Levels of Consciousness
All things in the universe have "consciousness" in the sense that nothing is absolutely inert. Even mountains move. Every element is composed of atoms, themselves made up of various kinds and numbers of sub-atomic particles that are far from being solid or inactive. Whatever it is that drives these particles, these elements, these molecules, can be thought of as a kind of consciousness. A plant responds to environmental changes. An animal seeks out food and avoids pain. A person thinks. All levels of consciousness.
What Wilber (like many others) claims is that there are levels of consciousness beyond thinking. Awareness that transcends words and symbols, those great marks of human thought. Just as a rabbit would be hard pressed to contemplate Plato, we find it difficult to apprehend whatever reality exists beyond the reach of thought. Not impossible, however. We are equipped, he says, with the ability to know at these higher levels. All we must do is learn how to use our higher faculties. The principal way people have discovered the further levels of consciousness is through meditation or contemplation. Nothing miraculous, simply dedication and perseverance. Many have learned how to do it, and most report similar experiences, whether they be Eastern or Western (or what have you). The area of study is called mysticism.
Because such mystic awareness is not common, however, and because the techniques for achieving it differ from one culture to another, it's difficult to evaluate the results. You can share with me some aspects of your experiences if we have common symbols to describe them. Yet the experiences themselves can be apprehended only directly. I cannot teach you what is "out there." You have to go yourself. Even the Buddha, 2600 years ago, said this. With all the instructions he left for posterity through the writings of his followers, the first one was, in essence, "Don't believe me; do the practice I have described, and see for yourself." Shamans from various cultures have demonstrated states of awareness that transcend the ordinary. Jesus spoke of things that could be interpreted as higher levels of consciousness. (Forgive me. My early connections with Christianity have left me with such conflicting concepts and feelings that I find it difficult to perceive the "truth" in that area that is to so many others perfectly clear. I have a lot of work to do there.)
Accessing a higher level of consciousness requires determination and skill. Like driving a car, one can understand all the aspects of technique long before being able to do it well. The aspects of technique are relatively easy to communicate through words. It's the hands-on experience that really teaches. The steady hand of the artist guides the brush without the artist "thinking" about each move of each muscle involved. She simply moves it, and the miracle of expression appears. Long before, the hand was unsteady and clumsy. The "art" was crude and probably unsatisfactory. Likewise, the fruits of meditation come slowly and unevenly. An instant of insight may be followed by months of frustrated confusion. Determination and perseverance allow the mind to open.
That's what I've read and heard from others. I'm indebted to Ken Wilber for unlocking the door (my door) to the possibility. His descriptions of not only the levels of consciousness but the existence of what he calls "the perennial philosophy," the common body of knowledge that spans most human cultures, has squeezed past my skeptical filters. Just in time, it seems to me. I don't have many years to absorb and integrate the overwhelming possibilities. BW (before Wilber), I had thought I glimpsed something out there. Something seemed to make sense to me, but it was all but lost in the fog.
Until I experience it directly, I can't know if it's all true or not, can I? I'm encouraged enough to keep trying. I can't think of anything more important in these final years of my life than to come to some kind of realization of how it all fits together. This instant in the life of the universe that I've been aware of seems all I'm given. I'd like to make the most of it.
Donald Skiff, September 9, 1998