Belief, faith, direct experience, and permanent adaptation


From One Taste by Ken Wilber

There are four major stages or phases of spiritual unfolding: belief, faith, direct experience, and permanent adaptation: you can believe in Spirit, you can have faith in Spirit, you can directly experience Spirit, you can become Spirit.

1 - Belief is the earliest (and therefore, the most common) stage of spiritual orientation. Belief originates at the mental level, generally, since it requires images, symbols, and concepts. But the mind itself goes through several transitional phases in its own development—magic, mythic, rational, and vision-logic—and each of those is the basis of a type (and stage) of spiritual or religious belief.

Magic belief is egocentric, with subject and object often fused, thus marked by the notion that the individual self can dramatically affect the physical world and other people through mental wishes—voodoo and word magic being the most well-known examples. Mythic belief (which is usually sociocentric/ethnocentric, since different people have different myths that are mutually exclusive: if Jesus is the one and only savior of humankind, Krishna is kaput) invests its spiritual intuitions in one or more physically disembodied gods or goddesses, who have ultimate power over human actions. Rational belief—to the extent that reason chooses to believe at all—attempts to demythologize religion and portray God or the Goddess, not as an anthropomorphic deity, but as an ultimate Ground of Being. This rationalization reaches its zenith with vision-logic belief, where sciences such as systems theory are often used to explain this Ground of Being as a Great Holistic System, Gaia, Goddess, Eco-Spirit, the Web of Life, and so forth.

All of those are mental beliefs, usually accompanied by strong emotional sentiments or feelings; but they are not necessarily direct experiences of supramental spiritual realities. As such, they are merely forms of translation: they can be embraced without changing one’s present level of consciousness in the least. But as those merely translative gestures begin to mature, and as direct emergence of the higher domains increasingly presses against the self, mere belief gives way to faith.

2 - Faith begins, if at all, when belief loses its power to compel. Sooner or later, any mental belief—precisely because it is mental and not supramental or spiritual—will begin to lose its forcefulness. For example, the mental belief in spirit as the Web of Life will begin to pale in its power to persuade: no matter how much you keep believing in the Web of Life, you still feel like a separate, isolated ego, beset with hope and fear. You try to believe harder; it still doesn’t work. Mere belief might have provided you with a type of translative meaning, but not with an actual transformation, and this slowly, painfully, becomes obvious. (It might even be worse if you are involved in magic or mythic beliefs, because not only do these not usually transform you, they often act as a regressive force in your awareness, moving you not toward, but away from, the transrational.)

Still, there is often a genuine, spiritual, transmental intuition behind the mental belief in Gaia or the Web of Life, namely, an intuition of the Oneness of Life. But this intuition cannot be fully realized as long as belief grips consciousness. For all beliefs are ultimately divisive and dualistic—holistic beliefs are ultimately just as dualistic as analytic beliefs, because both make sense only in terms of their opposites. You are not supposed to think the All, you are supposed to be the All, and as long as you are clinging to beliefs about the All, it will never happen. Mere beliefs are cardboard nutrition for the soul, spiritually empty calories, and sooner or later they cease to fascinate and console.

But usually between letting go of belief, on the one hand, and finding direct experience, on the other, the person is carried only by faith. If the belief in Oneness can no longer offer much consolation, still the person has faith that Oneness is there, somehow, calling out to him or her. And they are right. Faith soldiers on when belief becomes unbelievable, for faith hears the faint but direct call of a higher reality—of Spirit, of God, of Goddess, of Oneness—a higher reality that, being beyond the mind, is beyond belief. Faith stands on the threshold of direct supramental, transrational experience. Lacking dogmatic beliefs, it has no sense of security; not yet having direct experience, it has no sense of certainty. Faith is thus a no-man’s-land—a thousand questions, no answers—it possesses only a dogged determination to find its spiritual abode, and, pulled on by its own hidden intuition, it might eventually find direct experience.

3 - Direct experience decisively answers the nagging questions inherent in faith. There are usually two phases of direct experience: peak experiences and plateau experiences.

Peak experiences are relatively brief, usually intense, often unbidden, and frequently life-changing. They are actually “peek experiences” into the transpersonal, supramental levels of one’s own higher potentials. Psychic peak experiences are a glimpse into nature mysticism (gross-level oneness); subtle peak experiences are a glimpse into deity mysticism (subtle-level oneness); causal peak experiences are a glimpse into emptiness (causal-level oneness); and nondual peak experiences are a glimpse into One Taste. As Roger Walsh has pointed out, the higher the level of the peak experience, the rarer it is. (This is why most experiences of “cosmic consciousness” are actually just a glimpse of nature mysticism or gross-level oneness, the shallowest of the mystical realms. Many people mistake this for One Taste, unfortunately. This confusion, in my opinion, is epidemic among eco-theorists.)

Most people remain, understandably, at the stage of belief or faith (and usually magical or mythical at that). Occasionally, however, individuals will have a strong peak experience of a genuinely transpersonal realm, and it completely shatters them, often for the better, sometimes for the worse. But you can tell they aren’t merely repeating a belief they read in a book, or giving merely translative chitchat: they have truly seen a higher realm, and they are never quite the same.

(This is not always a good thing. Someone at the concrete-literal mythic level, for example, can have a peak experience of, say, the subtle level, whereupon the authority of the subtle is injected into their concrete myths, and the result is a reborn fundamentalist: their particular mythic god-figure is the only figure that can save the entire world, and they will burn your body to save your soul. Someone at the vision-logic level can have a psychic-level peak experience, and then their “new ecoparadigm” is the only thing that can save the planet, and they will gladly march lock-step in eco-fascism to save you from yourself. Religious fanaticism of such ilk is almost impossible to dismantle, because it is an intense mixture of higher truth with lower structure. The higher truth is often a very genuine spiritual experience, a true “peek” experience of a higher domain; but precisely because it is a brief, temporary experience—and not an enduring, steady, clear awareness—it gets immediately snapped up and translated downward into the lower level, where it confers an almost unshakable legitimacy on even the ugliest of beliefs.)


4 - Adaptation simply means a constant, permanent access to a given level of consciousness. Most of us have already adapted (or evolved) to matter, body, and mind (which is why you have access to all three of them virtually any time you want). And some of us have had peak experiences into the transpersonal levels (psychic, subtle, causal, or nondual). But with actual practice, we can evolve into plateau experiences “of these higher realms, and these plateau experiences, with further practice, can become permanent adaptations: constant access to psychic, subtle, causal, and nondual occasions—constant access to nature mysticism, deity mysticism, formless mysticism, and integral mysticism—all as easily available to consciousness as matter, body, and mind now are. And this is likewise evidenced in a constant consciousness (sahaja) through all three states—waking, dreaming (or savikalpa samadhi), and sleeping (or nirvikalpa samadhi). It then becomes obvious why “That which is not present in deep dreamless sleep is not real.” The Real must be present in all three states, including deep dreamless sleep, and pure Consciousness is the only thing that is present in all three. This Fact becomes perfectly obvious when you rest as pure, empty, formless Consciousness and “watch” all three states arise, abide, and pass, while you remain Unmoved, Unchanged, Unborn, released into the pure Emptiness that is all Form, the One Taste that is the radiant All.”

Excerpt From

One Taste
Ken Wilber