Escape from wholeness


When I go into various situations, my identity shifts. The resulting personality depends on who I am with, the physical environment, my own physical condition, my expectations, and countless other factors.

This subject was on my mind as I read Ken Wilber's book, The Spectrum of Consciousness. He described a continuum of consciousness -- at one extreme we are in a state of union with the universe, and as we approach the other end of the spectrum our sense of self progressively narrows. At each step along this path, one's sense of "I" becomes increasingly detached from the universe and even oneself, while our unclaimed attributes then become unconscious or projected outward as external events.

Using this tool, I saw something interesting about the development of identity within the New American Wing. It became obvious that while we thought we were developing towards greater psychological "unity", we were actually becoming more fragmented and out of touch with our total potential.

The spectrum

Consider a diagram representing Wilber's spectrum of consciousness. Let blue represent the area in which one is self-aware, that part of the spectrum which one considers to be "me". Let gray indicate the remaining area that lies outside of consciousness, the spectrum outside of one's self-concept.

Theoretically, at the level of "cosmic consciousness" or unity with the Absolute, one identifies with (and is aware of) everything, there is no unconscious. We can illustrate this condition with the following diagram:

At the "existential level", one feels oneself to be an independent organism separate from the environment. One is conscious of oneself as a union of mind and body, while the external world seems separate from oneself:

Descending further, one might think of oneself as a soul inhabiting a body. That is, one identifies mostly with one's mental self, which now "has a body" and is frequently at odds against "it". At this point, one's sense of self has shrunk even further:

Beyond this, the ego may split into "persona" and "shadow". One identifies with the persona, while all other aspects of one's ego become unconscious to this smaller sense of "I". Unowned aspects of oneself (both positive and negative) rarely come into awareness. One might even experience these disowned feelings as coming from other people via projection. By now, the spectrum looks like this:

Wilber stops the descent at this point. Overall this seems like a valuable tool for looking at consciousness, because it connects awareness with identity and also with perception of time and space. (The question of whether or not "cosmic consciousness" is actually possible does not detract from the value of this model as an analytical tool.)

Fragmentation in the NAW

In the NAW, it was stressed that "consciousness" is something that doesn't really exist until the level of Man #5 . According to Fourth Way doctrine, normal man is not conscious; he is a sleeping machine. All of our feelings, thoughts, sensations and movements are simply "functions", and we were encouraged to disassociate from these manifestations in various ways, such as:

When we believe that we are not yet conscious, when we label all our present manifestations as mere "functions" of "the machine", we begin to look like the following diagram:

Now, "I" am nothing more than a potential. "I" do not exist until I am a Man #5 . "I" claim no ownership of my negative behaviors; "I" do not claim ownership of my awareness or thoughts; "I" do not claim ownership of my feelings; "I" do not claim ownership of my body; and I certainly don't claim ownership of the world around me. In effect, "I" no longer exist.

It is difficult to imagine a state of consciousness any more fragmented and restricted than this.

How does this compare with healthy development?

Using this model, it is clear that a healthy development of consciousness leads to greater degrees of integration, an increasing and more inclusive sense of self. Perhaps this was the original intent of Gurdjieff -- I don't know. But the NAW and other Fourth Way cults appear to have implemented this in the completely opposite direction.

Rather than expanding one's identity to envelop more and more of one's experience, one instead learns to compartmentalize and alienate oneself even further! One learns to increase the size of the "shadow" until there is nothing else!

Instead of saying, "man has a certain amount of consciousness but also has the possibility of expanding his range", I learned that I have no consciousness, and that everything I experience is in fact not "I" but "the machine".

By disowning my own inner experience as merely "functions of the machine", I shrink my identity to such a degree that it no longer even belongs on the diagrams shown above. My identity becomes so abstract and removed from reality that I no longer identify (feel "I am this") with anything in my ordinary experience! My sense of self has dwindled so far as to become tied up completely with an idea, a potential.

This is so unfathomably ridiculous that I am embarrassed to have not seen it as it was happening.

With a sense of self almost annihilated, it becomes more clear why people experience a kind of identity crisis in these cults. This might explain many otherwise illogical behaviors: why students could make such radical changes in their personality in such a short time; why we were so willing to make drastic changes in our lives at the slightest request of the teachers. why imitation was is rampant, in everything from diet to appearance to musical taste; and why it was so easy to bury our conscience - because we believed that we didn't even possess that!

It is one thing to cease identifying with oneself as a result of direct transpersonal experience. For example, with the spectrum diagram this could be illustrated as:

In this case, your awareness has transcended your individual self and you may choose to not identify exclusively with your organism (mind and body).

But I believe we were moving in the opposite direction in the NAW. That is, instead of raising our consciousness to a level beyond ourselves, we lowered our state of consciousness by denying even more of our own nature:

At first they sound like the same thing, "not identifying with oneself", "stripping away personality", etc. But in the first case, one expands one's consciousness, while in the second case one represses more and more of oneself. In the first case, one's identity becomes more inclusive, one's sense of self includes the organism and even more. In the second case, one's identity becomes more exclusive, one feels estranged by one's own self, and the "I" that remains is just an abstract concept.

The origin of paranoia

Wilber makes an interesting case that at any point along this spectrum (except for the far right edge, union with the absolute), what one represses will come to be perceived as "other", as something fighting against "you", something at odds with what "you" want. An easy example of this is the Fourth Way idea that "the instinctive function will try to eat your work". (In ordinary language, this means that one's physical body will try to prevent one's spirit from evolving.) To accept this is to deny your own body as a part of you, and it then becomes easy to imagine that your body is an intelligent force whose aims oppose consciousness (or whatever your ego is striving for).

With this mindset, the paranoia in these groups becomes much more understandable. One could say it is even inevitable. As we repress more and more of our own identity, instead of going away, these denied parts continue to function and become either invisible or projected as foreign forces. The more one feels at war with oneself, the more one will imagine oneself to be at war with others too.

For example, I identify with an aim towards consciousness. I see the environment ( life ) as warring against this aim ("me"). I see my body ("the machine") as "trying to eat my work". Instead of seeing my emotions as another mode of knowing, I see "the emotional function" as a wild horse that needs to be tamed. I see my own intellect as an evil mechanized computer that wants to keep me down here in a dull and sleepy half-consciousness. I am a tiny seed in the midst of a gigantic machine that is intentionally scheming against me.

Habitually, we tend to interpret the actions of others as though they were ours. That is, we assume that other people think more or less the same way we do. Thus, the more we become hyper-vigilant against some internal coup (some feature taking over, some negative emotion wasting our precious energy for consciousness, etc), the more we will perceive others as threats too. I think that the car salesman is trying to rip me off mostly because I am also trying to rip him off. In the cult, I believed life was trying to destroy the school only because it was a reflection of my own self-mistrust.

Most of the time, my expectation of others is a direct reflection of how I think I might act in their circumstances. If I cannot even trust myself, how can I trust anyone else?

We are like fingers on a hand

To use one final analogy, we are like the fingers on a hand. If I become more conscious, more inclusive, I realize that I am actually inseparable from the hand itself, and I no longer see the thumb in opposition against my aims. Even further, I realize I am part of an entire body.

However, if I become less conscious, more exclusive, I repress the fact that I am a whole finger, and instead see myself as a fingernail "on" a finger (comparable to an ego which "has" or is "in" a body). This terrifying finger seems to curl with a mind of its own, and I undertake a noble struggle to bring it under control. Even further, I could disassociate from the growing tip and identify only with the cuticle. Indeed, this tip seems to be tugging at me day and night, and periodically life even severs it and throws it into oblivion! I must constantly be on guard against these unceasing forces.


Enough movement in either direction can result in "less identification with oneself", but these words can be misleading. One case involves losing oneself, repressing and disowning parts of oneself, creating a narrowed self which is less than the sum of the parts. The healthier alternative involves transcending one's normal sense of self by including even more than one's individual characteristics.

Wilber's approach makes these distinctions obvious. The spectrum model clearly demonstrates that the students in the NAW and other Fourth Way cults are taught to regress into less mature states of development, all the while imagining that they are evolving into more spiritual beings.

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