Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Geoffrey FalkGeoffrey Falk is the author of The Science of the Soul, Stripping the Gurus, Norman Einstein, Rock and Holy Rollers and Hip Like Me. He studied electrical engineering and physics at the University of Manitoba. He currently divides his time between writing, software development, and music composition. See also Falk, Books, blogs and articles.

Reposted from Falk's blog (July 18, 2006) with permission of the author.



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 prison—in which more than one-third of the student "prisoner" participants were breaking down psychologically within less than a week of their confinement—be viewed as a "safe" or a "dangerous" environment, based on the Bonewits criteria?

The criteria (1 = lowest rating; 10 = highest):

  • Internal Control. The guards had essentially total control over the prisoners, so a value of 10.

  • Wisdom Claimed: amount of infallibility declared about decisions. Well, there was certainly no way for the prisoners to question or disobey the decisions of the guards without being punished. But punishing people, even harshly, for disobedience to the dictates of the leaders, isn't the same thing as claiming wisdom or infallibility. There were no explicit claims that the decisions of the guards were wiser than that of the prisoners, only that the guards' dictates must be obeyed without dispute. (It wasn't even like a political cult, in which the leaders may have "all the answers" in their theories and ideologies. It was simply an extreme power differential.) So, unquestionable authority claimed = 10. But, wisdom claimed = 3, at most.

  • Wisdom Credited: to leaders by members, amount of trust in the decisions made by leader(s). The two dozen study participants were randomly split (ah, proper experimental protocols! gotta love 'em!) into "guards" and "prisoners." So, it was again never about the "wisdom" of the leaders: It was just about deference to authority. Let's be generous, and call this a 5, in associating deference to authority with an implicit ascribing of wisdom to it.

  • Dogma: rigidity of reality concepts taught, of amount of doctrinal inflexibility. There was no "doctrine" or particular "view of reality" propounded by the superintendent or guards of the simulated prison. Yet, the prisoners were indeed being taught about what their low "place in the world" was; and, in a real sense, their salvation/parole depended on them going willingly along with that inflexible teaching of subjugation. Notwithstanding that, unlike the terms of religion, they knew from the beginning that it was "all a game," i.e., that their "damnation" or imprisonment in that "hell" was neither real nor eternal. A value of 5, let's say.

  • Recruiting: emphasis put on attracting new members, amount of proselytizing. There was actually no additional "recruiting" at all done by Zimbardo after the initial call for subjects. So, a value of 1.

  • Front Groups: number of subsidiary groups using different name from the main group. None. Value of 1.

  • Wealth: amount of money and/or property desired or obtained, emphasis on members' donations. Prisoners' donations? None. Value of 1.

  • Political Power: amount of external political influence desired or obtained. By the superintendent and guards? None. (One of the prisoners, though, had planned, going into the study, to expose and publicize what he wrongly took the "establishment" experiment to be.) Value of 1.

  • Sexual Manipulation: of members by leaders(s), amount of control over the lives of members. Well, you're not supposed to be having sex with your fellow inmates in a (simulated) prison. But that's hardly an unreasonable "sexual manipulation": It's not that "you shouldn't have sex because God doesn't want you to," or that "you should have sex with me (the leader) because God wants you to." Still, prisoners were actually stripped naked—being allowed no underwear to begin with—and at least once forced to simulate sodomy on one another by the guards. Call it a 4.

  • Censorship: amount of control over members' access to outside opinion on group, its doctrines or leader(s). Prisoners could only meet with their families on designated visitors' days, with guards being present during the meeting. Thus, there was extreme control over that access. Yet, the access was still given on a regular basis, in scheduled hours, as opposed to not being allowed at all (e.g., in the geographically isolated Jonestown). And, they were allowed additional visits from a priest. Say a 7.

  • Dropout Control: intensity of efforts directed at preventing or returning dropouts." If this had been a real prison, the value would clearly be 10: you cannot be allowed to (literally) escape/leave. But it was only a simulated prison, where both the guards and the prisoners knew, going in, that they could "walk out any time." Of course, the prison management "thought of luring #8612 back on some pretext and then imprisoning him again because he was released on false pretenses." But, they never actually acted on that, so the other prisoners couldn't have known of the possibility. Also, in practice, the other prisoners' guard-instructed chanting that the ill and hysterical #819 was a "bad prisoner" had the unintended and unpredicted effect of making the prisoner in question want to return to his group, to prove that he wasn't the bad prisoner which they made him out to be. Such a dynamic could certainly be used as an effective form of "dropout control"—but it does not appear to have been thus utilized in the study, beyond the initial, unintentional application of it. But, when a "prison break" was rumored to be on the verge of occurring, Zimbardo and his staff certainly took steps to prevent that from happening, i.e., to ensure that the prisoners would not drop out of the group. Overall, though, you could indeed leave, simply forfeiting your pay for participating in the study, with no other objective negative repercussions for doing so. (Of course, the forfeiting of that pay, as opposed to one's being given a pro-rated amount, would also act to keep individuals bound to that environment.) And, when push came to shove, Zimbardo and his colleagues did release five of the ten prisoners voluntarily, one-by-one, after four of them had broken down and another had developed a psychosomatic rash. Perhaps a 7, then.

  • Endorsement Of Violence: when used by or for the group or leader(s). There was much sadism exhibited by Zimbardo's guards, particularly when they thought they weren't being watched. But, they were explicitly forbidden from using physical violence (which is surely what this criterion refers to, as opposed to "psychological violence" or manipulation) to keep their "prisoners" in line. (The guards carried billy clubs, but were instructed to use those only as symbolic weapons, not as actual ones. On at least one occasion, though, a prisoner was hit lightly on the chin with such a stick, after having [laughingly] grabbed the throat of a guard. The guards also used fire extinguishers to help quell the second-day prisoner uprising, and at one point force-fed a prisoner.) Thus, a 4.

  • Paranoia: amount of fear concerning real or imagined enemies, perceived power of opponents. "Opponents" of the "simulated prison"? None. Value of 1.

  • Grimness: amount of disapproval concerning jokes about the group, its doctrines or leader(s). The "prisoners" certainly could not get away with joking about their guards' or superintendent's behaviors when the guards were listening. Not if they hoped to be "paroled." And, even just amongst themselves, a prisoner who had stood up to the guards, rather than being celebrated, was punished by his fellow prisoners. Still, none of that came from the prisoners admiring their guards and so feeling that any jokes about them would be disrespectful or the like: any disapproval they might have expressed would have been just a survival mechanism, not a form of "worship." That is, an attitude of "don't rock the boat," rather than of being offended at having one's heroes insulted. Call it an 8.

  • Surrender Of Will: emphasis on members not having to be responsible for personal decisions. Certainly very high: prisoners are told when to eat, sleep, bathe, etc. Say, a 10.

How does that all look, then?

Internal Control:


Wisdom Claimed:


Wisdom Credited:






Front Groups:




Political Power:


Sexual Manipulation:




Dropout Control:


Endorsement Of Violence:






Surrender Of Will:



68 / 15 = 4.5

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 documented—allowing and necessitating a nuanced analysis of all that—no 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 rebellion—before 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 others—not 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 system—the only writer who made no real criticisms of his system at all.

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