Integral Post-Metaphysics and the Myth of the Given
Andrew Cohen: So today we’re going to speak about your wonderful new masterpiece Integral Spirituality, which I’ve just finished reading. You open the book with the assertion that the metaphysics of the great spiritual traditions have been “trashed” not only by the usual suspects—the modern scientific materialists—but even more so by the postmodern revolution, because of the traditions’ inability to stand up to the challenge presented by the insights of postmodernity’s great philosophers. And as you boldly put it, “[T]here has as yet arisen nothing compelling to take their place.” This is the fundamental theme of the book—explaining, in the most illuminating way, why the traditions have consistently failed to stand up to a postmodern critique and simultaneously re-envisioning religion and spirituality in such a way as to avoid the pitfalls of outdated metaphysics. This, of course, has been a central topic of most of our discussions over the past few years, but reading Integral Spirituality has had an enormous impact on me, and as a result I have seen much more deeply into the nature of our spiritual predicament.
Ken Wilber: Yes. I think it is the great catastrophe of the modern and postmodern world that spirituality, higher spirituality, was killed, as you mentioned, not just by nasty science and the Newtonian/Cartesian paradigm but by the humanities themselves. All of mystical spirituality got thrown out by the humanities because it was caught in outdated metaphysical systems. And most importantly, because mystical spirituality was monological—it didn’t understand what postmodernists call “the myth of the given.”
Cohen: I found your explanation of the myth of the given extremely powerful and clarifying. Maybe we could begin our discussion today by speaking about what it is.
Wilber: The myth of the given is one of the book’s primary topics. It is the belief that the world as it appears in my consciousness, as it is given to me, is somehow fundamentally real, foundationally real, and that therefore I can base my worldview upon whatever presents itself to my consciousness. For example, I might see a rock in front of me; I take that as real. I have an experience of anger; I take that as real. But the whole point is that what our awareness delivers to us is set in cultural contexts and many other kinds of contexts that cause an interpretation and a construction of our perceptions before they even reach our awareness. So what we call real or what we think of as given is actually constructed—it’s part of a worldview.
Cohen: The fact that our world is more constructed by us than existing as an objectively real static entity is an ever-new revelation. It’s the most challenging insight: that there is very little that is actually given and that the way we perceive everything is a creative and co-creative process. As you have made so clear in Integral Spirituality, these deep perceptual structures are created intersubjectively in consciousness, slowly, over thousands and thousands of years. It’s both thrilling and frightening when one begins to see how deeply conditioned the interpretive process actually is. It powerfully awakens one to the operating mechanism of one’s own self-system, and in so doing, it can make that process an object in awareness rather than an unconscious subjective experience. Even though I thought I already understood this, my experience was one of having the rug pulled out from under me, over and over again, simply because of the deeply ingrained habit of assuming “givens” that define so much of our experience. I can’t tell you how many times, when I was reading the manuscript, I found myself spinning, feeling simultaneously exhilarated, off-balance, and deeply inspired.
Wilber: I think what’s interesting is that one can have an enlightened awareness and still have a satori by understanding this simple point—that, as Immanuel Kant and so many of the modern to postmodern theorists pointed out, our perceptions are conceptions—what we actually see is constructed to some degree. It’s not just a social construction, a fabrication of our cultural consciousness—that conclusion is too extreme, and sadly, too many postmodernists take it that far. But virtually all serious modern to postmodern philosophers agree that what we see is in part a construction.
When it comes to spiritual experience, we can see this very clearly. If you look, for example, at the spiritual experiences of the Western enlightened saints and sages, you find many accounts of angelic beings, or beings of light or luminosity, but you’ll never find any saint or sage in the West describing an entity that has ten thousand arms. And yet that experience seems to be very common in Tibet. Tibetans might see the goddess Avalokitesvara with ten thousand arms appearing in their dreams all the time and think that is the actual form of God. It is the form of God in Tibet, but not in Germany.
Cohen: Unless the German is a dedicated student of Tibetan Buddhism!
Wilber: Indeed! The point is that these are authentic spiritual experiences, but they are culturally molded. And if somebody’s taking their spiritual experience and saying, “This is universally true,” they’re lying. It’s culturally created and molded, yet it doesn’t look like that to the person having the experience. So they’re caught in one version of the myth of the given. A scientist is caught in the same thing. If a scientific materialist says, “Anything I can see in the sensori-motor world is real because that’s what’s really given,” he or she is also caught. It isn’t given; it’s constructed. Anytime we take a state or a stage or a structure or a level of our own consciousness and assume that what’s given to it is real, we’re caught in the myth of the given.
Cohen: Interestingly enough, the reason I started What Is Enlightenment? magazine, the forum for the very discussion we’re having right now, was because in my early years as a teacher I found myself running into what I now see were many forms of the myth of the given that were creating a tremendous amount of confusion for me personally. I was a young Jewish American teaching Eastern enlightenment in a postmodern Western context, which put me in an unusual and challenging position. So many Westerners, I observed, who had turned to Eastern paths, seemed to be unquestioningly adopting premodern superstitious beliefs and metaphysical baggage that no longer made sense in a postmodern context. Indeed, I found that many of the “absolute truths” asserted by my own Eastern teachers were revealed to be merely interpretations from an earlier time and culture.
Wilber: Exactly. The Tibetan yogi sitting in his cave thinks he is contemplating timeless truths, truths that hold for everybody, whereas a good number of them are actually just Tibetan fashions.
Cohen: This dawning recognition is what compelled me to start asking the question “What is enlightenment?” At first, this began with questioning traditional interpretations of the spiritual experience, and over time it has developed into an ongoing inquiry into what, to use your language, a post-traditional, post-metaphysical interpretation of the deepest spiritual insights would be. What would a religion of the future be based on?
What I have continually found is that while the essence or foundation of enlightened understanding is the profound experience of emptiness, or the ground of being, which we discover in higher states of consciousness, we human beings, it seems, are profoundly terrified of that groundless ground itself. And as much as we may believe that we are actually interested in emptiness or that zero point, more often than not, what gives us a sense of security is clinging to the cultural constructs or metaphysical frameworks that hold that revelation.
Cohen: A good example of this was an experience I had last year when I visited a wonderful Indian swami in Denmark—a beautiful older man, surrounded by many loving and devoted students. We gave a teaching together, and afterward I had a conversation with one of his close disciples about the nature of God. I explained that when seen in an evolutionary context, who and what God is can no longer be taken as fixed—that from a developmental perspective, God is also evolving, just as we are. And it was quite a moment because this man had initially had a very loving, angelic expression, but as I was speaking, I literally saw his face drop—he became frightened, terrified, even a little angry. Abruptly, he got up and walked away. Now this was an individual who had obviously experienced higher states of consciousness and as a result had deep confidence in the absolute dimension of life. Yet he was threatened at the deepest existential level by the suggestion that his fixed notion of God maybe wasn’t a given at all.
Wilber: That’s a very common problem. It stems from the fact that the great metaphysical traditions, East and West—Sufi, Buddhist,
neo-Confucian, Christian, Taoist—were all created at a time when the average stage of development was what we call mythic or premodern.
And so those metaphysical mythic systems were used to interpret higher states of consciousness. Now we know that those systems are outdated. They were good interpretations at the time, but they’re bad interpretations for those authentic spiritual states in today’s modern and postmodern world.
Cohen: Because we now know so much more about how to interpret our experience.
Wilber: Exactly. The world of form has changed, and the world of modernity and postmodernity has brought crucial breakthroughs in how we understand the world of form. So the challenge for young men and women today is to get involved in the creation of a post-metaphysical spirituality that understands the myth of the given and that understands the demands of modernity and postmodernity.
Cohen: It’s very exciting—and it is indeed a challenge. Because I think it’s one thing to be able to grasp the notion of the myth of the given at a cognitive level, but to be able to come to terms with its profound implications—emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually—requires a significant measure of authentic freedom or enlightened awareness. One just can’t be clinging too tightly to any fundamental notions about the nature or structure of reality.
Your ideas about a post-metaphysical spirituality have had a powerful impact on me and how I conceive what it is that I’m doing as a teacher of enlightenment at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Specifically, I am endlessly compelled by the notion that higher stages or levels do not preexist, that is, they are not “given” but are literally created by brave individuals who actually venture into new, uncharted territory, laying down “Kosmic grooves” that others follow, which eventually become actual new structures or stages. The fact that the future, even at the most subtle metaphysical levels, literally does not yet exist challenges our most fundamental spiritual/religious notions in every possible way, but if we’re ready for it, it can be the source of enormous inspiration and promise.
Wilber: Absolutely. I agree that moving into this post-metaphysical world of spirituality is the great, great thrilling adventure that we have in front of us.
Cohen: I think potentially what’s the most thrilling for the postmodern self is the discovery that we are literally creating the future, which in a post-metaphysical worldview means we are not separate from the creative principle or God-impulse itself—God is evolving aswe evolve.
Wilber: I do believe that’s right.
Cohen: As I told the disciple of the Danish swami, God is not already fully formed, sitting on a cloud waiting for us to maybe catch up with Him (or Her) one day!
Cohen: And this moment itself, assuming that one is leaning into it with all of one’s being, reaching for the future, is potentially the very edge of the possible—with nothing beyond it yet except maybe an inherent tendency to lean in a certain direction.
Wilber: Albert Einstein is said to have performed the following thought experiment when he was contemplating relativity. He asked himself a question: If you were literally riding on the edge of a light beam and you held a mirror in front of you, could you see yourself? And the answer is no. If nothing travels faster than light, light can’t get to the mirror to reflect your reflection, so you would see nothing. That’s another good image for the edge of evolution. There’s nothing in the future to see. We’re creating it as we go out there. And it’s pretty scary to look in the mirror and not see anything—
Cohen: —and completely, ultimately thrilling.