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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Jean Gebser & Integral Consciousness: The Inaugural Post

It would be most fitting if the inaugural post for Jean Gebser & Integral Philosophy might be presented in Jean Gebser's own words. And since the purpose and function of this blog is to make the work of Jean Gebser more broadly known to the interested public, a summation of his thought as he presented it is appended here.

The article, published shortly after Gebser's death in 1973, appeared in the Jan.-Feb. 1974 edition of the now defunct magazine Main Currents in Modern Thought. For that reason, it perhaps bears a distinct touch of finality. "The Integral Consciousness" attempts to summarise, in very few words (if that were possible) the contents of his main work The Ever-Present Origin (originally published in German under the title Ursprung und Gegenwart). Recent global events suggest that Gebser's insights of over half a century ago remain compelling, and perhaps are only now coming to fruition.

The Integral Consciousness

THE GROWTH OF A NEW, INTEGRAL CONSCIOUSNESS is important, even decisive, for our times, for it is a theme of universal scope, embracing the whole of humanity. As such, it deserves to be treated as a coherent whole, for the common destiny of Asia and the Occident depends largely upon the extent to which this new consciousness is realized. The uniqueness of the Integral consciousness lies in the fact that it is in no way based upon the increase of intellectual knowledge, which may be misunderstood or misapplied. The new consciousness has nothing to do with such knowledge; its character is derived from spiritual, not from purely intellectual, values. It can, however, make clear to us that which has heretofore been incomprehensible, even unthinkable, and explain relations which have, at best, been merely matters of conjecture.

It is precisely because Asia and the Occident are not mutually exclusive opposites, but are mutually complementary poles (which may very well one day rediscover their common roots), that it is important for this consciousness to be coherently and fully explored. This now becomes even more necessary in view of the fact that my earlier publications have been mainly concerned with providing evidence of the dawning of the Integral consciousness and of the forms it has taken in the Occident in recent decades, and have not addressed themselves sufficiently to the unique character of this new constellation of consciousness.

It is difficult to find the right name—the most fitting and appropriate designation—for something new. Sri Aurobindo and Deisetz Teitaro Suzuki, for example, have each given a different name to what is essentially the same phenomenon: this new consciousness. We have called it “integral” and “a-rational,” and have, moreover, emphasized that it is above all “time-free,” a designation which is in keeping with Western terminology.

Let us then consider what is to be understood by such a description as an “a-rational, integral consciousness, free of time.” Many people will say that these are difficult, even incomprehensible notions, and that whether we understand their meaning will, in the end, not matter at all. But anyone who believes that it is sometimes good as well as constructive to come to grips with a problem which touches the very foundations of our everyday life (to say nothing of the future which is helping to shape our present) will agree that a problem concerning our consciousness is worth thinking about.

Our conception of what we call reality depends upon our mode of consciousness. For example, reality, as it is understood by many Asiatics, Africans, American Indians and other non-European peoples, is not the same as it is for Westerners, because they do not see the world as the correlate of their own ego. We, on the other hand, regard everything from the point of view of our ego-consciousness. For us, the world is a tangible reality which confronts us: Here am I, there is the world. We believe ourselves capable of managing this world by means of external techniques because we are strongly conscious of our position in space and time—we must be conscious of our stance, for without this conscious knowledge we should be egoless, indeed timeless, as are the representatives of those non-European cultures just mentioned. Their consciousness is to a certain extent dreamlike; it knows little of ego or of time. The same could also have been said of Europeans several thousand years ago, before we awoke to an awareness of the ego in the world, and thereby learned to regard time and space as tangible values. Thanks to this mental and ego-centered waking awareness we were able to shape our reality anew: We saw reality as objective to ourselves as subject, and thereby created science and made technology possible.

Yet. in spite of all the so-called progress we have made, in spite of all our achievements, we are threatened by a danger which becomes greater and more apparent day by day and which cannot be over-stressed: the danger that our identification with the ego may become too strong—that it may harden and degenerate into egocentricity, until we lose the ability to fructify conscious human relations and may even, eventually, become inhuman. Many people today feel that ego-development is leading to a fatal imbalance, even to the point of threatening our whole Western culture. The threat arises from the fact that excessive ego-centricity, which is associated with unbridled possessiveness and lust for power, results in a corrosive materialism and a ruthless disregard for the essential quality of human life. It leads finally to loss of the ability to apprehend those transcendent values which Asia still knows better than we do.

Today, many are endeavoring to escape these consequences by trying to return to a state of timelessness and egolessness without, however, being aware that they are doing so. They turn for help to (misunderstood) yoga training, or join Eastern communities whose purposes are little understood in Europe. In these, however, only the teachers (who are regarded as holy) and the community itself have any significance, and therefore those who seek refuge in such traditions of necessity lose their ego. Again, if Aldous Huxley’s intercession on behalf of mescaline was a first falsification of the experience of felicity, the “psychedelic experiment” has been a crime against our young people, whose true longings to avoid the taints of materialism were misled by false promises and fatal means. It has been suggested that LSD and other drugs can provoke the same sensations of self-release, bliss and escape from the world as, for example, those described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. To equate the hallucinations artificially engendered by chemicals with the experiences won only after decades of spiritual training is to submit to a delusion based upon the grossest kind of materialistic thinking. That which is to be achieved only by mental application and spiritual discipline leads, as a result of psychic non-discipline, to ruin instead of enlightenment; the result is regression, a weakening or lowering of awareness instead of its necessary and integrating intensification. These negative attempts to master our situation are not an overcoming, but rather a falling back, because those who act thus fall below the possibilities of the waking consciousness, which we have acquired through thousands of years of effort.

There is another way, however, which overcomes egoism and leads to the freedom of the ego. That is to say, it leads to a newly-unfolding, truly awake consciousness, free both from attachment to “egoness” and “egolessness”—a consciousness that deliberately integrates the two states. When this is achieved by the individual, something very significant—indeed, saving—happens. His consciousness, and thereby his reality, take on a richness and abundancy of life heretofore not believed possible. A person who has such an Integral consciousness is no longer dependent on his ego: His ego, with all its passions, no longer dominates him; rather, he governs his ego. Then the world as a correlate of ego—a world which confronts us with all its conditions of time and space—becomes a shared world, a world of participation in that which, like the divine or the spiritual, is not linked to time and space because it is, by its very nature, timeless and spaceless. If we succeed in overcoming both egolessness and egoness by consciously integrating them, our mental, ego-centered waking consciousness is transformed into an Integral, fully awake consciousness, free from time and ego. By this means we overcome the fatal danger that threatens our culture today—the danger that we may perish of ego-hardening and the fall into complete materialism.

This concept of an Integral, time-free consciousness is neither Utopian nor illusory; neither is it a form of wishful thinking. On the contrary, it represents and shapes a richer reality. The dawning of this new consciousness, with its new conception of reality, is today becoming visible in many different fields, in the West as well as in the East. Like everything new, it strikes one at first as extremely strange, although it is simply an intensification of the possibilities of our consciousness. It is a spiritual process which, though painful, brings with it the assurance that if it can be consciously achieved, we ourselves, the world, and indeed all humanity will move towards a new and positive reality.

To think of this achievement, even as a possibility, will not be an easy matter for everyone. In order to be able to see it clearly––us the present age, so full of imminent catastrophe, demands one must cast off all prejudice and break old and outmoded habits of thinking. One condition for this is that we become so well-acquainted with ourselves that we become “self-transparent”—that we accept the active roles of the Archaic, Magical and Mythical Structures which help to constitute us, and do not attribute exclusive validity to the Mental-Rational Structure.* In order to achieve the clear-sightedness whereby we can recognize the efficacy of all these structures without either falling back into magical superstition or enchantment, or sinking into mythical dreaming or irrationality, what is required of us is just that which no one is particularly willing to undertake—work on oneself. The world and its humanity will under no circumstances be changed by preaching a better world; would-be “reformers,” in their efforts to achieve a better world, often demand of others what they have not required of themselves.

Of course, such a transformation will not be easy for those who still try to shape and master their lives entirely on the basis of the Mental-rational attitude. It will be much easier for the younger generation to realize the dimensions of the new consciousness which we have called “aperspectival,” as well as “a-rational” and “integral.” These different terms, although pointing to one and the same thing, derive from the different spheres of experience in which the new form of consciousness is already revealing itself. For this generation has been born into a climate of change, wherein the new consciousness is breaking through into the light.

The idea that the younger generation is born into the climate of a new structure of consciousness is difficult to accept unless we think of the concept of cultural evolution in somewhat different terms, for it requires acceptance of the fact that the new consciousness manifests itself of its own accord, that is, arises naturally and spontaneously in man, in the world and in time, by becoming “transparent” in them. So long as we are unable to free ourselves from the conventional routines of thought which have now become anachronistic and therefore erroneous, we will think of cultural evolution as a process that urges us toward a goal in a linear progression. So long as we attribute exclusive validity to a pragmatically narrow definition of progress by accretion, the assumption that a generation can be “born into” a new consciousness is impossible.

If we are not able to free ourselves from a narrow, one-sided view of evolution which does not include other perspectives of time and transformation. we shall remain fixed within the rationally postulated limits of events and thereby fail to break out of the rational cul-de-sac. It was for this reason that we called the first part of Ursprung und Gegenwart “A Contribution to the History of the Awakening of Consciousness.” There was no mention there of the evolution of consciousness, for while history is an active process, evolution is only a partial view of this process and its limitations a view that arises from perspective of the Mental-Rational Structure. The manifestation of the new consciousness is not a milestone on the path to a so-called higher development; it is rather, on the one hand, an enrichment and intensification of the human consciousness and, on the other, our conscious response to the Integral Structure of the world, which through us becomes transparent. This invisible process activates in us the new consciousness that has always been latent in us. Evolution, from this point of view, is the evolving (e = from, volvere = proceeding, forming) of man’s hitherto latent possibilities of consciousness, which are released by a corresponding supplementary “involution” of the Integral component of the world-consciousness: that involution (in = inward) in the terrestrial sphere is answered by its other pole, awakening—our readiness at a given time for the Integral and time-free consciousness; to evolve from within us.

Whoever has ennobled, intensified and prepared his consciousness, so that an enrichment of the Integral consciousness is achieved, lives in a state of participation in the world as a whole. This participation, which is conditioned by the Integral consciousness and which, even now, is to be found in individuals in every part of the world, holds the possibility for the healing of the world. It will depend on those few who are already consciously realizing this process and who are, thus, enabling the new forces to take effect in the individual, the world and humanity.

*See especially pages 86-88 which describe the Magical, Mythical, Mental/Rational and Integral Structures of Consciousness and Culture in Main Currents 29, 2.

Jean Gebser was. from 1967. Honorary Professor for Comparative Studies of Civilizations at the University of Salzburg. The preceding paper was given us by Prof. Gebser prior to his death.


  1. After reading Gebser's essay, I would suggest reading Paul Mason's article that appeared today in The Guardian -- an excerpt from his book Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere (and, one might add, all-at-once, too).

    Afterwards, you may come to realise how Gebser's words of over half-a-century ago were prescient.

  2. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to "project" the inhuman and completely material aspect of our consciousness onto one of our inventions -- technology, computers, the internet? Not artificial intelligence and robots exactly but something pretty close.

    I think the "split" IS what makes us human, right now at least, for it is what we as humans are destined to eternally struggle with, but there IS the danger that we WILL fall into complete materialism and lose our humanity.

    I say project it out but be aware of what we are doing.

  3. "the danger that our identification with the ego may become too strong—that it may harden and degenerate into egocentricity, until we lose the ability to fructify conscious human relations and may even, eventually, become inhuman."

    In my opinion, we are much further along this path than we were when Gebser wrote these words. We are living out a paradox: the more we seek to augment and extend the ego through the use of information technology, the more we are watching the awareness of personhood disintegrate, to the point where the ability to maintain the distinction between the ego and its technology is vastly weakened, and we reun the ever increasing risk of becoming flesh appendages of an ever more potent and self-referential technological milieu.

    Great introductory post. I hope you continue with others.

  4. Diffusion and scatteredness inevitably result from hours each day on the internet, no matter what the activity might be. Coupled with electromagnetic radiation on a continuous basis it is no wonder that the average attention span is about 15 seconds before the mind flits to another vacillation. The number of "blasts" and changing scenes which today's mind must experience is astounding, thus causing an inured, myopic zombie-like awareness which is so typical of the internet generation. Concentration is almost a lost art and definitely has suffered a terrible blow. Nothing of value can be produced or created without concentration. Today's addiction to digital gadgets and the internet have emasculated the minds of an entire generation. Perhaps a balance can be struck in the coming decades. For myself, I make it a point to practice contemplation daily and to also spend time outdoors without a gadget in sight. Much love to all.