creation story
creation story


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an interview with ken wilber

on the seven points of timeless wisdom

conducted by treya killam wilber

(reprinted from grace and grit, © ken wilber, 1991, 2000)



  1. spirit exists.
  2. spirit is found within.
  3. most of us don't realize this spirit within, however, because we are living in a world of sin, separation, and duality--that is, we are living in a fallen or illusory state.
  4. there is a way out of this fallen state of sin and illusion, there is a path to our liberation.
  5. if we follow this path to its conclusion, the result is a rebirth or enlightenment, a direct experience of spirit within, a supreme liberation, which--
  6. marks the end of sin and suffering, and which--
  7. issues in social action of mercy and compassion on behalf of all sentient beings.



tkw: let's go over them one at a time. spirit exists.

kw: spirit exists. god exists, a supreme reality exists. brahman, dharmakaya, kether, tao, allah, shiva, yahweh, aton--"they call him many who is really one."

tkw: but how do you know spirit exists? the mystics say it does, but on what do they base their claims?

kw: on direct experience. their claims are based, not on mere beliefs or ideas, theories or dogmas, but rather on direct experience, actual spiritual experience. this is what sets the mystic apart from merely dogmatic religious beliefs.

tkw: but what about the argument that the mystical experience is not valid knowledge because it is ineffable and therefore incommunicable?

kw: the mystical experience is indeed ineffable, or not capable of being entirely put into words. like any experience--a sunset, eating a piece of cake, listening to bach--one has to have the actual experience to see what it's like. but we don't therefore conclude that sunset, cake, and music don't exist or aren't valid. further, even though the mystical experience is largely ineffable, it can be communicated or transmitted. namely, by taking up spiritual practice under the guidance of a spiritual master or teacher, just like, for example, judo can be taught but not spoken. . the mystics ask you to take nothing on mere belief. rather, they give you a set of experiments to test in your own awareness or experience. the laboratory is your own mind, the experiment is meditation. you yourself try it, and compare your test results with others who have performed the experiment. out of this consensually validated pool of experiential knowledge, you arrive at certain laws of the spirit-at certain "profound truths", if you will. and the first is: god is.

tkw: so that brings us back to the perennial philosophy, or mystical philosophy, and seven of its major points. the second was, spirit within.

kw: spirit within, there is a universe within. the stunning message of the mystics is that in the very core of your being, you are god. strictly speaking, god is neither within nor without-spirit transcends all duality. but one discovers this by consistently looking within, until "within" becomes "beyond". the most famous version of this perennial truth occurs in the chandogya upanishad, where it says, "in this very being of yours, you do not perceive the true, but there in fact it is. in that which is the subtle essence of your own being, all that exists has its self. an invisible and subtle essence is the spirit of the whole universe. that is the true, that is the self, and thou, thou art that."

thou art that--tat tvam asi. needless to say, the "thou" that is "that," the you that is god, is not your individual and isolated self or ego, this or that self, mr. or ms. so-and-so. in fact, the individual self or ego is precisely what blocks the realization of the supreme identity in the first place. rather, the "you" in question is the deeper part of you--or, if you wish, the highest part of you--the subtle essence, as the upanishad put it, that transcends your mortal ego and directly partakes of the divine. in judaism it is called the ruach, the divine and supraindividual spirit in each and every person, and not the nefesh, or the individual ego. in christianity, it is the indwelling pneuma or spirit that is of one essence with god, and not the individual psyche or soul, which at best can worship god. i think this is the only way to understand, for example, christ's otherwise strange remarks that a person could not be a true christian "unless he hateth his own soul." it is only by "hating" or "throwing out" or "transcending" your mortal soul that you can discover your immortal spirit, one with all.

tkw: st. paul said, "i live, yet not i, but christ in me." you're saying that st. paul discovered his true self, which is one with christ, and this replaced his old or lower self, his individual soul or psyche.

kw: yes. your ruach, or ground, is the supreme reality, not your nefesh, or ego. obviously, if you think that your individual ego is god, you're in big trouble. you would, in fact, be suffering from psychoses, from paranoid schizophrenia. that's obviously not what the world's greatest philosophers and sages have in mind.

tkw: but why, then, aren't more people aware of that? if spirit is in fact within, why isn't it obvious to everybody?

kw: well, that's the third point. if i am really one with god, why don't i realize that? something must separate me from spirit. why this fall? what's the sin?

tkw: it's not eating an apple.

kw: [laughing] it's not eating an apple.

the various traditions give many answers to this question, but they all essentially come down to this: i cannot perceive my own true identity, or my union with spirit, because my awareness is clouded and obstructed by a certain activity that i am now engaged in. and that activity, although known by many different names, is simply the activity of contracting and focusing awareness on my individual self or personal ego. my awareness is not open, relaxed, and god-centered, it is closed, contracted, and self-centered. and precisely because i am identified with the self-contraction to the exclusion of everything else, i can't find or discover my prior identity, my true identity, with the all. my individual nature, "the natural man," is thus fallen, or lives in sin and separation and alienation from spirit and from the rest of the world. i am set apart and isolated from the world "out there," which i perceive as if it were entirely external and hostile to my own being. and as for my own being itself, it certainly does not seem to be one with the all, one with everything that exists, one with infinite spirit; rather, it seems completely boxed up and imprisoned in this isolated wall of mortal flesh.

tkw: this situation is often called "dualism", isn't it?

kw: yes, that's right. i split myself as "subject" apart from the world of "objects" out there, and then based upon this original dualism, i continue to split the world into all sorts of conflicting opposites: pleasure versus pain, good versus evil, true versus false, and so on. and according to the perennial philosophy, awareness dominated by the self-contraction, by the subject/object dualism, cannot perceive reality as it is, reality in its wholeness, reality as the supreme identity. sin, in other words, is the self-contraction, the separate-self sense, the ego. sin is not something the self does, it is something the self is.

furthermore, the self-contraction, the isolated subject "in here," precisely because it does not recognize its true identity with the all, feels an acute sense of lack, of deprivation, of fragmentation. the separate self-self sense, in other words, is born in suffering-it is born "fallen." suffering is not something that happens to the separate self, it is something that is inherent in the separate self. "sin," "suffering," and "self" are so many names for the same process, the same contraction or fragmentation of awareness. you cannot rescue the self from suffering. as gautama buddha put it, to end suffering you must end the self-they rise and fall together.

tkw: so this dualistic world is a fallen world, and the original sin is the self-contraction, in each of us. and you're saying that not just the eastern mystics but also the western mystics actually define sin and hell as being due to the separate self?

kw: the separate self and its loveless grasping, desiring, avoiding--yes, definitely. it's true that the equation of hell or samsara with the separate self is strongly emphasized in the east, particularly in hinduism and buddhism. but you find an essentially similar theme in the writings of the catholic, gnostic, quaker, kabbalistic and islamic mystics. my favorite is from the remarkable william law, an eighteenth-century christian mystic from england; i'll read it to you: "see here the whole truth in short. all sin, death, damnation, and hell is nothing else but this kingdom of self, or the various operations of self-love, self-esteem, and self-seeking which separate the soul from god and end in eternal death and hell." or remember the great islamic mystic jalaluddin rumi's famous saying, "if you have not seen the devil, look at your own self".

tkw: yes, i see. so the transcendence of the "small self" is the discovery of the "big self".

kw: yes. this "small self" or individual soul is known in sanskrit as the ahamkara, which means "knot" or "contraction", and it is this ahamkara, this dualistic or egocentric contraction in awareness, that is at the root of our fallen state.

but that brings us to the fourth major point of the perennial philosophy: there is a way to reverse this fall, a way to reverse this brutal state of affairs, a way to untie the knot of illusion.

tkw: ditch the small self.

kw: [laughing] ditch the small self, yes. surrender or die to the separate-self sense, the small self, the self-contraction. if we want to discover our identity with the all, then our case of mistaken identity with the isolated ego must be let go. now this fall can be reversed instantly by understanding that in reality it never actually happened-there is only god, the separate self is an illusion. but for most of us, the fall has to be reversed gradually, step by step.

in other words, the fourth point of the perennial philosophy is that a path exists--a path that, if followed properly, will lead us from our fallen state to our enlightened state, from samsara to nirvana, from hell to heaven. as plotinus put it, a flight of the alone to the alone-that is, from the self to the self.

tkw: this path is meditation?

kw: well, we might say that there are several "paths" that constitute what i am generically calling "the path". for example, in hinduism it is said that there are five major paths or yogas. "yoga" simply means "union", a way to unite the soul with godhead. in english the word is "yoke". when christ says, "my yoke is easy," he means "my yoga is easy".

the point is that. an individual on the path transcends the small self, or dies to the small self, and thus rediscovers or resurrects his or her supreme identity with universal spirit. and that brings us to the fifth major point of the perennial philosophy, namely, that of a rebirth, resurrection, or enlightenment. in your own being, the small self must die so that the big self may resurrect.

this death and new birth is described in several different terms by the traditions. in christianity, of course, it finds its prototype in the figures of adam and jesus--adam, whom the mystics call the "old man" or "outer man," is said to have opened the gates of hell, while jesus christ, the "new man" or "inner man," opens the gates of paradise. specifically, jesus' own death and resurrection, according to the mystics, is the archetype of the death of the separate self and the resurrection of a new and eternal destiny from the stream of consciousness, namely the divine or christic self and its ascension. as st. augustine said, "god became man so that man may become god." this process of turning from "manhood" to godhood," or from the outer person to the inner person, or from the self to the self, is known in christianity as metanoia, which means both "repentance" and "transformation"-we repent of the self (or sin) and transform as the self (or christ), so that, as you said, "not i but christ liveth in me" ...

in both hinduism and buddhism, this death-and-resurrection is always described as the death of the individual soul (jivatman) and the reawakening of one's true nature, which metaphorically the hindus describe as all being (brahman) and the buddhists as pure openness (shunyata). the actual moment of rebirth or breakthrough is known as enlightenment or liberation (moksha or bodhi). the lankavatara sutra describes this enlightenment experience as a "complete turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness." this "turning about" is simply the undoing of the habitual tendency to create a separate and substantial self where there is in fact only vast, open, clear awareness. this turning about or metanoia, zen calls satori or kensho. "ken" means true nature and "sho" means "directly seeing". directly seeing one's true nature is becoming buddha. as meister eckhart put it, "in this breaking through i find that god and i are both the same."

tkw: is enlightenment actually experienced as a real death, or is that just a common metaphor?

kw: actual ego--death, yes. it's no metaphor. the accounts of this experience, which may be very dramatic but can also be fairly simple and nondramatic, make it clear that all of a sudden you simply wake up and discover that, among other things, your real being is everything you are now looking at, that you are literally one with all manifestation, one with the universe, however corny that might sound, and that you did not actually become one with god and all, you have eternally been that oneness but didn't realize it.

along with that feeling, or the discovery of the all-pervading self, goes the very concrete feeling that your small self simply died, actually died. zen calls satori "the great death." eckhart was just as blunt: "the soul," he said, "must put itself to death".

tkw: dying to the small self is the discovery of eternity.

kw: [long pause] yes, provided we don't think of eternity as being everlasting time but a point without time, the so-called eternal present or timeless now. the self doesn't live forever in time, it lives in the timeless present prior to time, prior to history, change, succession. the self is present as pure presence, not as everlasting duration, a rather horrible notion.

anyway, that brings us to the sixth major point of the perennial philosophy, namely, that enlightenment or liberation brings an end to suffering. gautama buddha, for example, said that he only taught two things, what causes suffering, and how to end it. what causes suffering is the grasping and desiring of the separate self, and what ends it is the meditative path that transcends self and desire. the point is that suffering is inherent in the knot or contraction known as self, and the only way to end suffering is to end the self. it's not that after enlightenment, or after spiritual practice in general, you no longer feel pain or anguish or fear or hurt. you do. it's simply that they no longer threaten your existence, and so they cease to be problematic. you are no longer identified with them, dramatizing them, energizing them, threatened by them. on the one hand, there is no longer any fragmented self to threaten, and on the other, the big self can't be threatened since, being the all, there is nothing outside of it that could harm it. a profound relaxing and uncoiling occurs in the heart. the individual realizes that, no matter how much suffering might occur, it doesn't fundamentally affect his or her real being. suffering comes and goes, but the person now possesses the "peace that surpasseth understanding." the sage feels suffering, but it doesn't "hurt." because the sage is aware of suffering, he or she is motivated by compassion, by a desire to help all those who suffer and think it's real.

tkw: which brings us to the seventh point, about enlightened motivation.

kw: yes. true enlightenment is said to issue in social action driven by mercy, compassion, and skillful means, in an attempt to help all beings attain the supreme liberation. enlightened activity is simply selfless service. since we are all one in the same self, or the same mystical body of christ, or the same dharmakaya, then in serving others i am serving my own self. i think when christ said, "love your neighbor as yourself," he must have meant "love your neighbor as your self."

tkw: thank you.


becoming me ... "is a wonderful book.
combining deep personal experience and creative imagination, martin boroson has succeeded in conveying in a simple and easily understandable form the wisdom of the perennial spiritual teachings concerning the creation of the world we live in and our own nature. -- stanislav grof, m.d.



excerpts from grace and grit © 1991,2000 by ken wilber.

reprinted by arrangement with shambhala publications, inc., boston. 




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text © 2003-2004 martin boroson (unless otherwise noted);
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