Integral World Forum

John HeronJohn Heron is a facilitator and trainer in co-operative inquiry and a wide range of personal and professional development methods. He is the author of Helping the Client (Sage, 2001), The Complete Facilitator's Handbook (Kogan Page, 1999), Sacred Science (PCCS Books, 1998), and Co-operative Inquiry (Sage, 1996). This is a revision and integration of interrelated sets of notes that have appeared in Michel Bauwens' Pluralities/Integration online newsletter.

Read the 1999 exchange between Heron and Wilber: Heron 1 | Wilber 1 | Heron 2 | Wilber 2

Way Out Further

John Heron


I wish to propose, with some passion, that Wilber's view of the human being and the human condition is a half-truth, hence baneful and oppressive.

On 18 May 1999, two and a half months ago as I write, I first heard that my 1997 A Way Out for Wilberians piece was in this reading room - where it had been downloaded from my web site - with a reply from Wilber. I heard this from a colleague, without having heard anything at all from the host of the reading room, Frank Visser. Moreover, if Frank  had observed the normal courtesies and discussed the project with me before launching into it, I would have told him that Way Out has been superseded by the criticism of Wilber in my Sacred Science, published in September 1998, and that he would have been better advised to adopt text from this work. Full details of this book are, of course, also on my web site and have been for months. See

So, beguiled by Frank, Wilber has replied to the wrong text. The Sacred Science criticism is different in two respects. Firstly, the tone has been changed. Secondly, and more importantly, the critical comments are elaborated in the context of my own positive worldviews. So it is to this work that I refer Wilber and all visitors to this reading room. Without reading it, neither he nor they can have a proper grasp of  my criticisms. If Frank had not fallen foul of the lawlessness of the world wide web, we could all have been saved a lot of trouble.

However, I shall not simply abandon Way Out to Wilber's knife. It is not the easy target he thinks it is. Wilber has a way of rebutting a point without actually addressing it, as we shall see. In commenting on his reply, I shall revert somewhat to the tone of the original. I wish to propose, with some passion, that Wilber's view of the human being and the human condition is a half-truth, hence baneful and oppressive. And Sacred Science fleshes this out more fully.

It should be noted that it is Wilber's followers who have gone out of their way to promote Way Out and give it prominence in their world . I wrote it at the end of the summer of 1997, and sent three email copies to colleagues. I then placed it at the end of a long annotated document list on my web site, thinking that one or two people might stumble across it and find it useful. And that was that. I rather get the impression that the piece was corralled by Wilberians in preparation for its ritual slaughter. Anyway, here goes raising it from the dead.

Pot and kettle

Wilber starts off his reply with an elaborate and self-righteous protest about my few pages of sustained and trenchant criticism, and then proceeds to respond with a classic essay in spiritual vulgarity, laced with sardonic abuse, acid mockery and patronising scorn. There is a something quite like hypocrisy at work here, from someone who is a self-appointed spokesperson for what he thinks is the highest spiritual system there is. However that may be, to preach Agape on the upper ramparts of the system, then descend into the battlefield to defend it with pointed malice, does not entitle his pot to comment on my smudgy kettle.

Tone and acumen

So let's leave the matter of tone aside, since his is more than a match for mine. Let's attend to the matter of critical acumen. Now here I have noted that, in responding to his critics, Wilber is prone not only to be something of a bully, but also a bit of a cheat. He has a tendency to slither off the point at issue with an egregious combination of dogmatic bluster and poor-fool innuendo. He is something of a specialist in pseudo-rebuttal. Let me go through the first four points to which he responds, with a side look at the sixth, to show what I mean. And between the second and third point, I will explain more fully what I find unsatisfactory about one of the central dogmas of his system.

Theory and project

Take the first point on the Atman-project. The key question here is what happens to the Atman-project theory when you define it in its own terms. In other words, is the Atman-project theory itself an Atman-project? This issue allows for a good deal of latitude in how you define the theory. Wilber insists I have missed the definition, and goes on at great length about it, thus conveniently avoiding dealing with the key question, which still awaits an answer when all his redefining is done. He argues beside the point, not on it. So let's take his redefinition and press the question. Is the Atman-project theory stated by someone who is caught up in the Atman-project? In other words, is it stated by a real finite self that is deluded about its separateness, because it is misapplying a real intuition about Spirit? Is the theory itself an example of a self confusing the finite with the infinite? If it is, then to theorize that we make this confusion is itself to make the confusion; and we are in big trouble. If the self that formulates the theory is itself intrinsically deluded, both theory and self have a problem, however real that self.

So the theory can only be stated, and properly understood, by a finite self that doesn't confuse the finite with the infinite, that is, by a reality-oriented connected-self appropriately applying a real intuition. You've got to have a self outside the grip of the Atman-project to grasp the theory of it. But then the theory is inaccurate since it makes no reference to the necessary condition of its utterance, which is that it is stated and grasped by this sort of self. Such a self the theory does not countenance. For it defines any sort of self as a virtual structure confusing the finite with the infinite in a particular way at a particular stage in the hierarchy of transcendence. Every level, says Wilber, is 'burdened by a separate-self in flight from death': there is no self at any level, prior to Atman-realization, that is not constituted by the delusions of the Atman-project. Wilber makes it quite clear ( Eye to Eye, page 131) that all the levels are generated by the Atman-project: they are made up of it, so to speak. As you go up the levels all you do is misapply a real intuition in a less restricted way than you did on the previous level.

To put it quite simply: to understand the theory is to disprove it. If Wilber were to allow a self (or has already in some book allowed a self), well this side of Atman-realization, that is sufficiently project-free and nonseparate that it can grasp the whole sweep of the way the project works, the entire theory tumbles to bits. If our real intuitions can be so fully and properly applied, outside the reach of the misapplied intuitions of divine self-forgetting, as to grasp what the divine self-forgetting is up to, then that's pretty much the end of the whole nonsense. It means the end of the idea that the involution of all the levels from the causal is caused by ever more compulsive divine self-forgetting. A whole new, and much more plausible, theology of creation is called for.

Wilber cannot afford to be cavalier about this issue. If a fundamental theory in his system does not meet such a basic criterion of intelligibility as internal coherence, he is putting out conceptual vacuity as spiritual wisdom. Of course, he could say that only the Atman-realized could state and comprehend the Atman-project theory. Unfortunately this would render his original book on the theory nonsense, unless he claimed he was Atman-realized when he wrote it. And if he was so realized, then no-one else would be able to understand it if only the realized can. In short, since the average spiritual beginner can readily state and grasp what the theory is saying, he or she is doing so with a self that the theory does not recognize. Worse still, if  beginners adopt and act on the theory, they do so by denying the better part of themselves. It is a wise precept on the spiritual path never to do business with a doctrine that cannot be translated into intelligible form, or give rise to integral practice, at your own level of awareness. Indeed, this is Wilber's own precept: sound translation before radical transformation. But dogmas are blind to their own inherent contradictions.

The intrinsically connected self

So there is a solution to the theory-project anomaly.  It is to say that a finite self has an intrinsically connected, non-separate and distinct identity, which may temporarily get lost in illusions of separateness, but can never be reduced to a deluded separate-self confusing its finite nature with the infinite and in flight from death. Wilber makes this reduction and says we have to destroy our one and only ever-confused separate-self in order to become enlightened, something which he admits hardly ever happens. I believe enlightenment is not a remote end-state, attained by few, but an ongoing process that can be entered by many right now, by practices which slough off separatist delusions, attend to the presence of, and encourage the further emergence of, our distinct and intrinsically connected spiritual self, with its infinite potential and infinite horizons. And such a self is tacitly connected, I should say, to all sort of levels and holarchies and hierarchies, so I am not talking flatland religion here.  See Sacred Science for a sketch of the theological implications.

The intrinsically connected self, the autonomous person-in-connectedness, is not to be confused with, or reduced to, Wilber's notion of the self, at any of his levels, as having the interdependent poles of agency and communion. For his agency-in-communion self is always still the separate-self, an Atman-project, confusing this or that finite sphere with the infinite. The intrinsically connected self is distinct human personhood, not contracted into existence by ripples of divine self-forgetting and their misapplied intuitions, but one of the unique forms of the divine Many emerging right now. It is the inherent openness of each self to the unlimited expanse of all possible reality. And it is always present as the seamless interpenetration of subject and object in immediate experience.

Person and whole-truth

Now the second point, which has already been unfurled in developing the first, so I'll deal with it briefly. To state the Atman-project theory presupposes a person, who is not the self defined in the theory, and not Spirit. Again this point can accommodate some latitude in the definition. And again preoccupied with matters of definition, Wilber argues beside the point and not on it. He seems to think that the idea of a presupposed person is rebutted by his insisting that the self is a mixture of Spirit and illusion. Not so. The mixture, he says, consists of a real self misapplying a real intuition about Spirit to itself, and so being deluded about itself. OK so there is a deluded real self. But neither this deluded self, nor Spirit, can be the author of the theory. To grasp and state the Atman-project theory presupposes you are a non-deluded real and connected finite self, of the kind I have just described in the preceding paragraph. And of course the more you own this self and enter into it, the more you will balance the theory up in the way I have described above. The Atman-project theory is a half-truth (that you get lost in delusions of being a separate-self) based on dissociating from the whole-truth about your self (that you are also a finite, distinct, intrinsically connected self of infinite potential, open to infinite horizons).

Reality and illusion

So far Wilber has insisted that I haven?t grasped the point that there is a real finite self, deludedly misapplying to itself real intuitions about Spirit. And he hammers this point home in his number six. But a real self is impossible within the terms of Wilber's account of the Atman-project. If you define the self at any level as constituted by its misapplied real intuitions, it ends up not being real at all, but an incoherent thought, since to define it thus you have to exempt your own self from the definition, as we have seen. So his self is, by virtue of what you have to presuppose to define it, unreal.

This is like the old stance of behaviourist researchers in psychology. They insisted that their research subjects were to be understood entirely in terms of strict causal determninism, while necessarily (and unawarely) exempting their own creative research behaviour from this explanatory model. To do the research is to deny the model it applies. To affirm the Atman-project theory is to deny the reality of the self it defines.

Baneful dogma

Now for an interlude looking in a little more depth at the Atman-project theory. It is an absolutely basic dogma in Wilber's system. By a dogma I mean a tenet derived from, or laid down by, the authority of a religious tradition, a tenet which is relatively impervious to debate, on the grounds that it is associated with long spiritual practice within that tradition. And such grounds on their own are never adequate in my view, among several reasons because all kinds of hopelessly incompatible doctrines from diverse traditions would have a claim upon us. Traditional practice, traditional experience and traditional tenet are mutually interlocking, and hostile to genuine experiential inquiry.

The central role of the Atman-project dogma in Wilber's system is one of the reasons why I think that system is so baneful and oppressive, and why I don't go out of my way to comment on the good things in it -- any more than I go out of my way to comment on good things in what the current Pope teaches, because the overall impact of his teaching is so baneful. This dogma clearly overtly denies (while covertly presupposing) that there is such a thing as a real, finite and connected spiritual person, distinct and nonseparate, having real intuitions about the human condition, intentionally emerging as a creative transformative presence in the world. It insists that, this side of enlightenment, there is One spirit and just many (little m) deluded separate selves misapplying real intuitions in different ways at successive stages, but no Many (capital M) -- no emerging spiritual persons of infinite potential, with infinite horizons, distinct and nonseparate, interconnected within the whole.

In Wilber's world we are all, without remainder, composed of 'the ignorant drama of the separate self' ( Eye to Eye, 131). At the very outset, in the causal region, says Wilber, the very identity of the emergent ripple of selfhood is its fearful clinging to a separate self-sense. It is intrinsically narcissistic. And things just get worse as involution into more restricted levels proceeeds. In the human world, according to Wilber, if you are not busy destroying the separate self by transformative spiritual practice, the very best you can do is to provide it with some beliefs that prevent it from psychological and social breakdown and prepare it for its eventual spiritual destruction (he makes this all extremely clear in an article called 'A Spirituality that Transforms', which I downloaded from the web a couple of years ago). This is a baneful and thoroughly scornful account of human beings and the human condition. For the first time in human history the world is trying to get a notion of real self-esteem going, and Wilber is busy poisoning it at source.

Violent transformation

I do not think violent murder is a very good metaphor for profound spiritual transformation

In the just-mentioned article, Wilber equates transformative spiritual practice with violence. The only de facto self we have is a separate self which in 'its innermost condition' is made up of 'screaming terror'. And it is this terrified self that has to be 'grabbed by its throat and literally throttled to death'. No compassion here for a terrrified ripple of self-alienated divinity, just ruthless extermination. This, I think, is where it all goes wrong. No wonder Wilber is so reknowned for being ruthlessly aggressive in defending his ideas. Someone out there must be made to suffer for all the mayhem going on within. Indeed, Wilber's account of the separate self is self-locking against all criticism, for any such criticism will be seen as evidence that the critic is just fearfully clinging to his own separate self, and so due for a good dose of verbal abuse (as from the Zen master) to help him deconstruct his egoic contraction. Violence within, violence without, all in the name of enlightenment. Hence so often the underlying tone of what Wilber writes is one of scorn.

I do not think violent murder is a very good metaphor for profound spiritual transformation. And if you think that the only self you have is a terrified mess and you are throttling it to death, the question must sooner or later arise as to what this is doing to a radiantly worthwhile self that may be buried in the terror, and that you are busy murdering as entirely misbegotten.

Parenting and cherishing

Again, think of the implications for parenting: the personhood of your child, you are told, is a blob of terror, a blob which you are to nurture, through various stages of its misapplied intuition, in preparation for its ultimate spiritual destruction. On Wilber's view, there is no depth of personal, idiosyncratic spiritual potential present in your child of three months: as a self, he or she is just physical, in an entirely shallow physiocentric state of fusion, numb, as in a state of frostbite, before thawing out to feel the pain of samsara. I don't think you can raise children just using a doctrine of transcendence, via temporary and virtual self-structures, to the divine One. You also need a doctrine of the emergence of their immanent spiritual and distinctive personhood as one of the divine Many. You can cherish the mystery of a person, much less so can you cherish the callow format of a virtual self-structure.

Spiritual narcissism

For Wilber, then, a conscious person is, in one form or another short of Atman, a fear-dominated separate self-sense, a self-forgetting divine ripple misapplying a basic intuition. Every time any spiritual teacher in a retreat affirms this, he or she is putting people down, denying their present connectedness as a distinct spiritual person, while necessarily exempting himself or herself, as author of the utterance, from the put-down. This is subtle spiritual narcissism of the worst kind, the kind that is sustained by telling everyone else they are insecapably narcissistic. Everyone who falls for it, unawarely projects their own inward spiritual authority and autonomy on to the teacher of it, and thus inflates the teacher's spiritual narcissism further.

The divine Many

The dogma reduces the divine Many, to say it yet again, to fear-run self-forgetting ripples of the divine One. This is as bizarre a piece of theology as ever there has been. There is no acknowledgment of the divine Many -- you and me -- as finite, intrinsically autonomous persons-in-connectedness, who can affirm, celebrate and express today our emerging and developing spiritual presence in co-creative embrace with the One. Certainly we are prone narcissistically to occlude our awareness of that remarkable intrinsic status, and to lock ourselves up in egoic and illusory separateness, but to teach that such a narcissistic proclivity is at the very core of our personal identity is a deep treason indeed.

Controversial masters

Such a teaching also leads to a serious addiction to the elitism of the spiritual master system, which as far as I can tell Wilber himself espouses (see 'A Spirituality that Transforms'). The master system teaches that, since we are just fear-driven illusion-riddled separate-selves (run, of course, by a real self-forgetting divine ripple), our only hope is to identify with a spiritual master who is Atman and no longer locked up in the Atman-project. Now I hold that anyone who does so identify, does not simply surrender their separate self-sense, they unawarely project on to the master their own intrinsic divine autonomy-in-connectedness, thus boosting the master's apparent attainment by a huge increase in his subtle narcissism. This is why, of course, there are so few 'enlightened' people in the world of masters, as Wilber and his master friends admit.

For the supposed masters keep stumbling around, tripping up over their own unacknowledged spiritual narcissism, which arises from their improperly claiming responsibility for interrupting the narcissism of their devotees. Wilber cites with apparent approval, in the aforementioned article, the work of Adi Da (an 'adept' as Wilber calls him) and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (a 'master'). He says of each, in a very brief two word parenthesis, that he was 'controversial'. This is presumably a euphemism for what the stories allege, that each was prone to intermittent bouts of bullying and abuse of some of their students.

And indeed corruption has been extensive in the introduction of the master system through the dramatic spread of Zen and Tibetan institutions in the USA. 'In many sad cases', writes John Crook, 'the result has been the sexual exploitation of young followers of both genders and severe financial irregularity' ( New Ch'an Forum , 13:15-30, 1996). He goes on to point out that this was so under Oriental teachers, not just their western appointees; and he has the integrity to admit (unlike Wilber) that all this not only calls in question the validity of the transmission to teach, but of the whole system and the texts that sustain it. Bad dogma has a tendency to produce bad masters. Only the other day, I heard of seven women who had been sexually 'betrayed', as they put it, by the same Zen teacher. Yes, I know, there have been honourable exceptions, just as there are honourable exceptions among prelates within the Pope's church. And yes, I know, we are all prone to the sexual fall-out of the human condition.

I have no idea how many young people have enrolled in the sangha of a supposed master, or of a teacher under the supervision of such a master, as a result of Wilber's ideas. I just hope it is not too many.

The Buddha himself advised people not to be led by the authority of religious texts, nor by the idea 'this is our teacher', but only to follow and accept what they know for themselves to be wholesome and good. For more on this fundamental idea of the authority within, see Sacred Science.

Inquiry in the sangha

While I am on this topic, let me say that Wilber's claim that the master system is host to transcendental science is a huge piece of hokum. The master can no more tolerate genuine spiritual inquiry in his sangha that he can tolerate the withdrawal of projections from his devotees, which must occur whenever there is a serious and genuine challenge to his spiritual authority, a challenge without which, in turn, there can be no real inquiry. The rules of the Patimokkha are not designed to encourage such inquiry.

Authentic and inauthentic love

I will now end this extended interlude, and go on to Wilber's third point. He says he does not deny authentic love at any level. In practice, I sincerely hope he does not. In his Atman-project theory -- and that is all I am saying -- he clearly does. Again he slithers desperately to avoid admitting this. He tries to maintain that an increase in Eros and Agape at a level means authentic loving at that level. But, he says, Eros is 'humans reaching to Spirit' and Agape is 'Spirit reaching to humans'. Where in all this, for heaven's sake, do humans reach directly to humans? The Atman-project theory says that, at any level, we misapply a real intuition to sustain the illusion of a separate self-sense. How can two such separate self-senses have any authentic communion? Well, they can't, they can only kind of link up in a sangha through the mediation of the master as Atman, like the master who told a couple to go and find the Buddha through making love all day (a revealing example of the duties of mastership).

Wilber is more honest about this in Up from Eden (page 335) where he says that 'loving society'simply has to arrange for individual Atman-projects to overlap each other in something of a mutually supportive way'then the satisfaction of the individual Atman-project tends also to benefit the community at large'. In other words, interpersonal love is nothing more than overlapping self-interest. I call that a cynical view, even if he doesn't. True communion, by contrast, is between intrinsically autonomous spirits (plural), persons-in-connectedness, who are open to their emergence, today, at this second, each as a distinct and nonseparate one of the divine Many; and who delight in and enhance each other's uniqueness.

Mozart and connectedness

Point four, about Mozart. We learn here, from Wilber, that Mozart has a soul manifesting the extraordinary music of Spirit. I agree. But whatever has that got to do with the way Wilber defines the Atman-project, in which culture is the objective substitute gratification with which the deluded separate self-sense replaces Spirit. Mozart, it suddenly appears, is exempt from the Atman-project: he is not just a deluded self-sense replacing Spirit with his music. He is, as well as being intermittently contracted and crude, an open and connected self mediating divine inspiration. Once again, Wilber has to fall back on the idea of an intrinsically connected spiritual self in order to try to rescue a theory which simply has no place for such an idea. Such a connected spiritual self cannot be confused with any of Wilber's temporary virtual self-structures at one or other of his stages, because such structures are defined by the Atman-project theory as busy with misapplying their intuition of Spirit to a substitute, 'in flight from death'. And as such they are certainly not receiving direct inspiration from Spirit.

Sliding the posts

So Wilber can be very careless in following through the implications of his theories. And when he is blustering along treating his critic like a poor idiot, you can be pretty sure he is sliding the goal posts round the field. This kind of spiritual intimidation is not attractive.


So Wilber can be very careless in following through the implications of his theories.

I think there are many other instances of this kind of thing in the remainder of Wilber's text. But it seems that the central and traditional spiritual dogmas that underpin Wilber's whole system of thought are virtually impervious to debate. So he must be left to do what he must do. And I wish to attend to other more important things. Moreover, as I mentioned in the opening preface, many of the points I would make if I went on, and more particularly and significantly the worldview underlying them, are presented in Part 1 of my recent book, published in 1998, a year after I wrote Way Out. This is Sacred Science: A Person-centred Inquiry into the Spiritual and the Subtle.

Any interested person can find details of the book and how to acquire it on my web site at This book will also fully correct the misinformation with which Wilber's reply is riddled: e.g. that I am an extreme constructivist, that I have no regard for traditional spiritual wisdom, that I refuse all traditional training techniques, that I think Ramana Maharshi is a 'creep', that I loathe this and hate that, etc., etc. All wrong. So I appoint the book to be the rest of my reply.

My impression of the work of Ken Wilber remains unchanged. At one level he is a spiritual dogmatist whose central dogmas combine into a baneful whole. At another level he is a wide-ranging and ingenious collage pundit. But his thinking is often careless, and in relation to his critics sometimes unprincipled.

I will end with a modest act of self-affirmation. Wilber tries to characterize me as an egomaniacal, authoritarian command and control freak. Let me assure him that it would have been impossible to have launched as many co-operative inquiries as I have, if this were even remotely true. So then, is he looking in the mirror? After all, he seeks to command a wide range of knowledge in diverse fields, and then control it within theoretical constraints derived from a few basic spiritual dogmas that originate in authoritarian traditions.

I have pretty much come to the end of my interest in writing about the work of Ken Wilber. However, if it were ever appropriate, I would be interested to meet and let mutual presence be the primary determinant of what we say.