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January 27, 2023

Unique Self Dialogue: Ken Wilber & Marc Gafni, Part 4

In the fourth segment of the August 2012 dialogue between Ken Wilber and Marc Gafni, the issues are front and center. The pandits find a common ground in their distinction between True Self and Unique Self, and its importance for changing today’s conversation around enlightenment and all that follows from that. Wilber and Gafni both refer to Wilber’s early writings which speak of the difference between “personal plus” and “personal minus,” and find similarities to Gafni’s True Self/Unique Self distinction. Marc draws a parallel between Wilber’s pre/trans fallacy and what appears in his own writings as a “level one/ level three” fallacy.

One of the most interesting points is made by Ken who uses strong language to criticize the doctrine emergent from Theravadan Buddhism and forms of Western Buddhism which are heavily influenced by it. Wilber calls the philosophy a “disaster,” and notes that later strains of Buddhism including Mayhana and Zen, have to one degree or another begun to rectify the mistake.

Listen to the dialogue and read a partial transcript:


The following text is a transcript of nearly all of the 19-minute dialogue:

Ken: Part of the difficulty is that, as you said earlier, one of the common tenets of the world’s traditions is that there are two selves. And there is a subtle distinction and it’s a hard distinction to keep operative, hard to keep in practice – the distinction between the small self, the separate self, the contraction, and the big Self, the True Self. You can see this in things like Ramana Maharshi using the phrase I-I. The first I is the small self. We tell people to be aware of yourself. When you do this, notice that there are two selves. There is the self you’re aware of, what you can see, you’re this, you’re that, you feel this way, you feel that way, you’re so tall, you do this job, etc., and there’s the observing self. The observing self is the True Self, the real self, the self you are trying to get in touch with. But unfortunately what you constantly do is transfer that observing self and its essence to your small finite, individual, itty-bitty self. And that is the fundamental confusion of non-enlightenment. And yet Yes in a sense they are close. Because they are both awareness. And if you just sort of casually look within and don’t use discriminating awareness then you’re not going to tease them apart. But to notice I-I is to be ensconced in the I that is the True Self that has the perspective on the small self and everything else that is arising. So distinguishing those can be tough. In some cases it’s easier to just toss it and not follow through on that. It’s also to deny in a sense the unique or even in some sense the “personal plus” components of the real self. It’s self-contradictory. One of the ways that the real Self in many traditions is known is by the simple unchanging experience of I AM-ness.

That I AM-ness is a very deep I AM-ness. It’s not I AM this or I AM that. It is just pure I AM-ness. It is the one unchanging experience that every person has. You can’t remember what you were doing probably two weeks ago at this time, but one thing you know was there’s was that sense of I AM-ness. And it’s the same sense that you have right now. And so when people are asked to deny that any part of I AM-ness is part of enlightenment, they are asked to deny that part of the real Self that shows up as I AM-ness, and they know better than that. They are being asked to give up something that is the only constant experience in their life, back to when they were born; in fact, back before they were born. Before Abraham was, I AM. And that I AM-ness is simply another name for God. It’s another name for the True, i.e., Unique Self. It was there prior to the Big Bang. It will be there after the end of the universe. It doesn’t enter the stream of time. It is literally the unborn and the undying. But it’s there for anybody who wants to know it. You are aware of I-AM-ness? Welcome home. Welcome to God. Welcome to Spirit. Coming along and say, deny that, that just won’t work. You can’t deny Spirit. So what you can deny is the part that of I AM-ness that is “I am this” or “I am that”; that is the separate self, that is self-contraction. That’s what you want to transcend. But you can’t gut it all. Because the fundamental is-ness of I AM-ness is Spirit. You cannot deny Spirit without contradiction for reasons everyone from Sartre to Descartes has pointed out. Once you set off down that path, attempting to deny I AM-ness, it’s an endless contradictory adventure. It simply confuses the issue enormously whereas realizing that becoming more and more in touch with the very core of I AM-ness is becoming more and more in touch with the core of Unique Self which is one with the divine. At least it isn’t self-contradictory and impossible.

Marc: It’s a step in the right direction.

Ken: It’s a step in the right direction.

Marc: Basically there are two denials. Both are propagated with enormous force in the world. Both run counter to reality or real-ness as it were, and both run into a brick wall. One is the denial of Spirit, of depth, denial of I AM-ness, denial of True Self, the sort of Western reductionist view that took hold so strongly. Someone like Freud who was still intoxicated with this view. He did shminyota avir. He did incredible intellectual callisthenic contortions in order to account for it. You look at it and say: Really? That’s one sort of denial. Another sort of denial exists in the mystical traditions, whether it’s a moment in Hasidism, or it’s a moment in Mahayana, which is not fully integrating its own truths. You have texts that are more fully integrating their full implicit truths and those that aren’t. It’s denial of uniqueness. It’s denial of individuality, but not at the level of separate self, contraction, or distortion, but individuality at the level of your unique perspective, which is an irreducible feature of essence. Both of these denials produce enormous confusion, each of them in a huge swath of humanity. They produce pain, from pain comes fear, from fear comes violence, and the entire cycle of samsara.

And so the introduction of Unique Self is not a casual series of dialogue that Wilber and Gafni did … it’s not Integral Spiritual Experience and finding a nice topic … and aren’t we glad we did with our friend Sean Hargens a nice volume on Unique Self … it’s not about a couple of academic books. It’s about actually a shift emergent from World Spirituality Integral principles, emergent from Integral Spiritual Center, a shift in the very source code of understanding reality. It’s an evolution of enlightenment itself. Maybe to add one more piece to our 101, and turn it back to you, Mega-K, which is the personal and impersonal. We flirted with this in a number of comments today. I want to try to explicate it and turn it over to you.

The second confusion that you see in the literature ancient, modern, and postmodern is confusion in relationship to the personal. In virtually all writing – and I say this not casually with my teacher self but with my scholar self, with a lot of authority – in virtually all writing, there is a complete conflation of the word “personal” with personality, separate self, ego (not in the healthy Otto Kernberg “integrating principle” sense), but ego as separate self, personality, contraction. The person is just identified and stuck there. In a book I read recently there were 137 references to the personal. Every single one of them dismissed the personal and in the same book every one of them conflated separateness and uniqueness. It was a shocking example of this contemporary mistake.

When you step back, you realize the following: there are these two grand archetypes. There’s personal and impersonal. Personal man and impersonal man, if I can use that Springerian German typology. Actually there are two out of three minimally if we map it. Level one: the level of the personality. It’s Gurdjieff’s shock of separation: entry into this world, fixation of attention, the styles we develop to cope with the pain of samsara, the distortions that result, that notion of personality, and the incidental proclivities and flavors of personality in all of their poignancy, all their frailty, and all their ephemeral nature. That’s personal personality level one. You need to move beyond that, transcend that, to move beyond that to recognize all that is, of your True Self. That’s impersonal. That’s not personal in the sense of level one, personal. What then happens is that Your True Self awakens as Unique Self. And Unique Self is ultimately personal. It’s the personal face of essence which is your unique expression of essence which is by definition inexorably personal. Personal reappears at level three. You refer to it in early writing as “personal plus” and “personal minus.” It’s one of the places we met in early days.

When you look at personhood in this sense, you begin to reclaim the personal and disambiguate this enormous confusion. It’s not intellectual confusion. It’s somatic emotional intellectual mind confusion in the mind of most of the people in most of the world studying some version of this distortion. The ability to reclaim the personal at a higher level of consciousness and not fall for this level one / level three [fallacy]. What you call pre-trans fallacy. It’s enormously important… The ability to reclaim the personal at the higher level of consciousness is another critical Unique Self 101 movement to disambiguate the confusion and change the conversation.

Ken: Yeah, absolutely. That indeed is why I started talking about “personal plus.” There was such a confusion. The worst source of the confusion frankly coming from Theravadan Buddhism, which has been a disaster and got rid of the problem basically altogether its doctrine of anata, which says that it is absolutely true that no entity has a self of any sort at all. So when you find Nagarjuna, the founder of Mayhana Buddhism. What he attacks is not Hinduism, which you would think as a good Buddhist he would attack. He spends most of his time attacking Theravadan. It’s really screwed up. You look at it in terms of the true truths. In relative truth, a separate self in a healthy Kohut fashion is healthy and is as real, relatively real, as moment-to-moment dharmasar. subject and object arise together and are equally real, relatively real, part of the relative realm. To say that anata applies to the relative realm is simply wrong. So now does anata apply to the absolute realm? That you can’t say – and this is where people don’t get all the way over the hump – it’s true you can’t say that in the absolute Emptiness in the strictest technical sense can’t be described as having self, but nor can it be said not to have self. These are two dualistic concepts. Absolute reality is neither self nor not-self, nor both nor neither.

So is anata absolutely true? No. Anata is false. In both relative and absolute truths, the Theravadan notion of anata is false. That has just screwed up, particularly in the West, the attempt to understand everything from self and ts relationship to enlightenment; the notion of personal and its relation of enlightenment or any of those states. And the ultimate confusion goes back to not understanding structures and states. As Mahayana continued to grow and evolve, slowly as a metaphoric use of language, the word “self” was moved back in to reality. So Zen talks about a True Self; the Nivata Sutra talks about Maha Atman, the Great Self. That is in essence what we’re talking about in the manifest realm as True Self. As soon as there is manifestation at all, the True Self is immediately a Unique Self, depending on the person in which it is housed. That’s a person plus, not a person minus. It shows up. It doesn’t suck the person out. It adds absolute reality to the perspective that that person has.

Listen to the entire dialogue — part 4 in the series by playing the audio below.



  1. […] a transcript… Be Sociable, Share! Tweet Filed Under: All Posts, Audio Teachings, Dialogues, Integral […]

  2. […] NEW! The Unique Self dialogue series featuring Ken Wilber and Marc Gafni continues with its fifth part. between two of the world’s leading pandits has now been published by the Center for World Spirituality. Listen to Ken Wilber and Marc Gafni discuss the nature of “personal” enlightenment. more… […]

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