What I’ve been waiting for: Hatha Yoga and the Wilber-Combs Matrix

(So, in this era of daily tweets and hyper-communication, I’ve written a lengthy thing which may require moments of slower reading-  not something many  internet surfers want to do-  and it took me four years to cough it up. But I hope you will find it worthwhile. These posts are more like parts of a book than a blog, and all the different entries through the years should offer a different angle into the themes. May they shed some light on your yoga practice. Happy reading, Steve)

I haven’t published a post in four years. In the meantime, I’ve done a lot of yoga- lots of easy yoga, lots of hard yoga, everything in between; blissful yoga, not blissful yoga; I’ve dragged the trusting long suffering yogis and (mostly) yoginis who pay me and show up in class through no less than three location changes; been alternately delighted or stumped in the role of yogi-householder-version-2012-California with twin boys; taught lots of full classes, taught a few not-so-damn-full classes…and… I finally found the psycho-cosmic map that  I’ve been waiting for: the Wilber-Combs Matrix. We hear that the criteria for a good jazz tune can be determined by the inspiration it provides for the soloists who play it. Well, the W-C Lattice, as they call it, has given rise to all kinds of insights for me, hopefully some of which shared here will get across.


In 2005, I embarked upon what I’ll call an urgent internal issue, in this case not so much a psychological crisis but rather a theme that my mind kept returning to, accompanied by a strong unconscious push to find a solution.  It began when Michele gave me the book Sex Ecology and Spirituality by Ken Wilber for father’s day, a big long book. I took it to Mysore, India for Pattabhi  Jois’ 90th birthday in July that year and sat there in my Gokulam flat, at a beat up plastic table for six weeks taking notes in the hot nights after the rest of the family had retired under the mosquito net.

I kept at it because it was one of the few spiritual book I’d ever read where I was keenly sensing that some grand revelation was going to come from getting to the end of it. (I’d sniffed out a variant on the phenomenon  three times before: Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis: knocked me over in my early twenties as Jung’s mature world came in, but I never got back up and finished it, not sure if that book needs to be finished-  but if you read those first 20 pages with a clear receptive mind, something weird and wonderful may happen to you sometime shortly thereafter, it’s about alchemy; Shankaracharya’s Brahma Sutra Bhashya: after an initial conversion experience, Vedanta in all its profundity, it wound up putting me into a coma every time I touched it; the book is longer than you can imagine, leaves no 8th century didactic stone unturned, and would’ve morphed me into Rip Van Wrinkle entirely if I hadn’t done the right thing by putting it back on the shelf, thereby returning to normal waking consciousness. You can read it in its entirety right here, give yourself at least a yearsweet dreams; and Aurobindo’s Life Divine: the biggest brick of all, the first 30 pages blew my head clean off and may do the same to you.  I also found out how God comes down to earth, such a large number of angles into this theme that I finally skipped to the part where human rises up to God.)  But Wilber’s brick was clearer and quite exciting in the way it integrates so much cutting edge materialist thinking into a spiritual context, so I slapped at mosquitoes and finished, wiser for the experience and… the grand revelation fizzled.

There is a happy ending though: two years later I was teaching in Manhattan and realized that Wilber’s Integral Spirituality had recently been published, and there it was, St. Mark’s Bookstore, East Village, page 90, the thing I was hoping for but couldn’t figure out myself: the W-C Lattice itself, the icing on the cake of Sex Ecology Spirituality. It has taken several years, right up to the present day, for me to recognize the helpfulness of this tool- I feel thankful for Wilber and cohorts for getting it out there.

 Sex Ecology Spirituality is organized roughly the opposite of Life Divine, the first part draws on cutting edge thinking, in addition to everything else under the sun, to explain how life evolves into greater complexity and inclusiveness. The second part takes the cosmological view of how Spirit descends to Earth and the way that it has played out through the course of history. The WC Lattice has explanatory value for either direction. Here it is:

There are two axes to this box, vertical: stages, and horizontal: states. The vertical axis charts lines of human development through successive stages. We all develop differently as we go through life, and this includes different lines which rise up through stage levels, for example: emotional line, kinesthetic line, morals line, cognitive line, (the grid above doesn’t show the lines but you could fit them in there, climbing vertically), each line a slightly different region of the body and brain. Individual lines will climb up the vertical axis depending on the degree of evolutionary resource and endeavor the person might have and apply during her lifetime, and some lines in some individuals can eventually reach up to that blue/integral stage or even above. Different people are inclined toward different groups of lines, so  some will push the emotional line up there, others kinesthetic, etc. Each stage has increasing degrees of inclusivity, embracing more of the cosmos, as well as increasing the sophistication of the patterns of connection within that larger field-  to reach a stage, one must satisfy certain criteria in this regard. These aren’t tests on which we can get an F so much as what Wilber calls cosmic habits or grooves, and they correspond to broad generalities that appear to reflect the way human organisms evolve over time; for those who are inherently or deliberately working at an evolutionary process, the claim of this grid is that it describes stations through which such individuals will progress. Much of the previous posts in this blog discuss different dynamics contributing to this growth through stages.

However-  and this is a glimpse into the complicated kind of issues the lattice clarifies-  other processes mentioned in the previous posts, often things about yoga, take us along the horizontal axis, growth through states. Regarding states, the W-C Lattice uses the classic divisions, first set down in the Upanishads, which correlate spiritual states, or yogic attainments, with the main states of sleep. The gross/purgation column corresponds to normal waking consciousness, the subtle/illumination column corresponds to dreaming sleep,  the causal/dark night column corresponds to deep sleep, and the non-dual/unification column corresponds to the ability to hold all of these states stably and pass one into the other, ie: realizing the causal state (also called yoga nidra) while functioning in gross or subtle reality. Everybody-  including our fabled unmotivated couch potato (see previous posts)-  travels their way through all these states in their nightly sleep; but the spiritual life, as it has been expressed through cultures and time by adepts in different traditions, has described spiritual development as the realization of variations on these states of sleeping mind while still fully conscious. (If you want more of this kind of stuff-  and it can be life changing-  read any of Wilber’s books, or check out the Integral Institute or Integral Life.)

Here are a few  illustrations to get at the main area in terms of states for hatha yoga, which aspires to the psychic/subtle realm: many of us know of classic images of meditating yogis whose eyes are rolled back in their head behind their lids. This also happens to the eyes of  people during sex and orgasm. I saw the Rolling Stones in India once, poured rain the moment they started and stopped the moment they got off stage. Darryl Jones, their bassist during that period-  considered among the finest-  had his eyes rolled up the entire time. These are examples of someone entering a zone similar to the dream state while still awake-  in REM sleep the eyes roll all over the place behind the lids-  seeing things inside, or using the visual capacity to add dimension to internally felt energy contours.

So, let’s look at hatha yoga development in this light: a person walks into his first of many ashtanga classes. He brings with him a life history of somato-motor experiences which have given rise to a series of developments in the somato-motor systems in his bodymind. We’ll call this his kinesthetic line on the vertical axis of the lattice. This history starts with wiggling around as a baby, reaching for things and trying to eat them, figuring out crawling, walking, running. For most of us it develops from there. He has been using his somato-motor capacities non-stop since birth, and all this practice has entered data into his memory, and the brain has been crunching it up and putting things in the right places with much of this occurring beneath his awareness, unconsciously. The nerves have been making connections in an auto-poietic fashion, organizing themselves, following their own subterranean will. And, most interestingly, periodically through time, there have been incidents of global reorganization, where suddenly a threshold is passed in the individual, many things shift at once, and the somato-motor movements, awareness of them, capacity to do them in the moment, and to put different pieces of them into coherent wholes, suddenly increases. He has moved up a level on the vertical axis: the crawler suddenly stands (balance is added to the mix), the stander suddenly walks (balance is now applied toward something higher).

Where can this go? I spent the first eleven years of my life in Boston and my Dad and I are still Celtic fans, occasionally I still watch, they advanced to the conference finals a few weeks from the time of this writing, (June 2012) and lost a great series. Their chief foe: Lebron James of the Miami Heat, age 27. He has put in thousands of hours of intensely focused basketball practice-  he had probably attained the lauded 10,000 hours by the time he was twenty-  much of it in heightened prana environments during games, often with millions watching-  thousands actually in his physical space, the rest on TV.  He was putting together spontaneously improvised moves of enormous complexity, every fraction of a second presenting the possibility for large numbers of new adjustments, each one coming both from his internal toolbag-  partly conscious, partly unconscious-  and modified on the fly. All NBA players do this. But he was a vertical level up on everyone else, at least in game 7:  greater complexity and thus greater options for new arrangements, or as they say in neurology, greater calculation speed through more efficient signal routing and “richer high-level representations” (Lynch & Granger): that which less advanced players would see as a chaotic situation, he sees as a whole; where others see a mess, he sees patterns.

And there was another force operating on that floor too, one with implications for yoga and longevity: Paul Pierce, age 34, more time logged on the court than Lebron, has even more in his toolbox and also very high-level, but having to add another twist into the neurological data-crunching: all that time in all that physical intensity has left him with a few strained and even broken parts; he’s smarter than ever but his musculo-skeletal body can’t do what it used to do. He can still evolve along the vertical axis of somato-motor development, which is largely chemical and neurological, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s better at winning basketball games than a young guy whose gross body parts aren’t broken down yet. In this particular series, the beat-up-smart-old-guys held their own until the structurally sounder young guys finally passed them right at the end.

Basketball, like ballet, is a young person’s game. 34 and you’re nearly over the hill. But yoga is a different story- hopefully. One of the points  I want to get to a little later is that conscious residence in the subtle state is a huge contributor to creativity, such as our bass player above: eyes rolled back, that’s the zone from which his creativity flows.  But in Hatha Yoga, as opposed to basketball, gaining traction along the horizontal path of the lattice, along the states corresponding to sleep, is really the basic intention of the practice, at least as it has developed in Indian history. NBA basketball (and much of the material world)  is about winning and money and vertical stages (and aggression and luck) rule the roost. Yoga is about enlightenment and happiness and these need some horizontal progress, something that is known to mature with age if valued and given a chance, with the potential of getting progressively more developed even as the physical body wears down, ie: into old age.

Back to the basketball players: a typical non-mystical player will put in hard practice time during gross waking hours and then sleep at night. What happens within him as he sleeps? On the simply physical level, sleep is the time of maximum anabolic activity: growth and repair activity. It is when the body’s response to exercise happens the most, a complex process which includes  increase of muscle mass  and the upgrade of the muscles’ enzyme systems. This is also when more severe strains and injury heal most quickly.  In my post from March 2007 I introduced the idea that  yogis can maximize their residence in this anabolic state by, essentially, consciously moving themselves along the horizontal axis of our lattice: getting the benefits of sleep while still awake, in addition to the time logged during sleep.

Also, very interesting neurological things are happening  to our player while he sleeps. The theory that seems to be getting the upper hand in current brain circles is that memories stored from experienced are “interleaved” in a progressive process into the cortex from the hippocampus. The hippocampus stores memories short term, the cortex stores them long term. And they get put in the right places. Essentially, impressions received by the bodymind are organized auto-poietically into coherent, intelligent patterns, allowing the mind to be guided by the same kind of wisdom that guides the cells in their profoundly complex operations. (An almond has around 21 amino acids; when we eat one, we do not need to worry about where to put them or what to do with them, the body does it for us and does it with a nearly incomprehensible biochemical genius; likewise, I’m drawing a parallel to what the brain does during sleep with the daily intake of data.) If our player has actually done a lot of basketball that day, these impressions will arrange themselves. If he sits around  watching old reruns on TV all day, those impressions will arrange themselves, poor guy. If he does lots of focused basketball, day after day, he will, without conscious effort on his part, begin neurologically developing higher order representations and longer lines of association, brain items which indicate degrees of mastery. He puts in the focused basketball time, his self-organizing bodymind does the rest.

This physical and neurological progress also happens during waking hours, but, if sleep doesn’t happen-  if he never moves horizontally along the lattice-   he will eventually catabolize: break-down, the opposite of anabolize. And it doesn’t take long; the feeling we get at the end of a long hard day is that of our subtle and gross systems wearing down. They call out to us to get horizontal, both in bed and along the W-C Lattice. Once rest and sleep begin, then everything suddenly switches to the positive, and the strong impressions received from the tough day become the evolutionary fuel for greater development, for both vertical and horizontal attainment-  and those who advance furthest in this life, along either axis, have a hunger for strong impressions.  Our basketball player is going to need to get himself way up that vertical axis if he wants any chance to make it in the NBA, couch-potato lifestyle will never work.  And his nightly sleep can be seen as the matrix which regularly, reliably-  miraculously-  brings him into the force that can get him there. Vertical development in the gross waking state cannot happen without regular  passes through the deeper horizontal stages. Put differently, regular passes along the horizontal axis are required to get anything going vertically. Yoga is the art of getting into these horizontal stages while still fully awake.

So, returning then to the “grand revelation” I mentioned earlier, the one I thought I was onto as I read Sex Ecology Spirituality (SES as they call it). For a long time, I had a burning question: how can hatha yoga bring us to the highest goals of the yoga traditions? By that time, I had settled on my understanding of the tantric ideal as the best way to live a yogi’s life, an approach to the time given us in this life which is fully aware of the material world and alive to its dynamic forces, but also able to tap into the deeper realms of consciousness. The great paradox at the heart of tantra-  of which hatha yoga is a branch-   emerges when we take even a perfunctory tour through the corpus of yogic and buddhist literature, and the fact of the drashtu or seer or brahman or witness or causal matrix  (in the WC Lattice it is represented by the dark night/causal column along the horizontal axis)-  there are many more names for it-  jumps out at us. It can’t be ignored and is clearly set out ad nauseum as the goal of spiritual life and the realization of enlightenment, either integrated with the grosser realms or not. This causal matrix is not a thing per se but is the absence of things, it is not the result of our yogic efforts but rather the presence that was there the whole time and has only, with the moment of realization, been uncovered. OK. No problem.

But the burning question and the conundrum: how does all this work  with active life and practice, such as hatha yoga, where we aren’t doing nothing but rather, are developing something. Like most meditations, hatha yoga is a deployment of attention, and that very attention develops the contents upon which it focuses. Also, it is a practice that  develops hierarchically and as Wilber puts it, holarchically.

Here’s an example: kharandavasana is an ungodly difficult asana two thirds of the way through second series in Ashtanga. It puts together several pieces of things which  require development time on their own. To begin, one must be able to do lotus, and for some, this is a huge hip-opening undertaking unto itself, requiring  full attention; for many people, putting the parts of lotus together is as much as they can do at their present level of practice. If things are given a chance to progress, with practice, all the separate openings and movements required for lotus become unified in a coherent whole, the many have become one. The same goes for the next part of kharandavasana, which is forearm balance: the strength and balance may take a while to develop before any kind of success sets in. We then put these two together, lotus and arm-balance-  and there’s even more to the asana than that. I don’t need to go any further with this description to convey the main point, which is a different angle of my take on LeBron James from above: to achieve kharandavasana, one must put together multiple wholes, which themselves are comprised of multiple wholes, each of which needed learning and development time before it could even be realized as a whole. Before that we were just struggling through the parts, which themselves can be broken into parts, which themselves…you get the idea. Development within active life and practices-  the vertical axis on the lattice-  proceeds through the transformation of parts into wholes, which then become parts of larger wholes, on and on as far as we have the guts to keep going. This is progress up the vertical axis of the lattice. And the thing that was bugging me: when and how does this process eventually help us to get over to the causal matrix which is…gasp…nothing, nothing at all. How does getting better at Hatha Yoga, and by extension, practicing any material discipline, get us closer to the stated goals of yoga and spiritual practice?

In SES and a few later things, and in all of his previous books, Wilber made no clear developmental differentiation between states and stages and simply placed the highest yogic states at the very top of the vertical axis, on top of the very highest levels of cognitive, emotional, kinesthetic and other types of achievement,  as he later and wiser put it, “Bam bam bam bam…East and West integrated!” After reading the book, I sat there scratching my head for a while. It occurred to me that a scientist or a basketball player or a hatha yogi could integrate himself way up an active developmental line, doing all his work in the gross waking state, and never get anywhere near the causal state other than in his sleep. It seemed to me that yogic/spiritual states were a different kind of line, a certain kind of intelligence that developed in a learning way just like the other lines, but one that had an essential and unique relationship to the development of other lines and managed different kinds of phenomena. It wasn’t until I finally found the lattice and its addition of the horizontal line to the vertical line that I was satisfied on this.

Here was how I viewed the problem: we can keep doing asanas for years and, while we will get physically fit and better at performing the asanas, what exactly about it is spiritual? What does spiritual mean anyway, and does it just sort of show up one day? Why do we even want it? One clue to understanding this issue has to do with that which happens to us as we focus our minds. Most yoga teachers at least make some reference to quieting the mind and staying in the present moment. Many also emphasize focusing on the breath, and in Ashtanga, hopefully,  these guidances are overt. Making attempts to focus the mind on an actual sensate field in the present moment-  which is different than giving energy to memories and plans for the future-   and adding  breath control to this, transforms hatha yoga from “just exercise” as Pattabhi Jois used to say, to something greater. Two things begin happening at once. One: time spent doing the asanas will have their developmental effects on the yogi’s body, upgrading it, developing it, neurologically stimulating the generation of higher order representations, etc.: movement up the vertical axis of the lattice, particularly in a somato-motor line. But then, two: what does the focus and breath do? My answer: it can simultaneously moves us into the inner sheaths of our existence, and these offer qualities different than those of the gross waking state: horizontal movement on  the lattice.

Seated meditation is a way to get horizontal as it were without the distraction of  bodily movement. One aspect of seated meditation is that it is the absence of doing anything, we’ve pared it all down to inner focus, minimizing distractions. Of course, what is really happening is just a more simple and subtle version of hatha yoga, because the back and neck muscles are still working and the hips are being stretched, and anyone who has sat for a while knows that around day three these areas begin to express their opinion about the forces to which they are being subjected.  Regardless, at some point along this act of focusing and noticing- or as it has been in the west, praying and contemplating-  the bodymind begins to move into a realm where different kinds of phenomena present themselves, and they take a form akin to the dreaming bodymind-  less logical, more visionary and flowing, more connected to larger spheres of energy, heartfelt. Psycho-spiritual technology, East and West, has developed as a way of getting us there. The path is robust and has been repeated countless times all over the world; there appears to be an innate human curiosity to follow the roads opened within us every night as we sleep, but to follow them while awake, and to plumb their depths with our witnessing consciousness fully aware.

In the yogic literature, this  path is said to reveal and eventually integrate and/or release our samskaras, a word which can be translated as unconscious psychic material. These are referred to as “vrttis” or subtle fluctuations of consciousness and the classic goal of the yogi is to get them quieted down (although this has been challenged, see below). Notice right away the parallel to the dreaming mind of normal sleep, seen in many of the mature psychological arts and sciences as the revelation to the psyche of previously hidden unconscious material, a “gift of the unconscious” which night by night slowly reveals us to ourselves, and hopefully allows us to get some purchase on the task of mastering our inner demons. When we go in this direction, whether asleep or in yogic wakefulness, subtle vibrations reveal hidden psychic material. This stuff must be integrated before we can stably go further. (Look at the previous post, “Yogamind” , May 2008, and most of the other posts in this blog, for a look at my take on the ways of “getting horizontal”, the practices that get us going in that direction, and what happens to us once the path is undertaken.)

And another mystery of sleep: at some point as we lie down at night, we get “taken” by the dreaming mind. If we have any will in the switch from waking to dreaming it is in our will to relax. Those who are good sleepers have the gift or acquired skill of getting themselves into the place where the dreams can take them. And likewise the move to deep sleep: it follows on its own once we’ve hit the layers of the dreaming state, it claims us.

And so it is with the spiritual life, and those who have attained to the mysterious and elusive causal or yoga nidra state: having brought themselves by their skill at the yogic/meditative/contemplative arts to the place where psychic and subtle phenomena present themselves, at some point of penetration into this subtle state-  and this expression of it seems to be universal-   they get surprised, grabbed, engulfed, claimed, taken, submerged- as an act of grace-  by a profound stillness and quietude which presents itself as more real than normal waking reality, indeed, which appears to be the matrix from which normal waking reality originates, the womb of the whole thing. In fact, a reticence and reluctance to return to daily life can be a by-product of this realization. Spiritual people become less material because they have found something… better. (How many of us enjoy being awakened from deep sleep?)

Adept yogis can get themselves to these higher states at will and sometimes quite rapidly, once the state territory, the horizontal axis, has been objectified and traversed several/many times. The history of renunciated East and West includes many individuals who have decided that as long as they have this ability, then typical waking human life has little draw for them.

On this issue, Shri Aurobindo, a deliberately transformational figure within Indian spirituality, had a bone to pick with many of the rishis who preceded him:     ”through many centuries a great army of shining witnesses, saints and teachers, names sacred to Indian memory and dominant in Indian imagination, have borne always the same witness and swelled always the same lofty and distant appeal- renunciation the sole path of knowledge, acceptation of physical life the act of the ignorant, cessation from birth the right use of human birth, the call of the Spirit, the recoil from matter.”

And herein lies a vindication of hatha yoga and the beauty of the W-C lattice. For my three cents, Hatha yoga is the path par excellence for integrating gross and subtle states, which allows the subtle planes of existence to enter the gross realm. This has been likened by Pattabhi Jois to that of a woman walking along with a bucket full of water on her head, a common sight in the Indian countryside, and one which is dauntingly difficult at first but eventually appears effortless: bringing God down to Earth, living the spiritual life in the material world. And is it ironic that many of the women doing this are quite beautiful to look at? Is it ironic that the human form doing hatha yoga is often among the most beautiful incarnate sights to be found? Hatha yoga is India’s great gift. It is the realization of how to bring the great rishis’ profound dedication to the horizontal axis- to the higher yogic states-  back down to the very muscles and skin of the waking state, which stimulates the bodymind up to the higher reaches of evolutionary development. It is the horizontal progress itself that allows extraordinary vertical progress to happen. The W-C lattice has room for both heaven and earth.

I’ll say it again: although many seekers who have achieved the further horizontal states can show an indifference to the vertical realm of material life-  in no small part because they have finally defused some or all of the drama of embodied existence-  the great gift of higher spiritual states is the beautiful elegant organization they present to the material realms, should the yogi choose to return to them. In the yoga tradition one way to express this was through the siddhis :  flying around, ability to read minds and disappear, to shrink, to grow, to be two places at once, walk on water, that kind of thing y’know, abilities beyond the ken of typical people, said to be acquired by higher yogis because their spiritual abilities allowed them an entirely uncommon penetration into gross “mundane”  matter.

…and the causal, the next step beyond the subtle? Well, the pre-eminent techniques for that seem to require relative stillness of body and mind, such as seated or lying down meditations. But the time spent mastering and continuing to master hatha yoga can get the yogi to a robustly supported  place in the subtle realms where, inviting the causal in, and everything ready, divine rapture hovering, she gets taken.






This entry was posted on Sunday, August 5th, 2012 at 11:50 am and is filed under Ashtanga Yoga. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “What I’ve been waiting for: Hatha Yoga and the Wilber-Combs Matrix”

  1. Jan Says:

    Fascinating and well written, going back to read your previous blogs. Thanks Steve

  2. Micah Says:

    Wait a minute! You turned me on to Wilber BEFORE you’d ever read SES!?!? Sneaky…. 🙂

    Had the exact same experience when I read it (2002?). Hit me like a ton of bricks. Still see things very much through that lens.

    Great food for thought here Steve. Miss you guys.

    – Micah

  3. Steve Says:

    Hi Micah:

    I’d read the Atman Project first, long and merry ago. Then I kept up with the theory as it grew but didn’t sit down to SES cover to cover until 2005. I was ready for it.

    o S

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