Structures of Consciousness: Part II: Finding Gold and The Domestication of the Mental

Continued from Structures of Consciousness: Part I: Gebser and EEG states

Finding Gold

Allow me to start with a story…

Once, while trying to get over a relationship that I thought was going to be my happy ending, I took my plea to the woods in the Berkeley hills. The relationship was over, I needed to quit thinking about the fella, and I needed help. I lay down under some pine trees on a bed of needles, and requested assistance with shifting my thought patterns. I quieted my mind, waiting to see what might arise in the form of guidance. What came?

“Go find a gold stone on top of the mountain.”

“Ha.” I thought. “How ridiculous, looking for a gold stone on top of a mountain. Ha.”

“But what if….?”


“Maybe someone left a piece of jewelry? What mountain? I am hiking Wheeler Peak in New Mexico with my Mom and stepdad Bob in a few weeks. That mountain?”

“I am actually just below Vollmer Peak right here. This mountain? I guess it couldn’t hurt to go poke around.”

And so I did, feeling silly, but walking slowly, looking more carefully than I normally did, turning over rocks, investigating glints in my peripheral vision, really sinking into the place, feeling into how to find something that had no reason to be there. I had to purely trust my intuition. Then, I had to decide how long I would pursue this before giving up…

I climbed up a low tree and sat for a while, looking and thinking. After an hour or so, taking one last gander around the peak, I finally decided to descend.

Of course I hadn’t found anything. What was I expecting?

“A gold stone. Ha. What a wild goose chase–searching for something unattainable. Just like trying to get my relationship back by trying to figure out what went wrong–a wild goose chase, totally unobtainable.” I thought as I hiked back to the car.

“Humph, interesting parallel. What did I ask for again in my request for help? I wanted help changing my thought patterns. Ha!” This time I laughed aloud.

“Well, there’s my gold stone right there,” it just was not the physical object I thought I was looking for. The search for the gold stone was the treasure itself, the answer to my plea. By giving me something else unobtainable to search for and ponder over, I had gotten exactly what I asked for–changed thought patterns.

The paradox of the search being the boon was just the poke in the ribs I needed to shift my mood from melancholy to delight and my mindset from mental struggle to presence and release, precisely the mood I needed to be able to release the relationship.

“My perfect Zen kōan,” I thought.

Is it though? In the tradition of Zen Buddhism, a kōan is a paradox presented for a student to meditate on, “with the aim of precipitating a genuine religious crisis that involves all the human faculties— intellect, emotion, and will.”[1] One famous kōan involves trying to hear the sound of one hand clapping.

The struggle to establish comprehension in the face of paradox creates a, “strong internal pressure (gidan), never stopping knocking from within at the door of [the] mind, demanding to be resolved.”[2] I was determined to kick this guy out of my head! This provided my Great Overpowering Will, one element in the recipe for tackling a kōan. Of course, the determination itself does not bring the reward, as I could not force myself out of my thought patterns.

Though individual traditions differ in their implementation of the teaching practice, tackling a kōan requires the, “the Great Root of Faith, the Great Ball of Doubt, and Great Overpowering Will.” [3]

I had my doubts that I could shake my intellectual striving for meaning in the wake of a surprising break up. But I also had faith that the natural world’s wisdom could help me, so I took my stuckness there and asked for help. I certainly had my doubts about following this bizarre intuition to go hunt for a gold stone, but I also did it anyhow, illustrating an underlying faith in the process.

…in Zen practice, the greater the doubt, the greater the faith… Since doubt is focused on oneself, no matter how strong, wily, and resourceful one is in facing the opponent, that opponent (oneself) is always just as strong, wily, and resourceful in resisting. When self-doubt has grown to the point that one is totally consumed by it, the usual operations of mind cease. The mind of total self-doubt no longer classifies intellectually, no longer arises in anger or sorrow, no longer exerts itself as will and ego. [4]

Likewise, eventually, having exhausted every concievable possibility of finding a gold stone, I gave up my search. I descended the mountain, disheartened by the whole process, doubting even the shred of faith that led me up the mountain in the first place. Only then, when my mind gave up, did insight flash. “…the Great Doubt is transformed into Great Awakening. As Ta-hui says, ‘Beneath the Great Doubt, always there is a Great Awakening’”[5]

Recognizing that seeking an unattainable gold stone mirrored my seeking an unattainable man and that my thought patterns had been rerouted, just as I had requested, I could not help but laugh out loud. In a flash, I saw myself in the kōan, affirming the non-duality of subject and object…

The monk himself in his seeking is the koan. Realization of this is the insight; the response to the koan […] Subject and object – this is two hands clapping. When the monk realizes that the koan is not merely an object of consciousness but is also he himself as the activity of seeking an answer to the koan, then subject and object are no longer separate and distinct […] This is one hand clapping.[6]

…in the beginning a monk first thinks a kōan is an inert object upon which to focus attention; after a long period of consecutive repetition, one realizes that the kōan is also a dynamic activity, the very activity of seeking an answer to the kōan. The kōan is both the object being sought and the relentless seeking itself. In a kōan, the self sees the self not directly but under the guise of the kōan … When one realizes (“makes real”) this identity, then two hands have become one. The practitioner becomes the kōan that he or she is trying to understand. That is the sound of one hand.[7]

In the delight of becoming one hand clapping, I applauded the universe for her wisdom in dealing with me. The universal divine normally hides from itself under the cloak of duality creating the tension and drama we love. Yet sometimes, when the game becomes a little too real, one needs a little reminder, a pulling away of the cloak, a peek-a-boo back to unified, joyful, knowing presence, to be ready to continue the game.

A month or so later, hiking up Wheeler Peak, I got reacquainted with “false peaks.” The trail seems to lead directly to the peak, not too far away. I felt optimistic, lighthearted, the climb had been easier than I expected, we made great time.

Of course, the traverse takes longer than expected. Then upon summiting the peak, another, higher peak, comes into view. My heart fell, and rumbling clouds gathered. I thought I was done, only to find another mile of uphill trail in questionable weather conditions lay before me. This seems to happen at least three times before one achieves the actual peak. As I traipsed onward I thought,

“That fella was just a false peak. I thought he was the one, but he was not. That is no reason to give up. It just means I am a little closer to the real one.”

I released the relationship from my heart and mind. And sure enough, after a few more false peaks, beneath wind, hail, thunder and lightning at the top of Wheeler Peak, fixed to the highest rock, lay a golden emblem, the geological survey marker indicating the highest peak in New Mexico. I found my gold stone at the top of the mountain.

Mt Wheeler (1)

Something had told me what I needed to hear, somehow knowing my literal interpretation would be the just the distraction my spinning mind needed. Seeking the gold stone gave me a mystery to ponder, supplanting the mystery of another failed relationship. The search also revealed my mental grasping for something over which the mind held no control. The magical and mythical structures hold a wisdom that the mental structure, in all it’s understanding and efficiency, cannot quite bring to full consciousness, though it thinks it can. The mental structure lacks the ability to hold paradox, thus the non-duality between subject and object more accessible in previous structures gets lost. Luckily, on occasion, the world delivers just the right paradox that forces the mind into laughter at it’s own hubris. That is where the integral gets in.

The Domestication of the Mental

Like taming a wild animal, raising a child into a civilized adult, training one’s body for competition, or trying to stand up in a quickly flowing stream, mental consciousness takes control by organizing, setting goals, and focusing efforts in the face of chaos.

In childhood and dreamtime magical consciousness, one simply rides along with the stream’s current. In contrast, mythical consciousness, start to recognize the patterns in the flow, where the water flows most quickly around turns, where it slows into eddies, how to avoid getting hung up on rocks, and how to ride the rapids. Then one can more confidently navigate the flow, and not be tossed about so haphazardly as in magical consciousness.

Mental consciousness then makes a distinct break from the unity of magical and mythical consciousness, and tries to get its footing amidst the flowing stream, seeking the stability of the banks. The quest for understanding and control crawls out of the stream of dreamtime and onto the land of conquering consciousness. Once ashore, separate from the flow, self-awareness quickly solidifies, rupturing the seamless unity with the flow, the eternity of the present, by populating it with memories and hopes, gazing upstream and down. One arrives in this new dimension, stretching new mental muscles, learning to move through the vast terrain of time. Consciousness expands and explores temporality, leaving behind, for better or worse, the blissful ignorance of the timelessness of purely present awareness. One can see the flow so clearly from the bank, one may prefer to just watch, without ever jumping in again.

Mythical consciousness marvels and wonders at the meaning of it all from within the flow. But the mental, like a parent discovering children left alone for a moment too long, demands, “What just happened? What is going on here?”

As mental consciousness emerged, at one of many points, in the in the 6th century BCE people began to record their musings on the nature of time and reality. Greek philosopher, Heraclitus argued that one cannot step in the same stream twice, because the second time, both you and the stream will be different. He asserts that continuity through time is logically impossible and thus, the perception of time is illusory and meaningless. His contemporary, Parmenides, on the other hand, argued the oneness with the stream was the true nature of reality–only unity and no true change. Heraclitus argues for a reality of constant change in contrast to Parmenides’ preference of essential unity.

The mental first sorts things out in this vast terrain by debating polarities. Is it the same or different, good or bad, right or wrong, real or illusory? Plato and Aristotle continued the dialogue of the dual nature of time, as a subset of the dual nature of reality. Plato believed that the material realm stems from the transcendent realm, and thus time from timelessness. All humans have access to this transcendent, timeless realm and one can bring that knowledge to consciousness through skillful questioning, hence the Socratic method.[8] In contrast, Aristotle proposed that the material realm created the transcendent realm, in the sense that that our experience of time led us to the idea of timelessness.[9]

Like the infinite regress of, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” the debate between the primacy of time or timelessness is a kōan awaiting a Zen student’s irruption into a new level of insight. Through debating the polarities the mental structure of consciousness opens up new dimensions of thought beyond black and white.

One of the profound arenas to note the shift from the mythical to the mental is in art. The mythical primarily represents the world as two-dimensional and flat, think Egyptian hieroglyphics, medieval tapestries, and childhood artwork. The Renaissance opened a third spatial dimension in the imagination with the discovery of how to represent perspective in art with the use of vanishing points. This sense of perspective opened a new sense of the vast, grid-like expanse of space, within which the uniqueness of the individual solidifies as separate and isolated. If the mythical focuses on developing the inner life of meaning, the mental focuses on one’s relationship to the external world, to knowing things as objects through their externality, seeking objective truth.

On the heels of the Renaissance, Isaac Newton, “not the first of the age of reason,” but, “the last of the magicians,”[10] discovered precise mathematical laws that linked the gravity that made apples fall to the gravity that holds the Earth in orbit. Based on the power and accuracy of these laws, Newton argues for absolute time, existing as a substance independent of our observation.[11]

Like Parmenides, 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume used the divisiveness of logic to advocate for the separateness, not only of the observer and the observed, but of every moment from every other moment. In contrast to Newton’s notion of absolute time, Hume claimed the causality that seemed to link these separate moments was merely illusory.[12]

Newton ushered in the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and Industrialization. The Western world has been under the spell of materialism, mechanization, and logic ever since. The mental structure of consciousness’ linear perspective of time seeks deterministic cause and effect relations to leverage toward prediction and control. Calm, cool-headed, scientific methodologies casually brush aside cloaked and wizened mystery. Science became the new religion, progress the new God. Contemporary technology worship and ritual consumerism are mere extensions of this initial historical thrust.

Culture remains largely dominated by the mental structure of consciousness. Here is the height of objectivity, domestication, progress, civility, reason, and order. Most participants in the modern world’s dominant paradigm may find this structure the most familiar.

Outgrowing the Mental

Humanity is now approaching an edge, however. The mental structure is revealing both its efficiency and its deficiency, to use Gebser’s terms. The mental structure of consciousness can feel like a respite from the storm, a safe, secure haven of scheduled regularity and predictability from the threatening unpredictability of the wild. But after one has been here for a while its structure of cubicles, commuting, and consuming can begin to feel stifling, imprisoning, boring or deadening, signifying the outgrowing of this structure.

The exponential expansion of the mental’s prowess in technological creativity brings with it exponential population growth, resource extraction, habitat destruction, accumulation of waste, loss of species, disparity of wealth, denigration of the feminine, and weapons proliferation, all of which are symptomatic of a loss of a sense of the sacredness and wisdom of the wildness that both surrounds and lives within each of us.

As these growing pains become stronger, they demand our attention and the birth of a new way of being. The fullness of humanity is beginning to feel the restrictive qualities of modernity’s protective, shiny, steel bars. The gated community that sought to keep the wild out, becomes a cage for our own wildness. The clock’s safe, predictable divisions become enslaving. The emergent integral structure of consciousness, takes down those walls, allowing for the magical wilds to seduce the fear of the mental back to life and relationship.

As we begin to feel the constriction of this old way of being, and catch a whiff of the enticing flavors of a new way beginning, the mental itself begins to wonder how we ever got to this point in the first place. How is it even possible to forget one’s own wildness? What do we do with it once we recognize it again? How does the adult mind relate to the childhood heart? These questions, often stimulated by the irruption of the magical into the mental through profound synchronicity, like my fox finding, irrupting from the sanctioned cordon of dreams into the mental organization of waking life, point toward the emergence of Gebser’s next structure of consciousness, the integral.

This is an excerpt from my forth coming book “The Texture of Time.”

[1] Hori, Victor Sogen. 1999. “Translating the Zen Phrase Book” (PDF). Nanzan Bulletin (23)., p 6-7

[2] Sekida, Katsuki (1985). Zen Training. Methods and Philosophy. New York, Tokyo: Weatherhill. P 138 – 139.

[3] Hori, Victor Sogen. 1999. “Translating the Zen Phrase Book” (PDF). Nanzan Bulletin (23)., p 6-7

[4] ibid.


[5] ibid.

[6]  Hori, Victor Sogen. 2000. Koan and Kensho in the Rinzai Zen curriculum. In: Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright (eds)(2000): “The Koan. Texts and contexts in Zen Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pages 288-289.

[7] Hori, Victor Sogen. 1999. “Translating the Zen Phrase Book” (PDF). Nanzan Bulletin (23)., p 6-7

[8] Plato. 5th century B.C.E. Trans. B. Jowett. Time. In Timeaus. from The Greek Word Library (accessed November 16, 2006).

[9] Tarnas, Richard. 1991. The Passion of the Western Mind. New York: Ballantine Books. p 60.

[10]Keynes, John Maynard. 1972. “Newton, The Man”. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes Volume X. MacMillan St. Martin’s Press. pp. 363–4.

[11]Burnham, Douglas. 2006. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In The Internet Enclyclopedia of Philosophy. (accessed November 16, 2006).

Sherover, Charles M. Ed. 2001. The human experience of time: The development of its philosophic meaning. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. p 134-142

[12]Tarnas, Richard. 1991. The Passion of the Western Mind. New York: Ballantine Books. p 337-341.


3 thoughts on “Structures of Consciousness: Part II: Finding Gold and The Domestication of the Mental

  1. Pingback: Structures of Consciousness: Part I: Gebser and EEG states | The Texture of Time

  2. Absolutely wonderful Kerri, I delighted in your writing and your authentic exercise of integral consciousness. Blessings from the south!


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