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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Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded IntegralWorld.net in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Author of “Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.
Lord, Give Us Integral
|DEEP SLEEP||FORMLESS MYSTICISM|
Wilber confesses, however:
If anything, this is where Wilber could have benefited from Mark Edwards' thorough 2-piece essay on the states subject. Edwards details half a dozen fields of research which show how "contentious" Wilber's views on this topic are. By ignoring this feedback, and hiding this from his readers, Wilber weakens the case he is trying to make. Edwards states as his opinion that "the current integral theory of states is in need of some very serious house cleaning." But all this seems lost on Wilber.
The core theoretical part of the book consists of the so-called Wilber-Combs Lattice (or matrix), which tries to elucidate the relationship between stages of development and states of consciousness. Let's recapitulate first Wilber's earlier views on this subject, so we can more adequately appreciate his current notions.
From his early works on, Wilber hypothesized that human beings go through stages of development, from the prepersonal to the personal. How can we conceptualize spiruality within this framework? Wilber suggested this domain could be seen as transpersonal stages of development, creating a full spectrum model of development, including both the conventional and the contemplative domains. People could "peek" experience higher states briefly, but only when "states become traits" could they become fully adapted to the higher levels of development. "States become traits" became the famous dictum in integral circles.
What is more, Wilber further distinguished between the average mode of development, typical for a given culture or epoch, and the advanced mode, found only in highly developed individuals, such as yogis or mystics. This way, he could counter the criticism that premodern cultures showed examples of highly advanced forms of mysticism. It wasn't that the average member of those cultures was a mystic, far from it, it was only the rare individual yogi who had reached these levels. And though premodern cultures may not have known our specific form of the more modern stages of development, such as the centaur stage of body/mind-integration, they surely had their own way of accomplishing this (e.g. hatha yoga).
In Integral Spirituality Wilber identifies two problems with this view:
But surely, mystical states could be seen as sneak previews of higher stages, a temporary access to higher levels of being and knowing, not yet permanently inhabited?
The second problem with this view according to Wilber is:
Again, premodern sages could have known their own equivalents of these "recent" stages, such as the view of existence as Indra's Net, or the Bodhisattva Vow, implying a highly development notion of the interdependency of all beings.
What has actually prompted Wilber to change his views on spirituality was the "fact" that (as stated and paraphrased multiple times in Integral Spirituality):
Seeing states and stages as two independent dimension, a matrix can be compiled with 24 "stage interpreted, state experiences":
A couple of comments to this presentation are in order. First, this diagram doesn't show the mystical or transpersonal structure-stages, but elsewhere in the book Wilber acknowledges he still wants to retain that notion. But that would change the whole picture! So why leave these out? (Note: the above diagram is taken from the manuscript of "Integral Spirituality"; the published version contains an extra top row called "super-integral", without any further specification. Apparently, this is a last-minute amendment of the model. It only reinforces the following questions.) Is development still heading towards these mystical structure-stages or not?? Or is spirituality now an independent dimension altogether, that can be plugged into from whatever stage of development we happen to be in? Wilber strongly seems to believe this now, given phrases such as "all states can be accessed from virtually all stages". (The "virtualy" part is particularly interesting of course).
What strikes me as rather unrealistic is the fact that all 24 cells in the Wilber-Combs Lattice show a same-size node or globe. It would have been more accurate (but this is all a matter of research, really) if the size of these nodes reflected the likelihood of that particular type of spirituality. Is a subtle experience really equally likely to occur in within a magic mind-set compared to an integral one? And if not, doesn't that re-introduce the notion of linearity, where the higher stages are somehow closer to the higher states? At least in history, as Wilber acknowledges, there seems to have been such a linearity at work. Throughout history, people's mystical experiences seems to have progressed through the psychic, subtle, causal and nondual stages...
It all gets really, really complicated (but that may not be Wilber's fault). We have: natural dream states, subtle states, subtle states-stages and subtle structure-stages (on top of which it turns out that the term "subtle" technically only refers to the subtle body, as Wilber states on page 74). You still there? And what on earth is a subtle body? To make things worse, Wilber tries to convince the reader that a subtle body, according to the wisdom traditions, "simply [sic!] means a mode of experience or energetic feeling" (p. 16), thereby horribly confusing the Upper Left with the Upper Right quadrants. If anything, subtle bodies are seen, not felt (no clairvoyant can see his own aura).
Wilber seems to play with double definitions as well. Sometimes the term "subtle" is used for the generic category of "dream states", which include real dreams, but also daydreams and visionary experiences. Sometimes, however, it is restricted to a certain mystical state of consciousness. Mixing up these meanings, it is confusing to say that one can access the subtle (mystical?) stage from "virtually" any stages, "simply because one sleeps and dreams". Being able to sleep and dream may be a necessary condition, but is it a sufficient one as well? Then even cats and cows would be able to get enlightened! I would say, this isn't simple at all, and suggesting otherwise is just simplistic.
When I approached Alan Combs co-creator of the Wilber-Combs Lattice by email with a couple of these questions, he declined even to try to answer them. In his opinion, the whole model was still very, very tentative. Combs is actually presenting these ideas to large conferences on consciousness studies, such as the biannual Tucson conference. At least he is aware of alternative views, which may have made him feel modest about these new proposals.
Spiral Dynamics Recolored
In Integral Psychology, some of the core concepts of Spiral Dynamics were enthusiastically embraced by Wilber, in Integral Spirituality however, the marriage seems over. In a long footnote (on p. 86-87) Wilber declares that SD according to him is still fine as an introductory model, but it is not a comprehensive one. Wilber has created his own brand of color-stages now, recoloring some of the SD-colors in the process (most notably, Blue has become Amber, Yellow has become Teal and some future colors have been added as well: Indigo, Violet, Ultraviolet and Clear Light (see diagram opposite to page 68).
This new model does away with a few core SD notions, such as the difference between cold and warm colors (which actually create the spiral movement in the first place), the psychological associations the colors tended to have (Blue = True Blue = fundamentalism, etc.). Wilber's new brand of colors suggests a closer relationship to nature's laws (he has in fact returned to the spectrum of light metaphor that guided him when writing his first book in 1977, The Spectrum of Consciousness). But of course, this is all very speculative, and the original SD-authors clearly separated their use of colors from both the spectrum colors and those traditionally associated with the chakras. (Interesting reading material on this topic can be found on the FAQ page of Chris Cowan's spiraldynamics.org website called "Questions about the Colors in Spiral Dynamics").
This theoretical disagreement has resulted in a breaking up with Don Beck, especially since Beck was the target of Wilber's anger in the infamous Wyatt Earp Episode as much as I was. As an interested observer from the outside, one get's really sick and tired of these animosities, and one wishes that impartial evaluation of whatever theoretical contributions made by the various authors would still be seen as a value in itself.
Incidentally, Chris Cowan received a blow from Wilber as well, when the latter stated that
Toxic? Perhaps, for the over-confident, dogmatic mind set. I happen to like Cowan's reflections, as I go through his spiraldynamics.org web pages, if only because they complement those of other SD luminaries. It makes one wonder how much these various SD versions are colored by personal psychological and political agendas. An interesting integral research question indeed.
Be that as it may, one silly item should be dealt with in this review. In a footnote on page 145 Wilber states that the color distribution percentages in the world exceed the 100% because they overlap:
To make a long story short, when I brought this up to Wilber and Beck some years ago, Wilber argued that the colors overlapped, but Beck thought it might be wise to do a recalculation here. Cowen, however, gives his own take on how these figures ever entered the Spiral Dynamics book:
"Because of an arithmetic mistake and deliberate effort not to suggest accuracy based on actual data. The table was intended only as an illustration, not a report of research findings. The numbers in all three columns were fabricated to make a point about geopolitics. The word "estimated" heads the numerical column, though “wild-ass guess”WAGwould be more appropriate."
My two cents here is, that once one decides to use these colors to characterize people, as Wilber does in the above quote, percentages should always add up to a hundred.
Of course there are transitionary phases between the colors, such as BLUE-Orange and Blue-ORANGE, (the notation used in that book). But even then, BLUE-Orange is still Blue, and Blue-ORANGE is still Orange or am I missing something? Or, if one wants to have a more fine-grained look: including these subcolors in the distribution curve would still lead to a total of 100%. It is the percentages for each of the colors, and subcolors, that gets lower.
And saying that in any one individual more then one color can be operative (which is very likely), undermines the whole possibility of giving such generalized estimates as Wilber does in the first place. Perhaps we really should all start from scratch here, and actually do research that can either confirm or refute these "educated guesses" to use the more polite expression.
The Conveyor Belt
Let's take stock. In the past decades, we've had ladders, streams, ... and now the conveyor belt, as metaphor for the process of development.
I've always liked the ladder metaphor. Climbing a ladder requires effort. The higher you climb, the more you see, the more your mental horizon is widened. One can fall from the ladder. In fact, the higher you've climbed the deeper the fall can be. These connotations are very apt for the process of development. But Wilber has been severely criticized because of the linearity of this metaphor. So he opted for a more feminine, flowing metaphor: waves and streams. Water, however, is always going downward. There's no effort here, on the contrary, the association here is: go with the flow. The boundaries between waves are more fluent, better then rungs on a ladder.
Now we get another metaphor for development: the conveyer belt. I would say: linearity is back, and even in a quite mechanical, passive way. No metaphor is perfect, however, each one highlights one aspect and obscures another.
Wilber points out that the major issue in the field of religion is that so called Level/Line Fallacy an attractive theoretical contribution. As long as religion is identified with the mythic-literal level, by scholars and laymen alike, instead of with a continuous line of development in its own right, those more attuned to a rational outlook (i.e. a higher level) will object to it and see it as backward. And fundamentalists, who are stuck at this particular level, will resist the transition to the rational stage, which they see as the gateway to the hell of permissiveness and materialism.
A way out off this dead end would be, according to Wilber, if mythic believers are shown a way to grow towards the rational stage, without giving up their religiosity. Otherwise, there will always be a resentment against the modern world, which doesn't allow one to live one's religion.
In extreme case, Wilber contends, this leads to terrorism on which a future book will be published by Wilber (The Many Faces of Terrorism, publication date unknown). Of course, it isn't only a matter of developmental arrest. If Western powers invade other countries to secure their access to oil, giving way to their extraordinary talent for wasting the earth's resources to keep up their materialistic life style, that's hardly something worth emulating.
In this chapter, Wilber reformulates stages of development as "stations of life", stressing the legitimacy of each of them. Religion, ideally, should guide us through all of life's stations. It should also teach us, in whatever stage we are, how to access the spiritual states.
As to the precise relationship between stages and states, there is something of an ambiguity here. On the one hand, spiritual states (or meditative training) are said to increase development with about two stages. On the other hand, (spiritual) states are said to be conditioned by the stages they are accessed from. Now what is it?
Obviously there is a complex, dialectical process at work here. Much more research is needed. Wilber's references to "considerable research" and even "truly staggering research" should be taken with a grain of salt, considering to more modest assessments of this specific research (e.g. see what Jim Andrews has written about Wilber's use of current research in his overview paper: "Ken Wilber on Meditation: A Baffling Babble of Unending Nonsense").
So while, at least to me, this is the most interesting chapter in the book, there's much, much more that needs to be fleshed out in detail.
Huston Smith Deconstructed
Wilber labels his latest intellectual phase as "post-metaphysical", something we have to comment on as well within the context of this brief review. He applies a double reduction to the world view of the spiritual traditions, using Huston Smith's presentation of it in his Forgotten Truth. In this book, Smith argued that the most fundamental (and most overlooked) difference between premodernity and modernity is one of ontology. Where modernity recognizes only one ontological level, matter, the premodern traditions recognized many levels, realms, planes or worlds.
These "levels" a term Wilber often uses, but often in the context of developmental stages, quite a difference as we will argue have their intimate correspondences in the levels of being that compose our constituation. So while our bodies belong to, and will return to, the bodily world of nature and matter, our minds "belong" to the mind-world, our souls to the soul-world, and our spirit to the world of the Divine. When Wilber uses the term "levels of being" it is hard to tell if he means it in a psychological or in a cosmological way.
Now, modernity collapsed that multi-dimensional worldvew into the unidimensionality of flatland. Consequently, it rejected all of premodern metaphysics as hopelessly speculative. And Wilber seems to follow modernity's train of thought here, though Smith clearly exposes it as a logical error. For whatever science has discovered in the world of matter, to which it has limited itself (for whatever pragmatic reasons), it cannot and should not pass judgement on the validity of notions related to the non-material dimensions of life.
So Wilber argues for a post-metaphysical re-interpretation of spirituality and consciousness. This quote is key:
I have argued on many occasions on this website, for example in "My Take on Wilber-5", that this hides the problem of the ontological status of interiority. For these physical correlates correlate with... precisely what? Rereading this quote several times over, I continue to be struck by one thing: even if it is true that modernity has pointed out some of the physical correlates of interior states of mind, it will not and cannot pass judgement on what these states are in themselves completely inexplicable, literally meta-physical phenomena.
Relabelling them as "intra-physical", as Wilber does, creates an illusory feeling of understanding, where in fact nothing is clarified. No physicist would subscribe to this notion of "intra-physicality", especially since it is so intimately connected to our thoughts and feelings, which are non-entities in the world of physics.
Wilber's reduction of the perennialist outlook has two phases: first he argues that what were naively thought of as independent worlds or realms, have turned out to be structures of consciousness, and two, what were thought to be structures which were present from birth, have turned out to be stages of development, that only take form as we go along through life.
So the magnificent vision of "spheres upon spheres" is reduced to a theory of psychological development, which is given a quasi-objective flavor by using the notion of "habits". As we go through the process of development, Wilber argues, following Sheldrake and others, these stages are laid out as "cosmic habits" for others to follow. One wonders if there isn't an easier way to explain why development seems to be facilitated in a milieu with like-minded souls. Culture perhaps? Education?
When all is said and done, we still don't know exactly how development works, as Wilber quite untypical after so many theoretical claims and statements concedes:
Now that is a Wilber I can relate to.
Closing this review, which has been painfully incomplete given the scope of the book at hand, one thought remains: "Stop the marketing machine", "Lord, Give us integral, but without the hype". It is time now to tone down the volume. To do away with the "Bluff your way in Integral Studies" mentality.
We should never forget that spirituality is also about wisdom, plain and simple, and loving-kindness, even humility. Values I found, with very few exceptions, lacking in this latest volume penned by Wilber.
Hopefully other critical assessments of the merits of this book will be written, for it will most likely remain Wilber's take on spirituality for years to come.
 This book The Many Faces of Terrorism never got published, but several chapters can be read online at Ken Wilber's personal website www.kenwilber.com. It is written in the same quasi-novelist style as Boomeritis. It is because of this literary format, that Ken Wilber's ideas on terrorism and politics have never reached the audience they deserve (FV):
- “Chapter 11: The AQAL Code: A Guided Tour of You” (33 pages)
- “Chapter 14: Integral Politics, Or Out of the Prison of Partiality” (48 pages)
- “Integral Politics: A Summary of Its Essential Ingredients” (87 pages)