TRANSLATE THIS ARTICLE
Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Jos Groot is a physicist from The Netherlands. His main hobby’s are jazz guitar playing and reading a broad range of mostly non fiction.
Is Ken Wilber
Abstract. Ken Wilber created a hierarchic, “Integral” theory of consciousness. He founded the Integral Institute which is centred around this theory, aiming at self-growth and awareness of its adherents. This article focuses on whether Wilber can be called a guru. I do this by applying two guru definitions, a list of guru characteristics and a comparison to three modern examples. I conclude that Wilber is mildly guru-like, a "commercial guru". For me this is enough to doubt the validity of his theory.
A guru – corrupted or not - sells a false image of what the world is like. Already this alone is in the end harmful.
In July 1997 I attended a workshop of the UK-based Medical and Scientific Network. As far as I remember it was there that I encountered Ken Wilber's (born in 1949) work for the first time. People I spoke read it and rated it highly. In the following years I got insufficient urge to start reading his work myself beyond an occasional internet consultation. Two reasons for this were i) the giant claims of his theory of everything which needed in my opinion substantial but lacking evidence, and ii) Wilber's guru like appearance in pictures: over confident and too masculine. I appreciated his pre-personal, personal and transpersonal classification and the pre-trans fallacy, nevertheless.
Ken Wilber: The Integral Philosopher
Recently I read Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion by then adept Frank Visser which served as a summary of Wilber's pre-2001 work and gave some insight into Wilber's personality and way of doing. The account given of Wilber's life reminded me of Feet of Clay, a book on gurus by psychiatrist Anthony Storr. He analyses some 10 cases of gurus (according to his definition) including Jesus, Carl Gustav Jung, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and Jim Jones. He comes up with a list of common traits of these, and divides them in corrupting and non corrupting ones. Corrupting ones abuse their power for example to seduce women and/or to earn money, etc. According to Storr the Bhagwan and Jones were corrupted while Jesus and Jung were not.
According to Storr a guru is a spiritual teacher, who claims to have special knowledge about the meaning of life and therefore feels entitled to tell others how to live. More in particular:
Gurus differ widely from each other in a variety of ways, but most claim the possession of special spiritual insight based on personal revelation. Gurus promise their followers new ways of self-development, new paths to salvation. Since there are no schools for gurus, and no recognised qualifications for becoming one, they are, like politicians, originally self-selected. Anyone can become a guru if he or she has the hubris to claim special spiritual gifts.
Anthony Storr (1920-2001)
Does this apply to Ken Wilber? He developed his Integral Theory, over dozens of years, and documented it in dozens of books. It is portrayed as a "theory of everything," and offers an approach "to draw together an already existing number of separate paradigms into an interrelated network of approaches that are mutually enriching." Products based on the Integral Theory are sold via Wilber's website www.kenwilber.com, including seminars and training.
Interestingly, Wilber himself gives a different definition of a guru and of what he himself is instead: a pandit. A pandit is a "religious scholar". Furthermore:
The real difference between a pandit and a guru is that a guru accepts pupils while a pandit does not. [...] A guru is like a therapist. [...] They [pandits] are most often scholars, sometimes they practice meditation, sometimes they are very enlightened. However, they are not personally involved. It is a totally different profession.
This definition does not mention the character of the knowledge that Storr's guru teaches: "special knowledge about the meaning of life."
Maybe Wilber was a pandit and not a guru at the time Visser wrote Thought as Passion. This was no longer true after the Integral Institute was founded (and later the associated Integral Life - www.integrallife.com) where pupils could follow and buy all kind of courses. The "integral content” of this integral enterprise is all encompassing.
Does all this make for a guru in the sense of the definitions above? Wilber seems to be convinced of his Integral Theory - “special knowledge about the meaning of life” - being the right one. A hierarchy of consciousness is part of it: being higher in the hierarchy is better. This tends towards “telling others how to live”. From his pandit/guru definition and the existence of his learning institute it appears that he is nowadays a guru in his former own sense.
So Wilber has at least something of a guru according to the definitions.
After approaching the case from the definition viewpoint I now concentrate on common guru characteristics. These are scattered throughout Storr's book. For convenience I put them in a list:
- Isolated as a child.
- Remains isolated for the remainder of his life.
- Rarely has a close friendship.
- Indifferent to family ties.
- Does not discuss his ideas, only imposes them. Disapproval leads to hostility.
- Claims that his life has totally changed after getting a special spiritual insight. Often follows a period of mental suffering or physical illness. Most often occurs between 30 and 50 years of age.
This list should not be misinterpreted. It is a list of commonalities Storr derived from what he read and heard about some 10 persons who he regarded as gurus. Not every guru has all these characteristics, nor is everyone with a sub set of these a guru. Note also that some of them are highly correlated: having one almost implies having another. I.e., 8 (charisma) often implies 7 (eloquence).
From what I read about Wilber #1 applies to some degree, for he was the only child. Moreover, his father was in the military, which led to frequent migration. The latter was a mixed blessing because it taught Wilber detachment in exchange for losing friends roughly every 2 years. Characteristics #6 to #13 apply to him to some degree, judging from some publications on the Wilber-critical if not anti-Wilber biased web site www.integralworld.net. In particular #10 is evidenced by the Wyatt Earp episode, in which he portrays his critics as bandits, who are out to get him. Characteristics #2 to #5 do not apply to him, as far as I can tell.
I conclude that Wilber has quite some guru characteristics: 9 out of 13.
Characteristic #13 of the preceding list is interesting because it deals with how “a special spiritual insight” is gained by gurus. What makes for a guru, what gets him going?
Storr's chapter IX, “Chaos and Order”, mentions the 18th century theologian and philosopher Johann Gottfried who stated that the creation of integrated, new entities from unrelated data is the fundamental organizing activity of human nature. As a species we do not permit chaos and we have a strong preference for finding or inventing order [note the difference between finding and inventing – JG].
It is also mentioned that a period of suffering followed by some form of enlightenment is a common human pattern, which is recognisable in creative discoveries in art and science, as well as in religious conversions. Characteristic is that a certain order exist in the ideas before the crisis, the crisis itself is often conceived as chaotic, and that after the crisis the order in the ideas increased. The order gurus come up with are for the larger part all-embracing. Their answers are holistic, they include human nature and life itself. Summarising:
Gurus go through a period of stress, which sometimes equals a psychosis, that ends with the revelation of a new truth that dispels confusion and creates order. This sequence of events is comparable to the creative process in mathematics and science, that also starts with nagging problems, but ends with the formulation of new hypotheses [note that in science these stand for proposed, unproven solutions open to debate – JG] that impose links between hitherto irreconcilable facts or theories.
The 20th century psychiatrist Ellenberger term coined the term “creative illness” for a similar process (from Storr's chapter IXX, “Sanity and Insanity” ). Storr states that many a guru falls in this “creative illness” or chaos-order category:
A creative illness follows a period of intensive engagement with an idea and searching for a certain truth. […] He reappears from this with a lasting transformation and is convinced that he discovered an important truth or a new spiritual world.
My personal theory about this is as follows. During their lifetime people accumulate information through their senses, which is processed day and night. A common viewpoint is that during sleep part of the information present in memory is processed to improve memorising and learning. This is a gentle process in that from day to day one's understanding of the world increases step by step. The period of stress or crisis mentioned before can be short or long, but is often accompanied by disturbed or lack of sleep. This can lead to the disturbance of the gentle process.
I hypothesise that in case of gurus the crisis leads to an integration and reordering of existing ideas, resulting in a novel world view. Because of the turbulent process of gaining this new view the value is limited, however. It will not stand the test of time very long. Nevertheless, the guru himself is genuinely surprised by what happened as well as the result. Moreover, he is glad that the crisis is over and uses his newly acquired zest of life to spread his new view. At this point he is entirely in good faith. Followers can be attracted because they recognise the old ideas while appreciating the new structure, the new order imposed upon them. An entirely new world view is less easier to digest.
Three examples of creative illness
All three examples clearly illustrate a crisis that led to a creative outburst, resulting in the writing of several books over time.
Three examples serve to give some evidence for the hypothesis above. They regard Eckhart Tolle, Neale Donald Walsch and Helen Schucman who wrote books that are widely read in spiritual/religious circles: The Power of Now, the Conversations with God series and A Course in Miracles, respectively (among others). The following information is simply taken from the Wikipedia entries of the persons, unless otherwise stated.
My first example is Eckhart Tolle (1948). He had an unhappy childhood and felt alienated from a hostile school environment. He studied psychology and philosophy (not entirely certain: different sources mention different studies) at the universities of London and Cambridge. After long periods of suicidal depression he underwent a “spiritual transformation” leading to his “awakening” at the age of 29. This was followed by a period of two years of living on the street in a state of bliss.
His widely read first book The Power of Now (one of a handful of books) is "a restatement for our time of that one timeless spiritual teaching, the essence of all religions". He is "not identified with any religion, but uses teachings from Zen Buddhism, Sufism, Hinduism and the Bible".
Neale Donald Walsch
The second example is Neale Donald Walsch (1943). He is the author of the "Conversations with God" series, amongst some tens of other books. Walsch was brought up as a Roman Catholic by a family who encouraged his quest for spiritual truth. He informally studied comparative theology for many years. "Before writing Walsch worked variously as a radio station program director, newspaper managing editor, and in marketing and public relations. In the early 1990s he suffered a series of crushing blows - a fire that destroyed all of his belongings, the break-up of his marriage, and a car accident that left him with a broken neck. Once recovered, but alone and unemployed, he was forced to live in a tent [...] collecting and recycling aluminium cans in order to eat. At the time, he thought his life had come to an end. Despondent, he began his writings after working his way out of homelessness and following a stint as a radio talk show host."
In some more detail: "In 1992, following a period of deep despair, Neale awoke in the middle of a February night and wrote an anguished letter to God. 'What does it take,' he angrily scratched across a yellow legal pad, 'to make life work?' [...] Neale says that he heard a voice, soft and kind, warm and loving, that gave him an answer to this and other questions. Awe struck and inspired, he quickly scribbled these responses onto the tablet. More questions came, and, as fast as they occurred to him, answers were given in the same soft voice, which now seemed placed inside his head. Before he knew it, Neale found himself engaged in a two-way on-paper dialogue." This explains the title of the "Conversations with God series", which are indeed written as conversations.
My final example concerns Helen Schucman (1909-1981), who wrote A Course in Miracles. Her parents were both half-Jewish. The mother dabbled in Theosophy and various expressions of Christianity such as Christian Science and the Unity School of Christianity. The family housekeeper, a Baptist, had the deepest religious influence on Schucman while she was growing up. Schucman became employed as professor in psychology at a university. She and co worker Bill Thetford did not go too well along. It came therefore as a surprise when in the Spring of 1965, Bill delivered an impassioned speech to Helen in which he said that he was fed up with the competition, aggression, and anger which permeated their professional lives, extended into their attitudes and relationships, and pervaded the department. He concluded and told her that "there must be another way" of living - in harmony rather than discord - and that he was determined to find it.
Equally startling, and to their mutual surprise, Helen agreed with Bill and enthusiastically volunteered to join him in a collaborative search to find this other and better way. "It was as if Helen had waited all her life for this particular moment, which triggered a series of internal experiences for her that carried through the summer. These included heightened dream imagery, psychic episodes, visions, and an experience of an inner voice. The experiences also became increasingly religious, with the figure of Jesus appearing more and more frequently to her in both visual and auditory expressions." Schucman wrote down A Course in Miracles, with the help of Thetford, based on what she called an "inner voice" which she identified as Jesus. At first the book was published anonymously.
All three examples clearly illustrate a crisis that led to a creative outburst, resulting in the writing of a few to several tens of books over time. The raw material was acquired before, during upbringing or study. The books are spiritual in nature, to some extent reconciling different world views and have a large audience. Dedicated web sites, DVD's, internet channels are also used to spread the message. Certainly Tolle and Schucman have an above average intelligence and memorising capacity. In Schucman's case the sleep disturbance is prominent, in the other two cases they are probable (because crises are often accompanied by sleeping problems) but not documented as far as I know.
Wilber compared to the three examples
In the three foregoing examples I focused on what preceded the creative outburst of what we may call three modern gurus. I will focus on this for Wilber too, and base myself on the biographic parts of Thought as Passion.
Wilber was the only child of a Baptist mother and a father without connection to the church. The family moved five times during his youth. It was very difficult for Wilber to lose and gain friends time after time. He was a highly gifted student. On high school he had the highest grades year after year and was therefore called "the brain". He earned many prizes. He was inclined towards the exact sciences and studied medicine for a short time, followed by chemistry and biology. A degree in science followed. During all this he gained an interest in eastern philosophy. After his university years he did not feel happy, which is described as a mild existential crisis. He tried to escape from this by reading a wide range of western and eastern authors. The necessary income was earned by tutoring and working in restaurants, supermarkets etc.
In 1973 Wilber completed in three months time the manuscript of The Spectrum of Consciousness. He did this in a way he repeated later by raising between 3 and 5 in the morning and going to bed around 22 h. In between he worked for 7 to 9 hours a day. I suppose working means reading or writing. Reading took a few hours or a week per book, depending on its level of complexity. “Writing is a bit different. I work fast, in a kind of trance, in which I process the information at a terrible high speed". Wilber did not like this writing phase. Finally, Visser writes: "We will discover a characteristic pattern, which appears regularly in his life. A number of times his life is characterised by a deep crisis - intellectual or existential, a distinction that cannot always be made in Wilber's case - and time after time he reappears from these crises with new insights." Visser does not describe these crises apart from the one related to Wilber's wife Terry's illness and death.*
It certainly echoes the creative illness idea. The integrative approach reminds of imposing a new structure on old ideas, which is an aspect of the creative illness, as explained above.
A new type of guru?
We have looked from three different angles at the question of whether Wilber might be called a guru:
- Two guru definitions
- Guru characteristics
- A creative illness possibly leading to guru like behaviour, with three examples of modern influential spiritual thinkers.
The definitions and characteristics suggest that Wilber is guru like. I lack information about Wilber's life and therefore cannot draw a firm conclusion on the creative illness aspect. Nevertheless, some elements of the three examples occur clearly in his case. I conclude that Wilber is mildly guru like. This is in line with Benjamin's study "On Ken Wilber's Integral Institute – An Experiential Analysis", in which Wilber and his Integral Institute are ranked using the Bonewits Cult Danger Scale. It is placed in what the author calls “neutral territory” regarding cult dangers vs. beneficial spiritual characteristics.
Is Wilber a corrupted guru in the sense of Storr's view above? Corrupted gurus abuse people for their own good. In "What Makes a Guru a Guru?" Benjamin uses the I think equivalent classification abusive vs. non abusive. Wilber is as far as I know not corrupt in this way. He is what I would call “commercially corrupted”: persuading people for his benefit to buy something from his and his institute that is of limited value. This is not unlike what ordinary commercial firms do, of course. Only the product of the commercial guru differs. It offers a spiritual, often all encompassing world view. The view is in most cases tranferred via books, DVD's or internet resources. There is limited direct contact between the commercial guru and his clients, e.g., during work shops and the like.
The medium is the message
A famous saying of the Canadian philosopher and scientist Marshall McLuhan is "the medium is the message". That is, the means of communication (i.e., a book), is decisive for the meaning of a message. The message in our case is a spiritual one, the medium (sometimes quite literally, as in case of the aforementioned Schucman) includes the guru, the spiritual teacher. It is advisable to use an impression of what the teacher is like in estimating the value of his message. The list of characteristics given above can be used for this: eloquence, authoritativeness, etc. Storr says the following about teachers in general:
"The best teachers for adults are non authoritarian. They provide information and advise, they suggest. They know that every individual is different and that in the end peole have to find their own way and form their own opinion. "Educate" stems from the Latin verb "educere" which means "developing a latent condition". This is exactly what educating is. Furthermore, a good teacher keeps his integrity because he is more interested in his pupil than himself."
I would like to add that a good teacher has a broad and balanced development. For example, having both scientific as well as musical abilities is an advantage, as is having well developed balanced male and female sides. Wilber's masculine presentation was a warning for me. In addition, a commercial approach, a large product volume (i.e., many books), unintelligibility and inflation (using many words without saying much) are warnings for the value of a teacher's message.
Who is a guru and who is not? What part of his message (if at all) is valuable? Is there any cult danger? These questions are on a par with the general problem of deciding whether a statement is meaningful, which even the brightest logical positivist could not solve. It is nevertheless important to try to answer these questions, and hence to eventually counter gurus. Beware, they are not more or less harmlessly selling gadgets of limited value. I think the guru situation is different. A guru – corrupted or not - sells a false image of what the world is like. Already this alone is in the end harmful.
Benjamin provides an assessment of the cult danger and spiritual benefit of some spiritual organizations like Wilber's. In case of the latter, claiming scientific validity, this validity should in addition be determined. This determines for how long it will stand the test of time. Not for very long, I think. The fact that Wilber is mildly guru like and the outward commercial appearance of his integral enterprise are enough for me to seriously doubt the validity of his theory. I am therefore glad I paid little attention to Wilber's ideas after I first heard of them some 15 years ago.
* A relevant passage from Thought as Passion, in which Wilber describes the intense three-year period spent in writing his main work Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995), would be:
For eleven days and nights, I did not sleep at all. I was awake twenty-four hours a day. (p. 30)
Wilber interprets this in a spiritual way as dropping identification with his (sleeping) mind and body, while resting "awake" in and as the Self. (FV)
 Frank Visser, Ken Wilber: Denken als passie, Lemniscaat b.v., Rotterdam, 2001. (Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY Press, 2003)
 Anhony Storr, Reuzen op lemen voeten – een studie over goeroes, Nieuwezijds, Amsterdam, 1998 (originally: Feet of Clay – a study of gurus). Quotes in the current article are translated by the author JG.
 Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integral_Theory, retrieved 3 October 2013.
 Frank Visser, personal communication, e-mail 24 October 2013
 http://www.inner-growth.info/conversations_with_god/neale_donald_walsch.htm, retrieved 15 October 2013
 http://acim.org/Scribing/about_scribes.html, retrieved 15 October 2013
 Elliot Benjamin, On Ken Wilber's integral institute – an experiential analysis, http://www.integralworld.net/benjamin.html, retrieved 24 October 2013
 Elliot Benjamin, What makes a guru a guru?, http://www.integralworld.net/benjamin57.html, retrieved 26 October 2013