States, Stages, and the Three Kinds of Self

Ken WilberIntegrative Metatheory, Intrapersonal, Perspectives, Presentations, Self-Identity, Video Leave a Comment


"Structures" or "stages" of consciousness represent a measure of our growth and maturity. Stages have been studied in the West by developmental psychologists like Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, Abraham Maslow, and Jean Gebser, all of whom have created sophisticated models of development that can be generically summarized as moving from "ego-centric" stages, to "ethno-centric" stages, to "world-centric" stages, and beyond. These stages are experienced in succession—that is, you have to move through "stage 3" of psychological development before you can hit "stage 4".

"States" of consciousness, meanwhile, have been extensively studied in the East, and represent our various degrees of freedom in this and every moment. These states are ever-present, meaning they can be experienced at any time in our lives, and are often accessed through spiritual practices like meditation or prayer; through physical practices like athletics or yoga; through deep intimacy, sexuality, and relationships; through altered- or drug-induced states; or even completely spontaneously while walking down the street or taking a shower. States of consciousness will always be interpreted by the stage of development a person happens to be at when he or she has the experience, which means that the same universal states of consciousness have been described in a multitude of very different ways throughout history. Understanding the deeper similarities between these very different conceptions of the universal gives us more direct access to the circuit-board of spiritual reality.

Not only does the concept of "states and stages" go a long way to help us understand the history of consciousness, culture, and religion, but it helps us become more skillful communicators and more potent lovers in our own lives. Adapting the ancient Buddhist concept of upaya-kayshalya (roughly "skillful means") for the 21st century, we recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all interpretation of reality that works for all people at all times, but that there is a "sliding scale" of truth, as well as many different ways of expressing and comprehending that truth. With a sophisticated understanding of how states and stages of consciousness interface in our own experience, we can open our hearts to more of the world, more of each other, and more of ourselves than ever before possible—loving everything and everyone in existence, exactly as they are, without exception or hesitation.

Here Ken offers one of his finest presentations on states of consciousness, bringing a great deal of clarity to one of the most important conceptual maps of our time.


Many of us have long intuited that the world's great spiritual traditions must share some common core—that is, despite the significant differences on the surface, every religion is an expression of some universal source, which is then interpreted through the cultural lens of a particular society at a particular point in history.

And more importantly, we know that this isn't a matter of belief, but of experience—this universal source can itself be tasted in a direct and immediate way. In fact, almost every major religion has been built around the teachings of mystics, all of whom have had actual first-hand experiences of divinity, while trying to translate their state experiences for the everyday world in the form of words, deeds, and practices.

But here's the catch—while every religion shares a common core of mysticism, and while every mystic has had his or her own personal taste of the divine, not all mystical experiences are identical. Here Ken offers a simple but comprehensive way to make sense of these different states of consciousness, essentially bringing our entire history of esoteric spirituality to the table while teasing apart the many different flavors of transcendence.


Ken goes on to discuss some of the crucial distinctions between states and stages, most notably the fact that while stages of development are inclusive (each new stage building upon the last), states of consciousness are not—they are exclusive in the literal sense of the word, meaning you cannot be happy and sad, drunk and sober, or liberated and contracted at the same time. Furthermore, while we cannot skip stages of development (you must grow through stage 3 before you can hit stage 4), states of consciousness are much more fluid, and any state can be experienced at just about any time.

However, there is a big difference between naturally-occurring states and trained states. As we said, natural states are always available to us, and do not follow any strictly sequential nature. But trained states almost always do, leading the practitioner over many years from the "densest" states (gross states) to less dense states (subtle states) to formless states (causal states) to effortless Witnessing states (Turiya) to the seamless nondual integration of Witness and Witnessed (Turiyatita).

It may be surprising to hear that we can experience painful pathologies in our experience of states. Many are accustomed to thinking of "pathology" as a primarily developmental concern—that is, some piece of us becomes "broken" at some point in our growth, and remains broken throughout our lives (fertile ground for everything from neurosis to psychosis) until we are able to find a way back to the original wound, eventually redressing and reintegrating it. But pathologies are not limited to stages of development—there are also a great many things that can go wrong with our experience with (and progression through) states, which Ken discusses here.

Ken talks about the three different definitions of "self" that have caused so much confusion while trying to integrate Western philosophy with Eastern philosophy. He identifies these "selves" as the False Self (the broken or illusory self), the Actual Self (the "authentic" or healthily-integrated self at any particular stage of development), and the Real Self (the timeless Self behind and beyond all manifestation). To summarize, there have been many failed attempts to remedy the finite False Self by trying to plug it directly into the infinite Real Self, completely bypassing the need to cultivate a healthy and fully-functional Actual Self as the arbiter of our illumination—resulting at best as an effete and cantankerous enlightenment, at worst as the unfulfilling desperation of spiritual bypassing.


Ken continues his discussion of the three kinds of self: the False Self (the broken or illusory self image), the Actual Self (the "authentic" or healthily-integrated self at any particular stage of development), and the Real Self (the timeless Self behind and beyond all manifestation). He also talks about the two different vectors of growth, which he calls transformation (the vertical ascent through different stages of consciousness) versus translation (making sense of the world from whatever stage you happen to be at, in the healthiest way possible.) This is a crucial distinction, especially for idealists who consider the goal of the Integral movement to be to "raise consciousness" and transform the world. But forcing individual or cultural transformation is not only impossible, it's really not very compassionate, as everyone has the right to plateau at whatever stage works for them and the circumstances of their lives. Integral practitioners should not be focusing on transforming the world, but rather helping people better translate the world from wherever they might be—after all, the best way to foster and support people's growth in the long run is to make them as healthy as possible in the short run.


In this short but endearing clip, Ken is asked to share where he currently sees himself in his own growth and development. He offers an honest and open-hearted self-assessment, talks about the major obstacles he has faced, and where he thinks his edge currently is.

Ken Wilber

About Ken Wilber

Ken Wilber is a preeminent scholar of the Integral stage of human development. He is an internationally acknowledged leader, founder of Integral Institute, and co-founder of Integral Life. Ken is the originator of arguably the first truly comprehensive or integrative world philosophy, aptly named “Integral Theory”.

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