Ground and Figure



"In precisely the same way, we can say that at each point in evolution or remembrance (anamesis), a mode of self become merely a component of a higher order self (e.g. the body was the mode of the self before the mind emerged whereupon it becomes merely a component of self) This can be put in several different ways each of which tells us something important about development, evolution and transcendence as it was put in The Spectrum of Consciousness, one is then looking at these structures and therefore is not using them as something with which to look at, and thus distort, the world). Each of these points is, in effect, a definition of transcendence. Yet each is also a definition of a stage of development. It follows that the two are essentially identical, and evolution, as has been said, is actually "self-realisation through self-transcendence."

(Eye of Spirit pages 238-239).


We have now reached the fourth of Ken Wilber's statements on development.

This (like the others) is one-directional reflecting the rational linear approach.

However as all relationships from a dynamic perspective are bi-directional, Ken's approach to development is very misleading and ultimately inconsistent.

The purpose of this post is to establish the true bi-directional nature of ground and figure and to use this to clarify a key imbalance in Ken's treatment.


Firstly however we need to elaborate on Ken's use of these terms.

Ken Wilber uses ground in a neutral manner to refer to the ground unconscious which he describes "as in essence all the deep structures existing as potentials ready to emerge via remembrance at some future point". All the deep structures pertaining to every level of human development from the "lowest" to the "highest" are enfolded or enwrapped in the ground unconscious. Ken then views development in one-directional fashion as a progressive hierarchical unfolding of these deep structures from the lowest (pleroma and body) to the highest (God and Void).

Ken uses "figure" to refer to the symbolic forms through which the deep structures are consciously translated at each stage of development. Thus the potential which is enfolded in the ground (unconscious) is actualised and unfolded as figure (i.e. conscious translation through symbols) at each stage of development.

Now the emergence of deep structures as figure in consciousness depends on remembrance which is spirit - always present - as both our true home and destiny.

However though continually present, there are considerable barriers to simple realisation of spirit in experience. Though the potential for full realisation of spirit is embedded in the ground unconscious, differentiation (in conscious form) is first required before true spiritual integration can take place.

With initially in development little conscious differentiation having yet occurred, little spiritual integration is possible. So the degree of remembrance is very limited.

However as each "higher" stage of development leads to further differentiation in experience, this provides the basis for "higher" spiritual integration and a greater degree of remembrance in the ground unconscious. This in turn provides the means for further unfolding of consciousness (in the movement to "higher" stages) to take place.

Now it is important to note here that at each stage of development there are two directions involved. There is movement from ground to figure in the unfolding of conscious structures (differentiation); equally however there is the reverse movement from figure to spiritual ground (integration).

Ken Wilber portrays development solely in one directional terms.

Here there is movement from ground to figure in the progressive unfolding of conscious structures. So development for Ken represents a process of holarchical transcendence in the movement to progressively "higher" stages.

However development at each stage equally involves immanence in the progressive movement back to an ever "lower" spiritual ground in the unconscious.

Through this spiritualisation of the ground unconscious, remembrance increases which provides the key dynamic for the further unfolding of "higher" level stages. However by treating the ground unconscious in neutral terms, Ken misses this dynamic.

I now will outline the bi-directional approach in greater detail (using simple holistic mathematical notions for clarification).

The unconscious represents the complementarity (indeed identity) of polar opposites.

Again these opposites can be viewed in horizontal vertical and diagonal fashion (Diagonal complementarity represents the simultaneous relationship of horizontal and vertical poles).

Conscious experience involves the separation of these poles (again in horizontal, vertical and diagonal terms).

However conscious differentiation always involves a degree of confusion in that only the positive pole is recognised in experience. The corresponding negative pole is unconsciously repressed (and acts to block off the role of the unconscious).

Thus in the most fundamental sense the very act of consciousness inevitably entails repression (in an attempt to lessen unconscious interaction). Phenomenal forms thus are enabled to gain increased stability in experience leading ultimately to clearly defined notions of conscious truth.

Thus the differentiation of consciousness involves the separation of opposite poles in experience. (An inevitable corollary of this is that it inevitably entails repression).

However a reverse process is also involved. As each stage of conscious development unfolds (in the separation of poles) there is a corresponding reverse "lower" immanent movement whereby one attempts to unite these poles. This is the direct means through which integration takes place in experience. To the degree to which it is successful it leads to the spiritualisation of the ground unconscious (and the capacity to evolve to "higher" stages of development).

Thus properly understood the movement to "higher" stages (in the unfolding of new conscious structures) dynamically entails the movement to "lower" stages (in the returning of these stages to the spiritual unconscious). Transcendence dynamically entails immanence; (conscious) differentiation dynamically entails (unconscious) integration.

I now will outline in more detail how this bi-directional movement takes place.

With the commencement of psychological development little differentiation of conscious structures has yet taken place. The unconscious is thus largely free of repression. It is free to express itself fully in a highly confused embryonic manner (where conscious differentiation is directly confused with unconscious integration).

The first task of development (what I term life stage or journey) is the specialisaed differentiation of conscious structures.

This involves the clear separation of polar opposites in experience.

Sensori-motor development involves the separation of diagonal polarities leading to the differentiation of the body self.

Pre-operational development involves the clear separation of vertical polarities leading to the differentiation of the emotional self.

Conop and formop involve the clear separation of remaining horizontal polarities leading to the differentiation of the mental (rational) self.

The emphasis during these stages is in the forward movement of consciously differentiated structures. One could equally say that the emphasis is away from the confused intervention of the unconscious.

Thus this first life stage towards differentiation is very necessary it is also very problematic. As we have seen the separation of polar opposites necessarily entails imbalance (in terms of the unconscious). One pole is posited and affirmed as conscious experience. The other pole is denied and unconsciously repressed.

Thus the specialised development of conscious structures inevitably entails a considerable degree of (unconscious) repression leading to misinterpretation of experience.

Of course integration (in the backward movement to the unconscious) must necessarily take place. However this happens in a merely implicit manner as a supportive basis for differentiated understanding.

Thus the specialised differentiation of conscious structures is based on a one-directional interpretation of development (as a progressive movement away from the ground unconscious).

True integration cannot take place until this lost negative (unconscious) direction understanding is recovered.

This is the task of the second life stage and can be identified with "higher" spiritual development.

Essential to this recovery process is mirror understanding. As one realises that poles are not separate but complementary, conscious phenomena are dynamically negated and undone in experience. This fusion of opposites leads to a secret inpouring of the spirit. So as figure is returned to ground in an immanent manner, the ground unconscious is gradually saturated with spirit. Then as the ground becomes figure once more in the unfolding of ever more subtly based "higher" conscious stages there is an outpouring of this same spirit. Thus the "higher" conscious stages become ever more intuitive and refined.

Thus the essence of "higher" level development once again is this bi-directional dynamic movement. The ground unconscious - filling up with spirit - unfolds itself as figure (in ever more subtly conscious stages of development). Thus "higher" level transcendence is involved in the unfolding of these stages.

However figure equally becomes ground in the dynamic undoing of these (conscious) symbols. Thus "lower" level immanence is involved in this spiritual fusion (as the unconscious is increasingly spiritualised). Furthermore it is this spiritualisation that increases that pure remembrance of the eternal present (which alone truly is) and enables further unfoldment of remaining potential in the ground unconscious.

This bi-directional development takes place in three major stages (what I refer to as HL1, HL2 and HL3).

During HL1 (the circular level or subtle realm), bi-directional movement in relation to horizontal polarities takes place. One realises ever more clearly that objective and subjective poles are dynamically inseparable in experience. This is brought about through the great growth of mirror understanding which leads to the fusion of these poles.

"Higher" level conscious stages as figure continue to unfold during this level . However their symbols are more elusive and flexible to understanding carrying an enhanced holistic meaning. Thus we have here the positive direction (as illuminative stages) where "higher" level transcendence continues.

However "lower" level unconscious stages as ground equally unfold through the dynamic negation (undoing) of the conscious symbols of previous stages. Thus we also have the negative direction (as purgative stages) where "lower" level immanence takes place.

However over-emphasis on the positive direction still remains during HL1 (due to the subtle attachment to symbols as holistic archetypes).

HL2 (the point level or causal realm) ) is associated with bi-directional movement in relation to vertical (as well as horizontal polarities). This involves an even more subtle form of virtual or "imaginary" interpretation where symbols are seen as indirect expressions of the spiritual unconscious.

Again we have the further (vertical) unfolding of "higher" transcendent stages as figure in the refined projection of archetypal meaning. However as these are so closely associated with the unconscious they are very transient undergoing continual dynamic negation. So there is the speedy return to the immanent unconscious ground (in an ever more refined spiritual process).

Some attachment to these indirect virtual symbols still remains during HL2.

During HL3 (the null level or nondual reality) this spiritual process approaches completion. The outpouring of the spirit becomes so pure and refined that (separate) symbols as figure disappear. In the absence of figure the inpouring of spirit coincides with the outpouring. Indeed there is no longer outpouring or inpouring but only the pure stillness of the spirit that is. There is no longer (spiritual) unconscious or (spiritual) conscious. There is no longer (separate) transcendence and immanence.

One has now through continuous (transcendence) arrived at one's spiritual destiny as spirit only to fully realise that this in fact is identical with one's true home or staring point (immanence). However it is necessary to make this journey to experience fully this pure remembrance (where the spirit alone is).

Thus to summarise.

In dynamic terms, development is always bi-directional (not one directional). This is even so when one consistently misinterprets experience in one-directional terms.

Differentiation of conscious phenomena always involves an outgoing from the unconscious in a static reduction of reality (in one-directional terms).

Integration of these same phenomena involves a return to the unconscious in the dynamic negation of phenomena. Integration is always bi-directional.

When Ken Wilber says that what is ground becomes figure (and releases higher-order ground) he is really misrepresenting the dynamic process of development.

Correctly interpreted we should say that

What is ground becomes figure. (In other words the ground unconscious unfolds through the symbolic translations of progressively "higher" stages of development as figure). This is the interpretation of development as transcendence (as the movement to a goal not already fully present).

However equally what is figure becomes ground. (In other words symbolic translations must - to some degree - be dynamically negated or undone and returned to the "lower" ground unconscious as spirit before further unfoldment can take place. This as we have seen is even true when the process is not formally recognised. In such cases it takes place implicitly (rather than explicitly). This is the complementary interpretation of development as immanence (as to the movement to a source already present).

Thus there is a continual tension throughout development of already in part realising spirit (immanence) but also in part not realising spirit (transcendence).

Thus the full statement should read

What is ground becomes figure: also what is figure once more becomes ground (and releases "higher" order ground).

Ken Wilber treats the ground unconscious as neutral. This is true in the sense that - by definition - opposite polarities are equal. However once development gets underway, the ground unconscious plays a dynamic role and becomes progressively spiritualised through development. It is this very spiritualisation (as remembrance) that enables "higher" order stages to unfold. Interestingly in our culture psychological development largely peaks with the attainment of the rational linear level. I would simply attribute this to gross mistranslation of the unconscious process. Because it is largely ignored and screened out of scientific interpretations of reality, the ground unconscious remains undeveloped and not sufficiently spiritualised to support the unfolding of "higher" level stages. (Remembrance is largely stifled through mistranslation!).

Those who break through this barrier are usually extremely sensitive to such mistranslation and often are led through a severe existential crisis to the rediscovery of the true role of the unconscious.

I agree with Ken Wilber that development cannot be looked as the rediscovery of a "lost" infantile paradise. Conscious differentiation must occur before true spiritual integration can take place. However I believe he understates the significance of repression. Again at its most fundamental repression is always the consequence of one-directional interpretation. Thus as soon as development gets underway there is the inevitable battleas between repression (arising from differentiation of conscious experience) and the drivefor integration (in the backward spiritual fusion of the unconscious). Again one has to stress that the great emphasis on differentiation in Western culture is unbalanced and sets severe limitations on the degree of "higher" spiritual integration that takes place.