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".
Mark Edwards has an M.Psych in Developmental Psychology and a PhD in organisation theory from the University of Western Australia. He now works at Jönköping University in Sweden where he teaches and researches in the area of sustainability and ethics. Before becoming an academic he worked with people with disabilities for twenty years. He is the author of Organizational Transformation for Sustainability: An Integral Metatheory (Routledge, 2009) .
Pushing for the Collective in Wilber's Integral Philosophy
Ken Wilber is regarded by many as the most important theorist in the world of ideas of our generation. Irrespective of whether one is supportive of such attempts or not, it is clear that no other current approach to knowledge attempts to integrate so much cultural and scientific knowledge or generates such a creative flow of new perspectives on philosophical ideas, scientific theories, sacred writing, cultural movements, and historical data. Such a massive program is bound to be and should be controversial. I, for one, am pleased to see that his views are initiating some serious critical responses from respected authorities in several fields. The following is offered as another addition to the critical work being generated by the Integral Philosophy. But, I add, this is a critique of Wilber with a difference.
There have been several attempts over the years to critique Wilber's various propositions on human development, spirituality, evolution and so on (see in particular Rothberg & Kelly, 1997). Some of these critiques have been in disagreement with parts or all of his work (Washburn, May, Ellis, Schneider Kelly, etc.) and some offerings have been penned by very enthusiastic defenders of the Wilberian program (Fisher, Walsh, Vaughan, Zimmerman, etc.). Those critics who have attempted to point out major inconsistencies, errors, and misconceptions in Wilber's writings have always approached his work from some alternative perspective within transpersonal studies, feminist theory, mainstream psychological models and so on. What I wish to do here is something a little different. As an enthusiastic student of Wilber's "Integral Philosophy", I intend here to take the novel step of identifying some shortcomings in Wilber's ideas from a Wilberian perspective. In other words, I want to identify those inconsistencies that arise if one systematically applies core Wilberian ideas to the Integral model itself.
There are two areas where I feel Wilber's discussions are not consistent with a thorough application of his central propositions. Both inconsistencies relate to the neglect of social forms of spirituality in Wilber's writing. The first has to do with Wilber's emphasis on solitary meditative disciplines as the only reliable and authentic practices that can open up an individual's awareness to spiritual realities. Collective practices such as bhakti yoga, communal religious devotion, charity as contemplation, and transpersonal social action are totally neglected as spiritual practices in his writings. The second is an associated critique of his almost complete lack of reference to the moral precepts, monastic rules and behavioural codes that are present in almost all religious communities, and which often lay the foundations for an individual's solitary contemplative practice. In further papers I will look at some other areas of inconsistency. One relates to Wilber's treatment of the stages of sleep which I feel fall very much into his pre-trans fallacy distinction. Another focuses on his analysis of the "eyes" of knowledge acquisition - the eye of flesh, the eye of mind, the eye of spirit and so on. These distinctions are not consistent with his distinction between monological, dialogical, and translogical modes of knowledge. The result is an overly simplistic view of science and I will suggest a more detailed analysis of objective and scientific modes of knowing that is more consistent with the full-spectrum model.
For the time being, however, I will concentrate on the first two points concerning the social dimension of spiritual practice. Once again, I would like to point out that all these critiques need to be read in the context of my enthusiastic appreciation and support for the Wilber's Integral Philosophy and for the creative powers of this great theorist.
Critique I: A new Wilberian taxonomy of spiritual practice
Meditation is, if anything, a sustained instrumental path of transcendence. And since ... transcendence and development are synonymous, it follows that meditation is simply sustained development or growth. It is the natural and orderly unfolding of successively higher-order unities, until there is only Unity ... Meditation is evolution, it is transformation. (Wilber,1990; p.115-116)
[There] exist numerous spiritual disciplines ... that are, in effect, authentic spiritual sciences ... These spiritual sciences include the contemplative and meditative traditions of a collective humanity, East and West, North and South, traditions that have been collecting interior spiritual data for at least three thousand years. (Wilber, 1998; p.180)
As a developmental psychologist, I agree whole-heartedly with these conclusions and I do not wish to argue against these statements as they stand. As a meditator and Zen pratictioner of many years (I am currently suffering from a bad case of "Expert's Mind"), I fully appreciate the central importance of such meditative disciplines for spiritual growth. However, I want to make the point that Wilber concentrates on the solitary and internal paths of spiritual development to the point of exclusion of its collective and external forms. This omission is a serious weakness in Wilber's appraisal of spiritual paths and the means by which they expressed.
Why is there this emphasis in Wilber's writings on the interior and individual modes of contemplative practice to the exclusion of the collective paths? Contemplation, after all, literally means - to be with time, to be present to what is there in front of you. It does not necessarily mean that contemplative paths must always be practiced in conditions of social or psychological isolation. Not only can contemplative disciplines be beneficial when followed in social and communal situations, they can be even more propitious and efficacious than "sitting" meditations when practiced as committed spiritual paths. Even from a cursory glance at the huge body of sacred and religious literature, it is clear that collective forms of practice have brought people from all traditions into an awareness of the Spirit and of the world as Spirit.
So, why is there this puzzling lack of discussion on collective forms of spiritual practice in Wilber's writings? If we apply Wilber's current four quadrants model to the spiritual realms, would we not expect to find four main paths to these higher realms of development? And, in fact, if we consistently apply the individual-collective dimension and the interior-exterior dimension to the spiritual bands in the developmental spectrum that is exactly what we do find. Take, for example, the classic categorisation of Vedantic Hinduism into the four paths or margas of gnana yoga (interior x individual, or intentional quadrant), hatha yoga (exterior x individual, or behavioural/postural quadrant), bhakti yoga (interior x collective, moral/cultural quadrant) and karma yoga (exterior x collective, social/vocational quadrant). In Christianity we find a similar pattern of traditional mystical paths that lead to "Christ Consciousness". There is (as Wilber has often discussed) the way of solitary prayer as exemplified by the Desert Fathers, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, Juliana of Norwich, John Main, and countless others. Then there are the devotional paths of love and surrender as practiced in their individual and collective forms in devotional communities and orders. The Taize communities, the followers of Thomas a Kempis, Therese of Lisieux, the Marion devotionaries, all these are examples of the traditional paths of surrender and devotion. There are the paths of transformative social service/love as exemplified in the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Brother Andrew and the many Christian communities that are committed to service and charity as spiritual disciplines in themselves. The four paths of spiritual awakening outlined in Matthew Fox's Creation Spirituality can also be seen as being aligned with these four basic orientations to lived spirituality. The Via Negativa is aligned with the meditative path of knowledge, the Via Positiva with the path of devotion, the Via Creativa with the path of Art as spiritual practice, and the Via Transformativa with the collective path of Cosmic justice and collective compassion. These are just a few examples of other paths to spiritual knowledge that are not essentially meditative or individualist and a more thorough treatment could easily come up with a multitude of others practices from other traditions.
If Wilber's interior-exterior dimension and the individual-collection dimension are applied to the three or four major bands of transpersonal, a basic taxonomy of spiritual practices is derived. Such a taxonomy might take the form outlined in the following table.
Table1: A basic taxonomy of spiritual disciplines according to the four-quadrant model
If this approach is further explicated by other Wilberian factors such as the ascending and descending spiritualities and the various transpersonal levels themselves, for example the Subtle, Causal, and Nondual levels, then a highly sensitive classification method for identifying, describing and grouping spiritual disciplines could be derived. Such taxonomies exist in all scientific disciplines and help to bring coherence and explanatory power to the theoretical models covering their respective domains. Some obvious examples where taxonomies have been very useful include chemistry with the periodic table, sub-atomic particle taxonomies, biological classification systems, various codifications of personality types, and categories of intelligence to mention but a few.
For the time being even the very simple 2-way division scheme between individual and collective methods can useful in describing the pathways to enlightenment. And it should be no surprise that sacred and spiritual literature often refers to these four categories of mystical development as simply two broad roads to awakening.
For example, one of the oldest ways of talking about the Buddhist tradition is to see it as the combination of wisdom and compassion, in other words, of both an individual and collective balance to spiritual growth. Without this balance (the Middle Way) the bird of the Buddha, the enlightened one, cannot fly to the heights. An Australian theologian, Denis Edwards, writes in a chapter of his book on the human experience of God titled, "The Social Structure of the Experience Of God"
The theological approach to the experience of God ... needs at this point to be developed in two directions: on the one hand it must be shown how such experience of God relates to society and history (the social structure [of the experience of God] ...); and on the other hand it must be shown how experience of God opens out into contemplative prayer (the mystical dimension).
The great Ramana Maharshi himself, one of Wilber's most admired and quoted sages, held the view that all paths can be finally seen as two - the interior-individual path of wisdom and the exterior-collective path of surrender/devotion. In his words,
"There are two paths - to ask yourself, "Who am I?" or to
In his writings, Wilber virtually ignores the collective, social methods in his otherwise brilliant writings on authentic paths to spiritual consciousness. I do not mean that these paths - the way of devotion and ritual, the way of charitas and service, and the way of physical meditation (asanas) - can be followed in isolation from the individual contemplative path. In all these traditions the contemplative dimension is an essential companion to the full exploration of these more communal practice traditions. But the communal paths cannot be reduced simply to meditation. I feel that Wilber is guilty here of "weak reductionism" (his terminology) in that he reduces the collective paths to the interior individual path of meditation. He explains all spiritual practice out of this one dimension. He reduces the spiritual reality of several quadrants (chiefly the collective quadrants/worlds) to the explanatory world of only one (the interior/individual).
Wilber has recently taken the important step of including social and community service as an additional practice, particularly where development has stalled and where further growth in the interpersonal world is indicated (1997, p. 251-252). This is a natural consequence of his recognition of the collective aspects of human development. But the importance of this collective dimension to development is seen mostly in a therapeutic, healing context, and the more demanding transformative practice of self-surrender and selfless service is not prescribed anywhere in his writings as a means to attainment of transpersonal or spiritual experience.
Why he does so is fairly easily explained, I think, and there are two main reasons for this. The first relates to the historical development and elaboration of Wilber's Integral Model. The second comes from a superficial but understandable reduction of all collective religious forms to pre-personal membership levels of group consciousness. With regard to the first point, Wilber's whole theoretical system has grown out of his brilliant assembly and description of the interior levels of individual development. The much later refinement of collective and behavioural (exterior) forms of development has simply not yet been thoroughly applied throughout the great breadth of his system. And that is exactly what I am pointing out here. The four quadrants have not yet been used by Wilber to systematise the great plethora of authentic spiritual practices. These traditional forms for evoking and validating spiritual maturity have been assumed to be essentially contemplative by Wilber and this assumption is wrong 75% of the time.
With regard to the second point, Wilber has probably looked at the most popular manifestations of collective spiritual practice and quite accurately he has seen mostly collective forms of mythological aberration. He quite rightly reads these popular movements as expressions of group dogma, social hysteria, membership ritual, mob unconsciousness, collective delusion, and belongingness needs masquerading as spiritual love (I obviously refer here specifically to the group hysteria and social emotionalism of the Tele-evangelists, charismatics and other fundamentalist movements). But there exist also authentic traditions of sacramental devotion, selfless service, and communal surrender and they are practiced in Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism and indigenous traditions and in all of the great world spiritualities. Spend a month at a Cistercian monastery joining in with the monks in their collective prayer seven times a day, chanting with them in unison the songs of the Psalmists and you will see what I mean. One monk has described this cenobitic (collective) path of the communal monk to me as "being swept along to the great Ocean of Love by the tide of my brothers in communion, and this in spite of my self". Like the authentic meditative and contemplative traditions, the truly valid collective practices are, however, quite difficult to find. But they are there in every land and in every culture, and to reduce them all to pre-personal manifestations of membership worldviews is to make the same error as those who see meditative practice as some sort of life-denial or narcissistic pathology.
Because of his omission in applying the collective quadrants to transpersonal ontologies, Wilber, in fact, does not discuss or show much understanding of those traditions which culturally take a more collective stance on spirituality. This is most clearly evident in his lack of comment on the great traditions of Judaic, Christian, Islamic and Vedantic ritual and sacramental practices. The paths of devotion, love and service are intensely spiritual and are absolutely inherent to many spiritual modes of being in the world. The sacramental rituals of Christianity and other faiths are collective forms of spiritual practice. That they do not regularly evoke those experiences in the multitudes that engage in them, is not a denial of their efficacy as such, but is more indicative of how infrequently these spiritual paths are truly lived as transformative paths. These collective rituals are most typically experienced as legitimating conformist social rules and expectations. Meditation is also subject to this secularisation process. The fact that meditation is regarded largely as just another workshop experience does not detract from its ultimate function and worth as a transformation practice. Sacramental devotion and transpersonal social action can also become simply hollow ritualism and do-gooding, but to deny their power as essential paths to personal and communal awakening is to reject much of the world's history of transformative spiritual development. The problem remains, however, that when individual meditative practices go wrong only individuals suffer, but when collective forms of religious practice go wrong or are manipulated by power elites for political purposes whole nations can be destroyed. All the more reason to brings some analytical tools to bear on these issues.
The collective spiritual practices are not fundamentally about cultural differences, although these are obviously very important in how collective traditions are socially expressed and subjectively experienced. No, the basic impetus behind communal paths of spirituality lies in Wilber's observation that all forms, all entities as such, exhibit both an impulse towards agency and an impulse towards communion. These two basic tenets of his stunningly comprehensive reformulation of evolution theory also find expression in the spiritual, transpersonal domains. The agentic, individualist drive finds expression in contemplative wisdom practices. The relational communitive drive finds expression in the practices of sangha ritual, communal compassion, and collective surrender. Are not the basic drives of agency and communion, after all, the generative forces behind the individual-collective dimension in Wilber's four quadrants of evolutionary holarchies. It is only to be expected (predicted even) that higher developmental forms and experiences will be incrementally distributed along this single-many, part-wave dimension.
With a consistent application of Wilber's collective and exterior modes of being to the religious and spiritual levels, the opportunity is there for Wilber's treatment of the collective expressions of spirituality to be more sensitive to the unique elements of the major faith traditions. When this happens Wilber's model will more adequately explain the development and efficacy of such phenomena as the Rule of St. Benedict, the Zen precepts, the spiritual power of the yoga Asanas, the experience of the Bhakti Yogi, the Buddhist path of compassion (in complement with wisdom), the power of spiritual service in the social sphere as exemplified in the lives of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa of Calcutta (amongst about 5 million worthy others), the immense world of sacramental and ritualistic forms of worship (when engaged in as spiritual practices and not simply as reaffirming collective mythologies), and the great body of teaching and sacred scripture that speaks of devotion as a unitive spiritual practice, of communal religious ritual as the path to heaven, of transpersonal social service as the encounter with the living Christ, and of the many other collective and relational paths as "royal roads" to enlightenment.
Wilber has not only neglected to direct the analytical gaze of his "Big Three" spotlight onto the various forms of spiritual practice, he has also been remiss in not applying his epistemological model to this vital area. Remember that his epistemology includes three main strands - the injunctive strand (the teachings), the apprehensive strand (the experience), and the communal strand (the verification of the experience). Wilber often mentions the injunctions associated with meditative practices and regards a tradition as noumenological (spiritual) if, and only if, it "openly displays and contains transcendental (contemplative) injunctions, apprehensions and communal affirmations". But what if the injunctions have nothing essentially to do with meditative practice, and what if they go something like:
Surely these teachings, when lived with commitment, are spiritual injunctions of the highest order. Surely they are as demanding and as transformative as any meditative injunction and in many contexts even more so. While these injunctions go hand in hand with transformative contemplative practices, they cannot be supplanted by them or simply reduced to them. These behavioral, moral teachings are demands that pertain to the social world and to the marketplace, and as such must be more challenging and transformative of the social and political status quo than any path that focuses only on meditational techniques engaged in isolation. Why then does Wilber, whose whole system is based on transformative change and integrative revolution, not discuss in far greater depth the fundamental importance to spiritual development of these moral precepts, monastic rules and behavioural codes that are present in all religions and which often lay at the foundation of the spiritual transformation of individuals and communities. I do not refer here to the importance of communal morals and ethical imperitives for the development of the personal or even pre-personal levels of growth. Wilber has written whole books on this and associated topics. What I am pointing out here is the almost complete lack of attention paid, in Wilber's writings, to those spiritual teachings/injunctions that are directed specifically at the transpersonal bands of development and which have virtually nothing to do with sitting meditation or contemplative awareness or any interior path whatsoever.
Imagine for a moment that you live next to a very elderly couple who don't have any family around them. In this situation, is to engage in contemplative meditation the first response that should be made to the injunction, "Love your neighbour as yourself"? Most assuredly not. It will be far more spiritually enlivening for you to mow their lawn for the next ten years as an act of neighbourly love (and please do your meditation as well). How utterly spiritually transforming practicing such injunctions can be when engaged in without egoic concern (with non-attachment as the Hindu's would say). As discussed in the previous section these injunctions lie within the communal spheres of religious practice and are fundamental parts of collective "spiritual sciences". These injunctions are there because the great spiritual teachers of the past knew that you cannot regard the individual as separate from the communal, and that the rules and methods of change in the private sphere of life must be complemented with, and balanced by, the rules and methods of change in the public sphere. This is why all truly great contemplatives were social revolutionaries. This has been pointed out many times before. Metanoia, spiritual transformation is as much about a revolution in one's social interactions as it is about the rebirth of one psychological identity.
It is interesting to look at one well known Christian injunction that Wilber has mentioned briefly in The Marriage of Sense and Soul. He says:
"what each of [the] spiritual pioneers gave to their disciples was not a series of mythological or dogmatic beliefs but a series of practices, injunctions, or exemplars: "Do this in remembrance of me." The "do this" - the injunctions - included specific types of contemplative prayer, extensive instructions for yoga, specific meditation practices and actual interior exemplars."
This quote is interesting because the injunction used here, "Do this in remembrance of me" (the basic scriptural reference behind the Catholic tradition of the Eucharistic Mass), is not at all an injunction for contemplative meditation. Rather, it refers to a social-sacramental practice designed to revolutionise the participant's relationship to their fellow human and to the way they see the world at large (in that all things are sacred, even this bread that we eat together). Wilber fails to see the collective and sacramental (meaning the world as essentially sacred) focus of this injunction to the degree that he interprets this statement, which specifically refers to sharing a meal with friends, as a teaching about an "interior" and "contemplative" yoga! I contend that Wilber misinterprets all such injunctions for collective, sacramental and devotional spiritual disciplines and that he consequently has not adequately discussed at least 50% of all transformative spiritual processes. The main point I want to make here is that he makes this misinterpretive, reductive leap because he has not consistently applied his epistemological analysis to collective spiritual sciences in the same way that he has done for individual meditational ones.
Wilber quite rightly wants religion to jettison a lot of its mythological baggage that it has accrued over the millennia. He also justifiably asks for a reappraisal of what is regarded as religious dogma. But what is dogma and what are, what Wilber would call, the necessary injunctions for spiritual development that are spelt out by the scriptures and teachers of a faith. Are the Commandments dogma, or are they necessary injunctions for spiritual consciousness to develop? Because Wilber does not appreciate the collective forms of spiritual development he also underplays the importance of religious moral injunctions, codes and precepts that form both the social framework for contemplative practice as well as authentic spiritual practices in their own right. Without these collective injunctions, the individual-interior disciplines will be largely unproductive paths for the majority of individuals who take them up. This may be one reason why, as Wilber has noted, so very few practitioners actually establish their peak or plateau experiences into stable transpersonal identities, or why so many, having tasted some measure of spiritual experience, drop their contemplative practice altogether. Wilber, more than most philosophers, knows that people are social beings at their very core. Surely Wilber knows of the rediscovered works of Lev Vygotsky (although he does not reference him anywhere to my knowledge), probably the most important current developmental theorist in the area of education and learning (yes, he may actually have taken over from Piaget for this position) All of Vygotsky's studies attest to the inherent social nature of learning. Vygotskian concepts such as proximal zone of development and social scaffolding have direct relevance to the revisioning of spiritual learning as a social process. The mystery is, why doesn't Wilber take this social perspective when discussing one of his favourite topics - namely the process of learning about one's True Nature.
The Eastern contemplative traditions that have come recently to the West - including Zen Buddhism, various yogic paths, the Vichara of Ramana Maharshi, Theravadin practices - have tapped into the Western student's hunger for rigorous interior techniques for experiencing the transpersonal. Techniques that have been marginalised and even withheld from the common person by religious elites, who probably never knew any better, for hundreds of years. In this rush to experience a personal encounter with the noumenous, we have focused heavily on interior meditative practices. But these Eastern meditation traditions in their own cultural settings also include extensive moral and collective frameworks for spiritual development. The Zen precepts (the ten grave precepts, the three pure precepts, etc), five moral imperitives of the Buddhas Eight-fold Path, the morality and communal monastic teachings of Theravadin, the cultural and ethical dimensions of the Vedantic meditative traditions are as fundamental to their respective religious traditions as sitting meditation. In taking up these wonderful transformative traditions from Asian cultures, we must also adopt and adapt the collective spiritual practices, precepts, behavioural codes, social injunctions that support and progress spiritual development. If this does not happen these wonderful traditions will wither and die on the vine, being isolated from a more integral social context. Robert Aitken, one of the senior Zen teachers in the world today, has written much on this topic recently and his words are well worth noting in this regard.
Not only is there a tendency for Wilber to ignore or misread collective injunctions for spiritual development, he also fails to discuss the collective validation of the subsequent experiences that flow from practicing those instructions. Validation of the mystical experience by the Eye of Spirit is a collective as well as a private affair. Because he sees all teachings in this area as basically concerning the interior of the individual, he sees all validation as needing to come from another, a master, guru, or roshi, someone who has attained an appropriate level of consciousness to confirm or deny the experience. I have no argument with teachers confirming or denying experiences, but it is not true that all validation of spiritual attainment comes from this source. Does not the sangha, the spiritual community, itself play a central role in testing the experience or otherwise of its members. And isn't the spiritual community in its realist sense "the myriad things" that make up this mysterious world in which we live. Isn't there a case for saying that the presence of the One in the Many confirms the reality of an individual's awareness through the reality testing of family and sangha life, political and insitutional life and finally through our treatment of the many beings with which we share this small planet.
The emphasis for Wilber is on the master/teacher as authenticator and not on the sangha, the spiritual community, as the source of verification. "By their fruits you shall know them", and these words are not directed at the teachers and masters, but at the common followers who will recognise the true spiritual figures amongst them not by their pronouncements about "Spirit is like this" or "Your true nature is like that", but ultimately by how they treat the children of our community, how they live in regard to the marginalised, and how they challenge those social structures that harm us and that limit our ability to recognise the sacred within us and among us.
Finally, I would like to make the point that these critiques of Ken Wilber's Integral Philosophy are really "pimples on a pumpkin" in that they are minor compared to the great span of his ideas. They are minor but quite pivotal criticisms in that a lot hangs on them. Real balance in spiritual practice is so important. I feel that these problems in Wilber's writings are partly errors of omission due to lack of time to fill out the details, but also partly systematic errors that rise out of an anachronistic bias to individualist perspectives. The lack of a social extrapolation to several parts of his current four-quadrants model is quite understandable given that those four quadrants are expected to cover the entire range of all human cultural knowledge. Nonetheless, I feel that if these gaps are plugged with some elements of the above arguments, then the whole Wilberian thing will have that bit more explanatory power. It will make just that bit more sense. It already makes a hell of a lot of sense to me, but then every bit counts.
© 1999 Mark Edwards