In this interview posted on Integral Life, originally included in The Collected Works of Ken Wilber: Volume IV, Ken offers an in-depth description of each of the major state-stages of meditative practice—ranging from psychic absorption, to subtle illumination, to causal transcendence, to the ultimate nondual embrace of form and Emptiness.
Q: We would like you to describe the experiences of several stages of meditation. But first, tell us about meditation itself—the different types and how they work.
A: It is common among scholars to divide meditation into two broad categories, called “concentration” and “awareness” (or “insight”) meditation. Or, “opened” and “closed”. For example, let’s say you are looking at a wall that has hundreds of dots painted on it. In concentration meditation, you look at just one dot, and you look at it so fiercely that you don’t even see the other dots. This develops your powers of concentration. In awareness training, or insight meditation, you try to be as aware of all the dots as you can be. This increases your sensitivity, awareness, and wisdom, in that sense.
In concentration meditation, you put your attention on one object—a rock, a candle flame, your breathing, a mantra, the heart prayer, and so on. By intensely concentrating on a single object, you as subject gradually become “identified” with that object. You start to undercut subject/object dualism, which is the basis of all suffering and illusion. Gradually, higher and higher realms of existence, leading toward the ultimate or nondual dimension, are all made obvious to you. You transcend your ordinary self or ego, and find the higher and subtler dimensions of existence—the spiritual and transcendental.
However, this is reaching the higher dimensions by “brute force”, so to speak. And although concentration meditation is said to be very important, by itself it doesn’t uproot our tendencies to create dualism in the first place. In fact, it just ignores them, it tries to bypass them. It focuses on one dot and ignores all the others. Concentration meditation can definitely show us some of the higher realms, but it can’t permanently install us at those higher realms. For that, you have to look at all the dots. You have to investigate all of experience, with detachment, nonjudgmentalism, equanimity, and crystal clear awareness.
Q: That’s insight or awareness meditation.
A: Yes, that’s right. The Buddhists call concentration meditation shamatha and awareness meditation vipassana, ordhyana and prajna. The former leads to samadhi, or one-pointed concentration, the latter to satori, or transcendental awareness and wisdom.
The point about any of these meditation practices—and there are others, such as visualization, koan, contemplative prayer, and so on—the point is that they are all actually doing two important things. One, they are helping to still the dicursive, rational-existential mind, the mind that has to think all the time, the mind that has to chatter to itself all the time and verbalize everything. It helps us quiet that “monkey mind”. And once the monkey mind quiete down a bit, it allows the subtler and higher dimensions of awareness to emerge—such as the psychic, the subtle, the causal, and the ultimate or nondual. That is the essence of genuine meditation. It is simply a way to continue evolution, to continue our growth and development.
THE PSYCHIC LEVEL
Q: Could you describe the levels of meditation, and how they are experienced? What actually happens at each stage?
A: When you practice meditation, one of the first things you realize is that your mind—and your life, for that matter—is dominated by largely subconscious verbal chatter. You are always talking to yourself. And so, as they start to meditate, many people are stunned by how much junk starts running through their awareness. They find that thoughts, images, fantasies, notions, ideas, concepts virtually dominate their awareness. They realize that these notions have had a much more profound influence on their lives than they ever thought.
In any case, initial meditation experiences are like being at the movies. You sit and watch all these fantasies and concepts parade by, in front of your awareness. But the whole point is that you are finally becoming aware of them. You are looking at them impartially and without judgment. You just watch them go by, the same as you watch clouds float by in the sky. They come, they go. No praise, no condemnation, no judgment—just “bare witnessing”. If you judge your thoughts, if you get caught up in them, then you can’t transcend them. You can’t find higher or subtler dimensions of your own being. So you sit in meditation, and you simply “witness” what is going on in your mind. You let the monkey mind do what it wants, and you simply watch.
And what happens is, because you impartially witness these thoughts, fantasies, notions, and images, you start to become free of their unconscious influence. You are looking at them, so you are not using them to look at the world. Therefore you become, to a certain extent, free of them. And you become free of the separate-self sense that depended on them. In other words, you start to become free of the ego. This is the initial spiritual dimension, where the conventional ego “dies” and higher structures of awareness are “resurrected”. Your sense of identity naturally begins to expand and embrace the cosmos, or all of nature. You rise above the isolated mind and body, which might include finding a larger identity, such as with nature or the cosmos—”cosmic consciousness”, as R. M. Bucke called it. It’s a very concrete and unmistakable experience.
And, I don’t have to tell you, this is an extraordinary relief! This is the beginning of transcendence, of finding your way back home. You realize that you are one with the fabric of the universe, eternally. Your fear of death begins to subside, and you actually begin to feel, in a concrete and palpable way, the open and transparent nature of your own being.
Feelings of gratitude and devotion arise in you—devotion to Spirit, in the form of the Christ, or Buddha, or Krishna; or devotion to your actual spiritual master; even devotion in general, and certainly devotion to all other sentient beings. The bodhisattva vow, in whatever form, arises from the depths of your being, in a very powerful way. You realize you simply have to do whatever you can to help all sentient beings, and for the reason, as Schopenhauer said, that you realize that we all share the same nondual Self or Spirit or Absolute. All of this starts to become obvious—as obvious as rain on the roof. It is real and it is concrete.
THE SUBTLE LEVEL
Q: So what about the next general stage, the subtle level?
A: As your identity begins to transcend the isolated and individual bodymind, you start to intuit that there is a Ground of Being or genuine Divinity, beyond ego, and beyond appeals to mythic god figures or rationalistic scientism or existential bravery. This Deity form can actually be intuited. The more you develop beyond the isolated and existential bodymind, the more you develop toward Spirit, which, at the subtle level, is often experienced as Deity Form or archetypal Self. By that I mean, for example, very concrete clarity and brilliance of awareness.
The point is that you are seeing something beyond nature, beyond the existential, beyond the psychic, beyond even cosmic identity. You are starting to see the hidden or esoteric dimension, the dimension outside the ordinary cosmos, the dimension that transcends nature. You see the Light, and sometimes this Light literally shines like the light of a thousand suns. It overwhelms you, empowers you, energizes you, remakes you, drenches you. This is what scholars have called the “numinous” nature of subtle spirit. Numinous and luminous. This is, I believe, why saints are universally depicted with halos of light around their heads. That is actually what they see. Divine Light. My favorite reading from Dante:
Fixing my gaze upon the Eternal Light
I saw within its depths,
Bound up with love together in one volume,
The scattered leaves of all the universe.
Within the luminous profound subsistence
Of that Exalted Light saw I three circles
Of three colors yet of one dimension
And by the second seemed the first reflected
As rainbow is by rainbow, and the third
Seemed fire that equally from both is breathed.
That is not mere poetry. That is an almost mathematical description of one type of experience of the subtle level. Anyway, you can also experience this level as a discovery of your own higher self, you soul, the Holy Spirit. “He who knows himself knows God,” said Saint Clement.
Q: And the actual experience itself?
A: The actual experience varies. Here is one example: Say you are walking downtown, looking in shop windows. You’re looking at some of the merchandise, and all of a sudden you see a vague image dance in front of your eyes, the image of a person. Then all at once you realize that it is your own reflection in the shop window. You suddenly recognize yourself. You recognize your Self, your higher Self. You suddenly recognize who you are. And who you are is—a luminous spark of the Divine. But it has that shock of recogniztion— “Oh, that!”
It’s a very concrete realization, and usually brings much laughter or much tears. The subtle Deity form or Light or Higher Self—those are all just archetypes of your own Being. You are encountering, via meditative development, and beginning a direct encounter with Spirit, with your own essence. So it shows up as light, as a being of light, as nada, as shabd, as clarity, numinosity, and so on. And sometimes it just shows up as a simple and clear awareness of what is—very simple, very clear. The point is that it is aware of all the dots on the wall. It is clearly aware of what is happening moment to moment, and therefore transcends the moment. It transcends this world, and starts to partake of the Divine. It has sacred outlook, however it might be expressed. That’s the subtle—a face to face introduction to the Divine. You actually participate in Divinity, and in the awareness and wisdom of Divinity. It is a practice. It can be done. It has been done, many times.
THE CAUSAL LEVEL
Q: That’s very clear. So what about the next level, the causal?
A: You’re sitting there, just witnessing everything that arises in the mind, or in your present experience. You are trying to witness, equally, all the dots on the wall of your awareness. If you become proficient at this, eventually rational and existential dots die down, and psychic dots start to come into focus. Then, after a while, you get better at witnessing, so subtler objects or dots start to show up. These include lights and audible illuminations and subtle Deity forms and so on. If you continue simply witnessing—which helps you disidentify from lower and grosser forms, and become aware of the higher and subtler forms—even subtle objects or subtle dots themselves cease to arise. You enter a profound state of nonmanifestation, which is experienced like, say, an autumn night with a full moon. There is an eerie and beautiful numinosity to it all, but it’s a “silent” or “black” numinosity. You can’t really see anything except a kind of silvery fullness, filling all space. But because you’re not actually seeing any particular object, it is also a type of Radical Emptiness. As Zen says, “stop the sound of that stream.” This is variously known as shunyata, as the Cloud of Unknowing, Divine Ignorance, Radical Mystery, nirguna (“unqualifiable”) Brahman, and so on. Brilliant formlessness, with no objects detracting from it.
It becomes obvious that you are absolutely one with this Fullness, which transcends all worlds and all planes and all time and all history. You are perfectly full, and therefore you are perfectly empty. “It is all things and it is no things,” said the Christian mystic Boethius. Awe gives way to certainty. That’s who you are, prior to all manifestation, prior to all worlds. In other words, it is seeing who or what you are timelessly, formlessly.
That’s an example of the causal level; that’s jnana samadhi, nirvikalpa samadhi, and so on. The soul, or separate-self sense, disappears, and God or separate Deity form disappears, because both—soul and God—collaps into formless Godhead. Both soul and God disappear into the Supreme Identity.
THE NONDUAL LEVEL
Q: So that leaves the nondual level.
A: In the previous causal level, you are so absorbed in the unmanifest dimension that you might not even notice the manifest world. You are discovering Emptiness, and so you ignore Form. But at the ultimate or nondual level, you integrate the two. You see that Emptiness appears or manifests itself as Form, and that Form has as its essence Emptiness. In more concrete terms, what you are is all things that arise. All manifestation arises, moment by moment, as a play of Emptiness. If the causal was like a radiant moonlit night, this is like a radiant autumn day.
What appear as hard or solid objects “out there” are really transparent and translucent manifestations of your own Being or Isness. They are not obstacles to God, only expressions of God. They are therefore empty in the sense of not being and obstruction or impediment. They are a free expression of the Divine. As the Mahamudra tradition succintly puts it, “All is Mind. Mind is Empty. Empty is freely-manifesting. Freely-manifesting is self-liberating.”
The freedom that you found at the causal level—the freedom of Fullness and Emptiness—that freedom is found to extend to all things, even to this “fallen” world of sin and samsara. Therefore, all things become self-liberated. And this extraordinary freedom, or absence of restriction, or total release—this clear bright autumn day—this is what you actually experience at this point. But then “experience” is the wrong word altogether. This realization is actually of the nonexperiential nature of Spirit. Experiences come and go. They all have a beginning in time, and an end in time. Even subtle experiences come and go. They are all wonderful, glorious, extraordinary. And they come, and they go.
But this nondual “state” is not itself another experience. It is simply the opening or clearing in which all experiences arise and fall. It is the bright autumn sky through which the clouds come and go—it is not itself another cloud, another experience, another object, another manifestation. This realization is actually of the utter fruitlessness of experience, the utter futility of trying to experience release or liberation. All experiences lose their taste entirely—these passing clouds.
You are not the one who experiences liberation; you are the clearing, the opening, the emptiness, in which any experience comes and goes, like reflections on the mirror. And you are the mirror, the mirror mind, and not any experienced reflection. But you are not apart from the reflections, standing back and watching. You are everything that is arising moment to moment. You can swallow the whole cosmos in one gulp, it is so small, and you can taste the entire sky without moving an inch.
This is why, in Zen, it is said that you cannot enter the Great Samadhi: it is actually the opening or clearing that is ever-present, and in which all experience—and all manifestation—arises moment to moment. It seems like you “enter” this state, except that once there, you realize there was never a time that this state wasn’t fully present and fully recognized—”the gateless gate”. And so you deeply understand that you never entered this state; nor did the Buddhas, past of future, ever enter this state.
In Dzogchen, this is the recognition of mind’s true nature. All things, in all worlds, are self-liberated as they arise. All things are like sunlight on the water of a pond. It all shimmers. It is all empty. It is all light. It is all full, and it is all fulfilled. And the world goes on its ordinary way, and nobody notices at all.