An Integral Postmetaphysical Definition of States

Inspired in part by Mark Edwards' dissertation, in which he calls for clearer definition of key Integral terms, I would like to open a discussion on this important Integral term.  In his work, Wilber obviously frequently uses the term, states, and discusses several types of states, but (to my knowledge) he does not give a clear, formal definition of this important concept.  Because it is such a key component of AQAL, and also is held by Integralists to be such an important aspect of spiritual realization, I think it would be worthwhile to really look at what we mean by it, and possibly see if we can together craft a satisfactory "Integral postmetaphysical" definition.  I ask specifically for an "Integral postmetaphysical" definition, rather than the definition, because obviously the term will be defined differently in different contexts, and at different stages.

What do you think?  If you're interested, let's give this a try.

To start, here are a few (relevant) definitions from

1. the condition of a person or thing, as with respect to circumstances or attributes: a state of health.
2. the condition of matter with respect to structure, form, constitution, phase, or the like: water in a gaseous state.
5. a particular condition of mind or feeling: to be in an excited state.
6. an abnormally tense, nervous, or perturbed condition: He's been in a state since hearing about his brother's death.

You can see right off that several "zones" are represented in these definitions.  An Integral definition, or series of definitions, would include even more zone-perspectives, and IMP may suggest ways these various types of "states" can be correlated.  But simple differentiation of zone-specific definitions will also be important, since I believe the failure to do this probably contributes not infrequently to conflicts and misunderstandings in Integral discussions.

As we discussed in an earlier series of threads (The Status of States), Wilber's use of certain states (particularly causal and nondual) seems still to involve certain metaphysical commitments, which we critiqued at length.  But I don't recall that we really arrived at any workable, formal definition of states, or understanding of what is involved in "state training" and "state stabilization" in spiritual development or "realization," so I'd like to return to this question here, if you're interested.


One systems-theoretic, naturalistic definition of states has been attempted by Charles Tart:


"Now I shall formally define a discrete state of consciousness (d-SoC) for a given individual (and I emphasize for a given individual) as a unique configuration or system of psychological structures or subsystems. The structures or subsystems show some quantitative and minor qualitative variation in the way in which they process information or cope or have experiences, but the structures or subsystems and their energetic pattern of interactions comprise a 'system'. The operations of the components, the psychological structures,interact with each other and stabilize each other's functioning by means of feedback control such that the system, the discrete state of consciousness, maintains its overall patterning of functioning within a varying environment. That is, the parts of the system that comprise a discrete state of consciousness may vary over various ranges if we look at individual components, but the overall, general configuration, the overall pattern of the system remains recognizably the same. As an analogy, you can drive your car faster or slower, with a varying number of passengers in it, or change the color of the seat covers, but it retains its identity as the system we know as an automobile. So one may have variations in consciousness, such as being more or less activated, more or less aware of the environment, etc. that represent quantitative changes in certain subsystems or structures of the system, but they do not change the overall, recognizable configuration of the system as being that of our ordinary [waking] state of consciousness, or, for that matter, of any particular discrete state of consciousness. The way to understand a discrete state of consciousness, then, is not only to investigate the structure of the parts in a more and more molecular way, but also to be aware of the way in which the parts interact and the 'gestalt' system-properties of the configuration that arise that may not be predictable from a knowledge of the parts alone." (Tart, THE BASIC NATURE OF ALTERED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS: A SYSTEMS APPROACH)


One question that I bring to this (among many) is whether we can define states postmetaphysically, but in a way that still respects and accounts for the "profundity" and power of certain state realizations -- that still can serve, in a sense, as a horizon of aspiration, without the metaphysical trappings.


I'm exploring a few thoughts in relation to this question and will post more on that soon.  In the meantime, I just wanted to post this initial question and get the feedback of other members here, if you're interested.

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Austin says this in an interview:

"When a person takes up the mystical path in a more formal manner, there is a sense of engagement in an ongoing practice which reestablishes, by the deepest of insights, some kind of direct relationship with the Ultimate Reality principle (however this may be defined)."

However this may be defined? Then why the metaphysical definition of a retro-romantic reestablishing with an original, ultimate given? I guess we have latitude in defining it within these metaphysical parameters? Sort of like Balder's ITC paper where one expression of this is that all religions are pointing to the same ontological given?
Bruce wrote: "From my side, while I think the neuroscience perspectives are valuable and important to bring in, especially in the interest of postmetaphysically situating an account of spiritual experience, I also am not interested in an account which only speaks in neuroscientific terms and ignores the rich phenomenological "pointing out" instructions of the contemplative traditions themselves."

Yes. And not only pointing out instructions, but practices co-ordinating body energy and mind, such as directing prana, developing heat/sensation etc., which produce their own powerful and distinctive phenomonological experiences -- so a consideration needs to be given of the role/function of the "energy body" with regard to states.

theurj wrote: "Here are some excerpts from New Developments in Consciousness Research by Vincent Fallio (Nova, 2007). For me it indicates that so-called “spiritual” states of consciousness probably arise in very early levels of consciousness and associated brain structures. Hence there is a very real sense in which “primordial” awareness is ancient, in that it arises from these early brain structures. But it is not timeless or absolute; it is grounded in our psychoneurophysiology."

and quoted Fallio: "'…a basic level of consciousness as a generalized state in which the system is receptive to information. In this sense awareness could be related to a tonic or basic attention; it is therefore important to realize that this type of consciousness should be understood as a 'condition for' and not so much as a function [of] cognitive process. As a result of this it can be affirmed that this notion of consciousness, this state of being aware, is a state that does not contain information'"

Does/should an integral post-metaphysical definition of states allow at least for the possibility of the "natural state" of Dzogchen? Granted, if it's conceptualised as timeless and absolute then this is metaphysics -- but I'd like to make the point that just as the basic level of consciousness should be understood as a condition for cognitive process, so it and the corresponding neurophysiology could equally be seen as a condition for the presence of, and experience of, the "natural state".

Finally, I think the role of the heart and "head-heart interactions" bears consideration. From the Institute of HeartMath's website:

"Traditionally, the study of communication pathways between the "head" and heart has been approached from a rather one-sided perspective, with scientists focusing primarily on the heart’s responses to the brain’s commands. However, we have now learned that communication between the heart and brain is actually a dynamic, ongoing, two-way dialogue, with each organ continuously influencing the other’s function. Research has shown that the heart communicates to the brain in four major ways: neurologically (through the transmission of nerve impulses), biochemically (via hormones and neurotransmitters), biophysically (through pressure waves) and energetically (through electromagnetic field interactions). Communication along all these conduits significantly affects the brain’s activity. Moreover, our research shows that messages the heart sends the brain can also affect performance.

The heart communicates with the brain and body in four ways:

* Neurological communication (nervous system)
* Biophysical communication (pulse wave)
* Biochemical communication (hormones)
* Energetic communication (electromagnetic fields)

The studies described in this section probe several of these communication pathways, looking specifically at how the brain responds to patterns generated by the heart during positive emotional states. The first two studies focus primarily on neurological interactions, demonstrating that the afferent signals the heart sends the brain during positive emotions can alter brain activity in several ways. In the first study, we find that cardiac coherence can drive entrainment between very low frequency brainwaves and heart rhythms, thus further expanding our understanding of the physiological entrainment mode described in the previous section. In the second study, we learn that coherent heart rhythms also lead to increased heart-brain synchronization. The implications of these findings are explored in the third study, which shows that in states of high heart rhythm coherence, individuals demonstrate significant improvements in cognitive performance.

Taken together, the results of these studies demonstrate that intentionally altering one’s emotional state through heart focus modifies afferent neurological input from the heart to the brain. The data suggest that as people experience sincere positive feeling states, in which the heart’s rhythms become more coherent, the changed information flow from the heart to the brain may act to modify cortical function and influence performance. These findings may also help explain the significant shifts in perception, increased mental clarity and heightened intuitive awareness many individuals have reported when practicing the HeartMath techniques."
Does/should an integral post-metaphysical definition of states allow at least for the possibility of the "natural state" of Dzogchen? Granted, if it's conceptualised as timeless and absolute then this is metaphysics -- but I'd like to make the point that just as the basic level of consciousness should be understood as a condition for cognitive process, so it and the corresponding neurophysiology could equally be seen as a condition for the presence of, and experience of, the "natural state".

Absolutely (pun intended). That's part of what I was getting at above about a natural "given."

Finally, I think the role of the heart and "head-heart interactions" bears consideration.

I agree here as well. Not only is there a top-down and bottom-up relationship in the brain but this applies to the body-brain relation as well, with influence going in both directions. Hence I am most appreciative of Buddhist compassion exercises (visualization or otherwise) and commitment to community service.

For me the "integral" in this is integration of all of our individual and collective aspects, not particular "states" of awareness. My guess is that said integration comes from a stage that can appreciate and integrate various discreet states and is more than the sum of states (or stages).

From Epstein's book Open to Desire(Gotham, 2006):


“Desire is our vitality...that which gives us our individuality and at the same time keeps prodding us outside of ourselves.... It is 'the natural'.... The infinite can be known through an acceptance of, and opening to, the unending quality of yearning. My interest in writing this book, in fact, is to correct the misperception that Buddhism strives to eliminate desire” (9-10).


Now how is this relevant?

Since Mark Edwards is mentioned at the start of this thread, keep in mind his essay "An alternative view of states" at Integral World, Part 1 and Part 2.

For example this from part 1:

"The current integral theory model of states is committing a category error, the Pre-trans Fallacy #2 to be precise, when it proposes that individuals access transpersonal states and/or realms when they enter into the natural states of dream sleep and deep sleep. This error has important implications for the whole of the Integral theory of states.

"How on earth...could Ken...the great surveyor of this previously unknown territory of the PTF errors, lose sight of this core landmark on the AQAL map in his treatment of states? Well, I have a few suggestions. One is his unswerving reliance on some aspects of the pre-modern Vedantic view of states."

Yes, thank you for posting that, Edward.  I (re)read Part 1 last night (and agree with Edwards that the traditional conflation of dreaming and sleeping with transpersonal states is problematic -- not only "myth of the given," but PTF too).  In Dzogchen teachings, according to some teachers, the experience of clear light is only dharmakaya when perceived with insight and in the right conditions, so deep sleep "in itself" can't be equated with it.

I also saw he had a good definition of "state of consciousness" that will be useful to keep in mind:

"A state of consciousness is the unitive status that characterises a subject's frame of phenomenal or experiential reference."

Edwards notes near the end of Part I that there is indeed a "given" in the Atman is Brahman principle, "that God is present all his fullness." But this is a metaphysical given versus the kind of given I'm talking about above. While I agree with him that this given is not the same from a more developed perspective, that this state is not realized until later, this metaphysical remnant remains and will be expressed more in Part II.

I appreciate Edwards' caution beginning Part II that pre-modern spiritual traditions were not aware of stages leading to egoic identity and hence made many pre-trans conflations. Even Vedanta and (Vedanta influenced) Vajrayana, while avoiding some of these PTFs, nonetheless is a "tangled mixture" still clinging to other conflations that Wilber retains. Edwards' worthy goal then is to differentiate between the pre-trans elements within these traditions, focusing on Vedanta.

Edwards notes the PTF notion of a "return" to a primordial, nondual unity, which of course is only after a "fall" from grace, said fall caused by the dual (Devil) Ego. Hence we often find retro-romantic notions of returning to a pristine origin before the fall. Even Edwards' presentation of the "true" Maharshi, who apparently does not equate deep sleep with the causal realm, nevertheless maintains the metaphysical idea that there is a "true" causal realm that must overcome the "illusion" of maya. Ironically the Devil is quite tricky to be hiding in the midst of such supposed nonduality.

Not surprisingly Wilber comes to our rescue in asserting that it is the self-system (aka ego) that integrates all of the various aspects of psyche. (See for example his "outline of an integral psychology," particularly page 4.) And that a strong, healthy ego is prerequisite to take such a journey into transpersonal nonduality, lest the trip be into psychotic dissociation. But again, Wilber is a mixed bag here, often framing such transpersonal integration withing traditional views and their own confusions, particularly with reference to states.

Now here's an interesting section from Part II, quoting Osborne on Maharshi:

"In fact, one name for the true state of realised being is the Fourth State existing eternally behind the three states of waking, dream and deep sleep. It is compared with the state of deep sleep since, like this it is formless and non-dual; however, as the above quotation shows, it is far from being the same. In the Fourth State the ego emerges in Consciousness, as in sleep it does in unconsciousness."

Aside from the metaphysical words like "true" and "eternal" it is significant in that the Fourth State (was that Virginia in the US?) "the ego emerges in consciousness." The ego, hmmm. Edwards' diagram following this quote are illuminating in showing the pre-personal states of deep sleep, dreaming, rational ego, and then transpersonal "structures of identity" which integrates all of them.

And yet what does the integrating? What gets us past the ego? I.e., could it be done prior to the development of an ego? Can we ever go back to a state or stage that was before the ego once it emerges? Obviously we can enter nondual states of awareness where the ego is temporarily suspended, but is it the same state as before the ego came along?

i've long thought that it's absurdly funny that the most elevated state that a human being can attain in the known universe is akin to being dead!lol go figure..........

um, it seems to me that wilber and edward's are both arguing from the position of the primacy of consciousness. fwiw, my vote is for edward's in that dreaming and sleeping are not directly tied into trans=personal states although there does seem to be a figurative correlation in much the same way that cycles and seasons reflect possible reincarnation themes....anyone who's ever suffered through bouts of depression will testify how much one sleeps through those episodes and there is certainly no advancement into nondual enlightenment because of the extra sleep...

so, perhaps we have a wilber 6 in the making? there was something that always bugged me about the wilber-coombs lattice and i think edward's has gone a long way in explaining my unease with the grid. having said that, if you stack subtle and casual on the top end of stage development my gut feeling is that also creates another set of hypothetical problems which probably can't be resolved with this kind of map making...iow's, it might all be too complex and chaotic to fit into any nice tidy grids......but i like the idea of superconscious as opposed to unconscious deadness!lol

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What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

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