal. So I put that down in part to my own spiritual practice and the rejuvenating capacity that this awareness has.

Does the prospect of dying frighten you?

Not really. What comes up is just thoughts of how much work in the world there is still to do. And with this recent experience -- letting me know that Big Mind is what there is -- that fundamental fear of dying has basically left. Still, when someone asks if I have a fear of dying, I find myself hesitating. What goes through my mind is positive stuff -- friends that I would lose and work that needs to be done.

Read the full interview at
Thanks to Dustin for providing the link to this article.

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