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
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M. Alan Kazlev is a self-taught esotericist and metaphysician, science fiction writer and fan, amateur biologist and palaeontologist, and student of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother's teachings and yoga. His website is at www.kheper.net and he can be contacted at akazlev at bigpond dot com. For Integral World he has written two series of essays on integral philosophy: Towards a Larger View of Integral (4 Parts) and Integral Esotericism (8 Parts).
Wilber and Aurobindo
A reply to Joe Perez
M. Alan Kazlev
Frank Visser, the webmaster of Integral World, was kind enough to invite me to reply to a critique by Joe Perez of the thesis expressed in my latest essay "Redefening Integral". Hence the present essay.
Before beginning, I would like to state that I genuinely like and greatly respect Joe as a person. For all our intellectual disagreement, I do feel that he and I are working for the same thing, to elevate the collective consciousness, and to make this world a better place. So I do not want to give the impression that, in refuting his passionate critique, I think any of the less of his excellent contributions, or the constructive role he has in the Integral movement. And of course I greatly value any and all intelligent criticism of my work, because how else can one's own ideas and insights grow, if not through constructive criticism?
In keeping with academic convention, I use surname as mode of address in this essay – e.g. “Wilber”, “Perez”. I make an exception with “Sri Aurobindo” because that is the name he requested to be addressed as (as opposed to just “Aurobindo”).
I'd like to set the stage with a recapitulation of my previous essay. It is however difficult to summarise my position, because it is developing all the time, so each summary is also a recreation and a re-definition. But basically, I argue that there is no common definition of the word “Integral”, and because of this the Wilberian definition is adopted by default. Hence the need for a new definition, or perhaps, since there already are so many definitions around, a redefinition that can incorporate all the previous definitions.
It is true that Wilber established the current Integral movement, lifting the word from Sri Aurobindo and Jean Gebser, who each independently defined it. But the Integral movement is rapidly growing beyond the mainstream Wilberian (or Wilber-Beck) position (Integral sensu stricto) to a larger and more encompassing Integralism. I also believe that this is part of, or even synonymous with, a global consciousness shift, so that words like Integral, New Paradigm, New Age, Rising Culture, Global Mindshift, and Paragonian Society all become synonymous. My very controversial statement in “Redefining Integral” is that this is the beginning of a “singularity” (to use Transhumanist terminology) or evolutionary-transcendent leap of consciousness, and that this was triggered by the descent of Divine Consciousness (Supramentalisation) initiated by Sri Aurobindo's co-worker The Mother. So not only are amazing things happening now, but even more amazing things will happen.
Even though Sri Aurobindo and The Mother's Integral Yoga, and Wilber's Integral Movement, are totally distinct, one being a supreme method of Yoga, and esoteric (“inner” in the sense of based on spiritual gnosis, not in the context of Wilber's quadrants) in nature, the other part of the planetary Paradigm Shift on the exoteric (“outer”) level, a larger Integral transformation includes both. But this means that certain restrictive and religious tendencies within the mainstream Integral movement (i.e. Orthodox Wilberism) have to be addressed. Otherwise the exoteric movement Wilber initiated (but which has already gone far beyond him) would degenerate into just another religion. Note that “exoteric” is not a pejorative; exoteric and esoteric are equally necessary. Exotericism only becomes negative when it usurps the higher spiritual truth and claims it for itself, as in cultic and religious extremism.
Having summarised where I stand now, I can respond to Perez's critique. I'll do this in the way that is easiest for me, as if it were an email, of which certain passages may be highlighted.
Criticizing online chat rooms as a way of attacking the forum sponsor is invalid. It's like criticizing a magazine based on their published "letters to the editor"
I disagree. The Integral Movement is not just about books or institutions alone. It is also very much an online community; mostly young (I'm an oldie at 49), articulate, and internet savvy. This mostly Western community, linked globally via Internet, is not just the “letters page”, it is the magazine. The Internet thus serves as the “hardware” of the developing noosphere, the global brain.
Perez cites various adjectives I have used, taken out of context to make it seem more derogatory than I hope my essay really is. But I agree that my language could have been toned down a little, so I do take his point on board. However if one is too meek and mild, then no criticism is possible. It is a fine question of balance.
He asks the question
Which teachings and themes are included [in the Lager Integral Movement] that are excluded from the Integral Movement [sensu stricto]? Kazlev doesn't say, nor does he cite evidence that such teachings are in fact excluded from the Integral Movement.
There are actually three factors that differentiate the Larger Integral Movement from the original Wilberian movement:
AQAL/SDi metaphysics versus a broader interdisciplinary approach.
I know that Wilber doesn't like the word “metaphysics”, but I am talking here about the idea that reality has a sort of “deep structure” in terms of progressive stages and quadrants, not about supra-physical realities. Here, Wilber's AQAL “map” of reality, and Don Beck's adaptation of Spiral Dynamics, define the Integral cosmology and psychology. (Wilber's methodological perspectives can also be included here). There is a strong influence on developmental psychology, but the hard sciences are not so well served (as indicated by Wilber's well-known problems with understanding Darwinian science).
But when other (non Wilber-Beck) Integralist systems are brought in to the mix, AQAL and Spiral Dynamics now become one or two systems among many. This allows a much broader field of discourse, without an exclusive focus on AQAL or Spiral Dynamics alone. Consider for example journals like Kosmos, Conscious Evolution, and Integral Review and forums like Integral Praxis and Zaadz. The whole conceptual framework, the ecology of ideas, is far richer.
Exclusiveness versus Inclusiveness.
Wilber himself is famously known for his adversarial attitude to other definitions of integral, as well as his allergy to anything “green” (which goes back even to his pre-Spiral Dynamics days; see Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, and A Brief History of Everything). Then there is the ill-feeling towards the California Institute of Integral Studies, and the more recent treatment of Erwin László in Integral Spirituality, verging on the ad hominem. One also finds assessment, although not derogatory or critical, of Paul Ray, and Jorge Ferrer as being of the “green” vMEME level (to use the spiral dynamics system). Therefore, one characteristic of the Integral movement sensu stricto (although I am not saying it is shared by everyone) is exclude from Integral those definitions that are not compatible with the Wilber and Beck's AQAL and SDi methodologies and framework.
In contrast, the Larger Integral Movement is able to honour all definitions of Integral, without denigration or claiming exclusiveness for one's own position. I am not saying that the Integral Movement sensu strictu can't do this either. In fact I look forward to the development of a more tolerant and universal “second generation” Integral Movement. This would still follow the AQAL/SDi framework, but would be more tolerant, more universal, more accepting of “green” (including rather than opposing), and also pay more attention to scholarship and real science.
Charismatic Sect versus Lack of religiosity.
I have already commented on the tendency of some people in the Integral Movement to see Wilber in an almost religious manner, bandying around words like “boddhisattvic”, as well as use of argument from authority, ingroup/outgroup (or fan/critic) dichotomy, and other phenomena characteristic of a charismatic cult or new religion (see “2d. Cultic tendencies” in “A Four-Fold Critique” here on Integral World). My thesis was confirmed by a series of blog posts and essays published here on Integral World (see Scott Parker "Winning the Integral Game?", and follow-up essays by Shawn Heath and an anonymous poster).
This charismatic attitude is not found in the larger Integral Movement, where Wilber's ideas are still respected, but he is no longer seen through rose-coloured glasses. The Larger Integral Movement can still include many religions and ideologies, but it itself should not be a religion; it should not be dependent on the personality of one individual.
Wilber himself has repeatedly responded to charges that his evolutionary model is rigid and inflexible (for example, in the Introduction to the revised version of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality), and has elaborated on the many ways that his model allows for a great deal of flexibility.
True, Wilber has responded to these charges. But so far he has not backed up his words with action. Even his latest books still present a cosmology in which all existence is railroaded from atom to nondual (as shown in his AQAL diagram, his altitude levels, and so on). If Wilber really does believe that evolution is more flexible, more spontaneous, more diverse, and also more diverging (consider the phylogeny of life on Earth for example e.g. The Tree of Life Project), more unplanned, more surprising, more unpredictable, than that, he has yet to incorporate this insight into his written work.
Moreover, Wilber never claims that successive stages of evolution "will emerge in a progressively shorter and more overlapping time-frame"
Did I say that he did?
Unfortunately, Kazlev falls into the same trap as many contemporary pop-atheist writers: he does not define religion, but writes as if everyone knows what he is talking about, and then attacks it as "dysfunctional" and a "cult" without actually making any useful distinctions between the different varieties of religion.
It is true that I am assuming that everyone knows what I am talking about. Were one to present a typology of religions, or go into detail on the distinction between “religion” and “spirituality” (at least as I see it), it would require many more pages. What I am talking about here is a religion based around a single charismatic individual, and consequent intellect literalism that results from this. See for example Len Oakes, Prophetic Charisma (1997, Syracuse University Press) for an intriguing psychological study of charismatic religious leaders (I can't say I agree with everything he says though). See also part 2d. “Cultic tendencies” of my essay “A Four-Fold Critique” for why I feel this is also applicable to Wilberian orthodoxy.
The thrust of Kazlev's argument may be characterized as saying that Ken Wilber does not recognize the higher "Post-Integral" stages of consciousness such as Divinisation recognized by Sri Aurobindo. However, this is prima facie false. In Integral Spirituality, Wilber identifies the Integral level of consciousness with the turquoise label, and then identifies indigo, violet, ultraviolet, and clear light labels for subsequent stages of consciousness (stages which are actually defined using the labels of Sri Aurobindo's philosophy).
It is true that Wilber identifies higher levels of consciousness beyond Turquoise/Integral, and that he associates them with Sri Aurobindo's ascending ladder of realisation as described by the latter in The Life Divine. However, Wilber's interpretation of Sri Aurobindo here and elsewhere is deeply flawed, as Brant Cortright (Psychotherapy and Spirit: Theory and Practice in Transpersonal Psychotherapy, SUNY 1997, p78), Rod Hemsell ("Ken Wilber and Sri Aurobindo: A Critical Perspective") and I (“Ken Wilber and Sri Aurobindo” - and “An Aurobindonian vision”) have all shown.
I'll give just one example. According to Wilber, Vision Logic/Upper Tier/Integral/Yellow and Turquoise is the same as Sri Aurobindo's Higher Mind (see e.g. Integral Psychology, p.200 , and “The Guru and the Pandit” in What Is Enlightenment, no.29, June-August 2005, p.54). But this is incorrect. The difference is that Higher Mind comes after realisation of the nondual/absolute, when one has a choice between a transcendent liberation and drawing down even further levels of consciousness (see The Life Divine (10th ed.), pp. 276-277 and my "Nirvana vs. Dynamic Descent"). The Higher Mind is the first of these trans-enlightened levels. Wilber's Psychic, Subtle, Causal and so on correspond to Sri Aurobindo's earlier stages of Inner Being and Spiritualisation. In “An Aurobindonian vision” I have also shown how Wilber's spiritual stages are actually based on those of his former guru Adi Da. Because he simplistically considers all spiritual states part of the same linear series, he claims in his tables correlating different systems (see The Atman Project and Integral Psychology) that Da's “Seventh Stage” and Sri Aurobindo's “Supermind” are the same.
I have no problem with Wilber's stages as long as they are acknowledged to be his interpretation of Tibetan Buddhist, Vedantic, and Taoist stages of consciousness leading to transcendent liberation (which, as mentioned, is prior to “Higher Mind” and other stages of Divinisation).
However, any claim that Wilber ignores Sri Aurobindo should at least examine Wilber's relevant writings and identify their insufficiency (how is Divinisation really different from the stage of consciousness identified as ultraviolet or clear light in Wilber's Integral Spirituality? Does not Wilber incorporate Aurobindo's gnosis, but simply not make the transmission of this gnosis the focus of his book?).
How is Divinisation different from the stage of consciousness identified as ultraviolet or clear light in Wilber's Integral Spirituality? This has already been explained both in “An Aurobindonian vision” and in parts 19 to 22 of “Redefining Integral”
Doesn't Wilber incorporate Sri Aurobindo's gnosis? I'm afraid he doesn't, because central to the Aurobindonian vision is the Divinisation of matter and the transformation of this world (see The Life Divine bk two, ch.27-28 , see also the whole of Mother's Agenda for how this is put into practice – a condensed version here), which means the end of history as we know it, something that Wilber specifically rejects in favour of the traditional Vedantic and Buddhist-inspired “Yoga of Ascent” (Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Collected Works, 2nd edition, pp. 317-8, 323-5, etc). I am not saying that these other paths and teachings (which Wilber has been inspired by) are no good; they are very profound and admirable. I am just distinction between the “Yoga of Ascent” which seeks to transcend the world and phenomenal existence, and the “Yoga of Descent” taught by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother which seeks to utterly transform and divinise it.
I find much value in Kazlev's serious attention to the Aurobindian tradition. It would be a terrible shame if serious students of Integral were put off study of this wise and valuable tradition because they encountered a presentation which regarded others in the Integral Movement with such a demeaning and derogatory framework.
It is certainly not my intention to be demeaning or derogatory, and I apologise for any ill-feeling my essay may cause or have caused to some people with loyalty to Wilber and his work.
But the unfortunate fact remains that the whole Aurobindonian tradition has been and is being seriously misinterpreted – I don't think bastardised is too strong a word - by well-meaning but ignorant advocates of Integralism, attempting to remold Sri Aurobindo's teachings as a simplistic metaphysical precursor to AQAL.
There can be little doubt that the root of this problem lies with Wilber's own misunderstanding of Sri Aurobindo's spiritual philosophy. As Rod Hemsell has shown, this is apparent even in the earlier phases of his work (Atman Project – Wilber II). Wilber himself is certainly not to be blamed for this, as there is so much knowledge in the world today that it is simply not possible for one human being, no matter how intelligent or how competent a speed reader, to understand the whole world (see “Insufficient Study and Contemplation results in Superficial Understanding of Specialized Knowledge”). And to properly understand Sri Aurobindo and The Mother's Yoga requires tremendous sincerity and aspiration, not just a brief skim reading. The reading itself has to be a meditation, the pages returned to time after time. Just as with any authentic spiritual tradition.
Wilber's error here was then compounded through the memetic (sensu Dawkins) dispersal of his well-meaning misinterpretations, through his own work and that of others who have been influenced by him. As a result, more people are adopting a false version of what Sri Aurobindo taught and achieved. That he is, so Wilber informs us, a “theorist” (someone who spent forty years in intense practical yoga was a theorist?). That he ignores the “lower quadrants” (what about The Human Cycle, or his studies of Indian culture?). That his profound Synthesis of Yoga is just another version of Nondualism, and his Supramentalisation just another representation of the “Clear Light” (the last three chapters of The Life Divine and the entire Synthesis of Yoga says otherwise). To say nothing of the striking absence of any reference to Sri Aurobindo's co-worker, whom he advised all his own disciples to consider the physical incarnation of the Divine (hence Mirra's title “The Mother” - for more see Sri Aurobindo, The Mother, Collected Works Vol.25, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram) by Wilber and his students.
So yes, it is conceded that some mainstream Integralists may be put off by my brusque and assertive manner, a character trait that most Aurobindonians are happily not afflicted with. But it would also be fair to say that I am not the only practitioner of the Integral Yoga path who feels some disquiet at this pop Aurobindo that appears repeatedly in mainstream Integralist writings. At the appropriation of Sri Aurobindo's name in the service of a philosophy that, no matter how well-intentioned and useful, is - with its emphasis on procrustean mental classifications and traditional world-negating nondualism - affirming the opposite to his own unique and world-affirming yogic message.
And what I find immensely encouraging about this newer, more universal form of Integralism that has begun to emerge over the last few years, is that it provides a framework with which all streams of Integral can converge in a greater synergetic whole, without one lording it over all the rest. As I said in my previous essay, I am not advocated a limited Aurobindocentric approach. That would be as bad as the current Wilbercentric one; it would only be replacing one religion with another. Rather, I am advocating a universal, all-inclusive definition of Integralism (and post-Integral, and post-post Integral...), as an adjunct to the transformation of the entire world. Which is in keeping with what Sri Aurobindo himself meant when he coined the word ”Integral” in a spiritual context in his masterwork The Synthesis of Yoga.