Have you ever been part of an online message exchange or forum where drama ensues as people misinterpret each others’ comments? Example: one person intends a joke at no one’s expense, yet another takes it as a personal insult. We wander into these forums and exchange strings of words, often not recognizing we are playing with only a partial deck. We do not have access to the richer communications ecology into which we are born where tones, physical expressions, verbal inflections et. al. are automatic and omnipresent. Online, we are in a flatland, a one-dimensional environment unconsciously performing as if we are immersed in multiple levels of stimuli delivered by another sitting across from us in our living room.
Another of my favorite teachers, Ken Wilber, has a term for this: level confusion. We presume others are somehow on board with our communication context, but reality is we are often far apart. Many interpersonal psychology, marketing and business communication books have been written about this phenomenon. For this post, I want to take this to another level, following Wilber’s lead, in turn built on Arthur Koestler’s writings (e.g. The Ghost in the Machine).
As practice deepens, mindful awareness grows. Our thoughts and experiences are held with greater spaciousness, and what were once found to be absolute concepts are seen as concepts held within a context, consciously or unconsciously. Concepts become more malleable when seen within their supporting concept. An example: we may avoid another person “because” that person supports the death penalty. If that approach is examined more deeply via mindfulness, it’s possible to notice that there may be aspects of sadness or hurt in the other person’s speech, body language, expressions, etc. The person supporting the death penalty position may not have any awareness of these layers that feed their expression. Mindfulness allows us to witness these levels and via wise speech and/or action, perhaps engage the other on the basis of compassion for the hurt. Whether the person’s death penalty position changes or not, another more profound change has occurred. Options are more visible, choice is possible. And most important, the once absolute, one layer position is seen as a layer among others, part of a contextual spectrum.
Ken Wilber takes this observation further to examine layers of spiritual consciousness and how, yes, there is a qualitative hierarchy to spiritual activity. In our example, we can see 2 layers: physical expression (death penalty position) and context observation, operating independently of the death penalty position. This is only a start. As practice deepens and strengthens, we can, in turn see how context itself is held in mind, and how mind itself is held within a higher context, and on up the chain. Wilber identifies 8 levels. In our everyday moments we are rarely aware of these levels. Yet they deeply infuse our lives. We are not flat. Becoming aware of these levels is both the wonderful challenge practice offers us and the peace that comes from knowing that our essential nature is so much more than it ordinarily appears.
May all beings be at peace.
May all beings be safe.
May all beings find lovingkindness.
I have added a link to the links section to Ken Wilber’s website should you wish to dive more deeply too all things Wilber.