Involution and Evolution - a personal interpretation

What is evolution?

One could say that evolution is the phenomenal illusion by which it appears that reality is moving forward in space and time.

Though in truth polarities such as the world (external) and self (internal) are interdependent, in experience these are separated (often to a considerable degree). So when we look out on creation it seems to have an external (objective) existence with the arrow of time moving in a positive forward direction.

So the linear notion of evolution (moving forward in time) comes from the separation of these polar opposites.

"So what is involution?"

It will help to appreciate this point by reflecting an image in a mirror. If for example we draw a line on a piece of paper from left to right and reflect it in the mirror it will appear in the opposite direction moving from right to left. Thus in an mirror image reflection the direction of movement is reversed.

So when we look out on the (external) objective world an identical mirror image is reflected on the (internal) subjective mind.

This is the corresponding linear notion of involution moving forward in time (but in the opposite direction). In strict linear terms there is no interaction as between these two directions (of evolution and involution).

"So that's it. Evolution is reality moving forward in time. Involution is reality moving forward in time (in the opposite direction)."

Well, not quite! In the first instance in separating poles we made the objective pole dominant. However because both poles are equally important, it is also valid to define reality (in linear terms) with respect to the internal (subjective) pole. So here reality is interpreted as a projection of mind which is reflected in the mirror of the other pole.

Again evolution is interpreted as reality moving forward in time. Involution in reverse terms is reality moving forward in time (in the opposite direction).

So in strict linear terms we have two sets of relationships (which are vital in terms of properly appreciating subsequent dynamics of movement).

a) We can define reality in relation to the objective pole. Evolution is then interpreted as the movement forward in time of this objectively defined reality. Involution is the corresponding mirror image reflection moving forward in time (in the opposite direction).

b) We can define reality in relation to the subjective pole. Evolution is then interpreted as the movement forward in time of this subjectively defined reality. Involution is the corresponding mirror image reflection moving forward in time (in the opposite direction).

So from all four perspectives in linear terms the arrow of time is forward (in opposite directions for involution and evolution). (I am ignoring for the moment the distinction as between horizontal, vertical and diagonal directions).

However in actual experience these poles cannot be fully independent. So there is dynamic interaction as between both. We now move from absolute to relative notions of movement.

Now in the case of a) when evolution is moving forward in time (for objectively defined reality), then in relative terms involution is moving backwards in time.

Likewise in the case of b) when evolution is moving forward in time (for subjectively defined reality), then in relative terms involution is moving backwards in time.

"So therefore you are saying that in a dynamic sense reality can be explained in terms of evolutionwhich is identified with forward movement, and involution that is identified with backward movement".

Well, not quite! This unambiguous sense of movement results from defining reality in terms of one pole only (usually objective). But in the dynamics of experience both are necessarily involved.

When we realise this we are led directly into paradox. Thus what is forward movement in terms of a) i.e. objectively defined reality, is backward movement in terms of b) i.e. subjectively defined reality. Likewise what is forward movement in terms of b) i.e. subjectively defined reality is backward movement in terms of a) i.e. objectively defined reality.

Unfortunately this double movement in relation to both evolution and involution is usually not recognised. Yet its appreciation is vital if we are to move on to a dynamic (relative) understanding.

"So evolution moves both forwards and backwards (simultaneously); involution moves both forwards and backwards (simultaneously). What does this mean?"

The full appreciation of this purely relative nature of movement is the realisation of spirit in pure simplicity. It is the present moment continually renewed. Because separation of poles no longer exists it can be referred to as nondual reality.

We have really four views of evolution and involution.

1) the linear view. Evolution is defined by the arrow of time moving in a forward direction. (Involution is the mirror image reflection also moving forward in time but in a reverse direction). Once again think of two drivers heading off on a journey in opposite directions. In the conventional linear interpretation both will move forward in time.

Now, it is vital in maintaining consistency to recognise that reality has a double mirror reflection. So we can view evolution and evolution in relation to reality (as defined by the objective pole). This is view a).

Equally we can define evolution and evolution in relation to reality (as defined by the subjective pole). This is view b).

2) the dynamic relative view. The evolutionary and involutionary aspects of reality can now present themselves as different phases of reality. So at one time the emphasis is on the evolutionary aspect of reality and at another the involutionary aspect. This involves a combination of notions that are partly linear and partly relative. Dynamic interaction of poles takes place in sequential rather than simultaneous fashion. Thus reality has a phenomenal space-time aspect (linear) and also a spiritual nondual aspect (circular).

3) the circular view. This represents a true spiritual view of reality where the dynamic interaction among poles is instantaneous (and thereby not separated in phenomenal space-time). Evolution and involution here have no separate meaning. We could say in paradoxical logic that evolution and involution occur at each moment (positive). Alternatively we could say that neither evolution nor involution occurs at each moment (negative). More comprehensively we could say that both evolution and involution and neither evolution nor involution occur at each moment.

4) The comprehensive (radial) view involves the harmonious interplay of the three previous approaches. So when appropriate one can switch to linear, relative or circular viewpoints.

"Can you give us a brief illustration of these views"

It is important to point out that actual experience is necessarily dynamic (involving interaction of opposite poles). However it is usual to interpret this interaction in linear terms.

Now this view is extremely common. I will deal it first where a) reality is defined in terms of the objective pole.

The emphasis here is on forward evolution (with corresponding involution often ignored). It is no accident that this view of evolution as continual progress towards some Omega point in the future is very much a product of the rise of modern science and increasing differentiation of experience. It emphasises the Ascent and is represented by theorists such as Hegel, Teilhard de Chardin and Ken Wilber.

Now with linear view b) reality is defined in terms of the subjective pole. The emphasis here is on forward involution (with corresponding evolution ignored). In fact this worldview was extremely common until the rise of modern civilisation 2000 years ago reflecting a kind of prepersonal subjectivist viewpoint of reality. Now time would be moving forward here (in natural fashion) but from our modern perspective it would appear as a moving back to some Golden Age of the past.

It also is represented in mystical development in a highly developed form. St. John of the Cross most comprehensive book on spirituality is entitled "The Ascent of Mount Carmel". However this is not the Ascent (as envisaged by modern evolution) but rather its reverse. So for St. John, the Ascent is an inward journey towards a deep personal integration.

This highlights an important problem that I have raised in relation to Ken Wilber's approach. The Ascent of Ken Wilber concentrates on the progressive differentiation of "higher" level structures portraying development in terms of a linear trend line. This is linear view a).

However the Ascent of St. John of the Cross is quite the opposite and concentrates on the progressive integration of "higher" level structures that are also portrayed in terms of a linear trend line (the mountain ascent). However the vital point is that differentiation and integration involve opposite directions.

Thus the "higher" level integration of St. John involves progressive immersion in the deepest levels of the psyche. This is certainly evolution and progression (as defined in relation to the subjective pole).

However in relation to the objective pole (which is in fact the defining point of Ken Wilber's approach, the integrative process of St. John represents involution and regression.

So it is quite simple. If the forward "upward" differentiation of structures represents evolution and progression, then the corresponding "downward" integration represents involution and regression.

My own view is that "higher spiritual development often starts out with emphasis on the Ascent (through intellectual insight. However at a later stage considerable attention has to be given to the Descent in the integration of this experience with emotions and physical notions of the body. Actually this point is also beautifully expressed by Jack Kornfield in "Ken Wilber in Dialogue".

Now Ken is trying to incorporate Descent within his linear model while still trying to interpret in terms of an overall evolutionary Ascent. This misses the very point for if Ascent represents evolution, then Descent represents - relatively - involution. Thus if he is to give equal emphasis to Ascent and Descent then he must incorporate involution (as well as evolution) as a dynamic aspect of the developmental process.

Now the dynamic view often comes out in personal development. Indeed the natural course of Western psychological development is towards emphasis on differentiation of structures in the first period of life with a greater appreciation of integration at a later stage.

Thus we have the emphasis here on the two lives of man the outward arc (representing evolution and differentiation) and the inward arc (representing - in relative terms - involution and integration).

This dynamic cyclical view of personal growth raises significant questions in relation to Ken Wilber's holarchical model. In Ken's approach the outward arc (which would take us up to the centaur level) is treated in terms of holarchical Ascent. However the inward arc (from subtle realm to nondual reality) is treated as a continuation of this holarchical Ascent. Clearly this is inconsistent with the more dynamic relative approach.

This cyclical view of development is also apparent in Jung's view of the two life stages. Thus the first life stage (defined more in terms of the objective pole) is outward and evolutionary (in worldly terms). The second life stage (defined more in terms of the inward pole) is inward and evolutionary (in self terms). However this growing self development can be very problematic as it appears as regressive and involutionary (from a worldly perspective).

Thus the mid-life crisis often represents this decisive turning point where one shifts (relatively) from an evolutionary to an involutionary view of development.

When one bears in mind the natural dynamics of personal development (representing emphasis on evolution and involution) one has to strongly question the present optimistic notions of world progress (where the emphasis is merely on evolution).

The very problems that this accelerating progress have been creating (in terms of true social integration) could in fact trigger the reverse involutionary aspect (perhaps early in the next millennium). If that happens the emphasis will again switch towards recapturing a Golden age that has been lost (spiritual integration).

Again one has to strongly question Ken Wilber's passionate advocacy of what he calls the neo-perennial philosophy in the "Eye of Spirit". This represents a solely evolutionary view of history and thus from a dynamic perspective is unbalanced.

A fascinating physical example of involution is given by the phenomenon of the Black Hole. It represents an extreme example of the "downward" integration of matter.

However what is involution from one relative perspective is evolution from the other. So the Black Hole equally represents a concentrated source of energy from which new material life is generated.

Indeed this can be extended to the very activity of the physical cosmos. At the moment it is in its expansionary phase and still evolving. However eventually at some point in the future it will begin to contract and involve. So the Big Bang - which is looked on as the start of the evolution of our physical universe can be seen from the point of involution as the ending of a previous cosmic phase.

The pure circular view of course is represented by direct spiritual experience that is not bounded by phenomenal movement in space-time. It can be expressed as nondual reality.

In the Christian tradition where there is usually a more personal emphasis where it is referred to as Spiritual Marriage.

So the first term (nondual reality) represents the (negative) affirmation that ultimate reality cannot be identified in terms of opposite poles in experience. The second represents the equally valid (positive) affirmation that ultimate reality involves the complete fusion of both poles.

Now the movement from the (pure) linear to the (pure) circular viewpoint is dependent on creating paradox in terms of all linear distinctions. Thus every linear explanation has a mirror interpretation that is equally valid. The paradox that this creates - that apparently opposite positions are equally valid - prepares the mind for a direct intuitive realisation of meaning (where such paradox is reconciled).

However one cannot go to circular (nondual) understanding through a progressive modification of linear models of understanding. Again this is a fundamental problem with Ken Wilber's approach. Basically his holarchical map of development (even with the inclusion of the Descent) represents a sophisticated linear viewpoint.

It is crucial therefore in dynamic terms to balance this model with a mirror alternative where the direction of development is reversed. (If I find time I may in a future post suggest the major features of such a mirror model). The paradoxical interaction generated by these two models would provide a consistent way of moving to the dynamic relative approach (represented by the subtle and causal realms), then on to pure circular approach of spiritual union and finally on to the radial level (encompassing all the other approaches).

Thus the holarchical model approach ("The Great Chain of Being") represents just one model applicable to development. I will just briefly outline a list of models which should be included in a comprehensive approach.

The holarchical model (of progressive stages of development) in the mode of Ken Wilber. This would (initially) be a suitable approach for mapping stages up to and including the centaur.

The (mirror) holarchical model (of regressive stages of development). This would put the primary emphasis of "downward" integration at each stage (which takes place in an opposite direction from differentiation). This alternative model is necessary in terms of making a consistent transition to the circular (nondual) viewpoint and is the essential bit of the jigsaw missing in Ken's approach.

The cyclical wave (or spiral) approach which would be the appropriate paradigm for the stages of the subtle realm. This involves the attempt to reconcile the paradox generated by the opposing (linear) holarchical approaches This would also lead to a reinterpretation of earlier preoperational development (where polarities are confused). This spiral approach is consistent with dynamic relative development (combining both linear and circular elements).

The point (or centre) model which would be the appropriate paradigm for the causal realm. This would be combined with a virtual spiral approach representing unconscious (imaginary) projections. Here all phenomenonal activity is returned to a spiritual centre. Again the corresponding early sensorimotor level would now be reinterpreted in this light.

The pure circular model which would be the appropriate paradigm for nondual reality representing a double point approach represented by the centre and unbounded circumference of the circle (i.e. nowhere yet everywhere). This would now also be a suitable model for studying the singularity at the start of existence.

The radial model. This combines the key elements of the linear, point and circular approaches. Lines (as radii of circle) emanate from the central point in horizontal, vertical and diagonal fashion to the circumference (and return again to the central point). It is the appropriate model for the most mature stage of development (what I term Radial Reality).

Thus in this fourth interpretation, one can adopt linear, circular and dynamic relative viewpoints whenever the occasion demands. It is best represented by the great transforming mystics such as Teresa of Avila who though highly active and productive in terms of reorganisation of her religious order, yet could remain deeply immersed in the spirit.

"Briefly how would you translate these differing viewpoints (of evolution and involution) in holistic mathematical terms?

So far we have been dealing with horizontal polarities (external and internal). In linear terms, both evolution and involution take place in real time (but in opposite directions).

However dynamic interaction also involves vertical polarities (quantitative and qualitative). In holistic mathematical terms these are real and imaginary with respect to each other.

So when we allow for both horizontal and vertical polarities, evolution and involution take place in both real and imaginary time (in opposite directions).

It is well known in quantum physics that at some level the physical world is mathematically complex (with real and imaginary aspects). The simple philosophical explanation of this comes from the realisation that all qualitative interactions (to avoid reduction to quantitative terms) should be translated in a mathematical imaginary fashion.

Finally dynamic interaction involves diagonal polarities (actual and potential) which can be looked on as the combination of the other sets of polarities.

In dynamic relative terms evolution and involution have a relative meaning. So if evolution is moving forward in a positive direction (in either real or imaginary time) then involution is moving backwards in a negative direction. However if now involution is moving in a positive direction, then evolution is moving relatively in a negative direction.

In circular terms evolution and evolution have a purely relative meaning with no phenomenal interpretation in time. Rather we now have the spiritual realisation of the present moment (which is continually renewed). Mathematically this is transfinite. When switching between opposite poles becomes so speedy as to be instantaneous, then duality no longer exists. This requires an attitude of non-attachment (facilitating the interaction).

In radial terms, one is able to combine all these different interpretations (absolute and relative movements in time and spiritual realisation of the present moment).

"How would you modify Ken Wilber's approach in the light of these points?"

I started with Ken's definition from "The Spectrum of Consciousness"

"The terms evolution and involution have been used differently by different authors, sometimes with diametrically opposite meanings. But the overall concept is simple: Spirit first "throws outward" to get "lost" in the manifest world of maya (Hegel called it "spirit in its otherness or "alienated Spirit"). Spirit then begins the slow and tortuous return to Itself, finally to awaken as Itself. Spirit is never actually "lost". It is all a grand play (lila).

Whatever we call them, notice that we have two (illusory) movements of Spirit in the world: one is the getting lost, the other is the getting found; the first moves from "oneness" to "manyness"., the second from "manyness" to "oneness". And this is where the terms involution and evolution come in."

This I believe is the best definition that Ken gives. However there is a subtle problem with it that may not be immediately obvious. This is confused by the fact that Ken himself switches usage of terms (after "Spectrum"). In "Spectrum" evolution means moving away from spirit and involution the turning back to spirit. However subsequently he reversed these interpretations.

However as we have seen evolution and involution have always a double interpretation (as we can fix our frame of reference in relation to either pole). So evolution and involution both have interpretations as the moving away from spirit and the turning back to spirit. (Which will apply in any particular context depends on the pole used as reference point).

Now in Spectrum Ken gives a linear definition "the temporal evolution of the spectrum of consciousness is nothing but a description, as setting-forth-in-linear-terms, of the Eternal Simultaneity."

This relates to the linear approach of 1). This is fine as far as it goes. However we also have temporal involution of the spectrum of consciousness (in the opposite direction). Also once again these have a definition in relation to both frames of reference. (We could represent them in terms of two straight lines with arrows pointing in both directions).

As we have seen he then goes on to give another description, which he considers as analogous.

"To the student of the Hindu science of self (adhyatmavidya) this idea will present no difficulty for it is very much anolgous to their Adhyatmavidya doctrine of the involution (Nivritti Marga) and the evolution (Pravritti Marga) of the Self, the Atman-Brahman

The life or lives of man may be regarded as constituting a curve - an arc of time-experience subtended by the duration of the individual Will to Life. The outward movement of this curve - Evolution, the Path of Pursuit - the Pravritti Marga - is characterised by self-assertion. The inward movement - Involution, the Path of return - the Nivritti Marga - is characterised by increasing Self-realisation. The religion of men on the outward path is the Religion of Time, the religion of those who return is the religion of eternity".

This relates to the dynamic relative approach of 2) that combines linear and circular elements.

It could be represented by a semi-circle with a vertical line as diameter. Starting at the bottom the curve initially moves outwards (representing - here - evolution). Then it eventually bends back on itself representing involution.

However once again evolution and involution have both outward and inward interpretations.

If we represented the other interpretation by using the same vertical line as diameter for another semi-circle drawn on the opposite side we would complete the circle (which would represent nondual reality). So the very movement to nondual reality requires the recognition of this dynamic movement (for evolution and involution) both outwards and inwards.

In his Chapter on Involution in "The Atman Project" Ken starts with another linear definition 1).

"An evolution is a movement from the lower to the higher. (Remember he reverses here the interpretation used in "Spectrum"). Involution is a movement from the higher to the lower a movement which "enfolds" and "involves" the higher levels of being with the lower.

There is another important problem here. "Higher" and "lower" relates to a vertical definition (whereas "outwards" and "inwards" relate to a horizontal definition). In "Eye to Eye" Ken uses a horizontal straight line with arrows pointing both ways to represent evolution and involution.

Thus in holistic mathematical terms if we take the horizontal approach as relating to real time, then the vertical approach must be defined in terms of imaginary time. So once again - when properly understood - both evolution and involution take place in real and imaginary time. (Again in vertical terms we should represent evolution and involution with two straight lines with arrows pointing in both directions).

Now the circular diagram he puts on the next page is clearly consistent with a nondual explanation 3). However to be complete it would need arrows also to be placed below (pointing in opposite directions to those above). This would then convey the meaning that evolution and involution have an interpretation in both directions.

We next come on to the Bardo Realms which constitute a major problem in Ken's approach.

What is completely missing here is the dynamic relative approach (combining both linear and circular elements). Thus from this perspective if evolution is moving forwards in one direction, then involution - by definition - is moving in the opposite direction.

And again this movement can always be taken both ways so that we can also take involution as moving forward with - relatively - evolution moving backwards. However because of the lack of this approach Ken applies one-directional movement only to evolution. This leaves him with the problem of explaining involution as something that happens outside the development process altogether which he does with the Bardo Realms.

This account of the Bardo Realms - which is so important in terms of Ken's overall structure - are very culture specific. It would not for example translate well in the Christian tradition. However I believe that a more satisfactory and less artificial explanation can be given.

Ruysbroeck speaks of the eternal birth of every person as always existing as an archetype of the Divine mind. We come into the world as it were with a new temporal existence but without realisation of our eternal state.

Now this eternal state (before life existed) can be described in exactly the same manner as nondual reality (but as a total confused state). Nondual reality represents a state of both full differentiation and integration. The eternal birth represents a state where neither differentiation nor integration has yet taken place.

Just as nondual reality is an instant that lasts for eternity, this total confusion of the eternal birth is an eternity that is but an instant i.e. a singularity.

Finally just as nondual reality represents evolution as well as involution as the fusion of spirit, likewise this singularity represents evolution and involution in total confusion.

In dynamic terms the enfoldment of involution and unfolding of evolution are strictly relative. Evolution unfolds through the progressive differentiation of psychological structures; involution is enfolded through corresponding regressive integration (which is the basis for further unfolding of strictures). Both evolutionary and involutionary capacities exist as dormant potential from the beginning of life. Both however can only be activated through dynamic interaction.

The attempt to keep involution outside the dynamics of the development process skews Ken's subsequent interpretation very much. In particular he is unable to accept the dynamic regressive role of spiritual integration (as for example detailed in the writings of St. John of the Cross). (Integration takes place in an opposite direction from differentiation). Again we are not talking about pathological regression here but rather the essential integrative role of spiritual development.

Briefly in SES Ken returns to a linear type description. However a subtle change in usage has now taken place. Instead of evolution he talks of the Ascent (the reflux of Plotinus). Instead of involution he talks of the Descent (the efflux of Plotinus).

Now again the problem here is the one-directional linear interpretation i.e. where both the Ascent and Descent are defined in one-directional terms which makes no sense in dynamic relative terms. As we have seen the Ascent which Ken talks about and the Ascent which St. John of the Cross speaks about are diametrically opposite. Ken uses an objective frame of reference; St. John uses a subjective frame. Thus when translated into Ken's use of terminology St. John is in fact talking about the Descent.

This dynamic relative understanding of terminology is missing from Ken's interpretation (and indeed also that of Plotinus).

However the key problem is that both Ascent and Descent cannot be adequately accommodated within Ken's holarchical approach (with its linear trend-line).

So to conclude the key omission in Ken's understanding of evolution and involution is the lack of a dynamic relative notion of movement.

For example when Ken identifies involution as a falling away from God (in "Eye of Spirit"), then in dynamic relative terms this necessarily implies a falling towards God.

Thus we have to fall away from the transcendent aspect of God to fall towards the immanent; equally we have to fall away from the immanent to fall towards the transcendent aspect.

However to prepare the way for the dynamic relative approach one must first introduce mirror image understanding.

Thus Ken's holarchical model has to be reflected in the mirror and all its meanings reversed. This will provide an alternative asymmetrical model of development (as the story of reverse integration of structures).

The combination of these two opposite (asymmetric models) in itself is symmetrical and leads to the dynamic relative approach (of positive and negative movement). However the holarchical approach will have to be abandoned at this stage in favour of a more cyclical (spiral) approach.

Thus this dynamic relative approach (part linear, part circular) serves as the essential bridge connecting linear and nondual reality.