DynaPsych Contents

Radiance of Being:

Complexity, Chaos and the Evolution of Consciousness

by Allan Combs

Edinburgh: Floris Books
ISBN: 0-86315-215-5

Reviewed by:
Ben Goertzel
Psychology Department
University of Western Australia

Copyright Dynamical Psychology 1996

Consciousness is a very popular topic of late. Cognitive, neurophysiological and quantum-physical explanations of consciousness abound. In all the hubbub, it is too often forgotten that the study of consciousness is an ancient enterprise, far predating the emergence of empirical psychology. Using careful introspection rather than scientific experimentation as their guide, spiritual seekers from cultures across the world have been constructing detailed maps of consciousness for many thousands of years.

In Radiance of Being, Allan Combs seeks to build a conceptual bridge between the conclusions of these spiritually- oriented explorers of consciousness and the theoretical frameworks of modern psychology. This kind of bridge-building would ordinarily be said to fall into the category of "transpersonal psychology." But I would hesitate to classify Combs' book as transpersonal psychology, because it stands apart from, and indeed above, the transpersonal psychology literature in so many ways.

Combs is meticulously careful in his treatment of various spiritual philosophies or "wisdom traditions." He does not fall into the all-too-common trap of distorting ancient views to support modern theoretical paradigms. He makes a continual effort to do justice to the diversity of spiritual thought across the ages.

And, just as importantly, Combs draws on a much deeper and broader theoretical background than is typical in transpersonal psychology. His background in neuropsychology reveals itself again and again, often in subtle ways. And his knowledge of the emerging sciences of chaos and complexity plays a prominent and essential role. Rather than forcing spiritual views of mind and chaos mathematics together, he allows the two to enrich each other, to reflect each other like two facing mirrors.

A Categorization of Wisdom Traditions

After a comprehensive review of various wisdom traditions, especially Oriental ones, Combs provides a categorization of wisdom traditions in the form of a "coordinate system" with four axes: ontic/noetic, anabolic/catabolic, constructive/emergent, and introverted/extraverted.

Ontic traditions are based on transforming a person's state of being; noetic traditions, on the other hand, are based on gaining greater knowledge. Anabolic or "building-up" traditions are based on constructing ever more refined structures within the mind, while catabolic or "breaking-down" traditions, which are based on tearing apart structures in the mind that obstruct understanding. Constructive traditions place an emphasis on the gradual progress toward higher levels of being, while emergent traditions expect sudden leaps of progress toward higher levels. Finally, there are introverted traditions -- those which focus on achieving a state of inner perfection, withdrawn from the world; and extraverted traditions, those which focus on achieving a state of inner perfection while continually engaged with the world.

The ultimate goal of every wisdom tradition, no matter what its position on this coordinate system, is the attainment of an "enlightened" state of consciousness. This term may not mean quite the same thing in every tradition, but the general sense is the same. A wise or enlightened person is someone who sees beyond the trivia of everyday reality, and is in touch with the universe in a more fundamental sense. The differences between different traditions, captured wonderfully by Combs, lie in the way this goal is supposed to be achieved.

In order to understand the difference between enlightened and ordinary states of consciousness, it is first necessary to clarify the nature of "states of consciousness" themselves. Perhaps the largest achievement of Combs' work is his clear distinction between states of consciousness, structures of consciousness and states of mind.

States of Consciousness

The definition of consciousness is a vexing matter. Scientific psychology tends to focus on the functions of consciousness: it makes sensory perceptions into coherent wholes, it dredges information up from memory, it carries out logical trains of thought, etc. Spiritual traditions are concerned with the function of consciousness also, in particular with the use of focused attention to weaken habitual thought, feeling and behavior patterns. But in the main, spiritual tradition are more concerned with the experience of consciousness than its outward uses and manifestations. And the experience of consciousness -- experience itself! -- is something about which science has had disappointingly little to say.

In an early chapter, Combs reviews various definitions of consciousness, and concludes that, given the morass of conflicts and contradictions surrounding the word, he will continue to use the word "consciousness" in its ambiguous, ordinary-language sense. In order to clarify the discussion here, however, I will find it useful to distinguish between consciousness and raw awareness. Awareness is the feeling of "being in the world" or just "being" -- the simple fact of presence, of experience. Awareness, in itself, is just awareness; it has no qualities besides just being awareness. Consciousness is different; it has particular qualities. Consciousness is awareness as modulated by the structure of mind. Thus a "state of consciousness" may be understood as a particular kind of relationship between awareness and mind.

Combs, wisely, leaves the question of the basic nature of awareness untouched. This is in line with nearly all wisdom traditions, which hold that the higher Self, the inner core of being, is formless and indescribable. But, on the other hand, there is nothing inexplicable about the differences between different varieties of experience -- different states of consciousness. This is not mathematics, where all terms must be rigorously defined before they can be used to define other terms. Here we are beginning with an intentionally undefined concept, awareness, and using it to build another concept, consciousness.

A state of consciousness is different from a mere "state of mind," such as being annoyed, pleased, wondrous, etc. Examples of states of consciousness are: sleeping, ordinary waking consciousness, tripping on LSD, being stoned, being drunk, deep meditation, and spiritual enlightenment. Within each state of consciousness there are many possible states of mind. For instance, one can be soundly asleep or just barely asleep; one can have a good acid trip or a bad trip, a sense-dominated trip or a thought-dominated trip.

The relatively discrete nature of states of consciousness is a vivid phenomenological fact. In general, the differences between various states of mind within a given state of consciousness are far less than the differences between a state of mind in one state of consciousness and the state of mind in another. For instance, no one would confuse any acid trip state of mind with any sleeping state of mind, nor any drunk state of mind with any stoned state of mind.

There is also a qualitative dynamic difference between states of mind and states of consciousness. States of mind within a state of consciousness will tend to change into each other fairly continuously, but states of consciousness are generally more distinct. The transition between one state of consciousness and the other is usually a striking, introspectively notable event.

There are some borderline states of mind, spanning different states of consciousness but yet not quite defining their own states of consciousness. However, these do not form a major component of our experience. For instance, the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states, experienced on falling asleep or waking up, are qualitatively very different from either ordinary waking consciousness or sleeping consciousness. They are full-fledged states of consciousness rather than borderline states of mind. On the other hand, driving while extremely tired is perhaps a genuine borderline state of mind. It is an uneasy condition of being, combining fear, relaxation, brief intervals of intense alertness, brief intervals of shallow sleep, and sometimes also brief intervals of dreamlike awareness. It lies at the intersection of sleeping, waking and hypnagogic/hypnapompic states of consciousness. Perhaps it is vaguely similar to (though surely far less unpleasant than) the state of mind experienced by individuals undergoing certain types of sleep depriviation torture -- for instance, the torture reported by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Gulag Archipelago, in which a person is forced to stand for days on end, and is beaten and kicked mercilessly whenever they fall asleep and slump down to the floor.

Varieties of Enlightenment

All the wisdom traditions are working toward the same psychological goals -- a recognition of the divine in all things; an understanding of and oneness with the highest level of being, the inner Self. However, the different traditions involve different paths, and they may, ultimately, lead to different states of consciousness -- or at very least, different habitual states of mind within the same general state of consciousness. It is often assumed that the end state of "enlightenment" achieved by different traditions is always the same, but there is no real reason to believe this. It is to Combs' immense credit that he does not fall into this trap. The manifest indescribability of the "enlightened" state of consciousness may seem to preclude any analytical discussion. In the end, though, all states of consciousness are indescribable to those who have never experienced them. For instance, no man can ever know what a female orgasm is like. Each woman's orgasm is indescribable to a man -- a woman can string together scores of evocative words, but the core of the experience will still be absent. But this basic indescribability doesn't imply that all female orgasms are the same. Similarly, there is no way to convey the essence of an LSD trip to someone who has never had one. You can make up phrases -- "seeing through to the essence of reality," "pure ontological anarchy," "everything comes alive" -- but these don't communicate more than a vague idea. But not all acid trips are equivalent; far from it.

Of course, one might at this point observe that all experiences are ultimately incommunicable. But there is a clear sense in which unknown states of consciousness are less communicable than alien states of mind within the same state of consciousness, just as unknown states of mind are less incommunicable than unknown experiences within the same state of mind. And unknown structures of consciousness are the least communicable of all.

An example of different enlightened states of mind may be found in Combs' distinction between introverted and extraverted wisdom traditions. An introverted tradition (like some forms of hinayana Buddhism) is focussed on the suppression of desires; an extraverted tradition is focusses on the mindful experience of desires. The difference is whether one avoids worldly life, or tries to experience it in a more mindful and genuine way. It seems plain that the systematically detached sage and the sage who lives a worldly life are experiencing different things. I am not saying that one is better than the other, only that the two would seem quite different. The extent of the differences between different enlightened states of mind is not clear. Perhaps there is a common state of consciousness called enlightenment, and sages from different traditions vary only in the way they occupy the possible states of mind within this state of consciousness. Or perhaps there are different states of consciousness altogether. Combs does not answer this question; he merely poses it, which is a worthwhile achievement in itself.

Structures of Consciousness

Next, beyond states of consciousness, Combs introduces the concept of structures of consciousness. These are general frameworks for understanding the world. Too thoroughgoing and substantial to be erected within a single mind, they rather emerge with an age or a culture. Following Jean Gebser (1949), Combs identifies four structures of consciousness that have been observed in human history: the archaic, the magic, the mythic and the mental. A fifth structure of consciousness, the integral, was proposed by Gebser as a probable future for the human race. Each structure of consciousness gives rise to a loosely- constrained family of states of consciousness.

The archaic structure refers to truly prehistoric consciousness - - before tools, language, and other such modern inventions separated us from the physical world. It is, in essence, the animal's view of the world: a consciousness focused entirely on reactions to external, physical events. Next, the magical structure of the universe retains the feeling of unity contained in archaic consciousness, but adds on a feeling of separateness. In the magical world-view, mind is separate from universe, but is continually joined with universe by subtle magical connections. Gebser identifies magical consciousness with the world-view of cavemen; he observes it in the semiotics of Paleolithic cave paintings. The recent discovery of 50,000 year old paintings in Australia's Northern Territory should provide new information in this regard.

In mythic consciousness, the human mind discovers its own depths: it finds a richness of inner structures reflective of, but quite distinct from, the structures it perceives in the outer world. The mind constructs its own structures to mirror and complement the structures of the external world -- unlike magical consciousness, where the basic unity of mental and physical structures is consciously and continually acknowledged.

Finally, following mythic consciousness, there is mental consciousness, in which being is equated with reasoning, or conscious thought. This attitude is exemplified by Descartes' "I think, therefore, I am." Mental consciousness places the self in the head, rather than in the heart. It thus distances the self from the body, from the pulse of physical being-in-the- world. This is where we are now, and where we have been, in the West, for the past 2000 years or so.

Gebser's last stage, integral consciousness, is purely conjectural: it is a return to spiritual, experiential foundations, but without abandoning the order, efficiency and creative ability gained by mental consciousness. It is, in essence, a synthesis of science and spirituality.

Each structure of consciousness contains a number of states of consciousness within it -- just as each state of consciousness contains a number of states of mind within it. Some states of consciousness -- e.g. sustained, inspired creative thought -- were not readily accessible to individuals embodying the archaic or magical structures of consciousness. Similarly, some of the states of consciousness native to the magical structure of consciousness are doubtless inaccessible to us, whose minds embody mental consciousness.

Wisdom traditions, as we know them today, have their roots in the mythic structure of consciousness, but have been elaborated and refined in terms of mental consciousness. They are hybrids, so to speak. It is precisely their mythic elements which render them so confusing and apparently absurd to the scientific mind. On the other hand, these mythic elements are also responsible for a great deal of the wisdom traditions' emotional appeal. For instance, Zen Buddhism, in its purest form, fits rather snugly into the mental structure of consciousness. It is not tied to ceremony, scripture or deity; it is based on insight alone. Traditional yoga, on the other hand, with its focus on the body and on ritual, is far more mythic in nature. But in practice, these distinctions are not usually very clear. Zen temples are full of statues of the Buddha -- a piece of emotional symbolism that is a full-scale throwback to mythic consciousness. It seems very, very difficult to maintain a wisdom tradition without constant appeal to mythic structures of consciousness. Indeed, it might be argued that one of the main functions of religion in today's society is to keep alive the mythic consciousness within all of us.

Chaos, Complexity and Psychology

With his four-dimensional coordinate system, and his careful analysis of states and structures of consciousness, Combs has put the psychological study of spiritual awareness on a whole new footing. However, when the detailed categorization is done, there is still a need for more substantive theorizing. This is where Combs, I think rightly, turns to chaos and complexity.

An increasing number of psychologists, in recent years, have turned to chaos theory and complexity science as tools for analyzing data and structuring theoretical explorations (Abraham et al, 1995). Combs himself has done quantitative work in this area, analyzing mood cycles and nostril cycles using such tools as fractal dimensions and Liapunov exponents (Combs et al, 1994). The study of states of consciousness is not yet amenable to precise quantitative analysis using chaos and complexity methods, but it can be understood using these concepts on a qualitative level.

In the emerging chaos-and-complexity view of the mind, the mind is a dynamical system. Psychological structures make no sense considered statically; they have to be considered dynamically, as "attractors" of systems that change over time. There are three kinds of attractors. There are fixed-point attractors, i.e. equilibrium system behaviors, in which a system does not change over time. There are periodic attractors, i.e. cyclic system behaviors. And there are strange attractors -- a grab-bag category covering everything that is neither unchanging nor periodic. Strange attractors are often chaotic, in that, once a system is locked into a strange attractor, its behavior cannot be predicted in any detail. But, nevertheless, strange attractors need not be "random"; they can be intricately structured. Strange attractors can have sections or "wings" representing system states that a system moves between according to certain statistical rules.

States of consciousness, Combs postulates, are attractors of neural dynamical systems. Specifically, they are strange attractors of systems of interacting, interproducing neural processes. Each process in the mind acts on other processes, producing new processes and stabilizing old ones: this interaction and intercreation of processes is the dynamics of the mind. Mental structures are the attractors of this process dynamics. States of consciousness are best viewed as strange attractors with "wings" -- each wing corresponding to a certain state of mind, within that state of consciousness. While in a certain state of consciousness, a mind can move back and forth between different wings, different states of mind. Some wings (states of mind) may be more closely connected than others.

In chaos theory terms, the transition between one state of consciousness and another is represented as a jolt which knocks the system out of its attractor, and leads it along a trajectory toward another attractor. This model predicts that transition between states of consciousness should be a sudden and dramatic process -- very much a discrete shift rather than a continuous gradation. And indeed, the discrete nature of shifts between states of consciousness has long been established in the consciousness literature, in particular by the work of Charles Tart (1975), who seems to had a strong influence on Combs. Much of the literature of various wisdom traditions pertains to shifting between one state of consciousness and another -- how to attain positive shifts, prevent negative ones, or bring the movement between states of consciousness under control of one's will.


Radiance of Being is an outstanding book. The only complaints that I can think of are minor, and regard omitted material that I would have liked to see covered, or ideas that I would like to have seen developed more fully. There could have been more treatment of non-Oriental wisdom traditions, such as Gnosticism and shamanism. And the chaos and complexity angle could have been worked out more thoroughly. The extreme rigor and completeness of Combs' categorization systems is not matched by his theoretical analysis, which is always evocative and plausible, but sometimes rather vague and sketchy.

But the psychology of spiritual experience is too large a topic to be comprehensively covered in one book, and Combs has done an excellent job with the topics he has covered. One can only hope that others will pick up where Combs has left off, and that Radiance of Being will set the stage for a new kind of sophisticated transpersonal psychology -- a transpersonal psychology that does justice to the diversity of wisdom traditions, that treats states of consciousness in a rigorous and careful way, and that is open to neuropsychological and mathematical perspectives on spiritual experience.


Abraham, Fred and A. Gilgen (1995). Chaos Theory in Psychology. Westport CT: Greenwood Press.

Combs, Allan, A. Winkler and C. Daly (1994). A Chaos Systems Analysis of Rhythms in Feeling-States, Psychological Record 44, 359-368

Gebser, Jean (1949). The Ever-Present Origin. Athens OH: University of Ohio Press

Tart, Charles (1975). States of Consciousness. New York: E.P. Dutton

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