Integral World Forum

Neopaganism and The Mystical Tradition

Statement by Gus diZerega, Don Frew, and Ken Wilber

When Sex, Ecology, Spirituality first appeared it elicited criticism from some Neopagan scholars over issues both substantive and textual. In the ensuing years Ken Wilber and some of his critics have gotten to know one another, and have discussed these issues in depth, sometimes face to face. Our differences have narrowed dramatically. While we still disagree (and maybe always will) over matters of textual interpretation, the more basic substantive gulf between our perspectives now yawns far less deeply than before.

Insofar as Neopagans and Deep Ecologists reject modernity, reason, and science, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality's arguments addressing the weaknesses in their regressive views offers a powerful, fundamental, and we believe telling, challenge to their position. And such people do exist in both the Neopagan and Deep Ecology communities. But at the same time, there are Neopagans and Deep Ecologists who take an integral perspective towards consciousness and can make important contributions to the spiritual unfolding of human awareness.

In issuing this statement, two of his major Neopagan critics and Ken Wilber as well, want to emphasize that the critical issues here are not between different manifestations of spirituality in the contemplative and nature religion communities, but rather between those members of any spiritual community who consider modernity a fundamental wrong turn, and so look backwards, and those of us who honor it for its strengths, incomplete as they are, and seek to reintegrate modernity's blessings within a larger spiritual context. Here we all agree very deeply indeed.

Follow-Up by Ken Wilber

        I am very comfortable with the joint statement that Gus, Don, and I co-authored, and I would like to add a specific explanation.
        Gus diZerega and I have gotten to know each other, I believe well, and we consider ourselves good friends. I have an enormous respect for Gus and his work (he's also a truly good soul); what originally attracted me to Gus's work is his exceptional work on modern economics and ecology. (You can find a good summary of some of Gus's early work in Michael Zimmerman's Radical Ecology. Much is also available on his web page: During one particularly long conversation that we had, Gus and I agreed that there are at least four major types (or dimensions) of spiritual experience: nature mysticism, deity mysticism, formless mysticism, and nondual mysticism. We also acknowledged that in Gus's practice he has been particularly drawn to nature mysticism and deity mysticism, and Ken has been drawn more toward formless and nondual. Nonetheless, we agreed that all four of these spiritual approaches are absolutely important for an integral and balanced view of spirituality.
        Gus conveyed the fact that one of his major criticisms of SES was that he thought I was saying that all neopaganism and deep ecology were in fact prerational regression. I assured him that insofar as these views accept genuine nature mysticism, they were innocent of my criticism. In my opinion, nature mysticism is the first major trans-rational spiritual awareness (the Over-Soul and World-Soul, the Eco-Noetic Self). But I did feel that many—not all—of the people claiming to be nature mystics were in fact involved in a glorification of prerational and regressive (and premodern) trends. Gus and I both agreed with this characterization. (Of course, in an integral approach, we want to include and honor prerational, rational, and transrational; but many "regressive" approaches were not doing so.)
        Because of my conversations with Gus, I completely agree that at least some Neopagans embrace the entire spectrum of spiritual experience—nature, deity, formless, nondual. I have not yet met Don Frew, but Gus assures me he is of the same opinion, and I totally accept that (and I do know that Frew is a superb scholar). But I must say, apart from those gentleman, I do not know of any deep ecologists or neopagans who accept the existence of deity mysticism and formless mysticism (most, in my experience, get infuriated at the mention of "other-worldly" anything). I cannot, therefore, offer any support for either deep ecology or Neopaganism as a complete spiritual cartography—except for my friend Gus and for Don Frew. But if there are any bona fide cases of deep ecologists, ecofeminists, ecotheorists, or Neopagans fully acknowledging the existence and importance of nature mysticism, deity mysticism, formless mysticism, and nondual mysticism, I would be glad to hear about them and their work, whereupon I will do what I can to draw attention to their important contributions.

Ken Wilber

Gus responded as follows:

        While Don and I are flattered at your singling us out, we are not really that unique on this point among Traditional Neopaganism. See Don's Pomegranate piece, for example (Don Frew "Harran: Last Refuge of Classical Paganism," The Pomegranate: A New Journal of Neopagan Thought, August, 1999) As to other names, a good example is Stewart and Janet Farrar, The Witches' Way (Robert Hale: London, 1984), who say the following about polytheism: "Most polytheists, from the priests of ancient Egypt to modern witches, know perfectly well that there can be only one ultimate Creative Force; that they personify 'It' symbolically in a number of different aspects ... so as to be able to relate to the many 'wavelengths' on which the Creator manifests Itself." p. 309n See also they and Gavin Bone, The Pagan Path, Phoenix, 1994, p. 15.
        It is important to recognize that the Farrars are what we term Traditional Neopagans.
        The Farrars do not develop these insights in the way you have—or perhaps that Don and I have. But I doubt that they would disagree with them. They just focused on different issues.
        Pop Neopaganism and those traditions that are of entirely contemporary inspiration are often another matter. Some give no hint of awareness of any deeper spiritual states beyond the surface of polytheism, unless perhaps in a Jungian sense. Some appear to write of Neopaganism as a sophisticated form of psychotherapy,
and nothing more. What is also happening is that many people with little spiritual experience are drawn to Neopaganism for various reasons, and as a consequence we are facing the problem of many seekers and a relative shortage of truly qualified teachers. (And a lot of pretty bad books!) But because the vast Classical and Hindu Pagan heritage, along with many other age-old pagan traditions, plus contemporary traditional Craft, all attest to the existence of a single source, I think this apparent ignorance of the deeper meaning behind polytheism is more a "growing pain," rather than anything deeper ....
        As to Deep Ecology, think of Michael Zimmerman, who is a Buddhist, and also of Alan Drengson, editor of The Trumpeter, the major deep ecology journal in North America until bad health forced him to step down. Gary Snyder would be another, I would imagine, and possibly Joanna Macy and Charlene Spretnak. All practice Buddhism. however, I think Macy, Spretnak, and Snyder may disagree with me as to the extraordinary usefulness and value of modern liberal institutions, and here you and Don and I stand in considerably more isolation. I think you are right about how rare this version of an integral stance is in deep ecology. At its root, deep ecology is not a philosophy but rather a variety of philosophies that all acknowledge value in nature over and above its utility for human beings.

Ken responded:
        That is important feedback, which I really appreciate. I have few minor points to raise. It's a little tricky saying that Neopagans who accept "One Source" are truly integral, because "one source" can apply to one subtle god/dess, to the formless one, or to the nondual, so we have to be careful. The deciding issue is usually whether they fully recognize the formless. Because integral/nondual mysticism is a union of Form and Emptiness, if a mystical path does not acknowledge and access the formless unmanifest, then it cannot genuinely embrace the union of Form and Formless—and thus it is not truly nondual (although it still might be a fine exemplar of nature mysticism or deity mysticism). And to be fully integral, of course, we would like to see a mystical path embrace—or at least acknowledge—the importance of nature, deity, formless, and nondual mysticism.
That I am aware of, there are no deep ecologists who accept the existence of deity mysticism, and only a handful that accept formless mysticism. In fact, with the exception of Michael Zimmerman (who does not directly refer to himself as a deep ecologist), I do not know a single deep ecologist who embraces the entire spectrum of spiritual realities, and thus I know of not a single deep ecologists who is truly integral. (Although, of those you mention, I believe that Alan Drengson very well might. But none of the others do, to my knowledge, and thus as a general rule I do not include deep ecology as part of nondual mysticism, but as part of nature mysticism.)
        As for the Neopagan traditions, you are in a much better position to comment on this. Aside from you and Don Frew, do you know of any truly integral (as we are using the term) Neopagans?

Gus replies:
        I agree that a fully inclusive appreciation of Spirit must include the nondual aspect. A deep spirituality must be able to embrace all, whatever its primary focus. It may be the case that some of the theorists that I cited do not go all the way in that regard. This is a valid issue with respect to the depth of the spiritual path offered by contemporary Neopaganism, and with its relationship to its Neoplatonic predecessors.
        My guess is that most thoughtful Pagans would consider the Ultimate Source in some sense formless/nondual, but this is an issue which has not been much addressed. It may never be emphasized. Certainly so far it has not been a particularly contentious issue in our community. The major reason for this relative inattention, I think, is because our primary spiritual focus, as I understand it, is seeking harmony rather than some variant of salvation. At a deep level these two spiritual goals intersect. But along the way they take different routes.
        Ironically—and this is not unique to American Neopaganism, for something like it characterizes all developed cosmopolitan Pagan cultures of my acquaintance—in the same coven you might find someone studying with a Tibetan Lama, someone focusing on Classical Neoplatonism, someone attracted to certain Native American traditions, someone focusing mostly on the Goddess, and so on. (This describes a coven of which I was once a part, by the way.) Such apparent doctrinal and theological heterogeneity is not naive eclecticism or syncretism. It is not a melding of traditions willy nilly. Rather, it reflects the "harmony" orientation combined with a belief that different traditions are good for different things, and different people have differing spiritual needs of which they are aware. Similar behavior exists today in Brazil and Japan, and characterized much Hellenistic practice as well. The distinction exoteric/esoteric doesn't quite get the point, but there is an element of that as well.
        What unites Pagans is practice, not belief in the sense of sacred doctrine. This experiential focus seems a constant of Pagan cultures worldwide, often even in relatively homogeneous tribal Pagan societies. But my point does not mean that modern Pagans do not think a lot about belief—just that a community of practice does not place the same expectations on one's theology as does a community of belief. (On the other hand, a community of practice can get very bent out of shape over subtle differences in practice!)
        BUT there is another dimension regarding the matter of regression. Even if not fully integral in their spiritual perspective, many or all of those I cited could very easily qualify for the description of Vision Logic consciousness that you've developed in your work. In the context of the world as it now is, they may be contributing to spiritual development even if there are blind spots and weaknesses in their own development (as if ANY of us are spiritually perfect! I certainly am not.) For, if I understand you correctly, Jurgen Habermas exemplifies vision logic, even though he certainly cannot be associated with any spiritual position whatsoever. So might a Pagan focusing on deity, particularly if s/he is aware, Pagan of my acquaintance is, that their personal practice is not the only legitimate way to relate to Spirit. Indeed, I think the case of having a spiritual practice and simultaneously not making totalizing claims for it while being aware of a wide variety of other practices cannot help but impel someone towards a vision logic kind of stance.
        So here are two separate issues, both important, though in a Pagan context I think the first is the most vital, at least in the short run. That first is the struggle over Paganism and Deep Ecology's appropriate relationship to modernity, where regressive and progressive positions are contesting with one another. Second is the depths and levels of Pagan spiritual experience. What do you think?

Ken replies:
        I agree entirely with all of the points you made. On the last issues you mention, you and I believe that there are at least some very important and truly progressive aspects of modernity (in addition to its ills). And we agree that a truly integral spirituality would at least acknowledge the entire spectrum of spiritual states, although the crucial factor is spiritual practice more than mere spiritual beliefs. We also agree that, although the best deep ecologists are exemplary nature mystics, few deep ecologists are truly integral, and some are in fact caught in what appears to us to be regressive trends.
The Neopagan tradition is more complicated, because it has such a rich and complex history, particularly where it intersects the Neoplatonic streams. But, at the very least, it appears that the issue of formless/nondual mysticism is one that has been neglected in contemporary Neopaganism and could benefit from a more concerned inquiry. And finally, many practitioners (Neopagan and otherwise) are advancing vision-logic unity in any event, which is a profoundly important contribution.
        I want to thank Gus diZerega and Don Frew for helping enormously to clarify these issues.

Ken Wilber