This article originally appeared on Geoffrey Falk's blog, July 18th 2006 (with updates on July 21 and 22). This revised version was posted with permisson of the author. Geoffrey Falk is the author of the online book Stripping the Gurus.
PANDITS AND PRISONERS
Elliot Benjamin recently posted an article detailing his view of the dangers, or lack of same, in Ken Wilber's integral community.
Elliot and I exchanged manuscripts close to two years ago, after he had met Steven Hassan at the 2004 International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) conference in Edmonton, thereafter being referred to me by Hassan, for our common interests. He is certainly a sincere individual, who has participated in (by my recollection) around 15 New Age-ish groups, from est and Scientology to SRF, with varying degrees of involvement (as he notes in his Modern Religions book). At the very least, he is not a person who gives up easily in the search for "spiritual Truth." :)
It is good to hear that Wilber is being discussed, with some concern, at such gatherings of cult-studies professionals. Conversely, though, I find it discouraging to see that Benjamin is being overtly influenced by Anthony's typology. (In which, by the way, it is hardly the case that "Monistic refers to non-judgmental openness to all people whereas dualistic refers to an Us vs. Them elitist dichotomy." The primary references there are meant to be theological/metaphysical, not sociological.) He has, after all, read the "Spiritual Choices" chapter in STG, and at least knows of the existence of the core ideas in the "Gurus and Prisoners" chapter. (When we exchanged manuscripts in late 2004, I had not yet fleshed out the latter ideas regarding Zimbardo's prison study; they were only in their final form in the later PDF.)
Benjamin concludes: "Perhaps a significant variable to determine if my Neutral placement of Integral Institute is justified or somewhat naive will be the response (if any) I receive from them based upon the exposure of this article." My own hunch would definitely be "naive," but we shall see.
More significantly, I was intrigued by the application of the "Bonewits Cult Danger Scale" to various groups. And the reason I found that intriguing was because, several minutes after reading Benjamin's article through the first time, it occurred to me: How would Philip Zimbardo's prison study fare, according to that set of criteria? That is, would that simulated prisonin which more than one-third of the student "prisoner" participants were breaking down psychologically within less than a week of their confinementbe viewed as a "safe" or a "dangerous" environment, based on the Bonewits criteria?
The criteria (1 = lowest rating; 10 = highest):
How does that all look, then?
Even if you could find, say, another 10 points among the "Wisdom Claimed" and "Wisdom Credited" scores or elsewhere, the overall rating would still only rise to 5.2. That is a significantly higher score than the 3.94 which Elliot assigns to I-I, to be sure, possibly even being officially in the "mild to moderate cult danger" region, but hardly "through the roof," by comparison.
(If one were to score any of the above much higher than I have, one would then have little room at the upper end of the scale to differentiate between degrees of abuse in genuinely "omniscient," sexually manipulative, violent, or dropout-controlling environments. And even the worst of what occurred in Zimbardo's study is assuredly mild compared with what goes on in real prisons and in the worst of our world's cults.)
That spirit-killing prison, having one-third of its 15 indicators definitely at the lowest possible rating, and explicitly being just an "experiment" in "nonviolent" confinement with no doctrine taught by the leaders other than the importance of obedience to them, could never be more than around a 5 out of 10, overall, in terms of "danger" evaluated via the Bonewits scale.
And note also that, while all of the "questionable" aspects of the behaviors of the subjects in Zimbardo's prison study were thoroughly documentedallowing and necessitating a nuanced analysis of all thatno such thing is true of places like SRF or I-I. Indeed, it is exactly the most negative aspects of the community which will be covered up when anyone from "outside" is visiting. So, if one merely goes from one's experiences as a casual member in any spiritual group, it is a fair bet that one will, on the average, be grading its "dangerous" aspects too low rather than too high, simply for being ignorant of the full depth of the abuses and manipulations (as Benjamin demonstrates in his own "Neutral" analysis of SRF). To give such groups the "benefit of the doubt" on top of that when they score toward the upper end of the "Neutral" range or otherwise is a dubious strategy, at best. One should rather be assuming, if anything, that things are worse than one can see from any casual (non-full-time, non-residential) involvement.
Benjamin graded the Integral Institute at 3.94. He also regards it as being more destructive than the "3.73" SRF of my own cult experience. Yet, in the latter environment numerous monastics have been reported to be suicidal, for having given their lives to "God and Guru" in a psychologically abusive (i.e., "ego-killing") environment, with no way out from that "prison" without admitting themselves to be "spiritual failures," disloyal to the Divine Guru:
I want to tell you of the depression and even suicidal tendencies that have been in evidence among some of my monastic brothers and sisters. They find themselves in a position where they can't fulfill their vows of service and obedience to Master [i.e., Yogananda], in that monastic setting, without furthering the immense problem at SRF. Many have been there for many years and fear leaving the ashram in lieu of not being able to provide for themselves in today's job market. That is just scratching the surface of the dilemma many find themselves in.
If you "do not see anything serious enough to be very alarmed about" in an Integral Institute which scores even worse than SRF, with the latter in turn bringing out the "depression and even suicidal tendencies" of its residential members, you are clearly still far less "cynical" than I am about these things.
Zimbardo's simulated prison again experienced a rebellion on its second day, which got both the guards and the prisoners (and Zimbardo himself) firmly into playing their assigned "roles." But, all of the above ratings are based on how that environment looked after the rebellionbefore that, it was actually a relatively safe environment for the prisoners. That is, it was only after the prisoners openly questioned the authority of their guards that the environment degenerated to the point where it would score slightly higher than the Integral Institute or SRF. That should tell you something about just how "safe" it is for the people stuck in such environments to question their leaders.
Not to mention the fact that, if deeply questioning the teachings of the integral leaders in practice automatically makes one "first tier," while "salvation" is only to be had from a "second tier" position, one is obviously going to have no easy time summoning the independence of thought to question the environment enough to even want to disengage from it.
The problem is not so much that checklists like Bonewits' are "notoriously unreliable" for determining which groups are likely to become grossly manipulative, much less physically dangerous. Rather, the bigger issue is that the people applying such criteria regularly underestimate the degree of psychological abuse which goes on in even "Neutral" or "Moderate" groups, where you "can leave any time you want" without the threat of physical violence being used against you for doing so. If you think that the "freedom to disengage" makes such depression- and suicide-inducing "spiritual prisons" safe, or in any way easy to leave, you really need to put much more thought into the subject. You can start with considering how difficult it was for the "prisoners" in Zimbardo's study to leave that environment, and with how even Ken Wilber himself, at the low point of his second marriage, went out gun-shopping, intending to blow his own brains out rather than just walk away from that:
I will walk into Andy's Sporting Goods, on Park Street in South Lake Tahoe, to buy a gun meant to vaporize this entire state of affairs. Because, as they always say, I can simply stand it no longer....
As to the idea that "Monistic refers to non-judgmental openness to all people whereas dualistic refers to an Us vs. Them elitist dichotomy," even just as a purported secondary meaning in Anthony's typology: Any in-group will obviously have something of an "Us vs. Them" mentality toward the rest of the world, regardless of whether it is monistic or dualistic, or cheerleader-istic or geek-istic. It's undoubtedly a pleasant thought to believe that groups which hold that we are all inherently one with God would have less of a split between their own "best" group and the rest of the world, for ostensibly seeing divinity even outside of their own clique. But if one wishes to claim that that's true in practice, one needs to present actual evidence for that claim, rather than just wishful thinking.
In practice, you know, God may be everywhere, but Maya exists much more outside the ashram gates than inside. And as a general principle, whatever you think is keeping you from being enlightened/saved is what you will need to be protected from, regardless of whether you think that God is in everyone or that God is forever separate from His creation. Monistic or dualistic, there, makes no practical difference. (Where would you grade the Integral Institute, with its monistic theology, in terms of Us vs. Them? Anything less than an 8/10 would, I think, be unduly optimistic. Also consider: "It is a great sin to criticise others. God is in everyone. So, criticising others amounts to criticising God Himself. Do not criticise or ridicule anyone"Sathya Sai Baba.)
Further, as far as dualistic religions emphasizing "eternal damnation," versus the supposed inevitable enlightenment of the monistic theologies, as Benjamin discusses too superficially in his "Cults and Spirituality" article: The Buddhist hells are every bit as torturous as are the Christian versions, i.e., there is just as much threat of punishment for not doing things "the right way" in your life in the Eastern version as in the Western. And as to the idea that dualistic teachings have more of a "selection process" for who can be saved than do monistic ones: when only "second-tier" beings are eligible to be saved (or even just eligible to be members in the "best," integral way of doing things), that is an obvious selection or "competitive salvational ordeal" process, just as surely as is the need for acceptance of Jesus as one's Savior. (Obvious points like that are what you miss when you deferentially quote the likes of Anthony and Wilber as if they know what they are talking about, particularly on the subject of so-called cults.)
"Many are called, but few are registered at Integral University," after all.
Incidentally, I don't doubt that the Neopagans are one of the safer spiritual groups around, as Elliot has experienced. It doesn't make their beliefs any less "fictional," though, as Charlotte Allen's "The Scholars and the Goddess" article has disclosed. But, as to Benjamin's idea that the Neopagan "Wisdom Claimed" merits only a "1" rating: please! Just try even being politically incorrect around those people; they enforce their "wise" ideas mightily on othersnot for being higher in any hierarchy, but simply for "seeing things more clearly than you do"even if they can't necessarily agree amongst themselves as to what the core ideas are! I worked among such individuals not merely for a few "weekend festivals in the woods," but for nearly a full year. I know very well, from my own experience, how little questioning one can advance against their ideas before one becomes "part of the problem." If there were such a thing as a "Mean Green Meme," that is where you would find it.
When "cult experts" such as Benjamin vouch for the safety of environments such as SRF or I-I, there are people who take that opinion seriously. It is in no way good enough to simply be willing to say, years after the fact, "Oops, I was wrong again." You're not Britney Spears, and no one else should have to suffer for your unduly credulous evaluations as to the "safety" of various spiritual movements.
Benjamin himself again rated the Integral Institute as being more dangerous than SRF, even while presumably being happily unaware of the depression and suicidal tendencies which the latter environment has brought out in its most unfortunate monastic participants. So, what do you think he might be equally unaware of inside I-I?
By the way, shortly after Wilber's June (2006) online rants/manipulations, I apprised the cult exit-counselor Steve Hassan of Wilber's recent actions. He expressed much more concern about all of that than Benjamin has, to the point of discussing the matter with a fellow cult-debunker, who in turn (na´vely) hoped to meet with kw personally, to "reality-test" him.
What does that tell you about the likely validity of the idea that there is not "anything serious enough to be very alarmed about" in Wilber's community?
Comparably, if Benjamin had done his past spiritual workshops at Kripalu Yoga Center while Yogi Amrit Desai was still leading that environment (and allegedly sleeping with three of his female followers), would he have given it the same "Favorable" evaluation as he has? My guess is that, being unaware of that behind-the-scenes reported abuse, he would have na´vely, with all due sincerity, done exactly that. "Road to hell, good intentions, etc."
Again, people take such recommendations seriously. Giving unsolicited, trusting analyses based on the assumption that "what you don't see isn't there" is simply not good enough, when the abuse is so predictable to anyone who understands even the most basic principles of social psychology. It is, however, exactly what happens when one wants, far too much, for there to not merely be "safe" spiritual organizations in the world, but ones offering "the Truth" on top of that.
Finally, as to Wilber purportedly "engag[ing] in highly constructive dialogue early on with his most prominent academic critics, as evidenced in the 1997 book" Ken Wilber In Dialogue: I just happened to be re-reading Andrew Smith's review of Meyerhoff's Bald Ambition recently. From which:
A few years ago, a book honoring Wilber, Ken Wilber in Dialogue, collected the views of many of these critics, allowing Wilber to engage them all. But I found it illuminating that he did not concede a single substantive point to any of these critics, and that he identified a single writer out of them whom he felt completely understood his systemthe only writer who made no real criticisms of his system at all.