Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Elliot Benjamin is a philosopher, mathematician, musician, counselor, writer, with Ph.Ds in mathematics and psychology and the author of over 150 published articles in the fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, pure mathematics, mathematics education, spirituality & the awareness of cult dangers, art & mental disturbance, and progressive politics. He has also written a number of self-published books, such as: The Creative Artist, Mental Disturbance, and Mental Health. See also: www.benjamin-philosopher.com.
WILBER VS. SCHNEIDER
TRANSPERSONAL VS. EXISTENTIAL
In the late 1980s Ken Wilber became disillusioned with humanistic and existential psychology after having published a number of articles in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology and having served as a consulting editor. Wilber's disillusionment is clearly conveyed in a series of interactive articles between him and existential/humanistic psychologist Kirk Schneider that appeared in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology in 1987 and 1989 , as well as interactive essays between him and the acclaimed existentialist psychologist Rollo May that appeared in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology in 1989 .
Kirk Schneider is the author of a number of books on existential and humanistic psychology, including books he co-authored with Rollo May, and another well known existential psychologist, Jim Bugental ; he is currently the editor of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. As I have described in my latest Integral World article, “My Conception Of Integral” , I view Wilber's most significant philosophical contribution to be the assimilation of deep spirituality into a comprehensive system of philosophy. I describe this as a harmonious balance of logic and experience (c.f. ), which I believe can also be described as a harmonious balance of the existential and the transpersonal.
Wilber and Schneider were certainly at odds in their respective viewpoints and criticism of each other's arguments (c.f. ). And it is undoubtedly a difficult and challenging intellectual task to decide who got the better of the argument. But what I believe is a more meaningful activity is to see what we may learn from the Wilber/Schneider debate in the context of the development of both thinkers 17 years later, as they have emerged to be leaders in their respective domains of transpersonal and existential psychology.
Of course Wilber stakes his claim on posterity to be his origination and development of Integral Psychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality , and I am not by any means discounting this. However, the continuously impactful and intensive focus that Wilber repeatedly stresses, in all of his books, on the trans-rational level of consciousness, and his articles and past consultant editor position in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology are fair justification to place him in the context of transpersonal psychology, at least in my own opinion.
In Kirk Schneider's most recent book, “Rediscovery Of Awe” , his existential psychology worldview is sharply defined, as he passionately calls for an appreciation of the miracle of life itself, the experience of awe in the world, and the existential formulation of the “fluid center.” Schneider contends, as he does in the Wilber/Schneider articles, that to truly appreciate freedom and happiness one must have some idea of what their opposites are like, namely coercion and misery. This sentiment has often been described by the leading existentialist thinkers of the past 200 years, and Rollo May specifically addresses this point in terms of a human being's capacity of doing evil .
Schneider accuses Wilber of not appreciating this human complexity and need to experience the opposite or lack of a positive state of being in order to truly appreciate the meaning of this positive state of being. Schneider goes on to question if Wilber's ultimate level of consciousness, which Wilber characterizes as non-dual (and subsequently as “one-taste” ), is feasible for anyone in the world to attain, is helpful in the context of people improving their lives, and he even asks if this ultimate level of consciousness would be nothing more than monotonous and boring if one were constantly immersed in it.
How does Wilber respond to this quite serious criticism of a significant part of his philosophy in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology? For one, I am struck by the tone of relative lightness, civility, respect (for Schneider), and essentially good taste humor (to my mind) in his response article (c.f. ). This is in stark contrast to some of Wilber's harsh and severely condescending responses to criticism of his work in more recent years, which a number of articles in the Integral World website describe .
The intellectual essence of Wilber's response to Schneider's criticisms is his claim that Schneider misrepresented his view of existential psychology and took his description of the ultimate level of consciousness too literally, whereas his words were meant as merely a poetic illustration of an experiential realm that cannot be described in words. He assures Schneider that he has a full appreciation of the humanistic/existential worldview but has gone on to transcend it while including it in subsequent higher levels of consciousness.
I imagine that this is not what Schneider wanted to hear; after all who wants to be told that your worldview is “nice” but relatively childlike and that eventually it is time to outgrow it and to move into a more mature worldview? But I know that this is what Wilber firmly believes, and he honestly expressed his beliefs in his Journal of Humanistic Psychology response articles to Schneider. He invited Schneider to experience for himself what these transpersonal realms were all about, as he said that one can only meaningfully write about their value if one has experienced them. He alluded to his experiential or “deep science” approach to exploring trans-rational levels of consciousness that he described in his book “Eye To Eye” (c.f. ).
Actually Wilber already had practice in responding to criticisms from existential psychology, as can be seen from his response to similar criticism from Rollo May that appeared in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology earlier in the same year, 1989 (c.f. ).
However, in Rollo May's response to Wilber's response to him in this same 1989 Journal of Humanistic Psychology edition (c.f. ) he does make one particular criticism of Wilber that had significant impact for me.
May disagrees with Wilber's contention that mystical states can be experientially verified as “deep science,” and refers to Wilber's lack of appropriate boundaries in his transpersonal experiences. Specifically he alludes to Wilber's unbounded praise of a severely controversial guru who has been publicly exposed as having been extremely damaging and destructive to many of his followers. I am speaking of Adi Da, formerly known as Free John , and I had brought up this concern myself in my article “On Ken Wilber's Integral Institute: An Experiential Analysis” .
This has much personal meaning for me, as Wilber had conveyed to me in person just three years ago how Adi Da's books are all phenomenal, and he urged me to read Adi Da's masterpiece: “The Dawn Horse Testament” , for which Wilber had written a glowing review . I must say that I think Rollo May was being way too kind in referring to this book as a “journal.” “The Dawn Horse Testament” is the most egocentric sickening portrayal of spiritual narcissism that I have ever read. After forcing myself to read 500 pages of this book I finally could read no more of Adi Da's constant proclamations that he was God in human form, etc.
It is incomprehensible to me how Ken Wilber could have been any kind of devotee to Adi Da, and could have written such lavish praise of his writings and of his spiritual stature. I did feel that Wilber was naive regarding the dangers of spiritual cults, specifically Scientology, from my personal meeting with him, and I have described my concerns about this in my Integral Institute article (c.f. ). But Wilber is a human being, and by this very fact he has a right to make mistakes and have blind spots; though admittedly he made quite the whopper with his outlandish praise of Adi Da (c.f. ).
But getting back to the Wilber/Schneider transpersonal/existential debate, who is right and who is wrong here? And the answer is “Yes.”
There is no right and no wrong. Schneider has subsequently developed his “awe-based philosophy” and it is profound in its appreciation of the mystery of life, leaving a genuine openness to explore what he considers to be authentic spirituality; I believe Schneider's philosophy is a hallmark of spiritual agnosticism. On the other hand, Wilber has gone on to write many more books, form and develop his Integral Institute organization to promote his Integral Philosophy to the world, and continue to impart the desirability of experiencing transcendental states of being.
I am in agreement with the crux of Jordan Gruber's recent Integral World article "Beyond My Ken?" that suggests we accept Wilber's personal faults as part of his being human, while appreciating his immense contributions to philosophy, in spite of the intense and crass recent personal attacks that Wilber embarrassingly displayed to the world .
I believe that Ken Wilber's philosophy and writings should stand on their own merit. Wilber has unceasingly worked for 35 years to incorporate the authentic spiritual experience into philosophy. For this I believe he deserves the acclaimed public recognition that he has received. But has Wilber's philosophy and ideas turned into dogma and doctrine in an authoritative mode, as a number of authors on the Integral world site have claimed? As I have described in my Integral Institute article (c.f. ), I do think there is an unhealthy degree of dogma and doctrine, or as Kirk Schneider puts it, “Infallibility”  in Wilber's way of promoting his philosophy to the world over the past few years, even though I still believe as I concluded in my above article, that there are not significant cult/guru dangers here.
I take Wilber's distinct levels of consciousness with a grain of salt, as I take all the specific lines, quadrants, types, states, perspectives, etc. in his philosophy . But I take the whole of what Wilber has given the world very seriously and with much appreciation (see my article “On The Philosophy Of Ken Wilber” ). I also have a very real appreciation of the existential worldview as expounded by Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Rollo May, Jim Bugental, Kirk Schneider, etc. I suppose for me the crux of the matter revolves around the question of whether existential can be “included and transcended” in transpersonal. And I do not have a problem with saying that I don't know the answer to this question.
So I am afraid that I have no choice but to leave the matter as I found it. Wilber vs. Schneider; transpersonal vs. existential; Yes!
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1) See Kirk Schneider, “The Deified Self: A 'Centaur' Response To Wilber And The Transpersoonal Movement” (Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring, 1987); Ken Wilber, “God Is So Boring: Response To Kirk Schneider“: (Journal Of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 29, Fall, 1989); Kirk Schneider, “Infallibility Is So Damn Appealing: A Reply To Ken Wilber” (Journal Of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 29, No. 4, Fall, 1989); Ken Wilber, “Reply To Schneider” (Journal Of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 29, No. 4, Fall, 1989).
2) See Ken Wilber, “Two Humanistic Psychologies? A Response” (Journal Of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 29, No. 2, Spring, 1989); Rollo May, “Answers To Ken Wilber And John Rowan” (Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 29, No. 2, Spring, 1989).
3) See Kirk Schneider, Jim Bugental, J. Fraser Pierson (editors), “The Handbook Of Humanistic Psychology: Leading Edges In Theory, Research, And Practice” (Thousand Oaks, CA; Sage, 2001); Kirk Schneider & Rollo May, “The Psychology Of Existence: An Integrative, Clinical Perspective” (New York; McGraw Hll, 1995).
4) See Elliot Benjamin, “My Conception Of Integral” (www.integralworld.net, November, 2006).
5) See Ken Wilber, “Sex, Ecology, Spirituality” (Boston; Shambhala, 1995); Ken Wilber, “Eye To Eye” (Boston; Shambhala, 1983, 2001); Ken Wilber, “Integral Spirituality” (Boston, Shambhala, 2006).
6) See Kirk Schneider, “Rediscovery Of Awe: Splendor, Mystery, And The Fluid Center Of Life” (St. Paul, Minnesota; Paragon House, 2004).
7) See Rollo May, “ The Meaning Of Anxiety” (New York; Pocket Books, 1977); Rollo May, “The Problem Of Evil: An Open Letter To Carl Rogers” (Journal Of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 22, No. 3, 1982).
8) See Ken Wilber, “One Taste: Daily Reflections On Integral Spirituality” (Boston; Shambhala, 2000).
9) See numerous articles critical of Wilber at www.integralworld.net
10) For a highly critical expose¢ of Adi Da see Geoffrey Falk, “Stripping The Gurus” (www.angelin.com/trek/Geoffrey Falk/blog/blog.html, 2005).
11) See Elliot Benjamin, “On Ken Wilber's Integral Institute: An Experiential Analysis” (www.integralworld.net, July, 2006).
12) See Da Free John, “The Dawn Horse Testament Of Heart-Master Da Free John” (Middleton, CA; The Dawn Horse Press, 1985).
13) See Ken Wilber, “On Heroes And Cults” (The Laughing Man, Vol. 1, 1985). Wilber's “On Heroes And Cults” review originally appeared as the forward to Da Free John/Adi Da's book “Scientific Proof Of The Existence Of God Will Soon Be Announced By The White House” (Middleton, CA; The Dawn Horse Press, 1980) and included the following disturbing (to me) reverential description of Adi Da:
“Da Free John's teaching is, I believe, unsurpassed by that of any other spiritual Hero, of any period, of any place, of any time, of any persuation.”
14) See Frank Visser, “The Wild West Wilber Report: Looking Back On The Wyatt Earp Episode” and Jordan Gruber, “Beyond My Ken? Ponderings On Wilber” (integralworld.net, 2006).
15) See Kirk Schneider, “Infallibility Is So God Damn Appealing: A Response To Ken Wilber” (reference information in ).
16) See Wilber's books listed in  and my Integral Institute article listed in .
17) See Elliot Benjamin, “On The Philosophy Of Ken Wilber” (Inner Tapestry Journal, August, 2005).